A Refuge in the Midst of Change

We live in turbulent times.

The political landscape around the world has changed remarkably in the course of a year, causing many of us to feel unsettled and anxious about the future. Perhaps like me, you face personal changes too? Where should the Christian look for help in the face of change? Whether it’s something that we’re excitedly anticipating or an unsought sadness.

After all we are just like everyone else – subject to all the same challenges and unpredictabilities of life. And yet as followers of Christ we are to be joyfully different too; even when the changes we face possess the power to rob us of the things we value most.

Because when it comes to challenge and change, the Christian knows where to turn. Our trust isn’t found in our own resources. It’s not to be placed in our own physical or emotional strength, or in financial stability or job security. Thankfully our trust is in a far more secure location – our good and wise God.stirling-castle-scotland-stirling-castle-64287

Here are just a few of the ways that the Psalms describe him:

A shepherd (Psalm 23)

A refuge & shelter (Psalms 91& 62:8)

Our shield and hiding place (Psalm 119:114)

A deliverer (Psalm 18)

Our strength and help in trouble (Psalm 46:1-2)

How firm and secure we can be as we walk into the unknown! How blessed we are, even when difficulty surrounds us . As the words of this famous hymn remind us:

We rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender;

  We go not forth alone against the foe;

Strong in Thy strength, safe in Thy keeping tender.

  We rest on Thee, and in Thy Name we go. . .

We go in faith, our own great weakness feeling,

  And needing more each day Thy grace to know:

Yet from our hearts a song of triumph pealing;

  We rest on Thee, and in Thy Name we go. . .

These resources grow even richer in light of the gospel. As Hebrews 4 reminds us, we are granted the right to “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Hebrews 4:16

So, whatever the nature of the changes that you face; whether you are weak and need the reminder of God’s comfort and strength, or his gentle rebuke against your self-reliance, may you have joy and know his help as you walk with him.

He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. Psalm 91:4

 

Nim

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The Story of the Potter and the Clay

This is a story about a potter and a sadly delusional piece of clay:

The potter is busy at work one day in his studio, forming a new pot with the easy skill of a master craftsman. As he turns the wheel the clay twitches suddenly under his hands and he hears a reedy and mutinous voice say “You did not make me!”

The potter is speechless, not primarily because his pot has begun to talk, but due to the blatantly ridiculous nature of the words it utters even as he continues to shape it.  Yet the small piece of clay continues, warming to his theme, “You did not make me. And furthermore, I don’t think you know what you’re doing! I could do a much better job.”

I’m not sure where the story would go from here, but I’m pretty certain that it wouldn’t end with the lump of clay usurping the role of master craftsman! The scenario is fun to imagine, but pretty absurd. Yet did you know that this is an illustration that God uses in the Bible of you and I, and our attitude to him?!

‘He Did Not Make Me’

Isaiah 29 is a prime example. The context is that God is speaking to the Israelites about the way that they treat him. Their foolish attitude towards their powerful God and creator has led to their punishment at the hands of other nations in war, and yet they still haven’t understood that their pride and rebellion is the cause.

This is God’s rebuke in v.16:clay potter

16 You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,
that the thing made should say of its maker,
    “He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
    “He has no understanding”?

These words may have originally been directed at Israel, but they speak just as powerfully to us today.

We turn things upside down. We try to shrug off the authority that God has just by virtue of him being God. He made us – every atom, every cell. He sustains the existence of the universe that we inhabit, and yet like the pathetically delusional clay, against all signs to the contrary we defiantly announce “He did not make me”.

We think that if we ignore him, he’ll go away and there won’t be any consequences.

‘He Has No Understanding’

Or perhaps we’ve reconciled ourselves to God’s existence, we’ve given him our allegiance – even our love and worship, yet in certain matters we continue to withhold our trust. Do we honour his wisdom as superior to our own? Do we obey his commands and trust his purposes? Or like the clay do we mutter “He has no understanding”? We might never put this into words but it’s an unconscious attitude that can pervade our everyday behaviour. (Don’t forget that the accusations of Isaiah 29 were made to Israel –  who knew God and claimed to follow him!)

I stumbled across this passage whilst searching for another, but it hit me powerfully because so often this is me –  struggling in vain against the reality of who God is and who I am, and whether I really trust him – deludedly trying to announce my independence and greater wisdom, even as the potter continues his work.

Hope for Rebels

Fortunately there is hope for rebellious pots like me! Against all expectations, the potter is infinitely gracious and forgiving, he keeps on moulding and shaping us. This is a rebuke that calls us to return. Just one chapter on in Isaiah 30:15 and 18, we read this invitation:

This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says:

In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength…

the Lord longs to be gracious to you;therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.

So let’s humbly heed the warning and take God up on his invitation, acknowledging and trusting our maker and accepting his grace whilst it is offered to us.

Nim

Loveless

Do you love God?

If you’re a Christian, maybe that seems like an obvious question with an obvious answer? If you’re not, perhaps it seems a curious and untried concept?

Yet as Kent Hughes says in the book I’m currently reading, this is ‘the quintessential question for everyone who wants to please God.’ Do you love him?

It is so easy to take our eyes away from this goal! We focus on good things – important things, like ‘quiet times’ and church attendance, Christian service, generosity, bible knowledge, prayer etc. But all of these things should be the results of one aim and the means to one end – to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Deuteronomy 6:5Without love

When Jesus is asked what the most important instruction in the Bible is, he reiterates this saying: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment.Matthew 22:37-38

I am finding that sometimes I get so busy with everything that I’m doing, even the things I’m doing to please God, that I forget the main thing: Love. Without this, everything I do is emptied of meaning. After all, God doesn’t need me to serve him, loveless duty is not what he wants from the people that he has made, he wants loving relationship.

As the apostle Paul reminds us: The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. Acts 17:24-27

12 And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? Deuteronomy 10:12-13

I need to be reminded often not to forget the main thing, not just because God desires this, but because love for God is the source of my joy and fulfilment too. Love for God is not meant to be a burden, but a gift! You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. Psalm 16:11

 

The Love Gap

However, perhaps loving God is something that seems easy to talk about yet difficult to do. (And if you’re feeling discouraged by failure in this area please keep reading!) Where do we start?

  1. The Bible demonstrates repeatedly that love for God is a response. We love because he first loved us. 1 John 4:19 God has made the first move, and the second, and the third…! He loved us even as we ignored him, hated him, and rebelled against him. He came to earth in human form to die in our place on a Roman cross.  Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13
  1. Love for God involves worship – we naturally praise the things that we love and admire, and you can find some wonderful examples of this in the Psalms: I love you, Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. Psalm 18:1-2
  1. Love for God must include obedience: Those who accept my commandments and obey them are the ones who love me. . .And I will love them and reveal myself to each of them. John 14:21 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. 1 John 5:3
  1. Love for God needs cultivation; it won’t always be a natural response for us because we are sinful. True, deep, intimate love develops when we spend regular and dedicated time with someone, so we need to be intentional about growing in our love for God, by spending quality time with him alone in prayer and reading the Bible.

Don’t Give Up, He Won’t!

It’s easy to feel discouraged or defensive when we consider our love for God – it always looks so weak and insufficient compared to his love for us! He deserves perfect, all-consuming love and devotion, and we give him diluted love and distracted praise.

But I’m encouraging myself to trust in the reality of his faithful love for me as I journey towards a greater love for him in return. We must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the one who makes up for our failures, loving the Father perfectly and forgiving every sin, including our loveless-ness: This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. 1 John 4:10

Just dwelling on the depth of his love for us should begin to stir our sluggish hearts in response.

Nim

The God Who Sees Us

Why does God care about us? How do we know that he really does?

Does he see us as individuals, or just feels a general benevolence towards the human race?

Well fortunately God answers these questions and more –in the things that he says, but also in his actions and in the record that we have of them in the Bible.

Here is a shortened version of a passage I read the other day in Genesis – the first book in the Bible.

It’s about an unimportant slave girl, on the fringes of society and of God’s plan for the world – a plan that focuses on someone you probably have heard of – Abraham:

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said…He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress…

Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert;…. And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” 

11 The angel of the Lord also said to her:

“You are now pregnant
and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,
[which means God Hears]
for the Lord has heard of your misery

13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”

15 So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne…

(You’ll notice I miss out some verses for the sake of brevity, but you can read the whole story in Genesis 16 here.)

We often bypass this small part of the story as we focus on Abraham, and God’s miraculous promise to build the Jewish nation from this one aged man and his barren wife (themselves just ordinary people that God makes extraordinary) Yet I was touched by this passage concerning Hagar, impregnated by her master to provide a son for his barren wife.

God is God. Eternal, powerful, the ultimate king. And yet he takes time to comfort and speak to an angry, mistreated slave girl on the run from her mistress! Notice what this exchange shows us about God:

He is the God who sees

He is the God who hears and acts – the name of Hagar’s son will always be a reminder to her that God heard her misery and acted on her behalf!

He cares about the weak and the marginalized, and is compassionate to the undeserving. Hagar becomes the mother of what grows to be a powerful nation, although she felt abandoned and mistreated, God was at work!

Maybe you feel like no one sees you? Perhaps they only see the smiling protective front that you put up. Or you think that if people knew the real you they would reject you. Maybe you have been rejected or abused and you feel hurt and alone. The wonderful thing is that the same God who speaks to Hagar, is willing to come alongside you and I too, whatever our situation.

He is the God who sees us.

He is the God who hears.

He is the God who speaks to us, acting on our behalf and for his glory.

Nim

…Genesis 16 is not the only time God meets with Hagar either – you can read more in Chapter 21

Essential Dependence

We’ve all seen the films where a character with super powers is reliant on a special object or circumstance, without which he or she becomes weak and powerless. – Iron Man and his armoured suit, Thor and his hammer…

I’m certainly not likening myself to a superhero, (missed opportunity I know!) but according to the verses below Christians are similarly dependent – on a person – Jesus Christ!

Read this:

‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.John 15

Jesus tells us that we are part of him, like a branch is part of a plant, and that we can’t be fruitful apart from him! ” If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers”

It’s a pretty clear image isn’t it? If you’re a follower of Jesus did you ever realise that you were this dependent?

Do you act like it?

I know that personally whenever things are going well, I quickly begin to rely on my own abilities as being enough for day to day life. Perhaps I’m more reliant on God for his wisdom and help when it comes to the big things, but I know I often don’t act anything like a branch attached to the vine that is Jesus!

I like to think that I’m my own little plant, industriously growing fruit that I will later (humbly) present to my maker! But he tells us himself that this is not going to be enough. If we want to bear good fruit – loving obedience, useful service, spiritual growth etc. We need to remain ‘in him’ – attached, dependent, reliant!

But this dependence is not presented as a burden.

Although this passage is a strong reminder to us not to stray from the vine as we seek to grow and serve as Christians, it contains some great promises too, that should make us wonder why we would ever consider detaching ourselves from Jesus in the first place!

‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love…11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 

Isn’t that staggering? If you are a Christian then Jesus loves you and I as much as he himself is loved, in all his glorious perfection, by God the Father!

He simply invites us to remain in that love, to enjoy it, to depend on its certainty in everything that we do, and to have joy in this undeserved, but freely offered relationship with God himself.

When I reflect on this, it doesn’t seem like a chore at all but a very appealing invitation! And a kind of dependence that brings peace and joy, not limitation or drudgery.

It’s stupid for us to try to continue on our own, when such deep and inexhaustible resources are offered to us in Christ Jesus. He is not asking us to jump through hoops to get his help – only to remain in him, to be close to him, to ask help, and to feed on his strength and wisdom and righteousness!

If you have time why not read the whole passage in the Gospel of John, chapter 15 – There’s lots more that I haven’t mentioned!

Nim

Fooling around with our Forgiveness

We’ve been working through the book of Hebrews at my church on Sunday evenings, and last week our Senior Pastor preached a great sermon on Hebrews 9. The passage explains how Jesus fulfils and supersedes the Old Testament laws as the ultimate priest, by offering his own blood as a sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins! Hebrews 9:22 simply states: without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.
And a few verses on into chapter 10 we are told that: It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Gloriously, the passage continues on to say in verse 10 that “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all”!

Now I say all of this by way of explanation for the thoughts that sparked off in my mind as I read Hebrews 9-10.

I thought to myself “This is all pretty clear. The writer of Hebrews doesn’t pull any punches. So why do I often behave as if I don’t believe him?”

I came up with the following reactions that I often have to the knowledge that A) I am sinful, and B) I need God’s forgiveness for my sin:

1. Penance – I punish myself for my sin and failure, the more wretched I feel about my failings, the better!

This kind of thinking denies what Jesus has done, or doubts the total effectiveness of his forgiveness. Jesus has totally satisfied God’s just anger at sin. We please God with appropriate sadness and repentance over our sin, but self punishment will get us nowhere.

2. Bargaining – I create my own false system of rules in order to please God. So if I sin against God by thinking lustfully, or lying to a friend, I ‘make it up to him’ by reading my Bible for longer, or doing something nice for someone at church. It sounds stupid, because it is! Yet we often do this almost without noticing, as though we can trade our good deeds in to replace the bad!

3. Staying away – Surely such a glorious God doesn’t want to put up with a sinner like me? The best thing to do is to stay out of his way, and try not to bother him.” This is like continuing to sit miserably in a jail cell that you’ve been freed from! Actually it’s just another form of sinful pride, because I’m effectively saying that I don’t trust, or agree with God’s decision to offer me forgiveness! – And this leads into the next one:

4. Legalistic Righteousness – Because actually, I’d feel a lot better if I could work towards earning forgiveness. In my heart of hearts, I don’t want to rely on God’s free gift of grace, I want to be the master of my own destiny, and sometimes I believe I can meet God’s standards if I just try really hard. (I know – you’re thinking “Nim what does Hebrews 9:22 say?!” Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

5. Workaholic Servitude 

– Maybe I’ve accepted God’s forgiveness, but I feel so guilty for Jesus’ sacrifice on my behalf that I go into overdrive, trying to make it up to God by working really hard at serving him. Again, pride and self sufficiency appear, as I convince myself that my good works are enough. I’ve forgotten God’s overwhelming love and willingness to save me – he doesn’t want me to try to make it up to him. It’s as ridiculous as a man buying flowers for the wife he loves, and her fishing around in her handbag and saying “Ok, how much do I owe you for these?”

I’m sure there are others too! We are very talented at coming up with ways to distort, obscure, or deny the good news of God’s grace to us through Jesus Christ.
What is the real solution?

Hebrews 9 and 10 show us clearly that all of these reactions are unnecessary and foolish.

We’ve been told that blood is needed, and that animal blood is not good enough, so we can be sure that none of the above ways of dealing with our sin will work either! Thankfully, once the diagnosis is given, scripture is clear in offering us the solution too:

we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God… 14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

Did you catch that? “Made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ” “once for all” “made perfect forever”. It’s so complete that Jesus is now sat down. He has finished offering his precious and perfect self on our behalf, the sacrifice has been accepted! He is now seated next to the Father.

So you and I can stop all of our pathetic efforts to fashion ourselves a suitable sacrifice! There is no longer any need for any follower of Jesus Christ to try to pay for sin or earn their forgiveness, it has been done.

We’re free to rejoice at abundant grace, to bask in the too good to be true feeling, and to praise and glorify God for his astounding rescue plan!

(Now I’m not saying there is no need for good works that please God. The Bible book of James shows us the clear relationship between faith in God’s salvation, and the good works that grow out of our love and obedience in return! But in this context I want to show that it’s vital that we accept Jesus’ sacrifice for sin as the one thing that enables our forgiveness, and nothing else.)

Friends, please don’t miss out on the joy of knowing and enjoying full forgiveness now! Don’t mess about trying uselessly to do what has already been done for you.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Romans 3:23-24

Hallelujah!

Nim

Marvelling at the Before and After

Last week a friend of mine, a Personal Trainer, posted two photos online. They were “before” and “after” shots of a client she had been working with.

It was impressive, the person had clearly lost a lot of weight, and there had been a complete and startling transformation, which was clear to see as I looked from one photo to the next.

It was this that came to mind when I read Ephesians chapter two this week.

Paul introduces us to an even greater transformation, and certainly a more improbable one.

The transformation of a lifeless corpse into a living person.

Paul says to the Ephesian Christians:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh
and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.

It’s a damning description and assessment of them, and of us – members of the same human race.

What hope is there for a dead person?

What help is there for someone facing and deserving the just and righteous wrath of the God of the universe?!

If we understand Paul’s message here and take it to heart, it should scare us.

But thank God that the story doesn’t end there!

We breathe a sigh of relief as Paul continues “But…”

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,

And what are the reasons for this incredible rescue? A dead person has no hope, no powers of persuasion, and nothing to bargain with.

Because of his great love!

Because of his rich mercy!

God has resurrected us with Christ. We are raised to new life as surely as Jesus rose from the grave three days after dying by crucifixion.

But what happens next? Why is this rescue and transformation put into action?

in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

In fact, Paul shows us that God is not satisfied to simply rescue, transforming the dead into the living. He is committed to the future life of those he has restored.

He has determined to show immeasurable grace and kindness to us, in Christ Jesus, for the rest of eternity!

There is a great moment in the newest Bond Film SkyFall where Bond, tied up and face to face with his captor is asked what his hobby is (!) He says “Resurrection”.

It’s funny because it’s so defiantly arrogant.

But Christians worship a God who can and does resurrect the dead, and he loves to do so!

We have done nothing to deserve anything except his anger. All our best deeds pale into insignificance when compared to his eternal sinless perfection!

And yet God makes clear to us his mind and motives in the rescue that Jesus has carried out. Love, mercy, grace, and kindness.

I need this reminder frequently, because my gaze is often on my failings as a Christian. I begin to think that I live to earn God’s favour, that I cannot be certain of it, or that I might irreparably lose it.

I can fall into thinking that God puts up with me out of pity, or regrets ever saving me from my sin.

These verses cause me to rejoice, to relax, and to praise God for his wonderful grace and kindness to me in and through Jesus Christ.

I hope they do the same for you

Nim


A Personal Promise

Some days the gospel can feel very distant. Our failures loom large, and the forgiveness and rescue that we are given in Christ seem somehow obscured in the daily grind.

However, the Bible is a treasure trove of passages that describe the incredible rescue Jesus has worked for us, for days when we need reminding!

This week I’ve been reading and re-reading a short passage in Colossians 2. The Apostle Paul is encouraging the Colossian church, reminding them of who Jesus is, and all that they receive in following him, so that they will not grow discouraged or move away from what they believe.

In verse 6 Paul urges them:

 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

Yet he doesn’t just expect the Colossian Christians to conjure up perseverance, faith, and thankfulness from nowhere. In verse 13 Paul gives them (and us!) a spectacular reminder of the gospel, the good news that saves us and joyfully sustains us:

13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

  • “When you were dead” God saved us and gave us new life when we were spiritually dead – unable to save ourselves, or earn his favour in any way – The God who was willing to save us at our worst will not leave us now!
  • “He forgave us all our sins” All our sins – forgiven, once and for all!
  • “having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness..” Our huge debt of sin, the one that we daily add to, is cancelled having been paid in full at the cross of Christ. It no longer has the power to condemn us! Jesus has borne our just condemnation and punishment himself.

What powerful, life-saving truths! And yet I can find them hard to really accept personally, when I look at the multitude of ways I have failed God even today.

Maybe you absorbed it all on first reading, but in order to help myself to really trust and rejoice in these words I’ve made a few changes, personalising the pronouns!

13 When I was dead in my sins and in the uncircumcision of my flesh, God made me alive with Christ. He forgave me all my sins, 14 having cancelled the charge of my legal indebtedness, which stood against me and condemned me; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

When it sinks in that these things are true about me, today, forever, because of Christ, I can’t help but be humbled, encouraged and truly joyful- I’m grinning as I write this!

What a wonderful saviour Jesus Christ is!

Enjoy your day!

Nim


Miserly Mercy?

I’ve been thinking in recent weeks about the character of God, and in particular, about his mercy.

Throughout August we have been following the life of Elijah in our sermon series at church. There was a particular comment at the end of 1 Kings chapter 21 that caught my attention. Throughout the preceding chapters, we’d read of the various exploits of Ahab, King of Israel, and his wife Jezebel, some stupid, others chilling in their callousness. So it was no surprise when God laid down his judgment against Ahab and Jezebel. This was good triumphing over evil, just as we expected to see, a God-hater getting what he deserved. Even the narrator comments in Verse 25 “There was none who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord like Ahab” I rubbed my hands together, waiting for justice to be served…

But instead we read: V.27-29.  When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly.

28 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite:29 “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.”

I’d read this before, but this time it really struck me. God’s great and undeserved mercy towards an evil man like Ahab. It felt too merciful! I felt a bit like Jonah, whining at God “I knew this would happen! I knew you’d show mercy! They don’t deserve it God – Not like I do!” (My Paraphrase!)

I decided to look more deeply at God’s mercy and how we witness it in the Bible. I needed my own miserly mercy redefined by God’s definition!

Mercy is one of the key traits that God uses to describe his character to us.

When Moses asks to behold God’s glory – little knowing what he asks, God agrees to walk before him, and we read:

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, Exodus 34:6

What does God choose to proclaim to sinful man about himself? His mercy and grace, that he is slow to become angry, that he is full of unchanging love and faithfulness. Wow!

His declaration of mercy is made all the more powerful and freeing because we know how much we are in need of it. How unqualified we are to meet his just standards or earn his perfect favour. For us, everything depends on this mercy. Without it, we have no access to his love or faithfulness.

Again and again as God speaks to the people of Israel, we see how key this is:

Deuteronomy 4:31 says For the LORD your God is a merciful God. He will not leave you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers that he swore to them.

2 Chronicles 30:9 reminds them If you return to the LORD, your brothers and your children will find compassion with their captors and return to this land. For the LORD your God is gracious and merciful and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.”

God is the faithful one in this relationship, it is his mercy which upholds the promises he has made to his people despite their constant betrayal and sin.

Though they leave him, and forget him, and turn their faces away. His mercy provides a way back time after time!

Of course this is a part of God’s character that we see just as powerfully demonstrated in Jesus Christ!

In his willingness to be made in human likeness, to live and die for sinners like you and I.

It’s a staggering and vast mercy that led him to the cross, to suffer and die for all the Ahabs and Jezebels throughout history who committed their endless evils against him.

Hebrews 2:17 tells us that Christ had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

But God’s mercy to us does not end at the cross.

Lamentations 3 reminds us of this precious truth:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

What does God’s vast mercy mean for you and I?

I hope it fills our hearts with worship and love for our God and King. He is so good! I hope it encourages us to approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.(Hebrews 4:16)

But it also means that we have no excuse for our miserly mercy to one another! God’s gracious and underserved mercy towards us should equip us to be abundantly merciful too, especially when someone doesn’t deserve it. After all, we don’t deserve the mercy that has been shown to us!

Let us rejoice in the mercy that we receive, seeking with the help of God’s Spirit to show it to others in return.

Nim

What does the Bible mean when it tells us to fear God?

This is a question that I’ve been mulling over this week, inspired by a family debate over the weekend! What does the Bible mean when it tells us to fear God? Does it just mean awe and respect? Or something more?

One of the ladies in the Bible study this week added an additional question to be answered – How does fearing God fit in with loving him as our Father?

Well I think these are some formidable questions to wrestle with! So I’ve spent some time looking at Scripture, and some big old commentaries and dictionaries and here are some thoughts – let me know what you think!

I warn you now that it’s a bumper post today – but a subject that’s worthy of our exploration!

The word most commonly used for the fear of the Lord in Hebrew is “Yare” – To fear/ Honour/ Be in awe of. And in Greek the root word is “Phob-“which means fear/ reverence/ respect. (Hmmm wonder where the word phobia originated?)

What kind of fear are we talking about here?

Should we simply understand this to mean that we respect God – that we are in awe of him? Or is there more to it?

Psalm 2:11 tells us to
Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling. 

And the Apostle Paul, instructing the Philippian church saysTherefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and tremblingPhilippians 2:12

So here we have verses from the Old and the New Testaments that pair fear with trembling. This didn’t just sound like being respectful to me…

Si I went back to my Bible to see how people who saw or spoke with God acted in his presence:

When Job speaks with God he says:
My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42)

This verse has come back to me over and over as I’ve thought about this subject. My heart wants to stop at simply ‘respecting’ God, because it doesn’t ask too much and it’s not scary! But when I look at Job I see a man who knows God well, who has suffered much without cursing his maker, but who is humbled in a moment as he comes face to face with God. He despises himself in comparison to the glory and perfection of God!

Isaiah, when he sees the Lord in a vision cries “Woe to me!… I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips… and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Daniel and Ezekiel both fall on their faces when they are confronted with the glory of God.

Add that to the reaction of many others in scripture who fear that they will die when they see the Lord – and I think we have a case for not downgrading ‘fear’ too much!

What does fearing God look like in day to day Christian life?

We are talking about a kind of fear that produces several things of worth in the life of a Christian – and you’ll notice them mentioned in scripture in relation to our fear of God.

1. Reverence for, and submission to God’s authority:

Hebrews 12:28-29 warns us: Let us…worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our “God is a consuming fire.”

And the Apostle Paul says: Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God. 2 Corinthians 7:1

The reason Paul gives here for seeking holiness, is because of our reverence for God. That surprised me, I’m not sure I have really thought about my holiness being tied in with my fear of God.

Yet surely a genuine right fear of God must include submission. It’s not respect between equals, or lip service to one more powerful, and it’s not simply submission out of love. God’s status as sovereign, Lord of All – A “consuming fire” – should inspire awe in us as we understand who he is, compared to who we are! (Psalm 8 comes to mind “What is man that you are mindful of him?”)

2. Obedience to his commands: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. Psalm 111:10

Here we see fear of the Lord leading to obedience, because obedience to such a God brings wisdom and understanding. Our God inspires us with such awe and wonder, why would we not want to follow his wise commands?

We are told that Abraham did not withhold his only son Isaac from God because he feared him. If we truly fear God it will be shown by the way our lives match up to what he says in his word. Our fear and awe results in obedience to God’s commands.

3. Turning away from wrongdoing and hatred of evil: Proverbs 8:13 tells us that To fear the Lord is to hate evil. If we fear God we will hate what he hates, and we won’t seek to cultivate or love things that he despises.

But how do we get away from the negative connotations of fear?

It’s worth saying that as Christians we no longer live in fear and terror of God’s wrath and judgment. Our fear of God is not the fear of Adam and Eve as they hid from the Holy One in the Garden of Eden. But it is fear nonetheless. One Bible dictionary put it like this: “Knowing that God’s wrath has been satisfied in Christ relieves the believer from the fear of condemnation but not from accountability to a holy God”

C.S Lewis captures this tension for us beautifully when he describes Aslan in his Narnia series:

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Why fearing God is a very good thing…

One of the things I have become more convinced of as I’ve studied some of these passages, is that fearing God is not a burdensome task that we long to shake off. It’s actually a wonderful thing!

The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love. Psalm 147:11

God delights in those who fear him! Notice also how fear is linked here with hope in his love, it’s not a cold oppressive fear, inspired in downtrodden people ruled by a powerful dictator!

Isaiah confirms this with these sumptuous verses:

The Lord is exalted, for he dwells on high; he will fill Zion with justice and righteousness. He will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure. Isaiah 33:5-6

Wow, not a harsh tyrant then, but a good God who fills his kingdom with justice, righteousness and salvation, wisdom and knowledge. And the key to this store of blessing and treasure? It’s the fear of the Lord!

Jeremiah 32:40 gives us another reason that the fear of the Lord is something we should want to cultivate:

“I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me.”


As God speaks to Israel (and now to us) we see that in his mercy he will inspire them to fear him. Why? Because it will keep them safe, it will prevent them from leaving their God – the One who will never stop doing them good!

My prayer is that God would inspire a right fear in me that keeps me walking closely with him, he is the exalted king, ruling over a kingdom that brings blessing to its citizens, and I want to possess the key that opens up the riches of his blessing, the key that brings wisdom.

Of course we fail so badly at this on all counts – we fear Man instead of God, we don’t submit to him, we love wrongdoing, and fail to fully obey his commands. These scriptures should be a warning to us. We can get comfortable using the language of father, saviour and friend, while forgetting that God is God – Holy, powerful, perfect, opposing sin. We must learn to hold these things in tension, and not downplay the fear of God too much.

Nevertheless, the best news of all is that Jesus delights in the fear of the Lord! (See Isaiah 11:2-3)

Jesus Christ fears God his Father perfectly on our behalf!

So we live every day seeking to fear the Lord, for our good and his glory. But when we fail, Christ succeeds, delighting in fearing the Lord, in our place.

Hallelujah!