Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Spiritual Gifts and Words of Knowledge

Romans 12:6-8
We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
The "spiritual gifts" are an important part of the life of any group of people seeking to live with the life of God amongst them (a church). The spiritual gifts are mentioned in the new testament three times (Romans 12 above and twice in 1 Corinthians 12). The danger is that we can treat these lists of the different ways that God is expressed through people as a definitive list of how we can express God. I've known many people feel like they couldn't be used by God because they didn't naturally seem to have any of "the gifts" - and they had been taught that as a Christian they ought to have more of these specific spiritual gifts.

A second danger, exacerbated by the term "gift", is that we think of these gifts as mysterious abilities distinct from who we are that are magically dropped into our soul by God when we become a Christian.

The antidote to both of these dangers is to understand that the spiritual gifts are your giftings made alive in God. Our spiritual gifts are the unique combination of character qualities we have. As we are made more alive in God, as we better express life, this will be through our personality (our soul) in a way unique to us. This is our gifting, the way that we love people and bring life. Some of these ways will fit the examples in scripture and some won't. Your task as a human is to work out, and come to terms with, who you are. Your one gift is your personality, your character. When you are alive in the life of God, showing love, then you are (Christian jargon alert) "moving in your gifts". There may well be times when you surprise yourself by doing something out of character but in tune with a specific situation (sometimes called a "specific anointing"), but the general case is that your "spiritual gifts" are the different and interwoven ways that you express the life of God. The lists in those scriptures, those examples, can be useful as something to aim for and something to practise, but they shouldn't be taught as a definitive list of "the gifts". "Moving in your gifts" merely means "being you" showing love. This is the new creation, and as we strive to love one another, in spirit and truth, it will naturally happen in many different ways - some of which are explored in scripture.

Just as we can erroneously think of the spiritual gifts as something magically dropped into our soul by God there is one particular gift that is sometimes taught as operating by the same kind of "magical thinking": words of knowledge.
1 Corinthians 12:8
For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit.
Words of knowledge, as practised and understood by many charismatic evangelistic churches today, are when someone has "revealed to them" knowledge (of varying degrees of specificity) about another person. The purpose of this knowledge is usually to identify a person, or a problem they have, and to bring life or healing to them. Because the knowledge wasn't naturally known by the person but came about by God it is seen as a miraculous gift, a sign that God is real and at work.

The magical thinking is think of (or worse to teach) this knowledge as being "dropped into the mind" of the receiver by God. This kind of thinking shows no understanding of the nature of God and the relationship of God to our humanity. Thinking of words of knowledge as dropped or placed into our mind encourages the view of God as external, and therefore remote, whereas our knowledge of God (and the operation of our giftings) is through being filled with the Holy Spirit: God in us!

From a certain perspective the view that God places words directly in our mind is "true", but it's a perspective that doesn't allow us to understand - and without understanding there can be no growth. From another, better, perspective we can see how we interact with God. How we work with God and how God works through us. Is it us or is it God? Yes! (The more self is banished the more these become the same thing.)

Essentially the mechanism is that your spirit is tuned to God and to the spirit of a place, you pick up on things that in the spirit - whether in the spirit of people present or directly in the spirit of God. So what you're doing is tuning your mind, soul, spirit (take your pick) into reality. It isn't "magic" but it's the operation of your spirit in conjunction with the Holy Spirit. It's something that can, in measure, be understood and we can grow in understanding. How we allow these "impressions" to surface in our conscious mind is an interesting process that I'd like to focus more on, but as always the key factor is being close to the heart of God. It isn't a gift that operates in isolation from the rest of who we are, none of the gifts work like that. The way to get better at everything is to get closer to God.

I think we (Christians) have weak thinking in this area. Just because something surfaces in your mind doesn't mean it's from God. Just because someone responds doesn't mean it's from God! Some words of knowledge are so wide and so vague they are certain to apply to someone! That doesn't mean that God doesn't use them, but if we aren't able to truly judge their effectiveness then we can't get any better. A skill practised doesn't lead to improvement unless there is a quick feedback between something being done and you being able to tell if it is good (there's good research in this area - the larger the feedback time the less able you are to learn from it, this is how the human soul operates).

For me the best judge of the "truth" of any word (whether word of knowledge or otherwise) is what power does it carry. (Sometimes things strike home to someone without carrying apparent power - but how can you judge that? If we are to focus on learning and growing we have to focus on what we can learn from.) Sometimes words carry an obvious power and they do a work in people, and that's God at work! That's what we should aim for and strive for. Dry words that carry no life, no power, generally do nothing... We're not primarily rational beings, the course of our heart and life is not substantially affected by things that we take in and process by our minds - but we can be spiritual beings and words that carry life can reach our spirit and change us. So judge the reality of any word by the life that it carries. How capable of changing someone is this, how much of God is in it.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Spiritual Power

"Having the form of religion, but not the power."
Let me tell you a secret. To be fair, it's not really a secret, more one of those "hidden in plain sight" type secrets. Spiritual power is the same thing as psychological power. It's good spiritual power if it's turned to love, which in depth and substance requires the putting away of self (selfishness) that the Christian spiritual practise teaches (the purest love is sacrificial love - it has no hidden motive, no guile, no agenda but gives of itself just because it can). God is love, so any depth in God and any knowledge of God requires a commensurate depth and strength of love. However, any strength of capacity to love is merely the same strength of mind and character found in any strong minded person. Whether that strength is turned to love, or ambition, or anything else is a choice of the heart.

So the path to greater spiritual power, to a greater capacity for love, is a stronger mind and character. Great love requires great depth and great depth requires great strength.

As Christians we can often be lulled into thinking of the life and power of God as somehow "other" from normal humanity, that spirituality exists in some mysterious "spiritual realm". In fact spirituality is merely the art of being human and the spiritual realms are all around us. Divine love is just love. We can be fooled into thinking that we wield tremendous spiritual power that we neither really feel nor experience. This I'm afraid is often fantasy, and so much of Christian life can easily be wish fulfilment, a wanting to believe (confirmation bias at work - something so deeply ingrained that we must strive to overcome it). It's easy to think that believing everything you hear is faith, that every coincidence is God at work. In any other walk of life this would be called gullibility, why is it acceptable in our faith? Relentlessly seeking truth, putting aside fantasy, requires effort along with genuine discernment. In "Crossing the Soul Gap: A Rational Faith" I suggest rational scepticism as a useful approach for growing in discernment and understanding.

We can find it hard to accept that spiritual power is dependent on strength of mind and character. Accepting this can mean accepting how far we are from knowing real power amongst us, a tangible and indisputable power. Feelings aren't all they're sometimes cracked up to be, but if we don't feel the power of God in strength then a straightforward explanation is that it isn't with us. To pretend it's with us when it's not, to imagine it somehow must be because we think we're doing the right things when we don't really experience it, is not real faith. Real faith understands what's possible, is able to be real about where we are now, and presses on until we see the fulfilment of the promises we claim to believe. As I pursue strength of mind, along with depth of love, I have started to experience and understand more of the power of God.

Strength of mind may not always look how we assume, a strong character is a yielded character, and God uses imperfect people, but this principle is still true. Love is fire, love is fierce. Love is gentle, love is compassionate. Let's not be fooled into thinking we can have one side of love without the other.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Culture and Art

Culture is not art, music, poetry, or dramatic works. Culture is humanity, who we are and the expression of who we are (expression and being inextricably entwined in the ancient tussle of being and doing). Culture is the unspoken rules of society, the way we think, the consensual reality we live in that shapes us and is shaped by us.

Art, in all its forms, is the symptom of a healthy culture. A culture containing beauty, that values beauty, will produce beauty. The internet, including social media, in all its glorious mess and wonderful awfulness, is the subconscious of humanity out on display for all to see. Parts are deeply moving, and parts are awful beyond belief. And most of it is trash. But that's who we are.

The church of Jesus, the kingdom of God, has a culture - and that culture is the place where Jesus is king and the only rule is the law of love. Our art, the symptom of a healthy church, is healed and transformed lives. People are our works of art, and whether we produce this art is the yardstick by which we can measure our health.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Biblical Truth and Doctrine

Some people search for truth with so little effort they may as well have looked in the broom cupboard and then given up.

The big problem with Christianity as it is typically presented, particularly "Chicago Statement" style Christianity, is that you can't believe something just because you're told to (or even because you want to).

I'm not saying you shouldn't (but you shouldn't), I'm saying you can't. You only really believe things (heart knowledge versus head knowledge to use Christian terminology) you work out and discover for yourself. Look at how a child learns, their whole existence is centred around understanding and making sense of the world. You can't teach them directly you can only help them learn.

If you believe something because you want to believe it, because you're told to believe it, then you have to twist your mind into a funny place - ignoring (and pushing aside) the normal learning process and setting your mind on something that's actually external to who you really are. That's not how you learn, how something becomes part of you.

The best that doctrine and a set of beliefs can be is something that point the way to you discovering the truth. They can never be the truth for you. To think otherwise is not a path to understanding but an abdication of understanding.
This is particularly important for how Christians must approach the bible. The truth is *not* in the bible, at its best (and its intention and purpose) it points you to the truth, but it is not itself truth. Using Christian speak again; the bible is not truth in the way that Jesus is the truth.

If you're a Christian you have two important decisions to make. Firstly, is your faith in God or is it in the Bible? Secondly, which is more important to you: knowing the truth or believing the Bible? If believing the bible is more important to you than searching out the truth then how can you ever know if the Bible is true (or more importantly how it is true) - that's a question you're not even willing to ask.

"What I love about modern atheism is its fierce rationality, its refusal to be duped."