Category Archives: suffering

When it pulls so hard…

Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgements he pronounced.. He is the Lord our God; his judgements are in all the earth. He remembers his covenant forever, the promise he made, for a thousand generations….. He confirmed in to Jacob as a decree, to Israel as an everlasting covenant.

(Ps 105.5,7,8&10)

I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands….Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. I cling to you; your right hand upholds me.

(Ps 63.2-4,7&8)

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand…”

(Jn 10.27-29)

Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that… we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf..

(Heb  6. 17-20)

Have you ever watched a boat straining at its anchor rope in high winds and rough waters? The rope is taut, and at times the strain is so strong that the boat appears to being pulled under the crashing waters as it cannot move with them and cut loose from that security. I wonder if at times as believers we feel like that boat?

The old hymn speaks of the ‘anchor that keeps our soul, steadfast and sure while the billows roll’, but we perhaps forget that the strain exerted upon the boat by its anchor-rope against those billows is immense! If the anchor were not strong enough to hold firm in the seabed, the boat would certainly move freely again upon the waters, but it would also, and just as certainly, come into danger of destruction as a result. I would like to think about the way that our connection to God, through Jesus, is like that anchor rope, and to ponder what that means when we are in the stormiest waters and like to founder.

Sometimes, I find myself so deeply troubled by pain and suffering – my own and that of others, that I am tempted to wish I did not believe in a God of love who cares for me. The tension between what I am feeling – or seeing others endure – and what the bible tells me is true, is so powerful that I am being torn in two and cannot bear it any more. But consider friends, if God’s loving hold upon me was not so strong, I would not feel that tension at all, I would simply choose to walk away from an inconvenient set of beliefs, and seek another way to make my peace with the realities of life in this broken world (not that I believe there is such a thing).

I believe that we can take comfort from the very intensity of our struggles – they show just how firmly God’s love is grasping us, just how determined he is to fulfil his covenant promise in us, and to what lengths he has gone and will go to glorify his name by saving us in spite of all our faults and failings. It is no credit to believers when – either in the midst of the storm, or in the succeeding calmer days – we testify to our perseverance. Rather, all the glory goes to God who has laid hold upon us, chosen to keep us for his own name’s sake – does a boat take credit for remaining at anchor through a storm? No, it is the one who has set the anchor, chosen and attached the rope to the boat who deserves praise.

What a relief to know, as we endure current trials and submit to what may come in the days ahead, that our anchor is totally secure – because of the one who has attached us to himself so utterly and completely. We can trust him, even when the tension is like to tear our hearts in pieces, to be faithful to his promises and to be glorified in and through what is happening.

Thank you Father that when, like Jesus in Gethsemane, we are in agony and wrestling to accept your will, we can know that it is your love for us that holds us fast, and your love in us which is refusing to let go and surrender us to the darkness of the storm. When we are in pain, may we even there be able to rejoice that you have given us love for you, faith in Jesus, and reason to hope.

It’s not always spectacular

A man’s spirit sustains him in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?……..To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.

(Prov 18.14;21.3)

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

(Matt 6.9-13)

Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him… Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

(Jas 1.12; 5.10&11)

I wonder if you, like me, sometimes fall into the error of thinking that greatness of faith must be demonstrated by miraculous events, or church-shaping and mission-launching endeavours – the work of people like Hudson Taylor in founding the China Inland Mission for example. We consider such people and look with regret on our small lives and – as we may think – small faith.

I would like to challenge this thinking today. I have the privilege of knowing many faithful Christians whose lives involve incredible challenges – but not in this strategic or miraculous manifestation. Instead, these are people who choose to live each day as God’s gift to them, in spite of the fact that they carry unimagineable burdens and face devastating challenges. They are living with partners suffering from degenerative diseases, and caring for them even as they mourn for what might have been. They are grieving the untimely deaths of family members – spouses, children and even grandchildren – and mourning for the might-have-been shape of life. They are living with the wounds of broken and even abusive relationships, and grieving for damaged offspring as well as for their own agonies.

For each one of these, the words of the proverb ring bitter and true – ‘ a crushed spirit, who can bear?’ 

James reminds his readers of Job, who suffered and yet refused to curse God and die in his misery. Job persevered. Job chose to keep on, to wrestle with God, to bombard heaven with his anger and pain. It was faith in a just, holy and loving God which kept Job engaged with life, in spite of the pain which weighed so heavily upon him. Job just sat there and talked, he didn’t stand up and rouse his ‘comforters’ with stirring or inspiring words about God’s goodness and kindness, he didn’t try to rise above what was happening to him. But he persevered. 

I believe that the faith which Job demonstrates for us, and which those friends whom I have mentioned above demonstrate so clearly, is ‘great’ faith. I would invite you to consider how we may best pray for others in such situations, and for ourselves when our turn comes – as it may well do – to endure great suffering. What does great faith look like when our lives are falling apart and our spirit is crushed?

Our Father in heaven, who knows our feeble frame, may your kingdom come and your will be done in the lives of your suffering saints. May their faith bring glory to your name.

Our Father in heaven, who knows the depths of suffering to which each one is plunged, and the individual agonies unique to each character and situation, may you provide each moment and each day just what is needed to endure and to remain faithful.

Our Father in heaven, we pray against the burden of a bleak future crushing the faith needed for today’s obedience. Let your saints look no further than this day’s duties, and may they be given the strength of will to choose your ways, to choose trust.

We thank you Father, that to do the next thing, to tackle those tasks which you have – in your providence – allocated to us, is in itself an act of faith. Thank you that we have jobs to do, people to serve, and when we choose to obey, we are living in faith that you will fulfill your promises and supply all our needs. 

Merciful God, when we walk through the valley of suffering, darkness and death, may we be granted this great faith which refuses to give up, and although unspectacular, may our lives testify to your power to sustain and bless your servants.

when the heart breaks…

All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations – people who continually provoke me to my very face..

(Isa 65.2&3)

How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralysed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.

(Hab 1.1-4)

But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord, I wait for God my Saviour; my God will hear me.

(Mic 7.7)

‘..But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.’ ‘”If you can”?’ said Jesus. ‘Everything is possible for one who believes.’ Immediately the boy”s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’

(Mk 9.22&23)

Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation..The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish..But the day of the Lord will come…

(2Pet 3.3&4,9)

Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice…For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.

(Ps 72.1&2,12-14)

I believe that I am made by God for a purpose – perhaps several purposes – and that my character, temperament, strengths and weaknesses are deliberately crafted by my maker. I therefore choose to accept what may feel like weakness, vulnerability, even what some might call ‘over-sensitivity’ as part of my calling. I believe that as a creature made for a specific time in history by God, made in his image and reflecting his character, I can be an instrument for his glory and the blessing of the church.

At the moment, I am aware of a strong, even an overwhelming urge for lamentation. I find myself echoing the words of psalmists and especially of the prophets, who were commissioned to speak God’s truth into particular situations.

As I consider the plight of our world today – politically, economically, socially, environmentally, morally…in every way, we are in an almighty mess of our own making. Every day brings fresh evidence of what happens when humanity deliberately chooses to abuse the gifts of God in creation and in ourselves. We were formed by God to be his stewards – to exercise authority in his name and on behalf of the good of all creation. Instead, we have consistently chosen to exercise authority in our own name, and in our own way – inevitably at the expense of others.

I believe that God has not abandoned us, that he is as good and powerful as when he first formed our universe, and that his purposes remain – to create a place where heaven and earth meet, where he can live in fellowship with his people. I also see that in his providence, God is choosing to allow many days to pass before he finally returns in Jesus to judge all humanity, to deal forever with evil, and to inaugurate that full realisation of his perfect kingdom.

Christians have wrestled with this ‘waiting time’ ever since Jesus ascended into glory; we long to see the end of suffering, pain, degradation and destruction. We long to see God glorified and Jesus exalted, but instead the world around increasingly and aggressively rejects and mocks the very idea of an Almighty. We long for justice to be done, and seen to be done, but instead we watch as evil wreaks havoc over and over, cycles of violence and corruption are repeated, and it seems the cry of pain going up from our planet to the throne of God must be unbearable.

I have no easy response to my situation; I believe that God calls us to feel and see in some small measure that he is troubled beyond our imagination by the mess of the world, so that we might also share the urgency of his commission to us to share the good news while we can. I should not rush to silence the spirit of lamentation, but like the prophets, bring it to God and sit in his presence with my pain, frustration and doubts.

We live in a broken world, how can we begin to really offer good news unless we are willing to see the extent of the brokenness (including our own)?

May God grant us courage to accept the pain of sharing his love for this beautiful and broken world, and its millions of people – each one made in his image, for an eternal destiny, and desperately needing to embrace the hope he offers for life in Jesus, the true King and royal son…

Divine discomfort..

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?…If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness and your night will become like the noonday.

(Isa 58.6&7,9&10)

You who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground…you hate the one who reproves in court and despise him who tells the truth. You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain…You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts….Seek good, not evil, that you may live…Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.

(Am 5.7,10,11-15)

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?….He has showed you , O man what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

(Mic 6.6&8)

“Then the King will say..,’Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…..whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

(Matt 25.34-40)

Reading recently through the prophecy of Isaiah, I was overwhelmed time and again by the contrast between the glorious future prophesied for God’s chosen people, and the reality in which they lived –  in which we live now. We are in-between people; saved and assured of an eternal life in glory yet still living in a broken and pain-riddled world. We live with the tension between God’s promised rest, fulfillment and security, and the appalling suffering which exists across the globe.

It is tempting to withdraw into a shell of comfort, shutting out troubling pictures of reality and thinking of our own security and hope of eternal life. But..the majority of Christians in the world today cannot do that, since they live without most of what we in the prosperous nations take for granted. They endure that tension, as poverty, war, violence and climate change make each day an ordeal in survival – all the while believing that God’s promises are to them, for their peace, their flourishing too. If we who are wealthy proclaim a faith that does nothing to address the reality of suffering, and the agonising tension between the ‘now and the not-yet’ of fulfillment, then we have nothing to offer our world, we have no ‘good news’.

I would make so bold as to say that any Christian who can live without being profoundly disturbed by the state of the planet – climate, ecology, society, economy – is ignoring God’s clearly revealed message in scripture.

We serve a God of justice – where then is our concern to see justice for the oppressed, the ones who have no voices, who suffer at the hands of unfair trading systems and corrupt governance?

We serve a God of compassion and mercy – where then is our concern for the people who are being exploited and broken – the trafficked sex-workers, the debt-slaves, the prostitutes and addicts, the mentally ill, the abused children, and the confused and frail elderly?

We serve a Creator God, we are his stewards commissioned to cherish his good work – where then is our concern for the flourishing of the planet on which we live; for the climate systems on which our lives depend, and which human greed is gradually destroying?

I have been profoundly challenged in these days by my complacency – to argue that the problems are too big for me is no argument at all. God doesn’t ask me to fix it, but he does ask whether I care? If my faith does not issue in works, it is dead. I am called not only to be a child of God, but a servant, a witness, a worker.

I am praying that I might be willing to live with the divine discomfort caused by a restless spirit, one unable to do nothing in the face of the brokenness of our world. I am praying that I might find where God wants me to use the small gifts I can offer – time, intellect and anything else I can bring – in bearing witness to the love of God for this world and all its people. I am praying that I might be willing to serve in a very small way, in a great campaign where I may not see the outcome, but be content in having obeyed the call.

 

Crushed? not quite..

Before the mountains were born or you  brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God…for a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. You sweep men away in the sleep of death..who knows the power of your anger? For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due to you. Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

(Ps 90.2,4,5,11&12)

The Lord, the Lord Almighty, he who touches the earth and it melts, and all who live in it mourn…He who builds his lofty palace in the heavens and sets its foundation on the earth, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out over the face of the land – the Lord is his name.

(Am 9.5&6)

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. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side; but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair…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.

(2Cor 4.6-8,17&18)

Relent, O Lord! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. (Ps 90.13&14)

From the hospital corridors, the deathbeds, and the mortuaries; from the pharmacies and the hospital auxiliaries locker rooms…the cry goes up, How long!? Doctors and nurses are being crushed by the strain of their labours, by making decisions about who will be given treatment and who will not, by finding themselves incapable, through lack of resources, of offering the care which they are pledged to give. They are violating their calling, and there is no sign of the burden decreasing.

From the homes of the small business owners, the self-employed, in private despair and hopelessness, they contemplate the loss of dreams, income, provision for their families, security for the future. The cry goes up, How long?! The livelihoods and mental health of millions around the world are under threat, and the burden of responsibility for others is crushing our traders, our craftsmen and women.

From the chaotic homes of far too many children, where there is no order, no security, no nurture, only threat of violence, neglect and abuse of every kind, the cry goes up, How long? So many social workers and educators know all too well that they have shut up millions of young people in places and with adults who are far from good for them, and the damage which is even now being done is incalculable. The burden of pain, fear and destruction is crushing our most vulnerable.

From the corridors of government, where decisions are being made without adequate information, where there is no precedent to guide, and where the consequences are unimaginable, the cry goes up How long?! Politicians and leaders of every nation are scrambling to protect, provide and somehow salvage something from the wreckage, wondering all the while how history will judge them, and what hope will remain for the future…The burden of responsibility is ferocious and relentless, and where can they find courage to go on bearing it?

Heavenly Father, as your children, we are given your heart of love for this fallen and broken world, and so we share in some measure the pain which is being experienced in acute measure by millions – and we taste the fear which permeates every conversation and fresh  news bulletin describing the progress of this affliction around the world. Help us to continually cast this burden of pain and fear upon you – we cannot bear it, and are not meant to, but it ought to drive us to prayer.

Heavenly Father, as we see the destruction and loss, and glimpse the future consequences of this event, we quail, and tremble for our planet. All too many are already using this pandemic event as another reason to not only dismiss you, but to belittle and deride our faith in you. Your name is not being glorified in this by those who cannot and will not recognise your lordship, but rather you are cursed for not caring enough. We do not have ready answers to those who curse and dismiss, and we know that in their eyes we are fools for trusting you.

Dear Lord and Father of all mankind, as your servants strive to trust you in these days, to model hope and love, may you have mercy on this planet. Accomplish all that you have purposed to do through this pandemic, and may it bring glory to your name. And Lord, for all those already breaking, mourning, despairing, impoverished, we pray – in your power O God, have mercy and bring them to the only true ground for hope. May millions yet turn to you in faith and find Christ, with all the light of your glory shining in his face.

When it hits someone you love…

Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”

(Jn 11.1-3)

Some men came carrying a paralytic on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this..they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat..into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.

(Lk 5.18&19)

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

(Jn 16.33)

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. …so then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

(1Pet.4.12&19)

Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord….The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

(Jm 5.13,14&16)

Like a dark stain spreading across all of life, comes the news that one whom we love is sick, struck down in mind or body, and suffering. The thoughts of their trouble colour everything else we do, and so we do as the bible shows us others have done – we tell our Lord all about it, bringing the beloved to him in prayer as trustingly as those men brought their paralysed friend on his mat.

The reality and irrationality of suffering are one of the greatest trials which we are called to bear as followers of Jesus. We know from the bible that in God’s plan for his children, there should have been no such thing – and that is why at the very root of our distress, lies the sense of outrage that such things should happen. This is what God feels about all the consequences of human rebellion, all that has come upon us and our world since the fall. It is wrong, it goes against the grain of God’s blueprint for creation, and we were never designed for this. It is right and proper that we should be appalled and agonise over these things – and this can in some way help us when the bad news comes, because we know our reaction is not ungodly, but right and true.

But all too often when we have prayed…and prayed…and trusted..the illness does not lift. The world is full of believers who are living with chronic conditions of pain and disability; living with the crippling effects of mental illness, all in spite of faithful prayer for many years. The disability campaigner and noted Christian writer, Joni Earicsson Tada is perhaps the most famous of these faithful believers at this time, having suffered not only paraplegia but also depression and cancer, and all the side effects which arise from life in a wheelchair. Sometimes it must seem that God is mocking his children, when those who are already weak and suffering are knocked over again by a new trial.

The bible is adamant that God loves his children, that everything he does and permits is wholly designed for their blessing and his glory. But the bible also reminds us that God’s ways are so far beyond ours that we cannot begin to comprehend them, and we will probably never get answers to the bewildered plea of our hearts ; “Lord, why should this happen to them? How can this possibly be good for anyone?!”

So what is my reaction? How do I pray? I remember Job, in all his sufferings and recall that the silent companionship of his ‘comforters’ was more precious than all their words – so I offer my presence and love-in-action to the one in need (and to their family who are suffering too). I note that Job’s trial gave great glory to God, and pray for this to be the result for my loved one – may they too acknowledge and praise God in spite of all that is happening to them. I think of the laments of the psalms and prophets, and bring my sense of outrage against these things to God, acknowledging that they are part of sin’s consequences in the world, and weeping with him for the suffering they cause to his precious children. I consider Jesus’ example of truly undeserved suffering, borne in humility and faith and obedience so that God’s will might be done – and I pray that I might learn to trust God’s ways more completely, and that the suffering beloved might be given grace also to see that even in the midst of their trial, Jesus is an utterly trustworthy Lord.

And ultimately, I thank God that my beloved one knows Jesus as Saviour, so that no matter when or how healing and deliverance may come, their future is not dark but radiant; not defined by a failing body or fractured mind, but whole, beautiful and flawless, thriving in eternity in intimate communion with the Lord. This life is not the end of our story, but in him, only the beginning! Halleluia, to him be all the glory, and to us his most bountiful grace.

Making marks in eternity..

I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips. I will glory in the Lord, let the afflicted hear and rejoice. Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together.

(Ps 34.1-3)

We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. May your unfailing love be with us, Lord, even as we put our hope in you.

(Ps 33.20-22)

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground….

(Eph 5.10-13)

In all 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 the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.

(1 Pet 1. 6&7)

It is easy to forget that our lives as followers of Jesus are acted out before a great audience of spiritual beings, and yet the bible makes it plain that this is the case – think of Job, and of how God calls Satan to witness the faithfulness and true quality of that much tried saint. Paul also, in writing to the believers in Ephesus, points out that they operate in spiritual realms, not just the physical; so that their enemies while appearing in human form, or in the guise of the troubles of the world, are actually spiritual.

This invisible reality is enormously relevant for our attitudes to our daily lives, so often seemingly mundane, with petty troubles, and common challenges to overcome, and nothing very significant going on. The truth is that every day brings us fresh opportunities to make choices which will glorify our God, causing the angels to rejoice in the power of Christ in a person’s life to transform them completely. We may not see or hear the joy, but that doesn’t mean that it is less real!

As we grow in faith and understanding, our lives will come to reflect the pattern of Christ-likeness which is God’s ideal for his children, but we will also increasingly be out of step with the spiritual tone of the world, which is still so much in thrall to evil. Our growth in faith may not even be evident to us, as we feel increasingly that we are struggling with many trials arising from our choices and our beliefs. In reality, the spiritual reality which we do not see, that very consciousness of struggle is a sure sign of growing faith – if we did not so ardently long for holiness, we would not react so strongly against all those things which would drag us down. It is therefore possible for a faithful saint to look back over many years of following Jesus, and fear that they have made little progress, when in reality, their continuing struggles to choose purity, honesty, faithfulness and integrity are a sign that they have never been closer to him. It is the very precious reality of our faith which makes the fight against sin most bitter and prolonged.

Since this is true, we can encourage one another with the fact that every time we make a decision for Christ in the midst of the trial – choosing to think, speak and act according to his pattern – we are making our own mark in eternity, our own contribution to the great structure of worship and praise to the Saviour which is the work of the church. It is indeed all by his grace and indwelling spirit that we are able to do these things, and so all the glory goes to him when his followers prove his strength and faithfulness.

Although we may feel that our trials are secret, ashamed that we continue to face the same troubles over and over, yet we may rejoice that in the eternal story, our part is valued, and our own small experiences of his enabling will be significant. It is all worthwhile, nothing is wasted! All will be to our blessing, and to his glory: Amen, so let it be!

It all looks a bit bleak…

Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises…..In his pride the wicked does not seek him, in all his thoughts there is no room for God…His victims are crushed, they collapse; they fall under his strength. He says to himself, “God has forgotten, he covers his face and never sees.”

(Ps 10.1,2,4,10&11)

When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?

(Ps 11.3)

Help, Lord, for the godly are no more; the faithful have vanished from among men. Everyone lies to his neighbour; their flattering lips speak with deception.

(Ps 12.1&2)

Furthermore, since they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done…They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

(Rom 1.28-31)

The Lord reigns for ever; he has established his throne for judgement. He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice. The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.

(Ps 9.7-9)

The Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm for ever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.

(Ps 33.1)

The Lord reigns, let the nations tremble; he sits enthroned between the cherubim, let the earth shake. Great is the Lord in Zion; he is exalted over all the nations. Let them praise your great and awesome name – he is holy.

 (Ps 99.1-3)

It is good to allow the words of the bible to remind us that humanity has never been any purer at heart, any nobler in intent, than it is today; to see that the basic problems we face are not new, and that God is not somehow caught out by the situation in which we find ourselves today. Paul in his letter to the Roman church uses language which is completely up to date, and we recognise in the words of the psalms the very things which trouble our societies today.

It is an ugly, bleak and depressing picture. We see so much oppression, exploitation, suffering and injustice. The world’s populations are on the move fleeing from war, famine, slavery, and it always seems the poorest and weakest who suffer most, never those who are in positions of power and influence, making these things happen.

We cry with the psalmist, “How long?”, looking for God to act in judgement. And then we remember that we too are sinners: greedy, lazy, self-centred and quarrelsome. We too deserve judgement at the hands of a holy and righteous God. In his inscrutable purposes, the time for God to bring all things to an end has not yet come, he has not finished gathering in people who worship him from all the nations, and so the world goes on. And we must also believe that in his wisdom, he is permitting suffering and injustice to continue – for ends which we may never understand.

What we can know from the bible is that God does see and care about the wickedness and suffering of the world; and that his church are called to be part of his plan for addressing injustice and pain. When I feel grieved for those who are in trouble, what do I do about it? Prayer is absolutely necessary, but are there not other things? I can support campaign and action groups on poverty issues, debt cancellation, justice and reparation, support and counselling for the traumatised and displaced. There are many ways in which followers of Jesus can and should be part of his plan for hearing and acting on the cries of the poor and weak.

That doesn’t take away the struggle we have in watching wickedness prosper, and yet believing in a God who is loving and just. We must again look to the bible for our guidance in holding these things together in faith and confidence. The psalmists repeatedly affirm the greatness of God, the glory of God, his supremacy and pre-eminence. In the face of extreme suffering, the verdict of scripture is that God is, that he is good, and that no one will ever be able to accuse him of injustice when he brings all this broken and fractured world to its end.

I need to work hard at this, finding it all too easy to fall into despair, and to doubt that God will really answer my prayers – and those of so many – for him to act on behalf of the suffering and oppressed, and to judge the wicked. May I learn to focus ever more on what God says about himself in his word, and in the face of the bleakest scenarios, to share the confidence of the psalmists, worshipping and exalting their great and glorious God.

 

 

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.

Consider the stars..

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

(Deuteronomy 33.26&27)

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

(Psalm 91.1,2, 4-6)

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

(Romans 8.18,28,35-37)

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

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

(Keith & Kristyn Getty, 2015)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photograph of the stars, courtesy of F. Wotherspoon.