Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Don't be like a Narcissus!

In admiring spring’s hosts of golden daffodils we easily forget the significance of the sad tale of the mythological figure after whom they take their generic name. Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pond, and spent his life, in Stephen Fry’s words, “with eyes only for himself, and consideration for no one and nothing but himself”.1 The gods eventually turned him into a daffodil with its head looking down.

Narcissism – or “individualism”, to give it the more common title – focusses on oneself and one’s interests, appearance, advancement and status, often to the exclusion of all others. It has almost become the purpose of life for many people in western society. It’s not just selfies and fast fashion for Instagram and Facebook. It’s also the me-first race for the lights or the checkout, and the bullying, ridiculing, trashing and trolling of people who think, look or live differently to ourselves.

It vaunts itself as the ultimate arbiter of taste and truth. It asserts its desires often disguised as “rights”. It ignores the wider context of the common good, hamstrings church life, hinders our relationship with God and hampers our prayers. It fosters the cynicism and factions that the Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking at the February 2019 General Synod, urged the Church of England to give up. Above all, it reverses the thrust of the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane: it insists on “My will, not yours, be done.”

Contrast that with the love St Paul described in 1 Corinthians 13 which doesn’t boast or envy, isn’t proud or self-seeking, and never dishonours others. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” he writes in Philippians 2:3-4. “Rather in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.”

Contemporary narcissism is often subtle, however, and it is important not to make sweeping judgements of others. Being judgemental can be an expression of narcissism because it asserts our own assumed superiority. The disastrous British Army recruitment drive in 2018 wrongly assumed a generational trait of “Me me me Millennials”. It failed to impress many of its target audience because, glued to screens as that generation might be, it is also highly critical of the “me me me” attitude of older generations, remote government and uncaring, profit-obsessed commerce that has led to environmental breakdown and growing poverty.

Freedom and responsibility

While Christians are freed from the many constraints of legalism, no-one is free to do as they please. Paul stressed this to the Roman church where, it seems, some were so rejoicing in their new-found freedom in Christ that they were indulging every personal desire (Romans 6:1-18). There are boundaries for conduct (both in the Ten Commandments and the teaching of the Apostles) that are intended to limit human excess and preserve corporate relationships.

To accept personal responsibility and restrain ones conduct is to make a positive commitment to community. (This is why Paul, who had long forsaken Jewish food restrictions, submitted to them for the sake of people whose consciences were more sensitive, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, 10:23-33.) Individualism can adversely affect a wide pool of people. In Joshua 7 national defeat results from the wrong action of one person. To us, that may seem unfair; to ancient Israelites it was the natural outworking of what scholars call “corporate solidarity”. In biology, one deadly spore can infect a large group or area; in society, the effects of one person’s sins spread to others. (Which is what lies behind Paul’s teaching about “original sin” in Romans 5:12-19.)

The Bible outlaws the self-justifying blame culture, too. “The one who sins is the one who will die” was Ezekiel’s response to an ancient Israelite complaint that the current generation was paying for the errors of its forefathers. He had an equally curt message to the clergy and leaders of his day (called watchmen); if they failed to warn people of danger arising from their risky behaviour, the watchmen themselves would be held to account (Ezekiel 18:4; 33:6). Biblically, the common good takes precedence over personal preference or power and party prestige or policy.

It even suggests that corporate solidarity involves the innocent in the sins of the guilty. In Ezra 9 the eponymous teacher publicly confessed “we have sinned” when only 112 people out of several thousand had broken one of the laws of Moses – and Ezra was not one of them.

Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection.
Individualism is a barrier to community.
Community commitment

Both Old and New Testaments assume a personal commitment to one another in community. Jesus spoke of “the Kingdom of God”, which exists wherever the rule of God is applied in human relationships and activity. “It was the final expression of the distinctive Hebrew tenet that God is the proper head of human society,” according to one theologian.2 Christians belong to it by virtue of their commitment to King Jesus.

Paul described “the body of Christ”, the church, as such an integrated whole that when “one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Believers are not semi-detached, even if we behave as if we are. That makes the Christian song so poignant and necessary: “Bind us together, Lord, bind us together, with cords that cannot be broken.”

The New Testament occasionally describes the church as a family or even a nation (Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:9-10). In such groupings, disagreements are inevitable. So Paul pleaded with the early church to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3), echoing one of Jesus’ two unanswered prayers, that “they may be one as we [the Trinity] are one” (John 17:11). How can it be otherwise, if “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)?

But it is otherwise, sadly. One of the natural outcomes of narcissism is fragmentation of communities and churches into cliques, and splinter or single-issue groups. According to one count, there are 38,000 Christian denominations in the world today. Splits can sometimes divide individual congregations as one sub-group prefers their way to that of others.

Indeed, our sense of belonging is often focussed on a specific sub-group rather than the whole of which the group is a part. Within towns churches usually work independently (and often competitively), and only occasionally pool resources to make a missional impact on the wider community before retreating back into their own comfort zones.

Narcissism can also diminish our prayers. “Prayer is the mirror image of individualism, even though it may appear to be a highly individual activity,” wrote theologian James Houston. “A relationship with God that does not relate to other people is unreal. … We pray to a God who loves the world, and so our prayers will be false if we do not respond by loving other people as well as loving God.”3

It was not for nothing that Jesus taught his disciples to pray Our Father – not my Father. The whole of the Lord’s prayer is couched in communal terms: Give us our daily bread. Forgive us our sins. Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from evil. And it’s chief missional petition – your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth – is really a prayer for the restoration of love, care, peace and mutual support in the diversity of the world and church.

Faith can become privatised instead of leading us into a model community reflecting the unity of the Trinity in a disordered and fragmented world. Here’s some practical steps to help us rebuild true community within church fellowships:

·         Teach yourself to think we, us rather than me or them when considering any aspect of church life.
·         Pray for all the sub-groups and activities in your church, not just those you are a part of.
·         Before developing “your” group, ask how it can better dovetail into the wider church and what effects your development might have upon, and contribute to, the whole.
·         Before undertaking a new initiative, ask what similar work is already being done that you could join with and further assist without taking over or competing for scarce financial and human resources.
·         Consult widely and ask what the Holy Spirit might be leading us to do (or not do; good ideas sometimes arise from individuals’ agendas or experiences and are not always applicable everywhere).
·         Find ways of ensuring that all the sub-groups can meet each other regularly and exchange news.

All it takes is some mutual trust and respect, with a sprinkling of patience and humility. Use the spring daffs as a reminder of the dangers of narcissism, and see the beauty of a clump of them as a reminder of the benefit of community over individualism.

Think and talk

1. Paul immersed himself in local cultures and so identified himself with others that he made himself “all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). What principle might this suggest for mutual fellowship and mission?
2.  Jesus said “a house divided against itself will fall” (Luke 11:17). While the context was not about the church, the principle applies. What steps can you take to strengthen the bonds in your church so that you may grow together?
3.  Jesus also described the Kingdom of God in terms of equal treatment of unequal people (Matthew 20:1-16). How might this principle affect the way you welcome and integrate people into church life and activities?
4.  Why do we find it so hard to think “we” rather than “me”? What can you do to change this mindset in yourself?


1.  Stephen Fry, Mythos, Penguin Books 2018, p. 341-2.
2.  Charles Ryder Smith, The Bible doctrine of society, T & T Clark, 1920, p.255-6
3.  James Houston, The transforming friendship, Lion Publishing 1991, p.54

© Derek Williams 2019
This material may be reproduced for local church use with full acknowledgement of its source. 

Friday, 25 January 2019

God does know what we mean

Prayer is not meant to be said parrot-fashion according to
the Pope - and Jesus. But God understands our halting words
“I know what you mean”: it’s a phrase that we trot out whenever anyone is having difficulty explaining or describing something. Sometimes it’s true; their stumbling words are enough to convey their true meaning. At other times, it’s an empty platitude, meant to encourage but possibly insulting. It’s not worth saying; we can’t enter into someone’s mind, feelings or experience.

It’s a relief, therefore, to discover that God really does know what we mean when we attempt to address him in prayer. Paul wrote to the Roman church, “We do not know what to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God” (Romans 8:26,27).

In other words, the Holy Spirit interprets what we’re trying to say and incorporates it into the language of heaven. He knows what we mean. This removes from us the pressure to choose the “right” words or formulae that we think God needs in order even to hear us, let alone answer us. God doesn’t need words at all, in fact, just the trusting, believing, earnest desire to see his will being done in the situations that concern us.

Interpretation in the realm of human language is an art, not merely a science. It’s not just a matter of finding equivalent words in the second language which match those of the first. The interpreter not only needs to have a strong understanding of the subject matter being spoken about, but also  of the speaker’s intention and underlying meaning. S/he needs to “know what you mean”, not least because the idioms of one language do not always transfer easily into another. One of the fundamental principles of Bible translation is to search for “dynamic equivalents” in the culture of the intended readers; there’s not a lot of point in referring to sheep in an island culture entirely focused on fishing.

One extreme example of how God translates prayer is the bizarre Old Testament story of Balaam. He was a seer or perhaps witchdoctor from the region of modern Iran. He was hired by Balak, the king of Moab, who was a near neighbour of Israel which he feared would over-run his country. Balak asked Balaam to curse Israel for a fat fee, which the “prophet” gladly accepted.

But two things happened. First, he nearly didn’t get to Israel at all. His stubborn donkey refused several times to carry him further. Then, the narrative says, “the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth” and it complained at his rough treatment trying to force it on. In other words, Balaam realised that it wasn’t the donkey’s fault; that God was using the donkey’s behaviour to get through to the even more stubborn prophet and warn him off his plans.

Then, when God failed to deter him and he eventually arrived in Moab, Balaam tried to curse but all that came out was a blessing on the Israelites across the border. Three times. After that he went home without his fee. (See Numbers 22-24.) God had told him how to pray and turned the potential curse into an actual blessing. The divine interpreter knew better than the prophet how to express the will and purposes of God.

This hides an important truth. Our prayers usually stem from what we can see, what we feel. They are genuine expressions of need or desire. But they don’t always correlate with God’s wider purposes, which we cannot usually see. The bigger picture is hidden from our view. That doesn’t invalidate our prayer. Each is incorporated into “Thy will be done” even if what we think should be done is not exactly what God proposes. Each prayer is translated into something effective by the Divine Interpreter.

Align with the Spirit

Several times in the New Testament we are urged to avail ourselves of the help of the Holy Spirit as we pray, so that our prayer is better aligned to God’s wider purposes. “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people (Ephesians 6:18). “But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life” (Jude vv. 20-21).
Keeping in step (with the Spirit) requires
discipline and practice
In practice, this means “keeping in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25), listening to God to prompt us with his concerns and submitting ours to his. It means learning to see “reality from God’s point of view”.1 James Houston explains, “Through the leading of the Spirit in prayer our intercession becomes one with the intercession of Christ, our minds become attuned to his, and his concerns become ours.”2

Or, as the earlier theologian C.H. Dodd put it, “true prayer is the divine in us appealing to the divine above us”.3

For some Christians, including the current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, praying “in the Spirit” may include “praying in tongues”, a spiritual language given by God which the speaker does not understand.4 Many can testify that this usually gentle gift mostly exercised in private aids them in worship and to bring before God the needs of themselves, their church and their world. The Spirit interprets their desire and concern by using his own language.

Helpful as tongues is, it is not portrayed as a necessity in Scripture. To use the words of the poet William Cowper in a slightly different context, “God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.”5 God knows what we mean, whatever words and language we use.

This also means that no prayer is wasted; it might be a bit off-message as far as God’s purposes are concerned, but if it’s a genuine expression of our concern at the time of uttering it, then it can be interpreted and caught up into the great stream of prayer that flows around the throne of God. He knows what we mean, and he’s not going to waste our breath.

In his story of the 24/7 prayer movement, Pete Grieg reproduces an email he sent after taking part in a meeting of young people in Spain nine years after he had begun to pray for a Spanish “army” of intercessors. At that moment, he realised that God never forgets “a single prayer that his children utter, even if they do.

“The very idea that the living Lord might diligently have treasured up every little prayer I had ever prayed, even all the ones I had forgotten, and that he might still be weaving their fulfilments, was almost too much to take in. It means that there must be answered prayers most days that I never even recognise as such, and casual requests I have uttered that continue to marshal the very hosts of heaven.”6

There is, of course, an inevitable caveat.

Silence the parrot

“When you pray,” said Jesus, “do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7,8). Such divine knowledge doesn’t remove the need to pray – it’s one of the laws of the spiritual universe that if we don’t ask, we don’t often get; our prayer is an expression of a two-way relationship.

(The paradox that God knows what we want before we ask is dealt with beautifully in the novel The Shack, and the film based on it. It pictures its main character, Mack, in conversation about his family with the three persons of the Trinity. “You already know everything I’m telling you, don’t you? You’re acting like it’s the first time you heard it,” he says. And Sarayu (the Holy Spirit) responds, “As we are listening to you, it is as if this is the first time we have known about them, and we take great delight in seeing them through your eyes.”7)

Pope Francis suggested early in 2019 that many Christians “speak to God as if they were a parrot”, reciting words such as the Lord’s Prayer that they mistakenly believe have some inherent power to endear God to them.8 Readers of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale may recall the shop with prayer machines. “There are five different prayers: for health, wealth, a death, a birth, a sin. You pick the one you want, punch in the number, then punch in your own number so your account will be debited, and punch in the number of times you want the prayer repeated.”9 If only it was that simple!

“No, praying is done from the heart, from within,” the Pope added. Harry Emerson Fosdick, an American Baptist minister in the first half of the 20th century, wrote “Our prayers are often unreal because they do not represent what in our inward hearts we sincerely crave.”10 Note that word crave. Cravings aren’t expressed in nice polite words. They don’t even need words. But they do represent what we most want.

So we find the Psalmist craving God: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. Where can I go and meet with God?” And this craving isn’t articulated in clear words but in deep, emotional cries: “My tears have been my food day and night … I pour out my soul” (Psalm 42:1-4).

We find Jacob clinging with all his strength to God despite his physical pain and injury and refusing to let go, craving God’s blessing (Genesis 32:22-32). And in a rare example of silent prayer in the Bible (it was treated with suspicion in the ancient world) we find the childless Hannah pouring out her heart in tears to God, craving the child without which she was regarded by her neighbours as cursed (1 Samuel 1).

Fosdick takes this thought further, which helps, perhaps, to illuminate further the story of Balaam and Balak. “We are hunger points in the universe; the elemental fact in every human life is desire. To the man who disclaims any act of prayer we may retort, ‘Your life is an organized prayer. Your body craves food, your mind craves knowledge, your affection craves friendship, your spirit craves peace and hope.’” So here, perhaps, is a reason why fasting is sometimes advocated as an adjunct to prayer; it elevates the craving for God above the craving for food or anything else.

However, Fosdick goes on to suggest that “prayer may be either heavenly or devilish”. Balak’s was devilish; Balaam’s was translated into something heavenly. He highlight’s Gehazi’s craving for money (2 Kings 5), David’s lust for Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11), and the prodigal son’s hunger for wealth and the freedom it could bring (Luke 15) as examples of craving that are really self-centred prayers.11 Jesus’ condemned Pharisees who craved the attention of others by practising their piety ostentatiously in public: “They have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:5). That is, their desire to be seen by people was granted; but their prayers weren’t heard by God.

Parrot owners know that to silence a chattering bird they must cover the cage with a dark cloth. Perhaps some of our prayers need to be silenced, while we align ourselves afresh with God, and refrain from bursting into his presence with a list of demands. Instead, like the four apparently wordless friends who lowered a paralysed man to the feet of Jesus and left him there (Mark 2:1-12), it might be better to lay the real desires of our hearts before God and let him work out what needs to be done.

Don’t worry about the words; God knows what we mean. But if we don’t mean it, there’s not much point saying it. Unless we’re parrots.

Think and talk

1.  Look up the Bible references quoted in the text and consider what you can learn from them.
2.  Think about what people (including yourself) really crave. Why do we let such cravings control us?
3.  Put in your own words what “keeping in step with the Spirit” might mean, and how this might be practised.
4.  Many people find written prayers helpful. Discuss how you can make such prayers, with their often well-chosen words, your own so that you are not merely reading or hearing them, but actually praying them.
5.  What do you think about when reciting the Lord’s Prayer?

1.  Philip Yancey, Prayer, Hodder & Stoughton, 2008, p.21
2.  James Houston, The transforming friendship, Lion Publishing 1991, p.157
3.  C.H. Dodd, no source referenced, quoted by Houston, op. cit. p.127
4.  Justin Welby has stated this on more than one occasion, including in a media interview in January 2019.
5.  These are the final words of the hymn which begins “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform”.
6.  Pete Grieg, Dave Roberts, Red moon rising, David C Cook, Third edition 2015, p. 151
7.  William Paul Young, The Shack, Hodder 2007, p.106
8.  Reported in The Times, 5 January 2019
9.  Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, Vintage 2016, p.257. In the same story, the Bible is kept locked up so that the girls cannot read it for themselves.
10.  Harry Emerson Fosdick, The meaning of prayer, Association Press 1917, p.133
11.  Op. cit., p.143

© Derek Williams 2019

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Prayer lets the Spirit flow

The Prefects' Fountain in the Harry Potter films,
on display at Warner Brothers Studios, Watford.
Each tap releases a stream of coloured water. 
Not long before you began reading this, you turned on a tap. Water flowed from it. It quenched your thirst or cleansed your hands. Now scale up that image. Think of a dam or a weir. It has a sluice gate, like a tap. Open the sluice, and water flows out to irrigate the land, drive a turbine, or serve our homes. Close the sluice, and the crops wither, the lights fail, and we die of thirst.

Jesus likened the Holy Spirit to flowing water (John 7:38-39). A number of Christian writers picture prayer as a means of opening a channel, tap, sluice, or door, through which God can work in our world. “Prayer lets God loose,” says Philip Yancey1. Adds Robert Llewelyn, “Prayer may open a channel through which it becomes morally possible for God to work … not changing God’s purpose but releasing it.”2

This is potentially life-changing, even world-changing. Bishop Stephen Cottrell claims that “We are not puppets being controlled or manipulated by God. We can influence events. Intercession is not a technique for changing God’s mind, but it is a releasing of power as we place ourselves in a relationship of co-operation with God. When we pray we are in communion with God, we seek his will and the channels of communication are open.”3

There is a profound reason for this. God has taken voluntary limitation. He did it in Jesus, accepting all the acute limitations of human life and relinquishing, temporarily, the awesome limitless realms of eternity (Philippians 2:6-8), celebrated in the Christmas story of Jesus’ birth. God again limited his influence on earth when he commissioned his followers to be the builders and messengers of his kingdom (eg Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 10:3-11; Acts 1:8). He does not shout at the world through a heavenly megaphone. He does not bombard individuals with spiritual spam messages. He does not wave a Harry-Potter style magic wand to banish the evil and lay out the good. Instead, God waits for his people to speak and act on his behalf; we are his hands, his mouthpiece.

Prayer before action

Above all, God has voluntarily limited himself to working through prayer. Norwegian pastor Ole Hallesby wrote, “God has voluntarily made himself dependent upon our prayer.”4 Prayer is the chief means by which God’s presence and power connects with this world. This is, in the 21st century, totally counter-intuitive. Prayer seems passive, even passing the buck, an excuse not to get stuck in to the messy chaos of human affairs, a way of distancing ourselves from getting too uncomfortably involved. Yet in God’s economy, prayer is the priority.

Pointing our that the monastic movement and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount set themselves against the common attitudes and desires of society, theologian James Houston asserts that “Prayer belongs to this counter-culture and our prayers are frustrated whenever we compromise between our praying and living. Prayer should determine the spirit in which we live our lives. Too often we turn this upside down, turning the agenda of our everyday needs into shopping lists for prayer.”5

Anglican minister Magdalen Smith suggests that the common inversion of priorities, putting needs before prayer, is symptomatic of a lack of faith. “In our secular society action can be an easier option than dreaming or praying because we simply do not believe that God is able to act in the world. We cannot cope with the intangibility of either dream or prayer. But action is no substitute, for without the dream and the sustaining power or prayer, our actions quickly feel empty.”6

Prayer can change the world

There is a profound mystery and a massive challenge here. Historian Richard Lovelace suggests that if church members “were to intercede daily simply for the most obvious spiritual concerns visible in their homes, their workplaces, their local churches and denominations, their nations, and the world and the total mission of the body of Christ within it, the transformation which would result would be incalculable. Not only would God certainly change those situations in response to prayer – we have Christ’s word that if we ask in his name he will do more than we ask or think – but the church’s comprehension of its task would attain an unprecedented sharpness of focus.”7

Hallesby agreed. “The church is always the little flock. But if it would unite on its knees, it would dominate world politics – from the prayer room. And the result would be one of two things, either a world-wide revival or the appearance of the Antichrist.”8

So the disciples failed in their mission when they tried to do God’s difficult work without soaking it in prayer (Mark 9:28-29). “Pray continually,” charged Paul, who knew a lot about fruitful mission and faithful discipleship (1 Thessalonians 5:17). “Without me, you can do nothing,” Jesus warned (John 15:5). Prayer keeps us sensitive to God’s subtle nudges, and to his even more subtle responses to our praying, which may be different to our stated concerns.

“Unanswered prayer” is another topic, but Pete Grieg, the accidental founder of the 24/7 Prayer movement, was once staggered by a revelation from God that “‘I never forget a single prayer my children ever utter, even if they do.’ The very idea that the living Lord might diligently have treasured up every little prayer I had ever prayed, even the ones I had forgotten, and that he might still be weaving their fulfilments, was almost too much to take in. It means that there must be answered prayers most days that I never even recognise as such, and casual requests I have uttered that continue to marshal the very hosts of heaven.”9

And that, perhaps, is one reason why Jesus told his disciples to be persistent in prayer (Luke 18:1-8). It shows that we really mean what we’re asking, that we’re not being casual about prayer and saying in effect, “it would be nice if you do this Lord, but if not, well, I guess it doesn’t matter.” Persistent prayer refuses to take no for an answer but looks for any sign of God’s activity even if it isn’t presenting us with the exact gift we had on our wish list. And persistence also recognises that God never forces his will on others, and that it takes time for attitudes and circumstances to change or be changed.

So if we want to see change in our world, our churches, in people around us and ourselves, perhaps our prayer now should be for God to pour out a spirit of prayer and supplication into our hearts. Every period of renewal and revival in history has been preceded by people crying to God for him to visit them and their world. “Units of prayer combined, like drops of water, makes an ocean which defies resistance.”10 Remember that, the next time you turn on a tap.

All heaven waits with bated breath,
For saints on earth to pray;
Majestic angels ready stand
With swords of fiery blade.
Astounding power awaits a word
From God’s resplendent throne;
But God awaits our prayer of faith
That cries, ‘Your will be done’.11

Think and talk

1. Look up the Bible references quoted above. Spend time thinking (and discussing) their meaning and implications for daily life.
2. When you pray about big issues in the world, to what extent do you distance yourself from them (praying for “them”) and to what extent do you identify with the problems and needs (praying for “us”)? See Ezra’s example in Ezra 9:1 – 10:16. What might you learn from this?
3.  What might you be able to do locally to encourage people to pray together for each other and for the church, community and wider world?


1.  Philip Yancey, Prayer, Hodder 2008, p.140
2.  Robert Llewelyn, Prayer and contemplation, Oxford: SLG Press, 1985, p.6
3.  Stephen Cottrell, Praying through life, Church House Publishing 2003, p.28
4.  O. Hallesby, Prayer, Inter Varsity Fellowship 1963, p.127
5.  James Houston, The transforming friendship, Lion Publishing 1991, p.64
6.  Magdalen Smith, Fragile mystics, SPCK 2015, p.145
7.  Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of spiritual life, Paternoster Press 1979, p.160
8.  O. Hallesby, op.cit., p.128
9.  Pete Grieg, Red moon rising, David C Cook 2015, p. 151
10. E.M. Bounds, Power through prayer, Moody Press n.d., p.83, quoted by Richard Foster, Celebration of discipline, Hodder & Stoughton 1980, p.39
11. The first verse of the hymn “All heaven waits” by Graham Kendrick and Chris Rolinson, © 1986 Thankyou Music.

© Derek Williams 2018



Thursday, 22 November 2018

Exercise your brain and improve your life!

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”1

Reading was one of the most common leisure pursuits of the twentieth century. Now increasingly it is being replaced by time spent on social media, TV and video games. Research from Sheffield Hallam University discovered that in 2017 British consumers spent £7.2 billion on music, video and computer games, compared with £7.1 billion on the printed word (books, newspapers and magazines). It is the first time print has been overtaken by other media.2 Yet reading has benefits and advantages over (or in addition to) other media, not least health benefits.

Aiding mental health

In November 2018 UK Health Minister Matt Hancock suggested that GPs sometimes should consider prescribing visits to the library and other cultural activities instead of pills. “It’s scientifically proven,” he said. “Access to the arts improves people’s mental and physical health. It makes us happier and healthier.”3

Researchers at the Yale School of Public Health found that people who read books regularly had a 20% lower risk of dying in the next 12 years compared with non-readers.4 Psychologists at Toronto University found that habitual readers had an increased sensitivity to other people.5 Others suggest that reading can slow brain degeneration by improving the connections between brain cells.

In a Radio 4 Front Row programme on reading and mental health, presenter Stig Abell said “I discovered that the best way of getting control of my mind was entrusting it to the mind of another” in novels from Jane Austen to PG Wodehouse. Commenting on the latter, he said “In his Arcadian visions, nothing is serious, everything is ordered. … His stories treat trivial problems as if they are serious, and so help to make serious problems seem trivial. I still turn to him, every day, to help keep my mind balanced.”6

Laura Freeman wrote The reading cure to describe how books helped her – slowly – emerge from serious anorexia. “Emptiness today and emptiness tomorrow. The only way to bear it was to measure the day in books.” A reviewer adds that “Books began to help her to think differently about food. The dairy scenes in Tess of the d’Urbervilles enabled her to drink proper milk again, Siegfried Sassoon encouraged her to have tea and boiled eggs, and she ate a mince pie in the company of Robert Graves. Mrs Cratchit held her hand through a morsel of Christmas pudding and, after reading A month in the Country, she tried a Yorkshire pudding and found it delicious.”7

Broadening the mind, prompting the spirit

However, reading “isn’t a hiding place. It’s a finding place” according to novelist Jeanette Winterson,8 who as a teenager had to watch her abusive mother burn her books. (The experience made her determined to write her own books.) For her, reading opened up new worlds and ideas that her restricted upbringing had shut out. “Every book was a message in a bottle,” she reflects. “The wider we read the freer we become”, and “the more I read, the more I felt connected across time to other lives and deeper sympathies.”9

The same was true for prolific Christian author and journalist Philip Yancey. He grew up in a church that “taught blatant racism, apocalyptic fear of communism, and ‘America first’ patriotism. Christian doctrine was dished out in a ‘believe and don’t ask questions’ style, laced with fervid emotionalism. For me, reading opened a chink of light that became a window to another world.” He found some books shattered his blinkered world view, and the “calmer voices” of Christian authors such as GK Chesterton and CS Lewis convinced him “that somewhere Christians lived who knew grace as well as law, love as well as judgment.”10

Reading fiction, non-fiction and poetry can broaden our mind, introduce fresh ideas, enlarge our views, increase our vocabulary, stimulate our imagination and sharpen our perspectives. Michael Heppell’s interviews with high achievers in his book The Edge found that almost all had large libraries, were reading at least two books at any one time, and subscribed to and read industry-specific publications.11 Reading is a win-win.

For author and Times columnist Caitlin Moran, “To read is to be in a constant act of creation”, far more so than passively absorbing a film in which the visualising has been done for us by the director. With a book, you join the action, create the setting and dialogue with the author. She is worth quoting in full:

“That old lady on the bus with her Orwell; the businessman on the Tube with Patricia Cornwell; the teenager roaring through Capote – they are not engaged in idle pleasure. Their heads are on fire. Their hearts are flooding. With a book, you are the landscape, the sets, the snow, the hero, the kiss – you are the mathematical calculations that plot the trajectory of the blazing, crashing Zeppelin. You – pale, punchable reader – are terraforming whole worlds in your head. These books are as much a part of you as your guts and your bone. And when your guts fail and your bones break, Narnia or Jamaica Inn or Gormenghast will still be there: as pin-sharp and bright as the day you first imagined them.”12

Narrative can capture mood and feeling, ambience and ethos, in a way that is often difficult for film directors. That is why dramatisations of books often focus on action and argument and miss out the original author’s nuances and observations. My all-time favourite piece of descriptive writing comes from Laurie Lee’s classic Cider with Rosie. Sample it; enjoy it; imagine it:

“Mother always ate standing up, tearing crusts off the loaf with her fingers, a hand-to-mouth feeding that expressed her vigilance, like that of a wireless-operator at sea. For most of Mother’s attention was fixed on the grate, whose fire must never go out. When it threatened to do so she became seized with hysteria, wailing and wringing her hands, pouring on oil and chopping up chairs in a frenzy to keep it alive. In fact it seldom went out completely, though it was very often ill. But Mother nursed it with skill, banking it up every night and blowing hard on the bars every morning. The state of our fire became as important to us as it must have been to a primitive tribe. When it sulked and sank we were filled with dismay; when it blazed all was well with the world; but if – God save us – it went out altogether, then we were clutched by primeval chills. Then it seemed that the very sun had died, the winter had come for ever, that the wolves of the wilderness were gathering near, and that there was no more hope to look for. . . .

            But tonight the firelight snapped and crackled, and Mother was in full control.”13

This is so much more than a stark report. It is so much more than a photograph in words that could translate as easily to a screen as to a page. Instead, it forces you to savour the imagery, the allusions as well as the raw facts. Like an exquisite meal or fine wine it is something to linger over, and absorb its nuances slowly, thoughtfully; to recall, or feel, that raw emotion of “being clutched by primeval chills”, of the sun dying and hope disappearing. It can make you feel thankful that it isn’t true for you at present and to spare a sympathetic thought for people for whom it is still true. And you may even feel the relief almost physically when told, “But tonight the firelight snapped and crackled” and the story – the action – continues.

Although Cider with Rosie reads like a novel, it is in fact biographical, written by a poet with the gift of reflecting deeply on the everyday incidents he experienced as a child in a Cotswold village in the early twentieth century. Reading can help us not just to glean ideas or facts, but reflect on them and their implications. In so doing, we begin to reflect on our own life and the world around us.

Provoking reflection

Good Christian writing can also provoke reflection rather than merely describe plain theology. Sample this deeply reflective passage from Lewis Smede’s Love within limits:

Love is a power that moves us to be kind. What are we to understand by kindness? Kindness is the will to save; it is God’s awesome power channelled into gentle healing. Kindness is love acting on persons. Such kindness may be soft; it is not weak; tender but not feeble; sensitive, but not fragile.”14

If you heard that in a sermon, you would latch on to maybe one phrase, and as your mind hovered over it you would miss the rest. But read it in a book and you can pause on each phrase, stay with it for as long as you like, let it roll around your mind, inform your attitudes and, perish the thought, challenge your actions.

Former US megachurch pastor John Mark Comer (who resigned from his multi-congregation church with a leadership team of 93 in order to lead a single church) is critical of the superficial understanding and debating that often takes place over big theological and moral issues in churches. “When people stop reading seriously and thinking carefully, it’s a breeding ground for bad theology,” he told an interviewer.

“Millennials are still reading a lot online, but there are some things you just can’t do in a 1,000-word blog post,” he claimed. On controversial issues, when people are asked how they reached their conclusions, “they rarely say, ‘I’ve read these ten books and this is my take on this Greek word, and I’ve exegeted this [Bible] passage…’ They’ve rarely thought it through that much.”15

In other words, many of us are relying on second-hand beliefs, and spiritual fast-food prepared for us by people whose presuppositions are much the same as ours. Reading, in short, is, or can be and perhaps should be, a form of meditation. And that requires time, patience, and probably less reliance on technology.

Finding time, adjusting priorities

The commonest excuse for not reading is lack of time. But consider how much time it is estimated the average person in the UK spends on electronic media: 121 hours per month. That includes social media, instant messaging, emailing, texting, phoning and similar activities. In addition we spend on average 22 hours a week watching TV. By making even a small adjustment to our lifestyle we could read several books and reap rich rewards. For example, Margaret Atwood’s The handmaid’s tale, 4:24 hours (quicker and fuller and more thought-provoking than the TV series), JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (12:4 hours, longer but much richer in imagery and ideas than the film).16

Yet across the country libraries are closing due to government cuts, and independent bookshops are closing due to high rents and declining sales. Specialist Christian bookshops struggle to exist and most rely on volunteers to stay open. If we don’t use them, we’ll lose them and future generations will be denied access to rich sources of learning and mental and spiritual nourishment.

The situation is not helped by the curriculum often imposed on schools that forces them to focus on fact-based, target chasing, subjects, while broader and less academic subjects (or even academic subjects such as music which attract only a minority of students) are reduced or not offered. We risk creating a generation of narrow-minded human beings with stunted imaginations for whom books are merely an ancient source of facts that now can be better accessed on the internet.

This is illustrated powerfully in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (4:30 hours reading time). It opens with Thomas Gradgrind’s mantra that “Facts alone are wanted in life”. Much later the well-meaning educator and factory owner is chastened by the discovery that his beloved daughter Louisa has suffered greatly because her mechanical and mathematical education failed to feed her soul, nourish her heart and imagination, or help her become a rounded human being.

We’re there in the room as she confronts him. We slump to the floor with Louisa in her distress and confusion. We wring our hands with Gradgrind and stay awake with him all night, filled with remorse and guilt and helplessness. We’re pierced by his agonising contrition as he concludes “that I cannot but mistrust myself”. The cold fact baldly stated that a broad education is more beneficial than a narrow one can be argued over. But when we see and feel the consequences of Gradgrind’s philosophy working out in the life of his fictitious yet believably real daughter, the message is unmistakeable and we cannot but consider it true.17

Of course, facts are important, and of more value than instant opinions. There is a deeply prophetic warning in Malcolm Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (3:31 hours reading time). Written in 1954, it depicts (as does George Orwell’s 1984) homes where large wall-mounted flat-screen TVs (not invented at the time of writing) beam personalised soap-style inter-active entertainment into every home. Everything is reduced to sound-bites and digests, headlines and quick-flicks, stuffing people with facts and views that require no reflection: “a centrifuge [that] flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!” And books are banned.

The main character, Montag, is a fireman. Everywhere is fire-proofed, so there are no fires for the service to put out. Instead, they are employed to start them – wherever they find books. But Montag is curious. He starts stealing books and reading them secretly. He meets rebels who have begun to memorise books in the hope that one day they might be published again. And he finds a Bible. The book ends as he walks back to a war-destroyed city reciting Revelation 22:2 (“And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations”).18

And there lies a challenge to any reader (or even non-reader). Back in the 1930s TS Eliot remonstrated with his generation, “Much is your reading, but not the Word of god.”19 If we want to explore the big questions of life, discover God and his purposes for us and for the world, and grow in faith and Christian understanding, then the Bible has to be the book we love best and consult most. It is the oldest book we have, always in print in many (but not yet all) the thousands of languages in the world. Investing in a modern translation or paraphrase will blow your mind, feed your soul, and deepen your personal relationship with God. Schemes for systematic Bible reading and modestly-priced notes to help readers get into and understand the text are easily available. All kinds of books will serve us well, but the Bible will serve us best.

“Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scripture to be written for our learning: help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that, through patience and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.” 20

Think and talk

1.  What book(s) have you read recently which have made you think? Reflect on what they have taught you or what they have illustrated that is worth remembering and learning from.

2.  “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). This is not an excuse for not reading! But in its context it is a reminder of what is most important in human life. What do you think that might be, and how might reading actually help you to appreciate it more?

3.  Jesus was well-read in the Scriptures of his day and quoted them frequently. So too was Paul, who was also familiar with secular literature (see Acts 17:28 and Titus 1:12). How might reading both Scripture and more widely enhance our Christian service and discipleship?

4.  What might you be able to do locally to help preserve libraries and bookshops, and introduce children especially to the value of reading?


1.  Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729), The Tatler  no.147.
2.  Report by Mark Bridge in The Times 3 March 2018
3.  Reported in i  6 November 2018.
4.  Reported in The Times Weekend, 6 October 2018
5.  According to Krish Kandiah, Christianity January 2017
6.  Stig Abell, “Novels can offer great comfort to a troubled mind”, The Times 9 October 2018.
7.  As reported in a review by Cathy Rentzenbrink of Laura Freeman, The reading cure (Weidenfeld & Nicholson), The Times Saturday Review, 17 February 2018.
8.  Jeanette Winterson, Why be happy when you could be normal? (Jonathan Cape, 2011), p.40.
9.  Ibid., pp 116f, 144.
10. Philip Yancey, “The Power of Writing”, Christianity Today October 1994
11. Michael Heppell, The Edge, Hodder & Stoughton 2013, p.147.
12. Caitlin Moran, The Times Magazine, 14 June 2014.
13. Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie, Penguin Books 1962, p.72.
14. Lewis Smedes, Love within Limits, Lion Publishing 1979, p.19.
15. Profile of John Mark Comer in Premier Christianity, December 2017
16. The figures and comparisons are from i, 3 August 2017, based on an analysis of Ofcom data by MusicMagpie.
17.  Charles Dickens, Hard Times, Vintage Classics 2012; the quotes are from pp 5 and 207.
18. Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, Harper Voyager 2008. The quote is from page 73.
19. TS Eliot, “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”, The complete poems and plays of TS Eliot, Faber and Faber 1969, p.154.
20. The collect for the last Sunday after Trinity, Common Worship, Church House Publishing, copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2000.

© Derek Williams 2018

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Jonah goes to Vanity Fair

A fresh angle on the Bible’s fishiest book

Vanity Fair is where it's all happening
Mention Jonah, and immediately you think of fish – the one that allegedly kept the drowning prophet alive for three days. But that is a pity. It misses the point entirely and provides an excuse not to take the book’s message seriously. The book of Jonah is not about a fish (it gets only a brief mention). Instead, it is packed with timeless challenges that have a special resonance with 21st century western life. The fish can be left to thrash around in the intellectual and theological shallows. (Or scroll to the end if you can’t wait to reel it in.)

The short story is well known. The prophet Jonah is told to go to the Assyrian megacity of Nineveh. He refuses, but instead of travelling cross-country north east from Israel, he sets off westward on a ship to Tarshish, which was probably in southern Spain. He survives going overboard in a storm at sea, and eventually does go to the city whose inhabitants respond positively to his call to repentance.

The first question any reader asks is “why did he refuse to go?” Here are six reasons. They all relate to the nature of Nineveh itself. (This little book is packed with insights and challenges; later we’ll see more mistakes, unforeseen consequences, and stubborn refusals that crippled Jonah spiritually and that enlighten, or challenge, readers in every generation.)

First excuse: he despises Vanity Fair

One commentator pictures Jonah arriving in the city at last. “He feels small, one man against a vast metropolis. Lost like a needle in a haystack inside this gigantic Vanity Fair, this Sodom of a city, the tiny figure feels he can go no further. He stops and shouts out the laconic message with which he has been entrusted.”1

The allusion is apt, and topical. At times in Old Testament history Nineveh (in modern Iraq) was the Vanity Fair of the ancient world. It was rich, prosperous, cultured. A vibrant city of pleasure and wealth, it had parks, rivers, canals, ornate buildings. And it was where morals were loose and religion corrupt, where greed ruled and the poor were crushed. Rather like more recent satirical portrayals of “Vanity Fair”.

The 2018 ITV adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair has Michael Palin, in the character of Thackeray, giving a brief summary of the story so far at the beginning of each episode. And each time, he ends it with the words: “For this is Vanity Fair, a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having.” The original book is a 700-page moralistic satire on early 19th century society, in which Thackeray often interposes the story with personal reflections. In it he says that “Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions”.2

Thackeray of course got the idea from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in which Vanity Fair was an unavoidable hazard and potential spiritual distraction or stumbling block on the way to the celestial city. Bunyan says, “In Vanity Fair, wealth and fame, pleasure and position, and many other follies, are for sale.”3 And Bunyan, no doubt, got the idea from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, rarely read but full of wise put-downs of what many consider to be important. The older translations include the refrain, “Vanity of vanities, says the teacher, all is vanity”.

This image captured the imagination of the 15th century Jesuit priest Savanarola. On Shrove Tuesday 1497 – 200 years before Bunyan – there was a pre-Lent scourge, pictured by several artists, of the bonfire of the vanities. Items considered vain and potentially sinful were thrown on, such as mirrors, cosmetics, fine dresses, playing cards, musical instruments, books that were deemed to be immoral, manuscripts of secular songs, paintings and sculptures. It was a radical Lenten sacrifice, an extreme form of downsizing or decluttering. (Today we’d take the stuff to a car boot sale and use the proceeds to buy more stuff.)

It also captured the imagination of the American novelist Tom Wolfe. In 1987, a week before the Wall Street crash, he rather prophetically published his modern classic The bonfire of the vanities.  It is a caustic satire on modern financial fever, social pretensions and discrimination, class divisions, excessive consumption, and institutional corruption and injustice. Wolfe says that his early model was Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and he describes his main character, Sherman McCoy, viewing Manhattan: “The city of ambition, the dense magnetic rock, the irresistible destination of all those who insist on being where things are happening.”4

Vanity Fair is anywhere, anytime, where people get the adrenalin rush of being where things are happening, and striving for what is not worth having, and cannot last.

It’s therefore no wonder that a good Jewish prophet would want to avoid venturing into this den of iniquity to tell it to prepare for a bonfire of the vanities. Good Jewish prophets kept themselves apart from the vanities of the world. In fact, things were just as bad at home. Jonah’s contemporaries Isaiah and Amos were shrilly condemning the Vanity Fairs that existed in Jerusalem and Samaria where, as in Nineveh, people were trampling each other in the rush for wealth and status, where injustice greed and corruption reigned (see, for example, Amos 5:10-13, 6:1-7). So he’s turning his back on the Vanity Fair of Samaria and he’s fleeing as far away as possible from the Vanity Fair of Nineveh. That was pretty drastic but illustrates his desperation; given his viewpoint, it’s almost understandable, although not excusable. But that’s just the start of his refusal to go to Nineveh.

Five more excuses   

First, Nineveh was the enemy, the chief city of Assyria that was constantly harassing Israel. To Jonah, if God wanted to zap Nineveh to kingdom come, he should just get on with it. They deserved everything they’d get. Why send someone to warn them? With Nineveh out of the way, Israel could rest in peace. Jonah wasn’t the only Old Testament prophet to hate Nineveh – Nahum and Zephaniah also condemned it, and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and Micah all had strong words to say against Assyria. It was a constant thorn in Israel’s side.

Secondly, Jonah was being asked to be a pioneer minister to an alien culture and a hated country. No-one had ever done such a thing before. Like all Jews at the time, Jonah hated foreigners, especially those who had the temerity to try to impose their rules, control Israel’s borders and tax its goods. Israel saw itself as a spiritual conservation area. If foreigners wanted to find out about God, they could come and ask, but Israelites did not go as missionaries to foreign lands. So there had to be a mistake. God wouldn’t ask such a thing. Jonah must have misheard.

Besides, thirdly, if he did go there he assumned that he’d be arrested, jailed, and probably executed as a spy. You don’t just walk into enemy territory and say “Hi guys, God’s got a message for you.” They didn’t recognise his God. They’d just see Jonah as some foreign agent blundering in on a crackpot mission to poison someone or hack into the infrastructure.

And fourthly, if Jonah went to Nineveh, he’d be considered a traitor to his own people. You just did not fraternise with the enemy. The Jesus who tells us to “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44) wouldn’t be born for another seven centuries. If Jonah went to Nineveh and lived to tell the tale, he’d have his Israelite passport confiscated. Or he’d just be executed for treason when he returned. It was a case of frying pan or fire? And he didn’t fancy either.

Finally, Jonah knows what God is like: gracious and compassionate. He admits it in 4:2. He suspects that God might want to forgive and reform the Assyrians. Theologically he can’t cope with that. His faith is challenged. His traditional views are threatened. Besides, where’s the justice in letting Assyria off? And wouldn’t their friendship actually be another threat to Israel’s independence? Wouldn’t their sheer size and power overwhelm the local economy? Wouldn’t Assyrian customs clash with Israel’s traditional faith? Jonah can’t cope with the idea that, in the words of the hymn, there’s a wideness in God’s mercy. Nor sadly, can some Christians.

Pause: am I doing a Jonah?

Jonah had at least these six reasons to refuse to go. So don’t just use Jonah as a bad boy example of disobedience. He may have been wrong, but he had his reasons. Now pause there. What is God asking us to do, you to do, now? Something that seems unlikely, perhaps? And what excuses do we come up with for watering down or running away from the hugely demanding challenges of Jesus and the apostles? Love your enemy, love your neighbour as yourself, give, don’t hoard, care, support, don’t discriminate, don’t seek personal return, don’t judge, turn the other cheek, seek justice, go into a confused world alienated from traditional religion to live out the values of the kingdom.

Ponder Tennyson’s words streaming from his agonising grief over the death of a friend, and his searching faith:

"Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit God's grace"
Jonah 2:8
“Ring out a slowly dying case,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
with sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.5

The brutal fact is that many of us prefer to hover around the fringes of Vanity Fair, like Thackeray’s Becky Sharp scrounging stuff to maintain a certain lifestyle, and seeking Instagram or Facebook status to maintain appearances. We like to be where it’s all happening, striving for a way of life which according to Jesus, not just Thackeray, is not worth having.

Two silly mistakes

Apart from not listening to God, Jonah made two other mistakes. The first was to move. You cannot get a car to change direction when it’s stationary. So with us. If you want to avoid doing what God asks, stay still. Don’t move. Put your spiritual earplugs in. Keep your head down. On no account start doing anything. (It won’t do you any good, of course. You’ll just miss out on what is really worth having.) But once you move, God can switch the points, turn the wheel, change the direction of the wind and blow you back on course. Which is what happened to Jonah.

A tropical storm blew up and threatened to swamp the ship. The sailors believed, like the mariners in Shakespeare’s Tempest, that it had a supernatural origin (“All lost! To prayers! To prayers!”6).

One of them had angered the gods. Jonah bravely admitted it was him. And he accepted that to save the ship he had to go overboard.

And then he made them throw him in: his second mistake. He played the blame game. He laid the responsibility for his death on them. So when he was missed by his family and friends, the sailors would either have to lie – oh, he was swept overboard, poor man – or admit to murder. Why didn’t he just jump in? Why shift the burden of guilt on others? When you know how to correct a mistake, or deal with a sin, just do it. Don’t try and save your face by making innocent people share the responsibility.

Three unforeseen consequences  

First, the crew threw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship. That was a last resort. They were throwing away their livelihood. They’d either been paid to transport it and the owners would want their money back if it wasn’t delivered. Or, they’d bought it themselves to sell in Tarshish. Without it, they were bankrupt.

Jonah’s refusal to do what God wanted resulted in other people losing out. Don’t ever think that no one but you will suffer if you avoid God’s call or disobey his instructions. The results of your action or inaction will spread out like ripples on a pond. Others will lose out, even if you never see how.

Secondly, the sailors tried to save Jonah. They weren’t Jews. They were probably what we’d call Syrians or Palestinians. More potential enemies of Israel. Jonah had paid his fare and they’d got his money. So why bother trying to save him? The author is making his orthodox readers gasp at the terrible thought that there are good, decent, honest, law abiding, humane unbelievers. It’s a warning against self-righteous religious pride and a call to personal humility. Paul said in Ephesians 2:10, that Christians are created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God has prepared for us in advance. Don’t just leave them to other people whose compassion may put us to shame.

Thirdly, the sailors actually prayed to Jonah’s God to forgive them for their action. And when the deed was done and the sea suddenly calmed they worshipped God. Unbelievers, praying to God and being heard? This is radical theology. Jonah has disobeyed God yet God actually brings good out of Jonah’s bad. That’s not a reason for casually disobeying him – “It’ll be all right in the end; I’ll be saved” – but it reminds us that God is never defeated by our folly or wrongdoing.

A stubborn refusal to change

Jonah was rescued and got to Nineveh. He couldn’t defeat God’s purposes. So he stood up, preached the message he’d been given, and was listened to. There was a mass repentance, a bonfire of the vanities. And Jonah was annoyed. He’d still not come to terms with God’s compassion for all people, including those who persecuted his faith and attacked his country.

Twice Jonah was given the opportunity to soften his heart. First when the Assyrians repented, and then when God gave him shelter from the sun. Yet he remained ungrateful and critical of God. When the shelter was removed, he threw a petulant tantrum: as if it was all about him, and not about God and thousands of other human beings. He had lost the art of reflecting on circumstances and learning from them. He remained set in his ways, fixed in his understanding and beliefs, focussed only on himself. “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them” (an older NIV version had “forfeit his grace”), as the author puts in 2:8.

There is no happy ending here. His last words in the book are, “I’m so angry I wish I was dead” (4:9); God’s attempt to point out that many people had been helped spiritually has fallen on deaf ears. We have no idea what happened to him then; did he continue as a prophet, speaking truth to power (2 Kings 14:25) or did his intransigence marginalise him from God’s later activity? From the author’s point of view, it was the latter. Jonah is a sad, bitter figure, a grumbler, not a supporter.

It’s a sad fact that even though “the angels rejoice over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10) and the Holy Spirit renews a Christian community, resentment can remain in the human heart over unwelcome changes in church life and thinking. We prefer our old ways, our comfortable ideas and beliefs. We are not for turning. The angels’ joy over unbelievers’ repentance must turn to tears of sadness at believers’ obtuseness.

Postscript: the fish that got away

Which brings us finally to the bit everyone gets hung up about: the fish. Which is a huge pity, because the story isn’t about the fish. (It gets three brief mentions: swallowing Jonah, the location of his prayer, and spitting him out, 1:17, 2:1 and 2:10.) The book is about God and his undying, unstoppable compassion to all the world. And that’s it.

To catch the point of the fish, we need to check the book’s likely background and the purpose of the story. Jonah is a carefully constructed literary composition, not a hack reporter’s interview as the bedraggled seaweed-covered castaway hauls himself onto dry land. The prayer in chapter 2 seems to be a compilation of what to the author would have been well-known psalms.

We don’t know exactly when it was written. There’s a reference to Jonah the prophet in 2 Kings 14:25, about 780BC but the image of Nineveh in the book reflects a period in the city’s history a century or so later. The Assyrian king Sennacherib beautified and extended it in the late 8th century when it really was where things were happening, and where everyone was striving for what was not worth having. There had been an earthquake, a solar eclipse, a flood and a famine around 763BC (within Jonah’s possible lifetime), which could have predisposed the inhabitants to see such disasters as warnings and thus listen to a prophet. However the city was not at that time as extensive and prosperous as pictured in the book.

There is no record in Assyrian annals of any city-wide “bonfire of the vanities”, although newspapers of record didn’t exist and embarrassing events were often quietly forgotten; news management by authorities is no new phenomenon. It is worth noting that Assyria (and hence Nineveh) were destroyed in 612BC by the Babylonians. But perhaps the point of Jonah is that God never delivers judgement before giving people ample opportunity to repent.

So it could be that a story around a genuine journey by Jonah circulated orally and was written down much later. By which time no-one remembered exactly how the prophet escaped the sea. He might not have remembered himself, having been severely traumatised and almost drowned. People do survive such events. Near-death experiences often include dream or nightmare-like visions that seem utterly real. Being swallowed by a fish fits that possibility, or else is as good a guess as any for a writer trying to explain the inexplicable. To the author, the point is that God engineered a rescue. The mechanics of how it was done are played right down; the survival is described in a matter-of-fact manner, and there is no attempt at sensationalising a miracle.

Sitting loose to the fish reference does no disservice to the doctrine of biblical inspiration and authority. There are different forms of literature in Scripture. Building moral lessons based on some half-forgotten incident is a good story-teller’s technique. Many of Jesus’ parables are based on common scenarios.

Time for a bonfire of our vanities?

Sadly, good, devout Jonah has been harbouring the Vanity Fair mind-set all along: the mind-set that looks out for number one, that absorbs the values and beliefs of its time uncritically, and doggedly refuses to change. Jonah is the Old Testament’s counterpoint, and preface, to the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus says, “It’s the pagans who strive for what is not worth having. But you, seek first God’s kingdom, and you’ll have more than enough” (as in Matthew 6:28-34).

It’s also the preface to Jesus’ call to go fearlessly into the world where it’s all happening, where everyone is striving for what’s not worth having (as in Matthew 28:19-20). But rather than absorbing its ethos, of blending in with the fairground patrons, instead to demonstrate in its midst an alternative way of thinking and living, another way of being community, a fresh source of meaning, and a focus for prayer. Above all, it’s a call to take by word and deed good news to the people we most despise or fear and try to ignore. In obeying that call, hard as it is, we gain a divine friend and a purpose that’s really worth having. And one which lasts.

Think and talk
1.  Read the book of Jonah in a modern translation. It’s only four short chapters.
2.  What is it that people in your circle, community or society are striving for that is not worth having? To what extent do you get sucked into that vortex of attitudes?
3.  What ethnic or other minority groups, or cultural or age groups, do you avoid, dislike or even despise? How do you feel when told that God loves them as much as he loves you?
4.  Look again at the paragraphs above headed “Pause: am I doing a Jonah?” Look at Tennyson’s prayer: can you make it your own? And where might you be watering down or avoiding the list of tough challenges to discipleship which Jesus and the apostles lay down?
5.  Pray. “Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways; reclothe us in our rightful mind; in purer lives thy service find, in deeper reverence praise” (John Greenleaf Whittier).
6.  Consider Isaac Watt’s hymn with its line “all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to His blood”. What might go on to your personal bonfire of vanities? 

1. Leslie C. Allen, The books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, Hodder and Stoughton 1976, p.222.
2. W.M. Thackeray, Vanity Fair, J.M. Dent, 1970, p.75.
3. John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, retold in Modern English by Jean Watson, Scripture Union 1978, p.74.
4. Tom Wolfe, The bonfire of the vanities, Vintage Books 2010, p.81.
5. From “In Memoriam”, Poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson, Collins 1954, pp. 356-7.
6. William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 1.

(c) Derek Williams 2018