|Series Theme: Meditations on Meaning & Values
Meditations in Meaning & Values 13: God's Perfection
Eccles 3:14 I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.
In our pursuit of seeking out meaning and values in our world, at some point any thinking person, and particularly a Christian, comes to a point of saying, “Couldn't God have made the world so that sin couldn't exist? Couldn't it have been a good world where everything is good?” The Christian organisation, Scripture Union, used to have a film strip (I don't know if they translated in into a more modern medium but that was what it was when I was a young Christian working with children and young people) called ‘Lost in Space' and in it two young people end up on a planet far away from earth but what they find there amazes them. Everyone is good, everything is good. People don't lock their doors, people don't say bad things about one another and certainly never seek to harm one another. Of course it highlights just how sin-ridden this world of our is. But did God have to make it like that?
When you really start thinking about it you realise that Sin in a decision, a decision to be self-centred and godless. Adam and Eve chose that course and every single one of us who has ever lived since (except Jesus) has been like that. It's because we have free will that we live like this. You may try to think of God inserting some sort of gene within us that won't permit us to be self-centred and godless but at that moment we cease to have free will and we cease to be human beings. That would impinge on the very thing that makes us human beings who have a variety of feelings, a variety of ways of thinking, so we would also stop being creative in the way we are and there would not be authors or composers or designers and so on, because all of these thing flow out of who we are. Free will probably has many more effects within us that most of us have ever thought about.
But then we have the whole story of salvation, of the Son of God leaving heaven, coming to earth to be born in the form of a little child, growing up like every other human, revealing his Father's love for three years, being taken and put to death for simply being good, being raised from the dead, being seen by his followers and then ascending back to his place in heaven at his Father's right hand where he presides over his Father's kingdom. Those are the facts and in the midst of them, that reference to being put to death failed to reveal the enormity of what he was doing, taking every sin of every person and taking the punishment for it (as only the eternal Son of God could) so that justice was satisfied. If there is going to be free will, there is going to be Sin and sins and justice is going to scream out, “That is wrong, that is unfair, it should be punished!” And so it was.
And then Solomon says, “ I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.” It may have several meanings but it certainly applies to all that we have just been saying. The Amplified version has, “ nothing can be added to it nor can anything be taken from it” which would suggest the completeness of what God has done. However the Message Version paints a more accurate picture or sense in context , I believe, “I've also concluded that whatever God does, that's the way it's going to be, always. No addition, no subtraction. God's done it and that's it. That's so we'll quit asking questions and simply worship in holy fear,” because this verse only follows a couple of verses on from that one we've already referred to twice in these studies: “ He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (3:11b)
Remember Solomon is saying it with a jaded feeling behind every word so I think the Message does actually capture best what Solomon is saying but that doesn't stop us adding that cynical or jaded as he may be, again and again Solomon can't help speaking truth, even though it may be “under the sun”. And the truth is that God has made this world and in that it could not have been made in any other way, it is perfect, despite the presence of Sin.
Now in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48) The Amplified version unpacks that as, “ You, therefore, will be perfect [growing into spiritual maturity both in mind and character, actively integrating godly values into your daily life], as your heavenly Father is perfect.” If I tell you that the word ‘perfect' there means ‘whole or complete' we see how the Amplified version gets it right in respect of us. But the big issue, that we so often miss, is that Jesus says his Father is perfect, is whole or complete. Perfect also means ‘cannot be added to'. If you looked at the work of an Old Master and said, “that is perfect”, you would mean that there would be nothing that could be added to that painting that could improve it. Now I have just dropped an intellectual and spiritual grenade under your feet! This is what the Bible teaches, that God is perfect which means that if you knew everything that could be known about Him you would not be able to improve Him or add to Him, and that applies to His being, His character and everything He says or does.
Do you see now the significance of Solomon's words, “ nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it”? Put Sin and its effects aside for a moment (because we've said they will have to exist if human beings are to be human beings) everything that you see God say or do to do with this world is spot on; it cannot be improved upon. When you understand it (and there is the challenge!) you will never be able to say, “He ought to have done….” whatever it was. What He did was perfect. We surely may not understand it and that is, as I just said, the challenge, to look at His world and look at His word and see it through fresh understanding. I have done that in respect of His judgments and it is an incredibly revealing exercise (and I hope to complete the book soon).
Look at God's world with new eyes, look at His salvation with new eyes, look at all that is going on around you and your life with new eyes, and see the work of a perfect God, perfect work that could not be improved upon. It may require some serious thinking in you but the results will be invaluable. Be blessed!
Meditations in Meaning & Values 14: Intellect, a Signpost to God
Eccles 3:18 I also thought, "As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals.
If someone woke up at the age of thirty say, having been asleep for the first thirty years of their life, so they have no knowledge of this world but had grown and matured a capable mind while they were asleep, if they embarked on a search for meaning – what this world is all about – then already in the words we have written are two amazing clues that they might ponder upon. The only trouble is that WE take these things for granted and in so doing miss the wonder of them.
The first clue that there is meaning in this world comes from the fact that our imaginary waking individual has what I described as a “capable mind,” i.e. they have the ability to think, to reason, to investigate, to rationalise, to draw conclusions. Again and again Solomon indicates the use of his mind. In our verse he simply says, “I also thought ”. The danger of the mind is that it is capable of apprehending truth AND error, it can come up with wrong conclusions. Solomon has truth in what he says, but it is only partial truth. (The second clue is that this man [Solomon] can't help but refer to God, but we'll leave that for another time)
All these capabilities we take for granted. They are the capabilities that a child at school uses from their earliest days through to being awarded a doctorate at university! These are the capabilities Solomon has been using for many years in his search of meaning – and we take them for granted, they are so normal, so natural, but the truth is that these capabilities, which go further and include the ability to imagine, to write, to compose, to design, to invent, these capabilities distinguish us from all the other living creatures on this planet. It is not merely a matter of degree as some dolphin watchers might have us believe, it is much greater than that. These are the things that the Bible refers to as being “made in the image of God” (Gen 1:26,27).
Without those Bible references we are left with the question, “Why are we like this? Talk of evolution feels very unsatisfactory to an open mind. Why did we evolve in this direction, why not in some irrational direction or some direction that leaves us just like another animal without these capabilities? All of these capabilities of the human mind that we have been considering collectively work together to constantly draw conclusions, work towards goals, imagine objectives to be reached out to and then even, yes, a sense of meaning. In purely mechanical terms the meaning may be functional: we design better houses to be more comfortable but, hullo, what is this concept of aesthetic design, design that can have a sense of beauty about it? What is that about? Why do we have these concepts of meaning and beauty. Materialistic answers fall short.
Asking questions is a unique part of these human capabilities which push us on to find answers in all sorts of areas. Questions flow out of the human mind, and we take it for granted. Again and again, Solomon refers to the use of his ‘mind': “I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly-- my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives,” (2:3) and “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest .” (2:22,23)
Why is it that sometimes in the middle of the night, the human mind is full of worries or plans or questions, why does it keep on pushing us further in our development? Then there is, “So I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly.” (7:25) As we said, the human mind constantly wants to find out more, to find out why things work as they do – which is exactly what we are doing in these particular meditations.
See this verse above? Solomon actively and purposefully used his mind to try to come up with answers. Why is there a concept of ‘wickedness'? Surely animals are predisposed to do just what comes naturally, to kill, to beat up the weaker ones? Why should we be concerned about the weak? Why should we distinguish between good and evil? How do those concepts even exist? Surely all behaviour is just natural if we just evolved in an accidental and meaningless way? Why should it matter if the Germans murdered 6 million Jews, or one African tribe tries to wipe out another, or one religious group tries to destroy another competitor who think slightly differently in the Middle East? Aren't all these thing just what animals do to each other?
And yet the more we reason the more we feel we are not the master of our fate: “Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come? No man has power over the wind to contain it; so no one has power over the day of his death. As no one is discharged in time of war, so wickedness will not release those who practice it. All this I saw, as I applied my mind to everything done under the sun.” (8:7-9) And his conclusion? “When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe man's labor on earth--his eyes not seeing sleep day or night-- then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.” (8:16,17)
So we have this incredible thing called ‘intellect', this thing a dictionary calls “ the faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively, especially with regard to abstract matters,” this thing that keeps asking, “Why? When he gets to the end of his writing what is his conclusion? “ Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (10:13) How intriguing! Jaded he may be, away from God he may be, but at the end of it all, his questionings bring him back to bow before God. He is not an atheist, just a jaded backslider, but his very existence and the very existence of this book screams out, “We are more than animals, we are more than mere accidents of nature, we demand meaning and purpose, we want answers, and the very fact that we feel like this points us towards a life that has been designed, a life with divine purpose”, and that is what the Bible is all about, revealing that divine purpose. Amazing!
Meditations in Meaning & Values 15: Justice, a Signpost to God
Eccles 3:16,17 And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment--wickedness was there, in the place of justice--wickedness was there. I thought in my heart, "God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked,
In the previous meditation we imagined a man who woke from a lifetime of sleep with no knowledge of this world but a capable mind, and pondered on the clue of his own rational mind in a search for meaning. As we have said a number of times, we simply take these things for granted and the closed-mind evolutionist refuses to think about them because they are uncomfortable for his cause.
But here Solomon comes up with another concept that we take so much for granted and yet is something that distinguishes us and separates us off from all other known living creatures, and it is the concept of justice. It emerges early in life when one child complains to their parent about the way they are being treated and says, “It's not fair; Mary has got more sweets than me,” or “Chris has got a bigger portion of pudding that me, it's not fair!” In both situations there is an appeal to an imaginary ‘fairness'. One dictionary defines fairness as “the quality of treating people equally or in a way that is right or reasonable.” When it comes to ‘justice', dictionaries tend to speak about “just behaviour or treatment” which dodges the issue, but sometimes go on to add, “being fair and reasonable” (back to our children again!) So we look up ‘just' and find, “ behaving according to what is morally right and fair.”
So going round in circles, why do we have this almost innate sense of things needing to be ‘right and fair'? Why should animals (if that is all we are) have this sense? People like Richard Dawkins try to explain it away by talk of needing to survive, but people fight for justice at the risk of their own lives, and some have even given their lives for the sake of justice. That is a hollow argument that just doesn't ring true.
The concept of justice was built into the Law of Moses, for example, “ Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favoritism to a poor man in his lawsuit.” (Ex 23:2,3) and “ Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.” (Ex 23:6,7) and “ Do not pervert justice ; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” (Lev 19:15) and “ Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous. Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the LORD your God is giving you.” (Deut 16:19,20) It was there in the basic law given on Sinai recorded in Exodus, it was there in the added law in Leviticus, and it was there as Moses taught Israel just before they went to enter the Promised Land, in Deuteronomy. It was, positively, an appeal to fairness, an appeal to rightness and, negatively, a cry against showing favouritism or partiality, or bringing false charges or taking bribes to hide the truth.
Solomon had seen injustice – “In the place of judgment--wickedness was there, in the place of justice--wickedness was there,” – and it offended him and, as we have previously noted, still holding an awareness of God (even though not following Him) he declares, “God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked.” He still had this sense that God will judge between justice and injustice, between right and wrong, between righteousness and sin. See? We know the distinctions, don't we! We observe some things and say, “That is wrong!”
With the relativist mind-set so often prevalent in the West in the twenty first century, we fudge things and say you should not judge but it only takes the media to catch a picture of a child on fire or a child dead on a beach and an outcry (rightly) follows. Sometimes it takes something close to us to wake us up and get us shouting for justice. Maybe it is burglars breaking and vandalizing our home while we were away, or maybe it was being mugged in the street. These are the sort of things that have us on the doorstep of the police demanding action. We want justice, we want the perpetrators caught, locked up and punished. It's not fair that they should do this to me and get away with it.
This is justice which hovers in the background of our consciousness, something that goes beyond mere survival. Something has been built into us that distinguishes between right and wrong. There is no logical reason for a pure animal to react in this way. This is more than a survival instinct as we've already noted above, this is something that marks us out in the universe as those who are concerned for our welfare and the welfare of one another, not merely at a survival level but at an even more basic level, of simply wanting “what is right for one another”. This surely is the sign of civilization, this is something that is not just in one or two for in some measure it is in every single one of us from the child demanding more sweets to the holocaust survivor wanting war crimes to be punished.
There can be only one reason we are like this: we are made in the image of God. A number of times in the Bible, God is referred to as a judge and in our verses Solomon says God will bring judgment, meaning a final time of accounting when everyone will have to give account. God knows what is right and what is wrong. In its simplest, right is living according to God's design. Wrong is going against the design. Each one of us inherently knows when we do wrong and have feelings of guilt. Guilt is simply one of the consequences of wrong doing and justice is bringing balance to the equation to put right a wrong in some way. At that final judgment, our final hope is in Jesus and his work on the Cross. That is the ultimate symbol of justice and will be sole reason we ‘get off' and are acquitted of our sins – because Jesus has already paid the sentence for our ‘crimes' against God, our failures, our shortcomings, our sins! Justice has been satisfied. Thank goodness! Thank Jesus!
Meditations in Meaning & Values 16: Love, a Signpost to God
Eccles 3:1,8 There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: …. a time to love and a time to hate,
In the last two meditations we have been looking at the wonder – that we take so much for granted – of being sentient beings who have the capability of being able think, reason, rationalise, plan, strategise, write, compose, design and so on, we have these minds that take us into experiences and abilities seen in no other living creature on earth,. Moreover we have this concept of justice which goes way beyond survival instinct. It is simply a desire to do right by people, a demand for right to be done to me, but then a horrible realisation that I fall short of all demands for justice, and that takes us to the Cross. There is yet another concept, another experience that we human beings have that take us further than the animal kingdom and it is that of love.
What is interesting is that in the writings of Solomon, the word ‘love' appears 24 times in Proverbs, 18 times in the Song of Songs, but only 4 times here in Ecclesiastes, first in our verses above, then “no man knows whether love or hate awaits him,” in 9:1, then “the dead know nothing ….their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished,” in 9:6 and finally “Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love,” in 9:9. In a book devoted to rambling on about his achievements you might have thought that love would feature more prominently but it is almost as is he shies away from it now. The fact that he had “had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines,” might mean that like many young people today his behaviour led him to believe that love is a fleeting mist that holds no reality. You cannot possibly love that number of people. Maybe each new one was an infatuation but that is a very different thing to love.
And that's where we hit the reality of this word. In Greek there were a number of different words for this one word ‘love'. There was sexual love, brotherly companionship love, and there was committed love. It was that committed love that was the description of God, a commitment to think well and do well for the object of that love. Love certainly is a feeling of admiration, deep affection, fondness, tenderness, warmth, intimacy, desire for attachment, endearment; all of these things are part of the package, but the example of God's love shows also faithfulness and absolute commitment. It was absolute commitment to the human race that brought Jesus to the Cross: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” (Jn 3:16) i.e. God was so committed to the world that He gave Jesus. When the apostle John says, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8,16) he means this same committed love. Everything about God is an expression of this sort of committed desire for the well being of its recipients.
This is something that, again, goes well beyond survival for often love prompts people to give their lives for another, whether that is literally dying in the place of another (as Dickens conveyed in the Tale of Two Cities), or it means someone gave up their rights to their own life for the well-being of another loved one. My wife had an uncle who, at the age of seventy, cared for his bedridden and incontinent wife, who was rapidly losing her mind, even failing to recognize him, for the next ten years at home, until she finally passed away. An act of love, committed love.
What is it about this ‘love' that makes a person willing to give up their lives for another? Yes, I believe animal mothers will do similar things to save their babies but I'm not sure it extends beyond that. Why is it that adults will work all hours and night to provide a good education for their children who may later turn on them and abandon them? It is this thing called love. Evolution simply does not explain this; it is one of those embarrassing areas evolutionists tend to shy away from or simply produce hollow words that convince no thinking person.
This concept of love is a pure mystery the more you think about it. Modern Western life, egged on by the media, confuses love with sexual attraction, and then gets very confused. The two TV series Friends and Big Bang Theory both have portrayed exactly this modern confusion as they have portrayed young couples who take a sexual relationship as normal but when talk of marriage or commitment or, yes even love get mention, total confusion reigns! The traditional approach to a long term friendship used to be a) build friendship, b) come to a place of life commitment and then c) complete it with sexual union - an order I still endorse and think anything less is less than God's will and bound for second best.
Did you know that statistically those who cohabit before commitment are three times more likely to break up at some later date than those who don't cohabit first? The modern trend is born out of godlessness and self-centredness (and nothing else!) and makes love a physical expression, but you can so easily tire of this aging person. Real love involves intellect (does this person think like you, do you know the joy of same thinking?), emotions (do you feel for them and with them), will (have you decided and determined to be ‘for them' whatever?) and then finally physical (do you put their physical experience before yours?).
We must move away from marriage guidance for this is about meaning and purpose in life and yet as I have watched people throughout my life, all of these things go to contribute to the ‘meaning package'. I watch individuals who bounce from individual to individual and remain unsatisfied wondering what life is all about, unfulfilled because they have not come round to God's way of thinking yet. I watch couples cohabiting but never ‘quite sure' because they experience insecurity in this fragile godless way of going about life. I watch couples who choose not to have children and remain immature in so many ways (not the same as those who long for children but cannot have them; strangely that experience brings maturity!).
All of these ways that are alternatives to God's design leave the individual unsatisfied, still seeking meaning and purpose, still unfulfilled. Then I come across this couple (believer or not) who years back committed themselves to each other come hell or high water (all right, through sickness or health, richer or poorer) and there they are in old age still holding hands, still smiling knowingly at each other having gone through life learning more and more about each other – including their faults, foibles and failings – and therefore time and again recommitting themselves to each other, and the end is beautiful to behold. This is love. This is God's design. There is no other way of explaining it.
Meditations in Meaning & Values 17: Inquisitiveness
Ex 3:1-3 Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, "I will go over and see this strange sight--why the bush does not burn up."
I our search for meaning and purpose, questions arise such as “Who are we, why are we like this?” The human race is a mystery to many, denigrated and lowered to the level of mere animals by some and elevated to gods by others. Both are wrong. David asked God in one of his psalms, “ what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.” (Psa 8:4,5) Why do you care for man, he asked, for we are lower than the angelic beings and yet you make us carriers of your glory? That was revelation! We may be less than angels but we are greater than animals and we carry the glory of God because we are made in His likeness (Gen 1:26,27). Now animals can be inquisitive but not to the measure or extent that we find in human beings, There, I have given away where we are going!
As I was praying this morning without a clue where to go next, this picture of Moses arose in my mind. As with so much in the Bible I suspect we take for granted what happened in the first three verses of Ex 3 because in a sense it is so normal. Something odd happens so Moses goes to have a look. Have you ever been on the motorway or freeway when there's been an accident on the other side and your side slows right down? Why does your side slow down? It is because everyone wants to have a look. Or there is a fire nearby and everyone rushes out to see it. Wherever there some such similar incident, there will always be a crowd. Why? Because we are inquisitive, we want to see, we want to know.
What is it that drives great research on? There may be money factors in say the motor industry designing new hi-tec cars, and there may be the desire to beat a disease in medical laboratories, but deep down there is this something that wants to see where we can go with this, to see what is possible. It took a James Dyson to pull the rug out from Hoover who had for so many years dominated the carpet cleaning industry, Dyson who thought differently and came up with a machine that is now copied by so many others. Animals don't ‘think outside the box', they don't invent, create, design, compose. All of these things, that we have noted before which are expressions of being made in the image of God, come from the human mind wanting to push out the boundaries, go somewhere different, do something differently. How we take this for granted.
But this doesn't happen to just great inventors or composers. Next time you are sitting in your living room envisaging changing the décor or knocking down a wall to, as the Americans say, remodel your home, you are doing this same thing. Next time you are sitting in your garden (or back yard as again my American friends say) and you find yourself imagining a pergola or a greenhouse or a climber trailing up over a wall, or a new vegetable plot, you're doing this same thing again. You are acting as one made in the image of God, ruling over the world He gave you (Gen 1:28).
But the same thing is there in the spiritual sphere. I think the classic example is that of young Jonathan, son of King Saul. They have constant trouble with the Philistines and there is a Philistine outpost looking out over the valley where Jonathan happens to be with his armour bearer, and so Jonathan looks up and wonders. He turns to his armour bearer and expresses his wondering, “Come, let's go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised fellows. Perhaps the LORD will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, whether by many or by few.” (1 Sam 14:6) i.e. let's go and confront the enemy and see what God might do. I like it!
Before I retired from full-time church leadership, I used to let it be known in the church if that anyone had any new idea they wanted to try, we'd back them. If it flourished it was God; if it died within three months it was just a good idea, but nothing lost. Why did I do that? Because the people of God are the body of Christ and God can speak to any of us and inspire new works in whoever might have an open heart. Sadly many of us settle and we miss so much of what could be. The Holy Spirit is part of a creative Trinity and God is a Creator and we are made in His image.
The thing about creators – take artists for example – they are never satisfied with just one thing, they are constantly looking to do something new. When God does something ‘new' it is simply the next phase in His long-held plan to bless the world. Through Isaiah the Lord said, “See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you." (Isa 42:9) i.e. if you stick with me I'll show you through my prophets the next things I am rolling out in my big plan! Later He was to say, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland,” (Isa 43:19) as He revealed His next phase in bringing life to spiritually dry and thirsty land.
You see the trouble is that so often we let the failures put us off. I tried but it didn't work, or I shared Jesus but they didn't want to know, and so we give up and we lay down that inquisitiveness that wants to push on and take new ground and we allow Satan to make us passive and deny that aspect of our God-image. I had a friend with a good saying: “Win some, lose some!” Things change by people who are not afraid of failure. Let that inquisitiveness push you on.
Do you ever find yourself saying, “Lord what are you doing today? Is there something you have for me to join in?” Remember Jesus said, “My Father is always at his work,” (Jn 5:17a) and so “and I, too, am working .” (Jn 5:17b) Isn't that amazing! God is ALWAYS doing something, He is constantly on the go, constantly pushing on with Hs long-term plans.
So dare to dream, dare to pray, something new. Who knows that you might find, and may this particular ‘burning bush' turn you from the normal hum-drum to the exciting life of new things that God wants for us and has designed us to handle.
Meditations in Meaning & Values 18. Creativity
Ex 32:1-6 Then the LORD said to Moses, "See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts-- to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship. Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, to help him. Also I have given skill to all the craftsmen to make everything I have commanded you:
We have been considering some of the things that make us human, some of the things that separate us from the animals. When we come to reflect upon creativity we find ourselves really treading on holy ground for what we see as artistic or creative expression is nothing like the instinctive senses that, say a bird has to form a beautiful nest. No, the puzzle about human creativity is why we do it when so often it has no value in sustaining us, it is not something to do with survival and often the end product may not be seen by the rest of the world.
It is interesting that the very first reference in the Bible to anyone being filled with the Spirit is in our verses above and is to enable them to be highly creative. Now there are clues earlier in the Bible about creativity: “ His brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play the harp and flute. Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron.” Gen 4:21,22) Here we have reference to one early on who made music but to do that you have first to create instruments. But then there were those who worked in bronze and iron to make tools. In all these things there is a sense of creativity.
And so now we come to this important time in the life of Israel when the Lord instructs them to make a large tent, the Tabernacle, which is to become the place of meeting between God and Israel. Now there is nothing purely functional about this tent because consider the end product of the work of the two men mentioned and their team of workers: “artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship.”
So, note the content of these verses. First, God chooses this man, Bezalel. Second, He fills him with His Holy Spirit. Third, the reason for this is so that the creative power and wisdom of the Trinity (as a Creator God) will impart “skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts,” to do the work we just saw above.
Now when Moses reminds Israel about all this, he adds, “He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as craftsmen, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers--all of them master craftsmen and designers.” (Ex 35:35) and moreover “he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others.” (Ex 35:34) These were the first art teachers, and the description of their work being taught in v.35 would fill the curriculum of an Art College. These verses in chapters 32 and 35 are rich with artistic creativity. God could have had them form a very basic and very plain tent, but He didn't. He enabled these two men and the team that they trained up to create the most beautiful of objects.
I believe every single human being is made in the image of the Creator God that you and I worship. This is irrespective of whether or not they are a believer. They are a human being and therefore they are made in the image of God and reflect His creative flair. I suspect that many of us have this creativity knocked out of us. I was recently talking with an artist in middle age and she told me how as a child she had wanted to move in artistic ways but her mother wanted her to “have a proper job” and so it wasn't until very recently that she allowed that creative nature to rise up within her again. Sadly this is the truth for many of us but fortunately there are sufficient numbers who do express their creative side that they remind us of this side of life.
I know a man who is a leading gemologist and works with precious stones. He also works with diamonds and gold and silver and platinum and sells beautiful jewelry. I know a girl who, in the past few years, has trained as a silversmith and now creates the most beautiful necklace pieces. It's not just about money. What is it about us that thrills at the wonder of beauty in artistic things. My friend the jeweler once showed me different qualities of diamond rings and I stood there with my mouth open as he showed me rings that were more and more amazing.
I recently talked with an artist who said that if you are an artist, you just can't help it coming out of you. I watch people in various art groups and marvel at the variety and wonder of their creations. They are not making them for money, but just for pleasure. How is that? My atheist friends say we only do things for evolutionary survival. These paintings, drawings, sculpted works of art contribute nothing to survival. I have a wife who knits, partly to provide clothes for the grandchildren, partly to raise money for charities but largely for pleasure.
I once asked a middle aged housewife, if you could put aside the past, put aside all financial considerations and put aside everything people have told you that you can't do, what inner yearning is there in you, what would you like to create? She said very simply, I would like to write children's books. Creativity! What is your creative hidden inner yearning? Don't say nothing. It may be you have had it knocked out of you, but you are still made in the image of our Creator God. Dare you ask Him to reveal to you, that hidden inner desire? Is it to write, to compose, to knit, to crochet, to work in wood or stone or textiles or to paint or draw? What is there in you that the Lord wants to bring out to bless you and to bless His world with?
Meditations in Meaning & Values 19. Reaching Potential (1)
Gen 49:1 Then Jacob called for his sons and said: "Gather around so I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come. "Assemble and listen, sons of Jacob; listen to your father Israel .
In our human experience we talk about reaching potential which is all about change for improvement until we apparently achieve the most we are capable of.. That is what the world says. And then we come to the Bible and we find God constantly changing people and the sceptic says, “He obviously doesn't like us as we are,” but the believer says, “He loves us so much He has got something better for us than we have at the moment. To reach potential, the world says work harder, try harder, train harder, but in the spiritual sphere, in God's kingdom it works very differently.
To understand why it works so differently imagine a young ambitious man. He studies hard and gets two degrees. He gets a great job and takes every opportunity for improvement taking in-house and out-sourced courses. He works all hours of day and night and quickly climbs the latter of success. By his mid-forties he is at the top of the pile, a celebrity success, and everyone applauds him for his achievements, well almost everyone. But consider the rest of his life. He is self-centred and proud. He gets snappy and angry with less than perfect underlings. He drinks too much and by his shape obviously has too many business lunches and if he only knew it was lining up for a heart attack – but he is successful. His wife rarely sees him and when they go on exotic holidays it is like going away with a stranger. He is a stranger to his three kids; we could say a lot more about them but this is about him. He is a success, remember, in the eyes of the world, so much so that he is being talked about as being the next Government appointee for a major public organisation. The only trouble is that Jesus parable of the man building ever bigger barns (Lk 12) is about to come true and his life is about to hang in the balance – but he is a success!
So success can be measured by a variety of different standards, not all of them good. There are two men, one in the Old Testament and one in the New who have always stood out to me. The first is Jacob in the Old Testament. His very name means twister, or grabber, or cheat, and those descriptions sum up what his early life was like. He was a schemer, a plotter, a guy who was always looking to get the good for himself. But he overstepped the mark and ended up having to leave home before his twin brother killed him (Gen 27,28). He took off for a distant land where an uncle lived. On the way he had a dream and saw a ladder and angels ascending to heaven and descending from heaven, and then the Lord promising him all the land of what we now call Canaan .
Jacob's response is typical: “ When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it." He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven." Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel , though the city used to be called Luz. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, " If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father's house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”. (Gen 28:16-21) First he recognised that he had had a divine encounter. Second, he made a conditional vow. If God looks after me, he can be my God.”
In the years that follow Jacob, living with his scheming uncle, prospers and ends up with four wives and incredibly rich. He determines to return home. On the way home intriguingly he sees angels (Gen 32:1) and then sends messenger ahead to him to say he is coming. In response the messengers return and say that his brother is coming to meet him – accompanied by 400 men! Esau has obviously also prospered or is very influential locally for this number of men to come with him, but why is he coming? Is it to wreak revenge on Jacob? Jacob is fearful and divides his group into two to at least save half of them (Gen 32:7,8). He then prays a remarkable prayer that acknowledges his plight and seeks God's help (Gen 32:9-12). He then separates out gifts for Esau from each of his herds – goats, camels, cows and donkeys, with big gaps between them. He aims to impress and appease Esau. He is still scheming. He sends his family to a place of safety and is left alone.
It is then that we find the most strange incident in Jacob's life occurring. A man comes and wrestles with him throughout the night but is not able to get Jacob to surrender. We find the following: “When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak." But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." The man asked him, "What is your name?" "Jacob," he answered. Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel , because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome." Jacob said, "Please tell me your name." But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared." (Gen 32:25-30) The man, Jacob comes to realise is God. When Jacob won't surrender to him God puts his hip out of joint, but still Jacob won't let go – until God blesses him. God changes his name from twister (Jacob) to father of many ( Israel ) and then blesses him, but not before He has got Jacob to acknowledge his name, and acknowledge what he is like. The end product of this – Jacob in old age – is an old man relying upon God, honouring his inheritance and prophesying over all his twelve sons. He is now a man of God. He is a mighty patriarch even honoured by the powerful pharaoh of Egypt .
What were the ingredients that changed this man from a scheming twister to a man of God? He met with God, wrestled with God, was made to face his character and live in weakness with a limp for the rest of his life. Every Christian wrestles with the Holy Spirit as an unbeliever until they come to a point of surrender and can then receive God's salvation – but we have to acknowledge what we are like and what is our need before that cane happen. The life that follows is one where weakness (acknowledging our incapability but God's capability) opens the way for blessing. We'll say some more in the next meditation when we consider ‘the other man'.
Meditations in Meaning & Values 20. Reaching Potential (2)
Jn 1:42 Jesus looked at him and said, "You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas" (which, when translated, is Peter)
In the previous meditation we talked about reaching potential which is all about change for improvement until we apparently achieve the most we are capable of. We observed how people in the world think of success, wealth and fame as the measures of achievement, but that these are poor measures. We looked at the case of Jacob in the Old Testament, a classic example of a schemer who became very ‘successful' – but still a schemer and how he had a wrestling encounter with God in which God made him weak and made him face the reality of who he was, before he was blessed by God. Weakness and being honest about ourselves are two critical requirements to enable a person to come to the end of themselves so that God is able to work in them to enable them to become the people He has designed them to be, and that is someone much greater than the hollow businessman, politician or rock star or whatever else we see as ‘a success'. Reaching full potential can ONLY come with an encounter with God.
I said previously that there were two men who I felt stood out in this context and the other man, in the New Testament is the apostle Peter. Now Jesus chose Peter and it is obvious that Peter became one of the leading apostles with Jesus over the three years of Jesus' ministry. Peter was the one who was always opening his mouth and putting his foot in it. The good side of that was that he obviously felt secure in Jesus' presence and Jesus handled Peter's brashness with grace.
The classic of Peter's brashness comes at the Last Supper when Jesus warns Peter about what was soon to happen: “ Peter replied, "Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will." "I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times." But Peter declared, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you." (Mt 26:33-35) This is simply called unknowing self-confidence. Peter does not know himself, but Jesus does.
The story of what followed is well known. Jesus is arrested and taken to the high priest Caiaphas, while Peter followed at a distance and waited in a courtyard of the high priest's palace. While he was waiting there, in the middle of the night, three times one of the maids there recognized him and challenged him and tree times he denied he knew Jesus. Fear made him a liar and a betrayer. Luke records a poignant part of it: “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter . Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: "Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times." And he went outside and wept bitterly.” (Lk 22:61,62) It was like Jesus saw what was going on and gave Peter a knowing look. Peter was devastated and fled in tears, broken.
Now here's the thing about that episode. Back at the Last Supper, Jesus, knowing what was going to happen and knowing how Peter would be involved, could have spared him that failure; he could have said, “Peter, I have a task for you. After I am taken I want you to come back here and pray for me,” but he didn't. Peter needed to go through that episode to break him of all his self confidence and to make him realise what he was really like inside, a loud mouthed but weak individual.
Now John allows us an amazing insight into Jesus' dealing with Peter after his resurrection. We find it in Jn 21 where three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” In comes in slightly different forms and Peter's replies are, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." (J 21:15), “ Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." (v.16) and “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you." (v.17) The old Peter would have protested with more words but the new Peter has no fight before Jesus and his final statement is one of utter surrender and abasement: “You know all things,” i.e. you know I let you down, you know what I'm like, you know I'm rubbish. And the work is complete. Three times Jesus recommissions him. This failure is about to become the leader of the new church.
So how do we apply these two stories? Is your life one characterized by your clever planning and scheming? Are you completely self confident? Or have you come to the point of realizing that in reality, without Jesus you are a spiritual and moral mess? If you haven't ever come to that reality, even if you've been a Christian many years, you've still got that ahead of you. ‘Great' Christians are those who have come to realise that without Jesus they are still weak, hopeless and useless and prone to getting it wrong, and almost certainly they will have come to that realization through a crisis.
‘Wrestling with God' occurs before you become a Christian and is what the Holy Spirit does with you to bring you to surrender, and it may involve a personal crisis. It happens again, almost invariably, at some later time in our Christian lives when these truths really confront us and we surrender in a new and deeper way, I believe. And then we come to realise that every time our thinking is in conflict with God's we go through a wrestling process, but so often it is so low key that we hardly realise it, but it will go on and on, until we change.
This is the process for reaching full potential, only when we fully surrender and let Him work in us to bring us to become what He has on His heart for us. Why doesn't He tell us what it is right now to make it easy? First, we wouldn't believe Him because it would appear to be too good to be true. Second, because it take a process and a process takes time. It took years to change Abram. It took years to change Joseph. It took years to change Jacob. It took years to change Moses….. and so on. Why is God doing it in you? Because He loves you, because, “the Lord disciplines those he loves,” (Heb 12:6) and the word discipline here means trains, works on to bring good out and to bless. Hallelujah!
Meditations in Meaning & Values 21. Process
2 Cor 3:18 And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit
In the last meditation we spoke about reaching full potential which, we said, only comes when we fully surrender and let God work in us to bring us to become what He has on His heart for us. The problem is that when it comes to understanding the world and more specifically my part in it, we want it now and we are impatient to have understanding now. We spoke briefly about the years it took to change Abram, Joseph, Jacob and Moses and we did use the word ‘process', but we didn't really think about it beyond that and yet this concept of process is vital to understand as a Christian is you are not to suffer frustration.
The truth is that the Christian life seems to come in crisis moments followed by long periods of gradual change. For instance it was a crisis when you were converted and everything seemed to change all at once – except you came to realise there was an even bigger, more long-term work beginning which would carry on for the rest of your life. That life-long process of change is called sanctification. You were sanctified when you were saved and you are being sanctified for the rest of your life.
Simply observe a human life growing up into a bigger baby and then into a toddler and then a young child, and so on. If you are a parent you will be especially aware of that. Now if it happens in the physical world, why are we surprised that it happens in the spiritual world.
Thus Solomon in Proverbs wrote, “ The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.” (Prov 4:18) In that he was acknowledging that our live constantly change and he used the picture of the rising sun to convey a very positive change that takes place in us. The apostle Paul used a very similar picture to convey the same truth in New Testament terms as we see in our verse above: “we …. are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory.”
Now both of these pictures convey a gradual change. It doesn't happen all at once; it take time for it is a slow and gradual process. This is what frustrates us when we don't understand the ways of God. God takes time because He knows that for any change to take place in you in any real measure, it has to take time. An oak tree doesn't shoot up from an acorn in the ground in one day. It doesn't form a strong trunk and branches in once day. Leaves don't form and come out in one day. It takes months and years. Although it flies against that ‘instant' or ‘must have it mow' mentality of the twenty first century, it won't happen.
Now this is made more complex for the Christian because the Lord may have spoken a prophetic word into you early on in life – and you are still waiting for it to be fulfilled. In the previous two meditations we considered the lives of Jacob and Peter, noting the crisis they each had to go through. Often the process of change is simply worked out in the ordinary everyday events of life – learning to cope with the boring and humdrum as well as with the busy and active, learning to cope with people, learning to cope with time or money pressures, all these things work to change us. But then there are also the crisis moments when our sovereignty is challenged and we have to see it must be handed over to God.
Now for so many of these changes to be brought about in us, there are two necessary ingredients in this material existence. They are time and events. I was sitting and pondering this in respect of changes in our church life the other day and found myself asking the Lord, “Lord why aren't the changes that I know you want coming about?” His answer was, I believe, we are waiting for circumstances of change. i.e. the circumstances were not conducive to change. When everything is going smoothly, people are content to stay as they are. It is often only as things get difficult that people cry out for God to come and bring change.
The need to wait for circumstances to change is aptly revealed in the story of David. David was a shepherd boy but one day the judge and prophet Samuel turned up and anointed him to be king. The only difficulty was that there already was a king, Saul, and he was so insecure he wouldn't tolerate any thought of a successor. So David carried on looking after his father's sheep – a king (in God's eyes) looking after sheep. Who does that remind you of? Circumstances meant that David ended up at the battle front where the warrior spirit within him meant him killing a giant (Goliath) and obtaining fame. He was taken into the king's service but after a while the king's jealousy meant that David had to flee or be killed. This resulted in him on the run from Saul, even having to take refuge with the enemy and even feigning madness at one point to survive – but he's still God's anointed. It is only when Saul dies in battle that the way is open for David to come forward as his successor, and then only initially as king over the southern part of the kingdom and it took a further seven years to become king over all Israel . In the process David was changed.
Very often we want instant understanding but we are called to live by faith and not by sight (2 Cor 5:7) and understanding only comes more fully (not completely) with the passing of time and life-changing circumstances. Very often we think God is concerned with how well we perform the tasks He puts before us, but in reality He is more concerned about how we are changing into the likeness of His Son. That is the crucial issue. We need understanding but we also need patience and perseverance. The promise will come.
Meditations in Meaning & Values 22. Goals
Phil 3:14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
We have been considering the idea of us reaching to our potential in life and then that life is a process, a series of changes flowing on, one from the other, and it is going somewhere, and it is that ‘somewhere' that we want to look at in a little more detail now, although we are aware it has been on the periphery of our thinking a number of times in these meditations.
Again we are aware that you may be thinking, but all these things are so obvious, so why are we bothering with them? It is because they are so obvious that we need to pause over them and reflect upon them for our great danger is that we take them for granted and fail to see and rejoice in wonder of the world and the life that the Lord has given us. So let's recap or try to summarise as simply as possible where we have just got to. Life is made up of a constant series of changes which take time and for us human beings those changes have historically been talked of as ‘three score and ten', although today people are indeed living on average a lot longer than seventy years. But life is a flow of changes, culminating eventually in death.
Solomon kept of facing this conundrum, what is life about when everything we do is eventually swallowed up by death? For example at one point he says, “ The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both.” (Eccles 2:14) i.e. the wise and the foolish both have the same end, so he thought to himself, “What then do I gain by being wise?” (v.15) A little later he writes, “Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal.” (Eccles 3:19) Even later he writes, “Naked a man comes from his mother's womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand.” (Eccles 5:15). All of this process that we have been considering, as much as it may improve and change us so that we achieve our potential, simply changes nothing, we will all eventually die. Thus the goal of this life can appear to the person thinking “under the sun” as very negative. What's the point if all that is going to happen is that we are going to die and be forgotten. That's where Solomon got to and where many people today get to.
This thought of an end goal, although we have briefly considered it before, needs further thought. What is our answer as Christians? What is the meaning or purpose in life if all that happens is that eventually it ends in death? (Yes, I know we have been here before but we are seeing it in the bigger context of working to achieve potential and working in the midst of a process.) There are two important conclusions to these questions. Very simply, the process is important and then end goal is important.
Let's consider the verses that come before our verse above: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called.” (Phil 3:10-14) The very nature of the apostle Paul's life meant that he was in a hot-house situation where reality was something which confronted him more than most. As a result, he looks at all he has learned and experienced in life so far and concludes that he simply wants to know God's power through Christ, a power that will raise him from the dead, and in the meantime while he is waiting for that the best he can do is press on – do all he can – to get to that ultimate goal.
The ultimate goal was a primary factor in how he now lived. We spoke previously about sanctification, being changed into Christ's likeness and later Paul is able to write, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Phil 4:11-13) We considered being content in an earlier meditation, and Paul shows it as a sign of rest in God's purposes. Because this was so important to Paul he challenged those he wrote to, to also be heavenly minded because heaven is both our present resource and our future destination: “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.” ( Col 3:1,2) When we focus on heaven it brings a new meaning to our present activities, a new purpose to life and to our end goals, to what our future potential might be.
We pondered recently on the problem of waiting, for these things not to be blindingly clear at the moment, of living in a ‘waiting mentality'. The prophet Hosea addressed this when he said, “Let us acknowledge the LORD; let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth." (Hos 6:3) Meaning in the present comes clear when we make God the focus of our lives. Meaning for the future becomes clear when we make God the focus of our lives. Process and goal are wrapped together by this attitude. Instead of becoming so heavenly minded as to be no earthly use, as some have said when we focus on God, we find we become more fruitful in terms of blessing God's world today, and we stride forward more purposefully with heads held high to achieve whatever God has for us. The excitement of today and tomorrow is that God has yet more to input to my life, more than I received yesterday and the days before. The process is ongoing with the blessing of God upon it, no longer meaningless drudgery, but receiving all of the goodness He has for me, to bless me, to change me, to use me, and as that happens day after day, we will be working nearer and nearer the potential He has for me on this world and then the next. Hallelujah!
Meditations in Meaning & Values 23: Memory
Isa 44:21 Remember these things, O Jacob, for you are my servant, O Israel . I have made you, you are my servant; O Israel , I will not forget you.
As we span the human spectrum of knowledge and experience in a quest for meaning, memory is one of those features that stirs interest and excitement. What is memory? Why do we have it, for what purpose? These are simple questions but they open up a field of interest. It is another of those things that seems so simple and so obvious we mostly take it for granted – until it starts failing and then we realise its immense value.
Memory is simply the ability to recall what has gone before. We have cited one verse above where God refers to His own memory and calls Israel to use their memory. The call to remember comes often in the scriptures and in a variety of forms. When Isaiah cries, “ To the law and to the testimony!” (Isa 8:20) it is a cry to remember the Law of Moses given centuries before and the testimony of Israel about God's dealings with them. Remembering those two things was to be an anchor that held them.
If my evolutionary atheist friend is right, then how incredible that at some point in a million year space some cells in the most primitive of creatures started forming threads to carry electrical currents in a load of other cells eventually to be called a brain, that enabled the creature to ‘remember' almost instinctively what ‘food' was and where it might be found. You can do anything with an odd million years or so. But we cannot imagine even the earliest hunter gatherer not having memory so he knew where to return to collect the remains of a bison or whatever it was after his initial trip home after hunting. How far we have advanced so that we are capable today of taking in and remembering millions of facts before the awarding body will grant us, say, a degree.
I don't know how true it is, but I imagine a new born baby's mind is almost like a blank slate (except it is not because already it has deep memory of things experienced in the womb) but from the moment is born it starts to learn and each step in learning is built upon the previous one – it remembers things and builds on them. It learns that there are prohibitions in life (don't take your sister's toys) and that there are sanctions (or you will end up on the naughty spot, as modern discipline requires) and it remembers next time not to do it or if they do it, they risk the sanctions. We learn that it is wrong to murder and most of us don't do it, initially at least, because murderers used to be executed and now get put in prison for a long time. All these things we remember and what we remember influences how we behave.
Whole schools of learning are built on this, the ability to memorize the effects of rewards and punishments. We recognize that pain or unpleasant things can strongly influence our future behaviour yet even within this there are dangers that we respond too negatively to such things. A friend from many years ago, when we were both in our early twenties, turned up on me one evening and poured out how his finance had broken off with him. He was in great anguish and in his tears said, “I will never let anyone ever get that close to me again; it is too painful.” He inflicted himself with a curse and I have watched with sadness over the years how that worked out. Memory can be very painful and sometimes it can only be the Lord who can comfort us and heal up the hurt. Yes, time they say heals, but actually it simply means we squash the pain with things that subsequently happen and try to forget it, but it is still there deep down and although our conscious mind may have forgotten it, our subconscious mind will not have forgotten it. It needs the loving ministry of Jesus to take it on the Cross.
Some of us use a poor memory as an excuse for repetitions of poor behaviour, but such an excuse does not hold water with God. One of my favourite quotes, a slightly quirky and not always true quote, is ‘the one thing history teaches us is that history teaches us nothing'. i.e. so often we just don't learn from our mistakes. When you observe the history of Israel in the Old Testament you would have thought they would learn from their past mistakes and from their wonderful testimony with God, but they didn't. The truth is, sadly, that with the passing of time we forget the reality of the lesson learned and every new generation has to learn these things afresh.
This is probably the reason that the Lord gave a variety of ways for Israel , and now us, to be reminded of things that had happened. For instance in the Old Testament the clue comes in the phrase “And when your children ask,” which in Exodus 12 flows on, “And when your children ask you, ` What does this ceremony mean to you?' then tell them, `It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.” (Ex 12:26,27) The ongoing ceremony each year pointed to the past deliverance. We find a similar thing later on with Joshua: “Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future , when your children ask you , `What do these stones mean? ' tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan , the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.” The stones were to be a reminder of the miraculous crossing of the Jordon.
In the New Testament we find the apostle Paul recording, “The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me ." In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me ." For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.” (1 Cor 11:23-26) Communion, the Last Supper or whatever we may call it, is a regular reminder of the basics of the Gospel that Jesus died to save us from our sins and form a body to continue his life and work.
Calls to remember come frequently in the New Testament. Jesus had to challenge his disciples to remember (Mt 16:8-12, Jn 15:20, Jn 16:4), the angels had to challenge them to remember what Jesus had taught before his death and resurrection (Lk 24:6-8), the apostles challenged us, their readers, to remember various things (Heb 13:16, 2 Pet 3:8,9). In the face of temptation we are called to remember who we are. In the face of doctrinal challenge we are to remember the apostolic teaching. Memory is a vital part of human life and even more so of the life of the Christian. Remember this!
Meditations in Meaning & Values 24: Accountability
Deut 18:17-19 The LORD said to me: "What they say is good. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account .
We are, just in case you had forgotten, looking at aspects of life that impact upon meaning, how the world works, how we work. It is interesting that in the Bible the word ‘account' is usually used to mean a recitation of events, of a person's story so when for instance, to take the first use of it in the Bible, we find, “ This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created,” (Gen 2:4) it means this is the story of how it came about. But then we find verses like those above where it means that a person will have to tell their story to God and explain why they did wrong and then (by implication) take the consequences of their actions. We are not shielded from the consequences of our wrong actions.
Now here is the principle: actions have consequences. I know I have said this many, many times in this series but we take these things so much for granted that we miss the wonder or the warning. I must be getting near the end of considering these things and get ready to move on to values, so let's state it again, meaning is about understanding the significance of how things work. When we talk about grappling with ‘the meaning of life' we are talking about understanding the dynamics of this world and what it is all about.
Understanding consequences is fundamental to learning and as we've said in various ways through this series, life is about learning and changing. A child understands that some things cause pain – touching a hot pan, picking a nettle – and pain is unpleasant and is to be avoided next time! That is learning from the consequences. We live in a cause and effect world.
Do you see how God has made this world and made us? Pain and pleasure do teach us. Long back we spoke about boundaries and pain warns us that here is a boundary not to be crossed. Pleasure tells us that here is something that invites us, but we learn that even in that we have to be careful for excess use can be harmful; there are consequences, for example, of over eating, or over drinking.
Consequences are fundamental to understanding the world in which we live, a Fallen World. God said to Adam and Eve, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." (Gen 2:16,17) The consequences of disobedience were clearly spelled out and when they were disobedient it all worked out as God had said.
But consequences can be very positive. Moses taught, “See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, (action) 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, (consequence) who will hear about all these decrees and say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people." (Deut 4:5,6)
Jesus prayed a similar thing: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, (action) that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us (consequence) so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (Jn 17:20,21) Remember earlier I spoke about understanding the wonder and the warning. These were two of the wonders of what can be.
But consequences can also be negative. Moses went on to teach, “After you have had children and grandchildren and have lived in the land a long time - (bad actions) if you then become corrupt and make any kind of idol, doing evil in the eyes of the LORD your God and provoking him to anger, I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you this day that (bad consequences) you will quickly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess. You will not live there long but will certainly be destroyed. The LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the LORD will drive you.” (Deut 4:25-27) That was actually a prophecy and it was fulfilled in the days of Nebuchadnezzar and the fall of Jerusalem in 587BC. The consequences of wrong behaviour had been spelled out to Israel and therefore they had no excuse for it. Moreover the Lord reiterated His warnings of the consequences of their wrong behaviour again and again and again through His prophets.
If we are people in the West with easy access to a Bible, none of us have any excuse. The Bible lays it all out so clearly. The warnings are there so clear and one of the forms they come in is through laws given by God. So that is the clue that we need to move on to start considering values. In the meantime, think some more about this most basic of ways the world works, because it affects every single one of us – every day!