I Am Second

 

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He gives and He takes away.

Something that has really struck me over the past week or so is the combination of God’s sovereignty and human suffering. As I’ve started reading through Job, looking into common lies taught in churches and heard some bad news I’ve come to face the reality that God controls all.

Good news, or bad news first? Let’s start with the bad. Just a few days ago I heard news that a young girl, the sister of one of my old friends, suicided. I can’t say I’ve faced this before. I thought about writing a post about suicide, but what can you say? Not much in the way of practical methods or understanding in order to deal with it.

Here’s the good news: That’s when I realised what God had been showing me and teaching me in the lead up. I’ve been reading up on awful misinterpretations of the Bible and how these are used (very often in fact) in churches. I was planning a few blog posts on these. One of them, just to spoil the surprise, is the idea that “God heals those who have faith”. Without going into too much detail, this claim essentially renders sick people as without faith and without the Holy Spirit. Which is evidently wrong. It claims that the more faith you have, the more healthy you will be. But God doesn’t promise us any of this, in fact, many of the apostles (Paul and Timothy) were sick and were not healed despite their prayers. Instead of health on earth, God promises us spiritual health and that he will get rid of physical sickness and death when he returns.

“So it will be with the resurrection ofthe dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable,; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” 1 Corinthians 15:42-44a.

Secondly, I’ve been reading through Job. Job was this guy that feared and respected God, and was blessed with material wealth – he had lots of stuff, heaps of kids and was known for it. But get this, God says to Satan:

“Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?”

Job 1:8

God suggests Job to Satan. And Satan’s response is he’s great and all ” But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” (v10). So God takes him on his claim and gives Job over to Satan: “all that he has in in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” (v12) So off goes Satan and he takes everything that Job has, his stuff burns down, all his kids are killed, his family is destroyed. He has nothing left but himself. And what does he say? Surely, he would prove Satan right.

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job 1:21

Strange, right? But it makes sense. All those things were given to him as gifts, he existed before them. They were given by God and thus, God has the ability to take them away. Not only this, but he praises God.

Job’s hardship continues as Satan plagues him with illness. Jobs friends come to comfort him but all they can do is sit “with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (2:13).

That’s as far as I’ve read in Job, but I am just so grateful that God is working even in suffering. That even before it happened he directed my attention to these things. He has challenged me to praise him as Job does, because everything on this earth is an undeserved gift, that he can easily and rightfully take away.

The Word and The Heart

When the Christ came to bring his kingdom, it wasn’t what his people (the Jews)  expected. They were keeping an eye out for the climactic and decisive moment when the dirty and sinful would be condemned, and the clean and righteous would reign victorious.

Instead, Jesus explained it to them in pictures :

“It is like a grain of mustard seed, which when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Mark 4:31-32.

Thus, the kingdom is one of gradual growth – not apocalyptic climax.

What is this seed? It’s the truth Christ came to reveal. Jesus explains this in the parable of the seed. The kingdom grows as the word (the seed) is spread widely and people react differently to it.

“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came  and devoured it.”

Mark 4:3-4

Jesus interprets this for his disciples later on:

“These are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.”

Mark 4:15

First possible response to the word: Outright rejection.

“Other seed fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away.”

Mark 4:5-6

 

“And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for awhile, then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.”

Mark 4:16-17

Second possible response to the word: Eager acceptance without growth and endurance and so when the tough times come, they don’t last.

“Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.”

Mark 4:7

 

“And others are sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”

Mark 4:18-19

Third possible response: You can hear it, but replace it with the distractions and temporary satisfactions of the world.

“And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”

Mark 4:8

 

“But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thrityfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”

Mark 4:20

Fourth possible response: Acceptance and growth.

This reminded me of what we were looking at in Bible Study last night. In 2 Peter 1, Peter is writing a letter to a church that is surrounded by false teaching and as he lies on his deathbed he reminds them of the truth they have in Christ. One thing that came up in discussion was what makes you a Christian? And we concluded it wasn’t that you believed but that you believed and are fruitful (Look at 2 Peter 1:5-11 to see what that looks like), that you are active in your faith, which is a huge challenge when you think about it. I think Jesus illustrates just that in the parable above.

So can I challenge you, to think about which reaction you are going to take to the gospel or the reaction you have taken, and consider what’s best. Just let me, before you do that, remind you as Peter does:

“Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Therefore, I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have.” 2 Peter 1:10-12

Life, Death and Everything in Between so far…

I’ve just come back from serving a church alongside a group of students from uni. During those few days, a number of us shared how they came to know Christ and how God has been working in their lives. It made me realise the value of testimonies to reveal the power of God in your life. I’ve never really thought about my testimony, and when one of the team members asked me about it I decided it would be valuable if I had a go at it. Most people when presenting their testimony centre it around a certain period in their life but I’m just going to give it a go.

To begin with I think I’ve always been a Christian, I grew up in a Christian family and many of my extended family are also believers. There has not been a moment when I would deny having faith. I asked my Mum this morning if she remembers if there was a time in my childhood when I came to trust Jesus. She said that as early as three years old I told her I was friends with Jesus. So my story is one of periods of growth rather than massive leaps in understanding.

Through my early days Jesus Christ was my friend, I learnt about him and I prayed to him. I understood him as my protector and someone who loved me. My father had a significant role in the youth group programs at our church so I tagged along and hung out with the big kids, some of which I’ve run into in recent years. We moved when I was about 5 so I could start at a Christian school. At this stage I ignorantly assumed that everyone knew Jesus and I distinctly remember being confused that one of my friends in my class didn’t believe in God.

Moving into high school I was confident in my faith. I changed into the public system and confronted many things I hadn’t really been aware of before. Most of my friends had broken families, some had alcoholic parents. God really used me in these early days, I started high school without any friends and as I made them I brought them along to youth. I have to admit I invited them partly because there were few people in my age group but now I can see the transformations God has made in these people. I became so confident in my faith that I started inviting people to church that I would normally never speak to. In Christian Education classes I had noticed some of the ‘popular’ girls were asking hugely profound questions so I gave them John Dickson books and invited them to youth, although none of them came I prayed that they’d read the books.

As I reached mid high school, I was on fire for God. I revelled in his word and often shared it with others. I read it with people at school in recess times and prayed with people when they struggled. When my friends, even non-Christians, faced issues such as abortion and family struggles they’d come to me and ask me what my God said about it. I prayed for them.

When I was in year 10, I was at a stage where I felt most stable and established in life. I was getting amazing marks, I had a great group of friends, I had just been elected into the prefect team for the following year. Life was going amazingly. I was counting down the days to my 16th, when reality reared its ugly head.

I remember distinctly sitting in a meeting about our prefect induction, I was totally pumped about my birthday that weekend when my friend turns to me and tells me the news. All morning people had been talking about a car accident a few suburbs over, but she told me that it was one of my friends from primary school that had died in it. At 15, I had confronted death before, but only that of my grandparents which in a sense is more natural. It was one of those surreal moments when the news became a reality. So often i would let these tragedies just roll
over me but now when i hear them. i think of the effect this had on her family and friends and I pray for those affected.
This was someone who was the same age as me, who I knew, who I had grown up with and was just like me, I had learnt to ski with her and holidayed with her. She was someone who trusted Jesus just like I did.

I spent the rest of the week struggling with the injustice and the fragility of life. I was confronted with the concept that all the plans I had for my life could be thwarted just as easily. Her family all followed Christ, she had followed Christ, so why did she die? I didn’t go to school but instead I searched through my Bible and read every passage on death and eternal life. And one that stayed with me and I meditated on for hours was Job 1:21:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,

and naked I will depart.

The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;

may the name of the Lord be praised.”

I came not just to know but to deeply understand what was valuable in life. The life I had built up around me and the achievements I placed value in meant nothing in comparison to the eternal value of salvation in Christ. The death of my friend brought to light all the things I took for granted and the fragility of life on earth but also it revealed what is important in life. Every year on the day that she died, my best friend and I pray together and thank God for her and what He has taught us and we praise Him for what he has blessed us with. It’s a constant reminder that I’m not in control of my life but He is. That by his grace I am alive in this world and I should use that life to glorify Him instead of building up my own empire.

As I entered my senior years I was well aware of my desires to do really well and set a goal to keep going to youth, Bible Study and church regardless of how stressed I felt. The HSC year was one of the hardest for me. I’m one of those people that places pressure on themselves to get high grades, so when teachers started using their scare tactics it lead to a number of emotional breakdowns. During that year, my relationship with God fell into a routine that fit in between my study, instead of being the centre of my life, it became the peripheral that calmed my breakdowns.

When I reached the end of the HSC I realised how I had compartmentalised God. He was still a part of my life but I didn’t entirely trust him with everything, and I had been seeking approval and respect from my peers through my grades. I started to struggle with bouts of guilt which plagued me throughout my first year of uni as well. During this time I was really challenged by Pauls attitude in Philippians:

“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ-the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”
Philippians 3:7-9

I noticed how my Bible readings had become shallow and so I started this blog, where I planned to post things that forced me to reflect on the word of God. The funny thing is, I started this blog with selfish intentions – to enrich my personal relationship with God, to feel that fire I had in my early years of high school. It was about satisfying myself. But then, a friend of mine started asking me questions about my beliefs, I began the “Itching Questions” tab for him. And as he questioned me, I had to do research of my own and I came to learn and understand that my purpose in life was not to merely satisfy myself, but to find that satisfaction by seeking to glorify Jesus Christ and through that I would find fulfillment and all that I needed.

Late last year, my Nonna grew very ill. She had a heart attack and miraculously survived but still with great suffering. She was a faithful follower of Jesus but a hater of the medical industry. She refused to get help so as a family we took turns looking after her. During that time, I prayed really hard and often for her. She was someone I really loved and respected, she had always seemed strong and invincible to the extent that her heart attack at 92 came as a surprise.

For months, all my aunties and uncles took turns babysitting her. She often had difficulty sleeping and would often wake up crying out to God to stop her suffering. It was a great time of tension and conflict with many family disagreements and regrets. Just when she was looking better she had her second heart attack early this year. I spent many hours by her hospital bed. I read her Psalms and sometimes we’d sing her hymns. She moved in and out of consciousness. Even through these times she cared more for her kids and grandchildren than herself. She would asked me if I was hungry or wanted something to drink even if the breathes it took to say the words caused her pain and energy. In her struggles I was shown a woman who through her own suffering, continued to be self-sacrificial, placing the well-being of others before her own even on her death bed.

As her hours grew short, we were given a private room. Most of the extended family were there – and there’s a lot of us – a classic Italian family. Each of us were permitted to speak our last words to her alone. It is one of the most vivid memories of my life, trying to form the words to say what she meant to me. Instead, I held her hand and watched her short breathes, praising God for blessing this world with such an amazing woman and prayed that I could learn her self-sacrificial ways. Her death came as a comfort for me, because she loved Christ and her life was given to serve him. It is amazing the comfort in death Christians can have even to the extent that Paul struggled to choose between which was better, life or death:

“For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”
Philippians 1:21-24

Heading to University was the next stage and joining the Christian group there has lead me to realise that I had placed God in a grid and as I read his word I squished, twisted and folded it to fit what I wanted it to say. This year as I reflect on what I’ve learnt, I realise that the people I have met have challenged me to read God’s word for what it has to say, not what I want it to say.

After the conference I attended just a few days ago, Rory Shiner forced me to come head to head with my bouts of guilt. I had been struggling with the idea that I continually fail and don’t deserve God’s grace. I had fallen into the trap of trying to deal with these things thinking that it would make Christ accept me.

Rory preached from Romans 6:15-23. I realised that in Christ I am no longer a slave to sin, but a slave to righteousness. I had been freed from sin, but I had become the slave that still responds to her old master even though sin no longer owns me. Christ bought me at a price and freed me from sin so I no longer have to respond to it. Such a burden off my shoulders! So there’s a brief rendition of my testimony, I hope you are encouraged by the way God has worked in my life and I encourage you to think about your own testimony too.