AIDS - Christian Views on HIV / AIDS
Wrath of God?
Is AIDS the wrath of God? I am often asked this question by church leaders. It is one of those areas where you know that any phrase or sentence you say or write could be turned into a banner headline of whatever kind the editor thinks will sell the most papers or media time. I am also aware that you may be one of the thousands of readers of this book who will judge it by whether you agree with what I say. You will either be pleased you bought it or want to burn it. You will either say I am judgemental or a heretic or a liberal. What follows is a personal view from someone who takes seriously what the Bible says.
It is also a view consistent, as far as I can see, with the historic teachings of the church on sexual behaviour over 2,000 years, whether Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Independent Evangelical, Indigenous, Pentecostal, New Church charismatic, or whatever. In fact Christian teaching on sexual behaviour and morality has been remarkably consistent and united, as it is today outside certain groups within particular denominations. The big issue is how a traditional Christian view on morality can be equated with God's call to love.
In the early days of the AIDS epidemic medical advice was that AIDS was spread only by anal sex. The public impression was that unless you were gay you could not get AIDS. A number of clergymen and church leaders then grabbed their Bibles and began a series of private and public pronouncements denouncing homosexuality, listing plagues described in the Old and New Testaments, and declaring that this was obviously God's plague on homosexuals---obviously as it only appeared to affect them.
This attitude is not confined to Western nations. In Uganda it was reported on state radio that a goat, speaking in a loud voice, had prophesied that the AIDS epidemic was a divine punishment for mankind's wickedness in not obeying the Ten Commandments, and predicted a terrible famine. It terrified local villagers and died shortly afterwards.
Such reactions are fuelled by a distorted perception of sexual sin which is part of our culture and not part of Jesus' own sayings. Before you reject this out of hand, you who are churchgoers, read on. Incidentally, I find it is usually men who are so vehement in condemning the homosexual man. Women are usually far more tolerant. Yet the same men are more tolerant of two lesbians. Why? Does God find sex between two men more offensive than between two women or an adulterous relationship? AIDS is almost unknown in lesbians.
First, I expect those church leaders are now acutely embarrassed. They are on record as declaring that this is God's judgement on homosexuals, although there are now known to be many more women and babies infected than there ever were homosexual men. They fire salvoes at the visible tip of the iceberg, ignoring the millions of women, children and heterosexual men beneath the surface. As we have seen, 98% of new HIV infections worldwide are now among heterosexuals. The `wrath' theology is then adjusted to include all who are promiscuous---again acutely mistaken. What do you say to those millions of children who may die in Africa or elsewhere as a result of medical treatments (blood and injections)?
When coupled with the public image of the church as `anti-condom', the comments about AIDS being the `wrath of God' have been seen as doubly negative. The Catholic Church in particular has been extremely uncomfortable with AIDS campaigns promoting condom use, while strongly advocating compassionate care and understanding. Protestant churches tend to be more relaxed, as long as condom use is placed alongside the options of celibacy and faithfulness.
It is hard to generalise, and responses vary with country and area, but the Pope restated the official Catholic position on AIDS by encouraging compassionate unconditional care, with self-control, chastity and faithfulness. Many were dismayed at Vatican suggestions that even married couples where one is infected should not be allowed to use condoms. With 92 million members in Africa alone, the Catholic Church has great influence.
`Wrath of God' theories are nothing new. Several centuries ago a plague for which there was no cure swept the known world. Signs of infection were absent sometimes for many years and controversies raged over which country it had all started in. It was spread by sexual intercourse. I am referring to syphilis which, as we have seen, only became curable with the advent of penicillin in 1944.
At the time, many saw syphilis as the judgement of God on the sexually immoral. This had two effects: search for a cure was inhibited or actively discouraged---after all, you were interfering with the natural course of judgement. Also, those with syphilis were treated in a less sympathetic way: `It is their own fault and they put society at risk.'
A friend of mine spent some months in a certain developing country a few years ago. Many men came into the hospital clinic where he was working because they had difficulty passing water. Gonorrhoea infection had caused scarring and narrowing of the delicate tube (urethra) inside the penis. Sometimes these people would have full bladders and be in great discomfort. The way to treat this is by pushing a series of rods into the penis, each one larger than the one before, to dilate the stricture. This causes excruciating, unbearable pain unless you use local anaesthetic cream. It is so painful that most surgeons in the United Kingdom do this under a general anaesthetic. The cream was stacked on the shelves and men were screaming out in agony.
Greatly shocked by this my friend asked why the pain-killing cream or a full anaesthetic was not being used. The answer was that this was an immoral disease and the person must be punished. I wish it were not so, but these people had been influenced by atmosphere and culture imported by church missionaries. What has that appalling attitude got in common with the way of Jesus?
You may recoil from this, but you must realise that in many other countries, parts of the church are still fostering the very same attitudes to the very same kind of epidemic. The words are not the same, but the same atmosphere of rejection of the person is there.
Be consistent: if AIDS is the wrath of God, then syphilis was too. I cannot see any real difference between AIDS and any other disease from the medical point of view. The cause and mechanism of illness are different, but people still need care. The agent of the wrath of God is often recorded as being an angel in the Old and New Testaments. It is portrayed as a supernatural intervention that is selective. Contrast this with AIDS, caused by a virus which has probably existed in some shape or form for thousands of years. It has existed in animals for a long time, and maybe also in humans. The explosive spread---as with syphilis---has been along the lines of international travel and sexual relationship. It behaves according to the rules of every other infection with its own particular preferences and effects.
As I said at the beginning of the book---what is so special about AIDS? In one sense, nothing at all. You have been misinformed. The reaction of extreme fear associated with AIDS is unusual. But fear, lack of signs and high death rate from a viral disease are not the same thing as God's judgement. For me, the key to the whole thing is the attitude of Jesus.
Caught in the act
In Chapter 8 of John's Gospel is an important story. At the crack of dawn Jesus was at the temple teaching a huge crowd. Sitting and standing, leaning against the walls, they listened quietly as Jesus sat down. It was still cold under the stark sunlight and the vast stones were damp with dew. Jesus' voice quietly rose and fell. There was silence apart from an occasional cough or the bleat of an animal outside.
Suddenly all heads turned at the sound of a great commotion. Twenty or thirty people burst in shouting and screaming. Jesus stopped. He was used to such interruptions. They happened almost every day---either by friends bringing someone wanting to be healed or by the authorities hoping to provoke a confrontation and arrest him.
A woman was thrown down at his feet. She and Jesus stood up together. She had been discovered in bed half an hour ago with another woman's husband. Caught in the act. The men who brought her were furious, seething with anger. They demanded a response from Jesus: `The law says we must drag her away, pick up rocks and boulders, and stone her to death. What do you say?'
It was yet another trap and Jesus knew it. If he had agreed with the law they would have dragged him away and stoned him for being judgemental and severe. If he had not agreed they would have arrested him for being too liberal.
Jesus did nothing at all. He said nothing at all. The mob were pressing in, repeating their question over and over again, pushing and shoving aggressively. All the while the people in the court were watching and waiting. Tension was rising. Someone was going to get hurt---either Jesus or the woman was likely to be lynched. The very forces who could have prevented it were standing right there in the temple.
Jesus knelt down on the ground under the harsh glare and threats of the men and was silent. He wrote on the ground with his finger. The shouting and abuse got louder.
Jesus stood up and looked at them. Instantly there was quiet. Jesus looked into the eyes of each man standing there. `You who are so perfect, you who have never cheated anyone, lied, or been selfish, you who are always so perfectly loving and kind, you who never lose your temper, you who are so generous, you who have never had a lustful thought . Yes, you come forward now, come and take a stone, come and throw it at this woman. Be the first to throw.'
Jesus looked at each man in turn, but they shrank away, uncomfortable under his gaze. He knelt down again and stared at the ground as he wrote with his finger in the dust. The older men began to peel off from the crowd and disappeared down the temple steps. One at a time they left in silence. Gone were the shouts, the threats, and the abuse. Eventually none was left---only those who had come to hear Jesus teach.
Jesus stood up. The woman was still standing there, her head hung in shame, humiliation and embarrassment. She stood afraid, unable to move, afraid of the men waiting outside, afraid of what Jesus was thinking.
Jesus looked at her. Spies in the crowd were about to slip out and report that Jesus had been trapped: he had given himself away as a liberal by letting an adulterer off free.
Jesus said to the woman, `Where are they? Has no one condemned you?'
`No one, sir,' she replied. Jesus then said two vitally important things: `Then neither do I condemn you,' and then he added: `Do not sin again.'
Men had caught a man and a woman making love. One of them was married to someone else. They let off the man and judged the woman. Double standards: their own they excused, the other they condemned. As far as they were concerned, they were just expressing the natural wrath and displeasure of God, but Jesus rejected their whole attitude. Jesus was concerned not just with actions but also with attitude. As far as he was concerned, to have an adulterous fantasy could be as bad as committing adultery. One person may be no worse than the other---just one had the opportunity and the guts to actually do it, the other no opportunity or was too afraid.
The man who is angry with his brother could be as bad as someone who kills. Read what Jesus said for yourself. Actions are not everything. What goes on in the secret places of your heart and imagination is also vitally important.
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Never do it again
Jesus did not distinguish between the subtleties of wrong. We are all wrong. We have all done wrong or thought wrong. None of us is perfect. As the only perfect man, he was the only person who had the perfect right to condemn the woman, but he did not. Why not?
Because he loved her and understood himself what it was like to be tempted.
Did he excuse her? Not at all. Did he encourage her? Not at all. Did he allow her to get off free? Not at all. He rebuked her. He told her she had been wrong. He told her never to do it again. He told her never to do anything else wrong again. `Go and learn from your lesson' was his message.
They were all wrong: the men were hypocrites. When Jesus said that, every single one realised it was true. Every single one of them had had lustful thoughts and fantasies about other people's wives at some time or other. Every single one of them, if they were really honest, knew that deep down inside they were not as nice as they tried to appear on the outside. Only they and their families knew what they were really like at home with the door closed. Only they knew how selfish and mean they could be sometimes. Their own consciences convicted them, and they backed away. In some ways they were no better and no worse than the woman. If she deserved stoning, so did they.
The trouble is that in every town, in every village, in every church, in every country---and maybe in your home, maybe in yourself---there are attitudes just as revolting to Jesus as the attitudes of that crowd: judgemental, harsh, intolerant, vicious, cruel and bitter. `No!' you may say. `I'm not like that, nor is anyone I know.' Consider this then:
What is your attitude to a clergyman who is prosecuted for sexually abusing children? Banner headlines continue to hit us over church leaders who have been charged with sexually assaulting children.
So much for priests assaulting small boys. What is your attitude to a married priest who is discovered in bed with a another man's wife, or in a public toilet with his trousers and pants down, having anal intercourse with another man?
In most circles inside and outside the church, the reaction to all these things is shock and outrage. You say it is despicable because of his position. That person has undoubtedly lost his ability to lead a congregation. He has been living a charade, a facade behind which lies a guilt-ridden twilight world or else he has rewritten the rule book to make his conduct compatible with his faith. But in your sweeping anger you have condemned him. Your outrage is identical to that angry crowd confronting the woman.
Clergy do not have some super gift of God that keeps them perfect. In fact the Bible does not distinguish between clergy and laity at this point. We are all a royal priesthood. All who claim to be Christians are called to live up to our calling. None of us is exempt. There are no double standards. As you would expect, we read in Paul's letters that there are minimum standards for life and conduct laid down for those appointed to positions of leadership in the church and certainly such responsibility brings special accountability. However, these minimum standards such as managing the household well, being sober and self-controlled, are no more or less than those expected of all of us. It is interesting that the lists of qualifications are all to do with character, not gift or experience.
Individuals who behave in the ways listed above need to be accepted as people, while we may not necessarily accept everything they do or say. As people we find this almost impossible---we either accept the person and what he or she does, or land up rejecting the behaviour and the person. It is not what you say, but the way you say it that can be most important. Some people say they care about drug addicts but give out an atmosphere of coldness. Some people say that as Jesus loved all people, they too accept all people, but still display deep-rooted prejudices at every turn. You who are perfect---you cast the first stone.
God calls us to accept all people and to extend his love to them regardless of whether or not we agree with what they do. `Impossible!' you say. `How can this be reconciled with God's absolute standards?' Jesus came for all men. Not for the perfect but to invite `sinners to repentance'. Did Jesus come to bring forgiveness and peace to the repentant murderer? Of course he did. God's love and mercy is so unbelievably great that if even Hitler had genuinely repented and given his life to God in that bunker in 1945, the Bible tells us he would be in heaven now. Some Christians find this hard to accept. They cannot understand the true reality of God's mercy and forgiveness. Death-bed conversion is real. The thief crucified next to Jesus was told that within a few hours he would be with Jesus `in paradise'.
Judgement without tears is obscene
You may reject all this; you may go through the Bible quoting texts about God's wrath and anger. It is possible to be correct but horribly wrong. It is possible to be correct about God's displeasure but lack love. A well-known Christian leader once said that `to speak of judgement without tears is obscene'. Where are your tears? Go and find your tears of grief for those who are suffering, dying and, you say, in line for judgement. When you have found your tears, then talk to me of judgement---but start with yourself.
Reaping natural consequences?
It is a fact of life that everything has consequences. If you drink and drive you may injure or kill yourself and others. If you sniff cocaine you may get a hole inside your nose---the nose was not designed for cocaine. If you line your lungs with tobacco tar you can get a chronic irritation which may result in coughs and cancer. If you eat badly-cooked chicken you can get food poisoning. If you sleep with someone who is not a virgin, you could catch a number of illnesses which he or she may have caught from a previous partner.
These things are so obvious. Cause and effect is also a central theme in the teaching of Jesus. The Bible teaches that we are creatures of choice. We are not automatons. We are free to choose God's way or our way. If that were not so there would be no point in telling us how to live because we would be unable to respond in any other way at all. But with freedom comes responsibility. The Bible teaches that each of us will have to give account one day for everything we have said, thought, done, should have done and did not do.
The Christian position is that within the Bible our loving Father has recorded guidelines for healthy, stress-free, fulfilled living: `How to be healthy and whole.' So what is the Christian view of sex? Here is a personal view.
Sex was invented by God to be enjoyed. It is one of the most amazing and intensely enjoyable experiences God gave mankind. In God's plan, he intended a man and a woman to marry and in the context of that promise of commitment, care, love and understanding, to explore together the kaleidoscope pleasures of physical love. God intended husband and wife to have unlimited sex: as often as they both would like and enjoy. Out of that beautiful loving relationship were to come children who would grow up feeling loved and secure, with a mum and a dad, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. God loves families. He created human beings to belong to each other, and those whose families had died or were far away to be cared for if they wanted by other families or communities.
Our bodies were not designed for multiple sexual encounters. Such a lifestyle has consequences. It is physically unhealthy. Before AIDS, promiscuity was already becoming more and more unhealthy. It was fairly risky until the advent of antibiotics dealt with gonorrhoea and syphilis. Then some penicillin-resistant strains of gonorrhoea emerged, along with various other infections such as herpes and chlamydia (Pelvic Inflammatory Disease). Now we know that early sex and multiple partners can also cause cervical cancer. This was all before AIDS. Promiscuity has always been unhealthy. Now it can be fatal.
Emotionally, sleeping around has always been hazardous. The result is usually destabilisation of any semi-permanent or permanent relationship. Although polygamy was practised in the Old Testament, the track record of its success and happiness is disastrous. Read the story of Abraham. Adultery usually has catastrophic consequences for one person at least. I have yet to come across a case where it did not. Divorce, too, is nearly always a traumatic disaster leaving lifelong scars. Sleeping around fractures relationships and will always be emotionally risky, unless there are no relationships. If there are no relationships then nothing is at risk. A prostitute / commercial sex worker has no emotional investment in her client---nor her client with her---so there is no loss or trauma. However, there may develop a more sinister and deeper damage to the ability to form lasting loyal commitments. The risk is a lonely bankruptcy of friendship and support after middle life has sapped physical drives and taken its toll on attractiveness and vitality.
Sleeping with multiple partners can have permanent spiritual effects too. The Bible teaches clearly that sex is a wonderful experience and one of the deepest mysteries known to human beings. When a man and a woman sleep together, the Bible says they become `one flesh'. We see the physical expression of this spiritual event when a `half cell' (sperm) from a man fuses with a `half cell' (egg) from a woman and the two become literally `one flesh'. In that moment of history a new being is formed; life is created.
When two people have sexual intercourse, the Bible teaches that irrespective of whether conception occurs, something has taken place which can never be undone.
Sex was designed as the ultimate expression of exclusive covenant love between a man and a woman. Devoid of relationship it is robbed of its quality and enjoyment and becomes a mere mechanical sensation. No wonder many unmarried people reject sleeping around and choose celibacy. They see through the glamorous veneer to the emptiness beneath. Those who are promiscuous are often driven into further and further searches for the ultimate in sexual satisfaction. Once you have divorced the physical act from the whole-person experience you have no hope at all of true fulfilment. Women usually realise this more than men. None of these things will satisfy your heart. You have been cruelly deceived and there may be consequences.
The Christian position is that when we break any of God's designs for living we create tension in our relationship with him. God is perfect and cannot tolerate sin. Nor can he reward us with the warmth of his love and approval when we have turned our backs on his best for us. Sin affects your nearness to God if you are a Christian and prevents your finding God if you are not. There is nothing especially wrong in sexual sin, although its effects can be very destructive of relationship and communities. As we have seen, there is one sense in which it is no more displeasing to God than any other sins against others.
I feel I must say again that often we fall into absurd double standards. People reject adultery or homosexual acts as more wrong in some way than lying or cheating or stealing or being cruel or hating someone. There is no such distinction in the Bible when it comes to separation from God. Sin is sin---the other differences are merely cultural values and must be rejected. The Bible teaches that we are all imperfect. We all think wrong, feel wrong and do wrong. We all fall far short of God's standards. None of us deserves any reward or favours from God, and there is nothing we can do to earn his pleasure. That is why I believe no one has the right to turn and point the finger at someone with AIDS.
You can never be good enough. Human imperfections always remain an impossible barrier between us and God. Without Jesus Christ, you can no more put human beings and God together than olive oil and water: they always separate.
That is why Jesus said, `I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.' There are, we are told, hundreds of ways to God. Maybe, but none of them leads you to a personal relationship with a God who is almighty, omnipotent, unknowable, unreachable and untouchable. Other religions may promise some kind of ethereal consciousness, but that is no substitute for a personal relationship. The reason is obvious. Other religions say that closely following a certain formula for holiness will deal with your imperfection. If only it could. The best formulas in the world and the most ardent efforts might possibly get you a mile or two nearer God. The trouble is that our imperfections distance us from God by several light years! But even after a lifetime of devoted holiness, you would have a chasm of several million miles to cross.
No wonder Jesus himself said he was the only way to oneness with God the Father. Christians believe the good news that God himself provided a rescue plan for mankind because significant movement by us in his direction was impossible. So God himself moved towards us and entered our time-space world. He came in human form as Jesus.
When Jesus died, that whole issue of separation was dealt with for all time. Every single thing that separated us---all the consequences of our wrong doing and wrong attitudes---were lumped on Jesus' shoulders. As a sacrifice for all time he, the perfect God-man, allowed himself to die for us so that we might be forgiven and released from the consequences of what we have done. The result is now a doorway---a narrow one---to union with God our Father. You enter the door not by justifying to God what a wonderful person you are, but by believing and accepting all Jesus came to do---and by making a decision to give your life to him in obedience.
Unless you really understand the way the Bible portrays this separation and how Jesus overcame it, you will never fully grasp what Jesus said to the woman and the accusing crowd that morning; they were all finished. None of them had the remotest hope of peace with God. The men and women in the crowd, the adulteress herself, they were hopelessly blocked from a relationship with their Father. That is, outside of following, believing and trusting in Jesus, the only way, the truth about God and the means of finding the life of God.
To all those who accept Jesus as Lord and turn away from everything wrong (repent means to turn around), he has given a brand new life. That is why Jesus told a would-be follower that he had to be `born again'.
When I became a Christian, in one sense I died. Baptism is a symbol of my burial. When I rose out of the water it was a symbol of my new birth. The Bible says I am now a new creation: `The life I now have is not my life, but the life which Christ lives in me.' This is another mystery.
When someone becomes a Christian, the results are often dramatic.
Parents or children become easier to live with. Marriages begin a new start. Friendships are transformed. A friend of mine who became a Christian invited all his friends to his baptism (we use a local swimming pool). They all turned up with their heavy metal leather jackets and boots. Two were so amazed at what had happened to their friend that when they saw it wasn't just a passing fad, they became Christians as well. When you've seen the real thing, who wants a substitute? Ordinary people changed by something outside themselves.
A friend from the United States told me that he became a Christian partly through his mother's conversion. She was dying of severe kidney disease. The poisons were steadily accumulating in her body. She was not a believer but went to a healing meeting. She was prayed with for healing and felt she had been instantly healed. She went back to the clinic as usual. The doctors were amazed. All the results of medical tests on her kidneys had returned to normal. Life was never the same for her. She became a Christian, and so did her son some time later.
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I met someone recently after an AIDS talk. He told me he had been a heroin addict until three or four years ago when he became a Christian. He broke the habit immediately and is now a leader in his church. This is not unusual. Jesus gives people power by the Holy Spirit when they become Christians.
You can be free to choose God's way even though chained to all kinds of things---addiction, childhood memories, or parts of your own human nature. Jesus came to set you free. You choose to follow him and he does the rest. You exercise your will and he will give you all the resources you need.
After a meeting at a medical school, I overheard a conversation between a medical student and a member of the hospital Christian Union. She was basically asking herself why she couldn't believe in God. `I admire you people. I wish I could believe. You have it all together. You know where you are going. It's all right for you.'
I joined in. I asked her if she really wanted an answer to that question because I believed God wanted to answer it for her. I told her that God loved her whether she believed it or not. I told her the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. Jesus broke the taboos by asking her for a drink. He then told her to go and fetch her husband. She replied that she didn't have one. Jesus agreed with her: `You have been married five times and the man you are now living with is not your husband.' She was shocked. How did he know? She rushed to the village to tell them about this man who knew everything about her.
Such insights can be a part of Christian life today. I prayed for a moment and then said that I felt that part of the reason this girl could not believe was because of her family. She had never known what it was to feel loved, especially by her father, and so could not accept that God could care about her, love her as his child.
She sat down and started to cry. Tears poured down her face as she started to talk about her childhood, not a particularly unhappy one, but one devoid of open affection. She was hurting, bruised and wounded. I asked if she wanted me to pray for her emotions and her past. She did. Even before I prayed her eyes seemed to open and she found she believed deep down. But it is hard to trust a heavenly Father's love if you have never experienced an earthly father's love. After we had prayed she made it clear she wanted to give her whole life to God. She realised she had been living life her way and now wanted to live life God's way. She wanted to turn her back on the past and begin again. She gave her life to God in a very moving prayer. There were tears in my eyes and in her friend's when we had finished.
About a year later I found myself sitting next to her at a conference. Friends had told me previously how much she had changed, how much happier and fulfilled she was, and how her student friends had all been along to various things with her to try and puzzle it out.
People who have never known love find it hard to accept love---whether from a friend, a spouse, or from God. Likewise, people who have never known the balanced firmness and discipline of a loving father and mother can find it hard to understand the discipline, firmness and standards of God.
Jesus loves all people, but not necessarily what people do. He got angry and violent with traders using the temple area to make money out of pilgrims. He walked through the stalls, tipping up the trestle tables and throwing their goods on the ground. There was chaos: their best wares and coins were flying everywhere. Then Jesus came at them again, this time with a whip of cords to drive them right out of the temple. `Gentle Jesus meek and mild' is not the whole Jesus of the Bible. And yet he loved them.
Many of Jesus' words to religious leaders were aggressive and cutting with biting sarcasm and savage wit. Wherever he went he slaughtered hypocrisy, double standards, false religion and disregard for God's holiness. Today we shrink from preaching on many of the things Jesus said because they are so strong.
The thing on which Jesus was strongest of all was love. `Love your neighbour' is hard enough---particularly when the story of the Good Samaritan shows us that your neighbour is whoever you come into contact with, regardless of nationality, background, circumstances, or personal risk.
Loving your neighbour is not enough
Jesus then made one of the most devastating commands that has ever been made. Loving our neighbour is totally inadequate. We are also called to love our enemies, to express God's perfect love to those who hate us, despise us, want to hurt us, and beat us up. Jesus calls us to love those who rape us, cheat us, and those who twist and distort things we say. He commands us to pray for people who persecute us or spitefully use us.
This is not a command to mere forgiveness---though that itself is painfully costly and hard at times. This is a command to actively, positively seek to express warmth, compassion, kindness and understanding to those we humanly would hate and regard as our worst enemies. We are told to pray for their happiness. This was not idle talk: Jesus lived out his message all the way to his crucifixion.
This may seem objectionable, impossible and bizarre---but it is what Jesus said. After all, even the most horrible people tend to be nice to their friends. What is so special about being nice to your friends? What is so remarkable about loving those who love you? Nothing at all. We are called to be a visual aid, an active demonstration, a living temple of God's supreme love. Even more amazing is that God's love for us is incalculably greater than our love for others---because God is infinite and perfect.
Just as we are commanded to love, regardless of response, in a way which is totally without conditions or strings attached, so God our Father loves all people regardless of their response to him.
Now you can see that God does not hate or reject people because he does not like what they do. He weeps over our slowness, our obstinacy, our self-centredness, our stupidity.
When it all goes wrong
When God made creation, he designed man and woman to be physically united in a marriage covenant, to be perfectly loving and perfectly faithful. What happens when it all goes wrong? When people make each other's lives hell in a desperately unhappy marriage , when people cheat each other in adultery, when people sleep around without the covenant commitment of marriage , when people express their sexuality by torturing their partners for pleasure, when children are sexually seduced by adults ? When it all goes wrong, what is the response of our Maker?
Sadness and dismay are his response. Where others are being hurt or emotionally damaged the response is anger. Where people choose to ignore a relationship with him, the result is no relationship with him. A living death, a living hell. An eternal disaster of constant separation. It is not that God's will is for any to be separated from him, but that God is holy. Outside Christ---which is our choice---there can be no reconciliation.
So does God condemn the adulterer? Not at all. He is sad at separation from the one he loves that may result. Does God condemn the practising homosexual? Not at all. He is sad at the distance the sin creates. Does God condemn the hypocrite, the liar, or the person who is mean with money? No, he is sad that the person has missed the way. Does God condemn the person whose rages spill over into violence? No, he is sad that the person is driven by these things.
However, the Bible teaches us that God's sadness and God's anger are closely linked. God is furious at some of the things we do. God's anger is the result of his perfect holiness and justice expressed through creation. God, although our loving heavenly Father, can never compromise. Anger and judgement are the discipline sides of love, to those who refuse to turn away from what is wrong, and refuse to follow him.
At the end of the day the tension between God's love and God's anger is difficult to understand. God is himself a mystery to the human brain limited in time and space to a four-dimensional world.
You reap what you sow. If you sow a certain way of life, you will reap the consequences of it. This is not God's wrath or judgement. This is a normal part of living. God is a loving Father whose wish it is to see the whole of creation united with him again as was the original plan.
It is not his desire to see anyone perish, but for all to come into their full inheritance: life outside the limitations of space and time, a wonderful life for ever free from anguish, pain and suffering.
However, we are created in freedom, and with that come guidelines and responsibilities. With choices come consequences---some of which are, we are told, unpleasant. We are warned that we cannot always undo what we have done and the biggest consequence of all is having to face our Maker after death with our track record. That may not be such a pleasant experience. It may be a terrible shock to those who thought God didn't even exist. But at that time there will be no further opportunities to undo what has been done. The result will be separation from God with all the time-space world stripped away. A continuation of a relationship---or a lack of it. There are people right now who are separated from God and know it. They need to be reconciled to him and experience the warmth of his love.
People think finding God as a Father is very complicated. Becoming a Christian is as simple as apologising to God in your own words for living life your way and agreeing to live life his way, turning your back on the past, acknowledging Jesus as Lord to be worshipped and obeyed, and trusting him for everything. That is the way to experience the love of God as your Father. That is the way to find forgiveness and cleansing for all you have ever done wrong, and that is the way to receive the help, comfort and power of the Holy Spirit.
There are others who are separated who have no idea at all. So consumed are they with earning money, building a business, or making a nice home that they pay no attention to the empty spaces inside. Many of these people finally start being real about themselves when confronted by their own imminent death.
If only I had known what I know now
People who become Christians in later life often say, `If only I had known what I know now. I would not have got divorced. I would still know my kids. I wasted so much of my life. Why didn't anyone tell me before?' They probably did, it just took a sudden jolt to shake them out of their complacency. Death of a friend, adultery by a wife or husband, death of a child, diagnosis of AIDS. With AIDS there is an added dimension. Maybe if the person had become a believer a decade ago, he would not be infected. He could still have been alive in twenty years' time.
Quite often people have not heard before. In the church we can tend to think everyone knows what Christianity is---but in fact very few do in many nations. Saying a prayer or two when in trouble and going to church do not make you a Christian. Being a follower of Jesus is what makes you a Christian. Jesus said that even the devil believes. It is the desire above all else to do God's will that makes the difference. `Whoever cares for his own safety is lost; but if a man will let himself be lost for my sake, that man is safe.' In businesses we often talk of the cost benefit analysis. Is a project likely to be worthwhile? In the church we major on benefits, but when did you last hear a sermon about the cost? Jesus majored on the cost, just as he majored on choice, responsibility, accountability and consequences.
It was Jesus himself who said that if my right eye caused me to go wrong then I should pluck it out (figuratively speaking) and throw it away rather than `be thrown into hell where the devouring worm never dies and the fire is not quenched'. Strong words from the strongest man the world has ever seen. You may not like them and I may not like talking about this whole area, but it is part of the truth. To say otherwise is to make God out to be some amoral, ethereal substance, neither able to feel nor think. Some indescribable, unknowable something-or-other as vague as energy or cosmos. My God is more than that: Author, Originator, Prime Mover, who created a conscious, moral, decision-making, spiritually-aware creature capable of relationships. Man was made in God's own image, a creature to have a relationship with his Maker, who is revealed to him in terms of an ultimate relationship: that of Father to son or daughter.
How do we respond?
So how do we respond in a practical way? Even those who passionately defend their promiscuity or adultery or homosexual sex on moral grounds concede that if I found a friend of mine, a leader of a church, was having an affair with another man's wife, I should tell him to stop. In fact I usually find people outside the church are even fiercer in speaking out against such behaviour than many in the church. Those in the church are expected to behave! If I ask why, they say that a clergyman must act in a moral fashion. I agree.
The Bible is quite clear that those who call themselves Christians are called to be loving, kind, generous, honest and either faithful to their spouses or celibate. To remain single, following the example of Jesus, is shown to be a positive, releasing decision, because it frees the person enormously to be mobile, able to go wherever God wants. The Bible is exceptionally clear in outlawing sex between unmarried people and sex with other people's spouses. Sex between two men or two women is considered in just the same way as sex between unmarried people. For those in the church it is forbidden. Sex between a son and his mother or a father and his daughter or with animals is also outlawed. In fact any form of sexual intercourse outside of marriage is utterly forbidden.
Sex is not unique in this regard. To bear a grudge is also forbidden. To be moody and feel sorry for myself all the time is forbidden. To get drunk is forbidden. The way of Jesus is the way of perfect love.
This feels very negative---boundaries always feel negative. I used to tell my son when he was four years old son he could cycle around the park but must keep within sight of me, he will feel I am negative. Boundaries are essential. Any child psychologist will tell you what happens when children don't know their boundaries. They are always testing to find the limits of what is acceptable. When there are no limits---or worse, the limits always vary---the child becomes insecure and can grow up immature. He may also be constantly at risk through lack of supervision.
Boundaries for healthy living
Out-of-bounds areas are marked for protection and safety. The recent wars have left hundreds of square miles of deserted land surrounded by barbed-wire. The reason is that hundreds of thousands of tiny plastic explosive charges lie inches beneath the soil. Treading on one can cost you a leg or a foot. These land-mines cannot be detected because they contain no metal and they cannot be destroyed.
It would be strange if there were no fences, no barbed-wire, no warning signs. You can climb over if you like. No one will stop you, although they may shout at you not to be so stupid. You have been warned by people who care and by people who knew that your instincts would be to run over the beautiful inviting fields and meadows.
The out-of-bounds areas laid down for us are not some great negative moralistic statement, but warning signs: `Enter here at your peril, it could cost you.' It will cost you. It may cost you emotionally, physically, psychologically, and will certainly cost you spiritually. When we flout what God has given us as guidelines for life, whether by being selfish, dishonest, gossiping, being unkind, or by being unfaithful or uncontrolled in our sexual lives, there are spiritual consequences. It creates tension in our walk or communion with him. It creates a barrier that can only be removed by confessing to God that we have been wrong and have disobeyed. This is the only route to forgiveness, cleansing, wholeness and inner healing.
In conclusion, then, my own view based on a thorough reading of the Bible, together with the historic teachings of the church, is that AIDS is not an expression of the wrath or judgement of God, but is a part of the world of cause and effect in which we live. When it comes to the practicalities of healthy living, the Bible confirms what common sense tells us: that we are not designed for multiple sexual encounters and there is another way to live. However, all with AIDS need our unconditional care. Such basic Christian principles are timeless and cultureless, transcending all people groups.
A Christian response to AIDS
We need a vision to meet the challenge: demonstrating the love of God and teaching people how to live healthy lives. Part of this will be seeking to challenge and fight oppression, stigmatisation and prejudice wherever we find them, and also challenging our society to reconsider its values. The church in every age is called to be salt and light transforming the whole of society by its witness and work, not just the lives of believers.
We need to recognise that as the church we have also contributed to the AIDS situation today by failing in previous decades to give a clear lead, to challenge behaviour, to model an alternative lifestyle and to proclaim the gospel. Many of those finding faith today are finding faith when the HIV damage has already been done.
So having considered some of the questions about sexuality and moral codes, we need to look at one other big issue before we look in detail at how we can respond practically. First, then, the issue of death. It's an issue I have often faced as a hospice-trained doctor.
Death and dying are no strangers to me in cancer work, yet walking onto an AIDS ward for the first time was quite a shock. This was an acute hospital ward of mainly young men, many of whom would be going home. What kind of care people ill with AIDS receive will depend to a large extent on whether the rest of us have sorted out our own death and mortality, or whether we are going to pretend death doesn't exist. Medicine is not known for its honesty---least of all over life and death issues---and the church is also struggling. Why?