‘I never knew you’

About not living on fumes: being an extract from my new book which might be called ‘The Sandwich’.

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Here’s a new extract from my new book, ‘The Sandwich’, originally written for a magazine in Singapore that is aimed at young adults taking early steps of faith.

(2019)

Two passages in the New Testament record people’s shock when they are shut out of the Kingdom of God at the last day. They can’t believe it. In one passage, people complain, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets!’ (Luke 13:22-30). In the other, they go even further: ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?‘ (Matthew 7:15-23).

I don’t know where you are from,’ Jesus says to those who lived in his neighbourhood. ‘I never knew you’, he says to those who worked spectacular miracles in his name. What does he mean?

In both these examples, things look fine on the surface, but underneath, there’s nothing.

More of the same

Plenty of other places in the Bible talk about situations where people looked good for a time, or even worked miracles in Christ’s name, but shared the same deep lack. They were running on fumes, not on steady supplies of fuel.

  • The parable of the Sower talks about seeds that sprout and quickly grow, but never come to harvest.
  • Judas Iscariot went with the other disciples on preaching tours, healing and driving out demons. He looked just like a proper apostle but was always a thief and was found out in the end.
  • In Ephesus, some Jewish exorcists tried casting out demons in the name of Jesus. It worked until one day they were mauled by a demonized person and barely managed to escape alive.
  • In the Old Testament a prophet for hire named Balaam prophesied accurately about the people of God, but money rather than God owned his heart. The New Testament warns us several times of Christian-era Balaams (see 2 Peter 2:15 and Jude 11).

Frequently, the Bible warns us against people who look good but are in fact, bad. ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.’ (Matthew 7:15). Beware ‘false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 11:13). ‘They are blots and blemishes, revelling in their deceptions, while they feast with you’ (2 Peter 2:13).

Knowing and being known

Jesus says to all these surprised people, who looked so good, ‘I never knew you.’ What does he mean? And does he mean us?

  1. It can’t mean that there is anything God doesn’t know about us. He is God. He’s measured our shoe size, counted the hairs on our head, heard every word of our self-talk. He knows when we meant well. He knows when we say we meant well but really didn’t. He knows everything about us and judges it with an utter fairness. Every good point we might want him to consider – he will already have listed it. Everything we’d rather he hadn’t seen – he will have seen that too. We are entirely exposed to him, even if we would wish to cover some bits up.
  2. Yet there is another sort of knowing. If you fell in love with someone from afar, you might over time learn a lot about him or her. Stalkers, who turn this kind of behaviour into criminal obsession, may learn a lot more, all the facts – creepily so. But all that is nothing compared with the knowledge of actually knowing that person as your boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s that heart-to-heart knowledge, that relational knowledge, that openness to each other, that Jesus seems to mean when he says, ‘I never knew you.’ I never knew you like that.

This personal, heart-to-heart knowing is a two-way thing. Paul puts it like this to the Galatians, ‘Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again? (Galatians 4:8-9). Jesus says simply, ‘I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me’ (John 10:14).

Pride makes us stupid, but humility lets us see and know.

This opening of the heart to the Other, to God, is what some of us so strenuously avoid. I can go along with the Christian crowd. I can even get involved in all kinds of spiritual fireworks, impressing everyone with the show, just don’t let me face him heart to heart, naked and unarmed. Let me keep busy in his name instead. Or let me just gingerly tread around him and his call, keeping a respectful distance: ‘Oh yes, I know him well, I’m quite familiar with the teaching.’

This is such a huge theme of the Bible. Adam hides behind a tree, not a brilliant strategy when the one looking for you is All-Seeing.  ‘These people worship me with their mouths but their hearts are far from me’ says Isaiah, quoted later by Jesus, and identifying a later group of Adams sheltering behind a tree of religiosity (Mark 7:6).

Here I am!’ Jesus says to the smug and all-knowing Christians of Laodicea. ‘I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me’ (Revelation 3:20 NIVUK). Don’t hold me at a distance, cool and sardonic and flip. Face me. Meet me.

Knowing is trusting is following

This heart-to-heart knowing, this relational knowledge, is bound up with trusting. If you are emerging from your hiding place, laying down your weapons, taking off your headphones, and facing God defenceless, argument-less and alone, then necessarily you are trusting him to deal with you kindly and well.

Necessarily you are also committing yourself to do what he says. So another way of looking at ‘knowing’ is ‘trusting and obeying’. This is God’s ‘firm foundation’: ‘But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his”, and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity”’ (2 Timothy 2:19).

It is a surrender. That is why it is so simple and so terrible. It is why (I think) the biggest barrier between anyone knowing God and being known by him is not ignorance but pride. God can take a humble person a long way even if they have just a few sandwiches in their mental lunchbox; a proud genius with all the world’s information on a smartphone will still be blundering in the dark. Pride makes us stupid, but humility lets us see and know. But when you surrender, when you trust and follow, knowing him and being known, there is healing for your wounds, rest for your tired bones, comfort for your sorrows, forgiveness for your rebellions and stubbornness, energy for your serving, and quietness and happiness and glory.

Holy heroism

Being a chapter from my new book which might be called ‘The Sandwich’.

Yes, I took August off, and a bit of September, which is the advantage of writing a blog called ‘slowmission.’ As a new(ish) born grandad of a two-year-old and a five-month-old I had things to do in August, mostly involving lying still in a dark room.

I used the lockdown to write two little books. One has been brewed from all the blog articles I’ve done and I hope to say more about that soon. The other I want to share over the coming weeks. This title might end up being The Sandwich, because it explores the way Christian believers are sandwiched between the promises of God and the world we all know, where you stub your toe, lose your keys, and worry.

The Sandwich, if indeed we end up calling it that, started life as a series of columns I wrote for a magazine in Singapore. This magazine was aimed at the many young adults who were finding faith in God for the first time. Here’s a chapter.

On heroes

About how you just can’t get them or be them

(2006)

You just can’t get the heroes these days. In previous eras of church history, the world seemed to be full of clean-limbed individuals who lived hard-working and praiseworthy lives while preaching the gospel, shutting the mouths of lions and being sawn in two, often all at once.

Today we live in a world where even the best of us are seen as badly flawed.  And even those squeaky-clean saints of former years have been re-graded. No decent biography or obituary is complete these days without a listing, tactful or otherwise, of a few of the subject’s faults and misdemeanours.

Like a photo culled from the web and then enlarged, heroes don’t seem to have that fine-grained resolution that means their lives look good on billboards.

To take just one example, the pioneering founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, fearless fighter for the poor and needy, once got so mad with his children that he took a gun and shot the family dog. When he realized how upset they were, he had it stuffed and brought back into the house.  Then he got mad again because they didn’t thank him. He was one of many leaders down to the present time who were perhaps better pioneers than they were parents. How many children of Christian heroes could tell stories of tyranny? Plenty.

It was also said of Booth that orders he gave were to be obeyed without question. However, if anyone tried to give orders to him, he was free to ignore them because he must obey God and not men. This is a handy tip for team-working that I expect you to file for later use.

It’s better this way

Yet even in this cynical age, we Christians can still fall into the beguiling trap of hero worship. This is how it seems to work. We go along in the Christian life like Goldilocks, finding some things too hot for us, and other things too cold; some things too wild, other things too tame. Then we stumble upon someone who just seems to have everything just right. We like what they say or write. Or we like their churches, or their leadership. It’s such a relief to find them. These people seem to embody just what we aspire to in Christian living. What heroes they are. We start collecting recordings of their talks and buying their books.

The apostle Paul found plenty of hero-worship when he listened to a report about the church he planted in Corinth. Some people thought he, Paul, was everything you could wish for in an apostle. Others preferred the eloquent and powerful speaker Apollos. Still others spoke fondly of Peter, who of course had worked with Jesus for three years, was presumably a fund of colourful stories, and of whom Jesus had said, ‘on this rock I will build my church.’

Paul wouldn’t have any of it. I think he found hero-worship, at its root, a sign of not-being-properly-grown-up. He told the Corinthians, we are all your servants.

So two things: your hero isn’t perfect, and he will let you down. And those other guys who you already know aren’t perfect, and who you think don’t quite get it right, maybe they have things to say into your life after all. By extension this is true of denominations and movements too. All kinds of Christian writers on the bookshelf can bless you. Bible-Presbyterians and charismatics can both feed your soul. In my view.

You’re the ones in charge of your lives, concludes Paul. Don’t follow people or movements blindly or totally. Weigh things. Take responsibility. Be your own person before God.

That’s a sample of what Paul was always saying to new Christians, of course: don’t be faddish, don’t be blown off course, don’t be a slave to the latest trends, be deeply rooted in God for yourself.

Remember their faith

There is another side to this, though. Let’s not be hero-worshippers. But let’s not cut everyone and everything down to our puny size either.

When the writer of the letter to the Hebrews wanted to stiffen the spines of the people he was writing to he reminded them of the saints of the past. He didn’t claim they were perfect, or that we should model our lives on theirs exactly. He didn’t set them forth as an example of how it should be done, in the good old days, when saints were real saints. But he did say, ‘consider their faith’.  

They weren’t perfect, but they stuck it out. They failed, their hearts failed sometimes, it was difficult – the Bible is full of their failings — but they stuck it out.

Paul says the same to Timothy, almost his last written words: ‘You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings …’ (2 Tim 3: 10-11)

And then he says,

Continue in what you have learned.’ Stick it out like I did. Do better than me, learn from my mistakes, do things differently, but stick it out. Keep the faith.

It comes to this

In summary, then, how do we treat Christian heroes? Well, don’t build your life on them. Take what they have to give. And remember their faith.

You wouldn’t want to do things exactly the way William Booth did. He got a lot wrong. But the poor lined the streets for his funeral. His children followed him into ministry. The organization he founded still bears fruit generations later. He kept the faith. A (flawed) hero. Just like you.