Monday, April 4, 2016

Doubting Thomas: Hope for a Crisis of Faith

If you are a Christian doubting whether God exists (a difficult and upsetting experience), the story of Thomas’ own faith crisis is simply a must-read. Thomas was one of Christ’s 12 “full-time” disciples. While Jesus had other disciples, the 12 were with him on a far more regular basis. Other disciples were present when Jesus taught or ministered in public; the 12 had the privilege of spending lots of time with Jesus in private. For three years they ate, travelled, relaxed and lodged with him. They witnessed more miracles and heard more of Jesus’ teaching than anyone else. They alone saw him calm the waves and wind with a simple command. They had more reason than anyone to believe Christ was both Messiah and God.

What to expect from God when you struggle with doubts

Jesus said, “To whom much was given, of him much will be required.” Well the 12 were given more than everyone else. So, one would expect that Jesus would have required their unwavering faith at the end of the three years. But he didn’t. Despite all Thomas had seen and heard, he had flipped from faith to unbelief when Christ was killed. Listen to what he said to the other disciples when they told him Jesus was alive and had appeared to them:
“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
These are the words of a hard-hearted, utterly disappointed man. And they are illogical in light of all the evidence Thomas had. Jesus had raised the dead (Lazarus) and performed many miracles before his eyes. Now, all his fellow disciples are saying that they have seen Jesus, and yet Thomas chooses the path of unbelief. It doesn’t make sense. I would’ve thought Jesus would judge Thomas for his unbelief and not reveal himself to him. Instead, this is what he does:
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus’ patient lovingkindness with Thomas is breath-taking. John records numerous places where Jesus (or the Father) does things “in order that you may believe”. He delayed in responding to the news of Lazarus’ sickness “in order that you may believe”. He told his disciples, “I tell you things before they happen, in order that when they do happen you may believe that I am He”. And he does something similar again for Thomas.

God's heart towards doubters

God does not stand at a distance and say “believe in me”. Rather, he is one who comes to us and gives us reasons to believe in him. Indeed, that was one of the purposes of Jesus’ earthly life – to reveal the Father to us that we may believe in Him. Jesus said to his disciples:

How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.
I am so encouraged by how unexceptional Christ’s disciples were. They were so real… so easy to relate to. And yet Jesus chose them. Having chosen them he displayed great patience and grace in working with their weaknesses. If you are currently struggling in your faith, know that Christ is patient with you and is firmly for you. Here is what he said to Peter before Peter denied knowing him:
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
Jesus knew Peter would deny him and turn away from him in his hour of need, yet he was still for him. Before Peter had even failed him, Jesus had prayed for him to return to him. That is amazing grace and it is available for you because Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. He is impartial; he didn’t give Peter special treatment.

How will your story end?

If you are struggling with your faith, you are in good company. We have seen that two of Jesus’ closest disciples went through severe faith crises. And yet they came through them thanks to the patience and commitment of Christ to finish the work he had begun in them (Phil 1:6). Christ began a good work in you; find comfort in his promise to bring it to completion despite your failings.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Caring for the poor: Scripture's consistent message

(by Peter Waller)

Scripture verses posted on social media concerning the poor caught my attention recently, prompting me to have closer look at what the Bible has to say in this regard. Below, is a brief summary of some of the verses I found. It definitely isn't exhaustive and a more thorough treatment of the Scriptures' views on poverty can be found at

I was surprised by the verse in Ezekiel. Sodom and Gomorrah are better known for sexual sin (as evidenced by the former being the root of "sodomy"). Yet Ezekiel highlights these two towns' residents indifference to the plight of the poor.

What is evident is that each major section in the Bible - being the Old Testament books of Law, History, Prophecy, Wisdom and Poetry, and the New Testament Gospels and Epistles - delivers a consistent message: God cares about the poor and wants people to do the same.

Here then are some of the verses I found:

Deuteronomy 15v7-8: If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.

2 Samuel 12v1-4: And the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”

(While the above verse does not speak directly into a theology of poverty, it does reveal God's heart for the difficulties of poor people, as do other stories in the historical books.)

Job 29v11-16: When the ear heard, it called me blessed, and when the eye saw, it approved, because I delivered the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to help him. The blessing of him who was about to perish came upon me, and I caused the widow's heart to sing for joy. I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy,
and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know.

Psalm 112v9: The righteous have freely scattered their gifts to the poor, their righteousness endures forever; their horn will be lifted high in honour.

Psalm 140v12: I know that the LORD secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.

Proverbs 14v31: Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.

Isaiah 58v6-7: Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Ezekiel 16v49: Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy."

Matthew 6v3-4: But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 25v37-40: Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Galatians 2:10: Only, [Peter, James and John] asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.

James 2v5-6: Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor.

Even Revelation has something interesting to say on the matter. In speaking to the church at Laodicea, Jesus rebukes them for being lukewarm. He also describes them as those who believe they are rich and in need of nothing. I find it telling that earthly wealth led to lukewarmness in this church. This is the lie of money: that it will provide for our needs, including the need for security and peace, if we will worship it. 

I will end with Jesus' words of advice to the church in Laodicea. It is advice for those who, like me, may be at risk of forfeiting real riches for earthly wealth, and in so doing rebelling against God.

"I counsel thee to buy of me gold refined by fire, that thou mayest become rich; and white garments, that thou mayest clothe thyself, and [that] the shame of thy nakedness be not made manifest; and eyesalve to anoint thine eyes, that thou mayest see. As many as I love, I reprove and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent."

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Why did I write about the dietary laws? To speak to the questioning mind

(by Peter Waller)
My previous blog entry sought to explain the purpose of the Old Testament dietary laws. I wrote it because I believe it may help people who have questions about God; questions which often undermine faith in God. The Old Testament, especially, can seem very strange to the modern mind. While I don’t think the dietary laws are the most relevant matter in this regard, they nevertheless fall into this category and as I read them I wondered what their purpose was.

My experience with difficult questions is that there are good answers for some of them, but not all. I think St Augustine put it brilliantly 1,600 years ago, “God does not expect us to submit our faith to him without reason, but the very limits of our reason make faith a necessity.” If you feel that this is a cop out, I would contend that the fields of philosophy and science also face unanswered questions. The more we discover, the more we realise we don’t understand. If you are under the impression that scientific research is resulting in a reduction in the number of unanswered questions, you need to know that it isn’t. Here is an excerpt from an article that appeared in the Guardian in 2013 entitled, The 20 big questions in science:
8 Are there other universes?
Our universe is a very unlikely place. Alter some of its settings even slightly and life as we know it becomes impossible. In an attempt to unravel this "fine-tuning" problem, physicists are increasingly turning to the notion of other universes. If there is an infinite number of them in a "multiverse" then every combination of settings would be played out somewhere and, of course, you find yourself in the universe where you are able to exist. It may sound crazy, but evidence from cosmology and quantum physics is pointing in that direction.
Do you think this question existed when St Augustine pointed out the limits of human reason? I doubt it. But as we discovered more about our universe, we realised how incredible it was. And we realised that it doesn’t make sense for it to exist. Some scientists have therefore taken the view that, if there are billions of other universes, then it would make sense simply on a basis of probabilities for a “finely tuned” one like ours to exist. (What was that you said about a cop out?) Maybe there are other universes. Personally, the precision of our universe makes perfect sense to me since I believe in a Fine Tuner. My point, though, is that both the agnostic scientist and the Christian face questions beyond them. St Augustine explained why and if the world is around for another 1,600 years, I’m confident his explanation will still be every bit as valid.
If you’re facing questions that oppose you in your desire to believe in the God of the bible, can I make a few recommendations based on personal experience?
  1. Pray about them. I found God to be my main helper. He answered some of my questions in a way that allows me to trust him on those he didn’t answer.
  2. If your problem is with a portion(s) of Scripture, do some research. Find a good study bible, book or Christian apologetics website and see what solutions they offer. It’s very unlikely you’re the first person to wonder about something and you’ll often find an answer that satisfies your concerns.
  3. Talk to people who you think may have good answers.
  4. Know that you'll never get answers to all your questions whatever you believe.
In all of your searching I would caution you against being persuaded one way or another too easily. If you’re a Christian, don’t throw away your faith too quickly. The issues are probably more complex than you realise. Strong arguments can be made for conflicting views on almost any topic. Why? Because our minds – as wonderful as they are – are finite. If our minds were infinite, we’d all agree on everything and there’d be no more questions.

When faced with the predicament of a finite mind, the bible’s counsel in Proverbs 3 is incredibly helpful for the Christian: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” God promises to make your crooked paths straight!
God doesn’t ask us to switch off our brains on matters of faith. But he does, lovingly, instruct us to not rely entirely on them. Faith in God may be supported by (and should encourage) the application of human reason and the undertaking of research. Ultimately, however, it is based not so much on a knowledge of the truth, but of the Truth – a person; Jesus Christ. Jesus described himself as the Truth. It is in finding him that our faith is transferred from ourselves (including what our brains can figure out) to him. It is in encountering him that we become convinced as to what the truth is.
If you have encountered him but presently find yourself buffeted by questions and doubts, you may be wondering what path to take. Submit to God’s counsel in Proverbs 3. Let him make your paths straight. It may take some time, but if he is real, he will do it. He did it for me and in the process I encountered him in a new and deeper way. Your questions and faith can reside together without disrupting your peace.

What was the purpose of the dietary laws in the Old Testament?

(by Peter Waller)
Deuteronomy 14 and Leviticus 11 laid down laws for the Jewish nation regarding clean and unclean foods, which were later rescinded in the New Testament (Romans 14, Acts 10). The laws seem rather odd when read with a westernised mind-set, which can undermine one’s confidence in the Old Testament and, therefore, the God of the Old Testament. Which raises the question: “What was the purpose of these laws?”
The answer to this question is put as bookends before and after these laws:
Front bookend: You are the sons of the Lord your God. You shall not cut yourselves or make any badness on your foreheads for the dead. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. You shall not eat any abomination…
Back bookend: You shall not eat anything that has died naturally. You may give it to the sojourner who is within your towns, that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God.
The laws were put in place because the Jewish nation was holy to the Lord. Being holy to the Lord is best explained in the front bookend which makes it clear that being holy means being chosen from a group. Singled-out. God went shopping in the nations (as one does) and chose Israel to be his special possession. He left the rest. It sounds harsh but that’s what he did. Why he did that is a question for a different day. For the purposes of the dietary laws, the fact that he did is critical. God set a differentiated diet for a differentiated people. He wanted the Jews to be easily distinguishable as the unique people they were.
But for who’s benefit was that? I suggest it is for the benefit of the Jews. God did not need to be reminded that they were his people. He chose them as his treasured possession. His memory is perfect, but his people’s wasn’t. As they settled among the nations, they needed regular reminders to help them remember that they are not just another nation. They were God’s treasured possession.
God made a big deal in the Old Testament about the Israelites keeping themselves separate from the nations. Again, why he did this is another matter – but the fact that he did helps us understand the dietary laws. God knew Israel would be tempted to forget their special identity and blend in with the other nations until they were no longer a separate nation. Creating unique dietary laws was one of the strategies he employed to prevent this from happening.
Once we see this, it is easy to understand why these laws were done away with in the New Testament. God’s chosen people are no longer a separate nation but the church – a body of people (both Jewish and gentile) scattered throughout the world. Unlike the Jewish nation of the Old Testament, the church is sown as seed in the world; utterly mixed in (Matt 13:24; John 17:15).
In the next post, I'll have a closer look at why I wrote this entry.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

David, the death of Uzzah and Reverence for God

by peter waller

At some stage during his rule as king, David decided to bring the Ark of God (which housed God’s manifest presence) into Jerusalem. The Ark had been housed for some 20 years in the house of Abinadab following its return by the Philistines. As David and a procession of people journeyed with the Ark, they danced with joy in expectation of more of God’s presence and goodness in their lives.
But the celebrations met an abrupt end when one of Abinadab’s sons, Uzzah, was struck dead by God. Uzzah had touched the Ark to prevent it from falling off the cart that was transporting it. All eyes must’ve turned to David – “Now what?” David was offended by God’s seeming harshness. And, suddenly, he was afraid of God. He feared that God might kill him too; “If God is so holy that he killed Uzzah for a mere knee-jerk reaction, he may well find some wrong in me and kill me too if I bring the Ark back home."

Is God safe?

Because of this fear, David abandoned his plans and left the Ark at a nearby house, inhabited by a man named Obed-edom (a “guinea-pig” if ever there was one). I imagine that David was confused at this time as to whether God was safe (and it was good to draw close to him) or dangerous (and it was best to admire him from afar). It probably was especially difficult for him to absorb since he already had a close relationship with God. He had history with God – with God’s help he had killed beast and brute while still a boy; as king of Israel, God had given him detailed battle strategies. Yet his experience with the Ark of God left him perplexed.
Three months later, David heard that Obed-edom’s fortunes had improved considerably since the Ark had been in his house. Having had time to think, this news seemed to provide him with some clarity, for he returned to collect the Ark. (What did he say to Obed-edom? “Thanks Obed, I just wanted to see if God killed you, but seeing as he’s blessed you, I’ll take it from here.” Courageous leadership.)
As the Ark entered Jerusalem, David danced joyfully, with all his might. He was again delighted; seemingly even more so than when he first led a procession to bring the Ark back home. What can we take from this story that is relevant to the New Covenant? After all, God no longer dwells in a physical container or building. And there aren’t stories circulating of people being struck down for taking the holiness of God for granted.

The Fear of God in the New Covenant

This story can help us to revere, even fear, God appropriately. That was the impact of a story with a similar ending from the days of the early church. Luke records how “great fear came upon the whole church” after God killed a husband and wife for lying about what portion of the money gained from the sale of their property they gave to the church. (Acts 5:1-11)

I believe God was mercifully preventing David and the early church from falling into the trap that Saul and that couple did – the trap of taking him lightly; of fearing man more than him. It is a trap that has devastating consequences, particularly because it leads to a lifestyle of sin; a worthless, wasted life that can expect God’s judgement. A life that flows from seeing God as either indifferent to what we do or who can’t help but overlook our wrongdoing regardless of the state of our hearts. More enlightened biblical writers (of the Old and New Testaments) didn’t make a mistake like this…

“… So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness.” Paul, Romans 11:20-22

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God… let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.“ A wise man, Hebrews 10:31 and 12:28

“Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.” Another wise man, Psalm 2:11

Worship that is acceptable to God is worship that is offered with reverence and awe. And that means we must keep in our minds who God is. We must not become lazy and approach him as if he is just anybody. We must never become overly familiar with God. It is true that he is our loving, gracious Father who has opened the way for us to approach him freely and boldly. But it is also true that he is the omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent King of the all created things. This can be perplexing at times: what exactly is the nature of God and how should we relate to him? I certainly don’t pretend to be in a position to write the textbook on the matter. What I suggest is that we take time to comtemplate these issues like David did. That we consider afresh who God is and what it means to revere and fear him in our thoughts, speech and attitudes, without losing the wonderful reality of his love and grace. Like so many things when it comes to God, it isn’t a case of “either… or…” but rather it’s “both… and…”

Increased passion and joy

I think David made progress following his initial confusion at the death of Uzzah and gained a more complete view of God – a view that didn’t diminish his passion and joy in worship, but actually bolstered it. As crazy as it sounds, perhaps we would benefit if God struck someone dead for dishonouring him. It would be better, though, if we learnt from these two narratives that have been recorded in the bible for that very purpose so that history need not repeat itself.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The rise and fall of Saul

by Peter Waller
The narrative of the life of Saul in 1 Samuel makes for gloomy reading. A tall, handsome young man receives a stunning call from God and is anointed the first king of Israel. Shy at first, early heroics under the influence of the Spirit of God win over his detractors and embolden him to lead. More battle success follows before Saul’s character cracks in some high-pressure situations. It becomes apparent he isn’t fit to lead God’s people. By the time he dies on a lonely battlefield, the armies of Israel vanquished at the hand of the Philistines, his sins are truly staggering. Jealousy and insecurity led him to attempt the murder of David and Jonathan, his own son, and drove him to execute 85 priests of God and their families with scant evidence against them. And on his last night alive he consults a medium, despite knowing doing so is forbidden by God. What insights can we glean from his life that may prevent our lives from becoming similarly ill-spent?

But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. (1 Peter 3:14-15)

Saul’s first two major sins were committed because he feared men more than God. Faced with an army that was scattering and a priest who was dithering, Saul overstepped his duties and offered a sacrifice he had no business offering. On another occasion he caved in to the will of his men and let them take some livestock after destroying the Amalekites, going against God’s instruction to destroy every living thing, including the animals. To be sure in both cases he was under great pressure from men, but this only served to reveal the hierarchy in his heart. He feared man first, God second. This led him down a path of sin and devastation and he never returned to God. He layered sin on sin, unlike David who dealt with sin by repenting. His own story became more important than the story of God. He esteemed his own name above that of God’s.

Following these sins, Saul was told by Samuel that God had taken away the kingdom from him and would give it to another. Saul’s response to hearing this news is galling. He pleads with Samuel to appear in public with him so that Samuel’s (and God’s) disapproval of him would remain hidden from the people. Although Saul knows the root of his sin is his preoccupation with what man thinks of him, when Samuel confronts him his response is not to attempt to make right with God but rather to preserve his image before the people.

Saul, as I see it, was familiar with God. He did not see him for who he is – a consuming fire – and so he did not revere him as he ought to have. Perhaps he saw God as a merciful, easy-going God who was more likely to overlook sin than he was to actually do anything. This is evidence of how poor our memories sometimes are and how slow we are to comprehend who God is even though we see him act clearly. Saul’s calling and rise to king had God’s fingerprints all over it. It was not a hard “case to crack”; Saul became king through divine intervention and lots of it. Yet if Saul was a detective, it seems he would have arrested the wrong man. His life as king began with God, yet was lived as if it began with himself.

Next time I’ll consider how David was prevented from becoming overly familiar with God.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Theatre of Nightmares - A Letter to the Newspaper

Below is a letter I recently sent to the Cape Times regarding adverts for a strip club that appear on their Sport's page each day:

I am shocked that the Cape Times has agreed to run the Mavericks adverts. These adverts are pornography (albeit not hard-core).

If you are addicted to pornography, you should be aware that it is exactly that - an addiction. And I would argue that it does more damage than the addictions of alcohol and nicotine. It ruins minds and destroys relationships. And it is more rampant than alcoholism.

I am fortunate enough to have a father who is not naive about the hazardous effects of porn. He ran an anti-porn campaign when I was a young boy, and that may be the reason that I have managed to avoid succumbing to a porn-addiction; unlike so many of my peers who have ruined their lives unwittingly.

Ted Bundy, the serial rapist and murderer, testified in an interview conducted just hours before his execution, that pornography, more than anything else, had led him to commit his heinous acts. What started out as mere dabbling in soft-core porn as a youth, raged into a wildfire of lust that even hard-core porn could not quench. So he turned to rape. Murdering his victims was merely part of the clean-up operations.

You may be addicted to porn and not be driven to such extents. Your addiction may be played out in the privacy of your bedroom or study. But what effect does it have on your life? Does it add depth to your relationships, or does it undermine them? Does it make you feel good about yourself or ashamed?

If you confidently assert it does not have any negative effects on you, I fear you are a typical addict. Like the alcoholic who blames his problems on circumstance, the gambler who insists he does not have a problem, or the druggie who gets irritable when his next high is threatened.

What difference do these adverts make in an oversexed society? They serve to further deaden our consciences to the horror that pornography is. We are a society perishing for a lack of knowledge. We do not trace problems to causes. Rape and divorce are as common as Impala in Kruger; one barely gives them a second glance when they appear. Relationships are impoverished. Pornography is a key villain in so many of these tragedies, yet we laugh at it as if it were the Jester... we perceive it to be little more than some entertainment. And this is what Mavericks want us to think. They are to be pitied even above their victims.

But, thankfully, there are many who are aware of porn's destructive potential. Some of them are ex-addicts who have fought courageously to rid themselves of the filth. Yet we are still vulnerable... corruptible. In our more lucid moments, we know it will do us more harm than good. Yet, if we let down our guard for a moment, our sexuality is easily overwhelmed. 

Enter the Cape Times. I turn to the Sport page as I sip my cup of tea mid-morning... and I'm fighting, again, to maintain my sanity. I realise I am not an audience member watching a Jester; I am a part of the play and am on an assassin's hit list. Except that this is not make-believe.

Peter Waller
Cape Town

PS. I will not support the Cape Times so long as the adverts are allowed to run. And will attempt to dissuade my employer from doing so. I appeal to the Editor and Owners to be courageous and so "No." to Mavericks' money for the sake of their readers.