To be seen

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” – 1 Cor 13:12

nighthawks

“The brief, laughing look that she had given me made me feel extraordinarily seen, as if after that I might be visible in the dark” – Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry.

Corinthians tells us that there will come a day when we stand before the face of Jesus, when we shall see him as he is, when our faith shall become sight. And there is much joy to be had in this truth. But something that we think of less is the fact that on that day we will not only know what it is to see fully, but experience what it is to be fully ‘seen’. But what does it mean to be ‘seen’?

To be ‘seen’ is not merely to be looked at or observed, but to be known and yet loved. To be ‘seen’ is to be exposed and vulnerable and yet received with joy. To be fully ‘seen’ is to be fully known and yet truly loved. Tim Keller describes it as ‘what we need more than anything’. When Jayber Crow feels seen, he can’t help but describe himself in the language of luminosity, of transfiguration. And there is a longing within each of us to feel ‘extraordinarily seen’. But as Christians, are we not already ‘extraordinarily seen’ by God?

In an incredibly importance sense, we are. We are known entirely by God, and yet loved by him. I cannot put it better than Tozer, in his book The Knowledge of the Holy:

And to us who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope that is set before us in the gospel, how unutterably sweet is the knowledge that our Heavenly Father knows us completely. No talebearer can inform on us, no enemy can make an accusation stick; no forgotten skeleton can come tumbling out of some hidden closet to abash us and expose our past; no unsuspected weakness in our characters can come to light to turn God away from us, since He knew us utterly before we knew Him and called us to Himself in the full knowledge of everything that was against us. “For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee.”

The Father knows us in our entirety, but has given us the sure promise that his love will not depart from us. We are truly ‘seen’. But often we do not feel ‘seen’, and certainly not enough to be visible in the dark. We do not experience fully the reality of being ‘seen’.

This is because although we are ‘seen’, we cannot yet see that we are ‘seen’. We cannot yet look into the eyes of our Saviour and see that we are fully known and completely loved. We are not yet at the point where we fully know that we are fully known. We await a future consummation, and we wait with longing. But we are not left blind. God has graciously granted us glimpses of this future experience now in the faces of friends.

In friendship, we are, in significant ways, known and yet loved. And the embodied nature of friendship allows us to feel ‘seen’ in these friendships. The hug from a friend whom we have shared our troubles with, the smile of someone who is pleased to see us, or the silent sitting of a friend who cares, all help us to feel ‘seen’, all serve to remind us that we are fully ‘seen’, and will one day feel this in full.

Here is a poem about what it is to feel ‘seen’, in the laughter of a friend.

‘When you turn and laugh
With knowledge in your laughter
Of past conversations,
And of details shared
Which are yours alone,
I sense the surplus
Of meaning, and smile,
And bask in what it is
To be seen for a while.’

So for now, we have only brief and shadowy glimpses, reflected on the faces of friends, of what it means to be truly known, and seen, and perfectly loved. For now we hope in things glorious but largely unseen. But the day is coming when we feel ‘seen’ forever; ‘For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.’

 

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Bodies and Brains: Embodiment and Flourishing

melancholy

What does it mean for humans to be embodied, to exist not as a ‘brains on a stick’, but as persons with bodies who think, eat, laugh and breathe? How can we flourish as embodied people? Is embodiment a hindrance or a gift?

These are questions that we cannot ignore. We cannot escape the fact that we exist as embodied creatures. The question of what it means to be embodied, therefore, is the question of what it means to be us; it is the question of how we live in the world.

So what is embodiment?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives a good working definition I think when he says “A human being is a human body. A human being does not ‘have’ a body – or ‘have’ a soul; instead a human being ‘is’ body and soul.” Embodiment is the idea that we are not just a body, which happens to have a mind/soul, or a mind/soul which happens to have a body, but that these things are inseparably what a person is.

Within our culture are a wide variety of reactions and responses to the fact that we are embodied.

One prominent idea is that our ‘internal self’ is what we truly are, and that our bodies are merely the shell for our consciousness; therefore the body can be, or in the view of some, must be shaped and changed to reflect this inner reality. In this view our bodies are like putty, which can be moulded to reflect what we discover within us. Our bodies are a means to self-expression, not an essential part of who we are.

Another view, is that the purpose of our bodies is as a ‘pleasure factory’. In this view our bodies are seen as a means to pleasurable experience, and our purpose is seen as extracting every ounce of sensory delight out of them before they fail us finally, at our death. The body is to be expended for the sake of pleasure.

My suspicion, however, is that most people in our culture, including many Christians,  have simply never considered what it means to embodied, or what it’s purpose (if there is one) might be. They live somewhere in the foggy waters of uncertainty, simply trying to get through or make the best of what we call existence. This was the category I was in for a long time (and still fall into at times).

Then I got IBS, a chronic illness, which placed directly in front of me the idea that I am a person who has a body, a body that is unequivocally part of ‘me’. I discovered that as my physical health ebbed and flowed, my mental health would do similarly. I felt pain that made me think hard about things, and pain that meant I couldn’t think about anything else. Effectively, embodiment became inescapably something I had to consider, and as a Christian, something I had to wrestle with the Lord about.

And so it is here that I want to offer up some preliminary thoughts on what it means to be embodied, and to flourish as someone who is embodied, from the perspective of a Christian, who has just begun to think these things through. It is my hope that it might help more of us to think through what it means to be embodied, and therefore flourish as God’s creatures in his world.

Firstly, embodiment is deliberate. This perhaps seems too obvious to be worth mentioning, but it is something we can easily forget. In the opening book of the Bible, Genesis, the creation of man is described in this way- ‘then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.’ (Genesis 2:7). God deliberately creates man with a body. He takes dust from the earth and forms him. There is a fleshly, earthy physicality about this that we cannot ignore. As Kelly Kapic writes, “Our existence occurs not as beings who drop out of the sky but rise from the dust”. In Psalm 139, the Psalmist writes ‘For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.’ God purposed that humans should be embodied, and so we are.

Secondly, embodiment is good. God sees Adam and Eve and declares them, and the rest of his creation, ‘very good’. God has made us to be embodied creatures out of his goodness, kindness and perfect wisdom. The givenness of our bodies is a good gift to be received with thanksgiving.

Thirdly, embodiment is relational. We exist as bodies which can relate to others. In their finitude and limitedness, our bodies direct us outwards towards ‘the other’, into relationship with other humans. Bonhoeffer says “In their bodily nature human beings are related to the earth and to other bodies, they are there for others and are dependent upon others.” Embodiment directs us into relationship with others.

Fourthly, embodiment is for eternity. While the scriptures do suggest that when Christians die their spirit goes to be with the Lord, this is the not the final destination of the Christian: it is a temporary state. The final goal is the return of Jesus, who will bring about the resurrection of the dead, to an eternal embodied existence, of which our current bodies are a shell. Paul’s letter to the Philippians describes the hope of the Christian in this way – ‘we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.’ The book of 1 Corinthians puts it like this – ‘For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.’ Our souls will not be whisked off to an ethereal eternity. We will be embodied forever. 

Therefore, embodiment is a good gift of God, one which we will share in for all eternity.

But this is not how we often seem to experience embodiment.

We know that in our bodies we feel pain, in our bodies we sense the space where the person we loved used to sit, in our bodies we cry and groan. We often blame these things on the fact that we are embodied. However, the problem isn’t that we are embodied. The problem is that the presence of sin in the world causes the good gift of embodiment to be at times painful and difficult for us.

As a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience God does two things which affect our embodiment.

He pronounces curses upon creation and humanity, meaning that work feels like toil, that pain and death enter into the lives of humanity, and that even childbearing shall prove difficult. This doesn’t negate the goodness of embodiment, but it does mean that our experience of embodiment in this life will be marked with sadness alongside joy and pain in the midst of pleasure.

The other thing which God does is to clothe Adam and Eve in the skins of animals, to hide their nakedness. Genesis 3:21 puts it like this- ‘And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.’ When Adam and Eve rebel, they begin to feel the nakedness of their embodiment. They feel shame for their body. And so the Lord in his kindness clothes them with the bloody skins of animals, that their shame might be covered, and so that they would be able to live with an embodiment tainted by sin.

And so for us, we remain those whose embodiment is tainted with the curses of sin, but also those whom the Lord has graciously clothed. We are not clothed with the skins of animals, however, but with the blood of Christ, in order that we would not be ashamed by our embodiment, but instead use it in service of the one who has clothed us, as we await the day when all things are made new.

But this is hard.

I often feel as if I would do much better without this body which fails me. In an article about illness and the body, Derek Rishmawy says ‘I tend to sympathise with the gnostics most in the morning’. The gnostics were an early group heretics who despised physicality and rejected the goodness of creation. Like Derek, I tend to sympathise most with the gnostics in the morning too. Without going into unnecessary detail, the first few hours when I wake up in the morning are almost always unpleasant; I need the loo often, feel unwell, shake and often feel faint or dizzy. My body feels like a burden rather than a gift.

So what do I do with my embodiment when I feel like that? How can I let my embodiment teach me and remind me even in pain?

Here are a few things that I try to think and do, and allow others to do, with the fact of my embodiment, even in the midst of pain. I often do these thing weakly, and always imperfectly, but have found in them comfort and even joy.

One thing which I try to do when I am pain, is to let myself feel the curse in my bones, and long for the day when things are made right. When I feel pain, I am reminded inescapably of the fact that the world is broken, in bondage to decay, marred by sin and death. This is not to say that my own illness is a result of personal sin, but that the presence of pain is a reminder of the destructive nature of sin in the world. And if I allow it to, this reminds me of several things.

Firstly it reminds me of my helplessness without the creator. I am broken beyond the current boundaries of medicine. But more than this, and in more ways than just my illness, I am broken beyond the point of my fixing. I can no more cure the problems of sin in the world, and my own sin than I can raise myself from the dead. And so I am brought before the creator God – the one who has power over all that he is made, and taught to depend on him more fully.

It also reminds of the cross. Here I see the one who died in order to bear the sins of the world, the one whose death brings life. Here I see the one whose wounds guarantee my healing on that final day. And in my own experience of pain I gain some small insight into the sufferings of Jesus on my behalf.

And it reminds me that there is a day coming with no more pain or sorrow or death. The very presence of pain can remind me that things will not always be so – there will be a time when I will only know pain by its absence, and the joy that fills my body.

Another thing which I try to do is to allow myself to be touched, engaged with and cared for. My natural reaction to being ill is to pull away from people, and sometimes this is helpful and necessary. But a hug from a friend, or laughter shared when I am not well are wonderful reminders of the goodness of my embodiment, of the joy that can come from it, at a time when I am tempted to doubt it. The caring glance, the kind word, the friend who does my washing when I am tired, are all beautiful reminders of the goodness of Jesus’ body, the church, the embodied community that God creates on the earth.

A final thing that I do is to try and take joy in little aspects of my embodiment, even while others seem hard to endure. I listen to a favourite piece of music, and thank the Lord that there exists a world in which I can hear such beauty. I watch the world from the living room window, and thank the Lord that even a normal street in London is so full of wonder and life. I draw a picture or write a poem, and thank the Lord that I exist with hands that can draw and write and with a mind that can think and create. I do these things badly, sometimes through tears, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes I don’t do them at all. But when I do, I am reminded that there is joy in embodiment, even in the midst of pain.

I will finish by offering some suggestions for how all of us might flourish as those who are embodied.

We must let our embodiment remind us of the truth that we are creatures and that God is creator – when you breathe in and out, remember you are created, that he sustains you, and that even the air in your lungs is a gift from his hand.

We must attempt to let the pain that we experience as embodied creatures take us to the God who has made us – when we feel pain, instead of trying to ignore it, we should allow it to magnify our view of Christ’s sufferings (Jesus’ death upon the cross for the sins of the world), allow it to grow in us a desperate longing for the deliverance of God, allow it to help us cling to the hope that we have of a body free from death and pain. (this certainly isn’t easy)

Psalm 95:6 says ‘Come let us bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker’ – when we pray to God, at least sometimes, lets kneel before him. Let’s acknowledge with our bodies that he is our maker, and we are his creatures.

When we next drink from the cup and eat the bread in remembrance of Jesus’ death, let us savour the taste of the bread and wine, and remember that our eternity with Christ will be no less physical.

Physical contact with one another – Lets show one another love in the form of a hug, a hand on the shoulder, or even just a smile. Lets speak to one another more face to face than we do via social media. These small gestures are so meaningful because they are embodied. They recognise the other person for the embodied creature that they are, rather than simply a brain with which we interact.

Pour out your time, your energy in service of the Lord – We are given bodies to use for God’s glory. We are given energy to serve others, and the kingdom of God. We exist in time, which we do not own and cannot keep, so lets spend it wisely.

Thank God for embodiment – Thank him the feel of the bark of the tree, the smell of roses, the taste of the berry, the beauty of a sunset. Thank God that we exist in such a way that means we can enjoy these things.

****

And so we must acknowledge our embodiment, not living as minds on sticks, but giving ourselves, and our very bodies in service of the world and the wonderful creator God.

‘Heavenly Father, whose ways are good and kind, we thank you that we exist as embodied creatures. We thank you for the many wonders and joy that this brings. Help us to learn from our embodiment, and would it help us to look forward to the day when we are fully clothed, in New Creation bodies in which we shall praise you forever. Amen’

Rebellion will crumble and the King shall have his bride

‘Why do the nations rage,
and the peoples plot in vain? 
……
He who sits in the heavens laughs’
Psalm 2:1+4a

second-coming-final-judgment
The book of Psalms opens with two pictures – the man who listens to God, and the one who does not. The one who listens is like a well planted, fruit giving tree. The one who doesn’t is like the chaff that the wind drives away. It leaves what seems like an obvious choice.

And yet Psalm 2 gives us a picture of what the world’s response is to this choice. We see Kings united in hatred of God, nations raging against God, and people plotting against him. The world rejects God’s good words in favour of its own, it rebels and rejoices in its rebellion. And even if we can’t think of a time we have plotted against God, we can all picture times when we have not listened to him, when we have obeyed the desires of our hearts above the commands of our creator.

So how does God respond to the world’s rebellion?

He laughs, and says ‘As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.’ (vs4-5)

This might seem like a strange response to us. It might seem as if God is making light of sin. Or it could seem like God doesn’t really care for those he has created. But no, God cares about sin very deeply, and loves those he has created despite their rebellion, and so this is a warning to the rebels.

God has set his King in his Kingdom, and when he comes to reign forever no rebellion will stand.  When this King reigns the greatest of all rebellions will look laughable. Vs9 says that this King will ‘break them with a rod of iron, and dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel’. There will be no terms of surrender when the King returns. So Vs10, 11 and 12 says:

‘Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way.’

These verses give us the identity of the true King, and the appropriate response of rebels like us.

The King is ‘the Son’, but is also identified with ‘the Lord’. Therefore he must be the son of the ‘the Lord’, Jesus. The Father has set Jesus up as King over all by his resurrection from the dead, and the bible tells us that he will return in glorious majesty to judge the world in righteousness, to defeat rebellion and establish God’s kingdom forever (Rev 19:11-15).

And so we are called to respond, to ‘Kiss the Son’ as Psalm 2 says. But what does it mean?

It means to honour the Son, to accept him as the true King and to renounce your own claims to kingship. It is an acknowledgement of rebellion, and a kneeling before the true king.

The  wonderful thing about this is that this King accepts us despite our rebellion. This King came to earth from Zion, God’s holy hill, and ended his life on another hill, called Calvary. Here he died like a rebel, for all the rebels, so that they would be forgiven for their rebellion and allowed to live in his Kingdom forever. However, not only that, he also died for them in order that they would be his bride.

Psalm 45 describes the wedding of a King and his bride, and gloriously the groom is King Jesus and his bride is the Church, all the rebels who turn in trust.
This King who is God’s Son (vs6-8) is wonderfully good. He is majestic and strong.
And this King has made his bride beautiful – ‘All glorious is the princess in her chamber, with robes interwoven with gold. In many-coloured robes she is led to the king, with her virgin companions following behind her. With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king.’ (vs13-15). The rebels are robed, in the gold of a princess instead of the rags of a prisoner. This bride is desired by this perfect King, loved by this perfect King.

And so the rebel who kisses the Son finds that they have become part of the Bride of Christ, the beloved of God. In Revelation 19, the same chapter in which Jesus returns in glory and crushes rebellion, there are also written these words – ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ Psalm 2 finishes by saying ‘Blessed are all who take refuge in him.’

May we take refuge in this King, who saves us from perishing, makes us his bride, and loves us forever.

Prayer:

Heavenly Father, thank you that in your King you have provided refuge for rebels. And Father we thank you that Jesus not only forgives our rebellion, but makes us his bride, his treasured possession forever. Please would we surrender our lives to this glorious King before he comes to destroy all rebellion forever. Amen.

 

 

When God’s love hurts

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 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.

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
    nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
    and chastises every son whom he receives.”

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
– Hebrews 12:1-11

black and white
Does God really act in love toward Christians all the time? Does he always treat us as his precious children? We know the answer we should give to these questions, but sometimes we don’t feel it. Sometimes we feel far from him, or go through pain, suffering or opposition that makes us question if what we are experiencing is mercy or judgement. Why then do we face pain and suffering if God really loves us?

Hebrews 12 helps us begin to answer this question. It says (quoting proverbs 3) that “the Lord disciplines the one he loves.”

This is jarring to modern ears. We resent the idea that the Father would discipline us.

This may stem in part from our view of our Heavenly Father as more grandfatherly than fatherly. We hear that he loves us and think he must always want us to be happy- a nodding dog rather than a holy God. This dislike of God’s discipline may also stem from a forgetfulness of Grace. We can easily begin to feel that we deserve a certain quality of life, a certain level of happiness, and become outraged when our experience doesn’t match up. We forget that ‘life itself is grace’, as Frederick Buechner once said, and that we are owed nothing from the one whose glory we have fallen miserably short of.

In Hebrews 12 we see both the motive of the Lord’s discipline and its result.

In verse 6 it says that “The Lord disciplines the one he loves“. The motive for the discipline of God is love. It is because he cares for us so deeply that he disciplines us. Verse 7 adds “God is treating you as sons“.  It is because God loves us as his dear children that he disciplines us. In verse 10 it says “he disciplines us for our good”. It is because the God wants what is good for us that he disciplines us, but what is the good that God wants for us, what is the result of his discipline?

Verse 10 helps us again; “he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness“. God disciplines us that we may be holy. Romans 8:28-29 says “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” We see again here that all things (including Gods discipline) are for our good, but we also get to what that good is- “to be conformed the image of his Son”. God disciplines us so that we would be like Jesus. 

Hebrew 12 shows us that we have a Heavenly Father who truly loves us, who cares for our holiness above our personal happiness, and therefore disciplines us. Does this then mean we will enjoy his discipline?

The bible’s honesty here is refreshing. Verse 11 says “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant”. Gods discipline will hurt, but it is pain which leads to life. Verse 9 says “Shall we not…be subject to the Father of spirits and live”. What is the alternative? The alternative is to reject the discipline of the Lord and to move towards death. Ann Voskamp puts it starkly when she says “There is either the pain of self denial – or the pain of self-destruction”. We can accept the discipline of the Lord and live, or reject it and destroy ourselves.

There have been many believers who have grasped, wrestled with, and ultimately rejoiced in these truths, but here are just three who have expressed these realities in particularly beautiful words.

John Newton, the wretched sinner saved by amazing grace wrote many hymns, but one in particular shows the Lord disciplining us that he might make us holy- ‘Prayers Answered by Crosses’. In the opening verse he asks to grow in holiness and love for God:

“I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.”

He hoped that the Lord would answer his prayer quickly, simply by Gods power making him so, but:

“Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.”

And so he cries out, asking the Lord why he has done these things. The answer reveals the loving discipline of God, which makes us holy.

“‘Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”

Our trials are therefore not purposeless suffering, but have our ultimate joy and Christ-likeness as their goal.

Another who understood these truths was the great poet T.S. Eliot. In ‘Little Gidding’, part of his famous ‘Four Quartets’ we find this passage:

“The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.”

Both stanzas present the stark choice each person faces – Pyre or pyre; fire or fire. We die to ourselves or we die in our sins; we face the fire of God’s refining love, or the fire of his judgement. The pyre of death to self and exposure to the refining fires of God’s holy love is shown as “The only hope, or else despair”. It is the way to life.

However, it is painful. Eliot describes it as an “The intolerable shirt of flame”, and something that we can do nothing to remove. Should this make us terrified of it?

According to Eliot we shouldn’t feel we are without hope, because it is torment devised by love. Though it seems merely painful to us, we face trials that we might live, we face trials because the Lord truly loves us, and his love is great enough to use our pain for our good.

Another poet who wrestled with the difficult love of God is Gerard Manley Hopkins. Here is Stanza 9 from his poem ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’

“Be adored among men,
God, three-numbered form;
Wring thy rebel, dogged in den,
Man’s malice, with wrecking and storm.
Beyond saying sweet, past telling of tongue,
Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;
Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung;
Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then.”

Hopkins describes God as both like ‘a bolt of lightning in a stormy sky’ and ‘tender and nurturing like an infatuated lover’ (from Wesley Hill’s description of the poem in his book ‘Washed and Waiting’). But Hopkins doesn’t think God has mood-swings, he think that God is both of these things at once. In fact, it is in his “dark descending” that he is most merciful.

Why did Hopkins think that God was merciful even when it hurt him? He knew that God’s discipline was designed that ‘my chaff might fly’- that we would become more like Christ.

Wesley Hill sums up Hopkins understanding of God in a moving paragraph in his book ‘Washed and Waiting’. He says “Hopkins knew better than many that God isn’t tame or safe. True, he is merciful, but his mercy has sharp edges. God judges sin and transforms sinners in a way that often feels as if it is ripping apart our deepest selves. Hopkins also knew that even on our loneliest roads, when the valleys are so shadowed that day feels like night, God is watching, rejoicing over ever inch gained, gazing down as the Author who cares about every twist in his story.”

So what are we to do so that we may keep walking this path of pain, even when obedience seems hopeless.

Hebrews 12 gives us at least three things.

We should consider the “great cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 11, wonderful examples of those who trusted the Lord through difficult circumstances, who remained faithful when it cost them. By extension we might also consider those around us who also follow this pattern, learning from them and being encouraged by their faith.

We should also consider Jesus, and the pattern his life gives us to follow. Verse 3 says “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” Jesus endured suffering for us and therefore he understands its difficultly, and leads us through it to be with him where he is- at the right hand of God.

This leads us to the final thing we are called to consider – the reward of our endurance.
Our reward for enduring God’s discipline is sharing his holiness, being filled with the fruit of righteousness. And not only that, but we have joy waiting for us, that is beyond anything this world offers us, when Jesus returns to establish a New Creation with no pain any longer.

And in the context of the book of Hebrews these are things that we cannot do alone. We must encourage one another to endure, reminding each other of the example and love of Jesus, and of the wonderful hope we have.

***

Therefore, when God’s love hurts, we endure, knowing that even the pain is mercy.

 

Prayer:
Lord of lightning and love, help us to be those who endure when your discipline is painful, remembering that you care for us, Jesus’ example and the hope of joy everlasting. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

A beautiful song called ‘In the valley’ based on a puritan prayer about trusting God during trials

“Come and die”

‘The Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” – Matthew 16:24-25

‘And he said to all “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” – Luke 9:23-24  

“Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” – Matthew 10:38-39

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“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” – The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Jesus calls everyone who would trust in him to take up their cross and follow him. But what does it mean for someone to take up their cross? Why should we take up our cross? And why would a God who is good call people to do something which sounds so difficult and painful? In attempting to answer these questions I hope that we will finish a little more convinced both that “salvation is free, but discipleship will cost you your life” (Bonhoeffer) and that the way of the cross is where true life is found.

Firstly then, what does it mean for a person to take up their cross?

The two parallel passages in Matthew and Luke are both preceded by Jesus foretelling his own death and sufferings. Jesus’ own death is the picture that is meant to be in our minds as we think upon these verses about discipleship. This means, as H.B Swete says, that “to take up the cross is to put oneself into the position of a condemned man on his way to execution”. If we claim to follow Jesus we should be willing to suffer, up to and including death for him. To take up our cross is to be willing to endure suffering and persecution for following Jesus.

But, as we see in the passage from Luke, it also means to deny ourselves. This isn’t a call to deny our distinct identity and become one with everyone else. Instead, it is a call to deny the ‘old man’, our natural sinful selves, and instead to serve God and others. The New Testament is full of phrases describing or calling for this kind of self denial:

– “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” Galatians 5:24
– “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” – 1 Peter 2:24a
– “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” Colossians 3:5
– “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to   gratify its desires.” Romans 13:14

Luke account also includes the word “daily”, showing the necessary continual nature of this cross bearing and self denial.

Another aspect of taking up our Cross then, is to die to sin, to our old selves, and to put on the Lord Jesus Christ daily, allowing us to say with Paul “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

This recognition of the cost of following Jesus is captured beautifully in T.S Eliot’s poem ‘Journey of the Magi’. The Magi travel to see Jesus’ birth, but soon realise that his birth must mean death to their old ways, to their old selves;

“were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.”

Taking up our cross, therefore, is a painful renunciation of the old self, a crucifixion of our sin, and a willingness to suffer to the point of death for following Jesus. It is to say to God, as Jesus did in the garden, “Nevertheless (regardless of cost), not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42b).

If this is the cost of following Jesus, then what is the incentive?

This first incentive is stated almost identically in all three passages- “For whoever would save his life will lose it but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Negatively, this means that those who in this life refuse to take up their cross will face eternal spiritual death. Positively, it means that the one who takes up their cross will enjoy eternal life when Jesus returns.

However, the advantage isn’t simply in eternity. Following Jesus by taking up our cross is actually the best option even now. Jesus is honest about the cost of following him, whereas sin always promises more than it can deliver. Jesus gives us freedom to live for him, whereas sin only ever enslaves us. As Derek Rishmawy says “Jesus tells us to pick up our cross & follow him yet calls his yoke is easy and his burden light. What does that say about the alternatives?” Therefore, even when life is difficult living for Jesus, knowing him as our saviour and friend is the sweetest comfort, greater even than the heights of what sin can offer us.

Another reason why we are called to take up our cross is that by taking up our cross, and by dying to ourselves we actually find ourselves. The amazing paradox is that the more we become like Jesus, the more we become ourselves. The more we follow Jesus in his sufferings the more our character is moulded into the people God would have us be, which leads to our flourishing and joy.

So taking up our cross leads to life, both now and evermore.

However, the most compelling reason to take up our cross is that Jesus, God Incarnate was willing to take up his, and suffer for arrogant rebellious sinners like us. We owe all to him, and so we give all to follow him. There is no cost too great to follow the one who died for us, who “hath given us rest by his sorrow, and life by his death” (John Bunyan).

A song that captures many of these truths wonderfully is ‘When I survey’ by Isaac Watts, and I shall finish by simply reprinting the lyrics here. I hope that with me, you will ponder them in your heart, take up your cross, and live.

“When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

Prayer:

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen – Collect for the third week of Lent

RG

A beautiful version of ‘When I Survey’ by Chelsea Moon

A website offering information on persecuted Christians throughout the world

Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die?

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Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die

This phrase originally found in Isaiah, and also used by Paul in the book of 1 Corinthians sounds, in some ways, remarkably similar to the hedonistic lifestyle lived in our culture under the banner of ‘YOLO’, or stated more historically as ‘Carpe Diem’. It is the elevation of personal desire, the pursuit of instant gratification. It is the quest for illusive concepts like freedom, ‘being true to yourself’, ‘fulfilment’. It is radically individualistic , inherently self-centred and deeply exhausting. And at its heart is the denial of the eternal nature of human beings, of divine accountability and judgement, and the denial that we owe all to God, by whom we possess all that we have.

And yet, whilst I instantly recoil from those denials, if I am honest with myself, I still live much of my daily life either explicitly or implicitly playing along with this lifestyle, tapping my foot to the chorus of ‘Let us eat…’.

I crave comfort, I am impatient, I feel that I deserve happiness, I indulge in sinful passions, I pretend that I don’t need God, and often privilege my own perceived needs over the genuine needs of others.

My actions often deny my claim to believe in the life everlasting.

Therefore, I need to constantly come back to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 – ‘Now I would remind you brothers, of the gospel’.

Verses 3-8 say ‘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 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. The he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.’ 

There are two crucial, earth-shattering events which this passage draws me towards- The cross of Christ and the resurrection of Christ.

The cross

The cross of Christ is the very demonstration of divine accountability, in which God in Christ takes upon himself the judgement, the condemnation and death that my sin deserves. It is the judgement of God brought forward. This demonstration of Gods justice upon the cross is the guarantee of a future day of judgement, ‘where we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ’ (2 Cor 5:10), and also the guarantee that those who have trusted in Jesus will stand forgiven, as the judge is the one who was judged in our place, the one who died for us.

You may read the previous paragraph and wonder where the practical advice is for avoiding the ‘YOLO’ lifestyle. However, often the bible wants to change our thinking before it changes specific behaviour.

And so here is some ways in which these realities might cause us to think differently, which, if we let this thinking into our hearts, will lead to radically changed lives.

There is a future day when I will stand before the one who died for me and give an account of how I have lived in light of his forgiveness. This is the most sobering of thoughts. And if I can bear to let in linger in my mind long enough, it starts to change my priorities. Knowing that I will stand before the one to whom nothing is hidden shatters my pretence of Godliness, forces me to admit my faults, to ask for forgiveness. But I don’t obey out of fear that Jesus might reject me- rather I obey because I love the one to whom I will give an account, because he first loved me, because he has already secured my salvation by his death. I long to please him because he was willing to endure death on the cross for me. So the cross reminds me of both Divine accountability and Divine love.

But it also reminds me of Divine belonging. I am not my own. I have been bought with the precious blood of Christ. I am not just saved from something, but for something- a life lived in the service of the one who died for me, to whom I owe all, and to whom I belong.
This turns upside down my view of myself and my life. The first question I should ask myself when I get out of bed is not ‘what do I want/need to do today?’ but ‘How can I live for Jesus today?’ I should strive not for my personal happiness, but to please Jesus (which wonderfully does lead to great joy). I should not look for freedom to live as I like, but freedom from that which inhibits my relationship with Jesus. I don’t have to desperately try to be ‘true to myself’, but rather to be like Jesus. And the great thing is that when I am living to become like Jesus I actually become more and more that which I am intended to be, I become more and more myself. These thoughts are only the beginnings of how this reality should change my life.

Having seen how the cross challenges the ‘Let us eat’ mentality, lets move to the resurrection.

The resurrection

The physical, historical resurrection of Jesus from the dead shows us Gods vindication of Jesus and his work. We can be confident of our own vindication, because we are ‘in Christ’, and so will share in his resurrection. Jesus is described in this chapter as the ‘firstfruits’- the guarantee of the rest of the harvest. The resurrection is a demonstration of Gods awesome power. It shows that death has been defeated, and that those who trust in Jesus will live forever in resurrected and redeemed bodies. Jesus has not simply been raised from the dead, but also above all things as ruler and king.

And again, dwelling on these realities challenges the tempting ‘Let us eat’ mentality.

I will one day be raised to live eternally in a redeemed body in a redeemed creation. This means that I don’t need to try and live my ‘best life now’. I don’t need to desperately try to rack up as many experiences as possible. I don’t have to incessantly worry if I am really ‘doing life’ or not. And even more than this, it means that I can (as Paul says later in the chapter) “die every day” – I can die to myself, to my sinful desires, knowing that I will experience abundant life eternally. Therefore knowing that I have eternal life means I can die now.

The resurrection also means that what I do with my body matters. My body is not simply a shell for my spirit, but rather an eternal part of who I am. Our current bodies are indeed compared to a seed of what they shall be when they are redeemed, but we will live for eternity in a redeemed version of our current bodies. Therefore, while acknowledging that in many ways it is still broken, I should be seeking to care for my body, to look after it, and most importantly to live in holiness in it.

The resurrection, then, further challenges the ‘Let us eat’ mentality.

***

So what do we need in a world that cries ‘Let us eat’?

We need to be reminded of the gospel.

 

RG

 

Waiting

“Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord…..you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” – James 5:7

“We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” – Romans 8:23-25

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“I hated waiting. If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation” – Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson

The Christian is one who is incessantly waiting. This means that the question of how we wait is the question of how we live, and that learning to wait well is learning to live well. While the way in which we wait is the focus of this post, we must first ask another question- what are we waiting for?

We are waiting for “the coming of the Lord”, as James puts it, which Paul says will mean our “adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies”. We wait for the Lord Jesus to return in order to transform us to be like him, that we may live with him in the New Creation, finally receiving in full all the blessings of being the adopted sons of God. Gerard Manley Hopkins describes the redemption of our bodies wonderfully;

“In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.”

Paul, in his 1st letter to the Corinthians compares what our bodies are like now with what they will be like then, saying “What is sown in perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.” (1 Cor 15:42-43) and goes on to conclude “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust (Adam), we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven (Jesus).” We shall be like Jesus.

We wont just be like him, however, but will also see him. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” (1 Cor 13:12) The Godhead, three in one, will dwell forever in perfect love and intimacy with his redeemed people in their redeemed bodies in a redeemed world. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man, He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:3-4) C.S Lewis, in his sermon ‘The weight of glory’ describes this moment in a way which captures well the end of our waiting- “The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.”

This then, is what we wait for- The glorious return of Jesus to consummate all of Gods promises.

But how are we to wait?

The first way that scripture calls us to wait is patiently. “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord” commands James. Paul says similarly ,”But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

The late theologian John Webster said that “Patience is the virtue of waiting. It involves waiting for all things to reach their end-waiting for others, as well as for ourselves, to take the time they need, and above all waiting for God to fulfill his purposes in his own good time.”

From Webster’s words we see that there are certain things we must know and acknowledge if we are to wait patiently. The first is realising what some theologians have called the ‘Creator-Creature distinction’; the fact that God is God and we are his creatures. Accepting that we aren’t in final control of our lives, and that God is, releases us from the burden of battling against the limitations of time, ability and situation that we face, of craving comfort and control. Instead, we begin to see our limitations as the shape of the life that God has given us, and we are even able to rejoice in our finitude, because we know the one who is infinite.

The second thing which will help us to wait patiently is knowing the purpose of the Lord; that he is directing our lives towards our ultimate redemption. In James, it says “you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful”. Knowing that the God in control of our lives is not a despot, but a loving heavenly father, compassionate and merciful, who is making us increasingly like his Son until the day we see him face to face means we can trust him when our experience screams that pain is purposeless, and when we feel that he has forgotten us.

The third thing we must realise in order to wait patiently is the goodness of the patience of God. In 2 Peter, in a chapter on the return of Jesus, he says “The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) Jesus has not returned yet because in his mercy God wishes to bring more people to repent and believe. It is not through lack of care that the Lord has not returned, but because of his deep care for the world.

To be one who waits patiently, therefore, is to know God – his otherness, his purpose, his goodness, and to rest in it. To wait patiently is to abide in God. To do this we must ponder these truths regularly ourselves, speak the word of the gospel to one another, and form patterns of living that reflect who this God is.

However, we are also called to wait eagerly. The passage from Romans says that “we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies”. Hebrews 9 says that Jesus will come again to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

To wait eagerly is to wait expectantly, confidently, assured that God will do as he has said. In his grace he has been kind enough to show us throughout scripture that he is a God who keeps his promises. We are not like poor Estragon and Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s famous play, who are waiting for Godot, but wait in vain for one who does not (and seemingly will not) arrive, one who promises but disappoints. We are waiting for the God who promised to rescue Israel from Egypt, and did; who promised them a land, and delivered it into their hands; who promised a Messiah, a Saviour, and gave his Son.

We wait for the promise keeping God, so we wait eagerly.

Scripture further calls us to live holy lives while we wait. In the first letter of Peter, after calling people to place their hope fully on Jesus’ return, he then says “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written “You shall be holy, for I am holy”. In other words we are called to wait looking forward (to the last day), rather than behind (to our past sins), and to wait looking to God rather than at those around us.

As we focus on our future hope, and the God who is at the centre of it, we will increasingly be shaped and transformed into a holy waiting people.

We are warned, however, that waiting will be painful. We are told in Romans 8 that we will groan inwardly as we await our final salvation. 2 Corinthians 5:4-5 says “For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.” 

The tension of having the Holy Spirit within us, the guarantee of our future, but of not fully experiencing it yet causes us to groan – to long for the day when the redemption of our bodies, and of our world, becomes reality.  There are echos of the experience of Mrs Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s novel ‘To the Lighthouse’ in the lives of all Christians who know what they hope for;

“To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have- to want and want- how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again!”

Each of us will know this groaning in our lives in different ways. Suffering with a long term illness, I long for the day when pain shall cease, when my body wont fight against me, when I wont just feel fine some of the time but good all of the time. Struggling with sexual sin I long for the day when I wont even be tempted, the day when my desires will be honourable at all times, my thoughts always pure. And most of all, living in a world where Jesus is mocked instead of glorified, I long for the day when every knee shall bow, when we shall see him as he is and praise him forever.

But is there not a clash here, a contradiction between groaning and patience?

I think that while there is a kind of groaning which is forgetful of God, there is also a groaning that is deeply mindful of him and his character. We often groan not through impatience, but through pain- the pain that is the reality for those who know the Lord, and also know how sinful we still are, how broken our bodies still are. We groan because, although we trust that God will deliver us, and do so according to his perfect timing, we still rightly long for what we do not yet have. It seems, therefore, that groaning and patience can and do co-exist in the life of those who wait.

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And so we wait, patiently, eagerly, longing for the day when waiting shall cease, when every longing shall be satisfied, the day we are like him, and see him face to face.

Prayer:

Father, help us to be those who know what we wait for, and look forward to it with joy. Help us to wait for it with patience, knowing that we are your creatures, that you love us, and that your patience is kindness. Help us to wait eagerly, knowing that your purpose shall not be deflected. Help us to live increasingly holy lives while we wait. And father, in our groaning comfort us, shower us with your grace, and keep us waiting with hope. Amen.

An article by Andrew Wilson about thinking of the future

An article by Wesley Hill about waiting for our redemption

An article from the late John Webster on patience as a fruit of the Spirit