Vital Stats

Yes, I know – you can prove anything with statistics – yet sometimes they can highlight important trends, indicate patterns we should be aware of, flag up issues that need to be addressed. A good example is a recent survey of the views of young people conducted by the magazine Premier Youthwork. Some very interesting results were obtained in this survey of 293 young people, almost 95% of whom were professing Christians.

Of course in seeking to learn lessons for ourselves, we have to take into account that those polled were English, but the truth is that spiritually the gap between Northern Ireland and ‘the mainland’ in spiritual matters is narrower than we would like to admit. The days when people here could console themselves with the vision of Northern Ireland as a little oasis of Christian faithfulness in the midst of a sea of spiritual darkness are long gone – if you doubt me, I’ll take you for a dander round the streets of Belfast. On a recent door-to-door outreach scarcely one in ten of the locals made any kind of claim to a church link, however tenuous. Some Ulster evangelicals need a reality check.

What about the survey results? For a start, as far as denominational affiliation was concerned, 10.8% were ‘Don’t know’ and 11.9% were ‘Don’t care’, with another 12.3% not fitting at all into the very wide range of classifications on offer. It confirms what is a significant trend in church life, especially among younger Christians: commitment to a denomination is generally very weak. Increasingly a church is not chosen because of the label it carries, but for other reasons, including its style of worship, the quality of its teaching, the warmth of its fellowship. We have to recognise that fewer and fewer will come to us or stay with us just because we are ‘Reformed Presbyterians’. Far more is needed. And indeed to most people in our communities the label is meaningless.

Encouragingly, 78% of those surveyed attend church weekly and another 12.3% twice a month. A smaller percentage (64.1%) attend a youth group with the same frequency. There is a striking contrast in their attitudes to the two gatherings. Given five options and allowed to choose one, just under half (49.2%) described youth group as ‘a fun place to be’ and the almost the same percentage (46.34%) described church as ‘a place to connect with God’. Surely there are lessons here both with regard to church life (why do more not see church as a place to connect with God?) and also with regard to youth work (why do only 15.2% regard it as a place to connect with God?)

On matters of belief, there are majorities for acceptance of statement such as ‘Hell is a real place’ and ‘You get to heaven by believing in Jesus’, whilst few accept that ‘Everyone goes to heaven’ or ‘If you believe in any kind of God we could go to heaven’. The fact that by no means all hold to biblical positions on these key issues should warn us of danger ahead, however. Part of the explanation for such variable commitment to foundational doctrines may be found in the fact that 50% of the young people who identified as Christians don’t read their Bible more than once a month and only a third read it a couple of times a week or more. Those are frightening statistics. They seem to support the impression we have that many Christians, young and not so young, are seeking God’s voice in all kinds of experiences rather than in his revealed Word. The inevitable result is weak commitment to divine truth. We of course need to be on our guard that we do not become ‘all head and no heart’ – an accusation often levelled at Reformed churches and sometimes not without justification – but our emphasis on Bible teaching is healthy and attractive to those who come to see the shallowness of making experiences our spiritual guide.

There’s more of interest in the survey: as far as what is deemed most important in a church, the results were 1. An experience of God, 2. Community, 3. Teaching, 4. Social action and 5. Evangelism. Evangelism only fifth! A father’s attending church is a stronger indicator that the children will attend church than a mother’s attending. 83% of Christian young people think sex is only for marriage (although their practice may be different), but only 36% think homosexuality is a sin. That last statistic indicates where one of the future battles in the churches will be fought, and indeed is being fought now.

We could, of course walk away, giving thanks that ‘we are not as others’, but that would be both complacent and foolish. For one thing, we are just one part of the Christian Church and we need to understand the environment in which we, and in particular our young people are living. We might also hope that the same survey conducted within our congregations would yield rather better results, but maybe we shouldn’t be too sure after all.

Judgment Day

It must be true! It was on the front of The Times – JUDGMENT DAY. How could we have missed it? Where were the cataclysms, the fire, the floods, the earthquakes, the turmoil? It all seemed strangely quiet. How could the Day of Judgment have come and gone and we didn’t notice? Surely it must be the most unmissable event ever – or have we got it all wrong?

Well, we haven’t. The Judgment Day of The Times had nothing to do with the climax of the history of the present world. The day in question was 7 May, the day of the general Election. The judgment was not the final verdict of the Judge of all the earth, but the judgment of the British electorate, or at least the portion of it that bothered to go to a polling station and register its choice (or send in its postal ballot, before someone points that out!). Whatever we may think of the result, the judgment in question is unlikely to have eternal consequences. Promises will be broken in the customary way, pledges will be forgotten, commitments will be found to be undeliverable in the light of changed circumstances, but in five years the whole process will begin again. I’m sure you can hardly wait.

The idea of an actual Judgment Day that will signal the end of history as we know it is to many people utterly incredible. Biblical language may be borrowed by political commentators who speak of the Ajockalypse (the surge of the Scottish National Party) and of Armacleggon (the demise of Nick Clegg’s leadership of the LibDems), but it’s no more than verbal cleverness that draws on memories of a culture once shaped by Christian truth. If there is no God to call anyone to account, then by definition there can be no Judgment Day. Even if there is a God, the common view indicates that he is a generous, understanding deity, easily satisfied with sincere effort to be a decent human being, not making unreasonable demands that nobody could ever fulfil. How could he ever condemn those who did their best? We wouldn’t – why would God? In the easy-going pluralistic culture in which we live, all roads lead to God, one way is just as good as the rest, and tolerance is the great virtue.

Only it isn’t like that.

As Paul told the philosophers of the Areopagus in Athens, God ‘has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead’ (Acts 17:31). The mockery and incredulity (and misunderstanding) of many in Paul’s audience were probably not so very different from the reaction we encounter today, but the truth remains the truth. There will indeed be a Judgment Day.

Forget the excesses of some Christian art, with demons gleefully torturing the damned. Chief among the condemned will be Satan and his cohorts, the objects of God’s righteous judgment, not the executioners of it. All men and women will appear before the Judge who has all the evidence and who evaluates it according to the standard of his own infinite holiness. There will be no miscarriages of justice, and refusal to recognise this court impossible. All who are still in their natural sinful condition, ‘in Adam’ (1 Corinthians 15:22), will experience eternal death, separation from God and all that is holy, in conscious endurance of the Lord’s righteous wrath. That is what a life lived without regard to the one true God merits. It is curious, and a relic of the image of God, that many recognise there are sins which deserve such consequences (perhaps murder, the violation of children), yet who carefully draw the line before any of their own failings are taken into account. Yet all are guilty of the greatest sin: living without God. There will be no escape.

How could anyone rejoice at the prospect of the Judgment Day? According to Psalm 96 the entire creation rejoices before the Lord ‘for he comes to judge the earth’ (v13). In particular he ‘will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness.’ A vital element of God’s judgment will be the vindication of his people and the completion of their salvation. All the blessings purchased by Christ, including the resurrection of the body and the rewarding of faithful service, will be conferred on those who are ‘in Christ’ by God’s grace. Believers are righteous in Christ and the faithful Judge will declare to the entire universe that they indeed are righteous in his sight. All the glory for their salvation will be his and they will be with the Lord for ever in the new creation, ‘where righteousness dwells’ (2 Peter 3:13), a joyful prospect indeed!

No doubt about it

The Bible has had a profound effect on the English language, as it has had on many other languages. Words, phrases, characters and incidents have found their way into common usage, even when their biblical origins have been forgotten. Hence we have Job’s comforters, the Good Samaritan, pride goes before a fall, and many others. Sadly, as biblical illiteracy increases, fewer and fewer people will realise how much biblical content there is in the language they speak.

One character who has come into general speech is ‘doubting Thomas’, the disciple who refused to believe that Jesus had really risen from the dead unless he had hard physical evidence, unless he could actually touch the nail prints in his hands and the spear wound in his side. John 20:26-29 records what happened.

For some reason Thomas had been absent when the Lord had appeared to the other disciples (v24), and when they relate joyfully that ‘We have seen the Lord’, Thomas does not respond with joy or thankfulness. Instead he demands personal, physical evidence before he accepts the truth of the resurrection. He is often presented nowadays as a kind of ‘saint for our times’, a no-nonsense, common sense man who refused to believe wild speculations without hard evidence. Shouldn’t we all be more like that, especially in our sceptical age? For some, that would weed out a lot of the silliness they associate with Christianity (indeed, with religion in general).

When we read John’s account, however, it is clear that Thomas is not held up as any kind of example for us to imitate. In fact he did have ample evidence for belief. He had Jesus’ repeated promises that he would rise from the dead (Mark 8:31 is only one example), yet Thomas would not accept the Lord’s word. Added to that he had the Old Testament Scriptures (mentioned in v9), clearly revealing the fact of the Messiah’s triumph over death, and he had the eyewitness testimony of his fellow disciples.

What more did he need? He needed nothing more, but he demanded proof on his own terms. That is the problem with Thomas. It’s not that he didn’t have evidence, if he were willing to accept it, but he wanted it on his own terms, to satisfy his own demands. And yet how gentle Jesus was with him! When he appears again a week later, the Lord does not rebuke Thomas, as he sometimes rebuked people who wanted evidence on their own terms (John 4:48). Instead he allows Thomas to feel the nail prints and the spear wound for himself. In love and grace the Lord is bringing this doubting sceptic to real saving faith, and what the Lord is doing is for the benefit of Thomas and for the benefit of readers two millennia later.

There could be no doubt that Jesus has undergone a physical resurrection. This is the same body that was laid in the tomb. The tomb is now empty – nobody can dispute that – and all other explanations are unconvincing. Jesus’ command is blunt: ‘Stop doubting and believe’ (v27). Here is one fact of history that demands a personal response, a life-changing response.

For Thomas there can be only one response: ‘My Lord and my God’ (v28). The whole of John’s Gospel has really been leading up to this point. Here is Thomas’ confession of faith in the crucified and risen Christ. In a moment, by God’s grace and the powerful working of the Holy Spirit, Thomas moves from unbelief to saving faith. His language is a profound testimony to the true identity of the Risen One. Thomas, good Jew that he is, uses the covenant name of God (‘My Lord’) and couples it with a confession of the Lord’s deity in the most unmistakable terms (‘my God’). The One who was crucified and buried is risen, he is Lord and God. Thomas acknowledges Jesus for who he truly is: anything less in fact dishonours him.

In response to Thomas’ confession the Lord gives us a profound promise: ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ The promise of blessing is to all who, by the grace of God, have come to faith in Christ without the physical evidence that Thomas was afforded. The Saviour has in view his church in all ages to come. The physical body of the Lord is no longer available for inspection, but we have the inspired testimony of the apostles: ‘these [things] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’ (v31). On the basis of the evidence there is only one fitting conclusion: ‘My Lord and my God.’

United to Christ

The devil loves to divide. We see it right back in Eden, where he divided man from his Creator, husband from wife, man from the very ground beneath his feet. It was just the start of a long career of causing strife, conflict and division in the human race, having already stirred rebellion in the heavenly host. And so it has gone on. Wherever the devil is at work there is division – political, social, familial, psychological, religious. At root it is because he himself is a rebel, separating himself from his Creator and Lord, setting up his own dominion in defiance of the King of the entire creation. In all he does his aim is to lever men and women away from their proper allegiance to God and into commitment to his evil empire.

God, however, is a God of unity – unity in diversity, but unity none the less. As a Trinity, God himself is a unity in diversity. The great proclamation at the heart of Israel’s religion was, ‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.’ The uniqueness and the unity of God was fundamental to the Old Testament revelation. Even in the Old Testament, however, there were indications of a plurality within God that did not compromise his unity. The creating Word of God in Genesis 1 and the figure of the Angel of the LORD who speaks as God are but two examples.

In the New Testament the testimony to the oneness of God is just as clear, whilst the indications of his triune nature become so much clearer. Indeed the son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity takes human flesh and walks among men. Here in visible form is the Word who was with God and who was God according to John 1:1. In the Triune God unity and plurality are brought together in perfect harmony.

The salvation provided by this incarnate Son is also to be understood fundamentally in terms of uniting the divided by the grace and power of God. The most comprehensive way of describing salvation is in the language of union with Christ. There was an ungodly union with Adam in his sin, bringing a curse on all mankind, but there is also a holy, saving union with Christ that brings life in fellowship with God and restoration of the image of God that was defaced in the Fall. As Paul sums it up, ‘For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.’ (1 Corinthians 15:22).

Christ as the representative of those whom the Father gave him in eternity (John 17:2) lived a life of perfect obedience, died a death as the bearer of all the consequences of sin and rose in triumph, all in the place of those who deserved divine condemnation and eternal punishment. Christ has become to those who are in him ‘our righteousness, holiness and redemption’ (1 Corinthians 1:30). Everything we need in order to be saved and become children of God is already provided in him. There we have the justification, adoption and sanctification that God, by the working of the Holy Spirit, will grant to those he brings to new life and saving faith.

Those who are saved are united to Christ in his death and resurrection, as if they had lived the life of perfect obedience, died the atoning death and risen in victory. It is an awe-inspiring truth. It is for this reason that Paul, for example, can say in Galatians 2:20 ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.’ The whole Christian life is lived ‘in Christ’.

There is a precious spiritual union between the Lord and his people and as a result they are united to one another. This is expressed, for example, in the language of the one body with many parts that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 12. The diversity of God’s people, which mirrors the glorious richness of the Creator in whose likeness they are being remade, is not obliterated by grace. Indeed it is in their union with Christ that they become most fully, by the work of the Spirit, all that they can be as unique individuals. Fundamentally, however, they are one in Christ. That union is a fact of grace, not the result of human effort. It should be expressed visibly where possible, as the Saviour indicates in John 17, but it is nevertheless a fact.

The Triune God produces unity among his people, reflecting the unity in diversity of God himself. To fracture the visible expression of that unity in the Church for anything less than the preservation of gospel truth is a grave sin which profoundly dishonours the Lord.

All grace provided

30 years in the gospel ministry – it makes you think! Reaching that milestone in 2014 certainly had that effect on me. A fellow minister, a close friend, has arrived at exactly the same point, and so inevitably we compare notes, usually questions of the ‘Where did those years go?’, ‘Why do I look so much younger than you?’ and ‘What did we achieve in that time?’ variety. On a good day we can usually avoid mournful ramblings about how different things are nowadays, how much better it used to be, and how small Wagon Wheels and Walnut Whips have become. On a bad day…ah well! That’s a different story!

For someone like myself, at the edge of the outskirts of the suburbs of extremely early middle age, 30 years in the job comes as something of a shock. Some things bring home the reality quite forcefully – preparing for the ordination to the ministry of the first baby I baptised all those years ago in Ballylaggan is only one of them (although, of course, it will be a tremendous privilege, and he isn’t a baby any longer!), and by the time you read this, it should be history too.

Some people do, of course, live in the past most of the time. All they can think about are old achievements, old successes, old grievances, old failures. They seem to become stuck at a certain point and are never able to move on. The old days – good or bad – come to define who they are, and the opportunities and challenges of today pass them by. It’s a danger that even churches need to guard against, living on the strength of past glories, fighting the same old battles of the past.

As the Bible often indicates, however, there is a proper place for looking back, not to stir foolish pride or futile regrets, but to learn from God’s providential dealings with ourselves and others. It is in this spirit that Samuel, setting up the stone Ebenezer, stated, ‘Thus far has the Lord helped us.’ (1 Samuel 7:12). 30 years of ministry offer many examples of the Lord’s helping his people, often through times of trial, sometimes in situations of failure or disappointment, and always for his glory and the advancement of the sanctification of believers and the spread of the gospel. As God reveals himself in his works of providence, assuring us of his sovereign direction of all events and circumstances, our trust in him should be strengthened and our love for him increased. Truly he never fails us or forsakes us.

We are not to look back simply for nostalgia’s sake. Although we must always look back with thankfulness for the Lord’s goodness, we are also required to look forward with faith and confidence for the future. By God’s grace and the enabling of his Holy Spirit we can say with Paul, ‘My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:19). For the Christian that is the secret of facing the future – not confidence in ourselves, but faith in our heavenly Father. Christ Jesus is the key. Already the Father has given us the greatest gift, his own Son, for our salvation. In the light of that glorious fact, we have this assurance: ‘He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not with him graciously give us all things?’ (Romans 8:32).

We have no idea what his plans for us will entail, but the grace we need will never be lacking. That is a great reassurance, since inevitably hard experiences will come. Christians are not spared many of the consequences of living in a fallen world, and commitment to Christ brings the additional trials of spiritual warfare against a ruthless enemy. Nevertheless we have the certainty that full provision has already been made in Christ by a Father who governs all that will come to us, with infinite love and power. We have a source of hope and of peace that are impossible outside of Christ. It is no credit to us: it is all by God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

Where are you going?

It makes sense. If you set out on a journey not knowing your destination, you will get lost. Not even the most accurate SatNav will save you from that embarrassment. If you don’t really know where you are going, how can you hope to arrive safe and sound?

You don’t need to be Einstein to figure that out with regard to car travel, but it’s a truth that has wider application. The Bible sometimes describes the spiritual life of the people of God in the language of a journey. We set off at conversion, with our first experience of the saving grace of God, we continue through the lifespan God allots by the same divine grace, and ultimately we arrive at our destination, still totally dependent on grace. But where are we going?

Before we pass into the glory God has prepared for his people, we surely want to reach the place where Paul found himself at the end of his life of service. Not a prison cell, of course, although for some of our brothers and sisters across the world that is exactly where they will find themselves. No, our goal is rather to be able to identify with Paul’s estimation of his life and ministry recorded in 2 Timothy 4:7-8, some of the most moving words in the entire Bible. Here is the place we seek to reach when the journey is done.

‘I have fought the good fight’. The word Paul uses refers to a sporting contest rather than to a military engagement. Perhaps he had in mind the wrestling matches that were so popular in the ancient world. The whole Christian life is a contest, a striving towards definite goals. Paul uses the term from which we derive the word ‘agony’: ‘I have agonised the good agony’, he says. Of course there are times of wonderful blessing and joy in the Christian life, but it is not a gentle stroll in the park, no matter how strong our faith. Jesus warned his disciples that in the world they would experience ‘tribulation’ (John 16:33), and it has always been so. The Christian journey requires our very best, using all our gifts and strength, in a spirit of self-denial.

It is also essential, however, to note Paul’s comment in Colossians 1:29 when he refers to ‘struggling with all his energy’. God provides the strength we are to draw on and we must travel in constant dependence on him. To do otherwise is a recipe for disaster. And it is, Paul says, a ‘good’ fight, using a word that suggests nobility and beauty. There is a spiritual beauty about the Christian life, however mystifying that thought is to the watching world. By God’s grace something beautiful is being created as he gradually conforms his children to the likeness of his firstborn Son.

‘I have finished the race’. The language of a race indicates the need for effort if the goal is to be attained. There is no place for self-centredness or self-indulgence in the Christian life. As the writer to the Hebrews says, we must ‘lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely’ (Hebrews 12:1). It is ridiculous to contemplate running the race with the billowing robes of sin and self-absorption wrapping themselves around us, yet how often we try.

Thankfully the picture of a race reminds us that there is a planned course set before us: we are not left to blunder along at random. It is supremely comforting as we engage with the challenges of running to know that our sovereign God, in his love and wisdom, has mapped out the specific course each of us will follow, leaving nothing to the vagaries of chance. Thus we are comforted in our struggles and trials. This is God’s assigned race for us.

‘I have kept the faith’. By God’s grace Paul had been faithful to his commission and had passed on the deposit of divine truth uncorrupted. Many forces still try to deflect God’s people from wholehearted commitment to the truth revealed in Scripture, and the pressure will more than likely increase in the coming years. God’s people, especially his pastors and teachers, must not waver in their adherence to what is, after all, ‘the word of life’ (Philippians 2:16). What else do we have to offer a perishing world?

God is truly no man’s debtor. As Paul knew, grace would bring him safely home: ‘Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness’. Faithful service will not lack God’s reward. Our destination is clear and the means to arrive safely provided. We need no more.

Not like other men

It would be dangerously easy.

Just look at what is happening in society around us. The legalisation of ‘gay marriage’. Increasing pressure for acceptance of physician-assisted suicide, along with the inevitable redefinition of the role of doctors in relation to seriously ill patients. An acceptance of three-parent children – the products of techniques resulting from amazing advances in genetics. These developments – and more – show how far the nation has drifted from even a token acknowledgement of biblical ethical standards, standards which once were accepted almost without question even by those not personally committed to the Christian faith. Even in a conservative place like Northern Ireland, the same trends are evident, and as one local politician, himself a Christian, commented in a recent conversation: if the decisions here on moral issues were being made by the under 25s, the Christian position would lose every time.

It would be dangerously easy in circumstances like these to slip, or even leap, into self-righteousness. It can seem so obvious that those who hold to biblical standards are ‘better’ than others. They have not capitulated to the forces of evil. They have held the line. They have been faithful. Surely they must be spiritually superior to others and God must be pleased with them. And if we are honest, sometimes it’s not ‘they’ who are self-righteous – ‘we’ are. Though we might never say it out loud, in our hearts we may echo the Pharisee’s address to God, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evil-doers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector’ (Luke 18:11).

It’s sobering to see ourselves in the mirror of the Pharisees. Here were men who knew and loved the law of God, who could recite vast tracts of it from memory, who loved to discuss the practicalities of its application. These were men who took the greatest of care to observe the regulations for life that God had given, and in meticulous detail. They hated the sins that they could see around them and would have been at the forefront of campaigns to preserve moral standards. All well and good, but there was one fatal flaw: they ‘trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt’ (Luke 18:9).

That was the Pharisees’ problem. They did not really look at their hearts and so recognise their true spiritual condition. Considering only the sins visible outwardly, most could tell themselves that, since they were not doing those things, they were moral, even godly, people, people who satisfied God’s requirements. The truth, however, was powerfully exposed by Jesus: ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ (Mark 7:6). They were sinners, just as much as any tax collector, even if their sins were ‘respectable’ or hidden. In fact, if they had really given due attention to the demands of God’s law, they would have found their hearts being searched and their sin exposed, because, as Jesus showed in the Sermon on the Mount, the law addresses the heart.

It is dangerously easy to settle for the outward, a lot less uncomfortable, and yet the result is a self-righteousness that is offensive to God and that is also repulsive to the watching world. Many non-Christians are convinced that Christians are self-righteous hypocrites: sadly they sometimes don’t have to look far for the evidence.

The only solution is to focus on the glorious grace of God that brought Christ to die for us ‘while we were still sinners’ (Romans 5:8), sinners who apart from grace would never have been any different. We need to recognise that the answer to Paul’s question, ‘What do you have that you did not receive?’ (I Corinthians 4:7) is ‘Nothing’. We never accumulate merit before God: we will always be totally dependent on grace. We are not to be silent or inactive regarding the great moral and spiritual battles being fought out around us, but we must engage in them in a humble spirit, dependent on grace and free from self-righteousness. They we really will not be like other men, and God will have all the glory.

Are you happy?

Are you happy? For many people that’s the big question. We live in a society where often the highest value to pursue is happiness. The most significant goal in life, we are told, is the enjoyment of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. It’s not a new philosophy – a version of it was formulated by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus – but modern knowledge and technology offer so many more possibilities for pursuing it than ever before. The pursuit of happiness lies at the heart of much of the advertising industry. If you buy this car, this holiday, this gadget, this cosmetic, this snack, you will be a happier person, maybe even a better person. In Sydney, Australia, there is a ‘Happiness Institute’, whose approach to living is summed up in the slogan ‘Life’s too short not to be happy’. Among the ‘12 things you should start making time for…now!’ are, according to one of the Institute’s blogs, ‘taking better care of yourself’ and ‘Getting lost in playful exploration’. Plenty of good self-help advice about the road to greater happiness.

So why not? Who would willingly choose unhappiness? We’re not masochists, after all. Happiness isn’t to be despised, and yet when it becomes the centre of life, and indeed the driving force of a culture, there will be problems. Some psychologists and sociologists are beginning to sound an alarm about the ‘happiness society’ where the unpleasant aspects of life are denied, disguised, hidden away or ignored. They are suggesting that we are producing generations of people who are increasingly unable to cope with the hard experiences that life will inevitably bring – sadness, loss, disappointment, loneliness, fear. The idolising of happiness has resulted for many in an inability to face, for example, the grief that, sooner or later, will be their lot. They are ill-equipped for what lies ahead. The positive-thinking self-help industry has back-fired and left many with no resources when the hard times hit.

The Christian perspective, on this as on so many issues, is very different from what our culture accepts. In John 16:33 the Lord warns his disciples, ‘In the world you will have tribulation’. The word suggests pressure and crushing – the sensations experienced by those in the midst of trying experiences. The Lord’s disciples are warned that they will face hard times, and the New Testament, as well as Christian experience, demonstrates that Christians face all the ‘ordinary’ difficulties of life that are the lot of every human being and in addition the specific costs of discipleship, the ‘cross bearing’ that Christ speaks of on a number of occasions. The Christian’s perspective on life, far from being a rose-tinted escape from reality as it is often caricatured, is utterly clear-sighted and totally realistic. There is no pious hiding from the hard experiences, if we take Christ’s words seriously.

We are not left there, however. Christ goes on the give us words of hope and encouragement: ‘take heart: I have overcome the world.’ In the cross and the empty tomb the decisive victory has been won by the Saviour over all the forces that hold us in bondage. In union with him by faith we share in that victory which shapes all our thoughts and attitudes, and consequently our actions. The resources have been provided for dealing with the hard experiences that God in his providence sends to his people. We really do have ‘everything we need for life and godliness’ (2 Peter 1:3).
We are exhorted in James 1:2 to ‘count it all joy’ when we face all kinds of trials. Note ‘all joy’, not ‘all happiness’. The difference is significant. Happiness comes and goes. It depends on all kinds of factors both within ourselves and in outward circumstances. Joy, on the other hand, is the product of grace. It has as its focus the purpose of God that is being worked out in our testing experiences as he makes us more like his Son. It can coexist with pain, sorrow, loss, disappointment. The world cannot give joy nor can it take joy away. Happiness is not to be despised, but Christian joy equips us for life as it really is.

Who are you?

I don’t suppose it was much of a surprise that the talks facilitated by Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan failed to establish an agreement among Northern Ireland politicians on the contentious issues which have recently highlighted the deep divisions still festering in the Province. Is it too cynical to suggest that an agreement would have been more surprising than the current impasse? Certainly few of us needed to be told that there are still some things that have not changed in the years since the Good Friday Agreement.

Parades, flags and the past: three stumbling blocks that still have the potential to cause much conflict. A trip past the Loyalist protest camp in North Belfast, just across the roundabout from the Nationalists, any night of the week (that there isn’t a good football match on TV), will soon show the kind of problem that has to be addressed. And it isn’t simply a matter of sorting out the extremists of all political colours whose views might be dismissed as exceptional and not worth serious attention. What do we do about the past in Northern Ireland? Thousands of people bear the scars, physical and mental, of the violence that exploded into the national consciousness in 1968 and blazed on until 1998, and indeed has not entirely gone away even yet. Many have lost loved ones in hideous atrocities; others have suffered themselves as the result of profoundly evil actions. They carry burdens that they will never lay down as long as they live. Numerous others carry the guilt of involvement in inflicting suffering which no amount of denial can remove.

Establishing one’s identity and addressing the burdens of the past lie at the heart of much of the present deadlock. Is there anything that Christians can say that could contribute to a solution? At the political level there are some Christians involved in the discussion process, but they don’t necessarily agree with each other, and that’s before we take into account those who regard Christianity as part of the problem rather than the solution. Maybe a meaningful Christian contribution would offer perspectives that politics knows little about?

What is the most important element in our identity? Is it what political party we support (if any), what school we attended, which language we prefer, where our forefathers came from? None of those things is unimportant, but they all pale into insignificance in comparison to the question as to where we stand in relation to the God who created us. Are we in fellowship with him through faith in Christ or are we still steeped in the rebellion in which we were born? That’s fundamental to our identity. We were created for fellowship with God: until we have that relationship, by his grace, we are never going to understand who we are and what we are in this world for. If we do have that fellowship, we are God’s dearly loved children, and we can see that the things of this world that provide others with their sense of identity are not quite as significant as perhaps we once thought.

To be a member of God’s family through the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ also means that for us the past has been dealt with. God has forgiven our sin because of what Christ has done in taking our sin and its penalty upon himself at the cross. We are set free from guilt, we are reconciled to God and by the enabling of the Holy Spirit we can begin to forgive others. There is ultimately no other way to deal satisfactorily with the past. No political mechanism or piece of social engineering can change the human heart: only the grace of God can. Indeed had it not been the case that many who suffered terribly in the Troubles had experienced that life-changing grace themselves, the cycle of violent retaliation would probably have been much worse over the years. We might quibble over the theology of ‘forgiving’ those who have not repented, but the spirit of forgiveness that many showed points the way, God’s way, to dealing with the past.

In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul writes, ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.’ There is where we find the only identity that is of eternal significance and there too we find the answer to the past, in regard both to what we have done and to what has been done to us. It also offers a hope for the future that transforms daily living into loving service for the God who has saved us. Perhaps a motive to preach rather than parade?

Forsaken – for us

In a crisis it is a precious thing to have the support of those who love us. It makes even the worst situation easier to bear if we know we are not alone. The greatest comfort for the Christian is that God is with us, whatever the trial. Even when human help fails, as it sometimes will, we always have the presence of our loving heavenly Father to support us.

Hence it comes as a tremendous shock in reading the accounts of the death of Jesus, the one whom we believe to be, in a unique sense, the Son of God, to encounter the heart-rending words recorded in Matthew 27:46: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ These words are puzzling, disturbing, even frightening. What do they signify?

This cry from Jesus’ lips speaks starkly of his sense of abandonment. We must take it with full seriousness, not attempting to blunt its force as some well-meaning writers do. Jesus does not merely feel abandoned (whilst in fact he is not). In some sense the Saviour was truly forsaken. It is a heart cry that expresses the real agony of God-forsakenness. Jesus uses the words of Psalm 22 that vividly and prophetically depict extreme suffering and that are clearly fulfilled in what he now suffers. These words best express the Saviour’s experience.

Crucifixion entailed great physical and emotional pain. The body was wracked with pain as the victim slowly died of shock and suffocation. As he died he was exposed to the gaze of passers-by, shamed and humiliated. Jesus experienced all this suffering in full measure, but more is involved here. The deepest source of agony is his sense of being forsaken by God. Martyrs have died bravely because of a sense of God’s presence: Jesus cries out because of his sense of God’s absence.

There are, we have to recognise, mysteries here that we cannot fathom and probably never will. We have to maintain that his divine nature could not be abandoned by the Father, otherwise there would be an unthinkable division within the Trinity and the unity of God would be destroyed. It must be his human nature that experiences abandonment (although still upheld by the Spirit – Hebrews 9:14). In a real sense the Father turned his back on his beloved Son, withdrawing the sense of his presence. Note however that even in the depths Jesus still addresses him as ‘my God’, the one to whom he clings.

The fact that Father and Son love each other perfectly indicates that this God-forsakenness was essential to fulfil God’s purpose – nothing else could suffice. The New Testament shows that Jesus’ suffering was necessary to secure salvation for sinners. The wonder of God’s grace is seen here clearly, yet in the most unexpected place. On the cross Jesus was the sin-bearer. He who knew no sin was made to be sin for sinners like us (2 Corinthians 5:21). He was the substitute for sinners, the Lamb of God who was taking away the sin of the world (John 1:29). His cry of forsakenness tells us that at the cross Jesus was bearing sin and all its consequences on behalf of his people. He paid the price of redemption for those who deserved divine punishment. Paul’s words in Galatians 3:13 are very specific: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law’. Law-breakers are under the wrath and curse of a holy God. This was symbolised by the three hours of darkness at Calvary (v45). In that darkness Jesus took our curse upon himself. This involved abandonment by the God who cannot look on sin (Habakkuk 1:13). Though he never ceased to love his Son, the Father could not look upon him as he bore our curse. The pure soul of Jesus too was revolted by sin and was in agony at his abandonment, yet he ‘loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). He was a ‘propitiation’ (eg 1 John 4:10) – a sacrifice that turns away the wrath of God.

Note Hebrews 12:2 ‘for the joy set before him’. Jesus fulfilled the Father’s will and ‘obtained eternal redemption’ (Hebrews 9:12). Thus his enduring abandonment secured full salvation for his people. In particular the righteous demands of God’s law were satisfied and his wrath and curse were removed from us. Thus ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1). Jesus carried the entire burden of sin in the darkness of Calvary and we need have no fear of eternal wrath. Though God chastens us for sin, the punishment has been taken for us by Christ. Because Jesus suffered God-forsakenness, God now says to us ‘never will I forsake you’ (Hebrews 13:5), a truth to fill us with joy, thanksgiving and confidence in the Lord.