Category Archives: sanctification

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.

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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!

Making holes in the dark…

In the beginning was the Word..In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it… When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said,”I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

(John 1.1,4&5; 8.12)

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness, ” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

(2 Corinthians 4.6)

You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

(Matthew 5.14-16)

By choosing to celebrate Christmas at the darkest time of the year (for dwellers in the northern hemisphere), the church has been able to explore so many ways in which the description of Christ as the “Light of the World” is a powerful and transforming one. When one lives for weeks with less than 7 hours of daylight, and much of that heavily shrouded in clouds and rain, the presence of light is a precious gift, and one for which we are profoundly thankful. Truly, it takes the darkness to make us appreciate light fully, and in particular to see how every pinprick shows up clearly – think of the old children’s hymn which speak of that bright distinctiveness – Jesus bids us shine, with a pure clear light, like a little candle burning in the night. No one is disqualified from their part in the witness of the church to the source of all brightness, Jesus himself, the light of the world.

We are called not to reflect the light – like mirrors, which have no power within them – but to shine with light, like torches, lanterns, or candles. So the light must dwell within us first! Jesus calls us to be the light of the world, even as he has taken that title upon himself – is that not amazing?! Paul in his letter to the Corinthians tries to explain what the light is – the knowledge of the glory of God, which was so full and complete in Christ, that he could say to his disciples, “if you have seen me, you have seen the Father”.

It is as we learn to know God, to worship and appreciate him in all his glory, that we will shine more and more brightly in the world – making things visible, illuminating what is true and real, showing the need for salvation and the loving God who offers it freely in Christ. The sanctifying, transforming work of the Holy Spirit in our lives scrubs away those things which obscure the light and prevent it from shining – the selfishness, the fear, the grudging and bitter resentments which can build up. And it is God himself who gives us the light, as well as making us fit to shine for him! It is not by good deeds that we obtain light, rather that one of the ways in which the light is seen is by the godly things we are prompted to do and be in our world.

Here is the challenge for us; are we shining like this? Are we so afraid of the reaction of our dark world that we try to hide the light of Christ dwelling within us, and let it out only when we are in a safe Christian environment? We don’t need candles or torches when we are bathed in sunlight, but when night has fallen, when there are no windows in the room, when the trees crowd so thick overhead that light is blotted out.

We are to shine with Christ-light in those places, where there is darkness, so that the prisoners can see, so that freedom can be obtained by those who are in despair… As we have received, so let us give – freely, abundantly, joyfully.

What a gift we have to celebrate this Christmas time – light not only for our own lives, but for all who need it! May God in his great mercy continue to make us more like Christ, so that we might bear that light of the knowledge of his glory into the world which needs it so badly…

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!