Category Archives: just thinking

Why Our Best Works are but Filthy Rags

Do you ever have that feeling where you look at other people and secretly feel really smug about your own righteousness? Do you ever derive some perverse sense of pleasure when others screw up, because it makes you feel that little bit better about yourself knowing that at least you’re not quite as bad as that? I suspect that most of us go through life with a sense that we’re basically pretty good people – we’ll admit that we’re not perfect (we’re only human, after all!) but we’re mostly decent and upstanding in the grand scheme of things. We often do good, lending others a helping hand, giving money to those less fortunate, allowing that pregnant woman to take our seat on the crowded train, sacrificing our time and energy to support a struggling friend. These are all wonderful things to be doing – and let’s strive to do so more and more – but the Bible warns us that we’re in real danger the minute we start relying on these good works of ours to justify ourselves, that is, to start thinking that God must be really pleased with us because of all the great things we’ve done. If we start thinking our good works are grounds for pride, we’re in real trouble.

Just as last week we saw that the Apostle Paul counted all his righteous deeds as loss compared to the righteousness of Christ, so the prophet Isaiah spoke of our good works in these stark words:

“All of us have become like one who is unclean,

and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;

we all shrivel up like a leaf,

and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” (Isaiah 64:6, NIV)

In the sight of God, even our best deeds are like filthy rags compared to the awesome purity of his holiness. His holiness is like a consuming fire that burns up all impurity in an instant. When Isaiah was confronted with a vision of God, he was so overcome with a sense of his guilt and unworthiness that his immediate reaction was to cry out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). Likewise the prophet Malachi describes the coming of God’s presence in these terms:

“But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver” (Malachi 3:2-3)

Here and now we may be tempted to take pride in our good works, but when the Lord Jesus comes in judgement all of the secrets of mens’ hearts will be laid bare, and all of our motives will be exposed. It won’t be enough to show what we did: we will be required to explain why we did it as well. How many of our good deeds will really stand up to that level of scrutiny? How often did we really have mixed motives for our righteous acts, perhaps seeking to look good in the eyes of others or to avoid being thought of as selfish? Often when I fail to do the right thing in a given situation, my first thought is not of how I have wronged God and others, but rather fear that others will think less of me. That can be a powerful motivator to try harder next time. But if we think we can be made right in God’s eyes by doing things purely for the sake of upholding our reputation, then we’re sorely mistaken. That’s not serving God – that’s serving ourselves, and that is the essence of sin.

I remember finding that thought quite shocking as a young Christian: the idea that a seemingly good deed could be as sinful in God’s sight as something obviously wrong like theft or adultery. But that’s because I was defining sin in terms of external actions rather than as an attitude of the heart. It is striking that the first of the 10 Commandments is entirely an internal action: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”. And that explains why idolatry is such a serious offence to God: it is loving something created in place of loving the creator. If you do outwardly “good” things out of love for your favourite idol, be that the desire for reputation, for status, for money, for security, or just to impress someone special to you, no matter how seemingly good the act, if it’s done for the wrong motives it’s still deeply offensive to God and in fact is tantamount to adultery.

When I was a first year student at university, I did all manner of crazy things in order to try and impress a girl I was rather fond of. I even went as far as taking ballroom dancing lessons so that I could spend more time with her (I would say that it was an opportunity to demonstrate to her how suave I was, but that would require me to have had some skill on the dance floor!) My desire to please her overcame my natural desire to avoid dancing like the plague, and made me act in all sorts of out-of-character ways. It’s exactly the same with all our idols: what we love will always show itself in how we act, and that will often manifest itself in very respectable looking acts of apparent righteousness. But in God’s sight they are but filthy rags, symbols of our betrayal of him.

The prophet Jeremiah portrays it like so:

“Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord,

for my people have committed two evils:

they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves,

broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:12-13)

When we act to please our false gods, it’s like sticking two fingers up at God and saying that he’s not worth pleasing – at least, not as much as our idols are. Throughout the Bible, God frequently uses the image of a marriage covenant to describe his relationship with his people Israel. Their idolatry is then compared to the actions of an unfaithful bride – sometimes in quite brutal terms! Take the next chapter of Jeremiah, for instance:

“Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore?” (Jeremiah 3:6)

So be careful of resting on your good works as grounds for pride – they may not be quite as good as you think they are!

Pride and the Example of Paul

Why the Apostle Paul’s Example Removes Our Grounds for Pride

Last week I showed that if anybody has grounds for pride, it is surely the Lord Jesus Christ. But maybe the fact that Jesus is such a special case means that you find his example hard to relate to. Of course I don’t have as much grounds for pride as Jesus – he’s God! – you might say. But as far as ordinary people go, I’m pretty special. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men”, as the Pharisee prayed in Luke 18:11. Other men are far worse than me: “extortioners, unjust, adulterers” But as for me, I’m so much more religious than them: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But if we want to play the religion card as our grounds for pride, there’s another very strong contender in the race that we’ll find ourselves competing against: the apostle Paul.

Before his conversion, Paul was an incredibly religious man. He was the absolute model Jew. “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh,” he writes in Philippians 3:4-11, “I have more.” If you’re feeling smug about your good works, I can assure you that they’re not a patch on mine, says Paul. Then he goes on to list his religious qualifications: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews;” Paul’s heritage and pedigree are absolutely top notch. He’s a bona fide, full-blooded Jewish male, raised according to all the laws and customs passed down from God by Moses. But he went far beyond the call of duty: he continues, “as to the law, a Pharisee”. The Pharisees get a pretty bad wrap these days, but at their core they were a group of people who were fanatical about holiness – they were absolutely devoted to obeying God’s law in all of its minutiae, even down to the level of tithing the herbs and spices that grew in their window garden. That’s how committed they were to keeping God’s law, and they were great at it: “under the law, blameless” writes Paul. From what he goes on to say next, Paul clearly isn’t suggesting here that he kept the law perfectly and could have earnt his way into God’s good books, but he is saying that as far as the external, outward requirements of the law went, he was unrivalled. And it wasn’t just a dry formalism, either; Paul’s was a religion full of zeal and vigour in the service of God: “As to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” He may have been mistaken about the right way to do God’s will, but once he’d identified what had to be done there was not a shred of hesitation or holding back in how he went about it. Paul had Christians firmly in his sight and he wasn’t going to lose track of the scent until he’d completely eradicated all hints of this terrible heresy.

Paul was exactly the kind of believer you’d want to have in your congregation. He’d never skive off synagogue on a Saturday morning because of an important football match; he’d never be distracted from what he was supposed to be doing by some pretty girl; he’d never be bribed into making compromises; he’d never shrink back from speaking the truth from fear that it might make him unpopular; he’d be the first one there at the monthly prayer meeting and the last one to leave; he’d be the most generous of your regular givers and would contribute hefty sums to that one off appeal to raise money for a new roof; he’d be on every committee, even the truly tedious ones; whatever religious works you find yourself tempted to take pride in, Paul would be there doing it better and more energetically, leaving you and your paltry efforts in the dust.

“But,” says Paul, “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” After his conversion, Paul now sees all of his religious works as a complete waste of time – indeed, as loss, because all they did was put up a smoke screen that prevented him from recognising his need of the Lord Jesus. “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish (lit. dung) in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith”. By trusting in his own efforts, all Paul was doing was digging himself deeper and deeper into a godless hole. His own righteousness seemed incomparably cheap and shabby next to the perfect, spotless righteousness of Christ, a level of righteousness that could be found only by forsaking his own efforts to make himself right with God and trusting wholeheartedly in Christ’s finished work on the cross.

Even the mighty Paul, impeccable, immovable, incorruptible, even Paul recognised that his own religious works were but a pale shadow next to the righteousness of Christ. They were worthless, the sort of thing you’d take about as much pride in as a pile of horse manure. Boasting in your own works would be like taking a bunch of used nappies along to the Antiques Roadshow and trying to argue that they were worth as much as some centuries-old Ming vase: you’d be laughed off the show and told to never come back. “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” For all his religious works, even a zealous Pharisee like Paul would still one day die and rot, and without Christ there’s not a thing his good works could do to save him.

We see this same attitude of Paul’s played out in 2 Corinthians 11:21-33. Comparing himself to the false “super-apostles” who boasted in their works, Paul begins to mock them by adopting their own false logic:

“But whatever anyone else dares to boast of- I am speaking as a fool- I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one – I am talking like a madman – with far great labours, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepness night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”

Paul shows that whatever grounds for pride the super-apostles of Corinth thought they may have had, he had more. Nobody had gone to greater lengths for the sake of the gospel than him. And yet there is nothing arbitrary about the list of things Paul has chosen to mention here. As heroic as they may make him look, there’s also something slightly pathetic about the list, don’t you think? Earlier the Corinthians have described Paul as a man whose “bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” (2 Corinthians 10:10) and here we read of him being beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, cold and exposed. This small little man seems to spend his whole life in constant shame, always one step away from disaster, whilst the cosy super-apostles get on with their comfortable lives in Corinth at the expense of the church there. The explanation comes in v30: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” Paul chooses to boast not of the things that show how great he is, but of the things that show how small and weak and pathetic he is. He boasts of the things that show that all he has accomplished could not possibly have been accomplished in his own strength, but in the strength and power of the Lord his God. The God who says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). When the human vessels that God works through are so obviously mere clay pots – cheap plastic cups that are used once and then thrown away – well it’s then that God’s infinite power is most clearly perceived. “Therefore,” says Paul, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

If you think you have grounds for pride, surely they are nothing compared to the apostle Paul’s? And yet he knew it was utterly vain to try and boast in his own righteousness – even as great as his was – and chose instead to boast in how utterly weak and pathetic and dependent on the God of grace he was.

Pride and Christ’s Example

Why Jesus’ Example Removes Our Grounds for Pride

All of us love to feel good about ourselves. Some of even have a few reasons: perhaps we have a great skill or talent, perhaps you’re just a really stand-up chap. If there was one man in the history of the world who had grounds to be proud, surely it was the Lord Jesus Christ. There were many reasons why he might have been inclined to exalt himself:

Jesus could have been proud because of his earthly heritage. Firstly he was Jewish, a member of God’s chosen people to whom were entrusted all the oracles of God (Romans 3:2). He was born into a devout family who brought him up according to all the laws that God had instituted, such as taking him to the temple as a baby to present him to the Lord (Luke 2:22). More than that, he was “descended from David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3) – as if being part of the chosen people of God was not noble enough, specifically he was from the house and line of David, the great king of Israel to which all other kings were compared, the one after God’s own heart, and whose reign marked the glory days of Israel’s history as a nation. To David was given the promise that God would establish the throne of his kingdom for ever, and that one of his descendants would forever rule over God’s people. You can imagine people clamouring to establish direct descent from David and the substantial prestige that would be associated with that. My family once got really excited at the discovery that there might be a link between my Grannie and Lord Kitchener (the guy with the amazing moustache in the original “Your country needs you!” posters). Given my complete inability to grow a moustache I suspect there wasn’t much truth behind the claim, but we love the idea of being related to important people, and the more important the person the more pride we feel at being associated with them. As a descendant of Israel’s greatest king, Jesus had great grounds for pride.

Jesus could have been proud because of his existence since times immemorial. Before the foundations of the world Jesus existed along with his Father: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1-2) He existed before all others and so is greater than all others. Coming after King David was enough to receive the reflected glory of his ancestor, and yet how much more is coming before David? As Jesus points out in Mark 12:35, even David submits to the Christ as his Lord. That would have been a shocking idea to the people at the time, since in Jewish thought the order in which you were born establishes a hierarchy: children must always honour their parents, and the eldest child always received the largest share of the inheritance. Yet Jesus existed long before David, in fact he never had a beginning, and so David calls him his Lord. Or take the most revered figure in Jewish history: the patriarch Abraham, from whose line came the whole Jewish race. In Jesus’ day, just as now, the Jewish people took great pride in their relationship to Abraham, and yet Jesus says to them, “Before Abraham was, I am”. Jesus precedes all the greatest figures of Jewish history by virtue of the fact that he existed long before them. In a game of Bible hero Top Trumps, Jesus would win hands down against all the others. As the one who alone was with God since before the world began, Jesus had great grounds for pride.

Jesus could have been proud because of his eternal destiny. He is the anointed king to whom God promised: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” (Psalm 110:1) His position as God’s Christ makes him the ultimate king before whom none can stand: those who continue to oppose his rule he shall break with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel (Psalm 2:9).
He is the one at whose name every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:10-11). He is the lamb upon the throne, before whom shall stand for all eternity a great multitude that none could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, forever praising him and giving him great glory. These are things which he knew full well throughout his earthly life, and indeed we are told that it was because of the joy set before him that he was able to endure the cross (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus’ favourite way of referring to himself was as “the Son of Man”, a phrase which brings to mind Daniel 7:13-14, and the one like a son of man presented before the Ancient of Days, to whom was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. Imagine how Barrack Obama must have felt the night after he was elected as the President of the United States of America – and yet that was only for four years, and as much as he might like to pretend, Obama doesn’t really have control over America’s enemies. Even Obama has a long way to go before being nominated as the President of the Whole World throughout all of time, and yet that’s exactly what Jesus is, with supreme authority over everything and everyone. As God’s supreme king, Jesus had great grounds for pride.

Jesus could have been proud because of his magnificent works. He was the author of all creation: “For by him, all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities- all things were created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16) We’re told that through him God created the world, and that even now he upholds the universe by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:2-3). Think of the most majestic thing you have ever seen in all of creation – maybe it’s an incredible sunset, or a stormy day on the Cornish coast, or a geyser spewing out steam, or that amazing “pop” you get when opening a jar of marmalade for the first time, or a mighty blue whale, or an exotic bird of paradise, or maybe your husband or wife – Jesus created that in all of its glorious intricacy and beauty. As John 1:3 puts it: “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” Whilst on the earth, Jesus demonstrated his lordship over creation again and again. He stood on a boat in the middle of the perfect storm: as the winds howled around him and the mighty waves threatened to sink them, Jesus merely had to speak and the storm immediately ceased, running away with its tail between its legs. He healed every kind of sickness and disease, such that those who moments before were at deaths’ door were suddenly running around serving him dinner. He even raised the dead, calling the rotting corpse of his friend Lazarus out of the grave so that he might live again. Not surprisingly, Jesus attracted huge crowds who were constantly banging on his door and hoping to see what he might do next. As the mightiest miracle worker of all time, Jesus had great grounds for pride.

I hope you will agree that the Lord Jesus Christ had every reason to be proud. Yet the great surprise is that he was not, and indeed was the humblest man ever to walk the earth, and came to the human race as a servant. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7). If you think you have grounds to be proud then I can assure you that they are nothing compared to the reasons that Jesus had to be proud, and yet he felt no need whatsoever to boast or stand on his rights. Instead he emptied himself of all that he was, condescending even to come in to the world as a naked, screaming baby born into a smelly stable. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Even this mighty king, the eternal ruler, the one who was and is and is to come, greater than Moses, mightier than David, more majestic than the Grand Canyon – even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many by his gruesome execution on a Roman cross. It should make us ashamed for all our pathetic attention seeking, to think that we have more reason to boast than the Lord Jesus, to think that somehow we deserve recognition, when even the King of Kings lived and died in such obscurity and shame.

The Transforming Gospel

Yesterday marked a profound turning point in history for me and my housemates. Someone did for us something that we could never do for ourselves. Oh yes, theoretically we could have done it. There was nothing physically stopping us. But though the spirit is willing the flesh is weak, and in our sinful nature we were powerless to change ourselves. We needed someone else not of our household to take the initiative and rescue us: to make us clean. Yes, we had a cleaner visit our house yesterday.

As soon as I stepped over the threshold I could tell that something had fundamentally changed. There was a new force at work in our house that was immediately evident. It was all encompassing – it affected every area, wherever you looked you could see evidence of the transformation that had taken place. And it empowered us to change, too: there was a new joy in our hearts that meant we wanted to live in the light of what had taken place and keep things clean. Tomato sauce stains stand out a mile against a background of perfect cleanliness, just asking to be mopped up in a timely manner. The accumulation of dirt and grime over time has a peculiarly numbing effect that makes it so much easier to ignore: you grow complacent and start not even to notice the condition of your home. But when it’s all washed clean and wiped away, suddenly you have fresh eyes to see how repugnant dirt is and how out of place it is.

What’s more, we’re all profoundly aware that the whole reason this bringer of grace and restoration has visited her kindness upon us was to make our lives clean again. Not to change our behaviour in the light of her coming would be the most unbelievable insult to all her work on our behalf. What disrespect it would be not to clean up the crumbs after making my sandwiches in the morning! What cruel laziness not to wipe down the hobs after making bolognaise! It would be so incongruent for us now to continue living as we used to, as though she had never come into our lives.

If all that’s true, how much more should I be living in the light of Jesus’ coming and his death in my place! As Titus 2:11-14 says:

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

The whole purpose of Jesus’ death and resurrection was to redeem a people for his name who would live transformed lives in the power of his Spirit. And just like my cleaner (praise the Lord!) he is coming back soon!

The RPG of Life

Perhaps somewhat unwisely, I installed the Role-Playing Game Baldur’s Gate II on my laptop a month or so ago. I’ve found it really fascinating to observe how so many of my personality traits are drawn out and highlighted by playing the game. Take, for example, my constant desire to avoid confrontation. I’m constantly fearful of saying the hard truths that might make people within the game attack my party. Or my unwillingness to head into the future without knowing what I’m about to face: I’ve found myself frequently wanting to turn to an FAQ to find out what’s about to happen rather than being content to discover as it happens. That’s just like me in real life, where I always want to know the end from the beginning rather than being willing to trust God and get on with it even when the outcome is uncertain. Or the really big one – indeed, one of the main attractions for me of playing a game like Baldur’s Gate II – that insatiable urge to accumulate “stuff“, even if it’s not actually going to be useful for me. The whole point of many of the side quests is just to pick up these cool magical items and feel the satisfaction of levelling up and gaining reputation. The thought of making choices in the game that will shut down options, making it impossible to gain certain items, well that’s just intolerable.

There are a few ways, however, in which playing the game has brought home the meaning of certain Biblical illustrations in a whole new way. Take Psalm 119:162, for example:

“I rejoice at your word

like one who finds great spoil.”

It makes me imagine my Level 12 ranger stumbling upon some amazing treasure trove full of wonderful, wonderful bounty. Discovering profound truths from God’s word should bring far greater joy than any magical Short Sword +3.

Letting Others Shine

Why Service Is the Heart of the Universe

A few weeks ago I came to the end of a very happy time working for the VFX company Framestore as a software developer in their Production Tools group. We were basically responsible for the various databases and other software systems that keep a company like that running smoothly, enabling other talented folk to focus on doing their jobs well so that they could get on and make fantastic movies like Where the Wild Things Are. As I was leaving, I pondered how that mentality – the unknown and out-of-sight software servants nobly doing battle with the evil forces of SQL and PHP, so that others might be rescued from a slow and certain death by data – well, that mentality reminds me a lot of my king, Jesus. In a particularly poetic bit from the book of Philippians, the Apostle Paul writes this about him:

Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,

but made himself nothing,

taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself and became obedient to death–

even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus is in very nature God – the eternal Son of God – deserving of the same glory and honour as God the Father himself. And yet rather than standing on his rights and putting his feet up and having people feed him grapes all day long, instead he looked down at the plight of our world – a world ravaged by sin and under the righteous judgement of God – and he rolled up his sleeves and took up his mop. He came to deal with our sin by becoming a man and dying in our place to take the punishment that we deserved – my sin was counted as his sin, so that his perfection might be counted as mine – and he suffered the most humiliating death humanity could devise: even death on a cross.

But the result? It was for this reason, because of his willingness to suffer in our service, that God exalted him to the highest place, and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow. The route to true glory isn’t to go seeking it out, to puff up your chest and say “look at me, everybody!” (Twitter, take note!) The principal at the heart of our universe is glory through the ultimate sacrifice of self-interest.

It’s also worth pointing out, in closing, that if Jesus Christ is Lord, if his is the name that is above every name, well then that leaves little room for me to try and be lord of my little empire, for me to try and make my name the one that everybody praises. Any attempts to usurp Jesus’ throne and glorify the name of Andy Geers will ultimately be thwarted when the true king returns. Why not save yourself the bother, and get in line with the future right now by submitting to Jesus’ lordship? It’s not the valiant software developers of Production Tools who get their names up in lights when the film comes out at the cinema, but the Director. The great news of Christianity is that when the True Director, Jesus Christ, arrives on the red carpet, those who trust in him will get to marvel at and share in His glory for the rest of eternity.

The Working Christian’s Guide To Twitter

Chirping at the sun

Like Marmite, Twitter is one of those things that people seem to either love or hate. It’s notoriously hard to explain to those who just don’t “get” it: the hopelessly literal explanation is that it’s a bit like Facebook status updates, but without absolutely everything else that makes Facebook worth using. That’s a bit like describing a movie as a few patches of different colours moving around on a two-dimensional surface whilst the air vibrates around you, and wondering why you’ve failed to excite anybody’s enthusiasm. Personally, I find a more helpful approach to explaining it to people is to talk in terms of micro-blogging: it’s a way of lowering the barriers of entry to running your own blog by limiting the scope of each post to 140 characters. People also find it a brilliant way to make connections: one minute you’re tweeting about an independent film you just watched at the weekend, and the next minute the film maker is tweeting you back saying he’s glad you enjoyed it. Twitter Search also makes it incredibly easy to find out what everybody is talking about this second, an invaluable tool for both journalists and businesses trying to interact with their customers.

How should Christians use Twitter?

But how should Christians be thinking about and using Twitter? There have been some really helpful posts on the subject from Christian leaders like John Piper and Al Mohler. But perhaps it’s easy to dismiss their words as being just for people like them whose job it is to teach the Bible, and so I thought it would be helpful to jot down a few words from an average congregation member like myself about my own experiences using Twitter, and how it can be a help or a hindrance in the Christian life. I’m not writing this as an expert or as somebody who’s got it right – I’m writing this as somebody who’s conscious that I’ve probably got it all wrong and need to think further on the subject! So rather than having a whole bunch of rules (after all, Christianity isn’t about “do’s and don’ts”!) I thought I’d just ask one big question as a starting point for further thought:

What Story Does Your Twitter Feed Tell?

If somebody were to open up your Twitter Feed right now and read your tweet history for the past few months, what kind of picture would it paint of you: of your hopes and fears, your passions, your hates, your character and your temperament? What kind of inferences would they make about your beliefs, and about the God in whom you claim to believe?

  • Vague Thought No. 1: Would it even be at all obvious that you were a Christian? The danger of narcissism is often cited with reference to Twitter, and I think for many of us this is a real concern: is your tweeting all about you and what you’ve been doing, without reference to your creator? Does your faith make the least bit of difference to your tweets? I guess that for some of us, the obsession with boosting our “follower” count means we’re afraid to be open about our faith in case it scares potential followers away. Some aspects of Twitter culture can foster this obsession with popularity in a really unhelpful way.
  • Vague Thought No. 2: What kind of a God does your Twitter feed show you’re placing your trust in? Is his faithfulness and commitment to his people put on display, demonstrated by your confident trust in his good providence, or do you come across as completely neurotic and worried about all the minor details of life? This is probably as much of a personality thing as a Twitter thing, and I’m not saying that it’s wrong to have worries. But why not make a commitment to use your tweets to publicly entrust your anxieties to God rather than just using them to stress? When I was regularly blogging over on LiveJournal a few years ago, I used to try to make sure every blog post contained at least one “thank God”, a habit which really helped me to lift my eyes a little when I would otherwise have just been wallowing in my problems. That’s harder to do in 140 characters, but maybe it could be reflected by the balance of your many tweets instead – one “thank you God” for every “aghghg!!!”.
  • Vague Thought No. 3: This follows on from the last point, but what attitudes is your Twitter Stream characterised by? Thankfulness and positivity? Or disgruntlement and anger at the world? This may come down to having an explicit aim for your Twittering: instead of just posting whatever random thought is upper-most in your mind (“grrr! my trains were late, again!”), think about who might be reading your tweets, and why you would want them to be reading it. It’s a bit like that time after church, where the sermon’s finished and you’re starting to think about food. What do you choose to talk to your mates about? Do you just aimlessly drift into talking about the football, or do you have a bit more clarity of purpose and try to edify those around you by chatting about what you’ve just heard from the Bible and how it’s going to shape the rest of the week? It’s easy for us as Christians to just slot into the culture around us, rather than being proactive and standing out from the crowd, showing our distinctive values and a radically different purpose in life.

As I said at the start, all that is really just a starting point for further discussion. Feel free to chip in using the comments section below, or drop me a Twitter message @andygeers.

P.S. I always like to recommend Michael Lopp’s The Art of the Tweet when I’m talking about Twitter – well worth a read. Twitter in Plain English is also helpful when explaining it to friends.

The Theology of Underwear

May our confidence be based on more than this!

“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

Now there’s a hope that will last today, tomorrow, next week and on into an incredible eternity in God’s new creation! I’ve been challenged recently that perhaps I don’t talk about these positives enough. Yes, Jesus’ death on the cross does save me from the terrors of a real Hell, but God always saves us for something better – life forever with him! Not a nervous day-by-day “have I been good enough to escape the clutches of hell today?” but a bold, assertive “praise God!” for doing everything on my behalf that was necessary to secure my eternal future. My primary identity as a Christian is now “in Jesus” – i.e. it’s Jesus’ obedience, Jesus’ excellencies, Jesus’ perfect sinlessness that is the deciding factor in whether I’ll be admitted to heaven. If Jesus is in, and I’m in Jesus, then I can be sure that I’ll be there with him – that’s what being in him means!

Announcing Your Plans

A fascinating blog post was doing the rounds last week titled “Shut Up! Announcing your plans makes you less motivated to accomplish them” by Derek Sivers (whose entire blog makes for great reading!). The gist of it was this:

Tests done since 1933 show that people who talk about their intentions are less likely to make them happen.

Announcing your plans to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you’re less motivated to do the hard work needed.

It seems to fit with my own experience, that the more I talk about my Bible-teaching computer game the more it becomes a “social reality” sometimes to the detriment of actually making progress on the project.

What I found interesting, however, was the tacit assumption throughout that the essence of motivation is essentially pride. If talking about our plans with others satisfies our pride sufficiently, why bother going to all the trouble of actually implementing them? The whole notion of “Bible-teaching computer games” is so other-worldly to the average person’s experience that I can convey the idea of Andy Geers the programming wizard without needing to demonstrate the least iota of actual talent, merely through so much hot air.

The conclusion of the blog post was this:

If you do tell a friend, make sure not to say it as a satisfaction (“I’ve joined a gym and bought running shoes. I’m going to do it!”), but as dissatisfaction (“I want to lose 20 pounds, so kick my ass if I don’t, OK?”)

As sound as such advice may be, may I suggest that it settles too easily for treating the problem rather than actually curing it? It concedes the inevitability of human pride and refocuses it into a form of motivation that actually works (now your reputation is bound up in actually succeeding, meaning you don’t get the pay off if you fail). Yet being content with our pride is a dangerous place to be – a topic the Bible has much to say about – that is likely to lead us towards our eventual ruin. I wonder if a better approach is to renounce our pride and turn away from self-glorification as a motivation, seeking the glory of Jesus Christ in sacrificial service of others instead. I suspect it might require a different kind of plan though: for most of us, it’s hard to see how “losing 20 pounds” can be a Christ-glorifying goal in its own right (though if our bodies are seriously struggling under the strain of an unhealthy lifestyle, we may well find ourselves with more energy to serve Christ and others if we were to commit to losing 20 pounds!) But maybe we could follow the example of a friend of mine, whose first instinct is always to ask “who could I do this with?” If you’re a Christian, why not find somebody who’s new at church and needs somebody to take them under their wing, then agree to play squash together once a week? The motivation then becomes serving this other person in the name of Christ, and losing weight comes as a handy side-effect!

A man’s pride brings him low,
but a man of lowly spirit gains honor.
(Proverbs 29:23)

Losing All Confidence (Unity FTW!)

The Transformational Power of Glorying in Christ Jesus

As I have stated previously, I care far too much about what other people think about me. There’s all sorts of issues of self esteem and self worth bound up together in there, but at the end of the day I want people to think that Andy Geers is awesome. Given the right conditions, I can even go a long way towards convincing myself that might be true. I can pull some pretty smart moves on the dance mats, for instance. Not to mention how I’ve been labouring for four and a half years on a custom-built 3D engine for my Bible-teaching computer games under the illusion that I’m an awesome programmer (there’s no other sensible hypothesis for why I would have attempted such a feat, after all!) I can convince myself it’s true when it comes to my relationship with God as well: if I leave out the ugly parts, I’m basically a good person and I’m sure God will be happy enough with my performance, given how generally awesome I am.

But the trouble with this attitude is when the cracks start to show. What happens when you come to start using your game engine in anger and you find that it’s riddled with bugs, leaving you facing the prospect of investing months more work in an engine that’s already at least five years behind the state-of-the-art? What happens when somebody else shows up on the scene who is quite clearly even more awesome that you thought you were (and whose dance mat prowess leaves you in the dust)? What happens when the sin in your life because so painfully obvious that it starts to become clear that the holy God in whom is no darkness whatsoever must be offended by the very thought of you?

Put no confidence in the flesh

At church tonight we had a brilliant sermon looking at Philippians 3:1-7, and I was particularly struck by verse 3:

“For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh

The Christian person is free (indeed, obliged) to discard any pretensions at having reason to boast in themselves, and instead is freed to glory in their utter worthlessness and dependence upon the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ alone. Let me shout it from the rooftops with the utmost joy in my heart: I HAVE NO GROUNDS FOR CONFIDENCE IN MYSELF!!! Hurrah! It doesn’t matter if so-and-so is threatening to outshine me with their superior awesomeness – I have no awesomeness to protect! Andy Geers is not awesome – but Jesus IS!

It’s such a liberating truth to know that I don’t need to protect my self-esteem – instead I need to bolster my Jesus-esteem. I’ve been really encouraged and challenged by these accounts of Martin Luther that have been doing the rounds this past week:

The Devil would come to him and whisper in his ear, accusing him of all manner of filthy sin: “Martin, you are a liar, greedy, lecherous, a blasphemer, a hypocrite. You cannot stand before God.” To which Luther would respond: “Well, yes, I am. And, indeed, Satan, you do not know the half of it. I have done much worse than that and if you care to give me your full list, I can no doubt add to it and help make it more complete. But you know what? My Saviour has died for all my sins – those you mention, those I could add and, indeed, those I have committed but am so wicked that I am unaware of having done so. It does not change the fact that Christ has died for all of them; his blood is sufficient; and on the Day of Judgment I shall be exonerated because he has taken all my sins on himself and clothed me in his own perfect righteousness.”

Unity FTW!

I’m going to keep dwelling on Luther’s approach this week. But in the mean time, I’ve taken the plunge and started a 30 day trial of the Unity game engine to see if I can reproduce my point & click adventure game during that time. So far I’m absolutely loving it! It’s a great feeling to know instead of being burdened with having to do everything myself, instead the longer I sit back and wait the more features and extensions and bugfixes get developed for it! And it has so many more features than my poor little engine could ever hope to have offered, it’s unbelievable, not to mention cross-platform support for Windows, Apple and Nintendo Wii. Somehow, I think I’ve made the right choice! Even if it does mean giving up a little cause to boast in myself.

I’d rather spend my time boasting in Jesus Christ.

Confessions of a Glory Seeker

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the extent to which so much of what I do in life and how I arrange things are all designed to maximise my own glory – to make sure as many people as possible are able to realise just how awesome I am. It’s a wide ranging phenomenon which impacts a whole bunch of different areas:

  1. My Holiness

    So much of my so-called “godliness” turns out to really be mere outward conformity – wanting to behave in a sufficiently conventional way that people look at me and go “Andy Geers, yep, he’s pretty godly. No wild drunken benders for him”. But when it comes to true inward holiness in the areas that only God observes – well then I only care about holiness in as much as it impacts my self-esteem. Sin brings back that dreaded “Oh no, I’ve stuffed up again, I’m obviously not as amazing as I thought I was” feeling, rather than any sense of having offended against the holy majesty of God by rebelling against his right rule. Repentance then becomes about feeling bad, and praying for God to help me be more awesome in the area of personal godliness, rather than about confessing guilt and praying for God to help me please him in all areas of life.
  2. My Evangelism

    If outward conformity is the order of the day when surrounded by Christians, then not looking weird is what it’s all about when in the presence of those who don’t follow Christ. It’s okay to be a bit distinctive, in fact it’s quite glorifying in one sense to be the “other-worldly” Christian nutcase who stands out from the crowd. But not to the extent that you risk people trying to avoid you – that’s a big no-no when it comes to being awesome. And again, my ultimate motivation for wanting to bring people to hear about Jesus is often to rack up points in the eyes of other Christians (“wow! look at how many people Andy Geers knows!”) rather than because I have a deep concern for Jesus’ honour and a desire to see my friends saved from eternal judgement.
  3. My Ambitions

    It turns out that jobs can often be a great way to bring glory to yourself. I recently got invited for an interview for a very well known company that is widely recognised as a fantastic employer – and being able to tell people all about that was a wonderful way to remind people just how awesome I am, that I should be associated with such a company. My ambitions often seem to revolve around finding a set of life circumstances that will bring the most glory to my name – like being able to pull off an amazing coup like making the world’s greatest Bible-teaching computer game, marrying some domestic goddess with looks to die for, or getting some highly glamorous job. I’m frequently running calculations through my head of what such-and-such a choice will do for my image, and rejecting the options that might cause people to think less of me.

The Glory of Service

In one sense, of course, seeking glory isn’t a problem in itself. The problem is where you seek your glory from: will you be like the authorities in John 12:42-43, who “loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God”? Or will you be like those in Romans 2:6-8, “who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality” from God, receiving eternal life as their reward?

As ever, Jesus Christ leads us by example in this area. I’ve benefited greatly by spending a lot of time lately in Philippians 2:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

True Glory is found in humble service of others, seeking their good and the glory of God’s name. Those who are truly praiseworthy are those who don’t even care for your praise, only God’s. They’re prepared to serve in the lowly ways, do the despised jobs, stand up for Jesus in a hostile world even if it costs them their life, to be content in whatever situation God has been pleased to place them in. True glory is found in the way of the cross.

What is Repentance?

These last few weeks, God has been convicting me of a number of wrong attitudes and character traits, which I could broadly sum up as the extreme self-centredness of my worldview – my world revolves around me. It strikes much to the heart of the Christian life, when you realise that all these things you were supposedly doing “for God”, actually turn out to be serving yourself – your own ego, your own self-esteem. Such a realisation can almost bring you to the point of asking “have I ever truly repented?” – so far all my attempts at repentance really seem to have been more about remorse that I’m not quite as amazing and awesome as I originally thought I was, rather than confession of the fact that I have sinned against the immortal glory and majesty of the Holy God who created me.

As always, Jim Packer has some very helpful words of challenge and encouragement. I thought I’d share here some bullet point definitions of what repentance actually is, from his excellent book A Passion For Holiness:

  1. Realistic recognition that one has disobeyed and failed God, doing wrong instead of doing right.
  2. Regretful remorse at the dishonor one has done to the God one is learning to love and wanting to serve.
  3. Reverent requesting of God’s pardon, cleansing of conscience, and help to not lapse in the same way again.
  4. Resolute renunciation of the sins in question, with deliberate thought as to how to keep clear of them and live right for the future.
  5. Requisite restitution to any who have suffered material loss through one’s wrongdoing.

As Packer points out – it’s harder than it sounds! But I love number two: I’m still very much learning to love this amazing God, and learning true repentance is a part of that. Thank the Lord that I’m not saved by my ability to “repent properly”!

Ministry of the Word and Prayer

My friend Sam pointed me in the direction of one of my ancient blog posts about the phrase “the ministry of the word and prayer” the other day, and it got me thinking. My nagging conscience is quick to remind me of the importance of praying whilst preparing to lead Bible studies or whilst writing talks I’m going to deliver, but I often think of that purely in terms of praying for God’s help in my preparation itself. “Please God, help me to concentrate whilst I write this.” “Please God, help me to properly understand this passage.” “Please God, give me some good ideas for illustrations.”

The helpful phrase “the ministry of the word and prayer” reminds me that prayer is an essential part of the ministry itself. I don’t just pray so that my word ministry will go well; rather I do the twofold ministry of teaching the word and praying for those I teach it to. Ultimately it is God’s ministry that he has graciously invited us to be a part of, and so it’s natural for us to pray to him, asking him to be at work in people’s hearts and minds; it’s only then that we get on with using the tool he has given us for the job: his living and active word, the Bible.

Ambition and Insecurity

I’ve just been away on a church event called The Annual Student Conference (or TASC), where we take lots of our students away to a place called the Frontier Centre near Wellingborough in Northamptonshire. The title this year was “United We Stand”, taking a look through the book of Philippians (amongst many, many other things). This was especially handy for me, since I’m about to preach on Philippians 2 in a couple of weeks time!

Charlie Skrine helped us to see the link between ambition and insecurity: if our identity is found in what we do and in what people think of what we do, then we’re going to be reluctant to give those things up if putting other people first requires it. If my identity is in being the Curry Man who organises Bank Holiday trips to Brick Lane, then I’m going to fight hard to hang on to that role long past the point where it would be good to get somebody else to do it. If my identity is in having a cool job that makes people react a certain way when I introduce myself, then I’m going to fight hard to find jobs that are interesting rather than necessarily the job that will enable to serve Christ most effectively. If my identity is in being the Bible-teaching Computer Games guy, then I’m going to be jealous and hostile towards other Christian games developers I perceive as a threat to that identity. Our insecurities lead to ambitious rivalry.

Meet, then, the most secure man who ever lived,

“who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)

Jesus’ rock-solid security in being God himself enabled him to give up all pretences at ambition and become a weak, pathetic human baby, who grew up to be a weak, pathetic man hanging on a Roman cross – despised and rejected by men, written off as a lunatic or a blasphemer. If Jesus had stood on his rights for even a second – where would we be?

Because of this amazing humility on the part of Christ, the Christian’s identity is rock solid – we are children of God, those who have “encouragement in Christ, comfort from love, and participation in the Spirit” – so we have every reason to be some of the most secure people around. So are you willing to consider others’ needs above your own? Are you willing to consider others as more significant that yourself? Charlie’s rather penetrating examples included being willing to train somebody else until they become better than you and easily outshine you – being willing to let others have a chance even when you think you could do a better job, when the circumstances allows.

Where does your identity come from? Lord God – may you give us the mind of Christ!