Whenever God speaks, the outcome is supposed to be “encouragement, comfort and edification” (1 Cor 14:3). So how could a leader claim to hear from God and end up in a violent bloodbath?
Western history was changed by a God-conversation, but it wasn’t a positive one. It led to a shift that wrought untold tragedy on the church and wider society, and it can all be traced back to an inability to accurately interpret a prophetic vision.
It was 312 CE and a young man named Constantine had just become the emperor. His mother had been praying for years that he would come to know Jesus and adopt the faith of a growing number of people in the empire. It was a radical prayer. For nearly 300 years, Christians had been the butt of Greco-Roman society. They had been scorned, persecuted and even killed for entertainment in the great arenas of the ancient cities. Now it seemed, this mother’s faithful prayers had been answered. Constantine took steps towards faith and later in life declared it through baptism. Reports say it was a fledgling faith, but it was a faith nonetheless.
It was during this time that Constantine faced the biggest battle of his reign. A rival leader was challenging his right to the throne and had assembled a powerful army on the Melvin Bridge in Rome. With the odds stacked against him, Constantine prayed to the Christian God for help. The answer came in the form of a vision across the sky. He saw an image of the cross with the words: In Hoc Signo Vinces – “Through this sign, you will conquer.” The next day Constantine painted a symbol of the cross on the shields of his warriors and went into battle with renewed confidence. The armies clashed and Constantine won a decisive victory, crediting his victory to Jesus.
What is God saying to us in the midst of our pain? On the show today, we’re talking about the questions we ask when life goes wrong. Some people say you shouldn’t even ask God the why question, but that’s what we’re going to do in this episode. We’re talking about how asking God questions is an act of intimacy, what God’s heart is in the midst of our pain and suffering and what to do when there seems to be no answers at all.
There was a song that hit the top of the charts in the early 1980s – first in Australia and then in the US. It was re-released in Australia in 2004 and spent a long time at the top of the charts again, this time hitting the charts in Ireland as well. The song was called what about me?
What About Me?
It isn’t fair,
I’ve had enough,
now I want my share…
It’s a song that asks a lot of questions from a position of pain. Somehow, the lines of this song resonated with thousands of people around the world – perhaps because when we find ourselves going through hard times, we end up asking the same sorts of questions. What about me? What about God? and What about them?
Two weeks in Turkey recently left me wondering how a land so steeped in Christian history became 98% Muslim. In the first century, this was the area of Asia Minor, famous for Paul’s extraordinary missionary journeys and landmark churches such as Ephesus and Philadelphia. Today Turkish cities are populated with mosques rather than cathedrals and minarets rather than steeples punctuate the skylines.
The Problem with the Cross
I’m told that multiple factors led to this scenario, but while my cousin and I were touring the country, I began reflecting on the experience of Muhammad – the founder of Islam. Muhammad was raised around Christians and accepted some of their teachings, but was unable to accept the pinnacle event in Jesus’ ministry – his crucifixion. So the Koran recognises Jesus as a prophet who was born of the Virgin Mary and performed miracles including healing the blind, multiplying food and resurrecting the dead. However in Islam, Jesus didn’t die on a cross. Instead, he was rescued by God at the last minute and another man who resembled him was executed in his place (Sura 4:157).1
For Christians, this belief may sound a little odd, but for those who are familiar with Middle Eastern culture, it shouldn’t be surprising. Muhammad was raised in an honour-shame culture common to peoples of the east. In these kinds of cultures, people are shamed for not fulfilling group expectations and seek to restore their honour before the community.2 In the ancient world, the cross was the epitome of dishonour: cursed was one who “died on a tree” (Deuteronomy 21:23, Galatians 3:13). Though historic records unquestionably testify to the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion under the Romans, Muhammad could only accept stories involving mighty displays of power. For Muhammad, it was impossible for a holy man to die in such a shameful way.
Money, sex and power are some of the most powerful agents in the world. Any one of them can take down presidents and pastors, politicians and kings. History is littered with stories of people who have been able to conquer nations but not their own lives. So how does God call us to handle them?
I’m going to be honest with you. Travelling the world, I have the opportunity to hear a lot of stories – and tragically, they’re not all good. Many of them involve abuse and hurt at the hands of leaders who haven’t been able to handle one or more of three areas of life: money, sex and power.
Of course it’s not just leaders who are susceptible – we are all subject to their misuse. But when money, sex and power are not handled well by those in authority, there are far-reaching consequences.
In this episode of the show, we look at:
- How money, sex and power are morally neutral. They are tools that can be used for both good or evil. The key lies in how we use them and what place they take in our hearts.
- When it comes to money, sex and power, God calls us to operate by kingdom principles – which typically are the opposite of what our selfish nature leans towards. So, when the self says, use power for your own ends, Jesus says, use it to serve and empower others; when the self says, use money to indulge yourself, Jesus says it is more blessed to give than receive; when the self says, get as much out of sex as you can, Jesus says to seek the benefit of it for others in covenant love.
Recently I was sent this image on Facebook from an atheist friend:
If you’ve been in church long enough, you’ll know that the story of Abraham offering up his son as a sacrifice is held up as the ultimate demonstration of faith and spiritual maturity. As the story is told in Genesis 22, God ‘tests’ Abraham by asking him to offer up his son Isaac on Mount Moriah. Without hesitating Abraham obeys the voice he hears – escorting his son up the mountain, binding him to a stone altar and raising his knife to kill him. It’s a story that’s all the more pertinent given that Isaac was the longed-for son of his wife Sarah; a miracle of providence and the means through which God’s promises for the nation of Israel were to be fulfilled (Genesis 21:1-7).
For Christians, the story reveals a heart that is completely surrendered to the purposes of God and as such, Abraham becomes lauded as the “father of faith” and a model for all of us to follow (Hebrews 11:17-19, Romans 4:16).
And yet if one were to transpose the story onto at 21st-century context as this image so cleverly does, it appears as a gross and perverse oddity, like something out of a dangerous cult. God comes across as a wicked and cruel despot and Abraham, his deluded follower. Or in the colourful words of atheist Richard Dawkins, the God of the Old Testament is a “petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”1