Category Archives: self-fulfillment

I can’t hear you Lord!

At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

The tempter came to him(Jesus) and said, “If you are the Son of God….” Jesus answered, “It is written:…”

(Matthew 3.16,17; 4.3,4) 

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

(Mark 1.35)

The voices around me are deafening. They tell me that I am foolish, irrelevant, an irritation and a waste of space. A woman who has made nothing of herself, who has wasted opportunities and squandered abilities. They whisper in my ear that there is no hope of joy or fulfillment, that I am a doormat, weak and without courage or self-respect. Where is the career, the salary, the validation of self through work? Where is the assertion of self, and the fulfillment of goals which rightly belong to this stage of life?

They are silent voices – does that make sense? No one physically speaks the words, and yet by their actions, attitudes, and the way they treat me and talk to me, the message comes through loud and clear – tried, and found wanting…

It is my experience that the voices of those far off are never the loudest, and it is those around us every day, those closest to us whom we hear most clearly, and find it hardest to resist believing. The resulting chaos of our thoughts can be exhausting, nothing comes through except a weary resignation, an acceptance of this loudest and most urgently present message. Our own voice begins to say the same things, and we give up resisting.

But is it necessarily the truth? In all the muddle and confusion, I find a desire to believe that it is a lie, that I am neither hearing nor seeing reality as God sees it. Somewhere, beyond the cacophony, is a place where there is peace, health and wholeness, a place where I am worth something.

What did Jesus do, when immediately after his very public validation by his Father, he was taken away from all support, and exposed to a relentless attack on his identity by Satan? The loudest voice in all those weary days in the wilderness was that which cast doubt upon his very being, the truth which God had affirmed so clearly. And what did Jesus do? He turned to scripture, to the words given by God to his people for their instruction and foundation of faith. I have access to that same resource, if I will only use it! Three times, it is recorded that Jesus dismissed the attack on his identity with a rebuke from the words of the Old Testament. He knew his bible, and knew that it was his weapon for attack and a shield for defence against just this kind of assault. Do I?

The bible teaches so much more than the bare mechanics of our salvation – glorious as that is! We find there all the resources we need to understand who we are made to be, to grasp our identity as new creatures in Christ. When I am feeling worthless, I remember that the Son of God considered me worth leaving glory for, worth clothing himself in human flesh for, worth dying for! When I am tempted to consider my life of no account, I remember the promise that God has prepared good works for me to do, and that my faithfulness in small things will not go unnoticed. When I am forcibly reminded of my weakness and failures, I cling to the promise that God will finish the work he has begun in my life, and that I am being made into the glorious new creature who will be fit to share eternity with her Saviour!

It seems to me that if I am to hear the voice of my Lord through the turmoil which is so loud and close every day, then I need to make the effort which he did – so often it was recorded that he withdrew to a solitary place to pray, to restore his ability to hear his Father’s voice. Praying – the deliberate sharing of my thoughts with my Father all the time – is a sure way to discern truth from lies, and to break the power of those insidious and undermining thoughts. It is always hard to hear a single voice in the midst of a crowd, so if even Jesus felt the need to be alone, how much more do I?!

May I learn to hear his voice more clearly than any other; to let his truth about me be the foundation of my identity – then I will be able to hold up my head, as a daughter of the King of Kings, dressed in clean and beautiful robes, with a future brighter and more glorious than any ‘happy ever after’ can imagine!

Advertisements

Buried in the cause…

How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.

Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints..

I will sacrifice a thank-offering to you and call on the name of the Lord. I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people..

(Psalm 116. 12-15,17&18) 

I recently heard this phrase used by a preacher who was referring to the Scottish athlete and missionary, Eric Liddell, a man who surrendered himself to the call of Christ to make disciples of all nations, and followed his parents to the mission field in China – where he would die in a Japanese interment camp at a relatively young age.

Liddell, and many others over the centuries, have been literally “buried” for the sake of the gospel, as they died in the lands to which they went – African deserts and Ecuadorean jungles – sometimes of disease, and other times deliberately martyred by those who opposed them. Some, like Jim Elliott and his colleagues, had their stories broadcast to the world, and God used their dying as a witness to the living, of how powerfully the gospel inspires and what an amazing gift it is we have to share. But so many others have died invisibly, silently, and only God knows their story. Does that make their lives and deaths of any less value?

The psalmist would certainly not say so! His words in Psalm 116 are such a tender declaration of God’s care and delight in every individual child, they always touch me deeply. But I think they also reassure me that my life is precious in God’s sight! So  many of the figures in the bible narrative are people who lived ‘small ‘lives, in a limited geographical area, without political or military power, and who were barely noticed while they lived, let alone died. And yet, time and again, our attention is drawn to them as the story of their lives is woven into God’s great plan for redemption. Consider Rahab, the woman of Jericho, whose courage protected the spies and who would be absorbed into the people of Israel after the destruction of her city. Or the young girl – whose name we do not even know – who sent her master Naaman to seek out the prophet Elisha, and receive healing. There is Mordecai, in exile and under continual threat from powerful opponents, who yet was used by God to protect and deliver all the Jews in captivity.

As our family prepare to leave the city for a new ministry, these examples of ‘small ‘ lives, faithfully lived in obedience to God are an encouragement to me.

It does not matter whether the world considers that we are burying ourselves in a small place and a small work. What is small about sharing the transforming power of Christ with the people for whom he died?! It is no matter to us whether we are called to 5,000 or 2,000; our worth does not depend on the number of people in our parish, but on the love which God has for us, his beloved children. We are called to obey: to pray for lives to be touched by the gospel: to make disciples, through teaching and walking alongside them: to walk closely in fellowship with God ourselves, so that our own lives might be a story by which the gospel is told. All of these are valid whether anyone is watching or not; and our worth does not even depend upon the fruit of our labours, but simply on God’s love for us.

Yes, it will be hard if we are called to work without seeing what God is doing, to sow the seed and trust that someone else will tend the crop and reap the harvest in God’s good time. But it is our calling simply to fulfill our vows, to obey, and to find our contentment in knowing that – however faltering the effort – our heart’s desire has been to say ‘ Yes Lord, I will.’ Our inspiration is the cross and our reward is his constant, loving presence.

Upon that cross of Jesus, mine eye at times can see

The very dying form of One who suffered there for me;

And from my smitten heart, with tears, two wonders I confess – 

The wonder of his glorious love, and my own worthlessness.

I take, O cross, thy shadow for my abiding place;

I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of thy face:

Content to let the world go by, to know no gain nor loss – 

My sinful self my only shame, my glory all, the cross.

(from “Beneath the cross of Jesus”, E.C Clephane 1830-69)

The quiet days

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

(1 Thessalonians, 4 v 11 & 12)

 Ambition? Those who have known me long and well will assure you that I never had any, and they will be right. This little verse from Thessalonians might have been written for me, as Paul encourages the believers in that church to be diligent, to be content with what they have and to let their quiet daily faithfulness speak of their faith and the God whom they trust. I love days when there are tasks to be done, but no pressing deadlines, so that I can be fully conscious of what occupies my mind and hands, not thinking ahead all the time to the next job and wishing it was all over! I can take no credit for this desire for quietness, it is natural to me, a gift for which I am deeply grateful to my maker. But Paul is advising the Thessalonians to adopt this attitude even if it does not come naturally to them, why?

I wonder if there is a connection to the teaching of Jesus here, to the many times when the disciples grieved his spirit by their competition for the place of honour, whether on earth or in his coming kingdom. In every account of Jesus life, we find him turning their understanding of status and honour upside down. Time and again, they are told that in God’s eyes, greatness is nothing to do with social standing, wealth, race, gender or age. Jesus welcomed the children, honoured the disregarded women, engaged with the foreigners, commended and comforted the repentant sinners and infuriated the elite of the religious establishment by denying that they had any authority or special status. Towards the end of the gospels, each one in turn makes a clear statement about this issue, these words are from Matthew 23 v 11&12.

The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

A servant, one who seeks only the pleasure and approval of the master, and is content to do any appointed task for no other reward. That attitude requires the death of pride, of self- regard, of the spirit which claims authority over my own life and rejects God’s claim on me. If I am to be such a servant, to be ambitious to live a quiet life, then I must die to that self which seeks the approval of my peers in order to be satisfied, which looks for material prosperity, or security as a sign of my personal worth.

We have the example of Christ in this, as Paul reminds us in his words to the Philippian church :-

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! (Philippians 2 v 5-7)

Perhaps this is why Paul stresses the ambition for a quiet life, because it indicates that pride has been conquered in a believer’s life, that they are growing more and more like Christ, and His life in them is shining more clearly. This work of being made Christ-like is one which lasts all our lives, and which will not be complete until He returns in glory and raises us to new life. But we can take courage and hope that the work continues, and can rejoice when we are able to see signs that it is progressing. For me, the quiet days are such opportunities, when I find myself content with small and private service of others, prayers and works of love which only God sees, domestic chores which will need done again very soon, noticing of small tokens of grace and goodness and rendering thanks to the giver.

May we learn more and more to be content with the tasks appointed, seeking only our Lord’s approval, and rejoicing in the quiet riches of a life free from fretting ambition and the need to impress others.

Fasting and Feasting

For in Christ all the fulness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fulness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.

(Colossians 2 v 9&10)

The first weeks of a new year are often associated with diets, new exercise regimes, and  rigorous attempts to cleanse our systems after a period of too much food and too little physical activity. There is an uncomfortable tightness about our clothes, and sluggishness about our energy levels, and we hope to deal with these by self-denial and the imposition of new disciplines… and that can be a very necessary thing to do!

But there is another, more significant aspect of our lives which need never diet, or deny itself the object it craves in order to flourish – our relationship with our Saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ. The passage quoted above is delightful in its use of the word ‘fulness’, stressing one of the foundational beliefs of Christians, that Jesus was and is fully God, as well as fully man! It is easy to skim read a passage like this, and only vaguely to register the notion of Christ’s deity, without  benefitting from the treasure trove of truth which it represents. Yes, indeed, Christ is as completely God as the Father himself, but that is only one sense of ‘fulness’. There is also the sense of being filled to overflowing, packed with goodness – and Christ is filled with all the attributes of deity.

The bible narrative reveals a God who desires to be all in all to his people, that they might realise that only through intimate relationship with him can they find true satisfaction and fullest life. Our folly has lain in stubbornly refusing to believe that such a relationship can fill our needs, and trusting our own judgement and inclinations instead. The desperate state of our world today reveals only too clearly the results of such folly. But what if God were right? What if we can truly find in him all the things we need? The security, the sense of self-worth, of significance and adequacy which we crave and chase through endless mazes of material goods, human relationships and activities. Listen to the words of the ancient prophet, Isaiah

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.

(Isaiah 55 v 1 & 2)

And then to these words from Jesus, as he addressed the sincere, seeking religious people of his own time;

‘For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ Sir,’ they said, ‘from now on give us this bread’. Then Jesus declared, ‘ I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.’

(John 6 v 33-35)

The words in Colossians convey a stunning truth, if we will slow down reading long enough to recognise it.. When a believer confesses that Jesus is Lord, that their salvation depends entirely on Jesus, not themselves, they receive Christ himself – and all the glories of his divine character! When do I ever take enough time to really let this sink in and change how I live? Everything in the treasury of God is made over to us as believers, to equip, support, encourage and transform our lives, and enable us to fulfill our roles in God’s new creation. How often do we take that transaction seriously and claim those riches? We are summoned to a feast, and all too often make do with meagre rations!

This blog is part of my personal response to this question, an attempt to focus my thoughts for a sustained period of time and thereby to engrave another small aspect of the truth on my heart so that it might change my thinking and living. A recent gathering of friends saw us take time to meditate on the different titles and names given to Jesus in the bible – we found at least 35, and I am sure there are more – through which we began to catch a glimpse of the overwhelming adequacy of our Lord to satisfy our deepest longings and fill us with good things.

For myself, my experience has been that the more I feast on Christ, the more I hunger to receive and make my own. I close this week with the words of a great writer and preacher of the Scottish church from the 1600’s, Samuel Rutherford, whose language may sometimes seem archaic, but whose sentiments remain an inspiring expression of what it means to live for Christ alone.

Christ is as full as feast as ye can have to hunger.

I think I see more of Christ than I ever saw; and yet I see but little of what may be seen.

May God stir us up to desire ever deeper, fuller fellowship with Christ, as He has already provided all that is needed to satisfy that desire!

 

Mine to spend?

P1010392

I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding. For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ’s return.

May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation – the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ – for this will bring much glory and praise to God.

And I trust that my life will bring honour to Christ, whether I live or die. For to me, living, means living for Christ, and dying is even better. (Philippians 1, 9-12 & 20-21)

There is an insidious habit of thought which can take me down unhelpful paths if I am not careful, a clever synthesis of Christian teaching with cultural assumptions, that will lead me to deep unhappiness. We live in an age, here in the UK in the 21st century, where the cult of self-fulfillment is at unprecedented heights, and the urge to ‘be all you can be’ is constantly sounded in our ears.

Our children are encouraged to dream of doing great things with their lives, and to believe that putting themselves first in terms of their money and activities is right because they are ‘worth it’. And of course, in one sense as a Christian, I understand the priceless worth of every individual under the sun – each unique, and fashioned to reveal God’s glory in a particular way in the world.

But in another sense, I am deeply troubled by this emphasis, failing completely as it does, to recognise the flawed realities of our world, and in particular the sin which skews all our thinking and feeling. The root of human sin is the denial of God as rightful sovereign of our lives, and our determination to put ourselves in God’s place – to trust no one else with our lives, and to believe that we alone know what is best for us.

If I think that God’s plan for my life as a christian is my complete self-fulfillment (in so far as I define it) , then I am going to be deeply frustrated with the world, my fellow-believers, and with God! This was certainly not the apostle Paul’s understanding of his purpose in living. Yes, we can argue that God is glorified when his creatures are most fully being what he made them to be, and we know that in the new earth and heaven, this will be our destiny – and what a glorious one too! But… we are not there yet, we are not in our perfected, resurrected bodies yet, and our world is still broken.

If I demand that all the gifts and talents which I think I possess be given ample opportunity to flourish and be exercised, before I can accept that I am in the place where God wants me to be, then I will never be satisfied, but always seeking to change my circumstances. In effect, I am dictating to God about the ways in which he may work in and through me. When I put it into words like that, I can see clearly why this is wrong!

If, as I believe, I am surrendered to God in loving submission, in response to his overwhelming love for me, then I must also resign any right to dictate how and where I am to be used by God. The bible narratives demonstrate over and over that it is in allowing God to work according to his plans which sees blessing and glory coming to his name, and that when human beings demand their own ways, the results are painful and sometimes disastrous – look at Abraham and Sarah’s misguided efforts to get an heir, and the suffering which came about  as a result.

All that I have – health, wealth, family, intelligence, talents and experience – is a gift of grace from God. I must hold them on open hands, and continually offer them to God to be used – or not to be used at any given time in my life – as He sees fit. So often we are reminded that it is in our weaknesses that God displays his strength – how could that be if we decline ever to act unless we feel strong and gifted in a particular area of service? And will I not trust my heavenly Father to keep safe, for my resurrected future delight, all the things which he doesn’t need me to use just now?

There is an old hymn ( of course, I find some of my strongest theology there!!) which beautifully expresses this complete offering up of myself into God’s hands for his glory:

Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee. Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.

Take my will, and make it thine; it shall be no longer mine. Take my heart – it is thine own; it shall be thy royal throne.

Take my love; my Lord, I pour at thy feet its treasure-store. Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for thee.

Frances Ridley Havergal, 1836-79

May God grant us humility to serve him, and be spent by him, wherever he has placed us just now, especially if – in the world’s opinion – it makes no sense!!