Category Archives: forgiveness

Living with failure..

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness… My dear children, I write this to you so that you will  not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence – Jesus Christ, the righteous one. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

(1 John 1.8-2.2)

Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false. He will receive blessing from the Lord and vindication from God his Saviour.

(Psalm 24. 3-5)

I am perhaps not alone in being of a rather self-critical frame of mind – I am invariably the first to apologise in a painful situation (often when I haven’t actually done anything that I can see was wrong!); and given the opportunity for introspection will tend to dwell more readily on my failures than my strengths and successes.

As a parent, I have a great deal of material on which to dwell, looking back over 21 or so years where I have missed opportunities to model a lively faith; a healthy marriage; a missionary spirit…There are friends whom I have neglected, or unwittingly hurt deeply; siblings whom I have failed to support in their times of need as I feel I ought to have done. And that most poisonous of regrets – things I failed to do for my parents while they were still alive and within reach of my words and hands.

I have failed to pray for the tormented and suffering in the world – near and far – as faithfully as I could have done; I have failed to give thanks for answered prayers – for myself and others. I have not studied my bible regularly, not committed the words to memory, not learnt to share it with others in a way that can reach and bless them.

I look up to the hill of God with the psalmist and recognise that I am not the man of clean hands and pure heart who may ascend and stand there by right. It is a high and glorious mountain, the beauty of God dwells upon it, and it is where I long to be – but my persistent sin keeps me so far from the summit.

 As a follower of Jesus, one who claims his atoning blood to cover all my sins, I know that God has forgiven me and that I start afresh each day with a clean sheet. I know that the power of sin to enslave me has been utterly destroyed through the death of my Saviour – the holy and pure sacrifical lamb – and yet I still succumb to the temptations of idleness, selfishness and that dreadful immobilising self-pity. I do not claim to be without sin, but so frequently confess my shortcomings that I fear God must be weary of me.

Yet I cannot find any word in the bible of God wearying of his people’s repentance, nor a reluctance to forgive them when they come again in their need. Why then do I find it so hard to live with my continuing failures and shortcomings, when God’s forgiveness is assured and abundantly available? He has forgiven me; why can I not forgive myself for these things? I fear it is pride, a stubborn desire somewhere in my heart to prove to God that I am capable of better, of purer, holier living if I just try harder. And my disappointment is sore because my pride is hurt, my idealised ( and foolish) picture of myself as a mature follower of Christ, is shown to be a delusion. I am so tired of failing, that I want to give up, my courage is gone and my confidence in God’s power to sustain me as a faithful and cheerful witness for the remainder of my life is completely undermined.

May I be forgiven, for such foolish weakness and pathetic pride. May my heart and mind be increasingly filled with the beauty and power of my Saviour, who has ascended the great mountain on my behalf, and who every day is making it possible for me to keep climbing. May I rejoice and triumph ever more in what he has done – and keeps on doing – as his love drenches me, soaking out the sin stains and breaking the chains of regret for past failure. May I trust ever more in his power to work all things together for the good of those who love him – including their own failures – so that all the glory goes to him!

When you pray….

..when you pray don’t rattle off long prayers like the pagans who think they will be heard because they use so many words…God, who is your Father, knows your needs before you ask him. Pray then like this –

Our Heavenly Father, may your name be honoured; May your kingdom come, and your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.  Give us this day the bread we need, Forgive us what we owe to you, as we have also forgiven those who owe anything to us. Keep us clear of temptation, and save us from evil.

(Matthew 6.7-13, JB Phillips – The New Testament in Modern English)

May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

(1Thessalonians 3.12&13)

With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

(2Thessalonians 1.11&12)

Do you notice anything about these prayers? Anything unusual in your experience of praying and hearing others pray? On a purely superficial level, we could note the complete absence of the word ‘just’, and also ‘bless’…both useful in their place, but perhaps too frequently on our lips to add much to the sense of our words!

Seriously though, what do we find? Our Lord Jesus in teaching his disciples to pray sends them straight to the heart of the gospel – that God might be glorified, lifted up, recognised and worshipped as God above all, mighty, merciful, holy and pure.

How is this to happen? By the coming of the kingdom which has been ushered in by Christ, and which will be fully realised when he returns from glory to wind up time and bring his people into the eternal joy of life with him. We can pray for this to happen – we are commanded to pray, to do our part in furthering God’s great plan for the world in this way. We may not see immediately how we are part of the process, but if we faithfully pray for it to be happening, we are obeying Christ and that is enough.

In order for us to play our part, we need food (and a few other necessities of life), so we ask in full confidence for God to provide these, but move on swiftly to a greater need – forgiveness (and the reminder that our willingness to forgive others shows the extent to which we are aware of our own great indebtedness to God). God’s work in realising his kingdom is accomplished through forgiven human beings, who know that all they are is God’s gift to them. It is right to continually remind ourselves of this debt. And finally to acknowledge our ongoing dependence on God to make any progress in our spiritual lives and to achieve anything in his service – it is his power which enables us to follow Jesus’ example and resist temptation; his power in Jesus which has defeated the Evil One and protects us in turn.

Do you find that we pray for one another like this? Or in the wonderful ways that Paul prayed for his young churches – who faced persecution and hardships that most of us will never know? He makes no mention of praying for their safety, or their health, the schooling of their children or the security of their jobs!

I am deeply challenged by these prayers, as I respond to the needs around me, and the challenges faced by friends and family.. Do I pray for their faith to grow, their love to be strengthened and for God to be glorified regardless of what happens in their lives? What is most important in the light of eternity? How do I pray for my children – that they might be successful, or that they might be godly, faithful, recklessly obedient servants of the King of heaven?

Is it not good to think before we pray, and put God’s priorities for his children at the top of our prayers for them too?

Oh Lord, let us become wiser in our praying, discerning those things which really matter, and praying your promises for one another that our lives might show more and more clearly your love, power and holiness, and bring you glory.

Give me eyes to see..

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God…

..once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light!

(Ephesians 5.1,2 &8)

You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.

(1Peter 2.9)

The image of light is a very powerful one, and used in many ways in the bible. Here, Paul and Peter are using it to contrast the before and after state of the believers to whom they write. We know from our own experience how much we depend upon light in order to function.. Only the other night, awaking in the pitch dark of a strange bedroom and trying to  creep out quietly to visit the bathroom, I ended up nearly in tears in a corner frantically trying to find the door handle…My long-suffering husband was wakened by my increasingly agitated fumblings, and putting on the bed-side lamp was able to show me the way out!! It was an educational experience; the next night, I used my phone as a light.. The glow from the screen was minimal, but enough for navigational purposes.

But what does that say about our need for spiritual light? How much is enough? With a tiny glow in the darkness, we suddenly see that things could be so different, and embrace the illumination which God’s offer of salvation brings. And as we grow in faith and walk with Jesus through the maturing experiences of life, it is as if the light within us grows steadily stronger.

I firmly believe that one of the most encouraging things about becoming more mature as a Christian is a growing awareness of how much about us is still needing to be changed! The stronger our source of illumination, the greater degree of detail we can observe, and that applies just as much to our spiritual lives as to the rest of life. I can’t sew properly unless I have sufficient light to let me see the needle and thread clearly, but a dim light is enough to show me the letters or cards for a board game.

I wrote last week about the struggle to take my thoughts captive, to exercise the victory which Jesus has won for me and to turn away from acting on wrong thoughts. But I realise now that I can be most deeply encouraged by my own distress over my thoughts! Think about it: if I was not – by God’s grace – being made more like Jesus, a little less sin-sick, and a little more holy, then I would simply not care about these rogue thoughts. As I am being re-shaped by God’s word at work in me, my spiritual eyes are growing healthier and the light within is showing more of the reality of remaining sin in my life. So although I may regret the necessity for the struggle, I rejoice that I desire to engage in the battle. I am on the Lord’s side in this, and more importantly, he is on my side. We are fighting together, and I have his power at my disposal, his spirit to help me to see as he does, and his love to inspire me.

The love and mercy poured out upon me are continually drawing out a response of gratitude, which manifests itself in a desire to bring delight to the one who has loved, God himself. That is why Paul exhorts his readers ‘as dearly loved children’ to respond to that love by imitating their heavenly Father. When we come to him in our struggles, sharing his hatred of the sin which clings to us like smoke in our clothes, and claiming the victory he has won for us; surely then our God is full of gladness and delights in his little ones. We are not perfect, we are not as nearly perfect as we could be.. but by his grace and to his glory, we are not what we were, and the light in us is growing stronger and stronger.

Out of the shadows.. into Christ!

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a new moon celebration or a sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

(Colossians 2. 16&17)

One of my favourite images in thinking about the work of Jesus on the cross, is of a timeline, with the cross at the centre, casting a double shadow, back towards Eden, and forwards to the new creation and final judgment. The shape of the backward shadow is the temple, with all its sacrifical systems, rituals of cleansing and rules of life. Those were designed to demonstrate that a holy God, loving and desiring to be with his people, was nonetheless separated from them by their sin.

Until the time was right for Jesus to come, God used the rituals, sacrifices and physical exclusion of people from the holiest place of the temple, to point forward to the day when a single perfect sacrifice would fully accomplish all that the blood of lambs and bulls could not. There would be a spotless lamb one day, who would put an end to, by fulfilling, all the sacrifical system had been designed to do – turning aside the wrath of a holy God against the unspeakable pollution of sin.

One day there would be a priest who could enter the holy place without shedding the blood of lambs, because he had shed his own blood. One day there would be a  great priest who could enter that presence and remain for ever, bearing the people of God upon his heart just as the old priest bore twelve precious stones to represent the people of Israel upon his breastplate. Not only so, but the people themselves, because of the great priest’s sacrifice, would be in God’s presence, no longer waiting outside to know whether their offerings had been accepted. All barriers to fellowship would be removed, and the children welcomed home to their Father’s house.

On Good Friday, that day finally came, the perfect sacrifice was made, and the curtain in the temple ripped itself apart as the power of sin and death to bind us away from God were destroyed. From that day onward, there has been no need for ritual sacrifices or observances. In Christ, all the demands of the Law – for justice and purity – are met. We do not live under a shadowy promise of forgiveness to come, but under the glory of complete cleansing, the bright light of a fresh start in the love of God..

The ‘shadow’ which is cast forward into time by the cross is barely dark at all, except that it is pointing to a brighter and more glorious future than we can possibly imagine! The shape of this shadow is the table around which we – all who love and trust in Christ for salvation – remember and celebrate his death for us, and his resurrection guaranteeing our eternal future with him. This is not a ritual which we observe in order to avert punishment, or earn favour, but the very source of our lives, our true nourishment. If we neglect this, the feeding of our souls upon his body broken and blood shed for us, then we will perish indeed, our faith withering away under the slightest trial or choked by the pressures and pleasures of the world around us; or worse, poisoned by false pride in our own good deeds and upright attitudes!

Let us not neglect to meet together, to feed together upon the truth of the gospel – all must be done, and has been done by Christ – so that we might grow in love for him, for one another, and in courage to share that love with our wounded and wayward world. In Christ, we stand in radiant glory, utterly secure, let us be the means by which God sheds his light into the darkness.

Behold Him there! the risen Lamb! My perfect spotless righteousness, 

The great unchangeable I AM, the King of glory and of grace!

One with Himself, I cannot die, my soul is purchased by His blood;

My life is hid with Christ on high, with Christ my Saviour and my God.

(Charitie Lees De Chenez, 1841-1923)

Return to Sender….

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.

(Matthew 23. 37)

As human beings, the bible tells us that we are made in the image of God, the Three in One, whose existence is a perpetual delight in relationship and loving. We are made to connect with others – ultimately and most wonderfully with God himself! But while we strive all our lives to make and enjoy these relationships, we know that our flawed humanity conspires against us, undermining our ability to love, to receive love, and to delight in one another without a thought of self.

It is an unhappy position, to be made for something, and yet unable to ever truly find it, no wonder our world is filled with dissatisfied people. As Christians, we have the wonderful knowledge that our relationship with God is restored, and nothing can ever come between us again. But even there, the remnants of pride, selfishness and the baggage of broken lives can rob us of the full measure of peace and delight which are ours as children of God. He is always willing and glad to receive our love, but we often fail to give or to recognise as love what he gives.

In human relations both parties are flawed, and we are further compromised both in our giving and receiving of love. While it is true that we need to receive love, we also need to give it, to express affection and care for others in the ways that come naturally to us. Sometimes when my children were younger I recall being overwhelmed by the desire to express my love for them, and hardly knowing where to begin! In those days, they didn’t really mind if their mother hugged and cried over them, or played silly games and read and talked to them – how times change! The same applies to our parents, spouses and close friends. We want to show our love, and yet the gesture or word is firmly rejected – sent back like an unwanted gift.

How do we cope when those whom we love so dearly reject our loving? When our desire to be good for them can barely be expressed, because they have made it clear that our ways of giving love are unwelcome to them? It is this struggle which led me to Jesus’ yearning over the city of Jerusalem – and symbolically over all the nation of Israel, in its long history of rebellion against and rejection of the faithful love of God.

I know that when I do not express the love I want to give, I become sad, and somehow imprisoned – since I cannot express my loving, I cannot be myself. What is my right and proper response, the Christ-like loving response? How do I love people who do not want my love in the way I long to give it?

It seems that I have a choice, either to focus on my own rights – to express myself and be ‘fulfilled’ – or focus on them, their characters and needs, and to love them as far as they will allow me, in the ways that they can receive. Am I willing to trust God to look after my needs in this situation, to believe that I can experience this frustration and yet still go on living and giving joyfully because I am perfectly loved by Him?

What did Jesus do? He loved the world so much, and we would not receive or honour that love in the way he desired to give it. But he loved us well enough to give himself to save us – from all our broken bitterness – and trusted God to ensure that all would be well, that his utterly sacrificial loving would finally be received by his people. He gave what we desperately needed, and did not insist on his rights as Messiah, the Anointed one, the Judge and Ruler of the world. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul encourages the believers to ‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ – Ephesians 5.21. The word submit can also be read as ‘do not insist on your rights’…

Is this my answer? To acknowledge before God what I desire to do, to offer what I can do to him in love, and do what I may for those whom I love. In the name of Jesus, and only by the power of his spirit within me, I will tailor my loving, and bring the frustration of unexpressed affection and pain of rejected love to God for relief, healing and comfort. He is faithful, will I not trust him?

the blessings of a slow wit!

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger…..A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered. Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue!

(Proverbs 15.1; 17.27,28)

I was reminded forcibly of these words this week when I found myself brimming over with anger and hurt after a particular conversation had upset me. They did not come to mind directly, but only as I took myself off into solitude to lay the matter – and my troubled feelings – before my Lord and Lover, and I realised in the quietness that I was very likely to blame for stirring up the situation. I am not very quick-witted, and can rarely come up with the counter-thrust to a hurtful comment, or the appropriate words to challenge what feels like a bad attitude. All the possible responses crowd into my mind much later, as I replay the situation, and try to understand what was going on – and by then it is usually to late to say anything at all!

It is frustrating when one is stirred up, hurt and angry, not to be able to find words, and the sense of being gagged adds to the pain! But, as I pondered last week, trying to calm down and see things more through God’s eyes than mine, I gave thanks for my slow wits, rejoicing that I had been delivered from making a small trouble into something potentially bigger. I had not perhaps responded as Jesus would have done, but silence was better than a vicious retort!

The book of Proverbs is full of warnings about how we use our speech, and of course in the letter of James in the New Testament we find the apostle taking a whole chapter of his letter to remind his readers of both the power and wildness of the tongue. It is sobering reading, especially for those who profess to believe in Jesus, to have yielded the throne of their lives to him. James challenges us to consider how as believers we can both praise our Lord and commune with him; while also using our words to criticise, gossip, and generally wound our fellow men and women. How often do I speak out of my own selfish agenda, instead of taking time to think whether my words are wholesome, helpful and loving?

So I was glad not to have lashed out with angry words, and thank God for restraining me and providing the space and solitude I needed to calm down and confess my desire to hurt back. It is only as we grow in likeness to Jesus, as love for him is stirred up within us, that our thoughts and habits are transformed and we become more able to respond to others with constant loving grace. Most of us will spend the rest of our lives in that learning process, and even as I need others to be patient with me, so I need to be patient with them!

Is it Christlike to take pride in my own self-restraint, while criticising another Christian for their occasional failures? How am I encouraging others to grow in grace if I will not extend grace to them when they stumble and need to be forgiven? In the same way that I thank God for his faithfulness in bearing with me, deeply ingrained faults and all, so I want to learn to be faithful in bearing with others. I am needy, and so are they! We are privileged to minister to one another by our love – which means always seeking the best for them, just as God our loving father always seeks the best for us.

May God deliver us from any false pride in our own meagreself-control, and help us instead to rejoice in his power at work in us to keep us from rashness and hasty words. May God help us even as we receive fresh forgiveness from him for our daily sins, to extend that forgiveness to others. May we be content to leave the business of their sanctification in God’s hands, and seek to do nothing to hinder it, even as we depend on him to transform us.

It is a long work, a slow work, but we can be sure of this;’that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 1.6).

Amen, and may all the glory go to him!

The sweetest thing

If the Lord delights in a man’s way, he makes his steps firm; though he stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand.

Psalm 37 v 23&24

These words were written by David, the shepherd boy, giant killer, outlaw, singer-songwriter, king, adulterer, schemer and thief: the man whose wonderful songs reflect every aspect of his rich and varied life. He is one of the great characters portrayed in the bible narrative, and although it can be tempting to focus on his good qualities, we are never allowed to forget his faults. The hero of his story is not David himself, but the God whom he worshipped, trusted, disobeyed and before whom he often had to repent and confess his sins.

Why is his story given to us, along with many other records of the rulers of Israel and Judah over the years? What can we learn from their histories for our lives in faith in the 21st century, where kings are largely powerless, and it is money, politics, sport and show-business which provide our major influential figures? I believe that the verses quoted from the psalm give us one insight into the lessons to be learned – that while they may stumble into sin, the man or woman whose heart is right with God will not fall and be lost. The records of the kings of Israel and Judah are full of phrases like this:

‘ Asa’s heart was fully committed to the Lord all his life’ and, ‘ but Omri did evil in the eyes of the Lord and sinned more than all those before him’. (1 Kings 15v14; 16v25)

Their stories are a record of how fallible human beings have always lived – making mistakes, having good intentions yet failing to completely carry them out, but always on the basis of a fundamental attitude of the heart. Either they have rejected God’s authority over them – in the case of many of the kings, they deliberately adopt other gods- or else they are seeking to follow the ways which God had revealed to the nation, putting themselves as well as their people under the rule of God. These stories encourage me to be compassionate towards those in authority, remembering that they are no more able to rule perfectly than David or Solomon could. Even the wisest, most talented politician or business leader will not always get it right; and while I should pray for them to remain close to God, to submit to his authority in their lives and use their power for the good of others, I must allow them to fail, as I do! The ultimate hero of all our stories is God, and no human being can bear the weight of such a responsibility.

We can also take great personal comfort from these records, because the hero, the God who was rejected and disobeyed so often, is also our God. He demonstrated his love over and over to these flawed servants, and it is that faithfulness which is celebrated in our Psalm. David was well aware of his own weakness and knew quite well that in all his sin, it was God who hurt most deeply. But rather than dwelling morosely on his failure, and hiding in despair, he cries out his repentance, affirming his faith in God and delighting in the grace which pours out forgiveness and restoration in abundance. How should we not be filled with praise for this God who looks upon the earnest heart of his child, and quietly puts away the things done amiss!

I find sweet comfort in this truth, that although I will spend the rest of this life in a process of transformation, never entirely free of sin, yet my Father God has provided complete forgiveness through Jesus, and I need not carry the weight of that failure. If I choose to focus on what Christ has done well, instead of what I have done badly, then I am able to rejoice even after failure. His grace is such that every moment of every day is a fresh start, and I am free to live and love and delight in him. The following words by the great Charles Wesley are a prayer of response to this amazing grace, and a fitting conclusion. May they be our prayer this week.

O for a heart to praise my God, a heart from sin set free;

A heart that always feels Thy blood so freely shed for me.

A heart resigned, submissive meek, my great redeemer’s throne,

where only Christ is heard to speak, where Jesus reigns alone.

A humble, lowly, contrite heart, believing, true and clean,

which neither life not death can part from Him that dwells within.

A heart in every thought renewed and full of love divine,

Perfect and right and pure and good: a copy, Lord, of thine.

Thy  nature, gracious Lord, impart, come quickly from above;

Write thy new name upon my heart, thy new best name of love.