Alpha Course: Reviewed

by Stephen Butterfield

WEEK 6: “How Does God Guide Us?”

I arrive at the church slightly earlier than usual and am surprised to find everyone already in their seats. It’s good to see that everyone is keen to attend. I’m really enjoying the sessions and it looks like everyone else is, too. Fantastic.

I sit chatting to Lady Three, who I find to be a really warm person, and it isn’t long before she’s telling me of her weekly jaunts into the local town centre on Friday evenings. She doesn’t go to town to sample the fine beers and wines that the assortment of bars and clubs have on offer, but she does stand outside those bars and clubs… equipped with her Bible. She tells me that other members of a Christian group join her and, as Friday night becomes Saturday morning, they wait for the young revellers to exit the clubs. As the wobbling, pie-eyed youths spill from the bars Lady Three and her entourage stop some of them and ask if they know of the saving grace of Jesus Christ. They ask some of them if they would like to be prayed for, and to others they offer Bible verses.

They’re a very brave bunch. I’ll give them that.

She tells me that one member of the group is a particularly gifted chap who is “very good at choosing people to speak to who turn out to have ailments”. This gentlemen then prays with these people in the hope that Jesus will cure them on the spot.

Lady Three is noticeably excited as she tells me of their most recent foray into the town centre. She begins, “Last weekend we got to see something amazing! He [the gifted chap] actually picked someone out who had a fractured collarbone. He went up to the young lad and asked “Do you have any faith in God?” and the boy replied “No”. So my friend asked him, “Do you have any reason for not having faith in God?” and the boy replied, “BECAUSE YOU CAN’T PROVE IT!” So my friend asked the lad about his arm, because he had it in a sling, and he told us that he’d fractured it by falling off of a motorbike. My friend asked, “Can we pray for you? Because we believe that Christ heals” so we prayed for the boy and moments later he could lift his arm up!”

I must say, there were a couple of points that sprung immediately to mind. The first was that I wasn’t aware that a fractured arm stops you from lifting it upwards. Why would that seem so astonishing? And the second point that sprang to mind was to do with the “gift” that this Christian chap supposedly had. Lady Three had said earlier that he was gifted in that he was, “ very good at choosing people to speak to who turn out to have ailments”. And the first example she gives in support of that is to tell me that he stopped a young lad who had his arm in a sling. Some gift! Stevie Wonder could have spotted that ailment, I’m sure.

Lady Three continues, “The boy took off his sling for a moment but then put it back on. We asked him why he was putting it back on and he replied, “Because my mum wont believe me””

I reach for my glass of cold water that sits on the table beside me and as I do so I catch the eye of the pastor who nods at me and says, “I’ve got a word for you”. By this he means that God has given him a ‘word of knowledge’ about me. I’m quite excited at the thought. I wonder what God could have told the pastor? Has he told him something really specific about me, something that only I could know? I can’t wait.

As the rest of the group chat I have a moment to think about this supposed ‘word of knowledge’. I must admit that I’m curious as to why God didn’t just tell me himself. But I don’t want to get in front of myself, maybe I’m in for a surprise? The pastor says that he’ll tell me all about it after tonight’s DVD presentation has finished. I’m looking forward to that!

The DVD begins to play. Tonight’s session is called, “How Does God Guide us?”…

Gumbel starts by asking, “Who will God guide?” and then offers an immediate answer to this question by stating, “He’ll guide those who are willing to do what he wants”.

Nice start.

Gumbel then tells us that we should all have a similar attitude to that of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was willing and grateful to be “the Lord’s servant”. I must admit that Mary’s attitude was indeed remarkable considering that an invisible ghost, by means of magic, had just impregnated her.

Gumbel informs us that we don’t have to be special in order for God to use us for something. He then lists the names of a number of misfits from the Bible who God used in various ways.

He then asks, “So how does God guide us? How does this relationship work?”

“We’ve got 5 main ways we’re going to look at tonight”. says Gumbel.

The 1st of these is:

Gumbel begins, “In the Bible the general will of God for all of us is revealed”. He continues, “He’s spoken about marriage, family life, work, money, children and all kinds of things. We know for example that marriage is for life”. Gumbel goes on to tell us that we shouldn’t commit adultery, because the Bible commands that we shouldn’t. We should also pay our taxes each year, because the Bible commands that we should. For these important matters the Bible is our guide.

God can use the Bible to guide us as we read it. “Sometimes he [God] will bring to light a particular verse as we’re reading”. says Gumbel.

The presentation continues and he offers us an example from his own experience of how God pointed him toward a certain passage in the Bible. Gumbel picks up the tale, “I’d been practising as a lawyer for some years [but] I sensed that God was calling us to ordination in the Church of England. Pippa [his wife] and I went off for a weekend together to pray. During this weekend I wrote down all the ways in which God had been guiding us. And the first thing that I wrote down was the ways in which he had guided us through the Bible, and there were fifteen different occasions where we had sensed God speaking to us through this book. One of them was through a verse in Romans 10 which says this, ‘How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?’ I wondered whether that was God calling me”.

What does he mean by that last sentence? Why isn’t he sure that God has communicated with him? Why the uncertainty? If God communicates with people why are they always left saying things like, “I THINK that God is telling me such and such”? Why do they only “think” that he is telling them something? Does he have trouble making himself clear? Why are his methods of communication so vague? I have to say that this kind of thing smacks of wishful thinking.

The 2nd way in which we know that God is guiding us is:

Gumbel tells us that we learn in the New Testament that the apostle Paul was led by the Holy Spirit.

Gumbel then talks about how we get to know people’s voices and how we can recognise certain people by their voices. He adds that his wife, Pippa, recognises his voice because she knows him so well. In the same way that we come to recognise human voices we can also come to recognise the voice of the Holy Spirit, claims Gumbel. This is all part and parcel of our developing relationship with the Holy Spirit.

We are then told that the Holy Spirit leads us in a number of different ways. Gumbel offers us an example, “First of all God speaks to us when we pray”. He continues, “Prayer is a two-way conversation. It’s not just a question of us pouring out our requests to God and then going off without ever listening, because he may want to speak to us when we pray”.

He then gives us an illustration to show how silly it would be for us to simply pour out our feelings then walk away before a response could be offered. Gumbel says that none of us would go to see our doctor and simply reel off a list of ailments that were troubling us and then walk out of the room before the doctor had chance to offer some medical advice. It would be ludicrous to do something like that, suggests Gumbel. Similarly it would be just as silly, when praying to God, to reel off a number of problems and then end the prayer before God could supply you with an answer. We must understand that God guides us through prayer.

We can also tell when God is guiding us if we have, for example, “a good thought” such as “maybe I ought to ring that person” or “maybe I ought to write a letter to that person” . All these nice thoughts emanate from God, claims Gumbel.

The Holy Spirit can guide us in more unusual ways, such as, “prophecy or visions or pictures or angels” or even “in dreams”.

Gumbel admits that, “Guidance is a very difficult thing,” but thankfully “there are various tests” that we can perform. “St John says, ‘Test the spirits to see whether they’re from God’”. Now that sounds interesting. I’ll have to raise that particular point in our discussion after the presentation. If we can test these things then maybe we as a group can devise a way in which we can demonstrate God’s involvement in earthly life. I do hope so.

Gumbel then gives us some examples of how we can test that an idea emanates from the Holy Spirit. We should ask ourselves, “Is it in line with the Bible? Does it promote love? God is love, so if it’s not a loving idea then it wont come from God”

I must say that I found that sort of “test” to be very disappointing. Is that really how we are to test if an idea in our heads has come from God? How weak is that?

Do we sit and ponder, “Errr… I’m not sure if God is communicating with me…so… errr… let me think… errr… yes, this is a decent idea that I have in my head and it involves love so it must have come from God, therefore God was communicating with me”.

My goodness.

The 3rd way in which we know that God is guiding us is:

Gumbel starts by stating, “God has given every human being a conscience” which is “like a very sharp knife that can be blunted if it’s misused and ignored. But if it’s used in the right way it can become more sharp. God has also given us minds to think and reason”.

He continues, “In the big decisions [in life] common sense is very important”. He then gives us an example of how we should use common sense when confronted with a big decision, such as to who we should marry, “Paul warns us of the danger of marrying someone who is not a Christian” and that “if we’re a Christian we should look to marry a person whose faith we respect”. It’s all “common sense” says Gumbel.

The 4th way in which we know that God is guiding us is:

Gumbel begins, “The word ‘Saints’ is used in the New Testament to mean ‘all Christians’, in other words the church”. He then offers us a Bible verse:

[Proverbs 12:15] “The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice.”

Make of that what you will because that is all he offers in support of point #4.

The 5th way in which we know that God is guiding us is:

Or to put it another way, “The providence of God” says Gumbel

He then paraphrases Psalm 37:5 “Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will act.”

Gumbel explains that particular verse, “What he means is this: if we’re faced with a difficult decision, as all of us are from time to time, we can go to the Lord and say, ‘Lord, I don’t know which direction to go. I don’t know whether this decision is right or whether it’s not’”. By doing this we are committing ourselves to the Lord. We are putting our trust in him. Gunbel continues, “His [God’s] promise is this… he WILL act. God can shut doors or he can open doors”. and then adds, “But we have to be willing to say [to God], ‘I trust you with this’”.

Gumbel then gives us an account of a circumstantial sign. He tells us the story of two of his friends, a young man and a young lady, who were going out with each other. They’d become Christians and after a little soul searching they decided that it was for the best that they split from each other temporarily. During this time they would leave it in God’s hands to show them whether or not they should stay together. After a week of being apart from each other, and after a series of chance occurrences, they happened upon one another in the street. They ran towards each other and met in a loving embrace. The young man later wrote about this episode, “Meeting like that was a chance in a million, and we took it as a sign from God”. Gumbel then tells us that they’ve since been happily married for nearly thirty years.

Isn’t this what anyone else would call a “coincidence”?

Gumbel ends his presentation with a prayer. The pastor switches off the DVD and switches on the lights…

“I liked that! It was my favourite so far” says the pastor. The Christians are in full agreement. I must admit that I enjoyed it too.

The pastor talks about similar relationship difficulties to those of the young couple. He solemnly admits that his own marriage once went through some really rough times, and that such difficulties arose because “God was calling me to the ministry but I kept fighting it”.

Why did he keep fighting it? Didn’t he trust God or something? What’s all that about?

As a group we chat for a few moments about certain relationship difficulties. It’s not long before there’s a pause in the action. The pastor looks around the room to see if anyone has any questions. There are none forthcoming so I offer something:

Me: “Early in his presentation Gumbel gave us an example of someone sitting in the doctor’s surgery reeling off his problems without waiting for a response from the doctor. He gave this as an analogy to us praying to God without waiting for a reply, leaving God to ask, “Don’t you want to hear what I have to say?” Well in a way I’m sitting in the doctor’s surgery now but I’m actually hanging about for a response. But I’m not getting one. If God doesn’t want to speak to me personally he can speak to me through one of you, I don’t mind”
Pastor: “Can I share with you what I felt God say to me today?”
Me: “Of course.”
Pastor: “I was praying this morning and I was also reading the Bible. I read these two verses and I just felt God say to me, “That’s for Steve””.
Me: “Ok”
Pastor: “It’s from Luke chapter 19 verses 41 and 42. “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes”. I hope you don’t mind me being personal here but there are two sets of eyes: there’s Jesus’ eyes and there’s your eyes. I really sensed that God was weeping over you, Steve. That’s the passion that Jesus has for you. There is something inside of you that’s wondering what all this [life, the universe and everything] is about”.
Me: “Yes, you’re right. I’m interested in the ‘big’ questions”
Pastor: “Jesus is longing that you’ll know peace, but at the moment it’s hidden from your eyes. It’s interesting that you say that you’re here waiting for God to respond to you because I felt, and this is entirely up to you, but I felt that God wanted us to pray for your eyes, your spiritual eyes, to be opened. I think that God sees your heart and he knows you want answers, but I felt him say to me that you’re blind.”
Me: “Do you think that God sees me as hard-hearted perhaps?”
Pastor: “I don’t think you’re hard-hearted, Steve. I see you as a very gentle person, a very thoughtful person and a very caring person. I think “hard-hearted” would be the last phrase I’d use to describe you. But your blindness is, and I don’t want to sound rude here, but your blindness is an illness that can only be healed by Jesus. In the Bible Jesus said, “I’ve come to give sight to the blind,” and he meant that both physically and spiritually. And Jesus went around laying hands on people and they received their sight both physically and spiritually”
Me: “Thanks. However I must ask that if it is true that God is weeping over me and he knows I have a good heart, why does he contact you to tell you to read a bible verse to me? Why does he contact you to tell you to tell me that he’s weeping over me? Why doesn’t he come to me and tell me that?”
Pastor: “I think he has”
Me: “But I’m not aware of that”
Pastor: “Maybe not but…well… I can only offer to you what I’ve heard God say to me”
Me: “Yes, but why didn’t he just say it to me, though? Wouldn’t it have been easier, and a lot more persuasive, if he had cut out the middle man?”
Pastor: “In the last six months [the long-standing male member] has shared things with me, which were about me, which he felt were from God. Now, I could have said, “God, why didn’t you tell me that directly?” but I didn’t because I feel that [the long-standing male member] has, after listening to God and on my behalf, brought the words that he’d had for me straight from God. That gives me a real thrill to think that God is THAT interested in me! I feel that I’m more likely to succumb to wishful thinking, whereas [the long-standing male member] has no agenda.”

In other words he could merely be imagining that God was speaking to him, whereas the long-standing male member is an unbiased source so whatever comes from him must be legit. But I must ask, why couldn’t he be guilty of wishful thinking too?

Isn’t it incredibly revealing, though, that he admits to being prone to wishful thinking? Maybe he’s revealed more here than he would have liked.

The conversation is getting a bit heavy now as the pastor has tears in his eyes because he is so passionate about the fact that God communicates with him. I try to lighten the tone:

Me: “What if [the long-standing male member] came up to you and said, “I’ve just heard from God, and I felt that he was telling me to tell you that you must give me a couple of thousand pounds per month, paid directly into my bank account”

The group laughs. The pastor then responds by telling me that such a message couldn’t possibly have come from God because it doesn’t fit with scripture.


Anyway, after that minor diversion I get back on track by asking:

Me: “Why are such things so vague, though? We are after all talking about a God who is everywhere, knows everything and can do anything, but the only way I can get to know if he exists is if you come up to me and say, “Steve, I think that God has told me to read this Bible verse to you”.
Pastor: “Well it’s more than that. I felt as though he asked me to ask you if you’d be willing to be prayed for. And for your eyes to be opened.”
Me: “I have no problem with anyone wanting to pray for me.”
Pastor: “That’s fantastic. So tonight before you go, and with your permission, I’d like to do that”
Me: “Of course you can”

Things are getting interesting now!

These sessions are getting better by the week. It would appear that by the end of the evening I’m going to be surrounded by a mob of salivating Christians, who will be trying to will the power of the Holy Spirit into my doubt-riddled soul. I sit and listen to the rest of them chat as I try to imagine what is going to happen to me later on.

The conversation jumps swiftly from one topic to the next, and I’m quite content to sit quietly, that is until “punishment”, “discipline” and “hell” enter the discussion. The pastor explains to us that he has to discipline his own children but he does so because he loves them, and that it’s for their own good in the long run. He likens this to God sending non-Christians to hell.

Pastor: “God’s punishment is a discipline that comes out of his love. Just as my love for my children expresses itself both in abundance and in strict discipline at times.”
Me: “I don’t doubt that we need to have some sort of discipline in the world, but torturing someone is a different matter. When [my fellow sceptic] and I die we are, supposedly, going to get tortured for an eternity”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yes, but that torture is self-inflicted”
Me: “Didn’t you say the other week that my doubts were justified?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yes… errr… yes… but when God speaks to you it depends how much of an argument you put forward to God. You say you’re genuinely searching so God will genuinely break through, because if we draw close to God he’ll draw close to us”
Me: “The thing is, though, according to your belief, if I were to have a heart attack now and die I’d be spending an eternity in a lake of flames, even though I’d genuinely looked for God, but never heard from him or stumbled across any evidence for his existence”
Long-Standing Male Member: “If you don’t have a relationship with Jesus, where you’ve surrendered your life to Jesus, that is what will happen, yes”

It astonishes me how Christians can say things like that and not even flinch at the thought. The threats of eternal torture roll effortlessly off the tongue. They are quick to tell us how much their God loves us all, but are just as quick to tell us that he created an eternal pit of flames in which to torture those of us who do not reciprocate his love. Isn’t this just absolutely bizarre?

The pastor supports what the long-standing male member has just told me. He agrees that I’m doomed to (and deserving of) being sent to a place of eternal torture “because that’s been your choice”.

My choice? I don’t think so. We’ll come to that in a moment.

I ask them about this supposedly loving God who tortures his children for an eternity:

Me: “If your children had been naughty would you discipline them by holding their hands over a hot flame for a few seconds?”
Pastor: “No”
Me: “What about holding their hands over the flame for ten seconds, then? What about a minute, an hour, a day? How about a zillion years? How about even longer without any chance of them ever being able to pull their hands away?”
Lady Three: [Long pause] “But what if they threw themselves in the fire?”
Me: “But I’m not throwing myself in any fire”
Lady Three: “Maybe on a spiritual level you might be. The Bible says we were created to have a relationship with God, to have a two-way communication with him”
Me: “But God isn’t communicating with me”
Lady Three: “You can’t have communication with God without having a faith that he’s there”
Me: “I’ve had faith that he was there. I’m a former believer. And I can honestly say that I’ve never heard from God”
Lady Three: “What made you believe back then?”
Me: “I was raised that way. I didn’t know any different. I suppose if I’d have been raised in Pakistan I’d have been a Muslim”
Pastor: “I always think of it like we’re walking towards a cliff. God doesn’t push us over that cliff. All the time God is saying, “Look at the cross. My son died for you. Look at the cross. You don’t need to go over that cliff!””
Me: “But I genuinely do not see the cross or the cliff, despite being told that they’re there, and despite me looking for them for many years”
Long-Standing Male Member: “That’s because you’re like a blind person walking without a guide towards the cliff edge”
Me: “If I’m blind then I’m not choosing to throw myself off of a cliff that I don’t even know is there!”

Again, I’m dumbfounded at the way these Christians attempt to defend their beliefs. Much of it is childish. Some of it is just plain absurd. It’s as though they have never questioned these beliefs in the past, and have never even heard anyone else question them either. So now that someone IS questioning them (i.e. me) they panic and leap to the first thing that comes into their heads.

The long-standing male member then suggests that maybe God is communicating to me by nudging me towards attending the Alpha Course every week (I seem to remember that someone else suggested this in an earlier session too). I pose a similar question back at him:

Me: “And when I talk to Muslims maybe it is Allah who is guiding me towards them?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “And that’s the choice you have to make. How do you know that God is not telling you things through us?”
Me: “I don’t.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Well I’m saying to you that God IS telling you things through us”
Me: “But I’d just have to take your word for that”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yes”
Me: “But why would I take your word for it about your God, rather than the word of a Muslim, Sikh or Hindu about their gods?”

There’s a momentary pause before the pastor interjects by changing the subject. In a previous session I had told the group that Christianity was not original in having a godman sent to earth. One of the names I’d mentioned was Krishna, a Hindu deity. Krishna was an earthly manifestation of the Hindu god Vishnu, and he is still worshipped today. The pastor wants to pull me up on the topic of Krishna.

The pastor cannot understand how anyone could seriously believe in Krishna due to the fact that he “went around killing people and took sixteen thousand wives!”

The Christians in the group erupt into fits of hysterical laughter, and it doesn’t stop for almost a full minute. It’s as though someone has just told the greatest joke in the history of the universe.

They obviously find it ludicrous to believe in a god who kills humans. Yet they believe in the Christian God, the most notorious killer of all. Remember, this is the very same God who slaughtered the entire world’s population barring Noah and seven members of his family. And this is the same God who slaughters people on almost every page of the Old Testament.

They obviously find it ludicrous, too, to believe in a god who marries many women. Yet they believe in the Christian God who impregnates a young virgin without so much as asking her permission.

It blows my mind how can they laugh at one set of beliefs whilst holding firmly to a similar (or even sillier) set of beliefs themselves. It really is remarkable.

At this point Lady Two, who has been quiet for almost the duration of the evening so far, turns to me and asks:

Lady Two: “Have you repented? Do you feel the need to repent before a Holy God?”
Me: “No, not really”
Lady Two: “Do you think your life is ok?”
Me: “Yes I do”
Lady Two: “Before a Holy God? Say the Bible is true, do you think that everything in your life is as good as you can get it to please a Holy God?”
Me: “If the Bible is true then no, my life wouldn’t be pleasing to him because I’m not a Christian. I’d have to make myself a Christian, pretty sharpish I’d imagine”
Lady Two: “You know that night when I prayed for 100% faith?…”

Oh dear. We’re only 25 seconds into the conversation and already she wants to present her testimony again. The exact same testimony that she’s given at almost every session so far. “I never thought anyone could have 100% faith”… “God filled me with his Holy Spirit”… “It was complete POWER”… “Tears rolled down my face”… “The Bible sank into my chest”… “God had revealed himself to me, a nobody”…

You get the picture.

Her testimony lasts for about eight minutes before the pastor interrupts to state that now is a good time to pray for me. I’m quite excited at the thought. I’m just hoping, though, that it’s not going to be embarrassing. In my head I picture the scene from the film “The Exorcist” where the priest is attempting an exorcism on the demon-possessed young girl, dousing her with Holy Water as she squeals and vomits as her head spins around 360 degrees. I’m hoping it’s going to be a milder experience for me!

The pastor suggests that after he has finished with me I should go home and “read the Bible afresh so that God can speak directly to you through his word”. The long-standing male member adds, “Part of my love for God is to read the Bible. And as I read the Bible I sense God speaking to me, sometimes very consciously, to the point of tears”.

The pastor asks, “Can I pray for you? I’d like to lay my hands on you because Jesus did that”. I respond with a “No problem”.

He walks towards me and rubs his hands together as if to warm them up. I smile and say to him with a wink, “Be gentle with me”.

He puts one hand on the top of my head, holds his other hand in the air, closes his eyes and then begins his prayer:

Pastor: “Father God I just want to thank you for your word. God I want to thank you for Steve. I just want to thank you Lord that you do weep over Steve and that your eyes, Lord, are full of tears. I just want to thank you for Steve’s heart, Lord. He’s earnestly seeking you, Lord, and I want to thank you for the honesty and integrity with which he speaks to us. I praise and bless you for that, Lord. I lay my hands on him now just as Christ laid hands on the blind, and I want to pray in Christ’s name Jesus, Lord, that you will open his spiritual eyes that he may receive all he longs for. And Lord please make him be certain about the things of which he currently has no certainty. Open his eyes I pray. As he reads the Bible from this day onwards he’ll find you speaking to him and showing him the way. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen”

He stands quietly for a moment, with his eyes closed and his hand firmly gripping my head. He’s in the zone. I look around the room and the other Christians have their arms aloft. Some have their eyes closed and are rocking back and forth in their chairs, mumbling inaudible prayers to God.

A few seconds later the pastor lets go and thanks me for allowing that to happen. I tell him that it’s no problem. I look around the room again and the Christians seem quite moved by the experience. Ladies Two and Three have tears in their eyes. I’d say that they’re hopeful, if not certain, that I’m on my way to becoming a Christian now that I’ve made that first step.

The room remains quiet; everyone sits motionless as all eyes are focused on me. I sit still in my chair, taking in the moment. I wonder, do I have to say something at this point? Is this the point where I’m expected to start speaking in tongues or throwing myself on the floor, body convulsing from the power of the Holy Spirit? I don’t know. I don’t feel any different. Maybe it’ll come later.

The group remain with their arms aloft, as they take turns to mutter thanks to Jesus. The long-standing male member gives his thanks more audibly than the rest, “I want to thank you Lord for being an amazing God. Even though I might find it difficult to understand that Steve can’t see you, Lord, I pray that you help him to see you and understand you. Lord I pray that you’ll touch his heart, and I thank you, father, for promising to draw close to them who draw close to you. Lord, I give Steve into your hands and I pray that over the next week you will speak to him and that Steve will sense your powers and your presence. Lord, you know exactly how Steve thinks, and I pray that you will reveal yourself to him. This I ask in Jesus’ name. Amen”

His prayer is met by a chorus of amen’s from the group. Everyone smiles. The room is buzzing. The atmosphere is similar to that of an operating theatre after a surgeon has performed a difficult but life-saving operation on a patient. Success is in the air.

Or is it?

We all pack up our things and put on our coats and jackets. Tonight’s session has come to a close. There’s some hearty backslapping and a few excited handshakes. They all wish me well for the week ahead and I thank them for a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable evening.

This could be a momentous week in my life. God could be revealing himself to me sometime between now and the next session. It’s kind of exciting.

God, the ball is in your court…

October 11, 2008 - Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. …I’m not sure its wholly unbiblical for the pastor to give you the thousand pounds you told him that god told him to give to you.

    Comment by qmonkey | October 11, 2008

  2. Hi Stephen,
    After reading your last couple of posts, it sounds like you probably will not get your questions answered by this group of Christians, no matter how sincere and friendly they are. While they can demonstrate the passion, dedication, and joy that Christians have, they will not be able to remove the roadblocks in your mind which keep you from the Christian faith. Even if your heart wanted to believe, your head would not let you. I think you need to resolve the road blocks in your mind before your heart will let you believe. So what are the major road blocks in your mind?
    Think back to the time of Columbus, while he could not prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the earth was round he did have enough circumstantial evidence to make the case that it was very likely. Once he had enough evidence he bet his life on it, took a leap of faith and sailed to America.
    I think that is the same burden of proof you should use towards Christianity. You should gather as much circumstantial evidence to determine whether Christianity makes sense and is plausible. At that point you can decide whether you want to exercise reasonable faith or not. But until you tackle those issues in your mind, no experience or prayer is going to get you to a point where can make that leap of faith. The chasm in your mind is just too great to allow you to make that leap. So what are the major issues you want to tackle?

    Comment by Frank W. | October 14, 2008

  3. I totally agree with Frank. You’re issuing a challenge to God when God is already pouring out himself to you. It’s you that needs to open up and realise that.

    God is like the sun, beaming down on you. You construct sunglasses, sunshades, tents, buildings, high rise towers…
    layer upon layer so that you don’t have to face the truth as it’s glaringly obviously presented.

    That’s the whole message of the Bible. I’m astounded that you really don’t get that. It’s pure logic.

    Comment by m0rk | October 16, 2008

  4. I also agree with Frank that ultimately it comes down to YOU and the necessity for some sort of leap of faith. ‘It’ probably won’t happen without it but once you are on the other side…

    The others in your group (at least some of them) sound like they have a genuine relationship with and/ or experience of God and really cannot understand what is holding you back. Me explaining my own relationship with God will not help you either.

    Just to ask you something about this passage:

    “Me: “I’ve had faith that he was there. I’m a former believer. And I can honestly say that I’ve never heard from God”
    Lady Three: “What made you believe back then?”
    Me: “I was raised that way. I didn’t know any different. I suppose if I’d have been raised in Pakistan I’d have been a Muslim”

    Question: Did you really have faith? Were you really a believer? Just because you were ‘raised that way’ does NOT give you faith/ belief. I was also ‘raised that way’ but many years later still had to make my own leap of faith.

    Comment by Anthony | October 29, 2008

  5. Frank said, “Think back to the time of Columbus, while he could not prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the earth was round he did have enough circumstantial evidence to make the case that it was very likely. Once he had enough evidence he bet his life on it, took a leap of faith and sailed to America.”

    Really? I thought it had been pretty well established that the Earth was spherical (or close to) and Columbus argued that it was small enough for Asia to be reachable. He was wrong, but the good news for him was another continent was close enough. I guess sometimes you can be rewarded by dumb faith. (Take a look at a globe some time, imagine a world without the Americas, and think about how spectacularly wrong Columbus was.)

    Comment by pough | November 18, 2008

  6. “Lady Three: [Long pause] “But what if they threw themselves in the fire?”
    Me: “But I’m not throwing myself in any fire”

    I think that was the wrong reply.

    You used the analogy of punishing a child by holding their hand to a fire. This woman tried to justify the doctrine of hell by taking your analogy to the point of the child throwing himself into the fire.

    Your response should have been “as a ‘loving parent’ I would pull my child back from the fire by whatever means necessary.

    And if, my child wanted to choose a death (and/or eternal torture) through fire rather than take what I was “offering”, I would seriously reevaluate my priorities and methods of persuasion.

    Comment by Pimientita | November 21, 2008

  7. “Pastor: “Father God I just want to thank you for your word. God I want to thank you for Steve. I just want to thank you Lord that you do weep over Steve and that your eyes, Lord, are full of tears. I just want to thank you for Steve’s heart, Lord. He’s earnestly seeking you, Lord, and I want to thank you for the honesty and integrity with which he speaks to us. I praise and bless you for that, Lord. I lay my hands on him now just as Christ laid hands on the blind, and I want to pray in Christ’s name Jesus, Lord, that you will open his spiritual eyes that he may receive all he longs for. And Lord please make him be certain about the things of which he currently has no certainty. Open his eyes I pray. As he reads the Bible from this day onwards he’ll find you speaking to him and showing him the way. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen””

    I attended an evangelical church with a friend of mine in my early teens (one of the few times as a secularly raised child I had attended any service) and I remember someone praying over me and having to fight the urge to laugh the whole time, but at that age I almost wanted to succumb to the pressure of conversion (and it was strong…most of my travel softball team went to a school where they were asked on a daily basis if they were “saved” …scary shit).

    I didn’t and I still laugh when I think about the earnestness of the people speaking those words. As a small child I used to spend the early sunday mornings before my parents woke up making fun of the religious programs. I thought it was another form of entertainment like saturday morning cartoons.

    It’s just sad to me now. Adults reduced to puddles for something that doesn’t, but they want badly to, exist.

    Comment by Pimientita | November 21, 2008

  8. I’m really enjoying reading through these reviews, and I wish I could have commented while you were still writing them!

    “The pastor supports what the long-standing male member has just told me. He agrees that I’m doomed to (and deserving of) being sent to a place of eternal torture “because that’s been your choice”.”

    You’ve often asked the group how they would respond to similar claims made by Mulsims, Hindus and Sikhs, and I really wonder what they would have said if you’d used a similar argument here. Say they died tomorrow and discovered that actually Islam was true, and that they were going to be punished with eternity in hell for choosing to reject it. Would they feel that was fair and just?

    Comment by ekcol | October 15, 2009

  9. “Say they died tomorrow and discovered that actually Islam was true, and that they were going to be punished with eternity in hell for choosing to reject it. Would they feel that was fair and just?”

    Did they even choose to reject it? What if the real god was the one of some religion they’ve never heard of? There are so many weird made-up claims that people have come up with over the years that it is simply not possible to examine them all in detail to determine that they are, indeed, as nonsensical as they appear at first glance.

    That’s where the whole “burden of proof” thing comes in handy.

    Comment by Valhar2000 | October 5, 2010

  10. Some of the comments here are unbelievable. I feel I should reiterate: if I made a claim that there was an asteroid made of jam that spoke French, then it would be hard to disprove with any certainty. But no one would believe me, and they would have no reason to believe me- the “roadblocks” of logic and reason state that the above is not possible. Therefore the onus would be on ME to prove it.

    It seems that the “roadblocks” in Stephen’s mind, therefore, are logic and reason, which is a ridiculous thing to ask him to let go of.

    The human brain is designed (possibly by God) to figure out logic puzzles. I.e. fire is hot, therefore if I touch fire I will feel pain, so I won’t do it. Transposing this, the hypothetical situation would read: I have asked God to show himself to me or provide concrete evidence of His existence. He has not done so, therefore he does not exist, therefore I do not keep my mind open to the possibility of a God existing.

    Comment by Andy | May 15, 2011

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