Psalm 46: Be Still

A short jetty and a peaceful lake

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Psalm 46:1-11 (NRSV)

Psalm 46 reflects on God’s might and power above a world of tumult. Though ” “mountains tremble”, the “waters roar and foam”, the nations be “in an uproar” and “kingdoms totter”, our mighty God is more powerful than all of these things. But it is also a message of care for God’s people: “the God of Jacob is our refuge”, and these words are said to have inspired Martin Luther to write the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”.

Verse 10 had a profound effect on my life recently. “Be still, and know that I am God!”

A few months ago, I was praying during a time when I had several complex, stressful issues on my mind. I couldn’t focus, and my mind kept jumping around from one thing to another, with half-formed thoughts and supplications to God. I had so much to worry about and fix and be responsible for. I knew that I needed God’s help… but it was just so hard to pray coherently.

It was then that the words of Psalm 46:10 ran through my mind. “Be still and know that I am God!” There was nothing in my thoughts that led up to it—just the same mess of anxiety and stress that I’d been feeling for days—but when those words hit my brain, I felt as if all the stress were just fading away, leaving me with a profound peace. I sensed that God had my problems in His mind, and that He was saying to me “don’t worry – I’ve got this. There’s time to deal with all of it, and I’m with you”.

The word translated “still” in most English translation is the Hebrew “râpâ” which means to relax, to let go, or to cease striving… and I believe this was the message that God had for me. He wanted me to be still in His presence, so that He could be with me without all my issues and anxieties getting in the way. He wanted me to be still, so that He could be my refuge.

Since that time, I’ve come back to Psalm 46 often, and verse 10 continues to have an impact on me. Stressful situations still arise for me (just like everyone else), but God’s word has created something new for me—a mental space of stillness and calm that I can go to when I need to recover the peace that God gives me.

It’s the place where I feel that God is my refuge.

Seeking God’s Wisdom

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind…

James 1:5–6 (NRSV)

Today, I am faced with an important and difficult decision, that will have a big impact on my family. God is leading us in an unexpected direction, and it’s raising a lot of doubt and fear.

But under it all is the clear message that God gives us everything we need to follow His path. He takes care of His people, and everything is under His hand.

This is the exercise of faith—stepping out in a tough situation, not in the absence of human feelings of doubt, but choosing to trust God in spite of our doubts.

You are our potter…

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.

Isaiah 64:8 (NRSV)

Lord, may I submit to your shaping today.

The Gospel in Job

I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!

– Job 19:25–27 (NIV)

This has always been one of my favourite passages in the Bible. George Friedrich Handel made verse 25 into a beautiful air, as part of the Messiah oratorio, and I feel that, by itself, this these verses stands as a complete summary of salvation itself.

On the surface, the story of Job is a tragedy. We read in Job chapter 1 about a prosperous man who was faithful to God, and who was made – without his knowledge – the subject of a terrible test. Satan was permitted by God to take Job’s wealth, his children and his health, to see whether the loss of all these blessings would make Job abandon his faith in God.

We read in Job 1:8 that God said of Job that “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil”. Imagine being the sort of person about whom God Himself would say such a thing! It reminds me of David being called by God “A man after my own heart” (1 Sam 13:14, Acts 13:22).

What was it that made Job ‘blameless’ before God? It can’t have been simply because he never sinned. Romans 3:23 assures us that all have sinned. I believe that Job was considered blameless because of his faith on his Redeemer. He knew that he needed a Redeemer, and that his Redeemer lived (Job 19:25). Nothing can make us blameless and save us but our Redeemer and His blood.

But as well as understanding redemption and forgiveness, Job had a clear vision of the ultimate objective of salvation. In verses 26 and 27 of Job 19, he goes on to assert that even after his “skin is destroyed”, he would see God, in his own flesh and with his own eyes.

This clear reference to the resurrection is a testament to Job’s understanding of the entire plan of salvation, from start to finish. God’s redemption doesn’t just stop at forgiveness, but continues every day of lives to restore us to the perfection that He intended for all human beings at creation.

Centuries later, Paul expressed this same awesome, cosmic truth in 1 Corinthians 15:50-55 (also quoted in Handel’s Messiah):

I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

The gospel of forgiveness and restoration through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a coherent and consistent theme throughout the Bible. It was understood by the early patriarchs as well as by first century apostles. It must be understood and preached in its entirety by God’s followers today.

Precious, Costly Grace

Cross at Sunset

Grace is a central theme in Christianity. God’s gift of salvation to human beings who do not deserve it, through the death of Jesus, is the essence of the gospel – the message that Christians are commanded to take to the world.

The definition for the word “grace” that we usually find in the dictionary is something along the lines of ‘a favour or gift that we do not deserve’, but in Romans, Paul goes further then this. Romans 5:8 says that “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This means that God’s grace is not only a gift of salvation that we did not earn, but that it was offered to us before we even asked for it, or knew we needed it!

In texts like Romans 5:15 we read:

But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many.

I added the emphasis there – Paul makes it clear here (and elsewhere) that grace is a gift, and requires no repayment or action on our part, apart from simple acceptance. We don’t earn it – we never did.

Grace is free.

This is one of the great truths of Christianity.

But here’s the kicker – for every truth of the gospel, Satan has a subtle, plausible lie. The lie that the Adversary tries to substitute is this: “grace is cheap“.

Not “free”… cheap.

What does “cheap grace” mean. In his wonderful book The Cost of Discipleship, the great wartime theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer says this:

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. “All for sin could not atone.” The world goes on in the same old way, and we are still sinners “even in the best life” as Luther said. Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin.

— Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Macmillan, 1966

Cheap grace means portraying active faith as if it were righteousness by works. It means a form of grace that doesn’t require any commitment on our part. It means grace that leaves us unchanged.

Bonhoeffer goes goes so far as to say that “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting to-day for costly grace.”

True grace — God’s grace — is costly. It’s the precious pearl of great price or the treasure in the field for which we would sell all that we have. It is offered to us freely, but it cost the life of our Saviour. How could this grace not change us?

When we accept the God’s grace into our lives, it transforms every part of us, including our outward behaviour. Anything else is a cheap copy.

Search Me, Oh God

Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting. – Psalms 139:23,24 (NKJV)

Around the beginning of the year, many of us feel drawn to a certain degree of introspection and self-review. Some of us have had some time off work or school… perhaps we’ve had the opportunity to reconnect with friends and family that we might not have seen in a while. Things like this seem to prompt us to have a bit of a think about how our lives are going.

I’ve been posting on this blog since December 2013 (with some significant gaps, admittedly), and looking over some of the things I’ve written over the year has been an interesting exercise.

Towards the end of 2013, I was doing some fervent study and prayer centered on the book of James, and that’s what I started with in this blog. It was an important exercise for me, because I was really searching for practical applications of Christianity in my daily life – how to really live every day as a Christian.

I also talked about having God’s Word written on my heart, witnessing (and my fear of it), and practical, working faith. These were simply me sharing some of the things I was learning in my study of God’s Word, and I pray and trust that people reading those articles were blessed by them. I’d also suggest that they reveal something about my spiritual progress over the past year or so.

A certain amount of self-examination is a healthy thing. Taking the time to simply sit and contemplate how things are going in our lives is something that we may not always find it easy to do. And if we don’t occasionally have a good look at ourselves, internal issues can go unresolved for long periods, until they’re too much for us to handle.

On the other hand, too much introspection – looking at ourselves all the time, to the exclusion of everything else – is self-centred. We lose sight of what’s going on around, and become remote and cut off from people and things around us.

Clearly, balance is key, but I think most of all, we need to be aware that the One who knows us best of all is God. In Psalm 139, David recognises this when he says:

O LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down, And are acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word on my tongue, But behold, O LORD, You know it altogether. – Psalm 139:1-4

God knows us better than we know ourselves, so self-examination is good and healthy (in moderation), but it will always be limited by our human imperfection. God’s view of us is perfect – He knows our true needs and the true desires of our hearts.

As we review the past and plan to the future, it’s important that we seek His guidance. Not only does he understand us completely, but His desire for us is absolutely for our ultimate happiness. Sometimes our limitations prevent us from seeing this, but it is at these times that it is most important to trust Him.

God’s blessings to all for 2015.

Faith That Works

It’s been a while since I wrote on this blog—an interesting and busy few months in my life, with a few personal upheavals. I’ve got a lot of cause to be thankful, and to praise God for His sustaining power, and also for the way He’s worked through the various people in my life. You know who you are. “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in time of trouble.” (Psalm 46:1)

A Thought…


Something that’s come up for me in my study and discussions with other Christians is the old and classic question of faith versus works. I’m troubled sometimes about how many misconceptions, and poor assumptions there are on this subject, and while the last thing I want to do is start an argument, there’s some things that need to be said. I put it this way:

There is nothing you can do on your own to save yourself… absolutely nothing. Salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and nothing human beings do can earn this in any way.

But if you think that your actions (or lack of action) don’t matter, you’re wrong.

Does that sound contradictory? Ok, let’s dig a bit deeper. And if you want to comment, go down the bottom of this post…

What is Faith?

First of all, I need to make it clear that I’m a card-carrying righteousness-by-faith protestant Christian. Hebrews 10:38 is unambiguous: “The just shall live by faith”, and if anyone thinks they can reach some plane of righteous perfection, where they’ve earned salvation, Paul’s assertion that “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” ought to burst that illusion. Many of us are familiar with these texts, but I wanted to include them so that the discussion is clear.

So we know that faith is essential and sufficient for salvation, but before we close the discussion with that, it’s probably worth asking ourselves whether we really know what faith is.

What is faith?

The classic definition comes from the beginning of the great ‘faith chapter’—Hebrews 11. Verse 1 says “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (NKJV). The NIV puts it like this: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” We need to recognise that this is much more than simply agreeing that something exists. You may know that you have a dining room table—that the table exists—but you don’t ‘have faith in’ the table, that it died for your sins, and can save you.

Depending on your translation, Hebrews 11:1 uses words like ‘substance’, ‘confidence’ and ‘assurance’ to talk about faith. These are not passive words, and I want to assert here and now that faith is not a passive thing. Faith is active. I made this point in an earlier post on this blog (click on this link if you want to review it in full), so I won’t repeat myself too much. To summarise, James make it very clear that “faith without works is dead” (2:20) and that we need to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (1:22).

What it boils down to is that if faith is not backed up by deeds, it’s not faith at all—just a meaningless statement.

Faith in the Old and New Testaments

While we’re on the subject, let’s debunk a myth related to the subjects of faith and works. I’ve heard it said more than once that the Old Testament was about works, while the New Testament is about faith. At best, this is a very shallow and facile reading of scripture, perhaps because of the passages devoted to God’s law, the sacrificial system, and so on. At worst, it suggests a fundamental change in God’s character over time.

The fact is that salvation has always been by faith alone, and God’s people in old testament times knew that very well. Paul knew that. When he said that “The just shall live by faith”, he was actually quoting the Old Testament (Habakkuk 2:4), and if we go back to Hebrews 11, we see Paul repeatedly making the point that the Old Testament patriarchs’ greatest moments were when they acted in faith.

So the principle of active faith is a strong underlying truth throughout the scriptures. Faith drives us to action, and if it doesn’t, it isn’t faith. When Christ called to Peter to step out of the boat in Matthew 14, it was obviously faith that allowed him to do so, and it was a failure in that faith that caused him to sink. But consider that moment just before Peter stepped out. Did standing there in the boat require him to have faith? Of course not. There was no faith involved while Peter was safely on the deck of the boat. It was only in the action of stepping onto the water, and letting go of the boat that faith came into play.

Are We Devaluing God’s Grace?

The idea that faith need not be backed up by actions, simply because our actions cannot save us is a comfortable heresy. It is every bit as dangerous as preaching righteousness by works, and I think it’s a lot more tempting in this increasingly permissive age. It suggests that everything is okay—that a Christian’s way of life need not be transformed—that it’s okay to keep sinning, because God’s grace wipes away all sin.

Perhaps dealing with this very thing in the early Roman church, Paul was quite emphatic. Romans 6:1,2 says “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?”

It’s certainly true that our actions, and our obedience to God’s law will never be perfect. We’re sinners, and that’s why we need God’s grace. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking—because our sins are forgiven—that sin is okay. To say is to cheapen and devalue God’s grace. If it was okay to sin, then we never needed grace in the first place, and Christ died for nothing.

Sin is never okay. We do need a saviour.

Lord, help me to put my faith into action every day. Help me to be obedient to Your instructions, and please forgive me when I fail.

Witnessing Phobia

A little while ago, we had a ‘visitors day’ at church. It was a special program with lots of music, and specifically oriented towards people who might be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with a ‘traditional’ church service. The idea was that we would invite friends and family who would not normally attend church services.

At Work

I’m genuinely ashamed to admit how hard that turned out to be for me. I resolved to ask at least one person from the organisation at which I work, and that didn’t seem like it should be terribly difficult. I’m good friends with most of my colleagues, and they know I’m a Christian. We’ve had the occasional chat about beliefs, and you would have thought that this was a great opportunity for outreach.

But when I actually thought about who I might invite to church, my mind simply flooded with excuses about why I really couldn’t ask this or that person – that it just wasn’t ‘the right time’ for this person, or that that person wouldn’t really enjoy that kind of program… all pretty weak stuff, when you get right down to it. 2 Timothy 1:8 tells us not to be ashamed of the gospel, and I think it applies to this situation. I was afraid of looking foolish in front of my secular friends, and I regret to say it, but it’s a real indictment of my own willingness to share my faith.

Now, I’m sure I’m not the first person to feel that kind of reluctance, but as I sat and prayed about it, and gave it a little more thought, I realised that there was also something else going on in my head as well. A lot of my friends at work are highly educated, and most are hard line atheists. They feel that religion in general isn’t rational. Faith in a Supreme Being just doesn’t stand up to intelligent analysis in their eyes.

So I was worried that they’d be turned off by a program of worship and praise. I didn’t want to push them further away by bringing them to a program that wasn’t really suited to their highly rational, scientific outlook.

On the surface, this might seem like a valid concern. I mean, when you witness, you want to meet people “where they’re at”. I’m not talking about compromising the Christian message just to please people, just reaching them in the most effective way possible.

But when that gets in the way of me asking people to church, I’ve come to realise that that was worse than just being scared of looking foolish. I was actually scared of Christianity looking foolish. I was worried that Christianity would be discredited to my friends. If I start making judgements about who to invite to church, based on whether or not I think God will be able to reach them, I’m actually taking on the role that belongs to the Holy Spirit, which is a form of blasphemy.

In Acts 1:8, Jesus told the disciples “you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to all the ends of the earth.” That means that I have to be a witness to everyone, no matter who they are. It’s not my place to decide who will be reached by what.

In the end, I did ask someone at my office to come to church. As it turned out, she couldn’t make it, but she did say that she was interested in visiting my church at some point. I hope and pray that she does, but I also think I gained something, simply by asking. I believe that God has shown me something important.

I’m still going to try to make my Christian witness appropriate and effective for the people around me, but the real miracle of conversion comes from God. It’s Him that reaches people, and it’s not for me to say how that will be done.

Lord, please help me to be the best witness possible, to draw people to You. Work through me Lord, and help me not to let my own imperfect perceptions and judgement cloud your perfect Truth.


God’s Word on My Heart

Recently, my Bible study included Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which says this:

4 Hear Israel! ADONAI our God, ADONAI is one; 5 and you are to love ADONAI your God with all your heart, all your being and all your resources. 6 These words, which I am ordering you today, are to be on your heart; 7 and you are to teach them carefully to your children. You are to talk about them when you sit at home, when you are traveling on the road, and when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them on your hand as a sign, put them at the front of a headband around your forehead, 9 and write them on the door-frames of your house and on your gates. —Complete Jewish Bible

In Judaism, this is the beginning of the prayer commonly called the Sh’ma, which is often the first prayer that a Jewish child learns. The Hebrew word Sh’ma is usually translated ‘Hear’, and is an imperative command. It can mean ‘listen!’ or ‘pay attention!’. Moses was speaking to the children of Israel, after reviewing the ten commandments with them, and he wanted to strongly emphasise his point.

I found this text very moving when I read it recently in the beautiful language of the Complete Jewish Bible. It really is the essence of religion and faith in God. As Christians, we are the spiritual children of Israel, and these words are no less applicable to us today.

We’re to love God with everything that we are, lead our children in the same path, and live this in every aspect of our daily lives. Following God is not a part-time occupation.

Some Jewish people take the instructions to tie God’s Word to their hands and forehead, and to write then on their door-frames and gates, quite literally. I respect the dedication and sincerity that that implies, but I don’t think Moses intended it literally. I believe these verses mean that God’s Word is to guide our thoughts, and actions, and to be paramount in our homes. Having words on paper tied to our bodies or written on our doorways may serve a good reminder to our wandering minds, but it means very little if they are not written on our hearts, and lived in our lives.

If Any of Your Lacks Wisdom…

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting…

— James 1:5,6

Lord, I certainly lack wisdom in so many things. I know You to be a loving and generous God, and right now I pray for the your guidance over my life. Soften my obstinate and rebellious heart, oh Lord, and where I am willful, show me Your will… When I am wayward, show me Your perfect way. I have nothing that you did not give me—please help me to remember this always.