Failure


You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure. 1 Thessalonians 2:1

Failure… it’s not a favourite word for any of us, is it? Failure is something we fear, whether we’re talking of exams or relationships or anything else.

Have you ever tried to do something for God, only to end up thinking you had failed? Perhaps you offered to help in the children’s or young people’s work, and it just didn’t seem to work out? Perhaps you took on some venture in evangelism, and it fell flat? Perhaps you started a house-group or Bible study, and nobody much turned up?
Yes? Well, be encouraged! It seems that something similar had happened to Paul. Why else would he need to assure the Thessalonian church that his visit to them “was not a failure”? Somebody, presumably, was saying that it was a failure. Or perhaps doubts had come creeping into his own mind that he had had to think and pray through.
Why might somebody think his visit to Thessalonica was a waste of time?
Well, to find out you need to go back to Acts 17:1-10, where Luke tells us the story. 
Putting it very briefly, Paul and Silas seem to have spent about three weeks there. Certainly, they did succeed in winning quite a few converts (verse 4), but the town as a whole turned against them, and in the end they suffered the humiliation of having to beat a hasty retreat under cover of darkness (verse 10). No doubt some of his enemies in the town were delighted: “Huh, he didn’t last long, did he! He comes here with his new-fangled ideas, causes a lot of trouble and commotion, and then runs away with his tail between his legs! So much for the mighty apostle Paul…”.
But the fact is that Paul did leave behind a group of believers who went on to become an established church (even if it was one with some rather worrying ideas). It wasn’t long before he was writing to them what we now know as Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians.
Here’s a great truth, but one which we often fail to drive into our thick skulls: God judges “success” and “failure” in a very different way from the non-Christian world – indeed, in a very different way from the way we Christians sometimes do. It simply isn’t all about big numbers and the trappings of success. 
Wasn’t there a time when even Jesus “could not do any miracles…” because of the people’s lack of faith (Mark 6:5)? Was that “failure”? 
I don’t imagine that Paul was happy for one moment about having to “do a moonlight”, but the fact is that his seemingly unsatisfactory time in Thessalonica bore some real fruit – and lasting fruit at that.
The Bible suggests to us that nothing you ever seek to do genuinely for the glory of God will ever be in vain. Yes, you may have been misguided in what you tried to do. You may have made mistakes and “messed up”. You may even be right to feel a bit guilty – perhaps you were plain wrong to try what you tried; it was arrogant and bull-headed. Face facts: there may be serious lessons to be learned!
But if you acted in true sincerity of heart, seeking only God’s glory, then God will turn your efforts to at least some kind of “success”.
So… you feel a bit of failure? The devil is whispering into your ear “That wasn’t much use, was it”? Don’t worry! Just seek to do God’s holy will – and leave him to judge what is “success” and what is “failure”. 
Father, I confess that there have been times when I seem to have tried so hard but achieved so little. Please help me to leave the judgement of success or failure solely to you, and not be cast down by other people’s reactions – or by my own negative thoughts. Amen.
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The killer instinct


Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with it passions and desires. Galatians 5:24.

A man I knew once was sitting on a beach in some foreign holiday resort. I don’t think he was doing very much – perhaps reading a book or just snoozing. But suddenly he sat up with a jerk. Why? Because his wife, sitting next to him, had gone completely berserk. She was thrashing around like a mad woman, smashing her fist into the sand. For a moment he was completely nonplussed. What on earth was going on?

But then he saw what had happened. His wife was sitting by their new baby – and she had just spotted a nasty-looking snake near the buggy.

The moment that mother saw what was happening, she acted out of pure instinct to protect her child. And a good job too. She didn’t stop and think “Mmm, there seems to be a snake near my child – I wonder if I should do something about it, or will it just go away by itself? Should I find some food to tempt it away? Should I try and shoo it off? Well, perhaps when I’ve finished this chapter…” 

Oh no. It was – kill! kill! kill! And so, one dead snake…

Anything that threatens life needs to be ruthlessly destroyed. There can be no messing, no compromise. And that is why Paul talks in such striking terms about our “sinful nature” being “crucified”. When you become a Christian, he is saying, your whole attitude to your life and your way of living changes radically. The sinful nature is no longer seen as just a bit of a nuisance, or something to be vaguely indulged if you happen feel like it. No; it’s got to go.

(The word Paul uses, literally, is not “the sinful nature” but “the flesh”, because it is through the flesh that sin so often makes its entry into our lives. Flesh, as such, is good – it must be, mustn’t it, because it is made by God, and everything God makes is good. But it very easily becomes an agent of sin.)

There is one thing about Paul’s words which at first sight is a little puzzling – the fact that he uses the past tense: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh…” You might expect him to say “need to crucify” or “should crucify”. And that, of course, would be quite true. 

But by using the past tense he is reminding us that conversion to Christ brings about an actual change the moment it happens. We become part of Christ – we are “inhim”, as Paul loves to say. And that means that what is true of him is also true – already – of us. In principle, if not yet in reality, Christ’s people are “dead to sin”. (Have another look at Colossians 3.)

Put it like this… In the Christian life there is an “already” and there is a “not yet”. And both are true. The destruction of our sin through the cross of Jesus is already an accomplished fact – which is why Jesus uttered the triumphant cry “It is finished!” Praise God for that. But it is not yet completed. And that is something for which we too have responsibility – like that mother on the beach, we need to show it no mercy.

How are things with you and your “sinful nature”, your “flesh” life? Have you become a little indulgent, a little careless? Is Christ calling you to take a hard look – and to put it on the cross

Let’s never forget: if we don’t destroy the flesh, the flesh will destroy us.

Father, thank you for what Jesus did for me when he died on the cross. Help me daily to play my part, and to tolerate nothing in my life which is unworthy of you. Amen.

Watch your language!


Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person… and is set on fire by hell.  James 3:6

Did you ever smoke a secret cigarette when you were a teenager? Go on, admit it! You thought you were so grown up, so daring.

Well, a couple of years ago a 14-year old boy in the middle east decided to smoke not a cigarette, but a hookah, one of those eastern water pipes. After getting it lit he absent-mindedly tossed the live coals he had used onto a patch of grass. And the result? 42 deaths, 10,000 acres of forest destroyed, 250 homes damaged, a bill for £50 million. The worst fire in his country’s history.

Properly tended and controlled, fire is a great force for good. But once out of control – well, its potential is appalling.

James, the brother of Jesus, tells us that each of us has a potential fire in our mouth. It’s called the tongue. What to us may seem a harmless and innocent comment can have repercussions far beyond anything we could have imagined. And so he reminds us to be very careful how we speak. No gossip! No backbiting! No lies or half-truths! No harsh words. None of that sniggering behind-the-hand “Hey, did you hear about…”

When I was a child a teacher told me to ask three questions about anything I said: Is it true? Is it kind ? Is it necessary ? I wish I could say that I have carefully observed those three rules ever since. They would have saved me – and, more to the point, a lot of other people – much pain and unhappiness.

Of course, we live in days when there are all sorts of new ways of speaking. Any Twitterers out there? Any Facebook addicts? Be careful! Do you really want your careless thoughts to be read by, potentially, millions of people? And should you be putting them on line anyway? Should you even be thinking them in the first place? Are they worthy of a follower of Jesus?

One of Shakespeare’s plays has a character called Rumour. He appears on stage wearing a robe “painted full of tongues”. And what is his business? That of “stuffing the ears of men with false reports”. He proudly boasts of how much hurt and confusion he causes. 

There’s also a neat saying I rather like: “a lie can travel half round the world while truth is pulling his boots on”. I don’t know how old that saying is, but couldn’t it  have been written exactly for the internet age?

We are to use our tongues to speak truth, to bless, to encourage, to build people up, not to drag them down. A kind and loving word can do untold good. Is that how we aim to use our tongues?

I know that, regarding that fire I mentioned, all our sympathies must be with the victims and their families. But I can’t help feeling also some pity for the boy who started it all. I imagine that the memory of what he did – not meaning the slightest harm! – will blight him until the day he dies. Poor child! In the same way, though, every one of us who speaks an unguarded word may end up tormented with regret.

Every now and then somebody comes up to me and says “I know I shouldn’t really be telling you this, but…” To which there is only one correct reply: “You know you shouldn’t be telling me? Then don’t tell me! Keep that mouth of yours firmly shut !”

Dear Father in heaven, thank you for the gift of the tongue. Thank you for the great good we can do through words of truth and kindness. But forgive me, Lord, that there are times I use my tongue for wicked and destructive purposes, thus playing into the hands of the devil, the father of lies. Cleanse, Lord, my tongue! Cleanse, Lord, my heart! Amen.

A silly remark


So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 1 Corinthians 3:7

It must have been the best part of forty years ago, but I remember it well. I was a very young minister, and I was sitting in a ministers’ fellowship. We were a mixed bunch – Baptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Salvation Army, Pentecostals. We always tried to be inclusive and welcoming, so we were pleased on this occasion to have a new minster among us.

He had, we all felt, a tough job ahead; his church had been very small and struggling for many years. Geographically it was rather out on a limb, and humanly speaking the chances of growth seemed limited. But, don’t worry, that didn’t deter him! Oh no!

In our sharing time – we used to take turns to mention topics for praise or prayer – he was decidedly upbeat. After saying a bit about his first impressions of his church, he declared very boldly: “But we are praying to become the biggest church in this town!”

I think we all felt a little embarrassed: ten out of ten for faith, of course; but I think that to some who had been toiling away faithfully for many years in the town it seemed, well, rather inappropriate, even slightly vulgar. But even if perhaps we wondered deep down if he had made something of a fool of himself, we of course did the Christian thing, murmured supportively, and moved on.

Well, that minister disappeared within a year, leaving behind a church which was, if anything, weaker than when he had arrived. Without meaning to be unkind, it was hard to resist the feeling that he was (to use an expression I picked up visiting friends in Texas) “all hat and no cattle”.

Two thoughts struck me on thinking about that sorry episode.

First, why would a minister, however fired up for God, choose to pray that his church would become the biggest in the town? Why not, er, the most loving church? the most Spirit-filled? the most Christ-centred? the most prayerful? Shouldn’t these be our priorities? It really seemed a most revealing remark, making painfully clear exactly what made him tick.

It suggested a shallow and fundamentally “worldly” mentality: that size is the supreme mark of “success” in church life. Big is beautiful. Size is God’s reward for service. 

Sadly, that mentality often creeps into the church in general. I have noticed that Christian people – and not only the ministers – tend to exaggerate the numbers attending their churches. The very simple scriptural word, that it is God who “gives the increase” or “makes things grow”, seems to be quietly ignored. But it means exactly what it says, no quibbling. We are very foolish if we allow ourselves to be dazzled and awestruck by numerical success – and cast down by lack of it. 

Second, this experience sent me back to those famous “seven letters” of Jesus  to the churches (Revelation 2-3). Jesus here usually has something complimentary to say; but too often this is followed by a hefty “but” or “nevertheless” and some scathing criticism. 

But – and this is the point – isn’t it interesting that the only two churches which come in for no criticism at all are Smyrna (2:8-11) and Philadelphia (3:7-13), both of which, it would seem, are quite small and struggling. Smyrna is suffering “afflictions and poverty”, Philadelphia “has little strength”. These churches, probably quite small in number, were the ones closest to Jesus’ heart.

Church growth is a mysterious thing. One church, under faithful ministry and with beautiful Christian people, grows year on year. Another, of similar characteristics, struggles to keep its head above water. Why? Sometimes there are reasons – sociological, geographical – that we can speculate on. But at the end of the day, we just don’t know. Only God knows.

Do you belong to a large church? Well, God bless you! I’m not saying it’s bad to grow – of course not! But do remain humble, please, and remember that verse from 1 Corinthians.

Do you belong to a small church? God bless you too! – as long, of course, as you are seeking to build your church by God’s word and are open to God’s Spirit. Don’t be discouraged! God’s eyes see things very differently from ours. The world may despise you; some silly fellow-Christians may even look down on you. But you are precious in God’s sight. And never doubt that he can use you.

Lord Jesus Christ, build your church! Build my church! Build me! And help us all  to remember that in Jesus we are partners, not rivals. Amen.

The man with the pointy elbows


Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord… Colossians 3:23

… so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe… Philippians 2:15

Hasn’t it been good to see so many World Cup footballers declaring their Christian faith? They raise their eyes to heaven when they score a goal. They cross themselves as they enter and leave the pitch. They have Jesus tee-shirts under their kit, ready to be displayed. Some of them kneel in prayer in full view of the millions watching. Good, yes? 

So said a preacher I heard recently.

Well, yes and no, as far as I can see. Of course it is heartening to know that so many of today’s celebrities believe in Jesus, and that they’re not ashamed to make it known. But I must admit I have my doubts about this kind of witness. 

They boil down to two.

First, how does this square with Jesus’ very clear teaching that we should be careful about displaying our spirituality: “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen” (Matthew 6:6)? He is reacting to religious leaders of his day who “love to pray standing in the synagogues and on street corners”. The implication is clear: ostentatious religion is not good. I don’t see why exceptions should be made for big football stadiums.

Second, and to my mind even more troubling, I have noticed that several of these pious players are not above the dirty tricks common among pretty well all footballers. There’s one in particular who seems to have extremely pointy elbows – and who isn’t averse to ramming them into the faces of his opponents. In general, they seem to do their share of shirt-pulling, goalmouth grappling, rash tackling, arguing with the officials, not to mention appealing for a corner or throw-in when they know very well the ball came off them last. 

Some years ago there was a test match cricket team in which many of the players were known as Christians. On one occasion, so the story goes, one of them touched the ball to the wicket-keeper – which means (in case you’re not familiar with cricket) that he was out and should have been heading back to the pavilion. But he stood there, in effect lying to the umpire by pretending that he hadn’t touched the ball. The umpire missed the touch and gave him not out. Whereupon one of the opposing fielders looked him in the eye and said, “I thought you were supposed to be a Christian.” Ouch. A literal case, you might say, of talking the talk but not walking the walk.

Well, all right, it’s easy to point the finger at the celebrities – they’re up there to be shot at. But what about me? What about you? We need to ask ourselves the question: Am I in fact any better in myeveryday life? Are there areas of inconsistency in my behaviour? I deplore gossip – but do I do an odd bit myself now and then? I claim to be honest – but have I never made the odd dodgy expenses claim? I reckon to be a good citizen – so do I never break speed limits?

I heard a preacher once say that he didn’t like to tell Christians to “go out and be a witness”. Why not? Because, he said, the fact is that once we are known as Christians we are automaticallywitnesses, whether we intend it or not and whether we like it or not. The only question is, are we good witnesses or bad?

Let’s make no mistake, the world sits up and takes notice when followers of Jesus go with the crowd, falling short of his glory. And they love it, they just love it: “Huh, isn’t he/she supposed to be a Christian?”

Take another look, please, at the little verses I have put at the top of this piece. Do you do everything (yes, even playing football!) “as working for the Lord”? Are you “blameless and pure” – which means, of course, being above reproach, being the kind of person at whom no-one can point an accusing finger? This ideal is for every Christian, whether top-level sportsperson or humdrum office-worker. 

Could it be that in fact I am no better than the footballer with the pointy elbows?

Oh God, forgive me that I am sometimes guilty of double-standards, of acting in a way that is inconsistent with following Jesus. Help me to be not hypocritical but holy, seeking to be like him in all things. Amen.

"I once was blind…"


When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him… Luke 24:30-31

Do you ever fail to see what’s right in front of your nose? I’m afraid I do. I read a newspaper article once about someone I slightly knew – and who had actually been mentioned to me only a few days before! – but I completely failed to see the connection. I wasn’t expecting to read about this person in the paper, so when he appeared there it simply didn’t dawn on me that it was the same man. Once it was pointed out to me I thought, “How could I have been so stupid, so blind! How could I have failed to see ?”

It’s the afternoon of Easter Day. Two people are walking sadly from Jerusalem to Emmaus, roughly seven miles away. One of them is called Cleopas, so it’s quite possible that the other is his wife Mary. They are completely confused by the events of the last few hours. They are disciples of Jesus, and have seen him crucified on Friday. They have sat through that wretched, bleak, utterly miserable Saturday. Now they are heading, presumably home, to Emmaus. But before setting out they have been puzzled by rumours: Jesus, it is said, is alive again! For some reason they don’t have time to check the facts. But they mull it over as they walk.

They are joined by a stranger. It is Jesus himself – but they don’t recognise him. Perhaps it’s getting dark (no street lights, remember). Perhaps his face is partly cloaked. Most likely their numbed minds just can’t process what is right before their eyes; Jesus is dead, after all.

He explains what has been going on. But still they don’t “get it”. They persuade this stranger to share a meal with them at their home. And then… something happens. He takes it on himself to break the bread, the most ordinary action you could imagine – and suddenly they understand. They know him from the way he does it. The scales fall from their eyes. They see.

It’s rather like Mary Magdalene that same morning. She finds the tomb open and empty. She assumes the body has been stolen. She becomes aware of a man standing near her. He asks why she is so upset. She thinks he is a gardener, and asks him where the body is. He speaks just a single word – her name: “Mary”. And suddenly she too… sees. “Teacher!” she cries out.

It is the greatest moment of your life when your eyes are opened and you see Jesus yourself for who he truly is: the risen Son of God. Nothing can ever be the same again. Has that yet happened to you? 

Now here’s something we need to grapple with, something a little puzzling: that moment of seeing, of revelation, is both a gift and a command. It’s a gift, because it is something that happens to us, perhaps right out of the blue. But it’s also a command, because we are commanded to believe, to have faith.

To be honest, I don’t quite know how to marry those two things together; they seem contradictory. But experience shows that it is so. We mustn’t use the fact that our eyes haven’t yet been opened as an excuse, a cop-out. God calls us to see – but then if he calls us to see, surely we needn’t doubt that he will make it happen, as long as our hearts are humble and open?

Can you think of another couple in the Bible of whom it is said that “their eyes were opened”? Sadly, in this case it was to see their downfall: “they knew that were naked”, and so they took steps to cover their shame. Yes, Adam and Eve, right at the beginning (Genesis 3:7).

The first creation goes horribly wrong. Adam and Eve see the catastrophe that has overtaken them. But now, on Easter Day, Cleopas and Mary see the miracle of the risen Christ. God is giving birth to the new creation, a creation of which we are all invited to be a part. 

Are you yet part of this wonderful new creation? Have your eyes yet been opened?

Lord Jesus Christ, please open my eyes. Please help me to see. Amen.

The time is – now!


In the seventh year Jehoiada showed his strength. 2 Chronicles 23:1

They say that however well you know the Bible there is always something new to be found in it. For me this little sentence is a case in point. Not, I have to admit, that the books of Chronicles are ones I know particularly well; but still, the statement that Jehoiada showed his strength struck me forcibly not long ago.

What is going on here? We are in a truly grim period in the history of God’s people. Briefly, Athaliah, the mother of the murdered king Ahaziah, has seized the throne for herself. In order to do this she has killed any other possible contenders to the throne (including, we must assume, some of her own grandchildren). She hangs on to the throne for six years; but she doesn’t realise that in spite of her massacres she has in fact missed one of the royal princes, Joash. When just a baby, Joash was hidden away by Jehosheba, wife of Jehoiada the priest. He is now seven.

And this is the point at which Jehoiada “shows his strength”, and sets about the business of removing Athaliah and putting Joash on the throne. I picture him sitting up straight one day as the realisation dawns on him that the time has come to act. Six years is a long time to wait to see justice done. The rest of chapter 23 shows how effective his action was.

One simple point stands out for me. 

In all our lives there are times we need to stir ourselves urgently into concerted action. Perhaps we have been drifting along, ignoring a bad situation and vaguely hoping it will go away. Perhaps our marriage has stagnated. Perhaps our church has slipped into complacency. Perhaps a glaring need for social action refuses to be brushed under the carpet any more. Whatever, you become aware that responsibility for this is not somebody else’s but yours; if you don’t take action, nobody else will.

Reasons not to act are many and varied… I’m too busy. I’m too old. I’m too young. I don’t have what it takes. My health isn’t too good. It’s so-and-so’s responsibility. To all of which God is saying: “Rubbish! Roll your sleeves up and get on with it. You, and no-one else, are the man/woman for this hour.”

I am interested to see how the various Bible translations render this verse. The version I have quoted is the New International. The Good News Bible says that Jehoiada “decided it was time to take action”, the Contemporary English Versionthat he “knew that something had to be done”, The Message that he “decided to make his move”, the New Revised Standard Version that he “took courage”. 

Well, take your pick!
But let’s not miss the vital point: inaction, neutrality, laissez-faire, procrastination, passivity, live and let live – call it what you like – simply isn’t an option. We can condemn ourselves as much by the things we don’t do as by those we do do. The old cliché is true: evil flourishes when good people do nothing.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that any of us should jump hastily into unconsidered action; that will do more harm than good. The fact is that the normal Christian life is often fairly routine, even humdrum, and that’s not necessarily wrong. So we need to be sure that what we have in mind to do is right, that it is indeed the will of God. Think hard. Pray deeply. Search your heart. Take advice.

But if it is God’s will – well, what are we waiting for?

Father, I’m not by nature an activist. I really don’t like the idea of rocking the boat! But if there is a situation that needs to be grasped and changed, give me the courage to do just that, whatever the cost might be. Amen.