sin

Do not call anything impure that God has made clean

I’m currently reading through the book of Acts in the Bible, and in chapter 10 the apostle Peter has a famous vision in which God tells him to eat animals which are impure for a Jew to eat. When Peter refuses, God tells him three times

“Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

Acts 10:15, NIV

The meaning in its context is clear. Acts is the story of God’s word spreading throughout the world, and the inclusion of Samaritans (half-Jews) and Gentiles (non-Jews) in God’s kingdom. Peter has this vision just before being asked to preach to a Gentile called Cornelius, and Peter says to him

“You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection.”

Acts 10:28, NIV

The gospel is now open to the Gentiles, and it is no longer important to become a Jew to be right with God. This is indisputably the primary meaning of what God said, and I certainly don’t wish to detract from that.

However, as I was reading this a few days ago, another implication of this struck me for the first time. Those of us who are Christians are made clean by God, yet how often we fail to recognise this. How often we focus on our own impurity, our sin. Yet once God has made us clean, we are clean, and we are not to call ourselves (or other Christians) impure. We are still sinners, and it’s right to fight against sin, both in our own lives and the lives of other Christians, but let’s not lose focus on the cleanliness God has given to us in Christ. We should not be despondent about sin. Instead, we can rest confidently in the God who has made us clean.

Great expectations?

What expectations do you have in life? How do they affect you?

I learnt to juggle when I was around 12 years old, and it didn’t take long. Partly that’s because young people pick up new skills quickly, and partly it’s because juggling isn’t really very difficult. Over Easter I spent a bit of time trying to learn to ride a unicycle, and it was much harder. I suffered from a combination of being almost a decade older, and unicycling being a much more challenging skill to learn.

To give you an idea of the progress I made from a week of regular practice, I have progressed from sitting on the unicycle holding onto two stationary objects to being able to cycle while holding onto a wall for a few feet before falling off. It’s slow progress, but I’m happy with it. Why? Because I read on the internet that unicycling is a difficult skill to learn, and takes a lot of practice. Also, a friend who is able to unicycle told that there was no shortcut which could remove the need to practice. I started to learn with the expectation of a difficult challenge, so when I made a small amount of progress I was pleased about it.

Imagine if my expectations had been different. Imagine I’d expected to be a skilled rider at the end of the week, perhaps learning to perform basic tricks. Imagine if I’d gone to a skate park, and tried unicycling up a ramp. It wouldn’t have ended well for me, that’ s for sure! Having the right expectations was important for how I felt about my progress, and is important for how we feel about life more generally.

What expectations should Christians have of what their lives will be like? Do we expect life as a Christian to be no different from anyone else’s life? Do we expect to radically and rapidly transform into a state of joyous perfection? Do we expect some compromise between the two, or perhaps a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs?

I continually forget what the Christian life is like. I’ve been a Christian for years, but still my expectations get warped out of all reality. I typically find myself making one of two mistakes – either expecting an easy life or expecting life to be so hard I can never progress.

The Christian life isn’t an easy one. Even without any external suffering (and there is no guarantee of freedom from that) there is a constant battle with sin. No Christian is free from it, and only an unhealthy Christian doesn’t keenly feel it. When I forget to expect this, I am discouraged by my frequent failures to live up to my own moral standards, let alone God’s! But when I remember to expect it, I can turn to God for help fighting my sin. I can remind myself that it is God who works in and through me, and it is God who makes me progressively more holy. And I can have joy in the fight.

The opposite mistake could actually be viewed as the flip side of the same wrong expectation. It is remembering that there is a fight to be had, but forgetting to actually fight it! When I forget that progress is to be expected, and expect stagnation, I am essentially surrendering the fight. I despair at my sinfulness, and my helplessness to change it. But when I remember to expect change, I can turn to God for the necessary power to change. While I still acknowledge my weakness and inability to change, I can remind myself of the God who is changing me. And I can have joy in the change.

Getting the right expectations matter. They protect me from expecting too much, and the discouragement which comes when I don’t live up to my own expectations. They protect me from expecting too little, and missing out on progress God is delighted to give me. I need the right expectations. I need gospel expectations.

What expectations do you think are important in your life?

(For the articles which inspired this one, see The secret cause of discouragement and How to turn ordinary experiences into extraordinary ones, both by Joshua Hood.)

A midnight message

I shouldn’t have been up at midnight. I needed to be up at 6:30 in the morning to have any chance of reading the Bible and praying before going out. And it was cold weather – the worst type to get up in. There’s a word for this kind of stupidity – sin.

But as I was up, it made sense to check facebook. What else can you do at midnight? Even I didn’t want to start on some new time consuming activity, I was simply frittering away the minutes. Which turn into the hours, the days, the lifetime.

Earlier in the evening I’d had a skype call with one of my best friends. We’d discussed a lot of things, and told each other what we would like prayer for. We’re Christian brothers, would you expect anything else? I’d asked him to pray that I’d be able to meet up with some more people, that I would be able to take some of what I’m learning and encourage others with it individually. We ended the skype call so I could hit the sack, but I didn’t. I sinned.

God saw that sin, and it made Him angry, like every sin does. But God didn’t see that sin, and He has no anger left for me anyway.

God is always loving. It’s just who He is. And He loved me. Me, the sinner, on facebook at midnight. Yes, God loved me.

So He gave me someone to meet. He answered the prayer I suspect my friend had prayed. Someone wanted to meet up to talk about something – was I free later in the week? I checked my calendar. There was one day I could meet him. The day after tomorrow. I’d see facebook once tomorrow. I replied, and later we met. But what if I’d been in bed?

If I hadn’t been on facebook I wouldn’t have seen the message until the next day. We couldn’t have arranged a meeting for the same week. Well, we could, but not as easily. Was it right to be up that midnight?

No. Of course not. How could it be? I died to sin, and dead men don’t carry on in old habits. Yet God loved me. He answered prayer. He answered prayer in such a way that He turned my sin, my hideous, destructive sin, to good. I meant it for evil, yet God meant it for good. It’s a small example, but doesn’t it show the way God so often works? Isn’t it a tiny detail that adorns the masterpiece that is the gospel? Doesn’t it show God’s goodness to a sinner? That is grace. And that is worth living life for in every way.

Including in going to bed.

Religious superstition

How easy it is to fall into religious superstition! I mean thinking that God will bless us because of our religious activities. I’ve prayed, so everything will be fine now, because I’ve prayed. Not because of God’s intervention, but because of my prayers. I’ve had a bad day so far, but I’ll read my Bible now then the day will improve, not because I’ll be living life with a greater focus on God, but because I read my Bible. Having gone to church twice this Sunday, I think an easy week at work is pretty much guaranteed now. I can’t be bothered doing any work, but reading a book about theology is bound to solve that problem. I don’t suppose any Christians consciously and deliberately think like that, but I’m sure I can’t be the only one who catches myself sometimes. It’s tempting to put our faith not in God, but in our religious works.

We see this problem in the Bible too. This isn’t the only example, but the one which sprung to my mind occurs after a battle between Israel and Philistia recorded in 1 Samuel 4. It’s a disaster for the Israelites, and with 4,000 dead soldiers it’s time for a rethink. What solution do they come up with? They recognise God is in control of the battle, by asking “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines?” and they’re sure they know how to obtain His favour – “Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD from Shiloh to us, that when it comes among us it may save us from the hand of our enemies.” Does it work? The Philistines are scared stiff, and decide the best defence is a good offence. “So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and every man fled to his tent. There was a very great slaughter, and there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. Also the ark of God was captured”. Hardly the desired effect.

Can we combat this malaise, or are we simply helpless in the hands of our sinful motives? We can do many things. We can examine our motives, repent when we find ourselves lacking, and rely more fully on God’s grace in Christ. It is all we can ever do to fight sin – flee to Christ.