Sunday, 28 December 2008

One Thing - Your Choice!

In Luke 10.38-42 we have the story of Jesus in the home of Martha and Mary. It is a fascinating story. There are three actors, but only two speak. It is Jesus who will have the last word! Mary will remain silent throughout. The home belongs to a family well acquainted with Jesus. From John’s gospel we know that they are good friends, John 11.1-5; 12.1-3. This was a family He enjoyed visiting and He was clearly welcome. Yet Luke’s focus is not on this longstanding relationship. He positions this account with his oft repeated phrase ‘certain’. “...He entered a certain village and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house”.

Consider how often Luke does this; Luke 7.41 – ‘there was a certain creditor’; 8.2 – ‘and certain women who had been healed..’,8.22 – ‘Now it happened on a certain day...’,8.27 – ‘there met Him a certain man’ 10.25 – ‘And behold a certain lawyer stood up..,10.31 – ‘Now by chance a certain Priest came...’; 11.1 – ‘as He was praying in a certain place...’,11.27 – ‘And it happened as He spoke these things that a certain woman from the crowd...’; 12.16 – ‘...the ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully..’. Over and over Luke uses this word; 13.6; 14.2; 15.11; 16.1, 19; 17.12; 18.2, 18, 35; 19.12; 20.9; 21.2; 22.56; 23.26; 24.22. It is a clever literary device. He is trying to communicate the ordinariness of these everyday encounters. He does so to enable us as readers to put ourselves in the story. It could be about you and me. And as we read we realise – this is me!

So it is with this beautiful encounter. Two sisters make two choices. One makes a choice to serve, the other to sit. One choice is not intrinsically better than the other. Serving is good. What Martha is doing comes from a desire to bless Jesus. But the account shows us that the joy of serving Him has left her. It won’t be long before she explodes and has a word with Jesus. Mary on the other hand puts everything aside to sit at the feet of Jesus and hear His words. Luke is purposeful with his use of phrases. To sit at the feet of a master was an acknowledged term that meant a person was accepted as a disciple of the one at whose feet they learned. Luke uses this phrase again in his book of Acts when Paul speak of himself as educated, ‘at the feet of Gamaiel’, Acts 22.3. (He is throughout his gospel showing the new status that women will have under the New Covenant. It is Elizabeth and Mary at the beginning of his gospel who demonstrate unwavering faith, while Zacharias endures nine months of silence for his unbelief and Joseph needs an angelic visitation to be encouraged to take Mary as his wife. Women support Jesus ministry financially, Luke 8.1-3 and it is a woman who first encounters the resurrection and declares it to the disciples, Luke 24.10!)

Finally Martha cannot hold it in any longer. She is ready to blow. She comes to Jesus with two accusations and a clear way of solving the problem – as she sees it. The first accusation is against Him; ‘Lord don’t You care....’ Let me paraphrase. “Jesus, if you really loved me, if you really cared, if you were really concerned, you would not let this unfair situation continue. After all, I’m doing this for You”. Does that ring any bells? Often we end up serving the Lord but it isn’t from a place a rest or peace. We are striving. Sometimes this is rooted is the need for recognition. We need to be noticed. Sometimes it is out of guilt; ‘I must do something’. Sometimes we are just driven to achieve and perform. This often goes back to childhood where we somehow received the programming that says we are accepted when we succeed and do well. Our sense of value becomes rooted in our performance rather than who we are. Take away the performance and our sense of value is removed. Whatever the reason, Martha felt resentful – primarily towards Mary, but ultimately against Jesus. After all He is letting it happen and if He really cared He wouldn’t do that.

And so the second accusation is released, this time against Mary . ‘My sister has left me to serve alone’. It’s her fault. I would not be feeling the way I am if she would just get up of her lazy bum and get in here and help me. Forgive my liberal paraphrase but it is not far from the truth. Martha is making a classic mistake. She thinks her happiness is in Mary’s hands. She’s wrong. It is never the events in life that impact us. It is always how we choose to interpret those events. Our perception, our interpretation of reality, is what truly impacts our inner world. Finally Martha ends up telling Jesus what to do. This is in stark contrast to His own mother at the wedding of Cana where she speaks to the servants and says, ‘whatever He says to you, do it’ John 2.5. Here Martha presumes to tell Jesus what is needed. And in her presumption we see ourselves. How many times do we try to manipulate God by asking (praying) Him to make others do what we want? True love frees others to choose to serve, not out of compulsion or obligation but out of love and joy.

Peter writes to other leaders reminding them that real service must come from the heart willingly, 1Pet 5.2. Using prayer to try and manipulate God or others is a dangerous game. Notice that Jesus won’t play this game. Rather than join in this accusation against Mary He defends her. She has chosen the good part and it won’t be taken from her. I see three things about Martha I can relate to. The first is that when we lose sight of why we are serving it can become an end in itself. Martha was distracted with much serving. The word distracted in the Greek is perispao meaning ‘to drag all around’. Life for Martha had literally become a drag, a burden. She had lost all the joy of serving. Serving is good. It is what we are meant to do, but only from a place of relationship with Jesus. When we neglect that, the service begins to become an end in itself and then we lose our joy. Psalm 100.2 says, ‘Serve the Lord with gladness; come before His presence with singing’. This is one of the ways we can recognise when our service is coming from a good place. When we are in the right zone there is a song in our hearts. Joy is on the inside and it spills out in praise. This was missing from Martha. Instead of a song there was something sour. And it bothered her.

Secondly Martha, in a very subtle way, blamed Jesus. If He really cared He would do something. Instead He just carried on teaching and ignored Martha’s need. Sometimes we think God is overlooking our needs. But the truth is that our greatest need is for relationship – with Him. When we get caught up with the good we often do it at the expense of the great. There is a time to serve and there is a time to sit. A wise person knows how to discern the difference. Life has its rhythms and we do well to recognise when to stop and listen. Mary discerned the moment and was commended for it. It would not be taken from her. As long as we blame God for how we feel there is little hope for us. To her credit, Martha let it all hang out. She said exactly what she thought – of Jesus and of Mary. This was not a woman to leave you guessing how she felt about issues. And this was her salvation, for it gave Jesus an opportunity to speak right into her situation. She didn’t bury her hurt and disappointment but brought it into the light. In that place Jesus could give her another way of seeing things.

The third thing about Martha is that her condition made her feel alone. ‘She has left me to serve alone’. Here she is in a room with others. Jesus is present, but Martha feels alone. This is the sad reality of what happens to us when we don’t take time for God. Our sense of loneliness increases – and God is often the one we blame. Contrast this to the continual sense of the Father’s presence that Jesus spoke of, “Indeed the hour is coming, yes, has now come, that you will be scattered, each to his own, and will leave Me alone. And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me”, John 16.32. Serving that comes from the right motive always leaves us with a sense of communion – a sense of togetherness. This is what Jesus promised us, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him”, John 14.23. We may be alone but we don’t have to be lonely!

The final part of this exchange that grips me is the way Jesus communicates to Martha with such love, patience, genuine concern and grace. He repeats her name twice, Martha, Martha, Luke 10.41. This is significant. Throughout the Bible there have only been seven occasions when God has spoken to someone using their first Name twice. On each occasion the event is filled with significance. The first time was with Abraham in Gen 22.11. This was the scene where Abraham was about to sacrifice his only son Isaac and the angel of the Lord intervened. What a moment. What an unforgettable encounter. Abraham discovered God as his ‘Provider’ – and it changed everything. Then we have Jacob who has heard the news that Joseph is alive and has called his family to come down to Egypt. Jacob’s heart must have been filled with turmoil. He wants to be with Joseph but he doesn’t want to leave the land of promise. Then God shows up and reassures him that He will go with him to Egypt. It is part of His plan, Gen 46.22.

In Ex 3.4 we have Moses who encounters the Lord at the burning bush. In this moment God reveals Himself as the great ‘I am’ and commissions Moses to be the deliverer of His people. Then in 1Sam 3.10 God speaks for the first time to a young boy who will become a great prophet, Samuel. This will be the first of many revelations given to Samuel that will bear such accuracy it will be written of him that not one of his words will fall to the ground, 1Sam 3.19. We then move to the New Testament where Jesus speaks to Peter in Luke 22.31, ‘Simon, Simon, indeed satan has asked for you that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you that your faith should not fail; and when you are returned to Me strengthen your brethren’. What encouragement Peter would have gotten when remembering this prophetic word from Jesus. Notice Jesus said ‘when you return’, not ‘if you return’. This would be a word to hold in to in his darkest hour. In Acts 9 we have the record of Paul’s conversion. As a well trained rabbinical Jew, Paul would be familiar with the passages where God had spoken to the saints using their names twice. And now here he is, knocked off his donkey by a blinding light and hearing the words, ‘Saul, Saul why are you persecuting Me’, Acts 9.4. It would change him forever.

Each of these encounters carried great significance for those who heard God speak. And now Jesus addresses Martha with this same repetition, Martha, Martha. This way of speaking to Martha shows how important she is as a person to Jesus. He values her. He appreciates her. Not for what she does, but for who she is. This is a lesson she has yet to fully grasp. A gentle rebuke is given and an astonishing statement is made; ‘One thing is needed’, Luke 10.42. One thing! Not three, not ten, one! This highlights the beauty and simplicity of the Christian faith. It is essentially about one thing – Jesus. Everything derives from Him, including our service. It’s not that Martha did anything bad. But in pursuing the good she lost sight of Jesus, even when He was present. I remember once watching TV when one of my daughters was trying to speak to me. I was nodding and trying to look interested in what she was saying but in truth I was distracted. Finally she climbed on my lap grabbed my face between her two hands, turned my head, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Daddy I want your undivided attention”! She made her point. And Jesus made His.

Life is full of opportunities; opportunities to serve and opportunities to sit, to learn, to be refreshed and to encounter Jesus. But each opportunity comes with a price tag. Paul says this in Eph 5.16. The expression, ‘redeeming the time’ can be translated, ‘buying up the opportunity’. Sometimes the price we have to pay is letting go of the false expectations we have of others – thinking our happiness is in their hands. We have to let go of our unbelief that God doesn’t care about our wellbeing – if He really did then why are we in this mess? We have to see that our service must come from a place of knowing we are loved, we are precious. From a place of knowing God is jealous for time with us more than He is for what we can do for Him. I pray that as we enter 2009 we will have a fresh appreciation of what empowers our service for Him and take time to chose the good part – the part that in His words, ‘will not be taken away’ from us.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Simeon - a Man of Destiny

Destiny is a great word. It points to something that is about to happen to a particular person or thing. It always concerns their fortune; the unfolding course of events that eventually defines the lasting impact they have. It is recognised by the legacy that they leave once they are gone. To live with a sense of destiny means we live with a sense of purpose; for God has determined that each of us has a role to play in life that will further His purpose. To say yes to His will is to say yes to that purpose and live with destiny. The impact of such people is like a ripple in a pond. It goes way beyond their immediate sphere of influence. These are the people God uses to release destiny in others. This is what Jesus did with the twelve disciples. By connecting to His destiny they found their own. And they in turn affected others.

There are two people who stand out in this way in the Gospels. They are Simeon and Anna; two old people. Without Luke’s record we would never know the significance they had in the life of Jesus and His parents. Let’s take a look at Simeon. We will look at the person and then the prophecy of Simeon. As to the person he is truly a man of the Spirit. Luke tells us three things about this man that seem to distinguish him from others living at the time. He was righteous, devout and the Holy Spirit was upon him. By righteous the scriptures mean that he was upright. He did the right thing. He operated out of conviction, not convenience or compromise. But not only was he righteous, he was devout. He had a relationship with God that was real. Devotion to God was part of his makeup. He took time to pray, to listen and to respond to God. This is summarised by the next phrase, “The Holy Spirit was upon him.”

Notice also three things that displayed the work of the Holy Spirit in his life. The first is that Simeon lived with a sense of destiny. He lived with an expectation that he would see the ‘consolation of Israel’ before he would die. This was specifically revealed to him by the Spirit. As each year passed and he got older, he stayed in faith. Contrast this to Zechariah the father of John the Baptist. He prayed for a son. As time went on he seems to have forgotten about his own prayer. For when the angel appears to him in the temple Zechariah is incredulous. The result was nine months of silence. Only at John’s circumcision was his tongue finally loosed. As he wrote the name of his son and so brought his heart into agreement with the angel’s pronouncement, his tongue was loosed. Now he poured forth a prophetic utterance regarding the future ministry of his own son. All were amazed. What is God up to?

Simeon on the other hand had no such relapse. His faith and disposition was constant. All we know is that the Holy Spirit had revealed that he would behold the salvation of Israel before his death. As things grew worse in Israel, Simeon’s faith was steadfast. We don’t know how the Spirit did this. There is no record of an angelic visitation. In a sense Simeon is a prototype of the New Testament believer. We too have the Spirit and receive things revealed by the Spirit, 1Cor 2.10. What is important is how this affected his whole life. It caused him to live for and anticipate the moment. Unlike others, he knew God was going to act on behalf of His people. He didn’t know when. And not knowing kept him in readiness. He was watching and waiting, watching and praying, living for his moment of destiny.

Then it happened! The Spirit prompted him to go into the temple. He is truly ‘led by the Spirit’, a prototype of the believer post Pentecost. He is obedient to a simple prompting. Go into the Temple – Now! And there was Jesus, a baby. I wonder what went through Simeon’s mind in that instant. I’m sure it was not that he would see a baby. Yet as he looked on this small boy, now forty days old, he realised this was the one in whom God had entrusted the future of the world. Our destiny was in His hands and Jesus was in Simeon’s hands. What joy filled this old man’s heart. Listen to his words:
“Lord, now you are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word. For my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples. A light for the Gentiles and the glory of Your people Israel”, Luke 2.29-32.

Now Simeon begins to speak under the inspiration of the Spirit. He begins by blessing God. He has a worshipping heart. Notice the emphasis on God’s hand and activity – Your servant....Your word....Your salvation....Your people.... It all belongs to God. Simeon is God’s servant who has received God’s word about God’s salvation for God’s people. As Paul teaches, all things are “of Him and through Him and to Him”, Rom 11.36. We are left in no doubt who is initiating this whole process. Simeon has positioned himself to be the mouthpiece for the Lord. He doesn’t carry the title of prophet. That is reserved for Anna, an old widow of eighty four years of age. Again, like the NT believer, he just speaks what is in his heart – and it is filled with prophetic significance. For right at the beginning of his gospel Luke makes it clear that this is a universal gospel. And Simeon is the first to see it and declare it. Jesus is to be a light for the Gentiles and as well as the glory of Israel.

Having blessed God, Simeon now blesses Mary and Joseph by focusing the next part of his prophecy on the destiny of Jesus, “Behold this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign which will be spoken against, (yes a sword shall pierce through your soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed”, Luke 2.34-35. As he held Jesus he saw God’s salvation. He saw the destiny of Jesus. The life and ministry of Jesus would cause many to rise and fall. The secret thoughts of men’s hearts would be revealed. None would remain neutral once they encountered Him. We see this amply displayed in John’s gospel. The first 12 chapters cover nearly three and a half years of ministry. From chapter 13-17 we have the events of only one night. Chapters 18-20 deal with the arrest, trail, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus culminating with His appearance to Thomas 8 days after the resurrection. And the final chapter happens a little while later.

If we look at the first 12 chapters of John, which covers the bulk of Jesus public ministry, it is evenly divided. The first 6 chapters outline His rise in popularity. But from chapter six onwards there is a change. For the first time there is a division among the people over Jesus. From that time even some of His disciples turned back and followed Him no more, Jon 6.66. This division over Jesus persists everywhere He goes from then on; See John 7.26-31, 40-43; 8.30, 59; 9.28-38; 10.19-21, 39-42; 11.45-46; 12.37,42. Each of these instances demonstrates the fulfilment of Simeon’s prophecy. No one could encounter Jesus and not face the condition of their heart. He saw that Nathaniel was an Israelite ‘in whom is no guile’, Jn 1.47. He revealed to the woman at the well her lifestyle of five past husbands and a man she was not married to along with her thirst for living water, John 4.1-26. He exposed the secret love of riches that had captured the heart of the rich young ruler, Matt 19.16-22. Over and over the thoughts of many hearts were revealed. Some responded and it caused them to rise. Others rejected His words and fell.

And Simeon is bold to say to Mary – “yes a sword shall pierce through your soul also”. Notice two things in this encounter. Simeon focused on the destiny of Jesus, not Mary. Out of the mouth of Elizabeth, her cousin, we get an accurate picture of Mary’s role. She is ‘blessed among women’, not ‘blessed above women’, Luke 1.39-45. Mary’s own testimony is that future generations will call her, ‘blessed’, Luke 1.48. She was chosen to bring forth the Messiah. Her character is revealed in her willingness to say yes to this difficult task. Elizabeth commends her as a woman of faith, Luke 1.45, ‘Blessed is she who believed...’ The second thing is that she will not be immune to having her heart revealed. Simeon speaks of a sword piercing her soul. The sword has consistently been used throughout scripture to speak of the word of God. Heb 4.12 says, “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart”. When Solomon had a difficult decision to make between two women fighting over a baby he called for a sword – literally. And it revealed the heart of the real mother.

As the living word, Jesus brings to light what is hidden. It is not so much that He causes division. It is more that He reveals the division that is already there – hidden beneath the surface. This is an integral part of His ministry, His destiny. To live in such a way that all things come to the light, John 19-21. And this is what we are called to as His church. Like Jesus the early church enjoyed a period of popularity, Acts 2.47. They enjoyed favour with all the people. But in process of time there arose a persecution and they were scattered, Acts 8.1. Like the Master the early church was destined for the fall and rise of many. This is part of our destiny today. Popularity is not wrong, provided we are clear that we don’t take our cues from the praise of men. When that happens we sit silent, when we should speak, John 12.42, “Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue”.

As a church we are not here to intentionally offend people. The gospel is about being all things to all men. But the gospel has bite to it. It presents us with a challenge. It exposes the bankruptcy of human goodness and requires us to place faith in a Saviour, the Saviour. Without Him all men will perish. It is perhaps this unique claim that makes the message of salvation so challenging to our culture and time. There is ultimately no middle ground. The good news is that God is concerned with the direction of the heart. Is it moving towards Him or moving away? This is the real issue. We tend to think in terms of crossing a line from unbelief to faith. But John shows us in his gospel that it is like a journey. It is about following. In John 6.66 some turned back. But Peter and the others kept going. They didn’t understand Jesus, but they knew that He had the words of eternal life. And they pressed on.

I pray that you take inspiration from Simeon. Live with an expectation that is born in God. His word will come to pass. Like Simeon, each one of us is a child of destiny. There is something important for you to do. Simeon’s real moment came at the end of his life. Everything was preparation for that event. And what an event! What a moment! What an impact he had on Mary and Joseph and all those in the Temple. And having fulfilled his role he was content to bow out, in peace; “Lord now You are letting your servant depart in Peace...” What a great way to go! Peacefully. Jesus too had a sense of completion in John 17.4, “I have finished the work which You have given Me to do”. He knew when His hour had come. Paul too shared in this blessing, 1Tim 4.6, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith”. Each of us should be able to come to the end of our life with a sense of completion. This means that we take time to listen to God so that we know why we are here. We know what it is we are required to do.

Live with a sense of destiny by being open to the Spirit to give you revelation. Nurture it in your heart. Let it grow there. Habakkuk had to wait. As he did he received words that gave expression to the vision that was in his heart. And God showed him that it was for others to run with, Hab 2.1-3. Even if you have to wait you will be able to do so joyfully. Be led by the Spirit into all that God has for you. It will release destiny in others. Prophetic moments like that of Simeon entering the Temple have great impact. Live for those moments. Heaven sees. Heaven knows. Finally speak by the Spirit. These are the words that have true value. These are the words that make a lasting impact and shape the destinies of others. This is what the church is called to be. This is what truly makes us salt and light.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Gathering and Scattering

The word gather is often used to describe a particular kind of assembly in the Bible. Many times the New Testament talks of the crowds who followed Jesus. However, from His own lips, Jesus laments over Jerusalem, “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks, but you were not willing!” Matt 23.37. The heart of Jesus towards the nation of Israel is expressed most fully in this lament. God has repeatedly sent them prophets, who they have rejected and killed. Imagine that. God is reaching out to them and they kill His messengers! His intension is to gather them. The image is of a mother hen and her chicks. It is an image of care and protection; the place where they can be fed and led.

The problem however is not His end – it is the very people His heart goes out to that are not willing. They simply won’t co-operate. And here we come to the crux of any relationship involving the leader and the led. There must be an “I want to” from both sides. The leader must desire to care and protect, like a hen would her chicks. This is a decidedly female image Jesus applies to himself. One that Paul picks up on when he writes to the Thessalonians, “But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. So affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us” 1Thess 2.7-8. Here we see the heart of Godly leaders. They don’t just give a message, they give themselves. But it must be reciprocated. There must be willingness on the part of God’s people.

Jesus expressed this desire to gather people earlier in Matthew 9.36 after a successful tour of ministry. The scripture records that, “But when He saw the multitudes He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary (harassed) and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd”. Notice two things: first there was a multitude, a crowd, a group of people together following Jesus, but not a ‘gathering’ in the special sense that He gives this word. In fact He uses the opposite word. They were harassed and ‘scattered’. I’ll return to this thought later, but for now consider this; either we are willing to let ourselves be ‘gathered’ where we are led, fed and protected, or we will be scattered by the enemy, harassed and ultimately experience our community life as a ‘desolate house’, Matt 23.38.

The second thing I notice from this text is that Jesus connects the scattering and harassment with a lack of leadership – there is no shepherd. In a sense this is ironic, because He is the Good Shepherd. He is present. He is with them, healing, preaching and teaching. Surely He is gathering them? But He can only do so much. The need is great. So Jesus goes on to say, “The harvest truly is plentiful but the labourers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the Harvest to send out labourers into His harvest”, Matt 9.37-38. The problem is not with the harvest or with the Lord of the Harvest. It is with the labourers. There aren’t enough. But God has not stopped sending His servants. And we need to pray – to ask, that He will send more!

The Greek word for send here is ek-balo from ek, meaning ‘out of’ and balo meaning ‘to throw’. It is used to describe what took place when Jesus cast out demons. They were literally ‘sent out’ or ‘thrust out’. It is a forceful word. Given the hostility that many of God’s servants experienced it’s no wonder that some hold back. They may need a push from the Lord of the Harvest! In Matt 10.1 Jesus answers that prayer by sending out the twelve to do exactly what He has done in Matt 9.35, heal, preach and teach. They may not have felt ready – but He sent them any way. In order for people to be gathered there have to be those who know how to do this; those who carry the heart of Jesus and Paul; the heart of a nursing (breast-feeding) mother or hen with her chicks. This is a very tender motif used in the scripture and runs counter to much of the teaching on leadership today with its focus on vision, strategy and goals. It’s not that there is anything wrong with that stuff. I’m just saying that that is not what gathers people.

People are drawn to a shepherd heart; a heart that truly cares; a heart that takes time to teach and pray and impart life. Gathering is more than coming together as a crowd. It is acknowledging our connectedness to God through His son Jesus Christ and to one another. It is the ultimate recognition of true community – real Koinonia. This is what Jesus was getting at when He said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my Name, I am there in the midst of them”, Matt 18.20. It’s not simply a gathering but a gathering in His Name – and that makes all the difference. We acknowledge His authority in the midst of the church. He is present. The agreement Jesus speaks of in verse 19 comes out of a reverence for His presence. Binding and loosing is a term that refers to the very real authority given to the church, because He is the Lord of the church. He is present to those truly gathered; those who have said yes in their hearts to Him.

I believe God maintains a disposition of desiring to gather what has been scattered. In Matt 23.37 Jesus says, “How often I wanted to gather your children together...” It was not just once He tried. It was often. The desire was constant, despite their hardness of heart. And all He can do is leave them to their choice – desolation. However, He also gives them hope and a promise in verse 39, “ shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!’” This is a direct quote from Ps 118.26. It’s a Psalm known and acknowledged by the Rabbi’s of the day as a clear reference to the Messiah. Notice how they (the Jewish people) will need to come both to a change of heart and a change of confession – for one reveals the other. When that happens, Jesus will return!

This issue of gathering or scattering is crucial. Jesus gave no ground for neutrality on the subject. He boldly declared, “He who is not with Me is against Me and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad”, Matt 12.30. We are either working with God to gather people and shape community or we are scattering and working against Jesus. There simply is no middle ground. The famous 1924 400 metre Olympic winner Eric Liddell later became a missionary to China. He said, “We are all missionaries. Wherever we go, we either bring people nearer to Christ, or we repel them from Christ”. We are either gathering or scattering. Jesus warned His disciples that the Shepherd would be struck and sheep scattered, Matt 26.31. This is always the enemy’s strategy. By attacking leaders he scatters the sheep and then they are easy prey for him.

In Numbers 10.35-36 we have two very interesting invocations used by Israel whenever the Ark moved. As it headed off Moses would say, “Arise O Lord and let your enemies be scattered. And let those who hate You flee before you”. God’s presence in the midst of His people is meant to scatter the enemy – not the other way round. This powerful proclamation was made before any journey, honouring the presence of God in their midst. God had to rise up before they could. But then when it rested Moses would make another proclamation, “Return O Lord to the many thousands in Israel”. Isn’t that strange? I thought God was always with them? For sure He is. But Moses is looking for God’s presence in a particular way. The word gather is not used but it is implied; for there are ‘many thousands in Israel’. I like that. God is looking to gather thousands. And that’s exactly what happened on the day of Pentecost – three thousand to be precise.

At the end of the age there will be a gathering by the angels of two kinds of people – the sons of the wicked one and the sons of the Kingdom, Matt 13.30, 38-40. Notice that gathering precedes separation. Sometimes things need to be left for a season until their true nature is revealed – then they can be gathered. The story of Simon the Sorcerer is recorded for us in Acts 8.9-25. He begins well. There is a response. He is baptised. But in the course of time his heart is revealed. He follows the crowd but he has not allowed himself to be ‘gathered’ in the sense we have been speaking. He has his own agenda; for those who are truly gathered together to Jesus have let go of all agendas. Their heart prayer is, “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done...”

But interestingly, once we have allowed ourselves to be gathered, we will indeed be scattered, but not by the enemy. The farmer sows the good seed. He does so by scattering. We see this in Acts 8.1. A persecution arose and the disciples were scattered. But they used this as an opportunity to preach the gospel wherever they went. Out of this the Antioch church was planted, Acts 11.19. Notice this was not done by apostolic initiative but scattered saints who told their stories and a church was birthed. This was where Barnabas was sent by the Jerusalem apostles to see what God was up to, for many gentiles were coming to faith. God knows how to gather people if we are bold enough to share our stories with them.

So what does a gathered company of saints look like? What is like to be in the company of such people? How would we experience such a group? Are there any signs we can look for that suggest we are in the midst of a real ‘gathering’. Let me give you my take on the answers to these questions.

1. The first sign is that those who are involved in ministry do so out of an ‘I want to’ attitude. They are not cajoled into doing things. Guilt is not what drives them. They live out of a sense of calling and purpose. Further, they know when a season of service has come to an end and they can let it go or pass it on to others. Their ministry is not what defines them.

2. True ‘gatherings’ are orchestrated by the Holy Spirit and display a remarkable sense of unity, Ps 133. Out of that unity anointing flows and agreement is possible, Matt 18.19. It’s not that there is never disagreement. There was plenty of that in Acts 15. But there is a discerning of what God is doing and a coming into alignment with Him.

3. Real gatherings have a manifest presence of Jesus. It’s what makes any group of believers who have one heart so different from the Rotary Club or the local Pub. These places have atmosphere but we have presence. There’s a huge difference. “There I am in the midst”, Matt 18.20. Just because we are believers getting together doesn’t guarantee His presence. I have been to many meetings that lacked God’s presence. But a gathered group come with a sense of expectation and they know how to honour God’s presence through worship. This leads into my fourth point.

4. Such gatherings carry a sense of celebration. This was the first thing the Father of the Prodigal in Luke 15 wanted to do on the return of his son. Yet the son who lived in the Father’s house would not enter in. He would not attend such a gathering! It exposed his judgemental heart, for in celebration we have to let go of negative attitudes. We cannot maintain an ‘It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to’, attitude and truly be gathered. We have to let go of that kind of selfish indulgence.

5. Gatherings initiated by Jesus are diverse. In Acts 13.1 we have a list of the men leading the church at Antioch. Only one was born in Israel and grew up in the household of Herod – a wicked King by any standard. Here was an aristocrat now leading a church. Paul was a Roman and a Rabbinical Jew – a Pharisee. Born in Tarsus (Now Southern Turkey) and educated in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel – the greatest rabbinical teacher of the day. Barnabas on the other hand is a Levite from Cyprus – an island. The other two are from North Africa, one being Black. They were socially, ethnically and educationally very different, but they were drawn together by the Lord to form the first fully integrated Jewish/Gentile church. And it would be this church God would use to touch Europe. It modelled the kind of gathering Jesus wanted – a diverse one where spiritual gifting and calling was placed on a higher value than social, educational or ethnic background were.

6. In Acts 13.2 we see that a gathered church is also a listening and a sending church. They listen to the Holy Spirit who is in the business of gathering others. In order for that to happen some must be sent – and God will often choose the best. But a gathered church can release others to the purpose of God, believing they will continue to grow, as this makes room for others.

7. Finally gatherings as I’ve described them are a place of prayer and healing. Is 56.7-8 says, “....And make them joyful in my house of prayer.....For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations”. The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, says, “Yet I will gather to him others besides those who are gathered to him”. God’s house is a house of prayer – for all nations. It’s diverse. There is celebration. But notice that it is here He gathers the outcasts. It is a place of healing and acceptance. A place where people find identity and place. Finally they belong.

My sense is that 2009 will be a year of gathering and scattering. Both things will go on side by side. Some scatterings will be good – labourers sent into the harvest. Others will be victim to the attack of the enemy. When we see that happening, my prayer is that we will step in. We will demonstrate through our new covenant community what it means to be truly gathered and partnering with Jesus in His gathering of a wonderful harvest. Take time to reflect on this list. It is not exhaustive. But it is a small portrait of what I believe will take us closer to a model of church Jesus wants to build in these times.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Agape Love

By the time John writes his gospel the word agape has been developed by the NT authors to best describe the love of God. Unlike the other love’s His is rooted in His own nature. It is self-giving and sometimes described as the love of choice. In other words God’s love is not motivated by what is in us but by what is in Him. He is Love – 1John 4.8. To be born again means we too share in the Divine nature. We too have the possibility to love as He does. John goes so far as to say that this is proof that we are truly born of God, 1John 4.7.

But John also indicates that God’s love – agape love is something we grow into. And he does this not by giving us principles or theology but by telling a story. It is none other than the epilogue to his gospel, a gospel that is in many ways complete with 20 chapters. But as is common to John he includes details not found in any of the other gospel writers. Unlike the synoptic writers (Matthew, Mark and Luke), John’s gospel is more reflective. He is less concerned with what Jesus did and more concerned to show who Jesus was. Nowhere is this more profound than in chapter 21 of his gospel.

It has an interesting beginning. Jesus has already appeared to His disciples on two occasions. Once on the day of His resurrection where He commissioned and breathed on them to receive the Spirit, John 20.21-23 – a prophetic act foreshadowing the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2. The second time He appeared about 8 days later where he confronts Thomas for his unbelief. And here John’s gospel reaches its climax with the declaration of Thomas, “My Lord and my God” and Jesus response, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”, John 20.28-29. The goal of John writing is to get people to believe in who Jesus is – even if they have never met Him!

But now we come to this quirky chapter 21. I call it quirky because despite these two appearances of Jesus, Peter goes back to his old trade and six of the other disciples’ follow him. They fish all night and catch nothing. How annoying! The word ‘nothing’ carries special significance in John. They are told by Jesus Himself that without Him they can do nothing, John 15.5; nothing of value, nothing of significance and nothing that will last. The book opens with a declaration, “All things were made through Him and without Him nothing was made that was made”, John 1.3. No part of creation came into being without receiving His touch. It exists because of Him. And so do we!

And into this scene where they have nothing walks Jesus – but they don’t recognise Him, John 21.4. His first question is, “Children, do you have any food?” But they have nothing! So He tells them to cast the net on the right side with the promise that they will find some. They gain a great catch and John declares to Peter, “It is the Lord”, Jon 21.7. At which point Peter swims to shore to be with Jesus while the others bring in the catch. Now here is the interesting thing. Jesus has prepared a fire and already laid out fish and bread. He didn’t need there fish – He had his own! When all has been brought to shore He gives an invitation, “Come and eat breakfast”. That’s quirky.

This is the third time Jesus appears to his disciples. And He appears in the most ordinary way doing the most ordinary thing – making breakfast. The miraculous is not absent from the story. They catch a huge number of fish, all by following His instructions. It harks back to the first time Peter met Jesus in Luke 5.1-11. There was a miracle catch there too, but on that occasion the nets began to break. The response from Peter is telling of the conviction that came over him, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man, O Lord”, Luke 5.8. Now instead of wanting Jesus to depart, Peter dives into the water to be the first to be with Him. It says something about his heart.

It is interesting the word for ‘mending’ nets used in Luke is found is several places. It is the Greek word Katartizo meaning, mend, restore or equip. We find it in Gal 6.1 for restoring fallen saints. We see it Eph 4.11 for training believers in maturity and discipleship. The inference is that Jesus takes us through a process that keeps our ‘nets’ intact. Despite the great catch of John 21, the nets did not break. The whole episode can be seen as the way Jesus is going to mend this disciple. The process will bring him to a place of restoration. Fit for service, able to take the strain of ministry – catching men.

The command of scripture is for us to love God with all our heart, mind and strength; with our whole being. Yet few of us truly know what that means. Like Peter, we can boast of being further in the journey than we really are. Then reality hits and we are less sure. We fail and we must face our humanity and lack of true self knowledge. It’s a sobering time. Yet so much of Peter’s journey was punctuated with incidents where he thought he could do more.

In Matt 14.22-31 we have the story of Jesus walking on the water. At the command of Jesus Peter joins him. He is doing so well. He is the only one who dares to ask, who dares to get out of the boat. But then he notices the wind and the waves and his mind takes over. Faith shrinks and he sinks. Yet Jesus responds to his cry for help and saves him with a mild rebuke – “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt” Matt 14.31. He does great and then blows it. But he doesn’t stop trying.

In Matt 16.13-20 we have the famous declaration of Peter about Jesus. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. Peter is hearing from Heaven, according to Jesus. Men could not have told him this. Further, he is given the keys to the Kingdom. Imagine how important he must have felt. Important enough to rebuke Jesus a few verses later when He begins to tell about His impending death in Jerusalem. And now the one who hears from heaven tells Jesus this is never going to happen. At this point we hear one of the sternest rebukes in scripture, “Get behind Me satan, you are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God but the things of men”, Matt 16.23. In a few moments we see him go from receiving high praise to stern rebuke; from hearing from Heaven to hearing from hell.

In Matt 17.1-9 we have the transfiguration story. It all begins with Jesus inviting Peter, James and John to a prayer meeting, (Luke 9.28-29 adds this detail), but it’s up a mountain. By the time they get to the top the disciples are exhausted and fall asleep. In the mean time Jesus is transfigured so that His garment glistens as white as the sun and Moses and Elijah appear to him and talk about His impending suffering – the very thing they had anticipated in their lifetime. Peter wakes up and says the first thing that comes into his head, "Lord it is good for us to be here; if you wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses and one for Elijah", Matt 17.4-5. While he is still speaking Heaven speaks from a bright cloud that overshadows them. "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!" Peter's great idea adds nothing to the purpose of God. It's irrelevant. God in effect says, "Shut up and listen to My Son. I delight in Him!"

In Matt 17.24-27 we have the story of paying the temple tax. Peter comes under fire from the temple tax collectors who want to know if Jesus pays it. This is not part of the giving required in the Old Testament. True to form Peter says, “Yes” without thinking – and he didn’t ask Jesus! When he comes into the house, Jesus asks a question about who Kings expect to pay taxes, their sons or strangers. The answer is obvious and Jesus makes His point. But then He sends Peter on a little fishing expedition. It is an astonishing story. A coin in the first fish he catches pays the tax for him and Jesus. Imagine the embarrassment. A professional fisherman sent to fish with a line instead of a net. Imagine someone asking him what he is doing – “Paying taxes for me and Jesus!” Jumping in with his mouth first and now having to collect the money from a fish to pay the tax! Jesus must have had a smile on His face when He told him to do that! My point is that time and time again Peter jumps in – mouth first.

In Matt 18.21-22 we have Peter’s question in response to Jesus’ teaching about how we are to handle personal offences. "How often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" There’s a nice Biblical number. But again Jesus challenges the framework he is thinking in – "I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven". Total and complete forgiveness is what is required – no limits! On top of all this in Matt 26.40 Peter falls asleep instead of watching with Jesus. Jesus speaks directly to him, “What? Could you not watch with me one hour? Clearly he expected more. Clearly Peter thought he had more to give. Over and over we see him starting well and then triping over his own feet.

Fianlly we come to Peter’s denial of Jesus. When the test comes, he buckles. But John shows us that in an extraordinary interaction over a simple breakfast something profound will happen to Peter. He is still conscious of his threefold denial, Matt 26.75, a denial that took place despite protests on his part of undying loyalty, Matt 26.33-35. And here in this quite mundane and ordinary moment Jesus asks the question, that for Him is the real issue, “Do you love (agape) Me?” John 21.15. But the question is loaded. For Jesus chooses the word agape. The word best used to describe selfless love. Peter responds in the affirmative adding, “You know I (Phileo) love you”. It’s not that friendship love has not value. It does. It’s great. But it’s rooted in a common like or interest. God’s love goes further.

Despite Peter’s response Jesus says, “Feed My Lambs”. Peter’s call is reaffirmed. His failure is not a disqualification to ministry or serving Jesus. He is to care for the new believers – the lambs. But then the question comes again. And again Peter must answer. So he chooses the safe word Phileo again. For he knows Jesus knows his heart. There is no need to claim undying loyalty or boast beyond where he is. Again Jesus commissions him, “Tend my sheep”. But now Jesus asks the question again, only this time he uses Peter’s word, “Do you love (phileo) me?” At this Peter is grieved. Hearing his own words must have pierced him. No longer is he the one with all the answers, “Lord, you know all things...” It is not simply that Jesus knows Peter’s heart, He know all things!

Finally Peter is beginning to know what Jesus has known all along. His love for Jesus is incomplete, imperfect, not yet total – but wholehearted to the degree it can be at this part of his journey in life. And Jesus accepts his love. It’s enough. And for the third time He commissions him, “Feed my Sheep”. But then Jesus gives Peter a prophecy about his death. Why here? Why now? To die as a martyr for Jesus in the way Peter is recorded to have done requires great love. History says he was crucified upside down, not feeling worthy to be crucified in the same way Jesus was. In effect Jesus is giving Peter hope. Let me attempt to read between the lines and paraphrase.

Peter, you promised me loyal, undying love. A love that would let you die alongside me if required, even if others forsook Me. But your boast was empty. I knew it. I even told you before it happened. But now you know it too. You thought your love was bigger than it is. Now you know exactly where you are in your love for Me. You do love me – at a certain level. I’ll take that. It’s enough. I still believe in you. I still commission you. Keep following Me and one day you will die in way that will prove to all around your love is now mature, seasoned. It’s now agape love – God’s love worked into your life through years of humble following and obedience. Now here is all you have to do to get there. Follow Me.

What an amazing restoration. What an amazing promise. What amazing love? And yet Peter just can’t resist the temptation to say something else. Turning to John he asks Jesus, “What about this man?” You would have thought that by now he would have learned to shut up. I want to shout at the text, “Don’t say it, shut up, keep quiet man”. But he can’t help it. It’s where he is at! And Jesus graciously points him back to the real issue. Let me try another paraphrase: It’s none of your business what happens to John. That’s between Me and him. You follow Me. And in those last three words we have the real crunch of the passage. If we want to love Jesus more, if we want to be used more, then we have to keep following Him.

Often we are distracted with what God is doing in the life of someone else. It’s really none of our business. How God uses others is His business and theirs. Our responsibility is to follow Him. My prayer for us is that we will stay close to Jesus. When Peter betrayed Jesus the scripture records that he followed Him from a distance, Matt 26.58. Our following needs to be close. Don’t allow anything to hinder or come between that walk. Not the failings of others. Not even your own past failures. Learn from them. Appreciate where you truly are in the journey and move on. God was not surprised or taken off guard by Peter and He isn't by you either. Trust in the restoring power of the love (agape) of God to keep and transform you. Over time you will become what you truly desire – a wholehearted lover of God, 2Tim 3.1-3.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Friendship - Brotherly love at its Best

Some years ago C S Lewis wrote a book called The Four Loves. His point was to help us see that in the English language we only have one word to describe our intense passion about something, love. And we use it in many contexts to express how we feel about life; ‘I love football’, ‘I love Italian cooking’, ‘I love my job’, ‘I love you’. We intuitively know that each of these contexts carries a different sense of the word love. But the Greeks had more words at their disposal, four in fact. Eros – meaning sexual or physical love, Storge – meaning family love, Phileo – meaning brotherly love and Agape the word most often adopted by the NT writers to refer to selfless love or the love of choice. They used this word to describe God’s love.

Phileo love or brotherly love is best understood as friendship love. Experience has taught me that my ability to grow in the love of God, agape love is often determined by my ability to grow in brotherly love. The one makes room for the other. Looking at the scripture it has a lot to say about friendship. Prov 27.17 says; ‘As iron sharpens iron so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.’ The inference is that we grow and develop as people through friendship! And it isn’t always easy. Iron on iron causes sparks to fly. Yet through this interaction we come to new places of understanding, maturity and personal development. We become more than we would be without the friendship.

One of the best accountants of this kind of friendship is in 1Samuel. It records the friendship of Jonathan and David. Jonathan is one of those rare breeds. Nothing negative is written about him in the Bible. He is a truly great man, but he is also a man who seems content to stay in the shadows. Early on in the book of Samuel Jonathan distinguishes himself by taking on a Philistine garrison with only his armourer bearer to help him. Yet along with all the other fighting men he too is intimidated by Goliath. When David shows up and accomplishes a great victory for Israel it makes a big impression on Jonathan. In 1Sam 18 he forms an instant friendship with the young teenager giving him everything that speaks of his position as the son of the King.

This is astonishing! His father’s sin has effectively robbed him of any opportunity to reign over Israel and here before him stands the one who has taken his place. Yet Jonathan does not display an ounce of jealousy or insecurity; quite the opposite. He divests himself of his royal apparel and gives them to David. In one sense he is the first to truly acknowledge David’s call to rule the nation. From that moment, ‘He loved him as his own soul’. This phrase is repeated three times; 1Sam 18.1, 3; 20.17. Whatever else it means it conveys a deep level of appreciation for this young warrior. Out if it they made a covenant of friendship – a commitment to stay true and loyal for all time.

Jonathan effectively became the older brother that David never experienced. David was sidelined by his own family but in this relationship he flourished. Somebody believed in him and made room for him. Further, Jonathan treated David as an equal which is the distinguishing feature of all true friendships. I once counselled a woman who thought she had a good friend. They even went on holiday together with their two families. But after ten years she came to a sudden realisation; the relationship was really one way. There was a lack of genuine equality and respect. The simple fact was that over the ten years they had known each other, her ‘friend’ had never been to her house one time. The relationship worked when things were on the other woman’s terms. When this woman eventually pointed this out her ‘friend’, she wept – but nothing changed.

True friendships are not just about taking. They are also about giving – and doing so with joy and enthusiasm. Jonathan is a great example of this. The scripture says, ‘he greatly delighted in David’, 1Sam 19.1. Everything about David brought joy to Jonathan. Further he demonstrated other qualities of friendship that we do well to emulate. Just as his father Saul kept a jealous eye on David, Jonathan kept an eye on him too – always watching his back and speaking up for him when he was falsely accused. 1Sam 19.4 says: ‘Thus Jonathan spoke well of David to Saul his father...’

On this occasion he was successful in turning away his father’s unreasonable anger. He was not afraid to challenge his father, the King, and align himself with David. However, as time goes on Saul moves back into his old pattern of persecuting David. This time David escapes with the help of his wife Michal and runs to Samuel; 1Sam 19. Think of how confusing this whole situation was for David. The father of his best friend wants to kill him – for no reason. ‘What have I done, what is my iniquity, and what is my sin...’, is his earnest cry to Jonathan, 1Sam 20.1. Saul’s behaviour was so unreasonable neither he nor Jonathan could really understand it. There was no justification, no explanation.

In time Saul begins to resent his own son, interpreting his loyalty to David as disloyalty to him. Jonathan is now left out of the circle of trust and though Jonathan is unaware of this, David perceives the reality of the situation, 1Sam 20.2-3. Notice Jonathan’s response in verse 4, ‘Whatever you yourself desire, I will do it for you’. This is friendship at its most available and most unselfish. Dale Carnegie once said: ‘You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you’. Jonathan was interested in what he could do to help David. There was no selfish or hidden agenda.

The two friends now hatch a plan to expose Saul’s intensions, 1Sam 20. The consequence releases Saul’s full anger against his son with highly insulting words that by today’s idiom could be captured by the phrase; ‘you son of a bitch’, 1Sam 20.30. Notice too how Saul appeals to his son’s self interest, ‘For as long as the son of Jesse lives on the earth, you shall not be established, nor your Kingdom’, 1Sam 20.31. But Jonathan is not interested in establishing his own Kingdom. He is more interested in the truth and the real issue at stake; ‘Why should he be killed? What has he done?’ verse 32.

Real friends fight for the truth on our behalf. They speak when we have no voice. They intervene when we have no power. They carry the burden of fighting for our cause. Jonathan left the scene angry and upset. He couldn’t eat. All he could do was grieve for his friend, embarrassed by a father who is blinded by jealousy and rage. The following day they meet and words fail them. They cry together – but David more so. We sense that he feels the greater loss. Here are friends that through no fault of their own and no choice of their own must be separated. The only comfort they have is the knowledge that the Lord is between them, 1Sam 20.41-42. Sometimes the only thing you do for a friend is cry with them.

Being separated from a friend is never easy. I remember my early days as a believer in a new church. I made friends with a very gifted young man. We just hit it off. Our humour, our love for the Word, our love for the Lord, even the fact that we both had Italian ancestry seemed to give us a special connection. He was the best man at my wedding. But some years later we were separated. Our lives went in two different directions and it was nothing either of us chose. Years later I found myself in the States and a mutual friend helped us to reconnect. I remember how apprehensive I felt. But the truth is we connected in a way that felt like we had never been apart. This is the beauty of real friendship. You can pick up from where you left off. We spent hours talking sometimes till three in the morning - and it felt like moments. Others observed us. They could not believe we hadn’t seen each other for over 15 years. We felt so at ease in each other’s presence.

Having been separated for a while, Jonathan is able to visit David in his stronghold and ‘Strengthen his hands in God’, 1Sam 23.16. What a great phrase that is. David is on the run. He has lost virtually everything, his income, his status, his freedom, his wife. Yet Jonathan takes the time to search him out and speak words of encouragement to him. He speaks God’s reality into David’s heart, ‘Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you. You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you’, verse 17. This is friendship at its most committed. Again they take the opportunity to renew their covenant of friendship.

Pressures often come to us to test our friendships. At those times it is good for us to reassure and renew our commitment to each other. In this way we give no place to the devil to sow seeds of mistrust. Proverbs 17.9 tells us that gossips are able to separate the best of friends. Jonathan did not allow that to happen. He made the effort to find David and to speak words of truth. And David’s hand was strengthened as a result.

So David stayed in the woods and Jonathan went to his own house. This is remarkable to me. Jonathan remained true to his father at the cost of spending time with his friend. He could have defected and ridden with David, but this would have dishonoured his father. Instead he returns home and will stand beside his father in battle making the ultimate sacrifice that men of integrity make – giving his life.

News finally reaches David of their death. He is inconsolable and writes one of the most beautiful laments ever penned. Nothing disparaging is said of Saul. This is remarkable. A lesser man would have left Saul out of this song and dedicated it only to Jonathan, but not David. Saul and Jonathan are called, ‘the beauty of Israel’, ‘mighty’, ‘beloved’, ‘pleasant’, ‘swifter than eagles’ and ‘stronger than lions’. Perhaps the most touching part of this lament is the line, ‘Your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women’, 2Sam 1.26.

My eyes fill with tears every time I read this. It touches my heart. Perhaps David remembered Jonathan’s words; ‘You shall be King over Israel and I shall be next to you’, 1Sam 26.17. But it was not to be. Their expectations were unfulfilled. Jonathan is dead and David is left with his grief. But he is left with something more. This friendship has changed David. He is bigger and better than he would have been without it. An investment was made that will bear fruit. And David treasures the memory.

Much fighting will take place with the house of Saul before David is finally acknowledged as the true King. But once his position is secure he seeks for an opportunity to bless the house of Saul for Jonathan’s sake, 2Sam 9.1. He finds a son of Jonathan, Mephibosheth, who is lame in his feet. Everything is restored to this man with the promise that he may eat at the king’s table continually. The grandson of David’s greatest enemy is given the greatest honour because of his greatest friend. This is being a true friend.

I pray that we learn to place a value on friendship that is greater than what we commonly experience today. Friendships are not disposable. You can tell a lot about a person by the friends that they choose. They are what inevitably end up defining us as people. Choose wisely. Stay true and experience the blessing of becoming more than you would without those people who know you intimately, but love you just the same. Your friends!

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Communicating in order to Understand

1Cor 2.11 says, “What man knows the thing of a man except the spirit of man that is in him”. Our self –knowledge is buried deep within our hearts. Here lie our secret hopes, desires and wishes. Sometimes we are clear what these are, but at other times they lie buried until they come to the surface. The fall has impacted humanity so severely we can actually function without truly knowing our own hearts. Jeremiah declared this when he said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who can know it?” Jer 17.9. Yet while this remains true he goes on to declare that God will, ‘search the heart’. God knows our hearts but He wants us to know them too!

Prov 20.5 tells us, “Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.’ Here we have a picture of two people. One has counsel – hopes, dreams and desires that lie deeply hidden. Even in clear water we can only see to a certain depth. Light will only penetrate so far and then things become obscured – hidden. But we also have a picture of a man of understanding. This person knows the right questions to ask that draw out these deep hidden things. Like God who searches the heart, a man of understanding is able help others see their own heart. Like Jesus he fishes for truth!

Understanding others relies heavily on the way we communicate with each other. Real communication begins when I listen to your response to what you think I have said. Communication is never just one way. Even marketing strategies that appear to be one way in their communication are built on the basis of research as to how people react to this communication. There is always some form of feedback needed. It’s not simply that marketers want to communicate a message, it is that they want to make an impact. They want to be understood.

But communication can be tricky. This is why I believe that understanding another person is like making a jigsaw puzzle. There are many pieces that need to fit together. And often we don’t have the benefit of a picture of what the final image looks like. At times the temptation is to force the pieces to fit rather than to take the time to see which piece fit where. In time a picture emerges and it becomes easier. The hardest part is always at the beginning; finding the first pieces to fit together. Like making a jigsaw puzzle, understanding another person requires time and patience. It’s a long term process. It’s a long term investment.

Part of the problem has to do with the assumptions we make in communication itself. I have discovered that meanings are in people, not in words. We use words to communicate meaning but our understanding of a word or phrase is not always the same as the other persons. When it comes to inter-personal communication we need a working definition to help us. Here is one I wrote a number of years ago when teaching communication theory. Communication is the interactive process between two or more people that leads to mutual understanding, but not necessarily agreement.

Notice it’s an interactive process. There must be speaking and listening from both sides. Feedback is essential. We must also see that it requires letting go of any agenda to make the other person agree with us. The goal is first to understand the other person, not gain agreement. Agreement is more likely to come once we understand each other; but it should not be a precondition. If it is, then this often leads to strategies in the communication process to bring people to agreement – which can be premature. If the goal of coming together is to understand each other, then it means that in our communication we avoid the use of words or phrases that manipulate, intimidate or try to control. Techniques designed to make people, ‘come into line’, invariably produce only short term benefits. Agreements reached through these strategies are often short lived solutions.

So what kind of attitude helps to build and gain a true understanding of another person? The key is to try and let go of all presuppositions we have about the other person and what we think their goals are. This is hard to do. We all bring our own agenda’s to the table of dialogue. But we can make a decision to hold lightly to those presuppositions we have. Here is a list of things I have found helpful over the years. It is not an exhaustive list. Neither do I claim it to be a definitive list. It is simply what has often helped me get closer to understanding others.

Avoid prejudging the person. In John 12.37 Jesus makes it clear He has not come to judge and condemn people – rather He has come to save them. Any prejudgment acts like a prejudice. It filters all we hear. Our hearing is no longer impartial but tainted by our prejudice of the person. Jesus, the one person who had a right to judge people, refused to do so. We see this demonstrated in John 8.3-12, when a woman caught in the act of adultery is brought to Jesus. The test from the Pharisees was to see if He would uphold the judgement of the law. Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of the men bringing this test buy challenging those who are without sin to cast the first stone. All walk away convicted. ‘Woman where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?’ He asks. ‘There are none Lord’, she responds. ‘Neither do I condemn you – go and sin no more’ is His response. He simply refuses to judge her. She knows she is guilty. Instead, Jesus forgives and empowers her.

To judge another person is often to set ourselves up in the place of God. Job’s three friends did this. They began so well. They travelled great distances to be with Job. On seeing him they wept and sat with him for a week, saying nothing because of the intensity of his grief, Job 2.11-13. But when Job began to speak they felt an overwhelming need to defend God. Unfortunately it exposed many of the assumptions and the faulty theology they carried; issues God would directly confront them with at the end of the book, Job 42.7-10. Try and catch some of the misconceptions they hold. I will paraphrase their words.

Eliphaz in Job 4.7, 18-19 argues that only guilty people suffer and God doesn’t trust angels never mind men. In fact God trust both, giving angels the ministry of serving the elect, Heb 1.14 and believers the ministry of preaching the gospel, Matt 28.19. Bildad in Job 8.4 implies Job’s children died because of their sin, when in fact Job had made intercession for them regularly, Job 1.5 and Jesus cleared the man born blind and his parents of any wrongdoing in John 9.1-5. Zophar in Job 11.6 declares that Job is being punished less than he deserves, when God Himself has said Job is upright and blameless on at least two occasions, Job 1.8, 2.3.

No wonder Job calls them all ‘miserable comforters’, Job 16.1-2. They did not understand the cosmic nature of the battle raging around Job. A limited perspective and a faulty theology gave them poor judgment and hindered them from being any real comfort to Job. It would have been better if they had said nothing!

The second thing is to be accepting of others. Jesus had a wonderful way of welcoming people. His favourite word was ‘come’. Matt 11.28, “Come to me all you who labour and are heavy laden....” The Bible ends with an invitation to ‘come’ and drink from the water of life, Rev 22.17. When God has an issue with His people He invites them to ‘come’ and reason together, Is 1.18. And when they are penniless He invites them to ‘come’ and buy wine and milk without money and without price, Is 55.1. When people feel accepted they open up. As long as they feel they are being evaluated they remain defensive – and real communication at any meaningful level is almost impossible.

Have you ever noticed how many times significant things happen in the Bible around the table – where there is food! In Gen 18 God showed up with two angels and had a meal with Abraham. It was in this context that He disclosed two life changing things. The first was the birth of Isaac – it was now their time. But the second was His judgment of Sodom. God felt He could not hold back from Abraham what He was about to do with this City. His covenant relationship with him demanded that He share this information. God had accepted Abraham and had eaten with him – now He needed to tell him what He was about to do.

Eating with others is one of the best ways of communicating acceptance. Have you ever tried sitting and enjoying a meal with someone for an hour two when you don’t get on? It’s torture. Think about the Lord’s Supper. It grew out of the Passover meal. This was a celebration of our redemption and as a meal in Jewish families it usually took a couple of hours to complete. Today we have made it a token event with very little corporate interaction. It was at the Passover that Jesus shared some of His most intimate thoughts and teachings with His disciples.

Anything that communicates acceptance will aid communication and therefore build understanding. One of the ways they did this in the early church was to fight for the equal standing of gentiles alongside Jews in the church. For Paul it was a life mission, Eph 2.14-19. For James it was battling to see the poor receive equal standing with the rich as they were seated at church, James 2.1-9. For the apostles it was making sure there was a fair distribution of the food between the Greek speaking and Jewish speaking widows, Acts 6.1-7. Only when people feel accepted do they feel secure enough to open up their hearts and lives. Only then can we begin to understand them.

The third thing that has helped me is not to be afraid to ask questions. Mk 9.32 has Jesus sharing about His impending betrayal and death in Jerusalem. But His disciples were afraid to ask or clarify what He meant. Maybe they felt stupid asking. Maybe they felt embarrassed. Maybe they thought He would rebuke them if they asked. Often fear holds us back from simply asking. Asking questions is a great way of getting to know others. But there is a way of asking that can make people defensive. Sometimes people asked Jesus questions in order to catch Him out, Matt 22.15-22 paying taxes to Caesar; or Matt 21.23-27 the question about where Jesus got His authority.

The best kinds of questions are those that come with no secret agenda. They hold a genuine enquiry. These questions are best phrased in an open ended way. They leave room for dialogue. There is a big difference between asking, “Did you have a happy childhood?” to asking, “Tell me about your childhood”. One requires a yes or no answer, the other invites talking and listening. Jesus never refused to answer an honest enquiry, though He did often respond with a challenge, John 1.37-39, 48; Luke 5.30-32; 6.1-5; 9.57-62; 10.25-37. Remember, in communication, real dialogue begins when I listen to your response to what you think I have said!

The fourth thing is to learn to listen at two levels. In 2Kings 4.8-37 we have the story of Elisha and the woman who provided a resting place for him when he travelled. The key to the story for our purpose is when her son dies and she hides her grief even from her husband, making a b-line instead to Elisha. At every turn she declares, ‘it is well’, vs23, vs26. But when she comes into the presence of Elisha she grabs his feet. Now she releases her sorrow. Elisha’s servant Gehazi tries to push her away and Elisha makes a telling comment, “Let her alone; for her soul is in deep distress, and the Lord has hidden it from me, and has not told me”, vs28.

Up until now everyone has listened to her at only one level, including her husband! But Elisha discerned another level; the level of the heart. At this level God often spoke to him, but on this occasion even he had to wait to hear her declare her sorrow. When Elisha finally understands what is happening he moves into action. But notice how patient he is to wait to understand her first without any prejudgment. He is accepting of her and allows her to ask questions even challenging his actions in giving her a son. Elisha does not become defensive of his actions or ministry. His goal is to understand and help her.

We see this exemplified in the life of Jesus when He spoke to the woman at the well in John 4. There is the surface level of the dialogue and then the heart level. When Jesus offered her living water He was starting to interact with her at this heart level. When He asked her to get her husband He was doing the same. Her answer, though truthful was not the whole story and his response exposed this – and it unnerved her. But notice that He is not trying to embarrass, judge, or condemn her, He is trying to win her – and He succeeds!

This deeper level of listening is more intuitive, more prophetic. It is being open to the Spirit to give revelation that will help the other person. Like Elisha experienced, it doesn’t always come and so we must posture ourselves to accept others without judgment and listen carefully without being defensive. We have to learn to truly listen.

Finally understanding others requires that we always work towards reconciliation at every opportunity. 2Cor 5.18-20 gives us two great insights. The first is that God was working in Christ to reconcile the world to Himself. We must allow God to work in us too, to bring reconciliation to others. Many times a mediator is needed. We become the peacemakers Jesus spoke of in Matt 5 when we take on this role. This is Pauls’ other insight. We have all been given a ministry of reconciliation. It lies at the heart of the gospel. God reconciles people not problems. And problems are not as insurmountable as they seem when people collaborate to find solutions rather than taking up positions that blame or fault find.

Try and see how these five simple keys impact your relationships this week. My guess is that the puzzle will become a little easier to put together and the picture will become a little clearer to see. Your relationships will become more valuable to you through this process and like the man in Proverbs 20.5 - you too may become a person of understanding.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Understanding Understanding

The Scriptures teach us the importance of getting understanding. Prov 4.5,7 says, “Get wisdom! Get understanding!.....Wisdom is the principle thing; therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting get understanding”. Prov 3.19-20 outlines three important ingredients that release God’s creative purpose – knowledge, understanding and wisdom. Knowledge relates to information and facts. We all know what it means to learn something by rote. At the age of three my daughter could recite the letters of the alphabet in a song. She also learned the books of the Bible in the same way. But despite this cute ability she did not know how to use this knowledge to write. She lacked understanding. She needed to learn how to spell words and form sentences.

Understanding helps us to frame knowledge in a way that makes it useful. It is one thing to know Newton’s laws of Motion it is quite another to understand how to apply these in specific situations. Understanding helps us to build a mental framework or concept. Over time this develops and can become a controlling paradigm for how we interpret reality. How we interpret reality and consequently how we relate to people will have a profound effect on our choices in life and the quality of our relationships. It is often in the area of our understanding that we need to make changes. This is harder than we think because we become very attached to our beliefs and ways of seeing reality.

The NT calls this change of thinking repentance – literally a change of mind; a different way of understanding reality. This is why light is often used as a metaphor for understanding. Ps 119.130 says, “the entrance of your word gives light, it gives understanding to the simple”. It is the god if this age who blinds the minds of those who believe not, “lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them”, 2Cor 4.4. When God’s word breaks into our hearts it changes our way of seeing things. We literally get a new understanding. We see life differently and we see people differently. This process is life-long. We constantly need to make adjustments in our thinking and ways of relating.

When Jesus was rejected by a Samaritan village, Luke 9.51-56, James and John wanted to call down fire from Heaven to consume them. Despite having been with Jesus for some time they still did not really understand how to handle this rejection. Jesus had to teach them afresh why He had come. This is ample proof that even as disciples our responses to people can be totally inappropriate. The Sermon on the Mount teaches us that we need to learn how to respond in an opposite spirit. But this takes time, maturity and growing in understanding.

The final part of the Proverbs trio is wisdom. Here we are concerned with the application of knowledge to life. Knowledge and understanding are the two key ingredients to wisdom, but wisdom is the ability to make sound judgement – applying our knowledge and understanding to specific situations. Solomon’s wisdom was most keenly seen in his judgements – the way he handled people. But until we grow in understanding it is impossible to grow in wisdom.

In our relationship with God we get a very helpful picture of what He is after through David’s Psalm of forgiveness in Psalm 32. Verse 8-9 says; “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with my eye. Do not be like the horse or like the mule, which have no understanding, which must be harnessed with a bit and bridle, else they will not come near you.” The natural result of failing is to lose confidence in our own decision making ability. The easiest way to deal with this is to abdicate all responsibility. “OK God, You tell me what to do – in every detail of life!” But God is not looking for this kind of response. He wants to teach us so that we learn and understand. We are not horses to be ridden by God. We are people made in his image. We are made for relationship based on mutual understanding.

Notice the promise from God – to instruct, teach and guide us, if we want it. There must be in our hearts an, ‘I want to’. This is what gives any true relationship its value. God does not opt for controlling, manipulating or dominating ways of relating to us as people. He wants us to understand the why behind the what! Ps 103.7 says: “He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the children of Israel”. The acts of God are awesome and worthy of praise, Ps 106.2, Ps 150.2. Yet despite this we can miss understanding why God acts in a particular way on a particular occasion. Ps 106.7 says: “Our fathers in Egypt did not understand your wonders; they did not remember the multitude of Your mercies, but rebelled by the sea – the Red Sea”.

Consider how their lack of understanding led to rebellion against what God was doing. Their default setting was, ‘God has brought us up into the wilderness to destroy us’, Ex 14.11-12 (my paraphrase), See also Ex 16.3; 17.3. Moses, however, knew God’s ways. He developed understanding. It gave him insight into what God was up to. And even when he didn’t understand the details of why something was happening he did understand God. It seems to me that this is an important part of our journey of faith. Job, Joseph, Daniel and Habakkuk all had to face situations where they lacked a complete understanding of what was going on – but they learned to trust God and it was their understanding of His character that kept them. In that sense they learned not to lean on their own understanding, Prov 3.5.

If we are to be fully human – made in God’s image then we need to take responsibility for our own decisions in life, trusting God to instruct, teach and guide us. I like the phrase of Ps 32.8; “I will guide you with my eye”. In other words we can be sure of getting His perspective on the situation. This kind of understanding will require faith. It doesn’t mean we will have all the details. There will be gaps that faith must fill. But we can be assured of God’s presence. This makes all the difference.

So how do we grow in understanding? How do we become people of understanding? If we truly want to understand others we need to grow in our understanding of God. Our relationship with God directly impacts our relationship with others. Our capacity to love others is related to our capacity to love God. They are interdependent, Matt 22.36-40. I would argue that the same is true for understanding. Understanding the ways of God gives us a discerning heart. We then increase our capacity to understand people. The psalmist cried out for this, Ps 119. 34, 73, 125, 144, 169. Solomon asked for this too and it helped him to establish his kingdom as he ruled Israel.

In the book of Daniel we see that Daniel and his three friends were given knowledge, wisdom and understanding from God, Dan 1.17. In fact they were found to be 10 times better than all the other magicians and astrologers in the land, Dan 1.20. On one occasion King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream that he couldn’t remember, Dan 2! He asked all the wise men for the interpretation but he was not able to tell them the dream. They protested that there wasn’t a man alive who could do what the King requested. Further, there wasn’t a King who had ever made such a demand. In a fit of rage the King then ordered for all the wise men to be killed, including Daniel and his friends. But Daniel gave himself to prayer. Through a night vision the Lord gave him understanding. The consequences were amazing. All the wise men were spared, Daniel and his friends were promoted to be next to the King in power and influence and Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged the God of Daniel as, ‘the God of god’s’, Dan 2.46-49.

Luke 2.46-50 tells the story of Jesus lost in Jerusalem at the age of 12. His parents found him in the midst of the teachers both listening to them and asking questions. Luke makes an interesting contrast between Jesus and his parents. Those who heard Jesus speak were, ‘astonished at His understanding and answers’. However, when He answered His parents question about why He had done this Luke says, ‘But they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them.’ What a contrast! From an early age Jesus became aware of His calling and destiny, but those closest to Him did not understand. However, we are told that Mary, ‘kept all these things and pondered them in her heart’, Luke 2.19. She thought about what she didn’t understand and understanding eventually came to her.

Meditation, pondering truth and considering sayings is part of the process in gaining understanding. Paul said as much to Timothy, 2Tim 2.3-7. In instructing the young leader he passes on three metaphors about ministry, the soldier, the athlete and the farmer. Interestingly he doesn’t unpack his meaning. He simply tells Timothy to, ‘Consider what I say and the Lord will give you understanding in all things’. Understanding, like wisdom comes from above. But our part is to process what we learn so that it truly becomes part of us, changing our inward reality to be more in line with God’s. Like David declared in Ps 51.6, “Behold you desire truth in the inward parts and in the hidden part you will make me to know wisdom”.

In an age where so little time is given to real reflection we need to secure moments of quite that are reserved for thinking, praying and reflecting. This was a habit of Jesus that kept Him relevant and purposeful. Our age is described as the age of information overload. There is simply too much information to process and assimilate. We don’t always need more facts but often need more understanding. So take time to ask for understanding, to ponder truth and to learn God’s ways. It will position us to be more understanding in our relationships with each other. Like Prov 20.5 says; “Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out”. The man of understanding knows the right questions to ask. Through this process we get to understand our own hearts and can continue to build strong and lasting relationships.

Monday, 20 October 2008


Trust is like china – beautiful but easy to break. Once broken it is difficult but not impossible to mend. So where should we begin? Let’s look at our relationship with God first. Prov 3.5 says, Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct you paths. Notice the emphasis on, all your heart and all your ways. In every area of our lives God wants us to trust Him – with all our heart. In Ps 86.11 David asked for God to unite His heart. He didn’t want any reservation in his heart towards God. He wanted to be fully devoted, fully surrendered, trusting fully.
But what are we really doing when we put our trust in another person – including God? What do we actually trust about them? I see this expressed in two main areas – a person’s character and their ability or competence. This was expressed in a summary of David’s leadership in Psalm 78.72, So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart and guided them by the skilfulness of his hands. His integrity refers to his character – he was trustworthy. There was something about his motivation of heart that qualified him for this difficult task of leading the flock of God. But he also had skill. There was an ability or competence about the way he lead.

When we put trust in God we are trusting in His character. There are many facets of God’s character we could focus on but the one’s that perhaps give us the most security are His faithfulness and mercy. Lam 3.22-23 says, Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness. The dictionary says that someone who is faithful is: worthy of trust, reliable and consistent with truth. Synonyms offered include loyal, true, constant, steadfast and staunch. This is how God is in His essential nature – faithful, true to His word. When He says He will do something He follows through.

However, God’s timing is very different to ours. He will often give a promise and then we have to wait in faith for its fulfilment. This is not a passive period. During this time our faith is being refined. It is what Peter calls, the trial faith that shows forth its genuineness. We wait but with expectation. God gave Abraham the promise of a son but then waited. Abraham had to learn to trust God. As time went by, it seemed even more impossible that the promise could be fulfilled. Finally as an old man God appeared to Abraham and Sarah declaring, Sarah your wife shall have a son, Gen 18.10. Sarah laughed – hardly the response of someone in faith. But God challenged her laughter and reminded her, Is anything too hard for the Lord?

Within a year she gave birth to Isaac whose name means laughter. God had the last laugh! Abraham and Sarah went on a journey with God – literally. They wondered through the Promised Land and through many experiences they learned how to trust God – with all their heart, in every area of life. Perhaps this is why God could ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. He knew where his trust was placed. Hebrews 11 helps us understand what was going on in Abraham’s heart. It says in verse 19, concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense. This is astonishing considering the time that Abraham lived in. He worked out that the only way God could fulfil His promise was if He raised Isaac from the dead. He believed and trusted in a God of resurrection. Amazing!

But this brings us to the second point; God’s ability. God is able to do what He says, Is anything too hard for the Lord? It is one thing to have good character but another to have ability. Many times we make promises to others that are well meaning yet we can let people down. There are various reasons for this. Take the simple promise of agreeing to meet someone at a certain time. Train delays, cancelled planes or road works can all conspire to make it impossible to keep our word. Our intension was good and sincere at the time but circumstances out of our control overtake us. We are usually gracious in such circumstances.

But it highlights an important truth – we are not in control. This is meant to create a more humble approach to life especially when it comes to making plans or promises. James addresses this issue when he says, come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell and make a profit, whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that, James 13-15. There is so much in life that we have no control over, yet we plan things without reference to the Lord. Real trust always brings God into the picture.

At other times we let people down because we overestimate our ability to deliver what we promise. Paul speaks to this issue when he says in Rom 12.3, to everyone, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. We are meant to function within our ability. Sometimes through jealousy, guilt, peer pressure, or some other reason we step outside of that ability. People feel let down and over time trust breaks down. This is where we need a sober appreciation of where our gifting lies. Competence is as important as character. Without it we are only making well meaning pledges. Disappointment is bound to follow.

There is of course the possibility that we lie to others. This happens all the time in the world. In the business world we tell ‘white lies’ hoping to defer peoples anger and buy us more time to put things right. We don’t admit to a customer that their product is late because we forgot to order it on time. It’s easier to say our supplier let us down. But this kind of ethic has a way of catching up on us. When folk find out we have made a habit of doing this our integrity is shot and trust is broken. The key is this: don’t let your gifting take you where your integrity can’t keep you.

I have observed that we still go to one of two extremes on this issue. We can appoint a good person with great character to a task they are not gifted to do. We in effect set them up for failure. This is unfair on them and the organisation they work for. The other extreme is that we spot a gifted person and appoint them to a role they are not yet mature enough to handle. Their character is not yet fully formed sufficiently. Again we have set them up for failure. We need both – character and competence, integrity and ability, heart and hands.

Now in God these qualities reside in abundance. His character is trustworthy and His ability is limitless. As we follow Him we also grow in those qualities – we become conformed to the image of His Son, Rom 8.29. This kind of trust releases many benefits. The first of course is salvation. Isaiah 12.2 says, Behold God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid; for YAH the LORD is my strength and song; He also has become my salvation. God is our deliverer! He is able to save us from the penalty of sin, the power of sin and ultimately the presence of sin.

Notice how this releases praise. He has become our song when we trust Him. Trusting people are full of joy. They are like those Paul describes in Eph 5.18-19, filled with the Spirit speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord. They have a song because they trust in Him and He has become their song. This has a big impact. David said, He has put a new song in my mouth – praise to our God; many will see it and fear, and will trust in the Lord. Blessed is the man who makes the Lord His trust... Ps 40.3-4. Others trust in God when they see the joy we carry expressed in songs of praise to Him. It makes a difference. Even our worship can have an evangelistic impact.

Isaiah 26.3 says, You will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in you. When we put our trust in God we exchange all of our uncertainty and anxiety for His peace. Luther called it the divine exchange. God’s shalom guards our hearts and minds through Jesus Christ, Phil 4.6-7. We don’t need to live in fear. Trusting him can release us from every anxiety. Our responsibility is to give over everything to God – in all our ways to acknowledge Him.

Jeremiah 17.5-8 makes a contrast between those who put their trust in God and those who put their trust in people only. The man whose heart departs from God and looks only to others is like the shrub in the desert. Good may come to him but he doesn’t see it. His focus is somewhere else. He is conscious of the heat, the drought and the lack. But the man who trusts in the Lord is described as blessed. What a beautiful word that is. God’s favour rests on such a person. The metaphor changes drastically. This person is like a tree. Their roots go deep so that even in a drought they have a secret supply that nourishes them. They continually bear fruit – despite the drought.

People who trust God live with the blessing of God over their life. His favour follows them, just like it did with Joseph. Despite the injustices that came to him God ensured that at every turn he was promoted. It was part of his calling! And Joseph kept his integrity when it would have paid him to give it away. But he saw beyond the short term gain this might bring and trusted God. His vindication followed, but not before all trace of self dependence had been dealt with. Here’s the thing about trust, you really don’t know how much you have till everything else that matters to you is stripped away. Job discovered this. Yet he held fast to his integrity declaring, though he slay me, yet will I trust Him, Job 13.15.

So how do we build or rebuild trust? Here are some pointers that have helped me:
1. Do what you agree to do. In other words follow through on your promises. Like building a house, each fulfilled promise is like laying a brick. The simple repetition of being true to your word over time builds trust.

2. Don’t go beyond your ability. Have a sober appreciation of your gifting and maturity. Allow yourself to be stretched, but always let people know that’s what is going on. You won’t easily recover when you let people down too many times.

3. Admit mistakes, apologise and ask for forgiveness.

4. Only offer an explanation if it is asked for, otherwise you will sound self-justifying. "I’m sorry but...", has a hollow ring to it.

5. Don’t neglect the little things. Jesus said if you are faithful in what is least you are faithful also in much, Luke 16.10. Getting into work on time, delivering on agreed goals, showing appreciation. These are the little things that build trust.

6. Allow yourself to be seen in different contexts. This is especially true in dating. Someone can really impress you when you are alone with them. But take a look at what your family think of them and how they behave and handle themselves in that context. What about in their own home environment? At work? Different contexts give us a much bigger picture of people.

7. Forgiveness is crucial when we fail. If we are to deal with the past we must give and receive forgiveness. But it not a cure all. It clears the ground but we still need to build for the future. Many times there are hurts. Therefore ask the person you have offended what makes them feel secure. What can you do that helps them trust you? The issue is what is important to them, not you. The danger here is that we place all kinds of expectations based on our fears. These must be faced. But it is better to create expectations based on faith – not fear. This gives us the opportunity to trust again. It is a journey. It requires great honesty.

At the end of the day to trust is a choice we make and a risk we take. There are no guarantees. Jesus chose Judas on the same basis as Peter, James and John. Yet Judas betrayed His trust. It did not destroy Jesus and broken trust does not have to destroy us. God is bigger. Ultimately our trust must be in Him.