Category Archives: gratitude

The scandal of grace

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength to do his work. He considered me trustworthy and appointed me to serve him, even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus….God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life. All honour and glory to God forever and ever! He is the eternal King, the unseen one who never dies; he alone is God. Amen.

(1Timothy 1.12-14,16&17)

I had never really noticed this passage from Paul’s letter to the young man, Timothy who had been appointed as a church leader and who needed encouragement to persevere in that work against opposition from those who condemned him as too young and inexperienced. The whole letter is full of strong and yet tender exhortations from Paul, seeking to build up Timothy’s confidence – not in himself, but in the God who called, and who therefore will equip and provide all he needs for the work.

As he often does elsewhere, Paul uses his own life as an example of what he is teaching, and in this case it is that no one is beyond God’s grace when it comes to transforming lives! He is encouraging Timothy to believe that youth and inexperience are no obstacle to God’s appointment, and that God’s work in a leader’s life can be a powerful witness to others.

This is tremendously encouraging for us all, and should help us to avoid the mistake of trying to behave as if we were already perfect and that everything in our lives is wonderful. Paul certainly refuses to wallow in self-pity, or to allow his past failures to hold him back from undertaking God’s work, but he also clearly recognises that his personal holiness is far from complete, and that it is an ongoing work which God alone can do.

How do I behave when I am aware of sin in my life, of past griefs or failures that continue to shadow my thoughts, or painful struggles with present burdens of poor health, bereavement or other trauma? If I learn from Paul, then I am willing to acknowledge the ways in which I am affected, thanking God for all his grace in sustaining and saving me from the power of sin, while also asking for and expecting that he will continue to change me through this struggle. I also expect that God will use my own experience as an example to others – of his sustaining power; of his grace to sinners; of his leading and healing of his children. If I am not willing to be honest and open about my own life, then how can God use me in this way?

As I contemplate moving to a new congregation, a new church family, I need to be praying that God will indeed give me strength to do his work in that place. I also need to be asking that my life might be a witness to God’s scandalous grace – all the riches of life in Christ poured out on undeserving rebellious humanity. God chooses and blesses us regardless of our past. Paul, the vicious persecuter of the early church; Jacob, the deceiver who manipulated his brother and plotted against his father; Peter, the self-confident, impetuous blunderer… ¬†and me, with all my weakness and doubt.

Am I willing to be open and honest with my sisters and brothers in Christ, so that my life story might be used by God for their blessing too? It is after all only another variation of the great theme of the bible, that without Christ, there is no hope for us. He is supreme; the one and only means by which we may be saved. All our hope is in him, and we can and should take great pride in telling all the world of his beauty, his power, his generous grace and his tenderness, so that others will join in praising his name.

But what am I, a mere mortal ?

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers – the moon and the stars that you set in place – what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?

(Ps 8. 3&4)

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.

(Eph 2. 10)

Breathtaking, isn’t it? And I am not just referring to the picture – sunset over the Lake of Galilee, a symphony of colour and grandeur! We rightly wonder at the diversity, majesty and beauty of the creation around us, and revere the Creator whose power and unsearchable wisdom brought it all into being. But even more, we should be struck dumb at the realisation that in the great story of creation, the human race was the pinnacle, all was brought into being in order to give us a home, a place to share with one another and above all one which would reveal God’s greatness to us as we shared fellowship with him.

The great narrative of scripture puts us in pride of place at the climax of creation, the only beings which God created to reflect his character, and into which he breathed life. We know very well that our rebellion against our loving God led us out of fellowship with him, that the image in us was scarred almost beyond recognition, and the world around us was broken by our sin. And yet, in spite of all this, the bible is adamant that our proper place remains as the crown of creation, the apple of God’s eye, his greatest handiwork.

From the moment when God confronted Adam and Eve with their sin and spelled out its consequences, his plan was being revealed, a rescue plan, and one which would result in even greater glory to God than if we had never sinned, never needed saving! It takes a great craftsman to produce a work of art, and an even greater one to take a desperately flawed and spoiled thing and make of it something beautiful and useful. Our God is the great craftsman, the one for whom nothing is too broken to be restored to wholeness, and for whom no amount of painstaking labour is too much.

How is it that we can be made beautiful again, restored to bearing the image of God and sharing fellowship with him? It is all his work, and all through the way in which we are united with Jesus by God when we trust in the power of his death to wipe away our sin. As Paul says earlier in that chapter of Ephesians :- ” So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness towards us, as shown in all he has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus. God saved you by his grace when you believed.” (Eph 2.8)

Praise be to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for his saving power, and his great love, which he pours out on us, so that we may live new lives, free from the guilt and power of sin! What good news we have to share of an Eternal Father’s love, a Saviour’s blood to cleanse and a Holy Spirit’s power active in our lives to make the fact of our new nature more and more a daily reality.

As I allow the truth revealed in the bible to soak into my mind, applying it like a filter to every view of life, I will see things more and more the way God sees them. This is the transforming of my mind, my thoughts, so that I am increasingly aligned with the unseen realities, with the truths which underlie our lives instead of the lies and myths which our culture imposes on us. The devil would love to keep me blind to the truth, hobbled by a sense of my own past failures, and present weakness; to keep me doubting God and afraid to ask for his help because I fear that he really doesn’t care about me. I need to keep on returning my gaze to the stars, the heavens above and the wonders all around, and saying to myself:- “Lord, your handiwork is great, I am humbled by your power and majesty, but I choose to believe that in Christ, I am a masterpiece in your hands, that you look upon me with delight, and that I have purpose and a place in this world and in your family.”

Morning (and evening) glory!

Praise the Lord! Let all that I am praise the Lord.

I will praise the Lord as long as I live. I will sing praises to my God with my dying breath.

Don’t put your confidence in powerful people; there is no help for you there. When they breathe their last, they return to the earth, and all their plans die with them.

But joyful are those who have the God of Israel as their helper, whose hope is in the Lord their God. He made heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them.

He keeps every promise for ever.

(Psalm 146. 1-6)

Do you ever feel a little ashamed of being happy, or deep-down glad ? It can be a temptation to allow the very real cares and troubles of the world to cloud our own lives to the extent that we are never joyful, because there is always someone, somewhere who is in distress. Perhaps it seems holier to be always solemn, and in earnest about the burdens of our suffering world, than to allow ourselves to be caught up in gladness and wholehearted praise?

I believe this is a clever, but crippling deceit of the enemy of our souls, a means by which we are robbed of the joy and rightful lightness of heart which belongs to God’s redeemed children. Our Lord Jesus taught his disciples that they were to resist the temptation to be weighed down by the cares of the world.

In the long address known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that we cannot serve both God and money, we cannot have divided loyalties in our lives. If we are genuine followers of Jesus, then we are able to shake off deep anxieties about our needs for food and shelter, about our future and that of our families. God’s provision for the flowers of the fields and the birds of the air should reassure us that He knows what we need and cares to provide for us – as we are so much more valuable to Him than they are! All our worry cannot add even a minute to our lives, or change the circumstances which are shaping them. Our priority must always be to live in the present in a way that demonstrates our confidence in God to keep and deliver us through even the most desperate times, into His glorious presence.

Yes, we are to care for one another, and when possible to provide for one another’s needs. But this need not be a source of continual anxiety either! If the way to bear our own burdens is to bring them to the cross and allow Jesus to take them, then surely this is also how we support one another? The suffering of others should always be a prompt to prayer, reminding God that each human being is a precious child, needing to know His love and imploring His aid for their needs. Perhaps there will also be practical things which we can do to relieve suffering. BUT, it is wrong to get so bound up in suffering with others that we fail to give their burdens to Christ to carry. It is a false kind of pride to take such responsibilities upon ourselves. Only God can deal with the scale of suffering in the world, and we must not try to act and think as though it were all up to us.

The author of the psalm which I quoted today was surely not ignorant of the realities of pain and injustice in the world around him; he probably had witnessed at first hand the effects of sickness, war, oppression and starvation – in ways that many of us have not. And yet, he pours out words bursting with delight in the great God whom he worships. He has not allowed the real shadows of suffering to dampen his joy and gladness, nor to repress his praise.

I think that times like this come to all God’s children, moments or hours when we are simply so full of deep joy in the goodness and greatness of our Father, of delight in the depth and strength of our Lord’s love, that the worship which the Spirit is always stirring up in our hearts simply has to pour out – in music, words, actions or even wrapt silence and contemplation. I believe these times are a gift from our loving Father, a great refreshment to our spirits, and cause for great thanksgiving. Let us not feel guilty when we are filled with gladness, not spurn the gift of sheer joy in giving praise to one who is entirely worthy. In these moments, our duty as well as our delight is to join the psalmist in saying,

The Lord reigns for ever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!

(Psalm 146.10)