Being Sure (about stuff that REALLY matters)

Have you ever noticed that being asked about something over and over has the effect of making you less and less sure?

This is the reverse of what you might expect.

I experienced this yesterday when I went to have an MRI scan on my head. When I got the appointment letter there was a list of questions: did I have a pacemaker? surgical clips in my head? inner ear implants? Etc, etc.  ‘No’, ‘no’ and ‘no’.

Then when I got to the appointment I was given a questionnaire to complete asking me all the same questions. All my answers were still ‘No’.

Then when the nurse collected me for the scan, she asked me all the SAME questions again on the way down the corridor. This was the THIRD time of asking!!  By the end of the corridor, I was a blubbering wreck of uncertainty: am I really sure I don’t have a pace-maker? Perhaps someone did once put a metal shunt in my head? And (scariest question of all) have I ever had fragments of metal in my eyes? This question is scary because I understand just enough about the very big magnets used in MRI scans to guess what might happen to said fragments.

By the time we are in the room, I am wild-eyed with doubt. There is an inner child inside my head who is asking if she ‘can just phone her mummy to be sure’. I’ve been interrogated that much, I feel like a complete liar.

But on the surface I maintain the required adult composure. I lie down, close my eyes and allow myself to be inserted head first into a tube. I close my eyes because I know I don’t like confined places so there’s not much point looking at just how confined it is. Nor is it very pleasant being pinned down.

And then I pray…. and pray and pray.

I am not praying that there wont be metal fragments in my eyes (but that thought doesn’t quite go away until we are at least three minutes into the procedure and behold, my eyeballs have not exploded!) No in situations like this,  I pray the Jesus prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Repetitive prayer??? *Noises off* – that would be my evangelical ancestors rolling in their graves!

Actually it’s wonderfully calming to pray in this way, especially when you are in a situation where you feel a bit too stressed to come up with words of your own. It’s not a rapid repetition ie trying to say the prayer as many times as possible whilst actually emotionally hyperventilating. It’s a much slower and mindful way of praying, the aim is to have these words only in my head and allow no others. I am landing on each word slowly and deliberately as if it were a stepping stone across a fast flowing stream. Picture a traveller carefully transferring their whole weight from one stone to the next, totally focussed on not falling in.

By the end of the process and in spite of the noise, I am so relaxed I am nearly asleep. Still praying, but nearly asleep.

(Ironic that I’m having this scan because of tinnitus – it was SO loud, my ears are still ringing).

Anyway, what has this long preamble got to do with being sure? Well I’ve just read a book about Hell: Erasing Hell  by Francis Chan.  I had it as an audio book and to be honest I’d put off listening to it because it’s not the cheeriest of subjects. But last week at college, I finally got round to listening to it. It was as unsettling as I expected but not because I agreed with him. He writes from a very conservative, evangelical perspective and the point of the book is that we must be sure about hell to the point of being frightened or over-whelmed. (Oops, I think his word was ‘energised’). Hmm, I was expecting him to say this but I was expecting stronger arguments. In fact his argument for  the doctrine of hell turned out in my view to be very weak.  I’ll write a separate few paragraphs in a separate blog for anyone who wants to read the theological nitty- gritty. For the time being I just want to comment on what turned out to be his final appeal at the end of the book. He asked: ‘Do you love Jesus? Do you love him enough to avoid going to hell?  And, yes, he was directing this question towards Christians!

‘Oh, come on’ I thought, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me? What kind of question is that?  (I had to press rewind several times to check that that’s what he’d actually said) Do I love Jesus? Well, yes, some days I do and some days I’m not so sure, and ‘do I love enough?’ Who the heck knows how much is enough?!

That is SUCH an unhelpful, subjective question. It throws all the responsibility back on to me. It makes ‘devotion’ ( or ‘how much I love Jesus’) the work by which I am saved.  That won’t do at all. Salvation is ALL the work of God. It’s God’s work for me and God’s work in me and I only receive it because I’ve asked.

If you are so desperate for us to be ‘sure’ Mr Chan, you’re going to have to come up with something a little less subjective than ‘do we love Jesus?

By now, someone will be thinking ‘But didn’t Jesus ask Peter three times if he loved him?’ Yes, he did. And he did it to deliberately erase the three denials. Jesus totally understood the principle that asking people something repeatedly makes them less sure, not more. By the time he has got Peter to the last question, Peter is a blubbering wreck of uncertainty. ‘Lord, you know all things, you know that I love you’ in other words ‘you know how weak, unreliable, conflicted and uncertain my love is for you, but I’m doing my best’ . Jesus asked three times deliberately to make Peter less certain not more.


Think about it.

What was Peter’s big problem? …..Being TOO sure of himself.   He needed to know his conflicted but genuine response to Jesus was acceptable. It was enough.

So how can we be sure about stuff that really matters? My answer would be that we can sure because of the character of God and the strength of his promises. We do not have to measure the strength of our devotion.

What would have been a better question to finish the book with? Well I would have been a bit more specific. Have you asked God to be involved with your life? You either have or you haven’t and I think you’ll know which. This question is a little more objective. Asking, of course, does imply acknowledging that God is there and probably also admitting that you’re not doing so good at running life on your own. (Did you spot that: three steps all beginning with A? See I haven’t completely lost my evangelical senses!) But I realise that by now I’m beginning to sound like that nurse, running through a long list of questions.

I’m trying to just give you a more objective place to start: more solid ground than the incredibly slippy ‘do you love Jesus?’ question.

But I don’t want to imply that God is a ‘tick the boxes’ kind of God because I don’t believe he is. He is gracious, compassionate, all-knowing, unfailingly loving. I can’t imagine him saying ‘well, you ticked question 1 and 2 but omitted question 3’.  Some people simply cannot do such an articulate thing as ask, admit or acknowledge, notably children and those with any mental impairment. They can only approach God (oops, there’s another A word), or respond to some experience of God with a sense of wonder.

And who are we to say that their response to God is less certain just because it doesn’t meet our criteria?

Salvation is the work of God for us. If we are capable of asking and we have asked, we can be sure that we have received it. (1 John 1:8,9) Faith is trusting that God will do what he’s said he’ll do.

For more about the Francis Chan book see the post Erasing Hell.

‘Erasing Hell’ by Francis Chan – Book Review

hell book
In the post ‘Being Sure about Stuff that matters’  I have talked about this book. One of the first things that bothered me about it was that Chan repeatedly said ‘we must be sure about this’ or ‘we cannot afford to be wrong’ about the doctrine of hell. Then, later in the book he wrote about Isaiah 55, ‘Your thoughts are higher than our thoughts’ and reflected that we can never know or fully understand God. Unfortunately, he failed to connect these two thoughts.  Insisting that we ‘must be right’ about a subject as complex as hell, feels not only impossible but maybe somewhat arrogant.

The book reads as if Chan has pulled a concordance off the shelf and gone through all the references to hell, one at a time. (Be reassured, there aren’t that many) He is thorough in this approach but I felt that although he read each text closely, he failed to read the wider context and didn’t put these references into the whole, big story of God.  For example, most of the references to hell come in Matthew’s gospel, there are next to none in the other gospels. It was a pity that Chan never stopped to asked why this was? What was Matthew’s particular point of view? Had he understood that, I think a lot of the references would sound quite different.  He didn’t mention the fact that  Matthew was a Jewish writer, writing for a Jewish audience. This is incredibly relevant. He has either not read, or disagreed with Tom Wright’s How God became King, which is incredibly helpful on how we should hear the four gospels.

Secondly, he makes the assumption that judgement is always a bad thing whereas in the world of the Bible, judgement is always a good thing: the emphasis is on God coming to set things right, much more so than on God coming to condemn, destroy, punish.

Thirdly, he doesn’t seem to see his own assumptions. For example when he talks about the key passage about sheep and goats in Matthew 25 he repeatedly talks about them being divided on the basis of whether or not they ‘believe in Jesus’. That phrase is NOT in that story! And the whole point of that parable is that they are divided on the basis of their actions.  Chan seems to gloss over what the passage actually says.

But my main criticism would be that he doesn’t take into account at all the kind of people we would become were we to think about hell the way he would like us to think about hell. All he says is this doctrine should ‘energise’ us.  In my experience, misunderstanding about this doctrine has made Christians anxious, guilty, over-whelmed, paralysed by fear, much less inclined to love their non Christian friend and much more inclined to withdraw from them.

If what he says is true, then the New Testament should be bulging with commands to go out and evangelise and it’s not. Yes, it talks about making disciples and having an answer but what it bulges with are commands to live loving, humble, kind, generous, patient, non-anxious, quiet, peaceful lives.  I’m not saying evangelism isn’t important. What I am saying is that the more we stress over it, the more we are tempted to think ‘it’s all down to us’ and it isn’t. Our part is to be the people of God, showing what it means to live under the rule of God, being willing and ready to give an answer to why we have hope in a world that often doesn’t look very promising.

I could say a lot more. I wrote pages and pages of notes. But it would only be worth getting into the details with people who have read it (happy to do that). If you do read it, please be sure to get to the FAQs at the end because it’s only there that Chan who has spoken about fire, and worms, darkness and gnashing of teeth in a way that seems very literal, admits that he thinks these are metaphorical.  Personally I think it would have better to have said that upfront.

It is important that any Christian serious about their faith comes to a view about the doctrine of hell but you need to know that this book represents only one view, something Chan himself graciously accepts.  There are a spectrum of other views available put forward by thinkers and theologians with good credentials.  This is a subject we must approach with grace and sensitivity towards others.