A walk of faith – life with God

Indeed, we live in a very spiritual world!  We sing songs, write poems and make movies about faith.  George Michael urges “you gotta have faith”, Bon Jovi calls us to “keep the faith”, Shrek’s donkey confesses “I’m a believer!” and no doubt many of his swamp-friends are Beliebers too!  We live in a faith-filled world!

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But as often happens with the overuse of a word, the meaning goes missing.  Faith becomes some mysterious wishing power that gives is a warm feeling of hope on the inside and keeps us bearing forward.

But that is not Biblical faith.  And if you read the Bible thinking faith is this, you will miss the bliss of its promise.

What does it mean to have faith?

On June 30 1859 Charles Blondin “the Great” became the first person to cross over the 340m wide Niagara Falls Gorge tightrope, expended 50 meter above the river where about 1million cubic meters of raging waters rushed by every second. To gt a feel for the risk he took, watch this stunt as Nik Wallanda crossed over these falls in June 2012.

Blondin repeated this stunt several times with variation: he crossed over the rope (8cm in diameter) on stilts; he did it blindfolded; he did it in a sack; he pushed a wheelbarrow over; he carried a chair, stopping half-way to stand with one leg of the chair balancing on the rope.  Once he even sat down in the middle and cooked an omelette, enjoyed his breakfast, and only then walked on!

One of his most memorable moments was when, after another crossing on September 15 1860, he asked the crowd whether they believed he could cross the falls again.  “Yes!” was the confident cheer.  “Do you believe I could cross the falls carrying a man on my back?”  After witnessing his previous stunts, they cheered expectantly “Yes!” Blondin leaned in, asking “Who will volunteer?”  Silence.  After a moment Blondin pointed to an onlooker “Will you trust me?”  “No!  I can’t risk my life like that!”  No one would volunteered, so Blondin turned to his manager Harry Colcord.  “Harry, do you believe I can carry you across?”  “Yes”, said Harry, “I know you can.”  “Then climb on!”  And Harry became the only man who was ever carried across the raging Niagara falls by his friend since he was the only man with real faith in Blondin.

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This is a good example of what real faith is – to entrust your life without reserve in something or someone.

So in who or what do you put your faith?

To simply say “I have faith” is meaningless. Faith in what, or faith in who?  A google search on faith reveals various religions, some more plausible than others, and others totally bizarre.  But the most common themes are “belief in science”, “belief in yourself” and “I belief in God.”

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If you say you have faith in God and put your future confidently in His providence and justice, you are in a great company: 5.8 billion people still believe in (a) god (84% of the world population), a third of these are Christian. Do we all believe in the same god, worshiping him with different names?  Or what distinguishes Christians from these believers in God?

The God Christians believe in is the triune God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. One God in three persons. He is the living God, and his nature is holy and loving.   The doctrine of the Trinity is sometimes regarded as obscure, at times disregarded as unimportant or unnecessarily stumbling block to faith.  But this truth is what originally distinguished Christianity from Judaism, something that was only revealed in the incarnation, when Jesus was born and started declaring that he is the Son of God.  To be more accurate, the doctrine of the Trinity is grounded in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ – the foundation of the Christian faith.

We know God to be triune because of his redemptive mission of the world in the giving of his Son and Spirit – and in that we know is true nature.  It is because of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death and the resurrection that we have come to know the 3-person nature of God. Migliori (Faith seeking Understanding, 2014) writes that the trinitarian nature reveals God as “self-expending, other-regarding, community-forming love.”  It is primarily in the giving of himself in Jesus and the Spirit that we know God’s nature is self-expending love.  In the life example of Christ and the deferring relationship of the Godhead we know God as other-regarding.  It is in the giving of the Son and Spirit that we come to know God’s heart for community, and that his love is always community-forming.  The Christian God is Trinitarian and his nature is loving.

And that is the foundation of our Christian Faith – a living, everyday reliance upon the triune God, and not merely a belief in a distant creator-God who might grant an eternal life of bliss when all this is over.  Faith is for today.

Why am I so confident to trust this triune God?

Christian ethics and morality is not so much different from many other religions; the description of a “good or godly person” in the New Testament is not altogether different from other codes of ethics. And the Greco-Roman world in which the church was birthed was a whirlpool of such religious ideas and ideals!  Why then was the gospel of the early church so compelling and urgent, and why did the Christian faith grow with so much vigour then, and ever since?

Because the Christian gospel is not good advice on morality, but good news of a life that is possible!  For the first time ever the ideals of ethics and morality was not only preached as necessity for a blessed human life – but news that the the proof of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and outpouring of his Spirit showed that the teachings of God’s Kingdom Life was indeed possible for individuals and communities at large!  Yes, the resurrection shows that death was not the end of life anymore, but more! The eternal life of God was now available to recreate what was dead and decaying in this life.

The problems that plagued humanity since the fall, known pride, envy, wrath, fear, deceit and divisiveness, sensuality and covetousness, could for the first time not only be identified and managed, but overcome!  Paul gloried in this truth in his letter to the Romans 8:11: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” (read Romans 8:9-11 for context).  A life of peace and goodness was now are reality, visible in the communities of the early church.

The verse in its context shows that having faith in the triune God is lifegiving:

  • We can confidently believe in and trust GOD THE FATHER because he is good and loving, generously giving the Son and the Spirit to accomplish the redemption and reconciliation of fallen man. He is indeed the Creator and gracious Sustainer who cares for all his creatures (see Matthew 5:45 and 6:26).
  • We can confidently believe in and trust JESUS, THE SON OF GOD who is the Saviour and Lord of all. He left his heavenly throne to become man, to show God’s love, vicariously pay the price for sin and death, resurrecting as sign that sin and death no longer have hold on all those who trust in Him.  By dealing with rebellion and sin he rightly became legitimate Lord of all the earth. Now we can confidently trust in him as Mediator between man and God, because he knows human temptations and struggles, freely distributing grace for everyday life (Hebrews 2:18 and 4:14-16).
  • We can confidently believe and trust in GOD THE HOLY SPIRIT, the Wisdom, Power and Communion of God. Through the indwelling Spirit we enjoy the living fellowship with Father and Son (John 14:20-23 and 17:20-23), sharing in his eternal life today. Through the indwelling Spirit we are made new (2 Corinthians 5:17) through the life-transforming power of God who gives life that actually transforms our sinful natures, giving us the grace to share in the life of God (Romans 8:11), guiding us in his will.

I find it very easy to believe in, to confidently trust in this God!

Faith for today

Yes, for life in this earth “you gotta have faith!”  Faith in God who transforms our sinful nature, breathes life in decaying relationships, recreates hopes that are dead and makes possible that which seems impossible.  But this life with God requires faith – a living trust in God’s character and ability to do that which is impossible for me (Romans 4:21).

What does this promise of the God of the resurrection mean for you today?  What transformation in your nature, in your body, in your relationships, in your business or in your community is possible?  If indeed the triune God lives with you through his indwelling Spirit, what is too big to face?  What could be possible through faith?

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The marks by which we are known

The growth rings of a tree trunk intrigue me. These contours compile the life story of the tree in the lines left by nature’s faithful seasons of wet and dry.  Years of plenty leave thick lines, years of lack leave thin lines. Yet more than mere rainfall history is recorded in these contours: forest competition leave elliptical lines of asymmetrical growth, while the trauma of forest fires, animal damage, pests or sickness leave permanent stains or scars in the tree trunks.  These lines, scars, stains and blotches portray the life of the tree: it is the record of events the tree witnessed, what it encountered and what it survived.  Just like our fingerprints these contours distinguish one tree from another – what a tree lives through lends it its distinguishing marks; its experience lends it its beauty and character.  As these pictures show[i], each tree is known and valued by its marks.

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The tales trees trunks tell. [image credits below]
But note that the lines and marks in a tree are the trees response to its environment – not the environment itself.  We don’t see the rains, droughts, fires, bugs or animals.  The contours only record the tree’s growth because of a wet season, and its hardening because of a dry season.  We only see the elliptical contours because of the tree’s self-adjusting growth for a few years in its fight for better sunlight. We only see the darkening as it healed from the heat and flames, the recovery scars left from animal damage and the discolouration caused by other environmental conditions.  In essence, the trunk of the tree is a witness to how the tree coped with its experience, how well it adjusted to survive in its environment and how it was strengthened through it.  Indeed, these contours are aptly called the “growth rings of a tree”.

If your character could be dissected as a tree trunk, it might reveal similarly distinguishing “growth rings” – the marks that show how each season has impacted you.

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As I reflect on the past year I am struck by how deeply it influenced me – both for the good and the bad.  A few family traumas of people within our church community has left a heightened appreciation for my family and my health, with a deliberate response to cherish the precious time with those I love and make the best use of my health and fitness.  Frequent reports of leadership failure have heightened my awareness of my own fallibility and the traumatic impact it has on many; this sparked renewed study and intentional growth in Christian leadership practice as well as intentional accountability as I see the need to allow others to speak into my life.  The development and facilitation of a marriage intimacy course has made a lasting impact in my attention to and intention for growth in marital intimacy.  A demanding season has highlighted the dangers of isolation resulting in purposeful pursuit of healthy friendships for me and my family.  But the business has also caused me to reevaluate my life, reconsider my efforts and remind myself where I should be heading, so I can readjust my course now.

Sadly I am also aware of some less noble responses to events in the past year: I recognise a mounting degree of cynicism due to frequent disappointment by certain people, coupled by latent anger and even bitterness in my heart.  I notice a resistance to spontaneous generosity because of perceived entitlement and misspending of some with whom I have supported.  I note the signs of compassion fatigue because of seasons of overextending myself.  And sadly I am aware that I laugh and play less because of the impact of the serious things that I deal with. These responses are not good for my soul, my family and my relationships.

Thus the events of the past season has touched me personally and impacted my character.  I have grown grateful and humble, more relational and accountable, vulnerable and intimate, and more purposeful.  Yet I have to acknowledge that I have grown more cynical, less innocent and less generous, less compassionate and less joyful.  My growth through the last season has been both good and bad; in some ways I have grown to resemble Christ my Lord better and in some ways I have grown to represent him less.

Although the memories of our experiences remain with us, it is our own responses to those experiences that ultimately impact us and those around us greatly, because how we respond shapes us for the long run.  Our responses to life’s significant moments and seasons lay the contours that make up our character – and our character shapes both our consciousness (how we view life) and our course (where we end up in life).

That is why we need to “guard our heart above all things, for from it flows the issues of life.”[ii]  We cannot control or undo what life’s seasons throw at us, but we can and should control our response to those moments.

The Bible teaches that one is “blessed” (or better off) when in spite of injustice one remains kind and merciful; when in the midst of cruelty and betrayal one remains pure in heart; when in the midst of conflict one pursues reconciliation and peace; when in the midst of hardship one remains faithful and true to God.[iii] In fact, the Bible shows that regardless of what life throws at us, a godly response always leaves one blessed – in this life and the life to come.[iv]  And that although everything seems hopeless, there is a very real reason to be optimistic, because God can and will bring beauty out of every situation.[v]  Although there are things that challenge us in every season of life, God’s grace in that season is enough to carry us through.[vi]

It’s a new year.  Another year is over and it left its marks on your life.  Was it a year of plenty or of want?  A season of vigorous growth or a tough season of hardening?  A festive time or fiery trial that left its stains?  Regardless of what the year brought you, its impact on your life will prove significant in the shaping of your heart.

How will you allow your experiences to impact your character for good or bad?  Consider it carefully, because your response to this season will determine your consciousness in the next season and ultimately your course in life.

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[i] Images from online article in Mizzou Magazine https://mizzoumag.missouri.edu/2013/05/if-trees-could-talk/

[ii] Proverbs 4:23

[iii] Matthew 5:7-9; James 1:12

[iv] Romans 8:28

[v] Jeremiah 29:11; Revelations 20:5

[vi] 2 Corinthians 12:9

Slow down – you need to fast!

The medical benefits of fasting is astounding, ranging from a stronger immune system, better hormonal balance, increased longevity, lowered heart risk and even to healing of various cysts and some cancerous growths.  For these and other reasons fasting clinics have been popular throughout Europe for over 60 years.

But fasting is not only prescribed for its health benefits; it is rightfully still thought of as a spiritual exercise or discipline.  Yet in our high-paced consumerist society this ancient discipline is not frequently practiced.  So why should Christians fast?  What is the promise behind this self-denying practice?

The 69th Psalm of the shepherd-king gives us unique insight into the purpose and power of fasting.  In its opening lines David cries Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my soul.  I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold… mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me with lies” (verse 1-2, 4).  Two verses later he writes “O God, you know my folly; the sins I have done are not hidden from you.” (verse 5).

These opening phrases sketch the mindset of a troubled man in a hopeless situation: his soul is in anguish because of enemies much more powerful than himself, and to top of it his conscience is troubling him with the weight of guilt. Then David finds comfort in these words, the central thought of the Psalm: “I humbled my soul with fasting” (Psalm 69:10)

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God alone can save

Why fast?  Firstly, David “humbled his soul with fasting” to appeal for help: his fasting was a clear statement that all his strength, all his knowledge, all his resources was insufficient to save himself from this troubling situation.  This great shepherd-king who killed the lion, the bear and great Goliath, who lead an army of mighty men that put fear in the hearts of his greatest enemies, this great David abstained from food and wine to shamelessly declare “I cannot save myself” – “my prayer is to you, O Lord!”, “Save me!”, “Deliver me!” (Verses 13, 1, 14). In his fasting he displayed his trust in God, saying “God alone can save!”

Years later his great-grandson King Jehoshaphat received troubling news that three great armies were marching against Jerusalem, greatly outnumbering the inhabitants of small Judah.  His first response was to do what he learned from David: Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah” (2 Chronicles 20:3). Rather than rallying the troops, forming allegiance, gathering supplies and fortifying the cities Jehoshaphat humbled himself with fasting to appeal for help from God. The closing line of his prayer captures the motive of their fast: “For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:12).  And as they weakened themselves through abstaining from food and stood before the Lord helpless, the Lord answered “Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s” (verse 15). God responded with a great deliverance that day!

Still years later Ezra the priest was returning from exile, leading a group of elders and officials to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple.  Although Ezra had special favour from King Darius carrying letters of his support, Ezra refused to ask for a royal guard for protection through hostile territory because he ensured the King “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him” (Ezra 8:22).  So what did Ezra and his company do before their dangerous journey?  “I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods” (Ezra 8:21). The wise priest and his companions humbled themselves with fasting to appeal for help from God.  And the hand of the Lord was upon them for good!

God alone can satisfy

The second reason David states in Psalm 69 why he humbles his soul with fasting is to facilitate holiness as he confesses and shows remorse for his sins (verse 5-7).  After being confronted by the prophet Nathan for his adultery with Bathsheba and staged murder of her husband Uriah, the king fell on the floor in remorse and fasted for seven days (2 Samuel 12:15-18).  From this time of fasting comes these words:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment…

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”

(Psalm 51:1-4, 10-12)

David did not invent fasting as a means of repentance and holiness; as a Jew David grew up and annually kept The Day of Atonement – the special Holy Day during which all Israelites fasted (“afflicted their souls”) and confessed their sins to God as a nation.  On this special Sabbath the High Priest offered a Lamb for atonement of sins (Leviticus 23:27-28). Thus the nation annually humbled themselves in fasting as a sign of remorse to facilitate their holiness to God – as prescribed in God’s Law.

But fasting for holiness not only has to do with confession of sins – the key focus is to humble the soul by denying its carnal cravings.  During a fast one shuts down all other impulses that tug at the heart and deny all the cravings of the flesh. This time of consecration therefore serves as both a reminder that God alone satisfies the desires of the soul, and an opportunity to grow in holiness and love for God.    During a fast one can pray with the Psalmist “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God… Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls” (Psalm 42:1,7).

So Psalm 69 teaches us to humble the soul by fasting, firstly to obtain help, because God alone can to save, and secondly to grow in holiness, because God alone can satisfy.

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When fasting is not selfish

But we ought to fast to obtain help for others, as the Lord instructed Israel in Isaiah 58:6 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”  And Nehemiah and Daniel showed us that even righteous men humble themselves by fasting to show remorse for the sins of their nation, and to appeal for God’s mercy. (See Daniel 9 and Nehemiah 1)

Is there any situation in your life too big or difficult for you? Is your soul too cluttered, too worried, too demanding or overburdened with guilt?  And do you crave intimacy with God, to share in his holiness?  Then it’s time to slow down, and fast.

You never walk alone

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  – Genesis 1:1, The Bible

God Created

This powerful opening line of the Bible brings such comfort, assuring the reader, with the fundamental assurance that “GOD IS” and that “GOD CREATED.”  These records of creation do not intend to prove the existence of God but rather assumes God’s existence, his power and design in the creation of the World.  He was there in the beginning, and he has been there from the beginning – he is eternal, enduring, unchanging.  God exists, he lives and he is the source of all that exists and lives.  He predates creation and he is the cause and creator of all things.

These opening words of the Bible changes your outlook on and experience of life dramatically.

“GOD IS”

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Because “God is” you are never alone.  Wherever you go God is there. This truth moved David to sing Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” [i]  In the “highest heavens [or] deepest ocean”, even in death[ii] (Hebrews “Sheol”).  David knew God is present.  Even in his moments of “great darkness”[iii] David knew God is present and ready to help.

Elsewhere David wrote that “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted”[iv] meaning the Lord relates to and supports those who suffers emotional pain. Often one hurting feels alone even in among friends because he or she feels   David knew you never suffer alone because the Lord is compassionate[v]he identifies and feels with you.  That’s a primary reason why Jesus came to earth, why he “became flesh and walked among us”[vi]: to be tested and to suffer in every possible way in which you could suffer.[vii]

Because GOD IS, you are never without help, never without hope.  There is a God who exists and is “near to all who call upon him”.[viii]  In the beginning there was nothing, but there was God, and He created beautiful and vibrant life out of nothing.  Where God is there is hope.  David sang “If it had not been the LORD who was on our side… then they would have swallowed us up alive… the flood would have swept us away… [But] our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth![ix]

And because GOD IS – the Almighty, All-Knowing, Omnipresent, Unchanging Godyou will never face anything too big, too powerful, or too difficult. There is never anything insurmountable, because he us the God who he created everything, including “all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers… And He ranks before all things, and in Him all things consist.” [x]  He created all these things[xi]  – nothing is out of his control nothing is beyond his reach.  God said to Jeremiah “Look, I’m the LORD, the God of all flesh; is there anything too difficult for me?”[xii]

Because God is near, you never need to be intimidated by any person, group or situation, as David sang “Though an army may encamp against me, My heart shall not fear.”[xiii] and elsewhere “For by you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall.”[xiv] The security of God’s presence brings peace in a fallen world filled with violence and terrorism, infested with disease and sickness, characterized brokenness and uncertainty.[xv]  With God I am never intimidated, never on the back-foot, never caught off guard. With the Psalmist we can confidently declare The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?”[xvi] Therefore you are you are never outplayed, never outweighed, never outwitted and never outnumbered.

“GOD CREATED”

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This opening line of the Bible also reminds you that God created you and therefore you are never without direction, never without a purpose and never without a future.  God, your Father, knew you and consecrated you for his purpose and pleasure even before he “knit [you] together in [your] mother’s womb”.[xvii]  Regardless of how you might have missed God’s purpose, regardless where you might have derailed from His path – still He has “plans of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope[xviii] for you. With God, your journey has not ended!

Because God created you, you are not left to your own plans for the future and you are never abandoned to solve your own problems.  Your preservation or prosperity does not depend on your own powers, plans or possessions.   Even if your own foolishness or sinfulness left you stuck in mud, you can like David cry for help and be delivered and restored to His praise.[xix] God, your creator, knows your purpose, knows your circumstance, and still knows the way to the “future and hope” he planned for you!  So “trust in the LORD with all your heart… and he will make straight your paths.”[xx]  Our God has made “a road in the sea… and a way in the wilderness” [xxi] before – he will make a way for you where there seems to be no way.

God created you in his image.[xxii] You are not a misfit, not a mistake. You are never insignificant, never unnoticed.    It is not your [supposed] success that makes you significant to God, and neither does you lack of performance make you insignificant to him.  Your significance rests in your image: “indeed, we are His offspring” [xxiii] and therefore bear his image.  That is what David marveled of in his song O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens… what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” [xxiv]  You are significant because you are related to God: created in God’s image for relationship with him and reigning with him.[xxv]  You are invaluable and precious to God, uniquely crafted in his image. He has not forgotten you nor forsaken you; He cannot because “your name is engraved in the palms of his hands” and like breastfeeding mother has her baby continually in her thoughts, God has you in his heart and mind.[xxvi]

How does Genesis 1:1 arm the believer in the face of uncertain and difficult times?  This opening line of the Bible brings hope: GOD IS – the transcended God who is almighty, all-knowing, ever-present, everlasting and unchanging.  Nothing that you face will be too big for him – you are safe in his presence!  But not just his transcendence (God’s unfathomable bigness), also his immanence (God’s nearness and relatedness) brings great comfort: GOD CREATED you in his presence to relate to him and reign with him.  Thus he also relates to you and has compassion on you; he is near and ready to grant mercy and grace on all who approach him boldly.[xxvii]  You are never alone, never without help, never without hope.

Spring weather May 7th
A man look up at a starry night at Kielder Water, Northumberland. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday May 7, 2013. Photo credit should read: Tom White/PA Wire

[i] Psalm 139:7

[ii] Psalm 139:8

[iii] Psalm 139:12

[iv] Psalm 34:18

[v] Psalm 145:8, compare Exodus 22:27

[vi] John 1:14

[vii] Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:15-16

[viii] Psalm 145:18

[ix] Psalm 124:1-8

[x] Colossians 1:16-17

[xi] John 1:3

[xii] Jeremiah 32:27

[xiii] Psalm 27:1,3

[xiv] Psalm 18:29

[xv] Psalm 91:3-9

[xvi] Psalm 118:6

[xvii] Jeremiah 1:5; Psalm 139:13

[xviii] Jeremiah 29:11

[xix] Psalm 40:1-4; compare Romans 10:13

[xx] Proverbs 3:5-6

[xxi] Isaiah 43:16-19

[xxii] Genesis 1:26-28

[xxiii] Acts 17:28

[xxiv] Psalm 8:1,4

[xxv] See Genesis 1:26-28; Psalm 8:3-6; Psalm 115:16; Romans 5:17 and 2 Timothy 2:12

[xxvi] Isaiah 49:15

[xxvii] Hebrews 4:15-16

A Passion for God’s House

“For zeal for your house has consumed me.”   (King David, Psalm 69:9)

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I love this image of the St Patrick’s Cathedral standing between tall sky-scrapers in New York City:  a sanctuary for God in a busy, godless city.  Here the broken-hearted can find their Comforter and the oppressed their Deliverer.  Here the lonely can meet their Friend, the sinner can find Mercy and the troubled can find Peace. Here New Yorkers can escape the business and noise of the city and hear the still voice of God. And here the Creator of the universe can meet his beloved creatures and receive his rightful worship.  This is a church – the House of God.  And this image reminds me of a sermon I heard in 2002 by Fred May – a message that has not left my heart.[i]

The House of God had such a prominent place in the heart of king David amidst the business of his demanding life.  This beloved shepherd-king of Israel was a general of an active army, the ruler of a vastly expanding kingdom, a husband of several wives and a father of many children.  David was a brilliant architect, a skilful musician, songwriter and poet, as well as a prophet.  David’s life was not free from disappointment and pain: his childhood was marked by paternal negligence and sibling rivalry; his youth was celebrated by heroism which caused him to be hunted down and exiled by a jealous monarch; he buried (at least) three of his own children; and he experienced severe betrayal during the revolt lead by his own son Absalom who sought the crown.  But David was not without fault either: the Scriptures clearly record moments of rage and pride, an adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah, as well as David’s passive fatherhood which lead to violent incest, murder and eventually the revolt lead by his son Absalom.

But amidst these moral and ethical failures David was “a man after [God’s] own heart” (Acts 13:22) – why?  This phrase from the famous Shepherd-psalm reveals why: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil… Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever (Psalm 23:4-6).   Although this iconic king had the affection and even heroic worship of the people, the respect of both his army and his enemies, all the wealth and pleasures he could dream of, David had a zealous passion for the House of God more than anything this world could offer (Psalm 69:9; compare John 2:17).  Especially during times of hardship, during his days of exile from Israel, David would long for the comfort and security he experienced alongside other worshipers in the House of God.  And that was the key to David’s enduring legacy.

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David really experienced the house of God as a special place where he met with God – alongside other believers.  What do the Psalms reveal of his experience in God’s house?

First, we read that David experienced something special in the House of God (although it was a tent in his days!) –  he experienced favour (a benevolent attitude) before God and mercy (undeserved goodness) from God towards him.  [Psalm 5:7]

Secondly, David experienced real security and strength in God’s House [Psalm 27:4-6]. While hiding in the wilderness, in caves from King Saul David longed to be in God’s House – because there in God’s presence he felt safe and secure.

Thirdly David associated the House of God with abundance of provision [Psalm 36:7-8].  In the presence of God there is no lack, and in the House of God there is always enough for the one who is hungry.  The house of God was – and is – always a place where the poor get helped with practical provision, displaying the gracious generosity of God.

Fourthly, for David the House of God was a place of fellowship and friendship – a place where deep bonds were formed in the presence of God [Psalm 55:12-14].  In Psalm 55 David laments in anguish how he had been betrayed by Ahithophel, his friend and wise advisor who had defected to Absalom’s insurgence.  But we read that the worse part of the betrayal for David was that they “used to take sweet counsel together; within God’s house [they] walked in the throng.” (verse 14).

The fifth thing we learn about David’s observation of those who love the House of God is how they live a long, healthy and productive life as recorded in Psalm 92:12-15:

The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the LORD is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”

I know several old people who love God and His House, and although they grow old but their spirits remain young.  They remain joyful and friendly, full of life and faith.  Truly, God renews their youth!

The sixth thing we note in Psalm 122 is that David and his decedents remained faithful to the House of God for the goodwill of the nation; i.e. their worship of God in the House of God resulted in God’s blessing on their kingdom.  The same remains true today: to see the Kingdom of God come and extend in our nation, our devotion should be to the House of God.

Lastly we read how David loved the house of God because it was God’s Home – a resting place for God [Psalm 132] – a place where His name was revered, where He could receive the worship due to Him.  A place where people could meet him away from the business of everyday life.  David knew that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1), and that God fills the whole expanse with His presence.  But although God is omnipresent, His House is the one place that is set aside for Him – a place that is sanctified for Him and his worship.  “God’s name is blasphemed among the nations” (Romans 2:24), yet in his House, among His people, he is revered.  It is His “resting place.”

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This passion for God’s house kept the shepherd-king up at night, especially once his wars had ceased, his enemies were conquered and he was crowned king over Israel, ruling from his beautiful palace in Jerusalem.  One night he called Nathan the prophet to share his burden and dream to build God a Temple – a structure which will host and display the greatness and glory of God: Now when [David] lived in his house and the LORD had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, he said to Nathan the prophet, ‘See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent…’” (2 Samuel 7:1-2)  The Lord’s reply was so telling of his honor for David’s love for the House of God; God said that because David had it in his heart to build Him a house, he will reward him with the following (2 Samuel 7:9-16):

  • A great name for David.
  • Rest from his enemies.
  • God will build David a house (legacy).
  • David’s children will reign.
  • God will instruct David’s children and take care of them.
  • Goodness towards David’s offspring.
  • An eternal kingship (fulfilled in his descendent Jesus the Christ).

And the Scriptures reveal that these all came to pass; although God did not permit David to build God’s temple because of his reputation of war and bloodshed, God clearly honoured and rewarded David’s passion for his House, amidst all his business and success.

But God is no respecter of persons – how he honoured David because of his love for God’s house, so he has honoured countless others who “had it in their heart to build God a house”.

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Amidst the business of life, the terrors of our times and the delights this world offers, what priority does God’s house – the assembly of his people – have in your heart?  When you go through hardships or when you can’t fall asleep at night, does your flights of fantasy take you into the house of God where God’s presence meets God’s people in worship? Can you pray with this psalmist?

“How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!  My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.  Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.  Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.”

[Sons of Korah, Psalm 84:1-4,10]

[i] Fred May of the principle pastor of Shofar Christian Church in Stellenbosch, South Africa – www.shofaronline.org

In Pursuit of Happiness – how to reap joy

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the 2006 film Poster-pursuithappynessIn Pursuit of Happyness based on the true story of how Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith) endured being homeless for nearly a year while pursuing his dream and caring for his
toddler son Christopher (played by eight-year-old Jaden Smith).  In the film Chris is a struggling salesman who invested all his life savings in new portable bone-density scanners. His wife leaves him due to mounting financial pressures and he is left alone to care for their five-year old son Christopher. His life reaches an all-time low when Chris loses his last bone-scanner, gets arrested for unpaid parking tickets, his bank account gets garnished by the revenue services for unpaid income tax and he gets evicted from his apartment.  Homeless and penniless Chris manages to land an unpaid internship at a brokerage firm, competing against 19 others to win the only paid position at the end of six months.  In the post-script we read how Chris continued to eventually own his multi-million-dollar brokerage.

This emotion-laden real-life drama each of us can identify with because it speaks about the sacrifices needed to realize one’s dreams, and the tremendous joy that comes from the fulfillment of the dream.  We were created to pursue the things that give us joy, and therefore joy is indeed one of man’s chief motivators especially in enduring difficult times.

An ancient Hebrew song dating around 400 BC has this same theme.

Psalm 126:1-6

1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the South!
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who continuously goes out weeping,
bearing the precious seed for sowing,
shall doubtless come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

This psalm was sung against the dark backdrop of Jews who returned from exile, being oppressed and enslaved for seventy years first by the Babylonians and thereafter the Persians.  They were slaves who had no value or dignity, no sense of identity or value, with no rights or power to steer their own destinies.  They felt flawed, forgotten, worthless, powerless, and essentially hopeless.  Then suddenly Cyrus had an urge to send them back to rebuild their temple and their city, and these slaves were set free – a day of great rejoicing!

The first half of this psalm sings this prayer of gratitude, looking back at how God had graced these exiles to come home and rebuild the temple and its walls, and the people “were glad”.  The second half is a prayer for restoration of the nation that had been scattered and their land that had laid desolate for 70 years. Now that Zion (verse 1, pointing to the temple and its worship) had been restored, the psalmist prays the nation and its land be revitalized like the annual winter rains transform the arid dessert in the South of Judah (Hebrew “Negev” in verse 4) into a flowery garden bustling with life.

Restoring Joy like SOUTH
Rain transforms the arid desert into a flowery garden bustling with life.

Sowing in tears

Sowing is not a particularly sad or even hard job.  Why then would the psalmist write of “weeping” and sowing “precious seeds”?  The context of the Psalm is of Jews returning to a dilapidated Jerusalem and barren land, to a city and land that have been unoccupied and uncultivated for 70 years. They brought food with them what they were able to carry, but that would not last long.  So they would soon need to live off the land – they needed to sow.  And when you sow the food you want to eat, when you sow the seeds your children hunger for, your sowing is accompanied by tears of anguish.  These are costly seeds that mere money can’t buy – these are “precious seeds” that get its first watering by the tears of the sower

seed-sower-jeremysams
The sower by Jeremy Sams.

How to reap joy

This ancient song teaches us how to cultivate a life of joy amidst suffering – a valuable lesson for each of us.

Firstly, a life of gratitude makes for a glad heart even amidst hardships, as the psalmist teaches: The Lord has done great things for us [and] we are glad.”  In looking back, remembering the good things the Lord has done for you, the hard times in which God has preserved you and later from which he has delivered you, the anguished heart is refreshed with joy, hope and faith.  When you relive joyful times your heart relives the past joy and your faith is stirred by hope as you remember how God has delivered you from similar hardships in the past – he will do the same again.  Indeed, gratitude makes you cheerful, and the cheerful of heart has a continual feast” which no fire can quench (Proverbs 15:15).

Secondly the psalmist says that sowing needs to be continuously, not impulsively or sporadically.  You keep on sowing until you reap a harvest.  Considering the context then the psalmist probably had in mind how his people had been restored to joy from a life of slavery and exile through “sowing in tears” like recorded in the prayers of Daniel (Daniel 9), Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1), Jeremiah (Lamentations 1-4) and some of the Psalms (eg Psalm 137).  These prayers give us a view into the anguish of the exiled Jews, and how they lamented bitterly and continuously petitioned God for return and restoration – a true sowing in tears that resulted in the joy expressed in half of this psalm.

This is a great lesson to never give in to hardship, and never give up because of disappointments.   We continue to sow in tears because of the expected joy in the harvest.  In fact, the great anguish is the great motivator to continue sowing in tears as we long for the great joy.  So do not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.” (Galatians 6:9).

Thirdly, the sowing of precious seed (KJV) especially results in “shouts of joy”.  And this is the main teaching in this psalm: sowing seeds which makes you weep will ensure a harvest accompanied by shouts of joy.  In other words, a life of selfless sacrifice results in joy.  The giving up of what you deem precious so that there is enough for others to share will result in joy.  This first generation of returned exiles made the big sacrifice to re-cultivate the farmlands from their own meagre food-packs to ensure that there is enough food for other returning exiles and their coming generations. Their sacrifice resulted in joy for all.  The joy is multiplied when the precious seeds you sow results in bundles of sheaves – enough for everyone.

Sowing_Angelus

When the sacrifice is rewarded with breakthrough and the effort was worthwhile – then there is great joy.  But without sacrifice – without the sowing of precious seed – there will be no reaping worthy of great joy. Playing it safe does not result in great joy.  Only sowing in tears results in a harvest of joy.

Lastly, although accompanied by anguish, the sowing is very hopeful.  The farmer knows that for every single seed he sows he is sure to reap thirty, sixty or even a hundred-fold (Matthew 13:8).  His tearful sowing can be done confidently and hopeful, because “he shall doubtless come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”  And our confidence in sowing is not misplaced!  God himself oversees the principle and process of sowing and reaping: “God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” (Galatians 6:8).  Sowing in tears is never in vain.

The psalmist teaches that persistent, sacrificial and hopeful sowing will result that results in a joyful harvest.

Bringing home the joy

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Each of us are in pursuit of happiness. We are all driven by a longing for joy: we run away from things that might cause us harm (fear) and we run towards the things that we belief will bring us pleasure (joy).  But many times we exert effort on what does not produce true delight or lasting joy (Isaiah 55:2).

The wisdom of this world says self-serving efforts (or selfishness) produces joy: “SPEND EFFORT FOR MORE COMFORT AND CARNAL PLEASURES TO INCREASES YOUR JOY.”  Self-serving pleasure is the chief motivator behind most of the marketing campaigns that dominate the media: “Buying [this] – it will give you joy.”  “Living [here] will give you joy.”  “More of [this] will increase your joy.”  “Doing [this] will give you joy.”  This philosophy is the heart behind every temptation that lures us into sin, yet it still leaves us unsatisfied and without lasting joy.

But over against this the psalmist says “Those who sow in tears you will reap with shouts of joy.” In other words, selflessness produces real joy: “THE GREATEST JOY IS FOUND IN THE GIVING OF YOURSELF FOR THE BENEFIT OF OTHERS.”  Just as the endurance athlete gets joy from completing the race, so the self-emptying mother of a disabled child reaps love and joy from any response the child may give. The couple who walked through their dark valley together reaps tremendous joy in their relationship at the end.  But for the one who quits or gives up or gets distracted during hardships, there is no reaping of joy.  If you wish to reap in joy, you need to sow the precious seed in tears.

The context of “sowing in tears” in this psalm as sketched above is to “restore [Judah]” (verses 4-6) – not only for yourself only.  “Shouts of joy” comes when your anguished efforts for another results in an end of their suffering, their hardship.  Ironically your joy overflows when you give of your precious time, share of your precious belongings, and give of your very life for the betterment of another.  It is truly “more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35; see also Hebrews 12:3).

Reflection

So consider your life, your pursuit, your prayers.

  • Can you recall what you have sacrificed a great deal to achieve or complete, and when it was fulfilled you were joyful, satisfied, ecstatic, and fulfilled?
  • Where are you currently “sowing in tears” – i.e. where are you sacrificing your own comfort for the benefit of another, so that joy may come?
  • Can you remember why?  What do you hope to achieve with this “sowing in tears”?

And as you go out again tomorrow, pouring out of what is precious to you, let this verse encourage you as it did the Jews who first sang when they rebuilt Jerusalem and their nation (400 BC):

He who continuously goes out weeping,
bearing the precious seed for sowing,
shall doubtless come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”

Restoring joy

Ask a believer to describe what God is like and you are bound to hear characteristics like “good”, “righteous”, “loving” and “kind”.  Rarely will hear God being described as “joyful” or “happy”, which in itself explains why believers individually and the church as a whole are known for being “good” and even “kind” but rarely “joyful”.

But this is the reason why Old Testament Prophets declared Jesus came into the world: to restore righteousness and joy to the world!  Christ came to remove our sins which separates us from God, the source of Joy and Goodness, and restore our original blissful existence.  As it was in the Garden and Eden, so it will be in the New Creation: a place of rejoicing and gladness, with no more tears, no more suffering, no more death; a dispensation of joy and peace in the presence of God (Revelation 19:7; 21:1-5).  But that joy is not only a promise of our future state – joy is our inheritance even today.

Jesus said we should become like little children to inherit his kingdom.  What characterizes a child? Innocence, trust, and joy.  How can our joy be restored again like that of a little child?

1: GOD IS THE FOUNTAIN OF JOY

Firstly, we must remind ourselves that our God is called “the happy God” [1 Timothy 1:9-11, J.B. Phillips translation] in whose “presence there is fullness of joy [and] pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11; compare Matthew 25: 21).  His Kingdom is characterized by “righteousness, peace and joy” (Romans 14:7).  He sent his son Jesus to redeem creation from the perpetual “groaning” (Romans 8:32).  Therefore his coming reign was anticipated with rejoicing and gladness (Psalm 97:1), announced as “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:8-11) and he was anointed with the Spirit to “proclaim good news… bind up the broken-hearted… set the oppressed free… proclaim Jubilee… comfort the mourning… pour out the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise of a spirit of despair.” (Isaiah 61:1-3).

harvest table1

Jesus first miracle was all about joy where the wine at a wedding ran out and the host feared that the festivity will end prematurely.  Jesus instructed six ceremonial pots (in excess of 750 liters in total) to be filled, which he turned into the best quality of wine. This sign was recorded by John (2:1-11) as a prophetic statement: the best joy this world can offer will run out, but the joy Christ brings is the best (superior quality) and will not run out (superior quantity).

And indeed it is so!  Jesus’s miracles resulted in joy-filled exclamations of praise to God.  His parables about repentance and conversion tells that both the man who happened to find the treasure in the field and the merchant who sought and found the pearl of greatest price in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that…[field/ pearl].” (Matthew 13:44-46)  His motive for teaching his disciples was so “that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11) and likewise prayed “that they may have My joy made full in themselves” (John 17:13).

The early church was genuinely known for their joyfulness, in spite of physical, economic and social oppressing resulting from intense persecution.  Luke records that “the disciples were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 13:52)  How was it possible?  The reason is clear: fellowship with our joyful God lets us share in his joy.  That’s what Nehemiah meant to say to the mourning people gathered at the rebuilt temple: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10) – our strength to endure comes from drawing near to God and sharing in his joy.  As we abide in the Lord the fruit of joy is produced by his Spirit in us (John 15:4; Galatians 5:22; 1 Thessalonians 1:6).  It is “in His presence” that we share in his “fullness of joy”, and “at his right hand” that we enjoy his “eternal pleasures”. (Psalm 16:11)

2: JOY FLOWS FREELY FROM A LOVED HEART

old_people_bench
Joy is the natural response to feeling loved.

Secondly, joy is the natural response to loving affection and security. Just look at couples in affectionate embrace, or at children when they are playing with their loving parents. Joy flows freely from a heart that experiences loving attention and affection, that feels secure in loving acceptance and that is valued by loving appraisal.  That’s why a fresh revelation of the love of God makes a heart overflow in joy – even in spite of difficult times.  Look again at the prophet’s revelation of God’s love in Zephaniah 3:17  “The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves.  He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”  This “rejoicing over you” pictures our God dancing freely and wildly about us because of his abundant love for us.  The natural response to this generous and uninhibited love is joyfulness.

3: JOY FLOWS FREELY FROM A HEALTHY HEART

Kids_run_free

Thirdly, joy flows freely from a healthy heart – one that is care-free, generous and innocent. In the book of Proverbs there are so many cautions to the preservation against temporal temptations, of which Proverbs 4:23 is perhaps best known: “Guard your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life.

Some of the biggest enemies of joy in the human heart include cares and anxiety, bitterness and resentment, guilt and shame.  These things defile an innocent, pure heart and impedes its ability to feel deeply and rejoice freely.

  • A CARE-FREE HEART HAS NO WORRIES. Worries and anxieties is one of the surest ways to drain the joy and peace we experience in this life.  That’s why Jesus repeatedly cautioned the crowds to “not worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:34) and “worries… choke” the life produced in us by God (Mark 4:19).  Jesus’ answer is simple: don’t worry – know that God your Father loves you and cares for you; trust in his provision and protection (Matthew 6:32)!  So do as Peter instruct: “cast all your cares on the Lord, for he cares for you!” (1 Peter 5:7) and soon you will be able to testify with David “When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy.” (Psalm 94:19).
  • A GENEROUS HEART HOLDS NO GRUDGES. You only have one heart.  You cannot be a wellspring of joy and yet harbor unforgiveness in your heart; you cannot produce sweet joy from a heart with a “root of bitterness” in it (refer Hebrews 12:15). Unforgiveness leads to bitterness and resentment which defiles your whole life and poison’s every relationship. Forgive and see how joy from God and peace fills your whole heart and lifts the heaviness of your shoulders.
  • AN INNOCENT HEART HAS NO REGRETS. David hid his sin and avoided the Lord because of the guilt of bloodshed and shame of adultery which condemned his consciousness and impeded his confidence before God.  But when Nathan the prophet confronted him with a Word from the Lord, and the sickness of his baby drove him to seek the grace of God, David approached God to petition forgiveness and save his child.  He prayed “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” (Psalm 51:10-12)  Don’t let the burden of failure and sin keep you from sharing in God and his joy.  That is why Christ died!

The other day as I prayed about regaining joy these words rolled off my cheek in a prayer.  It is so silly to become so serious, strong and independent.  May you never stop playing and laughing, and may God’s joy always overflow in your heart, flood your home and fill your world!

____________________________________________________________

dad_rugby_play

DADDY, WILL YOU PLAY WITH ME AGAIN?

I hid and you sought,

I jumped and you caught

We wrestled and fought for hours on end!

Daddy, will you play with me again?

 

We had cars and planes,

Built robots and cranes

We played with our trains until the Lego came.

Dad, will you play with me again?

 

You gave my first cycle

And taught me to swim

You couched me rugby and cheered my first win.

Father, can we play like that again?

 

I left home and became a man

The cares piled up as work began

As our playing stopped my joy ran out.

Lord, will you teach me how to play again?

Ross, April 2016

5 Truths On Spiritual Growth

Too often the idea of spiritual growth is presented so disconnect from real life.  Not so in the Bible!

The Colossian church struggled with sensuality[i]  in a city renowned for its perversion.  Paul, writing from a Roman prison, was encouraging the Colossian church to grow in godliness amidst the immoral climate of the city in which they themselves once walked.[ii]  From within the congregation there were two theories as to who one overcomes these worldly lusts.  The first group argued that one inhibit and control the bodily desires through rigorous regulations and rituals (asceticism), and the second group reasoned that one cannot and need not overcome it – one simply needs to allow the earthly flesh to go its course since it has not importance or influence on your renewed spirit (Gnosticism).  Paul renounced the foolishness of both these arguments, stating that no bodily denial or imprisonment has power to overcome sinful urges[iii]  and that God will certainly judge sinfulness, so don’t fall back into that life.[iv] The answer is to deliberately grow in holiness and renounce sensuality. [v]

Although the whole letter to the Colossians leaves us with profoundly practical truths about spiritual growth, these three verses contain very helpful truths on Spiritual growth.

“To [the saints] God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I labor, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” (Colossians 1:27-29)

  1. Spiritual growth does not earn favor with God

 

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The gentiles in the Colossian church were saved and blessed with the indwelling Spirit of Christ because “God [has] chosen” them, because God “has qualified (them) to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints” (1:12).  God loved and favored these gentile Christians in spite of their struggle with sensuality.  Later, as he encourages them to grow in godliness, he reminds them that – even before they grow spiritually – they are already “God’s chosen, holy and beloved” (3:12).

This is true for you too: you have already been made “accepted in the beloved” [vi] regardless of their lack or level of spiritual growth.  No amount of spiritual growth or weakness will increase or decrease God’s loving favor on your life.  You are loved and favored because God had chosen you and qualified you.

  1. Spiritual growth has a clear goal

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Paul’s ambition for the struggling Colossian church was clear: to “present everyone mature in Christ” (1:28). In the sister-letter Ephesians Paul phrased this truth bolder to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (4:13). Every member ought to grow up into the image of Christ himself.  For that we have been predestined[vii]; and that is the purpose of our times in the presence of the Lord[viii].    Although Paul never used the word disciple in his writings, we are not surprised that he chooses another word conveying this truth as the overarching goal of the Christian life[ix].  So according to Paul, spiritual growth has a clear goal: the imitation of Christ himself: to emulate his lifestyle and represent his character.

This demystifies spiritual growth completely.  The goal of Spiritual growth is a person – to emulate and resemble Jesus Christ himself.  And this is a life-long process to “grow in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ”. [x]

  1. Spiritual growth requires deliberate effort

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Paul did not assume that spiritual growth happens automatically, but rather through his “proclaim(ation)… warning… teaching… wisdom… labor… struggle(s)… energy” (1:28-29).  Spiritual growth requires deliberate effort – as everything else in life.  Later in this letter Paul instructs these Colossians to overcome their weaknesses to sensual temptations by deliberate actions: “set your heart on things above” (3:1), “set your mind on things above” (3:2), “put to death what is sensual” (3:5), “put off anger…” (3:8) and “put on… compassion” etc (3:12-14).   Peter likewise instructs the Roman church to “make every effort to add to your faith courage…” etc.[xi]  We grow as we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”.[xii]

Real spiritual growth does not happen automatically.  It is not reserved for a select few.  It does not come by means of some special revelation nor academic learning alone, but by “exercising yourself in godliness” [xiii] – by deliberate acts of spiritual disciplines as we seek to know God, his will and seek to emulate him in a community of believers.

  1. Spiritual growth is God’s work

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Christian spiritual growth is not another selfish self-help practice aimed to “be a better you!”  Spiritual growth happens by means of God’s renewal.  Even Paul’s labors are accredited to God’s as he works “with all his energy that he powerfully works” (1:29).  Even as he encourages the churches to “work out your salvation” he qualifies that “it is God who works in you, giving the desire and ability to fulfill his will.” [xiv]

Spiritual growth is God’s work.  We will do good to remind ourselves that when we were dead in our sin, God made us alive.  God revives and continues to renew us into the image of His Son.  And therefore every time “we behold him, we are being transformed into the image of his Son”[xv] – God does the work of renewal; we need to present ourselves to him and his grace.

  1. Spiritual growth is teamwork

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Spiritual growth is not a solo mission.  God works through others to shape, encourage and renew us.  Paul boldly asserted his role in the renewal and regeneration of the Colossian congregation by means of his prayers (1:9-12), preaching, admonishing and teaching (1:28-29) and instructions (3:1-14, etc).  Elsewhere he encourages the church to follow his example in life and godliness as a means of spiritual growth,[xvi] “to encourage one another and build one another up” [xvii] and in another place he mentions that his spiritual warfare on their behalf enhances their growth in godliness. [xviii]  We grow up within caring and loving relationships.

Spiritual growth is teamwork; ironically our concern and effort for another’s spiritual growth makes us grow in godliness.  Therefore we ought to always consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together.” [xix] In other words, the express reason for our assembly is to deliberately edify and encourage others to excel in godliness and good works.  We grow because of other Christians’ input.

Thus, Paul teaches spiritual growth is the quest to know and represent Jesus Christ our Savior, in response to God’s loving favor and powerful enablement, by means of deliberate effort within a community of believers.  It is something we desire, we respond to, we assist in and we celebrate, and something which only reaches its climax “we he appears”. [xx]

So, how have you grown? What’s next for you? And who is helping you?

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[i] Colossians 2:22-23

[ii] Colossians 3:5-7

[iii] Colossians 2:23

[iv] Colossians 3:5-6

[v] Colossians 3:1-17

[vi] Ephesians 1:6

[vii] Romans 8:28

[viii] 2 Corinthians 3:18

[ix] 1 Thessalonians 1:6-7; Ephesians 5:1-2; 1 Corinthians 11:1; cf Philippians 4:9

[x] 2 Peter 3:18

[xi] 2 Peter 1:5-8

[xii] Philippians 2:12

[xiii] 1 Timothy 4:7

[xiv] Philippians 2:12-13

[xv] 2 Corinthians 3:18

[xvi] Philippians 4:9-121

[xvii] Thessalonians 5:11

[xviii] 2 Corinthians 10:1-6

[xix] Hebrews 10:24

[xx] 1 John 3:2

All Things New 1 – A new beginning

“Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:1-5)

It is quite fitting that we celebrate New Year’s Day.  In its nature these celebrations rejoice in the faithfulness of God who has preserved us another year, so we can exclaim “Thus far the Lord has brought us!” (I Samuel 7:12).  But more so it is a celebration of a fresh start, a clean slate, an unwritten book yet to be penned.  There is the anticipation of the unknown, the mystery of the unpredictable – what does this year hold for us?  How will things be at the end of this year?  How will it change me?

A Fresh Start

Open_Door1

It is necessary that we start this year with the reminder that our God is the God of a fresh start.  He is the God of the second chance who never grows tired of his children but is always “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4).  Jeremiah wrote “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23).  New mercies every day.  He is the One who lures the distant sinner closer by saying “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18).  Indeed, our God is the God who wishes to put the past behind with the promise of a clean slate for a fresh start!  His invitation is clear: “forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead… press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14).

A New Beginning

thrive_tree-after-fire

Our God is the God of New Beginnings.  He is all-wise, all-mighty, and all-sufficient. Therefore over every situation we can confidently declare “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37; cf Jeremiah 32:27).  He is the One who promised “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:18-19).  Our God springs life-giving water in a lifeless wilderness and creates a mighty army from dried bones (Ezekiel 37:1ff).  Nothing is ever too far gone or too hard for him. He has the power and the wisdom to redeem the hopeless or to make something out of nothing.  Even death does not mark the end since He himself rose from the dead and poured his resurrection spirit into our hearts (Romans 8:11).  He is the reason we hope and don’t despair, the reason we confidently wait and smile in the face of impossible odds.  Where there seems to be a dead end our God opens “a door of hope” (Hosea 2:15).  Our God reconciles the divided, rejuvenates the fatigued, restores the broken, and revives the dead.  He is the God of new beginnings!  With him life goes on, forever.

New Things

Butterfly-Transformation

Our God is the God of New Things. He is called Creator, the Beginning, and the Bright Morning Star announcing the coming new day.  He is the God of new inventions, new solutions, new answers, a new way of life.  As with the birth of a baby, new beginnings always starts with cries of pain and tears of desperation. These cries are not from a place of despair but in hopeful anticipation – joyful change is on the way.  As the birth a baby represents the promise of new life, a clean slate and new potential, so every oppressive or painful situation holds the promise of this newness of life. And when God is at work in these painful circumstances he promises that it is certainly not in vain (Isaiah 66:8-9).  This pattern we see repeated in the Scriptures.

The slaves cried out in Egypt – God’s answer for deliverance and a new way of life was in the birth of baby Moses; he embodied their answered prayer.  Years later, in their promised land, time and again the oppressed Israelites cried out to God for deliverance, his answer was the judges Gideon, Sampson, Jephthah, Deborah.  In a similar way the Bible talks of Samuel, David, Jeremiah, John the Baptist and, yes, Jesus our Redeemer.  God’s plan for new things, new life, enters our world during painful times through a person whom he empowers.  In a similar way, you are God’s answer for new things this year.

Your New Year

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“Don’t Look Back” by Erik Johansson

This is a New Year.  The old is gone – it cannot be redone and it cannot be undone.  But it is a good time to turn the page and start with a clean slate.  Our God is the God of the Fresh Start.  He is the God of the Fresh Start in whom we can find peace for a plagued conscience and forgiveness for a life wasted.  Don’t despair – life is not over until he calls us home.  Come reason with him; unburden yourself and find new mercies for this New Year.  His steadfast love never ceases!  What do you want to close the book on this year?

He is the God of the New Beginning, who creates a garden in the wasteland, an army out of dead bones and makes a way where there seems to be no way.  Nothing is ever too hopeless for him to redeem. As long as your heart pumps he has good plans for you – plans of a glorious future.  He heals bleeding hearts, mends shattered dreams and restores broken relationships.  He truly makes all things new!  What can he do for you and in you this year?

He is the God of New Things, the all-wise, all-mighty creator of all things who knows the end from the beginning.  The Bible records how in the past he gave inspiration and plans for deliverance and warfare, for health, healing and sanitation, for designs and building of the ark, the tabernacle and temple, for arts, poetry and music, economic planning, supernatural providential sustenance and wise governance.    What can he do though you this year?
Sunrise3 - Mountaineers

Happy New Year! Make this one count for eternity.

RESPONDING TO A CRISIS

A crisis is due (time of arrival uncertain)

September 11, 2001 is a day that no New Yorker (or our generation) will ever forget.  It started off as another ordinary day as people hurried into the day.  Someone overslept, another had a fight with his wife, someone’s car broke down, one planned to get engaged that evening.  But for more than 5000 people in the Twin Towers it was the last day of their lives.

crisis

We never schedule a crisis in our dairy – no one knows when disasters is going to hit.  A sudden death of a loved one, news of cancer, robbers in your home or a letter of retrenchment.  These things happen to someone every day.  Jesus spoke the truth: “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).  All we can do is “be watchful” and ready (1 Peter 5:8) and respond in a godly way.

Judah’s king Jehoshaphat had such a day as three big armies crossed the sea from Syria to invade Judah.  Yet this Godly man did not panic or run away.  His response to this crisis is recorded for our comfort, encouragement and learning (Romans 15:4).

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Photo-documentary of 2 Chronicles 20 (1 of 3)
Photo-documentary of 2 Chronicles 20 (2 of 3)
Photo-documentary of 2 Chronicles 20 (2 of 3)
Photo-documentary of 2 Chronicles 20 (3 of 3)
Photo-documentary of 2 Chronicles 20 (3 of 3)

What can we learn from this great historic account deliverance?

  1. DEVOTION: Live ready (v6-13)

1Devotion

Jehoshaphat is a king that served God with the devotion of king David, “walked in his commandments” (2 Chronicles 17:3-4) and had his “heart set on God” (19:3).  Not only did he serve God in the privacy of his heart and personal life, but this righteous ruler courageously brought about a great reformation in the nation of Israel by destroying Baal worship with its immoral public practices, and by further commissioning priests to teach the Law of God throughout Judah and later judges to bring about justice in his kingdom.

So when the news of this crisis came to his palace, Jehoshaphat did not fear but did what he did every day: he went into his inner room and prayed to the God whom he had faithfully served all his days.  I love the way the book of Daniel records how that godly prophet responded to the death threats of not worshipping the emperor: “and Daniel went to his house… and he kneeled on his knees three times a day and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since his youth.” (Daniel 6:11)

So what do we learn from this?  A crisis may hit any of us at any moment, and the best way to be prepared is to be securely rooted in a devoted relationship with God.  When war breaks out the soldiers should be disciplined and trained; when exam day comes the student should be prepared; when a fire rages the fireman should be trained.  When a crisis hits, the believer should be firmly established in the devotional disciplines and relationship with His God – just like Jehoshaphat was.

Secondly, Jehoshaphat was ready because he was forewarned about some impending doom (2 Chronicles 19:2).  Peter teaches us to “be watchful because the devil walks around like a prowling lion” (1 Peter 5:8) and Paul urges the believer should “not be ignorant if [Satan’s] plans” (2 Corinthians 2:11).  We are ready by staying close to God and watching in prayer, listening to what the Holy Spirit reveals to us.

  1. PRAYER: Run to God (v13-14)

2Prayer

As soon as the news of the approaching armies reached the king he proclaimed a fast, and everyone in this reformed nation ran to their God.  Jehoshaphat’s prayer is deliberately included as an example prayer for a crisis such as this.  This is how he prayed:

  • Praise: Even with the crisis looming Jehoshaphat starts by praises to God, allowing his (and the assembly) to consider Whom they are praying for: the Almighty God who Rules from Heaven and has power over every nation, and he is the God who made covenant with them!
  • Remind: The king reminds himself (and the assembly) of what God has done in the past, which immediately makes this present crisis seem less dooming since God has done many similar miracles for Israel in the past. Furthermore Jehoshaphat reminds himself (and the assembly) of the promises of God, stirring faith that God had already promised to do the thing he was about to ask. These two reminders stirred the assembly’s hope that God is at hand and for them, and therefore he is willing and able to deliver them from this disaster.
  • Confess: “You have not because you ask not”. Only after praising God for his attributes and faithfulness does the King confess his problem to God and asks for intervention, but he adds their helplessness in the situation and trust in God’s willingness and ability to help. He prays “For we have no power against this great multitude that is coming against us; nor do we know what to do, but our eyes are upon You.” (verse 12).   God promises “grace to the humble” – and that is exactly what the nation needs in this crisis!
  1. WAIT: Let God direct you (v13-15) 

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After the prayer the whole nation “stood before the Lord” (verse 13) – just waited patiently, quietly for God’s direction or instruction. Each minute that they stood waiting they knew the army marched closer to Jerusalem.  But no-one did anything to prepare for war or flight – they abstained from all food and rest and entertainment because they knew that all their efforts will be futile – they literally looked and waited for God to save them.

Just like Habakkuk did years later, the Jews took their eyes off their enemies and looked towards God: I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me” (Habakkuk 2:1). Then God answered through the prophet Jahaziel that he will destroy their enemies – they simply had to walk to the edge of the desert and see what He was going to do.  Juda was encouraged by God and worshipped God with relief and gladness.  God heard their prayers and would save them from certain destruction!

Because they waited, God answered the questions “Lord, what do you see?”, “Lord, what will You do to save us?” and “Lord, what must we do?”  In every crisis the Word of God is what changes the situation from trial to triumph.

  1. FAITH: the worship of faithful obedience (v16-21)

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But as in almost every situation, God involves us in His salvation.  What did the Jews have to do?  In simple obedience walk head-on towards the enemy.  As Moses had to face Pharaoh, Joshua had to encircle Jericho, David had to walk up to Goliath, and Gideon had to walk into the Midianite camp, so Judah had to march in faith towards this massive army.  As Daniel’s friends discovered, God’s Great Plan sometimes requires us to walk through the fire. But as they obeyed in faith, they started singing the ancient Israeli song associated with God’s faithful deliverance of the Egyptian Army after their Exodus “Praise the LORD, for His mercy endures forever.” (2 Chronicles 20:20)

And this act of faithful obedience and praise resulted in God’s intervention into the situation: the three invading armies turned on each other and completely annihilated each other so that “No-one had escaped.” (v24)  All Judah had left to do was carry the spoils of war back – for three full days!  What a marvelous victory by the Lord!

  1. THANKS: Stop to give honour (v24-26)

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But the story does not end with the spoils and peace – Jehoshaphat had the wisdom to end where they began: at the House of God.  The whole nation returned to God’s Temple in Jerusalem to give thanks to God and make His praise glorious.  They returned to the place where they prayed, waited and received the Word and direction from God.

Just like one of the ten lepers who had received healing from Jesus returned to give thanks and “was made well (or whole)”, so Jehoshaphat and Judah was reward with “quite” and “rest all around” because of their gifts of thanks.

The other day the Lord said to me as something happened which was out of my control, “Don’t walk around defeated.”  I want to leave you with this phrase – when Crisis hits don’t walk around defeated, like heathen who live “having no hope and far from God in this world” (Ephesians 2:13).

Rather, like King Jehoshaphat, devote your life to seek and serve God.  When news of crisis comes, turn to Him in prayer, reminding yourself of Who He is and what He has done, present your problem to Him and confess your helplessness and trust in Him. Ask Him what He will do and what you should do. Then wait – let Him direct your response.  Act confidently – God is in control of your life, and you are precious to Him.  And once He has saved you, make His praise glorious!

LordForMe