How God becomes known in a sceptical world
“I’m a scientist but I’d have to call that a miracle!”
So said Prof. Tim Atkins, the lead boffin from Porton Down, in the BBC docu-dramatisation of the Salisbury Poisonings screened this week, which resulted in only one fatality and Sarah Bailey, the policeman’s wife, in the toxin-polluted house with children for several days before the risk was known, with no ill effects. Having family in Salisbury, one working in the hospital at the time, and living between Bourne Hill Police Station and the square (right by Sainburys) where much of the investigation took place, we had seen the high level of police and military activity, and often driven past the Porton Down research establishment.
God does reveal Himself in extraordinary events. We have also been reminded recently of the remarkable rescue from Dunkirk, an army overwhelmed and pushed back which couldn’t be saved — but following a national appeal for prayer and unforeseen changes in the weather, a third of a million were brought home with the help of civilians and their ‘little boats’.
But how do we, as Christians, EXPLAIN God’s answers to prayers in such events? How do we relate the faith we live, making it meaningful to others who hold contrary beliefs and values? As we have a sense of God speaking and leading us day by day through His word as we read it, or perhaps through a message or insight shared by a pastor or praying friend — how do we talk about this?
Speaking God’s truth in faith into unbelief invites ridicule, or in Jeremiah’s experience, being given a beating and put in the stocks by a religious official ((Jeremiah 20:1-2)). It is worth noting that the attacks that Jesus experienced were from the most religious element – the scribes and the Pharisees, the synagogue in His home town ((Luke 4:28-29)) and at the end, the high priests and religious hierarchy in Jerusalem ((Matthew 26:57, 59)). Paul and Silas on mission with the good news received harsh treatment from other Jews ((Acts 17:5-9)). It’s the betrayal by people that should be on-side for us which is often the hardest to forgive.
Jesus didn’t mince words in warning His disciples that they would face conflict for being seen to be His followers. And active persecution: three times in a short discourse, He tells them, “Do not be afraid of them…” going on to refer to those who kill the body, and the shame of being like a convicted criminal made to carry the means of their execution.
Allowing for the fact that figures of speech and exaggeration made the important message more memorable, our witness to who is Lord of our life is not without risks. It takes some resolve. And it’s important. People are quick to rationalise even extraordinary events — we feel more comfortable bringing what we do not understand down to our level. It’s harder to look up and try to make out the bigger picture.
And that’s where we come in, the bridge between the regular world and the supernatural and extraordinary and gloriously incomprehensible. It’s part of the priesthood which all believers share in ((1 Peter 2:5, 9)). We are the ones who, through believing and trusting Jesus with our lives, can know God and know His leading in the confusions of life. When people around us see that we, as ordinary people, can grasp the kingdom of God, it shows that it is not inaccessible to them.
And when it all seems to go wrong? On one level, Jeremiah was the most unsuccessful, failed person that God ever trusted with His word. He was charged with getting Israel’s leadership to listen, and to repent, and to change their trajectory from certain defeat and exile to a pagan country, to eleventh-hour salvation. And Jeremiah was beaten, thrown into a cistern full of mud ((Jeremiah 38:6-8)), ridiculed in court, and saw the besieged city overrun and people taken away in chains. No one listened.
It’s worth noting where the conflict comes from – often those close to us, as Jesus points out ((Matthew 10:35))
When it goes wrong for us (in smaller ways!) we are faced with choices. Do we do what makes us feel better — probably a reaction — or do we prayerfully respond as God shows us? The reaction of the flesh, or the unregenerate human-nature and selfish “this is what I think” way puts in opposition to what God wants from us. in Paul’s language, that is to “go on sinning” like we did before we knew Jesus.
But we don’t have to ((Romans 6:1-7)). That knee-jerk lashing out kind of response belonged to a former life, a life that was put to death with Jesus when we accepted for us personally the sacrifice He made.
A big part of being a Christian is being forgiven. And so another big part is having the capacity to be similarly generous-spirited to others ((Matthew 6:12)). The conflict that the devil stirs up ((James 4:7, 1 Peter 5:8-9)) is both an oppression and a trap. The trap is that the experience of oppression will push us into sin, retaliation and unforgiveness – which then gives the devil a foothold into our lives ((Ephesians 4:26-27)). Paul reminds us that part of being born again into new life in Jesus is dying to the old life. We can live above what is done to us, ((Romans 6:9-12)).
Conflicts and difficulties will come our way, as they did for the first disciples. But because we have received grace ((John 1:16-17)), the unconditional love behind that grace empowers us – in our turn – to be gracious.