Category Archives: obedience

To do lists…

Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. Your commands are always with me and make me wiser than my enemies. I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes.

(Ps 119.97-99)

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.

(Rom 12.1)

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

(Gal 6.9&10)

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people..

(Eph 6.18)

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

(Col.3.23&24)

And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. ..always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else. Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

(1Thess.5.14-18)

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves….whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do.

(Jm 1.22&25)

One of the most insidious weapons which the devil uses against me – and very possibly against many other believers – is to play on my desire to glorify God in my life, my desire to become more like Jesus.

Does that sound like a contradiction? I can assure you it is not. This very good and proper thing – like so many other good things – can be manipulated and twisted into a weapon which disables the believer and causes them endless trouble. I know, because it happens to me so often.

The great love of God for me, his grace in forgiving and making me a child in his family, call forth a response of love, of a hunger to please him and show how much I value all that I have been given, and also how amazing he is. This is very right and proper…but then with a very clever twist, the devil gets me to begin thinking about just what that right response should look like in my life – what is the “right” thing to do here and now? For an over-thinker, a perfectionist, and one who hates to upset anyone, that question is a lethal, paralysing power that goes straight to my heart and destroys my peace.

Firstly, the list of things which we are called to ‘do’ in response to our calling as redeemed children of God is quite daunting – so much to be prayed(continually?!) for, so much scripture to be meditated on (day and night!); so many people in physical and spiritual need to be reached out and ministered to. How does anyone manage to hold down a full-time job, run a family, pursue their God-given talents and skills in recreation, as well as doing these things which are commanded? How can I hold conversations with people at the same time as praying continually? How can I study and write essays, or take part in meetings and make business decisions at the same time as meditating on scripture?

When I put it that way, you can see it is nonsense, and since God has called us to interact with people, to serve him in our labours, to be godly parents, spouses, siblings, then these things also must be right. But just how does it work in practice? Perhaps now you see why I described it as a ‘paralysing’ question?!

Secondly, when I begin to think about prayer and scripture meditation, about serving others and sharing the gospel, I am invariably overwhelmed by the awareness that I do none of these things ‘as well as other people’. That is a dangerous phrase – when you hear it in your thoughts, take warning and realise that the devil is needling at your peace of mind, at your acceptance as a child of God and perfect in his sight.

I do not have answers to this challenge, I live with the questions; what does God desire that I should do with the limited time, talents and opportunities he has given me?

But I take great comfort from the word given to the Colossians – “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord…” – and from the sure knowledge that God sees my heart, and understands my weaknesses. Let me learn to trust his grace to be sufficient – I can never be ‘right’ in what I do, and that is ok with him, because his strength is made perfect, seen most clearly, in all the ways that he does things ‘right’, weaving all my best efforts into his beautiful whole.

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The fruit of the spirit is….self-control

When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid.

(Ps 56.3&4)

I will sing of your love and justice; to you, O Lord, I will sing praise. I will be careful to lead a blameless life – when will you come to me? I will walk in my house with blameless heart. I will set before my eyes no vile thing..My eyes will be on the faithful in the land, that they may dwell with me; he whose walk is blameless will minister to me.

(Ps 101.1-3,6)

You are my portion, O Lord; I have promised to obey your words. I have sought your face with all my heart; be gracious to me according to your promise. I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes. I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands. though the wicked bind me with ropes, I will not forget your law. 

(Ps 119.57-61)

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me…

(Jn 14.1)

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit

(Rom 15.13)

It is easy to think of self-control as a quality of restraint, of holding back and NOT doing those things which might be harmful or otherwise ungodly – for us and for others. But there is also a proactive quality, the ability to steel oneself to do right things – even if they are hard, making us apprehensive of rejection and conflict.

In his final address which is recorded by John, Jesus commands his disciples not to let their hearts be troubled – and they go on to express profound uneasiness and trouble in the following verses! But when I read the words recently, I was struck by this element of command – do not ‘let’ your hearts be troubled…and the subsequent ‘trust in God’

Jesus speaks as though by actively pursuing trust, we can also actively obey the command to keep our hearts untroubled, no matter what we are facing. This can only be achieved by the power of the Spirit in us, reminding us of the promises of Jesus, of the riches of God’s love and provision for us, and above all, showing us that we are part of a great and glorious plan which is fully under God’s sovereign control. When we can trust that God is working all things together for his glory and our blessing, then our heart-troubles subside and we find peace.

This isn’t about some supreme teeth-gritted, fist-clenched effort which we have to make, but rather a steady cultivation of our thoughts and attitudes; a learning to trust first. When the spirit of Jesus within us is active, when we are working with him to feed our minds with the word of God, we are choosing to believe that word is doing us good. When we exercise self-control to make sure that our spiritual nourishment is not neglected, by meeting to pray with others, by worshipping together and hearing from the word, then we are giving ourselves the equipment we need to trust God, in all that may come to us.

We will undoubtedly face circumstances every day which will challenge the tranquility of our hearts – we live in a world which is so broken by sin and evil that it is impossible to avoid trouble, whether from within or without. But we can choose what we do with those troublings…either we put up no defence, and allow them to take up residence in our hearts and minds, dictating that we are driven by fear and anxiety; or we exercise the self-control which the spirit enables within us.

We choose to remember God’s promises; we choose to trust that he is good, and true and loving, and powerful; we bring our fears and troubles to him, and choose not to dwell on them. This is not self-hypnosis, but faith in action. By actively pursuing trust in the God who has revealed himself as supremely loving, and intimately caring towards us, we learn to stand secure amidst troubling circumstances – not because nothing bad may happen, but because God is in control of everything for his glory and our blessing

 

 

We must use our words….

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth..And God said,”Let there be light, ” and there was light…

(Gen 1.1&3)

After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward…..Look up at the heavens and count the starts – if indeed you can count them…so shall your offspring be.”

(Gen 15.1&5)

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I , the Lord your God, am holy.'”

(Lev 19.1)

Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. Your faithfulness continues through all generations; you established the earth, and it endures.

(Ps 119.89&90)

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins…

(Luke 1.76&77)

For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?

(Rom 10.12-14)

 Humankind is driven by communication, the desire and ability which we have, in the image of God, to share and express ourselves. We think in words, and from the earliest age we teach our children to speak so that we can understand them and they can understand us. From the very beginning, God reveals himself as a God who speaks, who desires to know and be known by his creation. He does not leave us at the mercy of dreams and visions with uncertain meanings, but reveals his plans, his character and his commands through his words.

Perhaps we are so used to reading the words ‘And God said’, or ‘The Lord said’, that we no longer notice them, but we should. God speaks..he does not wish to be unknown. In the book of Leviticus, he speaks over and over again, laying out in detail the plans for the unique life and worship-witness of his people as they demonstrate his holiness and love before the world. We can be in no doubt about our God’s plans – although we may not always understand why he chooses to work in certain ways.

I remember saying to my children when they were young and upset about something, “Use your words”, encouraging them to give me the chance to understand what the  problem was. The fact is that we all need to use our words, all our lives, if we are to have healthy relationships and above all, if we are to bear witness to the good news about Jesus and our salvation.

While it is possible to live godly lives, to be generous and hospitable, charitable, forgiving and loving, none of these things in themselves will explain to anyone what our faith rests upon. No one can guess from watching a follower of Jesus serving the poor in their community, or facing extreme adversity with courage and faith, that they are motivated by the life, death and resurrection of a Nazarene carpenter 2000 years ago – we must tell them.

This is the point which first Zechariah, and then Paul make. Zechariah sings to his infant son – the future John the Baptist – of the unique role which he will grow into, the task of being the truth-teller about the coming Messiah. John’s ministry would have been nothing without his words! And Paul states quite categorically that no one can believe in something that they do not know about, that saving faith depends upon hearing the truth-words about Jesus.

This is why people learn the languages of those among whom they serve overseas, why they labour to create written forms of unrecorded languages so that text can be created – in order that the good news about Jesus may be heard in the heart-language of those who listen, so that they might believe and be saved. This is why in illiterate cultures, story-tellers are trained in the gospel narratives, and radio broadcasts and recordings of scripture are created – so that people might hear, believe and be saved…

So much effort is being expended across the world, to enable people to hear and respond, to call upon the one name by which they may be saved….What am I doing? All too often, I am saying nothing. Fearful of giving offence, of saying “the wrong thing”, of being rejected by my listeners; I keep the good news to myself.

Lord God, forgive my stubborn silence, my failure to share the good news. Liberate my speech, and so fill my heart with love for the lost and with the glory of Jesus that I MUST speak…

Relentless, single-minded…love?

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.

(John 15.12-14)

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love….. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

(Eph 4.1&2; 15&16)

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.

(Mark 11.25)

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?….You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye……If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you…”

(Matt 7.3&5;18.15)

Lord, your love is perfect: mine is so imperfect.

You fear nothing: I fear so many things.

Out of your love, you cause me to face pain and difficulty, that I might become the glorious creature you know that I can be.

Out of my feeble shadow of love, I shy away from inflicting pain or causing others to face difficulty, because I am afraid of what they might do to me.

If I loved you as I ought; if your will truly ruled in my heart; if I truly loved others, then nothing would stop me from speaking the truth in love that they might grow according to your glorious purposes for them.

Oh Lord, forgive me, that I do not love as I ought. Forgive me, that I have failed to love others as I ought, and have let fear of my own pain hold me back from obedience to your will.

Have you ever considered that laying down your life for others might look more like a sentence of hard labour than a death sentence? That sounds a little severe, but let me unpack what I mean..Jesus spoke these words on the night before he died, and so we often associate them with his sacrificial death – and rightly so. But is it not also possible to apply them to the years leading up to this night?

Jesus had given up his life for his disciples, for three years. He had lived and worked with them, walked and eaten with them. He had borne with their foolishness and ignorance, their misplaced ambitions and squabblings, he had even borne with the presence of the one whom he knew would betray him. His life had been a living sacrifice of service to these men, a worked example of divine love in action.

I have been challenged recently to apply this to myself, to see that my life is also poured out in love to others, for their blessing and growth in grace and faith. If I choose to follow my own instincts – which are for peace at any price, and the avoidance of all confrontation – then I will effectively fail in my calling. God asks me to be his agent of love to people – to speak truth in love to them, that they might hear through my loving voice the word of God calling them to repentance and change. This is a huge responsibility, and for one like myself who goes in great fear of doing “the wrong thing”, it is terrifying!

But God gives me no choice; as his child, one in whom Christ dwells by the Spirit, I am called to play my part in building up the individual members of his body and that means helping others to see the truth about themselves. Will I choose to trust that He can and will direct my words; give me wisdom and humility; use what I say for the good of those to whom I speak; and above all, help me to overcome my fear of everything except disobeying him?

Loving Lord, I pray that you will so fill me with your relentless love that I will no longer hold back, but will speak the truth in love; humbly acknowledging my own great sinfulness and need of forgiveness; depending on your grace and power to change us all according to your will and looking forward eagerly to the day when we all stand revealed in the glory that you have in store for us. 

My God…the reader of my thoughts

I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed…Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty. …”you have said harsh things against me, “says the Lord. “Yet you ask,’What have we said against you?’ “You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty? But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly the evil doers prosper, and even those who challenge God escape.'”

(Mal.3.6,7,13-15)

Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked….When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny….Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.

(Ps73.1-3,16,17,27&28)

Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honoured his name. “They will be mine,” says the Lord Almighty, “in the day when I make up my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as in compassion a man spares his son who serves him. And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.

(Mal 3.16-18)

How easy it is to forget that while we may hide our inmost thoughts and motives from even our dearest friends, we cannot hide a single, fleeting notion from our holy, almighty and just God. How foolish we are, reckoning that because we fool some of the people, for some of the time, that somehow God – who made the mind, in all its complexity, and who alone understands the human heart because He formed it – is deceived by our lip-service and nominal obedience.

In the book of the prophet Malachi, God challenges his people, stripping away their defensive arguments, to reveal the truth of their hearts, the things they really believe about Him and about themselves. They have fallen into the classic misunderstanding which continues to dog humanity in its dealings with divinity – that somehow they can and must earn favour by going through certain prescribed motions. The absurdity of the notion, that these little rituals of sacrifice/cleansing and fasting, by insignificant mortals, can in some way alter the attitude of an eternal, unimaginably holy and powerful God, just keeps slipping away from us and we assume that our performances put God in our debt! It is beyond ridiculous, and it also betrays a complete failure to understand the character of God, and our own utter helplessness.

It is God’s favour to us – undeserved, boundless and eternal – which calls forth from us a response of worship and obedience to his revealed will. The prophet is speaking on behalf of God, beseeching them to repent of their superficial religiosity, and instead to embrace obedience from the heart, not in order to earn favour, but in order to appropriately respond to what they have received. Ingratitude, rejection of God’s love, of His rightful place as Lord, all speak of hearts which are full of pride and self-reliance. Earnest – if flawed – obedience; the desire to keep on pursuing holiness by all the means of grace at our disposal, speak of hearts which are humble, realistic, and dependent on God.

The same rituals which were dismissed as bearing no fruit by the merely religious, could be a source of encouragement, a form of true worship by those whose hearts were changed. In our day, the so-called ‘duties’ of a believer – bible reading and prayer; attendance at church and active membership in a congregation; faithful giving of time, talents and money are all means by which we may choose to be blessed if we bring the attitude of a redeemed sinner to them, instead of a self-serving, self-reliant critic of God.

Let us be on guard against this attitude of entitlement – God owes us nothing, but has given us everything we need for this life and the next. Those who try to earn salvation by their deeds; or who reject the idea of God altogether and choose to live without him, will have their reward in this life, but will have no part in the treasure-house of God when He comes to gather it for eternity. May we be faithful in proclaiming this truth to those who do not know it, and meantime live humbly depending upon His grace to us, and not our worthiness to receive it..

Barren ground…..

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil…Other seed fell among thorns…Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop.. When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart.”

(Matt 13.3-8&19)

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones…, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

(Ezek 37.1-3)

Jesus said..”How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”

(Luke 18.23-27)

How do we maintain our hope and confidence in God when the work to which he calls us seems to bear no fruit, and when the future of our churches is so lacking in promise? Why does the God of the universe, for whom nothing is impossible, choose to withhold the blessing of the work of the spirit in the hearts and minds of men and women, convicting them of sin and bringing them to repentance and saving faith in his Son? Why does Jesus commission his followers down through the ages to go and share their faith, to make disciples, when he knew that the response, if any, would be small?

The mystery at the heart of this is well beyond the scope of this brief writing; the impenetrable operations of Almighty God in the human heart, and the ways in which we both respond to and are worked upon by his spirit. God is the bringer of new life, the only one who can release sinners from their bondage to decay – and yet we speak of a person coming to Christ, as if it were all their own initiative! It is a great paradox of faith, and one which – in the limited nature of our understanding – we must learn to accept and live with. We are called to labour with our God in the business of leading sinners home, of bringing people from darkness into light – by prayer; witness; practical loving and truth-speaking, we play our part in the miracle of new birth in Christ.

But, I return to my first questions again…how do faithful servants, desiring to obey the Lord’s command, make disciples? In our community, there is little or no interest in the gospel outside those who already come to church. People seem to believe that they have understood enough of it to set it aside as dated, irrelevant or even offensive, and they settle for their own world views and faith substitutes, quite content to pass their remaining days and the unknown of death without Christ. We, as a community of believers, are tolerated with humour and affection because we represent some quaint traditional values, and we do some useful things which other people appreciate. But by and large, we might as well be another secular society, like the golf club or sailing club – merely another interest group which occupies its own niche and does no harm.

We believe that our neighbours and friends are dry bones; that without Christ, they might as well be dead as live! We believe that the gospel offers a hope which is worth losing every good thing in this world to gain, and yet our witness is merely tolerated and then dismissed, neither preaching nor outreach have any impact.

God seems to have called us to labour in entirely barren ground; to spend ourselves in fruitless endeavours while yet retaining a lively and joyful hope and confidence in him. I don’t think it is wrong to admit that we find this extremely difficult!! We stand with Ezekiel and look at this desert of dry bones, and say with the prophet, “Lord, you alone know if these bones can live”. It is not for us to presume upon the Lord’s timing or will; but it is also not for us to despair and say that there is no hope..

May the God who brought us to this place, at this time, in his will and for his purpose, also enable and strengthen us, cheerfully to carry out such work as we can, and above all, to continue to trust in the power for salvation which is offered in Christ.

 

It’s not about the chocolate..

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

(Mark 8.34)

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

(Galatians 2.20)

You attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.. he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!

(Philippians 2.5-8)

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

(1 Peter 2.21-23)

As followers of Jesus around the world take time over the next few days to remember particularly the events of the last week of his life, looking forward to his death for all who would believe in him, I have been thinking how easy it is to forget a very significant truth about how he lived for us first.

Before Jesus died to save us from the power and consequences of sin – to offer hope for all the brokenness that each of us carries and cannot by any amount of our own effort overcome – he died to himself.

He deliberately set aside his own desires, the urge for self-preservation, comfort and privacy, for a “normal”life and the freedom to grow old without pain, and in peace. He gave up his rights as the eternal Son, setting them aside in order to become as a servant, one to whom no honour was due; and whose life might be disregarded and set at little worth. He gave up his rights to have his needs met in the ways he desired; he gave up the right to justify himself and to have the last word in an argument; he gave up the right to seek justice on his enemies for the wrongs they did to him. He set aside any notion of status or human authority, and never fought for recognition for his gifts and talents. He did not sulk or scheme against others when their opinions prevailed and his was set at nought.

It is far too easy for us to read Jesus’ words about denying ourselves, and to take them in as 21st century people – immediately thinking of diets, or other forms of privation; as many people still do in Lent, even when they have no faith in the Saviour whose life and death that season is associated with in many church calendars. It is far too easy to confine self-denial to food, or tv, or our favourite social media, or some other relatively innocuous item which doesn’t touch the heart of the matter.

It is ‘self’, the root of all human rebellion against God which must be denied, and that goes so deep with us, that most of us will spend our lives discovering ever more ways in which it rules and must be toppled from the throne over again.

I have no rights. I can demand nothing from life which I am entitled to receive. As a believer, all that I am and have is a gift from God, freely given, for him to use or withdraw according to his purpose and pleasure – for a greater and more glorious future than I can currently imagine. Will I trust this God – as Jesus did? Will I choose to cling by faith to his goodness and his promises when all my dearest hopes are gone; if my health were to be chronically undermined, or my children materially to suffer? Will I choose to let him look after the honour of my name and reputation, if all around treat me like dirt? Will I choose to let the justice of my cause go undefended, trusting in God to see and know, and resting on his love and acceptance of me for all my peace?

Jesus did this. He calls me to follow, rejecting the self which weeps and cries, fights and resists, clinging to every last foothold in my spirit and mind with incredible tenacity and hiding itself behind so many specious arguments.

My precious Lord and Saviour, for whom every step along the road to Jerusalem, every word and deed that last week was an act of obedient submission to the Father, and of ruthless denial of self, may I receive grace to follow and to carry my cross as simply, humbly and selflessly as you. Put to death in me that fierce enemy of the King of my heart, so that he might reign alone, and be glorified by who he makes me.