Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Better than life

It's been a bit quiet round here lately.  It's not that I've more work to do than I used to have; it's just that it takes me longer to do it.  However, by the kind kindness of one of the Editors of the Evangelical Magazine of Wales (one of the very best Christian periodicals in the UK), I have permission to post some of the articles I've written for them over the years.  That should at least get us started: here's the first, 'Better than life'.

Better than life

'Life is good.'  I was browsing recently through the 'Friends Reunited' website, catching up on what has happened to some of my old friends.  After nearly thirty years, it's fascinating.  Some are living in far-flung parts of the world; others have been there and come back.  Some have suffered great illness or tragic bereavement.  Several seem to making a real success of their careers but are not nearly so successful in their personal lives.  But the comment that sticks most in my mind is the girl that said 'life is good.'  Even in our bleakest moments, most of us would admit to finding life better than the prospect of death; I'm reminded of Maurice Chevalier who when asked his reaction to growing old said 'I prefer it to the alternative!'  But there is something that is better; better by far than even the most comfortable of lives: 'Your lovingkindness is better than life,' said David the psalmist (Psalm 63:3).  It is a staggering claim, and David makes it in the full knowledge that his life is in danger as he flees from King Saul, who was determined to kill him.

David is not on his own.  Centuries later, another servant of God is in danger and makes a similar claim.  This time it is the apostle Paul, in prison for his faith and facing possible death.  If he were to be given the choice to live or die, he says, he would hardly know which one to choose, because 'for to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain' (Philippians 1.21).

It is not just the great saints who feel like this: ordinary New Testament believers, we are told, 'joyfully accepted the confiscation of [their] property' (Hebrews 10.34).  Why did they do this?  'Because [they] knew that [they] had better and lasting possessions.' For the same reason, believers accepted suffering and rejoiced in it (Romans 5:3) – even when it led to martyrdom.  It is one of the best kept secrets in the world: knowing God, knowing his love poured out in our hearts, is the very best thing that the life can offer.  There may be great costs to being a Christian: sin has to be turned from, ambitions may have to change.  Suffering and rejection may come.  But all these things have been found by Christian people to be as nothing: not just (just!) because of the peace that having sins forgiven brings, and not even because of the assurance of heaven.  Rather, it is because of the joy of knowing God himself.  'Your lovingkindness is better than life.'

Raymond Lull

Raymond Lull was the first missionary to the Moslems – he was born in 1235.  In 1314, as a man of almost 79,  his love for Christ was burning brighter than ever.  He returned quite deliberately to an area of North Africa where he had preached as a younger man and known much danger. For nearly a year, he laboured secretly among the little circle of converts that he had won over previously to the Christian faith.  Then, weary of seclusion, he stood in an open market where once he had been chased out, and proclaimed Christ knowing full well that it would cost him his life. Filled with fury at his boldness, his hearers dragged out of town and stoned him to death on 30th of June 1315.  Why did he do such a thing?  'Your lovingkindness is better than life.'

Devotion like that can only come from an appreciation of the love of Christ, and there are many such stories, even in our own day.  John Piper quotes the story of a man from Haiti, named Edmund.  His church was having a special offering, and one envelope contained $13 cash – equivalent to three months' income for a working man and at least as striking,  therefore, as a three or four thousand pound gift would be in our own land.  One of the church leaders, knowing or guessing where the gift had come from, looked round for Edmund in the meeting but could not see him.  Later, though, he met him in the village and discovered that he had sold his horse to raise the $13.  'But why didn't you come to the meeting?'  he asked.  Edmund hesitated, and at first would not answer.  Finally, though, he admitted 'I had no shirt to wear.'  Why would a poor man – too poor to clothe himself properly – make such a gift?  'Your lovingkindness is better than life.'

In the light of this verse and those stories, there are two things that need to be said.

The first is that too many of us Christians today live at far too low a level.  Somehow, though we know God and rejoice in the forgiveness of sins, we have allowed ourselves to be seduced again by the world.  Perhaps we can say 'to die is gain' but we have grown to love the things God has given us in this world more than we love the giver.  We could not take joyfully the confiscation of our property.  We find it hard to make sacrifices, even for the sake of the gospel.  We have grown used to giving our tithe – surely it's enough?  And when the church has special needs, we will dip a little – a very little – deeper into our pockets to help.  And as a result of our worldliness, the Holy Spirit is grieved.  Our Christian experience is impoverished, our Christian witness is poor.  And the cause of the gospel languishes.  Only a radical re-thinking of our priorities followed by radical action will make any difference.  'My heart says of you 'Seek his face.'  Your face, Lord, will I seek.'

The second thing is addressed to those who do not know the Lord. Perhaps you're idly flicking through this magazine, wondering what Christianity is all about or why some people take it so seriously.  This is why: God made us for himself, that we might know him, love him and enjoy him.  He is infinite and eternal; there is therefore no limit to his goodness, to his power – and to his loveliness.  However hard we might try, the truth is we can never be satisfied with anything other than God himself.  As one old preacher said 'God made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him.'  Our sin has separated us from God – and that single fact accounts for all the misery in the world, and all the misery in our hearts and lives, too.  But God gave his Son, Jesus, to die for us, so that we might be reconciled to God.  That is the gospel; that is the good news.  And those who turn to him find him to be great and gracious beyond words.  They begin to know him, and enjoy him – and look forward to heaven, where they will love him and know him without any barriers between.  Do not let anything else keep you away from him, and away from the heaven he offers.  'Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man that takes refuge in him' (Psalm 34:8).


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