Saturday, January 30, 2010

Book review: The God I Don't Understand

Book Review: The God I Don’t Understand by Christopher J H Wright (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2008)

I wholeheartedly recommend Dr Christopher Wright’s The God I Don’t Understand to everyone. Christopher Wright is a respected scholar in the Old Testament, and was formerly the principal of All Nations Christian College, a leading mission training college in England. Currently he is the Director of Langham Partnership International, and the chair of the Theological Resource Panel of TEAR Fund, UK.

The God I Don’t Understand is easy-to-read, honest, and full of insights. It seeks to answer four questions:

• What about evil and suffering?
• What about the Canaanites? (That is, how come such violence can be found in the bible?)
• What about the cross?
• What about the end of the world?

Christopher Wright deals with the problem of evil and suffering skilfully. He is gentle, biblical and not dogmatic. He insightfully says that while we often ask ‘why?,’ the people in the bible more often ask ‘how long’. This is so true!

The theology of the cross is both simple and complicated. On the one hand it is simply about the death and resurrection of Christ, which is, in turn, the foundation of the gospel. On the other hand the mechanics of how it works can be hard to understand. But Wright manages to explain it in three user-friendly chapters, covering some rather controversial questions. Is the cross an expression of God’s love or anger, or both? Should sin be understood in terms of ‘personal and objective guilt’? Or is it concerning ‘subjective and social shame’ in a given cultural context? Interesting and important questions for 21st-century Christians in a pluralistic world, and Wright provides us with good answers.

He honestly says that there are a lot of things in the scripture that he doesn’t understand – hence the title of the book. But what he does understand he explains clearly, helpfully and in a simple language. He does this exceptionally well in the three chapters about the end of the world under the titles ‘Cranks and Controversies’, ‘The Great Climax’, and ‘The New Beginning’.

Often I find that authors on these topics tend to write from their own doctrinal and ideological perspectives. But for Wright, it’s primarily scriptural. I particularly like his humility. He does not shy from affirming biblical truths, but at the same time he does not claim to have all the answers.

The book has clarified plenty of questions for me. But it is not a book of deep theology. Instead, it contains lucid bible teaching that has huge implications to how we live today. We are indebted to this fine book for its contribution to the church.

Reflection: Trusting God for his provision and fulfilling God's call

When I was 29 I had a good career. I had a BSc (Hons), an MSc, and years of experience in my profession. But then God called me to ministry. After heaps of prayer I left my career at the age of 30 to go to Bible college. The following years were very difficult financially and emotionally, and eventually I stopped working as a pastor, largely because of health reasons and because I wanted to finish my Masters in theology. But I remember that at the end of those years I could say that God never disappointed us financially. Yes, it was very difficult to "walk by faith", so to speak, and trust God for his provision - without any fund raising and without asking people for money. But it's worth it.

We experienced miracle after miracle of financial provision, even though we needed to live on a very tight budget (and continue to do so for many years afterwards). It's an amazing experience.
What I have learned from the experience is that if God has asked us to do something he will provide all our needs. I have to admit that I am a man of little faith - yes, I still am, and very much so. But once you have experienced God's miraculous supplies you have learned something about God's faithfulness.

Will I do it again? Only to the degree that God enables me, and only if I am very sure that God has asked me to do so. Now I am older - I know what my limitations are and how much I can endure. I'll be very careful in making any decision of that kind. But at the same time God's calling is still fresh and real. I consider that I am still in the process of fulfilling that call.

To everyone who wants to do God's will, I encourage you to trust in God's faithfulness. He who has called you to follow him is faithful.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Attitude for the teacher and the students

In his preface to his book, An Introduction to the New Testament, David A deSilva says something that, I think, both the teachers of the Bible and their students can learn from.

"The reader [of deSilva's book] is therefore invited not to learn from a master but to wrestle alongside a fellow learner with these magnificent texts [ie. the Scriptures] that have opened up hearts to God, nourished faith and shaped lives for two millennia."

Too often we think we are the master and that we know all the truth. But in fact we only know a little bit, and we are fellow learners with others.

Below is something deSilva says about what his father taught him.

"He taught me that there are two sides to every argument, and he perhaps contributed more than anyone else to my awareness of ideology and rhetorical strategy in people, no less than in texts."

We all come to the Bible with our own biases, and even ideologies. Let's learn from God the Holy Spirit and from each other when we come to studying the Bible.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Rapture" and "left behind" according to Capes, Reeves and Richards

In their book Rediscovering Paul, David B Capes, Rodney Reeves and E Randolph Richards talks about the misunderstanding among some Christians today about the end times. Here is what they say (in relation to the teaching in 1 Thessalonians):

"The term rapture (from the Latin word raptus) is used [by some people] for the teaching that God will snatch up the living and dead to meet the Lord in the air. Unfortunately, some have distorted Paul's teaching by suggesting that 'the rapture' refers to some secret snatching of believers prior to the parousia [commonly known as the 'second coming of Jesus'] ... but it is not the stuff of biblical teaching on the end times. There is no evidence Paul believed in a secret rapture; there is no biblical basis to suggest the church will avoid the great tribulation. In fact, tribulation and suffering with Christ is the atmosphere in which the church lives out its entire existence — a very unpopular (and perhaps inconceivable) view among American Christians. Yet many Asian and African Christians would argue they are already experiencing great tribulation... Indeed, the parousia, according to Paul, will be the unexpected (like a thief in the night') but very public arrival of the crucified and risen Jesus to the earth he died to redeem. The 'second coming' of Christ will be an event of such cosmic proportions that no one, not even the dead, could miss it. The language Paul uses to describe this event is wonderfully poetic, powerful and political." (page 133)

"Jesus talked about 'two men in the field'; one was taken away and the other left behind. But which one was saved'? ... Yet Jesus' story (Mt 24:37-41) compares the end times to the days of Noah when Noah entered the ark. The biblical echo is deliberate: the outsiders were 'taken away' by the flood, but Noah and his family were 'left behind.'" (page 134)

Monday, January 25, 2010

What the ministry of reconciliation requires - living like Jesus

Recently I read the following about 2 Corinthians from Rediscovering Paul (by David B Capes, Rodney Reeves and E Randolph Richards). I think it really captures some key moments of this great letter of Paul. This is one of those letters that we hear less and less these days. But we are doing ourselves a disservice if we don't read this letter, because there is so much in this letter about how we can be authentic followers of Jesus.

"According to Paul, his converts had failed to recognize what the ministry of reconciliation required. It meant "carrying in the body the death of Jesus" (2 Cor 4:10), and "walk[ing] by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor 5:7), "regard[ing] no one from a human point of view" (2 Cor 5:16) and living as "having nothing, and yet possessing everything" (2 Cor 6:10). In other words, it meant living like Jesus ("though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich," 2 Cor 8:9), and emulating Paul ("as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments," 2 Cor 6:4-5). The Corinthians needed to learn what it meant to become living sacrifices for the welfare of others. This is why the paradox of Christian existence is the leading motif of 2 Corinthians: "for whenever I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor 12:10). The strength-in-weakness theme pervades the entire letter in a variety of apparent contradictions, including joy in suffering, generosity in poverty and life in death. For Paul the theological basis for this paradox is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In weakness and suffering Jesus descended into death; in power and joy God raised him from the dead. Therefore, weakness is strength, death is life, and humiliation is glory." (pages 160-1)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Trusting in God for financial provision in an old-fashioned way

The global financial crisis last year was a major challenge for most of us. The organisation I work in, for example, took very strong measures to cut back on expenses in order to keep as many staff as possible.

But I know of one well-known mission agency that recorded a 100% financial support for their missionaries. And they managed to do that without fund-raising effort and without believing in any form of prosperity doctrine. They have always been trusting God for his supply in the old-fashioned way. That is, they don't deliberately ask people for money. They use sound financial management. They pray. It still works even in the 21st century, because God hasn't changed.

I am not opposed to fund raising or similar measures. But sometimes I wonder whether we trust ourselves more than trusting in God. Well, indeed it is a good question for myself. Do I trust God enough for everything in my life?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"The Limits of Incarnational Models" by Tim Chester

Here are three posts I found in Tim Chester's blog on "The Limits of Incarnational Models".

I really like the idea of following Christ by being with the poor and marginalised, and I appreciate those who try to do so in some of the poorest areas in Melbourne and the world. But Chester's posts are interesting and worth reading.

Click here for the 1st post: "The Triumph of the Many over the One".
Click here for the 2nd post: "Embodiment and Incarnation".
Click here for the 3rd post: "The Need for a Whole Gospel Approach".

Friday, January 8, 2010

Reflection: Beyond 'right and wrong'

I wrote this recently:

"Teach our children how to distinguish between right and wrong, and discern what is good and what is evil. But better still, teach them to overcome evil with good. (See Rom 12:21.) The Christian faith is much more than 'getting it right'. It is first and foremost about a Saviour who gave up his own life for sinners, and hence, in a real sense, overcoming evil with good."

I have been thinking that I spend a lot of time teaching students what is right and wrong. We see evil in this world and we want to ensure that we live our lives right. But surely the message of the gospel goes beyond 'right and wrong'. The gospel is about Christ - a sinless man and innocent sufferer - who died on the cross for sinners like us. He gave up his rights to defend and protest, but willingly gave up his life to die on the cross. What a Saviour!

I believe in seeking justice, and there are times when we have to stand up for our rights in our democratic society. We should not shy away from doing that. But the imperative in the Bible is surely to overcome evil with good, and to love our neighbours (including our enemies) as God loves us. Romans 12 says it all. A big challenge. We can't do it by our own human strength. Only through the Spirit can we do it.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Peace VS violence - Some thoughts

I have been thinking about the "just war" and pacifist (and non-violent resistence) positions on resolving international conflicts. In my previous posts I touched on this topic but did not clearly express my own view on the matter (see the label "peace VS violence"). In the following I will try to do so, but before that let me first give three comments.

(1) The conquest in the book of Joshua is not to be treated as the norm. My reading of the Old Testament suggests that, apart from the stories surrounding the Amalekites, the conquest in Joshua is the only noticeable occasion in which God asks his people to use violence to attack a people group. We may call this war a "just war", in the sense that God himself used it for his own reasons. It seems, however, that the stories that clearly shape the life and theology of Israel in the Old Testament are not the accounts of violence but the creation narrative in Genesis, the exodus story, God's covenant with Abraham, and the expectation of restoration from exile. The conquest in Joshua seems to be a one-off event in which Yahweh fulfilled a particular purpose for a particular time and occasion.

(2) Judgment and vengeance on God's enemies are God's prerogative alone. Any intention to use violence to resolve conflicts must take this notion seriously. The term "holy war" is not found in the Bible. Rather, we have the concept of "Yahweh's wars". Here is what Paul says in Romans 12:19-21, citing Deuteronomy 32:35 and Proverbs 25:21-22.

"Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' No, 'if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

Only God is the author of life, and only he has the right to judge the world. The New Testament states clearly that Christ is the Judge, and one day justice will be done. The Christ-community looks to Him to judge the world as they suffer from violence in this world. This future judgment is, however, also restorative. As the Christ-community seeks to overcome evil with good and wait on God for his just judgment, it has an amazing restorative purpose - because it calls people to stop their acts of violence and turn to God for his mercy and grace.

(3) I respect those who hold the view that in exceptional cases a measured expression of violence might be necessary as the last resort. For example, some argue that in the case of the genocide in Rwanda, it would have been a different outcome if there had been a United Nations peace-keeping force to prevent violence in the nation. I also want to say that in my personal life I have not experienced strong political oppression, and hence I am not in a position to judge others. If a Christian decides to defend her/his family and loved ones when their lives are under threat because of their faith, who am I to judge them for their defensive action, which is used as the very last resort?

Obviously much more needs to be said on this topic. But space does not allow me to systematically discuss this matter.

For me, Jesus' teaching on loving one's enemies and praying for them is the key. Christ died for sinners. His willing sacrifice for humanity is how his love works in practice. His teaching on forgiveness and loving one's enemies was given in the context of Roman occupation (by violent means) of Judea, including Jerusalem. The earliest Christians also lived in the Roman Empire, where there was much violent oppression. But from the birth of the church in Acts to the writing of Revelation we find no intention in the earliest church to repay violence with violence. Rather, the Christ-community sought to live in peace with their neighbours. learned to love them (including their enemies) and often that meant suffering and dying for their faith. For me, if one holds on to Christ's teaching here, it is hard to accept the use of violence in resolving conflicts. The passage in Romans 12 above says it all.

I am all for peace-making!

Friday, January 1, 2010

A blessing for the New Year

Here is something from a post in Michael Gorman's blog for the New Year. Happy New Year!

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.