Category Archives: suffering

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!

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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.

A sweet, sweet incense…

What do I hold in my hands, but fractured dreams, and faded hopes? The shame-filled memories of hurts given and received, the hidden scars of wounds sustained at the hands of those from whom I looked for kindness.

Are these a fitting sacrifice to bring to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?

What haunts my prayers, but the bitter knowledge of the many, many, too many times I have forgotten to look to Love, have refused to look to Love, have embraced self-pity and chosen to cherish resentment and despair.

Is this a fitting heart to open before the throne of a holy and just God?

What drains my courage, but the suspicion that while God could change things, he seems to be choosing to change me instead – and I am sometimes just so very tired of being the subject of his potter’s hand, of being re-shaped, of being pruned and disciplined. I don’t see the fruit of his labours….is there any?

Is this a fitting spirit in which to bear witness to an almighty, loving and redeeming God?

……………………………..

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.

O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

(Psalm 51.8-12, 15-17)

What relief, what joy, to find in the words of the psalmist the answer to my cries! I am welcome before the God of heaven; I am called to be made clean, to be restored, to be lifted up. My brokenness and weakness, my inability to remember what I learn, or to put it into practice consistently, all is acceptable to God as a sacrifice.

Why? Because when I am broken and crying out to him, then I am fully relying on the finished work of my saviour, I am utterly without any pride or self-reliance, and am finally admitting that without God, I am helpless in my need..

In this world, the children of God will have trouble – Jesus promised as much – and the big question is what we do with it! Will we collapse under it, reject God and become bitter and alienated from him? Or will we seek to turn, and turn again towards him, begging for his strength, claiming the fulfillment of his promises to us – for his constant presence and enabling power, for his provision for our true needs? Even when I am on my knees, if I am crawling towards God, not away from him, then I am in the safest place and am assured that he is working for and in me.

Dear friends, let us encourage one another with the truth that we have been given; but let us also be gentle with one another as we limp together through the various trials with which God has entrusted us.

The words which I wrote so recently are ringing through my mind again….am I willing to thank God for trusting me with this long-term burden, thanking him for sustaining me thus far under it, thanking him for the ways it has driven me over and over again into his arms?

God grant me the ability to say “Yes, yes Lord, I thank you. I believe that you are working this out for my blessing and the blessing of your church, and the glory of your name…I believe, Lord help my unbelief!”

Against self-pity

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him…and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

(1 Peter 1.6-9)

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

(Hebrews 12.2)

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

(James 1.2-4)

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ…..I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings…

(Philippians 3.7&10)

I am often guilty of wishful thinking; of comparing my situation to that of other people and wondering why I should have to bear my particular burdens. I know this is foolish – who knows what hidden struggles and trials plague the lives of others? I know it is sinful, and yet I find myself longing, wondering, scheming to find a way out of my own personal darkness.

I resent my sufferings; I don’t want anyone else to have to bear them, but I don’t want them either! And then I read these words from Paul…and Peter…and James, and am rebuked and see clearly what my attitude is saying.

I am accusing God of dealing unfairly with me; of giving me a burden which is too great for me to carry; of asking too much; I am refusing to trust that this God – who has so devastatingly shown his love for me on the cross – has my best interests at heart. I consider Jesus, my saviour, and also my example of obedient, holy living, and am ashamed of my disobedient, grumbling attitude.

We are taught that our sufferings have a purpose – the maturing of our faith, until it becomes like pure gold in which the maker can see his own likeness clearly reflected – but that can produce a stoic, teeth-gritting determination rather than a humble, thankful acceptance. I believe that there is another element to the process, which can transform our attitude. Have you ever considered that once we are in glory with Christ, we will never again have the privilege of suffering anything at all in his name and for his sake? There will be nothing to endure, only to enjoy!

Our trials in this world are our opportunity to prove God faithful in his promises to strengthen, comfort and keep us.  When, in the mystery of his will, we are permitted to experience trials and troubles of every kind, then I believe that he is inviting our partnership in the process of creating Christ-likeness in us. The late Helen Roseveare, missionary doctor and one who suffered much at the hands of the Congolese rebels in 1964, wrote of how God spoke to her in the midst of great suffering:

Was He saying to me,’Yes, I could have kept you out of this situation: I could have rescued you….but I thought I could trust you to go through this with me, as I have a plan and purpose for the future..Can you thank me for trusting you with this experience even if I never tell you why?” (Count it All Joy; Helen Roseveare 2017)

If, when faced with our own particular trials, we take refuge in self-pity, in blaming God, and devote all our energies to getting out of the situation by our own efforts, then I believe we are neglecting an opportunity – to grow in faith; to let God shape us through this particular experience of leaning and depending on him; to witness to his power at work in our situation and above all to glorify Jesus by our desire to offer our suffering up in worship. In my own experience, it is in the darkest nights that the tenderness of my Lord’s love is most dear, most present – shall I refuse to meet him there again?

I, the least of the Lord’s servants, am being counted worthy of suffering in his name – and I have his example to inspire me – scorning the shame, and for the joy that is to come, I can receive my trials as a means of blessing. The missionary and author Elisabeth Elliott – who like Dr Roseveare proved God faithful through many trials – puts it perfectly:

“Refuse self-pity. Refuse it absolutely. It is a deadly thing with power to destroy you. Turn your thoughts to Christ who has already carried our griefs and sorrows.”

Oh Loving God, Heavenly Father, grant me wisdom, faith and courage, to trust you and embrace all that you choose to permit in my life, for your glory and the blessing of others.

Cheering me on?

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbour for his good, to build him up…. everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

(Romans 15.1,2&4)

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.

(Philippians 2.1-3)

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

(2 Thessalonians 2.16&17)

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul writes about how each part of the church – each individual member – has a valuable contribution to make to the life of the whole. One of the gifts mentioned is that of encouragement, and while I recognise that some people are particularly gifted in that way, we can all probably learn to practice it better!

What do we mean by “encourage”? I think there are two aspects to it: firstly, that it should help people to see themselves as God’s redeemed and beloved children; and second that it should help them to find strength and courage for the next steps along their journey as believers.

When we celebrate people for who they are, the unique combination of qualities and experiences which make up their characters, and all the varied elements of their life story, we remind them that God values them. They are those for whom Christ died, those who are being refined to a perfection of beauty which will leave us all speechless, those whom he delights to call his own. We can use our words to show them their own worth in God’s sight, affirming the struggles they are going through, and the triumphs they have achieved.. In our family, even very small occasions are an excuse for celebration cakes, and an affirmation that the details of our lives matter. When I take the time to notice someone, to find out about them and share something of their story, they are encouraged – God has sent someone to say “I care about you”.

If I feel that who I am matters, that the details are all known by my Father in heaven, every sorrow and joy seen and cherished by him, then I have reason to be confident that my future will also matter. When I remember that Christ died for me, that I am united forever with him, then I am free to stop worrying about propping up my own self-worth or achieving “self-fulfillment”. My Saviour has everything that matters safely in his keeping; my reputation is his affair, not mine and I am free to put others first, to seek their good, loving them as God loves me.

It is this kind of encouragement to which we are called as believers, drawing on the biblical pattern, where so often God’s people were called to remember his care for them, provision for their needs and long-suffering with their sins. This remembrance was the basis for a call to new commitment on their part, to obedience and faithful reliance on God to provide for them and achieve his purposes through them.

So how shall we encourage one another this week?

Think back over conversations you have had; if there is anything which was concerning a friend, or a trial they were facing, go and ask how it worked out. Celebrate the good things which happen, mourn together over the disappointments, and point one another back to the cross and the faithfulness of God, so that courage is found to persevere.

If someone has done something to help you, to make you laugh or to ease a difficult situation – tell them, in a card or text, let them know that they made a difference, and were God’s means of helping you at that time.

If someone has offended you, ask God for grace to forgive them – as you have been forgiven so much more by him – and then go and find something you can do to celebrate that person.

We can encourage one another anonymously, but it is lovely to know who has taken the time to be God’s love in person for us. In this way we build one another up, we grow in Christ-like love, in unity, and God is glorified among us.

Let’s make some cakes!