Saturday, September 29, 2012

Still Twisted

This extract from chapter 1 of “Institutes of the Christian Religion” by John Calvin is certain to bring any of us down from our pedestal to earth with a crash and make us realise how depraved and loathsome we all are without the imputed righteousness of Him who gave His life for us.

“It is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) that we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also - He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be  produced. For, since we are all naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty semblance of righteousness instead of righteousness itself is quite enough to satisfy us. And since nothing appears within us or around us that is not tainted with very great impurity, so long as we keep our mind within the confines of human pollution, anything which is in some small degree less defiled, delights us as if it were most pure; just as an eye, to which nothing but black had been previously presented, deems an object of a whitish, or even of a brownish hue, to be perfectly white.

Our bodily sense may furnish a still stronger illustration of the extent to which we are deluded in estimating the powers of the mind. If, at mid-day, we either look downat the ground, or at surrounding objects which lie open to our view, we think ourselves endued with a very strong and piercing eyesight; but when we look up to the sun, and gaze at it unveiled, the sight which did excellently well for the earth is so instantly dazzled and confounded by the brilliance, as to oblige us to confess that our acuteness in discerning terrestrial objects is mere dimness when applied to the sun.

Thus too, it happens in estimating our spiritual qualities. So long as we do not look beyond the earth, we are quite pleased with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue; we address ourselves in the most flattering terms, and seem only less than demigods. But should we once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and reflect what kind of Being he is, and how absolute the perfection of that righteousness, and wisdom, and virtue, to which, as a standard, we are bound to be conformed, what formerly delighted us by its false show of righteousness will become polluted with the greatest iniquity; what strangely imposed upon us under the name of wisdom will disgust by its extreme folly; and what presented the appearance of virtuous energy will be condemned as the most miserable impotence. So far are those qualities in us, which seem most perfect, from corresponding to the divine purity.”

Thursday, July 7, 2011


There are times when you embark on a mission to achieve one thing, and as you set off to do so you begin to realise that in fact your mission is not what you thought it would be.

In thinking about empowering your flock with a sound knowledge of the gospel in it’s fullness, and an understanding of the far-reaching effects it should have on every aspect of their lives, it does not take very long to begin to realise that this is in fact not a simple case of presenting the gospel as it is currently accepted, but rather this is a salvage mission to rescue the true gospel from the clutches of christianity.

Even in salvation, we have a way of straying off the path and perverting the truth. After all, sin would be no problem unless we loved it and had a deep and abiding desire to follow where it leads. We are by nature suppressors of the truth (Romans 1:18). Nothing is safe from our tendency to pervert things. Our sin combined with the schemes of the “prince of the power of the air“ in the world are a powerful combination. All it takes is a few short years and the truth can become completely lost and twisted to the point where it is unrecognisable when compared to what it started out as. Yet somehow, after it has been lost and perverted each generation will indignantly insist that the doctrine in question is undefiled and pure.

This besetting problem as it relates to the truth of the gospel is very neatly summarised in J. I. Packer’s introduction to a 1958 reprint of John Owen's “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ“. Packer offer’s the following remarks regarding what he calls one of the most urgent tasks facing evangelical Christendom today - the recovery of the gospel...

There is no doubt that evangelicalism today is in a state of perplexity and unsettlement. In such matters as the practice of evangelism, the teaching of holiness, the building up of local church life, the pastor's dealing with souls and the exercise of discipline, there is evidence of widespread dissatisfaction with things as they are and or equally widespread uncertainty as to the road ahead. This is a complex phenomenon, to which many factors have contributed; but, if we go to the root of the matter, we shall find that these perplexities are all ultimately due to our having lost our grip on the biblical gospel. Without realizing it, we have during the past century bartered that gospel for a substitute product which, though it looks similar enough in points of detail, is as a whole a decidedly different thing. Hence our troubles; for the substitute product does not answer the ends for which the authentic gospel has in past days proved itself so mighty. Why?
We would suggest that the reason lies in its own character and content. It fails to make men God-centered in their thoughts and God-fearing in their hearts because this is not primarily what it is trying to do. One way of stating the difference between it and the old gospel is to say that it is too exclusively concerned to be 'helpful' to man - to bring peace, comfort, happiness, satisfaction - and too little concerned to glorify God. The old gospel was 'helpful', too - more so, indeed, than is the new - but (so to speak) incidentally, for its first concern was always to give glory to God. It was always and essentially a proclamation of divine sovereignty in mercy and judgment, a summons to bow down and worship the mighty Lord on whom man depends for all good, both in nature and in grace. Its center of reference was unambiguously God. But in the new gospel the center of reference is man. This is just to say that the old gospel was religious in a way that the new gospel is not. Whereas the chief aim of the old was to teach people to worship God, the concern of the new seems limited to making them feel better. The subject of the old gospel was God and his ways with men; the subject of the new is man and the help God gives him. There is a world of difference. The whole perspective and emphasis of gospel preaching has changed.
From this change of interest has sprung a change of content, for the new gospel has in effect reformulated the biblical message in the supposed interests of 'helpfulness'. Accordingly, the themes of man's natural inability to believe, of God's free election being the ultimate cause of salvation, and of Christ dying specifically for his sheep are not preached. These doctrines, it would be said, are not 'helpful'; they would drive sinners to despair, by suggesting to them that it is not in their own power to be saved through Christ. (The possibility that such despair might be salutary is not considered: it is taken for granted that it cannot be, because it is so shattering to our self-esteem.) However this may be (and we shall say more about it later), the result of these omissions is that part of the biblical gospel is now preached as if it were the whole of that gospel; and a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth. Thus, we appeal to men as if they all had the ability to receive Christ at any time; we speak of his redeeming work as if he had made it possible for us to save ourselves by believing; we speak of God's love as if it were no more than a general willingness to receive any who will turn and trust; and we depict the Father and the Son, not as sovereignly active in drawing sinners to themselves, but as waiting in quiet impotence 'at the door of our hearts' for us to let them in.
It is undeniable that this is how we preach; perhaps this is what we really believe. But it needs to be said with emphasis that this set of twisted half-truths is something other than the biblical gospel. The Bible is against us when we preach in this way; and the fact that such preaching has become almost standard practice among us only shows how urgent it is that we should review this matter. To recover the old, authentic, biblical gospel, and to bring our preaching and practice back into line with it, is perhaps our most pressing present need. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


In a world like this, saturated in a constant stream of filth coming from every angle, it’s tempting to blame the sin of lust on the outside world and diminish our role because it seems almost impossible to resist the barrage! This sin is arguably the toughest to battle and is especially able to entangle us, interestingly right at the point where original sin is transferred through humanity.
Certainly there can be no doubt that the world is increasingly filled with the perversions of God’s natural design for sexuality, and that Satan is the author of it and revels in it. The exhortation in 1 Peter 5:8 to be watchful is followed by a description of Satan as a roaring lion prowling around seeking someone to devour. That mental picture seems almost a perfect metaphor for the way Satan has designed this sin to entangle us.
Having said that, we must always remember that sin is ours to own. G.K. Chesterton was asked the question: “What’s wrong with the world?” His answer is beautiful in its simplistic relevance for us: “Dear Sirs” he said, “I am!” Not only is it ours to own, but we must recognize the outrage that it is before the thrice holy God we worship. We are very good at sympathising with other sinners in their sin, and not so naturally inclined to side with God in His righteous indignation over sin. The world neatly defines the worst evil as that which produces the most human misery, but there is more evil in the least of our sins than in a natural event which produces the most human suffering.
A story of a minister who preached very strongly one day on the subject of sin serves to illustrate the danger in minimising sin. After the service one of the church officers asked him not to talk so openly about man's corruption, because the children hearing the message may more easily become sinners. The minister took down a small bottle from the cabinet and showed it to the visitor and said “Do you see that label?” The man replied, “Yes”. The label read “Strychnine” and underneath that in bold red letters was the word “Poison”. “Do you know man, what you are asking me to do?” said the minister. “You're suggesting that I change the label. Suppose I do and paste over it the words, "Essence of Peppermint”. Do you see what might happen? Someone would use it not knowing the danger involved and would die, and so it is too with the matter of sin. The milder you make the label the more dangerous you make the poison.
Our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 5:27-30 helps us to understand lust from His perspective.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” [ESV]
In this passage we see:
·         The Depth of this Sin
It is not only an act, but rather it is an attitude, being much deeper than just committing adultery.
·         The Deceit of this Sin
It is never as simple as it looks. You can be highly respectable on the outside and be rotten with lust on the inside.
·         The Destructiveness of this Sin
It is so severe that its ultimate end is to cast people into an eternal hell.  So serious is it that we would be better to take the most drastic action that would cause us great physical pain if that would prevent it.
The error of minimising this sin seems especially prevalent today, as if the state of impurity in the world around us is somehow proportional to our tendency to minimise our inability to resist it. A passage from John Owen’s treatises on Indwelling Sin in Believers and The Mortification of Sin serves as a staggering reminder of the attitude we should have towards this sin…
“Bring your lust to the gospel, — not for relief, but for farther conviction of its guilt; look on Him whom you have pierced, and be in bitterness. Say to your soul, “What have I done? What love, what mercy, what blood, what grace have I despised and trampled on! Is this the return I give to the Father for his love, to the Son for his blood, to the Holy Ghost for his grace? Is this how I repay the Lord? Have I defiled the heart that Christ died to wash, that the blessed Spirit has chosen to dwell in? And can I keep myself out of the dust? What can I say to the dear Lord Jesus? How shall I hold up my head with any boldness before him? Do I account communion with him of so little value, that for this vile lust’s sake I have hardly any room in my heart? How shall I escape if I neglect so great salvation? In the meantime, what shall I say to the Lord? Love, mercy, grace, goodness, peace, joy, consolation, — I have despised them all, and esteemed them as a thing of nothing, that I might harbour a lust in my heart. Have I obtained a view of God’s fatherly countenance, that I might behold his face and provoke him to his face? Was my soul washed, that room might be made for new defilements? Shall I endeavour to disappoint the end of the death of Christ? Shall I daily grieve that Spirit whereby I am sealed to the day of redemption? Consider the infinite patience and forbearance of God towards you in particular. Consider what advantages he might have taken against you, to have made you a shame and a reproach in this world, and an object of wrath for ever; how you have dealt treacherously and falsely with him from time to time, flattered him with your lips, but broken all promises and engagements, and that by the means of that sin you are now in pursuit of; and yet he has spared you from time to time, although you seem boldly to have put it to the trial how long he could hold out. And will you yet sin against him? Will you yet weary him, and make him to serve with your corruptions? Have you not often been ready to conclude to yourself, that it was utterly impossible that he should bear any longer with you; that he would cast you off, and be gracious no more; that all his forbearance was exhausted, and hell and wrath was even ready prepared for you? And yet, above all thy expectation, he has returned with visitations of love. And will you still abide in the provocation of the eyes of his glory?”
Knowing the seriousness of this sin, we must act! We must work out this salvation we have been given by our own effort knowing that it is God who is at work in us (Phil 2:12-13). First and foremost, that means a rigid commitment to taking shelter in the Word for protection and for sanctification, and to remaining steadfast in prayer.
In addition, a number of practical resources are available to support the sanctifying work of the Sprit through the Word…
A Strategy for fighting:
A Resource for Understanding:
A Tool for Accountability:
A System of Prevention:
A Path to Recovery:

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Long Silence

Anonymous Author:

“At the end of time, billions of people were seated on a great plain before God's throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly, not with cringing shame - but with belligerence.

"Can God judge us? How can He know about suffering?",snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. "We endured terror ... beatings ... torture ... death!"

In another group a Negro boy lowered his collar. "What about this?" he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. "Lynched, for no crime but being black!"

In another crowd there was a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes: "Why should I suffer?" she murmured. "It wasn't my fault." Far out across the plain were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering He had permitted in His world.

How lucky God was to live in Heaven, where all was sweetness and light. Where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that man had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.

So each of these groups sent forth their leaders, chosen because they had suffered the most. A Jew, a negro, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the vast plain, they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.

Before God could be qualified to be their judge, He must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth as a man.

Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind.

Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured.

At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die so there can be no doubt he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.

As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled. When the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered a word. No one moved.

For suddenly, all knew that God had already served His sentence…”

Monday, June 6, 2011

Watch & Pray...

Do you ever look at the state of the world around us with the gracious gift of “eyes to see”, and find yourself bewildered? 

It’s not difficult with Spirit-led discernment to notice the finest strands of a number of dangerous developments slowly brewing in the world around us.

Two such dangers are becoming increasingly clear, and together they should make us sit up and pay attention.

First, anyone with a serious commitment to teaching or group study of the pure Word would surely have noticed that many Christians these days seem almost indifferent to any serious commitment to their professed faith. The look on some faces when they have the exclusivity of the truths in the Word of God applied to their lives is something that can be quite indescribable. Over the past few generations, almost imperceptibly, the church has fallen asleep. Christians for the most part are at minimum lax and lazy, shallow, anti-intellectual and uncommitted and at worst, licentious, pluralistic and worldly. There is a serious level of disconnect from the Word of God and the expending of any real effort on serious study in it and thinking on it as a key aspect of a conformed life. Most approach the Word of God as if raking leaves, instead of digging for diamonds!

Second, the growing hostility towards biblical Christianity and what it stands for is palpable! Anyone who dares to question or challenge anyone’s right to do whatever they please within the framework of the ever loosening bounds of the law, faces a level of indignation which seems to multiply with each passing year. In years gone by as an example, Christian groups did not have too much difficulty in lobbying for or against issues in society, but in recent years the back-lash to lobbying efforts to uphold traditional values has been increasingly fast and furious.

The combination of a church that is largely indiscernible from the world and a world which increasingly fosters an attitude of overt hostility to the truth is as likely a breeding ground for the conditions which will prevail at “the end of the age” as any. The days when we can worship in safety are surely numbered. There are precious few who are truly passionate and committed to our calling, and we need to be the catalysts for God’s people urgently drawing nearer to Him and to each other in light of these dangers.

In the myriad of things we could turn our eyes to in Scripture as a starting point, Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:41 to the disciples at Gethsemane are as pertinent to us now as they were to the disciplies then. In context, Jesus words were aimed at preparing the disciples for the trials and persecution which would come on them as a result of the crucifixion of Christ, and preparing the early church for the unprecedented persecution of all believers. There can be no doubt though, that Jesus’ words are for us today. As we see the strands of these emerging dangers developing and intertwining, we too need to “watch and pray that we may not enter into temptation.”

We do need to watch the world. In Mark 13:33 , we are told: “Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come.” Being aware of the culture and the trends in the world which will culminate in the “birth pangs” is important. We are never to be fixated on these things, but we are called to be alert, sensitive and discerning about these things. However what is of ultimate importance is that we watch our lives and our doctrine (1 Tim 4:16).

We need to watch our minds. The church has a post-modern love affair with new age spirituality and is forging it’s concepts and ideas into our faith. At times this is quite overt (for example in proponents of the Emergent Church), but in many instances, it is mostly sub-conscious and manifests in a subtle despising of any emphasis on the mind and the exercise of it in the Christian life. Yet we know that the mind is a critical channel through which God designed for us to be sanctified (Psa 119:11; Romans 7:25),  because “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions (2 Tim 4:3).

Finally, we need to be watching our lives. This starts with keeping our minds set on things above and not on things below (Phil 2:3).  Sanctification is surely a very slow process, and grieving over and struggling against our sin is painful but it is an assurance of true faith and we should wear it like a badge. We are called to engage in sustained, prayer-saturated warfare over the sin in our lives as we strive to bring our practise into line with our position in Christ. There is a certain tension in our sanctification that we have to humbly submit to, because on one hand God’s power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor 12:9), but there is an imperative to offer our bodies (our entire selves) as a living sacrifice as our act of worship (Rom 12:1). Phil 2:12-13 shows the tension between our effort and God’s grace. “Continuing in sin that grace may abound” is not an option! (Romans 6:1)

Using Romans 7:14-25 as a kind of template, our attitude (illustrated here as a verbal affirmation) in light of our indwelling sin should be to say that:
·         We love the law (v12: So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good; v22: For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being)
·         We hate our sin (v15: For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.)
·         We acknowledge our weakness (v: 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?)
·         We rejoice over and give thanks for His grace (25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.)

So don’t stop fighting, and repenting, and praying. And remember, “in your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (Heb 12:4) The victory is ours! There is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Who shall separate us from His love?” (Rom 8;35).

Friday, April 29, 2011

Feeding on God

The dullness of the human heart is easily seen in how we struggle with even the most simple and yet crucial requirement to study the Word. How many Christians are as committed to being in the Word as they should be? Surely from the Lord’s perspective none, but even from a human point of view most fall far short of the mark.
We know it is commanded (2 Peter 3:18). We know it is for our good (1 Peter 2:2). We know that it is the means by which we will slowly be rid of the sin in our own hearts which is always before us and which makes us cry out in frustration with Paul in Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am!”  (John 17:17). We know it pleases the Lord we supposedly love that we feed on His Word (Psalm 1:1-2; Ephesians 5:26-27; 2 Corinthians 3:18). We know that it is our weapon of defence against the world, the flesh and the devil (2 Peter 3:17; Ephesians 6:17; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Yet, we still struggle…
Arguably, most of what is wrong with the Church today would not be if we could just cultivate a life in the Word, constantly feeding on God’s Word. Surely, we are in fact now in the time “when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths”. (2 Timothy 4:3-4)
Some practical principles for cultivating a life in the Word…

1. Pattern
Nothing becomes part of your life unless it is characterised by a pattern. Commit the same time each day, spent in the same quiet and tranquil place to feeding on God’s Word. Pray and read aloud if necessary to stop mental drift. Dedicate enough time to prevent being focused on time.

2. Prayer
Study needs to be accompanied by prayer. In advance, asking for understanding, cleansing, joy and correction and in closing, offering praise and thanksgiving, and asking for grace in responding to His revelation. Closing prayer can also incorporate your general prayer time, and using a standardised framework (like “ACTS” or “The Five Finger Prayer”) to ensure prayer covers all relevant areas is a good idea.

3. Purpose
The purpose of your study must always be learning about Him, seeing His glory, hearing His voice, being sanctified and conformed to His will.
Consciously prepare your heart to be in humble submission and focus on applying what you read to yourself. Have expectant anticipation for what the Lord has to show you.
Turning the Word into prayer as you read is a useful aid to enhancing your scripture memory and prayer and glorifies God.

4. Plan
This is the hard bit. You need a plan and you need to stick to it. Stretch yourself here.
A broad Bible reading scheme is a great idea for covering the overarching themes, characters and stories. There are loads of good reading schemes available including one for example in the ESV Bible. There are 1189 chapters in the Bible so you need to cover a little over three every day. Many schemes for example cover some parts more than once in a year and include reading from different parts of the Bible concurrently to enrich your reading time.
Many reading schemes would cover the Psalms and Proverbs concurrently with the rest of Scripture. Distinctly meditating on one Psalm or Proverb each day in addition to other study lends itself well to maintaining a heart-focus by nature of these books.
An in-depth study component is required to plumb the depths of the Word. Usually, study in pre-selected books that lines up with some kind of overall plan or for instance the content your home group is studying is a good idea. Aim for one chapter per night at minimum although repetition is helpful (for example studying each chapter every night for one week).

5. Protection
We live in a dark and hostile world, and daily we battle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12) The Word of God though is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)  
The reality is that to meditate on the Word day and night it needs to be buried in your heart and mind. Scripture memory however is probably the most neglected aspect of study today. Spending time on memorising a verse for instance which was particularly relevant to you in your other study is a good way to do this because the link back to your life which makes a verse relevant also makes it easier to remember.

Now all we have to do is do it! As with everything else, we need grace! So cry out with the Psalmist “Incline my heart to your testimonies…”(Psalms 119:36)

Friday, April 15, 2011

X-Ray Questions

Idolatry sometimes seems like the sin that is most removed from our post-modern reality, yet it is at the top of the list in the Decalogue. We pay so little attention to idolatry because it is least visible to us. Idol's hide in the dark recesses of our hearts, and our divided nature feeds and nurtures them.

David Powlison, in his book, Seeing with New Eyes, talks about "X-Ray Questions" that help to uncover the idols that each of us has hiding within our hearts. He identifies 35 questions that can be focussed into your own heart to expose your idols. The Resurgence has a tidy distillation of them based on a blog by Jared Wilson.

Take a few moments, after prayerfully asking God for His help, to apply these questions to your heart. You will be amazed at what you find!

1. What do I worry about most?

2. What, if I failed or lost it, would cause me to feel that I did not even want to live?

3. What do I use to comfort myself when things go bad or get difficult?

4. What do I do to cope? What are my release valves? What do I do to feel better?

5. What preoccupies me? What do I daydream about?

6. What makes me feel worthy? Of what am I proudest? For what do I want to be known?

7. What do I lead with in conversations?

8. Early on what do I want to make sure that people know about me?

9. What prayer, unanswered, would make me seriously think about turning away from God?

10. What do I really want and expect out of life? What would really make me happy?

11. What is my hope for the future?


Friday, April 8, 2011

Deluge: You – Part 2

We’ve come to the end of a difficult but important journey. Suffering is one of the most contentious topics of our time. Yet we do everything to seek only comfort but suffering is avoided like a plague in spite of the fact that we need to come to grips with it, because we live in a world full of suffering, and as Christians it will knock on our door.

Last post we started considering how we should respond to disaster, looking at the need to worship, and to weep. Let’s pick it up with some further direction from God’s Word, starting with the need for prayer in the wake of calamity.

3 Pray

According to James 5:13, we should pray if anyone among us is suffering. But what should we pray for?

First, we should pray for salvation for those who are caught up in the calamity but are outside of Christ, so that in him people can be more than conquerors in every calamity of life (Romans 8:37)! Eternal suffering is infinitely more terrible than anything we can experience in this life. Praying for temporal relief means far less if this relief is not combined with salvation. Remember, God uses calamity to draw people’s attention to Him and their need for Him – they are helpless and must fly to Christ who alone delivers from the final and ultimate calamity of God’s wrath (1 Thessalonians 1:10).

Similarly, we pray for those unaffected but who are witnesses to the disaster, that they would see their destiny without God and repent from the adultery of treasuring anything more than Christ (James 4:4).

Many would say that the second priority should be to pray for relief from suffering for those affected. However, in respect of believers Paul for example in 2nd Thessalonians 1 did not pray for this. Instead he prayed for steadfastness in suffering (v 3-4) which results in spiritual growth, and to this end He prays God would continue to use the trials which He has sent to achieve His purposes. In calamity, believers need to be still and know that God is God (Psalm 46:10) and remember that they are to keep their eyes on things unseen (2 Corinthians 4:18) since this life is not of primary importance. They need to see and live the supreme worth of Christ in the calamity.

Then, we pray for relief from suffering for all those affected, and we pray that God would meet our needs as help and give to those in need…

4 Do

Disasters like these are an opportunity to show the difference Christ makes in your life and in the world, by being ready to go and help those affected, so we help in any way we can and we give generously.
This applies even more to those of us affected ourselves, because Christ wants you to reach out to others when you are suffering yourself, because “those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” (1 Pet 4:19)
The glory of the gospel shines through how we respond to calamity – “as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” (2 Corinthians 6:4-5)

5 Hope

In “doing” when we are suffering we display hope…” we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self [3] is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 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.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-18)
We are to endure suffering for righteousness' sake, so that people will “ask you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15)

6 Rejoice

Finally, where there is hope, we can rejoice – “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” (Romans 12:12)
Joy is the apex of suffering which magnifies Christ, which is why Jesus said in Luke 14:33 that anyone who does not renounce all that he has cannot be His disciple. If everything you have is taken away from you, but you still have Christ, you rejoice!
Scripture is filled with this pattern. Habakkuk 3:17-18 says “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.”

In Philippians 3:8, Paul says “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ”, and earlier in the epistle before one of the most jarring passages in Scripture he says “Yes, and I will rejoice …… For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:18-21)

The Psalms especially resound with the rejoicing of saints in the midst of their suffering. Psalm 63:3 offers God joyful praise because His “steadfast love is better than life”.  Psalm 73:25-26 is a perfect example of how our lives should look when we suffer - “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Matthew 5 makes this relationship between joy and suffering clear. Our “saltiness” is the joy others see in us in the midst of suffering which other people cannot explain. That is why the imperative to be salt and light in verses 13 to 16 follows directly after verse 11 and 12 which instructs us to rejoice when we suffer.

The passage, which many would say is the crescendo of the most glorious chapter in all of Scripture, is an appropriate way to illustrate the basis for our joy...

“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.”

Before we leave this series on suffering in the face of calamity, I’d like to make a confession. Through this series of posts starting 11 weeks ago, the Lord has spoken most clearly to me, about my response to my own suffering. Especially recently, I faced a series of trials which arose partly because of my own sin (as usual), but no doubt also because of the purposes the Lord had in them for me.

I humbly acknowledge that my response to the suffering which God has granted me for His glory and for my ultimate joy is far from what it should be. As is so often the case, Romans 7:15 comes to mind – “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” That’s what is so wonderful about grace!

I leave you with a passage of Scripture which the Lord gave a dear friend to send me in the midst of my sinful disillusioned despair…

 “Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope; let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults. For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.” (Lam 3:19-33)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Deluge: You - Part 1

We’ve seen over the past weeks, that Scripture teaches God is sovereign over natural disasters and He has temporal purposes in these things including Judgement, Mercy and Purification. We’ve also looked at the ultimate purpose for these events, which is the same as that for which the universe was created and for which His blameless Son was crucified: the exaltation of His glory.

During our time of focus on this we’ve seen the floods that started in Queensland spread  across four states. Shortly after that Category 5 cyclone Yasi decimated a path hundreds of kilometers wide from North Queensland inland, and this was followed by the Earthquake in Christchurch that killed over 160 people. Finally, just this week the 9.0 quake in Japan which generated a Tsunami which has caused enormous loss of life and the threat of nuclear catastrophe. This surely reminds us of the passage which initiated Job’s trials, when each messenger bringing news of some affliction had not even finished speaking before the next messenger with news of another disaster arrived.

These events highlight one thing for us: suffering will come, including suffering as a result of calamity. 1 Thessalonians 3:3 tells us that we are destined for suffering. Over 50 million people die every year. That means in the time it has taken you to read to this point, almost a hundred people have died, and most of them died in absolute agony. This doesn’t count in the aborted unborn whose silent screams have been heard only by the Almighty who will judge the guilty at the relevant time. By God’s grace we are sheltered from this, (He hears the screams of each of these people) but it is worth reminding ourselves of this because we can easily forget that we live in a world where suffering is the status quo. Some of those who read this may die this year, be diagnosed with an incurable terminal illness, be paralysed after a car accident or lose someone in their family.

Acts 14:22 says that we must enter the Kingdom of God through many tribulations. As Christians who live in this world and minister to the needs of others, we’d better have a theology of suffering on which to base our lives. The conclusions you reach from a careful study of Scripture are difficult to come to terms with, especially in the context of a post-modern, first-world society that worships convenience and comfort. Sadly, the Church has avoided teaching about topics like suffering and this has left the flock inadequately equipped to live biblically in a world of suffering. However, we need to know how to deal with living in a world like this and our dealing with it must be biblical. Romans 8:16-17 even links the existence of suffering in our lives to our assurance that we are children of God, saying we are children of God … provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” So this is very important.
Scripture reflects a number of the ways in which we should respond to disaster and suffering in general.  This post we’ll look at the first two…

1 Worship

Most importantly our response to any natural disaster should be to worship God. Job’s reaction to the suffering that “the Lord had brought him” (Job 42:11) was to worship Him in acknowledgement of God’s sovereign decision to send suffering, saying in Job 1:21 “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord”.

The early chapters of the book of Hosea describe in detail the Lord’s anger at Israel and Judah for their unfaithfulness to God and mention famine and whirlwind as examples of the many impending consequences of God’s judgment. God says at the end of Chapter 5 that He will turn away from them until they acknowledge their guilt and seek His face. Then Hosea 6:1 indicates the response which should follow saying, “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.” Similarly, Psalm 57 shows how the psalmist exalts and worships God, taking refuge in Him in the midst of storms of destruction.

Hebrews 12 instructs us to look to the sufferings of Jesus as the example we should follow in trials. In doing so, it draws into the argument both the example of persecution (which Jesus endured) and the struggle against sin (which we endure) in illustrating that the very existence of suffering in our lives is evidence of us being legitimate children of God. God’s use of suffering in our lives to achieve His infinitely wise purposes in us needs to draw us into thankful, submissive worship.

2 Weep

Disaster should lead us to weep for and with those who suffer and to mourn over our sin. The new heart which Christ gives us in the new birth causes us to feel for those who are suffering. The first thing to do after a calamity is not to give people answers. They need love and care and they need help getting their lives in some kind of order. There will be plenty of time for giving answers after comfort has been provided.

Calamity brings to light the immense potential within people for doing good. We see dim reflections of the nature of mankind before the fall. A friend who is not a Christian and who lost everything made an amazing statement after the floods earlier this year. After recounting the experience and the extent of his loss, he began to speak about his being “blown away” by the generosity of strangers who just showed up to help. Then he said “I think we should have a flood like this every ten years!” That is amazing! In fact a bible scholar in the time of Martin Luther once said that seeing the sinful nature of the world, he was surprised there was not a Noahic deluge every year!

Romans 12:15 says we should “Weep with those who weep” without any qualification. Our weeping with those who suffer does not depend on the cause of the suffering. We know from our reading of Scripture that the Lord sovereignly decides which disasters will and will not come. Empathy comes from the pain and is unrelated to the cause.

We know that the Lord is just in sending disaster, because the horrific nature of the sin of mankind in stark contrast to the worthiness of God to receive our worship and obedience means we are deserving of nothing better. However, this should not undermine our compassion for those suffering either. We are sinners too, and we feel their pain.

We should weep with those who suffer regardless of their faith or their lack thereof. Mercy is by nature undeserved, which is why Luke 6:27 says “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you”.

The other reason for weeping is over sin. We know that creation groans as described in Romans 8 because of the effects of the fall which resulted from sin. In James 4, in giving a warning against sinful worldliness, verses 8 to 10 tell us that the appropriate response is to “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

Not only is sin often directly or indirectly the cause of calamity, but the depravity of man is evident even during and after disaster. It is tragic how many examples you see of people who, not being affected personally by a natural disaster, continue on in the midst of the destruction as if nothing has happened – mowing the lawn, jogging, having haircuts etc. Some who are much less affected than others help themselves first even as they receive help from those who choose to help them first. Others instantly move into a “victim” mode and instead of being happy for those whose lives and property is spared, they show anger and bitterness that they were not spared. Still others vent the stress in road rage, family arguments, and deceitful scheming to take advantage of government financial assistance, not to mention looting and theft.

As always, our response to sin should be sincere and godly repentance. We should mourn over the contribution our sin makes in general to a fallen world, we should be sorrowful if our response in disaster is not what it should be and we should repent for the fact that it is only when we experience disaster that we selfishly focus on all these things. Every day around the world, the majority of people on earth experience worse than we do in disasters, and yet we rarely even notice. Where are the good Samaritans among us?