Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published in September 2017.
In his new book “A Time for Confidence,” author Stephen Nichols emphasizes that we live in a momentous time. He explains that technology accelerates change, which means seismic cultural and social shifts occur in an instant. In recent years, too many of these have given God’s people pause: attitudes about marriage, beliefs about family, perceptions of economics, business, and the arts — these portend cultural and spiritual decline. Even so, says Nichols, this is no time “to cower, cave, or capitulate. It is a time for confidence.”
byFaith editor Richard Doster asked him why.
Q. You open the book describing how Kenyan distance runner Henry Wanyoike came to understand the difference between sight and vision. Why is that a good illustration for understanding the book?
I open the book with the story of Henry Wanyoike because it is such a compelling story. He showed significant promise as a distance runner, poised to make his mark like so many of his fellow Kenyan running superstars. Then, at the age of 21 he suffers a stroke and is left blind. A few years pass, and he is drifting through life, disillusioned and depressed, and he ends up at a school for the blind. An administrator recognizes him and ties a rope to Henry’s wrist and gets him to start running. Wanyoike now holds world records in the marathon. He went on to hold public office in Kenya and has become a national hero.
“We as Christians and as a church must resist the temptation to compromise biblical teaching for the sake of getting along in culture.”
I first read about Henry Wanyoike in Runner’s World magazine. What caught my attention was not only the compelling story but this line — that for Wanyoike, “vision is more powerful than sight.”
The line immediately reminded me of the biblical prophets. They had vision, while nearly everyone around them had only sight. Isaiah’s audience could only see Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar, Medo-Persia, and Cyrus. Isaiah had a vision of God, and he knew that, accordingly, the nations are but a drop in the bucket.
When I think of that line, “vision is more powerful than sight,” I also think of our own day. We live in what many are calling a post-Christian culture. Whether it is or not, we all sense that we are living in challenging times. We can almost feel the ground shifting beneath our feet as we experience the rapidity of cultural change. It’s easy, though, to have only sight. We also need vision. We need to be able to lift our eyes off the horizon of the temporary and the material. We need to have a vision of the eternal and the transcendent.
If all we do is see, then we can be timid, perhaps even compromise, or cower in a cave. If we have the proper vision of God, then we can have confidence. This is what I hope for this book, and this is why I start with this compelling story of a blind distance runner from Kenya.
Q. In Isaiah 40, the prophet was writing to a captive, exiled people, telling them to trust in God to deliver them. But defeated people, you write, have difficulty seeing past the defeat. So how do we cultivate vision and not simply be consumed by what we see?
This is one of the lessons we need to learn from Isaiah 40. This chapter is one of the most beautiful chapters in the Bible. The opening verses inspired Handel as he wrote “Messiah.” The closing verses rather dramatically found their place in “Chariots of Fire” and the remarkable story of Eric Liddell. I used Isaiah 40 as the spine for the second chapter of my book, which lays the foundation for our proper thinking about confidence.
We must remember the original audience of Isaiah 40. Isaiah is writing on the eve of exile, to a people who will be in exile. The message is that they will be delivered. They will return to the land. In fact, they will be carried back in the arms of God.
Now we must put ourselves in the place of that original audience. They were taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar, the greatest ruler up until that time. That is, until the time of the next greatest ruler, Cyrus. One of the titles of Cyrus was “King of the Four Corners of the Universe.” He conquered nation upon nation and ruled over the largest empire of all time. He was a tyrant. His people revered him as a god.
And this prophet, Isaiah, told this exiled people, Israel, that they would be returned to their land. If we were sitting around the campfire and hearing the words of Isaiah as the scroll was opened and read to us, we might just entertain doubts. We might lack confidence.
What we find in Isaiah 40 is not only a declaration of God’s power to deliver His people, we also find a demonstration of His power. In fact, we find a series of demonstrations of His power. We find that God demonstrates His power over creation, over the false gods, and over the nations. We find that God ultimately delights to demonstrate His power in the lives of His people. He will gather His people to Himself. Even the youth — those with strength and vigor — they will stumble. But God will deliver them. They will mount up with wings as though eagles, they will run and not grow weary, and they will walk and not grow faint.
So there we are at the campfire and hearing the promise of God. Do we have confidence in Him? This, of course, has direct application to us today. We have the promises of God to us in His Word. Do we trust in Him? Do we have confidence in Him?
Q. The New York Times op-ed writer Frank Bruni claims that when we condemn certain lifestyles we “prioritize scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since.” He then claims, “We know more than ancients and more than the biblical authors.” How should we respond?
In addition to having confidence in God, we also must have confidence in His Word. This is particularly challenging today. Of course, on the one hand, there’s nothing new here at all to the challenges to the Bible. In the very beginning, in the garden itself, Satan sought to shake Eve’s confidence in God’s Word. Satan maneuvered Eve to a position of doubt and skepticism. Then Eve thought she knew better than God’s Word and flat-out disobeyed it.
While there is an underlying continuity to challenges to the Bible, each age and generation seems to add a unique twist. If we go back to the turn of the 20th century, the challenges came from the field of hard science. As Darwin increased in popularity and acceptance, skeptics cast doubt on the opening chapters of Genesis. This all came to a head, in American culture, in the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925.
Today, such challenges continue from the field of the sciences. Are we to believe an ancient book, or do we put our trust in modern science? Yet we also have a new set of challenges here in the 21st century. We have seen significant challenges come from the so-called soft sciences, such as sociology. Those early chapters of Genesis are still the target. The challenge today is gender and sexual identity. We are told that gender is a social construct, and we are surrounded by calls for absolute freedom regarding one’s sexual identity.
So we have the challenge to human origins, to gender, and to sexual orientation in our day. Then we read in Genesis 1-3 that human beings are the direct and special creation of God, that God created male and female — that these are real categories and not social constructs — and that sexual relationships are to be between a man and a woman in the confines of marriage.
Frank Bruni speaks for many when he calls for the Bible to be set aside and for Christians to look to contemporary sensibilities to tell us about human and sexual identity instead. We must think along three lines as a response. First, we as Christians and as a church must resist the temptation to compromise biblical teaching for the sake of getting along in culture. Go back to the turn of the 20th century. In order to accommodate cultural modernism, Christians simply conformed the Bible and theology to the sensibilities of the day. They were called liberals. They, in turn, sacrificed that Gospel and the identity and mission of the church. We must learn from that misstep and resist the temptation to accommodate cultural sensibilities over the clear teaching of the Bible.
Secondly, we have to not only resist the temptation to capitulate on the hot-button issues, we also must resist the temptation to embrace more subtle compromises. One of the most crucial doctrines of Scripture is the sufficiency of Scripture. If we are bombarded with messages that the Bible is an outdated book that comes from and belongs to a mythological age, then we can begin to subtly look elsewhere for our guidance through life. Resist the subtle temptations.
Thirdly, we must realize that there is a concerted effort to discredit and displace the Bible by many of the cultural gatekeepers in our day. We need not fear them or back away from making an argument for Scripture. But there are many who simply think the Bible is dangerous. It’s not only not helpful; it’s harmful, this argument goes. We must realize that and galvanize both ourselves and our children in light of it.
Q. You point out that in Roman culture the cross was a symbol of shame and weakness, yet Jesus used it to express the essence of discipleship. At the same time, Christ currently reigns as king. Can you help us tie these truths together?
Paul had full confidence in the cross of Christ and in the Gospel. We have to see this in light of the first-century context. To the Romans, the cross was a symbol of shame and weakness. For Christians, the cross is at the center of our identity. Jesus faced opposition and persecution and, ultimately, rejection. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, Christ offered Himself to the world, and the world pushed Him all the way out and onto the cross.
If we understand Christianity only from a point of cultural power or cultural acceptance, then we will be ill-equipped to deal with opposition and persecution when the culture shifts and cultural power wanes. We do not see the early church, the New Testament church of the first century, coming of age in a context of cultural ascendancy. It’s the opposite. Christianity came of age as marginalized culturally. The cross is the symbol of that.
“If we understand Christianity only from a point of cultural power or cultural acceptance, then we will be ill-equipped to deal with opposition and persecution.”
Paul pleads to know Christ, understanding that such knowledge consists of “the fellowship of his sufferings.” That’s probably not a prayer we often pray.
Paul also prays that such knowledge also includes “the power of His resurrection.” So here we have something rather complex in this present age. We both know, and experience, the fellowship of His sufferings and the power of His resurrection. We like the latter far more than the former. And for many generations, Christians in American have experienced more of the triumphalism of the power of the resurrection. We may very well be coming into a cultural moment where the fellowship of His sufferings comes to the fore, and we must be prepared for that. To say we need to put our confidence in the cross is to realize that on the cross Christ conquered sin and death. But it also — and this is a complex thing to grasp — means we experience weakness, suffering, opposition, and persecution. And even in the face of such things we can be confident.
Q. You explain that all history, including our cultural and moral obstacles, is the history of God’s plan of salvation. Can you talk about that? How does this give us confidence in the Gospel?
We see this confidence in the Gospel played out in Paul’s life. In the opening chapter of Philippians he writes of how his imprisonment has resulted in the advance of the Gospel. That’s rather counterintuitive. Paul is the de facto leader of this young, tenuous movement, the Christian church, and he’s in prison in Rome. It would be easy to lose confidence in the Gospel at this point. Yet Paul explains that he has used his imprisonment to proclaim the Gospel to the Praetorian Guard — a very tangible symbol of Roman power. Then Paul tells the Philippians that his example has served to motivate the Christians in the city of Rome, of Nero’s Rome, to be bold in their proclamation of the Gospel. Of course, he’s telling the Philippians this so that they would be bold.
Here we sit in the 21st century, and we see opposition to the Gospel. Is there a more fierce opponent than the Praetorian Guard of the first century? Is there a more fierce opponent than Nero? We must keep in mind that in Philippians 4, Paul mentions that there are believers even in Caesar’s household, that is in Nero’s household.
We see the power of the Gospel in the very beginning of Christianity. We see it throughout the church’s life over the centuries. In the face of opposition, we see the triumph of the Gospel. We see it in the 16th century and in the life of an obscure Augustinian monk in a small town in Germany. We also see it in our own experience. We know how sinful we were, and yet the Gospel succeeded. We should never think anyone is beyond the pale of the Gospel, and we should never waver in our confidence in the Gospel. We can trust that God’s will indeed will be accomplished. We must proclaim the Gospel with boldness and confidence.
Q. Citing 1 John 1:1-3, you state that John wants us to have a hope for the future but also “a hope that has everything to do with the present.” Would you elaborate?
We can endure almost anything if we know it will come to an end. If you have ever run a marathon, you know how much the hope of getting to 26.2 enables you to slog through miles 1 to 26. We sometimes misuse the word hope. We may mean wish-dream, when we say hope. We need to use the word hope as the Bible uses and defines the word. Hope in Scripture means certainty. Hope, biblically speaking, is a sure thing. 1 John 3:1-3 tells us that we have hope that we will someday be glorified and fully conformed to the image of Christ. Scripture is full of promises of the hope of heaven and the hope of eternal life. All of these promises, all of these things we hope for, are not simply to help us in the future. They have everything to do with life now. Our confidence in hope means we can endure the now. It means we can slog through miles 1 through 26.
If we go back to 1 John 3:1-3, we see that John holds out the beatific vision to us for the purpose of how we live now. He ends those verses with this command, “And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself even as He is pure.” This hope that believers had was a reason for them to live differently. First-century Rome was known for a lot of things. Purity was not one of them. John calls believers to realize that their future identity and destination have everything to do with life on earth. We have a hope that is real and a hope that causes us to live differently.
This eternal view shapes the temporal. When we recall the words of “The Lord’s Prayer,” we see this. We petition that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The eternal and the heavenly define the contemporary and the terrestrial. We are back to the words that sum up Henry Wanyoike. We live by vision and not by sight. When we have that proper vision of God and of the eternal realities, then we can have confidence in this life.
Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith magazine. Stephen Nichols is the president of Reformation Bible College.