Category Archives: obedience

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. 

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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.

Keeping a clear spring flowing…

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognised by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn-bushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.”

(Luke 6.43-45)

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen….Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice….But among you there must  not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.

(Ephesians 4.29,31; 5.3&4)

Finally, friends, 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..

(Philippians 4.8)

How is your mind furnished? What things of beauty are placed there to encourage and inspire you? What lurks in the corners, unwanted but somehow stuck there, and likely to roll right out into the centre of your thoughts just when it is least appropriate?

I have images, words in my head which I wish I could wipe right out, things that I read or watched in moments of weakness and now deeply regret. Because I agree completely with the diagnosis that Jesus gives, that what we say and do comes from what we think and imagine and cherish in our minds, in our inmost being. We are responsible, as believers, for the things that we allow to find room in our hearts, because they will imperceptibly come to influence how we think and act. We can become de-sensitized to violence, blasphemy, obscenity and cruelty if we expose ourselves to them too much. My preference is to avoid them at all costs, except where it is impossible – in the living of daily life in this fallen world. Where is the ‘entertainment value’ in revisiting such things, when they reflect and dwell on the pain and darkness which God weeps over? Is it not enough to experience the realities, to see lives being destroyed around us by the evil which stains every life, and warps every impulse towards good?

There is so much in the world that is worth celebrating, worth dwelling upon, so many things that reflect the goodness of God and the image of his character which yet lives in his creatures. I passionately believe that we are missing out on God’s highest purpose and desire for us when we choose to focus on the darkness instead of the light, allowing our view of the world to become skewed and in danger of losing hope. What are we modelling for young believers, for our children, if we allow the bad news, the dark stories, and the secular narratives of humanists and aetheists to dictate our thinking? We have a radical, transforming story to share, and a God who has filled the world with witnesses to his power and glory, whose church is growing and whose power is undiminished.

What do our books, films, music and social media preferences say about how we see the world, about the view of God in the world that we have, about how we are furnishing our minds? We surely know enough already about the dark side of human nature from our own thoughts without needing adult movies, explicit literature – of sex or violence – and amoral song lyrics providing the soundtrack and moving pictures in our minds!

Or is it just me…am I naive and impractical?

As I grow older, I find I am more and not less sensitive, and this doesn’t trouble me in the least. It means that when I read of real suffering, or meet it in those around me, I hurt, I feel pain which prompts prayer, action, compassion and anger against the author of all this destruction – the devil, who, we thank God, has been defeated, but whose power in the world is not yet finally destroyed.

May God continue to help me to guard against all those things that might pollute and poison the new life, and pure spirit which he has caused to well up within me. There is enough remaining that needs cleansed without me adding more!

 

 

A singing faith…

 

Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him. Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre. Sing to him a new song; play skilfully, and shout for joy!

(Psalm 33.1-3)

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

(Ephesians 5.18-20)

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the centre of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders…and they sang a new song: You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth. 

Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise! 

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever! The four living creatures said, AMEN, and the elders fell down and worshipped.

(Revelation 5.6, 9-14)

 

Music is to be praised as second only to the Word of God because by her are all the emotions swayed. Nothing on earth is more mighty to make the sad gay and the gay sad, to hearten the downcast, mellow the overweening, temper the exuberant or mollify the vengeful….this precious gift has been bestowed on men alone to remind them that they are created to praise and magnify the Lord.

Martin Luther, on music…1538

Do I need to add anything more?! Dear friends, we may not think that music is our particular gift, that our voice is nothing special, that the serious business of learning from the bible is the principle reason for meeting together as believers… But none of that is to the point!

We are commanded by our God, the one who made us and knows what we are capable of and also what is to our benefit, to SING, to make a joyful noise, and to use whatever musical instruments come to hand in order to add to the experience. We are not told to sing only when we feel like it; to sing only using certain forms of words; to sing only in church; to sing only in four-part harmony; to sing only unaccompanied by instruments, or only with instruments. It is really quite simple…humankind is created with the ability to make music, we have an inbuilt instrument, and God says to us, “I gave you that voice for a purpose, USE IT! principally to glorify me, and also for your own pleasure.”

When his people sing, when we use the voices he has given us, I believe that our loving Father delights in our music – not because of our polished performance, but because it is our personal response to all that he is and has done for us. I believe that each individual voice is heard within the whole – and if we deliberately withhold our song, he misses us. I also believe that singing our faith is a powerful way of learning our theology – how often do I find myself remembering lines from hymns which speak of deep truths, bringing comfort and encouragement. Singing is good for us, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Let’s do it with enthusiasm, and be willing to learn to do it better!

I could write at length on this, but I want to let the words of scripture speak for themselves , so will just close with one last thing that has always puzzled me…why is it that so many faithful followers of Jesus seem unable to sing with feeling? I don’t mean that we should be constantly in a state of brainless ecstasy, but rather that the truth we are singing should be expressed and reflected in the way we sing… Folk have commented that I smile often as I sing – it never occured to me that this was peculiar; of course I smile, I am singing to my Saviour, I am full of thankfulness, I must smile! And equally, at times I weep, and can barely make a sound, as I am overcome by the message of a song.. And yet so many seem to sing as if there were no connection between the words coming form their lips, and their hearts….it’s odd.

This has been a rather long post, but it only touches the surface of a big subject. Let us indeed encourage and sing to one another, let us begin to rehearse in earnest for the great day when we join the chorus of the redeemed in the new creation, to give our hearts in praise to our glorious Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ..just do it!

A new look?

With the Lord’s authority I say this: Live no longer as the Gentiles do, for they are hopelessly confused. Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him…But..Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God – truly righteous and holy.

(Ephesians 4.17&18, 21-24)

Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

(Romans 12.2)

He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will not longer live for themselves….This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

(2Corinthians 5.15&17)

No one carefully reading the letters of the apostles written to the early church, could make the mistake of thinking that Christian faith is simply a matter of being nice and having a warm, comforting feeling about life and the future.. Our faith is not a matter of instinct, habit or gut feelings; it is action, constant struggle and an endless ache for things we as yet do not see. It is a daily contest between the remnant of our sinful self – the voice that bewitchingly says we are “worth it”, when temptations come our way; that beguiles us into selfish behaviour and thought on the basis that meeting our needs is obviously the priority for our lives – and the new person we are becoming through the life we now live in Christ Jesus.

The apostles use a variety of images to help their readers – that’s us too – to understand what it means to live as believers in Jesus, as those who have been forgiven and restored to fellowship with God, who are being transformed into his likeness. One of the most striking is the idea of a garment being put off or on.

No one puts on clothes by accident; you don’t just wake up and find yourself dressed for a day in the office! It requires at the very least a routine of laundry, and a modicum of organisation to present oneself appropriately attired for the day. And this is the point for believers: we too have to be actively involved in our daily life of faith, in preparation and organisation, so that we are fit to be seen as God’s witnesses in the world.

The person who believes in Jesus, and desires to be actively growing in maturity as a believer has a job to do – God has given us the privilege of being his fellow-labourers, as he by his spirit works in us. We are given many promises, but what good are they to us if we do not – by faith – choose to act as though we believed them? It is all very good to read of the peace of God, but unless I actively strive to put off my anxiety and trust God, then peace remains only a dream.

I choose to believe that I am forgiven, to accept and rejoice in that forgiveness and therefore to put away, or cast off, any clinging and debilitating guilt.

I choose to believe that I have a purpose in God’s great plan for the world, and therefore look actively for ways in which he is already at work where I can offer myself in service, rejecting the self-pitying and discontented spirit which resents my present circumstances.

I choose to believe that God is indeed at work in me, that he will complete that work so that I shall be transformed into the Christ-version of myself which was God’s original purpose. And so I give thanks even in times of struggle, weariness and pain, trusting that he is forming treasure within me and none of it is wasted.

It is a battle..so often I am ambushed by my own thoughts and feelings, and find I have failed to put off the things which are not of Christ, but cling to them instead! I do not have that single-minded focus which keeps my eye on him – the author and perfecter of my faith – but, when I am thinking clearly, I know that God wants this focus for me too, and therefore even as I strive for it, he is strengthening my gaze.

All praise to him, who keeps us from falling, comforts and forgives us as we stumble and wander, and who provides such riches for our clothing – that we might be found arrayed in all the glorious, spotless robes of Jesus. Let’s get dressed!!