Repent, believe and starve your guinea pig…

16 07 2010

Imagine the scene; after much thought and many questions your friend has made the decision. They ask that crucial question:

“Ok. I want to become a Christian. How do I do it?”

I don’t know how you would answer that. Some people might take her to a passage in Acts, or tell a story, or lead her through a particular prayer, or a step-by-step process built around some pithy but memorable acrostic. What you are unlikely to say at that critical moment is the following:

“You need to repent, believe, be baptised… and starve your pets!”

Yes. You heard me right. Starve your pets. Subject them to a rigorous eating regime – then you’ll be saved. What’s more, you should clothe them in peculiar garments. I’m not thinking of the ‘chien-chique’ of crufts and the dog-boutiques; I’m talking sackcloth. Wrap your budgie in sandpaper! Then and only then can you become a Christian.

None of us – I hope, I trust, I beg – would require such a thing of a prospective believer. But turn with me to Jonah 3:

Milk? by gilles chiroleu

‘Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”’ (Jonah 3:4-9 ESV)

What we see in Jonah 3 is the actions of a desperate man. He has heard the word of God – his city is about to be destroyed. Fair play to the king… he takes the threat seriously. He has seen the fear and faith of the people, and decided to call the nation to action. But his solution to the problem is quite absurd.

He proposes to avert the wrath of God by coating both humans and animals in sackcloth and calling them to fast. It’s right there in verses 7 and 8:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God.”

Man and beast. How is a beast even supposed to call out mightily?! At first I found it funny. Then a little puzzling. Then downright perplexing. And finally deeply convicting, as I realised:

I probably would have done the same.

Maybe not exactly the same. But similar. And so would you. Because in each of us is an inbuilt lie; a belief that we can do something to earn salvation. No matter how stupid or superstitious. Many people try to earn their way to God by giving money to charity, or planting forests, leaving legacies to churches they never attended, or saying a nightly formulaic prayer to a God with whom they have no relationship. We grasp at straws. We think we need to do something -anything – and that God will be impressed by our petty efforts. We mistake superstition for faith, and think it’s going to get us into heaven.

Look closely at the words of the king: ‘Who knows? God may turn and relent?’ (v9) There’s no certainty – just a vague hope. If we do enough, mourn enough, grovel enough, who knows? Something might work? Try as many weird and wonderful acts of contrition as possible; who knows, one of them might get us through!

The truth is that nothing we do will ever be good enough. We are saved by the grace of God alone. Not by starving our pets, or reciting our mantras. To think we can atone for our sin by simplistic rituals or rote-learned prayers is to grossly underestimate the depravity of our hearts and the abomination of our sin. Only one thing can secure forgiveness for us – a substitutionary death and a glorious resurrection.

When we lead people into faith, let us teach them spiritual disciplines, encourage them to fast and pray and read and repent. But let us not foster superstition in them. Let us never allow them to think they earn God’s grace by their strivings.

‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.’ (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV)

The truth is, God did relent, on the basis of the people of Nineveh turning from their evil ways (v10). You can bet your life He wasn’t won over by seeing the mournful faces of their hungry cattle! It was the penitent hearts He was after; people aware of their sinfulness, and reliant on His mercy. The same is true today.

Be overawed by the mercy of God. Be amazed at His free gift of grace. Depend on His generosity alone, and not on your greatest deeds, or your vain superstitions.

And treat your pets well…

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