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Daisy Njenga leading our staff devotion through Psalms 12

In a world corrupted with sin, even the word legit is not legit. Human relations are not spared as they are many times overrun with conflict on account of sin. It is in this very world that we find vain chatterers. We find proud men who like to bring praise to themselves and flatterers who like to lavish insincere praise on others. But when we are loose with the truth the weak are not spared as they suffer greatly at the oppression of the ungodly. Perhaps you have been caught up in these vices in the past either as the oppressed or as the oppressor.

Coming closer home, how many times have we failed in our own words? How many times have we been dishonest with people perhaps when we feared sincerity would put the friendship at stake. How many times have we promised what we did not think about two seconds later, just because we were afraid of appearing weak? How many times have we disappointed others with our words because we wanted to appear well collected?  Have you been disappointed by a compliment that was given insincerely or with misguided information? Well, this was not different in David’s time as we shall see from Psalm 12.

Psalms 12 is a Psalm of David, which he wrote as a lament having witnessed people talking insincerely with one another and the weak being oppressed as a result. David writes asking for God’s help in this situation while praising God because unlike men’s words his are pure and trustworthy. Looking at the previous Psalms, we can say that David knew of the incorruptible and unchangeable nature of God and he believed in him. We see David asking for God’s help when faced with human injustices such as false accusations as we see in Psalm 7. Here in Psalm 12, we see David allude to the purity of God’s words, in comparison to man’s corrupted words. The big idea is that because God is trustworthy, then his words are pure and they can be trusted implicitly unlike the words of men.

For our reflection, we’ll now briefly look at the flow of Psalms 12 using the ESV:

Vs 1-2  David Laments Against the Ungodly

The Psalmist laments about the disappearance of the godly at a time when everyone spoke lies to his neighbor. He speaks about those who use flattering lips. Flattery is such a serious vice as we see in Daniel 11:32 that it is used as a powerful tool by the enemy. Maybe closer home, is to think about how it’s used in politics at such a time as this. Many a time the public seems to support a person just because they are getting a few coins but in their hearts and elsewhere, they undermine the same person. David cries to God on account of those who flatter with their lips and harbor deception at their hearts.

Vs 3-5 He Pleads with God to Judge the Proud and the Flatterer

From verse 3, we see the Psalmist greatly distressed by the boasts of the proud who disregard God. He pleads with God to bring justice against the wicked. In verse 5, God answers him saying he’s the one who hears the cry of the oppressed. When it feels hopeless we see the character of God as one who does not overlook sin but instead he says he will rise to defend and protect the weak.

Vs 6-7 David finds Refuge in the Pure Words of the Lord

In this section, the Psalmist compares God’s words to silver that has been refined in a furnace on the ground purified seven times. This brings a clear contrast between men’s vain words as we have seen in verses 2-4, and God’s pure words. The process of refining silver is indeed long and tedious, but the refiner watches and waits patiently till he can see his image clearly through the end product after all the impurities have been removed. This is what the Psalmist compares God’s word to that unlike the words of men it is without impurities of flattery, lies, and pride. It’s pure and trustworthy.

Spurgeon once wrote;

“The Bible has passed through the furnace of persecution, literary criticism, philosophic doubt, and scientific discovery, and has lost nothing but those human interpretations which clung to it as an alloy to precious ore. The experience of saints has tried it in every conceivable manner, but not a single doctrine or promise has been consumed in the most excessive heat.”

Vs 8 He’s encouraged that though Wickedness seems to Prevail there’s Hope

David seems to be ending this Psalm on a sad note looking at what the wicked continue to do in vs 8. But as we’ve seen:

The Psalmist is assured of God’s protection against this deceptive world, where vileness is exalted among the children of men. His confidence as we have seen in verses 6 -7 comes from the fact that God has promised to bring justice to the helpless and his words are trustworthy. So it’s not a sad note because the godly are not on their own.

Conclusion

Through this Psalm, there is a clear call for us who have believed in the Lord Jesus, to be careful with our words. Let it not be asked in our generation and specific society, where did the godly disappear to? But the big encouragement is that while we cannot always trust the words of men, we have the sure word of the Lord who died for our sins. This serves both as an encouragement as well as a challenge for us on how we use our words. We are to depend on God’s words as believers both as an example for our words and a source of refuge in this wicked world.

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The world needs passionate men and women. People who are committed and self-driven to serve the Lord wholeheartedly. Those won totally and visibly by the Gospel. Those who are using every second to build the kingdom of God. It’s exciting when people speak about reaching the lost so passionately. About going out of their way to reach the unreached. Risking their necks for the lost overseas. It’s great to hear from those passionate about children ministry, church planting, students, families, preaching, evangelism, and so on. 

Talk of changing our political scene with faithful leaders, influencing the corporate world with men with true faith and godly practice. What about the education level, media and technology, the police, the judiciary, the transport sector, and whatever else gives you sleepless nights. We need passionate men and women in all spheres of life that the Lord calls mine. I pray that the Lord would make me this kind of man so passionate for him that I ooze the Gospel and its influence in my corner.  But there’s a danger when we are too passionate in one area of ministry.

When we Only See our Corner 

There’s a danger with people who are too passionate in one area because they can be too invested in their corner of ministry and miss the forest of God’s vast kingdom. When we feel all resources, time and energy should be directed to our area and especially to us we’ve narrowed the kingdom too much. I’m passionate about training people for Gospel ministry and availing training resources to the next generation. I hope we can invest as much in this area. But if I imagine that’s the only way to serve God or it is the only area that matters then I’ve lost the bearing of the kingdom of God. 

What’s worse, passionate men can be selfish and proud men. We might look down on others and what they are doing. We might think they are wasting time. We might feel we are doing a better job. We might be jealous if they get the resources that we think we deserve. We might actually speak ill of them and their ministries. But all this is sinful friends regardless of our commitment to the Lord and the specific causes we are pursuing informed by the Gospel. 

We need to survey our hearts and our motivations that we are being godly and not after selfish interest and our own glory in our ministry pursuit. I would say we need to force ourselves to speak well of others. To say little of, I’m doing this and why are you not joining my corner. Instead to encourage those serving in a different area that we are probably less passionate about. Speak about their work and pray for them genuinely to be provided for even more than us if it pleases the Lord. After all, it’s his work and they are his labourers. 

When we Expect Others to be Like us 

If we are passionate about children’s ministry that is good and commendable but we need to remember the Gospel has many other groups in mind. Men and women, rich and poor, office workers and construction workers, rural and city people, Africans and Asians all need the Gospel. Just because someone is not passionate about our ministry and just because they don’t see how strategic and urgent it is doesn’t mean they are not serving the Lord. 

In the case where someone seems to lack passion in anything we deem important we shouldn’t look down on them. As the word says it’s before their master that they stand judged, see Romans 14:4. Actually, if everyone was passionate about everything very little could be achieved because no one would be convinced to come alongside others. You need people you can challenge. You need others to encourage. Others need their energies redirected while others need to be given a Gospel passion. And perhaps you also need a broader scope of the kingdom of God and be clear on the calling we have all received.

You see being passionate about ministry isn’t the end goal anyway. We need to always ask ourselves where our work and ministry ends. All ministry work however important is actually temporary because worship is the end goal. In heaven, we’ll not be doing walk-up evangelism or even full-time Gospel ministry. Our gifts, our strategic ministries, and all our passions will have ceased when God’s people arrive to be with their Saviour forever. That’s the end goal friends, to walk with the Lord now and enjoy him forever. Fellowship with the Lord is the end goal. Our walk with the Lord and bearing fruit for him in our lives is the first calling. What we do for the Lord however passionately follows after we are walking with him. Remember on that last day your passion and your ministry won’t save you, Jesus will.

When we Mistake how People Change 

People who are too passionate think they can move mountains. It’s a beautiful thing and there’s a lot we can do for the Lord when we give it our very best. We should have big dreams in our ministries, we should make big prayers and go for big steps. But we should remember that only God can change people’s hearts, see Ezekiel 36:26-27. Whatever we are passionate about isn’t our own doing anyway. We were not born passionate in that area. We didn’t even care about it before the Lord opened our eyes to that need. It was the Lord who sowed the seed and watered it before we claimed it our own. 

If you’d love for more people to be passionate about a certain ministry go to their Lord and Saviour and ask for his help. Don’t argue, abuse, call hell down, mourn and complain before you ask the Lord. If you sense a brother would make a great children’s minister save up some convincing energy for asking the Lord for his passion and commitment. If you see a gap that exists in the church don’t kill the pastor with new demands. Start praying about it and call others to pray on it. If you feel a particular ministry isn’t getting enough attention don’t spread hate and call people names. Talk to the Lord about it. You’ll be surprised how he starts to change you and others in that direction. 

Weighing our Passion

All of us however sold out to the Lord and his work need to remember we are on a discipleship journey. None of us have arrived and yet so often we operate like we have already made it to heaven and are back helping others. That’s a lie that blinds us to our blind spots in our walk with the Lord. We also need to remember nothing we have is our own, see 1 Corinthians 4:7. Not even our passion, our gifts, our clarity of the Gospel, and our key ministries. They are all gifts from the Lord and he has many other gifts and many other areas of ministry with many other faithful people. Let’s be careful not to miss the forest of God’s kingdom for our small tree.

If the Lord is calling us to a certain area let’s go for it with all the energy he provides. Let’s come to him with big prayers on the same. Let us get as many others excited on the same. But let us also remember the kingdom of God is bigger than us and our area of ministry. If others thrive in other areas of ministry we should praise the Lord for them. If some don’t seem as excited or convinced to join us we should pray about it and be okay with it. But we should also be careful not to build a kingdom around us. We need to remember it’s the Lord’s work we are doing, the resources come from him, the passion is his to inspire and the opportunities are his to open which means it’s him to have all the glory. If we weigh our Gospel passion and find we are at the heart of it, that we are always fighting on it and hating others because of it we need to repent and ask God to give us a bigger vision of his kingdom.

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I’m sure you’ve heard someone say something about God that logically should make sense but is biblically not true. For instance, someone will say, if it is of God it should be easy. Now when you pause to think about that you can see how it actually makes sense to some extent. You can even get verses to support that. I mean if the Almighty God is behind it who can challenge it and succeed? How can it be difficult if the good and gracious God is behind it? But we only need to turn our Bibles to look at Jesus, look at the prophets, look at Jesus’ first disciples, and realize none of them had an easy time.

Jesus about to execute his most important mission to save humanity faces a great deal of struggle emotionally and spiritually. Matthew 26 tells us:

38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

This was God’s own mission but it wasn’t easy. Actually, the life of Jesus, the son of God, was full of sorrow. It wasn’t easy trying to open his disciple’s eyes. It wasn’t easy being rejected by his people even his own family who thought he had lost it. If this is the one who calls us to follow after him then we shouldn’t expect it to be as easy.

Paul in 2 Corinthians 11 paints a picture of his life that leaves you wondering was that God’s mission or something else? It wasn’t an easy life for him yet his ministry is one that glorifies the Lord to date. I might go as far as saying that if it is of God it’s most likely going to be difficult because we live in a hostile world.

Perhaps you’ve heard this popular one that since God owns everything and we are his children, especially those of us in ministry, then we should have everything. To some extent again logically it makes sense. If you pause it there you’d say that can’t be wrong. I mean why wouldn’t the one who walks on gold not throw some of it down to his beloved people? Why wouldn’t the caring God heal his beloved children? How can he watch us struggle and not act immediately?

But our logical knowledge here is betrayed when we turn to the scriptures and look at Jesus, God’s beloved son, his first disciples, and all those Messengers God sent through Israel’s lifetime. How many of them came with private jets to deliver his message? How many of them lived in mansions? And if the son of man was the one who unlike the fox didn’t have a place to lie down why would we expect ours will be the easy life?

The problem here is we might actually have read our Bibles but closed them too quickly to make our conclusion. We needed to realize there’s life now and a life to come. We’ve not arrived yet and if we have comfort and something to spare here and now that’s by the grace of God, not the norm. Here and now we live in a hostile world like Jesus did. A poor world like Jesus did. A persecuting world like Jesus did. But his sure promise is to guide us to him by his Spirit and walk with us through it all.

Our riches are what we find in Ephesians 1:1-14. That we now have all the spiritual blessings in Christ, we are the most privileged people spiritually speaking. Our confidence is the promise Jesus made in the Great Commission to be with us to the end of the age, Matthew 28:20. And we have the assurance that he has gone to prepare a home for us so that where he is we might be there also, John 14:1-3.

Now the aim of this article isn’t necessarily to split hairs or make the Bible sound illogical. Instead, it’s to encourage us to always ask this question, what does the Bible and the whole Bible say about this issue. Logic alone won’t do here as often our logic stops where our comfort ends. We are also not to pick one passage and run with it. We need to ask what’s the context and what do other portions of scripture say about this issue.

We’ll be good disciples if we read more than our favorite verses. We’ll be better disciples if we humble ourselves before God’s Word to say, teach us Lord we who are simple. And a far greater honor goes to the disciples who don’t just do this exercise to win arguments but to live it out and help others gently and lovingly. How I pray that the Lord makes me that disciple. A disciple who listens and abides in what his word says even when it’s contrary to what I want for myself. A disciple who opens his Word in humility and his heart in obedience.

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When you think about Gospel ministry I wonder what comes to your mind? What do you think a call to ministry actually means? Do you think there’s a chance God is calling you to ministry? I suppose most of us who are genuine and aware of our inner self think about what a noble and difficult task this is. We think about God’s word, about preaching to others and shepherding. We wonder how can I, a mere sinner help others in their relationship with God? How can a broken man lead others to the holy God? In this case, we think the call to ministry is something others can do but not us. No, we don’t qualify to lead others.

But perhaps your answer is different. If you’ve been serving elsewhere perhaps you do feel this is where the Lord is leading you. Your pastor thinks you can do it. You’ve led a Bible study before and enjoyed it. You’ve been involved in organizing for missions that went well and many souls were saved. And when you’ve had the opportunity on a Sunday to hammer the word people do seem to like your preaching. So it feels like yes God is calling you to ministry. You do realize it’s a noble task and you need help but you are largely convinced God is calling you to ministry.

Both of these are responses we hear every time we try to encourage people to do ministry. And there’s one thing that seems to drive these responses; if our heart is in the right place we think about the flock which is admirable. We ask ourselves can I serve God’s people? I’m I the right guy for the mission of God in reconciling the world to himself? Do I have the gifts and skills to pastor them? I’m I equal to the task of bringing others to the kingdom of God? Which I think is a very important question for anyone considering Gospel ministry.

The thing many of us forget or seem to miss is that a call to ministry though is actually a call first to personal discipleship before it is a call to disciple others. God’s call on his minister begins with the minister himself. He doesn’t call the qualified he qualifies those he calls. And to a great extent they never really qualify. No one is fit for that job. No one graduates to be a minister, instead, it is the student of the Word that leads other students in Gospel ministry.

But I know when I talk about ministry and mission the place that easily comes to mind is Matthew 28:16-20 which is the classic place we got to encourage people for missions and Gospel ministry. That’s where we get our job description. Now, I hope you don’t get this wrong but I think that’s the wrong place, to begin with, get me right I said to begin with. First, because if you read the Gospel accounts carefully as they should be read that’s where you end not where you start. Second, because when we start there we assume a lot about the people going for ministry and think very highly of them.

If you read the Gospels carefully you’d see how insufficient the men God sends are. This is especially clear when working through Mark’s Gospel. It should shock you that Jesus decides to send these guys. None of them qualifies. They want to be lords, not servants. They struggle to grasp what Jesus is doing, they are not A students. In the end, one betrays him, the other publicly denies him and they all desert the Saviour when he needed them the most. How can they qualify?

Now I’m not trying to split hairs and argue for the sake of it. Actually, I would still use Matthew 28 to encourage people to go to the ministry field and I think we don’t do this enough in our churches. But I do want to convince you why discipleship needs to come first before mission because even in the Gospel accounts it comes first. When Jesus called his disciples heres what we are told was to be their Job description:

14 And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach

Mark 3:14 ESV.

We easily get the second part of that verse but we miss the first. The first mission for the first disciples was Discipleship, to sit and learn from Jesus. He called them to be with him and he stayed with them 3 years before he could issue the Great Commission. And even at that point, I would say still these guys were not ready and they were not going to be ready.

Brothers and sisters what I’m trying to convince you and I is; that it’s only after we have been with Jesus when we are walking with Jesus when we are killing sin and striving for holiness every day that we can even think about Gospel ministry. In others words, the call to faithful ministry is a call first to be a faithful Christian. And it’s a daily call, not something that happens once in a dream. Not something that happened when they commissioned or ordained you. The Higher calling is not calling others but answering the call yourself first.

This is the case even when we think about the people of Israel. God’s call on Israel was a call to himself even before they could be a light to the nations. What does God say in Exodus 19?

5Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

Exodus 19:5 ESV

The call on Israel like the Christian call and to the Gospel preacher is a call to God first. The things we’ll do for God are great. The sacrifices we make for God are worthwhile and part of the package. The souls we’ll preach to and be added to the kingdom will glorify God. But if we miss the calling on our lives for the calling of others then the heaven we talk of is a place we’ll never set our feet on. Others will make it partly because of our ministry but Jesus will say on that day depart from me for I never knew you. If you think Gospel ministry is for you think about your devotion life. If you sense you’ve got the gifts for the job ask yourself if you have the heart for it. And if you feel weak and unqualified and yet see the need for Gospel ministers then ask God to qualify you and to do so every day.

Every year at iServe Africa we send out invitations to college graduates who are sensing a calling of God for ministry to do our one-year Apprenticeship program. This offers them an opportunity for training and testing the waters for ministry. The problem is often times when we talk about ministry they like us tend to think about preaching, going for missions, and discipling others. We think about ourselves as agents that God is sending to others so they can hear the Gospel which is partly right. But the thing we spend most of our time trying to convince our apprentices is that ministry is more about becoming than it is doing. For them, the year is more learning and unlearning than it is hammering the Gospel. It’s about discipleship before it’s about the mission. For only the faithful disciple makes a faithful Bible teacher.

The rebuke we need to hear friends for those of us in ministry is whether we are leading others where we are not following. There are extremes of those who are clearly leading others astray leading them to themselves and to the idols of their hearts. But if we claim to be faithful ministers we need to ask if we are faithful disciples. This is not aimed at guilt-tripping us or making us feel insufficient although that’s how we should feel. But to encourage us to go the Father so he can qualify us with his word. We ought to think the word we are preaching applies to us, not just the naughty teenager in front of us. We need to feed so that we can point others to where they can find pasture. For we are all sheep and we have one Shepherd, the Overseer of our hearts, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

If you are starting on in Gospel ministry or trying to make that decision I hope you can see where it all begins and stays. It’s a higher calling because God wants your heart before he can use your mouth, hands, and feet. Actually, I hope all of us can see that in one way or the other God is calling all of us for ministry. We may not have the gift set of a pastor but God is calling us to himself so he can send us to our neighbors. God is calling us to fellowship with him before we can go out for his mission. He’s asking for our hearts before we can give him our hands. Our heads before our mouths. Our life before we give him our gifts and skills. This is the higher calling.

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We all have those moments when we want something so badly that we pray, hope and wish someone would step in and save the day. It could be for a good reason or just some human ambition that means the world to us. You have this exam that is about to dictate the rest of your life as you see it. This job interview which as far it goes you feel you must get it. A loved one is ill and at a point when we really need someone to step in. Maybe it’s something the world may not think is life changing but it means the world to you. Sometimes it’s just a sinful human craving. You’d be surprised the kind of situations people want God to step in and act on their behalf.

But let’s go with it’s a prayer for a good course however we define that. For those who believe in God he’s our go-to person in these situations and a last resort for everyone. It’s especially the case when there’s no one else who’d care enough and is as able enough to save the situation. And since we believe in God and for the most part we have tried to live up to his will it’s only fair he would step in for us. I mean which good father wouldn’t step in to save the day in such critical times? But then it happens that God doesn’t fly in to save the day. Sometimes he takes too long and other times we don’t see him come through at all. It’s the most lonely you can ever feel when the one person you counted most upon doesn’t come to your aid. Nothing is more disappointing.

I wanted to start by acknowledging this because that’s an undeniable feeling and a lot of us have been here before. Whatever answer theology has it’s a feeling that many have faced and we can’t deny it and shouldn’t undermine it. But this is only one side of the story and I hope you’ll stay put as I try to give you a Biblical perspective. You see it’s when we see God working in the bigger story that we appreciate his involvement in our story. I must tread carefully here though as this is bound to bring painful memories but I think there’s a light at the end of this tunnel. In the end we’ll see God is ever close in our suffering and he actually intervenes even when he is not sought after. If we open our eyes then I don’t think there’s a time we find God closer to us than in our weaknesses. Remember he has gone through suffering and faced our weaknesses in Jesus. He knows our pain, he sees the suffering of the whole world and is never indifferent to it. C.S Lewis said:

“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

C.S Lewis

A good place to start is with the story of Israel. It starts with oppression, pain and anguish. These guys weren’t in trouble just for a weekend, not just an exam gone wrong, theirs was a terminal case. But when God intervened it seemed to get worse before it could get better as it feels for us sometimes. You see, it’s one thing to suffer and another to continue suffering despite calling on God who claims he’s available to help us in our time of need. It’s when you’ve been praying for a loved one and their condition seems to get worse that you feel most let down by God. And that’s how Israel feels after God sends Moses to their rescue only for Pharaoh to make their life even worse. Hope is a beautiful sound to a suffering ear but it can hurt even more when it doesn’t pay off. Moses the bearer of good news, the man who had told Israel that God had seen their trouble and sent him to their rescue is angry, sad and disappointed in God.

22 Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? 23 Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.”

Exodus 5 NIV

In truth though the pain and hopelessness of Israel is undeniable even to Moses, God was acting even in this situation as we see in the next chapter. It’s always a difficult thing to see God’s hand when things seem to get from bad to worse. I mean who in a million years would have contemplated that our redemption would be born by the suffering and death of Jesus? How can good come out of what seems so evil? How can a good God do anything other than quickly step in and save the situation for his beloved? But from this story we learn that where God seems so absent or powerless and indifferent actually he’s very much involved.

C.S Lewis is right, God is shouting in our pain and we just need to tune our hearts to the frequency of his word to hear how loud he is. We may not always get God’s direct explanation and reassurance as he gives to Moses in Exodus 6. But Bible history from Israel to Jesus tells us we can fully trust in him even in this. It tells us he’s very much in the details and working tirelessly for our good, see Romans 8:28.

When we feel most failed by God what we need is a biblical perspective because the Gospel is his megaphone. Now, I know sometimes that’s the last thing we want, more Bible. I mean sometimes we are not asking for much just a small intervention we say. But I must also say if God was only good because he stepped in when and in the way we always want then he’d really not be above us. He’d simply be a genie with some good wishes. But the story of the Bible, the story of the Gospel helps us see that our story is knit in a bigger cosmic story.

Our problem is that we are inevitably all about our story and yet it’s in both stories that we see God truly act for us. The Bible tells us we need more than a quick fix in our situation. We need our environment changed but more importantly it enlightens us to see we are not as innocent in the grand story as we think. We ourselves needed to be changed if ever our problems are to go away forever. And that’s exactly why God stepped in through Jesus to rescue us from our sin problem and grant us eternal life in a whole new world without pain, suffering and death.

But still our problem is a personal one. We agree with the world needing change and sin being a serious thing. But all we are asking is God to step in now and help his children on the journey before he brings us to our eternal home. Is that toomuch to ask? I think this is where I love our God even more. Because he not only deals with the most fundamental problems we face but he’s actually very close to us and involved in our personal story through it all. In Jesus and by his Holy Spirit he says he’s walking our Exodus with us until the end of times, see Matthew 28: 20. God is very close, he’s with us and even closer in our suffering having lived in this world, suffered and died for us in Jesus.

When we pray to him we are calling on someone who not only is able but cares, sympathises and understands what we are going through, see Hebrews 4:14-16:

14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Hebrews 4 ESV

It may not be the answer you are looking for in your time of need but it’s actually what we truly need. And you know what’s mind-blowing is that God makes good even of our suffering. He doesn’t waste our weaknesses, but through them he shapes us into the image of Christ. He helps us see life in a whole different way, he teaches us what it means to trust him in the good and bad times. And he helps us see that this world can never be home for us.

When we survey the grand story of our redemption as told by the Bible our personal story makes sense. When we feel let down and failed by God, in the Bible we see God is close and even closer in our struggles. And it’s never a waste of time praying to him because one way or the other he always answers our prayers. Actually he works even when we don’t see it and truly answers our prayers in ways that are best for us. We need the whole Bible story to truly appreciate God working in our personal story.

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sign-road-sign-men-at-work-027053

We’ve been reading through the letter of James in staff devotions at iServe Africa and a particular cluster of questions has arisen in our minds a number of times – How does this relate to the Reformation? Didn’t Luther hate James? Isn’t the great rallying call of the Reformation – ‘Justification by Faith Alone’ – against what James is talking about? Did the Reformation neglect the big New Testament emphasis on good works?

Three fairly brief thoughts on this and then a more extended quote:

  1. This was precisely the accusation at the time – by those from within the Roman church – that the Reformers were against good works. And it was answered numerous times by the Reformers, just as Paul had needed to answer the accusations against him that claimed that he was against the Law and good works (Romans 6-7). To give one example, in the Augsburg Confession (1530), the Lutheran theologians begin Article 20 (On Good Works), “Our teachers are falsely accused of forbidding good works” and close the article, “Hence it may be readily seen that this doctrine [faith] is not to be charged with prohibiting good works, but rather the more to be commended because it shows how we are enabled to do good works. For without faith human nature can in no wise… call upon God, nor expect anything from God, nor bear the cross, but seeks, and trusts in, man’s help. And thus, when there is no faith and trust in God all manner of lusts and human devices rule in the heart. Wherefore Christ said, John 15:5: Without Me ye can do nothing.”
  2. Luther did indeed dislike the letter of James. But a large part of the reason for that was that he thought it flatly contradicted Paul on justification. He could see no way that ‘faith justifies’ and ‘faith does not justify’ could be harmonised (Table Talk, 1532). Behind this seems to be an overly simplistic logical-grammatical-literal view of language. While Luther’s straightforward approach to the words of the Bible was brilliant for dismantling the linguistic gymnastics, subversions and allegories with which the scholastic Roman church had been torturing Scripture (see particularly Luther’s devastating On The Bondage of the Will), the same approach sometimes made him somewhat insensitive to the subtlety and variety of human language took him to some strange positions (e.g. his refusal to accept that ‘This is my body” could mean anything other than that the bread was Jesus’ body). In the case of James and Paul, Luther seems to assume that ‘faith’ and ‘justify’ have identical meanings across all Scripture rather than exploring whether James and Paul might mean rather different things by both ‘faith’ and ‘justify’ (cf. the use of ‘flesh’ by John and Paul).
  3. In fact Luther had a strong place for good works in his understanding of the life of faith. In one place, which I can’t locate, he speaks of the gospel taking the Law from being a stick to beat us to being a staff in our hand to help us walk along the way. In his commentaries and lectures Luther tracks the New Testament pattern of looking first to Christ as our substitute and then as our example; first gospel doctrine as the foundation, then good works built on top as the beautiful superstructure. Read for example his commentary on Galatians 5 or his Preface to Romans. In the latter, speaking of Romans 6, he says: “it is a freedom only to do good with eagerness and to live a good life without the coercion of the law. This freedom is, therefore, a spiritual freedom which does not suspend the law but which supplies what the law demands, namely eagerness and love.” And on Romans 12: “These are the works that a Christian does, for, as I have said, faith is not idle.” Sounds quite a lot like James.

Some Luther historians have noted a shift in Luther’s emphasis from an early tight focus on faith alone and sovereign grace to a later concern to address the antinomianism tangent of some of his followers and to assert more strongly the need for holiness. Perhaps that is true, but it should be noted that even his early works often had a strong (and beautiful) doctrine of good works. Here is a passage from a very helpful article in the Grace Theological Journal by church historian James McGoldrick:

“In his treatise The Freedom of a Christian (1520) Luther stated, “a Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” At first glance the above propositions may appear to be irreconcilable, but Luther found them fully harmonious-correlative truths. He explained by citing the dictum of St. Paul, “though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone” (1 Cor 9: 19 NIV). Luther held that genuine Christian faith always produces love, for faith must be active in love. Faith ascends to God, and Christian love descends to one’s neighbor and renders service to him as a fulfillment of the believer’s calling. The Christian does not need to work for his salvation, as the Romanists contended, so he is free to invest his life in the service of his fellow men. In the ultimate sense, one can do nothing for God, for he is utterly self-sufficient. Man, however, who has been created in the image of God, is constantly in need of spiritual and material assistance.

Luther stated it beautifully, “Faith is truly active through love. That is, it finds expression in works of the freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with’ which a man willingly serves another without hope of reward; and for himself he is satisfied with the fulness and wealth of his faith.” Good works performed in faith do not bring benefit to God or to one’s self. They bring benefits to one’s neighbor. Although believers and unbelievers may perform exactly the same outward deeds, the works of the latter are not truly good.

In Luther’s understanding of the Christian life the believer’s self image as a servant is a fundamental motif. In the reformer’s words, “a Christian lives not in himself but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love” (Freedom of a Christian). To those who claimed to possess saving faith but failed to demonstrate an active concern for their neighbors’ needs Luther issued a warning about the “illusion of faith.” He insisted that emotional responses to the gospel are not necessarily evidences of genuine faith. Active love, expressing itself in good works, is the only reliable external index of faith. Such love, Luther held, would extend to sharing one’s earthly goods with a neighbor in need. Just as Christ emptied himself when he left heaven to become man (Phil 2:5), believers should sacrifice their possessions for the benefit of those in need. When illness strikes Christians should aid the sick, even at the risk of contagion to themselves. Luther did so himself by remaining in Wittenberg to minister to the sick and dying during an epidemic of bubonic plague.” (McGoldrick, Luther on Life Without Dichotomy)

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A danger was pointed out to me recently that simply being gospel-centred is not enough – for an individual, church or ministry.

Let me try to illustrate with a few diagrams.

  1. Gospel-centred but gospel-assumed rather than gospel-explicit

Gospel assumed

With gospel-assumed there is a lot of talk about gospel but we never quite get around to defining and spelling out exactly what we mean by the gospel. So very quickly not only are we not actually preaching the gospel to others (so no-one is being converted or built up), we start to forget it ourselves.

The solution: We go back to the Bible every day to remind ourselves of the good news from all over Scripture. We need to fill in the word with Bible detail.

For example in my Bible reading this morning I saw in 1 Chronicles 11 a little vignette of the gospel – one man standing against a whole army of Philistines ‘and the LORD saved’ (v14). And I see a tiny picture of the One Man who stood instead of us and triumphed over all our enemies – Satan, death, hell. And I’m reminded that the LORD saves – the most succinct summary of the gospel – salvation belongs to the LORD. His is the victory we will praise for all eternity (Rev. 7:10). I did not save myself. I was not one of David’s mighty men, I was more like a faithless Israelite or a hostile Philistine. I didn’t do a thing to move towards God. But he saved me. The Father chose me, the Son took my place on the cross, the Spirit grabbed me and united me to Christ. Sovereign grace grabbed me.

  1. Gospel-centred but gospel-small rather than gospel-big

Gospel small

With gospel-small there may be explicit regular mention of the gospel but it is a bit formulaic and anemic. I make sure I get into every sermon ‘Jesus died on the cross for us’ but that’s about it. So before long it loses its impact on our hearers or even on our own hearts. It starts to seem like a small thing and (if we’re honest) a rather boring message. So it doesn’t change lives.

The solution: we go back again and again to the Bible – all different parts of the Bible – Psalms, prophecy, letters, stories – to see the richness and depth and vastness and complexity and multi-faceted, multi-coloured beauty of the gospel from the detail of specific Bible texts.

For example in my morning devotion in 1 Chronicles 11 I see David finally acknowledged as king by his people. I see that he is of the same bone and flesh as his people (v1), that he is the shepherd of his people (v2), that he binds himself in covenant to his people (v3). I am reminded by the mention of Uriah the Hittite (v41) that this was not the perfect King. And my eyes are drawn to the Son of God who took bone and flesh that he could be the Second Adam united to his bride and the Second David, Goliath-slaying king over his people, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11, 15) and makes incredible promises binding himself to his people (John 10:27-28; 11:25-26; 12:26; 14:3, 23; 15:7-8).

If I had longer I could try to explore the significance of the King winning Jerusalem for his people (1 Chron. 11:4-9), the pattern of taking advantage of something won for you at great cost (1 Chron. 11:15-10 cf. John 6:53), the need for a hero (1 Chron. 11:20-25. And this is all from one chapter. If we keep doing this from text after text we start to build up a rich, beautiful, big heart-capturing gospel picture.

It’s the difference between a little stick man picture and a 6” by 6” Klimt portrait.

Gospel small - pictures

  1. Gospel-centred but floating rather than rooted

Gospel floating

Gospel-floating is where we do a decent job of explaining the heart of the gospel but it is not rooted into the rest of the Bible text and systematic theology. The gospel is floating unmoored, unanchored, untethered. This is a subtle danger. We can appear to be ‘just wanting to preach the gospel’ and ‘just wanting to preach Bible’ but by failing to tie the gospel into broader biblical themes and doctrinal structures we can drift off into something less than orthodox and biblical. In times of increasing biblical illiteracy this is going to be a serious issue – we can’t take for granted the doctrine of God, doctrine of creation, doctrine of man.

Solution: We go back to the Bible and seek to do exposition which avoids both the danger of eisegesis (where we pour our systematic framework into every verse – a rather boring and dangerous form of exposition) but also the danger of preaching things from one Scripture that assume or are even deny the truths of other Scriptures. We need to go to the Scriptures with a view that it is one story with a consistent theology that we need to seek to learn as well as we’re able (though humbly accepting that no one of us will never see it perfectly).

For example, 1 Corinthians 15:1-10 – that great gospel summary – is actually leaning on a whole lot of stuff. That’s why it says ‘according to the Scriptures’ twice. The idea of ‘dying for our sins’ only makes sense if you know a) what sin is and b) how it is possible for one to die for sins. To really understand this gospel summary I’m going to need to dig into the Old Testament for a complex biblical understanding of sin, including particularly the fact that it is first and foremost against God and calls down the wrath of God. Then I’m going to need to unpack the sacrificial system and the whole idea of a substitute being burnt up in the wrath of God instead of me. And the same is true of ‘rising on the third day according to the Scriptures.’ I’m going to need to look at what resurrection really means – the end time, the judgment day, the need for this creation to be swallowed up in an imperishable holy new creation. Without a lot of biblical undergirding the language of ‘Christ died for you and rose again’ is almost completely meaningless.

Another example: When I look at 1 Chronicles 11:1 and think through the way in which Christ shared our human nature (bone and flesh) I need to connect it all the way back to Genesis 3:16 and the promise of one born of woman who would crush the serpent. I would also need to look forward to what the New Testament says about the human nature of Christ. I would want to be guided in that by the ancient creeds and historic confessions where the church has thought long and hard and come up with very carefully considered words to express the completeness of Christ’s humanity and the wonder of two natures in one person without confusion or separation. I might also want to think of Athanasius and Irenaeus and the huge importance of the incarnation, God becoming man that we might share in his divine nature. Then I might want to think about the ascension and the importance of Christ retaining his human nature there, right now calling me his brother.

One more example: When we read in the prophets of the LORD’s yearning for his beloved people, his heart being moved, his inmost parts (KJV: bowels) being disturbed (e.g. Jeremiah 31:20) then surely we are seeing the very spring of the gospel – the passionate love of God. I’m definitely going to want to preach that to myself and others. But at the same time I’m going to have to be careful I don’t deny the orthodox definition of God. I’ll want to give full force to the biblical language of affections but also keep respectfully in mind the ancient understanding that God is immutable, ‘without parts or passions’ and the biblical material that says that God is wholly other and ‘not like a man.’ Not to say that all this has to come into a pulpit. Most of it will stay in the study, but if I ignore this theology I run the risk of teaching fluff or heresy.

  1. Gospel-centred but DIY implications rather than Bible implications

DIY implications

Here we have a good, rich, well-rooted biblical understanding of the gospel, but when it comes to working out the implications of the gospel (for my own life or for church life) then I sort of ‘wing it’ – DIY – Do It Yourself. I assume a) that God is not particularly prescriptive about exactly how I should lead my life or how the church should be ordered and b) I assume that I am able work out for myself, from the internal logic of the gospel, how if should be applied in different areas of life.

For example I see that the gospel springs from the consistent other-person-centred love of God and so I think the implication of the gospel is ‘any stable, loving, other-person-centred relationship’. Or I see that the gospel is the salvation not only of our souls but also of our bodies and indeed the renewing of the whole creation and so I think an implication is that the church’s mission is, with equal emphasis, to a) care for souls and b) to care for people’s bodies, transform society and fight for the natural environment.

I was reading a good Christian book the other day by a fine author who knows and explains the gospel extremely well. Much of the book was excellent. But, as I read one chapter where he described the implications of the gospel for church life, I started to feel something was a little bit off. And then I realised that he hadn’t quoted Scripture for several pages. We were moving into deductions from deductions from deductions – DIY implications.

The solution: We go back to the Bible and find the implications of the gospel from the Bible itself. This is particularly clear in the Apostle Paul’s letters. Most of them (roughly speaking) start with a couple of chapters of gospel doctrine then move to a concluding couple of chapters spelling out the implications of the gospel in some detail.

Ephesians, for example, lays out the great gospel of sovereign grace – the Trinitarian God grabbing a people for himself – by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed in the Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone (Eph. 1-3) – then Paul starts talking about the implications of that for how we live as this new community of God’s people (Eph. 4:1-5:21). Loads of detailed instructions about the role of church leaders, every member ministry, speech, sex, work, reconciliation. But even this is not specific enough. People could take ‘submit to one another’ (5:21) to mean that there is no longer such a thing as differentiation of roles or authority or respect. So then there is a section laying out how exactly different relationships should work – wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters (Eph. 5:22-6:9). In each of these relationships we can see that it is the gospel which is shaping the structure and manner of that relationship (in a beautiful way) but the point here is that God doesn’t leave us to guess how the gospel shapes these relationships he tells us.

The same could be said for the ordering of the local church (1 Timothy). Not that everything is spelled out – of course not. In loads of things we are free – it doesn’t matter what colour the curtains are. And yes there will still be lots of things where we will have to make gospel-hearted decisions about what is wisest for the advance of the gospel – how long will the sermon be? But in a lot of things – in fact all the important things – we’re actually given a lot of guidance by the Holy Spirit.

Why the detail? Because I cannot be trusted to work out all the implications of the gospel for myself. I will naturally use the right doctrine in the wrong way. Like people in Paul’s day I will take the grace of God and make it a license for sin (Rom. 6:1) rather than a spring of good works (Rom. 6:2-23). I need to be taught the right out-working of the gospel and the specific good deeds I need to do. I need both the gospel at the centre of everything that teaches me to say know to ungodliness (Titus 2:11-14) and I need someone (God) to draw the lines out from that centre to show me what true godliness looks like in detail (Titus 2:2-10).

 

Maybe this is all just another way of saying, let’s be expository. Let’s be gospel-centred and Bible-rich – getting our gospel from the Bible – a beautiful, big, detailed, rooted, worked-out gospel of Christ Jesus who came into the world to save sinners of who I am the worst.

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Grounding

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  • Your head is spinning with a thousand thoughts and fears.
  • You are in transition, experiencing cultural jet lag, unsure what is right and wrong or up and down.
  • You are at a crossroads of decision without a signpost.
  • You are overwhelmed with emotions and hormones.
  • You are tired and weary but restless and tense.
  • Do you know that feeling? That slightly dizzy feeling? You can’t think clearly. The world is spinning (or maybe it is your head that is spinning) and you just want to get off.

Grounding

When you are travel sick (in a bus or a boat), they tell you to look at the horizon. Look at something fixed and stable. When you are having a panic attack or you are feeling faint they tell you to get down on the ground or hold onto something solid. Look into the eyes of someone you trust and keep eye contact with them.

I think there is a Christian version of grounding. Sometimes it is a simple as one precious verse repeated until it gets from our mouth into our heart:

I have set the LORD always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. (Psalm 16:8)

A more elaborate grounding exercise is to rehearse to ourselves the Apostles’ Creed, the 10 Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. This is the ancient pattern of Christian catechisms. Evidence from the early church (50-250 AD) suggests that catechesis involved teaching the 10 commandments and the Lord’s Prayer (Weinrich). The bulk of Cyril’s Catechetical Sermons delivered in Jerusalem in 348 AD are expositions of successive lines of the Apostles’ Creed. Luther’s Small Catechism (1529) unpacks the 10 commandments then the Apostles’ Creed then the Lord’s Prayer. The much longer Heidelberg (1563) goes through the creed (Q23-58), the commandments (Q92-113) and the prayer (Q118-129) while the later Westminster basically follows the same pattern. [For more on the development and value of catechesis see ‘Considering catechism for suspicious Protestants’ by Daniel Williams.]

Catechesis was obviously developed for children and enquirers to get them ready for baptism or a public profession of faith. But in the Christian life the way in is the way on. There is a tremendous stabilising effect in going over the foundations and essentials of our faith again. [This is presumably why Cranmer designed the regular order of Morning Prayer (1552) to include the public declaration of the Apostles’ Creed and the corporate praying of the Lord’s Prayer while the Communion Order includes the 10 Commandments, the Nicaean Creed and the corporate Lord’s Prayer.]

So try this is as a grounding exercise:

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

Notice first this is about faith not works. There is nothing of me here. Nothing about my emotional or mental or spiritual or moral state, only that I believe; I look outside myself and openhanded grasp what is True. I take my eyes off myself and look to God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I shift my weight from the unstable confused little mess that is me and onto the great Rock and the rock solid unchangeable truths about Him.

Though my head (and life) might seem to be spinning out of control there is an almighty Creator God. He has everything in his hand.

Then there are the historical facts of the gospel – Christ came, suffered, died, was buried, rose, ascended. That happened. Long before I was born. Historical fact. It doesn’t depend on me. And yet he went through hell instead of me.

There is the presence of God with me right now in this moment. I believe in the Holy Spirit. There is the communion of the saints. Even if all other family desert me there is the rich fellowship of the new family. There is the forgiveness of sins. Oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin – not in part but the whole, Is nailed to His cross and I bear it no more; Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, oh my soul.

And wonderfully I can know the future. Perhaps the short term future is very uncertain but the ultimate future is very clear: Christ will come to judge the living and the dead, we will all be raised bodily, we will truly live eternally with him who is Life.

Whatever is happening right now, these things are true.
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The 10 Commandments

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

  1. You shall have no other gods before me.

  2. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

  3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

  4. Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

  5. Honour your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

  6. You shall not murder.

  7. You shall not commit adultery.

  8. You shall not steal.

  9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.

  10. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbour’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

First and foremost these are commands to convict us, to cut us down, to show us that we are helpless foul sinners in desperate need of saving by and from a holy God. And that will probably be a key part of our grounding. We need to be like Job on the ground in the dust and ashes to truly see things rightly. This is where the gospel hits me afresh as the greatest news in the world.

And then, as Luther said, the gospel takes the Law from being a stick to beat us and gives it to us as a staff to lean on. We get up from the ground and the Law becomes the royal law of Christ, our guide to grateful living along the way.

I think it was the late Elizabeth Elliot who used to say, “Trust in God, obey him, and do the next thing.” Her point was that when you are in the midst of confusion and/or busyness and/or romantic turmoil and/or competing demands, the thing you need to do is simply to obey what God has set before you: to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God; to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and love your neighbour as yourself.

Matt Perman says a similar thing in What’s Best Next: if you lose all your complex productivity tools and calendars and lists and planners then all is not lost; you can move forward just asking What is the best thing to do next? And the key to answering that question is God’s commands.

So amid the confusion of an endless email inbox or multiple to-do lists there are actually only 10 things to do today (Trust, Listen, Hallow, Rest, Honour, Love, Cherish, Give, Witness, Rejoice) that all hang on 2 (love the Lord and your neighbour) which are really one. We can get up and put one foot in front of the other.

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who is in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For yours is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
now and forever. Amen.

Just remember – you have a Father who is in heaven. A Father who has sent his Son to die for you and the Spirit of sonship that you can call him Abba. A Father who is high and holy and yet dwells with the contrite and lowly (Isa. 57:15). A Father who controls the universe and yet is intimately concerned with every detail of your life. A Father far more keen to give than we are to ask. A Father so keen to bless us and commune with us that he has given us this prayer template so we would know what he would love us to ask him for and that we might have confidence to approach him.

As we pray the Lord’s Prayer we’re re-centred on the things that are most important – your kingdom come, your will be done – and we ask for what we will need as pilgrims on our way to the celestial city – manna, armour, leading.

We come as sinners to a holy Father and find forgiveness while simultaneously acknowledging there is a horizontal outworking of grace – as we forgive those who sin against us – a turn of the heart to peace and reconciliation (that may be a key part of our grounding).

And finally we acknowledge that the power, the kingdom and the glory belong to Him (cf. Rev. 4:11; 12:10). The power is not ultimately with us, with politicians or persecutors. There is only One who says, ‘I make known the end from the beginning… my purpose will stand and I will do all that I please’ (Isa. 46:10). He can and will work out all things for the glory of the Father and Son.

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I was going to finish the sentence with the word ‘rubbish’ but more recently I’ve been learning (rather too late) that in Kenya, particularly among older generations and those with more sensitive ears, the word ‘rubbish’ (Kiswahili takataka) comes across very strongly to the point of being offensive.

What I’m thinking of is the experience of finding everything just slightly frustrated.

  • When I attempt to put up a shelf in my house and it ends up just slightly off horizontal. Perhaps only I will notice that it is not level, or someone who looks very carefully, but I’m annoyed that it is not right.
  • You’ve proof read the manuscript twenty times but when it’s finally printed there’s a typo on page one.
  • The biscuits/cake/meal you’ve spent an hour preparing stays in the oven or on the stove just five minutes too long. It’s still edible but has that acrid taste round the edges.
  • You drop the new phone that you’ve been saving for and looking forward to for ages and it gets a scratch on the screen on day one.
  • The car has just come back from the mechanics, you’ve spent a lot of money, he’s assured you that everything is sorted but then the next day you hear another funny rattle and grumble under the bonnet.

This is not real suffering – bereavement, pain, trauma – it is just daily frustrations and annoyances. It’s good stuff gone a bit wrong. It’s the sort of thing that Alanis Morissette sung about in her 1995 song ‘Ironic’ (as many people have pointed out, what was genuinely ironic was that the song was not really about ironic things at all but simply about annoying things):

It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay
It’s like rain on your wedding day
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid
A traffic jam when you’re already late
It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife

Why is it that things are never quite perfect? Even the best things? The most superb athlete has a blister which ruins his performance. The most beautiful house has a crack on the wall and a tap which doesn’t work. The shine is taken off the best works of gospel ministry by imperfections, mistakes and sin.

The book of Ecclesiastes has the answer. It calls it vanity, frustration. It is the curse of Genesis 3. Fallenness, decay, thorns and weeds. A heavy blanket over everything (Eccl. 6:1) frustrating every sphere of life and every human endeavour.

Four ways to respond:

Thanking God for spoiling the world to us

One of the most famous lines in Augustine’s Confessions is the thought that our hearts are restless until they find their true rest in the Lord. But Augustine is well aware that our wayward hearts can find a sort of rest in the pleasures of this world. So a recurring cry in his Confessions is thanks to God for spoiling the things of the world to him (relationships, entertainment, health) so he could not find rest in them:

You [Lord] being the more gracious, the less you allowed anything which was not You to grow sweet to me. (Confessions, Book 6).

Adelaide Procter, the Victorian poet, probably alluding to Augustine, expressed the same thought:

I thank thee more that all our joy is touched with pain,
That shadows fall on brightest hours, that thorns remain;
So that earth’s bliss may be our guide, and not our chain.

I thank thee, Lord, that here our souls, though amply blesses,
Can never find, although they seek, a perfect rest;
Nor ever shall, until they lean on Jesus’ breast.

(From “My God, I thank thee”)

Longing for the better land

As Procter says, the shadows and thorns and frustrations are supposed to be our guide. They should make us long for a better country where there will be no more curse (Rev. 22:3). Romans 8 talks about the creation subjected to frustration (v20) and then gives the great mark of those who have the Spirit as a groaning eager waiting for the resurrection life (v23).

The New Creation is our great Christian Hope (Rom. 8:24). So let every sprained ankle and faulty laptop and dropped cake and torn dress be a little goad turning us to long for the place where there will be no more frustration, no more tarnish, no more thorns only perfection. And then may our thoughts continue on to the very greatest perfection and joy of that Land – the radiant King Jesus.

Courageously conquering the thorns

In the meantime, until we reach the New Creation, we need to be realistic that there will always be frustrations. But the great news is that these cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom. 8:35). Rather, all these things are being used for us – to inflame our longing for the resurrection and for our growth in Christ-likeness (Rom. 8:28, 31-32). And so in this way, as Piper has pointed out, we are more than conquerors (Rom. 8:37) – the thorns and weeds harnessed for our good and growth.

Perhaps this is mostly about a change of perspective. As G K Chesterton observed:

An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.

I need to see the traffic jam or the papers dropped in a puddle as a faith adventure rather than a useless waste of time. There will be frustrations till we reach the heavenly kingdom but each of these mini-mountains can be scaled and overcome. The wise gardener doesn’t bluster at or get depressed by the ever growing weeds, he simply attacks them with gusto as part of the job.

Moving forward in mission

One problem with everything being a bit… imperfect is that it can paralyze us when it comes to moving forward in gospel ministry. I was talking to a brother a few years ago (now a senior minister of a Nairobi church) about mission trips he had done to S Sudan. He was explaining the frustration in not being able to speak the local language there and particularly the frustration that he suspected one of the translators had not been faithfully translating everything he was saying. This led onto a wider discussion about frustrations in gospel ministry. What do you do when things are not quite right? The church leadership structure is not quite right; the small group leaders are not very well trained; the quality of theological education is not brilliant; the resources are lacking…

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In response this brother gave the illustration of a battered, old, badly-maintained car. It’s wheels are all going in slightly different directions, it’s rattling and stuttering, but it will move. The thing is you can wait until everything is perfect – the perfect training programme, the perfect people, the perfect education, the perfect church, the perfect cross-cultural mission preparation, the perfectly crafted sermon – but it’s not going to happen. We’re in an imperfect world under the curse of frustration. That’s not a recipe for settling for poor quality or ungodliness or theological compromise or slackness or foolishness – we need to keep fighting those things and prepare as well as possible – but it is just to recognise that sometimes you need to say, that’s good enough for now, and put the key in the ignition and move forward with what you’ve got, hopefully improving things as you go.

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A lot has been written on the sanctification debate – how do we grow in holiness – and I haven’t got anything to add. My main conclusion is simply that it’s complicated… and yet our temptation is to try and find the silver bullet, the one thing that encapsulates everything that’s important to say about Christian growth and the fight against sin. Many of the books I’ve found most helpful on sanctification have tended to focus on one means or aspect of sanctification – perhaps future-focused faith or gratitude for the finished work of Christ for sinners – and those books are absolutely brilliant… until they start to suggest that this is the heart of the matter, the engine, the one thing you need to know.

DeYoung reminds us that there is not a singular motivation for holiness:

Jesus is the Great Physician… The gospel is always the remedy for the guilt of sin, but when it comes to overcoming the presence of sin, Jesus has many doses at his disposal. He knows that personalities and sins and situations vary… Jesus has many medicines for our motivation. He is not like a high school athletic trainer who tells everyone to “ice it and take a couple ibuprofen.” …The good news is that the Bible is a big, diverse, wise book, and in it you can find a variety of prescriptions to encourage obedience to God’s commands. (The Hole in Our Holiness, p. 56-57 emphasis added)

DeYoung then goes on to list 40 different motivations which, as he says, are not even an exhaustive list. So sanctification is a multifaceted thing. Partly because our sinfulness is horribly complex, partly because the gospel of Christ is beautifully complex.

So how does sanctification work? How does the gospel of grace relate to a life of obedience?

  • It’s about being who we are. Identity.
  • It’s about seeing the vastness of our debt and the costliness of our forgiveness and so forgiving others infinitely smaller debts.
  • It’s about seeing in the Scriptures the beauty of Christ and being captured by that better vision.
  • It’s about understanding and experiencing union with Christ. Growing in a marriage relationship.
  • It’s about wanting to please the Bridegroom.
  • It’s about a fear of the Lord.
  • It’s about godly sorrow.
  • It’s about joy.
  • It’s about submitting to a Kingly Saviour Lord.
  • It’s about knowing the sinfulness sin.
  • It’s about tasting the goodness of the ways of God and the Law of Christ.
  • It’s about waiting for Christ’s return, longing for him, hoping in a better and lasting possession and the work that springs from that eternity-focused faith and hope.
  • It’s about living as a beloved child of God. Adoption.
  • It’s about desperate dependence on the Spirit who alone can change us.
  • It’s about doing all this together, as a community of God’s people, rebuking, correcting, encouraging, urging, praying, preaching, singing.

It’s about all these things and more. It’s complicated.

One suggestion

The more I think about this the more I wonder whether the answer isn’t simply to preach the Word – to go through the chapters of the Bible letting God tell us how to grow in Christlikeness. For example – why not simply preach through Ephesians 4-5? We would find there all sorts of different motivations and means and imperatives and gospel logic (including many of those listed above) that just come straight out of the text and flow and mesh together in a way better than any of us could put it. Or how about preaching a series through Leviticus or Ezekiel or Hebrews where we are taught deep rich truths about sanctification through imagery and language that is extraordinarily powerful. Why don’t we just let our holy (complex) God himself teach us how to become holy as he is holy?

 

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