Bad things happen to good people. They also happen to bad people, at about the same rate. I hate that children get sick and that disasters happen. I hate divorce, poverty, unemployment and all the other ills of life. But they happen anyway – to all of us, in one way or another.
Jesus never promised an easy life. In fact he assumed that life would be tough. Take this parable in Matthew 7:24-29
The expectation was that attack would come from all sides – rain pitching, floods rising, gales blowing on wise and foolish alike. The difference wasn’t in what happened to them, but in the spadework they’d put into life. That’s what affected the outcome.
In the Galilee area, stream beds dried up in summer, leaving a tract of land that looked to the unknowing newcomer a very convenient location for building. But of course, when winter came the water would reclaim its territory. The locals would recognise the stupidity of such plans. They knew that if you wanted a house to survive all climates, you had to put much effort into its foundations.
Crowds would gather wherever Jesus stopped to tell his stories. It was easy listening for the most part. A rest from work, sociable, lots of humour, miracles from time to time, even the odd free lunch. Who wouldn’t want to stop by and listen? So long as you didn’t take it too seriously.
But listening wouldn’t help, Jesus said, when the going got tough. You had to put the words into practice. That was, and still is, the only remedy against succumbing when disasters come along in life.
Going to church never saved anyone. Being there, one of the crowd, listening to what the preacher says is not enough. Even reading the bible for yourself won’t do the trick on its own. The words have to go deep inside to the point where they change what you do, how you live life, your language, your attitudes, how you press on in faith. When the storms of life come – and no-one is immune – the ones who cope are those who have absorbed and fed on the Word of God, anchoring their lives, obeying.
Lord make me hungry for your Word. Help me dig deep, so it affects every area of my life, that I may hold fast to you when storms come, and know your peace in every situation.
I must be the luckiest person alive! Some person in Africa that I don’t even know, has emailed to tell me that he’s going to give me buckets of money if I just let him have my personal and bank details. How good is that!?! Don’t worry, I’ve spotted the con. But they are getting more sophisticated, and sometimes I’ve really had to read carefully to check it isn’t something genuine. The best clue generally, is that if it looks too good to be true, then it almost certainly is (too good to be true).
A bit like the false prophets Jesus talked about in Matthew 7:15-23.
They were the ones who were trying to lead people down an easy-looking path: a very attractive form of religion with a comfortable life style and not too many challenges. The problem with easy religion is that it doesn’t develop your character. It doesn’t challenge and change you into the best ‘you’ you can be. So, if you want to know if what someone is preaching is true, take a look at their life. If you can see the fruit of the Spirit all over them – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control – then they are the genuine article. Rub them up the wrong way and see what comes out. That’s the test.
Scary thought. What happens in me when I’m rubbed up the wrong way? When I’m kept waiting, or treated rudely, or unfairly – how’s my self-control then?
When we hear the message of salvation preached, be sure it is no easy sell. The wonderful news is that it costs absolutely nothing to become a Christian – Jesus paid the price for all our wrongdoing once and for all on the cross. That is absolutely true. But, it costs you everything to BE a Christian. God expects a life surrendered to him – that is what Jesus paid the price for. The contractual obligation, actually. Anything less is not honouring our side of the bargain.
Jesus never promised an easy life – just read his parting words in John 15 and 16. “In this world you will have trouble…” But he did promise to be with us, and to empower us to bear good fruit even in difficult times, through his Spirit.
If your Christian life is easy, are you sure you’re on the right path? Short-changing God is not the way to go.
There was this 3-hour evening course I really fancied, and invited my friend to come to tea, then to the course with me, and I’d drop her back home at the end. Good plan. But I hadn’t figured on the weather. She lives in a tiny village at the top of a steep hill served only by single-track winding lanes. And as we worked away on the course, the snow set in. And she needed to get home that night. I hate driving narrow lanes at the best of times – give me a motorway any day! I battled my way up against the blizzarding snow, dropped her home, then slithered down again, terrified of meeting another vehicle on its way up. So glad was I to finally meet the main road!
Jesus talks about main roads and narrow lanes in Matthew 7:13-14.
I always used to wonder why God made the right way so difficult. But that is 21st century western thinking. Back in Jesus’ day, what made the difference between a track and a main highway? The number of people that used it. Much trampling of many feet caused the ground to be beaten down, the grass to stop growing and the hedgerows to be pushed back. It’s easy to travel where so many have gone before. The right road is more challenging because it’s less travelled.
So I suppose these couple of verses have a simple enough meaning – if most people are doing it, then don’t. Jesus often saw people like sheep – all following one another. Going counter-flow is what is needed; not for its own sake, but because we have listened to God, heard his instructions and obediently followed his directives.
I’ve been re-reading Brother Andrew’s God’s Smuggler. What has impressed me most was his sheer dependence on God. I don’t see those sort of provision miracles simply because I don’t have those needs. I don’t put myself in those risky places. Is that because God hasn’t asked me to do anything exciting, or because when he has, I haven’t listened? Or maybe my ‘counter-flow’ is a different shape, not so dangerous, but challenging all the same.
The important lesson here, is that we don’t get stuck in the rut carved out by others; that we hear God’s directives for our own lives, and follow them wherever they lead. That’s what makes it exciting!
My family know all too well I have one enormous failing. I am an absolutely awful person to buy gifts for. I don’t do fancy stuff, and I’m pretty low maintenance. I dread the question, “Mum, what do you want for your birthday?” It’s not good. They want to bless me, make me smile, give me something I’ll enjoy, and I can’t think of anything I need!
God has loads of gifts he wants to give us. What do you want? Don’t waste your time asking for tacky stuff. And in this passage, Matthew 7:7-12, I don’t think Jesus was talking about basic essentials. No this is about the really valuable, precious gifts. And it’s for something you really, really want. Begging for it, hunting it down, hammering on the door for it.
The difficulty we have, is that, like me, we don’t know what we want, so we don’t desperately seek it out. There’s a list of some of the gifts available to us in 1 Corinthians 12.
And we can be fooled into thinking that we just have to wait and see what gift(s) the Holy Spirit chooses to impart to us. But look down the page to the end of the chapter. The gifts are placed into an order of seniority, and we are commanded to ‘EAGERLY DESIRE the greater gifts’.
And so we come back to Matthew 7 – God has good gifts for us, and we must beg for them, hunt them down, and hammer on Heaven’s door. We can be assured that he will never give us anything that will harm us, for he is a good Father, and knows how to give good gifts. So there’s nothing to fear there.
Take a look through that list of gifts. What do you want? What do you really want? You aren’t restricted to just one gift. What restricts me, and probably most of us, is the wanting. We don’t do enough of it. And we don’t do it eagerly. We’re aware that gifts come with a responsibility. Using them. The parable of the talents makes that clear enough (Matthew 25:14-30). We need to shake off that lethargy. It holds us back from all God has for us.
God has only good gifts for us. Ask for them, seek them, hammer for them, with everything you’ve got. What do you want?
We were reminiscing the other day. There was this girl who used to irritate me something rotten. Not deliberately. But she would angle for attention, in your face, fussing. I was never outwardly mean to her, just avoided being around her as far as possible. Older and hopefully wiser, I can see now she was struggling to be accepted, probably had a low self-esteem; and my response did her no favours. Maybe it says more about me than about her…
I can just imagine the scene where Jesus first told the story about the man with a plank in his eye, trying to take a speck out of his brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3-6). I bet he played it up as a real comedy act. Lots of laughs from his merry audience. Then he followed it up with the vision of pigs skidding on pearls like ballbearings, and chasing the tail of the one who’d tried to give them such a treat!
The point was this. Clear-sightedness. It’s not necessarily that your brother has smaller faults than you, but that our own problems, experiences, wrongdoing and hurts, cloud our vision and get in the way of how we see a situation. Our perception is distorted by how we are; we misjudge.
Dogs and pigs were both considered unclean animals. Why give something wonderful and divine to scum? They’ll only use it against you anyway. No. If you have some special inspirational thought, you should choose carefully who you impart it to.
I believe Jesus was tacitly challenging their notions about who they saw as ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs’ – their attitudes to other people. Are there people we look down on, who we judge unworthy of being blessed with our noble opinions? Who don’t fit our expectations, and the standards we believe are correct?
It’s not even about how I perceive other people, and how I judge their faults. It’s about clear-sightedness to understand why I see what I think I see. It’s about me and my attitudes. It’s about getting rid of my hang-ups, seeing beyond my scars, recognising the filters of my culture, dealing with my sinfulness, so that I can see people as God sees them. Hung-up, hurting, culturally confined and sinful. In need of grace. In need of love. Not in need of my judgementalism.
Get my attitude right, and I’m free to love, free to help others.
In the wake of the horrific attack on the Manchester Arena, how can you talk about forgiveness? How do families and friends come to terms with their loss? Those hurt, those traumatised, those who have lost so much in so many ways?
It’s almost two years since Dylann Roof sat amongst the congregation of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina for an hour, before opening fire and murdering nine of them. The survivors chose to forgive him. Why would they do that? They had discovered that hate just eats you up. It doesn’t harm the person you hate, it harms you. Forgiving doesn’t necessarily help the person you forgive, but it sets you free. Jesus told us to forgive because he knew that, hard as it is, it is the best thing for us.
There is one step further. Matthew 7:1-2 – not to judge.
But what about law courts? I don’t believe Jesus was referring to the civic duties of the legal system, but of our personal response to an individual or group. And he wasn’t talking about helpful correction, as we see from the following passage about taking a speck out of your brother’s eye.
There are good reasons not to judge – you don’t know the whole story; you don’t see it from the other person’s perspective; you should treat others as you would want to be treated; being judgemental is a negative way of thinking… But none of these are the reason Jesus gave.
Judgement, like unforgiveness, is not good for you. It ties you in, and holds you prisoner to your anger. My earlier post Dirty hands, clean hands explains how this happens with unforgiveness, and it’s similar with judgement, only worse. Whilst you hold judgement over someone else, that judgement is over you too. It becomes a bondage; it fastens you to the problem, it binds you to the negative emotions, and holds you back spiritually. Jesus clearly told us not to judge for our good.
That’s why, however difficult it is, we must forgive, we must stop judging.
And that’s why as a body of Christians, we need to come around those who are hurting, to pray for them, minister to them, support them in any way we can, to help them find the peace and freedom that only comes from letting go. And stop judging, ourselves.
Is it pride to tell you my garden has been spectacular over the last 2 or 3 months, with a wonderful display of daffodils and other spring flowers? The best of it, is that I didn’t have to do anything for it – those bulbs were planted years ago, and they just keep coming back and multiplying! I love spring! Now, sadly, they’ve pretty much finished, leaving a straggly mess of leaves recuperating the energy back into the bulbs. So if we don’t put up with the messy leaves in May, we don’t get the flowers next spring.
Our passage today, Matthew 6:25-34 reminds us of how God provides food for birds, and beautiful garments for even weeds. So it’s about God meeting our needs, right? No, actually. I have to admit I’ve missed the point so many times when I’ve read this. It’s about not worrying. Jesus was talking to people who were going to face privation and terrible persecution. He never promised a life free from things to worry about – “Each day has enough trouble of its own” (v34).
In suburban Britain we cannot contemplate that God would allow us to go without any little comforts. But “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” (v25). Bad things happen to good people sometimes, and we have to learn how to stop worrying when they do. Life is not just about feeling happy and comfortable. It’s the pagans who run after these things (v32)! Being anxious achieves absolutely nothing – we know this but we still feel we should be worrying anyway!
Our first and foremost concern should be God’s kingdom and righteousness. Get that perspective, and the rest falls into place. God knows what we need, better than we do. He knows the future.
My garden may look straggly right now, but if I tidied up the leaves too soon, I’d lose next year’s bloom. Life might feel messy, but God knows what he is doing in our lives. He knows what we really need, not just now, but for the future. We must lay down our anxiety, concern ourselves with promoting his kingdom, not our own, and trust him.
“You’re supposed to be on holiday!” My husband’s frustrated cry whenever he saw that look in my eye. We’d be in some pretty little souvenir shop, and I’d spot some curious object that would be just the thing for a particular lesson. I worked in special ed, and finding stuff to help children understand the world they lived in was an important part. So wherever we were, work would come with us. It also ate up every evening. I’d come home, make tea, then get straight back on till bedtime. And still I could always have done with doing more…and not unreasonably, my husband wanted some of my time too. Pulled and stretched.
I think this is some of what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 6:24 –
Yet the reality is, in today’s society, many of us are struggling to meet the demands of work, whilst juggling the requirements of home, family, health, responsibilities…not to mention church. No wonder God hardly gets a look in! How can we pray and focus on the bible when we are stretched ragged?
One solution that worked for me, was my constant prayer. God help me to do this faster and more efficiently. Help me achieve more in less time. I’d find ideas coming into my mind driving to and from work, or while I was making tea, or visiting the bathroom. Praying through problems before getting into bed at night, and my waking brain the next morning would often devise answers. Time in my study was then more productive, getting straight down to typing up the ideas – I could hit the ground running.
But there came a time when I had to fight my corner to reduce my working hours. Yes our income dropped, but so did the pressure. It was the right decision at that time. For some, it might be a tough decision to change or even give up work, or pay someone to do something that relieves the pressure.
God provides for every need. That’s a promise. So somewhere out there, is a solution to the problem. God does not want to be squeezed out of our lives, he wants to be right there in the front of the action. And that’s where we need him to be. That is the provision. If he is master of our lives, the rest can and will work. That’s a promise.
I so appreciate good eye sight. I remember going on a course for disability awareness, and we were given various pairs of glasses to wear, which mimicked eye conditions, and we had to find our way round with limited vision. It was hard! It alters what you perceive – you edge forward with uncertainty; you can’t tell what coins you are passing over; you can’t drive a car, can’t see the number of the bus, if you can even see it coming. But it also really knocks your confidence. Without being able to see others’ faces clearly, how do you know how they are really reacting to you?
The same applies in a way, in the spiritual realm, as Matthew 6:22-23 points out.A healthy outlook makes for healthy perception. We may be seeing the world through a haze of pain, bitterness or anxiety, for example, which affects our walk in the world. Our reactions may be clouded by our previous encounters, so we judge unfairly, get snappy or feel upset.
Sometimes (sadly not always) people with visual impairment can have treatments that bring healing. It must be amazing to suddenly be able to see right again, after years of struggle. Likewise, Jesus is able to bring healing to anyone who will submit their lives to him, accept that they need help, and ask for him to come and bring his light and life into their heart.
The biggest difficulty is for those who don’t believe they need help. They’ve managed so long with limited vision, they don’t recognise the problem, or don’t want to ask for help. There are so many people around who are hurt, struggling, oppressed, shackled by their own history. And sometimes we don’t want the changes to life that the help would bring. Feeling sorry for ourselves, we may feel justified in being over-sensitive and somehow limited – ‘they haven’t suffered what I’ve had in my life…’ And that can get quite comfortable, thank you.
Jesus died to bring healing to all aspects of life – sin, sorrow, suffering… Whilst the circumstances of life may not always be perfect, he can change how we view them. He can heal the wounds so we can live as victors, not victims. Let go of the past and ask Jesus to help you see clearly and let your light shine.
That awful moment you arrive home and realise you’ve been burgled. It happened once when the kids were young. Drawers open, rifled. My jewellery box pillaged, most of its worthless contents scattered around. My engagement ring on the floor, discarded as it had lost its stone. My grandmother’s jade ring! The only piece of value I possessed, was gone. It’s an empty feeling.
“It’s OK mum, I’ve got your ring. I was playing with it this morning, and it was in the toy box under my bed!” And so there it was, safe! We did lose a few things that day, but nothing noteworthy – to be honest we didn’t possess that much worth stealing!
Burglary aside, should I have valued the ring more? Should my daughter have had access to such a valuable piece? Should it have been left in a toy box? Curiously, if I had guarded it more closely, we’d have lost it!
Jesus warned us not to store up treasure on earth, where it can be spoilt or stollen, but to store up our treasures in heaven, where they are always safe (Matthew 6:19-21). In our western culture of plenty, it’s hard to work out what this means in practise. Was Jesus advocating living on the bread-line, giving away everything other than basic essentials? Should we empty our bank accounts and renounce having any valuable ‘stuff’ around us? Yes, if that’s what God is telling you.
But at the very least, imagine yourself in your rocking chair at the end of your days. What will you then think the most important things in your life? Was it that you had a fat bank account, or that you made other people happy? The precious thing a child dropped and broke – will it still sting that you lost it? Or will it be more important that you comforted the child, and kept a good relationship with them? Will you even remember the thing you lost? That I sponsored a child right through his education, that will matter. Will the world be better because I was here?
Stuff will always be that – just stuff. Unless we choose to apportion it a greater value. As with my grandmother’s ring, if you hold too tightly, you can lose out. If we hold lightly, share willingly, and value people more, no-one can steal that away from us. That is treasure in heaven.