Bragging rights

Bragging rights is a term that has entered our vernacular to describe the right to boast about some sort of great achievement. Boasting or bragging is not something that is often viewed as positive, in fact it is quite the opposite. In our culture there is often the feeling that the person who boasts or brags is setting themselves up for a fall. 2 Corinthians 10.12 always seems to lurk where there is boasting: “let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” Oddly enough, you might even hear people who have the slightest of connections to the Christian faith quote these words!

However, the man who wrote those words, the apostle Paul, wasn’t immune to boasting.

In 2 Corinthians 7.14-16 he feeds back to the Corinthians the impact they had on his friend Titus when Titus visited them. Titus was happy. His spirit was refreshed (v.13). This pleased Paul no end, because he had boasted to Titus about the Corinthians. He had “bigged them up”. And now Paul was delighted to find that the Corinthians had lived up to what he had told Titus about them. In verse 16 Paul goes further and tells the Corinthians that he is glad he can have complete confidence in them.

I think if we read these words and weren’t told that Paul had written them, we might think the language was a bit excessive. It’s the sort of thing, you might be tempted to think, that you’d read in a self-help book. Certainly not the kind of words you’d expect to hear in church or from a church leader.

Perhaps that is part of the problem. We don’t hear language like this half enough from Christians. We don’t expect to hear it in church. And if we do hear it, we might think it is insincere. We are more concerned about being balanced. Not overstating the case. Being accurate. Those are good qualities, however, they tend to put the brake on the kind of high octane encouragement that draws the best out of people. If Paul had just given Titus a factual account of what was happening at Corinth, he would not have been boasting very much!

Paul had the bragging rights for the church at Corinth. And he used them. Why could he boast in the way he did? Because He could see Christ in the church at Corinth. He could see their strengths and didn’t allow those strengths to be obscured by their weaknesses and problems.

Let’s claim the bragging rights for each other. Let’s not allow the weaknesses and problems that we see to cloud out what Christ is doing in those around us.

The message translates Paul’s boasting as follows:

If I went out on a limb in telling Titus how great I thought you were, you didn’t cut off that limb (2 Corinthians 7.14)

Time to go out on a limb for our fellow-believers.

Describing God

In his book written in 1956, When Prophecy Fails, Louis Festinger told the story of a UFO cult whose expectations of an imminent apocalypse turned out to be ungrounded. Festinger coined the phrase cognitive dissonance to explain what happens when our expectations and assumptions clash with reality. According to Festinger, people try to resolve the tension between what they believe and what they experience by either altering their beliefs or avoiding information that challenges their beliefs.

Festinger and his theory might seem on the surface to be the preserve of psychologists and professional academics, but it has a real life application for all of us: real life has a habit of hitting our beliefs and assumptions in brutal head on collisions.

Christians aren’t immune. Especially, it seems, when it comes to our understanding of God.

Most of us would like to think that how we understand God is fairly and squarely based on the Bible. Technically that might be true, and if it is not entirely true, at least we aspire to understanding God through the lens of scripture rather than tradition or experience or even reason.

Take just three statements made about God in James chapter one.

James is speaking about wisdom. If we ask God, he says, and believe in our hearts, God will give us wisdom.

To back up his assertion he sets out the following aspects of God’s character:

Firstly, God gives generously (v.5). The sense of the word is that of singleness of mind. In other words, God gives generously without strings attached or qualifications. God is a generous giver. In our minds we know that (or might not have known that!), but in our hearts we might struggle to believe that is true.

Question: if you were asked to describe God, would you have chosen the words generous giver to describe Him?

Secondly, God gives generously to all (v.5). There is not a certain class or group of people who have the corner on God’s wisdom. Anyone can access it, the only condition is that you ask for it. God does not deny us access, but sometimes, for whatever reason we deny ourselves access to that wisdom. Why? Perhaps because subconsciously we believe that there is a special group of people who have some kind of “triple a” spiritual credit rating and we are not part of that group.

Thirdly, God gives generously to all without finding fault. This word is found in Matthew 27.44 describing the thieves who were crucified with Jesus casting insults in [Jesus’] teeth. We talk about casting things up or bringing up issues or we say things like “He threw it back in his face”.

God doesn’t operate like that. He doesn’t bring up the past. He doesn’t throw it all back in your face.

Why is it that those three statements don’t make it into many people’s definition of God? Festinger might just help us to explain. Our beliefs are challenged by our experience of life and to resolve the tension, we – might – adjust our beliefs to reflect our experience.

God gives generously. To all. Without finding fault. Those things remain true – whatever happens in life.

Who’s giving you a push?

I don’t watch much tv. However, I have found The Men Who Built America currently showing on the History Channel compulsive viewing. Docudramas can often turn out rather hammy, but, to my mind, this one is a bit different.

The third episode of the series picks up the story of Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie was born in Dunfermline in 1835, his parents later emigrating to America. At age 12 he took a job with a railway company and in a short time became PA to its president, Tom Scott. Scott became young Carnegie’s mentor

The make or break point in Carnegie’s career came when Scott told him he wanted him to build a bridge across the Mississippi.  After years of research and near bankruptcy, Carnegie succeeded.

If Carnegie had never been given such a seemingly impossible task by his friend and mentor, history would have been different and Carnegie’s career would have been different.

We all need friends and mentors who give us a positive “push”.  As a Christian leader I sometimes find it frustrating that we have to look to the business world to find examples of “positive pushing”. Why is it that the bridge builders and ground breakers are almost always those who are doing it to get richer? I hope that people who do have that kind of pioneering drive are not being lost to our churches because the challenge level is simply far too low.

If you want a bit of biblical back up for what I am saying, a quick read of Luke 9 and 10, along with, for example, Acts 8, 9,10,13 and 19 should be enough to persuade you that Jesus and His alter ego the Holy Spirit, were continually pushing the disciples into places where they didn’t feel very comfortable. They were the spiritual ground breakers of their day and bridge builders into unfamiliar and sometimes hostile contexts.

It’s good to encourage each other. But we also need to push each other. If you don’t have someone who is giving you a godly push now and again, pray that God will bring someone like that into your life. And why not become a godly pusher yourself, pushing people to believe for what looks like the impossible? After all with God…you know (Mark 10.27).

Breakthroughs and Benchmarks

As I was travelling into church on Sunday morning I heard what I thought was a fascinating piece on the radio. To celebrate forty years of the mobile phone, listeners had been asked to phone in on their mobiles and share something interesting.

One lady phoned in to tell how she had been born five months before Sri Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had climbed Everest. She related how excited and proud her father had been about the achievement of Hillary and Norgay. And then she finished her story in an unexpected way. She said she had just shaken hands with her new neighbour who had climbed Everest – twice. What Hillary had received a knighthood for was now possible for the boy next door.

Matthew 15.21-28 records a well known but rather unusual story of Jesus healing the daughter of a Syro-Phoenician woman.

Jesus and his disciples have entered the region of Tyre to spend some time away from the crowds and rest for a while. The woman somehow finds out about Jesus and goes to Him in search of healing.

The story is unusual in that Jesus seems reluctant to respond to her request. Initially her pleas are met with silence.The disciples urge Jesus to send her away. She is both a gentile and a nuisance. Then Jesus seems to want to block her request by talking about His mission and how the bread (His healing and deliverance ministry) is only for the children (Jews) and not for little dogs (gentiles).

The woman keeps pressing in. She cries for mercy. She falls down in worship. She even reasons with Jesus on the basis of His own argument – even the dogs get the scraps that fall from the table.

And then Jesus commends her for her great faith and pronounces her daughter healed!

Why did Jesus react this way to this woman? I think part of the answer is that He wanted her to press through her understanding of God and the Jewish understanding of God to a place of faith.

To attain spiritual breakthroughs we have to work through an understanding of God that is sometimes faulty. Faith kicks in when we come to that place where we are totally convinced that God is for us and wants to act on our behalf. We reach a point of breakthrough.

In only a few years healing and deliverance amongst people like this woman would be common place. It would be more benchmark than breakthrough.

You might be looking for a breakthrough in a particular area. You might feel God is silent. You might have been damaged by the impatience of the church. You might have ideas of God which in themselves are a real barrier to breakthrough.

But keep going. Your breakthrough, when you get it, might just become a new benchmark for your family and the people around you.