Archive for March, 2010|Monthly archive page

Pain and joy

I read some comments by Daniel Henderson this morning about the importance of pain in the lives of Christian leaders.

The point he was making is that pain can make us better leaders – or better Christians.

Quite a few people I know are struggling with physical or emotional pain right now.  I must say that I don’t think about the benefits of pain when I am going through it.  And I am sure that many of my friends are not focused on that either.

The uses of pain are quite clear in scripture.

James says in James 1: 2-3: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.”  And perseverance, he says, leads to Christian maturity.

In my heart, I react to that by saying quietly: “Maybe I could do without maturity.”

But when I say that, I am overlooking the word “joy” in James’ comment.  In fact, by focusing on the pain, I am missing any joy I may get from drawing closer to God.

It is strange that God is looking for people to find joy in the midst of suffering.  But that’s what I believe he wants.

The secret seems to be that I can find joy in any circumstances if I find it in God.

Nehemiah tells the returning exiles to Jerusalem not to wallow in their misery over their sinful past.  Instead, he says in Nehemiah 8:10: “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

And Habakkuk says in Habbakkuk 3 that in the midst of famine and drought, “I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.”

The apostle Paul, too, speaks frequently in his letters about being joyful, no matter what the situation.  He tells us to rejoice always in God (Philippians 4:4).

That sounds to me like a command.  I am to do this all the time.

It seems to me that I need to see God at work – even in the pain.

I was bowled over by the reaction of a friend who was victim of a horrific head-on collision.  The other man was at fault.  But my friend did not blame God for his suffering.  Instead, he was overflowing with thankfulness that God preserved his life.

And I recall reading the testimony of Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian pastor, who said he was never closer to Christ than when he was tortured for his faith in a Communist prison.  He actually felt Christ was present in his prison cell.

Most of us go through much less suffering than that.  But, our problems are big to us.

It helps, though, to consciously remember who God is and how much he loves us.  He created us, he redeemed us, he provides for our needs, he heals us, he delivers us, he is our righteousness, he is our peace – and he is with us.

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Made to worship

It is said that we are made to worship.

Is that true?

When I am wallowing in self-condemnation, am I worshiping?  Or when I am depressed?  Or when I am giddy with a personal success?

As I think about it, worship is about what I consider most worthy of my devotion.  When I am focused on self-condemnation, my thoughts are all about myself.  I am devoting myself to myself.  Although perverse, it is a kind of worship.

God is jealous about my worship – and rightly so.  He knows that when I worship anyone but himself, I am in trouble.  That’s why he said in Exodus 20:3: “You shall have no other gods but me.”

He knows that we are, indeed, made to worship.

I was reading a delightful verse last night: “In God we make our boast all day long, and we will praise your name forever.” (Psalm 44:8)

It made me recall my boyhood when little boys used to finish arguments by shouting: “My daddy is stronger than your daddy.”  They were boasting about their daddies.

Of course earthly daddies are not worthy of worship.  I am a daddy and I am aware of my flaws.

But boasting in the biggest Daddy of all is not only right, but essential.  It is cleansing, purifying, upbuilding and strengthening.  In worshiping God, I am giving myself to the one who loves me more than anyone else.  I am showing God, the world and myself that I am utterly dependent on him.

“Dependence” is not a popular word in our western society.  We glorify independence.  It seems demeaning to depend on God.

But God knows better.  He knows that we are dependent beings – dependent on the world and Satan if we are not dependent on him.

It is strange, but as I grow older, I am becoming more aware of my need to depend on God.  I have learned that independence isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.  When I am my own god, things don’t go well.  I am unsatisfied and fretful and sometimes angry and bitter.  Those are the days Satan must enjoy most.

The apostle Paul discovered the importance of dependence in an incident he describes in 2 Corinthians 12 – the time when he was caught up into the “third heaven” and heard “inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.”  It was probably the sweetest and most joyful thing that ever happened to him.

Then, Paul says he was given a “thorn” to keep him from becoming too conceited – perhaps the kind of conceit that led to Lucifer being expelled from heaven. Despite repeated pleas, this thorn was not removed and God said: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

God knew that Paul’s greatest joy was to be found in God alone – not in any experience, not in himself, not in anything else.

Truly, I am made to worship God.

Family: Part Two

God speaks to us through our families.

Yesterday, I wrote about families helping God to make us more like Jesus by smoothing out the rough edges in our characters.

Today, I want to talk about the other side of families – God making us more like Jesus by showing us something of Jesus himself.

Again, I have been blessed in that my wife and children love Jesus.  But I believe Jesus can speak to us even through families that do not know the Lord.

I grew up in a family that seldom went to church while I was young.  But my parents were loving parents and I remember going for a walk alone one night as a teenager and resolving that I, too, would have a loving family.  They gave a good example.

As a teenager, I remember scoffing one night at a television evangelist and being surprised by my father who said he believed the man had something.  I deeply admired my father so his words stuck with me. They were one strand in the rope that would eventually bind me to Jesus.  My father was a believer – although he had drifted away from church.  He was later to become very much involved in a local congregation.

After I was married, I saw Christ in my wife.  She has shown me what Jesus would have done in offering help and love to others.  She is very self-giving.  She has always reached out to family and neighbours – sometimes difficult people.  She is the cornerstone of our family.

She also has a very sharp mind, able to sort out the wheat from the chaff.  I have leaned on her counsel about spiritual things as well as about people.

Our children have been an inspiration to me, even when they were small.  Today, they are a real joy to me as they are teaching me more about Jesus.  They are leading the way and I am learning from them.  They lead by example and by words and by their hunger for more of God.

And now our grandchildren.  It is a pleasure to see how God is working in them.  It is so true that little ones can teach us about Jesus.  I am learning from them.

I don’t want to minimize the hurts and sorrows that happen along the way.  And I don’t want to say that all families are the same.  My experience is mine alone.

But I believe that God works in all families, no matter how terrible the circumstances.  Few families have been as dysfunctional as Jacob’s in the Bible.  And yet God made himself known to Jacob and his children.

Of course, family love pales in comparison to God’s love for us.  That is a great comfort when we are going through hard times in family life – God’s love is constant and forgiving and merciful.  It is good to be a child in the family of God.

Family

I believe one reason God put believers in families is so he could shape them into the image of Jesus.

Families – blood families or even church families – are good for rounding off the rough edges and polishing us up to a warm glow.  Theoretically, it’s possible I could go through life as a hermit without doing anyone any harm – or good.  But would I look more and more like Jesus?  Perhaps, but I don’t think so.

I’m feeling pleasantly philosophical because, along with my wife, I have been basking in the warmth of family – our children, their spouses, and grandchildren – the last week or so.

I am blessed in that my family is a loving family.   I recognize that isn’t true for everyone – through no fault of their own.  Very good parents may have children who give them problems or fine children may have abusive – or cold – parents.

But whether we live in loving or harsh families, God uses family members to teach us and mould us.

The lessons I have been taught by my family are more about me and my character.  I have learned that there are many things I didn’t know about myself – quite a few that I have regretted over the years.  I have also learned how much family means to me.  I pride myself on being calm and self-controlled, but family can ignite passions I didn’t know I had.

But God has put the spotlight on my weaknesses to teach me that I need Jesus.  I am not self-sufficient.  I am often wrong in my judgements and in my actions.

Thankfully, my family has been very forgiving.  But if they were not, I could still count on God to forgive me.

That is the key, isn’t it?  I am imperfect, but God loves me.  He loves my wife and children and their spouses and children.  We could not love each other without his first loving us, as the apostle John says.

And he is calling me to love as he loves.  I need to seek forgiveness for my mistakes and to forgive others as he forgave.  I need to humble myself as Jesus did.

Families are good for that.  They teach us what love really is – the cost and the joy of the love of Christ.

Gardening

My wife loves gardening – particularly in the spring time.  There is something about clearing away the residue of winter and preparing the ground for young shoots that lifts the spirits.

One thing I have learned from her is that pruning the sumac trees in our back yard really helps.  The trees are more robust and green than the sumac trees on the adjoining golf course because she and I cut away the dead branches in February every year.

This makes me think of the famous passage in John 15:1-8 where Jesus talks about being the true vine while we are the branches whom the Father prunes.

Like my wife, I am sure the Father gains pleasure from pruning the dead things in our lives so that we will be more beautiful as we grow.  That may sound strange, because pruning seems hurtful to us.  But think about it – the dead things are dead!  There is no life in them.

As I reflect on this, I realize I cling to dead things in my own life.  Old – and unhealthy – habits.  I need to see them as dead.  I need to see Jesus as life.

Understanding what is life and what is death is vital in our Christian lives. 

The apostle Paul says in Romans 6:11: “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin, but alive to Jesus Christ.”  Just before that, he says that we died with Christ on the cross, and we now live with him.  That tells me that I need to see life as it really is, not as I think it is.  By faith, I need to open my eyes to the reality that my past life is dead and my new life is in Christ.

Spiritual sight is so important.  I love the story of Elisha and his servant in 2 Kings 6 where the servant is overcome with fear because of the army of Arameans surrounding the city of Dothan.  Elisha asks God to open the eyes of his servant who sees an army of angels ready to protect Elisha and the city.  The angels were invisible to everyone else but they were there.  And the Arameans were thwarted in their efforts to seize Elisha.

When I see life that way, I can begin to welcome the Father’s pruning.  He is showing me what is dead and telling me to choose life in Jesus.

Knowing God better

Does it make any difference to know God better?

Several of us talked about that briefly the other night as we looked at the apostle Paul’s great prayer for the Ephesian Christians in Ephesians 1:15-23.

In that prayer, Paul says in verse 17: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.”

One friend said that knowing God better is more than knowing a lot about him.  It means having a heart-to-heart relationship which only the Spirit of God can bring us.

In effect, that is what Paul is saying when he talks about the “spirit of wisdom and revelation”.  The Spirit moves in my heart and reveals more of God – perhaps from the Bible, perhaps from an encounter with someone else, perhaps directly through a vision or dream.

But what difference does that really make?  Does it make any difference in my life to know God better?

I think it does.

Like many new converts, my whole world changed when I became a believer at the age of 20.  The Spirit of God transformed my view of the world around me.  There was an entirely new reason for living – Jesus Christ.  Everything that happened to me seemed to have God stamped upon it.

Of course, that early excitement and joy moderated as time went on.  But what I knew of God had already turned my feet away from the path I was walking into a very different road.  The Lord would forever be at the centre of my thoughts and decisions.

Like most Christians, I have found that I have not stopped learning about God as I have grown older.   Occasionally, the things I learned had a profound effect on me – although, not as dramatic as my early conversion.

Knowing God better does involve seeing him better.  I have mentioned several times that, in the last couple of years, I have come to realize how much God loves me.  It was all there in the Bible, but I needed the Spirit of God to reveal it to me – the “spirit of wisdom and revelation” as Paul says.

What difference does it make to know in my mind – and heart – that God loves me?

Well, I am finding out, step-by-step, what it means.  As I grasp that truth by faith, the Lord is sending little arrows of joy into my heart.  When I am discouraged, the joy is gone because I forget how much he cares for me.  But then I come back to this truth and God lifts my heart again.

D.L. Moody, the great American evangelist, had an encounter with the Holy Spirit who so flooded him with joy that he had to ask God to stop.  It changed his whole ministry radically.

Moody knew God heart-to-heart after that encounter and it made all the difference in the world.

So, my prayer for myself – and for others – is the same as Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians: I want to know God better.

Resting

I like resting and I’m glad that God does, too.

We read in Genesis 2:2 that God rested after the six days of creation.  Was it because God was exhausted after his creative work?  I don’t think so.  I am sure that God has boundless energy just as his love is limitless.

So, why did he rest?  My guess is it had something to do with his pleasure in his creation.  In Genesis 1:31, the writer says that “God saw all that he had made and it was very good.”  He enjoyed what he had done and he took a day off just to revel in it.

There is a fair amount written about rest – physical and spiritual – in the Bible.  I want to focus in this post on spiritual rest which is something that is getting increasing attention in our modern world.

I love my afternoon nap – it’s easy to do.  But I find spiritual rest harder.

As I grow older, I am beginning to realize more and more that spiritual rest – rest in Jesus Christ – is important.

Like everything in my spiritual life, I have been slow in waking up to this truth.

Part of the reason is that I have found it hard to slow down and literally waste time with God (as one writer has put it).  Like many other Canadians, my mind is filled with a lot of things – some important, some trivial.  How can I afford to take an hour just to focus entirely on God without having an agenda?

Yet great believers over the ages have found that quiet times with God have been spiritually refreshing and uplifting.  These times with God have been essential in their growing closer to the Father.  They have had an influence on those around them and sometimes the wider world.

Moses and Joshua are good examples. In Exodus 33, we read that Moses would go out to the Tent of Meeting to “inquire of God” and he would stay a long time there.  And even after Moses returned, his young aide Joshua would stay there with the Lord.  Moses and Joshua were busy people – busy leaders – but they needed time with God.

In our world, we tend to think of quiet times as a period where we tell God about the things he has got to do for us.  Interestingly, those are not the words used in Exodus 33 – Moses “inquired of God”.  He asked God what God wanted him to do.

Asking God what he wants us to do takes time.  It means listening.  And sometimes it isn’t easy to understand what God is telling us.

A man I know spends an hour every morning sitting in his basement with a candle on the table and a Bible by his side and he listens.  Part of it is reading a portion of scripture and reflecting on it.  He may listen to a worship song.  And then he will sit in silence listening with every fibre of his body.  He says he often is aware of nothing and it is only during the day that a thought pops into his head that he knows is from God.  It only comes because he has spent the time resting before God.

Many people do this today.  And have done it over the ages.  My middle daughter used to take a day or so every few months away from her priestly duties to go on retreat and spend time alone with God.  Years ago, she gave me a birthday gift of a day at a nearby retreat house and introduced me to the wonders of a day of silence with God.  It was wonderfully refreshing and deepening.  I have done it a couple of times since – although not for some time now.

More often now than in the past, I do take time – usually not more than a half hour or so – to just spend quietly before God, focusing my mind on him and being aware that he is present.  I find it brings me peace – and sometimes even joy – when things are busy and I am a little harried.

It is good to enter his rest.

Christ’s value to me

Some friends and I were talking last week about how hard it is for Christian converts in some foreign countries.  Sometimes they are beaten and cast out of their families – or worse.

This is particularly true where the family has a strong faith in another religion.  They consider the Christian convert a traitor to their faith.

As we were talking about this, one friend asked why, on the flip side, Western Christians often don’t make more of an issue when their children stray from their faith in Christ.  In effect, he was asking why Christian believers don’t value their faith enough to defend it strongly.  He was not advocating physical force or cutting children off from the family, but for a stronger stand on the faith.

My friend may – or may not – be reading the situation in Canada accurately.  Certainly, I know of some parents who are going through agonies as they see their children abandoning their childhood faith.  Perhaps others are less concerned – I don’t know.

But my friend’s question made me think about how much I value my own faith in Christ.

I am particularly struck by Peter and John’s words to the Sanhedrin after the Jewish leaders commanded them not to teach or talk about Jesus: “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20)

The apostles were so filled with the wonder of Jesus Christ that they couldn’t help talking about him.  Not even the threat of death could stop them.

Jesus Christ is vital to me.  I can’t live without him.  But, unfortunately, there are other things which catch my attention – and sometimes my mind and heart.

One of these things is my reputation for being level-headed, tolerant, and sensible.  I’m not sure whether people really see me that way, but I strive to give that impression.

In effect, I am so careful about people’s feelings that I shy away from sharing Jesus the way Peter and John did.  Over the years, I have reached out to some people in my family and among the people I know at work or in the neighborhood.  But I tend to be tentative.

That was certainly not the way Peter and John approached the gospel.  It really was good news to them.  They wanted other people to know what they knew.

I agree that not everyone is a Peter or John in personality.  Nor a Paul.

But the question is: Am I so overwhelmed with God’s love for me that I can’t help talking about it with other people?

Jesus said something in the Sermon on the Mount which touches this issue directly.  In Matthew 6, he said we should be storing up our treasures in heaven.  And then he added: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  (Matthew 6:21)

In other words, if my heart is filled with Jesus, I will want others to know about him, too.

In his hands

Have you ever felt that God has you in his hands and won’t let go?

It was a little like that with me just after I became a believer in Jesus Christ.  I was suddenly confused and weary and thinking about renouncing my new-found faith.  Then, I found myself praying in agony of heart to God.  As soon as I prayed, I knew God would not let me go.

There is an old song written by George Matheson that sums up my feelings at that time:

O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

David speaks of God’s unyielding grip on him in a great psalm – Psalm 139.  It is one of my favourite psalms.

He begins by saying that God knows everything about him – even his thoughts.

Then, he says in verse 5:  “You hem me in  – behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me.”

He goes further in verse 7: “Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?”

The psalmist is trying to get away from God, but he can’t.  He says he can’t even get away from him if he goes far away across the seas or rises “on the wings of the dawn”.  Everywhere he goes, God is there.

All this makes him realize how wonderful it is to belong to God.   He has been trying to run away, but he winds up saying in verse 17: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!  How vast is the sum of them!”

He finishes with these great words: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

It is almost as if David has been desperately attempting to throw God aside and now he is calm and resting contentedly in God’s loving hands.  The path he wanted to take would have led to destruction – certainly spiritual destruction.  But God has held onto him and David is glad.  More than that, he is calling on the Father to lead him in the way everlasting.  His heart is committed to God.

This psalm gives me courage to face whatever comes.  God will keep me.  He will not let me go.

 

Redemption

Charles Hamelin, the Canadian short-track speed skater, failed to get a medal in an early race in the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.  He was upset with himself.

Towards the end of the Olympics, he won a gold in the 500 meter race.  And about half an hour later, he returned to the ice to help his team win the short-track team gold.

For Hamelin, it was redemption.  For other athletes, too, there was early disappointment and later glory.

It’s a good reminder for me that making a mistake – or failing to reach a goal – does not mean that life is ruined.  As one athlete who lost said: “The sun will still shine tomorrow.”

A case in point is the story of John Mark in the New Testament.  In Acts 16, Paul had an argument with Barnabas, saying that John Mark should not come with them on their next missionary journey because he deserted them during an earlier trip.  Yet, Paul was reconciled to Mark later on, writing from prison to the Colossians that Mark had been a comfort to Paul and that they were to welcome him.

Of course, we are not always able to come back from defeat and win a significant victory.  But does that mean we should count our lives a failure?

From a spiritual viewpoint, I am already a victor through Jesus Christ.  When I put my faith in him, I shared in his victory over the power of death and Satan.  That doesn’t mean I no longer sin – I confess I do.  But I now belong to God and am part of his family forever.

Still, someone may say that it is not much of a victory if I continue to sin.  True, God is not happy when I sin.  He abhors sin.

But God knows me.  He knows that I am dust as David wrote in Psalm 103.

I am told in the Bible that God looks at my heart – not my accomplishments.  He wants to know where my heart is.  Am I looking to him?  Do I really want to know him better?  Do I want to enjoy him?  Do I want to spend time with him?  Where is my heart?

David’s example is instructive.  He sinned seriously when he had sex with another man’s wife and then arranged for that man’s death.  God was not pleased and David suffered the consequences.  But God did not stop loving David.  The Bible says that David was a “man after God’s own heart”.  He submitted himself to God.

In Philippians 3, Paul tells me how I am to approach life.  He says he is “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.”  He is pressing on toward the goal “to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”  He is looking ahead to what Jesus has in store for him.  He wants to please Christ.  He is on the road to heaven.

That seems to me the way I should deal with my failures.  I need to confess them as the apostle John says in 1 John 1:8-9.  But then I should get on with life,  looking ahead to Jesus and filling my mind and heart with him.  That is the surest way to victories in God’s eyes.