“Knowing me, knowing me…”: on knowing ourselves

‘Gnothi seauton’ – ancient Greek for ‘Know Thyself’

Aristotle once said, “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”. What do you think about that? Do you agree, disagree? Let’s park that there, I’ll come back to it in just a moment.

At church yesterday I preached a sermon about Jesus’ famous words from John 8:12:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

As I was preparing the passage, one thing which really struck me about it was the idea of knowing ourselves. How do you know yourself? Do we know ourselves truly, just by virtue of being ourselves, or are there still things about us which are unknown even to us? I apologise if that sounds a bit weird and abstract. Let me make it a bit more concrete. Have you ever been in a situation where you discover something about yourself that you didn’t realise? I think it happens sometimes under pressure – we discover who we really are, in a way which we wouldn’t have done otherwise. Someone who sees a child drowning in a river discovers that actually their instinct is to dive in and help. Someone faced with a difficult situation realises they are less patient and forgiving than they thought they were.

Or perhaps you’ve seen or read stories where the protagonist goes on a ‘journey of self discovery’. People sometimes use the expression “finding myself” – implying that they needed to discover who they were, their purpose, and so on. It seems to me that we are a mystery even to ourselves sometimes. How do we find our way through the fog?

As I was looking at Jesus’ words, I realised that true identity – true knowledge of ourselves – can only come when we see ourselves in the light of Christ. All of us by nature, as Jesus says, “walk in darkness”. This is a big theme in John – see especially John 3:19-21:

This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

By contrast, God does not walk in darkness. Many people know John’s famous statement “God is love” (1 John 4:8), but I think fewer people know his statement from the beginning of the same book: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). In other words, not only does God not walk in darkness, but God is himself light. So, as Jesus, says, if we want to walk in the light we need to see ourselves in God’s light. It turns out that true knowledge of ourselves is bound up with true knowledge of God.

In a strange kind of way, I think Aristotle was onto something when he said “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”: the book of Proverbs famously says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7) – perhaps they are two sides of the same coin. We only truly know ourselves when we know God, when we see ourselves in his light.

But what does it mean to see ourselves in God’s light? In John 7:7, Jesus says “[the world] hates me because I testify that its works are evil.” Jesus is the one who bears witness to the world that its deeds are evil. In the passage from John 3 I’ve already quoted, it says: “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”

In other words, what Jesus does is expose evil for what it is. You and I, without the light of Christ, could get on perfectly happily in sin, in evil – all the time thinking that there was nothing wrong. But as soon as we bring the light of Christ into the picture, it bursts our bubble (to mix metaphors a little). We can’t pretend there’s nothing wrong anymore.

Source: publicphoto.org

Think about dirty windows: In our house we have a toddler running around. Toddlers, it hardly needs saying, love to put their sticky hands all over your nice clean windows. You end up with the glass covered with hand prints. The thing is, for the majority of the time you don’t really notice: on a typical day – grey and cloudy at this time of year – the glass looks fairly clean. You can’t see the hand prints. But as soon as the sun comes out, as soon as the light streams through the windows, they show up clearly.

This is how it is with the relationship between us and Christ: when we walk in the darkness, we look pretty clean. But as soon as we come towards the light, it exposes all our flaws. It exposes the fact that we walk in darkness. It exposes the fact that we are actually living a lie about ourselves: we are not the people who we kid ourselves that we are.

What this means is, we do not have true knowledge about ourselves until we see ourselves in Jesus’ light. Unless we can see ourselves as sinners, we do not know ourselves truly. And, the real problem: if we do not see ourselves as sinners, we cannot seek God’s forgiveness. Jesus says in Mark 2:17, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” If we don’t acknowledge that we are ‘ill’ to begin with, we won’t bother to seek a doctor. Think of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail – instead of admitting defeat at any point, he simply denies that he has any injuries at all. It’s an absurd picture, but I think it’s akin to what Jesus is saying people do by nature: denying the obvious fact that there is something wrong with us!

Why is any of this an issue? Why does it really matter? Back in John 8, Jesus says to the Pharisees: “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins” (v24). Dying in sin – this is the fate for anyone who does not believe that Jesus is the one who “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Sin separates us from God; sin incurs God’s righteous wrath and judgement. To die in our sins is not a good thing. As Hebrews 10:31 puts it, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

And so the key question for us all is: will we let Christ expose us for who we are? Will we come to the one who exposes our darkness, and yet is the only one who can take away our darkness? It is literally a matter of life and death.


Sexuality and Friendship: Good news after all?

FriendshipI recently added a morning conference entitled Human Sexuality: Discerning a Biblical Vision, hosted by the Chelmsford Diocesan Evangelical Association. It was a good morning with three different speakers talking about various issues – theological, pastoral, and practical. One speaker was Lis Goddard, talking about the pastoral issues involved. Of the three sessions, I probably found hers the most practically helpful and thought-provoking.

One of the complaints I often hear from the LGBT community when discussing this issue is that the church’s traditional position is nothing but ‘bad news’ for gay people. Why would you turn a gospel of good news into a gospel of bad news – forcing people who are attracted to those of the same sex to a life of celibacy? How could God ask anyone to do that, surely it’s impossible for anyone to actually manage?

I’ve been thinking about this issue recently. What I’ve been beginning to see more clearly is that you can’t simply articulate the traditional, Biblical vision of sexuality without saying anything positive. Let me try and explain.

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The Spirituality of Deal or No Deal

Deal or No DealOver the past week or two, I’ve been watching “Deal or No Deal”. It’s not a show I’ve ever watched before, but given that our former next-door-neighbour has been on it, I thought I’d watch to see her on TV. If you’re not familiar with the show, then I’m not going to explain it here – watch an episode online and you’ll get the gist of it within about two minutes. One of the things that’s fascinating about the show (at least to me) is the spiritual or religious element to it.

You may be thinking, “Spirituality? In Deal or No Deal? How ridiculous!” But let me outline what I’m talking about:

  • There are several ‘superstitions’ in the programme, for example: “The curse of the newbie” – the newest contestant to join the programme is thought to usually have red (high) numbers, so they rarely get chosen. I’ve also seen things like everybody holding hands – as in a seance.
  • More than that, the way the whole show is put together has an air of superstition about it. When someone gets a run of red numbers, people virtually pray for a blue (low) number. The way Noel narrates the show, and the way the contestants talk, the thinking seems to be try really hard and get a blue number. Although ultimately they know they can’t control it, they seem to believe that there is some kind of transcendent destiny about what numbers they pick: if you try hard enough, fate will reward you with a better score.
  • Speaking of reward, the way Noel Edmonds talks about the final amount is entirely geared around getting people to continue. I’ve heard the phrase “life changing amount of money” frequently. Contestants have to have a list of things they want to accomplish if they want to go on the show. In other words, the prize money is seen as something to improve people’s lives: it’s not just money – it’s money with the power to make your life better, and fulfil your dreams.
  • Finally, on more than one occasion Noel Edmonds has called those visiting  (i.e. the audience) ‘pilgrims’.

So, let’s put this all together. On Deal or No Deal, contestants try to make the right choices / do the right things, in order to manipulate something transcendent / supernatural (i.e. fate), in order to accomplish ‘paradise’ – or at least, (some of) their goals in life. Does that sound at all familiar? That is the message which Deal or No Deal is implicitly sending out, even if it’s not explicit.

What’s so tragic and yet so depressingly predictable about Deal or No Deal is the way the contestants seem to universally buy into this kind of thinking, even if the boxes are completely random and the contestants have absolutely no control over which they pick. These people seem to think that if they can just manage to choose the right boxes, they’ll get the highest amount of money and their lives will change forever. (If you listen carefully to what Noel Edmonds says, he strongly encourages this way of thinking). What’s sad about this to me is that it’s ‘religion’ all over.

Religion says, “if you do this well enough you’ll be acceptable to God, and he will bless you”. Look at any religion you like, except for Christianity, and that’s the message that you get: try hard enough, appease the gods, and you will get ‘success’ (however you define it). The point is, it’s all down to your effort. You try hard enough, you obey the rules to a high enough standard, and you get rewarded. It’s like a cosmic vending machine – put the right good deeds into the coin slot, and blessings come out at the bottom. I think that’s not far away from the message of Deal or No Deal.

This is not what Christians believe. What Deal or No Deal offers is what the Bible calls idolatry – belief in a false god. The show encourages belief in some kind of fate or chance – something which, as we see time and again, is no god at all.

By contrast, the Christian God is the God who created the universe, the God who does not demand obedience of us for us to be acceptable to Him but freely gives forgiveness and bestows blessing out of love. He is the only the only one who can make a difference. As He says in Isaiah 44:

I am the Lord,
    the Maker of all things,
    who stretches out the heavens,
    who spreads out the earth by myself,
who foils the signs of false prophets
    and makes fools of diviners,
who overthrows the learning of the wise
    and turns it into nonsense,
who carries out the words of his servants
    and fulfils the predictions of his messengers

God is the only one who is able to do what he promises. Nothing else is worth believing in.

I came across this quote from John Stott earlier today, which I thought would be worth quoting here:

There are many ‘Jesuses’ on offer in the world’s religious supermarket , and many of them are false Christs, distorted Christs, and caricatures … if we want to grow into maturity in Christ, we need a vision of the authentic Jesus . . . Away with our petty, pygmy, puny Jesuses . . . if that is how we think of Christ, no wonder immaturities persist . . . nothing is more important for mature Christian discipleship than a fresh, clear, true vision of the authentic Jesus.’ (John Stott, in a sermon preached in Oak Hill Chapel 2003)

What Deal or No Deal offers is a distortion of Christ and what he offers. Deal promises fulfilment, happiness, a change of life – but will disappoint in all three areas. Deal enslaves people to money and to the potential that it brings; Christ brings freedom. Christ offers life in all its fulness – and he is the only one who is able to do what he promises. The Deal or No Deal gospel is one which is not worth believing in.

Sermon: John the Baptist – Herald (Luke 3:1-6)

John the BaptistThis evening, I preached my first sermon at St John’s. My first post-ordination sermon! To be honest it didn’t feel any different to preaching before ordination – it’s simply a great privilege to bring God’s word to God’s people. The passage was Luke 3:1-6, part of a series on John the Baptist.

Unfortunately no audio is available, but you can download the PDF version. Given that I don’t preach from a full script what I actually said will be slightly different, but there you go.

I hope to be updating this blog soon with how things have been going over the past few weeks too!

Sermon: The Witness of John the Baptist (John 1:19-34)

This is the text of a sermon I preached last Sunday morning at Christ Church Cockfosters. The audio isn’t available on the website (which means it may not have been recorded) – if it does appear I will update this post.

The theme was a traditional one for the third Sunday in Advent – “John the Baptist”. I chose to preach from John 1:19-34.

John the Baptist – John 1v19-34 – PDF.

The Story of the Jews

One of the things which interests me about modern-day Judaism is how different it is from my understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e. the Jewish Bible or the Christian Old Testament). Given that Christians and Jews have so much shared Scripture (most of the Bible – 75% or thereabouts – is the Hebrew Scriptures) – how have they ended up in such different places? In particular, modern-day Jews do not offer sacrifices and there seems to be no atonement for sin – the focus seems to be rather on the observance of the law. So I was interested to see that Simon Schama has created a new documentary called “The Story of the Jews” recently (Sunday evenings on BBC2 – at the time of writing there are another couple of episodes remaining in the series). Mrs Phil and I have been watching it, and it’s fascinating. What’s particularly interesting to me is how Judaism has changed and adapted over the years.

It’s fascinating to see how Simon Schama – and others – interpret the parts of the Scriptures which I am familiar with, and yet put a slant on them which I would be quite unfamiliar with. Present-day Jews have much more history to look back on, and have much more to explain. In a particularly poignant moment at the end of the last programme, for example, Simon Schama talked about the building anti-Semitism in Europe at the end of the 19th century before finishing up at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Continue reading