3. A Question of Sovereignty

Lessons in Growth  Meditations: 3. A Question of Sovereignty

Mark 2:14  As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

An Imaginary Conversation: I have more than a few times, as I have written these studies, thought how easily we either read or hear words without taking in the reality of what is being conveyed. I mean, take the verse above. Here is Levi a tax collector and Jesus walks up and says “Follow me,” and so he leaves his booth and goes. Too easy! If I was writing a novel I would want to enlarge what happened:

“Hullo, I’m Jesus.”

“Yes, I know I’ve heard all about you.”

“OK, well I’m looking for a band of men to train up to take over my work when I’m gone so I want you to come with me.”

“But I’ve got a job.”

“This will be a better one. Come with me.”

“Where are you going?”

“You’ll find out as you follow me.”

“What are we going to do?

“You’ll find out as you follow me.”

“When will I be fit enough to take over your job?”

“You’ll find out when you follow me.”

Varied Experiences: Maybe it was like that, maybe it was just as simple as the text shows. I find that people’s experiences of coming to Christ are like that. I had a friend who argued his way into a corner over several months before he surrendered to Christ. I have come across others who just seemed to hear the call and in all simplicity said yes. We’re all different but whether we realise it or not, we all respond to the same call.

Simplicity of Experience: If my own experience is anything to go by, it frequently isn’t a neat, concise experience but one that may have a dramatic moment, lacking by some, but even then the realities of it take a while to sink in. I had heard the gospel from the mouth of the greatest evangelist of the twentieth century and had gone home to make a decision. The extent, the depth, or the shallowness of my prayer that night is not, I believe, a measure of what was coming, but then perhaps it was. I simply prayed, never having prayed before and not knowing what one should say, “Well, God, I’ve heard it tonight and although I suspect I don’t understand half of it, all I know is if you want my life, I will say I believe in Jesus, and here is my life if you want it. Please take it. Amen.”  Or words very much like that – it is now fifty years ago! With that I climbed into bed and fell asleep.

All I can tell you is that when I woke next morning I was a totally different person. That day I was visiting a cousin and spent the day trying to convert him – with almost zero knowledge! I started going to church each Sunday, I bought a Bible and started reading it, I became involved with a youth outreach team which necessitated me moving. Within two years, somehow or other I was leading seven Bible studies a week, my desire was to share what happened with whoever would listen, and along the way I found a wonderful Christian girl who became my wife. A transformed life and it has carried on changing, as I say, for fifty years. Later this morning, I am going out for the first time to help set up a soup kitchen for the homeless. What tomorrow holds, I don’t know.

When I look back on that first prayer, the words that I do remember clearly were, “here is my life if you want it.” It was a radical surrender and, regardless of the words, we use, I believe that is at the heart of every conversion, that willingness to say, I believe, I surrender to you, please save me and take and lead my life, for all of that was in that little part of the prayer I’ve just recounted.

Who Rules? Now you may wonder where this fits in with this series. Well, in the two starting ‘studies’ I suggested that the first phase of the Christian life destined to grow, is death. We die to our old lives and at the heart of that, as my heading today indicates, it is all a matter of sovereignty – who rules, me or Him?  Now I wish it was as simple as that – and don’t believe any preacher who says it is! But it isn’t. On that night, all those years ago, my commitment was real. I had been moved, I had been convicted and all I knew was that I had to surrender – whatever that meant? – and give God my life and put my life in His hands – whatever that meant? We can only act and respond in the measure of the knowledge we have at the time. So, yes, I believe there will be this one-off initiating surrender and God knows the reality of it and impart His Holy Spirit and we are ‘born again’, but that is just the start.

I suspect there are countless times when we come to a fresh place of surrender where, one way or another, we say, “All right Lord, you win, I give in,” and that may be on a requirement to forgive, a need to give, a need to let go, or a whole range of other possibilities.  Each time we face a new challenge from the Lord or from His word, this same thing will take place; we will face the confrontation: “Follow me.” “But what will happen?” “Leave it with me.” “How will I be able to do it?” “I will enable you.”

My Need to Die: It is indeed a case of dying to my self-sovereignty. If I am to grow, it has to die, again and again and again. Now again, if my experience is anything to go by, don’t think that such decisions are split second, momentary things. I think the reality is that sometimes the Lord works on us for weeks or even years to bring changes about, and the amazing thing is that He is patient and loving – and persevering! He will get His way, because He IS sovereign. Whether it is arguing at a burning bush with a Moses, or wrestling with a Jacob through the night or re-equipping a fallen Peter, He will persevere when He sees the potential that you and I cannot see in ourselves.

More than Shallow Emotion: I’ve lost count of the number of times I have sat listening to preachers calling for “surrender” or “commitment” and I find it frustrating because unless the Holy Spirit is convicting us, it will just be an emotional response to please the preacher.  In general terms, I don’t know what it means to ‘surrender’ or ‘be committed’ (don’t be shocked). All I know is that there are times when He confronts me with a “Follow me,” and it becomes an issue, and somehow, with His grace even, I have to come to a point of conviction and saying, “OK,” and that’s it. We move on. I change. He relentlessly pursues His purposes for me and blessing follows.

You see, it took a lot of years, but I have become convinced (why did it take so long, it’s clearly there in His word???) that He has plans and purposes that perfectly fit me and they are for good – mine and for people around me – because He’s like that. When He says, “Follow me,” my intellect says, yes, that’s a good thing, but I know the truth – it’s often through a struggle and ultimately that truth is summed up in, “Will I die to my desire to be lord of my life, and let Him be instead, because He’s so much better at it than I am?” Enough!

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22. Wrong Methods

Meditations in Colossians 2: 22:  Wrong Methods

Col 2:23    Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence

As we come to the end of the second chapter Paul drives his final nails into the coffin of human spirituality or human salvation, that brought about by our own endeavours. Again to catch the full flow of the logic of what is being said we need to go back to the previous verses. Earlier he denounced following rules: Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”?” (v.20,21) and he had gone on to say that such rules were doomed to disappear: “These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.” (v.22). It was these ‘rules’ that were “based on human commands” that he now refers to when he says, “such regulations”.

There is a temptation, I suspect, in many to feel these are words of warning against Gnostic malpractices and which therefore have little relevance to life today. I don’t think such a view could be more wrong. We live in a world where excessive provision of material blessing – especially in the West where choice of food is amazing – has actually caused much concern for health and wellbeing which in turn has resulted in an abundance of approaches towards dieting and other fitness regimes. A considerable number of people are concerned about their weight or their shape and perhaps greater numbers are concerned at following self-help manuals or the guidance of mentors or trainers to keep their lives in shape generally.

At the time of writing this meditation (mid 2015)  the trend towards pleasure through materialism is showing signs of collapse, as increasingly in the media there is a recognition that pleasure or satisfaction gained through collecting or owning ‘things’ is short lived. The signs are that people are moving away to seek meaning or pleasure or excitement through ‘experiences’ whether it be sky diving, going on cruises, taking drugs  or a multitude of other experience-creating activities.  So here we have these two streams – self-help and looking for ‘experiences’ – which although very much being twenty-first century manifestations of misguided mankind’s search for meaning and purpose, very much echo the lives and experiences of those following the Gnostic trail in the first century.

So let’s look again at our verse above. All of these approaches of following rules – or someone else’s self-discipline regime – “indeed have an appearance of wisdom.” How eagerly people scan these things today in the weekend papers. The eastern outlook on ‘mindfulness’ has become one of the more recent fads to sweep the Western world taking in both believers and non-believers, for both individual and corporate business  development. Each new thing creates an interest because past things have failed and just maybe this latest thing will provide the wisdom we need.

Note again the things Paul identifies in the Gnostic way that is also common today. First he speaks of “their self-imposed worship.”  Worship is simply highly esteeming something over everything else and when he says it is ‘self imposed’ he means it is brought about by the false teachers and does not flow naturally out of a genuine encounter with God.  If we ascribe to any regime, method or discipline honour that exalts it as ‘the answer’, we are in deception, for nothing and no one is worthy of our worship except God Himself.

Second he speaks of “their false humility,” which simply speaks of their appearance – they look good. You watch these people and initially their regime gives them a buzz and for a while they look good; it seems to work. Look again in two years and you will probably find them trying something else. The present is a false appearance.

Then third, he speaks of “their harsh treatment of the body,” and how people today are subject to fitness regimes which are really hard work. Yes, the motivation of the Gnostics was to do with thinking that the material or physical was bad, whereas today the workout is to improve personal health and appearance, but ultimately both have false foundations.

Paul concludes with a damning condemnation: “but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”  For the Gnostics they beat themselves up because material things were evil, but actually their assessment was false and they often soon gave way to falling back to sensual pleasures. How often today does the person who struggles for months on a really harsh diet eventually give way and fall back into bad eating habits. The thing is that without the proper motivation, all these things are doomed to failure.

We so often hear of people “comfort eating”, meaning they eat to make themselves good because they have such poor self-esteem. When you really come to know you are loved by God and have a place in His plans for the world, you no longer need to use food (or even a fitness regime) to feel good. You feel good because you are loved and you know it! All of these things we have been considering can be summarized as self-help, and people do them because they do not go to the true source of all real help – Christ.

All of the things Paul has been speaking about in the later half of this chapter are substitutes for a genuine relationship with the living God through His Son, Jesus Christ. Observing special days, following rituals, trying to follow self-disciplinary rules, all of these things are substitutes that DO NOT WORK. That is the lesson of this chapter. Make Christ THE focus of your life, enter into a real relationship with him via his Holy Spirit, and you will know a sense of meaning, purpose and fulfillment. May it be so!