Friday, December 31, 2010

Don't Get Stuck in Your Transition

J. Lee Grady

When moving from point A to point B, we sometimes feel trapped in between. Trust God to guide you to your destination.

A few months ago I passed through the tiny community of Between, Ga. With a population of only 148, the place is not much to write home about. (And besides, it doesn't even have its own zip code). The town got its name because it's halfway between Atlanta and Athens, Ga. But as I passed the local convenience store I couldn't help but imagine the strange reactions I'd get if I lived there.

"Where are you from?"

"I live in Between."

"In between what?"

"In Between, Georgia."

"In between Georgia and what?"

"Oh never mind."

I doubt I'll ever move to that town, but the truth is that many of us are living "in between"—because we are in the midst of a major transition. Some of us know where we're going but we feel we're stuck halfway. Or we may sense God is moving us into a new spiritual assignment, yet the process of getting there is inching forward about as fast as a Siberian glacier.

I'm in the midst of my own big changes in career and ministry, and I've been struggling with all the emotions that accompany a major transition. I've battled doubts ("Did God really promise this?"), fears ("What if He doesn't provide?"), confusion ("Last week I was sure; this week I'm not so sure") and impatience ("OK, Lord, I need some answers NOW!").

But as I navigate this journey, I'm discovering there are some things we can do to make the transition smoother.

1. Make sure you let go of the past. Sometimes we get stuck in spiritual limbo because we're holding on to memories, relationships or what is secure and comfortable. The unbelieving children of Israel wandered in the wilderness of Sinai for 40 years—and never completed their transition—because they were so homesick for Egypt. When Naomi felt called to return to Bethlehem, her daughter-in-law Orpah refused to go. She preferred what was culturally familiar. Leave nostalgia behind and embrace the new season.

2. Renounce your doubts. If we're not careful we can fall into the trap of double-mindedness. We say we want to go to our promised land, but we hesitate—and all such foot—dragging is doubt. We say we want to go forward, but we are like a moving car that has its parking brake engaged. Faith requires you to release the brake.

James warns the double-minded person: "For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord" (James 1:7, NASB). Doubt will stop you from shifting forward.

3. Welcome those God sends to help you. We're not supposed to make transitions on our own. God uses people to push us to the next level. The body of Christ has many members, and those who are gifted as prophets, intercessors, wise counselors and encouragers will always show up when you are in strategic moments of transition.

When Moses was weary of the battle and could barely find the strength to pray, God sent Aaron and Hur to lift up his arms (see Ex. 17:12). When Hezekiah was overwhelmed by the threat of Sennacherib's armies, Isaiah brought a word from the Lord that ignited faith for a miraculous victory (see 2 Kings 19). When Mary was perplexed by the daunting task of carrying the Messiah in her womb, Elizabeth released a prophetic blessing over her (see Luke 1:41-45).

Intercessors who are empowered by the Holy Spirit are like spiritual midwives who help us birth God's promise when we don't have the strength to deliver. Spiritual transition is a painful process, but certain people have an unusual grace from God to travail with us. Allow them to pray for you and speak into your situation.

4. Contend for your promise. Transition is a vulnerable time—and it requires spiritual warfare. The enemy is a thief and he wants to rob us of our inheritance. He does not want us to move forward in God, take new territory, assume new authority or advance into our spiritual callings. Satan is also an abortionist—he wants to devour your promise before it is born.

This is why we must wield God's promise as a weapon against our enemy. Paul wrote: "This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you fight the good fight" (1 Tim. 1:18). God gives us prophetic promises to literally pull us into our future. Declare them over your life, even when the darkness of discouragement is smothering you. God's Word will break satanic resistance.

5. Stay close to the Shepherd. Over the past month four people have given me the same promise from Psalm 32:8: "I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will counsel you with My eye upon you." It's comforting to know that the good Shepherd takes such special, up-close-and—personal care of us—especially during vulnerable times of transition when we don't know which way to turn.

Be assured that He knows your destination-and He is committed to guiding you, even if you have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death to get there. He will not leave you in the land of Between. With His rod and staff He will usher you into your promised territory.

J. Lee Grady is contributing editor of Charisma. You can follow him on Twitter at leegrady. His most recent book is The Holy Spirit Is Not For Sale.

Say Goodbye to the Untouchable Preachers

J. Lee Grady

God is shaking His church and removing corruption. But we share the blame for giving charlatans a platform.

Al Capone once controlled all of Chicago. The notorious 1920s gangster bribed the city's mayor, bought the police and presided as king over an empire of casinos, speakeasies and smuggling operations. He dodged bullets for years and lived above the law—and earned the nickname "untouchable" because no one could bring him to justice.

Before Capone finally went to prison in 1932, he justified his crimes by saying: "All I do is satisfy a public demand." He didn't take responsibility for the pain he caused because he knew mayors, policemen, community leaders and bootleggers supported him the whole way.

I hate to compare any minister of God to a gangster. But the sad truth is that today there are a handful (well, maybe more) of unscrupulous preachers who share some of Capone's most disgusting traits. They are notoriously greedy. They are masters of deception and manipulation. They have bought their way into the charismatic religious subculture and used their uncanny hypnotic ability to control major Christian TV networks.

And, like Capone, their days are numbered. Justice will soon catch up with them.

These false prophets probably all started out with a genuine call from God, but success destroyed them. They were lured away from true faith by fame and money, and when their ministries mushroomed they resorted to compromise to keep their machines rolling. Now, in the midst of the Great Recession, God is closing in on them.

But before we rejoice that these imposters are being removed from their pulpits and yanked off the airwaves, let's hit the pause button and reflect. How did these false preachers ever achieve such fame? It couldn't have happened without help from us.

We were the gullible ones. When they said, "The Lord promises you untold wealth if you will simply give a thousand dollars right now," we went to the phones and put the donations on our credit cards. God forgive us.

We were the undiscerning ones. When they said, "I need your sacrificial gift today so I can repair my private jet," we didn't ask why a servant of God wasn't humble enough to fly coach class to a Third World nation. God forgive us.

We were the foolish ones. When it was revealed that they were living in immorality, mistreating their wives or populating cities with illegitimate children, we listened to their spin doctors instead of demanding that ministry leaders act like Christians. God forgive us.

We were the naïve ones. When they begged for $2 million more in donations because of a budget shortfall, we didn't feel comfortable asking why they needed that $10,000-a-night hotel suite. In fact, if we did question it, another Christian was quick to say, "Don't criticize! The Bible says, ‘Touch not the Lord's anointed!'" God forgive us.

We have treated these charlatans like Al Capone—as if they were untouchable—and as a result their corruption has spread throughout charismatic churches like a plague. Our movement is eaten up with materialism, pride, deception and sexual sin because we were afraid to call these Bozos what they really are—insecure, selfish, egotistical and emotionally dysfunctional.

If we had applied biblical discernment a long time ago we could have avoided this mess. There is no way we can know how many unbelievers rejected the gospel because they saw the church supporting quacks who swaggered, bragged, lied, flattered, bribed, stole and tearfully begged their way into our lives—while we applauded them and sent them money.

When well-meaning Christians quote 1 Chronicles 16:22 ("Do not touch My anointed ones, and do My prophets no harm," NASB) to cover up corruption or charlatanism, they do horrible injustice to Scripture. This passage does not require us to stay quiet when a leader is abusing power or deceiving people.

On the contrary, we are called to confront sin in a spirit of love and honesty—and we certainly aren't showing love to the church if we allow the charismatic Al Capones of our generation to corrupt it.

J. Lee Grady is contributing editor of Charisma.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Grace Is Not Cheap

Peter Tsukahira

It is true that grace is free. But beware of any message about grace that does not lead you to true discipleship.

I have learned by hard experience to be thankful for consumer reports about products offered on the Internet. Reading the customer reviews can save a potential buyer a lot of grief and money. Nowadays, because of the usefulness and availability of these reports few people would consider making a purchase of even something as small as a cell phone or an MP3 player without doing some due diligence in the form of research.

In today’s “marketplace” of spiritual messages, how much more careful should a Christian be about the words he or she allows to guide the inner person of the heart? Paul told his spiritual son Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, NKJV).

The old message of cheap grace is experiencing a resurgence today among newer Christians who are not acquainted with its sad history or its downside and hidden costs. Cheap grace is a message that lowers the standards of God’s laws or casts scorn on the value of divine law as the way God governs His eternal kingdom.

Preachers of this message tell us the Old Testament is concerned with law but the New Testament with grace and that we have to choose between the two. In forcing us toward this false choice, we are told that the law means legalism, judgment and condemnation, but grace is all about love and mercy. This message says that Jesus paid the entire price for all our sins once and for all, therefore we are forever freed from the requirements of God’s law by the free gift of grace.

What’s wrong with that? Didn’t Jesus die to give us His salvation as a free gift? Doesn’t the New Testament teach that we are justified (made righteous before God) by faith in Him?

Yes this is true, but if we stop listening to God here without allowing Him to complete what He has to say, we are in danger of coming to the wrong conclusions about His purpose for saving us by grace.

God’s moral requirements in His laws define sin and convict us as sinners. Without God’s laws there is no need for grace at all. If God has high standards, then we need great grace to be declared by Him as righteous.

But if God has low standards, then His grace does not need to be that amazing or precious. Any message that overtly or subtly by suggestion reduces the requirements of God’s laws cheapens grace.

One fact about human nature is that we all love finding bargains. In the same way crowds swarm to a half-price sale in a shopping mall, a pastor or teacher who cheapens grace will find that, at least initially, a lot of people will be interested in attending his church. However, they may not be very interested in becoming disciples.

The Bible teaches that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). That is true, but mercy never replaces judgment. Mercy has real value only when we know we deserve judgment. We receive mercy as a free gift of God’s grace, and we should appreciate it all the more because the Bible teaches that God always has and always will rule His kingdom by law.

What if there was a judge in a city who decided always and in every case to show mercy? Soon every serial killer, rapist, child molester and professional gangster would be lining up outside that judge’s courtroom. No one would be punished. No one would be compelled to change, and all would go free. Is that God’s kind of mercy, or is it simply injustice?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian pastor in Germany during the 1930s when Nazism was rising to power. In his book The Cost of Discipleship, he made the point that grace must always be the exception to the rule. It is Christ the King who Himself grants mercy solely as He desires.

God’s mercy is not meant to be applied to everyone as a doctrine but as a gift given personally and individually to those who are in His Son, Jesus. When God gives mercy He does not nullify or change His own laws. Therefore, the one who receives mercy must afterward seek to remain hidden in Christ, which means living in a way that meets the demands of God’s righteousness.

This process is called sanctification and results in discipleship. Bonhoeffer pointed out that justification by faith means that God justifies the sinner but not the sin.

When we fall into sin and then turn to God through faith in Jesus, we receive grace to be forgiven, and we are justified. God says: “You are OK now. Go and sin no more.” He never says: “Your sins are OK now. Don’t worry about it anymore.”

The laws of God’s kingdom define His reign as sovereign ruler. These laws give Christians moral authority and spiritual guidance to be personally changed and then to transform the nations and cultures of this world. When God’s kingdom is preached, sins embedded deep in culture such as corruption, abortion, racial prejudice and other social dysfunctions will yield to the power of His lawful reign. People are not only saved but also transformed by the gospel of the kingdom.

When Bonhoeffer served as a pastor in Germany, that nation was called the “cradle of the Reformation” and thought to be among the most Christian countries in Europe. However, the preaching of cheap grace had Christianized Germany but not transformed it.

Lutheran Germans believed they were saved but lacked the moral authority and personal integrity to resist Nazism. The devastation that resulted was the hidden cost of cheap grace.

When Jesus died on the cross for your sins and mine the requirement of God’s laws did not change. What did change was that for the first time God’s requirements were satisfied—by the atoning sacrifice of His own Son.

Jesus was the only human to ever fully keep the laws of God. In doing so He opened the way for us, that by faith in Him and by abiding in Him (without Him we can do nothing) we can be declared righteous by God.

All this is given to us as a free gift of grace. We are now enabled by that amazing grace to pick up our own crosses and follow His example daily.

Peter Tsukahira is co-founder and a pastor of Kehilat HaCarmel congregation on Mount Carmel in Israel. He also directs the Or HaCarmel (“Light of Carmel”) Ministry Center and the Mount Carmel School of Ministry (, which seeks to impart in Christian leaders a vision for Israel.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Why Can't I Just Be A Good Person?

Michael Ramsden

'People are basically good,' wrote one poet, 'it is only their behaviour that lets them down.'

It is amazing to think that some people actually believe they are good enough to get into heaven. Perhaps it is because we read so much bad news in the papers about others that we are quick to conclude that by comparison we are superior, and so deserving of a place in eternity.

It is even more amazing when you then consider that if a Christian were to stand in front of their friends and claim that they knew they were going to go to heaven, they would be regarded as being conceited, boastful and arrogant. How can they think that they are better than everyone else?

The fact that the same person can think himself superior to others, whilst at the same time criticizing Christians for arrogance underlines one of the joys of living in a post-modern world. But how do we respond to the question, Why can’t I just be a good person? Isn’t it unfair of God to say that you can’t get into heaven unless you believe in Him, even though you have been a good person? Who does He think he is!

Believing or doing?

Jesus was once asked what we must do in order to please God and so gain entry to heaven: 'What must we do to do the works God requires?' (John 6:28). They asked the question in the plural – what works – they wanted a list of good things to do. Jesus replied in the singular, 'The work of God is this – believe in the one he has sent.' But what makes belief so special? Surely what we do is far more important than what we believe? How can a good person, who is not a Christian, be denied access on the basis of belief?

The difficulty with the question of why it’s not enough to be a good person lies in the assumption that is made in it, namely that there is such a thing as a good person. Jesus was once asked the question, 'Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?' (Luke 18:18). The assumption is clear: Jesus is a good person, good people go to heaven, so what must I do to also be in the same group? Jesus’ reply is surprising – 'Why do you call me good?', he asks. Good question. Why is he good? Jesus goes on to answer his own question – 'No-one is good but God alone.' Now, if we accept the common assumption that only the good go to heaven, and God alone is good, who on earth is going? The answer must surely be no-one – except God himself.

The simple truth is that the issue is not about good people not getting into heaven. Alas, the problem is much worse! The question really is who on earth can get in at all? It is not a question of being more good than bad in order to qualify for eternal life. Jesus seems to define goodness in terms of being like God, and on that basis there are no good people anywhere.

The good news

However, the Gospel is good news. The good news is that getting into heaven is first and foremost about forgiveness. Christians can be sure that they are going to heaven, not because they are good, but because they have received forgiveness.

Jesus did not come into the world simply to set a good example, tell us to lead better lives or even to ask us to pray more and read our Bibles regularly. He came into this world primarily in order to make forgiveness for us possible. It is why, when he looked forward to the Cross, he stated that it was for this very reason he had come into this world. The real question as we have said is not about who is good enough to get in. The real question is how God makes it possible for anyone to get in at all. The answer is that we need to be forgiven, and that forgiveness is won for us through the Cross.

There is a second part to the question: Is belief important? Does it really matter? In our world, belief means little more than intellectual acknowledgment of something. However, the verb to believe in the New Testament signifies more than just that. Belief in Christ and faith in Christ mean much more than just thinking that He existed. They mean complete reliance and trust in him. In other words, it is about trusting in and relying on Jesus (His promises, His person, His life, His death and His resurrection). That is what makes salvation possible. Christians are not good people because they live morally superior lives to everyone else. They have been made good by having been forgiven what they have done wrong and by being given a goodness (righteousness, if you prefer) from Christ.

So good people will go to heaven. However, the path to goodness lies not in religious observances, but in the forgiveness of a good God, given to us through the Cross of Christ.

Michael Ramsden is an evangelist and apologist and works as the European Director of the Zacharias Trust, which is the European branch of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Who Am I?

Andy Shudall

‘I like you the way you are

when we're drivin' in your car

and you're talking to me 

but one on one but you've become

somebody else round everyone

you're watching your back like you can't relax

you’re tryin' to be cool you look like a fool to me’

--------Avril Lavigne complicated

Imagine this likely scenario, you're at a party and someone asks you this question: 'Who are you?' What would your answer be? Certainly, there are lots of possible ways for you to answer the question. And it might be better not to say anything at all, if the only other option is to gush an impending identity crisis all over a perfect stranger. But think about it for a few minutes. Who are you? Is it a question that you ever really answer?

When we give our normal answer and perhaps reveal our name, educational history, choice of career or marital status it does indeed give the person listening some point of reference, but do any of these things really fully disclose who you are? Surely you could change any one of them and you would still be you? Granted, you might be a bit different, a bit rougher or smoother around the edges, but it would still be you. The 'Who am I?' question, which psychologists and philosophers call the 'identity' question is a deeply complex and challenging subject that most of us are baffled by.

We're also finding that the modern technology in our lives can bring the issue of identity closer to hand. It's easy to have several ‘online’ identities where you can pretend to be someone you’re not. Financial identities are stolen everyday so that thieves can achieve their wildest dreams with credit cards they won’t be paying for. Every time you turn on the radio/TV you find yourself bombarded with encouragements to put your identity into what you buy or acquire.

Through advertising many products are recommended to us on the strength of how they will enhance and improve our identity. These products offer us the possibility of becoming more sexy, attractive, sophisticated and intelligent etc. Thousands of shopping centers and high streets present thousands more shops, inside, row upon row of consumable product exude the fragrant promises that if we buy them, then we will be the kind of person that buys them. Marketing has changed in it's role to being something that just informs us about the benefits of a particular product, to something that informs us about the identity of the kind of person who would buy the product.

But is there a solid sense of identity, one that cannot be changed or stolen?

The Bible speaks of human beings not as a product of their immediate surroundings but rather as unique creatures in an amazing world, a creation much marred by the ruinous touch of sin but not without real value, real worth or real identity. There is one key aspect of identity that the Bible speaks of and it is solid. The key identity addressed and defined in the Bible is whether or not people know God. To know Him personally, through trust in Jesus Christ, is a solid and stable identity that does not fade or wear out, even in the face of death. 'Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!' (2 COR 5:17) Refusing this solid identity, which is rooted in God's very being, is a long and trying road which holds little if any hope and will always end in despair, meaninglessness and disintegration.

Who am I? Who are you? These are questions that we face at every new introduction. Think: ‘Is the answer I’m giving pointing to unchanging reality or shallow and transitory aspects of my life?

Andy works with Tertiary Students Christian Fellowship in New Zealand. He and his family have been there since 2005 where they love NZ life and enjoy serving God. Andy is passionate about the truth of Jesus getting the very heart of who we are as people: transforming our hearts, minds and the way we live.

The More We Learn The Greater The Mystery

Pete Atkinson

For many, the sheer beauty of creation accelerates them into the presence of an ultimate, majestic artist, the Creator. Yet for many the sheer agony caused by creation acts as a blockade; or even convinces them that there is no higher power, no great designer. 
The tiniest detail of a flower or the overwhelming monstrosity of a tsunami? A stunning sunset or a devastating earthquake? 
'WHICH IS IT?' we scream, bewildered and helpless. 

We live in this tension, torn between tears of joy and tears of agony.

Apparently, the blood of a foetus does not enter the lungs. But at the moment of birth, something amazing happens. "Suddenly all blood must pass through the lungs to receive oxygen because now the baby is breathing air. In a flash, a flap descends like a curtain, deflecting the blood flow ... After performing that one act, the muscle gradually dissolves... Without this split-second adjustment, the baby could never survive outside the womb." (Yancey, 2001).

Do we look at the miracle of new life, or look at a miscarriage? 
Do we look at the remarkable workings of our eyes, or look at a crippling disease? 
Do we look at our thumb as Newton did, or look at our appendix?
Because the more we experience, the more we open our eyes to the world, the more we learn, the greater the mystery. 

I mean, how on earth do I wrap my mind around the breathtakingly enormous universe and then begin to contemplate the jaw-droppingly miniscule atom, or even quark? Even at GCSE I learnt about the electromagnetic spectrum, in itself evidence that there is more to life than meets the eye. But now I read that scientists - 'string theorists' - reckon our reality is formed of at least 11 dimensions! 

In the final chapter to a massive 1000 page book confidently entitled, A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, Roger Penrose writes 'exactly what is really going on remains a mystery'.

Which amuses me. He then ultimately concludes, 'Perhaps what we need is some subtle change in perspective - something that we all have missed.

In one of the oldest stories ever told a good, wealthy man called Job is stripped of everything. And in the midst of his unbearable suffering Job screams WHY! Then into the chaos, God speaks. The response is awesome. Read it in full here, it is a remarkably stunning and detailed depiction of creation. 
But God offers no answers. God responds with questions.

In one of the oldest stories ever told Job is left utterly speechless. The mystery remains, the mystery deepens, but his questions are no more.

© 2010 Pete Atkinson This article is reproduced here by the kind permission of the author. Pete Atkinson is a qualified teacher and an aspiring young author. He is currently working on the final manuscript of his first book, whilst also working part-time as Courses Administrator at Christian Heritage in Cambridge. He blogs at Walk On.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Test of Trust

Margaret Manning

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight." Proverbs 3:5-6 were some of the first Scripture verses I memorized as a child. For some reason, the words seemed to bounce with joy, energy, and a sense of lightness as I learned them. For me, these were very "happy" verses in Scripture—verses that seemed to indicate God's direct guidance for all his children down happy, straight pathways. I inferred that trusting in God's guidance would be the result of seeing the wonderful, straight pathways laid out before me that I would willingly and gladly walk on towards all my goals, desires, and dreams.

Yet "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding" took on new meaning in the face of absence, want, and unfulfillment. Have you ever experienced this dissonance that comes from the contradiction of your personal experience and your beliefs? What do you do, for example, when you've believed that God always heals, and yet you watch helplessly as your mother dies of cancer? What do you feel when you've been told that God has a wonderful plan for your life, and yet you can't square that wonderful plan with a series of professional and personal failures?

If you're like me, the fortress of beliefs you thought were impenetrable comes crashing down as life experience smashes that fortress like a battering ram. In the aftermath, the alternative shelters of cynical doubt or blind faith beckon you to take your refuge with them. For most of us, we run perilously between both extremes, without the sense of security that the fortress once provided.

While these are still precious Scripture verses to me, I have come to understand them differently as an adult. I recognize now that trusting the Lord was easy when everything was going my way! I didn't rely on my own understanding because I didn't have to! But, when dreams began to die, life-goals went unmet, and desires dried up, I realized the challenge these verses really offer; they offered me the opportunity to learn the real meaning of "trust."

Real trust in the Lord is only forged out of the fires of testing—testing that reveals whether we truly trust in the Lord or in what we want the Lord to give us. In other words, do we trust the Provider, or the Provider's provisions? In my own life, when it seemed that God withdrew the "provisions" and things stopped going my way, my plans failed, or my goals and dreams didn't materialize, I began to realize that my trust was in my own understanding of what was necessary to make my paths straight. So, as God had abandoned my plans, my test of trust began.

A New Perspective

The Bible is replete with stories about individuals who faced the difficult conflict between what they held to be the truth and what they experienced in their lives. Think of the patriarch Joseph. He was told by God through a sequence of dreams that he would be great one day—so great, in fact, that his own brothers would come and bow down in reverence for him. He had been given a glimpse of his destiny, and perhaps he believed his path to that destiny would be paved with gold. Instead, his gilded trip to glory yielded an attempted murder by his own brothers, his enslavement in a foreign land, and much of his life spent in and out of prison falsely accused of various crimes he did not commit. How could this be the path to glory God promised to provide for Joseph?

Joseph's belief in a God who loved him and had compassion on him was now being challenged by God's demonstration of his compassionate care. Sitting in his jail cell, I'm sure Joseph wrestled with his ideas about God's loving care.

Despite the contradiction between his life experience and what he thought he knew about God, Joseph ultimately affirmed that God is good and trustworthy. How did he arrive at this? I would suggest that as Joseph (like his father, Jacob) wrestled with God, God gave him a new perspective and a deeper understanding of his love for him. But that new perspective is not lightly gained, but again, forged out of the fires of testing.

In his book When God Interrupts (InterVarsity, 1996), author and pastor Craig Barnes poignantly describes the emergence of new perspectives as the very process of conversion:

The deep fear behind every loss is that we have been abandoned by the God who should have saved us. The transforming moment in Christian conversion comes when we realize that even God has left us. We then discover it was not God, but our image of God that abandoned us.... Only then is change possible.

Indeed, Joseph reveals his new perspective to his brothers who betrayed him: "As for you, you meant evil against me but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive" (Genesis 50:20). This is no biblical cliché. Joseph did witness God's intervention and love. But not in the way he expected. God has not promised to make our lives go as we plan. Instead, God promises to give us the necessary new perspective to see his goodness and grace in the midst of our abandoned expectations.

C.S. Lewis once wrote in his marvelous book The Screwtape Letters that in order for the believer to gain this new perspective and mature in trust, God must withdraw "all the supports and incentives" and "leave the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish." He continues this thought through the character of Uncle Screwtape, a senior demon who is coaching his nephew Wormwood on the skills of devilry:

It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He [God] wants it to be…. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's [God's] will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

You see, when our paths are crooked we are tempted to place our trust in the things God provides. As God withdraws those supports we have the challenge of leaning on our own understanding (grasping for things), or allowing true trust in the Lord to develop and bloom (grasping for God). As we trust God even while feeling lost and abandoned to crooked, twisting, and unsafe paths, paths that we thought would lead us to our plans, dreams, and desires, only then can we follow the ever-straightening path to our heart's desire found in God alone.

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight." As you find yourself wandering down crooked paths of disappointment, may you find God leading you to place your trust in Him alone. As your trust grows, may you see straight paths of rest and contentment unfold before you. As you release your own understanding, may you find the Lord to be your heart's desire.

Margaret Manning is associate writer at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Believing in God is a Psychological Crutch

Amy Orr-Ewings

It was strange walking down a hospital corridor with a growing sense of foreboding, getting closer to the consultant’s office and wondering what he would say. I was fifteen years old and had the afternoon off school to receive the results from the operation I had undergone the week before. A mole on my leg had begun to turn dark, and my doctor had decided to remove it as a precaution. My mother and I entered the office together and sat down. The consultant leaned over the desk and said, “I’m afraid it’s cancer.”

Those words still echo in my head now as I write them; the shock, the fear, the bewildering emotions rushed through my body from head to toe. He went on to explain that it was, in fact, a borderline case of melanoma and that they would need to do a further operation to make absolutely sure that I was in the clear. But those stark words “it’s cancer” stayed with me. What was life all about? What was it for? Was there a purpose for my life? Was my life over?

Well, as you have probably guessed, I survived. My life was not yet over; it was to last more than fifteen years. Through the experience of the cancer, I encountered a God who is near us in suffering, a God who makes his presence known. I remember lying in my bed, shaking with fear and calling out to God, who then tangibly filled my bedroom and lifted the fear and blackness from my chest. As Psalm 30:1-3 says,

I will exalt you, O Lord,
for you lifted me out of the depths
and did not let my enemies gloat over me.
O Lord my God, I called to you for help
and you healed me.
O Lord, you brought me up from the grave;
you spared me from going down into the pit.

As life has gone on, friends have died suddenly, members of my community in London have been on the receiving end of horrific violence, and the questions of the human heart have kept on coming year after year as I have traveled and met people of different ages, backgrounds and nationalities.

I have found that many people have questions about Christian experience. These questions can be genuine objections to Christianity or things that trouble Christians in the back of their minds. During my journey of talking to the many people who have asked me all the questions in this book, I’ve discovered that finding answers is a real challenge because the questions do not just touch on intellectual ideas but are undergirded by emotional realities and the pain of life. The issues examined in this book have all emerged during conversations in the course of the last couple of years.

Is God real? Is it possible to know anything—let alone to know him? Why do bad things happen to people who worship this God? What about the spiritual experiences of other faiths? All these questions and more have come out of real-life situations, so whether you are an atheist or someone who wonders if there just might be something more to Christianity than you first thought, I hope that, as you read this book, at least some of the thoughts offered here will help you to see what the Christian faith has to say amid all the pain, confusion and complexity of life.

Your Relationship with God Is Just a Psychological Crutch!

Has anyone ever told you that your faith is a “crutch”? I remember getting into a black taxi outside a central London church. The cabbie took one look at my Bible and launched into his opinion of Christianity. He explained to me with pity and pathos that belief in God is a crutch for weak, pathetic people who don’t have the strength to take responsibility for their own lives.

When he finished his lengthy thesis, he looked at me in the mirror as if expecting my response. When I answered, “Thank you very much,” with just a hint of irony, he blustered on, likely hoping to increase the diminishing likelihood of a tip with, “Well, I’m just saying it for your own good. A girl like you doesn’t need religion!”

This idea that Christian faith is a psychological crutch for needy people is a pervasive one. At its root are a number of assumptions. The first is that God is merely a psychological projection. He doesn’t actually exist, not in any real sense; he exists only in the minds of his followers. In fact, the thinking goes, these minds have created him out of their own need. That could be a need for a father figure or a need to give significance to existence by believing in a God who created the world.

Where does this idea come from—this concept of God as a creation or projection of human minds that is propounded by so many? Its most famous proponent was the thinker Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Freud was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, a movement that popularized the theory that unconscious motives control much human behavior. His theories and his treatment of patients were controversial in nineteenth-century Vienna and remain hotly debated today. His research was wide ranging and complex, but for our purposes we examine in particular his commitment to the notion of God as entirely a projection of the human mind.

God as Psychological Projection

Though a Jew, Freud was an atheist for most of his life. He went through a brief period of “wavering” on the issue of God in his university days—during which time he wrote to a friend, “The bad part of it, especially for me, lies in the fact that science of all things seems to demand the existence of a God”—yet he emerged from his studies without religious conviction. Freud’s peers, and many authors of the time, were immersed in scientific materialism, and he remained a strident atheist. Another factor may have been the appalling anti-Semitism that swept through his native and culturally Roman Catholic Austria. In the light of his experiences of the weakness of Christianity at repelling such vitriol, one writer comments, “One can understand Freud’s motivation to discredit and destroy what he called the ‘religious Weltanschauung (worldview)’ and why he referred to religion as ‘the enemy.’ ”

In arguing against the existence of God, Freud believed that an individual’s perspective on what God is like sprung from his or her experience of their own father. When people grow up and find themselves alone in the world they cannot go on looking to human parents for security but must find some other more ultimate source of security and end up positing a God to fill this role.

He argued that it is this human need to rise above the vulnerability and frailty of adult existence that leads to us positing the existence of some higher power or God: “When the growing individual finds that he is destined to remain a child for ever, that he can never do without protection against strange superior powers, he lends those powers the features belonging to the figure of his father.”

From this perspective, God is merely a creation of the human mind, a projection emanating from human need and desire rather than a distinct reality or being that exists independently of the human mind. Freud’s notion of God acting as an idealized father figure for humans, providing a cushion from the harshness of the real world and a comforting friend in the midst of life’s troubles, reduces God to a human construct. Indeed, for Freud, God is made in humanity’s own image and is the “ultimate wish-fulfillment”; God does not actually exist but is merely the creation of humanity’s imagination and desire for a loving father figure.

How might a Christian respond to this? Can God really be explained away so easily by one aspect of psychology? Of course, the most obvious point to make in response is that this argument about projection cuts both ways. After all, isn’t it equally possible to say that Freud and other atheists deny the existence of God out of a need to escape from a father figure, or to argue that the nonexistence of God springs from a deep seated desire for no father figure to exist?

Clearly this doesn’t prove that God is real, but it does help us see that Freud’s arguments cannot prove that God does not exist, while at the same time helping us tackle the question of projection. After all, dismissing God as a psychological projection while claiming neutrality in our own psyche is disingenuous at best and cannot be an adequate basis for rejecting God. This is rather like the mother who sees her child swearing and is so overcome with fury that she ends up swearing at her child while telling him off. When her child asks about this inconsistency, she replies, “Don’t do what I do, do what I say!” We may well cringe inwardly when we hear something like this in a supermarket or airplane, but trying to do away with God as if he were a psychological projection is actually rather similar. The protagonist is saying that you as a Christian are subject to psychological factors but I, the skeptic, am not.

It also becomes quickly apparent that a Freudian belief in God as a human projection cannot provide us with an explanation for the Christian faith of converts who would rather not believe but find themselves compelled by evidence. I have known many people who have started out as strongly convinced nonbelievers but have found that when they looked at real evidence of God and began to read the Bible, they found themselves convinced—almost against their will—that it is actually true and real. It is then that a decision must be made: will I now respond to what I believe is true, or will I sweep it under the carpet? Alister McGrath writes,

"Back in the 1960s, we were told that religion was fading away, to be replaced by a secular world. For some of us that sounded like a great thing. I was an atheist back in the late 1960s, and remember looking forward to the demise of religion with a certain grim pleasure. I had grown up in Northern Ireland, and had known religious tensions and violence at first hand. . . . The future was bright and godless. . . . I started out as an atheist, who went on to become a Christian. I had originally intended to spend my life in scientific research, but found that my discovery of Christianity led me to study its history and ideas in greater depth. I gained my doctorate in molecular biophysics while working in the Oxford laboratories of Sir George Radda, but then gave up active scientific research to study theology."

In fact, we may go further than nullifying this argument that God is a projection of the mind by turning it on its head and suggesting that a desire for a God who can fulfill our needs and provide moral order exists precisely because human beings have been designed and created to desire them. The man floating on a raft at sea is unbearably thirsty, but he won’t just get a drink of water simply by being thirsty. But the very existence of his thirst does show that a way for his desire to be satisfied actually exists: fresh water. As C. S. Lewis put it, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists.”

Lewis is an interesting case here because he was a contemporary of Freud and an atheist himself into his thirties. He famously described his unhappiness before turning to Christ as resulting from “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Lewis described this desire as “Joy,” and he spoke of finding it for himself when he surrendered to God: “To be united with that Life in the eternal Sonship of Christ is . . . the only thing worth a moment’s consideration.” He argued that the inborn longing one feels as a human being is a desire for a relationship with the Creator God and that the very presence of this desire within us suggests the existence of God.

While Freud believed that human desire could be fulfilled in the ordinary run of life, Lewis argued that “earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care . . . never to mistake them [earthly pleasures] for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.” For the Christian it is a relationship with God that brings humans this genuine fulfillment. The French mathematician Blaise Pascal put it beautifully:

"There once was in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace. This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, because the infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself."

St. Augustine famously said of God, “Thou movest us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.” And Woody Allen mused on this from the opposite perspective when he said as an atheist analyzing life, “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

And so we have seen that God cannot be dispensed with as if he were a mere psychological projection without atheism being equally treated as the same. But more than that, the desire for God, rather than undermining his existence, points to its reality. After all, if human beings are created by God in his image as the Bible teaches, shouldn’t we expect a divine fingerprint and the possibility of relationship between creature and Creator?

However, ultimately for the Christian the important question is not whether I have a psychological need for a father figure or a desire for a father figure not to exist. Rather, the question is about what actually exists: is God really there? The way to come to any conclusions about that is to investigate the evidence for his existence.

So we have observed that the first assumption in the statement “Your relationship with God is just a psychological crutch!” is that God is merely a psychological projection. The second assumption that we encounter is that, because belief in God provides the faithful with a crutch, it is somehow suspect.

God as Talisman

The skeptic implies that since the believer finds protection from the cruelty and evil of the world, the idea of God is like a talisman, an irrational superstition. Freud makes the same point: “religious ideas have arisen from the same need as have all other achievements of civilization: from the necessity of defending oneself against the crushingly superior force of nature.” Humans need to find comfort and meaning in the midst of the pain of life as well as a guide for how to live, and they look to God for this. The religious believer views the evolution of morality within human societies as moral absolutes revealed and upheld by God. This belief in absolutes then provides an unreal but comforting refuge in a dark world, so that the individual can feel safe in his or her own status before God and secure in the knowledge that evildoers will be punished.

Freud argues against what he sees as an unreal supernatural power who arbitrarily imposes moral standards on humans. For him, God exists only inside the human mind and has been imagined into existence at the whim of carnal desires. He writes, “We shall tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent Providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe and an after-life; but it is the very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.” Later he states,

Since it is an awkward task to separate what God himself has demanded from what can be traced to the authority of an all-powerful parliament or a high judiciary, it would be an undoubted advantage if we were to leave God out altogether and honestly admit the purely human origin of all the regulations and precepts of civilization."

One writer comments: “Humans, now educated and enlightened by science, begin to grow out of their childlike belief in God and recognize morals as man-made rules put into place for their own benefit. . . . Freud believed that as education increased and scientific research continued, humans would slowly stop believing in God and begin to recognize that God was simply an expression of their wishes.” But if belief in God makes sense of the world and provides a positive moral framework that helps people to live constructively, that in itself is not a reason to disbelieve in him. Similarly, if relationship with God enables the believer to find healing, wholeness and comfort in the midst of their human suffering, we should not be surprised. After all, clearly, if God is real it will have a massive impact on life and on the experience of life.

Only for the Weak and Inferior

The third assumption is that people who make use of this “crutch” of relationship with God, and find it practical, meaningful and effective, must be weak or inferior. This is a rather strange idea, since surely it makes sense to access real sources of support and relationship that are there for us. This reminds me of the story of a man who had been given a suitcase filled with money. He was told that if he could successfully give away this money, he would receive the same amount again for himself. The only condition was that each banknote had to go to a different person. So he thought to himself, This will be easy. I’m going to be rich! He ran out into the nearest shopping street, opened his suitcase and started shouting, “Roll up, roll up— free money—absolutely no catch. Come and take it.

Most people passed straight by, not even looking at him. A few slowed their pace but thought better of it. One woman stopped and asked, “What’s the catch? What are you going to try to get out of me?” “Absolutely nothing,” the man replied. “It really is free money. Please take it.” “No, I don’t think so,” she said, and walked off. A very small proportion of the shoppers on that day took the free money. They were so suspicious as to be convinced that no deal could really be that simple and easy. The money really was free, with no strings attached, and the logical thing to do was to accept it.

In the same way, if a God of love does exist, the rational thing to do is to accept his love, to come to know him. Entering into that kind of a relationship will have a positive effect, but that does not make the person weaker or somehow inferior to anyone else.

In contrast to the implication that those who need God are somehow inferior specimens of the human race is the Christian belief that there is an essential equality within humanity— all humans are precious beings who have been made in the image of God. At the same time, all humans are sinful and equally in need of God.

Freud did not really take issue with this idea of human fallibility; in fact, he believed in the reality of shame and guilt. Yet in his closed universe, with no ultimate authority, he struggled to deal with good and evil. As a consequence, he looked to the ideal of education as the solution. People must be taught that ethical behavior is in their own best interest, he stated; once they became well educated, they would naturally behave ethically. But can we really be sure that education in and of itself necessarily produces goodness? As one scholar notes, “Freud wrote this in 1927 before the Nazi rise in educated Germany.”

Yet even before that—as far back as 1913—Freud confessed to a friend, “That psychoanalysis has not made the analysts themselves better, nobler, or of stronger character remains a disappointment to me.”

The idea that Christianity is a crutch for weak people assumes that God is a human invention, that he is a psychological projection. We have seen that this argument cuts both ways as it could equally be argued that atheism is a psychological phenomenon and so it is nullified as a reasonable basis for rejecting God. The idea also assumes that belief in God provides people with a “crutch” and should be regarded with suspicion. Here we saw that something working ought not be a reason for rejecting it. On the contrary, if God does exist, we should surely expect his existence to have a real palpable impact on our lives.

As C. S. Lewis put it, “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him.” To enter into a relationship with God is a logical response if he actually exists and reveals himself to people. It is only if he is not real that we ought to be worried about the “crutch” he provides.

And finally, we saw that we do not necessarily need to be weaker than or inferior to others if we accept God’s offer of relationship and become Christians. In fact, it is the logical, reasonable response if God himself is real.

Taken from Is Believing in God Irrational? by Amy Orr-Ewing, a forthcoming title from InterVarsity Press. Copyright (c) 2008 by Amy Orr- Ewing. Used with permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515.