5. Trials Prove Faith

Meditations in 1 Peter : 5 :  Trials Prove Faith

1 Pet  1:6,7 In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

The changes that have taken place in the West especially, in the past fifty years, have brought new pressures to Christians. Possibly the biggest pressure has come through the philosophy of materialism which has been bolstered because we have gone through a time of unparalleled affluence and technological change. This has had a number of effects but one of them is that we have entered into a new level of peace and comfort, which we have almost come to believe is our natural right. The only trouble is that we still live in a Fallen World and don’t seem to cope so well when things don’t go well.

Peter, like James in his letter, brings us right down to earth in terms of practical faith. He has just be saying how wonderful it is that we have this inheritance stored up for us once we leave this planet. That is why he starts here with, “In this you greatly rejoice”. It is really wonderful that we have this assured future. But then we stop looking up, and we look around us and we realise that all is not quite so wonderful here today! Oh no, Peter is very realistic when he speaks of us having to suffer “grief in all kinds of trials.” That paints the picture with big bold black strokes! You are going to have grief! Why? Because in this Fallen World we are going to experience things going wrong, which Peter refers to as ‘trials’.

James, in his letter, had exactly the same understanding: Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” (Jas 1:2,3). Do you see the language used by both of them: grief in all kinds of trials” and trials of many kinds.” It’s not just the odd, occasional thing going wrong; it’s a world that is Fallen and where things go wrong all the time!!!!   Be realistic! We get sick, we have accidents, we do things wrong or badly or not as well as we could, and that has consequences; other people are nasty and say or do bad things, and so it goes on. If that seems a black picture of the world, it is, but the truth also is that the Lord is with us in it and, as we’ve recently noted, His power and wisdom is available for us so we don’t have to feel bad about it all.

There are two ways we can respond when ‘things go wrong’. The first is to sag and get full of gloom and doom and be negative. When this happens we also tend to be in a place of generally weak faith. We become anaesthetised and spiritually weak at the knees, and fruitful is the last way we could describe ourselves. In other words we just go down under whatever it is.

The second way we can respond is to view whatever it is as a test or a trial of your faith, knowing that God has equipped you to cope with just such things. That is the positive approach in line with what the Bible teaches. This is what Peter says is going on when you suffer grief from the many and varied trials that come along. He says that it is so that, your faith– may be proved genuine.” You think you have faith, you say you have faith, but how do you know that you really do have faith? The answer has to be only when it is tested and shown, and that happens when things happen that require us to rely upon what God has told us. So often in these meditations we have noted that faith comes by hearing what God says and faith is responding to what He has said. So when the trial comes along, do we believe what He has said, that His grace is sufficient for us (2 Cor 12:9), and it is all sufficient for all we need (2 Cor 9:8) and that He will meet all our needs through Christ (Phil 4:19), so that we can do anything He puts before us (Phil 4:13)?

This faith, says Peter isof greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire.” What a comparison! Gold is of immense wealth and value, but gold when it is refined by fire can actually be destroyed, whereas our faith when it is refined by difficult circumstances becomes stronger.

But there is more. When we come through our trial and our faith is proved genuine, we see that it may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Our faith can bring glory to God. Jesus taught that: “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16) i.e. the way we live our lives can point people to God and bring glory to Him. This is what Peter is saying as well. Your real faith will reveal Jesus to the people around you. That is the possibility for your life and mine. As we respond to what the Father has said, and continues to say, and our faith is shown to be real and based upon Him, others can see and understand and realise that He is real and we are what we are because of Him. May that be so!

39. Contentment

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 39 :  Learning to be Content

Eccles 4:4 And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Motivation is a strange thing. What is it that motivates us? If you like crime dramas or detective novels, you’ll know about motivation; it’s the thing that drives someone to commit a crime. Or every now and then you come across a story of someone who has battled against the odds and persevered and pushed on to achieve great things, and somewhere in the story you’ll look for the motivation. What was it that drove this person on when most people would have given up? What makes a person driven?

In our verse above today we come to one of those verses that has to be held lightly for it is not the entire truth. All Scripture may be inspired by God (2 Tim 3:16) in the sense the He prompted the people to write the things on their hearts, but sometimes, as in Job’s case and Solomon’s case not everything they wrote was true for they both wrote from a difficult perspective. Job wrote from the perspective of pain and Solomon here from the perspective of old age when he had lost contact with God. So hold lightly what he says here!

In his jaded outlook he maintains that everyone works and seeks to achieve because of their envy of others. Now that is no doubt true of a very large number of people but not everyone. Some people work to simply stay alive, some at the opposite end of the scale who are rich simply to fulfil personal desire to do something with little care about others, and finally, there will be those who work to fulfil their calling before God –  but we’ll come to them later.

Without doubt many people are motivated to work and motivated to achieve by other people. The person who presses on in a career and lays down their life to achieve great things in it, if they were honest, would acknowledge that they were trying to rise above the rest, or get the things they see rich people have. It is looking at other people that drives them on.

Indeed, if our motivation is to “keep up with the Jones’s” then we will always be seeking more and more and more because the first set of people we see who have more than us, are just above us in the social or economic scale; they’re the ones we know and want to catch up with. Once we’ve done that we encounter the next tier in the affluence stakes and they become our target and so it keeps on. There will always be a Bill Gates above us to spur us on if that is our motivation.

We may not like the word ‘envy’ but that ultimately is what it is if we look to other people and wish we had what they have – which is of course what modern capitalism is built upon. Unfortunately there is that echo back to the Ten Commandments where we are exhorted not to ‘covet’ what other people have, but that is slightly stronger than envy because coveting implies we plot to get what they have. Envy is just an attitude thing although, as Solomon shows here, it can be a motivating force.

Again, with our modern knowledge of how people work we might suggest that envy that motivates in this context is an indicator of a low self esteem. We think other people are better than us because they have more than us and so we work to improve our self esteem by working or achieving more. It is, as we showed above, a futile task because it is rather like working to be good; we never know when we’ve arrived, so we have to keep on striving.

For the Christian we need to learn to hold a balance between being content with what we have and stretching forward to reach what God is holding out to us. For herein is the truth, that the Lord always has something more for us and it requires us to reach forward in faith to take it. Yet this is not a striving thing, this is not a personal effort thing. This is simply resting in the provision of God – in terms of things and personal abilities – reaching out to what HE puts before us and although that may stretch our faith, it doesn’t stretch us to straining point which so much world activity does.

No, contentment for the Christian is being happy with what the Lord has given us at the moment and NOT having to strive to catch up other people. It is a very different thing to emulate someone and to envy them. My wife had an uncle who in old age still followed and served the Lord and was a tremendous witness. He truly experienced what the writer of Psa 92 wrote about: The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.” (Psa 91:12-15) As I encountered this aged saint I felt, “This is a life I would truly like to emulate because here is a wonderful example of godliness!”  That is different from envy which desires for personal gratification. It is good and right to desire to flow in God’s will as revealed in His word and by His Spirit. Envy is born out of self-interest and leads us into wrong attitudes and actions and robs us on contentment. Don’t let it!

11. Greatness

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 11 :  Greatness

Eccles 2:9   I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me.

Ambition is a funny thing isn’t it. It’s the desire to get on, achieve things, climb the promotional ladder, and achieve greatness. Some of us have so little self-esteem we never think about climbing such ladders – those are for other people. Is that right? Can’t our Lord Jesus take us and do things through us? Remember it’s not our greatness but his. Do you remember what God said to Paul: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9). That suggests that God can take our feelings of weakness and move through them to achieve His will. There’s just one little thing the Lord looks for in you, despite your weakness – servant-heartedness!  Do you remember what Jesus said to his disciples: Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (Jn 13:14,15) and also,whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,” (Mt 20:26). Greatness in God’s kingdom comes through serving which is why Jesus said of himself, The greatest among you will be your servant.” (Mt 23:11). It doesn’t have to be great acts of service: if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.” (Mt 10:42). Just providing basic hospitality was sufficient in Jesus’ eyes. Yes, in God’s kingdom, greatness is measured by servant-heartedness, and we can all have that if we want it.

Solomon became great by affluence and power. He has just listed off all of his achievements that we considered yesterday and then he adds, I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces..” (v.7,8). If you went into his palace you would see it. He had slaves by the dozen serving him. Outside the city in the countryside he had farm managers looking after his herds of cattle and flocks of sheep. His ‘business’ was flourishing. In his palace there was silver and gold in abundance and furniture and articles of great value and beauty, the things he had amassed in the course of trading. When the Queen of Sheba came to see it all we are told: When the queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon and the palace he had built, the food on his table, the seating of his officials, the attending servants in their robes, his cupbearers, and the burnt offerings he made at the temple of the LORD, she was overwhelmed.” (1 Kings 10:4,5). As a Queen from the rich country of Egypt she had plenty but when she saw the opulence of Solomon’s life she was overwhelmed.  We have various well known names in the modern world, men or woman associated with immense riches, some whom have so much they hardly know what to do with it. Solomon was their equivalent. This was greatness measured on the affluence scale and he was at the top of it!

After our verse today Solomon said, In all this my wisdom stayed with me.” In other words, all the wisdom that God had given him stayed with him in his affluence. His riches didn’t take him away from the Lord. It wasn’t actually the riches which jaded him – that came later. At that time he still had a living vibrant relationship with the Lord, and that meant that he enjoyed his riches, he enjoyed his affluence. The one thing Solomon’s story tells us is that God is not against riches. In fact He provided the means for Solomon to get it. When, in the dream, He spoke to Solomon we find: So God said to him,Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for–both riches and honor–so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings.” (1 Kings 3:11-13). It was God who gave him riches and honour. However with the riches comes responsibility, to hold onto the truth and never let it go – this is from God, you need the Lord! Jesus warned, You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Mt 6:24). You can have money but as soon as you start worshipping it you have lost the plot.

So here we have seen two sorts of greatness and they are both good if they are both in relationship with the Lord. There is the greatness that comes from serving the Lord and it doesn’t take money to do this, just an open heart. There is also the greatness of achieving success in the world, and God is not against that, but with it comes a danger, that we drift away from the Lord. It was Solomon’s wrong usage of some of his wealth – to win foreign wives – that brought his downfall. Beware the dangers if you have left the bottom rungs of the ladder. Riches are never the issue. The issue is the reality of your relationship with the Lord, whether you have little or much.

47. Accountability

Meditations in James: 47 : Accountability for the Rich

Jas 5:1-3 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.

There are commentators who maintain that these verses cannot apply to Christians because of the harshness of them, but elsewhere in this ‘letter’ the references have been to those in the church, and one has to ask the question, if this was to unbelievers, when could they possibly have it read to them?  For a third time in these recent meditations we will suggest that either James knows specific people or churches  where there are people like this, or that he is giving a general warning – in this case to the rich – because he knows the general tendency or the characteristics that so often go with the situation. We will assume the latter, although it is also interesting to view these first six verses as a cry against the rich, when very few Christians were rich. It thus becomes a cry against those who oppress the Christians. However, we will consider it as a cry to include Christians.

Remember two main things that we have picked up in this letter. First, that James is speaking to those of the church who have been dispersed or spread out across the world and who are no longer under the close comfort, direction and protection of the original church at Jerusalem. Second, his fear, and therefore his warnings, is directed against the tendency of Christians to become assimilated into the world.  Again, as we look at these verses, we must comment that although they obviously applied to Christians in the first century, they apply even more to us living in the West at the beginning of the twenty first century, which is a time of unparalleled affluence.

We also need to remember a general principle that comes out of the Bible. God is not against material prosperity, but is against reliance upon it that draws people away from Him. When we observe the wisdom that God gave Solomon, we see that much of that wisdom was used to make the country prosperous and him richer than anyone else in the world. In Solomon’s case it wasn’t the riches themselves that drew Solomon away, but the multitude of foreign wives he had. We also find many references in Scripture to God’s desire to prosper us, and it is clear that that includes materially as well as spiritually.

No, the big concern is what effect riches have upon us.  Jesus taught, No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Mt 6:24). If you make money your master, if it is the thing you focus your life upon, then you will find it impossible to maintain a healthy relationship with the Lord. When James now speaks like and Old Testament prophet, it is simply to create a picture that warns any Christian who might fall into the trap, living out in the world, of being seduced by money and possessions. Remember Jesus’ teaching that followed that reference above: seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mt 6:33)  The ‘all these things” are material provisions. Possessions are not to rule us; we are to rule over them. Our focus is not to be possessions, but on doing God’s will. When we do that, then God provides the possessions.

With all that in mind, we are then ready to consider what James actually says here. Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Now this may be a general warning or it may be a prophetic insight that for them, at that time, there was coming a time of upheaval when riches would mean nothing. Especially for those who rely upon riches, such a time is a time of misery. When we push ourselves financially, and then go into times of recession, these are especially difficult times. The wise Christian never puts their life into a position where recession wipes away their assets or puts them in jeopardy.

See what more he says: Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. James envisages the effect of simply storing up material possessions and not using them. The builder of bigger barns in Jesus’ parable (Lk 12:16-21) couldn’t use his barns and his wealth because he died unexpectedly. The warning here is that if you just leave wealth to store up you won’t be able to use it because of the danger of it deteriorating. How many have stored away expensive pictures or furniture only to find them attacked by woodworm or mildew.  Possessions, of whatever sort, are not for hoarding, but for using. What is even worse about this, is that there is a world in need that we could be helping with our surplus. It is right to make provision for family and the future but if it goes beyond reasonable provision, we have to be careful that we are not putting ourselves beyond God’s protection when it comes to all that affluence.

Finally he says, Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.” When all our plans to stock up, fail because the stock market fails or our possessions are stolen or they literally rot, our human plans of self-sufficiency are shown to be folly, and they testify against us. Moreover we feel really upset about what has happened. The phrase, they eat your flesh like fire is a graphic prophetic form of picture that shows the anguish we feel when this sort of thing happens. If you spilt petrol on you and it caught fire, the encroaching flames would eat at your flesh causing immense pain. When all your stored riches come to nothing, the anguish is the same if you have placed all your reliance upon them.

This is the warning James is bringing us, in his desire to draw us back from the ways of the world. Go down the same path they go down, is what he is implying, and you risk suffering the same anguish that they will suffer. The warning is against relying upon riches, against relying upon money and possessions. The warning is for drawing us back into a closer relationship with the Lord, where we make Him and His will our central focus, and money and possessions are merely icing on the cake. A salutary warning for many in the day in which we live!