Ministers of Beauty

In his book Til We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis wrote: “It was when I was happiest that I longed most…The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing…to find the place where all the beauty came from.” In my own life, I believe I have been on that same journey—to find the place—to reach and even be enveloped by the place where all the beauty comes from.

What is beauty? Can it truly be defined? Just when you think you have got it—the explanation slips through your fingers. Is it goodness, holiness, godliness? brilliance, brightness, glory? loveliness, charm, elegance? symmetry, balance, order? Maybe it is like a multi-faceted diamond where all the parts make the whole. While we struggle to define what beauty is, somehow we know it when we see it, when we hear it, when we touch it, taste it and smell it. We notice when it is present and we notice when it is absent. Beauty takes on form after form, showing itself in a million ways at one moment then changing at the next with equal or even greater potency. Though we often ignore it, beauty is all around us, speaking message upon message to those who would hear. It speaks into our souls, reaching places that other voices cannot go. The Psalmist observes:

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words;

no sound is heard from them.

Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,

their words to the ends of the world.

Psalms 19:1-4 (NIV)

What is it about a brilliant sunset, or a quaint town covered in glistening snow, an exquisite piece of music or a towering wedding cake that takes our breath away, lifting our spirit, causing us to exclaim, “Beautiful!” When colour, light, geometry, form, sound, rhythm, texture, spice and all those diverse facets that combine to make the world that we experience each day come together in certain arrangements then beauty shows up like a Divine visitation. Equally mysterious is the life that is beautiful. What makes it beautiful? What are the ingredients that combine to make a life that so powerfully and sweetly ministers to another’s soul? I think if we were to look no higher than the skies above us we would not come very close to an adequate explanation of this thing called beauty. But if we look beyond the skies, even beyond the galaxies to the Heaven of heavens, the throne-room of God and deep into the heart and mind of God Himself, then I believe we come closest to understanding beauty—though we may never fully grasp it. (For beauty, may well prove to be as infinite as God Himself).

Perhaps when we sense beauty around us or even within us, we are really sensing the nearness of Heaven. Perhaps we are perceiving expressions or manifestations of the mind and heart of God—we are grasping something of the Divine presence and the timeless attributes of the radiant Ancient of Days. Surely there can be no true beauty apart from God. Therefore, when we are enjoying beauty we are ultimately enjoying God. And this would explain why beauty has such a way of speaking to and ministering to the soul.

This is echoed in the book Captivating by John Eldredge:

 “Beauty speaks of heaven to come, when all shall be beautiful. It haunts us with eternity. Beauty says, There is a glory calling to you. And if there is a glory, there is a source of glory. What great goodness could have possibly created this? What generosity gave us this to behold? Beauty draws us to God.”

When we think of all the things that we need for a healthy life I suspect that beauty is one thing that would not be on most people’s lists. It’s obvious that we need shelter, food, work, relationships and clothes. We learn that we should exercise, eat healthily, make time for fun and fellowship and get good sleep if we want to be at our best. In our brokenness, we will read books, listen to podcasts, visit counsellors and seek prayer to help us get to a place of healing. But how few of us recognise that beauty is an essential ingredient to our flourishing and healing. Have you ever stopped to wonder why we spend time decorating our house, planting a garden, selecting certain clothes and choosing a particular fragrance to wear? Why do we give someone who is grieving or ill a bouquet of flowers? Why do lovers choose to watch a sunset together? Why do children pick flowers or chase after butterflies? And why are so many older church buildings adorned with exquisite stained-glass windows? We are naturally drawn to beauty—somehow we recognise our need for it even if we rarely articulate it. We are longing for the delightfulness, the radiance, the loveliness, the majesty, the awesomeness and sweetness of Heaven and ultimately, the God of Heaven. We need beauty’s presence in our lives—without it we wilt and shrink.

In his book Desire, John Eldredge describes a counselling session with a woman Kathleen who was a victim of rape. He was wondering what possible advice could help bring healing to this hurting woman. Noticing the little flowers embroidered on the collar of her shirt he eventually inquired about them. Kathleen responded, “Ever since the rape, beauty has meant the world to me. No one seemed to understand why. Sometimes I would spend hours just gazing at my garden and the woods behind my house. Only beauty helps.” Eldredge then refers to his own experience with beauty following the death of his friend Brent:

I understand completely. As the shock of Brent’s death began to wear off, the searing pain of intense grief took its place. It was too difficult to read my Bible. Conversation required more than I was able to give. Frankly, I didn’t want to talk to anyone, not even God. The only thing that helped was my wife’s flower garden. The solace I found there was like nothing else on earth. I wrote in my journal, Sitting outside this evening, the Shasta daisies swaying in the gentle breeze on their long stems, the aspens shimmering without light, the full moon rising over the pine-crested bluff…only beauty speaks what I need to hear. Only beauty helps.

Simone Weil was absolutely right—beauty and affliction are the only two things that can pierce our hearts. Because this is so true, we must have a measure of beauty in our lives proportionate to our affliction. No, more. Much more. Is this not God’s prescription for us? Just take a look around. The sights and sounds, the aromas and sensations—the world is overflowing with beauty. God seems rather enamoured with it. Gloriously wasteful. Apparently, he feels that there ought to be plenty of it in our lives.

Eldredge’s recollections echo in my own life. Following a very challenging period of ill health I found that I could not pray and the cover of my Bible seemed strangely heavy. The pain was crippling. But in that pain, beauty beckoned and I found myself poring over interior-design books and gardening books. Somehow, it occurred to me as I was doing this that I was glimpsing Heaven and I imagined the glories of the life to come. In this way, God spoke to me, and Heaven ministered to my hurting soul and gave me hope for the future. In this way too, I was speaking with Heaven as my aching heart silently cried out for its nearness, healing and soothing.

So, perhaps beauty is God’s way of speaking to us at a level where mere words cannot reach. And maybe when we think God is silent, He is actually communicating to us through the language of beauty, embracing and holding us fast in His arms and singing His love over us in a thousand different ways. And somehow, though words and prayer may escape us, as we seek the healing power of beauty we are expressing our need for God (whether we realise it or not). Beauty is a balm to the hurting, a hope to the hopeless and a light to those in darkness. Beauty nurtures and nourishes, it holds and comforts, it uplifts and makes glad. Wherever beauty is, Heaven is not far away. If these things are so then should we not make more room, more time for beauty in the warp and weft of our lives? And shouldn’t Christians, who walk in Heaven’s light, of all people be bringing beauty into the lives of those thirsting for its presence? What if, among the goals we set for ourselves, one of the chief goals was to be ministers of beauty to those around us? Is this not in line with the mission God has for His children—to bring Heaven near to those who are far from it? This is something that each of us can do, in our own unique way, with perhaps little effort.

We all know the blessing of being invited into someone’s home to share a meal at their table. It is a taste of Heaven as we banquet together, savouring the food and the fellowship, eating off the best crockery and being made much of as the honoured guest. We delight in a bouquet of flowers at a time of celebration or at a time of grieving. How beautiful it is when someone speaks to us with grace and warmth as if Heaven itself were speaking. We have walked into buildings where the drabness of the world has been shut out, transporting us to a place of tranquillity and quiet delight—with colours, lights, textures and scents refreshing the depths of our souls. And we have shared a moment with a loved-one as they beckon us to sit a while and drink in the sweet strains of a piece of music recently discovered.

One does not need to be an artist, an accomplished musician, a chef or a great orator to bring the gift of beauty to others. It often just takes a little thought, a little preparation, a little care, a little ingenuity or a little creativity. It can be done with money or without it. Beauty is not limited by our constraints. It simply waits for us to act so it may be unleashed. And may I comment that there is a feminine beauty, which might spring to mind more easily but there is also a masculine beauty—like that which heavily features in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy—a noble, even rugged beauty, the beauty of fellowship—of friendship and the beauty of bearing arms together. No one is excluded from beauty’s reach and use.

Think about how you might bring beauty to those around you—or bring those around you to beauty. Cook a meal, plant a garden, take a journey to somewhere breathtaking, speak a timely, gracious and loving word. Hug the hurting, pray with those in need, buy someone a new coat. Throw a party, decorate a room, write a poem or go for a picnic. Paint a picture, take someone to a concert or call a friend out of the blue. Sit and listen to someone over a good cup of coffee or tea. The possibilities are endless. Somehow, as we do these things, Heaven draws near and lives are blessed—even healed.

When you cook a meal for someone, serving it tastefully or even sumptuously, with love, your honoured guest is drawn to the banqueting table of Heaven. The garden that you plant is an extension of Eden (though imperfect) and God walks there with you in the cool of the day. The journey you make to glorious vistas is a taste of the far green country that awaits you at the end of life’s journey and God meets you there. The words you speak in kindness may well be the very words of God and be like a healing “cordial made of the juice of one of the fire-flowers that grow in the mountains of the sun”. * A hug can be as the very arms of God—Heaven’s welcome, reassurance and affirmation. Praying with someone always seems to lift the person prayed for and the person praying to the Heavenly realm and somehow the burden is lightened and light pours in. A new coat is a reminder that the God of Heaven clothes the lilies of the field and cares infinitely more for the needs of His children than he does for beautiful but fleeting flowers. Parties are a taste of the celebrations yet to come and are birthed in love. A room decorated speaks of mansions being prepared as our eternal dwelling. Concerts bring the sweet and powerful strains of Heaven into the depths of the soul where little else can reach. A phone call out of the blue reminds that Heaven’s friendship is forever. The simple act of pouring a cup of tea (an almost sacred ritual, in my opinion) says that Heaven is here with us—that divine conversation is at hand. I think by now you see the pattern—Heaven’s sunlight refracting through the everyday stuff of life, casting the shimmering colours of God into the needy places of the heart.

How many people do we rub shoulders with whom are hurting or without hope, longing for a touch from Heaven to minister to their pain? We have the wondrous opportunity to bring the balm of beauty to them. Some have grown weary of life—we can refresh their souls, restoring them to an abundant life. Others need to taste and see that God is good—that He is desirable, wonderful, awesome and not least, beautiful. Let us not underestimate the power and potential of beauty in bringing Heaven near, and God even nearer.

I close with the words of Augustine, from his Confessions:

            My Father, supremely good, beauty of all things beautiful.

_________________________

* Lucy Pevensie’s healing cordial in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Some Verses for Further Reflection

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

Romans 1:20 (NIV)

 

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,

because the Lord has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim freedom for the captives

and release from darkness for the prisoners,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

and the day of vengeance of our God,

to comfort all who mourn,

and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

to bestow on them a crown of beauty

instead of ashes,

the oil of joy

instead of mourning,

and a garment of praise

instead of a spirit of despair.

They will be called oaks of righteousness,

a planting of the Lord

for the display of his splendor.

Isaiah 61:1-3 (NIV)

A Suggested Prayer of Response

 God of Heaven, God of Beauty, Beautiful God, here, I am—still before You, resting in Your light and Your love. How often You have spoken to me in silent ways—ministering to me in my pain in a thousand different ways. Where beauty has shone, Heaven has appeared and hope has come. Through beauty, You draw me ever nearer to Your Throne, ever nearer to Your breast. Thank You for beauty—thank You for sharing it with me. Now, just as You have ministered to me through beauty, may I go out into the world and myself be a minister of beauty. May I bring the balm of Heaven to those in need—to those who are hurting, to those who need hope, to those who long for a lasting home. Grow me in beauty, dear Lord. And let beauty continue to lead me Heavenward until I find myself embraced everlastingly in Your arms. In Christ’s beautiful name I pray, Amen.


Beautiful

I recently watched a tearjerker of a film, Wonder, which focuses on a young boy August Pullman (Auggie) who was born with major facial deformities. It shows the challenges he faces as he goes to school for the first time and the impact that his life has on those around him. He is haunted each day by the image in the mirror, preferring to hide under a helmet than let people see him as he is. It is an uphill battle for him to find acceptance and true friendship in a world that is so image-driven. Despite needing a few tissues along the way, it is a heart-warming, encouraging film and one that I think would help many people on a number of levels—particularly our young people. While Auggie’s case is an extreme one, many of us struggle in some shape or form with body image issues. For some, it affects them greatly while for others it’s more a feeling of underlying discontent. It is a great challenge in this age not to be affected by the constant barrage of photo-shopped, airbrushed images of the “lucky few” that make it on the magazine covers and star in the movies we watch. We find ourselves longing to share in their world of beauty. I guess, for myself, being an artist and a perfectionist doesn’t help me in my own struggle with this. It is good to be reminded in such times that while man looks at the outward appearance, God looks at the heart. We do need to go beyond superficialities to focus on the things of life that truly matter in God’s eyes. But is it all jealousy when we see the magazine cover or is there something more to it? I think deep down we all have some memory, however hazy, of the glory of Eden. We have that sense that our first parents were enveloped in breathtaking beauty and that we too should have inherited that glory, that beauty. But for sin, we would have shone with this beauty too. There is a longing within us that is legitimate and that longing is an indicator that we were made for such things. Will we always be as we are now or is there hope—hope for something better—a greater beauty?

We have, deep down, a quiet (though at times, strong) desire that one-day beauty shall visit and envelop us. When we think about the resurrection to come our desire is that we would be made more than we are. Thinking about the life to come keeps me going day after day. I love to read people’s thoughts and reflections on heaven and it’s glories. Yet, I am often disappointed when I come to the pages about our resurrection bodies. People will write about the various abilities of the heavenly body and the lack of weakness and illness therein, which is wonderful to think about, but I usually find they fall short when they make mention of the face. Perhaps they are trying to help those who struggle with their appearance feel better about the way they look in this life and I don’t knock them for that. I could certainly glean some thoughts from them in this area. But I find their answers unsatisfying and not particularly well thought through—as if they haven’t done the maths. One writer basically said that we can’t all expect to have “movie star looks” in the life to come but will more or less keep our earthly appearance. It seems that these commentators are suggesting that we will simply look like healthier, glowing versions of the way we are now. That’s fine if you’re the movie star type (well, some movie stars) but not so encouraging for the rest of us. I’d like to propose a different way to look at this and give those of us that struggle with body image a strong hope for the future that Christ is preparing for us.

In my journal, a few months back, I wrote down some thoughts on this subject. I’d like to share those thoughts with you now and then make some additional observations.

There is a continual pang of longing within each one of us—to recapture or to hold on to the glorious body of our first father (or mother)—that flawless, youthful, smooth, soft and sculpted physique that only Eden saw in its purest form. Even those who turn heads in this age eventually succumb to age and decay. Beauty, energy, strength, and ability all fade and crumble the closer comes the grave. We long for that perfect body—that perfect face because we have the distant memory that it was ours from the beginning.

It will be God’s delight to restore symmetry and flawless beauty to His children when the seeds finally grow to mature trees, when the plain, even ugly, bulbs hidden beneath the earth give birth to daffodil, tulip and freesia—when the fragments of our fallen bodies rise to the skies, triumphant over death. We don’t know the extent of the brilliance and beauty with which we shall be clothed but we know that when we shall see Jesus, we shall be like Him. There cannot be better, more beautiful, more breathtaking than God incarnate—the Second Adam—the Risen One. And He shall share His glory—His beauty with His eternal family.

How amazing to think that God will make each person in His family of equal beauty and yet unique and special. I often ponder the equal beauty yet uniqueness of each snowflake. How many millions, even trillions or more, of different designs are there and yet miraculously, God makes each one stunning and awe-inspiring to behold. So it will be with us.

Imagine the first time you will see your face at the resurrection. Looking back at you will be you—perfectly you. The great restoration will be complete! The Great Designer will apply the laws of symmetry (and the Golden Ratio) to the old face and body. He will cleanse and perfect your DNA, removing every weakness and flaw. And somehow, you will still appear different from the next person—different but equally beautiful. I imagine that as you see yourself and then look around you, you will have no wish to look like anyone other than yourself—you might even think that God had favoured you (which shall be true for you—and every other). Somehow, your external image will perfectly represent your internal image. The inner and outer person will be completely, fully in-sync.

Mirrors will not be shrines of self-worship but rather provide opportunities for thankful worship to God Who has allowed you to share in His eternal beauty and glory.

Finally we shall look at the faces around us and not feel a twinge of envy—not simply because envy is disallowed so much as we will be so fully, completely satisfied in God’s goodness to us—in the body and face He has given us—that it will be impossible for us to wish we had any other face—any body other than our own. We will be free to admire God’s handiwork and give Him praise for it—praise for His goodness to others as well as His goodness to us.

How much time do we now put into keeping our bodies fit and healthy—in trying to keep that glow? How wonderful to be in a perpetual state of fitness, health and glowing beauty! It will free us to focus on serving God and serving others. The day will come when the image in the mirror is the one we long to see and from that point we will be happy to look away, fully content. Our visits to the mirror will be quick glances, filling us with thankful joy, as we prepare ourselves for Heaven’s activities and celebrations. Often, we will forget ourselves as we enjoy the beauty of those we rub shoulders with.

One day we shall see God in the mirror. Before I am accused of heresy, let me explain. There shall be nothing in the New Heavens and the New Earth that does not perfectly, flawlessly reflect God’s glory—His attributes. There shall be no place in His redeemed creation where we shall find any distortion or corruption. The tiniest particle to the largest galaxy shall work in perfect harmony with the Divine Will and tell forth and celebrate God’s glory. The ripples of water in a stream, the folding and unfolding of a butterfly’s wings, the scent of a rose carried on a gentle breeze, the songs of birds filling the air and the dance of the planets across the skies will be true reflections of the Creator and there shall in no way be any lie about Him in all creation’s proclamation of His goodness, majesty, beauty, holiness, joy and love. We ourselves shall not only bear God’s image perfectly within—in our character, but also outwardly—in our bodies. Just as nothing about our character shall lie about God in the life to come, so nothing about our physical bodies and appearance shall lie about Him, for in the New Heavens and the New Earth there is nothing but Truth. I conclude then that there is no place in the life to come for deformity and distortion. As God’s image bearers, how can we expect to see anything but the glory of God as we look in a mirror or look at the people around us? We shall not see ourselves as we were under the curse—corrupted, but free from the curse—incorruptible! It would be enough to be like Adam in his pre-curse beauty but we shall go far beyond that to take on the likeness of the Second-Adam—the Lord Jesus—in His resurrection glory, beauty—unveiled and unfiltered. For when we see Him we shall be like Him. We have been looking all these years for God in the mirror and before long we shall see Christ’s likeness beaming back at us in every sense. This shall be God’s gift to us and we shall worship Him for His favour showered upon us.

I think that many writers about Heaven forget about the effects of the curse and sin upon human appearance over the years—that we have inherited millennia worth of genetic deteriorations and malfunctions. Some genetic information has gone amiss or has overstepped its boundaries. A jaw is too shallow, a nose too large or eyes out of line. A back is hunched, hands are gnarled or one leg too short. Myself, my upper jaw didn’t develop properly and in my early twenties I needed to have major surgery to realign my jaw. I long to see what my face will be like when the effects of the curse and sin are lifted and I at last see God’s true, lasting design for me. While we can appreciate beauty in the imperfect here and now—something I need to learn to do more often, isn’t it encouraging to think that the corrupting effects of the curse and sin shall one day be fully lifted from us revealing the true person inwardly and outwardly that God has created us and set us apart to be? This does not mean becoming someone we are not but becoming the best we can be—God’s absolute best version of us!

“What God has planned

   for people who love him

is more than eyes have seen

   or ears have heard.

It has never even

   entered our minds!”

1 Corinthians 2:9 (CEV)

Now we are like a very rough sketch…one that has had coffee spilt on it, causing the ink to run. Then we shall be as the finest of masterpieces—a work that shows the artist at their best and that causes critics to wax lyrical. Now we are like a seed, covered in soil. Then we shall rise to the sun, leaves outstretched and clothed in fragrant bloom. Now we are as a small acorn, then like a mighty oak. There is a connection to the old but the new eclipses the old in its glory and beauty. Consider the ancient city of Jerusalem with its dusty streets and stony walls compared with the glorious, bright, sparkling city, the New Jerusalem, built with expanses of gemstones, streets of gold and gates of pearls. Will it not be the same with our bodies? And there is Jesus’ own earthly body—which “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2 ESV) compared with his bright, flaming body as seen by the Apostle John in his vision in Revelation or His transfigured appearance in the Gospels. While we cannot fathom exactly what Christ shall appear like, we cannot deny there is a striking contrast.

When we see Christ, we shall forget ourselves being caught up in His radiant beauty. He shall fill our thoughts and be our hearts’ desire. Heaven is about glorifying, enjoying and worshiping Jesus forever. But it is also comforting to know that, as already mentioned, when we see Him, we shall be like Him. That is our hope—our assurance. If Christ be beautiful, then so shall we. Christ loves us more than any other and He desires for us to share in His eternal beauty—He will not see His Bride be anything less than she could be. We shall be His delight as He will be ours. In this light we can take heart. We go to Christ’s outstretched arms confident that in those arms we shall be beautiful—we shall be changed.

A Glorious Body

But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain—perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body.

All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of animals, another of fish, and another of birds. 

There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory.

So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.

However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual. The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.

Our Final Victory

Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“O Death, where is your sting?

O Hades, where is your victory?”

The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.

(1 Corinthians 15:35-58 NKJV)

 A Suggested Prayer of Response

 Lord Jesus, beautiful and glorious, majestic and wonderful, our minds cannot fathom Your heavenly radiance. Yet, One day we shall see You face to face and then, we shall be like You. Thank you that You will take us, as clay in your hands and reshape and refine us into works of art to convey Your glory forever. How kind, generous, merciful and loving You are. Thank you for the hope that we have in the resurrection of the saints. Just as You were raised, so shall we be raised. We are comforted by this hope—this assurance. By Your grace, help us to be content—even thankful—for the frame you have given us as we wait for the unveiling of our true selves when we shall be fully clothed with Your beauty and bear Your true likeness. In this hope, may we persevere with the work that You have for us here and now, reaching the broken that they may be remade. In Your precious and holy name we pray, Amen.


Pathways

Do you have favourite authors who can speak into your soul in ways that many others can’t? An author that has often spoken into my soul, like a father, is John Eldredge. I struggled to connect at times with his book Wild at Heart but have been very blessed by many of his other books. The other day I plucked his book Fathered by God off my bookshelf and read the chapter entitled Warrior. Reading the following thoughts coincided with my recent realisation that I had been following the path of least resistance in many areas of life.

Life will provide a thousand sessions for the raising of the warrior. Turn your radar on during the day, and intentionally don’t take the path of least resistance. Take the road less travelled.

… Be decisive. Every time a man makes a hard decision, the warrior in him is strengthened. Notice those places where you are normally passive and do the opposite. What are you surrendering these days? Go take it back.

God spoke to me through these words of counsel and clarified for me what was happening in my life. It became clear to me that I was taking the easy path in so many areas of life.

I find myself frequently taking the same old paths, giving little thought to where they lead to, why I’m taking them and whether they are the best paths to take. Often I’m halfway along them before I realise where I am. It takes no effort and no calculations to travel these paths, something inside sets me on autopilot and before I know it I have arrived at my destination. At times the destination is good and filled with life, purpose and nourishment. Often, however, the destination while promising to be good ends up being the opposite: bad, life destroying, futile and depleting. On these paths there is little growth and I stay as I am.

We each have certain pathways that we follow that are well trodden but unfruitful or even destructive. It’s easy to resort to them for they are comfortable and familiar but we’re never really satisfied by taking them and at times they cause us further misery. It’s easier to withdraw from people instead of putting ourselves out there and investing time in others. It’s easier to snap and say harsh words rather than pausing and slowly, thoughtfully speaking words of encouragement or warmth that will build a person up. It’s easier to do things the way you’ve always done them instead of trying something more daring and adventurous. It’s easier to indulge the flesh in all manner of harmful things rather than deny the flesh and reap sweeter rewards later. Yet, I’m learning that the easier way actually makes life harder, it makes it less fulfilling, less rewarding, less fun and you’re stuck swimming in a whirlpool of mediocrity with nowhere to go and little to show for it. You try to preserve your life but end up losing it in the process. You’re like a soldier that has swapped their sword for a stick of fairy-floss or a wild stallion strapped into a merry-go-round.

In many areas of my life in recent years I have been flying on autopilot and letting habits steer my course with little challenge. In one area, however, I have switched off autopilot and taken a new pathway that I had barely tried before. I decided that after so many years of minimal physical exercise and fitness that I should start looking after my body and so I began a fitness regime combining High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) with weights training or “resistance” training. This was not a pathway that my body welcomed and there was much resistance! The old, familiar pathway (the couch) seemed much more enticing than a pair of runners, a skipping rope and a set of weights. But taking the path of least resistance wasn’t going to help me get in shape (unless I wanted to have the shape of a bag of potato chips). By choosing to get my heart rate up, sweat a bit and press against the weights resisting my movements I was now on the path to a healthier body (and a less-stressed mind). It’s been several months since beginning the resistance training on top of the HIIT workouts. I’m now seeing the results of all this effort and interestingly, it’s becoming a well-worn pathway for me and I don’t have to psyche myself up for it or deliberate for ages whether I’ll exercise or not. My mind and body are in a routine and they expect it now. It actually seems harder not to exercise.

In my journey towards greater fitness I’m learning that it takes time to get in shape. It requires discipline and consistency in order to see and maintain results. Before long it becomes a natural part of everyday life and it is something not just for a month or two here and there but for life. It is also helped along by times of regular (intermittent) fasting and by eating those things that will nourish the body rather than damage it. Study is required in regards to how to exercise properly and what and when to eat. I’m also learning that it helps to keep the goal in mind. When I’m tempted to forgo a workout or to binge on unhealthy food I find it easier to stay on track when considering the long-term effects of my choices. Will forgoing my workout or binging on unhealthy food help me keep fit and trim or put me backwards?

Working out and eating wisely can be hard. It’s not an easy path to take but in time you reap the reward. It would be nice to be plugged into a machine like the one that transformed a skinny youth into strong, muscular and agile Captain America—to be zapped and instantly fit but the reality is that we have to put in the hard slog to make progress. Devoting time to something that is outside of the bounds of comfort and ease jars against your nature but it becomes a welcome inconvenience once you start feeling healthier and looking trimmer. Denying the body’s natural appetites by doing intermittent fasting doesn’t have great appeal until you realise that it is helping to lose unwanted body fat and reveal the muscles that have long been hidden. When you begin to glow with health and feel more energetic and in balance it’s not so hard to stay away from certain foods.

It helps to have friends alongside you on a similar journey—friends who are themselves seeking to get fit and healthy. It helps you to keep up the momentum. The occasional word of encouragement gives you incentive to stick with it and lets you know that your efforts are paying off.

Hopefully, in these reflections on fitness and healthy eating you’re starting to connect the dots and apply the concepts mentioned to other pathways of life. In seeking to forge better pathways there is a need for repetition. The more the pathway is travelled, the easier and more natural it becomes. Without pain, time and sacrifice we will not get to where we want to be. While we would like God to zap us and instantly transform us into the person He’s set us apart to be, His way is more often the longer, slower path—one step at a time. Keeping the goal in our sights helps us to stay on the path and not give up. When we’re at a crossroads in different areas of life we can ask questions like, “Will I be happy with this decision in the days, weeks, months and years from now?” or “Is taking this path helping me become the man or woman God has created me to be or is it keeping me from God’s best?” And it’s far better to be working through things with the support and encouragement of others, walking the path together, rather than going it alone.

The various heroes of faith down through the millennia were no strangers to discipline. Taking the higher path one choice at a time again and again strengthened them spiritually and set their feet firmly on the path of godliness. Think of Joseph resisting temptation or Daniel and his daily prayer habits to name a couple.

The way of the cross was the narrow way, the path less trod. Christ Jesus could have sat on an earthly throne and had people wait on Him, living in great comfort and splendour. Instead, He chose the path of suffering, knowing that this path would lead ultimately to blessing for many down through the ages. Christ has set the path for our feet to follow and though it is far from easy it offers the same blessings to all who take it. Jesus challenged the Pharisees in their hypocrisy, He put His reputation on the line by eating with “sinners” and made time for children. He resisted temptation—sweating drops of blood and ultimately carried our guilt and bore the wrath intended for us. His path was one of continually laying down His life knowing that this path would bear eternal, glorious fruit. He didn’t burn out, He knew when to withdraw and rest, but He was always about His Father’s business and His feet were constantly on the path set for Him by His Father.

What are the wide, comfortable and easy pathways that you have been following? Where do you need to forge new pathways that lead to life, blessing, fruitfulness and godliness? Perhaps it is that you need to make more room in your life and your home for other people. Maybe it is replacing negative thought patterns and words with positive, life-giving ones. Could it be that you need to seek out help in retraining your mind and forging a new path of purity? Perhaps you need to find your voice again and speak up for those who are downtrodden, outcasts or powerless. Maybe you need to be more sacrificial with your time or money—listening to and taking care of the needs of others. Possibly, like me, you need to push aside some things to forge a new path of prayer and meditation on the Word—listening to God, worshiping Him and interceding for those in need. It will be hard going for some time but eventually your feet will more easily tread the new path having made habits of good and godly things. As we do this, there’s a double blessing: others are blessed and experience more of Christ and we will undoubtedly grow ourselves and become more like Christ.

It’s the path that is less travelled—not the path of least resistance that we need to follow, stepping into all those things that God tells us in His Word to do and be—those things that seem so contrary to the way we would like to live our lives. But in these things, along these pathways, are life, godliness and fruitfulness. True joy is only found this way. Thankfully, Jesus has paved the way and He gives us His Spirit ever to guide and strengthen us for the journey—one step at a time.

Some Verses for Further Reflection

Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways.

Proverbs 4:26 (NIV) 

The path of the righteous is level; you, the Upright One, make the way of the righteous smooth.

Isaiah 26:7 (NIV)

In the way of righteousness there is life; along that path is immortality.

Proverbs 12:28 (NIV)

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Matthew 16:24 (NIV)

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

1 Corinthians 9:25-27 (NIV)

A Suggested Prayer of Response

Dear Father, I thank You for this time of considering the paths my feet have been following. I confess to You that there are paths I have been walking on that have led me away from You—that have been wasteful, futile and destructive. Forgive my wandering. Thank You for the path that Your beloved Son Jesus took—going to the cross that I might know eternal life and have everlasting fellowship with You. Thank You that I am free now to walk where Jesus has walked—that I am free to take the higher ground. Help me no longer to shy away from discipline and from taking up my cross daily. Give me strength each day, through Your indwelling Holy Spirit, to turn from the old familiar paths to take new paths—paths that lead me into the abundant life that You have prepared for me—paths that lead to You. Teach me how to walk these paths again and again that my feet may more readily tread them. Keep me from discouragement along the way and set joy before me to keep me going. May You bless me with others to spur me along and to support me. I would be like Christ: help me to walk step-by-step in His ways. Be glorified in my life as I seek to walk with You. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.

 

 


A Tree Planted

Blessed is the one
   who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

(Psalm 1:1-3, NIV)

People are very happy to broadcast their triumphs and successes—to fill their Facebook page or Christmas newsletter with pictures and news of themselves at their finest. But when life is not going so well it’s a different matter. In Christian circles, it can be that way too. Not many of us like to front up and let people know when we aren’t going so well spiritually. “Christians aren’t supposed to ebb and flow, they’re not meant to have bad days, their faith shouldn’t waver, they shouldn’t have dry patches and they certainly shouldn’t get depressed,” or so the thinking often goes. We can lay hold of the “saint” part at times and forget about the human part. It is much healthier and more helpful when we step out with greater transparency and share the struggles along with the triumphs.

Myself, I have felt like the tide has gone out for some time; that the river has run dry, the garden lost among the brambles and the fire barely flickering. I’ve spent much time reading this and watching that, trying to scramble out of the ditch but falling back down again and again. There have been many helpful insights and tools along the way but it has been overwhelming trying to figure out what to focus on and where to devote my time. Over the school holiday period recently I was able to draw aside from the mad rush of life and devote time to nurturing my spirit. I’d like to share now some simple thoughts that arose from this time of reflection in the hope that others who find themselves in a ditch may know they are not alone and may find a hand extending to lift them up.

Sometimes we assume that the answer to the problems we are experiencing must be a diverse and complicated one. How wonderful it is when one realises that the solution is actually quite simple. If we were to close the textbooks and pause the podcasts for a while and step outside to ponder the workings and rhythms of the natural world we might more easily arrive at the remedies and solutions that we are seeking. Stars, mountains, rivers and streams, gardens, trees, butterflies and birds, harvests, soil, seeds and shoots—in the world around us, God is speaking and we would do well to listen.

The book of Psalms begins with one such lesson for us to learn from nature. Refreshed as we take in the psalmist’s words, we read of a tree planted by streams of water, drinking deeply and bearing fruit—its leaves defying the scorching heat of the sun. It is a beautiful but simple picture—yet the lesson to be learned is so powerful and profound that were all believers to heed it the face of Christianity today would probably look quite different. The psalmist gently beckons those who would be different from the wicked and the company of mockers to plant themselves at God’s feet, drink in His Word and delight in His goodness. As they do this, it will be the most natural and expected thing for them to become more sure-footed, grow taller and sturdier and ultimately bear an abundant crop of fruit year after year. Surely the spiritual law (or process) is no different here to the natural law.

The tree knows that its thirst can best be satisfied—continually, unceasingly satisfied—there, by the stream. There it has found its heaven. It sends out roots for nourishment and reaches its branches in praise and is blessed with fruitfulness all its days.

As I pondered the nourishment of the tree I couldn’t help but think of prayer. Prayer is a large element in our drinking in of the Divine. The tree planted by the stream is like the importunate friend or the persistent widow in Jesus’ parables. Each digs in, stubbornly waiting for an answer, not budging until the need is supplied. Though one has but little strength, if they cry out to God day after day after day to meet their needs, He will come and the waters will flow.

Maybe you aren’t at that place where drinking from the stream comes easily. If that is so then may I encourage you to pray that God would bring you to that place? Pray for the things that you know you should have but seem beyond your reach. Pray that God would make you hungry for more of Him, that He would stir the embers of your heart and rekindle the flame and that the Holy Spirit would have more and more of You. Pray for what you don’t have—even pray that you will want to have these things if you find you have little desire for them. It is the Father’s delight to give you these things, so do not fear that they will never come—persevere—keep asking.

I had the idea recently to think of all the key areas in my life—areas of need—and to write them down in a large diagram. I then wrote under those items things I specifically wanted to bring before God regarding each area. I typed them into the PrayerMate app on my phone that I use to organise my daily prayer lists, putting in the names of the key areas and then listing what it is about those areas I want to pray for. I felt that organising them in this way would help me to bring my life with all its hurts, joys, plans, questions, fears and hungers to God in a more thoughtful, persistent and thorough way. The prayer app automatically includes one of these items in the overall prayer list each day, allowing me to focus on that item in detail. These serve as a springboard for more prayers as related thoughts, yearnings and needs come to mind. It keeps me from just focusing on one or two needs all the time with barely a thought for others. In this way, I am sending roots down to the stream to draw up life-giving water to satisfy every need.

The close companion to prayer is the Word. Prayer is like the roots that drink from the stream and the Word as water to the tree. The Spirit of God works in and through both. Between prayer and the Word, there is meditation. Prayer springs from meditation on the Word and it rises up upon its shoulders. Life and growth come to the person who enters into this relationship. This is the means to maturity.

It has struck me that reading Psalm 119 is like reading an expanded version of Psalm 1. The writer of Psalm 119 expresses the same thoughts as those in Psalm 1 over and over again.

Oh, how I love your law!
    I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands are always with me
    and make me wiser than my enemies.
I have more insight than all my teachers,
    for I meditate on your statutes.
I have more understanding than the elders,
    for I obey your precepts.
I have kept my feet from every evil path
    so that I might obey your word.
I have not departed from your laws,
    for you yourself have taught me.
 How sweet are your words to my taste,
    sweeter than honey to my mouth!
I gain understanding from your precepts;
    therefore I hate every wrong path.

(Psalm 119:97-104, NIV)

I call with all my heart; answer me, Lord,
    and I will obey your decrees.
I call out to you; save me
    and I will keep your statutes.
I rise before dawn and cry for help;
    I have put my hope in your word.
My eyes stay open through the watches of the night,
    that I may meditate on your promises.
Hear my voice in accordance with your love;
    preserve my life, Lord, according to your laws.
Those who devise wicked schemes are near,
    but they are far from your law.
Yet you are near, Lord,
    and all your commands are true.
Long ago I learned from your statutes
    that you established them to last forever.

(Psalm 119:145-152, NIV)

 As you read through the long psalm it becomes clear that here are the words—the prayers—of a man living as a tree planted by a stream. Through the Word, through prayer and through meditation the psalmist draws near to God, hears His voice, sees His face and comes to know Him intimately. He cannot bear the thought of being in any other place than planted by the stream. He is not walking the path of the sinner because he has positioned himself firmly by the stream.

It would seem, reflecting on the past few years, that somehow I had moved away from the stream. You may agree with me that sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint quite how you got from Point A to Point B. Perhaps with me it was a combination of things: discouragement, unmet needs, temptations, busyness, lack of discipline and no doubt a large dose of spiritual attack. Thankfully, though, it’s not a one-way ticket—I can get back to Point A, I can return to the stream. It’s not a round-the world ticket either, zigzagging across the globe, country after country, to reach the final destination. Laying hold again of prayer, meditation and the Word will surely bring us back to the stream. There we will grow again, raise our branches in worship and bear new crops of fruit. In the few weeks that have passed since first reflecting on the tree planted by the stream, I have already felt refreshed and more spiritually alive than I have in a while. I will pray that this will continue…and keep praying.

Heed the words of the psalmist. Plant yourself by the stream. Dig your roots down deep and drink and keep on drinking. Raise your branches to the sun, grow tall and strong and bear much fruit. If you can do but little else, do this and you shall reap a bountiful harvest.

Some Verses for Further Reflection:

“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

(Jeremiah 2:13, NIV) 

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

(John 4:13-14, NIV)

 ‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

(Revelation 7:16-17, NIV) 

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

(Revelation 22:1-2, NIV)

A Suggested Prayer of Response

God of Living Waters, I come to You for refreshing. I have withered in the heat and my branches are bare. I thirst for You. Plant me, dear Lord, on Your banks that my roots may drink in Your very life. Nourish me and sustain me that I may grow tall and strong and bear much fruit. Help me to pray in increasing measure, bringing all my needs before You. Lead me more and more into Your Word and help me to meditate upon it, finding nourishment for my spirit and health for my bones. Where I have little desire for change, for growth and righteousness, I ask You to give me that desire. Where I have no strength to persevere, give me strength. Help me, Lord, to learn the lesson of the tree and to be encouraged that as it goes for the tree so it may go for me. Thank you for the hope of a bountiful harvest. In You, I abide. In Jesus’ life-giving name I pray, Amen.


Looking Sideways

Have you noticed how many people nowadays are wearing devices such as Fitbits to record anything from their heart rate to sleeping patterns? Perhaps even now you are wearing one. We like to know how we’re doing and if we’re performing at our peak. Imagine if a device could be worn that could record your thinking habits. I doubt it would give encouraging feedback. One area of thought in my life that I’m sure would show up significantly would be all the comparing I do: wondering if I match up, wondering if I’m as good as another, looking longingly at what others have and wishing it were mine, even wanting to do better or receive more than those around me.

Reading through the Gospels, one would assume that if the disciples had such a device to wear that it would record many similar thought patterns. One such example is found in Luke 22:24-30:

A dispute also arose among the disciples as to which of them would be considered the greatest. So Jesus declared, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them call themselves benefactors. But you shall not be like them. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who leads like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is not the one who reclines? But I am among you as the One who serves.

You are the ones who have stood by Me in My trials. And I bestow on you a kingdom, just as My Father has bestowed on Me, so that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Right as Jesus was entering His final hours before being raised up on the cross, the disciples were more concerned with their own elevation than the Lord’s approaching suffering. As happens so often, when reading of the disciples’ flaws and failures, I realise that I am no different than they were. For the past month or so I have been seeking wisdom from God in this area of looking sideways and seeking the elevation of self, wondering what change of perspective might release me from these self-centred thought patterns. Again and again a key thought has kept popping up and it is this: knowing that you’re accepted in the kingdom frees you to truly love and serve those around you. Jesus could have ended this section of his discourse by simply telling the disciples to humble themselves as servants but He went on to encourage them that they were receiving a kingdom—that a place was reserved for them at His own table and that they would share His authority. The reassurance that the disciples were ‘in’ the kingdom and that they would partake in Christ’s glory was to be a freeing agent, enabling the disciples to serve greater and love deeper. They had the promise of an inheritance and so the loss of position, prestige, possessions and life itself was a small price to pay compared to the joy that would be theirs beyond the veil of death.

How wonderful and assuring it is to know that you are in—that you have made the cut, that you’re on the team and your place is secure. Knowing that you’re accepted; that you’re welcome; that you belong, frees you to be yourself, to rest in who you are and to roll up your sleeves and get on with the job. It also frees you to lay aside your own agenda so that others may advance, so that others may be helped to get in and grow.

As Christians we don’t have to fret as to whether we are accepted. Upon our union with Christ our place in God’s kingdom is secured. While we have work to do in the kingdom it is not done to secure our place and we are now free to enjoy and embrace this work without jostling for position and trying to climb the ladder at the expense of others. Though we run the race to win the prize, there is no competition with our brothers and sisters who run alongside us. We are more like travelling companions, urging and helping one another to keep on going.

How easy it is to look sideways at those running the race with us and think that we are competing against them—trying to go faster and further, not pausing to help if they stumble. Within our Church community, among our circles of friends, at our workplace, the envy, the pride, the jostling for position and the seeking to impress can easily creep into our hearts and influence the way we interact with those around us. How different this is to Jesus Who made Himself as nothing for our sake. He had no earthly fortune, high position or possessions to speak of and yet He was content. Jesus knew the inheritance that was His awaiting Him beyond His work on the cross. He knew that He would be welcomed into Heaven as the Victor over sin and death and that He would sit down at the right hand of the Father having accomplished the Father’s will. Jesus lived in the light of His Father’s smile—in the light of the Father’s “Well done!” and in that light He served mankind. He did not live to please Himself but lived in and for the pleasure of the Father. We too have the affirmation of the Father, the words: “This is my Beloved Son” alighting upon us. Though we feel far from perfect, we have truly entered into the perfection of our Lord—made spotless by His blood. The Father sees His Son when He sees us. It is settled and we can take tremendous comfort in this astonishing truth.

Do you find that when you hear a piece of music performed exceptionally well that something within you wishes it were you performing? Or you see the face on the magazine cover and wish it were yours? You see someone win that race, buy that house, get that position, win that award or give that speech and you long to trade places. We can get caught in an endless cycle of comparing, envying, and self-deprecating—wearing ourselves down, and thinking we are worth less than those around us. Think of this: God, in all His wisdom, has not given you that ability, that face, that house, that position, that gift that you wish you had for a reason. You may not, in this life, know fully the reason why. One day it will make sense. Meanwhile, you can trust that God knew what He was doing when He fashioned you and ordered your steps. What might be a blessing to one person may be a curse to you. God is not like a fairy-godmother, granting all our vain wishes. Instead He is a loving Father who truly knows what is best and most needful for each of His children—giving some things, withholding others—all for our good and ultimately for His glory.

Yes, God is not like a fairy-godmother—thankfully, He far exceeds one. None of the fairy tales we love to read come close to the happily ever after that God is preparing for His children. “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9) In Christ, all things are ours. Beyond the veil that separates this life from the next are stored up for us all those good and perfect things that our hearts long for: everlasting goodness; a perfect, ageless body; flawless beauty; athletic and artistic abilities; a permanent, abundant dwelling place; unhindered communication; social vibrancy and connection; a true sense of belonging and acceptance; greater intelligence, competency and productivity; unceasing communion and a heart filled with pure worship, adoration and praise for our awesome God. The Lord Jesus graciously allows us to share in His inheritance and to forever participate in, be transformed by and enjoy His glory. Being ‘in the kingdom’ is to be in Christ and to share all things in Him, with Him and through Him.

Living each day with a strong awareness of all Christ has in store for us and what we already have from Him here and now delivers us from the cycle of comparing and envying and frees us to truly enjoy the gifts, talents, achievements and blessings of others and be happy for them. Our focus can shift from self to the body of Christ.

Realising that Christ bestows indescribable gifts, beauty, intelligence, ability and significance beyond the veil of this life helps take the pressure off the here and now—we don’t have to be the most gifted, beautiful, intelligent, able and significant and we can cease our futile striving to be someone we cannot yet be. Like Paul, we can learn to be content. God has ordained who we shall be in this life and the particular path we shall follow as we race towards the finish line. He has not given us another’s path to follow. He has given us particular gifts just as He has given gifts to the next person. We each have a role to play that none other can fill—and yet we are all working for the same cause, towards the same goal, serving the same God. And to our comfort, we each, in the Body of Christ, have the accepting, approving smile of God upon us, the same Holy Spirit within us, the Word to counsel and guide us, and the family of God to support us. So, let us be a people who lay down our lives daily for one another; who rejoice when others are blessed; who lift up the downcast and bring strength to the weary. Let us run side-by-side as we run the marathon of life—spurring one another on, challenging one-another to go faster and further and pausing to pick one another up when we fall. And let us be thankful for the present blessings we have and for the blessings yet to come—rejoicing in God’s favour all our days.

Remember these things: knowing that we’re accepted in the Kingdom frees us to truly love and serve one-another. When we know we are well loved, we will love well.

Some Verses for Further Reflection

Hebrews 12:28

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe…

 Philippians 2:3

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves.

Romans 12:10

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 

Hebrews 10:23-25

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

A Suggested Prayer of Response

Dear Father, I come before You confessing envy and pride. I have looked sideways and wished I had what others have. I have wanted to outdo people rather than support and build them up. Forgive me for these sins. I am reminded that You fashioned me and ordered my steps. If You wanted me to have what others have in this life, You would have given those things to me. Help me to trust in Your wisdom and in Your plan for my life. I thank You for the many ways in which You have blessed me—for the gifts You have given me. Help me, Father, to be content. Help me to rejoice when I see the blessings You have bestowed on others. Thank You that, in Christ, the kingdom is mine—that beyond the veil of this life awaits for me blessing upon blessing and that in the here and now I am not without help from Your Spirit, Your Word and Your family. Help me to view those running the race not as competition but as brethren who need my love, encouragement and support. Fill my heart with fresh thankfulness and love. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.


Straining Towards the Goal

Have you noticed how some people love to talk about the past? You don’t have to be around them long before they’ll start mentioning events from the past with great relish. I’m not even necessarily referring to those who think the best times were always in the past but to those people who simply have great memories of happy times that they want to relive. I can’t say that I’m one of those people. For me, I shy away from conversations about the past because no matter where I look in my history I always seem to find something that tarnishes the memory—something I did wrong or failed at, something that embarrasses me or makes me feel ashamed. It’s one reason why I love thinking and talking about Heaven. I love to anticipate and imagine living free from sin and shame with my past no longer marring my present. A number of my friends have commented on how I am a future oriented person. I think it’s because of this future perspective that I have kept going all these years despite many temptations to give up.

For Christmas last year I received an illustrated copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. I love the way that the main character, Christian, has the Celestial City as his goal and how throughout the story he rehearses the fact and makes his goal known to the various characters he encounters. Thinking about this has proven helpful to me over the past several weeks whenever I have felt discouraged about life. When I have been tempted to go off path, when I have looked sideways and wished I had what others have and when I have felt bogged down by past and present troubles, I have remembered that I am on my way to the Celestial City and that I must keep straining forward no matter what.

It would be nice to be one of those Christians that just seem to be on a steady, smooth, upward course to Heaven (at least, that’s what it looks like on the surface). Sometimes you can get the impression from things you read or people you listen to that that’s what every Christian’s life should look like. But often, it just doesn’t seem to work out that way. I prefer John Bunyan’s perspective. There are times when we will go through the Slough of Despond or get locked up in Doubting Castle, when we will make mistakes and stumble and when we are doing anything but striding forward at great pace. The Christian life is more like a grueling marathon than a one-hundred-metre-dash. And there are so many distractions—so many things to slow us down or make us want to give up. Yet eyes lifted to the yonder Celestial City keep the feet moving, even if slowly at times.

When Christian looked upon the cross of Christ his burden that he had carried to that point rolled away. How easy it is to think that we still carry that old burden—that we haven’t really been separated from our sin and from our past. I wonder with what new vigour and joy we would press forward if every time sin and the memories of our broken past threatened to overtake us we would remember that we have been everlastingly separated from that old burden and that we are a new creation in Christ—clothed in righteousness from on high.

Lately I’ve found myself frozen in the fear of taking steps in wrong directions, very aware of all my weaknesses and brokenness, listening to voices from my distant and not-so-distant past—voices of shame and insecurity, fear and hopelessness. In all this God has reminded me—urged me—to simply lift up my eyes to the Celestial City—to God Himself and to put my past and present failures out of my mind and strain forward, not looking to the left or to the right and certainly not looking behind. The Apostle Paul was a man of whom we could say, “He ran the race well!” And yet he was once Saul, a man responsible for the suffering of many Christians as the Church was just starting to take shape. He was a man who had a past that could no doubt have crippled him with guilt and shame but he chose to put it behind Him, leaving it at the cross, pressing on towards the Celestial City—towards the goal of reaching home where Christ awaited him with outstretched arms. In Paul’s own words:

But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

 Philippians 3:13-14

These thoughts are echoed in the familiar passage from Hebrews:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3

Looking back—even looking sideways—is something that athletes running a race are trained to avoid. We, likewise, need to keep our eyes set forward—daily remembering where we are headed and to Whose outstretched arms we are running. Christ Himself was helped to finish His journey by considering the joy that awaited Him beyond the cross and we must do likewise if we are to make it to the end.

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, aside from keeping the Celestial City in his sight, Christian would not have made it to the city without help along the way from such travelling companions as Faithful and Hopeful. In like manner, we Christians cannot make it to Heaven’s gates without the support and encouragement of fellow believers. I know that I would not have made it as far as I have in life, especially in my spiritual life, without the support and encouragement of brothers and sisters in the faith who have loved me and listened to me, prayed for me and counseled me. Only this kind of companionship will see us to the finish line. I long to see the church at large realize the potency and importance of such relationships. How much further along in the race would we be if this were the case? To have people genuinely make time to hear our story, to challenge and sharpen us, to help meet unmet needs, to regularly pray for us and with us and to make room in their life for us, how different would the result be than that of a lighthearted conversation here and there about the latest game or an episode of a favourite TV show? (I’m not saying it all needs to be serious and deep but at the end of the day it doesn’t add up for much.) Consider who you might embrace in such a way—pray that God might make you such a companion to others and then take steps to get the ball rolling. Pray that God would burden people around you to do the same for you.

The title The Pilgrim’s Progress well summarises the Christian life. We are journeying towards a destination—a glorious destination. I’m currently saving for a deposit to buy a house. I am looking forward to the day when I can have a place to decorate and landscape just how I’d like. But I’m cautious of living life as though I’m here to stay, with little thought of where I’m headed. We are not here to stay and must not ditch our caravan or tent, so to speak, so as to settle down before we reach our destination. We must keep moving forward—“onward and upward” as C. S. Lewis would put it. I have found it to be so helpful to me, time and time again, to remember that this life is but a breath compared to the life that awaits us beyond the veil. When I feel like things are too much to handle and when I wish that some things were gone from my life and other things added I am encouraged that with just a few more steps or so (compared to eternity) I shall at last reach the gates I have so longed to see and will find all my longings abundantly satisfied. I am revived and continue my pilgrimage.

So, fellow pilgrims, we need not be paralysed by our past—it will not help to remain there. We must, with Christ’s help, turn our eyes to Him and strain towards the glory that awaits all who trust in Him. Let us make the journey together, encouraging and counselling one another as we go, extending a supportive hand, praying with and for each other and spurring one another on. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus and the home He is preparing for us, not looking back or glancing sideways. And let us remember that Christ, at the cross, has severed our past sin and failures from us and that we are free to strain ever forward into His outstretched arms.

He who would Valiant Be

(John Bunyan)

 

Who would true valour see,    

Let him come hither;    

One here will constant be,    

Come wind, come weather    

There’s no discouragement    

Shall make him once relent

His first avowed intent    

To be a pilgrim.    

   

Whoso beset him round    

With dismal stories,    

Do but themselves confound;    

His strength the more is.    

No lion can him fright,    

He’ll with a giant fight,    

But he will have a right    

To be a pilgrim.    

   

Hobgoblin, nor foul fiend,    

Can daunt his spirit;    

He knows he at the end    

Shall life inherit.    

Then fancies fly away,    

He’ll fear not what men say,    

He’ll labour night and day    

To be a pilgrim. 

A Suggested Prayer of Response

Lord Jesus, for the joy set before You, You endured the cross, scorning its shame. You looked ahead—Your eyes were set steadfast upon the joy that was to be Yours beyond the cross. The Apostle Paul was a man who could have turned back because of his past but he learnt to forget what lay behind, pressing on towards the goal—the prize to be found in You. Lord, we are at times paralysed by the memories of our past sins and failures and we falter in the journey. Help us to remember that all our sin was dealt with and severed from us at the cross—that we bear its shame no more because You bore it for us—in our place. Please help us to forget what lies behind, to turn from our past and to gaze steadfastly upon You who wait with outstretched arms—our eternal prize and joy. Bless us with travelling companions who will help us to make the distance and may we in turn be and do the same for them. Thank You that we go to the Celestial City and that we have Your Spirit, Your Word and Your Church to help us there. You are worth the pilgrimage and we love You. In Your holy name we pray, Amen.


Living Waters

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

(John 4:7-14)

We are familiar with this story. We love the way that Jesus interacts with this broken woman. We rejoice in her growing faith in Christ. And yet, there are times when I wonder if we, if I, have truly grasped the message—if we have let it sink deep down into our hearts. Looking at the way many of us live our lives I suspect that this is a story we might need to keep coming back to.

As we read on in the story we see Jesus getting to the heart of things. Having already offered living water to the woman, He talks with her about her relationships—her five husbands and current lover. Jesus helps the woman to recognise her deep thirst and to see that though she has tried to quench her thirst so many times, she has always come away unsatisfied. Her heart is laid bare; the deep longings, yearnings and aches—the unmet needs rise to the surface. The woman comes face to face with her thirst for God—a thirst she thought mere human relationships could satisfy. Yet, here, stands the One for Whom her soul truly aches—the One Who stands ready to satisfy her deepest thirsts, aches, yearnings and needs.

Each one of us have deep thirsts, aches, yearnings and needs. We may not have yet truly identified exactly what these are but they are there nonetheless. And while the ways in which we may seek to satisfy our hungers and thirsts can be forms of idolatry, this does not mean that the hungers and thirsts themselves, at their root, are to be despised and rejected. (Note that I am not talking about desires that are born out of a depraved heart and mind, bent on worshipping self.) We, quite legitimately, long for intimacy, affirmation, a deep sense of belonging, purpose and meaning, adventure and excitement, to name but a few things. Yet, like the woman at the well, we too seek to satisfy our thirst for these things in various ways—in people or things that simply cannot satisfy; which before long leave us thirsty once more. Think of what or whom you habitually turn to for fulfillment, intimacy, excitement or affirmation. Or looking at it from another angle, think of what or whom you turn to when you’ve had a bad day, when you’re lonely, bored or downcast. Time and time again we go to that well only to find ourselves parched before long, returning in an endless cycle. “Maybe this time I’ll find that person or thing that will truly, lastingly satisfy me,” we subconsciously say. But the aches, the yearnings, the hungers and thirsts go on—they come back. We find that in ourselves, in other people and in all manner of things, there can be no lasting satisfaction. We have an infinite thirst that can only be satisfied by an infinite God.

I believe that if we sat with our hungers and thirsts long enough we would come to understand that they are cries that hark back to Eden, longing for the One Who walked in the Garden in the cool of the day. As Adam and Eve left the Garden they left behind the constant communion with God that had been their privilege and joy. No longer were they standing tall and strong in the conscious awareness of God’s love for them. They were cut off from His affirming presence. The vibrancy and vitality of life was waning. Perfect intimacy was shattered. And a great thirst arose within that would be felt in every generation since. We thirst for what was lost. Thankfully, we thirst for what can, in Christ, be regained.

Consider that our deep thirsts are signposts pointing us back to Jesus—the One for Whom all things were made. They are calling us back to Him—back to the Lord Who placed man and woman in a garden embraced by flowing rivers, back to the Rock that watered the Israelites in the wilderness, back to the One from Whose heavenly throne pours the river of the water of life, coursing down the great street of the Holy City—the New Jerusalem. Whenever we are thirsty, we should see it as an opportunity to draw nearer to God and to discover Him to be the true fount of life. When the pangs of loneliness set in consider that your spirit is craving deep connection with the Lord. When the colour is sucked out of your life, and things are predictably mundane, look up and seek the greatest adventure waiting there for you—adventure with God. When you’re doubting your worth, place your ear on the Word of God and hear God’s thoughts towards you—hear His affirmation, His treasuring of you, His delight in you. And when sorrows like sea billows roll run to the outstretched arms of Jesus, those arms that are waiting to embrace you—seek His comfort—seek His face.

Before concluding, I cannot help but think of the story of another woman—Mary, a woman no doubt with her own aches and longings, sitting at the feet of Jesus, while her busy sister, Martha, looked on in annoyance. Mary was perfectly satisfied sitting there. She was drinking in the living waters—nothing else would satisfy. Christ was the destination of all her longings. How much we could learn from Mary. How different our lives would be if we were to follow her example. In both the Samaritan woman and Mary, we have a wonderful picture of the human condition and God’s solution, of the age-old thirst for God and the satisfaction of that thirst by God and in God. Today, Jesus invites us to drink deeply and quench that ancient thirst. He gives Himself as the Living Waters and as we turn aside from our filthy cisterns and look to Him and partake of Him, we shall be everlastingly, abundantly, wonderfully satisfied.

Dear friends, I wish to urge you, as I do for myself, to hold out for Christ—letting Him meet all your needs with Himself. Have patience that, in due time, living waters shall flow from the Rock. See every thirst as an ancient cry for God and as an opportunity for you to come to Him to drink freely and be truly satisfied. Know that wherever the living waters flow, life shall flourish.

For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground;

I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.

They will spring up like grass in a meadow,

like poplar trees by flowing streams.

(Isaiah 44:3-4)

A Suggested Prayer of Response

Lord Jesus, you are the Rock that was stricken that waters would flow in a dry and thirsty land. From Your throne flow living waters. In You we find true satisfaction for all our hungers and thirsts, aches and needs. Lord, help us to be like Mary, sitting at Your feet, drinking You in—deeply satisfied. When we thirst, let us remember that our thirst is a cry in our heart for You. In those moments each day may we turn to You—may we hold out for You to come and fill us. Thank You for coming to each one of us, standing at the well, revealing our thirst and revealing Yourself as the One we are thirsting for. May Your living waters flow abundantly within us—nourishing us and making us truly alive. In Your name, Lord, we pray. Amen.