These reflections help us look into the Bible to discover what God is saying to us today. We find Bible passages to read and questions to ponder. The themes are in the process of being listed in an index with each theme ultimately divided into seven sections. We hope to be completed soon.
Paul referred to himself as “the chief of sinners” (v.16). The main reason he believed this was because of his past. Before his conversion to Jesus Christ he had been an ardent Pharisee and a persecutor of Christians. He had travelled up and down the country arresting believers, and in some cases had them stoned to death. Stephen, the first Christian martyr was stoned by those who laid their clothes at the feet of Paul (Saul in those days).
Paul was now mortified that he had persecuted the Church and had blasphemed against Jesus Christ. He was also now aware that all the things he thought had been good and what he had done to impress God were in fact worthless. He wrote: “All my righteous deeds are as filthy rags”. But he was not going to live the rest of his life flagellating himself for his sins. Jesus was indeed the Christ and the Saviour. It would be sacrilege to refuse the forgiveness so freely offered. If God had forgiven him, then he should forgive himself. Jesus had come to set him free, not to increase his guilt and failure.
Paul, as a Christian, was also aware that he was a sinner because he still continued to sin. He spoke of this constant struggle he had as he tried to overcome his ‘old nature’. He cried out, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19)” So Paul not only felt he had lost his early years by fruitlessly attacking Christians, but he had lost opportunities by his own weakness and failure to win over the “flesh”.
He was also tempted to be frustrated with his long periods of imprisonment. How he longed to be out preaching and reaching out to the corners of the known world. And yet his time was not lost. Whilst in prison others started to preach. While he had been around their gifts seemed to be not needed, but now they emerged and served Christ. And even more importantly, Paul wrote letters. It is these Epistles that have survived long after anything else he did. His letters were a direct result of being in prison.
Lord, even my religious zeal may have been misplaced and not done out of love. Put a right spirit within me. Amen.
1 What did Paul think of his previous ‘good’ and ‘holy’ life?
“He would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate” (v.16) RSV
The story of the Prodigal Son is one of the best known in the Bible. Sadly, it fits our theme over these weeks of ‘Lost Years’. This younger son decided that he was going to live life to the full. He cajoled his future inheritance out of his father and set off to make his fortune, or rather, to lose it!
After an unspecified time of riotous living he ran out of money. Some of the best years of his life had been squandered in self-indulgence, instead of steady work and application. In the end he “would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate”. He was reduced to looking after the animals that his race felt were ‘unclean’. His life had become dirty and immoral.
We too may feel we wasted our years at school or university. We avoided the dull and arduous route and pursued quick money or a life of pleasure. Maybe the last thing in the world we wanted to be was to be like our “elder brother”. In the story that elder brother was a man of duty but not of joy; he was unforgiving and ungenerous. So it is understandable that the younger one wanted to be free and be real, but it was nevertheless a selfish and dead-end route.
God knows, and he wants us to fulfil our potential in the years that remain to us. Our past need not be a ball and chain that drags us back for the rest of our life. Unlock it; let it go. The past is past. With God, let us turn to the future and start working and striving with all the strength and the talents that he gives us.
There is also a spiritual application from this story. We may have wasted the best part of our life in neglect of God and of our soul’s requirements. Our spiritual well is dry. But let us take heart, even now if we turn to the Lord in repentance, we will find he is merciful. Indeed he will “run to embrace” us (v.20). He will restore our relationship with him and fill us to overflowing with love, joy and peace.
Jesus, I am sorry for the past. Grant me the chance to live my future for you and for others. Amen.
1 What is God’s message to those who go their own way?
Joseph was a young man with a bright future ahead of him. God gave him dreams that one day his father and mother and brothers would all bow down before him. He became his father’s favourite son and was consequently given a coat with long sleeves (which meant he was above manual work). Surely, he must have reckoned life was going to be continual ease and privilege.
How wrong he was. In order for God to be able to exalt him, he had first to bring him down a few pegs. Joseph was arrogant and conceited. So much so, that his brothers hated his guts. They decided to get rid of him. At first they were going to kill him, but eventually they sold him to some passing traders. He ended up in Egypt. He must have been hurt, angry and embittered.
He was sold in the market as a slave and was brought into the household of Potiphar (who was captain of the guard). There he quickly rose through the ranks. But he was betrayed by his master’s wife who accused him of attempted rape. He was thrown into prison where “his neck was put in a collar of iron” (v.18). While in prison he again rose to a position of trust, but even after interpreting the dreams of the imprisoned butler and baker of Pharaoh’s household, he still remained forgotten for some years more.
Finally his break came. He had learned his lesson. He was now humbled and useful to God. Pharaoh summoned him to interpret his dream. The result was that Joseph became second-in-command to Pharaoh in all the land, and was in charge of all the food supplies.
When his brothers came looking for food because of the famine, Joseph had learned such grace that he told them that what they had done to him they had “meant for evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). God can indeed restore the lost years.
Thank you Lord that you redeem my past and integrate it into my future. Amen.
1 Who became useful to God and to his master after conversion?
Many people are dogged by regrets when they consider their past life. Either someone else has robbed them of their best years or they themselves, through fear or idleness, or excess have wasted those years.
Such regrets can be very debilitating and can produce cynicism or loss of energy: why bother? And yet, the nature of our glorious gospel and the nature of our God who inspires the gospel is one of a future filled with hope.
In our passage today we find that God (through the prophet Joel) has been addressing various categories of people who have reason to regret their past. First there is the “aged men” (1:2), and secondly “you drunkards” (1:5), then there are disappointed brides (1:8), and then struggling farmers (1:11). The ‘robber’ in the lives of all these people is illustrated by the “locusts” (1:4, 2:25). These creatures have eaten away all their past hopes and efforts. The result was dissatisfaction and frustration.
May be we can identify with such sentiments. Have we made wrong decisions and missed out on opportunities? Have others overruled our lives? Did we fail exams or get pipped at the post in a job application? Were we tied to our parents or jilted at the altar? God knows!
Over the next weeks we shall consider the hope that God wants to bring us. The years that “the swarming locust has eaten” (v.25) will be restored to us. Of course we cannot get back the past, but the future can make up for what was lost. The most transformative thing that God can, and will do, is to fill us with his Spirit. In our reading we have that great passage which St Peter quotes on the Day of Pentecost: “And it shall come to pass afterwards, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh …” (v.28). Your Spirit-filled life will then enable God to open up new doors of opportunity. With God there is always a future and a hope.
Lord, I am sorry for my past. I long for better things. Fill me anew with your Spirit, and fill me with hope. Amen.
“a man who sows discord among brothers” (v.19) RSV
Over the last week we have been looking at things that God hates and abominates. They have all been to do with spoiling relationships: pride, lying, murder, false witness, plotting evil, etc. Today we come to the last of the list of seven in Proverbs 6:16-19. God’s commandments are that we love one another, even our enemies. So naturally he will be displeased when we start to destroy one another.
One way to do this is to be a spreader of discord. For some reason some people love to drop in a juicy morsel of gossip, or in some way to put in the wooden spoon and stir it up. A proverb says: “He who goes about gossiping reveals secrets” (Proverbs 20:19). The gossip we spread may or may not be true, but it’s usually not in the best interests of the person(s) in question.
Slander is another way to stir up trouble. The Church at Smyrna suffered from this malicious and hurtful attack. Jesus says: “I know your tribulations … and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9). This passages links slander with the activity of Satan. The Greek word diabolos means slanderer.
The Corinthian church was split asunder by discord and party spirit. Paul wrote to them saying that he had heard that “there is quarrelling among you (1 Corinthians 1:11). The members of the church were despising those who were, in their estimation, inferior Christians. Either their baptism was inferior or their spiritual gifting was or their freedom in the Lord was! All this was destructive of harmony and love.
So, let us speak good of others, and let our conversations be seasoned with salt (Colossians 4:6). Our aim is to be peacemakers and reconcilers, not spreaders of harmful gossip. “Blessed are the peacemakers” said Jesus. It is so easy, so tempting to be catty, but if we want to sleep peacefully at night we need to be creative and wholesome.
Thank you Lord that your mission is one of reconciliation. Help me to speak words of peace and blessing. Amen.
“… a false witness who breathes out lies …” (v.19) RSV
The Book of Deuteronomy spells out many laws and also gives the consequences of breaking them. The law we consider today is against bearing false witness (Deutoronomy 19:15-20). It is a very painful thing when people speak against you, whether to your face or behind your back.
The disciples were warned that this would happen. Indeed they were warned, “Beware when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:26). In other words, if they lived according to Christ’s commands (standing up for justice, being generous and speaking the truth in love), they would attract some opposition and criticism. If however they lived sheltered and flabby lives with no cutting edge, then they might be popular but their souls would be in peril.
Jesus was used to being criticised and slandered. He was accused of working “by the power of Beelzebub” (Matthew 12:27), and mocked for being “a glutton and a drunkard” (Matthew 11:19).
Since we know how painful it is to have people speak evil about us, let us resolve not to misrepresent others. St Paul gives good advice when he writes, “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Again, he writes to the Romans, “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19).
Once again this ‘deadly sin’ is recorded as the ninth commandment given to Moses on Mount Sinai. One way to safeguard against a false witness is never to accept the word of one person. There should always be at least two witnesses. Of course even this won’t work if they collude together. This is what Jezebel did; she trumped up false witnesses to accuse Naboth so that he was executed and King Ahab (her husband) got his vineyard. Read the story in ‘Explore More’.
Help me, O Lord, only to speak the truth, and nothing but the truth. If I have nothing good to say, then give me the grace to keep silent. Amen.
1 Read about the false witnesses who lied about Naboth.
“… feet that make haste to run to evil …” (v.18) RSV
Our ‘feet’ are a vivid picture used to express where we are going in life. You may know the verse that says: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who bring good tidings …” (Isaiah 52:7-10). He is not literally talking about the beauty of ‘feet’! He is referring to what the ‘feet’ symbolise: the message. All too often our ‘feet’ are taking us in the wrong direction. Instead of fleeing evil, or running to do good, or running into the arms of our Father, we are rushing headlong into sinful ways.
Do you remember how Jonah had been called by God to go to the wicked city of Ninevah to preach a message of forgiveness? Jonah instead ran off to catch a boat in the opposite direction. He sailed off to Tarshish (which we now know as the Costa del Sol!). In other words, he went on holiday instead of letting his feet take him to Ninevah.
St Paul picks up this idea of ‘feet’ recorded in Isaiah when he writes to the Ephesians. He describes the armour of God that we are to put on, and in particular he mentions that our ‘feet’ should be “shod … with the equipment of the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:15).
The life of the believer is to be dedicated to bringing the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. Our whole aim is to love God and to love our neighbour. Our intention is to do good and not evil. This should be the direction in which our ‘feet’ are pointing.
It is said of Jesus that “he went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). In the end he resolutely set his face to go to Jerusalem in order to suffer and to die. He set off from the north (Galilee) and walked southwards. His direction was set by his desire to do good to all peoples. In similar way, the father (in the story of the prodigal son) “ran and embraced him” (Luke 15:20). God has great enthusiasm to do us good. Let us follow him (1 John 2:6) and let us flee from doing evil.
Dear Lord, keep me from running into danger, and direct my footsteps in ways that please you. Amen.
1 Who likened the Christian life to running a race?
“… a heart that devises wicked plans …” (v.18) RSV
Some people seem very good at plotting the downfall of others. Daniel’s peers in Babylon hated his success and his talents, and therefore they conspired to disgrace him. They knew he prayed three times a day before an open window that faced towards Jerusalem and the Temple. They therefore devised a plan. They got the King to sign a document to forbid anyone praying to anything or anyone except himself for a period of 30 days.
When Daniel heard of this he resolutely continued to do as before. His fellow ministers told the King, and that hapless man had no alternative but to throw Daniel into the den of lions. Mercifully the plot backfired because God shut the mouths of the lions. When Daniel was released the next day, his work colleagues were thrown in and were devoured immediately (Daniel 6:4-9).
The prophet Jeremiah angered powerful people in Jerusalem when he kept forecasting the destruction of that city and the exile of its people. They felt he was undermining morale, so they plotted to kill him by lowering him down into a cistern where he sank up to his armpits in mire. Fortunately others who had the king’s permission came by night, tied rags and old clothes together and hauled him out under cover of darkness (Jeremiah 38:6-13).
The worst plot of all was devised by Judas Iscariot who went to the enemies of Jesus and arranged to betray him in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:14-16). This resulted in the death of Jesus. However, God raised him from the dead, brought him out of the tomb (as he did Daniel out of the den, and Jeremiah out of the cistern).
Let us resolve not to plan against others to do them harm, to outmanoeuvre them at work, to cheat them out of their wife, or any other unworthy scheme. Let us seek to do good to all people, especially the household of faith (Galatians 6:10).
Father, forgive me when I have been too eager to devise evil schemes. Help me give my energy to doing good. Amen.
Killing is not condemned in the Bible, whether it be for a capital offence or in war. But murder is strongly condemned. The Lord is very protective of the innocent and the defenceless. No one has the right to take the life of an innocent person for whatever reason. Murder, whether out of the passion of the moment or premeditated, is not to be tolerated by society.
The first murder is found at the start of the Bible when Cain slew his brother Abel (Genesis 4:8). Cain was jealous of his brother’s goodness and his acceptability with God. Out of anger and envy he killed his innocent brother. Jesus mentions this archetypal murder when he says: “… upon you may come all the righteous blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah … who you murdered …” (Mathew 23:35).
Even if the murderer gets away with it in this life, he will not do so when he faces the Judge of all men.
Most of us may read this and feel we have not sinned in this way. Murder is abhorrent to us. Yet Jesus teaches us that murder is not only achieved by the literal shedding of blood, for we can murder people with the words we say and the attitude we adopt. In our reading today which is from the Sermon on the Mount, he says: “whoever insults … whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5: 21-22).
Our curses can be powerful and self-fulfilling. If we get angry or frustrated and start cursing children (especially our own), or other car drivers, or our boss, or work colleagues, we will end up doing them (and maybe ourselves too) irreparable harm.
But rather, as St Paul says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Romans 12:14). Let us give life to people, rather than rob them of it.
Thank you Lord for those who have loved me and built me up. May I do good to others and not harm. Amen.
We continue with the list of seven things the Lord hates, as listed in Proverbs 6. Pride was the first and the worst. But today we come on to the second, lying. Pride and lying are closely linked: “Let lying lips be dumb, which speak insolently against the righteous in pride and contempt” (Psalms 31:18). Once trust has gone and we can no longer rely on what others are saying, then there is no foundation left for a relationship.
The Bible gives some cautionary tales of the consequences of lying. There was Jacob who tricked his father into thinking he was his elder brother, Esau. He gained the Blessing, but had to flee his cheated brother’s wrath. For the following 14 years he lived in exile as a servant of his uncle. Eventually he had to return to be reconciled to Esau, and on the way wrestled with an angle. Out of this conflict he emerged with a lifelong limp (Genesis 32:24-28).
Then there was Ananias and Sapphira. This couple were part of the early church, many of whom were selling their possessions and sharing them with the whole church. Unfortunately, these two conspired together to withhold half the proceeds and yet claim to have given it all. The result was the divine wrath of Peter and the instant death of both of them! (Acts 5:1-11). This was extreme but it served as a salutary example to the other disciples.
Lying is serious. Jesus taught that when the devil lies “he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). He lied in the Garden of Eden: “You will not die” (Genesis 3:4). Deception and lies should not be part of our armoury, rather, we should “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
Hilaire Belloc told a Cautionary Tale about Matilda who “told such Dreadful Lies, It made one Gasp and Stretch one’s Eyes.” When she cried “Fire” once too often, no one believed, and “Matilda, and the House, were Burned.”
Lord, you always spoke the truth. Help me to be honest and yet gracious. I know the truth will set us free. Amen.
When we speak of the Seven Deadly Sins we may immediately think of the Catholic list: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride. This list is good and comprehensive, and certainly Pride is the key to all sins.
Indeed, Pride leads a different list which we shall be considering over the coming weeks. The Book of Proverbs gives a wide ranging list of things that the Lord “hates” and which are “an abomination to him” (v.16).
The first one, then, is “haughty eyes” (v.17). This feeling of superiority is a disaster. The original sin was Adam and Eve’s desire to be “like God” (Genesis 3:5). They were tempted by the pride that they knew better than God; the ‘fruit’ would not kill them but would make them wise. How wrong they were, how far they fell! Surely the saying is true: “Pride comes before a fall”.
The first Couple were of course only following in the steps of the Tempter. Satan had already gone the same way before them. His fall is well described by the Prophet: “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven … I will set my throne on high …” (Isaiah 14:13). If you read the passage (see Explore More below) you will see that five times he says “I will”. That is the nature of pride.
We are all infected with this fatal tendency, although some of us suffer from inverted pride. We either have too much confidence in ourselves and think we can do without God and can climb up over others, or else we have so low an opinion of ourselves that we do not believe that God has done a good job in making us, and do not believe that he can do anything for us or through us.
Both these positions are an offence to God Almighty. “Haughty eyes” are to be avoided. As Paul says, the disciple “is not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment …” (Romans 12:3).
Lord, though you have made me unique, keep me from looking down on others. Teach me humility. Amen.
Although our inheritance from God is not defined clearly, it is nevertheless described as being glorious. Perhaps it is not put into words because in our present physical and sensual state we would not appreciate the spiritual world.
Peter is plainly carried away with keen anticipation when he writes about it; he says it is “an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (v.4). He trusts his God that when something good is promised, it will be good!
Of course we do get a foretaste of the coming Kingdom while we live in this world. We experience the love, joy and peace of the Holy Spirit. We know the loving provision of our heavenly Father, and the fellowship of his children. This foretaste is also called our “guarantee” (2 Corinthians 1:22, 5:5 and Ephesians 1:14). In other words the Spirit is a down payment or a deposit. This is how we know and experience something of what is coming our way.
St Paul, as well as Peter, waxes eloquent about our future inheritance. But he knows that its nature can only be understood in our heart and not our head. He prays that the Ephesians may have “the eyes of their hearts enlightened, that they may know what is the hope to which God has called them, and what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, what is the immeasurable greatness of his power” (Ephesians 1:18-19).
This is what we need to pray for, both for ourselves and for all believers. God wants us to be full of anticipation and assurance. But if we have no conviction about our future state, then we will be fearful of dying. We will also remain unstrengthened when we face current hardships. If we have no real hope for the future then we will be, as St Paul puts it, “of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). We lose so much if we remain in ignorance.
Father, thank you for our glorious future inheritance. Grant me to both to understand it and to anticipate it more and more. Amen.
1 Note Paul’s plea against ignorance of the Lord’s return.