Facing Reality

They just want to look out of the window and believe that everything is alright with the world

This was how a friend described the attitude of someone who had avoided engaging with a difficult situation. Yet she could easily have been describing me, and I felt selfish and hypocritical.

In our world of many instances of deep injustice and suffering, I can find myself trying hard to ignore reality. I want to live my life as though everything is ok. Perhaps if I protect myself, don’t look too deeply into the things going on around me, and  come up with quick rationalisations for painful situations: “it was a freak accident”, “they brought it on themselves”,” that could never happen to me because of x”. . .then I can feel safe and at peace?

And so I harden my heart, restore my equilibrium and move on . . . for a while.pexels-photo-window

A Problem We Can’t Ignore

But it gets more and more difficult to preserve the illusion that everything is ok! And even if things are going well for me, will I preserve my peace at the expense of helping others? No one is immune to suffering,  and more and more I encounter situations that I don’t have words or wisdom for.

I really shouldn’t be surprised. After all, I’m a Christian, and the Bible tells me right from the beginning that everything is not ok! This world is desperately broken and so are we. We are rebels against the God who made us, and our ‘freedom’ from him has cost us dearly. No quick fixes, denials, or sentimental hopes are enough. We need rescue.

So when I refuse to  see the world for what it truly is, I also ignore the reality of the hope and rescue that the gospel provides. It’s not a vague uncertain hope, or wishful thinking. It’s a guarantee, long promised, won in blood and death, and sealed by life and the Spirit!

If I refuse to engage with suffering, I miss out on seeing God’s power at work in the world, and I may be ignoring the command of my Lord to take up my cross and follow him, and to find my life by losing it for his sake. (Matthew 16:24-7)

Courageous Care

Here are some of the biblical passages that are enabling me to boldly engage with compassion:

The whole of Psalm 46 is worth meditating on, it speaks of God, who is the shelter and strength of his people in the midst of suffering: God is our refuge and strength,  an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea . . .The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Lamentations 3 describes what it is like to suffer and even to feel as though you have lost your hope in God, and yet ultimately it speaks of Jesus’ suffering and ends with these powerful words of hope:  Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. 23 They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. . . 25 The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him;

Isaiah 41:10 Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

 Luke 6:47-8 As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. 48 They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built.

These are just a few of the rich promises that give us the courage to leave our comfort zones and boldly minister to those who suffer.

 Need of a Heart Transplant

And yet we mustn’t resolve to find more inner strength, or to develop a more charitable disposition. We must ask for the work of God to transform fundamentally self-centred and fearful hearts into those that love Jesus and serve him trustingly – hearts that follow the narrow way of the cross. Then we can throw open our windows with their rose-tinted panes and curtains of self-protection and proclaim hope to those who need it, helping to carry their pain, because Christ bore ours.

We serve in situations of suffering with the certainty that the gospel is our only hope, that it is a sufficient hope, and that the redeeming power of God is at work in this world through us, as we wait for Jesus’ return.

I’ll finish with a quote from John Stott:

“The Son of God did not stay in the safe immunity of his heaven. He emptied himself of his glory and humbled himself to serve. . .he entered into our pain, our alienation and temptations. . . he bore our sins in his own innocent person. . . “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” John 20:21″

Loving because Christ first loved me

Nim

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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

An Unfinished Masterpiece

I often get frustrated and discouraged when things happen in my life and in the lives of those close to me and I can’t see how they can fit into God’s good plans for us. It’s something I’m wrestling with at the moment.

But let me retrace my steps a little! What reasons do I have for believing that God is good in the first place?

Are there biblical foundations for an expectation that life isn’t just meaningless chaos, and that everything that happens is carefully woven into God’s sovereign plans?

Yes and yes!

A Good God with Good Plans

Here are some of the verses on which I’m basing my confidence:

You are good, and what you do is good. Psalm 119:68

10 All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful toward those who keep the demands of his covenant. Psalm 25:10

And [the Lord] passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Exodus 34:6

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son. . .

32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Romans 8:28-9 & 32

 

Confused by the Unfinished

It’s a normal human thing to try and make sense of the world, especially when it seems shattered by so much suffering. And trying to pinpoint what God is doing in and through various events is a common activity that Christians engage in. Yet I think that the Bible sounds words of caution in regard to how we do this:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!

34 Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?” Romans 11:33-4

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?

Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand… Job 38:1-4
The problem with trying to interpret everything that happens into ‘what God is doing’ is that we cannot possibly comprehend it with our finite and human minds! His plans are God-sized and God-centred, intricate, and as yet, unfinished (at least from our vantage point!)

In my spare time I’m a portrait painter. I don’t usually let anyone see a portrait until it’s nearly finished, because the early stages of a successful painting usually look like absolute chaos! It seems that I’ve made weird choices about colour, there are marks all over it that don’t look anything like a face, and so on! Yet each of these early stages is vital. I need an underpainting that will underpin the later layers and set the tone for the whole piece. I make marks that are like artist’s shorthand. I know what they signify but at this point the casual onlooker might be dismayed by my seeming lack of anatomical knowledge! Of course it’s all resolved in the finished piece.

How much more so with God?God's masterpiece

Anticipating His Masterpiece

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t think about what God might be doing in and through us, this can be a fruitful exercise. But we need to be able to reserve judgement and not panic when we face the unexpected or can’t make sense of things. God does not reveal his complex plans to us, but he has given us a clear explanation of his character, his love for us, and where everything is finally headed – enough to keep us trusting him amidst the unfinished.

16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children . . . heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. Romans 8:16-18

But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. Romans 8:10

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:35-9

Let’s persevere with this encouragement.

Nim

A Light that Conquers the Darkness

Last weekend I watched the second instalment of The Hobbit in preparation for the next film hitting the cinema soon. (Bear with me if you’re not a Lord of the Rings fan, I’ll move on swiftly!) I always enjoy these films, even if they take liberties with Tolkien’s original dialogue! I was particularly struck by a scene that sees Gandalf the Wizard fighting the evil Necromancer. It’s the universal ‘good versus evil’ struggle.

The Necromancer, surrounded by his dark forces boasts to Gandalf “There is no light, Wizard…that can defeat darkness.” And in that moment it seems to be true.

It’s stirring stuff! But it’s wrong of course.

Outside of dramatic villainous monologue I hope we don’t believe that this is true!

But perhaps on dreary days, when our worries threaten to overwhelm, or we face suffering, or the issues in the news are horrifying, we can be tempted to think that the darkness is stronger, and the bright joys of Christmas preparations can serve to make our struggles starker.

A friend articulated this last week when she asked me “Nim, how do you know that good will eventually win?”

A Light That Shines in the Darkness

In the Bible, in the opening lines of the gospel of John we read: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  And as the writer continues, you start to realise that this light is a person…and more than a person, God himself, come to earth. Ultimately the darkness will not win.

The Bible describes Jesus as “the light of the world” because he is able to do something about the darkness. However deep the darkness grows, Jesus Christ has the authority and the power to bring hope that can’t be defeated. He is a light that spreads and illuminates, and banishes darkness. Jesus is the light who will deal with sin, and evil, and suffering, and all the things that can make us feel as though the darkness is defeating us. And we celebrate the beginning of this rescue at Christmas!

A Light That Conquers

At first the light of the world doesn’t look like much, a tiny baby, not born in a palace, but in a stable, in a tiny Jewish town. Yet Jesus Christ is a light that grows and builds, winning a decisive, cosmic victory at the cross that reverberates throughout history. That’s why so many of the Carols that we sing at Christmas time contain words like JOY and LIGHT and PEACE and HOPE!

We mustn’t lose our nerve when the darkness seems to be all around. Like the Necromancer, Satan wants us to believe that he will overwhelm the light, but the Bible never even sees this as a possibility – giving us a sneak peek at the end of the story too in Revelation chapter 21:

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new! . . . The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light . . . 24 The nations will walk by its light”

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

I wish you all a joyful, life-filled Christmas, as you celebrate the birth of Jesus the light of the world

Nim

You’ve just got to reach out your hand

Here is a truly beautiful song called Breaking You by singer-song writer Audrey Assad. I was introduced to it recently at a conference, and I just have to share it!

It tells the story of a loved one struggling with depression, and the impact that this has on them, and on her. And then it holds out hope that builds throughout the song, powerfully blossoming in its final lines – make sure you catch them!

 

I’ll take away from the striking simplicity of the song if I write too much.

But I think its message rings true not only for those who experience periods of darkness and depression, in themselves or in a loved one, but also for any time of turmoil we face.

You’ve just got to reach out your hand.

That reaching may seem to go on forever, straining to touch the hand of the one who promises never to leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13: 5-6). Has he forgotten his promise to his children? Are we somehow excluded?

Yet even in the reaching, the waiting, and the fear, the old phrase is true.

“Underneath are the everlasting arms”

Jesus’ pierced hands hold onto us and are eternally sure.

The dark night may obscure the truth for a time, but it cannot change its reality.

 

 

Nim

Fighting a Victim Mentality

In past weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about a right (and realistic) attitude to suffering.

I don’t want to be godly only when things are going as I want or expect, or it may only be self-worship disguised as love for God!

With God’s help I want to remain a faithful and loving disciple when life gets tough; when disappointments hit, and the brokenness of the world makes itself known.

One of the things I’ve noticed about myself is that when things don’t go my way, a victim mentality quickly surfaces. I feel justified as I moan to God about anything and everything, from the state of the world, to the struggles I am facing that day.

But am I not forgetting something? I am not a victim, I am the perpetrator!

As I re-examine my theology, I remember that the creation that I live in, and am a part of, is under a curse. We have been subjected to the frustration of a fallen world, because we have rebelled against our maker.

I know the story of Genesis 3 well, but conveniently I often forget that I, along with the entire human race follow in that rebellion, as 1 Corinthians 15 puts it “In Adam all sinned”. And so when I suffer, I am quick to point the finger at God.

I forget that I am to blame. My rebellion against my maker merits punishment; we rightly deserve the curse of sin and death! Somewhere along the line I have slipped into an unhelpful attitude towards my salvation. I forget that my sins are deserving of death and so once rescued, I turn on my rescuer and demand that he explain to me why I must face suffering. Does he not love me? What have I done to deserve this or that pain…and I list them one by one.

(Its seems stark and ugly when I write it down like that!)

I know that many factors contribute to this attitude, including a right recognition of the wrongness of a world that was meant to be perfect. But I can’t ignore that I am to blame, not him. The turmoil and brokenness that I see in the world is caused by the rebellion of humanity who refuse to worship and obey our holy and perfect creator God.

This is really important to acknowledge –although it’s a truth that meets great resistance in the human heart. (Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the Serpent, remember?)

It’s important for several reasons:

It will inform and correct our expectations of life in a fallen world

Unlike the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ that is preached in some places, the Bible is clear that those who follow in Christ’s footsteps will face suffering.(2 Timothy 3:12) This might be in the form of direct persecution for faith, or simply falling prey to the brokenness of the world – natural disasters, illness, bereavement. We can expect that in some way we will suffer. In my eagerness to speak of the good news of the gospel, I often forget when I am teaching others, to remind them that we continue to live in a world under a curse, a creation that groans for the fulfilment of its redemption. And I don’t prepare them adequately for the suffering they may face, before they reach heaven!

It will inform our response when we face suffering

We will not be surprised to face suffering as God’s redeemed children in a world that waits to be renewed. We will not be confused that we suffer the effects of sin, despite being saved from it. We will – by God’s grace – continue to trust him through it, and with his help we will remember not to blame him for it.

Our experience of suffering will not affect our certainty that we are loved by God, and we will not believe that it jeopardises our future won by Christ.

It should cause us to know our hope.

The knowledge that suffering will come, should not cause us to despair or live in denial. Instead it should call us to be clear about the hope that scripture holds out to us.

We should do our best to make sure that we know the promises of God, and the hope that we look forward to. What a comfort it is in bleak times to hold on to scriptures like Revelation 21 that remind us of the certain future that we wait for, the kingdom where Jesus Christ sits on the throne, and wipes away every tear, abolishing sin and death forever!

Yet we can rob ourselves of this hope and strength, if we refuse to acknowledge that we are not victims – deserving of a good life here and now, cheated by a vindictive God, but pardoned sinners, rescued and redeemed from the destruction of our own making!

It’s not popular teaching, but it is vital, because without it, our victim mentality will cause us to blame God instead of coming to him for refuge. A refuge that he promises is strong and certain in times of trouble.

Some qualifications…

Now, I should also say before I am asked that, yes, sometimes we are victims too, of the sins of others. I don’t wish to be insensitive, if you have suffered at the hands of someone else!

This is a painful reality in a fallen creation. We only have to read the headlines to hear of terrible atrocities being committed against innocents. Please hear me clearly. I am not saying that if you suffer you are getting what you deserve, that God is specifically punishing you!

In fact Jesus addresses this when he is asked if this is why eighteen people died in a disaster of his day.

His answer is a resounding no.

But it is also not the rush to assure and pacify that I might offer! Instead he says:

I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. (Luke 13:3-5)

It’s another example of Jesus’ ‘harsh kindness’. What these people need to know is that the suffering that they see and experience must not be explained away. Instead of trying to work out whose specific fault it is, they must acknowledge the cursed state of the world, and make sure they have repented!

So let’s not let our own victimization cause us to forget our personal need to repent.

As I think about this issue for myself, I am coming to see that when I point the finger at God in suffering, I’m foolish. But I’m also cheating myself of the comfort and hope that is mine when I acknowledge what scripture tells me about the state of the world, my gospel hope, and Christ’s coming victory.

Fortunately for us, the passage that I quoted earlier continues: For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:22)

Let’s allow our heavenly hope to strengthen us through earthly suffering.

I’m about to end, but I want to make one final qualification of what I’m saying, to the person who is in the midst of suffering.

Perhaps you feel angry at God, you are reeling from what you are facing, you can’t pray, let alone think clinically about a theology of suffering!

God’s grace to us is large and abundant. The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we cannot (Romans 8). Don’t add guilt to the emotions that you already feel, Christ died for our victim mentality too! It is only his grace that helps us to see ourselves as we truly are, and it is this same grace that preserves us and upholds us through suffering! Not our ability to think these things through.

Nim

17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!…19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

Romans 5:17, 19

For My Good?

What do you do when the events of your life threaten to hurt you, to overwhelm, and destroy? How should the Christian think about suffering?

I was talking with a friend this week; she is going through a very tough time, which threatens her health and much that she holds dear. “Why is this happening to me?” She asked. “I’m trying to trust God’s purposes, but I cannot see or understand what he is doing through this pain!”

As I’ve reflected on how I can encourage her in these circumstances, I know that no trite or simplistic answer will do!

She needs an anchor to hold onto, as the waves threaten to overcome.

Scripture gives us that firm and immovable anchor; one that holds fast even when nothing else does.

Paul says in Romans 8:35 “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” And what is his answer?

37 “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[m] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I’ve been meditating on the whole of Romans 8 where, in the context of suffering pain and persecution in a fallen world, Paul reminds Christ’s followers of what will keep them following and loving him.

The verse that I keep coming back to in my own uncertainties, and as I weep with my friend comes a few verses earlier:

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him,[j] who[k] have been called according to his purpose. 29For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

 31 What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

He who did not spare his own Son!

Surely nothing else can speak so powerfully, to the one who sees much that they hold dear ripped away from them, and yet still seeks to trust in the loving sovereignty of their God?!

God did not withhold the agony and death of his only son, that we might be saved from facing God’s righteous anger against our sin.

His death shows us both the seriousness of the debt our sin creates, and gloriously, the riches of the love of God towards sinners. A love unshaken by our suffering in this life.

We may have no resources to understand why God allows us to face our current circumstances. Perhaps we can’t imagine how anything good can result? Is God playing with us, or blind to our hurt?

What prevents us from losing hope that God loves us, and uses all things for our good, is the cross which stands forever as a witness.

We look to it, when all else fails to make sense. And we know that the God who did not withhold his precious, perfect son, will also withhold no good thing from his blood-bought children.

We don’t know how our experiences will work for our good. But what we do know is that Jesus has paid for us with his life, and is fully, faithfully, committed to our good.

And it’s not a vague, spiritual ‘good’, or the kind of ‘good’ our parents meant when they told us to eat our vegetables!

Scripture speaks of how God uses our pain to refine us, like Gold that is purified, emerging from the terrible furnace, pure and stunningly beautiful.

He redeems our pain for our good.

It’s a good that encompasses body, soul, and spirit, so that Christ may present us as his people, whole, and without blemish.

And it’s a good that we can know in part now, as we taste and see that God is good even in the midst of our pain, that he is enough, when he is truly all that we have.

Perhaps the pain that we ask God to withhold from us is the very thing that will deepen our faith and get us to the finish line.

I don’t think we will ever stop grappling with this, and I want acknowledge that this subject of suffering is a huge one that I only address in the smallest way, forgive me my omissions!

But these scriptures hold us up as we struggle. He loves us and he has shown us by giving up his only son, in our place, that we might live. How will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

Our loving, faithful, infinitely wise Father.

He loves when we do not, he is faithful when we are faithless, he is strong when suffering makes us weak.

Amazingly we are promised that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us – and
this by Paul who experienced more suffering than most of us will ever know!

One day we will be free of all pain and grief, made whole that we might worship our Saviour and King.

But in the meantime we are told that the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.(v.26-7)

What a comfort! When we experience pain that we are sure no one can alleviate, when the brokenness of this world causes us to despair, we are promised that God’s spirit intercedes on our behalf!

Friends, I encourage you to read Romans 8 for yourself, (always best to read things in context!) It has been a real comfort to me, and these are promises that will stand until Jesus returns and ends sin, sorrow, and death forever!

Nim xx