Nice, or necessity?

Ugandan man in brightly shirt praying

One of the subtlest hindrances to prayer is probably the most pervasive. In the broader culture and in our churches, we prize intellect, competency and wealth. Because we can do life without God, praying seems nice but unnecessary. Money can do what prayer does, and it is quicker and less time-consuming. Our trust in ourselves and our talents makes us structurally independent of God. As a result, exhortations to pray don’t stick. (A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller, p16)

I don’t pray as Jesus taught us – generally I am not overly anxious about having enough bread for the day (though anxiety over my debts is always present!). In my view it would be a stressful way to live having to pray for food each day or clothes to wear or the basics of survival. I know that many people do live like this, generally not by choice. However, relying on God does not have to mean an empty pantry; there is a lot more to faith than loaves and fishes.

Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.”
(Matthew 6:9-13 ESV)

One benefit of having walked this Christian road for a good few years now is that I have seen some things which can only happen if God is at work. The transformation of a hard heart to love Christ is the sort of thing I mean. God is in the business of dealing with our hearts, our inner being, the very depths of self that nobody aside from God truly knows or understands. In these murky depths prayer becomes powerful and essential.

Similarly, there is a world outside of us which we are but dimly aware of at best. Whether you read Frank Paretti or not, there is a spiritual realm with beings other than ourselves who have power and agendas that influence our lives. This realm is important even though we cannot directly interact with it. Somehow, what goes on there affects what happens in the physical world and especially with respect to people’s faith and wellbeing.

From within and without all of us are affected by what we do not understand or control. Neither money, human power nor cleverness is useful in contending with these influences. None of us can make changes in the heart of another, only God can. For this we need to pray.


(This is an edited repost from my old blog)

Do not be afraid

do-not-be-afraid

2014 was a dark year for me, by God’s grace and with a lot of support from my wife and kids I lived through an awful valley of depression. Thankfully, I am now doing OK, but the experience has caused me to reconsider some of what I read in the Bible in a new light. One such thing is the exhortation to not fear:

Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you. (Deuteronomy 31:6 ESV)

Do not fear or be in dread, the Lord your God goes with you. He will not leave or forsake you. For those of us who live in the ambiguity of faith and depression these are astonishing words.

An impossible command

Firstly, to be depressed and told not to fear or dread is an impossible thing. Fear, dread, anxiety are hallmark traits of this mental illness and those who are unwell cannot prevent these emotions and associated thoughts from occurring. Yet the Bible consistently commands us to do the impossible, for example:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, (James 1:2 ESV)

Normal people do not consider it joy when things are going badly, they get upset, annoyed, grumpy and sad. Joy in such situations springs either from some sort of delusion or from a hope or goal which is unaffected by the current circumstances. The command to have joy or to rejoice is rife in the New Testament.

What is the point in commanding something that is humanly impossible to fulfill?

Moses, the prophets, the apostles and God Himself are well aware of our weaknesses and that while we might be willing in spirit to live a life of purity, holiness and discipleship, in the messiness of real life it is usually only a short time before we stumble and fail to live up to our high aspirations (see Mark 14:38). This is true for each of us as individuals and even on a national scale for historical Israel.

Failure in obedience to God to inevitable, but sometimes we are like Peter and cannot be told so have to experience it first hand. Then once we are faced with the shattering truth of our failure, inability and sin, we say to God, “don’t come near me, I am too sinful” (see Luke 5:8). At this point we are given the promise of God’s presence:

The LORD your God who goes with you.

The unshakeable promise

Like the kid facing a bully whose Dad says, “Don’t worry, I will come with you”, God promises to cross over the Jordan river into the land of Canaan with the Israelites to face their enemies.

Remember that this is the God who parted the Red Sea and destroyed the Egyptian army, who opened the earth to swallow those who challenged His authorised spokesman, and faithfully provided food for the horde of Isrealites for 40 years in a desert. God is powerful, well worth having beside you in a fight.

How about when the ‘enemy’ is from within? When my fear is fueled by my own heart and mind? Power and strength are great but I am anxious that could crush me.

In Jesus we see much more of who God is than unlimited power, Isaiah says this about Him:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;

(Isaiah 53:4)

In fact, to make it clear, Jesus also promised, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5) and “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Whenever the same idea is repeated in the Bible it is to emphasise that it is important and can be trusted. Even in the depths of despair when it feels as if God has deserted me, I can trust that He determined long ago not to do so.

An unseeable promise

But I still do not see or sense God near me. This is not surprising when God is described in the Bible as “the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), and “eternal, immortal, invisible” (1 Timothy 1:17) with Jesus telling us that, “No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18).

What then did Jesus mean when He said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” yet about a month later the disciples saw with their own eyes as He ascended into heaven?

God is spirit, and Jesus had previously told His disciples, Nevertheless I tell you the truth: It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I go, I will send him unto you. (John 16:7 ASV). The Comforter, (also translated as ‘Helper’, ‘Counselor’, ‘Advocate’) is the Holy Spirit and this is the One who is promised to never leave us or forsake us.

As Spirit we cannot interact or sense God through our physical senses. However, we are not only physical beings, we have a spirit too and God gives life to our spirit through rebirth by faith in Jesus as the Son of God. This means that my spirit can commune with the Holy Spirit who is always present.

I may not be able to feel it through my senses, but I can worship God, pray to Him, cry out to Him and be heard and helped by Him all in the realm of the spiritual no matter what my physical, mental or emotional state. He will not leave, He will not abandon me, and He can strengthen me by His Spirit. Fear and despair may come, but in my despair God’s power is undiminished and His resolve to be with me and strengthen me step by step, breath by breath through the darkness is backed by repeated promises through the Bible.


Image: iStock

Ride on a steam train

Standing beside steam engine

One of my 101 goals has been to take my five-year-old son on a train because he has always been fascinated by trains but travelling by train is a rare event living in Dunedin, New Zealand.

An ideal opportunity arose at Labour Weekend when the local railway trust had short passenger trips along the harbourside pulled by a steam locomotive. I managed to get tickets for myself and my two youngest children and with great excitement we boarded the train at the historic Dunedin railway station.

We were fortunate to have seats in the first carriage behind the engine so all the “chuff-chuff” sounds of the steam and the locomotive’s characteristic whistle helped make the experience even better. Seeing such excitement on my son’s face made it for me, he was spellbound by the simple ecperience of a train ride. (Though standing beside the locomotive to have a picture taken was a bit intimidating for him as it loudly exhaled steam).

Excitement

steam train portrait

When I am weak

when-i-am-weak

As we stare down the rapidly looming freight train of Christmas, it drags with it the realisation that 2014 is almost at an end. Frankly, I will be happy to see the last of this year, or at least the difficulties it has contained. To quote Queen Elizabeth II, for me 2014 has been an ‘annus horribilis’. This year brought weakness and brokenness in my mind and soul of an intensity that nearly did me in.

Recovering from such a place has taken most of the year, and while I’m now much better it has left a sharp awareness of vulnerability along with some fear of ending up in such a mess again. It has been hard work to implement changes of lifestyle to improve chances of recovery, but much of the improvement is due to other people helping me, especially my wife. I suspect that it is by God’s grace that I did not fall so low while I was single and had nobody close to spot when I needed help.

There are many such graces which I now notice looking back over the valley we are emerging from. These attest to God having been with me despite my inability to perceive Him while passing through the darkness and gloom. This also reminds me of some parts of the New Testament where our human weakness is highlighted as having been taken into consideration in God’s plan for our salvation:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6 ESV).

There are times when we do not have the ability to even cry out to God for what we most desperately need, yet He has already preempted such times of desperation by taking our weakness and sin upon Himself so that even the barrier of being weak is no longer a barrier between us and Him. I consider this one of the most hopeful truths of the Gospel; that being weak, foolish, sinful, or despised need not keep us from God. And that nobody in the Church has the right to boast as if they get God’s favour by their own merit because in truth none of us do, or ever will:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Corinthians 1:27-29 ESV).

The great thing about this is that within the body of Christ (the Church) we all have various times of relative weakness and strength so when one member is weak those who are in a place of strength at that time can walk alongside and lift the weaker one up for a while. We all have ups and downs and I am convinced that it honours God more to ask for help when we need it than to feign strength and walk in falseness and pride, refusing assistance despite it being obvious to others that we need help.