|Series Theme: Lessons in Growth|
PART ONE: Lifted up – for Death
PART TWO: Lifted up – for Resurrection
Part 3: Ascended & Ruling: 3A. Theory
Part 3: Ascended & Ruling: 3B. Practical Applications
Lessons in Growth Meditations: 1. Introduction to Growth
Luke 8:14,15 The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life's worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.
Two Goals: A little while ago, in another set of studies, I came across these two verses that stuck with me because Luke, in his version of the parable of the sower, adds a few significant words that grabbed my attention and I have highlighted them above. There is an implication here that we are to grow and develop and mature but it is possible that things in life can hinder or frustrate us and we fail to do those things. It is only by ‘persevering', by pressing on despite the hindrances, that we are able to go on and mature and be fruitful.
Do you see the two goals there? To mature or come to a greater sense of completion or development, and to bear fruit. Gardeners know that when growing vegetables you have to wait for a plant to grow and mature before fruit occurs. Fortunately in the kingdom of God , we can start bearing fruit immediately, but nevertheless maturity and fruit bearing do go together.
Vineyard Fruit: In the Old Testament Isaiah composed a song about the Lord's vineyard as a prophecy: “He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.” (Isa 5:2) It was clear that the Lord expected His vineyard ( Israel ) to bear fruit and was disappointed that it failed to do so, so much so that He was going to remove it. In the New Testament, Jesus taught his disciples, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (Jn 15:1,2) Again it is clear that he expects fruit from us and in the same way, any branch (believer) that does not bear fruit will be cut off from him.
Jesus Parallels: Now those are strong warnings but the parable of the Sower indicates that there are specific things or specific reasons why we may not mature and why we may not bear fruit in our Christian lives. As I have started to ponder on this and pray about it, I have found myself seeing these things in the context of something Jesus said: “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” (Jn 12:32). Now Jesus speaks about being lifted up three times in John's Gospel but as I have pondered on this, I believe there are, three applications that correspond with different phases of Jesus' life.
Three Phases: As I have thought on that, it seems to me that those three phases can also be seen to be three phases of the Christian life or, I should add, three phases of the Christian life that goes on to mature and bear fruit. We should acknowledge that according to Jesus' teaching in the Parable of the Sower, not everyone hearing God's word, goes on to mature and bear fruit. So, as we ponder those three phases, I hope to also face up to the things that we can fail to deal with or the things we can fail to appropriate in each phase and thus fail to reach maturity and bear fruit. I have not been down this path before, and so some of the areas seem presently cloudy but I am sure that as we meditate on these things they will become clear.
We all grow: Now it is possible that some of us may feel either fearful or perhaps wary about talk of growth, so let me put your mind at rest. Growth is something that takes place in some measure in every Christian life, even though we may not be very aware of it. When we came to Christ, we knew very little, we understood few spiritual realities and we perhaps were wondering what we had done. As the days pass we are taught – we hear sermons, we go to Bible Studies, or we perhaps have a mentor – and our knowledge of the Bible and of what has happened to us increases. We grow in understanding. But then there can be two problems.
Limited by Environment: The first is that our ‘teaching environment' is limited and so the extent of out teaching is limited. I have grown up in a period of church history and in a country where the teaching that was available was extensive. I am grateful that through the circumstances I found myself in as a young Christian, I encountered the Brethren, the Pentecostals, the Baptists, the early charismatics and even the Restoration Movement, as well as the occasional teacher from the Anglican Church or from other ‘free' streams. It was a very wide spectrum of teaching for which I am very grateful. One of my grown up sons said to me some time back, “You know Dad, your generation received so much more teaching than mine is receiving.” That was his perception at least. But I also had opportunities to teach and to evangelize and go on missions, both at home and abroad, and all these things work for growth, which I must admit, sitting in one church in one denomination rarely does.
Personal Blockages: That is what I meant when I referred to our ‘teaching environment' above. But there is also a second problem and that can be a personal and individual one. It is the fact of the circumstances of our lives, the pressures we encounter, the problems that beset us and the crises that drop on us – and the way we respond to them! All of these things have the potential for bringing our spiritual development to a halt, and the trouble is, we don't just come to a halt at a high, we plummet.
When Jesus spoke to the church at Ephesus , he said, “You have forsaken your first love.” (Rev 2:4) They had reached great spiritual heights, but now they had fallen. They had done great things in their early years but now they had given up on them. He had been very positive about them: “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance.” (v.2) but nevertheless, despite that, they were not what they had been once. Jesus doesn't say what it was that had caused their fall, and perhaps we need to think about such things.
Deal with Past Issues: There is, in fact, a third problem that can arise, and it is that, for a variety of reasons, we failed to deal with issues in our lives that were there before we came to Christ, and so we perhaps also need to ponder those things as well, for each of these thing can be the things that stop us growing.
Maybe if we can eyeball such things, becoming aware of them may be the first step in dealing with them. These are the sorts of areas I believe we need to consider, the barren areas we need to wander in to see their reality and their effect. I hope by walking these paths we may find this series not only helpful, but also a means of enabling our growth to proceed and our fruit-bearing to increase. May it be so.
PART ONE: Lifted up – for Death
Lessons in Growth Meditations: 2. Death, a vital need
Jn 12:24,25 I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
In the first study of this new series I referred to Jesus who said: “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” (Jn 12:32), and I suggested there are three applications that go with that verse and those applications reveal three phases of Christ's life and ministry, and can also be seen to be three phases of the Christian life that goes on to mature and bear fruit.
Lifted for Death: Now in fact, John added to this ‘lifted-up verse' “He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die,” (v.33) so the first application of it, at least, is to do with Jesus' death on the Cross. So what parallel is there in the Christian life?
The Wheat Example: Well, look at the two verses at the top again. It is the teaching of Jesus , unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies and it clearly homes in on this very same application. Now I confess I have always disliked those two verses because whenever I have heard someone preaching on them, it has always been in a cold, harsh, judgmental and legalistic manner. However, the truth is that Jesus is not using them as a teaching with which to slap us, but instead he is simply laying down a very obvious principle. As with much of Jesus' teaching it is very graphic and almost overstates the situation.
What happens: You have a grain of wheat and you are a farmer. You drop that grain into a hole in the ground and cover it up. To all intents and purposes it is dead and buried. If we didn't know any better, we would consider this grain dead, utterly inert. In fact if you left it in a sealed jar in the dark, that is exactly what it would remain, but put it in the ground where – yes, it still looks ‘dead' – it get moisture and nourishment from the soil, it will germinate and sprout and grow and produce more wheat. Now in the verses that follow, Jesus applies this to other people but, the fact that the ‘lifted-up verse' follows so soon after, suggests he also had in mind what was about to happen to him. He had to die before the kingdom could be fully born with lots of believers. We'll see what this means in respect of the individual believer later on and in subsequent studies.
Paul's Teaching: Now the apostle Paul also used death as an analogy of what happens in the life of the person who becomes a Christian; it is very much a direct parallel: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin ; how can we live in it any longer? Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Rom 6:1-4) There is the picture: when we came to Christ we ‘died' in respect of our ‘old life' and that is how we are to view it. But this also has practical implications for living out our day by day lives: “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (v.11)
The Conversion Process: We sometimes make this very complex but in reality it is very simple. When you came to Christ, the process of conviction that the Holy Spirit took you through, included you becoming aware of a need you had. You were dissatisfied with the life you had and, as the Gospel was shared with you, you realised that what was required of you was complete surrender to God so that Jesus could be both your Saviour and Lord. He could be your Saviour to deliver you from your past life with its failures and weaknesses because of all he had achieved on the Cross. He also needed to be our Lord if we were to live out new lives, guided and directed, taught and empowered by him. For both those two things to happen, it required our complete surrender – to let go of the past and receive the salvation he offered.
Now only this morning I happened to be browsing through some short meditations I wrote years ago, and I came across the following statement about the new life we receive at the time of conversion: “ Our new way of thinking must not only realise truth for our new lives but also be aware of and reject the ways of our old lives.” That ties in with Paul's, “ count yourselves dead to sin.”
Differing Experiences: If we are to understand some of the basic lessons about growth, we cannot emphasise this first phase strongly enough. I have heard the expressions a ‘good conversion' or ‘they were well born' used of new Christians and what the speaker is referring to is the depth of the conviction and our salvation experience that some New Testament translations refer to as ‘conversion' and which John 3 calls being ‘born again'.
‘Past Life' Effect: Now there are without doubt at least two reasons why this experience is different for different people. The first tends to do with nature of the life the person previously had. I have heard those who came to Christ as young children complain that their experience was shallow because they had never known real sin. Well, they had (selfish godlessness is seen in a child as well as an adult) but they hadn't recognised it and, yes, it hadn't had time to really develop and be seen in obvious acts of unrighteousness (except disobedience?). The person who has been saved out of a life of unadulterated unrighteousness is often more grateful for what God has done, although the depth of godly life in the childhood Christian is often a lot deeper. Jesus said, “he who has been forgiven little loves little.” (Lk 7:47)
The Mystery of the Heart: The second reason is more mysterious. It is a mystery why the human heart responds as it does. For some, conversion is a major changing point, almost a crisis point of life, while for others it is much less dramatic. Some people seem to be able to ‘see' the truth so clearly that conviction is deep; for others it seems they almost struggle with the truth, although they do accept it, and so the depth of their experience is not so dramatic. The truth is that the Lord knows and the Lord loves each of us regardless of the depth of our experience. It may be that it is something in our past life that hinders clarity and it may be that the Lord will take a long time bringing that thing to the surface because He knows its potential to cause upheaval if dealt with too quickly.
And Us: Summarizing where our starting point is, it is to face the things from our past lives which hopefully have been left, dead and buried, and should not be impacting us today – but do! Some of these things we are probably not aware of, and others we just take for granted as normal, but should not be. In this first Part we are going to consider a whole variety of things that should have been covered when we were born again and dealt with by Christ's work on the Cross, and yet they are still there present in our lives today, and as such, may be hindering our growth. We are about to step on to holy ground.
Lessons in Growth Meditations: 3. A Question of Sovereignty
Mark 2:14 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector's booth. "Follow me," Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
An Imaginary Conversation: I have more than a few times, as I have written these studies, thought how easily we either read or hear words without taking in the reality of what is being conveyed. I mean, take the verse above. Here is Levi a tax collector and Jesus walks up and says “Follow me,” and so he leaves his booth and goes. Too easy! If I was writing a novel I would want to enlarge what happened:
“Hullo, I'm Jesus.”
“Yes, I know I've heard all about you.”
“OK, well I'm looking for a band of men to train up to take over my work when I'm gone so I want you to come with me.”
“But I've got a job.”
“This will be a better one. Come with me.”
“Where are you going?”
“You'll find out as you follow me.”
“What are we going to do?
“You'll find out as you follow me.”
“When will I be fit enough to take over your job?”
“You'll find out when you follow me.”
Varied Experiences: Maybe it was like that, maybe it was just as simple as the text shows. I find that people's experiences of coming to Christ are like that. I had a friend who argued his way into a corner over several months before he surrendered to Christ. I have come across others who just seemed to hear the call and in all simplicity said yes. We're all different but whether we realise it or not, we all respond to the same call.
Simplicity of Experience: If my own experience is anything to go by, it frequently isn't a neat, concise experience but one that may have a dramatic moment, lacking by some, but even then the realities of it take a while to sink in. I had heard the gospel from the mouth of the greatest evangelist of the twentieth century and had gone home to make a decision. The extent, the depth, or the shallowness of my prayer that night is not, I believe, a measure of what was coming, but then perhaps it was. I simply prayed, never having prayed before and not knowing what one should say, “Well, God, I've heard it tonight and although I suspect I don't understand half of it, all I know is if you want my life, I will say I believe in Jesus, and here is my life if you want it. Please take it. Amen.” Or words very much like that – it is now fifty years ago! With that I climbed into bed and fell asleep.
All I can tell you is that when I woke next morning I was a totally different person. That day I was visiting a cousin and spent the day trying to convert him – with almost zero knowledge! I started going to church each Sunday, I bought a Bible and started reading it, I became involved with a youth outreach team which necessitated me moving. Within two years, somehow or other I was leading seven Bible studies a week, my desire was to share what happened with whoever would listen, and along the way I found a wonderful Christian girl who became my wife. A transformed life and it has carried on changing, as I say, for fifty years. Later this morning, I am going out for the first time to help set up a soup kitchen for the homeless. What tomorrow holds, I don't know.
When I look back on that first prayer, the words that I do remember clearly were, “here is my life if you want it.” It was a radical surrender and, regardless of the words, we use, I believe that is at the heart of every conversion, that willingness to say, I believe, I surrender to you, please save me and take and lead my life, for all of that was in that little part of the prayer I've just recounted.
Who Rules? Now you may wonder where this fits in with this series. Well, in the two starting ‘studies' I suggested that the first phase of the Christian life destined to grow, is death. We die to our old lives and at the heart of that, as my heading today indicates, it is all a matter of sovereignty – who rules, me or Him? Now I wish it was as simple as that – and don't believe any preacher who says it is! But it isn't. On that night, all those years ago, my commitment was real. I had been moved, I had been convicted and all I knew was that I had to surrender – whatever that meant? – and give God my life and put my life in His hands – whatever that meant? We can only act and respond in the measure of the knowledge we have at the time. So, yes, I believe there will be this one-off initiating surrender and God knows the reality of it and impart His Holy Spirit and we are ‘born again', but that is just the start.
I suspect there are countless times when we come to a fresh place of surrender where, one way or another, we say, “All right Lord, you win, I give in,” and that may be on a requirement to forgive, a need to give, a need to let go, or a whole range of other possibilities. Each time we face a new challenge from the Lord or from His word, this same thing will take place; we will face the confrontation: “Follow me.” “But what will happen?” “Leave it with me.” “How will I be able to do it?” “I will enable you.”
My Need to Die: It is indeed a case of dying to my self-sovereignty. If I am to grow, it has to die, again and again and again. Now again, if my experience is anything to go by, don't think that such decisions are split second, momentary things. I think the reality is that sometimes the Lord works on us for weeks or even years to bring changes about, and the amazing thing is that He is patient and loving – and persevering! He will get His way, because He IS sovereign. Whether it is arguing at a burning bush with a Moses, or wrestling with a Jacob through the night or re-equipping a fallen Peter, He will persevere when He sees the potential that you and I cannot see in ourselves.
More than Shallow Emotion: I've lost count of the number of times I have sat listening to preachers calling for “surrender” or “commitment” and I find it frustrating because unless the Holy Spirit is convicting us, it will just be an emotional response to please the preacher. In general terms, I don't know what it means to ‘surrender' or ‘be committed' (don't be shocked). All I know is that there are times when He confronts me with a “Follow me,” and it becomes an issue, and somehow, with His grace even, I have to come to a point of conviction and saying, “OK,” and that's it. We move on. I change. He relentlessly pursues His purposes for me and blessing follows.
You see, it took a lot of years, but I have become convinced (why did it take so long, it's clearly there in His word???) that He has plans and purposes that perfectly fit me and they are for good – mine and for people around me – because He's like that. When He says, “Follow me,” my intellect says, yes, that's a good thing, but I know the truth – it's often through a struggle and ultimately that truth is summed up in, “Will I die to my desire to be lord of my life, and let Him be instead, because He's so much better at it than I am?” Enough!
Lessons in Growth Meditations: 4. Problems with People
Jn 13:34,35 A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
To Love is not Natural: Jesus' instruction to his disciples to love one another is not a natural one and if it were among the list of verses that are spoken about but struggled with, I suspect this rates near the top of the list. We may say we do it and think we do it, but I wonder how real it is?. I would suggest that it is a real struggle to love sometimes and it really does require the grace of God.
Now we are in a Part where we are considering the call to die to the past and die to the things of the past, and especially die to self, and this command is, I would suggest, one that so often hinders Christian growth or rather, to be more accurate, it is the struggle with this command that hinders growth. You think I am exaggerating? Let's check it out.
Pre-Christ Relationships: Before we came to Christ our life was focused on what I wanted to do, what I felt, what I thought and, often, what I thought about other people. There were probably people we loved (our close family) and people who were good friends. Then there were the people near us that we tolerated (probably neighbours and people at work), and then there were people we positively disliked and probably spoke against.
Change & Realisation: And then we came to Christ and all was well until we either read the above verses or we heard a preacher speaking about them, and then there was a shadow cast over our life. “Love,” he said, “means thinking the best of people and desiring the best for people, all people,” and that made us feel uncomfortable. And then it got worse. Our preacher started talking about gossip, speaking about others behind their backs in an unloving way, and again we felt uncomfortable.
The Difficulty: Then we looked around the church and we realised there were people we're not particularly fond of and, if we were honest, we found a real pain. To love them? And then there were people at work who were really trying. Love them? We realised we had a whole pile of negatives about people – because they deserved them! And we were being called to give up all these negatives – but they still deserve them! That's a good excuse and I've got another – I can't cope with these people, let alone love them! So I might as well not try. And growth comes to a halt.
The Reality: Yes, this is the problem: people are imperfect, people are difficult, people can be a drain upon us, people can be speaking against us and, even worse, people can be harming us, physically or emotionally. And Jesus says love them? Yes, this is one of those areas where the ‘death to self' thing rings loud and true and is uncomfortable, and it can be a real source of hindrance to spiritual growth.
But How? Let's think about some of the issues. What is love for others? As I said above, thinking the best of people and desiring the best for people, all people. How can you think the best of someone who speaks against you, actively seeks to harm you or puts difficulties into your life? How can you feel good about those closest to you who don't show care and concern and love for you and appear utterly self-centred? Well start at the hard end. Jesus taught, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt 5:44) How can you do that? One or two suggestions.
Pray that the Lord will show you what they are really like. That bully who upsets you is really a lonely little inadequate boy inside. Jesus would love to change him but he's looking for someone who will stand in the gap to intercede for him. Pray for grace to bless this person and maybe say something nice to them. Realise you are not perfect and are not the best one to cast the first stone (Jn 8:7). Pray for grace to a) see yourself as child of God who has an all-powerful loving heavenly Father on their side and b) the ability to smile, laugh and praise while you wait for changes to take place.
Sons? Jesus followed up that 5:44 verse with, “that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (v.45). The idea of ‘sons' in the Old Testament carried with it the idea of the young person growing up to understand the heart of the father and his work, and getting ready to join his father in his work and one day take it over. That was all about growth and so the way we see ourselves in this sort of situation, rather than be a heavy negative thing, can be part of the growth process.
Me, Difficult? Another thought: this is a two-way street. There may be people in church who find you or me difficult. The only way I can overcome this is to work on the following strategy: every Sunday morning when I go into church, I go praying, “Lord help me to be a blessing to at least two or three people this morning,” and I look around when I get there and ask, “Lord, who can I bless?” It's surprising how he answers that prayer sometimes. But the big thing is be proactive about loving others. Whenever we pray for difficult people or difficult situations I believe part of our prayer, when we ask Him to bless them or it, should be, “and Lord, show me what you might want me to do to be part of the answer to this prayer.”
If we can do the “dying to self of the past” thing, and put others before ourselves, I believe we will not only be overcoming the obstacles to growth, but we will be growing. We can't do it without Him, but if we are willing to face the problem, He will enable. Now I am aware there is one other really big area to do with personal relationships that can be a hindrance to growth and so I will deal with that tomorrow as a separate subject.
Lessons in Growth Meditations: 5. Fanciful Forgiveness
Mt 6:14,15 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
A Difficult Relational Aspect: In the previous study we started to consider how we have in the past viewed people and struggled with them, and how it is so easily transferred into the Christian life, and so it is another of those things where ‘death to self' has to apply if we are to grow. But we concluded that there is an other really big area to do with personal relationships that can be a hindrance to growth that we need to consider and it is that oft-raised subject of forgiveness. Now don't shy away because I may have something different to say than you've heard before.
Abuse = Hurt = Injustice: The subject arises when someone offends you or abuses you or worse, and when some well-meaning preacher, with little thought, preaches, “You must forgive them!” everything in you screams out, “But it isn't fair! It is unjust! They hurt me, they harmed me and that is wrong!” and I have to completely agree with you. So how do we handle it?
Traditional but Inaccurate Approach: The traditional and, I suggest, somewhat thoughtless and cheap approach, is to simply say, “Yes, they hurt you but the Bible teaches that you are to forgive them.” I immediately think of two examples, one of a Christian girl who was raped in her home by an intruder, and the other a family who lost loved ones in a terrorist attack. Both ‘hurt' parties declared their simple forgiveness for the offenders. This then becomes a guilt laden area for the rest of us who struggle. (I also suggest their actions are unbiblical and diminish sin)
A Different Approach: The only trouble is that that is not what the Bible teaches. May I present a n alternative to traditional thinking and simply ask that you check it out and see if it is reasonable. Put aside all emotions and consider what the Bible teaches. For instance at one point the apostle Paul wrote, “ Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you .” ( Col 3:13) then there is apparently contradictory teaching: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mk 2:7) and, “he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." (Jn 20:22,23). I have done a major study on this in the past, so may I present it as brief conclusions:
The harm done to you was sin, and God is not casual about it. It need punishing.
So important in God's eyes is sin, that Jesus had to die on the Cross to take the punishment.
God only forgives when we have repented.
The forgiveness is available the moment we repent because Jesus died for those sins.
Where the sinner never repents and never comes to Christ, the forgiveness may have been there waiting for them when they repented, but in the absence of that repentance, they still go to hell.
Only God can in fact forgive, and it is a legal transaction based on the Cross, and so when we forgive it is simply ratifying what has already happened in heaven.
(It is the same as blessing and loosing or releasing or binding in prayer; it is only real and effective when we are led by the Spirit to declare the will of heaven).
True forgiveness can only be given when there has been repentance BUT while we are waiting for it – and it may take a long time to come or never come – we are to have a good attitude towards that person or persons, that desires the best for them
This means we pray for them and do all we can to help them to come to a place of repentance, because at the moment they are living with an issue with God which will hinder blessing in their life (unconfessed and unacknowledged sin) and only their repentance can change that.
An Offender? Now it may be that you suddenly realise that you are in reality an ‘offender' and you have unconfessed sin which will stop you growing, a sin against another, and you need to ask their forgiveness. Well, the way is open, unless you have completely lost contact with them, and you simply need to seek God's grace to be able to say sorry to them.
Offended: But I am more aware, at the moment, of those of us who struggle with the remaining pain and the scream against ‘forgiving'. This is going to sound hard, I'm sorry, but put all that aside for the moment. The bigger question is can you get God's grace to desire God's best for that person? Yes, it will be them coming to repentance but why is that so important? It is because without it they are in a place where they are not receiving God's best, they are not in a place of receiving His blessing and changing and feeling really good about life – because they still have an issue before Him that needs dealing with. Do you see this? In some ways this is harder that almost casually saying, ‘I forgive them,' because we are dealing with spiritual realities here and the future of another person's life.
Love for Enemies? Do you remember yesterday we considered Jesus' teaching: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt 5:44) It is probable that you still consider your ‘offender' an enemy. Now on the Cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34) Now so often I have heard that applied as ‘forgive everyone' but the truth is that so often, if not mostly, your offender knew exactly what they were doing to you. In the Old Testament sacrificial law, in respect of sin or guilt offerings you read, “When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD's commands….” (Lev 4:1 – also 4:13,22,27, 5:15,18 etc.) Intentional sin was much worse. So yes, Jesus' words fitted the occasion but most occasions don't match! But it still brings us back to praying for our offender, wanting the best of them, because God wants the best for them and will do all He can to bring them back to a right place – which includes their repentance. Can we have the same attitude?
A Seeker of Forgiveness: But then there is the equally big issue of forgiving another when they come saying sorry. For some of us this will be just as big a struggle. “It's all very well for you to say sorry, but do you know the effect what you did (said) had on me that I've had to live with all this time?” Yes, it is natural to feel like that but we aren't called to be natural but supernatural, for we have the enabling of the Holy Spirit. Having been through this from all angles in the past, I have concluded that if I had been the offender and I had come to repentance, how would I desire others to respond to me?
Do unto others…. Many years ago it happened to me and I repented of an outburst (provoked, but that is not the issue) and two close ‘colleagues' said, “We can't work with you,” and utterly rejected me. What I wished they had done – and it would have saved so much anguish all round later – would have been to say, “Old friend, we're so sorry, what has happened to you to get you to come out with that? How can we help you? How can we help you get back into a good and right place?” but they didn't, they knifed me. A learning exercise, which is why, whatever your sin, whatever your failure, I want to put my arms around your sobbing shoulders and say, “How can I help, how can I stand with you. I am here for you.” Jesus collected the sinners around him because he had care and compassion and forgiveness. Dare we be anything less?
Lessons in Growth Meditations: 6. Images and Idols
Rev 9:20 they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood--idols that cannot see or hear or walk
Idols? We are, in this Part, considering the things from our past life that need putting to death, things that can so easily be transported into our new Christian lives if we are not careful, and if we do, they stunt growth. Now I am sure that most of us only associate idols with eastern countries or Old Testament pagan countries. Unfortunately that description often applied to Israel , despite the fat that they had had warning after warning not to have anything to do with the religions of other people.
Definitions: Now if you look up the definition of ‘idol' you find, ‘an image or representation of a god used as an object of worship,' but then there is a secondary definition: ‘a person or thing that is greatly admired, loved or revered'. I would also add, ‘any substitute for God that we rely upon'. The simple truth is that so often we look to other people, things or systems to give us encouragement, direction or help. Look in any good bookstore and there are shelves upon shelves of self-help books. I confess to feeling horrified a couple of years ago when the ‘Mindfulness' fad appeared and was even being heralded by some Christian ‘celebrities'. Many of these things in themselves are quite harmless and may even, in a small measure help, but the bigger challenge is that when you and I came to Christ, he and he alone was to be our Saviour and Lord, our resource, our provider.
Modern Society: There is an emptiness in much modern life in the West that arises in societies that have abandoned God. Just recently I have again seen in the media, warnings and concerns about the over-use of social media in whatever form it is and words like addiction and teenage depression are bandied around. What appears to be a relationship-building technology, turns out to be a fear inducing and relational-inhibiting technology, especially among the younger generations. The older generation is increasing causing concern as there is a recognition that loneliness is the norm for many. Our societies have many problems. But what has this got to do with idols?
There are in our modern western societies, four groups of people, I suggest. There are i) Christians who rely on the Lord, ii) other religious groups who rely upon their particular culture as much as their God i.e. religion as a substitute, iii) those who look to people, things, experiences, culture, education, work achievement, maybe even politics, and technology, to provide meaning and purpose and even a sense of fulfilment in life, and iv) those who have none of these things and who live in the twilight, immersed in loneliness and on the edge of depression, and for whom drugs or suicide are contemplated. Now I realise that this is a somewhat damning critique of modern society but I suggest it is fairly realistic. The last group is the smallest but it by no mean small. The third group in our Western societies are clearly the largest groups and all the things I have listed there are in reality their ‘gods', the things they rely upon, their substitutes for God. The second group, we might suggest, are also using God-substitutes (man-made religion and culture).
But isn't that fairly obvious, so why should we be considering this in this Part that looks at things which should have died when we came to Christ? It can be boiled down to who or what do we put our trust in? I will consider this more fully in the next study when we consider anxiety but so much of modern life is about covering up the emptiness and the anxiety that exists in the absence of God. But surely that is not us, you say? I would like to think that was so, but when I watch and listen to many modern Christians I wonder.
Shallow Lives that need Props? Now I should add that most of those things I listed above – for example, people, things, experiences, culture, education, work achievement, maybe even politics, and technology – are not bad or wrong in themselves, and many of us who are Christians encounter or use these things or are involved with them, and that is not wrong. Where it falls apart is if our relationship with the Lord is shallow, we may be propping up our lives with all these other things. If our non-Christian neighbours look at us, what do they see?
The Example of Israel : Moses, on the plains of Moab , before he left Israel taught them: “ See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people." What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him?” (Deut 4:5-7) The way that Israel lived, with the Lord, was to be a testimony to the rest of the world – this is how life is to work! This is how God has designed it. This is how it should also be for us today.
The Modern Church ? I have asked this sort of question before but it worth repeating, when the world looks at the Church – and maybe your local church in particular – what do they see? Do they see people who are full of peace and harmony, a people who are fulfilled in life without the materialistic props of the modern age (but who use them as well for pleasure in addition), people where families are without strife, families where divorce is absent, young people not on drugs or drink because they are full of the Spirit? Do they find people who are loving, kind, caring and compassionate? Do they go into homes where the technology is only in the background but the foreground is filled with love and laughter, testimony and witness to the goodness of the Lord? Do they find a people who pray for one another and offer to pray over them when they share their ailments and stresses? Do they find testimonies of deliverance and healings? But more than anything in this present context, do they find a people who can use modern technology and culture only as an add-on, but not the necessity for happiness and joy?
And Us? Before we came to Christ, we relied on things, on people, celebrities, self-help techniques. Coming to Christ, have we found that he is the source of provision for our peace, our source of fulfillment, purpose and meaning? We should have. Please, be honest, ask for revelation if necessary, How much do we, the modern people of God trust in these things to compensate for shallow spiritual lives? To the church in Laodicea Jesus said, “You say, `I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” (Rev 3:17) I am not saying that this is how it is; I leave that to you to consider, but is there even an element of truth in that description that fits so much of life in the modern church in the West? This is about salvation versus substitutes. As advertising has sometimes said, accept no substitutes!
Lessons in Growth Meditations: 7. The Angst of Anxiety
1 Pet 5:7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
Trust issues: It is possible – if not probable – that you left yesterday's study with a slight (all right, great) air of, ‘I'm not sure' because these issues we are touching on here are things we take for normal and yet are somewhat intangible, but are still things that can exist in us and hinder our growth. They are things, therefore, that we will struggle with to put to death, to release us to go on. Now yesterday was about trusting in people or things to the exclusion of God, yes, trust issues.
From my experience over the years of observing people, I think I am addressing three different groups of people in this study; first of all there are the people of the world, then there are Christians who have still got some of the past with them, and then there are Christians who are going on but who come to new boundaries of a ‘new promised land' to be taken by faith, and who find themselves struggling.
Angst & Anxiety: Trying to be clever with my title I have used the word ‘angst'. Angst is “a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general” to quote a dictionary and to add their secondary meaning, “Angst is a feeling of persistent worry about something trivial.” Anxiety, with which we are probably more familiar, simply means “worry, unease, nervousness, apprehension, disquiet, concern.” Angst, I believe, describes well what many non-Christians feel and it is so normal that they just live with it. Where it hangs over someone like a cloud, it is a means of keeping out the sun, keeping out the light and yet when it is confronted, it can be a motivating force that drives people into the arms of Jesus.
In Us? Anxiety appears often in all of us and sometimes it can act as an alarm to tell us there is something we need to be doing. Perhaps it is because it is so common that the apostle Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:6,7) From this we might suggest that peace is the opposite to anxiety and in this particular context it comes from the knowledge that you have put everything in God's hands through prayer, and then as He shares a sense of His presence with you, that comes in the form of peace. Focusing on Him is a primary way of dealing with anxiety because the more we do that, the more we come to realise that He is all-knowing and all-powerful – and for us! Isaiah declared, “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.” (Isa 26:3)
The Unbeliever's Norm: The non-Christian struggles with angst because they are living in an uncertain and, at times, very fearful world and the enemy uses this truth to bear down on them with a dread that people struggle to cover up in a variety of ways.
The Christian who has entered the kingdom but never yet learnt to totally trust the Lord and constantly put every care into His hands, will continually be blighted and limited by ongoing anxiety, until they learn to draw near and, as Peter says in our starting verse, cast their cares on Him in the knowledge that He loves them and is there for them.
Faith Experiences: But then we come to the bigger issue of faith, which affects all Christians, because everything to do with God is an act of faith. Imagine you were sitting in the boat with the rest of the disciples, in the middle of a gale when Jesus comes walking across the water (Mt 14:25-) and some bright, full-of faith character in the boat, stands up, talks to the Lord and steps out and walks on the water. Let's be honest. Most of us will be thinking, “I'm glad that was him and not me!” and deep down we may have this growing niggle that perhaps Jesus will ask me to do that – and we know it is humanly impossible. In the third study of this series I imagined a conversation between Levi and Jesus when Jesus called him to “Follow me.” When it comes to us, it becomes upfront and personal and we wonder, “Can I do this? How can I do that?” but we don't just ‘wonder' we worry.
Abram's Example: Getting to grips with the ‘faith worry' is at the heart of our lives with Christ which will either help us to grow or hinder our growth. I have often pondered about God's call to Abram. How easily do we read the words: “The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you.” Gen 12:1.2) Imagine Abram sharing this with Sarai: “ I've been hearing this voice… well not exactly a voice, more like someone in my head talking to me…. It's a who, it's someone….. It feels like a big voice…. it … he… the voice … seemed to be saying we've got to leave here and go and live somewhere else….I don't know where, we'll know when we get there….a great nation from a barren wife …. I don't know …. He said he would bless me and make my name great….I assume he's going to enable you and me to have children….. ‘great name'? ….. I don't know. …all people on the earth would be blessed through me? I don't know.”
Faith involves Trust: Did you notice the most common words? “I don't know.” Faith = “I don't know but I'll do it.” And that, has to be at the heart of our Faith. It's about trusting God for no other reason than you trust God. It feels right. For us we have the whole book which encourages and builds us, but when it comes down to the individual act of faith, it still comes down to, “I will do this, simply because I trust God.” Before I became a Christian I trusted me – but that didn't work out too well so, to go along with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (Jn 6:68)
Full of angst? Turn to Jesus. Full of anxiety? Turn to Jesus. Worried about the next step? Turn to Jesus. He's your answer – every time.
Lessons in Growth Meditations: 8. Selfless or Selfish
Phil 2:3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.
Self-Centred Pasts: I have, over the years, come to define ‘Sin' as the propensity to self-centred godlessness that results in unrighteousness. The big thing about our lives before we came to Christ is that they were utterly self-centred. We were the focus of our thoughts and our desires and our hopes and aspirations and ambitions for our future. Now to recap on where we are in this Part, we said that we were considering aspects of our ‘old life', of our ‘old nature' that are supposed to have been ‘put to death' but which, if we can express it in a slightly different way, have a tendency to be resurrected afresh in our new lives. They are things that Satan would encourage in our new lives because he knows they will harm our relationship with the Lord and stunt and prevent growth.
Recapping the Past: We have considered already the matter of sovereignty within our lives – the Lord or me reigning, the struggles we have with people, and especially when we have been harmed by others, we considered how easy it is to make people or things the focus in our lives as we seek for meaning and purpose and a sense of fulfilment – to the exclusion of God – and we considered how trust or its absence can create a climate of anxiety within us. These are the things that were prevalent in our lives before we came to Christ and which are to be put to death in our present lives to enable growth to proceed as it should.
Self-orientated schemers : Now there is a sense whereby selfishness or self-centredness is the environment in which all these other things can flourish, and maybe I should have dealt with it earlier. In the teaching of the New Testament, selfishness is often linked with ambition (Gal 5:20, Phil 1:17, 2:3, Jas 3:14,16) and ambition is about what we want for ourselves, our goals, our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations. Before we came to Christ, as we looked to our future and wanted good for it, we thought and planned and schemed how we could achieve it, and it was all ‘self' orientated.
Jacob Style: Jacob is the classic example in the Old Testament of a grabber, a schemer and a twister, a man solely motivated by self. It wasn't until he had met, encountered and wrestled with God and was broken, that he surrendered to God's purposes and completely reoriented his life. I know that is what the ‘natural' me is like and it is still there to be confronted and put to death. We might think that when we surrendered to God that was the end of it, that from then on it would be entirely a life of Him only, but if you believe that, you are deceived. Every situation, every confrontation requires me to put to death that self-desire that wants to control the situation, plan and scheme how I can be an overcomer (overcoming other people that is). We do it in the most simple of ways sometimes that we would deny that we're even doing it. Whenever we are working to get people to like us, get people on our side, get people to agree with us, and so on, we are subtly doing the ‘self' thing.
Negotiating Reveals…. But it is a tricky thing because there ARE times when we need to negotiate with others and, we might say, what is wrong with being nice to other people so they are nice to us? Probably nothing at all, but as with so many of these things it is why we are doing it. The other afternoon I spent four hours negotiating for a new car with two different car salesmen. It was just an example of the many times it is right to discuss through a problem or a need with other people. Perhaps the heading of this study could also be ‘godly or godless' rather than ‘selfless or selfish', because that, for us who are Christians, is what is at the heart of how we go about things today. Selfishness can be equated with godlessness, and when we look at how two different people go about such things – the selfless/godly versus the selfish/godless - we will see entirely different approaches.
Take the matter of the negotiation I referred to. The actions and words of the selfish/godless are likely to exhibit tension, stress, even anger, putting pressure on the other, even rudeness. In my negotiating I started by praying and asking for God's wisdom and grace. In the course of the conversation with the two different salesmen I sought never to put pressure on, never to be rude and never to use anger as a negotiating weapon. When we declined the offers and figures of the first salesman, who lost his sale as we walked away, we sought to do so with the utmost politeness and graciousness and thanks for his help. In the second encounter, when the salesman left us and went to check with his manager on figures and availability – for fifteen minutes – there was, I confess, a wrestling within to overcome impatience, so that when he returned we were as gracious as before.
Now I take little or no credit for this encounter because there was a simple lesson involved that I have not told you about – my wife was present throughout and she is brilliant at the selfless/godly/gracious thing and will challenge me if I don't live up to it. Ah, you may say, it wasn't a godly thing it was a ‘fear-of-the-wife thing. No it wasn't; she simply helped me keep on the track that I knew was the right one.
Establishing the Structure: I once heard this approach – to behaviour, attitudes, thoughts, words and deeds – likened to a building site where they are casting concrete columns. They put up formwork or shuttering into which the wet concrete mix is poured, and then left to harden and strengthen. Only when it is hard and strong can the formwork be struck, taken down. There is a process in the Christian life whereby we need help, we need support, we need ‘shuttering' to help us form our attitudes or behaviour. It's called discipline, it takes effort and initially it needs help. Now, the more we do this, the more we get set in our behaviour-attitude patterns, and no longer need the help, we do it automatically. Now where is the Holy Spirit in all this? He is there helping us and helping the attitudes-behaviour get set in the selfless-godly mould.
You think this is self-help? Consider Paul's teaching: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” ( Col 3:1-3) First see the motivation: we've been raised, because we first died. Then the actions we have to choose to take – set our goals (hearts) on heaven where Jesus rules, set our thinking (minds) on our heavenly home from which our resources come and to which we will one day go.
Our Part: Having orientated our hearts (will) and minds (thinking) he does on, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature,” (v.5) and later “clothe yourselves with …. And over all these virtues put on love,” (v.12-14). We might add the word, ‘you' to emphasise that this is an act of the will, for this is what Paul means: “YOU put to death…. YOU clothe yourselves…. YOU put on love.” The godly-selfless approach WORKS to achieve the end goal of getting rid of the old life and putting on (bringing about, creating) a new life in the image of Christ. The more we do it (work at it) the more natural it becomes. You find this same sort of language in Eph 4. Look for all the ‘Do's and ‘Do-not's. This is the way to growth. Let's follow it.
Lessons in Growth Meditations: 9. The Path of Pleasure
Eph 2:3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.
Tentative Approach: I confess, and I hope you don't feel this, that I don't like considering these areas that are ‘doomed for death' if we are to grow as Christians, I feel very tentative about them. I think it is probably for two reasons. The first is because there is a negativity about death and I often feel challenged when I consider either myself or my church, that just perhaps some of these things do apply and need putting to death. But then, as I said yesterday, I realise that some of these things, if not all, need putting to death afresh on a daily basis. The second reason is that I am feeling frustrated because I want to move on into the second area about resurrection to see what the Lord wants to show us about living lives in his power. But we have to take our medicine first and face the challenges that arise in this Part.
Balance: The difficulty, and I acknowledge it before we get into it in this one – and it is particularly important that I say this to us who live in the West in the early part of the twenty-first century – is maintaining a balance that acknowledges the Lord's good provision on one side, but makes sure we don't supplant Him by His provision on the other side . I will explain more as I go on.
Made to Enjoy: As you will see from the title and the starter-verse, our subject is pleasure. Now I don't know if you have every thought about this but we are made for pleasure . We have eyes to see the wonder of the world about us, and I have been almost drunk in the past as I have gazed on God's creation, and on beautiful art work. Our visual world is truly wonderful. But then we have ears to hear , that pick up the tiniest of sounds like the scrabbling of a hedgehog in the undergrowth, to the wonders of the incredible range of music that we are capable of producing, to the roar of the sea on the seafront in an amazing storm. Yes, our audible world is also absolutely amazing.
Then we have taste and I don't know where to start or finish. I have been privileged to travel the world and so have tried so many tastes in many countries and so I hesitate to start describing foods or drinks because it is like a tsunami and I could get carried away. Taste is incredible! But then we have touch and I guess this is the one of the five senses that we possibly take more for granted. I love the feel of wood, that has been planed and rubbed and just waits for further treatment. I love the feel of my wife's skin, but I will move on quickly. I'm using too much space. Finally smell , and I leave it to the last because it is so powerful. I will just mention two things and if you don't know them, where have you been all your life? Fresh coffee and recently baked bread. Enough said. Smell is amazing.
Now I have taken that time and space to make a point – and we could go on to think about many experiences of the human race that bring pleasure and that could take up the page – and the point is that despite the protestations of the ascetics down through the ages, we have been made by God to be the most amazing beings who can ENJOY the physical and material world that He has made. Think about that and it says a lot about Him. Worship Him for His love to us in this way.
Godless Enjoyment: Before we met Christ this material world was all we knew and we gave ourselves to it in a variety of ways and to varying degrees. In our starter-verse, the apostle Paul speaks about gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts, and there is a danger we become all legalistically puritanical and become unbalanced, denying the truths I have spoken about above, resulting in a harsh life of abstinence.
But he does speak truth, that pre-Christ our life was just those wonderful things I spoke about in the paragraph on the senses and nothing more and when “those wonderful things” are all that energise and motivate us they start becoming jaded and, rather like drugs, we want more and more to get the same satisfaction. For those who know about economics, it is the law of diminishing returns at its best.
Twenty-first century living: So we are someone who comes to Christ in the first third of the twenty-first century and we live in a world of material appreciation (that's the nice way of putting it), a world of material excess and pleasure, a world of technology that increasingly assaults our senses in the communication realm and threatens to overwhelm us. Basic pleasure is being threatened. Boundaries are falling and confusion reigns in the realm of sexuality, as just one example, and more than ever we need to cry – Balance! Christian, keep a hold on God in this ever-confusing world. Hold to His word, hold to His presence, hold to His reality. If the material is drowning your life, it is a time to step back and bring a balance, with some stuff, perhaps, needing to die.
The “world”: Feelings and pleasure were the arbiters of our life before we came to Christ, but many still focus there and not on Him. The apostle John wrote significantly about “the world” in his first letter, meaning the godless, self-centred world, not the wonderful globe we live on. The Message version puts it very well: “ Don't love the world's ways. Don't love the world's goods. Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father. Practically everything that goes on in the world—wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important—has nothing to do with the Father. It just isolates you from him. The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out—but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity.” (1 Jn 2:15-17) The world's ‘goods' are for our pleasure but when they are THE source of our pleasure, we've lost it, and that needs to die. “wanting, wanting, wanting.” Wow, that describes the emptiness of so much of life today that reveals the shallowness, the barrenness, the limitations, the inadequacies of living in the materialistic world to the exclusion of the spiritual world of God.
Generation Struggles: I watch the different generations today, struggling with this. The younger generation being carried away with their electronic goods, and their desire for a new and ever new experience, with virtual reality being the tip of the iceberg (or, I might suggest, the forefront of an oncoming tsunami). The older generation so often with more time and money on their hands, but still, so often, godless. We went on a cruise to the Mediterranean some years ago and as it was our first time we were assaulted by people comparing that cruise to other ones they had been on (jaded!) and one couple said to us, “Oh, this is our tenth cruise,” and I couldn't thinking, “For goodness sake, get a life!” But it was symptomatic of a people filling in their time.
I run a group for the more elderly and its purpose is to build friendships and strengthen memory in the aging, and ultimately lead them to Christ. One of the many things I do with this group is I get people to share in pairs or threes about a particular part of their past lives and having been doing it for several months, I can tell you this generation have “been there, done it all, got the tee-shirt three times over” but mostly they still don't know the Lord and are still looking for something.
And So? Don't lose touch with a vibrant relationship with the Lord, (or get one if you have never had one!) and don't get to the end of your earthly run thinking, “Well what was all that about?” Pleasure is good and God-given, but pleasure without God just promotes a jaded feeling. The more you know Him, I have found, the more He heightens the pleasure. Yes! Without Him, the pleasure is like chewing straw. Don't do it.
Lessons in Growth Meditations: 10. Recap 1
Matt 7:13,14 "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
Narrow Road requirement : Jesus' illustration of the narrow and wide gates reminds us that many people go through the wide gate leading to destruction because the road leading through it is ‘broad' and unrestricted and people want to do their own thing, ignoring God and running on ‘self' . We observed at the start that going God's way – the narrow road and narrow gate – requires a dying to self and dying to the old self-centred and godless life, what the majority consider a restricted life, but the more we progressed, the more we saw the reasons why that is necessary.
‘Follow Me' Requirements: When Jesus called Levi to “Follow Me”, it was a call to trust him, but in following Jesus it was also a call to submit to the sovereignty of God. Why? Very simply because God knows best – and we don't. In fact it was our failure to think and act rightly that enabled the Holy Spirit to convict us and bring us to repentance. Part of that deal meant us giving up or dying to the old life we had lived.
People Problems: As we looked further at this, we recognised that our ‘not getting it right before' also meant not getting it right with people. In fact if it wasn't for people, this life would be easy, but the trouble is their ways and wants are different to mine, which can mean conflict, so if I am to walk the Jesus way of peace and harmony, it will mean I have to die to my desires and learn to understand others, and have care and compassion for them. If I am to achieve that, I will truly have to die to my wishes.
Facets of Forgiveness: But that led us on to consider the difficult question of forgiveness, both our need for it when we have wronged others and to give it when others seek it of us. Perhaps this is one of the hardest areas where we need to die to self if we are to be like Jesus.
Modern Idols: But then we looked more widely at life and recognised that in our old life, although we would perhaps never countenance wooden images of eastern religions, we did, never the less, exalt people and we did rely upon methods, and both of these to the exclusion of God. Oh yes, idols are still very much alive in our modern society and wherever we put our trust in them, it means we will not be putting our trust in God, and therefore we cease to come to the fountain of all wisdom and understanding. We do indeed need to die to the alternative supports where they exclude God.
Aware of Anxiety: While we were looking at the world more widely, we recognised that living life on our own, so often meant that we were full of anxiety which, if we accept as the norm, will settle to become what I called angst, a more deep-seated anxiety which comes from not living in harmony and receiving the resources of The Lord of all. The attitude of self-reign leads so often to a short-fall of ability and that in turn leads to anxiety. The way to overcome that anxiety is to lay down the old life, lay down the self-reign and submit to the Lord of Glory.
‘Less' or ‘Ish': From there we considered the conflicting lives of the selfless versus the selfish, the godly versus the godless. We noted that the latter in each case was how we used to live but those lives brought us to failure. We noted how rejecting the selfish or self-centred life requires an application in every area of our lives and that in turn required a discipline and effort, often helped by others. The starting place is death to self and the continuing process requires the effort of me with help from the Holy Spirit. It is a continual challenge to die to self in every new situation or confrontation.
Pleasure: This brought us to the last one, a consideration of the wonder of pleasure that God has given us, while at the same time confronting the very real danger that is rife in our day, of making pleasure the beginning and end of all things. When we do that we are making it a substitute for God, but fortunately or unfortunately it soon creates a jaded feeling in us, together with a need for more and more. Satisfaction is illusory and flits away like a butterfly on a warm summer's day. It is this recognition that we see results in a need to die to the old life that was pleasure and experience orientated and to the pleasure seeking attitude that prevails so much today. Pleasure in its right place is a gift from God. When we make pleasure all-important, we stumble, feel jaded and become vulnerable.
Versus God: I want to finis this Part with something about which I have increasingly become aware in recent days. Where we fail to get to grips with these things, as I believe many Christians do, it means that we create both an anger and a yearning in God's heart that desires to bring His people back to Himself. As the world increasingly (in the West at least) turns its back on God, it opens itself up to the leading of the enemy and so we see ever more strange, weird and, without doubt, ungodly and unrighteous behaviours, an increase in blatant unrighteousness as people reject God's design and totter down the wide road towards self-destruction.
“Hands Off” Discipline: Romans 1 leads us to believe that this is God's judgment on the Western world where He has “given them over” to more and more destructive behaviours. For the world, and especially for the Christians who may be drifting alongside this cultural collapse, His desire is for these things to act in a disciplinary manner, i.e. they act as agents to drive people back from the abyss and back to God. Now in the midst, the Lord allows Satan to act as a disciplining agent and we see it when Christians make themselves vulnerable by not dealing with the issues we have been considering throughout this first Part, and failing to put them to death. I believe the strength of his activities has been increasing in recent years and I have watched Christians becoming more and more vulnerable to illnesses, problems, difficulties, stresses, anxieties and many other things that should not be in our lives.
Responses/Effects: Now a problem with this assessment is that most of us, the good, the bad, the indifferent, in the kingdom of God , often seem prey to these things. Now there are two responses to this. First, like Jeremiah being carried away to Egypt in the remnant, so we too can suffer the things of the age. Second, I believe it has been like the tide has been turning and so there is greater effort needed to stand and resist these things.
Answers? So what is the answer? It is twofold. First, it is to do the thing we have been emphasising throughout this first Part – put to death all these things we have considered, that belong to the old life and should not be in the new life. Second, we are to live out the Christian life as it is portrayed in the New Testament, a resurrected life, empowered by God and living differently to the rest of the world, and that is what we will now move on to consider in the next Part.