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Going to the source

In the gospel of John, chapter ten, Jesus draws a distinction between his ministry and that of the Jewish religious leaders:

The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy.  I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10.10).


The word ‘thief’ does not refer to the devil, per se, but to the scribes and Pharisees who used their position to abuse and exploit the Jewish people.  In contrast, Jesus is depicted as ‘the good shepherd’ who knows his sheep and calls them by name.       


In the scriptures, a person’s name is indicative of their character and attributes.  Hence, to call a person by name involves more than just a casual greeting.  It denotes a deeply personal connection with another person — understanding their hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses, and triumphs and tribulations.   


Beloved theologian and pastor, Eugene Peterson (translator of The Message Bible), made the following observation in an interview with Drew Dyck of Moody Publishers in 2017: 


“As pastors, we’re interested in getting people to live a life that is congruent with the gospel. One of the things I realised from day one is that I needed to listen to congregants and not just put things into their heads. This is one of the wonderful things about being a pastor. You get the time and the opportunity to make connections with the everyday lives of people in your congregation. You can’t just treat Christianity as a pile of ideas from which to add and subtract.

“I don’t think you can help anyone live a congruent life without knowing their name. How can you be personally involved in someone’s life and not know who their children are, who their spouses are, or the trials they go through every day? It just doesn’t work.”


An Anglican priest once said to me, “There are three things that we don’t talk about in our church: Sex, money, and politics.”  I thought to myself, “That’s fine, but what else is there?” 

If you have any doubts, just take a walk down the street and ask people, “What are you most concerned about?”  You will find that people are primarily concerned about sex (their intimate relationships and family groups), money (how to make ends meet in an inflationary environment), and politics (the direction in which society is heading).


Which just goes to show how out of touch the church is!  No wonder we have so many vacant seats and empty buildings!  If we are to make a difference in the world, we need to scratch where it itches.


 Paul, the pastor


Saul of Tarsus was a towering figure in the early church.  He was called to be an apostle — an authorised representative of the Lord Jesus, endowed with special power to proclaim the gospel, establish local churches, and exercise spiritual governance over entire regions. 


He also functioned as a trans-local pastor, overseeing the churches he had founded and the leaders he had commissioned through episcopal letters and personal visits.  I don’t think for a moment that when Paul sat down to write or dictate his letters, he was aware of the fact that these documents would one day be viewed as sacred Scripture and be included in the canon of the New Testament.


Paul wrote to individuals or groups of people to address specific issues that they were grappling with in their lives.  Whilst some of Paul’s letters incorporated foundational teaching and approximated a kind of systematic theology, they nevertheless sought to provide answers to the questions that 1st century Christians were asking and solutions to the problems they were facing.


A case in point is Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth. Interspersed with profound teaching on the church as the body of Christ, Paul addresses key issues such as religious sectarianism, sexual immorality, material litigation, marital equality, cultural idolatry, and social discrimination. 


In some instances, Paul speaks authoritatively on behalf of Christ: “To the married I command, yet not I but the Lord …” (1 Cor 7.10).  At other times he differentiates between the word of the Lord and his own opinion as an apostle of Christ: “But to the rest, I, not the Lord, say …” (1 Cor 7.12), and “according to my judgment — and I think I also have the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 7.40).


One wonders what subjects Paul would canvas if he was writing a letter to the church today?  Would he intersperse his teaching on the kingdom of God with advice on the existential threat of world hunger, the moral implications of gender therapy, and the ethical boundaries of artificial intelligence?  


Of this we can be certain: Paul understood the challenges that the Corinthians were facing, as individuals and as a community.  And he was more than willing to address the issues head on: “Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me …” (1 Cor 7.1).   


Going to the source of the problem


In the Second Book of Kings, we read the remarkable account of the prophet Elisha purifying the noxious waters of Jericho:


Then the men of the city said to Elisha, “Please notice, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the ground barren.”  And he said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.”  So they brought it to him.  Then he went out to the source of the water, and cast in the salt there, and said, “Thus says the Lord: ‘I have healed this water; from it there shall be no more death or barrenness.’”  So the water remains healed to this day, according to the word of Elisha which he spoke. (2 Kings 2.19-22).


The salt alone did not have the power to purify the spring; rather, it was a prophetic act signifying the intervention of God at the point of human need, in the same way as the smearing of oil signifies the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in the life of one who is infirmed (James 5.14-15).


Note that in dealing with the problem, Elisha went to the source.  He looked beyond the effects of death and barrenness, and focused his attention on the cause — the contaminated spring. 


Similarly, the apostle James encouraged the church to look beyond the effects of fighting and quarrelling and to ask the question, “What is causing this … Where is this coming from?” (James 4.1-3). 


As human beings, we have an unfortunate tendency to focus on the fruit and ignore the root.  We obsess with outward appearance and behaviour, and neglect the hidden realm of motive and attitude (Mat 23.25-28). 


Take the dynamics of marriage, for example.  How often do we find two people who, at the beginning of their relationship, are deeply in love with each other.  Yet, fast forward a few years and the same couple find themselves in a counsellor’s office trying to sort out their conflicts, or worse still, in a lawyer’s office trying to reach an acceptable divorce settlement.


Still, this should not come as a surprise.  Marriage has sometimes been compared to a ‘crucible’ — a vessel of a very refractory material such as clay or porcelain in which metals or other substances are subject to a high degree of heat, thereby facilitating a metamorphosing reaction. 


It is important to understand that the culmination of the crucible process is not merely the aggregate mixture of ingredients, but the creation of a qualitatively different product.  For example, crucibles were used during the medieval period to smelt and melt copper and its alloys to make bells, and to smelt and melt iron and carbon to make steel.


In this sense, marriage is a ‘crucible’ — a confined space in which intense heat is applied to two different individuals, causing a volatile reaction which results in the creation of a new entity that is immeasurably more than the sum of its parts.


Genesis 2.24 puts it this way: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”  It is not a case of “one plus one equals two,” but “one plus one equals one — a new One.”


However, as Marion Solomon observes in Love and War in Intimate Relationships (Norton, 2011), when two people fall in love, the seeds of their later conflicts are already present because both carry their personal history into the relationship — memories of past hurts, failures, and early attachment traumas that are waiting to be triggered by the power of association.


To truly help couples who are struggling in their relationships, one needs to go to the source, which means recognising and resolving the past when it reappears in the present.    

We’re all going on a summer holiday.


In 1963, Cliff Richard and the Shadows immortalised the British tradition of a seaside retreat at Bournemouth or Blackpool with the song, “We’re all going on a summer holiday.”  Among the thousands of people making the annual pilgrimage to the coast would have been many newly-weds, planning to celebrate their honeymoon in a romantic beach-side location.


Picture in your mind a young couple, bursting with hope and joy, stepping off the train at Brighton.  Each person carries a suitcase.  Both suitcases are full.  Neither person knows what the other one has in their suitcase.


When they get to the hotel, the husband opens his suitcase, and to his young wife’s horror, pulls out some dirty, stinking underwear.  “Why didn’t you wash this before you put it in your case?” she exclaims in disbelief.


Then the wife opens her case and reveals her own cache of dirty laundry.  “What’s that doing in there?” her husband says.  “It will soil your clean clothes.”


Whilst the scenario I have just described is unlikely to occur, the truth is that each one of us brings a suitcase full of life-shaping experiences to any new relationship.  It takes a lifetime to fully unpack the suitcase, and what emerges is often surprising and not always pleasant.


The crucible of marriage forces us to go to the source of who we are and to discover our most intimate vulnerabilities.  We are then faced with a choice: to cut and run and live in denial, or to take ownership of who we are and grow up. 


Ultimately, the goal of marriage is to facilitate growth in every aspect of life (Eph 4.15).  Perhaps this is what the Lord was alluding to when He said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him” (Gen 2.18).   


 What else is concerning you?       


As a young pastor, I quickly learned that the presenting problem is usually not the actual problem.  I also discovered that the most important question one can ask is, “What else is concerning you?”  Because the “what else” can lead to disclosure of the real issue.


For example, a woman once came to me seeking prayer for a nervous disorder which would, on occasions, result in her engaging in acts of self-harm.  Rather than just praying for healing or trying to cast out the spirit of nervousness (if such a spirit exists), I decided to ask her about her childhood. 


I discovered that during her infant years, the primary care-giver in her life was her nanny, not her parents.  When she was six years old, her parents sent her off to boarding school.  The emotional wrench of leaving her home and her nanny was severe. It left her with a fear of being abandoned, and a belief that she was not worthy to be loved.


Unconsciously, she carried this fear of abandonment and sense of unworthiness into adulthood and into every relationship that she formed.  It thus became a self-fulfilling prophecy.             


As Elisha demonstrated, true and lasting healing must begin at the source.  For this reason, the apostle James advocates taking an integrated approach when ministering to the sick:


“Is anyone among you sick?  Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.  And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up.  And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.  Therefore, confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

(James 5.14-16).


James links the confession and forgiveness of sin with the healing of the sick person.  James is not saying that all sickness is the result of conscious and intentional sin; rather, he is introducing the concept of cause and effect.


The very fact that sickness and disease is present in one’s body indicates that at some level, things are out of order.  The root of one’s illness may be emotional, or psychological, or spiritual; or a combination of all three.


Whatever the question, the answer is the same.


Confront the issues head-on like Paul.

Go to the source of the problem like Elisha.

Pray in a spirit of faith like James.

And see the wonder of God’s creative power as you minister to the needs of the people.

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