Category Archives: responsibility

What are my priorities?

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your reasonable act of worship.

(Rom 12. 1)

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s spirit lives in you?.. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body..

(1 Cor 3.16 &6.19&20

 

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ…..Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules?…These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence…

(Col 2.6-8,20-23)

There are many socially acceptable ‘sins’ which we tend to gloss over when we encounter them, and justify to ourselves in order to indulge in them – and there is a significant word…”indulge”. How ready we are to listen to the philosophies of the world which encourage us to ‘treat ourselves well’, to prioritise ‘self-care’ and make sure that all our needs are being met so that we can take care of others and fulfill our mission in life.

It is all plausible, and in some ways attractive and compatible with the gospel, with God’s love for us and his plans to do good for and through us. BUT, I become very uneasy with it, all too aware that we use this to justify behaviour which the bible would bluntly describe as shameful for one who professes to be a disciple of Jesus.

At what point does my proper desire to look after the body which God has given me tip over into idolatry? What do my habits of consumption mean for those around me – am I setting a good example of self-discipline, or encouraging others in slothfulness and greed – or the opposite evils of obsessive control over food and weight? I try to keep fit, to ensure that I am functioning well and able to do the tasks allotted to me and not burden my family with caring for me in preventable illnesses. But, I must not let that become a lifestyle based on the conviction that if I will eat/exercise etc in certain ways, then I can somehow avoid every ailment and attain long, healthy life! The Lord alone knows the span of my days, and having lost both parents relatively young to cancer, I know full well that healthy living doesn’t guarantee longevity.

Paul speaks many times of the sufferings he went through as a servant of Christ – he also speaks of living in a focussed way, of keeping himself ‘in training’ for the race of his life of service. He speaks of being content in every situation – that speaks of a mind and heart which rests in God, not in its own controlling routines of food and exercise. He knew how to enjoy the good things of life, but also how to keep all things in right relation to the priority which was his commitment to Christ and the spreading of the gospel. I wonder how Paul would react to the phrase “self-care”?! Not positively I suspect, and mainly because of the presence of the word “self”, which should sound alarm bells for every believer who has entrusted themselves to Christ, believing that he alone is the source of our security, purpose, and the only one who can meet all our needs. My focus must be on him, not on myself…

There is clearly a balance to achieve; and we are not called to neglect ourselves either – Paul exhorts young Timothy to look after his health, and we too should not be irresponsible. But the emphasis must be on this, that I am not my own boss anymore. All that I am and have is a gift from God, and is surrendered to his service when I confess Christ as Lord of my life. He bought me with his blood, and in loving response, I seek to use all that I am in his service, seeking only his approval and his direction.

May God help us to live joyfully, in whatever circumstances are allotted to us; using our bodies responsibly and honouring him as we do so, so that we might indeed – with Paul – complete our race and win the only prize that matters, when our Lord says, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

 

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Dare I look?..

Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from wilful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

(Ps 19.12-14)

Do good to your servant according to your word, O Lord. Teach me knowledge and good judgement, for I believe in your commands….It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.

(Ps 119.65,66&71)

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…..God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

(Heb 4.12; 12.10&11)

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and , after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does.

(James 1.22-25)

Why do we have mirrors? To show us ourselves – not our neighbours, nor our spouses and children – and to show us our context, the place where we are standing. In biblical terms, the “mirror” is the word of God, the sure source of truth amid the distorting lies which the fallen world, and our own weak natures spin to us about who we are, and what life is really all about. This mirror will not lie to us, to make us feel better about who we are, or to pretend that all is well. This mirror will also not fail to speak the truth about who God says we are, and have been made in Christ.

This mirror tells us that without Christ, we are hopeless sinners in a broken world under the judgement of a holy God, and with a future of eternal separation from Love himself. It tells us that with Christ – as we are found by faith in him – we are redeemed, beloved children of God; there is no sentence of judgement hanging over us any more, and at heart, we are new creatures – no longer sinners by nature, but holy ones, or saints, who sometimes sin but not in settled rebellion against our creator. As we look into this mirror, we should come away filled with confidence and gladness, thankful for the new life we have received and the security that God is keeping us safe for an eternal future with him.

So yes, I should indeed dare to look into the mirror, and often! But it also shows me truth about the hidden and wilful sins which I – as God’s holy child – still commit so persistently, and this can be very painful to see. Too often, I come with my own idea of how I look – self-righteous, patronisingly long-suffering, martyred in my own eyes as other people let me down…

The mirror of God’s word has particularly revealing powers, bringing into sharp and painful definition all the ways in which I am committing those same sins which I attribute to others; full of pride instead of humility, and cherishing endurance instead of loving generously. God does not ask me to be the guardian of another person’s soul, but only to be accountable to him for myself – nothing excuses my unloving spirit; there is always good reason to forgive, because in Christ I am forgiven; I am given life and breath each day in order to bless others, to show God’s love to them, to give in the face of indifference and rejection and not count the cost.

No excuses, no special ‘make-up’ to cover the blemishes, only the searching gospel-light of scripture directed by the Holy Spirit which is designed to bring me daily to my knees in repentance and confession, then to my feet in rejoicing as I go in Christ’s strength and love to do the work in hand.

May the grace of God cover all those ways in which I let others down, and may he continue to show me where I am wilfully sinning, and to uncover hidden sins, that I might repent and be cleansed. What a faithful God we have, who having sealed us for eternity, also gives us all we need to live joyfully and with ever purer hearts for him each day!

Whose body?

How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity…It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life for evermore.

(Ps 133.1&3)

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf…So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgement on themselves

(1 Cor 10.16&17, 11.27-29)

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour, for we are all members of one body…after all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church – for we are members of his body.

(Eph 4.25&5.29-30)

On the night before he died, and after he had celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples, showing in the wine and bread what lay ahead for him, Jesus prayed for the unity of those who would believe in his name for their salvation.

He prayed this way after commanding his disciples to love one another as he had loved them, namely patiently, perseveringly, selflessly and sacrificially. This unity is therefore not something which comes easily as a feeling, but rather one which is a deliberate acting out of foundational truths, and it requires our commitment and continual focus of attention.

The remnants of our brokenness, even after we have become followers of Jesus, are at war with this desire for unity and fellowship – honesty compels us to recognise within our own church families that we are divided from one another, hiding behind polite facades of competence, nursing grudges, unable to embrace change for the sake of others because it makes us uncomfortable. Our weakness undermines our fellowship, and yet, through those very things, God chooses to demonstrate his power. When we recognise Christ in the believers around us – seeing their inestimable value as his redeemed children – then we find we can love as we want to and ought to! God’s grace is seen as we learn to forgive, to serve (and be served), to bear with one another and to keep lifting up those who stumble. It isn’t about feeling, but about doing and putting ourselves in God’s hands for the good of our neighbours.

As we celebrate the Lord’s supper, communion, or whatever we happen to call that wonderful time of remembrance, Paul is advising us (through his letter to the Corinthians), to see the body of Christ around us, the people for whom Jesus died. We are all equally hopeless without Christ; dependant upon Christ; and gloriously transformed by Christ – and we belong together. When one suffers, we all suffer. When one rejoices, we all rejoice. Christ’s sacrifice is not for me alone, but for all those who call him Lord, and as I take the bread and wine, he calls me to remember that and to consider just how much I am dwelling in loving unity with my brothers and sisters. We do this ‘in remembrance of him’ – whose human body was broken for us, and of whose spiritual body we are now a part.

He died, that we might be his and be one. Am I actively undermining that purpose, am I hurting one of his children, withholding love? Am I neglecting opportunities to build others up in their faith? I am called into the body of Christ to serve him by loving others – what am I doing to fulfill my part in that purpose?

We are the body of Christ – gathered, redeemed, precious and holy to him. Our unity is beautiful in his sight, and as refreshing and blessing to us as divine dew on dry ground. May our celebrations of communion be times to remember and discern the body of which we are part, so that his love for us becomes our motivation to love others, undergirding and informing our conduct so that we do all for and with one another.

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. 

When there seems to be no “right” way..

Do good to your servant according to your word, O Lord. Teach me knowledge and good judgement, for I believe in your commands…I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word. I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me. How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path..

(Ps 119. 65&66, 101-105)

Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.

(Eph 5.15-17)

I believe that since I have confessed Jesus as Lord, and since I depend solely on his death on the cross for my salvation and acceptance in God’s eyes, I am assured of my position as a beloved, redeemed and secure child of God. I have a heavenly Father who delights in me, who forgives me and bears with me, and whose plan is all for my blessing and his glory. He is at work daily, by his spirit within me, through his word and all the circumstances of my life, to cleanse and purify and also to use me to bless others. I desire with all my heart to co-operate with this work – to be a blessing, and to know myself transformed, made like Christ.

BUT…I also believe that each of us starts with our own particular temperaments, strengths and weaknesses. Things which others may struggle with, may pass me by. While things which bring me to my knees in fear or catch me unawares over and over again will not trouble my friends at all! It is so important not to judge ourselves by other people’s lives, but to try and look only to our Father for approval and acceptance. In the meantime, I am wrestling once again with an issue which has troubled me all my life…knowing (in any given situation) what is the RIGHT thing to do.

Let me make it clear. There are obviously situations in which we choose between sin and holiness, between obeying a clear command and disobeying it. I am not talking about those, because there the issue is temptation or weariness and weakness. I am concerned with how I discern what action to take, what attitude to cultivate, when the choice is between a number of equally likely or appropriate alternatives! In other words, a choice between varieties of obedience!

On the one hand, I believe in a sovereign God, who directs my life according to his perfect will – miraculously working all things together for his glory and my blessing. That should mean that I can trust him to use whatever choices I make…and yet somehow I still feel a dreadful burden of responsibility – I don’t want to be the child who goes off down dead-ends and has to be retrieved at great effort, when another choice would – with hindsight – have been better. Is it pride that underlies the whole thing? Perhaps it is, the pride that hates to make mistakes, to cause disappointment, and to put others to trouble to sort out the mess.

I remember a minister talking about “sanctified common sense”, and what he meant was that our ability to make rational and sensible decisions is just as much affected by our ongoing transformation into Christ-likeness as the rest of us. We are gifted with this sense of what is wise – an inner balance which puts ‘pros’ on one side and ‘cons’ on the other, and looks at the result. As a follower of Jesus, I should be able to trust this sense, because it is more and more informed by his word and guided by his spirit. The things which weigh in the balance will be the things which matter to him – like stewardship of my gifts, love to my neighbour, obedience to his word, serving his mission in the world.

So as I look to the next big question, the choice between equally valid options, I will be praying for that wisdom which comes from my saviour’s transforming of my mind, and for the trust that will enable me to act upon my decision without fretting that I have somehow gone wrong!! Praise God that he IS big enough, merciful and loving enough to work everything together for good, and for his patience with a dithering, over-thinking anxious child like me….

A prickly character….?

Now we ask you brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you , brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.

(1 Thessalonians 5.12-15)

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

(Romans 12.18)

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of  no advantage to you.

(Hebrew 13.17)

One of the most amazing signs of God’s love and grace is the continued existence of his church in the world. Think about it for a moment..Within a few short years of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the gospel had spread across the known world – all very good and encouraging – BUT the infant church was riddled with divisions, hostility and false teaching. The letters to the young churches in the New Testament address a depressingly familiar set of problems, and Paul, Peter and John must have wondered what on earth the future could possibly hold for the church as a whole!

Although I have referred to the problems as ‘depressingly familiar’, there is also a sense in which we can be profoundly encouraged..Why? because in spite of the chronic weakness and persistent failures of believers from the very beginning, the church still exists! God has preserved the witness of his people, has extended the reach of the gospel and continues to transform lives around the world through the power of the redeeming work of Jesus on the cross.

I have been struck afresh recently by just how very hard it must be for our leaders to maintain their energy, hope and vision for the work to which God has called them. Consider the gulf between the ideal church, as described in the extracts above, and the gruesome reality.

Instead of being respected, leaders are taken for granted, put upon and made to suffer unrealistic expectations. Instead of being a people on fire for the gospel, with hearts full of love and practical ways of reaching out, we are largely lukewarm, nominally committed, preoccupied with other parts of life, and indifferent to the call to pray and dig into the word that we might grow and share our faith. Instead of regarding ourselves as fellow labourers, we sit back and criticise when our favourite hymns are not sung, or a visit is not made, or someone sits in our seat. Instead of seeking to live lovingly and peaceably, we indulge our grudges and become touchy, prickly, hard to work with and dangerous to cross.

We are not a beautiful sight, we sheep of the great shepherd. We are lazy, ignorant, easily distracted and selfish. These are not pleasant words, but if we consider our own lives and look around us, we can see their truth. If all the people who – on paper – are members of our churches were living as the apostles describe, and living with a passion to see God glorified in their lives and communities, what a difference there would be. How our pastors and teachers would rejoice when they came to meet with their flocks, seeing the eagerness to learn, to praise, to seek God’s will and power at work in this world. How their labours would be lightened as they humbly wrestled with the word, preparing to share it with the people that we might all learn and grow.

Yes, of course, this side of heaven the church will always be full of sinners who have been saved, and who are being transformed – but is that an excuse for not trying to engage more enthusiastically with God as he seeks to change us? Does the love of God in Christ not call forth a stronger response in us than dutiful attendance, and occasional participation?

I don’t want to be a burden on my pastor, a drain on his enthusiasm, a quenching of his God-given vision for the work. I want to be one of those who encourages him, whose attitude and presence gives him hope that God is working and can make a difference, one in whom he can trust and find sympathy and love.

May God find me eager to submit to his transforming work in my life, so that I might be good for his church, good for my leaders, good for my community, and above all, might bring glory to him!