The Same God

Psalm

As many people do, a few years ago I relocated across the country. I moved to a place where I knew no one, to a city I had never even visited. I started a new job, and with that came the necessity of building a whole new life. Scary stuff.

I vividly remember the last Sunday morning I worshipped at my home church. It was at that church I had first encountered the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, that my walk with God had turned more into a bounding leap, and that I had really grown to love worshipping Jesus. I was afraid to leave it – and the rest of my life – behind.

On that last Sunday, we sang the song My Guardian by Ben Cantelon. The lyric You go before me, you’re there beside me was agonisingly relevant. It was a reassurance from God that He’d be at the other end of my move, but it was also a struggle for me to sing because deep down there was a part of me that wasn’t sure what that meant.

The following week I picked out a local church in my new city and went along to the Sunday morning service.  It was very different to what I’d become used to; a much quieter, more traditional service, and my heart was sinking when I thought of what I had lost. After a bit of liturgy, the worship band stood up. I say ‘band’, but it was a child on a guitar, a drummer with half a drum kit, and a woman on a saxophone. I’ll admit I rolled my eyes (see my post on worship snobbery) and missed my home even more. But then the guitarist struck a chord and they started the first song – you guessed it – My Guardian.

The situation felt that it couldn’t have been more different; here I was in a strange church in a strange city with strange people, where I didn’t fit and the service was odd to me. And yet here I was singing the same worship song to the same God, who was present, just the same. He really had gone before me.

On that day, I had a sudden and strong understanding of the beauty and truth in Psalm 139:7-10:

“Where can I go from your Spirit?

    Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

    if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,

    your right hand will hold me fast.”

I didn’t end up settling at that church, but it was there God taught me a lesson that I’ve carried with me through all the changes life has thrown me since. It doesn’t matter where I go, or who I’m with, or what I’m doing. The same God is there. He’s there beside me. He goes before me. I could move to the other side of the world and in one sense nothing would have changed. I’m always home with Him.

It’s nearly summer, and it’s a time when a lot of people move on. Students graduate and tumble out into the real world, kids leave home and stand on their own feet for the first time, couples get married and strike out on a whole new kind of life together.

But there’s always a constant; God. It sounds theologically obvious, but it’s something that’s helpful to realise all over again when your feet are on shifting sands.

If you’re going through – or approaching – a time of transition or moving on, I pray that you will have a strong sense of the continued nearness of God. It may be a lonely time, or a frightening time, or it might be a time of excitement and joy. Perhaps it is a mixture. But whatever, you are like the Israelites and whether you are in Egypt, in Canaan or somewhere in between, you are at home with God.

You go before me

You’re there beside me

And if I wander

Love will find me

Goodness and mercy

Will always follow

You go before me

My Guardian

– My Guardian, Ben Cantelon

Stop Sipping

There are some drinks you throw your head back and glug down heartily, and there are some drinks you just sip.  Question: do you sip God?

You read your daily Bible verse *sip*.

You listen to three worship songs in the car on the way to work *sip*.

You thank God before you eat *sip*.

You go through your day, your week, your life with God in less-than-ten-minute sips.

Maybe it’s an ‘I’m too busy doing other things’ kind of sipping, the way you drink your coffee at work; a sip here and there when you’re not answering the phone or responding to emails. Busy with other things, more important things, you simply don’t have time (read: make time) to interact with God in anything more than sips.

Maybe it’s an ‘I mean well, but I get distracted’ kind of sipping, like when you make a cup of tea and then go and do something else while it’s cooling down but get so engrossed in that thing that by the time you remember your tea it’s gone cold. You sit down to pray or read your Bible, but then someone texts you, or your mind just wanders, and the moment is lost. You give up and go do something else.

Maybe it’s an ‘I’m not sure how this is going to taste’ kind of sipping, the way you’d sip a cocktail made by a six-year-old out of things they found in the kitchen cupboard. You’re afraid of what a good, long gulp of God might taste like. What if you read so much of the Bible you find something you don’t agree with, or that challenges you? What if you pray so much that God actually answers and it’s not the answer you want? What if spending more time with God turns you into some sort of weird hermit monk?

Maybe it’s an ‘I feel obliged to do this, but I don’t really want to’ kind of sipping, the way you drink your eight eight-ounce glasses of water per day when you remember about it.  You know it’s good for you, so you just sort of force it down, not even trying to enjoy it, just to check it off your list.

If the time you spend with your heavenly Father is anything like those things above – if it’s distracted, or cautious, or out of obligation – I have one suggestion: STOP SIPPING.

Guys, you’re thirsty!

We all thirst for God, all the time, we’re just not very good at realising that’s what we want.

Here’s an analogy: apparently our bodies are pretty bad at distinguishing between hunger and thirst.  The two needs trigger very similar reactions in the same part of our brain, which means that sometimes when we’re sitting craving a Jaffa Cake we actually just need a glass of water.

Unfortunately, we spend a lot of time miscoding our thirst for God in a similar way. We think we’re hungry for human attention and affection, or physical gratification and pleasure, or worldly success and achievement, and we chase desperately after those things. But those things are just Jaffa Cakes, and though they might take the edge off our cravings it’s gulping down a whole glass of God that will fully satisfy.

I wrote in an article a while back about how you should drink down God like you’ve got heatstroke (you can read about it here). That’s the kind of thirst we all have, that we need to try to identify in ourselves.

But God isn’t just a boring, good-for-you glass of water – God tastes amazing! The Bible says:

“Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Psalm 46:10.

I said before that we can be afraid of how a gulp of God will taste. What we forget is that God is Good. All the time. In every way. We don’t need to be cautious in our approach of Him. We don’t need to sip Him carefully in case He tastes bad. We should be as eager to get a taste of Him as a child is licking their lips for a can of Coke.

Right, so, sipping is totally out. What’s the alternative?

Quaff God. Linger. Spend extended time focused on nothing but drinking Him in. We are told to rest in His presence (Psalm 37:7, Psalm 23:1-3). By all means read His word, pray your prayers, sing your songs. But surround that with space. This isn’t about you filling the silence with longer and more eloquent prayers. This isn’t about a battle for how many chapters of Leviticus you can get through or whether you’re reading a text by some wise theologian; God doesn’t run a book club.

More time doesn’t mean more activity. We think we should spend five minutes in prayer because we can think of five minutes’ worth of things to say. But we should listen more than we speak. Say your five minutes of prayers, and then invite God to just sit with you. He’ll be there:

“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” James 4:8

It’s in our still moments with God that relationship develops. No one falls in love in 10-minute sips, we build that bond over a series of extended and intimate encounters. It is in these long, relaxed gulps that we hear from God, develop intimacy with Him, and fall more in love.

So stop squeezing God into your schedule; He’s neither a boring obligation nor a potentially unpleasant outcome. He deserves more than ten minutes of your time, and you desperately need more than ten minutes of His! Make real, quality time with God a central part of your day-to-day life. In other words, stop sipping.

God and Guitars – Why Your Worship Style Is Not The Best

As Christians, we can be pretty judgy about other people’s worship services. Too loud, too boring, no atmosphere, too experiential, etc. etc. I’m as culpable as anyone if I don’t stop and check myself. There’s nothing wrong with having a preferred style, but we often fall into the trap of going beyond that, of smugly thinking that our way of doing things is the most effective way of interacting with God and that other people have missed something.

If you get a kick out of worship with guitars, that’s great. But if you think that God doesn’t move through worship with a church organ you’re either saying that guitars summon God like a genie or that God’s a kind of modish houseguest who rolls their eyes when you put Classic FM on. If you think that a service following the Book of Common Prayer is better than one that does not, you fall down the same rabbit hole of suggesting the creator of literally everything has a particular ‘taste’.

The Bible gives us no instruction as to how specifically we should worship God. There’s no preferred service structure, nothing about what the person at the front should wear, what instruments should be used, how long the sermon should be or whether coffee should be served at the end. True, Biblical worship is:

  1. Offered by people with the Holy Spirit living in their hearts (Philippians 3:3)
  2. Theologically consistent with the doctrine of Christ; i.e. in truth (John 4:24)
  3. Self-sacrificial (Romans 12:1)
  4. Conducted in reverence and awe (Hebrews 12:28)
  5. Carried out using our skill (Psalm 33:3)
  6. Musical (Isaiah 12:5)

God wants us to seek connection with Him, to seek knowledge of Him, to regard Him with wonder, and to express it to the best of our ability. He doesn’t tell us there are better and worse ways of doing this.

It’s a good job, really, because we all speak different worship languages. In line with the different personalities God’s given us, we connect and express in different ways. As with real languages, we can sometimes find it hard to understand each other, but God speaks all our languages. A love song written in French wouldn’t mean much to me, but it might move a French person to tears. Just because you’re not moved by the way someone else worships doesn’t mean it isn’t wonderfully pleasing to God.

We are made in God’s image. The things we do in worship, service, and reverence of Him are all expressions of who He is, and reveal different aspects of Him. No human thing can reflect all of God’s character; He’s far too complex for that! Individually we display glimpses, like the shards of a shattered mirror all reflecting the same light. But if each of us reflects a different piece, all of us together must demonstrate something closer to the whole than any one of us can alone. We cannot remove some of these pieces without marring the image of God we are projecting to the world.

People find Him best in different styles of music and literature and art, and that’s fine because God is the source of creativity; He invented music, He inspires art, He defies description and explanation by any one author. We only have to look around at the variety of creation to see that God’s creativity – the creativity we were each given a small part of – doesn’t conform to a single ‘type’ or ‘style’ or ‘genre’.

Some people worship best through tradition, and that’s fine because God was there instigating those traditions and God’s relevance defies fashion. The good things He initiates don’t cease to be good just because popular culture changes. Some people worship best through the modern and the progressive, and that’s fine because God is the most cutting-edge being there is. He literally created everything out of nothing. He’s always moving forward.

Some people worship best through structure and order, with prescribed prayers and repetition, and that’s fine because God creates order from chaos. His whole universe is built upon structure and order and rhythm. Some people worship best in freedom of expression, in fluidity and emotion, and that’s fine because God is unpredictable and He moves us deeply in ways that we cannot expect.

I think in heaven the worship must be the most beautiful mess. When everyone is worshipping all the time, all in one place, think of the amazing variety there will be! Here on earth our differences cause discord, but in the presence of our amazing God we will be united in a completely unrecognisable but stunning harmony. All these different pieces that seem so disparate and even contradictory will suddenly all make sense together in the face of our most beautifully and incomprehensibly multifaceted God.

So let’s stop with the worship snobbery. We are all entitled to our preferences, but let’s not for one minute limit God by suggesting they are also His.

Crash Test Your Faith

frolfhhed7m-cameron-kirbyAn important part of the design of a car is its crashworthiness, which is its ability to protect its occupants during an impact. Car companies conduct crash tests of their vehicles, deliberately crashing them under controlled conditions in order to evaluate and improve their performance under impact. It means that you and I can drive around with confidence that next time we hit a pothole the whole thing won’t catch fire.

Question: is your faith crashworthy?

In a time of crisis, is your faith able to protect you from the impact? Are there ways you can crash test your faith to find out? In 2 Corinthians 13:5, Paul recommends that we do just that:

Test yourselves to make sure you are solid in the faith. Don’t drift along taking everything for granted. Give yourselves regular checkups. You need firsthand evidence, not mere hearsay, that Jesus Christ is in you. Test it out. If you fail the test, do something about it.” MSG.

So, how can you crash-test your faith? How can you develop confidence in what you believe? I’ve thought of a couple of questions you could ask:

Is my faith firmly backed up by Scripture?

“So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Romans 10:17.

Know your Bible – it’s the inspired word of God! 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that all Scripture is God-breathed, so although it was physically written down by man it is a communication straight from the Father. The Bible also – by adjective and by example – describes God to us. It tells us about His nature, His character, and His desires. When we think of it like that – that the Bible is God’s own description of Himself and what He wants from us – it’s hard to see why we aren’t glued to the Scriptures more! What could be a more encouraging to our faith than being able to turn to the words of God Himself for assurance?

Chuck Swindoll wrote of memorising Scripture:

“No other single exercise pays greater spiritual dividends! Your prayer life will be strengthened. Your witnessing will be sharper and much more effective. Your attitudes and outlook will begin to change. Your mind will become alert and observant. Your confidence and assurance will be enhanced. Your faith will be solidified.” (Growing Strong in the Seasons of Life [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994], p. 61).

Knowing Scripture shouldn’t be seen as an optional extra of the Christian life. Jesus Himself knew the Scriptures intimately, and when He was tempted in the wilderness it was the Scriptures that He leaned on (Matthew 4:1-11). If even Jesus used the Scriptures in His moment of trial, how much more should we be arming ourselves with the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17)!

Is my faith personal to me?

” ‘But what about you?’ [Jesus] asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ “Matthew 16:15.

God is all about relationship, and relationship is personal. Way before there was any kind of law or commandment or doctrine or church, there was a relationship between a man (Adam) and his Father. From the time He breathed His spirit into humanity (Genesis 2:7), to the time He gave up His spirit for humanity (Matthew 27:50), to the time He filled us with His Spirit (Acts 2:4), God Has been giving us Himself.

Because of the deeply personal nature of God, we cannot relate to Him truthfully by the regurgitation of facts or statements of dogma. Collective knowledge is insufficient. There is no such thing as vicarious faith.

As children grow up, there comes a time when they move from trusting everything their parents and teachers say to realising that these people might sometimes be wrong. That’s healthy and normal, and it’s an important part of our spiritual growth too. We need to step back from what we learned in Sunday School and move our faiths from our ears and into our hearts.

If your faith rests on what you have been told and not what you have discerned for yourself to be true, when the wind and waves of life come, it’ll be a lot harder to cling on to.

What is the fruit of my faith?

Has your faith changed you? Does it inform who you are, and who you are working to become? If not, it’s intellectual belief rather than true faith. James 2:20 tells us that:

“Faith without works is dead.” KJV

Faith is active, not passive. It’s not a fuzzy warm feeling of security or a cold analytical assessment of likely truth. A living faith is expressed by obedience and service, by reliance, by stepping out into the unknown, by doing things you know you couldn’t do in your own power. It’s the difference between saying ‘I believe in the scientific principles behind a parachute’ and actually jumping from a plane with one strapped to your back.

While you’re crash-testing your faith, examine your life and actions. Do they display faith? Your works can’t save you (Galatians 2:15-16), but they can be a good indication of your heart.

Do I regularly pray for more faith?

Faith is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9). It’s up to us to work it, but ultimately it’s Him that supplies it. If you earnestly ask God for faith, and you are doing your bit by studying His word and living out His commands, He’s not going to withhold it from you (Philippians 4:6-7). We can beat ourselves up a bit for not having ‘enough’ faith, but as long as we show a willingness to live by the faith we have received, we will not be short of it.

Search Me

Joan of Arc is recorded as having said “I would rather die than do something which I know to be a sin, or to be against God’s will.”

If you’re a Christian, I assume we’re agreed that sin is a bad thing, something we would want to avoid. The trouble is it’s not always easy to define. So much has become culturally acceptable that we can be blind to what sin really looks like. On many issues, even Christians don’t agree on what’s acceptable and what constitutes sin!

We’re especially bad at seeing our own sin. In the same way that our eyes adjust to gradually falling dusk, we can fail to notice the gloom of sin drawing in around us. The baby steps we take in a certain direction may each seem perfectly justifiable, but we can easily end up half a mile down the wrong track before we even realise.

The great news is that there is a way to illuminate the wrong things in our lives:

‘But everything exposed by the light becomes visible–and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”‘ Ephesians 5:13-14, NIV.

When we really let Jesus into our lives, when we immerse ourselves in His word and start real conversation with His Spirit, God’s light shines right through us and even the darkest parts of our hearts are exposed.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t always want to engage with God’s searching light. Our natural reaction to our own sin is to hide it (think Adam and Eve hiding from God in Genesis 3:8). We fear exposure by God’s light, but the truth is He’s seeking to heal. It’s like the little light the doctor shines in your ear. Imagine having a throat infection but refusing to open your mouth because you don’t want the doctor to see it! That’s basically the equivalent of trying to hide your sins from God!

God isn’t out to blame us for our sin, any more than a doctor blames us for our illness. There is no need to fear reprisal from God; we’re told that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1). God’s love and mercy are astonishing, way beyond anything else we can experience, and there is absolutely no sin that God will not forgive you for. Whatever you’ve done, you’re not too bad for God. Your sin doesn’t shock Him. And you’re certainly not unforgivable – Jesus died on the cross so that ‘unforgivable’ no longer had to be a word in your dictionary.

But it all starts with us actually baring our sin before God. In Psalm 32, the psalmist complains:

‘When I refused to confess my sin,
    my body wasted away,
    and I groaned all day long.’ NLT.

Not a good way to live! Unconfessed sin eats us up from the inside. Like any sickness, it stops us functioning at our best. Even if we’re not writhing in guilt to the same extent as the psalmist, we know if we’re harbouring sin we’re sitting outside God’s will, and that is a place we will never fully flourish.

And it’s not only us that suffers for our sin. If you’re a Christian, you’re part of the body of Christ. And you can’t damage one part of the body without affecting the functioning of the whole. No matter how ‘private’ you think your sin is, your heart is where your choices and actions flow from (Proverbs 4:23), and darkness that starts there has no trouble propagating itself throughout your life.

Our groaning psalmist knew what to do:

‘Finally, I confessed all my sins to you
    and stopped trying to hide my guilt.
I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.”
    And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.’ NLT.

When we push through our shame, lay aside our pride and truly repent, God removes our guilt from us.  But further than that, He removes the very sin itself:

‘He has removed our sins as far from us
    as the east is from the west.’ Psalm 103:12 NLT.

Once God has forgiven us, we never have to go back to that dark place again. God doesn’t just cover over our sin, he pulls it up by the roots so it doesn’t have to keep springing back. That’s not to say that it’s necessarily easy, just that we have a choice about whether we conquer it. Before, we were slaves to our sin (Romans 6:17), but we’ve been handed power over it through Christ.

And because we know that God has forgiven us, we can also forgive ourselves. Philippians 3:12-14 demonstrates a great attitude for us to take:

‘I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.’ NLT

We are not perfect, put we press onwards anyway.

It’s not possible to head in the right direction if you’re always looking back over your shoulder. When you confess your sin and turn away from it, God forgives you, and you can start to forgive yourself and move on.

And all of this starts by you opening up your heart to Christ’s searching light, being humble enough to accept that you aren’t always able to recognise the extent of the sin in yourself, and not being afraid to let God show you things that might not be entirely comfortable.

Prince of Peace

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In recorded history there have been over 14,500 major wars, killing around four billion people. Since 1495, the world has not gone 25 years without war, and it certainly isn’t getting better; the last decade has seen a historic decline in world peace, interrupting the long-term improvements since World War II. In 2014 an IEP study found that only 11 out of 162 countries were not involved in some kind of conflict. Where civilians were once far-removed from the fighting, they made up a shocking 90% of casualties in armed conflicts between 1945 and 1999. In 2015 there were approximately 60 million people displaced by war.

It can all seem pretty bleak. But as we enter Advent, as we start to turn our thoughts to the coming of Christ, there is a unique message of hope for our world. In the book of Isaiah, some 700 years before the birth of Christ, God speaks through the prophet to His people about the golden age of peace that was – and still is – approaching.

Isaiah 35 talks of the peace and prosperity, both physical and spiritual, that will one day be brought to God’s people. It describes how even the wilderness and the desert will be glad and blossom, and how sorrow and mourning will be completely replaced with joy and gladness. Through the prophet, God commends His people to strengthen and encourage each other with this news, to remind those that are afraid that He Himself is going to save them; that they have nothing to fear.

Isaiah 11:6-9 describes the extent of the coming peace; the wolf lying down with the lamb, the calf and the lion together, all led by a little child. This is a level of peace that we have never known, that harks back to the innocence of Eden. Competitors become companions. There is no hurt or destruction at all.

How is this peace to be brought about? Isaiah tells us that it’s through knowledge of God (Isaiah 11:9):

“Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,
    for as the waters fill the sea,
    so the earth will be filled with people who know the Lord.” NLT.

The word ‘for’ here is significant because it ascribes cause. It is because all people will be in relationship with God that true peace will come, just as there was peace when God walked in the Garden with Adam and Eve. It was separation from God that introduced sin and discord in the first place, and reconciliation with God will be its undoing.

Isaiah also alludes to how our separation from God is to end, and how peace will be brought (Isaiah 9:6):

“For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” NLT.

It is by Christ that we are brought back into relationship with God, therefore it is by Christ that we are delivered peace.

I want to briefly mention four key natures of the peace we hope for:

Political peace (external)

In the Old Testament, religion and the state were intimately linked, because God’s chosen people were of a single nationality. When Israel went to war with another nation, it was both political and spiritual in nature. When another nation became involved in sin, God used Israel as the bringers of justice.

Now though, there is no distinction between nationalities in God’s eyes (Galatians 3:28). Thanks to the actions of Jesus Christ, no one on earth is excluded from being a child of God. It is the desire of our Father to bring us all together as one big family, and for there to be no conflict between nations. In Isaiah 2:4, God speaks these words through the prophet:

“The Lord will mediate between nations
    and will settle international disputes.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will no longer fight against nation,
    nor train for war anymore.” NLT.

Personal peace (internal)

But God’s peace goes further than mere large-scale lack of conflict; it will flood every human heart. This is a peace that we can already get a flavour of, through the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 26:3):

“You will keep in perfect peace
    all who trust in you,
    all whose thoughts are fixed on you!” NLT.

Worldly peace is temporary escape from our problems. Biblical peace goes beyond the absence of turmoil; it is a deep, rich wellbeing that pervades any situation. In John 14:27 when Jesus promised to leave the disciples peace, He actually said ‘my peace I leave you’. The personal peace of Christ was quite staggering, leaving Him calm and unfaltering even in the presence of those He knew would ultimately kill Him. It allowed Him to love those that mocked and rejected Him, and in the face of death say to His Father ‘your will be done’ (Matthew 26:42). That’s a wow kind of internal peace, and we all have access to it by the Holy Spirit.

Promised peace (awaited)

Isaiah 54:10 tells us that:

“Though the mountains be shaken
    and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
    nor my covenant of peace be removed,”
    says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” NIV

It’s no secret that we do not experience God’s full intended peace today.  God’s kingdom is still advancing, and so we still reside in an imperfect world where peace can often seem impossible. But no matter what, God’s promise to give us peace remains. Nothing can shake the promise, and nothing can shake the peace. We can rely on them.

Provided peace (achieved)

In this broken world we are compelled on occasion to fight for peace. But thank God that we are eagerly anticipating a peace that we don’t have to fight for, because it has already been won for us! True, complete, everlasting peace could never have been won by bullets and airstrikes. Achieving victory in this Ultimate Battle meant dying, not killing.

We live in a strange, in-between time in terms of Isaiah’s prophecies of peace. Parts have been delivered to us (personal peace via the Holy Spirit, for example) and parts we are still waiting for. But it is all guaranteed. It is all coming. It has already been achieved.

In this time of Advent, as we allow our hearts to be squeezed by longing for peace, we can all be peacemakers in our own way – at home, at work, in our communities and in our churches. We wait, but not passively, not with resignation. Because of the Holy Spirit we all carry a little piece of God with us, and so until He comes again, God’s peace is made through the everyday actions of each and every one of us.

Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Oh, bid our sad divisions cease,
And be yourself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

 

Do Justice, Love Kindness

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The Hebrew word for justice, mishpat, occurs more than 200 times in the Old Testament. It relates to the equitable treatment of all people, regardless of social status or race. In Old Testament times, neglecting the needs of the vulnerable was a violation of mishpat. I think the sheer number of times it’s mentioned shows that God is kind of crazy about justice! It’s central to the character of God and, therefore, love. That means:

  • God is fair and impartial (Job 34:12).
  • God can and will judge between right and wrong (Romans 2:6).
  • God hates the mistreatment of the things which He has created (Proverbs 6:16-19).
  • God takes up the case of the vulnerable (Psalm 140:12).

And he commands the same of us. Micah 6:8 says:

“He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?” ESV.

God has given humanity a massive duty of care when it comes to His creation, and unfortunately we are not always the most responsible line managers. Even as Christians we do not always behave in a way that lines up with God’s just character. But as we seek to be more like Jesus, we should be looking for opportunities to fight for justice. We must consider that as Christians we are walking, talking demonstrations of who God is. We proclaim the Gospel with our lives. Many people never open up a Bible or listen to a sermon. So they won’t know that God sets the oppressed free unless they see Christians doing it. When we turn away from issues of injustice, what does that say about the God we follow?

Our society is not particularly compassionate to the poor. Poverty is either a) unfortunate but inevitable (i.e. there’s nothing I can do about it), or b) your own fault (i.e. sort it out yourself). Find me an example of Jesus taking those attitudes. Jesus loved the poor. It was the poor He preached the Gospel to (Luke 4:18). In fact, Jesus’ very purpose on earth was to pull us all out of our own impoverishment – that of the spirit. He didn’t point a finger at us and say “you’re not trying hard enough to step out of sin, you could if you wanted to, you’re just lazy”. He didn’t say “awww, that is absolutely heartbreaking, I wish there was something I could do”. He stepped down to our level and gave us the ultimate leg-up, laying down His life in the process. We’re all needy in one way or another. Are we to sneer at, or simply ignore, another person’s need just because it’s different from our own?

And we mustn’t be cute about this issue; if God’s siding with the poor and the downtrodden, then He’s siding against those that are doing the down-treading! In the Book of Amos, God explains that He’s stopping the people from flourishing because they’re doing it at the expense of others. In chapter 5:11 He says:

“You trample the poor,
    stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent.
Therefore, though you build beautiful stone houses,
    you will never live in them.
Though you plant lush vineyards,
    you will never drink wine from them.” NLT.

It shows that God’s not afraid to take action in His defence of the vulnerable. And never make the mistake of thinking you’re blame-free because you’ve never personally trampled the poor.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” Desond Tutu

That’s something to think about. Especially since God’s going to be looking at how we’ve handled injustice right up to His final judgement. We’ve established that God stands with the oppressed. He takes on their plight and includes Himself amongst their number. So however we treat them, that’s effectively how we’re treating God:

“I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.” Matthew 25:45. NLT.

Think about what that means for a moment, in terms of your own efforts. Praising God but standing back and allowing suffering is kind of hypocritical, right? That’s not lost on God, either. Back in Amos 5 (v.21-24), He says:

“I hate all your show and pretence—
    the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.
 I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
    I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
 Away with your noisy hymns of praise!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
 Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,
    an endless river of righteous living.” NLT.

God would much rather you enact justice than sing Him songs, so much so that He’ll put His fingers in His ears while the band’s playing! We see God’s priorities clearly displayed here, but ask yourself: is justice the priority in your Christian life?

Injustice is a many-headed beast that you cannot possibly fight all of. And we’re all different people bringing different things to the table, so my fight probably could not – and should not – look the same as yours. But there are always things we can do. It could be using your time, money, skills or authority. It could be a huge problem thousands of miles away – like women’s rights in the developing world – or it could be befriending that lonely person no one seems to have time for.  If you prayerfully ask and are willing to step out, God will give you eyes to see the needs around you, a heart of passion for particular issues, and doors of opportunity to make a difference (Philippians 2:13).

For many of us in the West, a key thing is changing our material consumption so it’s more ethical. So much of our affluent lifestyles indirectly supports injustice, like unfair employment in supply chains. The Book of James (5:1-4) has some powerful words on that topic:

“Look here, you rich people: Weep and groan with anguish because of all the terrible troubles ahead of you. Your wealth is rotting away, and your fine clothes are moth-eaten rags. Your gold and silver are corroded. The very wealth you were counting on will eat away your flesh like fire. This corroded treasure you have hoarded will testify against you on the day of judgement. For listen! Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.” NLT.

The language is strong, but the more of the Bible you read the more you realise that’s just how intensely God feels about injustice. He condemns it over and over again, He instructs us to fight it over and over again. It should cut us up big time, and all too often it really doesn’t.

So I challenge you to look around you at the world and see Jesus in the face of every suffering person. And then don’t just say “that’s sad”. Do something about it. And remember that whatever you do to work for mishpat, you’ll have the most powerful force in the universe on your side.