100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Friday, March 29, 2013

It's a New Creation!

A few days ago our family expanded by one; my wife gave birth to a new baby boy! He's our third. And amidst the joy of having that new baby, it's hard to recall the hours and days leading up to his delivery. In fact, the joy of having this little child so far outweighs the visible discomfort of my pregnant wife, and the very audible pain she was in during labour, that it actually takes effort to try to bring it to mind. But I do recall, as my week-late wife was struggling to walk from one end of the house to the other, what I was thinking at the time...

I knew that at any time she could go into labour, and that I couldn't possibly imagine the pain of child birth. It's beyond me how women bear it. But women not only bear it, they often embrace it willingly! My wife, for one, absolutely refuses any significant pain relief. And so do many others who are, for example, offered an epidural or perhaps even a caesarean. And as I thought about it, I figured that as a parent we willingly make so many sacrifices for our children throughout their lives, and that maybe the pain of childbirth was, at least in some way, just the first of many. Consider the effect that a parent's sacrifice later on in life has on the relationship between parent and child. The child actually gets to see the reality of their parent's love for them. The words “I love you” hardly compare to the expression written in actions. And this has the same effect for the parent where we might even surprise ourselves in seeing just how much we love our children. Our actions speak to us also of just how precious our children really are to us. And I think that the pains of childbirth effect us in a similar way. One reason a woman might willingly choose to go through the full force of labour pain is to demonstrate in actions what she is willing to go through to bring her child into this world. And in a sense I'm jealous of women because of that... the bond between a mother and child is that much stronger right from the beginning. A father will have to wait a long time for the opportunity to make any kind of sacrifice for his child that even comes close in power. I'm not saying that parental love doesn't exist apart from sacrifice, but I do think it's strengthened and magnified through sacrifice.

Now, on the day that my son was born, and while my wife was in the early stages of labour, I sat in the delivery room by her side. And as I sat there I took out my phone, opened my Bible App and read. And this is what I happened to read...

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:22-23)

What the Bible teaches throughout is that God made the world perfect, but through our sin the world became corrupt. Nevertheless, God will some day restore the world to perfection, including our bodies which age and fail. But this present time is likened to “the pains of childbirth”. It's like we're suffering through great pain in anticipation of that “New Creation”, which is also a term that the Bible uses. And as I read this with my former musings in the back of my mind, I realized that perhaps the effect of going through all the sufferings of this present world are to have that same effect that a woman's labour has in forging the bond between mother and child. Through our sufferings we truly begin to value that “New Creation”, and of course the bond between us and God is strengthened all the more! We too may surprise ourselves, seeing what we're prepared to go through out of love for God and out of steadfast faith in that New Creation to come.

Earlier I used the term “sacrifice” with regard to a woman's labour. And in a sense, it has always been a sacrifice, even before the days of c-sections and pain relief. A woman makes the choice to get pregnant in the first place knowing what lies ahead. But even in the moment, a woman's mental attitude toward her labour can make it a willing sacrifice or a begrudged act of necessity. Likewise, in this present world, Christ has told us to make the sacrifice of “taking up our cross daily”. This, too, can be a sacrifice purely because our attitude is right, and where our attitude is right it forges that bond of love between ourselves and God. Or the hardships of life can be lived begrudgingly, wherein no bond is forged; and perhaps only resentment towards God is left to grow? But Paul reassures us...

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. … Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? (Romans 8:18,35)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Finding Your True Identity

Recently I watched a documentary called “Absent”, which is essentially about the effects that fathers have on their children’s development growing up, and the consequences of not having a father growing up. For men, the father’s role is crucial in establishing one’s identity, as we model our attitudes and behaviours after our fathers. And for a girl, a father’s love is essential in establishing her self worth. When a young man, in particular, has no fatherly influence, they struggle with questions of “What does it mean to be a man?” “How am I to treat women?” and “How am I supposed to handle power and authority?” And this can happen even when a father is physically present but is simply emotionally or socially distant. And even during a child's teenage years when they themselves push their fathers away, it is a father's persistence in having an interest in their child's life that demonstrates his love to the child, and gives a child that sense of worth that we all need. Unfortunately, of course, there are many bad fathers in this world who do grievous emotional damage to their children. No father is perfect... but there is One who is perfect, and it's a very carefully chosen metaphor the Bible uses when it refers to God as our Father. He is the One who loves us as no earthly father can. And where the role of a father is to help us establish our identities in life, so too does God, far more perfectly than any earthly father we have.

When I became a Christian and began to read and study my Bible, and as I began to learn more about God, everything that I learnt began to shape my life and how I related to people. One thing that changed in regards to my relationship with my children was that I began to realize, from what I learned in the Bible, that as a father I had a great deal to do with helping my children learn their own identities. And so, for example, I stopped telling my children “Don’t do this or that or else I'll punish you in some way!” Instead I would say, “Don’t do this or that because that’s not what we, in this family, are like.” In other words, I tried to teach them right behaviour not as some way to avoid undesirable consequences, but rather as part of their very identity. And I was delighted when, listening to a certain Bible teacher give a lecture, that he too had done the same with his children as a result of what he’d learnt from the Bible. You see, we as fathers are really only human examples of God the Father, and therefore quite flawed. What we’re doing as fathers is imitating what God the Father does. Our identities come from our fathers in part, but truly and ultimately we find our identities in God. “Why be good?” … Because we are God’s children. There is no better rationale for being good... we are to be good because of who we are. And who are we? We are God’s children. This is what the Bible teaches.

One of the key Bible verses which has changed and shaped my whole life is this...

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
(James 1:22-25)

This illustration of looking into the mirror, which is the Word of God, and seeing your true self there has had a tremendous impact on me. You see, God made us “in His image”, but we became corrupt. We tend to think of our identity as “Whoever we happen to be” or “Whoever we choose to be”. But actually, God made us to be righteous and perfect, and we are not who we truly are due to the corruption of sin. Perhaps we can understand it this way... how often have we watched a movie scene like this where a good a kind man is somehow drugged or mind-controlled or possessed, and as he bears down on his victim, perhaps his own wife, trying to strangle them, she is crying out “Stop! Please! This isn’t you! Please, try to remember who you are!” Of course, this character can’t remember at that moment... but what if that’s us? What if we aren’t who we’re supposed to be? In the Spiritual reality we live in, it’s not that we once were righteous and have forgotten; rather that God has intended for us to be righteous but we have always been corrupt. Nevertheless, God the Father aims to make His children as they ought to be – this is what the Bible teaches.

Just as children learn how they are supposed to behave from their fathers, so we are to learn from our Father who we are supposed to be in life. The message of the Bible is not “obey My commands or else” but “obey My commands because that's who you truly are.” We're not supposed to be righteous out of fear or compulsion. The only kind of righteousness that God loves is when we freely do good, from the heart. As He said in rebuke to the people of Israel, “this people draw near with their mouth and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” Most people who consider themselves moral will say “That's just who I am.” In other words, their morality is part of their identity. This is good. I would also say the same of myself; that I do good because that's who I am... but I go further to say “And I am who I am because of what God has made me to be.”

In the documentary “Absent”, I was most touched to hear the response of a teenage girl when asked about her promiscuity, and whether having a father would have made a difference in her life. She said “It would've made all the difference... First off, when you have a Dad, someone to protect you, someone to want to meet every guy that you go out with and, you know, lay down the law. [To say] ‘You respect my daughter and you don't do this or you don't do that.’” It seems certain that what many promiscuous women needed was a father to tell them that they were worth “more than this”. Similarly, the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians not to commit sexual immorality saying “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.” And rather than see this as God's way of saying “You'll behave yourself because I own you!”, as perhaps I might have once read this passage, I look at it as God saying “Behave yourself because this is how much I love you!” The price He paid was the life of Jesus Christ, God's own Son. This is how much He values us. And what God wants from us is simply that Father-child relationship. It upsets me when my children do wrong simply because that's not who they ought to be. And this is what God wants from us... for us to be as we ought to be. Don't say “Why can't God love me for who I am?” because the truth is that who you are is not your true self and is inferior to who you should be! It is far more loving of God for Him to want you to be your true self... to be the righteous and perfect Creation that He made in the beginning. And the very institution of marriage and fatherhood exists so that we can model for our children what God the "true Father" is like.

Did He not make [husband and wife] one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. (Malachi 2:15)

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Effects of One Random Act of Kindness

This weekend I'm in the process of buying a new (used) car. In my experience, if you look online it's just full of "bait" for the old "bait and switch". So what I do is travel around the night before, going from dealership to dealership while they're closed. I choose the car I want and then I turn up first thing the following morning and buy the car I've already decided on. So this is what I was doing last night. Picture the following scene in your mind, then. It was around 10:00pm and at this point I've reached a dealership right on the outskirts of the city. I'm basically on a freeway in the middle of nowhere, walking past a car dealership. The occasional car whizzes by, but you'd hardly expect any pedestrians out here at this hour. Nevertheless, as I start heading back to my parked vehicle, I hear footsteps behind me. I turn and look to see a fairly young bloke hiking along with a backpack. Whatever... I just keep walking. But I hear that he's quickened up his pace. Just as I get to my car I hear him call out to me, "Hey, buddy!" He's pretty close to me now. I turn to him and he stops. He holds up his hands and says "Hey, don't worry... I'm not going to pull a knife or anything..." Well, that's reassuring. "I just wanna say something." Ok... He comes nearer and he says, "Look, I'm not propositioning you or anything... I don't want anything from you... I just want to give you some money. Here..." He keeps his distance, and he draws out his wallet slowly. "Here, I just want to give you this $20, ok. Years ago a man helped me out when I was total stranger to him, and I just, you know... wanna pay the world back or whatever. Ok? You might need it for petrol or something." Well, a lot flashed through my mind at this point, but I came to a conclusion. I reached out my hand and said, "Ok... thanks, man. That's awesome!" I took the money and he backed away from me before turning around and carrying on in the direction he was headed. I got back in my car and drove off, a little dazed and confused.

Now, this seemed like a very rare act to me. People usually begrudge giving an out-and-out beggar 50 cents, and yet this guy wanted to give some total stranger $20, though there was no indication at all that I actually needed any money. In fact, (it may not have occurred to him), but I was out looking at cars to buy... I'm far from being in any kind of financial need. I don't know if this guy is a Christian (though this place is close to one of the city's largest Churches), but he gave no indication that he was. In fact, he said he wanted to "pay the world back", indicating more of a belief in some kind of Karma than in the Christian God. But nevertheless, his act reminded me of something in my life...

Having no need of the money I took it anyway. Why? Well, I suppose that in all honesty, part of it is that I was in an awkward situation and just taking the money would be the quickest way out of it. But more than that, what he was doing reminded me of myself as a very young and rather immature Christian. I'd been a Christian for probably just 6 months, and as I have testified many times before, true faith leads to a change in your very character, and I could already see these changes in my life. I wanted so much to give to those in need. One day at Church I was chatting to a fellow who said to me, "I'm so worried about work... they don't have any clients at the moment and the whole business is in danger! I'm worried that I might not have a job soon!" And so I felt moved with compassion for this guy. I put $100 in an envelope and gave it to him the following Sunday. But when he saw it, he tried his hardest to be nice about it, but he handed it straight back saying, "No, you misunderstood, I'm not a person in need! Put your money towards people who really need it!" And I just felt so embarrassed! He and his wife probably never did mock me, but I couldn't help at least feel that they were mocking me behind my back. I really felt quite humiliated. And so when this fellow offered me $20 for no reason, I immediately saw myself there, and so I graciously took the money. Whether this guy is a somewhat immature Christian (offering money to those who don't need it), or whatever the case may be, the worst thing I could do is anything to discourage him from doing such good deeds as this!

Folks, if you want to give, give to those in need! I don't say this in words of boasting, but $20 is nothing to me. Nevertheless, even for me this fellow's good deed has had a tremendous effect. Here I have received $20, and it's not in me to think "Wow, what can I buy for myself now?" but rather I think to myself that, if this fellow gave to me who has no need, how much more, now more than ever, will I be prepared to offer help to others who are in need? It has stirred up that generous spirit within me. And I think to myself, even if your giving is somewhat misguided, you really can't go wrong! Your giving encourages others to give also, even as this fellow told me that "years ago a man helped him out when he was a total stranger to him." Whereas I had once seen giving to those who aren't in need as "foolish and immature", I see now that even this kind of act is full of virtue. And it touches my heart to think that God chose me to receive this "misdirected generosity", as it has caused me to re-consider the effect that my giving to that fellow at Church might have had on that family. Perhaps, rather than mock me, they were somewhat affected by my act as I have been by this stranger's giving toward me; and maybe they too were inspired to be more generous toward others themselves?

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7)