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Category: Blog Posts

Learning from Lockdown

After more than three months, lockdown is starting to lift – for some, at least. If we had our own building, we would now be able to open it for individual prayer, and we’d be starting to make plans for a socially-distanced return to meeting in person. As it is, while we’re actively monitoring the situation and thinking ahead, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to meet at the primary school before the start of the new school year. This gives us time to stop and think: when we do return, what will we have learned? What might we do differently, or not do at all?

If we look to the churches of Acts for our model, we see what they considered to be the basics of being a church:

  • Meeting together in close unity1the Greek word (κοινωνία) is variously translated as participation, fellowship and contribution – clearly this is deeply-rooted friendship, not just waving at a distance!
  • Listening to and learning from the teaching of the apostles
  • Eating together in each other’s homes, during which time they would break bread
  • Praying together
  • Praising God
  • Sharing resources with other believers according to need
  • Serving each other in the way God had gifted them
  • Receiving and responding to the words and work of the Holy Spirit
  • New believers being baptised in water and in the Holy Spirit (usually simultaneously2We do read of some believers in Acts 8 who have received baptism in water, but not in the Spirit; also, in Acts 10, we see believers filled with the Spirit who are then subsequently baptised in water)

If we look beyond Acts to the letters of the New Testament, we might add to this:

  • Confessing sins to one another3Not just to God: see James 5, 1 John 1
  • Hospitality – communally welcoming and providing for visiting believers
  • Actively overcoming difference (status, race, conscience) in love, forgiveness and mutual submission (to each other and to elders)
  • Having a care for the community’s spiritual health (encouraging love and good deeds, rejecting false teaching, guarding each other’s morality)
  • Giving generously to support church-planting and “spiritual parents”4Whether Paul was the first on the scene or whether he arrived and found believers already, he seems to have assumed a role of “spiritual father” to the church, and refers to himself as such
  • Receiving input from people beyond the local church – those received as “spiritual parents” in multiple churches
  • Being a place where unbelievers can experience true faith

What does this mean for our own fellowship? It’s great to see plenty there that’s familiar, because we’re already doing it. However, with this chance to pause and reshape, what should change? Is there an opportunity to simplify what we do? Here are a few of my early thoughts – and I’d love to hear yours.

One reflection is that our Zoom meetings end with “breakout rooms”, in which we don’t choose who we are put with, but chat and pray with a random selection of people. As a result, I am sure some people have talked to others who they would not normally have spoken to in a typical month of meetings in person. I wonder how we can capture some of that in how we meet in future: how could we change our setup to avoid sitting with the same people each week? There is the potential for closer fellowship if we think this through. Zoom has also partially levelled the playing field of those who make friends easily and those who are shy; of those who are gregarious and those who live alone. I am sure that we can do more to make the fellowship a true family for those who do not have family nearby. I’m particularly keen to hear from people in this situation – how can we be a better family to you?

The early church seems to have been in the habit of eating together very frequently – possibly daily. It also seems that they broke bread in this context: bread and wine were the major components of a meal, so the breaking of bread would normally have been a shared meal – a very special one, shared only by those who had faith in Christ. We read that they broke bread in each other’s homes, which introduces the aspect of hospitality. When we return to meeting in person, I wonder whether we ought to break bread more often than monthly, and whether we might find some way to connect it with offering hospitality in our homes.

I am struck that we have no regular practice of confessing our sins to each other. Last Sunday, it was great to have Gordon leading us in confessing our sins to God – however, that in itself was a rarity. I am not sure I’ve ever been in a church where confession to one another was part of a Sunday meeting, but I have certainly been in churches where there is a strong expectation that we do this in smaller groups midweek. We should think about where it does fit at WCC, and how we can commend it to everyone.

In a regular Sunday morning at the school, how much of our time do we spend listening? It was clearly the expectation of the early church that God would speak to them as they met – and that they would then weigh those words and respond to them accordingly. We have seen this process be very fruitful recently in deciding what to do about Holiday Club this summer, and it has led to strong decision-making and deep peace about the outcome. Acts sees these words of knowledge, words of wisdom and prophecies bringing correction, guidance, and encouragement, and Paul says that they’re a necessary tool for building up the body of Christ. When we start to gather again in person, I wonder how we can make space for people to reflect on what they think God is saying to our congregation, and to share it if they do? As something that is not part of our regular practice, this won’t simply start happening spontaneously, so we’ll have to consciously make space for it. I’m keen that we do so!

Lastly, we had to postpone plans to baptise some of our young people a few weeks into lockdown – and I look forward to returning to that later in the year. I would love to see new people being baptised both in water and in the Holy Spirit on a regular basis – those who are new to faith, but also anyone who has not yet received either baptism.

I have picked out a few reflections, and would be interested to hear yours. You can leave comments below – why not think, pray, and ask yourself what we could do differently when we return to meeting together in person?

We want perfection

Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Jesus announced good news to the world – and that good news was that “the Kingdom of God is near”. This is one of a series of posts about ways in which our society is longing for the Kingdom of God, although it doesn’t realise it yet. My hope is that they will provide a basis for conversations with friends, relatives and neighbours – and perhaps a gentle provocation to some readers who do not follow Jesus, too. You can see the original post, with links to others in the series, here.

What is the most offensive part of the Gospel to a Western audience? If you’d asked me ten years ago, I’d have been pretty confident that it was the idea of sin – that there was an absolute standard out there with the authority to judge our actions. However, this is shifting – my wife Caroline first noticed this a few years back on an Alpha course, when someone expressed utter disgust at the idea of God forgiving people who had done “really bad things”. Increasingly, society’s issue with Christianity is not simply around the existence of sin, but around the moral validity of forgiveness.

Earlier this week, I read an article reflecting on the #metoo campaign and analysing the apologies (or non-apologies) of the various perpetrators1https://www.in-mind.org/article/sorry-not-sorry-apologies-and-denials-in-the-metoo-movement. It concluded: “Can perpetrators of #MeToo-abuse be forgiven and return to society? At present, the answer to these questions is still unclear … whether such behaviour can be forgiven is uncertain. Indeed, research suggests that some crimes may never be forgiven.”

The question is further complicated by the passage of time – should someone be held to account for something they said thirty years ago? Should someone be judged by today’s standards for what they did under historic social norms?2This article provides some interesting food for thought on the subject: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_Virginia_political_crisis However, the answer is coming back increasingly clearly – the passage of time is not a get-out, and different historic norms of attitude and behaviour do not offer a valid excuse.

The fact is this: society today demands perfection. This is not only on major moral issues such as sexual abuse and racism – the national debate over Brexit led not only to division between factions, but also to unprecedented levels of personal attacks on people for their association with one camp or another. Student unions have no-platformed people because historically they shared a platform with someone with conservative social opinions. My intent is not to agree or disagree with these attitudes, but simply to highlight a significant shift – whereas before Christians needed to make a case for why all sin should be punishable (the classic morality scale from Hitler to Mother Theresa, asking where the “good enough for heaven” line should be), nowadays that conversation is changing. Instead, the question is, “can people truly be forgiven?”

So what, then, do we do with the truth which we all know deep down and which most try to conceal – the truth that we have all said, done and thought things which would cause many to reject us if they knew? It strikes me that most people in a perfection-demanding society escape censure simply by keeping their heads down and avoiding scrutiny: wind up under scrutiny, and sooner or later you’ll do something or someone will unearth something you did which renders you guilty. This fragile state of affairs – flying under the radar – must surely lead to a high level of inner conflict. Paul described the inability to live up to even our own standards in strong, bitter words:

For what I want to do, I do not do – and what I hate, I do … For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing … What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Romans 7

Our society is right – in part, at least. Perfection is the standard, and the passage of time does not wash away guilt. As might be expected, society’s standards of right and wrong do not always line up with God’s standards as revealed in the Scriptures, but the concept stands. Our desire for perfection is a good desire, but combined with a forlorn hope of human self-improvement, it inevitably ends up in a bitter and accusing form: seeing the faults in others and demanding change, while hiding away our own sins. This has been the case ever since the first sin, in which Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake in the garden of Eden, the last place where humans knew perfection. The good news of the Kingdom of God is that there is a genuine, solid hope for perfection ahead: not only a perfect environment, but also perfected humans to inhabit it.

As the pressure increases not only to live faultlessly, but also to have lived faultlessly, there is an opportunity to explain the Good News to people: “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”3C.S. Lewis discussed the validity of God forgiving sins of one human against another in this excellent clip from Mere Christianity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxzuh5Xx5G4&t=582

Have you had a recent conversation with a friend, relative or colleague in which you discussed the failings of a public figure? If so, did you take the easy path of simply agreeing, or did you draw attention to the truth that we all fall short of the mark? And have you ever had a conversation about what is needed for someone to be forgiven? Why not think through how you might explain in conversation the conflict between our desire for perfection and our inability to be perfect ourselves, as well as how you would explain God’s solution.

We want freedom (but also laws)

Deep down you know, in your soul
Love is in control
Oh, if you could find the angel within
Time, time to have faith in your wings
Free, everybody’s free, yeah
In the new day that’s coming
Freedom for all is our destiny

Robert Miles

Jesus announced good news to the world – and that good news was that “the Kingdom of God is near”. This is one of a series of posts about ways in which our society is longing for the Kingdom of God, although it doesn’t realise it yet. My hope is that they will provide a basis for conversations with friends, relatives and neighbours – and perhaps a gentle provocation to some readers who do not follow Jesus, too. You can see the original post, with links to others in the series, here.

The discussion of politics and culture in our world today does not use the same vocabulary as it did even ten years ago, let alone twenty. One particularly noticeable shift is that divides previously described as “left/right” or “conservative/liberal” now tend to be described in terms of “conservative/progressive” – or in some circles, “backward/progressive”. Most cultures have a directional arrow which constitutes the “progress” society is looking for. For decades, “progress” in Western nations was scientific – the advancement of knowledge; in our current time, it has come to mean the removing of historic social and moral boundaries.

The point of this observation is not to critique those social and moral changes, but rather to note that our cultural appetite is for social boundary-breaking. Those who are on the cutting edge of campaigning for the removal of a given boundary or taboo are heroes, but when the goal is accomplished they cannot rest on that, but are required to continue to push boundaries in order to be accepted – you have only to look at the cultural fate of Germaine Greer to see this in action. This illustrates the fact that our culture values the act of breaking norms and removing boundaries over the value of what is achieved by those actions.

At the same time, we are legislating at a faster rate than ever – I remember a conversation with a lawyer who explained that the pace of legislation was such that legal draughtsmen struggle to keep up, and consequently draft laws that are difficult to enforce. Why is it that we want to do away with past norms and laws, and yet we create even more laws at an unsustainable pace?

Scripturally, rebellion has been a human problem since the first sin, back in Genesis. However, there’s something else at play here too. Some of the difficulty that teenagers have relating to parental rules is that they know that they’re transitioning to a place of greater responsibility, in which they are liable for their own actions, and free to make their own successes and mistakes. Scripture shows us that we, too, were created not for laws but for loving relationship. The letter to the Galatians teaches:

Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic law. The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.

Galatians 3:23-24 (The Message paraphrase)

We were made to do right out of a place of love and faith, not because the law required it of us. There is something of this instinct in current culture, too – we don’t only want people to behave rightly, we want them to think rightly. So cultural campaigns try to win hearts and minds – but in case that fails, they also campaign for legislation to make it illegal to publicly disagree.

The missing piece in all of this is that the human heart is inherently corrupt. Progressive humanism operates on the basis that humans are either basically good, or at least morally neutral – and that if we can improve our thinking and our conditions sufficiently, human utopia is possible – just take a look at the opening quotation, taken from a 90s pop song. The constant need to enforce these improvements with laws points to the truth being quite the opposite: in its natural condition, without enforced boundaries, humanity is self-destructive and greedy, and needs to be controlled.

The solution to this is regeneration, or being born again. Paul explains that while we start life enslaved to sin, when we turn to Christ and are filled with His Spirit, we are dead to that old state of affairs, and alive to a new way of living. Before, our hearts were drawn to sin and occasionally we managed to salvage a semi-noble act from them; now, our hearts are drawn to God, but we occasionally slip or rebel.

This is the Kingdom of God which Jesus introduces – one in which our default attitude and behaviour changes. In His Kingdom, laws can be rendered unnecessary by a change of heart: we don’t need to be told not to stab someone if we leave the house with an armload of gifts to distribute. We won’t cross that line, because we’re running in the opposite direction. If we grasp the meaning of the Good Samaritan, of “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbour as yourself”, then we end up where Jesus does in the sermon on the mount: “you have heard it said ‘do not murder’; but I say to you don’t even get angry with your brother … you’ve heard it said ‘do not commit adultery’; but I say to you don’t even look lustfully at a woman.” This is possible – but only if we ask God to make us new, and to fill us with His Spirit.

In a recent conversation, a neighbour of mine said, “I’d thought when I moved to the charitable sector that everyone would be noble and altruistic, but there’s the same ladder-climbing and politics as you’d find in a corporation.” Have you ever had conversations like this around whether humans are inherently good? How might you explain to someone what difference it makes to be born again?

The Wheatley Blessing

The Wheatley Blessing

God is generous with His blessing. As followers of Jesus together in Wheatley, we want to pray and proclaim this blessing over our community, particularly during this difficult time. We pray that as you listen, you will know God’s love for you.

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; The Lord turn his face towards you and give you peace.

Numbers 6v24-26

It has been so fantastic to see the Wheatley Blessing take shape over the months of May and June: thank you so much to everyone who contributed!

We want justice

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
    for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
    defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Proverbs 31:8-9

Jesus announced good news to the world – and that good news was that “the Kingdom of God is near”. This is one of a series of posts about ways in which our society is longing for the Kingdom of God, although it doesn’t realise it yet. My hope is that they will provide a basis for conversations with friends, relatives and neighbours – and perhaps a gentle provocation to some readers who do not follow Jesus, too. You can see the original post, with links to others in the series, here.

Global justice movements have gathered unprecedented pace and momentum in the last decade – movements for equal pay, against discrimination and human trafficking. Additionally, campaigns which have been around for longer such as the fight against global warming have been reinterpreted through this lens – in this generation, we don’t want to “save the planet”, we want “climate justice”. However, we have built a society that is deeply unjust, and sometimes the attempts to unpick it are overwhelming. The computer that I’m typing on at the moment may well contain components made by workers in unsafe conditions; the food we buy and the clothes we wear are consumer choices that often perpetuate injustice elsewhere in the world. If we borrow money to buy a house – as almost anyone buying will need to do – are we contributing to a system where only the rich can afford to live securely? And will the bank we borrow from invest its profits in companies that manufacture arms and sell them irresponsibly? We long for justice, but it seems that the total reset that’s needed is beyond our best efforts.

The answer is the Kingdom of God! That’s not to say that Christians live perfectly in this regard – far from it. However, one key foundation of the Christian faith is that God works in us to transform not only our behaviour, but also our desires. What would it look like for whole swathes of people throughout every section of society and in every nation to undergo this transformation? Then, to use the words of the prophet Amos, justice would roll on like a river – righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Why can this not happen through secular global movements? Avaaz.org claims a membership of 62 million people; 6 million people worldwide joined in “climate strikes” last year; blue-chip companies now pay their auditors for “sustainability audits” in response to public opinion – surely there is global momentum for justice? The trouble is – we don’t all agree on what justice is. This is seen most clearly in the “clashes of rights” that come to the fore every now and again. We could look at the Birmingham protests, where Muslims objected to the diversity curriculum – we want justice against homophobia and transphobia, but we also want justice against Islamophobia, so which one wins out? Pornography objectifies women, teaches objectification, and often exploits trafficked women; but surely women have the right to do what they want with their bodies and men have the right to consume what they want so long as no children are involved?1Just in case it’s unclear, I’m reporting society’s attitude here, not stating my own!

This clash becomes even more stark when it comes to the unborn. Lord Shinkwin, commenting on the recent discussion of his abortion disability bill, stated, “What I don’t understand is how after birth I can be good enough for the Prime Minister and the Queen to send me to the House of Lords but before birth I’m only good enough for the incinerator. I’m part of a group of people with congenital conditions that is being systematically killed.” He and others have regularly pointed out the inconsistencies of our approach to justice: take for instance two babies, conceived on the same day and with the same genetic disability. One is born two days before the other, and it is not only treated as a fully human life to be protected, but is further shielded by additional anti-discrimination legislation; on the same day, the other child can legally be killed simply because it is still inside its mother’s womb. This arises because of conflicting ideas of justice, and whose rights matter most.

Lord Shinkwin, who has championed the rights of unborn disabled babies

There is an answer to these clashes, and I wonder if our society might nearly be ready for it. It focuses on laying down our own rights, and standing up for those who cannot speak for themselves. So much of what divides society stems from our concern for ourselves – our benefit, our rights. Look at how divisive debates such as the one around Brexit took place in the public arena: almost all of the campaigning and slogans were about which decision would make life better for me – which would offer me better economic stability, better opportunities, more freedom. However justice-minded we may be, there is a strong leaning towards wanting justice for ourselves first, and many people would trace all our human evils back to this intrinsic self-centredness.

It is not only a question of laying down rights, however – we will also need to adopt a universal standard. The only way through for a relativistic society will be to adopt an unchanging, objective standard; the only one qualified to set such a standard is the God who made us – anything else involves one group of people claiming the moral high ground with no basis for their claim. This will undoubtedly be uncomfortable for many, as it involves laying down our own right to decide what’s good and what’s evil; it involves acknowledging that God is in charge.

Thankfully, God is not simply a God who gives rules and laws: He changes hearts. If we really want to see justice in our generation – and if we are willing to lay down self-determination and accept God’s rule over us – He will set to work on our hearts, soften away the selfishness, and help us to live lives that are truly motivated by a love for others. And that is not a forlorn hope, but rather a truth with millennia of changed lives as proof.

Do you have friends or neighbours who are strongly motivated by social justice issues? Have you spoken with them about how the Kingdom of God is one of justice? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments section!

The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad;
    let the distant shores rejoice.
Clouds and thick darkness surround him;
    righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.

Psalm 97:1-2

A Nation at Tipping Point?

There is fashion, there is fad,
Some is good, some is bad.
And the joke is rather sad:
That it’s all just a little bit of history repeating…

Propellorheads / Shirley Bassey

The Old Testament is more than a collection of historical records, poems and provocations – it recounts in detail, and from many different viewpoints, a very long story of God dealings with people – and in particular with one nation, through whom He revealed to the wider world what He is like.

Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelite nation go through repeating cycles: God delivers them from oppression and they live gratefully for a while, but then they turn away and start to live their own way. God protects them from the consequences for a while, and warns them that life doesn’t work that way, but when they persist, He withdraws that protection and lets them see what it’s like to live without His constant blessing. They start to experience difficulties, society breaks down, foreign relations become aggressive, and inevitably they end up oppressed by their own despot or by another nation. Finally, they reach a tipping point where their distress is greater than their pride, and they call out to God – and He rescues them. They live gratefully for a while, but then … well, you get the picture.

Why mention this now? Well, looking around at our situation in the UK, I believe that we are nearing that tipping point. Why? Firstly, as Pete Grieg has written1See this article on Premier’s website, there are signs that people are reaching out to God in this time: church attendance is increasing, many are praying for the first time, and songs such as “The Blessing” are being watched by hundreds of new people with each passing minute. However, this is also against a backdrop in which people are deeply longing for change – and much of that change they long for is really the Kingdom of God.

Much of the change that people are longing for is really the Kingdom of God.

That’s a bold statement to make! If at the end of 2019 you’d made the claim that the rapid social change we were witnessing was really a longing for more of God, I think most would have dismissed it. As our fronts of self-confidence are stripped away in this time of Coronavirus, I think we’re seeing that it’s true. Below, I’ve listed off some ways in which I think our society is longing for the Kingdom of God. None is without their problems for society – in each area, the Kingdom goes far beyond what humans hope for, but it also challenges our standards and motivations.

Within our society, there is a mix of desires. We can be quick to point out the ones that are “fallen” (that is: hostile to God); but even in our fallen state, we carry something of the image of God, and we desire good and right things, too. Could those “right desires” be pointers to faith for people we know? My hope is that these posts will provide a basis for conversations with friends, relatives and neighbours – and perhaps a gentle provocation to some readers who do not follow Jesus, too! And along with all this, let it push us to prayer. Our nation needs to experience the Kingdom of God!

God is Glorious

This post is one of a series looking at four Scriptural truths about God’s nature. You can read an introduction to the series here.

Back in Genesis 3, when man and woman sin against God, their first response is to sew clothes for themselves because they realise they are naked. In a suddenly-fallen world, they fear exposure. The same is often true of us: we are afraid of what people would think if they knew us as we really are.

This can lead to all kinds of dysfunction in our lives. From the beginning, God created us to live in community, and the distance that comes from living fearfully threatens this communal life. James writes that we should confess our sins to one another1James 5:16, and John writes that if we “walk in the light” (rather than pretending we are sinless) not only will we be forgiven, but we will also have fellowship with one another21 John 1:7.

The picture on the right is a fridge magnet that can be found on my mother-in-law’s fridge. While it’s intended as a joke, it hides a deep truth: our friends are those who really know us – not just our wonderful sense of humour or our secret talent for painting watercolour; but all the folly, the pettiness, the failures, the disappointments, the ongoing frustrations, the poor choices and the wrong mindsets.

Those friendships are deep because of the level of trust that is built, but also because we can be friends with no pretence, and no hiding away. You see, with most people, we suspect that the level of our relationship with them is dependent on how we “perform” – whether we produce good work, whether we are fun to be around, whether we post beautiful selfies on social media, whether we are successful, whether we are hard-working. Our identity flows from their perception of how we deliver on all these criteria – so we develop ways of living that are focused on a fearful service of others’ opinions.

God’s glory is not like that. When He reveals His glory to Moses, God proclaims His name – the essence of His being. That’s his glory! And it is entirely based on truth, not on others perceptions. He is “the Lord, the Lord, the gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin – yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished.”3Exodus 34:6-7. None of that depends on others’ opinions of Him. Is God’s love misunderstood? Frequently – but that doesn’t diminish His glory. Do people refuse His forgiveness, or reject His right to judge? All the time! But He’s the glorious and forgiving Judge of the world anyway.

How would it change our lives if we let go of others’ perceptions of ourselves, and set all of our identity in God’s glory being revealed in us? This is the mentality of Paul, who describes us as having “treasure in jars of clay”:

  • If what I value is God’s glory in me, I can do the right thing, even if it is misunderstood.
  • If what I value is God’s glory in me, I won’t shape my behaviour around the brokenness of colleagues or relatives.
  • If what I value is God’s glory in me, I can be honest about my failings and seek help for areas of sin and weakness.
  • If what I value is God’s glory in me, I don’t have to present the “successful me” all the time.
  • If what I value is God’s glory in me, nothing will keep me quiet when I have an opportunity to share it with someone else.
  • If what I value is God’s glory in me, being a child of God and a bearer of His image will be something I default to, not something I have to remind myself of.

The truth we want to internalise is this:

God is glorious – so I don’t have to fear others

Self-diagnosis

It is safer and easier to talk abstractly about “ways in which we might be living fearfully” – but let’s make it real and talk about ways in which I do this. I hope that my vulnerability in offering this up will allow you to look honestly at your own lives, and to be open about your own shortcomings too, so that we can all live better in the light of God’s truth.

The drive to be appear accomplished

There are some good motivations for doing all the various aspects of my job, and some pretty poor ones too. The original intention of writing these blogs every week is to provide a further resource for our community to explore discipleship and devotion, to offer encouragement into our weariness and provocation to any complacency. However, more than once – including yesterday – I’ve sat down to spend time with the Lord, and instead found myself twitching to write this blog, produce a video, or prepare a sermon. Honestly, what’s going on in those moments is not the standard pressure of a to-do list, but a desire for people to think, “he’s a good pastor – he’s always got something positive to share from the Scriptures” – or perhaps, “he must be working hard”. You see, occasionally I get fearful that people will think I’m lazy because I’m not out visiting people at the moment – a fear that’s compounded if (God forbid!) somebody sees me taking some rest. There are times when those things don’t bother me in the slightest, and it’s no surprise that those times are the periods when I’m most consumed with God’s glory, and what He’s up to.

The temptation to rewrite history

I had a fantastic, wide-ranging conversation with a friend yesterday, and he mentioned the temptation to tell a story about ourselves in such a way that it demonstrates a point we want to make, or shows us to have a particular characteristic – sometimes at the cost of being truthful. Valid points can be made from fictional stories (Jesus did it quite a lot) – that’s not the issue. But if the sum of what I share with someone is a series of anecdotes that have been “upcycled” to display truths about God or noble parts of my character, have I really opened up my life to them? And how will the real me be open to challenge and correction if the real messiness of those anecdotes is edited out?

Disagreeing badly

OK, this is one that I’ve mostly grown out of, but it’s definitely a past failing and an area where I occasionally still have to actively correct myself. To my mind, there are two very common ways of disagreeing with other people – withdrawing and allowing our disagreement and frustration to accumulate in dislike; and arguing defensively or even aggressively. Both avoid the risk of having to understand the other person’s point of view, and maybe even change our own viewpoint. Neither draws us closer to each other or to the truth.

When this happens in a church fellowship, it’s particularly destructive. It’s possible for a group of people to have a veneer of unity when the truth is that they’ve buried their disagreements in a box marked “resentment”. I’ve also been involved in situations where two or more people in a church simply won’t give each other a hearing, and are openly hostile. The second is rarer in the UK because of “Britishness”, but that’s no comfort if it simply pushes us the other way – into resentment. A friend from a church in France, quoting Ephesians 4:15, was known to say quite frequently, “I know we French struggle to speak the truth in love sometimes, but you British struggle to speak the truth!”

Negotiators often talk of reaching “accurate empathy” – the point where we can understand the other person’s viewpoint fully even if we disagree. If our hope is in God’s glory and not our own, that place of humility is easier – if we’re wrong, it doesn’t take away from our value or our identity.

What about you? Can you see ways that you act out of fear of others? Who are you honest with about your failings? What Scripture could you memorise and meditate on, to remind yourself to find your identity in God’s glory and not your own?

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:2

God is Gracious

This post is one of a series looking at four Scriptural truths about God’s nature. You can read an introduction to the series here.

Thomas the Tank Engine was a staple of my childhood reading: I think my grandparents must have had every single one of the original books; I can still hear Ringo Starr’s Liverpudlian delivery of “You have caused confusion and delay”, and the original theme tune remains a favourite1but please, please, spare us the new one!.

However, when it came to raising our kids, we rapidly dialled back on Thomas. The main reason was that every new arrival to the island seemed to be treated badly until they had proved to the stern Fat Controller that they were a “really useful engine”. While we are all in favour of a good work ethic, positive attitude, teamwork, and everything else that constitutes “really useful” in the stories, we didn’t like that the proof had to come first, before acceptance and friendship were offered.

When we work to impress others, it so often brings out the worst in us: we focus where our actions will be most noticed, rather than paying attention to more important but less visible things; we seek affirmation of our efforts, rather than giving them selflessly; and we risk prioritising charisma or reputation over integrity. We can also place our identity in the opinions of others, rather than treasuring our status as children of God.

When we work to impress God, things are no better. Jesus tells the parable of the Lost Son primarily as a rebuke to the Pharisees2see Luke 15:2-3 for their attitude, and casts them as the older brother of the story:

But [the older brother] answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”

Luke 15:29-30

The Pharisees are so caught up in their worldview, in which their hard work is earning them credit with God, that they can’t celebrate the very things that God is seeking to do – reaching the lost. In their implicit criticism of God’s actions, they dishonour Him – just as the older brother dishonours the father in Jesus’s parable. But the truth is, we often see God through the lens of the Fat Controller – despite God making it really clear to us that He doesn’t operate in that way. Paul writes:

But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

From this world-changing act of sacrifice, there flows a different way of living. Instead of working for love, we respond to God’s unconditional love with wholehearted work. Instead of us measuring out what we do and counting the return, we are loved beyond our ability to repay, and can give unstintingly to God and to others. And of course, knowing and living out the truth about God’s nature always impacts our lives for the better.

How would it change our lives if we looked to what God has done for our identity, and saw anything we do as a loving offering of worship?

  • If God is in control, I can rest – even when there are still things on my to-do list.
  • If God is in control, I can pray for outcomes that go beyond my own abilities.
  • If God is in control, I don’t have to be anxious about things I’ve prayed about.
  • If God is in control, I don’t have to fear the unforeseen things that might happen tomorrow, because they didn’t catch Him unawares.
  • If God is in control, I have enough hours in each day and each week to do the things that He wants me to do. (maybe not to do all the things I want!)
  • If God is in control, prayer is never a waste of my time.

The truth we want to internalise is this:

God is gracious – so I don’t have to prove myself

Self-diagnosis

As always, it’s good to look at our own lives to see where we fall short of believing the truth about God. We can then counter these by “renewing our mind” with Scripture, and asking the Holy Spirit to change our hearts. Here are three of the most common ways in which an attitude of “I have to prove myself” can play out in our lives:

Demanding or controlling behaviour towards others

If we believe that we have to prove ourselves to our Heavenly Father, we will often display this behaviour towards others who we “father” – our own children, or perhaps employees at work – as well as in peer relationships. This is the one that I have to watch most myself, as it can easily creep into my own behaviour. When I find myself becoming demanding or hard to please, particularly with my children, I am greatly helped by reading passages that talk of God’s great love for us, offered without preconditions – passages like this one:

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.

1 John 4:18-19
Boastfulness, self-promotion and pride

Perhaps you have spent time with someone who always brings the conversation back to themselves, or who responds to someone else’s story with one of their own to outdo them3some light-hearted reading!? Perhaps, if you take a long hard look at yourself, you are that person sometimes! This behaviour is countered by understanding the lengths that God has gone to in order to justify us, the vast significance of God’s view of us, and the near-irrelevance of others’ opinions about us. Two great prompts for this:

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood … he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

Romans 3:25-26

Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

Luke 6:22-23,26

But perhaps even more common is simple pride – putting on the mask of everything being fine, while underneath we are hurting, broken or tangled up in sin. The truth is that God desires to bring everything into the light, not to shame us, but to free us – the book of 1 John, which is all about how God’s unconditional love for us overflows, says this:

If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:7-9
Low self-esteem

Lastly, there is the low self-esteem that comes from a belief that we are constantly being evaluated on the basis of our works. If that were the case – if our value was tied up in our usefulness to God, or our faithfulness to His commands – we would rightly feel worthless. However, the love and status that God gives us is unrelated to our achievements or lack thereof. Psalm 8 puts this in beautiful perspective, showing how vast and powerful God is, how tiny we are, and how seemingly insignificant, and yet:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands

Psalm 8:3-6

What about you? Can you see mindsets or actions in your own life that stem from a need to prove yourself? What Scripture could you memorise and meditate on, to anchor it deeper in your life that God is gracious?

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:2

God is Great

This post is one of a series looking at four Scriptural truths about God’s nature. You can read an introduction to the series here.

Over recent years I have come to realise that one of the hardest things about prayer is that it involves doing nothing. I don’t mean that prayer is itself passive, but when we pray, we take time that could be spent doing, fixing, thinking, writing, researching and we give it to God1of course, you can also pray while doing things – I’m talking here about dedicated times of prayer!. Essentially we say, “I trust that God can do more with this time than I can.” We take something out of our own control and give it to God.

What is our obsession with being in control? Deep down, we know that it’s far better for God to be in charge – but when it’s our goals, our hopes or our reputation on the line, we’d rather have the “certainty” of relying on ourselves!

One of the longest-standing enmities in the Bible stems from a man wresting control from God. Abraham, carrying a miraculous promise of a son but getting on in years, agrees with his wife Sarah to father a child by her servant Hagar. Surely this is a way to fulfil the promise within what was culturally acceptable practice? Isaac and Ishmael are still enemies to this day.

Of course, things left in God’s hands are so much safer anyway. God sees everything and – far from being overwhelmed – He both understands it all, and is able to deal with it all. As one of King Asa’s seers explains to him in another episode of a man seeking to control instead of trusting God:

Yet when you relied on the Lord, he delivered them into your hand. For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.

2 Chronicles 16:8b-9a

If we can learn to trust God in ordinary, everyday things, I’m convinced that we’ll fare much better when faced with situations we have no illusion of being able to control: a broken dream, a bereavement, or even a global pandemic.

How would it change our lives if we looked to God as the One who is really in control, and owned our own limited authority? It could have such a profound effect on us:

  • If God is in control, I can rest – even when there are still things on my to-do list.
  • If God is in control, I can pray for outcomes that go beyond my own abilities.
  • If God is in control, I don’t have to be anxious about things I’ve prayed about.
  • If God is in control, I don’t have to fear the unforeseen things that might happen tomorrow, because they didn’t catch Him unawares.
  • If God is in control, I have enough hours in each day and each week to do the things that He wants me to do. (maybe not to do all the things I want!)
  • If God is in control, prayer is never a waste of my time.

The truth we want to internalise is this:

God is great – so I don’t have to be in control

Self-diagnosis

One character issue that this speaks to in particular is time management and busyness. How many times have you said, or heard it said, “I’m snowed under!” or perhaps “There just aren’t enough hours in the day!” If we work this attitude back to its root, it comes down to one of three sentiments:

  1. “God got my workload wrong”
  2. “Someone other than God is calling the shots on my time”
  3. “The world needs me!”

All three of these point to a root belief that is at odds with “God is great”. If we were looking to throw off stress by challenging these mindsets from Scripture, where might we go?

  1. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”2Psalm 139:16, or perhaps “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”3Ephesians 2:10
  2. Our work for others is a subset of our obedience to Christ: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do”4Ephesians 6:5-8
  3. “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”5Acts 17:24-25

What about you? Do you think, speak or act in ways that are not in line with “God is great”? Are there areas where you feel yourself grasping for control? What Scripture could you memorise and meditate on, to see that shift?

I leave you with a video that I stumbled on while doing some reading on this topic. It’s a song called Control by a group called Tenth Avenue North. The chorus reads:

God, You don’t need me,
but somehow You want me
How You love me,
somehow that frees me
To open my hands up
and give You control
I give you control

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:2

God is Good

This post is one of a series looking at four Scriptural truths about God’s nature. You can read an introduction to the series here.

A few months ago, as I was walking down Windmill Lane, I realised that I had been thinking completely wrong about God’s goodness. In my head when I prayed and worshipped, I always thought of a whole set of attributes – good, loving, kind, faithful – and tried to express to God that he was fully all of those things. Perhaps that doesn’t sound very wrong to you, but the difficulty is that it sets up the idea of a “scoring system” that’s independent of God – as though on some objective cosmic checklist, God alone gets full marks. The fact is, God doesn’t score 100% – he defines what 100% is. To be fully good is to be fully like God – no other concept or person works as a yardstick for God.

This can affect how we think about things. Perhaps you struggle when you read passages about God’s judgment on sin, or struggle with the idea of His wrath, or His jealousy? Certainly outside the Church, people frequently make claims that God isn’t good because He does x or y1for some idea of how deep this goes, read for instance https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_in_the_Hebrew_Bible#Prophetic_books. Wittingly or unwittingly, we often develop our own ideas of “good” and “evil”, and expect God to conform to them, and this independence, this determination to decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil, is the sin of our ancestors Adam and Eve.

How would it change our lives if we saw God as the source and benchmark of all goodness? It would change our motivation for so many things:

  • If God is my reward2Genesis 15:1, I don’t need to make myself feel better by looking important.
  • If God satisfies me3Psalm 103:5, I can live celibately in singleness or faithfully in marriage because I don’t need to seek pleasure outside that status.
  • If God is my treasure4Philippians 3:8, I don’t need to find fulfillment in what money buys, and I can live generously.

The truth we want to internalise is this:

God is good – so I don’t have to look elsewhere for my satisfaction

Self-diagnosis

One really helpful application of this is in shaking engrained sinful habits or mindsets. If you find yourself wanting to get free of an addiction or a besetting sin, one tool in the inventory is to ask, “what is going on in my heart when I …?” Very often, the answer is that we are plugging a hole – perhaps loneliness, low self-worth or boredom. We can then go to the Scriptures and ask, “what does the Bible tell us about God which meets that need?” We can then make it part of our self-discipline to memorise those Scriptures, and to make them part of our daily thoughts. Rather than simply “trying not to sin” (also important!) we are also seeking goodness where it should be found – in the Lord.

As a worked example, we could take jealousy – let’s imagine that Arthur really struggles not to envy other people – in particular Beatrice, who is younger but has already been promoted above him. As he sits down and prays it over, it dawns on him that underneath all the comparisons, he doesn’t really believe that God has given him enough. He also realises that he really wants affirmation from other professionals, and the lack of it is leaving him feeling unvalued.

Going to the Scriptures, he reads this:

Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

2 Peter 1:2-4

As he reflects on what a great treasure it is to have received God’s grace and peace, he is struck that he hasn’t fully appreciated how amazing that is. He’s provoked by the statement that “[God’s] divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life”, and decides to memorise that Scripture, and make a daily habit of repenting for his past ungratefulness and reciting that verse.

Other changes might be needed – he may need to confess his jealous thoughts to another believer, or perhaps rethink his approach to work and identity – but he has identified a weak foundation and shored it up from the Scriptures.

What about you? Are there areas of your life where you struggle to believe that God is good, and that you don’t have to look elsewhere for satisfaction? What Scriptures might you call to mind, and how might you see those areas changed?

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:2