Sunday, 28 September 2014


Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him... Genesis 37:3-4

A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones. Proverbs 14:30

Are you prone to jealousy? 

You look at another person who is, perhaps, more attractive than you, or more gifted and successful, or someone who has had better breaks in life, and you feel a mixture of anger and self-pity: “That should have been me!” “Why don’t I have what they have?” Or, like a child in the playground, “It’s not fair!”

I suspect that few human feelings are more common than jealousy, or its close cousin, envy: as the proverb says, “If envy were a fever, all the world would be ill.” 

The Bible never tackles the theme directly, but there is no doubt that it sees it as a harmful, vicious thing. Jesus includes it in his list of ugly inner “evils” which make a person “unclean” (Mark 7:20-23); Paul likewise in his list of things which arise out of “the sinful nature” rather than grow out of “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:19-21). And, of course, it’s right there in the Ten Commandments, in the guise of “covetousness” (Exodus 20:17).

There are various Bible stories which illustrate jealousy.

Cain was jealous of his brother Abel because Abel’s sacrifice was accepted by God and his wasn’t (Genesis 4). Result? The first murder. Joseph’s brothers (in the verse above) were jealous of him because their father favoured him over them. All right, neither Israel (that is, Jacob) nor Joseph acted well, but that doesn’t excuse the brothers, who allowed their jealousy to congeal into hatred. Result? A cruel and spiteful act. King Saul was overwhelmed with jealousy of the young man David (1 Samuel 18:5-9). Result? The disintegration of his personality and the loss of his God-given calling.

Enough! There are plenty of examples also in literature outside the Bible that drive home the same truth: jealousy is an evil. (We’re not talking, of course, about God’s jealousy, which is his perfect and holy yearning for the children he loves.)

But all this leaves us with the question: How should I deal with jealousy when it rears up in my mind?

Here are a few suggestions.

First, recognise that it is a self-destructive thing: your jealousy only hurts yourself. After all, that person you are jealous of may well be blissfully unaware of how you feel. Indeed, if they do become aware, they may very well quite enjoy it. To allow jealousy to grow is like taking a slow poison. “Envy rots the bones” (your bones!), says Proverbs 14:30. Another proverb: “Envy eats nothing but its own heart.”

Second, recognise that jealous feelings are only a start; once they take root, as the various stories I have mentioned make clear, they lead to sinful acts. Jealousy is not a one-off thing; it is the start of a process - and you cannot predict where that process will end. Shakespeare’s Othello, to his own horror, ended up killing the wife he dearly loved.

Third, of course, pray. Like any other sin or problem, jealousy can be brought openly and humbly to God. Confess it. Get it off your chest. Ask God to set you free. It may take time, but that freedom will come.

And don’t just pray about that person you’re jealous of; pray for them. Pray to see them through God’s loving eyes. Though it may go against the grain, thank God for their success or whatever it is you are jealous of. Take pleasure in their pleasure. Wish them well.

Fourth, don’t only wish them well, act well towards them too. Do them practical good. I’ve no idea who George Porter is, or was, but I found a quote of his which, I think, puts it perfectly: “As to the green-eyed monster jealousy... set on him at once and poison him with extra doses of kindness to the person he wants to turn you against.” 

Yes! The poison of jealousy can itself be “poisoned” to death by those “extra doses of kindness” that you show the other person. Again, this goes against the grain, certainly; it requires determination and will-power. But by God’s grace it can be done.

And the result this time? You will be more free to discover, to use and to enjoy the various gifts you have yourself, because you’re not bothering about anyone else's. You will be happier and more at peace. That’s a promise!

Loving Father, forgive me my envious heart. Holy Spirit, burn out of me every trace of jealousy. Lord Jesus Christ, give me victory in this battle. Amen.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

When hope dawns

Yet this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:21-23

Have you read the book of Lamentations recently? I suspect I could go further and ask, Have you read the Book of Lamentations ever?

I remember the first time I did. I ended up amazed that so little is made of this short book. And I decided that chapter 3 in general and these verses in particular are among the most beautiful and moving in the whole Bible. If you don’t read another word of this post, I hope saying just this might encourage you to have a look.

The book’s title tells us what it’s about - a lament, even a dirge, over unimaginably terrible events. Tradition says it was written by the prophet Jeremiah after the most dreadful catastrophe in the history of the people of Israel: the fall of Jerusalem (God’s earthly “capital city”!) and the destruction of the temple (God’s earthly seat!) to the cruel Babylonians about six hundred years before Christ. How could such a thing be! Where is God?

The first twenty verses of chapter 3 are sheer unmitigated gloom: darkness, bitterness, death, despair, you name it. It is the most intensely personal part of the book, which is why it can connect so directly with our experience all these centuries later.

But (how important that little word can be in the Bible!) suddenly at verse 21 the mood changes: wonderful, transforming hope appears. It’s as if leaden, steel-grey skies have parted and the sunlight pours down. God’s “compassions”, we are told, “never fail”; they are “new every morning”. Every dawn is a little miracle of creation, fresh, clean, full of possibilities; and that’s what God’s compassions are like. Great indeed is his faithfulness!

Let me pick out one or two highlights from the following verses.

First, there is a call for patience (verse 24): “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” Yes, there are times in life when God seems to be completely absent (didn’t even Jesus cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) but such times will come to an end. “It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (verse 26). Is “quiet waiting” a skill you need to learn?

Second, there is a word of encouragement for the young, those who are likely to be the most idealistic and therefore all the more shattered by the destruction of their dreams: “It is good for one to bear the yoke while one is young... for men are not cast off by the Lord for ever” (verses 27, 31). Many people would testify that severe hardships in childhood and youth have helped shape their adult selves into something strong and good. Pain in early life may well be traumatic; but it can make us as well as break us.

Third, there is a recognition of God’s lordship over all things: yes, he does indeed “bring grief”, but that grief does not cancel out his “unfailing love” (verse 32). When terrible things happen they are hard to bear, and it is tempting and understandable to blame God, even to shake a fist at him (and his shoulders are big enough to take it, by the way). But “he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men” (verse 33). 

There are things which God actively makes happen; and there are things which he, in sadness, allows to happen for reasons only he knows - even though they bring pain to the men and women he loves.

Fourth, there is a call to repentance. Sometimes our misfortunes are just, as it seems to us, bad luck (see, for example, John 9:1-3 or Luke 13:1-5). But sometimes they are the result of our own sin and rebellion. This was certainly the case with Israel at this time. And so it may be that a radical change of heart is needed: “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord” (verse 40). Is this a word to some of us?

I could go on; but hopefully I have said enough to whet your appetite. I find it hard to imagine any of us not hearing some word from God through this most moving of Bible chapters. May God bless us all as we read.

Loving Father, thank you that you never willingly afflict pain, and that when pain does come it can be turned to good. Help me, please, to “trace the rainbow through the rain, /And feel the promise is not vain /That morn shall tearless be”. Amen.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Angry with someone?

Barnabas wanted to take John (also called Mark) with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia... They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Acts 15:37-39

Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. 2 Timothy 4:11

“Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me...”

So writes Paul to his sidekick Timothy. He is in prison, and he is asking Timothy to do various practical things for him. Bringing Mark to see him is just one.

I like those little parts of Paul’s letters where he talks about his friends and fellow-missionaries, or about his personal needs - in this instance he wants some books and also (perhaps the nights were getting a bit chilly) an old cloak. These passages make him seem very human, not just a Christian leader who wrote profound theology.

But it’s his desire to have Mark with him that is specially touching. Why? Because he and Mark have, as they say, a bit of previous. Relations have not been good. 

The “back-story” is found in Acts...

Acts 13:13 tells us that on an earlier missionary journey Mark had left Paul and his friend Barnabas in the lurch and scuttled off back home. And Acts 15:37-39 tells us that, when it came to planning a future journey, Paul and Barnabas “had a sharp disagreement” over whether or not Timothy should be included in the party: Barnabas wanted him, Paul did not. (The Greek word for their falling out is the one from which we get “paroxysm”, suggesting a pretty heated exchange of views, to put it mildly.) 

Result: Paul and Barnabas go their separate ways.

So it’s very heartening to hear Paul saying here, some years later, that he really would like to have Timothy with him in the loneliness of his imprisonment. We know that Paul and Barnabas settled their differences, but this verse make it clear that Paul and Mark also are fully reconciled. 

Various thoughts jump out of the story.

First, Christians can and do fall out. All right, no doubt they shouldn’t, and in a perfect church they wouldn’t. But as the wall-poster says, “Be patient! God hasn’t finished with me yet.” Christians are, or should be, people of strong convictions, so there are bound to be times when they see things differently, and that can lead to tensions; none of us has it right all the time.

Second, Christians should aim to resolve their differences in a Christ-like way. The proper response to a falling-out is neither a wail of despair - “How can we be real Christians if we fall out like this!” - nor a simmering anger and resentment - “Right! I’ve had it with him!” No; the proper response is a serious determination to put it right. What matters most is not the falling-out, but the way we respond to it and handle it. 

We can only guess how Paul and Mark were reconciled. Perhaps Mark felt bad and offered Paul an apology - “I’m really sorry about what happened in Pamphylia.” It could be that Paul approached Mark with something along the lines of “Perhaps I acted rather hastily over the new journey - it’s just that I was rather disappointed when you left us.” 

(It could even be, of course, that Mark was blissfully unaware of the problem; the rift, after all, was between Paul and Barnabas, and he the unwitting cause. Perhaps Paul allowed his anger to cool and simply made nothing of it when he next met Mark.)

Whatever, it leads to the third truth: damaged relationships can be healed!

In my ministry I have pastored just two churches, each for around twenty years. This has given me long enough in each church to be able to see such healings take place. Indeed, it has had an impact on me personally, for I can think of people I have not got on well with (no doubt usually my fault), only for a day to come when we were working, praying and worshipping happily together.

Has what I have said brought to your mind a bruised relationship in your life? Is it time to approach that other person and to hold out an olive branch? Or perhaps, through prayer, to bury once and for all that nasty sense of grievance? People, even those we have had a disagreement with, are rarely seriously bad people!

It’s not in the Bible, but it’s a good saying all the same: the best way to get rid of an enemy is to turn him into a friend. So how about it? And how about it today?

Father, forgive me for the people I have misjudged, undervalued or found fault with. Forgive my prejudices and my harbouring of grudges. Help me today, no matter where the fault may lie, to set about the business of rebuilding trust and restoring love. Amen.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

A tale of two journeys

The Lord watches over the way of the righteous. Psalm 1:6

My older son Christopher was in his middle twenties when he spent a year back-packing round the world with his girl-friend. They had a great time visiting all sorts of exotic places - made me really green with envy, to be honest, as I thought about the bit of hitch-hiking I did in my student years. (Mind you, as I loftily reminded him, in my day we didn’t have mobile phones, computers, skype and all the rest; just a wad of crumpled travellers’ cheques and a few air-mail forms.)

Were we worried about them? Well, a bit concerned, of course; bad things can happen to such travellers, as we have been so sadly reminded in the past few days. But we knew there was no point in fretting.

It was rather different when he did his first big journey away from home without us...

I needed to post a letter one day, and that meant a walk of a couple of hundred yards down the road to the post-box. Christopher saw me heading off - and promptly decided that this was something he would do; and that he would do it without any company, thank you very much. I suppose he must have been about four.

I dithered, as you can imagine. Our road isn’t particularly busy, but the post-box is on the other side, and there are usually a few cars coming and going. But I knew he must have his way. So I explained very clearly how careful he must be, especially when crossing the road, and how he must come straight back. 

And so began the epic journey. I, of course, stood in the doorway, craning to follow him all the way. Occasionally I lost sight of him, but then I would see his head bobbing along behind the parked cars. He reached the post-box, he stretched up to the slot, he dropped the letter in, he turned back, he stood to cross the road – look-left-look-right-look-left-look-right-look-left-look right, about ten times - and then he was back with me, his face aglow with triumph: “I did it! I did it all by my own!”

I’m sure he knew I would be watching him, but he knew nothing of what was going on in my heart. If something had gone wrong, well, of course I would have been down that road faster than Usain Bolt.

I learned that day just a tiny bit of what it must be like to be God. For as the psalmist tells us: “The Lord watches over the way of the righteous”. All right, I don’t think of God as being anxious as he does this; but I did grasp just a hint of his tender love.

To say that life is a journey is a pretty tired cliché. But the thing about clichés is that they happen to be true (which is exactly how they become clichés, for what is a cliché but a truth repeated to the point of tedium?). 

So let me ask: where are you on your journey today? Are you strolling pleasantly through green fields, or battling through a thunder-storm? Are you just setting out, full of hope and optimism, or getting close to the end, perhaps a little jaded, even cynical, feeling that while you are older you don’t seem that much wiser? Are you enjoying the journey, or are you full of pain and sadness for some reason personal to you?

What matters is that, wherever you are as a Christian, God loves you and is watching over you. Your journey at the moment may be the equivalent of a little boy padding down to the post-box, or of a young man like Christopher riding a huge turtle on the Galapagos Islands; or it may be shrunk to the point where your only contact with the outside world is a small window through which you can see the sky. 

But as long as a new day of life is given there is a God-given purpose in that day, and there is an opportunity to feel and even enjoy the presence of God and to do his will. 

I was hearing recently about a man who has been confined to his home for many years; yet such is the peace and radiance of his faith that people ask to be taken to see him to feel the love of God in him. He does good not by doing anything, but just by being. His journey remains satisfying to him and a blessing to others.

And one day - let’s not forget - there will be journey’s end, when “we shall be like [Christ], for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3). We’re heading for home.

Dear Father in heaven, thank you for watching over me step by step of my journey. Help me to trust you in all the circumstances o f life, especially when the way is hard. Amen.