Multicultural Issues

I was asked recently to reflect on some issues that I have seen over several decades of working with foreign church communities in Australia and abroad.

Here is my initial reflection on multicultural issues I have noted.

Having worked in various ethnic churches and some where the congregations are multicultural I have observed a number of issues that need management.

A simple issue is that of the local people (Aussies) learning to accept and respect the different cultural issues of the migrants.

Foreign Names

Aussies react to trying to pronounce foreign names, such as Chinese names, and many migrants find it best to just take a local name that might or might not sound like their real name, to avoid all the reactions they get when they say their strange foreign name.

However, some migrants are proud of their culture and expect the locals to change.

A funny example is a man from India who was a high caste Brahmin, so was used to being treated as special. When he was newly arrived he met a friend of mine and told them his name was Susie. My friend suggested he choose a different name to use in Australia. Susie scoffed at that idea as he was quite proud of his name and what it meant back in India. But he soon learned that the Aussies were only going to laugh at a man named Susie and he chose a local name to use quite quickly.

Among the wealthy Chinese, and among migrant groups which stick more closely together, native names are used. Gradually Aussies are getting used to calling people by their real name, even if it sounds strange to the English speaker.

Cultural Styles

Another issue that needs to be kept in mind is the difference of approach to working together. Many Asian cultures emphasise politeness and protocol, where the westerner is much more direct and pragmatic.

Directness can be offensive to an Asian, while indirectness seems silly and clumsy to Aussies.

Many Asians defer to others as a gesture of politeness. In their culture the offer would be declined but appreciated as a sign of respect.

Pastoral staff need to help the cultures understand these differences, and that directness is not intended to be rude, and that indirectness does not mean the people don’t know their own mind.

A classic case of this confusion happened when a Chinese group joined an Aussie church group for a joint camp. The original plan was to share the camp, such as the speakers and the music bands, so that both churches took equal part. This apparently worked OK with regard to the speaking sessions, but a problem emerged with the young people in the worship groups.

On the first night the Aussies asked the Chinese which band should play for the first session. The Chinese were gracious and allowed the Aussie band to play for the worship.

The next morning when the Aussies said, “So you guys are doing worship this morning”, the Chinese responded by asking “Would you like to do it?” This offer was supposed to be appreciated but declined.

Instead the Aussies thought, “Why are they offering for us to do it again? They must have thought we did a better job and are too embarrassed to do it now, or something like that.”

So the Aussies did the worship again. Before the next session the Aussies went to the Chinese and said, “So, will you do the worship for this session?” The Chinese responded politely, by asking the Aussies if they would like to do it again. The Aussies said they’d be happy to do it.

By the end of the camp the Aussie band had led music in every session.

The Aussies went away saying, “The Chinese are hopeless. They knew they were supposed to lead half the worship sessions and they didn’t seem keen to do it at all.”

The Chinese went away saying, “The Aussies are so rude. We kept being polite to them but they were never polite to us. They are just take-over types who want to push in and do everything.”

Pastoral staff need to become the buffer between the seemingly hard and thoughtless western approach and the seemingly weak and compromised Asian approach.


Once the cultures become more accustomed to each other, with the Asians feeling more confident to assert their ideas and their position, and with Aussies more respectful of the spiritual standing of the Asians, good cooperation is possible.

It helps when Aussies will apologise for seeming to be brash or pushy.

It helps when Asians can reveal that they do know what they believe and that their ideas are very worthy of respect and being listened to by the Aussies.

People experienced in cross-cultural issues are much more ready to give respect to new cultures. Those who have been in a mono-cultural setting all their lives do not know how to read the other cultures and to properly interpret how to relate to them.

Reading the Other Culture

A white man from South Africa shared with me how he had no problem relating to the different African tribal groups and the various groups of white people, such as those with Dutch or English backgrounds in South Africa. He said, however, that when he visited London where most of the people were white he felt quite insecure, because he had not learned how to read the cultural signals and to know who could be trusted or related to with openness, and who he had to watch out for.

Interpreting that, different cultures can get along well once they understand each other and they know how to interpret each others words, actions and expressions, such as smiles, frowns, and body language.

Multi-cultural worship works best when the different cultural groups both understand and respect each other. If there is understanding, but not respect, such as by one group looking down on the other, then the connection does not work so well.


Paul’s Heavenly Perspective

Heavenly Perspective in Paul’s writings.

Bible scholars enjoy investigating and dissecting the writings of the Apostle Paul. Paul’s epistles are rich in theology and at times quite complex in thought, so they provide a simulating challenge for the enquiring mind.

However scholarship can amuse itself with analysis for analysis sake. Knowledge can feed the notion that the student holds some special place or privilege since “knowledge puffs up”. Human analysis of spiritual truth can weave its own intricate pretence of insight, while missing the very heartbeat of what Paul is saying.

This is not to say that scholarship and analysis are of no value, but they need to be subservient to the spirit and intent of the spiritual transaction which Paul intended, rather than to push us into the place of bystanders who can testify in a witness box of what we have seen, but who are observers rather than participants of the truth on offer.

Now that I have that off my chest let me direct your attention to some interesting considerations that Paul’s life deserves.

Paul stands in a unique place as a contributor to the New Testament. Specifically I refer to the fact that all of his encounters with Christ were with the risen, glorified Christ of all eternity, not with the human personality the disciples dealt with.

The human Jesus, fully God and fully man, had laid aside His glory, holding the place of a servant. So those who met Christ in that capacity were denied the immediate and compelling impact of the eternal Son of God, eternal Lamb of God, eternal Creator God, that Christ is.

Paul, on the other hand, met Christ as the glorious resurrected Lord of Glory speaking from heaven itself.
Paul went on to meet with Christ in heaven and to receive revelation directly from the glorified Christ (1Cor 11:23, 2Cor 12:3,4).

Paul’s conception of spiritual truth, then, was first and foremost from the heavenly perspective. He knew things too wonderful to be allowed to put in words (2Cor 12:3,4) and so impressive were his spiritual experiences that a messenger from satan was assigned the special task of keeping Paul humble (2Cor 12:7).

Paul writes from that rich context of spiritual insight.

The great Apostle Peter held Paul’s writings in great respect but admitted that Paul’s insights were hard to understand and were misinterpreted by unlearned and unstable people (2Peter 3:15,16).

Paul’s ministry was to the minds and hearts of men and women who did not hold the depth of revelation he enjoyed. He therefore had to input into them spiritual truths that they were at times resistant to, as babes unable to handle the stronger revelation of God’s Word but needing to be grounded in the first principles. He also had to deal with their tendency to be distracted by baser, fleshly urges that competed with their spiritual health, such as being drawn into factions, being impressed by charlatans intent on exploiting them, and so on.

Paul spent a year and a half in Corinth, able to function in full-time ministry for at least part of that time, thanks to the support from outside Corinth.

After Paul left Corinth he settled into a longer stint of ministry is Ephesus and it is believed that from there he wrote at least his first epistle back to the church at Corinth.

PAUL in 2 Corinthians and his focus on suffering, death and resurrection.

It is suggested that Paul had a strong focus on the resurrection of Christ and that focus prompted his frequent references to death and resurrection in his second letter to the Corinthians.

I disagree. Paul’s focus is not on Christ’s death and resurrection specifically, nor in comparing his own or other’s experiences with those of Christ, but simply to argue for a posture of abandonment on God, disregarding personal hardship in order to serve Christ.

Christ exemplifies this posture of abandonment in enduring the cross to save sinners.

Paul anticipates and lives a life of constant tribulation, but that is of no concern since he also lives in constant consolation.

There is a dichotomy of constant tribulation made irrelevant by constant consolation. This is Paul’s reality and it is the one he repeatedly confronts the Corinthian believers with.

2Corinthians 1:3-5 “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds by Christ.”

Paul’s picture of Christian life is of a life of blessing and comfort compensating for a life of tribulation.

Consider Paul’s repeated advice to Timothy that Christians will suffer persecution.
2Timothy 3:12 “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.”

(See also Peter’s reference to “fiery trial” in 1Peter 4:12, and
Christ’s predictions that His followers would be persecuted, Matt 24:9, John 15:20)

Paul clearly identified himself and his peers as targets for tribulation.
1Thessalonians 3:4 “For verily, when we were with you, we told you before that we should suffer tribulation; even as it came to pass, and ye know.”

This is particularly poignant for Paul since his very calling from Christ identified him as set aside to suffer persecution.
Acts 9:16 “For I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.”

Note also in 2Corinthians that Paul speaks of vicarious suffering, such that his own sufferings result in blessing to those he cares for. (2Cor 1:6,7, 4:12)

Paul shares with the Corinthians how terribly he was persecuted, to the point of despairing of life, but the consolation, deliverance and protection he always relies on came through. The key issue for Paul is not that of death and resurrection but of constancy of faith, being confident that even in his extremity God will remain faithful, as he proved to be.

Note the focus on where Paul’s ‘trust’ was placed in 2Corinthians 1:9,10, “But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raises the dead: Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us:”

I repeat, Paul’s focus is not in Christ as a model of death and resurrection, but on the Christian’s challenge to trust God in the reality of a Christian life where tribulation is the turf, but consolation is guaranteed to triumph over it.

Paul’s ‘affliction list’ in 2Corinthians 4:7-12 is Paul’s assertion that tribulation fails to be a problem, thanks to God’s constant care. Rather than Paul providing a litany of evils he makes a declaration of triumph, rejoicing in ‘the excellency of the power’, being ‘not distressed’, ‘not in despair’, ‘not forsaken’, ‘not destroyed’, ‘that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body’.

This is a wonderful take on suffering and dispels the fleshly, self-preservation, narcissism of natural man, pointing to a life of victorious service to our Lord, immersed in opposition and trial, so it can be constantly triumphant over all trials right down to death itself.

The Corinthian church had been taught this perspective but quickly distracted themselves with their own carnality, dropping their moral standards, engaging in factions, celebrating their own indulgence without regard for fellow believers.

Paul not only contended with them about their fleshly distractions, but he pressed upon them the model he doubtless taught them in their presence, that Christian life is not about self, but about yielding to Christ, entering into the most dangerous and oppressive challenges, and living in triumph and effectiveness in that most undesirable context, as living proof of the gospel.

Hedonism says:
It’s My Life;
I Do What I Want;
My Comfort is Paramount;
If I suffer it must be for my good (eg: pain for health, budgeting to buy better things).

Compare this with Paul’s concept of his calling by Christ:
My life is no longer mine, but Christ’s;
I do not do what I want;
My comfort is irrelevant, and I enter a life of suffering;
I do not suffer for myself but for the benefit of others.

Paul drives home this radical view of a life of trial as a high calling with great reward, pointing the Corinthians away from appearances and to eternal riches.
2Corinthians 4:16-18 “For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.”


The claim is made that Paul in 2Corinthians is defending his apostleship.

I challenge that perspective as distracting the student from the bigger picture of what Paul is saying in that letter.

Paul clearly has undisputed authority in the Corinthian church and has expressed that in previous demands made and in his demands related to his planned visit. There is no reason to believe Paul’s apostleship and his role as primary authority in the Corinthian church is in jeopardy.

So the suggestion that 2 Corinthians is written in defence of Paul’s apostleship necessarily detracts from the apostolic message Paul conveys.

Primary in Paul’s apostolic message is challenge of the carnality and sinfulness of the Corinthians, which Paul challenged in several ways in 1 Corinthians (babes 1Cor 3:1, carnality 1Cor 3:3,4, drunkeness and self-indulgence 1Cor 11:21) and which he bluntly confronted at the end of 2 Corinthians (2Cor 12:20,21, 2Cor 13:5).

Another resounding message of 2 Corinthians is Paul’s description of a spiritual life, compared with a selfish fleshly life focus, of willingly and happily enduring suffering so that the promise and proof of the gospel triumphing over those trials can be lived out, as it is by Paul and his companions.

Paul embarrasses the Corinthians by pointing out that they, in their flesh, have fawned over men who exploit them (2Cor 11:20) and who were nothing more than “false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ” (2Cor 11:13), while Paul is as worthy a hero as anyone else (2Cor 12:11). This addiction to people who impress them reflects the factional spirit at Corinth that Paul challenged in 1Corinthians 3.

Finally, Paul calls them on their inherent sinfulness and challenges them to be sure they are actually saved (2Cor 13:5).

All of this is relegated to subsidiary status if the reader has been beguiled by the widely promoted idea that Paul is principally writing to defend his apostleship.

Further, the idea that Paul has to prove anything is demeaning of this man of immense spiritual stature and unique spiritual privilege (see 2Cor 12:1-7).

Let us free 2Corinthians from the shackles of misdirection and enjoy the rich spiritual food of a great man of God, completely secure in his place of authority within the Corinthian church, who did nothing less than escort them further on their struggling spiritual journey, with truth that we each need to imbibe as we make our own spiritual journey.

Note Paul’s focus on the sinfulness of the Corinthians.

“For I fear, lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I would, and that I shall be found unto you such as ye would not:lest there be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults: And lest, when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and that I shall bewail many which have sinned already, and have not repented of the uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness which they have committed.” 2Cor 12:20,21

2Cor 13:2 “I write to them which heretofore have sinned, and to all other, that, if I come again, I will not spare”.

2Cor 13:5 “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?”

Corinth and Laodicea Compared

The Corinthian church, as reflected by the correction Paul has to give them in his epistles, resembles the condition of the Laodicean church of John’s Revelation (Revelation 3:14-22).
That church failed to comprehend that it was “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” but rather thought itself to be “rich, and increased with goods, and (to) have need of nothing” (Rev 3:17).
While the Corinthian church may not be in a severe a state at the Laodiceans its members display a vain concept of themselves as able to indulge their passions, tolerate immorality and identify with competing factions, all to their detriment.
Something in the culture of Corinth entangled the local church in issues that needed Paul’s continued pastoral correction, as the Laodiceans needed Christ’s pastoral correction.
Local culture was recognised by Paul as deleterious to spiritual progress, as seen in his acceptance of the cultural stereotype applied to the residents of Crete (Titus 1:12,13).
Paul also recognised that external spiritual influences can subvert the faith of a whole congregation, as seen in Galatia (Galatians 3:1).
Rather than give up on such people Paul persisted in contending with them to have the truth established in their hearts.
Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth display his faithful and persistent care for the souls of the members, contending with them and even challenging them bluntly, in order to dispel from their minds ideas and practices that have a negative effect on their faith.

Enough said. Check it out for yourself and enjoy the glorious vision of Christian life that carried this great apostle through the toughest of treatment to the most glorious of achievements for Christ’s Kingdom.

The Gospel Examined

Power of the Gospel

The notion of ‘gospel’ is central to Christian faith, yet it’s meaning and significance has become somewhat muddy over the past few centuries, possibly because of the rise of evangelicalism.

Let me explain.

In modern evangelical usage the term ‘gospel’ most commonly signifies either that body of truth which is life changing (the good news message) or the preached message which is meant to lead people to a prescribed evangelical response, such as ‘making a decision’, going to the altar or otherwise signifying in a measurable way that they have stepped over the line from sinner to saint.

It is this second meaning which is popularised in evangelical parlance and which undermines a truer concept of the Gospel.

We refer to the four historical accounts of Christ’s life on earth as the ‘Gospels’, yet they don’t end in an altar call or a prescription of the approved response by which a person is transformed by that message.

On the other hand it is expected in evangelical circles that if a series of ‘gospel’ messages is preached it is to result in people making a public response that can be tabulated. So at the end of the series of meetings, or the ‘revival’ or the outreach, it can be said that a certain number responded, and that can be compared with last event or with the impact of a different evangelist.

This preoccupation with public record of conversions has subtly transferred the concept of the Gospel as the message good news about who Christ is and what He has done, which message is to be received and believed with life-changing effect, to the concept of the gospel as a style of message that presses people’s buttons and gets them out of their chair to join the Christian band.

Please don’t think I am cynical about getting people to respond to the gospel message. I am not denigrating the work of evangelistic preaching, but simply relating it back to our concept of ‘gospel’.

For the past six decades I have had the privilege of hearing hundreds of evangelistic messages and preaching a few of them myself. I have heard some clear and lucid expositions of the life and sacrifice of Jesus as our Saviour among those messages. I have also heard an array of messages embodying soppy sentiment, scientific mind boggling, heart tugging emotion, end of the world scaremongering and a range of other causes for action.

In those wide ranging messages, labeled as ‘gospel’ the simple message of Christ’s life, death and resurrection may be incidental or even irrelevant to the impassioned appeal for the sinner to respond.

And so the ‘gospel’ becomes in our consciousness a muddy mix of messages designed to motivate sinners to accept Christianity.

A cursory review of the New Testament message should help us clarify what the ‘gospel’ actually is and that might inform us on how best to employ it in Christian ministry. So let me throw a few observations at you and see how they prompt your own investigation of the gospel.

Apostle Paul frequently links the notion of ‘gospel’ with change in the hearer, calling it “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Romans 1:16) and saying that those who engage with his message will be “saved” (Romans 10:9).

So the true ‘gospel’ is more than just ‘news’, but a good news message that has life-changing effect in the hearer, should they respond with faith (believe). Do we see messages in the New Testament that speak of such change and such news?

The first public preaching message in the New Testament was that of John the Baptist telling his hearers “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). When Jesus first began preaching this was his message too (Matthew 4:17). So we could say that the first ‘gospel’ preaching involved a call to action from the hearer, responding in the fear of God.

Another view of the gospel and its call on hearers comes from the mouth of Jesus in the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Here it is Christ, Himself, focusing he gospel on his own life and on the response of ‘belief’ in the hearer.

The Apostle John, in his gospel account of the life of Jesus, uses another term than ‘believe’ in discussing the appropriate response to Christ. “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” (John 1:12)

John links ‘receiving’ and ‘believing’ as our response to the gospel, showing, as Christ did in John 3, that people can choose to receive and believe, or not.

With that background, let’s now look specifically at the ‘gospel’ as explained by Paul. We could say that the four historical gospels present the ‘gospel’ in a non-prescriptive manner, as truth to be received and believed, while Paul, address the churches, was more prescriptive about what was to be expected from believers.

So, what do we see in Paul’s approach to the gospel?

We see a determined focus on the sacrificial life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” 1Corinthians 2:2

Paul’s gospel was not about how he could manipulate hearers to embrace Christianity, but was anchored on the core truth of the good news message, the work of Christ.

That was the message Peter employed at Pentecost, with great impact.

The crucifixion of Christ was a core component of Paul’s gospel narrative. “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness” (1Corinthians 1:23)

But the crucifixion message was always joined with the message of the resurrection, as Paul notes in his famous evangelism prescription in Romans 10:9 “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”

So, when Paul said he was not ashamed of the gospel we know that he was speaking of the message of Christ’s life, death and resurrection and man’s response to that message of faith in Christ resulting in the believer establishing righteousness with God.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” Romans 1:16,17

What then is the gospel?

While evangelists are ever creative about their means of prompting sinners to respond to God, the true ‘gospel’ is the wonderful message of Christ dying for us and rising to new life, as proof that sin and death are defeated, to which message man is to respond with faith, believing that Christ truly did rise from the dead, and by that act of believing receiving divine impact that saves and transforms the believer.

A ‘gospel’ message that does not bring the power of God through faith in Christ’s sacrificial death and glorious resurrection may be nothing more than mere manipulation, and may leave the ‘convert’ without the life-changing impact of the ‘Gospel’.


The gospel of Christ, including the account of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, involves Christ’s reality in two broad dimensions: his earthly life (after the flesh); and his resurrected and eternal character.

The Gospel writers knew from first hand sources the account of Christ’s earthly life, divinity made flesh. The Apostle John also encountered Christ in his resurrected glory, in vision form on the Island of Patmos (refer Revelation). That infusion of the divine perspective is reflected in the Gospel of John (see John 1:1-5, 9-14).

Paul’s contribution to scripture is unique in that Paul did not know Christ in His earthly ministry (after the flesh) but only met Christ in His heavenly, resurrected glory. Paul saw a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-7), but also visited heaven in vision form (2Corinthians 12:1-7). In his heavenly visits Paul met the resurrected Christ, as indicated by Paul’s claim that Christ personally talked with him about Christ’s earthly life.

See 1Corinthians 11:23 “For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread”

Paul, having his own encounters with the resurrected Christ and meeting others who had been with the flesh and blood Christ, made commentary about the difference.

2Corinthians 5:16 “Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more.”

Paul’s gospel, then, did not focus on humanity. It was not about a good man who did good for us by dying selflessly for us. Paul’s gospel celebrated a divine being who experienced glory and divine authority and brought that to bear on those who believed in Him.

Philippians 2:9-11 “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Paul and the Apostle John stand special in their encounters of the risen and glorified Christ and we find that the encounters infused their gospel message with reflections of that divine nature.

Note that the writer to the Hebrews clearly understood the divine character of Christ.

Hebrews 2:9 “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.”

Some believe that Paul authored Hebrews and the emphasis on divine elements of Christ’s existence (such as reference to Melchizedek) suggests that Paul’s divine perspective is indicated in Hebrews.

Emotional Filter

Your Emotional Filter – or “How You Fool Yourself”

Your emotional state affects how you remember and understand things.

Your emotions filter information and activate one set of memories or impressions over another.

It is therefore important to understand what is going on and to take charge of your emotions, rather than letting them rule you and fool you.

Three Settings

In simple terms our feelings tend to sit in one of three positions.  Most people are most often emotionally neutral, just getting on with life as it comes along.  On some occasions, though, we can feel very happy and upbeat about life.  These feelings might be prompted by being successful at something, or experiencing some emotionally uplifting experience.

On other occasions, though, we can feel quite down and even depressed.  These feelings might be prompted by an experience of failure or some emotionally challenging experience.

Psychologists use the term Mania for our positive emotional state and Depression for our negative emotional state.  Some people fluctuate between their highs and lows so disruptively they are diagnosed as Manic-Depressive, or Bi-polar as it is commonly labelled today.

In our normal frame of mind, not manic and not depressive, we take things as they come.  We do not have any particular emotional magnet messing with our interpretation of the information coming to us.

If in that state we were to think back on our life we would have access to all kinds of memories, good and bad, happy and sad.

If we are in a manic, upbeat or positive frame of mind our emotional filter tends to focus on and remember times when we felt this way before.  The positive feelings build on the positive feelings and we can have quite a strong sense of wellbeing, security and happiness and even a sense of invincibility, feeling confident that everything is going to go our way.

Conversely, if we are in a depressive frame of mind our emotional filter will tend to focus on and remember times when we felt depressed before.  The downcast feelings build on similar feelings and we can have quite a strong sense of depression, failure and fear of the future and even a feeling of hopelessness, as if whatever we do is going to turn out badly.

Our emotional filter is not actually a bad thing.  It’s just something we need to understand and manage appropriately.  If you are not aware of it you may end up letting it fool you into wrong thinking.

Changing Emotions

Jesus Christ talked about the ability of our emotions to completely change our memories, when he spoke of a woman giving birth.

“A woman has sorrow when giving birth, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she forgets the anguish for joy that a child is born into the world.” John 16:21

During the difficult times of a pregnancy a woman may have an emotional low and swear that she will never put herself through all of this ever again.  But after the baby is born a different set of emotions kick in and she might feel much more positive about having more children.  Her feelings of despair and discomfort are replaced by feelings of joy and delight.

Such a shift in perspective doesn’t mean she is mad, it is typical of how all of us function under the influence of our emotional filter.

Long before Jesus Christ wise King Solomon recorded the instruction of his mother about giving strong drink to those who need to forget their troubles.

“Give strong drink to him that is ready to perish, and wine to those with heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.” Proverbs 31:6,7


We all know that certain foods, drinks and experiences modify our emotional state.  We use these various things to ‘self-medicate’ – to make ourselves feel good.  We can self-medicate with the first cup of coffee in the morning, a home-cooked meal, talking to a friend, listening to our favourite music, indulging in a sweet or retail-therapy. These are all ways we help ourselves feel better if we are not at our best.

I once read that cults had learned to use junk food to modify the moods of their victims.  One group would recruit young people and use them as slave labour doing such things as begging for money in car parks.  Frantic parents would track down their child and get court orders to allow them to meet their child.  Shortly before the meeting the young person would be fed up on junk food which filled their half-starved body with enough sugar and stuff to give them a high.

Under that chemical inducement the young person would feel elated and could only remember all the good things about their time with the so called “friends”.

So, we each have an emotional filter and we are each affected by it in various ways.  We also have the ability to affect it, but it too can dominate the way we think and feel about things.

Crazy Contradictions

The operation of our emotional filter can be seen in those situations where people say completely contradictory things from day or day, or even from moment to moment.

If a person does not have control over their emotions they can display quite alarming swings in their moods, and with the mood swing comes a complete rewriting of their history and perceptions.

When someone feels happy with a loved one, such as spouse, sibling, parent or child, that emotional state triggers memories of all the times they have enjoyed that relationship.  Induced by such memories and feelings they might say something like, “You are wonderful! You make me SO happy!”

However if they then feel offended by that same person their emotions can switch to the opposite setting and suddenly they not only feel negative about that person, but somehow they can now remember many times when they have felt the same negative way.  This time they might say something like, “You have always been SO hurtful! I’ve never really liked you. I wish I never knew you!”

On both occasions the person can speak quite sincerely.  For that moment all the thoughts, memories and feelings they have access to match what they are saying.

Quite often in such an upset the emotions settle down and the person feels apologetic for their excessive outburst.  They may then say something like, “I didn’t really mean what I said when I was attacking you.”

Once again the person is speaking sincerely.  They now review what they said and they don’t have access to all the dominating emotions and memories that fed their negative feelings.  They now have a more reasonable view of things and they try to patch up the relationship.

Clearly it is dangerous to be so out of control emotionally.  Not only will we be pushed like a boat in the wind, but others around us will be hurt and confused by our changeableness.

Rule Your Own Spirit

We each need to have rule over our own spirit, controlling our emotions, managing our emotional filter so it doesn’t fool us and make a mess our perceptions.

Step One – Realise you have an emotional filter that can fool you into believing things that are not true, because they are skewed, either positively or negatively.

Step Two – Recognise your predisposition, toward unrealistic upbeat feelings, or unrealistic negative feelings, or even to switching from one to the other erratically.

Step Three – Ask God to help you get “rule over your own spirit” so you don’t get pushed around by your emotions or the skewed sense of reality from your emotional filter.

Step Four – Get your friends and loved ones to function as a reality filter for you.  Find people who are balanced (not overly optimistic or overly negative or critical) and get them to check your ideas with you.

Step Five – Wise up about life and reality.  A good way to do that is to read the Bible and learn Christ’s principles for living.  They will be an anchor for your life and give you a reference point to test whether you are out of balance or not.


I enjoyed a lovely encouragement recently from the word ‘vanity’.  It came from the words of the wisest man that ever lived, King Solomon, in his book Ecclesiastes.

“I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” Ecclesiastes 1:14

Solomon saw that all our best efforts are temporary in their effect.  No matter how delicious your breakfast this morning, you will want another tomorrow.  No matter how much work you get done today there will be more to do tomorrow.  You will die, and so too will your children, and your children’s children.  Your team may win the trophy this year, but there is another whole competition ahead for next year’s trophy.  You lovely garden will not stay that way without continued care.  The grass that was cut today will need to be cut again.

Here is the positive spin on that truth that helped me.  There is no great reward for achieving all those things we stress over trying to achieve, like success, prominence, noteworthy accomplishments, etc.  They are just vanity.  They are no big deal.

What is a BIG DEAL is the will and purpose of God.  In God’s plan there are things we need to do for His Kingdom and doing those things is Really important.  Putting our faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour, for example, has eternal impact on us.  Sharing our faith with others has eternal impact on them.  So those things are not ‘vanity’.  But most of what we do on a day to day basis is vanity, and so we can relax about it.

Bible Examples

Let me explain what I mean by referring to some famous people whose lives are recorded in the Bible.  Consider Joseph, son of Jacob.  He was hated by his brothers and sold as a slave into Egypt.  But in God’s great plan Joseph rose to being second in command of the land and was able to save his whole family (the children of Israel) from a devastating famine.

Once Joseph had achieved his purpose of bringing the Israelites to Egypt the rest of his life’s work was ‘vanity and vexation of spirit’.  It doesn’t matter how well he administered Egypt in the next three decades, or what honours were placed on him at his death.  That is all ‘vanity’.

I don’t mean he was wasting his time and should not have done those things, but in the big picture of what God was doing on the earth it did not matter if he invented a sport, taught business administration, sang in a local choir, enjoyed fried fish, drank pineapple juice, kept up with the latest fashions, held dinner parties, had a swimming pool, coached a junior football team, or whatever.

Let’s suggest that he did do a bunch of extra-curricular activities, such as sport, entertaining, performing, art and craft, continuing education, investing, business enterprise, creative writing and so on.  And let’s suggest that he became quite absorbed in some of those things and even lost sleep over different problems they presented from time to time.

All of that time and activity was nothing more than vanity.  And all the angst he felt about them was simply ‘vexation of spirit’.  There is no lasting impact from any of those things.

Yet there is lasting impact from him being where God put him for the task God had for him.  The people of Israel survive today because of Joseph.

And He Begat

In several places in the Bible people get their names listed because they are in the lineage or genealogy of Jesus or Abraham or King David.  They are significant in God’s plan because they were a generational step in an important lineage.  If they had not been born and had not given birth to a son the lineage would have stopped.  Imagine if Jesus had never been born because someone simply didn’t get born or didn’t have a son.

These people are important yet all we know of them is their name.  Consider this example from the Book of Ruth.

“Now these are the generations of Pharez: Pharez begat Hezron, And Hezron begat Ram, and Ram begat Amminadab, And Amminadab begat Nahshon, and Nahshon begat Salmon, And Salmon begat Boaz, and Boaz begat Obed, And Obed begat Jesse, and Jesse begat David.” Ruth 4:18-22

In this list of names leading to the birth of King David we know a little about Boaz, Obed and Jesse, but we know nothing more than the name of others on that list.

Speaking of the significance of these men and their whole lives let me put it poetically, “God simply summarises that by saying just ‘And he begat’!”

Surely these men deserve some recognition for their character, enterprise, intelligence, inventiveness, management skills, salesmanship, attention to detail, creativity, talent, good looks, popularity, wealth, political power, social impact, contribution to their local community, etc.  But No, their entire lives, happiness, tragedy, accomplishments and relationships are completely overlooked.  Those things we get so hung up about are, in the big picture, just ‘vanity and vexation of spirit’.

Job Done

Look at it another way.  For Joseph and for these men who gave birth to a son who were significant to God in a key lineage, once they had done the main thing God had for them to do the rest of their life was unimportant to the big picture.  The rest of their life was ‘vanity’.

So, let’s assume you have achieved your core purpose in life.  You have placed your faith in Jesus Christ, you share your faith with others, you have fulfilled all those things God has asked you to do and you are ever ready to dive into any new purpose He has for you, then the rest of what you are doing is simply vanity.

It may be vain for you to join a choir, learn Italian cooking, decide to start your own gym, or start coaching a junior sport team, but then everything else you do will be vanity anyway!

If the rest of your life was ‘vanity’, then it may as well be vanity that you enjoy and that blesses others.

If whatever I do today is a waste of time, then I may as well enjoy the day anyway!  If there is nothing I can do that is critically important today (since this is a day of ‘vanity’) then why not make it a day when I encourage someone else, stop to smell the roses, help someone in some small way, sing my favourite songs, or drink my favourite coffee?

The notion that ‘all is vanity’ takes the pressure of ‘I must perform’ off our backs and allows us to enjoy the days of our vanity in as productive and pleasant a way as possible.

On Eternal Duty

While we may think that what we are doing is vanity be aware that God is ordering your steps and you are always on duty, ‘eternal duty’.  At any moment God may require you to do something that has lasting impact, and your key purpose in life may not yet have arrived.

So go through your days enjoyably, diligently, faithfully, contentedly, without stress, but always stay alert to the moment when God wants you to help someone, share your faith, worship Him, obey Him, or otherwise fulfil a divine destiny, even if just for a moment.

God Loves You

I recall the testimony of a young man named Jonathan who took the train into the city one day.  The peak hour train was crowded and he travelled in the mindless way most people do in such situations.  Unexpected he noticed a young lady sitting opposite him and felt a strong impression to tell her God loved her.  He refused to do so, as it is out of character with the way people behave on a peak hour train.  But the impression persisted.

Jonathan told me he did not want to say anything to the lady, but she noticed him looking at her and she scolded him with the words, “What are you looking at?”  That put him on the spot so he told her, “God told me to tell you He loves you.”

At that the young lady began to cry and in the ensuing conversation she confided that she had planned to commit suicide that day, but his intervention saved her life.

That’s a divine moment, breaking into our vanity.  And you are always on duty for such things.

Little Things

But sometimes what God has for us to do is not dramatic, just a simple smile, or word of encouragement.  Many people have felt greatly blessed by a small act of kindness, being noticed, being appreciated, having someone listen to them, getting good advice, or feeling safe and protected.  You can do all manner of little things while enjoying the vanity of your life, and so be a blessing to many.

Once you are free from the performance pressure associated with all those vain things you are doing, you will have more time and more presence of mind to notice others and help them and bless them.

So, may I suggest to you that you realise what a waste of time most of what you do is.  Take stock of that and start to live more meaningfully, and determine to enjoy the life God has given you, even with the useless things you are doing.  Learn to be content, and do be good at what you do, but without getting hung up about it.

And keep your antenna twitching for all the opportunities God will send your way to be a blessing to Him and to people you don’t even know.

Among those chance encounters may be many divine moments where your vain life takes on great effectiveness in the lives of others.

Note that this post reflects my thoughts also shared in Getting On With Life. You might like to read that post too at