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Saturday, 29 October 2011

Contrarian Living



Since the establishment of stock markets in capitalist economies, analysts have been studying market trends with the aim of predicting which stocks are about to go up or down (in order to buy low and sell high, as the saying goes). One approach to market analysis is “contrarian theory.” This theory, put very simplistically, says that an investor should find out what the crowd is thinking, and then do the opposite. New York Stock Exchange pioneer Charles H. Dow wrote, “When it’s obvious to the public, it’s obviously wrong.” Garfield A. Drew, a later advocate of contrarian analysis, claimed that “Only 5 percent of the population think for themselves, 10 percent copy the 5 percent, and 85 percent believe what they read and hear and do what they are told.”

This insight was made in the context of the stock market, but it can be extended to many other areas of human activity. How many of our opinions are truly ours, and how many are pushed upon us by our peers, or the mass media? The fields of marketing, public relations, and yes, even religion, are concerned with influencing people’s opinions and behaviour.

‘Herd mentality’ has been around as long as we humans have. An evil herd mentality dominated the earth in Noah’s time to such an extent that God observed that “all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth” (Genesis 6:12). Noah and his family were the only ones who walked with God and were spared from the ensuing Flood. In both Noah’s case and that of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), those who had the courage to think for themselves and stand up to the evil around them were very few – far less than 5 percent in fact!

Jesus may have had these ancient outpourings of divine wrath in mind when he gave this principle: “13 Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).

The road to destruction is pictured as a well paved highway with lots of travelers on it. The travelers assume that, because most people are choosing this route, it must be the best. How could so many people be wrong? But Jesus reminded us, “If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14). He predicted that the last days before his Second Coming would be like the times of Noah and Sodom: people were following others’ false ideas, carrying on their daily lives and oblivious to anything beyond food, drink, sex and business (Luke 17:23-30). He called on those who would be saved to be contrarian thinkers: “Don’t follow or run after them” (Luke 17:23 HCSB).

Instead, Jesus has called us to be contrarian thinkers – to take the road less travelled. This does not mean to be different for the sake of being different, or to take a “Question everything” approach to life. It simply means we should follow our own convictions rather than taking our cues from social norms. It also means we should have courage to be in the minority when the majority are wrong. This principle was written into the Law of Moses: “Do not follow the majority when they do wrong” (Exodus 23:2).

The danger with contrarian thinking is that it can lead to elitism. If we believe our religious group is the chosen few, it becomes too easy to isolate ourselves and look down on everybody else. If this is our mindset, we could do with a reminder that the family of God is not hereditary: we all must be radically born again regardless of our religious pedigree (John 3:1-10). We have a mandate to bring Christ’s good news to all creation (Matthew 28:19), and this cannot be achieved unless we humble ourselves like he did (Philippians 2:3-8).

We are not to be conformed to the world around us; we are to be transformed by God (Romans 12:2). Both these verbs are passive in the original Greek, so either way we are following someone else. We do not achieve perfection through will-power or self-help, but by looking to the right source of leadership. It is only by God’s grace and power that we can resist the mob mentality; not by our own strength. God wants us to be like sheep, which require a lot of care and close supervision, and not like goats, which are more self-reliant (Matthew 25:32-33; John 10:27).

To live by faith is to follow an invisible God, even if doing so is contrary to what we see happening around us.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Beatitudes and Bewaritudes


One of the most well known parts of the Bible is the series of statements known as “The Beatitudes” with which Jesus opened the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:2-12). Each Beatitude declares those who have a certain personal quality to be “blessed” and promises them a particular reward. The Gospel of Luke also contains a version of The Beatitudes. It is less famous than Matthew’s version, probably because it is shorter (four Beatitudes instead of nine). However, there are other important differences. While Matthew’s Beatitudes focus mainly on character attributes, Luke’s focus on what might be termed ‘circumstances of living.’ Luke’s Beatitudes are also intriguing in that they are followed by “Woes” or (to coin a phrase) Bewaritudes, which are the opposite of Beatitudes. These sayings of Jesus read as follows in the English Standard Version:

Luke 6:20-26: “20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. "Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. 22 "Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! 23 Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. 24 "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 "Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. "Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. 26 "Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”
The word ‘woe’ isn’t one we use every day, but the Greek word behind it is an exclamation of grief, like “Oh no!” or “What a pity!” As we read these words of Jesus an obvious question presents itself: “Ummm…What?” Jesus describes circumstances that we typically describe as “less fortunate” or “underprivileged” (poverty, hunger, grief and rejection/unpopularity) and calls them blessed. Then he describes circumstances that most people envy and aspire to (wealth, feasting, laughter and fame/popularity) and calls them less fortunate. In other words, we should feel sorry for the celebrities who grace the covers of lifestyle magazines and music videos on MTV, and should envy despised, brokenhearted beggars.

It sounds crazy, but the key to understanding this message is time. Seen through God’s eyes, this life is just a blip, and the next life is what it’s really all about. Wealth, fullness, laughter and popularity tend to blind people to their need for a relationship with God, and distract them from the far greater blessings that could be theirs in the future. By contrast, poverty, hunger, grief and unpopularity cause people to put their faith in God and the everlasting reward that he offers. This is precisely why the Christian faith is on the decline in affluent Europe and North America but thriving in the developing world.

So what does all of this mean in practical terms? Should we sell off our worldly possessions? Not necessarily. There are poor atheists and there are wealthy saints. What really matters is where our heart is; but we should recognize that poverty and hunger are more conducive to godliness than wealth and feasting. So if you’re breathing a sigh of relief that you can keep your beloved Mercedes-Benz, maybe you should think about how attached you are to your possessions. After all, Jesus did command one wealthy young man to sell everything and donate the proceeds to charity as a prerequisite for being a disciple (Luke 18:22).

What about the persecution bit? Should we go around seeking persecution? We should not seek it, but it will find us, as Paul’s ‘Law of Persecution’ states: “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). If we take a stand for Christ and against evil with courage and integrity, there will be people who will make life difficult for us – maybe even from our own family (Matthew 10:34-36).

As for grief versus laughter, Jesus may have been alluding to the words of Ecclesiastes 7:2-3: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.” In this context, we are probably talking about the kind of laughter associated with partying. Sorrow builds character and perspective; laughter (especially of the alcohol-induced sort) does not. This life is about building character; there will be plenty of time for laughter in the next. As the saying goes, “He who laughs last laughs longest.”

In summary, the heart of a Christian is not focused on materialism or enjoying the finest luxuries in this life. He/she doesn’t have a list of “1000 things to do before you die” because death is not the end, so what’s the rush? Nor is he/she focused on “winning friends and influencing people” like Dale Carnegie’s adherents. He/she is mainly concerned with loving God and loving others, and rejoicing in the grace and promises of God. I feel this message is à propos because of the “prosperity gospel” which has spread from America to a growing global audience.

The prosperity gospel says that good Christians should expect to be rewarded by God in this life with money. Some proponents go as far as to claim that those who tithe to the church can expect financial reward from God in return. Worst of all, they make the poor to feel guilty and inadequate. After all, if faithfulness to God leads to financial gain, then poor people must be unfaithful to God, right? Some prosperity preachers are getting rich by guilt-tripping the poor into giving their money to the church. They are replacing the Good News of the Kingdom of God with the American Dream. They view their own wealth as a mark of divine approval, but they need to reread the Bewaritudes.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Five Reasons why Pre-existence Matters


Many of the entries in this blog over the past few months have focused on lines of biblical evidence for the pre-existence of Christ: that Christ personally existed as a divine being prior to his birth as a human being.
The pre-existence of Christ has long been a hotly debated subject among Christian thinkers and students of the Bible. For some Christians, however, such a topic might seem confined to the realm of theologians and philosophers. Pre-existence is an odd enough idea; and why does it matter whether Christ pre-existed? How is it relevant to my life as a follower of Jesus Christ?

In this blog we want to briefly touch on five reasons why the pre-existence of Christ matters, and how an understanding of this doctrine could enrich your faith and your spiritual walk.
  1. It increases God’s sacrificial involvement in our salvation. God did not merely create a special man to die for our sins; he sent his already existent Son whom he loved. Within a Trinitarian framework it could even be said that God himself became flesh to save us. “He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him” (Isaiah 59:16). 
  2. It adds another dimension to Jesus’ sacrifice. He did not simply learn as he grew up that he was a man designed for a special mission. He made a conscious choice to embark on that mission, and in doing so he gave up the prerogatives of heavenly divinity to live within the constraints of a mortal human body in a fallen creation. As Paul wrote in Philippians 2:4-8 (and more concisely in 2 Corinthians 8:9), this was the ultimate example of humility.
  3. It makes salvation a divine gift, not a human achievement. If Jesus was merely a human being, albeit a Spirit-filled one, then God’s plan of salvation depended on a man to deliver the victory. A creature is the hero of the salvation epic, not the Creator. This contradicts many passages about salvation belonging to the Lord (Jonah 2:9), glory belonging to God alone (Isaiah 42:8), and the vanity of human achievement (1 Corinthians1:29-31). If Christ himself was a pre-existent, uncreated divine being, however, everything he achieved can be credited to God. 
  4. It justifies worship of Jesus Christ. The New Testament is full of praise, worship, and prayer to the exalted Lord Jesus Christ (e.g. Revelation 5:13), and these practices continue amongst Christians today. Have we ever stopped to ask why these practices arose, and still persist, with respect to a human being? The strict monotheism of the Old Testament does not allow for the deification of a human being; this would be a blasphemous affront to the sovereignty of God. But if this human being was in fact a pre-existent being who had always belonged to the identity of the God of Israel, problem solved. 
  5. It marks the Christian faith’s uniqueness. In this age of religious pluralism, it is often said that each religion is a different, but equally valid, path by which humans may find God or the higher principle. If the pre-existence of Christ is true, however, then trying to find God is missing the point because God has come to us on our own terms. As we explored in a previous blog, the pre-existence makes Christ a two-way ladder connecting God and man, heaven and earth (John 1:51).
In summary, then, the pre-existence of Christ is not just an abstract notion for Christian philosophers and theological think tanks. It is at the heart of the gospel message and has real implications for how we relate to God and how we live out our faith.