Category: Discipleship in Challenging Times

Real Change

Peter Morden,

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

I’ve recently read Graham Greene’s powerful novel, Brighton Rock. At the heart of the book is the question, can a person truly change? Can someone who is evil become good? At one point two of the central characters, Rose and Ida, talk about this. In response to Rose’s assertion, ‘people change’, Ida says, ‘Oh, no they don’t. Look at me. I’ve never changed. It’s like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton. That’s human nature.’

On one level, the Bible seems to agree with Ida. In Jeremiah 13.23 the prophet coins a phrase which has become a well-known proverb: ‘Can a leopard change its spots?’ he asks, before seeming to answer, ‘no’. Bad people can’t become good people. This perspective resonates with many other passages of Scripture. Our human nature has been marred by our sin and rebellion and, as Paul puts it in Romans 5, we’re ‘powerless’ in the face of this. Deep down, heart, mind and soul change is something we simply can’t manage ourselves. A leopard cannot change its spots. Wherever you bite into a stick of rock you’ll still read the same thing. We need to pause and feel the force of this. On our own we cannot change.

But this is not the Bible’s last word on this subject. Indeed, it is not Jeremiah’s last word. He says that even though God’s people repeatedly broke his old covenant with them, a time is coming when he will do something wonderfully new. God will ‘put his law in their minds and write it on their hearts’. They will all have a transforming relationship with him. The possibility of a new way of living, one which involves dramatic change, suddenly comes into view (Jeremiah 31.31-34).

Jeremiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in the coming of God’s Son and the subsequent pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all who call on him and desire to be disciples of Jesus. And this is truly revolutionary. The New Testament church is profoundly counter-cultural, full of people who are putting their old lives behind them and pressing forward, however imperfectly, to live in new ways. They share their possessions, they care for the poor, they reach out to offer new life to others, they love one another and love their enemies too, their attitudes and actions are reshaped, the barriers between races come down, the oppressed are set free. Real change.

This is the final blog in the series ‘Discipleship in Challenging Times’, although the podcasts of the same name continue. The different posts have been challenging (not least for me!). They have covered topics such as racial justice, holding onto God through depression, vulnerable leadership, knowing God in our weakness, reaching out to comfort and help others, staying faithful in the unprecedented times we live in. None of this is easy. We struggle to live it out. But there is hope. That hope includes the daily forgiveness which is freely poured out on us by our gracious God. But there’s more than this. We are new covenant people! There is power to live differently. Ultimately, we are not like sticks of rock. The pattern that’s written through our lives can change. How has God changed you over the last few months? And how does he want to change you over the coming days, indeed, right now?

 

Click here to catch up with the whole series.

 

 

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Looking in the Mirror

Peter Morden,

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

The image of Donald Trump posing with a Bible outside a church building in Washington DC has seared itself into people’s consciousness. It’s been everywhere on news media and on social media and it’s been much discussed. To make the photo-op possible, crowds protesting peacefully about the murder of George Floyd and the racism which blights our societies were tear-gassed and forcibly removed from the US President’s path. I believe most Christians were outraged; I certainly hope they were. I don’t normally comment on political events in this way, but Donald Trump’s actions made me deeply angry, I believe rightly so. As the Bishop of Dover, Rose Hudson-Wilkin, has said: ‘[Mr Trump] would be better off sitting down at a round table and engaging with the structural racism that has over the years continued to contribute to a people being so disenfranchised.’ The President was wrong, both in what he did and in what he has failed to do. His behaviour needs to be called out.

A few days after the incident took place I was writing material for some new podcast episodes, working through the book of James. One of the episodes was to be on these words from James 1:22-25:

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

It would have been easy reading these verses to focus again on the unacceptable behaviour of the American President. Here is further vindication for how I felt. That would have been legitimate, but this time my thoughts went in a different direction. What about me? I may not pose with a Bible, but there have certainly been times when I’ve opened it and not done ‘what it says’. Actually, many times. I thank God for his grace upon which I depend. Yet I know I should be further forward in the life of holiness, further forward in love, further forward in my commitment to community, further forward in my commitment to be consistently anti-racist, in living for the God who says there is ‘neither Jew nor Greek…for all are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3.28). In other words, I should be further forward in doing what the Bible says.

And what about you? What about all of us who desire to live as faithful disciples of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit? To develop James’ illustration of the mirror, when we look at the photo of Donald Trump holding a Bible aloft, using it to forward his own agenda, what do we see? If we are honest, do we see an image of how we can sometimes be, reflected back at us? Holding the Bible, professing to believe in the authority of the Bible, but not living out its life giving, life sharing message day to day? These are uncomfortable questions, but questions we need to ask.

This is not to make us feel guilty, but it is to call us to repentance and radical change. Each day Jesus forgives his failing and fallen followers, picks us up, dusts us down and sets us on the road of discipleship once again. Such is his grace. What’s more he is present with us by the power of the Spirit so that real change is possible. So, as we look into the mirror of God’s word what do we see? This is a vital question. But for James it’s not the most important one. The question he would want to leave us with is not ‘What do we see?’ but rather ‘What will we do?’

 

Click here to catch up with the series.

 

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God of Justice

Peter Morden,

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

God is a God of justice and he calls us to reflect this in our discipleship. Put simply, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to be a people of justice.

We often fail to recognise this. When I was writing my book on discipleship, I set out to expound Micah 6.8. The challenge this verse gives would form a central chapter of the book. This is the challenge to ‘act justly’, ‘love mercy’ and ‘walk humbly’ with our God. I turned eagerly to commentaries for help in getting to the heart of the well-known text, but I was disappointed. The way the verse was interpreted and then applied was often limited and ‘pietistic’. I read we are to pay our taxes, be honest when filling in expenses claims, and so on. Indeed we are, but the Hebrew word mipat which we translate as ‘justice’ is both broad and deep. Crucially, it applies to the big issues of society and it insists on the rights of others. But maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised at the failure to apply God’s word to big and challenging issues. For often I fail to do this myself.

So the Bible gives us a ringing call to be people of justice and ‘equity’ (compare Psalm 99.4). But what does this mean in practice? Specifically, what does this mean following the appalling, racist murder of George Floyd? The filming of the sickening killing brought it to the world’s attention. But such events are not rare, neither are they confined to the United States. Racism is a deep-rooted problem. It is a deep-rooted problem here in the UK.

How should we respond? For those of us who are not black, it should involve us listening carefully to black voices. I include a link below to just one powerful contribution. I urge you to take the time to engage with it.

And then we need to be consistently anti-racist. It is not enough to say, ‘I’m not racist’. We are to actively oppose racism. Call it out. The Bible says we are to ‘act justly’. Do something. Speak. Challenge. Recognise the reality of white privilege and the continuing effects of past injustice, especially the unspeakable evil of slavery. In the 1960s Martin Luther King became ‘gravely disappointed’ with many ‘white moderates’. ‘Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will’, he declared. He found many were more concerned with order than with justice and preferred ‘a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.’ Justice – that word again. Are we going to be people who act justly? Are we going to live as disciples of Jesus?

Click here to catch up with the series.

 

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The Upside Down Kingdom

Peter Morden,

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

2 Corinthians 11:16-33. Take a moment to read the passage.

Strength in weakness is an overarching theme in 2 Corinthians. We see it when Paul talks about his thorn in the flesh, the subject of last week’s reflection. We see it when he speaks of how the treasure of the gospel is carried in people who are like brittle jars of clay. It’s everywhere in the letter. This is a great encouragement, as it’s a theme for these Corona virus times. If you are feeling weak today then you’re in good company: the apostle Paul stands with you. God used him and God can use you in his service.

Given that strength in weakness is so important in 2 Corinthians, 11.16-33 seems to strike a jarring note. Paul even talks about ‘self-confident boasting’ (v 17). Is he contradicting himself? What is going on here? We need to dig a little deeper. When we do we realise the strength in weakness theme is being played out once again, this time with an additional twist.

Paul’s opponents were boasting about their background, their culture and their polished rhetoric. The apostle could easily have done the same. He may not have been trained in the latest, most fashionable ways of public speaking, but he could certainly use words powerfully as these verses show. Yet when he does boast he focuses on his weaknesses, setting out with passion and precision various ways he suffered as an apostle (vs 23-29). His words are deeply moving. Truly, Paul has shown himself to be a servant of Christ (v 23). His example encourages us to get out of our comfort zones and take risks as we seek to follow Jesus today.

Verses 32-33 can appear puzzling at first. Paul’s successful escape from Damascus doesn’t seem to fit with his boasting about weakness. Understanding the Roman background helps us. When an army laid siege to a city, the first soldier to go over the wall and enter the city (assuming they survived) claimed the Corona Muralis, or ‘wall crown’. This was perhaps the greatest military honour a Roman soldier could attain. Astonishingly, Paul takes this image of military heroism and reverses it. He was not the first in but effectively the first out, fleeing over the wall to escape arrest. For people of the day this would have smacked of one thing: weakness. But Paul was unashamed to boast in this ‘foolish’ upside down fashion.

Sadly, in both church and wider society we tend to boast about our strengths (as we see them). In churches this sometimes reveals itself in a ‘celebrity culture’ and in showy, self-promoting ministries. But we serve Jesus whose own crown was made of thorns. We are called to follow him. Paul shows us the way.

 

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Strength in Weakness

Peter Morden,

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

2 Corinthians 12:1-21

Have you felt weak at any time since lockdown began? I’d be very surprised if the answer was ‘no’. Perhaps you feel physically weak because you’ve actually contracted Covid 19. Perhaps you’ve felt physically unwell for another reason. It may be that you’ve struggled with your mental health. Or possibly you just feel overwhelmed by the strangeness of these times, helpless as you deal with the pain of isolation, or the seeming impossibility of juggling work, home, children, wider family. It may actually be you’ve felt weak everyday since lockdown began, and even as things ease a little for some of us, that same sense of powerlessness remains. If so, be assured that many feel the same way.

Encouragingly, we’re in good company. The apostle Paul felt weak – every day. He tells us about this in 2 Corinthians 12. Scholars have long sought to understand what is meant be the ‘thorn in the flesh’ (v 7, AV). Some have speculated that Paul lived with a painful eye condition (he reminds the Galatians of a physical illness he experienced, and declares they had been willing to tear out their eyes to give to him [Gal 4.13-15]). But it is difficult to say for certain what he is referring to, not least because the meaning of the word rendered ‘thorn’ in English translations, skolops, is uncertain. Ultimately, we are left to wonder.

What is clear is that the situation was serious. We can imagine the urgency and fervency with which Paul prayed for his wretched ‘thorn’ to be removed, and his disappointment when the longed-for answer did not come. But the skolops was important, firstly as a safeguard against pride. Paul had been granted quite extraordinary visions and revelations (vs 1-4). So, the painful thorn kept him humble. Secondly, the thorn ensured the vital gospel principle so central to 2 Corinthians was seen in Paul’s ministry: when he was weak, then God’s strength was most evidently at work (v 9). We shouldn’t be surprised at this principle, for it is the pattern of the cross.

The difficulty in identifying the thorn helps us apply these verses to our own many and varied situations. We may face any manner of difficulties. Some of these have already been rehearsed in this blog in previous posts: the employer helpless as her business slides toward collapse; the employee powerless as he loses the job he loves (and which he needs to pay the bills), the health care professional expected to work without adequate PPE, the teacher with asthma being pressured into returning to the classroom, the person living on their own deprived of physical touch… The list goes on. Insert your own situation here. Paul could be speaking for us. The thorn in the flesh. The pattern of the cross. Weakness.

The thorn could be physical, or mental or relational. For us, it could be directly related to Corona Virus or not. Paul prayed for his skolops to be taken away, and we can pray this for ourselves. However, we may well receive the same answer Paul did (v 8). God sometimes gives us grace to cope with great difficulty, rather than taking that difficulty away. If this is your experience, depend on our gracious God who will give you all you need to get through. And as you lean on him, be confident that when you are at your weakest God will be at work in you and through you in his mighty power. You may be weak, but as you cry out to him and lean on him, this might just be the moment that God is going to use you in a special way.

 

This blog is part of a series. Click here to read previous articles.

 

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The God of all Comfort

Peter Morden,

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

‘The God of all comfort… comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.’ (2 Corinthians 1.3-4)

The ‘God of all comfort’ is one of the best-known phrases in 2 Corinthians, and the idea of comfort is clearly important in the opening chapter of the letter, with Paul mentioning it explicitly seven times (vs 3-6). The repetition is interesting in and of itself. It’s Tom Wright who comments that Paul sounds flat, indeed depressed. He repeats the same phrase, over and over, as depressed people often do. This insight has transformed my reading of these verses. I think back to some of my own conversations with people in my darker moments: my comments were monotone, lacking in liveliness, dull, flat, repetitious – probably far more so than I realise. Obviously 2 Corinthians 1 is much better than any rambling monologue from me! I believe with all my heart that – as is the case with all Scripture – this great chapter is God’s word to us. But as well as being the breathed-out word of God it also reflects the personality and circumstances of the human author. That’s God’s genius and God’s grace: he uses frail and fallible humans to accomplish his purposes. Such is his amazing love.

What is being offered to us in these verses? We want to be comforted, and we certainly need that at this time. But we can easily misunderstand what is being said here. Our view of comfort might relate to ease or even luxury, yet the word translated comfort in the NIV, paraklesis, has nothing to do with this. It could easily be rendered ‘encouragement’ and carries the sense of someone being alongside to help. Paul has experienced hardship and distress and even ‘deadly peril’ as he has given himself to cutting edge mission (v 10). God comforts him by being alongside by the power of the Holy Spirit and ‘delivering’ him. This deliverance comes not so much with Paul being taken out of his situation. Rather, God walks with him in it, and sees him through to the other side.

This is a vital principle for all Christian disciples. Suffering will come and on our own we will not be able to keep going (v 8). Yet God promises to be alongside to strengthen and save.

As far as our current situation is concerned, it’s almost unnecessary to apply this. Many who are reading this will be suffering because they have followed Jesus faithfully and sought to engage in his work. Many will be suffering right now because Covid 19 is a wretched virus, and these times are a tough context in which to serve. It was really hard to find an image to accompany this post that didn’t involve touching or hugging! In the end, we’ve gone for a picture which does show physical touch. It provides a good accompaniment to Paul’s words but it shows us what we’re missing. Given these socially distanced times, you might not even be able to summon up a flat monologue to articulate how you feel. That doesn’t matter. As C.H. Spurgeon has said, God hears the cries and the sighs of saints in distress. Reach out to God for his compassion and help in hardship. And reach out with confidence, because our wonderful, gracious ‘God of all comfort’ is more than ready to listen and respond.

And there is a postscript. God may help you very directly or his encouragement may come through a fellow Christian. This reminds us that as we receive comfort we are to play our part in the cycle of encouragement by comforting others (v 4). God has been so good to us in Jesus, pouring his grace into our lives. Having received so much from our God, our call is to let this ‘overflow’ in comfort to others (v 5). God used this weary, beaten down, depressed apostle to comfort and strengthen others. If you feel at all similar to him take heart. Who knows how God may use you today?

 

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Travelling through the Darkness

Peter Morden,

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

Psalm 23 is the surprising Psalm. That statement – in and of itself – might seem surprising. Surely this is the best known of all the Psalms. Most readers of this blog will be familiar with it.

Yet that very familiarity means we often miss what is really here. We are used to being soothed by readings of Psalm 23 which present it as pastoral and gentle. We focus on the green pastures and quiet waters and romanticise the life of the shepherd and his sheep. But if we read more closely, we see this is a Psalm where evil is present. The Psalmist is walking through the deepest, most dangerous valley, with unseen enemies waiting in the gloom, ready to strike. The phrase translated ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ may in fact be better rendered ‘the darkest valley’. Whichever phrase we use we get the picture. This is a Psalm that deals with the tough, gritty realities of everyday life. It is in fact a Psalm for our times, a Psalm for the Covid 19 ward, for the single mother cooped up with young children wondering how she’ll pay the rent, for the furloughed employee and for the employer whose business is collapsing. It is a Psalm for the care home, for the grieving family unable to arrange a proper funeral and for the person battling the deep darkness of depression. This is a Psalm for how many of us feel. That’s the first surprise.

The second surprise is that God is with us in the thick, seemingly impenetrable darkness. Is that surprising? Perhaps not, but in the worst of situations we struggle to believe it. My blogpost last week on my experiences of mild depression generated an amazing response, firstly of empathy and encouragement (thank you!) and secondly from people who go through something similar or, in many cases, far worse. Yet a feature of many forms of depression is that we feel utterly alone, isolated from others and – if we are disciples of Jesus – isolated from God.

Yet we are not alone. Not only are there many other people who are walking the same path, God is with us. John of the Cross, who teaches us about the ‘dark night of the soul’, felt that for him God had become distant, unreachable. But those were his feelings. For John, God never actually withdrew, it just seemed like it from his perspective. Psalm 23 shows us that is a biblical insight. Even at the lowest point of the valley, with evil all around, the Lord who was the Psalmist’s shepherd was with him. This truth is perfectly fulfilled for us in Jesus, the good shepherd. He lays down his life for the sheep (John 10.11). The darkness he endured on the cross for our sakes far outstrips anything which will happen to us. He understands what we suffer, and he is with us by the Holy Spirit. These are familiar truths and it’s so easy to skim over them. As we lose our capacity to be surprised by Psalm 23, so we lose our capacity to be surprised by the cross and the love of God. Take a step back today and wonder afresh at God’s amazing grace to you in Jesus.

And there’s one further surprise. God will bring us through. In the Psalm we enter the darkness, but we don’t stay there. We come ‘through the valley of the shadow of death’. The sheep are led by the shepherd to a place of safety and abundance. The disciple’s cup is not just full, it overflows. Here is outrageous grace. In Jesus, who is risen from the dead, suffering does not have the last word. Day always follows night as resurrection light penetrates the darkness.

The experience of many Christian disciples who have travelled through the ‘dark night’ is that they have again seen the ‘goodness of the Lord in the land of the living’ (Psalm 27.13). The sixteenth-century Anabaptist leader Jakob Hutter said this, Be comforted then, for God…makes us sad and joyful again; he gives death and also life; and after great storms he makes the sun shine again. Praise God this can be echoed by many. May God surprise you by bringing you wonderfully through your time of darkness so you dwell in the green pastures once again.

There are some however who experience darkness throughout their lives, perhaps through a series of calamities, perhaps because of a predisposition to severe depression, perhaps through the terrible injustices that blight the lives of so many around the world. Is there a word here for such people? I confess I hesitate to speak. But the Psalm does speak, of God’s presence and help and of a glory that defies description that is yet to come. Notice the certainty of the final verse of Psalm 23. God will never leave us – either now or in the age to come. This is our hope. And the God of surprises will not let us down.

 

This blog is part of a series from Peter Morden. To see previous blogs published, please click here.

 

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