Category: Theology

Jesus goes out of his way to specifically find you (Mark 4:35-5:20)

Sometimes to me, the concept of “Jesus loves you” can feel a bit impersonal. It’s not an impersonal concept of course, but there can be something in us that stops us from thinking it applies individually and personally to ourselves. We might understand it intellectually – I understand that Jesus loves us as a group, enough to die for us even. But I find it harder to apply the concept to myself personally. Jesus loves me? With all my issues and sins and general losing-at-lifeness?

If this is you too, I feel you. I know it because the Bible tells me. But I find it hard to believe it because I know me.

But what today’s Bible passage shows us, is not someone telling us that Jesus loves us. It’s Jesus showing us he loves us – and specifically seeks people out, even in all their worst kind of mess.

In Mark 4:35, after teaching the crowds on the kingdom of God, Jesus says “Let’s go over to the other side.” That is, he wants them to cross the Sea of Galilee and go to the Decapolis, a series of 10 towns in what was a Gentile area. When a violent storm erupts, the disciples are terrified and Jesus sleeps soundly. They wake him and he calms the storm with a word.

Once he was rebuked the storm, Jesus turns and rebukes the disciples. “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?

I find this very challenging. Because I fear a lot. I fear for a million things over my kids. I fear not having enough money to pay all the bills. I fear making mistakes at work.

What Jesus says is that the disciples fear is evidence of a lack of faith. If they understood who he was, they would not fear. The disciples do not yet fully understand who Jesus is, and Mark uses this to great effect as a literary device to bring the reader along the same journey. The way the disciples pose the question “who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” places the reader in their shoes so they too are asking the same question.

Of course only God rules the waves. In Psalm 89:9 it says “You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them.” It’s similar to the the Pharisees having asked “who has the authority to forgive sins but God alone?” when Jesus interacted with the paralysed man. So the reader is starting to get it, even if the disciples are a still a bit slow.

For me though, I need to re-remember who Jesus is – because I do know, and yet I still fear. Fear is very natural, and it’s not as though we’re not supposed to fear. But for us, fear should be a prompt to take things to God. Mental note to self: when I feel the fear, don’t start furiously plotting and planning and organising. Take it to God.

When they get to the other side, they are at a cemetery and a man possessed by demons comes to meet them. This figure is one of the most tragic in the whole Bible. He had been bound hand and foot with chains, but in his demented state had torn them off. Can you imagine? So tormented that he had actually torn iron shackles from himself. He must have been covered in cuts and scratches and blood and dirt. He was so anguished that at night he would cry out and self-harm, cutting himself with stones.

He sounds terrifying and tragic. If I saw him on the street – a drunken crazed man covered in cuts, I would avoid him and get away as quickly as possible. Everything about this man should have made any Jew run a mile – he is demented, he’s a gentile, he lives among the dead and he is covered in blood. Jews are not supposed to associate with Gentiles. Blood and death make Jews ritually unclean. And yet Jesus has specifically gone to find this man. How do we know this? Because they broke away from teaching the crowd to come here, and when Jesus has healed the man, they get back in the boat and go back (5:21). Which means Jesus had done what he went there to do. Which means that Jesus specifically went there to find and heal this man, and then leave again.

This isn’t me being told Jesus seeks out individuals. This shows me.

This shows me he has and will come specifically to find me where I am. It shows me that in all my mess, in all the things in my life that I see as unclean, impure, messy, shameful and embarrassing Jesus will walk through them to save me. To save me.

I need to remember that Jesus is that personal. I need to remember that he is that powerful. I am his and he is mine and when I fear, I am lacking in faith in who he is. When I fear (which I will) I need to remember who he is and the power he has. He has the power to calm the wind and the waves. He has the power to calm me and my fearful heart.

I need to practice this so the trigger to turn to God (instead of relying on my own ability to overcome the fear with planning and organising things) becomes instinctive. This is a part of the process of growing as a disciple of Jesus. It is part of re-visiting who Jesus is and what he came to do through Bible studies like this. I must always keep reminding myself that God is far bigger than I imagine him and far more personal.

Huge and transcendent, and yet close and personal.

Everywhere for eternity and yet close by my side.

Loudly present in our world, and yet quiet and still in my heart.

This is who Jesus is. This is our God. And this is who came to find us, personally and individually. This is the God who specifically sought you out.

This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12
  7. Week 7: Jesus made us a new family – does church really feel like that? Mark 3:13-35
  8. Week 8: Is fruitfulness something we do or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)
  9. Week 9: What will the kingdom of God be like? (Mark 4:21-34)

How anxiety can interfere with your relationship with God

Anxiety can manifest in different ways. A particular brand is a fear of people thinking badly of us. This can manifest as people-pleasing, mulling and stewing over things we should have done or shouldn’t have done and things we did say, didn’t say, how people will have taken things we did or didn’t say, or did/didn’t do or how they might have misinterpreted our facial expressions, messages and body language or how they might have disliked or disagreed with things we said or posted on social media.

You’d think the one place we could feel safe is with God, right? Wrong. Because there is a difference between what we intellectually know and what we believe to be true.

We know what we are supposed to think. We know what we are supposed to feel. And yet, when life is throwing us curve balls, it would be very easy to think its because we had displeased God.

Recently, life has thrown me some flaming missiles that felt like I was being dive bombed by enemy aircraft in an old war movie. Last year, I felt God’s blessing and providence palpably. I could see it in the many problems that were solved out of thin air. I saw it in the thousand kindnesses from random friends and strangers. My recent experience was the exact opposite. Unexpected bills out of nowhere – lots of them, and big ones. Things that were unjust and unfair all crowding in, heap on heap.

The result was tears and sleeplessness and a feeling that I had displeased God. Was I not faithful enough? Was I not obedient enough? Had he removed his blessing and providence? I don’t mean salvation – I know nothing will remove that. But I was left with this feeling that I had made God unhappy with me and so he had removed his providential blessings.

I know what you’re thinking. Of course that’s not the case. But let me talk you through the “logic”.

Last year I praised God for his providence and how he was heaping blessings on me in abundance. They came thick and fast. The timing was unfathomable. I knew they were from him. So this year, when tribulations came at the same rate and with similar conspicuous timing, I had to think these were also from him.

If blessings were from God, then the tribulations must also be from him. If the tribulations were just a product of a fallen world, then the blessings had to similarly just be coincidence. We can’t claim one and ignore the other. So, for the anxious person, if we are given blessings, then we are pleasing to God, and, if tribulations follow, then we are doing something to displease him.

What we need to unpick here is the logic.

I assume I have done something to deserve the tribulations – that I have displeased God somehow. But the truth is that tribulations are not deserved. Just in the same way that blessings are not deserved. No blessing is deserved but God is gracious to the humble – James quotes Proverbs when he says “But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”” (James 4:6)

Does that mean I have been overly proud?? That takes me back into that anxiety loop about things deserved.

What I realised is that my brain was doing the same somersaults that Job’s was doing. Job says to his wife (who is telling Job to curse God for the tribulations that have befallen him) “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10)

Throughout Job, his friends keep telling him that he must have sinned and that’s why God is visiting these tribulations on him. Job stays faithful by refusing to pay religious lip service – what his friends are basically telling him is to sacrifice for atonement on the off chance he’s done something. That’s not a heart thing. That’s an outward show of religion.

Of course what we know is that the book of Job is about whether a righteous man will stay faithful during the bad times as he stays faithful in the good times. I am not comparing our situations – I  am not suggesting that God and Satan are fighting over me in a spiritual courtroom. What I am reminded though, is that when tribulations come, I am focused on me and what I might have done wrong. While it is wise and correct to self-reflect and assess my motivations for things, it is not wise to be so focused (in my anxiety) on my own deficiencies and how they make me displeasing to God.

This over-emphasised self-focus is, itself, sinful. I know that sounds harsh. But thinking I am deficient and not pleasing to God assumes I know what is in God’s mind. I don’t. It assumes I know how he sees me – the only thing I know about how he sees me is that he loved me so much that he sent his only son to die for me. Outside of that, I am speculating.

So putting aside what I believe to be true (that I am deficient and God is displeased with me), what do I know?

I know that no blessings are deserved. That is not something to be anxious about. That is just a fact and there is no moral judgement in it.

Despite none of us deserving blessing, I know that God is gracious to us – not because we are pleasing to him but because he delights in it.

While God is gracious to the humble, his blessing is not a reward for good behavior, it is because it glorifies him. When he blesses us, we praise him and others can see his work in our lives.

So, what I also know is that on that level, this is not about me. This is about him.

So, if this is about him – when these things happen, I need to re-work the logic and remember to stop thinking about myself (especially in such a negative way). When I have re-worked the logic, I need to self-reflect a bit more dispassionately on my motivations to see if there’s anything I genuinely need to repent of. Then I need to re-focus back to God again and pray in Jesus’ name to help me and deliver me.

Our faith needs to stay in God, not the blessing. Because if too much of our faith is in God’s willingness to bless, we will too quickly crumble when tribulations occur. If too much of our faith is in God’s willingness to bless, it means too much of our faith is wrapped up in our ability to please God. And that’s not how God works. Sure, he requires us to be faithful and obedient, but his salvation, blessing and providence is not based on us being able to maintain a certain level of goodness – as though when we meet the bar we are blessed and when we dip below the line he removes his goodness from us.

To many this may seem obvious. To people of an anxious persuasion, this can be a useful corrective. This blog itself came from a process of self-correction.

Here is a super important point. When we experience low self-esteem we tend to fall into the trap of believing God thinks less of us. Then we will start to agree with this perception we have imagined. It becomes our new truth. Then we will wonder why God would ever love someone like us. And suddenly our self-esteem is in the basement. And so it continues.

This does not glorify God. In fact, this is where we have let Satan in. Because if our self-perception is so low, what we are witnessing to others is that our God only loves us when we are being super holy. Remember, in the Garden, all Satan had to do was sow doubt. “did God really say…..” (Genesis 3:1). This is how we fall into sin “Surely I am not good enough for God….Surely I have been displeasing to God…..”

This is hard for people with anxiety. It’s not a quick fix. Especially because when you’re in this state, it feels like you’re drowning in these thoughts and it’s hard to get your head above the water line. But please persevere. See your mental health professional. Talk to your Christian friends and pastors.  Admit out loud that you  are struggling with these feelings. Take the time to read scripture and pray – even if your prayer is just “Please God help me”.

Because God does not see you like you see you.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)

 

Is fruitfulness something we do, or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)

We humans love secrets. Secrets form the basis of most click-bait on the internet. We love whats new and novel, we love to be in the know. But only to a certain point it seems. If it’s a secret that means we know what others don’t, we can’t wait to hear it. If it’s a secret that means we have activities and obligations, suddenly everybody is backing away and not making eye contact.

I know I get nervous when I sense I’m getting myself into something that’s going to require my time and effort. Life is full. Like, it’s FULL. I work full time, I’m a single mum, I’m studying part time, oh, and I’m a blogger. Anything else? Nope. Nope. Nope.

I don’t think I’m alone in this and I certainly don’t have a monopoly on having a full life. We have learned to fill the gaps in our lives with stuff. Work, overtime, kids, pets, sports, housework, caring for older family members, second jobs….the list of things we can fill our time with is endless. So when we sense an obligation coming, our hearts sink. Even in our church life we can get “full up” – Bible study, pastoral care, making a meal for that friend who’s having a hard week, checking in on people, church events, prayer triplets….. There can be so much church “stuff” that this can feel overwhelmingly like a chore too.

Jesus himself said that we should be fruitful. This statement in enmeshed with the “secret of the kingdom of God”. Ohh a secret! Oh. Fruitfulness. <heart sinks>

But are these chores and time fillers what Jesus meant by fruitfulness? Is it something we’re supposed to do?

Let’s start with the secret of the kingdom of God. What is the secret? Strangely, the secret is the Parable of the Sower. You may know this parable:

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” (Mark 4:3-8)

It’s one of those parables we hear heaps and so tend to skip over. It can also be taken out of context. So lets get back to basics and see what it’s really saying. The “seed” is the word of the gospel. The “soil” Jesus described are four different receptions to the gospel:

  1. For some, when they hear the gospel, it doesn’t even get planted. The seed falls by the wayside and doesn’t take root at all. So we have some who hear the gospel and reject it.
  2. For others, the gospel initially finds reception. But it seems when things get tough and the seed is put under pressure, the roots are not deep enough to withstand the heat.
  3. For others, the seed falls on soil that is choked with weeds and thorns. This means the gospel never has a chance to really go down deep. The seed is planted it seems, but never bears fruit.
  4. Finally, some seed is thrown on good soil. The result is fruitfulness disproportionate to the number of seed.

There are several pointers and questions in here. First, the seed is thrown out in abundance. It is not carefully planted one by one. It is cast out liberally across all ,and any soil types. Does that mean the “soil type” is up to us? Do we have to be the right soil type to hear God’s word? I don’t think this is the point of the parable but it is worth a quick excursus to explore this point.

It is not incumbent on us have the right kind of heart. God prepares the way, and just because he foreknows who will be receptive, doesn’t mean he doesn’t cast out the seed for everyone.

However, when the word is cast out, we rely on godly teachers to help us make sense of it. This is why ministers are held to so much of a higher standard (see James 3:1). We need our ministers to help us appreciate the gospel so it can go deeper into our hearts. So we can read it, understand it, meditate on it, prayer about it, apply to our lives and be discerning and wise about it. Without this help, our roots are shallow and we are at spiritual risk.

In addition, there are two things at play here: Faith and Fruitfulness. Faith is where the seed takes root (Soils 3 and 4) but fruitfulness is where the good soil provides an environment for faith to bloom and replicate the seed (Soil 4). What the parable implies is that it is this good soil that is our goal. Truly good faith will produce fruitfulness.

Does this mean we have “stuff to do”? Yes and no. If we have received the gospel and the roots have gone down deep, fruitfulness will come from a response of the heart. Like a knee-jerk reflex. When the patella is tapped, the knee flinches. It’s a direct connection and is a reflex – not a conscious decision. What we aim for in our discipleship is this kind of reflex. We see a need, and our hearts are so gospel aligned, that our response is unconscious and immediate.

So yes, it is stuff we do. We care, we pastor, we speak, we pray and we throw out our own seeds.

But also no. It is not stuff we do, it is something that we are. By being gospel aligned, our hearts change. Our hearts determine what words we speak and how we behave. It’s what makes us look different. So our fruitfulness also comes from just who we are.

But this is the secret to the kingdom of God (Mark 4:11) and it has been given to us. so what are we to do with this?

First, we cannot know for sure what kind of soil we are (or were when we heard the gospel). We can pray that we are good soil. We can pray for God’s help in the Spirit to be good soil. But one marker of our soil is our fruitfulness.

How can we tell if we are fruitful? By our lives and by our deeds. Does your life look different to the world? For example, do you notice that you swear less than the non-Christian people around you? Is what you read, listen to and look at different to the rest of the world? Are you boundaries different? Do you pray? Do you self-reflect? Do you repent? If the answer to any or all of these is Yes, you are guarding your heart and the difference will show in your attitudes and behaviors. It will show in the choices you make and in how you conduct your life.

And it will show in your deeds. Do you give have a spirit of generosity? Do you give to your church and to missions? Do you give to charities and support causes? Do you give of your time and of yourself to support people around you? Do you open your home to fellowship with people? Do you share words of the gospel as you can, among those you meet? Deeds are an integral part of the faith – not as a means of salvation (which we already have) but as evidence of our faith. James talks about this, explaining that our deeds will be a product of a changed heart (cf. James 2:14-26).

What gets in the way of doing this? Jesus himself tells us what faithful but unfruitful soil looks like:

Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” (Mark 4:18-19)

We don’t know if this is the soil we were when we heard the gospel. But we can work now to ensure we are avoiding and reducing the worries of this life and chasing wealth and other things that we tend to idolise. This means we must remain self-reflective and we must remain vigilant of our hearts. This doesn’t mean being Puritanical. For example, we don’t have to hate money and fun. We just need to be wise and intentional in how we approach them. It’s not bad or ungodly to want or to make money. Idolising it and letting it rule our lives is.

Similarly, in looking at what soil we were/are, we can’t know or assume what “soil” other people are as we share our lives and the gospel with them. Remember, the sower threw out his seeds liberally on all soil types. He didn’t select the right soil and focus on that. We must not make that mistake. We must throw out the seeds of the gospel liberally, making no assumptions as to its reception. Part of our fruitfulness is obedience. In obedience, we throw out our seeds – whether that be direct expressions of the gospel, or servant evangelism, or living by Christian example – even blogging.

That’s the extent of our job. We don’t judge the reception. We just throw out the seeds. Let’s face it. If our soil type was judged before we received, none of us might be here.

This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12
  7. Week 7: Jesus made us a new family – does church really feel like that? Mark 3:13-35

Jesus made us a new family – Does church really feel like that? (Mark 3:13-35)

Churches can be like an old fashioned village. Small, parochial, cliquey. Alternately, they can work like a well-oiled machine. Or, there can be different political “factions” that oppose each other over everything from church finances to how the biscuits should be put out at morning tea. They can be hubs of support and love and care. And they can be enclaves of grumbling and toxicity.

What we forget among the brokenness, and even among the awesomeness, is that our church is supposed to be our family. We say it, of course, but do we really know what it means? What did it mean in the early church – for those who knew Jesus? And what did Jesus mean it to be?

In the early church they were suspected and accused of immorality and incest because their doctrine was love and they called each other “brother” and “sister”. A second century document outlines a mock debate that discusses the principle charges. In response to “we also hear that you meet in secret, even before sunrise, and the gross immorality that we hear goes on in those places is repulsive — especially the incest.

The second party says: “If you came to one of our meetings you would find that the lovemaking and intimacy you are so quick to imagine is of a totally different nature. We meet before sunrise because we are working people. We have jobs to go to. We do not always meet in secret, but we have no temples or synagogues, so we use somebody’s home which has enough room. We call one another brother and sister and pledge to love one another because that is what our Lord commanded us to do. And we greet one another and bless one another with a holy kiss, not out of lust but out of genuine love and concern for one another. Come and you will see that we demand the highest standards of morality among all who join us.

Source: https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1-300/why-early-christians-were-despised-11629610.html

The concept of “family” for the Israelites centred on the household – that is, the immediate family, extended family and slaves and servants. All these made up the household. Outwards from this centre was the clan, which could refer to a group of households tied by kinship. Outwards from this orbit was the tribe, which included multiple clans within one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Each circle was bonded by close ties of kinship, patronage and obligation. We see this working throughout The Old Testament – Boaz was a kinsman redeemer to Ruth, under Jewish rules of kinship and obligation for example.

What we see in Mark 3:13-35 is a series of scenes:

  • 3:13-19 Jesus calls the 12
  • 3:20-21 Jesus’ family Part 1
    • 3:22-30 Conflict with the Pharisees
  • 3:31-35 Jesus’ family Part 2

The order of events is important here. In the calling of the 12, Jesus draws his “family” to him – and they are chosen. And, they include the one who will betray him. Jesus knows this when he calls him. I find that staggering. As God, Jesus knew this. As a man, I really feel for him. Imagine picking the people who you would work with forever, and included is the person who you knew for a fact would stab you in the back. How would you go interacting with them, working with them, loving them, knowing that they would do that to you?

Anyway, it’s significant that Jesus calls 12 – an embryonic new Israel, representative of a new covenant.

Next comes what is known as a “Markan sandwich” – its a literary device where Mark starts a story, then puts in another one, and then finishes the first story afterwards. So a meat in between two bits of bread if you will. Its a literary device but it has a purpose in bringing to light something the author wants us to see, so lets dig deeper.

In the first scene, we see “Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat.  When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

Just as his own family say that Jesus is out of his mind, we switch to a scene in which the Pharisees – the leaders of Jesus’ Jewish “family” – say that he is possessed by Beelzebub. But what is it about this conflict with the Pharisees that provides the key to interpreting the “Markan sandwich” literary device?

The Pharisees say he is nuts because he is driving out demons in the name of Beelzebub. Note that they don’t disagree that Jesus is driving out demons – he seems to be doing this pretty successfully. They are arguing about in who’s name Jesus is doing it. That is remarkable. The miracles are real. They just argue about the authority behind them.

Jesus, by way of explanation, gives two responses. The first is “How can Satan drive out Satan?” and the second is “no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house.” The former says basically, how can you have a civil war with both parties on the same side? They would just be killing each other for no reason and with no winner. So what the Pharisees are saying makes no sense. They are saying the spirits are from the devil and Jesus’s authority comes from the devil. Nope. No sense.

In the latter response, Jesus gives more. He is saying that something or someone has already gone ahead of him and tied up the strong man. Then the house can be robbed. So he’s saying that the devil has already been tied up and then Jesus can complete the work of casting him out. The devil has already been defeated! But what Jesus says next is truly astonishing.

“Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”

What does blasphemy against the Spirit mean? Many conflate this with “taking the Lord’s name in vain” which minimises this statement to a slip of the tongue. In the context of what Jesus is saying here though, blaspheming against the Spirit is a rejection or a refusal to acknowledge the existence and work of the Spirit in people’s hearts and minds. The devil is defeated by the work of our triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To deny the Spirit, is to deny the Father – which is the eternal sin.

From here we go back to Jesus’ immediate family. Jesus’ mother and brothers had arrived. In Mark 6:3 his brothers are identified as James, Joseph, Judas and Simon. James, it should be noted, was not one of the disciples, but later became the leader of the church in Jerusalem and was martyred in the early 60s AD. At this point however, James and Mary and the rest of the family, were definitely not acolytes.

Both Jesus’ immediate family, and religious family, say he is out of his mind. This whole scene started with Jesus choosing the new representatives of the new covenant. And ends with his assertion that all those who do the will of God are his family. Again, this “family” includes Judas – his betrayer – and I’ll bet it includes all manner of other great people, boring people, annoying people, nice people and awesome people. They are not a group of shiny holy Christians surrounded by doves and soft lighting. They are the family of God, joined together in Jesus. This is the point of the Markan sandwich – showing the ties that bond the family of God outweigh the earthly ties of our other circles. This is a new society, a new covenant, a new age.

If we look around our churches, do they feel like family? Bearing in mind, that our church family is similarly not meant to be a perfect soft-lighting tableau either, but a rag-tag mixed bag of the good and the bad and the faintly annoying. BUT they ARE our family. We are bonded to them by Jesus – a source stronger and more profound than any other. And we will be with them in heaven.

This can be difficult, especially for those whose churches and ministers have disappointed them. I have no answer for that, and, in love, I pray everyone finds their home in a church that will love you exactly how you are and where you’re at.

But hurts meted out to us by the church or those who lead it, cannot drown out the scriptures. And Jesus says clearly that those who do the will if God are his family. However, in this Jesus is not abolishing his earthly family. He is however, establishing his church family along lines that would have been shocking at the time. The assembled “family” was not drawn along kinship or household lines, it was open to Jew and Gentile, any race and gender, and even cut across hierarchical lines. This is a new family whose primary allegiance was to God and whose citizenship was in heaven.

This includes us.

All who do God’s will are in Jesus’ family. That includes you. And what is God’s will? Go to Matthew 22:36-40 and Micah 6:8 which Jesus paraphrases in Mathew 23:23. Look at them. Meditate on them. Pray about them. They are not how you get into Jesus’ family – you’re already in it. These are the bedrock of our discipleship. These are the foundations of our familial obligations.

Look afresh at your church. They are you’re family. And look to your discipleship. Maybe it needs a kick start. Maybe it’s something to share with your Christian family. But above all, know that you are already in Jesus’ family. When he said “whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” he was talking about you.

This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12

Why Christians are not immune to loneliness

As Christians, I often feel like we should be immune to loneliness. We have Jesus, right? But this is one of those areas where an inspirational Christian meme doesn’t really cut it. “Only God is enough to satisfy our loneliness” I read. And “You are never left alone when you are alone with God”. These are true, obviously, but not really helpful when you’re feeling the raw reality of loneliness.

If you google “bible passages for the lonely” you find lots of gems. “Surely I am with you always, till the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Also true. But this is part of Jesus’ great commission to his disciples, not a consolation to a person crumbling under the weight of loneliness.

And yet, there is acknowledgement in scripture that loneliness is real, but not necessarily in the emotional way we might think of it. For example, in Psalm 25:16 “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.” The Hebrew word translated as “lonely” denotes more a physical state of being solitary – like a friendless wanderer or exile. Of course there is a psychological state associated potentially with that, but that’s not what the language denotes. Loneliness described and discussed as a psychological state is a relatively recent phenomena. That doesn’t mean it was any less real prior to the last hundred years, just that it wasn’t talked about the same way. In history, to be friendless or cut off from community was a social state and was the epitome of a fate worse than death.

We talk now about loneliness as a psychological and emotional state. It might include feeling cut off from community, but includes fear, despair, hopelessness – and as Christians we are not immune. Even though we have the truth of our salvation in Christ and an eternal relationship with the living God, we will still from time to time feel the awful chill of loneliness.

Loneliness can happen to anyone. Whether you are single or in a relationship, whether you are in a large family or none. It’s not the same as being alone. Personally, I’m quite content on my own. I am an introvert by nature and I enjoy reading, writing, knitting (badly) and so on. But being alone in this way is a choice. Feeling lonely is when we are alone in a way that we don’t feel is our choice – when we want to be with someone, or with family, or with community – and we can’t.

That’s when secondary emotions kick in. Disappointment that things aren’t different, anger at feeling powerless to change things, despair that things will always be this way, fear of a future that is uncertain.

Loneliness can feel cold and brittle. There is a stillness that you feel in the cavernous hollow of a dark mountain cave. You are the only living and breathing thing. There is a silence. There is nobody else and there is the thick rock cave wall between you and the rest of the world. If you screamed in this sound-deadened cavity, nobody would hear, and the only sound would be the echo of your own scream coming back to you. You are the only person who hears your pain.

That’s what loneliness feels like.

Loneliness is both our modern emotional understanding and the historical social understanding. You feel cut off from people. Even though our modern world is less constructed according to familial ties and community, we feel separated. And you feel the associated ragged emotional cuts of isolation physically and psychologically.

What is interesting is that even though the meaning behind the language has changed over time, scripture still acknowledges that anguish.

Psalm 142 gives us important teaching without ever using the word “loneliness”. It is attributed to David when he was hiding in the cave from his enemies. Verse 4 says:

Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.

This seems to be a perfect description of loneliness. And what does this psalm tell us?

I cry aloud to the Lord; I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy.

I pour out before him my complaint; before him I tell my trouble.

Sorry to sound obvious but prayer is the first step when we are feeling pain. What is interesting here is that David says he tells a God of his complaint before he tells him his trouble. For David this might be his complaint about his physical situation (I’m trapped and alone) and then his “trouble” is then his emotional state – which he lays out in the following verses.

When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who watch over my way. In the path where I walk people have hidden a snare for me.

4 Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.

His spirit grows faint – he is feeling overwhelmed. People have hidden a snare – he is surrounded by enemies. Nobody cares for him. These are all things that resonate with us.

I cry to you, Lord; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”

Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need; rescue me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me.

This whole psalm is a prayer – it is a conversation with God. David has told God his complaint (“I am alone”) and he’s laid out his trouble (“I feel so lonely and overwhelmed and frightened and this is too big for me…”). He continues this conversation, talking to God in real and raw emotional need. There is no prayer-formula here. There is no massaging of words to sound right, he just lets it pour out.

But what comes next is fascinating:

Set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name. Then the righteous will gather about me because of your goodness to me.

David doesn’t end with a hope that the loneliness will end at some point. He calls on God to deliver him so that he might praise his name. Then the righteous will gather around David – his loneliness and uncertainty will end. Not because of David, but because of God’s visible goodness.

This might feel confronting to us. Our prayers are requests but largely asking for God to empower us to feel better – as though God is a self help guru. What David does is directly and boldly ask God to change his situation (the circumstances of his complaint) and through God’s action, his trouble will be alleviated.

Sometimes, in our lack of confidence, we minimise God and our knowledge of what he is able to do. David, in the midst of his despair, asks God to essentially perform a powerful work so that in his responding praise, people will see evidence of God’s goodness and gather to him.

These are David’s words to God, but they are laid down as God-breathed scripture, which means they are words that God has given us to acknowledge our pain and provide a means and a language for us to reach him in those times. We must use them.

So, if you are like me and from time to time struggle with loneliness, we can use this approach to God. We can take the burden of self help off our already aching shoulders and ask God for help. We can not just speak words of complaint and trouble, but let them pour out of us. We can ask for deliverance. We can be bold because we are approaching our God who is bigger than any circumstance we have.

We are Christian and we have a relationship with the living God. But we are not immune to loneliness. God knows this and gave us real words to bring to him in our pain. Formula prayers and inspirational memes won’t cut it. In the Psalms he gave us these beautiful words that express how we feel – but he doesn’t leave us there. He gives us the means to move forward.

We need to give ourselves permission to be raw with God, be bold in asking him to take over our circumstances and deliver us from our loneliness.