On Supporting Christian Bookshops

On Supporting Christian Bookshops

I’ve come to believe that Christians ought to support their ‘local’ Christian Bookshop. At least more than they do already. I put local there in ‘quotation marks’ because ‘local’ doesn’t necessarily mean where you live anymore (see below).

Bookshops are Closing

Speaking to a rep recently I learnt first-hand that Christian Bookshops are closing all over the place. At least two not so far away have closed. The rep I spoke to used to supply them, but not anymore. When I’ve been serving in the shop, customers here on holiday are thankful we are open. Why? Because ‘the one near us has closed’ they say. It’s not uncommon to hear that. Local Christian bookshops are closing!

As a Christian book buyer, I have used Amazon, like many of you, quite extensively. I’ve bought a lot of books from them. Two things have changed my thinking on this.

The Amazon Factor

The first was when they (Amazon) banned Ryan T Andersons book (When Harry became Sally) from their website. In fact, it looks like just about everyone of the main booksellers (e.g. Smiths & Waterstones) in the UK have followed their lead. To my knowledge, you still can’t buy it anywhere over here. However, I ‘read’ it on Audio, but on principle I’d buy a copy if I could get hold of one – from a Christian bookstore. I admit, some books you just can’t find anywhere else but on Amazon so I’m not advocating a ban. They have huge buying power and independent bookstores find it difficult to compete. Actually, it’s virtually impossible to compete on price – though on rare occasions it can happen. Things have changed, or become clearer. Despite the convenience, and they are convenient, Amazon are not our (Christians) friends. It’s that simple.

The Community Factor

The second reason was an article I read some months ago about local bookshops. This was in the US, but the principle was the same. The principle being that as a local business they supported the local community. The article demonstrated how they slotted into the life of wherever it is they are situated. Like everything in the US, as my Dad used to say, is BIG. So I think a small bookshop over here cannot compare to small over there. Context is everything I guess. The principle holds though. Small over here does more often than not mean small.

Providential Bookshops

The Bookshop in Rugby

In addition to that, was my own experience that hadn’t quite registered until very recently. When I first became a Christian through the witness of a friend one of the things I realised was that we needed to get Bibles and find a church. As strange as it may seem, we thought we were the only Christians in the town (we can discuss that another time). Here’s the thing, somehow or other, I knew there was a Christian bookshop in the town. So with my raggy old jeans and unkempt beard I made my way to the Christian bookshop in Castle Street, Rugby. (As far as I know it’s still open.) I went in, held my hands up in the air and proclaimed, ‘I’m Saved!’ Wally then proceeded to tell me of a church where I would get good teaching. And he sold me a Bible. That’s why (and how) I went to Railway Terrace (Evangelical Free Church) where Peter Jeffery was the Pastor. Going there was absolutely foundational to my Christian life. I can’t stress that enough! Isn’t the providence of God amazing!

Then Sue, my first wife, through the witness of a friend, in great distress went into her local Christian bookshop in Leamington (now closed). There she met David Arnold, a lifelong friendship emerged through this – especially with their daughter Ruth. David was an elder in the church in Rugby. Funny that isn’t it. Sue started attending the church in Rugby with David & Fi and their family. We then met at the church and were married, and the rest as they say is history. Isn’t the providence of God a wonderful thing!

The Conclusion of the Matter

The point being, as I said to someone recently, is that bookshops are ‘more than the sum of their parts.’ Here in Aberystwyth, we get people come in that just want to talk. It isn’t always convenient, true, but they come in. If Christian bookshops aren’t there no one can come into them. We are just a tiny tiny part in the scheme of things. But in the providence of God, we are a part. Like most Christian bookshops, we aren’t just a shop – it’s a ministry.

Here’s my conclusion then, and something for us all to consider: If you, we, don’t buy our Christian books from local Christian bookshops they will close. It’s that simple.

Thoughts on the Church in Afghanistan

Thoughts on the Church in Afghanistan

You may not necessarily agree with this, and if you have some knowledge of the church situation there, I’d appreciate your input.

I realise it’s very easy for me to make the following comments from my centrally heated home where I have plenty to eat and drink and live in a very peaceful part of the world. I also don’t have to wonder if the door will suddenly burst open and my children and wife will be taken away, or wonder if I’ll be taken outside and beheaded because I’m a Christian and have a Bible app on my phone. I do not fear for my life. I’m fully aware of all that. And I’m thankful for that too. I shouldn’t despise the providence that God has been pleased to bless me with.

Having said that, here’s my thinking on the situation of the church in Afghanistan. Few would deny the withdrawal has been handled with anything other than total incompetence. Even wickedness. But this too has been brought about by the Sovereign Lord. It isn’t a mistake. As a Christian I’m sure your thoughts turned immediately to the church in that truly awful situation. I do not in any way wish to, or mean to undermine, or trivialise the situation of our brothers and sisters there. Maybe you read some of the reports of Afghani pastors. Perhaps you read about their determination to stand for the Lord Jesus. One can only say, ‘Of whom the world is not worthy (Heb 11:38).’

This is where I might need some specialised help. The Lord Jesus has his people everywhere so we know there must have been Christians in Afghanistan before the US arrived 20 years ago. Probably very few and known only to a few on a need-to-know basis. But it seems to me that the church in Afghanistan, though still small, is a lot larger than it was. And is vocal and visible. I shared this with a friend (originally from Lebanon) the other day who thought it made sense. I asked him this ‘What makes the church grow more than anything else?’ His answer was ‘Persecution.’ Which is exactly right. Was it Tertullian that said, ‘The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the church?’

If that is true, and church history confirms that it is often the case, then the arrival, or return, of the Taliban, far from destroying the church could in fact be the means by which it will grow and be strengthened. Jesus has said, ‘I will build my church (Matt 16:18).’ It’s His church!

What I’m saying is that for the past 20 years the church has not been dormant. They weren’t 20 wasted years. We’re being told they are wasted years because world governments have no interest whatsoever in the church. Their concern is entirely materialistic. It’s purely utilitarian. So if you are in the military, and a Christian, or even if you are not a Christian, your service there was not in vain.

With all the above in mind then, here are some things that I will be praying:

Pray the Lord of the church with keep them and watch over them.

Pray for the Church that they will remain faithful (even unto death (Rev 2:10).) – and if some of them don’t remain faithful, pray for their restoration.

Pray that even under those terrible circumstances the church, and especially the Pastors, will be bold for Christ.

Pray the church will receive good sound teaching that will build them up in their most holy faith: and for the availability of the Bible, in print, and electronic. And for good literature.

Pray for a real and powerful visitation of God by his Holy Spirit. Upon the church and upon the people.

Pray that God will also visit the Taliban and convert many of them. Pray that their zealous opposition to the Lord Jesus will be turned, like the apostle Paul. “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” Acts 9:21 & 22; Galatians 1: 23 & 24.

Pray that God will open the hearts of the Afghan people to the Gospel and for opportunities to hear the message of life.

We should also thank God that he has a people in Afghanistan at all.

It is a truly terrible situation. Of course it is. I do not minimise that for a moment. But these things, it seems to me, are the things of first importance. Obviously, much could be added to the above that are not unimportant (health, safety etc.).

There’s an irony in that the Taliban think they have come to destroy the church. But God may have brought them to help build it.

And let’s not forget, God will not leave those sins of the Taliban, or of wicked evil Western governments that abandoned them, to go unpunished. God will not be mocked, not by Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, the Taliban, or by anyone else.

I don’t have a direct line to the secret plans of the Lord God, but I pray this is so. I could be completely off on this. But why can’t God do it? Let’s pray He will.

Am I talking nonsense? I hope not.

Reaching the lost in high places – Acts 13:1

‘Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.’ Acts 13:1

By Bartlomiej Strobel - Museo Nacional del Prado, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20080818
Feast of Herod with the Beheading of St John the Baptist by Bartlomiej Strobel – Museo Nacional del Prado

Being a somewhat ordinary person and living in an ordinary station in life, those in high places, to me, inhabit another world. I see the Royal family, the world of the stars (so called), the high-end business world and so many other areas of life that are simply alien to me. I sometimes wonder how these people are reached with the Gospel. Despite all the trappings of privilege and success they are still people that are in need of salvation. It’s highly unlikely in the scheme of things that I would ever have the opportunity to speak with such. Nevertheless, Christians do move in those circles. And I’m thankful they are able to reach the parts people like myself cannot. But it isn’t just those in high places, it’s sometimes the type of people that are in those high places. So, for our encouragement let us consider a man (in the verse above) by the name of Manaen.

We aren’t quite sure of his relationship to King Herod but at the very least he moved in the same circles. The main sense is that of a friend, or even a foster brother. One commentator (Matthew Henry – full quote below) suggests they ‘nursed of the same milk’ or went to the same school. The ESV text (above) says he was a lifelong friend. Let’s suppose that is the case. Who is Herod the tetrarch? This is the Herod that had John the Baptist beheaded. I don’t think we are far off the mark if we call Herod a psychopath. Manaen is a lifelong friend of this Herod.

We aren’t explicitly told how Manaen heard the Gospel, or when he came to trust in Christ for salvation, but we do know that John the Baptist preached to Herod. Is it too much of a stretch to say Manaen heard the message from John? And yet two very different responses. Manaen became a prophet and leader in the church and Herod continues, as far as we know, in unbelief – perhaps signifying his eternal destiny.

Why did Herod invite John to his court? John was a novelty to him and a curiosity, but whatever the reason, John didn’t tone down the message to gain favour or be overawed in the presence of the great and the good. That doesn’t mean we have to ‘go at it’ and be aggressive – but it does mean we  have to be faithful and take the opportunities to speak as the Lord presents them to us. Easier said than done of course.

It may even be that Manaen heard the Lord Jesus speak. Either way, whether from John or Jesus, Manaen became a follower of the Lord Christ. I’m not convinced that just because Herod was a psychopath Manaen was a similar character – maybe he was. We simply aren’t told what sort of character he was before becoming a Christian, but we do know something of his life as a believer from our verse above. He became a  prophet and a teacher. Unlikely people do become followers of Jesus. Some even become ministers of the Gospel. Like the Apostle Paul (1 Tim 1:13).

The Lesson

It’s a simple lesson. The Lord has his people sometimes in the most unlikely places. The court of Herod was a place of debauchery and butchery. A place of adultery and licentiousness. And a place of immense privilege. Yet there was Manaen. The Lord doesn’t need us to reach people. But His way is most often to use Christians to speak to people from all manner of backgrounds. Maybe He’ll use us too.

We might think it is futile to pray for some as they seem so far from the Kingdom. But this isn’t the case. Many Christians pray for Boris, for example, even though they will probably never meet him. Or praying for that celebrity, or even a terrorist. God does answer the prayers of His people. No prayer is futile. No one is beyond the reach of God. Acts 13:1 then, is a very encouraging verse – so pray on.

 

Manaen, a person of some quality, as it should seem, for he was brought up with Herod the tetrarch, either nursed of the same milk, or bred at the same school, or pupil to the same tutor, or rather one that was his constant colleague and companion – that in every part of his education was his comrade and intimate, which gave him a fair prospect of preferment at court, and yet for Christ’s sake he quitted all the hopes of it; like Moses, who, when he had come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. Had he joined in with Herod, with whom he was brought up, he might have had Blastus’s place, and have been his chamberlain; but it is better to be fellow-sufferer with a saint than fellow-persecutor with a tetrarch.

 Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume (p. 2118). Peabody: Hendrickson.

Who is the LORD that I should obey his voice….?

Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’”
But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:1&2)

When reading verses like these it would be easy to make an application that our (various) governments should open the churches in order for normal services, or just services, to resume and to ‘let my people go.’ End the lockdown and get back to normal is what a lot of people are calling for. I think there’s a more important issue, or stage before that. Or to put it another way, there’s a much deeper issue with our government, and politicians in general, than ‘simply’ getting them to ‘open up the churches.’

The deeper issue is that our leaders, be they Prime Ministers or Presidents, ‘do not know the LORD.’ Pharaoh in the verse above actually confesses to the fact that he ‘does not know the Lord.’ And because of the truth of that confession says in direct response to the command of God – ‘Who is the Lord that I should obey his voice….?’  And ‘I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.’ Who is this LORD? I will not obey his voice. We don’t have to be living in ancient Egypt to see this played out. You could almost admire the honesty of Pharaoh if it wasn’t so foolish.

Church life is quite different now. And like you, I hope, I want to see our churches back open. I don’t say back to normal simply because we may have to use this opportunity to re-evaluate what ‘normal’ church life (and evangelism) is going to mean. But what if our governments suddenly said ‘OK, you can open up.’ We will still be under a government, that, by and large, says ‘Who is the Lord that I should obey his voice?’

There are many regimes round the world that act like Pharaoh. In the West it is cloaked with a superficiality of Christianity but underneath beats a heart that is as opposed to the will of God as any other godless regime. I don’t, nor should we, treat the mercies of God with contempt. Any gains or progress, or where policies are merely put on hold – we should thank God for. Here in the west things could be far far worse.

God, the same LORD Pharaoh refused to obey, brought upon Egypt the plagues, judgement upon Pharaoh and the destruction of his army. The people of God were’t allowed just to leave, they were driven out and ‘plundered the Egyptians’ of their goods in the process.

The point I am making is this: Jesus will build His church. He will continue to build it until He returns to judge the world. We, His people, must persevere for ‘deliverance is at hand.’ In the meantime we continue to ‘preach’ the Gospel of the grace of God as He gives opportunity. The Word of God cannot ultimately be silenced. It is impossible.

What is our message? ‘…. that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His (Jesus) name to all nations (Luke 24:47).’

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand,
and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, (1 Cor 15: 1-4)

Not only that but we should pray:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people,
for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Tim 2: 1&2)

You’ve read this far. Great. But your heart is rebellious just like the heart of Pharaoh. It will do no good, as some do, to whine on about how bad the government is (Christians do this as well). Unless you repent you’ll be swallowed up in the judgment to come just like them. The only safe haven is found in the Lord Jesus Christ.

History: A Students Guide by Nathan A. Finn – A Review, sort of.

History: A Student’s Guide by Nathan A Finn, Crossway, 2016. This is part a series called ‘Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition.’ I came across this book through a casual reference by Michael Haykin on Facebook. So, thank you Michael, I really enjoyed reading it.

I’m not going to be pursuing any career, let alone a career in history, so the book has no relevance to me in that regard. But if you are at the beginning of your further education or are considering a change where studying history is a requirement or especially if you are a Christian studying for a degree in history, then you should read it. Typically, it would probably be found in a university book store. I can’t really recommend the book for general reading because it probably isn’t meant to be used in that way. But if you are so inclined then do read it. Ministers / Pastors would probably find it helpful. Also, check out the other books in the series.

It’s not a long book (111 pages) but the text is on the small side and the footnotes (Hooray for footnotes!) are even smaller. It has ‘Questions for reflection (p.101), a Glossary (p.103-4), Resources for further study (p.105-6), a General Index (p.107-9), and a Scripture Index (p.111). He packs a lot in! I’m not sure, but I think all the ‘Resources’ are all of Christian ‘Historians.’

The book then is written for Christians and there are many aspects of the book that I found helpful and encouraging. Here are three things that I found helpful – maybe you would too.

Presentism. This absolutely plagues our world today. Here’s the Glossary entry, ‘Presentism: Any attempt to read present assumptions back into the past.’ We see this in shedloads today. It is like an epidemic. It is abhorrent. Every historian will know the quote from L. P. Hartley even if they haven’t read the book. Nathan quotes it on p.29 “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” He also points out this applies to the recent past as well, and not just to ancient history. In the strongest possible way I can, dumping present morals on the past is not only dangerous, it is also stupid.

Providentialism. This was quite an interesting discussion. This is the way Christian Historians (can) see the hand of God working in or through history. God is clearly working in history and the world is on a linear path to its end, and if it were not for God there would be no history at all. But reading the hand of God into a particular event, for good or ill, is notoriously difficult. God has chosen to make his revealed will known only through the Scriptures. Perhaps as an example of Providentialism, I read a book on Machiavelli where Savonarola is given a fair bit of space. Some Christians (BoT) read back into Savonarola a ‘Revival of Religion.’ I’m afraid I don’t. It’s a lovely thought but I really don’t see a ‘Revival’ there. Not in the same sense as we see in the Evangelical Awakenings of the 18th Century anyway. You may disagree – which is fine.
The point being, care is needed with any attempt at reading God working in the past. We also need to be charitable as not all Christian Historians will read providence in the same way. Later in the book Nathan does urge Christian Historians to make judgments in the present by using the past – but carefully.

Providentialism is a slightly different point to what is dealt with in Chapter 2 on ‘Historical Interpretation.’ Nathan lists five interpretive grids. One of these is the Marxist view. He Mentions Christopher Hill in the book. Here’s an amusing anecdote. I wasn’t there unfortunately, I couldn’t make it, but a friend was. Professor Hill visited a school in Rugby (my home town – born & bred) to lecture on an aspect of the English Civil War. One questioner asked something like, ‘Professor Hill, how would a Marxist interpret the Civil War?’ to which he replied ‘What do you think I’ve been doing for the last hour.’ There you go. It isn’t always obvious, and we should definitely not throw everything out because they (other historians) have a different worldview. Discernment is required.

Usefulness to the Church. He means here, not just The Church, but the local church. While at secondary school we had a history exam where I scored -1 (minus 1). And that wasn’t the lowest score either! History had absolutely no relevance to me at all. Plus, the History Teacher (Mr Baldwin) was a sadist – I exagerate. But he did like to lift boys up by their sideburns and give them a twist on the way up. It didn’t endear me to the subject. What changed? God intervened and a love of history was kindled almost straight away – with the help of Peter Jeffery, my first Pastor.

My experience over the years has shown that although some Christians have an interest in history – churches as a whole don’t. It’s a great shame. Your church might be blessed to have an historian as a member, though I’m sure many do not. But if your church does, or you are an historian, Nathan gives some suggestions how historians might be useful in the local church. Here’s three:

* A Sunday School Class on the History of Christianity.
* Start a history themed reading group.
* Ask about occasional Church History lectures.

Not the normal book I review. More could be said. Hope it has been helpful.

 

This is the Finger of God – J. C. Ryle

By J.C. Ryle, written during the Great Cattle Plague of England, 1865-1867.

Follow the Source link below to read the full text. Believe me, it’s worth reading!!

‘Can anyone give a better account of the cattle plague? If he can, let him speak out like a man, and tell us why it has come. To say that it originated in another land; that it is not a new but an old plague; that it has done great harm in days gone by — all this is evading the question. I ask to be told why it has come upon us now? How and in what way can the outbreak be accounted for at this particular period? What possible causes can be assigned for it that have not existed for hundreds of years? I believe these questions cannot be answered. I believe that the only cause that we must come to as last is, the finger of God!’

Source: This is the Finger of God

God takes Ezekiel’s Wife ‘at a stroke’

The following singular personal account in the life of Ezekiel stands out like the proverbial ‘sore thumb’. Poor Ezekiel, I feel for him. Derek Thomas calls this incident ‘one of the saddest and most difficult in Scripture.’ (God Strengthens, Derek Thomas p, 177, EP, 1993.)

Eze 24:15  The word of the LORD came to me:
Eze 24:16  “Son of man, behold, I am about to take the delight of your eyes away from you at a stroke; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down.
Eze 24:17  Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your shoes on your feet; do not cover your lips, nor eat the bread of men.”
Eze 24:18  So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was commanded.

I was trying to think what it feels like to have ‘the delight of your eyes taken away.’ I described it the other day like having your insides sucked out through your eyes. The inner pain is indescribable. Unless you’ve been through it you have no idea. So like I say, I feel for Ezekiel.

A very hard providence

Whether his wife had been ill for some time we aren’t told. But it seems to be sudden and unexpected: hence literally ‘at a stroke’ would be the best interpretation I feel. A mercy really, for him and his wife. No protracted illness for her or long-term care for him. Nevertheless, a very hard providence. If a man like Ezekiel delighted in his wife, I’d expect her to be a Godly woman. There was more than looks going on here. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it but it seems to me this verse from Peter would describe Ezekiel’s wife and the inner beauty of her godliness. 1 Peter 3:4  ‘but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.’ (1 Peter 3:1-6) Ezekiel will see her again. He knows this. His faith is in The Redeemer, the One to come. That is, his faith is in Christ. As was his wife, I believe. This softens the blow, but a blow Ezekiel would have keenly felt.

We don’t make excuses for God

Here we are in no doubt as to why Ezekiel’s wife is taken from him. It’s for a sign to Israel. And is for their good. Though it falls on unrepentant hearts. And, we are specifically told that God was going to ‘take away the delight of his eyes’. The cause is known. We don’t have to try and work it out or make apologies for God. I certainly feel no need to make apologies for God and feel no need to defend the fact that He is the potter, and we are the clay. (Isaiah 64:8) He is The Lord, He does what He wills.

Ezekiel wasn’t to weep or grieve – he was allowed to quietly sigh – for his wife even though everything within him would want to. And God knows this, otherwise, why give that command to not weep. God isn’t oblivious to what this will cost Ezekiel and the pain His prophet will experience. Even in this, He is still ‘the Father of all mercies.’ Ezekiel is allowed to sigh, ‘but not aloud.’ What a sigh that must have been!

We aren’t told anything about Ezekiel’s wife other than that she was ‘the delight of his eyes.’ That doesn’t necessarily mean she was unbelievably beautiful to look at, but it does mean he loved her very much. She was a delight to him. When he saw her his heart skipped a beat we might say. She was to be taken from him. She wasn’t lost but taken.

The Lord gives and The Lord takes away

To the unbeliever, and maybe for some Christians, this will seem incredibly cruel. However, the caricature of a vindictive and hateful God just isn’t true. I know. I’ve walked in Ezekiel’s shoes. Admittedly, I wasn’t commanded to ‘weep not’ like Ezekiel but I do know but what it’s like to have ‘the desire of your eyes’ taken away. And taken away by God. Like Ezekiel, I was under no illusion as to who was in control. It was The Lord who took away ‘the delight of my eyes.’ I could say with Job “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (Job 1:21) This is a salutary lesson for us all. I’m sure Ezekiel wasn’t expecting this. He could say perhaps with Job ‘For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me.’ (Job 3:25) We are NOT the masters of our own destiny. We aren’t in control. That thing you live for could be gone ‘at a stroke.’ And God doesn’t have to ask your permission or give notice. God can take away from our lives whatever He pleases – and that ‘at a stroke.’ Don’t deceive yourself into thinking all will be well when without Christ and without God, it won’t be.

Had Ezekiel sinned (I mean here in a specific instance as we are all fallen – including Ezekiel)? He had not. Had his wife sinned? We aren’t told, but I think we can infer not. The death of his wife then illustrates in a most tragic and powerful way the sudden destruction that is to come upon Jerusalem. Did the people get it? Did they respond to the sign? No, they did not.

How will you respond?

Will you respond to this sign? It’s as relevant now as it ever was. In our materialistic age, especially here in the West, we push our ‘inalienable rights’ to the limit. All the time God could take everything away at a stroke. Yes, and even our most precious things. And even our very own lives. Jesus put it this way ‘You fool, this night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ (Luke 12:20) Without being overly dramatic, this could well be your last day on earth. By evening you could be having to give an account of yourself before God! Without an advocate, without a Saviour that is, that is not something to look forward to.

Extreme Love from God

It probably seems quite extreme the lengths The Lord will go for the good of His lost people. He took Ezekiel’s wife, but that’s as nothing compared to the plan of God to rescue sinners. He has done this by sending into the world His Son. And the Son comes Himself to rescue and redeem.

Heb 10:5  Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me;
Heb 10:6  in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.
Heb 10:7  Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’”

The cost of Redemption is plainly stated by Christ ‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ (John 10:10&11) Nothing but the blood of Christ can redeem sinners like us. This is extreme love! You have heard this and you know this.

Be Reconciled

Much more could be said but in the words of the Apostle Paul (2 Cor 5:20):

‘Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’

Two Responses to Suffering (including a Disastrous Brexit)

The Problem of Evil has been classed as ‘The Achilles Heel’ of Christianity. Theologians and philosophers have been discussing and debating this ‘problem’ for centuries. There is a new book out on this: Why Is There Evil In The World (And So Much Of It?)’ by Greg Welty and I hope to write a brief review of this in due time. But for now, as I started that book my mind turned to two completely different responses to evil.

This present world (and its evil)

No one lives in this world for long without realising that something is wrong. And if you’ve lived long enough, and sometimes even if you haven’t lived so long, you’ll realise there’s something really really seriously wrong. Christians don’t get a free pass on suffering either. We live in the same world as everyone else. The difference is we know what it is that’s gone wrong. The ingenuity of man is remarkable and works tirelessly to make the world a better place. And that’s a good thing. But some things just can’t be fixed.

Two responses to suffering and evil

Vehemently protest against it if you will but here are two views, or two responses the Bible offers on the evil in the world. We might protest against it but the plain fact of the matter is that God quite purposefully sends some of the evils in the world. No, I don’t know which ones are sent to you and I don’t make a direct correlation between your behaviour or your circumstances and your suffering. Sometimes, maybe most times, there is no outside observable direct correlation. Not one I could confidently make anyway.

The response of the Godly

None of us always respond in an appropriate manner, nevertheless, there are, broadly speaking, two responses that are quite different. Suffering is grievous. It’s unpleasant. It’s painful. It can be long or short. We don’t like it. It’s real and comes in a multitude of ways. The vicissitudes of life are visited on all of us. The Apostle Paul describes the present suffering of believers in this way:

Rom 8:18  For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
2Co 4:16  So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.
2Co 4:17  For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,

It was originally a caricature of a Salvation Army song, but in actuality, it really is ‘pie in the sky when you die’. And what right-thinking person wouldn’t want a slice of that particular pie! You might well mock, as the original composer, that it’s ‘pie in the sky when you die’. Nevertheless, it’s a true hope and expectation. Mock on, for your mocking doesn’t make it any less real. Paul compares the glory that is to come to our present sufferings. He does the calculation. There is no comparison between it and our present situation – whatever that may be. So it also has a present power as well. I have witnessed this power first hand. I am not speaking of hearsay.

Our response to suffering ought to bring us closer to God. Sadly it isn’t always the case, but often it is. It makes us realise our fragility and the need for help. We don’t have the resources but God does provide. This is my testimony and is the testimony of Christians for centuries. But as the people of God even in our darkest times, God is still keeping, guiding, and preparing us for that time when we shall see Him face to face and ‘cast our crowns before Him and fall on our faces at His throne ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’.

The response to the suffering of the believer is that it points them to the suffering of Christ and to the evil of their own hearts. ‘Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb 12:2).

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted (Heb 12:3).

That is the right response, to consider Him, to consider the redeeming costly work of Christ.

The response of the ungodly

There’s another response. And as everything leads to Brexit these days, you’ll have to forgive me for briefly considering it. What if Brexit is the complete and utter disaster many are predicting? And it may be a disaster. I think we should consider it as a serious possibility that this is the will of God being played out before us. I don’t say it is. I don’t know. I say let’s consider it as a possibility. The Bible tells us in Revelation that God sent terrible judgments on the world. What is the response?

Rev 9:18  By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths.
Rev 9:19  For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails, for their tails are like serpents with heads, and by means of them they wound.
Rev 9:20  The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk,
Rev 9:21  nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.

And again in Chapter 16:

Rev 16:9  They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory.
Rev 16:10  The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish
Rev 16:11  and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds.

They did not repent but instead, their response was to curse God. I don’t see a humble crying out to God in repentance as a response to Brexit – or to President Trump for that matter. I don’t see a National mourning for sin over Trump or Brexit. If it’s as serious as we are led to believe shouldn’t we be calling on God for help and forgiveness? I don’t see it. No, the response is to curse the providence of God. Even though it’s going to be an absolute disaster! There’s an outcry. For a second referendum, for a change of government and blame. But instead of humility or sorrow, it’s anger and resentment.

Your circumstances might be such that all this talk of the EU and Brexit has completely passed you by and is nothing more than an annoying distraction. I went to a funeral last week. There was rejoicing. The deceased was a believer. But there was much sadness too as friends and family keenly felt the departure. Pain and suffering have been described as God’s megaphone. He uses it to get our attention. Has he got yours?

Two ends

Suffering for the unrepentant, the scoffer, and Christ rejecter is but a foretaste of the judgment to come. To the Christian, suffering is but a light affliction compared to glory. But suffering for the ungodly is but a light judgment compared to the awful weight of the final judgment. Their suffering confirms their end.

Thr best response

That all sounds extremely gloomy. It is if your faith is not in the Lord Jesus Christ. God is still calling people to repentance and faith towards His Son The Lord Jesus Christ. Job was tempted by his wife to ‘curse God and die’. Job replied by saying:

“You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips (Job 2:10).

Many speak foolishly. In the end, Job said this to God:

… I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42:6).”

God graciously brought Job to see that Job wasn’t God. Job was no more in control of his destiny than we are. We can hardly prevent ourselves from getting a cold. Let alone our eternal destiny!

The Good News is that God is still calling sinners, the ungodly, to Himself that they might know the love of Christ that passes all understanding. As the hymn writer says, ‘Love to loveless shown, that they might lovely be’. Christians, like everyone else, suffer in this life but their ‘song is love unknown’.

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:20).

1. My song is love unknown,
My Savior’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I,
That for my sake
My Lord should take
Frail flesh, and die?

2. He came from His blest throne
Salvation to bestow;
But men made strange, and none
The longed-for Christ would know:
But oh, my Friend,
My Friend indeed,
Who at my need
His life did spend.

3. Sometimes they strew His way,
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King:
Then “Crucify!”
Is all their breath,
And for His death
They thirst and cry.

4. They rise and needs will have
My dear Lord made away;
A murderer they save,
The Prince of life they slay.
Yet cheerful He
To suffering goes,
That He His foes
From thence might free.

5. In life, no house, no home
My Lord on earth might have;
In death, no friendly tomb,
But what a stranger gave.
What may I say?
Heav’n was His home;
But mine the tomb
Wherein He lay.

6. Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King,
Never was grief like Thine.
This is my Friend,
In whose sweet praise
I all my days
Could gladly spend.

Samuel Crossman, 1624 – 83.

Chance Events: Luck, Molecules or God

My bunch of keys sometimes get quite tangled. Maybe you have a set that does the same. The other day they got into such a tangle that it seemed like the only way to sort them out was to take the whole bunch apart. I didn’t have time just then so I put them in my coat pocket to sort another time.

The next day I reached into my pocket, pulled out the bunch of keys and you guessed it, they were completely untangled. I was so stunned by it – they were really tangled – that it got me thinking how this could be. Did the molecules of that bunch of keys just happen to perfectly align as they were before – untangled? I have absolutely no idea.

Was it luck then? Some would call it that. It certainly saved me some time, frustration and maybe a broken nail or two. To some, that explanation makes perfect sense. Not luck you say, that’s just how it is. We simply live in an uncaring impersonal world and my bunch of keys just untangled themselves. Who cares about your keys! But think for a moment and apply the same principle to a cancer diagnosis. It’s still an impersonal uncaring world and the molecules just happened to align into a death sentence or months of treatment. Suddenly it matters. Or what if the molecules uncaringly aligned in the shape of a car and ran you over. Suddenly it’s personal and your impersonal uncaring world is important. The way you see the world changed. It’s personal and it matters.

It’s funny and ‘hip’ (perhaps as a student) to have a poster that says ‘Shit Happens’ Except no one lives like that. Not really. Posters like that are a distraction at best and at worst a terrible lie.  But your attitude to something simple like an untangled set of keys or similar ‘unimportant’ event will speak volumes. One of my sociology lecturers would say, and did say when I briefly discussed ‘meaning’ with him – ‘but what if it doesn’t matter and there is no meaning’. Which is what he seemed to think. Well, what if it doesn’t matter. It’s ok (it isn’t really) to think like that in an academic high tower: but if I had randomly decided to smash his kneecap with a hammer I’m guessing that would matter an awful lot! If nothing else, the pain would communicate meaning.

But instead of it being luck, or a random favourable – or unfavourable – alignment of molecules; what if it were an intervention of God. What we call a Providence of God – good and bad. If we put it down to God that introduces meaning and purpose into even the most unimportant things like my set of keys. It changes everything. No ‘random’ lining up of molecules here.

Just to be clear I am uninterested in suggesting some random deity to hang every occurrence on, good or bad, but rather the Christian God, the God of The Bible, The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Years ago a man I used to work with said ‘The trouble with you Christians is that if anything good happens you put it down to God but if anything bad happens you conveniently blame the devil’. As if God needs excusing. That may be a popular misconception and if it is it could be our fault as Christians for miscommunicating. But I had to explain that both good and bad come from God. In fact, if you’re familiar with the book of Job you might recall the following exchange;

Job 2:9  Then his (Job’s) wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.”
Job 2:10  But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Job’s wife foolishly urges him to curse God because of the disaster that had happened. And let’s not call it something it isn’t. When things like this happen it is disastrous. Plastic Christian smiles will do no good in the face of tragedy. We need something substantial. I have observed, as you must have, that wishing someone ‘Good luck’ or ‘All the best’ or even ‘We’re thinking of you’ just doesn’t cut it. It’s good that people wish us well and it may lift our spirits momentarily. And, it might be you will breeze through life without a care in the world and tragedy and heartache will pass you by. It happens. But eventually, there is a God to face. You know this. Which is why I’m linking to a message that lays out the Gospel of Christ briefly but simply and truthfully. Follow this link to a message ‘Why I am a Christian’ by James White.


Since starting this article I bought a copy of Chance and the Sovereignty of God: A God-Centred Approach to Probability and Random Events by Vern Poythress. I’m not a mathematician, and there’s a lot of maths in the book! But there’s enough theology and plain sense for me to understand what I’ve read so far. The book is available free as an e-book here.

Here’s a brief excerpt from the book introduction:

THE ISSUE OF CHANCE
[He described an incident where his family escaped from a serious ‘accident’]

What do we say about this incident? Some people would say we were “lucky.” We escaped “by chance.” It just happened to be the case that the oncoming cars found room to our left and to our right. Or was it the hand of God’s providence? We felt afterwards as if an angel had pushed the cars to this side and to that. God had sent an angel to protect us. But we did not actually see an angel. Nor did we see a hand reaching down from heaven to move the cars. Was it just our imagination? Was our escape a “miracle,” or was it just an “accidental” result of driver reactions and physical processes?

We escaped. But not everyone does. For every story of a narrow escape, someone else can tell a distressing story of not escaping. Someone tells of being in a horrible auto accident, nearly dying from the injuries, losing an arm or a leg, and spending months recovering. And the accident could have been avoided, if only the oncoming car had swerved a little earlier or a little later. Was the accident “by chance”? Was God in control? If I am ready to acknowledge God’s control when my family escapes an accident, should I also acknowledge that God is in control when someone else suffers from an unpredictable tragedy? Or do tragic cases involve pure chance, beyond God’s control? And if God is in control, did he actually plan the events beforehand, or did he just react to the unfolding events at the last moment?

Big accidents and near accidents have drama to them. But what about the small things? Yesterday I could not find my checkbook. Today I found it in a pocket of my briefcase where it did not belong. Accidentally, it must have fallen into the wrong pocket when I dropped it into my partially opened briefcase. It got misplaced “by chance,” someone might say.

What about totally unpredictable events, like the flip of a coin or the roll of dice? Every time we flip a coin, the result is unpredictable. It comes up heads or tails “by chance.” What do we mean by the word chance? What is it?

 

Review – ‘What Grieving People Wish You Knew’ by Nancy Guthrie

What Grieving People Wish You Knew
by
Nancy Guthrie.

Brief Review & Recommendation (Review from December 2016).

Introduction: to the grieving.

I feel the need to say, if you are recently bereaved this might not be the best book for you to read. Having said that, what you will discover is the number of times you will say ‘yup, that happened to me’ or ‘yes, someone said that or did or didn’t do that’. It’s kind of helpful in the sense that what is happening to you is normal. Unpleasant, but normal. And, if you haven’t discovered it already, you will find out that everyone is different, while at the same time experiencing many commonalities. I felt the need to guard my heart against becoming bitter towards well-meaning people that quite frankly for the most part just do not and cannot understand what you are going through. You may need to do the same. Towards the end of the book Nancy does speak to the grieving. She says some hard truths but by the time you get to that section by God’s grace you may already have come to the same conclusions.

Who is it for then?

This book is for everyone to read. As I’ve already said above, those who are grieving or have ever grieved will find a resonance here. But if you would be a friend indeed to the grieving then get hold of a copy of this book. Ministers, elders, deacons or anyone that wants to be a true comforter should read this. It’s an emotionally draining read to see so much distress and heartache laid bare. But it’s a necessary read. I’ve said in a previous blog post that though people mean well this book will help us all do better. This book probably isn’t the definitive book on grieving but even so it should be on all our reading lists. Death is going to be visited on us all and our families sooner or later, timely and untimely.

Most of the books I have read emphasise that we are all different. Nancy does the same, mostly by way of many personal anecdotes. One size does not fit all. A persons grief is peculiar to them and depends on so many factors. I could say I understand something of what grief is but I don’t know what the grief of others feels like. Sure, there are similarities but then our experiences can be very diverse. I made an assumption a while ago using my feelings as the arbiter, but was told their relationship with their departed had not been an especially close one. That brings its own difficulties. So don’t assume and don’t impose your feelings on another. A dear friend phoned me up and said ‘I understand how you must be feeling’ but then said ‘that’s bullshit, I have no idea what you are feeling’. That sort of honesty was unbelievably helpful. But that was from someone that knows me well. Another might have found it extremely unhelpful.

I’m saying all this to emphasise how complicated we humans are. But I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It won’t turn us into experts and even armed with all this knowledge isn’t going to make the task of comforting any easier, but it could turn us into better comforters. Some of the things that have been said to me over the last several months have ranged from just wanting to be ‘beamed up’ out of the situation to just being completely dumbfounded and everything in between. People can unintentionally say the most hurtful things that under other circumstances probably wouldn’t register.

The stories in this book are tragic but a common thread is that many have been ‘comforted’ by well-meaning people. Passages of scripture in the wrong hands are simply weaponised texts that unbeknown to the comforter simply beat the grieving person. You will detect in this piece some anger & frustration. I’ve said it before but I can only pray by the grace of God and having His love spread abroad in my heart I will be a true comforter. It’s not easy for me either.

For me, the most significant and hardest thing to accept and deal with is how this hard providence is sent by God Himself for my good. Nancy puts it this way on page 116; ‘They need to discover the treasure that has come to them wrapped in a package they never wanted’. Just understanding this will help us be true comforters.

I admit that a re-read is needed.

Chapter Titles.

1. What to Say (and What Not to Say)

2. Typical Things People Say (and What You Can Say Instead)

3. Assumptions We Make That Keep Us Away (and Why We Should Simply Show Up)

4. What to Do (and What Not to Do)

5. Social Media and Grief (When the “Like” Button Just Seems Wrong)

6. Let’s Talk about Talking about Heaven (and Hell)

7. A Few Quick Questions (and Answers)

GET A COPY OF THIS BOOK AND READ IT!

  • I found this in my ‘Drafts’ folder. I thought I’d published it over two years ago. The grief was still quite raw when I wrote this, but I make no apologies for not changing it. You might be in the same place right now. If you are, I pray this will be of some help.