T. M. Suffield

The Weakness of God

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Saturday, January 1, 2022
Nietzsche understood the faith, and hated it: Christianity does not idolise strength. There is something disturbing to the modern mind in the idea that God, supposedly the strongest being in the universe, could ever be weak. There is something disturbing to the modern mind in the idea that weakness could ever be good, it’s seen as something to fight and overcome. We fear old age because we will weaken and one day experience the cold embrace of the grave.

For Nietzsche the way of Jesus propagated what he called ‘slave morality’ and stopped humanity rising to reach our potential. A God that was not strong, a God who would allow himself to be ridiculed and killed by his creation was no God to Nietzsche.
Our culture thinks like this at times. It idolises strength. Perhaps not to the lengths that Nietzsche himself proposed, but nonetheless weakness is not a virtue. It is, as our very language indicates, a weakness. In amidst all his vitriol, Nietzsche understood the faith, and hated it: Christianity does not idolise strength.
There is something disturbing to the modern mind in the idea that God, supposedly the strongest being in the universe, could ever be weak. There is something disturbing to the modern mind in the idea that weakness could ever be good, it’s seen as something to fight and overcome. We fear old age because we will weaken and one day experience the cold embrace of the grave.
I mean, we don’t say that out loud, but I think it’s true. Despite all our love of safety we don’t want to weak or seen as being weak. Even our newfound embrace of mental health issues, “it’s ok to not be ok,” is so often a rhetoric of strength. It’s not pitched as a cry for help but as self-actualisation.
Here’s thing friends, the Bible says we’re weak. It’s good if we notice that. Then, strangely we’re told to exult in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12) because when we recognise that we are weak we can see and experience that God is strong.
Then there’s a deeper truth, the one the Nietzsche saw and hated. The Bible tells us of a God who has ultimate strength, the unmoved mover, the God who is pure act and can do whatever he wants. So far so ubermench. And then the story takes the strangest turn. God gives up strength for weakness. He descends. God comes down.
God Comes Down
There are many things that set Christianity apart from the other world religions, but the incarnation has to be among the starkest of differences. God is born as a man, Jesus. Let’s just stop there for a second, we become used to this sort of language in church circles. Sit with the absurdity of it for a few minutes.
God—the infinite incomprehensible one in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17). That God. God is born. The God with no beginning and end, is born. And not as a superhero, as a Jewish peasant.
That’s nuts.
And it happened. God is born as a man, the second person of the Trinity exposed to the distress of a world that has rejected his rule, a diamond in the human dust.
Read More

Questioning God

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Monday, December 20, 2021
As we embrace the season of questions, before an inexplicable answer comes in God made man, we need to learn to voice our deepest complaints to the Lord himself. The Bible is full of people doing so, it is not impious or ungrateful or insufficiently reverential, tell him how you feel. When you do this you will be met by a tender God. We may also encounter rebuke like Habakkuk did, like Job did, if our hearts require it. Ok, that’s not fun, but certainly needed. Even then, they are not rebuked for asking questions.

Advent is a season of questions. Which is good, because I’ve got plenty. Have you?
Sometimes people act like you can’t ask questions in church life, as though you just have to ‘have faith’, which is true but not in the way that people who usually say it mean. I think they act like this because well-meaning people have told them so.
They shouldn’t have told you that, friends.
Jesus loves your questions. He really does. We need to grow churches where people can ask their genuine questions—not their gotchas or the ones designed to make them look like they’ve got it all worked out, but their genuine heart-felt questions that burden and burn their soul.
We need to grow churches that help them look for answers—there are answers—but that don’t rush to the pat and simple answer that papers over our nervousness that they asked the question at all. We need to be churches, and Christians, who wrestle with the difficult questions. We have to allow ourselves to feel the force of them, the strangeness of them, without rushing away from the pain.
And then lovingly shepherd questioning people to the Answer to all our longings: Jesus the Christ, in whom answers can be found—though occasionally to different questions than the ones we first asked.
There is such a thing as a bad question, there really is. Questioners do have to be willing to be told, “I’ve got a better question for you,” but we all need to get more comfortable with the difficulties and questions people in our congregations have but often don’t voice.
People who say this sort of stuff often want to ask questions so they can swiftly deny a bunch of key tenets of the faith. That isn’t what this is, I love the Bible—it is the words of life, I love Jesus—he is my King, and I love the orthodox faith represented in the creeds, and the Fathers, and the Medieval theologians, and the Reformers, and all the saints from the Apostles to those living today. The tradition has held the answers to some of my difficult questions, and others won’t be answered I suspect until I behold the face of Almighty God and he wipes away my tears with his fingers.
But this is true: Jesus loves your questions. He loves them because he loves you.
Have you read Habakkuk? This book that starts with the prophet’s complaints against God, and God’s responses, before ending in a Psalm of praise.
Read More

Salted Honey

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Sunday, December 5, 2021
When life is grossly awful, scream to the heavens about it. Read the Psalms and pray them. Read Habakkuk. It is good to think that our tears help us taste Christ, and to acknowledge that right now those with heavier burdens than yours may taste Christ more sweetly than you can. It is hellish to lionise suffering. All our tears are passing away (Revelation 21), and Christ makes bitter water sweet (2 Kings 4).

In Psalm 81 we are confronted with a strange phrase:
But he would feed you with the finest of the wheat,and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.
Honey from the rock? Honey doesn’t come from rocks, I think we’d all be happy to confirm. There’s a moment of surprise here, of confusion, that we shouldn’t gloss over quickly.
It seems to be a reference to the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32) where we have honey ‘out of’ the rock. Which appears to be an oblique reference to manna, the desert flakes that were like honey and found laid upon rocks and sand.
It doesn’t take that much work to find out that honey can be found in rocks, and that the wild honey that John the Baptist (Mark 1) fed himself on would the kind made by bees that swarm around cracks in rocks in the wilderness rather than made in the hives as we would be more familiar with.
But our initial surprise at the phrase is the right reaction, because finding wild honey in a rock is an act of delight—not simply a food of survival but a food of delight. To say that God gifts us honey from the rock is say that he gifts sweetness in surprising places and not simply in a land of abundance.
We might also draw a connection to Christ, as the sweet one whose very sweetness come to us from the cross—which we should probably do via Samson’s find of honey in a Lion’s carcass (Judges 14) and the language of the Song of Songs.
All of this got me thinking about salted caramel.
Because, well, it tastes good. But there’s this thing which has been well known in higher end dessert kitchens for some time—a little salt draws out the sweetness, a lot of salt suppresses it.
It is the same in our lives, is it not? A little suffering, the saltwater of your tears painted on your cheeks, increases the sweetness of what God offers us. I think this a general truth, you cannot know the sweetness of knowing Jesus in any real way if your life has been characterised by ease.
You can make your own judgements about yourself, there is no judgement here from me.
Read More

On Reading

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Saturday, November 6, 2021
My series of reading lists, many thousands of books long, grows faster than I read and is regularly culled. I’m sure that most of them would be helpful, or interesting, or provocative. I won’t read even half of them. That someone else likes a book matters to me. If they’re a flesh and blood person that I know rather than someone hidden in a screen it matters infinitely more because I will get to talk to them about it. Those books I prioritise.

I read more than most—honestly the stats on how much the average person reads make me sad. This YouGov survey has around three quarters of respondents saying they read a book last year, but the median number of books read a year is 4 (the mean is 10, but obviously stretched at the top end by outliers like me). Those stats get worse when you just look at men.
I don’t think I’m a big reader because I know people who read more than me. This is a pretty typical sort of self-deception; we assume we’re average as long as we’re aware of people on either side of us. I read 70-90 books a year. I’m currently reading eight different books, some I’ve been in for months, others will only take a few days. I don’t think I’m a quick reader—because my wife can read something faster than me—this is another example of the same sort of self-deception. I read a lot.
I have what I think is a small personal library, but then I have enough books to call them a library (around 1000). I compare myself to these ridiculous images you sometimes see of American pastors and their vast libraries and assume mine is small. Again, it’s perspective.
Which is all to say, I have some thoughts on reading and do know what I’m talking about. People often ask me for tips on reading more, and I thought I’d share some of the things I frequently say.
Stop finishing bad books.
Free yourself from the false tyranny of having to finish books. If a book is bad, stop reading it. If a book has good information but is badly written, skim it. If you feel like the book is worthy but it isn’t clicking with you, consider putting it down to pick up another day.
If you are finding a book a real slog it’s ok to change your reading strategy—especially if you’re reading for information. I would recommend reading the first and last paragraph of a chapter to see if you want to read that chapter, and reading the introduction and conclusion to see if you want to read a book.
People sometimes ask if reading that way ‘counts.’ You’re the only one keeping score, do what you want. I’d include a book in my list of books I’ve read if I engaged with a good portion of it. I finish most books I start, but you don’t have to. There isn’t enough time in your life to read bad books.
Keep a list of what you read.
If you’re trying to read more then keeping a list of the number can be an encouraging motivator. The number can turn into something to chase taking away your enjoyment of actually reading the book, but keeping a list is helpful.
It’s a pleasurable activity to look back over what you’ve read that year, or in the last few months.
Read More

Reframing Stories

Written by T.M. Suffield |
Wednesday, November 3, 2021
Jesus walked out of a tomb and nothing have been the same since…Down and down and then up and up is the shape of the Bible’s story and of many of its stories. It’s the shape of our lives, repeated deaths and resurrections until the Lord returns to raise the faithful dead.

David Foster Wallace starts his famous speech This is Water by describing two young fish.
They’re happily swimming along and meet an older fish coming the other way, who nods in greeting and says:
‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’
By which Foster-Wallace wanted to simply point out that the largest, most obvious realities are the hardest to see and talk about. Culture is like this. We’re all inculcated in a way of doing and a way of thinking that it’s particularly hard to spot because we’ve never known anything else.
We’re formed by that culture—that water—in a myriad of ways. I’ve written before about the work of James K. A. Smith on cultural liturgies, that our cultures act like a liturgy in forming us, and the work of Charles Taylor on social imaginaries, that our setting influences what we can plausibly imagine to be true. I’ve spun both together to suggest that the stories we live shape the pattern of our thoughts. They shape what is and isn’t plausible.
When identifying some of the more negative aspects of our culture I’ve suggested that we need to engage in counter-formation, or engage in ‘reliturgy’ to push back on the dominant narratives in which we live and breathe and have our being (Acts 17).
I know that isn’t what Acts is saying at all—but that’s sort of the point.
To reliturgise or engage in counter-formation is a task of reframing our stories. We are all made of stories. We need to tell stories and then inhabit and live stories that will earn richer fruit than what grows on the cultural coral reef. We need stories of good loam, well fertilised, carefully tilled and expertly farmed by pastor-storytellers.
The best way to do this is with the stories the Bible gives us. This works because these stories are true. If I have one, this is my theological project. Read the cultures’ stories well, retell the Bible’s better.
The Bible has a set of overarching stories—more than I’m about to list—that when lived deliberately reshape our lives. Here are some examples that you’ll notice overlap with all of my common themes.
Why do I think the answer to so many of our modern problems is to get around the table and share a meal?
Read More

Commercialising Church

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Monday, November 1, 2021
It is easier—more comfortable, less effort, and less vulnerable—to engage with church content on social media platforms than to do so in person would be. While using the platforms to their upmost could be a helpful step into church for many—and enough so that I think it’s worth engaging in some fashion—the conversion will be hard, and harder the more you’ve suggested what you’re doing online is church. Also, plenty of people will feel the draw the other way, to disengage from meeting together and to use the online ‘alternatives’ instead.

This article in the New York Times describes two tools that Facebook are developing for churches. Firstly, a subscription service, “where users pay, for example, $9.99 per month and receive exclusive content, like messages from the bishop” and secondly a prayer service “where members of some Facebook groups can post prayer requests and others can respond.”
As my friend Duncan put it to me:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptise them and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you. But make sure to put the really good teaching behind a paywall.
Friends, Scientology is not our model. The fact that senior leaders of a number of churches didn’t immediately smell a rat means something’s gone wrong with their noses.
I won’t speculate what their problems may be, but this is a terrible idea. So terrible it surely only needs to be laughed at. What we offer we offer for free. Yes, we ask for people’s money, that’s how all churches exist and continue to run, but these are generous offerings in response to what they received from God.
Or in the crassest terms, if you really want an extra £10 a month from someone, teach them the really good stuff. God might inspire them to want to give it to you.
Praying to commercial gods
I’m more concerned about the prayer tool, because it sounds like something we might conceivably use. But why are Facebook doing this? After all, Facebook is not our friend. People who used to work there have been surprisingly candid about their intent to ‘exploit a vulnerability in human psychology’.1 The old adage that if it’s free you’re the product rings true. Facebook are an advertising company, which they make no bones about.
I am concerned that if I input my prayer request I will be bombarded with adverts on their platforms for services which will fix my problem in some fashion. I may even be deceived into thinking this is a message from the Lord. Can the Almighty move an advertising algorithm to my benefit? Yes. But that doesn’t mean he did.
Imagine the most painful situation. A couple struggling with the deep feelings of shame and the ongoing heartache of infertility summon up the courage to input their prayers online. Adverts from fertility clinics, potentially offering all manner of unethical options, abound. At best this is confusing, most likely asking for prayer seems to have deepened their pain.
Even in a more run-of-the-mill situation, do I want an advertising company knowing my deepest thoughts? Their business is structured around knowing as much as they can about me in order to sell me things.
Or, if people are aware of this, do we want them to be afraid to ask for prayer because of how Facebook might use it?
It’s quite possible that many of the tools they’re developing will be useful to gospel ministry. Have a look at my previous post to for some initial thoughts about tools in ministry, and how to approach those questions.
Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg is quoted as saying “Faith organizations and social media are a natural fit because fundamentally both are about connection.”
Are they? It’s the sort of thing that sounds very reasonable in an executive’s mouth, but let’s pause to hear the nonsense. Is Christianity fundamentally about connection? Is church? It sounds like it could be true enough for us to nod along, but it’s not actually true. It’s truth-adjacent, if you will. It isn’t wrong, but it’s not what the message of the crucified carpenter king is about at all.
“I died on the cross because I really want you all to love each other and get connected.”
Not Jesus, thank goodness
Let’s not accept the premise. Are we given ‘connection’ with God by Jesus work on our behalf? I suppose, but much better I’m given sonship, friendship, and a table richly laden. I’m adopted, not simply connected. By the Emperor of the cosmos, the Potentate of Time. As the meme goes, “you and I are not the same.”
A Centre of Gravity
Here perhaps we reach for a bigger lesson. Is there nothing that cannot be online? Is there nothing that cannot be subsumed under totalising social platforms? Sometimes it feels like there isn’t anything left. But it’s a lie. Most of what makes life good, from the Lord’s table to gathering around my table, is not online.
I appreciate that there will be some who would beg to differ, and that they have often been driven to online places that understand them from deep and lasting hurt. I can only sympathise and gently suggest that while I’m sure those spaces have been very helpful, there is better promised.
Read More

When I Believe the Prosperity Gospel

Written by T.M. Suffield |
Wednesday, October 13, 2021
 If you follow Jesus you will have your sins forgiven. Your shame will be wiped away to be replaced by the Father’s smile on his beloved daughter, his beloved son. Your fears and afflictions from evil spiritual forces will be defeated by the victory of Jesus on the cross. But they are not the good news.

I’m a charismatic, and plenty of others who would claim that label believe some fairly kooky things. It thus occasionally falls to us to carefully disassociate ourselves from what others might believe.
It’s pretty normal that we would occasionally denounce what is commonly called the ‘Prosperity Gospel’—essentially that if you follow the way of Jesus God will bless you financially. You will become rich, or sometimes healthy and rich.
This is a pernicious lie from the pit of hell, but I don’t have a lot of desire to spend time writing about why it is. Here’s the challenge I’d like to offer instead: I think most Christians I know believe something pretty similar.
I think that because I think I do.
Let’s back up a bit. We’re very careful to exclude financial blessing from the blessings that God will give you if you follow the way of Jesus. This is not to suggest that God could not bless us financially—as though Adam Smith’s invisible hand was a spiritual force not under Yahweh’s ultimate command—nor to say that if we receive wealth we shouldn’t thank God.
The problem comes when we imply that finances come as a reward for obedience.
Yet, there are plenty of passages in the Bible that suggest that God does bless the obedient. I think it’s a very reasonable thing to say. Normally we would want to qualify blessing to exclude health and wealth as a rule. Which I would happily agree with.
Here’s the rub. I believe that if I am obedient that God will bless me with comfort. I think it’s likely you do too. This is a lie. I believe that he will secure me gainful employment, a nice house, and a middle-classed lifestyle. God had given me much of the window dressing of middle-classed life, and some of it has come in ways that were frankly miraculous. I am deeply thankful, when I remember to be.
The problem is that if I think it’s a reward—even though I would deny I do if asked—and I experience pain, or even simple discomfort, I’m thrown for a loop. The problem is that I have, and I think we have, a doctrine of blessing that only works for middle-classed knowledge workers like me. The problem is that it’s a doctrine of blessing that would make no sense in South Sudan, or India, or North Korea. The problem is that it’s a false gospel.
Read More

Living in Time

Written by T.M. Suffield |
Wednesday, September 29, 2021
To keep the sabbath, or the Lord’s Day, will require that we fence some things, and decide that we don’t do this or that on the day of rest. This is why wise societies often have Sunday trading laws, for instance. But, even saying that, for Christians the Sabbath is not a law but an invitation.

Last week I wrote a rambling exposition of some of the features of Genesis chapter one, but to keep to a reasonable length I didn’t attempt any application.
I thought I’d take some time to tease out these ideas in a little more depth what that means for our lives.
I’ve written previously that rest is not relaxation but is about stopping to realise that you’re a creature. Rest is not recharging, as though we were mechanical units with batteries, but about realising that we are not God and cannot carry on without stopping. Resting gives us more energy because when we work as we are designed to, we work better.
Rest is settling into the order we have made with our hands; or being in the ‘right place’, which is the place that God has placed us, that we have then formed carefully and diligently out of the chaos by the sweat of our brow. Or at least, that’s what rest is for now.
As we pursue our daily work we search for rest, and we choose to rest one day in seven to enjoy the fruits of our labours. Work is not the opposite of rest, though they are different things. The opposite of rest is the curse.
Our future is rest, and our future involves work, so we should stop thinking of them as concepts in opposition to each other. Before the Lord cursed us and commanded the ground to fight us back, it did not resist. Our labours in the age to come will be easy, and our successes surprising beyond our abilities.
It’s only after the curse that we need to let the ground rest from its labour (in Hebrew, literally ‘slavery’) in order to keep being its master. This practice is supposed to teach us to co-operate with the land as we grow up into wisdom and the knowledge of good and bad. When the earth enters its Sabbath rest we will still work the ground, but as Jon Collins likes to say, it will be the equivalent of dropping seed on the ground by accident and the ground springing forth into glorious abundance wherever they fell. Our productive activity won’t be laborious, but joyous. To cease is to experience a taste of the joyousness of age to come.
If the farming metaphors don’t work for you, imagine work that does. In your bridge-building or story-telling, your song-writing or city-administering, the ground will not fight back. Everything will flow as it is supposed to, as though creation were a harmonious whole that worked together to achieve your ends. Because it will be.
Read More

Carving Time

Written by T.M. Suffield |
Tuesday, September 28, 2021
To keep the Sabbath—the very aim of creation—is to understand that you are part of a complicated pattern of time, of bringing order to chaos, and knowing that you are a creature rather than the Creator. We keep weekly the day of stopping, of not-creating, so that we learn these truths from the world around us.

The Bible starts with seven words. Then the second sentence has fourteen words. Then there are seven paragraphs each describing a day in this week of seven days. The seventh of these includes three parallel seven word phrases.
None of this is an accident. In our modern day with our modern eyes it can look like an accident, but it’s a deliberately formed piece of writing that is trying to instruct us. With our modern eyes we expect a sentence to do one thing, the first sentence of the Bible is doing so many different and layered things we can scarcely count them. We need new eyes.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Instantly we are confronted with time: God is there in the beginning before the heavens and the earth. We are confronted with the creator: it is God who creates as an act of fiat. We see that God creates from nothing, and in a few sentences time we discover that he does it by speaking. We can read this in parallel with other creation myths that the Hebrews would have known like the Enuma Elish and note the stunning parallels and differences that show us how different Yahweh is to the gods of the Babylonians, and much more besides.
But I’d like to start somewhere else.
This seven word sentence starts with the word בְּרֵאשִׁית, which we usually translate ‘in the beginning’. Nothing wrong with that translation, but it’s worth noticing that the Hebrew idiom which means first or beginning is ‘from the head’. Which means not a lot at all in and of itself, it’s idiomatic and arguing from etymology ends you up thinking a butterfly is a sort of fairy that attends milkmaids churning.
Except, with open eyes that know the hymn of Colossians chapter 1, the idea that from the head God created the heavens and the earth is evocative, to say the least. From him and to him and through him, in fact.
The opening word of the Bible announces—to those with eyes of faith—that the world is created from Jesus, and that everything else flows from him too. It preaches the gospel, that there is a Head in God who we can follow to be saved.
That’s not really where I wanted to start, either.
Read More

Learning from the Hours

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Sunday, September 19, 2021
The days in the Old Testament seem to be backwards. Of course, I’m sure we can all grasp that they count time differently, so it’s not wrong but different. Except, I would like to contend that the Old Testament’s way of counting days is instructive to us. Honestly, it’s also better. The day starts in the evening as the Sun sets and then continues into the daytime after the night, ending at sunset the subsequent evening. Think, perhaps, of the Jewish observation of the Sabbath to see this in practice: beginning on Friday evening and following through to Saturday evening.

Have you ever noticed that in Genesis chapter one, the days are the wrong way around?
When I say the wrong way around, I mean backwards to what we expect, and before you rush off to compare the order of creation and question whether it means anything meaningful that the sun and moon come so late (it does, but that’s not our topic today), look at each day.
They’re backwards.
“And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” and each day thereafter. Evening, then morning. That’s backwards. We all know that days start in the morning, unless we’re pedantic enough to insist that they start in the middle of night. If we are that pedant, we are a prime example of what happens when you give a scientist a poet’s job, or when we let people learn the natural sciences before they’re thoroughly grounded in real subjects, like poetry.
But the destructive results of carving the day into twenty-four sections and thinking we’ve done something clever aside, the days in the Old Testament seem to be backwards.
Of course, I’m sure we can all grasp that they count time differently, so it’s not wrong but different. Except, I would like to contend that the Old Testament’s way of counting days is instructive to us. Honestly, it’s also better.
The day starts in the evening as the Sun sets and then continues into the daytime after the night, ending at sunset the subsequent evening. Think, perhaps, of the Jewish observation of the Sabbath to see this in practice: beginning on Friday evening and following through to Saturday evening.
Ok, they count days differently, so what?
Little things like this shape the way we see the world. They subconsciously tell us stories. Day, followed by night tells us a story: we have limited time to work, then our death will come. Make the most of your days in the sun while you can, for they are brief. The best comes at the beginning, the worst at the end: or in other words, youth is better than old age. This is as good as it will get, or nearly, once you hit a peak it’s downhill from there. There is nothing to hope for, for the Sun is dying, slowly, inexorably, and we will perish with it. We are brief. Life is short.
This is the liturgy of the hours, day, then night. It is a story of swelling sadness, of endings, and of the death of God. Everything that is good withers and perishes.
You might think that you are not affected by this, but you are, we all are. The smallest of things done day after day will shape the way we see the world.
Read More

Scroll to top