Category Archives: Confusion

Honestly…

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

(Matthew 7.7-11)

I love to read and hear of answered prayer, of those wonderful stories of healing, deliverance, divine provision for financial and physical need which we find in the bible but also in the stories of many believers down through the ages.

We are rightly encouraged to pray for one another, to ask God to heal, provide, direct and work in and through us as we seek to obey him and work together for the increase of his kingdom. Jesus, in these words is telling his disciples – and through them, us – to ask, expectantly and with faith, and then to await the good gifts which God will give us.

In obedience therefore, I pray for friends, for missionaries, for the work of preaching and evangelism, discipling and serving which is going on all the time. I pray for the growth in faith of my children, for God’s leading and directing of their lives according to his will. I pray for my own life, that I might bear faithful and lively witness to the love of God for me and the power of his spirit to transform and make beautiful that which was marred by sin.

And yet, am I the only one who sometimes reads those words of Jesus, and wants to cry out in agonised response that God’s answer feels like a stone instead of bread, like a vicious, stinging snake instead of a nourishing fish?

What of those prayers of faithful Christian parents for children who are steadfastly walking away from Jesus, choosing to reject the Lord who loves them? What of the spouse praying earnestly for the healing of a diseased partner, and watching instead as the life of the beloved ebbs away? We surely all know of believers who have watched livelihoods vanish through no fault of their own, families crumble under economic strain and physical trials. How does Jesus’ command sound in the ears of parents watching their children suffer and die as a result of war, famine and displacement? Where are the good gifts of God then?

I believe that we do ourselves no good if we ignore such troubling questions, and I also believe that our God knows we must wrestle with them, because he made our minds to question and enquire. We must face the reality that the answers to our prayers are not always what we think are good for us, and we struggle to see how they can possibly be the will of a good and loving God. Honesty compels us to bring our doubting and bruised hearts to God, who has commanded us to pray and to ask in confidence.

When I do this, I am acknowledging that although I do not understand, I am submitting to the mystery of God’s infinite understanding. Jesus sought for an answer to prayer which was denied him, as he asked in Gethsemane for the cup of suffering to be taken away. He got the very thing he most dreaded, and chose to trust and embrace that answer because he knew the one from whom it came. How we struggle with mystery, and strive by any means to make God do as we desire!

Consider Paul, who asked three times for his particular ‘thorn’ to be removed, but God instead said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. Consider Ezekiel, who was unable ever to fulfill his heart’s desire and serve God as a priest in the temple, because he was born and lived all his life in exile. Consider Hosea, who was called to be faithful to an unfaithful wife, living with the open wound of her adulteries. These men never got the answers which they longed for. Instead, they received grace for their need.

Am I willing to go on trusting God when he consistently answers my prayers for good things in ways which cause me continued grief?

I must, because the death of Jesus for me – like a solid foundation – proves conclusively the lengths to which God will go to show his love. If that death is true, and I believe it is, then no matter my struggles, I must accept that I am loved, in and through all that happens to me, and that His grace will be sufficient also for my weakness.

Thought-police?

For though we live in the world, we do  not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

(2 Corinthians 10.3-5)

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or  praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. and the God of peace will be with you.

(Philippians 3.8&9)

 I wonder if you are sometimes deeply disturbed by the thoughts that percolate to the surface of your mind, when the voice you hear is bitter, angry, vengeful or simply loaded with the lead-weight of self-pity?

This has been and continues to be my experience, much more often than I care to admit, and it is easy to fall into despair over the apparent lack of change in one’s innermost attitudes, even after years of walking with Jesus.

I was therefore greatly encouraged in a recent brief conversation about these depressingly frequent, and totally ungodly thoughts, to be reminded that it is not so much that they come which should concern me, as what I do about them!

Let me explain.. In his words from 2 Corinthians 10, quoted above, the apostle Paul talks about “taking every thought captive”, as part of a longer passage about the war which we wage as believers against the powers in the world which oppose our faith. A soldier in a battle situation, seeing an enemy appear on his horizon has a choice – to oppose, to avoid, or to welcome him! To welcome the enemy is to be a traitor to one’s own cause, and to avoid doing anything to him is almost as bad, since it leaves him free to attack again another time. But to oppose, to do battle and struggle, to subdue and take him captive, is to be loyal to one’s own cause, to act in obedience to the orders received, and reduce the risk to oneself.

So when I apply this picture to the whole business of my thoughts, of what comes into my head as daily life with all its challenges comes my way, what do I find? Why that I also have a choice! When I find angry thoughts in my heart because of the way I have been treated, I recognise them as an enemy, and choose – with God’s power at work in me – not to speak or act upon those thoughts. I choose to follow the example of Christ who turned the other cheek to his persecutors, and to forgive them as I remember how much I have been forgiven by God.

It can be a great struggle, never under-estimate the power of your thoughts to drive a steam-roller through your good intentions! But rely instead on the power which God supplies, by his spirit within us, to claim the victory which Christ has won over the power of evil in his children’s lives. We are, in him, sweeter than our bitter thoughts; more forgiving than our grudges; more patient than our intolerance and more securely grounded than our doubts.

Ultimately, it is as we look upon Christ, absorbing more and more of his life and likeness, that we find our victory over our rebellious thoughts. As we allow the word of God – the person of Christ as revealed in the words of Scripture – to soak into heart and head, we are transformed. And be sure the devil will make every effort to undermine that work in you, in me. If he can tie us up in despair over our ungodly thoughts, he has disabled us, and instead of us claiming a victory for God, we become a casualty, a prisoner-of-war who needs to be rescued all over again and meantime is of no use in at the frontline!

So let us embrace Paul’s good advice to the Philippians, to direct our thoughts to all the goodness and beauty which God has revealed – in the world, in his people, and ultimately and most clearly, in the person of His Son, our Lord. In him, we have the victory, let us claim it!

How…?

You might get all the wrong ideas about me from the way I write… My  life in no way resembles this beautiful garden, where colour and shape are all taken into account in an orderly way to create a satisfying and organised result which pleases the senses! A more accurate picture of my life would include the guddle behind the garden shed where things are dumped as ‘they might come in handy’; the dusty corner of the shed where old packets lie under rusty tools, old curtains and plant pots. Then there is the bit where useful things are kept in an unorganised heap, so that everytime I need the secateurs I have to do a major excavation! Oh dear, no my life picture is not pretty…

Am I the only Christian who has heaps of prayer letters that get moved around and glanced at in a guilty way, but never quite prayed through? What about all those bible study notes that I meant to go over again because they were so interesting? And the books and internet articles which are worth reading, not to mention the online sermons to listen to. Then there are the personal commitments to friends and family, to pray for them… How can I work out a way to do this effectively and regularly?

It seems that I am constantly remembering the things I have forgotten to do, and realising that I seem unable to create a structure within which I can pray, study and grow in my faith as I long to do! As human beings we can only really concentrate on one thing at a time, and so my intercessions all too often get lost behind the weekly shop, the imminent need to tidy up, to organise rotas and be in touch with people to make sure things happen.

I think that my loving Father knows this… He is not surprised by my lack of progress in faith, my intermittent intercessions, and my chronic forgetfulness of all those wise things that have been said and which at the time encouraged me so much!!

But I do get weary of this sense of muddle, of not getting the right priorities in my use of time and as a result being profoundly dissatisfied with myself.. What a relief to remember that it is not my organisational abilities, or the efficiency of my prayer life which is the foundation of my hope for the future! It is all secure in Christ, and while I can aspire to become more like him, I do not need to ‘do’anything in order to receive salvation.

 I don’t know if Paul experienced anything like this. His letters breathe a passionate commitment to his Lord and the proclamation of the gospel, which overrides every consideration of health and comfort. He exorts his readers to pursue their calling, to work out their faith and obey no matter what. The writer to the Hebrews puts it very graphically in the great twelfth chapter:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

(Hebrews 12.1)

Am I being too ambitious in my desire for a more ordered life, where prayer and bible study can have a higher profile?  Do I need to recognise and remove things that are hindering me – which may be good in themselves, just not the right things for me at this time! There must be a balance to be achieved, a balance which my heavenly Father can see, between my desire for time with him, and my duties to my spouse and family; my friends and community; our church family and events and the hobbies which I believe are part of the way that God nurtures me and gives me joy in living with him every day.

May we all be given wisdom to discern how we may best use the days and strength given to us – not in comparison to anyone else, but according to the leading of God and his will for our lives.

Drop thy still dews of quietness, till all our strivings cease;

Take from our souls the strain and stress, and let our ordered lives confess

The beauty of thy peace.

(John Greenleaf Whittier 1807-82)

Crushed?.. no just hard-pressed!

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed….

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

(2Cor 4. 8,9,16-18)

For some of our christian brothers and sisters in the world today this passage is a physical reality, as they suffer oppression, injury and death as a result of their faith. Here in my homeland, I know nothing of this, and can barely imagine how I would react under the pressure. There is always a challenge to us in these words of Paul, who did know pain, persecution and much deprivation, to ask what we will do with our wealth and freedom for our fellow believers in need? How am I reacting as a part of the body of Christ to the suffering of other parts of the body: am I ignoring it, trying to numb myself to the pain? Or am I allowing myself to feel the ache, to let holy anger drive me to prayer, to lobby my politicians, to support agencies working to bring practical help and comfort to my brothers and sisters?

There is another sense in which these words apply to all of us, and which allow us to draw strength from Paul’s rallying cry to persevere in faith. I am thinking about the way in which life itself, the messy business of relationships, of dealing with family, work, health problems and so on, seems to get in the way of having a strong and joyful witness! How often do we find ourselves struggling with questions of guidance, of making wise decisions in very tricky circumstances. Or facing broken-down cars; faulty boilers; unfortunate complications in our travel arrangements; things just not working out smoothly and easily for us?

I think it is very important to see that Paul does not explain his troubles as being the result of unusual persecution; nor as the result of mistakes he has made in his walk with God. They are part of life, to be expected – although not necessarily welcomed with glee! We live in a broken world, among broken people, and until the wrapping up of this world and the inauguration of the next, we will have trouble. The challenge is what we as followers of Jesus do as a result of our troubles.

Do we allow them to drive a wedge between us and our God? Do we allow difficulty and weariness to feed our doubts about God’s love and faithfulness? Not Paul, he saw clearly through the immediate swirling clouds of struggle, to the clear shining light of a heavenly reward, and the hope of what God was already doing in his life as Paul continued to trust him.

This is a continual challenge for me, to do battle with my doubts and fears in the face of the pain of the world, and my own small struggles, and to trust in the utter goodness of God. I find it enormously comforting that Paul doesn’t hide his suffering, but rather brings it to the right place – into the open at the throne of God. Here is the one who sees and knows all that is happening, and who alone knows the true picture of which each individual life is a single thread. He is in the business of creating glory, harmony, beauty, an eternally satisfying and living work of art; and when we finally see it and take our rightful place in it, we will no longer question the maker!

 So in my perplexities and doubts, as I face tangled situations where there seems no right way ahead, I keep coming to God, trusting that He can take each small step I make and use it for my blessing and His glory. The key is to keep moving, to do the next thing, even if it seems tiny, so that He can direct my journey. If I stand still, paralysed by doubts, I will get nowhere, and be rendered useless in my Lord’s service. The words of an old Scottish paraphrase based on Genesis 28, where Jacob has fled from home, and is literally in the middle of nowhere without a clue what to do next, are a fitting way to end this week, and a lovely prayer for every week!

Through each perplexing path of life our wandering footsteps guide;

Give us each day our daily bread, and raiment fit provide.

O spread thy covering wings around, till all our wanderings cease,

And at our Father’s loved abode our souls arrive in peace.

(Paraphrase 2, – O God of Bethel!,Gen 28.20-22, verses 3&4)