Real Worship by Warren Wiersbe

Holiday is looming and I’m scanning my shelves for some books to take away with me. There, near the bottom of the shelves, is a rather worn and ropey 30 year old paperback. It was part of a donation of books and didn’t seem to interest me at the time so it bypassed the ‘to read’ pile and went straight to the shelf. Now though, a few years on there seems to be a compulsion to get it down and read it. The book was ‘Real Worship’ by Warren Wiersbe and I am so thankful that I was able to read it this Summer.

Wiersbe sets out his stall early on. The reason he is writing this book is to correct a balance in the church. The problem is that we find it too easy to focus our attention and energy on the things we do rather than on the God we serve. The book pleads not to be misunderstood, ‘many of these things are good and important in the local church, but they are not good in themselves. They are good only if they are a by-product of spiritual worship.’ The call here is to live as worshipers of the king in all that involves.

The first section of the book begins with a definition and warning. Worship, Wiersbe puts forward, ‘is the believer’s response of all that he is – mind, emotions, will, and body – to all that God is and says and does’. To respond to God like this is going to make a difference that goes beyond an hour on a Sunday morning. That’s the warning. As Wiersbe points out, being a worshiper is to take up a ‘call to dangerous and costly Christian living’.

‘Real Worship’ is not a discussion about service style, musical preferences or whether we should use technology in our services. Instead, it is a biblical exposition of what it means to live as a worshiper of God under the titles of wonder, witness and warfare. I found the encouragement to wonder particularly helpful. It is so easy to pack God away in the box of our understanding and forget that we serve the God that is beyond all comprehension. Then think of the Gospel, Jesus, God’s Son coming as a baby, living a perfect life, dying in our place as a sin offering on the cross and then rising from the dead, ascending to heaven and coming again. Are there not deep mysteries at every step in this pathway that we simply cannot get our heads around.

Another area I really appreciated was the teaching on the place of community in worship. Wiersbe shows from the Bible that worship is something we do as we witness directly to God, but also as we witness to each other. in our very individualistic and consumeristic culture this is an element of worship that in increasingly missing in our day. It is too easy today to think that worship is just about me getting what I want or enjoy out of life and our Sunday gatherings and avoid the sense of community responsibility.

This is an exposing and, at times, painful book, but one that advocates a refreshingly biblical view of worship. You won’t agree with every detail, but I’m sure that if you read it with an open heart you will end it convicted and encouraged as a worshiper of the living God.

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Hardened hearts

My morning reading on Saturday emphasised to me the hardness of the human heart. It is shown in the history of Israel. This history is full of the amazing power, grace, compassion and faithfulness of God and alongside this the continuous rejection of God by his people.

The same pattern is found in the NT as Jesus the Son of God enters history as a man rejected by his people. It also continues through church history all the way to today. It doesn’t seem matter what the background or situation, people in all spheres reject God and plough their own furrow.

2 applications that struck me

  1. The need to pray for a soft heart – for me and for the church. We can be so hardened to God’s grace. We are so good at dismissing our sin.
  2. The need to pray for God to be at work as we reach out with the Gospel. There is a general malaise that is anti-God and dismissive of truth. We cannot penetrate this, only God can do that.

Is this really good news?

 

“When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other.” Ecclesiastes 7:14

Sharing at a recent desiring God conference, Krista Horning, a lady who was born with a rare genetic condition called Apert Syndrome, spoke about how she lives with disability. In this video she speaks about the lies that her disability tells her and contrasts it with the truth that God speaks through the Bible. It is interesting that one of the first truths she mentions is that God is in charge of her disability. She states that her disability is not an accident of nature, but part of who God has made her to be in his sovereign and perfect will.

Now such a statement can raise huge questions in our hearts and minds. How can God do that? Can God really be a God of love and allow, no, even will, these things to happen? Any frank conversation on the reality of God’s sovereignty in a world of suffering is bound to leave us feeling just a little uncomfortable with some of the conclusions that we must come to as we begin to wonder whether we really know what God is like. This has certainly been the case as I’ve written these posts and I think I am safe to assume it is probably the case for you as you’ve read them.

Yet, I am also convinced that the hope, peace and joy that we can know as we delight in the truth of God’s complete control of all things far outweighs the questions and difficulties that it raises in our minds. Here I just want to summarise the positives by pointing out how the truth of God’s sovereign rule over all things, including suffering of all kinds, transforms our understanding of suffering in the world.

Suffering isn’t accidental

If God is in control it means that accidents don’t happen. This world is not a random place running out of control where evil invades in a regular and unbridled fashion. That would be a hopeless position with no certainty as we faced the future. Instead, each moment would hold only the fear of ‘what ifs’. What if Satan got too strong? What if evil became too widespread? What if suffering became too intense?

Suffering spiralling out of control is not the future that Bible presents to us. Instead, we see that the God who made the world is still in control and firmly on the throne despite all the attempts to dethrone him and the widespread rejection of him. The future belongs to God; a God who is pure, perfect, holy and merciful. There is reason to hope because God is in control.

Suffering isn’t aimless

One of the most common verses to turn to in times of difficulty is this one in Romans, “And we know that in all things God works of the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Now, this verse is not a promise that life will only be filled with ease, health and material well-being, but that God has a purpose in every event in this world to bless his people with good things. The context roots this blessing in God’s great purpose is to make us like Jesus (Romans 8:29).

Hope spills over from this verse as we live in a fallen and sin-sick world. We are confronted by suffering on a daily basis, but how different it looks when we realise that the sovereign, holy and merciful God is working out good things through the presence of suffering in the world. We might not understand it, but we can know it and have hope. However, it is important to note that if God is not in control this verse is only an empty promise of hope that raises our spirits while at the same time condemning us to eternal misery.

If God is not in control of all things then we have to allow for the presence of at least some evil and suffering that sits outside of the will and purposes of God. That means that there could be or already are present in this world events and circumstances that have been placed there without God’s say so and, therefore, are outside of his control. Who can say that these evils won’t bring ultimate harm to God’s people rather than bless them with pointing them to Jesus and transforming them into his likeness?

However, the Bible does not bring this verse to us in the empty vacuum of an impotent God, but with the solid certainty of a God who is in charge, a God who reigns and God who far surpasses any other power and authority. God is so much bigger than all else we can think of. As a later verse puts it: ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ (Romans 8:31)

Suffering isn’t eternal

The Bible ends by giving us a glimpse into a glorious future for God’s people. It speaks of a new heaven and a new earth, a perfectly restored relationship with God and the end of suffering: ‘There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’ (Revelation 21:4). Isn’t it good to know that suffering will not be the eternal companion of God’s people, but just for the brief moment of this life?

Yet, even this promise can only be held out because God is sovereign over all things. Imagine the opposite; evil has free reign and rears its ugly head in whatever way it would like to. If God is not in charge, who can say that evil won’t pluck something out of the bag that God can’t handle, can’t wrap up and can’t destroy at the end of time? Who can say that evil won’t make a later appearance to ruin the new creation as its presence has ruined the current one? Only a God who is sovereignly in charge of all things, even evil and suffering, can bring any kind of guarantee that a time is coming where suffering will be no more.

Yes, I am often confused as I look at the world. I find myself wondering what is going on and my limited understanding and wisdom struggles to come to terms with the plan of God as it is played out on the tapestry of history. Yet, I am so thankful that in it all I know God is in control. There is reason to hope because we are not observing random emptiness, but the good purposes of God who is bringing the world to a place where, in Jesus, suffering will be a thing of the past.

So if God’s in charge, why does he allow evil to exist in his world and suffering to occur? More on that in later posts.

God ruled over the evils of the cross

I can think back to many moments in my own short lifetime where I have seen things that have shocked and appalled me. On one occasion I was watching the news. The story being told was about thousands of children who were starving due to the greed of government officials. As the pictures were shown of malnourished and helpless children the feelings of pity, compassion and anger were mixed deep inside me in a cocktail of emotions. These things are wrong and wherever we see such injustice and the consequences of evil we are right to be revolted by what we see.

Yet, none of these tragic circumstances, no matter how bad they get, should stir us and revolt us as much as the historical reality of the cross of Jesus. For, as the Bible clearly shows us, this was the greatest act of injustice and the most defiant act of evil ever to be experienced in this world past, present or future.

To see this we just need to come to the foot of the cross of Jesus and ask four questions. First, who is this man? The Centurion who had charge of the guard that day echoes the truth that the Bible declares time and time again, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’ (Mark 15:39). The crucifixion of the Son of God was not merely an act of human injustice, it was the ultimate fist-shaking act of human defiance against a sovereign God It was the epitome and climax of our rebellion against God. There can be nothing worse than that!

The second question is: what had this man done wrong? The writer of the book of Hebrews explains, ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin’ (Hebrews 4:15). Did Jesus do anything deserving of death? Absolutely not! It wasn’t just that he hadn’t broken any Roman or Jewish laws, but he hadn’t broken any of God’s laws either. From a legal standpoint there is no case that can be made for the death of Jesus, he simply did not deserve to die and shouldn’t have been crucified.

The next question we need to ask is: why wasn’t he let go? If you take a look at the records of those who received the death sentence in the UK before its partial abolition in 1965 and full abolition in 1998 you might be more than a little disturbed. This is not so much because of the number sentenced to death or the crimes they committed, but because of the number who were sentenced, killed and later found to be innocent. Here are two examples:

  • Timothy Evans sentenced to death on 9th March 1950, given a posthumous pardon in 1966.
  • George Kelly sentenced to death on 28th March 1950, his conviction was squashed posthumously in 2003.

As tragic as these cases are, it is possible to understand how the mistakes were made. A jury, made of twelve fallible people, listens to the evidence and sought, in good faith, to come to the right answer. These were mistakes, severe ones, but nonetheless honest ones. However, this cannot be said of those who tried Jesus.

The false evidence brought against Jesus was so fragile that even those who hated him had to throw it out (Matthew 26:59-60). In addition Pilate and Herod examined Jesus thoroughly without finding any reason for crucifying him. His innocence was abundantly clear and beyond denial. The reason Jesus was hanging on the cross had nothing to do with a declaration of guilt, but the feelings, fears and hatred of those who tried him. The cross of Jesus was nothing short of a wicked act of people abusing authority and influence and acting in rebellion against a holy God.

The final question we could ask to expose the evil of the cross is: how was he treated? Remember, Jesus was a man who went around healing the sick and caring for those who were hurting in all kinds of different ways. He had been straight with people, but had always done it from a heart of love. It is even more surprising then to see a complete lack of compassion in the way he was treated from the point of his arrest to his death on the cross. The temple guard beat and taunted him, the Sanhedrin spat at him and struck him, Pilate had him flogged and crucified, the Jewish leaders mocked and taunted him and even those who hung there next to him joined in pouring scorn upon him. His kindness was returned with brutality, his care returned with pain and his love returned with abject hatred. Has there ever been an event as wicked and evil as this in its extremes and injustice?

Having understood this it is startling to turn to the book of Acts and read the sermon that Peter preached just a matter of weeks after the cross. All the events of that day are fresh in his mind and you can hear it in correct accusation he brings, ‘You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross’ (Acts 2:23). Yet, that is not where he begins. Take note of these words, ‘This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge’ (Acts 2:23, emphases added). These are staggering words, because Peter is telling us that even the actions and events of this extreme act of evil were always firmly under the control of God. The cross was not an act of victory against God; instead, it only happened because it was in the supreme will of God.

These words in Acts 2 are not the only place in the Bible where this truth is revealed to us. In fact, it is a reality that saturates the pages of Scripture from the pictures, promises and pointers of the Old Testament through to the closing words of the book of Revelation. As we read the pages of God’s Word we can affirm time and time again that the cross was not a surprise, an accident or a mistake.

The cross was not a surprise

Surprises can be pleasant or unpleasant. One Sunday I came home from church to find a strange car in the driveway. When I opened the door to the lounge I found some old friends that I hadn’t seen for years. The next day was my birthday and my wife had organised their visit as a surprise. I hadn’t expected it or seen it coming. Just for the record, that was a pleasant surprise, but not every surprise is like that. Often hard and difficult things happen that we weren’t expecting. Is that what happened at the cross? Did Jesus get broadsided by a tragedy that he simply didn’t see?

It would be very hard to support this when we weigh up the words of the Bible. The Old Testament is full of pictures and promises of the cross. The most notable is found in Isaiah 53. Here we are told, ‘He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:5). Approximately 750 years before Jesus was born God was telling us what would happen to his Son; he would die and die painfully.

It’s clear too that Jesus knew this and went to Jerusalem with a clear understanding of what would happen. Mark summarises his teaching to his disciples, ‘He then began to teach them that the Son of Man [Jesus] must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again’ (Mark 8:31). Jesus didn’t hang on the cross wondering what had all gone wrong. Rather, he hung there because he knew what would happen and still he went to Jerusalem, still he allowed himself to be rejected, still he kept quiet before Pilate and still he didn’t call the angels to save him.

The cross was not an accident

Accidents happen. Things go wrong when we meant them to go right and often the consequences are extremely painful. Take a hammer, a bunch of nails and a piece of wood. It doesn’t take much hammering the nails into the wood before your arm gets tired, your aim goes off and the hammer will come crushing down on your tender and unprotected thumb. Ouch!!!! Don’t worry the throbbing stops after a few hours and thumb nail will grow back again. So was this what happened at the cross? Jesus meant to do something else, leisurely and easily, but instead the hammer slipped and he ended up with the brutality of the cross.

Certainly not! That’s the statement of Scripture. The cross was as intentional as you can get. Back to Isaiah 53; ‘it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer’ (Isaiah 53:10). God the Father meant for Jesus, his Son, to die on the cross. It wasn’t an accident.

Similarly, we are told in Luke’s Gospel of a change in Jesus ministry, ‘As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem’ (Luke 9:51). Jesus was going back to heaven, but before he did there was a job to do in Jerusalem. From other statements in the gospels we know that Jesus recognised this work as his death and resurrection. He intentionally went to Jerusalem on that Sunday with the sole purpose of dying on the cross later in the week.

The cross was not an accident; it was an intentional act of a sovereign God.

The cross was not a mistake

Well, if the cross wasn’t a surprise and it wasn’t an accident was it all a mistake? Look at Jesus hanging there all bloodied and torn and tell me that some part of you doesn’t want to ask, ‘what’s gone wrong?’ Certainly that was the way his disciples felt. Jesus had come full of miracles and powerful words. He had the potential to turn Judea upside down and now here he is hanging on a cross. It must be a big mistake and now evil has won the day.

No, that’s not how the Bible puts it; and it is not how we should see the cross because the cross was not the victory of evil over God, but the supreme and final victory of God over evil. Notice how Isaiah puts it, ‘he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:5). The death of Jesus achieved something that could not be achieved in any other way, the saving of sinful people from God’s judgment for sin.

The cross was not a mistake because it was the central activity of God’s rescue plan for rebellious sinners like you and me. This rescue plan is first shown to us in Genesis 3:15 and we are shown its awesome completion when Jesus returns and brings his people into the New Heavens and the New Earth (Revelation 21-22). The work was done and the rescue completed 2000 years ago as Jesus hung on a piece of wood just outside Jerusalem, then buried in a tomb and on the third day rose again. As Jesus put it, ‘just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up [reference to the cross], that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life’ (John 3:14-15).

The sovereignty of God over all things is not an abstract truth without any bearing on us. Previous posts, I hope, have shown that it has bearing on the realities of life in a fallen world and here we see that it is interwoven into the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection. The cross is filled with hope because God is a sovereign God and he intended for it to happen. The glory of the gospel is not that Jesus died because God could not save him. Rather, it is that God knew what he was doing, ordered every step and sent his Son to die on the cross to destroy sin and death so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. Now, that’s glorious!

God rules over the persecution of the church

Several years ago my wife and I went to a missionary talk that focused on the difficulties faced by Christians around the world as they are persecuted for their faith in Jesus. As we listened we were burdened to pray for those in far more difficult situations than ourselves and were compelled to sign up for a prayer bulletin. Since then, it has become our practice to use this bulletin each morning when we pray as a family. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve read the words with a broken heart, barely managing to keep my voice together.

Today many in Christ’s church are experiencing horrendous ordeals. Some congregations are interrupted by the sound of machine guns being fired on them. Others need to keep a watchful eye out for the next bomb that might be planted in their meeting place. Parents have their daughters stolen away to be married to men they don’t know and forced to renounce Jesus. Rape, pillaging, injustice, hatred, violence and much more are the risks that many believers face around the world on a daily basis. Even the authorities often back, or at least do nothing to prevent, the perpetrators of this persecution. On a human level it seems hopeless.

Why do these things happen? The Bible reminds us that this world is the arena of a battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness (Ephesians 6:10-18). The explosion of this reality affects us in all kinds of ways. Why are there attacks on Christians in the workplace? Because of this battle. Why does a child who has committed her heart to Jesus face bullying for her faith? Because of this battle. Why does the church in certain countries have to hide away for fear of the authorities? Because of this battle.

When persecution comes we shouldn’t be surprised. In fact, Jesus tells us that as Christians we should expect a level of persecution in this world. How else can we interpret words such as these, ‘All men will hate you because of me [Jesus], but he who stands firm to the end will be saved’ (Mark 13:13 NIV)? We are in a battle and find ourselves on a different side to the rest of the world, therefore we should expect to be under attack.

Yet, how should we understand this battle? Where is God in all this hardship? The Bible is clear as it teaches us about God’s place in the battle between light and darkness. He is not fighting in this battle merely as one who has the potential to win should things go right for him. Instead, we are to understand that he is supreme in the battle. He is in control and could end it at a single stroke. He is in charge of every aspect and that includes the persecution of his people.

We can see this truth etched all over the Bible and all over history. In the book of Exodus we find God’s people, Israel, going through a period of persecution. A new king comes to power who has no knowledge of how Joseph and God have served Egypt in the past. The Egyptians are in fear of a growing people and the result is, ‘they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor’ (Exodus 1:11). The battle between light and darkness is flaring up and God’s people appear to be on the sharp end of it.

Yet, the Bible shows us that God is in control even in these events. Years before God had given Abraham a prophecy: ‘know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years’ (Genesis 15:13). Here God explained to Abraham precisely what will happen to the people of Israel, even down to the length of their persecution. How can he say that? One answer would be to say God knows the future. That is certainly true, but that is only half the answer. Biblical prophecy is not so much a statement from the foresight of God, but a statement of the intention of God. It is an intention that always comes true because he keeps his word and, as we consistently see in the Bible, he is in sovereign control of history.

Another way that we see God’s control of the situation is in his treatment of Pharaoh and Egypt. He commissions a man named Moses to tell Pharaoh to let the people go. Pharaoh says “no” and this precipitates a series of ten plagues sent by God as judgment on Pharaoh. At the end of each plague Pharaoh has an opportunity to obey God, but he consistently refuses. However, the Bible tells us that this refusal is not only his own doing. At the start of the plagues we are told that Pharaoh hardened his heart, yet later we are told, ‘the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart’ (Exodus 9:12). What does this tell us? God is not the author of evil, but he is in control of it. Pharaoh was as much under the jurisdiction of God as anyone else.

Lastly, we see God’s control over this time of persecution in his eventual victory. After ten plagues Pharaoh relented and agreed that the people of Israel could leave and go back to the land of Canaan. It wasn’t long, though, before he changed his mind and decided to chase them down. He tracked them down by the Red Sea. The Israelites were faced with the sea in front of them and the marauding Egyptian army behind them. Yet, they were on God’s side. He separated the sea so that they could walk across and then he brought back the waters to engulf the entire army of Pharaoh. What do we see here? That in the end Pharaoh and whole of Egypt had no answer to the power and might of God. He, and he alone, is the sovereign King.

Acts 4 also shows us God’s control over persecution. Here the early church have encountered the first major barrier in their evangelisation of the world – the antagonism of the Jewish authorities. Peter and John have been hauled up in front of the Sanhedrin (the same council so instrumental in bringing Jesus before Pilate) and ordered to cease from preaching about Jesus. When they return from their ordeal the church turned to God in prayer, and what a prayer it was!

What is remarkable is that they don’t pray for the persecution to end. Instead, they remind themselves that God is completely sovereign and ask him to give them the strength to be faithful in the middle of the persecution. They quote Psalm 2, a song that speaks of a sovereign God whose will is carried out whether the rulers of the world like it or not; they remind themselves that Jesus’ death was the outworking of God’s will (more on this in the next post); and they throw themselves on the Lord in their situation. There is no doubt in their minds – the persecution they know is not an accident and it is not outside of the realm of God’s control.

Another pointer to the sovereignty of God over the persecution of his people is found in the results of the oppressive treatment that Christians and the church undergo. As the second century preacher Tertullian observed, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Many have been inspired and much has occurred for the glory of Christ through the persecution and death of his people. Satan throws his worst at God’s people and all he does is help to build the church. How ironic is that?

In Acts 7 Stephen is stoned. The result: the church spreads and many hear the gospel. In 1521 Martin Luther was hidden away in a castle to prevent him from being killed. The result: the translation of the New Testament into German and the writing of many books that helped the people to see the core truths of the gospel. 1954 foreign missionaries are expelled from China. The result: the church grows at an extraordinary rate with millions coming to faith. There is a pattern here. Over and over, from the jaws of the enemy’s apparent victory comes the triumph of Jesus, the King of Kings.

Persecution is a reality that the church will face to greater or lesser degrees across the world. It is a painful and distressing thing, particularly for those who undergo it, but also for those who watch on. It raises many questions that God’s word answers with the continual reminder that God is in control.

The book of Revelation was given to encourage churches, many of whom were undergoing persecution. Near the beginning of this vision given to John by Jesus he is shown a great big picture of the throne of God (Revelation 4). It is a sovereign, indestructible and untouchable throne. What a comfort to be reminded that God has all things in hand and the enemies of Jesus will never win the battle.

A not so nice guy

Last month Oprah Winfrey welcomed Joel Osteen, the Texas pastor, onto her show ‘Oprah’s Lifeclass’. I was surprised to hear that a ‘christian’ pastor was on an Oprah show so I watched some clips and later Osteen’s sermon, The power of I am that had made such an impression on Oprah. I wanted to share my reflections on this experience.

First, let me say that from a presentation point of view this was incredible. Osteen is slick, funny and comes across as an extremely nice guy. I can see why thousands might flock to hear him each week and many more will tune into his TV shows. He made you feel good and feel special. However, when you weigh up the content of his message it is a different story.

The best way I think I could summarise this message would be to call it the ‘gospel of positive thinking.’ Osteen’s main teaching point was to instruct us to declare positive things about ourselves. His premise, “Whatever follows ‘I am’ is going to come looking for you.” If you say good things about yourself your life will be transformed and you will have a better future. However, if you say bad things about yourself then you will end up being locked in a cycle of hardship and difficulty.

There were many things that concerned me, not least his mishandling of the Bible. For example, at one point in his sermon he referred to the 12 spies who returned to Moses from Canaan as a biblical proof of his claim for positive thinking (Numbers 13). However, it is quite clear that the problem with the 10 who gave a bad report was not, as Osteen claims, that they thought inadequately of themselves, it was that they thought inadequately of God. Caleb and Joshua didn’t have the right ‘I am’ they had the right ‘He is’.

Apart from the problem of Bible interpretation, the two main impressions that I was left with were these. First, Osteen’s message is hopeless. There can be no doubt that positive thinking does make a difference in our lives. How we think affects how we feel and, consequently, how we act. Yet, the Bible is clear that there are lots of negative things that are true about our lives and need to be faced up to. Most notably, we are sinners and deserve God’s judgement. To say otherwise is both to lie and to cover up what needs to be exposed so that we might bring it to God to be dealt with. Positive thinking doesn’t change reality so if that’s all there is we are without hope.

Second, Osteen’s message is Christless. After listening to this message I was shocked. The name of Jesus wasn’t even mentioned once as Osteen spoke. When he gave the invitation at the end for people to commit their life to Jesus my thought was; who’s Jesus? This was the killer for me. A lot of what was being said would be helpful and true if only two words were added to those ‘I am’ statements. ‘I am strong.’ No that’s a lie, but, ‘In Christ I am strong’ – now that’s true. ‘I am approved by God.’ Well, that’s a bit woolly because I’m not sure what you mean, but, ‘In Christ I am approved by God’ – now that is 100% correct. ‘I am somebody with a great future.’ Is that true? This is: ‘Because of Christ I am somebody with a fantastic future.’ The Bible is so clear, it is Jesus that makes the difference in our lives and it was Jesus that Osteen never pointed us to, never showed us and never even mentioned.

The Bible says that people ‘will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear’ (2 Timothy 4:3). Sadly, that’s what I heard in this message. Here was a talk that made you feel good and told you that you were amazing, but didn’t point you to Jesus. Instead, it numbed you to Jesus. That’s not what we need, it’s not helpful and it’s not nice.

God rules over sickness

As a pastor I often find myself visiting the various hospitals around Swansea. This is not something that I find easy. Don’t get me wrong, I count it a privilege to share with people in their moments of need. I find it a joy to love and serve people by pointing them to Jesus. I find myself blessed by these visits – probably far more than they are blessed by having me visit them. However, I cannot escape the fact that hospitals are full of sick and injured people and, as such, are places of often terrible suffering.

I sense the same tension as I visit people in their homes who haven’t been able to make it to our Sunday gatherings due to long term sickness. It is great to see them, a delight to serve them and an encouragement to meet with them. Yet, there is also a sense of deep sadness and a desire to weep as I watch on from the outside and see the suffering they are going through.

Where do sickness and physical impairments come from and why are they here? Do you ever ask that question? When we look at the beginning and the end of the Bible we see that illness and pain were not part of God’s original blueprint for humanity nor part of his eternal plan for the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21:4). So why are they a reality today? Is it because God is helpless to change things?

As we read the Bible it should be clear that this answer is incorrect. There are reasons for suffering and many of them apply to sickness and physical problems, but one of them is certainly not the weakness of God. In the Bible God demonstrates that he is in control of this realm as well as every other realm where we can experience suffering.

This can be seen in three accounts in the Bible. The first is an account we have already looked at: the suffering of Job. In the book of Job we encounter a faithful follower of God who suffers in a devastating way. At the beginning of the book Job loses family, property and physical well-being and is left in a grieving and painful condition. His wife challenges the consistency of his faith in God and this prompts one of Job’s most well-known statements, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10).

It is important to note that Job’s words are more than a reminder of the continuation of Job’s faith. They are also a clear declaration that the circumstances of his suffering, loss and illness, are firmly under the sovereign control of God himself.

But, is that strictly true? In Job 1 we eavesdrop on a conversation between God and Satan. As a result we know (although Job doesn’t) that Satan has challenged God about the faithfulness of Job and that God has given Satan permission to stretch out his hand against Job and inflict him with sickness. Could Job’s statement be misguided and based on his own ignorance of the situation? No, as shown in an earlier post, Job 1 teaches us that Satan is the agent of Job’s suffering, but God is the one in control.

One of the lessons of Job is that Satan can go no further than God allows and permits him to. The devil cannot touch Job’s home, family or body outside of the limits that God has set. Job is not sick because God has been duped by the trickery of Satan. Rather, not one ounce of Job’s suffering can occur outside of the will and permission of God.

God’s sovereignty over physical impairment is also shown in an encounter between Jesus and a man who was born blind (John 9). The disciples begin the conversation with a probing question. They ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Their question reflects a common view of the day that the presence of suffering was a sign of God’s displeasure and judgment for sin. Jesus replied as follows, ‘”Neither this man nor his parents sinned,… but this has happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life”‘ (John 9:3).

Jesus’ response dispels a simplistic view of the reasons for suffering and affirms God’s sovereign purpose in the man’s blindness. Clearly Jesus teaches here that there is not a “one size fits all” response to human suffering. It may be that suffering is a direct or indirect result of personal sin, however there are also many other reasons that the Bible gives for suffering in our lives. This is something we have to bear in mind whenever we seek to answer the ‘why’ question.

Whatever the specific purpose for the suffering of this man, it is as important to see that Jesus does not deny, rather he affirms, that God does have a purpose in it and, therefore, is sovereign over it. The man is not blind because God made a mistake. Instead, we are to see his blindness as part of the outworking of the plans and purposes of a sovereign God.

In Luke 7 we meet a centurion whose servant is sick and about to die. He sends a delegation of Jewish leaders to Jesus asking him to come and heal his servant. Jesus agrees and sets out for the centurion’s house. Before he gets there the centurion sends another delegation, this time some friends, with this important message, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof… say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Luke 7:6-7 NIV). His reasoning is insightful: “for I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes” (Luke 7:8).

The centurion is a man who understands authority from both perspectives. He has people over him and knows that when they speak he must obey. He also has men under him who must listen to his command. He understands that Jesus is in a position of authority, but authority with a difference. The authority that Jesus wields is not simply over a few men within the army, but over the whole of creation, including the sickness that is ravaging the body of his servant. He understands that when Jesus speaks the sickness must listen and obey, no questions asked.

At the end of the encounter we see that the centurion wasn’t mistaken in his understanding about Jesus. Jesus’ words aren’t recorded in Luke, but the outcome is. The friends return and find the servant restored to health, not ‘being restored’ but totally and immediately healed. Jesus commanded and the sickness obeyed. These aren’t two powers battling for prominence. Jesus is clearly in charge and sickness must follow his orders.

Illness and physical impairment is something that is greatly feared today. We spend billions on research as we attempt to come up with the latest cures and medical techniques, yet, ultimately, we are losing the battle. No cure is certain, no recovery is definite and in the end something will ‘get us’. This is something that we cannot conquer, but then it is not something we need to; for, as the Bible teaches, God is in charge and has all things within his grasp. Not one germ can affect my body, not one cancer cell can develop within me and not one blood vessel can be damaged outside of the will and permission of a good and perfect God.