Archive for the ‘Christian living’ Category
You will doubtless have heard on a number of occasions those who bewail the present day. I admit to having limited sympathy with those who argue that we are living in the absolute worst of times. I read of the social conditions, cultural norms and spiritual battles of past days and I sometimes think, “We do not have it so bad.” However, very often, those who have decided that these are the worst of days use that conclusion to drive a certain way of thinking and acting. Perhaps it is the pastor’s conference where the prevailing mood is one tending to despair, where most of the older men are quick to suggest that the nation is under judgement, or some such assertion, ready to root any sense of believing anticipation out of the heart of those naive young bucks who think they have a prospect of blessing. Perhaps it is the crippling affliction of a whole congregation, maybe under the influence of a more negative spirit in the preaching, by which the diagnosis of local, national or global malaise has become an excuse to attempt and expect nothing. After all, why bother?
My gut instinct – and, I hope, my scriptural instinct – is to reject that spirit of defeatism, even where it comes from men whom I otherwise esteem and respect. And yet, it is worth bearing in mind that there are harder times and easier times. Paul wants Timothy to “know this, that in the last days perilous times will come” (2Tim 3:1). It seems that Paul means that, in the period between the first and the second and last coming of the Lord Christ, there will be seasons marked out by distinctive and heightened spiritual danger, periods of intensified spiritual combat. The apostle goes on to describe those seasons: “men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2Tim 3:2–5). I would suggest that it takes no great exegete to recognise that, in the modern West, and perhaps in other particular places around the world, we seem to be heading into – if we are not already in – a perilous time.
And so Paul goes on to counsel Timothy: “Whatever you do, boy, don’t try anything. The Spirit has departed and prospects are poor. Keep your head low, and don’t make eye contact. Batten down the hatches, retreat behind the barricades, and hope against hope that somehow you and a few others make it through relatively unscathed. Dodge, duck, dive, and do whatever it takes to survive. Try and keep it painless. Maybe once the storm has swept over you will be able to creep out of your hole and try again. Keep face, of course! Learn to preach and pray primarily against the failings and compromises of other Christians and churches. Build up your sense of superiority on the graves of their reputations. Teach about faithfulness in the midst of trials in such as way as to allow everyone to paint their own face in the portrait. Present revival as a panacea, as something that happens to bad people out there, resolving all our difficulties without requiring faith, repentance, or Spirit-stirred activity among the saints. Press on in this way, Timothy, and perhaps I will see you on the other side.”
What nonsense! I trust we are all aware that Paul spoke in rather different fashion:
I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2Tim 4:1–5)
So it is quite possible that we look out and see something of a present spiritual wasteland, perhaps increasingly a spiritual battleground. We may be troubled at a perceived paucity of proven men and fear a sickly trickle of younger ones. We recognise surges in atheism, paganism, idolatry and false religion, some of it militarised. Old errors are stalking the land, and capturing many hearts. And it may in some measure, even in large measure, be true. We may shortly be living through one of the perilous times, if we are not already doing so.
But is now the time to run or hide? Can we responsibly and righteously walk away when others may be ready to walk in and make the sacrifices necessary to exalt Christ? Who will call sinners to repentance? Who will hold the line and set the standard for those who may be following? Should we interpret these as the days of small things, and so make our excuses for little faith and low expectations?
Surely a field of battle on which holding the line, let alone advancing it, is hard, is a field of honour? If our analysis is in any degree right, have we considered the privilege of being called to serve Christ in this hour? To what has he called us? “You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier” (2Tim 2:3–4). We cannot say we were not warned! In the words of Andrew Fuller, “A servant that heartily loves his master counts it a privilege to be employed by him, yea, an honour to be intrusted with any of his concerns” (Complete Works, 3:320). How much more ought we to count it a privilege and an honour to serve such a Saviour as Christ in dangerous seasons?
We must of course beware of vainglory, that casual and carnal bombast that presumes that heroism runs in our veins. It is probably still the case – it certainly has been in past conflicts – that the men who are most full of themselves on the training ground are not often (even rarely) the ones who acquit themselves well on the battleground. It may be worth remembering the words of Ahab, albeit in a different context: “Let not the one who puts on his armour boast like the one who takes it off” (1Kgs 20:11).
All the same, surely now is the time to rise to the challenge. Now is not the time to step back, but to step up. It may or may not be ours to see great advances made, but those advances might need to be weighed rather than numbered. To accomplish a little something in the darkest hours of the hardest fights may be worth as much in the grand scheme of things as to do great deeds when the enemy is already running. Brands snatched from the burning are worth risking much to save. The enemy may not start running until some of those hard stands and have been taken and those hard yards have been won. Besides, “when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do’” (Lk 17:10).
Now is the time to assess the days, count the cost, and preach the Word. We must be ready in season and out of season. It is our duty and our privilege to convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. This is part of the good fight of faith, what Spurgeon called “the greatest fight in the world.” It is the hardest; it is the best; it is the most worthy, being fought for the best cause and the best Master, and offering the best reward.
Remember how Mordecai spoke to Esther as the people of God faced devastation and she began to explain her circumstances and make her excuses. He informed her bluntly that her circumstances would not save her. He assured her confidently that the Lord had not forgotten his people. He promised her soberly that cowardice might see her swept away. And he questioned her graciously, stirring her soul: “Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Are we living in the last days? Certainly? Is this one of the dangerous seasons? Possibly, even probably. Yet who knows whether or not this is our high privilege: that we have come to the kingdom for such a time as this.
It is not particularly surprising but it is disappointing. Furthermore, it is dangerous. It is in some respects the typical kneejerk reaction to current events (by which I mean events over the last few months, even years, rather than merely weeks), and the typical danger that you can never be entirely sure in which direction the knee will jerk and the foot will strike. It is the continued assault on freedom in the name of freedom.
In the last week or so school inspectors in the UK gave an unseemly grilling to primary school pupils at Grindon Hall Christian School, where the impression was clearly given (even if not intended) of a real hostility – in the name of promoting “British values” – to the school’s distinctive Christian ethos.
Quite apart from the inappropriateness and intrusiveness of some of the questions asked by almost-complete strangers to young children (questions which, in any other context, might have been taken in an altogether distasteful way), it rather opened a window into the attitudes of some of those who are appointed guardians of freedom.
But time marches on, and new challenges are already arising. The government is now rapidly pushing forward legislation that will preserve our “British values” and combat anti-extremism. Among the consequences of this legislation would be the opportunity – even the requirement – for university authorities to vet the addresses and materials of visiting speakers. That is the context in which I first saw the warning given, but the consultation document is pushing it across the public sector at the very least, with a variety of services and spheres impacted. Effectively, a proactive and preventative demand for censorship would be imposed in a variety of key public settings and environments.
I am sure that the opportunities for those who believe that “British values” demand, or provide the opportunity to pursue, a sort of amorphous atheistic amorality will not be slow to use the weapon put in their hands. As so often, the latest two-edged Excalibur, offered as the key to defending freedom, may become the very means by which freedoms are curtailed.
Naturally, the government provides all manner of assurances about how such things are enforced. With regard to school inspections, for example, Department for Education guidance makes very clear that in advancing our ill-defined “British values” schools are not required to promote “other beliefs” or “alternative lifestyles.” However, this seems to be precisely the point at which pressure was applied to the school in question not only corporately but individually and inappropriately with regard to particular students. We can expect that the same will happen with these new powers, should they come into law.
So, while our politicians line up with their pens and pencils aloft to trumpet their allegiance to free speech, they are simultaneously – and in the name of freedom – preparing to crack down on freedom of speech. It is, it seems, OK to be Charlie Hebdo (not personally, one understands, that would be a little dangerous, but it’s fine for other people to be Charlie Hebdo), and be able to poke fun at the fundies of all stripes. That must be defended. But I suggest that it must be made clear that such swipes and skewerings are not the only expressions of freedom of speech.
Generally speaking, and despite media attempts to push us into the first of the following categories, true Christians are neither violent extremists (dogmatic conviction need not translate into militant physical aggression) nor extravagant satirists (willing and able to undermine and offend for the mere sake of it, and call it wit and art – never having read Charlie Hebdo, I cannot comment on whether or not or to what extent they fall into this category). The Christian’s only real offense should be the offense of the cross, though the rugged edges and sharp points of that cross have a habit of puncturing pride and pomposity wherever it is found, and pride is of the essence of fallen man’s sense of himself. The weapons of our spiritual warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds. The armoury of God’s kingdom bears little relation to those of the kingdoms of the world. However, those without spiritual discernment are quite prepared to lump true Christians in with the violent extremists and deny them any of the privileges of the extravagant satirists. Indeed, the very nature of our message indicates that the gospel will be among the first and most aggressively pursued targets of those who – in the name of freedom – wish to silence dissent.
Only a fool would deny the difficulty of ensuring genuine freedom of speech and expression while at the same time preserving a measure of social order and cultural decency. But the response to terrorism, even Islam’s militarised religious supremacism, should not be to diminish all freedoms. That will not halt the terrorists, not least those driven by religionised hatred. In some respects, it will simply simplify their task.
But watch this space, for this is the brave new world. As mentioned in a previous post, to the humanist unbeliever who denies that he or she exists in their own tightly woven cocoon of a certain kind of ‘faith’, the Christian is just one of a range of dangerously nutty voices in the gallery of the fruitcakes. Indeed, the offense of the cross means that our gospel words will prove the pre-eminent spiritual red rag to the bulls of mere human reason and religion. But, if we are true to our convictions, we know that we echo the one voice of true reason, the single declaration of spiritual sanity, the alone hope of salvation, in an otherwise unstable and disordered world, wrecked by sin and riddled with its consequences. Unbelieving humanism is one among the range of rotten systematised alternatives to the truth as it is in Jesus. To whom else should we go? Christ has the words of eternal life.
We should expect that our freedom to make known the hope of the world will be deliberately (whether incrementally or more abruptly) assaulted and where possible eroded and removed by the very world that needs to hear it. The patients will assault the envoys of the only doctor with a cure for their condition. We must therefore ensure that our declarations and their accompanying actions are entirely consistent, that we bring with us everywhere the savour of Christ. As citizens of earthly kingdoms, we are entitled graciously yet firmly to assert our rights as citizens. But as citizens of heaven, we do not expect to find the warmest of welcomes in a hostile world. So let us brace ourselves against the storm, hold fast to the Christ who holds fast to us, speak the truth in love, call sinners to repent and believe, love our enemies, serve our Redeemer, and press on toward glory.
[The introductory paragraph was originally posted in an unfinished form. Mea culpa. I have not changed the sentiment and substance, but have adapted and I hope improved the tone and the direction. I do not have the original piece, but what follows is close to the original intention. Other clarifications are here.]
At this time of year, we may see provided a variety of what I shall call scripted prayers. Some of them are entirely personal productions and some are woven together from other sources. Some are occasional pieces and some are habitual constructions. Such offerings and collections may have some value, when used and not abused. I stand pretty much with Bunyan on the matter of formally scripted and read prayers. I consider them close to an abomination. I appreciate the personal reading of thoughtful and careful prayers that were offered extemporaneously and recorded as they came (such as Spurgeon’s pulpit prayers [e.g. Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk / Westminster] or those which conclude many of Calvin’s sermons [e.g. Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk / Westminster]). I value prayers that were written as part of a longer project and were not intended to be recited as some kind of intercessory ritual, but into the spirit of which we might enter as a means of priming the pump of the soul (e.g. The Valley of Vision [Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk / Westminster]). But such reading does not and cannot replace our own praying. The idea of taking those words, reciting the script, and calling it heart prayer is not something I can countenance. I do not doubt the sincerity of some who pursue such a course, but the thing is so dangerous in its practice (inviting us to a mere performance) and deadly in its tendency (replacing the form for the substance) that I would advise anyone to steer well clear (and I am fully aware that more extemporaneous prayer can fall into the same traps, but I do not think it has the same measure of inherent weakness at this point). Do not misunderstand me, it is a rare privilege to listen – either really or at a distance – to a true man of God pleading with his heavenly Father, and there is much to learn from so doing. But the mere recitation or repetition of such words – even if they are our own – is not, in itself, prayer. Carefully used, such examples can be, in measure, spiritual springboards. Carelessly abused, they become spiritual shackles and militate against a true spirit of prayer.
So, by all means use some of these examples, but do not abuse them. Employ them, if need be, to prime the pump. And then, pray! The new year provides one of those natural turning points that gives us an opportunity to pause and reflect. The instinct to pray is entirely right and proper, but we must ourselves bow the knee and engage the heart, however carefully we ponder and prepare beforehand. With that in mind, let me suggest that we should pray in four directions.
Pray back. As you ponder where you have come from, remember who has brought you to where you are. Every child of God, whatever the gloom that seems presently to surround us, has the gospel light shining in our soul. Whatever your heavenly Father has seen fit to give you, it is as your Father in heaven that he gave it. Wherever the good Shepherd has led you, it is as the Shepherd that he led you there and through there. If you are Christ’s, and Christ is yours, then all things are yours. Every step of the past year, let alone every day of every year of your life, have been governed by divine love and gracious compassion. All has been intended to bring you to God and keep you with God, and to develop likeness to Christ in you, in accordance with God’s design. So look back, and lift up your Ebenezer, for till now, the Lord has helped us (1Sam 7:12).
Pray around. Remember your present circumstances and blessings, frailties and responsibilities. On the one hand, the Christian is the most privileged and the richest person on earth:
“All things are ours;” the gift of God,
And purchas’d with our Saviour’s blood;
While the good Spirit shows us how
To use and to improve them too.
Like the Kingswood colliers of whom Wesley wrote, on all the kings of earth, with pity we look down, and claim – in virtue of our birth – a never-fading crown. We are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, and for that we should sing with joy and gladness. We stand in grace, and yet the world moves on around us. Week by week I prepare a sheet for the church where I serve, each one numbered as the year turns. It is often very unsettling to see the speed at which the weeks pass by, those days swifter than a weaver’s shuttle. It is not morbid or maudlin to consider that we do not know how many more of those days we shall be granted, to remember that you may not see another new year, that you are a creature of the dust, and to assess how we shall live in the days allotted to us. So we look around, and pray, asking the Lord to “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12). It is what we need for every moment as we wrestle with the demands of this day, and then the next, each day having enough trouble of its own, and supplies of grace to meet every trouble that comes.
Pray forwards. There are before each one of God’s children countless opportunities and responsibilities, many of which we have not yet seen. They may come with minutes or it may take months. For the days to come we need wisdom, and it is wisdom which the Lord himself has undertaken to provide, and commanded us to seek: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (Jas 1:5). This, and every other good thing, is promised to those who ask, seek and knock. It is the Father’s delight to provide those needful things for kingdom life that his beloved children request. We never need to be ashamed of our asking, if we are asking in accordance with his will and our character as trusting children. We do not need to twist his arm, bargain with him, or fear a harsh response. He is ready to provide every needful blessing, through his Spirit, that we need to secure his certain glory and enjoy his promised good.
And so, pray upwards. Every prayer must be directed to heaven. The greatest abominations in prayer are those self-referential or performed prayers that have more regard for the approval of men than concern to be heard by God. Far too many prayers are like damp fireworks; they may splutter a little with a few sparks, but they barely get off the ground. True prayer is, in essence, an expression of dependence upon God. If we do not pray, it is a practical atheism. But the saints pray to the Lord for what we can only receive from the Lord. We look to him, and – anxious for nothing – in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, we let our requests be made known to God. Thus the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (Phil 3.6-7). May the new year, in its beginning, continuing and ending, prove that so.
A nugget from Robert Bolton’s Some General Directions for a Comfortable Walking with God (London, 1626):
By walking with God, I mean, a sincere endeavour, punctually and precisely to manage, conduct, and to dispose all our affairs, thoughts, words and deeds; all our behaviours, courses, carriage, and whole conversation, in reverence and fear, with humility and singleness of heart, as in the sight of an invisible God, under the perpetual presence of his all-seeing, glorious, pure eye; and by a comfortable consequent, to enjoy by the assistance and exercise of faith, an unutterable sweet communion, and humble familiarity with his holy majesty: in a word, to live in heaven upon earth.
May we, by grace, pursue this more and more!
The new year is not far away. That is when we will being that new regime of diet and exercise, start taking our health more seriously, get a grip on ourselves, whip ourselves into shape, and so on. Tomorrow is always the big day, the start of something good and new?
So, today? Well, let’s eat, drink and be merry, and tomorrow we’ll try. Perhaps one of the reasons why the festive season is one of such excess and abandonment is because we indulge with the self-satisfying assurance that we will be sorting everything out tomorrow. So, whether it is food and drink, spending, or general laziness and laxity, we let it all hang out because tomorrow will be different.
We can do the same thing spiritually. We promise ourselves that tomorrow is the big day, the day when we will really begin to pray against a particular sin, wrestle against a particular temptation, address a particular habit. And what happens? First of all, our own sinful hearts will incline to one last fling, one last binge – after all, we will be taking ourselves in hand tomorrow. But more than that, Satan will begin to whisper. He will assure us that we might as well give in to temptation – after all, we can repent later and start over the day after. And how often does this happen?
Furthermore, that temptation to have one last day of high living weakens all our resolve. Compromise breeds compromise, in the same and other areas of life. A little indulgence here weakens our determination there; pandering to this appetite primes us to gratify that one. It may seem strange, but the wall of the soul needs to be maintained all the way round, all the year round. Persuade yourself that you can eat that food, and it will be easier to watch that film. Let anger take control, and it will be easier to submit to sexual lust. A habit of watchful maintenance on every side is the only way.
And then, of course, once we have indulged, the Adversary will return. Having assured us before that the Lord will forgive so we might as well sin, he will now insist that, having sinned, there is no forgiveness for sin. Distress and even despair enter in. And the result? Well, you might as well give in again, and plunge into the pit of indulgence more entirely – after all, the whole thing is blown apart anyway.
So, in whatever sphere, let us not fall into the trap of making tomorrow’s promise an excuse for today’s indulgence. Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, and can do with a good and well-instructed conscience, do all to the glory of God” (1Cor 10.31). Especially in a season when careless indulgence – if not quite riotous excess – is the name of the game, let us keep up our guard.
In a passing comment on Ephesians 1.15, John Gill speaks this way:
And the grace of faith, which terminates on him, is a seeing him, a beholding the glory of his person, and the fulness of his grace; a going to him, and venturing on him; a laying hold upon him, and embracing of him; a committing all unto him, and a leaning and depending on him, and a living upon him, and a walking on in him.
What a delightful way to describe the full-orbed nature of the faith that saves in looking to Christ Jesus!
Scotland is heading to the voting booths. The people of Scotland will shortly declare whether or not they wish their country to remain part of the Union, or secede. It is, by all accounts, a momentous decision with consequences which can in some measure be accurately predicted, some which can at least be observed coalescing, and some which no-one will have expected. The campaigning, especially as the vote looms, has become strident, even violent. Impassioned pleas ring out from both “Yes” and “No” camps. And many Christians are making what seems to be a watertight case as to how they and others should vote. And some are saying, “Yes,” and others, “No.”
We can and should recognise with thanksgiving the peculiar heritage of the United Kingdom and its constituent parts, with the blessing of genuine Christian influence upon some elements of our national systems and structures. At the same time, I aver that the United Kingdom – in whole and in its parts – is not and never really has been a Christian country. At times, more “a people of the Book,” but not a Christian country. There are Christian individuals, and there are Christian churches, and there is Christian influence, but there are not Christian countries. It’s just not how it works.
So, what difference does this make? What difference might it make in Scotland? In the rest of the Union? In Europe (geographically and politically)? Across the globe?
Andrew Fuller’s brief sermon on “Christian Patriotism” from his collected works is always a helpful read at such a time, whether one considers oneself English, Scottish, Welsh or British. Whichever dog we think we have in the fight, Fuller puts it on a proper leash.
The outcome of the Scottish vote will, in some measure, in the shorter and longer terms, change the circumstances in which the saints go about their business. But our business will not change. We are all still citizens of a heavenly kingdom. When all these things are shaken, as they are in time and most certainly will be when the end comes, the kingdom of Christ remains. Our hopes for the kingdom are not shackled to any particular country or individual or system of government. Our fears need not rise or fall with any fall of rise of any person, party, policy or process, need not be yoked to any particular nation-state. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world – not absolutely of any part or portion of it, but throughout it and above it.
As Christian citizens and Christian patriots, we have genuine and legitimate interests in such questions as those now being posed. Our responsibilities and concerns as Christians in particular nations are many. There may be pains and pleasures, profits and losses, progress and retreat, as an apparent or untraced consequence of the vote in Scotland tomorrow, one way or the other.
However, when the voting is done, and the dust has settled, and the fallout begins, Christ himself remains our peace. He has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in his flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that he might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And he came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
While, of course, Paul is not speaking about the English and the Scots – whose enmity, it might be said, sometimes seems to rival that of the Jew and the Gentile – the principle surely stands. What saints from every country have in common transcends all that divides us. When the end comes, these will not be the things that last and they will not be the things that matter. There will come a time when we shall behold a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Until then, all our wrangling and wrestling, all our voting and investing, should be conditioned by these heavenly realities. After all, whatever afflictions we suffer here – up to and including being (un)shackled (together) – they are but for a moment, and they are working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
Fix your eyes there before the vote. Consider it well when you or others vote. Hold fast to it after the vote. For we do not set our minds on earthly things. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to his glorious body, according to the working by which he is able even to subdue all things to himself.
Through the rise and fall of nations
One sure faith yet standeth fast:
God abides, His Word unchanging,
God alone the first and last.