Sunday, May 29, 2022

Seeing Is Not Believing: Why We Miss God in Daily Life

Seeing Is Not Believing

Perhaps you’ve had unbelieving friends or neighbors tell you they will believe when they see God writing his message in the clouds. I can tell you firsthand, this is untrue.

The cloudy letters began to appear one by one while we were on a family trip to a crowded theme park. As if scribed ex nihilo, they read,


And then minutes later,


Here they were, letters drawn in the sky by an unseen hand, exalting the Son of God and calling us to ask and receive from Christ’s goodness. Yet they incited little more than hurried glances. No one tore his garments in repentance or fell to his knees to worship Christ or cried aloud in gratefulness. Some already toting cross necklaces stopped to take pictures, but the masses continued unmoved, unmindful.

Seeing Is Not Believing

Moses tells us that God wrote the Ten Commandments himself, with his finger (Exodus 31:18). No one believed that these messages in the sky were written the same way. A man in a plane gave immediate causation.

But how did they know? The plane was nearly invisible to the naked eye. If you squinted hard enough, for long enough, you could catch the tiniest flash from the plane as he traced the letters.

Yet the masses did not stand staring at the clouds. The masses — some of whom believed in the existence of aliens and Bigfoot, or that men could become women — knew, without requiring a second glance, that this message could not be from God. Most did not see the plane — most did not need to see the plane. They already knew a human must have done it. If God granted their request and wrote the message himself, they would “know” in the exact same way.

All this to illustrate that seeing is not believing, as C.S. Lewis observes,

I have known only one person in my life who claimed to have seen a ghost. It was a woman; and the interesting thing is that she disbelieved in the immortality of the soul before seeing the ghost and still disbelieves after having seen it. She thinks it was a hallucination. In other words, seeing is not believing. This is the first thing to get clear in talking about miracles. Whatever experiences we may have, we shall not regard them as miraculous if we already hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural. (C.S. Lewis Essay Collection and Other Short Stories, 107)

The crowds could not be bothered to stop at the spectacle because all of life up to that moment told them that God, if God there be, would not do such a thing. He would not trifle in their daily affairs. The “god” of many who check the box is too often the distant god of good morals and clean living, not the God with inescapable actuality, breaking into our world without permission to write on tablets or with clouds.

Christian Naturalist

I thought these things as we continued walking when, like lightning, the realization struck me. Was I all that different? Their unbelief was clear to me — was mine? How had I received this message?

“Praise Jesus.” “Jesus gives. . . . Ask now.”

I knew that my God rules over all things. I knew that “The [the pilot’s] heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1). I knew that my God made possible the weather conditions for that day — along with a million other factors that brought my family and me to that exact spot at that exact time to witness that exact message. I knew that in a real sense, God had in fact written in the sky that day — yet there I stood, wondering why other people weren’t getting the message.

Did any of my prayers find their response in this preordained spectacle? What, from a list of pressing needs, should I stop and ask Jesus for? Maybe God had something for me, a word for me, a desire to answer specific prayer and so liberate me from the barren land of “you have not because you ask not.”

Why had I assumed that God orchestrated all of this for the sake of unresponsive masses and not for his blood-bought son? If God scribbled his message in his clouds before my eyes, grinning, why did I reply unmindful, unmoved?

Devil in the Details

How would you have responded? How do you respond?

How many moments, big or small, do we miss given to functional naturalism, secularism, materialism? How often do we rise from our knees in the morning only to enter a world without God? The message written in the clouds, or the word given by a friend, or the “odd” coincidence we interpret as curious and causeless, as an unbeliever would. Do we often see the world as we ought? Can we also say of God, “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me” (Psalm 139:5)?

The devil is busy in the details, providing reasonable explanations for this or that, assuring us there is nothing of our heavenly Father to see here.

And one of the strategies employed to keep us in a world without a personal God is to give us names for his created wonders. If we have a name to explain something, we can demystify it, taking something wonderful and making it dumb.

To illustrate, indulge me in a digression about lightning. A.W. Tozer quotes Thomas Carlyle as saying,

We call that fire of the black thundercloud electricity, and lecture learnedly about it, and grind the like of it out of glass and silk: but what is it? Whence comes it? Whither goes it? Science has done much for us; but it is a poor science that would hide from us the great deep sacred infinitude of Nescience [the state of not knowing], whither we can never penetrate, on which all science swims as a mere superficial film. This world, after all our science and sciences, is still a miracle; wonderful, inscrutable, magical and more, to whosoever will think of it. (Knowledge of the Holy, 18)

We smear the wondrous fingerprints of God all around us by thinking that because we name a thing, we know a thing. “Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds, the thunderings of his pavilion?” asked the ancient world (Job 36:29). “Oh, that blazing, electric fire flung down from the heavens? That’s just lightning,” responds the modern man. “Particles,” the more learned might say, “some negatively charged and others positively charged, separate and meet again in a massive current.” Wonder debunked.

Forgetting to Tremble

What is lightning, beyond the superficial facts and name? The unscientific poets outstrip us in seeing the manifest and untamable majesty.

He loads the thick cloud with moisture;
     the clouds scatter his lightning. (Job 37:11)

He covers his hands with the lightning
     and commands it to strike the mark.
Its crashing declares his presence. (Job 36:32–33)

He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth,
     who makes lightnings for the rain
     and brings forth the wind from his storehouses. (Psalm 135:7)

Let a man answer his God if he can:

Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
     that a flood of waters may cover you?
Can you send forth lightnings, that they may go
     and say to you, “Here we are”? (Job 38:34–35)

As we claim to be wiser than our prescientific ancestors, we miss what is most obvious. We wax eloquent about protons and electrons and miss God; we claim we’ve seen it before and forget to tremble.

Lives Without Lightning

As with naming lightning, we are tempted to miss the daily realities of God for a name. “Oh, that? It’s just some guy in a plane.” “Oh, that? It’s just a random text of encouragement from a friend.” “Oh, that? It’s just a lucky break, a random kindness, a smiling accident.” We even can wonder at answers to prayer: Can I really prove this wasn’t just a coincidence?

When did God leave his world? When did he stop intervening in its affairs and governing its happenings with purpose? In an effort to protect the overindulgence of the imagination that saw God “telling us” to do things irrespective of his word and wisdom, have we sacrificed interpreting our circumstances (even the hard ones) in relationship to our great God? Do we look at lightning as only lightning, setbacks as only setbacks, read the words written in the sky and miss their meaning?

Ours is a supernatural existence under a sovereign God. He uses secondary causes, but it is he who uses them — all of them — for our good. God is acting, today and every day. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28); “in his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:10). Let’s see his personal care and personal provision more in our everyday lives, composed for us daily, personally in the clouds.

from Desiring God
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Saturday, May 28, 2022

Hope Will Put You to Work: 1 Thessalonians 1:2–7, Part 1

The apostle Paul often gives thanks to God for what other Christians do. Why does he do that?

Watch Now

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Do Not Despise the Day of Small Groups: Four Marks of Daring Community

Do Not Despise the Day of Small Groups

Some three hundred years ago, an unusual kind of church gathering spread throughout the English-speaking world like fire in the brush. When describing these groups, church historians reach for the language of newness: one refers to the gatherings as “innovations,” another as “a fresh ecclesiological proposal,” and still another as “decidedly novel.”

To some, the groups seemed dangerous, a threat to existing church order. But to countless normal Christians, the groups held immense attraction. They were a new wineskin of sorts, and new wineskins have a way of offending and appealing in equal measure.

Revealing the name of these gatherings risks anticlimax, however, because today they seem to many Christians as somewhat ho-hum, a churchly inheritance as traditional as pulpits and pews. For these innovative groups, these fresh and novel gatherings, were none other than the first modern small groups.

Daring Idea of Small Groups

Small groups, of course, were not all new three hundred years ago. In fact, when the German Lutheran Philip Jacob Spener (1635–1705) proposed the idea in 1675, he likened the groups to “the ancient and apostolic kind of church meetings” (Pia Desideria, 89). Bruce Hindmarsh, in his article “The Daring Idea of Small Groups,” suggests Spener had in mind passages like Colossians 4:15 and 1 Corinthians 14:26–40, where the early Christians met in houses and exercised the gifts of the Spirit. To these we might also add Acts 2:42–47, where the newly Spirit-filled church met not only at the temple but also “in their homes.”

For Spener, then, small groups were a retrieval project, an attempt to restore an ancient gathering somehow lost through the centuries. He wanted passive laypeople to act like the “royal priesthood” they really were in Christ (1 Peter 2:9). He wanted to see the Spirit working mightily through not only pastors and teachers but all members of the body, as in the days after Pentecost. Spener couldn’t help but trace a connection between the new-covenant ministry of the Spirit and the New Testament pattern of small groups.

He was right to trace a connection. A few decades after Spener proposed his daring idea, a massive spiritual awakening spread throughout Western Europe and America. And just as in the days of Acts 2, the newly Spirit-filled church began to gather in small groups. Sunday morning couldn’t contain the Spirit’s flame.

Fostering and Facilitating Revival

Richard Lovelace, in his Dynamics of Spiritual Life, notes “the persistent reappearance of small intentional communities in the history of church renewal” (78). And so it was in the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and beyond. In the decades surrounding the awakening, small groups were instrumental in both fostering and facilitating revival.

In the first place, small groups had a way of fostering revival. Fascinatingly, we can draw a providential line between Spener’s small-group advocacy and the awakening of the 1730s. Spener’s godson, Nicolaus von Zinzendorf (1700–1760), led a group called the Renewed Moravian Brethren, who themselves had experienced the Spirit’s power in small-group community life. Then, in 1738, Moravians in London helped start the Fetter Lane Society, one of whose members was named John Wesley (1703–1791). And that society, writes Colin Podmore, would become “the main seed-bed from which the English Evangelical Revival would spring” (The Moravian Church in England, 1728–1760, 39). Spener’s idea — taken, tried, and tweaked from the 1670s to the 1730s — became one of the greatest means God used in the awakening.

From then on, small groups also had a way of facilitating revival. As awakening spread through England, Wesley and his colaborers gathered earnest believers into small groups or “bands.” As awakening spread through America, writes Mark Noll, Jonathan Edwards created small groups “as part of his effort to fan this spiritual blaze” (Rise of Evangelicalism, 77). Really wherever you look, Hindmarsh writes, “As the fires of evangelical revival spread, the fervor of small-group religion branched out too.”

Small groups may have looked, at first, a little like the disciples in Acts 2:1, huddled “all together in one place,” waiting for the fire to fall. And then the fire did fall, creating communities that resembled Acts 2:42–47 in various degrees. Those awakened wanted to gather — indeed, felt compelled to gather — just like those early Christians in Jerusalem. And one gathering a week simply was not enough.

Small groups fostered revival, and small groups facilitated revival, in both the first century and the eighteenth. And so they may again today.

Four Marks of the First Small Groups

Three hundred years after the First Great Awakening, small groups no longer raise eyebrows. The new wineskin has grown familiar, becoming one of the most common features of evangelical church life. Nevertheless, a closer look at these groups reveals a gap between the first modern small groups and many of our own. Often, we have settled for something less daring.

Recovering the features of the first groups would not guarantee revival, of course. Awakening is the Spirit’s sovereign work. But in God’s hands, small groups like those of old may become a means of revival — or, short of that, a means of greater growth in Christ.

Consider, then, four features of the first small groups, and how we might work to recover them.

Experiential Bible Study

When many of us think of small groups today, we imagine a Bible study: several people in a circle, Bibles open, discussing some passage and praying afterward. The Bible held a similarly central place in many early small groups; Spener couched his whole proposal, in fact, within the larger aim to introduce “a more extensive use of the word of God among us” (Pia Desideria, 87). Even still, the phrase Bible study may not capture the practical, experiential spirit of these groups.

Listen to Spener’s hope for “a more extensive” use of Scripture: “If we succeed in getting the people to seek eagerly and diligently in the book of life for their joy, their spiritual life will be wonderfully strengthened and they will become altogether different people” (91). Altogether different people — that was the goal of Bible study in these first groups. And so, they took an immensely practical bent to the Scriptures, studying them not only with their minds but with their lives.

I can remember, as a young college student freshly awakened to Christ, how eager a group of us were to open Scripture together, often spontaneously. The Bible seemed always near, its wisdom ever relevant for “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). Importantly, we were as eager for application as we were for knowledge. Yet I can also recall Bible studies that must have seemed, to any impartial observer, like a mere matter of words. We were studying a map without any clear intention of visiting the country.

The first groups, needless to say, resembled the former far more than the latter. “These were not book clubs, lifestyle enclaves, or discussion groups,” Hindmarsh writes. “These were places for those who were serious about the life application of the teaching of Scripture.” We cannot manufacture a spirit of biblical earnestness, of course; we can, however, refuse to treat Scripture as a mere collection of thoughts to be studied.

Frank Confession

Zeal for life application, for becoming “altogether different people,” naturally gave rise to another feature: utterly honest confession. In fact, Podmore writes that, for many of the groups associated with Wesley and the Moravians, “mutual confession, followed by forgiveness and the healing of the soul, was not just a feature of the society, but its raison d’être” — its very reason for being (Moravian Church, 41).

The word band, sometimes used for these groups, referred to “conversations or conferences where straight talking had taken place” (129). Hence, “these small groups were marked by total frankness.” For biblical warrant, the group leaders often looked to James 5:16: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” The rules of the Fetter Lane Society even stated that “the design of our meeting is to obey that command of God” (Pursuing Social Holiness, 78).

The groups exercised wisdom, to be sure: they often shared only with those of the same sex, and they agreed to keep others’ confessions confidential. But there was no way to escape exposure in these groups. Honesty was the cost of admission.

Some of our small groups already have a ready-made structure for mutual confession in what we may call accountability groups. Yet even here, I suspect much of our accountability has room to grow toward the kind of utter honesty Wesley and others had in mind, as reflected in one of the rules for Fetter Lane: “That each person in order speak freely, plainly, and concisely as he can, the state of his heart, with his several temptations and deliverances, since the last time of meeting.”

How can our groups grow toward such free, plain honesty? Partly by believing, as they did, that greater healing lies on the other side.

Common Priesthood

The Reformation, as has often been said, did not get rid of the priesthood; it gave the priesthood back to all believers. Or at least in theory. In Spener’s Germany, a century and a half after Luther heralded the priesthood of all believers, the laity once again had become largely passive. And not only passive, but fractured by class, creating an unbiblical hierarchy not only between clergy and laity but between rich and poor laity: “Elevated and upholstered places were reserved for the upper classes and only the common people sat on hard seats in the nave,” Theodore Tappert writes (introduction to Pia Desideria, 4–5).

The small groups of Spener and those who followed him dealt a devastating blow to that state of affairs. All of a sudden, normal Christians — mothers and fathers, bakers and cobblers, lawyers and doctors, farmers and clerks — sat in the same room, none of them elevated above the others. And more than that, they believed that they, though untrained in theology, could edify their brothers and sisters by virtue of the Spirit within them. Small groups made the people priests again.

The groups, rightly, did not aim to erase all distinction: pastors often led or oversaw the gatherings, aware that small groups could sometimes splinter from the larger body and seek to overturn godly authority. That danger will always be present to some extent when the people are empowered to be priests. But far better to deal with that danger than to render laypeople passive.

Are we as persuaded as they were that the body of Christ grows only when it is “joined and held together by every joint with which is it equipped, when each part is working properly” (Ephesians 4:16)? If so, we’ll seek to unleash the gifts of every believer, including those “that seem to be weaker” (1 Corinthians 12:22). Though weak in the world’s eyes, they have been given crucial gifts “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).

Outward Mission

We have small groups today, in part, because some of the first small-group members refused to keep the groups to themselves. Hindmarsh notes that, among the Moravians, revival drove them “in two directions: inward, in an intensity of community life together; and outward, in missionary enterprise to places like Georgia and the American frontier.”

How easily the Moravians might have prized their rich community life at the expense of outward mission, as we so often do. Instead, they lifted their glorious banner — “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of his suffering” — and sought to spread that same community life elsewhere. And because they did, they encountered John Wesley, helped begin the Fetter Lane Society, and thus gave shape to the small groups that would explode throughout the North Atlantic.

From the beginning, small groups, like cells in a body, were meant to multiply. Sometimes multiplication happened as Christians like the Moravians traveled to far-flung places as missionaries; other times, it happened as small groups remained porous enough for outsiders to look in and, like the unconverted John Bunyan, hear serious believers speak “as if they had found a new world” (Grace Abounding, 20).

One of our great challenges, then and now, is how to move our groups outward in mission while maintaining the kind of trusting relationships that allow for mutual confession and life together. That challenge likely will feel perennial. But believers with an inward bent — perhaps most of us — can probably risk erring in the outward direction, whether by finding some common mission, inviting outsiders into the group, or praying together earnestly for the nonbelievers in our lives. We may even find that mission binds us together like never before.

Small Day of Small Groups

Perhaps, as we consider the vitality that marked the first evangelical small groups, our own group grows a bit grayer. If so, we may do well to remember the biblical passage cited, it seems, more often than Acts 2 or 1 Corinthians 14 — that is, James 5.

James 5:13–20 lays out a compelling program for small-group life. Yet we know from James’s letter that the community was not enjoying the kind of awakening we see in Acts 2. Class division, bitter tongues, fleshly wisdom, and worldly friendships were compromising the church’s holiness (James 2:1–13; 3:1–18; 4:1–10). Yet even still, James tells them to gather, to sing, to confess, to pray.

Spener, himself unimpressed with the state of his church community, reminds us,

The work of the Lord is accomplished in wondrous ways, even as he is himself wonderful. For this very reason his work is done in complete secrecy, yet all the more surely, provided we do not relax our efforts. . . . Seeds are there, and you may think they are unproductive, but do your part in watering them, and ears will surely sprout and in time become ripe. (Pia Desideria, 38)

Indeed, those seeds did bear fruit in time — far more fruit than Spener could have imagined. So don’t despise the small day of small groups. More may be happening than we can see.

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