In his book, The Vision and The Vow, Pete Greig tells of how a distinguished art critic was studying an exquisite painting by the Italian Renaissance master Filippino Lippi. He stood in London’s National Gallery gazing at the fifteenth-century depiction of Mary holding the infant Jesus on her lap, with saints Dominic and Jerome kneeling nearby. But the painting troubled him. There could be no doubting Lippi’s skill, his use of colour or composition. But the proportions of the picture seemed slightly wrong. The hills in the background seemed exaggerated, as if they might topple out of the frame at any minute onto the gallery’s polished floor. The two kneeling saints looked awkward and uncomfortable.
Art critic Robert Cumming was not the first to criticise Lippi’s work for its poor perspective, but he may well be the last to do so, because at that moment he had a revelation. It suddenly occurred to him that the problem might be his. The painting had never been intended to come anywhere near a gallery. Lippi’s painting had been commissioned to hang in a place of prayer.
The dignified critic dropped to his knees in the public gallery before the painting. He suddenly saw what generations of art critics had missed. From his new vantage point, Robert Cumming found himself gazing up at a perfectly proportioned piece. The foreground had moved naturally to the background, while the saints seemed settled – their awkwardness, like the painting itself, having turned to grace. Mary now looked intently and kindly directly at him as he knelt at her feet between saints Dominic and Jerome.
It was not the perspective of the painting that had been wrong all these years, it was the perspective of the people looking at it. Robert Cumming, on bended knee, found a beauty that Robert Cumming the proud art critic could not. The painting only came alive to those on their knees in prayer. The right perspective is the position of worship.
Goliath was a giant. He was nine-feet tall, a champion, wearing heavy armour, standing and shouting, defying the people of God (1 Samuel 17:1–11). As well as physical giants, there are metaphorical ones. A ‘giant’ is a big, seemingly insurmountable problem or issue.
‘Personal giants’ could include giant personal challenges in relation to your health, marriage, family, relationships or lack of relationships, job or lack of job, other work issues, or some sin, temptation, addiction, fear, loneliness, discouragement or debt.
‘National giants’ in the UK include terrorism, gang violence, homelessness, the breakdown of marriage, family life and community, exploding prison populations, failing schools and the decline of church congregations. There is therefore the giant task of evangelising the country, revitalising the church and transforming our society.
‘Global giants’ include extreme poverty (as a result of which thousands of children die each day), preventable disease (millions dying of diseases for which we have a relatively easy cure), the need for universal primary education (almost one billion people unable to read) and the need for worldwide water sanitation (which could be funded by the amount of money that Europeans spend on ice-cream every year).
There are two possible attitudes when facing a giant. One is to say, ‘It’s so big, there’s nothing I can do.’ The other is to say, ‘It’s so big, I can’t miss!’
God loves the entire world. He wants all nations and peoples to know him, worship and love him.
The psalmist prayed for God’s blessing on his people in order that ‘your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations’ (v.2).
We see in this psalm that the global vision for the people of God beyond their own borders was foreshadowed in the Old Testament.
The psalmist prays for the entire globe (vv.3–5). If we are to tackle the global giants, we need a global vision. The words of this psalm are all about God. The size of your vision will be dependent on the size of your vision of God. As A.W. Tozer put it, ‘What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.’
Lord, be gracious to us and bless us. Make your face shine upon us. Make your ways known on earth and your salvation among all nations. May all the people praise you.
Testify about Jesus
There is nothing more important and no greater privilege in life than to be a friend of Jesus. Jesus says, ‘You are my friends… I no longer call you servants… I have called you friends’ (15:14–15).
Having Jesus as your friend allows you to tackle the giants in your life, in the church and in society from a unique standpoint.
Personal Jesus tells us that there are two secrets of Christian fruitfulness.
First, there is pruning (vv.1–2). The purpose of pruning is so that you can bear even more fruit. Pain, sorrow, sickness and suffering, loss, bereavement, failure, disappointment and frustrated ambition are some of the ways your life is pruned.
Pruning can seem cruel; branches are left jagged and exposed to face the harsh winter. But the purpose of pruning is to give way to newness of life. When spring and summer come, there is an abundance of fruit. The sharp pruning knife will, in the end, bring fruitfulness and blessing.
The second secret of fruitfulness is closeness to Jesus (v.4). You cannot take on the giants by yourself. Jesus says, ‘When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing’ (v.5, MSG). You will only succeed in tackling the giants if you stay close to Jesus.
Cultivate a growing friendship with Jesus (vv.14–15) by spending time with him, walking with him, praying and listening to him through his word, following his desires.
Jesus says that if you stay close to him (‘remain in him’) three things will happen in terms of fruitfulness. First, your prayers will be answered (v.7). Second, God will be glorified (v.8). Third, your joy will be complete and overflowing (v.11, AMP).
Jesus wants you to be filled with joy and fully alive. There’s no greater joy than to know you are valued, precious and loved by God and to love others as you are loved. There’s no greater joy than giving eternal life to others in and with Jesus.
Church There are massive giants facing the church today. The biggest giant is disunity. Nothing is more of a hindrance to the message of Jesus than division between Christians. Disunity will only be overcome by love. Jesus said, ‘My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends… This is my command: Love each other’ (vv.12–13,17).
Society Jesus warns us that we will face the giant of a world that hates us (vv.18–19). He says, ‘If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also’ (v.20). He says, ‘Those who kill you will think they are offering a service to God’ (16:2). There are parts of the world where this is literally true today.
But there are also other more subtle forms of hidden persecution. No one likes to be rejected, looked down on, made fun of or ridiculed. Jesus warns that, wherever you are, you should expect opposition, hatred and even persecution.
On our own we would have no answers but Jesus says, ‘When the Counsellor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. And you also must testify’ (15:26–27). The Holy Spirit enables you to testify about Jesus and to take on these giant challenges, to see our society transformed.
Lord, thank you that you call me your friend. Help me to love others as you have loved me.
1 Samuel 16:1-17:37
Trust in God
David was extraordinarily gifted – naturally as well as supernaturally. He was handsome and in good health (16:12). He was talented musically (v.18). He was a gifted speaker (v.18). He had athletic ability (17:1–37; 18:11). He was a leader (18:13). He was successful (vv.14,30). He was famous (v.30).
Yet it was for none of these reasons that God used him. The Lord said to Samuel, ‘The Lord does not look at the things people look at. Human beings look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart’ (16:7).
David was outraged by Goliath’s defiance of the living God (17:26). He was a courageous leader. He says, ‘Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine [Goliath]’ (v.32). What lessons can we learn from the way in which David tackled this giant?
Reject rejection Eliab said to David, ‘What are you doing here! Why aren’t you minding your own business, tending that scrawny flock of sheep? I know what you’re up to. You’ve come down here to see the sights, hoping for a ringside seat at a bloody battle!’ (v.28, MSG).
Yet David ‘turned away’ from Eliab (v.30).
The lesson we learn here is not to be put off if rejected or ill-treated. As Joyce Meyer writes, ‘God is not looking for someone with ability but someone with availability… keep your heart pure by refusing to allow hatred, offense, bitterness, resentment or unforgiveness to stop you.’
Get involved David said to Saul, ‘Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him’ (v.32). He volunteered his services. I am always so moved and impressed by the way in which our congregation are willing to volunteer their services: praying, serving and giving.
Trust God Saul says to David, ‘You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a boy’ (v.33). Yet David replies, ‘The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine’ (v.37a). He trusts God because he knows that God is with him (see 16:18; 17:37b; 18:14).
Ultimately, the reason that David was able to tackle Goliath was that he was anointed by God: ‘Samuel took his flask of oil and anointed him, with his brothers standing around watching. The Spirit of God entered David like a rush of wind, God vitally empowering him for the rest of his life’ (16:13, MSG). The only way you will be able to tackle the giants in your life, in society and in the world, is through the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
Lord, as I face the giants, I need the anointing of your Holy Spirit upon me and your presence with me. Give me courage not to run away, not to lose heart and not to give up.
‘Houston, we’ve had a problem,’ were the words of Jim Lovell on the evening of 13 April 1970. Nearly fifty-six hours into the mission to the moon, an explosion aboard the spacecraft plunged the crew into a fight for their survival. Within less than a minute there was a cascade of systems failures throughout the spacecraft. ‘It was all at one time – a monstrous failure,’ said NASA’s flight controller.
The spacecraft looped around the moon, using its gravity to return to earth. Millions of people followed the drama on television. Eventually, the capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean near Tonga.
In an article headed ‘Apollo 13: From Disaster to Triumph’ the BBC science reporter wrote, ‘Although the mission was not a success from a conventional perspective, it was a triumph of ingenuity and determination’. Jim Lovell said it showed the people of the world that even if there was a great catastrophe, it could be turned into a success.
The supreme example of triumph coming out of apparent catastrophe is the cross. What seemed to the world to be the ultimate defeat was in fact the ultimate triumph.
Back in the 1960s, the band The Monkees sang about how no one seemed to believe in absolute morals anymore. In Shades of Gray they sang:
When the world and I were young, Just yesterday. Life was such a simple game… It was easy then to tell right from wrong… Today there is no black or white, Only shades of gray.
Now the expression ‘shades of grey’ has come to be associated with the notorious and controversial books and films with that name.
Many today no longer believe there is such a thing as absolute right or absolute wrong. Stark contrasts and black-and-white distinctions are not always easy to swallow in a society in which relativism is the order of the day. Everything is relative – a matter of degrees.
As followers of Jesus we cannot give in to these relativistic ideas. We must be open to the prophetic voice of Scripture, which often traces stark contrasts, urgent ethical choices and diverging paths in the midst of complex problems and situations.
George Matheson was born in Glasgow, the eldest of eight children. He had only partial vision as a boy. By the age of twenty he was completely blind. When his fiancée learnt he was going blind and that there was nothing the doctors could do, she told him she could not go through life with a blind man. He never married.
He was helped by a devoted sister throughout his ministry. She learnt Greek, Latin and Hebrew in order to aid him in his studies. Despite his blindness, Matheson had a brilliant career at the Glasgow Academy, University of Glasgow and the Church of Scotland Seminary.
When he was forty years old, something bittersweet happened. His sister married. Not only did this mean that he lost her companionship – it also brought a fresh reminder of his own heartbreak. In the midst of this intense sadness, on the eve of his sister’s marriage, he wrote one of the most popular and best loved hymns of the Christian church – ‘O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go’. He completed the whole work in five minutes and never edited, corrected or retouched it. ‘This came,’ he wrote, ‘like a dayspring from on high.’
O Joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee; I trace the rainbow through the rain, And feel the promise is not vain, That morn shall tearless be.
Troubles are part of life. Jesus faced trouble and so did the apostles, David and all the people of God. However, as Matheson’s hymn beautifully articulates, troubles do not have the last word.
Disclaimer: I am merely someone with some life experience (now including some anxiety and depression) and have NO medical or psychological degree. A professional, such as a doctor, should be consulted if anyone has symptoms like anxiety and depression to a noticeable, serious degree. I do believe there is a spiritual component to these health issues, as I’ll address in this blog.
We often treat symptoms. There isn’t anything particularly wrong with that, but it does little to get at the real reason behind the source of the issue causing the one or myriad of symptoms.
Just as a physical ailment or sickness is accompanied by symptoms of fever, shivers, and other out-workings, so can physical or mental hurts or wounding’s show symptoms indicating that deeper issue.
I’ve had cause and reason to reflect on anxiety and depression lately. Anxiety and depression are, in fact, two symptoms of physical and mental abuse.
“The Link Between Verbal Abuse And Anxiety That No One Talks About” is the article link here. It was thanks to a friend who brought it to my attention. (I rather recommend reading this article.)
What’s the fix? There’s no ready, immediate, one-size-fits all solution. It is a process, as with so many things.
Yes, anxiety and depression is treatable. There may be ways people cope, mechanisms that people employ. Treatment could be medical, dietary, altering routines and habits, etc. Those approaches and means may certainly be useful for some; yet, there may come a point when the root of what led to that anxiety and depression should be addressed, or at least recognized for what it is, if one is pursuing health and healing.
Thinking back to those times – specifically when and where – have I been … (And these things are connected to what’s in the article)
2. Been called names (was it persistent?)?
3. Had my interests (passions or dreams too) attacked?
4. Felt a huge need to be alone?
5. Been the butt of persistent jokes?
Yet, I think I’ve done that enough and have grieved enough over those occurrences.
If I were to examine the unintended Swiss cheese of my formative years, I’ll find …
1. I’ve felt unappreciated at times! “Seen but not heard” was spoken often, too often it seemed.
2. Yes; I was called names at times. I was bullied as a kid, and thankfully became friends with him eventually. Even name calling happened later in life too. Fortunately, this was not persistent.
3. Not sure about my interests being attacked but felt that talents, maybe dreams and pursuits weren’t validated or encouraged.
4. Yeah, felt rather lonely several times. Well sure, I’m an ISTJ according to Myers-Briggs type indicator – an introvert. Though I know I reverted at times more into myself.
5. My Self Confidence had been greatly stunted, likely because of trauma in receiving some form of abuse. Had a hard time with my confidence.
6. I lacked in affirmation and encouragement. Some of my skills and talents were recognized, but it was more like “oh, that’s nice that you have that” kind of comment.
I never exactly identified or thought of myself as a victim of verbal or mental abuse; yet, it may in fact be true in looking at myself and in explaining past trauma and wounding.
These questions only start to get at details and specifics. We each need to understand our own stories in depth! It is important to be able to spell out those things with care.
What next? Fact is that this type of healing simply cannot happen inside one’s head. It requires that shame be silenced by the empathy of others in the healing process!!
For myself though, I can also:
Encourage myself some.
I have good friends and a wife who also can help encourage me.
Do things, because I have accomplished things! My skills have grown. I can hone my talents and skill sets.
Can enjoy company of friends and family, while knowing when a “me” time can be refreshing for my introvert self. I know with whom I can be real and vulnerable, assured that they’re a safe and trusted person.
Though affirmation or appreciation isn’t an everyday occurrence, I know friends and family have shown it to me every now and then.
What’s in a name? Yes, I have learned and can and to take a playful joke. I won’t tolerate though someone who will consistently belittle my name. That’s an insult to anyone regardless.
What’s more though, there’s plenty that God has for me in His word. He has promises, encouragement, and loves me! He loves us all.
He has given us talents and gifts by the very nature of you being you. No one can do you since only you can.
You think you’re alone? You are not, simply by the fact that you’re reading this. Others have felt this way and dealt with the same exact stuff! What’s more, there are your friends and family who should be able to be there for you. However, in the case that that might feel inadequate, there are support groups, counselors, and people at church.
Even better and even more, there’s Jesus! Whether you believe in Him or not, He’s ever present. God is right there, willing to hear and help. He waits for engaging you in love and patience and kindness. He is full of grace and mercy.
God’s truths and promises are better than the lies and inhibitors with which that I have lived.
If I remind myself of those truths frequently, even daily, that’d be a sure way to attack not just my depression or anxiety but also those areas of hurt from formative years.
I can be confident in God because He’s been there and knows the way through.
I should realize just praying won’t magically, immediately fix me or take away feelings or things I’ve carries for so long. Yet, that will not limit my expectations and hope! For I have seen God work in my past experiences and know nothing’s impossible for Him.
Where is my faith and trust in these things? To where am I looking?
I’ll try not to levy undue expectations on friends and loved ones.
Though my faith may be little, God is so much greater; I’ll look to and trust in Him.
I will need to remind myself to try to see things with His perspective, knowing how He sees me.
Steve Sjogren wrote a book called Conspiracy of Kindness. He started a church in Cincinnati, Ohio, that grew rapidly to an average attendance of over 7,000. Their motto is, ‘Small things done with great love are changing the world.’ They carry out random acts of kindness like paying for a stranger’s coffee or writing a ‘thank you’ note to a shop assistant.
Kindness is love in work clothes. Showing God’s love in practical ways, they have discovered the power of kindness to effect positive change, both in their lives and in the lives of people around them. Unexpected kindness is the most powerful, least costly and most underrated agent of human change. When kindness is expressed, healthy relationships are created, community connections are nourished and people are inspired to pass on kindness.
Imagine a boy meeting a girl, a very special girl. To this boy, he couldn’t tell what it was but knew there was something different about her. He wanted to get to know her; he wanted to spend every available minute and second with her. Perhaps he was too shy or perhaps he didn’t want to encroach upon her space too much, so he tried to give her little hints. He opened the door for her, offered to carry heavy loads when she seem burdened, and tried to be there for her when she needed someone to listen. To him there was no one else in the world. “Could this love exist?” He thought, “How did I get so lucky? Does she even notice me?” For it seemed that some days she didn’t even give him a second look or acknowledge he was there. Could such a creative and loving affection be innocuous to even the creator of such great love and affection? Imagine, if you could, God as this boy. He tries little things to get her attention. Even as kids, little nudges and pushes were the playground equivalent for attention. Yet, she didn’t seem to notice. She might have seemed a little flattered, but soon became distracted by what she considered to be older, more attractive boys. At least for some time, she lost interest. After realizing the self-conceited attitude that these once appealing boys had, she remembered her ‘old stand-by,’ the boy that never actually left her. Though his affection and attention never waned or wanted, she was used to the pampered treatment by the others and asked for a sign of his affection. It was in the little things his affection showed. Had she but paid more attention to the little things she might have seen his love. It was in a small, relatively little way that God became real to her. Had she but noticed the little things that led to this, perhaps more fuss would have been made. Maybe she would have taken notice. Maybe she would have listened better to what he had whispered. He tried to tell her about how much he loved her, about the plans he had for her, about how much he would sacrifice for her. He spoke until his voice was drowned by her unnerved conscious. She wasn’t sure she was ready for this, and some of what she heard had scared her. Her rejection of him cut him deep and broke his heart, and the sacrifice he spoke of was all that was left to do. There was no other choice. He loved her enough to die for her; he laid down his life for her. The talk of sacrifice seemed like a little thing, not a warning. Did he have to die for her? He had mentioned how a man might lay down his life for a friend, for someone he loved. She didn’t fully understand that it was this sacrifice, this gift that was the proof she had asked for. If only she had paid more attention to the little things, she might have seen this seemingly-little … thing coming. He had spoken also of a future. What future? Was there life after death? What comes next? The one she loved died; he had taken her place. It was still in her grief that hope came. Death could not contain such love, though it might try to restrain. Such was God’s sacrifice. His redemptive love took form to take her place and released death of its power. His gift was his place for hers. Death no longer has its power; it no longer has its sting. Its once held victory was its ultimate defeat. There is a life after death. The future he spoke of is still to come. It was the little things that spoke of this. God, still, remains real through the hope of what’s to come. There are little things to be done; preparations are to be made before the fruition of the promise. There is still the reminiscent helper that reminds her of the little things. One day when all the little things are done, there will be one more thing, one not so little, to do. The boy that once tried to get the girl’s attention will return in his fullness and glory to take an expectant maid in hand to be his eternal wife.
(This was first written down December 17, 2005 with slight revisions at different times, after mulling over the relationship God has had with thenationIsrael – and later on “the church” – throughout the Old Testament and into the New Testament. Jesus Christ has been depicted as the bridegroom to the Church in the New Testament. There is so much to who Jesus is that this creative prose may only scratch the surface at the whole of truth.)
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton
I Felt Challenged upon listening this morning to a sermon by Alistair Begg on Forgiveness (7 May 2019, “Forgiven and Forgiving” Part 3 of 3;https://www.truthforlife.org ).
This is an aspect of Christian living that is vital, necessary, and not easy. It is really at the core of things. In light of Pastor Begg’s look at the Lord’s Prayer and his sermons breaking down the phrases Christ uses, I find it pressing on me to examine my heart and thoughts for what might still be slights or offenses that I need to fully or completely forgive. I rather appreciate Pastor Begg’s look and what it means to forgive:
(Excerpt from the sermon:
And it is essentially a threefold promise, because when we express forgiveness to another person, this is what we should be saying: “I forgive you. And therefore, I will not bring the matter up to you again. Secondly, I will not bring the matter up to someone else. Thirdly, I will not bring the matter up to myself.”
I’ve started to pray-fully think and review the things that come to mind when I ask myself, “Who or what do I still need to forgive?” and I intend to take these things to God. While upon examining these things, I know or realize that the better approach isn’t to take it to the person but to God since it’s been so long or could make things more complicated or worse. My initial thoughts when I go to my mind and start to look at my heart is a bit like, “I’m good; there’s nothing I need to forgive,” but that doesn’t seem wholly true. Oh, I guess I suppressed or didn’t fully address this or that. In fact, a couple things easily came to mind as I was listening to the sermon. Turns out I thought I’d already dealt with them, and I may have. Perhaps I didn’t address them to the fullest extent. Some of that may be God’s timing in dealing with a me that wasn’t completely ready. No, I’m not going to list those past things here. I intend to list them elsewhere and then pray over them. I want to take them to God and forgive those slights. Then I’ll strike them off the list and throw the list away – not quite as far as the East is from the West but in a trash bin far from me.
It is a choice, not dependent on feelings. Yes, I know I may not feel like wanting to forgive but I can still choose to forgive.
(Excerpt from sermon:
So we forgive in obedience to the command of God, we make the promise as God has made, and it is more than possible that eventually the feelings will follow.
There have been clearly defined faults by others in my life. There have been things of my own making in a sense. Maybe then I need to forgive myself about those things that I’ve influenced? There are past relational complications. Bitterness and resentment have been allowed to grow, and there may need to be recognition of forgiving what I can and relinquishing the rest to God. What then might I do with these residue of feelings? Take them to God I suppose.
I know I’ve previously wanted to blame those who’ve hurt me and wanted them to recognize, recompense or deliver restitution. I’ve gotten angry, but come to fatigue myself and think it all wasted energy. What’s the point since harm’s been done? Is it going to do any good if I pursue what seems reasonable vengeance? Maybe they should at least know I hurt.
Is it so hard for the other party to see how much I’ve been hurt?! Though in looking at the cross, I feel so small and unqualified when I want to yell that to others.
Yes, there are consequences to what transpired. Forgiving doesn’t eliminate or make those consequences go away. And it seems I’m living with the hurt and wounding of some of those consequences. Can I then properly address and help heal those areas without getting pissed off or negating forgiveness? I know these things are best handled by God and His grace; yet, it’s still hard not to get my emotions so stirred up and potentially in the way. Are they going to scar much in the healing process?
I feel like it’s been slow, but the more manageable approach it seems to me is to address each in turn those rooted aspects, to weed them out with love and patience.
I need to be intentional about speaking God’s truth over and replacing where I’ve harbored, and internalized, lies about myself, others or situations. I am NOT alone! I have brothers and sisters in Christ. I have a wife. I am a loved person, a child of God. Truths that should be reiterated again and again, since years have passed to only reinforce lies.
I need to realize and wholly embrace all that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit provide in a complete consummate relationship as a believer and fellow heir. I need Jesus! I depend, and should even more, upon Him daily. I need to look to God in all things and be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading. I should start the day off with Him and be intentional throughout the rest of the day, every day.
I need to adopt better habitual mechanisms that could replace sinful, harmful ones that have become ingrained. Easier said than done, I know; new habits can take time. That’s why and where reminders and others can help, supporting me in going through. I need to choose to look at right or good things, instead of letting my mind wander. Let my guard be ready. I need to put on God’s armor daily and dwell in His word frequently.
I need reminders that emotions are acceptable, as well as communicating in a safe, right way and environment. At times I need to yell at paper! At times I need to cry on the carpet before God! I need and can confide in close friends! I need and should be open and honest with my wife!
It’s all about relationships. Praying intentionally the Lord’s Prayer allows me to examine my relationship with my Heavenly Father and my relationship with fellow people, especially those I love. Forgiveness is key.
John Newton mentored a man called William Cowper (1731–1800). Cowper had experienced tragedy. His mother died when he was six. His father died while he was still young. He qualified as a barrister. Outwardly he was successful. However, he suffered from serious depression. When applying for an administrative post in the House of Lords that entailed a formal examination, he was so disturbed by the prospect of the exam that he attempted suicide. For the rest of his life he suffered from mental illness.
When he was in his thirties, John Newton encouraged Cowper to begin composing hymns. He wrote powerfully of the joys and sorrows of everyday life. In 1774, he suffered such a severe episode of mental illness that he was prevented from entering into his intended marriage to Mary Unwin. He was crestfallen. Shortly afterwards, in perhaps his most famous hymn, he wrote:
God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform
God is good. God is love. God loves you. God has revealed himself supremely in Jesus. All this we know. Then you read passages in the Bible that don’t seem to fit with your understanding of God. You may also have experiences in life that don’t seem to fit either.
You cannot put God in a box. He is far greater than you could ever conceive. Some passages in the Bible are mysterious. Jesus said on one occasion, ‘You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand’ (John 13:7). Sometimes that understanding may come in our lifetime. Some things we will only understand when we meet the Lord.
How should you respond when you don’t understand God?
Be honest with God
Are there times in your life when you simply do not understand why certain things are happening to you? Does it almost feel like God has rejected you? If so, your experience is common in the history of the people of God. This psalm opens with this question: ‘Why have you rejected us forever, O God?’ (v.1).
Sometimes it may seem as if God is silent and not intervening to help you in any way. As the psalmist says, ‘There’s not a sign or symbol of God in sight, nor anyone to speak in his name, no one who knows what’s going on’ (v.9, MSG).
When you go through times like this, you never know ‘how long’ this will be (v.9). You might have questions about why a part of your life is working out as it is. Or perhaps you just feel that God is distant. St John of the Cross (1542–1591) referred to these times as ‘the dark night of the soul’.
What should you do in times like this?
Ask the questions The psalmist does not beat around the bush. He pours out his heart to God. He asks God the difficult questions. ‘You walked off and left us, and never looked back. God, how could you do that? We’re your very own sheep; how can you stomp off in anger?’ (v.1, MSG).
Ask for answers ‘Refresh your memory of us… you actually lived here once! Come and visit the site of disaster…’ (vv.2–3, MSG).
You are not alone when you have these kinds of experiences and emotions. One of the great blessings of the Psalms is that you can turn to them in times of mysterious suffering and echo these prayers in your heart.
Lord, thank you that even when I can’t understand what is happening to me, I can be honest with you when I pray and pour out my heart to you.
Be open to God
Jesus told his disciples to heal the sick, raise the dead and preach the gospel. The early church got on with doing exactly what Jesus told them to do. They must have been very surprised by what happened. Yet they were open to his leading.
The mystery of healing They continued to see God’s extraordinary power at work. Peter said to a man who was bedridden for eight years, ‘Jesus Christ heals you’ (9:34). He immediately ‘jumped right out of bed’ (v.34, MSG). ‘Everybody… woke up to the fact that God was alive and active among them’ (v.35, MSG).
Yet not all are healed. Why doesn’t God heal everyone? I don’t know. Sometimes it is really hard to understand why God has not healed someone we have prayed for so much. It is a mystery.
The mystery of raising the dead Next, Peter raised the dead! Accounts of the dead being raised are rare in the Bible. It happened twice in the Old Testament – once with Elijah and once with Elisha. Jesus raised the dead three times, Paul once, and Peter raised Dorcas from the dead. The command to raise the dead occurs only once (Matthew 10:8).
In almost every case, it was a young person who was raised from the dead. None of them lived forever – but their lives were not cut off prematurely. Very occasionally God intervenes in this way. We don’t know why. It is a mystery.
Here God did intervene. Dorcas, ‘who was always doing good and helping the poor’ (Acts 9:36), became sick and died. Peter got down on his knees and prayed. She opened her eyes, sat up, and Peter took her by the hand and helped her to her feet! As a result, ‘many people believed in the Lord’ (v.42).
The mystery of the gospel The apostle Paul was later to explain, ‘This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus’ (Ephesians 3:6).
Up until this point in the book of Acts, all the followers of Jesus had been Jewish. In fact, they did not think it was possible to become a Christian without being a Jew. But God surprised them. He prepared Peter with a vision. In a trance he saw heaven open and he was told to kill and eat ‘impure’ and ‘unclean’ animals and birds. His response was, ‘Surely not, Lord!’ (Acts 10:14).
The vision, and God’s voice that accompanied it, challenged Peter not to make distinctions between clean and unclean food (vv.13–15). However, Peter also realised that this vision meant that he should not make distinctions between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ people – that is, Jewish and non-Jewish people. In tomorrow’s reading, we discover that Peter says, ‘No race is better than any other’ (v.28, MSG).
At the time, it was a mystery. ‘Peter, puzzled, sat there trying to figure out what it all meant’ (v.17, MSG). He did not realise what God was doing. Only later did he understand. God had plans that were far bigger than theirs. The good news of Jesus was not to be confined to the Jewish people – it was for everyone in the world. Thankfully, Peter was open enough to respond to God’s guidance, whether through a vision or even when ‘the Spirit whispered to him’ (v.19, MSG).
Lord, thank you that even if we do not understand some mysteries in this life, we can trust you and know that you always have a reason.
2 Samuel 23:8-24:25
Be mystified by God
This is one of the most mysterious passages in the whole Bible. All seemed to be going well. David had good people around him. He was greatly helped and supported by his three mighty men, as well as a wider inner circle of ‘the Thirty’.
Yet something terrible happened. Who incited David to count his fighting men? In this passage it appears to be God. Yet in the equivalent passage in Chronicles we are told, ‘Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel’ (1 Chronicles 21:1). This is one of only three times in which Satan is mentioned in the Old Testament.
David apparently knew that what he was doing was wrong (‘because he had counted the people, replacing trust with statistics’, 2 Samuel 24:10, MSG). He was ‘conscience-stricken… and he said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, O Lord, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing”’ (v.10).
Given the various options, spoken by the prophet Gad, he chose to fall into the hands of the Lord, for ‘his mercy is great’ (v.14). He refused to offer a sacrifice that cost him nothing (v.24). After his sacrifice, ‘the Lord answered prayer on behalf of the land’ (v.25).
There is still much here that is difficult to understand. But the passage finishes on a note of hope and renewed relationship.
Lord, help me to trust you even in the midst of confusion and uncertainty. Thank you that, one day, your wisdom will be fully revealed. Thank you that you are good and that your love endures forever.
Francis Chan’s mother died giving birth to him. The only affection he can remember receiving from his father lasted about thirty seconds when he was on the way to his stepmother’s funeral aged nine. When he was twelve, his father also died. Francis cried, but also felt relieved.
Francis is now a pastor. He and his wife, Lisa, have seven children. When his children were born, his own love for his children and his desire for their love was so strong that it opened his eyes to how much God desires and loves us. He said, ‘Through this experience, I came to understand that my desire for my children is only a faint echo of God’s great love for me and for every person he made… I love my kids so much it hurts.’
Calling his first book Crazy Love, he wrote, ‘The idea of Crazy Love has to do with our relationship with God. All my life I’ve heard people say, “God loves you.” It’s probably the most insane statement you could make to say that the eternal Creator of this universe is in love with me. There is a response that ought to take place in believers, a crazy reaction to that love. Do you really understand what God has done for you? If so, why is your response so lukewarm?’
The word ‘zeal’ implies an intense or passionate desire. It can be misdirected, but as Paul writes, it is right to be zealous provided that the purpose is good (Galatians 4:18). Elsewhere he says, ‘Never be lacking in zeal’ (Romans 12:11). Perhaps a good modern translation of the word ‘zeal’ is ‘crazy love’.