The notion that the Holy Spirit lives and acts within the Christian believer is a useful one. However, problems arise when the christian’s behaviour falls short of that which is expected of someone in whom God’s Holy Spirit is thought to operate.

Over the centuries, many prominent and trustworthy Christian leaders have often done amazing things for God only for them to be later on corrupted and fall away from the Church. Given that the Holy Spirit supposedly acts as an Advocate within each person to guide them in God’s ways, then we must presume that when things go wrong and communication is awry, then one or more of the following factors must be at play:

  • God is active
  • God is silent. Unable to hear what God is saying, the person is forced into a decision which has disastrous results.
  • The person actively seeks God
  • The person willfully rejects God and eventually ends up going against what the Holy Spirit with detrimental results.

Of course, at the heart of whether a person is open to the leading of the Holy Spirit is the issue of human freewill. It is this willingness to cooperate or rebel against God that determines what outcome will follow. In the case of the mentally unstable, it is not too hard to imagine how delussional episodes might cause some believers to think they are experiencing some form of spiritual attack which (in the worst case scenario) requires them to take action against a person or thing they believe to be spiritually afflicting them.

This probably explains incidents in which murderers like Peter Sutcliffe cite God as the initiating force for the atrocities they commit. In doing so, it also causes many people to question the goodness of God as they naively believe the Divine would direct such a person to be the instigator of perverse thinking and outcomes. However, the willful behaviour of humans that defame, kill and injure is best understood in the context of the Divine Himself as explained in John’s letter  which observes that  ‘God is light; in him there is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1v5).

 

We ended the last post on the question of how to make sense of Old Testament passages in which God speaks to His people, ordering them to kill and destroy the neighbouring communities?

Of course, the immediate question that arises is to ask who issued this instruction? Did God’s really speak these words to the people? Or is it more the case that God’s people – human as they were and easily prone to revenge – presumed the Divine would uphold their grievance against those groups who had fought against them?

True, the cultic practices of these other groups were often contrary to the purposes of God and cited by many as an abonimation against the Creator. However – fast forward two thousand years – and we encounter a seemingly different God in the person of Jesus Christ who loves, forgives and restores people everywhere, irrespective of whether they are Jewish or Gentile.

Indeed, it is during this time that Jesus outlines and affirms that God’s ultimate intention for the Jewish people is for them to show through their relationship with the Divine that their Creator’s love extends to all whom God has made. No favourites. No outcasts. Just broken people on whom God’s love and favour rests.

How different is the type of thinking about God (as revealed in the person of Jesus) to the One in which the Divine acts out of fear, instructing his followers to destroy other people groups. Indeed, this desire to exact revenge on other groups seems to owe more to the wanton actions of those within Israel who perceived that anyone outside of the community posed a threat and should be destroyed?

Did God really order the destruction of other people? Or is it the case that God’s people presumed this was what God wanted? After all, for God to be on their side, he must want the same outcomes as they do, surely?

 

 

For many people, the question of God living within humans is problematic because whatever debate follows is all too easily sidetracked by examples of people who declared they heard from God only to go on to commit violent acts and crimes. A classic example of this being serial killer Peter Sutcliffe – nicknamed the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ – who claimed that God had instructed him to kill prostitutes.

Now, while a small number of murderers may claim their violent spree was inspired by God, it seems most people reject this kind of explanation for their actions. Indeed, it seems that many people are theologically informed enough to reason that if God is good and loving, then there is no way the Divine can be culpable for such heinous crimes – a point evidenced in the majority of courtroom trials in which defendants, claiming the murder was somehow God-inspired, receive an almost instant sentence or statement of being medically unfit to stand trial and/or convicted as a religious fanatic or deluded zealot.

But if it’s true that God is good, how do we make sense of Old Testament passages in which we are told that the Divine speaks to His representatives, ordering them to kill and destroy the neighbouring communities for fear that His People may be influenced and become like them?

How do we reconcile this?

God’s words to the people? Or people justifying their own agenda and wanton actions?

 


In the last two posts we considered how the only difference between believers and non-believers is the issue of experience – or put another way, whether the person can attest to having experienced God in some tangible way that convinces him or her of this reality in terms of what can be physically, spiritually, mentally and/or emotionally comprehended.

Those people who have such an experience (or revelation) are instantly changed in that they are no longer able to defend a position of disbelief but instead make a stalwart defence on which they rationalise  God as true, living and active.

Conversely, sceptics who cite themselves as having had no experience of God find themselves occupying the opposite position – their argument being that if God exists, then He would reveal Himself in the same way as he has to others  – but He doesn’t reveal Himself and so they do not believe.

Interestingly, in the New Testament (Book of Titus) Paul quotes a paradox about the people of Crete in which he states-

‘as one of their own (Cretan) countrymen states, ‘all cretans are liars!’

Although Paul does not debate the point, there is actually a real problem with this tautological statement – if the man is Cretan and all Cretans are liars, then the truth must be that he (as one of them) must be lying about all Cretans being liars which seems to imply ‘all Cretans tell the truth.’

But if all Cretans tell the truth and the statement informs us that ‘all Cretans are liars,’  what are we to make of this?

Interestingly, the statement ‘all cretans are liars’ is unresolvable. We cannot fathom from it whether what is being said is true or false. The only thing we can be certain of is that within this paradox, there are certain things that do  exist – these being: a decision maker who must determine between truth and lie. Something which again relies solely on the individual’s experience of and ability to decide upon something which cannot be seen or easily proved other than by revelation.

 


At the end of the last post, I suggested how the gap between people that believe in God and those who don’t is actually quite small – bear with me, all will be explained…

I first became aware of this one evening while running the Tough Question’s Forum in which believers and non-believers (for use of a better word) discussed issues of evil, death, existence, etc. It started when a sceptic in the group challenged a believer who accused them of being irrational. The discussion continued and I wandered off in my thoughts, pondering whether the person was making an irrational claim in the light of the evidence that had been presented. As I thought about each person’s argument, I suddenly arrived at a ‘Eureka!’ moment: I began to see that both were being quite rational in their thinking. The only difference being that the believer’s rationality was informed by a weightier factor: their previous experience of having met and engaged with God.

As I have thought about this over the years, it seems to me that sceptics and believers do exercise rational thinking in their debates. Indeed, both make excellent arguments to support what they truly believe. The sceptic arguing in ways to support the belief that the Divine does not exist, while the believer making the case that God is real and involved with creation. Common to both of these positions is the issue of what the individual has experienced.

The sceptic who has not (or at least, not yet) experienced God, reasons out of the experience of not having had an encounter with the Divine, while the believer reasons out of what they hold to be their experience of God. The rational flux that occurs in the middle is not as important as the issue of ‘experience’ which determines how people approach the evidence in front of them and form their arguments and the positions they adopt. Of course, the thing that actually separates them is the issue of God’s ‘revelation’, which affects the way that each person thinks and acts. People who have encountered God (in whatever way this has occurred) are likely to think and act differently from those who have had no ‘revelation’. Indeed, it must be considered that should the sceptic, at a later date, experience some ‘revelation’ of God, his or her position could change in an instant! In the same way that some Christians come to reject their faith later on if changing circumstances or something causes them to question the authenticity of what they once experienced.

In short, the gap between believers and sceptics is not huge – however, it is dependant on how the person understands the world and whether their experience of this includes a realisation of the spiritual realm and possibility of a godly encounter.

 

 

 

 

 

Why do some people believe in God while others don’t? (part 1)

 

A few years ago I devised a course (The ‘Tough Questions Forum) for believers and non-believers with the intention of helping them to explore their differing perspectives about God, the world and suffering – five sessions considering natural disasters, moral evil, God’s existence, other religions and death and illness.

Interestingly, one outcome that was not anticipated was how the cherished ideas and thinking of believer and non-believer became quite fragile when exposed to stronger explanations and arguments. These new ideas causing the individuals to rethink their previous position in the light of what they had once believed about themselves and God in ways they did not anticipate at the start. Indeed, many christians found themselves having to rethink once cherished orthodox explanations in the light of more compelling ideas. Simailarly, the sceptics and atheists who now realised that what they once understood, no longer adequately described their position as they considered themselves more of a rationalist than an ardent non-believer.

Over the years, I have led many discussion groups on the Tough Questions Forum and listened to many sceptics and believers explaining their different ideas and positions. However, the most important observation I have made from all of this is that the difference between sceptic and the believer is quite minimal – I refer of course to the issue of the ‘revelation of God’ but more about that in the next blog.

 

 

What might christians do in response to global warming?

Following on from the last post we consider how – if God gives stewardship of the planet to humans and global warming occurs – it might be beyond the Divine to intervene and abrogate the mess that we have created for ourselves. True, nothing is impossible for God but the issue of freewill is the game changer because one thing that God cannot do, is give us freedom then intervene and take it away from us when we make decisions that He doesn’t like.

Developing this line of thinking further we might ask questions as to whether God’s solution to the problem of global warming is the same as that which  we would like or hope to see happen. Could it be that rather than finding a way to completely reverse global warming in the future, believers might be called upon to bring about an answer that involves change and self-sacrifice? Indeed, as it is estimated by the United Nations that there will be 50 million environmental refugees by the end of the decade, could it be that God’s answer to global warming might involve a range of measures that does not involve the Divine flying in like superman to save the day? An answer that might require believers to:

  • lobby government to make decisions that favour the environment?
  • reduce their carbon footprint by greener choices in regard to travel?
  • being satisfied with products that are old and functioning over that which is new and shiny?
  • take measures to generate their own electricity?
  • invest in carbon neutral enterprise to offset the damage caused when burning CO2 on flights, car journeys, etc?
  • grow and irrigate their own crops to offset food shortages?

However, the more radical believers might also find themselves:

  • sharing the love of God through feeding those left hungry by environmental poverty?
  • providing shelter as they invite refugees and other displaced people into their homes?
  • being satisfied with what they have over the pressing need to have new things?
  • content with the little they now have in the knowledge that it facilitates a world whose environment is delicately balanced at present?

What we can be sure of is that God has made us reponsible for our world and it is now up to us to protect and preserve it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I write this post, the issue of global warming is dominating news headlines. Given that temperature rise relates to human activity around the earth, it is fair to conclude that whatever happens in the future will be because of humans. And, if we believe God has given humans stewardship of the earth and its resources, then we should not expect God to intervene or undo the problems we have created for ourselves.

Indeed, it’s quite possible God could undo this environmental damage but this might also require the Divine removing human freewill to ensure the same would not happen again – a set of conditions that humans might not be so keen to agree on. Now, although many Christians believe God is capable of doing anything He wants, it is clear that there are some things that stand outside of His control since ceding responsibility of humans for their management. Indeed,

‘Why would we expect God to intervene and save us from our poor choices if we contaminate the earth with nuclear waste?

Within this framework of thinking, it could well be that God is able to remedy our weather but only through the actions of people who are open to being divinely directed towards godly choices and wise decisions about the environment. For example, government leaders and advisers who determine the direction of economic, ecological and environmental policy may well benefit from prayers that inspire them to make decisions that reflect the inspiration and direction of God. And if you are following my thinking on this, you will understand that God’s solution might more often (as not) happen through the activity of people rather than the irresponsible requests for the Divine to intervene in some sort of dramatic way or supernatural moment which may now rest outside of the remit of God.

Now, while some believers will take issue with this notion that God’s priority in answering prayer rests on the responsiveness of humans to go and attend to the needs before them. However, this is to be found throughout the bible. In Exodus chapter 3, where God reveals that he has heard the cry of the Israelites and seen their misery, it is Moses who goes and brings deliverance. Likewise, when the disciples inform Jesus that the crowd following them has no food, he instructs them to give something for the people to eat (Matthew 14:16). Likewise, when the disciples inform Jesus that the crowd following them has no food, he instructs them to give something for the people to eat (Matthew 14:16). The miracles that follow in each of these situations only occur after Moses and the disciples have advanced into their respective situations to begin to meet the need themselves in a very real and practical way – quite a challenge for those believers who are only willing to pray for answers in a way that does not compromise their comfort nor lifestyle choices.

 

 

Taking charge of the weather?

As a fair number of Christians believe that God’s sovereignty means He is in control of everything that happens in the world, it has led some to assert that the Divine regularly intervenes and controls our weather in ways that align with prayer requests. However, as we saw in previous posts, the Christian experience of receiving positive ‘weather’ outcomes in regard to prayer request is no better than even-stevens and just as likely to correspond with the vaguries or anticipated certainty of weather for those regions. For example:

rain on the west coast of Ireland, sun every day in Arizona.

Now, surely if God was answering prayers regarding weather, every weekend in the UK would be sunny and Christmas Day would always have snow – but this doesn’t happen- why?

Well, either God is not answering prayers requests or he is impervious to petitions for this sort of thing. Indeed, from my experience of talking with people who genuinely believe God is answering prayers for the weather, the words I frequently hear (when I point out that God did not answer their request for fine weather) is something along the lines of:

‘It doesn’t matter what you think – God loves people and is able to do anything he wants because nothing is impossible for Him.’

Now, while I whole-heartedly agree with this statement, I do not accord with the premise that is behind it. Yes, God does love us and there is nothing outside of his sovereign control that will thwart Him. However, the important thing we need to remember here is that prayer is not about human wants and needs but about God and what he is willing to do in a situation to bring about His Kingdom purpose and plan. And, hard as it is for some believers to accept, a Saturday afternoon of glorious sunshine does not necessarily constitute an advance in God’s kingdom intention.

Indeed, even when a wedding ceremony or baptism service has been wholly honouring to God and a testimony to the way he has worked in the lives of the people involved, there may still not be a reason for God to intervene and keep the specks of rain from the photographer’s lens. After all, the weather remains secondary to the principle aim of the occasion, which is to see the couple married and to glorify God in the process – two objectives which might just as easily be facilitated through a ‘washed out’ day as it would though a picture-perfect event that enabled photos of the wedding or baby with godparents to be filmed outdoors.

Having outlined the reasons why prayer requests for sunny weddings are unlikely to feature high on God’s priority list, let us turn our attention to the situations and circumstances where we might expect God to oblige our human requests and supernaturally intervene with the weather. Here, I am thinking about those occasions in which believers petition God to intervene with a meteorological solution for a pressing situation or pending disaster by praying for rain to abate in an area because people’s lives are at risk through flooding, or requesting rain to help a drought-stricken area suffering from famine.

Now, although each of these requests are surely far more worthy candidates for God’s intervention than prayers asked for sunny weather at weddings, the frequency of weather reports from across the world detailing floods, droughts, hurricanes (etc) strongly suggests that God doesn’t intervene in the majority of these situations. This is not to say that God is unwilling to answer our prayers but rather that He works in ways that are different from that which we anticipate and expect. Although God is powerful and capable of anything, he has clearly chosen to limit the way He acts within our world – especially where his intervention affects human growth and freedom. I am thinking here about the limits that God places on himself to facilitate a temporal world in which humans are free to do many things without divine intervention, enabling them to experience the consequences of their actions, be they good and bad.

And so too with the weather that may one day bless us with sun and on another day destroy our town with a flood through excessive rain that takes lives and brings misery. Returning to the Geography Revision Sheet I mentioned in the first post and its astute observation that

 ‘The climate of the British Isles is best described as changeable…’ 

Maybe we should add…

‘…and this has nothing to do with us petitioning God to change our weather.’  (Bob Eckhard, 2018)

 

 

Why might God not answer prayers for ‘good’ weather?’

I am indebted to a great truth that was imparted to me at school and has informed every fishing trip I have ever undertaken since – wisdom from a geography GCE revision sheet that offered the astute observation that:

The climate of the British Isles is best described as changeable.’

There you have it! Years of meteorological research culminates in a theological understanding of why some prayers for fine weather go answered for many believers. The reality of what happens when people pray for sunshine is not about whether God does or does not answer prayer, but rather it is about random chance. In other words the prayer request aligns with the variability of the British climate for that day. In much the same way that when I flick a coin into the air and call ‘heads,’ I hope that it will spin at such a rate and be caught at the very moment that allows it to be rendered portrait side up.

Now, I appreciate that some believers will struggle with what I am saying here so let me suggest a foolproof method by which the possibility of God controlling the weather might be  tested and observed. This method involves setting up of an experiment to provide the scientific conditions by which God might be observed to intervene in a ways that run contrary to the vagaries of weather:

Of course, the experiment would require a multiple number of weddings to be scheduled for different days of the week in India during the monsoon season – a period in which it rains constantly across the country for days, weeks and even months on end. The respective families would be encouraged to pray in advance for good weather for their wedding day with particular instruction to pray for the exact hour when their ceremony is scheduled to take place. The evidence of whether God has answered these prayers would be determined by how many instances of dry weather occur at these specific times within the monsoon period.

Naturally, my own belief is that very few (if any) of these weddings would occur without wedding party and guests getting wet because this is what happens when you hold outdoor events during the rainy season. This isn’t to say that God couldn’t but rather ask the more reasonable question of:

‘Why would God intervene and what higher Divine purpose might this serve?”

Interestingly, when believers attempt to justify God controlling the weather they often cite instances in the Bible in which God has intervened and affected the physical climate in some way. Among these examples are the events of the flood detailed in Genesis 6 or the day the sun reportedly stood still so that a battle could be prolonged and victory secured (Joshua 10:13-14). Other examples include a rain cloud that appears in response to Elijah’s prayer (1 Kings 18:44) or the storm at sea that affects Jonah’s escape (Jonah 1:4). Although all of these examples are used to show the way God has been proactive in the world – intervening and affecting our weather system – it should be noted that most of the ones that are recorded document acts of judgment and not the type of blessing associated with weddings.