Archive for the ‘Pragmatism’ Category

Tidal wave

I fear… that our churches are threatened by a tidal wave of pragmatism.  (Garry Williams speaking at the John Owen Centre 2013 conference)


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That’s what we find in 2 Chronicles 16.

First, a dissection of pragmatism:

  • Costly – ‘Then Asa took silver and gold from the treasures of the house of the LORD… and sent them to Ben-Hadad king of Syria/Aram’ (v2).  He’s banking on a good return – the lifting of an economic blockade (v1) – but pragmatism does cost.  Whether its dodgy politics or slick marketing or backhanders in business or kitu kidogo for the policeman, there are no free lunches.  The world works by “You get what you pay for” – so it’s costly.
  • Conservative – ‘”Let there be a treaty between me and you,” he said, “as there was between my father and your father”‘ (v3a).  Pragmatism always has a precedent.  “That’s how my father did it and his father did it.”  It’s traditional, conservative – it’s just how we do things.
  • Covenant-breaking – “See, I am sending you silver and gold. Now break your covenant with Baasha king of Israel” (v3b).  Pragmatism values money and results over keeping a word.  Asa is working on the basis that if he can give enough cash then the treaty signed between Israel and Aram will be worthless.  That’s how our world works – I say that I will come to this meeting or this event at this time on this date but then I get a better offer and I break my word.
  • Competent – “Ben-Hadad listened… Baasha stopped… Asa built…” (v4-6).  Pragmatism actually works. Very often it does get results. Let’s not be super-spiritual about this. The Bible is very realistic that pragmatism works, that often ungodly people with ungodly motives and ungodly methods do achieve their ungodly goals.
  • Condemned – It’s all looking fine for Asa and Judah but then God spoils it all by sending his verdict through his prophet: “You’ve been foolish and now you will have war” (v7-9).  But what exactly is it that Asa has done wrong?

A definition of pragmatism:

“You relied on the king of Aram/Syria and not on the Lord your God” (v7a).  That is pragmatism.  Asa relied on World not the Lord.  And not only that – he’s missed the opportunity to overcome the World – “…the army of the king of Aram/Syria escaped” (v7b).  Asa has stopped viewing God’s enemies as those who need to be brought to submission under Yahweh and he’s started viewing them as his salvation.  To translate it into New Testament terms – he has stopped viewing the World as Lost, stopped viewing them as a mission field, and started looking to them for answers and help and strength.   The Apostle Paul had to write to the church in Corinth and say, ‘What are you doing dragging church politics into the civil courts? What are you doing going yoking yourself to unbelievers? What are you doing going into business with the world?’ (1 Cor. 6; 2 Cor. 6).  Yes we can sometimes learn from the world – Jesus said that sometimes the children of the world are shrewder than the children of light.  But God forbid that we forget that the world is lost and look to it as our saviour – as the place to get strategies for church growth or models of leadership, as the place to get help to fight our internal church politics battles, as the place of financial salvation.

 But why did Asa go pragmatic?  Why do we?  A diagnosis of pragmatism:

  1. Forgetting the past – “Were not the Cushites and Libyans a mighty army with great numbers of chariots and horsemen? Yet when you relied on the Lord, he delivered them into your hand.” (v9). Earlier in his reign Asa had faced an army of a million men charging out of Africa, he cried to the Lord and the Lord fought for them (2 Chron. 14:9-12) but he’s forgotten those days.  We become pragmatic when we forget that all the great revivals of the past were not built on pragmatism – slick marketing campaigns or cleverness or money – but built on prayer and the word of the Cross.  And what was the great past battle?   The Cross.  Was the cross pragmatic?  Would an executive strategist dreamt up the Cross?  Never.  Weakness, blood, humiliation, wrath, love, covenant-keeping, free grace.
  2. Forgetting the character of God – “For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen”(v9a).  God is not some distant dictator.  It’s not even that he’s a grudging giver.  He’s actively going up and down seeking out people to help and strengthen and lift up.  We become pragmatic when we forget God is an ever-present help, a generous Father, a God of overflowing grace and we think we’ll just have to get on with it ourselves our own way.
  3. Forgetting our first love – “…those whose hearts are fully committed to him” (v9b).  It’s a heart issue. At the end of 1 Kings 15 Asa’s heart prized the Lord God above everything. One demonstration of that was his putting his treasure into the Temple (“where your treasure is there your heart is…”).  What happens in 16:2? He takes it all out again!  He moves his treasure from the Temple to Damascus.  His heart is going from the Lord to Ben-Hadad.  The Temple is not just any old religious building, it’s not a church – it’s where you find the Word of God (the great Ark of the Covenant), it’s where you find forgiveness (through sacrifice), it’s where you find God himself.  13 chapters of the book of Chronicles are devoted to the setting up of the Temple.  It’s a BIG deal.  We get to the New Testament and we find the Temple is Jesus (John  2:19-21).  What’s the point – what is at the core of Asa’s problem – what is at the core of revival-stopping pragmatism?  It’s deserting Jesus. It’s losing that first love for Jesus. It’s forgetting that we are nothing without him. As a nation, Judah’s whole identity and strength was in the Lord. With him they were the most exalted nation on earth. Without him they were absolutely nothing.  What Asa does here is he forgets that and he starts operating like every other king of every other king: he sees an economic and political problem and he solves it by economics and politics. 

God forbid that as a Church we should forget that Christ is our everything and without him we are nothing. God forbid that as iServe Africa or any Christian organisations we should start thinking of ourselves just as any other civil society organisation.  God forbid that personally we should forget that Christ is our life, that the life we live in the flesh is only by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.  Let’s pray for a revival of a heart love and prizing and complete dependence on Christ – his Word, his Sacrifice, his presence – that sends us out into the world not as our saviour but as the mission field, not to find solutions but to preach the gospel of The Saviour.

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It can be helpful to distinguish between different worldviews (ways of seeing the world) held by different cultures – secular materialism, monotheism, polytheism, pantheism etc.  There are certainly very major differences between the way someone in an urban, (post)modern, (post)industrial community might typically understand life and the worldview of the majority someone in rural India or the Amazon basin.  However, it can also be helpful to see similarities – particularly this one: we are all animists at heart.  Once you dig down into our very different cultures and once you peel away the layers of our very different personal psychologies, you find that we are all naturally inclined towards animism.  As someone has put it, ‘Animism is our default setting.’  As Christians we pray that our minds are being renewed and reprogrammed with a True view of Reality but naturally speaking we are all born animists and that is where we are all inclined to fall back. 

But can we really say that the Western CEO is an animist as much as the devotee of African Traditional Religion?  Romans 1:25 describes the condition of the whole human race, North and South, East and West: ‘They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator’. 

How do we see this in practice?  I think there are a number of ways in which you can see animism bubbling up underneath ‘Western’ secular materialist humanist culture:

  • Traditional folk religion persists in the form of little superstitions and rituals that even educated professionals observe.  Many will not walk under a ladder or stay in room 13 at a hotel.  Flowers are placed on graves out of ‘respect’ or ‘in remembrance’.
  • There is a great openness to Eastern mysticism, occult, reincarnation and ‘alternative’ or ‘complementary’ medical therapies.  In fact I just heard that the National Health Service in the UK is beginning to fund Reiki (Japanese originated energy channeling technique). 
  • Vast numbers of people in the West look at horoscopes.  In fact it has been said that newspapers would go out of business if they didn’t contain star readings.  Large numbers also believe in various conspiracy theories – what David Aaronovitch has telling called Voodoo Histories.
  • It is very common to find secular humanists who talk of ‘living on’ through their children and grandchildren.  It is not at all far from the traditional beliefs in some groups here in Kenya that a grandparent’s spirit is reborn in a grandchild.

But more importantly, animism isn’t just underneath secular materialism – secular materialism IS animism.  They basically end up amounting to the same thing.  At the very least there is a lot of convergence between the two:

  • At a heart level western culture worships and serves created things rather than the Creator – money, education, freedom, tolerance, popularity, celebrity, football, youth, technology, music.
  • At a philosophical level John Lennox has pointed out that Stephen Hawking ends up treating physical laws as gods by ascribing agency and creative power to them (laws can’t create matter out of nothing but having dismissed God that’s what Hawkings has to argue). 
  • Because both animism and secular materialism reject a Creator God and the concept of revelation, both inevitably end up believing that Truth is unknowable.
  • As a result both Western cultures and animist cultures privilege ‘experience’ and emotional sensation over knowledge, wisdom and understanding.  So many times before we left the UK for Kenya were we told, ‘Well it’ll be a great experience’ or ‘As long as you’re happy – that’s the main thing.’
  • Again, because they reject the reality of Creator and creation, neither secular materialism nor animism have a concept of sin (certainly not in the sense of hell-deserving rebellion against your Maker) and so they have no place for salvation either (certainly not in the sense of a propitiation of that deserved wrath).  Instead there are ‘problems’ that require pragmatic solutions.  Life is lived according to ‘if it works for you’.  The education system and almost all other government policies are geared towards the needs of The Economy.  I recently heard that the UK government had issued guidelines for good parenting.  Each one was based on ‘expert advice’ and ‘sound research’ – i.e. it works.

What do you think?  Can you see the animism in our hearts and cultures… and churches?

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It is well


After church the other day I had a conversation that went something like this:

A:  I really liked the Word this morning.
B:  What is it that you liked hasa?
A:  That we give out of gratitude not out of obligation.
B:  What is it that you are most grateful for?
A:  My health, my life, that I can walk here this morning.
B:  I am grateful for that too.  What else are you grateful for?
A:  That I have a job.  A lot of people haven’t got work but I have work.
B:  I am grateful for that too.  What else are you grateful for?
A:  For my family.  I have a wife and three lovely children.
B:  So do I.  I am very grateful for them too.  What else are you grateful for?
A:  Salvation.  That I am forgiven.

Is salvation our number 4?  Does Jesus come in not second best or even third best but fourth best?  I fear that if you listened to my prayers and thoughts and fears and affections then you would conclude the same of me.  Not only is this a massive insult to our great God and saviour, it robs us of delight and peace in Christ, it distorts our gospel, and it leaves us very vulnerable when health or job or family are attacked or taken away.

Now imagine you are a successful lawyer and a good steward of your resources, investing in property and generously supporting evangelists.  Then within three years your four-year-old son dies, all your property investments are destroyed in a terrible fire, and then as your wife and four daughters cross the Atlantic by ship ahead of you the ship is struck by another vessel and sinks in 12 minutes with loss of 226 people including all four of your daughters – only your wife is among the survivors.  As you travel by ship across the same sea to be reunited with your wife, what would you be thinking?  What would you be saying to God?  What state would your heart be in?  How many of us would be in a state to write words like these:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

How could Horatio Spafford write this as his boat passed over the same spot where his children had drowned?  Was he mad?  Was he being stoical?  No.  Christ was everything to him.  He counted his salvation his number one blessing.  He was full of joy even in the midst of the deepest sorrow – because of the Cross of Christ.  His greatest pain was sin and his greatest pleasure Christ.  His greatest prayer and desire was to see his Saviour, to see the Son of Man coming on the great resurrection day to complete his victory.  Mediate on these words…

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

But Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.

And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.

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Pragmatism may be the dominant philosophy of the twenty-first century but it is not a new mentality.  Kris Lundgaard writes:

What do most people think about and cherish?  According to the psalmist, “Many are asking, ‘Who can show us any good?’” (Psalm 4:6). That is, most people want to know who will help them get the things of this world and give them peace of mind. But the psalmist says, “Let the light of your face shine upon us, O LORD.  You have filled my heart with greater joy than when grain and new wine abound” (Psalm 4:6-7).  Nothing in this world can compare with seeing the light of God’s glory in the face of the eternal God-man.  (Through the Looking Glass: Reflections on Christ that Change Us, pp. 35-36)

Harrison, team leader of iServe Africa, identifies pragmatism as one of the most
insidious threats to the Kenyan church. It is more subtle than a blatant prosperity gospel that promises perfect health and wealth if you ‘sow a seed’ (i.e. give to my ministry).  Even churches that explicitly teach against the prosperity gospel can end up making church a place where we come to get a ‘blessing’ and resolution to our immediate problems – financial, relational, health.  Very easily man is at the centre and Christ only turns up for the altar call.

This has been a very cutting challenge to me personally.  I may decry the prosperity gospel but so often my prayer life and thought world are dominated by immediate, earthly problems.  As I deal with water leaks and power cuts and door handles falling off and delayed freight I’ve found myself very prone to pragmatic religion.

Let’s turn our eyes to eternity, to seek Jesus, his face, his kingdom, his glory.

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