Author: Al McNicoll

We want perfection

Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Jesus announced good news to the world – and that good news was that “the Kingdom of God is near”. This is one of a series of posts about ways in which our society is longing for the Kingdom of God, although it doesn’t realise it yet. My hope is that they will provide a basis for conversations with friends, relatives and neighbours – and perhaps a gentle provocation to some readers who do not follow Jesus, too. You can see the original post, with links to others in the series, here.

What is the most offensive part of the Gospel to a Western audience? If you’d asked me ten years ago, I’d have been pretty confident that it was the idea of sin – that there was an absolute standard out there with the authority to judge our actions. However, this is shifting – my wife Caroline first noticed this a few years back on an Alpha course, when someone expressed utter disgust at the idea of God forgiving people who had done “really bad things”. Increasingly, society’s issue with Christianity is not simply around the existence of sin, but around the moral validity of forgiveness.

Earlier this week, I read an article reflecting on the #metoo campaign and analysing the apologies (or non-apologies) of the various perpetrators1https://www.in-mind.org/article/sorry-not-sorry-apologies-and-denials-in-the-metoo-movement. It concluded: “Can perpetrators of #MeToo-abuse be forgiven and return to society? At present, the answer to these questions is still unclear … whether such behaviour can be forgiven is uncertain. Indeed, research suggests that some crimes may never be forgiven.”

The question is further complicated by the passage of time – should someone be held to account for something they said thirty years ago? Should someone be judged by today’s standards for what they did under historic social norms?2This article provides some interesting food for thought on the subject: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_Virginia_political_crisis However, the answer is coming back increasingly clearly – the passage of time is not a get-out, and different historic norms of attitude and behaviour do not offer a valid excuse.

The fact is this: society today demands perfection. This is not only on major moral issues such as sexual abuse and racism – the national debate over Brexit led not only to division between factions, but also to unprecedented levels of personal attacks on people for their association with one camp or another. Student unions have no-platformed people because historically they shared a platform with someone with conservative social opinions. My intent is not to agree or disagree with these attitudes, but simply to highlight a significant shift – whereas before Christians needed to make a case for why all sin should be punishable (the classic morality scale from Hitler to Mother Theresa, asking where the “good enough for heaven” line should be), nowadays that conversation is changing. Instead, the question is, “can people truly be forgiven?”

So what, then, do we do with the truth which we all know deep down and which most try to conceal – the truth that we have all said, done and thought things which would cause many to reject us if they knew? It strikes me that most people in a perfection-demanding society escape censure simply by keeping their heads down and avoiding scrutiny: wind up under scrutiny, and sooner or later you’ll do something or someone will unearth something you did which renders you guilty. This fragile state of affairs – flying under the radar – must surely lead to a high level of inner conflict. Paul described the inability to live up to even our own standards in strong, bitter words:

For what I want to do, I do not do – and what I hate, I do … For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing … What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Romans 7

Our society is right – in part, at least. Perfection is the standard, and the passage of time does not wash away guilt. As might be expected, society’s standards of right and wrong do not always line up with God’s standards as revealed in the Scriptures, but the concept stands. Our desire for perfection is a good desire, but combined with a forlorn hope of human self-improvement, it inevitably ends up in a bitter and accusing form: seeing the faults in others and demanding change, while hiding away our own sins. This has been the case ever since the first sin, in which Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake in the garden of Eden, the last place where humans knew perfection. The good news of the Kingdom of God is that there is a genuine, solid hope for perfection ahead: not only a perfect environment, but also perfected humans to inhabit it.

As the pressure increases not only to live faultlessly, but also to have lived faultlessly, there is an opportunity to explain the Good News to people: “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”3C.S. Lewis discussed the validity of God forgiving sins of one human against another in this excellent clip from Mere Christianity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxzuh5Xx5G4&t=582

Have you had a recent conversation with a friend, relative or colleague in which you discussed the failings of a public figure? If so, did you take the easy path of simply agreeing, or did you draw attention to the truth that we all fall short of the mark? And have you ever had a conversation about what is needed for someone to be forgiven? Why not think through how you might explain in conversation the conflict between our desire for perfection and our inability to be perfect ourselves, as well as how you would explain God’s solution.

June 24th – Romans 8:1-17

June 24th – Romans 8:1-17

This week’s Home Group questions relate to Romans 8:1-17.

  1. Out of all the comparisons between “by the flesh” and “by the Spirit” in Romans 8, which one do you find affects your daily life the most?
  2. How would you explain to a new believer what it means to “live by the Spirit”?
  3. Romans 8:16 says that the Spirit Himself testifies with our spirits that we are children of God. How has He done this in your life? Try to avoid using special Christian vocabulary where possible.
  4. Think and reflect on our corporate meetings, as well as on your own devotional life. In what ways do we allow the Holy Spirit to lead us? Can you think of ways in which we might quench the Spirit? Can you think of ways we could adjust our corporate practice to make more space for the Spirit to lead us?
June 10th – Romans 6:1-7:6

June 10th – Romans 6:1-7:6

This week’s Home Group questions relate to Romans 6:1-7:6.

  1. Are we in the habit of asking God to reveal to us “any offensive way in us”? If so, how do we go about doing so?
  2. How would we describe our identity in Christ, using only words that are commonly understood by non-Christians?
    (if you want to make it a fun challenge, you could try testing our your explanations in this online checker!)
  3. What words or phrases do I use to describe myself to others? What words or phrases do I use when I think about myself? Do they reinforce or undermine the truth of my identity in Christ?
  4. How would my life change if I truly took on board my identity in Christ?
  5. Romans 6 teaches us to offer ourselves as slaves of righteousness leading to holiness. Am I actively seeking to grow in holiness? If so, how? If not, what needs to change?

We want freedom (but also laws)

Deep down you know, in your soul
Love is in control
Oh, if you could find the angel within
Time, time to have faith in your wings
Free, everybody’s free, yeah
In the new day that’s coming
Freedom for all is our destiny

Robert Miles

Jesus announced good news to the world – and that good news was that “the Kingdom of God is near”. This is one of a series of posts about ways in which our society is longing for the Kingdom of God, although it doesn’t realise it yet. My hope is that they will provide a basis for conversations with friends, relatives and neighbours – and perhaps a gentle provocation to some readers who do not follow Jesus, too. You can see the original post, with links to others in the series, here.

The discussion of politics and culture in our world today does not use the same vocabulary as it did even ten years ago, let alone twenty. One particularly noticeable shift is that divides previously described as “left/right” or “conservative/liberal” now tend to be described in terms of “conservative/progressive” – or in some circles, “backward/progressive”. Most cultures have a directional arrow which constitutes the “progress” society is looking for. For decades, “progress” in Western nations was scientific – the advancement of knowledge; in our current time, it has come to mean the removing of historic social and moral boundaries.

The point of this observation is not to critique those social and moral changes, but rather to note that our cultural appetite is for social boundary-breaking. Those who are on the cutting edge of campaigning for the removal of a given boundary or taboo are heroes, but when the goal is accomplished they cannot rest on that, but are required to continue to push boundaries in order to be accepted – you have only to look at the cultural fate of Germaine Greer to see this in action. This illustrates the fact that our culture values the act of breaking norms and removing boundaries over the value of what is achieved by those actions.

At the same time, we are legislating at a faster rate than ever – I remember a conversation with a lawyer who explained that the pace of legislation was such that legal draughtsmen struggle to keep up, and consequently draft laws that are difficult to enforce. Why is it that we want to do away with past norms and laws, and yet we create even more laws at an unsustainable pace?

Scripturally, rebellion has been a human problem since the first sin, back in Genesis. However, there’s something else at play here too. Some of the difficulty that teenagers have relating to parental rules is that they know that they’re transitioning to a place of greater responsibility, in which they are liable for their own actions, and free to make their own successes and mistakes. Scripture shows us that we, too, were created not for laws but for loving relationship. The letter to the Galatians teaches:

Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic law. The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.

Galatians 3:23-24 (The Message paraphrase)

We were made to do right out of a place of love and faith, not because the law required it of us. There is something of this instinct in current culture, too – we don’t only want people to behave rightly, we want them to think rightly. So cultural campaigns try to win hearts and minds – but in case that fails, they also campaign for legislation to make it illegal to publicly disagree.

The missing piece in all of this is that the human heart is inherently corrupt. Progressive humanism operates on the basis that humans are either basically good, or at least morally neutral – and that if we can improve our thinking and our conditions sufficiently, human utopia is possible – just take a look at the opening quotation, taken from a 90s pop song. The constant need to enforce these improvements with laws points to the truth being quite the opposite: in its natural condition, without enforced boundaries, humanity is self-destructive and greedy, and needs to be controlled.

The solution to this is regeneration, or being born again. Paul explains that while we start life enslaved to sin, when we turn to Christ and are filled with His Spirit, we are dead to that old state of affairs, and alive to a new way of living. Before, our hearts were drawn to sin and occasionally we managed to salvage a semi-noble act from them; now, our hearts are drawn to God, but we occasionally slip or rebel.

This is the Kingdom of God which Jesus introduces – one in which our default attitude and behaviour changes. In His Kingdom, laws can be rendered unnecessary by a change of heart: we don’t need to be told not to stab someone if we leave the house with an armload of gifts to distribute. We won’t cross that line, because we’re running in the opposite direction. If we grasp the meaning of the Good Samaritan, of “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbour as yourself”, then we end up where Jesus does in the sermon on the mount: “you have heard it said ‘do not murder’; but I say to you don’t even get angry with your brother … you’ve heard it said ‘do not commit adultery’; but I say to you don’t even look lustfully at a woman.” This is possible – but only if we ask God to make us new, and to fill us with His Spirit.

In a recent conversation, a neighbour of mine said, “I’d thought when I moved to the charitable sector that everyone would be noble and altruistic, but there’s the same ladder-climbing and politics as you’d find in a corporation.” Have you ever had conversations like this around whether humans are inherently good? How might you explain to someone what difference it makes to be born again?

June 3rd – Pentecost

June 3rd – Pentecost

This week’s Home Group questions relate to Pentecost, and to Acts 2.

  1. What aspects of our life and witness would benefit from a fresh empowering of God’s Spirit?
  2. In terms of receiving God’s Spirit, do we feel you have already received most of what God has for you this side of eternity? If not, what more are we hoping for? (it may be helpful to read a passage such as Ephesians 5:17-20 or Acts 4:29-31)
  3. Do our prayer times – individual and communal – reflect an attitude of expectation with regard to the Holy Spirit?

Rather than more questions, it would be good to leave time to pray for each other for a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit. You may want to start by reading together Psalm 63: “Lord, you are my God – earnestly I seek you”.

If you want to use the song Al mentioned on Sunday, a version with lyrics can be found here.

May 27th – Romans 5:1-21

May 27th – Romans 5:1-21

Home Groups are not meeting this week because of the Members’ Meeting. However, one really good way of making sure we’re living in the good of the Scriptures would be to discuss some of these questions, relating to Romans 5:1-21, with members of your Home Group in another setting.

  1. What is “character” in this passage? How does character build hope? Can you give an example from your own life?
  2. What has your experience been of the Holy Spirit? How has the love of God been “poured out in your heart” by the Spirit?
  3. Christ died for us while we were still sinners. How does this truth affect how we relate to non-Christians?
  4. If someone was to say that Jesus was “just another man” or “a good teacher”, what differences would you highlight between Jesus and other people?
  5. Can you tell part of your testimony in a way that explains what it means for you to have “peace with God”?

We want justice

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
    for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
    defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Proverbs 31:8-9

Jesus announced good news to the world – and that good news was that “the Kingdom of God is near”. This is one of a series of posts about ways in which our society is longing for the Kingdom of God, although it doesn’t realise it yet. My hope is that they will provide a basis for conversations with friends, relatives and neighbours – and perhaps a gentle provocation to some readers who do not follow Jesus, too. You can see the original post, with links to others in the series, here.

Global justice movements have gathered unprecedented pace and momentum in the last decade – movements for equal pay, against discrimination and human trafficking. Additionally, campaigns which have been around for longer such as the fight against global warming have been reinterpreted through this lens – in this generation, we don’t want to “save the planet”, we want “climate justice”. However, we have built a society that is deeply unjust, and sometimes the attempts to unpick it are overwhelming. The computer that I’m typing on at the moment may well contain components made by workers in unsafe conditions; the food we buy and the clothes we wear are consumer choices that often perpetuate injustice elsewhere in the world. If we borrow money to buy a house – as almost anyone buying will need to do – are we contributing to a system where only the rich can afford to live securely? And will the bank we borrow from invest its profits in companies that manufacture arms and sell them irresponsibly? We long for justice, but it seems that the total reset that’s needed is beyond our best efforts.

The answer is the Kingdom of God! That’s not to say that Christians live perfectly in this regard – far from it. However, one key foundation of the Christian faith is that God works in us to transform not only our behaviour, but also our desires. What would it look like for whole swathes of people throughout every section of society and in every nation to undergo this transformation? Then, to use the words of the prophet Amos, justice would roll on like a river – righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Why can this not happen through secular global movements? Avaaz.org claims a membership of 62 million people; 6 million people worldwide joined in “climate strikes” last year; blue-chip companies now pay their auditors for “sustainability audits” in response to public opinion – surely there is global momentum for justice? The trouble is – we don’t all agree on what justice is. This is seen most clearly in the “clashes of rights” that come to the fore every now and again. We could look at the Birmingham protests, where Muslims objected to the diversity curriculum – we want justice against homophobia and transphobia, but we also want justice against Islamophobia, so which one wins out? Pornography objectifies women, teaches objectification, and often exploits trafficked women; but surely women have the right to do what they want with their bodies and men have the right to consume what they want so long as no children are involved?1Just in case it’s unclear, I’m reporting society’s attitude here, not stating my own!

This clash becomes even more stark when it comes to the unborn. Lord Shinkwin, commenting on the recent discussion of his abortion disability bill, stated, “What I don’t understand is how after birth I can be good enough for the Prime Minister and the Queen to send me to the House of Lords but before birth I’m only good enough for the incinerator. I’m part of a group of people with congenital conditions that is being systematically killed.” He and others have regularly pointed out the inconsistencies of our approach to justice: take for instance two babies, conceived on the same day and with the same genetic disability. One is born two days before the other, and it is not only treated as a fully human life to be protected, but is further shielded by additional anti-discrimination legislation; on the same day, the other child can legally be killed simply because it is still inside its mother’s womb. This arises because of conflicting ideas of justice, and whose rights matter most.

Lord Shinkwin, who has championed the rights of unborn disabled babies

There is an answer to these clashes, and I wonder if our society might nearly be ready for it. It focuses on laying down our own rights, and standing up for those who cannot speak for themselves. So much of what divides society stems from our concern for ourselves – our benefit, our rights. Look at how divisive debates such as the one around Brexit took place in the public arena: almost all of the campaigning and slogans were about which decision would make life better for me – which would offer me better economic stability, better opportunities, more freedom. However justice-minded we may be, there is a strong leaning towards wanting justice for ourselves first, and many people would trace all our human evils back to this intrinsic self-centredness.

It is not only a question of laying down rights, however – we will also need to adopt a universal standard. The only way through for a relativistic society will be to adopt an unchanging, objective standard; the only one qualified to set such a standard is the God who made us – anything else involves one group of people claiming the moral high ground with no basis for their claim. This will undoubtedly be uncomfortable for many, as it involves laying down our own right to decide what’s good and what’s evil; it involves acknowledging that God is in charge.

Thankfully, God is not simply a God who gives rules and laws: He changes hearts. If we really want to see justice in our generation – and if we are willing to lay down self-determination and accept God’s rule over us – He will set to work on our hearts, soften away the selfishness, and help us to live lives that are truly motivated by a love for others. And that is not a forlorn hope, but rather a truth with millennia of changed lives as proof.

Do you have friends or neighbours who are strongly motivated by social justice issues? Have you spoken with them about how the Kingdom of God is one of justice? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments section!

The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad;
    let the distant shores rejoice.
Clouds and thick darkness surround him;
    righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.

Psalm 97:1-2

A Nation at Tipping Point?

There is fashion, there is fad,
Some is good, some is bad.
And the joke is rather sad:
That it’s all just a little bit of history repeating…

Propellorheads / Shirley Bassey

The Old Testament is more than a collection of historical records, poems and provocations – it recounts in detail, and from many different viewpoints, a very long story of God dealings with people – and in particular with one nation, through whom He revealed to the wider world what He is like.

Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelite nation go through repeating cycles: God delivers them from oppression and they live gratefully for a while, but then they turn away and start to live their own way. God protects them from the consequences for a while, and warns them that life doesn’t work that way, but when they persist, He withdraws that protection and lets them see what it’s like to live without His constant blessing. They start to experience difficulties, society breaks down, foreign relations become aggressive, and inevitably they end up oppressed by their own despot or by another nation. Finally, they reach a tipping point where their distress is greater than their pride, and they call out to God – and He rescues them. They live gratefully for a while, but then … well, you get the picture.

Why mention this now? Well, looking around at our situation in the UK, I believe that we are nearing that tipping point. Why? Firstly, as Pete Grieg has written1See this article on Premier’s website, there are signs that people are reaching out to God in this time: church attendance is increasing, many are praying for the first time, and songs such as “The Blessing” are being watched by hundreds of new people with each passing minute. However, this is also against a backdrop in which people are deeply longing for change – and much of that change they long for is really the Kingdom of God.

Much of the change that people are longing for is really the Kingdom of God.

That’s a bold statement to make! If at the end of 2019 you’d made the claim that the rapid social change we were witnessing was really a longing for more of God, I think most would have dismissed it. As our fronts of self-confidence are stripped away in this time of Coronavirus, I think we’re seeing that it’s true. Below, I’ve listed off some ways in which I think our society is longing for the Kingdom of God. None is without their problems for society – in each area, the Kingdom goes far beyond what humans hope for, but it also challenges our standards and motivations.

Within our society, there is a mix of desires. We can be quick to point out the ones that are “fallen” (that is: hostile to God); but even in our fallen state, we carry something of the image of God, and we desire good and right things, too. Could those “right desires” be pointers to faith for people we know? My hope is that these posts will provide a basis for conversations with friends, relatives and neighbours – and perhaps a gentle provocation to some readers who do not follow Jesus, too! And along with all this, let it push us to prayer. Our nation needs to experience the Kingdom of God!

May 20th – Romans 4:1-25

May 20th – Romans 4:1-25

This week’s Home Group questions relate to Romans 4:1-25.

  1. What action or decision in your life so far has required the most faith (a) in God? (b) in another person?
  2. Are there any things in your life where you are holding out in faith, but have not yet seen a response? How do you continue to have faith over long periods of time?
  3. If someone asked you, “what does it mean to have faith in Jesus?” how would you explain it?
  4. Hebrews 11:13 tells us of Abraham and others, “all these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them at a distance…”
    What goals, projects or vision do you have faith for, which you will not see accomplished in your lifetime?
  5. What do you most struggle with in living a life of faith?
  6. When we believe, our punishment is taken away and instead we are made right before God – we are ‘justified’. There is nothing we do to earn this except having faith. How do you do at living in the truth of this? Are there ways in which you still try to justify your existence?