25. Aspiring to Maturity

Aspiring Meditations: 25.  Aspiring to Maturity

Heb 6:1    let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity

Col 4:12   He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.

I have come to the end of various ‘lists’ of things that the scriptures speak of, things to which we need to aspire, but I find there are one or two other words lurking in the back of my mind that we need to consider before we finish this particular series. The first of these words is ‘mature’ or ‘maturity’. Maturity only comes up once and mature not a lot of times, but they are there and they are significant in this search.

To speak about maturity means something or someone that is, ‘fully grown, fully developed, having reached initial potential.’  It is a state of being and it is something, I have observed over the years, that does not happen automatically; it does need our cooperation. Surprisingly the words crops us (sorry for the pun) in the parable of the sower: “The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.” (Lk 8:14,15)

Now that is interesting on two levels. First, it shows us that a person can fail to go on to spiritual maturity if they let worries and concerns about living in this materialistic world dominate their lives. When the apostle Paul starts off virtually every one of his letter with something like, “Grace and peace to you” you can be pretty sure that a) we need grace to cope with life and b) the end result of having grace is a state of peace. Maturity involves learning to receive God’s grace and living in a state of peace.

Second, it shows that whereas that person does not mature, the person who does is revealed by the fruit that he or she bring forth in their life. i.e. their life will change and their life will impact this world. How have you and I changed? Are the fruit of the Spirit developing in us?  How have we or do we impact the world? Are other people, or the world generally, changed because of us. Signs of maturity!

But then maturity is the end goal of the gifts of ministries to the church that the apostle Paul speaks about in that famous Eph 4 passage. He says their works is, “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4:12,13) Now note that the end result is that ‘the body of Christ’ is brought to unity, “as each part does its work.” (v.16) The role of those ministries is to encourage each of us to become the person God has designed us to be (see Eph 2:10) and when that happens we will work in harmony with and in conjunction with the rest of the body.

But that is the corporate expression of maturity. What other signs are there for us individually? Well, the writer to the Hebrews said, “solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Heb 5:14) and there he was referring to us moving beyond the basics of the faith in our understanding. I despair of those house groups who constantly do Bible Studies of the most elementary things of the scriptures, the easy parts if you like. I prefer the approach that says, “OK what are the things about the faith over which you have questions, or which parts of the Bible do you find the hardest? Right, let’s start there!” The more we study God’s word (all of it!) and the more we study the elements of the Faith, the more we will find ourselves being trained as the writer said, “to distinguish good from evil.”

We might add here, that the mature person doesn’t read the word, they put it into operation. That was the point of Jesus’ parable of the two house builders in Matt 7, and the point of the ‘Great Commission’: “go and make disciples from all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:19,20) That is maturity – doing it.

While on the subject of teaching, after his teaching about maturity coming from the work of the ministry gifts, he explains, “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” (Eph 4:14) A sign of maturity is that we don’t get carried away by false teaching or false teachers; we are no longer ‘infants’.

Stick-ability is thus a characteristic of the mature and we see this is two other teachings: “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (Jas 1:4) and “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” (Jas 1:6) The mature person learns to hang on in there and not give up. Some people are good starters but are not good on following through. That is a sign of immaturity. The mature person is also mature in their relationship with the Lord and therefore has an assurance in Him that does not doubt when we come asking Him for things (wisdom in this case). We know the Lord, we know His goodness, we know His heart towards us, we know His will.

Are we there with these things? If not, then we still have something to which we are yet to aspire – maturity. If we are not there with these things, keep working to grow and get there. Will we ever fully get there? Almost certainly not (and having the occasional bad day is not a sign of immaturity, merely that we are still human beings!) but we can work on these things and we can see changes and so, yes, we can grow. Perhaps we should aspire to growing in these things rather than achieving some slightly intangible end goal. May it be so.

Addendum: if you want a motivation to grow, find yourself something to DO that places demands on you. Those demands will drive you to the Lord where you will have to receive from Him more grace and the rest will follow. More in the next study.

6. Qualifications for Elders (1)

Meditations in Titus: 6:  Qualifications for elders

Titus 1:6,7  An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless–not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain.

If I may shorten the recap within the previous meditation to remind us what elders do: elders are to be men of maturity, who go ahead by example, who care for the flock, teach and challenge the flock to grow into maturity, resisting wrong teaching, and who should have spiritual authority and spiritual power. They are therefore, conduits of God’s blessing to His people.

Now if you think that is too high a calling, you are beginning to realise the reality of it. It IS a calling and a gifting and it is only able to be carried out with the grace of God. If that is the nature of the ministry, what must be the nature of the vessel bringing the ministry?

First, “an elder must be blameless.” He must seek to be a man of impeccable character because he represents God and is to be God’s channel of blessing. Now please, be realistic, none of us are perfect and so your man will have feet of clay the same as the rest of us. There will be times when he isn’t perfect, nevertheless generally he must be a man of good reputation. Now twice in this list Paul says the elder must be blameless, In verse 6 it would appear to be blameless in respect of family life and then in verse 7 in respect of personal character and personality. We will look at verse 7 in the next meditation and restrict ourselves here to considering family life because it is so important.  Now I realise we are about to move into contentious issues and so simply ask that we consider these things as the Bible says them and not as modern culture would try to make us go along with.

So, second, “the husband of but one wife.” Note he is a man and a man in a stable enduring marriage relationship. Let’s deal with the ‘male issue’ first. Where we have a society functioning as God designed, it we will have committed relationships (marriages) and children born to them.  I have been tempted to expand on the psychological reasons why in general God decrees that leadership will be male but will simply leave this statement which is true: in the Bible leadership is invariably male although there are rare exceptions. This has nothing to do with culture or history, I suggest, but more to do with God’s wisdom.

I realise we are living in an age where godless culture does not understand this and parts of the church are conforming to that culture’s norms but time will tell the truth of this before too many years pass. This is not in any way to demean women or restrict their gifting. Spiritual warfare can be bruising and elders are at the forefront of that. As I have heard someone say, “When you look at the realities of spiritual leadership and realise how tough it often is, you are crazy to want to be a leader unless you have God’s clear calling into it.”  Doctors and psychologists often say that church leadership is one of the most stressful jobs going. The injury rate or the casualty rate is phenomenal. If this is strange to you, count yourself fortunate that you have not seen this or been part of it. Most of the church leaders that I know are damaged in some way by the ministry; as we said spiritual warfare can really be bruising, and that is an understatement.

The call to be blameless here, I believe, is a call to be accusation free wherever possible and in respect of their marriages spiritual leaders are always vulnerable. If the truth was known about many marriage relationships, many wives might well disqualify their husbands from that role (or husbands disqualify themselves). Is this a reason why the church is so often powerless and impotent?.

Third, “a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient.” He is thus a father who has been fully involved with his family and taken part in the training and brining up of his children, including their spiritual teaching.  In the letter to Timothy, Paul includes in this same list, “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)” (1 Tim 3:4,5) This element is an important one. A man who has not been able to train his children appropriately so that they are not disruptive and disobedient is lacking. It is a sign of maturity that he is able to do that. How we deal with our children will be a sign of our maturity and its absence is revealed in the way our children respond in life I believe.

When we pray for our leaders, I wonder do we pray for their families? I have mentioned spiritual warfare more than once and as I have observed the families of leaders, there are some beautiful ones to behold but at the same time there are ones where the enemy is causing havoc. Husband and wife relationships and parent and children relationship can be, if we are not very careful, major battlefields where the enemy seeks to lead astray or pull down individuals.  Any parent will at times anguish for their children and cry to the Lord for help and an entire study could be written on the ways the enemy seeks to upset relationships and subsequently ministries.

If we are a leader honesty is vital. We must face the reality of our marriages and our relationships with our children and their relationships with us, with one another and with God. These are areas of major vulnerability that require us to think much, pray much, and do all we can to enable us to be leaders who are full of grace and truth, have families that are full of grace and truth, and establish churches that are full of grace and truth.

8. On a Journey

Meditations in the life of Abraham : 8. On a Journey

Gen 12:4,5  So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.

The thing about meditating on Scripture is that it allows you to think beyond the surface of what is there.  So we have this aged man and his wife and nephew (who tags along!) setting out from Haran, leaving his father and his entourage to go to a place that has not yet been made clear. Somehow, we assume, he has been told back in Ur that Canaan was their destination (11:31) and so now they arrive there. It has been a long journey and an interrupted journey, having stopped off at Haran. Now that stop at Haran must have been frustrating for Abram because the indication is that God had spoken to him, he must have shared it with his father, and then his father had taken the family on the journey to Canaan but then got distracted along the way.

The main thing about a journey is that it involves time and effort. For Abram to get to Canaan meant travelling for some considerable period of time, presumably by camel. (they are a well-off family 12:5). The future blessing was clearly linked to Canaan and therefore the sooner they got there the better. What would happen once they got there, only the Lord knew. A journey is a means to an end. There is a sense whereby we are on a journey and the end is heaven. While we are here on this earth, we are not at our final destination, therefore we are journeying towards our final destination.

Another thing about a journey is that things happen along the way. As we’ve noted already, for this family, along the way, they stopped off and a significant part of the family separated off.  Now Abram had been told to leave his father’s household behind and that might have concerned him when the whole family (except Nahor) had come with him. Leaving his father behind now might, therefore, have been a relief. He was now being obedient to the original call – except Lot insisted on coming along and Abram was not sufficiently strong in his understanding to insist he went alone. Yes, along the journey things change, slowly but slowly it seems sometimes, our lives come into line with the will of God. It is only after it has happened sometimes that we realize we had not been in line before.

But actually this is what working out this new relationship with the Lord is all about. We don’t realize it when we first become a Christian; we think we have arrived, but actually it is just the start of a journey of change. We didn’t realize it back then but even though we had been born again there were still some pretty big changes to be brought about in us, the biggest being learning to trust the Lord in the walk ahead. That’s it, isn’t it – we have a way ahead of us and because we’ve never walked that path before, it is unknown. Furthermore, because it is unknown things will happen that we can’t foresee and it is quite likely there will be things we cannot handle on our own and thus we will deepen our knowledge of the Lord and learn to rely upon Him more. Is a mark of growing or developing maturity, how long it takes us to call on the Lord when we face difficulties – the more we mature the shorter the time!

But the story of Abram thus far, reminds us or nudges us to think that this journey can get interrupted and we can get distracted and yet I am sure that no experience is a wasted experience. We can learn from everything that happens, even when we get it wrong. The apostle Paul spoke of it more as a race and the Galatians obviously were getting sidetracked over the subject of circumcision so he eventually says, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?” (Gal 5:6,7). Yes, perhaps if we are being real, we might acknowledge that life is made up of a number of distractions along the way, distractions that seek to lead us from the truth, and distractions that seek to keep us from being obedient.

Eventually Paul was able to say, “I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14). Yes, he was putting all aside as he remembered what his calling was – heaven!  He was going to get there and he wasn’t going to let anything distract him or turn him away. We, likewise, have the same calling. It is to walk the walk with Christ while we are on this earth, and remain faithful at all times. It is a journey and we may get distracted, but once we realize that, let’s get back on the faith track, working out our relationship with the Lord. Let’s press on in faithfulness and godliness. Amen? 

60. Young Men

Meditations in 1 Peter : 60: Guidance for Young Men

1 Pet 5:5a Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older.

There are two schools of thought in churches about house groups or cell groups or whatever else you call them. One school separates people according to background, job etc. on the basis that the things they have in common will enable people to open up to each other and relate together better than might otherwise happen. They will also be better at reaching those with similar backgrounds. The other school mixes people up in groups on the basis that we learn from different ages and backgrounds.  Both schools have merits. It is useful to focus on the commonalities – which include the unique experiences – of specific age groups or people groups, as well as mixing them up to learn from one another’s different experiences.  However it is the former thing that comes out here.  Peter now gives a simple word of guidance to a specific group – young men.

Interestingly each of the main apostle-writers picked up on young men at various times. Paul encouraged Titus by saying, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good.” (Titus 2:6,7) John in his first letter also wrote, “I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one …… I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one.” (1 Jn 2:13,14). Each of these writers thinks of something that is peculiar or unique to the experience of ‘young men’. For Paul it was the awareness that young men were full of vigour and energy and life which could be poured our in unrighteous, unrestrained, profligate living and so he cautions them to be self-controlled, observers of those who they could emulate well.  John was aware similarly of the vigour and energy of young men but who, when they were Christians, could be valiant warriors who oppose the enemy and stand out in their generation.

Peter has a different aspect of being young and vigorous in his thinking. He recognises the tendency in the young, in the fullness of their energy and life, to feel that they are the people for today and it therefore becomes very easy to slip into a way of thinking that despises age. We are after all, they might think, the ones full of energy, the ones who are likely to bring change into this dull world, the ones with fresh new ideas. We are the church of today, the ones who are going to change the church and the world.

Now such thinking is good as long as it is seen within context: you are just part of the body of Christ and perhaps nowhere more than here in matters of youthfulness do Paul’s words about being part of a body ring true and need remembering: Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Cor 12:27) and “Now the body is not made up of one part but of many.” (1 Cor 12:14) and “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” (1 Cor 12:21)

The tendency of youthfulness is to say, “We don’t need you,” but that comes from lack of understanding. To be fair one has to say that that isn’t always true, at least in a church where the older people are loving and caring and open to the young people. I have been blessed by hearing some of our young people say they are blessed to be able to relate to, and be alongside, older people. The challenge, perhaps, is more for the older people!

But Peter is being more specific: be submissive to those who are older.” Peter knows that an aspect of this youthful independence means a rejection of the wisdom and authority of those who God has called to lead the church, and that independence could therefore make them very vulnerable to the enemy. The answer is to be rightly related to the authority within the church which resides in those with wisdom and maturity in the church. Yes, youth does have all the energy and vibrancy that goes with younger years but without doubt wisdom comes with the experience of years. Unfortunately we live in an age when wisdom does not rate very highly in discussion areas, it is not valued. It is not realised that wisdom comes with experience and godly wisdom comes with experience of God.

Being submissive is all about attitude. It is about recognising that on our own we are vulnerable. It is about recognising that God calls leaders and our call is to recognise, acknowledge, esteem and let them lead. It is about having a teachable spirit, one who recognises they have much to learn (may we all have that until we go to heaven!) and is therefore open to hear what those who have walked this path before us have got to say. They may not have learnt the wisdom of the years but, nevertheless, listening to them will be instructive. It is about recognising authority that God has established and respecting and honouring it. It is about coming to an understanding of some of the burden that they carry, the responsibilities that they carry, their accountability to God. All these ways are simply expressions of what it means to be submissive to those who are older and in authority. In a day when the world and the enemy derides these things, we would do well to look at them again and ensure they are alive and well in the church.

 

 

54. God be Praised

Meditations in 1 Peter : 54: God be Praised

1 Pet 4:11 If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

Speaking and doing. There are echoes of verse 7 here: be clear minded and self-controlled.” where we said it was about thinking and then doing. Here it is about speaking and doing. But note that this is a continuation of verse 10: “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” These are the expressions of the ‘gifts’ we have.

Seen in that context the speaking that is referred to here is to be seen as a gift from God and an expression of the Lord and so if we are someone who has the privilege of being in a position in the church where we speak publicly, we should recognise the honour and the responsibility that is ours and we should recognise that if we are motivated, energized, inspired and directed by the Lord in this ministry, what we are bringing is to be seen as the very word of God. That is a very high calling! I wonder how many of us who are either preachers or teachers, see it in this way? There is an implied challenge here to be careful as to what we say, and to seek the Lord before we open our mouths. for we will be answerable to Him.

Now there is something else involved in this. Jesus said, “out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks,” (Lk 6:45) i.e. what comes out of our mouths is a reflection of what is in our hearts. If our hearts are given over to God, that will be observed when we speak. If we are still self-centred and not God-centred, that also will be revealed. We will, in other words, only speak the words of God if we are filled with God and given over to God. How we are with God will be observed in the words we speak. The preacher and teacher cannot help but reveal their spiritual state when they speak – and that is a real challenge!

But it isn’t only our words; it is also what we do, our serving. Is doing and serving the same thing? No, ‘doing’ can be self-centred or simply an expression of self. Serving is doing for the benefit of others. Serving is done as a purposeful act of the will to bless other people, something we choose to do. Now not everyone has come to the place of desiring to be a servant, even though Jesus calls us to it: “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” (Mt 20:26) There is an implication there that followers of Jesus will want to grow, develop, get on, and to achieve great things but, says Jesus, they only can do that by becoming a servant, by having a servant attitude. Serving is an expression of maturity so, according to Peter, if you have reached the level of maturity where you desire to be a servant, “do it with the strength that God provides.” In other words, if you are going to be God’s servant, you can only do it with His strength. Working (or serving) is hard and tiring and so to be able to continue doing it, you will need God’s ongoing strength, which will mean waiting on Him for it (see Isa 40:28-31)

Now there is an outworking to all this and it has been hinted at by Peter more than a few times: so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.” We do what we do so that God will be revealed and glorified. Peter started praising God in Chapter 1 for having “given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1:3) In chapter 2 he spoke of us having been called so that we “may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (2:9) He then continued, “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.” (2:12). In chapter 3 he put it slightly differently: “in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” (3:15) but the end is the same – praise to Him. And that brings us here to chapter 4 with, “so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.” (v.11).

The ultimate goal? To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.” When that happens, truth is being observed. Any glory is due to Him and only Him, for any power is His and so whatever we say or do is to be an expression of the life of the Spirit of Jesus within us, and that will always glorify the Father. Speaking of his own glory, Jesus said, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me,” (Jn 8:54) i.e. any glory we have comes from the Father and belongs to the Father. Near the end of the Last Supper Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him.” (Jn 13:31) i.e. Jesus will be glorified through his death and resurrection and that will glorify the Father. This was made even more clear in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus prayed, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.” (Jn 17:1)

In all of this we see that the outworking of Jesus’ life was to glorify or reveal the wonder of the Father. It is the wonder of the Father’s character that is being revealed, the wonder of His thinking and His planning and His love for mankind. Everything flows from and returns to God the Father. Jesus executed His will in a human body, and the Holy Spirit continues to do it in and through Christians today. That is where you and I come in! May He be glorified in us!

19. Time

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 19 :  A Time for Everything

Eccles 3:1 There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven

Having reached a point of truth after all of his ponderings about the meaningless activities of life, in this new chapter Solomon considers the thought that although life seems meaningless from his jaded, somewhat godless perspective, nevertheless there is an order or rightness for living. Now it is no coincidence that this follows his declarations in the last three verses of the previous chapter where three times he refers to God. When atheists tell us there is no God, the one thing they cannot explain is why there is such an ordered world. They resort to mechanistic language such as ‘natural selection’ but that goes nowhere near explaining how inanimate material came into being and then created life, all of which ‘works’ with amazing order. It was that order which enabled the early scientists, who worked out of a Christian way of thinking – of an ordered universe designed by God – to investigate the world. We take for granted the orderliness of the world. If there was no God and it truly was all the result of random chance, then there would be no reason why it was not random chaos with things being very different from the incredible order that we see today.

Remember, Solomon was a ‘scientist’ of his day. He had studied and explored (1:12), he had applied himself to understand everything (1:17) like no one before him, and few since. Solomon knew about life, and many of his findings about human behaviour are what form the book of Proverbs. Solomon knew about order and about timing.  Order and timing go together.  In the way God has designed things, one particular thing follows another particular thing – in a certain time. You see this in child development and in the development of all creatures. Watch how that order brings forth a butterfly. You can’t change it and it takes time. Different animals have different lengths of time that they carry their babies in their womb. To bring to maturity ready to live in the world, it needs time. Growth is orderly development and it takes time.

Wherever we look we are constrained by time. Time appears again and again significantly in Scripture: he chose us in him before the creation of the world.” (Eph 1:4) The timing of salvation shows us that it was planned even before the Godhead brought the world into being. Then we see, when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman.” (Gal 4:4). The execution of that plan was brought into operation at exactly the right moment in history. As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” (Lk 9:51). The climax of the plan was being brought about according to an exact preplanned timing. The Passover, after three years of ministry was to be the climax resulting in the death of the Lamb of God. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” (Rom 5:6)

Paul understood this. Israel were utterly helpless in sin and in failure and spiritual barrenness under the Roman oppressors, after centuries of pointless squabbling. It was almost as if God waited for them to be at their weakest, and then He came in the form of His Son. The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” (Psa 110:1) For the ongoing working out of the plan, there is that same sense if timing. Jesus will continue to reign at his Father’s right hand until he has achieved what the plan decreed.For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” (1 Cor 15:25). It hasn’t happened instantly. In accordance with the way God has designed all things, so with salvation, there is a gradual working out of the plan of salvation of the world.

Again atheists struggle with the idea that God developed the world gradually. Surely they say this slow gradual social evolution of mankind can’t have been God. Why didn’t He just bring it all into being as it is now, why wait all those centuries of social development? Because that is how God designs everything – to grow and develop slowly, in stages, one stage building on the previous one. Why didn’t God accelerate it and give men ideas of great scientific inventions to bless mankind thousands of years ago? Why wait until modern history? Because three thousand years ago it would have been meaningless to them, so what they ‘invented’ was on a par with the level of their knowledge then. Wherever we look it is the same – gradual development. Order. Timing.

When you look at your life, the same will be true. We can’t rush maturity. It is a slow, gradual thing. There is no instant maturity. No, maturity takes time and experience. If that is true of me, it is true of all of us, and I therefore need to learn to be patient with other people and simply accept them where they are in their development now. Do you see, it applies in every area of life! In the days to come, we’re going to let Solomon open us this line of thought for us and, with the Lord’s help, perhaps come to a greater understanding of life than we’ve ever had before!

37. Right Asking

Meditations in James: 37 : Right Asking

Jas 4:2,3    You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

Something goes wrong. What do you do? Do you struggle to cope with it, or do you go down under it, or do you turn to the Lord to ask for His help. A measure of spiritual maturity, I believe, is how fast we turn to the Lord for help. The spiritually wise and mature will place their day into the Lord’s hands at the beginning of every day, I believe. There are some people who say, “Oh, I’m an evening person so I have my quiet time in the evening.” It’s not a case of whether you are a morning or an evening person. It is a case of whether you think you can get through the day without the Lord, and coming to Him in prayer, as brief as that may be, is a sign of your acknowledgement  that you need His help, you need His blessing in the hours ahead of you. Wise people don’t wait for a crisis before they talk to the Lord.

Now our verses today need to be seen in context: You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God.” Do you see the connection between the beginning and end of this quote from verse 2? You want something but don’t get it…… You do not have, because you do not ask God.” Do you remember yesterday, as we examined the process that James was speaking about? It starts with insecurity and insecure people struggle to achieve, struggle to get, struggle to make themselves feel they are somebody. They want things but don’t get them, so they get frustrated and more stressed. Their overall problem is that they are being godless. The have not sought the Lord and they have not come into a position of Sonship where they can come and ask their heavenly Father for all their needs.

We all of us lack. That’s what Sin does for us. We have great big needs which are only satisfied in God. He alone can bring the sense of fulfilment to us that we so long for. He alone can enable us to achieve in such a manner that we are feeling satisfied with who we are. You could say that the main lesson in living in this Fallen World is learning to turn to God. Many don’t and so struggle on and get deeper and deeper into the mire of unfulfillment and frustration.  It’s a hard world without God.  But He’s there and He longs for us to come to Him like little children; He longs to bless us, if only we will come. So here is James’ starting point in these verses: You do not have, because you do not ask God. But note that it is only the starting point.

When we start coming to God and asking Him for help, we are embarking on a major learning exercise, because as we ask we often find that either we’re not happy asking for some things, or we simply don’t seem to get answers for some of the things we do ask for.  James uses a very basic idea to explain why this so often is: When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. Yes, when we come to God, we learn that motivation is a key issue in God’s mind. Suddenly we realise that God is concerned with WHY we are asking.  Much of the time we ask simply for our own comfort or well-being.  In other words we ask selfishly. Now Jesus addressed this in the Sermon on the Mount: So do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mt 6:31-33). What he is saying is, don’t worry about the mundane things of provision of daily life, for God will look after them for you and will provide them. Instead be more concerned with what His will is. Yes, it is right to ask for daily provisions: Give us today our daily bread.” (Mt 6:11) but pray that as a sign of your reliance upon the Lord. Don’t let worry overwhelm you for that is a sign of lack of trust.

No, the key thing about asking God is this: your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Mt 6:10). The key question is, what does God want for my life? When you have found that answer, then ask for it. Read the prophets in the Old Testament and you will see they declared God’s will – and then prayed for it! But of course, that will is not something objective, it is what affects us. So yes, we will find ourselves praying for our needs, but it will now be so that we can fulfil God’s will. So it may be quite legitimate to pray for the provision of a car, say, if a car is needful for you to work out God’s declared will for your life. But if it’s just a case of, “I’d like this…. or that,” then that’s simply selfish asking and, as James says, you won’t get it.

Spiritual maturity learns what to ask for. It learns what God’s will is for my life and then prays it out, and if that will includes material things, then ask for material things, but that is very different from self-centred, godless desires. Think on these things, and then get praying!

63. Would God Listen

Meditations in Job : 63. Would God Listen?

Job 35:6,7 But if he remains silent, who can condemn him? If he hides his face, who can see him? Yet he is over man and nation alike

As we move on into the next chapter, Elihu first chides Job for his apparent double arguing. On one hand he declares that he will be cleared by God for his righteousness, and on the other he wonders why he bothers to remain righteous: Do you think this is just? You say, `I will be cleared by God.’ Yet you ask him, `What profit is it to me, and what do I gain by not sinning?” (v.2,3). In answer Elihu simply asks them all to look upwards and grasp something of the Lord’s greatness: “I would like to reply to you and to your friends with you. Look up at the heavens and see; gaze at the clouds so high above you.” (v.5,6) He does this because he is now going to argue that God is so great that He doesn’t get value from either our goodness or badness.

He starts with the badness: “If you sin, how does that affect him? If your sins are many, what does that do to him?” (v.6). He replies, “Your wickedness affects only a man like yourself,” (v.8a) i.e. God is so much ‘above’ us that our petty foolishness doesn’t change Him. Then the goodness: “If you are righteous, what do you give to him, or what does he receive from your hand?” (v.7) and his reply is that righteousness only affects the sons of men, i.e. it’s only humans who may be recipients of your goodness.

He then considers how we respond to things when they go wrong: “Men cry out under a load of oppression; they plead for relief from the arm of the powerful.” (v.9), i.e. we are only too quick to cry out for help from God but no one says, `Where is God my Maker, who gives songs in the night, who teaches more to us than to the beasts of the earth and makes us wiser than the birds of the air?” (v.10,11) i.e. we cry for help but don’t simply trust the Lord for His caring provision “in the night” when it is dark and who relates to us and teaches and helps us.  Do we remember that He does these things when we ask or do we ask in a grumbling manner?

Look, he continues, there are times when God just keeps quiet: “He does not answer when men cry out because of the arrogance of the wicked. Indeed, God does not listen to their empty plea; the Almighty pays no attention to it.” (v.12,13)  i.e. if it is just a selfish, self-centred, shallow cry of arrogance against God, He will not respond.  God replies to righteous, humble cries, is implied in this.  And if God won’t reply to the petty, critical calls of the arrogant, how much less will He reply when we say stupid things about Him: “How much less, then, will he listen when you say that you do not see him, that your case is before him and you must wait for him, and further, that his anger never punishes  and he does not take the least notice of wickedness.” (v.14,15)

He concludes, “So Job opens his mouth with empty talk; without knowledge he multiplies words.” (v.16)  i.e. Job you don’t know what you’re saying.

Now let’s look at some of these things again. Is it true that God doesn’t care about whether we do good or bad? Well Elihu is right that God’s character is not changed because of our behaviour;  no, He remains exactly the same whether we are the most wonderful saint or the worst sinner. In that respect He is utterly unchanging.  Yet, Jesus revealed Him as a loving Father and as such He will be grieved if we sin and bring harmful outcomes upon ourselves, so in that respect it is not true to say that it doesn’t matter.  Remember this is an argument about how God is or is not affected by our behaviour, but there is the whole question of how loving children can purposefully sin and upset their loving heavenly Father, which is Paul’s point in Romans chapter 6.

Indeed does God ignore us when we say stupid things?  Well the lesson of the whole book of Job suggests that He often stays quiet while we seek to resolve our problems but nevertheless eventually speaks and brings correction.  I believe that as part of His working to bring maturity in us, and indeed of testing us, it means that sometimes He remains silent to allow us time and space to think, pray and work through to a right place. Sometimes part of the test is how will we respond when he does remain silent? Often in the psalms, the psalmist starts out with worries and concerns and obviously feels very stressed and yet, as he progresses his thinking, he comes to a place where he is able to praise the Lord and affirm truths about God.

So if the Lord seems to be remaining quiet, how are you responding? Will the Lord find a faithful and right attitude prevailing in you, right through to the next time you hear from Him?  Because we are His children, the Lord may remain quiet but that doesn’t mean He remains still. The teaching of the New Testament is that He is always working and He is working to bring good for us. May we remember these things when we are in times of difficulty.

28. Stumbling Christians

Meditations in James: 28 : Stumbling Christians?

Jas 3:2 We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.

Have you ever wondered why all the pastoral letters of the New Testament were written?  The simple, short answer is because people aren’t perfect.  Once we can accept that simple truth, the Christian life becomes so much more simple.  If you haven’t realised that, then when you do fail you will feel guilty and the guilt will cling and keep on making you feel bad.  When James says We all stumble in many ways he is saying it to both reassure and to challenge.  When I was a younger Christian I encountered those who preached perfection, and because I knew I was not perfect, I felt really bad about myself. I didn’t realize that when Jesus said, Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48) he was giving us a target to aim for, something to work for.

Now theologians sometimes refer to ‘imputed righteousness’ and ‘imparted righteousness’.  Imputed righteousness is the righteousness that God imputes or credits to us when we receive Christ’s salvation.  He declares us righteous in His sight on the basis of the work of Christ.  When we receive Christ we are ‘justified’ or, as some have said, God makes it so it is “just-as-if-I’d” never sinned.  In His sight we are declared righteous.  But any honest Christian knows that from time to time they get it wrong, and there are character imperfections in us that need working on, and this is where ‘imparted righteousness’ comes in.  He has given us His Holy Spirit who is totally righteous, and as we learn to let Him lead us and express Jesus through us, so His righteousness is imparted to us and expressed through us.

John in his first letter also alluded to this: I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” (1 Jn 2:1). In other words sin, or getting it wrong, should not be a common thing in our lives now, but the reality is that we will stumble, we will trip over our feet and get it wrong sometimes.  John gives two answers to that.  Answer number one: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness(1 Jn 1:9). That is our side of it. Answer number two: if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence–Jesus Christ.” (1 Jn 2:1). That is God’s side of it, Jesus speaking up in our defence, reminding the Father that he has died for all our sins.  The challenge that comes with all this, is can we aim to keep sin out of our lives as much as possible?

But then James says something that seems both an impossibility but at the same time a challenge: If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. The person who is careful in what they say and is never at fault in speaking, is a perfect person and that ability to speak righteously reveals the heart that is within and that heart enables us to control our whole life.  Now is it possible to be perfect?  Well, we’ve already covered that above in the first paragraph.  Maturity is certainly something that the Bible suggests we can achieve.  The writer to the Hebrews commented,solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Heb 5:14).  There are therefore mature people.  Paul also said, We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature.” (1 Cor 2:6) implying the same thing.  James said earlier, Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (Jas 1:4).  There he linked it with being complete or whole. Jesus’ call to perfection in Matthew 5 is actually a call to wholeness or completeness. So, rather than worrying about being ‘perfect’, and constantly feeling bad when we spot things that are less than perfect, can we instead aim for maturity, for wholeness and completion? This then becomes a goal to work for rather than a means of condemnation. Recognize that you have some way to go, but actually set yourself the goal of letting God change you, like his word says (2 Cor 3:18), to become more and more like Jesus.

There are two things we can do to facilitate this process of change. The first thing is to let the Holy Spirit search you and help you face up to how you fall short. This is similar to the assessing that Paul says should go on in us when we come to take Communion: A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.” (1 Cor 11:28). There are some things that will be obvious and we need to confess them and deal with them.  Some things we may feel we need the Lord’s help to overcome.  Ask Him.  The second thing is simply to develop your relationship with the Lord.  As we do that, His presence will change us.  Now there are basic disciplines that Christians through the ages have found build and change us – reading the Bible, praying, worshipping, fellowshipping with other Christians, being a witness to others – all these things work in the process of changing us.

So, to summarise, recognize that sometimes you will get it wrong but there are two things to help us there (see above).  Don’t be content with those imperfections: confess them, seek God’s help to overcome them, and at the same time work positively to develop your relationship with Him.  Be changed!

27. Maturity of Teachers

Meditations in James: 27 : The Maturity of Teachers

Jas 3:1 Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

We have often commented in these meditations that it is important to note the context and catch the thought pattern of the writer. When we come to chapter three, if we are not careful it could seem as if James is jumping to a new subject, but he’s not. If you scan back over the previous chapter you’ll see again that James has been concerned to emphasise to these scattered Christians the importance of living out practically, the Christian life, a life of faith.  Earlier, at the end of chapter one, he had cautioned us against letting our tongues run away with us. In the second verse of chapter three, which we’ll consider in detail tomorrow, he says, “We all stumble in many ways.” In other words James is wanting us to look at our lives to see that they conform with God’s expectations as seen in the New Testament, but at the same time realize that we all fall short and miss it sometimes.

In those days, the height of having become someone who had mastered life, was to become a teacher.  A teacher wasn’t just someone who imparted information, they were considered to be those who were mature and wise and who could impart truth from a life that showed by its fruits that it had grown in self-control and wisdom.  Now of course James is speaking to the church and this applies doubly so.  As he has been saying for a large part of this letter so far, we are called to be those who cope with the trials of life (1:2-18), those who DO what God has said (1:19-25), those who can control their tongue (1:26,27), those who do not have wrong assessments of people (2:1-13) and those who live out their faith in real and practical ways (2:14-26).  Now if you can say you’ve got on top of all these, he implies, then you can be a teacher of others, to lead them also into these things.

In fact, the way he says it comes with a warning. You really don’t want to be a teacher unless you have got it all worked out, because if you stand before others, telling them how to live, and actually haven’t done it yourself, then God is going to hold you accountable. You will be in trouble! In a sense this is just a further call to self-assessment.  That is what this letter is really all about. He is saying, look I know you have been scattered into the world, and so you are having to learn to live in the world without the strength of Jerusalem upholding and encouraging you, so I want to remind you of what you have been called to and I want you to check yourselves out against that. Don’t think too highly of yourselves because, probably there aren’t many of you who will have reached such maturity in these things that you can become teachers of others.

We also have to see these things in the wider context of the whole New Testament.  Jesus scolded the teachers of his day who loved being acknowledged publicly for what they were (Mt 23:7).  He looks for humility in such people.  That is a first thing to note.  With maturity comes humility that does not seek for position.  Indeed a teacher should be a servant: Nor are you to be called `teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Mt 23:10-12). So a teacher is to be a mature person who does all that James has been speaking about, so that maturity will bring wisdom with humility, to act as a servant of others, not as one who lords it over others. With all these warnings against being a teacher, one might think that the New Testament teaches against becoming a teacher, but the contrary is true.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:19). His implication is that after practice comes handing it on to other people. Indeed Jesus’ closing instructions at the end of Matthew’s Gospel were to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:19,20). Teaching, or imparting to others all that Jesus had taught, was to be a very real part of the life of the church.

The writer to the Hebrews expected people to mature and to become teachers: We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.” (Heb 5:11,12). Now there is a challenge to the church where most people are happy to sit back and do little. No, says the teaching of the New Testament, the role of the leaders is to bring YOU into a place of maturity so that YOU can do the work: It was he who gave some to be ….pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may …. become mature (Eph 4:11,12). So James’ call is a call to self-assessment, but it is not an excuse for immaturity. Our call is to become mature and to impart the truth to others. May it be so!