Archive for the 'Suffering' Category

31
May
12

preaching about suicide

First of all, a further apology for such a time between posts.  Productivity is likely to remain low over the next couple of months so apologies again in advance.

On a recent Sunday past, a group of students from a nearby Bible College were responsible for our Morning Bible Hour.  Their preacher was a young Dutchman who  spoke ably.  His topic was interesting, indeed arresting.  He spoke in a general and pastoral way on Psalm 23 and made a number of pertinent comments.  He related the Psalm to a very personal and moving account of his young, pregnant sister-in-law’s tragic suicide some three years previously.

The juxtaposing of Psalm 23 and the suicide of a confessing believer in Christ was startling and provocative.

Psalm 23 extols God’s providential care of his people.  David, a literal shepherd in his youth and in his adult life, as King of Israel, a shepherd of a different sort (for kings in Israel were regularly described as shepherds of God’s people), confesses rightly and humbly, ‘the Lord is my Shepherd’.  The Psalm extols the shepherding care of God in David’s life.  Whether in pleasant times (when led by still waters) or difficult dark times (in the valley of the shadow of death) the Lord is his protector and keeper.  David need fear no evil.  Indeed in the very midst of his enemies, when threatened on every side, David’s faith depicts the Lord seating him at a banquet; the Lord’s provision makes a mockery of his enemies and every fearful situation.  David is safe in the epicentre of the storm because the Lord provides abundantly.

The question hangs begging in the air.  Why then did the young Dutchman’s sister-in-law commit suicide?  If God protects his people then why did he not prevent this young mother (and mother-to-be) from self harm?  Where is the God who gives banquets to his troubled and beleaguered people?

It would be a foolish person who did not see that here we are in deep waters.  Deep waters for faith that is.  This kind of topic is neither easy (or safe) to preach or post on for not only is suicide a subject that sends a chill down the spine of most but, more pertinently, who knows whether those who hear or read are themselves contemplating suicide or have a relative who has taken this tragic course. Discoursing on suicide means we must be particularly conscious of our audience.

So what points ought preachers to make when grappling with the subject of suicide of a believer?  Let me suggest a few.

1.  Preachers should stress the need for those who feel suicidal to see their doctor, and soon.  Many suicides arise from clinical depression.  Clinical depression is an illness that drastically skews our thinking.  It is not merely the normal experience of being down in the dumps.    People who are clinically depressed are unable to raise their mood however hard they try.   For whatever reason something has ceased functioning as it ought in their brain or nervous system that results in a mind flooded with dark thoughts and a mood that is deeply depressed and perhaps anxious.  They have a sustained disturbance of mood that is tangible, abnormal, and profoundly affecting their sense of well-being.  Medical attention can help dramatically.  The depression and symptoms can be treated (and significantly alleviated) and the underlying cause diagnosed and tackled.  Clinical depression is pathological; it is an illness and should be recognised as such.

Preachers should stress that just as a heart condition or blood pressure or a broken leg requires medical treatment (and perhaps lifestyle change) so too does clinical depression.  The depressed person is as clinically ill as is the person with say angina.  And while there may be spiritual issues that the illness reveals or creates (as there may be in any illness) the whole story is not likely to be spiritual.  The advice to see their GP soon and speak openly must be clear and unambiguous.  Where symptoms of depression or anxiety are persisting and are moderate to severe in intensity a visit to the doctor is a must and preachers must avoid suggesting the whole matter is spiritual and must be handled at that level.

Let me say it once again, preachers who preach about suicide and depression and other depression related topics must impress, as part of their message, the value of visiting the doctor, to fail to do so is irresponsible.  Medical attention can help dramatically.

2.  Preachers should not pronounce whether the person who has committed suicide is presently in heaven or hell.  They should avoid this for reasons both theological and pastoral.  They should avoid pronouncements for the simple reason that they do not know.  Preachers simply do not have the authority to pontificate for the Bible gives no sure word on this. Preachers have no theological mandate.

At one time the almost uniform view was that no suicide has eternal life.  Nowadays the opposite view prevails.  Preachers tend to fall over themselves to assure those who grieve that their loved one is in heaven. Such diametrically opposing views exist because pastors go beyond what Scripture reveals. On the one hand those in Scripture who commit suicide (like Saul and Judas Iscariot) are hardly comforting company.  It is those faithful unto death who are promised the crown of life (Rev 2:10).  Scripture affirms that it is those who stand firm to the end who are saved (Matt 24:13).  Endurance in faith is a hallmark of the redeemed (Hebs 6:11; Cf Rev 13:10). At the same time, God is not unrighteous and will not forget their work and love (Hebs 6:10).  More could be said here but for brevity’s sake I shall say no more.

Save this…

Pastorally it is disastrous to affirm those who commit suicide will be in heaven.  For the believer in the audience with suicidal thoughts such cavalier assurances act like green lights.  For some, the only brake on suicide is the worry that they may end up somewhere worse.  This is a healthy fear and is no bad deterrent and preachers should not undermine it by pronouncing where they have no word from the Lord.

Where the Bible remains silent we should remain silent.  In this way we avoid encouraging possible suicides or devastating grieving relatives and we stay within the bounds of ‘it is written’.

3.  Preachers should make clear that suicide is always an expression of a collapse of faith.  I imagine I hear shocked protest.  However, we must be blunt and unambiguous.  It is never faith that leads to suicide.  Faith trusts God.  It never gives up.  It never despairs.  It never loses hope.  Faith endures.  Suicide results from a loss of hope.  It flows from despair.  It happens when the pain (emotional or physical) is so great that the person no longer believes the resources are available to cope with it. When pain exceeds pain-coping resources, suicidal feelings are the result.  To believe we have no resources is the essence of unbelief.

Now it may be that the mind which commits suicide is so overwhelmed and distorted that all personal responsibility is gone.  None of us knows – only God knows.

I speak about this subject with some personal insight.  I have known deep depression that created suicidal thoughts.  I know others who have similarly suffered from depression and experienced suicidal thoughts.  In my case, profound and deep though the depression was, insistently mind-altering though it was, I did not lose completely the sense of personal responsibility and accountability. Indeed it was faith asserted when I did not understand and when my mind was screaming otherwise that preserved me.   To have succumbed to suicidal thoughts would only have been possible had I finally (however briefly) abandoned faith.

Perhaps there are depths of depression where such abandonment is inevitable and leave the person without any responsibility for their actions.  I do not know… and neither do you.  What we can say, is whether faith is abandoned knowingly (and so culpably) or otherwise, it is nevertheless abandoned and it is this that frees the person to commit suicide.  Where there is clinging faith there is hope and no suicide.

Of course, the person who commits suicide may have such distorted thinking that he believes he is doing the best/right/believing thing.  He is convinced he is a burden on others etc.  We should be clear (and preachers should make clear)that such ‘convictions’ are not true faith but a deception of Satan.  Again, true faith clings to God and what Scripture has revealed even when the mind and spirit are being swamped by all kinds of deceptive lies.

Again, I ask, is there a point at which the lies become so overwhelming, so compelling, that all personal responsibility is gone?  Only God knows.  But one way or another, either culpably or otherwise, faith has collapsed and the preacher, let me repeat, should make clear that this is the case.  We do none any favours by shielding them from this harsh reality.

This collapse of personal faith by the suicide is what helps us make sense – at least to some extent – of the tension that seems to exist between the announcement of Psalm 23 that God is the shepherd who protects his people and the suicide of a believer.  Why does David feel secure when threatened on every side?  Is it because he is super-brave?  No.  It is because of his faith.  It is because David believes that the Lord is his Shepherd that he is strong in spirit and stands firm.  It his resolve to believe and trust that gives him strength and resilience.  If his faith were to collapse then David would be overwhelmed and crushed.

Yes the Lord keeps his people but he keeps them through faith (Roms 11:30).  It is faith that gives us victory (1 Jn 5:4).  It is the shield of faith that defends us against the fiery destructive darts of Satan (Eph 6).  It is faith that enables us to endure (Hebs 11:27, 12:3; Rev 13:10).  Where there is faith there is endurance and divine keeping and protection.  It is those who trust the Lord promises to keep.  Not those who trusted in the past but those who trust now.  While we trust we are invincible.  When we trust we shall never be put to shame.  It is when we cease to trust we fall and sometimes catastrophically.

Of course, this does not answer all questions.  We are still left asking why the Lord allows faith to collapse.  Why did he allow the Dutch preachers sister-in-law to commit suicide or for that matter the preacher who married my wife and I?  But that question is but one of a whole parcel of such questions.  Why did he allow the young child prayed for and loved to die?  Why did he allow the cancer that took away a loving and needed father?  Why did he allow the pastor to commit adultery?  Why the genocide in Rwanda, the killing fields of Cambodia, the WW2 concentration camps?  Why did he permit Job to lose all that he had?  Indeed the most basic question of all – why did he permit Adam to sin?

To these questions no answer is given.  Such questions are too wonderful for us.  We are but creatures and God alone is the Creator.   In him alone are found the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.  Like Job we may in our confusion and pain question God and even, fools that we are, impugn his righteousness.  But like Job we will finally need to learn that God is God and we are but men.  We will need to hear the Lord say to us tenderly but firmly,

Job 40:1-8 (ESV)
And the Lord said to Job:  “Shall a fault-finder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.” … “Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?

Like Job we will need to humble ourselves and discover that what faith really requires is not answers but a fresh vision of God himself, a fresh realization that God is trustworthy even when we are in the dark, that God is righteous and every man a liar and unrighteous.  Then like Job we will confess,

Job 42:3-6 (ESV)
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

In Christ, we have a far greater grasp of the ‘godness’ of God than Job had.  We have far more reason to trust unconditionally. And faith does this; it trusts Christ because of all he is and is content to forego understanding in a host of other areas.

The preacher who discusses suicide will want to make this point, and the previous ones, and perhaps others that I have not considered.  Are there any you feel ought to be included?

26
Jan
12

discipline… an initiative of grace (1)

a doxology to grace… a preamble

The gospel is the announcing of extravagant grace.  It proclaims to a disgraced, enslaved and hopeless world  how ‘the grace of God has appeared to all men bringing salvation’ (Tit 2:11).  In Jesus, the embodiment of grace and truth, God’s rescue plan for the nations is unveiled.  In Christ, God’s grace flows out in all its fullness and extravagance to  all who gladly submit to his reign.  In Christ, we receive grace upon grace  (Jn 1).  Christians rightly rejoice in grace.  We exult in grace.  God’s Kingdom, in Christ, is a Kingdom of grace. Its subjects stand in grace (Roms 5:2); live in the reign of grace (Roms  5:21); grow in the realm of grace (2 Pet 3:18)   The good news about the kingdom which we embrace is the ‘word of grace’ (Acts 20:32).  We are: called by grace (Gals 1:15); justified by his grace as a gift (Roms 3:24) ; and made alive by grace (Eph 2).   The fulfilment of all that is promised rests on grace (Roms 4:16)  For those who belong to God’s Kingdom, God is simply, ‘the God of all grace’.

Praise God.  Praise God for his love before time that chose rebels against his goodness, people corrupt and full of sin, forgave all their sins, and made them, in Christ, his sons and daughters and heirs of his glory.  Saving grace is God’s incomprehensible goodness and love to the undeserving, delivering them from a fallen world and all that is part of it.  It is every activity of the triune God in bringing many sons to glory.   It is glorious (Eph 1:6), immeasurable (Eph 2:7); surpassing (2 Cor 9:14); and, in the believer, more than sufficient for all his needs (2 Cor 12:9).  Praise God.

Praise God for grace.  Preach grace and glory in grace.  Live in grace.

distorting grace

But…

… preach grace as it is and not a romanticized, sentimentalized,  parody of grace.   In our effete society all too often grace is love that never hurts; giving that never expects; acceptance that never questions; and favour that never reproves.  Grace, is regularly a synonym for indulgence and spoiling, for pampering and coddling, a spiritual massage.  Grace, it would seem, is never outraged, never judges, never censures, never frowns, and never chastens.   Christ apparently is a King, a Lord, who neither demands not warns and God  is a Father who will not admonish and discipline.   Grace like this is simply a panacea, a fix, to make us feel good.  It is merely a soft toy for the soul.   Such views of grace are profoundly unbiblical and dangerously distorted.    They are caricatures, indeed counterfeits of grace.

disciplining grace

Grace, properly understood, is not only forgiveness of sins, it is the ongoing purifying redeeming activity of God in his people as he rebukes, admonishes, corrects, afflicts, remonstrates, warns, teaches, trains and disciplines.  One way or another grace will train us,’ to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Tit 2:11-14).  Grace is not simply a message from God we believe it is an activity by God in our lives we experience… and sometimes in ways that seem strange.

The believers to whom Peter writes were experiencing hard times.  They were suffering for their faith.  How does Peter encourage them.  Listen to his words:

1Pet 4:16-19 (ESV)
Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​“If the righteous is scarcely saved, ​​​​​​​what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” ​​​ Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. 

Peter sees persecutions as God’s  way of judging and destroying all that is sinful and wrong in their lives.  It is part of the discipline that God brings upon his children as he prepares them for glory.   It is a sign indeed that we are God’s children.  Indeed, it is integral to salvation and the reputation of God.  God, after all, can scarcely judge and condemn the unbelieving world if he does not make it his business to judge and destroy sin in his own family.  Such a God would be unrighteous.  A good father disciplines his children.

The same point is made by the writer of Hebrews.  The Hebrew Christians are also suffering for their faith.  Why?  Is it because the world is opposed to the gospel?  Certainly it is.  But that is not the only reason.  The world’s opposition is part of God’s refining, training process in his people.

Heb 12:3-11 (ESV)
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, ​​​​​​​nor be weary when reproved by him. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, ​​​​​​​and chastises every son whom he receives.” ​​​ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. 

Notice, this discipline is a discipline of grace; he disciplines us for our good that we may share in his holiness.  He disciplines us because he is our Father and loves us too much to simply let us do our own thing. God’s disciplines in a believer are not curses of law but corrections of grace.  They are not retributive but remedial and restorative.  Such disciplines are not to be feared but welcomed.  Welcomed, not in any masochistic sense, no-one wishes to suffer, but welcomed for what they produce.  Like the athlete welcomes the gruelling of training so the believer welcomes the training of grace.  Like the Psalmist, we say, ‘it was good for me to be afflicted’ (Ps 119:71). We must not feel threatened by difficulties in life or resent them.  Proverbs reminds us, ‘Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, ​​​​​​​but he who hates reproof is stupid. ​​(Prov 12:1).  We must not think that they come from a hostile God and are somehow opposed to the gospel and grace.  Far from it, God’s disciplines, his ‘severe mercies’, are not antithetical to grace, they are agents of grace, allies of grace, part of its apparatus.

God’s judgements in our lives come in many shapes and forms. For some they involve persecutions for others they may mean sickness, bereavement or some other form of loss.  God’s disciplines are as varied as the experiences of life.  And they are all part of his training in righteousness.  They all shape character and produce maturity of faith.  They prepare us for heaven.  Even Jesus, who was without sin, grew in wisdom and maturity, through suffering (Hebs 2:10).  Through suffering he became perfectly equipped to Shepherd his people (Hebs 2:17).

In our lives there is the added complication of sin.  Sometimes we do not hear the ‘word of grace’ that comes to us through God’s word.  Sometimes the prompting of the Spirit in our hearts is ignored and defied.  Such foolishness may require a great storm to get us back on course.  We may have to be plunged into God’s waves and billows before we come to our senses (Jonah 2).  Some prodigals have to find themselves destitute, feeding swine, before they think of returning to their Father.  Such are God’s ways with his people.

Perhaps most solemnly of all, God’s disciplines may even mean the loss of life.  In 1 Cor 11 Paul says,

1Cor 11:27-32 (ESV)
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. 

The ‘unworthy manner’ Paul refers to was thoughtless even cruel behaviour towards other believers at the Lord’s Supper.  At their love feasts, fellowship context in which they ate the Lord’s Supper, the rich were feasting lavishly while the poor had comparatively little.  Instead of the Supper being an experience of fellowship and oneness it was an exhibition of differences.   The wealthy indulged and were indifferent at best to their fellow brothers and sisters.  The poor were humiliated.  The result was sickness and death among them, judgements by the Lord.  But, yet again, note, these judgements were disciplines of grace – they were disciplined of the Lord so that they may not be condemned along with the world (Cf. 1 Jn 5:16; Jas 5;14,15; Job 33).

We ought to judge ourselves (that is deal with sin in our lives) so that we need not be judged by the Lord for what is sure is he will not simply allow his people to be careless about their sin.  Careless, casual attitudes to sin in his people he will judge, his grace will allow no less. 

20
Dec
10

the trying of your faith… (6)

Does the Bible explain suffering?  Does it provide a theodicy – a justification of God?  The answer to both questions is the same; yes and no.

There is much suffering in the world.   Indeed, there is such pervasive and pitiful suffering that few of us are able to bear more than a glimpse of it without being crushed, and, mercifully, a glimpse is the most we receive.  Human suffering (to say nothing of any other kind) is horrendous in its proportions and only God sees it (knows it) in its totality.  But what kind of God can allow such suffering?   And if he is the Christian God, all-powerful and all-good, how can such suffering exist?

The biblical answer, baldly stated, may seem clinical.  What we must understand is it is not a mere argument or apologetic but actual history.  Here I want to rehearse this history tersely.

God is good and created a good world.  Man was created free and chose to defy God.  In his defiance sin entered the world the dislocation and rebellion that results in suffering.  It can be no other.  If all that is of God is good and brings gladness then all that opposes God is sin and brings suffering.

The rest of the Bible is the story of God’s activity in human history to rescue humanity and the universe from its own folly. It is the story of how suffering can only be destroyed by God himself intolerably suffering.  It is the story of Jesus Christ.  In Christ, God found a way to deal with human sin and so with human suffering without having to destroy the cause – us – altogether.  The Bible story is the magnificent redemptive story of God’s goodness, patience, kindness, wisdom and self-giving love in creating and then rescuing his rebellious creation.  Every other uplifting story of fall and redemption is simply an etching of this big story and a faint etching at that.

Does the Bible explain suffering?  Yes.  It is all our fault. We are completely to blame.  All suffering traces back to us.   Is God culpable?  No.  Not unless creating a free moral being makes him culpable.  Not unless rescuing humanity by suffering himself makes him culpable.  God is not culpable, we are.

And yet…

Does the Bible explain suffering?  Does it provide a theodicy – a justification of God?

In another sense the answer is no.  In the Bible story, a tempter (the serpent) comes to tempt humanity.  We are not told from where the serpent comes.  We are not told why God permitted it entrance to the garden.  We are not really told why God allowed sin into creation to reek the havoc it does.  We are not told why a million trillion unspeakable sufferings happen as they do.

Does God justify himself?  No he doesn’t.  Nor should he.  He is God.  We cannot put God in the dock.  To even think of so doing is monstrously inappropriate.  Man is not God, that God should answer to him.  The creature cannot accuse the Creator any more than the clay the Potter.   The finite cannot question the Infinite.  Such doubt and questioning is the very essence of sin.  Indeed, it was/is the primal sin.

God does not exist to answer our questions.  And our minds are probably too small to comprehend the answer even should he give it.  It is sufficient for believers that God has revealed his goodness and salvation conclusively in Jesus Christ.  Believers trust him in the perplexity of a suffering world and in the confusion of our personal world of suffering.  In this trust our restless questions are stilled and we have peace.

07
Nov
10

the trying of your faith… (5)

Job says,

Job 14:1 (ESV)

“Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble.

and again,

Job 5:7 (ESV)
but man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.

Of course, Job had good reason to view life like this.  He lost, possessions, family and health all within a few days of each other.  His troubles were catastrophic.  Yet he is by no means unique.  We, who live in the West in the C21, find it difficult to grasp that for the vast majority of people through the vast majority of history life has been very harsh.  In the past only the strong survived very long and their lives were often hard and difficult.  The same is true even today for those outside the privileged West.  For most Job’s words are true, ‘few days and full of trouble’.

Even in the West technology can only cushion a little.  Many people suffer cruelly in life.  Illness and tragedy can strike at any time.  How do people cope?   To be frank, I do not know how non-Christian people do cope.  For there is little comfort in atheism or agnosticism.  Nor do the major religions of the world provide much comfort to the sufferer.  I hope to show this in a future blog.  But Christians are not crippled by belief systems that offer little consolation.  The Christian faith is full of encouragements in the face of adversity.  We noticed this in a previous blog.  It seems wherever you turn to in the Christian gospel there are resources to buoy one’s spirit and strengthen resolve.

I am not saying that these remove suffering.  Nor am I saying that they are easy to hold in the midst of trauma, yet holding them through pain steadies our quaking nerve and maintains meaning and purpose in the chaos of suffering.  Many have found this to be true in profound suffering.

I have not suffered deeply in life, but I have suffered.  None go through life, even in the West, free of trouble.  In my late twenties out of the blue an illness struck that carried in its wake deep depression.  Until then, I had no conception what trouble was and even less ‘depression’.  In a matter of days my confident and secure world collapsed around me.  Deep depression was accompanied by raging anxiety.  Involved in the poisonous cocktail was a loss of emotional energy.  The slightest task seemed to require climbing a mountain.

It was a time of spiritual crisis too.  Where my faith had fairly easily withstood the assault of secular education in a matter of weeks depression left it pretty well lay in tatters around me.   Until then, my faith had been genuine but fairly superficial.  It had never been really tested.  Under test, its superficiality was exposed.      It took time for me to learn to trust at a deeper level.   The Lord kind of forced this upon me.  I found medication helped but not as much as I had pinned my hopes on.  I gradually realised that any hope of living with this fearful illness and in time perhaps overcoming it lay with the Lord.  I began to learn to trust.

Let me explain what I mean by trust.  Remember, although medication helped (and if you suffer from depression make sure you go to the doctor and do not be afraid of medication) a little (many people it helps much more) I still struggled with depression, anxiety and a lack of energy.  When I resolved to trust it did not mean that my mind immediately found peace and joy.  Far from it.  In resolving to trust what I began to do was talk to myself in biblical categories and refuse to think or give credit to the anxious thoughts that were clawing at my mind for attention and acceptance.  Faith holds to what God promises and refuses unbelieving thoughts.

Let me give an example.  I was a schoolteacher.  I had been on sick leave for six months.  I could see if I waited until I was fully well before returning this may never happen and so I decided (with my doctor’s approval) to return to work.  The trouble with teaching of course is that you hit the classroom running.  There was in these days no way of being eased in gently.  I was about to start back working and I was running at best on two cylinders.  I knew I had nothing like the energy required to do the job.  Anxiety was ratcheting up inside.  For many months I went into work and through the working day repeating as a mantra to myself, ‘the Lord is my strength… the Lord is my strength’.  I would say again and again and again, ‘I can do all things through Christ that gives me strength’.  When thoughts threatened to overwhelm that I could not continue I would stifle them with, ‘I can do all things…’

Gradually, anxieties subsided,  and slowly, painfully slowly, depression lifted and a measure of energy returned.  I have learned by God’s grace that the gospel is the source of great strength, hope and even joy in trouble.  I learned even in depression that joy is a choice.  Paul and Silas, in the deepest dungeon at Philippi had little to rejoice about, but they chose to rejoice.  Paul regularly encourages believers to rejoice.  In depression, I learned to rejoice.  I learned to develop a thankful spirit for all the little things in life, to ‘count my blessings’.  I learned to lie back in bed at night and allow a simple truth about God and the gospel of Christ to bring light to my mind.  It may simply be ‘God is good’ or, ‘The son of God loved me and gave himself for me’  or, ‘Be anxious for nothing… your heavenly father knows your needs’.

Over the years this illness has remained in measure with me.  It is my ‘thorn’ and its pain is not pleasant.  I largely function on three cylinders and on a good day on three and a half (bad day, two and a half).  I have learned to believe that God’s strength is perfected in weakness and to believe, ‘my grace is sufficient for you’.  I have learned of course, at best, imperfectly and with many stumbles.  But that is the way of faith.

What I am saying  in this blog is that the gospel is full of consolations for the struggling and troubled spirit and that is exactly what God intends it to be.  He wants us to find our bedrock in him.   He, in Christ, is for us ‘the Rock of Ages’.  He is our stability, strength, satisfaction and salvation.  He is our salvation in every sense of the word.  At every point of life and in every situation of life and for every need of life our God is sufficient and our Saviour.  He saves us from the guilt of the past and saves us in the testing circumstances of the present and will save us through every danger of the future until he brings us safely and triumphantly into his heavenly Kingdom.

Learn the great truths of the gospel and apply them to your everyday life.  They reveal to us a God who is more than able to meet our needs whatever they may be.  Romans 8 says it so well.  It may be said to someone tritely and that is wrong but if said and received in the right spirit these verses are a powerful encouragement to faith.

Rom 8:31-39 (ESV)
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died-more than that, who was raised-who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If you wish to read more about depression and handling it as a Christian, I wrote an article which can be found here.

04
Oct
10

the trying of your faith… (4)

The Bible makes no bones of the fact that Christians will suffer and life experience bears this out. How are we to endure sufferings?

The answer is, through gospel faith.  The gospel gives incentive after incentive to endure and indeed to triumph in and over suffering.  In fact, it may be easier to list those aspects of the gospel that don’t help us to endure than those that do.  Most, if not all, aspects of the gospel provide motivation for enduring and in fact rejoicing in suffering.

Let me highlight a few explicitly mentioned in the NT.

God himself is for us in all his strength and might in our trials.

Rom 8:31 (ESV)
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

2Tim 1:8 (ESV)
… share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God,

1Pet 5:6-7 (ESV)
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.

We derive strength for troubles from knowing God is our ever-caring and ever-vigilant heavenly Father.

Matt 6:25-32 (ESV)
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.

Our troubles, however disagreeable, are but the training of a loving Father.

Heb 12:5-11 (ESV)
And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.  ​​​​​​​​For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”  It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

We find strength and inspiration in God the Son who both strengthens us in suffering and is an example for us of triumphing through suffering.

Col 1:11 May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, ESV

2Cor 12:9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. ESV

Heb 12:1-4 (ESV)
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.

Heb 2:17-18 (ESV)
Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Heb 4:15 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. ESV

1Pet 2:21 (ESV)
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.

1Thess 1:6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, ESV

Our union with Christ means present suffering and future glory as it did for him. Indeed future glory is contingent on present suffering.

Rom 8:17 (ESV)
and if children, then heirs-heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

1Pet 4:12-13 (ESV)
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.

Rev 2:10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. ESV

Jas 1:12 Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. ESV

2Tim 2:12 ​​​​​​​​if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us;  ESV

2Tim 2:12 ​​​​​​​​if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us;  ESV

Luke 21:19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.  ESV

Phil 1:29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, ESV

2Cor 4:17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, ESV

In our sufferings we stand with all believers past and present who are our companions in suffering.  We draw strength from this.

Rom 15:4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. ESV

Jas 5:10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. ESV

Heb 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, ESV

1Cor 12:26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.  ESV

1Pet 5:9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. ESV

Rev 1:9 I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. ESV

The Holy Spirit is also a source of strength in the trials of life.

Rom 8:26-27 (ESV)
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

2Tim 1:7 (ESV)
for God gave us a Spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God,

However, as I say, these are but a few verses that encourage us in our trials.  They show that show God the Father, Son and Spirit are each engaged in supporting and strengthening us as we face life’s trials.  Many more could be cited.  Paul having outlined the gospel to the Roman Christians is only too aware that in all its aspects it is a profound incentive and encouragement to faith.  He writes:

Rom 8:31-39 (ESV)
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?…  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

07
Sep
10

the trying of your faith… (3)

Faith faces testing.  We are considering the testing of faith by troubles in life.  Ill-health, difficult relationships, unemployment, and many other difficult circumstances test faith.  We noted that we should not be dismayed by these as they are precisely what the Bible says life in this world will be like.  Many, says the Psalmist, are the afflictions of the righteous (Ps 34:19).

One important distinction to bear in mind is that in all testing both God and Satan and God are active in quite different ways.

  • In any trial Satan is at work to destroy us and God is at work to discipline us and define us in the image of Christ.  Satan acts out of malevolent loathing but God acts in merciful love.

We are told by Peter (in the context of persecution but the principle holds good for all trials) that Satan intends to destroy

    1Pet 5:8-9 (ESV)
    Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.

However, God in the same trial, is deepening faith that will receive a rich reward

    1Pet 1:6-7 (ESV)
    In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith-more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire-may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

He is disciplining (training) his children.

Heb 12:5-11 (ESV)
And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.  ​​​​​​​​For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”  It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

    This distinction is important because it is all too easy when under extreme pressure to feel that God has a hostile face.  This, of course, is exactly Satan’s intention.  He is intent on destroying our faith.  He wishes to cast God in a poor light and alienate us from him. He sows in our minds doubts about His goodness and love.  He accuses God of injustice, of harshness, and of  malignity.  If he can get us to cast God as the villain in our suffering, as cruel and sadistic, he has won.

    Satan’s intention with us, as with Job, is to incite us to curse God.

    Job 1:8-11 (ESV)
    And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”

    The way of faith in the heat of suffering is to hold resolutely to God’s goodness, however much circumstances and our pain push us to the contrary and to recognise that while Satan may mean it for evil God means it only for our good.  Like Job, faith says,

    Job 13:15 (ESV)
    Though he slay me, I will hope in him.

    13
    Aug
    10

    should we question God?

    For some Christians the very idea that any would question God is profane and impious.  For other Christians questioning God seems almost to be a mark of Christian liberty, even maturity.  Who is right?

    The truth is that it is not so much the questioning of God that is the issue, rather it is the reason we question God and the attitude behind the question that really counts.  The Psalms have many occasions where someone in anguish questions God (Ps 10, 44, 74, 77).  Indeed Psalm 22 which the Lord Jesus takes upon his lips is an example of just this.

    Ps 22:1-4 (ESV)
    My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?  ​​​​​​​​O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.  ​​​​​​​​Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.  ​​​​​​​​In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.

    David (and David’s Son and Lord) questions God but the questioning is from a position of trust and holy fear.  God is personal, he is ‘my God’.  For the psalmist God is holy and majestic ‘enthroned in the praises of Israel’.  There is no arrogance.  There is no holding of God to account for himself.  There is no impiety.  There is no doubt.  There is no unbelief.  No rebellion. It is the cry of uncomprehending faith.

    In his wisdom God may choose to answer our question or he may not.  Habakkuk was perplexed.  He wondered why God allowed the violence in Israel to continue.  And when God told him how he was going to deal with it he was all the more perplexed.  God graciously answers Habakkuk’s questions.  Yet Job, who suffers greatly and asks all kinds of questions, finds his questions remain unanswered.  Indeed, Job is to some extent rebuked for his questions.  The reason seems to be that Job’s questions begin to go too far.  They seem tinged with arrogance.

    Job 38:1-7 (ESV)
    Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:  ​​​​​​​​“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  ​​​​​​​​Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.  ​​​​​​​​“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.  ​​​​​​​​Who determined its measurements-surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?  ​​​​​​​​On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone,  ​​​​​​​​when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?…

    When Job’s questions become impertinent he needs reminding who is God and who is merely human.  Perplexed questions wrung out from the anguish of suffering or incomprehension are one thing, I-know-better-than-you criticism is a different matter altogether.  Job, godly man that he is, recognises his folly and confesses,

    Job 42:1-6 (ESV)
    Then Job answered the Lord and said:  ​​​​​​​​“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.  ​​​​​​​​‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.  ​​​​​​​​‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’  ​​​​​​​​I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you;  ​​​​​​​​therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

    Of course, as Christians we must start from the premise that we are never promised life will be easy.  In fact repeatedly we are warned that the opposite is likely to be the case.  We in the West want a cushy life and are too ready to be dismayed even indignant when we don’t get it.  Many of our ‘questions’ arise out of unrealistic and worldly expectations.  This, in a very real sense, is not ‘the good life’.  The Good Life is still to come.  Faith, asserts even in the waves of trouble, its solid trust in the goodness and wisdom of God.  It sees present trials as to be expected and at its best learns to rejoice that in them God is preparing us for great blessings in glory.

    1Pet 4:12-13 (ESV)
    Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.

    2Cor 4:17-18 (ESV)
    For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

    If the Lord does not return soon then it looks like persecution may lie ahead for the church.  This will test her mettle.  The trouble is, if we do not now build into God’s people a proper understanding that being a Christian means embracing trouble in faith then many will fail when persecution comes.  Let’s create robust Christians less given to complaining than ‘counting it all joy’.

    10
    Aug
    10

    what can miserable christians sing?

    Justin Taylor has a helpful blog entitled ‘Is your church a safe place for sad people’.  It challenges us to reflect on how well we nurture those who are grieving or weary – a question worth considering.  In similar vein he asks if any of our hymns allow weary Christians to give expression to their feelings.  He quotes from Carl Trueman’s essay ‘What Can Miserable Christians sing?’.

    Trueman writes,

    ‘Now, one would not expect the world to have much time for the weakness of the psalmists’ cries. It is very disturbing, however, when these cries of lamentation disappear from the language and worship of the church. Perhaps the Western church feels no need to lament—but then it is sadly deluded about how healthy it really is in terms of numbers, influence and spiritual maturity. Perhaps—and this is more likely—it has drunk so deeply at the well of modern Western materialism that it simply does not know what to do with such cries and regards them as little short of embarrassing. Yet the human condition is a poor one—and Christians who are aware of the deceitfulness of the human heart and are looking for a better country should know this. A diet of unremittingly jolly choruses and hymns inevitably creates an unrealistic horizon of expectation which sees the normative Christian life as one long triumphalist street party—a theologically incorrect and a pastorally disastrous scenario in a world of broken individuals. Has an unconscious belief that Christianity is—or at least should be—all about health, wealth, and happiness corrupted the content of our worship?’

    Trueman strikes a chord here.  In our church we probably sing the songs that are among the best of modern songs.  By that I mean those that are theologically rich.  Yet, even among those, if my impressions are accurate, I don’t think there are many that express the conflicts and resolutions of a troubled heart.  Few seem to come from the perspective of the weary and distressed.  Few are wistful and yearning.  It is to the older hymnodies that we must turn for these (or as Trueman suggests, to the Psalms). Perhaps such hymns were more prolific in the past because these were  times when the quality of life was much poorer and troubles were greater.  Yet many have sorrows of heart today and we need hymns that give expression to these and to the answers found in the gospel.

    Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should be regularly singing dirges.  I want hymns that express the joy and strength that is to be found in the gospel.  This I feel is right and good. They strengthen faith and prevent self-pity.  Some modern hymns do this well while some older hymns tend to be far too gloomy and despondent in an age of salvation.  However, as in all things, there is a balance and perhaps we may hope that modern hymn writers will write a few hymns on a more minor key that enable sorrowing and troubled Christians to express where they are and then lead them into the consolations and encouragements of the gospel.

    Read Justin’s blog for yourself.

    08
    Aug
    10

    the trying of your faith… (2)

    How do we stay firm when faith is tested?  How do we remain strong when the going gets tough?

    In a sense every truth of our faith in one way or another an answer to this question.  I want to focus on only a few, some that the Bible uses to encourage us.  In this blog we will consider one.

    1. Don’t be surprised if life has lots of troubles, this is normal and to be expected.  We are promised no less.

    Peter says to some Christians struggling with opposition to their faith

    1Pet 4:12 (ESV)
    Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.

    While this is ‘testing’ is true of persecution it is also true of the normal troubles of life.  Paul writes,

    1Cor 10:13 (ESV)
    No temptation (trial) has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

    Trials are to be expected.  Christians do not go through life trouble-free.  Most of us probably don’t buy into ‘prosperity gospel’ teaching which tells us that Christians by faith can live free of troubles (based on an over-realized eschatology, that the future has arrived in its fulness).  Yet, none the less, like the early Christians to whom Peter wrote, when troubles really hit us we often find ourselves dismayed and wrong-footed.  And if the troubles persist we may find our faith under real pressure so much so we may be tempted to give up, especially if others who are ungodly seem to be having an easy time.

    We may be inclined to wonder if God is really there.  We may question whether he cares and if he is really good?  We may doubt if he is really in control?  Trouble throws all kinds of doubt into our minds.

    The writer of Psalm 73 (Asaph) was browbeaten by similar unwelcome thoughts as he endured troubles. He writes,

    Ps 73:2-5 (ESV)
    But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped.  ​​​​​​​​For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.  ​​​​​​​​For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek.  ​​​​​​​​They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind…
    And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?”  ​​​​​​​​Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.  ​​​​​​​​All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.  ​​​​​​​​For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.  ​​​​​​​​If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed the generation of your children.  ​​​​​​​​But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task,

    Only further reflection in the holy presence of God himself reasserted his faith perspective.  For us, in this blog, the point to reaffirm to our hearts as these plaguing questions bruise our mind is this rudimentary observation – God has promised no less.  Trouble is not inconsistent with faith but is in fact integral to the life of faith.  The righteous face many troubles.  Yet praise God, as another Psalm reminds us ultimately the Lord delivers us from them all.

    Ps 34:17-19 (ESV)
    When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.  ​​​​​​​​The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.  Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.

    …but here we begin to consider other encouragements in the life of faith.

    23
    Jul
    10

    the trying of your faith… (1)

    Unless you belong to a local church that is poor and mistaken in its teaching you will know that Christian’s do not go through life unscathed, nor does God suggest they will or should.  Sooner or later our faith will be tested.

    What does it mean for faith to be tested?  Well, put simply, a test of faith means faith is put under some pressure.  The pressures are so varied that it is impossible to enumerate them all.  Broadly, they fall into two categories; faith is put under pressure by life’s allurements and/or life’s anxieties.    Jesus describes God’s word like a seed planted in the garden soil of our souls.  He reminds us that this seed gets attacked by the thorns and thistles that (as in any garden) so prolifically grow.  He identifies the thorns and thistles (the weeds that choke the seed) like this

    Luke 8:14 (ESV) And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.

    Riches and pleasures have the potential to put God’s work in our hearts under pressure.  Of course, as Christians it is easy to be blasé about the danger of riches and pleasures, yet, if we allow, they will draw our hearts away from the life of faith and seduce us into abandoning faith altogether.  We need to be vigilant.  We must ‘weed’ our souls.  And we must realise that the good things of life may destroy us if they are not carefully monitored and controlled.    I would like to say more about this, but life’s seductions are not my intended focus in this blog.

    Rather my focus is life’s concerns.  I wish to draw attention to faith under pressure because of the cares of life or the anxieties of life; the events of life that surprise, shock and even stumble us.

    I know a number of people under such pressure just now.

    In the NT, persecution put faith under pressure.  And no wonder.  It is difficult to live day in and day out with personal abuse.  All the more so when you know that to stop the abuse you simply need to give up your faith.  And, why does the Lord, if he is real and is reigning, not deliver from persecution?  Persecution puts faith under a powerful pressure.  Pressure we may ask to do what?  Pressure to give up*.  To turn back.  To recant.  To quietly bow out of the race.

    However, most people I personally know do not face persecution (and praise God they don’t).  Yet many do face real difficulties, even dangers, that may debilitate faith.  Some live with chronic and crippling ill-health.  Some have jobs that are in jeopardy and the indecision and uncertainty involved in waiting is agonizing.  Some have lost jobs and feel the dislocation and disorientation of this.  Some live with difficult and very unhappy marriages.  Some have friends, relatives or spouses who claim to be believers but act in ways that are contradict faith and so shake the faith of those nearest to them.  Some feel badly let down by those they looked up to and followed.   Sometimes the behaviour of others in church puts faith under pressure.  If those who ought to love and support and gently rebuke if we need instead attack, abuse or avoid us then our faith is tested.  The hostility of other Christians erodes faith.  The bitterness, duplicity, even malice of those who profess to love is corrosive.  Some are crushed by their own failures and not that of others.

    Any of these tests faith.  Each may produce anxiety.  Each is capable of suggesting to our minds that the faith we believe is mistaken, misguided, a myth.  We feel that to throw it all over would be a relief, a release.  Opting out of the fight is so attractive.  And if some of our friends have already done so it is just that bit easier for us to contemplate doing the same.

    What is happening?  Our faith is under trial.  Our faith is being tested. We are in the very situation the Bible regularly warned us we would be.  Our faith is in the crucible.  How will we react?

    In a future blog we will look at how to strengthen faith under such trial.  In the meantime I leave you with Peter’s words.

    1Pet 1:3-7 (ESV) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith-more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire-may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

    * We will see in a future blog that God’s purpose in the trial is not to bring about our defeat but it is undoubtedly Satan’s.

    24
    Jan
    10

    the god of haiti

    I’ve just watched The Big Questions hosted by Nicky Campbell on BBC1.  This is a programme I normally enjoy for minority views normally get a fair hearing.  Nicky Campbell is very good at asking the hard question of each position.  He also is courteous, unpatronising and presses for views to be countered with argument not ridicule.  Today’s Big Questions asked whether the Haiti Disaster proves there is no God.  Unfortunately and unusually today’s debaters never reached the guts of the issue and so came nowhere near the answer, at least the answer the Bible gives.

    Probably the first thing to say is that the question, from a faith perspective, is inappropriate.  What it does, is put God in the dock over the Haiti disaster.  Quite simply, if God is God, infinite in wisdom, power and goodness and Being, he is answerable to no-one.  He is certainly not answerable to us.  Who are we with our small parochial minds to question God?  Our understanding of existence is so limited and finite as to be laughable.  We are grasshoppers before God.  We are amoebic in our knowledge compared to the one who created and sustains all that is.   It is unbounded arrogance for us to question God.

    Moreover,  a humanity that has perpetrated the most awful of atrocities and used any powers it has developed to fashion weapons of destruction is scarcely in a position to accuse God.  The hubris is palpable.  Our small and twisted humanity has no moral right to hold our Creator to account?  And we may be absolutely sure He has no intention of being docked.

    What was disappointing about the programme was how facile most of the comments were.  The smug atheistic Humanists believed they had proof beyond dispute that there could be no God, or if there was he must be malevolent.  One misguided C of E Bishop tried to counter the accusation of malevolence by claiming the Christian view of God is essentially deistic; He set up the world in the beginning and has left it and us to get on with it.  Another Christian philosopher argued that suffering was part of existence as God originally intended; it is part of a robust training regime intended to mature us.  He was a little nearer the mark though still got it wrong.

    Interestingly, and ironically, it was the Moslem speaker who mentioned the unmentionable, namely that God does not always act in ways that are loving towards people.   He affirmed that God is good, and often this goodness involves mercy, however, his goodness may also involve punishment.  Now this is true, but unless explained is open to misunderstanding by some, and misrepresentation by others who simply want to score points against theism.

    In fact, no-one properly explained why bad things happen in the world.  Why do earthquakes take place?  The answer is not that of the Bishop, that God has wound the world up and left it to itself.  The Bible emphatically and unambiguously teaches the world is controlled by God.  The Bishop was wrong, badly wrong.  Nor is the answer that of the Christian philosopher, that God created a world with suffering as part of the package so that we will all mature.  Nor is the truth that God is a punisher, at least not without further qualification and explanation.

    What is the truth?

    The truth is God created a good world where bad things did not happen.  But the world is not as God made it.  The truth is humanity, we, rebelled against our Creator and through us sin as a malevolent destructive force invaded creation.  The truth is all tragedy has a line of responsibility leading directly to us.  Tragedy is the effect of which we are the cause.  And this what the discussion group missed.  The real villian behind Haiti is not God but man.  Human rebellion results in cosmic suffering.  All dislocation, disfunction, distress, disease, disintegration, disunity, yes and the dissolution of death, whether small or apocalyptic in scale is sourced in humanity.  We set the ship off course.  We put the universe out of kilter.  We started the fire. Our rebellion against our good Creator has polluted the whole of the created order like a deadly destructive virus . To put it in the simplest of terms and in biblical language,

    The wages of sin is death. (Roms 3:23)

    Death is the destined end of humanity, of the animal and vegetable Kingdom, of our planet and of the universe.  Sinners and the sin-defiled must, like a vile disease, be destroyed.  Does this mean that those in Haiti were greater sinners than us?  No it doesn’t.  When a tower fell killing eighteen people Jesus was asked if those destroyed were greater sinners than others.  He replied,

    Luke 13:5
    No, I tell you! But unless you repent you will all perish as well!”

    His response was not so much that those who died deserved to live but that we all deserve to die.  It is true that the Haiti disaster gives us all an opportunity for generosity and the Bible commends generosity.  However, the emphasis on The Big Questions that the right response was to give and that God was testing us to see if we would, is revealing.  It betrays that the instinct of the human heart is always to self-righteousness.  It is to try to win brownie points with God.

    Jesus expects a different response.  He sees repentance as the proper response.  Catastrophe, you see,  should humble us before God.  Awe not accusation should be our instinctive response.; contrition, not condemnation.  Mourning our sin should precede giving our money.  Disaster is God’s loudspeaker call to repent and forsake our sin.  It is a forceful reminder that soon what happened to Haiti will happen to the whole world.

    Is God indifferent to Haiti and suffering? The Christian Gospel reveals he is not.  He is not remote from our suffering.  Rather he entered into our suffering through Jesus.  Jesus vindicates the God who has no need of vindication.  In the death of Jesus, God’s Son, God takes the destruction of sin upon himself.  In the death of Jesus the loving, forgiving, merciful, rescuing heart of God is revealed. Jesus is God’s rescue plan from the coming catastrophe, the final judgement.  He is a deliverer for all who repent, humble themselves by confessing God is God and they are rebels and trust in Him for their salvation from the final catastrophe.

    The question is, will you do this?  Or will you try to hide from God behind philosophical doubts about his existence?  Will you ignore the elephant in the room, your sin?  Will you invent a God without moral indignation to sooth your existential qualms? Will you try to justify yourself by humanitarian effort?  The great test of Haiti is not how we respond to the disaster but how we respond to God?  Haiti puts us in the dock, not God.




    the cavekeeper

    The Cave promotes the Christian Gospel by interacting with Christian faith and practice from a conservative evangelical perspective.

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