Connected Kingdom (5)

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In this episode I talk to Tim about my conversion, call to the ministry, and current work in the USA.

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TV with a conscience?

Last week the Academy of TV, Arts & Sciences honored eight TV shows “found to exemplify television with a conscience.” However, the Emmy-awarding Academy seemed rather confused about what “conscience” is. In addition to a worthy Maria Shriver documentary on Alzheimers, they also commended a program on doctor-assisted suicide, the rather grisly CSI: Crime Scene Investigation for an episode about prejudice, and Fox’s hit show Glee for an episode that celebrated disablity. The latter award provoked outrage from disabled actors and their advocates because, as USA Today reported, the show casts a non-disabled actor in the role of a paraplegic high school student.

Which all raises the question, “what is television with a conscience?” Or, more fundamentally, “What is conscience?” The word is derived from two Latin words that may be translated as “with-knowledge” or “shared-knowledge.” While evolutionary philosophers accept the existence of conscience and the definition of it as “shared knowledge,” for them the sharing is all horizontal, or all human. It is a mechanism by which we internalize the external norms of our own society, helping us to survive and prosper. Christians view conscience much more vertically. It is a divinely created human faculty by which God shares His knowledge of right and wrong with us. Conscience has therefore been described as God’s spokesman, God’s deputy, God’s sergeant major, or God’s inner whisper.

When the Apostle Paul was misrepresented or falsely accused, he derived great comfort and courage from having a clear conscience (Acts 24:14-16). But his view of conscience was quite different to the Emmy Academy’s.

He educated it
Paul prefaced his remarks on having a clear conscience by referring to his confident knowledge of the Scriptures (Acts 24:14). Why is this important? Well, though Adam and Eve were created with perfect knowledge of right and wrong, by their sin they lost most of this. And through this loss of knowledge, we all lost an effective conscience.

While conscience is still present, even in the heathen (Rom. 2:15), its loss of reliable knowledge means its voice is dim, distant, and often confused. Unless it is educated with God’s Word, it will either be brazenly insensitive or paralyzingly over-sensitive (1 Cor.8:7, 10, 12).

Martin Luther started a revolution by educating his conscience with God’s Word. When the religious superpower of the day accused Luther of pitting his puny conscience against the might of the Church, he replied: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other, so help me God.”

He exercised it

Once Paul educated his conscience, he “exercised” it (Acts 24:16). This word describes what a drill sergeant does on the parade ground, or what a top athlete does in training. In other words, Paul stirred up his conscience to action; he challenged it and trained it. And he did this “always.” Wherever he was and whatever he was doing, he was prodding his conscience with questions: “Is this right or wrong, true or false, good or bad?” He never let his conscience become lazy, or sleepy. He knew that, like his body, the more he exercised his conscience, the happier and healthier he would be. He feared that silencing or blunting his conscience in one area of life would inevitably lead to problems in all areas of life.

Paul’s exercised his conscience so that it would be “void of offense,” meaning that it would not run into a sharp stumbling-block. If we ignore or disobey our conscience, it’s like running into a jagged rock that wounds and injures us. As someone said, “Conscience is what hurts, when everything else feels so good.” That’s conviction of sin, and it’s a mercy. Thank God he makes us feel pain in our consciences when we sin, so that we are stopped from going further.

And at that point we have two options. We can ignore the “pain” and carry on regardless. If we do, we will end up with a seared and calloused conscience (1 Tim. 4:2). The “scar tissue” will thicken and we won’t feel the pain so much the next time. We will be able to go further and more comfortably into sin.

Or, we can take our painful, bleeding wounds to the bleeding wounds of Christ (Heb. 9:14; 10:22). His blood can purge and heal our consciences. And not only that, if we remove the pains of our bleeding conscience via the blood of Christ, we end up with a conscience that is even more sensitive than it was before we sinned.

He was encouraged by it
A clear conscience gave Paul courage before “God and man” (Acts 24:16). Guilty consciences make people (and preachers) cowards. A guilty conscience silences the Christian at home, at work, at college, and in the pulpit. I’ve seen powerful preachers become bald Samsons in the pulpit because they compromised their consciences through the fear of man.

Martin Luther King said: “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”

For Paul, death, resurrection, and judgment (v.15) made him pursue a clear conscience (v. 16). However, it also worked the other way around. A clear conscience enabled him to look toward death, resurrection, and judgment with confidence and courage. Like Mr Honest in Pilgrim’s Progress, Paul had arranged with Mr Good-conscience to meet him at the Jordan of death and help him through it. Truly, there is no pillow so soft as a good conscience. It gives us courage to face the ultimate issues of life.

But if we silence it, sear it, or de-sensitize it while we live; if we never take it to the blood of Christ, we can be sure that it will resurrect with exquisite sensitivity and deafening volume when we die (Luke 16: 23, 25, 27-28). It is the worm that never dies in the fire that is never quenched (Mark 9:48).

Boring grace?

In the Scottish Highlands, Christian families commonly sing their way through the Book of Psalms (the Scottish Metrical Version) at their morning and evening devotions. My own family also adopted this practice, and this week we arrived back again at Psalm 136.

This psalm recounts God’s multiple deliverances of His people and defeats of His enemies, each line concluding with, “For His mercy endures forever.” In the Scottish metrical version of the Psalm, that phrase alternates with: “For His grace fails never.” So, over 26 verses you sing “For his mercy endures forever” thirteen times, and “For His grace fails never” thirteen times. You could say it’s the Psalms’ version of “Amazing Grace.”

As an unbelieving teenager being raised in a Psalm-singing church, I often remember the congregation singing this Psalm (one of the pastor’s favorites) and thinking, “Man, this is so boring! Why all the repetition? Why can’t they just sing of grace and mercy once and be done with it?”

What a difference the actual experience of Christ’s grace and mercy makes!

Because, as we were singing through Psalm 136 this week, I found myself thinking, “I could sing of grace and mercy forever and ever…” When you’ve tasted Christ’s grace and mercy, it becomes the song of your heart and your life. And no matter how much you hear about it, speak about it or sing about it, it increasingly amazes and excites.

It certainly never bores. It’s sin that does that.

UPDATE: Just discovered Tim Keller on reading and praying through the Psalms.

7 ways to deal with “haters”


As I can’t say I am very good at dealing with criticism or negativity, I’m always on the lookout for strategies to help me. I wish I had read these tips from Tim Ferriss before last Monday!

1. It doesn’t matter how many people don’t get it. What matters is how many people do.

2. 10% of people will find a way to take anything personally. Expect it.

3. “Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity.” (Colin Powell)

4. “If you are really effective at what you do, 95% of the things said about you will be negative.” (Scott Boras)

5. “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” (Epictetus)

6. “Living well is the best revenge.” (George Herbert)

7. Keep calm and carry on.

I would add one more, the hardest of all to implement:  “Love your haters” (Jesus).

I’m here because He did.

You can read Tim’s exposition of his principles here.

Marry an unbeliever? Angela’s story

The “hottest” response I’ve had to anything I’ve written on this blog came after I posted the text of an email I had written to a young Christian woman (name withheld), begging her to end her relationship with a non-Christian man. I posted some clarifications in the comments which seemed to stem the flow of hostility!
Not long after this, I was contacted by another young woman I know, who told me how thankful she was to her pastor for warning her about a similar relationship. I asked her if she would write out her testimony about this experience,
and I am so grateful that she agreed. Her name is Angela McInnes, now happily married to James, a student for the ministry at the Free Church Seminary in Inverness, Scotland.
Having seen so many Christians damage their lives and testimony in a mad dash to marry, regardless of the warnings and counsel of God’s Word and God’s people, I pray that God will use this testimony to prevent this happening to others, and also to rescue those caught in this snare of the Devil. I also hope it will encourage pastors to lovingly warn their straying sheep. Here is Angela’s story.

I had always feared marrying an unbeliever as it is clear from scripture to be wrong – I had seen a number of friends do this and their spiritual life stalled. I remember speaking to one friend who was engaged to an unbeliever about her relationship and her response was that she knew scripture taught it was wrong, but that in her situation God had made an “exception”. “Are you not afraid that this person, the one you love the most in this world, will one day go to a lost eternity if they are not saved?” I asked. “I’ll just have to deal with that if it ever comes to it,” she replied and they married.

I had been warned by my mother, after speaking out to some of these friends, of the need to take heed in case I also would fall into the same sin. I had broken off a relationship when I was converted as the man was an unbeliever.  This was difficult to do not so much with him but with his family – his mother was very hurt and could not grasp why we just could not continue as we were but with our different “interests.” But my life and interests had changed so dramatically then that I could not even envisage this and scripture seemed very clear to me –it would be wrong. 

Not long after I became a Christian, I became close with James, a lovely Christian man from my church. He was a big help to me in the early days of my new life, everything seemed great, and I was convinced we were to marry – when quite suddenly, he ended our relationship. He couldn’t really give a reason why but it was over. I finished my training in university and moved to another part of the country where I tried to forget him. For four years I pretty much mourned the loss of our relationship, and remained convinced that we would one day get back together and marry. 

I had a real desire to go on mission and had been very involved in trying to prepare myself in different ways for this. I attended one mission training weekend run by an organisation involved solely with the people group I then felt compelled to go to. One speaker suggested that  some in the meeting “were bound in chains” and these chains were limiting their ability to serve God fully.  The group was broken up for prayer. “Could you be one of those in chains?” I was asked by the married couple who were to pray with me. I then began tearfully to tell them of how my heart was in serving God in mission, but I was in love with a man who did not love me and I wished to be free from that so that I could focus on my calling.  I asked them to pray that all my feelings for him would be taken away.  Instead they prayed we would marry!  I left the conference really quite concerned and confused. Still, no contact from this man ensued and I began to pray and pray that all feelings for him would be removed so that I could be “free” from any distraction to serve God. 

I must say I was (maybe still am!) quite a chatterbox and I loved to share the gospel, I would pray for opportunities and would try to speak at any time to anyone about the Lord.  I was called “our wee missionary” at my work, for some it was a big joke and I would be playfully teased, with others very good conversations (I hope) were had. Then one day I met a man at work who I naturally seemed to click with. He was excellent at his job –very compassionate, dedicated and disciplined – really quite different from most of the others and also he seemed very, very eager to hear the gospel. He had some Christian background, but really knew very little and described himself as “agnostic.” It was very exciting to share the good news of Jesus with someone who seemed so open and receptive. He started coming to church with me, he read the Christian books I would give him, we would debate and discuss for hours the Bible and what it was to be a Christian. It seemed a wonderful opportunity to witness, and I felt spiritually refreshed and close to the Lord because of all our discussions and my reading of scripture and good books to try to convince him, and find answers to his questions. It all seemed so encouraging and I was convinced he would surely soon be saved! 

We discussed our relationship and I tried in a round-about way at the start to lay down ground rules by saying that Christian and non-Christian dating was a no-go area. He said he understood and that my faith was one of the things he admired about me and would never want to change. I was not dating this man but we were very close friends – becoming increasingly attached to each other and spending a great deal of time together. I would mull over the fact that here was a non-Christian and yet he was so interested in the gospel, I could discuss with him much more about the Lord than I could with most male believers I’d known.  I would think what a great Christian he would make! With all his personal and professional qualities and with his interest in working in the developing world – his skills and his knowledge could be put to so much use in mission too… I believed that God must be thinking this way too! (Romans 11:34).

Then one weekend I attended a young peoples’ annual Bible school.

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