Saturday, 26 August 2017

Understanding the Attributes of God (in the face of trial)

Lately I have been considering what enables one person to stand firm in the face of trial, whereas another person may be utterly crushed. Is it just a random thing? Is it to do with genetic predisposition? Does it relate to how much support a person is given during the trial, and how strong their social networks are? Is it so arbitrary that there is nothing that we can do to prepare ourselves for such an eventuality in our own lives?

As I reflect, I am increasingly convinced that there are some doctrines which are fundamental to our faith in Christ which enable us to see our trials in true perspective. Lately, I wrote about how I believe a correct view of God's sovereignty, coupled with His perfect goodness, helps us to truly understand that trials will come, but are not mistakes made by a weak or uncaring god, and neither are they deliberate acts of cruelty by a capricious sovereign being. I believe that having a worldview that deeply appreciates these attributes of God is incredibly important to prepare a Christian for whatever may come, for the celebrations and the trials, for the successes and the discouraging failures. And if the phrase 'attributes of God' sounds like jargon to you, let me recommend a couple of good books. The Knowledge of the Holy by AW Tozer is a beautiful book; a copy was given to me for my 18th birthday, when I had been a Christian for just a few months. Until I was 17, I had never been to a church, Sunday school or holiday Bible club, and had been raised completely without a biblical worldview. I am thankful for friends who directed my reading (both excellent Christian books, and also to read the whole Bible systematically and prayerfully), since these things gave my faith a strong foundation. The Attributes of God by AW Pink is another excellent summary of God's attributes, and available online via the link. An 'attribute' is basically a fundamental aspect of God's nature - what makes God God, and not human. I found that taking time to reflect on these as a young Christian instilled in me a deep understanding that 'My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways', declares the Lord. 'As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts'. Isaiah 55:8-9. I remember how helpful I found it to consider how if God is Creator, and we are created beings living in a created world, then we can only understand things in terms of other created things, perhaps in terms of metaphor or hyperbole. We will not fully understand God, since we are not God. There is a point where we must simply rejoice in who He is, and trust Him. That is but one example.

I think this is an important place to start - to spend time considering who the God of the Bible truly is. It is easy to create in our minds a false god. We may call ourselves Christians, we may regularly attend church and sing the latest gospel songs, but do we really know God? Sometimes, the proof of this comes when our faith passes through trial. The Apostle Peter wrote that trials 'have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire - may result in praise, glory and honour when Christ is revealed'. 1 Peter 1:6-7. To whom is your faith proven genuine? Perhaps to the cynical friends and family who think it will evaporate when challenges come, but also I believe to yourself. The Bible is clear throughout that we live in a sin-damaged and fallen world, that trials, grief and pain will mark our existence here, but that there is an eternal hope. Later, Peter writes again, 'dear friends, do not be surprised  at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed' 1 Peter 4:12-13. We may ask many questions during trials and times of suffering, we may face periods of dark depression where nothing seems to make sense, but if our view of God is that He is not good, does not care, or is powerless to help, then I would suggest that this is not 'God' at all, and that you are yet to experience the true delight of resting in His embrace.

In our generation, even in many churches, I can see how easy it would be to build a false view of God. We live in a generation that has made many technological and scientific advances. Day to day life is often physically much easier than in generations past, leisure time (which was basically unknown by our great grandparents) is now seen as a fundamental right rather than an occasional luxury, answers are available at one quick 'click' and we can lose perspective. I am not saying that any of these advances are wrong - I believe that science is the means by which we understand more of the world that God created, and through appreciation of the amazing order and detail that exists, I am brought to a place of worship: 'I will praise You for I am fearfully and wonderfully made!' (Psalm 139). I would not work as an academic physician if I considered scientific advance contrary to worship! But my point is that we live in a rapidly changing culture where instant answers and cures are expected. And that is not the world we live in. God is not a 'genie' who responds to tend to our needs, but rather a loving heavenly Father who wishes us to relate to Him in true worship. It's a world apart.

I do not mean to say that anybody sets out to create in themselves a false view of God. But what I am saying is that it can easily be done, and that a Christian ought to prayerfully seek to know God more. I am often astonished when I read the words of the Apostle Paul, often hailed as one of the greatest Christian missionaries that ever lived: 'But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ - the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ - yes, to know the power of His resurrection and participation in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus' Philippians 3:7-14 What I find amazing here is that the Apostle Paul, who by this point had experienced a miraculous conversion, visions, divine knowledge of which he was unwilling to write fully, had founded several churches, had faced persecutions, had endured much - and yet he did not consider that he yet fully knew Christ! To me that is an important lesson - that it is not something that one does at a static point in time. There, I know God now. It's not like that - it's a relationship where we grow to know and love Him more, and given that He is infinite (again, returning to those attributes...) there is no limit to us having done this.

I will stop here, and encourage you to reflect on just who God is. And my prayer is that in this, you find perspective in your current situation. I pray that you may be overwhelmed by God's goodness and love, and His compassion and care for you right now in whatever trial you may face.

Next time, I plan to consider what God has saved us from, and what He has saved us to.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

God's sovereignty and goodness: Comfort in grief

Sometimes I am acutely aware of dates and anniversaries, and at other times they creep up on me. For us, because we have lived in some very different cultures and climates, some of the usual 'triggers' are not there, and in our current location close to the equator where there seem to be so few changes in season, we often don't really appreciate what time of year it is at all. So perhaps I have been a little surprised at how aware I am that it is August, and that 10 years ago, we discovered we were expecting our first child.

I remember those days... Feeling tired, really tired, but very happy. Having a secret (we didn't tell people around us that I was expecting until it was obvious, and people in our passport country until we came home for the birth), but feeling very thankful for this gift of new life. One of the reasons we didn't tell people was because of our awareness that life is fragile. I had miscarried before, and I knew quite a number of friends who had suffered miscarriages at all stages of pregnancy (not just before that mythical 'twelve weeks' at which time many people tend to assume that they are 'safe'). I remember a quiet thankfulness and awe, and I would often reflect on Psalm 139 - how God knows about all life since even before conception, and that it is all perfectly in His hands.

Fast forward ten years... Three boys are working on electronic circuits whilst my two year old daughter sleeps. It is a peaceful Saturday where none of us have had many pressing tasks to achieve, and we've been able to sit under palm trees drinking strong black coffee, talking over the next few months and reading adventure stories aloud to the children. Shortly I'll go to church for music practice, we might go running in the cool of evening before sunset. Again, I am overwhelmed with thankfulness and all that God has given me.

It is not how I would have expected things to be. Sometimes I look back to ten years ago as to days of innocent hope, to a world that felt different. Life had not always been easy up to that point, and we'd had to grapple with questions about why a God of love would allow pain and suffering - yet somehow the trials that we had known until that point could clearly be related to sin (either our own or somebody else's). The illness and death of our daughter was different - excruciatingly painful, yet free from complex feelings of guilt, shame or blame.

Over the past ten years, I have interacted with many families who have grieved the loss of a loved one, including many where the person who died was a child. I've wept with them as I have sought to bring comfort from what we learnt as we also walked through those deep waters. Lately, I have been reflecting on what really helps a person through that grief. Three years ago, I reflected on what a 'wish list' of a bereaved parent might look like several years down the line, and whilst I would say much the same things today, I have been thinking at a deeper level. What is it, deep down, that helps a person come to terms with excruciating loss and move forward with hope, joy and thankfulness?

I think much can be summarised in a single phrase: The sovereignty of God'. Or two phrases: 'The character of God' and 'the sovereignty of God'. Let me explain.

Psalm 139 verse 16 reads, 'All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be'. Do we really believe that? Do we really believe that God would ordain some people to have many thousands of days, and others to have only one or two, or indeed no life beyond the womb? But in considering that, do we really believe that God is good? That He is love? I know some people who have walked away from the church or any desire to seek or know God because they come to consider him as a 'capricious being who throws dice'. They cannot come to terms with the fact that God knew in advance the tragedy that would befall them, and yet in His wisdom, permitted it to happen.

I think there are several reasons for this. In part, I think it can be easy whilst living in this world to lose sight of eternity. Yet throughout the Bible we are encouraged to keep our eyes on the bigger picture, on the long game. In the words of the Apostle Paul, 'Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal'. 2 Cor 4:16-18. I find it absolutely fascinating to read what Paul described as being 'light and momentary': 'I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day on the open sea. I have been constantly on the move, I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles, in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea and in danger from false brothers. I have laboured and toiled and often gone without sleep, I have known hunger and thirst and often gone without food, I have been cold and naked'. 2 Cor 11:23-27. I wonder whether many modern Christians, facing even one or two of those circumstances, would consider their trials 'light and momentary'? But Paul had his eyes fixed on the final goal, on eternity, and on God's purpose through it all, and therefore he did not lose heart. One of my favourite verses, especially when my heart feels like it is breaking, is in the description of heaven found in Revelation chapter 21: 'Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.' Rev 21:3-4

But Paul didn't just have a blithe acceptance that somehow all the suffering and pain would one day be erased. He understood that God was working in and through these trials for His glory. Similarly, the Apostle Peter wrote to a church who was facing such severe persecution that many Christians had needed to flee, and so the church had been 'scattered'. He described it thus: 'In this you greatly rejoice though now for a little while you have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuiness of your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire - may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen Him, you love Him; and even though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end of your faith, the salvation of your souls' 1 Peter 1:6-8. So, trials prove our faith genuine. Does that mean that a person who struggles greatly in the face of a trial does not have faith? Not necessarily, but I do think there may be a misunderstanding of God's great purposes throughout history and through our lives. (I am fully aware I am not addressing this issue fully!)

Throughout the Bible, we are never given any assurance that knowing the amazing love, grace, forgiveness and salvation of Christ will mean our life in the here and now will be easy. Indeed, one of the last things Jesus told his disciples before his death on the cross was this: 'I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world'  John 16:33. We are warned of conflict within families, misunderstanding and potential rejection by our communities. We are told that we will be like pilgrims and strangers in the world - which may sound poetically idealistic, but in fact might often be cold, lonely and fraught with challenges.

I love to read writings of the Puritans. I've recently remarked on reading a simple novel written by a Puritan, where there is a strong worldview of God's sovereignty radiating off the page. Read many biographies or commentaries written in that era, and this is an overwhelming strength of their faith. You read of families where 19 children were born but where only 8 survived to adulthood, and yet the family rejoices in God's goodness. You read of real hardship, of poverty, of illness, of the toil and grind of daily life in the pre-industrial era, and yet a real thanksgiving is apparent. More latterly, one can read of Christians like Elisabeth Elliott whose first husband Jim was killed with several friends by the Auca Indians to whom they were seeking to bring the gospel. In the wake of this, Elisabeth remained among that tribe and saw many come to a genuine faith. Her writings are strongly Biblical, and often filled with a real pragmatism: life may be difficult and painful, yet we need to look to what God has called us to do. And that is inspiring!

But such a strong confidence of God's goodness in the face of extreme trial seems less common today. In many parts of the world, life is much less troublesome and traumatic, and those who face trials such as the death of a child or the premature death of a spouse are seen as unusual. There is no quick or easy answer to these situations, and so loved ones, and indeed often fellow Christians may step away, lacking the confidence and assurance required to address these deep questions in a loving, but Biblical way. 'How can a God of love allow this?' is one of the deepest, most heart-felt questions a person can ask, and yet many Christians today seem ill-equipped to answer.

Many modern Christian songs focus more on us or our response rather than on God's goodness and sovereignty. Erroneous prosperity teaching does not just relate to matters of finance, but also to areas of health, wellbeing, relationships and comfort, and our current generation often has a sense of entitlement (for more about this, read this book!). And these are errors which diminish appreciation of the true power and glory of God. The gospel was never about us having an easy, long, comfortable and healthy life in this world, but is to do with the amazing freedom that arises from having our sins forgiven and being able to approach God with confidence and boldness, having that relationship restored. It is about peace in the face of trials, and an incredible everlasting hope.

My prayer is for a generation of Christians who can really get to grips with God's sovereignty without losing sight of his perfect love and goodness. For me, these are the elements that enabled us to see our daughter's life as a precious gift, and to have been a life which pointed many towards God's glory.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Robinson Crusoe: An unexpected encouragement

I had never read Robinson Crusoe until I started to read it to my sons aged 5, 7 and 8 last week. Of course I knew the basic story, about a man marooned on a deserted island for many years, and about his companion Man Friday. I'd heard re-tellings of the story, and had read The Swiss Family Robinson to the children last year, which clearly has parallels. But I had never read the original, and we have found it a treat.

I want to draw out two ways in which I have been delighted by this book.

Firstly, I must comment that I found the first few pages quite tough-going to read aloud, in terms of the literary style. The language is rich and complex, but beautiful. Initially, I was concerned that my sons might not understand it well, especially the parts where the author is describing the thoughts and reflections of the main character. However, they have rapidly adjusted to the tempo, and apart from the occasional question over a specific word, are very much learning through hearing a rich vocabulary used in context. This reminded me of some articles I recently read, describing the differences in second-grade literature in 1879 compared with today, and comparing middle school reading lists from 100 years ago with today. Why should an eight year old only be expected to understand very simple vocabulary and basic plots? And does that not become self-perpetuating, whereby our expectations of our children diminish? I confess I have been surprised by how much my boys are enjoying Robinson Crusoe read aloud, but I have been delighted and also have noted them using many new words correctly without having been 'taught'. As is their style, they have been acting out sections of the book in the garden, building shelters and defences, and this clearly shows their understanding (it's almost like their form of 'narration').

The second thing I was unaware of was the strong Christian message in the story*. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Robinson left home against his parents' wishes at the age of 18 to go to sea. He met with quite a number of early trials and near-disasters, and whilst grappling with his conscience, turned his back on his parents' wisdom and on any consciousness of God challenging him. However, later on, on the island, he became conscious of the blackness of his own heart, and having found a Bible amongst his possessions on the shipwreck, began to diligently study God's word and listen to His voice.

So even whilst alone on the island, the character described his situation thus:

'I spent the whole day in humble and thankful acknowledgements of the many wonderful mercies which my solitary condition was attended with, and without which it might have been infinitely more miserable. I gave humble and hearty thanks that God had been pleased to discover to me that it was possible I might be more happy in this solitary condition than I should have been in the liberty of society, and in all the pleasures of the world; and He could fully make up to me the deficiencies of my solitary state, and the want of human society, by His presence and the communication of His grace to my soul; supporting, comforting and encouraging me to depend upon His providence here, and hope for His eternal presence hereafter.'

'From this moment I began to conclude in my mind that it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken, solitary condition than I should ever have been in any other particular state of the world...'

This is rich gospel truth, and providing plenty of food for hearty discussions with my children. That it is embedded in one of the most famous novels of all time, not in a book specifically marketed as 'Christian', is an unexpected and wonderful treat.

If you are looking for adventure, rich literature, reflections on resourcefulness and creativity and a clear reflection upon God's amazing grace, this book has it all!

*Clearly, I had not done my 'homework' but had simply picked up a 'classic' novel. Daniel Defoe, the author, was a Puritan who wrote books on other topics, and had a very strong sense of God's sovereignty and providence. That makes a lot of sense - and I have found it refreshing to have that strong worldview come across through literature.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Home is here

The last few months have been tiring. Many of the reasons are predictable - busy work schedules for both of us involving a lot of travel, homeschooling the children, being involved in church and regularly hosting meetings in our home, runs of minor illnesses, and sometimes just the thing where being in a 'different' culture can make simple tasks seem a lot more tiring than one might expect.

A friend shared this article about 'ten things a missionary may not tell you' - I resonated with some of this. Indeed, last year, I wrote about how I think the best ways to support your cross-cultural overseas workers is sometimes to simply be a friend and remain in contact and keep the relationships alive. Sometimes I share these kind of links with friends in the hope that they hear me, and realise just how aching the loneliness can be at times, but somehow I find it hard to be 'heard' and that can only compound the feelings of isolation and misunderstanding.

However, today there blew a breath of fresh air. I have some colleagues from the UK who are here for a few days, one in Africa for her first time. So the children and I took them downtown - not to the particularly tourist places, but to the places where you can buy fabric cheaply, where you see men carrying huge packages on their heads (my favourite must be when they stack about twenty mattresses up high!), to where children crawl around the stalls, and where you think it must be possible to buy just about anything if you knew where to look. But the thing I found remarkable was that it didn't seem strange at all. Here we were, in a part of town where you rarely see foreigners, with four children in tow, darting in and out of traffic and dodging the head-carriers, but it just felt normal. There were one or two things (like crossing the chaotic taxi park) that I used to find absolutely terrifying and completely perplexing all in one, but somehow even that felt normal. My friends assured me that this absolutely was not normal and it was completely eye opening and crazy.

What I realised was that this is home. The children were leading the way, explaining about all kinds of things (some of the history, the different types of military vehicle on the street, the different street foods they prefer) and I saw just how at home they are here too.

Often the loneliness I feel is not a consequence of being overseas from my passport country, so much as a phase of life. My children are young and still require a lot of input and supervision. When my husband is overseas, I rise very early and stay up very late to get my academic work completed. The only evenings I don't work are when I am hosting a Christian meeting of some type, often leading a Bible study and making sure everybody is comfortable, with drinks and cake. There just isn't a whole lot of time for 'socialising'.

I remember when we left our neighbourhood in the UK, how I hadn't quite realised how settled we were and how strong some of the relationships were until it was time to leave. I  think I am beginning to see that here. My children love the Bible studies, especially when one of the young men comes a little early to play raucous games outside with them. Their favourite songs are in multiple different languages. They enjoy laughing (in a healthy way) at the differences between the cultures (and in return, are often laughed at too - the people here have a very robust sense of humour).

I was encouraged to simply give thanks that this is our home. This is where God has brought us, and where He has provided community, fellowship and life.

Yes, there are tiring days, lonely days, and sometimes sad days. But these are irrespective of my physical locality - and I must take care to see that as the case.

And now, I must stop blogging and return to preparing Sunday lunch for a group of friends who will join us here.