Category Archives: perseverance

Hiding in plain view?

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil..The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written:’Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,”he said,”throw yourself down. For it is written:”He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered him, “It is also written:   ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

(Matthew 4.1-7)

So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

(1 Corinthians 10.12-14)

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

(James 4.7)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the command to die to self, about the supreme example which Jesus set for us as we follow him and God transforms us into Christ-likeness. And almost immediately, I was plunged into a turmoil, a maelstrom of emotion and trouble which threatened to overwhelm me as I struggled to cling to Christ,to discern truth and solid ground on which to stand. In God’s goodness, he provided me not only with praying friends, and sufficient self-restraint not to act or speak out of my agony, but also a clear insight into the source of my troubles..

I am a target, as are all believers, for the hostile and insidious activities of that enemy who was defeated on the cross but who nonetheless remains at large – a mystery of God’s sovereignty for which we must trust him. There is a devil, and his whole powers, such as they remain, are devoted to undermining the church, the body of Christ in the world, by all and every means possible. It behoves us, as those desiring to live for Christ, to be aware of this enemy – not in an obsessive way, but alert to the possibilities of his presence.

Our culture has largely dismissed this agent of evil, and if we are not careful, we forget and fail to recognise him at work – which makes us vulnerable to his tricks. He is a master deceiver, so adroit at clothing himself in selected truths and borrowed garments that we entirely fail to unmask him, and think we are meeting a friend, a trusted adviser who has our good at heart.

We see from the temptations of Jesus, that the devil is a master at using our natural desires and needs in order to undermine our trust in and dependence on God. Of course Jesus was hungry, and he had every ‘right’ as the Son of God, to transform the barren rocks into food. But Jesus discerned that this was not the time, and resisted, trusting God to meet his hunger instead. The devil quoted scripture to Jesus, persuading him that it could only be right to prove God’s care for him – again, Jesus resisted, taking scripture on his own side as vindication.

My particular weaknesses, needs, deep hurts or anxieties which I carry through life, are my points of greatest vulnerability to these attacks by my great enemy. And if I cannot recognise his hand at work, oppressing me; or discern his tones within the voice which is counselling me to put my own needs first, because “of course that is what my loving Father would want…”,it is all too clear how easily we can be led into dangerous thoughts and actions which result in the havoc in which the devil delights.

It is surely fitting that in the Lord’s prayer, we are taught to ask to be delivered from temptation, from the hands of the evil one! But we are also assured by God’s word that in every place of temptation, there will be a way out, the possibility of obedience to God is always there, no matter how loudly our feelings may be screaming at us to follow another direction.

Thanks be to God, for his kindness in revealing the source of my troubles, for unveiling the enemy, and thanks be to Christ, in whom I have the victory. I may be a wounded soldier, but I am still on the winning side, and my captain is always ready to respond to my call for his help!

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Consider the stars..

There is no one like the God of Jeshurun, who rides on the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty. The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.

(Deuteronomy 33.26&27)

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”…He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.

(Psalm 91.1,2, 4-6)

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us…And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose….Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long, we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

(Romans 8.18,28,35-37)

Consider the stars in the sky;
When it is darkest they shine out the brightest
Consider the stars in the sky
In every anguish, Oh, child take courage

Do not be afraid
Do not be afraid
He who made all of this, and who holds all of this,
Holds you in his hands

(Keith & Kristyn Getty, 2015)

 

We have a bad habit of re-casting God’s promises into our own terms, to suit our own circumstances, and then expecting Him to fulfill them according to our understanding of what is best.. We take the words such as those from Psalm 91 above, and decide that should mean that we are to be kept miraculously safe from every physical threat to our bodies – always! Sometimes, there are instances where God has indeed created supernatural protection for his children, hiding them in plain sight from their enemies, or healing them from fatal illnesses, and we do well to rejoice in such deliverances. But they will always be part of a bigger picture, and a higher perspective that we cannot see. God does nothing at random, and nothing is ever wasted, so that a miraculously preserved life will have some particular call upon it which is yet to be fulfilled.

But our experience, in a broken world, is surely not that which might be expected from a superficial reading of Psalm 91 – everyone suffers from illness, assault, weakness, fear, and eventually the debilitating effects of age. So where do God’s promises come into the picture? In what sense are we supported by the everlasting arms, pictured in Moses’ wonderful final song in Deuteronomy?

I believe that Paul puts it best for us, when he affirms that there is NOTHING which can separate the child of God from the love of the Father, because of the redeeming work of the Son. In one sense, we may be vulnerable to the effects of human suffering, but in another, we are invincible! The grasp of the everlasting arms upon us is unbreakable, and our eternal future, in transformed bodies, in glory and joy and fulfilment, cannot be taken from us. In that ultimate and most essential sense, nothing can touch us!

If we can take hold on that truth – a process which I find I have to go through repeatedly, as new trials come along – then we are indeed sheltered from the storm, as under wings, because our heart is at rest. It may be in agony, but in recognising that there is one who loves us and bears with us, who knows our pain, and above all who knows that the future glory is worth it, there, we find we can hold firm.

I often walk at night by the sea, and the stars throng the sky above me, a source of wonder and awe. They speak of the utter ‘otherness’ of the creator, of my utter insignificance, and cause me to stand in adoration again of the God who “made all of this, and who holds all of this,” yet holds even me in his hands.

Friends, let us pray for God to stir up our faith, when all around seems darkest, that his presence and promises will shine brightly, and we will hold fast, trusting him, and rest in the everlasting arms.

 

Photograph of the stars, courtesy of F. Wotherspoon.

Against self-pity

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him…and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

(1 Peter 1.6-9)

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

(Hebrews 12.2)

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

(James 1.2-4)

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ…..I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings…

(Philippians 3.7&10)

I am often guilty of wishful thinking; of comparing my situation to that of other people and wondering why I should have to bear my particular burdens. I know this is foolish – who knows what hidden struggles and trials plague the lives of others? I know it is sinful, and yet I find myself longing, wondering, scheming to find a way out of my own personal darkness.

I resent my sufferings; I don’t want anyone else to have to bear them, but I don’t want them either! And then I read these words from Paul…and Peter…and James, and am rebuked and see clearly what my attitude is saying.

I am accusing God of dealing unfairly with me; of giving me a burden which is too great for me to carry; of asking too much; I am refusing to trust that this God – who has so devastatingly shown his love for me on the cross – has my best interests at heart. I consider Jesus, my saviour, and also my example of obedient, holy living, and am ashamed of my disobedient, grumbling attitude.

We are taught that our sufferings have a purpose – the maturing of our faith, until it becomes like pure gold in which the maker can see his own likeness clearly reflected – but that can produce a stoic, teeth-gritting determination rather than a humble, thankful acceptance. I believe that there is another element to the process, which can transform our attitude. Have you ever considered that once we are in glory with Christ, we will never again have the privilege of suffering anything at all in his name and for his sake? There will be nothing to endure, only to enjoy!

Our trials in this world are our opportunity to prove God faithful in his promises to strengthen, comfort and keep us.  When, in the mystery of his will, we are permitted to experience trials and troubles of every kind, then I believe that he is inviting our partnership in the process of creating Christ-likeness in us. The late Helen Roseveare, missionary doctor and one who suffered much at the hands of the Congolese rebels in 1964, wrote of how God spoke to her in the midst of great suffering:

Was He saying to me,’Yes, I could have kept you out of this situation: I could have rescued you….but I thought I could trust you to go through this with me, as I have a plan and purpose for the future..Can you thank me for trusting you with this experience even if I never tell you why?” (Count it All Joy; Helen Roseveare 2017)

If, when faced with our own particular trials, we take refuge in self-pity, in blaming God, and devote all our energies to getting out of the situation by our own efforts, then I believe we are neglecting an opportunity – to grow in faith; to let God shape us through this particular experience of leaning and depending on him; to witness to his power at work in our situation and above all to glorify Jesus by our desire to offer our suffering up in worship. In my own experience, it is in the darkest nights that the tenderness of my Lord’s love is most dear, most present – shall I refuse to meet him there again?

I, the least of the Lord’s servants, am being counted worthy of suffering in his name – and I have his example to inspire me – scorning the shame, and for the joy that is to come, I can receive my trials as a means of blessing. The missionary and author Elisabeth Elliott – who like Dr Roseveare proved God faithful through many trials – puts it perfectly:

“Refuse self-pity. Refuse it absolutely. It is a deadly thing with power to destroy you. Turn your thoughts to Christ who has already carried our griefs and sorrows.”

Oh Loving God, Heavenly Father, grant me wisdom, faith and courage, to trust you and embrace all that you choose to permit in my life, for your glory and the blessing of others.

A cold shower?

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word..

(Ephesians 5.25&26)

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.

(Psalm 19. 7&8)

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

(Hebrews 4.12)

Sometimes, the things which are good for us, are not the easy or comfortable things…as fallen creatures, we lean constantly towards the quick fix, the path of least resistance, and the minimising of effort and discomfort. But in our hearts, we know that such traits are unhealthy – in the long run, we will pay the price for our current bad choices.

Healthy eating, appropriate exercise, moderation in our spending and generosity in our giving…we know that these are good for our bodies and minds, but what about the nurture of our spirits?

The bible is very clear that for the follower of Jesus, there is an obligation to pursue holiness – a lifelong quest to become like Christ, in obedient and loving response to his sacrificial death for us. It is also made clear that left to ourselves, we will twist and distort this noble quest into some travesty of God’s plan – we become bitterly judgemental like the Pharisees of Jesus day, and fall into the sin of pride in our own achievements.

Praise God, that in his mercy, he has not left us alone to pursue this quest. Instead, we read that it is Christ at work in us, the Spirit moving in power, who makes the changes. And the tool he has appointed is his word, the revelation contained in the bible, which is God’s inspired and infallible word to us his children.

We turn to the pages of the bible gladly enough for comfort, and for inspiration, but there is a danger that we will choose to ignore those passages which come too close to our bad habits and cherished sins! It is certainly true that God is working to sanctify – to make us clean and pure and whole – but we are called to work to cooperate with him in that process. Such co-operation requires our willingness to be open to rebuke, correction and the death of pride. When God grants us faith to believe that his love is perfect, and has only our good as its goal, then we find the will to trust that love in action, in convicting us of sin, bringing us to repentance, and re-shaping our minds and hearts so that sin’s stain is forever removed.

I believe that we must discipline ourselves to submit every part of our lives to God’s searching and transforming power, holding nothing back. It may be that there will be things we don’t even recognise as sins until the Spirit takes the word and cuts through to the heart, showing us the ugly realities of thought and deed. God is merciful, he knows how frail we are, and does not choose that we should be overwhelmed by understanding all at once just how deeply rooted our sinful nature is – we are not able to bear such self-knowledge. Instead, as we open ourselves up to the truth of the word, he opens our eyes, little by little, so that over the years, he washes us clean of stain after stain.

These words of an old hymn express a beautiful prayer for such steady, cleansing interaction with the word of God – an interaction which should be just as much part of our daily routine as eating, washing and brushing our teeth!

Make the book live to me, O Lord, show me Thyself within Thy word;

Show me myself, and show me my Saviour, and make the book live to me.

(R. Hudson Pope)

Sometimes, it will be a comforting encounter, sometimes as shocking and bracing as a cold shower, but every time we open the word, we invite God to do something in our lives. All praise to him, that in his mercy he is working patiently and lovingly to make us holy, and beautiful in his sight!

Cheering me on?

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbour for his good, to build him up…. everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

(Romans 15.1,2&4)

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.

(Philippians 2.1-3)

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

(2 Thessalonians 2.16&17)

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul writes about how each part of the church – each individual member – has a valuable contribution to make to the life of the whole. One of the gifts mentioned is that of encouragement, and while I recognise that some people are particularly gifted in that way, we can all probably learn to practice it better!

What do we mean by “encourage”? I think there are two aspects to it: firstly, that it should help people to see themselves as God’s redeemed and beloved children; and second that it should help them to find strength and courage for the next steps along their journey as believers.

When we celebrate people for who they are, the unique combination of qualities and experiences which make up their characters, and all the varied elements of their life story, we remind them that God values them. They are those for whom Christ died, those who are being refined to a perfection of beauty which will leave us all speechless, those whom he delights to call his own. We can use our words to show them their own worth in God’s sight, affirming the struggles they are going through, and the triumphs they have achieved.. In our family, even very small occasions are an excuse for celebration cakes, and an affirmation that the details of our lives matter. When I take the time to notice someone, to find out about them and share something of their story, they are encouraged – God has sent someone to say “I care about you”.

If I feel that who I am matters, that the details are all known by my Father in heaven, every sorrow and joy seen and cherished by him, then I have reason to be confident that my future will also matter. When I remember that Christ died for me, that I am united forever with him, then I am free to stop worrying about propping up my own self-worth or achieving “self-fulfillment”. My Saviour has everything that matters safely in his keeping; my reputation is his affair, not mine and I am free to put others first, to seek their good, loving them as God loves me.

It is this kind of encouragement to which we are called as believers, drawing on the biblical pattern, where so often God’s people were called to remember his care for them, provision for their needs and long-suffering with their sins. This remembrance was the basis for a call to new commitment on their part, to obedience and faithful reliance on God to provide for them and achieve his purposes through them.

So how shall we encourage one another this week?

Think back over conversations you have had; if there is anything which was concerning a friend, or a trial they were facing, go and ask how it worked out. Celebrate the good things which happen, mourn together over the disappointments, and point one another back to the cross and the faithfulness of God, so that courage is found to persevere.

If someone has done something to help you, to make you laugh or to ease a difficult situation – tell them, in a card or text, let them know that they made a difference, and were God’s means of helping you at that time.

If someone has offended you, ask God for grace to forgive them – as you have been forgiven so much more by him – and then go and find something you can do to celebrate that person.

We can encourage one another anonymously, but it is lovely to know who has taken the time to be God’s love in person for us. In this way we build one another up, we grow in Christ-like love, in unity, and God is glorified among us.

Let’s make some cakes!

 

Looking for my lover…

Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing..

(1Peter 3.8&9)

Who is this coming up from the desert leaning on her lover?…Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away…

(Song of Songs 8. 5,6-7)

As a sinful creature – saved, yet vulnerable to the old temptations and weaknesses, open to many distractions and easily swayed – among other sinners, I am answerable to the King of Kings for the way I treat his precious children. I am commanded to live peaceably, and not only that, but in a way which consistently seeks the good of others.

I don’t know about you, but I find it easy to love people when they are a generalised grouping, strangers whose lives have little impact on mine. It is a good deal harder to love those whose daily lives impact directly on me – for good and ill – because my own experience of them seems to get in the way all the time! It becomes hard to know what will be good for them, and harder still to do it, when I am preoccupied with how their latest actions have made me feel. It is as though “I” am getting in the way of the calling which God has given, to love and serve him in his people. My own needs for unconditional love, forgiveness and tenderness shout too loudly, drowning out the quiet voice directing me to obedient love for others.

I love that verse in the Song of Songs where the bride is described as coming up from the desert, “leaning on her lover”. She has found in a dry and arid place, the one who delights in her, and because of his love, she has the courage to return to the city and face the business of life again.

I too, have a heavenly Lord and Lover, who loves me – sacrificially – and who delights in me, who actually likes the person I am. He enjoys the playful spirit he gave me, so that while I may feel oppressed when the company of others suppresses it, when we are alone together, I can play and be glad, knowing I am loved.

He gave me a heart which loves to share, to listen to the hearts of others. When those around shut me out and refuse to be known by me, I go back and listen to his heart, and it speaks strong and loud of his joy, his beauty, his goodness. All these things are spread before me like a rich feast, with his great ambition for creation together with the pain which it is costing him. Here I find one who never keeps me at a distance, but reveals himself and is glad that I should be learning to know him. What a marvel, that God should choose to reveal himself to such as we are.

And this, my God loves all his children thus, seeing and cherishing each one; full of compassion for the struggles and pain which they feel. This, my God, longs to be known and delighted in by his people, and holds out his arms in welcome.

When I experience rejection by those I love, when I am not at liberty among them to be myself gladly and be delighted in, let me remember the heart of God. That great heart which is continually rejected and shut out by those he loves, whose tenderness is wounded again and again by their refusal to enjoy and accept him as he reveals himself through Jesus Christ. God knows my pain, and calls me to accept it in obedience, not dwelling upon it, but coming back again and again for refreshment and to lean upon the strengthening arm of my lover.

Then I will be in the right position to react as God reacts to us – in forgiving, loving patience, bearing with us in spite of all we have done and continue to do. As he has loved me, so may I love others, depending upon his strength and drawing on his love, so that all my needs are met in him and I am free to give as he does – to overflowing!

 

To win the prize

But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. . forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.

(Philippians 3.12-14)

Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. To everyone who is victorious I will give some of the manna that has been hidden away in heaven. And I will give to each one a white stone, and on the stone will be engraved a new name that no one understands except the one who receives it.

(Revelation 2.17)

I have become involved in a weekly lunchtime event with some of our primary school children, an informal “athletics” session, when we run, jump, throw, catch and generally do sporty things just for fun…But watching some of the little ones, I see such a strong drive to win, to be first, every time – even though there is absolutely no competition going on! Humanity has a strong competitive instinct, and takes so much pleasure in winning – even if the activity is walking slowly with a beanbag balanced on the head!

Is it this kind of prize which Paul is talking about in his letter to the believers in Philippi..one which some will gain at the cost of others losing? I think not! Our faith is in a finished work by a triumphant Saviour; we receive our eternal life as a gift from a gracious God, not as a result of some stupendous effort by which we outstrip our fellows. So what kind of prize does Paul mean?

Last year I ran for the first – and probably the last – time in a 10km event, and received a medal for completing the course, not for a fast time, or a stylish run, or even for overcoming any significant obstacles in order to take part. I was rewarded for persevering to the end…and it is this kind of prize which is in view as Paul writes. The apostle is seeking to encourage his young church in their faith, to strengthen them in the face of difficulties of many kinds, and by his own example, to help them see what it looks like to imitate Christ in real, daily living.

We have been laid hold of by Christ, taken into his team, as precious individual beings whose particular character and talents are known and valued, with a unique contribution to make to his work, his church. We are with him, because this is where we belong, where we make a difference for eternity, and where all that we are is most richly expressed and exercised. Perfection is in store for us, dimly glimpsed here, and gloriously realised in the life to come, when his purposes for us will be complete.

I am called to be the perfect version of me – and although on this side of death, I will not see it, yet by his grace, God is working in me to realise that perfection. To the extent of my obedience, of my glad submission to his will for me, and my striving with his power to leave sin behind and follow Christ – to that extent, I press on, straining toward the goal. The prize which awaits is not a reward for being “better” than anyone else, it is the prize of being the perfect me – that unique and glorious daughter of the King of Kings; whose voice has music only for her Lord and who will dance before him unsullied by any stain of sin.

The prize is not some standardised medal, no one-size-fits-all T-shirt; it is to receive that intimate name, that ultimate assurance of being known for oneself..known, accepted and exulted in! No one else will ever fill the place in the eternal dance which is meant for me – and each of you has your own space, where the Father will seek and delight to find you, playing your own perfect part and bringing joy to the whole.

Is not this vision, this prize which Paul describes to us, a great encouragement to persevere in our faith; to see beyond the darkness of the battlefield, or the dimness of the sickroom, and the dullness of the routines?..We are becoming beautiful in his sight, every day a little brighter, and everything that we encounter on the way is another opportunity to press on.

Let us join with Paul, in pressing on toward this brilliance, this wonderful future, rejoicing that it is God who works in us, thus ensuring that we will receive all he has in store!