Spiritual heart surgery

Recent major news stories have all been about really bad things that are happening in our world today. In Syria the indiscriminate bombing of eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, has killed than 500 people in a week with thousands more injured. Women and children are hiding in basements while the White Helmets bravely try to rescue casualties. A Serious Case Review into grooming gangs in Newcastle has revealed the systematic sexual abuse of 700 vulnerable girls. A 19-year-old man gunned down 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and wounded others. Major relief agencies have disclosed cases of senior employees abusing women in countries struck by natural disaster.

The responses to these situations have proposed a number of helpful things such as a UN resolution for a cease fire, more gun control, seeking a better understanding of different cultures, better safeguarding procedures, transparency, and more training of relief personnel. But it seems clear that the problems of our human condition go much deeper and affect us all. As human beings we have both the capacity for great goodness and kindness and also the ability to commit acts of unspeakable cruelty and wickedness. Why do we all struggle with the darker side of our nature and personality?

The Bible teaches that human beings were created by God in his image but that our first parents rebelled against God by breaking his command. As a result of their disobedience sin and death became universal features of life in this world affecting all people. Our relationship with God has been fractured and we have a constant bias towards what is wrong. The fundamental problem is internal and has to do with our hearts, that is our inner desires and motivation. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?”

The Bible also tells us that God has provided a solution to our deepest need. The prophet Ezekiel gave the people a wonderful promise from God, “I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.” The Apostle Paul experienced this great change as he was approaching Damascus on a mission to arrest and imprison Christians. He saw a vision of the risen Jesus and became a new man. Later he wrote, “Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”

VE Day Remembered

This week is the 70th anniversary of VE Day when, on 8 May 1945, Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies. As World War II in Europe came to an end celebrations erupted from Moscow to Los Angeles. In Britain more than one million people celebrated on the streets of London. King George VI and the Queen, accompanied by Winston Churchill, appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret were allowed to join the celebrating crowds incognito.

It is no wonder there were great celebrations. The dark years of World War II, the deadliest conflict in history, were over in Europe, and 3 months later the war in the Pacific also ended. During the War the Allies lost 61 million people, of whom 45 million were civilians. The Axis countries lost 12 million people, including 4 million civilians. Many millions of people were also injured.

The history of the world reveals the constant reality of evil and wickedness. In every generation wicked people kill and maim men, women and children in pursuit of their own evil ambitions. Every day we hear reports of the wars and conflicts in our world today. Will it ever come to an end?

The Bible answers this question and provides a coherent view of history. The universe didn’t come into existence by chance, but by the creative act of God. He created the heavens and the earth. Everything he created, including men and women, was good. In early history, however, sin entered the world as the first man, Adam, disobeyed the command of God. From that time on sin and evil have always been with us and stem from our rebellion against our Creator. The course of human history reveals the tragic consequences of this rebellion.

In his Son, Jesus, God decisively intervened in the history of the world to bring hope to the nations. By his death on the cross Jesus defeated death and the devil and brought a new age of hope for the peoples of the world. He sent his disciples into all the world to preach a message of good news and hope to all. As they have received Jesus as their Saviour, people from all nations have found peace with God and hope for the future. One day the Kingdom of God will be consummated and “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.” What a celebration there will be when that day comes!

The March of the Living

Jewish people from Britain have taken part in the “March of the Living” event in Krakow, Poland, to mark the 70 years since, on 15 April 1945, British troops liberated the people in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Bergen-Belsen, near Hanover, was a place where tens of thousands of people died in horrific circumstances. Those who died, many of them women and children, included Jews, Czechs, Poles, anti-Nazi Christians, homosexuals and Roma gypsies.

There were no gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen. The people died of disease: particularly typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, dysentery and malnutrition. Margot and Ann Frank died there just a few weeks before the camp was liberated. It is estimated that as many as 28,000 of the 38,500 prisoners in the camp when it was liberated, subsequently died.

At the “March of the Living” some of the survivors told their stories. Mala Tribich, then known as Mala Helfgott, arrived at Bergen-Belsen with her cousin, Ann, in February 1945. Mala was 14 years old and Ann was 7. She said, “It was like something out of hell. There was a kind of heavy smog, and a foul smell, with skeletal figures shuffling everywhere like zombies. The camp was built for 3,000 but, when we arrived, there were 69,000 there.”

After leaving Bergen-Belsen Mala spent 2 years in Sweden and then came to Britain where she was reunited with her brother, Ben Helfgott, who is thought to be the only Holocaust survivor to win an Olympic medal for Britain. He was a weightlifter. Mala married and rebuilt her family.

The history of Bergen-Belsen reminds us of the depths of wickedness to which human beings can descend. The callousness of those who ran the camps and their indifference to the suffering of their fellow human beings is chilling. Bergen-Belsen also reminds us of the strength and help that only God can give us. Many of those who suffered and died in the camp were familiar with the words of the Jewish Scriptures in Psalm 23. Out of the deep darkness of the horrors they were experiencing they held on to the hope promised to them in God’s Word. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death; I will fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

In all their suffering he also suffered

The television programmes commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp brought home afresh the terrifying capacity of human beings to commit acts of great evil and wickedness. The systematic slaughter of millions of helpless Jewish people ranks amongst the darkest chapters in human history. They were first incarcerated in ghettos and then transported like animals to camps like Auschwitz where men, women and children were mercilessly gassed and then buried or incinerated. The emaciated bodies of those living in the camps clearly portray the diabolical treatment they suffered.

In contrast the programmes remembering the funeral of Winston Churchill, who died 50 years ago, reminded us that human beings are also capable of acts of great courage in confronting evil men and bringing liberty to many. Churchill was our greatest wartime Prime Minister who inspired a nation to stand against and, together with our allies, to defeat the megalomaniac ambitions of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. In the dark days following the Dunkirk evacuation, Churchill inspired a nation to rise from a massive defeat and to courageously confront, and ultimately defeat, a very powerful enemy.

Human beings are an enigma. Reflecting on the life of his grandfather, who was the commandant of Auschwitz, one grandson struggled to understand how his grandfather could be a kind and loving husband and father to his own family while at the same time he was supervising the merciless extermination of Jewish families. At a personal level we all struggle with the daily contradictions of our lives. The apostle Paul was conscious of this and wrote, “I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it.”

God has decisively intervened in our world to give us hope in the face of both the continuing acts of great evil and our daily personal struggles. He cares deeply for those experiencing great suffering. The prophet Isaiah spoke God’s word to his suffering people, “In all their suffering he also suffered, and he personally rescued them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them. He lifted them up and carried them.” These words of comfort were ultimately fulfilled In Jesus Christ who died in our place. On the cross he suffered the punishment our sins deserve in order to redeem us and give us hope. As one hymn says, “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.”

Love your enemies

The life and teaching of Jesus Christ was radically different. He was not chiefly concerned about his own interests, but about the interests of others. He lived in a nation which was dominated by the Romans, who were cruel and oppressive to the nations they conquered. The people amongst whom Jesus lived hated the Romans. This was understandable because the Romans had occupied their land, robbed them of their freedom, and made them pay taxes.

Yet Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?”

Today we hear many reports of violence and wicked acts done in the name of religion. Those who are not of the same religion are treated as enemies to be attacked and even killed. This is done in the name of righteousness and with the expectation that those who do it will receive an eternal reward. In the past wars were fought in the name of Christianity and empires were established by “Christian” nations. What happened was a contradiction of the teaching of Jesus.

The love Jesus taught is more than a kindly disposition, it is practical. He told a story about a Jewish man who was travelling on a lonely and dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was attacked by thieves, beaten, robbed and left half dead. A priest came down the road and passed by without helping him. Then a Levite priest did the same. But a Samaritan man, whom the Jewish people would have despised, took pity on the man. He bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn where he took care of him and paid the bill. Jesus said the Samaritan had obeyed God’s command that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves. Then he said, “Go and do likewise.”

I remember studying this parable with some Iranian Christians. When they understood what Jesus was teaching they said, “This means we must love the Iraqis!” They were right. Jesus’ teaching is radically different. We, too, need to ask, “Who are my enemies?” and “How can I show love to them?”