Hello! My name is Colin Sedgwick, and for 40 years I have been a Baptist minister. I have also done a fair bit of writing for various papers and periodicals, both Christian and secular. My wife is a teacher and I have two large sons. I hope you might find something interesting in my blog – I aim to provide regular Bible-based thoughts with a short prayer at the end. Perhaps you can use them to “top up” your own Bible-study and sermon-listening.
Open wide your mouth and I will fill it. Psalm 81:10
Have you ever tried to spoonfeed a baby whose mouth remains clamped tight shut?
I think most parents will be able say, perhaps with a sigh, “Oh yes!” It’s an experience which is likely to be (a) maddeningly frustrating, (b) rather messy and (c) ending in tears (and that’s not just you).
All that’s a long time ago now for me, but I still think of it every time I read this verse in Psalm 81 – God inviting his people (I think it’s an invitation rather than a command) to feast on him: “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it”. Don’t be like that baby! No, be like those hungry birds in the nest, their open beaks stretching up for food.
The psalm looks back to the “exodus”, the time God delivered his people Israel from their captivity in Egypt. It starts in a mood of noisy celebration (verses 1-3). Then it recalls some of those distant events (verses 4-7). And then it becomes a plea from God that the people would be always loyal to him and him alone (verses 8-10a). And then… this invitation (verse 10b).
For the rest of the psalm the mood is sombre, starting with a sad “but” in verse 11: “But my people would not listen to me…” – a loving complaint of God against his people.
God is disappointed: his people will not allow him to do for them what he longs to do to make them happy.
The challenge these words pose for us is about receptivity: how receptive, how open, are we to what God wants to give us? What sort of spiritual appetite do we have? Are we, like Israel so long ago, a disappointment to him?
It’s not just about knowing God or believing in him, but about enjoying him.
Spiritual appetite can take various forms. Two in particular come to mind.
First, a hunger for God’s word.
When Jesus was tempted by the devil (Matthew 4) he went without food for forty days. Rather unnecessarily (I always think) Matthew adds that “he was hungry”. You bet he was! And so the temptation to “tell these stones to become bread” must have been massive. But what does Jesus do? Quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3 he replies: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”.
Yes, we need bread, food. Of course. But God is a God who speaks, and why would he speak unless he wants us to listen? Why would he cause his word to be written down and preserved from generation to generation unless he expects us to read it? (I’m not forgetting that many of God’s people may not be able to read, even today: thank God, then, if his word is made available to them through those who are called to teach and preach.)
What about us? Do we take the reading of the scriptures seriously? Do we aim for familiarity with the whole Bible, both testaments, and not just the favourite and well-known bits?
I would love to know more about the Christians of Berea. They barely figure in the Bible – you’ll find them only in Acts 17. They were Jews, so no doubt familiar with the Old Testament through attendance at the synagogue. But Luke tells us that they received the gospel message “with great eagerness, and examined the scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (verses 10-12).
During this time of “lockdown”, if we find that we have more time on our hands than usual, how about modelling ourselves on the Bereans? Why not get our teeth into some part of the Bible that perhaps we are not too familiar with?
The second kind of spiritual appetite is a hunger for God’s holiness.
In his sermon on the mount Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6).
To have a good command of scripture is a great thing. But of course it means precisely nothing if it doesn’t have the effect of making us new people – “righteous” people.
There’s a lot that could be said about that word “righteousness”. It’s certainly nothing to do with “self-righteousness”, and it’s far more than simply “being good”. In essence it is the purity and holiness that can be ours through faith in Jesus and through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It’s the quality of character that arises from enjoying a relationship with God himself. It’s all about simple trust and glad obedience. For me the word “Christlikeness” is about as close as we can get.
And we are called to “hunger and thirst” for it. What, I wonder, is our response to that?
Let’s go back to Psalm 81. It ends with a wonderful promise for those who will indeed “open wide our mouths” – we will be “fed with the finest of wheat; with honey from the rock…”
God is a loving, generous God. Let’s not be slow to enjoy his generosity!
Loving Father, thank you for the gift of your word. Please, through your Holy Spirit, sharpen my appetite for it, and may it produce a harvest of pure, Christlike righteousness in my everyday life. Amen.
Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord… Ephesians 5:18-19
When we sing in worship we generally take it for granted that it is God we are singing to. And that’s right, of course.
But Paul here puts another angle on it: he tells us that we should “speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”. (He says much the same thing in Colossians 3:16.)
He is making a very simple point: while our singing is primarily directed to God, our songs and hymns also play a very important role in doing one another good.
For two thousand years the church has been singing, and a vast amount of material has grown up. Do we ever stop to think what a rich resource this is? Do we ever pause over words that can nourish and stimulate our faith? How much we are missing!
When I was a teenage Christian way back in the 1960s there was a hymn that I felt we ought literally to address to one another. It was like a sung sermon, a good old-fashioned scold: “Yield not to temptation,” it said severely, “for yielding is sin…” There was another line: “Shun evil companions, bad language disdain…” No messing there, eh? Looking back, I wonder why we didn’t eyeball one another as we sang, frowning and wagging our fingers.
They don’t write hymns like that these days, do they? (Perhaps just as well…)
But then I have another favourite which, likewise, is addressed to one another – and I think it is one of the most beautiful songs I know. It was written in 1977 by Richard Gillard – not that long ago, but I wonder if it is still sung today?
“Brother, sister, let me serve you,” it starts. And that sets the tone for the whole song; it’s all about the privilege of serving our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Here are a couple of verses, worth absorbing deeply:
I will hold the Christ-light for you/ In the night-time of your fear;/ I will hold my hand out to you,/ Speak the peace you long to hear… I will weep when you are weeping,/ When you laugh I’ll laugh with you;/ I will share your joy and sorrow/ Till we’ve seen this journey through”.
At the moment, because of the pandemic, we aren’t able to sing together in worship, or to “speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”. So I want to take Paul at his word and share some of the very precious words that others have written in order to bless us – words which I think can help us through troubled times.
Here is Matt Redman’s lovely song “Bless the Lord, O my soul”. I especially love the way it looks death straight in the face, with quiet faith and peace…
And on that day/ When my strength is failing,/ The end draws near and my time has come,/ Still my soul will sing Your praise unending,/ Ten thousand years and then forevermore…
From an earlier time, what about William Cowper (1731-1800)? He was a troubled man who sometimes struggled with his faith. But he was able to declare that “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform”. I think these lines are particularly appropriate for our present circumstances…
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;/ The clouds ye so much dread/ Are big with mercy, and shall break/ In blessings on your head… His purposes will ripen fast,/ Unfolding every hour;/ The bud may have a bitter taste,/ But sweet will be the flower.
That image of the bitter bud and the sweet flower has lived with me all my Christian life.
A song by Brian Doerksen has just nine lines, but they are a wonderful prayer…
Faithful one, so unchanging,/ Ageless one, you’re my rock of peace./ Lord of all, I depend on you,/ I call out to you, again and again,/ I call out to you, again and again./ You are my rock in times of trouble./ You lift me up when I fall down./ All through the storm/ Your love is the anchor,/ My hope is in You alone.
When it’s sung, there’s an inspiring burst in the music with “You are my rock in times of trouble (amen!)… All through the storm your love is the anchor…” Amen again!
At a time when we all need to be showing patience and kindness, especially to those most affected by the pandemic, what could be better than Graham Kendrick’s little prayer…
Soften my heart, Lord,/ Soften my heart./ From all indifference/ Set me apart./ To feel your compassion,/ To weep with your tears;/ Come soften my heart, O Lord,/ Soften my heart. (Stress that word “your”!)
I could go on (oh, how I could go on)! But I have run out of space. I simply hope there is something in these snippets to encourage and to stir up faith and love.
Our God, our help in ages past,/ Our hope for years to come,/ Be thou our guard while troubles last,/ And our eternal home. Amen.
Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28
When Paul says “all things” in that verse, does he really mean all things? Even the bad things? Even the painful things? The wrong things? The sins, even?
How do you answer that question?
Romans 8:28 is a wonderful verse. But it suffers a little through being almost too quotable – it’s one of those verses it’s easy to trot out without really thinking about it. And that can lead us to be rather complacent: “Oh well, if God really does work everything for good for those who love him, it doesn’t matter much what I do, or don’t do, does it? – he’s promised to put it right, or at least to bring good out of it…”
(I suspect too that it can have the effect of really annoying our non-Christian friends if we quote it too glibly: “There you go, you Christians, so shallow, so trite, talking as if all the pains and troubles of this life really don’t matter. Can all these things be airily dismissed by quoting a few words from the Bible? Isn’t this just ‘pie in the sky when you die’?” Let’s be careful how we witness!)
Well, I don’t doubt that Romans 8:28 is true. If God really is the Lord of all creation, and the Lord of history, how can things not work out for good for those who belong to him? (And yes, that includes our sins; even they, if truly repented of, can be midwives to new virtues coming to birth.)
With the current pandemic continuing, I’m sure all of us have derived comfort from various Bible verses akin to Romans 8:28: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear…” (Psalm 46) is a classic example. But again, words which are easy to quote may be difficult to get a strong and practical grip on.
So I find myself asking: Do such words really make a difference to me, apart from offering what might be called a passing comfort-fix?
What I’m leading up to is this: that I as an individual can cancel the truth of Romans 8:28 if my attitude is wrong. How is the pandemic going to work out for good if I slip into a complacent and even fatalistic attitude?
I realised that I had to make a choice between two opposing mind-sets: the positive and the negative.
Either I view the situation simply as an ordeal that I must endure – that’s the negative; or I view it as a challenge through which I can grow – that’s the positive. Yes, it certainly is an ordeal I must endure; but can I, by faith, make is something else too?
In John 11 we read how Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. The disciples found it hard to believe that he would allow him to die, but, mincing no words, “he told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead’…” Whereupon Thomas – “Doubting Thomas” – responded, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:14-16).
There’s a perfect example (if the word “perfect” is appropriate!) of a negative attitude: you can almost see Thomas shrugging his shoulders in hopelessness.
And the fact is that, however sincere our faith may be, we too can slip into that kind of attitude. Oh yes, we believe in theory that Romans 8:28 is true; but it makes no practical difference to the way we are.
So (I continued to ask myself) what can I do to ensure that my faith does in fact result in something positive through the coming weeks? To which the answer could only be: By making up my mind every day, even every hour, that I will look for and expect to see the presence, the power and the love of Jesus at work in, through and around me.
When I get to the end of this difficult time (assuming I do – I make no assumptions!), my prayer is that I will be a more Christlike person than I was at the beginning: a more faithful Christian; a better husband; a more loving family member; a more responsible member of society; a more thoughtful friend and neighbour – to highlight just the most obvious weaknesses.
My circumstances may be very different (and probably a lot easier) than yours. But if that prayer is answered, then and only then will Romans 8:28 have been fulfilled for me. But if it happens for me… well, why shouldn’t it also happen for you?
God really does work in all things for the good of those who love him. Lord, help us believe it, and to “trace the rainbow through the rain”!
O joy that seekest me through pain,/ I cannot close my heart to Thee;/ I trace the rainbow through the rain,/ And feel the promise is not vain/ That morn shall tearless be. Amen.
George Matheson, 1842-1906
Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes. Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. Genesis 4:21-22
Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him. 1 Samuel 16:23
When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. Matthew 26:30
What is it about music!
I remember some years ago walking through St Pancras railway station in London. It was organised chaos: hundreds of people wheeling suitcases, struggling with ticket machines, talking anxiously into their phones. And then: the sound of… a piano.
I couldn’t quite believe it at first – it didn’t sound like piped music, not professional enough for that. But it was good, and I looked around to see where it could possibly be coming from. And then I saw him: a man sitting at an upright piano right in the middle of the concourse, and playing beautifully.
I shook my head in amazement. What a wonderful idea somebody had thought of! That man could have been playing purely for his own enjoyment, but people were gathering round to listen. And – the great thing – everyone was smiling.
If you’re on Facebook you might have seen a similar thing a few days ago: an elderly man playing “Somewhere over the rainbow”. A young woman came and stood next to him, and started to sing, resting her hand on his shoulder. It was simply beautiful – I’m tempted to use the word “magical”.
You might also have seen a video from Italy. Right in the middle of the corona virus crisis – and it’s pretty grim over there – dozens of madcrazy Italians were standing on their balconies, even on the flat roofs of their apartment blocks, and singing, belting out their music and jigging about. You couldn’t help but smile: the sheer exuberance! the sheer determination to not be downcast!
I’ve no idea how music “works” – why it is that those humanly arranged sounds and maybe words can move us to tears, perhaps of joy, perhaps of sorrow. Just little black marks on paper, after all! Something to do with the nervous system, I suppose. All I know is that it happens, and it’s wonderful.
I find myself thinking of shepherd boy David strumming his harp to tease King Saul out of one of his dark moods – what the Bible calls “an evil spirit from the Lord”.
I think too of Jesus and his disciples after celebrating the Last Supper: “when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives”. I wonder what hymn it was: a psalm, probably. What were their voices like? Simon Peter a booming bass? Jesus a rich tenor?
For many of us, while music might be quite important, it’s probably on the fringes of our lives: a luxury rather than a necessity.
But then I thought of Jubal (all right, I had to check on his name first). Right in the earliest days of human life on earth this man is described as “the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes”. The remarkable thing is that his name is sandwiched between that of Jabal, the first farmer and livestock-breeder, and that of Tubal-Cain, the first craftsman and tool-maker.
Farming and tool-making are pretty important activities – yet music-making is right up there with them. Which can only mean, surely, that it is important in the eyes of God, indeed a true gift from God.
God’s people, both Old and New Testament, have always been a singing, music-making people: my Bible concordance offers some two hundred references to people singing, some organised into big choirs, some simply singing alone. A favourite of mine is Acts 16:25, where we read that Paul and Silas, confined to a dungeon with their feet in the stocks, “were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them” (what a witness!).
It may be that music isn’t your thing, and that’s no sin. (I knew a woman once who, when I became her pastor, felt she had to explain to me why she never sang in services: “Don’t think I’m a hard-hearted sinner – I’m just tone-deaf”.) But those uplifting experiences I’ve described reminded me that, for most people, music can have a powerful effect, and that God is pleased to use it for our blessing.
So I encourage us all to remember the people who write our songs and hymns, those who compose the music, and those who play it. How dull and flat life in general and church life in particular would be without this great gift.
And at a time when many of us are unable to come together to sing, well, we can always do so on our own. After all, it only takes one person to “make a joyful noise to the Lord”.
Dear Father, thank you for the wonderful gift of music. Please continue to inspire those who have musical gifts, in writing, in composing and in playing. And please bring me to that day when I will join the heavenly choir singing “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!” Amen.
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” James 4:13-15
James the brother of Jesus was nothing if not a practical man; his letter – just five chapters – is full of down-to-earth teaching. And nowhere is this more so than in these few verses at the end of chapter 4.
He addresses people who are good at planning ahead. He seems to have trades people particularly in mind; but what he says is relevant to anyone who imagines they have a strong handle on the future: “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow!”
Among other things, this is a warning against arrogance and self-centredness. It reinforces the teaching of Jesus in his story of “the rich fool” (Luke 12:16-21); it also echoes the words of various Old Testament passages, such as Proverbs 27:1: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring”.
But most of all, it reminds us that the future is uncertain. And I couldn’t get it out of my mind as coverage of the coronavirus keeps unfolding.
Like many of us, I am used to making plans and expecting them, generally speaking, to happen. But suddenly that is just no longer the case. Sports events I was looking forward to… meetings I expected to attend… people I was hoping to see… responsibilities I was due to fulfil… little treats I felt I was entitled to… suddenly all these things are shrouded in uncertainty. And I don’t like it very much!
In all my life, this is something I have never experienced before. Just yesterday people over seventy were asked to “self-isolate”. I vaguely thought to myself, “Oh well, yes, I suppose that might be a good precaution to take”. And then I thought, like a four-year-old told he can’t go to the park, “Hang on a minute – that means me! Boo-hoo, not fair”. Again, I didn’t like it very much…!
Two main thoughts came to mind.
First, this is exactly how it has been for untold millions of people down through the centuries – and how it still is for vast numbers today. Those of us who have enjoyed the luxury of filling our diaries in confident expectation that those entries will be fulfilled are in a very small and privileged minority.
Without in any way making light of the present crisis, that thought helped me to get it into perspective. This is a time for clear, calm faith in God – and for practical action to respond to what’s happening, especially for those most at risk. And not for feelings of self-pity! I have no entitlement to that luxurious way of life I have unthinkingly enjoyed.
My second thought was to wonder just how much, in reality, God is generally involved in my planning.
It isn’t wrong to plan, of course – I don’t think James is suggesting that. Indeed, it may be irresponsible not to. But it is wrong to plan as if we are the lords of our own lives. If we are Christians, we aren’t: Jesus is Lord (as we perhaps rather glibly sing). And that means that if we make our plans without reference to him we are saying one thing with our lips but something else with our actions. Which means we are hypocrites.
As James puts it: we ought to say, “if it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this and that”. We are not to take anything for granted.
Like everyone else I very much hope that the present emergency will be short-lived and more limited in its effects than we are being led to fear. Our chief thoughts must be for the sick, the frail, those who suffer with depression and other mental health issues. Of course.
But having said that, I think it’s right to add this: surely, in the long run, it’s no bad thing for us all to be reminded of the uncertainty and shortness of life. Still more, if a situation like the present one has the effect of driving us afresh into the arms of God, that can only be good.
I started with a no-nonsense word from James. Perhaps it’s appropriate to finish with a reassuring word from the psalmist: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging… The Lord Almighty is with us” – Psalm 46.
And something like this seems a reasonable prayer to pray…
Dear Father, please help me in this difficult time to be a trusting believer, a calming presence, a responsible citizen, and a good neighbour. Have mercy upon our world – and in the coming weeks may many make that life-changing journey from fear to faith as they reach out to Jesus, who died and rose again. Amen.
The Spirit of God came on Azariah son of Oded. He went out to meet Asa and said to him, “Listen to me, Asa and all Judah and Benjamin…” When Asa heard these words, and the prophecy of Azariah son of Oded the prophet, he took courage... 2 Chronicles 15
I suspect that, since you are reading this Bible-based blog, you will know quite a bit about many Bible characters – Old Testament figures such as Abraham and Moses, Hannah, Elijah and Isaiah, David and Solomon, and New Testament ones like Mary, Peter, Paul and Stephen.
But I wonder if the name of Azariah son of Oded means anything to you?
To be honest, Bible figures don’t come much more obscure than him. He pops up out of nowhere, appears for just seven verses, and then sinks back into the mists of time. We know his father’s name – Oded – but that’s about it. To add insult to injury, he is just one of some twenty (!) Azariahs in the Old Testament.
But I like him. He has been like a friend to me for many years. So, just in case you have never met him before, I want to introduce him to you. (To get the full story it doesn’t take long to read the whole of 2 Chronicles 15 – just nineteen verses.)
He was a prophet who spoke to Asa King of Judah when he was returning from victory in battle. In essence, he gave Asa a threefold message, each aspect of which we can still take and apply to ourselves.
First, there is a challenge and a warning (verse 2): “The Lord is with you when you are with him…”. Note that “when”… implying: only make sure you stay close to God, Asa, or it will be the worse for you!
Second, there is a potted history lesson in verses 3-6: Learn from the past, Asa, because even though God loves you, he is not to be trifled with!
And third, there is a word of encouragement (verse 7): “Be strong and do not give up, for your work will be rewarded”. Again, note the proviso. No resting on your laurels, Asa.
There are two main reasons I warm to Azariah son of Oded.
First, he shows great courage.
Prophets who dared to confront kings could come to a sticky end, and often did. But see how bold Azariah is in addressing Asa: “Listen to me, Asa and all Judah and Jerusalem…” There’s no mincing of words there, is there? The Spirit of God was in his heart, and the word of God was on his lips – and that’s a pretty powerful combination.
Whether we are prophets or preachers or neither, God needs people like that today in a world where so many are indifferent to him at best and hostile to him at worst. He needs men and women of stature and authority, people who are like that not because they hold any particular position in life, but simply because of their Christlike character. Is that you? Is it me? In our workplaces? In our neighbourhoods?
The message is simple: get to know God and his word well, and be filled daily with the Holy Spirit. The spiritual stature and authority will follow.
And let’s never forget the many thousands of such people around the world today who don’t get such a favourable response as Azariah got from Asa; people who are stuck in prisons, or made to suffer in other ways (take a look at Hebrews 13:3). They need our daily prayers.
Second, I like Azariah because his obscurity didn’t limit his usefulness.
He reminds us that even “little” people – people who might be dismissed as anonymous non-entities – can make a great impact. It’s not too much to say that Azariah changed the course of history. Even though Asa was basically a good king, there was still a lot for him to do. And after the encounter with Azariah didn’t he just do it!
He initiated what I can only call a spiritual spring-clean (verse 8) – he brought about a revival in the nation of Judah. This is beautifully summed up in verse 12: the whole nation “entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and soul.” Granted, later on the nation slipped back into their bad old ways, and even Asa, sadly, rather lost his way. But that wasn’t Azariah’s fault.
What matters is this: Azariah did what God called him to do, and he did it without fear or favour. I hope the same can be said of us.
So… I invite you to reflect on the ministry of this little-known man; may he be an inspiration to you, as he has been to me.
Father, thank you for the immense variety of people who make up your church – not only the few whose names we know, but also the “little people” who make such a massive contribution. Whatever the role you have for me, help me to fulfil it with discipline, faith and courage – even in the spirit of Azariah son of Oded. Amen.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23
There are people who sometimes get described as “unsung heroes”. They don’t hit the headlines or make a big impact, but they do make a big contribution to the success of the things they are involved in. They are far more important than they might seem.
I think too there are qualities that could be described as “unsung virtues”, and I want to focus on one.
I imagine we all know Paul’s great list of “the fruit of the Spirit” here in Galatians 5. Just reading it through again has a bracing, challenging, cleansing effect: oh to be more like this! Quite likely we tend to linger on the first three – “love, joy, peace” – perhaps because, subconsciously, we like the fact that they are each just one syllable, unlike the others, and therefore easier to get our heads round.
But what’s this at number four? The New International Version has “forbearance”, the New Revised Standard Version, the Good News Bible and the English Standard Version all have “patience”, The Message has “a willingness to stick with things”, while the King James Version has the old-fashioned word, “long-suffering”. Other possible translations might be “perseverance”, “endurance”, “persistence”, even “steadfastness”.
Various shades of meaning, and in the New Testament there is a cluster of Greek words which are used to convey the general idea. And what I’m leading up to is that they are far more common, and more important, than we might imagine.
In Romans 5 Paul has not so much a list as a chain: “… we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (verses 3-4). The key word there is “character”, highlighting the fact that what matters about us isn’t so much the gifts we have as the personal qualities we demonstrate: what kind of people are we? And character, says Paul, is the slow, gradual outgrowth of perseverance.
Let me focus on three main aspects of perseverance…
To me, this is simply the willingness to quietly get on with the everyday, routine duties and responsibilities of the Christian life. Which can be hard, because (changing the image) the Christian life is a marathon rather than a sprint. Starting is easy enough; what matters is to keep going. It’s in this sense that I rather like “stickability”.
We shouldn’t mistake this for what might be called “flogging a dead horse”; there are times to recognise that the moment has come to call a halt. How many man- and woman-hours are wasted – how much precious energy expended – in refusing to recognise that such a time has come? I heard recently about a pastor who refused to accept that his church had, in effect, ceased to exist – even though often he was the only person who turned up.
No. Perseverance in this sense is the cheerful determination not to give up just because it’s hard. Remember Jesus’ word of warning: “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).
This is, if you like, patience-plus – patience in the teeth of real problems and hardships. It applies particularly, of course, to the experience of persecution, and figures several times in the Book of Revelation. Jesus commends the church of Philadelphia because, he says, “you have kept my command to endure patiently” (Revelation 3:10).
As I write, just after International Women’s Day, I have in mind Asia Bibi, a wife and mother who was recently released from nearly ten years in captivity on charges of blasphemy under Pakistani law. Also Leah Sharibu, a 16-year-old girl kidnapped two years go in her home country of Nigeria, and refusing to accept release at the cost of denying Jesus. What endurance! – and, of course, these two women represent thousands of others whose names we don’t know.
Pray for all who have to exercise such endurance!
Third, “forbearance” or “long-suffering”.
This has been defined as “putting up with people you would like to put down”. That’s quite clever, and we may find ourselves grimly smiling: our fellow-Christians aren’t always easy to get on with!
But I think the words “putting up with” aren’t really right. For we are, after all, not only to put up with but actually to love even our enemies – how much more, then, our fellow-believers!
I heard of a church that regarded difficult and tiresome members as falling into the category of EGR – “extra grace required”. Perhaps that captures it better (as long as we keep in mind that, who knows, it might just be us that’s on somebody’s EGR list…).
Why not do a Bible search to see how important this notion is in the New Testament? It will help us to be truly grateful for those dear Christians who exemplify this quality – and hopefully also to inspire us to exemplify it ourselves.
And as you do so, keep in mind the words of CH Spurgeon: “By perseverance the snail reached the ark”.
Father, when things get tiresome and tough, help me to see this as an opportunity to develop the grace of perseverance and not to give up. Amen.