In faithfulness you have afflicted me

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75I know, O LORD, that you are righteous,
        and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.
76Let your steadfast love comfort me
        according to your promise to your servant.

Psalm 119:75-76

As some of you will know, I’ve been battling depression for the last couple of years. It has been a tough road, with causes for celebration as well as reasons for continued struggle, and it’s definitely not a path that’s far from finished. Even if you didn’t know that, I imagine you’ll have gathered at least from the header of this site that I’m a Christian, and so every step of the way so far has been taken in the context of a relationship with God. This has at times brought me both anguish and comfort: comfort from knowing simply that there is an all-powerful God who loves me and is looking out for me, but anguish in terms of trying to understand what on earth he’s really up to in all of this.

The verses I’ve quoted above some up for me the reasons why I still firmly believe that God (or to be more specific, Jesus) is a God worth putting one’s faith in, in the context of depression or bereavement or any other form of pain or trial may come to us in our life. I felt moved to share these verses, and I want to begin by making some observations about the nature of suffering from verse 75, before meditating on the appropriate response to suffering from verse 76.

Understanding suffering

Suffering is a massive topic, and there is undoubtedly more that could be said than what I’m saying here. My aim is simply to share with you the truths that these verses demonstrate, which do bring great encouragement during pain if we’re willing to believe them.

  1. God is righteous. ‘Righteousness’ is a Bible word for the quality of being morally right, or just or good. When the psalm writer affirms in the first line of v.75, “I know, O LORD, that you are righteous,” he is saying that he recognises that God is perfectly good, perfectly right, and perfectly just. This is an important truth to hang on to. If we were to believe in a God who wasn’t perfectly good, etc., then we would never be able to rely on him for support or help; there would be no reason for him to look out for our best interests at all. But, since God is righteous, everything he does is good, and so at the very least we can trust that God isn’t being cruel towards us during our times of suffering.
  2. God is sovereign. The writer of the psalm also recognises that “you [God] have afflicted me.” He acknowledges that it was God who allowed him to suffer (or perhaps he looks back on past suffering and acknowledges it). This truth is harder to accept than the first, but it is even more precious – let me try to show why. If God wasn’t responsible for the psalm writer’s affliction, then that implies that something or someone else was, and the implication then is that there is something out there with the power to do me harm which God is unwilling or unable to oppose.
    In that situation, God is no comfort at all; but as it is, whatever the immediate causes of our suffering are, God is sufficiently in control of all those factors so that the psalm writer can assert, “you have afflicted me.” If God is in control of my pain, then he is in a position to do something about it.
  3. God is faithful. I skipped a bit of verse 75 in the previous point. The psalm writer doesn’t just recognise that God is responsible for his affliction, but he actually says “in faithfulness you have afflicted me” – in other words, God’s decision to allow affliction to come my way is an expression of his faithfulness towards me. What does that mean? Faithfulness is the attitude of standing by one’s word, and keeping one’s promises. The psalmist would have had in mind places in the Bible like Exodus 34:6, where God announces himself as “a God merciful and gracious”. God has promised to always do good to his people (see Romans 8:28), and so in the second half of v.75 the psalm writer recognises that, if God is allowing him to suffer, then his suffering is a means by which God is keeping his promise to do good to him.

The third point is key, at least for me. “In faithfulness you have afflicted me.” Our natural reaction to suffering is to want to be rid of it – and that’s appropriate, to an extent. The world was not meant to incorporate suffering, but because of its brokenness due to sin suffering is a fact of life. However, Psalm 119:75 presents a liberating way of understanding pain: if God has afflicted me in faithfulness, in keeping with his promises to always do me good and to always be gracious and compassionate, then in times of suffering God is in fact actively working to make my life better. It isn’t just that God holds out the promise of joy and freedom at the end of suffering (although how wonderful that he does!), but that even in the midst of suffering God is actively on our side, working with our best interests at heart.

Responding to suffering

How should we respond when we do experience great pain or suffering then? In verse 76, the psalm writer prays, “Let your steadfast love comfort me according to your promise to your servant.” He is encouraged by the three truths that we’ve just seen – that God never does wrong, that God is in control, and that God is in the act of keeping his promises to him – and he responds by asking God to comfort him with those same truths. He asks for God’s “steadfast love” – his unwavering, never-changing, unhesitating commitment to do us good – to comfort him, and he asks that it would comfort him “according to your promise to your servant” – in other words, ‘You’ve always promised to comfort us whenever we’re in trouble, God, so please keep that promise now!’

He doesn’t always comfort us by bringing our pain to an end, but he comforts us by reassuring us that he’s constantly by our side in our pain, and that without a doubt God is using our pain to bless us further.

Jesus, the Only Door of the Sheep

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A sense of belonging

We all want to belong – the feeling of being ‘out of place’ or ‘unwanted’ can be one of the worst feelings in life. It could be as little as being missed off the invite list to a night out or as major as having to leave your country, but whatever the cause the feeling of exclusion hurts.

In John’s Gospel, we read in chapter 9 of a man who is thrown out of his synagogue for refusing to talk badly about Jesus. This man had been blind from birth and Jesus had healed him, but the Pharisees at the synagogue were unwilling to accept that Jesus was able to do such a thing, and so they interrogated the man and his parents, to find out what had ‘really’ happened. Finally, when they saw that the man wasn’t going to say what they wanted, they got angry with him and threw him out. Now, the synagogue was the place where Jews would meet together on a weekly basis to hear the Torah (Old Testament) explained and to pray – to be thrown out of the synagogue was essentially to be cut off from your town’s cultural and social life. The Pharisees had turned this man into an outcast because of what he’d said about Jesus.

Jesus tracked the man down after this, and reassured him that he had made the right choice; he tells the man exactly who he is, and the man worships Jesus. Jesus explains that he has come to give sight to the blind, and to take away the sight of the seeing (9:39) – that is, he will help sinners who recognise they can’t see God to come near him, and he will drive away the proud who claim to be able to see God fine by themselves. Some Pharisees are listening, and are offended at the suggestion that they too might be spiritually blind; Jesus condemns them, and then tells a parable to expand on what he’s saying:

 1“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. (John 10:1-6)

The sheepfold of God’s community

Jesus doesn’t explain his parable immediately, but in the context the “sheepfold” represents the community of those who belong to God – the community that the healed man would have felt exiled from. Jesus describes two sorts of people who try and get into this sheepfold: some who come in honestly, who are the rightful shepherds (v.2), and others who try and get in by dishonest means, because they intend to steal the sheep (v.1). The sheep follow the one who comes in by the gate, but they hide from those who climb over the fence (vv.3-5).

The Pharisees are stumped by the parable, and so Jesus identifies himself with two elements of it; he calls himself “the door of the sheep” (v.7) and the “good shepherd” (v.11). We’ll think about Jesus’ identity as the good shepherd in the next post, but here we’ll dwell on Jesus as the door of the sheep.

 7So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:7-10)

Let’s think on two implications of Jesus’ identity as the only real gate for the sheep.

1. Jesus is the only way into the community of God

The point that Jesus is making here is quite clear – he is the only honest way of entering into the community of faith. If you don’t come by Jesus, you’re a “thief and a robber” rather than a true member of this family.

This is a challenge for everyone, but I think Jesus’ words are especially directed to the Pharisees. Many times in the Old Testament, the religious leaders of the country were described as shepherds, guiding the people to God and looking after them (e.g. Num. 27:15-18, Jer. 23:1-4). Jesus compares the true shepherds who enter through the gate with the thieves who slip over the back wall, with a very clear implication: ‘You Pharisees are thieves and robbers, not genuine shepherds of God’s people.’ Instead of worshipping God themselves, and leading their communities to worship him, they followed selfish ambition; they “devour[ed] widow’s houses and for a show [made] lengthy prayers” (Luke 20:47). They weren’t real shepherds, because they didn’t reach their positions by following God – they were led by selfishness and greed.

Jesus is the only way to come into God’s community, and pastors can only claim authority over this community if they themselves come in by the gate and put Jesus first. Your pastor should clearly make showing you Jesus his first priority; if someone claims to be a Christian teacher but doesn’t actually desire to lead you to Jesus, don’t listen to them. Jesus says his sheep will flee from teachers like these, “for they do not know the voice of strangers.” (v.5) Individuals should also be challenged by this: if Jesus is the door, then if you try and approach God in any other way then you are trying to sneak into God’s community like a thief, and you won’t succeed.

2. Jesus is the gateway to abundant life

Jesus speaks about the dangers of thieves and robbers in the community of God, and makes it very clear that we are not to follow or listen to any who try and get into the community without Jesus. Their intention is to “steal and kill and destroy” (v.10). By contrast, if we come into community through Jesus we will “find pasture” – Jesus is the way to a place where we can “have life and have it abundantly” (vv.7, 10). It’s very difficult to keep the door and shepherd images apart here, but if we focus on Jesus being the route to abundant life, rather than him as the one who leads us to abundant life, we can see that:

  1. If we have come through Jesus, we belong in God’s community. If we seek to come to God through Jesus, then we should never fear that we ‘aren’t doing it right’ or are somehow worshipping God in the wrong way. If we approach God through Jesus – through faith in his death and resurrection – then we truly belong to his community and nothing can drive us out of it.
  2. Those who come to worship Jesus have a fuller life than those who don’t. Jesus didn’t just come to give life – he came to give life abundantly. Not just ordinary life, abundant life. Being on first name terms with the God of the universe and getting to know him intimately is infinitely more fulfilling than any of the relationships or other pursuits of this life. If you have come to God through Jesus, remind yourself daily that he has brought you into abundant life – pray that he’d help you to go on appreciating that gift!

Jesus, the Eye-opening Light of the World

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How are your eyes?

Light is important; without it, we can get lost or hurt ourselves, we can fall ill, and life generally becomes more unpleasant. Before we had any means of producing light for ourselves, we were dependant on the sun, and life essentially revolved around the hours of daylight. We developed candles, and then electric light bulbs, to extend the length of time we could work in a day; it’s very hard to be productive with no light around! Even in Jesus’ day, people had oil lamps for light. It’s important, but it’s not something we’d ever think we lacked – we can always get light if we want it. This makes Jesus’ claim in the following verses slightly odd:

 12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” 13So the Pharisees said to him, “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.” 14Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. 15 You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. 16Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father[a] who sent me. 17 In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true. 18I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.” 19They said to him therefore, “Where is your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” (John 8:12-19)

Jesus claims to be the light of the world, who stops us walking in darkness. Clearly, he isn’t talking about natural light, because that is nearly always available to us whenever we want, and it’s something people had possessed long before Jesus was born. As he does quite often, Jesus is using a physical phenomenon as a metaphor to describe spiritual realities. To understand what Jesus means by calling himself “the light of the world”, then, we should first try to understand the “darkness” that Jesus has come to illuminate.

Walking in darkness is ignorance of God

Jesus has been teaching during the Jewish Feast of Booths, one of the three annual festivals. Repeatedly throughout the festival people have interrupted his teaching, questioning the authority with which he teaches (see John 7:14 and onwards). His response every time is to explain that he teaches with ‘the Father’s’ (i.e. God’s) authority, that the Father has sent him, and that the things he’s teaching are the Father’s words. Jesus is at pains to make the crowd see that he is God’s chosen one, that he has divine authority; he wants them to know why he says what he does. The Pharisees in are more blunt with him: in v.13 they accuse him up front of lying, whilst in verse 19 they demand to see the ‘Father’ who Jesus claims his authority from.

Throughout the feast, people have been questioning Jesus’ right to teach the things he’s taught. Ultimately, they doubted his authority because they didn’t realise who he was; they didn’t know him, and so they didn’t listen to him. ‘Darkness’ in the Bible is often used as a metaphor for distance from God (e.g. Job 10:20-22), and the crowd’s ignorance of God makes them very distant indeed – they are walking in darkness, because they do not know God.

The light of the world lets us see God clearly

By claiming to be the light of the world, Jesus is saying that he alone is able to help us know God – who he is, what he’s like, how we can come near to him. If we’re to believe this, though, we’ll want to be convinced that Jesus really does have the right to say all this. In Jewish law, no court case was ever heard unless there were at least two witnesses to the alleged crime – one witness could easily lie for their own benefit, and the Pharisees accuse Jesus of doing the same (v.13). Jesus responds with two statements about his authority, establishing why we should believe that he truly is the light of the world.

1. Jesus’ testimony about himself is true, because he knows himself fully

In verse 14, Jesus says, “my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you [the Pharisees] do not know where I came from or where I am going.” Jesus knows that what he is saying about himself is true because he knows that he has been sent by God, and he knows that he will return to him after his crucifixion. By contrast, the Pharisees had no clue about any of this: they had no idea about who had sent Jesus, why he’d been sent, or where he was headed. The Pharisees are in no position to comment on Jesus’ identity, because they don’t know anything about him at all. Only Jesus knows himself fully and so, regardless of whether Jesus’ testimony about himself is legally acceptable or not, we can trust that what he says about himself is true.

2. Jesus’ judgements about himself are trustworthy, because his Father agrees with them

In verse 15, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of judging him “according to the flesh” – that is, for judging him according to the principles and standards of the world around them. He claims to judge no-one (referring here to the evaluation of a person’s character), but then says that even if he was to judge anyone, his judgement would be trustworthy, because the Father will make the same judgement as Jesus: “even if I do judge, my judgement is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me.” (v.16) The Pharisees’ ability to judge is impaired, because they judge Jesus and everyone else by the standards of the world: public respectability, wealth, status, popularity, and so on. When Jesus judges someone, however, God the Father supports him in whatever he says – and this includes when Jesus judges himself. (This also cancels the Pharisees’ claim that Jesus is testifying by himself; as Jesus says in v.18, “I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.”)

For example, he calls himself God’s Son, and when he was baptised God actually said about Jesus, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11) There are also several places in the Old Testament where God said things about Jesus through the prophets; for example, God used the prophet Micah to foretell the birthplace of his Messiah (Micah 5:2), and then arranged for a census to be taken that ensured that Mary and Joseph would be in Bethlehem when Jesus was born (Luke 2:1-7). Similarly, a week before his crucifixion, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, fulfilling a prophecy made by Zechariah about the coming of the Messiah (Zech. 9:9). There are many other places where we see the Old Testament supporting Jesus’ claims (see, for example, Isaiah 53).

Jesus doesn’t just claim to be the light of the world on his own – God, speaking throughout the bible, confirms his claim. When we look at Jesus, when we listen to him teach, we can be confident that we are seeing and learning about God as he really is, and so if we know Jesus we can be sure that we know God.

Jesus, the All-satisfying Bread of Life

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What satisfies you?

We all want satisfaction – we all want that feeling of contentedness that comes from having everything that we think we need, which makes life comfortable. We’ve all had times when we haven’t been satisfied with our lives, and depending on how much we value the things that we were lacking, we may have felt anything from slight annoyance (missing a favourite TV show because of an unexpected phone call) to the deepest distress (news of a family member’s sudden illness or death). We all want satisfaction, we all experience a lack of it, and we all pursue the things we think will provide it.

The people in Jesus’ day were the same. They didn’t have TV shows to miss, but they still had needs and wants which influenced how satisfied or dissatisfied they felt. In the Bible, we read of a time when Jesus fed a crowd of five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish (John 6:1-15). The crowd are amazed, and follow him, perhaps hoping to be fed again – after all, if there’s one need that can be said to be common throughout history, it’s the need for food. In Jesus, the crowd saw a man able to give them all they needed to be contented with their lives. However, rather than feeding them again the following day, Jesus criticises them. He tells them that they are being shallow, only following him for the sake of the bread that he can give them. He tells them to stop looking for “food that perishes” (like the bread of the previous day) and to go after “the food that endures to eternal life” instead (6:27). Jesus tells them, and us, that there is something out there which will satisfy us more than ordinary, earthly bread can.

True satisfaction is in Jesus Christ

34They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

 35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. 36But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:34-40)

Jesus’ claim in these verses is that he himself is the gift which will provide deeper satisfaction to the crowd than basketsful of fish and bread. Just before these verses, Jesus has explained to the crowd that “the food that endures to eternal life” isn’t actually bread made from wheat or anything like that; rather, “the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (6:33) If Jesus says he is the bread of life, then he’s claiming to be more important and more satisfying than food and drink – he’s more important than a starving man’s next meal. This is a huge claim, and we want to understand why Jesus feels able to make it. In the verses following this claim, I think Jesus gives us three reasons why the bread of life is superior to earthly bread.

1. The bread of life guarantees permanent relationship with God

The first thing Jesus says is that “All that the father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” (v.37) If we eat the bread of life, then we’ll come into a permanent relationship with God that will never fail. Is this a big deal? Absolutely! Alongside our need for food, nearly all of us require some kind of relationship to feel comfortable in life, whether that’s friendship, marriage, or whatever. The Bible says that this is because we were made, ultimately, to relate to God – Genesis 1 tells us that, immediately after making mankind, God spoke to them, which he didn’t do with any of the animals he’d made before. He also made Adam and Eve to be husband and wife, because it was “not good that the man should be alone.” (Gen 2:18) We were made for relationships, and we feel hurt when relationships are lacking or broken. The first way the bread of life satisfies us where earthly bread can’t is that it guarantees us a relationship with God that can never, ever end – an answer to a need which Jesus clearly sees as more fundamental than the need for food.

2. The bread of life guarantees a resurrection

The bread of life guarantees a permanent relationship with God. This is good news, but our starving man may well think, ‘So what? I’ll die hungry if I don’t know Jesus, and I’ll die hungry if I do. What’s so great about this “bread of life”?’ It’s a fair point. At the end of the day, surely living alone is better than dying in company, right? We could argue that point, but Jesus doesn’t force us to choose between the two. He tells us that the reason he’ll never cast anyone out is that it’s the Father’s will for him to “raise [them] up on the last day.” (v.39b) Jesus doesn’t just keep us with him spiritually; even when we die, those who’ve eaten the bread of life will receive new bodies on the day that Jesus returns. Our starving man may die of hunger, but if he’s eaten the bread of God then his life will be returned to him when God establishes his kingdom on earth. Earthly bread only postpones death, lengthening life for a little while; the bread of life satisfies by guaranteeing a life after death.

3. The bread of life guarantees eternal life

There’s one more objection that I think our starving man could raise to the claim that Jesus, the bread of life, is worth more to him than a loaf of earthly bread. He might nominally accept the concepts of relationship with God and life after death, but still object to the simple event of death itself! ‘I can see what Jesus is saying,’ he says, ‘but I’d rather not die at all if I can avoid it!’ Here’s the third way that the bread of life satisfies where earthly bread doesn’t: despite the nutritional benefits of earthly bread, eventually we’ll all die regardless of how well we’re fed; but according to Jesus it is the Father’s will to give eternal life to everyone who “looks on the Son and believes in him” (i.e. feeds on the bread of life, v.40b). He will raise us on the last day for the purpose of giving us eternal life – a life free from pain and hardship, where we enjoy all the benefits of living with God with none of the difficulties we experience now (see Revelation 21-22). We might save our man from starving to death by feeding him and taking care of him, but he’ll still die in some other way further on down the line. Only the bread of life can turn death into a non-event by promising eternal life that will continue through and after death.

New Beginnings

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So, having contemplated starting a blog last year, and managing a grand total of one post before running out of time and input, I’ve decided the time is ripe for another go – this time on WordPress! Goodness knows if this one will do better, but God-willing this’ll actually turn into something useful/interesting! So stay tuned…