God’s beautiful people

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. Isaiah 53:2

One of the world’s leading fashion designers was quoted in the paper recently as saying, “I hate ugly people. Very depressing.”

You almost feel you should apologise to the poor little petal: “Dear Mr Fashion Designer, I really am so sorry to be a cause of mental anguish to you – please forgive me.” (Mind you, I can’t resist commenting that, judging by the accompanying photos, he himself is hardly an oil painting.)

I have to admit that if I were asked to draw up a list of the ten most stupid, bone-headed, nasty, ill-mannered, coarse, odious, contemptible remarks ever made in the history of the human race, this one would be right up there. Ugh!

Yet on further reflection I find it hard not to feel genuinely sorry for a person capable of such a repugnant opinion. And when I see the fashion pages in newspapers and magazines – unsmiling models (why are they always so frowny?) parading in absurd clothes you would never see in everyday life – the feeling is only intensified.

Isn’t it sad that a massive industry involving millions upon millions of pounds is built on the need to look (supposedly) good, to impress, to turn heads? Sad, sad, sad!

And then we read that prophetic word about Jesus in Isaiah 53, which The Message translation gives as: “There was nothing attractive about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look”. Or the word about David in 1 Samuel 16:7: “… the Lord does not see as mortals see: they look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Or Peter’s word to women (though – with adjustments no doubt – every bit as applicable to men): “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and gold jewellery and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self…” (1 Peter 3:3).

It’s striking that the New Testament never so much as mentions the physical appearance of the people it’s describing. Centuries of Christian art have more than plugged that gap, but it’s all pure guess-work.

I wonder what Mary looked like? Was she pretty; was she plain? Was Peter really the stocky, muscled, bearded figure we probably carry in our imaginations? We just don’t know.

Indeed, the nearest we ever get to a physical description of a New Testament figure is that of Paul, who was apparently “baldheaded, bowlegged, strongly built, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, and a rather large nose…” Not particularly impressive, it would seem!

Let me be quick to add that this description doesn’t come from the Bible, but from an early Christian document called the Acts of Paul and Thecla, so we have no way of knowing how true it is. (Mind you, judging by Paul’s own words in 2 Corinthians 10:10 he wouldn’t have been particularly bothered about disputing it.)

There is of course nothing wrong with taking a little trouble to look nice and to dress smartly and even elegantly. But an obsession with outward appearance is a symptom of a false set of priorities. If we are to seek beauty, or handsomeness, let it be of that “inner” kind that Peter mentions.

And what, precisely, does that mean?

Well, I don’t think I can do better than quote the words of that ugly little runt of a man – you know, the one who wrote Galatians: “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control…” (Galatians 5:22). (Why not take a few minutes to suck slowly on each of those words?)

Yes, the harvest of the Holy Spirit coming to fruition in our lives. (You might be interested to know, by the way, that that quote about Paul’s appearance goes on with the words: “…he was full of grace and mercy. At one time he seemed like a man, and at another he seemed like an angel.”)

Various questions arise: Where do I spend more time, in front of the mirror or before the Lord? What matters most to me, how I look to others or how I appear to God? What consumes more of my money, giving to God’s work or spending on my appearance?

The fruit of the Spirit or the vulgar glitz of the celebrity industry…? I think I know which matters more to God. Don’t you?

Lord God, give me a deep desire to have the true inner beauty that comes of being filled with the Holy Spirit, and so to prepare for that day when, seeing him as he is, I shall be like Jesus. Amen.

Face to face with ultimate reality

... human beings are destined to die once, and after that face judgment… Hebrews 9:27

Have you ever – perhaps when attending a funeral – thought to yourself “One day the person in the coffin will be me”?

“Oh, that’s being really morbid!” you might protest. But no: it’s simply being realistic. It’s facing facts; death is only a matter of time for all of us. (I leave aside the final generation of human beings – the ones who will still be here when Jesus returns.)

I’ve put dots at the beginning and end of the quotation from Hebrews to show that this very blunt statement is snatched out of a longer sentence. Death and judgment is not mainly what the writer is talking about, and he introduces it here almost as an aside, something he just takes for granted. Which, when you think about it, makes the statement all the more striking.

In a world where many of us, especially in the western world, try to banish thoughts of death from our minds altogether – a kind of corporate denial – a verse like this should make us sit up. What can we draw from it?

First, we only live once and we only die once. The journey we make from the cradle to the grave is all we are given – there is no dummy-run and there can be no turning back of the clock. So we need to live it thoughtfully and seriously. How many people, I wonder, get to the end of their lives with a long list of “if onlys” in their minds. The things they didn’t do but should have… the things they did do but shouldn’t have…

Second, ideas about reincarnation, as found mainly in Hinduism and Buddhism, are ruled out. Christians believe in resurrection, not reincarnation. And this also means, incidentally, that the kind of shallow talk that people trot out – you know, “all religions are basically the same”, that sort of thing – needs to be challenged. It sounds very tolerant and enlightened; but sorry, it just isn’t true.

Third, death is not the end. Just as reincarnation is ruled out, so also is the idea that we simply fade away into nothing. The New Testament offers us plenty of clues about what we might expect after death, but immediate oblivion or annihilation isn’t one of them. (The possibility of subsequent annihilation is another matter, and one which Christians differ on.)

No, the one certain event the writer picks out for mention here is judgment, which is a pretty serious prospect. It means that these earthly lives we live are known by God, and a time will come when they will undergo his scrutiny.

So, how should we understand divine judgment?

Some years ago I was the victim of a criminal assault. Fortunately I wasn’t too badly hurt, but it ended up in court and the person who attacked me was punished. He escaped a custodial sentence, but was required to pay me compensation.

At one point it looked as if he was trying to avoid payment, but the legal people made sure that didn’t happen. And what stuck in my mind was something one of them said to me: “He’s got to learn that actions have consequences”.

That, in very simple terms, is what divine judgement comes down to. The things we do and say matter, they have consequences. Wrong deeds – the plain Bible word is “sins” – cause hurt and pain to others and ourselves and destroy what is good and beautiful. And what kind of God would God be if he simply turned a blind eye as if they were of no importance?

I freely admit that the thought of my very sinful life being scrutinised by a perfect and holy God makes me feel pretty uncomfortable. Nobody knows better than me that I have nothing to be remotely proud of. Just the opposite.

But it’s when we think like that that we need the bit outside the dots, the bit I didn’t quote. Let me give the full sentence: “Just as human beings are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people...”

If the idea of judgment seems a bit grim – as indeed it should – this now is the good news! The reason Jesus shed his blood and died on the cross was to deal with all our sins once and for all. So while the thought of judgment is certainly not a comfortable one, it isn’t one we need to fear.

As the apostle Peter beautifully put it, “He himself carried our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24).

Isn’t that something to rejoice about?

Lord God, thank you for sending your son Jesus to deal with all my sins, and to take away the sting of death and the fear of judgment. Help me to respond to your love with true gratitude and Christlike living. Amen.

Faith that conquers

Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God? 1 Samuel 17:26

Can you hear the scorn in David’s voice, can you see the contemptuous curl of his lip, as he utters these powerful, defiant words?

You will probably know the story. David, the shepherd boy, the youngest of the eight sons of Jesse, has been sent to the camp where his brothers are in the army of King Saul. His job is nothing much – just to bring them provisions. But it so happens that while he is there the Philistine champion, the giant Goliath, comes out to taunt the demoralised Israelite forces. And this is more than David can stomach. All right, he may be only a boy – he may not be big enough, or old enough, to fight in the army – but no way is he going to stand by while God and his people are mocked.

And the rest is history. Against his own better judgment King Saul, a mere pathetic husk of the man he used to be, allows him to do battle with the giant. David rejects the sword and armour the king provides him with. He takes five pebbles from the brook; but he needs only one, hurled from his sling, to fell Goliath. And as a result the Israelite army “surged forward with a shout” (verse 52) to finish off what David has begun.

David’s dramatic victory illustrates various Bible verses. Here are just a few. Perhaps take a moment or two to absorb and digest each one…

With God, all things are possible – Matthew 19:26.

We are more than conquerors through him who loved us – Romans 8:37.

If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you will be able to say to this mountain “Move from here to here, and it will move” – Matthew 17:20.

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 demolish strongholds – 2 Corinthians 10:3-4.

Jesus said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” – Luke 10:18.

These are wonderful, bracing texts. But if we are honest we have to admit that sometimes they have the effect of crushing us rather than inspiring us. They seem just too good to be true, as if the Bible is promising more than it actually delivers. They may prompt us to say “Well, my faith must be pretty useless then! – this sort of thing doesn’t happen much in my life.”

Well, of course, such verses don’t reflect the whole teaching of the Bible – there is plenty there also about the battle of faith, about the need for perseverance and determination, about fasting and praying, about wrestling in prayer.

But they are precious texts nonetheless. They lift our eyes beyond the purely human and earthly. They remind us that there is a God in heaven, and that faith in him will never ultimately fail us. It’s worth noticing how David describes the God in whose name he declares his faith: he is “the living God” – implying that all other gods are mere idols, dead nothings. And that God hasn’t changed over nearly three millennia.

David’s faith changed everything. The story of Saul’s collapse and David’s triumph demonstrates that while despondency breeds despondency and doubt breeds doubt, faith breeds faith. It is a great thing to have faith oneself; it is an even greater thing to inspire faith in others.

And so the story raises a key question: Who do we most naturally identify with? Saul? Or David?

Lord God, help me when your voice seems deaf to my cry and my faith seems unrewarded. But help me too not to rest until the kind of faith that motivated David burns also in my heart. Amen.

Is there a Goliath in your life today just waiting to be felled?

Blessings wrapped as disappointments

Peter looked straight at the crippled man, as did John. Then Peter said “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. Then Peter said, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk”. Acts 3:4-6

What topics come near the top of your regular prayer list?

Apart from the big world-wide matters reported on the news (I do hope we remember to pray about these things?) it may be that many of us pray about a fairly small range of issues: our health; family concerns; our work situation; our church; money worries, that sort of thing. And there is nothing wrong with that: God is our Father, and he wants us to bring our concerns to him.

But, as we all know from experience, God’s way of answering our prayers is often not what we expected – or even particularly wanted.

The man in Acts 3 was crippled from birth. This means, in all probability, that he had been sitting daily at the Beautiful Gate of the Jerusalem temple, begging, for a long, long time. He had ceased to see people as people – they were just possible sources of income. (This, I suspect, is why Peter tells him quite sharply “Look at us”! – he had lost the habit of catching anyone’s eye.) You see unfortunate people like him often in London underground stations.

Peter’s words at first must have been a disappointment to him: “Silver or gold I don’t have”. He might have thought “Well, kindly get out of the way then! – you can’t help me, so I’m not interested in you.” But things changed when Peter gave him something infinitely greater than he could have anticipated – as I heard it put once, Peter didn’t give him alms (that is, charity), but he did give him legs!

It’s similar with the paralysed man who was let down through the roof to Jesus in Mark 2. He too has probably not walked for years, and is completely dependent on his friends. So he looks eagerly up at Jesus: is this going to be his big day? And what does Jesus say? – “My son, your sins are forgiven”.

Oh dear. Again, he might well have replied, “Well, Jesus, that’s very kind of you of course, and I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but actually, just in case it has escaped your notice, I am in fact paralysed. To be quite honest, forgiveness is all very nice, but it really is something I am quite happy to wait for…”

Two cases, at first at least, of “Er, thanks but no thanks…” But in each case the person in need ended up with something far, far greater than they hoped for.

It’s a little different in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul (a man who was used by God to heal others, remember) was himself afflicted with a “thorn in the side”, whatever that may have been. He asks God to take it away – not once or twice, but three times. But God says no: “My grace is sufficient for you…” To which Paul might well have replied “Well, thanks a bunch, Lord, but what about this wretched thorn…”

Prayer, it seems, can be more complex than we imagine! All I can say, again, is that in each of these cases the disappointed person on the receiving end got far more – and far better – eventually than they hoped. What, even Paul? Yes, even Paul. His “disappointment” paved the way for an even closer relationship with God. He goes on to talk about the deeper level of joy into which he entered, even though he did have to keep putting up with that thorn.

We must, of course, pray for those things which present themselves to our minds at the time, our immediate and felt needs. That’s fine. But let’s not limit God. We may know what we would like. But he alone knows what we really need.

So never forget… what seems to us a disappointment may very well be the wrapping paper around a far greater blessing.

Father in heaven, help me daily to trust that while I know only my most obvious and urgent needs, you have my far deeper interests at heart, and that even the disappointments in answered prayer will turn out for my ultimate good. Amen.

Could it be that God has answered a prayer of yours – but you never realised it because it came in a form you weren’t expecting and perhaps didn’t really want?

A passion for prayer?

Epaphras… is always wresting in prayer for you… Colossians 4:12

I did a lot of acting when I was at school. How much that helped to equip me for the ministry I wouldn’t like to say – though I suspect it did help me to develop the foghorn of a voice which some suggest is one of my trademarks.

Perhaps there was something else too: though I generally had fairly big parts I never had the main one. I was never the star. Queen Gertrude in Hamlet (don’t laugh: I went to an all-boys school) was about the biggest I had.

Solid supporting roles: that was me. And perhaps it was this that gave me a liking for the lesser characters in the Bible. Of course it’s good to focus on the exploits of a Moses or an Abraham, a Peter or a Paul.

But I think we can learn too from the Barnabases and the Timothys, the Hezekiahs and the Micahs. Even dear old Azariah son of Oded (2 Chronicles 15 in case you’ve forgotten) was once a real blessing to me. And I always smile fondly when I read the greeting of Tertius (“who wrote this letter”, Romans 16:22) as he gives us a cheery wave over the span of two thousand years.

A special favourite is Paul’s friend Epaphras. He pops up just three times in Paul’s letters: little more than a mention, really. But Paul says something which challenges and inspires me: he was “always wrestling in prayer” for the Colossian Christians.

Wrestling in prayer: I love the expression. It conjures up an image of veins standing out on the neck, of sweat dripping from the brow. Effort. Work. Struggle. Literally it could be translated agonising.

And I find myself asking, When did I last do that? Indeed, have I ever done that?

In Christian circles you hear a lot about praying: “turning to the Lord in prayer” or “coming to God in prayer”. But “wrestling in prayer”: how comfortable are we with that? Perhaps it’s something we only associate with times of crisis and desperation, when we feel that all else has failed us and only prayer is left.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that – various Bible characters wrestled in prayer at crucial points in their lives. Jacob literally wrestled all night with the mysterious stranger by the Jabbok River (Genesis 32). When the stranger asked to be released, Jacob responded with one of the most awe-inspiring cries in the whole Bible, a cry to make the back of your neck prickle: “I will not let you go until you bless me!” (Can you hear him?) Oh for such tenacity in prayer!

And then there’s poor Hannah. All right, the word wrestle isn’t used. But she was certainly agonising over her childlessness – so much so that the old priest Eli took her to be drunk (1 Samuel 1).

Supremely of course there is Jesus himself in Gethsemane, when his sweat came “like great drops of blood”.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I look at these examples and somehow I feel very small. What do I know – really know – about prayer?

But here’s an interesting thing… When Paul speaks of Epaphras he doesn’t suggest any kind of crisis or turning point in his life: on the contrary, he explicitly states that Epaphras was always wrestling in prayer for others. It was, apparently, part of the normal pattern of his spiritual life. In some ways that makes me feel smaller still.

But why would God ever want us to pray in this way? Isn’t he a generous and bountiful giver? Can blessings only be squeezed out of him, like blood out of a stone? The answer is that while God does indeed delight to give to his children, it is also his desire to deepen and stretch us.

So, no cheap and easy blessings, no coin-in-the-slot prayers. Shallow Christians are no use to him.

Well, this is all very well. But there’s a problem: wrestling in prayer isn’t something you can switch on at will: “Mmm, perhaps I’ll do a bit of wrestling in prayer today – after I’ve read the papers, watched EastEnders and put the cat out, of course…” It just doesn’t work like that. We can’t magic up this kind of prayer by sheer will-power.

So what are we to do?

Here’s a practical suggestion. Why not start a prayer-book – a personal notebook to keep with your Bible? Write down two or three things where you really long to see answers. And then commit yourself to pray doggedly and persistently until an answer (it could be No, of course) is given.

Perhaps, come to think of it, this is what Paul meant by prayer Epaphras-style. It may not have the drama and intensity of some of those other examples – but it’s a start, at least.

Lord God, please deepen and intensify my prayer-life! Give me a greater hunger and thirst after you. Amen.

When waiting isn’t wearisome

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. Psalm 130:5

Most of us, I imagine, hate being kept waiting. That bus that won’t come; that long queue at the bank; that time when the doctor’s surgery is “running late”… Grrr! In our frantically busy world it’s natural to feel frustration and annoyance.

But times of waiting can in fact be positive and useful. If you know you are likely to be kept waiting you can, of course, always come prepared with a book or paper to read or a puzzle to do. Even if not, you might be able to have a chat with someone else, even if they are a total stranger – who knows, it might make their day; it might even change their life! Have you ever thought of using that “dead” time in, say, the doctor’s waiting room to look around and pray silently for your fellow-patients?

Waiting can be an important part of the Christian life. This applies especially to the matter of prayer. When we pray we would naturally like answers quickly. Sometimes – just sometimes – it happens like that. But very often it doesn’t.

That’s when we need to remember that God is the only person who knows absolutely every factor in the situation that’s on our minds. Only he knows that a speedy answer that suits us might throw other things out of gear. Perhaps that’s why the Psalmist adds those little words “and in his word I put my hope”. It’s as if he is saying, “I refuse to let a bit of a delay dampen my trust in God! I take it by faith that my prayers are not in vain. Why? Because his word gives me that assurance.”

There are two main ways of waiting: passively or actively, negatively or positively.

The passive waiter (sorry, I don’t mean the man in the restaurant) folds his arms (so to speak), sits absent-mindedly looking at the wall-paper, and says “All right, Lord, here I am, bring it on.” I think there are some people who go right through their lives like that, vaguely hoping for the best. They always end up disappointed and unhappy.

All right, to be fair there are times to let your mind lie fallow, so to speak, and quietly digest what’s going on in your life. But even that inactivity can be a positive thing. (What was it the poet said? “What is this life if, full care,/ We have no time to stand and stare?”) That’s different from just vacantly brooding, that dreary thing we call “killing time”.

The active waiter, on the other hand, having made known to God their need, rolls up their sleeves and gets on with something useful. Aren’t there usually various good things we could be doing with our time?

This doesn’t apply only to prayer – it can be true of life in general. In Acts 17:16 we read that Paul, having been chased out of a town called Berea, found himself in the ancient city of Athens. He had nothing to do but wait for his friends Silas and Timothy to join him.

So what does he do? – sit around twiddling his thumbs? No. He walks around the city informing himself about the people of Athens. He gets the feel of the place. He gauges the religious atmosphere. He gets involved in discussions and debates with people who know nothing of Jesus. Probably without realising it, he is collecting sermon material through this “dead” time – and when the opportunity is given to him to speak, it bears real fruit: several men and women become believers.

Back to the psalmist. He says that his soul waits for God “more than watchmen wait for the morning”. I imagine that must be hard – waiting through the dark hours for the first glimmerings of light and the start of a new day: ah, what a wonderful thing dawn can be!

Are you in such a phase of your life at the moment? Finding it hard? Well, whatever your circumstances may be, the message is simple: Pray hard, yes. Wait expectantly, yes. But don’t forget also to look for ways to maximise even the most barren times. God will not fail you.

Father, I confess how impatient I can be. Please help me to believe that “my times are in your hands”, and that if there is a delay then there is some good reason for it. As you waited so patiently for me to come and put my trust in you, so help me when I am called on to wait patiently for you. Amen.

How should we think about Satan?

Satan… masquerades as an angel of light. 2 Corinthians 11:14

Over the centuries Christians have often got themselves into a muddle over the figure of “Satan”. Who exactly is he? Is he in fact a person at all, a “he”? Or is he some kind of impersonal force, an “it”?

Well, as far as I can see the Bible consistently presents him in a personal way, so that is how I have always thought of him, however mysterious his existence might be.

Whatever, what matters is that he comes across as the enemy of God’s people, indeed of the human race as a whole, the originator of evil, lies and deceit, the one who tries to trip us up and make us fall. (The word “satan” means literally “accuser” or “adversary”.)

Try this for a question: were you aware that Satan is active in your life today? No? Then that means he has been getting on quietly with his work, perhaps doing damage which will only become apparent at some point in the future, sowing tiny seeds which will one day produce a bitter crop.

We can fall into opposite errors regarding Satan. Some Christians laugh at the whole idea: it’s just a lot of primitive nonsense – we can’t believe in such mythology in the twenty-first century! (This in spite of the murk we see when we shine a torch into the depths of our own souls, not to mention the unspeakably horrible evils we see around us in our groaning world.)

Others, on the other hand, become almost obsessed with him, sensing his presence at every corner. Whatever difficulty you have, there has to be a demon or evil spirit behind it. I remember big pastoral problems in my own ministry twenty or so years ago because people insisted on seeing demonic forces behind the most everyday problems. (I cringed once to hear of a man whose wife had just died having a “spirit of bereavement” supposedly cast out of him.)

Both these approaches are wrong. The only sensible way to look at it is to say that, yes, the devil is indeed active, and we should be aware of that fact. But we shouldn’t go looking for him. James tells us: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God, and he will come near to you” (4:7-8). That just about says it all. Don’t yield to temptation; just get on with living the Christian life in close fellowship with God. That’s pretty much all that most of us need to know.

Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). I’d love to know in what form the devil came to him. Was it just a voice in his head? Or a vision? Did the devil have some kind of bodily form? How exactly did he “take Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple”?

I don’t know. But there’s one thing I do know: he didn’t appear to Jesus with horns on his head, a long forked tail, and a smoking pitch-fork in his hand. More likely, as Paul puts it in our verse, he appeared “as an angel of light”.

And that is a warning to us. Yes, if Satan came to us in the cartoon manner I have described, well, at least we would know he was there. But no: he comes with a smiling face, with plausible words, possibly with remarkable displays of spiritual power. That, presumably, was how the “false apostles” Paul was so concerned about had come to the church in Corinth. The devil loves to deceive – and it’s amazing how capable we Christians can be of being misled.

Before long now it will be Lent, a time for drawing near to God: yes, Easter isn’t far away. It’s a time for self-examination, for repenting of our sins (though hopefully we do that regularly anyway). To help us with this we have, apart from that simple verse from James, the encouragement of Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (16:20).

The message is clear: Christian, walk by faith; be filled with the Holy Spirit; get on with your God-given business; and if you have to think about Satan at all, think about him as a defeated enemy.

Dear Father, as Jesus himself did battle with Satan in the desert, so help me to do battle with him day by day, confident in the knowledge that he will be crushed under my feet. Amen.

Would you say you think about Satan too much – or too little?