John Mumford looks at the reality of living life God’s way.
Sitting in McDonald’s restaurant one afternoon, surrounded by screaming children and Big Macs and staring into my chocolate milkshake, I had an insight into something l had been thinking about for some time: it was that the Christian life is supposed to be like a chocolate milkshake!
I had been wrestling with the reality that Christians often think about God in a sectioned-off way, compartmentalizing their lives into separate and distinct segments such as work, family, sex and church. Sitting in McDonalds that afternoon I realised that Christianity isn’t supposed to be like a grapefruit but like a milkshake. Jesus shouldn’t only constitute one segment of your life;
He should impact every part of your being. Just as the chocolate in a milkshake should be indistinguishable from the milk, so He should be in us and we in Him. With just a limited space to try to unpack a massive topic, I wish to give here some food for thought on how this integration of God in our lives should affect work, sex, bereavement and sickness.
Christian life is supposed to be like a chocolate milkshake!
Shaken not Segmented
As the Western world enters the new millennium it is fascinating to see the influence that the Greeks still have upon our every-day lives. Whenever you vote in an election, did you realise that you’re being affected by what is essentially a Greek political system? Much of the architecture we see today was born from the Greeks. However, the greatest influence of all is Greek thought. Unable ever to keep things together, the Greeks always separated the physical from the spiritual. They unfavourably contrasted ‘higher’ things with ‘lower’ ones; the spirit or soul was superior to the human body, its emotions and desires. Today, Christians in the western world still have a funny idea that physical things are somehow not spiritual. Down the ages, a negative view of the body and its functions has infiltrated the church’s thinking. Christians have also copied the rigid division of the Greeks into sacred and secular life. Going to church on Sundays has become more important than going to Tescos midweek. In a church that separates these things and in a society that encourages the privatization of religion we ensure that our lives remain segmented. Those unspiritual areas of life such as work or health have become things we seldom talk about.
Work – we were made for it
“You’re not really working for the Lord unless you’re in full-time religious occupation!” This common Christian claim is, quite frankly, rubbish. In Ancient Greece two-thirds of the population worked as slaves so that one third could enjoy a life of leisure and entertainment. The Western world has adopted this derogatory Greek view that work is a human necessity rather than a privilege. Caught up in the philosophy that ‘leisure is life’, work is something man ‘does to live’ rather than what he ‘lives to do’. In many ways this view has been translated into the Christian world – we devalue work by believing that kingdom service can only be done at the weekends or after work.
The contrast between our and God’s perception of paradise is a clear indication of how today’s attitude towards work is unbiblical. Genesis shows that, before the Fall, work was an integral part of God’s perfect plan. An industrious God made Adam in His own image and then created a paradise garden for him to cultivate. The Pope wrote recently that “Work is a fundamental dimension of man’s existence on earth. Through it he achieves fulfilment as a human being”. The inventor of the electric light bulb, Thomas Eddison, declared that his invention was “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”. Rest on the Sabbath was, and still should be, conditioned by six days of hard work; God never wanted us to lie around being idle, but to embrace work as His gift. Having packed an earth full of resources and opportunities, He requires our activity to develop it.
Rest on the Sabbath was, and still should be, conditioned by six days of hard work
The Bible teaches that we not only embrace work as God’s gift but we see it as His command. In Ephesians 6, Paul instructed the 1st century slaves “to obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” Here Paul replaces the Greek worldview of these slaves who considered work as an unfavourable segment in their lives, with a Hebrew one. They were doing the will of God from their hearts. There is a story of a street-sweeper in Leeds who used to take his brush and shovel into the local Anglican Church every day, lean them against the communion rail, kneel down and ask God to bless him in his work. His streets were reputed to be the cleanest in the city.
Sex – God’s great gift
The Western church, dismissive of the doctrine of creation and desperate to correct abuse, has often failed to communicate a positive and Biblical view of sex. Being a function of the body, the Greeks considered sex a dirty urge rather than a holy joy, a secular not a sacred act, a physical rather than a spiritual thing. For centuries, the Western church has dismissed sex as either highly sinful or merely functional. The fact that the Bible unashamedly devotes an entire book to celebrating marital sex has been overlooked; the Song of Solomon has been explained as some vague allegory. Sex has become a sordid segment in our lives that is ‘none of God’s business’. However, scripture offers a view wholly contrary to the one the church has taught and the world has offered. Sex should not be a thing we seldom talk about but a celebration of God’s most brilliant idea!
A healthy attitude towards sex begins with a Biblical doctrine of the goodness of the creator’s gifts. The creation account in Genesis paints a clear picture of sexual celebration. As God presents the first woman to the first man, the writer is quick to record Adam’s first response: “This is now the bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”. The rather dreary English translation does not quite communicate the excitement of Adam’s exclamation here: “Whoa!” It is no accident that God attracted men and women to one another sexually; it was His intention from the beginning. “It is not good for man to be alone”. Eve was not just a mate for procreation but a companion to man. She was taken “out of his side to be equal with him / under his arm to be protected / and near his heart to be beloved.” The Bible shows that it is “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife”. Monogamous relationships between men and women have always been God’s design. He intended husbands and wives to unite in every way physically, emotionally, spiritually and sexually. Marriage is a Hebrew concept and so sex does not just involve the genitals but the whole person.
In the creation account we also learn that in the Garden of Eden “the man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” Here is complete human health. Before the fall, in front of each other and their God, Adam and Eve are open without guilt or inhibition. After men and women commit to each other in marriage they in to dismantle all those barriers of restraint and timidity. As one commentator says, “It can not be done in a night or in a rush of passion. It takes time to know and known.” Indeed, the frequent Old Testament word for sexual union is “to know”. It suggests the most intimate knowledge of another person upon the basis of intimate sexual union. An actor well known for his romantic roles once commented that, “A great lover is someone who can satisfy and be satisfied by one woman all his life long. A great lover is not someone who goes from woman to woman. Any dog can do that.”
Christians can cry
An anguished woman said to me recently, “I feel so awful and so guilty. I cried at my father’s funeral. What an awful witness.” I was shocked. Have Christians become so emotionally dysfunctional that we are ashamed to express our acutest feelings? When my father died people said, “Why lament your father’s loss? He’s in a better place.”
The knowledge that he was presently partying in paradise did not bring him back or make me feel any better. The well meant but exasperating consolations Christians give grieving people come straight from the ancient Greeks. Jesus’ response to the death of a friend was, to the horror of the Greeks, physical, ostentatious and real. At the tomb of Lazarus He didn’t try to reassure Mary with, “Don’t cry, your brother will be in heaven” but, “deeply moved in spirit and troubled”, we are told that “Jesus wept”. Moreover, John specifically records the public reaction to this emotional outburst; “Then the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him'”. The Son of God was a healthy human being; he knew that grief is the necessary price you pay for loving.
When we are bewildered by God’s dealings with us, when we feel cheated by the apparent cruelty of His providence, it is vital we tell Him so. After, all, in His hour of grief, Jesus himself cried, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” But, the hope for bereaved Christians is that God is in control. We see this in the book of Ruth when Naomi grieved the loss of her husband and sons in a foreign land. She went through the familiar patterns of grief-terrible yearning, resigned despair, anger and self pity – and she was real before God. Some have criticized her mood as being too negative, but she was simply showing that her grief was not a sectioned off segment in her life but an aching concern that involved her Lord. She was not rejecting God but was being real before Him. There is no impiety in emotional honesty.
Sickness – nothing to be ashamed of
Sickness has become a thing we seldom talk about because the church has struggled to hold together the doctrines of suffering, healing and death. With a strong doctrine of healing we have tended to regard suffering as unspiritual and death as defeat. Consequently, we have loaded guilt on the unhealthy by selling the lie. “If you have more faith you’ll be healed!” One of the many things I loved about the late |ohn Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement, was the way his teaching eliminated such nonsense and any hype attached to the healing ministry. The coming of the kingdom was ‘now’ – God does heal people miraculously – but also ‘not yet’ -until heaven not everyone will be completely healed. Wimber used to say it’s “okay to be sick” – you don’t have to pretend you’re well when you’re not – whilst it’s also “okay to be healed” – we’d be privileged to pray for you. And John himself modelled this reality of the kingdom, suffering from serious sickness most of his life and dying prematurely in 1997.
When Wimber said. “It’s okay to be sick” he was assuming all types of illness. In our culture there is stilt a stigma attached to mental or emotional illness. And in the church this same prejudice exists; to break your leg still seems more acceptable than to suffer from schizophrenia. For me, this issue was vividly brought to my attention when I suffered from a mild clinical depression. Having had a particularly bad year (in which my father had died) I developed some of the classic symptoms such as panic attacks and loss of sleep. One of the things I had noticed was how seldom Christians talked about this particular sickness and how, when they did, it would be with 3 combination of monumental Insensitivity and sheer ignorance!
it’s okay to be sick
Even Elijah, one of the most extraordinary prophets in the whole Bible, suffered from depression. In 1 Kings 19, having received a death threat, we learn that ‘afraid’ he ‘ran for his life’ into the desert. The significant thing about this passage is that God ministers through His people even when they’re sick. Elijah was real with God when he prayed, “I have had enough, Lord…take my life; I am no better than my ancestors”. And God didn’t reply, “Snap out of it” or “How can you call yourself a prophet and be depressed?” but He dealt with Elijah’s distress tenderly and graciously, “All at once an angel touched him”. By providing physical replenishment, rather than making him feel guilty as a spiritual failure, the angel encouraged Elijah to eat, drink and sleep to aid his recovery. The Lord also suggested a change of environment, the angel telling him to journey out of the desert. When he reached the cave in Horeb, the Lord asked him “What are you doing here, Elijah?” This was not a reprimand as some commentaries suggest) but an encouragement – after all it was the angel who had guided him there! The Lord encouraged Elijah not to bottle up his emotions and sickness but to talk about his depressive feelings. Psychotherapy always begins by asking questions; our heavenly psychiatrist knows how important it is to bring deep feelings into self-conscious expression. I recovered from depression with a similar prescription; a combination of an excellent GP, bereavement counselling from an Anglican priest, prayer, Prozac, studying the scriptures, time off, rest and chocolate!
For the sick and the suffering, the depressed and the stressed, there is light at the end of the tunnel, there is a gentle whisper to reassure, there is a God willing to minister. Elijah discovered that the Lord was present in the ordinary and the small as opposed to the great and spectacular. Although immensely harrowing, full of tears and humiliation, his depression was not wasted time. God used sickness to draw his servant into an intimacy he had never experienced before. In the same way God can reveal himself to us even in the midst of hard times and terrible sickness.
Mix It up
Our physical, emotional and mental health must not be just segments in our lives that we rope off to the Lord. On the contrary we must be like Elijah; we must live Hebrew, integrated, milkshake lives; we must allow God to minister to every part of our being. We need to remember that the Bible was written not by Greeks, but by Jews, to whom the divisions between the physical and the spiritual, the sacred and the secular, were nonsense. The only secular thing in life was sin. I believe that God is calling us to be like the Hebrews, to have God completely integrated into our lives.