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Facing fear and vulnerability

Michael Johnson, the retired American sprinter, had an outstanding athletics’ career. He won 4 Olympic gold medals and 8 World Championship gold medals. He held the world and Olympic records in both the 200m and 400m and the world indoor 400m record. He is the only athlete in history to win both the 200m and 400m events in the same Olympics. After retiring from athletics, he opened Michael Johnson Performance centres and became an athletics’ pundit on BBC Sport. He has always made physical fitness a top priority; eating healthily, drinking alcohol moderately, exercising regularly and watching his weight.

In early September 2018, however, he suffered a TIA – a transient ischaemic attack. He lost mobility and co-ordination in his left side and in the days after it took him 15 minutes to walk 200 metres – the same distance he often ran in under 20 seconds. Thankfully Michael has made a good recovery. He approached his rehabilitation with the same determination he approached training during his athletics’ career and after 4 months he was paddle-boarding, rowing, cycling and running.

For the first time, he experienced fear and vulnerability because neither he nor his doctors could explain why he suffered the stroke. He said, “I can’t say I’m totally comfortable being vulnerable. I’m still working through this need I have to be superman. My persona, personally and publicly, has been that I have got everything under control, and I don’t need anyone else’s help, don’t need anyone’s sympathy. I don’t like sympathy or empathy. Now I have been faced with the vulnerable position of not being able to walk. Needing help to do that and some regular normal daily activities was tough for me. But I realised that in order to get back to where I needed to be, people’s help was something I was going to need and to open up to.”

Michael’s honesty highlights the fears and vulnerability we all experience. In Psalm 56 David, who was a great military leader, said, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in God.” The Apostle Paul, who was a man of great energy, suffered what he called a “thorn in the flesh”, a physical weakness with which he had to live. But God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So, Paul said, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

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God’s laws are good

In the UK and the Western world, we are experiencing a moral revolution. There is now a new morality. What, from the beginning of time, has been regarded as morally wrong is now morally right. What was morally right is now morally wrong. Positive words are used to give the impression that this is all for the better. Promoting the new morality is “progressive”. Politicians often tell us that what they are doing is “the right thing to do.” This seldom means doing what is morally right but rather that they are pursuing what they believe to be the correct policy or action to deal with a problem. The new morality involves key words and ideas; “freedom”, “choice”, “respect”, “tolerance”, “discrimination”, “phobic”, “hate”. Armed with these concepts you can justify almost any action and present anyone who disagrees as a religious bigot or being out of touch.

But morality is fundamental to the lives of every one of us and to any society. Being honest matters. Working hard is good. Sexual purity is precious. Being faithful to our husband or wife is vital to personal happiness and social stability. Respecting people who are different from us is a fundamental principle. To disagree with people of another faith or of another sexual disorientation is not “phobic” or “hateful” but arises from personal moral convictions and spiritual beliefs. A Muslim may fundamentally disagree with a Christian who believes that Jesus is the Son of God, but he isn’t being “Christian-phobic”. Nor do fundamental disagreements always lead to hostility. I have Muslim friends. We like and love one another. Love transcends fundamental differences of religious belief and lifestyle.

Those who promote the new morality present it as an absolute standard and are intolerant of anyone who dares to disagrees. People who disagree may be attacked, hounded or denied the right to speak. God has been removed from the scene. There is no vertical dimension in the new morality, no ultimate accountability, no place for God and his moral laws. In his book “The God Delusion” Richard Dawkins quotes the atheist Bertrand Russell saying that when he met God he would say, “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence.” Did this very intelligent man really believe that he would talk to Almighty God on equal terms?

God’s two great commandments are a sure guide for life and the secret of true happiness. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and love your neighbour as you love yourself.”

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Blessed are the merciful

There are strange contradictions in our contemporary society. On the one hand, a previous morality has been swept aside and people now tolerate things that earlier generations regarded as morally wrong. On the other hand, people in the public eye who fall foul of the moral judgements of social media are mercilessly attacked. Their faults are magnified with no possibility of being able to put things right. Social media morality is the new absolute.

But the reality is that all of us make mistakes and do wrong things. Pointing out other people’s faults can be a way of deflecting attention from our own faults. Jesus warned his disciples about hypocritically judging other people. He said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

We all need to find God’s forgiveness for the many wrong things we do. The Bible reveals that God is merciful. In Psalm 130 the psalmist says, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” The Apostle John wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

When we experience God’s forgiveness, we must be ready to forgive others. In the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus underlined the importance of this when he said, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Our lives and our society would be transformed if we could regain our moral integrity by being honest about our own sinfulness and also being merciful towards others who, like us, fail and sin. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

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The God of second chances

In our world today the price of failure is high. A political leader whose party loses an election or referendum is expected to resign. A Premiership football manager whose team has a bad run of results is sacked. The chief executive officer of a major company or bank that performs badly will lose their job. People demand and expect success at all costs and, if it isn’t achieved, there must be a scapegoat; someone who takes the blame.

But the fact is that we all fail and do so repeatedly. We need to know how to cope with our failures and to understand that we may learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. The Bible tells us about the experiences of people who failed and who were restored by God. Many of the great people in the Bible had times when they seriously failed. God is revealed as the God of second-chances.

King David is described as a man “after God’s own heart.” He wanted to honour God in everything he did and to please God always. He was a genuine man with many strengths. The psalms David wrote, like Psalm 23, have brought comfort and help to people from many nations. Yet there was one very dark episode in David’s life when he succumbed to temptation and committed adultery with the beautiful wife of one of his bravest soldiers. Afterwards he behaved disgracefully as he tried to cover his sin and this led to the death, in battle, of the husband. Then David married the woman, who was carrying his child. The Bible’s verdict on David’s actions is clear, “The Lord was displeased with what David had done.”

Yet, when David faced up to his sin and guilt, God graciously restored him. David wrote about that experience in Psalm 32, “Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty! When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.”

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First take the plank out of your own eye

Political leaders in the Western World, and those who aspire to office, face a relentless scrutiny of their personal lives. The press and media investigate their past and present conduct and often reveal potentially damaging facts about their behaviour. Usually the things revealed are viewed in the most negative way possible in order to damage the person’s credibility. Did they behave well when they were students? Have they paid all the tax they owe? Have they had illicit sexual relationships? Do they tick all the boxes of the present “political correctness”?

It is legitimate for those who will hold high office, and the power that goes with it, to be scrutinised. It is appropriate for the actions of our leaders in major events of national and international significance to be examined, as has been done by Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry into the Iraq War. The key issue, however, is not whether someone has ever done something wrong but their personal integrity and honesty.

The Bible honestly reveals the flaws in some of the greatest leaders. Abraham, the Father of faith, lied about his wife Sarah. David, Israel’s greatest King, committed adultery with the wife of one of his bravest soldiers and arranged the death of the man to hide his own sin. Peter, one of the leading apostles, denied that he knew Jesus despite having promised that, if necessary, he would be willing to die for him. The truth is that all of us are flawed. All of us have done things that we deeply regret and of which we are ashamed.

Jesus taught that, before we begin pointing out the faults of others, we should honestly examine ourselves. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

The Bible also teaches the wonder of God’s grace. When we fall into sin, as we all do, we can confess it to God and experience forgiveness and restoration. God’s promise is, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.“

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It’s not cricket!

Moral standards are changing. There was a clear example of this in the first Ashes Test between England and Australia. The match was at a critical stage when Stuart Broad edged the ball and was caught by a slip fielder. The umpire did not see the ball hit Stuart’s bat and said he was not out. Stuart knew he had hit the ball, but stood his ground and continued batting, to the dismay of the Australian team.

In the past it would have been accepted practice for a batsman who hit the ball and was caught, even though the umpire did not see it, to declare himself out. This kind of integrity gave rise to the phrase, “It’s not cricket”, which describes unacceptable behaviour, something which is just not done. When the television pundits discussed the incident, many did not condemn Stuart’s action. Their reasons were that the umpire’s decision is final; other teams do it; or other team members would frown on any action which jeopardised their chances of winning the match. As it happens, the extra runs scored by Stuart and his partner after the controversial incident did mean that England won the match.

The Ten Commandments set out God’s moral principles. They are commands, not good advice, and form the essential moral basis for all human society. One of those commands is, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.” Truthfulness matters to God, who sees and knows all things. Stuart’s actions were witnessed by tens of thousands of spectators and millions of people who watched the endless television replays and analysis. He knows, and so do we, that he acted dishonestly. In the heat of the moment he did the wrong thing.

It is easy, however, to stand in judgement on others and not to face our own personal responsibility for what we do. How should we respond when we do wrong things? We must never try to justify our wrong actions and certainly not try to change the rules so that what was wrong is now right. The way to put things right is to acknowledge our sin, to seek God’s forgiveness and, with his help, to promise never to do it again. The Bible says, “If we say we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and refusing to accept the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong.”

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The Importance of Personal Integrity

A number of prominent people have been in the news recently because of allegations against them of immoral or criminal behaviour. This has led to a discussion about whether what a person does in his private life really matters as long as he is competent in fulfilling his public duties. The idea is that in his personal life a man may tell lies, be unfaithful to his wife or be dishonest in personal financial matters, but can still be a suitable person to hold office in business or government. As long as a man has the ability to do the job then his character doesn’t matter.

It is important to avoid hypocrisy by pretending that we ourselves are perfect and without fault. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pointing the finger at someone else can be a cover for facing up to the serious failings in our own lives. The Apostle Paul wrote, “If you think you are standing strong, be careful, for you, too, may fall into the same sin. But remember that the temptations that come into your life are no different from what others experience.” The Bible and our own personal experience teach us that we are all very fallible people. Some of the great men and women in the Bible committed serious sins.

However, the idea that our lives can be divided into two watertight compartments called “private” and “public” is a great mistake. Our essential character will reveal itself in every part of our life. Good character does matter. Being “economical with the truth” and acting immorally corrupts both the individuals who do it and the governments and businesses to which they belong. Sadly it has become an accepted part of life today. The greatest sin is not doing what is wrong, but being found out!

True integrity, for each of us, begins with being honest with ourselves and being honest before God. Many of us are practical atheists. We need to look into the mirror of God’s Word in the Bible. “For the word of God is full of living power. It is sharper than the sharpest knife, cutting deep into our innermost thoughts and desires. It exposes us for what we really are. Nothing in all creation can hide from him. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes. This is the God to whom we must explain all that we have done.”