Category Archives: unanswered questions

But…Lord, I don’t understand, forgive me…

The Lord said to Job: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!…Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself? Do you have an arm like God’s and can your voice thunder like his?”

(Job 40.1&2,8&9)

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion…..The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished…

(Ex 33.18&19; 34.6&7)

Watch out that no-one deceives you….You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of the birth pains.. you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death because of me.. many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations

(Matt 24.4-14)

I am back on familiar ground, wrestling with the sheer scale of human suffering – today and in the past, and in the future as it seems to be unfolding before our very eyes. Wrestling with the tension between the revelation of God’s love and power and will to save as seen in Jesus, and the heartbreaking cry which is going up every hour of every day as people face pain, horror, oppression and death without hope.

The very doubts which arise in my mind make me feel guilty – adding to the messy and distressing nature of the fight. And yet, I think of Job who cried out in his agony and loss, and whom God commended for speaking truth about the Almighty – truth about God’s justice and holiness and absolute trustworthiness. And I think of Jesus, in very nature God and able to heal, resurrect and create new life, who nonetheless spoke to his disciples that they would ‘always have the poor with them’, and whose mission in his short life was not to tackle social justice, create an ideal state, overthrow the oppression of women, or heal every illness and deformity which could be found in the world in his time. 

If Jesus had a different, and greater, agenda, then is it not possible for me to try to grasp that other agenda too, to begin to see beyond this world and its very real troubles to the greater and more glorious reality beyond? Am I so embedded in the physical present that I cannot even begin to understand or imagine there might be something immeasurably better? May I not learn to trust that there is something worth hanging onto beyond the immediate and enveloping misery which clouds my vision of the world?

God tells us that his ways are higher than ours, and yet to our shame we continue to fall into the devil’s trap of sitting in judgement on the Divine, of weighing God’s plans and purposes by human values. Surely this must be one of the forms by which ‘wickedness’ has increased, so that so many in the world today are deceived into condemning God without really listening to the gospel and to the claims which Jesus made for himself. As CS Lewis put in the title of his book, we put ‘God in the dock’, and having found fault with the plans of the Almighty, decide he is untrustworthy, and not to be considered in any of our thinking about life and creation.

With shame, I confess it again, I really struggle with these great unanswered questions, these mysteries which surround God’s great plan of redemption. I pray, “Thy will be done..” and then am tempted to add a qualifier – “but not if anyone is going to get hurt by it…” 

Father God, I believe that you could end all human suffering and pain tomorrow, if it were your plan and purpose to do so; if by that means, all glory would go to your Son my Saviour. And so I pray, “thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven”. Help me, dear Father, to trust you for the prayers which seem unanswered, for the answers that involve ongoing mess and pain for billions around the world. And dear Father, forgive and cleanse me of this arrogance, this pride which keeps on rearing its head and demanding that you give account of yourself to me, for my approval. I am so ashamed to recognise this attitude in my heart. Thank you for the mercy which I have in Jesus, so that my sin is forgiven in his name. May my passion be for the proclamation of that mercy to all nations, so that he might be glorified, and your kingdom come on earth.

Pray for your enemies….

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 the Lord; in all his thoughts there is no room for God.. He says to himself, “God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees.”… But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand.

(Ps 10.1,2,4,11&14)

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ but I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others?…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

(Matt 5.43-48)

As it is written: “there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no-one who understands, no-one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless….There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Now we know that whatever the law says, it says…so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no-one will be declared righteous in his sight.. But now a righteousness from God.. has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

(Rom 5.10,11,18-24)

Two years ago, I was privileged to visit New York and to stand beside the two great holes in the heart of that city which mark the foundations of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. Sombre, dignified, heart-breaking.. the sound of the ever-falling water and the sight of name after name, after name inscribed on the surrounding walls combine to stir up powerful emotions.

What do we do in the face of such devastating – for so many people, life-shattering – events?

We rightly lament for and with those who are directly affected, and we commit to their welfare over the long haul which will lie ahead for them – practical, emotional support and courage to walk with them even though we cannot enter into or carry the pain for them. We commend them to the God who loves them and who longs to bring comfort and hope back into their lives, and ultimately to bring them home to himself.

We seek to discipline our own reactions, and to reflect God’s truth in our words and attitudes. While we may – with the psalmists and prophets – cry out in lament and wrestle with God’s providence, yet we also hold fast to the truth of his justice and holiness. We proclaim a God who cares about injustice and evil, and who has not abandoned the world he made to its own self-destruction. The sacrificial death of the perfect Son of God – the payment for evil for all who will believe – was the sign of just how much God DOES care about us, the people fashioned in his likeness.

We also remember and acknowledge with trembling, that before a holy God, no one is righteous. The basic sin of rebellion against God, as God, lies behind the actions of every human being who ever lived – apart from Jesus – and the need of every human being is to be transformed from rebel to beloved child. The astonishing thing about God’s offer of salvation, is that anyone may accept it and find forgiveness. Ultimately, this is what we are to pray for all those whom we may be tempted to view as our enemies – that they may come to saving faith in Jesus and be forgiven. Yes, forgiven, even as we trust to be forgiven, and for the same reason – the blood of Christ which was poured out for the cleansing of sinners.

Please, do not misunderstand me. This in no way reduces or dismisses the scale of their offences, nor the pain, destruction and long-term consequences of their actions. But it does mean that we commit the whole business of eternal justice and judgement into the hands of God, who alone is able to do right in such circumstances. When we pray for our enemies to be saved, we are loving them as Christ loved us, seeing the desperate condition in which we languished, and showing mercy.

Father God, who loved this world so much that you sent you Son to die for us so that we might know you again and be whole, we pray for those who might be called our enemies today. Deliver us from the bitterness of unforgiving hearts, and make us tender like Jesus, to love those who have not loved us.

For those who, through culture, poverty, trauma and radicalisation, have come to believe so passionately in their own creed that they will, in turn, inflict unimagineable suffering upon others – Father God, we pray that the love of your Son might come with healing and cleansing power and they might find peace.

For those who, in pursuit of wealth and power, have come to feel nothing for the suffering of the poor and marginalised, exploited and abused by the wealth-creating system – Father God, we pray that the love of your Son might break through and break their hearts to show compassion and to use their power for good.

For us all, Father God, may we see afresh our desperate state when we choose to live without you. May we never regard anyone as beyond your grace – since you have shown it even to such as we know ourselves to be. Your grace is truly amazing, and it is the power that we need to see at work in our world today. May each of your children be a grace-bearer and mercy-giver, a speaker of truth and the good news of forgiveness in Jesus, so that we might see your kingdom come and your will being done in our world as it is in heaven. 

Which way lies wisdom?

Who has understood the mind of the Lord, or instructed him as his counsellor? Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way?…”To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name…The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no-one can fathom.

(Isa 40.13&14,25&26,28)

The message that points to Christ on the cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out. It’s written,

“I’ll turn conventional wisdom on its head, I’ll expose so-called experts as crackpots.”

So where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn’t God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb – preaching, of all things!- to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation.

While Jews clamour for miraculous demonstrations and Greeks go in for philosophical wisdom, we go right on proclaiming Christ, the crucified. Jews treat this like an anti-miracle – and Greeks pass it off as absurd. But to us who are personally called by God himself – both Jews and Greeks – Christ is God’s ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one. Human wisdom is so tinny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength can’t begin to compete with God’s “weakness.”

(1 Cor 1.18-25, in The Message paraphrase, by Eugene Peterson)

There is reasonable evidence in historical sources to verify the existence, some 2000 years ago, of a man who caused a brief stir in an obscure corner of the Roman empire. He made some outrageous, even laughable, claims, alongside some persuasive moral teaching, and generally stirred up the Jewish religious establishment enough to provoke them to contrive an unjust trial and execution, with the connivance of the Roman governor of the day. The subsequent rumours of his resurrection and so-called ‘ascension’ are clearly nonsense, such things don’t happen. Nonetheless, his teachings, and the Jewish scriptures to which they frequently refer, have been preserved, translated and form the basis for a faith movement which continues to grow..Isn’t is all another example of the foolishness of human beings who can’t bring themselves to take full responsibility for their own lives and actions?..How on earth could the life, death and resurrection (if such a thing were even possible) of one man (and he deluded enough to believe himself divine), make any difference to humanity and the problems we face? It makes no sense…

That is one way of looking at the story…is it yours? Does this way give you peace, contentment, hope, ambition for change and the motivation to believe in better? Does this way deal with shame, guilt, all the messiness of living in a broken world? Does it account for what we see day by day unfolding around us as humanity in its pride continues to fail and plumb new depths? 

What if, just maybe, Jesus’ story is true? What if the ‘absurdity’ of a God who claims to reveal himself to the world he made, and the people whom he loves, is actually the absolute reality? What if the life, death and resurrection of the God-made-man, Jesus, is really the means by which our individual, inherent rebellion against God can be undone, and we can be made new, clean and wholesome, with hope for an unimaginable future of joyous life with one who loves us completely? What if those who choose to be considered foolish for the sake of the crucified and risen Christ are actually the wisest? 

They will not be able to give you answers to all your questions – they can’t answer all their own questions! But they will tell you that in believing that Jesus Christ is God, made man, who died to take the blame for all that they have done (and will do) wrong, they have been transformed. They will tell of a friend who walks with them through every storm; of a healer whose love and wisdom has dealt with wounds and scars from years of guilt and pain; of a champion whose strength defeats the enemy of their peace.

The good news about Jesus Christ takes the brokenness of this world, of humanity very seriously, and deals with it head on. Easter is when the church around the world remembers especially the fierce climax of the contest, and celebrates the absolute victory of her Lord over all the powers at work against him. The church affirms that the wisdom of an Almighty Creator cannot be grasped by the puny minds of his creatures, and rejoices in the mystery and majesty of the Eternal.

Is it wisdom, or foolishness? That depends on your perspective..from where I stand, the only way into the peace, joy and hope which I desire, to the healing of this precious world, is from the foot of the cross, where human pride dies, and in total surrender of human wisdom. I am glad to be counted a fool for Jesus, to set aside human wisdom, and to put all my faith in the ‘absurdity’ of Almighty God. What about you?

When the fields seem barren..

Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, ‘In the Lord alone are righteousness and strength.’ All who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame. But in the Lord all the descendants of Israel will be found righteous and will exult.

(Isa 45.22-25)

He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.

(Lk 10.16)

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God…I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes..for in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last..

(Rom 1.1,16&17)

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 fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed..by the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men..

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

(2 Pet 3.3-9)

When all that I am is for God, and it seems that he has chosen to put me on the shelf. Oh Lord, have mercy!

When I can see that he has gifted me with abilities and character crafted to his work, and he calls me to situations where those abilities are not needed. Oh Lord, have mercy!

When I know that he has called me to share the gospel, to speak his word to anyone and everyone, to give the shocking invitation of illuminating grace to those in darkness, and he surrounds me with people who politely, firmly and tolerantly refuse to let me speak..Oh Lord, have mercy!

When my heart burns to see his glory in transformed lives, to see communities healed and individuals blossoming in the light of his love, and he permits me to be smothered by indifference. Oh Lord, have mercy!

When I have promised to serve the body of Christ in a particular situation, looking to see his power at work in spite of the weakness of human institutions, and instead am faced with decline, denial, the collapse of vision and hope on every side. Oh Lord of the church, have mercy!

This is the lived experience of so many of God’s faithful under-shepherds today, on their knees before their Lord, begging for some sign that he still has worthwhile work for them to do, wondering why he called and gifted them only to set them aside to waste away in the dying churches of the west. There is only so much that one preacher, pastor or teacher can do, and without the work of the Holy Spirit, there will be no fruit for all their labour.

The prophets and faithful servants of God have known this experience – think of Elijah despairing in the wilderness, of Jeremiah called to preach to a people who WOULD NOT listen – and it is one of the hardest things that he calls his followers to do, to be apparently redundant.

No one wants to see life drifting by without satisfying outcomes for their work, to feel abilities atrophy for lack of use, to sense the springs of life and zest for the task dry up and vanish. The good news burns within them, they feel shame that they cannot reach their communities and give this priceless news of forgiveness and life eternal. And it is very, very hard to find reason to hope. We know in our hearts that God could break into our country, our culture like an earthquake, breaking the thick protective coating of indifference, sending men and women running to find someone who can answer their desperate questions about eternal things. But we also know that – for his own good reasons – it hasn’t happened yet, and we begin to doubt that it will.

Friends, let us pray for our pastors, and teachers, those called to ministry and leadership. Let us intercede for them, praying against despair and for a fresh anointing of courage. Pray that in their sense of futility, God will meet them and teach them that obedience and submission to him in this situation are not wasted. Let us pray for ourselves as their flock, that we might grow in our own faith and hope, believing that God will yet raise up many in our land to call him Lord, and that we might be privileged to serve him and be part of that revival.

when the child strays…

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding…A wise child brings joy to their father, but a foolish one brings grief to their mother.

(Prov 9.10&10.1)

“All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations – a people who continually provoke me to my very face…such people are smoke in my nostrils, a fire that keeps burning all day.

(Isa 65.2-5)

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me..My people are determined to turn from me…How can I give you up Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not man – the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath. They will follow the Lord; he will roar like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west”

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God. Your sins have been your downfall!…Say to him: “Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously…We will never again say, ‘Our gods’ to what our own hands have made, for in you the fatherless find compassion.” “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them.”

(Hos 11.1,2,7-10; 14.1-4)

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing..

(Matt 23.37)

I have shied away from writing this piece for some time, fully aware that in it I will touch upon a most painful topic for many who might be reading – what happens when a child born to a christian family turns away from following Jesus personally in adulthood. I offer no ready answers, and I hope that I also treat the subject with the delicacy which it deserves, and in no way appear to trivialise it.

We believe that each individual is called to a personal relationship with God through Jesus, and that nothing can take the place of this intimate submission and enthronement of Christ. Our salvation does not depend upon the faith of our parents or anyone else close to us – but on our personal acceptance of the gospel.

As christian parents, we know that the highest good for our children is to follow us into such a relationship. But..we cannot make this happen, any more than by giving our child music lessons we can make them a world class performer! Our duty lies in modelling faith, in teaching what we have learnt, and in seeking to commend the gospel to our children at all times….and we know perfectly well that we fail in this, because we are not perfect. Be comforted dear friend, and remember that the perfect Father of all, our great loving God, also watches his children turn away from him all the time – and that not because he has failed in his loving of them, but because of the sin which is our birthright.

What then? What does our Father do? He calls, he waits, he allows his children to reap the consequences of their rebellions, waiting until they come to their senses and recognise that they are astray in a foreign land, starving, when back home in their father’s house, there is food, security and hope. And when they finally turn and call to him, they find him right there, with his arms wide open in welcome and his love to lavish upon them. God never forces himself upon the unwilling; but the mystery lies in the ways that he creates that willingness – by His spirit working through the very circumstances of the rebellion.

As we wait and love, pray and hope, watching our unbelieving children make their way in the world, we remember and take comfort from God’s understanding of our sorrows. Our own grief gives us a glimpse of the heartbreak which our Father experiences all the time, as his children reject and despise his love,  trying to find compassion and salvation anywhere else but in him.

Our heavenly Father wants our children to trust him, even more than we want it – do we believe this? We must, because the bible makes it very clear. The whole eternal scheme of redemption is designed to draw an unbelieving world into the arms of the One who yearns over them with the tenderness which we read in Hosea. Our own straying offspring matter so much that Jesus died for them, and rose to secure their inheritance, with ours, in eternity.

Let us therefore not lose hope, but cling to our Father in our prayers for the wanderers, knowing that his great heart recognises our grief and takes it up into his own. We are carried by the great Shepherd, who searches diligently, calling for his lost sheep, and does not give up.

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…

It’s not my job….

A discerning person keeps wisdom in view, but a fool’s eyes wander to the ends of the earth.

A person’s steps are directed by the Lord. How then can anyone understand their own way?

There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the Lord

(Pr 17.24; 20.24)

Since no one knows the future, who can tell someone else what is to come?..When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe the labour that is done on earth..then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.

(Eccl 8.7,16&17)

The arrogance of man will be brought low and human pride humbled; the Lord alone will be exalted in that day, and the idols will totally disappear….Stop trusting in mere humans, who have but a breath in their nostrils. Why hold them in esteem?

(Isa 2.17&22)

Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear..Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?….do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink, do not worry about it…your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well..

(Lk 12.22,25,29-31)

We are called to live in exceptional days, placed here for this time and purpose by God who holds all time and space in his hands and is at work to bring all things to their completion in Christ. The bible narrative encourages believers to continually consider what God has done, and to remember that all that happens is part of his great redemptive plan – each detail of our lives has a place, and in his hand nothing is wasted.

To me, the global experience of pandemic illness has been such a graphic demonstration of the truth which lies behind that instruction of Christ to his disciples – all our worrying achieves nothing, and our job is to trust God and instead look to our role in his work here and now. In the face of this ‘plague’, where governments, armies, wealth and privilege are powerless to  defeat an invisible enemy, we see most clearly that humanity is not in control, cannot be trusted for ultimate security, and must fail. We see our limitations written in the statistics of deaths, in the as yet unseen economic costs, the long term social costs, of this extraordinary time.

A discerning person looks to wisdom – which in the bible is described as the fear or proper respect of the Lord – rather than scanning all the range of human achievement in search of meaning and solutions. When we rightly fear God, recognising that we are mortal, limited and flawed while he is holy, almighty, just and good, then we regain some perspective on all that happens in the world. We STOP thinking that it is our job to fix things, or even to understand why they are happening. We ARE NOT GOD – and what a relief that is! When there is so much pain and suffering to be borne, who could be sufficient for this? Only the Lord Almighty, whose thoughts are emphatically not our thoughts, but whose love can be utterly depended upon.

So in these days, I rejoice that it is not my God-appointed task to find the reason for this pandemic – or any other source of suffering. I give thanks that I can trust God through all my unanswered questions, and instead ask what my job is. While mankind is not meant to know the answers to “Why?”, we are incredibly gifted in finding out “How?”, and so I give thanks and do what I can to support the efforts to address the consequences of the virus – in prayer, in financial and practical support, and by obeying the instructions of our own government.

I pray that God will be at work to fulfill his own mysterious purposes, and that along the way, we will see God’s love in action as people care for one another; as churches reach out in new ways to show Christ; as scientists race to find vaccines and medical professionals put their lives on the line to save others. God will do all that he plans through this great trial…will I do what he asks me to do?

He has shown you, O mortal, 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 (Micah 6.8)

In caring, praying, speaking and acting, may I do what the Lord requires of me in these days, and may I be given grace to let God be God, to leave the unanswered questions at the foot of the cross, where the blood of Christ silences them.

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.

Battling for the faith of others

The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple…The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever…Who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me…May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

(Ps 19.7,9,12-14)

As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed he remembers that we are dust….But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him…

(Ps 103.13,14&17)

You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal..The path of the righteous is level; you, the Upright One, make the way of the righteous smooth. Yes, Lord, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you. Your name and renown are the desire of our hearts.

(Isa 26.3&4,7&8)

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

(Rom 12.2)

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

(2 Cor 10.5)

One of the most distressing trials which can come to God’s children is an assault upon their mental health – and we are told that most of us will experience such assaults at some point in our lives, to a greater or lesser degree. How do we pray for those whose minds are clouded and confused by illness, so that they have been deprived of the full comfort of their faith?

We know from the bible that it is through our minds, our understanding, that we receive faith and learn about the love of God for us. We read his word, and in obeying it, serving his people, and allowing it to dwell in us, we are transformed into the likeness of Christ. What then of those who cannot trust their minds, or control their thoughts? How can we pray for those who are under a darkness which twists and distorts truth into lies – lies about themselves, about others, and above all about God and how he regards them?

We can praise God, because it is not our faith and understanding which keeps us secure, but the power of his saving arms. The faith of little children, of those with learning difficulties, surely shows us that it is not intellectual capacity that qualifies us to be called followers of Jesus! We thank God for his compassion towards us, his creatures. He knows how we are made, knows our frailties, and although human understanding of the mind is extensive, yet only God truly sees how ‘fearfully and wonderfully’ we are put together, how delicate and intricate is the balance of our mental and physical health.

So we can trust that although our beloved ones who are struggling may feel unloved, abandoned and hopeless, yet this is not the truth. All who have professed faith in Christ and acknowledged him as Lord, no matter how great their darkness, remain in his love. Paul reminds us that NOTHING is able to separate believers from this love – both external trials and assaults, and also surely the internal trial of mental illness. So we praise and thank God for keeping his children, for forgiving their sins, guarding them and preparing a place in heaven for them.

While we give thanks for the health of our own minds, we should pray to be kept humble, not to rely upon human wisdom as our salvation, nor to be proud of what we have learnt or can do in God’s service. We are well; good, so we put our health at the disposal of our brothers and sisters who are not – in prayer, service, and presence. For those in the darkness of mental illness, we can – by God’s help – be a constant loving reminder that God has not abandoned them, holding the truth before them even though their understanding is compromised. We pray that we might be the compassion of God in human form, patient, gentle and true.

And we can pray that – as with all our trials in this life – God will be at work to bring glory to himself, blessing to our loved ones, and good things for his kingdom. Healing so often comes, and perhaps lessons in living differently, using God’s gifts in new ways, being less busy and more restful. We cannot tell how these experiences might be part of God’s plan, but we can be sure that they are, and pray for fruitfulness in the future. He is faithful, strong and true; let us trust ourselves to him and keep praying!

When it all goes dark…and silent

..yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brothers house, when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead.. At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him;

Surely God, you have worn me out; you have devastated my entire household…Only a few years will pass before I take the path of no return. My spirit is broken, my days are cut short, the grave awaits me.

(Job 1.18-22: 13.15: 16.7&22-17.1)

Lord, you are the God who saves me; day and night I cry out to you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry. I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death..You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief…You have taken from me friend and neighbour – darkness is my closest friend.

(Ps 88.1-3,6,8&18)

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted.

(Isa 53.5)

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind, and God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

(1 Cor.10.13)

 

Sooner or later, it comes to each one of us. The pain of the world suddenly becomes our pain, the tragic headlines become our headlines, our lives, and our future. There are some trials from which there can be no return – the premature death of a beloved child, a fatal diagnosis, a destroyed relationship. These things in themselves are painful enough, but when those involved had not professed faith in Jesus, when we fear that they had no hope for eternity, the loss becomes unbearable.

These things are common trials to mankind down the centuries, not unique to us here and now – this is not some new thing which God is doing. It is a mystery which his children have wrestled with since Cain murdered Abel and broke his parent’s hearts, since Job’s children were destroyed, since Jeremiah was broken and despised by those to whom he was called, since Hosea’s tragic marriage to Gomer.

We are made to call God our Father, to trust in him and to receive all the good things which are our inheritance, most of all to be in intimate loving fellowship with him. When we are wounded in these ways, we feel betrayed, and abandoned; we become angry because we are scared and alone in the darkness of our suffering. We cry out for answers;  we long for the suffering to be undone, for the bad things not to have happened – and in Job and Jeremiah’s case, we wish that we had never lived to experience such depth of trouble.

God doesn’t give us answers, nor – with a handful of exceptional miraculous interventions – does he restore the dead to us. He promises that he will never leave us, and that he is sovereign to rule over all that happens, working it out for his glory – and our blessing. And he gives us his son, to suffer betrayal, injustice, physical pain and ultimate agonising separation from the Father – a darkness which we will never know, because Christ endured it for us.

Let us be merciful to one another, we are all living with unanswerable questions –  like open wounds, amputations or paralyses which impede our every function for the rest of our lives, and at times make us feel permanently cut off from joy, light and hope. Let us be filled with compassion for those whose burden of grief is inexplicably heavy, and refrain from offering easy comfort.

We pray for others, as we would be prayed for: that they might be kept from the temptation to despair of God, He is powerful to protect his children; that they might be spared the aggravation of comforters such as Job’s so-called friends, but instead receive compassion; that they might be upheld by God, and able to cast all our cares on him, over and over again; and that they might know – even in such agony – the peace which only he gives.