Hoping for Victory

I remember listening to the radio as Manchester United beat Bayern Munich in extra time to win the 1999 Champions League final. There’s something slightly magical about listening to a game, having to rely on the commentators description of the events unfolding before their eyes, reconstructing it in my mind. Perhaps it’s the extra effort required on my part to ‘see’ the game, that means it sticks in the memory that much longer.

The Liverpool v. A. C. Milan 2005 final, with that thrilling second half comeback before the penalty shoot out, is another that lives long in the imagination.

And now there’s another game to add to the list. On the face of it there was nothing special about this Premier League Monday-night London derby feature. Except that , this time, if Spurs lost to Chelsea, Leicester – the team that only months before were 5000/1 to win the league – would be champions with two games to spare.

I had listened in on the 1-1 draw that Leicester conjured up at Old Trafford the day before, slightly disappointed that they didn’t get the win there, but still believing they’d wrap it up soon. So Monday evening, as I pottered around the house, I tuned in as Spurs went 2-0 up against Chelsea. Tottenham’s form this year has been stunning, and Chelsea’s has been too, albeit for other reasons. So this was perhaps to be expected.

But then Chelsea pulled one back not long in to the second half and there was a rise in hope that, with just one more goal, tonight would be the night. The tension crept up as the second half progressed. And then Hazard scored; quiet all season but adds a line of his own to the incredible story of Leicester’s indomitable march to victory.

With just a few minutes left of the match, I found my wife and told her what was going on. She paused, looking up from her novel, and smiled. Earlier in the season when I was getting increasingly excited about a potential Leicester victory she told me that she was happy, but that she’d rather wait for the movie complete with the love-story angle added to it.

At 2-2 I could sense Spurs were fighting with everything they had, straining to find a way through and take the challenge to Leicester just a little bit further. The match was being drawn, between two sides I’m usually not that bothered by, yet it felt like Scotland were 1-0 up against England in a Euro final. The clock couldn’t tick down fast enough.

At the final whistle it was done. Leicester had won the Premier League and it felt like the whole world was beaming. I smiled, laughed a little, shock my head and went and told my wife. It was such a beautiful story, and a sorely needed injection of overwhelming genuine affection for the Beautiful Game. Leicester had done something truly remarkable in a world where we even fail to get excited about space travel anymore. Newspapers from countries that don’t even rank football in their top 3 sports ran headlines crammed with enough superlatives to compose a thesaurus.

‘Could they do it?’ we asked at Christmas. ‘It is possible?’ We wanted to believe it was possible, we wanted to hope that there was a chance for a team lacking the usually required financial punch, armed instead with grit and team-spirit, to defy the very worst of odds and make history. As the season progressed, the growth in goodwill from near-everyone else was matched only by the rise in belief that it could happen.

Hope soared on Monday night and carried a team, a city, and a legion of adoptive fans, to swirling heights.

The Bible describes those that know God as people who “dwell in hope” (Acts 2:26, ESV). Leicester’s remarkable achievements on the football pitch inspire and cause us to rejoice, but they also serve to remind us that the human soul is made for hope, to dwell – to live constantly – in a state of hope. This hope, from God, is of an assured victory of good over evil, love over hate, life over death.

We see dimly now, but one day we will perceive the unrestrained emotion of triumphant, glorious hope fulfilled across every inch of our lives and throughout the entire world. That’ll be some celebration.

Searching for Love

Searching for Love

Love is one of the strongest desires of the human heart. We sing about it, paint about it, and write poetry about it. Our TV shows talk about it. The Internet is full of it, and magazines tell you how they think you can achieve it. I have Shakespeare’s sonnets on my iPhone and The Notebook is available to stream online at any time should you so wish.

We love to talk of love and yet we live in a time when the largest single cause of death for a man under 35 in many Western nations – including ours – is suicide. Deep loneliness abounds. How do we explain this?

The world we live in today is more connected than it has ever been. We can send messages to other side of the world in just a split-second. I can chat to colleagues 10 time zones away effortlessly. I can stay connected with all my secondary school friends on Facebook and Instagram.

My favourite comedian – Billy Connolly – when he as filming a travel show for TV and was left alone on a polar cap for a night quipped, “There’s a difference to being alone and being lonely.”

Now wouldn’t you agree that there is something wrong in a world filled to the brim with messages and promises of love when at the same time there’s a vast amount of people drowning in despair without it?

A Shift in Culture

Things are changing in our culture. We get married later, if at all. It’s easier than ever to hook up … and break up. And who of us likes break ups? So we seek alternatives to mitigate the pain.

Maybe if we avoid the commitment we’ll avoid the grief. So, no-strings-attached then. We’ll move from romantic encounter to romantic encounter and avoid the sting that comes from hanging around too long. Except that this doesn’t seem to fix the problem either.

The British feminist author, Natasha Walter, wrote a book in 2010 called Living Dolls. In her book Walter explores the pressures many women face in this hypersexual culture to conform to image. Walter asks if our supposedly more enlightened culture is in fact in many ways robbing women, not empowering them.

More than ever, men and women today are incredibly free to do what we want with out bodies. Old cultural and social restraints have been replaced with an ‘it’s your body, do you want’ approach. But this new liberation hasn’t led to satisfaction for many. In the book, one 17 year-old girl, Carly, tells her story.

“It’s all casual sex now, nobody talks about love,’ she said … I wish I could have a real connection with a man. But there’s no courtship any more. That’s all dead. It’s just immediate. There’s no getting to know someone, you’re expected just to look someone up and down and make the decision just like that, are you going to have sex or not? There’s no time to build up to a connection. The idea is that you have sex first, but how are you meant to create the kind of excitement, the emotional connection, after that? I want to have an emotional connection with a man. I want it to be there with the feeling that I am equal to him. I do think I’m as a good as a man. But I don’t want just this no-strings sex stuff.”

Our appetite for our desires to be fulfilled can lead us to look for fulfilment in the wrong areas. Our desires crave fulfilment, but we must use wisdom to discern what is best for us. Our appetite for food, for example, cares not how it is fulfilled – only that we do something to address the hunger. But we know that if we choose the giant bag of Jelly Babies over a well-balanced meal, we will pay for it in the long run.

Life can leave many with an empty feeling inside, causing us to reach out for connection, only to find that our efforts for love and intimacy in the end leave us feeling even emptier.

In our deep desire for love we can rush head long after the feeling and in the process we can get make some bad choices. Bestselling author Tim Keller, says that:

“Our fears and inner barrenness make love a narcotic, a way to medicate ourselves, and addicts make foolish, destructive choices.”

Many of us will have at times made bad choices and experienced broken dreams. Small or large, things don’t always pan out the way that we want them to.

Broken Dreams

I have my broken dreams too. Today, I’m happily married to a wonderful woman whom I love greatly and who also loves me.

Before I met my wife there were a few other relationships which ultimately didn’t work out. Upon reflection they didn’t work out in part because in some cases I wanted too much from them.

I knew that I wanted love but I whilst maturing well in a few areas of life in love I was a like a toddler.

Foolishly thinking that my romantic gestures were genuine I didn’t realise that all my efforts were really just a way of showing love in order to receive love! I was living for those moments of acceptance based on how I made someone feel.

Well, I couldn’t keep with this. It wasn’t long before cracks began to show.

I longed to be loved. But like a 14 year old with a poster of a Ferrari on his wall who’s suddenly given the keys to an F12 Berlinetta there’s a world of difference between desiring something and knowing what to do with it when you have it.

Many relationships don’t last because we want too much from them. Perhaps you can relate? Out of desperation to be loved ourselves, we love someone expecting total fulfilment.

But hang on a moment? Have you seen these people we love?! Even the best of us let people down.

The reality is, that when we love something or someone who is not perfect and expect perfect fulfilment from them, we will always end up hurt.

Unmet Longing

One of the things that I get to do from time to time in Oxford is to take people around the former home of C. S. Lewis. Lewis – perhaps best known for The Chronicles of Narnia – lived in Oxford from 1917 until his death in 1963.

In part I think Lewis connected so well to his readers because his rich imagination tapped into our deepest longings, creating characters we could connect with.

Lewis knew of unmet longing. He once wrote:

“Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us.”

So what do we do when our deepest longings remain unmet?

Lewis tells us that we have three responses to this longing for satisfaction from within:

1. The Fools Way

We blame something or someone else. “We reason that it’s not us that’s broken, but the objects of our desire that are faulty. Because whatever we are longing after is clearly not delivering, it shows us the problem is with the object of our affections.

So we ditch the girlfriend we currently have for another. We buy a better car. We take a bigger holiday. Upgrade to the stronger drugs.

People can live in this cycle of repeated disappointment for a long time, moving from one let down to the next, always believing that something will change and never stopping long enough to observe what is really happening.

2. The Way of the Disillusioned ‘Sensible Man’

We blame ourselves for not having our longings met. Clearly, I’m the problem: me and my desires. So, I’ll just grow up and get over myself. I’ll get over my silly desires.

This way of thinking actually spawned an entire worldview: Buddhism. The four noble truths of Buddhism tell us that life is suffering and suffering is caused by desire. To cease suffering, we must cease desiring.

It’s because we love that problems arise, so we tell ourselves to dial back those expectations and reign it all in.

3. The Christian Way

There is a third way. This option that doesn’t shift the blame or give up the game. The core of the Christian message is a message of love. That love is true, love is real, that love is to be given and to be received.

But in addition to that our desires to love and to be loved serve as a clue to a deeper love.

Lewis explains:

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Lewis suggests that instead of thinking our desires are wrong because they are unmet, they are not fulfilled because ultimately we’re looking in the wrong place.

We All Want To Be Loved

Just before Helen (now my wife) and I first started going out and I was thinking, “hold on a minute, there’s something more going on here”, I found my senses went up couple of levels.

Suddenly I was paying closer attention to what she was saying and how she was acting. I was looking for those little clues that maybe these growing feelings of mine were mutual. As my heart began to catch up to the reality of this beautiful, intelligent, funny, caring and increasingly friendly person I started to wonder if she felt the same.

Well, soon we found ourselves on our first date. A quiet, little drink and then an artsy-cum-reflective-cum-depressing Italian movie. Winner. As I saw her come through the door to meet me my senses went into overdrive. My heart level was raised. My skin was tingly. The setting for our date quickly faded away and I just saw … her.

And then she said it. “Hi friend.”

It was brutal. Our date hadn’t even started and here at the outset Helen was clarifying that I was firmly in the friend zone. The drinks hadn’t been ordered and the intimate walk to the cinema in the drizzle hadn’t happened. I was shot down before I even took off.

But then I manned up, drank my drink, and soldiered on. ‘Damned if that would stop me’, I reasoned to myself. ‘To heck with it. I like this one!’

The date went well – really well. She even said yes to another one.

Well, the next week as I was picking Helen up from her house her housemate came home. I was sitting in another room and through the door I overheard their conversation.

“Hi friend.”

My heart soared! This is a greeting. This is a strange-Helen’s-house-friendly greeting! That’s all. I’m not in the friend zone!

The game was most definitely on.

Loving the Unlovely

It is a wonderful feeling to know that we are loved, but it is also scary. Being vulnerable doesn’t come easy to many. We wonder, “What if they find out who I really am?” “What if they don’t like what they see?”

For many of us we’d rather not be known, that be known and be found out to not be good enough.

The Killers put it this way in Sam’s Town: “I’m sick of all my judges, so scared of what they’ll find.”

When C. S. Lewis talks of our desires pointing the way to another realm he is talking of us – you and I – being wrapped up in a greater purpose. He is suggesting that we were made to connect to a greater source.

Our blog articles have been giving reasons to suggest that there is a greater source – God – and that we know him through Jesus Christ.

You might say that it’s all very well connecting my desires here to something – to someone – beyond this world. But how do I know that I will be accepted? Have you seen me?

The Bible tells us that God created us in love, to show us his love, and that in our mess he still chooses to love us. He came to earth as Jesus in order that we might know that He loves us. He died on that cross to fix the problem that prevented us from being in a loving relationship with him: the greatest single loving act the world has even known or will ever know.

The French emperor, Napoleon, said this about Jesus:

“Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and myself have founded empires, but upon what do these creations of our genius depend? Upon force. Jesus alone founded His empire upon love: and to this very day millions would die for Him.”

All You Need is Love

The Beatles sang that ‘All you need is love’. They say this:

Nothing you can make that can’t be made
No one you can save that can’t be saved
Nothing you can do, but you can learn
How to be you in time
It’s easy.

All you need is love …

They’re right. But where does that kind of love come from? A love that saves? A love that allows you to be all that you can be?

Something phenomenal would have to change in us to give us the ability to love, truly love, without return, and without fatigue.

Something has happened: his name is Jesus Christ.

The Bible says:

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:9–10, NIV)

God says, there’s nothing you can do to make yourself good enough for me. So I will make the first move.

The Bible tells us that God first loved us. Exactly as we are.

but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8, ESV)

Religions and belief systems across the world tell us we must behave this way, do this act, think this thought, or think nothing at all!

Whatever it is it’s that the onus is on us. We act first. But Jesus says come to me because I have first loved you.

What is love? Love is a commitment to the highest good of another. It is a commitment expressed primarily to you by your Creator who thought you up and brought you into existence in order that you might know Him and His love for you.

This love, which the Bible describes as the love of a perfect father, was committed to you from the beginning of time and has remained committed to you throughout your entire life. It is a total, unrestrained, nothing-held-back, inextinguishable passion towards you and He wants you to know it.

This article is an edited transcript from a talk Jonathan has given at several universities across the UK and Europe.

Searching for Truth (Audio)

Searching for Truth

In February 2016 I gave several talks at the University of Glasgow looking at some of our deepest desires – meaning, purpose, hope, truth, and love – and how the Christian message speaks to them.

On the Thursday I spoke on ‘Uncovering Truth’ in, rather fittingly, the university’s debating chamber. Here’s that evening’s talk:

Searching for Hope

Searching for Hope

It’s that time of the year again. American leaders square off against each other in a bid to win their party’s nomination, and then ultimately – with the approval of the majority of the nation – the job of President of the United States. It’s a time of campaigning, rallying, and slogan raising.

I remember 8 years ago watching the story of a junior senator narrowly winning victory over Senator Clinton in the Democratic Party presidential primary, and then ultimately going on to win in the November national election. Barack Obama swept to power on the tails of a campaign that caught the imagination of many.

The core of his campaign was built on a message of hope. A vote for Obama is a vote for change for the better, essentially. One of the lines from Obama’s acceptance speech to the Democratic Convention upon winning his party’s nomination stands out to me:

“When Washington doesn’t work, all its promises seem empty. If your hopes have been dashed again and again, then it’s best to stop hoping, and settle for what you already know.”

The rhetoric of his speech hinged around this statement, evoking feelings of despair that many connected with. ‘Boy, it does feel like nothing changes!’ ‘It sure does seem like it’s always going to be this way.’ Then from the pit the speech soars and captures the imaginations and intrigue. From hopeless, to hopeful. Courtesy of some very talented speechwriters.

Because even when it seems hopeless and despair is de facto, there is a very human desire to want to believe in something better. Some of the wonderful stories we see and watch – Slumdog Millionaire, The Shawshank Redemption for example – connect so meaningfully with us because they capture the essence of hope, and the ultimate objective of hope fulfilled.

Google defines hope as, “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.”


Hope is a wonderful feeling. I remember, when I was younger, I fell out of a tree on my Grandfather’s farm. I say I fell out, but really I fell through. A rotten branch gave way as I pulled myself up on it and I careened back to earth before I could let out a shriek. I didn’t fall from the tree to the ground so much as falling through the tree and all its branches to the fork in the trunk about 5 feet from the ground. And there I remained wedged, head down in pain and panic. My cousin stood there looking at me with huge eyes before he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll go get dad.’ A small feeling of hope briefly overcame the more immediate feeling of pain.

When the person in a car accident is told after the bystander has called 999, ‘Hold tight, help is on their way’ they are being offered hope.

That feeling of relief can sustain a person in dire circumstances, willing them to continue on. Which is why, when hope fades, so too, so tragically and so often, life does also.

When I felt hope, stuck in the tree, it was hope that my father and my uncle were near by and they would know what to do. They’d get me out. My feeling of hope was based on experiential knowledge. It wasn’t a disconnected hope upon by hope, but a solid expectation according to an experienced reality. Dad had been there before; Dad will be there again. For hope to offer true relief it must be connected to true reality. For when hope is not anchored in what is real, then with time and trial it fades. It was interesting to watch, over the years that followed Barak Obama’s first national victory, hope fade as many in America felt things didn’t go according to their expectations.

There’s a story in the Bible where a friend of Jesus, called Lazarus, dies. Jesus went to comfort Lazarus’ friends and family and finds Martha. Martha believes Jesus, had he been there, could have saved Lazarus.

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”” (John 11:21–24, ESV)

The Jews had an expectation of hope that in the last day there will be a resurrection of all people. This great hope was a sustaining belief through troubling times that in one day, things will come good. The dead will rise and grief will be done away with.

To Martha’s hopeful declaration to Jesus that Lazarus “will rise again” Jesus says:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”” (John 11:25–26, ESV)

The Jewish belief that one day the dead will rise is of some hope to Martha. To this belief Jesus declares himself to be that very resurrection, and furthermore life itself. Jesus takes an abstract concept of a future hope and declares himself to be that hope. History will then play out his own death and resurrection, anchoring his declarations and challenging people the world over to explore his statements, inviting everyone and anyone to trust in him.

Jesus then asks Martha if she believes him, to which in verse 27 Martha affirms she does. This same question is asked of all of us, ‘Do you believe this?’

A true hope is something evidenced, that requires trust. Jesus offers himself as grounding for hope; a future promise backed by a historical foundation.

Christians have a firm basis for hope. The foundation to their belief is rooted in actual events that happened in this world (see our series on the historical facts of the Resurrection Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4).

Hope built on certain expectations does not disappoint. It is a wonderful life-affirming, future-expecting, confident understanding that becomes a hallmark of a true believer. It is truly thrilling and greatly desirable. For the Christian, the hope of Christ is what we have come to believe in and what we proclaim to this world. We have hope because of who Jesus is, and what Jesus accomplished. Now that’s a hope worth campaigning for.

Searching for Purpose

Searching for Purpose

I grew up following my father’s job around the country. Dad was a submariner in the Royal Navy, which for a young boy was the coolest job in the world. When dad would come back from patrol, smiling, in uniform, he’d carry that distinct ‘I’ve been underwater for a month’ smell. I loved it. Sometimes, when he was away, I would choose to sleep underneath my captains bed – in my mind mimicking a submariners quarters – and ever since I’ve always been comfortable in cramped spaces.

I don’t think I really minded not having dad at home when he was away at sea. As I grew up I came to think of dad’s job as special. Visits to HMS Neptune (the naval base on the Clyde) were turned in to contests to see how many sub-machine guns and Land Rovers I could spot. Little boy heaven.

I remember one day, watching one of the then brand new Vanguard class submarines out on the Clyde, spotting some protestors in little boats trying to make a nuisance of themselves. Back then, as now, the national nuclear deterrent was the subject of much controversy. Dad was watching with me and pointed out some smaller, darker boats. He told me that the people on those boats, armed to the teeth, fit as Olympic athletes, dressed in camouflage with green berets, made sure that the protestors didn’t get too close and cause real problems for the submarine. So who were these modern-day aquatic knights? These Defenders of the Nuclear Arsenal? They, said dad, were Royal Marines. And they, to me, were the second coolest men in the world.

So when, at 18 I was wondering what to do with my life, I thought I would become a Marine. Disillusioned by school and the seemingly purposeless path through higher education to a job, a mortgage, retirement, and death, I chose the Marines as my answer to life. I reasoned that joining the Marines wasn’t like starting another job. This wasn’t a 9-5 casual thing. I wasn’t to be a person, playing at a job during the day and living for the weekends, but a Marine: a 24-hour-a-day, 365-days-a-year identity that provided cool work from time to time.

And so I went off to Commando Training Centre, Lympstone, for a weekend of tests to see if they’d let me join the privileged ranks. During that selection opportunity I picked up an injury during one of the tests and didn’t finish the weekend. I was utterly deflated. This was the first time I had had an injury. I dodged them all through school, thinking that the other boys were faking them to get out of rugby practice. This injury undid me. I was made rudely aware that I was fallible. I was breakable. And what I didn’t realise then, but what I’ve come to see over the years, was that something much deeper was going on inside of me. At that time I was searching for meaning for my life. Something to make it all matter. Having rejected school and other pursuits, I set my goals on the military. When I fell at this hurdle I didn’t just come up short on one test, but flirted with the very edge of despair, toying with the fear that my life might just be, ultimately, purposeless.

Having talked to others since, I don’t think I’m alone in the realms men looking to things in life to define their existence. Careers, women, fun, toys, hobbies – we look to people and things to bring us an identity. So often these things, fragile and easily breakable, let us down. Failure in relationships or in work can lead to deep despair as lives built around shallow purposes collapse in bits.

To this problem the Bible offers us hope. Instead of looking to things on this earth to define our purpose, the Bible points to the person of Jesus as the doorway to all fulfilment:

“So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:7–10, ESV)

Jesus’ story here, full of imagery familiar to his original listeners, depicts him as the doorway to the sheepfold. The doorway to the sheepfold was the way to safety and prosperity (if you were a sheep); it was the essential path to success. We – the sheep – to find life must go through the doorway that is Jesus. There’s no set of rules concerning careers or earthly relationships here. There’s no Buzzfeed ‘Top 21 Things You Must Do Lead A Purposeful Life’. Just an invitation to find fulfilment through the person of Jesus.

If the fundamental problem of mankind is that we’re missing something that we can obtain for ourselves, then we’ll find it in the things of this world. We’ll find it in work, relationships, possessions etc. But we, the collective we – humanity throughout the ages – have tried those things and have found them scarily susceptible to collapse given enough pressure. There are few things worse than thinking you have found the meaning to life and then one day waking up to find that it has been snatched away from you.

However, the Bible describes the fundamental problem of mankind as something that we can’t provide for ourselves. We are in a hopeless state, lost and cut off from our true purpose. It’s to this damned problem that Jesus offers hope. In dying in our place, for our sin, settling our account, reconciling us to himself – to God – by rising again and defeating death He offers us a purpose that nothing in the entire Universe can take away from us.

The passage above ends with Jesus offering us life, abundant life. Life to the fullest, were we can find purpose in our careers and our relationships and our possessions. Not in the essence of the thing, the object, but in the way that we and they reflect the purpose of God himself. We are free to be Marines, and husbands, and white water kayakers to the glory of God, knowing that it’s not in those things that we find who we are and what we’re worth, but it is in the saving act of Jesus 2,000 years ago.

Abundant life is the state of deepest freedom, which releases you to be all you were made to be.

Currently the BBC are running a great recap of on the classic FA Cup upsets of all time. Bradford, up against the mighty Chelsea, didn’t – according to many people – stand a chance. A mighty gulf separated the two teams in both league and class and the pundits and commentators on the day thought that it wasn’t case of who would win, but how embarrassing it would be for Bradford.

However, freed from fear and expectations Bradford played the game of their lives. In one of the greatest feats of Giant Killing the beautiful game has seen, Bradford were the epitome of freedom unleashed. That day they were freed to be all they could be on the football field, and the team took their chance. The rest is history.

We like Bradford can find freedom in a moment and taste something of a deeper reality that eludes us for most of the time. The choice before us then is between living for a moment to define our purpose, or letting our lives be defined by one person who releases us to a lifetime secured with ultimate purpose.

Searching for Meaning

Searching For Meaning

I remember clear as day the thought in my mind as we swung out on the blind bend to pass the car in front of us, high up in the Alps: “I hope they’re right!”

Quite what the French car we were overtaking thought, as our Rover 218 with 6 kayaks on the roof screamed (OK, struggled) past, I’m not sure. ‘Les idiots’ is a mild guess.

But thanks to our trusty two-way radios, we felt confident, ish. We were travelling in convey, a sort of default Brits-abroad move that has been bred into our DNA across generations of international explorers. The lead car would radio back to tell us that the road was clear and we can overtake. This way we spent less time in the mountains and more time on the rivers. Made perfect sense at the time.

Thinking back to that part of my youth I am reminded that an act of following is always a step of faith.

Now following might be one of the most natural things to us in the world. As children we learn by following examples of those around us. We grow up following behind leaders: teachers, sports captains, parents etc. It’s a very naturally assumed relationship.

But as we get a little older we often begin to question these relationships. ‘Why am I following this person?’ we might muse – which is the polite expression of an inward belief that we can surely do better ourselves. Questions like this one also come, rather quickly I suppose, after we have been let down. As children, grown-ups can do no wrong. But that doesn’t last for long. A let down by a leader rocks our faith in the assumed understanding that the leader has our best in heart, that they know and care for us and are competent to take us to where we need to go.

Sooner or later we all realise that our leaders – other people – are as flawed and limited as we are. People we look up to can wound us deeply when they fail to live up to our standards for them. A toppled hero can be devastating. A quick look at public reaction when much-loved celebrities become embroiled in scandal is proof enough of this.

This is true everywhere. Work, sports, and yes, sadly, even within the church.

Some will cease following others, and follow their own desire. They’ll set their own path and appoint themselves captain of their one-man ship. And of course, we don’t all look for meaning by following people. We follow teams, brands, entertainment, fashions, the recycling code …

In John’s gospel Jesus makes a series of ‘I am’ claims. He uses these to communicate who he was to his hearers. In one scene Jesus is standing in the treasury – part of the temple in Jerusalem – between two great lamp stands that held many lamps as a representation of the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the desert at night time.

The pillar of fire was the presence of God, and in following it, the Israelites moved from captivity to their own Promised Land.

In a similar way, we I think seek to follow people, things, desires, dreams … in the hope that they will lead us from where we are – what might feel like captivity to us – to our own Promised Lands.

Jesus, using the two great lamp stands as his illustration, points to himself and says,

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12, ESV)

Jesus’ invitation is to follow him, and in him find meaning in this life. Jesus doesn’t make this statement without support however. He doesn’t say to people to follow him without looking at who he is, without investigating his life, his death, and ultimately his resurrection.

Vulnerability and Passion

The tragic thing about a let down is that the real hurt comes not in the sting of the moment, but in the shutting down of that part of us so that we don’t get let down again. People, dreams, hopes: it sucks when they let us down. So we say to ourselves it won’t happen again.

We might sing about all those years of hurt experienced since England last won a major football competition and say we still dream, but we dream with our armour on. We hope against hope that something good will happen, but we also limit our excitement.

When a person lets us down we can vow to never trust to that level again. A failed marriage, or bad boss really can change us. But as Brene Brown rightly points out, “Our capacity for whole heartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken hearted.”

Passion, whole-hearted commitment, when we have it drives us to great things. It brings life to our world. But realism says that we should be careful; we should watch out. Jesus asks us to watch him, to see who he is. He asks us to learn that he will never let you down, that he will “never leave you or forsake you.”

The power of Jesus’ perfect life and perfect love to us is that it allows us – and requires us – to take our armour off of our hearts and become wholehearted again. Wholehearted, passionate people, who yes can be hurt and let down by others, but who know that they are following one who will never, ever wound us. By following Christ supremely, we can follow others lightly, allowing their talents and gifts to bring out the best in us, and absorbing their mistakes through the love we have been given by God in Jesus.

Lighting Up The World

The nature of light is that is exposes and reveals what is around us. It identifies what is truly there.

We are told that followers of Jesus “will not walk in darkness” but as people in the light we will see the world truly. Jesus lights up the reality of the world, the good, the bad, the ugly, and shows us how things really are. He doesn’t sugar-coat it, or provide a fluffy cocoon to shield us from this brokenness, but he instils in us bona fide hope for the future and strength for today.

The theme of light has been explored by many minds over many years, perhaps because its qualities and properties are fascinating.

C. S. Lewis in 1944 delivered an essay to the Socratic Club at Oxford University (a university whose motto was and is Dominus illuminatio mea ‘The Lord is my light’) entitled Is Theology Poetry? His concluding words, now surrounding the plaque laid for him at Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

The Challenge from Suffering: What is ‘Good’?

‘What possible good reasons would God have for permitting evil?’

This is a question often voiced when an explanation of why God might allow suffering is presented. The Free Will argument goes some way to providing an explanation for why a good God might allow suffering. To add to this line of thought it’s worth thinking about the nature of ‘good’ itself. What do we mean when say something is good?

The ancient Greeks were known for their deep thinking – and, thanks to 300, their incredible abs – had some ideas about this. They may have been around a long time ago but I think that they’re not so different from you or I.

One of these Greeks, a chap by the name of Epicurus, decided upon a definition that what is good is that which is pleasurable. If it feels good, it is good. We’re not a million miles from that today in our society. In this way of thinking, a good thing is an event or action that results in pleasure, whereas, correspondingly, a bad thing is a something that results in pain.

There is some truth to this. It is undeniable that many pleasurable things are good. A fun night at the pub with friends that leaves us feeling good, can be truly good! Likewise, breaking an arm when mountain biking is painful, and it is bad! But this definition isn’t large enough to describe the whole picture.

So we then ask, ‘Are there things that are good that aren’t pleasurable?’ Well, what about selfless acts of bravery that risk life to save others? The parents, for example, who are badly injured after running back into their burning house to rescue their young child? We would all want, I think, to say that this is a good act.

Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University and one of the top philosophers of religion in the last 50 years, acknowledges that the problem of pain in relation to a world comprised only of pleasurable goods would be a very big problem.

“My suffering would be pure loss for me if the only good thing in life was sensory pleasure, and the only bad thing sensory pain; and it is because the modern world tends to think in those terms that the problem of evil seems so acute. If these were the only good and bad things, the occurrence of suffering would indeed be a conclusive objection to the existence of God.”[1]

Swinburne is saying that because there are some things which are good, which are not pleasurable, we can allow for the painful alongside the good without contradiction. The painful moment never, ever feels nice, but there can exist a deeper element to the moment which is truly good.

In a me-centered culture, where my happiness is king, pain can be a terrible thing. When my felt-happiness is the most important thing for me then I will do all I can to avoid pain.

Perhaps this is why so many people ask ‘Why?’ when the pain comes. As Swinburne observes, the ‘acute’ nature of pain when we’re living for pleasure is a shock to us. It’s a jolt that awakens us to reality that our self-centredness has obscured. In this way, some pain is not without its (valuable) uses, as C. S. Lewis observed[2]:

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

[1] Richard Swinburne, Is There A God?, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 89
[2] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Harper, 2001, p. 91

The Challenge from Suffering: Logic, Love, and Free Will


The Ultimate Survival Guide

The following is an extract from ‘The Ulimate Survival Guide: How to talk about God, the Bible, and stuff‘.

The Problem of Evil is something that has gripped the attention of many of the brightest minds throughout history. If God loves us, cares for us, wants our best, then he wouldn’t want us to be in pain, right? And if God is all-powerful, and can do anything that he wants, nothing is too big for him, then he can make sure that we don’t suffer, right? And if God is all-knowing – he knows the future, he knows the choices you are going to make, he knows the ideas and thoughts and intentions of those you interact with – then he knows what will happen and, coupled with his great power, will intervene to stop our suffering, right? This problem, a Trilemma (a three-part problem), needs to be given due thought.

For many people who are in the midst of suffering there might not be much immediate relief given from dealing with the logic of the problem. People in pain want comfort. But this is a two-sided problem, and if we don’t want to give shallow, trite, empty hope to hurting people we need to spend time dealing with the philosophical problem of pain. So here are some reasons to suggest that belief in God, and specifically the Christian God, doesn’t have to ignore this problem, but actually stands strong in the face of it and provides a true hope for all of us.

When we look at one part of this problem, the idea that God is all-powerful, we can take it to mean that God can do whatever he likes. But hang on a moment. Is this true? Would we want to, for example, say that God is a good God if he could lie? The Bible itself states that this isn’t something that God can do.[1] Or would it be possible for God to make a square circle?

It would seem that there are some things that we would want to suggest that God couldn’t do, that nonetheless don’t make him anything less than the greatest being imaginable. Not being able to lie or cheat doesn’t make God less great. In fact, some might argue that this attribute adds value.

How, we might ask, does this begin to answer the problem of pain? On the face of it there’s nothing seemingly illogical about ending the suffering of someone. That’s not making a circle square. These good objections need to be remembered as we continue to dig further.

As well as saying that God is all-powerful, the Christian alongside this will say that God is all-loving. The Bible states it rather simply: ‘God is love’.[2] When we say that God loves us, what do we mean? That he wants our best? Yes. That he doesn’t will any bad thing to happen to us? Yes. Well, if God doesn’t want us to be in pain and God has the power to prevent pain, then the question remains, ‘Why evil?’

It is at this point that the Free Will argument helps us to see through the confusion. To illustrate this, let me share a story from my own life.

When I started going out with Helen, now my wife, it was a slightly nervous time for me. You see, we were friends for a couple of years and the thought of making that transition from good friends to something more was both something that I wanted yet couldn’t be absolutely, 100% sure she wanted. I had a pretty good idea, of course. Helen didn’t strike me as someone who would lead me on!

But the value of our friendship was at stake and in my wanting to transition the relationship to something romantic I had to weigh the risk of losing that state of friendship that we were in. It wasn’t a debilitating problem, and it didn’t stop us from dating. But never did I once think to make absolutely sure that Helen felt the same way I did before making that jump. Helen is an independent, clever, deep-thinking woman. And I love this about her. I wasn’t going to wait until I knew for absolute certain how she felt, and nor was I about to do anything weird to ensure she felt the same way about me. There were no drugs involved in our getting together!

It had to be Helen’s free choice. It had to be this way if there was going to be real, meaningful love between us. I couldn’t force Helen into loving me – even if I had wanted to – it had to be freely offered by her. In the same way for God to truly love us, and to want to be in a meaningful relationship with us, he had to leave the choice for us to love him up to us. I suppose he could if had wanted made a world of robots that were programmed to respond to his love. But would we say this was love by our standards?

Free love, selfless love, is the only true love and God would have to make us this way if he truly loved us. Of course, with this freedom comes choice and responsibility. If we are truly free to love God, then we are truly free to not love God. Both must be true. In this freedom of choice God is not going to overrule our decisions, even if our decisions result in pain and suffering for ourselves and others – what the Bible simply refers to as sin.

This, the Free Will argument offers an explanation for why an all-powerful and all-loving God might allow suffering in this world. At this point however, you might be thinking, ‘Well, this doesn’t sound very good. I’m sure there must be some other way God could have created this world.’ But hold on just a moment. What do we mean when we say ‘good’?

The argument will be extended in our next article.

[1] Numbers 23:19

[2] 1 John 4:8

Forgiveness and Craig Joubert

Forgiveness and Craig Joubert

The whistle went, the crowd booed, and the ref sprinted for the tunnel. It’s safe to say that Scotland vs. Australia did not end up the way that anyone with blue face paint on that day wanted.

The fateful quarterfinal will probably be a memory I carry with me for a long time. We were this close. But, alas, ‘twas not our time.

Watching on my phone, on my way to church, I couldn’t be entirely sure what happened at the very end. The penalty looked harsh, the Scots looked devastated, the Aussies jubilant. Then social media exploded with reactions to the swift exit by Craig Joubert, who refereed the match. Matt Dawson and Gavin Hastings in the BBC commentary box weren’t pleased. The people tweeting weren’t pleased. It just, well, it just wasn’t the rugby way, really.

The next morning came and though the sting of the previous night remained, the edge had lifted (slightly). With time and the subsiding of enflamed passion we came to wonder if we had been a little harsh on Joubert.

The sin binning earlier (was it really a yellow card?) and the penalty at the end may both have been mistakes, but one could hardly say that they were outlandish. Pause long enough and it’s obvious that if only a portion of the action from events preceding those decisions were visible to the ref then the logic of his decisions was plausibly true. Deliberate knock-ons do produce yellows. Offside play results in penalties.

At this moment in time I’m not sure why Craig ran off the field so quickly. Certainly it didn’t look good.

But now I am responsible for my judgement. Ban Mr Joubert from officiating northern hemisphere games? Ask the home office to deny him entry to the UK? Send him back to refereeing school?

The fact that one man runs around a pitch for 80 minutes keeping up with professional athletes and analysing every angle, position, tackle, etc. etc. is quite frankly herculean. The one time I reffed a game (football) I was so focussed on the play that I forgot to start my watch. Longest first half ever.

Referees need minds as fast as their legs, with snapshot decisions cruelly denied the processing time that spectators in days after indulge in. The TMO has afforded the referees some degree of certainty, and when the system works well bad decisions can be prevented or reversed (like an earlier knock-on in the game from Australia, that otherwise left uncaught, would have resulted in a try for the boys in Gold).

Referees make mistakes because referees are human. The larger the game and the perceived injustice is amplified accordingly.

So what then should be my response?

In the moment when passions run high it’s hard to bring the emotion under control. With time, and common sense, it’s easier to see that whatever happened is forgivable.

When people wrong us in life, typically, with time we calm down. The problems begin however when we don’t come off the boil. Some times there are wrongs done to us that are so deep, so painful, so upsetting that time doesn’t heal. Forgiveness is an ideal that seems too far from us. Perhaps we want to forgive, to move on, but we can’t. We just can’t let it go.

I think these instances afford us an opportunity to observe what we prioritise in life. We defend the things most valuable to us, and when these things are threatened or hurt we can react strongly.

If the Scottish Rugby Team is Number 1 in your life (and if it is, you sir take the medal for ‘grandest stoic resistance in the face of protracted misery’) Joubert’s actions are unforgivable. His mistake trampled on your beloved, your idol.

The Christian makes a choice when following Jesus to put God as number 1 in their life. We are defined but what we choose as most valuable, and having a forgiving God as supreme allows us to realise as He forgave us for everything we can forgive others for anything.

Of course, as broken humans – yes, even Christians – we don’t always live up to our promises and standards. We say God is Number 1, but other things have a way of muscling in on the top spot. Our careers, our possessions, our relationships, our dreams – all good things that left unchecked seek to become preeminent in our lives.

All-too-often subtle, it’s only when they are trampled on that they scream at us.

So let us use the painful, ‘damned-if-I-forgive-them-for-that’ moments to enquire of ourselves and ask who or what is most important to me? There is power to forgive all people all things, but it does not come from within but from on high. Setting God as Number 1 releases us from the prison of bitterness and unforgiveness. It sets us free.

Mr Joubert, I wish you well in your future rugby career. Perhaps one day you’ll be there when Scotland triumph in an autumn international series or win the 6 Nations (it’s coming). But even if you’re not, good luck to you.

Toddler Tragedy: The Disfigurement of Dignity

Shortly after Sgt Mehmet Ciplak picked up the toddler, snapshots from the moment – one that he’ll never forget – bombarded the world. The powerful photographs prompted a furious outcry. The boy was just a toddler. His family were searching for peace after their country had been torn apart. Their European future, awfully close, would never be.

Through the politics, and the opinions, and the protestations, and the answer-searching melee that consumed the online-world, the reality of the situation pierced through it all. The little boy had died and it was a tragedy.

Sadly it is a tragedy all too common but too little observed by those of us far from the epicentre of this horror. But on that day we took note. That son could have easily been our own. The innocence of youth shouted louder than our grown-up arguments. We were moved; we were shamed.

The episode was deeply emotional. Too emotional, perhaps, if that were possible. Accompanying the images, in suit, were the comments and the opinions. The deep and traumatic feelings we experienced at first were later replaced by a haunting suspicion that maybe we had missed something before. Mediterranean deaths aren’t new. Families looking for their future across the sea aren’t new. This tragedy wasn’t original.

We pause to process and our reason catches up to our emotion, like the shy child at primary school who is finally heard after the kid on too much sugar crashes. We reason that our emotion is getting the better of us and we ought to bring everything in to balance. We should consider the wider problem etc. We won’t be hijacked by our emotions, we muse.

But the picture of the boy on the beach doesn’t go away. Artists memorialise him and ensure that he is not forgotten.

The little boy died and that is tragic. It is tragic because he was valuable. He was valuable to his family – to his brother, and his parents. He was valuable to his wider community; he may have even been a part of the rebuilding of his country one day. He was valuable to his never-met host country that would have played home to him for a while.

But his value was so much more than that. This little boy was valuable because he was a little boy; he was a human being. We may reflect our value as humans by the way we love, the way we work, the way we help others, but our intrinsic value is not in what we do but in our very being. When tragedy strikes a fellow human, something inside of us breaks for them because deep down we realise the wrongness of the marring of something so dear.

It was right and appropriate for the watching world to catch its breath and experience a sliver of the pain of this boy’s life. It was right to be shocked and to be shamed. One of our own had died.

Our emotional responses to pictures of suffering point us to the felt reality of our inherent value. Our reason then asks questions of this. How and why are we valuable? What determines our dignity?

It seems to me that we have three options here: we can say that human beings aren’t valuable (pessimistic and dangerous); or human beings are valuable because we say so (wishful thinking); or human beings are valuable because they have been ascribed value (unconditional). History will tell us that the first option has been tried often, and supressed entire nations. The second option is where most of us are probably at now (often a position taken because we don’t like the former). But the third option – commonly rejected out of hand – is truly interesting. If our experiences in this world point to a value that we can’t properly define, shouldn’t our search for meaning ought to look to loftier realms?

If the clues lead us to investigate an area that we don’t want to go, shouldn’t we rethink our underlying assumptions and motives? Europe – by and large – doesn’t ‘do God’. But the outpouring of grief over this tragic loss suggests perhaps, deep down, it so desperately wants to.

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