Tag Archives: #bible

Tackling the hard questions about being a Christian woman

I’m a bit of a Goldilocks when it comes to a lot of things. I don’t like Summer because its too hot. I don’t like Winter because it’s too cold. I like Spring because it’s juuuust right. I’m like this with films and books too. It’s a classic but it’s too long. It’s entertaining but it’s too fluffy.

Well, I read a lot of books about women, about Christianity and about christian women. I struggle sometimes because they are too academic, or they are written by someone who is well meaning and learned, but not with an eye to the realities of some of the chaos of life, or the reality of being a woman that is less than Utopian. But I also wince when they are too light-weight and not biblically grounded enough. It’s hard to find books that are just right.

I am always on the hunt for books about being a Christian woman in the real world that help me wrangle with how to be a Christian mum, how to process issues of the day, how to be a Christian (and a complementarian) in a secular workplace and how to exercise complementarianism as a single mum.

If you haven’t had to grapple with the complementarian and egalitarian issues as yet, here’s a quick overview: These are the two primary positions on male-female relationships. Egalitarians say that men and women are equal in value and equal in function. We are the same in every way, holding and exercising equal authority and with no barrier to any activity, including preaching. Complementarians say that men and women are equal in value and different in function. This stance says that men are tasked with primary authority and that we are made for, and (should) exercise, different functions. And while there are degrees within this position, this includes a restriction on some things, most notably holding positions of authority over men.

That’s a very thumbnail sketch but we’re talking the gist of things here.

Personally, I am a complementarian. In all my Bible and commentary reading, it still seems to me to be the most biblically correct position. This is different to my egalitarian sisters and I would just say that this difference of opinion does not define my relationship with them, as there is far more fundamentals that we agree on than issues that we don’t. There are many areas we can respectfully disagree and still rejoice in Christ together.

Where my complementarian belief leaves me personally though, is working through what is the biblical application in my real and (very) messy life.

I have read a lot of books that have been helpful. Notably Hannah Anderson’s Made for More, Courtney Reissig’s Accidental Feminist, Carrie Sandom’s Different by Design and Claire Smith’s God’s Good Design.

Kathleen Nielson’s book Women of God however, is an absolute cracker.

The tag line of the book is “Hard questions. Beautiful truth.” and it certainly lives up to this. Throughout the book, Nielson raises, and tackles, questions that have been in the forefront of my mind, and those of some of my Christian sisters, for a long time. Her style is to pose a question, answer it from the Bible, but then keep asking “But what about….”

This is the great encouragement in this book. She recognises that shallow or trite answers might be true, but as women’s lived experience is deeper, so must be the answers. So she keeps asking until she bottoms out each issue.

Sometimes they are not necessarily easy truths. For example, there is an order of creation and that can be a difficult truth to reconcile and live out when our inclinations might strain against it. But what Nielson does is help to put the question into context and, because she keeps asking questions, she can help us to understand the nuance and beauty of the truth as it is meant to be – not what we might immediately assume it to be.

As an example, she tackles the order of creation and how historically, church elders have assumed that meant that women were in some way inferior to men, or “limited in the way they bear the image of God – in comparison to the way men do.” What she then shows is that God’s creation of women revealed man’s great need (man’s alone-ness is the only thing in creation that is “not good”) and then reveals woman as God’s great gift to complete creation so that it was good.

But then she keeps going – how woman’s role as “helper” is in no way demeaning; how it is wrong to apply order of creation theology to a secular workplace, to which this Scripture does not speak; how the intentionality of order of creation places a burden on man as the teacher and leader – not because woman is incapable, but because that is what God has tasked man to do. “This makes sense:” says Nielson “to lead means to go out before, so that others follow. Eve cannot bear that leadership responsibility because she wasn’t there before.” That might seem like an accident of circumstance, but with God, there are no accidents – so we must look into what this order of creation means.

She notes strongly that man is cursed because he failed to perform his primary responsibility to lead. This doesn’t cancel out Eve’s sin, but Adam’s sin is equally bad. Her sin is giving in to temptation. His sin was that, as the first created, he was to obey God and lead his wife (which includes leading her in the one law of Eden about the tree, which was given to him before Eve was created). He failed. And he was cursed.

This starts putting things into perspective. Order is not about inferiority. Its actually much bigger. Its about God’s plan for all of creation. This is hard for us because we can’t conceptualise that big. And “we often live in a way that assigns value according to roles” and God didn’t ascribe value to each role – our value is completely equal. It is us who ascribes value to the different roles of men and women and that’s what we strain against.

That is not to say that our differing roles haven’t resulted in terrible realities for some women and Nielson acknowledges this terrible sinfulness in our clumsy and sometimes wicked application of Scripture. But her aim is to get back to what God intended. She does this in an engaging and accessible way and at the same time really excavating through layers of questions that we all have about difficult passages of the Bible in the Old and New Testaments, and how they are applied.

This is a great book for avid readers and newcomers to the subject alike. It is a great read and by the time I got to the end, I felt so much more informed about what complementarianism means in practical application – in real life. I would also say it is a worthwhile read whatever your position is as there is helpful biblical wisdom in here. Most of all though, this book left me feeling so much more informed on reading and applying biblical wisdom from God’s revelation on women and so much more confident about the person God created me to be.

One of the greatest motivators of all

Sometimes I find it hard to stay motivated. If my confidence and energy is low, I can look to the author and perfecter of my faith and feel insignificant and feeble, rather than energised and encouraged. I feel small and weak, and in a world that seems full of people doing significant things, I feel profoundly mediocre. I can feel like it’s not worth trying anything because if I do it will go badly, or it just won’t matter in the bigness of this world.

This can be a general feeling, but also in my Christian life. Nobody will care about my testimony, what I have to say doesn’t matter, I can’t even get control of my sinfulness. I’m distracted and moody, emotional and lazy. I catch myself in pridefulness and all manner of other states that Jerry Bridges would call “respectable sins“.

It all makes me feel lost and in a mess. And who do you turn to at those times? I have my Christian community and my trusted friends of course. But there’s a promise in the Bible that, even on the surface, is amazing, but is even more encouraging when you dig deeper.

Hebrews 12:1-2a says “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

We often focus on the bit about throwing off the sins because, as humans, we tend to err on the side of the things that clearly tell us what we’re supposed to do. But the bit that I think is equally important is the “cloud of witnesses”.

Hebrews 11 gives a list of these witnesses who lived by faith. At first sight they are intimidating – Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Rahab. Then judges, prophets and David himself. Great! A list of witnesses to remind me how horribly under par my life is.

But look again. All of the witnesses were not perfect – far from it in fact. Murderers, prostitutes, drunkards, liars, swindlers. The judges were all comparatively rubbish and David himself did some ghastly things. I haven’t done any of those things but it helps me to remember that these people are not the perfect witnesses that I might first think.

And then there are other witnesses mentioned, the tortured, the flogged, the imprisoned, the persecuted, poor and destitute – all mistreated for the sake of their faith. I have not had this misfortune (praise God) but this is starting to sound more like normal people – people just like me, who rose to the occasion on the strength of God.

But there are two things in particular that are important here. First, there is a cloud of these witnesses. Now for us, we might think “cloud” and envision fluffy bundles in a blue sky. But the Greek nephos is hardly used in the New Testament. Where it was more used was in Greek literature:

In a work by Herodotus who was an ancient Greek historian, he says “We have driven away so mighty a cloud [nephos] of enemies” when describing a battle in the Persian Wars. Homer in the Iliad says that “In front fared the men in chariots and thereafter followed a cloud [nephos] of footmen, a host past counting”.

A cloud of witnesses – and a cloud that has a military inference, and is a host past counting. Think about that:

Ah, burning cities, clashing armies, just another day in Rome: Total War.
Source: https://www.gamespot.com/articles/rome-total-war-exclusive-hands-on/1100-6105481/
Infantry Painting - Medieval Army in Battle - 15 by AM FineArtPrints
Source: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/medieval-army-in-battle-15-andrea-mazzocchetti.html
Source: https://cinefex.com/blog/dracula-untold-hob-army-final/

Imagine all those people who have come before us – as flawed and as broken as they are. Imagine they are shoulder to shoulder fighting for us. They are our army. And what does that tell us? It tells us we are not alone. It tells us that God has not left us unprotected.

The second thing that is significant is that when we look at these witnesses and try to measure up, we are looking at it all wrong. Those witnesses aren’t there because of who they are or what they did. They are there because of what their story tells us about God.

Through the stories of these people, we see God’s faithfulness. We see God’s grace. We see his mercy and love. We see God’s patience and his commitment to his people and his promises. We see God’s continuing work to provide support and protection for his people. For us.

These witnesses are not perfect. Many of them are just like us. They’ve done great things, they’ve done some pretty awful things. They are flawed and imperfect and broken – just like us. I find that fantastically encouraging. A cloud of perfect people might make me feel a bit self-conscious. Or it might be a barrier to me believing that they really are on my side because I am broken and flawed. Or it might make me focus on how perfect they are and how that is such an impossibly high bar.

But a cloud of witnesses who are just like me – well that’s a proper army. That makes me feel like I’m not alone. That sustains me. That motivates me. That makes me feel I can deal with my sinfulness. That helps me to know that I can stand before God, because I have all these people standing with me in whose lives God already worked and through whom his plans were brought into effect.

Where is God in the hopelessness of Groundhog Day?

OK, trick question. We know that God is there always, even in the time of global pandemic lock-down. But I pose it because recently I had about two weeks where I felt completely without motivation. Obviously at the moment this is coronavirus related, but this can happen any time.

Everything was the same. Every day. Wake up. Do parenting. Start working from home. Do more parenting. Go to bed. Repeat. I felt myself slide into some kind of stupor. Like I was running on auto-pilot. I didn’t even have any highs or lows of emotion – it was like I was just existing and wafting between days that all looked the same.

It wasn’t until someone recognised it as “Groundhog Day” that I understood what was affecting me. Groundhog Day (if you don’t know it) was a movie from 1993 and involved a rather unpleasant character who, in the course of his working day as a weatherman, is forced to live the same day over and over again. Eventually, he becomes a fine upstanding character and gets the girl (it’s Hollywood after all) but the fascinating stretch of the film is the emotional waves he goes through. Someone has worked out that he lives the same day for 8 years, 8 months and 16 days. The same day.

He goes through waves of investigation, trying to escape, acceptance, bravado and arrogance, grief, energetic thriving, careless wickedness, depression and many others.

It was the depression part that struck me when my friend said the words “Groundhog Day”. I wasn’t feeling depressed but I realised I had that sense of purposelessness. No goal. No change. No point.

And that is a problem. When you feel like there is no point because nothing is, or will, change, then we are losing hope.

I wasn’t losing hope, but I could see I was on the road to that kind of thinking. But how do you get yourself out of it? When you can feel yourself in an emotional stupor, how can you get out? It’s like being in a hole without a ladder. How do you force yourself to have motivation when you have none?

We know that God is there – we know it in our heads. In fact that can make us feel worse. Here’s me without motivation and with hope oozing away through the cracks in my purposeless day, and he is watching me. And I am doing nothing. Now a sense of shame compounds a sense of purposelessness and the immobilization gets worse.

In the Bible it tells us things like “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (1 Cor. 3:23) and “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:13) and other famous passages that we use for inspirational cat posters.

So even though we know these to be true, these also make us feel even worse. Its a reminder of all the things I am not doing.

The thing is with Groundhog Day is that its a rut. And while we feel shame, its also a very comfortable rut. The motivation it can take to get out of the rut can seem insurmountable. I know I should work heartily for God but I don’t want to. I know I can do all things through God, but I don’t want to. I can, but I can’t.

How do you break the cycle?

I’d recommend not looking to “inspirational biblical memes”. They are true, but not necessarily helpful in your current state. But, the Bible has lots to say about things which are helpful.

For example, look at what the Bible has to say about:

  • God’s quiet uplifting presence. Isaiah 40 is a wonderful passage. This is spoken at a time when God’s people are going to be coming out of exile in Babylon. They have been in exile for 70 years and God is going to bring them home. The passage is gentle and loving. It is a reminder of how small and temporary humans are but at the same time how big and wondrous God is – and how he tenderly holds us and protects us. Critically, in v29 is the reminder that while we grow weary – God never grows weary and our hope and strength will be renewed in him.
  • Patience. Romans 8:18-39 is a great passage to reflect on the patience we need to endure before we meet God in heaven – and how to conduct ourselves while we wait. This is not a “should do” passage but powerful words that inspire enough to compel a shift in mind-set.
  • Hope and faith. Hebrews 11:1-12:3 gives us a picture of those who have gone before us who remind us of our hope and lift us up in our difficulties. All those people – just like you and me, living their lives imperfectly – witnessing to us and fighting for us. It reminds us that we are not alone.

Reading the words God gave us will shift our hearts. And when our hearts are shifted, we can pray more honestly, and more frequently. And it can spur us to change some things that will get us out of that rut. Even if its just doing one new thing a day. It can spur us to sit in a different place, call someone, go for a walk in the sun – anything that begins the process of lifting us further out of the sense of hopelessness. And God will be with us every step of the way.

Moving past fake to authentic

If you’re reading this in the future, remember that time when we all had to stay indoors and separate ourselves from each other? Yeah, it was 2020 – the year of the pandemic that cost thousands of lives and caused untold upheaval to so many.

Initially there was a wave of bravado, then fear and then blaming. But there was also a wave of kindness. A kindness pandemic to chase away the global fear and uncertainty. And then these two things balanced in tension as we tried to work out how to do life in the new and temporary normal.

While working from home and home schooling our kids and trying to support our elderly and vulnerable family and friends from a distance, two critical things have happened – we started shaming the people who were organising themselves well and we have started wearing our gritty anti-coping realness as a badge of honour.

Now I say this on the basis of social media which is the worst kind of information-diet we can have, but the easiest source of connection. It’s the equivalent of junk food and we know we shouldn’t binge on it, but binge we do.

And as we do, the people coping (apparently) OK with the working from home and home schooling post pictures and comments that make us feel bad. They have organised school rooms and structured timetables and activities, they’re doing art and puppet shows and crafting – and running a spotless household and working.

What is that bundle of emotions it makes me feel? Is it jealousy? Is it shame because I am not doing nearly so well? Is it anger coming from the assumption that they’re doing it to show off? It could be all of those things and more, but what we can know for sure is it feels like a dull weight in our stomachs, giving us a slightly queasy feeling.

We don’t know why people are posting. Maybe they’re proud of themselves – and frankly from some that I’ve seen, they should be because they’re doing brilliantly. Maybe they’re proud of their kids for coping so well. Maybe they are showing off a bit, but maybe they are also reaching out because in this uncertain time, they feel off balance and they are seeking validation or connection.

But we feel bad because we think it makes us look bad. And so it has very little to do with the person posting, and far more to do with us personally. Because the act of comparison makes us feel like we look bad, it triggers negative emotions – anger, resentment, bitterness, even contempt.

First off, we project. If I am feeling bad, I’m going to make it your fault, so I am going to project onto you the reason that you’re posting those things – and I’m pretty sure it’s deliberately to make the rest of us look rubbish and know what insignificant failures we are. Of course, this is nonsense. We are making up all sorts of thoughts and motives for them and that’s just not fair. But it makes us feel better somehow.

Then, we start wearing our own perceived failings as a badge of honour – its almost a rebellion against the people/posts making us feel bad. We write, like and share posts about not getting dressed, drinking at breakfast, keeping our kids quiet with devices and chocolate, drinking at lunchtime, slacking off from work and so on. What are we saying when we do this? Are we trying to be self-effacing? Are we claiming a false modesty? Is it anti-virtue signalling by showing off our supreme ordinariness?

Of course being real and authentic is good. But I think we can be in danger of wallowing in our realness and even faking a gritty level of authenticity to make us look extra amaze-balls.

And you know why this is such a terrible trap to fall into? It’s all made up. We champion fake authenticity because we feel shamed by others posting their authenticity. We have no idea if that is authentic or not but because it made us feel bad, we needed to respond somehow to make ourselves feel better. Even if you didn’t respond, we’ve allowed ourselves to feel feelings about what we see on social media that then influences our heart, thoughts, attitudes and behaviours. All based on things we have thought and assumed that aren’t even real.

This is terrible for our mental health. It’s terrible for our connections during this time of social distancing. It impairs our relationships – most of all, potentially the one we have with God.

In the gospel of John, Jesus says to the believers, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)

When I read that, it feels like I’m breathing in cool fresh air. The bites I read on social media are garbage by comparison. The truth…..the truth….the truth that Jesus came to save us from our sins – the very sins we fall into when we take in too much social media (among everything else!).

The truth is, while we scroll through social media and huff and puff and get annoyed and make assumptions and judge people and ourselves, Jesus watches and waits. He watches and waits for us. He watches and waits for you. Let this be the reminder you need to switch off and breath in the clean air of the truth of the gospel.

We can look at social media, of course, we can stay connected and we can source interesting stories and information. But like all humans, we can take a good thing, and turn it into a bad thing.

Moderation.

But how do we do that? Its like trying to train yourself to have moderation with eating or shopping or anything – you can start off well and then it all goes……horribly wrong…. But Jesus gave us the key. “If you hold to my teaching” he said. Don’t focus on the problem, focus on the solution. Focus on him first and the rest will fall into perspective. We must seek the kingdom first.

So, in this time of social distancing, are you reading your Bible still? Have you got out of the habit of praying? How are you finding online church and Bible study? There are lots of little anchor points that we’ve lost. In some ways, this should be easier for us, but its not. I used to pray in the car – well, I’m not driving anywhere now so I have no markers in my day to do it. I’m finding I have to re-train myself in some things and actively look for anchor points in areas where I can feel myself slipping further away.

Let this be the reminder to look again – even among the chaos – how are you going? How is your faith? How is your prayer life? Do you feel close to God? Get a Skype or Zoom room or Facebook chat happening with some Christian friends. How are all of you going?

If we can take a moment to correct our course, we will be the kind of authentic that is good and godly and healthy. Because we will be authentically following Jesus and living in his truth – not in the “truth” of what we scroll through on our phones and ipads.

When everything seemed chaotic and directionless, we see God working in the details

I love the book of Ruth. OK, we have the same name but that’s not the reason. The reason is because most of the Old Testament involves grand sweeping stories of whole nations – and one nation in particular. The scene from the reader’s point of view seems panoramic. Like those opening scenes of a big Hollywood blockbuster – except that’s where it stays. And sometimes the view is just too wide to see everything. It stops us engaging on a personal level with the characters a lot of the time.

Except for the odd short book or story that takes us right into the heart of one family or one person. The book of Ruth is one of those. It hones right into the lives of three principle characters – Naomi, Ruth and Boaz.

It’s a beautiful story of loss and love and faith and hope. It shows us God’s sovereignty. We know this because from these humble beginnings, the very last verses in Ruth 4 tell us:

This, then, is the family line of Perez: Perez was the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, Boaz the father of Obed, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David. (Ruth 4:18-22)

Ruth and Boaz are King David’s great-grandparents.

But there’s another lens we need to see this story through. And this comes from the very first verse of Ruth:

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. (Ruth 1:1)

The book of Judges is the backdrop against which the book of Ruth is set. So what is happening in the book of Judges? Judges, on the surface, looks like a simple list of judges who rule the Israelites after Joshua dies. It’s not that simple but now’s not the time to get into that (although perhaps we will sometime soon because it’s one of my favourite books in the whole Bible). Even with a list of some quite good judges, most of them are pretty shoddy. God raises them up, but they end up doing things so wrong, there’s peace for a bit and then things get worse before God raises up another judge.

The whole book is really a litany of disappointments, wars, competing interests, paganism and apostasy. This goes on for about 400 years from Joshua to the last judge before Saul. That’s a looooong time for things to go badly. That’s the difference between now the end of the reign of Elizabeth I, the rise of the Puritans and the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock.

The book of Judges says twice “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” (Judges 17:6 and 21:25). It’s the last verse in the book in fact, just to make the point. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes. The law of Moses was forgotten (or ignored) and everyone just did their own thing. We see this clearly in the actions of the judges. Some good, some bad – but none of them great. And while God is present throughout the book, His people are not obedient and pay more attention to, and take more authority from, the pagan Canaanite peoples around and among them – exactly the opposite of what God had been telling them for hundreds of years.

It’s against this backdrop that we read the book of Ruth – against 400 years of strife and conflict. And that is why it is so startling. While the book of Judges plays out, God is working intricately in the lives of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz to bring about his purposes. He lifts the famine that brings Naomi back, He blesses her with Ruth who’s fierce loyalty makes her leave her own people and country to follow her mother-in-law, He brings Ruth to Boaz’s field, and so on and so on. God’s work saturates the pages of Ruth. And while on a societal level He is ignored, in these pages, God is the focus of all the activity.

His presence is in the fine detail, and yet the purpose is long lasting – eternal even. He works to bring Ruth and Boaz together who will birth the line of David. The first real king of Israel and the one whom is promised to return in some form. David is the seat of prophecy for Jesus. Matthew 1:1 provides “The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” But David is also the first “type” of this kingly persona that Jesus will supersede. Just as Jesus fulfills and supersedes Adam as God’s first-fruits (1 Corinthians 15:45), and Moses as prophet, so Jesus is the messianic return of David – the true king.

I think of all those people like us living in the time of the judges – ordinary people trying to live their lives the best they know how. Tilling their fields, tending their herds, arguing with their husbands, counting their money, paying their taxes, shouting at their kids, laughing at silly jokes, fearing the unknown, worrying about the future – just like us. 400 years of people just like us in a time which, when you look back was chaotic and directionless, but at the time must have just been their “normal”. And in that 400 years, God is working things for His purposes – the present purposes of bringing Ruth and Boaz together, the intermediate purposes of bringing the line of David into being and long purposes of laying the foundations for the coming of His one and only Son, Jesus Christ.

That, to me, is stunning. God is so powerful and sovereign over the whole thing, and yet He is so present in the details. In fact, when we recognise His presence in the details, His power over all is amplified.

Just remember the next time you are in the book of Judges. While this is playing out, while the judges are scrapping and fighting and failing, while the people were searching for a leader, God was working in the lives of just three people in a tiny town to bring into effect His ultimate saving plans for Israel and all the nations – for all of us.

It makes me wonder, what is He doing today? He is present in all of our lives and all of our details. We won’t know of course until we walk with Him in paradise and understand the full intricacy of His plans. But it is worth remembering – not only is He there, but he is working. Things may feel chaotic and directionless to us, but God’s plans are happening.

As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

(Isaiah 55:10-11)

I wonder how Jesus felt about someone else carrying his cross

The cross is where we see Jesus at his most human and most divine. It is heart breaking to read about his anguish, even though we know the triumph to come. This in itself is something Jesus understood – when his friend Lazarus has died (John 11:38-44), Jesus wept even though he knew that in a moment he would raise him to life again.

I feel this emotional pain when I read the account of Jesus‘ arrest and crucifixion. My heart breaks for him when he struggles with God’s will and yet accepts it. Even when an angel appears and strengthens him, Jesus is still in anguish and “he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:42-44).

And this is because of me, I think. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. This is what the cross means. This is what Jesus’ suffering means. His anguish, his pain, his fear, his sorrow – it was mine. It was my fault.

Even though I know what it means. Even though I know what happened next, is still feel the sting of shame that it was my sin that put him there.

And yet even this shame of someone else carrying our punishment is something that Jesus felt. In Luke 23:26 we see that “as they led him away, they seized Simon of Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.

As I was reading in my quiet time, this stood out starkly to me as I contemplated my shame. Jesus, on the road to his own crucifixion, having accepted the will of God, even though bodily broken, was forced to accept the suffering of another on his account.

The crossbar of the cross is estimated to have weighed around 32-42 kilograms (or 70-90 pounds) and the whole cross in the order of 136 kilograms (or 300 pounds). Even carrying the crossbar would have been a struggle for Simon on a long journey through jeering crowds along hot dusty roads to the crucifixion site – the whole cross so much more. And Simon must have tripped and strained and stumbled his way behind Jesus. And Jesus, walking in front, knew he was there. And knew he must have been suffering.

If I was Jesus, I would have felt shame. Shame for the pain of Simon, picked out of the crowd at random and forced to suffer because of me.

But this is where again we remember that Jesus was fully human. He felt what I feel when I contemplate the cross. He knows and understands us and our emotions so well – because he felt them.

And this is where I remember not to stay in my shame. You see, shame is a spur to correct behaviour. It’s a trigger to change the heart. It’s not a place we should stay. Because I am aware of my sin, I feel shame. That shame is a spur for me to breathe life into my faith with deeds – deeds of gratitude and obedience to the one who saved me, the one who gave everything for me.

The shame leads me to a gratitude deeper than an ocean. He did this for me – for all of us – while we were still sinners. While we didn’t know him, while we ignored him, while we held him on the cross with our sins. The expanse of God’s mercy is breathtaking.

And Jesus, our saviour, our shepherd, our treasure. So human. So divine. It’s unfathomable. And yet we can see these little glimpses in the gospels of the state of his heart, which in turn helps us to understand the glory of his divinity.

Read the gospels again. Read the crucifixion accounts. Hear his words. Feel his pain. And remember his glory. Because God’s actions are about the glory, not about the shame. Let your shame take you to gratitude, and as we celebrate this Easter, let us bow down and worship at his feet, because he deserves everything we have.

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34

Is it OK to feel anger towards God?

Our emotions are strong. They are messy and chaotic. They seem to act on their own – something happens and our emotions just take over. Sometimes they seem to rule our responses.

I’m not talking here about “good” anger – that is, the kind of anger we feel when we see an injustice and the feeling of anger we get that compels us to act for change. That kind of anger has driven the civil rights movement, got the votes for women, started charities like International Justice Mission and A21, it has opened hospitals and orphanages. This kind of anger is a spur to change the things that break God’s heart.

I am talking about our instinctive anger in response to people and events around us that appear out of our control. I am talking about anger that comes from fear, frustration, despair, anxiety, emotional exhaustion and stress.

And these are all feelings that can, in times of trouble, be directed towards God.

Anger is a natural reaction. But it is important to recognise that it is a secondary emotion – there’s something else happening underneath.

The Anger Iceberg
Source: Gottman Institute – https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-anger-iceberg/

Why is there a link? Why one emotion and then another? It’s because we are built to do something with those emotions. Emotions are not just emotional feelings, but also physiological responses. When we feel under threat, anger floods our body with adrenalin and all the chemicals we need to fight or flee. Anger pumps our body with the energy we need to respond.

When we don’t need to physically fight or flee though, where does that energy go? We can turn it inwards, or squash it down, which is terrible for our mental health. It’s like drinking acid and arsenic.

Or, we can direct it towards others. This can involve disproportionate responses over something tiny, having a giant row, having a controlled discussion (I’m talking all the usual stuff here, not the abnormal responses where impulse control can be an issue which are not-not-not OK). We can cry and blame and accuse. We can resent and bear a grudge and hate.

And when we direct this towards God, is that OK?

Partially, yes. Does that surprise you?

There are so many psalms that include some variation on “how long, Lord?”. In that phrase is captured all the pain and fear and anxiety and anger that a person can feel. Look at Psalm 13: 1-4:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

The psalmist feels ignored by God. Things are so bad, they feel as though God has abandoned them. They are crying out to God in their sorrow but there is also implicit blame.

And there are many of these psalms – Psalms 6, 35, 74, 79, 80, 89 and 90 are just a smattering.

Does this mean that the psalmists were a whiny bunch of whingers? Not at all. The Psalms are God’s words. They are the words He gave to us to say when we have no words of our own. They allow us to express anger, frustration, hurt, doubt, anxiety and despair. He wants us to throw this at His feet. He wants us to open our hearts in all the rawness of our emotions.

But He doesn’t want us to stay there. See the end of Psalm 13:

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.

We cry out and throw our negative emotions at God, and then we remember. It’s like a pressure valve. All that adrenaline needs to go somewhere – it goes to God. And when the energy is drained from us, we remember that He is there, and He is in control. And he still has us in the palm of His hand. We release all that bile and bitterness and acid and arsenic. And then we rest.

You see, it’s worth remembering that often we get angry because “this is not how things should be”. I should not have lost my job. My relationship should not have ended. That person should not have acted like that. They should not have treated me that way.

These hurts are based on our expectations of how things should be. But its not how things are. God is there for us in how things are. But He will also bring about how things should be. Just not yet. That is what we look forward to. Its where our hope lies. We are His now, but we will be with Him in eternity.

So, when you are wrangling with your anger and negative emotions, here’s a few tips:

  • Remember anger is a secondary emotion – what is going on underneath?
  • Recognise that your emotions are causing physiological responses – and that energy needs to be directed somewhere.
  • Direct the energy in ways that cause the least harm to others or yourself (its worth reading more about tools and tips for anger management in the moment. There are lots of useful articles on this, for example at this link).
  • Know that anger is a natural response and don’t feel bad or blame yourself for feeling it.
  • Know that it is OK to express those emotions – in all their ragged and raw honesty – to God. He even gave us the words to use if we have none of our own.
  • Pour it our to God. Don’t try to hide it from Him. Don’t think that He will somehow think less of you. He wants you to pour out your soul to Him – not in a formulaic way – just let is pour out. Blame Him, accuse Him, ask Him where He is. This in itself is an act of faith because you are taking your pain to your God and not ignoring Him in favour of a self-help book.
  • Remember a lot of our anger can stem from the way we think things should be, but not how they actually are.
  • Remember that God is with us in how this are, but He is also bringing about how things will be.

Given that we know that God is bringing about how things should be through His sovereign plans, and that we know God is faithful to His promises, know that it is good to pour out our hearts – but don’t stay there. We don’t want to wallow in our pain or celebrate it – and God does not want that for us either. Remember the end of the “How long” psalms. They all end with the psalmist resting in the Lord.

We are safe in Him, spiritually – and emotionally. Our God is patient. He gives us time. Your hurt lasts longer than a prayer. So keep praying. Keep talking to God. Give God your fears and anger. Give Him your prayers. Give Him your time. But know that He is there in the darkness with you.

In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety. (Psalm 4:8)

We are not in stasis while in isolation – we can grow and thrive despite our circumstances

OK we’re into the second or third week of working from home, home schooling, online church and gatherings limited to 2 people. It seems a bit surreal. We got all geared up like we were preparing for a couple of weeks of weird holiday and now things are starting to settle, the reality that this is our normal for the foreseeable future is setting in. That means that the current “survival mode” is how things will be for maybe 6 months.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be in survival mode for months on end. That means treading water. That means just existing.

No. There has to be more to this time than that. If nothing else, so we can keep our mental health strong, there has to be more than just existing.

So what to do?

I’m about to mention 3 people who we are definitely NOT, but they serve to illustrate a point.

William Shakespeare is thought to have written King Lear while in some form of quarantine from the plague. We don’t know if that’s true or not but its plausible and certainly possible. Between 1603 and 1613, because of plagues and sickness, Shakespeare’s theatre (the Globe) and other theatres in London were shut for more than 60% of the time. So it’s not unrealistic to say he did a lot of writing while in some form of lock-down.

The reconstruction of the Globe Theatre in London. Source: https://teach.shakespearesglobe.com/fact-sheet-third-globe

In 1665, there was more plague and Sir Isaac Newton went to Woolsthorpe Manor to get away from it. He was there for 18 months and he started to develop his theory of gravity there, as well as working on his revolutionary theories in calculus.

Woolsthorpe Manor - west facade.jpg
Woolsthorpe Manor. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woolsthorpe_Manor#/media/File:Woolsthorpe_Manor_-_west_facade.jpg

Paul wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon while in prison. We know these as canon, of course, but for Paul, these were just letters. Legend surrounding Paul’s time in prison says he performed a miracle there which suggests that he was active in his evangelism as well as his written pastoral guidance.

Ancient prison which housed St Peter re-opens in Rome
Carcer Tullianum, Rome’s oldest prison (3,000 years old) where Peter and Paul are said to have been held. Source: https://www.thelocal.it/20160714/ancient-prison-which-housed-st-peter-re-opens-in-rome

Now I don’t know about you, but I am not going to invent some mathematical theorem – I can’t even help my 8-year old son with his year 3 homework. And very few of us are Shakespeare. Even less of us are Peter and Paul.

But what these people show us is:

  1. They went from existing to living life and even thriving. I’m sure that going to Woolsthorpe Manor or hunkering down somewhere in London required some modification of behaviour given what they couldn’t do. But then they clearly then moved onto what they could do.
  2. They used their skills. Shakespeare wrote. Newton did deep thinky brain work. Paul guided. These were all skills that they took into quarantine with them and they allowed to breathe within those confined spaces.
  3. They used their brains. They thought, they worked, they stretched themselves which takes people beyond existing and into thriving.
  4. It involved new things. In so doing, they created new things, even learned to do new things. This is so key in mental health. It keeps our view on things bigger than our current situation. It gives us a focus on possibility, hope, a larger world.
  5. They saw opportunities. When in quarantine or prison, if you can’t do this, then maybe I can do that. Paul couldn’t visit the churches so he wrote to them. Charles Benson Barnett was a missionary with the famous James Hudson Taylor. When he was forced to return to Australia because of ill-health, he founded Sydney Missionary and Bible College. He couldn’t go, so he trained others.

Jesus himself told us that he came so that we might have life to the full. There is no caveat to that – he didn’t say “unless there’s a pandemic and you’re in lock-down”. He came so we could have life to the full all the time. That is what is available to us no matter where we are.

So how can we use our brains? Where can we see opportunities? In saying this I recognise that Shakespeare, Newton and Paul either didn’t have children or had someone else taking care of them – and they didn’t have another day job that they were working-from-home on. But within the restrictions that we have, how can we look upwards and outwards? How can we do something new?

Here’s some ideas:

  • Decide on a goal that you have for your isolation time, for example:
    • I want to grow as a disciple
    • I want to learn a new skill
    • I want to expand my brain
    • I want to build community
    • I want to strengthen others
    • I want to spread God’s word
  • Then, depending on what goal you have identified, you can set out some tasks you want to commit to, like:
    • Commit to listening to a podcast series that is edifying and will expand your thinking and your faith. Try Lionel Windsor’s Lift Your Eyes or Risen Motherhood. I listen to these on Spotify but they’re available wherever you get your podcasts
    • Start looking at YouTube videos if you want to learn how to knit or crochet or learn the rules of cricket or how to draw cartoons
    • Get online books to work through an author or series (I’m currently working through the Narnia books)
    • Work through a devotional book with your family and/or an online group who you’ve never met with before
    • Write letters of encouragement (on your own or with your kids) and post them to your neighbours
    • Meet online with someone who’s on the church periphery to read the Bible and pray together
    • Start a blog or a journal to map your life during this time – it may make for a pretty interesting record in a couple of decades!
    • Look for ways to support others who are less self-sufficient. These are strange times and these are scary times. For some of us, it’s trying to do normal work and life from home. For others it is losing our jobs and potentially a lot more. If you are in the former group, what can we do for the latter? Even if its making an extra meal once a week, sending notes to those who live alone, or committing to buy a few extra groceries for someone every week, or forming a prayer triplet to pray for those you know in your church doing it tough – all these are good. What else might there be?

There are lots of ways we can use our brains and thrive as individuals, as families and as a community so that during this time we aren’t just treading water. We want to come out of this stronger, not having just existed. Not exhausted from the work and the home schooling and the parenting in isolation (although many of us will be), but having found opportunities to thrive. Not beaten down from the fear and the worry (although that is a definite factor), but finding ways to live life in the kind of abundance that Jesus talks about. Being in him. Growing in him. Reaching our families, reaching our communities, thinking bigger than ourselves.

Lets do what we need to do. But then lets use our brains, and our skills. Lets learn new things and look for opportunities. Lets set goals – even small ones. Lets keep our eyes upwards an outwards so we take care of ourselves and our families, but always look for ways to look beyond ourselves.

In Christ, well that is thinking bigger. It would be easy, in a time of uncertainty, to keep our eyes down and do what needs to be done. But lets make sure we keep our eyes on him. If we look to him first, we can live and survive, but we can grow and thrive too.

“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:9-11)