Sunday, 30 August 2015

Are you harbouring a grudge?

Those with good sense are slow to anger, and it is their glory to overlook an offence. Proverbs 19:11

Are you harbouring a grudge? Is there somebody whose behaviour towards you rankles deep down?

“Forgive and forget” is easy to say, but can be hard to do. Once an offence is given it’s a great temptation to dwell on it, brood over it, even (let’s be honest) enjoy it in a twisted kind of way. But that is not, according to the writer of Proverbs, the way of “good sense”. Indeed, he describes a willingness to “overlook an offence” as something “glorious” - and that’s a strong word.

As I look back over my life I can only say how deeply grateful I am for people who have turned a blind eye to things I did or said which fill me now with a sense of embarrassment and shame. They acted as if it had never happened; they let life just carry on as usual.

One thing I have learned is that there is a difference between an offence being “overlooked” in that kind of way and an offence being forgiven in a conspicuous way. 

What I mean is this: somebody might forgive you, yes, but do it in such an obvious and lordly manner that it leaves you feeling about an inch tall. They might as well say outright “Well, I do forgive you, of course (I am after all a very good Christian) - but please don’t imagine that I never noticed what you did. Oh no! And you can take it for sure that I won’t forget it...” And so your relationship with them is tainted for the rest of your life: like having a debt which you can never repay.

There are at least three important things to notice about all this.

First, overlooking a fault may be extremely difficult. Let’s not pretend - what was done may not have been trivial. It may have lasting ill-effects on your life and happiness. So coming to the point of forgiving that other person may have to be a clear act of will, a hard-headed (though not hard-hearted!) decision: “All right, I am entitled to go on feeling angry, but I make the choice not to do so. I refuse to allow bitterness to dominate my mind.”  In other words, it is not something offered on a purely emotional level.

If the offence was particularly bad this may only be possible with a large helping of God’s grace. It may take time. The old negative feelings may keep rearing their heads again. But in time peace will come. 

This leads to the second point: in refusing to overlook a fault we end up harming ourselves more than the other person. Nursing a grudge can poison your whole personality. It can turn you into a different - a worse - kind of person. A minister friend of mine once memorably described somebody as “full of frozen anger”: all well on the outside, yes, but all the signs of a deep inner unhappiness. To choose unforgiveness is to choose misery.

Third, overlooking a fault doesn’t necessarily mean not wanting proper, impartial justice. This is where it gets a little tricky. On a personal level I may genuinely forgive the person who has hurt me and sincerely wish them well. But I may also feel that what they did should be - dare I use the word? - punished by some legitimate authority.

Take an extreme example. Sometimes when an atrocity occurs - a murder perhaps - we hear the victim’s loved ones say “We have forgiven the person who did this.” This is truly wonderful (and often, though not always, said out of Christian faith). 

But it will still be right for the murderer to be subject to the force of the law. Forgiveness isn’t easy - and it mustn’t be allowed to appear cheap. Actions have consequences, and it is important that both the perpetrator of the offence and society as a whole are reminded of this. 

But - and this is the great thing - it doesn’t cancel out the genuineness of the forgiveness.

Jesus, dying on the cross, prayed that his Father would forgive those who crucified him, because “they don’t know what they’re doing”. On this whole painful topic, that surely has to be the last word.

Father in heaven, thank you for the people in my life who have graciously turned a blind eye to my many sins and faults. Help me in turn never to harbour grudges. Help me to be more like Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

A time for listening

Jesus answered, "It is written, 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" Matthew 4:4

Our God is a God who speaks.

That is a fundamental belief of Christians - the third verse of the whole Bible tells us that "God said..." And constantly, throughout both the Old Testament and the New, God is speaking. It's a theme you just can't get away from.

I know someone who doesn't speak. I don't know why, and it is no business of mine to ask - a physical problem with his mouth? some kind of psychological blockage? But if you say Hello to him he will smile and shake your hand, but he won’t say anything. As you can imagine, this makes communication enormously difficult, indeed, pretty well impossible. Whereas most of us (let's be honest) talk far too much, making it very easy for other people to know what's going on in our minds, with him you just never know. Strange, and faintly disturbing.

But suppose God never spoke? What then? Suppose we simply had no way of ever knowing what was going on in his mind? We would be completely at a loss as to what life is all about, and how we are supposed to live it.

How does God speak? Well, in various ways.

First, through the created world round us. The Psalmist tells us that "the heavens declare the glory of God... Day after day they pour forth speech" (Psalm 19). Second, through our consciences - don't we all sometimes hear that inner voice warning us about something we are tempted to do? Conscience isn't a perfect guide - it is corrupted by all sorts of bad influences. But if we bring it before God it is an important guide to us.

Above all, God speaks through his son Jesus. This is why the Bible calls Jesus "the Word made flesh" (John 1) - which, when you stop and think about it, is a very strange way to refer to a person. Every time you focus on Jesus you are in effect hearing God speak. He is the living Word of God.

And God speaks through scripture - the Bible, as we usually call it. This is why Jesus, when he was tempted by the devil, sent him packing by quoting the words of scripture, "it is written...", three times (Matthew 4:1-10).

You remember the story... The devil has tempted Jesus to turn the stones around him into bread - a pretty serious temptation, given that he had gone without food for forty days. But Jesus refuses to give in: the greatest need of human beings, he says, is not physical food, vital though that of course is, but God's word. This is a direct quotation from Deuteronomy 8. Jesus knew his Bible - and he knew how to use it.

And the question is: Could that be said of you and me? God speaks, that's for sure. But are we listening? Do Bible texts and passages spring naturally to our minds to help us in the normal circumstances of our lives? Or is our knowledge of the Bible hazy, patchy, hit-or-miss?

I hope all of us are good listeners. I imagine that most of us listen specially carefully if the person speaking is someone we regard as particularly important - someone we love, someone who is in an important position. Well, people don't come more important than God! So close your ears to him at your peril.

God has given us a book. We call it the Bible. Certainly it can be difficult, even puzzling, sometimes downright disturbing. But through it he speaks to us, so not to listen to it is sheer folly.

Are you serious about your Bible? I urge all of us to get to grips with it every day. Think about it. Reflect on it. Pray over it. Over time, get to grips with it all - every chapter, every verse.

If you are serious about God, how can you not be serious about his word? Putting it another way, not wanting to bother with the Bible is tantamount to not wanting to bother with God. Going back to what Jesus said, we don't live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Father, forgive me that though you are constantly speaking, I am so rarely listening. Thank you for the gift of the Bible. Please help me to take it seriously, and to make it my daily food. Amen.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Wake up, Lord!

Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Psalm 44:23

"Isn't it about time you woke up!"

Have you ever found yourself saying that to somebody? Or perhaps there have been times when somebody said it to you. It needn't, of course, be meant in the literal sense of actually getting out of bed. More often it's a way of saying "Come on, you're in a rut! Stir yourself! Roll your sleeves up and get to work!"

Whatever, it does come as something of a surprise that the Psalmist in Psalm 44 should feel able to talk to God himself in this way. It seems faintly blasphemous. Who are we to give orders to God? And anyway, doesn't the Bible say elsewhere that "God neither slumbers nor sleeps"?

Well, if you read the psalm through, you find that it's about a period in Israel's history when they were going through a seriously bad time - and the problem was that God just didn't seem to care. He seemed deaf to their prayers. It was as if he was fast asleep; hence these words.

When I last read Psalm 44 these words struck me with special force. I decided that if it was good enough for the Psalmist, well, it was good enough for me. I prayed over various matters where it seemed that God wasn't doing anything very much, and, taking a leaf out of the psalm, I prayed "Come on, Lord, wake up!" Two things seemed to happen - or not, as the case may be.

First, something that didn’t happen. I didn't find myself feeling guilty, as if I was doing something wrong. Of course, I tried to pray reverently and respectfully, but, still, I was as blunt as the Psalmist. I remembered that God has pretty broad shoulders, and he is happy to take from us whatever we feel we need to throw at him.

But second - and this was something I didn't really expect - I felt that the longer I prayed in this way, the more God was almost smiling back at me and saying something along these lines: "So you would like me to wake up, would you? All right, I've heard what you are saying. But - just a minute now - can I ask you something? Is it time you did a bit of waking up too?" It seemed almost like a bargain, if I can put it in such crude terms: "I'm very happy to wake up - but what about you?" It was as if God was challenging me: "Have you rather gone to sleep in your discipleship!"

It brought to my mind one or two other Bible passages. 

I thought of Jesus, praying in agony of spirit in the Garden of Gethsemane, only to find his disciples fast sleep. There is a deep sadness, even loneliness, in his voice as he asks, "Couldn't you keep watch with me for one hour?" There's Paul in Romans 13: "The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber". Paul again in Ephesians 5: "Wake up, O sleeper, and rise from the dead and Christ will give you light." And Paul yet again in 1 Thessalonians 5: "Let us not be like others who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled....”

Never mind God... We as Christians are called to be alert! self-controlled! awake!

Where does this lead us...?

Perhaps there’s a bit of a paradox here that we need to notice. We often hear it said (usually in sermons; I know I’ve said it myself) that “God’s timing is not ours”, and therefore we need to be patient. Of course that is true. But on the other hand verses like this one suggest that there may also be times for - if I can call it this - a sort of holy impatience. Times when our passion, our urgency, to see God’s hand at work, trump that natural sense of reverence.

So... Do you ever feel like praying "Come on, Lord, wake up!"? If so, I encourage you to carry on in that vein. God can take it! But do remember too to listen out for his voice - you may well hear him say, "What about you? Have you gone to sleep on the job - the job of being a serious Christian? Is it time you too rolled up your sleeves? Let's strike a bargain: I'll wake up a bit - when I see you beginning to stir".

Dear Father, please forgive me if I have become lazy and sluggish in my walk with you. Please help me to roll up my sleeves and get going again. Only then, dear Lord, will I look for the signs that you too are really awake!

Thursday, 20 August 2015

A ministry anyone can exercise...

May those who fear you rejoice when they see me. Psalm 119:74

Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet . Acts 36-37
There are people who, the moment they walk into a room, make you feel better. They don't have to do or say anything - their mere presence is somehow reassuring and encouraging. Do you know people like that? I hope you do.

Other people have the opposite effect. Not necessarily "Oh no, here comes trouble", but just a feeling that it's going to be hard work not to be pulled down. I suspect that we all know people like that. (Though let's be very careful; we need to add a little warning: "Could it be that I am someone like that!")

The Psalmist is praying to be the first type of person. He is saying, in effect, "Lord, I want to be the kind of person who gives a boost to those who respect and love you. I want to be a good example. I want to be the kind of person that others can look to. I want to be an encourager..."

Encouragement... it's a great gift.

We all know about Barnabas in Acts (or if you don’t, may I suggest it’s time to get reading). Well, Barnabas wasn't in fact his proper name; really, he was called Joseph. Barnabas was a nickname, meaning "son of encouragement" or, more colloquially, "that man who goes around bucking everybody up". You don't earn a nickname like that unless there is something a bit special about you. Thank God for the Barnabases of this world! Thank God for the Barnabases in your church.

But, again, we need to be careful. We're not talking here merely about a particular type of personality. Some people are naturally cheery and optimistic - and there's nothing wrong with that.

But the kind of encouragement the Psalmist is praying to give, and which Barnabas certainly did give, springs not just from that sort of personality, but from a deep understanding of God's word. Read Acts right through and you immediately see that Barnabas, as well as being generous and open-handed, was a capable preacher of God's word. And read Psalm 119 right through (yes, all 176 verses of it!) and you will see that the writer's chief concern is with God's word.

People who are naturally cheery are good to know. But in times of trouble their cheeriness can wear a bit thin, a bit hollow. Suddenly they don't seem to have much to offer. The person who says "Cheer up, everything's going to be all right" when you are floundering in the depths of despair, only makes you feel worse.

But the person who can come beside you and strengthen you with wisdom and good sense based on the Bible, the person who has proved the truth of God's word in his or her personal experience, the person whose whole way of thinking and living is soaked in scriptural principles, the person who is willing to give practical help in terms of time, money and talents - well, that person truly is a "son or daughter of encouragement".

The message is clear. Learn the word of God with your head. Pray it into your heart. Live it out in your life. Then you will be able to share the Psalmist's prayer. Then you will be a real Barnabas to your fellow-Christians.

Father in heaven, thank you for the Christian men and women who have been an encouragement to me throughout my Christian life. As I study your word and seek to put it into practice, may I be to others what those people have been to me. Amen.