Who controls the future? Do we have free-will or is it all fixed?

Do you believe in free-will?

I have had an interesting comment on a recent blog, Has the sermon had its day?  It (The comment, not the blog) raises the question of whether all in life, and especially in death, is predetermined or whether we have free-will and whether the answer proves or disproves the existence of God. I have put the comment and my reply below. For those of you who find this debate irrelevant, I will say something more down-to-earth in my next blog.

The comment.

John, how can we have free will and an omnipotent God? If this life is a test to gain entry to a heavenly afterlife then an omnipotent God would know the results before the entrant sat down to take the test.

Conversely, if we have free will then there can be no God as we know him because he cannot know the results before the entrant sits the test. Anything short of an all-knowing, all-powerful God really cannot be considered a god at all.

If there’s a preacher out their who can break the paradox, then the sermon lives on. If not, the sermon is dead, as is religion.


Dice - is everything down to chance rather than free-will?
Dice – is everything down to chance rather than free-will?

My reply.

Hi Karl,
The question you raise is one which has taxed greater minds than mine down the ages. Among Protestants, John Calvin, the reformer, writing in the 16th century, is the most famous proponent of predestination. The free-will view is sometimes called Arminianism, presumably after someone called Arminius. In the Catholic Church, the debate broke out in the 17th century in France, where the predestination view was propounded by Jansen, whilst the Jesuits held the free-will position. Both sides find plenty of scripture to support their position.
Moslems, Hindus and Jews have all recognised and found ways of resolving or living with this dilemma too.

Do Atheists believe in free-will?

If you think Atheism is the answer, think again! I have heard debates among Atheists where some believe all is predetermined, and others that it is not. This raises problems over accountability and punishment, among other issues.
Most modern Christians, and many before, accept that both views are true in a way. Some have tried to intellectually reconcile them. Most leave that problem to God. We believe in God for lots of reasons and are not put off by philosophical issues we can’t resolve. I can’t explain what electricity is, or light, but I do not deny their existence or refuse to benefit from them. Try it. With God, I mean, not electricity!

Has the sermon had its day? Is there an alternative?

Do we have to have a sermon in every church service?

For most churchgoers, and for a lot of other people, this may sound like a ridiculous question. Surely, a sermon is an essential element in a church service: without it, the singing, prayers and liturgy would all seem rather pointless.

It is not as if the sermon was something introduced at some time in history by church leaders for questionable reasons. Jesus preached sermons. So did Peter, Paul and most of the apostles. Almost all great leaders in the church have been great preachers. Luther, Wesley, Spurgeon, Booth. Time and again, the Bible exhorts Christians to study scripture and exhorts leaders to teach. ‘Feed my sheep’.  Teaching is listed as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. What would be the point of a gift if it was not to be used?

I could rest my case, could I not? Well, no. Not everyone agrees.

What’s wrong with having a sermon?

Some people would say that they do not need anyone else to tell them what to think. We can all make our own minds up about everything. Is it not the height of arrogance to stand ‘six feet above contradiction’ and inflict your views on everyone else? Why can each of us not just read the Bible and work out what it means for ourselves?

  • One important point is that in Jesus’ day most people were illiterate. That remained the case until well into the twentieth century. They needed to have the scripture read aloud and then explained to them.
  • In any case, why is there no opportunity to argue with, or at least question, the preacher? Nobody is infallible. Most educators today agree that discussion and questioning are more effective ways of learning than sitting passively, listening.
  • All the above has been true for decades. More recently, the internet has changed things again. It is now possible to get teaching online and to enter into discussions by means of blogs and tweets. You do not need to sit in front of a preacher.
Are the sermon and preacher becoming redundant?
Are the sermon and preacher becoming redundant?

You may be surprised to know that a lot of Christians agree. There are opportunities to meet and discuss the faith in things like Alpha and Journeys.

See http://alpha.org/ or http://willowcreek.org.uk/product/journeys/

I personally commend both of these courses and believe people should continue to meet and discuss their faith after they have finished the course. Many churches do provide for just that.

There are also plenty of online sources of teaching, many interactive. Have a look at the resources offered by the Bible Society. https://www.biblesociety.org.uk/

There are even some virtual churches. I am not aware of any based in the UK but I know of some in the USA.

So is the sermon on its way out?

I believe there is room for several approaches. We should value the knowledge of people who have made a study of scripture at university and can help us see what the books of the Bible meant at the time they were written and can help us see how to apply their messages today. I also think we should value the experience of those who have been working at living a Christian life longer than ourselves, whether they are ordained or not.

For some, a sermon will be the best way. We need to recognise that some people are more effective when given a free hand to prepare and speak at length, developing a theme and illustrating each point, without interruption. That does not mean we should not have the opportunity to discuss their sermons, whether immediately or on another day. Others are better when engaged in lively discussion with little specific preparation.

There are many models of church and some of us are working on creating new ones. Teaching and studying the Bible must always be elements in whatever we do. So let us not throw out the baby of God’s Truth with the bathwater of the traditional sermon.


Do you love or hate your Prime Minister? Or anyone else?

Hate is in the air.

The Prime Minister and other politicians have been the targets for a lot of hate recently. Partly due to the election result, partly to the London fire.

Let’s be fair.

They may well be due for some criticism. We all have to live with that. We writers have to subject ourselves to professional critics, not to mention lots of amateur ones. Some of the criticism is probably unfair. The flats were not built in the last year, and the regulations were not made by the current government. A lot of people have for a long time accepted the fact that councils had to control their expenditure on housing. What would you have cut to fund a higher standard of building? The NHS? Education? Benefits? That does not mean the government should not be held to account.  Some criticism is probably justified towards many people and organisations. But be fair.

Hate is something else. It may make us feel good for a moment, but it harms us all in the long run.

There was not much hate after recent terrorist incidents

I have been moved by the response to the Manchester bomb and the Borough Market attack. Londoners and Mancunians showed solidarity and love. They did not look for scapegoats. Especially not local Moslems. There was criticism of the Police and MI5. Fair enough. But not hate.

Can we not love our Prime Minister, and all those in government and local government? Pray for the victims and all who have been affected by  these events, including members of the emergency services, who have suffered a lot. Can you not also pray for the Prime Minister and her colleagues?

Let love defeat hate.

St Paul wrote, at the end of Chapter 12 of his letter to the Romans, in the Bible, Be not overcome by evil, but take the initiative and overcome evil with good.

Do you have to be a Christian to agree?

Why must I choose between religions? What about toleration and inclusivity?

Choice of religion? What choice?

For most people in the World, religion is not really a matter of choice. People tend to follow the religion of their parents and/or of the overwhelming majority of their countrymen. Those who choose to choose, find there are often unpleasant consequences, as their community often sees such a choice as a betrayal.

The right to choose your religion.

In more tolerant societies, on the other hand, not only do people take freedom of choice for granted, but they regard inclusiveness as a common value to which we all subscribe, or at least aspire.

One of the objections many people have to religion is that it tends to be divisive. Religious intolerance is one of the major causes of civil wars and terrorism. (Does Communism count?)

Preacher - defending all religions or just one?
Preacher – defending all religions or just one?
What’s so different anyway? Religions are all the same.

People who have been curious enough to study more than one religion have often commented on the similarities, which you can so easily overlook if you obsess about the differences.  Surely, all religions involve these things?

  • a belief in a supreme being
  • a holy book
  • a priesthood
  • concern for the poor
  • repudiation of materialism
  • miracles
  • mystical experiences
What right do you have to judge?

Are you not being highly arrogant if you claim one religion is all-good and all the rest are bad? Should you not be open to all of them and draw on the elements of each religion that you personally relate to? Why limit yourself? At least be generous enough to admit that, even if you find one religion satisfies you, other people may find their needs being met by another?

Do your faith and your doubts cover all religions?
Do your faith and your doubts cover all religions?
So do I agree?

I really do see the strength of all the above arguments and I certainly reject intolerance and agree that nothing justifies treating people badly in any way merely because of their religion. All human beings should be entitled to being treated as well… human, whoever they are. Even Republicans.

Other hand? What other hand?

There are, however, two things to be said on the other side. Things which people often overlook these days.

Vive la difference?

Perhaps the similarities mentioned above are only superficial. Some people have found the real differences to run deeper. If you were to describe a holiday in New York and a holiday in Moscow, both starting from Warrington, the stories might sound the same at first: the trip to Manchester Airport, going through Customs and Security, boarding the plane, the in-flight movie, the meal, landing etc. But those two cities are very different when you get there.

An example of differences between religions in a potentially real situation.

Think about the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus held him up as a good example of how to behave. He helped a stranger in real need. Now think how  followers of certain other religions might have reacted.

  • If you help someone, beyond any existing obligation, it puts them under an obligation to you. That is not a thing to do too readily.(Shinto).
  • It was his fate to be attacked and robbed, who are you to challenge it? (Hinduism).
  • The man needs to learn spirituality through suffering. (Buddhism).

I apologise for any caricaturing, but I am trying to illustrate a point. You have to choose between those attitudes. You cannot hold them all at once.

Finally, the Big Issue! Is any religion the right one?

All the above, is based on the supposition that there is no objective truth about religions. They are products of Man’s attempts at making sense of the World. Religious beliefs are socially determined. This means you must believe that there is no actual god, merely an extension and expression of ourselves, or that there is one, but we cannot know him. All religions are thus equally valid and equally limited.

What if there is a God and he has made himself known once and for all. That is the assertion of Christianity. You do not have to believe that all other religions are totally wrong. Judaism is not a false religion, in the eyes of Christians. It is based on everything God revealed about himself in the Old Testament. Christians regard it as incomplete, as it fails to recognise Jesus as the promised Messiah. Similarly, Christians do not deny that a lot of the teachings of other religions are good, just that there is something essential missing from them.

You must decide for yourself if the claims of Christianity are true. I hope anyway that you will understand why some of us can go only so far with inter-faith dialogue. BUT please remember:

  • There is plenty of scope for sharing, listening, learning.
  • We need to treat all religions and all people with respect.
  • There is plenty of scope for celebrating those things we do have in common.

Christians must, however, ask everyone to make a choice.

How much happiness can money buy?

I have written several articles about happiness, looking at various factors that can make you happy. Or happier. Or less miserable. What about the thing everyone wants, that we all hope will make us happy: money?


You might expect me to take the view of many Christians, among others, that money cannot buy happiness. Did not Jesus say, ‘money is the root of all evil’ and all that? Well, no! He said,’The love of money is the root of all evil’ which is about our attitudes not our wealth.

The scientific research on this subject is interesting. It shows that poverty reduces happiness. A lot. There is some disagreement as to whether this should mean absolute or relative poverty. I think that at the extreme it is absolute. In other words, being cold, hungry and afraid will make you unhappy even if you are a bit better off than your neighbours. However, being adequately fed, clothed and housed may not be enough if you are being constantly reminded of the lifestyles of the very rich. The media and social media have a lot to answer for. So does the advertising industry.


Another thing the research has shown is that as wealth increases beyond a certain point, happiness does not. Your second million does not make you twice as happy as the first. People keep on chasing money out of a desire to succeed rather than because they actually want to buy more things.

What I am saying is that money is not everything. But it is something.

What victims should we be praying for?

Most people of any sort of faith have been praying for the victims of the terrorist outrage in Manchester.

  • The wounded
  • The bereaved
  • The rescuers
  • The doctors, nurses, care-givers
  • the police and security services

They all need our prayers at this time. And afterwards.

Is there a group I missed?

What about the terrorists? Surely they too are victims. Not only the one who died at the scene. Am I condoning their actions? The very opposite. I find it hard to imagine anyone thinking such an act could serve any god or any human cause.

I want to pray for:

  • Anyone who feels otherwise.
  • Anyone who was involved in any way.
  • Anyone thinking of doing anything similar.
  • Anyone who wants to cheer for the terrorists.

Let us pray not only that they never succeed, but that they may change.

  • May God open their eyes.
  • May they turn away from their path.
  • May they find a better way.

They too are victims. 

People will be walking and praying in West Warrington on 25/5/17

Christians in West Warrington will be praying in the streets as well as in their churches this Ascension Day, Thursday 25th May. They are responding to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Thy Kingdom Come initiative, calling on Christians to pray for others to come to know Jesus. It marks the first of ten days of prayer. People will be praying in each of the four Anglican churches of West Warrington at certain times and will be praying as they walk between them.
Says Pioneer Team Rector, Rev.Jeremy Tear, “Not everyone is expected to walk the whole way or visit all four churches (though I hope to manage that myself!). People are welcome to join us for any part of the time. You don’t have to be a member of one of our churches to join in. All are invited to pray.”
Similar events are being held throughout this country and in many others. Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, the Methodists and most other denominations are backing this call. The Archbishop, Justin Welby, says, “Coming to know Jesus was the most important thing that ever happened to me. I am praying that others will find the same love, joy and peace he brings.”
People will be praying at St James’s, Great Sankey, at 9.00 am, at St Philip’s, Westbrook, at 11.00 am, at St Paul’s, in The Oaks Centre, Penketh, at 1.30 pm, and at St Mary’s, Great Sankey, at 3.30 pm. The day will end with a service of Holy Communion in St James’s at 7.30 pm.
Jeremy added, “Ascension Day is when we remember the day Jesus left the Earth to go back to his Father in Heaven. That’s when he told his followers that they were to be witnesses to him both locally, nationally and internationally. Our prayers are one way of making that happen.”
Other events will be happening over the following nine days, locally nationally and internationally. For more information about this initiative, see www.thykingdomcome.global
“In praying ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ we all commit to playing our part in the renewal of the nations and the transformation of communities.”
Archbishop Justin Welby.

Join us. Walk. Pray. Be part of it.

How to increase happiness: give it away!

I have written about the risk of giving away money unintentionally.


I have also written about some of the findings from scientific research into happiness. Another finding is that, unlike money, happiness grows when you give it away.  In other words, you find yourself feeling happier after you have done something to make someone else happy. I don’t know if anyone knows why, but it seems to be so.

How? Could you volunteer for something?

Of course, not everyone is cut out to be a do-gooder. I know I am not. I prefer to keep to myself. Except online. But it is a matter of degree. Even doing a little to help someone, occasionally, can do you good.

Where to start? There are lots of charities and not-for-profit organisations that are always looking for another volunteer. Increasingly, local authorities are inviting the public to volunteer in some of their activities too. Pick one that suits you, both in the nature of the activity and the organisation’s objectives. If you love animals, an animal charity may be best. If you are concerned about poverty in other parts of the world, you might find an opportunity to go overseas to volunteer with a project, or you could get involved in publicity or fundraising without leaving home.

If you find you cannot cope with too much organisation, you don’t have to. Just find someone who needs a little help and provide it on a one-to-one basis, whether doing their garden, taking them out, or just sitting and listening to them for a bit.

There are many reasons for doing good, but one is that it does you good. Amazing!

Do you prefer to read paperbacks or e-books?

I thought I was a bit old fashioned sticking to reading physical books, although I do read books online nowadays, mainly because they are cheaper. I still like to hold a book in my hands.

I publish my own books both ways. This is partly to reach the widest possible readership. I also like to keep a few handy, at home or in the car, in case I want to show them to someone or even sell one face to face. It is less straightforward if they have to go online.

However, I have just heard that sales of e-books have started to decline, while paperback sales are going up.

Total sales of all books are up [Hooray!].



What’s happening?

People suggest that nowadays we all spend so much time in front of our computers and tablets that it’s nice to shut them down and do something different to relax. It may also be because many people use their phones for a lot of things and find them not to be the best way to read a book. Another suggestion is that people like to read on trains, planes, beaches, park benches and lots of places where it’s easy to lose your book or get it wet or covered in sand. Books can survive better than anything electronic and anyway they are more expendable.

Whichever way you prefer to read, please do so and encourage others.

And enjoy it!

Can you be healthy and happy?

Most people agree that health is the most important thing in life. Those who disagree generally put it in the top three things. So why would I question it?

Of course, there are plenty of people with long term illnesses and disabilities who manage to lead happy lives. How they do it could be the subject of another series of articles. Let’s suppose for a start that they concentrate on all the other things that make for happiness, some of which I have already written about. That does not disprove the statement that, overall, staying healthy helps you to be happy.

The trouble is that nowadays there is so much written and spoken about health, and there seems little consensus on what makes for a healthy lifestyle. So many diets and exercise regimes are recommended, only to be replaced by the next ‘breakthrough’ (or fad if you like).

  • Worrying about your health can make you unhappy, even when you are well.
  • Obsessing about your diet or exercise can lead to a lot of anxiety and keep you from enjoying the health you do have, even if it could be better.

The advice that makes sense, taken from a number of sources, is that to be happy you should take care of your health without making it a cause of anxiety. Here are a few simple tips that almost everyone seems to agree on.

  • Avoid taking recreational drugs.
  • Do take any medicines prescribed by your doctor.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation.
  • Take regular exercise of some kind.
  • Avoid faddy or extreme diets, unless advised by your doctor.
  • Keep to a sensible weight: overeating is bad, regardless of the make-up of the diet.
  • Get enough sleep, whether you are an early or late person.

In case you are in doubt, I am addressing people who are relatively well-off, by global standards. In some places, overeating is not an issue: starvation and malnutrition are. For many people, getting enough to eat would make them happy.

But for you and me, it’s about being sensible, so as to be healthy and be happy.