Raiders of the Lost Heart

Deep down, I remain an English student. Little is it known, but the Latin genus Englishus studentus derives from a phrase, roughly translated as “one who has never done a hard day’s work”. Yet, personally, I’ve definitely accumulated at least a day’s hard work in my life so far! One afternoon springs readily to mind. Last summer, while leading an outreach team in Ballymena, my co-ordinator and I decided to carve a footpath from weeds. Armed with two shovels, a strimmer, some bin-bags, two wheel-barrows and a giant rake, we quickly fell to arms. Determined, as Thorin Oakenshield, to reclaim this footpath, and restore it to its former glory! What followed, however, was nothing short of disastrous. The sun scorched the earth, and rocks ever-increasingly multiplied. We fought valiantly, but as our phones declared “dinner!”, we retreated, carrying hundreds of bags of soil, rock and dirt. That, I believe, counts as hard work!

keeping the heart

But, English author John Flavel went beyond man’s outer work, and considered the extent to which we labour in the depths of our hearts. In fact, in his work Keeping the Heart, Flavel argues that his Christian contemporaries have all but neglected heart-work. Flavel argues this in the midst of the Puritan movement, in which many church leaders and pastors argued persuasively for greater moral purity and personal piety in the lives of professing Christians. So, if Flavel argues this in one of the most vibrant periods of theological reflection, how much more does this indicting statement apply to us today?

Indeed, one could make a compelling case which likens our hearts to the tomb at the beginning of the classic Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Despite the greatest treasure – the word of Christ, which dwells in us richly (Colossians 3:16) – shining in the deep, our hearts are mostly untended, untamed and full of traps, pitfalls, poison arrows and giant, man-crushing, boulders. If we do look to our hearts, it’s a superficial glance. I’m writing to myself here. I know, too well, the impact of residual sin left unchecked; all it takes is the slightest movement, and suddenly it all comes crashing down.

Through Scripture, Flavel argues for a remedy. Rather than being casual visitors, we must intimately know our hearts. With courage, boldness and total reliance on God, we must become raiders of our lost hearts.

To this end, Flavel takes Proverbs 4:23 as the central beam in the biblical doctrine of keeping the heart. Keeping the Heart is essentially a lengthy exposition of Proverbs 4:23: “Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life”. Therefore, the heart is at centre of “sound” (Titus 2:1) –healthy – Christian living.

But, why does Flavel deem the heart to be so important? In his introduction, he asserts that the heart is the most vital organ in conversion: “the heart of man is his worst part before it is regenerated…[but it is] the best afterward”. And, of course, Proverbs 4:23 establishes the heart as “the seat of principles, and the foundation of actions” within a man. Flavel’s logic is simple: the vital transformation which marks the beginning of re-creation, renewal and redemption – true Christian life – occurs in the heart, therefore the daily outworking of salvation through continual sanctification must, too, impact the heart. So, the greatest difficulty for any Christian, post-conversion, is “to keep heart with God”. In fact, it is in keeping the heart that the Christian feels the very “force and stress of [true, Biblical] religion”.

Of course, if we’re reading critically, we might baulk at Flavel’s emphasis on our role. “Surely”, we legitimately assert, “such an imbalance must lead to legalism, not Biblical Christianity!”. From this, we may assume that Flavel’s emphasis on the individual begins his argument on very false premises: if a depraved humanity could change their hearts, by their own disciplined works, they could therefore change their spiritual condition before God, independent of His grace. Flavel, however, powerfully responds to this criticism: we are to “keep the heart, because the duty is ours, though the power is God’s”. The surfing-addict knows that it is his duty to catch every wave; yet, not for one moment does he fail to acknowledge that the immense power is the sea’s. We, too, set out to raid our hearts, knowing that we only do so by the grace and might of our Triune God. The very idea of keeping the heart is necessarily tied to a “previous work of regeneration”. Therefore, the power at work within us depends entirely upon the Spirit’s groaning, Christ’s interceding and the Father’s willing.

We must ask, “what does it mean ‘to keep the heart?’”. Flavel outlines this work in six ways:

  • know your heart
  • humble yourself
  • confess sin immediately
  • remove yourself from internal and external grounds for temptation
  • be jealous for your heart
  • set the glorification of the Lord before the indulgence of self

This is a hard, constant and supremely vital work. And yet, it highlights the all-surpassing grace of God; not only is keeping the heart a grace-driven work, but “God graciously regards and depicts the receiving of our hearts as a gift, when in fact it as a debt”.

And, of course, keeping our hearts is one of our most, if not the most, supremely important tasks. When we neglect our hearts we rob God of His glory. For a neglected heart marks us as insincere, hypocritical and ineffective ambassadors for Christ. Therefore, the Christian must be diligent. Indeed, Flavel helpfully spends the bulk of his book outlining various seasons in the Christian life which require our diligence: from prosperity to want, from cultural apathy to persecution, and finally death. What gives Flavel’s seventeenth-century work uniqueness in our culture is the lack of a “self-help” mentality. Rather than authoring a comprehensive “fifteen step plan to build a better you”, Flavel reflects on a variety of situations and offers first principles to consider in each season; often, these rebuke the creeping pride lurking in our hearts. These are words more designed to be considered, meditated on, and prayed through than blindly followed.

Therefore, inevitability Keeping the Heart is most helpful at its most challenging.  It forced me to reconsider how seriously I serve God, how seriously I discipline and maintain my heart and how seriously I regard sin. Throughout, Flavel highlights  that the Scriptures leave us no  wiggle room for an untended heart. The practical biblical guidelines refrain from dipping into our often clichéd and hackneyed expressions, and therefore contain solid first principles for enduring and repenting in the diverse aspects of life. In a rush-driven culture, Flavel urges us to stop and seriously engage with ourselves. We must do more than superficially consider our hearts; we must raid them, in God’s immense power and guidance through Scripture.

Keeping the Heart is an incredibly useful, and increasingly vital, book. It urges the reader to daily consider and examine their heart; to repent, trust and long for the superior pleasure of a heart which , most of all, desires to bring glory to God.

~

All citations in this essay are found in Keeping the Heart (Christian Focus). It’s only £2.99!

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The Beauty of Holiness

mountain

What image does the word holiness conjure in your mind?

Is it positive?

Negative?

Just plain weird?

Would you ever describe holiness as attractive or beautiful?

The concept of holiness is admittedly quite abstract to us, “What does it even look like?” we ask.

“Does it involve smoke and flames on a mountain top?”

“The slaughter of animals?”

“Erecting a fancy tent in the desert?”

We know God is holy, but what does that even mean?

We could simply say that holiness means being set apart, to be other. Which is true but it doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter, it doesn’t really satisfy our longing hearts.

Occasionally, it seems to mean that someone dies (Leviticus 10:1-7; 2 Samuel 6). It causes the Israelites to “tremble with fear” (Exodus 20:18-19 NIV). Yahweh is rightly described as, “a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24 NIV) because he is holy; he “is God; besides him there is no other” (Deuteronomy 4:35 NIV). The author of Hebrews concludes, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31 NIV).

But is that it?

Is holiness nothing more than something to be feared?

Something other. Something unattainable, locked away in highest heaven?

Or is there more to holiness?

Enter Jesus.

The Eternal Son of God.

Perfect Deity and Perfect Humanity, coexisting in Perfect Unity.

He is, “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3 NIV).

The exact representation of his being.

Everything that we see and hear and experience of Yahweh in the Old Testament is made flesh in Jesus as we watch and listen and participate in his life through the New Testament.

To answer the question, “What does holiness look like?”, if we are looking for a concrete answer, we must look at the life of Jesus because he is the embodiment of holiness. Everything he did was holy, from his carpentry to his miracles. His words were to the metre of holiness and his actions in time with God’s holy cosmos enveloping symphony.

It is ironic to note that the people who were most offended and put off by Jesus were the holy Joes (and Josephines) of his day while it was the sinners who were most attracted to him,

“While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”” (Mark 2:15-16 NIV)

Jesus was so popular with sinners he even earned a derogatory nickname from the religious elite, “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19 NIV).

“Surely a holy God would not associate himself with the likes of them,” or so thought the Pharisees and other religious people, “Surely if God were to come to earth it would be us he would eat with.”

To which Jesus quickly retorts, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17 NIV).

This should surprise us.

God’s holiness should terrify us because it consumes sinners like a fire devours straw. Yet here we see something altogether unexpected. Sinners flock to Jesus and he embraces them. Absolutely scandalous! Of course the moralists and religious folk were mortified, this was not how they had imagined events playing out. It was they who were to be embraced for their steadfast devotion. And it was for this very reason they missed out on God’s embrace because they failed to fall upon his grace. A holy God certainly, but a gracious God? They hadn’t counted on that! Who could have expected such a turn of events?

The sinners perceived the beauty of God’s holiness in Jesus through an experience of his abundant, overflowing grace. They longed to be holy as God was holy (Leviticus 19:2) but they knew they could never measure up. They knew they were failures but still they longed. This is why they were the recipients of God’s grace, a grace which makes one holy, because they knew they could never do it on their own. They needed help. They needed God himself. And God provided. Spectacularly.

Grace makes holiness beautiful.

What image does the word holiness conjure in your mind?

Is it positive?

Negative?

Just plain weird?

Would you ever describe holiness as attractive or beautiful?

Time and again the Apostle Paul refers to Christians as God’s holy people. This wasn’t wishful thinking or naïve optimism on Paul’s part. That Christians are God’s holy people is a fact established by Jesus through his sinless life, substitutionary death and victorious resurrection given to us freely by grace through faith. We are holy, therefore, we should live holy lives. We need to be who we are. If God has declared us to be holy then we need to live out of that new identity he has purchased for us at great cost to himself.

If our holiness is to be patterned after Jesus’ holiness it must be infused and empowered by God’s grace. We must exude grace. There should be a beauty to our lives which is attractive to others and will awaken a longing within them to be holy too.

If our lives are going to offend people (and they will, just as Jesus’ life offended the Pharisees and the religious people of his day) it should be in substance rather than form. What I mean is that our lives should not repel people because of our attitudes toward and treatment of them, these should be the very things that in fact do attract them to Jesus. If they are going to be offended by us it should be on the basis of our beliefs about where our holiness comes from: that it is a result of God’s grace to us through repentance of our sins and faith in Jesus as the only God, who is both Lord and Saviour.

C.S. Lewis’s words on humility in Mere Christianity apply equally well to holiness,

“Do not imagine that if you meet a really [holy] man he will be what most people call [“holy”] nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is [sinner].

Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.

If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about [holiness]: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”

To pursue holiness is to repent of our narcissism and instead “[fix] our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2 NIV). If we take ourselves too seriously then we’ll never come to truly understand God’s grace toward us in Jesus because our attention will be focused primarily on ourselves, for he gives grace to the failures, the losers and the sinners; to those who know themselves well enough to look elsewhere for holiness. But he opposes those who take themselves too seriously and think they’ve made it (James 4:6).

We can either be in on the joke or the butt of it. By God’s grace let’s learn to join with him in laughing at ourselves as he makes us into the holy people we have been declared to be in Christ.

The Blame Game

Those with any interest in Northern Irish political satire will know the name Tim McGarry, probably better known as Da from Give My Head Peace, a member from The Hole in the Wall Gang and the host of The Blame Game.

Image from BBC
Image from the BBC

The Blame Game is a comedy panel show where comedians offer answers to the general public on who should be blamed for certain things.  For example, who do you blame for the flag protests?  Who do you blame for binge drinking?  Who do you blame for the “Stroke City” problem? And so on.

At the end of each show the host, Tim McGarry, delivers his tag line:

‘And remember, don’t blame yourselves.  Blame each other’.

This tag line sums up the attitudes of many people in today’s culture.

Take our politics for instance.  The recent Haass talks have failed to deliver an agreement, who is to blame?  The DUP say that Sinn Fein is to blame as they have written a document that suits them and them alone.  Sinn Fein say that the DUP are to blame because they won’t compromise on particular issues.

However, it isn’t just Northern Irish politics that suffers from this.  Westminster is equally guilty.

Who do we blame the banking crisis on?  Labour say that the banking crisis happened on the Tories watch, therefore they are to blame.  Tories say that the banking crisis wouldn’t have happened if Labour did a better job when they were in power, thus they should be blamed.

This isn’t just something that politicians suffer from though.  We too suffer from it.

When we find ourselves in difficult situations very rarely do we blame ourselves.  Often when we are in difficult situations we are very quick to find someone else to blame.  Issues that need resolved are never our fault they are always someone else’s mess.

Others are always to blame and so they should be fixing my problems!

The funny (yet tragic) thing is this is how life has been progressing ever since the beginning.

Back in the Garden after Adam and Eve sin, God finds them and asks, ‘Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ (Gen. 3:11).  Adam’s response is, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree’ (Gen. 3:12).  The women whom you gave to be with me.

Adam removes himself from the situation altogether.  This woman, the one you made, is to blame, so it’s really your fault.

Adam was the first to play the blame game – but he was not the last…

In Galatians 6:5 we are told, ‘each will have to bear his own load’.

One day everyone will have to take responsibility for their own actions – for some Christ will intercede and bear that responsibility, but for others they will have to bear that responsibility themselves.

However, wouldn’t it be refreshing if people took responsibility of their own actions now?  Wouldn’t it be pleasant to see people stand up, own their blame and really mean it?

If we think that would be refreshing, well, watch the finger turning round to point at us.  Who have we been blaming?  Who have we been pointing the finger at?

None of us are perfect – we are all sinners and therefore we all sin.  This means that just like Adam and Eve we have sinned against God, and so we must own up to that.  Confess to God we have sinned against him.  Adam and Eve did not only sin against God though, they also sinned against each other.  As we have sinned we have not only hurt God, but we have hurt others – family, friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, even those who are not Christians.

So can we stop blaming our upbringing, our circumstances, our fatigue, our home life, our church?  Can we resolve to own up to our mistakes, take the blame for what we have done and stop playing the blame game?

Now, that’s not to say our upbringing, circumstances and home life don’t exert a great influence over us, they do.  However, we are still responsible for our actions, and when we own our blame we honour Christ and show love to those around us.

Not everyone will buy into this; after all it is easier to blame others.  This can be especially true in our churches – perhaps we would be the only one owning our blame.  But, ‘it’s time we stopped complaining about the culture of our churches and started leading within them’ (Chandler, Patterson & Geiger, pg. 159, Creature of the Word).  If we stand up and own our blame the church would be a very refreshing place to be.

iFAQ 1: Who Are The Contributors at Gospel Convergence?

This is a question we would encourage everyone to ask – not only at Gospel Convergence, but before reading anything by anybody. Who are the writers?

question mark

We (plan to) have personal profiles available for each of our contributors so you can get to know a little about each of them.

When it comes to our contributors we have two criteria that must be met by anyone who writes for us.

1. All of our contributors must be members in good standing of a local church. Gospel Convergence isn’t non-denominational, but cross-denominational. There is no particular denomination that all the contributors belong to. However, they all belong to an Evangelical church.

This is important to us at Gospel Convergence because one of our aims is to write for the benefit of the church. Our contributors must therefore write out of a love for the church.  This love is best exercised by those who belong to a local church because love is principally expressed in the context of commitment. Mark Dever has said,

‘If your goal is to love all Christians [the church], let me suggest working toward it by first committing to a concrete group of real Christians with all their foibles and follies.’

As such, all of our contributors are committed to a concrete group of real Christians with all their foibles and follies.

2. The majority of our contributors will be writing within the context of Northern Ireland/Ireland. We will not tie our hands on this, but the vast majority of contributors will be writing from a Northern Ireland/Ireland context.

This is important because all that is written is aimed at this context. While blogs and online resources such as The Gospel Coalition, Resurgence, The Proclamation Trust, etc. are of huge benefit, they do not speak directly to our context. Therefore, our contributors will primarily be people who live and work in this context because they are best placed to write with wisdom and insight for our particular context.

The Potency of the Written Word, Part 2: Who Are You Reading With?

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series on the importance of reading books, you can read Part 1 here.

As important as books are they are not the most important thing in life. To paraphrase Paul, “If I have many books and I’ve read them all, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

In order for us to demonstrate love we need to be living in community with others. We need to have close, personal relationships with other people. All the books and all the knowledge in the world will do us no good if there is no one to serve by sharing what we’ve learned.

Image by SMBCollege
Image by SMBCollege

This is not an either/or scenario it’s both/and, we should not create a false dichotomy between being loving books and loving people. We need to do both. Books are important to our continued growth both as human being and as Christians. We only get this one short shot at life here on earth and it can be a terribly confusing place. For different reasons we may go through certain seasons of it alone, whether because we are embarrassed or afraid we will be misunderstood by others. Yet in these situations books can be of tremendous import, especially biographies because in reading biography we are able to take advantage of a lifetime of wisdom by investing a mere fraction of our own. In the case of biographies the return far exceeds the investment. In this world we need wisdom, desperately! And books are one of the primary ways we can gain wisdom (go read Proverbs!).

However, our purpose in reading isn’t just that we would benefit as individuals from the books we read because as Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “Everything must be done so that the church may be built up” (1 Corinthians 14:26 NIV). Our reading should be for the building up of the church, of benefiting and serving our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Consider Paul’s words at the beginning of his second letter to the Corinthians,

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5 NIV)

How often are the Scriptures a balm to our wounded souls? These same Scriptures which so often speak peace and healing into our conflicted and hurting hearts can also do the same for others. Likewise, good books can accomplish similar ends.

Words are God’s gift to broken hearts, knitting together what was torn asunder by the harsh circumstances we face and giving expression to our deepest anguish.

A person finds joy in giving an apt reply—
and how good is a timely word!” (Proverbs 15:23 NIV)

So then we should not think of books as primarily for our own individual enrichment but rather for the blessing of the whole community. Whether you are in pastoral ministry, lead a small group, are part of a small group or even just a friend. Our personal individual reading has the potential to bring comfort, healing and peace to those around us as we apply the wisdom we have gleaned to the lives of those we care about.

In a similar way, reading books with others can also be immensely profitable.

This year, technically we began last year but we’ve only read one chapter, a number of people in my church have formed a book club. We are reading through Kevin DeYoung’s excellent book The Hole in Our Holiness.

We meet once a month to go through the study questions for whichever chapter we’ve read but they are really only a starting point. Having organised the book club I had no idea going in how well things would go that first night. I was slightly worried it would be a complete flop. A number of questions were floating around in my mind:

Would people talk?

Would we stay on topic?

What if we finish in five minutes?

Would it feel awkward?

Thankfully, everything went really well. Far better than I expected! Everyone had something helpful to contribute. We talked about the chapter for over two hours and it didn’t feel awkward at all, as talking about spiritual issues and holiness can be sometimes (maybe that’s just a Baptist thing?). More importantly everyone enjoyed it and they are looking forward to our next book club. I’m also looking forward to it and to what God will do in us through it.

So I would really encourage you to try something similar. Meet up with friends or people from your church (or both! Maybe they’re the same people?) to read a book together. It could be a book like The Hole in Our Holiness or a book of the Bible. Set a date: it could be once a month, twice a month, once a week, whatever happens to suit the needs of your group. Bring some unhealthy food: no explanation necessary. Do it. Then keep doing it.

In my opinion, having pre-prepared questions that people can be thinking about while they read is very helpful as it gives everyone the opportunity to come with something to discuss or share and they are useful for guiding the conversation when the inevitable lull naturally occur after everyone has said their piece. Someone who can lead the conversation well, ask good follow up questions and gently encourage the more timid member of your book club to contribute is always a huge benefit.

So who are you reading with?

 

The Adjustment Bureau: Rage Against The Chairman

The Adjustment Bureau

*This post contains spoilers!*

The Adjustment Bureau is a film starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt which was released in 2011.  It is based on a short story called ‘The Adjustment Team’ by Philip K. Dick.

adjustment bureau

The film follows Congressman, David Norris (Damon), who is running for Senate.

In the opening scenes Norris meets a girl called Elise (Blunt), somewhat comically in the gents’ bathroom in a hotel (Elise is hiding from security as she has just crashed a wedding).  They strike up a rapport immediately and end up kissing briefly.  That is until they are interrupted by Norris’ campaign manager.  At any rate, Elise has to leave the hotel promptly as hotel security is still searching for her.

Shortly after that scene two men are seen sitting on a park bench.  One says to the other ‘David Norris must spill his coffee on his shirt by 7:05’.

The man on the bench (who later comes to be known as Harry) falls asleep and misses Norris who, because he has not spilled his coffee on his shirt, gets on a bus and meets Elise again – this time she gives him her phone number.  When he arrives at his office he finds everyone frozen, and as he enters a conference room he interrupts a group of strangers tampering with his campaign manager’s brain.

These strangers are known as The Adjustment Bureau – they adjust people’s minds so they follow a certain decision making pattern.

An encounter with them ensues.

During this encounter Norris is told that The Adjustment Bureau need him to stay away from Elise and if necessary will prevent him from seeing her.

After this encounter Norris does not encounter Elise again (even though he travels on that same bus every morning for three years).

As the plotline continues Harry, the member of The Adjustment Bureau from the park, offers to meet Norris and try to answer some of the questions he might have.

It transpires that there is someone called The Chairman who is the top dog and calls all the shots.

These agents are simply sent to ensure that people make decisions that will be conducive to the plans which The Chairman has put in place.

Then comes a chance meeting with Elise.

Norris sees Elise one morning from the bus – he stops the bus, gets off and tries to explain why he hadn’t been in contact with her.  This alerts The Adjustment Bureau.

The Adjustment Bureau send in the ‘big guns’ this time, and an agent called Thompson has an encounter with Norris.

During this encounter Norris raises the big question – is there any free will?  The answer is that there has been, but that the human race is not mature enough to handle it just yet.

Apparently the human race had been given free will toward the end of Roman rule – then the dark ages began for several centuries.  Then again in 1910 – but in only 100 years the human race offered up two world wars, the Great Depression, a number of genocides in a number of countries and almost ended the world with the Cuban missile crisis.

So once again The Adjustment Bureau have stepped in.

Norris will not accept this and so he rages against the system and against the Bureau.

Harry agrees to help him, along with Elise, in fighting against the will of The Chairman.  They take the fight to him, and refuse to be apart because they desire to write their own future.

In the end The Chairman gives in, he tells them they have won and they are allowed the privilege of writing their own future together.

Can God be defeated?

This is the view that many people have of God.

He is this kind of Chairman in the sky.  He has his agents/angels who pull strings, guard people and alter circumstances.  God is this kind of puppet master moving human history along to the script he has written.

We don’t like this line of thought – ‘what about free will?’ we say – and so we rage against it.  We think that God’s plans are something to be fought against, we believe we know best and our ultimate aim is to write our own future.

David, Elise and Harry take on the will of The Chairman and defeat him.  So we begin to wonder, ‘can the same be done to God?’

The emphatic answer from Scripture is, ‘You [God] are feared; no one can stand against you’ (Ps. 76:7 NCV).

One of the books of the Bible that speaks quite spectacularly to the victory of God is Revelation.

In Revelation we read that God is seated on the throne (chp. 4) and that Jesus holds the keys to death and Hades (1:18).  This means when those who pierced him see him again they will wail (1:7).  This wailing is justified as later we read that those who rejected God will be trampled in his wine press (14:19-20) and Jesus will wage war on, strike down and trample his enemies (19:15).  The final evidence that there is no defeating God is that the first one to rage against God’s will, the devil, is ultimately defeated too (12:9; 19:20-21; 20:10).

As Thomas Schreiner says, ‘No one defies God and ends up triumphing over him’ (in For the Fame of God’s Name, pg 220).

There is no raging against this Chairman.  Well, there is – but there is no victory in it.  And any future that we write for ourselves is a future which is to our detriment.

Therefore, we must ask ourselves ‘am I raging against God?’

God is explicitly clear in his Word about his will for us, he has stated clearly, and repeatedly, ‘be holy, for I am holy’ (Lev. 11:44; cf. 19:2; 20:26; Ex. 19:6; 1 Peter 1:16; 1 Thess. 4:7).  God’s will for his people is holiness, and this holiness is to be manifested in the way we behave (Col. 3:5-17), think (Phil. 2:5) and feel (Gal. 5:22-23).

There is no easy way to respond to this truth.  We must read God’s Word, examine our lives and submit to his will.

This was the Psalmist’s reflection on this truth:

Psalm 2

Why do the nations rage
   and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
   and the rulers take counsel together,
   against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
   and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
   the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
   and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
   on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
   today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
    and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
   and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
   be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
   and rejoice with trembling,
Kiss the Son,
   lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
   for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

The Potency of the Written Word, Part 1: What Are You Reading?

booksI don’t know about you but I love books!

At the moment I’m pretty sure the only thing holding my bookshelf up is all the books piled on top of one another and in front of each other. It’s a little chaotic, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten more than one of the books I own, but in spite of this I continue to add to my ever growing collection of books.

Books are important to me and, I believe, they should be to you too.

You don’t need to love books as much as I do. You don’t even need to have masses and masses of books, so many you could build a book fort if you so desired. But as Christians books should hold a special place in our lives, and more importantly, in our hearts because we are people of a Book.

The most important Book ever written.

The Scriptures.

The written word is the medium by which God has chosen to communicate with this world.

Time and again God commands people to write down what he has said, a few examples:

“Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.”” (Exodus 34:27 NIV)

“After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end, he gave this command to the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD: “Take this Book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God. There it will remain as a witness against you.” (Deuteronomy 31:24-26 NIV)

“Go now, write it on a tablet for them,
inscribe it on a scroll,
that for the days to come
it may be an everlasting witness.” (Isaiah 30:8 NIV)

““This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Write in a book all the words I have spoken to you.” (Jeremiah 30:2 NIV)

From these few examples we can clearly see that God has a special place and purpose for the written word. If the written word is important to God then we too should give it a place of honour in our lives.

But maybe you’re not a big reader.

Maybe you’re an auditory or kinaesthetic learner and you prefer to be hearing or doing something. That is totally fine. God has made us all different with a variety of strengths and weaknesses. Nevertheless, it is important for all of us to shore up our weakness. So for those of us who naturally enjoy reading we may need to develop our listening or practical skills. I know my preference is often to read and discuss things over against learning to do something with my hands so I need to make an effort in that area because there is so much benefit in improving that area of my life. One of my friends is a Joiner and I am totally amazed at the things he can do, things I can’t even begin to imagine being able to do. Likewise, those of us who don’t find reading as immediately enjoyable need to put in the effort to become more disciplined readers. So much knowledge and experience is recorded in books. Knowledge and experience we would otherwise not have access to which is able to shape and influence our lives in profoundly valuable ways.

If you’re not a big reader I would really like to encourage you to make small efforts to increase the amount you read. Don’t take on a gargantuan amount, like trying to read 100 pages a day, start small and keep building on that. Who knows, maybe someday you will be able to read 100 pages a day no problem, but for now why not try five pages a day?

To the readers I would encourage you to keep on reading, to continue growing and improving in your own reading (it is a skill that can always be improved upon) and even to branch out and try different kinds of books. Read novels, biographies, a book on something you have absolutely no idea about (I’m currently making my way, very slowly, through Jonathan Bardon’s A History of Ulster which is something I know next to nothing about). Don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone and try something new! I would also encourage you to use the knowledge and experience you gain from books to help others, but more on that next week!

And to everyone (myself included) let’s not neglect to read the Scriptures. Through this Book God makes himself known to us. Through this Book God himself meets with us. And Through this Book God himself changes us, little by little every day, as “we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18 NIV).

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As a side note, there are an abundance of audio books available so even if you’re not big on reading you can still greatly benefit from books by listening to them. You can do this while doing things like housework, driving or even at the gym. We really are in the golden age of books!

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Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series on the importance of reading books, you can find Part 2 here.

Review: True Friendship by Vaughan Roberts

At the end of November, beginning of December, I experienced a first.

Winning a competition.

true friendship

Ten of Those Publications were running a competition on Twitter – retweet and you are in with a chance of winning a copy of Vaughan Roberts new book ‘True Friendship’.  For me, there’s not much better than a free book.  So I was delighted when I got a tweet telling me I had won a copy.

I wasted no time in reading it – my impatience was well rewarded.

‘True Friendship’ is a very short book (less than 100 pages).  There are only six chapters (and they are all alliterated for those Baptists reading this).  Chapter one is a call to friendship, after that Roberts begins to lay out the characteristics of friendship – it should be close, constant, candid and careful.  He then finishes with a chapter on the importance of Christ in friendships.

There are several things which are excellent about ‘True Friendship’:

1)      Roberts has his finger on the pulse of modern society.  In the introduction Roberts talks about the phenomenal success of the American sit-com ‘Friends’.  He quotes one of the actors from the show who says ‘It’s a fantasy for a lot of people – having a group of friends who become like family’ (pg. 11).  In this technological age we can contact whoever we want in an instant from the comfort of our own sofa, yet instead of strengthening friendships, more often than not, this has only weakened them.  Friendship is one element of modern life that is missing and Roberts has identified that.

2)      Roberts is straight forward in how he talks about the topic.  Often books on practical topics like this allow us wiggle room to pinpoint faults in those around.  However, Roberts does not allow this self-righteousness to settle in our hearts – he gives us a summons to consider our own failings on this front.  We are encouraged to think about our actions, confess our sins, receive forgiveness and try again – ‘Pray, Trust, Obey.  Ad infinitum’ (see What’s in a resolution? By Nathan Blair).  Roberts does not let you off the hook easily and that’s a good thing.

3)      For those who have not read Roberts before, be reassured this is not a self-help book.  Roberts writes with great theological awareness and a good handling of Scripture.  Of particular benefit is his use of Proverbs.

4)      Nonetheless, this is not a dry theological treatise on friendship.  Throughout the book Roberts applies the lessons of his chapters and gives very practical advice.  For example, in the middle of the book Roberts gives four pointers to building friendships.  He says be selective, be open, be interested and be committed (pgs. 47-50) and under each heading he takes time to explain why and how these are to be carried out.  In addition to the practical content there are also questions at the end of each chapter for personal reflection or group discussion.

5)      This book is short, with small pages, large font and is therefore very readable (Roberts is a particularly readable author).  Because of this it makes this resource accessible to everyone – it can be read by everyone; teenagers to seniors, enjoyed by the reader and non-reader alike.

There are some things which I think we miss out on though:

1)      While having a short book is of benefit, I am also left wanting more from Roberts.  It is like eating small portions at a posh restaurant – what you get is great, but you always want more.  This is heightened by the belief that Roberts would certainly have more to say on the topic, and the more would be just as good as what’s in the book.

2)      Probably connected to the brevity of the book I also felt I would like more clarification on the distinctions in friendship for married and single people, as well as some more guidance on friendships with Christians and non-Christians.  At times Roberts did mention these things briefly, but very often it was only a passing comment.  I am left with questions like ‘Do I have to get a new best friend if I become a Christian?’, ‘Can my spouse be my best friend?  Or do I need someone who can speak into my marriage?’, ‘What bearing does this have on friendship evangelism?’, ‘Should I have any truly close friends who are not believers?’.

On the whole Vaughan Roberts’ book ‘True Friendship’ is a great read.  It is a timely book that offers page after page of wisdom on an aspect of life at which many of us today are notoriously bad.

So, if you are in a book club, have a group of friends you’d like to grow closer to, or are just lonely, get this book, read it and then put its principles into practice – our churches need members who have true friendships.

‘If Only It Were True’ (Zeph. 3:17)

Guest Post by Paul Ritchie.

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True story.  Susan was on verge of an emotional collapse.  She had been hospitalised before and feared it would happen again.  She was scared that if that happened her family might desert her.  She went to her pastor.

She told him that her father was a demanding tyrant.  ‘If you look pretty,’ he would say to her, ‘I’ll love you.’  ‘If you make good grades, I’ll love you.’  ‘If you are successful and helpful, and don’t embarrass me in front of others, I’ll love you.’  Her father’s love was very conditional, and she only ever experienced his disdain and rejection.

love1‘What does God feel about you?’ her pastor asked.
‘Pity,’ she snapped back without hesitation.
‘Why?’ Her pastor probed.
‘Because I’m pitiful.  I’m pathetic.’

For the next hour the pastor laboured to convince Susan of the love of her Heavenly Father.  Then he read Zephaniah 3:17.  ‘The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save.  He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.’  ‘That’s how God feels about you Susan!  He looks at you, he thinks of you … And he sings for joy.’

‘But I am so pathetic,’ she protested.  ‘I really am.  I’m thirty pounds overweight, and I’d die if anyone saw the inside of my house right now.  It’s almost as messy as I am.  My husband is furious at me again.  I can’t do anything right.  And you say God sings over me with joy?  I doubt it!  More like screaming in disgust.  My dad used to do that.’

The pastor read Zephaniah 3:17 again.  ‘The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save.  He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.’

‘If only I could believe it were true.  I think then I could face almost anything.  If only it were true.’  If, like Susan, you find it hard to believe that God delights over you then this sermon is for you.

Grasping something of how much God loves us is the key to everything in the Christian life.  Our love for God, and his people, does not originate with us.  It is a divinely-empowered response to the greater love we have found in him.  ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:10).  Understanding his love makes it a delight to obey him, ‘for this is the love of God, that we keep his commands; and his commands are not burdensome’ (1 John 5:3).  Understanding his love will transform our fellowship.  ‘God so loved us, so we ought to love one another’ (1 John 4:11).

The Welsh preacher Martin Lloyd-Jones explains that ‘the greatest characteristic of the greatest saints in all ages has been their realisation of God’s love to them … Not our love to Him, but His love to us.  Our salvation, our assurance, depend not on our love to Him, thank God!  Our outlook would be most precarious if that were the case .  No, it is His love to us that matters …’  Every Christian has a deeply felt need to know and feel that God loves and enjoys them.  Many Christians believe that God frowns, rather than smiles, when he sees them.

1.  God’s love is demonstrated most clearly at the cross.

Zephaniah tells us that the Lord is mighty to save and that he has taken away our punishment.  God has dealt with our guilt.  The New Testament explains how he did this.

Zephaniah 3:17 has sometimes been called the John 3:16 of the Old Testament.  John 3:16 reads, ‘for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life.’

In John’s writings ‘the world’ is not simply a description of something that is big; it is primarily a description of something that is bad.  The world describes humankind in rebellion against their creator.  God did not love us because we deserved his love, he loved us despite the fact that we deserved his judgement.  God did not love us because we were lovely; he loved us because he is love.

At weddings I like to use the picture of the love of the groom for his bride as a reminder of the sort of love that God has for his people.  Isaiah declares, ‘as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride so will your God rejoice over you (Isaiah 62:5).

But think of how that man met his future wife.  He saw her and thought she was attractive.  He got to know her and realised that she had a personality that matched her good looks.  He spent time with her and realised that he might enjoy sharing his life with her.  God’s love for us far surpasses this.  He saw us and he could see that that we are self-centred, self-absorbed, rebellious failures.  Morally speaking it is as if we have a big bulbous nose, the breath of a camel, and the personality of Genghis Khan.  Then he let out a sigh and exclaimed, ‘I love him/I love her’.

Not only did he love us in our rebellion and sin, he dealt with our rebellion and sin.  ‘In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loves us and sent his Son to be a propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 4:10).

Now if he loved us before we became Christians, before we had any desire to have him rule our lives, don’t you think that he can be counted on to love us now that he has accepted us into his family?  If he was committed to us while we were openly hostile to him, don’t you think that he will be committed to us now that we have been forgiven?  The apostle Paul reasons, ‘for if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!’ (Romans 5:10).

2.  God’s love brings us into his presence.

Now that Christ has dealt with our sin on the cross, we have access by faith into the grace in which we now stand (Romans 5:2).  Again, Martin Lloyd-Jones explains that before we came to faith God could only frown on us but now, in grace, ‘God looks on us favourably, and not only accepts us, He delights to receive us, and he delights to bless us.’  He has become our Father and delights to see us coming to him.  His love is compared to that of both a mother and a father for their child.  But his love far exceeds that of any human parent.

When we pray do we remember that God is looking on us with favour, that he is smiling on us?  Do we realise that he delights to bless us?  Do we know that he is more concerned about our welfare than we are ourselves?

Zephaniah tells us that God is with us.  Do you think that he would have you in his presence if he did not like you.  In Isaiah God declares, ‘I will be glad in my people’ (Is. 65:19).

3.  God wants to deal with our objections to his love.

Finally, God wants to deal with our objections to our love.  Zephaniah tells us that God loves us, he has dealt with our sin, and that now he delights in us.   This gives us reason to be glad and rejoice with all our heart.  But sometimes we think that it is too good to be true.  We struggle to accept this truth.  ‘The Lord will quiet you with his love’ – he takes steps to silence our objections towards his love for us.

I ask, “Can you feel the wonder of this today – that God is rejoicing over you with loud singing?”
“No,” you say, “I can’t, because I am too guilty.  I am unworthy.  My sin is too great, and the judgements against me are too many.  God could never rejoice over me.”
But I say, “Consider Zephaniah 3:15.  God forgives your hesitancy.  He understands.  So his prophet says, ‘The Lord has taken away the judgements against you’  Can you feel the wonder that the Lord exults over you with loud singing today, even though you have sinned?  Can you feel that the condemnation has been lifted because he bruised his own Son in your place?”
I ask you, “Can you believe that he rejoices over you?”
“No,” you say, “still I can’t, because he is a great and holy God and I feel he is so far away from me.  I am very small.  I am a nobody.”
But I say, “consider Zephaniah 3:15 and 17, ‘The Lord is in your midst.’  He is not far from you.  Yes, I admit that this staggers the imagination and stretches credibility almost to breaking point – that God can be present personally to everyone who comes to him.  But say to yourself, again and again, He is God!  He is God!  What shall stop God from being close to me if he wants to be close to me?  He is God!  He is God!  The very greatness that makes him seem too far to be near is the greatness that enables him to do whatever he pleases, including being near to me.”
But still you say, “No, you don’t understand.  I am the victim and the slave of shame.  I have been endlessly belittled by my parents … I have been scoffed at and threatened and manipulated and slandered.  Inside this cocoon of shame even the singing of God sounds faint and far away and incomprehensible.  It is as though my shame has made me deaf to anyone’s happiness with me, especially God’s.  I cannot feel it.”
But I say, “I am sure I do not feel all that you feel.  I have not been through what you have been through.  But God is no stranger to shame.  Unbelievable shame was heaped upon his Son (Hebrews 12:2), terrible slander, repeated belittling, even from his own townsfolk (Matthew 13:55-58).  Therefore, ‘we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses.’  I know that I have never walked in your shoes.  I did not have to live with the family you lived with.  But Jesus knows.  He feels it with you.  And best of all his Father says right here in Zephaniah 3:19, ‘I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praises and renown in all the earth.’  Is it not amazing how well God knows you?  Can you not feel the warmth of his heart as he makes provision for every question you have?  Do you not hear the singing of God as you draw near?” (Adapted from John Piper).

It might still seem too good to be true but, “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save.  He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing.”