We get to need God

we-get-to-need-god

I recently read a blog post by Micha Boyett in which she wrote:

…Maybe the sad people have been given a gift to see the world as it really is. And when we see the world, when we see ourselves as we actually are, we understand how desperately we need God to come and bring healing. We don’t have to pretend anymore. We get to need God.
(The Pursuit of Enough: When sadness lives on the doorstep of happiness)

“We get to need God”…

These five simple words stopped me in my tracks. The idea of having ‘permission’ to need God, that it is not only OK but a good thing to be desperately needing God. This feels like being released from a burden of weakness.

The burden is being weak in a world that glories in strength and disdains weakness. At work and around others I pretend competence and stability while internally I am fraying at the seams. As a parent I attempt to conceal the underlying feeling of being still a child myself. Even amongst Christians it can be intimidating to honestly talk about how weak I really am.

These hangups carry over into my relating to God. Imagining Him to be like people I know, performance anxiety creeps into my approach to prayer, reading the Bible and communing with my Saviour. As if relating to a divine Santa Claus I am reluctant to reveal the weak, broken, disobedient side of myself despite intellectual assent to His unlimited knowledge of my darkest places.

But Jesus came to call sinners, not those who considered themselves righteous (Matthew 9:13). And 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 1:28-29 ESV). Whether sadness, weakness, sinfulness or brokenness, God calls us in all our mess because it is to His glory that everything has been overcome in Christ.

Being a sinner and broken is the qualifier for receiving God’s mercy.

Every time I am confronted by my weaknesses, when those accusing voices of despair call me “useless,” “hopeless,” “lazy,” “selfish,” “a loser,” I have a choice; to give up and wallow in hopelessness, or remind myself that I get to need God. I don’t have to be strong, needing is easy. All I have to do is to remember.


Scripture references

Matthew 9:13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. (ESV)

Image: Aurora Australis over the Church of the Good Shepherd, Tekapo, NZ courtesy of Shutterstock

Repentance

Forgiven Much

The last couple of posts I’ve written have looked at some habits I am cultivating to help me live a better life. Self-improvement is fine and I have plenty of room for improvement, but my motivation is not primarily to attain to an improved self.

My motivation to change is based on repentance.

What is repentance?

Oddly, repentance is not commonly discussed on Christian blogs, or even in churches. This is weird because it is the foundation of Jesus’ message to us:

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
(Matthew 4:17 ESV)

Jesus consistently called everyone to repent, a concept that entails ‘a change of mind’ and both turning away from sin and toward God. Nobody is exempt, all of us sin and so all of us need to turn from that sin and re-orient our lives Godward. It is a deep change of heart which then results in changed behaviour as we live according to new priorities.

This is the demand of Jesus to every soul: Repent. Be changed deep within. Replace all God-dishonoring, Christ-belittling perceptions and dispositions and purposes with God-treasuring, Christ-exalting ones.
(Thoughts on Jesus’ Demand to Repent by John Piper)

Is once enough?

Reading through the Gospels it can seem as if repentance is a single major life event in which a person makes a total break with their old sinful ways and from then on lives fully devoted to God. Life experience and a closer look at the New testament shows this to be an inaccurate idea. The Apostle John writes:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
(1 John 1:8-9 ESV)

This clearly indicates that followers of Christ still sin and need to repent and confess their sin. For some church traditions repentance and confession can be a weekly occurrence, my own church does not have a formal confession tradition so this can easily be overlooked. Perhaps closer accountability might have pulled me up sooner, I’m not sure.

A Lenten journey

I suspect that I needed to hit rock bottom to force me to face a multitude of sins in my life. The Bible refers to the Israelites as being stiff-necked (Exodus 32:9), in other words ‘perversely obstinate’ and even resisting the Holy Spirit (see Acts 7:51) – a description which also fits me. While I may never know for sure, it could be that my annus horribilis was necessary to force me to either turn towards God or turn fully away from Him and so seal my fate.

So this Lent I am moving through an unplanned process of repentance and pruning. (I was going to use the word ‘refining’ but there is nothing refined about this process). The hardest parts of last year were due to depression, something I cannot control. The hardest parts now are seeing all the choice points at which I gave in to foolish, selfish and sinful decisions which I justified to myself because I felt too weak to choose better. That is a lie.

Some choices result in a harder path than others, but the first step along those paths is often no more difficult than the first step down an easy path that leads to destruction. Depression does impair decision making, yet I was still able to make the choice of asking my wife to help me get treatment rather than taking the overdose I had in my hands. I’m sure grace played a large part in that also, why did I not allow God’s grace and the strength of the Holy Spirit help me in other decisions?

Joy in repentance

Repentance is hard to walk through, it involves brokenness and humiliation in recalling past sins, but it is not a bad thing. To turn from sinful ways and run to Jesus is actually the best thing. To acknowledge sin is painful, yet it is the pain of having a cancer cut away – it leads to healing. Best of all, it leads to acceptance with God and this is a joyful experience even while wounds may sting.

I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
(Luke 15:10 ESV)


What others have to say on this topic:

Scripture references:

Exodus 32:9 And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. (ESV)
Acts 7:51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.” (ESV)

Image: ‘Forgiven Much’ by Keith Johnson (see Luke 7:47: “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”)

Baby steps

baby-steps

In these early stages of my journey to living a better life, I am setting small goals that I hope will be easily attainable while providing big payoffs over time.One of these goals is to read 5 chapters of the Bible each day. This is enough to get me through the entire Bible in one year even if I skip the odd day. Also, I’ve done it before so know it is achievable with a little focus.

Last year my Bible reading went out the window. This was an effect of depression, not the cause, but it did not help. It took huge effort to read even a single chapter, an effort I often could not summon in the midst of depression. Now I am able to read more easily it is time to correct the imbalance.

Why read the Bible?

Firstly, because this is how I grow in my understanding of God and how I should live as one of His people.

Secondly, as I read and ponder the Scriptures, the teachings of Jesus and His Apostles take root in my heart. They then have a chance to affect and change my thoughts and attitudes. This is the sort of change that really makes a difference, more so than merely following the latest self-help fad.

Thirdly, reading the Bible washes away my own faulty thinking. By filling my mind with words, thoughts, poetry and stories that are from God I crowd out the mistaken ideas and beliefs I have about myself, others and life that otherwise cause me to make bad choices.

I’ve found two useful ways of reading to enable these three benefits to occur. One is to read slowly, thinking over what each sentence means, what it was written to achieve and how that applies to me. The other way is to read more quickly, covering a lot of ground but persisting until the ‘washing’ effect I mentioned has occurred and my thoughts are aligning themselves with what I’ve been reading.

Both approaches take time, but to read 5 chapters at a sedate pace only takes around 15 minutes which can easily fit into most daily schedules. The real battle is often the willpower to block out competing distractions and simply start.

To keep track of my progress I have a printed list of the books of the Bible and the chapters in each book. I simply cross off each chapter once I’ve read it. This allows me to read in whatever order I like while keeping track of progress. There are smart phone apps but I’ve found they don’t give the flexibility of pen on paper.

Here are some suitable checklists:

(I am only recommending the checklists from these websites, I cannot vouch for the other content of the sites)


Image: Shutterstock

Is there room for another Christian blog?

Blog

I’ve been mulling over whether I should write about something other than faith. It seems that there are already thousands of ‘faith blogs’ and maybe this space is already full.

On just one directory of Christian themed blogs there are over 2750 blogs listed. Alexa has 63,328 sites listed in the category of ‘Christianity‘. This includes all types of websites, not just blogs, but that’s a large number and these are only Alexa’s “Top Sites”.

Whatever the actual number, there are a huge number of Christian ‘faith blogs’. Why add yet another one?

I have two main reasons:

1) Writing about faith in Christ keeps me focused on this topic, which I want to remain central to my own life.

2) Surprisingly to myself even, I do have a unique story and can add something to the discussion of how we live our faith in the real world.

I used to think that I was a very boring person who leads a boring life. In some ways this is true, but life has thrown enough at me by now to add some flavour into the mundane details of an ordinary life. The ordinariness is even an aspect of what differentiates this blog. I am not a pastor, I don’t work for a Christian organisation and consider my calling is to be in the secular work world.

Because I write as just another ordinary Christian, I’m not out to correct your theology or portray a spotless life of exemplary faith – my job security doesn’t hinge upon a flawless outward appearance. The primary goal of this blog is to be an encouragement. This is the filter I want to be using in deciding what to write about, “is this something encouraging to other Christians?”

So, despite the size of the Christian blogosphere, A Saved Wretch does have it’s own particular flavour, hopefully one that appeals to and encourages some readers.


Image: iStock

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

Closing the gap between belief and practise

I am on a journey. A quest to span the gap between what I believe and how I live. ​

As a Christian this should be pretty simple – just follow the teachings of Jesus and things will be fine. ​In practise I find that within days (if not hours) of resolving to be more committed in following Christ I have stumbled into the mire of selfishness and lukewarmness.

Therefore, I am going to embark on an outrageously scary project for someone like me who has long thought that spirituality should be internal and private: I am going to write as openly as I can here about my own attempts to live faithfully as a disciple of Jesus Christ while living and working in a secular society. There will be mistakes, blunders, laziness, sin, doubts and fears. As God wills there will also be worship, rejoicing, and faith. This will not be an exercise in ‘correct’ theology or preaching at you. Consider it more like a window upon a soul stumbling in the footsteps of John Bunyan’s Christian.​

The state of my heart

My desire to live consistently according to my beliefs is a bit like someone setting out to make some healthy changes to their lifestyle (in fact it is a lot like that!). Most health programmes carry a disclaimer stating that anyone over forty years old should only begin a fitness regime on the advice of their doctor, a big concern being that someone may start exercising and collapse with a heart attack.

I am over forty, and know that I am out of shape spiritually. Therefore it would be wise to do a bit of a heart checkup as I seek to exercise some spiritual discipline in my life. ​

Just as a cardiologist will do multiple tests to assess the state of a person’s heart muscle, understanding the state of my heart before God must take into account many factors: Am I hungering and thirsting for God? ​Is my life governed by God’s Word? Am I becoming more loving? Do I delight in the Bride of Christ? Is my heart broken over sin? How quickly do I forgive?

​That is not an exhaustive list (in fact it is stolen from the book Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health by Donald S. Whitney), I am assuming that I will come across many other indicators of the state of my heart as I go on. There are also the ‘rough and ready’ indicators which we are all familiar with, and these serve to reveal the baseline of my current spiritual state, just as heart rate and blood pressure give a quick estimate of cardiac health.

WARNING: this will be disappointing!

Prayer: I currently pray very little. Days may pass completely without purposeful praying. When I do pray it tends to be while doing other things such as washing the dishes or walking to work so my thoughts wander far and wide in the process. When I timed how long I actually prayed over several days it was less than 5 minutes each day!

Bible reading: This used to be a strong point but has dwindled in the last couple of years. Some days I manage to read my target 5 chapters a day, often I read only one or two chapters and it is not uncommon for me to not open my Bible at all for several days.

Giving: Woeful (erratic and not much).

Serving: I preach about once every 6 weeks and serving as a member of the leadership board for our little church.

Evangelism:​ Nonexistent, fear keeps my lips sealed.​

As you can see, this is a picture of someone who is fat, flabby and complacent. Moving out of this state will be a challenge and is going to take time. My gut feeling is that prayer is where I need to begin, with the first battle being to make space for quietness before God. On that note I’d like to point you toward a post from a friend about exactly that:​ Learning in silence.

Suicide and salvation

I know this is likely to be a touchy topic.

Soon after the tragic death of Matthew Warren I found a list of ‘helpful links’ which included an article from the ministry of John MacArthur, Grace to You. The article is titled: Can someone who commits suicide be saved? and frankly caused my hackles to rise.

Suicide is murder of the self

As such it is clearly sinful to commit murder. God has stated unequivocally that murder is sin (Exodus 20:13), very cut and dried – perhaps we can leave the topic there?

There can be many motives for murder, summed up by author John Lescroart as: love, lust, lucre, and loathing. To kill another person is something most of us recoil from as being utterly abhorrent and we struggle to comprehend how someone could do such an act. What then can be the motive for the violence of annihilating self?

Again, there can be many motives: financial troubles, pain/illness, shame, romance problems, substance abuse, mental illness.

All sin can be forgiven in Christ

Suicide is a grave sin equivalent to murder (Exodus 20:1321:23), but it can be forgiven like any other sin. And Scripture says clearly that those redeemed by God have been forgiven for all their sins–past, present, and future (Colossians 2:13-14). Paul says in Romans 8:38-39 that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

So if a true Christian would commit suicide in a time of extreme weakness, he or she would be received into heaven (Jude 24). But we question the faith of those who take their lives or even consider it seriously–it may well be that they have never been truly saved.

That’s because God’s children are defined repeatedly in Scripture as those who have hope (Acts 24:15Romans 5:2-58:242 Corinthians 1:10, etc.) and purpose in life (Luke 9:23-25Romans 8:28Colossians 1:29). And those who think of committing suicide do so because they have neither hope nor purpose in their lives.

Is considering suicide sin?

The ‘Grace to You’ article claims that a person who repeatedly considers suicide is practicing sin in their heart based on Proverbs 23:7 in the NASB translation. However, in other translations, such as the ESV and NLT, the idea of “as he thinks in his heart, so he is” does not come across so clearly. I do get the point though – a suicidal person is constantly thinking of committing a sinful act of self murder so surely they are wilfully playing with sin.

The issue here is not so much about suicide per se, but a question of whether repeatedly considering any sinful act is a sin in it’s own right (i.e., is the thought of the sin a sinful act?)

Furthermore, one who repeatedly considers suicide is practicing sin in his heart (Proverbs 23:7), and 1 John 3:9says that “no one who is born of God practices sin.” And finally, suicide is often the ultimate evidence of a heart that rejects the lordship of Jesus Christ, because it is an act where the sinner is taking his life into his own hands completely rather than submitting to God’s will for it. Surely many of those who have taken their lives will hear those horrifying words from the Lord Jesus at the judgment–”I never knew you; Depart from me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23).

So though it may be possible for a true believer to commit suicide, we believe that is an unusual occurrence. Someone considering suicide should be challenged above all to examine himself to see whether he is in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5).

(I am choosing to publish this draft that I started in 2013 as it stands despite it being very incomplete. My rationale is that it maps some of my thinking at the time which I want to keep a record of [14 February 2018])

Unlived truth

I came across a statement today which got straight to the point:

Knowledge isn’t bad – but gaining it is a waste of time if it doesn’t lead to action! (Darren Rowse)

Those studying hard for exams would perhaps disagree, but it is much easier to acquire knowledge than to apply it. This is true not only for bloggers such as Mr Rowse, but for all of us in all areas of life.  In the realm of Christian faith the relative ease of acquiring knowledge versus difficulty in applying it becomes especially marked, at least for those of us living in affluence in free nations.

I have long known that my greatest need is not really to know more about God or theology but rather to live the truth I already understand.

“… the gap holding back most believers is not the gap between what they know and what they don’t know. It’s the gap between what they know and what they’re living. Many Christians are trafficking in unlived truth. They are educated beyond their obedience.” (Dave Browning)

I am not implying that theology or knowledge are bad, unnecessary or superfluous for the individual Christian or the church.