Prayer in a Pandemic

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O God, our Creator and Preserver

We cry out to You along with our brothers and sisters throughout the world who are struggling to overcome the coronavirus epidemic, where so many lives have been lost already and millions more are threatened.

We pray for Your grace and mercy that an end to this disease will come soon; and that life, labour, community and human touch will be restored.

Give us courage and strength to amend our ways of living in the face of this great human tragedy, cooperating with medical authorities to preserve our own health and safeguard others.

Help us overcome our fears and give us confidence to ask this in the Name of Your most blessed Son, who came and gave his life so that we might live fully, Jesus our Lord and Saviour. Amen.

https://dailyoffice.wordpress.com/2020/08/07/evening-prayer-8-7-20-john-mason-neale-priest-hymnographer-1866/

When Tears Come Into Bloom – 1

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“My heart rejoices in the Lord;
in the Lord my horn is lifted high.
My mouth boasts over my enemies,
for I delight in your deliverance.
There is no one holy like the Lord;
there is no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God…” (1 Samuel 2:1-2 NIV) 

‘At this time, she visited a certain (unnamed) holy bishop who consoled her with the now-famous words, “the child of those tears shall never perish.”‘ Her tears were for Augustine, her brilliant, but wayward son. Monica, like the women in the Bible, lived to see the fruit of her tears – a son marvellously restored to the Lord. What a noble example to mothers of all ages! The scriptures tell us of many women who wept before the Lord in anguish of spirit because of the suffering in their lives, and a common theme in these stories is that the God noticed – “the Lord saw” or “the Lord heard ” of – their suffering – and He intervened turning their tears to joy. In this post, let us reflect on some of these stories and be encouraged.

In biblical record, Hagar was the first woman since the fall to have an encounter with God. Despite the fact that she had never really embraced Abraham’s God, the Almighty stepped into the life of this ‘slave woman’ to offer guidance (when she ran away from Sarah) and succour (when she and her son, Ishmael were permanently cut off from Abraham’s household). As she wandered about in the desert weeping ‘…the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water… God was with the boy as he grew up.’ Genesis (21:15-20 NIV). So, God proved true to the name that she herself had given Him earlier – “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me”’ Genesis 16:13 (NIV). In Hagar’s story, we see the great faithfulness of God, covering our many mistakes and providing for our many needs, often in return for so little thankfulness.

Leah suffered because she was not loved. Jacob who had been tricked into marrying her by Laban, her father, in exchange for 7 years of labour, felt no obligation to show her any tenderness. It appears that no one around her was concerned about her unhappiness, but “when the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive…” and she bore four sons in quick succession – an accomplishment that would give her much honour among her people. While she acknowledged the mercy of God – ‘the Lord has seen my misery… the Lord heard that I am not loved’, her desire was always for a changed relationship between herself and Jacob, but this was never to happen. When her fourth son was born, she finally discovered something she had overlooked all along, or rather Someone she had forgotten. She saw for the first time that God longed to draw her to Himself; He had been waiting patiently for her just as she was waiting for Jacob, but she had not reciprocated. So, she said, “This time I will praise the Lord” and named her son Judah’ (Genesis 29:31-35 NIV); through this child she became the mother of the kings of Judah, and an ancestor of Jesus. What a difference that change in focus brought her; indeed, when our lives our built around God, we find many reasons to praise Him and few reasons to grieve!

Hannah, of course, was a deeply loved wife, yet her barrenness left her open to many taunts and contempt. As she ‘wept bitterly’ in the temple, pleading to God for a son, and promising to surrender her much-longed for child to God, the priest Eli felt that she was behaving very oddly, and rebuked her for drunkenness. Her response is one that we all should learn from- she took no offence, but humbly explained her sorrow. “Not so, my lord… I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord.” Eli blessed her and Hannah returned home in peace and soon afterwards, became pregnant, for ‘the Lord remembered her’ (1 Samuel 1:10-20 (NIV). The son she bore, Samuel, was no ordinary boy – he was chosen to lead Israel from his youth. In retrospect, we realise that the Lord needed Hannah’s cooperation in His plan, for few mothers would consent to give up a child so young, as she had done, even for a worthy cause. And how the Almighty rewarded her! Not only was Samuel to lead Israel with unusual integrity, he never forgot his mother’s sacrifice that must have caused both of them many tears. Every year Samuel returned to his home town and spent some time with his mother. So, God remembered Hannah’s tears, her sacrifice and her faithfulness in bringing her precious gift back to the temple… and repaid her seven-fold – with more children, much love and honour in the latter part of her life.

Naomi was a woman whose sufferings exceeded the lot of most mortals. In her great sorrow, she still acknowledged the sovereignty of God over her affairs – “the Lord has afflicted me”, never denying Him nor reacting in an attitude of rebellion. Yet, as she viewed the barren wasteland of her life, her own name – meaning pleasant or happy – seemed to mock her. She began to call herself ‘Marah’ meaning bitter– a more fitting name for one overtaken by tragedy at the close of her life. Yet God had other plans for His chosen instrument – He drew her steps back to Israel – not to bring her back empty and in shame, but to restore for her what the locusts had eaten. Her faithful daughter-in-law, Ruth, ‘clung to her’ and, though a foreigner, refused to return to her own family: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16 NIV). In Israel, God prepared for them a kinsman redeemer, Boaz, who married Ruth, and welcomed Naomi into his home. As she took Ruth’s firstborn into her arms, everyone acknowledged the hand of God in her life – “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer… He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age… Naomi has a son!” (Ruth 4:14-17 NIV). Naomi, like Job, had to learn that God’s ways are indeed ‘strange’, yet He does everything in the lives of His children so that many more might be blessed. Indeed, for His promise to Abraham, “you will be a blessing” to be fulfilled in our own lives, He sometimes leads us through strange paths and unknown places. Like Leah, Ruth became a mother in Israel, and an ancestor of Jesus, the Messiah, and Naomi became the instrument that led Ruth to Boaz.

In our weeping, let us also look to God, and entrust our suffering to Him remembering His promise: “They went on and wept as they cast their seeds; but they shall surely come with exultation, bringing their sheaves with them” (Psalm 126:6 Brenton Septuagint).

Father, we thank You for You are a God whose heart is always close to us, and more so, when we go through the valley of tears.

The Quality Of Mercy

rose-5350298_960_720“Because of the Lord’s faithful love we do not perish, for His mercies never end. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness!” (Lamentations 3:22-23 HCSB)

Some years ago, while working as a junior doctor in a Catholic hospital, we had a young mother who gave birth to a pair of premature and very ill babies following an emergency caesarean operation. Her womb had to be removed to save her life. This was her first pregnancy and one of her twins died a few hours after birth, while the other baby appeared to worsen. As we discussed with the consultant our fears about the baby’s chances of survival, he smiled gently, “This baby will live. God is merciful… the poor mother has lost one baby and her womb. Surely this child will be spared.” The baby did live… after some weeks of struggle, the mother was able to take her child home.

The Bible speaks of God’s mercies being sure and unfailing. In this world of uncertainty, how wonderful that we have this mercy on our side. Whether we stumble or we wander, His mercy comes alongside us to pick us up and direct us on the safe and narrow road. When the light around us grows dim, and we are uncertain of the direction we must take, God’s mercy steers us, and His comfort surrounds us. When we have nothing else to lean on, and all our friends are far away, we still have His mercy to cling to.

The mercy of God is often compared to a mother’s. When a child falls, other children and even thoughtless adults may laugh, but rarely the child’s mother. The things that might open us to scorn or judgment in the eyes of others, even when such things are the result of own foolishness or rebellion, are met with great mercy in the eyes of God. God comes quickly to us, as we struggle with things that are broken, and beyond our control, to draw us into the His merciful, comforting arms.

The scriptures tell us that God spreads a table before us in the presence of our enemies. At this table, who do we find waiting upon us, but God’s faithful attendants, Mercy and Goodness, to fill our cups before they run dry? As we rise from the table and go out to face the rough storms outside, they follow us while God Himself goes before us. All our days are spent beneath the wings of our merciful God.

rose-5350308_960_720There is great sweetness in the mercy of God, and it covers the bitter things that come into all lives. It is also infinite, as it is poured even into the lives of those who do not know Him. The sad thing in life is that most people, even Christians, are content to enjoy occasional sips of God’s mercy, when they could live at the very Source, the Fount of Mercy, in the arms of God Himself. It is these arms that are opened to receive us all, if we would only go.

As a Christian, do you live near the Father of Mercies, or far away in a dry and barren land? There is only one way you could be sure whether you have made home near God or away from Him? Consider your own attitude to those who fail you? Do you feel angry, bitter and unforgiving? Perhaps you show no outward sign of these things, but do you feel these things in your heart? Or is your heart moved with compassion, as you realise that you are dealing with another needy soul, wandering and thirsting in the desert wasteland where many souls languish. Is your desire for that person to suffer, or for him or her to be forgiven, loved and restored? Do you long for your enemy to have a long draught of God’s mercy and be refreshed themselves?

Anyone who lives near the Fountain cannot be dry of mercy themselves. We are designed to be channels, and if we live close to the Source, the gushing waters will wash away all debris of unforgiveness and bitterness that block the flow of mercy from our lives. Jesus has promised that we will have springs flowing from within us if we go to Him.

Would you like to be a spring? By faith you can be. By faith, draw near to God with all the wasted and dried up things in your life that have blocked the flow of His living water. By faith, yield to Him your sadness, anger, tears and bitterness. By faith, let Christ wash you inside and out, until you are free. It is so good to be free… to be no longer a slave of the things in the past, or of people, or of your own feelings. Embrace this freedom today, and become a burbling spring for the refreshment of needy souls.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” May others be able to count on your mercy. How rare such people are! As you become a channel of God’s mercy, endless mercy will flow your way, sweet, cool and strengthening mercy. And you will live forever in the house of God.

Father, give us hearts of flesh and merciful spirits. In Jesus’ name.

It is the Lord!

morning-5233243_960_720‘Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water.’ (John 21:7 NIV) 

Some of the most moving stories in the Bible tell us about Christ’s final meetings with His disciples before He ascended into heaven. On one occasion, for example, He spent a long afternoon with two disciples, whose names the Scriptures do not reveal, on the road to Emmaus. They ‘were kept from’ recognising Him until He broke bread with them that evening and then He disappeared before their eyes. ‘They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”’ (Luke 24:32 NIV).

In this post, let us reflect on His meeting with Peter, John and five others by the Sea of Galilee, where they had first heard His call to “Come, follow Me”. Leaving their boats and livelihoods, they had obeyed without question, for His promise – “I will make you fishers of men” – held a strange, indefinable appeal for them. Counting all that they might have been or have had, up to that point, as no account, they began a new journey into unknown spaces.

Three years afterwards, to be with Christ meant all to, at least eleven of those first disciples. So, as they drew near to Jerusalem for that fateful Passover, and being confronted with the possibility of their Lord’s crucifixion, and being warned that they would all scatter like sheep, each in fear for his own life, abandoning their Shepherd, they all like Peter, had this to say, “Never, Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”

How easy it is to feel confident that we will always do the right thing until we come to the bridge that must be crossed – “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matthew 26:33 RSV), said Peter, when the Lord warned him that he was about to be sifted as wheat, at Satan’s demand, just as the adversary had once demanded that God afflict faithful Job. How confident he was then of his own power to endure, how incensed about not being ‘trusted’.

So, it was a very different Peter that met the Lord by the sea. For he had indeed gone back to his nets, taking six others with him, hoping to find some comfort from the routines of his old life in contrast to the extremely turbulent days they now had to endure. He was now certain that Christ was who He had said He was; there could be no doubting that, not after he had seen the empty tomb and seen the Lord Himself holding out His hands to Thomas, so that the doubting apostle might probe the nail marks on His palms and side. Yet, he, Peter, had failed. He had not proven worthy of the call and having set his hands to the plough, had turned back. Perhaps he did not really want to return to his boats, but he no longer trusted himself, having denied his Master three times. He was unworthy to be considered a servant, let alone a friend, of the Lord.

At Simon Peter’s first meeting with Jesus three years before, he had laboured all night and caught no fish. As he obeyed the Lord’s instruction, ‘“Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch”… they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break…When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:4-6 NIV). On this, Peter’s final fishing expedition, again their labours were futile until they had cast the net on the other side of the boat- again at Jesus’ command and found that “they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish” (John 21:6 NIV). 

beach-1846449_960_720John, the beloved apostle, was the first then to recognise that the One who was speaking to them was the Lord. “It is the Lord!”, he cried. The one who loves is always the first to see. John’s heart was so melded to the Lord’s that he called himself, ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, and he was as always given a rare and deep insight into the Lord’s ways that the others simply could not have.

Those who love the Lord are always quick to recognise Him, even in a crowded space. Simeon and Anna had spent all their days at the temple, in prayer and fasting, waiting on the Lord, and seeking the hour of His redemption. God had promised Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the ‘Consolation of Israel’. When the Redeemer came to the temple as a babe in Mary’s arms, Simeon and Anna were the first to recognise Him. Like John the Beloved so many years afterwards, they were chosen to point Him out to the others – all busy folk coming to the temple those days to fulfil their spiritual duties and leadership responsibilities – “It is the Lord!”

When Peter heard the words, “It is the Lord”, his eyes too were opened, and he once more sensed the old fire coursing through his veins, and without a second thought, “he… jumped into the water” (John 21:7 NIV). Did Peter walk on the water then? Possibly, the boat was still afloat meaning the water was very deep. If not, he had to swim across the icy sea to meet Jesus, when he could have reached Him in the comfort of his boat.

So, this is what being near Jesus is like – our hearts burn within us as we hear His voice. We receive the strength and the power to go on, just when we have been feeling drained of all our resources, for we realise that we are still loved and welcomed by our Lord, even when we have stumbled and failed. John loved the Lord deeply, but he called himself the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, for he knew this was all that truly mattered in the end: that Jesus loved him as indeed He loves us.

Why did Jesus visit them that day? Perhaps He wanted to spend one more day in fellowship with them before He left for His Father’s home, to serve them again, to refresh their bodies and souls Yet, there was another reason. Let us not forget that all his disciples had left Him in His hour of need, yet some were worse than the others as they disowned Him. These, the ‘most unworthy ones’, were those He sought out that day, not for rebuke or condemnation, but to reaffirm His love for them, and to restore them. Peter had denied him three times. Thomas had refused to believe that He had risen without tangible proof. All had gone back to their old lives, their fishing boats. Finally, there was John, who had lingered by His side, even near the cross and Jesus came to him also, for He loved to spend another day with His beloved friend.

What did Jesus want from them at the close of that morning? He did not want anything from them, so much as He wanted to do something for them. He had come to call them again to their place by His side. Each had turned away from Him, realising his own unworthiness and doubting his fitness for the relationship that Christ had called him to enter. Yet, after they had failed a crucial test – a test that they would not have failed, if they had only obeyed Him and kept watch in prayer at the Mount of Olives, on the night He was betrayed – there Christ was, to treat them as if they had never failed their test – or Him.

Rarely, are we treated so well in this life. Such love, sadly, is rare even among the closest of friends; if we ever fail a friend or loved one so badly as to abandon them in their hour of greatest need, rarely would that friend ever look at us with trust in their eyes. They might possibly forgive us, but trust is not so easily rebuilt. Yet, this is what Christ was willing to do for them – offer them His trust once more.

“It is the Lord!” It is Christ, indeed, beckoning us once more to His side. This is where we still belong after everything that has been imperfect. We have been called to walk with Jesus, clinging close to Him like the beloved John, all the way until we are home with Him. There is only one thing that should matter to us – that we are among those He loves.

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Jesus, thank You for Your love.

Soul Weariness – 2

pine-3127210_960_720“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:7-10 NIV)

A second group of symptoms suggesting spiritual weariness constitute a nagging pull to return to the world and its ways. Just when we are down, and feel that we have no resources to go on, the enemy tempts us with the pleasures of this world, or deceives us into tackling our problems with worldly tools. A malign voice whispers in our ear, “Why not relax just a little, and do things differently? How long can you keep this up? You, a mere human being. Surely God is forgiving. Come on. Just this once, try this thing instead…”

The evil one tempts us to compromise with the world and indulge the flesh in all sorts ways. Perhaps, someone has treated us badly, and we feel pressured to deal with the situation as people in the world do, in ways that satisfy our ego. Or, perhaps, we are tempted to seek our own pleasure while ignoring God’s will as revealed to us either in His word or by the quiet inward promptings of His Spirit. If we yield to the demands of the flesh, we suffer loss because by yielding we grieve or worse, quench the Spirit. When we repent of our sins, God certainly forgives our sins and restores us; but it is our responsibility as Christians to overcome the world, the flesh and the devil. So, what are we to do with the things which nag and pull us away from the great rewards that Christ has promised those who endure and overcome?

“Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:12-13 NIV). Although we cannot in a sense escape the flesh while we live in this world, we are not to ‘live according to it’, meaning that we should refuse to obey its incessant demands. This is not always easy, especially where some of our ‘pet weaknesses’ are concerned; but it can be done, and with persistence we will overcome.

The Bible shows us how to overcome the flesh and the enemy at such times. To succeed in anything, the level of preparation matters, and this is certainly true in Christian life. Our preparation for war requires 3 things. Firstly, we are exhorted to practise remaining in a state of spiritual alertness: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8 NKJV). Spiritual lethargy and spiritual slumber can weaken our resistance. Alertness in the Spirit is the result of a prayerful life and there are no shortcuts. “Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere” (Ephesians 6:18 NLT). Secondly, by faith we put on the full armour of God described in Ephesians 6 for our protection. Finally, we must put ‘to death the misdeeds of the flesh’ and this involves taking up the sword of the Spirit, the word of God, to cut off the hold of the flesh and the devil from our lives.

Countering this form of soul weariness, therefore, entails a vigorous fight, and we must follow the methods our Lord used when He who battled Satan in the wilderness. As each temptation was presented to Him, Jesus took the sword, the word of God – “It is written…” – to cut off the enemy. He countered the enemy’s misuse of God’s word with the proper use of the same. The rightful use of God’s word is the key here; for many ignorant believers have been led astray by the enemy to misuse the word of God as a means to indulge the flesh rather than to conquer it.

For example, in the scripture we are taught to trust God to meet our needs, and to sow generously for the building of His kingdom. In recent decades, many preachers have brought the church to disrepute by misusing this teaching for their own personal gain, and encouraging others to do likewise. We must not forget that every gift and privilege granted to us as members of God’s household ought to be received with a sense of responsibility on our part. The gifts of God are not toys for the believer’s entertainment, but tools that require care and diligence in handling. As a surgeon uses his instruments with great care and skill for the benefit of those under his care, we must use our gifts with reverence and godly wisdom to further God’s kingdom.

The temptations in the wilderness are worth noting for the devil employs similar tactics to topple us from our good standing. First, Jesus was tempted to use His spiritual gift to fulfil His natural physical needs in a way that did not glorify God. Second, an ‘alternative’ method of achieving His objectives was offered to Him – a chance to circumvent the suffering of the cross – if He would glorify Satan rather than His Father. Lastly, was the temptation to put God to the test – making His allegiance to the Father conditional on divine intervention. By upholding the Father’s glory, by choosing the cross and the path of submission, Christ overcame the devil.

To overcome our soul weariness, we must put on the same attitude as Christ – this means an attitude of submission to Him, remembering His sacrifice on the cross and living for the glory of God rather than our immediate pleasure or relief. By yielding to God, we receive the necessary skill and wisdom to use ‘the sword’ to cut down the enemy without wounding ourselves, besides the authority to command him to depart from us in Jesus’ name.

Yet, if we have failed in these things in the past, let us remember that God is faithful to forgive us our sins if we return to Him. Let us repent of our sins, therefore and humbly return to God for the healing of our souls. Let us also resolve to choose, from now on, the ways of Christ above our own temporary happiness.

Father, we return to You with contrite hearts. Receive us and restore us for the sake of Your Son who died for us. Help us to remain alert and not to submit to the devil.

Soul Weariness – 1

bokeh-4578758_960_720Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9 NIV)

The scriptures acknowledge that the Christian’s battle to serve our God in a world that is hostile to Him, can sometimes take a great toll upon our spirits. We begin to feel ‘tired of it all’, long to give up the fight, to escape from the stress and turmoil of our circumstances. As the psalmist wrote, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm” (Psalms 55:6-8 NIV). Consider Elijah who stood apparently alone against the wicked Jezebel and the false church in his time. After what had been a great victory for him, with God sending fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice he had prepared and with the priests of Baal destroyed, his heart finally gave way before the evil queen’s threats. ‘“I have had enough, Lord… Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.’ (1 Kings 19:4-5 NIV)

Remember Jeremiah’s suffering for the sins of his people and the judgment that came upon them, “Oh, that I had in the desert a lodging place for travellers, so that I might leave my people and go away from them…”  Living in this sinful world has been hard for the greatest of saints, and so it will be for us. The battle is real and being of frail flesh, just as Elijah was, we feel we can do no more. God understands. He sent His angel bearing bread and water to revive His prophet. ‘All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat… for the journey is too much for you.” (1 Kings 19:5-7 NIV).

God’s care for us is greatest in the moments when we feel forgotten by Him, and uncared for. That we are in a state of discouragement is not strange to God. Yet, we are exhorted not to grow weary, meaning that we should not remain in that state of weariness, but find a way to come out of it. In this post, let us examine the symptoms of spiritual weariness, and the antidotes to spiritual fatigue. Indeed, the symptoms often point to the cure. There are 2 groups of symptoms that characterise soul weariness. In this post, let us focus on the first, and devote the next post to the second set of symptoms, and finally to God’s refreshing of our souls.

The first set of symptoms include physical and emotional fatigue, anxiety and confusion. All of us have experienced feeling weak, unable to take on the things that have come against us. The way before us appears dark. How we long for someone who truly understands and knows how to navigate a path out of our darkness. Our closest friends with their kindest thoughts cannot help us. Their words of consolation and encouragement seem so far off the mark for our present situation. We look to God, but He is silent, and has apparently withdrawn from our lives.

What does God expect of us at such times? “Let him who walks in darkness and has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God” (Isaiah 50:10 ESV). The darkness we experience is neither a sign of God’s disfavour nor an indication that He has abandoned us, which is something He will not, and indeed cannot do, for He has promised never to forsake us. It is the place of testing, where our faith is being refined as in a furnace, so that we may come forth as pure gold.

Consider the example of David, when faced with a great calamity. While he and his men were away from their tents, a band of Amalekite raiders attacked their camp destroying it by fire and taking their families captive. When David and his company returned, they “wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep… David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters” (1 Samuel 30:4-6 NIV). Not only had David lost everything, but his friends had turned against him. Yet, what was his response? “But David encouraged himself (KJV) – found strength (NIV) in the Lord his God (vs. 6). Finding no comforters to carry his burdens, he looked to God and encouraged himself, and so should we.

When all is dark, we must simply cling to Him, in whom, ‘having not seen’, we have believed. We must choose to trust in Him and this means fighting against our own natural instincts, our thoughts and feelings of emptiness. In this battle, our fight consists simply of ‘leaning on’ Him. We rely on the name of the One who has hidden His face from us for a brief moment, and proclaim our confidence in His faithfulness and His methods. Of His many names, all of which point to His sufficiency for our many human needs and circumstances, let us search for one that will precisely answer to our present need and cling to it with whatever little strength we have. We will discover that our strength is, indeed, equal to our days (Deuteronomy 33:25).

Let us, therefore, simply stand on the name of the One who is called ‘Faithful and True’ (Revelations 19:11), being certain that He will come through on our behalf. Remember the great victory God gave David that day in Ziklag! We are told that at the Lord’s command, David pursued his enemies, overtook them, and brought back all that was stolen besides much plunder. So, “David recovered all” (vs 18), and so shall we. Full restoration, indeed a double vindication has been promised to us. Like David, we are entitled to the ‘spoils of war’ which means rewards beyond the mere restoration of the things we once had. Our souls will be refreshed, but even more our roots will grow deeper and sturdier for having weathered the drought.

Father, we put our trust in Your holy name for You are always faithful. Help us endure this period of dryness. In Jesus’ name.

Holy Forgetfulness – 2

fog-919033_960_720“Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 3:13-14 BSB).

Since God has promised to forgive us, and to remove our sins eternally from His records, what should be our response? We must learn to rely on His deep forgiveness each time we sin, resisting Satan’s attempts to cripple us with guilt and condemnation. Next, we should imitate His example and become partakers, or more accurately, ‘practitioners’ of God’s holy forgetfulness. This means 1. Choosing to forget the sins of our neighbours towards us, and 2. Being careful to forget – to keep no records of – our own good deeds towards our neighbours. Let us examine these points further.

The only condition that Christ places upon us to receive God’s forgiveness beyond the repentance of sins, is that we should show mercy and forgiveness to all who sin against us. “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15 NIV). Forgiving one’s debtors – meaning anyone who has hurt or harmed us in any way – is a serious matter for the Christian. Lack of forgiveness makes us slaves of our past and the devil, and keeps us from receiving the mercy and blessing that God has for us. “Love keeps no record of wrongs”; and this is the key to having our own debts cancelled. So, we should resolve to forgive everyone who has ever hurt us; and pray that God will impart His holy forgetfulness to our own minds.

Our forgiveness should be vehicle of healing – both to ourselves and to those who have sinned against us. “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:18-19 NIV). Many Christians have their progress stymied by memories of past woes, tragedies endured and the unkindness of others. Indeed, we human beings are capable of great cruelty even to those closest to us. We may not see ourselves as being cruel, but often our indifference to those in need, especially people closest to us – a parent, a child or spouse – can cause them more suffering than we imagine. To cause hurt and to experience suffering ourselves are natural to Adam’s fallen race; but, Christ has opened to us a new way of living, a happy way, full of peace and good fruit. Forgiveness is the key that opens the door to this new way of life.

There is nothing wrong in confiding about your pain to a close friend, a mature believer or even a therapist, and to request the prayer of a brother or sister for healing. It is, however, important to move on, and leave bitter memories of the past behind, so that these things can no longer hinder the future course of our lives. Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden (burdened), and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28 ESV). He has promised to remove our burdens from us – this includes hurtful memories. Only after we have been unshackled from the burden of the past, can we receive our wings, and soar on the heights.

We should, therefore, surrender all our suffering to Christ in prayer, and in obedience to Him, forgive all who had a part in causing us suffering, and permanently relinquish our hold over the past. At a practical level, this relinquishing of control would mean the following:

  1. We should no longer keep an account of the wrongs committed against us. We must learn to practise active forgetfulness; forgiveness is meaningless until past records are deleted. We ought to deny ourselves the freedom to ‘think evil’ – this includes a habit of ruminating over the ‘wickedness of our enemies’. When such thoughts rise in our minds, we must present them once again to Christ for forgiveness and healing.
  2. We must not keep reminding the wrongdoer of their past sins. If you regularly punish the ones who grieved you by bringing up their past, forgiveness loses its meaning. After you have extracted your full pound of flesh, what is left to forgive? It might then be time for you to humbly seek your neighbour’s forgiveness instead.
  3. We must, as far as it depends on us, play no part in tarnishing their names or reputations, by mentioning their wrongdoing to other people (beyond perhaps a group of two or three trustworthy souls who uphold us in prayer and know how to keep confidences). If we do not shield them from shame and slander, our forgiveness has no practical benefit for them. An exception to this, of course, is if there are actual crimes committed that our social responsibilities would require us to report for the protection of potential future victims.
  4. We should pray for them as the scripture commands us: “But, I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 NIV). This is the final step to the full restoration that God has prepared for us.

Being freed of the burden of the past, we receive strength to take hold of the wonderful deliverance that God intends for us (Philippians 4:13-14). Consider Job’s example. In the midst of what can only be described as unspeakable tragedy, three of his friends came to ‘console’ him and instead spent days accusing him of sins he had not committed. By pouring sorrow upon sorrow, and rubbing salt into Job’s wounds, they imagined that they were defending God. How we Christians sometimes deceive ourselves when we judge others unfairly? When God finally revealed Himself, He had a firm word of rebuke for these friends. But before Job could be vindicated, he had to be healed of the bitterness that had crept into his soul on account of their relentless attack upon his integrity. So, God ordered the three friends to bring their guilt-offering to Job, who, as their intercessor and priest, would offer the sacrifice and plead with God to forgive them. Then “the Lord accepted Job’s prayer” and “restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends. And the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:7-10). God’s method brought healing and blessing all around.

Coming to the final point in this post: we have also been commanded to forget our own acts of kindness. To desire the approbation of others is a common human flaw. Yet, it is a failing that we must fight against in order to inherit the rewards of Christian life. Consider the words of Jesus: “Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So, when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets… to be honoured by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:1-4 NIV).

By dwelling on our good deeds, we risk growing resentful towards those who take our goodness for granted, and do not appreciate our sacrifices. This attitude sours our outlook and relationships – we will find ourselves growing hesitant about opening our hearts to people or thinking twice before we extend a helping hand. It is a difficult, but necessary lesson for us to learn – to seek no reward from people, whether in the form of having our good deeds acknowledged, or being repaid with similar actions. If we have been good to someone, we must live as though we have not. If we ever lay a claim upon those who have benefitted from our kindness, it should be for the benefit of another, as Paul used his claim of friendship upon Philemon to benefit the former’s runaway slave, Onesimus.

In conclusion, God commands us to erase many things from our ‘book of remembrance’ – meaning that these things should no longer have power to influence our actions. Instead, we should fix our thoughts on things that are true or honourable, just, pure, lovely, gracious and excellent; things worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8) from a heavenly perspective. This attitude shift is achieved through prayer and effort. We should pray for holy forgetfulness over the things God wants us to forget, and for grace to hold on to the things that He wants us to retain. We should resist the enemy, who sows discordant thoughts in our minds, with the sword of truth – by making a confession of the specific scriptures concerning the issue at hand. As we persist in the face of setbacks, God will give us the victory and many mighty deliverances.

Father, as we depend on Your mercy, help us also to be merciful and kind to others. Heal our hearts and minds. In Jesus’ name.

Holy Forgetfulness – 1

foggy-1149637_960_720“For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34 NIV)

A man I once knew mentioned, shortly before his death, the wise advice that he had received from his father, a priest in his time: “If you ever do someone a kind deed, forget it quickly and take care to think no more of it. If someone does you a kindness, however small it might seem, be careful never to forget it. Always remember them with gratitude.” This was a man who had risen to great heights in his field and was well respected in the land. People often said of him and his family background, “The fruit does not fall far from the tree.”

As I listened to this story, it occurred to me that the things we remember and the things we forget, often shape our character, the course of our lives and, very importantly, the happiness and well-being of those we love. What a powerful tool this priest’s advice could be for parents who wish to raise happy children. Sadly, I also know of families that hold in trust, not the kindness of others, but old family feuds and even imagined grievances from generation to generation; sadness, bitterness and suffering stalk them endlessly. How different things might be for them if they had been taught as children to quickly forgive and forget the wrongdoing of their neighbours, to remember the kindness of people, and to think little of their own good deeds for others.

There are, indeed, things that God wants us to forget, and things that He commands us to remember: there are also things that God Himself promises to remember, and things that He chooses to forget. We are not as helpless as we imagine, either in the matter of how we handle the ‘debts owed’ to us, meaning the sins committed against us, or what we choose to do with our memories. In this post, I would like to share my reflections on the holy forgetfulness of God, and on the great benefits we, His children, enjoy as a result.

Of all David’s prayers, the most unique perhaps, is his petition to God to forget his past sin and wrong doing. Many prophets and intercessors – Moses, Solomon, Daniel, Nehemiah and others – pleaded with God to forgive the sins of His people, to remember His covenant and His promises to their ancestors. But, for God to forget sin? For God to forget anything at all seems inconceivable. Yet, David, who enjoyed a deep and special intimacy with God knew that He desires to do this very thing – to not only forgive our sins, but also to erase them permanently from all heavenly records and what is more, to forget them Himself. Consider this – the infinite mind of God that knows all things from eternity to eternity. God, who in the ‘ordinary’ can forget nothing, actually wants to forget something, and indeed, He has constrained Himself by His own promise to forget the sins of His children. The only conditions we are asked to fulfil to receive God’s forgiveness, and His ‘forgetting’, of our sins, are 1. Repentance of sins – evidenced by honest and heartfelt confession, and 2. Showing mercy to our own ‘debtors’.

The prayers of David should be our prayers too. Psalm 51 is a daily morning prayer for Orthodox Christians, for the old church fathers recognised the value of appealing to God not just to forgive, but to forget. “Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalms 51:9-10 NIV). An equally powerful petition of David is this: “Do not remember the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you, Lord, are good” (Psalms 25:7 NIV). “For You, O Lord are good”not because I am or have been or will ever be good. I am mere dust, frail flesh, prone to sinning again and again. But You, God, are different; You are always good. As we come before God with a humble and contrite heart, He is faithful to remind us: “I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you” (Isaiah 44:22 NIV).

Likewise, when the accuser comes knocking at our door, to taunt us with past sins and present failures: “Remember, how evil you used to be. Do you think you are any better today, after all these years of calling yourself a Christian? God knows you and just how wicked you are. O how you deserve to be punished”; then let us silence the deceiver, as Jesus did, with God’s word – “The Lord is compassionate and gracious… he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities… as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalms 103:8-12 NIV). For “we have come to know and to believe [meaning, to rely on – NIV] the love that God has for us” (1 John 4:16 ESV).

For all who truly repent of their sins, God intends a wonderful restoration. Consider this vision that the prophet Zechariah had about the high priest Joshua. ‘Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” [Notice that it was the Lord Himself, and not the angel, who rebuked Satan] Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So, they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the Lord was standing by. And the angel of the Lord solemnly assured Joshua, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here”’ (Zechariah 3:1-7 ESV).

The mercy of God is extended to all those who fear and love Him from generation to generation. If we have strayed from His ways, let us humbly confess our sins and ask Him to wipe away all trace of our guilt from His records, and renew in us a holy desire to serve Him in truth and in spirit. What wonderful gifts the blood of Jesus has purchased for us! Let us lay hold of this precious inheritance, and enjoy the peace and rest that it brings.

Finally, knowing that God has bound Himself by His word of promise, to forgive us our sins if we repent, to sanctify us by the blood of His Son, to ascribe the righteousness of Christ Himself to us, and to remove our sins eternally from His records, how should we respond? In the next post, we will examine the claims that God’s holy forgetfulness lays upon us, but for now, let us be encouraged with the knowledge of His faithfulness to forgive and forget our sins.

Father, forgive our sins, and remember them no more. In Jesus’ name.

Snippets From St Gregory Palamas

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THE CALM SEA, RADIANT AND BRIGHT with sparkling light, reflecting the dawn on its smooth surface, is a pleasant sight to the eyes. But it is far more delightful not just to see but to address the church gathered together according to God’s will, freed from disturbances, illuminated mysteriously by the divine light, stirred up towards that light’s dawn, with hands and eyes, all the senses and the mind uplifted. The grace of the Spirit has today granted me this agreeable sight. You are all spending your nights and days together here in God’s temple, and by your unceasing attendance upon Him you could be regarded as heavenly trees planted by the streams of the water of the Spirit. So may I now assist these streams as far as I am able. As you have offered your daytime prayers in addition to your early morning prayers, may we, as far as time allows, offer an evening sermon in addition to the one this morning, that we might show you openly all the different kinds of tricks to which the enemy of our salvation turns his hand to render not only our fasting but also our prayer worthless.

2. Brethren, there is another sort of evil satiety and drunkenness which does not result from indulging in food and drink, but from anger and hatred towards our neighbor, remembrance of wrongs, and the evils that spring from these. On this subject Moses says in his song, “Their wine is the wrath of dragons and the incurable wrath of asps” (Deut. 32:33). So the prophet Isaiah says, “Woe to those who are drunken, but not with wine” (Isa 29:9), and again he commands, “ye shall not fast to fight” (Isa. 58:3 Lxx). To those who fasted in this way he says, speaking on the Lord’s behalf, “If thou bendest thy neck as a ring, even then ye will not call this an acceptable fast, and if ye make many prayers, I shall not hearken unto you” (Isa. 58:5 Lxx), and, “When ye spread forth your hands unto me, I will turn away mine eyes from you” (Isa. 1:15).

3. This is the drunkenness of hatred which more than anything else causes God to turn away, and the devil attempts to bring it about in those who pray and fast. He prompts them to remember wrongs, directs their thoughts towards harboring malice, and sharpens their tongues for slander. He prepares them to be like that man who wishes for evil whom David describes with the words, “He deviseth mischief continually, his tongue is like a sharp razor” (Ps. 51:2 Lxx), and from whom he prays God to deliver him, saying, “Deliver me, O Lord, from the evil man: preserve me from the violent man; they have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders’ poison is under their lips” (Ps. 140:1, 3).

4. In this time of fasting and prayer, brethren, let us with all our hearts forgive anything real or imaginary we have against anyone. May we all devote ourselves to love, and let us consider one another as an incentive to love and good works, speaking in defense of one another, having good thoughts and dispositions within us before God and men. In this way our fasting will be laudable and blameless, and our requests to God while we fast will be readily received. We shall rightly call upon Him as our Father by grace and we can boldly say to Him, “Father, forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).

5. Again, he who schemes against our souls uses another means to render our prayer and fasting useless, self-conceit. Because that Pharisee was conceited when he fasted and prayed, he was sent away empty-handed (Luke 18:10-14). We know, how-ever, that people with proud hearts are unclean and unacceptable to God, and we are well aware that we owe God many large debts and pay back very little. So let us forget those things which are behind as worthless, and reach out towards those things which lie ahead (cf. Phil. 3:13). Let us fast and pray with contrite hearts, self-reproach and humility, that our fasting and our regular attendance and presence in God’s Church may be pure and pleasing to Him.

6. Another of the evil one’s methods of making our toil in fasting and prayer fruitless is to persuade us to accomplish them hypocritically for the sake of vainglory. This is why the Lord commands us in the Gospel, saying, “Enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly” (Matt. 6:6).7. He did not say to encourage us to excuse ourselves from gatherings and prayers in church, because in that case the prophet and psalmist would not have said to Him, “In the midst of the congregation will I praise thee” (PS. 22:22), or, “I will praise thee, O Lord, among the people: I will sing unto thee among the nations” (Ps. 57:9), or, “I will pay my vows before them that fear thee, Lord” (PS. 22:25). Nor would he have said to us, “Bless ye God in the congregations” (Ps. 68:26), or, “O come, let us worship and bow down and weep before the Lord our God” (Ps. 95:6 Lxx). The Lord teaches, besides other, higher matters, of which there is no time to speak now, that if we are stirred up to pray alone in our houses and bedrooms this also encourages prayer to God in church, and inner prayer of the mind encourages spoken prayer. If someone only wants to pray when he attends God’s Church, and has no concern at all for prayer at home, in the streets or in the fields, then even when he is present in church he is not really praying.

8. The psalmist demonstrates this because after saying, “My heart is ready, O God”, he adds, “I will sing and give praise in my glory” (Ps. 108:1 Lxx). Elsewhere he says, “When I remember thee upon my bed, I meditate on thee in the morning hours” (Ps. 63:6 Lxx). The Scripture says, “When ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly” (Matt. 6:16-18).

9. How incomparable is His love for mankind! With these words the Lord makes clear to us the distinction and decision He will make at the future Judgment, so that from now we might lay hold of the better choice and portion. To those who live for vainglory and not for Him, He will definitely say, in accordance with His words in the Gospel, “You received your reward during your lifetime”, just as Abraham said to that rich man in the flames, “Thou in thy lifetime receivest thy good things” (Luke 16:25). Those who look towards Him as they practice virtue He shall, it says, reward openly, which means that in the sight of the whole world He will give them in return His blessing, an inheritance, pleasure and pure joy for ever and ever. He wants nobody to miss this, and everybody to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4), so He makes clear now, as I said before, His impartial and unalterable choice, showing that only those who despise the glory that comes from men are sons of God.

10. He addresses the same words to both categories of people, saying, “Thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly” (Matt. 6:18). Those who are disdainful of the empty glory that comes from men He will make and proclaim his own adopted sons and heirs. The others He will exclude from adoption as sons unless they repent. The Lord says this lest, by considering how we look to other people when we pray and fast, which is of absolutely no benefit to us, we should endure the labor of fasting and prayer but be deprived of the reward. He tells us to anoint our heads and wash our faces, that is, we should not make a point of looking pale, nor should our heads be unwashed and dried up so that it seems that we are suffering from long drawn out fasting and contempt for our bodies, and are looking for praise from other people. The Pharisees acted like this for the sake of appearances, which is why they were estranged from Christ’s Church, and the Lord forbids us categorically to copy them.

11. We can refer to the mind metaphorically as the head of the soul, since it is the soul’s guiding force and to the imaginative aspect as its face, as this contains the permanent centre of the senses’ activity. So it is good to anoint our heads with oil when we fast, namely, to render our minds merciful, and to wash our faces, our imaginations, clean from shameful impure thoughts, anger and everything evil. Such a fast carried out in this way banishes and puts to shame all the evil passions together with the demons who are their makers and guardians. It also enlists those who fast among good angels, turning these angels towards them, accustoming them to be their guardians and moving them to help and assist them.

12. In Babylon a fourth person was seen in the midst of the flames alongside those three young men, who were adorned with self-control and fasting, keeping them unharmed and mysteriously refreshing them (Dan. 3:25). When Daniel kept a long fast an angel came to him to instruct him and to foretell the future (Dan. 10:1-21). At another time when Daniel had closed the lions’ mouths by his prayer and fasting (Dan. 6: 16-27), an angel carried a prophet through the air from far away to bring him food (Bel & Dr. 33-39 Lxx). When we practice both spiritual and bodily fasting and pray, for us too the fire of fleshly desire will be extinguished with the help of good angels, and anger will be tamed like a lion. We will become partakers of prophetic food with hope, faith and inner vision of the good things to come, and we will be able to tread on serpents and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy.

13. Fasting which is neither like this nor carried out in this way is more akin to the evil angels, for their own abstention from food is accompanied by anger, hatred, pride and opposition to God. As servants and helpers of the good we are their opponents. “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood”, says the apostle, “but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness” (Eph. 6:12). We do not resist them just by fasting, but we use the breast-plate of righteousness to protect us, the helmet of saving works of mercy and the shield of faith (cf. 1 Thess. 5:8, Eph. 6:t6). Also the sword of the Spirit, which is more than sufficient for defense, that is, God’s saving word to us (Eph. 6:14-17). So let us fight the good fight (1 Tim. 6:12), keep the faith firm, quench all the fiery darts of the evil one (cf Eph. 6:16), and, when we have been proclaimed victors in everything, we shall attain to pure heavenly crowns and rejoice eternally together with the angels in Christ Himself, our Lord.

14. To whom belong all glory, might, honor and worship, together with His Father without beginning and the all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2017/02/a-homily-to-encourage-fasting-st.html

Perfect Love

spring-4141645_960_720“But whoever continually keeps his commandments is the kind of person in whom God’s love has truly been perfected. This is how we can be sure that we are in union with God.” (1 John 2:5 ISV)

In some of the recent posts, we learnt that to grow towards perfection, we must embrace the holy fear of God in our lives. The fear of God makes 1. Surrender and obedience possible, and 2. Leads us to the place where perfect love originating from God Himself casts out all fear. When we begin to love, then we enjoy oneness with God, and become a channel for His blessing to this world. As the way of perfection for a Christian cannot be separated from the way of love, let us reflect on this perfect love.

We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death (1 John 3:14 NIV). God commands us to do what is impossible. Be holy. Be perfect. Love one another. Not one of these goals are achievable in the natural, yet these commands are not optional for the Christian. Love, especially, is a strange thing. The more the world talks about love, the less of love there seems to be to go around. There is a great chasm between the world’s conception of love, and the scriptural understanding of the same word; understanding the difference between the two types of love is crucial for Christian growth.

Earthly love is always rooted in self-love and self-interest. If this were not true, there would be no break up of families and relationships; nor would friends grow apart after a period of separation. When Eve was persuaded by the serpent to consider her own immediate satisfaction and future well-being above pleasing God and honouring His name, she sinned. Selfishness, therefore, lies at the root of sin, and as long as the children of Adam inhabit sinful flesh, we must battle against selfishness. True ‘agape’ love, in contrast, is free of all selfishness; even when hurt by the one we love, we will worry less about being ill-used or misunderstood, and grieve more about the possible marring of the soul and the witness of the one who harmed us. The apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 13) describes the characteristics of agape love. True love is kind, patient and suffers long. True love never falters, never fades, never fails – for it flows from the nature of God. In the natural, it is impossible for humans to love God or one another this way. How then could we hope to obey Christ’s command to love one another as He has loved us?

Before we answer this question, let us reflect a bit more about love, for it is a delightful thing – the more we reflect on love, the more we desire to have it in our own lives. C S Lewis once wrote that true humility is not thinking less of oneself, but thinking of oneself less. ‘Thinking of oneself less’ – also lies at the core of true love. When our thoughts are centred around the well-being of another rather than our own, then we have begun to gain an understanding of this love. Of all feeble, earthly forms of love, a mother’s love perhaps bears the closest resemblance to divine love. “And so, we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world, we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:16-18 NIV).

Now let us consider certain aspects of growing in love. We begin to grow perfect in love not by stirring up our emotions but by walking the way of obedience. Even as I write these words I am conscious of how frequently I stumble in this area. Yet, “whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected” (1 John 2:5 RSV).We prove our love for God by obeying Him, and when we obey Him, our hearts are free to love our brothers and sisters.  To come to this perfect love, we must begin by seeking – in prayer and in faith – a heart that fears God and desires to obey Him. “For it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to desire and to work out His good purpose” (Philippians 2:13 HCSB).This is the foundation for perfect love. On a practical level, there are some steps we could take to nurture the love God sows in our hearts. Let us begin prayerfully with the following resolutions (write them down, frequently reflect on them and pray for these things to become manifest in your Christian life):

  1. Obey God always
  2. Give up self-will
  3. Give up negative thoughts towards people who have wronged us
  4. Make every effort (that is, work consistently) to love people who have treated us badly.

Love, like all virtues, grows as we practise it. There will be many stumbles, perhaps even on a daily basis, but if we treat each setback as a call to take up arms and fight with greater resolve, then love truly becomes rooted in us. Like a child learning to walk, each time we fall and get up, our legs grow a bit stronger. Let us not allow the deceiver to convince us that God is angry with us for failing; no, He is pleased with us for persevering. Let us persevere in this battle – against ourselves – and with God’s help, we will win.

In our dealings with one another, we must always ask ourselves whether we are fulfilling or violating the law of love. What motivates us to behave in a certain way – love or self-love? Too often, the answer will be self-love; therefore, we must die to self. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16). Dying to self on a daily basis means giving up our own pursuit of happiness, and self-fulfilment for the benefit of another. One of the hardest things in life is to choose to love someone who does not care for us. When we grant someone the freedom to turn away from us without turning away from them, but continuing to love them, then we bear the flame of Christ’s love in our hearts. When we continue to return good for evil, the ground is prepared for a harvest of love, joy and peace for ourselves and those around us.

As we focus on setting our hearts and attitudes right towards the most difficult people in our lives, we will make progress in this crucial area of our lives. Let us remember there is real work involved in loving others – it is not merely a feeling. We battle against our will, our inclinations and feelings. As we decide to put aside our instinct for self-preservation, saying, ‘It is true this person has wronged me, but my feelings, my honour are really not that important; it is more important that he/she and I are right before God’, and pray that both they and we might become pleasing in God’s sight, the tender sapling of love will put forth leaves. There is a great reward that follows each battle against flesh. If we are willing to stand up and fight, we might receive a few injuries along the way, but we will come forth as victors bearing the crown of peace and joy. We will walk without fear in this world.

Finally, true love is the fruit of abiding in Christ. Our lives have been grafted into the Vine in which the life giving sap flows; we remain in the divine Vine by our obedience. As we abide in Him, we bear fruit and the first fruit of our abiding is love. As we share in the life and death of Christ by dying to ourselves and living for Him, the fruit of love ripens. Yet, how hard it is to love as He loves; indeed, it is impossible without Christ.

Father, teach us how to love. In Jesus’ name.