Monthly Archives: January 2021

Small words, big meaning

I like learning new words and their meanings. For someone like me who speaks different languages and enjoys learning them, words are fascinating. From my own language I love the word “saudade” /saʊˈdɑːdə/. There isn’t a word for that in English. People sometimes use the word “homesick” or “missing” to translate it. But it means so much more than just being homesick or missing something. When we use this word we want to express a feeling of longing for someone or something, a feeling of melancholy. The kind of feeling that makes your heart ache.  

In my Bible readings and exploration of the topic of holiness, I have seen the word “woe” many times. In fact, it is used about 96 times in the Bible and Jesus used it too. In the English dictionary the meaning for this word is: great sorrow or distress (often used hyperbolically). If you are reading that and have forgotten the many years learning language and the treasures of grammar, hyperbole is an exaggerated statement or claim not meant to be taken literally. This word was used, some believe, to convey to the listeners something important, it was almost like a cry to stop and listen. It was spoken before God’s judgement was announced to the people to convey disaster was coming, should they continue to walk away from their God.

In the book of Isaiah the word woe is used 23 times. Let’s consider one of them. The prophet Isaiah is given a vision of God’s throne and his glory:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
    the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

This passage is a classic place in Scriptures to look at the attribute of God which permeates all the others, his Holiness. Repetition is used in the Bible to emphasise a point and holiness is the only attribute of God which is repeated 3 times in a sentence. Note the seraphim saying Holy, holy holy. God reveals his other attributes to us in the Bible but we never read anywhere “Love, love, love is the Lord Almighty”, or “Powerful, powerful, powerful is the Lord Almighty”. God’s holiness is so important that no one could see His glory. Isaiah new that and that is why he responds this way:

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Isaiah probably used this word woe to magnify the tragedy of his situation: I am ruined. He was fully expecting to die because he knew how unclean he was and he had seen the Lord Almighty. He new that because of all the sin in his life he could never stand before God. Isaiah knew he deserved death. The feeling of anguish, misery, desolation this little word carries to someone like him who recognises their condition of helplessness before a Holy God. Utter despair! In order to fully understand the meaning of the word woe in the context here one would have had to have gone through the same desperation when looking at ones heart.

We don’t see a lot of that these days. People have largely forgotten how Holy God is and how much He hates sin. They think of God as being just love, mercy, good, kind, friendly. But Holy does not come at the top of the list. People live their lives thinking they might be a bit naughty at times, but not sinful. NO, sin does not appear to be the worst thing in ones life anymore. Sure, we still hear in our churches the mention of God being holy and we sing along to famous words “Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide thee, though the eye of sinfulness thy glory may not see, only thou art holy; there is none beside thee, perfect in pow’r, in love, and purity”, but are quick to concentrate on the second half of this verse than the first. It is because people have stopped focusing on God’s holiness it has become more difficult to see the filth they live in. It is only when we comprehend God’s holiness (if it is even possible to comprehend it) that we understand that we too should say “woe to me”. Like Isaiah, we too deserve to die because we are sinful. We cannot stand in the presence of a Holy God. Tragic indeed! A complete desolation!

But the passage does not stop there. It goes on to show how the Holy, holy, holy God provided the solution to cleanse Isaiah and to give us a picture of what was to come. It is pointing forward to when Jesus was going to come and die for us to make us clean and we too would have our sins atoned for.

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

What an amazing gracious, holy God we have! Notice that God didn’t compromise on who He is at all. He didn’t change his character to make sure we could come to him. He didn’t get down from his throne to console Isaiah in his despair. No. God is still Holy, holy, holy, but because of his holy love and mercy he provided a way for Isaiah to be able to be cleansed and that is what the coal was used for. It took his sins away from him, so he could stand in God’s presence. God has provided a way for us to be made clean, righteous and therefore, not be destroyed because of our sin. He gave us His Son, Jesus. It is only when faced with God’s holiness that we can comprehend his grace, his love, his mercy, his justice, his power poured down on us through Jesus and His sacrifice on the cross for us.

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 

If we believe that Jesus died for us, in our place, to forgive our sins and be made right before God, and that He rose again and Jesus is now reigning in Heaven, we are made holy. We move from a situation of total despair and desolation to being saved and made right with God. It is of utmost importance that we speak, teach and point to the holiness of our God and pray that in seeing how Holy God is people will experience their “woe to me” and understand how desperately they need Jesus. It is because of Jesus that we can stand in awe in the presence of our holy God!

Focus and discipline

On my way home from work earlier in the week I felt really thirsty and I remembered an illustration I heard once in my youth: we were in church and our Sunday School teacher was talking about this boy who would always get angry in school and get into trouble, although he was a very able and intelligent boy. He was always getting distracted and getting in with the wrong crowd. One day he was sent to the headteacher’s office and was fully expecting severe sanctions to be put in place for the 100th time. In fact he was probably expecting to be expelled. The Headteacher calmly walked towards a cupboard on the side got a glass out and filled it with water, then handed it to the boy, who at this point was quite surprised. The headteacher said: “I want you to hold this glass all the time, everywhere you go today in school. In and out of the classroom, during lunch, break, inside and outside without dropping any of it”. “That is impossible said the boy!” The Headteacher looked him in the eye, smiled and said “Off you go! I will see you here at the end of the school day with your glass of water”.

Bear with me. I do have a point – I promise!

The boy in the story walked around all day very carefully and very slowly carrying his glass of water. At the end of the day he was summoned to the Headteacher’s office and he had his glass of water still full. The Headteacher said to him: “Did you notice all the confusion going on in the corridors while you were walking?”, “No, sir”. “Did you hear all the swearing, all the fighting, all the music?”, “No, sir”. “Did you hear all the people calling you names and inviting you to join them in their mischief?” “No, sir”. “Why?” “I had to keep my eyes focused on the glass, sir”.

I don’t know if this was a real story or maybe just an illustration my Sunday School teacher heard but the point of the story is so important and so relevant to our lives. We must keep our eyes focused on Jesus. We must seek to live our lives to please Him and to be transformed into His likeness.

In the book of Colossians chapter 3 we find the apostle Paul challenging us:

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”

The Colossians had lost focus, were distracted by other things. There were problems with false teaching in their midst and Paul reminds them of who they are in Christ. They are now His, they belong to Him. They must set their hearts on things above not on things on earthly things.

There is so much to learn from the book of Colossians that it would be impossible to summarise in a post (if you haven’t read it or haven’t gone back to it for a while, I challenge you to read it – so many riches and so much guidance to live a life to please our Saviour), but as I remembered the illustration above I heard so many years ago these words popped into my mind. “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” The idea of walking around carrying a glass full of water all day, all the time without spilling any of it seems to require a lot of focus and discipline.

Setting our hearts on things above requires focus and discipline too. Thankfully we have been given all we need in order to accomplish that. We have God’s word to teach and guide us. Paul encourages Timothy to stay firm and remember all he had learned. depicted in 1 Timothy 3:14-17

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

It is so important that we read, study and memorise God’s word in order to know God better and the ways we can live with our eyes focused on Him. That is our discipline. There will be days when we will feel discouraged because we get distracted and feel like we are loosing the battle against sin, but we must remember that God did not leave us alone to complete the task of living a life to glorify Him. He gave us His Holy Spirit. In the illustration above the Headteacher leaves the boy to walk on his own and figure it our by himself (ok, maybe he made the point he wanted to do). God is with us through His Spirit. Jesus promised his disciples in John 14:12-18 that he would send the Spirit of truth:

12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. 15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 

Be encouraged when it seems the glass is going to slip from your hand (to use our illustration). You are not alone! Jesus continued in verses 25-27:

25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”

The Holy Spirit comes from God to us and will teach us all things and remind us of what Jesus has taught us! What a promise and great truth for us to hold on to. When we feel distracted, tired, discouraged, finding it impossible to keep our eyes focused on things from above let us remember that we are not alone! We have a comforter and teacher to help us with our discipline of being transformed into Jesus’s likeness. May God continue to guide us through his Spirit.

The Lord looks at the heart

I have found it very difficult to sit down this week to write a post. I have been very busy and very tired with all the work I have to do. No. That is not the problem. I still found time to browse my social media and I have watched my favourite TV programs. No. I am not that busy and tired that I can’t sit down to think about what God has been challenging me with this week.

The hardest thing I find in my Christian walk is to stop and actually look into things in my own heart. Maybe you understand what I mean. It is so much easier to look at other people’s flaws and failings than my own. My heart has been aching this week. I have been challenged again, again by a very well known story in the New Testament in the book of Luke.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

I have read this story so many times and if I am honest I always thank God I am not like the Pharisee in this story, or am I? God has been challenging me to seek Him closely and to pursue holiness. God wants that for every believer. When I read this passage this week my first question was, am I confident in my own righteousness? Do I look down on other people? Have I lost sight of the cross of Jesus?

As far as I know the Pharisees were religious men that kept the law and some were pretty good at it too. They prayed, they went to the synagogue and I am sure they studied and memorized the Scriptures too. These things in themselves are not the problem. The problem is that their hearts were full of pride. They thought they were better than others because of their religiosity. “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get”.

We tend to approach this story and think it does not apply to ourselves, after all we follow Jesus. We understand He died on the cross to forgive our sins and make us right with God. We understand that we are justified in Him for our salvation. We dismiss it and think it only applies to other people. As I read it again I ask myself: Am I a Pharisee when it comes to pride in my heart? Do I boast in the fact that I have learnt so many precious truths about God from many godly man and women? Do I boast in the fact I have read the right Christian books? Do I boast in the fact that I only listen to Christian music in my car (and how dare my kids ask to listen to the pop songs in the radio)? Do I feel incredibly satisfied with myself because I have not missed one service on a Sunday for many years? (I can visualise the tick in the box) Do I give myself a big pat on the back when I acknowledge that for the first time in a very long time I have done my Bible reading every day for an entire year? Has the pride in my heart turned me into this character I learnt to dislike from the very first time I read this story? Has this pride hindered my witness? Has it stopped me encouraging other Christian women around me?

The problem is not so much in the things I did or do, but what motivated me to do them and how I feel about them. Oh how easy it is for those of us who have been blessed to have met Jesus in our youth to feel proud about our journey of faith?

Maybe like me, the Pharisees forgot that in 1 Samuel 16:7 God said to Samuel:

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

The Lord looks at the heart! That is so clear in the story when we read the how the tax collect behaved in contrast to the Pharisee. I can almost see how much his heart ached as he could not even lift his eyes to heaven. He really understood there was nothing he could do or offer but he knew He needed God to pour His mercies on Him. We like him this man, don’t we? He is the kind of Christian we want to be identified with. And it would be right for us to want to be like him because Jesus said he went home justified. Oh how I need to learn to be more like this tax collector in this story!

I know that I have allowed pride to fill my heart. I know that I need to let God’s word speak, break, mould, change and transform me. There is no place for guilt because Jesus took it all away when He died on the cross to forgive me. His sacrifice is perfect and God accepted it. His sacrifice took away my sins and shame and all the guilt. There is a need for repentance and confession. I just remembered the words of a beautiful song called Forgiven:

“Lord, forgive us for our pride When our faith becomes a show Dressed in righteous deeds to hide All the stains below We have judged Your sons and daughters For the sin that is our own May we now forgive each other And lay down our stones

CHORUS Forgiven, forgiven Through the blood of Christ We are forgiven”

My heart aches but at the same time it is filled with the hope that comes with the certainty of forgiveness. I AM FORGIVEN! There is place for God’s grace to shine brighter in my heart. How much I need it. Each day. Only by His grace and his mercy can I ever bow down before His throne empty of myself ready to be filled with all that God wants for me. Only by His grace and love can I fix my eyes on Jesus and not on myself. His blessings upon my life do not depend on my performance as a Christian.

May God help me to remember each day that He looks at the heart. May His Holy Spirit help me to be humble like the tax collector and may I continue to desire each day to be transformed into His likeness. May my life be used to help others to see Jesus and grow closer to Him. All glory be to Him.

“If God wills”

It has only been 5 days (at the time I am writing this) since we were all wishing one another a Happy New Year and yet it feels like a long time ago. Every New Year everyone around me seems to be making new resolutions. Some want to lose weight (which is always a good one), some would like to eat healthier (I would like to do that too), some might want to exercise more and get fit (I won’t even go there!). Some people try to change their attitude: they want to be kinder, nicer, happier, less grouchy, more open to other people’s opinions, more respectful. Others will try to change habits: give up smoking, drink less alcohol, watch less football, play less computer games, help more at home. Some people decide to support a charity, others decide to dedicate one of their holidays to work overseas helping to build a school somewhere in a 3rd World Country. People proudly announce their plans and are full of confidence as they start their new year!

That is great, isn’t it? That people resolve to change their ways! New Year resolutions are good and when a year ends it seems the right time to try again, doesn’t it? After all it is a “New” year. What can go wrong?

I did not have a New Year resolution, but I can tell you that had I decided to stop eating unhealthy food, I would have failed tremendously by now – no excuse. I guess if most people are like me, they are probably feeling defeated already. They had really hoped that this time they would be able to do it! Well, I guess it is only the 5th, they might be thinking. Perhaps it doesn’t count: “let’s try it again”! They tell themselves. Does it sound familiar? I stopped having a “New Year resolution” a long time ago. I failed every time, every single time and do you know why? Because I focused on my own strength. Who was I kidding, right? There is nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight, get, fit, eat healthy food, be kind, be helpful or go overseas to help build a school. The problem lies with the focus we put on our own strength, or lack of.

A wise friend once told me that he and his family would be able to raise enough money to travel abroad to help build a school during their summer holidays. He told me how he and his wife were praying for guidance in how they could best use their resources each month in order to save some more money. I thought it was such a lovely idea and I was absolutely sure they would do it. I tried to encourage them with my enthusiasm and to that they smiled and said “If God wills”. “If God wills”? What a strange saying, we might think. People don’t say those things anymore. But they should.

The Bible tells us in the book of James 4 verses 13-15:

13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 

There are important truths we need to learn or remind ourselves of in these verses. The first thing is that only God knows and controls our tomorrows. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. In fact, we do not know what will happen in the next second of our lives. Our God is eternal, outside time. He sees the beginning and the end and every little bit in between all at the same time!

The second truth is that our lives are momentary. I am not sure about you, but I love walking early in the morning when it is misty. Most of all I love watching it disappear quickly as the sun warms the earth. Our lives are that brief compared to God’s eternity. Why would we want to put our trust in our strength to carry out our plans if we know we are here now but might not be in the next minute? When I think about it like that it seems quite a foolish thing to do.

Third truth, we are called to put our trust in God. “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”  The Lord, our God, is sovereign and He reigns since forever. He is the one who created all things and therefore, all things belong to Him. Because all things are His, there is nothing wrong with the saying in this verse. In fact, it shows our dependence on Him. It shows that the Christian knows our lives belong to Him and in His grace, mercy and love He will do as He pleases.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions anymore but I do make plans and I try to challenge myself to change in areas I need to (physically and spiritually). These verses are not saying we cannot make plans, rather they are telling us to trust God. To bring before Him our plans and resolution and simply trust that if it is His will it will come to pass. The big plans and the small ones too. God knows all things and reigns over all things. Not only that, He loves us too. His love is so great that He sent His Son to die for us and redeem us.

I am thankful that one day my friend told me that simple phrase “If God wills” and I am even more thankful to know it is not just a saying. It is from God’s word. What a lovely reminder to commit our plans to God. Perhaps we should say it more in our conversations as we encourage one another to continue to grow in our faith. May this be our new resolution (day after day) and may God help us through His Holy Spirit to trust in Him completely.

God bless.