Blogroll: The Good Book Company
I read blogs, as well as write one. The 'blogroll' on this site reproduces some posts from some of the people I enjoy reading. There are currently 33 posts from the blog 'The Good Book Company.'
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It’s November—which means that, whether we like it or not, we’re snowballing down the hill towards Christmas.
And my guess is that that thought fills you with a mixture of excitement and trepidation—perhaps more of the latter, if you’re part of the 61% of women who describe the Christmas season as the most stressful time of the year.
You might remember the 2012 TV advert for ASDA that showed a mum choosing the tree, battling through the shops, wrapping the presents, writing the cards, untangling the lights, supervising the baking, ferrying the kids, making the beds, cleaning the house, laying the table, cooking the dinner—only for her to sit down at the end of Christmas day and be asked by her husband, “What’s for tea love?”. The advert got banned for sexism, but I sort of admired its honesty.
It’s no wonder that the pressure to have a great Christmas—one that matches up to our own rose-tinted memories or our culture’s sugar-coated commercials—leaves many feeling overwhelmed. As Matt Chandler writes in An Even Better Christmas, “This is the season of massive shop-till-you-drop, make-sure-everybody-is-totally-happy, gift-buying, food-gorging panic attack.”
One journalist writing for the Telegraph reflected: “It’s not that I don’t like Christmas—I love it—but as a people-pleaser the pressure (largely self-inflicted) to make it perfect for everyone puts me on edge from the start of December. By the middle of the month I’m frazzled and more likely than ever to fly off the handle.”
[inline_product:evenbet]So what can we do about it?
What’s interesting about the article quoted above is the way it probes the reasons why so many people feel under so much pressure at Christmas. And it’s by probing underneath the surface of our hearts that we can diagnose our real problem, and apply the real gospel truths that will help us withstand the pressure.
Maybe your Christmas stress comes down to one of these reasons…
I want to impress. The reason you’re keen to keep it all together is because you really want to look like you can keep it all together—sort of like a festive edition of the Proverbs 31 woman. Nothing feels quite as satisfying as having people think well of you; nothing feels quite as mortifying as the thought that they don’t.
Gospel truth: Admitting that you can’t do it all, and coming to Christ for the strength to do what is needed, is what shows off God’s glory. “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12 v 9).
I want to feel valued. Few things can be as crushing as a small child who is unimpressed with what you’ve given them. Wouldn’t it be nice if they were just grateful for a change? When will people finally notice the effort you’re putting in and give you the love and appreciation you’re craving?
Gospel truth: God treasures us wholly and completely—not because of what we’ve done, but out of his grace: “For [God] chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he[ predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1 v 4-5).
There’s only one Person’s standards who ultimately matter, and he’s freed you from the guilt of not meeting them
I want to be in control. Maybe all this talk of Christmas has you itching to reach for a pen and write a to-do list. Everything’s fine if things are going according to plan. But as soon as circumstances beyond your control (or, let’s be honest, family members beyond your control) start to derail things, your internal pressure gauge goes off the scale.
Gospel truth: God is in control, so if you’re not, that is OK. “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (Proverbs 19 v 21).
I want to make up for my past. All you want to do is give your family the Christmases you never got to enjoy as a kid—ones where people don’t fall out, or where people aren’t disappointed by the lack of gifts under the tree.
Gospel truth: It’s not down to us to make up for lost time, because God has promised to one day redeem and restore all the broken bits of our story. “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’” (Revelation 21 v 5)
I feel guilty. Your loved ones need to have a Christmas with this, or that, or this other thing. If not, they’ll be missing out and it will be your fault. Or maybe you just don’t have the time or the money to provide the things you’d like to, and it leaves you with a nagging sense of guilt all December.
Gospel truth: There’s only one Person’s standards who ultimately matter, and he’s freed you from the guilt of not meeting them: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus … the Spirit who gives life has set you free” (Romans 8 v 1-2).
If your festive stress is rising, why not write out the verse that seems most relevant, and stick it up somewhere you’ll see it?
An Even Better Christmas, by Matt Chandler, is a personal, warm and compelling book, that shows us how the God of the Bible offers what we all really crave—joy and peace—not just at Christmas, but all year round, and into eternity! It’s short and accessible, so perfect to give away to non-believing friends and family or at Christmas services and other evangelistic events.
1. For the stressed out Christian: Love Came Down at Christmas
For most of us, the weeks before Christmas are at best busy, and at worst incredibly stressful. And how much more so when we don’t take time out to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus! This Advent devotional contains 24 daily readings from 1 Corinthians 13. Sinclair B Ferguson brings the rich theology of the incarnation to life with his trademark warmth and clarity. We'll see what “love” looked like in the life of Christ and be challenged to love like him.
[inline_product:lovecame]2. For the not-yet Christian: An Even Better Christmas
The Christmas season is probably the best time of year to talk to people about spiritual things. Recent statistics from the Church of England [link] show that Christmas service attendance is the highest it’s been for more than a decade. In this short, personal, warm and compelling book by Matt Chandler, we see how the God of the Bible offers what we really crave—joy and peace—at Christmas, all year round, and into eternity!
[inline_product:evenbet]3. For the drifting Christian: Enjoying God
We believe in God, we serve God, we trust God, but would we say that we enjoy God on a day to day basis? What exactly does a personal relationship with God look like, and how is it even possible?
This seminal work by Tim Chester shows us how we can enjoy God in every moment of every day, whether we are experiencing good times or hard times; whether we are changing nappies, or stuck on a train. He explores how the Father, the Son and the Spirit relate to us in our day-to-day lives, and how to respond.
[inline_product:egod]4. For the parents: Bake Through The Bible at Christmas
Lots of people will be taking to their kitchens to bake this Christmas—why not use it as an opportunity to teach children about the birth of Jesus? With 12 recipes and accompanying Bible stories, Bake Through The Bible At Christmas how to make Christmas baking about Christ!
[inline_product:bttbc]5. For the teens: Light in the Darkness
This stunning graphic realisation brings Luke 1 – 2 to life in a new way, powerfully capturing the joy, pain and emotion of that first Christmas. See it for yourself here. Perfect not just for teens and young adults, but anyone who enjoys graphic novels.
[inline_product:litd]6. For the tots: A Very Noisy Christmas
Some people think that Christmas was a "Silent Night". Far from it. It was filled with shouting, singing and screaming! It was as noisy as any of our Christmas celebrations.
This fun and fresh retelling of the Christmas story comes with invitations to make some noise, so that children can join in as parents read to them. But it also shows children that at the heart of the Christmas story is something we should all be quiet and see: God's Son Jesus was born, so that we can be friends with God forever.
[inline_product:noisy]7. For the kiddos: The Christmas Promise Colouring Book
A great stocking filler—32 pages of colouring, puzzles and mazes based around the Christmas story that children will love. Use alongside The Christmas Promise to discover exactly how God kept His Christmas Promise by sending his New, Forever, Rescuing King.
[inline_product:t5tcpcb]8. For older children: XTB Christmas Unpacked
Christmas Unpacked is a great resource to help children and families explore the Bible together over the Christmas holidays. There are three weeks of Bible readings 7-11 year olds find out for themselves what Christmas is really all about, with pictures and puzzles—plus three weeks of family Bible readings which tie in.
If none of these are what you're looking for, you can browse our entire Christmas range here.
If you randomly ask people what passages in the Bible they know, my guess is that 1 Corinthians 13 will easily come in the top ten, probably the top five and maybe even the top 3. They might not be able to quote chapter and verse, of course. But probably they could identify it as “the wedding chapter . . . the passage about love.” After all, as the old Sammy Cahn song that was made famous by Frank Sinatra goes, “Love and marriage … go together like a horse and carriage,” don’t they?
But if 1 Corinthians 13 is an appropriate passage for a wedding, why would an author use it as the basis of an Advent devotional book? Advent is about Christmas, isn’t it? It should focus on angels, shepherds, and wise men, and on Mary and Joseph—shouldn’t it?
But, alas, “love and marriage” don’t always “go together like a horse and carriage.” Does anyone still sing “I tell you brother, you can’t have one without the other”? Aren’t many marriages love-less? And don’t most people think that they can fully love each other quite apart from getting married?
And that helps to explain why it is necessary to read 1 Corinthians 13 in the context of Christmas before it makes sense in the context of a wedding. Because it isn’t just telling us what we ought to do—namely love unconditionally; woven into it is a portrait of the only person who has ever loved truly and fully, namely Jesus Christ. And the fact that "love and marriage” often do not “go together like a horse and carriage” because of our lack of love for our marriage partner or our lack of love for God’s law helps explain why it is so important that we understand the message that is enshrined in 1 Corinthians 13. For none of us loves the way God commands us to. And so it was to deal with that failure on our part that God, in his perfect love, sent Jesus into the world at the first Christmas.
At his birth he was to be named “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Fittingly at his birth he was lifted into a wooden trough for a cradle, a kind of visual prophecy that some thirty-three years later he would be lifted onto a wooden cross. There, he “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). That is why Christians sing:
What wondrous love is this, o my soul O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, o my soul!
What wondrous love is this, that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse, for my soul, for my soul.
It was in anticipation of this that, as Christina Rossetti’s hymn tells us, “Love came down at Christmas.” 1 Corinthians 13 explains what that love is like. It reads like a description of Jesus:
Love is patient and kind
Love does not envy or boast
Love is not arrogant or rude
Love does not insist on its own way
Love is not irritable or resentful
Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things
Love never ends (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
That’s the love of God that came down at Christmas. And this gives us a measure of love.We measure love by the greatness of the identity of the one who loves
Christmas is about God’s love. Its best explanation is found in the best known words in John’s Gospel: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).
Isn’t it interesting that, increasingly, people do not like to hear talk about Jesus Christ? They are embarrassed by the mention of his name, and sometimes downright angry and hostile. Indeed, mentioning him in some work contexts may endanger your employment. Why? What harm has he done? Why all this antagonism and anger? The answer is simple: people feel condemned by him! Underneath all such claims as “the God I believe in is a God of love,” the truth is they don’t believe in a God of love at all. Otherwise they would not respond to him as they do, nor would they live their lives in a spirit somewhere between indifference and antipathy to him.
But here is the good news of the gospel. And we can only know it in Jesus: the great God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, the Sustainer of the cosmos—he loves us!We measure love by the difference and distance between the lover and the beloved
We love those stories that tell of the prince, or the rich or famous man, who marries the ordinary girl simply because he loves her (or vice versa). We “love” to hear of what someone is willing to do for love—how much they is willing to give up or how far they are prepared to go for their beloved. One of my sons crossed half the earth, so determined was he to win the hand of the girl he loved—I am still trying to take it in that he was so committed!
But this is as nothing compared to the distance Jesus travelled because of his love for us—from the glory of heaven to the manger and then on to the shame of the cross, from the world of eternal light to the hill of deep darkness at Golgotha, from the environment of eternal life to the experience of a hideous death, from the throne to the cross—all because he loved us.
And who were we? “While we were still weak … Christ died for the ungodly … while we were still sinners, Christ died for us … while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son…” (Romans 5: 6, 8, 10). No wonder Paul could speak with such a sense of wonder about “The Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Charles Wesley sought to capture this in his hymn “And can it be that I should gain”:
Amazing love, how can it be,
That thou my God should’st die for me?
And Isaac Watts was surely right:
When I behold the wondrous cross,
On which the Prince of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.Can we make it the Christmas chapter?
Think about it this way: it is only because 1 Corinthians 13 points us to Jesus Christ that it makes any sense to read it at a wedding. Otherwise, it would be a counsel of despair. It would simply become a constant reminder of our failure. But now, instead, those who have tasted the love of Jesus Christ also know that the resources of his love are available so that they can love in return. For “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).
The God of love, who gave his Son in love, has also given us the Spirit of love, so that we in turn may love.
1 Corinthians 13 needs to be the Christmas chapter before it can be the Wedding chapter! And when it is, there will be joy in our marriage as well as joy in our celebration of Christmas.
Love Came Down at Christmas contains 24 daily readings from 1 Corinthians 13. Sinclair B Ferguson brings the rich theology of the incarnation to life with his trademark warmth and clarity. However you're feeling, your heart will be refreshed as you wonder again at the truth that love came down at Christmas. Buy it now.
Love Came Down at Christmas is a new Advent devotional from Sinclair Ferguson. Today we're giving you a sneak peek of the first chapter...
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 1 Corinthians 13 v 1
Angels are in fashion—at least at Christmas time! Look at any collection of hymns or songs, and you may well find more references to angels in the section marked “Advent” than in all the other sections added together. The New Testament word for “angel” means a messenger. Every time angels appear in the Christmas story, they are carrying messages from heaven to earth. In the run-up to Jesus’ birth, angels appeared to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and—in dreams—to Joseph, his adoptive father (like his Old Testament namesake, Joseph was a dreamer). A vast crowd of them appeared to a few shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem. Interestingly, it’s clear that all these angels spoke the local language—which happens to have been Aramaic, a form of Hebrew. Angels can speak in human tongues.
So, what does Paul mean when he begins the “love chapter” (1 Corinthians 13) with a reference to angel tongues as well as human tongues? This isn’t the first time Paul has talked about tongues in this letter to the Corinthians. In the previous chapter, he writes about their ability to speak in “various kinds of tongues” (12 v 10). In the next chapter he devotes 28 verses to discussing these tongues (14 v 1-28). Clearly this was a big deal in Corinth. Whether these “tongues” refer to foreign languages or ecstatic speech, the Corinthians—or at least some of them—may have believed they could speak “Angel”. Presumably speaking “Angel” carried more kudos than any other language. Imagine being able to speak the language of heaven! Were some of them even claiming that they had spoken with angels? When one of our grandsons was about eight or nine, he told me how excited he was to be going to France for his summer holiday “because I’ll be able to practise my French on the French!” I said nothing. Despite five (miserable!) years studying French in school, I was silently thinking, “The French are the last people on whom I would want to practise my French”—and in my experience they have always agreed with me. But being able to practise your French on the French is nothing compared to being able to practise “Angel” on angels! Imagine it today: a publisher would offer a ghostwriter if need be to get your story. You’d be on the bestseller list and interviewed on TV (“Tonight we meet the author of I Spoke with Angels—this year’s number one bestseller”).
But notice what Paul says: if you can speak “Angel” but you lack love, you are “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”. You may think you’re special, but in God’s eyes—and ears!—you act and sound like a brass instrument making a loud, unpleasant noise. Actually, he doesn’t say, You sound like. He says, You are. You are not what you think you are. Metalworking was a significant industry in first-century Corinth. So, the Corinthians knew all about what Paul meant. Imagine a little Corinthian factory where the craftsmen made gongs and cymbals! All that clanging and banging—the Berlin Philharmonic it wasn’t! You would want to cover your ears with your noise-reducing headphones. That’s what speaking in tongues sounds like in God’s ears if the speaker lacks love. Some scholars think Paul may have been thinking about the metallic amplification systems that were crafted in Corinth for use in the theatre: You think you are something? You are just a self-amplifier! You probably don’t claim to have the ability to speak “Angel”. But what Paul seems to be doing here is applying a general principle to a specific problem he saw in Corinth. That problem keeps on recurring. You encounter it whenever you meet someone who wants to tell you all about his or her gift (or “gifting”, as people like to say today). Ministers and pastors are sometimes asked, “If I become a member of your church, will I get to use my gift?” “Will my gifts be recognised by the church?” Or even, “Why aren’t my gifts being recognised by this church?”
Whatever gifts you may have, love always means that you come down. It means that you use those gifts for the good of others, not to make yourself feel good.
Paul valued the gifts of the Spirit, but he wasn’t much interested in that approach. His first question at a church-membership interview would not be about your gifts. He’d want to know about your love—about how you want to serve others for Jesus’ sake. He’d “sound you out”—perhaps in more than one sense! He knew that any true fellowship of God’s people will make room for our gifts when people see we want to serve others because we have come to love them. Isn’t it odd that this chapter about love, which so many people “love”, begins by telling us what love isn’t? And about who doesn’t have it? Not really. One of the best ways of explaining something is by saying what it isn’t. Paul often does that. It helps eliminate a great deal of wrong thinking and misunderstanding. Here he says that love isn’t the same thing as having great gifts. You might be a very gifted teacher. You may be applauded as a musician.
You might be admired for your spiritual prayers. But none of that matters if you do not love. But if 1 Corinthians 13 contains a description of love, it must ultimately be a description of Jesus. And Jesus did speak with the tongues of angels as well as of men. Jesus not only spoke “Angel”; he spoke with angels (Mark 1 v 13; Luke 22 v 43). He is their King. They are his servants and ambassadors. Throughout his earthly life they were—appropriately enough—waiting “in the wings” to do his will. Even on the cross he could have summoned legions of them and they would have come immediately to rescue him (Matthew 26 v 53). But he knew he couldn’t rescue us if they came to rescue him.
It was him or us who would be saved, and he chose us. Although he could speak with the tongues of angels, he remained silent—because he loved us so much. Instead he spoke to his Father and asked him to save those who were watching him (“Father, forgive them,” he prayed). That was more important to him than speaking to the angels and asking them to save him. In fact, Jesus not only spoke angel-language. He spoke the language of God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God” (John 1 v 1). He was face to face with God, in intimate conversation with his Father. But “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (v 14). He came face to face with us, taking our nature so that he might speak to us. As the Nicene Creed, an ancient statement of faith, affirms, “For us and for our salvation he came down”. Whatever gifts you may have, love always means that you come down. It means that you use those gifts for the good of others, not to make yourself feel good. It means that you are willing to do things that are uncomfortable or inconvenient for you, or that go unnoticed. For “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”. If so, I am not like Jesus. And ultimately, love is being like Jesus. It silences all noisy gongs, clanging cymbals and self-amplification systems. Real love always comes down. We know that because Love came down at Christmas.Reflection
Are you more concerned with using your gifts, or with loving others? How could you use your gifts in service of others this week?
Love through me, Love of God;
There is no love in me.
O Fire of love, light thou the love
That burns perpetually.
Flow through me, Peace of God;
Calm River, flow until
No wind can blow, no current stir
A ripple of self-will.
Shine through me, Joy of God;
Make me like thy clear air
That thou dost pour thy colours through,
As though it were not there.
O blessed Love of God,
That all may taste and see
How good thou art, once more I pray:
Love through me—even me.
Amy Carmichael (1867-1951)
This is an extract from Sinclair Ferguson's new Advent devotional, Love Came Down at Christmas. However you're feeling, your heart will be refreshed as you wonder again at the truth that love came down at Christmas. Available to buy now.
The other year I read an article by a Christian lamenting the fact that his church celebrated Christmas. He didn’t believe it was “biblical.” After all, evangelical Christians and their churches are guided by Scripture—and there’s nothing in the Bible telling us to celebrate Christmas each year, far less celebrate it on December 25. I have friends who share that point of view. They believe we should order our lives, and our churches exclusively in obedience to the directives of Scripture. And there’s no command to celebrate Christmas—much less Advent!
When you add to that the way that Christmas, and the month preceding it, has been hi-jacked by commercialism, and then consider how many people find Christmas an especially difficult time, then maybe there’s a case for evangelicals abandoning it. What would really be lost?What does the Bible say?
I think there is a biblical response to the objection, and also an answer to the question “What would be lost?”
First, the biblical response. We are responsible to obey all God commands in his word. But that isn’t the same as saying that unless Scripture specifically commands it we should not do it.
Think of marriage. The Bible doesn’t command you to get married. Nor does it tell you whom to marry. It gives you principles and encourages you to work them out in your life, and promises you the help of the Spirit to do that. You seek to apply these principles wisely.
The same is true of church life. We know there are certain basic principles that direct us how to live and worship together as church families. But we’re not given an order of service, told how many services there should be on Sunday, and a thousand other details. God expects us to use wisdom in regulating both our personal lives and our worship, fellowship and service together.
How does this apply to the church celebrating Advent and Christmas? Fairly simply, really. A church can decide to hold a conference in the spring over a weekend. It isn’t commanded. But it isn’t disobedience. They do it because they think it’s wise and helpful. A preacher can decide that he’s going to spend a whole month preaching on John 3 v 16. He’s not commanded to—but he thinks it would be spiritually beneficial for the congregation. It is completely within the power of the elders in a church to decide, for example, that every Autumn there will be a thanksgiving service for the harvest, or that every time the Day of Pentecost comes round the preacher will expound Acts 2 or a related passage and they will sing appropriate hymns. The same would be true of Easter. It is true that every Sunday marks the truth of the resurrection; Christ is risen and present with his people. But it isn’t true that every sermon, and every hymn, every Sunday is about the resurrection. So there is wisdom in the church deciding to have a Sunday on which they specifically focus on the resurrection of Christ.
The same is true of Advent and Christmas.Anticipating God incarnate
I think there’s another consideration. Many Old Testament passages look forward to the coming of our Lord, conceived in a virgin’s womb, born in Bethlehem. Matthew devotes almost two chapters to describing and explaining the event; Luke does the same. John takes us right back into eternity when he invites us to reflect on its significance. There are other passages in the New Testament that help us to understand it. In other words, the Bible pays a great deal of attention to the birth of the Saviour and the theology of the incarnation. Why shouldn’t we?
My own experience as a minister has been as follows. Frequently I have preached between four and twelve messages on the birth of Jesus during the month of December. That amounts to somewhere between 3% and 10% of my preaching being devoted to the Grand Miracle. Is that out of proportion? Surely not.
But ask the question the other way round. When churches “ignore” Christmas, how much preaching and teaching are they likely to receive on the incarnation? Somewhere between four and twelve messages? I doubt it. Such non-scientific investigation of preachers I have done indicates that, in fact, by and large the incarnation will be ignored. Is that a more biblical approach? I doubt it—which is why I agree with what Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “I would lay it down as a rule that there are special occasions which should always be observed … I believe in preaching special sermons on Christmas Day and during the Advent season.”True joy for the true meaning
Yes, Christmas has become a secularised and commercialised season. But there’s an old Latin tag abusus non tolit usus—the abuse of something shouldn’t be allowed to destroy its proper use. The best cure is for Christians to celebrate the real meaning of Christmas. Speaking for myself, the more I have been able to hear or preach about Christ’s coming the more help I have received to focus on what really matters during December. Otherwise I’m swimming against the tide with a Scrooge-like spirit (“Bah! humbug!”). And if so I not only have no joy in celebrating the incarnation—I lose all sense of joy completely! No, what I need is what the great Scottish theologian Thomas Chalmers called “the expulsive power of a new affection”. Knowing more about Jesus and his coming brings a joy that is both deeper and more lasting than all the tinsel and glitter celebrations around us. That’s the conviction behind my Advent devotional, Love Came Down at Christmas. It is an invitation to use the season of Advent to contemplate the incarnation more deeply amid everything else that clamours for our attention.
In fact, in one sense this need to fight the tide is how the celebration of Christmas spread in antiquity.
Have you ever heard people say it really grew out of a pagan festival?
It’s true that the Roman festival of Saturnalia took place in December. But Christmas celebrations didn’t so much grow out of it as grow against it, and in contrast to it. Saturnalia was an excuse for excess, for what the world still calls “having a good time” (often meaning “getting stoned”—headache and all!). Christians in antiquity wanted to live a counter-cultural life, not to let Saturnalia squeeze them into its mould. And they knew they had something worth celebrating—or rather, Someone worth celebrating. And so they met together to celebrate the birth of their Saviour.
The first to do that were Shepherds—and they glorified God for what they had experienced. And then came Wise Men—and they worshipped Christ when they saw him. What a blessing it will be if Christmas is like that for us too!
Sinclair Ferguson’s Advent devotional, Love Came Down at Christmas is one way to fix your eyes on the true meaning of the season this Christmas. In the book, Ferguson works through 1 Corinthians 13 bringing the rich theology of the incarnation to life with his trademark warmth and clarity. Available to buy here.
For most of my life, in some form or another, I’ve been involved in public activism. Today I serve at the public policy agency for America’s largest Protestant denomination.
Today, even as I write, there is much-renewed discussion, debate, and disagreement on the role of Christians in the public square, perhaps especially in the US, but also in other Western democracies. Politics seduces and it also repels.
Indeed, some are called to a life of public service in elected or appointed office. Others are called to advocacy work, thought leadership, or journalism. For most Christians, though, politics is not an everyday calling. But none of us, I believe, can afford to be completely disengaged. Here are three reasons why.1. Politics is about stewardship
Take a look at Jesus’ words in Mark 12 v 17: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”. This was not simply a clever pushback to two groups who were attempting to trap Jesus with their questions. He was making a statement about the authority of government and the authority of God.
Jesus is saying that, contrary to what the Romans believed, Caesar was not divine. He ruled only at the discretion of the divine. So Caesar was not to be worshiped. We are not created in Caesar’s image, but in God’s image. On the one hand, our leaders are due our respect, not necessarily because of their character or policies, but because of their offices. We should respect them (1 Peter 2 v 13-14, 17). But at the same time, we must not worship them. Only God owns the conscience. So Caesar is not divine, but he is not irrelevant either.
Paul teaches us that all authority and power is “instituted by God” as “God’s servant for your good” (Romans 13 v 1, 4). In a representative democracy, this not only means that the leaders will be held accountable to God for the God-given power they possess; it also means that those who have the responsibility of electing their leaders, of influencing public policy, and of influencing the debate in the public square will also be held accountable.
Our freedoms—the opportunity to vote, to shape policy, to influence the public debate—are a gift and a stewardship from God. To completely disengage is an abdication of this stewardship. It is not good enough to say that we are not interested in politics or don’t think politicians are worthy of our time or our prayers, any more than it is good enough to locate all our hopes and dreams (even at the expense of compromising our integrity) in a particular
platform or leader.
There are, famously, two commandments that sum up the whole of God’s law. Jesus commands us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and to “love your neighbor as yourself ” (Matthew 22 v 37, 39). If we would do the first, we must do the second. Christian witness is not simply about vertical piety, but horizontal love.
There are many ways we show love for our neighbors. We serve them by looking out for their needs, respecting their property, and caring for them in a crisis. Mostly we love our neighbor by declaring to them the good news of the gospel: that in Christ they can be reconciled to the Creator who made them in his image.
But our neighbor-love can’t stop there. We have to ask ourselves: can we adequately and fully love our neighbors if we are ignoring the opportunity to shape the social structures that affect them and the government that will rule over them?
Can we say that we love our unborn neighbors if we have an opportunity to speak out for their lives, but don’t?
Can we say that we love our neighbors who are living below the poverty line if we have an opportunity to speak out for their welfare, but don’t?
Can we say that we love our trafficked and enslaved neighbors if we don’t work for their freedom?
Can we say that we love our immigrant neighbors if we are silent as they are mistreated?
I sincerely contend that we can’t.3. Politics is about speaking to consciences
When we use our freedom to speak up for the vulnerable, to point to a kingdom ethic, and to work for good government and good leadership, we are speaking to consciences that can be worked in and formed by the Spirit of God. When we speak a gospel word—a prophetic word—to the culture, we aim that some who hear us will have their heads and their hearts stirred. Some who most vociferously oppose us may one day be transformed by the Spirit of God and become our brothers and sisters in Christ. We speak to the law written on the hearts of men (Romans 2 v 15). Paul says that it is part of the mission of every Christian to engage with “arguments and every opinion against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10 v 5). The Spirit of God is powerful enough to take our feeble arguments and use them to convict the hearts of those who hear and overhear. And even when he does not choose to use our witness in this way, we are still standing up and saying to those around us, with gentleness and respect, that there is another way, a better way, a more dignified way.A politics of dignity (and with dignity)
Politics is necessary—but is there a way to do politics that transcends the zero-sum, soul-crushing, gospel-denying way that it is often conducted? In the last few years, I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with both the left and the right in my country. We are, it seems, becoming increasingly tribal, defending the worst kind of behavior in our own candidates while attacking the low character of candidates in the other party. Even Christians have succumbed to the moral relativism of the age, excusing immoral and disgusting behavior because it is “their guy” or “their girl.”
We must resist letting our politics shape our faith instead of our faith shaping our politics. This will take great courage. It will mean being criticized, at times, for being too conservative and being criticized, at times, for being too liberal. But a public witness that never crosses the aisle or that is galvanized by fear of the other party is not a public witness that loves our neighbors well. If we are going to stand alongside the people our King most delighted in visiting—the lowly, the meek, the vulnerable—we cannot let our worldly alliances dictate our words and silences, our action and inaction.Beyond politics
We have too often allowed our politics to tear at the unity we have in Christ. Those of us who are more engaged in activism than others need, at times, to reflect on the way we have done politics. Every election season provides fresh temptations to endorse candidates in a way that alienates us from our brothers and sisters in Christ and from our neighbors in the world. Frankly, many of us need to repent of the things we’ve said on social media, the leaders we’ve anointed as “God’s man” or “God’s woman,” and the way we are tempted to twist the gospel to score cheap points for our side.
Before we are activists, we are worshipers. But equally, if we are truly worshipers, we will be activists; because we worship a great God, and it is his image that we see in every person—for every person has God-given dignity, no matter their utility.
In The Dignity Revolution, Daniel Darling shows us that each one of us can be, and are called to be, part of this new movement—a human dignity revolution that our societies desperately need, and how we—you—are uniquely placed to join.
“Family devotions” is a two-word phrase that tends to provoke feelings of guilt, regret, pride or fear in Christian parents. In fact, I imagine you nearly didn’t start reading this blog. Don’t worry—this isn’t one of those blogs detailing our family’s twice-daily, half-hour devotionals that, once we’ve read our passage in Greek, include my four-year-old reciting the New Testament epistle that she’s memorised this month, and my six-year-old summing up our “Chapter of the Week from Martin Luther’s writings”, followed by the family singing a psalm in four-part harmony (if you’ve ever heard their father sing, you’ll know why this is the least likely aspect of this sentence).
So if that describes your family devotions, I’m not sure there’s much for you below. But if your family devotions are something that you know you’d like to do better (or, in fact, just do), then here are six things worth remembering.
1. Remember what you’re doing
There are so many things to do in family life that the apparently non-essential tends to fall off the to-do list and remain (at best) on the wishlist. So it is for intentionally making time to get together as a family to look at, discuss and apply God’s word to your lives, and speak to him together. My guess is that for a large percentage of us, family devotions are a wishlist item at best, never or rarely making it to the top of the to-do list.
But… let’s remember what really matters. Few words in Scripture are addressed specifically to parents, but those that are, are pretty clear: for instance,
‘Do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.’ (Ephesians 6 v 1b)
Personally, I can’t see how as parents we can obey that verse without opening the Bible up with our kids.
God is not so interested in whether the clothes are all ironed, how many clubs the kids attend, and whether we nailed the bonus that bought the foreign holiday. He is extremely interested in whether we are sharing the gospel with our children, and whether we are showing our kids that his presence in our lives matters more than anything else.
Family devotions is hard. It requires thought and effort. It would be easier not to do it. So remember what you’re doing. And remember who you’re obeying.
2. There’s more to it than this
Family devotions are part of our responsibility to our kids and obedience to our Lord, but they’re not the sum total of it:
‘These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.’ (Deuteronomy 6 v 6-7)
Family devotions are a great way to impress God’s laws and God’s love on our children. They’re not the only way. In between breakfast and bed-time, kids need to have impromptu conversations with their parents about faith, to be prayed with and for, to be reminded of the gospel as and when it crops up.
3. Start (and continue) little and often
There’ve been times when our family devotions have fallen from the routine for some reason, and need restarting. The temptation is to go big, aim high, and fail to sustain. If you need to (re)start family devotions, aim for little and often. Don’t expect or demand instant results. You may not reap the effects of what you’re sowing for decades. But you are sowing. Five minutes every day for the next year will add up to quite a lot, and way more than thirty minutes every day for the next… day. So make it manageable, and persevere until it becomes a normal part of your day. Like teeth-cleaning, only less messy.
4. Mix it up
Use a resource for a month or two. Then change and do something different. Work through a psalm, line by line, for a while. Use the advent and lent seasons to switch your focus. If possible, share the leading of it between you and your spouse—and, as the kids get older, with your kids.
5. Do it for your kids, not perfect kids
The ideal kids ask you each morning when you can start family devotions, they sit still and utterly focused for 20 minutes while you ask them questions and they answer thoughtfully, and then they pray calmly, based on what you’ve seen in the passage. The ideal kids do not live in your house, because the ideal kids do not exist.
Do what works best for your kids. If that’s morning, great – if home-from-school-time, or last thing before bed, or whenever, great. If it’s singing more than speaking, fine. If it’s two minutes rather than twenty, great. And if they don’t behave very well one day, that’s OK – they’re kids! Keep going.
Seriously. Don’t be the parent who always meant to get round to it. Who read a six-step blog and felt a bit guilty, and then put it to the back of their mind. Who thought it would’ve been good when the kids were younger, but it’s too late now. Who excused themselves because they’re not Jen Wilkin or Rico Tice, so can’t possibly be expected to get their family together once a day to work through a few verses and pray together. I’m often tempted to be that parent. Maybe you are too. Don’t be. Seriously. Start. Like, today.
A Jesus Christmas is a new family devotional for Advent. Why not start a new habit of family devotionals this Christmas season. Buy it here. Love Came Down at Christmas is an Advent devotional for adults focusing on 1 Corinthians 13. It's available here.
I believe we have to lot to learn from John Owen.
At first sight that’s an unlikely claim. For one thing Owen was born just over 500 years ago. So surely he’s past his sell-by date?! Plus he has some dubious connections. He was a chaplain to Oliver Cromwell during Cromwell’s notorious campaign in Ireland. Even though it’s unlikely Owen himself went any further than Dublin, that doesn’t look good an anyone’s CV. Owen was appointed by Parliament as the vice-chancellor of Oxford University. But when Charles II came to the throne in 1660, Owen was sacked, spending the remainder of his life on the margins of English society. Moreover, Owen’s prose is famous for being dense and hard to follow. It’s said he thought in Latin.
Nevertheless Owen was a great theologian with a strong pastoral heart. Here are three things I’ve learnt from his book, Communion with God, that have inspired my latest book Enjoying God.1. Think three
What do you think of when you think about God? It’s actually a bit of trick question. That’s because the essence or nature of God is beyond our comprehension. We can’t think of anything when we think about God – the ‘God-ness’ of God is completely outside our experience.
Yet we can know God – genuinely and truly – through the three persons of God. The Father, Son and Spirit have lived in relationship with one another throughout eternity and now they invite us to share that relationship.
This insight has a big practical application. It will greatly help you to relate to the triune God if you think in terms of the three. Think about how the Father is relating to you and how you can respond. Think about how the Son and the Spirit relate to you, and how you can respond to each of them in a distinct way. Here’s how Owen himself put it: “The saints have distinct communion with the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit (that is, distinctly with the Father, and distinctly with the Son, and distinctly with the Holy Spirit).” We’re not trying to interact with an abstract idea. We’re engaging with persons.
Nothing can stop me being the son of my heavenly Father. But how much I enjoy that relationship depends in part on my involvement with the Father.2. Union and communion
When we talk about God’s grace we often say something like, “There’s nothing you can do to improve your relationship with God.” And there’s a sense in which that’s gloriously true. God loved us when we were his enemies and he’s not going to stop loving us now that he’s made us his friends.
The complication is that our experience often suggests something different. The way we behave does affect our relationship with God. In practice we find that when we read the Bible regularly we feel closer to God. On the other hand, if we nurture temptation then we feel far from God.
Owen helps us make sense of this. He makes a distinction between union and communion. Communion is Owen’s way of referring to the two-way relationship we have with the triune God. There is, says Owen, giving and receiving. There is loving and being loved. There is delight and delighting.
But Owen also says our communion flows from our union with God through Christ and our union with God in Christ is one-way. It rests entirely on God’s grace. That’s the foundation and nothing we can do can shake that foundation. Owen says: “Our communion with God consists in his communication of himself to us, with our return to him of that which he requires and accepts, flowing from that union which in Jesus Christ we have with him.”
The greatest unkindness you can do to God the Father is not to believe that he loves you
We can’t strengthen or weaken our union with God, because that’s one way traffic – it all flows from God’s grace. But we can strengthen or weaken our communion with God. Our actions do affect the extent to which we enjoy the relationship. Think of it like this. Nothing can stop me being the son of my earthly father. But how much I enjoy that relationship depends on how much effort I put into it. In the same way, nothing can stop me being the son of my heavenly Father. I was adopted in Christ despite all my previous enmity towards God. But how much I enjoy that relationship depends in part on my involvement with the Father.
This perspective gives us both assurance (we can’t destroy our relationship with God) and motivation (the more we pursue God, the more we will enjoy him).3. God the Father really, really does love us
“God loves you.” We all know this. It’s Christianity 101. And yet so often we relate to God as if he doesn’t really love us. We keep our distance, especially when we feel our sin.
Owen is passionately concerned to impress on us the love of the Father. It matters, he says, because we’ll never really enjoy God until we embrace his love for us in Christ.
“How few of the saints,” he writes, “are acquainted in their experience with this privilege of holding direct communion with the Father in love! With what anxious, doubtful thoughts they look on him! What fears and questions they have about his goodwill and kindness! At the best, many think there is no sweetness at all in him towards us, except that which is purchased at a high price by the blood of Jesus.” As a result, “people are afraid to have good thoughts of God. They think it is presumptuous to view God as good, gracious, tender, and kind, loving.”
But Owen turns this fear on its head. He says the greatest unkindness you can do to God the Father is not to believe that he loves you. That’s because in love the Father sent his Son so you could be adopted as his child and in love he sends the Spirit so you can know yourself to be his child. “The more we see of the love of God, the more we will delight in him. Every other discovery of God, without this, will make the soul fly from him. But once the heart is taken up with the greatness of the Father’s love, it cannot but be overpowered, conquered and endeared to him.” What do we do if we want to see God’s love? We look to the cross. The cross is not Jesus trying to win a reluctant Father over. The plan of salvation starts with the Father’s love and ends with us enjoying that love.
Discover not only what it means to have a relationship with the living God—Father, Son and Spirit—but also how it can be infused with genuine joy in Tim Chester's new book Enjoying God. Available to buy now.
(All quotes from John Owen, “Communion with God” in The Works of John Owen, Vol. 2, ed. William Goold, Banner of Truth, 1965.)
Vacation requests were approved and tickets bought. Beds were ready and the refrigerator was stocked. Finally, the day came! Our three grandchildren were on their way for their annual visit. Fully prepared, Ron and I got to the airport extra early. We got our passes, went through security and found our way to the gate. While other flights came and went, we grabbed a Starbucks and waited. Close to arrival time, we headed back to the gate. What a shock! Our grandkids were waiting for us, wondering if we had forgotten them. Clearly, this was not a strong start. Hugs broke the tension and fears turned to laughter.
Once home, we asked a risky question, “If you could do anything in San Antonio, what would it be?” Then we took an even greater risk and asked, “What part of the Bible do you want to read while you are here?” Without any pause, Annalyse, our 10-year-old, said, “Esther.” The VeggieTales version had stirred her imagination. She wanted to learn more about this “beauty queen.” We all agreed, and every night that week, we enjoyed time with Esther and God.
Our position as the “grands” of our family gives us purpose and delight. With life’s long-range view, we see four ways childhood is a unique time to invest in the lives of our grandchildren:Childhood is a great time to impress kids with the gospel
Kids are easily impressed. They admire people who are beautiful, intelligent and have accomplished great things. Leave children to understand life from various teachers, video games, friends, movies, social media, and they will veer off into a worldview that is at odds with the Bible’s. Kids are impressionable because God made them this way. Childhood is the time God has designed to capture their imaginations with the wonder of the gospel.Childhood is the time to instil good spiritual habits
Kids can’t live on candy bars! Childhood is the key time to build strong bodies and minds. Poor nutrition stunts kids’ growth and leaves them open to disease. We feed them balanced meals, give them vitamins and make sure they get enough sleep. Childhood is also the time to build spiritually healthy kids. 1 Timothy 4:8 says, “Physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”Childhood is a great time to bend a kid’s heart toward God
Children’s bodies are flexible and so are their minds. The world is waiting to squeeze a child into its mold. Smartphones give kids full access to the world – good, bad and indifferent. Their opinion on everything from the latest styles to sexual identity is influenced by whatever website they’re on.
God made your child’s mind and heart pliable for a reason. Children are not yet skeptical, judgmental or cynical. They are ready to listen and believe what you tell them about God. Even at a young age, children can grasp something of the beauty of God’s character.Childhood is a time to prepare a young heart to follow Jesus
Our spiritual enemy tempts us to think: “We don’t know enough to teach and train our kids to follow Jesus.” “The church will take care of this.” But God values children and he “gifts” them to us. Psalm 127:3 tells us, “Children are a gift from the LORD; they are a reward from him.” Children do not really belong to us – they belong to God. He places children in our family, church and neighborhood. We introduce them to God and show them with our words and lives what it means to follow Jesus.
With these truths in view, we set out to teach our grandchildren the gospel with our lives and words. We prayed that God would use both our daily activities and Bible reading for our grandkids to know him better. By day we tubed down the Guadalupe River, hiked up Enchanted Rock and talked about God’s glory in creation. At night we rearranged activities to make Esther a priority. We simply read, and God brought the story to life. We giggled and marveled and shouted, “Yeah, God!” when the tables turned on Haman. Reading God’s Word was fun.
Ron and I love our role as the “grands” of our family. With the time we have left we plan to reach the next generation in our family. God has made it our purpose and delight to take full advantage of the uniquely designed time of childhood. With the Lord’s help, we will use our words and lives to tell our grandchildren of His praiseworthy deeds, so they will put their trust in Him (Psalm 78:5-7).
One way to invest in your grandchildren this Christmas is with an Advent devotional. Barbara Reaoch wrote A Jesus Christmas to focus our children's hearts on Jesus in the midst of Christmas excitement. Why not buy a copy for your grandkids and their parents to go through during Advent. Buy your copy here.
Halloween comes round every year, and, to be honest, Christians in the West don’t know what to do with it. Is it a piece of harmless fun that we should just join in with to be good neighbours and part of the culture—or is it something dark and dangerous that needs to be resisted. Whichever way you swing on that question, it represents an opportunity to share Jesus with others. If you hate it, don’t hide. If you love it, make sure you are using it as a Gospel witness.
Here are some ideas to get you going.1. Shine a light.
Many Christians turn off the lights and refuse to have anything to do with Trick or Treaters. I’ve found it much better to shine a light in the darkness, welcome the children and parents who show up at the door, celebrate their costumes with them and ask a leading question — such as, “Who do you think the most powerful person in the universe is?” And then give clues to who it is... a. Scary monsters ran away from him. b. He took on the biggest and scariest enemy of all and defeated it. c. He said he was the Light of the World.
[inline_product:ghost]2. Talk about fear.
Why do people love to be frightened, watch scary movies etc.? It’s an interesting phenomenon, and may provide a jumping off point for a conversation about the things we are really fearful of. Here are some questions to begin with:
- What are the real things we fear in life?
- Did you know that the most repeated commandment in the Bible is “Do not fear?—apparently it is repeated 366 times—one for each day of the year, and an extra one in case you have a very scary day.
- Surprisingly, the things people are most fearful of do not seem to be the things we assume they are. Speaking in public before an audience is one of the most common fears people have—bigger than spiders, heights and the dentist. In other words, feeling exposed before other people. Why do we fear being under scrutiny by others? This experience is at the heart of sin: Adam and Eve were naked and ashamed…
3. Talk about “the dark side”.
There is a lot of interest in the spirit world among adults. If you know or work with anyone from Africa or Asia, their cultures are often more open to the realities of the the spirit world in a way Western culture is not. Although, even in the UK, surveys suggest that more people believe in the Devil, than claim they believe in God. Here are some opening lines to use after asking “what are you doing for Halloween?”
- Do you think that evil has a persona?
- Have you ever experienced anything spooky yourself (many people have)? What did you think it was?
- Is there a struggle between good and evil going on in the world?
4. Dress up.
Join in the fun—not as something ghoulish, but as something or someone from the Bible that will spark a conversation, and allow you to tell the story to someone else.
- Sisera (with a tent-peg through your head). God judges those who oppose him.
- Alternatively, Eglon (with a sword going through a fat belly and protruding out of your back)
- An angel. We know that angels are incredibly scary, as the first thing they say when they appear to people is “Fear Not”.
5. Have some further reading to give them
If you don't get a chance to dialogue with the children or parents, why not pop a small gospel tract in a goody bag. The Ghost That Wasn't a Ghost is a children's story leaflet retelling Jesus walking on the water, particularly suitable for handing out at Halloween.
Parents, I’d like you to take a moment to think about Christmas. Yes, I know it’s only October, but hear me out! Also, if you read all the way to the end of this blog, there’s a free gift for you.
Speaking of gifts, then: have you started thinking about a Christmas gift you could buy that would make your child really happy? We love to make our kids happy, don’t we? Nothing can replace that feeling of seeing the sheer delight on their face and hearing them exclaim with surprise and joy.
The commercial lights-and-gifts-and-fun-and-music-and-treats that take over the month of December each year may produce a kind of happiness. But it’s the kind that fades when the lights go out and the gifts wear out or break. Lasting happiness only comes through what God has given us. He has given us the greatest gift – his Son.
So, let me suggest one way that you could make this greatest Gift the focus of your Christmas this year: get your family excited with an advent devotional that you all do together. At the end of this post, you can even download the first three days of my new Advent family devotional, A Jesus Christmas, so you can try one devotional option out for yourselves.
[inline_product:ajc]Have Yourselves A Jesus Christmas
A Jesus Christmas is my new Advent family devotional all about - you guessed it - Jesus. Read it together as a family each day in December to make Christ the focus of your Christmas. Use it with children who already believe and with those who do not yet believe in Jesus.
Here’s the big idea behind A Jesus Christmas: Right from the beginning, the serpent lied to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden – and he has been lying ever since. But right from the beginning, God told us his amazing plan to send Jesus. Each day during Advent you will look at one of the serpent's lies, and then show how the glorious truth of Christmas beats it every time! God prepared the world for Jesus and he will prepare your heart to celebrate this Christmas in a new and lasting way.
How can you make your child truly happy this Christmas? Only Jesus can give real happiness that never wears out – it lasts forever!What Are You Waiting For?
So it may only be October, but give A Jesus Christmas a try. Help your kids to get excited about Jesus. Who knows, maybe you’ll want to join me this Christmas and spend the month of December digging into the true joy of Christmas with your family.
My brother and I had a childhood ritual of asking one another’s forgiveness for a laundry list of vague sins from our beds each night. I would lie there after the lights were out, look across the hall to his own open door, and let my voice carry my contrition to his sleepy hearing. Having been warned not to let the sun go down on our anger, we made sure to cover all possibilities of sins we may have committed during the day. “Aaron, I’m sorry for yelling at you, hitting you, being selfish with the Nintendo, and tattling on you today. Will you forgive me?” His answer, along with his confession of the typical older-sibling sins counter to my own (pestering, bossing, manipulating) came back to my room in return. Thus we slept in the peace of the slightly remorseful.
When I read Psalm 51 (written by David after his sin with Bathsheba), I realize how lacking my childhood confessions were. Actually, even many of my confessions in adulthood leave much to be desired.
Often we treat repentance as a statement—an “I’m sorry, please forgive me” that checks a box and (hopefully) alleviates our guilt. But if we look closely at Psalm 51 we see that repentance is a turning away from sin and a turning toward God—a process that doesn’t merely alleviate guilt but cultivates deep joy.
And that’s not the only pay-off. I wrote my book, Real: the surprising secret to deeper relationships, to I show that repenting and receiving forgiveness from God leads to real relationships with others, because it leaves us with nothing left to hide.
So how do we grow in a joy-giving habit of repentance? Here’s how.Rule 1. Define the sin.
The first step to meaningful confession is understanding what sin is. David uses three different words for it in Psalm 51: “Iniquity,” “sin,” and “transgressions” (v 1-3). Each term has been deliberately chosen for its unique meaning in Hebrew. “Transgressions” implies a rebellion against God’s authority and law, “Iniquity” means a distortion of what should be and “Sin” is a missing of the mark. David is making it clear that his sin is deep—there is no minimizing or excusing it.Rule 2. Appeal to God’s mercy
“Have mercy on my, O God, according to your unfailing love” (v 1). Here, David appeals for forgiveness based on what he knows about God’s character: that God is merciful. David knows that God is committed to him in a relationship (or covenant) of “unfailing love”—and when we come before God in repentance, we do so on the basis of his covenant with us through Christ.Rule 3. Avoid defensiveness and see God rightly
David’s sin hurt multiple people. He committed adultery, orchestrated a murder, and tried to cover it all up. And yet he says to God that “against you, you only, have I sinned” (v 4). How can that be?
Well, if we think of sin as failing to hit the mark, then we have to ask, “Whose mark are we missing?” The answer, of course, is that it’s God’s mark. So although our sin does hurt others, and repenting to those people is important, sin is ultimately against God, since it’s his ways that we have failed to live up to, and his image-bearers whom we hurt.Rule 4. Look to Jesus
David’s reference to hyssop in verse 7 is not accidental—”Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean”. He knows hyssop signifies purification (see Exodus 24) with blood, and he knows that blood alone can make him whiter than snow. What he doesn’t know is how this will be done fully.
But we do. Instead of relying on an animal sacrifice, we look to Jesus, who “has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9 v 26). His blood is enough to make us “whiter than snow” (Psalm 51 v 7).Rule 5. Ask God to break you and heal you
David prays, “Let the bones you have crushed rejoice” (v 8). When God reveals our sin to us, it’s painful. David was already a sin-broken man; he just didn’t fully realize it until God sent the prophet Nathan to show him his sin and break him all the way. Like a doctor resetting a fractured bone, it is God who breaks, God who sets, and God who heals.
And this is all mercy: 19th-century British pastor Charles Spurgeon wrote that seeing our weakness, and experiencing God’s power to save, teaches us “a heart-music which only broken bones [can] learn …”Rule 6. Be comforted by the Spirit
Next David prays, “Do not … take your Holy Spirit from me” (v 11). But the very fact that David is grieved over his sin is a sign that God’s Spirit is at work in him. This is true for you as well. Have you ever been so discouraged by your sin that you’ve wondered, “How can God love me? Surely I’m not really a Christian.” Take comfort in knowing that the very grief you’re experiencing is a sign that you have the Spirit of God working in you, causing you to hate what God hates.Rule 7. Rejoice and proclaim truth
In verses 12-15, David is asking God to make him so joyful about his salvation that he can’t help but teach other sinners the forgiving ways of God—”Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise”. This is important, because so often we do the opposite—we’re inclined to wallow in our sin and draw back from serving others, whether in church or in our communities, because we think we’re unworthy. But here David says the joy of forgiveness for sin should compel us to speak of that good news with friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors.Rule 8. Resolve to obey
We can check all the boxes, do all the steps above, and say all the right words, but if in the back of our minds we’re planning to sin in the same way again, then grace isn’t truly taking root. What God desires is the mark of true repentance—a heart that is “broken” by sin and truly “contrite”.
As Puritan pastor and writer Thomas Watson wrote, “Till sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet” (The Doctrine of Repentance, p 63). If we come to God with a heart like that, he “will not despise” it; he will accept it, and accept us, because of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf (v 17).Time to respond
What sins are weighing on your heart? What guilt have you been trying to cover with distraction? Or are you submerging yourself under the weight of it as a form of penance, rather than taking your sin to the cross, where it’s already been paid for?
Take some time now to work through the steps above, and rejoice in the incomparable grace offered to you in Christ!
In Real: The Surprising Secret to Deeper Relationships, Catherine Parks shows us that the secret to growing the relationships we crave is in developing a biblical habit of repentance. By being honest about our sin before God and receiving his forgiveness, we're freed be honest about our sin with others. Buy the book today.
Recently, we caught up with the creator of the PrayerMate app, Andy Geers. We talked about prayer, how he’s working to help others pray more and better, and—since we just released 5 Things to Pray for Your City—to ask what he’s currently praying for the big city he calls home.
Q: Why do you think we find it so hard to pray?
A: There are lots of reasons why we find it hard to pray, but I think they all boil down to this: we don’t believe we need to pray. Prayer is the natural outworking of a faith that utterly depends on God for everything - and yet our sinful hearts constantly drift towards self-reliance. We forget that it is God alone who “gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25). We forget that it is God alone “who justifies the ungodly” (Romans 5:5). Without his sustaining us moment by moment we would simply cease to exist, and the gospel tells us that we could never earn our own salvation.
Sometimes we also don’t believe it’s worth praying—why would God listen to my prayers? And even if God hears, can he really do anything about it? But I think these questions are really related to the main issue—we are relying on ourselves. God is the almighty Father who loves to hear and answer the feeble prayers of his beloved children. And we give ourselves too much credit if we think we managed to get to where we are now without God’s miraculous intervention at every step along the way—so he can certainly intervene again.
If our hearts truly grasped all this, the question would be “why would we NOT pray?”
Q: What is PrayerMate and how can it help?
A: PrayerMate is a free mobile app to help us be consistent in praying for ourselves, for our loved ones and for God’s world. Over time you build up a set of digital prayer lists—“My walk with God”, “My family”, “World mission”, and so on. Then every time you use PrayerMate it selects a few items from across your lists to pray for, so that over time you can make sure you pray for everything but without ever being overwhelmed. You can also draw in content from various feeds to pray for things like the persecuted church around the world, student ministry, individual missionaries you support or your church small group—or books like 5 Things to Pray for Your City.”
Editor’s note: The Good Book Company has teamed up with PrayerMate to offer a free digital download of 5 Things to Pray for your City to everyone who buys a print copy.
Of course, a simple app can’t change our hearts and cause us to stop depending on ourselves—but PrayerMate can provide a valuable structure to help us be people of our word when we say “I’ll pray for you!”, and to help broaden our horizons a little rather than getting stuck praying the same things day in day out. It’s similar to why books like 5 Things to Pray for Your City can be so valuable—because they help you get specific and pray in the nitty gritty rather than just staying at the same high level request.
Q: As a resident of London, what do you want to be praying for your city?
A: One of the things I love about living in London is how you have the whole world on your doorstep—which creates an amazing opportunity for the gospel to reach the nations without even having to go anywhere. So I want to be praying that churches here in this city have a big vision for making the most of that opportunity, and seeking to share the wonderful gospel of Jesus with anybody and everybody. I also want to pray that this open door for the gospel continues for many years to come—that the city remains open to the Christian message and remains somewhere where people feel welcome to come and where they’re going to be respected and not feared.
Andy Geers is a Londoner, a Christian software developer and the brains behind the PrayerMate app. PrayerMate is available for iOS and Android. It’s free to download in the App Store and in the Google Play store. To find out more, visit prayermate.org.
The book he mentions, 5 Things to Pray for Your City by Pete Nicholas and Helen Thorne, has been developed in partnership with London City Mission and Redeemer City to City. Whatever your urban context, use it to fuel powerful Biblical prayers for your city. It's available to buy now.
It was a dark and stormy night…
That’s how many classic ghost stories begin. But what if your child is scared of the dark, and worried about what a stormy halloween night may bring? Here are some thoughts on how we can use their questions to point them to the wonderful truth about Christ.
“Freddie told me he saw a ghost last night. Is that true, Dad? Are ghosts real?”
Someone who has died cannot come back to haunt this world as a ghost. There are a few stories in the Bible about people being brought back to life, but it is always through God’s amazing power since he is the source of all life. So in Luke 8, we read about a 12-year-old girl who was very ill. While her father, Jairus, was begging Jesus to come and heal her, the girl died. But she didn’t stay dead! Jesus brought her back to life a few hours later. He was able to do that as easily as waking her up, because he is the Son of God. In every example in the Bible of someone dying and then coming back to life, it is God’s power that restores them and it is God who is given the glory. That’s very different from the stories people like to tell about ghosts. Those made-up stories are designed to make us scared. But the true stories about Jesus will make us happy instead. And if we have Jesus as our friend, we have no need to be scared.
“Amy said that witches fly in your windows on halloween night. I’m scared!”
It’s true that there are people today who choose to live as witches and worship dark forces. They have turned away from God. But they can’t fly on broomsticks or zoom in through bedroom windows! And we don’t need to be scared of them. God understands when we find things frightening. In fact, the Bible tells us 366 times not to be afraid. That’s one for every day of the year, plus one extra for a particularly scary day! So any time we feel frightened, we can talk to God about it. We can thank him that he is far more powerful than anything that scares us. And we can ask him to help us trust him if we’re afraid.
“Pete told me that the devil comes out on halloween and that he hides in the dark waiting to catch people.”
Our world is full of things we can touch and see, taste and hear. So we know those things are real. But the Bible tells us that the spiritual world is real too, even though we can’t see it. So the devil is real, and so are evil spirits. But when we read about evil spirits in the Gospels, one thing is always true. They have no power over Jesus. Instead, they have to do what he says, and go where he tells them, even into a herd of pigs! (Mark 5 v 1-15)
Many people are afraid of the dark. It’s because we can’t see what may be there. But the Bible describes Jesus as “light”! (John 8 v 12) And when you switch on a light, even the darkest room stops being dark. The darkness is wiped out by the light. If your child is scared on halloween night, putting a light on in their room may help. Not only will it help them see there’s nothing there to be scared of, but it will also remind them that Jesus is “the light of the world”. He is much stronger than the devil. He is far more powerful than any evil spirit. We can trust him when we’re feeling scared.
“Jenny believes in witches and zombies. So why doesn’t she believe in God?”
Halloween can be a wonderful opportunity to talk about what we believe and why. It is a time of year when many people, adults as well as children, will say they believe in things they can’t see, such as zombies or ghosts. Jesus once told his friends that, if they wanted to know what God the Father is like, they just have to look at Jesus. (John 14 v 9) So one way to help our friends believe in God is to show them Jesus.
And at halloween, one way to do that would be to read them a “real ghost story” from the Gospels. For example, the story of Jesus walking on water in Matthew 14 v 22-33, or when he appeared to his friends after he had died, and ate some food to prove to them that he wasn’t a ghost (Luke 24 v 36-43). In both of these stories, Jesus' friends first thought he was a ghost because he was doing things they knew no one could do - he walked on water, he appeared in a room even though the door was locked. Jesus could do many other things that no one else could do - he could heal people who were ill just by touching them; he could stop storms just by speaking to them; he could even bring people back to life. And the only reason he could do all these is that Jesus himself is God.
And that’s something wonderful to celebrate this halloween! The Ghost That Wasn't a Ghost is a children's story leaflet retelling Jesus walking on the water, particularly suitable for handing out at Halloween.
For more answers for common questions from children have a look at this PDF about answering children's questions.