The latest Foundations journal is out, and contains my article with the above title. Read the journal here.
Man is the creature of the boundary between heaven and earth; he is on earth and under heaven. He is the being that conceives his environment, who can see, hear, understand and dominate it: ‘Thou hast put all things under his feet.’ He is the essence of a free being in this earthly world. And the same creature stands beneath heaven; and in face of the invisibilia, of what he cannot conceive or dispose of, he does not dominate but is completely dependent. Man knows about his earthly fellow-creature, because he is so unknowing in the face of the heavenly world. At this inner boundary of creation stands man… Man is the place within creation where the creature in its fullness is concentrated, and at the same time stretches beyond itself; the place where God wishes to be praised within creation, and may be praised.
Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (Harper, 1959), 63.
If the kingdom has come in an initial but not yet consummative form, what does its current form involve? … The emphasis of the kingdom picture in the present phase is not on realm, but rule.
Nonetheless, a realm is envisioned. Jesus’ realm is the world as it is manifested in his scattered followers. The kingdom is contained in Jesus’ total authority over salvific blessings, an authority that is present over everyone. The presence of his rule in believers anticipates his coming to earth to rule physically, when he will exercise dominion and judgement over the earth.
Darrell Bock, A Theology of Luke and Acts (2012), 207
Why are there so few hymns that express a properly biblical, creational theology? That’s the positively-framed counterpoint to another question: why is it that so many of our hymns express an unbiblical, pseudo-gnostic theology? J. Richard Middleton, early on in his excellent book A New Heaven and a New Earth, has a section entitled ‘Singing Lies in Church,’ which highlights this latter problem. Middleton picks out such perennial favourites as ‘Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,’ ‘Away in a Manger,’ ‘My Jesus I Love Thee,’ and ‘Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone).’ All these hymns, Middleton is absolutely right to point out, contain material that blatantly contradicts the Bible’s holistic vision of salvation. You could add ‘Abide with Me’: which contains the bewildering prayer ‘point me to the skies’; and ‘Great is the Gospel,’ an otherwise great hymn that speaks of longing ‘for greater joys than to the earth belong.’ Creational Christianity understands that the greatest joys that are possible for humanity are intended, in God’s redemptive purpose, to be earthly joys.
There aren’t that many thoroughly creational hymns, but recently I came across one that was previously unknown to me: ‘This is My Father’s World’ by Maltbie Babcock. Babcock was a Presbyterian minister in New York state at the beginning of the 20th century. The hymn is truly wonderful, and its outlook is a thoroughgoing expression not only of the beauty and goodness of God’s world, but of a biblical and holistic hope for its redemption. It expresses the truth of John 3:16-17 – that God loves the world, and has sent his Son Jesus Christ not to condemn it, but that it might be saved.
This is my Father’s world,
And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world:
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.
This is my Father’s world,
The birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white,
Declare their maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world:
He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.
This is my Father’s world.
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong
Seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
The battle is not done:
Jesus who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.
This is my Father’s world,
Why should my heart be sad?
The lord is King—let the heavens ring.
God reigns—let the earth be glad.
Watch it sung (with a great arrangement) at Willow Creek Church in Chicago here.
Over the last couple of years I’ve been following with interest the difficulties of British Cycling and Team Sky. Well, with more than interest. With, too, a sense of uncomfortable familiarity from a different facet of life – the church. But first, the important business of cycling…
I think anyone who remotely loves cycling will be aware of its difficult relationship with, well, let’s call it ‘cheating’. Of course, it’s a little more complex than that, but whether it’s amphetamines, EPO or needle-injected vitamins, cycling’s governing body the UCI has seen fit to outlaw behaviour that’s judged undesirable, dangerous, or immoral in the context of sport. When you look back over the historical heroics, the epics, the blood, sweat and gears of the sport of cycling, especially the Grand Tours, it’s very difficult to disentangle the grime, the sordid truth of doping, from these wonderful stories. The stories become almost mythic, and we want to believe the almost super-human achievements. And the truth is too uncomfortable to acknowledge because it spoils and sullies the story, and destroys all we’ve hoped in.
The rise of ‘clean’ teams has to be welcomed by every cycling fan. I recently read David Millar’s autobiographical Ride of My Life, including his account of the catharsis of telling the truth about his own doping, in a world that didn’t really want to hear it (especially in the aftermath of the Festina affair). Millar’s part in establishing Garmin-Slipstream as a clean, ethical racing team is a wonderful part of his own story of redemption. Of course, since then, cycling fans have been left disbelieving and demoralised by the exposé of Lance Armstrong’s ‘clean’ team.
I watched the excellent film The Program a few months ago. Armstrong told such a complex, forceful story that no-one dared question it. Armstrong was a charismatic hero, who’d survived cancer, and he wove this part of his experience into a facade that was virtually impossible to puncture. The whole of cycling, including the UCI, desperately wanted to believe a story of redemption, a story of ‘clean’ heroism. Yet this desperation for redemption, this desperation for a good and heroic story of success, enabled Armstrong to continue his bullying, and his unbelievably cynical and systematic program of doping, across the whole of the core of the US Postal team. The story is absolutely fascinating.
And now, of course, we have British Cycling and Team Sky. British Cycling has been the focus of UK Sport’s relentless search for Olympic medal success. But it’s gradually becoming clear that everyone was so keen to believe the story of success that the story itself became a facade, and behind it lay a culture of bullying, fear, and sexism. The close links with Team Sky, another self-proclaimed ‘clean team’, couples all of this with doubts about the integrity of the whole set-up, with stories of needle-injection, systematic use of steroids, unexplained jiffy bags and lost laptops muddying (conveniently) the waters. Chris Froome’s failed salbutamol test is only the latest in a line of half-revelations.
For a long time, this was all hidden behind the aura projected by Team Sky’s big-budget propaganda (it’s Murdoch money, I’m sure you know). It’s the aura of success, so powerfully hopeful and heroic. Like the UK Olympic story, Brits desperately wanted to believe it – from the top down – and so no-one scrutinised the set-up. In fact, the Guardian has reported that, when the cracks started appearing, UK Sport told the governance body to ‘go easy’ on British Cycling, because “that’s where the medals come from.” And something ugly, dis-spiriting, and hypocritical was allowed to grow behind the facade. Just as with Armstrong, those with doubts either dismissed them or kept them to themselves over a long period of time. After all, there was success. But that’s the problem – the Cult of Success, at any price. Let’s be honest, it’s what’s ruining sport, across the board.
Then you have pro-cyclist Emma Pooley’s comments about fish rotting from the head. All it takes is a certain type of person: an Armstrong, a Brailsford, a Sutton; a driven, probably narcissistic leader who has bought in completely to the Cult of Success. They construct a facade through their charisma, usually with the help of one or two other hard-grafters who back their project, suspend their integrity, and bask in some kind of reflected glory. Add in an ability to consistently, unflinchingly and relentlessly project the narrative of success, and all doubters will doubt themselves, hold their tongues, sit on their hands. Good people will do nothing, because of the very real fear of recriminations – it’s extremely hard to challenge a story that everyone is so desperate to believe.
Bullying, deception, and cynical manipulation prosper behind such a facade of success. Whether it’s cycling as a sport, desperate for a story of redemption, or UK Sport throwing big money at a story that needs resurrecting – the story of a powerful, successful Britain – the desperate need for hope, for something good, keeps the truth buried in a grave dug for it by hypocrisy and cynicism. And, people get damaged – pretty badly damaged, if you read Jess Varnish’s story, and the story of Josh Edmondson – by the injustice of it all.
I don’t really have to explain to people in churches that there’s an uncomfortable allegory in all of the above. Christians know that the church isn’t really prospering – in the West it’s a story of decline, of faded glory. And so the church is desperately searching for its own narratives of redemption, of hope, of validity. The siren call of the Cult of Success falls on longing ears. That’s why apparent stories of success in various congregations are writ large, emblazened across social media, eulogised – all with little scrutiny.
Just as in the world of cycling, these stories often hide ugly realities of fish rotting from the head. Doubters sit on their hands, truth-tellers are cold-shouldered, and victims of bullying stay silent. The Big Story continues to grow; the Cult of Success tightens its grip. When someone does speak out to somebody with the authority to act, they’re so often told: “go easy, that’s where the medals come from.”
The fact that churches seek validity through success is desperately sad. It’s usually to do with church leaders personally buying into the Cult of Success, and seeking their own validity through success. And that’s a fundamental denial of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the only narrative of redemption we need, or should be telling. Professional sport in the age of mass-media and big money is fertile ground for the Cult of Success. The church ought to be a different type of soil. But until church leaders reject the Cult of Success nothing will change. Until churches embrace Gospel humility, rather than self-proclaiming their ‘successes’; until churches embrace Gospel honesty rather than engaging in cover-ups to try to protect their ‘reputation’, the show will sadly go on.
Christian eschatology must be broadened out into cosmic eschatology, for otherwise it becomes a gnostic doctrine of redemption, and is bound to teach, no longer a redemption of the world but a redemption from the world, no longer the redemption of the body, but a deliverance of the soul from the body. But men and women are not aspirants for angelic status, whose home is in heaven and who feel that on this earth they are in exile. They are creatures of flesh and blood. Their eschatological future is a human and earthly future – ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’.
Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God (1996), 259.
Yesterday was Ascension Sunday, when Christians remember Jesus’s ascension. Hymns on Ascension Sunday tend to focus on Jesus’s reign in heaven, how his crown of thorns has become a crown of stars of light – that kind of thing. But, there’s an undeniable tension with the ascension. In Luke’s ascension account in Acts 1 (of the gospel writers, only Luke shows any interest in the ascension), the disciples are looking into the sky, and two mysterious Men in White appear:
“Galileans,” they said, “why are you standing here gazing into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into the sky, will come back in the same way you’ve seen him go into the sky.”
So, basically, don’t stand around looking up. Why? Because this same Jesus will return. This isn’t about the sky, or heaven. This is about down here. And there’s the tension. The ascension leads to a temporary, intermediate state; Jesus will return. There ought to be a strong, powerful link between Ascension Sunday (and Ascension Day, always on the preceding Thursday) and the season of Advent. It’s a link that’s there in the Apostles’ Creed:
He ascended to heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
The goal of Jesus’s work is not his ascension, or even his ‘heavenly session’, but his reign over the fullness of God’s Kingdom on earth. As Paul writes about the Return of Jesus to earth, in 1 Corinthians 15:24-27, he puts it this way, citing a psalm or two:
Then, the goal: when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he has put everything under his feet.
And when it comes to citing psalms on Ascension Sunday, we often read Psalms 24 and 47. These psalms, we understand, were originally associated with the triumphal and joyful entry of the Ark of the Covenant into the Temple. Christians have a very long tradition of associating them with the ascension, as an expression of the triumph of Jesus. However, as we heard in the parish church this morning, these psalms rightly ought to point to something else too: to the truest and fullest entry of God’s presence into his temple, at the return of Jesus the Messiah to this earth. Understood in this way, singing and reading these psalms will help to supply that powerful link between Ascension and Advent.
Another question raised by the Ascension, and also addressed in the parish church this morning, is: “Where is Jesus?” That’s also part of the tension of Ascension Sunday. In the account of the event, Jesus goes up into the sky. Of course, that would have made perfect sense to the original readers, and the writer, of the account, as well as to the observers of whatever it was that actually happened. But how on earth can we reconcile that with modern cosmology?
Asking “Where is heaven?” seems a fairly pointless question. Any answer surely has to posit that it’s not a part of our reality, the reality of the visible creation. It must be in some sense another dimension. On the other hand, asking “Where is Jesus?” isn’t actually a pointless or stupid question. It’s more cogent, and difficult to answer, than we might imagine – at least for those with an orthodox view of Jesus Christ, and of humanity.
Human bodies (whether pre- or post-resurrection) belong on earth, in this dimension, not in heaven (wherever heaven is). Ordinarily, the lives of human beings as whole human beings, in mortality or immortality, are lived entirely on earth. We affirm the real humanity of Jesus as well as his divinity. How can a human body that is very much a part of this visible creation, and belongs in it, exist in some other dimension? There’s mystery here, for sure. But it’s clear, to me at least, that whatever the disciples saw that day was an accommodation to their understanding of the cosmos. With the understanding we have now of the cosmos, of space and time, there might be other avenues to follow as we ask “Where is Jesus?” Perhaps.
The mysterious Men in White fundamentally link the Ascension and Return of Jesus. In their message, the intervening period is de-emphasised (as in the Apostles’ Creed). The Ascension and Return are two adjacent acts in the drama of Jesus as King on Earth. Perhaps, and I mean perhaps, the question of “Where is Jesus ?” is better-framed as “When is Jesus?” In the future, in space and time, Jesus is here on earth, reigning in the creation with all his holy ones, who have been redeemed by his life, death and resurrection. In our present time, Jesus is not physically present at all. But he has not left us bereft. He himself has come to us through the gift of the Holy Spirit, also designated as the Spirit of Christ (more mystery). This is what we’ll be remembering on Pentecost Sunday, in a week’s time. Where is Jesus? Not with us. Yet with us, always, even until the very end of the age.
In CH4, the Church of Scotland hymnal, is a hymn by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I read it on Good Friday, sat in the parish church. I must have come across it before, since it’s in Letters and Papers from Prison, but it was the first time I’d seen this particular translation. As I read it there, on that day and in that place, I found it not only striking, but also deeply moving.
We turn to God when we are sorely pressed;
we pray for help, and ask for peace and bread;
we seek release from illness, guilt, and death:
all people do, in faith or unbelief.
We turn to God when he is sorely pressed,
and find him poor, scorned, without roof and bread,
bowed under weight of weakness, sin, and death:
faith stands by God in his dark hour of grief.
God turns to us when we are sorely pressed,
and feeds our souls and bodies with his bread;
for one and all Christ gives himself in death:
through his forgiveness sin will find relief.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) Letters and Papers in Prison, 1953, SCM Press, translated Compilers.
In a previous post I pointed to a definition of forgiveness (from Bryan Maier’s book Forgiveness and Justice) that brings to the fore responsibility, repentance and safety as prerequisites for forgiveness.
But what about when there is no responsibility taken by the offender? What if there is no repentance? What if there isn’t safety in encountering someone who continues to be hostile? And what if we have no contact with an offender whose actions have changed the course of our lives? What then? What does forgiveness then look like? Can it be achieved?
In my experience, many Christians ask these kinds of questions because life brings up exactly these kinds of situations; they are not uncommon. These Christians are bearing a burden, and some have carried it for many long years. They feel that they are commanded to forgive as an entirely independent act, taken without any reference to the offender, or to the nature of the offence. And that they are commanded to forgive immediately, not only because it is a command of God, but because they will not be forgiven by God if they do not forgive in this way. They also hear many folk saying that not to forgive will be spiritually, emotionally and even physically damaging. I don’t think that Christians are, in fact, commanded in this way. I do think that Christians feel all these things because too much teaching on forgiveness is simplistic, and hasn’t been thought through. And I’d suggest that we often subsume under the title ‘forgiveness’ very different things, which might not be forgiveness at all.
There’s so much that could be written, but I want to offer the following thoughts:
Biblical forgiveness requires repentance. It’s significant that the NT urges us to forgive after the model of God’s forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is not isolated and autonomous, but rather involves the offender – requiring an acknowledgement of the offence, and some kind of commitment not to re-offend. Forgiveness, according to this model, is fundamentally relational. This is how the earliest Gospel opens, with the message of John (Mark 1:4), how Luke’s gospel closes (Luke 24:47), and how Acts opens (Acts 2:38). In fact, it’s the constant pattern (building on the same pattern in the Old Testament). So, it’s important that Paul writes:
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. (Eph 4:32, see also Col 3:13)
And very important that Luke records Jesus saying when asked about how often his disciples should forgive:
“And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” (Luke 17:4)
Luke’s account of this saying is hugely important, certainly instructive, and often overlooked. I think it’s also important that when Jesus is being crucified, he isn’t recorded as saying to his executioners ‘I forgive you’, but rather as praying ‘Father, forgive them’ (Luke 23:34). It may be that here we find a reminder that the repentance required for forgiveness is, from a theological point of view, granted by God.
So, I’m affirming the approach of Maier, and underlining the importance of definitions like his. Biblical forgiveness requires repentance: an acknowledgement of fault, of sin; a taking of responsibility; and, a genuine commitment not to repeat those sins (even if that commitment may be broken). Biblical forgiveness is fundamentally relational. And it needs dialogue, communication. Such forgiveness leads to reconciliation, which sets the relationship on a healthy footing. The process can be long, and difficult, but there is a worthwhile goal. And it is right to pursue it.
Repentance doesn’t always occur. However, many contexts for offences don’t quite fit with this neat picture. What if the offender doesn’t believe they have offended? What if the offender has no intention of repentance, but intends to continue offending? Or, what if the offender is unknown to us? What if we had no previous contact or relationship with the offender, and the offence was committed in a random intersection of lives (one might think of a car accident with a drunk-driver, for example)?
For the first two, within the community of Christians, Jesus gives guidance in Matthew 18. Go to the offender, and initiate that dialogue; if there’s no progress, involve others; and, if necessary bring the judgement of the community (whether in the form of leaders, or a more corporate view – it’s debated) to bear. This guidance suggests general principles for those outside of the community of faith too. The aim is to bring repentance and reconciliation, but a possible outcome is intransigence, and in that case no personal or community forgiveness is realised (see Matt 18:17). This passage is really important – the offended person isn’t told that they must continue to live alongside, and in fellowship with, the unrepentant (and therefore hostile) offender. There is judgement, and the victim is protected from the hostility of the unrepentant offender by the expulsion of the offender.
But that still leaves the other contexts above, and plenty of others within which offenders can be unrepentant.
Forgiveness is not always possible. Jesus’s own accounts of judgement (e.g. Matt 25:31ff.) along with the (much-discussed) ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ (e.g. Matt 12:31-32) make abundantly clear that even God does not always forgive. This isn’t because God is capricious, but rather because offenders do not always repent.
Similarly, in terms of human relationships, Jesus makes clear in his own teaching that there will be people to whom we will not be reconciled. The category of ‘enemy’ (indicating a hostile relationship) is a very real one for Jesus, and in his view (and experience) even those closest to us can become our enemies (Matt 10:36; 26:25).
Maier himself categorises an offender’s refusal to repent as an ongoing act of hostility. Unrepentant offenders can therefore be legitimately thought of under the category of ‘enemy’. Is it significant that Jesus does not urge his disciples to forgive their enemies, but to love them and to pray for them? I think so.
Love for Enemies, and a Forgiveness Offered. Jesus’s teaching on enemies speaks into the kinds of contexts described above. An enemy is someone distant, not close. Someone whose hostility means that they are held at arms length (or beyond). It strikes me that many offences which are not repented of – whether because there’s no opportunity for contact with the offender, or because the offender is unrepentant – might be best understood in this way.
I’m not saying that all unrepentant offenders can be straightforwardly considered to be enemies – some may be. But the category of ‘enemy’, and Jesus teaching about enemies, is fruitful for considering our response to such offenders. Neither am I at all suggesting that adopting this approach somehow allows us to harbour hatred, to refuse to forgive, or to wish ill on offenders – Jesus doesn’t allow for these things. On the contrary, Jesus’s command concerning enemies requires a demanding reconfiguration of the very concept of enemy.
I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:44-45).
What is the biblical answer to unrepentant, even belligerent, offenders, or unknown offenders? It’s not some one-sided, therapeutic, pseudo-forgiveness. It is love for the enemy, and prayer for the enemy. It isn’t pretending the offence hasn’t happened, or hasn’t damaged us, or pretending that the enemy is a friend. It isn’t suppressing anger and pretending there isn’t a burning injustice. It isn’t denying the truth. It is loving the offender, alongside the acknowledgement of all these things. That is demanding. It’s a very difficult tension, but it strikes me that it’s a tension we see in God’s own response to sin.
And Jesus picks out prayer as a concrete expression of this difficult call to love the enemy. Prayer is the way in which we negotiate this tension. And, as we’ve seen, it’s something we see Jesus modelling: “Father, forgive them.”
Miroslav Volf, in his book Free of Charge, wrestles with these issues. He argues for a unilateral and real forgiveness on the part of the victim, with or without the repentance of the offender. This forgiveness can then be realised for the unrepentant offender, or rejected by the unrepentant (p.182ff.). I don’t agree with Volf’s argument at every point, and I disagree that what he describes is really forgiveness – for either party. I think that the picture Volf paints might best be described as a forgiveness offered.
Love and prayer for an unrepentant offender isn’t forgiveness. But it represents a forgiveness offered, an open door for the offender to take responsibility. It must be internalised – it is to adopt the attitude that if the offender came to us in repentance, and with a commitment to abandon hostility for peace and safety, then we would forgive them. I think this forgiveness offered may be what we see in Jesus’s prayer for his executioners, and there are also parallels here to God’s offer of forgiveness in Jesus Christ to repentant sinners.
And it might also be externalised – in the appropriate circumstances, this attitude would open the door to an offender who showed signs of a change of heart. Opening a door for repentance might sometimes be a very difficult and painful path, with the possibility of rejection. But if rejection happens, and there is no repentance, then we can leave it there. There is no responsibility for us to continue to engage in relationship, in pretending. There is no reason to adopt a one-sided pseudo-forgiveness, or to put ourselves in harm’s way through a continued, forced interaction with the offender – it is entirely appropriate to cease contact. If anger, and thoughts of injustice come to us, we can bring alongside that anger prayers for God to forgive, and hope in love that the offender would find a new path. And a prayer for ourselves for healing and freedom from that anger – for peace. We might seek a gradual letting go, a leaving in the past, the healing of time – but there is no reason to call that forgiveness. And we also need to understand that, in these circumstances, our anger and our sense of injustice are not wrong.
What I’m setting out is not a magic bullet solution, an instant resolution, but it is a path to follow, a path that at least allows us to cast off the burden of guilt that comes from feeling we have failed to respond to God’s (misunderstood) command to forgive.
For What It’s Worth. I would be the first to acknowledge that I do not have the formal training in psychological therapy that others have. But I have been trained to read texts, and to try to put together the biblical data into a coherent picture. To my mind, the suggestions here allow us to move towards a biblical realisation of some of the fruits sought by therapeutic forgiveness (e.g. finding peace and well-being through dealing with anger and bitterness) in the face of unrepentant offenders. And to do that without the burden of guilt arising from misunderstandings of what forgiveness is.
It’s a very difficult tension and path, and I think that for difficult cases psychological therapy (best of all within such a Christian framework) would be helpful. But perhaps the most important part of what I offer here – for further reflection – is the idea of the coexistence of love and prayer with a straightforward acknowledgment of injustice and hostility. This approach sees a unilateral pseudo-forgiveness as inappropriate, and separation and safety as entirely appropriate. It is Jesus’s teaching on enemies that opens the way for such an approach, and this teaching places demands on us to love, and let go of hatred, and pray for those who have offended.
Love your enemies. Pray for those who harass you, and pursue you. It is far from easy, but it is the way of Christ.