Steve Collier and I have never met, but each blog entry he writes makes me hope we will soon! In this entry (click on the title to get to the original) he responds to David Cameron’s view of the Bible:
Have you ever felt burdened by something? I know I certainly have! And for many of us, maybe we have had times in our lives as followers of Jesus that we’ve felt burdened. If so, I wonder what those burdens were? I have an inkling that for many of us, those burdens may be to do with that word that Cameron uses: morals. Are we doing the right thing? Are we acting in the right way?
If we take Cameron’s understanding of the Bible, then what we have is a book of morals. And if we adopt his understanding of faith, then what we are left with is the slavish burden of attempting to live up to those moral standards. You see, by reducing the Bible to a book of morals, what we really do is impose the law upon ourselves – that very thing that Jesus died to set us free from.
Glad to see you’re blogging again Steve!
You’ve got to the end of freshers’ week – but now what? Here’s some advice for Christian students I’ve gleaned from various people over the years (with particular thanks to Dave Bish and Jim Walford).
Join a church
No one can make it alone as a Christian, and living as a student is no exception. You’ll probably be challenged about what you believe, whether in lectures or down the pub. There will be pressure to conform to a sinful culture; many Christians flirt with temptation rather than fleeing, and regret it later. You need people to support you and challenge you because they love and care for you. As a Christian you’re already part of God’s worldwide church, so make it a priority to join a local church community. Church will help you grow as a Christian, so find somewhere where as God’s Word is taught people grow to love Jesus more, love each other more and love the lost more.
Join the CU
Christian Unions are mission teams made up of students from different local churches, united around the gospel in order to better reach students with the good news of Jesus. In short, they exist to make Christ known on campus. Join your CU to get involved in student mission; to be better equipped to reach your friends with the gospel; and to be encouraged as you work as a team to bring others to know Jesus. Find out more on the UCCF website.
Join other societies/do other things!
God’s made a good world, with so many great things in it. Don’t do what I did in my first year and do so many Christian things you don’t have time to play football/sing in a choir/join the wine circle/get involved in student politics/act in a play/go to the pub with coursemates. Not only is it wrong to think such things are “less spiritual” (all of life is for God’s glory!), if you throw yourself into loads of Christian meetings to the exclusion of all else, you’ll find opportunities for mission few and far between. This is my biggest regret about my first year at university. Do something to get outside of the Christian bubble, even if it’s simply spending time with your flatmates!
Work hard, rest well
It may not feel like it sometimes, but you’re at university to study for a degree. This is a good thing to do! Your attitude to your work is a great witness to others, but more importantly God asks us to work as if working for him. My experience is that you actually enjoy your work more the more effort you put in; this is possibly my second biggest regret of my first year, as I didn’t get much out of it academically.
You also need rest, which may seem impossible during freshers’ week, but getting into good habits early on really does help. The temptation is to stay up late like everyone else, because you feel like you’ll miss out on making friendships, especially early on. God knows what you need though, and one of those things is sleep; you will not lose all your friends if you go to bed before them! (You may well find they’re waiting for someone else to suggest going to bed…) Naps are also useful, if you have been up late; caffeine less so.
Learn to love
Your flatmates might “borrow” your food, or not do the washing up, or wake you up after a late night out. Your lecturers might not be very good, or overly harsh, and can sometimes be ridiculed or hated by others. You might meet people in the CU with whom you disagree: on theology, on style of meeting, on whether Jesus would have joined the Conservative or Labour Party, on all sorts of things you hold dear. God hasn’t put you with these people and in these situations to annoy you: he’s given you an opportunity to learn to love people. This is important with non-Christians, but possibly even more so with Christians. If members of the CU don’t love each other, that’s not a good witness. If they do love each other, learning to put aside secondary issues because they agree on the core truths of the gospel, it’s a far better witness. Francis Schaeffer said:
Love – and the unity it attests to – is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father. (Francis Shaeffer, in Graham Beynon, God’s New Community (IVP), p92.)
You may have great intentions, but as a sinful human being you’re going to mess up. Don’t forget the gospel. Jesus died for you, and his perfect righteousness is enough to cover even the most spectacular failings. I was far from perfect at university, and needed daily reminders of God’s grace to me. (Also related: joining a church!) Living in close proximity with others, it’s reasonably sure they’ll get to see your sins and struggles – so take the opportunity to tell them of Jesus, who accepts sinners like you and them.
University is a great opportunity for so many things, but above all to grow to know and love Jesus more, and so love other people more, through living and speaking for him in your academic work, your time with friends, your CU involvement and in your church family. My prayer is that you’ll do just that!
It is sobering to consider that many of our churches – and let’s be honest, we ourselves are far more often the problem than the solution – foster a more domesticated brand of community than a gang. Real fellowship is elusive. Even among our brothers and sisters in Christ, we wear masks and hide sins and parade virtues and judge others. Many find the church to be the place where it is hardest, not easiest, to speak openly about personal struggles.
This is deeply ironic and tragic because in the Christian gospel we have the one resource that can unlock the heart and enable us to take off the masks. As long as we view the Christian church as a club for those who make the grade socially, we will be unwilling to speak freely of our shortcomings as believers. Only when the single prerequisite to inclusion in the church is joint agreement that there is no prerequisite will we let down our guard.
— Dane Ortlund, Defiant Grace, p85
We live in a world obsessed with image and appearance. We spend hours cultivating how we’re seen by others: by choosing the right outfit, editing our profiles, dieting to lose weight or hitting the gym to gain muscle.
We work hard to fit into a certain subculture, or we’re proud of always rocking the trend. Whether we’re hipsters or hicks, mavericks or “Mature & Sensible”, we almost certainly think about how we’re perceived. (My personal predilections include comedy t-shirts and mock-Converse plimsolls.)
Within the church, we can do a similar thing, only it’s more insidious. We think Christians are supposed to be growing in godliness, so when we keep struggling in the same areas, we stop mentioning them for fear of embarrassment. We push our sins under the carpet in order to fit in. We want the approval of our brothers and sisters, and so we stay silent.
However, whilst fooling those around us might be possible, God cannot be deceived. He tells Samuel:
The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7)
Those around us might think us the height of godliness, but God’s assessment looks far deeper, into the ugly depths of our hearts. Jesus tells us that it’s from our hearts that evil comes (Mark 7:21-22), and Jeremiah tells us that our hearts are “deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9).
Imagine your darkest secrets being shown to the world. Lustful thoughts akin to visual rape. Bitterness and unforgiveness festering, intensifying. Hatred masked by hugs and kisses. Betrayal. Greed. Pride. All exposed, impossible to hide. It’s a horrifying thought – and yet the reality is that God sees all these things. Those around us look at our polished personas, but God sees the real deal.
We can clean up our act, try harder, present a positive face to the world, but our sinful hearts will always betray us. Isaiah 64:6 says that our “righteous acts are like filthy rags” – not just insubstantial, but dirty themselves. In the eyes of God, we’ve nothing to hide behind.
Except… the Lord himself provides a hiding place, a covering for our sin and shame. Earlier, Isaiah wrote the following:
I delight greatly in the Lord;
my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10)
The Lord himself clothes us with a robe of his righteousness. Our own righteousness is but rags, but he gives us his own to wear. Our sin is covered, our shame removed. Our Father looks at us, clothed with the righteousness of Christ, and accepts us without question. Those lustful thoughts? Covered. That long-held bitterness? Dealt with. Our greed? Gone. Our pride? Paid for.
Knowing this frees us from the pressure to keep up appearances. We’re all accepted on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, not our own – so we can be real about our struggles. We can start to build relationships of real openness and intimacy, striving for holiness together without fear of condemnation. Knowing our identity in Christ means we don’t have to worry about how others perceive us. Our loving Father, the one whose opinion really counts, has already given his verdict:
“You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.”
O God of Grace,
You have imputed my sin to my substitute, and have imputed his righteousness to my soul, clothing me with a bridegroom’s robe, decking me with jewels of holiness. But in my Christian walk I am still in rags; my best prayers are stained with sin; my penitential tears are so much impurity; my confessions of wrong are so many aggravations of sin; my receiving the Spirit is tinctured with selfishness.
I need to repent of my repentance; I need my tears to be washed; I have no robe to bring to cover my sins, no loom to weave my own righteousness; I am always standing clothed in filthy garments, and by grace am always receiving change of raiment, for you always justify the ungodly; I am always going into the far country, and always returning home as a prodigal, always saying, “Father, forgive me,” and you are always bringing forth the best robe.
Every morning let me wear it, every evening return in it, go out to the day’s work in it, be married in it, be wound in death in it, stand before the great white throne in it, enter heaven in it shining as the sun.
Grant me never to lose sight of the exceeding sinfulness of sin, the exceeding righteousness of salvation, the exceeding glory of Christ, the exceeding beauty of holiness, the exceeding wonder of grace.
— "Continual Repentance", from The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions, p136-7.
Last time we looked at three amazing truths to encourage us in the midst of exams. We saw that we are children of God, and so have a new identity that doesn’t rely on exam success. We saw that our Father is in control, so we can have confidence that he is using all of the pressure and stress for our good. Finally we were reminded that we don’t have to earn his love – that any achievement (or lack of it) doesn’t affect God’s love for us, so we don’t have to prove ourselves to him.
That’s all very well, you might say, but how is this going to help me, really? What does it look like to live this out? Let’s take them one by one:
You are a child of God. What do children do with their parents? They talk about every little thing: their worries, their interests, their feelings. Does a little kid think his problems aren’t worth bothering his parents with? No – he asks them for help, because they’re his mum and dad. Jesus encourages us to talk to our Father in the same way: “how much more [than earthly parents] will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11). So don’t let the pressure of exams stop you spending time with him. Instead, talk to him about everything. He’s your Father. He loves to listen.
Your Father is in control. God knew your exam timetable and the questions in the paper before the creation of the world. There may not be enough time to do the revision you feel you need; the questions might be terribly unfair. God is not surprised. Knowing this, it’s possible to relax (yes, really!). There’s nothing you can do about it, but that’s okay. Do what you can, then rest easy – whatever the result, your loving Father is still in control.
You don’t have to earn his love. Maybe you’ve been lazy throughout the year, and now it’s come back to bite you. You feel your difficulties are payback for your lack of studying, and so you kill yourself with work to make up for it. But God’s love is not earned. Yes, sin has its consequences (not studying sooner generally makes exams harder!), but your status before God is just as secure as before. Rest in his love – and then get to work, confident that God will keep loving you whatever the results.
Knowing God doesn’t lift you out of the stress. God being in control doesn’t mean he’ll give us an easy ride. But God is the God who sent his Son to join us in the mess and struggles of this world. He’s not a far removed kind of God, but a God who has come close to us in Jesus. Knowing this God in the midst of the stress can transform the whole experience, and speak volumes to those around us about where our confidence ultimately lies.
Catch up on part one here, then have a read of part three.
Everything in our natural experience works against resurrection hope. Our ordinary lives teach us to believe Monty Python’s line: “Life is quite absurd and death’s the final word.” Life leads to death. That’s the trajectory of this world and of Adam its original head. Life and then death.
But Jesus came to reverse the way of Adam. He came to turn the world right-side-up. And therefore it strikes the children of Adam as utterly new and strange. On that first Easter Sunday, the women came to the tomb expecting to pay their last respects to a departed friend. They came to mark an ending. Instead they were witnesses to the one great beginning.
He is risen – and one day, we too will be raised. What grace.
Glen Scrivener on the grace of Gethsemane (see Matthew 26:36-46):
“Glen, who do you think you are in this story?”
I didn’t like to say but, well, surely I’m Jesus in the story. Or I’m meant to be anyway.
The leader corrected me. “Do you know who you are? You’re Peter.”
And the penny dropped. I’m not Jesus! I’m Peter. I’m weak, useless, faithless Peter. I ought to pray with Jesus, but I don’t. I fail. And as I fail, Jesus prays for me.
By the Spirit, I belong to Jesus. By the Spirit I want to follow Christ. But my flesh is from Adam. My flesh is weak. And I’m constantly falling asleep on the watch.
But Jesus prays for me.
About to be betrayed, abandoned and denied by those closest to him, Jesus prays, and resolves to go to the cross for them and for us. Amazing grace.
Come, ev’ry soul by sin oppressed; there’s mercy with the Lord,
and He will surely give you rest by trusting in His Word.
For Jesus shed His precious blood, rich blessings to bestow;
plunge now into the crimson flood that washes white as snow.
Only trust Him, only trust Him, only trust him now.
He will save you, He will save you, He will save you now.
Yes, Jesus is the truth, the way, that leads you into rest;
believe in Him without delay and you are fully blessed.
Come, then, and join the holy band, and on to glory go,
to dwell in that celestial land where joys immortal flow.
Only trust Him, only trust Him, only trust him now.
He will save you, He will save you, He will save you now.
Do you ever feel like you’ve failed so badly that you can’t relate to God?
You feel filthy. Pathetic. You’ve let him down – again.
Saying sorry doesn’t seem to cut it. It doesn’t seem enough. Your sin is too big for a mere apology. It requires something more.
So you try to deal with the guilt yourself. You beat yourself up. You tell yourself you’re a failure. You wallow in the guilt, because after all, it’s what you deserve. You repent of the same sins over and over, hoping that this time, deep down, you really mean it and God will forgive you.
We try to atone for our failures, resolve to try harder next time, and maybe then we’ll feel like we’re forgiven.
In all of this, what never occurs to us is that in trying to atone for our perceived offences, we commit a greater one – we doubt that Jesus’ blood can in fact atone for our sins in full. We forget the free and full forgiveness offered to us in Jesus and insist on adding our own acts of penance.
Saying sorry doesn’t cut it. Your sin is too big for a mere apology. It does require something more. It deserves death, judgment and hell. It’s that serious. Too serious to be dealt with by a week of wallowing in guilt. Too big for a few good deeds to make up for it.
Sin deserves death. Yet for the Christian, that death has already taken place. The cost of our rebellion has already been paid by another. Jesus’ death has done everything necessary. We simply look to him, and receive forgiveness as a gift.
Have you repented enough? Almost certainly not. There are sinful depths to our hearts that will take a lifetime to uncover. We will always need to repent.
Does that mean we can never approach God? Not at all. Jesus has done everything necessary for us to draw near. Beating ourselves up, punishing ourselves – it would never be enough. Wonderfully, for the Christian it is never necessary.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. (Hebrews 10:19-23)