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.

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