"Men judge by outward appearance,
but I look at a man's thoughts and intentions."
I Samuel 16:7 (TLB)
Christianity looks like it is in a strong position in the world. As mentioned in the previous chapter, according to the numbers recorded for each religion, more people are said to be christian than those belonging to any other single faith. By 2007 the grand total number of Bibles printed, in whole or in part was 7.5 billion. This makes the Bible the world's "most widely distributed book."(1)
But doesn't God look deeper than this? Isn't God concerned more with the hearts of men and women than with just bald statistics? Perhaps we should ask ourselves some searching questions. Do we read this Bible we print so many of, or do we just give it to our children? The Bible points to Jesus as the Answer - in every respect. Have we and the world as a whole fully accepted Him as that Answer? Can we truly say we have received His Gospel?
If we look at our overall situation surely we must say: "No we haven't. There is too much hate being demonstrated." In the "First World" (OECD countries) alone, there are something like 32,000 murders a year!(2) And at least 2 million divorces and 2.4 million abortions. This is pretty bad when you consider that these countries only have a sixth of the world's population. Then there is poverty. Perhaps worst of all, there are unnumbered millions of people turning their backs on God. How can this picture be reconciled with Christ's Way of Love?
You might reason: "If He is really God's Son, His Power alone should be enough to bring the whole world into a state of loving devotion. It should be almost automatic that God would be honored, in the pattern laid down by Jesus." But God has not seen fit to create us as automatons. Robot-people would indeed be easier to manage, but it seems that our God delights in taking on tough jobs! Hence we have been given free will. And with that ability to choose goes a responsibility - to find and keep to the right track.
What if we don't try to make the right choices - what then? These next remarks - from "the hard-bitten realist" - gives us the general drift. (And this is the sort of attitude that crept into the writer at one time):
"It isn't smart to trust in Jesus. He was just a preacher - nothing more. The Bible says he walked on water - are you kidding? And for all his fine talk, did he get very far?^ Jesus and the apostles did not think that way - they gave the early Church a wonderful start. Also the growth of the Church up to 100 CE or so was supported by abundant Miracles (as discussed briefly in chapter 2). After this early flowering of the Church, she continued to gain in numbers, but did the quality of spirit remain as high?
The lesson of his life seems to be: if you 'turn the other cheek' - you can get yourself crucified!"
"Things don't change much - men have always been fighting wars; civilizations rise and fall - it's the way of the world. Enjoy yourself while you can, that's my motto."
The enthusiasm of those first Christians was fantastic. They set right to work, not counting the cost to themselves. They were just happy knowing that they were giving a hand, sharing in the most important task there is - the building of God's Kingdom. Most of us would have to admit that we do not do as well as they did. Do we pay a price for this? For instance, do we have the same sense of our Lord being actively present with us, encouraging us daily? And if not, what has gone wrong?
Let's consider that question under five headings:
1. The effect of the lapse of time since Jesus came.
Jesus came 2,000 years ago. Since that time, the Brilliance of the Vision set forth by Him seems to have waned. That's sad, but not surprising - to us 2,000 years is a long time. Much has happened since then. Thus both time and conditions separate us from the world of the Gospels. The things He didn't have, that we have (cars, televisions, computers, life-saving drugs, etc), get between us and Jesus of Nazareth in a way we're perhaps not fully aware of. Since we see His Vision less clearly, our natural skepticism gains ground. One result is that reports of Divine Help tend to be easily written off. Sadly, people who believe in Miracles today are often regarded as being a bit simple-minded!
We made a "takeover bid" for the Church. The state got involved. And we tried to turn the Church into just another human institution. Now a weakness of institutions led by humans is that they can get hard, rigid and uncaring. We have to admit that, from time to time this has happened to the Church. Jesus is Ample Defense against all this, but when the "Church" is revolving around humans there's not much room for the Real Jesus! Some apalling things have been done in the name of Jesus, but would the Author of Life regard any of these things as belonging to real Christianity? (Even the meaning of the word "Church" has suffered from distortion. If "Church" means a body of believers all living in a vital relationship with God, how can "church" also mean a building - something put together by mere mortals?)
If we look at the situation humbly, we can see that there is a "true" Church. The exact membership of this Church is known by God's Spirit alone. What we have chosen to consider as "the Church" down here, may not always line up precisely with this Heavenly Idea! (Please see Romans 11:2-4.)
Though the faith of the "Church" (the human-based institution) waned, there were also outstanding figures raised up. At critical times these anointed ones (the True Church) helped people back to belief. An example in the Middle Ages was Jan Hus. When he was forced to make a choice between obeying God or lining up with the human hierarchy, he chose God, and for this he gave his life.
^ Jan Hus was studying to be a priest (in Bohemia - now part of the Czech Republic). During these studies he came to receive a full Christian conversion. Becoming rector of the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, he preached the Gospel on behalf of all sectors of society. He was moved with compassion at the plight of the poor, and spoke out powerfully against the abuses that added to their poverty.
Loving Jesus, he detested the flaws in the Church of his day - too much material wealth had brought corruption. The Mission of the Church suffered as a result. Strongly influenced by the writings of John Wycliffe, the English reformer, Jan Hus realized that renewing the Church was essential if the people of Bohemia were to advance toward the Kingdom of God. Despite the opposition that he knew he would come up against, Jan set about the task of teaching the following truths:
- a materially poorer Church would be a spiritually richer one,He bravely led a Church reform movement in Bohemia, until the king decided that Jan Hus was too dangerous - for him. At this point the king allowed Jan's enemies in the Church hierarchy to investigate his beliefs. Given a guarantee of safe conduct, Jan traveled to Germany, where the members of the Council of Constance eventually put him on trial. They declared him a heretic, and in July 1415 he was burned at the stake.
- the primary source of knowledge of Christian doctrine is Scripture, not the Church,
- authority derives ultimately from God, and not from mere humans.
Just like the apparent defeat of Jesus by the Crucifixion, this unholy act of murder was not the end! A letter of protest sent to Constance had the seals of 452 Bohemian nobles on it. And years later, the courageous stand of Jan Hus was to have a profound effect on Martin Luther, the German who led the way to the Reformation.
The effect of the Reformation was to curb the power wielded by humans through the people-defined "church." Then and now God calls out people as witnesses to the true Way. Believers, of whatever variety, all needed the reminder that the primary link is between the individual and her or his God. The Church can be a great help with this relationship. But what the Church cannot and must not do is to try to take over the relationship.
3. The cost of being a Christian.
The Way of Jesus looks too "expensive." It seems extreme to give your all if it means giving your life. There's a strong tendency in most of us toward moderation, don't you think? We see the hazard in going to extremes in any one direction. For example, in our attitude to money - we see the spendthrift is wrong, and we see the miserly way isn't right either. We conclude that somewhere in the middle is the best course.
Hasn't the same thing happened in our dealings with God? We saw that so many of the early Christians were martyred. "Hold on," we say, "that's obviously going too far." So we back off, compromise, and try to apply the "middle of the road" principle to religion. "Yes, the Bible seems to state that 100% commitment is required, but maybe God won't be too angry if we go for 75%? That leaves some room for me," we argue. And the Bible precept is set aside.
Dire results follow - now we're less than wholehearted about God's Way. Selfish living starts to creep in; and when that sort of a slide begins, who can say where it will end?
^ 4. Man-made substitutes for God.
Since the Scientific Age dawned, we've been able to drive out some of the traditional enemies. Our children aren't carried off by diseases like diphtheria, tuberculosis, and smallpox as they were in past centuries. Industries provide us with many things that add comfort and leisure to our lives - like radio and TV (actually, it is amazing that we can know the news from around the world, almost rightaway, isn't it?)
"With all this capability do we need God?" Isn't that the question that keeps coming to mind, in the modern world? A headline from the evening paper(3) sums it up:
All due credit to the men and women whose scientific talent made it possible for this couple to defeat infertility. But let's not forget the Ultimate Lifegiver!
For you are the Fountain of life; our light is from your Light.5. An excess of faith in human ability.
Psalms 36:9 (TLB)
"We can handle it." Perhaps the most dangerous assumption we can make, in the wake of all our advances in technology, is that whatever the problem, we can solve it. (If we'll only give it enough "high tech" resources.)
Pollution? Science will find the answer. Famine? New advances in agriculture will come to the rescue. AIDS? Medical science will surely beat that problem as well.
The car is an excellent example of how we can miss the mark when we apply "human wisdom." The car spells mobility and convenience, and we like that. Only recently therefore have people really begun to see that cars may be a very mixed blessing. We created superhighways for them - triumphs of civil engineering. Now there are gentle curves where once there were tight bends; great spans of bridges leap across rivers, cuttings go through hills and tunnels pass through mountains. We went to a lot of trouble over those expressways. In fact we carried out to the letter! the Old Testament instructions:
... Prepare ye the way of the LORD,We took God literally and built roads out of concrete. But in the New Testament God repeated that the road was for our Lord to travel on - He Who doesn't need a car:
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low:
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough places plain ...
Isaiah 40:3-4 (KJV)
As it is written in the prophets ...
The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
John did baptize in the wilderness,
and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
Mark 1:2-4 (KJV)
As John the Baptist taught and showed, it's our lives that God wants to be straight! Our hearts have to be leveled off - and have we perhaps been too busy commuting on those concrete roads to see that message?
In view of all the above "negatives," we might think it a wonder that there's any faith left! Yet as we saw in the last chapter, there has been a regrowth in Christian belief. If you look, you will find people with a deep and intense love for Jesus. These friends of our Lord are proof that it is possible to "break the faith barrier" - it is possible to return to a sure knowledge that God is Real. God supports those who strive to get back to belief.
Yes, it can be hard to believe in Jesus. His Miracles are seldom referred to on our secular TV channels. And yes, before you fully taste it, the Christian life can appear to be dull. But to go the other way and base your whole life on the wrong belief! Better check first, before letting half-truths sway us.
For all the unbelief that presently exists, the writer suggests that we are paying a heavy price. In the next two chapters, we're looking to build our belief back up again. We'll look at some signposts to the times - placed in the world by God. These signposts - either from Jesus through the Gospel Message, or given in other ways - show how God is concerned about us. God loves the world even now, and is fully capable of bringing us all safely back to belief!
|The writer is at:|