Ageing with grace.

Series: Counter-culture, by Rosie Moore.

“And now, behold, the Lord has kept me alive, just as he said, these forty-five years since the time that the Lord spoke this word to Moses, while Israel walked in the wilderness. And now, behold, I am this day eighty-five years old.  I am still as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war and for going and coming” (Joshua 14:10-11).

Age is no obstacle to serving the Lord! Caleb, at age 85, is a great role model. Even forty-five years after God had promised him a personal inheritance of land, his trust was unwavering (Numbers 14:24). He was willing to finish the job of conquest, believing all that God had promised He would do in the future. Caleb remembered his inheritance, instead of being crippled by his old age.

Although his inheritance was still occupied by giants, Caleb was willing to wield a sword in the Lord’s strength. Caleb didn’t allow himself to dwell on past accomplishments or sink into despair, but remained in active service to God.

This portrait of an octogenarian is very counter-cultural!  Old age is seen today as a time to relax and take it easy, secure a nice comfortable spot to live and indulge in only what you enjoy until you fall off the perch. Pass the time with hobbies, entertainment and healthcare, with only yourself to please and your own aches and pains to worry about. After all, you’ve earned your retirement!

Not everyone lives to a ripe old age in good health, like Caleb did. But I believe that Caleb teaches Christians many important principles about old age, which are instructive for young and old alike. Here are three lessons that we can learn from Caleb:

  1. Old age is harvest time.

Old age is harvest time– for the Lord, not just ourselves! A “harvest of righteousness” is produced through a lifetime of training by our loving Father (Hebrews 12:11Phil 1:11).

As the Psalmist says, “The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like the cedar in Lebanon…They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green” (Ps 92:1214). Caleb exemplified this.

In old age, Caleb was like a rocket on the launchpad, ready to be released into God’s service! But he didn’t just become bold and faithful overnight. At 85-years old, he was reaping a harvest which had been cultivated throughout his life– as a teenager, young man and middle aged man.

A major growth point was when Caleb was much younger, as leader of the tribe of Judah, when he dared to stand out and speak the truth against the majority of his own people (Num 13:3014:30). He’d learned to fear God more than man.

  1. Caleb dared to defy the crowd.

If there’s one thing that makes our knees tremble, it’s standing up alone against the majority opinion! It’s why cancel culture is so powerful, especially when the herd is vocal, emotional and furious. Yet, Caleb and Joshua dared to stand alone against all the congregation of Israel:

In Numbers 13, Caleb was one of the original ten spies sent into the promised land, but only he and Joshua showed faith in the Lord and his promises. Their outspokenness almost led to them being stoned to death by an outraged mob (Numbers 14:10).

Caleb’s great awe of the Lord overcame his fear of man.

Picture how hard it must have been for Caleb to have spoken up in front of the hostile, frightened people and their fear-mongering leaders, as they gave their report to Moses. Note Caleb’s steady confidence in verse 30:

“We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.”

Verse 30: But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” 

Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” 32 So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (Numbers 13:27-33).

After this, there was lament and rebellion in the camp. The people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, threatening to choose another leader to take them back to Egypt” (Numbers 14:1-4). But for a second time, Caleb and Joshua challenged the majority not to rebel against the Lord because of their fear of man:

“The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” 

 Then all the congregation said to stone them with stones. But the glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the people of Israel” (Numbers 14:7-10).

 Mob justice can be a terrifying thing, but Caleb focused on the “exceedingly good land”, which God had promised as an inheritance (Num 14:7). He pointed the people to God’s promises.

  • Caleb focused on pleasing and serving the Lord (Num 14:8).
  • He reminded the people that their enemies were not to be feared, because they lacked God’s protection (Num 14:9).
  • He pleaded with the people not to rebel against God by giving in to fear of man (Num 14:9).
  • He reminded them that God was with them and would protect them (Num 14:9).

Caleb’s words of truth infuriated the crowd, but his boldness was fortified by a right understanding of God. Because Caleb feared God more than man, he had the courage to stand up against the majority, and this boldness of spirit continued to flourish into old age.

  1. Caleb was full of hope.

While the other spies were full of pessimism and cynicism, Caleb’s attitude to the very same challenges was full of hope. His hope was in God’s sure promise to give them the land as an inheritance, not in Israel’s ability to defeat their enemies.

The young Caleb saw the same great cities and giants as the other spies, yet he did not view the Israelites as mere ‘grasshoppers’. He knew that the Lord would help his people conquer the land. Caleb was not so much a man of great faith, but an ordinary man who believed that God was great.

As a result of Caleb’s faithfulness, God promised him a personal inheritance (Num 14:24Deut 1:34-36) and allowed him to enter the promised land. Whereas the Lord judged the vocal majority who buckled to fear rather than believing God, the Lord commended Caleb’s willing and obedient spirit:

“But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it” (Num 14:22-24.)

At the end of our race, every faithful Christian will hear our master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness” (Matt 25:23).

As Christians, our inheritance is secure in Christ— “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4). Jesus is the gateway to the exceedingly good and fertile country that He has promised to all those who love him. It is called the new heavens and new earth (Rev 21:1-522:12-14).

“He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son” (Rev 21:7).

Wisdom for the old…

If you are getting older, with diminishing capacity and energy, you may wonder, “How can I serve the Lord in this season of my life? Am I redundant and irrelevant? Must I just look forward to heaven now and retire from earth?”

The Bible’s answer is an emphatic NO! Remember, the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong” (Eccl 9:11). The race is finished well by those who serve God with hearts fully committed to him (2 Chron 16:9). It’s the strength of the heart that counts, not the strength of the body. This is radically counter culture.

But there are unique temptations to resist as we grow older. These hazards are cynicism, pessimism and self-absorption.

Instead, our old age should be rich in grace, generosity, wisdom, love and service poured out to others, particularly younger people in our sphere of influence. The longer we’ve spent trusting Jesus, the more credible and helpful our witness will be.

Just as Caleb was involved in finishing the job of conquest, Christ has given all his followers the task of welcoming sinners into the ‘promised land’ of his kingdom, not with a sword to wage war, but with the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. The gospel conquest includes mentoring and teaching believers to walk in His ways (Matt 28:19-20).

Conquest is not just the job of the young and the strong, but also the old (1 John 2:12-14). And so, offer your time, wisdom and experience to your local church. Ask your pastor where you can serve and ask the Lord to give you opportunities to love people and share your hope in Christ. When God or your pastor gives you an opportunity, respond with an eager “Yes!”, knowing that God will strengthen you to do it. Be assured by the words of Caleb and Christ:

 “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it” (Num 13:30). “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).

Here are four R’s of good fruit in old age:

Resist the natural urge to become self-absorbed.

Reach out and ask young people to share their struggles, so you can support and pray for them better.

Resolve to be an optimistic encourager rather than a prophet of doom and gloom!

Remember that young people have been ordained by God to live in this world, in these times, so cheer them on and give them hope!

Wisdom for the young and middle aged…

If you are young or in mid-life, remember that it’s unbiblical to think that old people should be put out to pasture! Out with the old, in with the new, is a cultural lie that should be boldly rejected as ungodly and unspiritual.

And so, be patient with older people and cherish them; seek them out as counsellors; ease their loneliness and suffering, and treat them as fellow workers in the kingdom. Remind them that the best is yet to come!

Remember that Caleb developed his boldness over many years. So, if you’re a teen or young person, do not be afraid to stand alone against the majority. Get to know the character of God and focus your energies on pleasing the Lord, trusting in his promises and protection. Get in the habit of fearing God rather than man. That way, you’ll grow into a brave, hopeful old trooper like Caleb!

Prayer

You In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
    let me never be put to shame.
For you have been my hope, Sovereign Lord,
    my confidence since my youth.
From birth I have relied on you;
    you brought me forth from my mother’s womb.
    I will ever praise you.
Do not cast me away when I am old;
    do not forsake me when my strength is gone.
As for me, I will always have hope;
    I will praise you more and more.

My mouth will tell of your righteous deeds,
    of your saving acts all day long—
    though I know not how to relate them all.
I will come and proclaim your mighty acts, Sovereign Lord;
    I will proclaim your righteous deeds, yours alone.
Since my youth, God, you have taught me,
    and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.
Even when I am old and gray,
    do not forsake me, my God,
till I declare your power to the next generation,
    your mighty acts to all who are to come. Amen
   (excerpts from Ps 71).

Further reading:

Finishing Our Course with Joy, J.I Packer, Crossway, 2014.

Biblical Prescriptions for Mental Health (Part 3)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6-7).

Paul was personally kept by the peace of God, because he was a man of prayer, supplication and thanksgiving. But Paul also chose not to brood on his past sins or victories. Instead, he pressed forward and upwards towards the goal of Jesus Christ and spreading His good news to the world.

Upwards and Onwards.

Paul was in prison when he wrote his letter to the Philippians, but his heart remained thankful (Phil 1:34:104:18). This brings us to the third remedy in the biblical prescription for mental health—Thanksgiving. Paul says we are to present our requests to God with thanksgiving.

Fourth remedy: Give thanks.

When it comes to giving thanks, Paul practiced what he preached and urges us to imitate him (Phil 4:9). Paul is a credible role model if ever there was one.

In fact, the main reason why the letter of Philippians is so joyful is because its persecuted author expresses thanks on almost every page: Thanks to God, thanks to the Philippians for their generous financial support and thanks to Epaphroditus for delivering the provisions at great personal risk. There is no trace of entitlement or self pity in Paul, even in jail (Phil 4:14-19).

Thanks by faith, not by circumstance.

In Acts 16, we see Paul in a Philippian jail cell, awake at midnight, giving thanks by faith, not by circumstance.

Paul and Silas were exhausted, cold and in pain after being mobbed, beaten and bound in stocks. But instead of complaining and feeling sorry for themselves, they prayed and sung songs of praise to God (Acts 16:25). Their joyful thanksgiving was grounded in God’s character and promises, not in their circumstances.

In fact, the main reason why the letter of Philippians is so joyful is because its author expresses thanks on almost every page: Thanks to God, thanks to the Philippians for their sacrificial financial support, and thanks to Epaphroditus for delivering their gift at great personal risk. There is no trace of entitlement or self pity in Paul, even in jail (Phil 4:14-20).

Thanks by faith, not by circumstance.

In Acts 16, we see another cameo of Paul in a Philippian jail, awake at midnight. He and Silas were giving thanks by faith, not by circumstance.

Paul and Silas were exhausted, cold and in pain after being mobbed, beaten and bound in stocks. But instead of complaining and feeling sorry for themselves, they prayed and sung songs of praise to God (Acts 16:25). Their joyful thanksgiving was grounded in God’s character and promises, not in their circumstances.

In fact, by making a deliberate choice to give thanks in terrible circumstances, Paul and Silas were used as God’s instruments in leading the first Europeans to a saving faith in Jesus (Acts 16:29-3440). The church that met in Lydia’s house was encouraged and strengthened, but it all began when Paul and Silas decided to give thanks and sing praises to God.

In my own life, I’ve often found that the act of rejoicing feeds feelings of joy, just as the act of thanksgiving feeds feelings of thankfulness. Thanksgiving is a matter of the will, not the emotions. In response to giving thanks, the Lord gives us a song in our hearts (Ps 40:3).

But how often do we wait to feel thankful before we actively give thanks to God in everything, as we are commanded to do? (1 Thess 5:18). We may wait forever if the grateful feelings never come!

In expressing thanks, we are acknowledging God as the giver of everything. It honours God to thank him, whilst also reminding us of all that God has done for us. Thankfulness is the cure for spiritual amnesia.

It’s also good for our mental health to give thanks, because we can’t give thanks and simultaneously harbour self pity, self indulgence, self centredness, discontent and many other natural expressions of selfishness. It’s impossible to worship at the altar of self and express thanks in the same moment. Thanks displaces negativity, just as light displaces darkness.

And so, whenever we consciously give thanks to the Lord by faith, in all circumstances, we gain perspective and hope for an uncertain future, knowing that our times are in his hands (Ps 31:15).

Jesus gave us the supreme example of thanksgiving on the evening of his death, when he took the bread, gave thanks and gave it to them saying, “This is my body given for you.” (Luke 22:19). Paul says, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5).

Are you battling to give thanks in your own life? Do you catch yourself moaning, gossiping, worrying, dreading or criticizing too much? If so, start by thinking of ten things that you can give thanks for right now. They can be as simple as shelter, food, clothes, love, a friend, the gospel …

Then think of ten positive qualities in God and the people around you, and give thanks for these…

Then think of one trouble in your life, and consciously give thanks for this situation by faith.

For thousands of years the Bible has been telling us what science is now confirming: Thanksgiving brings peace of mind and satisfying relationships. Two classic studies were conducted by McCullough and Emmons who formed two groups over ten weeks . The thankful group wrote a list every day of things they were grateful for. The ungrateful group focused on things that irritated or displeased them.

At the beginning, the participants had reported similar levels of happiness, but after 10 weeks, they discovered that the grateful group were happier and their bodies were healthier than the ungrateful group. They noted that neither group changed their lifestyle at all.

Fifth remedy: Look forward

Paul gives us his fifth prescription in Philippians 3:13-14:

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,  I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:12-14.)

For Paul, his past included the years he wasted believing that he could earn his way to heaven; dragging Christians out of their homes to kill them, and leading many of his own people away from their Messiah. Shockingly, the men who stoned Stephen had laid their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul, who gave approval to his death (Acts 7:588:1). How could Paul move forward after being complicit in murder?

We must never underestimate how the past can affect our lives. Past sins and traumas can haunt our minds and impact our present and our future.

Forgetting what is behind.

But when Paul says, “Forgetting what is behind”, he is not saying that we must erase our memories or discard the past as rubbish. Our past is powerful, and if we want to change what we are harvesting today, we often need to examine and change what we cultivated yesterday (Prov 28:13). A person’s past choices have a powerful impact on our present and future (Gal 6:7) — the biblical principle of sowing and reaping.

But regardless of our past, Paul urges Christians to live forward and upward, because we are destined for glory (Phil 3:20-21). We need to consciously live as citizens of our future kingdom, looking forward with eyes of faith, and trusting God to redeem our past.

Paul says, we “strain toward what is ahead”, not by coasting in neutral or dwelling on past failures or victories, but by standing firm in the Lord Jesus now (Phil 4:1). The trajectory of the Christian life is always forward and upward, living up to what we have already attained in Christ (Phil 3:16).

Imagine if we followed Paul’s prescription! I bet that we’d be spared needless anxiety and depression. Our past cannot be changed and God does not want to erase our memories. Instead, He wants to transform them into something good. As Robert Jones writes in his book, “Getting past your past”,

God is bigger than your past. Your memories of past sins and times when you were sinned against—even the worst ones—can be opportunities for life-changing growth. You do not need to avoid, run from, or get rid of your past. Painful thoughts may still intrude, but you need not escape them.”

And so, like Paul, our past can be redeemed into a training ground if we keep pressing forward and upward into Jesus. Our past can help us face challenges with greater confidence, clarity and strength; it can help us handle trials with more faith; it can help us forgive; keep us humble;  enable us to minister to others and show us the need to repent. Our past is never wasted, but it’s also not a place to build a house and settle in.

Fifth Remedy: Filter thoughts.

Finally, Paul gives us the fifth prescription for God’s peace to rule our hearts and minds: A diet of lasting truth and wisdom to feed our minds.

I doubt any generation has needed this prescription more than our internet-saturated culture, which is gorging itself on novelty, distraction and narcissism. Our thought patterns are leading to high levels of loneliness, addiction, fear and even physical sickness.

Paul tells us to focus our minds only on what is good and pleasing to God:

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil 4:8)

Whatever is true…

If you think about Christ’s life and words, Jesus is the embodiment of all these virtues, because there is no man in history more true, lovely and admirable than him. There is no deed more noble and pure than his willing death on the cross for humanity. Thus, if we want the peace of God to hem us in day and night, the portraits of Jesus in the gospels are a good filter for our thought life.

Moreover, if we look up from our devices and worries for long enough, we will be awakened to many sources of excellence and beauty in God’s world. God is, after all, the ultimate artist and Creator of wonders.

Growing a love for nature; reading great books and poetry; appreciating beautiful art and music; singing songs with lovely words; nurturing pure love in family and marriage; preparing excellent food and imitating admirable people are ways to feed our minds with God’s wisdom.

Scripture also tells us to refresh our minds in the living waters of God’s Word (Ps 1:1-3Rom 12:2), because a transformed life follows in the wake of a renewed mind. The Spirit-led mind leads to life and peace, but the flesh-led mind leads only to death (Rom 8:6). The destinations are polar opposites.

The mind sets the course.

If thoughts we meditate on determine our trajectory and destination, surely our global mental health crisis is compounded by the ugly, false, impure, violent, perverse, terrifying and sordid images being projected relentlessly on the screens of our imaginations, day after day?

Our normal day-to-day worries can be exaggerated greatly by the power of suggestion, even affecting our body’s hormones, neurotransmitters and glands. If not regulated by faith, our mind will become a powerful force that rules our lives and sets us on a dangerous course.

And so, Christians must surely ask ourselves and the families we lead: What are we programming into our minds through the books we read; TV and movies we watch; music we listen to and endless scrolling for ‘breaking news’ and entertainment?

Are we inviting our minds and our children’s imaginations to treasure what is beautiful, true and excellent, arousing healthy emotions?

Are the meditations of our hearts pleasing to God, or do they feed our anxiety, despair and lust?

Conclusion: Biblical Prescriptions.

Perhaps you are still asking, “Who is going to protect me? Who is going to help me out of this slough of despond? How can I stop worrying and feeling depressed?” God’s prescription for mental health is in Paul’s letter to the Philippians and modelled in the apostle’s own life:

First remedy- Pray.

Second remedy- Petition.

Third remedy- Give thanks.

Fourth remedy- Press onward and upward.

Fifth remedy- Filter thoughts.

This is God’s prescription for comprehensive peace, no matter what difficulty or grief is confronting us from the past, present or future. There is calm at the feet of Jesus.

Apart from the secure footing that Christ’s death and resurrection provides to repentant sinners, we would have no hope of peace or safety (Isa 57:21). But if we have God’s pardon and his Spirit, we can take all our worries to Him in prayer, and leave them there.

Listen to how sure Paul is: “The peace of God…shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” It’s a promise. (Phil 4:79)

Prayer.

Lord, help us to be like Elisha, who told his servant not to panic when he saw the Syrian army advancing on the city. Help us to stop and pray like Elisha did,  for our eyes to be opened to see that those who are with us are more than those who are against us.
“And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha” (2 Kings 6:16-17). In Jesus’ name, Amen.

This lovely song by Andrew Peterson praises the many artists through history who have given us beautiful literature, music and poetry to ignite our imaginations for good.

Sources and further reading:

  1. Bad Memories: Getting Past your Past, by W.D. Jones, P & R Publishing.
  2. The Wisdom Pyramid, By Brett Mc Cracken, Crossway, 2021.
  3. IT Web, FPB concerned about SA children’s porn addiction crisis, By Staff Writer, 24 August 2022.
  4. Effects of Lockdowns.
  5. Gerald Bilkes, How can I stop worrying? Reformation Heritage Books, 2018.
  6. Edward Welch, Depression—The Way up When You Are Down, P&R Publishing, 2000.
  7. Lydia Brownback, Philippians– Living for Christ, Crossway, 2022.

Biblical prescriptions for mental health (Part 2).

Series: Biblical Prescriptions for Mental health, part 2, By Rosie Moore.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).

In Paul’s letter to the Philippian believers, the apostle calls his readers to learn from his example, so that “the God of peace will be with you” too (Phil 4:9). Last week, we looked at God’s promise of peace to “guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” and we explored the nature of this peace in the life of Paul.

From Paul’s own life and example, I think we can infer that it is our Father’s will for all his children to experience divine peace, even in the midst of the lowest lows and regardless of our personality type. But Paul also gives clear instructions on how this peace is to be secured and enjoyed daily, for the rest of our lives on earth.

How often do we expect to experience God’s peace without following his protocol set out in Philippians 4:6-9?

In this series “Biblical Prescriptions for Mental health”, I have chosen to focus on Paul’s letter to the Philippians because it shows us explicitly how to trade our anxiety for God’s peace. For the next few weeks, we will explore Paul’s protocol for peace, starting with prayer and supplication.

Prayer.

The Bible shows followers of Christ the way up when we’re down. It’s to replace fretful, cyclical thoughts with prayers—prayers directed to the God who has redeemed us by his Son. And so, anxious thoughts are actually a powerful invitation to approach the throne of grace and to pray in the name of Jesus.

Over centuries, prayer has always been the way up for believers. David’s prayers provide many templates for our own prayers, especially when we’re battling to find words to express ourselves. Here are just a few examples out of hundreds in the Psalms:

“But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory and the lifter of my head” (Ps 3:3).

“When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed spirit.” (Ps 34:17-18)

“I waited patiently for the Lord;
    he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
    out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
    and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
    and put their trust in him. (Ps 40:1-3)

 Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me (Ps 23:4).

A special invitation.

I wonder how our prayer lives would be transformed if we saw each of our cares as a special invitation to call on the Lord in our weakness? Imagine if we saw each worry as a renewed challenge to trust in God’s promises to comfort and care for us? (1 Peter 5:7).

After all, didn’t Christ himself invite us to come to him for rest, “all who labour and are heavy laden” (Matt 11:28)?

It’s no wonder our hearts and minds are guarded by divine peace when we pray:

Prayer makes Jesus big and our problems small by comparison. In talking to creation’s King, we are transported out of the echo chamber of our babbling thoughts and disordered priorities. Through our confessions, we experience forgiveness, hope and a true perspective.

But many people are confused about prayer, as we are influenced by postmodern forms of ‘spirituality’ that masquerade as Christianity. Prayer is not what is touted as ‘mindfulness,’ ‘meditation’ or ‘practicing the presence of God’. These are unbiblical concepts that do not resemble the many hundreds of prayers recorded in the Bible or Christ’s express teachings on prayer.

Prayer is not mindless repetition or grovelling, as if we’re trying to manufacture peace or twist God’s arm. Prayer is also not always what we feel like doing.

Instead, when we pray, we unselfconsciously pour out our hearts to God and make specific requests for the sake of Jesus, who died for us. We look outside of ourselves, not to our own wisdom or resources, but to our heavenly Father on whom we rely totally. That’s why it’s so much easier to pray in our mother tongue.

If the Bible is true, then we needn’t ever feel timid about our prayers, even when praying in a group. Should a young child who is learning language feel shy of their flawed speech? Our heartfelt prayers will always be good enough for the Lord, who promises never to despise the prayers of his people. His Spirit will edit our faltering prayers with groans too deep for words (Rom 8:26-27).

And so, there is no unworthiness that can disqualify us from prayer if we are covered by the blood and righteousness of Christ. God accepts our prayers because of Him, our great High Priest. When we obey God’s prescription to pray instead of fretting, He will use our worries to grow our faith and transform us to be more like His perfect Son.

Supplication

Secondly, Paul prescribes supplication. By adding supplication, Paul is reminding us that we are not to give up praying just because we don’t get an instant response.

Supplication isn’t a quick bedtime or mealtime prayer, but a request from a place of deep humility and desperation, out of acute need and inadequacy. Since God has created us to love him and long for him, when we plead his grace over our lives, we are expressing our dependence on him.

Supplication builds and requires faith, precisely because it isn’t instant and is always subject to God’s will. Supplications attach us to God’s heart, regardless of whether or when we get exactly what we’ve asked for.

Supplications are persistent requests, like the wrestling of Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok river, when he prayed fervently for God’s blessing (Gen 32:9-1224-28). Or like the barren Hannah when she prayed for a baby. “In bitterness of soul, Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord” (1 Sam 1:10-11). God heard Hannah’s supplication and gave her Samuel.

One of my favourite stories of supplication is the healing of Bartimaeus, the blind man. Remember how the crowd tried to silence him because he kept calling out to Jesus? But he stubbornly refused to stop his supplications.

“He cried all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus did not get annoyed or call Bartimaeus a God-botherer. Instead, he stopped and healed the desperate man (Mark 10:47-52).

Similarly, Jesus praised the Canaanite woman who showed persistence and fervency in her supplications. She too cried out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.

Even after Jesus seemed to put her off twice, the gentile woman refused to let him go, but knelt before him, “Lord, help me!” she said quietly. The woman prayed boldly until Jesus responded, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted” (Matt 15:22-28).

Jesus expressly taught supplication. He said that we should persist in asking for what we need with “shameless audacity” or “impudence” (Luke 11:8), like a trusting child nags a good father (Matt 7:9-11). Jesus said that in our prayers, we should not just ask, but also seek and knock, expecting our Heavenly Father to answer us (Matt 7:7).

And so, provided that our requests aren’t sinful, we ought to continue to pray, just as Paul pleaded three times for the thorn in his flesh to be removed (2 Cor 12:8-10). Paul only stopped when he knew that God’s power would be made perfect in his weakness. This was to save Paul from conceit and to demonstrate the Lord’s strength in his weakness.

The content of our prayers and supplications.

Jesus provides the greatest example of supplication for us to follow.

Not long before his death, Christ prayed throughout the night and we have a record of that desperate supplication in John 17. Firstly, Christ asked that God be glorified, and secondly, that God’s people would grow in obedience. Thirdly, He asked for strength for himself and his followers to stay faithful as they faced the great trials ahead (John 17:1517). Christ’s supplication in John 17 shows us the most important petitions we need to ask for when we pray, for these are our deepest needs too.

And so, even if we are not delivered fully from mental or physical illness, the Lord will give us the strength and courage to keep moving forward, to stay faithful and to keep glorifying God in our lives. Whatever God’s reasons for delaying or giving us a different answer than the one we hoped for, we can keep praying for the grace to follow Him more fully. The process of supplication is always good for our soul and our sanctification.

In supplication, it’s good to start by praising and thanking God, to focus ourselves on the character and holiness of God. Then to confess our sins and ask God to reveal the sins we haven’t seen. Then to lay our requests, burdens and confusions at the foot of the cross.

Moreover, the Bible promises that if we pray persistently for wisdom and the Holy Spirit, we can be sure that our Father will grant our requests (Luke 11:13James 1:5-6). We must not give up asking for these promised gifts.

Prayer precedes Peace.

A woman I know well has related some of her own experience of God’s peace following prayer and supplication. I hope her testimony will encourage you to lay down your burdens in this way:

“I often battle with insomnia. I wake up at around 2 o’ clock feeling overcome by anxious thoughts. The more my mind spins, the less I sleep, and the less I sleep, the more my mind hurtles out of control. It’s a vicious cycle I have no power to escape, no matter how much I try to mute the noisy circus of elephants rampaging in my head. I always seem to have so many things to worry about.

Eventually I realized that I needed to take Paul’s instruction in Philippians 4 seriously. I confessed my sins to God. I admitted that I was not obeying His clear word, nor trusting Him with my life. I was guilty of the sin of unbelief and misplaced priorities. Then I specifically asked for God’s help the next time the circus came to town.

This began the most wonderful times of quiet, undisturbed communion with the Lord and a habit I never want to abandon.

Nowadays, as I wake up, I don’t waste time stewing fruitlessly in my bed. I accept Christ’s invitation to pray. I get out of bed and tiptoe to the kitchen to make a cup of tea and light a fire. I sit with a candle (so I don’t wake myself up too much), and read a few Psalms out loud. Then I give thanks to God and pray through each of my problems and fears one by one:

All the things I can’t control or make sense of, I tell God all about them, no-holds-barred, totally uncensored. All the people I can’t save; all the knots I can’t undo; all the wicked injustices and pain in the world I can’t stop; all my responsibilities and plans; all the people I love. I lay them all on the table like a pack of cards, until there’s not a single one left in my mind.

Honestly, my prayers aren’t profound or full of faith at all. They’re often in a jumble and I can’t think of the right words. Sometimes I cry and plead with the Lord to change my perceptions and motivations, as I don’t like the things that rule my heart. Sometimes I just pray Psalms to the Lord and leave it that. I can’t do it better than those prayers of David when he was in trouble.

But my prayers in the night are always followed by a profound peace and deep sleep that I cannot explain. Nothing’s changed but my mind feels light, tidy and swept clean. Prayer isn’t a once-off victory, but a continuous struggling and unburdening of my worries in his presence. It always takes several weeks before the circus leaves town and I’m able to sleep through the night again.”

I think the prophet Isaiah describes this woman’s experience perfectly: “You will be kept in perfect peace, all whose thoughts are fixed on you.” (Isa 26:3)

Biblical Prescriptions for Mental Health

Part 1. The Peace of God.

by Rosie Moore.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6-7).

Why does the Bible tell us not to worry about anything at all, but instead to know the peace of God in our hearts?

I think it’s because anxiety is actually worse than unhelpful. Left unchecked, it becomes dangerous and destructive. Charles Spurgeon, who himself suffered from depression, expressed it well, “Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength.”

In this series, I have chosen to focus on Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In Philippians, Paul provides at least five practical remedies to enjoy the peace of God instead of anxiety:

1. Prayer.

2. Supplication.

3. Thanksgiving.

4. Moving forward.

5. Filtering thoughts.

A universal problem.

From the outset, I acknowledge that mental illness is a poorly understood problem that I don’t want to trivialize or over-complicate in this series. I realize that I am entering sensitive and complex territory. However, worry is a universal problem that is no respecter of persons. It afflicts Christians and non-Christians alike.

We all worry and get down from time to time, but some people live with daily anxiety, constant fear and debilitating depression. In this area of human struggle, I sincerely believe that Paul’s teaching in Philippians should be vital to our thinking and the way we live each day.

Moreover, if it’s true that the Bible equips us for everything we need in life, then I’m keen to be to be taught, convicted, corrected and trained for life by the Word of God, rather than buying into the world’s solutions for anxiety and depression (2 Tim 3:14-17).

God’s biblical prescription invites us to cast all our cares on the Lord, who gives us his peace in return. It may sound too simplistic, but I believe that the Bible offers the most effective daily prescription to protect our minds in a growing mental illness crisis.

You may be saying to yourself, “I don’t need this particular prescription. I’m just not an anxious person. It isn’t my struggle.” I may have said the same thing in my twenties when I was bulletproof!

But I’ve come to see that mental wellbeing is not static in one’s life. It’s affected by personality, trauma, stages of life, hormones, illness, exhaustion, stress, burnout, loss and many other factors that are out of our control. We may feel bulletproof today, but tomorrow we may find ourselves in a deep dark pit! That was Elijah’s experience after his victory on Mount Carmel. Therefore, I trust that this series will be relevant to everyone at some point in their lives.

I have personally experienced depression and anxiety. I’ve seen how life’s inevitable worries are a slippery slope which may lead to sinful thinking, self pity, unbelief, idolatry and despair. Many years ago, I was helped enormously by a dusty book I found in a second-hand bookstore, titled, How to Win over Depression (La Haye). It was a difficult read, because it was so counter-cultural and exposed some hard truths about myself. But the author gave me hope of victory and the biblical tools I needed to move forward, and in God’s mercy, to overcome. I often revert to this book.

So I am deeply thankful for my own vulnerability in this area. It has taught me a lot about myself, what I am living for, and my body’s responses to stress. It has also made me more understanding of those who suffer from profoundly unsettling feelings of worry and despondency. If you do, you’re in good company.

The Bible gives many examples of godly believers who suffered from mental distress —David. Elijah. Jeremiah. Job. Even our sinless Saviour suffered spiritual and emotional anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane at the prospect of the cross. One of the most honest expressions of true depression is preserved for our benefit in Psalm 88. Heman’s prayer concludes with these words: “Darkness is my only friend.”

Now that’s not exactly a hopeful way to start this series! But it’s also the very real perception of a person who is deeply downcast, even if their perceptions are distorted and obscured. As much as we’d like to, we can’t just snap out of it. The mind doesn’t always take its own advice. We need external, supernatural help, which is what God promises us in the Holy Spirit.

Do not be anxious about anything.

“Don’t be anxious about anything!” That’s pretty comprehensive. Paul couldn’t have given us a clearer instruction, but the clearest commands are sometimes the hardest to apply in real life.

The principle is this: When it comes to chronically anxious and negative thought patterns, obedience has to come first, even if the feeling doesn’t match.

Throughout the Bible, we are told to actively take charge of all our thoughts, because what we ruminate on will have powerful sway in our lives (Prov 4:23). Anxiety is a thought pattern. In another letter, Paul uses military language to convey the urgency of the matter: “Take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).

Our thought patterns can literally lead us to life and peace–or to death. Scripture makes it clear that there can only be one of two pilots in the cockpit of our mind—the flesh or the Holy Spirit. And these two pilots have completely opposing flight plans and destinations:

“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live according to the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom 8:5-6).

In theory, we all know that anxiety robs and destroys today and is utterly fruitless for tomorrow. We know that fretting cannot change the outcome of a situation and only breeds more worry. It saps our strength and spills over to those around us. If left unchecked, anxiety causes spiritual fruitlessness (Matt 13:22).

Most of us will admit that worry doesn’t bring us closer to Christ and drives us further from supportive human connections. We recognize that an overly anxious Christian is hardly an attractive advert for family members and friends to seek out Christ!

But all this head knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate into helpful action which will achieve the peace we seek.

Stress relief tools and medical intervention can be helpful. Our bodies and minds are inextricably connected, so if we are to be good stewards of ourselves, we need to learn to work with our bodies, not against them, as explained in this podcast.

But ultimately God has given us the best protocol for deep and sustained mental health which affects our body, mind and soul. The Bible’s definition of mental health is to experience the “peace of God”.

Peace of God.

What is the ‘peace of God?’ Isn’t the whole world searching for peace?  In the past, I seem to remember people striving for happiness, money and success, but these days “peace’ is the most coveted prize of all. Perhaps that’s because there’s so little of the genuine article around.

Paul starts his letter with this greeting: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:2).

The Bible promises trusting, praying believers the “peace of God”, which is beyond rational explanation (Phil 4:7). This peace is unique and unlike any other fleeting peace that the world can offer.

Paul is describing an inner confidence in the Lord that springs up within a Christian in a way that is unrelated to the adversities or circumstantial blessings of this life. The peace of God is not a euphoric emotion, but a settled state of being, rooted in the salvation achieved by the Lord Jesus. It is a protective peace that does not abandon us when life gets rough, chaotic and uncertain.

But when it comes to our own wellbeing, often it’s Christ plus our health, Christ plus our family, Christ plus financial stability and the good life, Christ plus a spouse.

But God’s peace is Christ plus nothing. The source of this peace is knowing that our eternal security is guaranteed in Christ’s finished work. Therefore, we are at peace with our Maker. If our trust is placed in anything else, the peace of God will always elude us and our mental peace will just be a superficial feeling that comes and goes.

This is not just Paul’s understanding of God’s peace, but Christ’s too. Peace is linked to trusting Jesus as our Saviour and Lord:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God;  believe also in me (John 14:1)

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Jesus has overcome! And so, there is no other source of peace apart from a relationship with the Prince of peace himself. It is a divine peace flowing from an objective source: “Being found in Christ, not having my own righteousness, but the righteousness of God through faith in Christ (Phil 3:9).

But this divine peace is not reserved for the elite Christian, nor the Pollyanna type, nor the lucky individual who always seems to land with their feet on the ground. If we’re in Christ, we are just as qualified, and just as able, to subjectively experience the peace of God that guarded Paul’s mind in a dark, cold prison cell in 60AD.

Paul’s peace.

In fact, we are expressly told to imitate Paul’s example (1 Cor 4:15-161 Cor 11:1Phil 4:91 Thess 1:6-72 Thess 3:7-9), regardless of whether we have a melancholy or upbeat disposition.

Consider Paul, the author of Philippians. He wrote these words from a prison cell in Rome. The apostle was a human being just like us, who experienced every trauma and terrifying memory known to man, including literal starvation, cold and nakedness (2 Tim 4:13212 Cor 11:27); shipwrecks, severe illness (Gal 4:13-142 Cor 4:7-8); mobbings and stonings (Gal 4:13-14Acts 14:192 Cor 11:23-29). If you want to feel better about your troubles, just read about Paul’s!

Every time a guard walked by, Paul would have remembered his numerous beatings with whips and rods at the hands of authorities. He knew what it was to “despair even of life” (2 Cor 1:8).

As an elderly man, Paul’s mind must have been haunted by regrets of a sinful past as a murderer of Christians (1 Tim 1:12-17). He would have regretted all those wasted years believing he could earn his way to heaven and misleading fellow Jews.

By the time he wrote his letter to the Philippians, Paul had been expelled from his place of worship and cast out by leading Jews, who plotted to take his life (Acts 13:4550Acts 17:5-7Acts 18:6Acts 20:3). Exclusion and death threats are hardly conducive to mental health.

And perhaps most painful of all, Paul was deserted, neglected and betrayed by fellow believers (Phil 4:15Acts 15:382 Tim 1:154:1016Gal 6:17). These are intensely traumatic and stressful events for any human to endure.

And yet, it strikes me that throughout his prison letters, Paul displays no symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. Instead, he expresses his joy in Christ and spurs on other believers to “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil 1:4-51:17-181:252:17-184:4). In fact, Paul considers joy in the Lord a ‘safeguard’ for the Phillippian Christians (Phil 3:1).

Paul did not only prescribe what is necessary to receive “the peace of God” (Phil 4:7). He practiced what he preached, by praying with thanksgiving, even when worries threatened to overwhelm his mind.

And Paul calls us to learn from his example, so that “the God of peace will be with you” too (Phil 4:9). We can infer from this that it is our Father’s will for all his children to experience this divine peace, even in the most stressful circumstances and regardless of our personality type.

The book of Philippians provides a straightforward, effective prescription for God’s peace, with no hidden side effects.

Join us next week as we explore each remedy one by one—

  1. Prayer. 2. Supplication. 3. Thanksgiving. 4. Moving forward. 5. Filtering thoughts.

I will leave you to meditate on Gerald Bilkes’s words on the protective power of prayer:

“When by faith we are “fully persuaded” that He will hear our prayer, according to his faithful promise, then our faith triumphs in a measure over unbelief. We might not feel like victors; we might lose our nerve over and over again. The confidence we have one moment might be shaken the next, yet God does not leave his struggling children to themselves. They can rest on the promise of his assistance.”

Sources and further reading:

Gerald Bilkes, How can I stop worrying? Reformation Heritage Books, 2018.

Edward Welch, Depression—The Way up When You Are Down, P&R Publishing, 2000.

Tim LaHaye, How to Win over Depression, Zondervan, 1974.

Anatomy of an Epidemic:Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America: Whitaker, Robert: 9780307452429: Amazon.com: Books

Cross-sectional Comparison of the Epidemiology of DSM-5 Generalized Anxiety Disorder Across the Globe – PubMed

The serotonin theory of depression: a systematic umbrella review of the evidence | Molecular Psychiatry

Counter culture

Jay Adams, who brought a biblical revolution to Christian counselling in the 1970’s wrote: “The church has a tendency to follow the swinging pendulum of the world”.

Why do we follow the world’s pendulum? After all, surely those who trust in Christ are freed from sin’s enslavement and automatically become more like Christ, and less like the world? As people who have been crucified with Christ, surely we die daily to the person that we once were, having a new and different way of life (Rom 6:6Gal 2:20)?

Indeed, we are instructed to resist conformity to the world and to embrace true and lasting transformation that comes only from Christ, through His Spirit who lives within us. As Paul writes to the Colossian Christians, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him,  rooted and built up in him” (Col 2:6-7).

All this is true. But why are we so often drawn to the patterns of this world in our real-life struggles?

Perhaps the tendency to embrace the world’s way of thinking is because believers have become less and less convinced that the Bible is sufficient for understanding and solving all the problems of life (2 Tim 3:14-17). Perhaps we spend more and more time looking at our struggles through the lens of ‘experts’, psychologists, feminism and the media, than through the lens of Scripture.

But the apostle Paul comes alongside the believers living in the pagan city of Roman and earnestly begs them to respond to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, by becoming worshipers of God, set apart for him only, and renewed in him continually:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worshipDo not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1)

In this text, Paul highlights three essential elements of true transformation:

  1. We put ourselves at God’s disposal and under his loving authority.
  2. We reject the world’s system and refuse to conform to its mold.
  3. We renew our mind in the truth of His Word, allowing his Spirit to change us (2 Tim 3:14-17).

This is how sustained and substantial transformation takes place in the life of a Christian, so that the watching world can see the fruit of what our new Master has done within us— the righteousness and holiness of God (Rom 6:14182022). This is known as sanctification.

Sanctification

The life-long process of sanctification in a believer’s life is brought about by the ministry of the Word, blessed by the Spirit of God, which brings a Christian closer to the likeness of Christ. This transformation is about substance, not just form. Although the Bible instructs us to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling”, we are barking up the wrong tree if we try to transform ourselves. “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-23).

And so, in Romans 12:1-2, Paul tells believers that we are not transformed by our feelings or desires; our efforts, hopes or moral values; our will, behaviour or positive affirmations. We are transformed by renewing our thoughts and aligning our hearts to God’s Word. Let’s explore the three essential requirements for transformation:

  1. We put ourselves at God’s disposal and under his loving authority.

Paul says that we are to “present our bodies as living sacrifices to God,” which is the only acceptable form of spiritual worship.

But what does “a living sacrifice” mean today?

These days we hear a lot of talk around ‘transformation.’ It often involves outward form rather than substance, and the appearance of virtue rather than reality. Very seldom is worship of God or self-sacrifice even mentioned in relation to transformation. But substantial transformation is impossible without first coming under the authority of the Lord Jesus and surrendering ourselves to Him entirely. We need to first belong to Christ.

“And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:24-25)

And so, whether in an individual or society, it is impossible to please God and keep in step with the Spirit, if we have not first raised the white flag of surrender. “It is impossible even to begin living the Christian life, or to know anything of true spirituality, before one is a Christian…As far as coming to God is concerned, we must all come in the same way. There are no exceptions. Jesus said in a totally exclusive word: “No man cometh to the Father but by me.” (Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality).

Paul makes a powerful appeal to those who have come to the Father through Christ the Son. He urges us to remember the fruits of God’s mercy, expressed in the gospel and the ongoing work of Christ in our lives.

And so, the ‘living sacrifice’ in Romans 12:1 is ongoing and continuous. It is also down-to earth and practical. Spiritually speaking, from the day we become Christ’s followers, we present our whole selves at God’s altar—soul, mind and body. In Ancient Greek thought, the body was thought of as unspiritual and unimportant, but Paul shows here that our bodies and our everyday lives are immensely important to God. We hold nothing back from the Lord when we become a living sacrifice.

For first century Jews and pagans, a sacrifice was a vivid image, because they brought sacrifices to the altar often. But this sacrifice was starkly different. It was a living person being brought to the altar, not a dead animal. For Jews, it brought up the idea of priestly service and holiness (Lev 1:10Deut 15:21), remembering that a sacrifice needed to be unblemished and without defect.

And so, just as Jesus is our acceptable sacrifice and great High Priest, our lives should represent God accurately to a fallen world, like his holy priests in the Old Testament (1 Peter 2:5). Christians are nothing less than the holy priesthood of believers.

As a holy priesthood, God doesn’t just want our work or performance. Nor does he ask us to sacrifice a goat or perform a ritual. He wants our everyday living to be transformed into an act of worship. Our soul, mind, body, desires, homes, ministries, emotions, hobbies and relationships belong to him! Our families and plans belong to him. Our work and words belong to him. Our thoughts, responses and motives are his too. A living sacrifice excludes nothing.

In stark contrast, ‘transformation’ without surrendering our entire lives to Christ is like putting on a mask or dress-up costume. If we try to transform (or reform) ourselves, our changes will be, at best, superficial, and at worst Pharisaical. We will be like Ananias and Sapphira, who pretended to be self-sacrificial, but preferred to be thought holy than to actually be holy. Their blatant lie against the Holy Spirit was deeply offensive to God (Acts 5:1-11).

  1. We reject the world’s system and do not conform.

Secondly, Paul’s instruction, “Do not be conformed to this world,” warns us that the ‘world system’, the popular culture, its ways of thinking and acting, are in active rebellion against God. That is why the world will try to force us into its ungodly patterns and even insist that we celebrate their ungodly choices and goals for humanity. This process of conformity must be actively resisted.

Last week, we were blessed to be in Cape Town for our daughter’s 21st birthday party. She was expressing great joy at being able to celebrate with wonderful Christians and being part of a Bible-teaching church. But she also described her struggle to live as a faithful Christian at a pagan university, with constant pressure to conform to a godless way of thinking. She concluded, “It’s hard to always know what it means to be in the world, yet not of it.”

Nothing has changed. Paul warns first century believers to be wary about slipping comfortably into the world’s patterns, because they are insidious and alluring. They are hard to resist. It is much easier to go with the flow than to make the effort to renew our minds in the truth.

In reality, I wonder how many of us wake up each morning and prepare our minds for action? I wonder if we even realise that our minds are the crucible either for godly transformation or worldly conformity? We will either conform to the world or we will transform into the likeness of Christ.  There is no neutral ground.

Scripture warns us that we cannot love the world and God at the same time:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever (1 John 2:15-17).

Christians are to be molded by God’s Word, instead of allowing the world to squeeze us into its mold.

  1. We renew our minds in His Word.

But it’s far easier to take the line of least resistance and be squeezed into the world’s mold. That’s why I’m so glad that Paul gives us the antidote! The key is the Holy Spirit’s inside-out work of transformation, by the renewing of our minds. Daily renewal is the only way that we can escape being shaped by the world and its steady flow of foolishness and disordered thinking.

It is the Holy Spirit who renews our thinking day-by-day, as we read the Bible. He does this by:

1) Teaching us God’s standards and principles;

2) Convicting us of sin;

3) Correcting and restoring us, and

4)  Training us in practical godliness (2 Tim 3:14-17).

T.C.C.T. That’s an acronym for the four-step process by which the Spirit renews and sanctifies us through the Word of God. Daily renewal is essential if we are to resist the patterns of this world and live more like Jesus.

This God-given four-step process of transformation will equip us for every struggle we may face in life, to do the good works that God has prepared for us. This biblical process of transformation is foundational to the series on “Practical Christian Living” that follows.

In the upcoming weeks, I will be exploring several common struggles of life in which Christians have a tendency to follow the swinging pendulum of the world, instead of being re-calibrated by biblical wisdom and truth.

Since I am training to become a counsellor, I am particularly struck by how easy it is for Christians to think and talk in the same way the world does, instead of looking to Scripture to diagnose our struggles and prescribe the right solutions to the problems of life.

The Christian message isn’t simply, “Trust in Jesus and you’ll be forgiven. Then wait for Christ to return to make you perfect.” Although a disciple of Christ will never be perfect in this present world, with the help of the Holy Spirit we can and should expect to be transformed, to increase in godliness and to die to sin, until our time on earth is done. This is the process of sanctification.

In this series, God willing, I hope to delve into the Scriptures concerning common struggles that many of us face, applying the four-step process for transformation in 1 Timothy 3:14-17:

  1. Biblical prescriptions for mental health.
  2. Ageing with grace.
  3. Just one more! Unmasking addiction.
  4. How men should lead their families.
  5. God’s goals for fruitful moms.
  6. Stewarding our time.
  7. Whom shall I fear?

Useful sources and further reading on transformation:

Jay Adams, How to Help People Change, Zondervan, 1986.

Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality, 1972.

Dr Helen Roseveare, Living Sacrifice– Willing to be Whittled as an Arrow, Christian Focus Publications, 1980.

The Days Ordained for Me

Part 3 of Psalm 139, by Rosie Moore.

For you formed my inward parts;
    you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
    my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
    the days that were ordained for me,
    when as yet there was none of them (Ps 139:13-16)

David is confident that his Creator not only formed and saw his ‘unformed substance’ at the start, but also at the finish and every day in between. Since the Lord pre-ordained David’s life, God will remain actively involved in his future. And because God has written David’s name in his book of life, the Psalmist has hope and significance until his final breath, and beyond into eternity.

Even before the Messiah’s appearance, David was assured by the doctrine of predestination (Eph 1:4-5).

Not a day too many, not a day too few.

Like David, we will not live one day too many or one day too few. Before we were even born, God numbered and recorded the days of our lives. And if our lives have been redeemed by Christ, God’s purpose is to make us more like Jesus every day. He will use all circumstances and stages of life to achieve this end (James 1:2-4Rom 8:28-291 Peter 4:1). Therefore, God gives meaning and purpose to each new day, even when our lives seem worthless or obsolete.

As Christians, the Bible tells us that our life’s purpose is to experience and proclaim God’s glory until Christ takes us home (1 Peter 1:7). Therefore, the days of our lives are irreplaceable and highly significant. They are not just one mundane thing after another. Each day is preparing us for “an eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor 4:17-18).

Today we will look at the final two practical implications of Psalm 139:13-16 in the light of the gospel.

  1. God has ordained our days.
  2. Our bodies matter to God.

1. God has ordained our days.

In Ps 139:16, David writes about God’s “book” which records all the days of his life. Most likely, he is referring here to the Book of life, which records the names of all those who have come into God’s righteousness. Elsewhere David prays: “May the wicked be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous” (Ps 69:28).

The book of life is mentioned several times in the Old and New Testaments. It is significant for us, because it was the basis for David’s assurance in verse 16.

In Daniel 12:1, when describing a future time of great distress, Daniel foresaw that everyone who has their name in “the book…will be rescued”. The book here likely means the Book of life which contains the names of all God’s redeemed people.

This is great assurance for everyone who has put their faith in God’s Saviour, whether in Old or New covenant times. Jesus Christ knows the name of every redeemed person in the book of life, his “book of remembrance” (Rev 3:5). And as Matthew Henry said, “Christ will not erase the names of those whose faith is in him”.

God records the name of every person destined for Heaven and the world to come in the Lamb’s book of life. Through our salvation in Christ, He makes us pure and able to pass through the gates of heaven (Rev 21:27).

Thus, we can be confident that everyone who believes the gospel has their name recorded in God’s book and will enjoy eternity with the Lord. This provides a sustainable motivation and model for all the days of our lives.

God’s providence and our purpose.

In a world which links human value to productivity and performance, David’s prayer offers hope for the walking wounded, the lonely, weak and depressed who are tempted to think that their lives are too painful or meaningless to continue. I know many believers who are battling with chronic pain and a great sense of futility.

But we must resist the world’s lies and believe that God continues to see and care for us all the days of our lives. Take heart and be assured that you are significant, no matter how redundant, powerless or dispensable you may feel. For as long as you have breath, God’s providence will run alongside your purpose.

Seen through the gospel prism, we all need the same thing, which is to be saved by Jesus Christ. Born or unborn, young or old, weak or strong, sick or healthy, dependent or independent, human beings are precious in God’s sight and he invites us to have a relationship with him through Christ all the days of our lives. This is our purpose.

Moreover, God’s providence means that our lives will always have significance. We are anchored in something much greater than what we can do or contribute.

The late J.I Packer offers encouragement to seniors and all those who may think that their lives are worthless,

We humans are hopers by nature. Hope motivates, energizes, and drives us. It is natural for us to look ahead and long for any good things that we foresee. That is how God made us. It was always in his plan that we, his embodied rational creatures, should live our lives in this world looking forward to, and preparing for, something even better than we have known already…

As seniors’ powers of body, memory, and creativity grow less, so their conscious focus on their hope of glory should grow sharper and their meditations on it grow more joyful and sustained. Passion to continue being of use to God and his people, in holiness, love and what Scriptures conceive as neighbourliness, should and will intensify to the end”

(Finishing your course with Joy, by JI Packer).

2. Our bodies matter to God.

Finally, our bodies matter, because God has made them ‘fearfully and wonderfully’– male and female, regardless of race or ethnicity. God’s works are wonderful indeed, especially in designing the human body.

There is no way to detach our bodies from our spiritual lives before God. While there is a danger of obsessing about our bodies, there’s also a danger in de-valuing them.

The body is not ‘unspiritual’.

After all, “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Jesus became a human being with a mortal body like ours. He gave his own body to redeem us in order to re-create our bodies on the last day (1 Cor 15:41). Our new bodies will resemble the glorious body of our resurrected Saviour (Phil 3:21).

David has a high view of his mortal body, describing it as a ‘frame’ that God has ‘intricately woven in the depths of the earth.’ His imagery sounds like a complex tapestry of meticulous hand stitches. In fact, each one of us is a walking miracle of irreducible complexity that science cannot replicate. We are not less than the bodies that God has given us, even if sin has made them mortal and liable to decay (1 Cor 15:47-48).

Do we ever look at the design of our bodies and ask, “Why did God design me like this?”  It’s a good question to ask in the light of Ps 139:13.

Just think for a moment of a mother’s body. Abigail Dodds praises God’s idea of giving women wombs so that babies could grow in them. Of course, this doesn’t mean that every woman must have a baby, but wombs to grow babies is God’s idea. Dodds marvels at God’s design of a woman’s anatomy which is suited to provide nourishment and love:

“If God designed our bodies to be a home to a tiny person for nine months, then that understanding will help us understand the instructions in Titus or 1 Timothy to work and manage the home. Why? Because he actually made our bodies a home…The weight of influence that comes in making a home, in ordering a dwelling place for others, is practically incalculable. Proverbs says the wisest of women builds her house (Prov 14:1). That’s one reason God gave us hands and arms—to build our house and make a home.”

And so, regardless of our imperfections, David reminds us that human beings are made up of both body and soul. These two parts are distinct but inseparable, except in death. Both are equally important for human life and experience. As Paul Helm writes,

“Your body is unique to you, and in this life it is you, while in the life to come it will be with you again.”

David’s description challenges me to view my body as a gift from God, and be thankful. Our bodies are not rubbish bins for unhealthy food, degrading acts or substances that have no place there. We should not reject, harm or show contempt for the body that God has given us.

For this reason, I believe that it is wrong to objectify, change or use the human body for power, lust or money. Our bodies have been created through Christ and for Christ, to do the things that God has made them to do (Col 1:16-17).

David clearly has respect for himself, as his Maker has for Him. Self respect is not prideful, but demonstrates a sound grasp of the biblical doctrines of God and humanity.

David and the Apostle Paul were in perfect agreement: “The body is for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body” (1 Cor 6:13). Therefore, “glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:20). Our bodies are the “temple of the Holy Spirit” who dwells in us (1 Cor 6:19). Since our bodies belong to God, it matters what we do with them (1 Cor 6:13-20).

What we do with our bodies.

Glorifying God in our bodies is not just about what we avoid and don’t do, but also about what we do positively—how we work, whether we exercise, what we do with our arms and legs to help others, what we feed our minds, how we deal with our emotions, what we say with our mouths and how we regard our bodily imperfections.

For instance, the Bible provides practical wisdom on sleep (Ps 127:2; Prov: 9-11; Eccl 5:12); laziness (Eph 4:281 Thess 4:11-12); indulgence (Rom 13:13); gluttony (Prov 23:2-321Heb 12:16-17); stress (Phil 4:6-8) and mastering our body’s sinful urges (Matt 5:301 Cor 9:24-27).

The Bible equips us to live in our bodies at all stages and ages, dealing with ageing, illness, death, sexuality and identity. We should not look to the world for wisdom on these matters.

How we view our bodies has massive implications for how we flourish as God’s people. Given the ancient serpent’s hatred of God and humanity, we should not be surprised to find ourselves swimming upstream when it comes to polarizing issues surrounding our bodies. In our cultural moment, Christians need to equip the youth with a sound doctrine of God and humanity, so that believers can take a stand and give reasons for what we believe.

Knowing that God has created every human fearfully and wonderfully, in his own image, and for a purpose, provides a framework whereby we see everything else:

Addictions, self-harm and assisted suicide; gender ideology in education and the sexualization of children; trans surgeries, puberty blockers and pronouns of choice; LGBTQ and feminist agendas; marginalizing heterosexuality, men and boys; misuse of prescription drugs; pornography and sexual grooming;  genetic engineering and genome therapies; eugenics and trans-humanism; gender-based violence and female circumcision; euthanasia, race and abortion; informed consent and much more.

A sound theological framework will guide us in answering three big questions that seem to be shaking our society at its core: What is a man? What is a woman? What gives human beings value?

These are not just social or cultural questions. They are issues of the human body with deep spiritual roots, in which Satan has profoundly vested interests.  Let us never forget that our bodies and our days belong to the Lord, and to Him alone.

Lord, thank you that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are built and designed by you. Our unique bodies, brains, eyes and ears, emotions and gifts bear your unmistakable marks as master craftsman, master designer and master builder. Thank you that we are not just the product of impersonal forces such as time and chance and natural selection, but that we’ve been given a unique body to use for your glory.  Help us to trust in your providence all the days of our lives. Help us to see our intrinsic worth and to treat others with dignity and respect too. Amen.

Sources:

1.To read Part 1 (Knowing and being known by God) and Part 2 (Wonderfully and Fearfully Made) in this series on Psalm 139, please click on the links.

2. Abigail Dodds, (A)Typical Woman– Free, Whole, and Called in Christ. Crossway, 2019.

3. J.I Packer, Finishing Our Course With Joy. Crossway, 2014.

4. David Helm, Created Body and soul, TGC.

Dr James Marcum, MD, Medicines that kill, Tyndale House Publishers, 2013.

5. Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Questions about Life and Sexuality.

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

Part 2 of Psalm 139, by Rosie Moore.

“For you formed my inward parts;
    you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
    my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
    the days that were formed for me,
    when as yet there was none of them (Ps 139:13-16)

David is remembered as a great king and leader, poet and musician, courageous warrior and tender shepherd, sinner and man after God’s own heart. But I doubt any of us would regard David as a man of science. Yet, three thousand years ago, he understood the truths about conception and human development, which have been confirmed by the study of embryology and DNA in the last few decades.

The process of three-dimensional DNA helixes, winding and unwinding to make proteins for human growth, looks a lot like knitting or weaving.  And now we know, without a doubt, that an unborn child is a living, distinct, unique, whole human being from the time of conception.

Fearfully and wonderfully made.

In these verses, David demonstrates a healthy attitude towards himself and his Creator. He assumes that God rules providentially over his life even when he was just a dot in his mother’s womb. He doesn’t view himself as an accident or a mistake. Thanks to ultrasound technology, we are now able to see just how fearfully and wonderfully God has made every human being, as He is the inventor of procreation.

An unborn baby not only bears a unique human fingerprint, but also the fingerprint of a loving God stamped on its forty-six chromosomes.

From the moment of conception, the embryo has its own unique genetic code that is different from its mother and father’s. It grows by cellular reproduction; metabolizes food into energy and responds to stimuli. Between twelve and eighteen weeks, the foetus feels pain and reacts to stress in a way that resembles an adult’s response.

But David’s positive understanding of his life and his body is not just a mantra to affirm his self esteem, nor is it wishful thinking. It is firmly rooted in the imago dei, namely  that human beings are different and distinctive from animals, plants and the rest of Creation. As God’s image-bearers, men and women are made to be the Creator’s visible representatives on earth (Genesis 1:27), to rule in his place.  Thus, David’s self esteem is based squarely on God’s estimation of him:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”.

David understood himself through the lens of Genesis 1:27-31, which our society seems to be defying at the deepest level. He knew that God has a plan for each of his image bearers from conception, throughout their lives, through death and into eternity.

David knew that mankind was made to “be fruitful, increase in number and fill the earth” (Gen 1:28); to rule over every living thing and produce food from the earth, whilst living in harmony with the rest of creation (Gen 1:29-31). Of course, sin spoilt everything, but David knew that God’s image remains in humanity.

And because David assumed the imago dei, he knew that his intrinsic worth had nothing to do with his accomplishments or status as king. His value was not conferred on him by society, but endowed by God the Creator. His value as a human was therefore inalienable.

We can either praise God for being the wonderful Creator that He is, or depose Him and adopt our own ideas of what it means to be human.

Whatever happened to the human race?

Recently I re-read Francis Shaeffer’s classic, “Whatever Happened to the Human Race,” and was struck by his prophetic warnings about the war on Western society’s foundations for faith and freedom. In 1979, Schaeffer wrote,

“If man is not made in God’s image, nothing stands in the way of inhumanity. There is no good reason why mankind should be perceived as special. Human life is cheapened. We can see this in the many major issues being debated in our society today: abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, the increase of child abuse and violence of every kind, pornography (and its particular kinds of violence as evidenced in sadomasochism), the routine torture of political prisoners, the crime explosion and the random violence which surrounds us.”

I think there are at least three practical principles that flow out of Psalm 139:13-16:

  1. Every human has intrinsic value.
  2. God has ordained the days of our lives.
  3. Our bodies matter to God.

Today we will focus on the first one. Let’s ask the Lord to make this principle real in our lives.

  1. Every human has intrinsic worth.

Ps 139:13-16 answers two crucial questions: What does it mean to be human? What makes us valuable? These questions are the volcanic hot spot of every emotive debate in our culture.

The fact that God creates, knows and cares for the unborn in the unseen haven of a woman’s uterus, means that God’s concern for all life begins at conception. And logically, this must mean that God’s people also have the responsibility to care for children in the womb.

The reason for abortion on demand is that our society has assumed the right to determine human value. Humanity has re-defined what it means to be human and usurped God’s right over life and death. Quite simply, our culture no longer believes that God has knitted us together in our mother’s womb, nor that there is a purpose for our existence.

You knit me together in my mother’s womb.

The recent overturning of Roe v Wade should be celebrated by every Christian worldwide as a small step in pushing back what Francis Schaeffer described in 1979 as “the slaughter of the innocents”. Schaeffer warned that the judgment of God would be upon any nation involved in this slaughter.

Yet, today’s desperate fight for the right to kill babies in the womb, (and even shortly after birth for the harvesting of human tissue) is framed as a reproductive health or choice issue; a women’s rights or constitutional issue; an economic, philosophical or religious issue. It is often seen as a private matter between a woman and her doctor. It’s presented as the compassionate option.

But it’s impossible to ignore the silent, small victim who is ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ by our loving Creator. What if the unborn had a voice and could express their choice? One person’s unfair or hard circumstances can never justify intentionally taking the life of an innocent victim.

So, while God is concerned for every pregnant mother, he sees another person in the mother’s womb who is worthy of care and protection. Psalm 139:13-16 tells us that an embryo is not a constructed thing, a clump of cells or a piece of flesh. God sees both the unborn child and the mother, made in his image.

Human worth is totally unrelated to how independent or ‘viable’ a person is. My son is dependent on an insulin pump for survival, but his life has equal value to any other twenty-three year old. The elderly, sick and disabled rely on caregivers and chronic medications, but that doesn’t make them less worthy of protection. Human dignity and worth only exists because we’ve been made in God’s image.

Moreover, since we are not the Creator, we do not have the right to confer or withdraw the rights of ‘personhood’. Human beings have rights simply because we are human. They are automatic and intrinsic, because God has bestowed them. This is the basis for human dignity and the only safeguard against terrible atrocities and degradation.

The basis for human dignity.

The ‘image of God’ remains the only basis for human rights. We have taken these rights for granted in Constitutional democracies, but they are under siege from every angle—The right to life and freedom from cruel treatment; the right to property, privacy and bodily integrity; the right to work, think and express one’s thoughts, the right to human dignity and equal protection under the law.

But what happens to human rights if we reject the imago dei? We are walking on dangerous quicksand if we remove the foundation set out in Genesis 1 and 2.

One example of this quicksand is evident in the Sustainable Development goals imposed on the world’s nations as part of Agenda 2030. As Christians, the Bible says that God has entrusted mankind with dominion over Creation, but it’s limited because we are creatures and not the Creator. So our role is to responsibly rule the creation and make it a suitable habitat until the Creator comes back to reclaim it. We are to be good stewards of the earth.

However, there are many who argue that the world can only sustain around half a billion people. They claim that we have until 2030 to get the numbers down in order to survive, as we’re in a climate emergency.

I am tempted to ask: “Who are the seven billion people that must eliminated on this planet, and who is going to decide that? What if the fertilizer bans and zero carbon emissions goals destroy agricultural industries and lead to mass famine and starvation?” Time and time again in history, so-called ‘utopias’ have led to human devastation, degradation and enslavement.

The dangerous truth is that atheists do not believe that God created human beings in his image. They reject God as Creator, his order of Creation, man’s inherent value and the mandate to rule that God established at the beginning of the world. Consequently, this worldview does not see human beings as unique, worthwhile and irreplaceable. We are no different from the animals and the trees.

When the human race is no longer seen as made in God’s image, there is really no basis for treating people well and no barrier to abusing or even eradicating them. Even the words ‘crime’ and ‘cruelty’ lose their meanings.  Thus, the cruel calls even for late term abortions come as no surprise.

When humanity is devalued for long enough, the unthinkable becomes acceptable.

A fierce spiritual battle.

While we should pray for those who do not see the value of every human life and show grace and truth in conversations with those who disagree, Christians cannot celebrate choices that inflict suffering on the poor and the weak, even if they’re couched in compassionate words.

As Randy Alcorn points out here, there is a fierce spiritual battle raging at the heart of abortion. “Abortion is Satan’s attempt to kill God in effigy by destroying the little ones created in God’s image.” It is essentially a war against God.

As a final word on the principle of intrinsic worth, I thought I’d share the comments of a profoundly handicapped man called Craig who was born without a left leg and without arms below the elbows. Today he would probably have been eliminated in the womb due to serious birth defects:

“They don’t really see that what they are talking about is murder. I know, when I was born, the first thing my dad said to my mom was that “this one needs our love more.” An individual with a handicap needs our love and needs us to help him grow into the being that God has made him to be. They are advocating that we destroy these children before they’re even given a chance to live and conquer their handicaps.

I’m very glad to be alive. I live a full, meaningful life. I have many friends and many things that I want to do in life. I think the secret of living with a handicap is realizing who you are—that you’re a human being, someone who is very special—looking at the things you can do in spite of your handicap, and maybe even through your handicap.” (Schaeffer, Whatever happened to the human race?)

Prayer

Lord, thank you that we are fearfully and wonderfully made in your image. We are built and designed by you. Our unique bodies, brains, eyes and ears bear your unmistakable marks as master craftsman, master designer and master builder. Thank you that we are not just the product of impersonal forces such as time and chance and natural selection. Help us to trust in your providence as our Creator and to represent you well on this earth until you return. Help us to to protect the dignity and worth of every human being, as you do. And help us to nourish and respect our bodies, as we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Amen.

Join us next week for our final devotion in “The Days formed for me.” We’ll look at the last two principles from Psalm 139:13-16:

  1. God has ordained the days of our lives.
  2. Our bodies matter to God.

Sources:

1. Megan Almon, The Case for Life and the Gospel, Life training institute, June 2022.

2. Francis Schaeffer, Whatever happened to the Human Race? (Crossway Books, 1979)

3. Randy Alcorn, There’s a fierce spiritual battle at the heart of abortion.

4. Randy Alcorn, Why Pro Life? Caring for the Unborn and their Mothers.

Knowing and being known by God

by Rosie Moore.

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me… (Ps 139:1)
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
    Try me and know my thoughts

And see if there be any grievous way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps 139:23-24)

This is the first part in a two-part series on Psalm 139.

The Psalms exemplify the kind of personal relationship that the true and living God wants his people to have with him. God doesn’t listen to us through a speaker system or watch us perform on a screen. It’s as if God listens to us via a stethoscope and uses a CT scan to explore the deepest crevices of our hearts. As the Lord said to Samuel the prophet, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7).

The Lord was referring to the unassuming shepherd boy, David, who later became Israel’s greatest king and the writer of Psalm 139.

Lord you have known me.

The Lord searches our hearts and exposes what’s really there. He wants his image-bearers to enjoy an intimate, authentic relationship with Him by faith in Jesus Christ. No secrets, no duplicity, no hiding our sins behind flimsy fig leaves. No matter where a believer goes, we can never be far from God’s comforting and convicting presence– His Holy Spirit.

Psalm 139 is one of my favourites, because it reminds me that the greatest privilege and purpose of life is knowing and being known by God, warts and all. This Psalm also gives us a framework for how to respond to crucial cultural issues like, “What does it mean to be human” and “What makes a human life valuable?”  David’s Psalm offers believers assurance but also accountability for how we live our lives.

Let’s ask the Lord to search our own hearts as we read Psalm 139:

Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is high; I cannot attain it.

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
    Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you.

13 For you formed my inward parts;
    you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;
    my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
    the days that were formed for me,
    when as yet there was none of them.

17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
    I awake, and I am still with you.

19 Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
    O men of blood, depart from me!
20 They speak against you with malicious intent;
    your enemies take your name in vain.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with complete hatred;
    I count them my enemies.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart!
          24 And see if there be any grievous way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting!

God searches me (Ps 139:1-6).

David knows that the Creator God is everywhere and inescapable (Ps 139:7-12). No human can hide from His searching gaze. He is infinite and personal, which is both comforting and frightening.

The writer to the Hebrews says something similar: “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account (Heb 4:13).

No one likes to be naked and exposed, literally or figuratively. Some of us don’t like people to know us completely because we are afraid that they will discover something unpleasant, even wicked about us. We’ve been shocked at what we’ve seen lurking in our thought life and the filth that gushes out of our mouth in an unguarded moment.

Sometimes we don’t let people see who we really are, lest they judge or reject us. We feel unseen and unheard by those closest to us, so we pretend that all is well. Often, we disguise the hidden sins that are enslaving us, which we know we have no power to overcome.

But David describes a personal, infinite God who is present everywhere at the same time, a God who knows everything about us, even our anxious thoughts (Ps 139:23-24), darkest fantasies and habits of life (Ps 139:2-311-12), even the motives behind our words (Ps 139:4). God is familiar with of all our ways (Ps 139:3). He knows everything about us, including the bits we’d prefer to keep hidden.

But it’s precisely this reality that ultimately leads David to invite the Lord to test and expose his heart—the seedbed of all sinful thoughts, words and deeds (Ps 139:23-24). Why would David want exposure?

Search me, O God!

Instead of avoiding a divine biopsy, David wants to be known by God, even if it exposes a malignant tumour that must be removed before it proves fatal (Ps 139:23-24). God’s thoughts and opinions are precious to him (Ps 139:17-18). He treasures the intimate relationship he has with the Lord, no matter what sin and frailty is exposed by His searchlight (Ps 139: 13-18).

No doubt King David had learned a painful lesson from his own ‘secret’ adultery and murder of Bathsheba’s husband. He had thought he would get away with his love affair, but God saw what he had done. The Lord sent Nathan the prophet to confront him in his duplicity, saying, “You are that man!” (2 Sam 12:7).

It cut David to the heart to realise that he had done evil in God’s sight (Ps 51:4) and his subsequent plea for mercy and forgiveness is recorded for us in Psalm 51:

“Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.”

David’s restoration was what drove him to seek a life of candour and integrity. He didn’t want to run or hide from God anymore. He actually wanted the Lord to find him out and arrest him before his sin could cause even greater damage. He wanted to know and be known by God, thoroughly and completely.

Likewise, for Christ followers, Psalm 139:23-24 reminds us that exposure is the only path to repentance and forgiveness. And it’s how we are freed from the destructive power of sin in our lives, to continue on God’s ‘everlasting way’.

We must not fool ourselves—Sin will always entangle us in its deceptive web. It will weigh us down and spoil our relationship with God (Heb 12:1). David knew the danger of sin that the writer of Hebrews later confirmed:

“Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14).

Hatred of God’s enemies.

That’s why David’s imprecatory prayers (Ps 139:19-22) are not embarrassing verses that we should be tempted to skip when we read this Psalm. Even Christ and Paul quoted some of the imprecatory Psalms, which call down divine curses and express hatred for God’s enemies (John 15:25Ps 69:4John 2:17=Ps 69:9Ps 69:22-23=Rom 11:9-10).

These imprecatory prayers of David assume the truth taught throughout Scripture that evil people can reach a point of such extreme, persistent hard-heartedness and contempt towards God, that the time of redemption is past and their judgment is inevitable.

Moreover, in these Psalms, David spoke as God’s inspired and anointed king. David foreshadowed Christ the Messiah, who has authority to pronounce final judgment on all God’s enemies, and will do so in the end (Rev 19:111-21). Since the Lord is perfectly holy and all-knowing, his justice will always be proportionate and appropriate. There will be no leakage or collateral damage, as is the case when we take revenge.

David is not being self-righteous in these verses. He has seen how truly evil sin is, including his own, and is expressing moral repugnance, not personal vengeance against God’s enemies. Moreover, he is acutely aware of his own blind spots and need for repentance, as we also should be (Ps 139:23-24). After all, we are all God’s enemies until reconciled to God by Christ (Rom 5:10)

Where shall I go from your Spirit?

When I forget that God is the omniscient (all knowing), omnipresent (all present) and omnipotent (all powerful) Creator of the universe, I tend to make Him small in my mind. I try to do things in my own strength. I don’t consult with Him when I have an important decision to make. It is always because I have forgotten his eternal attributes and exaggerated my own.

Likewise, when I forget the Holy Spirit—the Helper who is with us forever (John 14:16) and who “helps us in our weakness” (Rom 8:26-27), I start seeing God as aloof from my struggles. I am left feeling hopeless and overwhelmed by challenges too big for me to handle. I feel no peace, just turmoil.

But even though David never saw Jesus in the flesh or the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, he prayed, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (Ps 139:7)

It is remarkable how David knew and trusted the personal God who was active in his past, present and future, the God beyond time and space (Ps 139:13-16). And this understanding of God both as Creator and providential ruler gave David great consolation, confidence and courage. He was utterly convinced of God’s protective hand and leading light in his life (Ps 139:10-12).

How much more should we cherish the Lord’s presence, power and purpose as we look back on the cross and look forward to the moving of the Holy Spirit in our world and in future generations? Three thousand years since David died, Christ has not left us alone as orphans. Wherever we find ourselves, the risen Lord has made his home with us by His Spirit (John 14:23).

And so, let’s ask ourselves, “Where can I go from his Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” Of course the answer to these rhetorical questions is the same– Nowhere!! The Lord knows us warts and all, and yet he still loves and accepts us. He is there to help us when we’re struggling in ways that we have not even dared to admit to anyone else.

The Prince of Peace is beside us wherever we are, settling our troubled hearts (John 15:2716:33). Each new day, the Helper is directing us to Christ and reminding us of all that He has taught us in His Word (John 15:26). The Spirit of truth is always stirring our hearts, convicting us of sin and giving us the power to overcome (John 16:813).

Instead of fear and slavery to sin, Christ has given us the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”. And the Holy Spirit will hold us fast until we see Christ face to face.

Psalm 139 reminds us that God accepts and loves his children despite knowing everything about us. Is it not the greatest privilege in the world to know and be known by God? Imagine living each day as if it were true.

Join us next week as we focus on Psalm 139:14-16 in “Fearfully and wonderfully made.”

The Great Divide

Part 4 of The Second Coming series, by Rosie Moore.

Jesus gives us a glimpse of his full majesty and mission in the last eschatological parable recorded by Matthew. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, we see that Christ’s return will be in stark contrast to the humble scene of his birth in Bethlehem, ‘while shepherds watched their flocks by night’. The second coming will usher in the final judgment, when Christ the King will separate the nations of the world, like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The parable is about the great divide between two contrasting groups, the boundary between life and death.

Final judgment is the ultimate goal of history, when the Lord’s majesty, justice and mercy will be on full display.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matt 25:31-46)

Three aspects of the final judgment struck me most in this parable:

  1. Only two identities will separate humanity.
  2. The mark of Christ’s sheep is their love for one another.
  3. Judgment day is the only rational basis for justice in this world.

1. Only two identities

If you’re a city dweller, you may be confused about Christ’s analogy of sheep and goats. Sheep and goats look similar, but being raised as a farm girl, I can assure you that they are very different animals!

Sheep have wool and goats have hair. Sheep tails point down and goat tails point up. Sheep are grazers, while goats are browsers that tend to eat everything in sight. Sheep have a strong flocking instinct and follow their shepherd, while goats are more independent.

In Jesus’ time, shepherds allowed their sheep and goats to graze together in the day, but at night they would divide them into two separate groups, as their coats provided different levels of protection against the cold. In case you’re wondering, there’s nothing inherently good or bad about sheep and goats. They’re all delightful creatures, doing exactly what God made them to do. But Jesus used them as a useful picture of two different animals with distinct characteristics and destinies.

Jesus tells his disciples that on the final day, there will be a great divide of humanity unlike anything the world has seen. He will separate the nations on the basis of two identities—Sheep and goats, the righteous and the unrighteous. There is nothing fluid about these identities. They are binary.

Nor will the Lord ask on that day, “What would you prefer to identify as today—a sheep or a goat?” Since sheep and goats are separate species, we cannot choose or alter our identity on that day. Since they have different DNA, a sheep can never become a goat, and vice versa.

Moreover, the destinies of the sheep and goats are also in stark contrast: The blessed and the cursed. Those who are invited to come into God’s kingdom and those who are told to depart. Those who inherit an eternal kingdom prepared for them since the world’s creation, and those who go to eternal punishment. The sheep on the right hand of the King (a position of honour and privilege) and the goats on the left. Outcomes are based entirely on whether people are sheep are goats.

Some argue that this parable is about believers’ rewards or doing good works to escape judgment, but it is difficult to see how this is possible. There is no hybrid identity or destiny in this parable. So if we care about what Jesus is saying, it’s crucial to define our terms. Who do the “sheep” represent?

Scripture consistently identifies God’s redeemed people as his sheep. For example, believers often say together the words of David,

Know that the Lord, he is God!
    It is he who made us, and we are his;
    we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture (Ps 100:3).

In John 10, Jesus identified Himself as the good shepherd promised by the prophet Ezekiel—the one who would rescue his flock and judge between people (Ezek 34:2223). Jesus claimed to be God’s Shepherd who knows his sheep and calls them each by name, who leads them out and gives them abundant life (John 10:310). He lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:1114).

Jesus himself said that He is gathering his sheep from every nation into one flock and one sheepfold (John 10:16). These are the sheep from every nation who will inherit Christ’s future kingdom (Matt 25:34-36).

And so, the ‘sheep’ in Christ’s parable can only be those who know His voice and follow him as their own Shepherd (John 10:4). The sheep are those who enter the safety of the sheep pen via the door, who is Christ himself (John 10:912-13). They do not find some alternative way to climb in.

“I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:9). And so, it is only by repentance and faith in Christ that we become His sheep– Jews and Gentiles alike (Matt 4:17Acts 20:21).

Isn’t it amazing to think that Christ knows his sheep from every nation on earth, through every generation of history? He will not have to be introduced to his people. He will call out each one by name on the final day of judgment. And God’s sheep will follow their Shepherd all the way into the new creation—a kingdom of justice and righteousness. There, they will find eternal shelter in His presence:

“They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore, the sun shall not strike them nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev 7:16-17)

2. The mark of Christ’s sheep.

Care and compassion for spiritual siblings are spontaneous instincts of Christ’s sheep, as irrepressible as huddling in a flock, grazing on grass or drinking from a stream. On the other hand, carelessness and callousness reveal the heart of a hypocrite.

It’s evident from the parable that Christ is not judging the nations on the basis of their charity, but on the basis of their identity (Matt 25:33). Since Scripture cannot contradict itself, we can be sure that we are always saved by grace, through faith in Christ, not by our works. Nothing changes on the day of judgment (Eph 2:8-9Rom 11:6).

But the King’s response in Matthew 25:40 and 45 are striking statements about the distinctive DNA of Christ’s people. True disciples will be known for their intuitive, unselfconscious charity towards their brothers and sisters in Christ– “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine”. And we need not guess what Christ meant, because He defined his ‘brothers and sisters’ in the spiritual sense (Matthew 12:46-50.)

So, in this parable, Jesus is not describing a generic compassion for all in need (which is also a good thing), but is highlighting the special kind of love that flows naturally out of his followers when they see their spiritual family in need– whether hungry, thirsty, unclothed, sick or in prison. We need only think of the many persecuted Christians around the world, as well as those close to us who are facing troubles, to know that ministries of mercy and compassion are really needed in Christ’s Church. It’s what identifies us as God’s people.

Remarkably, Christ identifies so deeply with the Church—his body—that whatever was done by the sheep, or omitted by the goats, was done to Him too. This bond is illustrated by Christ’s High Priestly prayer where he asks his Father to create unity and love amongst his present and future followers (John 17:11212326).

Therefore, we can be sure that our Shepherd shares in the suffering and persecution of his Church today, the body for whom He died. It also stands to reason that Christ is greatly offended when believers hurt, lie and slander one another.

But when we minister to a fellow Christian who is grieving or needy, we are not performing some sort of ritual for Christ, nor earning brownie points for the day of judgment. Notice the genuine surprise of both the sheep and the goats at Christ’s verdict. They weren’t even aware of what they were doing when they acted or failed to act for his sake (Matt 25:37-3944).

This brotherly and sisterly love will always be the distinctive mark of a sheep waiting expectantly for Christ’s kingdom, because down-to-earth charity is the fruit of true faith (James 2:14-24).

“We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death.” (1 John 3:14).

3. The only basis for justice.

What’s clear from the parable of the sheep and the goats is that Final Judgment will be both a fearful and wonderful thing, as God will do what is right in the end, and all the world will know that it is just. Justice is a buzzword today, but the Bible tells us that God will establish perfect justice on earth.

Deep down in our hearts, most people long for justice to be done. The idea that there might be no judgment at all—that people might get away with gross evil, abuse, tyranny, corruption, theft, oppression, rape, child trafficking, genocide, violence, greed and murder —is sickening.

Every human cry for justice is based on the fact that we’re made in God’s image and we instinctively know the difference between right and wrong. The Lord’s judgment is a pledge that the Creator hears our cries for justice and will not ignore any injustice or sin. He will overthrow evil and put all things right. His throne is established on justice.

Seven hundred years before Christ’s parable, Isaiah prophesied that one day the righteous Messiah would establish justice on earth:

And he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
 but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked (Isaiah 11:1-4)

A few decades after the Lord’s death and resurrection, the Apostle John saw this apocalyptic vision of Christ the Judge:

“I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: King of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 19:11-16).

If we believe that history has no goal or purpose– that we are just the product of time and chance; that the fittest should survive and the weak should not; that there’s no final day of reckoning– then there cannot be a rational basis for applying justice in this world. There’s not even a logical foundation for right and wrong.

But Christ’s parable assures us that the day of reckoning is coming for all of us. We will either face judgment as a sheep, because Christ has absorbed the demands of justice on our behalf. Or we will face judgment as a goat, because we’ve not taken shelter in the Shepherd.

Christ’s redeemed people need not fear that day. It is a day of mercy, hope and blessing for his sheep. We are called his eternal heirs and siblings, not because we are better than others, but simply because Christ has absorbed God’s judgment in place of those who have placed their trust in Him. At the Reckoning, the sheep will be glorifying God because of His grace, nothing else.

The Good Shepherd has taken the punishment we deserve by laying down his life for his sheep. Isn’t it only natural that we would do the same for our brothers and sisters, as we wait for him to return?

This is the last devotion in a series on “The Second Coming”. If you’d like to read the previous three in this series, just click on the links below.

How to wait for Jesus

Part 4 of “The Second Coming” series. By Rosie Moore.

The key question asked in Matthew 24 and 25 is this: How do we wait for Jesus?

I’m much better at doing than waiting! Actually, one of my distinct childhood memories is waiting for my parents to arrive at the end of term to fetch me from boarding school and take me home. Sometimes they were late and I’d sit at my dormitory window longing and praying for their car to drive around the circle. It was hardly a traumatic experience, but it did reveal my impatient nature early on!

But when we look at Christ’s parables of the Ten Virgins and the Bags of gold, we see that believers are not expected to wait for Christ’s return like passengers standing idly at the taxi rank, or fiddling on our cellphones while waiting for an Uber. Christians are supposed to wait as stewards or trustees who know that they will give account to the Lord for their lives.

According to Jesus, His return at the end of the age will cause an irreversible division between people: One will be ready, while one will not (Matt 24:40-41). The wise bridesmaids will usher in the bridegroom with brightly lit lamps, while the foolish will scramble for oil in vain (Matt 25:1-13). Faithful servants will be working conscientiously in their Master’s household, while the wicked and lazy are abusing their positions (Matt 24:4649-51).

In Matthew 24 and 25, Jesus answers the key question of how to wait, using pictures and stories:

“Wait as those who don’t want to be surprised or shocked by your Master’s return (Matt 24:36-39). Wait as wise servants who are ready and expectant at all times, ‘because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you don’t expect him’ (Matt 24:42-44). Wait as those who know that your Master will be delayed a long time.” (Matt 25:13)

“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions” (Matt 24:45-47).

So how do believers wait for Jesus? Jesus told us to wait as stewards who must give account for our service. This is the point of the parable of the bags of gold, which we will focus on today.

The parable of the gold.

The parable of the gold bags builds on two previous stories Jesus told—the absentee house owner and the Ten Virgins (Matt 24:45-5125:1-13). It’s important to place it in this context.

Last week, in “The Midnight Cry”, we saw that the only way to prepare for Christ’s future return is to accept His gospel invitation now, by faith. The folly of the five virgins was not merely that they were forgetful or negligent. They were foolish because they expected to be admitted to the wedding banquet while utterly unprepared to meet Christ as their Bridegroom. They did not know Christ or the holiness that only the Bridegroom can impart (Matt 25:12). And so, without ‘oil’ in their lamps, they were gatecrashers in God’s kingdom.

No small fortune.

The parable of the bags of gold (also known as the talents) rests on three assumptions already established in the parable of the ten virgins: The Lord’s return will be 1) after a long time, 2) at an unexpected time, and 3) only those who know Christ personally will be prepared to meet Him on that day.

The parable is about three slaves commissioned by their Master to invest some of his huge fortune while he is away. Because it’s usually called the parable of the talents, I often pictured ‘talents’ as human gifts, like a little toolkit of personal strengths or spiritual gifts that God has given to each person. While this is true, it misses the meaning of the Greek word ‘talenton’ in the parable.

A single talenton was a measure of money worth about six thousand denarii, roughly twenty years of wages, or around one million US dollars in today’s terms! A single ‘talenton’ of gold was the most valuable measure of all, worth many millions of dollars. And so, for an average South African, a single talenton would be worth more than a lifetime’s earnings. Imagine a room full of gold bars!

So, when the Master entrusted his slaves with five, two and one ‘talents’, he didn’t just toss them a few coins to invest on the Jerusalem Stock Exchange! They were commissioned to invest a massive fortune belonging to the Master, “each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey” and “returned after a long time” (Matt 25:1519).

Once we understand the value of the talenton, it’s clear that the property owner demonstrated shocking benevolence towards his slaves, giving them liberal latitude and responsibility when he “entrusted his wealth to them.” He expected them to step up to the plate; to actively buy and build businesses, farms, bakeries, mills, wells and fishing boats.

Although slavery in the first century was very different to the African slave trade, this liberal stewardship given to a slave would have stunned Jesus’s hearers. These three slaves were expected to use their discretion and skill to build buildings; to be enterprising and strategic in their planning, and to employ people in the name of the Master, over a long period of time. They were not commanded to wait passively for their Master to return.

When we think of what this stewardship implied, let’s remember that in those days, there was no online trading from the comfort of high-rise offices, no robots like Blackrock’s “Aladdin” to compute failsafe investment algorithms! They were expected to take calculated risks and work diligently, as they invested millions and millions of their Master’s wealth.

Moreover, each slave was individually responsible to multiply and improve his Master’s assets until the settling of accounts. Like the ten virgins, accounts were not settled as a collective.

This is how the slaves responded to their Master’s commission and this is how the Master responded when he settled accounts with them:

Settling accounts

“The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’

21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’

23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matt 25:16-30)

From this parable, there are at least two practical implications of what it means to wait for Christ’s return.

  1. Improve our Master’s assets.

Don Carson points out that there is no sin in the quiet pride of the first two slaves. They simply know that they’ve worked hard and invested wisely with what was “entrusted” to them” by doubling their capital (Matt 25:2022). There is nothing narcissistic about knowing that they have increased their Master’s assets.

The first two slaves recognise that the Lord assigned them their place in the world “each according to their ability”. They take no credit, nor feel shame, for their initial loan, because it was the Master’s wealth to distribute as he pleased. They understand that they are stewards, not owners of what God has given them.

And so, as faithful stewards, we’ll joyfully embrace our role as Christ’s slaves. Our job is not to create a name or legacy for ourselves, but for Him and His kingdom. We have the freedom to be industrious and creative wherever God has placed us, so there is dignity and individuality in this role.

As faithful stewards, we recognize and improve whatever the Lord has put into our hands by his providence — Time, education, money, gifts and skills, mentors, good health, living in a country where we still have religious freedoms; being raised in a Christian family; having a local church where we can serve and support others; owning a home or business. We are alert and put all this to work for His kingdom.

This parable opens our eyes to the vast bag of treasure God has placed in our hands to steward. Do you long for him to say, “Well done, my good and faithful slave? Come and share in your Master’s happiness!”

  1. Work as if it matters.

The foolish virgins failed because they thought their part in the Groom’s return was unimportant, so they made no provision for it.  But the wicked, lazy slave failed, not because he had one talenton, but because he thought his part was too hard and unfair. His disdain and resentment towards God is palpable, so that even what he had was taken from him.

It’s ironic that the lazy slave refused to serve his Master, who was stunningly generous towards him in the first place. This was Christ’s accusation of the Pharisees, but there are still many ministers of the gospel and pretenders today who are lazy and disinterested in their commission.

Instead of working for the Master’s eye, they exploit and mislead people for their own ends, building their own kingdoms of wood, hay and stubble, living as if they’ll never account to Christ for their work. They treat their stewardship with contempt and live like God is a cruel taskmaster.

But the ‘waiting’ of a faithful steward means ‘working’ as if it matters. The first slave was alert and “went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more.” Instead of taking his commission casually, he was a gutsy entrepreneur for his Master. His accountability and loyalty drove him to action.

Our work matters, because the way we serve God today prepares us for eternity. Work takes many shapes and forms in this world, but when Christ returns, He will set up a fruitful Kingdom on the new earth, filled with diligent, responsible, joyful, persevering, creative workers! (Revelation 22:1-21)

It will be labour minus the fatigue, frustrations, jealousies, failures, bankruptcies, redundancies, discouragements and negative cash flow of much of our work, marred by sin. And every precious person we have led into the Kingdom will be there to share it with us.

When the Lord returns and the accounts are finally settled, faithful stewards will be given more responsibilities and will share in our Master’s happiness. What an inconceivable reward for our labours!

“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.” (Revelation 22:12)