Category Archives: the loveliness of Christ

When it hurts too much…

Hasten, O God, to save me; O Lord, come quickly to help me. May those who seek my life be put to shame and confusion; may all who desire my ruin be turned back in disgrace. May those who say to me, “Aha! Aha!” turn back because of their shame.

But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation always say, “Let God be exalted!”

Yet I am poor and needy; come quickly to me, O God. You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay.

(Ps 70)

I have never known what it is to have my life threatened as David did, nor to have people who actively sought to cause me harm. I am blessed and thankful to know such peace, and have an obligation to pray for those who are oppressed in this way.

But I do not think it is inappropriate to apply this psalm to those times in our lives when it seems our spiritual life is under threat, when we are assaulted by doubt, fear, and the relentless voices which wear us down into a dungeon of self-pity and hopelessness. The devil is wily and knows how to use our experiences to twist our perceptions and undermine our faith in the goodness and faithfulness of God.

When I am under such assault, it may take a while to realise what is going on, and to gather my wits to claim the victory which is mine in Christ. This happens most readily when it is my feelings which are attacked, and the resulting emotional storm is hard to ride out. It happened today.

There is a grief in my life which has been my companion for many years, and which, like Paul, I have begged to have removed. The Lord has thus far answered me as he answered Paul, saying that his strength will suffice for me, and I must trust that means he can be glorified through the wounded soldier and servant that I feel myself to be!

Sometimes, I can bear it more easily than others, and have my eye fixed more securely on God’s faithfulness and less on the pain and my own weakness. But not today.

Today, as I floundered on the brink of despair, God has been pouring out extravagant love gifts of beauty upon me, as brilliant winter sunshine picked out the snowy summits of our mountains, each one clear as a razor edge against the blue sky. Each fresh sight cut me afresh, like a wound. The contrast between the grief and darkness within my heart, and the tender love which was being proclaimed across the land, was just too much to bear. It was as though I was on one side of a chasm, with my pain; and the beauty and my dear Lord were on the other side, taunting me with my inability to reach them.

All I wanted to do was run away home, to leave this weary world of warring emotions, messy lives, and endless struggle to keep in step with the spirit of God. I wanted to be where there is no more need to endure, only the privilege of enjoying our God for ever. But of course, I couldn’t run, I have to stay until the time God decides is right for me, so how can I bear it?!

There is no magic formula; this life of faith is indeed a struggle, and at times a bitter one. But I can testify to the power of God to keep me in and through each fresh bout – because by his grace and mercy, he draws me back again and again to Christ.

There I find one who knew the pains which we bear in our human experience; and who can enter into the feelings which torment and drag us down. I praise God, that he turns me toward and not away from him in my need. I confess that I am still far more poor and needy than I like to admit, but rejoice that he will never give up on me and never abandon me to destruction by the forces that assault me.

There is no place for pride here, only profound thankfulness that our God is sufficient, ever-attentive to our cries and never running out of patience with us. Let our cry  in our need always be that of the psalmist:

..come quickly to me, O God. You are my help and deliverer; 

Just wondering….

For I am jealous for you with the jealousy of God himself. I promised you as a pure bride to one husband – Christ. But I fear that somehow your pure and undivided devotion to Christ will be corrupted…

(2Cor 11.2&3)

And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ…For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word. He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault.

(Eph 5.25-27)

Fear not; you will no longer live in shame. Don’t be afraid; there is no more disgrace for you. You will no longer remember the shame of your youth and the sorrows of widowhood. For your Creator will be your husband; the Lord of Heaven’s Armies is his name! He is your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, the God of all the earth.

(Isa 54. 4&5)

What does it mean, to call God ‘Husband’? Why do the hymns refer to Jesus as the ‘Lover of our souls’? What does it look and feel like in daily life, to live the reality of this aspect of our relationship with Almighty God?!

I wrestled for a long time with this particular imagery, and it is only in recent years that I have come to understand a little better just how sweet and precious a picture it is, and to rejoice in the reality which lies behind it. I am not planning to write some profound analysis of marriage in this column, only to try to articulate something of the blessing which it is to have Jesus as the lover of my soul, my Redeemer as my husband…

In many cultures today, the situation for women is still as it was in biblical times – an unmarried or widowed woman was without rights or status, vulnerable to exploitation and without protection. A husband was a woman’s guarantee of security, with prospects for a peaceful and fulfilling life. He took upon himself the right and duty of providing for and protecting her, and as a unit they would grow together in affection and through their daily labour, relying on and complementing one another. It is crucial to remember that the bible does not give us examples of perfect marriages to follow, but the real messy stories of human beings making an attempt to live out the ideal which God always intended for us. What we experience is only a pale imitation of the depth of union and love which God made us capable of before sin broke the lines of communication and left us vulnerable in this most foundational of relationships.

When I call Almighty God my husband, I claim the right to use his name as my own, his authority gives me status and rights to an inheritance. When I call on my Redeemer as my husband, I call on the one whose strength is sufficient to keep me through every trial and to bring me to a place of honour. The stigma of being unwanted, rejected or abandoned, is gone, because I have a husband who makes public his love for me and his commitment to my well-being – that is what happened on the cross! Jesus stretched out his arms, and said “I love you.. I am for you…you are precious and beloved, and I will do anything to ensure that you can be mine for ever”.

The words from Ephesians make it very clear that Paul understood the ‘husbanding’ of Christ in this way – “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy…to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or blemish..”

A human husband knows that loving his wife should mean seeking the best for her – encouraging, nurturing, sometimes perhaps confronting or challenging, but always putting the fullest realisation of her potential first. A human husband also knows that he will fail, and fail often…

But our heavenly husband, our divine lover, is one who never fails in love, patience, compassion and tenderness. Oh how good it is to have such a lover, one who never fails me in my need, who never gives up on his ambition of seeing me made perfect, radiant and lovely!

Let me never give up on saying ‘I do’ daily to this dear Lord, but go on seeking to know him and his love as the foundation for my life, and as the sweetest blessing that I can share..

Worth losing?

Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is  more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him…

(Philippians 3.7&8)

A picture of a cake.. which may seem odd given the text I have quoted above, but there is a connection! The cake was inspired by one made by a very good and generous friend when I last visited her, and so represents hospitality, love, years of friendship and support – as well as a celebration of our time together. Most of us have many such reasons for celebration – in our spouses and families, our health, our friends and the many good things which God lavishly bestows on us daily. It is always good to give thanks for such gifts, lest we begin to take them for granted and fail to appreciate them.

But if we are to follow the apostle Paul in the particular part of this letter to the young church in Philippi, he is arguing that all the good things he has received in his life are worth giving up without a second thought, if by that means he might grow in his union with his beloved Lord Jesus. This is a challenge which I think we spend our lives working out in practice, as we experience gains and losses, and watch others struggling to cope with their own griefs. It is one thing to say boldly, that ‘Christ is enough for me’, but quite another to put that into daily action, when facing the loss to death of a beloved husband or wife, or the brutal impact of disease or injury upon our own bodies and our capacity for independent living.

The great Scottish preacher and letter writer, Samuel Rutherford spent prolonged spells in exile from his parish, closely confined, unable to receive visitors and forbidden to preach. His writings from that time speak of his grief at these losses, but also breathe his sweet delight in the presence of his Saviour, and his satisfaction in considering the loveliness of Christ. Rutherford learnt to say with Paul that so long as he had Christ, he would be content.

Do I live in such a way that I am not looking to any human being for fulfillment of my deepest needs? Am I so aware that every day, every breath, is a gift from God, that I would be able to give up physical health and freedom if He required them of me? These are very hard questions, and I am glad that we are not allowed to see our future days, not to know what sacrifices we will be called to make until the time comes. It is not for me to worry about how I might cope if these things happened to me, but rather to focus here and now on living ever closer to my Lord, and trusting that he will be sufficient for me when the day comes. We are not called to deal in advance with such burdens, but to carry those of today with as much grace and cheerfulness as we can.

If I can learn to hold all my daily blessings on an open hand, as one offering them back to the giver, then I will not depend on them for my fulfillment and contentment. This certainly does not mean that I fail to appreciate these good things, that would be to waste the gifts of my loving Father! Rather it means that I must learn to look more and more through the gifts to the giver, to see that in them, I receive his love, perceive his greatness and the unfathomable beauty of his character.

God must become more and more the centre of my life. Jesus is the lover of my soul, my heavenly bridegroom, my redeemer and friend. All the human relationships which enrich my life are simply pale imitations of the richest relationship of all – between the church and her head, Christ, who loved her so much that he gave up his life for her.

I believe that when God calls me to let something precious go – as when my parents died some years ago – he is calling me into a closer relationship and satisfaction with himself. In God, I find the truest father and mother-love, meeting those deep needs which my human parents could never touch. I can give thanks for all they were and did, and rejoice that now they are with the Lord whom they loved. But I need not fret for myself, because my God knows and meets my longings to be loved as a child again.

He is so gracious, so gentle, so compassionate.. Let us cling ever closer to him, and be content with whatever is left to us so long as we have Christ as our own!

Just be gentle…

“Go out and stand before me on the mountain”, the Lord told him. And as Elijah stood there, the Lord passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

(1Kings 19. 11-13)

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. the Lord is near.

(Philippians 4.4&5)

My father was a ‘gentle-man’, it was one of his outstanding qualities. He was strong, physically and emotionally, stubborn and loyal, but very gentle. He had big hands, but would delicately cup a rose bud or seedling as he transplanted it. He never shouted or snapped at us as children – and I don’t think I have just forgotten it either! I have no memory of him talking about others to demean or mock them, but sometimes he would express regret that their actions and words had unfortunate consequences.

As I go on in life I increasingly appreciate gentleness, and thank God that in my father, I was shown such a clear example of God’s own gentleness in his dealing with his children. I will always be a child of God. I will always need my Father’s love and provision, and part of that provision is for the balm of gentleness.

When a child is frightened, hurt or astray and worried about coming home in disgrace, they need above all to be met with gentleness. That quality speaks of a love which understands our weakness, and knows that we need above all reassurance, not a brisk reprimand or exhortation to ‘get over it and get on!’ Perhaps in due time, the reprimand will be given – gently – or the exhortation to continue on the way will come. But first and foremost is the comfort, the healing of a forbearing love.

True gentleness is hard to fake, and easy to recognise. It is a quality which draws people towards itself, as moths to a flame, as cold hands to a warm glowing fire. Jesus had it, and so drew to himself so many wounded and rejected, worthless and despised people. They knew that he was different, that he would not add to their pain but would recognise, respect and minister to it.

Jesus valued everyone as a child of God, created to know and love and be loved, to add their own unique voice to the eternal song of glory to God. When we fail in gentleness, we are failing to demonstrate that same awareness of the priceless value of each person. Surely that is part of what Paul is driving at when he exhorts the church in Philippi to be known for their gentleness, by reminding them that ‘The Lord is near.’ This Lord who crafted each person in his own image; who longs for each one to come into a loving relationship with him; who longs for each one to know life in all its fullness within the community of God’s people here on earth.

I know what it is to crave gentleness from those around me, in times of distress and even in times of gladness, I find it hard to be handled brusquely and feel somehow diminished and irrelevant. A lack of gentleness tells me that I do not matter, that my feelings don’t matter, and I am of little value. This is not what the story of God’s love tells me, and I cling so closely to his gentle arms, listening for that gentle whisper which speaks his presence and his constant love. He tells me that I am special, beloved, worth everything to him, and that gentle voice brings healing.

Let me minister this healing to others, since I know how precious it is for me. Let us all seek to grow this Christ-quality in all our dealings with one another, so that we may build one another up, and not cause any to fall down or become discouraged, thinking that they do not matter to us – or to God.

Let our gentleness indeed be known to all, that God might be glorified and his people blessed!

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!