When fear takes hold, how do you stop it?

All it takes is a few deaths in a flu outbreak and panic sets in. Commentators write alarming columns in newspapers about potential pandemic, TV feeds the panic around the clock, and suddenly the line ups for flu injections are huge. But when fear takes hold, it’s just like a virus too; it’s highly contagious, it spreads like wildfire, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.  

And that creates even more fear in those whose job it is to protect our health, because underrating the danger could backfire badly if the flu turns out to be a really bad one, but exaggerating the danger could get them hammered later for creating a lot of unnecessary fuss and disruption, and a “Cry Wolf” situation in the future. So now the authorities are fearful too, of either not creating enough fear to get people to protect themselves, or creating too much fear that then makes people batten down hatches, stay home and stop buying, creating more fear in those responsible for keeping the economy functioning. So now fear is spreading further and wider and faster than the flu virus itself. 

But that’s the world we live in; we are never far away from a crisis or the unstoppable fear pandemic that always follows a crisis, and we live on that knife edge all the time. 

What a horrible way to have to live, but, as Paul explained, there’s a “spirit” in this world that made us “slaves to fear” (Romans 8:15). That’s why we’re so easily frightened; it’s because there are powers beyond our own that MAKE us fearful, and they’re able to create a culture where fear is so ingrained that we cannot escape its grip. And to make things even worse, God has allowed those powers to rule us, subjecting us on purpose to a life of “futility” (Romans 8:20, RSV). A flu outbreak soon illustrates that, because what’s the point of it? Nothing good comes from it. It’s all completely futile.

But God offers an antidote, an injection of his own (so to speak) to protect us against this awful virus of fear and futility we’re enslaved to. It’s an injection of a far more powerful Spirit, the Spirit of “sonship” (verses 14-16), that reaches down deep inside us where the fear virus is and neutralizes it with a withering blast of who we are to God. We are his children, and a flu outbreak doesn’t change that. No crisis in this life changes that. But only the Spirit can make that real. It’s only the Spirit, therefore, that can stop fear when it threatens to get the better of us.

Why is trusting so difficult? 

Jesus’ disciples got told off by Jesus on several occasions for their rather pathetic display of trusting him. It was such a disappointment to him, because what was their problem, when it was obvious, surely, that he could meet every need – calm raging storms, feed thousands from pitifully short supplies, heal the most horrible diseases, and send evil packing.

None of those things, however, had made trusting him any easier. His disciples marvelled at his power, but in the middle of a raging storm with Jesus on board their boat, all trust in his power went out the window.  

It must have been slightly embarrassing, then, when a non-Jewish, Greek lady trusted him. She was born in the area of south Lebanon today, which back then was Phoenicia and very much Gentile country. Jesus had travelled up there for a private meeting, hoping to keep it private, but even that far north, in Tyre and Sidon country, people got wind of his arrival (Mark 7:24).

And among them was this Greek lady, whose little daughter was being severely stressed by an evil spirit. Somehow her mother knew of Jesus and his exploits, and she’d hurried down to beg him to heal her daughter, even referring to Jesus as “Lord” and “Son of David,” an amazing understanding and acceptance that Jesus was the promised healing Messiah predicted in Scripture (Matthew 15:22).

But even when she followed him around begging for his help, Jesus totally ignored her. Exasperated, the disciples urged him to get rid of her (verse 23). To which he replied in verse 24, that he’d only been sent to the “lost sheep of Israel,” not Gentiles. And “lost” fitted in here, because most of Israel hadn’t accepted him as the Messiah, whereas this Greek lady had. So a bit of a dig here, that Israel had difficulty trusting him, but this Gentile lady did not.

And she wasn’t giving up either. This time she threw herself at Jesus’ feet, crying out, “Lord, help me.” To which he replied, “Hey, let the children eat first, not throw their food to the dogs.” “Dog” here meant a household pet, so it wasn’t meant as an insult, but as a reminder to her that he’d been sent as the Deliverer of Israel, not Gentiles.  

“Ah, but,“ she says, “the dogs get to eat the children’s crumbs, don’t they?” In other words, I know what you’re really all about; you’re not limited to just healing salvation for Israel, you were sent to be the healing Saviour of us all.    

Jesus was ecstatic: “You wonderful woman,” verse 28, “great is your faith.” In other words, when we understand what Jesus was sent for, as this Greek lady did, trust comes easy, right?

“So long as he’s with us, we’re fine”

What if the disciples had said that when their boat was being tossed around in the storm? “Hey, Jesus is with us, so what’s the problem?” And he was asleep too, not the least bit phased by the wind howling and the waves crashing against the sides of the boat, and water sloshing around at their feet. 

But they didn’t say that. Instead, they were terrified that the boat would capsize and they’d all drown, including Jesus. So they shook him awake, accused him of not being concerned, to which Jesus replies, “Why are you so scared? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:40).

You mean, if they did have faith they wouldn’t have been afraid at all, and maybe even enjoyed being thrown around, knowing whatever the weather chucked at them they’d be fine? And as far as Jesus was concerned, yes, that’s exactly what they could be experiencing because he was with them. But they hadn’t reached that point yet, because in his words they still didn’t have faith.

And it sounded like a disappointment to him, because what else did he need to do to get them to trust him? In Capernaum, for instance, back in Mark 1:23-26, he’d told an evil spirit to shut up and leave the man it had possessed, which the spirit did with a horrible shriek. Then in verses 30-31, he totally healed Simon’s mother-in-law, bedridden with a nasty fever. Then in verse 32, people with all kinds of physical and demonic sicknesses were lined up at his door, and he healed “many” of them (verse 34). Then in verses 40-42 he healed a man with the dreaded leprosy. I mean what else did the disciples need as proof of Jesus’ power?

And so many people came to Jesus for healing that the four friends of a paralytic had to rip the tiles off the roof and lower the man down to Jesus, who, again, totally healed him (Mark 2:11-12), also witnessed by his disciples. They saw him heal a man’s shrivelled hand too in chapter 3, so by the time they got to chapter 4 and their boat was near to capsizing, they had all kinds of evidence that the man snoozing in the stern had amazing power over things both physical and demonic. So enjoy the ride, because he was with them. Another crashing wave, whee, bring on another. 

So in answer to the question in the last blog, as to why God doesn’t do something about the scary weather we’re having nowadays, could he ask of us too, “What are you so frightened about? You know what I can do, so why don’t you trust me?”

Yeah but, he’s not with us like he was with them, is he? Well, yes he is, because in his own words he said to anyone who loves and obeys him, “I will love him and make myself real to him,” John 14:21, because, verse 23, both he and his Father “will come to him and make our home with him.” So he’s with us all right, and even closer than he was with his disciples too. 

In Paul’s words too, in Philippians 4:5-6, “The Lord is near” so “don’t be anxious about anything.” In other words, “So long as he’s with us, we’re fine.” 

Is God worried about climate change?

“Well, maybe he jolly well should be worried about climate change, because look what it’s doing to his beloved humans and the lovely, good creation he made for us. Doesn’t he care that we are perishing?” 

Oh dear, that’s a bit blunt, but that last part was actually said to Jesus, and to his face too, when his terrified disciples had shaken him awake in  the middle of a ferocious storm, with waves crashing over the gunnels of their boat and filling it up with copious amounts of Galilee lake water. 

Jesus, meanwhile, had been snoozing on a cushion at the back of the boat. But now that he was awake, having been shaken from his sleep by his terrified disciples, what had he got to say now, eh? Because the wind was still howling, the boat was being rocked to near tipping point, and the lake water was up to their kneecaps. How much more of a bashing could they take before they were all tossed into the raging waves? The disciples yelled at Jesus in a most accusatory fashion, then, “Don’t you care if we drown?’ (Mark 4:38).  

So, was Jesus worried too? Did he cling to the mast – if, that is, there was  any clinging room left not yet taken by the disciples? Or did he cry out, “Grab the oars, men, and head her into the wind, it’s the only way we’ll survive this”? Or did he look a bit flummoxed himself, that he’d got them into this situation in the first place, having set sail so late in the day (verse 35)? 

Actually, what he did do was stand up, with no mention of hanging onto the mast, or the gunnels, or to a disciple. And once he was up he yelled out, “Shut up, be quiet, be still.” And it soon became obvious who or what he was yelling at because the wind immediately stopped howling, and the waves became a gentle whimper. And then he turned to his disciples – a sight to see, I imagine, with their eyeballs as big as saucers and their jaws bouncing off the boat deck – and in the silence, all but for the gentle lapping of water at their feet, he asked them, “How come you chaps are so frightened? Haven’t you figured out who I am yet?”

Well, no they hadn’t, because with knees still knocking they were huddled together whispering to each other, “Who is this guy, that even the wind and waves obey him?” 

And, what’s more, he hadn’t been worried one bit by the wind and waves either. A storm coming at them out of the blue – or in our terms today, climate change hitting the headlines and scaring the liver out of us – wasn’t, and isn’t, a worry to God. He could stop whatever’s terrifying us in a flash shorter than a flash of lightning. He’s God. He made the planet. He made the weather systems. And now we know from Jesus that he can stop damaging weather systems in their tracks if we’re frightened.

So why doesn’t he do it today, then, as well?

Is everything about to collapse?

It was so sad listening to two girls, one around twelve years old and the other a 24 year old Cambridge university graduate, both frantic with fear about their future and what’s going to happen because of climate change. So was a young boy when he arrived home from school, because they’d been taught that day we’ll all be under water in 15 years because of rising sea levels. 

So what could we say from Scripture to ease their fear? Or do we as Christians believe the end is near as well? Well, why not, when verses like 1 Peter 4:7 (“the end is at hand”) and Romans 13:11 (“now is our salvation nearer”) have stirred Christians through the ages to wondering “Is God about to wrap things up soon?” – and especially in times of war when evil cares nothing for the planet or people. 

“A good war might be just what we need, though,” a young man told me, “it would knock the population down and give us breathing space for a while.” I can’t blame him for thinking that way because he’s got a lot of life to live yet, and it doesn’t look good for him the way things are. That being the case, wouldn’t it be better, then, if God did wrap things up soon, got this agony over with, cleaned out the lunatics and started again with Christ in charge? God could certainly do that, so what’s he waiting for?

But “bear in mind,” Peter writes, “that our Lord’s patience means salvation,” 2 Peter 3:15. God’s focus is on saving people, not getting rid of them. “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance,” verse 9. For how long will he wait, though? Because in the mess we’re in we can’t last much longer, surely. 

But, Peter replies, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness,” verse 9. God’s definition of slow has nothing to do with time. It has everything to do with “keeping his promise.” And what is that promise? It’s to make a “home of righteousness” for us, verse 13. He’s building a world for us that won’t have the problems our world has. 

How? By transforming us. By making human beings “spotless, blameless and at peace with him,” verse 14. Think what the Earth would be like if everyone was like that. Well, that’s exactly what God is patiently putting together for us, so we’ll have a home that will last us forever.

And he’s not being slow about it, either. According to Peter, God’s smack on target because he keeps his promises. That perfect home we all hope for one day is in the works.…

Killer flu – God’s idea?

Flu killed around 50 million people between March 1918 and June 1920. Half the world’s population was infected, including people in the Arctic. The Spanish flu, as it was called, has been described as “the greatest medical holocaust in history,” and it’s been popping up in mild and lethal form ever since. In its lethal form it causes a massive overreaction in the immune system, among healthy people especially, and that’s what makes it so deadly. 

To add to our worries, there’s a strong hint in Romans 8:20-21 that God made lethal viruses on purpose. “For the creation was made subject to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in the hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay.”

First of all, God made us “subject to frustration” – and how true that has proved to be, because we cannot stop ourselves dying. How frustrating. But God also put us in “bondage to decay,” where we cannot stop ourselves falling apart before we die either. No matter how hard we try we cannot reverse the ageing process, or eradicate all the diseases that kill us. We can’t even stop flu. It remains a constant threat, and if it doesn’t burst into pandemic proportions this year, it’s a ticking time bomb for the future. 

But why would God do such a thing to us? 

Paul answers that in verse 21 – it’s “in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” What we long for and hope for – a world free of death and disease – will happen one day. But before it happens there’s a lesson to be learnt – that we are children of God, not God

It’s an important lesson, because our destiny, Paul writes, is to live as God’s children in his loving care and freedom forever, but how will that ever happen if we think and act as if WE are God and masters of our destiny?

So God creates a world where it becomes obvious we are NOT masters of our destiny. He creates a flu virus that can kill us, and no matter what we throw at it we cannot kill it off. It simply mutates and pops up in some other form, to get the point across to our thick, resisting heads that we’re not God. God is God, and he proves it by making us subject to death and disease – whether we like it or not, BUT always “in the hope that” we STOP thinking we’re God and we’re happy being his children instead.

Freedom or control – which is it to be?

The world seems to be dividing up into two camps – those with power and wealth who want to control our every thought, word, act, and movement, and those who wish to be free to choose for themselves what they think, say and do, and where they go, without being pressured by outside forces against their will. 

So what does Scripture favour – freedom or control? Well, it presents a case for both of them, and even in the same verse, like Romans 8:9, where Paul writes, “You are no longer ruled by your desires, but by God’s Spirit who lives in you.” On the one hand, then, freedom from the controlling force of our desires, but on the other hand becoming subject to the power of God’s Spirit. Likewise Romans 6:22 – on the one hand “freed from sin,” but on the other “enslaved to God.” 

So there’s both freedom and control – or “enslavement,” as Paul calls it.  But these verses also sound like we’re always under the control, or rule, or influence, of one power or another – by either sin or the Spirit. Our choices are very much decided, therefore, by which power is at work in us the most. 

Paul gave an example from his own life too, in Romans 7, that on the one hand the driving force in his mind was being “a slave to God’s law,” but there was this other “law at work” in him that made him “a slave to the law of sin.” Either way, his life was determined by which power was controlling him at the time.   

So, actually everything in our lives is a type of slavery. Slavery, first of all, to being “ruled by the selfish desires of our bodies and minds,” Ephesians 2:3, but then later on, when “our minds are set on what the Spirit desires,” Romans 8:5.

So where’s freedom come in? If our lives are dictated by either our selfish desires or the Spirit’s desires, when can we ever choose for ourselves what to think, say, and do? 

But we do choose. It’s totally within our free will and choice as to which power we wish to be driven by. It’s actually the first time in our lives we’ve had a choice at all, because when our natural desires controlled us we had no choice. But now we can set our minds on what the Spirit desires as well. We can, as Paul writes in Galatians 6:8, “sow to please our sinful nature,” or “sow to please the Spirit.” Our choice. And what motivates our choice? The outcome of it. And experience, as well as Scripture, tells us what that is. 

So how does this apply to those who wish to control us with their freedom destroying dictates, agendas, and ideologies? We have a choice. We can let the thoughts, words and actions of our own nature dictate (and best of luck with that), or dive into Scripture for the Spirit’s thoughts, the outcome of which is certain, because it “always works for good,” Romans 8:28

Is God at all present in our mad, mad world?

In the book of Esther there is no mention of God. Which seems odd, because magical things happened, but God isn’t given credit for any of them. He doesn’t seek any credit either, which is a bit disturbing because Esther was living in a mad, mad world, and yet God didn’t seem to be involved – or want to be seen to be involved – at all. 

So is that the same for us today? Because here we are in a mad, mad world too, and God doesn’t seem to be involved in our world either. At least not visibly or obviously. So why would he do that? Why appear to be absent in a world where evil is rampant, and we need his intervention more than ever?

But look what happened to Esther. She’s a Jewish lass, growing up in a non-Jewish Persian culture, but amazingly ends up becoming its queen. Her Persian king hubby, who knows nothing of her Jewish background, appoints Haman, an anti-Semitic racist, to be his personal political advisor, a position so high and mighty that all must kneel in his presence. But Esther’s uncle Mordecai refuses to kneel, which blows a fuse in Haman’s touchy ego, and since he knew Mordecai was a Jew he manages to persuade the king to issue a death sentence on all Jews.

So where was God in all this? Well, keep reading, because amazing things happen. Mordecai appeals to Esther to go to the king to plead for their people, so she plans a banquet for the king and Haman to make her request. But the night before the banquet the king can’t sleep, so he has the records of his reign brought to him, in which he discovers that Mordecai had saved his life by exposing an assassination plot. 

And who could have guessed what happened next? The king orders Haman to publicly honour Mordecai by personally parading him through the city streets, with Mordecai dressed in the king’s royal robes. 

At the banquet the following day, Esther then makes her request to the king to spare her people because, she says, some awful person had been plotting to annihilate them. The king furiously demands who the blaggard is, and it’s Haman of course, and, again – who could have guessed it – Haman ends up being hanged on the gallows he’d had built for Mordecai. 

Every step of her story is amazing, from becoming a Persian queen as a non-royal Jewess, to revealing to her hubby king that actually she was Jewish, to being allowed by the king to make a plea for her fellow Jews, to Mordecai being honoured because the king couldn’t sleep, to Haman and his evil cunning being exposed, and all the enemies of the Jews being hunted down and killed by the king’s decree. 

Could the same thing happen in our world, therefore, when things are looking desperate for us too, as the lunacy virus takes hold in the minds of those infatuated with power, wealth, and self-advancement? 

Well, how much more obvious could it be that God was present in Esther’s mad, mad world? All those amazing coincidences leading up to a deadly enemy being exposed. It took a while for the evil to be exposed and destroyed, but it happened, so please, God, give me the eyes to see you being just as present in our world, exposing evil and destroying it, and to keep on trusting if at present it doesn’t seem like you’re involved at all.  

Does God want the world to get better? 

That’s a daft question because why does God have Christians preaching good news if he doesn’t want the world to get better? And why have Jesus crying out, “The time has come, the Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news,” Mark 1:15, if the Kingdom of God wasn’t near, and there wasn’t any good news to believe?

So, of course God wants the world to get better. And he demonstrated his wish with convincing clarity in Jesus making people’s lives better when he was here. Jesus healed all those who looked to him for healing, he sent demons packing, and his teaching stunned people into realizing there had to be another world order in operation that was so much better. And crowds followed him wherever he went, because they wanted to hear more.  

The world getting better was predicted in the Old Testament too, and it was written down so people could see it happening when it happened. And what was written was amazing, because it spoke of a great leader setting up a new world order, a grand reset that would guarantee never-ending peace. So when that leader came, get on board, because things were about to get better.

It was a bit of a shock, though, when it turned out that a carpenter’s son of humble origin was that great leader. But it gradually became obvious that he was the one predicted, by how much better people’s lives became wherever he went. And what he said to those who followed him was amazing too, because after a life of doing amazing miracles that changed people’s lives for the better he said, “You can now do what I’ve been doing, and even greater things after I’m gone.” 

Meaning there are people in existence right now who are demonstrating God making this world better. How? By living what Jesus taught and showing what happens to them. Or as Jesus put it in Matthew 5:16, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” 

So God isn’t hiding what he’s up to, he has people “shining” what he’s doing by the kind of people they are and what they do. They’re not treading water waiting to be whisked up to heaven one day, they’re clued in to Jesus saying God’s kingdom is “near,” that God’s new world order is happening right here and right now. Meaning we can be part of the action now, making this planet home of ours into what God had in mind when he created it, and that he perfectly equipped us for too.  

Does Jesus have compassion for weirdos? 

The trend today is to be compassionate and tolerant to everyone, no matter how bizarre a person identifies as, or how criminal a person’s behaviour is, or how rude, demanding and violent people become if we don’t accommodate, celebrate, affirm and even applaud their versions of truth, or their sexual fantasies, or their fragile feelings.   

But wasn’t Jesus compassionate? Yes: “When he saw the crowds, he was moved with compassion for them,” Matthew 9:36, “because they were distressed and dejected, like sheep having no shepherd.” The Greek word for compassion here is esplanchnisthē – which, according to Charles Spurgeon was a made up word, because they couldn’t find a word “in the whole Greek language that suited their purpose, and therefore they had to make one.”

Because what they saw in Jesus was extraordinary. To quote Spurgeon again, “those who watched him closely perceived that his internal agitation was very great, his emotions were very deep, and then his face betrayed it, his eyes gushed like founts with tears, and you saw that his big heart was ready to burst with pity for the sorrow upon which his eyes were gazing. He was moved with compassion. His whole nature was agitated with commiseration for the sufferers before him.”

Or as Matthew put it, Jesus saw people as “sheep without a shepherd” – a vivid picture – because domesticated sheep, uncared for, are pathetic creatures. Left alone they die easily from simple things like fright, bloating, being too wet, or even just being upside down. They suffer easily when uncared for as well, because their wool keeps on growing until it becomes heavy, dirty and full of parasites, and their hoofs grow to the point they cannot walk. 

Sheep are stupid too; they get their heads stuck in things (in one case, a kettle), and they’re easily defeated too, like the sheep perched on top of a tree stump with all four feet off the ground, crying in distress rather than trying to find a way off. And why was it on the stump in the first place? I’ve read many stories about sheep, and they all say the same thing, that sheep are not easy to look after. But they stir deep feelings in some people, who are willing to care for them in all weathers, night and day, and it shatters them to lose a lamb to sickness or predators, or a ewe that dies giving birth.

So there’s our picture of how Jesus views us. He loves us, and it really hits him in the gut (the meaning of the root word for compassion in Matthew 9:36) when we’re struggling because of the mess this world has made of us. His heartfelt desire is to patch us up, heal our wounds, and flourish in his care. 

But would he extend that same heartfelt desire to weirdos and degenerates? To say “No, he wouldn’t” would, according to Paul in Romans 2:4, be “showing contempt for the riches of God’s kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that his kindness leads you toward repentance.” 

So, of course Jesus has compassion for them, but notice what the end game of his compassion is. It’s not affirming, accommodating or celebrating their weirdness and stupidity; it’s doing whatever gets them to repent. It’s still compassion, because it hits Jesus in the gut seeing how lost and damaged they are, but it’s compassion that also exposes their nonsense to wake them up and admit how wrong they’ve been, so they stop being weird and stupid.