You are strong when you are weak

… there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses… For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

When I was a small boy in Sunday School there was a song we used to sing: “Count your blessings! name them one by one./ Count your blessings! see what God has done./ Count your blessings! name them one by one,/ And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”

Today those words sound simplistic, even rather twee. But the more I think about them the more I feel that the message they are putting across is in fact good. Indeed, looking back over the years I can’t help wishing I had counted my blessings more often than I have.

The point, of course, is that they teach us to be positive and optimistic – to put it in modern terms, to “accentuate the positive”, to see that “every cloud has a silver lining”. I think of the football coach who has just seen his team hammered 5-0 – only to insist that “There are pluses we can draw from this defeat.” It is no doubt far easier said than done, especially when the going is tough. But the principle is sound.

It’s a lesson Paul, apparently, had to learn. He was given – presumably by God – a “thorn in the flesh”. No-one knows what that was – a sickness? a physical pain? an emotional struggle? a problem that he just couldn’t solve? the fact of regular opposition? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that he found it extremely unwelcome. Indeed, it “tormented” him, to the point where three times he asked God to “take it away”. “Lord, I’ve had enough of this!” You know that feeling?

And God said No. He told Paul, in effect, that he would have to live with it.

But – and this is what really matters – he didn’t leave it at that. As well as that unwelcome message, he added words of encouragement: “My grace is sufficient for you…”

In other words: “Paul, with my help, which is constantly there for you, you will be able to accept this ‘thorn’, and even benefit from it. It will teach you to trust more fully in me. It will keep you humble. It will enable me to use you more effectively, because your own sense of how good and gifted you are will be destroyed, and you will depend more completely on me.”

And so Paul finishes the paragraph with that wonderful paradox – “when I am weak, then I am strong”. Isn’t that great?

Fact: there is no human life so happy that it doesn’t contain some hard and unwelcome things. We all have our thorns in the flesh. What matters is how we deal with them.

In essence, two choices lie before us.

First, there is the negative option, a kind of grumbly, grousy resignation: “Oh well, I suppose I’ll just have to lump it then. But it really isn’t fair. Why me?”

And second, there is the positive option, a determined acceptance: “Well, I don’t like this very much, and I really don’t see why this should have happened to me. But never mind! If God has allowed it, he must have a reason for doing so. So I’ll aim to learn from it, and become a better person, and a more effective Christian, as a result.”

I think of the Christian woman stricken with spinal paralysis: “At first I was always asking ‘Why me?’But then I learned to ask ‘Why not me?’ And at that point everything changed.”

As I said, it isn’t as easy in practice as it sounds. But this is the Christian way. Remember the cross! Whatever our particular thorns may be, may we learn the same lesson Paul had to grapple so painfully with.

Dear Father, as I look at my life I can see all sorts of things I wish were different. Sometimes I feel a bit hard done by, even resentful. But I do believe that my life is in your hands, and so I pray for strength to accept whatever life deals out to me with a trusting and teachable spirit. Amen.

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Pride – the killer sin

Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out. Proverbs 17:14

The papers today are full of the spat at Chelsea Football Club.

In case you don’t know, a few weeks ago the Chelsea head coach, Jose Mourinho, lost his temper with his club doctors after they ran onto the pitch to look after an injured player. Even though the referee had beckoned them on, he felt they did wrong because the player in question didn’t seem seriously injured. Worse, with the seconds ticking away to the final whistle, it reduced his team to nine players (there should be eleven and they were already one short).

The doctors were banned from the touchline and the training ground – in effect, seriously reduced in rank. Not to put too fine a point on it, humiliated.

And now one of them, Eva Carneiro, has decided she has finished at Chelsea, and is “considering her legal position”.

I suspect that the great majority of people – total Mourinho fans apart – are firmly on her side. This is a story which, as they say, looks likely to run and run…

A perfect illustration of how a relatively trivial incident can explode into something seriously damaging.

Well, as you would expect, all the football commentators have been weighing in with their two-pennorth of opinion.

But I think the wisest words took about half a minute to say. Someone on television said: “If only Mourinho had made a statement as soon as the dust had settled and tempers cooled – ‘All right, I got this wrong and I’m sorry’ – it would have blown over in no time at all”.

“Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam” says the writer of Proverbs – a placid lake becomes, in a few moments, a deadly torrent. And how right he is! It happens every day, in offices, factories, workshops, schools, clubs, churches, you name it. People (perhaps I ought to say simply “we”) take offence and get hot under the collar; they say inflammatory things; even if deep down they know they’ve got things way out of proportion they refuse to back down. And it’s soon well out of hand.

And the remedy? Back to Proverbs: “so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out”.

Drop the matter. It sounds so simple. But the problem, of course, is what “dropping the matter” actually means in practice. In a word, apologising. Eating humble pie. Admitting we were wrong. Saying sorry. And who likes to do that?

I have some sympathy with Jose Mourinho – football, especially at the very highest level, is an extremely emotional business. Of course he was wrong to react as he did. But haven’t we all done exactly the same thing in different circumstances? His main fault lay not so much in losing his temper but in refusing to “drop the matter” immediately with a simple word of apology.

The word for that refusal in most cases is one that blights all our lives: pride. Pride can destroy our relationships; we insist on our own rightness, our own superiority, and we simply can’t stomach the idea of saying “All right, I was wrong”. Pride separates friends, work colleagues, family members – tragically, it can even be perpetuated over several generations.

On a higher level, Jesus has some thought-provoking things to say about this in Matthew 5:23-26: “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother…”

All right, we don’t literally “offer gifts at the altar”. But we do seek to bring our worship and praise to God. So Jesus is implying that a wrong relationship with a fellow human being has the effect of rendering our approach to God worthless.

I wonder, have you or I ever seriously thought about turning the car round on the way to church in order to make peace with someone we have offended? No? But what interest can God possibly have in receiving the worship and hearing the prayers of a pride-filled soul?

I invite us all to put to ourselves these two questions. First, how are my relationships with my fellow men and women? Am I long overdue for an apology? And second, how is my relationship with God? Have I faced the fact that I will never be at peace with him until I have taken a deep breath and said sorry?

Make no mistake, once we have learned to be truly sorry, there is no experience more liberating, more exhilarating, more life-transforming!

Dear God, forgive me the times I have wrecked relationships through stubbornness and pride. Give me the grace of true humility, and so help me to keep my relationship with you and with others strong and pure. Amen.

Mercy, forgiveness, love

The tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. Luke 18:13

I wonder if you have anything on your conscience today? It may be something quite trivial – you snapped at someone, perhaps, or over-indulged yourself in some way last night. Or it could be something serious – a memory of something done many years ago, a dark memory that just won’t go away but keeps jagging back like a nasty toothache.

Whatever, we all know that feeling of guilt and shame, that sense of having not just let ourselves down, but of hurting another person and grieving God.

The beautiful little story Jesus tells in this passage is perfect medicine for a hurting conscience. Perhaps it’s just what you need…?

The Pharisee – that is, the proud, self-righteous, religious person – prays a prayer full of himself. He informs God (who, I suspect, already knows) what a splendid person he is. He turns a condemning eye on the tax-collector standing near him in the temple, and thanks God that “I’m not like him “. If you met this man in the street you would probably be a little in awe of him; he is what we sometimes call a “pillar of society”. But… he is proud, full of himself.

The tax-collector on the other hand may well have lived a pretty shady life. And he knows it. So when he comes into the temple to pray he really hasn’t got any fine words to use. The best he can manage, apart from thumping his chest as a sign of remorse, is “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. End of prayer. (Note, by the way: sometimes the short prayers are the best prayers…)

And guess what happened? Well, let Jesus tell us in his own words: “…this man… went home justified before God”.

To be “justified” means to be “in the right”, acquitted, discharged from the court. When that man left the temple he went home with a light step, a straight back, and his head held high. This wasn’t because he had done anything good. No, all he had done was admit his wretchedness and throw himself on the mercy of God. But his humble confession cut more ice with God than all the fine deeds of the Pharisee.

Now, I’m sure that in Jesus’ day there were humble Pharisees and good tax-collectors – not everyone should be tarred with the same brush.

But the point is clear: there is nothing God loves more than to forgive someone who is truly sorry for what they have done and who they are. In fact, Jesus says elsewhere that “there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine good people who don’t need to” (Luke 15:7).

Why does God want to forgive us in this way? Simple: because he loves us. Did you know that God loves you, even in spite of the bad things you have done?

Of course you did! If you go to church you hear it there (I hope! – if it’s a true church) pretty well every Sunday! You’ve may have known it since you were a child, especially if you grew up in a Christian home or went to Sunday School. And if none of those things applies to you, well, it’s my privilege to tell you for the very first time right now.

But let me ask the question another way. Assuming you do know theoretically that God loves you, have you taken this great truth to heart? Have you really “taken it on board”, as they say? Have you ever sat down in a quiet, thoughtful, serious moment and said to yourself, “God loves me. God is waiting to forgive me “?

No? Well, why not today?

Lord God, when I look into my heart and soul, when I think about the past, I find many things that make me burn with shame. I find darkness. But thank you that still you love me, and that you delight to forgive. Help me to receive your forgiveness today, to rejoice in it, and to live the life of a sinner washed clean as snow. Amen.

What makes a true conversion?

When Peter saw the disciple Jesus loved, he said to him, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus replied, “…what is that to you? You follow me!” John 21:21-22.

Do you ever feel a little envious when you hear other people’s conversion stories?

There are people who can put a precise date, even an exact time, to the moment they became a Christian. They may have had a vision or some other kind of supernatural experience. Perhaps they had a dramatic healing or a special touch of the Holy Spirit – “baptism” in or with the Spirit, or speaking in tongues.

And you? Well, you certainly reached a point in your life when you decided you believed in Jesus and wanted to follow him, and that was wonderful. But it was all very gradual and undramatic. And when you hear these powerful stories you are tempted to think “Mmm – why not me?”

The message is very simple: don’t feel that way! How you came to faith really doesn’t matter; only (a) that you did, and (b) that you are still “walking humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

We preachers can sometimes cause problems here.

Suppose we want to preach a really evangelistic sermon, making clear the wonder and joy of being born again. What do we do?

Well, quite possibly we go to the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9. There is surely no more dramatic conversion story in the New Testament than this! – a man violently opposed to the church… a supernatural encounter with the risen Christ… a voice from heaven… a falling to the ground… a literally blinding light… humiliation… a total transformation…

This is a wonderful story, and you’d need to be a pretty naff preacher to turn it into a dull sermon. But – and this is the point – it’s a serious problem if we fail to make very clear that this is anything but a typical conversion. Ninety-nine percent of conversions just aren’t like that. So we preachers are guilty of giving a very false impression if we encourage our hearers to think they are.

When you stop to think about it, it’s striking that, though we meet plenty of Christians in Acts and the rest of the New Testament, we know next to nothing about how they were converted.

All right, there’s the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8: converted in the middle of the desert by a strange man who appears out of nowhere and explains the Bible to him. Strange, certainly; but not remotely in the Paul-on-the-Damascus-road class.

Likewise the Roman centurion Cornelius in Acts 10. Yes, he had a vision of an angel, but beyond that it was a case of having the facts of the gospel explained to him.

Then there’s the Philippian jailer in Acts 16: he experienced an earthquake in his personal life as shattering as the earthquake that brought his prison down around his ears. Yes again, that was certainly dramatic, but not remotely of the “supernatural” character of Acts 9.

But what about Lydia, also in Acts 16? All we are told is that “the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message”. What about Timothy, the young man destined to become Paul’s protégé and spiritual son? From the moment we first meet him he is simply described as “a disciple”: beyond learning that his mother was also a Christian, we are given no clue as to how he became one.

I could go on. How did Stephen, the first martyr for Jesus, become a believer? Or Ananias, Paul’s first mentor? Or dear Barnabas – “Mr Encouragement”? Or Silas, Paul’s missionary companion? Or husband and wife Aquila and Priscilla? Or Apollos? Or Philemon? Or Epaphroditus? Or Aristarchus? Or Euodia? Or Syntyche (I’m sure you remember those two)…?

I’m getting carried away! – but you get the point.

In all these cases, along with plenty of others, we know nothing or next to nothing. Very likely their conversions were as ordinary, as low-key, as yours or mine. They heard the gospel. They believed. They were baptised and joined the church. And the rest is history.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to listen to conversion stories, to hear people’s testimonies. But when we do so we need to remind ourselves, “All right, so this is how Joe, or Mary, or Bill became a believer. Great. But I am not Joe or Mary or Bill. I am me. And God has dealt with me as he saw fit. And that’s all that matters.”

To repeat… the question is not “How did I become a Christian?” but “Am I, today, here and now, living a truly Christian life?”

Or, as I once heard it neatly put, what matters is not past conversion but present convertedness.

Yes?

Dear Lord, thank you for that time in my life when I first came to follow Jesus – and thank you even more that you help me to follow him still today. Amen.

Can hatred be holy?

Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord, and loathe those who rise up against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies. Psalm 139:21-2.

To me the word “hate” is one of the ugliest in the English language. (I might even go so far as to say that I, er, hate it.) It conjures up in my mind all sorts of spite, malice, anger, the very worst feelings we are capable of. Jesus, of course, is the very opposite of hate, with his great stress on love, mercy and forgiveness. Didn’t he state quite plainly that we are to “love” even “our enemies”? Surely, as Christians, we simply don’t do hate?

Which makes Psalm 139 all the more difficult. It’s all about the fact that God knows everything about us, even the secrets of our deepest hearts. It tells us that there is no way we can escape God – we can, as they say, run, but we can’t hide. Strong, bracing stuff – it makes you think, but at least in a positive way.

But then these verses come like a kick in the teeth. How can the Psalmist say such a thing! How did these chilling words find their way into the Bible?

Some people try to excuse it on the grounds that it is Old Testament, not New. “Oh well,” they say, “there’s loads of anger, judgment and hatred in the Old Testament – but the New Testament is different, and that’s what we Christians focus on.”

But that just isn’t true. Who was it who said “Love your neighbour as yourself”? Well, Jesus, of course. Wrong! It’s there in the Book of Leviticus, chapter 19 verse 18 – Jesus was just quoting it. And what about Proverbs 24:17: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice…”?

No, there’s plenty in the Old Testament about love and forgiveness (and, come to that, quite a bit in the New about judgment and God’s anger). In other words, in saying what he did the Psalmist seems to have been ignoring his own scriptures.

I don’t pretend I can fully explain this kind of awkward passage. Perhaps the best I can do is to share how I personally have tried to get some positives out of it.

First, let’s at least give the Bible full marks for honesty. Most of us, I imagine, would never talk about hating people. But have we never felt such emotions in our hearts? Have we never wished somebody ill?

Let me come clean… I was badly cut up by a motorist once – his driving could have caused a serious accident. I found myself fervently wishing (this is your loving, Christian pastor talking) that he would wrap himself and his car around the next available lamp-post. I didn’t say it, of course; oh no, I’m much too polite and proper for that. But I can’t deny that the thought was there.

So while I don’t feel I can, or need to, defend the Psalmist, neither can I claim to be any better. We, hypocrites that we are, can hide hateful thoughts behind smiling faces. At least this man was honest, putting into words what the rest of us only think. If nothing else, his words put us in touch with our own worst selves.

Second, I think it is correct to see these verses as primarily an expression of loyalty to God rather than an expression of personal animosity: I hate those “who hate you“, he says, those “who rise up against you…”

The Psalmist is declaring which side he is on – nailing his colours to the mast, if you like. His hatred may be less than ideal – but at least he knows where he stands! He is implying: God matters! The word of God matters! It matters to be “on the Lord’s side”. It matters to stand against sin.

There are certain things which should make us furiously indignant. If there is such a thing as “righteous anger”, may there not also be what we might call “holy hatred”?

This raises the question: As I look around me at the world and all the wickedness in it, how much do I care? Or do I just shrug my shoulders? Is it not true to say that having strong feelings – even wrong strong feelings – is better than spineless indifference or turning a blind eye?

Lord God, we remember those times when our Lord Jesus was angry. Guard us, we pray, from every hint of sinful anger. But help us too to know when anger is appropriate and right, and show us how to channel that anger for good. Amen.

The snake-like Christian

Jesus said, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Matthew 10:16

I knew a church once that needed some major building work. So they found architects and builders and looked forward to the job being done quickly and well. What they didn’t know was that the people they employed were, to put it bluntly, a bunch of crooks. They ended up completely ripped off – and very embarrassed.

What had gone wrong? Well, they were sincere Christians, and naively imagined that everyone would act with the same kind of honesty as they would themselves. They failed to check the credentials of the people they turned to. To borrow the language Jesus uses here, they were certainly “as innocent as doves” – but they badly failed to be “as shrewd as snakes”.

Jesus is sending his disciples out to preach the gospel in the big wide world. It’s an exciting prospect, of course, but he wants them under no illusions – it will be hard and even dangerous: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves…” They don’t stand a chance! – not, that is, in their own strength. So they need (as my mother use to say) to “have their heads screwed on the right way”.

In many ways it’s like that for us too. The strange – and sad – thing, though, is that many of the dangers we face are likely to come not so much from the non-Christian world (they just tend to ignore us), but from the kind of false teachers and prophets that Jesus often spoke of.

All sorts of misleading messages are being offered to the unsuspecting world. Just take a look some time at the “Body, Mind and Spirit” section in your local bookshop. “New age”, spiritualism, “self-improvement” – it’s all there, quite apart from the false teaching of other religions such as Hinduism or Islam. Even in supposedly Christian circles there are dodgy people around.

What are the warning signs? I would suggest three questions worth asking ourselves.

First, is there an appeal for money?

It’s not wrong for Christians to make financial needs known. But we need to beware when the preacher or writer gives the impression of being on the make: “Just make a donation to this organisation and God will bless you with riches in the future” – that sort of thing.

Second, is it all very personality-based?

We live in the days of the celebrity cult – pop stars, film stars, sports stars – and this has spilled over into the church. Truly “charismatic” leaders are much needed, there’s no doubt about that, but we need to be wary when glitz and glamour take the place of spiritual depth and Christ-like holiness.

Third, does the teaching strike a suspect note?

Is there some kind of novelty in what is being offered? Does it ring true with the understanding of the Bible that you have built up steadily over the years? (This reminds us, by the way, how important it is to master biblical truth! – and there is no short cut to that.)

There may, for example, be claims made on the basis of “after-death experiences”, or teaching about demons and evil spirits which goes way beyond the Bible. There may be detailed predictions of Christ’s second coming, or other events of the “end times”, which rely on odd verses plucked out of their Bible context.

It’s when we come across things like this that the warning bells should start to ring. Time to become snake-like!

Somebody might say, “But didn’t Jesus tell us not to judge?” Well yes, indeed he did. And certainly we need to avoid any hint of condemning people too quickly.

But – let’s put it this way – he also wants us to be discerning, wise, thoughtful, cautious. Otherwise we ourselves can fall into all sorts of attractive-looking traps, and we will end up unfit to guide others. As John puts it: “… do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

Is there something here that you and I need to think about?

Lord, help me to develop the discipline and determination to grow steadily in the knowledge of your word and your truth, so that I myself will not fall prey to false ideas, and so that I may be a reliable guide to others. Amen.

Who should take communion?

…anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body eats and drinks judgment on themselves. 1 Corinthians 11:29

I can’t now remember the first time I ate bread and drank wine in remembrance of Christ’s death – “took communion” as we call it.

In the church where I came to faith the “communion service” was separate from the main service – tacked on, really, to be honest – to allow those who didn’t feel able to share in the meal to leave. So it was quite a significant moment in your life when you first “stayed to communion”. You were making a clear statement about yourself – “I am a Christian!” – and there was a sense of belonging to a select group.

The thinking behind this was the verse I have quoted from 1 Corinthians 11. If I remember rightly that word “judgment” appeared in the King James Version as “damnation”, which was actually quite frightening. A little earlier (verse 27) Paul says that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord”. That was quite frightening too.

Communion, emphatically, was for believers only!

Well, things have changed enormously over the half-century since then. Communion is now generally incorporated into the service as a whole. In many churches you don’t have to be baptised, or an official church member, in order to share in the bread and wine. In some churches children are welcome to participate, at least in some form or other. The invitation to the Lord’s table is given to “all who love and trust the Lord”, with the rider that anyone is free not to participate if they feel that is more appropriate (don’t worry, no embarrassment!).

But unease is still felt in some Christian, not least Baptist, circles. The old idea of “guarding the table” holds sway in the minds of many. But it’s an idea that triggers a sequence of questions.

First, does the table in fact need “guarding”? If so, guarding from what exactly? Surely it is the people who are in danger of “eating and drinking judgment on themselves” who need guarding? – the people who eat and drink “in an unworthy manner”?

Then second, who in fact are these people? This is where many Christians have a blind spot. They don’t seem to see that the people in question are not unbelievers, non-Christians, at all! No, they are Christians, members in this case of the church in Corinth, who are coming to the Lord’s table “in an unworthy manner”.

And third, what is that “unworthy manner”? Well, according to verses 20-22, it seems to be the nasty habit of enjoying a mini-feast purely for their own pleasure, even to the extent of gluttony and drunkenness, while other members of the church are excluded.

It is this kind of behaviour that Paul is angry about – simply nothing to do with the completely separate issue of how a non-Christian should be viewed if he or she happens to be present at a communion meal. There is no reason to think that any harm is done, either to the individual or to the church as a whole, if someone as yet outside the family of Christ participates.

No: let’s say it again to be absolutely clear – the people who need to watch out are those who profess to be Christians but who are demeaning something sacred and holy by gross, selfish, shallow and vulgar behaviour. In other words, Christian, you; or me.

Jesus left us a meal to remember him by – a proper meal, not just a little token ritual. And it was in origin quite a normal, ordinary meal. The wonderful thing is that he proceeded to invest this ordinary meal with a new and extraordinary significance: “this is my body, broken for you… this is my blood, shed for you”.

We who know that our sins are forgiven through that sacrifice may enjoy that privilege and pray to be more worthy of it.

And that stranger down the row who looks a bit out of place? Relax! Don’t worry! On the contrary, be glad they are there – and pray that this strange meal will be a means of God’s grace to them. Who knows – you could have a convert on your hands!

Lord Jesus, thank you for leaving us a meal to remember you by. Help me to respect and value it for my own spiritual growth, and also to see its evangelistic value for those who don’t yet believe. Amen.