Clinging to God

I admire people who cling to – and even rejoice – in God in spite of suffering.

A few days ago, a friend said a woman friend of hers exuded joy in her Lord – talking about him to hospital staff and others in her final days on earth, gasping for breath from a long respiratory illness.

Years ago, a friend visited us while my wife was recovering from a serious and painful spinal cord injury.  She asked my wife whether she questioned God because of the injury and my wife instantly replied, “No.”  It had never occurred to her.

That doesn’t mean these people ignored their pain.  It doesn’t mean they made light of it.

Joni Eareckson Tada, a teenager at the time, dove into the water and hit her head, paralyzing her from the neck down.  Decades later, she is still paralyzed and pain is now a constant companion.

She says she wakes up every morning and cries “Help!” to God – help for the day.

But her powerful faith in God has brought hope to paralytics and others around the world.  She has created a foundation which supplies wheel chairs to many.  And her talks inspire people everywhere.

The apostle Paul is a role model for me – and for many Christians.

In a famous Bible passage, he says: “Always be full of joy in the Lord!  I will say it again – rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4) This is a man who nearly died from stoning, who survived a terrible sea storm, who was beaten almost to death, and who was imprisoned several times.

How did Paul manage to rejoice in suffering and danger?  He gives an idea in the verses immediately after telling us to rejoice.

“Don’t worry about anything,” he says.  “Instead, pray about everything.  Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.  Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand.  His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”

Paul’s message is basically: “Trust God!  He will take you through.”

In the same passage, he tells his readers: “Remember, the Lord is coming soon.”  In other words, the day is coming when each one of his children will be with God forever.  There will be no more pain and joy will simply burst out of us.

Now, that’s something to look forward to!

Gentle persuasion

Persuasion through relationships is more effective than shouted slogans.

I learned this week that this is the basic approach of National Campus Life Network, a group sponsoring student pro-life groups on Canadian college and university campuses.

I applaud this way of engaging university students in our conflict-ridden society.

In fact, I believe this is the best way of sharing our faith as believers in every avenue of life.

Establishing relationships takes time.  It took Jesus three years to prepare his key followers for the vital work of spreading the good news.  And that led to a movement that changed the world.

I hate conflict.  Yet I realize that any relationship rides a rough road at certain times.  And a relationship can crack and collapse, causing heartache.

It takes time for me to be comfortable in a relationship – comfortable enough to share my deepest feelings and convictions.  So, I’m often more tentative than I should be.

That’s because relationships involve risks.  And, like many people, I don’t want to cause trouble.

Still, there is no change without risk.

If Jesus had chosen to be “Mr. Nice Guy”, agreeing with everyone he met, I would not be a believing Christian today.

His way of persuading was to share the truth of the gospel with acts of healing love.  He did not picket the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish authorities.  He did not organize an armed revolt.

He did not persuade the ruling authorities, but he reached an audience that now numbers billions.

His close followers were ultimately willing to die for him – and many did.

I believe we believers are entering a particularly-challenging era where everything we hold true is under attack.  If we respond angrily, we lose.

I also believe that Christ can change minds just as powerfully today as he did 2,000 years ago.

He is calling me to deepen my relationships with others so that Jesus can reach them through me.

Persecution and God

Despite intense persecution, the Christian church in Iran is one of the fastest-growing in  the world.

The Christian church in China has multiplied to an estimated 100 million from about four million in 1949 when the Communists took power.  Again, this explosive growth happened in spite of widespread jailings and killings.

Why does the persecuted church grow?  What can we in the comfortable West learn from the amazing growth in these countries?

We get a clue from the Book of Acts.  The young church was born in persecution and grew by leaps and bounds.

One of my favourite passages in the Bible is Acts 4:23-31.  Peter and John have just been arrested and brought before the Jewish leaders for healing a cripple and preaching the gospel.

Peter and John boldly refuse to stop preaching in the name of Jesus, despite threats from the Jewish leaders.  The leaders release them because they fear a riot if they take action against them.

Then, after Peter and John tell the other believers about what happened, a prayer meeting breaks out.

In that situation, I would probably pray for protection from persecution.  My personal safety is high on my list of priorities.

But that’s not how the young church responded.

“And now, O Lord,” they prayed, “hear their threats, and give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word.”

They prayed for God’s help in preaching the good news of Jesus Christ.  They were ready to go on offence rather than crawling into a hole until the threat had vanished.

In other words, God’s mission and plan was more important to them than their own safety and personal well-being.

God gave them his seal of approval, filling them with the Holy Spirit and shaking the house where they were praying.  He equipped them with the power to heal people and share the story of Jesus with impact.

I have read many stories of people in Muslim and Communist countries who have put Christ first in their lives.  Many have refused to give up their faith and, instead, have led others to the Lord.

Many gather in house churches and reach out to their neighbours.  They do not have the equipment, videos and other gadgets that we, in the West, depend on in our churches.

Instead, they pray.  Often, they pray all night.

They study whatever scriptures they have available.

And they love each other.

Prayer, love, and a united witness is more powerful than persecution.

Putting God first is their secret.

Praise builds faith

David Murphy says “praise is the soundtrack of the undefeated life”.

By that, he means that praising God is a declaration that you have not allowed trials to drown your faith in God.  Indeed, praise builds faith.

Murphy, pastor and author of Undefeated: Conquering Your Doubts and Living in God’s Fullness, states that “in my thirty years of walking with Jesus, I’ve not found anything as powerful as praise”.

The author does not claim praising God to be the key to automatic wealth or health.  But he does say it helps change attitudes and sometimes leads to amazing answers to prayer.

“Praise is the bridge between heaven and earth.  If you want to experience a bit of heaven on earth, learn to praise.”

He tells the story of Cesar, a young homeless man, who wandered into a New York church on a bitterly cold night because it was warm and a pastor there had befriended him on the streets and bought coffee for him regularly.

He was enchanted by the worship singing in the church and the pastor saw him and invited him down to the front of the church.  He gave his life to Christ, entered the church’s rehab program and became an on-fire follower of the Lord.

When Murphy asked him why he was constantly praising God, he replied:

“So, why do I praise Jesus all the time?  My answer is, how can I not praise him?  After all he did for me, the least I can do is thank him!”

Not all praise stories are as dramatic as Cesar’s.

Murphy says he was feeling deeply discouraged recently because of problems in his life.

He got out of bed feeling dread one morning.  He had prayed persistently about the problems but there had been no change.

He felt hopeless as he entered his morning prayer time.  And then he remembered his practice of praise.

He got up and walked around the room, praising God aloud.  And then praise began flowing freely.

“My troubles were the same but my soul was different.”

He noticed a distinct shift in his problems two weeks later and over a period of months, the issues, that seemed like mountains, were removed.

Murphy uses these approaches to spark his praise times:

  • He uses a praise psalm like Psalm 145 to speak forth praise to God every morning.  For him, it’s a reminder of God’s goodness and faithfulness;
  • He sings from old hymns – and some modern praise songs.  He says you don’t have to be a good singer to benefit; and
  • He remembers to thank God throughout the day.

He quotes one of his Bible college professor’s words: “If you only have ten minutes to pray, make nine of them praise.”

Good advice.

The quiet ones

It’s easy to overlook some followers of Christ because they quietly go about loving others without fanfare.

I realize that I’m one of the “overlookers”.  But I’m beginning to see things differently.

It’s natural to pay attention to Christians who hold important positions in the church or in society.  It is great to see people willing to take on positions of influence to further God’s kingdom.

But Jesus never looks at the world in exactly the same way we do.  Sometimes, he surprises us.

In Matthew 19:30, Jesus says that, in heaven, “many who are the greatest now will be less important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then”.

What Jesus is most interested in is our hearts.  Do we love God and love others?  Are we instruments of Christ’s love?

Jesus made a similar point when his disciples, the brothers James and John, asked him to give them places of honour on either side of his throne.  The other disciples were upset at their request.

So Jesus said in Mark 10: “Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

When I think of the people I know, there are a number that I believe will be well-celebrated in heaven because of their caring hearts and service to others.

Jesus touches on this in the well-known parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.

There he talks about the final judgement when people will be divided up according to how they loved others.

Jesus says the Lord will turn to the sheep at his right hand and tell them that they have inherited the kingdom because they fed him, gave him something to drink, visited him in prison, and clothed him when he was in need.

These people – the sheep – will be astonished and ask him when they did this.

And he will reply: “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!”

That’s something to think about: When I am loving another person with acts of kindness, I am loving Christ.

Small steps

I’ve read that there’s an ancient Chinese proverb that declares: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.”

Maybe that’s good advice for me in my walk with Christ.

Instead of dreaming about giant leaps forward, perhaps I’d be wiser to focus on taking one step at a time.

It’s easy to get discouraged when we think about our progress in becoming more like Christ.  If we’re honest with ourselves, we realize we fall far short of our goals.

I believe the key lies in commitment.

Am I ready to stick with Jesus through the everyday slog?  If I am, Jesus promises that I will see my reward – a growing closeness to him.

As a help along my way, I am adopting an idea that Bill and Vonette Bright, founders of Campus Crusade for Christ, developed many years ago.

It’s simply this: Who’s on the throne of my life – me or the Holy Spirit?  The Brights called it the “throne check”.

Vonette Bright says she was troubled in the early 1950s by some things she had not dealt with in past years.  After attending a women’s conference, she felt prompted by the Spirit to apologize to some people.  She wrote letters of apology and “I soon received wonderful responses . . . bringing me great relief”.

She tells an amusing story of her young son Brad and friends trooping into the kitchen after she had mopped the floor.  Brad dumped some milk on the clean floor and she snapped: “Get out of the kitchen! I just mopped the floor!”

The small boys scuttled out, frightened.  And Bright says she “felt terrible”.

“Where was the Holy Spirit in this?  He was still in my life, but I was not yielding to his control.  I had exerted my will over his.  My attitude was wrong.”

So, she and her husband became strong advocates of surrendering our lives to the Spirit’s guidance and correction every moment every day.  They taught this to their children, too.

In their eyes, there is a “control centre” in each of our lives.  Either we sit on the throne in the control centre or God does.  And we are governed by whoever sits on the throne.

Vonette and Bill Bright kept in tune with what was going on in their lives by what Bill Bright called “spiritual breathing”.  They would breathe out in confession the things that were not right in their lives and breathe in God’s forgiveness and power.

This is something I can do every day, asking myself if I am sitting on the throne or the Spirit is.  If I’m on the throne, I can exercise “spiritual breathing” to get things right again.

Step by step, the Spirit will draw me closer to God.

Holy, in God’s eyes

I am holy in God’s eyes – me – with all my sins and failures.

I knew this when I read it in Colossians 1:22 during a communion service in our church last weekend.

But it struck home with fresh force as I thought about it before taking communion.

We had been asked to pick up a Bible verse along with a piece of bread and a cup of grape juice and return to our seats, meditating on the scripture before consuming these symbols of Christ’s death and resurrection.

In Colossians 1, Paul gives a magnificent description of Christ and his role in creation and the fact that “everything was created through him and for him” (v. 16).  And, says Paul, he is the head of the church.

But we turned away from God, virtually rebels.

However, says Paul, “he (God) has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight without blemish and free from accusation (v. 22, NIV).

The words that caught my attention were “holy in his sight”.

God “reconciled” me – he took the step of breaking down the sin barrier between himself and me through Christ’s sacrifice.  Then, through my faith in what Christ has done, God viewed me as holy and I could enter his presence as his much-loved child because I had been washed clean of sin.

This remains true even though I still sin and do and say wrong things.

But I am different than I was before encountering Christ.   The power of God the Holy Spirit is within me and he works to patiently and gently bring me back to the right path when I wander away.

This is familiar to all believers.

But sometimes the familiar becomes “new” again and brings a smile to our lips.

That’s what happened when I read the words “holy in his sight”.

Be ready

It’s trite but true to say that we need to live every day as if it’s our last.

I was thinking of this again after the Easter tragedy in Sri Lanka a week ago where more than 300 people died following a terrorist attack on Christian churches.

Like most people, I was appalled by the wanton killings of innocent people, celebrating Christ’s resurrection at Easter time.

I am sure no one who attended those churches expected anything violent to happen that day.  The long civil war in Sri Lanka had been over for 10 years and the country was living in relative peace.

It’s a gloomy thought, but death can come any day in any number of ways.

The question for me is: Am I ready?

I am ready in that I have made the most important decision anyone can make – I have put my faith in Jesus and I am assured a place with him in eternity.

But are there things in my life that I need to deal with before I die?  Things of the heart and the spirit?

Are my relations with others in good order?

These are deep questions.

I recall the apostle Paul’s comment in Ephesians 4 that we must not let our anger against another continue because it gives the devil a foothold in our lives.  In other words, we must resolve our relationship problems quickly.

How will we feel if friends or relatives die before we have had a chance to tell them that we forgive them for hurting us?  Or, before we have a chance to say we’re sorry we hurt them?

Unexpected death is even more of a problem for those who don’t know Jesus.

As the prophet Isaiah said in Isaiah 55:6: “Seek the Lord while you can find him.  Call on him now while he is near.”

God is loving and forgiving. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, he offers everyone a way to be reconciled with the Lord.

And he wants us believers to live a life of love and forgiveness, too.

Shepherd of hope

I find untold comfort and hope in the opening lines of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Often, I turn those words over in my mind and meditate on what they tell me.

Once a shepherd himself, David knew what he was talking about when he wrote that sentence.

As my wife said, those words give a wonderful picture of caring.

A shepherd in David’s day was responsible for a bunch of dumb and vulnerable animals.  David knew about fighting off predators – the sheep were his charges and he was going to fight to the death to defend them.

The shepherd also had to know where to take his sheep so they could eat and drink and rest.

And he had to do everything in his power to look for and find the occasional sheep that wandered off on its own.

The shepherd had to be alert to everything that was going on around him.

What gives me great hope in this sentence is the fact that God is my shepherd.  He has all the caring qualities that David the shepherd had – and infinitely more.

I may not like to admit it, but I am very much a sheep.  I’m wilful like the wandering sheep and stupid like most other sheep.  I think I’m smart but I’m usually wrong – even blind – about what is really going on around me.

But my shepherd is there beside me to pull me back from the brink or to prod me in the right direction.

And the great thing is that my shepherd is the creator of the universe – and me.  And he is “Lord of heaven’s armies” as the New Living Translation of the Bible puts it.

Satan may consider himself a roaring lion ready to leap upon me as his prey (1 Peter 5:8).  But God is there to drive him away.

Although I may not realize it, God is with me every moment of every day.

Indeed, David went even further in Psalm 68:19: “Each day he carries us in his arms.”

All I need to do as a human sheep is to rest in him and trust him.

A hug

Sometimes, a hug is worth more than a thousand words.

Recently, my wife gave a grandmotherly hug to a young man who has been going through some tough times.  His father told us later that the hug gave his son a real lift.

For me, this is a reminder that often an act of kindness and sympathy is the best way to meet someone’s need.

I am not suggesting that a hug will solve everyone’s problems.  Indeed, some people don’t like being hugged.

But my wife’s reaction was an instinctive – and, I believe, God-prompted – act of encouragement for someone who needed it.

In similar situations, I worry about what to say and sometimes miss the loving gesture that God wants me to make.

Listening is often the best thing we can do when someone is suffering.

A friend recently mentioned he has stopped giving unwanted advice to his son.  Instead, he listens and their relationship has changed greatly.  His son is revealing his heart to his father and is much more open to the occasional word of good counsel.

Of course, Jesus is our best guide in showing compassion.

The Bible mentions in several places that Jesus’ heart went out to hurting people.  And he responded to their needs by acts of love.

In one case, he wept before the tomb of his good friend Lazarus who had recently died (John 11:35).  Then, he miraculously raised his friend from the dead.

I realize raising the dead is rare but we all appreciate genuine sympathy when we’re suffering.  It is a great help and comfort.

Neil Anderson, author of Victory over the Darkness, says one time as a young pastor he was called in the middle of the night by parents of a young man who had been in a bad accident, asking him to come to the hospital.  He went immediately.

Several hours later the doctor came out and told Anderson and the parents that the young man had died.

“I was so tired and emotionally depleted that instead of offering them words of comfort, I just sat there with them and cried with them,” Anderson writes.  “I couldn’t think of anything to say.  I never felt so stupid in my life.  I thought I had failed the family in their darkest hour.”

The couple moved away a short time afterwards, but returned five years later and took him out to lunch.

“Neil, we’ll never forget what you did for us when our son died,” they said.  “We didn’t need words; we needed love.  We knew you loved us because you cried with us.”

What a tribute!  What a lesson!