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  • The Saviour complex

    Society, you may have noticed, loves to label things. Everyone and everything gets tagged with a neat label and categorised. There are people who are “hipsters” and people who are “nerds” and people who are “Goths” and people who are “high-fliers.” On a more serious level there are “the rich” and “the poor.” The media is ever too prone to this – there are “immigrants” and “refugees” and “asylum seekers” and any manner of other people groups who get labelled.

    And, all too often, it becomes a case of “us” and “them.” Far removed from the people the labels attempt to describe, we fall victim to the comparison game. The “us” are people we relate to, mostly other fairly well off Westerners who share our interests, economic status, and so on. The “them” are people far away, geographically or socially or politically – the “poor,” the “oppressed,” the victim.

    Because of this, it is ever so easy to fall prey to what we might call the “Saviour complex.” Our idea of charity can dangerously become a process of making the “people like them” into “people like us.” We see the victim – the poor, the disadvantaged, those less-well-off – and we want to save them from that, because we are under the notion that “our” lives are the standard by which all else is measured.

    We strip human beings of their true identity, their God-given beauty, when we categorise people into groups.

    You’ll easily call to mind the typical pictures used by the media to portray those in the third world – maybe advertisements displaying starving children, or people severely harmed by war or disaster. Unfortunately, so often this robs those people of their humanity. No matter how well intentioned these images and labels are, time and time again they only lead us to define such people by their scars, not as the infinitely beautiful, God-created human beings that they are. They are the “poor” and we are the “rich” who must help them, because in this system, we are above them somehow.

    Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard famously said, “Once you label me you negate me.” In other words, when we define others by our self-imposed standards and labels, they become no more than another nameless face in a group called “them.” We strip human beings of their true identity, their God-given beauty, when we categorise people into groups. This affects the way we view the “poor,” because our good intentions can be fed by the lie that we are the saviour and they are a group of victims that only we can save. Our giving becomes more about making “them” like “us.”

    Instead, we must see that behind the labels and the façade that there is no distinction. Paul writes to the church in Galatia, “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). We are all equal, we are all one, because we are all infinitely valuable human beings created by the Father. If we look on those who are poor and oppressed with this in mind set, our charity will no longer be shaped by the desire to make others like us, but rather to enable them to live exactly as God designed them to live.

    God’s vision of restoration and redemption is not limited by the narrow Western idea of making people materially or economically better off. He offers an eternal abundance of life (John 10:10) far beyond all that. Our giving must start from an assumption that we are all, as human beings, equal in God – the goal is not to “improve” people to our standard, but to treat them as brothers and sisters that we want to spur on to a greater abundance of life, to flourish, to live as God intended them to live.

    This must be our view of the persecuted church. The aim of supporting our persecuted brothers and sisters is not, ultimately, to replicate the kind of lifestyle that we, in our cosy Western society, think is best for them. Rather, it is to equip them to best use their unique gifts, situations, and God-given talents to best live a life of abundance despite the harshest of circumstances.

    There is no us and them. There is only one family, the family of us. So let’s support our brothers and sisters not as victims we need to heroically save, but as children of God, equal but individually beautiful and created to flourish in the way God made them to.

  • The writer

    You’ve probably seen the heart-warming video recently made by the BBC of Adele attending an Adele impersonation competition. The most hilarious, and touching, part of the video is the moment of realisation on the other contestants’ faces when the real Adele steps on stage, opens her mouth, and sings. Some of them are shocked, some are overwhelmed, and others stare blankly in disbelief.

    Beyond being an entertaining stunt, the video is a beautiful analogy for the Incarnation – God becoming man at Christmas. Just like the Adele wannabees want to be like Adele, so we try to be like God – but only ever muck it up. Humanity, made in the image of God, are like performers forever trying to perfect the lines He gave us, but always failing. We are impersonator singers always trying to sing the song we were made to sing, yet only ever hitting the wrong notes.

    The songwriter comes and sings his song, and in his perfection casts light on all our imperfect attempts at copying Him.

    Christmas is the story of Christ, the Word made flesh, stepping into our midst, among us who are failing impersonators. Like Adele walking among her lookalikes, so Christ walks among us. He steps onto the stage and shows us the perfect life, allowing us to glimpse God’s original design for mankind. The songwriter comes and sings his song, and in his perfection casts light on all our imperfect attempts at copying Him. But, more than that, He offers to take us by the hand and lead us into the life we should have led, but couldn’t; in His grace, He becomes our vocal instructor, enabling us to hit the notes we were made to sing.

    C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, writes that “God looks at you as if you were a little Christ: Christ stands beside you to turn you into one.” This is the unimaginable gift of grace – that through Christ, God looks on us, the flawed, imposter singers, as if we were like Christ, the original thing. He loves us as he loves his Son, because when God became man, he stood in our place to lead the life we should have lived and die the death we should have died.

    This is the ridiculous, scandalous story of Christmas – that God writes Himself into the story of this world, making himself a character in its pages, so that we, his creations, can enter into relationship with the Author. It is as if Shakespeare wrote himself into Hamlet so that Hamlet could know the mind of his creator. It is like Adele entering into the impersonation contest so that the competitors can meet the real person.

    But, just as some of the other contestants could not believe that the Adele in front of them was the real Adele, so it is that mankind, in seeing the perfect Man, still rejects him. The hope of Christmas – that God would enter the narrative to befriend us, his characters – is bound up in tragedy. Humanity will reject her Saviour. Though the world was made through the Author, the characters do not recognise Him when he steps into its pages. “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11).

    For those of us who believe that Christ is truly God, he offers a hand of peace and eternal life, to be drawn up into a relationship with the Author. But that comes at a cost. Just as in the days when Jesus walked the earth, men spat at him and accused him and shouted him down as a madman, so it is today for our brothers and sisters living in the toughest places to be a Christian. They have met the Writer of the story and found life, but, meeting with the other characters who do not believe, they face unimaginable hostility.

    This Christmas, then, we have a reason to celebrate – to celebrate God made man, the Writer stepping into His story to draw us, the characters, to Himself. But we also stand with our brothers and sisters – those who face accusation, torture and death because they have accepted the scandalous message of grace. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). Use this Christmas to rejoice with our family in their joy, to mourn with them in pain, and most of all, to pray for them and stand by them in suffering.

  • The song inside the sorrow

    As the dawn of 14th November rose over Paris, heralding news of the previous night’s nauseating events, the eyes of the world turned in stunned horror to the French capital. We’d heard of this happening in countries where such violence has tragically become the norm, but rarely on such a scale in an apparently secure Western country. With Paris came news of Baghdad and Beirut from just a day or two before, further tragedies wrought by IS, driving home the systematic tyranny the organisation is capable of.

    As I sat watching a constant flow of updates, I, along with the shocked world, couldn’t help but feel helpless. Witnessing destruction on a mass scale, so overwhelming, and yet remembering that these attacks are a drop in the ocean of attacks carried out worldwide day by day. And then came the inevitable questions.

    God, where are you in this?

    Through the tears cried in agony and the thick darkness of pain, it can be difficult to see where he is. When our worldwide church family cries out and we see brothers and sisters suffering, our Father can seem distant and unhearing. In that moment it is all too easy to lose sight of him, to turn away, lost as to how we should respond.

    But he is still good, though they say it’s not true.

    As the tempest roars around, all we can do, all we must do, is to fall at his feet in worship, and join as one global family in song. It may feel uncomfortable. It may feel, under the circumstances, like we don’t mean what we sing and say. Our singing may feel futile. But, counter-intuitively, that gives us all the more reason to worship God again – doubting, uncertain, but longing to find him again. Against everything, we need to speak out truth when the lies about who God is, in the moment of trouble, press in thick and fast, and we feel crushed by despair.

    Worshiping isn’t about some form of escapism or trying to hide away from the reality of pain and tragedy. On the contrary, when we worship we affirm truth – we make concrete again the firm foundations we stand on, we speak out against the lies and the whispers of the enemy. Worship changes an atmosphere heavy with grief to one of joy because we still know our Lord is good, even when all else seems to crumble around us. Worship unites us, because together – whether we are in Britain or Syria or France or North Korea – we are a family held together by the same truth of God’s unfailing love.

    “When we worship we affirm truth – we make concrete again the firm foundations we stand on…”

    Horatio Spafford, a prosperous 19th century Chicago lawyer involved with the evangelistic work of D.L. Moody and other revivalists, was a man well acquainted with sorrow. After the loss of a young son and the Chicago fire that destroyed most of his properties, he sent his wife and four daughters by boat for a much needed holiday to Europe which he later intended to join them on. During the crossing, he had news that all four of his daughters had drowned after the boat encountered a collision, leaving him only his wife.

    In the aftermath of tragic loss, personal as in Spafford’s case or national as in France, it’s tempting to turn our backs on God and forget his goodness. Instead, Spafford worshiped, penning the famous lines that would eventually become the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul,”culminating in the bold affirmation:

    When sorrows like sea billows roll;
    Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
    It is well, it is well with my soul.

    Time after time in the Bible, when we read of searing loss, men and women do the least expected: they worship. When King David’s son died, and his advisors expected him to fast and weep, he “went into the house of the Lord and worshiped” (2 Samuel 12:20). When Peter and John returned to the early church after their trial before the Sanhedrin and were warned to preach no longer, threatening their existence, the believers “raised their voices together in prayer to God” (Acts 4:24). When Daniel’s friends were about to be thrown to death in a furnace unless they worshiped King Nabuchadnezzar’s image, they spoke out the affirmation that it is in God’s power to save them:

    “But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up”
    Daniel 3:18

    Even if he does not, he is still good. He is still worthy to be worshiped. He still loves. Over this broken world, we need to bring the love song of the Father, over lies, over pain.

    We don’t ignore the pain or try and avoid it when we worship. Instead, we confront reality in the only way we can – with a proclamation of God’s power. Let’s worship with Paris and the rest of the world, because he is still good.

  • We support people who are beaten, tortured,
    imprisoned, falsely accused, and hated simply for following Jesus.