Category Archives: Providence

The Reality of Work Life Imbalance – Part 2: The Strain

WorkLifeFor too long the church has viewed the workplace as the space between the church service and the midweek prayer meeting. There may be the occasional sermon or book on the theology of work, and how it pleases God for us to work hard and fair and to do your bit for your family and society. However, this approach misses the subtlety of the changes that have occurred over the last two decades in the modern workplace. Too many Pastors have only a distant memory of what secular work was like and little understanding of the complexities of the modern workplace.

No longer do we have one job for life, no longer do we leave our responsibilities in the office when he head out the door, no longer do we live our lives working our whole lives at the local factory or office just around the corner. No longer do we mix with our work colleagues socially at the weekend and get to know their kids. Maybe it never quite reached this nirvana (particularly as the social benefits were often outweighed by financial struggles) but work has undergone a seismic shift in both nature and pace.

The modern workplace is transient, distant (both emotionally and often physically) and all embracing. The modern worker will move jobs every couple of years. They may have to re-locate their home numerous times, unless they live in a large city hub. Modern communications means they are contactable 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, even during weekends and holidays. Responsiveness to emails is a pre-requisite for success as important as punctuality to formal meetings. Add into the mix the increasingly global nature of business and, working for an international company can mean frequent long haul travel. Put it all together and you have long hours, frequent out of hours interruptions, pressure, stress and exhaustion.

All of this inevitably leads to pressure on those closet to us:  our wives and our kids. Work puts a strain on families; it can disintegrate friendships and cause health problems. Marriages fall apart, families are fractured, homes are split. And the church looks around and wonders where all the committed men are? Perhaps you have heard someone say “Where are the men who (in my day) would do a hard day’s work and then be out at the prayer meeting? Men are not just committed enough these days.”

Dear church, newsflash for you – we are fighting to survive, we are straining under phenomenal demands from our work and the consequences of a broken, splinted society. We are putting our limited energy into protecting those that are most precious to us and God – our spouses and our kids. We recognise that we don’t have a perfect work / life balance, in fact, we struggle, and fight to minimise the imbalance. This is the reality that we live with.

I recognise that not everyone in the workplace has such demands on them, or to such an extent. My argument is that the church should take the time  to understand where people are at and not treat everyone in the workplace as a homogeneous group, dispensing generic advice to all and having the same expectations of all. In my first post on this subject I split the workplace into four categories that are generalisations of the various types of demands work places on them and the rewards it gives (read Part 1 here). In this post I’m speaking as someone in the top right hand box of that quadrant. I admit that these are generalities and sterotypes to some extent, but by their very nature models are simplifications of reality. Good models help us understand reality better.

My point is that we need to stop measuring someone’s commitment to God by their attendance, or lack of it, at church meetings. For those that have been put in a position of responsibility and pressure – our modern day Daniel’s and Joseph’s, we need to stop asking, why aren’t they here at our meetings, and start asking, what is God doing through them there? It’s interesting that we never read of Joseph or Daniel undertaking any activity at the local Egyptian or Babylonian synagogue. Their entire ministry was played out in front of the most senior secular leaders of their day…and what an impact those two men had.

In the providence of God Joseph saved an entire continent from starvation, Daniel stood true to Jehovah in the heart of the most powerful nation on earth. His testimony brought the most powerful kings of his day face to face with the living God, causing two pagan kings to proclaim the power and majesty of the only living God (King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4.34 & 35 and King Darius in Daniel 5.26 & 27).

And so, why do we do it? Why not give it all up and get an easier job, a less stressful life? There are many reasons, but the one I want to mention is one that I have come to realise over the last few months. It starts with a question: which of the four quadrants (see Part 1) is hardest to reach with the truth of the gospel? Both “Sweet Spot” and “Passing Time” have jobs with low demands and are looking for things outside of work to give them meaning. They are more likely to be open to forming new friendships and attending evangelistic courses. Those in “Slave Labour” are more likely to be desperate for something meaningful in their life. Getting time with them may be a challenge, but there is likely to be some interest there, if they are not too disillusioned with life. The real tough ones to reach are those in “Labour of Love” – they have extremely demanding lives and very rewarding work. The only way to reach this group is to run as fast, as hard, for as long as they do. They are not looking to form friendships through clubs, they do not have a wide circle of friends. Often their work is their life.

So, if God puts you in that top right hand quadrant and you start to build relationships with people that very few people are able to meet even as acquaintances, you feel incredibly honoured. As you see God working in their lives, you start to think that maybe you should stick around. You start to see your work life imbalance as less an admission of failure, but rather as a ticket of entry. Entry into the lives of a quadrant that the church will never reach through standard evangelistic techniques and methods. It almost feels like you are undercover! Except you are hiding nothing. But you are there on your own, no support team, no backup plan. The church may not understand or affirm your calling, but you know deep inside that God has his hand on your life and those around you.

Be blessed all you Josephs out there…you know who you are!

The Good Life

1975_television_the_good_life_02One of my favourite family programmes growing up was The Good Life. For those outside the UK, this was a 1970s sit-com following the lives of the Tom & Barbara Good (in case you’re wondering I saw the repeats not the orginal series!). They sought to go back to basics and live life as it should be; to live off the land and provide for themselves by their honest hard work. The wife was played by Felicity Kendal and I thought of her this week when studying Augustine. For in book 5 of Augustine’s City of God he speaks about the pursuit and possession of felicity.

Felicity

For most of us, felicity is probably a rather old-fashioned girl’s name, but long before the olden days, it meant the “complete enjoyment of all that is to be desired” – what we call happiness. Felicity, or happiness, is the ability to enjoy life. It is more than being blessed in our material possessions; it is the ability to enjoy whatever possessions and situation we find ourselves in.

Augustine frames felicity within a wider question to his reader: “what is the virtuous life; how much is it due to God, and how much is it due to us?” His penetrating question combines 1) the concept of felicity (the ability to enjoy life), with 2) God’s Providence (his provision and direction over our lives), and 3) our virtue and choices.

He describes how the ability to enjoy and be satisfied in our blessings is a greater gift than simply the possession of those blessings. He compares our possession of blessings to a meal that has been prepared and served. It is great to possess a meal, but even better to participate in it; to eat and enjoy the meal. How much more the blessings of life – not just to have them, but to enjoy them?

However, he also recognises that God bestows felicity as he wishes, even on those who are not good. Therefore, he asks the question “why then was God willing that the Roman Empire should extend so widely and last so long?” That is, how did Providence, felicity and virtue play out in the Roman Empire?

Providence

Augustine begins by attacking the practise of worshiping multitudes of gods in every aspect of life. He wonders why they need all these gods, when if they only had Felicity they would be content in life. “Why not worship Felicity?” he asks, for felicity is to be sought above all other gifts.

He then goes on to confront the superstitious belief in astrology that held sway amongst many Romans. Many saw their destiny dependent on the position of the stars at the time of birth or conception, others believed in pure chance. Augustine argues that God cares for and directs all of life. However, if God has already planned what will happen, does this take away our free will? What is the interaction between free will and God’s foreknowledge?

For Cicero the two things were mutually exclusive, he believed we must have free will and this meant no room for God’s will. For Augustine “the religious mind chooses both, foreknowledge as well as liberty; it acknowledges both, and supports both in pious faith.” But how can this be? Augustine argues that as every event must be preceded by a cause our wills also have causes and have been included in the preceding cause of God’s foreknowledge. God is the ultimate cause, we have a perceived freedom because we are a participating cause and our will is important because it forms part of the overall plan of his will.

Augustine says God is free to do his own will, for he is truly ALL-powerful. We do what we desire, so does God. He cannot do what he does not desire. Sometimes we desire and will something and it does not happen. God alone has the power to desire and the will to achieve. Augustine argues that if he foreknew our will then there was something he saw, not nothing – therefore we have a part to play.

He says that we have responsibility for willed sin. In God’s providence he has given man governance of creation. We share our existence with the stones, our reproductive life with plants, our senses with animals, and our intellect with the angels. We are responsible creatures and have been endowed with responsibility, over not only individual creatures but also their kingdoms.

Virtue

Augustine argues that the best characteristics of this governance were displayed in the Roman Empire. For, at its noblest, it was passionate about glory and this passion restrained other vices. Men were “greedy for praise, generous with money, seeking vast renown and honourable riches.” They were prepared to die for what they believed in, and this was a powerful force for good.

The important thing for the men of that time was “either to die bravely, or to live in freedom”. However, he also recognises that “in early times it was the love of liberty that led to great achievements, later it was the love of dominationWhen liberty had been won such a passion for glory took hold of them that liberty alone did not satisfy – they had to acquire dominion.”

They sought glory, honour and power – the good men sought these through virtuous deeds, the “worthless wretch” sought them through deception and trickery. However, over and above all these stood virtue, for virtue was considered greater than glory “since it is not content with the testimony of men, without the witness of a man’s own conscience.”

In a devastating critique of the decline of Rome he asks where have the virtues that made Rome great gone? Things that have ceased to exist: “energy in our own land, a rule of justice outside our borders; in forming policy, a mind that is free because not at the mercy of criminal passions. Instead we have self-indulgence and greed, public poverty and private opulence. We praise riches: we pursue a course of sloth. No distinction is made between good men and bad: the intrigues of ambition win the prizes due to merit. No wonder, when each of you thinks only of his own private interest; when at home you are slaves to your appetites, and to money and influence in your public life.” The parallels for our own time are too obvious to mention.

Conclusion

Augustine saves the biggest challenge for the citizens of the heavenly city. “Very different is the reward of the saints” for our reward is to be enjoyed forever in the next life. However, in this life we are despised “for the City of God is hateful to the lovers of this world.” Nevertheless, we can learn much from those who sought their reward from earthly dominion. If they were willing to expand such devotion to virtue for earthly praise and honour, should we not be rebuked for our love of ease? Can we not learn from their self-denial, single-mindedness, integrity, poverty and temptations? If we have been made citizens of the City of God by the Providence of God, should we not seek even deeper virtue without the need for glory?

The Good Life is worth living because it is the only way to really enjoy life. Virtue is worth seeking even if no one else ever knows or sees. Felicity can be achieved without achievements.

Father help me not to seek power, prestige or popularity. Help me to seek only you and enable me to enjoy the blessings you have given me. Amen.

My A to Z prayer for 2013

walking_alone_on_long_road-other-e1343172538576My A to Z prayer for 2013

Always you Lord; I do not seek success today, I seek only you

Before all others, you are the one I seek first and constantly

Consciously I turn from all other loves and choose to love only you

Dependent upon your Spirit I ask only to hear your voice and be with you

Everything else fades away when I steadfastly seek your face, help me stay in your presence each moment

Father, I desire you when I do not understand you; I love you when I cannot see you

Great God of the whole universe, help me to trust you are guiding me home and be thankful for your blessings

Hardness of heart is my enemy; give me a tender spirit and a fresh love for others

I am resolved not to base your love for me on my achievement; you love me as I love my children – unconditionally

Just one thing I seek; a full heart of blazing love for you Lord

Knackered is what I am expecting to be for most of the year; help me to accept this is your plan

Life is short and death comes quickly; I have everything I ever needed because I have you

Measure not my life by my accomplishments, or abilities, or reputation but my nearness to you Lord

Nothing… is what I need to be content, fulfilled, at peace. Help me remember this in the bustle of life

Only one day at a time, do not fret about what’s to come or what’s been done…

Peace comes from acceptance and resignation; I completely surrender my life to your hands

Quietness and silence – help me to meditate on you and be still in your presence

Restless is my spirit until you remove all the distractions and I see only you

Spirit, come fill me, lead me, mould me, shape me, satisfy me; all that I desire is more of you

Turn my eyes from worthless things Lord; do not let them dazzle me

Use me as you see fit Lord, no holding back; I do what I do today for you only – show me if you desire something else

Very short is the time I have with my children, they grow so quickly; help me make the most of each day

Work will demand much of me, help me Lord to be strong and do my best every day

X, the sign of the cross upon me wherever I go; always with me, marking me as your property Lord

Youth is disappearing; help me to live each day without deceit, regret or vanity

Zero… the credit in my spiritual account; never more or less than a sinner saved by grace

This post was written for the Scottish Baptist Lay Preachers Association – click here

14 Lessons from the Crucible

 14 Lessons from the crucible – walking with the Lord in the furnace of secular employment

Warning: I have written this in the pressure of intense work situation and am still working through some of the issues raised. It’s pretty raw, be patient with me if you are further along the path my brother or sister, I am just a beginner on this path asking questions. Also, forgive me if it’s more personal than my usual reflections, I believe we need to debate some of the issues I raise in a mature and godly manner, I am seeking to do just that in this piece. I welcome your comments and additions.

Let me cut to the chase: in my early 20s I thought I was going to be a missionary, in my late 20s and early 30s I became convinced I was being called to ministry of the word, thinking that the pastorate was ahead. In my mid to late 30s I have finally realised that God is wanting me to stop planning my future, but instead be his slave in the present, in this place, for his purpose. Whatever might happen in the future it is up to him to use me as he decides, whatever and wherever that might be.

As I grew up I imbibed the unspoken assumption that full-time vocational Christian ministry was God’s best for me, and for anyone else for that matter. I subconsciously, and sometimes consciously, sought to direct my life towards that goal. It was not hard to seek this path, as I have found this principle to be assumed and encouraged by the vast majority of our Christian books, sermons and teachers. However, at each stage of my life I have experienced the various means of God’s guidance to pull me back to the workplace.  Sometimes it was circumstances, sometimes it was a growing inner conviction that this was where God wanted me, sometimes it was the conversation with godly Christian friends and family. Yet, through it all, as I spent year after year in the workplace I still had the underlying assumption (and hope!) that one day, in some way, God would finally release me to serve him “fully” and glorify him more completely by devoting some, if not all, of my time to Christian ministry. This was particularly the case as I didn’t “feel” called to the workplace, rather the opposite, I felt called to ministry.

However, over the last 18 months the more I have tried to serve God the less time he has given me to do it. Or so I thought. I had to step back from responsibilities at church, reduce my preaching commitments and dedicate myself more fully, completely to my work. The little time I had left was given to trying to protect time for my wife and young family. I have not been there for friends, I have not been there for the prayer meetings nor the bible studies nor the evening service. I am only at church on Sunday mornings and I wait for them as an oasis of Shalom; the beauty and peace of fully dedicated time to be in the Lord’s house with the Lord’s people. These times have become ever more precious to me.

So, last year I wrote what I was learning about ministry of the word within a mundane job.  How things have changed in 12 months! Now I am at the opposite extreme –responsibility, pressure, flat out and exhausted. I have finally started to realise that God has made me a certain way, for a certain purpose and that this is to do strategy and to preach the word. For these two things I exist on this planet.

Slowly, imperceptibly, God has broken this assumption in me. No longer do I see a spiritual vocational hierarchy when I look through God’s eyes. I see people, made in his image, with his variety of gifting and capability, made to serve him in a multitude of ways, across every vocation and discipline. I see those that have searched their heart and fulfilled their calling and those that are yet to find it. I now see that the most menial of tasks, done for the glory of God and in obedience to his call, can be the highest form of service that you or I can offer him (if that is his will for us). I know we say we believe this, but in reality do we?

Obedience is the key, it is the secret jewel of Christian usefulness and confidence. It is better to obey than sacrifice the ancients said and Jesus repeated. It is most blessed to obey – the most blessed path possible, wherever that obedience leads you.

Here are 14 things I have learnt and am continuing to learn, but before you read them please consider what I am not saying. I am not saying that “it doesn’t matter what you do, because all activity is equally worthy”. Neither am I saying that full-time Christian vocational ministry is not valid, needed, necessary and absolutely God’s best for many of us. I have too many pastors, pioneer missionaries and evangelists for friends to be unaware of the mighty responsibility and urgent need of this awesome calling. Don’t think I am wanting to swing the pendulum the other way and say we don’t need anyone full-time. What I am challenging is the assumption that this is always the best way for all of us (particularly those involved in word ministry) to serve him and other paths are second best. Perhaps you never had this assumption – praise God!

  1. Obedience is more important than any perceived increase or decrease in ministry effectiveness. For some the calling of God can actually mean they move away from opportunities for direct Christian service, for others it will be the opposite. We should not automatically equate either direction with increasing faithfulness, sacrifice or obedience. The meanest and most mundane work can be our most glorifying service when done as an offering to the Lord.
  2. For the many Christians, their highest calling will be the workplace and home. This should be recognised, affirmed and encouraged. They are as much called to their jobs and homes as the mission field. But it is not a competition between vocations – each in its uniqueness and splendour is treasured by God.
  3. The calling to the workplace is as valid, important and God-honouring as the calling to the pastorate or mission field. For some their highest calling will be to guard the theological strongholds, translate tribal languages and protect the flock from continuous attacks from without and within. But the calling to the workplace is not a lesser calling, or God’s second best. The workplace can lead to incredible usefulness in God’s hands – e.g. the construction supervisor Nehemiah, the civil servant and administrator Joseph, the beautician and model Esther, the government official Daniel, the politician William Wilberforce, among many others…
  4. My cross-cultural ministry begins on Monday morning and finishes on Friday evening. I am immersed in a pagan society all day every day, seeking to live counter-culturally without retreating into a ghetto or being weird in order to be noticed. Every religious habit or sacred ritual needs to be examined to see if its  essential or a cultural barrier. Every character trait is laid bare, examined and tested in real time by a watching world.
  5. The best way to glorify God with your life is whatever he has gifted and called us to do. For some this will be vocational Christian mission and ministry, for others it will be the workplace and home. Are we willing to spread wide the application of the challenge to glorify God with our lives? Are we prepared to affirm the calling of those who have little time to give to church meetings?
  6. The desire and gifting to do Christian ministry do not constitute, in themselves, a call.  I believe the internal call of God must be married with an external call from without. Both a calling to be his vessel and a calling to a location, resulting from the right doors opening at the right time.
  7. There is no spiritual vocation hierarchy. It is perhaps not said outright, but there is no doubting its presence – there are those in our churches who do ministry with a capital “M”, and then there are the rest of us. What does our definition of “ministry” include? Is it restricted to word ministry (preaching, teaching and evangelism) or maybe we also include service to the poor, sick and suffering (pastoral)? Yes, we also include those who serve as professionals abroad in some distant land. But, what if you see yourself as a professional in a cross-cultural, anti-Christian community in your homeland? Is that really ministry? Yes, some vocations require greater sacrifice and others bring greater earthly rewards, but through it all it is the obedience that is important not the activity. However, the majority of the application from Christian books and sermons gives the impression that working for the church or missions (either paid or voluntarily) is superior in God’s sight to working in secular employment. The impression is that service to God begins when one engages on church work in the evenings or weekends.
  8. Post-Christian countries like the UK will only be reached when this truth is finally believed by the church and impacts how it trains, equips and supports those in the workplace. This generation will only be reached when we intentionally present and affirm the workplace as a valid, important and glorifying to God vocation to our best young men and women – our most promising leaders. We will only affirm it if we really believe, not just say we believe it.
  9. For secular, anti-Christian cultures, bivocational ministry may actually the best possible model to reach society. I believe that being in full-time secular employment gives greater opportunity for cultural interpretation, insight and engagement than being in full-time Christian employment. New models for ministry training and church leadership are needed to reach, train and commission the next generation of church planters and leaders from those within the workplace.
  10. There is no such thing as “lay” ministry, no sacred / secular divide, no clergy / laity division. Yes, there is such a thing as people being appointed to a particular role and function within church leadership, nevertheless, uniting everyone is the priesthood of all believers and each believer is a holy temple called to their own role and place of influence.
  11. The role of a pastor is the absolute highest calling for pastors. The role of a teacher is the absolute highest calling for Christian teachers. The vital thing is to know for sure in our hearts that we are in the calling we are meant to be in.
  12. There has never been more expected of employees, more asked by employers and more penetration of people’s private lives by the pressure to always be “online”. The training, equipping and encouraging of leaders in the workplace has never been more difficult, with long hours, long commutes and little spare time. Yet few churches really see this as a vital ministry ground or are set up to support and affirm those in this position.
  13. The prayerful assessment of our true calling and our purposeful obedience no matter what the cost would overwhelm our mission agencies and pulpits with new candidates. There is a desperate need in our nation for the next generation of pastors. There remains an ever-present black abyss of millions of people who have never even heard the name Jesus all over the world. I am convinced that so few really examine their own calling that a wholehearted affirmation of the importance of all our callings would lead to a great increase in those stepping forward for pioneer missionary and pastoral leadership.
  14. We do not choose our calling – we only choose to fulfil it or not. Our calling may be a fulfilment of our (God-given) desires or it may be a restraining force on our desires – compelling us to submit to the Lord and follow him despite what we would like to do. Like David who desired to build God’s temple,  we can have good desires to serve God, but they don’t always mean we will see them fulfilled.

I say all this, not as a dispassionate observer, but as someone who has wrestled with their own calling for so many years. It was CT Studd, that great missionary who said: “Only one life, ’twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” What does our inner mind say to ourselves when we hear this? Is it only preaching, bible translating, pastoral visits, bible studies and evangelism that CT is talking about here? “Whatever you do, do it with all your heart, as working for the Lord and not men” was what the apostle Paul said. Are we brave enough to really believe that this includes ALL of life?

I have been a reluctant servant for so many years, wishing God would free me up to preach, when my time was being soaked up by work. I now see that I must obey his plans for me no matter how much my heart yearns for another path. I am serving him as he wants right now. I can either serve him fully where I am now, or continually fight against it.  I do believe one day that things will change, but I am no longer seeing the present as (only) “preparation” or a means to an end. I am resigned, submitted, my will is defeated, whatever path I am led on…I am his slave in the present, in this place, for his purpose.

Father, help us know the path you have for each one of your children, lead us on those straight paths and use us in whatever way you deem fit – not our will but your will be done. Remove our stubborness and pride and self-sufficiency. Make us truly humble and submissive to your Soverign will, for we know it is the best possible journey and leads to the most blessed destination – unity with our maker now and forever,  Amen.

It is good for the good to rule

Sub-title: Tim Tebow, Bubba Watson & Fabrice Muamba – does God help those who take a stand for him?

It seems that wherever you look these days there are sports stars confidently declaring their Christian faith. NFL star Tim Tebow puts “John 3.16” on his eyelids and 90 million people Googled the text, golfer Bubba Watson gives God the glory for his 2012 Masters victory and professional footballer Fabrice Muamba says God protected him after being dead for 78 minutes.

The success of these outspoken sportsmen has caused many to ask, “Is God helping them win? Does he tip the game in favour of those who claim his name? What happens when they lose?” It is an intriguing question and is essentially the same issue at the heart of Book 4 of the City of God. In this chapter Augustine seeks to address the underlying reasons for the growth of the Roman Empire. He argues that God actually promoted the growth of Rome because he endorsed the principals upon which it was founded – their passion for glory based upon merit, rather than deceit. He essentially sees the rule of Rome being a force for good in the world, establishing justice and promoting peace.  

While many at the time were blaming the Christians for the downfall of Rome, Augustine turns the argument on its head. He seeks to explain that the expansion and victory of Rome was actually due to God’s providence, rather than Pagan gods, or the fate of the (celestial) stars. Augustine saw God’s hand raising the Roman Empire to the heights of glory and success it achieved.

So the question remains, are those who make their faith explicit and wear their commitment to God on their sleeve supported by God in their actions? “He who honours me, I will honour” God said to Samuel and it was with this verse ringing in his ears that Eric Liddell won the 400m Olympics and set a new world record. Does God help his servants win? Whether that be in sports, in elections, or in battles – is God the critical unseen factor endorsing his celebrity athletes and military generals?  If he does, then what about at the national level, does God take sides for nations? On which side of the war on terror is he? Is he for flying the flag or burning it? Does he have favourite nations that he backs, or is all our divinely-soaked imperialism an assumed support too far?

This debate goes right back to David and Goliath – the little guy with the big heart, against the big guy with little respect for Israel’s God. There is no doubt that God fought alongside his people in the Old Testament. They were to be his nation and he would endorse their faithfulness by guaranteeing their success. Indeed, since Augustine, many have seen this religious imperialism as a natural consequence as God’s Sovereignty over all of life. Their reasoning went along the lines that, as there was no domain outside God’s rule, from the individual to the family to the church, to society each spehere should and could be under his rule. The assumption being that those who followed his rules, at each level of hierarchy, would receive his blessing.

However, the nature of the Kingdom of God dramatically changed with the coming of Jesus. It moved from being national and local, to personal and global, and ultimately, Augustine goes too far in this chapter. For in his confidence that God would restore the fortunes of Rome, he betrays an over-emphasis on nationalism. In effect, he soaks his national fervour in religious principles – a mistake too often made since the BC turned into AD.

If we are willing to listen to our Founder who said “my kingdom is not of this world”, we cannot extrapolate from the individual to the national. So, why is it that those who claim the name of Christ are often seen succeeding? I think there are a few principles that can guide our thinking about the connection between success and faithfulness:

  1. Christian principles all promote (but do not guarantee) success in whatever field they are applied (e.g. the old “Protestant work ethic”, good old fashioned values such as honesty, integrity and diligence).
  2. God may intervene directly on behalf of his people, or may not (e.g. the fiery furnace – Shadrach et al accepted and were resigned to whatever would happen).
  3. God does not take sides – he is no respecter of persons, there are no favourite nations, people or leaders (and he often disciplines his chosen leaders e.g. David and Moses)
  4. It is good for the good to rule – for the good of mankind in general God may raise up leaders who follow him for the benefit of all (e.g. Joseph sent by God to provide leadership in time of national disaster). Its important to note that this also applies to leaders of moral courage and principles that are not Christians (e.g. Churchill).
  5. Even the best role models will fail at some point – let’s not make the mistake of elevating anyone, no matter what their gifting, so that their fall brings us down. In the end we are all servants of the same master.
  6. God is in control of all of life – even refereeing decisions and the bounce of a ball are down to his decision (e.g. Proverbs 21.31).
  7. All success is ultimately short-lived – our bodies age, our glory fades and our name is remembered no more, what really matters is our relationship to God.

Sport-stars come and go, empires come and go, God uses people and they pass away into history. Yet through it all the purposes of God are fulfilled. We should not strive to be famous but focus on being people of merit. God may choose to use our faithfulness to promote his purposes in the public sphere, or he may not. But if we are focussed on integrity, devotion and a passion for his glory, then no matter what, our lives will have been worth living.

Running on Empty

Yesterday I spoke at my home church, Central Baptist Church, Dundee in my series of Postcards from the Prophets on Elijah at Mount Horeb from 1 Kings 19 titled “Running on Empty”. In it I sought to outline Elijah’s external persecution and internal despair along with his encounter with the whispering God. Through it all I sought to understand what Elijah’s experience can teach us in our trials and challenges in the UK today.

The slides are available here and sermon online here or to download here. During the service I also read out an article I wrote last year called “We need the tears of the prophets for a broken nation” – available here.

The Jigsaw of Life

Yesterday we were at Carnoustie Community Church and I did a children’s talk based on the jigsaw we had just finished building at home.  The slides are available here.

I asked the kids “Who likes to do jigsaws? Who knows what this jigsaw is a picture of? How many pieces are there, do you think?” 1000 pieces! We started it in January and thought it would be impossible to finish – all the pieces are the same shape, very few different colours or sharp lines.

“Who knows how to do jigsaws? Where do you start?” – with the corners and edges – have to find the straight lines to make the frame. “Where do we go then?” – the bits that are clear, all the tiger’s face, or all this green bits of leaf, then the ears… “What do you need to help you? Do you just make up the picture as you go?” Of course not, you need the final picture of what it should look like – so you can see what type of colour goes where. One piece at a time, until you have finished it – just finished on Friday, only taken two months! A real team effort from all the family.

It reminded me that life is like a big jigsaw puzzle, we have been designed to enjoy life a certain way and life has been designed to work a certain way – the Maker has made us to fit in a certain part of the big jigsaw. Some of us maybe don’t know where we fit or we don’t like how God has designed us to fit in the big jigsaw – we take our piece and force it to fit somewhere it shouldn’t. “Can you make a jigsaw work like that?” I asked the children, “No” they responded.

In order to help us understand where we fit, God has even given us the final picture to look at – through the life of Jesus and the teachings of the bible, we have the perfect final picture. Only when we look at the picture and follow its instructions can we live as God intended and enjoy real life.

James described it in a similar way in chapter 1 verses 22-25 – as a mirror. It’s no good looking in a mirror and seeing a big piece of tomato ketchup on your cheek and then turning away and forgetting all about it. The mirror shows up the imperfections and prompts us to change, likewise the jigsaw shows us the final picture to help us find life as it was meant to be.

One way this works is in our relationships – God has said that the way the jigsaw fits together is one woman and one man for life. And he also says that we should only marry those who love Jesus like we do. Sometimes this is hard and makes our feelings in conflict with what God says. But it’s always worth it to follow the jigsaw’s design – not in order to be accepted by God, but in order to enjoy his presence and blessing on our life. 

Some of us older ones need to hear that with God failure is not final – even when we put our piece in the wrong place, he is able to forgive, heal and restore. Each day he gives us breath, is a new day to decide to make our piece a part of his final picture. May we know the joy of living in union with God for our lives.

“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and after looking at himself goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does.” (NIV) James 1.22-25

A Roman Empire State of Mind

Are you proud of your home city? What about your capital city or country? As someone who was born in Bradford and lived all my life in the UK, its hard to imagine what true patriotism feels like. The closest I get is my feelings for my homeland of Yorkshire, (but unfortunately, rumours of a referendum on independence are completely unfounded!). So it’s hard for me not to be cynical when you see others being effusive about their home city. I love the uplifting sentiments and soaring chorus line of Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind – a song about her beloved New York. But I can’t help feeling this is the exception in the cynical and apathetic world we live in.

So I ask myself:

  • What would it be like to be so passionate about your national identify that you were as devoted to it as much as we are our football clubs or celebrities?
  • What if you loved your home city so much it was the dominant element in your identity?
  • What if the values that had shaped the formation of your nation also united the nation’s people?
  • What if those same values had driven the conquest of all other nations and had brought great wealth and glory to your nation?

Well, then you would have a tiny inkling of what it was like to be a Roman citizen.

For those of us in the West I think it is almost impossible to imagine what it is like to admire and even idolise your capital city and nation. We are so full of cynicism that its hard to imagine people ever being so naive. But this was the wonder and beauty of Rome – that although it had its fair share of problems, it was loved, really loved, by its people. More than a logistical head of an empire – Rome was a dream.

But then what would happen if that dream was shattered? How strong would be the emotional outpouring when it was finally crushed and the city was sacked? Well this is exactly what happened in 410AD. As the Romans were looking around for explanations for this disaster, some pointed the finger of blame at the Christians. It was in response to this criticism that Augustine wrote the City of God and in Book 1 he attacks these criticisms head on. 

Augustine helpfully summarises the focus of Book 1 at the start of Book 2 “the first duty that presented itself was to reply to those who hold the Christian religion responsible for the wars with which the whole world is tormented, and in particular the recent sack of Rome by the Barbarians.” He goes on to say that his opponents ascribe the defeat to the Christian’s prohibition of “the offering of abominable sacrifices to demons”. 

He begins his defence by looking at the remarkable restraint that the Barbarians demonstrated in sparing many of those who took refuge in the tombs of the Christian martyrs. He seeks to highlight the ungratefulness of those that were saved from death by their momentary association with the protection offered by the name of Christ, who moments later were vocal opponents of the very faith that had rescued them. This all happened while many Christians were tortured and killed. In response to these injustices, he asks the questions: “why did these divine blessings extend also to the godless and the ungrateful? And why did the hardships inflicted by the enemy fall alike on the godless and godly?”

Thus, the start of Book 1 seeks to understand the cause and effect relationship between religious worship and temporal blessings. If it is true that gods are to be worshiped for blessings in this life only and there is a causative connection between the two, then there could be some ground for complaint. However, as Augustine demonstrates, Rome’s pagan gods had been unable to prevent past defeats when they had been worshiped as the national religion. He then explains, that although there is no direct connection between the two, there is an indirect undercurrent at work. He explains that there is a purpose in suffering – both for the righteous and the wicked. For the righteous God uses suffering to purify their desires and refine their character, while for the wicked he uses it to judge their behaviour. He explains it with the analogy of fire: “the fire which makes the gold shine makes chaff smoke” (1.8).

Augustine then address some of the practical pastoral issues that such suffering produces – what about Christians who were not buried? What about Christian women who were raped? What about those who committed suicide because of the shame of their assault? These were pressing issues of his day and he seeks to answer the issues they raise. Regarding the issues of burial, he says that based on Matthew 10.28  those who cannot kill the soul can do nothing with a dead body that can threaten the resurrection.

With regard to rape, Augustine seeks to comfort those who have suffered under this terrible violation with the thought that chastity and purity is something that cannot be taken away without our consent. He uses the example from popular culture of Lucretia’s suicide to illustrate that the Romans believed it was possible to remain innocent and yet be violated in this way. However, he cannot agree with her suicide as the right response for he sees this as an unnecessary reaction to perceived immortality. He quotes a saying of the time that “there were two people involved and only one committed adultery” (1.19). Hence, he sees this as murdering an innocent person – themselves! For if the person really is innocent of immorality then what right have they to murder themselves and commit such a sin.

He then asks if suicide can ever be a noble act of self-sacrifice to avoid being defiled. Augustine argues that one sin should not be avoided by committing another – particularly if committing an actual sin to avoid a potential sin. He takes this to its logical extreme and says that if we really wanted to avoid all potential sin we should commit suicide straight after being saved. For at this point we can avoid all future sin and ensure that we have been cleansed of all sin. By using this extreme example he shows how absurd this train of thinking is. True greatness, he argues, is a “spirit that has the strength to endure a life of misery instead of running away from it” (1.22). He does add the caveat that in some exceptional circumstances (e.g. Samson’s suicide) God may directly proscribe a particular act that in normal circumstances would be disallowed.

In the final few chapters he returns to the issue that he began with and says that the real reason the anti-Christians complain is because they want to return to their indulgent and indolent past. He paints a vivid picture of pagan hedonism that was mediated through the plays and actors of ancient Rome. Actors that were, apparently, producing degraded plays at the request of these pagan gods. He concludes that a further use of temporal judgements is to curb our lusts by fear of punishment. He rebukes their inconsistency when “you refuse to be held responsible for the evil that you do, while you hold the Christian era responsible for the evil which you suffer” (1.33).

Response

This is a wide-ranging and thought-provoking first book from Augustine. I agree with his basic argument about the difficulty of attributing cause and effect between temporal events and the worship of false gods or even the true God. For it is only when God speaks into his creation (either in prophecy or interpretation) to explain the purpose of a particular event that we can be certain of his intention. It would be difficult to argue for the truthfulness of Israel’s God if military victories were the only criteria we had to go on. Many times Israel was routed before its enemies – most often because of their unfaithfulness. But to an outside observer, such as the Assyrians attacking Judah in 2 Kings 18.31-35, it seemed that Israel was like any other nation. Only the interpretation of the prophets provides the context for the various judgements on the nation.

However, I found his view of rape to be too influenced by Greek thought, who regarded the body (flesh) as evil and the spirit (soul) pure. Hence he thinks that what happens to one can be isolated from the other – the body can be defiled while mind and spirit remains pure. I struggle to share this view as I see the body inextricable connected to spirit so that what defiles one defiles the other. Finally, I didn’t share all his comments on suicide. However, it did remind me of the current debate on assisted suicide in the UK and his encouragement to take the nobler path of enduring difficulties rather than taking the drastic but immediate way out is a timely reminder of the virtue of perseverance.

Father, help me to see you are guiding the current of my life, but not need an explanation for every breaking wave. I seek you and know that you are shaping my life, through the good and hard times. Help me to be content with knowing the destination, without questionning the purpose of each trial that leads me to you. I trust in you Lord, grant me perserverance to endure to the end, Amen

The helpful ravens

In last Sunday’s children’s talk I continued the “guess the animal” theme with the following slides. After they had guessed which animal it was I asked the kids: “Who knows where this is? Whose been to London? We were there last September to see my brother. They say if they leave the tower it will fall down! Not sure about that, but they have been there for many years. Very famous place visited by tourists.

Jesus speaks about ravens in Luke 12.24. The ravens don’t have jobs – they don’t get up early like Mummy & Daddy to go to work and earn money. They don’t have a piggy bank or savings in the bank to pay for food. And yet God feeds them everyday – if that is what he does for them what will he do for his children, so don’t worry.

Also read in the book of Kings that the ravens fed Elijah! God could have fed Elijah himself, like the manna he sent to the Israelites – but he chose to use the ravens as his messengers, why?. So we can learn that God feeds the ravens and the ravens then feed Elijah – see the hand of God guiding his animals to provide for his child. A lesson for all of life.

Reminds us of God’s care for his children – says in the book of James that “every good and perfect gift is from above” – from God. Even our food, which we think comes from the supermarket in a plastic bag and then goes in the fridge came from God:

  • He gave your mummy and daddy the ability to earn money
  • He gave you parents that care about you and want the best for you
  • He gave us a good climate with lots of rain (!) & blessed the harvest to produce food
  • He gave us peace in our land so that companies can sell food in safety
  • We can buy it without fear of robbery and that our money will be accepted by the company we pay

All this is from God and its why we thank him before we eat the food. So the next time you say Grace, remember the ravens and the unseen hand of God behind everything we enjoy. And remember that even gifts from heaven are sometimes wrapped in ordinary boxes – but they are very precious from God our father.

You asked: how can I know I am elect?

Reader Question: From a Reformed perspective (I am relatively new to this thinking in many ways), assuming the Doctrine of Election is true (I believe this to be true myself), what is the role of parenting? Knowing that there is no way to know whether or not your children are “elect”, how can a loving parent subject his children to Biblical teaching – assuming that teaching could some day be held against them on judgement day? (wouldn’t it be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than those who know the Gospel and don’t respond?). If they are elect anyway, perhaps telling them once and seeing how they respond is better than consistent training?

Again, I am not being facetious or devious- but really struggling through this. I grew up in a church and always assumed I was a Christian. Lately, I have doubted that as I have not seen the Spirit’s activity in my life, nor fully reflect the fruit of the Spirit, nor am I sure that I have fully repented from my sin. You may say to just repent and believe, but I am finding it more difficult than that and wondering whether or not I could possibly not be “elect”. Having sat through countless sermons and podcasts and books, am I more accountable?

Then, I take that to my children and wonder if I teach them the Gospel and they don’t respond, are they destined for a much more difficult eternity? Wouldn’t love for them wish for them to find Christ, yet not subject them to countless hours of instruction knowing that they may not choose that?

I am really confused, discouraged and honestly disheartened. I feel like my efforts to find God or grow closer to Christ or even to repent are “works” of my own and can’t any longer separate the true work of the Spirit from my own efforts.

I guess I am not looking for a counselling session, rather perhaps a perspective on what my responsibility is as a parent from the Reformed perspective. Thanks for your time and consideration on this (you can pray for me as well if you desire- I would not pass on that!).

Dear reader,

Many thanks for your questions, these are real heart-felt issues that we all sometimes struggle with as we seek to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. I will try and provide some help on the issue of election before then turning to how this impacts our parenting.

As an opening comment I would say that election can be a very controversial subject and, not rightly handled, thinking deeply about it over a prolonged time can get us tied in knots. In some ways I would compare it to a person’s life assurance policy – it needs to be understood and applied, but then put in the back drawer and not obsessed over. Similarly with election, if not rightly understood and applied, rather than confirming and assuring our faith, it can actually have the opposite effect and undermine and make us doubt our faith. But once, in God’s mercy, we are granted a true understanding of the doctrine, we should allow it to support our devotion and growth, without being the test of it.

It might help to think of election as God’s side of the salvation story. Our side is the call to repent and believe and live a life of obedience in thankful response. From God’s side there are the eternal decrees determining each day of his children’s lives, from our side it is the moment by moment experience of living in this world and responding to his word. From God’s side there is ultimate and supreme sovereignty and freedom of will, from our side there is the wrestling with the sinful nature and the secret work of the Spirit in the inner life. No one can understand both sides of these things. We can see our side, and God has revealed some of his side through the scriptures. But much remains hidden and we must eventually reach a place of trust and submission if we would ever achieve assurance of our faith and peace of conscience.

It’s also important to realise that an assurance of our own faith is something that must be nurtured. Like a flower that will eventually bloom under the right conditions of soil, water and sun, so too our faith will be confirmed if we nurture the means to grow that faith. We will come to hear his Spirit confirming with our spirit that we are the children of God (Romans 8.16). At the moment of first confession we may have been told that we are saved, and some may feel assurance based on this their entire lives, but most of us will question it at some point in our lives. You certainly are at the moment, and this is a healthy thing if done for a season.

I’m sure you have heard and read many sermons and books on assurance of faith, so I’ll not go into that in detail. I just want to outline a few practical thoughts that I have found helpful:

1. The danger of relying on our feelings (and ignoring them completely) – do we feel elect when times are good and doubt our election when times are hard and we sin? The question we need to ask is what do we really believe to be true? Do we really truly believe that Jesus died for my sin – and if we do believe have we honestly asked him to forgive us. If so then we have planted the seed of the word in our hearts – we must then examine ourselves to see if the word is bearing fruit. But what is the fruit that we look for? If we seek perfection then we will be disappointed, if we seek love, joy, peace etc, then we will only see partial fruit, for we all are a pale reflection when it comes to these attributes. Perhaps a better indicator is how our desires, motivations, even feelings are being renewed. Do we grieve for sin when once we could have sinned without a second thought? Do we wish we were a better disciple and become frustrated when we fail? Good – so we should, for our desires are sometimes a better indicators than our characters, for character takes years to cultivate and while desires come and go, the fact that they do come sometimes should encourage us that God is at work.

2. The danger of self-deception – the false disciples of Matthew 7 thought they knew Christ when they only knew about him. Many people in churches will realise on the last day that this is true of them. The key question here is – have I personally appropriated the salvation which is freely given? I preached on this topic last year (click here).

3. The danger of despair – we should recognise that our minds are not infallible and are a battle ground for spiritual warfare – the helmet of salvation as Paul describes it, protects our minds. We should guard against entertaining every doubt, and emulate David in preaching God’s truth to ourselves. Don’t let our insecurities trump the truths of God’s word – for example, God has said “Never will I leave you never will I forsake you” – if we have addressed the first two items above then even though we might not feel in our experience the presence of the Lord, if doesn’t mean it is not true. The same can be said about forgiveness of sin – 1 John 1.9 promises complete and utter forgiveness of confessed sin – even if we don’t feel guiltless, or like we have been forgiven.

4. Sin, doubt or fear does not mean you are unelect – each of us face periods of failure and darkness, but like a life jacket that is pressed under the water, we are inevitably brought back to the surface again by the inner workings of the Spirit. The time to worry is when this no longer happens are we are content to wallow in our sin – then we are in danger of having our consciences seared and proving our profession to be false. If we have (as honestly as we are consciously able to) repented of our sins and confessed Jesus as our Lord, then it comes down to trusting in the promises that God has made to us – not the other way around. The promise is clear – “if you repent in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, you will be saved” (Romans 10.10). If we do this and then doubt it, it doesn’t render the promise void – “for if we are faith-less, God will remain faithful” (2 Timothy 2.13).

5. The doctrine of election does not necessarily lead to complacency – unfortunately some who have misunderstood election have thought that this gives them a carte blanche to behave how they want. Like those objectors in Romans 6.1 who, after hearing that where sin abounds, grace abounds more said “well lets keep on sinning so that God’s forgiveness looks even better.” Election should be viewed holistically – not just in relation to salvation, but also sanctification and glorification (Romans 8.30). God has elected that we will be those who not only begin the Christian walk, but finish it and we will surely finish it more like Christ than when we began. Moreover, he has elected us to one day be glorified in his presence. God has not only ordained (or elected) the end (Christ-likeness in his presence), but also the means (life by the Spirit through our active obediance Galatians 5.16ff).

6. Works are not all bad – at one point Jesus was asked “what are the works that God requires” and he answered “to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6.28-29). So we see belief is a work of God. Not all works are to be despised, spiritual disciplines are works that can greatly help us in our daily obedience. The works that are condemned are the reliance on these things for acceptance with God. We should, we must, be a people of (godly) works – abundant in our labour of love, but these are in response to the mercy and grace of God, not a way to gain that favour, or even as a means to confirm our election.

Consider this illustration – election is like the engines of a plane, in the same way that the engines power the uplift and flight of the plane and enable it to make progress towards its destination, so our election is the secret working that enables us to believe, preserve and overcome. But if during the flight the pilot decided to stop the engines while he inspected whether they were really working as efficiently as possible, or if they were needing a service, the result would be disastrous. So too with election – our object and goal in life should be a close walk with the Lord Jesus, filled with His Spirit and obeying his commands, not always scrutinising the reality of our faith.

Once we get diverted off this focus, we risk becoming introspective and our focus shifts to ourselves rather than away from ourselves. Yes, there is a time for examination and personal reflection, but constant examination and persistent introspection is more likely to lead to you coming to a complete stop. The Spirit will guide you as you seek God’s face what is required of you at this point in your spiritual journey.

Finally, all this plays itself out in our parenting. In the same way that we cannot fully see God’s side of the salvation story for ourselves, so we cannot see it for our children. We must allow only God to know his ultimate decrees for their lives. We do not have any guarantees for them. Rather we must see that we are seeking to follow our side of the story – doing the things that we have been commanded by God to do – instruct them in the fear and knowledge of the Lord (Deut 6.7-9, Proverbs 22.6, Matthew 19.4). We must use the means God has given us, if we would have the ends that we desire for them. Again I say that I cannot see any guarantee that God has given Christian parents, and as a father of three beautiful, precious children this scares me. But I believe that God is a good God and that as he used the means of Grace in my life to save my at 9 years old, so he is able to bring my children to himself.

But we must seek to move beyond simply indoctrinating them with abstract truths, to demonstrating the reality of our own faith in the life that we live. We must open our hearts to them that they would see our vulnerability and honest struggles. They must see that it is more than a tradition or a culture for us – that it is our lifeblood. We must exhibit the graces and character that we want them to grow towards, to make room for their questions and doubts, to have spontaneous times of prayer and thanksgiving. Oh that God would grant us the immeasurable blessing of believing children and the grace to love them (and him) no matter what happens.

I hope this is of some help for you in your struggles. I pray that the God of all compassion would make himself known to you in such a powerful and real way that your faith is confirmed, your hope renewed and love deepened. In His name, Martyn

PS You can read my four posts on Calvin’s chapters on election and predestination here: