Reflections on motherhood #4: the horrors of sleep deprivation

This post is the fourth in a series about my experiences of motherhood and what I wish I’d known before I had a baby. You can see the original post here.

It has taken me a long time to get round to writing this post. Why? Because this one is the hardest to write about. Because sleep deprivation feels like the lens through which I view the rest of parenting and indeed life. I was waiting because I was hoping I could write the post from the position of being in a better place sleep-wise, but I now realize this is one area where I am going to have to accept the way things are and adjust my expectations once more. And I want other people to know they are not alone. People often expect a baby under one to sleep poorly, or if they don’t expect it, they know that it is true of some babies. Yes, it was sometimes tiresome to explain to people when they asked back then that I was chronically sleep deprived, and it was hard work to deflect their often well-meaning but unhelpful parenting advice, but now, well into my daughter’s second year, no one asks about sleep any more. Everyone assumes you’ve got it sussed. Well I haven’t, and this is me ‘fessing up.

Shortly after my daughter was born, we bought this book called ‘The Wonder Weeks’, which usefully explains the developmental leaps that babies go through at key stages of their development (and provides parents with an explanation for why their baby is going through a particularly difficult phase). I remember being stunned by how many times I came across a little box in which something along the lines of ‘Remember: never shake your baby!’ was written followed by a description of how much damage shaking a baby can do to them. My husband and I wondered who on earth would ever want to shake their baby and why this advice was included so frequently throughout the book. Well, I can now understand why people feel so desperate that they might feel they want to shake their baby. Because sleep deprivation can be that bad.

My daughter’s sleep seems to have got progressively worse as she has got older, but I think, on reflection, it’s always been this hard, it’s just that it has been such a long old slog now, and I am weary of it. On a ‘normal’ night, she wakes 4-6 times over a 12 hour period. By ‘normal’, I mean there is no other external factor bothering her, like teething, a cold, a developmental leap, bad reflux, a food she’s disagreed with, or hot weather. It might sound crazy, but I can usually totally deal with 4-6 wakings and get enough sleep, because we bed-share, and once she wakes up, she nurses for about 10 minutes and then goes back to sleep (on a ‘normal’ night, of course). Often our sleep cycles are in sync, and so I’m not woken from a deep sleep. I don’t have to move. I wake up, but stay dozy. Once she’s dozed back off, so do I. On a ‘normal’ night.

The problem is, it feels like there are so few ‘normal’ nights. There always seems to be something that makes her more needy of me than normal, but the truth is (and this is the especially hard truth), she is only half the problem. The other problem is … me. Since being pregnant I have had bouts of terrible insomnia, partly to do with anxiety, and partly (I have discovered) because I sleep less well when I am fighting off an infection. I know how horrendous it is when your child is awake in the middle of the night and you are also awake attending to their needs. But believe me, it is far, far worse, when your child is sleeping peacefully and you are lying awake next to them unable to sleep. It generally comes in bouts, and improved a lot when we started bed-sharing (it seems I unconsciously needed to know she was ok and have her right next to me), but I still have really bad patches, and when one of them coincides with a toddler needy patch, the result is awful.

My insomnia and the build up of the year and a half of being needed 24/7 means that I spend most of my days feeling like a wreck. It’s true, sometimes there are a couple of weeks here and there where we have predominantly ‘normal’ nights, I don’t lie awake for whatever reason, and I feel like a new woman. But most of the time, I feel like I am limping from one day to the next. I never had any antibiotics before I had my daughter. Since then, it has felt like I have been on and off them constantly as my immune system is so low because I’m so run down. It got so bad before we started bed-sharing that I ended up in hospital having emergency surgery under general anaesthetic for a tooth infection that no dentist had managed to identify. Lack of sleep and illness lead me to feelings of depression and anxiety, which lead to insomnia … and so the cycle goes round and round.

It is not all doom and gloom. The bad patches are so terribly hard when you’re in the thick of it, but they do pass. It hasn’t ever got a lot better, but it always eases. You get a string of maybe five ‘normal’ nights on the trot. It’s a weekend, so you can have a lie in. Your parents are coming to visit that day. A church friend offers to take your toddler away for a couple of hours. All these things allow you some respite, and I am so grateful for them.

To help to cope with it all, I hang out with other sleep deprived mothers at various gentle-parenting groups. My daughter, who is now very nearly 18 months, is normal. Knowing this helps a lot. If you don’t believe me, have a look here, an evidence-based infant sleep resource run by the University of Durham, and you’ll see what is ‘normal’ for infant sleep. Sure, there are babies and toddlers who are less needy at night by her age, but that doesn’t mean she has a sleep problem. Fine, you say, but you’re chronically sleep deprived, so why don’t you try to ‘do’ something about it?

My answer to that is: I do. I bed-share and breastfeed. What else allows you to simultaneously comfort, entertain and provide nutrition for your infant while lying down? Some find that night-weaning and/or stopping bed-sharing reduces the amount of night wakings of their nursling. I have toyed with this idea for a while, but have decided against it for now, for a few reasons. Firstly, getting my daughter to sleep ‘better’ does not necessarily mean I will sleep better, and I know that my insomnia was much worse when we weren’t bed-sharing. Secondly, I know that I find it hard to get back to sleep if I know I will need to physically get up to attend to a child, and even if her night wakings reduce to once or twice I will still have to get up. Thirdly, nursing her releases sleepy hormones in me, too, and that often helps me go back to sleep (it’s designed that way, you see, clever, huh?) And fourthly (most importantly?), it’s what she needs. She will rarely settle for her Dad. Most of the time, she needs milk. Why? This is also something I have wondered often. Why does my daughter wake up so often? And why does she still need milk?

There are so many possible reasons babies and toddlers wake at night, and I can’t speak for others’ experiences, but I know I am an expert on my own child and I have managed to narrow down the reasons for her night-waking a little. I know from the way she wakes up (crying, as if in pain, thrashing around), that she does not want to wake up. I know that she is not craving proximity to me or her father because she wakes just as many times when sleeping in bed with us as she does when sleeping in her own cot. I know it is often reflux-related, because I can hear her gulping and swallowing and see her arching her back (she used to have terrible reflux until 12 months or so. It is a lot better in the day now, but about the same at night). I suspect she also has some teething pain. I can anticipate your next question. It is so kind and well-meaning when people suggest things that they think we might not have thought of because they want to help. But the truth is, we have thought of it all. Have we tried medicating it? Gaviscon? Teething gel? Ranitidine? Paracetamol? Giving lots of solid food? No fruit before bed time? All these and more we have considered, tried, and found more taxing and stressful than just dealing with the night-wakings and breastfeeding back to sleep. Milk seems to sort her reflux out in the short term and comfort her from the distress. It works for us, and I’m not keen to lose that. Meanwhile, we are wondering whether there are food intolerances that could be contributing to her reflux and/or night waking. It’s just another idea, so we’re going through a list of food groups to avoid. We’re currently cutting out dairy, though we keep having set backs when we forget (or when well-meaning people give her a biscuit, like happened the other day at church *rage*). I’m not holding out for a miracle, but I think it would be wise to rule something like this out. By the time we’ve sussed it out, she’ll have probably grown out of whatever it was anyway.

The hardest suggestion to respond to is the most pervasive one once your child reaches the 12 month mark, and it comes in various guises:

‘You’ll have to leave her to cry, she’ll never learn otherwise.’

‘You need to put your needs first, and you desperately need sleep, so try some sleep-training.’

‘You’ll be a better parent if you had a decent break from her, just leave her in her cot at bed time, it only takes a few days, she’ll get the hang of it.’

‘She’ll be in your bed till she’s 6 years old if you’re not careful!’

‘She doesn’t need milk at night, she’s just using you because it’s there.’

‘Sleep training’ appears to me to be a massive euphemism for what is essentially leaving your child to cry themselves to sleep. Every Christian fibre in my body recoils at the idea and no matter how it is dressed up or down, I find it abhorrent. As Christians we are called to stand up for the weak and vulnerable, and deliberately leaving a distressed child to teach them a lesson is exactly the opposite of that to my mind, regardless of the circumstance (indeed it is a great source of sadness to me that many Christians seem to advocate leaving your child to cry as a viable ‘parenting choice’). In the psychological literature it is covered by the term extinction techniques, but it goes by various names in common parlance, such as Cry it out or the milder form Controlled Crying, Self-Soothing, and so on. But just because it is given a fancy name and books have been written about it by impressive sounding people, indeed just because it seems like everybody does it, doesn’t mean it is a good thing, especially when there are gentle alternatives to coping with disruptive nights. It strikes me as odd that if a child were left in a room by themselves in a daycare setting and left to cry to teach them a lesson, we would call it neglect, and yet it is apparently not neglectful (in fact many ‘sleep experts’ would tell you it is necessary) to do this at night time at home in order to teach a child to sleep. The sad thing is, it doesn’t teach a child to sleep, it just breaks the bond between carer and infant and teaches them that their cries for comfort are not answered. Sleeping through the night is a developmental milestone that a child reaches when she is ready (or indeed, not at all. After all, I have never slept through the whole night without waking. Have you?) If you don’t believe me, see here and here. Several experts of different scientific backgrounds came together in this article to encourage parents not to engage in extinction technique type sleep training. We do not live in a perfect world, however, and we are all learning and make decisions we regret. This is a useful article for moving on from extinction technique sleep training if you have done it and regret it.

No, I am unwilling to leave my child to cry alone in order to get an undisturbed night’s rest, yes, even if it ‘only’ takes fifteen minutes, and it’s not because I’m a super-mummy or a martyr or whatever. Believe me, I can see why it seems like a potential option at times, and it is particularly hard if close family members are putting pressure on you to do it (fortunately mine do not). Something of course has to give when you reach rock bottom, but while I of course can never know everyone’s individual circumstances, I find it unlikely that ‘sleep training’ is ever the only option left. But it is a lonely old world out there when your child is over one and you won’t entertain the idea of sleep training, because sadly most people seem to have done some version of it. People (usually people who are no longer parenting young children) often make off-hand comments like the above (which can shatter confidence when your mental health is fragile anyway) and then basically act like it’s your own doing that you are sleep-deprived. Not going to lie, it’s tough. I just don’t tell many people day-to-day how I really am, unless they genuinely seem to care.

The last few nights have been bad ones, and I’m writing this in a tough patch. I know things will seem less bleak when I’ve had a few nights’ ‘normal’ sleep, but I wanted to write this in a bad patch because I want other mothers who wish to be responsive to their child(ren) to know they are not alone, and that the dark thoughts can be terribly overpowering. When I lie awake unable to get to sleep, usually after my daughter has woken me up and long since dozed off again, the same old thoughts go swirling round my mind: It’s just a bad night. Perhaps tomorrow will be better. But I could take a bad night like this one if I hadn’t had a string of bad nights recently. And I could take a string of bad nights if I hadn’t had a month of Phoebe having a cold and me fighting off various infections. And I could probably take a bad month of illnesses if I hadn’t had 18 months of broken sleep and being needed 24/7. At some point I usually try to calculate how many hours’ sleep I’ve had – always a danger, because it often just makes me feel worse. And I know deep down that quality of sleep is so much more important than quantity. But I look at the clock nonetheless. Maybe other mothers are superhuman, I wonder? I only have *one* child, some people have five! Or maybe I am just rubbish at dealing with life. How do I get through the day? Should I try to go back to sleep now, or will I just waste life and drive myself crazy by lying awake and running over all my anxieties? How will I get my brain in gear to be able to attempt some PhD work today? Do I go to church/toddler group/town tomorrow, or can I not face telling people how I really am because I will collapse in tears at their reaction? Because I know that this lack of sleep and the intense neediness of having a child has pushed me to my limits and that I spend at least a third of my existence hovering perilously close to the edge of a massive pit that I risk falling into if I’m not careful.

I know there are many mums who feel the same: I can see it in their eyes at toddler groups. It helps to know I’m not alone. And I am painfully aware that there are many mothers going through what I am going through but who are also fleeing violence, or war, or famine, or battling illness, and I am overwhelmed with gratefulness that my child has shelter and is safe and healthy. Sometimes it is hard to find God in it all, I stare at the ceiling and ask him whether he really cares about my sleep deprivation and the fact that I feel I have almost nothing left of myself to give to my daughter, let alone my husband, family or friends, whether he cares that it is often a battle just to fill the day until my husband comes home from work. And yet I know he does. When I feel I have nothing left and want to give up, I remember that my father in Heaven did not abandon me to the grave, but sent me a Saviour. And recalling his sacrifice, I somehow find a scrap of energy to attend to whatever my daughter needs. When I feel like Phoebe’s demands are too much and too frequent of me, I remember that I am never forsaken. And so I will never abandon my child. When I feel that I have no life of my own, I recall that he lay down his life so that I might live. So I must lay down my life for another. Having my daughter has taught me much about unconditional love, but having a relationship with God through Jesus Christ has taught me more.

A few nights ago I was reading Psalm 32, and I stumbled at verse 7. I am so tired that reading is hard work at the moment, and the summation of my Bible reading is a verse here and a verse there. And this one stuck with me, and I turned it over again and again in my mind.

You are my hiding place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.

This image of being hidden by God and surrounded with songs of deliverance resonates so deeply with me and keeps me going. My yoke is easy and my burden is light… Surely I am with you, until the very end of the age… The old order of things will pass away… And the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings …

And he surrounds me with songs of a different nature too: The older lady who noticed I wasn’t in church yesterday and telephoned to see if I was ok. The local mum acquaintance who shared with me that she, too, ‘still’ nursed and bed-shared with her 18 month old. La Leche League leaders who lend a listening ear and an open heart. Committed family members who never stop caring. A dear friend who suffers from awful depression but prays for me every day and with whom I laugh, share and cry about the wonderful and dreadful world we live in. A husband who calls at lunch time just to make sure I’m coping. A darling daughter who I love so very much and who plants a kiss on my lips first thing in the morning when she wakes up.

Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who housed Jews during the Second World War, called her most famous book The Hiding Place. It is a book full of suffering and loss, yet underpinned by the joy and hope of trusting in God for deliverance. An extract from the book is written in the front of my diary, and it goes like this:

“Today I know that memories are the key not to the past, but to the future. I know that the experiences of our lives, when we let God use them, become the mysterious and perfect preparation for the work he will give us to do.”

Somehow, God will use these horrendous few years of sleep deprivation for good. I know not how. But I trust that he will. He doesn’t promise that life won’t be hard. But he does promise that he will be with us, and that it will pass. And I know that this, too, shall pass.

Easter Homily by Sarah Coakley at Salisbury Cathedral

I came across this excellent homily on Fulcrum‘s website, and I urge you to read it: it is full of Easter joy and explains why the resurrection matters! I particularly like how the speaker talked about the modern idea of the individual and how it does not want to submit to and ‘die with’ Christ. This is very much something I resonate with!

So here is the great truth at the heart of Christian faith:  resurrection. Stake your life on it, struggle with it, and everything will change. Die, turn, see … and live in this mystical body, which is the blessed company of all faithful people, who, in its Salisbury manifestation, has turned out here this morning in the cold and dark to start you on this great adventure of the Christian life of redemption, joy and fulfilment, and will hold you in it in all your frailty and glory, unto your life’s end. For Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.’

Empiricism, God and language

I started reading a really good book a couple of days ago called Simpler Syntax, by Culicover & Jackendoff (2005). In it, the authors outline considerable problems with the way the Minimalist Program has been progressing in recent years. But that’s the stuff of another post sometime. I thought I’d google a couple of reviews to see how much of an impact the book had had on the linguistic community. I came across this review, which interestingly (to me) compared the way in which Culicover & Jackendoff perceive Universal Grammar with a ‘God of the gaps theory’. One sentence particularly got my goat, however:

Fortunately, unlike the issue of the existence of God, in which one side views empirical evidence as simply irrelevant, there is a good chance for the UG/constructionalist debate to be resolved along empirical lines.

I stopped thinking about Linguistics for a while and pondered the opinion expressed by the reviewer. I’m sure you’ve all come across it many times: science = empiricist, existence of God = not empiricist/stupid (delete as appropriate). Is the reviewer right when he says that people who argue for the existence of God view empirical evidence as ‘simply irrelevant’?

Something else that caught my attention this week was a comment on a friend’s Facebook status which read:

You don’t need to be a theologian if your argument is with the fundamentals, not the fiddly little details. If someone tells you there’s a unicorn in your bedroom, you know there isn’t. You don’t ask what colour it is and which way it’s [sic] horn twists first.

Not being an epistemologist by trade, I have only dabbled a little in the theories of knowledge, caught up in the debate between rationalism (e.g. Chomsky) and empiricism (e.g. Quirk), along with a couple of other books and articles about theology which I’ve read. As far as I understand it, empiricism refers to the kind of knowledge that comes via ‘sensory experience’. The Wikipedia article on the subject (ever to be trusted!) defines it in this way:

Empiricism in the philosophy of science emphasizes evidence, especially as discovered in experiments. It is a fundamental part of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world rather than resting solely on a priori reasoning, intuition, or revelation.

I wouldn’t quibble with that. What strikes me, however, is the apparent hypocrisy of some in the ‘science’ camp concerning the existence of God, such as those I’ve quoted above. Empiricism dictates that one doesn’t make one’s judgment based on a priori reasoning, but that is exactly what the Facebook commentator has done! He starts off with the view that unicorns do not exist, therefore he needn’t concern himself with the finer details. That’s not empirical, at least according to wikipedia’s definition of it, and thus isn’t ‘scientific’ (by his own logic).

That’s all well and good, you say, but unicorns don’t exist. This, however, isn’t really the point. I’ve no problem with a priori reasoning: there are many kinds of knowledge, not just empirical knowledge, and everyone lives their lives according to these different kinds of knowledge, whether they care to admit it or not. In many circumstances, a priori knowledge makes a lot of sense (such as this one). I just find it curious how often it’s the case that ‘scientists’ (whoever that refers to) sometimes don’t stick to the ‘rules’ of their own game.

It is not my intention to start spinning out the usual arguments in the Science vs God debate. Many others devote their life to this, and this is a good place to start. John Lennox, a Professor of Maths at Oxford University, also has an excellent website which is worth looking at. Nor is it my wish to bring forth the (historical) evidence for the God I  trust in, though I believe this to be profuse.

Instead, I want to think about language. It’s certainly true that language can be investigated according to empirical methodology, and Linguistics has undergone a bit of a shake-up over the years as scholars from other disciplines (notably Psychology) pick holes in its bad research practice. But I wonder whether empiricist methods can really illuminate our understanding of the meaning of  ‘language’ as a concept. Let me be absolutely clear: I am not suggesting that empirical linguistic evidence does not shed light on the nature of language. But let’s think a bit about what language actually is.

You can’t touch language. It isn’t physical. Sure, you can observe it, for example, in the utterance you spoke when you ordered a coffee this morning, or the words you’re reading on this page. But that’s not actually all we mean by language. These words I’m writing are part of what we call the English language, but they’re not synonymous with it. In fact, they’re just symbols on the page that represent the phonetic noises we emit when we exhale air. Sound waves even. But there’s more to language than that, everyone knows that. There’s that meaning part to it. Oh, and grammar.

Some have argued (notably Chomsky!) that what language really is is I-language, that is, the ‘internal language’ in your brain made up of a lexicon and a grammar, which is heavily dependent on Universal Grammar, which is something all babies are born with. But we’re about as close to finding out what constitutes this I-language, or where it is in the brain, as we are to drawing square circles. It may be the case that we’ll know everything about I-language one day, but this ‘science-conquers-all’ mentality requires a (blind?) faith in science that I find difficult to share.

Nevertheless, people do argue that we know language is in our heads, so it is ‘tangible’ in some abstract sense. However, when we refer to the English language, we refer to the language through the ages, as well as the language used by different geographical and social groups, and not simply to the I-language in your or my head. To be a native speaker of English today, you don’t have to know that the English passive used to be formed with weorþan (‘to become’) rather than ‘to be’. But this and similar phenomena are still part of what we understand when people refer to ‘language’ as a concept.

I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that we happily get on in life with knowledge that is not ’empirical’, in the purest sense: while language is observable and can be empirically tested, it isn’t something ‘physical’ when we refer to it on a day-to-day basis. It’s not made up of atoms. Our concept of it can’t even be reduced to neurons flying round our brain. And yet no one denies that it exists or is real, even though we don’t really know much about how and where it’s stored in the brain, how words are associated with meaning, and so on. This is, of course, true of other abstract nouns such as hope, or love, etc. It’s just that Linguistics prides itself on being ‘scientific’. Oh, and I happen to have a vested interest.

Obviously, in answer to my (rhetorical) question above, no theologian worth his salt would view empirical evidence as ‘simply irrelevant’. How many books arguing for the existence of God have you read which do this?

I’d welcome comments!

Because he lives!

My husband and I spent the bank holiday yesterday at a family barbeque in Surrey. Given that my brother and sister-in-law live so close to us, they kindly offered to drive us there and back. It was a fun sort of road trip which included listening (and joyously singing along) to a CD of all their wedding music from a couple of years ago. They also introduced me to a song/hymn they were surprised I’d not come across before called Because he lives. Getting the hang of the tune by about the second chorus, my husband and I were soon singing along, and I’ve had it humming round my head since.

I love singing, especially in contexts of worship. I think that’s what music was made for. I get every bit as much out of singing good praise music congregationally as I do out of singing the most beautiful sacred choral music, or singing or listening to a Bach cantata (more on that soon!) because the point is the same:

I will sing to the LORD all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
Psalm 104:33

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Colossians 3:16-17

When we got home (after a very enjoyable day out) I did a bit of research. The song seems to be an old-style gospel number written by Bill and Gloria Gaither, who have (so his wikipedia page tells me) written some 600 hymns and songs. Because he lives is one of their better known, and I can see why, as it’s so singable and uplifting! I particularly rejoice in the line Because I know he holds the future… He is the Alpha and the Omega: how wonderful that we get to trust in that! We share in an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, which is freely given and open to all. What a hope! Here’s the text, and here‘s a rendition from youtube. Listen and sing along!

God sent His son, they called Him, Jesus;
He came to love, heal and forgive;
He lived and died to buy my pardon,
An empty grave is there to prove my Saviour lives!

Refrain
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow,
Because He lives, all fear is gone;
Because I know He holds the future,
And life is worth the living,
Just because He lives!

How sweet to hold a newborn baby,
And feel the pride and joy he gives;
But greater still the calm assurance:
This child can face uncertain days because He Lives!

Refrain

And then one day, I’ll cross the river,
I’ll fight life’s final war with pain;
And then, as death gives way to vict’ry,
I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know He lives!

Refrain

The Greatest Thing in the World

A little while ago I signed up to receive Holy Trinity Brompton’s ‘The Bible in One Year’ daily email (which can be signed up to here – http://www.htb.org.uk/bible-in-one-year). Today’s offering was entitled The Greatest Thing in the World, and contained three readings, one of which was the very familiar 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:13.

Normally, I can’t help smiling slightly when I think of that bit of Scripture. It always reminds me of weddings, that Nice Bible Reading that is picked out by most couples, normally surfacing at various nuptials that I have been to not as a guest, but as a singer. It’s ‘ah’-inducing, makes the congregation feel warm and fuzzy as they contemplate the love of the happy couple. The problem is, I’ve heard it so many times, it seems like it’s becoming devoid of meaning for me, and has reduced to some fluffy nice-sounding saying that’s a bit too Love Actually to be taken seriously.

Have you ever had that, where a text you know really well seems elusive somehow, and you can’t get at what it really means anymore? I get it a lot. Partly, this is from singing in evensong so regularly, where the awesomeness of the traditional English text of the Magnificat has become so dead to me I can’t listen to it without humming some setting or other. But it also happens with the Lord’s Prayer (both in traditional and modern translations) and even with stereotypical ‘Christian’ phrases like ‘edifying’, ‘soften hearts’, even some of Jesus’ own words like ‘repent and believe the good news’. What does it actually mean?

The relationship between words and meaning, along with my thoughts on what this has to do with Scripture, will have to wait for a further post (it’s something I’ve been idly thinking of a fair bit recently, crossing over with Linguistics as it does, but I have few coherent thoughts at this stage). Today, however, I read ‘The Message’ translation of some of the verses I quoted above, and, rather than thinking about wedding dresses, pretty flowers and cooing relatives, was struck fully by the self-sacrificing nature of love, the ‘greatest gift’ that I know St Paul is describing in this part of his letter  (‘be struck’ is, incidentally, another of those phrases that now eludes meaning for me …) I rejoiced that sometimes something as simple as reading a familiar text in another translation really does help me to engage with it.

The Bible in One Year email also told of a missionary who vowed to take the reading and substitute the word Love with her name, and stop where she got to a characteristic which she knew was not true of her. The plan was to do this every day until she died, in the hope that by the end of her life she might be able to say the whole thing. Awkwardly, I gave it a little go. It was embarrassing to do. And so humbling. Substituting Love with Jesus was easy, however, highlighting even more the difference between mine and my saviour’s behaviour and attitudes. If ever someone was going to ask me to formulate some sort of response to the recent rioting, I’d start right here, and challenge every single person to try substituting their name where Love is, that’s rioter, politician, media commenter, those who helped clear up, parents of those involved, school teachers, those whose property was looted. It might remind us of how we all too easily have one standard for ourselves and one for others. It might remind us of the perfection of God, who is love, manifested in Jesus dying for us and rising to new life so that we can share in his new life. It might make us more fully aware of our own sinfulness. It certainly did me. Why don’t you try it?

‘Love never gives up [‘Love is patient’, NIV]
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first”,
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end’

(vv.4–7, The Message).

The dangers of a ‘spiritualized’ Gospel

In the last year, my church took up the subject of ‘Social Justice and the Gospel’. I nearly wept with joy: as the main preacher in the series pointed out, social justice has been on the backbench in many evangelical circles over the last half a century at least. I had been thinking about issues to do with social justice for a long while and, after a number of discussions with various Christian friends, thought I’d share my thoughts and encourage people to give me their thoughts on the matter.

My main line of thought is this: I think motivation for social justice can only be understood in terms of the Gospel, and not as separate from it, and that evangelicals have had a tendency to read our own hermeneutic into what ‘the Gospel’ means. Working to bring about God’s Kingdom must therefore include striving for social justice. Now I can’t think of any Christian I know who would say that social justice isn’t important. But I’d argue that ‘salvation’ means much more than ‘spiritual renewal’: shrinking the good news about Jesus to a simply ‘spiritualized’ meaning, which I think we are sometimes in danger of doing when we evangelise, results in a faulty idea about creation, which may manifest itself in unhelpful ways, which I address below.

If it’s true that evangelicals have stressed preaching ‘spiritual’ salvation with the result that ‘social justice’ slid off the agenda somewhat, I sense that this has led to something quite unhelpful: the shrinking of ‘the Gospel’ into a ‘spiritual’ one, plus ‘social justice’ as some sort of add-on (which is nevertheless compulsory). I believe, passionately, that they are inextricably linked and must be understood as one, bound tightly together, and I think the New Testament supports this. What proceeds is, I suppose, some kind of justification of why I think this is the case.

I suppose it depends on what we understand by ‘the Gospel’. To figure this out, I asked some of my evangelical Christian friends what they understood by it. Most said, ‘the good news that Jesus died for us so that we can go to heaven when we die’. This concerned me, because, while it is in some sense right, it is at best only half the truth. If this were all there is to the Gospel, we would have to come up with a theology of this world as well as having one of the next. What’s the point of creation if we’re just chugging away, waiting to live with God in heaven?

As far as I can tell, the NT suggests that the good news about Jesus is that God, in spite of our rebellion, is going to restore/renew his creation and he has already begun this work through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who reconciles us to God by dying on the cross for our sins and rising to new life: it being our rebellion that caused the world (and us as individuals) to be out of joint with God in the first place. This is, I think, what Ephesians 1 is all about, esp. verses 7-10, i.e. that God will bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. Jesus is the first fruits of them that sleep (1 Cor 15:20), i.e., God has brought into the present the start of this new creation, this union of heaven and earth, which will be fulfilled at the end times as portrayed in Revelation 21. By acknowledging our sins and trusting in him, we share in his inheritance: we too shall be raised, and we live now as Christians in anticipation of that new creation (2 Cor 5:17 etc). So far so good, but it means that trusting in Jesus is less about ‘going to heaven when you die’, still less about disembodied heavenly bliss, a philosophy which I worry a great proportion of the (perhaps lay) worldwide church subscribes to and which is more Aristotelian than biblical, but rather seeking God’s Kingdom in anticipation of the new creation, living as aliens and strangers in this world. To my mind, yes of course that means telling everyone possible about the good news of Jesus Christ, just as we are commanded to do. But it’s not only that we can share in ‘eternal life’ in the sense that it will go on forever, but that that ‘life’, which we have a foretaste of as Christians in this world, obviously also involves the total renewal of creation so that there will no longer be any death, sickness, broken lives, etc.

I think this means, if we are truly to live as ambassadors of Christ in anticipation of new creation, that ‘social justice’ or whatever we want to call it really is part of the church’s mission and must be part of the ‘message’ of the church, because the Gospel cannot be understood fully without it. That’s not to say we should abandon evangelism – of course not, and I grant that there may have been this tendency in some parts of the church. Rather, the two go hand in hand, at best not separated at all, at least in theory. How this works out practically is, of course, another matter. Nevertheless, helping others’ physical needs is central to building God’s Kingdom, and not only to make our faith look attractive, although this is an important and noble motivation.

After all, Jesus spends most of the gospels telling people to give to the poor and help the needy, so keen is he to stress that he has come to turn the world as we know it upside down: to put down the mighty from their seat, and exalt the hungry and meek, etc. I can’t think of an example where he adds the caveat ‘but you should only do this so that people believe in me’. Moreover, I can think of no example of Jesus’ healing where he distinguishes between spiritual and physical healing (e.g. Mark 2). For him, the two are one: in the new creation, our whole being – mind, soul, body, the lot – will be renewed altogether. I’m not suggesting for a second that this means, when someone becomes a Christian, their physical ailments will definitely, simultaneously, miraculously disappear. Of course not – we know that this can sometimes happen, but there’s no guarantee that it will. But we can be sure that in the (fulfilled) new creation, it will. And since Jesus embodies this new creation, he is the heaven-come-down-to-earth, God-with-us foretaste of the fulfilled new creation, when heaven and earth will be irrevocably sewn together in the New Jerusalem. All this suggests to me that ‘salvation’ cannot be divided up into ‘spiritual’ and ‘physical’, at least ideally not.

I realise that, for the purposes of everyday trusting in Jesus, what I’ve described above amounts to little more than subtle differences in definition. All traditions in the church tend to stress something at the expense of something else, and at least evangelicals stress repentance and forgiveness of sins! I think there are, however, a couple of dangers that one risks falling into the trap of if one (perhaps inadvertently) allows the Gospel to be shrunk down to a ‘spiritual’ (and most often, ‘individual’) reading.

First, I fear this may manifest itself in a faulty idea about creation. So immersed are we in the West in the shade of Aristotle that there’s a hint that we buy into the idea of escaping a wicked, evil creation on this earth to enjoy everlasting bliss with God in heaven, which, of course, is Gnostic nonsense and thoroughly unbiblical. God created the world and saw that it was good, after all. When we evangelise, we often play this down, in order to stress individual forgiveness of sins. From experience, I’ve found this can lead to the tendency for non-believers to perceive God as a petty judge, ‘needing’ to be ‘satisfied’ by the blood of Jesus if he wants to let us in to heaven, and a holier-than-thou attitude on our part stressing our own individual eternal salvation: neither is right, or ideal.

Second, I think some Christians within evangelical circles risk losing a sense of the importance of space and buildings, because we’re so keen to stress that Jesus is our holy temple and that we can pray to him anywhere (again, with such good reason!) Space is important, church buildings and tradition too, if for no other reason than they’re the place where the saints have been meeting for two thousand years, and we worship with those saints, given that God stands outside of our understanding of time. Several unbelievers have told me how they have felt drawn to Christian teachings because of the peace they experience within the walls of a church building – the only quiet they can find in their otherwise hectic lives. We shouldn’t condemn this. We should encourage people to seek the truth behind that feeling of peace.

Eucharist is another difficult topic. It’s easy for us to play down its importance, because, inheriting the church’s past and coming from a tradition that rebelled against that past, we’re fearful that our congregations will start thinking we have to ‘do’ things to earn God’s favour. Your average evangelical doesn’t, by and large, spend a lot of time contemplating the Eucharist. But obviously it’s recorded in at least three gospels and in 1 Corinthians in an almost identical way, i.e. it was important from the Church’s very beginnings. I once read somewhere that Jesus didn’t give us a theory of the atonement, he gave us a meal. For in the new creation there will be a banquet, and when we celebrate the Eucharist we share in that feast with the church past, present and future. I’ve read that the Greek for ‘eat’ in John 6 is more literally ‘munch’. God’s Kingdom is not just a spiritual one; it involves all the senses. This does not, of course, have to mean that anything necessarily sacrificial is going on, or that bread and wine ‘become’ body and blood of Christ, etc etc. But it does mean that the Eucharist is a profound and important part of the life of the church which, if I put my hand on my heart, I don’t always feel is the case in some of our churches, because we ‘spiritualize’ it away for fear of misunderstanding it. Importantly, I believe that both our hesitancy regarding the Eucharist and physical space as somewhere to meet God have their root in a shrinking of the Gospel into a ‘spiritual’ one, with renewal of creation as a sort of extra doctrine.

Much of the main thrust of this post is elucidated far more coherently in Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope: it’s not something I’ve come up with myself! Some of you will know that I’ve read a fair bit of Wright’s theology, but I believe this book is among the most important Christian books written in recent years, and I heartily recommend it if you’ve not read it. There’s a a fair review of it here on the UCCF’s apologetics website: http://www.bethinking.org/bible-jesus/introductory/surprised-by-hope-by-tom-wright-a-review.htm

These are just my thoughts on having been a member of a couple of large evangelical church families for three years, coming from a background somewhere in middle Anglicanism, and are not intended to rebuke or criticise at all, rather to encourage discussion. Because I’ve sung in many church choirs and musical groups over the years, I have been blessed to get to know Christians of all types and experience their witness as members of churches of all different traditions, from the very high to the very low, from the very conservative to the very liberal, from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal. My experience is that most Christians, like me, are walking the long road with Jesus towards the new creation, usually taking three steps forward but then two back. Let’s continue to pray for the church in its walk with the Lord as we seek to work for God’s Kingdom in hope, looking forward to that day when-

‘ … creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.’

Romans 8.21