40. Releasing People

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 40. Releasing People 

Lk 19:5,6 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”  So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

I was about to move on into the wider subject of ‘ruling over the earth’ but sense that perhaps we need to put some more body or shape into what we have just been saying in the previous study when we spoke about ‘taking authority’ at Christ’s leading and noted various ways we may speak while praying in authority. Back in Study No.26 we considered ‘The Caring Church’, speaking about being carriers of love. Moving on in Study No.29 we considered being life-bringers, and then went on to speak about being revelation bringers as we are enabled by the Spirit. In Studies 34 to 37 we saw how faith, released through the prayer meeting in Alan, enabled him to move in grace, love and humility to minister to three different people in his work environment and bring about change there.

In the next study we will go on to consider this matter of exercising authority more widely but here I sense we need to consider how we minister in love, and THAT is a means of exercising authority that brings life change. However, before we go into that we might ask the question, what is our goal or intention for the person or people before us, to whom God has given us the opportunity to minister. Now the word ‘minister’ simply means ‘to serve’ and so we come to them as servants, servant of God to bring God’s blessing to them.  Put like that, we can now see that our goal is to present God’s love.

Now I have pictures in my mind from the distant past from Snoopy cartoons. In one of them Snoopy is out in the cold in the snow and two of the other characters come along and note he is cold and in need of comfort so go over to him and both just say, “Be of good cheer Snoopy” and then walk off and leave him shivering in the snow. That is a vivid picture. Our person in church may need us to give them a coat, or dig their garden or paint their house, i.e. a practical matter, and simply uttering cheering words will do little to help them. Money is sometimes what people need, not cheering by words.

However, we have been moving in the area of speaking spiritual truths and very often this needs to be our starting place. Until they are changed on the inside, outward ministrations may act like a plaster or bandage but will do little in the long run. So, let’s see if we can imagine some people who we are likely to find in our congregations from time to time, if not most of the time.

Now anything I suggest is purely hypothetical. The key point here, in line with so much else we have been saying, is that we need to pray and sense what the Lord feels about this person and wants to say about them, to them. Call this prophecy, call it encouragement, whatever makes you feel comfortable, but it is a sense that comes when we pray. This must be true of any situation I may suggest here.

First of all, here is a lady (it might be a man) who has low self-esteem, feels lonely, unloved and uncared for. Now as you pray – with a heart open to convey God’s unconditional love – it may be that the Lord gives you either a verse, or a sentence, or a picture that applies to this person. If it is the Lord, it will impact and lift the heart of this person and they will feel loved and the focus of God’s special attention. As the Lord speaks into their heart through you, they know the reality of that, and are blessed. Nothing has changed outwardly, their external circumstances are still the same, but they are changed, and it came through simple loving revelation.

Second, here is someone who is being pestered by their ex-partner and they are living in anxiety and fear. What can you say here? I don’t know, but God does as you wait on Him in prayer. As the Spirit moves on this thing, once or twice in the past I have sensed the Spirit’s directing to command (in prayer) this pestering partner to be removed from the situation. We had this only the other day in our house group and I prayed accordingly. In the past, twice I have known the Lord to move on someone physically (presumably by lifting off His hand of protection and allowing Satan access as in Job’s case) so they were no longer able to be a distraction. We speculated about this prayer the other day and wondered whether He would lead this person to another part of the country by job circumstances, new partner attraction or some other means. We simply watch this space and the lady over whom we prayed is watching with anticipation and the fear has gone. We dare not pray like this unless sure of His leading. Be careful.

Most of the time it is not by command but by the conveying the grace of blessing. A blessing in Scripture (see the story of Isaac with Jacob and Esau) is a prophetically inspired command for the goodness of God to come. A blessing is also an inspired ‘acceptance by heaven’ (because that it where it originates). We can either pronounce a blessing or we can speak that acceptance in other words.

Our starting verses above are about Jesus calling Zacchaeus down from the tree so that he may eat with him. This little chief tax collector would have been very powerful and almost certainly very corrupt, but Jesus saw his heart yearning for acceptance and gave it to him. He was instantly transformed.  That is evangelism in a different style to that which we normally see.  This was God seeing his ready heart and speaking into it just what was needed to melt it.  The word will either melt it or break it or cause resistance to its already hard state (see Pharaoh with Moses).

The objective of these words is to convey love that melts or breaks. Of course, we do not know that the outcome will be, we don’t know what effect it will have. All our role is, is to bring words of love and acceptance as given by the Spirit. In an earlier study I testified about a most simple word I gave a young man in Malaysia. I had no idea that this word of loving acceptance would break open his heart and release confession.

The more open to being used in this way we are, the more the Lord will use us and bless others. As you mature in this (but only when we mature), the Lord may give you words of correction, but they will always come with love and hope for what follows. I have brought a word that a man’s ministry would be terminated and when his face fell, I was able to add, “only that something greater may emerge.”

For many believers, life just goes on day by day, and they learn to live with negatives, learn to cope with ongoing worry, learn to accept that background nagging fear, or even have questionable guilt hanging over them (the enemies Jesus came to destroy), and then one day some Spirit-filled believer comes up and says, “As I was thinking of you and praying for you, I had a feeling that the Lord had something for you. Would it be all right if I shared it?” And as permission is granted they share, under the Spirit’s leading, God’s specific words of loving acceptance, and the person knows where it has come from, they suddenly know the truth of it, and are changed. The kingdom of God has just come, Jesus has just destroyed some of his enemies – through you! How wonderful, how easy, how marvellous. Isn’t he good!

26. The Caring Church

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 26. The Caring Church

1 Cor 14:3 the one who prophesies speaks to people for their  strengthening, encouraging and comfort.

Recap our Goals: In the previous study we laid out our strategy again: we are examining things that will help us grow. We are examining that through the perspective of being seated with Christ in the heavenly realms, and we are examining aspects of the ministry of Christ through us in bringing in the kingdom of God on earth through the body of Christ, the Church.

The Challenges of Change: We went on to reflect on the incredible changes that are coming in our world and the challenges that the enemy would make to our faith in the light of those changes, the challenge of relevancy. I suggested that these things did not affect the reality of the existence of God nor the fact of human sinfulness and our need for salvation.

The Nature of the Church/Kingdom: Now, before we move on into practicalities, I think we need to highlight something that comes out of these two things I have just mentioned, and it is the nature of the church and the nature of the kingdom of God that we have been considering earlier.

Human Need: My starting point is to face the reality of life, and that includes for Christians. Put in its most simple form, it is that each of us needs to feel loved; it is a basic human need. Put another way, each of us from time to time (if not most of the time), need strengthening, encouraging or even comforting. We go through times of feeling weak, we go through times of discouragement and we even go through times of worry or anxiety or pain – and so we have needs to be met.

The Caring Saviour: The second thing is that we have a Saviour who cares for us and who wants to help us. If we had been one of the twelve travelling with Jesus and we were looking down and dejected, I don’t believe Jesus would have ignored us or even chided us; I believe he would have strengthened, encouraged or comforted us privately. But now he has a different body, you and me, but his intentions do not change. His intention is still to strengthen the weak, encourage the downcast, comfort the grieving.

Failure Talk? It may be that someone reading this comes from a military background or a background of high achievement expectations (family expectations can often lay some ungodly perfectionist expectations on us) and emotions get suppressed by macho “get a grip on life for goodness sake!” outlooks. In some churches there is an inability to be honest – everything is just fine (always!) – and any talk about weakness etc. has been made to sound like failure.

Reality: Look, Paul would not have written, “Do not be anxious about anything,” (Phil 4:6) if we didn’t get anxious sometimes, and as for, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God,”  (2 Cor 1:3,4) he certainly wouldn’t have described God like this if we didn’t need comforting from time to time “in all our troubles”. When it comes to times of contact with God or His angels, there are numerous “fear not” or “don’t be afraid” times (e.g. Jud 6:23, Mt 1:20, 2:22, 8:26, 10:26,31, etc. etc.) so that when we are real we can see there are many, many situations where the natural response is fear and so God comes to lift us above that – but it is the natural thing!

Beware Hardness: The problem that also arises here is that when we have been brought up or trained or disciplined into this hard-nosed way of confronting life, not only do we suppress our feelings, but we also look down on those who appear weak or who are showing their feelings. Over the years I have been to many funerals, and taken quite a few, and the spectrum of human feelings is more clearly revealed at a funeral than any other place. Some people stand in the funeral service absolutely stony-faced, while others cry or even wail in ways that are symptomatic of Old Testament Judaism. There is no ‘right’ response and if we look down on people who don’t grieve like we do, or down on people who find it difficult to express their emotions, we are not walking the walk of Jesus. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn,” (Rom 12:15) said the apostle Paul.

Carriers of Love: Now why am I saying these things in this Part when we are thinking about reigning with Christ to bring in the kingdom of God? I am saying this, because whatever else we might say about this, if we are not a church of love brought into being by One who is described as love (1 Jn 4:8,16) we are missing the goal. The kingdom is an expression of the love of God and the way we ‘reign’ over circumstances is, at the very least, to be a demonstration of God’s love. When I witness to someone, when I pray over someone, when I preach to people, when I share a word from God with someone, if I do not do it in love, I am missing the point! And that goes for you too!

To Church & World: When I look around me in the church, if my heart is not moved by compassion for those expressing obvious needs, I am missing the point. When I encounter people in the world expressing their needs, if my heart is not moved by compassion to pray for wisdom to know how to act on their behalf, I am missing the point. The kingdom, I say again, is all about bringing and expressing the love of God. That has to be of paramount importance. There is another of these things to be considered in the next study before we move on to the practicalities but these things, I suggest, very much flow over into the practicalities.

40. Practical Love

Meditations in 1 John : 40 : Practical Love

1 John  3:16,17   This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?

You sometimes hear silly complaints about the Christian faith that it is ‘pie in the sky’ or that it is of no earthly use to anyone. Communists make great play on caring for all classes but it is an enforced (and unreal) caring that is a poor copy by the enemy of the Christian faith. Our verses above lay the axe to the lie of the Christian faith being impractical and it all starts with love.

There can be much debate about what love is but you have to come to the Bible to find any real meaning. If you belong to the school of “no God, world just a chance accident, material is all there is”, then love is just an odd jumbling of the molecules in the body, something that somehow in millions of years has become a genetic oddity. But John challenges the world and says, “You want to know what love is all about? Then look at Jesus Christ! He, the perfect, sinless Son of God laid down his life for us very imperfect sinners, so that our sin could dealt with in such a way that justice is satisfied, and we can be forgiven and even brought into a living relationship with God Himself. This is a demonstration of what love is all about.” This brings me to conclude that real, genuine love is ‘selfless, sacrificial, unrestricted good-will towards all others’. Watch a mother’s feelings towards her small child: selfless, sacrificial, unrestricted good-will towards her child. See a young man who has fallen head over heels in love with a young woman: selfless, sacrificial, unrestricted good-will towards her!

And the model for that love is Jesus. But it doesn’t just stop in describing Jesus’ love for us, because we have now joined his family and we are becoming like him and so “we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.”   If he is like that, our goal is to be like that because we are becoming like him. But what does that actually mean, this laying down our lives for one another? Is that just a nice religious platitude? No, John doesn’t allow us to make it that; for him it has very practical outworkings: If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?  To lay down you life for another means you put others first.  The apostle Paul writes, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Phil 2:4)

It has been this outlook that has stirred Christians through the ages to stand up for others, to care for the weak and the poor or as one writer put it speaking about the activity of the Church down through the ages, it was known for its care of widows and orphans, its alms houses, hospitals, foundling homes, schools, shelters, relief organizations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies and so on.”  Yes, down through the ages it has been the church that has worked into society providing the things that today the Welfare State tends to provide. When there was no Welfare State, when no one particularly cared for the needy, it was the Church who stepped forward, expressing the love of Jesus to his world.

But let’s apply this to our own church group, for it must have very practical outworkings right on our doorstep otherwise it is mere words. If there are people who come in with real physical or financial needs, how do we look at them? Do we leave it to the ‘church administration’ to do something or does compassion move us to provide when we see need? Of course it is very easy to say, “Well here in the Western world there is no real need because the State provides for the really needy.” Is that always so? Are there people in your congregation who cannot do things they would like to do, because of lack of funds, things you can do because you do have the funds? What does love say?

Are there opportunities just waiting there, for us to bless young people who would love to enter some particular career but don’t feel they can afford it?  Is there someone yearning to set up a small business but just don’t have the funds to do it? Yes, we not have the chronically poor with us, but we may have those not so well off as us whose lives are restricted because of that, restricted in ways that we could deal with. The difficulty here is getting people to open up and share such needs or desires, and that only comes about in a loving, caring, accepting and compassionate community of God’s people, where each one feels sufficiently secure in the love of those around them, that they feel they can open up and be honest. There is the real challenge.

But the big challenge to all of us is to make love real, not just something we talk about: Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (v.18) The apostle Paul in 1 Cor 13 says we might have various spiritual gifts but if we don’t have love we are just like a noisy gong. John goes further than that and challenges us to ensure we don’t just talk about love, but make sure that our actions reflect love and flow from love, and that we are thus being truthful. If we say we have love but don’t show it through our actions we are not telling and living the truth. Beware!

1. Loved

Meditations in Malachi : 1. Loved

Mal 1:1,2   An oracle: The word of the LORD to Israel through Malachi. “I have loved you,” says the LORD. “But you ask, `How have you loved us?’

Studying Malachi comes as a challenge. I don’t think I would have written these meditations two years ago, but over the past two years I have come to realise something very clearly: God is a God of love (1 Jn 4:8,16)  The apostle John declared what the rest of the Bible testifies to, that God is love. In Ex 34:6,7 the Lord reveals Himself: “the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” The truths there are reiterated again and again and again throughout the Old Testament and then the New. Many of us just don’t notice them but they are there. Now if “God is love” as John testifies it means that everything about God is love. Everything He thinks is love, everything He says is love and everything He does is an expression of love.

Now this has certain consequences. The first is that we need to read the Bible through this filter, and that would be a major change for many of us. It means that we need to learn to view everything but everything that we read throughout the Bible from this perspective – that God is love. and that what we read about Him and His activities is an expression of love. Now what follows from this is that love can be expressed through a number of ways. Imagine a human father. He works long hours to provide for his family. That is sacrificial love. He comes home and romps around on the floor with his young children. That is intimate love. He sits quietly and listens to the complaints of his teenager and makes helpful comments. This is caring and wise love. He lays down house rules that will be kept. This is orderly love with authority. On rare occasion he will punish one or other of his children because he wants to stop a potentially harmful pattern of behaviour developing in them. This is the love of discipline. Sometimes he stands back and simply watches from a distance as his children struggle and this is the love that gives space to learn. Sometimes he hands over the keys of his car to his teenager. This is the love of respect and acknowledgement of maturity. These are ALL different expressions of love, and we need to realise that even hard actions of God seen in the Bible ARE expressions of love.

Now I think it tends to be more of an American expression rather than a British one, but I am thinking of a father taking the son out to the woodshed where, traditionally, a beating would take place. Does the father love the son any the less because he is administering painful punishment?  No, if anything it proves exactly the opposite. Because the father cares for the son, cares what will happen to him unless this wrong behaviour is corrected, he takes this painful action.  Malachi has the feeling about it of a ‘trip to the woodshed’! The Lord is speaking to Israel because of what he starts out by saying: “I have loved you.”

Now the tense here is an ongoing one so it doesn’t mean, “I loved you once in the distant past.”  It actually means, “I have loved you always, right up to now.”  The problem isn’t with God’s love; it is with Israel’s  perception of Him, which we’ll go on to see in the next meditation. Why is the Lord speaking words that, the more they go on, the more they make us feel defensive? The answer to that is because He wants to restore the relationship that they once had, and that needs action on Israel’s part. The Lord has done everything He can and now it is Israel’s turn to do something – but hold that before you; it is because He wants to restore the relationship between Himself andIsrael.

Does the Lord want to punish them? Of course not! Does any father want to punish their child? Of course not, because on the negative side they don’t want to risk the child moving even further from them, and on the positive side they would much rather the relationship was restored to what it was before there was any disharmony caused by the child’s misbehaviour. What we have in Malachi is a simple list of things that Israel have done or are not doing that means the relationship has been broken, things which need remedial action.  It is as simple as that!

Why, therefore, do so many of us feel so negative and defensive when we come to Malachi?  Because guilt produces shame, fear and defensiveness. We don’t like being confronted with our imperfections but such ‘imperfections’ break down the relationship we have with the Lord. Indeed they may also be an indication of attitudes that have grown within us which go on to show that we have already moved away from the Lord. Remember, therefore, as we work our way through the verses to come, that this comes from a God of love who wants to reinstate a loving relationship between us. There is nothing onerous about being loved. It is not as if God is trying to reinstate an oppressive regime. No, He simply wants Israel to come back close to Him so that He can easily impart His blessing to them.

22. Social Responsibility

Lessons from the Law: No.22 : Laws of Social Responsibility

Ex 22:16,17 “If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins.

The remaining verses in this chapter we’re going to call laws of social responsibility although they also cover their relationship with the Lord. Caring for others seems to have been a high priority in these laws of the Covenant. This was to be a caring people. We first see it in respect of young women being taken advantage of as seen in our verses above. Wow! How this would revolutionise modern Western societies! If you have intercourse with a virgin, you are to marry her! That is all about taking responsibility. Only today I heard a man saying, “Oh no, I don’t believe in marriage. Yes I’ve got a partner and she has a kid. My previous partner had two kids, but I don’t believe in marriage!” Here was a man procreating and walking away from responsibility. The virgin is the first of the vulnerable people who the Law protects.

But that caring was also extended to foreigners living within Israel: Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.” (v.21) Racial prejudice had no place in the people of God. The foreigner is the second of the vulnerable groups who the Law protects.

That caring attitude also extended to those who were vulnerable because they are alone, although part of Israel, widows and orphans: Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.” (v.22-24) That was a serious word! That indicates how concerned God is for the weak and the vulnerable in society. Widows and orphans are the third vulnerable group that the Law protects.

That caring attitude was extended to cover not taking advantage of those who needed to borrow from you: If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.” (v.25-27). It recognises that the person who has to borrow because they are poor and needy, are particularly vulnerable and as such they should be treated with compassion, for the Lord is a compassionate God and you will be answerable to Him if you do not care for those who are less well off and vulnerable.

Yes, this was to be a distinct people and part of that distinctiveness meant that clear boundaries were drawn as to what was considered acceptable. To emphasise the seriousness of this, the death penalty was applied to those who blurred the distinction between light and darkness by dabbling in the occult: Do not allow a sorceress to live.” (v.18). Now although it is not stated here, this and the following prohibitions are in respect of things that not only show a disdain for God, but they also show a disdain for the holy nature of Israel. This was supposed to be a holy nation, a nation that was distinct and different and which shone as a light or an example to the rest of the world, to show the world how God had designed mankind and how a good society in relationship with God was possible. These subjects we are now considering demeaned people, and demeaned the nation and stopped them being that light to the nation. It is for that reason that they are considered so serious that the death penalty is there to act as a severe deterrent. The first of these prohibitions was thus in respect of those who blurred the distinction between God and what is, in fact, demonic powers.

The second prohibition in this group is in respect of those who blurred the distinction between human and animal: Anyone who has sexual relations with an animal must be put to death.” (v.19) The third prohibition was in respect of those who blurred the distinction between real and false in the spirit realm: Whoever sacrifices to any god other than the LORD must be destroyed.” (v.20) Each of these prohibitions demeans the people, demeans society and demeans God!

But the height of that distinctiveness was to be in respect of the way they related to the Lord Himself. Thus they were always to honour Him and respect His authority: Do not blaspheme God or curse the ruler of your people.” (v.28)

Similarly they were to express that honour in giving a token offering of their produce, as an expression of thankfulness: Do not hold back offerings from your granaries or your vats.” (v.29a) and their first born son, cattle and sheep as token offerings to remember the Exodus deliverance: You must give me the firstborn of your sons. Do the same with your cattle and your sheep. Let them stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to me on the eighth day.” (v.29b,30) This holiness was to extend even into their eating, probably to maintain health, by not eating savaged meat: You are to be my holy people. So do not eat the meat of an animal torn by wild beasts; throw it to the dogs.” (v.31). A truly distinctive people!

Thus in this group of laws we see that Israel were called to be distinctive in the way they cared for the weak and vulnerable among them, and in the way their whole lives were impacted by their relationship with the Lord, which meant them living differently in very practical ways from neighbouring countries. The intention was that the goodness of life in Israel, and they way they put the Lord first, would point others to the Lord.

Today, similarly, to those of us who are Christians, Jesus says, You are the light of the world…. let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:14,16) May we be so!