Harbouring grievances and nursing grudges

Whoever covers over an offence promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends. Proverbs 17:9

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

Do you take offence easily? Do you tend to harbour grudges? Are you, perhaps, harbouring a grudge right now?

It’s easy to do, isn’t it? You learn that somebody has said something behind your back. You feel (perhaps with good reason) that somebody has cheated you… somebody has done something cruel, unkind, perhaps dishonest or even violent… The possibilities are endless.

Suppose that you are actually entitled to feel angry, offended or hurt. The question then arises: what should I do with these feelings? Bottle them up? Drive them down into my subconscious mind? Pretend that the offence never really happened?

There is no simple answer – though I am sure that none of those options are right. But at the heart of Christian faith is the great theme of forgiveness. We are, says Jesus, to “love our enemies, to do good to those who hurt us” (Matthew 5:44). We are to pray that God will forgive us “as we forgive those who hurt us” (Matthew 6:12). We are, says Paul, to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).

It’s certainly easier said than done! I’m writing, as it happens, in the immediate aftermath of the verdict on the Hillsborough football tragedy, and I can only begin to imagine what it must be like to be in the shoes of those who suffered so appallingly.

It’s not necessarily wrong to “have it out with” the other person, as long as we do this with the aim of clearing the air and restoring the relationship – see Matthew 18:15-18. Nor is it necessarily wrong to seek legal redress in really serious cases. But even there the ultimate aim should be to bring about a just resolution and hopefully to achieve reconciliation.

No, when it comes to “offences”, there isn’t necessarily an easy answer.

But t the principle is clear, and it’s spelled out very simply in these twin verses from Proverbs, the Bible’s great book of wisdom.

To “cover over an offence”, says the writer, is to “promote love”. And how is this done? Well, 17:9 suggests that, among other things, it’s the opposite of “repeating the matter”. Not, as I suggested before, bottling it up or brushing it under the carpet. No; more a matter of not nursing that very tempting grievance, of refusing to let what happened darken our lives. And, whatever you do, not going off and gossiping about it to a third party.

I think of people I have offended or hurt in my life. And I am so grateful for the way they have quietly, lovingly set it aside: no rancour, no desire for vengeance. That’s what the Bible calls “grace” – and where would any of us be without it?

And speaking of people who are “slow to anger”, the writer says “it is their glory to overlook an offence” (19:11). “Glory” – that’s a strong word! It suggests a truly heavenly beauty of character, for ultimately who is glorious but God alone?

If we find all this very difficult, here is a great truth which, I think, we often fail to grasp: in order to forgive you don’t necessarily have to feel forgiving.

No, forgiveness may very well be an act of conscious, deliberate, determined will: “I refuse to let this anger dog me any more! Here and now I lay it to one side! Here and now I make a conscious decision to leave it in the hands of God! Here and now I claim his word: ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’!” (Romans 12:19).

With God’s help this is something we can do. And it will save us a lot of inner turmoil, a lot of wasted time brooding over the past, and a lot of wear and tear on our nerves. After all, to harbour a grudge doesn’t do the other person any harm – they may not even be aware that we’re doing it. Ultimately we only harm ourselves.

To cover over an offence is to “promote love”. And isn’t that exactly what every follower of Jesus should be doing day by day and hour by hour?

Lord God, help me to promote love in every situation, so that I may bring about harmony and reconciliation. And so may I – even I!- be clothed in your heavenly glory. Amen.

Soggy bread and saving souls

Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again. Ecclesiastes 11:1.

I first heard this verse from the strange little book of Ecclesiastes when I was a very young Christian. It intrigued me – what on earth could it mean? Why would anyone want to “cast their bread on the waters” (and no, I don’t think the writer is talking about feeding the ducks in the park).

And even if your bread did indeed return to you “after many days”, wouldn’t it be, well, a bit soggy by that time? Yuck!

It is, of course, a figure of speech, a perfect example of how there are times when the Bible is emphatically not to be taken literally.

(A quick digression… Do you insist on always taking the Bible literally? All right, you’re entitled to do that, of course – but next time I meet you I shall expect to find you dressed like an angel and with very greasy hair: turn back a page or two to Ecclesiastes 9:8. More seriously, I think most Christians recognise that the alarming words of Jesus in Matthew 5:29-30 – “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away… if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away” – are words we should take very seriously, yes, but not literally.)

Back to Ecclesiastes 11:1… The most likely interpretation of this figure of speech is this: We should invest our time, energy, gifts and money as diversely and generously as possible, in order to ensure a good return. That return may be something we never see in this life; but don’t worry, it will come.

Perhaps the basic thought is of a merchant with a fleet of ships loading them up with grain (there’s the “bread”) and sending them out here, there and everywhere, and then waiting for the profits to come rolling in.

The Message translation omits the mention of bread altogether and puts it like this: “Be generous. Invest in acts of charity. Charity yields high returns”. Likewise the Contemporary English Version: “Be generous, and some day you will be rewarded”.

A little further on there is another verse which seems to say much the same thing in a slightly different way: “Sow your seed in the morning, and in the evening don’t let your hands be idle; for you don’t know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well” (verse 6).

Well, if you know of a better interpretation than this I would be glad to hear from you!

Perhaps the nearest New Testament equivalent is Jesus’ parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23). Sow the seed of God’s word! And of course sow good deeds daily. You never know when your seed will bear fruit. And then there is Paul: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).

Whatever, it all seems to be about being busy, active, enthusiastic and generous in our work for God and indeed in our everyday living. Put little in, and you’ll get little out. Simple, really.

What about you and me? Is this the story of our lives? If we need a bit of encouragement, let’s remember this: nothing done in Jesus’ name and for the glory of God will ever be in vain. It may be simply a friendly word to the woman at the supermarket check-out, or a phone call asking about someone’s health, or a small gift to someone going through difficult times.

And it’s true even when what we do or say seems to sink unnoticed and without trace, like a stone into a pond. It may seem lost to us, but it isn’t to God.

Here’s John Wesley. I love this quote (I only wish I lived up to it better!):

Do all the good you can

By all the means you can

In all the ways you can

In all the places you can

To all the people you can

As long as ever you can

Yes? Yes!

Or, as someone else put it, though perhaps a little less seriously: “Cast your bread upon the waters, and it will come back buttered…”

Lord, help me to fill every minute of every day with acts and deeds done for the glory of Jesus, confident that one day they will produce a generous return – yes, even if I never live to see it. Amen.

All the lonely people…

God sets the lonely in families… Psalm 68:6

As I look back on my life I can think of only two times when I felt seriously lonely.

One was my first week as a student – I found myself in a completely strange city, in which I knew not a single soul. The other was the first time I went abroad – far from home, travelling alone, I felt an ache I couldn’t begin to describe.

But I suspect that neither of those experiences remotely resembles real loneliness, because I knew in each case that it wouldn’t last. I knew that I would make friends at university within a matter of days, and I knew that it was only a matter of time before I was back home from abroad.

So I can only imagine what real loneliness is like – a constant, inescapable, grinding, gnarling sense of being invisible to other people, of not mattering, of being excluded, of having no warm, laughing, squabbling circle of family and friends to belong to. How fortunate I am!

Yet this is the experience of many in our world. I saw a newspaper headline recently which spoke of “an epidemic of loneliness”. It was talking mainly about elderly people who are no longer able to get out much and who feel themselves to be just existing while the world goes by. Think, for example, of that annoying old lady at the front of the post office queue who just needs to talk for a few minutes to the cashier… this may be the first face-to-face contact she has had with anyone for a week.

But it isn’t just the old. John Lennon sang about “all the lonely people” and asked the question “where do they all come from?” And he also asked the even bigger question “where do they all belong?” Where, indeed?

Well, the Bible gives an answer to that. In Psalm 68 it describes God as “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows”, and says that he “sets the lonely in families”.

In ancient Israel the word “family” had a much wider, bigger sense than it does for those of us who live in the modern western world. A family might be a whole cluster of people related – some more, some less closely – to the pivotal father and mother. And for us Christians that family is, of course, the church. “We are a family church!” the poster proclaims. “Come to our Sunday morning family service!”

Which, of course, may very well be good.

But let’s not fool ourselves – a church can be a very lonely community for some, and it’s tragically easy for those of us who are “regulars”, us the in-crowd, to overlook the lonely, perhaps even consciously turning a blind eye. You can be lonely in a crowd.

What sort of people are we talking about? Well, it’s not difficult to pick out a few…

There’s the newcomer, of course. How difficult it is to walk into a ready-made group of people who all seem to know one another!

There’s the student, especially the student from overseas. The language is different, the customs are different, very likely the skin-colour is different. What a bewildering world our cosy, comfortable church may be!

There’s the single person in a church consisting mainly of couples. Never mind whether they’re unmarried, divorced or widowed, they’re pretty certain to feel “out of it” and alone.

And what about the childless woman in a church with several young mothers? What about the socially awkward person, the plain, downright shy person, who finds it excruciatingly difficult to initiate a conversation?

What about the gay person in a predominantly straight church? Whatever our take on same-sex relationships, does not the obligation to love and care still exist?

And what about that elderly person, the one who isn’t there because he or she can’t get along any more? It may be that they have served the church energetically and enthusiastically for many years, but now they feel forgotten and neglected. All right, the minister pops in from time to time, and there may be the occasional phone-call from someone. But – oh, how different things are from what they were!

There’s a terribly sad verse in Psalm 71, a psalm written by a man in old age: “Don’t cast me away when I am old, don’t forsake me when my strength is gone” (verse 9). He’s talking, of course, to God: this is a prayer. But may this not also be the silent cry of an old person to the church which they were once so happily a part of?

Is there someone in your church who might be uttering this cry right now?

There’s a saying that “it’s better to be quarrelling than lonely”. Well, I’m not quite sure about that! But I get the point. If you’re quarrelling with someone, at least they’ve recognised that you exist, at least they’re noticing you and taking you seriously.

Whatever, the message is simple: Look out for the lonely.

Lord Jesus, gives me eyes that see and a heart that responds to the lonely person. Amen.

Why not turn away from Jesus?

From this time many of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You don’t want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the twelve. Simon Peter answered him “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life…” John 6:66-68.

If, as you read this, you are a Christian, I would like to ask a personal question: Have you, at any point in your Christian life, felt you would like to give it all up? – that your life would be more enjoyable and perhaps even make more sense if you didn’t have to bother with all this stuff about Jesus?

If your conversion to Christianity is relatively recent such a question might seem absolutely outrageous: “Stop following Jesus? How can you suggest such a thing? This is the greatest and the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me!”

Fair enough.

But if you have been a Christian for a few years now, if you have wrestled with the disappointment of prayers earnestly prayed but seemingly unanswered, if you have found that serving Jesus entails a lot of hard and unrewarding toil, if you have been disappointed sometimes by less than perfect fellow-Christians, if indeed you have looked inside yourself and been disappointed with what you have seen – if, in short, you have been following Jesus long enough to have gained some of the scars of battle – then I wouldn’t be surprised if from time to time you have indeed wondered if it’s just more trouble than it’s worth.

That leads to another question: Why then are you still a Christian? Why haven’t you gone back on your faith?

I guess your answer would be along the same lines as Simon Peter here on behalf of the twelve: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

I find those simple words deeply touching. Dear Simon Peter! – could true, childlike faith ever be better expressed?

If you read through John 6 you will find that Jesus has been offering some meaty but difficult teaching, triggered by the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. Declaring himself to be “the bread of life” he goes on to talk, in a way which is bound to seem mysterious and even offensive to his hearers, about the need to “eat my flesh and drink my blood”. No wonder the response of some was, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (verse 60). No wonder “many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (verse 67).

What are we to make of Peter’s beautiful reply? In essence he is saying two vital things.

First, “Lord Jesus, how can we turn away from someone who has made such a massive personal impact on our lives?”

Isn’t that what “to whom shall we go?” boils down to?

Once you have come into a relationship with Jesus and got to know him as a living, loving brother and friend, saviour and lord, who else indeed can you turn to? Who, or what, is there better? Who, or what, is there more satisfying? Buddha? Hinduism? Mohammed? Atheism? Agnosticism? Cynicism? Materialism? Money? Pleasure? As a former tennis-player used to shout when he couldn’t believe the umpire’s call: “You cannot be serious!”

Once you have come to know Jesus in this intimate and life-changing way you can no more separate yourself from him than you can separate yourself from a loved one, even if they let you down or make enormous demands on you. He has become part of the very fabric of your life: your north, south, east and west (to adapt the words of the poet W H Auden).

Second, “Lord Jesus, we believe that you are not just a supremely wonderful person, but that you are the very truth.”

Isn’t that what “you have the words of eternal life” boils down to?

Being drawn to a magnetic person, what today we might call “a charismatic personality”, is one thing. But it’s not enough. Indeed, such people can be deceptive, manipulative and frighteningly dangerous. Hitler was pretty charismatic, wasn’t he, albeit in the darkest way? Saddam Hussein was magnetic, by all accounts. And there are plenty of “celebrities” on the world stage today that most of us feel instinctively troubled about… where might they lead us…?

Jesus claims not only to teach the truth of God, but to be the truth of God. And this claim is vindicated by the life he lived, the words he spoke, the love he poured out, the death he died and the resurrection he demonstrated.

Isn’t this why you have stuck with him through thick and thin? Yes, in many ways it might have been easier to “turn back and no longer follow him”. But you have found it simply impossible.

And all I can say is: One day that faith and devotion, that stubborn perseverance, will be wonderfully vindicated also. Don’t give up! Don’t turn back! No, say with Simon Peter his next words too: “We believe and know that you are the holy one of God”.

And may God bless you indeed as you do so. Amen!

Lord Jesus, when the going gets tough and following you seems hard and disappointing, gift me with the same simple faith as Simon Peter. Help me to stick with you through thick and thin, and so bring me to that day when I will see you face to face. Amen.

What will we leave behind?

The memory of the righteous is a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot. Proverbs 10:7.

My wife and I spent time recently with a friend of some forty years. I say “friend”, though we haven’t in fact seen much of one another over all that time. But we were close at an important and formative time of our lives, and it was good to catch up with everything that has gone on since. We didn’t find ourselves running out of things to talk about!

We reminisced, among other things, about mutual friends from years gone by – people who had influenced us, who had made a significant difference to our lives. And our conversation proved the truth of the lovely verse above – yes, the memory of the righteous is indeed a blessing.

How can you ever calculate the impact somebody else has made on your life, your opinions, your personality? Answer: of course, you can’t – some things are literally incalculable. All you can say is: I am a different and a better person because of X.I am so glad that they happened into my life.

The young man who led me to faith in Christ as a teenager remains vivid in my memory, even though I have had no contact with him at all for half a century. I can hear his laugh right now. I can see the earnestness with which he spoke.

A Sunday school teacher… a youth leader… a fellow-student at university… a loyal and Christlike church member… an old man of rock-solid, cast-iron integrity… a woman who remains resolutely cheerful and trusting in God in spite of a life of deep sadness…

Yes, they are all there, like a photo-gallery in my mind. And thinking about them isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia, pleasant though that is; no, they still affect me, they are still changing me. Isn’t that wonderful?

Several of them, of course, are long dead. But, as the writer to the Hebrews says of Abel, “by faith they still speak, even though they are dead” (Hebrews 11:4).

Two thoughts in particular strike me.

First, I am sure that if they were able to read what I have written here they would be amazed, even embarrassed. “Don’t be so silly!” they would say, “I was just someone whose path happened to cross with yours. I was nobody special!”

Well, yes, in one sense that is true: they were just very ordinary people. But in another sense they were special – special to me, and also to many others. It’s no exaggeration to say: infinitely special, eternally special. And this is not particularly because of anything they said, though they certainly did say good things, but, much more, simply because of who and what they were.

What a mystery is the flavour, the taste of a personality; what a wonder is the fragrance and colour of a character. How could you ever pin down the sheer, utterly unique “him-ness” or “her-ness” of a particular person! Every human being, created by God, is a miracle. And every human being re-created in the likeness of Christ is a double miracle.

Second, if what I’m saying is true, why shouldn’t I do for others what others have done for me? That, of course, is the challenge in all this.

Do you ever think how great it would be if you were really rich, and could give a massive amount of money to some good cause? Every now and then I get an appeal from a charity asking me to “remember us in your will”. Nothing wrong with that, of course: as Jesus said, there is more happiness and satisfaction in giving than in receiving (Acts 20:35).

Sadly, most of us just can’t do it.

But Proverbs 10:7 reminds us that we can donate to posterity something even greater than money or property – that even in, say, 2060 people we barely remember will be able to say “I really thank God for the day that person came into my life”.

How can I become that kind of person? Ah, that’s the question! And the answer I would give is simple: Don’t try to be that kind of person. No, simply pray to be like Christ – and then be yourself.

Loving Father, thank you for the Christlike people who have, without even knowing it, helped to mould and form the person I am. Help me to do for others what they have done for me. Amen.

Paul, his sister and his nephew

But when the son of Paul’s sister heard of this plot, he went into the barracks and told Paul… Acts 23:16

I wonder what the apostle Paul’s sister was like?

Paul’s sister? What sister? I never knew he had a sister!

Was that your reaction to my question? Well, sorry, but here she is – along with her son, Paul’s nephew, who plays a crucial part in the apostle’s life.

What was her name? We don’t know. Was she older or younger than Paul – a bossy big sis, perhaps? We don’t know. Had she become a follower of Jesus, like her brother? Again, we don’t know.

In fact, we know absolutely nothing about her beyond the tiny fragment of information we get in this verse. You know those stormy nights when the sky is ink-black and there is a sudden flash of lightning which, for the splittest of split seconds, shows you something you otherwise would never see? Well, I find this verse a little like that – a sudden fascinating glimpse into an aspect of Paul’s life which we had probably never so much as thought about.

What’s been going on?

Well, Paul has come to Jerusalem to worship, as any good Jew might, but some of his fellow-Jews are enraged by his presence in the temple precincts and stir up a riot against him. They want him killed as a fanatical trouble-maker. Things get so hot that Roman soldiers have to come to his rescue. An attempt to calm things down doesn’t really succeed (chapter 22), and forty men swear an oath “not to eat or drink until we have killed him” (23:12).

The situation is grim and dangerous. But – guess what! – “the son of Paul’s sister heard of this plot” and reported it to Paul who, in turn, made sure that the Roman authorities were informed. The plot is accordingly scotched, and Paul lives, as it were, to fight another day.

To me, the main value of this tiny insight is to remind us that the people we sometimes think of as great Bible heroes were in fact entirely ordinary human beings with ordinary family backgrounds.

I would love – wouldn’t you? – to see Paul and his sister playing together as children, to know what sort of relationship they had as they grew to adulthood, to know how Paul got on with his nephew (who is virtually the hero of this story). But all I can do is use my imagination.

But there can be no reason to doubt that, just like Jesus himself, they had a family background which, from the outside at least, was pretty normal and ordinary.

The same applies to other Bible figures.

We know that Simon Peter was a married man, for the gospels tell us how Jesus healed his mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31). We might wonder what his wife felt about him taking up with this strange preacher Jesus? Did she oppose or support him? Did they have arguments about Jesus? (In fact, a tiny snippet of 1 Corinthians 9 – verse 5 – suggests that she was at least happy to tag along with him in his apostolic ministry.)

We know a bit too about the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee. She seems to have been quite a pushy mother determined to stand up for her boys (sound familiar?) – see Matthew 20:20-21.

So – where does all this lead us?

We need to get it into our heads that the prominent figures of the Bible are emphatically not distant and mysterious figures in stained glass windows. They are people of flesh and blood, human beings, just like you and me.

Personally, I make a point of stubbornly refusing to refer to the apostles as Saint Matthew or Saint Peter or Saint Paul or whoever. In the New Testament the word “saint” refers to any follower of Jesus – see, for example, Romans 1:7 or 2 Corinthians 1:1. Peter, Paul and the rest are no more saints than you or me, if we too love and follow Jesus.

So let this tiny glimpse into Paul’s family life lead us to see him as a man – somebody to respect and admire, by all means, but not somebody to be in awe of. And let it lead us also to recognise that we too can make a significant mark by our lives.

By the way… another question intrigues me regarding the conspiracy and the role of Paul’s nephew. What happened to those forty men who had sworn to fast until they saw Paul dead? Did they die of starvation a few weeks later?

I very much doubt it. No, they would have found a wriggle-hole out of their oath, I’m pretty sure of that.

But let them be a warning to us – don’t make rash and foolish promises!

Father in heaven, thank you that in Jesus you have made me just as much a saint as the great people of the Bible. Help me to live like one! Amen.

Time for action!

Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow-prisoners, and those who are ill-treated as if you yourselves were suffering. Hebrews 13:3

I would like to introduce you to someone I have never actually met, but who I feel I know at least just a little.

His name is Alimujiang Yimiti (Alim for short) and he is a Chinese Christian. He used to work for a British company in Xinjiang province, but it was closed by the authorities in 2007.

Alim was detained by the authorities in February 2008 and sentenced to fifteen years in prison the following year. The case against him violated both Chinese and international law.

Alim is a Christian from the Uyghur people, and according to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, he is being held “solely because of his faith”. An appeal was made on his behalf, but it failed – Alim’s sentence was upheld. In 2113 His wife was informed that her monthly visits to see him were cut to one every three months.

All this means, if my sums are correct, that he will (hopefully!) leave prison in… 2024. That’s plenty of time for a young man to become middle-aged, for a middle-aged man to get old. For an old man to die… 2024!

How cruel is this!

I’m looking out of my study window in our quiet suburban part of Nottingham. The sun is just about shining and there are patches of blue sky. It’s pleasantly warm, spring-time warm. Just round the corner there are large areas of richly yellow daffodils. In the house opposite a fluffy, fat white cat is regally surveying his street from the front step (he doesn’t miss much, that cat).

Life is good! I hope it’s like that for you too.

But I wonder how Alim is feeling as he sits in his prison cell? I wonder how his wife is feeling? What about his family… his friends? His fellow-Christians?

So how come I know Alim this little bit? Well, I’ve taken the information I have given you from a magazine called Connect and Encourage, which is produced by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).

In case you don’t know, CSW is a charity which exists to speak up for people like Alim. It exists to make the world aware of just some of the unjust and cruel things that are happening to Christians (and other prisoners of conscience too) in various parts of the world.

Its tag-line is that it is a voice for the voiceless. And that voice is heard in the British and European parliaments, in Washington and in other parts of the world. I could say more, but perhaps this will do: CSW makes a difference. All right, not as much as it would like: but it does make a difference.

There are, of course, other organisations seeking to do a similar work. May God bless them all! The reason I am highlighting CSW is because for the past three years I have been associated with them in a volunteer capacity, and it has been a privilege to help, albeit in only a very tiny way.

If you are not already involved in such a group, I encourage you to give it some thought. Go to www.csw.org.uk.

Let’s go back to Alim. You may often have read the verse from the Letter to the Hebrews at the top – “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow-prisoners” – and thought “Well, yes, I would love to! But what can I actually do?” And you may have offered a fairly vague and general kind of prayer and perhaps made a money gift. That’s good, of course.

But publications like Connect and Encourage make things much more concrete, more personal even. They encourage you and me to encourage people like Alim (and there are thousands them). And one way to do this, as well as prayer, is by writing messages.

I’ve been doing this for some years now. Do my postcards reach the people intended? I don’t know. Do they ever help anyone? I don’t know. But what is faith if not sowing seed? And what is prayer if not a seed? What is a simple message written on a postcard if not a seed? And who knows what God might do with these tiny seeds?

So can I encourage you, for the moment, to slightly change that verse from Hebrews 13? Don’t read, “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow-prisoners”.

No. Read, “Remember Alim Yimiti in prison as if you were his fellow-prisoner”.

And then you know what to do – pray, of course, but also perhaps send him a message. Why not? It will cost just a few minutes and a pound or two – but it could make all the difference in the world.

Here is prayer suggested by CSW…

Lord, may your armies of angels encamp around Alim Yimiti and all those who face persecution because of their faith in you. May they know your comfort, strength and protection.  Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God! Don’t forget them! In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

Are you stubborn?

We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads”. Acts 26:14

I like to think I am purposeful and persevering; my wife says I’m just stubborn. Oh well, she tends to be right about most things…

In this verse the risen Jesus accuses Saul (not yet called Paul) of being stubborn – he is “kicking against the goads”, like a cow or ox rearing up its legs against the farmer’s cattle-prod. And in the process he is of course causing himself pain: “It is hard for you…”.

Saul is telling the story of his conversion, before the Jewish king Agrippa. His hatred of the new-born church, he says, was such that he tried to stamp it out altogether by harassing and hopefully killing its first members. And then, in a day that changed history, he met the risen Jesus and heard these words. He is never the same again: the persecutor of Christians becomes the preacher of Christ.

Saul’s stubbornness was dramatically broken that day.

But what about our stubbornness? What about the times we hold out against God? I’m not talking necessarily about conversion, though obviously that could be the case. I’m thinking more about people who are genuinely converted, but who are stubbornly refusing to obey God in some area of their lives. That could certainly be me; perhaps it could also be you.

You could be turning a deaf ear to a call to some form of ministry or service: children’s work, pastoral care, music, administration, overseas mission, you name it. You could be refusing to get to grips with a deep-seated sin or weakness: a tendency to gossip, a failure of discipline in some area of your life, a spirit of anger or jealousy against somebody; again, you name it.

It could even be something more gross, violence or abuse perhaps. Yes, even Christians can be dominated by such habits.

And for many years the voice of Jesus in your heart has been pleading with you to put it right. But no: either you have got so used to it that you can’t imagine being without it, or you have made feeble efforts, but given up with a shrug of the shoulders. So Jesus says to you what he said to Saul: “Can’t you see that you’re just hurting and damaging yourself by your stubborn disobedience?”

There are various Bible stories of people kicking against the goads.

In the early chapters of Exodus we meet Pharaoh, the Egyptian ruler. He has the people of Israel enslaved in his country, but God calls Moses and Aaron to announce that unless he lets them go there will be bad consequences. Pharaoh refuses – he “hardens his heart” (have you ever done that?) – even through a series of plagues, frightening demonstrations of the power of God in his land. It leads to tragedy and disaster. And all so easily avoidable!

Centuries later God calls the prophet Jonah to preach to the people of Nineveh. But, as the Bible puts it, “Jonah ran away from the Lord” – not me, Lord! He too kicks against the goads, and in doing so condemns himself to misery and a bad conscience (in Jonah 1:10 he openly admits to pagan sailors what he is doing) – not to mention a distinctly unpleasant encounter with a fish. All so easily avoidable!

The religious leaders in the time of Jesus refuse over a period of some three years to acknowledge that he really is the long-awaited Messiah. This in spite of the authority of his teaching and the power of his deeds. After his crucifixion they “gave the order for the tomb to be made secure” (Matthew 27:64) – surely the ultimate exercise in sheer futility, making King Canute look quite reasonable in trying to turn back the sea.

And after he is raised they pathetically, even laughably, give money to the soldiers to spread a story about the disciples stealing the body. How “kicking against the goads” is that! As if the power of almighty God can be hushed up by some feeble story. Forty years later their wonderful temple was destroyed by the Romans and the whole structure of their power disintegrated. All so easily avoidable!

The saying goes, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ’em”. A little crude, perhaps, if we relate it to God. But it puts it in a nutshell. The best way to gain victory is… to admit defeat. To stubbornly resist the will of God is, ultimately, absurd, futile and painful.

A word to you? To me?

Lord God, if there is any area of my life where I am foolish enough to be kicking against the goads, get me to the point where it hurts! – so that I really do set about putting it right. Amen.

Praying and doing – which comes first?

They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat. Nehemiah 4:8-9.

It was Oliver Cromwell who, during the English Civil War, is supposed to have told his soldiers: “Put your trust in God – but keep your powder dry”. (Wet gunpowder, I assume, is useless.)

A perfect blend of the “spiritual” and the “practical”. And that blend, that same balance, is demonstrated in these verses from Nehemiah.

A bit of background… It’s about 450 years before Jesus, and the Persian king Artaxerxes has given Nehemiah permission to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the ruined city, especially its gates and walls. He and the small number of Jewish people living in the city set about the task with enthusiasm.

But – there is opposition: “They…plotted to come and fight against Jerusalem…” Never mind who “they” are (you can find their names in verse 7 if you are interested); what matters is that Nehemiah and his people found themselves and their work seriously threatened.

So what did they do? They “prayed… and posted a guard”.

Note the order: prayer first, action second. But both were vital, two sides of the one coin.

Getting this balance right is still a challenge for us today. There are Christians who are so “spiritual” that they would never dream of missing a service, a prayer-meeting or a house-group. Wonderful! But if you ask them to roll their sleeves up and get stuck into some practical task you won’t see them for dust. “So heavenly-minded they’re no earthly use” is a bit of a cliché, but it’s not that far from the truth.

And there are others who are wonderfully practical, real activists, always busy about the church. But they can often be so busy that they never find time to nourish their relationship with God through worship, prayer and scripture. The danger is that in time they end up without any relationship with God at all, pretty much dried up or burnt out.

God calls his people to co-operate with him: to pray, of course, but to work too. He doesn’t say “All right, just leave it to me, I’ll do the necessary.” (So much for the “let go and let God” school of thought.) But neither does he say “Right, I’ve brought you to salvation, now you’re on your own.” (Just as well!)

The challenge, then, is obvious: Have I got the balance right?

In my time as a minister I’ve known Christians who, setting out on holiday, will pray “Lord, give us a safe journey” – and then drive like idiots. I’ve known students who will say they’re trusting God to help them succeed in their exams, but never get down to any solid work. I suspect there are churches which pray earnestly that God will cause their church to grow, but who are conspicuously weak when it comes to the day-to-day business – I might even use the word grind – of service, witness, mission and evangelism.

God is a gracious God, but why should he bail us out of our laziness? That’s not faith, that’s presumptuousness.

I wonder if you have ever heard of Simeon Stylites (that’s pronounced Style-eye-tease, by the way)? He lived in Syria about 400 years after Jesus, and he was so convinced of the evils of this world that he felt called to separate himself from it as far as possible, and to devote his life to prayer and the contemplation of God. He became a hermit.

But somehow he could never get away far enough, so he ended up (wait for this) living on top of a pillar (the Greek word for pillar is stylos, hence his name). Year by year his pillar got taller and taller and he ended up living there for – would you believe it – thirty-seven years.

To be fair to Simeon, he was always glad to welcome adoring pilgrims who flocked around to talk to him – they could get to him via a step-ladder (which is also how he received his food from admiring local people). Ten out of ten to Simeon for his extraordinary zeal and “spirituality”. But surely his desire to serve the world by effectively separating himself from it was misguided, to put it mildly.

The old catch-phrase says that Christians are to be “in the world, but not of it”. Which sums up beautifully the example set for us by Jesus himself.

And I’ve always liked the story about Paul in Acts 27-28. He and his friends have been ship-wrecked on the island of Malta, and they’re on the beach shivering with cold. So what does Paul do? – go aside and have a prayer-session? No, he helps to gather wood to build a fire.

I think Nehemiah would have liked that! I hope we do too… Get the balance right! Be a pray-er, yes, of course. But be a worker too.

Loving Lord Jesus, you prayed and fasted more than I can begin to imagine. But you were also a carpenter and a washer of feet. For you there was no distinction between the “spiritual” and the “practical”. Help me to be like you! Amen.