Are you harbouring a grudge?

Those with good sense are slow to anger, and it is their glory to overlook an offence. Proverbs 19:11

Are you harbouring a grudge? Is there somebody whose behaviour towards you rankles deep down?

“Forgive and forget” is easy to say, but can be hard to do. Once an offence is given it’s a great temptation to dwell on it, brood over it, even (let’s be honest) enjoy it in a twisted kind of way. But that is not, according to the writer of Proverbs, the way of “good sense”. Indeed, he describes a willingness to “overlook an offence” as something “glorious” – and that’s a strong word.

As I look back over my life I can only say how deeply grateful I am for people who have turned a blind eye to things I did or said which fill me now with a sense of embarrassment and shame. They acted as if it had never happened; they let life just carry on as usual.

One thing I have learned is that there is a difference between an offence being “overlooked” in that kind of way and an offence being forgiven in a conspicuous way.

What I mean is this: somebody might forgive you, yes, but do it in such an obvious and lordly manner that it leaves you feeling about an inch tall. They might as well say outright “Well, I do forgive you, of course (I am after all a very good Christian) – but please don’t imagine that I never noticed what you did. Oh no! And you can take it for sure that I won’t forget it…” And so your relationship with them is tainted for the rest of your life: like having a debt which you can never repay.

There are at least three important things to notice about all this.

First, overlooking a fault may be extremely difficult. Let’s not pretend – what was done may not have been trivial. It may have lasting ill-effects on your life and happiness. So coming to the point of forgiving that other person may have to be a clear act of will, a hard-headed (though not hard-hearted!) decision: “All right, I am entitled to go on feeling angry, but I make the choice not to do so. I refuse to allow bitterness to dominate my mind.” In other words, it is not something offered on a purely emotional level.

If the offence was particularly bad this may only be possible with a large helping of God’s grace. It may take time. The old negative feelings may keep rearing their heads again. But in time peace will come.

This leads to the second point: in refusing to overlook a fault we end up harming ourselves more than the other person. Nursing a grudge can poison your whole personality. It can turn you into a different – a worse – kind of person. A minister friend of mine once memorably described somebody as “full of frozen anger”: all well on the outside, yes, but all the signs of a deep inner unhappiness. To choose unforgiveness is to choose misery.

Third, overlooking a fault doesn’t necessarily mean not wanting proper, impartial justice. This is where it gets a little tricky. On a personal level I may genuinely forgive the person who has hurt me and sincerely wish them well. But I may also feel that what they did should be – dare I use the word? – punished by some legitimate authority.

Take an extreme example. Sometimes when an atrocity occurs – a murder perhaps – we hear the victim’s loved ones say “We have forgiven the person who did this.” This is truly wonderful (and often, though not always, said out of Christian faith).

But it will still be right for the murderer to be subject to the force of the law. Forgiveness isn’t easy – and it mustn’t be allowed to appear cheap. Actions have consequences, and it is important that both the perpetrator of the offence and society as a whole are reminded of this.

But – and this is the great thing – it doesn’t cancel out the genuineness of the forgiveness.

Jesus, dying on the cross, prayed that his Father would forgive those who crucified him, because “they don’t know what they’re doing”. On this whole painful topic, that surely has to be the last word.

Father in heaven, thank you for the people in my life who have graciously turned a blind eye to my many sins and faults. Help me in turn never to harbour grudges. Help me to be more like Jesus. Amen.

A time for listening

Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Matthew 4:4

Our God is a God who speaks.

That is a fundamental belief of Christians – the third verse of the whole Bible tells us that “God said…” And constantly, throughout both the Old Testament and the New, God is speaking. It’s a theme you just can’t get away from.

I know someone who doesn’t speak. I don’t know why, and it is no business of mine to ask – a physical problem with his mouth? some kind of psychological blockage? But if you say Hello to him he will smile and shake your hand, but he won’t say anything. As you can imagine, this makes communication enormously difficult, indeed, pretty well impossible. Whereas most of us (let’s be honest) talk far too much, making it very easy for other people to know what’s going on in our minds, with him you just never know. Strange, and faintly disturbing.

But suppose God never spoke? What then? Suppose we simply had no way of ever knowing what was going on in his mind? We would be completely at a loss as to what life is all about, and how we are supposed to live it.

How does God speak? Well, in various ways.

First, through the created world round us. The Psalmist tells us that “the heavens declare the glory of God… Day after day they pour forth speech” (Psalm 19). Second, through our consciences – don’t we all sometimes hear that inner voice warning us about something we are tempted to do? Conscience isn’t a perfect guide – it is corrupted by all sorts of bad influences. But if we bring it before God it is an important guide to us.

Above all, God speaks through his son Jesus. This is why the Bible calls Jesus “the Word made flesh” (John 1) – which, when you stop and think about it, is a very strange way to refer to a person. Every time you focus on Jesus you are in effect hearing God speak. He is the living Word of God.

And God speaks through scripture – the Bible, as we usually call it. This is why Jesus, when he was tempted by the devil, sent him packing by quoting the words of scripture, “it is written…”, three times (Matthew 4:1-10).

You remember the story… The devil has tempted Jesus to turn the stones around him into bread – a pretty serious temptation, given that he had gone without food for forty days. But Jesus refuses to give in: the greatest need of human beings, he says, is not physical food, vital though that of course is, but God’s word. This is a direct quotation from Deuteronomy 8. Jesus knew his Bible – and he knew how to use it.

And the question is: Could that be said of you and me? God speaks, that’s for sure. But are we listening? Do Bible texts and passages spring naturally to our minds to help us in the normal circumstances of our lives? Or is our knowledge of the Bible hazy, patchy, hit-or-miss?

I hope all of us are good listeners. I imagine that most of us listen specially carefully if the person speaking is someone we regard as particularly important – someone we love, someone who is in an important position. Well, people don’t come more important than God! So close your ears to him at your peril.

God has given us a book. We call it the Bible. Certainly it can be difficult, even puzzling, sometimes downright disturbing. But through it he speaks to us, so not to listen to it is sheer folly.

Are you serious about your Bible? I urge all of us to get to grips with it every day. Think about it. Reflect on it. Pray over it. Over time, get to grips with it all – every chapter, every verse.

If you are serious about God, how can you not be serious about his word? Putting it another way, not wanting to bother with the Bible is tantamount to not wanting to bother with God. Going back to what Jesus said, we don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Father, forgive me that though you are constantly speaking, I am so rarely listening. Thank you for the gift of the Bible. Please help me to take it seriously, and to make it my daily food. Amen.

Wake up, Lord!

Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Psalm 44:23

“Isn’t it about time you woke up!”

Have you ever found yourself saying that to somebody? Or perhaps there have been times when somebody said it to you. It needn’t, of course, be meant in the literal sense of actually getting out of bed. More often it’s a way of saying “Come on, you’re in a rut! Stir yourself! Roll your sleeves up and get to work!”

Whatever, it does come as something of a surprise that the Psalmist in Psalm 44 should feel able to talk to God himself in this way. It seems faintly blasphemous. Who are we to give orders to God? And anyway, doesn’t the Bible say elsewhere that “God neither slumbers nor sleeps”?

Well, if you read the psalm through, you find that it’s about a period in Israel’s history when they were going through a seriously bad time – and the problem was that God just didn’t seem to care. He seemed deaf to their prayers. It was as if he was fast asleep; hence these words.

When I last read Psalm 44 these words struck me with special force. I decided that if it was good enough for the Psalmist, well, it was good enough for me. I prayed over various matters where it seemed that God wasn’t doing anything very much, and, taking a leaf out of the psalm, I prayed “Come on, Lord, wake up!” Two things seemed to happen – or not, as the case may be.

First, something that didn’t happen. I didn’t find myself feeling guilty, as if I was doing something wrong. Of course, I tried to pray reverently and respectfully, but, still, I was as blunt as the Psalmist. I remembered that God has pretty broad shoulders, and he is happy to take from us whatever we feel we need to throw at him.

But second – and this was something I didn’t really expect – I felt that the longer I prayed in this way, the more God was almost smiling back at me and saying something along these lines: “So you would like me to wake up, would you? All right, I’ve heard what you are saying. But – just a minute now – can I ask you something? Is it time you did a bit of waking up too?” It seemed almost like a bargain, if I can put it in such crude terms: “I’m very happy to wake up – but what about you?” It was as if God was challenging me: “Have you rather gone to sleep in your discipleship!”

It brought to my mind one or two other Bible passages.

I thought of Jesus, praying in agony of spirit in the Garden of Gethsemane, only to find his disciples fast sleep. There is a deep sadness, even loneliness, in his voice as he asks, “Couldn’t you keep watch with me for one hour?” There’s Paul in Romans 13: “The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber“. Paul again in Ephesians 5: “Wake up, O sleeper, and rise from the dead and Christ will give you light.” And Paul yet again in 1 Thessalonians 5: “Let us not be like others who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled….”

Never mind God… We as Christians are called to be alert! self-controlled! awake!

Where does this lead us…?

Perhaps there’s a bit of a paradox here that we need to notice. We often hear it said (usually in sermons; I know I’ve said it myself) that “God’s timing is not ours”, and therefore we need to be patient. Of course that is true. But on the other hand verses like this one suggest that there may also be times for – if I can call it this – a sort of holy impatience. Times when our passion, our urgency, to see God’s hand at work, trump that natural sense of reverence.

So… Do you ever feel like praying “Come on, Lord, wake up!”? If so, I encourage you to carry on in that vein. God can take it! But do remember too to listen out for his voice – you may well hear him say, “What about you? Have you gone to sleep on the job – the job of being a serious Christian? Is it time you too rolled up your sleeves? Let’s strike a bargain: I’ll wake up a bit – when I see you beginning to stir”.

Dear Father, please forgive me if I have become lazy and sluggish in my walk with you. Please help me to roll up my sleeves and get going again. Only then, dear Lord, will I look for the signs that you too are really awake!

A ministry anyone can exercise

May those who fear you rejoice when they see me. Psalm 119:74

Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. Acts 36-37

There are people who, the moment they walk into a room, make you feel better. They don’t have to do or say anything – their mere presence is somehow reassuring and encouraging. Do you know people like that? I hope you do.

Other people have the opposite effect. Not necessarily “Oh no, here comes trouble”, but just a feeling that it’s going to be hard work not to be pulled down. I suspect that we all know people like that. (Though let’s be very careful; we need to add a little warning: “Could it be that I am someone like that!”)

The Psalmist is praying to be the first type of person. He is saying, in effect, “Lord, I want to be the kind of person who gives a boost to those who respect and love you. I want to be a good example. I want to be the kind of person that others can look to. I want to be an encourager…”

Encouragement… it’s a great gift.

We all know about Barnabas in Acts (or if you don’t, may I suggest it’s time to get reading). Well, Barnabas wasn’t in fact his proper name; really, he was called Joseph. Barnabas was a nickname, meaning “son of encouragement” or, more colloquially, “that man who goes around bucking everybody up”. You don’t earn a nickname like that unless there is something a bit special about you. Thank God for the Barnabases of this world! Thank God for the Barnabases in your church.

But, again, we need to be careful. We’re not talking here merely about a particular type of personality. Some people are naturally cheery and optimistic – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But the kind of encouragement the Psalmist is praying to give, and which Barnabas certainly did give, springs not just from that sort of personality, but from a deep understanding of God’s word. Read Acts right through and you immediately see that Barnabas, as well as being generous and open-handed, was a capable preacher of God’s word. And read Psalm 119 right through (yes, all 176 verses of it!) and you will see that the writer’s chief concern is with God’s word.

People who are naturally cheery are good to know. But in times of trouble their cheeriness can wear a bit thin, a bit hollow. Suddenly they don’t seem to have much to offer. The person who says “Cheer up, everything’s going to be all right” when you are floundering in the depths of despair, only makes you feel worse.

But the person who can come beside you and strengthen you with wisdom and good sense based on the Bible, the person who has proved the truth of God’s word in his or her personal experience, the person whose whole way of thinking and living is soaked in scriptural principles, the person who is willing to give practical help in terms of time, money and talents – well, that person truly is a “son or daughter of encouragement”.

The message is clear. Learn the word of God with your head. Pray it into your heart. Live it out in your life. Then you will be able to share the Psalmist’s prayer. Then you will be a real Barnabas to your fellow-Christians.

Father in heaven, thank you for the Christian men and women who have been an encouragement to me throughout my Christian life. As I study your word and seek to put it into practice, may I be to others what those people have been to me. Amen.

That perfect church

…Christ loved the church… Ephesians 5:25

Are you happy in the church you belong to?

Well, no church is perfect, so I imagine all of us can think of things we regard as not quite ideal. But I hope that on balance you feel good about your church.

I ask because I was talking recently to someone who had moved house and was having difficulty settling into a new church. She had tried various churches in the locality, but none of them seemed right for her.

Her problem, in essence, was that she had been extremely happy in her first church – she had become a Christian there, been baptised there, been married there, and found opportunities to serve there. And she now found herself saying of her new church, “It’s just not the same!” Church number one was very much her spiritual “home”.

I did my best to advise her – I hope wisely. Thinking about it afterwards I boiled my advice down to a number of headings which I hope pointed her in the right direction. Just possibly they might help you too.

1. After serious prayer and thought (of course), find the least imperfect church and commit yourself to it. A church that is as near to being Christ-focussed, scripture-based, prayerful and open to the Spirit as you can find. Remember the old saying “If ever you find the perfect church, whatever you do, don’t join it – you’ll only spoil it”. Feed on the thought: “God is calling me to make an imperfect church that little bit better”.

And, of course, never make the arrogant mistake of assuming you have nothing to learn: be humble.

2. Make sure your commitment is cheerful and positive. Not “Oh well, if it’s the best I can find, I suppose I’ll just have to put up with it”, but “Right, this is where God has led me, so it’s time to get cracking!” Don’t be a grumbler. If you discover a little group of malcontents (most churches, sadly, have them), keep well away from them. Such a faction is poison in the blood-stream of the church.

3. Support the leadership. All right, the preaching may leave you a bit hungry, the theology may raise some questions in your mind, and there may be matters of direction and policy that make you a little uneasy. But live with it.

Pray regularly for the leaders, remembering their task is hard. When a leader does something that you appreciate, be ready with a quiet word of thanks and encouragement. Unless something happens that you really are seriously unhappy with, “obey your leaders and submit to their authority” (Hebrews 13:17). Christian leaders (you may be interested to know) often appear strong and confident, but deep down most of us are pretty insecure people and need a genuinely given boost from time to time. (You can take that from me!)

4. Look for opportunities to serve. Make the gifts and talents that God has given you generously available to the church – teaching, pastoral work, practical skills, music, administrative and financial expertise. You will find fulfilment in the exercise of your own ministry even if the church as a whole leaves a lot to be desired. We belong to churches to give as well as to get.

5. Join some kind of small-group fellowship – a house-group or prayer-group or whatever. We often gain from small groups what a more formal service or meeting doesn’t give us. Be the first to turn up at a prayer-meeting – yes, even when it’s a dark February evening, the rain is bucketing down, there’s a big match on the television and you might be one of only three or four attending. God will honour your faithfulness. Be happy to learn from others, and pray that your contribution to such a group will benefit them too.

There are plenty of other things I could add. But I think these five points cover the essentials. Perhaps I am a little naive, but I sincerely believe that if you put these things into practice and quietly stick at them long-term, something wonderful will slowly happen: your church will become the kind of church you can truly love, and the kind of church where others will find the risen Christ.

“Christ loved the church” – and it wasn’t exactly perfect, was it? Can we do less?

Lord Jesus, please help me to love the church as you do, even if sometimes it’s heavy going. Amen.

Enjoy your God!

Praise the Lord! Psalm 150:6

“How can I possibly respect a God who is constantly telling me to praise him? What kind of God is that! More like some pathetic, jumped up megalomaniac!”

I don’t know if an unbelieving friend has ever said anything like that to you – or if you have ever thought it yourself. But it’s certainly a fact that some people feel that the whole idea of “worshipping a superior being” is just stupid and childish.

How can we as Christians respond to that kind of argument? After all, the Bible does indeed tell us in many places to praise God, especially in the psalms (I’ve picked out just the very last line of the whole one hundred and fifty psalms).

One thing worth saying is that, strictly speaking, God doesn’t in fact command us to praise him. Almost always – as in the verse above – it’s a human voice urging his fellow human beings to praise God. The psalmist (in this case) is obviously delighting in God, and he wants everyone else who hears or reads his psalm to join him in doing so. As it sometimes appears elsewhere in the psalms, “Praise the Lord with me.”

It’s rather like when you see a beautiful scene or sunset and you automatically turn to your companions and say “Oh, just look at that!” You don’t think about doing so, you simply can’t help it. Or you hear some music that you really enjoy and you say “You must listen to this!”

To invite others to share your pleasure in something is a so-called “knee-jerk reaction”. Some things are just too good to keep to yourself, so you instinctively invite others to join you. And if that doesn’t apply to knowing God, well, what can it apply to!

In his little book Reflections on the Psalms, CS Lewis has a chapter called “A word about praising” in which he goes into all this in some detail. He sums the whole thought up pretty well in the sentence: “In commanding us to glorify him, God is inviting us to enjoy him.” He also quotes the words of the Westminster Confession, an outline of the Christian faith drawn up in 1646 by some very serious, you might even say sombre, Christian scholars: the main purpose of the human race, they said, is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever”.

Perhaps that word “enjoy” can be a bit of a stumbling block. It’s a word we tend to reserve for relatively trivial things – an exciting football match, say, or a good film, in my case a big helping of treacle sponge and custard. The idea of “enjoying” God (and note, it doesn’t say “enjoying our relationship with God” only, but actually enjoying him) seems slightly inappropriate. But who am I to quibble? There can be lofty forms of enjoyment as well as those more ordinary ones!

One aspect of this that Lewis doesn’t touch on is when praising is the very last way we feel about God. How do you tell somebody whose loved one has just died to praise the Lord? Or someone who has been unjustly thrown into prison for their faith in Jesus? Or someone who has been told by the doctor that they have an incurable disease? Praise the Lord? You cannot be serious!

There is no easy answer to that. But we need to remember that both the Bible and Christian history are full of men and women who suffered enormously in all sorts of ways, yet never ceased to praise God.

Sometimes we have to dig deep into the resources we have stored up over many years, when our circumstances were more obviously “enjoyable”. The fact that we know God at all. The times when prayers have been clearly answered. The moments when we have shed tears of joy over a special blessing. The comfort, however weak it might seem, that we find in prayer. The encouragement and guidance we derive from scripture. The love of dear friends, Christian or otherwise… I could go on.

The Bible tells us many things about our relationship with God. Love him. Trust him. Obey him. Seek him. Talk to him.

But when it tells us to “praise” him it is encouraging us to do something we might easily overlook. Enjoy him!

Loving Lord God, please help me to enjoy you today – and always. Amen.

The runaway slave

Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was so that you might have him back for good – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. Philemon 15

Philemon, a wealthy Christian of Colosse, is angry; one of his slaves has run away. To be honest, Onesimus was never much use anyway, but nobody is happy to be cheated in this way. Well, if ever he surfaces again – trouble! (The Roman law allowed that runaway slaves could even be executed.) Philemon puts Onesimus out of his mind and gets on with life.

But then… Onesimus does surface. Amazingly, he comes back voluntarily, knowing the punishment that might await him. What on earth would make him do such a thing! Answer: he has with him a powerful secret weapon that Philemon would never have dreamed of…

As Philemon prepares to give him a blasting, Onesimus says, “Er, master, before you say anything, would you mind just reading this” – and produces a letter from his pocket. “What’s this?” says Philemon. “Well, it’s from Paul,” says Onesimus, and hands it over.

A letter from his friend Paul! – Philemon is stunned.

This is the tiny letter we have in our New Testaments. It’s the letter in which Paul explains that he has met Onesimus in prison, probably in Rome; that the runaway slave has become a Christian during that time; and in which he asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus back “no longer as a slave… but as a dear brother” in Christ.

Can you picture Philemon reading this letter, this total bombshell? He realises that he has, as they say, some serious thinking to do.

Well, I can’t guarantee that this is exactly how this little drama unfolded – I’ve used my imagination a bit. But it must have been something like it. Why not read The Letter to Philemon again yourself and see how you can bring it to life?

What particularly interests me is the fifteenth verse. It begins, “Perhaps the reason he [Onesimus] was separated from you for a little while…”

What’s so special about that? Well, I am struck by the way Paul assumes that there was a reason why these things had happened. It wasn’t just chance. God had a purpose over and above the events themselves. To put it simply: something bad had happened; but God had brought something good out of it.

Bad things happen to God’s people. We all know that. Often we are puzzled. We can’t see any rhyme or reason in it. But often we find later on – perhaps very much later on – that something good results. Many of us who have been Christians for any length of time can testify to the truth of this. As the old hymn puts it, “God moves in a mysterious way/ His wonders to perform.”

The classic Bible example is Joseph, in the Book of Genesis. He suffers the injustice and cruelty of being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. He becomes a slave. His master’s wife viciously gets him put in prison. But God does an amazing thing – Joseph becomes the Egyptian king’s right-hand man, and is used to save the world from famine.

And when Joseph eventually meets those cruel brothers again, what does he say to them? Does he blast them for what they did? No. “Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was in order to save lives that God sent me ahead of you…” (Genesis 45).

Yes, it wasn’t obvious at the time. Yes, what happened was completely unjust and wicked. Yes, it plunged Joseph into years of misery and pain. But, says Joseph, God was behind it all, working out purposes of which nobody could have had the remotest idea.

A simple question: Do you believe that God has reasons for the bad things that happen to you? I was taught as a very young Christian that in the purposes of God there is no such thing as coincidence. I’ve never seen any reason to doubt that. Things happen for a reason. As that other great hymn puts, there are times when we need to “trace the rainbow through the rain”.

Have faith! The sun will shine again, and God’s wonderful purposes will become clear.

Father, only you know how Philemon responded to this turn of events, whether or not he swallowed his anger and received Onesimus like a brother in Christ. And only you know what you might be secretly doing in my life. But help me to trust you, and to believe that everything really does work out for good for those who love you. Amen.

“But” – little word, big meaning

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 can have a big meaning; it reminds us that life is never perfect, and that we should never take anything for granted.

And this is true of the finest Christians as much as of anybody else. It was true of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, the people we’re reading about here. 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,” somebody said, “we’re child-free“). But in New Testament times it was 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 with a diet of locusts and wild honey! – and the 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. “It was raining heavily, but suddenly the sun came out…!” “It really looked as though she wasn’t going to pull through, but here she is today…!”

Two thoughts at least are worth digesting.

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 still had a vital role to play in the unfolding of his purposes.

So, a couple of questions…

If you are young, do you tend, even if only subconsciously, to dismiss the old? Well, stop it! 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 anybody another day of life, there is something for that person to do, to achieve, to enjoy, simply to be. I read not long ago about a pensioner who was called to a new ministry as a “street pastor” – she’s out there in the streets in the early hours befriending prostitutes, some of whom think of 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, 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. And we need to learn that however things may look today, there will be good days ahead.

What is the gospel about if not the great and miraculous but of God himself?

“Like everyone else we were by nature objects of wrath,” writes Paul in Ephesians 4. Grim! “But God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ…” “You were like sheep going astray,” says Peter. Sad! “… but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (1 Peter 2). “Simon, Simon,” says Jesus to Peter, “Satan has asked to sift you as wheat…” Worrying! “But I have prayed for you…” (Luke 22).

When all seemed dark and hopeless 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.

Telling your conscience to shut up

This then is how we know that we belong to the truth … whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 1 John 3:19-20

I was standing in the queue in the post office the other day when a man walked in, ignored the queue and went straight up to the cashier. I tapped him on the arm and suggested he join the queue like the rest of us, whereupon he turned round and said “I do what I like. Don’t tell me what to do.” (It’s amazing, isn’t it, the lengths some people are prepared go to to brighten up everyone’s day?)

Hamlet said that “conscience doth make cowards of us all”: well, I suspect Hamlet had never met this man… Conscience? What conscience?

Conscience is a mysterious thing. It means, at the simplest level, feeling bad when you have done something wrong. But the tricky thing is that sometimes we don’t feel conscience when we should, and other times we do feel conscience when we needn’t.

I don’t fully understand John’s words in this little passage. I’ve only quoted a snippet, and you need, really, to read the whole paragraph. But I think he is hinting at something very important. He is suggesting that there are times when, all right, “our hearts do indeed condemn us” – in other words, when our consciences trouble us – but we shouldn’t let them. Our consciences can mislead us and, putting it bluntly, they need to be told where to go! We can claim the right to “set our hearts at rest in God’s presence”.

John, then, is addressing people with over-tender consciences. Is that the kind of person you are?

I knew someone once who was filled with anxiety because she had come back from Boots with too much change, perhaps 50p or something. She was seriously thinking of returning all the way to the shops to pay the money back until I told her that she really had done no wrong and therefore need feel no guilt. But she was afraid God might stop loving her.

She was one among several I have known who are always down on themselves – “I’m no good… I’m just a failure… There’s no way God could care about me… I really must have done something awful…” At worst, people like that are always doubting if they are true Christians at all. These are particularly the people John is writing about.

John hints at two thoughts we can bring to mind if ever we feel that way.

First, verses 16-19 raise a question we can ask ourselves: do I have a true love for others, a love which I am prepared to demonstrate in practical ways? All right, that love may be very inadequate; but if my honest answer is Yes, then I should boldly silence the voice of conscience when it tries to condemn me as not “belonging to the truth”.

John has just written, “… let us not love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth…”. True, good deeds cannot buy us forgiveness or salvation, but if they are done from a sincere heart they indicate that we can have “confidence before God”, that in effect, however imperfect we may still be, we are truly children of God.

Second, verse 20 offers us a statement we can digest: “…for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything”. In other words, God knows us better than we know ourselves. Sometimes we are harder on ourselves than God is.

I suppose that if we had to choose between a conscience that is too hard and one that is too soft, it would be better to have the soft one. Oh yes, it can be very easy to make excuses for ourselves! – and that is what a hard conscience does.

But we need to remember that God is our Father, that he loves us and delights to forgive us when we are truly sorry. We are to see even our sins and failings in the light of his gracious and forgiving love.

You have something on your conscience today? Can I suggest you sit down and do some hard, clear thinking? If it really is a fault, a sin, well of course repent and ask for forgiveness. But if it is just the devil’s pointing finger, well… why not tell it where to go?

The loving voice of God trumps the lying voice of Satan.

Thank you, O God, for the gift of conscience. Thank you for those feelings of guilt that alert me when I am out of step with you. Please give me a tender and sensitive conscience. But help me also to learn how to silence it when it brings me under needless condemnation. Amen.