Fighting Gravity – part 5

Gravity2Gravity pulls, and pulls, and pulls. So does the theological gravity that we live in in this world – the Fallen World Gravity (FWG). We have pondered this pervasive force during the last days. Let’s look at one more facet of this ugly gem.

5. The pull toward pride.  Perhaps we are just circling the many facets of the same false gem.  In the Fall we usurped God’s selfless throne and put the self-absorbed ego in His place.  Naturally, then, we will tend toward pride. Again, this is not simply true for those outside of Christ. It is also true for everyone of us that is in Christ, but also still in the flesh and in this world. One day this gravity will be gone and what a burden will lift from us!  For now, it is best that we become more aware and pray for clearer eyes to see the wonder of the good news of God’s love in Christ.

We are pulled toward pride. In everything we do, maybe especially the good things we do as believers, we still suffer the pull toward pride. In the future we will look back on all this pride and wonder what we were thinking. But for now, this fallen world ‘theological gravity’ makes some nonsensical things seem perfectly normal.

I suspect I will spend the rest of this life purging my view of ‘normal’ in light of God’s Word.  There is so much that is so fallen and yet I remain unaware. Let’s pray that God would give us eyes to see where the FWG, rather than biblical perspective, is influencing our perspective in life and ministry. Let’s pray for a clearer vision of God in His world, and of our listeners in theirs, so that our preaching might better address the reality of what is before us each Sunday.

How else does the Fall influence us, even as believers, and in ways we tend to not notice?

Fighting Gravity – part 4

Gravity2We live lives pulled by gravity. Physical gravity keeps on pulling us downwards. We can be a research physicist or a playful toddler. It doesn’t matter, gravity pulls. Fallen World Gravity (FWG) keeps on pulling us too. It pulls us toward a worldview where I am at the centre, where glory is a-relational and based on how weighty we can be in competition and comparison, and where independence just makes sense.

Here’s a fourth pull that is there whether we recognize it or not:

4. The pull toward speculation. This one is less obvious to us, even if we have done some good study biblically and theologically. It is strange, but the ‘theological gravity’ of this fallen world pulls us to enjoy speculation. We seem to be naturally pulled toward speculating intellectually, or experientially, or both.

Of course, God has created us to learn and to explore, but somehow this fallen world gives us a corrupted version of that. So rather than chasing all there is to know about God in His self-revelation through the Word, we will quickly put the Bible to one side and delve into intellectual and philosophical speculation.

Or we will quickly put the Bible back on the shelf and pursue some sort of spiritual exercise that might lead us into an experience that goes beyond anything God has directly offered in His self-revelation. Somehow these pursuits are permeated by an inherent independence, and that gravity continues to pull us away from God’s good plan to a fallen and twisted theological pursuit or practice. It is strange how much this happens and, for the most part, we remain quite unaware of how strange it is.

We will preach to people who just want to accumulate knowledge so that their intellectual curiosity can be assuaged. That is a problem. We will preach to people who just want to find some spiritual exercise that might lead them to a spiritual high. That is a problem.

What is more, since FWG is so pervasive, our listeners may hear a preacher who really just wants to accumulate knowledge so that his fleshly compulsion to speculate philosophically can be satisfied. That is a problem. Or they may hear from someone who is more concerned with climbing into some sort of anointed euphoria than growing in relationship to the God who can be known in Christ. That too is a problem.

Be a learner with curiosity. Let it drive you deeper into your relationship with Christ. Let the Bible be the ground you dig, and let God’s heart in Christ be the treasure you find. Let the pulpit be a place of sharing that treasure. May our churches be communities of increasingly captured hearts enjoying knowing the God who has revealed Himself in Christ so that we can know Him!

Fighting Gravity – part 3

Gravity2Fallen World Gravity (FWG) is a silent but constant force at work in this world. It does not discriminate between believers and unbelievers. Its insidious influence is persistent and pervasive. Like known “natural laws” it works irrespective of whether we know it is there, and typically we don’t.

So we are pulled toward self-centredness, and toward a corrupted, arelational understanding of glory. Consequently our view of God is distorted, and our view of what it means to live as creatures made in God’s image.  Here’s a third feature to prayerfully ponder before we preach again:

3. FWG pulls persistently toward independence. Ever since the hiss of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, our own independence has been one of the most self-evident truths in all the world – even though it is a lie! We cannot fathom the idea that perhaps we are not individual and autonomous beings who are free to self-initiate whatever we choose.  Even when we come to know God we are still under the influence of the Lie and we tend to think we can enter into some sort of mutual arrangement with God. I am a lesser being, of course, but I still naturally try to negotiate with God as if I have some sort of independence at the core of who I am.

The Christian Gospel knows nothing of works, nothing from me. We cannot and we will not merit our salvation. This goes against everything in the world’s way of thinking.

The Christian life continues in the same vein. We are called to look to Christ, to love Him, and live in dependent response to Him. This lack of independence and autonomy continues to go against everything this world has taught to be self-evident.

Consequently, in our preaching we will be tempted to corrupt Gospel truth with worldly lies. We will be tempted to offer a two-way arrangement between God and independent beings that can choose to autonomously apply instruction. However well we present a non-independent message, our listeners will filter everything through a default lens that colours everything in hues of personal independency.

Fallen World Gravity is dangerous because we tend to ignore or deny it.  And like physical gravity it does not mind whether we believe it or not, feel it or not, understand it or not. It just keeps on pulling.

Fighting Gravity – part 2

Gravity2I am pondering the silent but pervasive impact of FWG – Fallen World Gravity.  This force is not only at work in unbelievers, but also believers. Not only do people listening to us preach live typically unaware of its impact on their perspective and life, but so do we as preachers!  Yesterday we thought about the incessant self-centred pull of this fallen world on us all. Maybe we are only aware of 5% of this pull. If so, that should cause us to pray and ponder!

Here’s another effect of FWG:

2. The pull toward a fallen version of glory.  Our fallen world makes a compelling case that glory is about the radiating gravitas of an individual.  They could be a successful sports star, or a powerful business leader, or an impressive intellectual giant, or it could be God shining out his impressive knowledge, power and position. The fallen world makes us think that glory is about an individual impressing lesser beings either in some earthly sphere, or in the heavenly sphere.

But where is love in this picture? Where is the other-centred love of the Trinity that radiates in the perfection of loving holiness, not only impressing every creature, but inviting some fallen and undeserving creatures to participate in that loving community of other-centredness?  Somehow FWG can cause us to bring a corrupted view of glory into our understanding of God and then we can miss much of the wonder of the Gospel.

At the same time we inadvertently pursue our sanctified version of chasing glory . . . and we are right back to elevating self again!

As before, this is not just the case with those outside of Christ. Our salvation does not immediately purge us of the presence or effects of fallenness. Maybe as preachers, or as listeners, we would do well to come before God in prayer and ask Him to search us and try us, highlighting where we may be pursuing a so-called sanctified version of self-centred glory-grabbing?  Does this happen in our ministry? In our self-presentation? In what we write on Facebook?

Warning: Over Hyped Intros

Hype2The first moments of a message make a massive difference. Just jumping into the message without any real introduction is a wasted opportunity. But there is the other extreme to beware of too: the overly hyped intro.

Yesterday I sat down to watch a DVD set that I thought might work for the small groups in our church. They won’t work.  The speaker, who I have enjoyed in the past, turned the introduction to a short series of messages into an infomercial of hype. The first ten minutes of the first message, and then the first five minutes of the second, were taken up with what felt like sales hype.

“I was speaking at a conference, but my message wasn’t working, so I turned to such and such a passage, and I didn’t know what I was going to say next, and then out came this message that I am going to share with you…” Which was followed by a bigger conference, tens of thousands, repeat of the message, lives transformed forever, etc., etc.

Maybe I am just too cynical. I know many Christians would love that and talk in eager tones about how amazing that experience was and how faithful God was, etc. But for me, this kind of “God gave me this miraculous and direct” type of introduction left an empty feeling. I also wonder how it would sound to someone on the fringes of the church.

An introduction to a message is not the place to tell your audience the global impact this one message (via this one messenger) is going to have, or even has had. By pointing listeners to other, bigger, international, church leader audiences, there is a sense in which the introduction is crossing some line we shouldn’t cross. Are these listeners now obligated to speak in exaggerated terms about the message? If the message is so powerful, wouldn’t that power hit home even without the opening sales pitch?

Don’t get me wrong, the opposite extreme can be really unhelpful. That is, “turn with me to this passage…” and no attempt at forging a connection.

The introduction is the time to connect with your listeners, to connect them with their need for the message, and connect them with the passage with an engaged sense of anticipation.

But when the intro becomes sales hype, these connections become tenuous at best. They could feel disconnected from you, the speaker, because you are such an out-of-their-league big shot. They could feel disconnected from the message because God gave it somewhere else for other folks. They could feel disconnected from the passage, because the implication of your introduction is that direct revelation is what makes this message special. And they could feel a general distance from the whole scenario if they suspect any stretching of the truth in what you say.

Even if the hype is true, just introduce the message in a way that is relevant for this group of people and let God’s Word and God’s Spirit do his work. Introduce effectively, but hype and sales pitches aren’t necessary.

Application Warning!

Warning Sign2Listeners love applicational preachers.  Preachers love appreciative listeners.  So preach applicationally and you have a win-win situation, right?  Well, sometimes.

Every application we make in the pulpit should come with a health warning.  Perhaps a sticker with something like this should be attached to every application we come up with in our sermon preparation:

WARNING! Your listeners are very prone to auto-self whatever you say. This well-intended application will be corrupted before your closing prayer.

What does that mean?  It means that when we give an application, no matter how well intended it might be, or how well-rooted in a Christ-focused message, our listeners have a flesh filter that will cause them to hear an instruction to be applied in relative autonomy from God.  We may have spoken for half an hour on how apart from Christ we can do nothing, etc., but they will soon forget that and make the application a personal commitment.

Religious flesh wants to know what I must do in order to live a good life, be obedient, please the Lord – you pick the phrase (but recognise that underneath there is an implicit sense of “so I can keep God at arms length!”)  Our flesh thinks that if we do what the preacher says, then we can be independently successful.  So easily rows and rows of well meaning Christians will file out to comply with the devilish idea of autonomous living.

Does this mean we shouldn’t preach with applications?  Not at all.  But if we are aware of how the listeners will corrupt what we say, perhaps we can do a better job of flagging up the problem with self-moved morality and spirituality.  Perhaps we can do a better job of showing people their need for Christ.  Perhaps we can spend a bit more time offering them a Christ they might feel compelled to trust as they seek to live in response to this message.

A Different Application?

IMG_1756Much e-ink is pixelated over the need for applicational relevance in our preaching. There is good reason for this. Too much preaching is totally disconnected from real life and therefore lacks the relevance that biblical preaching should always feature. But adding applications is not as easy as it sounds.

For instance, simply culling imperatives and encouraging people how to live their lives “more biblically” may in fact be undermining God’s work in peoples’ lives.  How so?  If our applications merely add burdens to their to-do lists, thence may well be adding a new law, rather than pointing people to Christ. In fact, we may be pointing them away from Christ and to themselves – which is by definition a Genesis 3 serpentlike thing to do in our pursuit of supposedly Christlike impact.

So how to effectively apply in our preaching is important, and perhaps it is a subject for another post or two.  But I want to throw an idea into the mix with this post.

What if, instead of focusing on how this message relates to their lives on Monday morning in the office, or Tuesday evening in the family argument, what if we sometimes refocus our timings in application?

Instead of just thinking about relevance of the message to the rest of the week, as important as that is, let’s also be thinking about the applicational force of encounter in the moment of preaching. That is, how can I show God revealed in Christ during this message so that my listeners might encounter him and in so doing, be changed.

  1. In the Gospels, people were changed when they met Christ.  Yes there were those moments where he said, “go and sin no more” of course, but that was not the exclusive applicational thrust of those encounters. People were changed by meeting him.
  2. In our lives we too easily slip into self-directed living and living as if Christ is absent.  The preaching moment is a key moment for encountering God as he is revealed in the Word.  It would be tragic to miss him for the sake of adding to our to-do lists.
  3. By pointing listeners to the person of Christ who reveals the Father to us, we are giving believers and unbelievers exactly what they need. Jesus is good news for us all, and we all need it regularly, because we all need him continuously.
  4. All true application should flow from the inside-out, which requires a heart-changing encounter with God’s love, not just a code-of-living change by encounter with applicational law. That sentence deserves some unpacking, but let’s leave the thought for now – there is a difference between outside to in change (i.e. here is the list, live by it), and inside to out change (i.e. having met Christ, how is his heart-work in you going to work itself out in your life?)

Application deserves a lot more attention in our thinking as preachers.  However we do that, let’s not miss the important applicational force of meeting with the God who reveals himself in the written Word as it is preached.