Work well done?

Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all to the glory of God.  Colossians 3:17

I don’t know what it says about me, but I’m always interested to read the obituary column in the paper. What did people who have recently died do with their lives?

A few days ago one of the entries was about the man who invented the Hawaiian pizza – that’s the one with ham and pineapple. He was eighty-two.

My immediate response was to smile and even be a little scornful: “Eighty-two years and all he had to show for it was a bit of fast food! What a claim to fame!” Followed by: “Surely these obituaries ought to be about ground-breaking scientists, or leading politicians, or brilliant artists? But a pizza-cook…! Oh, come on!”

But it wasn’t long before I began to feel guilty about my patronising attitude. On any Christian basis, it was simply wrong.

We all need food, and if someone comes along and creates a new variety what’s wrong with that? Good for him!

What matters about a life – any life, including yours and mine – isn’t so much what you do with it (assuming, of course, that it’s legal and not in any way contrary to Christian faith), but how you do it. I remember an old song which contained the line “It ain’t what you do but the way that you do it”, and though this wasn’t exactly the point the song was making, I reckon it’s not a bad summary of the Christian attitude towards work.

Yes, we need the scientists, the politicians, the artists. Of course. But the Bible tells us that even the most ordinary, trivial task can be done for the glory of God. Says Paul: “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all to the glory of God”.  And the key word there is “whatever.”

The poet George Herbert wrote: “Teach me, my God and King,/ In all things Thee to see,/ And what I do in anything/ To do it as for Thee…” He went on to say that even a servant with the attitude “for Thy sake” “Makes drudgery divine;/ Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws, /Makes that and the action fine.” The key words there are “all” and “anything”.

As I said, not everyone can be a great scientist or politician or artist. And in Christian circles, not everyone can be a missionary, a Bible-teacher, an evangelist or a preacher. God needs people too who can fix cars or work computers or clean offices or deliver groceries.

One of the reasons Martin Luther rebelled against the corrupt church of the middle ages was that it treated a certain type of human being – the priesthood – as superior to everybody else. They were the ones who had a “calling” from God. No! said Luther – each and every one of us is a valuable instrument in the hands of God, however humble and ordinary our occupation may be. And he came out with one of his greatest sayings: “A dairymaid can milk cows to the glory of God.”

You might, of course, feel that if you are a Christian perhaps you could aim for something a bit more important, a bit less marginal, than the man in the obituary; after all, how many types of pizza does the world actually need? And, yes, you’ve got a point there.

But the essential point holds good. The question to ask is not “Did that man only invent a new pizza?” but “Were his pizzas good quality? Were they made from healthy ingredients? Did he charge a fair price for them? Did he treat his staff well? Did he pay them a fair wage, and give them good working conditions?”

And it’s exactly the same for us. What matters about me is not mainly “What do I do with my life?” but “Am I honest, and kind, and compassionate, and generous, and forgiving? Am I Christlike? Do I do to the very best of my ability what God has called me to do – whether that is preaching brilliant sermons (if only!) or cleaning people’s windows?”

You may feel that your life’s work is little more than drudgery, to borrow Herbert’s word. And that may be so. But even drudgery can be done in either a God-glorifying or a grumbling spirit. Many of the first Christians, remember, were slaves – not much “job satisfaction” there! Even drudgery can be a “calling” from God.

So if the prospect of your tomorrow seems a bit grim and tedious, well, you’re in good company.

Adam was a gardener. David was a shepherd. Amos (I love this!) was a shepherd and “a tender of sycamore trees”. Peter was a fisherman. Jesus was a wood-worker.

And so it is that in God’s eyes our routine daily tasks are of infinite value.

Lord Jesus, help me to glorify you in everything I do, say and think. Amen.

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Our spiritual starvation

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.  Acts 17:11

If you know your Bible at all you will know a bit about the churches Paul had dealings with: the Corinthians (wild and undisciplined), the Galatians (turning back from Christ to their old ways), and perhaps the Colossians (prey to false teaching).

But what about the Bereans? The who? you might say. Well, you could be forgiven (though if you have been a Christian for any length of time you really should know!), because the Bereans don’t figure much in the Bible. But what little is said about them has given them a good reputation which has lasted down to the present day.

For one thing they were, apparently, “of noble character”. That’s rather an old-fashioned expression, I know, but I must admit I like it. It prompts a searching question: How ‘noble’ is my character…? Mmm.

But they are remembered especially because, even before they became Christians, they listened to Paul and his friends preach, and “examined the scriptures every day” to see if the preaching was true.

Two things stand out.

First, the Bereans were serious about the message of the Gospel. It didn’t just go in one ear and out the other. No: every day they “examined” the Bible. That’s worth noticing: they didn’t just “read” it, they “examined” it.

Bear in mind that at this time there was no such thing as the New Testament. The four Gospels hadn’t yet been written, and the various letters, while one or two may have been written, hadn’t yet been collected into book form. So all Paul had to preach from, and all the Bereans had to “examine”, was the Old Testament, plus of course stories of Jesus which were in circulation in the churches. But they did it, not just now and then, but “every day”.

Second, the Bereans were not afraid to bring their minds to bear on God’s word. If you “examine” something you study it, you scrutinise it, you wrestle with it, you ask questions of it. You make a serious attempt to get to grips with it. We may not all be great intellectuals – but God has given us minds, and it must sadden him when we don’t use them.

Well, I think we would do well to take a leaf out of the Bereans’ book.

Let’s be honest, much of our Bible-reading tends to be pretty casual, pretty hit or miss. We might take a few minutes to skim over a short passage, but we don’t really take it in. To be honest, sometimes we might as well have not bothered.

But this is God’s word! It is as vital to our souls’ nourishment as food is to our bodies. We’ve all seen those poor people on our televisions who are suffering from starvation in some famine-stricken country. They can barely move. They have no drive or energy. They can’t even brush away the flies on their faces. They are wide open to the next infection that comes their way. If they were under attack from an enemy they would be powerless to fight back.

Sadly, that is a picture of you and me when we neglect to feed ourselves on God’s word. We lack nourishment for the living of the Christian life. We are wide open to the attacks of the devil. No wonder our witness and enthusiasm for Christ are so feeble.

I know that Bible-reading can be difficult. I know that our lives are frighteningly busy. But where there’s a will there’s a way (sorry about the cliché; but the thing about clichés is that they are actually true – which is precisely why they have become clichés.) There are all sorts of Bible reading aids available. You can buy a Bible which contains notes, comments, time charts, maps, diagrams.

And, of course, there all sorts of apps and other devices for any of us who find reading a struggle. Whatever, there really is no excuse for us to be so ignorant. I find it very encouraging to think that most of the people in the early church probably couldn’t read at all – their “searching” of God’s word depended mainly on a willingness to listen to others and to ask questions.

But most of us can read, so here’s a suggestion. Why not take a book of the Bible – perhaps one of the short ones to start with, such as Philippians or Habakkuk or James – and get to know it in depth over the course of a few weeks? Read everything on it you can find. Make yourself a mini-authority on it. Soak it up. You will be amazed at the confidence and strength it will give you. You will be a new man or woman!

Thank God for the Bereans. May we copy their example.

Dear Father, please forgive my neglect of your inspired word. Please help me to become a serious Bible-student, so that I can better live the Christian life, and even be a source of wisdom and strength to others. Amen.

Diesel the dog and the kingdom of God

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. Genesis 2:15

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… Revelation 21:1

Every morning, some time between six and seven, I walk up to the local post office to pick up my paper. My route takes me through a little area of woodland near the back of our house. It’s a route also popular with dog-walkers, and we often exchange a few words.

The other morning I met an elderly man, somewhat shaky on his feet, and his little dog – some kind of terrier, I think. We got chatting and he said to me “So where’s your dog then?” “I haven’t got one,” I said. He took on a grave expression: “Sorry, you’re not allowed to walk here if you haven’t got a dog!” “Oh dear,” I said, “will a policeman come along and throw me into the Tower of London?” “Mm, quite possibly,” he replied.

I had a feeling that perhaps he wasn’t being entirely serious, so I smiled and said “What’s your dog called?”, pointing to the little chap whiffling away in the undergrowth. “Him? Oh, he’s Diesel,” he said. “Diesel?” I said. “Yes, Diesel – you know, the fuel for cars,” he said. OK, I thought.

We exchange names (he’s called John), say how pleased we are to have met, and he hobbles off up the path, with the worthy Diesel trotting loyally at his heels. I head home, looking forward to my bowl of porridge and my paper – and feeling good.

Now I’m probably being very silly here – in which case I hope, as Paul puts it, that you will “put up with me in a little foolishness” (2 Corinthians 11:1).

But I can’t help thinking: Is that chance encounter a flashback – a very tiny flashback – to the Garden of Eden before the fall? Peace and quiet. Beauty. Man in harmony with nature. A man and dog in harmony with one another. The dog named by the man, as Adam named the animals. Two people in harmony with one another. (True, no Eves yet: mine’s still at home in bed.)

And then I think: Not only a flashback to Eden, but perhaps also a tiny foretaste of heaven?

Do we sometimes get our idea of heaven wrong – if, say, we think only of angels with harps and wings, choirs singing, and strange beasts surrounding the mysterious throne of God? Certainly, that sense of awe and majesty is important – you have only to think of the extraordinary images we find in the book of Revelation.

But perhaps it is also going to be in certain respects far more ordinary, far more earthy – doesn’t the Bible speak to us of “a new heaven and a new earth”? And what matters is the renewal of the harmony which was wrecked by the fall.

I don’t know; I’m just vaguely speculating, really. But I do think that there are moments when, even in this earthly life, we get little glimpses of something eternal, something that speaks to us of the perfect world God intended in the beginning.

It’s often been pointed out that the Bible begins with a garden, Eden (Genesis 2), and ends with a city, the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21). This may seem confusing, living as many of us do in the industrialised cities of our modern world – after all, the word “city” conjures up dirt, noise, pollution, crowds, violence, all sorts of evils. So we need to remember that in the Bible it means, more simply, a place where people come together to share their lives.

And so it is that the new Jerusalem, the heavenly Jerusalem, is in effect both a city and a garden. John, the writer, sees “the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing… down the middle of the great street of the city.” He sees “the tree of life… yielding its fruit every month” (Revelation 22:1-2). All the beauty and fruitfulness of Eden, combined with the harmony of God, angels, and human beings.

And animals too? Why not? Won’t they also have their place?

I shall look out for Diesel tomorrow morning. But perhaps I can look forward also to seeing him in God’s eternal kingdom…? (I really am asking you now to “put up with me in a little foolishness”!) Perhaps he’ll come snuffling up to me and say (in perfect heaven-language, of course) “Hello, do you remember me? We used to meet in those woods in Wollaton. I’ve got a new name since coming here, but my master John used to call me Diesel. Can’t think why. But there you are – you’re funny creatures, you humans, aren’t you…?”

And perhaps I’ll bend down, pat him on the head and say, “Diesel, old friend, you never spoke a truer word…”

Father God, please give me eyes to see glimpses of your new creation even in the everyday things of this earthly life. Amen.

The sin that leads to death

If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death. 1 John 5:16-17

If the Bible is the word of God to men and women, why does it contain things which men and women find it almost impossible to understand? (There’s no denying that this is so – just take a look at 2 Peter 3:15-16, where the Bible itself tells us that the Bible isn’t always clear!)

In our passage John draws a clear distinction between sin that “does not lead to death” and sin that does. What he says is clear enough: but what does he mean? What is this sin “that leads to death”, this “deadly” sin, for which he doesn’t recommend prayer?

Well, the church has existed for two thousand years, and nobody yet has come up with a totally convincing answer to those questions. So I rather doubt if I, or you, are likely to do so! But it can only be good, given that this is part of God’s word, to try and make some kind of sense of it.

There are two other New Testament passages which may shed light on John’s puzzling statement.

First, there is Jesus’ word about “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 12:31-32). Says Jesus: “… every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” Both Jesus here and John in 1 John 5 seem to be in agreement that there is one – and only one – “unforgivable sin”. (The idea of “seven deadly sins” is a much later invention of the church, and has no foundation in scripture.)

So far, so good. But it doesn’t really help us all that much, because it just leads to another question: what exactly did Jesus have in mind when he spoke about the blasphemy against the Spirit?

The second passage that might link with 1John 5 is Hebrews 6:4-6. The writer there is talking about the sin of “apostasy”: that is, the sin of someone who turns away from God and hardens their heart against him after having actually first come to know him. It is “impossible,” he says, for such a person to be “brought back to repentance”; they have, it seems, gone beyond the point of no return.

My own inclination is to regard the link with the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as the more likely one. And the best way to understand what is meant both by Jesus and by John is that they are talking about a state of such spiritual deadness that all hope is gone. The person in question is so sold out to falsehood and the devil that only judgment can await them. Grim.

Three thoughts come to mind.

  1. It has often been said – and rightly said – that if anyone is worried that they might have committed the “blasphemy against the Spirit”, or the “sin that leads to death”, then the very fact that they are worried is a sure sign that they haven’t. They still have a conscience; they still have a fear of God. So they obviously haven’t gone beyond the point of no return.

Let them take comfort , then, from the fact that the New Testament teems with passages where the mercy and forgiveness of God are stressed. God loves to forgive! – and there is no sin beyond the scope of that forgiveness – apart from this one tragic state of total, hard-hearted rejection.

Is this a message of comfort you need to receive today?

  1. Having said that, the fact remains that sin matters. In verse 18 John writes that “anyone born of God does not continue to sin” – in other words, sin is an alien presence in the life of a Christian.

True, we will never be totally free from sin until we are perfected in glory: but we should be fighting for a gradual victory over sin in our daily lives here on earth. The key thing is not to be casual about it. Sin matters. It is important. It destroys. And we must hate it with all our hearts.

Have you and I become a bit blasé about sin?

  1. Going back to my question at the beginning: why are these puzzling passages in God’s word? Here’s a suggestion… Could it be, partly at least, in order to keep us humble? To teach us that there are times when it’s perfectly all right to say, “Sorry, I just don’t know”?

Oh, that leads to a further thought… If you ever hear someone preach on these tricky passages with total confidence and certainty about their interpretation, I suggest you take pretty much everything they say on any Bible passage with a lorry-load of salt. Do they really know better than some of the wisest and most godly people over two thousand years of Christian history?

One day all things will be clear. But it may not be in this earthly life…

Lord Jesus, thank you for the victory you won on the cross over sin and death. Please give me a holy hatred of every form of sin in my life, so that I can rejoice in your forgiveness while never taking it for granted. Amen.

Judging others

Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Romans 14:4

Oh dear, I’ve been at it again. I really do try to avoid it, but like most sins I’m afraid it’s pretty ingrained.

What am I talking about? Judging others, that’s what. I suspect it’s a habit any of us can fall into, in spite of the clear words of Jesus, echoed here by Paul.

Mine isn’t (honestly!) a nasty kind of judging – more an instinctive tendency to assess and analyse something I see in another person. And with me, one of the forms it takes is passing opinions on their way of worship – you could almost say, in fact, judging their spirituality.

Nina and I have just got back from holiday in Italy. Last Saturday we were in the beautiful little town of Positano, in the Bay of Naples. At the heart of the town is a spectacularly magnificent cathedral, Roman Catholic of course.

So, coming in out of the heat, we sit and soak up the atmosphere in a place which is totally alien to our Protestant evangelical spirits. The paintings! The statues! The vast ceilings! The altars! There is even a tiny casket containing (supposedly) part of the skull of St Andrew (he of John 1:40) which you can “venerate” if you wish (er, no thanks: we aren’t really the relic-venerating types).

And I’m sitting there thinking “No! No! This just isn’t what Christianity is all about. This is exactly the kind of ‘religion’ he came to do away with!”

A woman comes in. She is wearing a black lace mantilla head-scarf. She kneels before the massive altar. She kisses the bronze altar rail, several times. She crosses herself. Her lips move in what would seem to be a mechanical repetition of familiar words. After a few minutes she gets to her feet and leaves.

And I’m thinking to myself, “There we are, she’s done her religious duty. Poor soul.”

Judging, you see.

The next day, Sunday, we are in Sorrento, where we are staying. We have stumbled across a small shop-front church that announces itself as Pentecostal.

Ah, this is much more to our liking! The meeting-room is very plain. The music is simple, led by a man sitting at an electronic key-board. The songs are Italian versions of some that we used to sing with excitement way back in the seventies, now long forgotten. There’s a healthy bunch of children in the small congregation, and they play a big part in the service (in fact, I think we must have happened into their Sunday School anniversary). The atmosphere is enthusiastic, loving, warm.

But even here I’m judging. That overwhelming torrent of words when the pastor leads us in prayer! That over-heated intensity in the sermon! – all right, I can’t understand what’s being said, but the flavour, the feel, is like what I have experienced in “Penty” circles at home. And I’ve never felt comfortable with it.

So… We are glad that God led us here, but it’s not the kind of church we could ever make our spiritual home: too emotional? a little shallow? a touch me-centred, perhaps?

Judging, you see.

And then I think of Paul’ words: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” Which means, among other things, that God – and God alone – knows the heart. Which, of course, is why we’re on pretty thin ice when we judge others.

The question that matters is not “What do I see when I observe others in prayer or worship?” but “What does God see when he looks into my heart?” I need to keep telling myself that the people I witnessed in those two very differing contexts are, very likely, far more holy, more Christ-like and more Spirit-filled than I am.

That woman, especially, in the head-scarf… Yes, I feel instinctively that I would love to get hold of her and explain the simple, life-changing gospel of God’s grace shown in the earthly life, the atoning death and the triumphant resurrection of Jesus.

But who knows – perhaps within all the ritual, within all the (dare I say it?) superstition, flummery and mumbo-jumbo, there is a little nugget of rock-solid faith in Jesus, pure and beautiful as a diamond. Who knows but God?

After all, we believe – do we not? – in justification by faith: not in justification by believing in justification by faith. (If you get what I mean…)

Thank you, O God, that you look on the hearts of men and women, not on the outward appearance. Help me, then, always to assume the best and not the worst in others, and to remember that my own sinful heart is an open book to you. Amen.

Are you feeling spiritually flat?

Meanwhile his disciples urged Jesus, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?” “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” John 4:31-34

Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain. 1 Corinthians 15:58

Somebody recently shared a problem with me. He is a Christian, enthusiastic about his faith, and a member of a lively church. But he feels that he has begun to lose interest. “To be honest, I’m finding everything a bit boring,” he says.

We haven’t yet had a chance to talk properly and pin-point the root of his problem, but I find myself wondering if there might be a clue in one of those puzzling sayings of Jesus…

Jesus is tired. He has been walking with his disciples, and they arrive near a Samaritan town called Sychar. The disciples go off to the town to get something to eat, and Jesus rests by the town well. A woman comes to get water from the well, and she and Jesus get into conversation.

The result is that the woman becomes convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, and as the disciples reappear with the shopping she runs off to the townspeople to share her excitement. The disciples urge Jesus to have something to eat – whereupon he informs them, rather mysteriously, that “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

This baffles them. Has somebody else brought him food? If so, who? But no: he goes on to explain, even more mysteriously, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me…”

What can that possibly mean?

It seems that Jesus is excited by his conversation with the woman. As she accepts the truth which he shares with her – “I, the person speaking to you – I am the Messiah” – he realises that a vital part of his ministry on earth is being accomplished. Yes! – non-Jewish people are beginning to turn to God! The good news of the gospel is beginning to reach out to all nations!

And who needs food at a time like that? This seemingly chance encounter has given him a new energy and drive.

I don’t think for one moment that Jesus meant to teach his disciples that food and drink aren’t important. Not at all: but there are times when the urgency of a particular task is so overwhelming that it eclipses everything else.

A recent example for us might be the bombing in Manchester, when many of the medical people, and others too, simply forgot normal life and worked round the clock to save lives. That situation couldn’t – and shouldn’t – last: “normal life” would soon need to be resumed: proper food, drink and, of course, sleep. There is no suggestion in the Gospels that Jesus was normally neglectful of his ordinary needs. But the meeting at the well was very special.

How might this saying of Jesus help my friend?

Well, it suggests a principle: it is often when we get involved in a work for God that we are given energy and strength by God. Even on a purely human level, working for a cause you believe in energises you. Putting it another way: could it be that my friend feels flat and unenthusiastic because he has dropped out of service for God?

We sometimes talk of something being “meat and drink” to a person. By this we mean that it’s something they thrive on, something that drives them on and “feeds” them. Of course they need ordinary, literal food and drink as well, but they have a motivation which empowers them.

William Wilberforce devoted much of his life to the freeing of slaves. I read recently that Wilberforce was an unimpressive person to look at – small, a bit weedy, clearly not in good health, easy to despise. But it seems that once he got on his feet to persuade others about the evils of the slave trade, he was a transformed man: truly a giant, if not in the physical sense. It was said of him that “the minnow became a whale.”

This principle applies to us as Christians. It’s when we throw ourselves heart and soul into the work of God’s kingdom that we discover within ourselves an energy and an enthusiasm that equip us for the work. (Isn’t it otherwise called the person of the Holy Spirit?) It’s when we allow ourselves to become half-hearted that we also become lethargic and dreary.

Whether this train of thought applies to my bored friend I don’t know. But perhaps it applies to you? Are you a bit glum spiritually? If so, is it time to get your sleeves rolled up and to get involved in a work for Jesus?

Lord Jesus, show me the area of service where you want me involved, help me to give it my very best, and so equip me with all the energy and enthusiasm I need. Amen.