This weeks Christian Today column – you can read the original here My mission is to bring the Puritans back into mainstream Christianity!
How are you feeling? Sometimes Christians struggle both at a personal and a corporate level when faced with the challenges to faith that a crisis like Covid-19 brings.
Camus, in his classic novel, The Plague, describes the agony of a priest trying to come to terms with the horrible death of a child. In such circumstances one of the key questions that Christians seek to answer is: where is God in all of this? The answers fly out from the keyboards and on the airwaves. ‘It’s a judgement.’ ‘It’s a sign.’ ‘It’s neither a judgement or a sign. ”God is not involved – he’s just weeping and asking us to remember his Son and do good.’
My question is the one that Jeremiah asked: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wounds of my people” (Jeremiah 8:22).
The book of Revelation ends by telling us that the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations. Where are those leaves? This week, although I didn’t discover the vaccine for Covid-19, I did discover a medicine far more precious – something to heal ‘the sin sick soul’.
For me, the Covid crisis is not the only, nor even the major reason for what the 17th century Cambridge pastor, Richard Sibbes, calls ‘The Soul’s Conflict’. In his book of the same name, he gives some deep, beautiful and very helpful guidelines as we wrestle within ourselves when faced with difficult circumstances and daunting questions.
We often start with the wrong end of the stick. We start with ourselves and our circumstances. Then we seek to, in the words of one of Sibbes’ contemporaries, the poet John Milton, ‘justify the ways of God to men’. Sibbes goes completely the opposite route. He begins with God. Here are five principles that I have found, expressed so well by Sibbes, that help me when Satan tempts me to despair.
1) Begin with God
God is the first truth. The truth which faith relies on. He is the chief good which hope rests on. We so often look at ourselves or our standards as the foundational good or truth. But it is only God who is a fit foundation for us to build on. We need a firm foundation so we need to know God better. The firmer the foundation, the stronger the building. The higher the tree, the deeper the roots. Is our foundation built on the solid rock of Christ – or the shifting sands of culture or our own opinions?
We cannot know God without Christ. In Christ, God’s nature becomes lovely to us and ours to God, because Christ has made up the vast gap between us and God: “There is nothing more terrible to think on, than an absolute God out of Christ.”
We must meditate upon and grasp the deep truth of God as our Father. Are we missing the doctrine of the Goodness of God? The devil and the world will always suggest to us that God is not good. Sometimes our ‘apologetics’ sounds as though we are apologizing for God and indeed trying to convince ourselves. But we must start with the goodness of God as given to us in the Scriptures: “What is good in the creature is first in God as a fountain.”
When we think of the goodness of God we strengthen our faith because not only does he have attributes that we can share – ‘gracious, loving, powerful and wise’ – but he has them mixed with attributes we do not have. He is infinite, eternal and unchangeable. So he is infinitely, eternally and unchangeably gracious, loving, powerful and wise.
2) Remember that our God Reigns
There is a temptation for some Christians – in order to ‘defend’ God and preserve their own image of him – to downplay his power and sovereignty – sometimes even to the extent that he becomes only one power amongst many. Sibbes will have none of this: “If God did not rule the great family of the world, all would break and fall to pieces, but the wise providence of God keeps everything on its right hinges.”
Covid-19 does come under God’s providence. But the greatest evil in the world can still be used for good. There is no greater evil than the cross and yet look at how God brought good out of that!
God’s sovereignty should be a comfort to us. Although Covid-19 is a terrible evil, yet we need to understand that God limits evil. He puts bars on its power and limits on its time. The devil is on a chain. The malice he intends – and the malice wicked human beings intend – is not fulfilled.
That does not mean that we understand. Sometimes it seems as though we think that unless we can understand and explain then God has nothing to do with it. But “God’s ways seem often to us full of contradictions, because his course is to bring things to pass by contrary means.”
3) We see ‘as through a glass darkly’ but we shall see fully
God is often ‘wrapped in a cloud’ and we cannot see him, or his purpose until afterwards. But even though we cannot trace the rainbow through the rain we must admire and adore him. When we get to heaven one part of our happiness will be to see the harmony of those things that right now seem really confused and disharmonious. This week a brother and fellow pastor, Dominic Smart, went to be with the Lord. He gave this interview knowing that he was dying.
Right now Dominic sees the harmony in that he believed it but did not see fully whilst on this earth. That is a beautiful and glorious thing! He is in an infinitely better place.
4) We need a Spirit-given understanding of spiritual things.
We need to know the promises of God that enable us then to trust God in his providences. But that is not enough. That can be a mere head knowledge. We must receive light and strength from him: “No man can know God, but by God; none can know the sun, but by its own light; none can know the truth of God, so as to build upon it, but by the truth itself and the spirit revealing by its own light the soul.”
We need a spiritual understanding of spiritual things. Our greatest
need is to know “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge that you may be filled to all the measure of the fullness of God” (Ephesians 18-19)
5) In Christ Alone our Hope is Found
One of the great difficulties some of us have is that when we despair, we are told the remedy is ‘don’t despair’! We are compelled again to look at ourselves and our own despair – which becomes a never-ending cycle. But for the Christian despair is the reason for looking outside ourselves. It is often the ground of hope I have just finished reading a book by a Christian author whose remedy for our despair is to look for ‘the light within ourselves’. Now that is a counsel of despair! What if the light within is darkness? We need the Light from outwith – to shine within.
“In a hopeless state a Christian will see some door of hope opened because God shows himself nearest to us when we stand most in need of him.”
Our darkness, despair and confusion cause us to look away from ourselves and to cry out in prayer to the One who is the hearer and answerer of prayer. Our Father, the good God; the gracious Christ; the Comforting, Counselling Spirit, loves to hear our prayers. We are the beloved in the eyes of the Father. How will he not listen to the cries of those for whom he gave his Son?
I wonder how many Christians are in despair because they watch far more 24/7 news telling us how many people have died, than they do reading about the beauty of Christ in his word? I wonder how many of us are in despair because we look to our own hearts and circumstances rather than the heart of God and the promises he has made to make all our circumstances work for our good?
Sometimes the Lord lets us see and experience the darkness that is there – in order to enable us to look beyond our own fading light and to behold his glorious face. When the darkness of the night is deepest, then the morning begins to dawn. God’s infinite power and goodness can sometimes be seen clearer from the pit, than the mountain. Christian – whatever circumstance you are in – never despair or give up. Underneath are the everlasting arms.
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)