Unity

“Let me be united with all who fear You, 
with those who know Your laws.
Psalm 119:79 NLT

“Let me be united with all who fear you” sounds like a noble goal. Nothing to disagree with there, I think. I would think we Christians all “fear” God, in the fullest meaning of the word. And we all know His laws because we read the same book, the Bible. So it’s not hard to pray the prayer, “Let me be united“. But then a niggling thought pops up in my mind. What about Christians in other denominations who perhaps interpret Bible verses differently to me? Or what about those brothers and sisters who discount parts of the Bible because they don’t think they are applicable 2000 years or so after they were written? What about the denominations that involve a liturgy I find strange and archaic? Or what about that dear sister who told me she doesn’t read the Old Testament because there is too much violence and bloodshed? Am I united with them? Hmmm…

There can be a problem because, although we all start from the same position in reading the same Bible, legalism, liturgies and licence all start to erode our very roots. The problems can even start with dissension over which version of the Bible we should use. I know someone who will only use the original King James Version of the Bible, writing off all other versions as heresies. And then how the Scriptures are interpreted pushes us further apart. Many different denominations have emerged based on misunderstandings and misinterpretations, disagreements and differences. As an example, in 1843 the Church of Scotland split into two denominations after years of wrangling, to become the original Church and the Free Church. Apparently, one third of the ministers in the Church of Scotland started a new denomination because of a row over what was perceived at the time as state interference in the Church. But it didn’t end there – the Free Church split in two in 1900, into the United Free Church and the original Free Church. The reasons for such historical events are fading into the mists of time, but it would be inappropriate to offer judgement over what went wrong. Having been part of a church split some years ago, I know such events can be unavoidable when legalism and liturgies become more important than a relationship with our gracious and loving God. As we allow worldliness and secular principles to creep into our churches, diluting and destroying the pure Word of God, we inevitably end up with problems.

There is another key word that is often lacking in inter-denominational rivalry and dissent. And that is “grace”. How do I view people in other churches? With a judgemental attitude, or with God’s eyes of grace-filled love? Do we think our liturgy is better than theirs? Do we think we are right and they are wrong? I have for a number of years had a niggling thought that God is less concerned about which denomination I attend than about my heart attitude in worshipping Him “in Spirit and truth” (John 4:23). The reality is that I need to look kindly, lovingly and graciously at other Christians, whatever their denomination. A dear Christian couple recently told me about the abusive attitudes they had experienced from evangelical Christians over their Roman Catholic roots. Unfortunately these attitudes are all too common and can be seen working out in sectarian disturbances between Protestants and Catholics.

But whatever our denominations, God loves all His children; one day we all will stand before Him to give an account of our lives. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:10 (AMP), “For we [believers will be called to account and] must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be repaid for what has been done in the body, whether good or bad [that is, each will be held responsible for his actions, purposes, goals, motives–the use or misuse of his time, opportunities and abilities].”  Another Hmmm…. I think.

So in a sense, the Psalmist in this verse, Psalm 119:79, has opened a “can of worms”. Church unity is often talked about and joint services are sometimes held between denominations, but this is not what the Psalmist was talking about. Christians are bound together by a fundamental belief that God sent His Son Jesus to this world, born of a virgin, living a life as a human being but without sinning, to bridge that gap between God and man, and ultimately to die for the forgiveness of our sins. Paul wrote about unity in several of his Epistles. Here’s one verse from 1 Corinthians 1:10 (AMP), “But I urge you, believers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in full agreement in what you say, and that there be no divisions or factions among you, but that you be perfectly united in your way of thinking and in your judgment [about matters of the faith]”. Though he was writing to one particular church, I believe the principle applies across all churches.

So how does our 21st Century pilgrim cope with and respond to other Christians in the cause of unity? With grace and love. Just as God does. We might not want to hang our coats on their liturgical pegs, but we love them anyway. There is no other way.

Being Double-minded

“I hate double-minded people,
but I love Your law.”
Psalm 119:113 NIV

Two strong, emotionally-charged, words come out in this verse – “love” and “hate”. In meaning, they are opposites. But in the context of this verse what is the connection between being double-minded and God’s law? Is the implication something to do with the reality that we must be single-minded when it comes to following God and His ways? Is being “double-minded” something that is at odds with a Godly life?

First of all, what does “double-minded” mean? One dictionary definition says that “double-minded” means “wavering in mind, vacillating”. Perhaps we get some idea what these verses mean from James 1:6-8, “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.” What James is describing here is a person who has divided loyalties. On the one hand he or she wants to follow God and His ways, but on the other hand they still want to live a worldly life. They are “double-minded”. 

But surely “hating” the “double-minded” isn’t right. I think the Psalmist uses such strong language to highlight the importance of not wanting to keep a foot in both camps. There is no middle ground. I think we have all seen videos of someone who has tried to step out of a small boat onto dry land, only to end up in the water because the boat wasn’t attached to the bank. It’s a bit like that – if we try and keep both feet dry, we will end up wet in a place we didn’t want to be! We need to “hate” the thought of trying to be two things at once. In Revelation we read about the message from Jesus to the Laodicean church. He said, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth“. Jesus used strong language in referring to double-minded people.

In our pilgrimage, we can’t afford to be double-minded. We have to press on towards the goal that Paul described in Philippians 3:14. If we persist in pursuing other goals we will fall by the wayside, unable to finish the race. The key in doing this is the second part of our verse in Psalm 119. The Psalmist said, “I love Your law.” Single-mindedly, we pursue God and His ways, sure of our destiny, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus (Hebrews 3:1). There is no other way.

Sense

“You made me; you created me.
 Now give me the sense to follow your commands.”
Psalm 119:73 NLT

This is an important verse from the Psalmist. He is saying that to fully maximise the potential of God’s creation, we need to engage something he called “sense”. But if God created us, why didn’t He put within us the sense-quality to do things His way? Then we wouldn’t have to pray our psalmist’s prayer – we would be sensible intuitively. Imagine a world where every human being knows who God is, knows all about His laws, and has the built-in sense to follow them, not even needing to think that by doing so they are aligning their lives to God’s ways. 

So why didn’t God put within His created beings an organ, companion to the liver and kidneys, called “sense”? An organ that will play up painfully should we violate its designed purposes. An organ that secretes a wonderful enzyme that automatically aligns us to God’s ways, countering the ways of “non-sense”. Is there a bug in the design and build of human beings? Of course not. Our loving Heavenly Father created us with something called “free will”. We have the opportunity to make choices and nothing pleases our Heavenly Dad more than for His children to praise and worship Him and choose to follow His ways. He created within us a God-shaped hole, so that His creation would know Him and fill it with His presence. Now that’s sense. So He didn’t need to create our imaginary “sense” organ. 

Of course there is a dark side, for people without sense. People who have rejected God and don’t give a hoot about following His commands. They fill their God-shaped hole with counterfeit “gods”, of material things, of the trappings of debauchery. And they stagger through life, increasingly lurching down the spiral that leads to a God-less eternity. So let’s get hold of this verse. Repeat it. Meditate upon it. And pray this simple prayer – “Please, God, give me the sense to do things Your way rather than doing things my way. Amen.”

Speaking to Kings

“I will speak to kings about Your laws,
    and I will not be ashamed.”
Psalm 119:46 NLT

When was the last time any of us had the chance to speak to a king? You know, the head of state in a monarchist nation. The guy who sits on a throne pontificating about national matters, and perhaps dispensing justice when appropriate. Here in the West, monarchies are rare, though we have democratically elected leaders who behave as though they are kings or queens in all but name. Sometimes I see the mess our leaders make or the shenanigans they get up to, and wish that a good old fashioned benign but Godly monarchy was re-established in our lands. But before I get slated by social media republican trolls, let me ask the question – if we had the chance to speak to a king, what would we say to them? The Psalmist was clear. No pleasantries here. No wasting time discussing what repeat was shown on television last night. No, the Psalmist went straight to the point, speaking to the king about God’s laws. But why would he be ashamed? I think he would have been ashamed if he hadn’t put God at the front of any royal conversation. Or wasted an opportunity to remind the king of God’s laws. In some times in history, putting God above the monarch was a capital offence. We read about such an event in Daniel 3, when the three Jewish lads refused to bow down to a gold idol erected by King Nebuchadnezzar. Reminding the king about the greater King and His laws might be something to be careful about. But perhaps the Psalmist had access to a local king, and had the desire to remind him about the importance of setting laws in line with God’s Law. 

So what relevance does this verse have to our modern day pilgrim in his or her life-journey? One response would be to ignore it, on the grounds that getting in front of royalty was never going to happen. Not in our lives. But we should remember that on occasion we call our leaders “law makers”. So let me substitute “leader” for “king”. Now that is more achievable, because our law-making leaders are much more accessible. We can at any opportunity write to them, ring their office, or even meet them face to face in one of their democratic surgeries. And we therefore have the opportunity to speak to them about God’s laws. Here in the UK there is an increasing tendency for our secular law makers to bring in legislation that is distinctly at odds with God’s laws. What do we do – put our heads in the sand, hoping that the problem won’t affect us? Or do we use our democratic right and “speak to kings about [God’s] laws“? A challenge to think about as we lurch from the Covid-ridden 2021 into a New Year?

The Love of Money

Give me an eagerness for your laws 
rather than a love for money! 
Turn my eyes from worthless things, 
and give me life through your word.
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭119:36-37‬ ‭NLT‬‬

Aah! The love of money. It is only a matter of time before it emerges from the dark recesses within a person’s heart. I suppose there is a spectrum, from the money-dominated Scrooge, gloating over his piles of cash, through to a money-denying monk living a life of austerity in a bare cell. But we are all on that spectrum somewhere. Money has its uses of course – it lubricates the wheels of life in our secular and materialistic societies, and we need it to survive – but it can dominate our thinking. If we let it.

The Psalmist sees the danger of a life with a pecuniary focus. He sees the importance of dwelling in a place of eternal currency rather than in a world populated by “worthless things“. It is interesting that the Revelation picture of the new Jerusalem includes so many precious jewels, pearls and gold. What is considered of value in today’s world will be considered building materials in the world to come. Ubiquitous items of little value when compared to our Almighty God. 

But for the pilgrim working his way through this life, what is the correct balance between money and God? Jesus could see the dangers of getting this wrong, and taught that the service of both at the same time was impossible. He said in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.” The key is in the use of the word He used to describe how we see and use money – “enslaved”. The Psalmist was trying to get to a place of the correct balance, where money would be used but not worshipped. A place where the value of money would be eclipsed by our great and glorious God and His Word. 

The pilgrim of course needs money to make his way through this life. But he must not succumb to the temptation to acquire more and more glittering temporal objects, call it “stuff” if you like, at the expense of the eternal jewels in God’s Word. The one will be left behind when we pass the Great Divide. The other will be waiting for us on the other side. Let us join the Psalmist in declaring our eagerness to mine those precious jewels and nuggets from His Word so that we can accumulate them in our hearts and lives. A last word today from Jesus. “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.

Lying

“Keep me from lying to myself; 
give me the privilege of knowing Your instructions.”
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭119:29‬ ‭NLT‬‬

We’re considering lying today. A bit out of context in this Psalm I know, but an important consideration none the less. The Psalmist had made an important discovery – he had a tendency to lie. About himself in this verse, but perhaps to others as well.

Telling lies is a sad human trait, which we adopt when in trouble or at a time when we think it will be more palatable than the truth. But we always need to tell the truth, no matter how painful it may be to us, because that is what God requires. Remember when we looked at Psalm 51? David knew the need for truth at the deepest level – verse 6 says, “Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, And in the hidden part [of my heart] You will make me know wisdom.” (Psalm 51:6 AMP). 

But how do we lie to ourselves? One way is that we try and rationalise our actions. We think about what we have done, or are about to do, and dream up ways of how we can reconcile a wrong thought or action with a conscience that is starting to stir and make us feel uncomfortable. And our enemy, the devil, who Jesus referred to as the “father of lies” (John 8:44), will do what he can to add to our delusions. Jeremiah 17:9 (AMP) reads, “The heart is deceitful above all things. And it is extremely sick; who can understand it fully and know its secret motives?” Who indeed. The problem is that our thinking on its own can be, and often is, just plain wrong. And without some way of checking it out, we will end up in a fog of self-delusion. The second part of the verse we read today gives us the answer to our dilemma – we need the help of truths contained within the Bible. We need “the privilege of knowing [God’s] instructions”. Another good Scripture to drop in at this point is from Proverbs 3, “Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take”. We find God’s will for us through His Word, the Bible, through prayer, from Holy Spirit revelation, and through the counsel of Godly people. As we echo the anguished cry of the Psalmist for help from God, our prayer will not go unanswered by our loving Heavenly Father.

Purity

“How can a young person stay pure? 
By obeying your word. 
I have hidden your word in my heart, 
that I might not sin against you. 
Open my eyes to see 
the wonderful truths in your instructions.”
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭119:9, 11, 18‬ ‭NLT‬‬

Now here’s a young person desiring to live a life without fault in God’s eyes. He wasn’t just saying that – you can tell he was really serious in his question. And the next line shows that he knows the answer – by obeying God’s Word. So that’s it – problem solved and life sorted. But hang on a minute! God’s Word starts with Genesis and ends with Revelation – how can I ever get my mind around all that, what it means, and how to apply it in my thoughts and actions, so that my life is sinless and pure. An impossible ask, I think you will agree. It’s a relief to know that God doesn’t expect that of us. Through Jesus, He shows us a better way. 

But verse 11 is key. We need to read the Bible regularly. Because then the life-words will spring out of the pages straight into our hearts, and there they will reside waiting for the Holy Spirit to bring them to our remembrance when we need them. But transitioning from an impure to pure life-state is not an instant process. If only it was. It takes a lifetime and more besides. God’s grace is amazing though. Like a parent with a toddler, God takes our hands and leads us step by step. Hear the gentle whispers, “Not that way” or “This way is better”. Remember the words read from the Scriptures, bringing us wisdom, keeping us on the right paths. Yes, we will from time to time stumble over the boulders and hurdles in our way, leaving us sprawling in the mud of our sins. But our loving Heavenly Father won’t leave us there. He picks us up, dusts us off, wipes away the tears of hurt and frustration, and that gentle whisper again – “My way is better”. If we listen to Him and let Him. So we pray with the Psalmist, “Open our eyes to see”. Amen.

The Spirit-filled Life

Oh, that my actions would consistently 
reflect Your decrees! 
Then I will not be ashamed 
when I compare my life with Your commands.
Psalms‬ ‭119:5-6‬ ‭NLT‬‬

In our pilgrimage through life why is that we inevitably do things that we shouldn’t? Intuitively we have a good idea of what we should be doing. Much of the time we know what the Bible says about the way we should or shouldn’t live. At other times we receive a disturbing nudge from our consciences. But come what may, we still end up frustrated with ourselves because we did wrong. The Bible calls this dilemma sin. I’m sure we’ve all been in this place, and we will come up against it again in tomorrow’s part of our journey, but that is of small comfort. As I said earlier – we inevitably do things we shouldn’t. The Psalmist in today’s verses was equally frustrated. We don’t know what he’d done to cause his cry of exasperation, but it was something that didn’t line up with God’s ways. And it was something he was ashamed of, so perhaps there was a public element about his actions.

The Apostle Paul expressed a similar degree of annoyance with himself. He said in Romans 7:21, “I have discovered this principle of life – that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong.” Sound familiar? He goes on to say, “Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.” 

Thankfully Paul’s journey didn’t end in verse 24 of Romans 7. We read in the next chapter, “So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death.”

At this time of year we remember the coming of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The Son of God was born into this world, where He experienced all the problems and temptations that we do. And because of that He understands our issues of life. He understands our constant battles with sin. He was here Himself, but he didn’t sin. In fact, at Calvary He took on all our sins Himself to free us to live in line with the Holy Spirit life to which we have been called.

The Psalmist felt and expressed that heart cry – how can I live God’s way without polluting it with my sin? And in answer he tried to line his life with God’s decrees. A form of legalism? But sadly, it’s a trap we too can fall into. We try and live by our own efforts to avoid having to come as a repentant sinner into God’s presence. By setting ourselves rules and regulations that we can keep, and that makes us feel holy and righteous. But there is no alternative to living under God’s grace, living the Spirit-filled life. So instead of living by rules, we live our lives infused with the Holy Spirit, allowing Him to lead and guide us, allowing Him to bring to the surface all our sins and allowing us to repent of them. Living a life walking close to God, not through our efforts trying to live by His rules. Jesus said, “… I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10). That’s the only way to live.

Peace

“I am tired of living among people who hate peace. 
I search for peace; but when I speak of peace, 
they want war!
Psalms‬ ‭120:6-7‬ ‭NLT‬‬

Pick up a newspaper or switch on the News at 10 and I can guarantee two things – most of what we see or read will be bad news, with very little good news, and there will be news reports about wars, bloodshed and strife between nations. The Psalmist was fed up with negatives. Most of us, I’m sure, have been around negative people. Ever been involved in a conversation like this?

Me: “It’s nice seeing some sunshine today.”
You: “Ah, but I think it will rain later”.

Perhaps the Psalmist was involved in a conversation like this.

Psalmist: “Both those nations have a claim on that piece of land but it’s far better to negotiate a
peaceful settlement.
People: “That’s rubbish – we don’t care what they say or claim – if they don’t back off we’ll go to war.”

If that was the situation, then the Psalmist must have been despairing. I can relate to where the Psalmist is coming from when he talks about being “tired of living among people who hate peace.” 

Jesus taught about peace. In Matthew 5:9 we read, “God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.” Perhaps one interpretation of this verse is about the responsibility God’s people have in promoting peace. Conflict is never far away from us, in our families, amongst our friends, in our communities and nations, so perhaps we need to be pourers of oil on troubled waters, helping to put things right, helping to restore relationships. 

But there is another peaceful place to be and that is in our relationship with God. James 4:4 highlights the issue of how we war against God. It says, “Don’t you realise that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God”. He goes on to say in verse 8, “Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world”. 

It might be appropriate to consider God saying our verse from Psalm 120 today. God’s love for us is such that he yearns for us to be at peace with Him, but when we go off into preferring a sinful world to our relationship with Him, we are effectively declaring war on God Himself. A scary place to be, folks! 

At this time of year, we consider the Prince of Peace, Jesus Himself. The Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 9:6 shines like a beacon of peace in the warring verses around it. And the following verse gives us hope, “His government and its peace will never end…”. We have read the last chapter in the book – peace wins in the end.

Light

“Your Word is a lamp to guide my feet 
and a light for my path.”
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭119:105‬ ‭NLT‬‬

This is a verse often quoted because it clearly states how important the Scriptures are in the life of our Christian pilgrim. The picture rises before us, of a person making their way along a dark path as it twists and turns through a forest or valley. A dangerous place where a light is essential. There are all sorts of boulders and other hazards in the way, but the pilgrim holds a lantern, perhaps on the end of a pole, which dimly lights  a small area of the path in front.

In our Western societies, total blackness, a total absence of a light source, is unusual. There are street lights, or glowing windows, or passing vehicles, or there is enough heavenly illumination to provide some light for a walk outside. But on several occasions I have experienced total blackness where there has been no ambient light at all. Typically this can happen in geographically remote places and under skies darkly obscured by a heavy cloud layer. It is a strange feeling. 

As we take this analogy into our spiritual lives, we too can visualise a place of total darkness, where God’s light is absent. Some people think a total absence of the light of God is a description of hell. But God’s light is all around us. We probably have no idea how well illuminated our lives are. His light holds back the dark forces of evil that are so prevalent, that are waiting in the wings, so to speak, to wreak their nefarious ways on unsuspecting people. 

From that perspective, we need access to some form of ambient light, and the Bible, God’s Word, is just that. Furthermore, in the Gospel of John, we read that the Word was Jesus. John 1:4-5, “The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” So when we couple together our verse today from Psalm 119 with John 1, we immediately see that the Christian pilgrim has to be a Jesus-follower. Jesus is our Light. He is the One who illuminates our path through life. And it is only by following Him that we can avoid the problems and hazards in the darkness that surrounds us. At Christmas time we celebrate the coming of Jesus into this world; another verse from John 1, “The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, [is] coming into the world.”

There’s not much more to say about our verse from Psalm 119 today, except that we have a choice – we follow Jesus and His teachings, His ways, or we stumble around in the darkness, succumbing to all sorts of hazards. Surely a place without Jesus is a scary place to be.