Snapshots: Day 49

Snapshots: Day 49

The Snapshot: “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people?” (Ex 5:22) Why, Moses, when God said it would be hard, do you complain? So often we complain because we fail to take hold of the truth that has been put before us. God is not hard, but the fallen world often is. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Mt 5:4) I don’t like mourning. I know but death does come. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.” (Mt 5:10) I like being liked.  Yes, but the unrighteous don’t like being shown up.  But I thought being a Christian would be easy?  I’m sorry you listened to a lie. But why, and how will I cope? It’s all right, I am with you (Heb 13:5) and I am working all things for your good, even the bad things! (Rom 8:28)

Further Consideration: I believe it is one of the most important things that Christians understand the big picture of being a Christian, for only in so doing will they manage to maintain a right attitude towards the things that happen to them.

Moses lost sight of the big picture; the Lord had warned him that this would be hard going that would necessitate Him coming again and again to deal with Pharaoh, yet Moses cries out to the Lord, “Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.” (|Ex 5:23) Moses wanted it to happen instantly, he wanted God to wave a magic wand over the situation and transform it straight away, but this situation involves people and changing people takes time.

Point One: we live in a Fallen World where, because of sin, things go wrong and people say and do nasty things because they have free will.

Point Two: God does not override our free will and so permits the world to proceed as it does with things going wrong and people acting badly BUT He does expect us, His children, to act as His representatives and to be salt and light in it.

Point Three: He a) expects us to change the circumstances and b) be changed by the circumstances. We are to be one of His means of bringing change in this world while being changed into Jesus’ likeness as we do it.

So, when bad circumstances come, turn to the Lord, look for His grace and His wisdom to deal with it. When we find it difficult to cope with people around us who are not being the epitome of a good person, look to Him for His grace to love them, pray for them, and bless them. Not the easiest of tasks but possible with His enabling. Let’s not moan and groan under the pressures of this Fallen World but use such times to demonstrate the goodness of God.

7. Loved

Studies in Isaiah 54: 7. Loved

Isa 54: 10  “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

 Grace Prevailing over Justice: In the previous study we saw how the Lord was using the analogy of Noah and the Flood to explain His faithfulness, we should say, in respect of Israel. Even as Noah had moved His heart and brought a promise of grace prevailing over justice, so that same grace would prevail today so that, although He had indeed cast them away for a moment because of their disobedience, now He would come to them and restore that previous relationship. We did go into verse 10 as we mentioned the covenant of peace, but there is something even more wonderful there that we must take hold of.

In a Shaken World: The first phrase of this present verse may be skimmed over by many (me included often) but it is highly significant: “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills removed.” In other words it doesn’t matter how disastrous the world seems, God’s love is going to be there. Now don’t take this casually because very often (along with Chicken Licken) we feel the sky is falling down as things around us seem to deteriorate. At the time I write, the political landscapes of the UK and USA have been transformed and in the UK in particular (although some in the USA say they feel the same) chaos seems to ensue. For many this has created a world-weariness, almost a mental and emotional exhaustion that is only helped by turning off and ignoring the news.

But it is more than just than the political landscape. Older generations feel lost in a world that has been utterly transformed in their lifetime. The world has been shaken for them by technology. Younger generations complain that because of the self-centred carelessness of older generations they have been put into a situation where financially they are disadvantaged; their world has been shaken.  But this ‘shaking’ can be much more personal; when illness strikes or downsizing comes to your workplace and the job you have held for thirty years is suddenly gone, it comes like an earth-shattering loss. In many ways it feels like the earth is being shaken and things we have taken for granted for so long (the hills) are removed from our lives, and it makes us feel very vulnerable.

Need of Security: It is at such times that we desperately feel we need security. When the ‘ground is shaking’ and when ‘the hills are being removed’ we suddenly start thinking about these things. While everything was going along fine, we just took life for granted.  There was food on the table, the sun shone and day followed day without a worry or care in sight. And then the ground shook. We felt it but it would pass quickly. But then it continued shaking and then ‘the hills were removed’ and suddenly everything was different. It happens all the time in the Fallen World, especially this modern world where change is the name of the game every day it seems. It can be highly disconcerting but such shaking can wake us up to the realities of our life – we have taken so much for granted, we had become complacent with our relationship with the Lord, almost superficial if we are honest. Then comes the shaking – usually a loss, of a job, of health or of a loved one – and we start praying, we start crying out, “Are you there?” Of course He is but we had become things-focused instead of God-focused and so lost that sense.

The Word Comes: Then comes the word of the Lord: my unfailing love for you will not be shaken.” The psalmist says the same thing: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” (Psa 46:1,2) He doesn’t mention the word ‘love’ there but that is what it is all about and why he does not need to fear. The earth may be shaken but God’s love will not be shaken. David knew this same love: “save me because of your unfailing love.” (Psa 6:4) Whatever else might change, God’s love would not. All other resources might run out, but God’s love will never fail, will never be exhausted. Jeremiah was prophesying against the same thing when he declared, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jer 2:13) Not only had the people turned away from God who was an everlasting source of life and love, but they had tried to manufacture their own forms of provision and security and those always failed! No, God’s love is unfailing, that is why He is so often referred to as ‘faithful’ because He is unchanging.

Beware Appearances: I often teach on the fact that Jesus is seated at the Father’s right hand ruling in the midst of his enemies, and will continue to reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet, and it is at such times that I sense that readers or listeners have the same query as Gideon had that we considered in the previous study. It is so common we need to repeat it here: if God is around, why are all these things happening? In another context recently I wrote the following:

Point One: we live in a Fallen World where, because of sin, things go wrong and people say and do nasty things because they have free will.

Point Two: God does not override our free will and so permits the world to proceed as it does with things going wrong and people acting badly BUT He does expect us, His children, to act as His representatives and to be salt and light in it.

Point Three: He a) expects us to change the circumstances and b) be changed by the circumstances. We are to be one of His means of bringing change in this world while being changed into Jesus’ likeness as we do it.

That is the ‘big picture’ that we need to remember. Jesus IS ruling but he doesn’t do it with a heavy hand; he uses us (yes, he does sometimes move sovereignly without us as well) and sometimes waits for us to catch on to that, but the Father’s love IS always there, it is unfailing and it does not change because we are slow to understand or slow to act. It is still there despite whatever we do. “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8,16) the apostle John declared. Hold that truth firmly, never let it go, despite the appearances of what is going on around you. He IS there for us at all times, every day. Hold that, rejoice in it and be at peace in whatever is going on.

1. Wonderings about Church

The Wonder of the Church: Part 1 – Falling Short?
1. Wonderings about Church

Matt 16:18 I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
Rev 2:1 To the messenger of the church in …. Write….

I wonder: I wonder how much we let Jesus build his church? Or perhaps another way of putting it, I wonder how much of what we call church today is actually built by Jesus? What is church? How has it come into being? How will it continue to come into being? Are all the people in ‘church buildings’ actually part of the church? Just wonderings. I look around at the various expressions of ‘church’ that I know and wonder how the Lord of the Church feels about them. I’m not wanting to be negative, just real, just curious.

Direction: The overall plan for this series will start as follows:
• Part One: Falling Short – things that have challenged me about the modern Church
• Part Two: Making of Believers: What makes a believer different, what are they?
• The following parts will consider ‘Church’

Objective: In this and the following ‘studies’ of this first Part, I want to consider fairly generally some of the things that challenge me about ‘the church’ today. The heading of this Part gives away my goals, to face the things I see and hear of modern church life that suggest to me that we may be falling short of God’s intentions for us.

In the studies that follow I will use the capital form ‘Church’ to designate who we are as a whole, all the believers across the world, and the lower case ‘church’ where it applies to the local congregation, the local expression of believers.

Structure of Part 1: The Content of Part 1– Falling Short? – will be as follows:
1. Wonderings about Church
2. Concern for People
3. Challenged by Scripture
4. Wondering about ‘Fitness for Purpose’
5. Problems with Religion and Revival
6. Appearance & Performance (1)
7. Appearance & Performance (2)

Prompted by Reading: Very well, let me explain what first started me off down this particular track. I have recently been in the psalms and then in John’s Gospel and, in many ways, I prefer meditating on Scripture, taking it as it comes, verse by verse, and the list of such series on this blog will testify to that. However, my starting point is that as I have been praying and reading, I find an urge to return to a specific ‘subject’ or ‘theme’ approach next.

I just mentioned reading and I recently read Francis Chan’s book, ‘Letters to the Church’, and within it he covers various specific subjects or themes for the Church to consider. I am about to read it a second time to make sure I take it in. I think I agree with all he says and, indeed, I find he has been expressing much that has been on my own heart over recent years, but he probably says it better than I might. (He has such church experience that I think I feel a bit like John the Baptist felt: “I am not worthy to undo his sandals!”) So, as I pray, I sense my next area of investigation within these pages should be the Church itself.

Approach: I have, I find, a same concern within me that Chan speaks about, that of the need to approach the subject in humility and without a critical spirit – and that is quite difficult if you are an honest observer of the Church, comparing what is, with what should or could be. Crusading atheists such as Richard Dawkins have been most scathing about the Church or, to be accurate, parts of the Church and, to be fair, many of the points he has made are valid. However, he only refers to a small part of the Church, I believe, and so as an overall criticism of the whole Church, his comments are quite unfair and inaccurate.

My objective, I think, is different from Chan’s because this is first and foremost a ‘Bible-study site’ and so the ‘meditations’ I write start and finish with the Bible (or at least that is its intention, although this first Part will be more discussional). He does seek to build all his comments on the New Testament teachings and I will do likewise though, I suspect, I will have a broader and more basic approach. He observes our shortcomings and prescribes New Testament remedies, all of which I think I agree with. I would like, as this is more a ‘Bible Study’ series, to take simple scriptures from the New Testament and build the picture from there and, for the sake of those for whom perhaps these things are not so familiar, will start at a very much more basic level. So, hold on to that word ‘basic’ if you will.

Grace not Legalism: I agree wholeheartedly with Chan that such writing about the Church can be used as a weapon by the critical to bash leaders. Never let that happen. I am aware in my own writings that sometimes my comments that challenge the modern church could be seen as lacking grace, although I never want that to be; that is not my heart and if my writings have come over like that, I apologise.

Preaching and teaching and imparting vision can be quite legalistic, and I suspect there is often a lot of this around. The ‘law’ or ‘rules’ approach says, “This is what it ought to be,” and comes with a heavy judgmental hand on all expressions of modern church life that deviate from New Testament teaching. I would like to present, if I can, a grace approach that says, “I believe (agree with me if you can) that here is the vision of what the Lord puts before us in the New Testament – I wonder how we could rise to apprehend this vision and enter into it?” But of course, to do that we have to identify what the New Testament says, make sense of it, and then, if we can honestly face how we presently fall short of it, ponder on how, perhaps, we can reach for it. OK, so hold on to two more words – vision and grace, if you will.

The Context of Revelation: The structure of the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, is intriguing. Chapter 1 presents the Lord of the Church, Jesus, but not in the form of the Gospels that emphasise him humanity, but a human form that is also very clearly divine, and as such he comes to the seven churches of Asia Minor and presents a devastatingly revealing assessment of each of them. This is the Lord who sees all and knows everything about the Church – and that includes each and every expression of it today.

And Today? But whether it is the worldwide expression or the local expression, I wonder what the Lord thinks of these gatherings of us, His people, today? How much do we match the teachings of the New Testament? How secure are we, I wonder, in who we are and how we express ‘church’ here in the first quarter of the twenty-first century? Is it a security that comes from having aligned ourselves against the teaching of the New Testament, or is it a false security that just hopes for the best, a hope built on ignorance, a hope built on, “Well, we’ve always done it like this so it must be all right”? This must be the challenge of all that follows here.

14. Personal Provision

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 14. Personal Provision

2 Cor 12:9    But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

In the previous study we emphasized that the new resurrection life means a new awareness of the presence of God, and that especially in the matter of prayer and I am aware that in the things I was suggesting yesterday about prayer, it may be that you felt I was saying there is no place for asking for things for ourselves in this approach; quite to the contrary, we have a new confidence to ask things of our loving heavenly Father.

Paul’s Need: In Paul’s very personal second letter to the Corinthians he uses the word ‘grace’ eleven times and nowhere does it contain such significance as in our verse above. Let’s just define ‘grace’ very simply as God’s provision for His children. Now Paul had been suffering something he simply called ‘a thorn in the flesh’ (v.7). Now we don’t know what it was and many have speculated what it was, especially as he also refers to it as a ‘messenger of Satan’, but we will simply say, for the sake of what we are saying here, that it was something that was at its best, a nuisance, and at its worst something totally debilitating that pulled him down.

So, when the Lord says these things to him, we need to note two things that He says. First, whatever this thing is, God’s resources for Paul to cope with it are adequate. Second, and this is implied, the Lord isn’t going to take it away (at least not in the immediate future) because His power will be revealed in Paul’s weakness, i.e. he will still have it, but God’s power will be so obvious that he will be able to cope with it.

God’s Alternatives: Within this we can realize two important ways that the Lord works. Sometimes He delivers us from the situation (e.g. in Acts 12 He miraculously delivered Peter from prison) and sometimes He delivers us in it, i.e. He gives us the grace to cope while we are still in the midst of the trying, difficult or even apparently impossible circumstances. We may ask to be delivered from it but sometimes He wants us to learn to receive from Him the resources to cope with it or handle it while we are still in it or surrounded by it. These things are not only material, e.g. illness or infirmities, but they can be intellectual, where we need wisdom how to act, or they can be spiritual.

Temptation: An example of a ‘spiritual difficulty’ might be temptation: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (1 Cor 10:13) Note the basics of what he says here. First, we will never encounter anything that others have also not already encountered (“common to mankind”). Second, God will never allow anything beyond what we can bear. Third, He will always provide a way to cope with the temptation. So there it is, it doesn’t matter whether it is physical or material, mental or emotional or even spiritual, the message is the same, God WILL provide.

The Resurrection = God’s Provision: Now of course the greatest demonstration of God’s provision was in respect of the resurrection: “you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death,” (Acts 2:23,24) so, if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” (Rom 8:11) Now whether that means now on this earth (e.g. perhaps in healing) or in eternity with new spiritual bodies, is open for debate, but the main thrust of the message is clear: God’s resource is His own Holy Spirit and He will be there for us to energize us now and into eternity.

Our Resurrection Provision: As Jesus exercises his rule at the Father’s right hand in heaven, we see and experience the fruit of that rule as his Holy Spirit is His provision: physical healing where he declares it, mental healing, similarly, healing of emotions, wisdom for the intellect, His power changing the circumstances or us in the circumstances, all of these being His provision, His grace in every and any circumstance.

Waiting: Now we have already said that sometimes His way through a crisis is to provide grace for us, whereas in other circumstances He may simply change the circumstance. Sometimes we may have to wait for answers to prayer to appear while at other times we will ask, and the thing will happen immediately. From our end of things, the big thing is, will we trust and remain faithful while we are waiting either for the circumstances to change or the resources to appear and be experienced? The big truth is that God IS there for us in the circumstances and He will move those circumstances or provide the grace to handle them: “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” (Rom 8:28) The resurrection life is a life of provision. Not only has God brought new life to us by the indwelling Holy Spirit but that same Holy Spirit is also the channel and means of God’s ongoing provision in our lives.

New Possibilities: Once we fully take this in, life is never the same again. The truth is that we no longer have to put up with the circumstances as they are. The Scriptural testimony is clear: our God delights in stepping into our circumstances and either changing them, and/or changing us. Now, because the Christian life is a partnership between us and God, we have a part to play, and that part is called faith and faith involves learning. Faith means reaching out to God but sometimes that means persevering, but that is another story!

4. Problems with People

Lessons in Growth  Meditations: 4. Problems with People

Jn 13:34,35   A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

To Love is not Natural: Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to love one another is not a natural one and if it were among the list of verses that are spoken about but struggled with, I suspect this rates near the top of the list. We may say we do it and think we do it, but I wonder how real it is?. I would suggest that it is a real struggle to love sometimes and it really does require the grace of God.

Now we are in a Part where we are considering the call to die to the past and die to the things of the past, and especially die to self, and this command is, I would suggest, one that so often hinders Christian growth or rather, to be more accurate, it is the struggle with this command that hinders growth. You think I am exaggerating? Let’s check it out.

Pre-Christ Relationships: Before we came to Christ our life was focused on what I wanted to do, what I felt, what I thought and, often, what I thought about other people. There were probably people we loved (our close family) and people who were good friends. Then there were the people near us that we tolerated (probably neighbours and people at work), and then there were people we positively disliked and probably spoke against.

Change & Realisation: And then we came to Christ and all was well until we either read the above verses or we heard a preacher speaking about them, and then there was a shadow cast over our life. “Love,” he said, “means thinking the best of people and desiring the best for people, all people,” and that made us feel uncomfortable. And then it got worse. Our preacher started talking about gossip, speaking about others behind their backs in an unloving way, and again we felt uncomfortable.

The Difficulty: Then we looked around the church and we realised there were people we’re not particularly fond of and, if we were honest, we found a real pain. To love them? And then there were people at work who were really trying. Love them? We realised we had a whole pile of negatives about people – because they deserved them! And we were being called to give up all these negatives – but they still deserve them! That’s a good excuse and I’ve got another – I can’t cope with these people, let alone love them! So I might as well not try. And growth comes to a halt.

The Reality: Yes, this is the problem: people are imperfect, people are difficult, people can be a drain upon us, people can be speaking against us and, even worse, people can be harming us, physically or emotionally. And Jesus says love them? Yes, this is one of those areas where the ‘death to self’ thing rings loud and true and is uncomfortable, and it can be a real source of hindrance to spiritual growth.

But How? Let’s think about some of the issues. What is love for others? As I said above, thinking the best of people and desiring the best for people, all people. How can you think the best of someone who speaks against you, actively seeks to harm you or puts difficulties into your life? How can you feel good about those closest to you who don’t show care and concern and love for you and appear utterly self-centred? Well start at the hard end. Jesus taught, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt 5:44) How can you do that? One or two suggestions.

Pray that the Lord will show you what they are really like. That bully who upsets you is really a lonely little inadequate boy inside. Jesus would love to change him but he’s looking for someone who will stand in the gap to intercede for him. Pray for grace to bless this person and maybe say something nice to them. Realise you are not perfect and are not the best one to cast the first stone (Jn 8:7). Pray for grace to a) see yourself as child of God who has an all-powerful loving heavenly Father on their side and b) the ability to smile, laugh and praise while you wait for changes to take place.

Sons? Jesus followed up that 5:44 verse with, “that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (v.45). The idea of ‘sons’ in the Old Testament carried with it the idea of the young person growing up to understand the heart of the father and his work, and getting ready to join his father in his work and one day take it over. That was all about growth and so the way we see ourselves in this sort of situation, rather than be a heavy negative thing, can be part of the growth process.

Me, Difficult? Another thought: this is a two-way street. There may be people in church who find you or me difficult.  The only way I can overcome this is to work on the following strategy: every Sunday morning when I go into church, I go praying, “Lord help me to be a blessing to at least two or three people this morning,” and I look around when I get there and ask, “Lord, who can I bless?” It’s surprising how he answers that prayer sometimes. But the big thing is be proactive about loving others. Whenever we pray for difficult people or difficult situations I believe part of our prayer, when we ask Him to bless them or it, should be, “and Lord, show me what you might want me to do to be part of the answer to this prayer.”

If we can do the “dying to self of the past” thing, and put others before ourselves, I believe we will not only be overcoming the obstacles to growth, but we will be growing. We can’t do it without Him, but if we are willing to face the problem, He will enable.  Now I am aware there is one other really big area to do with personal relationships that can be a hindrance to growth and so I will deal with that tomorrow as a separate subject.

9. Aspiring to Brotherly Kindness

Aspiring Meditations: 9.  Aspiring to Brotherly Kindness

Rom 12:10  Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.

2 Pet 1:7   make every effort to add togodliness, brotherly kindness

1 Thess 4:9  Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.

Now even as I said previously that I find there are some of these characteristics that come more clearly into perspective, I think there are some that seem less significant, but that is a mistake. For instance there are at least three words used in the original Greek for love: Agape, Philadelphia and Eros. Eros doesn’t appear in the New Testament text, it refers to physical love expressions. Agape is the main word that we’ll consider more fully in the next study. It is the one in the middle, Philadelphia, that we have before us now and it doesn’t appear that many times in the New Testament, a word that seems to speak of a love of lesser importance. I say that because much is made of agape and when Jesus instructed his disciples to “love one another” (Jn 13:34) we might wonder why ever employ a lesser word or even have his servants instruct, Keep on loving each other as brothers.” (Heb 13:1)

Well, a dictionary definition of Philadelphia is ‘Warmhearted affection toward all in the family of faith.” We might say, ‘think well, speak well and act well towards the family of God.’  Trying to tie down ‘love’ or even this ‘brotherly affection’ is not easy. I came across a heavy-handed discipling program recently that used questions to prod on believers to growth and one question asked, “Do you love everyone in your community?” I’m afraid I responded, “That is a meaningless question,” but then I did add, “unless you can express it in specifics.” We are told to love our neighbour by the Lord and we know He loves everyone because He is love.

But what does that mean? It means He thinks and feels well towards all people, some might say, but actually love is expressed in a whole variety of ways. A father may express it with a child as he watches them from a distance, by the smile that appears on his face that expresses something of what he is thinking and feeling as he watches. It is love. But then he may sit with the child and read with them or listen to them. Some times he will say ‘No’ to the child as he brings correction or direction, and at other times he may bring discipline to impose a sense of seriousness over some misdemeanor. All of these are different expressions of love. There can be great differences in the expression of love. There can be the giving of a present at a birthday, which is simple and straight forward, or there can be the mother who pushes her child off the road infront of an oncoming speeding lorry, and who is killed.

The sacrificial love (agape) of Jesus that took him to the Cross is certainly different from ‘warmhearted affection’ but sometimes that ‘warm hearted affection toward all in the family of faith’,  can seem for the moment equally hard. The trouble is people are not perfect, none of us are, but so often we expect the people of God to be. When the minister/pastor/vicar produces a rubbish, boring sermon, it is difficult not to be negative. When some of the old ladies seem more concerned about the flower rota than seeing people saved, it is difficult to feel charitable. When long haired, tattooed young people turn up in your nice respectable church, it is difficult not to be defensive, even when you find they out are outrageous evangelists. When someone doesn’t care about scripture / comes out with wrong understandings of scripture / brings heresy, it is difficult to be graceful in the face of their less-than-perfect expressions of church life.

The world would be so much easier without people, it seems sometimes. But then other people probably think that about us as well. I know I haven’t always found words of grace to drop into a difficult situation and so I have needed the love, grace and forgiveness of others at times, those things that put content to that description, “warm hearted affection”. Tell me, how do you react when someone really lets loose and blows it, and speaks out in anger, frustration and hostility? I saw that once and those around drew back like Pharisees withdrawing from Jesus, into a critical, gossiping huddle. Instead it needed someone to put an arm of love around them and say, “Come and sit down. What is going on here old friend?” How easily that “warm hearted affection” flees out the door!  How easy it is to become a Pharisee and look down our spiritual noses at others who are not handling life as well as we are!!!

Oh yes, we’ll need God’s grace to actually have that “warm hearted affection” when people are being people. It doesn’t matter that they are believers, that seems to make it worse. If we can get God’s grace, why can’t they?  I think one of the most poignant stories I’ve heard was of the man who stepped into an almost empty carriage on the Underground, accompanied by his two noisy and boisterous children. As the train rattled along through the tunnels, another nearby occupant struggled not to spit out, “Why don’t you control your noisy children. Get them under control!” but didn’t. When the train came to the stop where the man and his children was alighting, he turned to the other occupant whose face clearly showed what he thought and said, “I’m sorry I’m a bit distracted and let my little ones upset the peace. We’ve just come from the hospital where their mother is, and I’ve just been told my wife has probably only got about three days to live. I’m sorry,” and then they stepped off the train. The occupant suddenly felt different.

I’m told there is an old native-American saying (we used to call them Indians): “Never criticize another until you have walked in their moccasins.”  We don’t know what is going on in one another’s lives in church. Yes, the grace of God is there for us all, but it’s not always easy to appropriate it. Sometime we need the loving acceptance of our brothers and sisters and their gentle encouragement to make it through. That’s why I think there is this fairly rare reference to brotherly-kindness, this Philadelphia love, this “warmhearted affection toward all in the family of faith.” Yes, I need more of it. Yes, it is something I need to aspire to even more, for the sake of my local church, and for Jesus’ sake. May he find it in me.

2. Aspiring to More Grace

Aspiring Meditations: 2.  Aspiring to more grace

Psa 45:2   You are the most excellent of men and your lips have been anointed with grace, since God has blessed you forever.

2 Pet 1;2 Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.

In the opening, introductory ‘study’, near the end I laid out our goal about the things to which we might aspire: we will have to think what they each mean, why the Lord wants them for us, and how we may aspire to experiencing them in greater and greater measure.

So, in the example to do with my wife’s uncle, I said, ‘I realised there I was aspiring to a higher level of grace than that which I had known until then’ and so it seems natural that we start off these things looking at ‘grace’. It is a word that comes up often in Scripture, especially in the letters of the apostle Paul who always asks for grace for his recipients, as does the apostle Peter in the verse above from his second letter. It has to be high up on the list of significant words in the New Testament.

Now when we say that someone is ‘gracious’ we mean they are sociable, courteous, polite. It is a word used to describe a very positive aspect of their character. Similarly, if we looked up synonyms for ‘grace’ we come across such words as refinement, loveliness, poise, charm, again positive words about character. That is how we tend to use the word and its associates in everyday life.  Now as good as these words are, the Bible’s use of grace is much more powerful.

Our first verse above, your lips have been anointed with grace”, suggest again a very positive characteristic – because, “You are the most excellent of men,” but it is clear that this Messiah figure is like that since God has blessed you forever.” This positive characteristic is because of God’s blessing. So to recap the first two things about grace: 1. It is expressed as a positive characteristic, and 2. It comes from God. But what is it?

It is important to understand, because God calls Himself a “gracious God” (Ex 34:6) and it comes in the midst of similar words: “the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness.” (v .6,7) They are all different words but have the feel of being in the same family, so to speak. Now here we start becoming aware of the problem. If you take a good Bible dictionary, you find that trying to tie down the word ‘grace’ is like trying to take hold of mercury or quicksilver (don’t it’s poisonous!) where, if you put your finger on a blob of it, it splits up into lots of smaller globules which scatter in all directions. Grace is like that.

The Hebrew word in O.T. usage, ‘hesed’, has been translated, ‘mercy, kindness, loving-kindness’.  When used of a man or woman it tends to mean steadfast love towards God or another person, or even used as ‘faithfulness’. The New Testament Greek equivalent is ‘charis’ which often has links to forgiveness or mercy. Jesus never uses the word yet his actions and teaching are saturated with it.  The apostle Paul says we, “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Rom 3:24) Note the close linkage of three crucial things: justified – by grace – through redemption. Our justification is only by an act of grace on God’s part, the redemption that Jesus earned for us on the Cross. So, redemption was an act of grace and so is justification. Christ’s redeeming act leads to our justification and both are God’s expressions of mercy, and loving kindness, free, undeserved gifts. So, we might say, grace is first a personal characteristic, or even a benignly positive attitude.

But it seems to be even more than that. Yes, in my usage of it in respect of the uncle of my wife, I might say I recognized and wanted to emulate or aspire to this same personal characteristic or benignly positive attitude, but in the New Testament it seems to have more about it. For instance, it seems foundational to who we are in the body of Christ: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.” (Rom 12:6) Grace there, seems more an ability, the ability to exercise a gift, or behave supernaturally.  But then all my previous attempts to tie down this globule of mercury have all also been characteristics or attitudes, that are identified by a behaviour.  Mercy, for instance is an expression or act of God in a particular way.

But then we have to ask, how do we get this grace into us, if I may put it like that? How do I get these abilities we have just referred to? The answer has to be by the indwelling presence of God’s Holy Spirit. It is Him in me that is the resource that enables me to live out my Christian life, my life in relation to the Lord, expressed in everyday behaviour. Later on in these studies we will look at things that are said to be ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (Gal 5:22,23).  Now fruit naturally grows. The only two commands linked to those verses speak of being “led by the Spirit,” (v.18) and “let us keep in step with the Spirit.” (v.25) so we may conclude that when we allow the Spirit to lead us and we seek to keep in step with what HE is doing, then the things in verses 22 and 23 will naturally start developing and appearing in us.

We would probably be remiss if we didn’t mention the apostle Paul’s famous incident when he pleaded with God to help with a particular weakness but the Lord replied, “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9). So grace is equated with power – God’s power, the power released by the Holy Spirit within us. So when we need wisdom or maybe strength, or perhaps patience, all of these are expression of grace that the Spirit provides.

So to summarise: grace is a characteristic AND a resource that is seen when expressed through Christ-like acts. In a variety of ways my wife’s uncle expressed Christ. It will be developed more and more in me as I seek to be obedient to God’s word and His Holy Spirit’s prompting. Yes, as the apostle Paul says in both Ephesians and Colossians, I have a part to play by putting to death the characteristics of the ‘old nature’ and in ‘putting on’ the Christ-characteristics that his Spirit wishes to express in and through us. I still aspire to be the gracious elderly man that I saw in my wife’s uncle. I recognize that the way that grace is shown in me, will be different from the way it is shown in you when it comes to gifts and service (Rom 12:6) but in terms of character we all have this overall sense of what it means to be Christ-like – full of loving kindness, full of mercy, full of good feelings and desires for other people and thankful to God our Father and, yes, summarized as full of grace! Let’s aspire to be like this, more and more.