Character or charisma?

“… dwelling on visions…” Colossians 2:18 (NRSV)

Over forty-plus years in ministry you collect a fair number of memories. Let me share just two.

First, a baptismal service early on in my ministerial life. The church involved didn’t have a minister, so they asked me to stand in. I was very happy to do this, of course, though it meant that I didn’t get to know the people being baptised all that well.

Anyway, my most vivid memory is of a married middle-aged woman. Why? Because she had a vision as she came out of the baptismal pool. Streaming with water as I helped her up the steps, she suddenly threw her arms in the air, gazed up at the ceiling in a kind of rapture and shouted “I can see Jesus!” I didn’t really know how to react, so I don’t think I did, not very much anyway.

I’m sure I must have talked with her about it afterwards, but I have no recollection of what we said, and subsequently I rather lost touch as I went back to my own church. But the next thing I heard, perhaps eighteen months later, was that that woman had disappeared from the church and run off with someone else’s husband.

Food for thought there, I thought…

My second memory is of a conversation with an elderly member of my own church. He was one of those people who is loved and respected by everyone, both within and outside the church: “a true Christian gentleman” I heard him called, and that description fitted perfectly. He was quiet, gracious, courteous, generous, kind, hospitable, you name it. He had been in leadership positions in the church; never missed a service or prayer-meeting. I know it’s a rather out of fashion word, but “godly” sums him up well.

But when he came to see me he was troubled. I ought to say that this was in the early 1970s, the time when the charismatic movement was just kicking off, and we were all having to come to terms with these strange new things happening in Christian circles: tongues and prophecy, new songs and hymns, lively, spontaneous worship, the need to be “baptised with the Holy Spirit”.

“Colin,” he said to me, “is there something wrong with me? I’ve been a Christian nearly all my life, but I’ve never experienced anything like what these people are experiencing. It’s really got me worried.”

I assured him that as far as I could see there was nothing wrong with him at all. As long as he was always open to God and to what God might want to do in him – and I had no doubt on that score – he really shouldn’t be troubled.

More food for thought in that conversation…

I don’t share these experiences because I want in any way to rubbish the charismatic movement, or visions and other “supernatural” experiences. Far from it. My whole ministry over all these years has been heavily coloured by this movement, which has radically changed the Christian church of nearly all denominations – and, in my judgment, largely for the better. But they came to mind as I was thinking about these words of Paul from Colossians 2:18.

The precise translation is uncertain, but Paul was obviously unhappy about dubious things happening in the church at Colosse, especially regarding certain people who were, among other things, “dwelling on visions”, as the NRSV puts it. The church was apparently being infiltrated by people who had an unhealthy spirituality, what I can only describe as a slightly odd mix of legalism on the one hand and super-spiritual ecstasy on the other.

Paul himself, of course, was no stranger to visions and various charismatic experiences; indeed, he even tells us (2 Corinthians 12) that on one occasion he was “caught up to the third heaven” and saw and heard things he wouldn’t dare to try and express. So he can hardly be called an enemy of such experiences. But he understood – if I can sum it up at risk of over-simplification – that character outweighs charisma.

That excited lady I baptised certainly had an experience, for what it was worth; but it was that godly man who had the depth, the spiritual stature, the sheer holiness.

I said I would share two experiences from my time as a minister. But perhaps I can add a third.

While still extremely young and inexperienced I became part of a local ministers’ fellowship. We met regularly to talk, pray and enjoy one anothers’ company. On one occasion we were asked the question “What do you really look for most in members of your church? What qualities do you most want to see?”

We went round the circle, everyone chipping in, and came to a Pentecostal minister who had probably the largest and most thriving church in the town. I was very interested to hear how he would answer the question. Would he be looking for visionaries? tongues-speakers? miracle-workers? prophets?

His answer was very simple: “I hope for people who can be relied on.”

Food for thought there?

Father, please help me to be wise in weighing up special and unusual experiences of your Spirit. Help me to be neither sceptical nor gullible. But help me to value most of all the development of a Christ-like character. Amen.

Must I really hate my family?

Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple”. Luke 14:26

I’ve long felt that “hate” must be just about the ugliest word in the English language; it’s somehow so horribly naked and uncompromising. I once heard a top snooker player on television talking about his chief rival (somebody who usually beat him, as it happens): “I hate him,” he said, and it seemed almost worse than an obscenity.

Which makes it all the more difficult to swallow Jesus’ words here. We recoil in distaste at the very thought of “hating” our nearest and dearest.
Yet here it is. And if we believe in the authority of scripture we don’t have the option of dismissing it out of hand. We have to grapple with it. So: what sense can we make of it if we want to take it seriously and not water it down?

First, a bit of technical background is helpful (scholars, by the way, aren’t just out-of-touch egg-heads tucked away in their universities!). GB Caird was an authority on the biblical languages, and he wrote: “The semitic mind is comfortable only with extremes – light and darkness, truth and falsehood, love and hate – primary colours with no half-shades of compromise in between. The semitic way of saying ‘I prefer this to that’ is ‘I like this and hate that’.” I think that helps a lot.

It’s worth noticing that Matthew, in his gospel, gives the same truth as Luke, but in this softer form: “Anyone who loves his father or mother… his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me…” (Matthew 10:37).

Second, it is vital to take this saying (along with everything we read in the Bible, of course) in the context of the whole. Did Jesus himself literally hate his own father and mother? Well, the tender way he treated Mary while hanging in torture on the cross would certainly suggest otherwise. He took the trouble to commit her to the care of “the beloved disciple” (John 19:26-27).

Still more, Jesus teaches us to love even our enemies (Matthew 5:43-44). Wouldn’t it seriously stretch credibility, then, if we were at the same time commanded to literally hate our loved ones? And still more again, didn’t Jesus himself show love even to those who crucified him: “Father, forgive them…” (Luke 23:34)? If Jesus had really meant “hate” in that ugly, naked sense that it has for us today, well, he certainly wasn’t true to his own teaching! In fact, wouldn’t he be a hypocrite, teaching something he didn’t himself practice?

The essential truth behind Jesus’ words is simple: “I come first. Loyalty to me outweighs loyalty to any other person or cause. If you decide to come after me, good, but be prepared to make some hard decisions.”

And this, of course, is a truth which many Christians are called to act on today. Think of the couple called to missionary service far away from home. Think, even more, of the Muslim who opts to follow Jesus at the agonising cost of being disowned by their family. And think of Jesus’ further sobering words to all of us that we must “take up the cross” in order to follow him.

Christian discipleship is no joke, no hobby, no pastime. It is a serious business – and this passage makes that clear even after we have allowed for the factors I have mentioned.

This prompts a further reflection. We live in a culture that is very keen, in theory at least, on “family values”. I mustn’t get too cynical here, but it always irritates me when I hear politicians in particular (not least prime ministers) telling us that they may not be Christians in any strict doctrinal sense, but that they do “believe passionately” in the Christian emphasis on family values.

I find myself wondering if they have ever read these sobering words of Jesus. They are, in effect, making themselves more “Christian” than Christ. “Family values”? The plain fact is that allegiance to Jesus can give rise to deep and painful divisions in families.

Yes, let’s value all the positive things the Bible says about husbands and wives, sons and daughters; but let’s also be true to Jesus himself and not duck his blunt warnings to us about “counting the cost” of following him.

Ultimately the only family that matters is the family of God our heavenly Father.

Father, I thank you that family is your invention, to be cherished and valued. But I pray too that my loyalty to you will always be my top priority. And I offer a special prayer for those many people today whose hearts are breaking because they have heard the call to put Jesus first. Amen.

Fight the good fight

Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. Psalm 20:7

Have you seen the Steven Spielberg film Warhorse, all about the 1914-18 war? The central character is Joey, the beautiful thoroughbred horse which gets drawn into the war. The film is about the adventures of his young owner Albert as he first loses him and then gets re-united with him. Quite a tear-jerker, really.

If nothing else the film brings home the sheer vileness of war. The weaponry of those days was far less sophisticated than what we are used to today, but even then the damage, misery, pain and death it inflicted were truly horrific. Oh for a world free of war!

In the world of Old Testament Israel, war was also a regular occurrence. In 2 Samuel 11:1 we read about “the spring, the time when kings go off to war”, as if it was just part of the normal cycle of life, like the hop-picking season or the summer holidays. It seems that for God’s people to become established in a dog-eat-dog world they found themselves having to wage war like every other nation, which meant that they too had to develop weapons of destruction.

But in their best days they never forgot what the Psalmist says here: ultimately success depends on trust in God. Oh yes, they still had their horses and chariots, but they knew that in the last resort that wasn’t what really mattered. When they forgot this, they found themselves in deep trouble. Read, for example, about the battle of Ai in Joshua 7, when they assumed that their superior manpower was bound to see them through – only to be given a rude awakening. Or the folly of King Ahab in 1 Kings 22, who thought that he could make himself safe on the battle-field by resorting to a very human trick – and came seriously unstuck.

The lesson is simple, and still applicable all these centuries later: you can’t fight God’s battles with the world’s weapons. You can try, of course; but you are bound to fail. “Put your sword away!” Jesus told the loyal but misguided Simon Peter at the moment of his arrest. (How sad that so often throughout its two thousand year history the church has failed to heed those words.)

Well, no-one these days urges us Christians to go to war in Christ’s name. So what might this teaching mean for us in 2014? There are two great passages from Paul which can help us if we put them together.

First: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:4). Second: “Put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes you may be able to stand your ground…” (Ephesians 6:11). And if we ask what this “armour of God” consists of, Paul goes on to itemise it: truth… righteousness… the gospel… faith… salvation… the Holy Spirit… the word of God… above all, prayer.

The church is easily tempted into aping the ways of the world. It may adopt plans, schemes and strategies which have brought success in the world of business, politics or sport. And, yes, sometimes we Christians can derive insights from these areas – we have to be practical, down to earth, “savvy”.
But to imagine that they are bound to “deliver success” in the spiritual realm is sheer folly. Beware books which promise you, for example, “six steps to victory in the spiritual warfare”! – as if all you have to do is learn certain techniques and put them into practice. It just isn’t like that. No, spiritual warfare requires spiritual weapons. I once heard an anonymous little rhyme which sums this up: “Satan trembles when he sees/ Christian saints upon their knees”.

Are you aware of being involved in spiritual warfare? I hope you are – because every Christian is, whether he or she realises it or not. But if that is so, the key question becomes: what are the weapons you are fighting it with? Are you aping the world? Or following the leading of the Spirit?

Oh God, the forces of unbelief, falsehood and evil sometimes seem so powerful, and I feel overwhelmed. Help me to do battle in Jesus’ name – and to do it only with his holy methods. Amen.

A man of faith – and failure

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing… and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” So Abram left… Genesis 12:1-4

I wonder exactly how Abram heard these momentous words spoken to him by God? Did he receive an angelic messenger? Was it an irresistible inner voice? Or perhaps an audible voice from some unseen visitor?

We aren’t told. But what we know is that they were words which transformed not only his own life, but the very course of human history.

What has been going on? In essence, God is looking in sadness on the ruin of the beautiful world he has made. The first human pair has fallen into sin. The first murder has been committed. Male/female relationships have become twisted. Corruption has set in – so much so that God has seen fit to “de-create” the world by means of the flood. A new, clean start is needed.

But things get no better. The building of the tower of Babel, a monument to human arrogance and self-glory, sets in train hundreds of years of decline.

So what is God to do? Wash his hands of the whole human project? That would seem reasonable. But he has, if I can put it this way, a problem: he loves the world he has made, and the people he has put on it. How then can he destroy everything?

So he decides on a rescue mission for planet earth… He will bring into being a nation of people who will be, so to speak, his representatives on earth. He will make known to them something of his character. He will give them laws to live by. They will be “a light to lighten the nations”. They will be, in effect, the light of the world.

But how can even God bring such a people into being without a founding father? He has to find someone to fill this role.

Step forward… Abram.

And so the long and bumpy journey begins which leads ultimately to Jesus, the supreme light of the world; to Acts 2 and the day of Pentecost, when representatives of the various nations hear God’s good news in their own languages; and to Revelation 7, where we find “a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the lamb…”

There is so much that could be said about Abram. I’ll stick to just two things.

First, God didn’t choose him because he was particularly good. He wasn’t. Go to the second half of Genesis 12 and you find him involved in a grubby, squalid little scheme to save his own skin, even at the expense of his wife Sarai’s honour. The faith that caused him to leave Haran and set off into the unknown has shrivelled and withered away.

Read further in Genesis and you find that his descendants could be not much better – especially the sneaky, cheating Jacob, the man whose name is actually changed to “Israel”. Oh yes, later we do find further displays of faith and obedience; but the overall picture is really pretty mixed.

So? If nothing else this reminds us that all human beings are sinful, and that God’s blessing and salvation really do arise from his grace alone. If God is going to work through human beings, then he has to work with some pretty rough material – think Moses the murderer, David the adulterer, Elijah the quitter, Simon Peter the denier.

But doesn’t this also mean that there is hope for you and me? We, no doubt, have plenty in our lives that we feel ashamed of; but God loves us, and wants to change us and use us. No excuses for bad behaviour, of course. But if we come to God humbly, just as we are, there is no limit to what he might do with us. Let’s get that great truth into our heads!

Second, God didn’t choose Abram only in order to bless him, but, much more, to make him a blessing to others. Sadly, this is what his descendants over the next two thousand years so often forgot – and this is what broke Jesus’ heart. And this is why we – all who claim to love and trust Christ – have inherited that role of “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).

Which all leads to a searching question: when we pray, are we more likely to pray “Lord, bless me” or to pray “Lord, make me a blessing”? There’s a massive difference! It’s not wrong to ask God’s blessing on ourselves, not at all; but it should come well down our list of priorities.

And let’s never forget- it’s in blessing others that we find our own truest blessing. Yes, really!

Lord God, thank you that you choose to work through deeply flawed human material. That description fits me – so use me, Lord, use even me, just as you will, and when, and where. Amen.

Old faith, new blessing

Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But… Luke 1:6

Life is full of “buts”.

“We’d planned to go for a picnic, but it bucketed down with rain…” “We were in front until the 89th minute, but their centre-forward just sneaked a goal…” “Everything seemed great, but then that awful phone-call came…” “The holiday was fine, but our flight home was cancelled at the last minute…”

You can probably think of various buts in your life as you read this. This tiny word reminds us that life is never perfect, and that we should never take anything for granted. And this is true for the finest Christians as much as for anybody else. It was true for Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist. Luke tells us they were exemplary, God-loving people. They lived holy lives. But

You probably know what comes next: “… they had no children… and they were both well on in years”. For all their goodness, a cloud of sadness hung over this old couple. Today, childlessness is no stigma – indeed, some people consciously choose it. (“We aren’t childless,” I once heard it said, “we’re child-free “.) But in New Testament times it was seen as a reproach, taken by many as a sign that God was displeased with them.

But then what happened? They were told that, impossible though it might seem, they were indeed going to be blessed with a child. And so John was born. It strikes me that perhaps it was a blessing that Zechariah and Elizabeth will almost certainly have died before they saw the weird life their son ended up living – a prophet of God, a “voice in the wilderness”! – and the sordid, tragic death he died. But they knew joy in their latter years.

Yes, there can be good buts as well as bad ones, positive buts as well as negative ones. “Yes, it was raining hard, but suddenly the sun came out…!” “It looked as though she wasn’t going to pull through, but here she is today…!”

Two thoughts strike me.

First, don’t write off the old.

Zechariah and Elizabeth had lived long lives, and probably felt they had nothing new to look forward to or to contribute. But God hadn’t finished with them! They had a vital role to play in the unfolding of his purposes.

A couple of questions…

If you are young, do you tend to subconsciously dismiss the old? Well, stop it, please! And if you are old, do you tend to think you have nothing left to give, or to enjoy? Well, again, stop it!

As long as God gives you another day of life, there is something for you to do, to achieve, to enjoy, simply to be. I read not long ago about a pensioner who discovered a new ministry as a “street pastor” – she’s out there in her town centre in the early hours befriending prostitutes, some of whom see her as a substitute mother.

Second, don’t give up on prayer.

I’m sure Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed much about their sadness. All right, perhaps they had stopped praying specifically for a child, given their age – and who would blame them for that? But God did answer their prayer, even if not in the time-scale they would have liked.

We need to learn that however things may look today, there will be good days ahead. Think of it like this: a prayer you first prayed twenty years ago may for all you know be due to be answered in two weeks’ time – you could say (sorry, this is the way my mind works), a bit like a policy coming to maturity. You may have forgotten it; but God hasn’t.

The gospel is all about God’s great and miraculous but. “Like everyone else we were by nature objects of wrath,” writes Paul in Ephesians 4. “But God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ…” “You were like sheep going astray,” says Peter, “but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (1 Peter2).

Everything seemed dark and hopeless. But God decided to act in the giving of his own Son. And nothing has ever been the same.

Dear Father in heaven, help me to cope in faith with the sad buts in my life – and to keep looking in hope for the joyful ones. Amen.

When going to church is a chore

Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing. Hebrews 10:25

Have you missed church a few Sundays recently? Been a bit tired? Had rather a lot to do? Not really in the mood?

It easily happens, doesn’t it? I must confess that since I retired from full-time ministry a couple of years ago I have been slightly shocked by my own change in attitude. For over forty years it would never have occurred to me to miss a service. (Well, I was the minister, wasn’t I!) But since then the thought has crossed my mind occasionally, “Shall I give it a miss today?” Don’t worry, I have resisted the temptation; but the fact that it came into my mind at all showed me something about myself I would rather not have known.

We get the silly, unrealistic idea into our heads that if you are a truly “spiritually-minded” person you will be always champing at the bit to get to every service or prayer/praise meeting that ever happens. But that idea is just plain wrong – for most of us anyway. Jesus told us that the spirit may be willing, fine, but the flesh – that is the very human, earthy side of us – is weak. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is.

Which is why I find this little verse in Hebrews 10 encouraging. It reminds us that this isn’t a new problem. Not at all: even in those early, heady days “some people”, it seems, had got into the habit of “giving up meeting together”.

Another wrong idea we get into our heads it that the New Testament church was as near perfect as makes no difference: Spirit-filled! bursting with life and vitality! spiritual gifts in abundance! conversions every five minutes! overflowing with love!

Actually, er, no. Ever read the hair-raising Corinthian letters (sexual immorality, cliquishness, chaotic meetings, law-suits among fellow-Christians; apart from that, just fine)? Or Revelation 1-3? Or Galatians 1:6-9? I could go on.

So it’s hardly surprising that the early Christians, just like us, could sometimes get a little flat in their enthusiasm for corporate worship.

In the context of Hebrews, this may well have been to do with the threat of persecution (a far better excuse, I suspect, than most of us could muster). But why does it happen to us? Leaving aside the obvious possibility that we have slipped into some kind of sin, I would suggest these reasons…

First, all of us are subject to moods. Difficult circumstances in our lives are bound to affect us. Health difficulties certainly can. Family worries. Work problems. Money worries. Even the weather! (Have you ever pondered the fact that we actually have an expression about being “under the weather”?) The Christian life is often compared to a marriage – it starts with a great whoosh of excitement, but then settles down to a more humdrum existence. Learning to recognise and then cope with our moods is a great skill in the art of daily living.

Second, there may be doubts. Every thoughtful Christian is certain to have moments when the thought flashes into our minds “Is it really true?”… “Could that atheistic scientist on television last night be right?”… “Was my conversion, wonderful though it was at the time, really anything more than an emotional somersault?”… “How could God allow those children to be so horribly killed?”… “I’m really not sure I agree with what the preacher said last Sunday”…

When thoughts like that are jostling around in your mind it’s hardly surprising if you feel the temptation to give worship a miss.

Third, there may be hurts. Here’s another fact that we hesitate to face up to: bad things can happen in churches. People sometimes say hurtful, wounding things. Quarrels break out and misunderstandings arise. It’s possible to go to church one morning feeling bright and sunny, only to come home an hour or so later feeling as black as thunder because of something that happened. Humanly speaking, why indeed would you want to go back?

All these things, and many more I haven’t mentioned, need to be looked fairly and squarely in the face and dealt with as calmly and carefully as possible.

But one thing is sure. Regular worship and fellowship are essential parts of the Christian life, and if our enthusiasm for them has waned we shouldn’t just try to brush it under the carpet. Jesus went to worship “as was his custom” on the sabbath-day (Luke 4:16). And I don’t think he founded the church with the intention that we should stand outside it, do you? Do we know better than him?

People who say that they only need to go into their garden/ out into the country/ into their bedroom to worship God are (sorry) talking nonsense. And the trend towards “believing without belonging” is (sorry again) wrong.

The church is a community of sinners. All right, saved sinners, of course; but sinners nonetheless. Like you. Like me. Cherish it! Delight in it! Value it! See it through the difficult times. You won’t regret it.

Dear Father, I confess that it is sometimes an effort to get to worship week by week. Please renew my enthusiasm and strengthen my faith. Help me to see your church as you see it – with deep love in spite of all its faults. Amen.

Luke-warm love

I rejoice in following your statutes, as one rejoices in great riches…

O how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long…

Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed…

My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises…

My heart trembles at your word.Psalm 119: 14, 97, 136, 148, 161

I have picked these five verses pretty much at random from Psalm 119. Does anything about them particularly strike you?

The main thing that strikes me is the sheer passion this man has for God and his word. He “rejoices” in God’s word “as one rejoices in great riches”. He “meditates all day long” on it. He weeps uncontrollably because it is not honoured. He stays awake at night, not because he can’t sleep, but so that he can meditate on God’s promises. He finds God’s word so powerful and penetrating that his heart “trembles” at it.

Yes, whatever poetic license there may be here, there’s no doubt about the basic fact: God matters to this man!

The second thing that strikes me (look out, confession coming up) is how little I can identify with him. There’s no point mincing words; even after fifty years as a Christian I couldn’t claim even a hundredth part of this man’s love of God. And that makes me feel bad.

Is that something you find too?

Of course God is important to me. He changed my life for ever when I was a teenager, and he has been with me ever since. And of course his word matters to me – except, of course, those times when I find it really difficult and perhaps (confession again!) even rather boring.

But this kind of red-hot passion, this yearning, this rejoicing, this longing, this agonising – er, sorry, no.

And it gets even worse when I turn to the gospels and read the words of Jesus about “loving the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength…” That is, as they say, a big ask. I just end up feeling completely inadequate, a failure, a spiritual wimp, if you like.

Well, don’t worry, I’m not writing this today as an embarrassing exercise in soul-baring; I’m writing it because I suspect I’m far from alone in feeling this way. I want to share a couple of reflections as I, and perhaps you too, put to ourselves the question “Why am I such a luke-warm Christian?”

The first and most obvious reason is that there are so many other ingredients in my life, whether work or leisure or everyday duties, that God just gets squeezed out. Stay awake all night meditating on God’s word? – you cannot be serious! I’ve got to go to work tomorrow. There are responsibilities to attend to. There are children to look after. (And, let’s be honest, there’s a big football match on television.)

I don’t know an easy answer to this. Surely God understands that we have other things we need to do, also that we need times of relaxation and enjoyment? Yes, I’m sure that’s true. (In fact, you almost wonder if the man who wrote the psalm may have been in danger of blowing a fuse because of his single-minded intensity.)

But while we shouldn’t “beat ourselves up” too much, equally let’s not be too easy on ourselves. It can only be good to do some honest heart-searching from time to time to see if we have pushed God to the sidelines. Even things good in themselves can become an idol…

The second reason is perhaps a little more excusable, though it may not apply to you as it does to me. I became a Christian as a fifteen-year-old, and though my family background wasn’t a Christian one I had a happy and loving home and plenty of good opportunities in early life. Result: though I have no doubt that I was a pretty unpleasant, arrogant and self-centred youngster, I never got deeply into “bad ways”. So when my conversion happened it was quite low-key and undramatic. And that is very much how my Christian life has developed over all the years: no great highs like the psalmist’s, but not many lows either.

I sometimes wonder: would I today have a deeper love of God if he had rescued me from a life of drink or drugs or violence or crime or promiscuity? Or if, like Paul, I had been a militant anti-Christian? (Does Luke 7:47 help here?)

I don’t know, and obviously there can be no turning the clock back – nor would I want to if I could, of course. So it’s no excuse; but just possibly it’s a crumb of comfort.

Perhaps the best that people like me can do is simply to come before God quietly every day and ask him to help us to love him more, to know him better and to walk with him more closely. Indeed, there is a wonderful hymn by that deeply troubled poet William Cowper which we could very well make our own…

Lord, it is my chief complaint / That my love is weak and faint. /Yet I love thee and adore; /O for grace to love thee more. Amen. Amen!

Tool or ornament?

These trials have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine… 1 Peter 1:7

Faith… it’s such a simple little word, isn’t it? – just five letters. And we all know what it means: trust, belief. It’s what brings us to God in the first place: the Bible says we are “justified – that is, put in the right with God – by faith”. And it’s what keeps us going once we have entered into that relationship with him. Just read Hebrews 11.

But here’s a funny thing about faith: it’s easiest to have it just when you don’t really need it. I think you will know what I mean. There are times in life when the sun is shining, the sky is blue, everything is well with us, and we feel happy. At times like that, faith isn’t a problem. “Of course I believe in God!” we say, “Why ever not? Why wouldn’t I? Praise the Lord!”

But the real test of faith, of course, is at the other times, when the sun is hidden behind dark heavy clouds and our lives are burdened with worries and problems. God seems a long way off, his ears seem deaf to our prayers, and we hold on to our faith through gritted teeth.

I know that there are Christians who will tell us that such experiences never happen – or should never happen – to those who follow Jesus, but I’m afraid they are in a state of denial, well-meaning, I am sure, but seriously mistaken. God never promises to keep us free from troubles; what he does promise is to bring us through them.

The fact is that faith which has never been tested – and has therefore never had to withstand pressure – isn’t really a faith worth having: it’s like a bottle of medicine which you never need to take, or a bank account you never need to draw from, or a knife when you never need to cut anything.

Putting it another way, faith can be a mere ornament in our lives, rather than a working tool. There’s nothing wrong with ornaments, of course – I’m sure we all have a few around our homes. That pretty little glass peacock that sits beside our television is very nice; but I don’t think it would be much use in an emergency.

In our verse Peter the apostle talks about the trials of his readers and says they have happened “so that your faith – of greater worth than gold… – may be proved genuine…” Yes, it’s the testing of our faith that proves that it really is worthwhile.

That is why we need to be always building and developing our faith, even when things are relatively easy. We do this by drawing close to God day by day, whether we feel like it or not. By putting ourselves under pressure by accepting responsibility. By taking risks for the sake of the kingdom of God. It’s in ways like these that we build a credit balance (if I can put it like that) in the bank of faith, so that we have something to draw on when the going is tough.

If this is true, you may have noticed that something I said earlier was in fact wrong. I spoke about having faith “when you don’t really need it”. Of course, the fact is that we need faith each and every day, whether the sun is shining or the clouds have rolled in.

So how about it? A faith that hasn’t stood the test is a faith not worth having. All right, God doesn’t want us to invite problems and difficulties, of course not; they’ll come soon enough without that! But he does expect us to put our faith to work. That means expecting to see answers to prayer and looking for practical signs that God is active in our lives. It means living to please him even if that involves sacrifice, inconvenience, even hardship.

So… What’s your faith like? Just an ornament? Or a genuine working tool? Is it time to roll up your sleeves and put your faith to work?

Lord God, help me to today to bring my faith out of the tool-bag and put it to work for your glory. Amen.