1 thing God looks for – and how to develop it

Anyone who has a working knowledge of the Bible will be familiar with Caleb. The biographical detail provided about Caleb ( Numbers 13 & 14; Joshua 14) reveals a man of deep conviction and faith. A man confident in God. And it also reveals that Caleb had the strength of character to nurture and protect a promise God made to him for forty-five years before he saw it fulfilled. And it seems that his conviction somehow mysteriously conserved his strength to the point that he was ready to fight with giants at the age of eighty-five!

How was it that despite the disappointment and setback he experienced when the people rejected his report on the land of Canaan, that he his faith remained rock solid?

Caleb was commended by God and by Moses for one thing: wholeheartedness.

Everyone of us experiences setbacks. Everyone of us experiences disappointments. And too often many of us allow those things to knock our faith out of shape and ultimately knock our life out of shape.

Like Caleb, it is wholeheartedness that is an absolutely key quality to successfully navigating those “faith knocks”.

So how do we develop wholeheartedness ?

Firstly, if you want to develop wholeheartedness, learn to manage the threats to wholeheartedness.

Perhaps the biggest threat is that of disappointment.

Unfulfilled expectations, unexpected diversions and undesired circumstances can tempt us to move into the territory of halfheartedness. They also expose us to the temptation to ditch God’s promises. Or to detach from God’s people.

How do you manage those threats? By taking your thoughts captive. Numbers 13.30 says that Caleb silenced the people. Sometimes we have to silence the voices that speak negativity and halfheartedness.

Secondly, make the most of where you are.

Caleb spent most of his life in places he didn’t want to be. The first forty years of his life were spent in slavery in Egypt. The second forty years were spent wandering in the desert. Those years of desert wandering were not his fault. He was living with the consequences of decisions others had made. He had no option but to wander in the desert with the rest of the Israelites. Yet he still kept wholehearted in his walk with God.

Sometimes we find ourselves in places where we don’t want to be, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find God there. When Jesus went into Samaria, He found Himself in a place where no self respecting Jew of His day would want to be. But Samaria was the place where He transformed the life of one woman and eventually that of a whole city (John 4).

You can find God wherever you are.

Finally, be prepared to modify your image of God.

It’s amazing how faulty our image of God can be. For example, people often think that difficult circumstances are an indication that God is upset with us and is punishing us. Yet the Bible says we have peace with God (Romans 5.1) and that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8.1).

What we believe about God impacts on us. It affects the way we think and that in turn affects our faith.

Caleb was wholehearted for God because He knew God was wholehearted for him. How did he know that?

Caleb was from the tribe of Judah. Judah was a tribe to whom God had given great authority (Genesis 49.10; Psalm 60.7 & 108.8). Caleb lived in the blessing and promise that God had put upon his tribe. He knew who He was and he knew his God.

In Christ we have every blessing Caleb had – and more. If we want to live wholehearted lives, conforming our understanding of God to how He reveals Himself in His word is a priority. We will never be wholehearted for Him, if we feel He is halfhearted about us.

If we can learn from Caleb the power of wholeheartedness, we can push through every setback and disappointment. And more importantly we will attract the smile of God.

Pentecost Plus One: 3 Things The Church Did After The Day Of Pentecost

What do you do after you have experienced an unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit?

I don’t know how many reading this post have had experience of a powerful move of God. Many, perhaps most or even all, have been in meetings where God has been powerfully at work. Or even seasons when God has been powerfully at work. But what do you do next?

The early church found itself in that position on the day after the day of Pentecost. One hundred and twenty previously fearful believers had been impacted by the Spirit in a way that was as public as it was powerful. And the church had three thousand new believers.

Now it was Pentecost plus one. What was next?

Perhaps what they didn’t do is as instructive as what they did do.

They didn’t try to revisit the events of the day before. No retreat to the upper room to wait for the rushing wind and tongues of fire. They weren’t looking for a repeat performance. They didn’t turn the life that they had experienced into a liturgy – a mistake sometimes made in the Pentecostal / charismatic world. We experience the Spirit moving in a particular way and then try to revisit the experience again and again. We use particular songs and even phraseology that “gets a response”.

God, because He is gracious, does meet us. The tendency is, however, to become “stuck” in a way of doing things, impeding the church’s further progress.

So what did the church do on Pentecost plus one?

Firstly, it developed a shape of corporate life.

That’s a fancy way of saying that the church gathered together at certain times, and it gathered together to do certain things.

Acts 2 .42 explains that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Putting that in more contemporary terms, they prioritised learning (apostles’ teaching), spending meaningful time together (fellowship), worship (breaking of bread) and prayer (prayer!).

I recently attended the annual conference of a church denomination in the developing world. In its own country it has seen extraordinary growth. Miracles are not uncommon. Yet one of the major concerns was that they had seen a slight decline at their mid-week prayer gatherings.

Impressive enough was the fact that they knew how many attended mid-week prayer throughout their denomination. Their urgency in addressing the matter was even more revealing. They made the connection between maintaining the flow of the Spirit and the shape of their corporate life.

Churches that want to stay Spirit-filled must develop a Spirit-shaped corporate life that revolves around engaging with the practices of teaching, fellowship, worship and prayer.

Secondly, they were open to the Spirit moving in fresh ways.

There were no recorded miracles or healings on the day of Pentecost. The only miracles were miracles of salvation.

That changed the day after. Acts 2.43 highlights the fresh move of the Spirit:

Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.

Notice a couple of things here.

Firstly, it was different to what happened the day before. Nothing like this had happened on the day of Pentecost.

Secondly, this was not a sovereign move of God as had happened on the day of Pentecost. It was more a case of God responding to the apostles’ faith.

Pentecost plus one teaches us to be ready for different.

It is also a reminder not to be waiting passively for God to do something. We can spend all our time waiting for Him, when all the time He’s waiting for us.

Finally, this was a church that was seen.

We know that they met publicly – in the temple courts (Acts 2.46) and they enjoyed the favour of all the people (v.47). It was a high profile church, certainly not a private club.

It is so easy for the church to resemble the latter. It’s a more comfortable existence; high profile churches attract favour and criticism.

I once heard someone say that a church can be internationally famous, yet locally anonymous. That has never been more possible than it is today. Our social networks and social media can lead us to the most exotic places without us ever having to confront the challenges on our own door step.

A church that is impacted by the Spirit will be visible locally, however visible or not it is internationally.

Pentecost plus one must have been a challenge for the early church with its three thousand new believers. But they rose to the challenge. And we can too. After all, it is the same Holy Spirit, is it not?

 

Navigating the faith challenges in a world of tragedy

When we are faced with a tragedy on the scale of what happened in Manchester, there is very little to say. For those who can, simply being with those who are suffering is not only an adequate, but an appropriate response. There is simply no reasonable explanation that can bring comfort. And, more pertinently, no explanation or kind action can bring back those who have been cruelly ripped away from their loved ones.

It’s not that this is the only tragedy that has happened in the past week. Unspeakable cruelty is all too common in some parts of the world. But this one is felt so keenly because it is so close to home.

No doubt in days to come empathy and fellow feeling will give way to the desire for explanation. Some of that desire will translate into questions asked of the authorities. And inevitably some of that desire will be driven by a frustration with religion or even with God.

I offer this post, not as an attempt to explain anything. The events of the last week, however, must cause thoughtful people to ponder how all of this relates to their faith or more importantly how their faith relates to the kind of tragedy that is all too common in our world. After all, the problem of evil is often stated as a major stumbling block to faith. And let’s face it most of the nation is trying to get its mind around the motives and the consequences of unrestrained evil.

So this post is simply a few thoughts on faith in a time of tragedy.

Tragedy often draws the best of humanity to the surface

One of the most notable features of any tragic situation, is how tragedy draws the best from people. The events at Manchester are no exception. At the very moment when you might be tempted to lose faith in humanity – `or people’s capacity for humanity – people respond with a kindness that perhaps they themselves never realised was possible. The worst of situations sometimes bring the very best out of people.

For some, this is simply the triumph of the human spirit. For any believer, and not necessarily any Christian believer, this kind of response points toward a humanity created in God’s image. How difficult it is to write of such deeply felt emotion and altruistic action as merely some sort of chemical response “designed” by evolution to enable us to cope with threat. Such an explanation seems cold and unfeeling in a world where there is so much hardship and sorrow and frequently such tragedy.

The very human response to Manchester and many another tragedy is a reminder that we really are human. We are not just animals or machines. We’re more than a random concoction of chemicals cobbled together by some sort of impersonal process. We are much more than gene machines   .

Resisting the temptation to distance ourselves because of fear

The impact of tragedy, particularly the kinds of terrorist incidents we have experienced in Europe in the last few years, is often one of fear. That is understandable.

In Luke’s gospel (Luke 13.1-5) Jesus mentions two tragedies, one a natural disaster, the other mass murder. The reaction of the public at that time was along the lines of “they got what they deserved because they must have been above average sinners”. Jesus’ response was that they should take stock of their own lives, rather than pronounce judgment on those who had perished.

Thankfully, the vast majority of people are not prone to such judgments these days. However, I believe we do try to distance ourselves if we allow such things to pass without reflecting on the state of our own souls. Tragedy reminds us that our lives hang by a thread, a thread that is easily cut. It is no bad thing to reflect on the brevity of life or the fragility of our humanity.

Resisting the temptation to dehumanise the perpetrator

The flip side of the incredible kindness for which we have the capacity, is an outrage that anyone could commit such a crime. Tabloid newspapers seem to have a vocabulary of opprobrium especially reserved for such people. You know the kind of language. Most of it screams “This person cannot really be a human being.”

Unpalatable as it might seem, he was. Just like us. Jeremy Vine posted a very touching piece on his Facebook page lamenting the loss of one of the victims, attempting to convey the scale of that loss by contrasting it with what might have been.

The bomber also had his life ahead of him and chose not only to take his own life but the lives of other’s along with him. He was a human being. He was a human being who made a monstrously evil decision.

Controversy has always surrounded Hannah Arendt’s work Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil, the story of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. For Arendt, the striking thing was that this mass murderer came across as a buffoon. Whether her assessment was accurate or not, the point is that someone guilty of monstrosities did not come over as a monster.

Human beings have an amazing capacity for creativity and good. And they have a staggering capacity for evil and destruction.

And for Christians, the challenge is not simply to recognise that a terrorist is a human being, but that he or she is loved by God. Bishop Angaelos, the General Bishop of the Coptic Church in Britain, in a reflection on the events in Manchester and the murder of Christians in Egypt later in the week, made this comment: “You are loved. The violent and deadly crimes you perpetrate are abhorrent and detestable, but YOU are loved.”

Resisting the temptation to deny a religious dimension

There is a religious dimension to what happened in Manchester. We simply cannot deny that.

In our collective desire to explain what happened, we will search for all sorts of causes. British foreign policy. Western influence in the Middle East. Multi-culturalism. Whilst there might be connections with the above, they do not explain the cause.

What happened that Monday evening has its roots in a strain of Islamic theology that predates any recent military activity in the Middle East.

Sometimes the impression is given that it is only the more “hawkish” commentators or politicians who take this line. But that impression is not correct.

And some sections of the press and the political establishment go to great pains to maintain that this is not a religious issue. Oddly, some of those same media outlets were not slow in attributing religion as a major factor in the conflict in Northern Ireland. They had no qualms about referring to the IRA or the UVF, amongst other terrorist organisations without attaching the prefix “so-called” when in fact neither of those groups or their like represented the people of Ireland or Ulster.

Even the BBC’s Quick Guide: Northern Ireland Conflict cites religion as a main factor.

The religious dimension in the current terrorist “troubles” looms large and if not recognised little progress will be made in tackling the problem.

Nick Cohen argues cogently for a recognition of the religious dimension not only to this incident but to the ongoing conflict between the Western nations and Islamic terrorism. Cohen mainatains that to say Islamic State isn’t Islamic is like “saying Opus Dei isn’t Catholic”.

And former Islamist, Shiraz Maher, is in no doubt that theology gives the bombers the impetus to plan and execute their attacks. See reviews of his book Salafi-Jihadism in The New Statesman and The Guardian.

In a more recent article, Maher presents this view once again, relating an interview that he conducted with a member of IS.

“We primarily fight wars due to ppl [sic] being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue” was the answer to a question about how IS would react if the West met all its demands

We are not doing ourselves or anyone else any favours if we pretend that religion is not at the very heart of this issue. Of course, that might complicate things for us as Christians, but facing the facts is better than pretending that there is not a theological root to this problem.

Recognising the desire for justice and meaning

If nothing else, Manchester reminds us once again, that deep in our hearts there is a sense of what is right and what is wrong. A sense of justice and fairness. And that innate sense of justice and fairness is not something made up. It is the inheritance of every human being. God’s image in us might be broken, but we are still created in His image nonetheless.  C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity speaks of his own experience of this:

“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”

Our outrage is not a denial that God is there, more a cry for Him to intervene with His justice.

Alongside the desire for justice, there is the desire to make sense of all of this.

The familiar Darwinian line of life being without purpose or meaning, cuts little ice. It offers no hope. It’s just the way it is. But every human instinct rebels against such pessimism. And Christians say that we instinctively know that there is something wrong with the world and that life can’t be meaningless. Those kinds of thoughts

Recognising the role of the demonic

Finally, any truly Christian response to suffering in the world recognises the role of demonic power that lies behind the kind of evil that people inflict on one another. We live in a fallen world. A world that is in the state it is in because of one man’s sin (Romans 5.12). Of course, Adam’s sin did not just result in a breakdown in humanity’s relationship with God. It also resulted in yielding control of the world to Satan.

Jesus described Satan as the prince of this world (John 12.31, 14.30, 16.11). Paul referred to him as the god of this age (2 Corinthians 4.4). Elsewhere he is the prince of the power of the air (Ephesians 2.2).

There is a battle going on between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light. It is a real battle. And the prince of the kingdom of darkness has given himself a mission of stealing, killing and  destroying (John 10.10). But the fight back has begun. In fact, the decisive battle was fought and won when Jesus died at Calvary and rose again on Easter Sunday (Colossians 2.15).

And one day evil will finally be brought to an end and the eternal kingdom of Christ will be established forever (Revelation 11.15-17; 21.1-4).

That is the hope that we have. That is a hope that has endured through much persecution and opposition over the last two thousand years. And it will endure until Christ finally returns to earth in glory.

Conclusion

The above isn’t intended is an explanation for what happened in Manchester or Egypt or anywhere else for that matter. It is offered more as a reflection on how we might respond to some of the questions that will inevitably arise in days to come. Hopefully, some of what I have written above will prove helpful to some.

I want to end however with the words of the Coptic bishop, Angaelos, whose church has suffered much at the hands of IS:

“Our world is certainly suffering from the brokenness of our humanity, but it is our responsibility, personally and collectively, to encourage and inspire ourselves, and all those whom we meet along our path, to a life of virtue and holiness, and the love and forgiveness of all.

This of course, is far from the reaction that many may have expected, but the Christian message is just that, to look at our world as through the eyes of God, Who loves all and Who desires that all be liberated through Him.”

Amen.

7 Roadblocks to healing

Anyone who has ever read the Bible could hardly deny that God is presented as a healer. And if you have even glanced at the gospels, you could hardly deny that Jesus healed people, many people. Turn over a few pages to Acts and the story is similar. Healings, exorcisms, the dead being raised, extraordinary miracles – they are all there.

And throughout the world today we have similar stories of God’s healing power at work.

But the nagging question for many is why, given that God is able and willing to heal, are so many unhealed?

I realise that any attempt to tackle this question is like walking into a theological and pastoral minefield. Upsetting just about everyone who reads the article is a real possibility. People get upset if they think the stress on faith and God’s willingness to always heal is not strong enough. People can get upset if you suggest that there are reasons why some are not healed other than the theological reason that God has not chosen to heal because He is sovereign.

You might be thinking “Why bother?”

And the answer is that what we believe about healing ultimately affects people and affects the way we see God. The intent of this post is to help us find a way to enable people to receive healing that is faithful to God’s word and treats people with respect. Unfortunately, many have sought healing only to find themselves on the receiving end of condemnation and criticism for a perceived lack of faith or been told that they must have unconfessed sin in their lives.

Below I set out what I have called “seven roadblocks to healing”. You might be able to add to the list. Or you might disagree with what is on the list.

Let me say by way of qualification that this isn’t a checklist to use when praying for the sick! It is simply an attempt to provide some perspective on a sometimes complicated subject. And hopefully that perspective will build faith and release compassion.

So what are the roadblocks?

Delay

Sometimes healing hasn’t happened yet. Paul explained to Timothy about Trophimus’ illness:

“Erastus stayed in Corinth, and I left Trophimus ill in Miletus.” 2 Timothy 4.20

Epaphroditus was ill and almost died.  But, says Paul, God had mercy on him (Philippians 2.25-27)

Sometimes healing doesn’t take place immediately. But because it has not happened yet, doesn’t mean it is not going to happen. Sometimes we give up too easily.

Dysfunctional attitudes

It is unfair to people to say that because they are sick must mean that they have unconfessed sin in their lives. That kind of pronouncement is so damaging. Especially when the person is already weak. Jesus never required anyone to repent of their confessed sin before He healed them. He did however talk about sin in the context of healing. On one occasion He instructed a man He had healed not to continue sinning (John 5.14). On another occasion He rejected a link between a man’s blindness and sin (John 9.1-5).

However, there are some sins that are a major blockage to healing.

Sins that would be described today as negative emotions – like unforgiveness, anger or bitterness – have the power to make us ill.

In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus links our experience of God’s forgiveness to our willingness to forgive others. And in Matthew 18 he tells a story about someone who would not forgive, implying that those who do not forgive open up their lives to pain.

And it’s not just Jesus that makes the link. A Johns Hopkins report makes a similar connection.

Bitterness not only blocks healing, it causes illness. And I am sure you can add to the list of sinful attitudes that are a block to healing.

Why is that? I think it is partly (i) because it is hard to have faith and hear God when you harbour anger or unforgiveness or bitterness; (ii) the negative emotions that result affect not only your emotional wellbeing, but can potentially impact on your body as well. The links between negative emotions and physical disease are well established. Just google unforgiveness / bitterness / anger and physical illness.

Depending on grace

Sometimes an unhealed area of our lives can cause us to rely on grace.

When you read Paul’s testimony in 2 Corinthians 12 you find that his pain caused him to rely on God’s grace:

 Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 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, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12.7-10

Notice a number of things:

  • Paul was in pain
  • The pain came from Satan
  • He expected God to remove his pain
  • But God gave him grace instead

This may or may not refer to physical need. The point is that one area of Paul’s life was unhealed and it made him depend on God’s grace.

Those areas of our lives where healing has not yet come are opportunities for us to lean into grace.

Deficit of love

Loneliness is a major problem in our society. “Skin hunger” as some psychologists call it, has consequences for our emotional health.

Two major studies on loneliness and isolation revealed that there was around a 30% higher risk of stroke and heart disease for those isolated or lonely. And isolation and loneliness often contribute to early death.

I have no doubt that it is one of the reasons the Bible emphasises fellowship again and again. A spiritually and emotionally healthy Christian is strongly connected in fellowship. A spiritually and emotionally healthy church is hot on fellowship.

Here’s what Paul says in Ephesians 4.15:

From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Being in a small group might do far more for you than seeing a counsellor!

Diet

If you want to be healthy and set yourself up for healing, watch your diet!

I suppose I don’t need to talk about junk food, but here’s a reminder:

(i) It damages your physical health

For example, junk food can cause heart disease, diabetes and arthritis, amongst other conditions.

One study of health in the UK has indicated that 10.8% of poor health is caused by diet – that’s more than smoking!

(ii) It damages your mental health

World Health reported that “Changes in diet over the past 50 years appear to be an important factor behind a significant rise in mental ill health in the UK, say two reports published today.

The Mental Health Foundation says scientific studies have clearly linked attention deficit disorder, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia to junk food and the absence of essential fats, vitamins and minerals in industrialised diets.”

Give your body the respect it deserves:

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies. (1 Corinthians 6.19-20)

Your body is a temple, so treat it with respect!

Desire

Although perhaps not often the case, but certainly sometimes the case, healing does not happen because there is a lack of sincere desire to get well.

Both Tony Robbins and Henry Cloud have been credited with the quote, “Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.”

I wonder if Jesus was looking for a statement of desire when He asked Bartimaeus “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10.51)

There is no single explanation for a lack of desire for healing. Research indicates that there are numerous reasons why people sometimes want to stick with their illness rather than get well.

Some people, for all sorts of reasons, just don’t want to get well. Sad but true.

Conclusion

I hope this article has provided some fresh perspective on why healing is either slow to come or doesn’t appear to arrive at all. It is not intended as a diagnostic tool for ministry! Healing ministry should be fuelled by compassion, not a desire for explanation!

Nor is it proposed as a way to explain why your friend has not got well. It is simply intended to expand our thinking on what is often a very sensitive and complicated subject.

George Michael, death and the hymns we used to sing: 4 possible reasons so many are struggling with celebrity deaths

If you have been anywhere near social media in the last few days, you can’t fail to have noticed the outpouring of emotion in the wake of the deaths of, amongst others, George Michael and Carrie Fisher. It’s not that surprising that people who do not claim to have any particular religious affiliation or faith should react in this way. If you do not believe that there is a God, death really is the end.

What is perhaps more surprising is that Christians should react in a similar way. I’m not suggesting that we should not feel sorrowful that families of celebrities suffer loss or that a celebrity dies relatively young. That would be entirely unfeeling and lacking in humanity.

That kind of response is, however, very different to what feels like a disproportionate reaction that sometimes borders on the hysterical, flooding social media.

How do we explain this reaction?

In all honesty, I do not have an explanation. It is more than a little bewildering.

However, I will make four suggestions as to why people of Christian faith might be tempted to be swept along by the culture in responding to the events of the past week or so.

Firstly, the death of anyone, but the death of a high profile figure in particular, is a reminder of our own frailty.

In other cultures in other times, people spoke about death. Death was ever present. Not so in our culture. Many have limited contact with death or dying until it touches their own family. Death has become a taboo subject. Compared to most people, in most places throughout most of history, most of us lead sheltered lives.

Secondly, we live in a culture that believes it can fix anything that needs fixing.

If we don’t like something we can – we think – just change it. Don’t like your Christmas present? Sell it on ebay? Don’t like your gender? Change it. Disappointed with your holiday? Complain. Uncomfortable with how God is presented in the Bible? Alter it.

It’s a great shock when we find that the semblance of control we have over life is just that – a semblance. We have limited control over our lives.

Death does not fall within the category of things we can control. It is no slave to fashion or the pressure of public opinion. There is no celestial customer service desk to which we can complain about death’s behaviour.

“It is appointed unto man once to die,” declares Hebrews 9.27. It is an appointment that cannot be continually postponed.

Thirdly, we often desire to attribute faith where there is no evidence it was present.

Part of our discomfort with death might also be found in our understanding on the afterlife.

The second part of Hebrews 9.27 says “…and after death to face judgment. ”

Someone on social media suggested that George Michael had not “found the light”. It clearly upset some people and was reflected in their posts.

Whether George Michael, Carrie Fisher or anyone else had a death bed conversion, I don’t know. The dying thief was promised paradise when he made His request to Christ. But it is worth remembering that that the other dying thief rejected Christ even in death.

I understand the desire to attribute a last moment conversion to people we love or respect. But when the evidence is absent, we have no right to. Some people choose not to follow Christ. God has given them the ability to reject his love. We do people a disservice if we try to finish their story in a way they never wanted it told.

When Christopher Hitchens died, his friend and opponent, Reformed theologian Douglas Wilson commented in Christianity Today:

“The subject [deathbed conversion] came up repeatedly, and was plainly a concern to him. Christopher Hitchens was baptized in his infancy, and his name means “Christ-bearer.” This created an enormous burden that he tried to shake off his entire life. No creature can ever succeed in doing this. But sometimes, in the kindness of God, such failures can have a gracious twist at the end. We therefore commend Christopher to the Judge of the whole earth, who will certainly do right. Christopher Eric Hitchens (1949-2011). R.I.P.”

Wilson’s comments are a generous blend of humanity and faithfulness to scripture. We would do well to preserve something of his balance if we feel we have to pronounce on the possibility of a deathbed conversion, especially if there is no existing evidence.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, our reactions over the last few days might reveal our fear of death.

I have had two conversations recently with different families living over six thousand miles apart. In the last year, both faced terminal illness within the family. In both cases palliative care professionals had related that Christians were less likely to want to talk about death than non-Christians.

If that is an indication that we believe God is able to heal today, then I can understand the reluctance to talk about death.

If it reveals that we have become fearful of an enemy that Jesus has already defeated, then the situation is more serious. Could it be true that we have lost our grip on hope? On the life to come?

Consider some of the songs we used to sing:

“On that bright and cloudless morning / When the dead in Christ shall rise / And the glory of His resurrection share / When His chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies / And the roll is called up yonder I’ll be there.

Or:

There’s a land that is fairer than day / And by faith we can see it afar / For the Father waits over the way / To prepare us a dwelling place there

Those hymns might not have been lyrically the greatest ever written. And they might not have been as accurate theologically as some would like. But they did capture the imagination and impressed upon us that our best life was still to come.

If the Christians are afraid of death and no longer sing about heaven, what hope for those who don’t know the Conqueror of death?

Following Jesus means that we follow One who has taken on and beaten the greatest enemy of all:

 Who got the last word, oh, Death? Oh, Death, who’s afraid of you now? (1 Corinthians 15.55 MSG)

Farewell 2016

For many, Christmas is a bitter sweet experience. For some it is more bitter than sweet. Somehow the Christmas season brings a heightened expectation of life. The real Christmas story has well and truly been mugged by Western materialism and sentimentalism. Eternal hope has all but been displaced by seasonal hype. And it’s created an environment that is not an easy one for people who come to the end of the year carrying all sorts of losses and disappointments.

So as we approach the end of the year, how do we say “Goodbye” to 2016?

If you have had a “good” year you might not want to say “Goodbye” to 2016! But you still have to! The best thing you can do is to thank God for the way He has blessed you.

But what about those for whom 2016 has been a year of difficulty or a year of loss?

Realistically, changing the date from 2016 to 2017 doesn’t necessarily change anything. But the season of Christmas and new year is a good time to look to God for His help to leave behind those things that are causing us hurt and pain.

How do we do that?

In Psalm 37, David was clearly struggling with something that was painful to him. Stated briefly, his issue seemed to be that God was blessing bad people while he was struggling. As the Psalm unfolds we see how David began to walk out of his difficulty into the clear light of God’s revelation.

First of all he faced his pain.

Verse one says : Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong. That was the issue for David: people who are doing wrong seem to be doing well. And perhaps he wasn’t doing so well.

That might not be your issue, but whatever your issue, you can’t begin to move beyond it until you acknowledge it.

Secondly, he developed a godly perspective.

If you read through all forty verses of the Psalm you will be able to trace a whole line of counsel that shifts David’s focus on to God.

Let me give you six ways in which he began to develop a godly perspective:

Develop an eternal view (vv.1-2)

Trust –and do good (v.3)

Enjoy God for who He is (v.4)

Commit your way to Him (v.5)

Be still and wait for Him (v.7)

Manage your negative emotions (vv.7-8)

If over the next few months you gave yourself to developing the kind of perspective that David developed, your outlook would be changed and your heart would begin to find healing.

Finally, he embraced God’s promises.

We often say that we don’t know what the future holds. That is true. We don’t know details about future events.

Yet in another sense we do know what the future holds. How? Because God has given us promises about the future.

Here are five that are set out in Psalm 37:

Protection and plenty (vv.18-19)

Ability to bless others (v.21)

Solid ground (vv.23-24)

Provision (v.25)

Security (vv.27-28)

The call to let go of the past is also a call to lay hold of the future.

I hope 2016 has been a good year for you. If not, I hope that by God’s grace you will leave the year with a fresh perspective and a strong grip on the promises of God.

Instead of writing to Father Christmas, why not write a letter to the Father of Lights?

“What do you want for Christmas?” is a question most of us will both ask and be asked in the run up to 25th December. No doubt more than a few have already sent off their annual letter to Father Christmas.

And it’s big business. The Retail Gazette reckons that people in the UK will spend a whopping £73 billion – yes billion not million – on Christmas this year.

In case you weren’t aware, the Bible doesn’t mention Father Christmas, even though he has connections with the St. Nicholas of church history.

It does however refer to our heavenly Father as the Father of Lights. James, Jesus’ brother is the one, the only one who uses this title for God:

16 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.(James 1.16-18)

Here’s my suggestion: amongst all the giving and receiving that you do this Christmas, why not ask the Father of Lights for a special gift?

How can you ask and be sure you will receive?

First of all, ask with a right motive.

James again:

When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (4.3).

It’s possible to ask for something for the wrong reason. God will not give you a “something” that revolves around your pleasure!

Secondly, ask for what is in line with God’s revealed will.

Here’s what Jesus’ disciple John said about asking God:

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him. (1 John 5.14-15)

Wow! If what we ask for is in line with His will, we know that He hears us, and because we know He hears us we know we will receive what we asked for!

The Amplified Bible drives home the point even more strongly:

This is the [remarkable degree of] confidence which we [as believers are entitled to] have before Him: that [c]if we ask anything according to His will, [that is, consistent with His plan and purpose] He hears us. 15 And if we know [for a fact, as indeed we do] that He hears and listens to us in whatever we ask, we [also] know [with settled and absolute knowledge] that we have [granted to us] the requests which we have asked from Him.

The question therefore is how does what you are looking for line up with God’s will?

There are lots of things we don’t know about God’s will. But there are lots of things we do know about God’s will. That He wants us to be full of the Spirit. That He wants us to be more like Jesus. That He wants us to have a godly influence on the people around us. That He wants our families to know His love. That He wants to give us wisdom.

Finally, what result would a positive answer to your request produce?

The prayer Jesus taught His disciples, that we know as the Lord’s prayer gives us a guide to the kind of results we should look for from our prayers:

  • Extension of God’s influence – your kingdom come, your will be done
  • Needs being met – give us this day our daily bread
  • Strengthening our relationship with God and others – forgive us our sins as we forgive
  • Prevailing in spiritual conflict – lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil

Why not get writing to the Father of Lights? After all, it’s not like He’s keeping a big brother-like eye on you to make sure you’ve been a good boy or girl.

No, He gives to all without finding fault (James 1.5) .