Monthly Archives: May 2011

Both the Bible Study and Good Works

From a concerned church member,

Why are we wasting so much time studying and discussing the Bible when we should be out there loving others – evangelising to the lost and helping the needy?

Dear Concerned Church Member,

I am encouraged by your eagerness to obey the commandment to love your neighbours and to share the gospel with others. I acknowledge that you might have been in several Bible studies where time was wasted discussing frivolous and irrelevant issues, where the group members engaged in pointless and fruitless debate and nothing of consequence was learnt. It is true that there are some Christians who are content to sit in their holy huddles discussing their Bibles without lifting a finger to do what it says.

But please do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Do not throw the Bible out along with lukewarm Christians who do not put into practice what they have learnt from studying the Bible. While you rightly understand through God’s Word that he is calling you to some good work that he has prepared for you, you must also understand that God has made his Word indispensable to every good work you wish to do. It is indispensable because it is the necessary means by which Christians are made competent and equipped for every good work, as Paul clearly explains in 2 Timothy 3:16-17,

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

The Bible is not a technical manual, teaching you how to raise money to feed the poor, or imparting principles for making conversation with strangers. Paul is not speaking about technical competence. Rather he is talking about heart and character competence. A good work will not be good if it is not carried out with a good heart, a heart that works for the glory of God rather than its own glory. And God will not get the glory for a good work if it is carried out by those who do not exhibit a growing goodness in their lives – in their words, actions and attitudes.

Know that while we have been forgiven of our sins and given new hearts that can long after God and work for his glory, sin still remains in us and seeks to corrupt our every motive and every action. You may begin a good work in earnest with the right frame of mind, the right motive and the right character, but sin will always be at work to corrupt it. The only way to fight the corrupting tendencies of our sinful nature is to continually study our Bibles and so grow in our knowledge and love of Jesus. By this we will will always remain equipped and competent for every good work.

In short, please don’t wrongly treat this as a either-or issue. It should not be either the Bible study or good works. Whenever you feel the urge to ditch the Bible study and get going with the good work of God, please remember what Paul wrote. It should be both the Bible study and good works. Make time for both. But the Bible always takes first priority in our use of time, since without its continual work in our lives we would not be competent and equipped for every good work.

A Christian State? Part 1

For those of you following the Malaysian political scene, recent developments have thrust this question into the spotlight.

Should Christians strive (even pray) for a Christian state, or at the very minimum Christian laws?

This is a complex question, and a thorough treatment of it is beyond my capabilities. There are a number of useful resources I’ve heard of which address the issue of Christian engagement in the political sphere, and from what little I’ve read of them, it is safe to conclude that there is no complete consensus throughout church history over this topic.

But a consensus is not necessary to say anything definitive on this issue. In fact, I believe there are several acceptable positions on political engagement. However, there are many more unacceptable positions on the topic, and so the need to establish some rudimentary principles for political engagement is crucial if we are to navigate today’s world as faithful Christians. Though the task is daunting, it cannot be casually dismissed as being beyond us. For even choosing the path of non-engagement is to come down on the issue at one end of the spectrum. It is thus better that we make as informed a choice as is possible, rather than err out of willful ignorance.

At the outset, I want to clearly state that the Bible NEVER advocates the deliberate setting up of a Christian state. The general tenor of the New Testament is that Christians are a persecuted minority, with the chief persecutor almost always being the state. Perhaps this is why there has never been an established consensus on the topic of political engagement. For Christians have not always lived under Roman rule as it was in the first century, or rule of a similar kind. There have been broad stretches of history where the church has had tremendous influence over the political sphere, and even broader stretches of history where the state has used the church to its advantage. There have been periods where separation of church and state was the rule, and other periods where theocracy was the form of rule. In some places, the church is an official national institution; in others, a loose collection of independent local bodies, sometimes tied together across state and national boundaries as a denomination. To complicate things further, most of us no longer live under autocratic rule, but in a democracy of some form, which means that we can take action to actively shape the political sphere if we so desire.

In short, the nature of the state and the church and the relationship between the two has evolved over the centuries, shaped by the dominant cultural and historical forces of the place and period. I think the implication of this is that the responsibility of the Christian will vary in accordance with the political context they find themselves in.

Therefore in thinking about this topic, my primary focus is to figure out what the Bible has to teach on political engagement given our unique Malaysian context and chart as clear a course as possible through the muddy political waters.

This is Part 1 of a series of indeterminate length. Next, I want to think about the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and consider how this ought to shape our perspective of the political sphere.

Only as smart as its user

Welcome to the Age of the Smartphone
We live in an age of unprecedented technological progress. The way we learned about Osama’s death recently proved an interesting case study of how media and communication has evolved in the last ten years. When the twin towers collapsed ten years ago, everyone found out through news channels, newspapers and friends who witnessed the incident first hand. Raw video footage would have come from dedicated video cameras, not people’s phones, since having a camera on your phone was considered a luxury feature at the time. Youtube would not appear for 4 more years. Mark Zuckerburg was not even out of high school. And no one had heard of the iPod, which would only be released a month later.

Fast forward ten years and the widespread adoption of smartphones, Apple products, Facebook and Youtube make these technologies seem like they have been around forever. It has become difficult to imagine a world without them, even though that world did exist 10 years ago. Chances are you would have learned about Osama’s death over your smartphones, probably off a friend’s status update on Facebook, a Twitter post or through a news RSS feed. It is probably not too far off the mark to declare the smartphone as the icon of this new digital age. We can now communicate with everyone no matter where they are in the world. And our communication is no longer limited to basic phone functions as we can now access our emails, Facebook and Twitter accounts on the move. We no longer need to purchase newspapers since we can have our news delivered to us digitally. And when we become bored, we can whittle away our time on various game apps.

Much that defines the way we live today has been successfully bottled into a single device that readily fits into our pockets. And I fear we have been overly quick to embrace such convenience without pausing to consider the consequences new technology can have on our lives.

Take for instance the use of the smartphone in our church services. Is it a blessing or an intrusion? While I recognise their convenience, here are three reasons why I think you should go buy an actual Bible instead:

1. A physical Bible is key to ‘Bible memory’
Many Christians are increasingly turning to their smartphones to read their bibles digitally. However, I think that an increasing reliance on digital bibles weakens our Bible memories – our memory of what is written in the Bible and where it can be found. This has to do with the way the human mind stores information.

As someone who reads a lot, whether physical books or digital manuscripts, I have come to realise that the human mind cognitively maps books that it frequently reads. By this I mean that we have a tendency to remember the content of books by their physical location. With textbooks, while I could seldom recall a paragraph word for word, I could generally remember where it was located in the book and so return to it for reference. The physical ability to quickly ruffle through the pages of a book is actually crucial to pinpointing the exact location with quickness and accuracy. As such I found that this allowed for a more efficient search than its digital counterpart. I think the same holds true for Bibles, especially one which we read daily.

Another way of thinking about this is that digital space is ‘flat’. There are no identifiable landmarks. The physical space has contours, whether it’s the wrinkling of an overused page, a recently bent spine that has yet to settle or the feel of the comparative thickness of the pages in your left hand versus your right hand.

This ‘physical’-ness is key to my ability to pull out bible passages on the fly, and is something that the digital bible will never be able to recreate.

2. A physical Bible has only one function
The smartphone is primarily a device for communication. That is why the word phone remains in its name – it’s first and foremost a phone, with additional functions. A digital Bible or a note taker is an additional function, not its primary function. On the other hand, a physical Bible has only one function – to communicate the Word of God to you.

One reason why I’m very much against the use of digital Bible on smartphones in church services is that I cannot lightly dismiss the fact that these devices are fundamentally phones. The likelihood that you’ll be using your smartphones as a phone is higher than the likelihood you’ll be using it as a notepad. And when someone is speaking to you, I find it the height of discourtesy to be busy frittering away on your phone without first asking for permission to do so. I believe I’ve been guilty of this on several occasions, but just as I’ve cut across a double line while driving on occasion, my doing so doesn’t make it any less wrong.

So when you whip out your smartphone while the preacher is speaking, he’s probably willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that you are actually reading your digital bible, and when he sees your fingers dancing across the pad, he will suppose you’re probably diligently taking notes. Except that there’s the niggling thought in his mind that you’re just as likely to be texting and browsing the internet. After all it’s only a button away. The temptation is real, and many succumb to it each Sunday.

And when you do that, you’re doing the digital equivalent of walking out of the service halfway. The smartphone has allowed us to easily place our body in a church pew while our mind takes a vacation elsewhere. With a physical Bible, the only place your mind can go on vacation is somewhere else in the Bible or imagination-land.

3. A physical Bible makes it easier for us to disconnect from the world and focus on the people around us
What do you do when the sermon is being preached? In addition to listening, I tend to look around at other people listening.

Some of you might find this rather curious. But preaching, like singing, is a corporate event. And just as I am encouraged by the response of other people when I am singing,  I am equally encouraged by their response to the sermon. You might not know this, but your face is usually an open book.

It is a delight to see a twinkle in people’s eyes when they understand what God is saying to them. It is remarkable to see the Word of God convict people of their sin as you see the pain in their eyes with their faces downcast. It is even more remarkable to see that expression change to joy and wonder as they hear of the redemption that can be found in Jesus.

The preacher in the pulpit sees this. He is encouraged by this. He knows that he is talking with real people, who are listening to what God has to say to them. The friends you invite to church will see this as well, noting your reverence and realise that the Word of God is at work in your life with power.

But all this will not take place if your nose is constantly buried in your smartphone, with your mind occupied by another world with other friends. Only when you disconnect from everything else and actively engage with the church around you, only then will you realise that God’s word is living and active in the people around you.

A Final Word
It would be foolish to deny that a physical Bible will bring about all these benefits instantly. You will still have to read your Bible if you want to develop your Bible memory. Your mind is still free to wander during the sermon even if you don’t own a smartphone. And you can still easily chat with the person next to you in the pew during the sermon, even though it will be quite obviously rude to do so.

It is equally foolish to believe that owning a smartphone prevents us from developing a good Bible memory, causes our minds to wander, and keeps us from engaging with the people around us.

In the end it is the user who must be wise with the tools he uses. He knows that a smartphone is only as smart as its user. The way he uses it will ultimately determine whether it is beneficial or detrimental to him. But a wise user also knows that some tools are more appropriate than others. Don’t use a cannon to kill a mosquito.