More on Suffering and Spiritual Growth.

The joy of the Lord is my strength, is going through my mind as I find myself facing a new week and my mind immediately feeding and focusing on several things that need to be done, obstacles to be overcome – I step back and remind myself that I should rather focus on “The joy of the Lord which is my strength”.

“Understand what this means, Ian, the joy lies totally in trusting Me all the time and when you face obstacles and difficulties to remember that nothing in your life is unforeseen to Me – so you can quietly place your trust in Me and know the peace and joy of being in a relationship with Me. As you move into the week and face obstacles and difficulties – you can face them by recognizing My power and guidance, My presence – My purpose and handing over any sense of unease – simply placing your trust in Me and taking the next logical step. So turn your eyes upon Jesus and look full in His face – trust Him and sense the joy of the relationship of perfect safety – being in His grip which you have.”

Revisiting my last blog on spiritual warfare, reflected in persecution and Christian growth, I by no means was suggesting that persecution was the only way to experience true Christianity or spiritual growth. My point was that while we feel compassion and pity for those who are suffering persecution and are led to intense prayer for them, the irony is that some (surely not all) have rather ironically expressed a pity from their side towards brothers and sisters who live in the western life of affluence and ease and the effect it has on spiritual growth and experience (Nic Ripkin raises this in his book “The insanity of obedience”). Francis Shaeffer once said “the greatest threat to Christianity in the 20th century is personal affluence and privacy”. Personal affluence removes one’s sense of dependence on God and the privacy it buys, walls one off from a sense of community and the perception of interdependence.

Reading ch 27 of Acts, which describes Paul’s journey to Rome, beset by storms and finally a disastrous shipwreck, I am again struck by How much opposition and suffering Paul had during his life and ministry. How can we explain it? Well on the one hand surely Satan was at work trying to divert the potential spread of the gospel. Yet God in His sovereignty allowed it. I can just fall back on the thought that in all this he was constantly being brought to a deeper and deeper sense of dependence on God with the resultant growth in faith and trust.

More books than the hairs on my head have been written about Christian suffering, so far be it from me to think I can contribute something new. Suffice for me to say is suffering and its role in each of our lives is a very real factor in our spiritual growth, however, each of us is totally unique, so there is no way one can make a blanket statement about this subject which fits all.

We can learn from each other and from the scriptures but ultimately we need to apply what we are hearing Jesus saying to us in our particular situation and allow God to lavish us with His grace, through His word and through His Spirit, ministering to our particular, unique personality and circumstance. And by interaction with each other to support one another without offering easy answers, yet directing them back to God’s word.

Special thank you to Lilly for her interaction which provoked me to think through this subject again.

Persecution as part of Spiritual Warfare

“Here Ian – come close to Me that I can speak to you – ‘Yet not I but Christ in me’ – that is the life I want you to live – that is the message I want you to preach. As you live that message well, there will be less of yourself and more of Me in everything that you do – I am still giving you a completely free will – yet I am drawing you closer to that aim – ‘Yet not I but Christ in me – the life that I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me’. So I am setting you free again – free to live that gospel.”

As I read the story of Paul in Acts, describing his persecution while he tries to share the gospel, I envisage thousands of other Christians who were persecuted during the first century (and over the whole gospel era). Tradition has it that the gospel of Mark was written to strengthen and encourage Christians who were being persecuted by Nero in Rome. Pictures of the saints dipped in tar and tied to poles to be set alight at night to light the streets of Rome, come to mind. Saints in iron cages left in arenas for lions to pull pieces of flesh from them till they die and the church hiding in catacombs to escape.

And so my thoughts go to the recorded message Julie placed on our WhatsApp group who follow this blog, of a woman pleading for prayer for the Christians in Afghanistan. While I was listening to that, close to tears myself at the thought of the incredible suffering, my thoughts went to Revelation 6:9,10.

(The best way to read the book of Revelation is to imagine a modern rugby match where there is a slow-motion replay where the same event is played over from different angles to see it better. In the same way John was shown in a graphic, mostly pictorial and symbolic way the events that would play out during the gospel era. So there are a number of scenes (7), which each depict the same events in a different way. Many of the events have such horrific pictures that one is tempted to pass them over. To balance these however, you must keep in mind the key verse which describes the purpose of the book Rev 17:14 ‘They will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because He is Lord of Lords and King of Kings – and with Him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers’).

In 6:9,10 we are reminded of the reality of the fact that there are going to be many martyrs over the years and it seems to them never ending, as they cry “How long, Souvereign Lord so holy and true until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”

Heh, but isn’t that so distant and unreal to us, safely in our Western comfortable houses, free to speak the gospel and worship the Lord. In a comment on these vv (Rev 6:9,10), John Piper in his book “Don’t waste your life”, urges us to have a wartime mindset and our weapon is the word of God .

“I need to hear this message again and again because I drift into peacetime mindset as certainly as rain falls down and flames go up. I am wired by nature to love the same toys that the world loves. I start to fit in. I start to love what others love, I start to call earth home. Before you know it I am calling luxuries needs and using my money just the way unbelievers do. I begin to forget the war. I don’t think much about people perishing. Missions and unreached people drop from my mind” pgs 110,11.

Nik Ripkin, who spent a number of years in the Sudan, later set out to research how Christians survived and still shared the gospel in countries where they are being persecuted. It was originally intended to be a task for which he set aside two years. He ended up doing it for 15 years and visited 72 countries, where there was severe persecution, interviewing over 600 people. Brother Andrew from Open Doors says in the foreword to Nik’s book “the Insanity of Obedience”, that the only place where the church is really growing is where it is suffering persecution.

To us in our safe homes and life-style we are horrified at what is going on out there, yet you know what, many of those people are actually sorry for us, because they believe we are not experiencing Christianity as it really is. So yes, let us pray for those people. Let us pray much for them. But let us pray for ourselves that we would become infected with the urgency of the kingdom. That it would infiltrate every part of our lives and we would be bold to take up the weapons of spiritual warfare, of which prayer is an integral part. As we have seen the warfare is as intense now as it has been from Paul’s time.

(If you are not on the “Ian’s blog WhatsApp group” and would like to hear the video send your no to 082 579 4149, and I will add your name, where you will also be informed when a new blog is published and can share prayer requests).

Paul’s Captivity turned to Gospel Opportunity.

I start my time with the Lord on this Monday morning, with the week looming ahead, with the lively song “Who can be against us if our God is for us”.

I am assured, by faith that the Lord is very present with me. “I am here in the full power and might of My presence – that power that I used to create the universe – I am here fully in this room with you today. Now let me lift you up into the celestial world where you can float on the clouds and look down and see the bigger picture – see My plan being worked out fully – driven by My love – which is the most powerful force in the universe – and that power is working all things together to complete My plan – even to where My judgement falls – and the promise, My personal promise to you is that you are a recipient of that powerful force of My love – which is driving every part of your life – and nothing can separate you from it, even the combined forces of all the evil. So now feel and experience the lightness of your burdens lifted – take My yoke – feel it – it is easy and it is light and in no way should it make you feel burdened again. Just take one step at a time – do the next thing that you must do – don’t try and live in the future. Make the most of every moment with Me – even when difficulties come your way. Remember My power released in My love, is protecting and shielding you.”

While I have been munching through Galatians I have picked up the story we were reading in Acts again. In ch 21 Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem is described. Stott makes the point that from that time on Paul was never again to be a free man. This section to the end of the book describes 5 different trials that Paul faces. The main subtheme seems to be the difference in the attitudes of the Jews and the Romans to Paul. As this is narrative compared to the concentrated teaching in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, it is often a bit more challenging to hear Jesus speaking to us from it.

Today I am reading the defence of Paul in his trial before Felix in chapter 24:9-21. To understand the context one should probably read from ch 21. I am going to focus just on these few vv.

So in the background the question continues to hover, “Why is God allowing Paul to experience such opposition, especially in the light of Romans 8:28? Have you ever pondered that? So where Romans 8 shows God’s attitude towards the individual, this needs always to be seen against the background of the bigger picture. The bigger picture of Paul’s ministry, however shows that God always has the growth of His Kingdom, represented by His church as His main objective. Of course the real issue that God affirms in Romans 8 is that whatever His bigger plan is, His personal plan for each one is driven by His love for us and what we experience is always for our ultimate benefit, as well as the benefit of the church. So we must draw the conclusion that opposition will always result in benefitting the spread of the Gospel and the growth of the Kingdom as well as our personal sanctification.

This is not a question of God being nasty. The fact of opposition is one of the main motivators to persevere and carry out any plan. Considering that it is necessary for one to be sure that the plan is the correct one, opposition will often start one examining the plan again to confirm that it is the right way to go. So in a way it purifies the purpose and the implementation of the plan. I have experienced this first-hand in my early years in Stellenbosch. Being involved in a church with a very powerful evangelistic ministry I became convinced of the need to follow that with a concerted discipleship program. For a number of years I worked on developing such a plan and am still in contact with some of the people who were part of that program.

However rather than support from the leadership in the church I found them being responsible for the most opposition. I also experienced attempts to hi-jack the program for personal gain. The net effect was that I worked harder than ever, trying to improve the program to avoid unnecessary criticism and looking back it was a time of glorious growth in a personal way as well as in numbers, giving God all the glory.

Back in Acts 24. To pick up what Jesus is saying to me I would start by reminding myself of the main theme of Acts: the description of how God, through His Spirit, used the Apostles to take the fledgling message, the message which will result eventually in the completion of His Kingdom, into the then known world. Luke repeatedly remarks how the word spread and grew, in the various places where it was taken.

What can I see in this passage that speaks to me? 1. The accusers use ‘fake news’ and hearsay to bring their accusations against him, whereas Paul sticks to the truth. This strikes me as an important point in making a defence for the gospel – not to be dragged down by these tactics, rather sticking to the truth as it is recorded in God’s word. 2. Paul’s interaction with the Law and the Prophets is interesting, especially in he light of what he wrote in Galatians about the law. Perhaps you would like to think that one through. 3. Whatever his defence, he uses it to steer the conversation back to the central point of the gospel. In this case he focusses on the resurrection, cf vs 16,21. This was probably the most controversial point of the gospel, yet Paul doesn’t hesitate to bring it forward, to turn the interaction into an opportunity to explain the gospel. Opposition often throws out red herrings in an effort to distract us as we present God’s truth.

These things all remind me of the supreme importance of all of us being prepared to be a representative of and speak out for the gospel at all times.

But you may be saying, “I am not a bible teacher. Or someone who can go and confront people.” That is why I cannot tell you what Jesus is saying to you. You must be listening to His voice to you personally. What I can say is that every one of us is called to place the gospel central in our lives and thinking so that we will be its representative. How that manifests itself will vary, as we are all individuals with unique gifts and personality. It may mean just a smile at the right time, a word of encouragement, a prayer or open offer to pray, a gift in Jesus’ name, a little card or posy, a loving visit or even just a phone-call. The Spirit will guide each one of us, if we are sensitive and listening to Him. The important thing is that you won’t be led by Him if you aren’t listening to Him. For instance, for many years Emily used to buy packs of small cards with Christian messages on them. These she would post or hand out whenever she felt led to do it.

Mocking God.

Firstly, let me thank Lily for sharing her “listening prayer” on the group’s Watts App platform. She shows she is grasping and practicing this wonderful way of interacting with God. I hope that many of the rest of you are also learning to enjoy the same sort of interaction.

This morning as I was listening to the beautiful song by Bill Gaither, “Worthy is the Lamb”, In my mind’s eye I felt I was being buoyed up on the voices – a billion voices singing together – I see a myriad of faces – golden crowns and the song swells and rises Worthy, worthy worthy is the lamb that was slain.

“Think back where the picture of a slain lamb comes from – when my people were being released from captivity in Egypt – a lamb had to be slain so that they could be set free from captivity – remember that it wasn’t just any lamb – they had to take a lamb into the house and make it into a pet – they would grow to love it over a few weeks – that was the lamb – perfect – without blemish, loved by the owners which was the one that was to be slain to set them free – that picture in a very small way showed my Son – whom I love dearly, not just a random person – a Son going to the cross voluntarily for the sins of all people -to set them free from captivity – of sin, Satan and the world. As you look at the multitude singing ‘worthy is the Lamb’ – you may not be able to grasp it all – but there is a place kept for you amongst the billions – because each person there is special to Me – so just absorb that picture and the knowledge of My love for you – and let that be he driving force in your life”.

As we come now to the last chapter of Galatians, Paul gathers some important applications for the readers. Just reading the first paragraph there are 5 separate instructions which are nevertheless linked integrally. These are quite clear to understand but perhaps worth spending a quiet time on each to work out with the Lord how you can implement them in your life.

I want to come to the statement in vs 7 “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked.” I struggled for a while to understand what Paul was getting at, then it struck me. What Paul was saying is basically “You cannot fool God. You may think that He is not perceiving your behaviour, but the attitude which you have towards Him will show in your behaviour. Maybe just in a small way at the beginning, but if you continue in that behaviour the seed you have sown will grow bigger and bigger till it takes over your life and can ultimately be an indicator of whether you were ever saved in the first place. In other words your actions and behaviour will ultimately show what is going on in your mind and the more you feed them the bigger they will grow. So let the harvest in your life, says Paul, be doing good to all people, that will reveal that you are being led by the Spirit and walking with Him.

I shared this with our morning prayer group and one person remarked that Paul says we should not become weary of doing good. So there is a possibility that we can become weary of doing good. Some thought heh?

So, as we come to the closing remarks in Paul’s own handwriting, he repeats a statement he made in ch 5:6 “neither circumcision or uncircumcision has any value”. What is unsaid is the towering statement of the gospel in 2:20. If that is placed central in everyone of our lives, thoughts, minds bodies, souls hearts etc we will not drift away into the clutches of the wrong teachers which abound today.

More on Christian Freedom.

Be still and know that i am God – the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus is here with you (yes in Ephesians 1:3 Paul refers to the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus”. I take that to mean in His humanity He saw God as His God and Father).

“The key word is not just to know that I am with you – but that you know Me and even more important that I know you. From your conception I have known you – from a young age you have known and accepted that I am real – but there came a time when your eyes were truly opened and in a full flush of wonder you came into a different dimension of ‘knowledge’ – a dimension where you met Me in a new way – From that moment on I knew you too in a new way, because I started a relationship with you – where you could meet and speak to me. Now as time is passing I am drawing you deeper and deeper into knowing Me. My word speaks of Jesus as a ‘Mystery’ and though that Mystery is revealed under the New Covenant – while it is revealed there are yet such riches in that Mystery that there is a deeper and more intimate knowledge revealed of Me as you walk with Me, hence Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1:17 – and the aim is twofold – to give you hope – and to open your eyes to the power that is available to you to live the life – the new life of freedom I have given you. So my continual invitation to you is to keep close to Me and to walk step by step in the way and power of the Spirit”.

Today I was reading in Acts again (Ch 21), describing Paul’s arrested in Jerusalem. John Stott makes the point that from that time onward Paul was never free again. Yet, as I considered this, it came to me that despite his physical bondage and captivity he was still, perhaps the person with the greatest freedom. He understood fully what it meant to be set free from the bondage of the law, yet he used the law to open a way to preach the gospel, without falling into bondage again. So it is important that we understand that the freedom that the gospel brings is a spiritual and mental freedom and not a physical freedom. There are many people who are in bondage to sickness, pain, captivity, disability, poverty etc yet have a sense of the complete freedom which comes with a true understanding of the gospel. Take Joni Ericksen-Tada as an example.

If we look again at Galatians 5, there is a clear choice set before the readers: either to live by gratifying the sinful nature v 16 and performing the acts of that nature or by being led by the Spirit. This is clearly describing before and after our conversion. At first glance we easily pat ourselves on the back as we read the list of the acts of the sinful nature, because they seem so obvious and awful and we would never act like that, yet in vs 17 Paul reveals the real state of affairs in every Christian’s life (including Paul’s, that’s why he could speak from experience). We each have two natures, although the sinful nature has been suppressed and we have been set free from its cloying hold, it still remains a factor in every Christian’s life. Thus Paul can say our two natures are “in conflict with one another” and he says these ominous words in that vs “so you do not do what you want“. Wow! So we may not be involved in debauchery, drunken orgies and the like, but there are many acts of this sinful nature which still can trouble you without you realizing it, just to mention two: Idolatry, worshiping anything other than God, for instance yourself, your family, whatever. He demands our whole heart, mind, body, strength etc. Then there is the sin of ‘muttering’, which made God so angry on a number of occasions in the OT. It is so easy to join in the general chorus of complaint against everything that is going wrong in our country. Oh yes, are these things worse than what the Israelites experienced 3 days into the desert with no sign of water or food? Or when plagues broke out among them in the desert? When we complain we are implying God does not know what He is doing, or that He is powerless to change things. How does that affect our testimony in general conversation when we go along with all the negative comment? There are many more but the important point I want to make is that though we are free we need to be careful to maintain and grow in that freedom.

So the battle for freedom from the bondage to sin and ourselves is ongoing. What are we to do about it? Try harder? That puts us back into bondage to the law again. No – the answer is to remind ourselves of the central gospel message in his book in ch 2:20,21. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives in me. The life that I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me”. And to repent and start afresh in faith and trust of His power and to live in step and in the power of the Spirit. That is true freedom.