Our modern civilization with its addiction to money and power has left so much unaddressed; our need for beauty, for poetry, for art, for mystery and dreams, to find love, the meaning of life, for personal contact with God. The rush of modern life has left each of us with the niggling conscience that this is the sort of life we want to have, indeed, that we ought to follow. But not only do we not follow our conscience; we don’t know where to find something, some philosophy, some religion, which somehow synthesizes all these needs together. People today- young people especially- are so often asking the ultimate questions, looking for the right things, but in the wrong places. The metanarrative of modern art, in all its forms from movies to songs to novels, records the distraughtness of humanity, our malaise, the hidden longing for deliverance and redemption which there is not far beneath the surface of us all. But with all due respect to the forms in which this is expressed- the fineness of the art, power of the wordsmithing, the screenplay... modern men and women are groping like the blind in search of a wall of support, desperate for some familiar guide towards the true path. The self-introspection of internet blogs, humanity's increasing preoccupation with itself, is the result of a failure to find that path. They rage in vain against a society which has lots its spiritual roots.
But I’m bold enough to suggest that in God and in His Son Jesus, as the Bible reveals them, stripped of all the theology of men, the accretions of nominal Christian culture… we find just what we need and were unconsciously looking for, even longing for, all our lives. I can only say ‘taste and see…’. For all other commentary or persuasion would be bathos compared to the real Christ and the real God as they truly are. So this is the approach I take to those who call themselves unbelievers. I don’t actually think anyone is a total unbeliever. And I will not give you reasons X,Y and Z to believe that God or Jesus exist; for faith, by its definition, is not faith if the evidence sits visibly in front of us. Rather I want to discuss with you the results of believing in them. But to begin with, I need to explain what God and Jesus stand for; because there are so many wrong ideas about them. My understanding of them is unashamedly based upon the Bible alone. I can’t recommend you too strongly to get a Bible and read it for yourself.
Salvation, eternal life, forgiveness of our sins, is a pure gift from God, unattainable by our own efforts. Through this grace, God looks at us as if we are as perfect as His perfect son, Jesus. This is what love between persons is all about- seeing another person in a positive way. Realizing that we are in the grace of God, justified by Him through our being in Christ, leads us to a far greater and happier acceptance of ourselves as persons. So many people are unhappy with themselves. It’s why we look in mirrors in a certain way when nobody else is watching; why we’re so concerned to see how we turned out in a photograph. Increasingly, this graceless world can’t accept itself. People aren’t happy or acceptant of their age [they want to look and be younger or older], their body, their family situation, even their gender and their own basic personality. I found that when I truly accepted my salvation by grace, when the wonder of who I am in God’s sight, as a man in Christ, really dawned on me… I became far happier with myself, far more acceptant.
The extent of grace is that not even sin, which on one hand separates from God, can actually separate us from the love of God in Christ. We are often plagued by a desire to separate out the things for which we are justly suffering, and things in which we are innocent victims. We struggle over whether our cancer or her depression is our fault, or whether we only got into unhealthy behaviours as a result of others' stressing us... etc. This struggle to understand the balance between personal guilt and being a victim of circumstance or other people makes it hard for some people to free themselves from guilt. Seeking to understand is especially acute when we face death, suffering, tragedy, or experience broken relationships. How much was I to blame? In how much was I merely a victim? My determined conclusion is that it is impossible, at least by any intellectual process, to separate out that suffering for which we are personally guilty, and that suffering which we are merely victims of. The cross of Jesus was not only to remove personal guilt through forgiveness; all our human sufferings and sicknesses were laid upon Him there. Our burdens, both of our own guilt and those which are laid upon us by life or other people, are and were carried by Him who is our total saviour.
The Bible has so much to say about death, depicting us as having a “body of death” (Rom. 7:24). And yet by being baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have the hope of resurrection when Jesus returns to earth. And yet humanity generally doesn’t want to seriously consider death. Yet death is the moment of final truth, which makes all men and women ultimately equal, destroying all the categories into which we place people during our or their lives. If we regularly read and accept the Bible’s message, death, with all its intensity and revelation of truth and the ultimate nature of human issues, is something which is constantly before us, something we realistically face and know, not only in sickness or at funerals. And the realness, the intensity, the truth… which comes from this will be apparent in our lives.
And yet the fear of death grips our society more than we like to admit. A psychologist described the huge “number of people who dream that they are locked in, that everywhere they come up against iron-bound and padlocked doors, that they absolutely must escape, and yet there is no way out”. And in Christ we find a freedom from that fear. Because the Lord Jesus was of our human nature- and here perhaps more than anywhere else we see the crucial practical importance of true doctrine- we are freed from the ranks of all those who through fear of death live their lives in bondage (Heb. 2:15). For He died for us, as our representative. How true are those inspired words. “To release them who through fear / phobos of death were all their living-time subject to slavery” (Gk.). Nearly all the great psychologists concluded that the mystery of death obsesses humanity; and in the last analysis, all anxiety is reduced to anxiety about death. You can see it for yourself, in how death, or real, deep discussion of it, is a taboo subject; how people will make jokes about it in reflection of their fear of seriously discussing it. People, even doctors, don’t quite know what to really say to the dying. There can be floods of stories and chit-chat… all carefully avoiding any possible allusion to death. This fear of death, in which the unredeemed billions of humanity have been in bondage, explains the fear of old age, the unwillingness to accept our age for what it is, our bodies for how and what they are, or are becoming
Really believing the things of which we have spoken here can change us fundamentally. Faith in the good news about Jesus leads us to an acceptance of our salvation, of who we are as persons, acceptance that we are sinners, acceptance of everything around us that cannot be changed until the Kingdom comes on earth at Jesus’ return. Acceptance, in the end, of grace; an acceptance that merges into faith, faith in its full and final sense as we soberly contemplate our death, judgment to come, and the awesome prospect of utter infinity shared with the Father and Son.
It may well be that all the unanswered questions which there are about God, the world, life, creation... somehow are a barrier to you. But a person who decides to trust only what is [apparently] explainable or controllable ends up a geek, losing the sense of mystery and wonder which we once had as children. So there is no need to fear the unanswered questions... the only alternative is to endlessly seek power, control, cold rational explanation. And this too is ultimately unattainable, and the essentially unanswered questions will always remain. When Moses had the 'hard questions' ('Why have you chosen me? Why have you done this?'), God doesn't chide Moses for asking those questions (Ex. 5:22-6:1). Instead, He patiently bears with Moses. And so He will do with us in our age.
Believing in God's very existence of itself affects a man's behaviour. " The living God" is a phrase often used in the Bible by men in prayer or desperate straits. God is, He is the living One, and He therefore is a rewarder of those who seek Him. Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov [through the mouth of one of his characters] aptly observed: " If there is no God, everything is permitted" . And the reverse is so true: seeing there is a God, all aspects of life come under this imperative.
But it’s not just a matter of saying that 'God exists'. What we need to know, of course, is not just that God exists, not just that beyond the steely brightness of the stars there is a cosmic intelligence of some kind that keeps the whole show going, but that there is a God right here in the thick of our every-day lives. It is not objective proof of God's existence we want but, whether we use religious language for it or not, the experience of God's presence. For it is in the apparent trivia of life that we see God the most clearly, hour by hour.
The Bible reveals God as a person. Having a personal relationship with a personal God means that we in that process develop as persons after His image; for there is something magnetically changing about being in relationship with Him. At times it seems that we cannot separate ourselves from the world to which we belong. We’re stuck with an unbelieving or unhelpful partner, sniffly kids, long hours at work, the TV always on, the phone always ringing. But we as unique and individual persons can personally relate to the personal God and His Son, thus finding the ultimate privacy and isolation which being human in this world appears to preclude. But further, it’s actually in the very razzamattaz of our mundane, frustrated experience in this world that we can come to know God, and in which God reveals Himself to us. And how does all this happen in practice? To experience God is to know Him. So often the prophets speak of ‘knowing God’ as meaning ‘to experience God’. Because God is love, to love is to know God (1 Jn. 4:8). Quite simply, how deeply we have loved [and I am speaking of ‘love’ in its Biblical sense] is how deeply we have known God- and vice versa. And that love is worked out in the very earthliness and worldliness of human life in practice.
The fact that we have been created by God means that life and existence around us has a purpose. Job was told that the very fact he had been created by God and his breath was in God’s hand meant that his apparently inexplicable trials had indeed come from God and had a purpose (Job 12:10). If He created us in the first place, then we can expect that His hand will continue to mould our lives through trials in an ongoing, creative way.
Because of the work of God as creator and the power of the Word that formed it all, we should likewise stand in awe of Him and recognize the power of His word (Ps. 33:6-9). The word we have in our Bibles has the same creative power as the word through which the world was created and exists even now. Because we are created in God's image, the structure of our very bodies is an imperative to give ourselves totally to His cause (Mt. 22:19-21). Whatever bears God's image- i.e. our very bodies- must be given to Him. " It is he that has made us, and [therefore] we are his" (Ps. 100:3). We must be His in practice because He is our creator. God as creator created man in His own image; and therefore we shouldn't curse men (James 3:9). By reason of the image they bear, we are to act to all men as we would to God Himself; we are not to treat some men as we would animals, who are not in the image of God. Quite simply, respect for the person of others is inculcated by sustained reflection on the way that they too are created in God's image.
David’s motivation for praise was simply because God has created him: “I will praise you; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14). Only those who believe that we were created by God and have the possibility of eternal redemption can truly perceive the value of persons. Only they can grasp the worth of human beings, that we are not mere animals, but there is a wonder to human life which inspires us to seek to save humans through the preaching of the Gospel. When human beings are devalued, everything in society goes sour. Women and children are despised; the sick are regarded as a nuisance, and the elderly as a burden; ethnic minorities are discriminated against; capitalism displays its ugliest face; labour is exploited in the mines and factories; criminals are brutalized in prison; opposition opinions are stifled; there is no freedom, dignity, or carefree joy; human life seems not worth living, because it is scarcely human any longer. But when human beings are valued, because of their intrinsic worth, everything changes: women and children are honored; the sick are cared for and the elderly allowed to live and die with dignity; minorities protected; workers are given a fair wage, decent working conditions, and a measure of participation in the enterprise; and the gospel is taken to the ends of the earth. Why? Because people matter, because every man, woman, and child has significance as a human person made in the image of God. This is why the stories of Jesus about the lost sheep and lost coin reveal the huge value of the individual person. He told a story about a shepherd who lost one sheep, and therefore left 99 in the desert, and went off to look for the one lost one, until he found it. He didn’t think that 1% loss was OK; he was passionately concerned to save the individual. And that shepherd is Jesus, and you and me are the lost sheep.
And so, in the light of all this... try praying. Yes, just close your eyes and talk to God. Tell Him how you are, what’s going on in your life, your inner feelings, and ask Him to help you come closer to Him. I do appeal to you, to study these things, and give yourself no rest until you have come to surely know the true Gospel. I do so hope you will study our free Bible study course; and set yourself the aim, to be baptized one day, by dipping in water. Then you will surely have the hope of eternal life. OK we can’t imagine eternal life. I can only suggest we imagine a long, long line, with no end, stretching on into the distance; and we in this life are just a few millimetres at the start of it. This really is our hope, if we are baptized into Jesus and live in Him. I plead with you, to take all this seriously, and not treat it as mere religion, as just something ordinary.