Do not be afraid


2014 was a dark year for me, by God’s grace and with a lot of support from my wife and kids I lived through an awful valley of depression. Thankfully, I am now doing OK, but the experience has caused me to reconsider some of what I read in the Bible in a new light. One such thing is the exhortation to not fear:

Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you. (Deuteronomy 31:6 ESV)

Do not fear or be in dread, the Lord your God goes with you. He will not leave or forsake you. For those of us who live in the ambiguity of faith and depression these are astonishing words.

An impossible command

Firstly, to be depressed and told not to fear or dread is an impossible thing. Fear, dread, anxiety are hallmark traits of this mental illness and those who are unwell cannot prevent these emotions and associated thoughts from occurring. Yet the Bible consistently commands us to do the impossible, for example:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, (James 1:2 ESV)

Normal people do not consider it joy when things are going badly, they get upset, annoyed, grumpy and sad. Joy in such situations springs either from some sort of delusion or from a hope or goal that is unaffected by the current circumstances. The command to have joy or to rejoice is rife in the New Testament (e.g., Matthew 5:12, Romans 5:3, Philippians 4:4).

What is the point in commanding something that is humanly impossible to fulfill?

Moses, the prophets, the apostles and God Himself are well aware of our weaknesses and that while we might be willing in spirit to live a life of purity, holiness and discipleship, in the messiness of real life it is usually only a short time before we stumble and fail to live up to our high aspirations (see Mark 14:38). This is true for each of us as individuals and even on a national scale for historical Israel.

Failure in obedience to God is inevitable. But sometimes we are like Peter and cannot be told, so have to experience failure first hand. Then once we are faced with the shattering truth of our failure, inability and sin, we say to God, “don’t come near me, I am too sinful” (see Luke 5:8). At this point we are given the promise of God’s presence:

The LORD your God who goes with you.

The unshakeable promise

Like the kid facing a bully whose Dad says, “Don’t worry, I will come with you”, God promises to cross over the Jordan river with the Israelites to face their enemies in the land of Canaan.

This is the God who parted the Red Sea and destroyed the Egyptian army, who opened the earth to swallow those who challenged His authorised spokesman, and provided food for the horde of Israelites in a desert for 40 years. God is powerful, well worth having beside you in a fight.

How about when the ‘enemy’ is from within? When my fear is fueled by my own heart and mind? God’s power and strength are great, but I am anxious that such strength could crush me.

In Jesus we see more of God than power alone, He is also gentle and carries us in our despair:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;

(Isaiah 53:4)

Jesus also promised, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5) and “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Even in the depths of despair when it feels as if God has deserted me, I can trust that He determined long ago not to do so.

An unseeable promise

But I still do not see or sense God near me. This is not surprising when God is described in the Bible as “the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), and “eternal, immortal, invisible” (1 Timothy 1:17) with Jesus telling us that, “No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18).

What did Jesus mean when He said, “I will never leave you or forsake you” then about a month later ascended into heaven?

God is spirit, and Jesus had previously told His disciples, Nevertheless I tell you the truth: It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I go, I will send him unto you. (John 16:7 ASV). The Comforter, (also translated as ‘Helper’, ‘Counselor’, ‘Advocate’) is the Holy Spirit and this is the One who is promised to never leave us or forsake us.

As Spirit we cannot interact or sense God through our physical senses. However, we are not only physical beings, we have a spirit too and God gives life to our spirit through rebirth by faith in Jesus as the Son of God. This means that my spirit can commune with the Holy Spirit who is always present.

I may not be able to feel it through my senses, but I can worship God, pray to Him, cry out to Him and be heard and helped by Him all in the realm of the spiritual no matter what my physical, mental or emotional state. He will not leave, He will not abandon me, and He can strengthen me by His Spirit. Fear and despair may come, but in my despair God’s power is undiminished and His resolve to be with me and strengthen me step by step, breath by breath through the darkness is backed by repeated promises through the Bible.


Image: iStock

When I am weak

when-i-am-weak

As we stare down the rapidly looming freight train of Christmas, it drags with it the realisation that 2014 is almost at an end. Frankly, I will be happy to see the last of this year, or at least the difficulties it has contained. To quote Queen Elizabeth II, for me 2014 has been an ‘annus horribilis’. This year brought weakness and brokenness in my mind and soul of an intensity that nearly did me in.

Recovering from such a place has taken most of the year, and while I’m now much better it has left a sharp awareness of vulnerability along with some fear of ending up in such a mess again. It has been hard work to implement changes of lifestyle to improve chances of recovery, but much of the improvement is due to other people helping me, especially my wife. I suspect that it is by God’s grace that I did not fall so low while I was single and had nobody close to spot when I needed help.

There are many such graces which I now notice looking back over the valley we are emerging from. These attest to God having been with me despite my inability to perceive Him while passing through the darkness and gloom. This also reminds me of some parts of the New Testament where our human weakness is highlighted as having been taken into consideration in God’s plan for our salvation:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6 ESV).

There are times when we do not have the ability to even cry out to God for what we most desperately need, yet He has already preempted such times of desperation by taking our weakness and sin upon Himself so that even the barrier of being weak is no longer a barrier between us and Him. I consider this one of the most hopeful truths of the Gospel; that being weak, foolish, sinful, or despised need not keep us from God. And that nobody in the Church has the right to boast as if they get God’s favour by their own merit because in truth none of us do, or ever will:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Corinthians 1:27–29 ESV).

The great thing about this is that within the body of Christ (the Church) we all have various times of relative weakness and strength so when one member is weak those who are in a place of strength at that time can walk alongside and lift the weaker one up for a while. We all have ups and downs and I am convinced that it honours God more to ask for help when we need it than to feign strength and walk in falseness and pride, refusing assistance despite it being obvious to others that we need help.

A theory of relativity

Ancient Roman Bronze Coins - The Widow's Mite

Once upon a time there was a golden land of equal opportunity, universal free education and profound egalitarianism. A level playing field ensured that everyone could be fully productive and reap the fair reward for their labours.

(Oh, and nobody got sick so they all remained equal.)
(Also, everyone had the same IQ.)
(Furthermore, the government and leaders were impeccably fair to all.)
(And nobody had social disadvantages stemming from inept parenting.)
(There were no inherited diseases.)
(Accidents never disabled anyone.)

You probably get my drift – “Life isn’t fair. We tell our children that it is, but it’s a terrible thing to do. It’s not only a lie, it’s a cruel lie. Life is not fair, and it never has been, and it’s never going to be.”1 This applies not only in good books and movies but also in real life. Some folks are bigger, stronger, more intelligent, better looking, luckier, and wealthier. Regardless of where you are at in life, there will be somebody who is better off than you according to whatever standard you choose to measure such things by.

Fortunately, in God’s economy the ideals of fairness and justice are based on better foundations than the incomplete measures we generally use2. Jesus describes God’s assessment of how well we have done in both absolute (see John 5:30) and relative terms:

And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41–44)

God will certainly hold us each accountable, but it will be in accordance with the gifts, abilities and opportunities we have been given rather than in comparison to what others might achieve. In this sense, God uses relative standards to measure our achievements.

In these days of Facebook and Pinterest comparisons, this is a huge comfort and corrective for those of us who perceive ourselves to be somehow disadvantaged in the popularity and ‘success’ contest. God will judge me, not according to what I achieve in comparison to others, but according to what I do with what He has given me. Will I be a faithful servant to Him or will I slack off and waste His gifts?

Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required (Luke 12:48)

Who would want to stand before God in judgment fumbling for excuses to justify wasting the life He gave? When I consider this it opens my eyes to understand how much I have been blessed with, in contrast to wallowing in self pity as happens when I look at my weaknesses compared to the apparent strengths of others. In fact, even weakness may be given by God for purposes only He knows:

…I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:8-10)

What I must keep in mind is that the strength God gives in my weakness could be a ‘just enough’ strength; enough to get through but not so much that I begin to boast in having strength to cope with anything life throws at me.3


1. Quote from The Princess Bride by William Goldman 
2. Romans 2:16 and 2 Corinthians 5:10 illustrate this.
3. As with the widow of Zarephath; God blessed her with enough to feed herself, her son and Elijah but the provision was only ever just enough and by our standards quite meager (see 1 Kings 17:8-16).

Hounded by His help

God is on my case.

He knows my weaknesses, failings, indulgences. He sees when I fold my arms in complacency, monitors how my time is spent. Hearing my claims of piety, He replays them as I turn my back to Him. Feeling my hand slip from His, I am allowed to go – for a brief time.

Soon I hear the baying of His hound. Jesus doesn’t let His sheep stray far before rounding them back up. He confronts me with my wrong priorities and narrow, self-interested obsessions.

For this I am glad. Being reminded yet again that it is so much simpler and easier to follow Him than to attempt cutting my own path through a wilderness of confusion.

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
(Matthew 11:30 ESV)

I am ashamed to admit it, but sometimes I can’t be bothered putting in the effort to follow Christ. It seems so much easier to watch TV or surf the web or just be like the secular folks around me. I want to follow Him, I think about it a lot, I talk about it. But when it comes to putting aside worldly things and coming alone to God in prayer, I neglect Him.

Actions speak louder than words. My actions indicate that God does not ‘do it for me’. They indicate that I’d rather let myself be distracted than to worship Him.

The silly thing: I was mostly unaware of how bad I’d gotten. He gave me a sunny day, a frowning mother-in-law, a pail of paint, a wall needing painting, and an audiobook on an ipod. With all these in place God nudged me outside and caused my scrolling to stop at what He wanted me to hear – E.M. Bounds on Prayer and Praying Men.

I was convicted on my feeble prayer life. Even more, I was accosted my my lukewarmness. Weeds have sprung up and the embers are cooling, I am in a dangerous place!

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.
(Revelation 3:15–16 ESV)

Behind my cooling passion for prayer and the Bible and being in God’s presence is a perceived lack of strength to do these things. Yet this is foolish – nobody has the strength to serve God – we must serve in His strength. I am crippled by sin, weak in my human nature. To serve God in passion and holiness I need Him to lift me up.

Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.

Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
(Isaiah 40:27–31 ESV)

Gifts I have noticed recently:

867) Being ridden on as a “daddy dinosaur”.
868) Son giving me happy spontaneous hugs.
869) An afternoon weeding the garden – good for my soul.
870) Pizza for dinner.
871) Bus driver waiting when he saw me running.
872) Finding a good book to give my daughter.
873) A quiet day at work.
874) Several early nights in a row.
875) Watching ships cruise past from our front window
876) Finishing one of many painting tasks needing done.
877) Colleague swapping shifts with me after I double-booked my time.
878) Bellbirds and tuis singing.
879) Paper to write on.
880) Walking.
881) Autumn sunshine.


Photo of bloodhound: iStock
Photo of helping hand: iStock

Love in pain

Recently I have been a bit stuck for what I should be writing about. There are some topics I’d like to address, but I’ve felt as though this is not the correct time for me to venture my as yet partially-formed thoughts on certain issues.

Then this morning while my son trashed our house and I enjoyed a cup of tea, God reminded me that the greatest thing I can do is to know Him, to meditate upon the perfections of Christ and to share the glory of this with you.

Perhaps the most obvious of Christ’s perfections is his love. I want to consider the love of Jesus even in His pain.

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
(John 13:1-5 ESV)

Jesus loved His disciples not only through many weary miles of ministry on dusty roads, He loved them through their betrayals and in His deepest times of agony. He loved them to the end.

At this time when He knew His betrayer had ‘gone over to the dark side’ and He knew that His disciples would all scatter and run from Him, Jesus continues to love. He does not retreat into being wrapped up in His own trials and misery, He does the opposite. Laying aside the clothing of a man, Jesus takes the place of a servant and voluntarily undertakes the most demeaning of tasks.

The act of washing feet introduces Christ’s final discourse to His disciples. Jesus has much to communicate to them, but the overall message is “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). The ultimate example of His love is yet to come, this command is given knowing that He indeed will not shrink back, that He will love them to the end.

Jesus is fully God. He is also fully man. This means that the pain of following through on what love required hurt Him every bit as much as it would hurt me. I have no grounds to dismiss what Jesus endured as being impossible for me because I am not God – He experienced the pain of it just as much as I would. In that pain He continued to love. Through pain Jesus made good His promises. In agony He forgave. While being tortured He refused to call upon angels to take the easy way out.

When I am in pain you see me at my worst. I will be irritable, short tempered, selfish, unkind to others, refuse to forsake comfort, impatient and withdrawn. What I will not be is loving.

This is sin.

It is dishonouring to Jesus.

Such behaviour reveals my lack of trust in God.

Paul proved that it is possible for a man to love through pain (2 Corinthians 4:7-18), the cost is high but the gain to everyone is beyond our usual ability to measure things:

For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:11 ESV)

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 ESV)