30. Hold the Good

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  30. Hold the Good

1 Thess 5:21,22   Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.

I have a horrible feeling we take good for granted and don’t realise that it is something precious and to be held on to. When you talk about holding on to something there is a sense of clinging on to it to make sure you don’t drop or lose it. 

Consider things that are ‘good’: love, peace, quietness, security, safety, warm relationships, stable relationships, honouring and respecting people, absence of upset and hurt, honesty and integrity, freedom from crime, freedom from violence, being able to look back and be thankful, being able to look into the future with confidence. Look at so much of modern life in the West and realise the absence of so many of these things. When we were a child our parents kept us free from worry and so many of the above list were true for us, but in so many modern single-parent homes (and two-parent homes) these things are so often absent.

Before Christ, before we received our salvation, the apostle Paul quoted from the Old Testament, All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Rom 3:12) In other words, outside of Christ we have little expectation of finding good, real selfless, godly good, being expressed. Indeed Paul was to go on and declare in a more personal way, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.” (Rom 7:18) Later on in the practical section of that same book he gave the same instruction that we find here: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good,” (Rom 12:9) and in the closing chapter, “I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.” (Rom 16:19)  Paul’s understanding sharply contrasts with today’s relativistic ramblings where few are able to say, yes there is good and yes there is evil and we know the difference.

But good for the Christian is not just an idea, it is a practical reality. Again Paul was to say to the Galatians, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Gal 6:9,10) Some versions in verse 9 have ‘well-doing’ for the NIV’s ‘doing good’ which is another nice way of putting it. The verse 10 reference is clearly to good deeds. In Ephesians he reminds us that, “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works,” (Eph 2:10) and of the Colossians he said, “And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work.” (Col 1:10) Similarly there is Jesus’ teaching, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16) 

Again and again the emphasis is not merely on working but doing good in what you do. Goodness is seen, goodness reveals who we are.  When speaking about the widows to be cared for by the church under Timothy’s oversight, Paul described the qualifications of those to be looked after as, “well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.” (1 Tim 5:10)  There are some very practical ways of doing good. When speaking to Titus about the qualities of overseers (elders) he said, “he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined.” (Titus 1:8). Indeed eight times in that letter Paul refers to ‘doing good’.

Indeed we see there the real heart of this call: “Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:13,14) Jesus came to deliver us out of a life of self-centred and godless evil into being those whose life is characterized by doing good, by being good, by being eager to do good. Paul is very specific about it: “I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.” (Titus 3:8)

The writer to the Hebrew understood this as well when he wrote about us maturing and receiving good teaching: “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Heb 5:14)  That is what teaching should do, help us understand the difference between good and evil. Echoing Paul’s teaching about good deeds following, James taught, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” (Jas 3:13)  Peter also echoes that earlier teaching about good deeds being seen: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Pet 2:12)

Later on Peter quotes psalm 34 to emphasis this same thing: “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it.” (1 Pet 3:10,11)  The apostle John echoes so much of this in his third letter: “Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God.” (3 Jn 11). Remember also, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal 5:22,23(+). Goodness comes from God and is to be seen in His people. Good is not only a concept but it is also a practice and it is a vital one that needs restoring to the church in the twenty-first century so that the world may see and believe and be blessed, but it needs working at. May it be so!

36. Battling Desires

Meditations in James: 36 : Battling Desires

Jas 4:1,2     What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight.

Honesty about oneself is quite difficult. The trouble is that it’s us living this life and we find it difficult to be objective about ourselves. To know yourself is difficult, but of great value when you do. If you know yourself you know how far you can be pushed and you step back before your grace runs out. If you know yourself you know the gifts and talents you have and rejoice over them and give thanks to God for His provision of them. Yes, if you know yourself, you know that any goodness you have is from God. If you know yourself you know that deep down there are harbouring things that belong to darkness which should never see the light of day and which only God can deal with. Being honest with yourself, we have already said, brings humility. Being honest with yourself brings a greater reliance upon the Lord. Being honest with yourself is about knowing what you are like on the inside, for it is what goes on in the mind, in the heart, in the soul, that makes us what we are, and it is sometimes  very difficult to be honest with what we are really like.

Our problem is that we like others to think that we’re nice and we like to think ourselves that we are nice. This is a problem because when something comes to the surface which runs contrary to that belief, we panic or make excuses and justify ourselves instead of facing it and dealing with it. In other words we allow it to continue instead of putting it to death with God’s help.

Every time you struggle to cope with some other person, it is because something in you is not right. If you get angry, hostile, resentful, envious or generally upset over some other person, it is because something is not right in you. This is what James is referring to when he says, What causes fights and quarrels among you? A fight or quarrel is something that starts inside you. We’ve already talked at length about the tongue which expresses that hostility and brings it into the open and establishes it, but the hostility itself is within you. Whenever we feel resentful about another person, it is because we have something wrong on the inside. James goes on to give us an answer why this happens: Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? Everything, he says, in this context happens because you have desires that are struggling within you. Now this isn’t the sort of desire that wants a new car, this is desire that simply wants or needs things for self. This is about desires to be accepted, desires to feel good about yourself, desires to feel in control. Consider each of those.

We have a desire to be accepted. If we have poor understanding of God’s love we will not realize that we are utterly accepted by Him, and therefore our life is based on gaining acceptance. We want to feel good about ourselves, but that good feeling will only come when we feel that others take us as we are or, even more, look up to us. If we really don’t know who we are in Christ, we will struggle and struggle to become someone, and that includes being in control. When you are insecure about yourself you try to feel in control because then you can feel safe. If we have never some to the place where we know that God is in total control and that He is for us and with us, then we will feel insecure and will be constantly battling to create a sense of control to create this feeling of security.

All of these struggling inner desires are linked as part of our old sinful self which is warring in the world for achievement. What makes it worse, as James says, You want something but don’t get it. There is a sense of frustration that drives us on. We want to achieve, we want to be well thought of, we want to be someone, but it never seems to be happening and so we struggle and battle, struggle and battle and, in the world, that is what we see when people move into criminal activity. It’s as James says, You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. That killing for many is character assassination. We put down others in our desire to climb higher to achieve prominence, to achieve success, to be someone. These things are all part of the same package. For a few who allow Satan to totally dominate them, they literally kill and we hear of such things daily on our TV screens, but it’s all part of the same thing.

This is very real, and is the practical working out of our lives. James will go on to give answers but, again, he first wants us to face the malaise before we see answers. Many Christians shy away from this and pretend everything is all right, but deep down they know it’s not. You know you haven’t come to a place of wholeness in Christ, a place of security, if you feel uncomfortable with other people, if you find them impossible to be nice to, if everything in you goes tense in certain situations involving people. Don’t run away, this is simply an area to expose to the Lord’s love and let Him deal with. If you feel uneasy or worse with certain people, it may possibly be because you don’t know the social etiquette and don’t know how to respond in the circumstances, but mostly it is because you haven’t yet come to peace with God over who you are. Can we face that? Can we be honest about it? Can we bring it out in the open and confess it to the Lord so He can come and fill us with His love and acceptance? Let it be.

35. Wrong Prayers

Meditations in Job : 35.  Wrong Prayers

Job 13:20 “Only grant me these two things, O God, and then I will not hide from you:

The thing about meditations is that you can let your mind run further afield than a strict study allows. This is particularly true as we come to this next section. One of the great unknown areas of the Christian life is prayer. Some people have written books trying to detail it and others have written about how unclear the whole subject of prayer actually is. I tend to feel that the truth is somewhere in between. The reality of the passage that we now find ourselves looking at, is that it is prayer, talking to God. Now some of us are highly dutiful when it comes to prayer, feeling we must follow the tramlines of a few specific Scriptural verses. Others of us feel we just don’t know what to say – so say nothing. Some of us believe our praying will have effects that will change the world, while others of us doubt that prayer will do anything – and so don’t pray. So prayer – or lack of it – emanates from our beliefs and hopefully our beliefs come from the Bible. All I know, when I did a study of all the obvious prayers recorded in the Bible, is that they all flowed out of a crisis. We ‘pray best’ when we are in a crisis – and that is also true of Job.

When we are in a  crisis we tend to pray honest prayers, and I believe truth and honesty are important issues as far as God is concerned, especially when I find that His Son was described as being full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). When we are in a crisis I have noticed two important characteristics of our praying. First we pray from our heart and second, because of our desperate situation, our viewpoint is often skewed and we aren’t too bothered about the accuracy or correctness of what we pray, we just pray!

Now it is this latter part that I believe is so important here. Job has confessed to speaking out of the anguish of his spirit and the bitterness of his soul (7:11 & 10:1) and that his words had been impetuous (6:30) and that he is despairing (6:26). He recognises that his words may be off-kilter, but we’ve just seen, in his security in the Lord, that he is willing to just plough on and say stuff and risk the consequences (13:13-16). He may be off beam but he’ll risk it before the Lord he utterly trusts. So, he’s going to say stuff that isn’t right, and he’s going to ask things that are wrong and, in other words, some of his praying is futile and he isn’t going to get the answers he’s asking for.

Now the interesting thing, that we’ve now noted several times, is that the Lord doesn’t chide him for this in the long run. Yes He does chide him for speaking without knowledge (38:2) but that’s the extent of it! We might say the Lord isn’t phased by His child jumping up and down and having a temper tantrum – after all he’s got some good reasons for it – and He’s certainly not going to judge him for it.  A wise parent doesn’t inflict punishment on a young child for what we call ‘childish irresponsibility’ and with the incredibly limited revelation Job has at this time, he is certainly in the ‘childish’ category.

So let’s see the ramblings on of this man. Only grant me these two things, O God, and then I will not hide from you.” (v.20). Job, I’m not sure if you’ve fully appreciated it, but you are in no position to make demands of God. You were on firmer ground when you were pleading for mercy (9:15), and as for hiding, don’t you realise that no one can hide from God (see Psa 139:7-16). He continues, “Withdraw your hand far from me, and stop frightening me with your terrors.” (v.21). Are these the two things you’re asking for? Why?  “Then summon me and I will answer, or let me speak, and you reply.” (v.22). You put conditions on answering God? You will only talk to God when you are out the other side of this trial? I think you’ve missed the point; you are actually talking and explaining yourself right now! What do you feel about yourself? “How many wrongs and sins have I committed? Show me my offense and my sin.” (v.23)  No, I don’t think I’ll answer this; it would spoil the point of it. The reality is that I’m not doing this because of your sin. This is just a workout in the heavenly gymnasium but I’ll let you come to that conclusion on your own for that’s part of the exercise. What else is on your heart?

“Why do you hide your face and consider me your enemy?” (v.24). I think you’ve jumped to a wrong conclusion; merely because things are going badly, it doesn’t mean you are my enemy, and actually I’m still here with you if only you could realise that. Carry on. “Will you torment a windblown leaf? Will you chase after dry chaff?” (v.25). That’s not exactly how I see you. My enemy may try to make you feel you are being blown all over the place but actually you are doing remarkably well. You didn’t turn round and abuse me, you haven’t sworn and cursed. You’re actually remarkably steady in the way you have stood in the face of the awful things that have happened to you and the antagonism of your three friends. Oh no, son, you’re nothing like a windblown leaf or dry chaff. What else do you feel?

“For you write down bitter things against me and make me inherit the sins of my youth.” (v.26). You think I’m bringing a case against you for your sins, but you can’t see them in the present, and so assume they must be the sins of your youth? No, later on my people will understand that I don’t hold sin against those who genuinely don’t realise there is a wrong. No, it’s nothing like that! “You fasten my feet in shackles; you keep close watch on all my paths by putting marks on the soles of my feet.” (v.27). You think I’ve made you a slave? You feel like I’ve put shackles on you and put the mark of a slave owned by another on your feet? You’ll come to understand one day, perhaps, that those who consider me their Master or Owner are, in fact, the best off in the world. For the moment it seems like a harsh existence, but be patience and receive my grace for it won’t last forever. “So man wastes away like something rotten, like a garment eaten by moths.” (v.28). Son, I realise that that is how it feels at this moment. I understand and I feel with you. I don’t stand at a distance for I am, as my future people will come to understand, your loving heavenly Father. This IS tough stuff and I don’t pretend that it isn’t, but I am here for you and I have decreed the boundaries of this experience, so it IS limited.

With the light of the whole of the revelation of the Bible, I have attempted to suggest some possible responses of the Lord, but of course Job doesn’t hear them. Thus he carries on expressing the anguish of his heart in a variety of ways – and God still loves him! If He didn’t, the end of the book would not be as it is. The end of ‘your book’ and mine is more clearly revealed – we have a sure hope. Even when we blow it between now and then, as immature little children, our loving heavenly Father will be there for us. Take comfort in that. Jesus died to ensure we get there.