30. God of Hope – theory into practice

Getting to Know God Meditations:  30. God of Hope – theory into practice

Job 19:25-27   I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth.  And after my skin has been destroyed,  yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another.

Where next?   Often when I write a study/meditation, I come to the end of it with no idea where we will go next. Often it is only as I am praying next morning that the ideas flow. When I came to the end of the previous study I felt two things. First a sense of inadequacy and lack of completeness and, second, a sense of nowhere to go. I no longer write until I sense direction so two days have passed without writing a study. But this morning the answer came, so here it is. The previous study was the theory, here is the practice.

Living in the Fallen World: I often refer to living in this fallen world, a world that is no longer like God originally made it (perfect), a world where things go wrong, a world where all human beings in some measure or another are dysfunctional – we no longer work as we were originally designed to live – and so we get into trouble, things go wrong, illnesses strike, jobs are lost, loved ones die, and so on. But there is one thing I have observed over the years that is crucial for us to understand and that is the sense of hopelessness and helplessness that many feel.

OK, this isn’t always true. You lose a job but get up and go hunting for a new one, possibly get retrained and, with some serious endeavor, life goes on. Some people give up smoking. Sometimes it is with the help of a hypnotist, or therapy or nicotine patches but at the end of it, they are free of the addiction. Some people have cancer and receive treatment and are then in remission, which simply means the signs are gone but it could come back. Alcoholics similarly know they are never completely free, they are just able to say, “I haven’t had a drink since….” So yes, there are many ways in life where the hope that we have is of change, often by our own abilities, often by those of others. It is a better life today than it was two hundred years ago, say.

Helpless? So why do I speak of helplessness and hopelessness? Because as much as we live in a world were some prophesy lives will be going on and on and on, the human race evolving even more, these are the ramblings of the privileged few and even for them, I believe, it is deception. I have watched the lives of two people in particular, two men of capability, two successful men, two men who most of the time feel safe and secure in their business acumen and their affluence – how these things can deceive. But then I have watched in each case and changes in the world, changes outside their control have threatened their very existence and certainly their affluence. Suddenly life was not secure.

I have referred in the past to these sorts of changes that impose themselves on our lives, things out of our control, as the storms of life. I have also recently referred to Jesus’ parable of the two house builders (Mt 7) which specifically addresses how to cope in the face of the storms of life. But some people don’t heed his advice and follow him, and so when the storms come they are seen as disasters. Some don’t cope well and suicides sometimes follow, or marriage breakups occur, and so on. It can be really rough navigating the storms of life. Much of the time, life is fine, but then the storms come and it is very different, at those times, despite all our previous bravado, we suddenly find we are helpless (powerless to bring the change we need) and hopeless (unable to bring the change we need) and thus face a distinctly uncertain future.

The Lessons from Job: Job was possibly the greatest example of someone riding the storms of life having had everything stripped out of his life – family, friends, affluence, health – and death stared him in the face. In some ways it is a terrible book, this book of Job, especially when it seems it is God who allows it all to come about, but it is a book that has one or two powerful messages. First, and perhaps the most important, is that God is always in the background watching over and limiting what is going on. Second, it shows us that it is possible to weather these storms without letting them distort our beliefs, for Job refused to abuse the name of God and the testimony and challenge to his ‘friends’, from God, was, “You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has,” (Job 42:7 & 8) and, “In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.” (Job 1:22) It may just be a parable or it may be history; we don’t really know, but the message at the end of it is that God is there and able to utterly restore Job and his circumstances to make them even better than they were before.

Out of the Darkness: Now it is in the midst of the darkness of his experience (and I have watched others have the same experience, and known it in small measure myself) that suddenly hope bursts forth within Job. It cannot be explained logically, for everything out our situation is black but in the blackness there is suddenly revelation and Job declares those amazing words, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth.  And after my skin has been destroyed,  yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another.”  Now you may not  think much of this but consider this: Job is staring death in the face, the abyss of the great unknown, the big question mark that hangs over every life, that it is destined that men die only once, and after that comes judgment.” (Heb 9:27) Many try to pretend it will never happen but we know it will. Many try to pretend that there is nothing after death, but the question mark is always there.

Two Aspects: Now we have been considering two aspects of being human: first, that life goes wrong and so can be painful and fearful and, second, that we all face death and whatever happens afterwards. We use a variety of techniques to push away these thoughts – especially when we are living healthy lives, affluent lives and there seems not a cloud in the sky. Indeed at such times we speak of such people as me at this moment, as ‘Jeremiahs, prophets of doom’, to which I respond with a smile, no, merely a realist who has watched life too many times to be conned by the good times. But, whatever the reason, whatever the cause of a particular storm, the Bible reaches out to us with hope – that God is there and He is there for us if we will but reach out for Him, rather like Michelangelo’s fresco painting in the Sistine chapel, the Creation of Adam, where God’s hand is reaching out to touch mans. This is always the hope that is there – that He is there and He is for us, always reaching out to us – to bring change!

But?…  When the storm is at its worst, when the time is at its darkest, we need more and more reassuring, and so in the next study we will lay out further, more detailed evidence of ‘hope in practice’.

29. God of Hope – the theory

Getting to Know God Meditations:  29. God of Hope – the theory

Rom 8:24    hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Eph 1:18   I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people,

The Future?  As we concluded the previous study we mentioned the future and in a day when the future of this world seems increasingly uncertain, with ever new doomsday scenarios being presented to us, we find the future has a big place in the scriptures, not as a means of escaping the present but as a time (here) of potential blessing, and that going on into a glorious eternity with God where life continues in a dimension that, I suspect, defies our wildest dreams.  I feel sorry for atheists who seek to portray their wares, their philosophies, as something good, at times contorting their minds to overcome the picture of gloom that their ‘world by accident’ (“Well of course evolution is purposeful.”  Really???) comes up with, and the best that I have read that they can come up with when it comes to after this life, is us being turned into dust that joins the rest of the cosmos. Dust????

The ‘Recent Future’: I think many of us who are Christians tend to take this for granted but we have already considered in small measure the changes that take place when we turn to Christ. Let’s briefly recap them: we are forgiven, cleansed, justified, adopted and empowered. Be quite clear in your mind what each of these mean because they all impact tomorrow! The fact that I am forgiven (1 Jn 1:9) means I do not keep on having to go back over the past with regret. Yes, I got things wrong, yes I lived without the knowledge of God, but that is now all past history and I know differently today.  The fact that I am cleansed means the guilt and the shame and even the tainted memories have come under the cleansing hand of Christ, all dealt with on the Cross. He has done it; I am a new creation! (2 Cor 5:17) To be justified means that I have been morally put right in God’s sight; justice has been appeased because One has died for my sins and I have been released from the Court of Heaven to live a new life.  The fact that I am adopted means I have been taken into God’s family and remade (Jn 1:12,13) in the family likeness. I am family! The fact is that I am now empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit who came to me and generated fresh life in me in an almost indescribable way when I turned to Christ. All of these truths impact the way I can face today and especially, tomorrow.

The Immediate Future: But how does a believer face tomorrow (literally tomorrow, not the distant future)? What are the things the Bible teaches me that will help tomorrow? They are things that come out of direct teaching lessons that are implied through the way God has interacted with people in the Bible.

  • The first thing is that He is there. That is what is behind the whole thesis of these studies. We are not alone in this universe, I am not alone in this universe, God is there.
  • Second, He is there for me. Everything about the teaching about Jesus and the salvation he brings, says God is for me. Everything that has happened to me all the years I have known Him tells me He is for me. When I pray, when I read the Bible, those experiences convey this to me – He is here for me!
  • Third, He is there with a plan for my life: “The fact is that what we are we owe to the hand of God upon us. We are born afresh in Christ and born to do those good deeds which God planned for us to do.” (Eph 2:10 JBP)
  • Fourth, that plan is all about redeeming my life. That simply means He is constantly working to save me from what I once was and from the messes I still manage, sometimes, to get myself into.
  • Fifth, that plan means He is there guiding me and leading me into better things.
  • Sixth, these things means He is in the process of changing me to be a more loving, more appreciative, more godly, more gracious, and a more Spirit-filled human being.
  • Seventh, His grace is there for me every day, the resource of His own Holy Spirit who provides me with everything I need to live a godly and righteous life.
  • Eighth, (and we could go on and on), finally let’s say, that grace enables me to overcome all the obstacles and temptations that the enemy would put in my way and enables me to triumph over these things.

Yes, all of these are truth that help me live out tomorrow and the next day here on this earth, and as many days as He allows me to have here. But that makes me add just one more:

  • Ninth, and this is the final one, He will keep on working in and through me every single day until I go to be with Him in heaven: “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 1:6)

Hope of Eternity: Now we have entitled this study, the God of Hope, because all we are talking about is what I hope will happen in the time and eternity ahead of this day.  Non-Christians use the word hope casually but for Christians it means an assurance of the future. When we say we have hope in Him it means we have total assurance, total confidence in Him for our future. The apostle Paul wrote, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people,” (Eph 1:18) and, “faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven,” (Col 1:5) and, “their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness— in the hope of eternal life,” (Titus 1:2) and “having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:7) There it is, the hope to which he has called you, the hope stored up in heaven, the hope of eternal life (x2). This is the future after we die and cease our time here, a future with Christ in heaven, a future with no end.

When we are young, death is something distant and almost unreal. The older we get the stronger the reality becomes that death may be just around the corner. When I consider my present age, I realize there are many people who have already died who were much younger than I am now. Death comes when, much of the time, we are not expecting it.  But for those of us who know Christ, death and what follows is not something to be feared. At the beginning I referred to the atheist who, in his novels for young people, talks about us ending up as dust in the cosmos. Meaningless! But that is not for you and me. The limited pictures that we are given of the afterlife, suggests an eternity with purpose, an eternity with joy and pleasure and meaning, an eternity with God who we enjoy and who enjoys us. THAT is our destiny. Rest in it, be at peace in it.

And So: The big picture that the Bible conveys is that our time on this earth is not a meaningless blink of time but is a preparation for something to follow that is more glorious. At the risk of making this an over-long study, may I conclude it with something I wrote in a series called ‘Reaching into Redemption’, near the end of that series:

Imagine a cold, rough, harsh street in which you have lived, and in front of you is a great building and you hear a voice calling, inviting you to come in. As you peer in through the open doors you see an interior that is so different to this street outside. You realize you have tolerated this awful street for too long and you long to experience the wonder of what you glimpse inside. Yet you feel unworthy and so simply kneel on the steps, but a voice calls again and bids you enter. In humility you timidly pass through the entrance doors. Inside it is full of light and beauty. A servant comes up and offers you new clothing and you realize all you had worn previously was threadbare, torn and dirty. In a vestibule to the side you are able to change, and you emerge in splendor.

The area inside the entrance doors is enormous and glorious and splendid and there is so much to see. There are so many things to which your attention is drawn, and time passes rapidly as you enjoy and enter in to so much of what is before you. But then the voice comes yet again and invites you to ascend the stairs that lead out of this area, but you hesitate. There is so much here in this room that has become so familiar, there is so much that is good, and you feel there is still so much yet to explore, and so you hesitate. But the voice is persistent, and you know it is a command which you cannot refuse and so you ascend the stairs and pass through the door at the top. Suddenly your breath leaves you because what is before you cannot be described as a room, it is a world, and you gasp at its beauty, and as you glance back through the door behind you, all that you had been experiencing simply looked grey by comparison to the wonder, the color, the brightness before you and, suddenly, you realize that the room below where you had spent so much time, yes, so much more wonderful than the street outside, was but the entrance foyer to this new world.

It is but an illustration, but an accurate one I believe. The street outside was our old life. Entering the doors was our conversion. The time spent in the entrance foyer was simply to start to prepare us for the reality to come. Accurate? But incomplete, for it is but a parable, and parables never tell the whole story. So back to our experience of this ‘entrance foyer’, a place of promises where some are fulfilled and experienced, and some are simply glimpsed at a distance as we gaze up the staircase and catch just a glimmer of what is beyond.

Our past, our present – and our glorious future, if we will but receive it today.

28. God who watches

Getting to Know God Meditations:  28. God who watches

Psa 121:8   the Lord will watch over your coming and going  both now and forevermore.

Psa 139:3  You discern my going out and my lying down;  you are familiar with all my ways.

Ex 3:7  The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.

Why:  Why, you might wonder, do I have us considering thoughts about God watching us? Well the series is about getting to know God and for a small child, the thought of their mother or father being in the background keeping an eye on them would generate various, possibly conflicting, feelings within them. So it can be with God, and thus it is worthwhile pondering on this fact. Back in the seventeenth century, Scottish minister Henry Scougal wrote a long letter, written to a friend who had lost the faith, a letter that became a book entitled  ‘The Life of God in the Soul of Man’. In it he wrote, ‘true religion is a union of the soul with God, a real participation of the divine nature, the very image of God drawn upon the soul, or, in the apostle’s phrase, “It is Christ formed within us.”  That, I suggest, comes about because God knows us and, in a small measure at least, allows us to know Him and become one with Him. We will return to this mystery later in the series but for the moment we will concentrate on the first part – God knows (me).

The Fact: The fact is that God knows – everything. The young man in Job who seems to speak with the voice of God yet is not God, speaking of God speaks, “of him who has perfect knowledge.” (Job 37:16) The apostle John in his first letter simply says of God, “he knows everything.” (1 Jn 3:20)  The writer to the Hebrews declared,  Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Heb 4:13) A seer in the days of King Asa of Judah declared of God, “the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.” (2 Chron 16:9) Again in the book of Job we find, “he views the ends of the earth  and sees everything under the heavens.” (Job 28:24) The point we make is that the testimony that arises here in these quotes, and in many more places throughout the Bible, declares the same thing – God knows everything and He sees everything.

Reassurance: For the little child aware of their parent in the background there is that reassurance that there is protection there watching over them. Ah, but this assumes something – the character of the parent. If the watcher is a drunk or drug addict or one suffering from some severe mental disorder, that reassurance is not there. Where the parent indicates they are more concerned with their own activities, constantly on their cell phone, they convey to the child that there is little concern for them. There needs to be love conveyed by actions for the child to feel that security we are referring to.

Watched Over: Our first quote above, from Psa 121, comes from a psalm that is all about reassurance. The words ‘watch’ or ‘watches’ appears five times in that short psalm so the psalmist seeks to convey this sense of being watched over, but that isn’t all there is to it, it is being watched over to guard and protect us: “My help comes from the Lord,” (v.2) and, He will not let your foot slip,” (v.3) and, “the sun will not harm you,” (v.6), and, “The Lord will keep you from all harm,” (v.7) hence the concluding comment that we have above: “the Lord will watch over your coming and going  both now and forevermore.” (v.8) This was the testimony of this particular unknown psalmist; this is what he had learned through life and wanted to convey now. He had this reassurance that God watches over us to guard and protect us.

Thought about: The second quote, from Psa 139, comes from a psalm of David that is all about God’s presence – everywhere – and His activity of watching over David. He had come to that total assurance that God saw everything he did (v.1-6), that there was nowhere he could go that God wasn’t there (v.7-12) and that God knew every intimate detail about him, from the moment he was conceived in his mother’s womb (v.13-16). I like the alternative rendering of verse 17: “How amazing are your thoughts concerning me,” and he then carries on, How vast is the sum of them!  Were I to count them,  they would outnumber the grains of sand.” (v.18) i.e. you don’t only watch over me, you are thinking about me all the time!  And because He is God, He can do that with every single one of us.

Now the unsure critic might say, “But these are just the things that various miscellaneous individuals have come up with. How can we know that they are true?” Well of course everything to do with God, the Bible and Jesus have to be accepted by faith – in fact nothing from history (and this does include all of historical records) has to be taken by faith, but faith is always built on evidence and as the evidence builds up we become more and more sure that it is true – but we can never be utterly certain. In fact one of the things that I observe, as someone who enjoys reading about history, is that modern historians are frequently upgrading our perspective of history as additional data becomes available, but of course when it comes to the Bible we have this fixed book, the canon of which was agreed by early Church leaders and scholars within the first three centuries AD. (‘canon’ = a collection judged by many criteria as genuine).

What they also said, and which a number of scholars since have said, is that there is a ring of truth about the texts that have been agreed as part of the canon, and that ‘ring of truth’ implies this is more than ordinary writing, it is writing inspired by God, that God prompted the writers to put down what we have before us. That doesn’t mean to say that every single word or idea is true or correct, for it is clear that the point of the book of Job, for instance, is to portray the different ways people might think (erroneously) about God. Ecclesiastes, as another example, has a jaded feeling about it, written by Solomon probably later in life when he has been led away from his earlier relationship with God by his many foreign wives. We also find many records of people who were behaving unrighteously and in a most ungodly manner, and so we need to learn to be discerning about what we are reading.

Known Before: When we come to our Exodus 3 quote, we find the Lord speaking to Moses and letting him know that the reason He has now come to call Moses, is that He has been watching over Israel for four centuries of this time in Egypt and so He knows exactly what they are going through and He has come to deliver them out of that. Furthermore we should remember that centuries before He told Abraham that this state of affairs would come about and it would take this length of time for it to happen. There are thus various lessons we can deduce from this, which are also supported elsewhere in scripture.

First, God knows where the world is going. Second, He sees the present state of it. Third, He knows what He wants to do about it in the days ahead.  When we come into the New Testament,  we see the inspired apostle Paul declaring about Christians, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 2:10) In other words, as we have seen in earlier studies, through the work of Christ on the Cross, God has drawn us to Himself and we have been forgiven, cleansed, adopted, and empowered – we’re His handiwork!  But He knows us through and through and because of what He knows about us, He knows our potential, what He can help us achieve.

Purpose in Life: To the young man Jeremiah, He said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jer 1:5) When you put that beside Paul’s insight about us and Christ, where he said, “he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption,” (Eph 1:4,5), we find the sense that even before anything came into being, God looked into the future, saw who we would be, and saw our potential so that when we responded to Christ He could lead each of us in a unique path that ‘fits’ exactly who we are into His plans and purposes.

This perhaps is the peak of the significance we find in these words about God knowing. He knows the past (all that has gone so far), He knows the present, (what is going on in and around us,) and He knows the future (where it is all going and how and when His plans will reach fulfillment). When we let these words of scripture touch us, they bring a new sense of meaning, purpose and eventually fulfillment in our lives. This isn’t just God ‘out there’ or ‘God in the Bible’, this is God here and now, close up and personal, God who knew us before we came to Him, and knows all about us now. And He still sticks with us now! Amazing! Now in this last paragraph we have started to make references to the future, so our next study will be all about hope, which is all about the future, so stay with me if you can.

27. God of Relationship

Getting to Know God Meditations:  27. God of Relationship

Jn 15:4   Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

Jn 15:14,15   You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.

Ongoing:  There is something that is inherent in all that we have been saying throughout these studies and yet is so obvious that we are likely to have missed it. It is that God is personal and approaches each and every human being with the intent of forming a relationship with them; that is the message of the entire Bible. Now having used those words we need to ponder of just what that means for it is easy to have expectations that go beyond what the Bible shows us.  But bear in mind throughout, we are talking about something that can be the experience of me AND you.

In the Beginning: You may have already gathered from earlier on that I am comfortable both with those who say the early chapters of Genesis are pure history as well as those who say it is a story given to us by God to teach us crucial lessons. I hold to the former belief but if the latter is true that wouldn’t make my faith in God and His purposes any less real. Believing in either is an act of faith for we will not know the truth until we see Him face to face. My faith (and I hope yours) doesn’t hinge on whether Gen 1-4, say, is factual history or divine parable. The message conveyed is the same.

So here in Gen 2 & 3 we have a picture of Adam and Eve, the first two real people, defined as those who are interacting with God – for that is what all human beings do, whether they realize it or not. Initially it is a beautiful picture. God has given them a ‘garden’ somewhere in the land we refer to as Mesopotamia, to work and take care of it. (Gen 2:15) The have purpose – to reign over the earth (Gen 1:26). They are rulers (don’t confuse that with those who ‘dominate’), they are God’s agents to look after and care for His world, and He turns up, it seems, to check them out in the evening (Gen 3:8).

Until the Fall took place it was a picture of total peace and harmony, with each other, with the world, and with God. That is the first of God’s design criteria for us – enjoying the world, enjoying each other, and enjoying Him. Yes, the Fall ruined all three but God’s purpose ever since has been to restore them, to bring us into a place where all three things work together for our blessing – that we enjoy the world, enjoy each other and enjoy Him. Here’s the challenge: all we have talking about throughout the previous twenty six studies has been to lead us to a place where this trio of things can be restored to our lives and becomes the ultimate experience – here on this earth in the years left to us. Yet the reality is that until they are reversed in the order I have given them, they will never fully be appropriated. Until we come to a place where we have a relationship with God that is all the New Testament shows it can be, we will struggle to enjoy each other in the ways we are supposed to and we will not enjoy the world in the way we are supposed to.

God with Individuals: The fascinating thing about the early chapters of Genesis (fact or fable) is that they reveal to us God interacting with people. Adam and Eve He sets up in the Garden, Cain (Gen 4) he warns against getting in a mess and then preserves him when he does. In the midst of the names of chapter 5 we find, “Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.” (Gen 5:24) What an enigmatic little verse, a picture of a man who ‘walked’ with God. Walking implies friendship, communion, fellowship and so on. When it says, ‘God took him away’, the sense of not of judgment but removal from a world that we are shown was increasingly going wrong, to be with Him and continue that communion, that fellowship, in eternity. Just a hint of future promise. Chapter 6 shows it all going wrong: “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” (Gen 6:5) It was getting worse and worse, imploding on itself, it seems, with sin finding more and more ways to pervert the design of God and bring destruction upon itself.

This was not God’s desire for the world and so we have one of the rare ‘terminal judgments’ or ‘judgments of the last resort,’ God’s determination to stop it all and start again. Now again, until we see Him face to face, there will be arguments as to whether the flood was literally worldwide (and there are some geological signs of that) or whether it was just the area we call the Middle East, but the truth that comes out here is that God found one man, Noah, who had not gone the way of the rest, and so He saved him and his family and started the Hebrew ‘family’ tree again and multiple family trees as well.  At the end of this tree we find Abram (Gen 11:26-).

Talking with the Patriarchs: We have already glimpsed God speaking with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Joseph, and then after a gap of some four hundred years, with a failed Prince of Egypt, now a shepherd, Moses. And so the history goes on and on, forming a nation, Israel, and following their ups and downs through the Old Testament. But all that we have looked at previously, the plan and purposes of God being gradually revealed, were reiterated again and again and again to the Patriarchs and those who followed them. Yes, we’ve considered that great plan, formulated in the mind of the Godhead even before the world came into being, to reveal God through Israel, to reveal the sinfulness of mankind through Israel, and to create a ‘God culture’  or ‘God environment’ into which the Son of God could come, but the danger is that we take for granted and thus miss this crucial thing – it was all coming to individuals. God deals with individuals, God loves individuals, God copes with individuals, and I say ‘cope’ because He finds failure in every single individual that we see in the Bible (except Jesus). Every single person, without exception, reveals at some time their dysfunctional nature, their propensity to get it wrong – and yet God keeps on and on with them.

And Us? Yes, this is as much true for us as it was for them. God desires friendship, fellowship and communion with each of us. He reaches out again and again in our lives but so often we fail to realize what is happening and so don’t ‘hear’ Him, don’t realise it is Him, and so don’t respond to Him.  But it is. And then one day His Spirit sees a chink in the hardness, the blindness, that we have, and His light penetrates and where there is a willing heart (and it is always a mystery why one person and not another) an interaction takes place to initiate a new dimension of relationship.  We refer to being convicted by the Holy Spirit, being shown the reality of our desperate state, the mess our life is in, the way it falls short of what could be, and how it grieves God, and repentance follows and He forgives us, cleanses us, adopts us into His family and empowers us by His Holy Spirit and gives us a new purpose in this life and a promise of the next.  But that is just the start.

From then on we enter into a life of learning. Initially we think it is a life of trying hard to change, because we see all the wrong attitudes etc. in our lives from which He will free us. There are new things to aim for as we rebuild new lives characterised by love and goodness. Yes we pray and we read the Bible and in so doing we come to realise He is there, yes really there with us, not only in us by His Holy Spirit, but all around us, there in the room with us. As we pray and as we wait on Him we sense His presence  and stillness, a peace, falls on us; it is Him. And then we read and we realise, not only is He love but He IS peace and where He is, there is peace. But then we read verses like Gal 5:22,23 and we realize that He, the Holy Spirit, IS love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, these things are all expressions of Him.

And then it dawns on us that we can strive to have patience, strive to be loving etc., but when we do it, it will always fall short of what can be and, indeed, we can appear to have these things and yet still not know God, still not know His presence, not have fellowship, not have communion with Him, and we realize the most terrible thing, all of our endeavors can putting on a good show – and yet we remain godless!  Being godly is communing with Him, fellowshipping with Him, knowing Him and being known by Him, it is intimacy.

“Is such a thing possible?” someone asks. Yes of course it is. “All the time?” they ask again. Well a famous man by the name of Brother Lawrence spoke of practicing the presence of God – at all times, but even that I suggest is a gift from God. To take the pressure off, read Abraham, the friend of God and note his encounters with God were few and far between, but He was still chosen by God and blessed by God. The difference between us and Abraham, is that we who are Christians are now indwelt by the Spirit and so access to God is that much closer, we might say. If we don’t know this, it is not a matter for guilt, but simply a goal of something perhaps to build into our lives, more and more. For many that raises questions, how can I find the time in my busy family and business life to spend time just being still with God? Each one of us is different. James said ask God for wisdom (how to) and He will always give it if we are sincere (see Jas 1:5,6). Whatever we do, will come from a place of weakness where we seek Him for His grace to enable us, to resource us. We are made to be friends with God. Friends talk, friends share, friends fellowship. Enjoy the learning process of how to be a friend of God.

26. God of Communication (5)

Getting to Know God Meditations:  26. God of Communication (5)

Prov 1:5   let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance

Mt 10:14  If anyone will not welcome you or listen (hear & accept) to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.

Jas 1:22: Do not merely listen (hear words) to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

Jas 4:13 Now listen (& pay attention), you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”

Differences:  There is a distinct difference between hearing and listening. We live fairly near the flight path of a relatively small airport. It deals with short-haul carriers especially going to holiday destinations. From 6.30am each morning, depending which direction they are taking off, we may have half a dozen noisy flights taking off in the next half hour – but we hardly hear them, we frequently don’t even notice them. (In fact this morning I was only aware of one flight when in fact Departures tell me there have been seven going over us!) Friends who come to stay are troubled by the sound of the outgoing flights; they are not used to the sound. People who live near busy railway lines tend to experience the same thing – they just don’t notice the passing trains. What we get used to, what becomes so familiar to us, fades into the background. That is the problem with ‘hearing’.

When we put on a piece of music, perhaps on the radio, it is easy for it to fade into the background and it just becomes enjoyable audible wallpaper, something there in the background we hardly notice. But then comes on a programme with contentious discussed material and suddenly we are caught by certain words and our attention is grabbed and suddenly we are listening.  Listening involves purpose or intent. The danger for the Christian, whether it is reading the written word, the Bible, or hearing it preached, is that repetition can so easily change listening into hearing and the import and impact is lost.

When it comes to the Bible, again and again we need to pray with the psalmist, Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.” (Psa 119:18) What he means is show me the reality of what is here before me, let it come alive, speak to me through it, let me hear your voice through it. With that attitude we change hearing into listening.  In an earlier study we noted how God ‘speaks’ through Creation, through the Bible and through Jesus, and what we have just been saying applies equally to each of those: we can be so familiar with each of them we don’t listen and indeed ‘hearing’ simply fades into the background and loses its import and impact.

A Facet of Wisdom: In our starter verses above I have inserted the heart of the word in three of them to draw our attention to what it is saying.  Solomon, writing the Proverbs, comes as a teacher, a term he used when he wrote Ecclesiastes, another book he wrote with the intent of teaching us about life. So in our first verse we find him exhorting us, “let the wise listen and add to their learning.”  (Prov 1:5) That is interesting because he is addressing ‘the wise’. A wise person is usually considered to be someone who has experience and out of that has grown knowledge and understanding and good judgment.  A wise person has learnt and so he says ‘listen’ and you will add to your learning. This is why Jesus taught, “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (Mt 13:12) A wise person never stops learning, they always have a teachable heart, they have an openness to taking in more – they are listening, hearing with purpose and intent.  It starts of course with knowing God, which is why, I believe, this series is so important: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” (Prov 1:7) and, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psa 11:10)

An Expression of Acceptance: Jesus, when sending out his disciples, instructed them, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.“ (Mt 10:14). It is clear that he means if people hear what you say but refuse to accept it, then just leave them. We sometimes hear someone say, “They just wouldn’t listen to a word I said!” What they are meaning is that that person heard what they were saying but refused to accept it. And here is another of those problems with the God who communicates: many people hear – through observing Creation, observing the Bible, observing Jesus – but refuse to listen, refuse to accept what is before them, God seeking to communicate with them. I have often said that I believe that God speaks to every single person on the planet. It may not be through the Bible or through Jesus (if they don’t have the Bible or have not heard of Jesus) but they hear through Creation and through their conscience. I suspect He also prompts and prods people in their minds to think about the big issues of life.  (You will find the apostle Paul talking about this in Romans 2).

An expression of a good heart: Obedience to God is part of wisdom. There is an aspect of hearing and indeed listening that can reveal folly. I once had a five hour discussion with someone about God, the Bible, Jesus, Christianity and faith and at the end of five hours they said, “I have heard all you said, I think I understand all you said and I can go along with it, but the truth is I like being a sinner and so I cannot accept it,” and with that they got up and left. This is a true story. At least that person was being honest, although the truth is that they did not comprehend three things: first, how wonderful God is and how wonderful it is to have a living relationship with Him and, second, they did not comprehend the true state of their own life and the ongoing consequences of continuing down the path they were following, and so, third, they did not understand the awfulness of a life and an eternity without God.

However, as we said, at least they were seeking to be honest, but can the same be said for the person who simply intellectualizes the truth but never lets it impact and change them, the person who hears the word but doesn’t apply it. James wrote, “Do not merely listen (hear words) to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” It is a warning that Jesus brought when he told the parable of the two house builders and he said, Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like…..” (Mt 7:24) and went on to talk about a man who built his house on rock that would withstand the storms of life. He contrasted it with a man who built on sand, whose life could not withstand the storms of life (see Mt 7:24-27). Hearing here means hearing the words, taking them, and responding to them with obedience.

Listening as a need: In the final quote, James again brought a further warning as an example of the need to listen. When a wise person is speaking, the wise listen. “Now listen you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” (Jas 4:13) He was chiding the wisdom of the fool who speaks unwisely. The Message paraphrase version expresses it,  And now I have a word for you who brashly announce, “Today—at the latest, tomorrow—we’re off to such and such a city for the year. We’re going to start a business and make a lot of money.” You don’t know the first thing about tomorrow. You’re nothing but a wisp of fog, catching a brief bit of sun before disappearing. Instead, make it a habit to say, “If the Master wills it and we’re still alive, we’ll do this or that.” (Jas 4:13-15) The exhortation is to a specific group of people who think and speak unwisely. We leave that group when we start ‘listening’, paying attention to what God says, learning from it, and obeying it.

And So? It is all very well to think about and study aspects of the God who communicates, but He always communicates with a purpose. Familiarity with some of these things for some of us who have been Christians a long while, may mean that hearing has been dulled and we are no longer listening attentively to our Lord. The peak of folly that I have experienced, I believe, came with a not very clever man who said to me one day, “I don’t think you can teach me anything. I have learnt it all.” And he meant it!!!! And he left. When God speaks it is the fool who does not listen. May that not be you and me.

25. God of Communication (4)

Getting to Know God Meditations:  25. God of Communication (4)

Mt 13:13   This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

Ongoing:  In the previous study we noted that ‘hearing’ comes not only through our physical ears but also through our soul or spirit. Just looking at the stars, we can be moved with understanding and be stirred to worship. Reading the Bible we can find truth impacting us and moving us. Reading the Gospels, we can see the wonder of Jesus displayed and our hearts be moved. This is communication taking place that includes, but also goes way beyond, physical seeing and hearing.

And Yet? Yet, there are instances in the Bible, our textbook for these things, where people hear the words being spoken to them but do not perceive the import of them. Pharaoh, who opposed Moses in Exodus, was one such example. The trouble is that it is the nature of the words being spoken in such situations, for they are words about ‘God’ and for many that is a bridge too far in belief. But why, the evidence is there, in fact it is piled high, so high as to be unmissable – except by a blind person.

Pharaoh, an example: Pharaoh was the king over a pagan country, Egypt, a country full of superstition and idolatrous worship. Pharaoh was divine, it was thought. Pharaoh succumbed to that wrong belief, but acted as if he was, so when Moses turned up and made demands as from the One True God, Pharaoh naturally resisted. So Moses performed a miracle and had his brother Aaron throw his staff on the ground and it turned into a snake (Ex7:10), but the trouble was Egypt was into the occult and so Pharaoh’s ‘magicians’ copied him and there were snakes all over the place! (v.11,12) – but Aaron’s ‘snake’ ate up all the others. Pretty impressive! But Pharaoh wasn’t impressed.

So Moses, at God’s instigation, performed another miracle, the first of what turned out to be ten ‘plagues’, he turned the water of the Nile into blood. (Ex 7:20,21) So the occult ‘magicians’ did the same as he did, with other water. Still Pharaoh is not impressed. OK, another plague, frogs all over the place and for a third time the occult ‘magicians’ copy him (Ex 8:1-7). Now, OK, to be fair, in Pharaoh’s eyes so far it is just an occult competition, but at least he is starting to see something for he asks Moses to pray that the Lord will remove the frogs – which happens – and then he digs in again. Another plague – gnats – but this time this is beyond the magicians. And so it goes on and on with each plague getting worse and still Pharaoh ‘hardens his heart’ and refuses to let Israel leave the land.

Example of what? But of what is Pharaoh an example? Of blindness, of stupidity, of refusal to note the mounting evidence, of refusal to acknowledge the Lord for who He is – Creator of the world, and all powerful who cannot be resisted. What is remarkable about this bizarre story is the number of opportunities God gave Pharaoh to ‘see’ and respond rightly. One of my favourite verses these days is, speaking of God, “he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance,” (2 Pet 3:9),  and if you read that chapter you will see the context is of a world that refuses to acknowledge the pile of evidence and instead says, but where is God, you keep saying he’ll turn up but he doesn’t’ and so Peter explains, this is God being patient giving you opportunity after opportunity to come to your senses.

A Spiritual Dimension: But the Bible shows that this world is not purely material, there is this spirit dimension as well, and we get indicators of this all over the place. For example – “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Cor 4:4) Without going into the theology of this for the moment, the apostle Paul was saying that unbelief has blinded the eyes of so many to the wonder of the Gospel, that Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God, has come and revealed the Father and died to take our sins and punishment. That is mind blowing when you ‘see’ it, but many don’t! As the Message paraphrase version puts it, “The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out.” (1 Cor 1:18) It is only when we recognize and acknowledge our blindness and cry out to God that suddenly all the talk about Jesus dying on the cross makes sense.

Jesus’ Acts Prophesied: John in his Gospel testified, “Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.” (Jn 12:37) As we’ve seen before the religious leaders were so prejudiced against him that even the miracles could not persuade them. John 9 is a great chapter to illustrate this. Jesus heals a man who had been blind from birth – but he does it on a Saturday, the Sabbath when work was forbidden for Jews. Then along come the Pharisees, the conservative, hypocritical guardians of the Law and, instead of being thrilled that a man who has been blind all his life can now see, they carp on about it happening on a Saturday. What heartless blindness!

But now John explains that this was exactly what Isaiah (Isa 6:10) had prophesied: “This was to fulfil the word of Isaiah the prophet: “Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (Jn 12:38) i.e. where were those who would believe what God was doing?  But then Isaiah says by way of explanation, “For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.” (Jn 12:39,40). What, God has done this? Well this is where we have to go back to Pharaoh where a number of times this matter of a ‘hard heart’ is seen. Cutting a long story short, when there is a hard heart because of pride (which is what Pharaoh had), God’s demands on such a person, if they are set in their ways (as Pharaoh was), will simply harden their heart even more and show even more clearly the folly of their ways. So yes, God does harden further, existing hard hearts.  If they would turn they would get healed but their hard hearts prevent them believing, they simply get harder and harder.

Jesus’ Teaching Style: To conclude with our starter verse, it comes when Jesus has been explaining to his disciples why he uses parables, and he again uses the Isaiah words: Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.” (Mt 13:13-15 quoting the Greek version of Isa 6:9,10) Not only does this blindness work when people refused to see the wonder in the miracles Jesus was performing, it also applies to his teaching. It is like Jesus is saying, beware, hard hearts mean an inability to see and understand.  Hearing is impaired by the state of the heart. By the heart we don’t mean the physical muscle, but as a dictionary puts it, ‘the central or innermost part of something’. At our core – intellect and will – we either believe or not.

Presuppositions: Philosopher Francis Schaeffer used to talk a lot about ‘presuppositions’, our starting points in our thinking, things we assume or take for granted are true. He used to make the point that much of the time we just ‘caught’ these from other people (like the flu). We didn’t conclude them from deep and meaningful thought. Very often we allow attitudes extolling ‘self’ to grow in us, called pride, and this pride creates what we have been calling a ‘hard heart’ which is simply a refusal to consider anything other than the presuppositions we have settled on. For many it is that there is no God.

The Hard-nosed Bible: The Bible uncompromisingly declares, The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”  (Psa 14:1,53:1) and The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7) Very often there is a footnote that says, “The Hebrew words rendered fool in Psalms denote one who is morally deficient.”  Lacking moral standing? Why? The implication is, as we concluded the previous study, we find Jesus saying, Whoever has ears, let them hear,” (Mt 11:15)  and, Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear,” (Lk 8:8, 14:35)  and the clear implication is that we have been given the means to be able to ‘hear’ God and so if we don’t it is an indication that pride has meant that we have exercised the will to refuse to consider these things openly and honestly and that, the Bible says, raises moral questions over us.  Perhaps we need to consider this further to distinguish between hearing and listening, which we haven’t done yet. Stay with me if you can.

24. God of Communication (3)

Getting to Know God Meditations:  24. God of Communication (3)

Psa 19:4   The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”

Clarification:  I have commented in the previous two studies that there are two sides to this coin, first the side that is about the communication that comes from God (and we have really only lightly touched on that) and then, on the other side, the need to hear and indeed listen to God.  It is that latter part that we need to be considering here in this present study. In this study we will only be able to start thinking about the idea, and so will need to continue in a further following study to see how it works more fully. This study comes, I think, as a bridge between speaking and hearing.

Imperfectly Seeing God: We have been suggesting again and again in these studies that all of this is about God’s initiative to reach out to us. That is what is there behind the biblical narrative. Yes, we have to acknowledge that in our present state it is rather like looking through a dirty glass window or looking in a dirty mirror, or as the Message version paraphrases it, “We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!” (1 Cor 13:12) That’s how it is now, but one day when we pass on from this life, we will see Him face to face and all will be clear.

Not Seeing but Hearing: Now we have indicated that the Bible shows us that we cannot ‘see’ God and any ‘revelations’ have been visions, that were perceived in the spirit but not with physical eyes, not the real thing in other words, and we suggested  that the reason for this is that God is so incredible, so great, so beautiful, that our minds cannot cope with it. When we get to heaven, there will be new abilities and thus we will be able to see and be seen, face to face. The best this phrase ‘face to face’ can be understood in this present dimension, is how it happened with Moses. When the Lord was chastising his siblings, He said of Moses, “With him I speak face to face,  clearly and not in riddles;  he sees the form of the Lord.” (Num 12:8)  Even with Moses he was only able to catch a sense of the ‘form’ of God manifesting His presence to him. So if there is limitation of sight, how can we know anything of God, what is the Bible all about? The answer has to be in ‘hearing’ which dictionaries define as, ‘the process, function, or power of perceiving sound’.  So there is ‘sound’ to be heard, but that is simply how it is in the material world. Or is it?

Hearing by Seeing: Have you ever heard or read, “but his silence spoke volumes”?  Maybe it referred to a suspected criminal being questioned and he refused to speak. It may be assumption but it suggests something about him – he is guilty. Or it may be friends who refuse to communicate with another on social media; it is a sign of their rejection and more. Silence speaks volumes. But listening to a piece of beautiful music can ‘speak’  to listeners and someone responds, “That was amazing, it spoke to my soul and really moved me.” The same thing applies when David the psalmist wrote, as our starter verses showed, The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” (Psa 19:1-4) What a perfect poetic description of this, that creation ‘speaks’, creation reveals the wonder and greatness of God, whether it be the enormity of space through the stars on a clear night, or the beauty of a sunset. Something in us is touched, we are moved, communication has taken place.

The apostle Paul understood this when he wrote of, “people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Rom 1:18-20) What is he talking about? The creation all around us. So often we are so inward looking, so taken up with our own little affairs, that we are unable to see the wonder of the world around us. Back in the nineteenth century, philosopher William Paley introduced us to the ‘watch analogy’, basically saying that it was a fool who looked into a mechanical watch and said it came about by accident and not design; the same was true of the universe. Many a sceptical atheist has derided that analogy but it is only spiritual blindness that cannot see the truth of it, and one day God will challenge them face to face on it.

Hearing through Reading: At one point, in discussion with his detractors, Jesus said to them, You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (Jn 5:39,40) This was amazing. These people, Jewish leaders, prided themselves of knowing the scriptures, the scrolls of what we now refer to as the Old Testament and yet those same scriptures were full (over 300 some say) of prophetic references to a coming Messiah, and the things said about him were exactly reflected in Jesus – but they couldn’t see that! Their prejudices blinded them. See the word Jesus used – testify – which means to speak out, but they refused to ‘hear’. Theologian William Barclay, pointed out how a person can listen to a wonderful piece of music and have no appreciation of it – they have no music in their soul, and he compared this as to how people can read the Gospels and be utterly unmoved by the wonder of the person that was Jesus Christ – just like these religious leaders who felt threatened by Jesus.

And Us? We’ve just given three illustrations – Creation and the Bible and Jesus. Each of these ‘speak’ to those who become aware of them.  But what are we like on the inside? It is not only our literal ears that hear, we’ve demonstrated that, it can be our soul or spirit. In the Gospels we find Jesus saying, Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Mt 11:15)  and, Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” (Lk 8:8, 14:35)  The implication was that we have various senses that enable us to ‘hear’. Will we use them? The ‘voice’ is there but do we hear Him? When we look at the enormity and wonder in the clear sky at night, does it evoke worship in us? When we pick up and read, say the psalms, do we find the descriptions of God there breath-taking?  When we read the Gospels, do we see the wonder of Jesus Christ, and marvel, wonder and give thanks? If we do not do these things, if these are not our responses, it is an indication of a certain sort of blindness and perhaps, if we do not want to miss out, we need to pray, “Lord, please open my eyes that I may see.”