A Stint in the Wilderness

forest-1225983_960_720.jpg“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years… to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you” (Deuteronomy 8:2, 16 NIV)

After Joshua and the Israelites had spent 40 years in the wilderness, God commanded them to cross the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. Now the generation of Israelites who came out of the wilderness were very different to their fathers, who had left Egypt under the leadership of Moses. A wayward and ungodly generation had given way to a uniquely godly one. How did this happen? In this post, we will briefly examine how a ‘wilderness experience’ impacts the character and lives of God’s people.

Although the older generation had received the laws and ordinances of God from Moses, their character had been moulded by their experience as slaves in Egypt. Their souls were not receptive to God’s word, which fell like seed on rocky ground. They were outwardly circumcised, but their hearts were full of bitterness, tied to the patterns of this world, stubbornly resistant to God’s instruction and His promises.

In the wilderness, the Israelites were often deprived of basic necessities – food, water, clothing as well as direction – and they were forced to rely on supernatural provision and God’s continual guidance. The conditions were harsh, their resources were scarce, and while God supplied all their needs in a timely manner, He did not always do it in the way that they might have liked. Unbelief marked the response of the Israelites from Egypt to nearly every situation they encountered; they responded to danger with fear, and to scarcity with anger and grumbling. They would not stop complaining even after God sent the heavenly manna, but longed for the ‘fleshpots of Egypt’, forgetting the heavy price they had paid for every crumb from Pharaoh – the backbreaking toil, the lash and abuse. Egypt had totally possessed their minds and hearts, and they were not ready to submit to a new Master, let alone follow Him, even though He had promised to lead them to a beautiful land flowing with milk and honey.

Finally, God sentenced them to a period – forty years – of wandering in the wilderness, until that entire generation had passed away. Now those Israelites were not, by any means, all bad. This was the generation that had left Egypt at God’s command to go to a strange land. Among them was Bezalel, the master craftsman, who built the tabernacle of the Lord according to the pattern He showed Moses, while the rest of the Israelites gave generously from their treasure, and laboured diligently to complete its work. At Rephidim, they bravely resisted the terrible Amalekites who had come to attack them.

God never forgets the past faithfulness of His own people, and hundreds of years later, when He was about to discipline their descendants for backsliding, He mentioned the wilderness experience of their fathers – “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed Me through the desert, through a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2 NIV). Yet, even His love couldn’t carry them because they refused to follow Him all the way in simple trust. Having taken their first steps along new and unknown paths, they then faltered – being pulled back by their bitter Egyptian experience and crippled by unbelief – and sadly, failed to take hold of their rightful inheritance.

The unbelief, therefore, had to be eradicated from them. The wilderness experience was designed specifically for this purpose – it was God’s operating room, where He performed the divine surgery upon their hearts to heal them, and make them ready to become inheritors of His covenant and promises. What is the evidence that God had successfully effected the desired transformation in the Israelites?

  1. Joshua’s generation responded differently to their Egyptian experience – their faith being enhanced and not shaken by it. Whenever they recalled their past as slaves, it was no longer with fear and foreboding, or even a longing to return, but Egypt had become for them, a place where they had triumphed over great adversity. They viewed it as a place of former sorrows, and did not wish to return; but equally it was for them the land where God had come to their aid, and performed miracles on their behalf. So their sorrow was swallowed up in joy, and the victories of Egypt had become the wind in their sails to propel them through future storms. In later generations, when enemies came against them, they would pray, “Our God, did you not deliver our fathers? Do it again in our time – renew Your miracles and save us from this danger.”
  2. Faith had replaced unbelief. “The just shall live by faith”, and the wilderness is the place where we learn to exercise faith. The Israelites found that they could not survive, or even take a step forward, let alone come out of the wilderness except through faith. No other currency is valid here. The props we have ‘in civilisation’ are not to be found in the wilderness. Receiving daily rations of manna begins to seem normal, as also having to break camp to set forth at God’s command. The Israelites needed faith from the first to the last, and by faith they possessed the Promised Land.
  3. A sanctified self-image had replaced the old damaged one. They saw themselves as conquerors, not grasshoppers. Their vision was transformed, and they began to see events and people through spiritual lenses. The giants of Egypt no longer frightened them. Compare the report their fathers had brought to Moses – “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are… we seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them” (Numbers 13:31-33 NIV); with the report of Joshua’s spies – “The Lord has surely given the whole land into our hands; all the people are melting in fear because of us” (Joshua 2:24 NIV). 
  4. Obedience replaced a rebellious attitude. The Israelites that came out with Moses were a quarrelsome lot, who thought nothing of resisting the authority of Moses, or rejecting God’s specific commandments. In contrast, their children found it easy and natural to obey God’s laws, and submitted to Joshua’s leadership unquestioningly, for in the wilderness they had learnt that “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). So they were spared the endless struggle and the discipline that their ancestors had to undergo. Whatever God commanded them – whether to cross the flooding waters of the Jordan on foot, or to undergo circumcision at Gilgal, or to circle Jericho for seven days – the Israelites eagerly obeyed. Obedience had become a habit, and they enjoyed its fruits in their generation.
  5. A willingness to serve replaced selfish ambition. Some of the older generation under the leadership of Korah, a Levite and some Reubenites coveted the position of priesthood given to the descendants of Aaron. When they aggressively challenged Moses, God vindicated him, allowing the earth to split open and swallow the rebels. Their descendants, however,  understood the benefits of  carrying one another’s burdens. For example, the Reubenites who received their allotted inheritance before the other tribes, could have spared themselves the dangers of crossing Jordan and conquering Canaan. Yet they fulfilled their promise to Moses, going into battle ahead of their brothers until they too had taken possession of their inheritance.
  6. True worship replaced idolatry. In the wilderness, their eyes were opened to the danger of serving false gods. Their bond with God was strengthened through their trials, for they learned to discern His loving hand in every circumstance, whether good or bad. They recognised the idolatrous practices of their ancestors as acts of unfaithfulness against a loving God, and a snare to their souls. When Joshua demanded that they choose their loyalties – “Choose today whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the river, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”, they unhesitatingly replied, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord… We too will serve the Lord, because He is our God” (Joshua 23:15-18 NIV).
  7. Defeat gave way to victory. The Bible gives no indication that Joshua’s men were better soldiers than their fathers, or more skilled in military tactics. The difference was that, like Moses before them, they had undergone the purifying experience of the wilderness. As they trudged the endless miles in that barren wasteland, they saw that ‘their sandals did not wear out and their clothes did not tear’. They discovered that in every situation, God alone is sufficient. Their renewed attitude ultimately determined their altitude. In the end, the conquest of Canaan and the great giants proved a small thing for them, for they trusted their God to go ahead of them like a ‘devouring fire’. By faith, their “weakness was turned to strength”, and they became powerful in battle, routing armies greater than theirs (Hebrews 11:34).

The wilderness experience – and most Christians will experience periods of suffering, emptiness and barrenness in our lives – is never intended by God as a form of punishment, but is designed for purifying, equipping and transforming us for life on a higher spiritual plane. The unseemly aspects of our character often come to the fore in the initial stages, but as we reach the end of the wilderness, these things are replaced by the ‘better things pertaining to eternal life.’

Father, please help us to trust You in the dry and barren periods of our lives, for we know these things are meant for our glory. In Jesus’ name.

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A Grain of Wheat

wheat-2190554_960_720.jpg

In His Steps

On account of His name;
Here we stand:
Before an unjust judge;
Who rules this land

Make up your minds,
Not to worry beforehand
How you will defend yourselves,
Or explain your stand.

Whenever you are arrested
And brought to trial,
Do not worry,
About what you will say.

Jesus said, “I will give you
Words and wisdom
That no adversary,
Can resist or contradict.”

“Say whatever is given you,
At the time
For it will not be you speaking,
But the Holy Spirit.”

Now all men hate us
Because we belong to Him,
Even our friends and brothers,
Call for our death.

Now our hearts are troubled
But let’s not pray
“Father, save us from
This hour.”

Let our prayer rather be
“Father, glorify Your name.”
For this reason
Jesus came.

Unless this little kernel
Of wheat falls,
To the ground and dies,
It remains single.

But, if it dies
It produces many seeds
Let us lay down our lives
That souls may live.

In this hour we know
The prince of this world
Stands condemned
He has no hold on us.

But Jesus lifted up
Now draws men to Himself
And standing firm
We gain eternal life.

 

He is Risen!

daffodil-527400_960_720“He is not here; He has risen, just as He said! Come, see the place where He lay.” (Matthew 28:6 BSB)

Easter – Poem by Edmund Spenser

MOST glorious Lord of Lyfe! that, on this day,
Didst make Thy triumph over death and sin;
And, having harrowd hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive, us to win:
This joyous day, deare Lord, with joy begin;
And grant that we, for whom thou diddest dye,
Being with Thy deare blood clene washt from sin,
May live for ever in felicity!

And that Thy love we weighing worthily,
May likewise love Thee for the same againe;
And for Thy sake, that all lyke deare didst buy,
With love may one another entertayne!
So let us love, deare Love, lyke as we ought,
–Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.

Ministers and Mansions. Part 2.

sandburg-1639994_960_720.jpgLet us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food” (Romans 14:19-20 NIV).

Under Mosaic law, a person appointed to a leadership role was expected to live a life of unquestioned integrity. Jethro advised Moses, “But you should select from all the people, able men, God-fearing, trustworthy, and hating bribes. Place them over the people as commanders…” (Exodus 18:21 HCSB). Kings were specifically commanded not [to] multiply horses for himself… nor shall he greatly increase silver and gold for himself” (Deuteronomy 17:16-17 NASB). Solomon, who ignored these strictures, and ‘refused himself no pleasure’ wrecked his life, his kingdom, and his relationship with God. As for the ministers, the Levites and priests, they were to own no land in Israel except pasture lands for their flocks, “for the Lord was their inheritance”.  In the NT, the qualifications of the elder are listed – “Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Timothy 3:2-3 NIV). 

The reason for these qualifications is clear – money can corrupt even the best intentioned among us. There is a measure of safety in moderation, and danger in excess. The need for moderation is greater for a ministers than others, and an unavoidable hazard of being in ministry is the intense scrutiny one is inevitably subjected to – both within the church and outside. An extravagant lifestyle inevitably prompts questions about a minister’s integrity or his judgment, and results in unwelcome gossip about his private affairs, which can be distressing for himself and his family. 

Paul was equally clear about the use and misuse of the freedom we have in Christ. “I have the right to do anything,” you say, but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”, but I will not be mastered by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12). “All things are lawful, but not all things edify [or are constructive, profitable, beneficial, helpful or useful]” (1 Corinthians 10:23). To achieve a proper balance, a Christian minister, ought to apply certain common sense rules in his handling of money.

First of all, every elder ought to remember that he is called by God to be an example of righteous living to others. Paul wrote, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ”. What would he rather model for his flock – the example of a life of self-denial or a life of unrestrained self-indulgence? Which of these would win Christ’s approval? In writing these things, I do not mean to suggest that it is wrong for a minister to own a comfortable house or drive a nice car or to provide, as best as he can, for his children’s future; only that his choices should be underpinned by a heightened sense of social responsibility, and be in line with biblical guidelines.

Second, an elder ought to ask himself the following questions. Is his lifestyle creating a distance between himself and the flock of God whom he is called to serve? Will the poorer parishioners in his congregation feel out of place and awkward in his home? Could he be setting himself apart from the general populace much like the princely popes of the past. Is his church truly open to all sections of society, or has it become the sort of place where only people of a certain social group feel comfortable or welcome?

Third, in recent decades the media has exposed the opulent lifestyles of several high profile tele-preachers. Such exposure has brought the gospel to disrepute- in public perception such lavish living is considered incompatible with the idea of Christian service, and in stark contrast to the lifestyle that Jesus and His apostles lived. We are taught to “avoid every appearance of evil”. Over generations, societies have formed definite ideas about the way ministers ought to live. The church vicar typically enjoyed a respectable position in society and a modest level of prosperity – similar to that enjoyed by a schoolteacher, a university lecturer or perhaps a doctor (in the days when ‘millionaire’ doctors were a rarity), and the expectation was that he would be a model of dignity, sobriety and restraint. Nobody objects to a businessman or a Hollywood celebrity living a highflying lifestyle, but people are rightly outraged when holders of public office or ministers of religion use their positions for personal enrichment.

Fourth, the more mature ones in the church have a duty to safeguard the faith of their weaker brothers and not become stumbling blocks. “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Romans 15:1-2 ESV). When a Christian leader is perceived as using the gospel for personal gain, the church is subjected to public scorn, and the faith of some believers may be shaken. Many prosperity preachers say that “there is no reason to apologise for being blessed”, but if your lifestyle affects another man’s conscience then is it not better to live a simpler life and avoid offence? “If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:15 NIV).

Fifth, all Christians ought to examine the motives behind our choices. If a minister serves in a church that primarily caters to a wealthier congregation, would he feel short-changed if he were called to move away, and serve a much poorer one? We are instructed to guard against the greed for money. Wealth and social position are temporal things; they may hinder our spiritual progress and restrict our freedom to serve; or in wise hands become instruments in the building of the Kingdom.

In conclusion, greater levels of wisdom, humility, self-control and social consciousness are necessary to avoid the misuses – and pitfalls – that follow the possession of great wealth. Many Christians have used their money to support the preaching of the gospel, and to alleviate human suffering; while others have brought disgrace to the church by their pursuit of pleasure. The wise stewardship of one’s money is a vital part of Christian life, and ought to be taken seriously.

In this post, an attempt has been made to examine the topic of a minister’s lifestyle from the standpoint of prudence and common sense. Only God can truly judge a man’s heart, but we are too often – perhaps unfairly – judged on appearances. In so far as appearances have the power to promote or impede the spread of the gospel, Christians should be careful not to become a stumbling block to others.

Father, teach us to be wise in the use of our money. Help us keep our hearts free of the love of money, and avoid every appearance of evil. May we bring honour to your name even in the way we handle money. 

Ministers and Mansions. Part 1.

castle-1246628_960_720And He said to them, “Watch out! Guard yourselves against every form of greed, for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15 BSB)

“Is it right for a minister to live in a mansion?” Recently I read an article about an American pastor who was criticised for building a multimillion-dollar mansion for himself. There is an anecdotal tale about Pope Innocent II who was showing Thomas Aquinas the riches of his treasury and jokingly remarked, “You see, the Church is no longer in that age in which she said, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’” “True, holy father,” replied Aquinas; “neither can she any longer say to the lame, ‘Rise up and walk.’”

Both stories illustrate how money and Christian witness are intricately linked, and it is therefore vital to gain a scriptural perspective on the use of money. We all need money to pay for our daily necessities, and most of us feel we could do with more than we now have. Few find it easy to be neutral or detached on the topic  of money. Different Christian groups stand at opposites ends of the spectrum in their approach to wealth and this causes confusion among believers who wish to honour God with their money. Some groups view money as a source of unmitigated evil, while modern prosperity preachers see it as a sure sign of God’s blessing. The scripture gives us broad guidelines on which to base our decisions, and considerable freedom to decide on the specifics regarding its stewardship. The concept of ‘stewardship’ is important because God is the Giver of every good gift and everything we have in this world, whether inherited wealth, talents or the ability to earn money, come from Him. With great freedom comes great responsibility. We have no right to treat our ‘own’ wealth or position as though these were all part of an unquestioned personal fiefdom; rather we must bear in mind that we are merely overseers and foremen, tasked by God with the proper management of His estate, and will one day be called to give an account to the rightful Master.

The eye of the needle:  There is no sin in being rich – the followers of God have included kings, rulers, landowners and wealthy businessman as well as people of more modest means like fishermen and the ‘Carpenter’. God is concerned primarily with the purity of our hearts. Many who choose poverty and austerity can grow self-righteous, hard hearted and hypercritical of fellow Christians who take a different view. Paul was clear that a sacrificial lifestyle is pointless if the underlying motive is anything but love.

Yet Jesus warned his disciples, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24 ESV). The rich young ruler desired to follow Christ but turned back when called to give up his wealth. While it is true that the poor may put their security in their purses rather than in the promises of God, the rich often find it harder to wean themselves from the desire for more wealth. The key message here is that it is easy for anyone, but especially the rich, to become overly attached to money; and while all of us should guard against the love of money, the rich probably have to make a greater effort in this direction.

Desire for riches: Money also opens up unique possibilities for both good and evil. The love of money, and not money itself, is the root of all evil. This distinction is important. “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:9 ESV). The media gives us daily glimpses into the lives of wealthy celebrities, and their tragedies are a warning to us all. Money does not bring happiness, nor does it appease the craving for more. The lust for money is a treacherous bait to entrap souls – it moves so quickly from being a servant to becoming the undisputed master of our lives. So Jesus warns us, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19 ESV). As Christians, we must pray for the grace not to fall into this temptation, and for the wisdom to steward our resources.

The acquisition of wealth: Being ‘blessed’ with money is not necessarily a sign of God’s approval, but it is often the fruit of hard work, thrift and industry, which God approves of. “There is profit in all hard work… “(Proverbs 14:23 HCSB). Wealth gained through hard work and honest means is blessed. Anyone who resorts to dishonest or corrupt means to acquire money, rejects His authority over their lives. “A fortune made by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapour and a deadly snare” (Proverbs 21:6 NIV)) and “Wealth obtained by fraud dwindles, but the one who gathers by labour increases it” (Proverbs 13:11 NASB). Those who seek to get rich quickly or through fraudulent means find themselves ensnared in many ways – on the wrong side of the law, in debt, and robbed of all peace of mind – as they live their lives outside the blessing of God.

The handling of wealth: God promised Israel His protection over the inheritance He had granted them – “It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end” (Deuteronomy 11:12). The watchful eyes of God are over our possessions when we acknowledge His lordship over our wealth and substance. Israel was commanded to 1. Bring their tithes and offerings to the house of the Lord, 2. Be generous to the poor, the widow, the fatherless and the alien, 3. Not to covet their neighbour’s possessions, 4. Not to steal or acquire money by wrongful means and 5. Cancel all outstanding debts owed to them in the year of the jubilee. By doing these things, they acknowledged God’s authority, and enjoyed His blessing and protection, over their wealth.

Father, teach us how to be blameless in our handling of money. Grant us the grace to be free of all selfishness and covetousness. In Jesus’ name.

The Forgotten Prayer

pray-664786_960_720“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”

Growing up in the Syriac Orthodox church, I remember Psalms 91 and 121 and other prayers for protection being sung each evening.

“O Lord, You are the one true God, save us –

  • From all evils and all wickedness, from all malice, and from thoughts of adultery, from all enemies, from deceitful companions, from temptations of the devil, and from the wickedness of men;
  • From unclean passions, from unseemly lusts, from devilish thoughts, and from evil dreams; from all hidden snares, from idle words, from great treacheries, from revengeful utterances, and from all temptations of the world;
  • From rods of rage, from sudden death, from anger, from hatred, from ligtnings and thunder-bolts, from plagues, and from hell fire;
  • From hard-hearted and wicked deeds, from undying worms, from unquenchable fire, from the gnashing of teeth, from lamentations, from bitter occurances, from evil hours, and from tormenting powers, from famine, from fears, from sudden shocks, from all unbearable punishments;
  • From Your words uttering ‘depart from me I know you not’, and from all that will separate us from You. Amen.”

Christians in past generations believed in the importance of daily prayers for protection from evil. As a young adult attending evangelical churches, I remember being taught the importance of praise, which ‘silenced the foe and the avenger’ (Psalm 8), but rarely about the need to implore God for protection. There was a popular acronym ‘ACTS’ – adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication – to help us remember the areas we ought to cover in prayer. I wondered why this was. I discovered that the prevailing belief in our evangelical circles was that as we praise God, we surround ourselves with divine protection.

Some also believed that we could expect God to protect us from all evil without making any specific request. He was duty bound as our heavenly Shepherd to deliver us from all harm, and therefore special prayers were unnecessary. This is a mistaken notion of what trusting God actually means. Asking God for something is hardly a sign of unbelief, quite the reverse. Yes, God is our Provider, Sustainer and Protector, but our prayers are crucial to His working out His purposes on the earth. As we make our requests, we connect ourselves to the divine realms where all power and blessing lie, and we publicly acknowledge before men, angels and demons, that our dependance is on God alone. When we do this the hand of God moves powerfully on our behalf, and shields us from danger, whether physical or spiritual.

Now the subject of prayer has always fascinated me, and as a young Christian I would often ask more mature believers about the ‘best ways’ to pray. As I reflected on the Lord’s Prayer, I observed that this model prayer which Jesus used to teach His disciples ‘how to pray’, contained 4 main topics – 1. praise and adoration, 2. prayers for the establishment of God’s will, His kingdom and authority, 3. confession and supplication, and finally 4. prayers for protection from hard testing and the devil.

Many modern evangelical groups pay little attention to the fourth aspect – “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” – and there is an unspoken tendency to view constant prayers for protection from the evil one as almost superstitious. Yet the emphasis Jesus placed on this aspect of our spiritual safety both in the Lord’s Prayer and in His prayer following the Last Supper – “Father, protect them from the evil one”, and “Protect them by the power of Your name” – shows us that we must do likewise. When we omit praying for our safety, we open ourselves to hard testing, innumerable temptations and excessive opposition from the enemy.

The benefits of praying each day to be shielded from the enemy of our souls, should never be underestimated. Those who never pray for protection and deliverance can find themselves trapped in the same current of temptations and testings as the unbelieving world, and with fewer resources to counter it than those who regularly and faithfully call upon God to save them from such troubles. Although ‘all who live godly lives’ will face opposition and trouble in this world, God’s desire is that, on the whole, we live peaceful and quiet lives in the midst of every storm, and experience His supernatural protection even in a swirl of spiritual assaults. Such protection is accessed when we specifically request God for it in our prayers.

Recently I found some prayers for protection on a Church of England website, and found the words deeply moving –

May the cross of the Son of God,
which is mightier than all the hosts of Satan,
and more glorious than all the hosts of heaven,
abide with me in my going out and my coming in.
By day and by night, at morning and at evening,
at all times and in all places may it protect and defend me.
From the wrath of evildoers, from the assaults of evil spirits,
from foes visible and invisible, from the snares of the devil,
from all passions that beguile the soul and body:
may it guard, protect and deliver me.
Amen.