44. Clear Conscience

Meditations in 1 Peter : 44 : A Clear Conscience

1 Pet 3:16,17 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.

Conscience is a strange thing. It is that capacity that we humans have to feel guilty, to have this nagging in the back of our mind that something we have done or are about to do is wrong. It is all about right and wrong. The apostle Paul once said, I speak the truth in Christ–I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit,” (Rom 9:10) which is interesting because it implies that for the Christian, the Holy Spirit is an additional aid to our conscience and He also works in the same way to check us. Elsewhere Paul declared, “I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man,” (Acts 24:16) which suggests that our points of failure can be in respect of the Lord and of people. The non-Christian tends to be aware of conscience in respect of other people but not in respect of God. The Christian’s first port of call in respect of conscience is God.

Paul’s whole discussion in 1 Corinthians, about eating meat sacrificed to idols, indicates that different people can have different levels of conscience awareness. For some eating meat given to idols wasn’t a problem, but to others it was something that really worried them, so not all issues are as clear cut as we might like.

“Keeping a clear conscience” thus means, ensure that there is nothing nagging in the back of your mind that you have done or are doing something wrong. Conscience is like a moral barometer within us that gives us an early warning that we are going off track.

In the context of what Peter has been saying, he now says use your conscience to check out your life in the face of the opposition you may be receiving. He’s spoken of suffering and opposition already in this letter and now he’s just putting a check on us in respect of our behaviour. When he says, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander,” he is assuming that we have checked our consciences and have found that what we have done has been good and right, yet he acknowledges that we can still get opposition even when we do what is right and good. It doesn’t matter, he says, if they speak badly against you, as long as you have checked to make sure that in your own conscience you are sure you have done what is right. Eventually they will be ashamed of what they have said about you; leave it up to God to convict them!

But it is important that you are absolutely sure that you have given them no grounds for saying bad things about you. Sadly that is not always so; Christians do sometimes lay themselves open to criticism because they were casual and careless about their speech or behaviour. We probably all do it at some time – say something about a person or situation, that is not well thought out and so which opens us to criticism. Of course if we are doing things that are morally questionable, then of course we open ourselves to the charge of hypocrisy. Thus this call to check our consciences is a very needy one. Similarly if we respond to opposition using the same weapons of harsh criticism and abuse, that the world uses, then again we are opening ourselves to criticism and further opposition. That surely must be what Peter has in the back of his mind here because he has been counseling us in this letter to respond well to opposition and so if we respond in an un-Christ-like manner we will have put ourselves into the wrong.

There is an interesting point here that needs facing: your conscience can be silent if you are ignorant of God’s will for you. That is why teaching is such an important part of a Christian’s life. That is why Peter is writing this letter. Until we have thought through these things and thought about the way Christ handled opposition, we may not realise that our hostile retaliation to others is not what God desires of us and our conscience may be silent when we are. There may be a disquiet from the Holy Spirit but we may not recognise that. Thus conscience can be enlightened and brought alive by Christian teaching, by the teaching of the New Testament. Is that why sometimes Christians seem to be so little different from other people, because they have not learnt what God’s will for them now is and so their consciences have not been brought into play?

Submitting to God’s will and plans for your life is now a crucial element of your life as a Christian and indeed some times it does seem that God allows us to go through times of persecution and opposition to purify and strengthen us, and so His will in such times is that we get His grace to cope with it. Thus Peter says, It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” There is no blessing or no glory in suffering if you have brought it upon yourself, but if the suffering comes when you are only doing good and right, then that is an opportunity for the Lord to be glorified through your life and for you to receive a new and deeper experience of the Lord’s love and grace as you cope with it. The Lord will be glorified when you receive His love and grace and cope in a Christ-like manner: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” All the heavenly onlookers will see (the rest of the world may not!) and they will realise you are what you are by the love and grace of God and He will be glorified. Hallelujah!  So let’s heed Peter’s teaching and let’s let his words stimulate our consciences to lead us on to better things.

30. Love/Hate

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 30 :  A Time for Love or Hate

Eccles 3:8   a time to love and a time to hate

To the unknowing this little half verse may shock. Well yes, I know we are called to love, but to hate? Oh yes, that’s what Scripture calls us to do. Let’s start by reminding ourselves that Scripture calls us to distinguish between good and evil, and right and wrong. Now we may take that for granted but the world in which we live increasingly seeks to blur the two and even deny the two. Solomon asked,give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.” (1 Kings 3:9). He knew that from the early Levitical Law there had been this call to distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean (Lev 10:10). In the New Testament the writer to the Hebrews speaks about the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil(Heb 5:14).

Now if the first stage of our considerations is to think about being able to distinguish between good and evil, the second is to think about how we FEEL about good and evil. Let’s simply summarise it by saying we are to love good and hate evil (Amos 5:15, Rom 12:9). This is not just simply feel nice about ‘good’ but to love it!  Not to feel just a bit nasty about evil but to actually hate it. Why? Because God loves good and hates evil.

Let’s focus on the instructions in Scripture to love: Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Mt 22:37,38) andthe second is like it: `Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mt 22:39). So love God and love all other people. That’s a good start. Next, A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (Jn 13:34) and Love the brotherhood of believers.” (1 Pet 3:17). But there is more: But I tell you: Love your enemies.” (Mt 5:44) and to husbands, Husbands, love your wives.” (Col 3:19). There are a whole bunch of specific instructions. There is also a more oblique reference: Whoever would love life and see good days (1 Pet 3:10 quoting Psa 34) To counter the Plato-philosophy that says material is bad and spirit is the only good, it is worth remembering that this is God’s world and He wants us to enjoy it and enjoy living. Christians are often not very good at enjoying or even loving life.

Let’s move on to ‘hate’. We have already noted: Hate evil, love good (Amos 5:15) andHate what is evil; cling to what is good.” (Rom 12:9) but let’s see some specifics. You love righteousness and hate wickedness.” (Psa 45:7). Here’s the same thing and now it’s the Lord who hates.Let those who love the LORD hate evil.” (Psa 97:10) Here we’re called to hate evil because we love Him. The psalmist said, because I consider all your precepts right, I hate every wrong path.” (Psa 119:128) and I hate and abhor falsehood but I love your law.” (Psa 119:163) There we hate untruth because of the truth of God’s word. In both these instances we are to have very strong feelings of hatred of evil and untruth, because of the very strong opposite feelings we have of love for the Lord and love for His truth.  Solomon wrote: To fear the LORD is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech.” (Prov 8:13) When we know and respect the Lord there will be things that are totally contrary to His character that will utterly offend us. For this same reason,The righteous hate what is false.” (Prov 13;5) Isaiah prophesied, For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity.” (Isa 61:8) Jeremaih speaking of the past, prophesied, Again and again I sent my servants the prophets, who said, `Do not do this detestable thing that I hate!’ But they did not listen or pay attention; they did not turn from their wickedness or stop burning incense to other gods.” (Jer 44:4) Even Ezekiel prophesied against Edom, therefore as surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I will give you over to bloodshed and it will pursue you. Since you did not hate bloodshed, bloodshed will pursue you.” (Ezek 35:6). They should have hated the thought of killing others!  When the Lord chastised Israel for their apostasy while carrying on coming to His feasts, He declared, I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies.” (Amos 5:21). In all of these instances we have seen either the Lord, the Lord’s expectations or the Lord’s instructions having very strong emotions against what is wrong.

To conclude we need to distinguish between loving the sinner and hating the sin.  Suppose you have a son who you love with all your heart. He leaves home and goes astray. He falls into bad company, gets on to drugs, steals to buy drugs and becomes addicted. Now understand: if he comes home to you, you can still love your son with all of your heart while you hate the things he is involved in. You can let him know you hate what he does but that you still love him as a person. Your heart will still be for him to come back to good, but in the meantime you hate the sin he is involved with. The practice or the lifestyle is to be hated, the behaviour and the attitudes, yet still we may love the person and yearn for him or her. There’s a time to love AND a time to hate.

14. Life by Faith

Meditations in Romans : 14 :  Life by Faith

Rom 1:17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith

One of the strangest things about the human race, something that we largely take for granted, is that we have a moral outlook. Being human means we have ideas of right and wrong. In the modern age in the West, we may be confused and many deny there are absolutes of right or wrong, but in reality when it comes to ‘my’ own life, we do have clear ideas of right and wrong. It IS wrong for you to murder me, assault me, steal from me, and so on. Those things ARE wrong! Godless people have ideas of right and wrong as much as those people who would purport to be godly; the only difference is that godly people look to God for their definitions of right and wrong while ungodly people make up their own rules and work on what suits them for the moment, which may change from day to day.

The Bible uses this word ‘righteousness’ which we have twice in our verse above, to describe a ‘way of being’. In its simplest sense it just means rightness of behaviour as decreed by God. There is self-righteousness that we have referred to already which is rules and behaviour established around ‘self’, but the righteousness that the Bible refers to again and again, is behaviour that conforms to the way God has designed us to be or, if you like, a way of living.

In the Old Testament it was considered that you could be righteous by obeying God’s laws or simply responding to God. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.” (Gen 6:9) i.e. Noah’s behaviour and his attitude towards God declared him righteous.  In the Law we find, “Return his cloak to him by sunset so that he may sleep in it. Then he will thank you, and it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the LORD your God.” (Deut 24;13) i.e. behaving in this way is an example of righteous behaviour.

There are clear distinctions between the wicked and the righteous: “Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.” (Psa 1:5) and “But may the righteous be glad and rejoice before God (Psa 68:3). Living in the righteous way IS something that is a clear and tangible way of living: “Thus you will walk in the ways of good men and keep to the paths of the righteous.” (Prov 2:20) and “The LORD does not let the righteous go hungry” (Prov 10:3). ‘The righteous’ in all of these cases (and very many more in the Old Testament) are those who walk with God and follow His ways and are morally upright.

The only trouble about life in that period of Biblical history is that most people could not keep all the laws that came to Israel through Moses and which formed the basis for their understanding of righteousness. Paul struggled with this reality in chapter 7 of this letter. We may know the law, the rules of how to live according to the Creator’s design, but this thing called sin provides a stumbling block to getting it right. We fail and we feel guilty. We try harder and still fail to get it perfectly right. The bar seems to be constantly raised and we fail to clear it and feel bad – and so God feels at a distance.

And then someone comes and tells us about Jesus and tells us that he died for all our failures so that when we come to God He no longer counts them. Instead, when we simply come and say, I believe, He declares us righteous! But I’m not, we protest from inner reaches of honesty. No, but that is how I see you, He responds, and suddenly trying to keep the rules is no longer the important thing. We are overwhelmed by love and in our loving response to Him we inadvertently ‘keep the rules’ but they are no longer the most important thing; it is simply His love. The more we dwell on it, the more we realise it and experience it, the more we are changed, not by trying but by being loved.

Of course it is all a faith thing because we cannot see Him or hear Him audibly with our ears, but we read of Him, we sense Him, and we sense the truth He imparts to us. We sense His love and we are blessed and changed. Yes it is all by faith, it is all by simply responding to what He has said and it is simple! Everything we do as Christians, as His children, we do by faith and as we do it we catch the sense of being loved more and more.

I sometimes think that maturity is simply the ability to believe God when He tells us how much He loves us.  The echoes of Sin from the past challenges the truth of His love and wants us to resort back to self-righteous striving, but the Spirit is there to encourage us in the truth and as we are loved we change. We are righteous because He has said we are. We accept it by faith because that is what faith is – simply believing God and living it.

And that is what it is all about – living!  We live by faith. Love comes to us, we believe it. We respond to it and life flows. Suddenly it is a new life, real life. We are no longer struggling to ‘be someone’ for He has made us ‘someone’, one of His children. We find it hard to believe, yes, but it is true. It is hard to believe that His love is that good – but it is! We may trip over out feet a dozen times a month, but in the recognition and experience of His love, we are still in the category of ‘the righteous’ for no longer does it mean someone who achieves perfection but someone who has received perfection and is working towards an eternal perfection. ‘Working’ towards it?  All right, walking towards it in love!

God who watches over us

God in the Psalms No.1

Psa 1:6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

In this very first psalm we are introduced to a very basic concept in respect of the Lord: the Lord sees the affairs of men. The reality is that God IS there and He DOES see all that is going on in the affairs of the earth. Now if that is all it was, we might be able to be complacent, thinking that God is ‘out there’ but powerless to do or affect anything we’re involved in, but this verse doesn’t allow us that complacency.

The verse says first that God watches over some people but that other people will perish. In other words the implication is that God DOES something when He looks and sees. The clear implication is that the latter group of people will perish because GOD destroys them! Now because one group is being contrasted with the other, then when it says “God watches over” the clear meaning must be that He sees AND ACTS in such a way as to preserve them. So one group He preserves and the other group He destroys.

It is somewhat important therefore that we understand who these two groups are, for it suggests that we can either feel secure in the knowledge that God will look after us or, if we are in the other group, we should fear because the warning is that He will destroy us!

So, let’s look at group one, first of all. This group is simply referred to as the righteous‘. This description occurs many times in the Bible. Put in its simplest form, we might refer to those who are living in ‘right-ness’, whose lives are declared right because they are living in the way God has designed them to live. Abraham was declared righteous when he simply believed God (Gen 15:6 / Gal 3:6). Righteous is therefore a term used to describe those who respond well to God, those who live in relationship to God.

By comparison the wicked are those who ignore or reject God and live as they want and live lives quite contrary to the way the Lord designed them to be. When they ‘do wrong’ it is because it is contrary to God’s desire. ‘Wrong’ is that which is contrary to God’s goodness.

Now notice the use of the phrase ‘the way ofwhich is used of both groups. An individual doesn’t just do one or two good things in respect of God, or one or two bad things in respect of God. We LIVE in these ways. The righteous is the man or woman who has come into relationship with God and that means in every area of their life. The wicked have every area of their life ruled by ‘self’ and every area is tainted by wrong. Thus when the psalmist refers to ‘the way of he is meaning the whole of the life of that individual.

So it is that the Lord guards the life of the person who has turned to Him and put their life under His rule. So also, it is that the Lord deals with that person who is daring to live in God’s world contrary to God’s design for them, ignoring or rejecting Him and, even more, living in disharmony with others, causing harm to others. That is why the Lord will deal with them, because, left to their own devices, they will harm God’s world. In His wisdom, the Lord may allow them leeway, space in which to repent (2 Pet 3:9), but if repentance does not come, their end is decreed. They perish!

Thus this simple verse in this first psalm reveals to us a God who distinguishes between right and wrong and who comes down and responds to people according to the way they have chosen to go. The challenge is, which way have we chosen?

Contentious Healing

(After the Summer break we continue to pick up on the series in Luke that we have considered previously, where we pick out those passages that are unique to Luke’s Gospel)

Readings in Luke Continued – No.15

Lk 6:10,11 He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was completely restored. But they were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus.

It is fascinating to observe the differences in the Synoptic Gospels, the slight variations that make them unique. Matthew recorded this incident as follows: “Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.” (Mt 12:13,14).

Mark records it as follows: “He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” (Mk 3:5,6). Do you see the differences?

Mark, supposedly dictated by the apostle Peter, one of those closest to Jesus, focuses on Jesus’ anger. He was mostly aware of his master’s reaction, aware that he had been distressed at their stubbornness. Matthew, also believed to be one of the apostles, wasn’t so close to Jesus and wasn’t so conscious of Jesus’ response. Luke hadn’t been there and wasn’t aware of Jesus’ reaction. They all record Jesus instructing the man to Stretch out your hand. Mark and Luke record simply that it was completely restored. Matthew who had been there was struck by the fact that it was just as sound as the other. Those are the words of an eye-witness. Matthew and Mark (Peter) who had been there were aware that it was the Pharisees who had gone out to plot against Jesus. Luke, not having been there, didn’t pick up on that.

But Luke, enquiring of his informant, picks up and adds just a couple of words that heighten the sense of what was happening: But they were furious. Simple little words aren’t they, but they add force to their reactions and provide the motivation for what follows. To say the Pharisees were furious about what Jesus did, shows us the strength of emotion they were feeling about this, so what were they actually furious about? What was their fury? Why did they feel so strongly? To see the answer to this we need to look at the previous verses. This took place in a synagogue on the Sabbath. The synagogue was the place of the local teaching and administration of the Law. It wasn’t primarily a place of worship (that was the Temple); it was a place of teaching. Now, as we’ve seen before, the Pharisees considered themselves to be the guardians of the Law.

In verses 1 to 5 of this chapter Luke records another incident where Jesus had clashed with the Pharisees about the right use of the Sabbath. Verses 6 onwards are a second incident where there is conflict with them. They believed you should do NOTHING on this ‘day of rest’. Now, on this particular day there is a man in the synagogue with a shrivelled arm and they know that given half a chance Jesus would heal whoever came to him. They didn’t marvel at the wonderful power of God being revealed through him to bring blessing to ordinary people; no, they were more concerned about strict observance of their interpretation of the Law – and that said NOTHING was to be done on the Sabbath. Thus we find, “The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath.” (v.7). Their primary goal from the outset is to find fault with Jesus.

We’ve already noted that Peter realised that Jesus was angry and deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, so here we have two conflicting sets of emotions, and Jesus is not going to be put off by their man-made interpretation of the Law or their probable wrong reactions to him. He heals the man. The healing, we can now see, is Jesus’ direct rebuke of these callous, hard-hearted legalists. Yes, he has compassion for the man, but he is also publicly refusing to be cowed down by their intimidating looks.

It is this blatant refusal to be cowed by their self-made authority that raises this level of anger in them. Their very position as guardians of the Law, as they see it, is being denied by Jesus. To them he seems to be taking their position as supreme arbiters of what is right or wrong. They are under attack and anger is one of the main defence responses of people when they are under attack.

What are some of the main lessons of all this? First must be that Jesus is more concerned to meet our needs than he is to comply with our man-made ideals. If we set up our own ideas of right and wrong, we mustn’t be surprised if Jesus knocks them down. Sometimes we have to be brought to our knees before we can see the realities of belief, about what is truly of God and what is not. I am convinced that in the Christian world we have raised up lots of “You shall” or “You shall not” things that are not of God’s making. We do them to prop up weak faith, and so Jesus comes along and blesses those we consider not so righteous as us, to kick away our man-made props.

Associated with this, the second lesson, is the obvious thing that we are often more concerned with rights and wrongs of people’s lives than in healing them up! Jesus would far rather see our compassion for people than our zeal for what we think is right or wrong. The third thing, which Luke particularly picks up, is that when we are challenged we so often get defensive and angry. There is a righteous anger but Jesus is the only one who is good at it! Our anger is so often just a cover up for weak faith. Next time you start getting angry over a person or an issue, check out why you are feeling that and see if compassion would be a more appropriate response.

A final thing we might consider here is who is the arbiter in our lives of what is right or wrong? Is it us or is it Jesus? We would no doubt declare that of course it is Jesus but do we sometimes impose our values born out of fear, doubt or weak faith, and assume they are his values? The angry – no, very angry – responses of the Pharisees in this story, raise many questions that pertain to modern Christianity, which we would do well to think over. Don’t respond hostilely even now to these words, ponder over them in the weeks and months ahead and allow the Lord to reveal to you ways in which we may be similar to the Pharisees. We’re called to become more like Jesus, not more like the Pharisees.