Category Archives: sanctification

Passive or Active? – I have a choice…

When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. what can mortal man do to me?…I am under vows to you, O God; I will present my thank-offerings to you. For you have delivered me from death and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God in the light of life.

(Ps 56.3&4,12&13)

Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord. Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart. They do nothing wrong; they walk in his ways. You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed. Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands. I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws. I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me.

(Ps 119.1-8)

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life….

(Phil 1.27, 2.12-16)

We are a resurrection people; we live in the light of an empty tomb and a risen saviour. Not only do we believe these things, but we live because of them! By faith in this Jesus, we live free from guilt and the burden of shame; free to love generously and expect nothing in return; free to pursue holiness and godly living not as a grim attempt to earn salvation, but a joyous expression of love and gratitude to the God who has saved us and called us to live with him….but sometimes it doesn’t feel easy, sometimes the temptation to indulge the old habits of thought and action are very strong. 

When I am faced with major challenges to my faith and trust in God, it is easy to succumb to the habits and attitudes of the world around me. Self pity, complaining, fearfulness and resentment at God for permitting these trials all come so easily. I am sorely tempted to indulge that weakness which consists of blaming God for making my life harder than I like or feel is reasonable.

The bible has no room for such self-deluded behaviour, but insists I recognise it for what it is – sin; a refusal to live as though I believed what God has revealed about himself and what He has promised to do. I don’t like being exposed as a willful sinner, but that is what I see in the psalmists words and in Paul’s words to his beloved Philippian church.

The gulf between God’s standards and my choices is stark, and I cannot take refuge in the claim that I can’t help myself, because the whole point of our new life in Christ is that I can, and must! I have a will, a conscience, and the common sense which God has given his children. All these things are now under the lordship of Jesus – as a beloved minister of my youth used to say, ‘use your sanctified common sense!’ Each situation that arises is another opportunity to live in ‘a manner worthy of the gospel’, to speak and act and think to God’s glory and the furthering of the kingdom. I have to ask myself, “Am I honouring the price which has been paid for me? Does my conduct here bring the reality of Jesus transforming power to view?” All too often, the answer would have to be ,’No’. When I choose to indulge my complaints, to feed my doubts, to wallow in self-pity, I dishonour the gospel. When I choose instead to exercise my will, and common sense by taking my troubles to Christ and acknowledging my weakness and doubt, and ask for his help to stand for him and walk by his light, then I honour the gospel.  Which is it to be?

Thanks be to God, who is working out in me the salvation to which he has called me; I am not a passive agent in my circumstances, but active. I have the capacity to choose obedience and trust, and as I pursue these things in every area of my life, so I will indeed walk in the ‘light of life’, in the fullness and peace which God promises to those who seek first his kingdom and glory.

Lessons in construction..

Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.

(Prov 12.18&25)

For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building..Each one should be careful how he builds. For no-one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is…It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work.

(1 Cor 3.9-13)

..to each one of us grace has been given…to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fulness of Christ.

(Eph 4.7,12&13)

For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

(1Thess 5.9-11)

One body, one people under Christ, one holy temple where God is pleased to dwell and reveal his glory, power and love. This is where I belong, and where in addition to rights as his beloved child, I have responsibilities to exercise for the good of others and the glory of God who has called me here.

In the same way that the constituent parts of the human body work together for the good of the whole, so also God’s people are charged with being good for each other. I am challenged to consider how I behave to others, but also what that behaviour springs from – what is the condition of my heart? Jesus pointed out to his disciples that unclean thoughts and actions spring from an unclean heart – and only he can make that heart clean again. But if I have accepted the forgiveness which he offers, and believe that I am being transformed into his image, then I should not settle for remaining less than holy. While I remain impure, I weaken the body of which I am part, and cannot fulfill my tasks properly. My sanctification is part of God’s work in building up the church – am I happy to settle for being a weak spot? Do I want to know that it is my persisting sins which are undermining the witness of the gospel, or creating divisions and suffering in the body of Christ?

I am thankful to rest on God’s grace as I strive for perfection, knowing that in this life I cannot attain it and that he can overcome all that results from my failures, to fulfill his purposes and reveal his glory – there is no limit to his forgiveness. BUT I do not want to harbour or cherish persistent sins as if they were unimportant. Such an attitude undermines all that Jesus died to do, and devalues his sacrifice. Sin, is Sin, is Sin, no matter how intimate or – in the world’s eyes – unlikely to cause problems.

So I continue to submit to God’s discipline, asking him to reveal and deal with my sins; enabling me to turn away from them and pursue holiness for love of my saviour.

As God continues his work in me, so I am able to perform my task in building up my fellow believers – as my heart is changed, so my words and deeds become more Christ-like, my spirit more responsive to his leading, my desire ever more for his glory. I want to build in material that will last – in love, joy, hope, grace, so that my companions on the road are blessed by what God does through me. All that I am and have is a gift from God, given for use in his plans, and primarily for the encouragement of his people. I may not be an apostle or teacher, but I can always choose kindness over indifference. I can always point others to Christ, to the word of God which feeds their spirit. I can always be honest about my own need for grace, humbly offering my own experience of God’s goodness to encourage others who are struggling.

May God graciously enable us to build wisely, so that his church grows in strength and is built up, not torn down. May we build in the name of God, on the gospel of Christ, in the power of the Spirit.

Choices, choices…

Trust in the Lord and do good..Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun. Be still before the Lord and wait for him.

(Ps 37.3-7)

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us..Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

(2 Cor 4.7,16-18)

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy, he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade … 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.

(1 Pet. 3-7)

“There are no throwaway moments in life; everything counts for eternal reward.” – Joni Eareckson Tada, in ‘A Spectacle of Glory’, 2016, Zondervan

Much of what I want to say today was inspired by these words from Joni, whose life and ministry among those with physical disabilities has shown us what God can do through suffering when it is yielded up for his work and glory. Since the diving accident which left her confined to a wheelchair in her teens, Joni has made choices every day to pursue God’s glory and to trust that He will use what she offers to that end. She is honest enough to say that it is never easy, but also urges us to believe that it is both possible and worthwhile to do.

If someone like Joni can commit to such choices, then surely I can too. Each day, I am faced with the normal trials, struggles and frustrations of human existence; from the large ones to the trivial. Each day, I have choices to make about how I will respond to what God has permitted for my life. It may be that my initial responses to trouble will continue to be instinctive – anger, fear, disgust, disappointment – but the bible teaches me that I have choices about what I do with those emotions.

Will I recognise the temptation to indulge feelings and attitudes which deny God’s goodness, providence and power? Or will I act as quickly as I can to bring those emotions to God and ask him for his help to think and act differently? I DO NOT say that this is easy, or that I am never guilty of giving in to the temptation to complain, indulge in self-pity, nurse resentment and hold grudges. But, I also believe that with God’s power at work within by the Spirit, I can choose to set aside the wrong responses and move on to the ones which will produce in me the godliness, holiness and God-glorifying qualities which I long to see. As Joni says, we have opportunities every day to make life count for eternity, to show the world, its ruling spirits, and all the heavenly realms, just what Jesus can do in us when we ask.

As I remind myself that my Lord is always near, that my purpose is to glorify God, and that I am a new creation in Christ, then my resistance to choosing God’s way is broken down, and I repent of my self-indulgent fits of temper or resentment, and find joy in acknowledging my need of him. I thank God that He is nurturing in us the self-control which enables us to do this, and that every such effort strengthens our faith and the right instinct of dependence.

The words of this prayer help me to commit my ways to the Lord, trusting that as He works in me to answer, so I shall increasingly shine with his glory.

Teach me, O God, so to use all the circumstances of my life today that they may bring forth in me the fruits of holiness rather than the fruits of sin.

Let me use disappointment as material for patience:

Let me use success as material for thankfulness:

Let me use suspense as material for perseverance:

Let me use danger as material for courage:

Let me use reproach as material for longsuffering:

Let me use praise as material for humility:

Let me use pleasures as material for temperance:

Let me use pains as material for endurance:

(extract from A diary of Private Prayer, John Baillie, 1936)

Not just good…but best

Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away. Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.

(Ps 37.1-4)

[Jesus ..prayed] Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent..I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one..sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.

(Jn 17.3,14-17)

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish..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…may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed…

Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

(1 Pet 1.3-6,13-16)

Sometimes, we find ourselves wondering why God doesn’t answer our prayers in the ways we want. We are asking for good things for ourselves and for other people, and yet God ordains other outcomes than we desire and we resent what feels like his hardness of heart..

I was recently challenged about my own weakness in this regard, reminded that God may have higher priorities than mine and that while I may desire good things, He seeks the best for all his children. What is that ‘best’ which inspires all God’s working together for good, through time and across the nations?

The whole narrative of the bible reveals a God who desires to dwell with people who love him, rejoice in and worship him – who bear his name to great honour and glorify him in all they do. This is not because of some power-hunger in God, but because – having fashioned us- he knows that this is our truest fulfilment, the ideal for which we are made. So long as we pursue our own goals before God, we will remain broken and unsatisfied. Of ourselves, we are incapable of breaking the power of sin in our lives which keeps us from living for and with God. So Jesus came and by his sacrificial death broke the power of sin. All who trust in that wholly effective blood payment, who recognise that only Jesus can save them, are brought to life, are newborn into God’s family and not only experience freedom and forgiveness in this life, but have a certain hope of an eternal life of unimagineable richness and fulfilment.

God’s best for us – as part of his overarching plan for new creation – is our salvation from sin, and our sanctification, our growing holiness and Christ-likeness. While the wealth, health and happiness which the world desires may be good things, they are not the most important, and indeed will distract, ensnare and pollute faith and holiness if not kept under the lordship of Jesus.

When I pray for good things for others, and for myself, I need to remember that if these things are not conducive to salvation and sanctification, then God will not grant them. Our God works through pain, loss, suffering and disorientation to bring people to the point of recognising their helplessness in sin, and their need of Jesus. Should I pray for things that will prevent them from responding to the gospel? Surely not!

The many crises currently enveloping our world are a source of much suffering and anxiety – this is undeniable. BUT they are also opportunities for people to reach an end of their self reliance, their faith in humanity, and to call out to God who alone can hear and save them.

In my bewilderment at the many trials which are going on around me, I am challenged to pray for God’s will to be done – for the salvation of many, the deep maturing of faith and growth in holiness as the saints choose to trust God in this great upheaval.

May I learn to desire that which really matters, for myself and those I love, for my wider community and the whole world – that I may truly say (with Paul)..”I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”(Phil 3.8)

Just a bit..desperate, Lord!

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing…If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

(Jn 15.5,7&8)

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.

(Ps 2.1-3)

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control…

(Gal 5.22&23)

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fulness of God.

(Eph 3.16-19)

Bare twigs, dead leaves, no sign of life or fruitfulness.

Barren life, bitter thoughts, wasted hopes and faded dreams, no signs of life or fruitfulness.

A spirit warped by self-centredness that cannot break free; a mind that is enslaved by its own small troubles and incapable of really embracing anything else.

Telling stories of my life that are full of darkness, pain, failure and inadequacy; as though my eyes are bound in dark and distorting spectacles so that I can see no other way. Weighted down by the shame of bringing burdens not blessings to those closest to me, of being so hard to live with and so little joy to be around. Above all, and underpinning it all, the utter awareness of failure to bear witness to the transforming power of the Christ whom I profess to be Lord of my life.

If I were truly rooted in Christ, his words living in me, dependent upon him hourly and daily for my life as the branch depends upon the vine….would I then be in this condition? Is it not a reproach to call myself a follower of Jesus and live with such a negative spirit? Where is the fruit? Where the joy, peace and patience? Where the love which boldly and tenderly speaks truth for the sake of the beloved, willing to suffer that they might thrive? Where the self-control that drives me to do the hard things – instead of the fear-driven withdrawal which allows wrong to continue for the sake of avoiding conflict?

Forgive my sins Lord – above all the sin of unbelief, which allows me to get stuck in my own small despair. Forgive me for living as though I alone were beyond your saving power! Take my distorted vision, and correct it by the lens of the gospel, so that instead of the negatives, I see the great positives of your love, mercy and grace – see you at work even in me, to bless others.

Let me believe that you are still at work, in me, that I am not a dead branch, withered and fit only to be flung away. Let me see buds which are your promises of life, of hope, of fruit that may yet be.

O Lord, make it real in me; this life of abiding in you, make it true and vivid and constant. I don’t know what to do, how to change so that your word takes root, transforming my thoughts and my attitudes. But I know that you are my only hope for the days that remain to me in this world – and for the sake of those who have to live with me, as well as for your glory, I pray you will bring new life to this branch, that I might yet bear fruit for you…

Never stop learning!

Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their learning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

(Prov 9.9&10)

Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees, that I may follow it to the end. Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart…Teach me knowledge and good judgement, for I trust your commands…It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees…Your statutes are my heritage for ever; they are the joy of my heart. My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end.

(Ps 119.33,34,66,71,111,112)

For the word of God is alive 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. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

(Heb.4.12&13)

I was greatly blessed recently by the presence in our home of two of the brightest saints I know, whose company is always a joy and encouragement, and whose zest for life and the service of their Saviour is unquenchable. It was an honour, but also a very humbling experience, to see their strength in the Lord’s service, their zeal for his glory, and their vigour. They would claim no special talents, but only boast of the wonderful God who has enabled them for a lifetime of service – on the mission field in Africa, and here in Scotland – which continues in their “retirement”, with a schedule that would leave many of us gasping.

In the course of one of our many conversations, we touched on the importance of having a “teachable spirit”, and by that we did not mean being one who pursues learning for the sake of head-knowledge, but rather the one who is always aware that they are not yet what God desires them to be, and that there is always something to learn. The verse from Proverbs puts it beautifully, showing that wisdom can ALWAYS be added to, and that those who truly seek to grow in godliness will find God willing to teach them. Those who fear the Lord, will truly make it their aim to be life-long learners, pursuing to the very end of their days a deeper understanding of his word and of how he desires us to live.

There are perhaps two distinct kinds of wisdom in view here. Firstly, that which we direct ourselves, through our choices in reading, listening and watching. As followers of Christ, we can choose to engage with the bible in a way that helps us to understand deep truth, to wrestle with moral and ethical issues in the light of its teaching, so that our witness will be informed, humble and truthful. This is where conscious choice operates, perhaps based on events around us, or on topics which have arisen in conversation or in a sermon.

The other kind of wisdom is directed by our own circumstances, or those of our loved ones, where we have little or no control over events and cannot forsee where they are taking us. When the psalmist writes that it was “good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees”, he is touching on a mysterious truth. Human beings learn faith best under adverse circumstances; our pain and suffering drive us beyond our own resources to admit that we are not in control and to cling to God for strength and aid in our extremity of need.

My visitors have known both kinds of learning, and their lives testify that they continue to seek after God’s truth both in their deliberate study of his word and also as they experience trials of many kinds. It takes humility to admit that after decades of following Christ, one still has things to learn, and that is what we meant by that phrase a “teachable spirit”. Do I have it?…

When I find myself impatient with the failings of others….Lord, forgive me, and grant that I might learn your patience, because you have not given up on me;

When I find myself confident in a human being, trusting in an organisation and a structure……Lord, forgive me, and grant that I might learn that all men are as grass, frail and fallible and none may be truly relied upon save you alone;

When I find myself despairing of my own failings…..Lord, forgive me, and grant that I might learn to live in the light of your promises, resting on the assurance of your putting away of all my guilt through the death of Jesus for me;

When I become proud, and independent….Lord, forgive me, bring me back to utter dependence on you and grant that I might learn to walk ever more closely with you.

A little self-knowledge….

Let me understand the teaching of your precepts; then I will meditate on your wonders. My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word. Keep me from deceitful ways; be gracious to me through your law……

Turn my heart towards your statutes and not towards selfish gain. Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word…..Take away the disgrace I dread, for your laws are good….

May your unfailing love come to me, O Lord, your salvation according to your promise; then I will answer the one who taunts me, for I trust in your word.

(Ps 119. 27-29, 36-38, 41&42)

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

(Jer 17.9)

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

(Matt 5.3-6)

It can be profoundly disconcerting when the word read speaks directly to the heart; when the spirit pierces our understanding, and we see a little of our own reality as God sees. I thank him that we do not see the whole, being spared that picture, which if seen would cause us to despair of living for even a few moments in a truly godly way! Thanks be to God for his mercy, in shielding us from the truth: for surely we are none of us perfect yet, and so much remains that is contrary to the beauty of holiness which we see in Christ. In our ignorance we persevere, trusting that God will reveal – in his good time – what needs to be dealt with, and accepting that there is a good deal of it!

But when it is so revealed, then what do we do? The temptation is to resist the vision, to replay in our minds all the soothing, deceitful reassurances that this world would give us, that this thing is no sin, but an understandable and justifiable line of thought or action given the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves…… Our culture cannot deal healthily with the idea of shame, of grieving that we are less worthy than we held ourselves to be, and cries loudly against it. But the word of God speaks firmly, of the standards to which we are held accountable, and the power which is given to us to live up to them in the life of the risen Christ within us by his spirit.

When I, who have so many of this world’s good things, and all the blessings of salvation and the hope of a life to come, find myself persistently anxious, petulant and discontented, then the response is not to perform more acts of love and indulgence towards myself, but to confess as sin this wrong attitude, this utter lack of real gratitude and lived trust in God. My heart is indeed deceitful when it tries to blame anyone but myself for this attitude, to copy Eve in her desire to excuse herself and put the burden of guilt on another. I am responsible before God for my attitude to the days he gives me; to the people who fill my life; for my use – or abuse – of the talents, possessions, and time he has allotted to my stewardship.

I am a flawed human being, living with other flawed human beings; and my Lord and Father knows all that is part of my lot. And he commands praise, obedience, joyful embracing of his will for my life – not on the basis of my feelings, but on the facts of his nature and acts. I have no excuse before him for failing to render these things, but oh how very easily I speak false comfort to myself and claim excuses for just that failure.

I do indeed hunger and thirst after righteousness; I long for my heart and mind to be turned effectively away from selfish desires; I grow weary of the battle for holiness, and sick at heart when I see fresh glimpses of my own deceitfulness and failures.

Thanks be to God then, who has given us full and free forgiveness in his Son, by whose death we receive life, and whose blood covers all our sins. Yes, we rightly grieve over our failures, and long for transformation; but we also have the right to claim victory over the one who taunts us with our failures, over the devil who would love nothing better than to keep us in the bitter dust of self-pity and despair.

Let us claim the promised comfort; the guaranteed inheritance; the blessed assurance of forgiveness and acceptance, so that the accuser of the brethren will depart, and we may labour on for a time in peace, with confidence that our God who began this good work in us will finish it and one day we shall rejoice in knowing ourselves perfected in Christ!

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!

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 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!