Faith and Suffering

ari-he-SNOVdaMN2QQ-unsplashWarning: These are difficult, contentious and complex topics because we all have suffered, and suffering is painful, and we can easily react to having “easy” answers pushed on us (anyone break out in a rash when someone quotes Romans 8:28?). So please hang in there and try to stay with me.

“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

At Easter (if we are followers of Jesus), our thoughts rightfully turn to the sufferings of Jesus. He endured the worst possible test – full shame, full abandonment by friends and even seemingly by His Father, betrayal by a close friend, full hostility, abuse and misunderstanding of his motives and identity, plus brutal torture and death. It doesn’t get any more intense than this.  

Yet He models total faithfulness. He stays sweet, He even forgives His enemies in the midst of it! That’s why He is called the “pioneer and perfecter of faith”. After all the amazing examples of faithfulness in Hebrews chapter 11, Jesus is the champion.

So what is this faith that we are called to imitate?

In the New Testament, faith, belief, trust, confidence, fidelity, and faithfulness are all different ways of translating the same Greek word.

I like using faithfulness as it emphasises the relational aspect of faith. Essentially it implies staying attached to the object of faithfulness in spite of every storm and everything that tries to shake it lose, like an oyster on a rock. As the storms batter the oyster gets stronger and holds on tighter.

This is what Jesus modelled for us. Faithfulness means to be founded on the bedrock of the love and truth of the Creator of all things. It’s not so much about what we believe, but who we are attached to; not so much who we are, but whose we are, and whose story are we living in.

Isn’t faith just religious wishful thinking?

Faith is certainly not just a religious concept. Humans naturally gravitate toward and attach to that which we believe is faithful, trustworthy and true. We ask other people what is the most reliable type of car to buy, or what is the best wash powder. It goes deeper too.

Psychology tells us that we are supposed to learn “basic trust” when we are very young; to learn that we are loved, enjoyed, heard, understood and that we belong. This forms the basis of faith and trust and relational attachment. But in this broken world it so often goes wrong, often badly so.

When the early settings aren’t right this plays out through our lives. In our struggle to trust others, we also struggle with self-acceptance, struggle with intimacy and we tend to attach to things that don’t ultimately satisfy. There may be some pleasure in these things, but there is little joy. Because joy, the brain scientists (and the Bible) tell us, comes from relationships.

Attachment trauma and lack of basic trust doesn’t just come from harm or abuse that we may have suffered, but if can also come what we failed to receive from parents or caregivers who struggle with attachment and basic trust issues themselves.

How does attachment trauma affect our relationship with God?

One of the many downsides of poor attachment is that when we do come to faith in God is that we struggle to have healthy attachment to our Divine Parent. This can translate into unhealthy driven behaviour, legalism, control issues, not feeling loved or forgiven, feelings of distance and disapproval from God, inability to sense God’s presence, an over-emphasis on spiritual experiences, or fluctuating between these (and more).

However, this is not where we must or should stay. God is 100% committed to our healing and maturity. Did you know that God endured and suffered all our attachment trauma in Christ? He made a way through his suffering to show us how. We’re not alone.

Jesus endures the absolute ultimate shaking and shaming leading up to and on the cross yet He ends in a place of glory and security at the throne of God – the place of ultimate security and attachment. We are called to take a similar journey. He makes that path as pioneer and perfecter of our faithfulness. That is what the book of Hebrews (if not the whole Bible) is about. Jesus shows us how suffering can be redemptive.

So faith is not just “what I need to believe to get to heaven”. Neither is it “what I need to live a blessed, healthy and prosperous life where I don’t have to suffer”. Faith / faithfulness is what we need to develop to live a life that increasingly clings to God, that grows into maturity and resilience so we may represent Christ as an ambassador of his Kingdom in this world.

Faith / faithfulness in and towards our Creator and Father is what we need to survive the s#@t-storms of life and come out shining, and come out more connected to God and people.

So faith can build resilience?

The ability to find joy in adversity is a big part of resilience. Nehemiah says to the people “…the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10).

Counter-intuitively, suffering and glory are often paired together in the Bible. The outcome of Jesus’ suffering was glory and joy. Even in the suffering He was able to find joy because He understood it had a purpose: “For the joy set before him he endured the cross”.

So rather then being an antidote to all suffering faith is what we need to renew our attachments and return to joy in the midst of the adversity. When suffering is required we need to learn to suffer well. Without an understanding of suffering, we will not be able to make any sense of this life.

Brain science tells us that if we cannot reconcile our suffering with some sort of narrative of purpose we fall into cognitive dissonance and the trauma and suffering will not be resolved. Instead we can fall into depression, mental illness or even physical illness.

Biblically, we can see how this relates to the idea of bitter roots taking hold spoken of later in Hebrews 12. We saw how Esau turns the unjust treatment meted out on him by his brother into a bitter root that poisons his life and relationships for years because he cannot find a way to process the injustice done to him.

In contrast, a couple of generations later Joseph goes though tremendous suffering at the hands of his cruel and jealous brothers, but there is no evidence of bitterness, but a trust that somehow God will bring goodness and His purposes from his situation.

God is able to bring joy and blessing to Joseph in what could have been incredibly bitter years. Much later when he is reconciled with his brothers, and has the power to take revenge on them, he is remarkably sweet. He says “…you meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.”(Genesis 50:20)

Joseph suffers well. He sees God’s sovereign hand over his life. He has reconciled his faith with his experience and stays unscarred by the trauma, as he stays open to God’s larger purposes.

What happens to our faith when we don’t get what we expect?

Our inner mental maps are like a Virtual Reality world that may or may not map onto the real world. We discover this playing a VR game when we accidentally walk into a real coffee table or hit real person! 

If our experience of suffering, say through a loss of relationship, job, career, dream, child, or our health doesn’t fit our belief system that says “I should not be suffering” we will eventually face a “crisis of faith”. When our experience doesn’t fit with how we make sense of the world we go into high stress, anxiety and fear. 

Sometimes to cope we just change up the narrative to something that sets us off on a worse tangent. For instance: Something bad happened… if God is who I think He is He shouldn’t have allowed this… so God must not be good… or He is weak or doesn’t care… or God must not love me… or I must be too terrible… or maybe there is no God…and so on.

Please don’t do this. When you hit a speed-bump in life its better to go to people you trust who have worked though this in their own lives for help to adjust your idea of God and the world to a more accurate model. The writer of Hebrews begs readers not to cast away their confidence in God when things are hard, but instead to encourage one another. The storm will pass.

Isn’t it just religious people that have crises of faith?

Everyone experiences this when their idea of “how the world is” conflicts with their expectations. Dallas Willard has a great saying something like: “Reality is what we run into when we are wrong”. It’s one way we learn.

This is also why some people “can’t find God”. They have no place for Him in their mental maps. Even when they fall over Him they have some way explaining it away (invisible coffee table?)! But sometimes when people find that their mental maps are letting them down they begin to open up to new possibilities. This is especially the case if they know people who are Christians going through similar trouble but finding hidden reserves of faith.

When our theology or mental map removes the possibility or likelihood of suffering it is not mapping into a biblical world-view or to reality (which should be the same thing). What great biblical character or great hero from history did not suffer? Some certainly, like Jonah, caused the trouble themselves through resisting the call of God. Others, like Joseph, suffered because of the call of God.

The saints through the ages have suffered, but they remained faithful in their suffering. That is what made them over-comers. To overcome does always mean to escape suffering, but to remain faithful in that suffering.

What is a biblical mental map for suffering?

Ironically when we remove the possibility of suffering from our mental map, we are likely to suffer more when we bump into it because we had not prepared for the possibility.

Think of Jesus words to the Church in Smyrna “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.” (Revelation 2:10)

Think of the three Hebrew young men thrown into the furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar. they say “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:7-8).

The point is that they were full of faith that God would rescue them, but their faith was not in a certain outcome but in the God that they knew. And they would be faithful to God even if for some reason he chose to let them suffer. Sometimes God provides a way of escape, sometimes not.

Faith is certainly not passive or fatalistic. We are told to seek God, abide in His words, ask for wisdom, to expect miracles and healings. But when we equate faith with certainty in a particular outcome we can be setting ourselves up for trouble. The outcome can become the focus not God. Or our faith becomes the focus instead of God. It becomes too easy to compromise in some way to get the desired result. Or if we do get a result we can become proud thinking it was because of our faith.

In a place of pride or lost focus it is too easy to follow other voices that say “…all this is I will give you if you fall down and worship me”. God gives grace to the humble. Willard describes humility as “don’t push, don’t presume, and don’t pretend.” This good advice! Stay humble and receive grace from His presence, which may not be in the form we think. Often it’s not so much delivering us from the particular situation that God is so interested in as talking to us about the unhealthy attitudes emerging from our hearts because of the pressure. It is true saying that He is more interested in our character than our comfort.

I’ve come to believe that actual faith is clinging on to God when it all goes pear shaped, when we are uncertain, disorientated, overloaded and we don’t have a clue what is going one, when the storm is raging and all you can say like Peter is “save me Lord!” And somehow He does! But often not how we expect. 

Let’s pray:

Jesus we love your ways but we don’t always understand them. We see in your scriptures that suffering has a mysterious purpose. Help us understand that better Lord. And mostly help us to be faithful to You. Help us process our disappointments and losses. Help us to align our mental maps with reality. Help us to grow and heal in those areas of attachments wounds. Help us develop a real relationship with You where You really are our source, where You really are our place of primary sustenance. And help our eyes to continually return to You Jesus. Amen.


Posted in Blog entry

God as Personal Coach

ivan-pergasi-_P8ZuoU2kgA-unsplash“Now stand up straight! Stop your knees from shaking  and walk a straight path. Then lame people will be healed, instead of getting worse.” (Hebrews 12:12-13 CEV).

I have had personal trainers a couple of times. The first time was when I joined a gym to recuperate from a serious knee injury suffered while playing soccer with teenagers at a youth camp (bad idea). I struggled to feel good about paying money to a trainer who seemed to delight in making me do impossible things then telling me exactly how I was doing it wrong! But I did eventually learn some new skills and it did me good.

The second involved visiting a physiotherapist years later when the same knee was dislocating, and I was again sent to the gym with instruction to do specific sets of exercises. I thought: “This must be wrong, I can’t possibly push that much weight with my legs”. But I eventually did, and I got stronger.

We like to see God as our kind Father, and Jesus as our saviour who came to rescue us from our pain, but there is another side to God. He is committed to growing us up to walk this straight path without faltering. It takes training. Gregory Boyle, who works with gangs in Los Angeles, says God loves us just for who we are, but He wants to remove from us from all that we are not. Sometimes we don’t want to let the familiar go, even though it is harmful. Change can feel deeply uncomfortable for a while – like with a personal coach or trainer.

How does God’s training regime work?

We saw how God used the wilderness to expose what was in the heart of the Israelites escaping captivity in Egypt, and to train them in new ways:

“And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD…. Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you.” (Deuteronomy 8:2-3,5 NASB)

From this passage we get an idea of how He works. His plan was to humble them, expose their areas of weakness and dysfunction, and then teach them to trust Him with the process even when it was uncomfortable, unfamiliar and seemed wrong and different to what they thought they knew. Then they got to practice until they got it right.

De-mystifying testing

Some say that God never tests his people, that all hard times come from the devil. This can lead to externalising and blaming others (the devil in this case), instead of facing the issues that God is trying to address. We can become totally focussed on outward achievement, doing great things for God even. But we can use this activity to neglect the much harder work of maturity and the challenge of change.

It is clear that God tests His people, as our verse above and many, many others show. But He does not do this to harm us or make us fail but to reveal what is in our heart and to train us to achieve our best. Remember that in the gospels Jesus was led by the Spirit of God to be tested in the wilderness. So yes, evil agencies are involved in testing, but only under the hand of God for God’s purposes. They are not all-powerful, just instruments under God, limited in their realm of authority over children of God.

Others assume that tests and trial are just something unknowable that God mysteriously does to us, maybe because he is angry with us because we haven’t confessed enough sins or become perfect enough yet. We just have to put up with unpleasant and unfair circumstances because somehow He is working through it – but we don’t know how or why. This comes from our shame orientation which will trip us up and send us into hiding from God. Bad idea. Take that response to Him and ask Him to change that identity issue.

The archaic language of many translations can also put us off the idea of God’s testing, hearing how God “punishes”, “chastens” or even “scourges” his children. These poorly translated terms have been co-opted to justify abuse in church, society and family and will send us running from God, not to Him. I prefer the language of “trains”, “corrects” and “reproves”, as these fit with an understanding of the character of God as revealed in the whole of scripture.. This is all “…for our good…” (Hebrews 12:10). 

Misunderstanding God’s testing can be linked to a misunderstanding of grace, whereby we assume that God has done it all, and there is no need for us to do anything except to be passive recipients of what comes our way. This is not what the scriptures teach. Grace is God’s favour extended to the unworthy and undeserving. It is a free gift but there is no suggestion in scripture that God does not expect a response from us – quite the opposite. He wants us to walk in newness of life, which will not be achieved by a passive, off-hand attitude (Romans 6:4). We need to lay aside everything and follow with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

In fact we are to ask God to reveal any wrong way in us, to test our hearts, minds and thoughts that we may be pure before Him:

Examine me, LORD, and put me to the test; Refine my mind and my heart.” (Psalm 26:2)

“Search me, God, and know my heart; Put me to the test and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there is any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way.” (Psalm 139:23-24)

What the difference between tests and temptations?

The apostle James has a lot to say about testing and temptation. He is clear to say that we are not to blame God when we succumb to temptation (James 1:13), just like we are not to blame the personal trainer when we get grumpy and decide to go eat ice-cream instead of doing our workout. We are tempted when we are “carried away by our own lust” (James 1:14).

Yes, spiritual adversaries will be involved in discouraging, confusing and tempting us to evil, but we only give place to these when we are already vulnerable. Even then we can use our failures as an opportunity to pinpoint areas we need to take to God for help, rather than hiding them away and pretending that they don’t exist.

The “Lords’ prayer” in Matthew 6 can be read as a request to God to give us an easy life without any challenges, but in fact it is a request to God to help us recognise, grow through and pass the test: And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:13)

The purpose of God’s testing is clear: that we may be mature, that we might walk in fullness of joy, that we may share His holiness (pure character), that we may be all God made us to be, that we and others may “…see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14), and that we may learn to love our enemies. Dallas Willard says that we display spiritual maturity when we spontaneously love our enemies. Are you there yet? Me neither. So we need to continue with His training.

Engaging with the process

As we have discussed, hard circumstances open us up to what is hidden deep within. They take us back into dark, painful places we would rather not go or even admit exist. In that place of suffering is where the separation and healing take place.

So we cannot just say “I don’t need to suffer, I’ll just read the Bible and pray and read books and listen to good preachers and God will make me mature.” This is not how it ever worked in scripture or in church history. So God will allow us to suffer. Does that mean he is mean? Is the personal trainer mean? It can feel that way at the time. As our text says  For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 1:11)

We wish it wasn’t this way but unfortunately it is. So best to learn to cooperate so we don’t prolong the process and have to sit the same tests over and over. The Israelites walked in circles in the desert for forty years. The apostle Paul specifically tells us to treat this as a cautionary tale (1 Corinthians 10:6-13). Don’t be like the Israelites!

In that place of discomfort there is a willingness to change. A desperation even. I would not have gone to my trainers if my mobility wasn’t seriously threatened.

There must be a humility, an openness, a crack for the grace of God to enter. We realise that we are the “poor in spirit”, – and are now qualified to receive from the Kingdom of heaven. We mourn our losses – so come into a place where we can receive true comfort (Matthew 5:3-4). We become more receptive and focussed – so we begin to hunger and thirst of righteousness (Matthew 5:6). And then He begins to feed us and we learn that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD”. (Deuteronomy 8:3).

Every word is tested

Now that we are receptive to start to hear God. This may be because we have had to slow down and face our fears, or because our lives are so disrupted that there is nowhere to hide and no activities left to avoid the inevitable.

So we are now ready for our training to actually begin. We start to engage with scripture. We start to be still and wait on God. We sense an impression, we record it in our journal, we start to listen to our own inward thoughts and desires and emotions. We record those, and a dialogue with God begins to develop. We record scriptures that we read that seem to be especially meaningful for some reason. We ask God to lead us in our training process. So far so good.

Unfortunately this is where I stopped for some time. I would have a wonderful time of sensing God, hearing what I felt was His word to me, but I failed to realise that this word was not yet “made flesh” in me. In order for God’s living instructions to actually change me they must be incarnated. Another way to say this is that they have to get into our muscle memory and begin to change our neural pathways. The danger of knowing without practicing is that we become hearers not doers. Information only becomes transformation with our participation. James explains this as follows:

“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror.  For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” (James 1:23-25 CEV)

There is a proverb that says “Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him.” (Proverbs 30:5 NASB). As I was meditating on this one day I felt the Lord say “This is not just about my words being pure and reliable, but also that every word I speak to you needs to be tested, practiced, and repeated until you are retrained into that new pattern.” So now when I sense that God is speaking to me about something I expect to have opportunities to practice what He is talking about. For instance, developing patience is topical for me at present. So I remind myself that I am probably going to get tempted to be impatient even more than usual. It’s an exercise; an assignment from my coach.

Can you see how this reframes testing? It is so easy to get discouraged and say “I felt God encouraging me about being more patient, giving me encouraging scriptures, telling me I can do better, showing me some bitter roots that I’ve taken to Him, but it seems I’m just worse than ever!”. Instead let me encourage you that this is your practice. If the trainer shows you how to do a new exercise and you don’t practice how will it become second nature? It probably won’t look pretty or feel normal for a few weeks, but you will get there! I eventually believed my physiotherapist when he said I could leg press twice my body weight even though it seemed impossible to start with as he had no reason to lie to me, and eventually I could do it.

If I was learning to pole vault, I might understand the equipment, may have watched lots of YouTube videos of technique and even found some vaulting heroes to emulate, but the first time I tried actually pole vaulting I’m sure I’d be a miserable failure. So it is with our growth in God.

He doesn’t expect perfection from day one! Every skill requires patience and practice. God is your Father as well as your coach. He wants you to succeed! Trust Him with the process. And recognise that He also set it up so we also need human help. It takes other people to help us in our journey. Find a mentor, counsellor or spiritual director and get them to help you in the process. We are a broken people. There is no shame in asking for help. How will we help others unless we are growing into maturity ourselves, doing the hard work?

So to sum up, God loves us too much to leave us bitter and twisted. We have serious deficiencies and wounds because we are humans living in a world of pain.  But God has a Way – Jesus is the one who is the prototype for restored humanity. He spontaneously forgives his enemies. He walks in joy and freedom. His presence brings love and healing wherever He goes. The process God in His wisdom has chosen to conform us to the image of His Son is a training process that will feel deeply uncomfortable and even unnatural at times because our neural pathways and muscle memory are wired from our twisted traumas and resulting habitual unhealthy ways. Welcome to God’s gym.

Prayer time

Lord I hear Your encouraging tone – get up My child, you’ve got this, you’re not alone. I’ve given you my Spirit and I’ve given you companions for the journey. I will never leave you. So Lord we respond with Yes. We say Yes to this journey of maturity. We believe, but help our unbelief when it’s hard, when we don’t understand or like what we see and all our negative responses start oozing out. Remind us that we can always call on You and You will reach out and steady us, and Your grace will do the heavy lifting that is beyond us. Help us get up and keep practicing. Amen.

Blessings, Clive

Posted in Blog entry

Don’t miss out


“See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.” Hebrews 12:15

Losing our birthright:

When I was about twelve my father was thinking about selling his dairy farm. He asked me (the only son) “do you want to be a farmer? Do you want to inherit the farm?” At twelve that just sounded like a lot of work and responsibility, so I said no, I don’t want to be a farmer. So he sold the farm for about $30,000. Now it would be worth more like $3million! Sometimes I wish I had said yes. It’s a kind of bittersweet memory.

It’s easy to look at the story of Esau in hindsight and wonder “what was he thinking?” He gives up his birthright, which included a double share of his inheritance, and the authority of his father, for such a little thing as a bowl of red lentil soup. In the original story (Genesis 25:34) Esua “…despised his birthright”, then subsequently lost the blessing of his father and vowed to avenge himself on his brother. In terms of the verse from Hebrews above, he is failing to obtain the grace of God. He is substituting self-reliance and a vow for revenge for the grace he could have received had he only just been able to put it into God’s hands. He misses out on so much for so little because he goes with the bitter response. He acts out of the wound, rather than allowing the grace of Christ to heal and transform that wound into something sweet.

The race:

Hebrews chapter 12 compares life to a race. We have these great examples of endurance to imitate from chapter 11. They have cast aside every encumbrance to make it to the finish line (12:1). It is as if they are cheering us on in our race.

Then we have the example of Jesus in chapter 12:2-4. He is portrayed as the ultimate champion, who faces the ultimate test, the ultimate hostility and shaming, and runs the ultimate endurance race. The temptation to grow weary, lose heart and just leave it all for the equivalent of a nice bowl of lentil stew must have been a compelling option at times (v2-3)! In fact, Matthew 4:1-11 describes Jesus facing these temptations to take the easy way in graphic detail. He stays sweet, stays in grace, and stays in the race.

We come short of the grace of God when we let a bitter experience remain and bear bitter fruit. It seems like a little thing but it becomes hugely costly. Like the man in Deuteronomy 29:19 who “…blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’”, we cannot knowingly live in a dual reality of holding on to bitter roots when God is trying to expose and heal them and keep running the race God has set out for us. It’s a logical impossibility. There is no safety here because we are not allowing grace to bear fruit, but instead we are in full DIY mode. We shoot ourselves in the foot and leave the racetrack limping. We don’t just fail to win the race that Jesus has set out for us, we fail to finish the race at all.

Mixed messages:

The New Testament book of James addresses this discrepancy of logic as follows: “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and bitter water?” (James 3:10-11).  James repeats what the writer of Hebrews says about roots of bitterness but focusses on the bitter words that come out of the bitter heart. The fresh and bitter cannot co-exist. The bitterness makes all we do and say bitter and it leaks out and defiles others. He goes on to say:

“But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:14-18)

Again the fruit of bitterness is contrasted to the sweet fruit of a pure, open heart where the bitterness is washed away in the grace of Christ. Bitterness manifests in jealousy, driven ambition, boasting, falsehood, disorder and every kind of corruption. How could bitter roots produce anything else? In fact James links all quarrels and conflicts back to the desire to bypass the grace of God and do it our way instead. In the absence of grace all we have to fall back on are the ways of the world, with the rewards that the world gives. We become as James puts it, an “…enemy of God” (James 4:4). He is speaking to so-called ‘believers’ here.

Pull out the roots (again):

James exhorts his hearers to “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:7-10)

This is the process we discussed last time for dealing with the bitter roots that emerge in our lives. This is not about self-pity or self-harm, but about coming clean before Jesus and inviting Him into that darkness. This will involve grieving over what we have lost, what has been taken from us, what we have done to others, but we will emerge sweeter and refreshed from the experience.

Remember this process is not a one-off. Our souls are complex. It is as if there are a series of closed and locked doors on different levels to unlock that must be addressed in correct sequence. Only patience, time and the wisdom of God and input from fellow sojourners can guide us into the depths of healing required. This is the journey of sanctification that the Bible often mentions (e.g. Hebrews 12:14). Even getting to the point of understanding what God is trying to do in our lives can take many, many years, in addition to then co-operating with Him in the healing process! Submitting to God is the hard part, but we often just want to ignore that and jump straight to resisting the devil, and wonder why it seems not to work.

Extreme testing:

We cannot neglect the book of Job in a study of dealing with bitterness. They say great literature and poetry come from great suffering. The book of Job is acknowledged as a literary masterpiece! Next to Jesus, Job probably has more excuses for quitting on God than anybody else in the biblical record.

Job is never guilty of pretending things are fine! For instance he says in the midst of his sufferings: “I loathe my own life; I will express my complaint and speak in the bitterness of my soul.” (Job 10:1)  By God’s own testimony he is “… a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil…” (Job 1:8), yet the trial reveals much darkness in his life of which Job is unaware. He protests his innocence and the injustice of his situation. He is quick to wish death upon himself, and to curse the day of his birth. And Job seems to have a lot of advice for God about how he could run His operation better! Even Job has some bitter roots that God wishes to heal.

In the end Job stops his justifying, blaming, self-pity and clever avoidant philosophising. He is humbled and enters into the grace of God. Eventually God heals Job of his wounds and restores his losses, but it is Job’s heart He is most interested in revealing and healing. The book finishes by Job saying to God: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (Job 42:2-3) His self-righteous protests are replaced with worship, humility and repentance. There is a new sweetness in his life – which seems to be the point of what God was after all along. His suffering, after it is all over, is just a bittersweet memory.

The ‘wilderness experience’:

The children of Israel go through something of a ‘Job experience’ in the wilderness. They think that God rescuing them from the bitterness of slavery is a one-off deal. It’s all downhill from here to the Promised Land! But God has much more in mind. He wants to free them from the roots of bitterness that are still ruling in their hearts long after Pharaoh and his army are at the bottom of the sea. They are given plenty of opportunities in the wilderness to see what is in their hearts – grumbling, quick-fix religion, jealousy, disorder, corruption of all kinds.

In Deuteronomy 8:2-3,5 Moses explains the purpose of the wilderness process:

“And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD…. Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you.”

The process was deliberate and clear: “to know what was in your heart”. Like the Israelites, when our hearts are exposed we can chose to humble ourselves, admit the dark root that has been exposed, and seek grace, or we can chose the way of stubbornness and justification and blame. The writer of the book of Hebrews dwells on this episode in detail in the earlier chapters, encouraging the readers to not harden their hearts as the Israelites did in the wilderness (3:7) and instead to encourage one another to stay sweet so we can enter His rest (3:13).  The episode at Marah that we discussed last time is a graphic illustration for them (and us) to learn from.

Finally in the promised land those that make it keep the Passover (for a time), using the bitter herbs to remember where they have come from. After being humbled and sifted they are a thankful people who can recall without recoil. This is where God wants us. It’s just a bittersweet memory, but one which is engraved deeply into their identity. In the end, for them and for us this is about forming a people who carry the name (or identity) of their creator/redeemer God, and who are becoming a sweet fragrance to the world around us.

In the story of Naomi, it is the sweet presence of Ruth that restores her to hope. Ruth had suffered alongside Naomi, but she seemed to have a resilience whereby bitterness could not take hold. Ruth bears a son to Boaz and calls him ‘Obed’, which means ‘worshipper’. Maybe worship was the key to Ruth’s sweetness, and her love for God and His people restored Naomi to hope? Her bitter past is just a bittersweet memory.

This is a hard message but necessary. God allows adversity to expose our hearts , that we might respond with appropriate humility and repentance. It is “for our good, that we may share His holiness.” (Hebrews 12:10). No one will see the Lord if all we display is bitterness and anger (see Hebrews 12:14). We will fall by the wayside and fail to finish the course God has called us to. The apostle Paul wraps it up succinctly in his letter to the Ephesians:

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32)

Our identity:

We are a people who honour God, we trust Him even though we don’t always understand Him – especially then. We trust that He is equipping us to run the race. That He is our Father and we are the children in whom He delights. We accept His reproof and discipline; the shaking and testing that reveals what is in our hearts. We acknowledge that although this discipline is painful at the time afterwards it yields the sweet peaceable fruits of righteousness, which is both pleasing to God and wonderful for us. We know that without this work within us we will not be able to run the race set out before us. So we are thankful.

So help us Father God to practice, exercise and focus on the work you set before us – the work of bringing light into every dark corner that you reveal so we may be people that walk in the freedom of grace instead of the captivity of self-will. Help us to process our darkness and bitterness so we can be a sweet influence in a bitter world. Help us be worshippers, encouragers and forgivers. Help us be strong, brave and sweet. Amen.


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Bitter or Sweet?


“See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.” Hebrews 12:15

In times of pressure we often see the best or worst in people. And in ourselves. Even times that bring up deep emotions of joy such as birthdays, anniversaries or Christmas gatherings can also reveal some unexpected deep pain, anger and resentment. Being alert to our responses is a simple way to identify some possible “bitter roots” that we have in our lives.

There are appropriate ways to deal with these, as we shall see. What causes trouble is when we don’t identify these responses correctly, but instead use them as fuel to “fix” some perceived injustice. Or we allow them to drive us into blaming someone or something instead of dealing with the issue in our own heart. This is when the root not only defiles us but defiles others around us.

Defiling responses:

Blame is a very common response to our dark feelings. We use subtle or not so subtle words or actions to make others feel bad for doing us wrong, or not helping us to fix the wrong. This is usually coupled with justification of our innocence.

Another response is denial of the negative feelings; “No I’m fine, really!”. This may help to avoid conflict and spare others our sharp or sarcastic tongue, but it may just be a cover for passive-aggressive non-co-operation. At best it only avoids healing. Unfortunately, we sometimes think that if we can stay positive and “fake it till we make it” we are doing the right thing. Unfortunately avoidance of pain never does make it – we just become really good fakes.

So how might we identify, face and deal with these defiling bitter roots in our lives? What do we do when some painful emotion surfaces that if we are honest is rooted in some deep crevasse of pain in our soul? How should we act appropriately so we don’t defile others with our response? How might we even replace the bitter with something authentically sweet?

The roots of bitterness:

Let’s dig a bit deeper into the scriptural record to find some clues as to the origin of the statement made by the author of Hebrews above. It is critical to understand that although bitterness appears to be condemned here and in other places as an inappropriate response, the root can be traced back to legitimate trauma. God does not condemn us for feeling or having those feelings. Unless we understand this we will avoid being honest with Him and with ourselves about what is really going on, and as a result nothing will change. This is actually a major theme of the book of Hebrews: we are to run to Jesus as our compassionate High Priest in our times of weakness and testing rather than hiding from Him in shame (Heb 4:15-16).

Look for example at Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth in the Old Testament book of the same name. Naomi endures truly terrible circumstances, having to leave her home country with her husband and two sons as refugees during a time of famine. They travel to Moab and settle there, a distance of about 150km from their home of Bethlehem. Soon after their arrival, her husband dies. Naomi later takes wives for her sons from the local Moabite girls (which would have been quite a shameful thing for an Israelite to have to do), only to then loose both her sons to sickness. She is alone in a foreign land without children or grandchildren to support her in her old age.

With only the support of her faithful Moabite daughter-in-law she returns to her people, broken and bitter. They hardly recognise her. “Is this Naomi?” they ask (Ruth 1:19). She responds “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” Her given name Naomi, means ‘pleasant’ but nothing is pleasant for her at this point. ‘Mara’ is from the Hebrew word for ‘bitter’ (‘mar’).

Similarly, the Israelites, in their enslavement in Egypt suffer to the point of extreme bitterness. Not only were the Israelite children being murdered systematically, the Egyptians “…made their lives bitter with hard service…” (Exodus 1:14). To this day the Passover meal includes bitter herbs (‘maror’) as God commanded in order to remember the bitterness He had delivered them from in Egypt (Exodus 12:8).

Bitter experience takes root:

The passage from Hebrews above goes on to mention the bitterness of Esau. It says: “See to it …that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.” (Hebrews 12:16-17)

Let’s consider the story of Esau (Genesis 25-27) to understand how a bitter experience can become of root of bitterness. Reading the Hebrews passage above without any prior knowledge of the Jacob and Esau story tends to throw Esau into a very poor light. Yet the Genesis account broadens our understanding of the situation. Esau is described as a man of action, a hunter. His nick-name is ‘Red’. I can imagine if we were around today he would be wearing a red checked hunting shirt and baseball cap with scruffy red hair and beard and driving a red Dodge RAM pickup with a shotgun and rifle in the back. He is impetuous, he has a taste for wild Hittite girls, but his Dad thinks he is awesome.

Esau’s impetuousness makes him the victim of his seriously devious brother Jacob. Jacob takes advantage of Esau when he returns from exhausting work in the fields in a weakened hungry state, and holds back food from him until Esau has rashly promised Jacob his first-born status. Later Jacob again deviously steals Esau’s blessing of their Father while Isaac is on his deathbed. In the context there was no need for Jacob to take either of these actions as God had already promised that he would be the carrier of the covenantal blood-line and promise. This final deception is the last straw for Esau:

“As soon as Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!” (Exodus 27:34). The text leads our sympathies to lie with Esau, not Jacob. Esau is traumatised and bitter by his brothers actions, but in his carelessness and short-term thinking he has also contributed to his fall from favour.

It could have stopped there, but it is what Esau does next that lodges the bitter root deep in the exposed wound in his heart: “Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” (Genesis 27:41). It took decades before the rift between the brothers was resolved, with much defilement affecting both their families in the meantime.


Commentators agree that the writer of the book of Hebrews is referencing a passage from Deuteronomy when discussing bitter roots:

“Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike.” (Deuteronomy 29:18-19).

This could not be a more serious warning as to the consequences of harbouring bitterness. We aren’t responsible for the bad circumstances that come our way, but we are responsible, like Esau, for how we process them. To try to right the wrongs done to us with our own vows to get even, unwillingness to start down the road of forgiveness (and it can be a long road), is to harden our hearts, to become stubborn and resentful. Even our inverse vows (such as “I’ll never be like them!”) can lodge and steal our joy and inheritance.

We cannot harden our hearts towards people and think that will not impact our relationship with God. We cannot walk in the stubbornness of our hearts and be safe. We cannot take the place of God and bring vengeance to sweep away all in our path before our driven sense of being wronged. The other sobering aspect of the Deuteronomy quote above is that it hints that one person with a stubborn heart can turn away a whole clan or tribe or family into chaos and hardness. Unresolved bitterness can and does defile those around us.

Dealing with the roots:

To summarise: God does not condemn us for having bitter roots in our lives because of the trauma and bad circumstances that we have all shared to varying degrees. The bitterness and pain is real, and we feel it intensely at times, but we are not to use that pain to get revenge, ‘fix’ others, drive ourselves to prove ourselves, act as an excuse for hatred or anger or acting out in any avoidant or abusive way. Neither are we to deny that the pain is there and the bitter responses are dreadfully real. What we are do is to bring them to Jesus our high priest who understands our frailty and let Him bind up our broken hearts (Isaiah 61:1), and restore our souls (Psalm 23:3).

Ironically the best time to bring these bitter painful emotions to the Healer is when we are feeling them the deepest. I know, this is often the hardest time to be rational and even recognise what is happening, but from now on you will think of it and be prepared. These wounds are lodged emotionally. They will not be healed by remote control or long distance. In trauma and in God’s healing there is no space-time limitation. When we feel that pain we go back emotionally to when we were four or twelve of eighteen when we first experienced that wound. The surgery must be open-heart without anaesthetic. We will not and usually cannot go there without some situation that triggers the pain. When that deep crevasse opens is the time to invite Jesus to get in there with His healing balm. Ask Him to come into that darkness. He will! Sit with Him there and let Him revisit the pain and show you when and how this may have started and what to do about it. If you get a chance write down the experience in your journal and what He has shown you about it.

There are lots of helpful ideas and techniques, but remember you are in the hands of the master physician you loves you and understands your weakness and wants the bitter made sweet. You will have to repeat this many times, and you will do much better if you have others to walk with you through your journey, but this is the way He does it. And it does get easier.

The bitter made sweet:

I want to end with another biblical story that touched me deeply: “Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a tree, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.” (Exodus 15:22-25).

We know what Marah means now. The tree is always symbolic in the scriptures of the tree of life, and of the cross of Christ. Jesus comes into our bitter waters, our stagnant pools of death, when we invite him there. And he dies there, making them sweet. Let’s pray:

Thank you that You are the tree cut down and thrown into my bitter waters. You are the one wounded for my transgressions and crushed for my iniquities. Let your cross bring sweetness into my bitter waters Lord Jesus. These bitter waters of disappointment and loss. Let me bear good fruit of sweetness and joy in those places instead. Grant light in my darkness. Help me to let go of my bitter judgement towards those who have harmed me and caused me trouble. Help me to start down that long road of forgiveness. I receive the healing balm made from the tree of life whose leaves bring healing to the nations. Amen.

Blessings – Clive

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What is the word of the Lord?

On 14 December 2020 I  had a dream which was unusual in its detail and specificity.

As I wrote it down and asked God about it I felt He gave it to me to not just encourage me but to encourage and instruct others. The dream added a wider perspective to what I have personally been working through for some time. I’m sure many will identify with this in their own lives, and help to deal wisely within the shaking times we are going through.

In my dream it seemed I was in a large plain with thousands of people. There were many different peoples, towns, rivers and fields on the plain, which was surrounded by hills and mountains. It seemed as if I was carried by the Spirit just above the heads of the people, and the question I was asking was “what is the word of the Lord?” I initially heard several people say something about “chapter 12”. Then as I was moving about over the people I heard several people say “Proverbs chapter 3 verse 12″.

After this there was a grand assembly and I was invited to speak out what I had heard. There was a high platform that I couldn’t get on to, but somehow (I think some angels were involved!) I got up and spoke out Proverbs 3 verse 12 (I didn’t know until I woke up what the verse said). Then everyone in the vast plain waited. It was daylight, but as we waited people began to switch on projectors from all around the hills surrounding the plain. Then as the sun darkened the lights appeared brighter. After a while another bright light began to fill the space. It appeared as blocks of light that began to join together – not from the projectors but something heavenly – the glory of the Lord I guess.

When I woke I looked up Proverbs 3:12: “For whom the LORD loves He reproves, Even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights.”

I wondered what the “chapter 12” referred to, then I remembered Hebrews 12. I discovered that Proverbs 3:12 is actually quoted in that chapter. After reading through this passage and waiting on God this is what I felt the Spirit of God telling me:

We are in the midst of a time of great sifting, within my people individually, within my Church, and within the world as a whole. I delight in My people, and I want you to bear the peaceful fruits of righteousness (Heb 12:11), to make straight paths for your feet away from what holds you back from displaying My goodness (v13), so you will be at peace with all people and share My nature of holiness (v14) which means loving those who are different, who disagree with you, and are even enemies.
To accomplish this I will reprove you, I will correct you, I will shake off you all that is not of Me, so all that is left is the kingdom that cannot be shaken (v28).
This great sifting is like the separating of chaff from the grain, as Jesus said Peter would be sifted (Luke 22:31). What is not of Me will fall away like chaff. Don’t be surprised at this. This is how I work. I gather then I sift. Don’t be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you (1 Peter 4:12). 
You will find that in the test you will feel some deeply unpleasant things arise out of your own heart – fear, anger, hatred. Invite Me in there. Only what you allow to surface and bring to Me can be healed. Every bitter root that emerges it to be brought to Me (v15). Every speck of dross that comes out in the heat (v29) is to be brought before Me for cleansing and transforming so My people can shine brightly together.
Don’t focus on the the raging and shaking of the nations and don’t be alarmed because you are learning to find all your refuge in Me rather than in all that is shakeable (Psalm 2). Remember this is more about learning what is in your heart than it is about obtaining some sort of outward result. This is about maturity and character in my people.

I suggest you read the whole of Hebrews 12 and let it speak to you.
I feel that in this time in history it’s very important that we understand clearly how the shaking and testing process works to build character and maturity, so we don’t end up in worse shape through misdirected action that misses what Jesus is trying to do so I intend to add more teaching here over the next few weeks.


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