- Facts not feelings. Feelings are immensely fickle.
- A moment at a time and a day at a time.
- Things that ground us in our surroundings
- Being thankful
- Starving the inner critic. Go on, do it!
- Whatever is good, lovely, noble
So, I have got to know psalm 23 well over the past few years. But I never noticed this great promise until today. I SHALL NOT WANT. I think a big question when you are in recovery is, how am I going to get through this? In fact, anyone going through a hard thing can think, what about tomorrow? In fact the Lord Jesus had a few things to say on that.
But here, right smack bang in the start of Psalm 23 is the great promise. With the Lord as my shepherd, I shall not want.
I will not have a time where my needs outweigh his supply.
There will not be a moment where I can justifiably say, he has let me down.
As he gently works on my wants, I will come to see that there is nothing I lack.
How did I miss it? Because God’s word is not just expansive for the scholars and deep thinkers; it is expansive for the believer and you can never wring it dry!
HOWEVER, beware of ‘deceitful desires’ that is another phrase that has come back to me today. Paul mentions this in Ephesians 4. As we are fundamentally broken our desires would throw us about like a ship on a tumultuous sea. We need to be wary that not everything our desires feed us is right. In fact, they could be getting used as the devil’s handmaidens to con us. Our desires are deceitful and so we need to learn to be suspicious of them. When I want something, feel a longing, notice a prod…is that thing actually true and right according to God’s word? Do I need to think about that now? How COULD I choose to think about it using good doctrine. The battle after all, is to have good doctrine rather than bad. And, everything is theological. It is theological because there is a battle raging. Thankfully the adversary is defeated.
So, realise that in the truest and best defined sense, we shall not want. But realise also, that the things you are wanting are possibly handmaidens sent to deceive you. THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT.
- We see that sin easily entangles (I have the image of the net thrown by a gladiator). I sort of imagine that getting properly entangled takes time and so I will notice it easily. But no. Sin easily entangles. Had we considered that, we might not have so easily got trapped (v1). But the good news is we CAN ‘throw it off.’
- We have a great cloud of witnesses willing us on. Our true comfort in human terms does not come from sympathetic listeners, but from the fellowship of brothers and sisters who have passed through such trials.
- Fix our eyes on Jesus, as per previous post. We are saved by looking, Numbers 21.
- Did you noticed Jesus scorned the shame of the cross. That is he derided it, snubbed it, put it in it’s place. We also must refuse to be shamed. Shaming is a big thing in many cultures and the devil uses it profusely.
- God disciplines us, because he loves us. Not because he hates us (v5). An African friend of mind said: ‘Simon in my culture we discipline our children, not because we hate them but because we love them.’ He was appalled at the state of our society and his words hit the mark after a rather unruly youth Bible study!
- When we have hardship (v7) we should make ourselves stronger by saying, this could be loving discipline by my Father. It is the mark of being a son (v8).
- v10 it is always for our good and to preserve us in the faith.
- v11 Don’t be surprised if it feels horrible at the time– there is the guarantee of a harvest of righteousness which comes later. Peace is also promised later. How true this has been in my experience. There is a time promised when this seasonal discomfort will end and the malicious thought that it will ‘never end’ is to be fought.
‘I being poor have only my dreams. I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’ wrote W.B. Yates.
During the past season of being more aware of my weaknesses, it had made me think upon the struggles of others. In the past I think I have probably expected everyone simply to conform to my way of doing things or expectations. Whereas the truth is, that we all have different constitutions given to us by the Lord and we can never know the crosses that others carry, as they do. There may be a good reason why someone is the way that they are. Not that we are to excuse sin in one another and brush it off. But we are to tread carefully.
One person who understood the various constitutions of Christians so well was John Bunyan in his Pilgrim’s Progress. Perhaps one of the reasons it flew off the shelves (if they had book stores then) was because people identified with the portraits of the individuals and not simply the allegory of the gospel, although that is probably unsurpassed.
The puritans understood the soul well– they were doctors of the soul– with remedies to dispense from the riches of God.
Take the nuanced personality of the man, Mr Fearing.
‘But when he was come to the entrance of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I thought I should have lost my man: not for that he had any inclination to go back; that he always abhorred, but he was ready to die for fear. Oh, the hobgoblins will have me! The hobgoblins will have me! cried he…But this I took very great notice of, that this valley was as quiet when he went through it, as ever I knew it before or since. I suppose those enemies here had now a special check from our Lord, and a command not to meddle until Mr Fearing passed over it…When he was come to Vanity Fair, I thought he would have fought will all the men at the fair. I feared there we should have been knocked on the head, so hot was he against their fooleries. Upon the Enchanted Ground he also was very wakeful. But when he was come at the river where there is no bridge, there again he was in a heavy case. Now, now, he said, he should be drowned forever, and so never see that face with comfort, that he had come so many miles to behold. And here also I took notice of what was very remarkable- the water at this time was lower than ever I saw it in all my life; so he went over at last not much above wetshod. When he was going up to the gate, Mr Great-heart began to take his leave of him, and to wish him a good reception above. So he said, I shall, I shall. Then parted we asunder and I saw him no more.
Hon: Then it seems he was well at last?
Great: Yes, yes, I never had any doubt about him. He was a man of choice spirit only he was always kept very low, and that made his life so burdensome to himself, and so troublesome to others. He was, above many, tender of sin…
Hon: But what should be the reason that such a good man should be all his days so much in the dark?
Great: There are two sorts of reasons for it. One is, the wise God will have it so: some must pipe, some must weep. Now Mr Fearing was one that played upon this bass. He and his fellows sound the sackbut, whose notes are more doleful than the notes of other music are: though indeed some say the bass is the ground of music. And for my part, I care not at all for that profession which begins not with heaviness of mind. The first string the musician usually touches, is the bass, when he intends to put all in tune. God also plays upon this string first, when he sets the soul in tune for himself. Only here was the imperfection of Mr Fearing; he could play upon no other music but this, till towards his latter end….
Hon: He was a very zealous man, as one may see by the relation you have given of him. Difficulties, lions, or Vanity Fair, he feared not at all; ’twas only sin, death and hell, that were to him a terror, because he had some doubts about his interest in that celestial country.
Great: You say right, those were the things that were his troublers: and they as you have well observed, arose from the weakness of his mind thereabout, not from the weakness of his spirit as to the practical part of a pilgrims life. I dare believe that, as the proverb is, he could have bit a firebrand, had it stood in his way; but the things with which he was oppressed, no man ever yet could shake off with ease.
Matthew: Then said Matthew, Fear was one thing that made me think that I was far from having that within me that accompanies salvation. But if it was so with such a good man as he, why may it not also go well with me? (pg 245-257)
Notice firstly how gentle the Lord God is with the weaknesses of Mr Fearing.
Then see the nature of his struggle. He had a weak mind and this did not exclude him from faith.
This portrait is one example of Bunyan’s grip on the gospel and the contours of the souls of sinners like us. Pray that we would get the same wisdom.
I don’t know about you, but lately I have been having some mornings where I think: ‘I’m totally empty Lord’, ‘I have nothing’ and ‘what is more, I can’t fix this.’
Now, naturally we look at those and go, this feels like a really negative situation. As I say that I have nothing within (as I did this morning), I feel a range of things. Potentially helpless, I feel guilty and I feel like I lack value to God.
But here is the thing. The gospel actually flips all this on the head. You see in the world’s economy, actually in any economy, having nothing is a bad admission. But in the Christian life it is the one qualification for life. I realised this as I started speaking the gospel to myself (which I hope is a habit you are also developing.)
Feel free to happily laugh out loud as you realise how good the gospel is.
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’
‘Blessed are those who mourn.’
‘Blessed are the meek.’
‘Give us today our daily bread’ (I mean, aren’t we supposed to go out and get it ourselves?)
‘I have not come to call the righteous’
‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor’
ALL OF THESE and more, are reasons why being empty and being full are remarkably close in the Christian life.
Jesus has come for those who know that they are running on empty and far from the fuel station. Those who believe that the electricity metre has run out and there is nothing to put in.
But oh, we might object: ‘Emptiness is only the way into the Christian life’. Now it is true that God fills us with his spirit, but that is not incompatible with feeling spiritually bankrupt. Remember, who the Pharisees were? They were the guys who thought they had made the inside, but were shown to be on the outside, because they believed that they were self righteous.
By looking away from ourselves to a saviour everyday and even having the painful experiences of emptiness we are able to go to another for supply.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.’
‘Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.’ 2 Corinthians 4:16
Come on Paul are you serious? Wasting away. ‘Come and be a Christian and waste away!’ Yet there is a wonderful dynamic here at work. Life in the world is hard and in some ways being a Christian is harder. Therefore there can be the sense of wasting away. But this is only outwardly. We get worn down and tired out by the challenge of serving the Lord and giving of ourselves to follow our master.
Inwardly we are getting renewed by Jesus. But I just noticed- it flitted into my head in a coffee shop today- it is day by day we get renewed. As has often been said, God provides the grace on the day and not before. He does the work of the renewing as we travel. But he can’t renew us today for tomorrow’s troubles.
Elsewhere Paul says, endure hardship patiently. Promises of hardship and renewal.
I’ve been digging into Richard Sibbes, Volume 1 recently which contains many of his published books, including The Bruised Reed and The Souls Conflict with itself. These are simply wonderful books that have helped me at more than one point of difficulty in my life. Frankly, I think they should be given out to every student at Bible college and possibly during GP training as well (ok, that wouldn’t be possible.) The reality is that Sibbes understood the human heart in a way that very few do today. He saw that the Scripture was medicine to heal the sick mind and soul and earned himself the name of ‘the heavenly doctor Sibbes’ in his own lifetime. Today we struggle with this, because as ministers we have lost the category of counsellor. Warded off by warnings to leave it to the ‘professionals’ we no longer see ourselves as having manna for the distressed soul or person who finds themselves hard pressed, but Sibbes did. Yes, we know the gospel is good, but we aren’t confident to unpick the mental, psychological and associated physiological problems that come with getting confused over the gospel– or simply the effects of living with fallen hearts, bodies and minds.
But consider this. It is now widely acknowledge that how we think affects how we feel and act (so Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). Doesn’t what we think about Jesus and the gospel have a bearing on this Christians? So what does the Bible say to the believer who is feeling crushed and poor in spirit and who perhaps despairs of life itself? Enter the heavenly doctor Sibbes.
I have found that despite many fellow Christians being hungry for these things, they often struggle to read Sibbes for themselves due to the antiquity of the language and also the puritan style. So for a bit of fun today, I have tried to modernise the language of the first two pages (not a great deal then) just to see how it flows and if it helps make sense for folk. I am no Eugene Peterson, but here it is.
1. The reed and the bruising
The prophet Isaiah refers to the time between himself and when Christ appeared in the incarnation. With the eyes of faith he sees that Christ is present in Isaiah’s writings. So he presents him on behalf of God to others who have spiritual eyes. He writes: ‘“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice’ (Isaiah 42:1-3). Matthew claims that these words are now fulfilled in Christ (Matthew 12:18-20). In Isaiah’s words the calling of Christ and the way in which he is called are set out for us.
God calls Christ his servant. Christ was God’s servant in the greatest event that has ever taken place. He was chosen as a servant by none other than God the Father. Through this we can see the sweet love of God towards us. Christ’s saving work is his greatest aim and he will send his only beloved son to do it. He begins by saying ‘Here is my servant’ to get our attention and to stir up our hearts to think about him. In times of temptation, timid people can look so much at the trouble they are in, that they need to be awakened to look at him, so that their souls can find rest. In times of temptation, it is safest to look only at Christ the true serpent who was lifted up and who is the ‘lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). He is a special comfort for the soul, especially if we don’t just look on him. Think also about the Father’s authority and love in him. Because in all that Christ did and suffered as our go between, we must see God in him, bringing the world back to himself (2 Cor 5:19).
It should build up our faith, that God the Father is so pleased with this work of buying us back. After all, it was he who was originally offended by our sin. And what a great comfort that God’s love rests on Christ and he is well pleased with him. Because it means he is well pleased with us if we are in Christ. [sentence I don’t understand here.] So let’s embrace Christ. In him we embrace God’s love and build our faith securely on the one who is God’s choice.
Look and see our comfort. There is a sweet agreement between the three persons of the Trinity. The Father gives a commission to Christ. The Spirit supplies and sanctifies it. And Christ himself does the job of go between. Our salvation is based on all three persons of the Trinity jointly agreeing to save.
HOW CHRIST PERSUES HIS CALLING
In Isaiah we are told that it is done without making a big noise, as princes can do. ‘He will not shout or cry out.’ His voice was heard, but what kind of voice? ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened’ (Matthew 11:28). He cried out, but how? ‘Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters’ (Isaiah 55:1). His coming was low key and gentle, which is shown in these words: ‘A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.’
So we can see that the state of those he was sent to deal with, was that they were bruised reeds and smouldering wicks. They were not trees, but reeds. And they were not whole, but bruised reeds. The church is compared to weak things: to a dove amongst the birds, to a vine among the plants, sheep among the wolves, to a woman, who is the weaker partner.
God’s children are bruised reeds before their conversion and often afterwards. Before their conversion, people are bruised reeds to different degrees, as God sees fit. Except those who have grown up in the church and so have experienced his grace from childhood. And as there are differences in temperaments of people, spiritual gifts and lifestyle, so there are differences in God’s intentions to use people. He usually empties the people he will use of themselves and makes them nothing, before he will use them in any great way to serve.