“Bless ‘em good!” – Psalm 109

How do you pray for those in government, big corporations, mainstream media, the justice system, the medical profession, universities and schools, who make it blatantly obvious that they care for nothing but their own reputations, pay packets and egos, and they’re oblivious to the suffering they’re causing others? 

Psalm 109 comes to the rescue, which amazingly David put to music when he prayed about the uncaring, lying, hate-filled, slandering, awful people he also knew who clearly “never thought of doing a kindness, but hounded to death the poor and the needy and the brokenhearted,” verse 16 (The Message). 

The tone of David’s prayer for such people is shocking too. He asked God to “send the Evil One” and “dispatch Satan” to give such people a short life, make orphans of their children, have strangers like vultures pick them clean, and “may there be no one around to help them out” too. Strong words. And there’s more of them too – about God making these awful selfish people homeless and penniless, and wiping their names from memory. And since they find no pleasure in blessing others, may they themselves be cursed every day of the week (verses 6-17).

Well, that doesn’t sound very nice, does it? But David knew exactly what these people were like, because he was one of their victims. They’d broken his heart too (verse 22), made him an object of scorn (verse 25), and reduced him to skin and bone (verse 24). He knew the effect these awful people had, and it was more than he could bear. 

So he prayed, “May (all these awful things mentioned above) be the Lord’s payment to those who speak evil of me,” verse 20. In other words, “Bless ‘em good!” – the “good” being that they get the point that “God stands at the right hand of the needy one,” verse 31. That’s what they need to know, that God is real and he cares. Whatever it takes, therefore, to “let them know that,” verse 27, is what we can pray for.

We can also pray, as David did in verse 26, for God’s help to save us “in accordance with his love” – to “bless us good” too – so we don’t end up bitter and frustrated because of these awful people, but rather, because we know from this Psalm that God is all for us praying our hearts out to him, we experience his calming love like David did.  

Only God is good – so how can we be?

In Matthew 19:16, Jesus was asked: “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” And Jesus replied in verse 17, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only One who is good.” 

Well, if only God is good, how can we be good then? Jesus’ disciples wondered the same thing, because if no one is truly classed as “good” in God’s sight, “Who then can be saved?” they asked in verse 25

Jesus “looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible,’” verse 26. No way can anyone be classed as good enough to be saved. To which Peter replies: “But we’ve left everything to follow you, so what’s in it for us?” There should be some sort of reward for all our sacrifice, right?

Absolutely, Jesus replies in verse 29: “Everyone who has left home, family and livelihood for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” Ah, so that’s what classes us as “good” enough to receive eternal life, is it? It’s leaving all those things we hold dear to follow Jesus. 

Well that solves that then. Or does it? Because according to Jesus in Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even hate his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” What? I’ve got to hate my family to be classed as “good” too? 

Fortunately, Jesus explains what he meant by that in verses 28-33 – that there’s a serious cost to following him; it’s like carrying a cross (verse 27). And they knew what that meant all right, because carrying a literal cross back then meant the loss of everything. So, “Are you up for that?” Jesus is asking them, because nothing less than that was good enough for being a disciple of his. 

But imagine what that must be like for a university student, under enormous pressure from professors and students alike to conform to the prevailing unscriptural fads, and under pressure to get good grades for his own future, leaving little time for studying Scripture. Being a disciple of Jesus can seem impossible in such circumstances.

And Jesus said it would be, too. But he also said, finishing off Matthew 19:26, that “with God all things are possible.” So trust him in all our impossible circumstances and see what happens, because in Jesus’ eyes that’s what makes us good. 

Stories from the Old Testament for coping with 2023 

Daniel – part 1

Daniel grew up in a world much like ours, knowing firsthand the scary disruptions to normal life caused by the stupidity of egotistical politicians and the evil ambitions of power hungry psychopaths. 

Daniel’s king Jehoiakim, king of Judah, for instance, endangered his people by “doing evil in the eyes of the Lord,” 2 Kings 23:37 – a really stupid thing to do because God had Nebuchadnezzar 11, king of the Babylonian Empire, besiege Jerusalem in 605 BC and cart Jehoiakim off to Babylon along with other members of the royal family, including Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, Daniel 1:3-6

So Daniel, probably still a teenager, finds himself in a country very different to the country he’s grown up in. And there’s no going back to the “normal” he knew back home either. His life for the next 70 years (or more) will be spent in a new world, with new customs, new rules, and very different views to his own scripture-based lifestyle and education. How then will he cope with such changes?

I can relate to that, finding myself in a world now that feels very different to the world I knew before the pandemic. Never in my life had I experienced lockdowns, required social distancing and masking, no jab no job mandates, censoring by social media, vaccine passports, regulations constantly changing, state control of media, respected doctors and academia deserting their foundational principles, families being irreparably divided, and threats of police action for daring to protest. And not ever daring to question “the science,” either.

I’d never experienced living in such a ridiculous, clownish world, made worse by outright lies and cover-ups of essential information that tore at my trust in just about every institution I had respect for before. Put that together with the unscriptural sexual lifestyles and ideologies being pushed by Christians and non-Christians alike and my mind was in a whirl.  

How does one cope in such a world, where what we knew has been turned upside down, and the state wants to control our every thought, word and action?

But Daniel found himself in exactly that kind of world too, that didn’t tolerate any questioning of its authority or mandates either. So what did he do? And especially when the government went a step too far. How did he cope with that as well?….(part 2, March 24)

Religion, or the reality of experience?

I’d love to show my kids that what I’m part of is real. But how do I put it in terms that don’t sound religious or “churchy”? 

Take the verse in Philippians 4:6, for instance, which says, “Don’t be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God,” verse 7, “which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” 

It’s an amazing promise, which gets right to the heart of our being human, because who doesn’t have “anxious” thoughts? But Paul says: “It doesn’t matter how many worries you’ve got, just take them all to God and he’ll settle your mind down.” 

But how did he know that? It came from the reality of experience, because when he (and friends) in 2 Corinthians 1:11 turned to God in their desperation, Paul found himself being lifted out of his misery and hopelessness. It was like being “raised from the dead,” as he put it in verse 9. Like the time he was dumped for dead outside a city, but picked himself up and went right back into the city to carry on from where he’d left off. Talk about a “peace beyond understanding” and having his “mind and heart guarded” against giving up. 

It was experiencing such rescues again and again that gave Paul the confidence to say what he did in Philippians 4:6.  

Experience has taught me that too, that turning to God in my desperate times when I couldn’t carry on a moment longer, I was lifted out of my hopelessness and given an energy I didn’t have in myself to keep going. And this is what our kids can experience too, a life of amazing rescues from desperate situations that enable them to keep going as well.

Which is why I turn to God on their behalf (Galatians 6:2), just like Paul’s friends did for him, so my kids have real experiences that prepare the ground very nicely for it to dawn on them one day that they were rescued by a real God who cares for them. 

And they may never darken the door of a church building to get them to that point. It will be the reality of their own experience. 

Experiencing heaven already

According to Paul in Ephesians 1:3, “God the Father has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” For Paul to write “has blessed us” means the Father has already been blessing us – and since the blessings he gives us are in the heavenly realms, then we must be experiencing heaven already.    

But how can we experience heaven when we’re physical humans living here? And if it is possible, how do we know we’re experiencing it?  

Paul says we can know, because we can see “the things that are unseen” 2 Corinthians 4:18. But how is that possible too? How can we see something that’s invisible? 

Paul offers an intriguing clue in Romans 8:16, where he writes, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” 

Working backwards through that verse, Paul is saying we can know we are God’s children. It’s real to us, even though we have no visible proof of it, and no human terms to explain it. We just know.  

But how do “we just know”? 

Working backwards through verse 16 again, Paul says we have a “spirit” in us. And being “spirit” it acts like a wall socket for the spiritual realm to plug in to. Which is what the first part of verse 16 covers, because it’s the Holy Spirit testifying with our spirit – or plugging into our spirit – that opens up a circuit through which the invisible spiritual dimension can flow. 

Our spirit, then, is like a portal for the Holy Spirit to connect the realm we’re living in here to the heavenly realm. A circuit is created that turns the lights on, so to speak, to enable us to see the unseen. The invisible becomes real. We can see, for instance, that we are God’s children.

Which really opens up the heavenly realm to us, because as God’s children we’re being “blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). And we’ll be able to see what that’s like because, thanks to the Holy Spirit plugging into our spirit, those heavenly blessings are happening to us already. And enough for us to know it. 

Is God’s punishment forever? 

“Yes,” some might say, because in Hebrews 10:26, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we’ve received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” 

But didn’t Israel in the Old Testament deliberately keep on sinning after they received the knowledge of the truth, and didn’t Paul ask, “Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all,” Romans 11:11

Two complete opposites, so which one is true? Or can both be true? – taking into account Paul’s statement later on in Romans 11 that we “Consider therefore the kindness and the sternness of God,” verse 22

So there are two sides of God to “consider,” not just one or the other. On the one hand, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows,” Galatians 6:7. So God is stern, all right. He’ll “give to each person according to what he has done,” Romans 2:6, and in verse 8, “for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger” when “the day of God’s wrath, his righteous judgement will be revealed,” verse 5

So to those who think God is all compassion and love, and he happily offers amnesty for all our nonsense as though it never existed, think again, because God lets the full weight of our stupidity and rebellion land on us, so we get the point that there are consequences.

But back in verse 4, Paul sounds a little testy when he asks, “Do you show contempt for his kindness and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you to repentance?” Hey, don’t forget that side of God too, that God in his kindness wants us to wake up to our nonsense and stop doing it, so there aren’t any more nasty consequences. 

So there are two sides of God to consider, and both mentioned together in Isaiah 40 in his dealings with Israel. He starts off in verse 1 saying, “Comfort my people, speak tenderly to Jerusalem” – so here’s his kindness. But why is he being so kind? It’s because Israel’s “hard service has been completed, her sin has been paid for, she’s received double for all her sins at the Lord’s hand,” verse 2

God in his sternness didn’t let Israel get away with anything, even doling out double the dose of punishment they deserved. But never did his mercy, kindness and patience fail them either. So we’ve got both points to consider when asking, “Is God’s punishment forever?”

Who answers our prayers, the Father or Jesus?

In John 14:13-14, Jesus says he answers our prayers: “I will do whatever you ask in my name,” and “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”

But Jesus also says in John 15:16 that “the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name,” which sounds like it’s the Father who does the answering, not Jesus. On the other hand, in John 16:15, Jesus also says, “All that belongs to the Father is mine,” so whatever the Father gives us in answer to our prayers comes from Jesus as well, so now it sounds like both of them are answering our prayers.

John doesn’t make things any clearer either, when he writes in 1 John 3:21-22 that “we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask.” No mention of whether it’s the Father or Jesus answering; just “God.” And it’s just “God” again in 1 John 5:14, when John writes of “the assurance we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”

John doesn’t separate the Father and Jesus as to who answers. But the process by which our prayers are answered does separate them, because in John 15:16 Jesus directs us to the Father as the source of every answer, but in John 3:35, “The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands,” so Jesus is the agent of every answer. All answers to our prayers, therefore, originate with the Father, but they come to us through the Son. 

That’s why we pray to the Father, in recognition that everything comes from the Father originally, but we also pray in Jesus’ name, in recognition that everything is now being administered by Jesus, with the Father’s full authority and approval.

We’re also acknowledging the relationship of the Father and Son, that they’re both in this together for each other as well as for us. The Son, for instance, wants to give all glory to the Father by answering us exactly as his Father wishes, and the Father wants to give all glory to his beloved Son by giving Jesus full power and authority to make his wishes happen.

So who answers our prayers? The Father does, and so does Jesus. They’re in this together: the Father as the source and Jesus as the agent.

God is good to one and all – Psalm 145

On the one hand, God doesn’t let anyone get away with anything (Romans 2:5-6). But there’s also Psalm 145:9, that “God is good to one and all; everything he does is suffused with grace” (The Message).

But horrible things happen to people in natural disasters and wars, and the animal world isn’t exactly nice either, with predatory animals knocking off other animals in gruesome ways, and viruses, flies, maggots and other nasties doing things you don’t dare watch on TV while eating. 

Such is the world God created. He intentionally “subjected it to frustration,” stuck it “in bondage to decay,” to the point that “the whole creation has been groaning in pain” all through the ages (Romans 8:20-22). So how can Psalm 145:13 say that God “is gracious in everything he does”? It was written by king David too, who had all sorts of horrible things happen to him, and yet he could write in verse 17, “the Lord is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made.” 

David could say that, though, because in his own experience, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth (who really mean it),” verse 18

David had learnt that by throwing himself on God to meet his needs, God “fulfills the desires of those who fear him,” and “he hears their cry and saves them,” verses 18-19. David learnt through good old practical everyday living that God really “is near” and he does listen. 

But what happens to people who don’t take advantage of that, and don’t turn to God in their lifetimes? Is that it for them – opportunity missed, too bad? Not so, David says, because God will “satisfy the desires of every living thing,” verse 16. No one misses out on what God has in mind for us, nor does the whole creation. That’s because God is creating an “everlasting kingdom” in verse 13, with all the time in the world to fulfill that promise. This life is just the beginning, so if people don’t turn to him now, there’s lots more life to come for discovering God later. 

Which is why ”your saints tell of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your might,” verses 10-11, because the saints know firsthand, like David, that “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love,” verse 8. The saints know that God is “faithful to his promises and loving toward ALL he has made,” verse 13. They know, therefore, that God is – and will be – good to one and all.  

Where two or three are gathered together

I must have used Matthew 18:20 dozens of times to keep our spirits up if our church attendance has dwindled down to a faithful few. “No problem,” I could say, because Jesus said: “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

Being a “small group,” therefore, was no different to being in a large church or cathedral, with its huge pipe organ making your tonsils rattle, and the choir belting out an emotional favourite, and all sorts of familiar rituals being acted out. A pity for some, perhaps, to miss all that, because that to them was “church.” But nice to know that Jesus would be just as much in attendance if we’re meeting in a home instead.   

Which I’m sure he is, but Matthew 18:20 wasn’t about that. In context, verse 15, it’s what to do when two believers have had a falling out over an offence caused by one of them. There was a process to follow. First of all, have them get together to sort it out, and hopefully the one who caused the offence listens and accepts he was at fault. 

And “If he listens, you’ve made a friend,” verse 15 (the Message). Good. But “If he won’t listen,” verse 16, “take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again.” 

And if the offender still doesn’t care, or gets all defensive and chucks in a few ridiculous accusations of his own, then “If he still won’t listen,” verse 17, “tell the church.” Announce it to one and all. And if that doesn’t wake the offender up to the seriousness of his actions, then “treat him as you would a pagan or tax collector,” verse 17. Have nothing to do with him, in other words.

Refusing to admit to an offence is that serious. So serious, in fact, that when the church decides to have nothing to do with an uncaring offender, their decision is “bound in heaven,” verse 18. It has the backing, Jesus said, of “my Father in heaven,” verse 19, as does anything in church where “two of you agree about anything you ask him for.” Agreement among us is that important.  

And that’s the context of verse 20, that Jesus is certainly in attendance with two or three of his followers when they want to sort out a problem and come to an agreement together.    

Stories from the Old Testament for coping with 2023 

Part 10, Ahaz conclusion (Part 9, March 3)

When Jesus cried out in John 7:38-39, “Whoever believes in me, streams of living water will flow from within him. By this he meant the Spirit,” it harks back to the “stream of water” flowing down from the Upper Pool to the Fuller’s Field in Isaiah 7:3

Because what that stream of water pictured was “the blessing of the most High” (the meaning of ‘Upper Pool’) flowing down to the fullers who used the water to clean their woollen cloth and turn it into something strong and long lasting. And here’s Jesus in John 7 – who really is “the blessing of the most High” – talking of “streams of living water” flowing out from within people because of the work of the Holy Spirit in them. 

And for the same purpose too. The blessing of the most High flowing into Ahaz would have transformed him from being a scared child into a strong, confident leader, so he could stand before his people and cry out, “I know God will strengthen and help us, because he did it for me.” This was the opportunity God offered Ahaz, including whatever sign Ahaz wanted that would prove what God was promising both him and his people was true. 

If only Ahaz had trusted God, then, because what a different story it would have been. And how frustrating it is for us too, that Ahaz didn’t grab what God was freely offering, because now we’re left hanging not knowing what might have happened instead if he had. 

So, what was the purpose of that story if we’re left with no idea of what sign Ahaz would have asked for, and no amazing story of God responding? But what if it was written in preparation for God offering the same opportunity again, so that those it was being offered to wouldn’t make the same mistake? 

Because through Jesus that’s exactly what he’s done. He’s re-created the scene all over again. We’ve got a stream of water too, also picturing the blessing of the most High flowing into us, and for the same reason, to transform us from being frightened and frail human beings in scary times into a force of strength, confidence and courage for those we care for. 

And with an amazing sign to prove it, the Holy Spirit “within” us doing in us what God would have done in Ahaz, so that we too can say to those we know are having trouble coping in these scary times in 2023, “I know God is real, because he’s proved it again and again to me.” 

Because what have we got to offer people if we haven’t got that? If I have no story to tell that God is real, I’m just another typical human being who gets all stressed out and looks to worldly methods for coping, just like Ahaz, none of which will give me, or the people I care for, the peace that only God can give. 

Which makes the story of Ahaz highly relevant for us today, because it shows us that God is more than willing to make himself real to us in our scary moments, so we can be a fearless strength for others.