30. Stand Firm

‘Life Workings’ Meditations No.30: Stand Firm

Eph 6:13 “you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”

And so we arrive at the final consideration of this series that has been looking at various facets of how life works, the life we reminded ourselves in the previous study, that is designed by God, and which doesn’t work properly when we abandon His design.

‘Putting on the whole armour of God’ was Paul’s way of saying, make sure you have everything that God has provided so you can cope with the tough times. Jesus said coping with the tough times came by obeying his words (Mt 7:24). Both were saying that learning how life works and learning how to handle it, is pretty obvious. It is God’s world so live in it His way and with His resources.

That’s not a bad motto to stick on the fridge!  We need these reminders when times are dark and uncertain AND when they’re going well. We need to remind ourselves of these two things, we need to learn to stand strong in BOTH situations.

It perhaps seems fairly obvious that we need to talk about standing firm in the face of the upsets of life when it doesn’t seem to be working properly (such as during the Covid Pandemic) and we may feel down. In those times we speak about taking hold of the grace of God to cope with the negatives, with the darkness around us. But those negatives may also include problems coping with other people, especially when they are speaking against us or specifically acting against us, what we call persecution. Again the grace of God is needed to cope with it in a Christlike manner (see Mt 5:44).

But then there is the time when everything is going well, we are prosperous, feeling strong and healthy, the weather is good, the business is prospering, and the kids are doing well at school! i.e. life is good! Deut 8:10-18 is a most significant warning to Israel before they entered the Promised Land that basically could be summed up, “When you get in the land and are prosperous and all is going well, don’t become complacent and forget the Lord but remember all this is a gift from Him.” I have been able to watch a part of my family that the Lord has blessed with a good job that brings a big income and they live in a part of the world that has a great climate much of the year and their biggest danger is complacency, the danger of taking everything (that IS good!) for granted and failing to be thankful. So there we are in the potentially wonderful world, on a bad day struggling with the aspects of a fallen world, and on a good day struggling not to be ungrateful and complacent. Yes, life is a balancing act, but His grace IS there to help us – always! Enjoy the wonder.

29. Harmonising with God

‘Life Workings’ Meditations No.29: Harmonising with God

Isa 28:24 “When a farmer ploughs for planting, does he plough continually?” 

This series has been about various aspects of how life works. Back in Study No.25 I briefly mentioned this fact of having to work within the way the world works and before we come to the end, we need to anchor that thought a little more for it is an important one.

We started out this series with what many might have thought was almost too obvious to think about – that this world is the end product of God’s creative work, but within that there is something vitally important.  But, yes, like that which went before it, has to be accepted by faith, but IS critically important – that this world is designed by God to work in a particular way and we ignore that at our peril, not because it will upset God but because our lives simply won’t ‘work’ properly and they will break down or go wrong.

Isa 28:24-29 is a delightful picture of orderliness in the life of a farmer, that includes, “His God instructs him and teaches him the right way.” (v.26) and ends, “All this also comes from the Lord Almighty, whose plan is wonderful, whose wisdom is magnificent.” i.e. that’s how God has wonderfully designed this amazing world to work. The wise pay attention to these things, the foolish think they can live exactly how they like, but unfortunately that is often contrary to The Design and causes only harm and hurt and destruction. Let’s be learners and be wise.

There are some very obvious examples. The one I use most because it is so obvious, is that if you eat too much you become obese and obesity carries with it a whole raft of health problems, some of which are life-threatening. The same is true of excessive use of alcohol and drugs generally.

It is equally true of what we might call promiscuous sex. In this latter point, the Bible records, “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24) Notice the singular in identity and meaning. Polygamy occurred in the Old Testament but wherever it did, it caused problems. One man plus one woman was God’s equation for success in continuing the human race. We are seeing this ignored in a variety of ways and the enemy has been going to great lengths to muddy the waters and the distinctives of God’s design. Disregarding God AND His design reaps so much hurt and pain and confusion. As an old song used to go, “Oh when will they ever learn?” Sadly, as the enemy has been working to take down the walls of distinction between believer and unbelievers, these things are even seen in the church. The answer is that we return to being ‘believers’, not merely in word but in action.

28. Self-Control

‘Life Workings’ Meditations No.28: Self Control

Prov 10:13 “Wisdom is found on the lips of the discerning.”

We’ve just been considering the potential for letting relationships deteriorate with word or deed but again, something very obvious here is that we can choose to bite back an angry response to a negative word, we can choose to not let the conversation deteriorate. As Solomon said, A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger,” (Prov 15:1) or as the Amplified version helpfully expands it, “A soft and gentle and thoughtful answer turns away wrath, but harsh and painful and careless words stir up anger.”

The word ‘lips’ occurs 37 times in Proverbs. Solomon clearly thought speech was so important. He was right. Further considering our individual uniqueness, you learn much about a person, what they are like, by their speech, each person different. Our words, says Solomon, reveals our wisdom – or lack of it (Prov 14:3) Our words reveal us, and our words have consequences, good (Prov 12:14) or bad (Prov 16:27). Jesus said, “the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart.” (Mt 15:18) i.e. what we’re like on the inside is revealed through the mouth. What do you and I reveal I wonder?

But there is something else here to be taken hold of, the idea of self-control. We may think this is easy to understand but a dictionary describes it as, “the ability to control oneself, in particular one’s emotions and desires or the expression of them in one’s behaviour, especially in difficult situations.” Another one adds to that, “in the face of temptations and impulses.” Interesting. Difficult situations… temptations and impulses. The natural impulse on being verbally attacked, say, is to retaliate with equally hostile words but Solomon said that hostile words only go to stir up even more the anger that caused that offence to you. When I look back on my life, I think some of my greatest failures have been to just not have the right words to calm people down, or the right words to restrain them. Perhaps I lacked the wisdom or grace or simply self-control to walk away. Or maybe the words, “I’m sorry,” might be appropriate either to express our own shortcoming whether it was by expressing ourselves badly or not being able to help them. It seems that sometimes Jesus just went silent. Maybe on occasion that might be our best path until the other person has had time to calm down and reflect on their bad responses. To ponder on Prov 16:32 & 25:28 is a little mind stretching. Intriguingly Paul spoke about it in the context of salvation (Acts 24:25) and of course it is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:23) AND a requirement for leadership (1 Tim 3:2), for older men (Titus 2:2), for wives (2:5), & young men (2:6), all of us (2:12)! Wow! 

27. Coping with Differences

‘Life Workings’ Meditations No.27: Coping with Differences

Gen 4:7 “sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

We need to rerun some of the things we covered in the last study because perhaps we didn’t take in the full import of some of them, things that can make or break life. We concluded with the thought of Joseph being spoilt by his father which led to jealousy in his brothers which in turn led on to them selling him into slavery. Yes, it all worked out very well in the end but that neither excuses their attitudes and actions nor makes them good in any way.

Our starter verse reminds us of the other couple of brothers we mentioned, Cain and Abel, and is God warning Cain to make sure he had a right attitude towards his brother Abel, otherwise there would be consequences that would be bad. They were very different and Cain wasn’t handling those differences very well and God saw that if he didn’t get a hold on it, there would be uncontrollable consequences that would become destructive consequences. It’s just how life works, how we work, and we ignore it at our peril.

Now perhaps there are two areas with which to concern ourselves before we move on – how we handle today and how we pick up broken threads of yesterday. I have often wondered what heaven will be like and I am assuming we will see everyone we knew who gets there, maybe not in the form they are here (see 1 Cor 15:42-44) but nevertheless in recognisable form – and we stand with them before Jesus. How do you think we will feel if we went to heaven with unresolved divisions or disputes still festering?

Jesus gave a very specific command: Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” (Mt 5:23,24) The Message version puts it, If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.” We might say, if you go to church with an unresolved issue (especially with a family member), turn your car around and go and find them and seek to put it right. Now surely this should apply to present-day grudges OR past unresolved issues. As children of God, we are called to be peacemakers (Mt 5:9). It will almost certainly need God’s help and a lot of grace, but He is there just waiting to go with you. Be blessed, be a blessing. 

26. Different

‘Life Workings’ Meditations No.26: Different

Gen 27:11 “my brother Esau is a hairy man while I have smooth skin.”

So we continue this pilgrimage seeking out and reminding ourselves how this world works, what makes us what we are, and what we could be, and reasons why, sometimes, we fall short. But there is yet another factor in how to live successfully and I hope we’ll see it in the light of this somewhat strange verse above.

We used to joke about this verse being a fun source for a sermon, but it does point out an important fact: we are all different. At birth we are the product of the genes of our parents but that doesn’t stop us being different from brothers or sisters. That sometimes is very clear in outward appearance, sometimes in personal traits, but in respect of the latter it is always only a propensity, an inclination. We do NOT have to follow the same path as our parents, we are NOT locked in by our genes, we can choose. It may need God’s help but we can walk a uniquely individual path. Our parents give us the basic building blocks, but we can choose (with God’s help) how we will respond with them.

Now Esau and Jacob are a good illustration of this. They were twins but clearly not identical twins as the verse shows. There was a similarity which we all have – they showed sinful traits. Jacob was all out for himself and didn’t bother how he achieved that. Esau was a more physically orientated young man who liked outdoor work, liked his food and didn’t care an iota about his background, didn’t care that he came from a family tree that had a big God-connection. Esau was ‘daddy’s boy’ Jacob the favourite of his mother. But there was other critical difference between the two boys – God knew their potential, knew that Esau would continue to despise his birth-right but that, with a little bit of moulding, Jacob could become a great man of God.

Another interesting couple are Mary and Martha and we see their difference in Lk 10:38-42 and also in the way they responded to Jesus at the death of their brother Lazarus (Jn 11:20-). They are just good examples of how sisters can be different, but to catch a warning of how differences can be a source of contention we have to go to the beginning with Cain & Abel (Gen 4). They had different roles ‘on the farm’ and clearly had different outlooks in respect of God. This led to Cain being jealous over Abel and, despite a warning from God, led to him murdering his brother. How little things can lead to big consequences. But differences are thing that are better relished, being thankful to God that we are who we are, like we are – different. But here is a danger zone for parents who can show favouritism. Jacob and his son Joseph is the classic example (Gen 37:3), leading to hostility from his brothers and a whole stream of consequences. Warnings! 

25. Reasons

‘Life Workings’ Meditations No.25: Reasons

Amos 3:4 Does a lion roar in the thicket when it has no prey?”

As we continue to reflect on how this world (and us on it) ‘works’ we have in the last two studies been considering how we think and from that, how we make choices and then the consequences that flow from those choices as we exercise our free will. But there is something else, fairly obvious you may think, that impinges on how we think – how the world works. Yes, I agree it is rather like going round in a circle but we think, reason and make choices, very much in line with how we know the world around us works.

There are various analogies in scripture that suggest reasons why creatures act like they do. Try, “How useless to spread a net where every bird can see it!” (Prov 1:17) i.e. potential prey will flee a threat. But how about, “Those who flatter their neighbours are spreading nets for their feet” (Prov 29:5) i.e. unreal fawning will come back to trip you up. That’s more a consequence and a warning. But learning how life ‘works’ involves warnings, learning to assess reasons and facing consequences. The modern western world is not very good at this. May we be better at it. But there are two sides to this particular coin – being aware and then choosing how to respond.

In the first of those two examples, if you were a trapper, you would know that you would be wasting your time to put your trap out in the open where it could be seen and avoided by your prey. You choose, with that little bit of wisdom, to camouflage it. In the second example from Solomon we might say here is a general principle that unless you are honest with others, you will find your words backfiring on you.

But going back to our somewhat unusual starter verse, the Message version picks up a stream of things that follow: Does a young lion growl with pleasure if he hasn’t caught his supper? Does a bird fall to the ground if it hasn’t been hit with a stone? Does a trap spring shut if nothing trips it?” Consequences again, or reasons for why things happen. Wisdom is appreciating these things, understanding sees the value in them. They are, as some might say, the warp and woof of life, the very foundation, the threads that weave together how things work. In other words, we live in a very orderly world, a world we can learn about and the more we learn, the more we benefit. This is no more true than with the word of God and time and again Israel forgot this, forgot the Law, God’s guidelines for an orderly, blessed life. In the modern church of the West, I fear we do the same and few, it seems, hold great store by God’s word, fail to read it regularly and thus fail to understand how God has designed us and this world, and so go astray and mess up, primarily in relationships. So sad. 

24. Choices

‘‘Life Workings’ Meditations No.24: Choices

Josh 24:15 choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.”

We finished recently by basically suggesting an experiment – that you start the day off by being conscious of each of the decisions you make. Maybe, as we’ve suggested previously your day is set by having to go to work, school or wherever and that limits your choices but generally life is full of choices that I’m sure we’ve said in previous series’ – when to get up in the morning, what clothes to put on for today, whether or not to have breakfast, what to have for breakfast, and so it goes on throughout your waking day. Choices are what make up our lives.

But then sometimes, if we are honest, the things we feel because of what has previously happened to us, distort or, at the very least, impact us in some small way, or perhaps some bigger way. If we have been hurt or abused in the past, we may feel angry about what happened, and it is too easy to let that anger dominate us and decree the sort of people we are today and will become tomorrow.

Back in Study No.6 I referred again to a young man in the UK who went on a shooting spree. In an earlier blog we wrote how he hated his mother and, indeed, hated all women. But we aren’t born like that, but life does it to some of us. That young man had allowed a certain thought pattern to settle in his mind where it festered until it exploded.

We must think again about this matter of ‘choosing’; it’s too easy to ignore it, but what we choose to do (whatever the motivation originally) ALWAYS, we’ve said, has consequences. Decision-making needs to involve thinking about what will follow. In some senses life is quite unpredictable, in others very predictable: if we eat too much, we get fat, if we are hostile towards others, expect retaliation – unless the grace of God prevails in them!!! Jump in the sea and you get wet. So obvious. Jump in the sea of God’s love and you get washed, find peace and joy. So obvious…. and yet…..      When you see people in the Bible acting as they do, consider WHY they did it, what must have been going through their minds? So often our thinking is just ‘for the moment’. David, gazing across the rooftops at the naked or near naked beautiful Bathsheba allowed the thought of her to let lust take root in him which in turn caused him to exercise his authority to have her brought, have her submit to him and, when she became pregnant, send for her husband and eventually have him killed. And then he became answerable to God, and we see a how string of repercussions or consequences followed that made life very difficult for him. Our ‘for the moment’ decisions, our hasty words or actions – that we choose to speak or do – have consequences! We either don’t think of them, or hope they won’t follow – but they do. Beware.

23. A Needy World

‘Life Workings’ Meditations No.23: A Needy World

Psa 34:18 The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

We’ve been considering some of the realities of living in this ‘fallen world’ since Adam & Eve fell from grace into Sin, how it works out in modern western societies. Yesterday we simply noted that it is a troubled world but pain plus anguish equals need.

The signs in this fallen world are that there are an increased number of broken-hearted people around. Disregarded or abused children, rejected & abandoned wives, people who mourn for the loss of loved ones, slaves or those physically harmed can be broken hearted – roughly half a million people die in the UK each year, roughly three & a third million in the USA – that’s a lot of grieving. And we are here to help and introduce the God of comfort (2 Cor 1:3,4) to continue to fulfil Jesus’ mandate (Lk 4:18,19) to ensure it IS the year of the Lord’s favour. Can we do that? But how?

There are three levels, I suggest. The first is the one-to-one, being there for people you know who have been dealt a bad hand by this fallen world. Being a listener, an encourager, showing understanding and compassion, all go towards being close to those who have been crushed in spirit.

Second, there is group or institutional, where you work with, say, a church group or other organisation to be there for others. They don’t have to be broken hearted (but they may be) but you can be there for them. I run a friendship-building group for the aged that focuses on strengthening the memory in old age. Such groups may reveal the brokenhearted in their midst.

Third, there is simply supporting – probably financially – some national or international organisation that works for the poor, the needy, the displaced, the slaves, and so on. They will almost certainly be touching the broken hearted.

As children of God we know the loving and comforting arms of our Lord that reach out to us and enfold us and minister to us and comfort us, strengthen us and encourage us. Around us is a world full of people who need those same things and they can receive them through you and me.

Perhaps it is important to say about the broken, the down-trodden, the hurting or the grieving, that mostly they are not looking for answers, but simply company and understanding, and only then, help. When Job went through his suffering experience, his three ‘friends’ just sat with him silently for a week. A good start that enabled Job to open up and pour out his anguish. Unfortunately they then tried to straighten him out with no success – it was not what he needed – and for it they were rebuked by God. The lesson was don’t try and diagnose WHY but just be there for them. 

22. A Troubled World

‘Life Workings’ Meditations No.22: A Troubled World

Gen 6:12 God saw how corrupt the earth had become”

So we are considering the fact that this is a ‘fallen world’ and perhaps we should add, one that is no longer the same as when God originally made it, and certainly not like the world He is going to remake (see Rev 21:1). It is currently ‘dysfunctional’, it’s not functioning or working as it was originally designed to work.

Now it’s a troubled world and the more we realise that the more grace we need to face it without becoming depressed. Tomorrow we’ll consider the positive approach but for now, it’s the need to receive God’s grace – stickability – to not feel bad in the face of a deteriorating western troubled society. It’s not just the earth’s environment, it’s the ‘society environment’ – self-serving, permissive, abusive, intolerant, crude, brash, unrestrained. Yes, there IS good but ask God to give you the grace to face the reality of the bad and pray against it.

The other day I was sitting in a small home group and each person was acknowledging this truth, that it is depressing to look at the wrong things that go on in our modern world. We still have nations pitting their energies against one another, nations seeking only their own good (the example of half a dozen nations wanting to reject the environmental change suggestions that are coming because it will impact their oil or coal or beef revenues!) Yes, self-serving sin operates at national levels as well as local. At local levels you see local authorities vying for money from a central pot. Yes, ‘self’ reigns locally as well.

But around the world the slave trade is as active as it has ever been. Reports suggest 1 in 20 children in the UK have been sexually abused. In the last five years there have been an average of 65 child deaths a year by assault or ‘undetermined intent’. In the USA there are approaching 700,000 child abuse cases reported annually. In terms of population size these are not large figures but it is still a lot of children. We quote such figures to put some flesh on the fallen world picture.  In the USA, apparently there are between 1 and 3 million incidents of domestic violence reported each year. According to official figures, some 2.3 million people in the UK suffered domestic violence in 2020. A picture of unhappy homes, worse in the UK than the USA in percentage terms.

We could consider general crimes but the things we have noted above have one commonality – they are all people doing bad to people! Now you and I are called to be salt and light (Mt 5:13,14), bringers of the good news of peace and reconciliation. The above figures say we haven’t been doing a very good job; something worth thinking about. ‘The Church’ has not been good at influencing society for good, and not good enough at bringing healing to broken people or families.

21.The Wonder of Free Will

‘Life Workings’ Meditations No.21: The Wonder of Free Will

Gen 2:16,17 the Lord God commanded the man…..you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”    

We have mentioned free will previously but having been considering this fallen world for a few days, the question then arises, how will we view it, how will we respond to it?  We’ve considered recognising its failings and the hurt around us, and so now I want to step back and be more general again as we continue to think about who we are and where we’re going in life generally.

I suspect we take for granted the ability to choose what we do every day, every moment; we aren’t robots, we can choose to love or hate, to help or hinder, to care or ignore. These things are fundamental to being a human being and out of them the rest of life flows. We may be limited by energy, money, time etc. but generally today you and I can choose the basic things we will do.

In some it results in suicide, in others murder. This free will is the potential for good or evil, for us to choose which we let dominate and determine our actions. This is a terrible responsibility. The daily TV news bulletins are the evidence of that.

So free will can be a curse or a blessing, so why did God make us like this? It is a question that arises when we observe the suffering of the world as we have recently done in the previous two studies and is most simply expressed as ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ or even, ‘why doesn’t a loving God stop suffering?’

Whenever I am asked that question, usually by someone feeling hostile to God, my immediate answer is, “What do you want Him to do?”  If we want God to step in and stop ‘wrongs’, that creates three problems. First, where do we want Him to stop and start? With murders, with you saying something nasty to another, you having wrong thoughts? It is impossible to draw a line. Second, for God to impose His will means we cease to have free will, cease to love, cease to be creative etc. etc. Third, without imposing His will on us, God can tell us what is wrong and warn us against it, but He HAS to leave it up to us to decide to obey Him, otherwise it is no longer free will.

This is the dignity that God has given us, the ability to determine our own path through life by the choices we make and we’ll think more on this in the next study, but for the moment, wonder in awe at what we are, what God has enabled us to be – sentient beings with authority over our own lives and the ability to impact the lives of others by the choices we make.  In this day ahead, try to be aware, initially at least, of the decision making process that takes you through the day. See what happens.