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Time to change

Is it possible for people to change? How do we cope with things we’ve done in the past which we deeply regret? Our society can be very unforgiving. The lives of those in the public eye are unmercifully scrutinised. Things which people said or did in the past, or posted on social media, are discovered and reported as if they alone define a person. None of us can stand up to that kind of scrutiny before the court of public opinion. Such judgements may also be hypocritical. The Apostle Paul wrote, “You have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”

Th ultimate issue for each of us is not the judgement of other people but the judgement of God who sees and knows everything we do. The psalmist reflects on this in Psalm 130, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.”

In responding to recent important issues reported in the news it has been said that if someone apologises for what they did in the past they deserve a second chance. This gives people an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and to change. In the Bible such a change of mind is called repentance and has to do with our relationship with God. We repent when we hate our sins and forsake them because they are displeasing to God. This change of mind turns us towards God and enables us to understand why Jesus died on the cross. He took the punishment our sins deserve and in his great love died to pay the price of our sins. This is the reason Christians love Jesus as their Saviour.

A modern hymn expresses this love. “Wonderful grace that gives what I don’t deserve, pays me what Christ has earned, then lets me go free. Wonderful grace that gives me the time to change, washes away the stain that once covered me. Wonderful love that held in the face of death, breathed in its final breath forgiveness for me. Wonderful love whose power can break every chain, giving us life again, setting us free. And all that I am I lay at the feet of the wonderful Saviour who loves me.”

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Perfect love drives out fear

The desperate and tragic scenes at the Hamad Karzai International Airport in Kabul have vividly portrayed what terrorism is all about: producing terror in men, women, and children. The ordinary people in Afghanistan are in profound fear of the Taliban and thousands want to flee from their home country to avoid savage punishments or death for alleged offences against Sharia law. Taliban means “students”, who have been schooled in conservative Islamic teaching and are committed to militant Islam. The development of the Taliban in Afghanistan has been encouraged and financed from outside the country.

One of the accusations Jesus faced was from conservative Jewish leaders who alleged that he and his disciples didn’t keep the “traditions of the elders.” Over the centuries various Jewish religious leaders had added to God’s Law hundreds of their interpretations of that law so that keeping their “traditions” had become more important than the Law itself. Jesus said their “traditions’ contradicted God’s Law and made it null and void. The conservative religious leaders hated him for this. All religions are liable to such gross distortions and become especially dangerous when imposed on people by religious zealots.

Early one morning Jesus was teaching a crowd in the Temple at Jerusalem when a group of strict religious leaders appeared. It was one of the great annual pilgrimage feasts and they brought with them a woman they said they had caught in the act of adultery. They told Jesus that the law of Moses said that such women should be stoned and asked him, “What do you say?” They were trying to trap him into either contradicting the law of Moses or offending the Roman authorities who didn’t allow the Jews to carry out capital punishment.

Jesus knew these men were hypocrites. They had brought the woman, but had let the man go free, and were pointing their fingers at the woman to conceal their own sinfulness. So, he said, “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” God’s love in sending his Son to pay the price of our sins creates in the hearts of all who experience it a profound gratitude and a deep love for God.

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God’s moral law matters

For the past 16 months we have lived under emergency laws made by the Government to protect us from the Covid-19 virus. Most people have kept these laws and recent events have revealed the strong disapproval felt towards those who break them. Ordinary people, who have kept the laws, resent people in power breaking them and demand that they pay the price for doing so.

However, it has also become clear that fundamental moral laws, for example about adultery, are now seen as being of little importance. Breaking a temporary man-made law about social distancing is more serious than sinning against God. The deep pain and distress experienced by marriage partners and children when marriage vows are betrayed is profound and long lasting. The dysfunctional nature of our society, and of many individual lives, can be traced to the fact that we have set aside all the Ten Commandments.

Jesus was fiercely criticised by the religious leaders of his day because he didn’t keep the hundreds of petty rules they had created, called “traditions”. Jesus accused them of hypocrisy because their man-made traditions had become more important than God’s Law. He asked them, “Why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God? For instance, God says, ‘Honour your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you say they don’t need to honour their parents and so you cancel the word of God for the sake of your own tradition.”

Only when we face up to our sins against God can we experience his forgiveness. Jesus showed mercy to those who had broken God’s laws. One day the religious leaders brought a woman to him whom they had caught in the act of adultery. They said that according to the Law such women should be stoned to death. Then they asked Jesus, “What do you say?” He replied, “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left with the woman still standing there. Jesus said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. Then Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and leave your life of sin.”

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Finding forgiveness

The lives of some well-known people are coming under critical scrutiny. In the past statues have been erected to men who did notable things that benefited the societies in which they lived. Now, however, attention is being drawn to the bad things they did, including being involved in or supporting the evil slave trade.

William Gladstone was a 19th century Liberal politician who is the only person to have been British prime minister on four separate occasions. After slavery was abolished in Britain, Gladstone campaigned for slave owners, such as his father, to be compensated. Later he called slavery the “foulest crime” in British history. His family, who are not opposing the removal of his statute in Hawarden, have said, “By 1850, he was a changed man and cited the abolition of slavery as one of the great political issues in which the masses had been right and the classes had been wrong.”

The lives of us all are a mixture of both good and bad things. Some of the things we have done are very seriously wrong, but should we be forever defined by these bad things or is it possible to really change and become a different person?

When we critically judging the actions of others, we also need to look at ourselves. Jesus warned against hypocritical judgement saying, “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.”

Final judgement belongs to God who judges justly. Our sins matter and no-one will escape his righteous judgement. Yet, in Jesus, God also reveals his mercy and grace. Every sin can be forgiven, and the experience of God’s forgiveness is life changing. In Psalm 130 the psalmist is in the depths of despair because of his sinful failures and cries out to God for mercy. He says, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.”

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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 love of money

There is an epidemic of child gambling. The Gambling Commission says that 450,000 children aged 11-16 bet regularly of whom 55,000 are “problem” gamblers. This represents a quadrupling of child problem gamblers in two years. The average stake is £16 a week each. Experts blame the sharp increase on the explosion of television adverts. Betting company adverts dominate the commercial breaks in televised Premier League football matches. 60% of the teams in the Premier League and Championship now have betting companies’ names on their shirts and receive large sums of money for doing so.

The exploitation of children and others by betting companies is shameless and is attended by hypocrisy. Betting companies say, “It means more when you have a bet on it” and “Betting should only enhance the enjoyment.” Even while encouraging people to place a bet, including offers of a free first bet, they encourage people to “bet responsibly” and say, “When the fun stops, stop.” In an effort to reduce gambling addiction Italy and Albania have recently placed restrictions on the activities of betting companies and football teams.

Betting companies make big profits for their owners and shareholders and most gamblers lose money they can’t afford to lose. I remember meeting a young man who had received compensation for serious injuries he had sustained in a road accident. A good friend had died in the accident. He told me he had been depressed and had started gambling online. When he lost money he would place another bet in the hope of recouping his losses. In a short time he lost all the money he had received. Some young problem gamblers have even taken their own lives.

In perfect justice, God will judge those who use their wealth and power to exploit the poor and vulnerable. The book of Proverbs says, “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the Lord will take up their case and will exact life for life.” We all need to guard against the temptation to want to be rich and to help and protect young people who are being tempted. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

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Finding God when we fail

In 2011 the Coalition Government in Britain defined what they saw as fundamental British values. Schools are now at the forefront of promoting “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.” The values are all important, but are they succeeding in making us more tolerant of other people?

Whilst we all know that others must make allowances for our failings, the standards we demand of others are very high. We don’t tolerate failure. Politicians who fall short must resign. Heads of large organisations, both private and public, must be held to account for the failings of everyone under them. Managers of football teams who do not deliver the success the owners and supporters demand are sacked. Yet all who resign, or are sacked, are replaced by equally fallible people!

Jesus gave special encouragement to those who had failed. He was severely criticised, and ultimately condemned to die, by self-righteous, hypocritical religious leaders. They were extremely intolerant of those who failed to keep the man-made rules they had imposed. But people who knew they had failed by breaking God’s commands were drawn to Jesus. He gave them hope of forgiveness and a new beginning.

Jesus told them a story to show what God, his heavenly Father, is really like. He is wonderfully gracious and offers us a second chance when we seriously fail and mess up. In the story a son rebelled against his father, took his share of the family inheritance and went to a distant country where he threw himself into wild living. He denied himself no pleasure but soon spent all his money and was struggling to survive. Then he came to his senses and realised he had to go back to his father and admit that he had sinned against him and against God.

While he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and am no longer worthy of being called your son.” But his father said to the servants, “Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet and kill the fattened calf. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.”

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The wonderful offer of forgiveness

Today well-known public figures are subject to scrutiny as never before. Those who stand for major offices of State, for example to be President of the USA, can expect details of their private life to be made public and to be critically assessed. The reason for this is to see if their public persona and private life match. What they have said or done in the past is seen as a reliable indicator of the kind of people they really are.

It is not only public personalities who experience inconsistencies in their private lives. All of us are familiar with the struggle to live a private life that is consistent with our public image. When we are away from the public gaze it is only too easy to drop our guard and to do and say things we would not do if people were watching us. The fact that we don’t want people to know the wrong things we have done in private is a sign that we are ashamed of them.

In God’s sight there is no distinction between our public and private lives. Our whole life is seen and known by him. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable.” Jesus said, “For everything that is hidden will eventually be brought into the open, and every secret will be brought to light.”

Religion can sometimes be a cloak for hypocrisy. Some people who take a strong public stand for righteousness do not live according to the standards they lay down for others. Cult leaders, with many followers, have sometimes been exposed as men who have used their power to satisfy their sexual desires and greed for money. Jesus spoke against the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day who performed good deeds “to be admired by others.”

None of us can stand in the face of God’s scrutiny but, in Jesus, there is the promise of his grace and forgiveness. In Psalm 130 the psalmist says to God, “Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive? But you offer forgiveness, that we might learn to fear you.” It is a wonderful thing when we experience God’s undeserved love and grace and know that there is no longer any need to pretend because we have confessed everything to him and he will never count our sins against us.

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Living in the Light

The News of the World has been published for the last time. After 168 years, the most widely read newspaper in Britain has closed because of a scandal over alleged phone hacking and bribery. The decision to close the newspaper may not to be an act of contrition on the part of the owners, expressing sorrow over what has happened, but rather a hard-headed business decision which seeks to limit the damage done to the parent company.

Many people are very interested in knowing what happens behind closed doors. We are told that people have “a right to know” and that exposing the weaknesses of prominent people is “in the public interest.” This scandal has revealed the lengths to which some people are willing to go in order to pry into, and then expose, the private affairs of celebrities, politicians and even victims of crime. The hacking and bribery was done in secret, but has now been brought into the open. The hunters have become the hunted.

Jesus warned people against the danger of hypocrisy by which we pretend to be something we are not. He said, “The time is coming when everything that is covered up will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what has been whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear.” He was referring to the day when God will judge everyone’s secret lives. Ultimately we are all accountable to God.

Jesus also warned against hypocrisy in religion when people do things in order to win the praise of other people. He said that people who give money to help the poor should not “blow trumpets in the synagogues and streets” to call attention to their acts of charity. He said that although such people may receive praise from other people, they will not receive praise from God. Then he said, “But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.”

The words of Jesus challenge us all. Instead of finding pleasure in the weaknesses and failures of others, our lives need to be open before God. We need to live in the light as God is in the Light.

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Do not judge

The teaching of Jesus is very challenging. The Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapters 5-7, can make uncomfortable reading. In that sermon Jesus said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as 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.”

Jesus had observed something in the people amongst whom he lived which is true of us today. They had no televisions, newspapers or internet, but they loved to talk about the sins and failures of other people. They highlighted even minor blemishes and talked in a self-righteous and negative way about others. In doing this they conveniently overlooked their own sins and failures, which were often much more serious.

Much of the news we read and hear today focuses on the alleged failures and sins of politicians, sports men and women, famous, and not so famous, people. The intimate details of their lives are exposed to public scrutiny, all in the cause of the “public interest.” It is strange paradox that on the one hand we have, as a society, cast aside God’s moral law and on the other we rigorously impose our own version of morality on others.

We need to take the teaching of Jesus to heart and begin with our own lives. This is true for us all whether we are religious or not. Are there big issues in my life which I am conveniently overlooking? Am I quick to point out the faults in others to draw attention away from my own faults? How would I cope if the same standards I use where applied to my life? Can my life stand the scrutiny of God’s all seeing and all-knowing judgement?

Personal integrity begins with self-examination and a humble recognition of our own faults. This makes us aware of our need for God’s forgiveness through Jesus and makes it possible to get alongside others who have the same frailties we have.