During my childhood I was introduced to Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books as well as his well-known poem, IF, which begins: If you can keep your head when all about you; Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too. If you can wait and not be tired of waiting, Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,…
Interestingly, the words of the third and fourth lines of the second stanza: If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two imposters just the same; … are found above the players’ entrance to the Centre Court at the All England Tennis and Croquet Club where the Wimbledon tennis championship is played.
Written in 1895 as a parent’s advice to a son/daughter, IF expresses the stoicism of Victorian Britain. Remarkable and highly esteemed though Kipling’s poem is, it makes us appreciate all the more, the deeper riches of the wisdom of Proverbs.
For example, in Proverbs 2:1ff we read: My son/daughter, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice of understanding, and seek it like silver and search for it as hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God…
I touch on these matters of wisdom because there are voices today that reject the wisdom of the past. Sadly history shows that people reap the consequences when they fail to learn from the past. So, in an age that thinks it knows best, we need to help one another view life from a bigger perspective.
Consider, for example, not just the wisdom, but the command of God given to his ancient people on the subject of family: “Honor your father and mother… that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 5:16).
These words introduce the second section of the Ten Commandments given to Moses some three millennia ago. As someone has observed, the Ten Commandments were something like the Bill of Rights for God’s people, setting out their relationships with God and with one another. The first four commandments concern the relationship of God’s people with him; the second six address relationships at the human level – with one’s neighbor.
If the Ten Commandments are like a Bill of Rights, then it comes as a surprise that the first of the human relationships addressed is the relationship with parents. We might have expected this fifth command to address our duty towards the State – be it the President or Head of State.
That this first command concerning our relationships, addresses relationship with parents, shows us that from God’s perspective, the family needs to be at the heart of our human relationships. Loyalty to family comes second only to our relationship with God. And significantly this is the only commandment that comes with a promise.
Now, you may think that this pattern belongs only to the Old Testament. But consider Jesus’ response when he was questioned on the subject of divorce. In Matthew 19:4-6 we read: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said: ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh?…’”
Furthermore, Paul the Apostle takes up the fifth Commandment in his Letter to the Ephesians where he writes: Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land” (Ephesians 6:2-3).
Now some will feel uncomfortable at this because they have had painful experiences of family. They don’t feel any responsibility to family. However, it is evident that throughout the Bible God treats family seriously.
Many today consider that human society is evolving from a primitive beginning to some future ideal. The Bible has a different view. It speaks of men and women having fallen from an original ideal and in danger of progressing to a future disaster. Moses, Jesus and Paul the Apostle indicate that family order is important for the well-being of society.
How important it is that we do not lightly dismiss the wisdom of the past, thinking we know better. Yes, we do need to respect those who have a different perspective, but we also need, to use Kipling’s words, to keep our heads, holding firm to God’s commands and the trustworthiness of his promise.
Why do appalling things happen? Why do events such as the massacre last Sunday in Las Vegas occur? Why do the seemingly innocent suffer?
For the professing Christian who says that God not only exists but that he is compassionate and all-powerful, it is one of life’s toughest questions. And I have to say that there are no complete answers. So what can we say about this profound and perplexing subject? As this is a subject that often crops up in conversations let me briefly touch on a number of points.
First of all, we need to express verbally and practically our compassion for those who suffer, and pray for them.
Second, at an appropriate time – and we need to pray for wisdom about the timing – it is good to be prepared to discuss this issue when God’s existence is questioned.
Many people use the following argument to say that a good and loving God cannot exist: ‘A God who is all-powerful and all-loving would end suffering and pain for his creatures. BUT, suffering and pain exist. Therefore a God who is all-powerful and all-loving does not exist.’
At first sight, this reasoning makes sense. And we should be prepared to acknowledge that when we are talking with others. However, it is useful to point to the response by philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga who conclude, not that God does not exist, but that ‘A God who is all powerful and all loving has a bigger plan’.
This, of course, raises another question: ‘Is there any evidence of a bigger plan and if so, what is it?’ To answer this we need to explore themes we find in the New Testament.
God’s bigger plan. Colossians 2:13-15 reads: You, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.
Captives. The Bible sees history as divided into two great eras. Before Jesus came there was the present age— the world. Now that Jesus has come a new era has begun—the age to come. For the present, this stands alongside the first era. Yes, God has always been in control, but the first era is in bondage to sin and evil. In it we are captive to moral laws we can’t keep. Even when God’s written law was revealed, we couldn’t keep it.
The accuser, satan, has power over us because he holds a catalog of our failures to present to God’s court of justice. God, being the perfect and just God he is, has no other choice but to condemn us to death because sin – treachery against him – is a capital offense.
C.S. Lewis captures these elements in his Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Edmund had betrayed Peter, Susan and Lucy, and Aslan himself. The white witch demanded Edmund’s life saying he had broken ‘the laws of the deep.’ “His life is forfeit,” she shrieked.
This is our natural condition. Alienated from God, we are in the power of spiritual forces we cannot defeat, and we are en route to a grave we can’t avoid. And so we are captive to the pain, suffering and evil that we have brought upon ourselves.
But then came Jesus. At a single stroke he smashed the bars of the spiritual prison of the first age. He wiped out the moral debt of laws we couldn’t obey and disarmed the demonic powers we couldn’t overcome. Furthermore, he abolished death whose clutches we couldn’t escape.
How is this extraordinary freedom achieved? Paul tells us twice: By the cross. For Paul, the first era has given way to the world to come. The cross is where Jesus Christ has potentially turned our captivity into a glorious liberty.
Having created us, not as robots but in his image, God gave us the capacity of choice and with it the potential to turn from him and experience the consequential suffering. The more we leave God out of the equation of life, the greater the darkness will be.
In an extraordinary act of generous love, God’s bigger plan has been to use his vast resources to destroy the enmity – our hostility towards him and towards one another, and the suffering and pain that follow – without destroying the enemy – you and me.
It’s a plan we would never have dreamed of – God himself providing the means of restoring us as the glory of his creation. No wonder Paul the Apostle wrote, The sufferings of this present age cannot be compared with the glory that is to be revealed (Romans 8:18).
In her Wall Street Journal opinion piece two weeks ago in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation of southern Texas (September 7, 2017), Peggy Noonan canvassed the range of responses to assist people in need following the storm.
At one point she wrote: ‘The local ABC station caught a young Catholic priest, a French Canadian assigned to a Houston parish, out in a kayak in the heavy rain looking for people who could use a Mass. “I guess this is how the Americas were evangelized as well with a canoe,” he said, “and this is a kayak. I hope that can bring a smile to a few people.” Noticing the TV cameras, he said: “I guess we’re live (TV). The Lord is alive, and the Lord is always with us as well.”’
Indeed, this is one of the great things we learn about the Lord God; he is not only alive but is always with us.
Psalm 139 is sometimes described as the crown of Hebrew poetry. In it, David the writer speaks of a Watcher who is not a mere passive receptor of information, like the prying eye of cyberspace. Rather he is someone who knows and understands every detail of our existence – including our motives. And, what is most important, he cares for us at every twist and turn of life.
‘You have searched me God, you know me,’ David says. ‘I have no privacy, no place from which I can exclude you. There is no corner of my mind where I can shut the door against you. Everything I do, everything I say, everything I think, is wide open to you.’ ‘You hem me in behind and before, you have laid your hand upon me’, he continues.
At first, it seems that David is saying, ‘everywhere I go, every step I take, I feel you breathing down my neck.’ But the larger context shows us that he doesn’t see it this way. The words you hem me in can also be translated, ‘you guard me’ or ‘you encircle me for my protection.’
He doesn’t view God’s all-embracing knowledge as a threat, but rather as a refuge. He is not at all resentful of God’s all-seeing intelligence.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? He asks. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast, we read in verses 9 and 10.
David’s imagery of taking the wings of the morning is that of traveling at the speed of light to a far place. Even there he will still find God. The instant the thought enters his head that he might escape God, he realizes it is impossible.
Many of us have felt the same as David, but we sometimes have a note of frustration in our voice: ‘God, I want to get away from you. I want to forget you’.
But, surprisingly to us, David isn’t trying to run away. His reaction to God’s all-embracing knowledge is one of deep-felt gratitude. For unlike human prying eyes, God’s eyes are pure, and he is just in all his ways. When we truly turn to him, his presence is not a threat or a cause for anxiety, but rather joy. David understood that God’s presence means guidance and protection.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (vv.11-12). David was anticipating the possibility that in a moment of panic he might find himself saying, ‘God has left me and forgotten me.’ Instead, he was saying that no matter how dark the situation seems, God has infra-red vision – he sees in the night just as well as he sees in the day.
Yes, God expects men and women to be true neighbors, putting aside differences and serving one another in times of need. But we often forget that such care and compassion springs out of the nature of the God who has made us. Indeed, human acts of compassion do not mean that God is on the sidelines. His reassuring hand is present as much in the tough times as in the good times.
In another psalm (Psalm 23) David could say: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. And, in the aftermath of his resurrection from the dead, Jesus promised his disciples and in turn you and me, that he will be with us always – every moment of every day – until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).
On the occasions – all too rare these days – when there is a serious conversation about God, the discussion focuses on what we might think of God. Dr. Benjamin Jowett was at one time Master of Balliol College, Oxford, England. He was renowned for his sharp mind and rapier-like wit.
On one occasion, at dinner at the high table, he was asked his opinion about God. He responded, “I think it would be a great impertinence were I to express my opinion about God. The only constant anxiety of my life is to know what is God’s opinion of me.”
With these thoughts in mind, it is helpful to turn to Psalm 103 which begins, Bless the Lord, O my soul…
It is a psalm of David, one he seems to have written for the great choir that he had set up in Jerusalem. From the beginning, he focuses on his thankfulness to God for his many blessings, something we so easily overlook in the busyness of life. We take so much for granted.
What is interesting in this psalm is that David did not go on to list all the specific things God had done for him. Rather he focused on features of God’s character, features that I can only lightly touch on here – God’s mercy, God’s goodness and His awesome power.
God’s mercy: God will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever (v.9). Martin Luther once commented, ‘Wrath is God’s strange work.’ Anger is alien to God: it is his response to our failure to honor him and give him the thanks that is his due. There was a time when there was no anger in God. Equally, there will again come a time when there will be nothing to rouse his anger.
For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him, David continues (verse 11). Children sometimes ask their parents, ‘How much do you love me?’ and they open their arms saying, ‘This much, or this much?’ When David said this to God, he realized that not even the expanse of the universe illustrates the vast dimensions of God’s love.
As far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us, we read in verse 12. We can’t watch the sun rise and set at the same time; we have to turn our back on one to see the other.
Through the lens of the New Testament we see that with the incarnation and the cross of the Word of God, God created a way of detaching our sin from us, so that he could condemn the one without condemning the other. The metaphor makes the point that when we ask God for mercy, it becomes possible for him to look at us, while at the same time turning his back on our sin. In Christ, the Son of God – and this is God’s greatest glory – he can put us and our sin on two different horizons.
God’s goodness and awesome power: We have even more reason than David to bless the name of God and have every confidence in him, for we live on the other side of the cross that once stood on Calvary’s hill. That cross is a far greater measure of God’s love than the unfathomable depths of the universe about which David spoke. The arms of the cross show us the grief that tore God’s heart because of our sin. In Christ, God not only lifts us out of the pit, but also lifts us from the depths of hell and raises us to the glory of new life forever.
How important it is that we ask ourselves what all this tells us about God’s opinion of us when we turn to the Lord Jesus Christ.
It challenges us to ask ourselves whether there is any real praise of God in our hearts. It’s easy to go to church, to sing songs, say Amen to the prayers, but to have no real personal connection with him. It’s easy to hear sermons that move us, but we’re not really listening to God because we’re more impressed with the preacher than we are with thinking about God’s opinion of us.
True blessing. Let me ask: do you ever consider what God’s opinion of you might be? Do you have a sense of connectedness with him that comes through knowing Jesus Christ?
Reflect: The steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep covenant and remember to do his commandments (Psalm 103:17-18).
With the massive hurricane that devastated the Caribbean and the Virgin Islands before sweeping through the State of Florida and into Georgia over the weekend, people are asking, ‘Why?’ While it is important to ask questions about climate change and human responsibility, we must not lose sight of Jesus’ words about things we should expect before his final return.
In Luke 21:25f we read: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken”.
Earlier Jesus had responded to questions about unexpected events with: “…Those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” (Luke 13:4f).
The Bible urges us to be alert to the realities of the world and our need to heed God’s wisdom found in his Word. CS Lewis once spoke of suffering as ‘God’s megaphone’ – awakening us to God and our need to turn to him.
It is not insignificant that Psalm 95, which begins with a call to worship with thanksgiving and joy, gives way to a warning. In verses 6 & 7 we read: O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
God wants us to enjoy a personal, intimate relationship with him. Yet how easy it is to forget this. When life is comfortable we can drift away from God – we put aside Bible reading; prayer is spasmodic; church attendance irregular and we lose the joy of a daily walk with the Lord. When life gets tough, how often we blame God.
No wonder Psalm 95 concludes with a postscript: Listen Up! In verses 7,8 & 11 we read: O that today you would listen to his voice! Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness…
At the very point when we might want to dance and shout, the psalm takes a solemn turn. Why?
The psalm-writer wants us to reflect on the nature of true worship. Outwardly we might seem worshipful, but our real self remains unchanged towards God and towards God’s people.
Massah and Meribah were places that marked the bookends of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness (Numbers 20:2-13; Exodus 17:1-7). Both at the beginning and the end of this time Israel forgot God’s astonishing goodness and mercy as he brought his people out of slavery in Egypt.
Tragically Israel doubted God’s promise and power. When the going got tough in the desert, they faltered and complained bitterly: ‘We were better off as slaves in Egypt’.
In the New Testament, the writer of Hebrews quotes Psalm 95. Hebrews reveals that God through a master-stroke has opened up a new and perfect way for forgiveness and eternal life through the once-and-for-all perfect sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ. Yet even we forget, who have been bought and bound to God by the perfect Savior, Jesus Christ.
It is in this context that Hebrews quotes Psalm 95. At the time of Moses, God’s people hardened their hearts. Even though they tasted the blessing of release from captivity in Egypt, they turned away from him. But, the writer of Hebrews urges, don’t give up. Don’t have a hard heart.
Yet how often we let other things become more important to us than Christ: family, work, possessions; the enjoyments of life. We need to urge one another on to keep following him.
It’s one of the reasons we need church. We need to remind one another of God’s promises. We need to stir one another up to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. We need to pray for one another, support one another, encourage one another.
Sometimes we don’t feel the need for church. Church may be disappointing at times. Still, go! If God’s rest is so important, then go, even for the sake of your neighbor. The Psalmist understood how important it is. The writer of Hebrews understood it even more.
How much more should we, who now have God’s promises more fully developed, heed the warnings of the storms of life and stop to refresh our relationship with God.
‘Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart, lest you, your son or daughter, or your neighbors, miss out’. To know God through a true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is to have life.