Changing times

“In repentance (returning) and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength… (Isa. 30:15)

How should we live in rapidly changing times that are uncertain, turbulent, and unsettle people? Standards and values seem to be determined by aggressive and threatening minorities. Yet, human beings long for stability and predictability. Even some Church leaders tell us that the survival of the Church lies with those who are prepared to change. Is that a bit of Darwinianism? Change is inevitable; no-one can escape it. That is the nature of life. But, change toward what? Even those who call for change either won’t or can’t tell us what they have in mind. Is it a secret? Is it something that only leaders know? Or, are they in the dark as much as we, and are simply feeling their way in the general social current; a current that is generated by secular social pressures? Change is never neutral in its impact on life. Some changes are natural, healthy, and right. A little child needs to grow and mature. Natural physiological changes are normal and to be expected. Once a child goes to school and the learning process is accelerated, some changes in understanding are signs of maturity.

Not all change, however, is good, healthy, or profitable. When a young person decides to take up smoking, or drinking alcohol just to identify with other adults, disregarding health warnings, we can hardly call that a welcome change. Some regard a more liberal attitude to sexual experimentation outside marriage a healthy break with tradition. But, can we honestly say that that is a change to the better? Some try to justify it as a more honest approach to relationships. But, is it?

Where can we find an approach to life that is guilt-free, satisfying, and leads to stability and well-being? Surely, everyone craves for these qualities at some point of time. After teenagers have worked their rebellion out of their system, most of them want the predictability of an ordered life. Even adults, when they have had their ‘fling’, want to settle down to relationships that are reliable, faithful, and permanent.

Can we look to the Church?

The Christian Church has traditionally provided stability and confidence for people in what they need to believe. Even this is changing.

The Barna research group in the US has found that among self-confessed ‘born-again’ Church-going Christians, there is a growing lack of acceptance of the exclusive message of the Bible. People tend to choose-and-pick what they want to believe, and reject the harder demands of Jesus Christ. How is the message of the Bible taught and preached in the Churches to which these people belong? For Churches such as these, moving through the Bible is like navigating through a minefield of problems. It’s better for their adherents not to attempt to read the Bible for themselves. Instead, they can listen to the ‘experts’ telling them how to understand the Bible and what they need to believe.

The irony of it is that the message of the Bible that brought the Christian Church into existence in the first place, is no longer seen as a reliable guide for people. If the basis for our understanding of what a Christian is, is undermined, then how can we continue to call ourselves ‘Christians’? When the last bastion of all that is reliable, permanent, unchanging is rejected, what are our options? Aren’t we left to our own devices? Knowing what human nature is really like, can we honestly say that human beings are the best judges of what is good and right for everyone? Once the Christian Church gives up the unadulterated message of the Bible, it compounds the confusion that is already present in society. Thankfully, there are many Churches that still believe, teach and preach that the Bible is the word of God, that it is reliable and can be fully trusted to lead us to the One who said that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no-one can come to God, the Father, except through him, i.e. Jesus Christ.

If not all Churches can be trusted to speak the truth, does that mean that the term ‘Christian’ is not the best term for the followers of Jesus Christ? Christian missionaries working among Muslims tells us that for many Muslims Christianity is equated with western corruption and immorality. It’s true that the Bible tells us that the first followers of Christ were labelled ‘Christians’ in Syrian Antioch, 2000 years ago. Yet, Paul the apostle never referred to them as that. He preferred to refer to believers in Jesus, as those who were ‘in Christ’; not merely people who attended Christian gatherings. When the Christian Church gives up trusting the reliability and authority of the biblical message, it has nothing to offer people except psychologising homilies. The term ‘Christian’ may have referred to people who believed in God and accepted the truth of the Bible in the past, but it seems that this is not always so, today.

The real problem is not so much that people have given up on the Church, as the Church has given up being the guardian of divine truth. Once that happens, its hollowness becomes self-evident.

God of the imagination

It is not that all these ‘born-again’ Christians have lost faith in God; it is that many of them have replaced the God we discover in the Bible, with a ‘God’ who has become the product of their imagination. He is no longer defined by what the Bible says about Him. Instead He has become the product of an increasingly illiterate Christian Church. He has become the God of convenience; the One we can do without until we need Him.

The prophecies of Jeremiah

I was recently reading and meditating on the prophecies of Jeremiah for the umpteenth time, yet was impressed again by how clearly it depicts the state of the present-day Christian Church. Sure, we haven’t deteriorated morally and ethically to the extent Israel had at that time. We do not offer our children to the pagan god Moloch in the way they did. As Christians we do not oppress the stranger to the same extent, or shed innocent blood. We do not bow down to pagan idols in the same way as they did, although the things we want for ourselves have often usurped the place of God in our list of things we ‘worship’.

But the road towards the kind of apostasy Jeremiah witnessed in his day, is well trodden. So, where does it start? God’s verdict was,

My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water. (Jer. 2:13).

In the Old Testament God was seen as the ‘fount of living water’. He was the giver of life. In the Middle East particularly, nothing was more important for survival than water. But not every pool held drinkable water. You needed running water, or a pool that was fed from an underground spring. Israel, in the Old Testament was accused of building cisterns or tanks that could not hold water because they were cracked. What is the meaning of this metaphor?

In rejecting God, they rejected all He had said to them. So what impact did this have on their personal and social lives? Jeremiah was told to go up and down the streets of Jerusalem to see if he could find one person who handled the truth, or who really wanted to know the truth, or was prepared to deal honestly. If Jeremiah could find one such person, God said that He would deal mercifully with the whole city. But, Jeremiah couldn’t find a single person. Everyone he came across had rejected all God had said to them. In rejecting God, they had rejected truth.

Many years later, Paul the apostle spoke about the condition of people in general when he said, They exchanged the truth of God for a lie… (Rom. 1:25).

Perhaps these people are the ordinary, simple-minded, who don’t have the ability to understand what God had to say to them, thought Jeremiah.

So I will go to the leaders
and speak to them;
surely they know the way of the Lord,
the requirements of their God.”
But with one accord they too had broken off the yoke
and torn off the bonds. (Jeremiah 5:5).

No fear of God

All fear of God had gone from the people and their leaders. Are we any different today? We try to water down our understanding of God and convince ourselves that a loving God is not going to be harsh with us in our disobedience. After all, He is not a monster that we should fear Him, we say. We need to esteem Him, sure; but not fear Him! Surely, that is not a Christian view of God, they say.

How did God answer the Israelites?

Should you not fear me?” declares the Lord.
“Should you not tremble in my presence? (Jer. 5:22).

But that is the Old Testament view of God, someone argues. That’s not the God we see in the New Testament. Isn’t it? So, how does the New Testament portray Him?

“The Lord will judge his people.”It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:21)

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:29).

God can’t be domesticated. He can’t be shaped into someone we are more comfortable with; someone who won’t upset our lives, our plans and ambitions, but will be there for us when we need Him. We have allowed secular society to water down our understanding of God, so that the God we present to people is more acceptable to them. We then wonder why we don’t have the kind of influence on others we are supposed to have. Is that how we are to live at times like this?

A substitute wisdom

When we turn our backs on the ‘fount of living water’―God himself―and try to replace His wisdom with our wisdom, we lose all credibility. When Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth he said,

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Cor. 1:18…29).

Human wisdom doesn’t seek the truth. There can only be one truth, and it is exclusively God’s truth. Secular wisdom that is in rebellion against God in the first place can never substitute for God’s truth. How sad when so many self-professed Christians are caught up with the world’s way of thinking. It holds nothing worthwhile for us in life; it is empty and superficial. In choosing that kind of wisdom, Israel was told that they will now have to live with the consequences of their choices. We are told,

Judah mourns, her cities languish; they wail for the land, and a cry goes up from Jerusalem. The nobles send their servants for water; they go to the cisterns but find no water. They return with their jars unfilled; dismayed and despairing, they cover their heads. The ground is cracked because there is no rain in the land; (Jer. 14:1-4).

God who is the source of all life and goodness had stopped pouring His grace upon the land so that the people might come to their senses. The senses of seeing and hearing that are part of every human being had stopped working towards God. They were switched off. Ignorance of God always begins with a deliberate closure of one’s mind and heart to God, until a person no longer remembers when the process began.

When ignorance of God and His word becomes widespread within the Christian community, who is to blame? Is it the common people? Or, is it the fault of the leaders? Jeremiah and Isaiah place the fault at the feet of both. Why is it that whenever Jeremiah opened his mouth to speak the word of the Lord to the people of Israel, he found such tremendous opposition?

To whom can I speak and give warning?
Who will listen to me?
Their ears are closed
so they cannot hear.
The word of the Lord is offensive to them;
they find no pleasure in it. (Jer. 6:10).

It is a gradual process that leads to that position. It’s like feeding a little child on ‘fast food’ on a regular basis so that when he gets older he no longer has an appetite for decent food.

The prophets prophesy lies,
the priests rule by their own authority,
and my people love it this way.
But what will you do in the end? (Jer. 5:31).

The ordinary people chose to believe a message that was more palatable to them. They were just as guilty in accepting the lie, as the leaders who perpetrated the lie.

It is easy for preachers and teachers to adjust their message when they find that after years of faithful preaching and teaching they see no worthwhile results. Jeremiah knew all about the pressures of ministry.

He went through a whole rollercoaster of emotional experiences in speaking to Israel on God’s behalf. One moment he was praising God for all that He was doing; in the next breath he was cursing the day he was born. Faithful ministry has never been easy. There have always been people who want to mould the pastor into their own image and silence the word of God so that their lack of commitment to God can be justified.

Returning to the Source

It takes courage and perseverance to remain faithful to God and to His word. Ultimately, we are all dependent on God for our survival, not on the people we think we need around us. Our faithfulness to God and stability, are essential for the encouragement of those who are looking to us for an example of perseverance.

In forsaking the ‘fount of living water’, many Christians and some Churches, have become dry, empty and useless in a secular world that is desperately trying to get rid of every vestige of God. Instead of being the agents through whom God corrects and rebukes the thinking of the world, we are increasingly adopting the secular perspective ourselves. We have nothing to offer people who are genuinely thirsty for the truth.

On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. (Jn. 7:37-39).

As the Son of God, he came as the Source of that living water to a nation that had replaced the real thing with its own man-made religion.

There is no Christianity without Jesus Christ; and there is no Christianity without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; and there is no Christianity outside the Word of God, the Bible. We need to keep on affirming this truth. At a time when more and more ‘born-again’ Christians are losing faith, we need to take Jesus’ warning seriously.

…when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk. 18:8).

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Mt. 7:21-23).