Tag Archives: faithfulness

Prayer from the Depths of Despair

November 2017 Credo

19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
The wormwood and the gall!
20 My soul continually remembers it,
And is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
And therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
His mercies never come to an end;
23 They are new every morning;
“Great is your faithfulness,
24 The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I have hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:19-24 (ESV)

These are the first words of prayer (that is, words actually addressed to God), that the Poet of Lamentations has uttered. The word ‘your’ in verse 23 shows he is at last speaking to God – right here in the middle of this chapter which stands in the middle of the whole terrifying book. Verses 22-23 are the only part of Lamentations that most people know, because they generated Thomas Chisholme’s lovely hymn ‘Great is thy faithfulness,’ – even if those who sing that hymn are quite unaware of the shocking context in which those words were originally uttered.

For this is the prayer of ‘the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath’ (3:1) – and what affliction, what a rod! Look at verses 1-18. That repeated, accusing word ‘He’ refers to God. Lamentations was written in the immediate aftermath of the siege and capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587-6 BC. That had happened, according to the prophets (and accepted by this book), as God’s judgment for the rebellion and wickedness of the Israelites for generations, in spite of all warnings to turn around and avoid it. And the suffering was incomprehensible – except perhaps by those today caught up in the hell of Syria, or South Sudan, or Yemen, who know only too well what such descriptions mean.

In chapters 1-2, the Poet personifies the city of Jerusalem as Lady Zion, gasping out in the dust for somebody, anybody, – even God if only he would –  to look at her, listen to her, comfort her. She is a woman stripped, gang-raped, beaten, exposed, violated, her children traumatized and dying in the streets. If this is judgment, even if it is deserved, is it not too awful, too cruel? Whatever the moral argument, the suffering and pain is given voice, the tears are allowed to fall, while God remains silent. There is no comfort, but neither is there any rebuke, nor any heartless ‘told you so.’ Suffering is given the dignity of a hearing. Lamentations has been called a bottle for the tears of the world (cf. Ps. 56:8). If it can be called prayer at all, it is the prayer of desperate suffering, of lament, and protest.

Then in chapter 3 the Poet speaks: ‘I am the man…’ His words speak both for himself and for his people. He was there. He had endured what the city suffered, and puts it into searing poetry that pauses at verse 18 with complete loss of hope.

Hope Perishes

Read again through the catalogue of metaphors in verses 1-18. ‘The Man’ has been beaten by a bad shepherd (1-6 are a negative Ps. 23); walled up alone (7-9); hunted, mauled and shot at (10-13); trampled face-down in the dust (14-16). He is left utterly without peace, unable even to recall what happiness felt like (17), and worst of all, with all his hopes gone (18).

Without hope, life is unbearable. Friends in Lebanon tell me of the tragic rate of suicides among women and young girls in the Syrian refugee communities there – for which the prime reason given is, ‘We have lost all hope for any possible future.’

Hope Remembers

All the Man is left with is his memories. But there are two kinds of remembering. There are the bad memories that come unwanted and unbidden, the flash-backs and nightmares of trauma, the tormenting, bitter and poisonous memories that the Man struggles with in verses 19-20. But then comes the intentional remembering of verse 21. This is a deliberate act of will, in which he forces himself to remember what he knows to be true. Literally, he says, ‘This I cause to come back into my mind.’  He chooses to think differently. ‘And therefore I have hope’! What a contrast. Verse 18 ends with all hope gone; verse 21 ends with ‘I have hope.’ What is the ‘This’ that he chooses to remember, that makes such a dramatic difference?

The last word of verse 18 is the name of the LORD – Yahweh, the God of Israel’s history, exodus, covenant and centuries of repeated faithfulness. Yahweh is the God who defined himself as ‘The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness’ (Ex. 34:6). If the LORD is still God, then surely this terrible anger and suffering cannot be his last word? You see, once you let the LORD in, even by the back door at the end of verses 1-18, things cannot remain as they are, and that’s what the Man remembers, and turns into prayer.

What he prays is something like this,

‘My life, my hope, my future feel like they have all ended (v. 18),
BUT this is what I remember (v. 21):
Yahweh’s acts of love, they have not finished
For they have not come to an end, his acts of compassion (v. 22 literally).
Indeed, not only have they not ended,
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (v. 23).

The God who had acted in judgment is still the God who will keep his promises to his people and will never abandon his covenant with them, nor his ultimate purposes for the whole world through them. So, with that long-term perspective, the Man decides to wait in hope  (v. 24) … Almost as if he had just remembered Psalm 33:20-22. Maybe he had. It’s another powerful prayer.

Then another shock (for us) in verses 25-27. Each of those verses begins with the Hebrew word for ‘good’. ‘Good…good…good’ he says!  How can somebody who has just described the horrors that God had inflicted in verses 1-18 turn round and say, ‘The LORD is good…’? Yet he does. He affirms it as the bedrock of Israel’s faith, of biblical truth, and of Christian worship. As the Africans say, ‘God is good; all the time. All the time; God is good.’

But, this does not at all deny or lessen the pain of verses 1-18. Nor does it stop him from going back to that pain very soon after – in the second part of chapter 3 and on into chapters 4-5. But if the God who judges or allows suffering is the God who is good, then even God’s wrath cannot be the last word for those who turn to him – as this Poet is urging his people to do. God will have a good purpose ahead. So even if it cannot be imagined at this moment, even in the midst of the unbearable pain, ‘it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD’ (even though ‘quietly’ is hardly the mood of this whole book).

The swings between gut emotion and theological affirmation in Lamentations are vital to its message. Aren’t there times when singing ‘Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father’ seems hollow, hypocritical and bitter because of the stress and suffering of the moment? And yet other times when it expresses exactly what you do believe and need to affirm?

Hope Explains

We still wonder, though, how the turbulent desperation of verses 1-18 can reach the calm prayers and advice of 22-30. So the Poet obliges with his explanation. Each of verses 31-33 begins, in Hebrew, with the word ‘For.’ He is saying ‘Here’s why…here’s why…here’s why!’ These three verses begin with the middle letter of the Hebrew alphabet, right in the middle of the whole book. In the midst of the pain, sin, rebellion, judgment and suffering – here is what we must know.

  • Yes, God may reject his people when they rebel — but not forever (31).
  • Yes, God causes grief when he punishes – but his compassion and love will return (32).
  • Yes, God afflicts (or allows affliction) – but ‘not from his heart’ (literally; 33).

We should not equate God’s anger and God’s love, as if they were equal and opposite eternal characteristics. They are both realities. God’s anger is his reaction against all sin and evil that opposes his love and goodness. But anger does not define God in the way love does. ‘God is love.’ God is not anger – on the contrary, God defined himself as ‘slow to anger,’ and Micah affirms that this is something that makes Yahweh the God of Israel unique – ‘You do not stay angry forever, but delight to show mercy’ (Mic. 7:18-19).

So in his prayer, the Man drops anchor into the bedrock of God’s eternal, unchanging, faithful,  covenant love. That gives him security. But it does not give him release from the suffering. The anchor is down, but the storm still rages and his ship tosses – as chs 4-5 will show. Nevertheless – at the centre of the book and the centre of his faith, God’s eternal love has been affirmed in faith and in prayer. I doubt if the Man could have sung this song just yet, but its truth is close to his experience and testimony:

You are my rock in times of trouble;
You lift me up when I fall down.
All through the storm, your love is the anchor;
My hope is in you alone.


 


Rev Dr Christopher Wright is the International Ministries Director, Langham Partnership.

 

 

 

 

The Book of Ruth: a Study in Unspectacular Faithfulness

June 2017 Credo

The Book of Ruth begins: ‘In the days when the judges ruled…’. But the events it describes are very different from those described in Judges. Bethlehem, where most of the book is set, seems to have been an oasis of goodness within Israel during this period. People like Naomi and Boaz were good people, faithful Israelites. Ruth can be described as a narrative of ‘unspectacular faithfulness’.

What happens in the book? There are no battles in which God dramatically saves Israel from their enemies (again, contrast Judges). The focus of Ruth is not national but for the most part local (Bethlehem and its citizens). The events described are mainly ordinary, the kind of things that might have happened often in Israel’s history.

Consider the three main characters. In a time of famine Naomi travels with her family from Israel to Moab. Her husband dies there. Her two sons marry Moabite women. Some years later they also die. Naomi returns to Bethlehem with Ruth. When she arrives in Bethlehem, she is filled with a sense of what she has lost, and accuses God publicly (1:20-21)

There’s nothing very unusual in any of this. Clearly Naomi passes through some kind of crisis: in c. 1 her faith seems to be near breaking point; by the end of the book she seems to believe again in the goodness of God (4:14-16). But most of us have experienced such times.

Ruth is a Moabite woman, but she returns to Bethlehem with Naomi. She has drawn close to Naomi during the years they have been together. More than that, Ruth commits herself not only to Naomi, but to Naomi’s God (1:17).

Ruth does much more for Naomi than might have been expected. And yet, people do form strong attachments, and even move to another land because of these attachments. What Ruth does is highly commendable, but not spectacular.

Boaz is presented as a godly man: his first words are ‘The LORD be with you’ (2:4). He is also a responsible landowner: he visits his fields at harvest-time to see how things are going. When he sees Ruth gleaning, he finds out who she is, and encourages her to continue gleaning. He follows Moses’ teaching (cf. Lev. 19:9-10), but goes beyond what Moses taught (2:15-16). He treats Ruth generously because of what he has heard about her (2:11) and because he knows that the God of Israel extends a welcome to all who seek him (2:12).

In all sorts of ways, then, Boaz is a good Israelite, one who knows and lives by Israel’s traditions. But surely he was not the only good man in Israel in those days.

As the story begins, so it continues: three people in different ways ‘go the extra mile’ and bring blessing into each other’s lives. It is a moving story, but there are no spectacular or miraculous happenings, merely fairly ordinary people experiencing a series of fairly ordinary events.

As is well known, the Book of Ruth traces God’s providence in the events related (see, e.g., 1:6; 2:3, 12, 20; 3:10, 13; 4:13). It ends by taking us beyond the lifetimes of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz (4:18-22): what God did in their days, though they could not have known it, led to the birth of David, Israel’s greatest king. (Matthew 1 will take the story further.)

How does the book portray God’s providence? Is it saying that God had to guide events along precisely these lines, that if Ruth had gleaned in a different field, or if Boaz had refused Ruth’s request (3:9), then David would not been born, and God’s purposes of salvation would have been derailed? Surely God is more resilient than that, more resourceful in his dealings with humanity.

We should read the book differently: Naomi, Ruth and Boaz all, in their different ways, believe in the God of Israel and express their faith in the everyday details of their lives; they engage in the normal events of life (sowing, reaping and gleaning; marriage and childbirth), but do so in a way that reflects their commitment to God. These, the Book of Ruth tells us, are the kind of people God can use, whose lives God can take up into his purposes. That seems to be the book’s ‘doctrine of divine providence’.

Christians perhaps do not emphasise enough the importance of faithfulness in the daily, weekly and yearly round. The raw material for faithful living is all around us, in the regular events of our lives. We should not imagine that the real movers and shakers in God’s kingdom are those with high-profile ministries. Nor should we imagine that the only worthwhile ministries are those which take place in church or on ‘the mission field’: God is not so limited.

We should reflect seriously: if we live out our faith in our families, that may bring blessings that will last for generations. If we get involved in our communities, that testimony may bring many into God’s kingdom. If we carry out our jobs or callings honestly and with commitment, that many make the character of our God more visible to our colleagues than a hundred tracts left around the office. If we put our professional skills and other talents at God’s disposal (for politicians, lawyers, city planners, architects, builders, teachers, home-makers and many others have roles as important as pastors, theologians and Bible scholars), then the impact could be immense.

That impact could be apparent in own lifetimes (as it was for Naomi, Ruth, Boaz and even the citizens of Bethlehem); it could also be apparent generations after our lives have come to an end (which is the point that the genealogy of 4:18-22 makes).

All that is required is that we be willing to exercise faith in the ordinary details of our lives, using the talents, circumstances and opportunities which God gives us – that we display the kind of unspectacular faithfulness which runs through the Book of Ruth and makes it such a warm, hopeful and above all practical book.


 

Dr Philip Satterthwaite has been Principal of the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST) since 2011. He has been Lecturer in Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at BGST since May 1998.

God is Love

May 2017 Credo

In 1 John 4:8, we find the briefest but most profound description of God: ‘God is love’. Christian philosophers and theologians have long pointed out that the message that God is love is one that is totally new and unheard of in any culture or religious system. This idea cannot be harmonised with the Absolute of Plato, the Brahma of Hinduism and the Allah of Islam.

This has prompted theologians like Emil Brunner to assert in his Dogmatics that ‘God is love’ ‘is the most daring statement that has ever been made in human language’.

In God’s dealings with Israel recorded in the pages of the OT, God’s love is made manifest again and again in his faithfulness to his chosen people, despite their unfaithfulness towards him.

Thus Brunner could write: ‘God’s faithfulness to his unfaithful people springs out of an incomprehensible love, for which the “foolish” love of Hosea for his unfaithful wife is both the most daring parable of the love of God and also one which is chosen by God himself’.

In the NT the love of God is demonstrated supremely in Jesus Christ. The oft-quoted verse from the Gospel of John shows the extent of the divine love: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (Jn 3:16).

It is important to note that God’s love is neither only lavished nor dependent on his creatures. To say that God is love is to underscore the fact that love is what God immutably and eternally is. Put differently, God’s love is not dependent or contingent upon there being creatures for him to love.

This means that in the eternal God there is that mutual self-giving that is love. This reminds us of just how important the doctrine of the Trinity is to our understanding and conception of God. Because the one God is Being-in-communion, the koinonia and mutual indwelling of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there is in the eternal life of the Trinity a love that is free, total and unconditional.

However, to say that in the triune God there is the mutual self-giving that is love is not to endorse the idea that God loves himself. Theologians like John Frame, for example, understand divine love as ‘God’s self-love’. There are attendant dangers in conceiving of divine love in this way.

Although in human experience, love is somehow always tainted with self-centredness, we must be careful never to project this onto God. To speak of the divine love as ‘God’s self-love’ is to suggest that God is in some sense self-centred. It is to suggest that God’s love is not directed at another, but is instead turned inward towards himself.

Put differently, to speak of the divine love in this way is to already push the Trinity into the background and to conceive of God – however unreflexively and non-deliberately – as a monad.

Thus, Wolfhart Pannenberg rightly asserts in the first volume of his three-volume systematics that we must oppose ‘the statement that God is he who eternally loves himself’. Because the one God is triune – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – our understanding of divine love must be understood in light of the eternal relationship of the three persons.

Thus, we should not conceive of God as loving himself eternally. We must say instead, with Pannenberg, that ‘from all eternity the Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and the Spirit loves the Father in the Son and the Son in the Father’.

However, even the concept of the mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Godhead in each other (perichoresis) poses some dangers. Perichoresis should not lead us to think that the one loves the other only because he sees himself in the other.

Pannenberg explains: ‘If, however, the one loves self in the other instead of loving the other as other, then love falls short of the full self-giving which is the condition that the one who loves be given self afresh in the responsive love of the one who is loved’.

God is love. This means, as we have seen, that God’s very nature is love. This further means that God loves not because he has to answer to a law outside of himself. As Ron Highfield has put it so profoundly, ‘[God] is completely free and totally himself in his action’.

Finally, it must be pointed out that the God who is love is also holy. The divine love that the Bible refers to is the love of the God who is holy. But in the same way, the holiness about which Scripture speaks is that of the God who is love.

Some theologians are uneasy with placing holiness and love so closely together. This is because holiness suggests distance, while love creates koinonia. Holiness signifies glory and sovereignty, while love has to do with surrender, sacrifice and selflessness.

So great is the perceived contrast between holiness and love that theologians like Jack Cottrell ask: ‘How can God fulfil the requirements of both love and holiness towards sinners at the same time?’ Convinced that this is almost impossible, Cottrell argues that before the fall, the two attributes were in ‘perfect harmony’. But the fall has placed them ‘in a state of tension and opposition’.

But to think of God in this way is to over-anthropomorphize him – it is to impose human limitations on him. Just as nothing outside of God or other than him can determine or direct his love, so no contingent reality can compromise his holiness.

God is eternally and unchangeably holy love. There is no dilemma, no tension in God.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

 

Discipleship of the Mind

Many Christians are familiar with the Great Commandment recorded in Luke 10:27: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with your entire mind. Love your neighbour as yourself’. This Commandment urges believers to love God with their whole being. Believers are commanded to love God not only with their hearts and souls; they must do so also with their minds. As James Sire has pointed out in his provocative book, Habits of the Mind, this means that ‘thinking is integral to our call to be what God wants us to be’. As Christians we are called to think, and to do so as well as we can with our God-given intelligence. When we apply our intellect in this way, we express our love for God and we glorify him.

Some Christians, however, fail to see this. They have adopted an anti-intellectualism, which, at first blush, may even sound pious. After all, was it not the Apostle Paul who wrote, ‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength’ (1 Cor 1:18, 25)? Such piety, however, is fallacious. The message of the cross is folly to those who are perishing because they approach it with distorted perspectives and from erroneous vantage points. Thus, when Paul speaks of the gospel as ‘folly’, he is being ironic. As Os Guinness has put it so eloquently, ‘Only in relation to a genuine folly foolish enough to pretend it is wise does true wisdom come to be seen and treated as folly’. The gospel, for Paul, is not folly but true wisdom!

Anti-intellectualism is the spiritual corrosion that will cripple the Church and compromise her witness in society. Writing primarily about the subtle but alarming changes in American evangelicalism that took place from the 1970s, theologian David Wells observes the disturbing shifts in emphasis from doctrine to life and from theology to spirituality. Wells laments that evangelical Christians in America have generally ‘lost interest … in what the doctrines of creation, common grace, and providence once meant for Christian believers’. He adds, somewhat despairingly, that ‘it is enough for them simply to know that Christ somehow died for people’. It would be a mistake to think that this observation has little to do with Christians in Singapore. A simple survey of the titles on display at some of our Christian bookshops would give a rough but not inaccurate indication of the theological literacy of Christians here. The displacement of theology in the life of the Church brought about by anti-intellectualism will severely weaken the Church.

Anti-intellectualism will also severely compromise Christian witness in society. The Church is commissioned to proclaim the Gospel to the world and part of this has to do with the Church’s prophetic engagement with society. Christians believe that the Gospel is public truth and as such it is not just relevant to a select group of people. The Christian faith therefore refuses to be privatized and shut off from the public square. A public Gospel therefore requires a public theology. Anti-intellectualism in the Church, however, can prevent Christians from engaging faithfully and meaningfully in public discourse. In fact, anti-intellectualism will severely cripple the Church’s confidence in participating in such engagements. And this will in turn seriously compromise the witness and influence of Christians in the public square.

On the basis of the first of Jesus’ commandments, we must say, quite simply and directly that anti-intellectualism is a sin. In refusing to use the minds that God has given to us as part of our praise to him, we have disobeyed this commandment. We have simply failed to love God fully, with our whole being. Beyond all excuses, evasions and rationalizations, Christians must recognize anti-intellectualism for what it truly is. Only then will Christians be able to address the problem. But even here, an important qualification must be made. In rejecting anti-intellectualism our goal is not academic or intellectual respectability, but faithfulness to the commands of Jesus. The discipleship of the mind is not about intellectualism (the sin on the other extreme end of the spectrum!) or intellectual snobbery. It is about loving God with our minds by allowing God’s Word to govern our thinking.

The command to love God with our minds, then, presents a two-fold challenge for Christians. In the first place, it emphasizes the importance of the intellect. Put differently and quite simply, the command challenges Christians to think. But more importantly, this command challenges Christians to think Christianly, that is to think theologically, to allow Scripture and the tradition of the Church to inform and shape their thinking. This is what the discipleship of the mind is all about! It is about being so immersed in the worship, life and doctrines of the Church that our perspectives, our worldviews and our values are entirely molded by the Gospel. It is about not conforming to the ‘pattern of this world’ but being transformed through the renewal of the mind (Rom 12:2). It is about developing a habit of mind that sees the world through the lens of the Gospel.

To think Christianly therefore requires the Christian to be grounded in Scripture and in the doctrines of the church. But thinking Christianly does not only mean thinking about Christian topics. It has to do with allowing the Word of God to govern our thoughts on every possible aspect of life – education, career, raising children, politics, medicine, science, the arts, entertainment, leisure. Thinking Christianly therefore engages the whole person in the whole of life. As such, it is more than just an intellectual activity.

In addition, to think Christianly is to conduct our lives in obedience to God. The Christian doctor who knows that the Bible teaches the sanctity of human life would refuse to perform an abortion or euthanize his patient. The Christian politician who understands the biblical demand for justice would oppose policies that would marginalize certain sectors of society. There is a profound relationship between thought and life, thinking and doing, worldview and ethics. The challenge for Christians to think Christianly is therefore always a challenge to radical discipleship. This is because thinking Christianly is always premised on the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in Trumpet (TTC).