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Worship That Honours God

Some Biblical Principles

Ajith Fernando

GUIDELINES FOR PUBLIC WORSHIP

YOUTH FOR CHRIST PUBLICATIONS

December 2009

Though originally written to the Youth for Christ staff and volunteers this booklet has principles that will be helpful to all Christians.


TABLE OF CONTENTS

 A Great Challenge

Worship Must be Biblical

Helping Worshippers to be Alert to God

Two-Way Communication

Praise

Using Bible Texts in Worship

Bi- and Tri-Lingual Worship

Joy and Edification in Doctrinally Sound Praise

Personal Response to God’s Love

Taking God’s Holiness into Account

Confession of Sin

Silence

Lament

Prayer

Praying for the Needs of Worshippers

Benedictions

Worshipping as a Body

Tongues and Revelations

Preaching

There have been huge shifts in worship styles among Christians over the past two or three decades. While Youth for Christ (YFC) is not a church, worship is an important part of our agenda. We do not have some aspects that are common in church worship such as the Lord’s Supper, Baptism and the offering. Therefore, I will not discuss those aspects of worship here. The other elements of worship are seen regularly in the life of YFC. With all the changes that are taking place it is very important that we ensure that the way we conduct our worship is biblical. I want to share some thoughts that have been burning in my mind for the past few years regarding worship. I write as one with an active interest in this subject as I often serve as worship leader in our church.

 

A Great Challenge. I think I am more emotionally drained by leading worship than by preaching. Worship is one of the highest activities humans can engage in, and leading God’s people in this is an awesome responsibility that I approach with much fear. I do not apologise for my nervousness when leading worship, because the Bible says that worship acceptable to God must be done “with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29). We must approach each worship experience with a fear that makes us strive to see God honoured through the worship.

 

Because worship must be conducted in order to bring glory to the all-glorious God, we must seek to design it as best as we can. The worshippers must have a strong sense during worship, that God is glorious. One way to achieve this is to strive as much as possible for perfection. If someone is operating the overhead projector or the multimedia projector for PowerPoint, that person should concentrate 100% on that task. Unless that person is an expert in what people call multi-tasking, that person may not be able to sing too much, because he or she is concentrating on ensuring that the people are not distracted by technical errors. I cannot do that at my age, so I will not volunteer to do it.

 

Most importantly, those who lead worship need to be in vital touch with God. If you are not, get back in touch before you lead or hand over the responsibility to someone else. Those who do not have a regular and vital time alone with God should not lead in public worship. I am very happy these days that the worship team in the YFC headquarters usually spends time in prayer before coming to lead. Prepare yourself personally also through prayer, confession and commitment before you lead in worship.

 

Jesus spoke about leaving the gift at the altar and visiting someone who has something against us before coming to worship, in order to be reconciled with that person (Matt. 5:23-24). If that is needed for ordinary worshippers, how much more urgently needed is that for worship leaders? If we find there is an issue that cannot be settled before we come for worship, try to settle it in our hearts with God and make a promise to God to follow through with a plan for settling the issue completely. I am amazed that sometimes people having serious issues with another person will nevertheless worship with that person without making any effort to solve the issues. Remember, commitment to Christ automatically means commitment to his body. There are some whose lack of commitment to the body results in them not dealing with fellowship and walking-in-the-light issues with a brother or sister. That lack of active commitment to the body of Christ is a sign of lack of commitment to Christ.

 

The Indian evangelist Samuel Ganesh was once interpreting the preaching of African church leader, Festo Kivengere, into Tamil. While he was preaching, Samuel Ganesh came under conviction because there was someone in the audience with whom he needed to get right. So he stopped Kivengere and went up to that person and asked for forgiveness from him. When the people in the audience saw this, they too began to go to others and make peace with them. God was honoured through the process of people meeting the biblical requirements for worship.

 

Of course, God’s grace is sufficient even for our weaknesses. If for some unavoidable reason, like not getting up for your alarm in the morning or having to help someone with an urgent need, you cannot prepare yourself adequately for worship, he will give you the grace you need to lead in a way that honours him. God lets things like this happen to us sometimes, so that we remember that our ministry is all of grace and not because of our qualifications.

 

As for worship leading, just like preaching, those leading should sense a call to lead worship. Some people may be wonderful worship leaders because of their love for God and for worship, but they may not be able to sing in tune. We could arrange for them to lead worship without their singing being heard by the worshippers. For example, we could shut off their mikes during the singing. I read somewhere that A. W. Tozer was not very good at singing and that he sometimes sang out of tune. But few people have been used recently by God to restore worship to its place of importance in the church, as much as Tozer.

 

It would be good if we can identify people who are committed to this task and have them as a team of worship resource persons in our group or church. The Old Testament Israel had people who were specially set apart to help in the various aspects of worship, including music. Worship is an important part of our programme and even our evangelism, so it is good to have a group of people who give themselves to thinking seriously about how we can be at the cutting edge of where God wishes to lead us in connection to worship.

 

Worship Must be Biblical. Christians view the Bible as their standard and guide for all their thoughts and actions (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Therefore, we must ensure that what we do in worship is in keeping with the teachings of the Bible and that people also sense the authority of the Bible by the way it is used in worship.

 

One of our great challenges is to nurture people who will look to the Bible for all their decisions. Often our folk forget the Bible in a crisis, and follow the easy way out of the situation—such as lying, taking revenge, giving into their feelings of love for a non-believer or for someone they should not be romantically related to. Obeying the Bible should become second nature to our youth. When they actively participate in worship that clearly derives from the Bible, it is easier for them to make the idea that the Bible governs the life of a Christian, part of their thinking. They have seen it in practice and participated actively in a Bible-directed experience.

 

Helping the Worshippers to be Alert to God. There is a lot of space devoted in the Old Testament to instructions on how to worship, and many of these instructions are guides to keep the worshippers’ minds alert and aware of the contents of the worship. This is why so many symbols were used in Old Testament worship.

 

What if the worship does not involve (engage) and get the attention of the worshipper? What if his or her mind is somewhere else? It will be similar to a situation when a person who has come to meet the President of a country is distracted and whistling a tune while the President is talking. Consider then, who the President is in comparison to the Lord of the universe. Therefore we have to work hard to ensure that worship is led in such a way as to keep the attention of the people who worship. We may say something to introduce a hymn or song we sing, so as to help the people to be in touch with the direction the worship is taking. That introduction however, must not be too long, as if it is, the worshipper may move from a praising mode to a listening mode. Thus our introductions should be carefully planned and brief.

 

Nowadays we often hear very loud music emanating from the “worship team” consisting of the worship leader, singers and instrumentalists. This can have an adverse effect on the worshippers. At times, the music could be so loud that the singing of the worshippers is not heard. With such an atmosphere, the worshippers could become passive listeners or very silent singers. That would hinder their active involvement in the act of worship. I have seen youth sing very loud, even when the worship team is producing extremely loud music, because they are highly charged by the mood that has been set. However, that is an exceptional situation. Generally, I believe that when the leaders produce too high a volume, it hinders the full involvement of the worshippers.

 

Two-Way Communication. Worship involves two-way communication between God and us: from God to us and from us to God. We should maintain this “principle of alternation” in worship. We speak to God through songs and prayers of praise, confession and petition; and God speaks to us through the message, the reading of the Word, the words of the worship leader, and even through times of silence.

 

Praise. In the Bible, a lot of the praise that is sung could be classified under what we call hymns. The songs in the Book of Psalms come under this category. They take a theme and go deep into it. The praise that is sung in the Book of Revelation is more like the worship choruses we have today—where one theme is repeated over and over again. Both expanding on and going deeper into a theme, as we do in hymns, and going round and round with one theme, as we do in worship choruses, are acceptable forms of meditation. For both, the key is the content: what we praise God for. It is easy for praise to become a ritual when we repeat familiar songs and phrases, but do so without paying attention to the meaning.

 

We should praise God for who he is and what he has done, as recorded in the Bible as well as for things he has done among us. The praise segment of worship should be carefully planned out so that we praise God for some aspect of his nature and work. We could choose different aspects on different days, so that we can comprehensively praise God over a period of time. In fact, worship leaders could make that an ambition in their lives—leading people to honour God by praising him comprehensively for who he is and what he has done. For example, we could praise God on one day for creation; one day for his love and care over us; another day for his power and sovereignty, another day for his justice (see the discussion on God’s holiness below), another day for who Jesus is, another day for what he has done, another day for the Holy Spirit and what he does and yet another day for our salvation. If we inform the worshippers of the theme for the day, then they will be able to worship God with understanding.

 

By praising God for the great truths of the Bible, we could teach people doctrine in a very effective way. This was how doctrines were taught to the early Methodists, most of whom did not have much education and did not grow up in religious homes—just like a majority of the youth who come to YFC.

 

Using Bible Texts in Worship. As discussed above, the Bible gives the foundation for our lives. When we use it in worship, we are making the foundation of our lives strong. Sometimes we are so interested in having people enjoy the worship that we forget to use the worship to help them become strong.

 

We could read Bible portions relating to the subject for which we are praising God. Bible reading was a very important feature of New Testament worship. If the Bible is read in worship, it must be done well. Timothy is asked to “devote [himself] to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13). By using the word “devote” Paul insists that it should be done well. Find people who are good at reading. Some people are not good readers. If you ask them to read, you are dishonouring God by their poor reading and hurting them by giving them a public task for which they are not gifted.

 

If you are reading in three languages make sure that the people are not bored. Use your creativity to ensure that everyone in the group can be alert mentally during the reading. You could read short passages in one language, and the person who follows the one who read first in another language can come on immediately after the former person has finished.

 

Dramatic reading is another effective way of communicating the message of the Bible. This is when different people take the different characters in a passage and read it as if it was in a stage play. This is a wonderful way to get people to absorb the message of a text. Once I was travelling in a friend’s car when a CD with the Bible read in this way was being played (called The Bible Experience). It really drew me into the text. Another way we can actively involve the audience is by having two or three different people reading different verses or by having the leader read some verses while the worshippers read others.

 

Bi- and Tri-Lingual Worship. Generally bi-lingual and tri-lingual services are very boring. What a dishonour that is to God and a bad testimony to the ability of the gospel to join different peoples into one body! We must work extra hard and use maximum creativity to ensure that people are not bored at such services. Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life—a group very similar to YFC—used to say, “It’s a sin to bore a kid with the gospel.” That is a good motto to have for youth worship.

 

It is very important that we get good translators to interpret at multi-lingual worship times. These should be people who have the ability to get into the mood of both the worship and the worship leader—people who can intensely concentrate only on the programme at hand and transmit what the leader is saying, so that the worshippers can keep in step with what is happening without being distracted. If the interpreter’s presence distracts the worshippers, he or she becomes an interrupter rather than an interpreter!

 

A good service does not need to have everything said in one language to be slavishly interpreted into the other. We must look for ways to keep everyone (1) involved, (2) not feeling left out and (3) actively worshipping God with understanding, all through the service. The one who plans the service must always think of these three things. For example, we may have one song that is not available in one of the languages, but not more than that. We must look to ensure that the songs we choose are found in all the languages used in the service. We must check whether our people can sing the selected translated songs. Our Sinhala and Tamil people often find it difficult to sing many of the popular hymns translated from English—especially those that do not lend themselves naturally to a drum beat.

 

Joy and Edification in Doctrinally Sound Praise. Our security in life is because of who we believe in, and what we know about him and his ways. The world is constantly attacking our beliefs. We need to counter those false messages from the world, and equip the minds of Christians with right beliefs. One way to do this is to have our core beliefs affirmed when we worship God. Then we will have the confidence to go in to an unbelieving world and obey and serve God.

 

I fear that sometimes (not always) the enjoyment that comes from some of the worship we have today is an emotional satisfaction resulting from highly charged music. The satisfaction received is through the repetition of some common phrases and songs, and is not strongly connected to the content of what we believe about the God we praise. In other words, the satisfaction is from the form and not the meaning of what we say. As we are emotional beings, it is not wrong for people to go into an emotional attitude that helps them to experience in a deeper way the truth that is being highlighted in the worship. However, truth must always be primary—not the emotional high. We must be very careful not to allow the style of worship to become more important than the content of worship. Therefore do not use a song only because the people love to sing it. If the words of a particular song do not fit in with what you want to praise God for, then do not use it; even though it may be very popular with the people!

 

Personal Response to God’s Love. One of the most beautiful contributions of the contemporary worship movement is that people are truly enjoying worshipping God. We are people in love with God; and God gave us the capacity to enjoy. Then surely, when we have a spiritual feast with God (which is what worship is), it should be an enjoyable experience. The dominant emotion in much of Old Testament worship, is joy. Deuteronomy 16, which gives instructions on how to keep the pilgrimage festivals, mentions rejoicing on three separate occasions. Verse 15 says that the people should be “altogether joyful” (16:15). This is an aspect which some of the traditional forms of worship lacked.

 

Some traditionalists are complaining about the intensely personal tone of some of our newer worship songs. Indeed, this intensely personal, love-song type worship can be overdone. But if we are in love with God, and that love is the greatest joy in our lives, and if God shouts over us with joy (Zeph. 3:17), isn’t it appropriate that we too get sentimental and romantic about our love for God? Actually, there were many songs in the evangelical gospel song era of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which were like intimate love songs. Examples are “My Jesus I love Thee, I know thou art mine” and “I come to the Garden alone.” There was a time when I did not like this latter song because I felt it was too sentimental. But once I realised that there is a sentimental and romantic aspect to my relationship with the God I love, the reasons for not liking that song vanished. There are times when we feel like saying:

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! (Psa. 84:1-4).

 

There are times when worship leaders feel like proclaiming: “Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!” (Psa. 47:1). The joyous and personal praise of contemporary and charismatic worship has a strong biblical base!

 

A good example of this emotional expression of love and devotion to God is Michael W. Smith’s song, “This is the Air I Breathe.” The words seem to be so emotional, but when I heard it sung in a church (by a classically trained trio). I found myself joining with the singers in yearning for more of God. The words are as follows:

 

This is the air I breathe
This is the air I breathe
Your holy presence living in me

This is my daily bread
This is my daily bread
Your very word spoken to me

And I’m, I’m desperate for you
And I’m, I’m lost without you

This is the air I breathe
This is the air I breathe
Your holy presence living in me

This is my daily bread
this is my daily bread
your very word spoken to me

And I’m, I’m desperate for you
And I’m, I’m lost without you

And I’m, I’m desperate for you
And I’m, I’m lost without you.

I’m lost without you.
I’m lost without you.
I’m desperate for you.
I’m desperate for you..
I’m lost, I’m lost, I’m lost without you..
I’m lost without you

I’m desperate for you

The same words are repeated over and over again, but with the help of a simple tune, we can find ourselves expressing a heartfelt desire for more of God in our lives.

 

Taking God’s Holiness into Account. The verse quoted previously from Psalm 47, refers to the awe inspiring holiness as the reason clapping hands. The next verse says, “For the Lord, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth” (Psa. 47:2). John was the disciple who was most intimate with Jesus, as seen from the narrative of the Last Supper. In John 13:23, he is described as “the disciple, whom Jesus loved, who was reclining on the bosom [or chest] of Jesus” (literal translation). Later, however, when he had a vision of the risen Christ, he says, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:17).

 

Psalm 96:9 says, “Worship the Lord in the splendour of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth!” and Hebrews 12:28-29 says, “…let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” After a vision of the holiness of God, even Isaiah cried, “Woe is me!” (Isa. 6:5). Therefore when we focus on God’s love for us, we respond with almost romantic affection and joyous love; but when we focus on his holiness, we respond with fear and trembling. Thus, worship leaders should be sensitive to the Holy Spirit to know when the people should be trembling and when they should be rejoicing.

 

We should use the holiness of God as well as his love when praising God—just as the Psalms do. For example, we could thank God for his justice and how he brings down the haughty and the oppressor while lifting up the needy and oppressed. We could even praise him, as the Psalms do, because he punishes the oppressors, exploiters, and dishonest people. We can also thank God that even though we may seem to suffer now—because of our solidarity with the needy and because we refuse to do what is dishonest—one day we will see that this was the wisest path we could have taken.

 

After praising God for his justice, we could pray that injustice be overcome in our land and in the world. We could pray for persecuted Christians in Sri Lanka and all over the world. We could pray for oppressed people, for the restoration of justice and integrity in government and public life, and we could pray for people and groups specifically working to end oppression and injustice—like lawyers, journalists, authors, academics, honest judges, bankers for the poor, government officials, politicians and organisations working towards justice and human rights.

 

Most Christians would be stunned if they heard the prayer of Psalm 94:1-7 prayed in a church today. Yet it is found in the Bible, in the book of Psalms, which we like so much and quote so often. The Psalmist says,

O Lord, God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, shine forth!
Rise up, O judge of the earth; repay to the proud what they deserve!
O Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult?
They pour out their arrogant words; all the evildoers boast.
They crush your people, O Lord, and afflict your heritage.
They kill the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless;
and they say, “The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.”

 

Another way to acknowledge the holiness of God in worship, is to ask God to make us holy. The formula, “Be holy, for I am holy,” appears five times in the Old Testament (Lev. 11:44, 45; 19:2; 20:7; 21:8) and once in the New Testament (1 Pet. 1:16). Hymns and choruses which express the desire to be holy were very common a few decades ago, but are not so common today. This is another shortcoming that needs to be addressed in contemporary worship. We should look for more songs like “I’ll live for Jesus” and “Refiners Fire—Purify my heart,” and sing them often in worship. Sometimes I get the congregation in our church to sing the common chorus, “Is There Anything too Hard for the Lord?” and follow it up with, “Let the Beauty of Jesus be Seen in Me.” Usually when people sing “Is There Anything too Hard…,” they refer to God’s power to answer prayers for healing from sickness or some such need. But in this context we use this common song to refer to God’s power to make us holy—a process that many do not believe is possible.

 

One of the weaknesses of some contemporary worship is that it does not give sufficient importance to the holiness of God. God’s holiness is sometimes a frightening subject. When Abraham, Isaiah, Daniel and John saw the holiness of God, they fell down as dead. In the Old Testament when people violated God’s holiness by doing something in worship that was not sanctioned by him, they were punished severely. Sometimes they were even struck down dead (see Lev. 10; 1 Sam. 6; 2 Sam. 6).

 

Recently, we have discovered that worship is a wonderful means of evangelism. When people see us worshipping God powerfully, in an intimate and attractive manner, they could be attracted to God. However, we should never tone down the serious and “frightening” aspects of worship in order to attract people to God. The result could be people accepting Christ into their lives without accepting his holiness and its implications for daily living.

 

One of our great challenges is to learn how to integrate our response to God as both holy and loving in worship. Sometimes when I hear people calling God, “Daddy,” I wonder whether they have taken his holiness lightly. Perhaps not. “Daddy” means different things to different people. The Bible talks of us being so assured of our salvation that we can boldly “cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom. 8:15). “Abba” was the term children used when addressing their fathers in Jesus’ time. It was an intimate term. But in that culture the head of the family was treated with great respect. That may not be common in homes today. For us, this is a wonderful combination. We deeply love our heavenly Father, and we also respect him. There is respect and intimacy at the same time. This is a balance we must work hard to achieve.

 

The combination of reverence and loving intimacy is seen when people address God as “Almighty God, our heavenly Father,” or “Our Father in heaven.” Sometimes I get impatient with the long list of names that people use when they address God. This is particularly common in Sinhala and Tamil worship. I should not be impatient, because these lists can help prepare us for worship. They can orient our minds to understand whom we are addressing when we pray. However, they must not be used for effect because they sound impressive, and they must not be so long that the worshipper ends up bored or impatient. On the other hand, they could be expressions of the heart’s sincere desire to describe a God who can never be adequately described.

 

Sometimes for my personal prayer I use the prayers of St. Gregory of Narek, a tenth century Armenian Christian leader. He sometimes goes on for many lines in his prayers just addressing God by different names and ascribing to him various different qualities. After every time I read those prayers, I feel like I have been touched by a breath of fresh air. They reflect a deep desire to linger reverently with the inexhaustible God.

 

We are a youth movement. Our youth generally want everything to be full of energy and bounce. But we must learn to lead our youth to incorporate both respect and intimacy in their worship of God.

 

Confession of Sin. One of the direct results of remembering the holiness of God is confessing our own sin. When Isaiah had a vision of God, his first response was a terrified confession: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5). If Isaiah, who was presumably a godly person, responded like that to a vision of God, then we should expect confession to be a regular feature in the worship of Christians.

 

David said, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully” (Psa. 24:3-4). Paul expanded on that and said, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarrelling” (1 Tim. 2:8). Some who come for worship do not have holy hands. They must be given an opportunity to get right with God. Without such confession, they would be seriously violating the biblical requirements for worship.

 

In many places today, the fact that confession is rarely used in worship, shows that something is seriously wrong with these groups. It may be that the desire to give people an enjoyable experience has eclipsed the desire to glorify God. Could the omission be because it is unpleasant to confess sin; and therefore it is felt that confession could take away from the enjoyment of worship? I sometimes wonder whether people have dropped confession from worship because they do not take holiness seriously anymore. Could this be a sign that worship has become a form of entertainment, where people who are living in disobedience, enjoy an emotional and spiritual high, without being encouraged to straighten out their lives?

 

There is a song that says, “Let’s forget about ourselves and concentrate on him and worship him.” There is truth there. We must loose ourselves of the shackles of selfishness, the cares and anxieties of life and the spiritual and mental lethargy that prevent us from concentrating on God. But we must be aware of the danger of people ignoring their sins and responsibilities while having a spiritual high through praise. People who need to repent or change some behaviour at home or in their workplaces, may forget about all those things and have a tremendously satisfying time of worship. After the pep pill-like experience, they could go back to their old lives and do nothing to change that which should be changed. This would support the observation of Karl Marx that religion is the opiate of the masses.

 

Perhaps we should occasionally mention what Paul said to the Corinthian church kin our worship; that some in their fellowship were weak and ill and some had died because they had participated in the Lord’s supper “in an unworthy manner” (1 Cor. 11:27-30). Worshippers must sense that they should not dare to worship God until they give up their rebellion against him and his ways. We can help people realise this by involving the their minds in serious times of confession each time they worship in community.

 

Nurturing holy people is a very serious challenge in YFC and the church today! We should use every means possible to communicate the message that people simply cannot call themselves Christians and continue in sin. A serious confession time during worship, which gives people an opportunity to examine themselves, is a great aid to holiness. More importantly, it is an essential requirement for acceptable worship that we offer to the God who is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:28-29).

 

What if you have already confessed all known sins before you come to worship? I think we can do two things. Sometimes in the Old Testament, God’s people confessed not only their sins, but also the sins of their fellow Jews. Daniel (Dan. 9:20) and Nehemiah (Neh. 1:6) prayed in this way. They confessed the sins of their fellows, just as if they were confessing their own sins. Such prayer is valid; because, according to the biblical idea of community solidarity, we are one with the people to whom we belong. We could also pray during the confession time that God will help us overcome the sins that we often commit. Just after the petition about forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray saying, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13).

 

Silence. During worship, another response to the holiness of God is silence. Habakkuk 2:20 says, “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 says, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools…. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.”

 

Sometimes in worship, we simply remain silent in the presence of God for a few minutes. We may be speaking to God silently, or he may be speaking to us; we may be confessing sin, or we simply may be in an attitude of prayer or commitment, conscious of his presence but not initiating any physical action. A period of silence at the beginning of a worship service can help the worshippers to focus on God and prepare themselves for worship.

 

Silence may not come naturally to our youth. They are used to having some sound around them all the time. Even when they study alone, they usually listen to music. Therefore, they may respond much more positively to loud worship than to silence. This is a situation where we have to discipline ourselves to introduce the value of silence to them, though they may at first find it unattractive. Of course, we know that it could be a means to deep satisfaction and enrichment in their lives. It could help heal them of the restlessness that ruins their peace of mind.

 

A famous Pentecostal leader was speaking at a large rally in his later years. He started his talk by asking the people to remain quiet (I think it was) for about 10-15 minutes. The organisers were very nervous as there was nothing visible happening for such a long period of time. But the message that there are times when we should simply be silent before God was clearly communicated, and the people were led to experience this.

 

In recent retreats of YFC leaders, we have had one to two hour periods of silence when people are given time to be alone with God. This fits in with the biblical instruction “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psa. 46:10). These times of silence are wonderful opportunities to come face to face with God. Some of our youth and staff expressed negative thoughts about the idea of introducing these times, when they first heard about it. However, after they experienced these times of silence, most of them were very grateful. Let us use these to enable us to become more in tune with God, and also to open ourselves to him so that he can get through to us.

 

Sometimes I have seen people talking, or doing some activity or even sleeping during these silent times. That could be the sign of a serious spiritual problem. These people could be gaining so much satisfaction from activity that they are restless when there is no activity. They need spiritual revival. It could also be a sign of fear. I once heard Dr Robert Solomon, Methodist Bishop of Singapore, say that some people are afraid of silence, because in the silence, they are forced to meet God. They do not want to face the trauma of the process of God searching their hearts, as described in Psalm 139:23-24. Praying that prayer is a good way to start our time of silence before God: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

 

Isaiah observes that, “Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (40:31). This verse suggests that regular periods of silent waiting for God could be a good remedy for the burnout that often occurs in the lives of people in activist groups like ours.

 

Lament. The book of Psalms was the hymnbook of the people of Israel. Fifty to sixty of the 150 psalms are laments. Laments were sung during Jewish worship. Of course, laments arise out of painful or difficult situations. There is a model for us here. When our country, our club, our core group, or our church experiences something sad or difficult or sinful, we could have a time during our worship when we mourn, or express our pain, and pray for God’s deliverance and comfort. The laments do not avoid pain; they face up to the full force of it. So there may be weeping or wailing during worship in times of distress. If a person has been hurt, then this segment of worship could concentrate on that person and on healing for him or her.

 

Worship leaders should remember that at almost every gathering for worship, there will be someone who has gone through great pain and does not feel exuberant. We must be sensitive to them. We must not make them feel like outcasts because of the pain they are experiencing. This is why it would be wrong to insist that everyone in the gathering does everything that is in the programme. Indeed, all can pray, praise, give petitions to God, and listen to the Word. But all may not be in a mood to testify or lead in prayer or dance for joy. On the other hand, focussing on the glorious unchanging truths of the gospel can minister to hurting people, by reminding them of the unchanging truths which under-gird their live, truths that are more basic and important than the temporary pain they experience at that moment.

 

Prayer. Generally, in YFC gatherings our intercessory prayer times are conducted in small groups. I think this is a good way to conduct intercessory prayer. We must be careful, however, about rushing through these prayers. Sometimes at staff devotions, we give a lot of time for sharing testimonies and requests and for teaching, and then there is very little time left for prayer. I am sometimes the culprit in such instances, because I teach for too long! Sometimes we divide the prayer requests among the members of the small group and all pray at the same time for their separate requests. This may save time, but it reduces the participation of the group in the prayers. It also gives the idea that prayers could be rushed through—indicating that it is not such a huge priority. In reality, prayer is the most important requirement for effectiveness in our ministry.

 

Since the Bible gives specific instructions on what we should pray about in corporate worship, we should regard those instructions very seriously. Here are some examples from the New Testament:

  • The longest prayer of Jesus that is recorded is in John 17:1-26. It was prayed in a worship setting when Jesus was observing the Passover Festival with his disciples. Most of this prayer is for the disciples, and a few verses cover prayer for the believers who will come later. It covers a wide variety of needs that the disciples had: their preservation and protection, their sanctification, their joy, their unity and their witness. Leaders must pray for the people they lead. Samuel once summoned a gathering of the repentant people of Israel, just so that he could pray for them: “Then Samuel said, ‘Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lordfor you’” (1 Sam. 7:5). A few verses later, we are told that, “Samuel cried out to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him” (7:9). Thus leaders pray for their people in private and in public.
  • In Acts 4:29 the believers praying together asked God to give them boldness to proclaim the word. This prayer is always relevant to us—especially in these days when evangelism is meeting with opposition similar to the opposition that prompted the prayer.
  • In the next verse, the people ask God to confirm their message through healings, signs and wonders (Acts 4:30). When people see the power of God, they often become more open to listening to the word of God. We should pray this prayer today too.
  • “After fasting and praying [the Antioch church] laid their hands on [Barnabas and Saul] and sent them off” on their mission to the unreached (Acts 13:3). This is a prayer of commissioning. Before people set off on special assignments, they should be sent out with the prayers of the worshipping community.
  • Paul tells Timothy to pray for national leaders, and pray that under their leadership “we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:2). We should be praying for our nation and its leaders at all our public worship times, if possible.
  • James 5:14-16 talks of community prayer for healing—especially by elders, and the anointing of the sick person with oil.
  • In the same tone as the prayers for justice from the Psalms that we looked at previously, the martyrs in the book of Revelation pray, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10). We may not use the same words today, because we are not martyrs; but praying for justice is a biblical practice, and we should look for ways to incorporate this practice in our worship today.
  • Just before the benediction at the end of 1 Corinthians, Paul uses an Aramaic word, “Maranatha,” meaning, “Our Lord come” (1 Cor. 16:22). For the Greek-speaking Corinthians to understand this Aramaic term, it must have been a common saying in the first century church. Just before the benediction at the end of the book of Revelation we find a similar statement, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20). These two prayers “express the eager longing felt by the church in those early days for the speedy return of the Lord.” (Leon Morris). We too can feed this longing with similar statements, even today.

 

Praying for the Needs of Worshippers. I am discussing praying for the needs of worshippers separately from intercessory prayer in worship, because very often the two are different segments of a worship service. In the book of Luke the healing ministry of Jesus begins with him healing a man with an unclean spirit, while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, on a Sabbath (Luke 4:31-37). He aroused the wrath of the officials on another Sabbath, by healing a man with a withered hand, while he was teaching in the Synagogue (Luke 6:6-11). On yet another Sabbath, again while teaching in the synagogue, he healed a woman with a disabling spirit. Once again, he angered the officials who did not want healings to take place on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17). These verses definitely give a mandate for prayers for healing to be incorporated during public worship. Considering that the Gospels present the opposition to Jesus’ healings during worship in a negative light, we should be cautious about opposing the practice of praying for people’s needs during worship.

 

Healing, of course, should never become the main focus, and it should never detract from the primacy of the Word—that is, preaching—in worship. Many of those who have a healing ministry today, extensively publicise their ministries. It is common to see posters on our roads advertising healing meetings. Some posters have pictures of people who had been healed and short summaries of what they were healed of. D. A. Carson points out that, “There is no record of Jesus going somewhere in order to hold a healing meeting, or of Jesus issuing a general invitation to be healed, or of Jesus offering generalized prayers for healing.” (in Power Religion {Moody Press, 1992}, p. 99). In contrast, Jesus often charged people to keep their healings secret (Mark 1:43-44; 5:43; 7:36; 9:30). This should be a warning to us about the dangers of organizing healing meetings, and of using the prospect of healing as the primary attraction in our evangelistic ministry. However, there is a biblical mandate to pray for healing. In fact the church in Acts prayed to God wishing that he would “…stretch out [his] hand to heal, and signs and wonders [be] performed through the name of [his] holy servant Jesus” (Acts 4:30).

 

1 Corinthians 12: 9, 28 and 30 lists healing as one of the gifts of the Spirit. Those with this gift could be encouraged to exercise it in YFC in appropriate situations. However, James 5:14 shows that all Christian leaders should be regularly praying for the sick: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord”

 

Healing, of course, is necessary not only on a physical plane. We need to pray for a wide variety of needs that people have. Physically sick people often have far deeper needs that should be addressed through prayer and counselling. Here are some problems that we could pray for during worship: physical sickness, mental and emotional sickness and pain; sorrow, loneliness and discouragement, bitterness; the need to forgive someone or to repent of some sin; temptation, demon possession, economic problems, academic challenges like exams and the need for guidance.

 

When people come for prayer during or at the end of a worship service, we should be sensitive to God’s leading to know what we should pray for. I usually plead with God to give me the right words to pray—so that my prayer will be according to the will of God. We must try to be in a listening mode and receptive to God while praying. If a thought comes to the mind that we should pray about something, that thought may be from God. We may pursue that line, trusting that it is a word from God for the person we are praying for. Sometimes I am urged to pray for the person to repent of any sin that he or she might be committing. Sometimes it is that the person would trust God, or forgive his or her enemy. I have found that sometimes God does give us words that carry prophetic insight into the life of the person we are praying for.

 

I have found that this type of prayer is even more draining than preaching. Being God’s representatives before the people is an awesome responsibility. When we pray, we are acting as priests between God and the people. We should be desperate that our prayers reflect the will of God for the person we pray for. The intensity of such a quest for God’s will and for appropriate words to use when praying, can be quite draining.

 

Benedictions. In some instances, the Bible has statements that are actually words of blessing from God to the people, mediated by the worship leader. We call these “benedictions,” which is a word derived from the Latin benedicere, meaning “to bless.” The best known benediction in the Old Testament is found in Numbers 6:24-26: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” The Old Testament benedictions are pronounced on the people by the priests, in the name of God (Num. 6:23; Deut. 10:8; 21:5).

 

The most famous benediction in the New Testament comes at the end of a letter, and not in the context of worship. Paul says, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14). In both these examples of benedictions, the leader represents God and pronounces the blessings as from God. He says, “The Lord bless you,” not “us,” because it is a word from God to the people.

 

The practice, common today, of ending a worship service with a benediction, is most appropriate, as it is good to send the people out with a blessing from God.

 

Worshipping as a Body. As we look at biblical examples of prayers during corporate worship, we see that the people joined as a community—as one person—to pray. When Peter and John were told for the first time not to preach again in Christ’s name, they shared the news with their friends, and then “they lifted their voices to God with one accord [NAS] or unanimously [HCSB]” (Acts 4:24). A prayer is recorded following this verse, but it is attributed to the whole group. Scholars have given several suggestions as to how this prayer could become the prayer of everyone in the group. They may have repeated the words the leader spoke; they may have expressed assent by responding to each of the statements saying, “Amen.” Whatever happened, the prayer came from the whole group. When we worship, it is the body of Christ—not a group of separate individuals—that is worshipping. This is why we call it corporate (body) worship.

 

We must try to achieve that sense of being of “one accord” in our prayers. One way to accomplish that is to avoid praying in the first person. Instead of saying, “Lord, I pray…,” we say, “Lord, we pray….” Sometimes, the word “I” comes out of our mouths naturally, as it did when I was praying with a group this morning! This showed me that because we naturally tend to be individualistic, we must work hard at entering into the biblical experience of corporate solidarity—the experience of being one body.

 

It is because of the corporate nature of worship that Jesus clearly tells those offering a gift at the altar, that if they remember that a brother has something against them, they should leave the gift at the altar, and go and be reconciled to this brother (Matt. 5:23-24). Today we have situations where people worshipping together in highly charged worship one Sunday can end up worshipping in two groups the next Sunday because of a conflict. We are having far too many splits in churches that place much emphasis on worship. We must urge people belonging to the same body to settle issues before they come together to worship God. In one of the Pacific islands, each worshipper shakes hands with every other worshipper after partaking of the Lord’s Supper. This way they make sure that those who worship do so with the spiritual unity that is necessary for a body to be healthy.

 

Sadly, the evangelical movement is very weak in its understanding of what it means to be the body of Christ. We reacted to the Roman Catholic belief that salvation was through the church, and emphasised the wonderful truth that salvation is personal. But we may have taken individual salvation to an unbiblical extreme by making it individualistic. Many evangelicals think of themselves as individual Christians living their lives on their own, though they are in fellowship with other Christians. We do not have that sense of being a body—where what one says and does is actually what the other members in the body say and do.

 

Tongues and Revelations. I tread cautiously on the issue of the use of tongues and special messages from God in worship, as there are different approaches to this issue in different churches and groups. As an interdenominational group, we respect the rights of people to differ on such issues. Over the years, there has been no unanimity among godly people in the church at-large. Therefore, we will not take a strong stand on this. Here, I use 1 Corinthians 14 to give us some guidelines.

 

Paul is clear that if someone speaks in tongues in public worship, it needs to be interpreted (1 Cor. 14:5, 13, 27, 28). Verse 2 of this chapter says that tongues in worship is actually a prayer to God, “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God.” Therefore, if the interpretation of an utterance in tongues comes as a message from God to the people (as it often does), then this “interpretation” should be classified under the prophetic group of utterances rather than under tongues. Clearly, Paul seems to prefer if people pray in tongues in private. However, if people want to pray in tongues while others are praying, they should do it silently so as not to distract others. Of course, they could do so audibly if it is a time when all are praying audibly together.

 

The clear teaching of 1 Corinthians 14 is that utterances during public worship should be for the building up of the believers (14:3, 4, 5, 12, 17, 26). In verse 6, Paul mentions four kinds of understandable utterances, after mentioning speaking in tongues: revelation, knowledge, prophecy and teaching. Those who teach would have been informed to come prepared to teach; so it is anticipated. A word of revelation, knowledge or prophecy is usually not pre-planned. Here let us take the thrust of the teaching of verses 29 to 40—that such utterances should be regulated, and that there should always be order during worship. In YFC, we are applying this principle as follows: those who believe they have received a message from God to be given to the people, should speak to the leaders and receive permission to present it publicly.

 

This is not meant to discouraging those who sense God has given them a message to be given to the body. Such persons should be encouraged to share what they have received. This precaution is given to ensure that it is done in an orderly manner. Soon after saying, “Do not quench the Spirit,” Paul says, “Do not despise prophecies” (1 Thess. 5:19-20). The implication is that we can quench the Spirit by despising prophecies. Nevertheless, immediately after that, Paul adds a realistic caution: “but test everything” (5:21a).

 

Preaching. When you preach, remember you are to “preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2). There is no other legitimate way for a preacher to preach. We are not smart enough to produce truths that will help nourish the lives of our people. It is the Word of God that sanctifies people (John 17:17). Our authority to preach comes from God’s call to us. The authority of what we preach depends on how much of it comes from the Word of God.

 

If you preach without basing what you say on the Word of God, that is a lost opportunity. It would have been better if you had not preached, because by giving an example of wrong preaching to the worshippers you have done great harm as a leader. I have heard dynamic preaching; even instances where I agree with almost everything that is said, but it lacks biblical grounding. This kind of dynamic, but biblically weak, preaching can become very popular in a youth movement. The Bible says that sanctification is through the Word (John 17:17). These spectacular messages may have some impressive initial results, but they will be powerless to nurture godly people. Make sure that every major point you make is derived from the Bible.

 

One of the great challenges faced by youth workers is to make the Bible relevant to youth. We must apply what is in the Bible to our situation today. Therefore, YFC people are students of youth and of the world that they live in. We must be aware of the trends in the youth world. We must know the challenges our youth face, and we must be working to help people in their walk with God. This is one reason why we do not permit those who do not have a personal ministry to preach in YFC. When we get to know what the youth go through, we must take pains to ensure that we apply what the Bible teaches to their lives.

 

In order to diligently apply the Word, those who preach must live close to people and to the Bible. They must read the Bible daily and study it diligently. Paul told Timothy: “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained [literally nourished] in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed” (1 Tim. 4:6). Of course, if you are not studying the Word you cannot get away for long in a youth movement. Our youth will sense that you do not have anything fresh to say. They will get bored by your teaching and start to complain. Sadly, sometimes we have our youth complaining that there is no solid substance in the teaching of some senior YFC leaders.

 

 

MAY THE ONLY PRIMARY GOAL OF WORSHIP BRING GREAT HONOUR TO OUR GREAT GOD! We will be able to achieve that do that by leading worship experiences that come from the Bible, and present biblical truths; worship experiences that reflect God’s nature of holy-love, and help our people to respond to God in adoration, praise, joyous love, listening, confession and dedication.

When Leaders Make Mistakes

Ajith Fernando

In my many years as a leader I have made many mistakes, and sometimes others on our staff have suffered because of those. I desperately pray that those mistakes will not have a permanent negative affect on the staff. Our belief in God’s sovereignty tells us that they should not suffer permanently because he can work all things for good in their lives. God is greater than my mistakes and others should not be permanently damaged because of them. But who am I to tell them that? Well, recently I have reflecting on a story that has given me hope and joy.

 

One of our senior staff Subendran was a theological student in India in 1993 when there was a serious problem in our ministry in his hometown, Mannar. He had completed about 80% of his studies at the time, but we asked him to come down to help with the situation. I was not happy with this decision, but I did not veto it. As the leader of YFC I had to take the responsibility for it. We were not able to make arrangements for Subendran to complete his degree, even though we tried several avenues. I believe Subendran is the most theologically oriented member of our staff, so I felt really bad about it.

 

After different attempts at solving this problem, we finally found a way out. The Association for Theological Education by Extension (TAFTEE) in India was willing to give him credit for what he had done 19 years before and to enrol him in their Bachelor of Theological Studies degree programme. He needed to complete seven courses in the TAFTEE programme and this would qualify him for his degree. Theological Education by Extension does not tax the tutor too much as it adopts a programmed approach to education. I agreed to serve as tutor for six of the courses and we found another friend to tutor the seventh course for which I felt I was not qualified. We are now in the middle of my sixth and final course.

 

I did this as part of taking responsibility for a mistake made. But I am finding myself greatly enriched by preparing for and tutoring these classes with Subendran. I have not had the opportunity of “continuing education” after I finished my theological studies in 1976. My continuing education these days is primarily through preparing for messages and studies I give and through reading books to write Forewords and endorsements. While this is helpful, I realised from teaching Subendran that I was going back to Seminary myself. I was learning a lot of new things and also reviewing things I had learned in Seminary so long ago. I am greatly enriched by this. To me one of the most thrilling things in life is discovering facets of truth I had not been previously aware of. So this experience has been thrilling for me. Life becomes bright with joy when God gives us such occasional experiences of thrill.

 

I have learned several lessons from this story. First, when we leaders make mistakes we must do all we can to rectify them and pay the price for that, even though many may think it is not necessary for us to do this. Sometimes leaders have no external or legal compulsion to pay the price of serving their junior staff in this way. But they have a moral and spiritual obligation to do so. A significant aspect of the primary call of Christian leaders is to care for those they lead. Unlike the hired hands who abandon the sheep when they are in trouble, biblical leaders are to be like the Good Shepherd who lays his life down for the sheep (John 10:11-13).

 

I have heard too many horror stories of people who have been mistreated and then abandoned by their leaders. A friend of mine did some research on the relationship between senior pastors in our part of the world and those working under them. He found that often at the time young workers join the staff team the senior pastor is their hero. But soon the leader becomes a villain in their eyes because they feel they have been exploited and hurt by the leader. If churches or organisation grow while our workers remain disgruntled, the leaders must take it as a huge failure on their part. The fault may not be the leaders’; but because key players in the church’s life are hurt the nett effect in terms of fruit for the kingdom has a huge failure segment to it.

 

Second, if costly reparation is the will of God for the leader, it will not be ultimately harmful to the leader. In fact, it will do him a lot of good—which is what I learned from teaching Subendran. We must not hold back doing good things for those we lead because that seems to be too costly for us. For one thing it is wrong for us not to care for our people. But that is not all; doing this will ultimately benefit us greatly and not doing it will harm us for we have not done the will of God.

 

Third, for good to come out all round, the person who suffers from the leader’s mistake should also forgive the leader and move on without resentment. Though I am very close to Subendran, I have never heard a word of anger from him over our decision to pull him out of seminary. In fact, I have been the one who has been pushing him to somehow finish his degree. No leader is greater than God. If we have handed over our lives to God, and if what the Bible tells about God is true, in all things, even in the mistakes of leaders, God works for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28). So we have no reason to be bitter. And we can miss that good if we refuse to forgive and continue harbouring anger in our hearts.

 

How sad it is then to find so many Christians who are angry about bad things that have been done to them! They are living denials of the doctrine of God’s loving sovereignty. They must battle till God heals them of their wounds. Otherwise, not only will their testimony be damaged, they will also end up hurting others. Angry people erupt angrily when their wounds are touched. Even though they may have been the righteous party in the issue that caused their hurt, in their anger they will hurt other people. They become unkind people—bad Christians.

 

I believe that what I have said above applies to people who are working in so-called secular organisations too. Both in church and society, leaders are not greater than God! Don’t let the mistakes of imperfect leaders take away the beautiful plan that the perfect God has for you! And if you are a leader, don’t let the cost of making reparation for error prevent you from doing so; God will do something good to you through that.

 

 

 

The West and Dishonesty Growing With Rejection of Doctrine of God

Excerpted from Ajith Fernando’s forthcoming book: “Deuteronomy: Loving Obedience to a Loving God” in the Preaching the Word series of Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2012.

Having grappled with the question of dishonesty in our land, even among Christians, for a long time, I have concluded that one of the greatest deterrents to dishonesty is the prospect of judgment by the holy, awesome, and almighty God.

This will soon become a serious problem in the west also where for generations the culture (unlike our cultures) was influenced by the prospect that people are accountable to a holy God before whose judgment they must stand. It is based on this that the trust that has formed the core to social life in the west was built. Supermarkets and general human transactions operated based on trust. That millions of dollars are spent on surveillance and other instruments to prevent dishonesty shows that trust is eroding. So does the fact that contracts are getting more and more complex to ensure that there will not be breaking of trust. The idea of a “gentlemen’s agreement” is fast become outdated.

I believe a major reason for the loss of trust is that westerners do not believe anymore that they are under a supreme and holy God to whom they are accountable and who will judge their actions one day. Some have an idea of God as being a benevolent father whose nature they define purely by a warped understanding of love. Some have discarded monotheism, the belief in one God, for pantheism where everything, including ourselves, is God and the divine is more a life force than a person to whom humans are accountable. Some are practical atheists—if there is a God, his existence does not concern us (like the deists of two centuries ago)—or dogmatic atheists who publicly state that there is no God.

I had felt for some time that such trends would result in the west also turning more to the categories of shame and honor rather than guilt before God and forgiveness when determining the key values for choosing right and wrong. Therefore, I was not surprised when I found a recent book which states just this. Alan Mann in Atonement for a Sinless Society: Engaging with an Emerging Culture says that guilt is no longer a significant factor in dealing with sin in the West. He says that shame is and says that we must seek to show how the work of Christ relates to shame. I agree, but I also believe that we must use whatever means we can to bring back into people’s consciousness that they have offended a holy God whom they must face at the judgment. This is one of the biggest challenges facing the church in both the east and the west.

The NT was written from a culture greatly influenced by shame categories and the gospel was preached to a culture to which the idea of substitutionary atonement for sin was alien. The answer of the first Christians was both to interpret the gospel and sin using shame categories and to argue for the reality of atonement and judgment. That must be our strategy too. Paul said of fallen humanity: “Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Rom. 1:32). Deep down there is the sense in people that sin must be punished. But, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, they have built a roof over their heads to shield themselves from the rays of truth that remind them of these things. Our job as evangelists is to take that roof off. That is what Paul did.

Paul often showed in his writings that sin is shameful. And we must develop ways to show our people that dishonesty is a shameful thing. Paul also argued consistently for the idea that the prospect of judgment should determine the way we live (see, for example, 2 Cor. 5:10-11). So must we! We will show people that dishonesty is shameful and that they will have to stand before the judgment seat of a God to whom “all who act dishonesty, are an abomination.”

It is significant that dishonesty is included along with idolatry and sexual immorality as an abomination to God. We must give the same important to our battle against dishonesty as we do to that against idolatry and immorality. That there are Christians who are quite comfortable in churches while they are involved in dishonest business practices is a scandal. They are getting “blessed” by the programs of the churches but are not being challenged to live holy lives.

 

Difficult Days Facing Western Christians

I have just read an article about the growth of the church in China. Amazingly a key factor in this growth was the terrible Communist repression of Christians and the inability of Christians to get help from outside. The sovereign God used this to superintend one of the most amazing spurts of the growth in the history of the church. And now, according to this article, Chinese Christians are having huge dreams about missionary involvement (Brian Stiller, “Unintended Consequences,” https://dispatchesfrombrian.com/2016/10/10/unintended-consequences/).

 

This makes me think of the church in the west. I visited western nations for ministry three times this year. We are seeing a rapid rejection of the Christian values which contributed so much towards making the west great. Laws are being enacted that are inimical to the Christian way of life. Christians fear that there is more of this to come.

Yet the Lord is still in control of history. My prayer is that out of all this loss of “influence” the church will grow deep and learn to live by theological convictions in a hostile world. Facing hostility is normal for Christianity. This theological grounding will help the church to thrive without looking for support to government power which in history has resulted in the church becoming arrogant, corrupt and selfish.

Christian spirituality is cruciform (cross shaped) and its power is unleashed most when we are weak. In this age when people worship power this is one of the most countercultural things about Christianity. Great Christians emerge out of a life of hardship and opposition. Perhaps the depth coming out of the pain would open the door for a genuine revival which is so needed both in the west and the east.

I pray for genuine revival in the west. I pray that, without panicking, Christians would pray for revival, teach the Word faithfully, and engage in deep and penitent pursuit of holiness. These usually serve to create an environment upon which the Spirit moves in revival.

On Waiting in a Long Queue

As things go from bad to worse in Sri Lanka, we need to be looking for ways in which we can preserve the joy of the Lord amidst all the gloom around us, so that our demeanour exhibits the glorious good news of the gospel which we are called to take to our suffering people. The battle for joy was waged this week when I went to an embassy to apply for a visa. I stood in a queue for three hours, most of it outside the building, and then sat for another half hour before I was called for the interview.

 

Now if Romans 8:28 is true, this experience must work for my good. As I thought about this, I found that this was indeed the case.

 

First, God spoke to me and refreshed my spirit through some reading I did while standing in the queue. I read two inspiring sermons of Robert Murray M‘Cheyne from his book A Basket of Fragments (Christian Focus) and an immensely instructive booklet by John Stott, The Grace of Giving (IFES and Langham Partnership International. E-mail for orders: international@ivpbooks.com). If truth is the great treasure that the Bible says it is (See Psa. 19:10), then I was earning a fortune while I was standing in line. One of the greatest blessings of Sri Lankans having to “waste time” in queues and offices is that this gives us time to read and reflect—if we take material to help us do that. There is a practice I try to conscientiously follow: never go to a government office without a bookJ

 

Second, I had an opportunity to slow down and strengthen my “eternity muscles” which help me face the challenges of life. One of the most blatant expressions of worldliness in my life is the fact that I find too much satisfaction from doing things rather than from the truth that “the eternal God is [my] refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deut. 33:27). If I were fully secure in this knowledge I would relish just being in the presence of God and my life would not be characterised by the restlessness and impatience it often manifests. People like me need to often pray the prayer of W. E. Sangster, “Slow me down, Lord.”

If God’s servants are not proactive in slowing down, the merciful God may order circumstances that will bring us to the inaction that helps slow us down and force us to change gears so as to affirm what matters most in life. Without fighting this angrily we must learn to accept it gratefully. A long wait in the queue becomes an opportunity to remind us that we are creatures of eternity along a journey upward to heaven. Christians should always be thinking about heaven because that is where we are headed. Heaven has a huge part to play in determining the values that will influence our lives.

My heart can sing when I pause to remember
A heart ache here is but a stepping stone.
Along a trail that’s winding always upward,
This troubled world is not my final home.

But until then my heart will go on singing,
Until then with joy I’ll carry on,
Until the day my eyes behold the city,
Until the day God calls me home (Stuart Hamblen)

Third, I was able to reflect on the phenomenon of queue breaking, a thing that is all too common in Sri Lanka. I saw several people trying to break the queue, and I even prevented (I think) two people from doing so! I was able to think afresh about why it is important for Christian leaders not to break queues. Our country seems to be sinking into anarchy as no one seems to respect rules. Rules are viewed as an inconvenience which the rich and powerful do not need to subject themselves to. So when those who are not rich and powerful face subjection to rules they are reminded of their own weakness. Naturally they would resent rules. I have seen this even among our staff. Staff workers get angry when organisational changes bring in new rules which seem to clip their wings and force them to stop their earlier privilege of making decisions without much interference by others.

 

How do we remedy this situation? By approaching rules the way the Bible approaches them. Rules are a necessary feature in keeping this world a beautiful place. If the world is to be beautiful, nature must obey certain rules. So we can predict when the sun will rise and set; when summer ends and winter starts and when there will be a full moon. It is the same with human life. If there are no rules to guide our behaviour we have anarchy and all of us will suffer. So when we submit to rules even when it is inconvenient, we do so because we know that it contributes to the beauty of this world. Because we love the world and because we are committed to upholding God’s kingdom principles in society we submit, so that others will not be deprived and so that we will contribute to the general well-being of society.

 

In this context it is very important for leaders to play their part in demonstrating the value of rules. The best way to do that is by submitting to them. When people see those who could exempt themselves from adherence to rules submitting to them they will get the message that there is something good about submitting to rules. They will submit not out of resentment but gladly, to contribute to a making this world a beautiful place to live in. I pray that Christians in Sri Lanka will be known as those who refuse to break rules.

 

Fourth, I believe I did not fall into sin when I was standing in the queue. Falling into sin is the worst thing that could happen to me; much worse than getting sick or losing earthly treasure. I am often subjected to temptation when I am driving on the road because of suggestive billboards or scantily clad women walking on the road, or when I am watching TV or reading the newspapers, or when I am on the internet. Isn’t it strange that we do not get too aggravated when we the media degrades God’s beautiful gift of sex by inviting us to look for pleasure at persons who are not our spouse? We do not get too aggravated when it degrades the sanctity of life by inviting us to enjoy the cheapening of life through violence. But when we are inconvenienced through a queue or while driving in traffic—do we get aggravated! Inconvenience is an infinitesimally smaller problem than temptation. Inconvenience slows us down a bit for a little time. Temptation can cause eternal loss in our lives. Inconvenience then, drives us to remember the truly dangerous things in life and exposes the scandalous way in which we have got our priorities wrong.

 

Essentially, then, the experience of being in the queue was good for me. I am not saying that this is the best way for an embassy to deal with potential visitors to a country. That needs to change. If I have an opportunity and a call I should work to alleviate that wrong thing. But I cannot afford to forfeit eternal good to my life because others do things wrong. I must always be a vessel fit for the Master’s use. And anything that helps me to become that is a blessing. It may look like a trial. But as James says, when we face such trials we can do so with “all joy”—joy that is unalloyed, joy without a cloud of regret—because the good God will use this to have a net affect for good in my life (Jas 1:2-4).

 

And when we follow God, everyday is an opportunity to experience the sufficient grace of Christ; everyday brings with it reasons to be happy.

Through all the changing scenes of life,
In trouble and in joy,
The praises of my God shall still
My heart and tongue employ.

The Third Commandment: Taking God’s Name in Vain

Excerpted from Ajith Fernando’s forthcoming book: “Deuteronomy: Loving Obedience to a Loving God” in the Preaching the Word series of Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2012.

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. Deuteronomy 5:11

 

Note: In the book have described three areas in which we can take God’s name in vain. The first is Dishonouring God in Worship, and that is not reproduced here. The other two are given below.

 

Dishonouring God in CONVERSATION

The first thought that comes to people when they hear this command is about how we can dishonour God through the literal use of the name of God in conversation.

When Taking Vows. If we use God’s name when taking a vow or giving evidence at a court or inquiry and we tell lies, it is very serious. Our legal systems usually consider lying under oath or perjury to be a very serious crime. It threatens the stability of a nation when the legal system is not able to act properly. And perjury buckles the system. Imagine the seriousness when the oath is taken in God’s name! A proclamation has been made that the person is a follower of God and that God is witness and attester of the statements to be made. It is an open defiance of the authority and importance of God. It is a public proclamation that the person has no fear of dishonouring God. Christian must be very careful even when saying things like, “God is my witness.” Sometimes to assure people we are saying the truth we say, “I swear to God.” That is too serious a statement to make in casual conversation.

Our commitment to truthfulness of course is bound up with our belief in the absolute faithfulness of God. He means what he says. With him “there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas. 1:17). Hebrews 6:18 says “…it is impossible for God to lie”; and Paul says, God “never lies” (Tit. 1:2). God means what he says; and so must we. Jesus said that it was unnecessary for us to take oaths. Instead, he said, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’” (Matt. 5:37, NIV). So God’s follower “swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Psa. 15:4). They keep their promises even though they find after making the promise that it will hurt them to keep it.

When Using God’s Name Trivially. Michael Moriarty has given three ways in which God’s name can be misused trivially. He says it is “misused when it’s used as a filler for absent syntax,” such as when people say, “O God.” It is “profaned when irreverently used as a divine exclamation” such as when people say, “Jesus” or “Christ.” It is “debased when used as a curse word (damning something  or someone)” such as when people say, “God damn it.” I hope we cringe when we hear things like this. They are so common that we may simply hear and not feel pain over the dishonour that such statements bring to God.

I think we Christians sometimes dishonour God when we glibly say things like, “Praise the Lord,” without really thinking about what we are saying. Sometimes we have heard of situations where people said, “Praise the Lord” in most inappropriate times; like when someone announces that his mother has got sick!

Empty words while praying also comes under this category. We should not mouth words which are considered appropriate for prayer if we do not mean them. Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play said, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

The Israelites took the idea of profaning God’s name very seriously; so they did not pronounce the name of God—probably spelled “Yahweh”—in conversation. They usually substituted Yahweh with adonay, which is the word for lord. So in most of our modern English Bibles, when Yahweh appears in the Hebrew, we find LORD in capitals. When adonay appears it is renders as Lord with the letters after the first letter in lower case. Perhaps they went too far. But I think we have gone too far too in the other way!

 

Dishonouring God IN BEHAVIOR.

Christians, especially Leaders, can dishonour God through bad behavior. Here are some examples.

  • Sincere Christians often associate the projects and ideas of a Christian leader with God’s will. They participate in a project with the attitude that they are doing it for God. Later people find out that this does not seem to have been God’s will. God’s name is dishonoured because he was associated with a project which was not his will and proved to be a failure or a disaster.
  • Some leaders urge giving to God work and use some of the funds given to support lifestyles way above that of those who sacrificially gave to the work. Some projects are aimed more at enhancing the leader’s reputation than God’s name.
  • Sometimes leaders push people to accept an idea saying it was God’s will even though they were not sure about it. Examples are encouraging one to marry or not to marry a given person, and urging someone to leave his job to join the church because he seems to have gifts which can be of great benefit to the church. Often I qualify the advice I give with something like, “This is what I think; I am not sure whether this is God’s will.” Even Paul did that in 1 Corinthians 7:2 when he said, “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord)….”
  • False prophecy is very common today. Later Moses will speak of severe punishment for prophets whose prophecies are not fulfilled (18:20-22). This happens all the time today and we seem to ignore it. It is a very serious thing to make prophecies as direct messages from God.
  • We all know of wars between nations and conflicts between Christians within the church that are fought in the name of God. Sometimes both sides claim to have God on their side. We should be very careful about bringing God’s name into our battles. It could help rouse support for the cause, but it could really hurt the much more important cause of Christ. This is especially true of political causes. Sometimes sincere Christians are on opposite sides and both claim to be fighting for God’s cause. If we do this indiscriminately, the next generation could reject God because, in the minds of these people, God was sometimes on the wrong side!

 

The Consequences of Misusing God’s Name (5:11b)

Our command ends with a rather strange statement: “…for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Deut. 5:11b). This is a curious use of the double negative. It would have been much smoother to say, “…will hold him guilty.” Perhaps the reason why this double negative expression is given is that people could invoke God’s name very piously and look innocent and godly while they are taking the name of God in vain. People listen to them and think they are guiltless. But they are guilty. This command says that they won’t get away with it; even though they can fool a lot of people into thinking that they are innocent. The doctrine of judgment brings a certain sobriety to our lives. Because we stand liable to judgment for dishonoring God’s name we will be careful of the way we behave.

I once went to the courts because one of our volunteers had been arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist. He was at a bus stop after an early morning YFC prayer meeting, and there was a terrorist suspect at the same bus stop. So he was taken in too. We were trying to get him out on bail, but we failed to do so. He had to spend over two weeks in prison. I felt the lawyer whom we had retained was not presenting our case well, and I wanted to intervene. But I realized I could not tamper with the form of the court procedures. If I did that, I would be guilty of contempt of court—a serious offense under the law. On that occasion, I was reprimanded by a policeman because I walked into an area that was out of bounds to the public. I was impressed by how careful the people there were to follow the proper procedure.

In the same way we, who bear the name of a majestic and holy God on earth, should be careful about profaning his name by our behavior.

 

Sovereignty, Prayer and Perseverance

June 2008

Ajith Fernando

Youth for Christ

I’m going through what could be called a “traumatic experience.” I needed a visa for a country which has no embassy in Sri Lanka. So I send my passport to the embassy in neighbouring India through a courier. Over two weeks after sending it, I called the embassy and was told that they have no trace of the passport. My travel agent found out from the courier company that the passport had been delivered at the embassy and we were even given the name of the person in the embassy who had taken delivery of it.

 

The process that followed was really tough on me. My travel agent called India twice and I called a total of 14 times in the space of a little more than three days. Sometimes I was kept on hold for a long time only to be told that I should call in an hour’s time. And when I called again I was told that the officers were at a meeting, and so I must call an hour later. When I did that I was told to call the next day. It went on and on like this. I was to speak five times at this conference and chances of my going on time were getting less and less. I was feeling more and more nervous and severely humiliated.

 

I know that the visa has been granted, but now I am waiting for my passport to come to Sri Lanka. I think I will be able to go for the conference three days late. I think I will be able to give four of the five messages I was scheduled to give. If I do not go, it would be a personal “blessing” to me—I would have had a whole week without appointments to catch up on the many things I am behind on. Nelun and I would go to our drug rehab centre and spend about three or four days there, grading papers, studying, writing and spending time with the students and staff there. It would be a heavenly break from the busy schedule. Travelling lost its appeal to me many years ago. But I am called to be a preacher of the Word, and I love doing that. I believed that God had called me to go for this conference to minister to some of God’s choice servants working under really trying circumstances. So I decided that I must make every effort to go.

 

If I am an ambassador of the King of kings, and if this King is sovereign over history, why did I have to go through so much struggle, pain, tension and humiliation while performing my royal duties? The Bible says that in all things God works for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28). There had to be a reason for this trial. It says that the trial would be for my good and that I should come out of it more than a conqueror (Rom. 8:37)—better off because of the trial. If I did not believe that and rejoice over this situation, I would become an angry person and would disqualify myself from my call to be a minister of the Word. Angry preachers are poor representatives of the God they commend to the world. They lack a key aspect of the gospel they proclaim: joy. I did not want to be that.

 

So I am grappling with this problem in my mind and I am writing what comes as a result of the theologising. I have concluded that there were two reasons for me to be happy even at this time. The first is that God is using this experience to do something good in my life. And the second is that perseverance against all odds is the way that God often uses to express his sovereignty in the world.

 

 

BEING PURIFIED

 

Often the process used by God to give us his good gifts is more important than the gift itself. If the Bible is true then I needed this trial for my personal good. Even though I am extremely busy with some new responsibilities in YFC God seems to have thought that he needs me to get away from my work to devote myself to this trial—for example, to making fourteen calls to India.

 

My biggest battle in life is not directly tied to my ministry. It is the battle to be more Christlike. And here I have a long, long way to go. For example, if in the course of our work we get tense, humiliated and angry, that does not give us the licence to snap at the people who do not have to blame for this situation. When my wife Nelun came into my room and asked me to explain the situation after a particularly humiliating call to India I got annoyed and snapped at her. Fortunately she is committed to me and loving enough both to express her hurt at my wrong actions and to forgive me when I apologise.

 

I have a long way to go in the battle for patience—which is clearly one of the most important qualities of a genuine Christian, given the number of times it appears in the Epistles. May God use this experience to make me more patient!

 

So I thank God for using this trial to reveal my weakness and hopefully to purify me. Revealing our weaknesses and purifying us can be subsumed under the word “testing” which James says is a key result of facing “trials of various kinds” (Jas. 1:3).

 

FRUSTRATION, PERSEVERANCE AND PRAYER (ROMANS 8:18-39)

My experience is an example of situations God’s children typically go through in this world—situations which call for perseverance and prayer. Let me send this through the grid of Scripture.

  • God said that because of the fall, toil and hardship will become a normal part of life on earth (Gen. 3:17-19). Paul explains how this “curse” works in our lives in Romans 8.  He explains the results of this curse upon humanity by using the term “frustration” (NIV) or “futility” (ESV): “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope” (Rom. 8:20).
  • Because of this frustration groaning is a regular part of life on earth even for the believer (Rom. 8:22-23). Paul said, “…when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn— fighting without and fear within” (2 Cor. 7:5). We should not be surprised then when we feel like Paul did in Macedonia. And this is how I feel as I wait for my passport.
  • Yet creation was subjected to futility “in hope” (8:20) and our groaning is as “in the pains of childbirth” (8:22). We know that out of our pain something good will emerge (8:28). In fact one day the effects of this curse will be completely destroyed and, with the whole creation, we will experience the redemption of our bodies (8:23). Until then we will groan because of the frustration we encounter. This is why hope is so important to us. Paul points out that such hope is part of the basic, initial gospel we responded to when he says, “…in this hope we were saved” (8:24).
  • Because of this hope we respond with patience. Paul says, “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom. 8:25). But Christian patience is not the resignation of a quiet acceptance of our fate. Some say, “This is my karma” Others say, “Insha’llah”—if God wills—without the positive attitude that this is the best thing that could happen. Leon Morris says that the Christian understanding of patience is like “the attitude of the soldier who in the thick of the battle is not dismayed but fights on stoutly whatever the difficulties.”We don’t give up when we face huge problems. We persevere knowing that God will finally give us the victory. In fact not only do we conquer—we “over-conquer” (literal translation): “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (8:37). We are better off because of the battle.
  • Because of these truths about ultimate victory we can go on rejoicing in God throughout the crisis. But there is an even more blessed truth which spurs us joyfully on: the most important thing in our life is not touched by this—in fact it may even be deepened. That is our love relationship with God. So Paul has two powerful statements giving his conviction that nothing can separate him from this love (8:35, 38-39). Paul’s uses the perfect tense in verse 38, “I have been persuaded” (literal translation), suggesting that he is talking about a firm conviction that he has arrived at. This truth has been validated by experience and is now part of Paul’s way of looking at problems.
  • How do we pray at such a time? Well, Paul says that because of the frustration we encounter we do not know how to pray. But the Spirit is there to help us: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought” (8:26a). His help is in the form of interceding for us: “Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (8:26b). As we groan through frustration and through not knowing what the will of God is, the Holy Spirit identifies with us so closely that he himself groans along with us. What comfort this is to us in our times of perplexity!
  • But unlike us the Spirit knows the will of God. So his intercession for us is in keeping with God’s will: “And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (8:27). The Spirit helps us by being a divine editor who takes the prayers coming from our ignorance and edits them so that they conform to the will of God. So if what happens is not what we prayed for, we are not disappointed. It is a positive answer to our prayers which were edited by the Spirit to conform to God’s will. We will persevere in prayer knowing that God will use our prayers to achieve the good he wishes for us.

 

Paul’s vision of going to Rome is very instructive here. He dreamed of this trip for a long time and wrote to the Romans about it and about how he was planning to come so that he can make Rome his base of operations for his next big thrust into unreached areas with the gospel (see Rom 1:8-15; 15:22-33). He appealed for prayer that the doors would be opened for him to make this visit (15:30-32). He did eventually reach Rome, but it was by a way he least expected. He was arrested in Jerusalem and spent a long time in prison awaiting trial. He finally appealed to Caesar, and his journey to Rome was made as a prisoner. It involved an extremely uncomfortable two weeks on a storm-tossed sea. I will never forget about three hours spent on a much calmer sea travelling south from Mannar in Northern Sri Lanka. It was nearly unbearable. Paul had two weeks of worse weather.

 

But he continued serving God while he was a Prisoner. His joyful letter to the Philippians was written from prison. Here he talks about how his sharing the gospel has encouraged other Christians outside to be bold to share their faith (1:14). He even exhorts his readers people, “Rejoice in the Lord always;” and lest they forget he continues, “again I will say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). So struggle with frustration, we pray and ask others to pray and we keep rejoicing.

 

We won’t give up dreaming! But we submit our dreams to God. He may cause us to abandon the plans we had made about how we were going to achieve those dreams. While dumping those plans may cause natural disappointment we will continue dreaming, obeying, rejoicing, praying and persevering knowing that he is working everything for the good. Along the way he delights us by giving us many of our dreams—not in the way we planned but in a much better way! “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).

 

 

SOME PRACTICAL EXAMPLES OF THESE PRINCIPLES

 

Let’s see how the principles described above work in daily life:

  • The most important thing about us is that we are children of God created to know God, enjoy him and glorify him. Our ministry springs from that. We are children first and only then are we servants. Our highest priority is to nurture our relationship with God. So our personal time with God each day is the most important activity of the day. We can neglect that as we struggle with the challenges of ministry. Then even though we may be able to overcome the ministry challenge we will fail in the most important challenge—that of being close to God. We must persevere in seeking God’s face daily however immense our ministerial challenges may be.
  • You’ve had a torrid night being with the family of a dying man. You look forward to a long sleep the next night. But your daughter comes home that night deeply discouraged over something that has happened at school. She needs the encouragement and strength that would come from a long talk with her. Because of your call to be a father you forfeit sleep again, so that you can minister to your daughter.
  • But though you are facing huge challenges which take up much time you must also persevere in meeting your need for rest. After several efforts you will find time to rest and recuperate. This persevering for rest is beautifully expressed in the life Jesus in the events surrounding the feeding of the five thousand. Mark prefaced this narrative with the words, “And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31). He set apart a time for rest because of his very busy schedule. But he couldn’t rest as he had planned because the crowds found him. So he had to have another marathon teaching session. The people were hungry so he fed them. But he did not give up persevering for rest. He did find time to be alone after that by dismissing the crowds and packing off the disciples on a boat ride. Finally he was able to be alone and pray (Mark 6:45-46).
  • We have a dual call to proclaim Jesus as Lord and to be servants of the people we minister among (2 Cor. 4:5). Often if we are to do both these jobs adequately we have to really push ourselves. An emergency situation with a member of the church (whose servant you are) may necessitate your spending five hours with him on Saturday when you are supposed to be preparing your Sunday sermon. To go to church with your message unprepared would be to commit the ecclesiastical crime of dishonouring God by not exhibiting the glory of the Word in your preaching. Because you had to serve this person, you have lost five hours of preparation time. Perhaps you will need to reduce your sleep and persevere into the night that day in order to get a good message prepared. But you dare not go to preach unprepared.
  • While under terrible pressure from all that is happening around us, we must persevere with obedience to the Christian ethic. People are very angry in Sri Lanka these days as the country deteriorates into more and more lawlessness and abuse. Many have given up hope, and their despair is expressing itself in outbursts of anger (e.g. on the road). But we cannot burst out angrily like that for Christian love is always patient (1 Cor. 13:4). We are seeing a lot of impoliteness especially in workplaces. But Christian love is not rude (1 Cor. 13:5). People are rejected and spoken to as terrorist suspects simply because of the race they belong to. But such racial profiling contradicts Christian love which believes all things and hopes all things (1 Cor. 13:7). People are giving up on Sri Lanka and leaving even though millions in this nation desperately need Jesus and Sri Lanka desperately needs people of integrity in public life. Such flight contradicts Christian love which endures all things (1 Cor. 13:7). One of the greatest challenges Christians face in this fast paced, competitive, impatient, results-oriented, appearance-fixated world is being thoroughgoing followers of the Christian ethic all the time.
  • I am both a public preacher and leader of an organisation. An important aspect of my ministry as leader of Youth for Christ is writing letters on behalf of our staff and volunteers. Letters to raise funds for their projects, letters to help them be released from custody when they are taken in on suspicion of being terrorists, letters to help them or their children gain entrance to an educational institution, letters to help them get good jobs. If an urgent request for a letter comes at a time that I am fully occupied with some big challenges in the ministry, shall I refuse the request? Sometimes I may have to ask for a delay. But when we keep ignoring micro needs because of mega problems we lose our soul! Usually I will write the letter. But that calls for perseverance for I cannot neglect the urgent task of dealing with the challenge in the ministry.
  • Even when things seem impossible we will keep praying knowing that all things are possible with God. If what we prayed for takes place we will praise him, and if it doesn’t take place we will still praise him because he will turn even this situation into good.

 

The above examples would have shown that a key to bearing lasting fruit is the ability to persevere without giving up. It is through the perseverance of working under difficult circumstances that books are completed, that sermons that are both biblical and down-to-earth are prepared, that excellent programmes are prepared, that spouses and children are given a happy environment at home, that the resistant are won for Christ, that backsliders are reclaimed, and that vibrant disciples are nurtured.

 

Persevering against all odds is the way all effective ministry is done. My visa episode was just another example of a thing that happens everyday in our lives and ministries in less dramatic ways. After our fourteenth call to the Embassy, I felt so humiliated and angry that I told myself, “Why don’t I just stay back in Sri Lanka and have a good rest at home?” Then I thought I will try just one more time. I called two staff workers and my wife and had one of the staff pray for me. Then I went to the phone for the fifteenth call; and for the first time I was spoken to politely and even told that my visa had been approved!

 

The next day the courier company called the embassy to pay the visa fee and collect the passport. They also got the “call later” treatment. That would have meant they cannot pay for the visa that day. So they wanted me to call the embassy to ask what to do. Again I was reluctant but again I prayed with a colleague and called. This time too I got to speak to an officer who told me to ask the courier company to go and pay the money.

 

They went and paid and were told that they can collect the passport only after the weekend. Again we are stuck! So this time it was the travel agent’s job to persevere and fix new flights. Now here I am on Monday, still uncertain, but praying without losing heart (Luke 18:1).

 

 

A PRESCRIPTION FOR BURNOUT?

 

If we push ourselves like this, won’t we get burned out? I believe burnout is the result of insecurity; not of hard work. Insecurity drives us to succeed, and success becomes more important than our spiritual lives, our families and our colleagues. Soon we drive ourselves to the ground. But if in the midst of frustration we maintain warm and fresh relationships with God, family and colleagues—we can groan and lament with them over our pain. And God will comfort us directly or through others. His comfort brings great joy. We may be tired, but we are happy. We are energised to work on without getting burned out.

 

Besides because obedience to God is primary in our lives, however busy we are, we would be obedient about God’s Sabbath command. The Sabbath gives us physical rest, and it takes away strain from our lives. In addition, by not working on one day we are affirming that God is the one who does the work in our lives and ministry and not us. And that is so liberating! We work with the security that this is God’s work. Disappointments will come, challenges will come—but in the midst of all of that deep down something tells us—God is in control both of our lives and our situations, so it’s going to be alright. We don’t have the resentment, disappointment and the feeling of having been used unfairly by people which is so characteristic of burnout. How can we have such feelings when we know everything is working out for our good?

 

  • God is sovereign.
  • But this fallen world has been subjected to frustration.
  • One of the means God uses to express his sovereignty in this frustrating world is the perseverance of the saints.

 

Let us persevere in prayer and action!

 

 

NOTE: I did not get the passport back on time. I did not go. I hope that the lessons about perseverance, patience and prayer which I learned will make this experience worthwhile. But at the moment by biggest prayer is that God would bless the conference which is going to be without its main speaker.

God’s Sovereignty Amidst Turmoil

Published in Anchored in the Storm: Faith at Work in the Trials of Life, edited by Irene Howat (UK: Crusade for World Revival, 2001).

Ajith Fernando

When Sri Lanka experienced its first of many recent violent uprisings in 1983 the truth that God burned into my heart more than any other was that he is sovereign over history. No other truth has helped me in my life and ministry as much as this as we have experienced waves of violence and unrest in the 17 years since then. The Tamil race comprises about 18% of Sri Lanka’s population. And Tamil militants are waging a war in order to have a portion of the country as an independent Tamil homeland. Over 60,000 people have died in this war since 1983. In the late 80s a militant group from the Sinhala majority attempted to overthrow the government and, while no one knows how many died in this uprising, the figures go up to as high as 60,000. Amidst all this turmoil the church has been growing. But this has prompted a new wave of persecution on the Christians with the burning of churches and attacks on new Christians and the evangelists who introduced them to Christ.

Not every group of Christians has grown during this time. But those who have grown have been characterised by a refusal to give up evangelising and serving the people. Their faithfulness has been buoyed by their conviction that God is sovereign even in the bleak situations they faced. Suri Williams was the Youth for Christ leader in the war-torn North of Sri Lanka for 15 years. When the war was raging fiercely and he and his wife and two little children were in a very dangerous situation in the city of Jaffna, we asked him to return to Colombo in the South, which is where he was originally from. We told him that it was not safe for them there. He refused to return saying that he cannot leave his people at this their time of need. Besides, he said, “The safest place to be is in the centre of God’s will!”

I saw an illustration of how this belief sustains Christians shortly after Suri and his family had returned to Jaffna after a staff retreat in Colombo. They had planned to the take the train on Tuesday but they suddenly changed their minds and took the Monday train. That night, unexpectedly and without warning, the war started fiercely after a few months of peace. No more trains went up North. If they had not changed their plans they would have been able to remain in the security of Colombo without going to a place of great danger. A few days after they had left I met Suri’s mother. I was afraid to face her. Here I was, her son’s leader living in the security of Colombo, while her son and family were in a very dangerous place. Parents have scolded me for much less serious reasons. As she saw me, she said, “Isn’t the Lord wonderful! He knew my son has some important work to do, so he made him leave a day earlier so that he could get there before the roads were closed!” My initial shock and relief over her statement gave way to praise to God for the courage of a brave lady who believed in the sovereignty of God.

This belief is what takes away fear from our lives. Satchi, a YFC staff worker in Colombo went with two volunteers to the East of Sri Lanka for a weekend of ministry. The Indian Army was in the East at that time on a peacekeeping mission, and while our team was there a high ranking Indian officer died in an explosion. This caused the soldiers to go berserk. They shot many to death that day including the person who had organised our meetings. Satchi and the two volunteers were taken in by the Army and assaulted badly. They were warded in a hospital with head injuries and they called us requesting for someone to come by vehicle to bring them home. They could not use public transport with their heads bandaged as the situation was quite volatile and people seeing the injuries might think they are terrorists and harm them in their anger.

At that time we had one vehicle in YFC—a brand new van (we do most of our travel on small motorcycles). Many advised us not to take the van as we had to go through areas where the terrorists were active and they were known to grab this type of vehicle. Some advised us not to send senior staff persons on this journey because if something happened to them YFC would be in serious trouble. But we knew that the senior people could not palm off such a sensitive assignment on the junior ones. During the time of deciding what to do I was so nervous that my stomach felt extremely tight. We prayed and asked many others to pray, and we finally decided that it was God’s will that the two most senior people, Tony Senewiratne and I, should make the trip using our new van. The moment we arrived at that decision, I felt like a huge burden fell off my back. We had discerned that this was God’s will and therefore there was no reason to be anxious and afraid. We had a lovely trip to and from the East.

Of course we learned that fear is a natural response to dangerous situations, and that we should address this fear with our belief in the sovereignty of God and concentrate on obedience. During the revolution in the south the government instituted a commission to inquire into why the youth were rebelling against authority so violently. They asked those involved with youth to make submissions to this commission. I thought this would be a good opportunity for us to express our Christian commitment to justice. I gathered our staff together and asked them to give reasons for youth rebellion. I recorded these observations and sent it to the commission under my name. But it was quite an explosive document, which placed a lot of the blame on the authorities. This was a time when some people who publicly criticised the government had been killed, and so I was very concerned that they might come after me too. For about a week after sending that document, I would get up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat thinking that they had come for me! This was a natural reaction to danger. But by addressing that fear with the belief that God is sovereign we are able to follow the path of obedience.

If God is sovereign and working out his good purposes even amidst difficult situations then the Christian response to such situations is patience. Christian patience includes a positive attitude to trials, which looks for good to come out of difficult situations and acts with this positive perspective in view. When the city of Jaffna was being pummelled by shells the people had lost a positive approach to life and this was seen daily on the streets. Garbage was strewn all over, with no one to pick it up; the yards of the homes were neglected, with weeds growing where flower plants once grew. Suri and Shanthi Williams decided that their home is going to reflect the beauty of Jesus. So they tended their garden with great care and made it into a beautiful place. They cleaned the portions of the road that was beside their home. An Indian army officer once saw them do this, and he got his soldiers to clean the rest of the road!

Once Shanthi’s birthday fell in the middle of a period when a 24-hour curfew was in force for several days. Food was scarce, and things like cake were impossible to make or purchase. Suri somehow wanted to celebrate the birthday. With great difficulty, mainly by walking over people’s gardens and avoiding the roads, he managed to get to a grocery store in which the owners were living even though the shop was closed. All he could get was a box of biscuits. He brought it home and the family had a surprise party for Shanthi with no guests and only a biscuit packet but with a generous dose of the love of Jesus, which made it a beautiful celebration.

This story shows that we can have joy even when things around us are really bad. But there is a joy that is even more basic than this that we can have even when a biscuit packet is not available. This is the joy of the Lord (Phil. 4:4). During the revolution of the late eighties, the situation in the country was getting to be almost unbearable to me. As a youth worker it was terrible for me to see that thousands of young people, some of whom I knew, were dying. There never was a time when there wasn’t a dead body floating along the river that bordered the city of Colombo. Schools were closed for sometimes as long as six months at a time. For a few weeks the militants forcibly stopped public transport, and if we had to keep our office open we had to transport all our workers from their homes and back. There were three of us on staff who could drive, and we took turns to do this three-hour, twice-daily chore. We had just returned from a wonderful seven-month sabbatical in USA when I was able to write two books. I would complain that I am a Bible teacher, not a chauffeur! The terrible suffering of the people was also really getting me down.

Many were leaving the country, especially for the sake of their children. I had received some unsolicited offers for jobs abroad, which seemed to give me the opportunity to concentrate on the things I like most to do. But we believed that God would have us stay on in Sri Lanka however bad the situation got. We had, however, to think of our children’s welfare. We decided that one of the best legacies we can leave our children was a happy home. But my moods were not helping us carry out this resolve. One day when I was in a terrible mood, my wife told the children something so that I could hear (our wives have a way of doing that!), “Father is in a bad mood, let’s hope he goes and reads his Bible.” She had stumbled upon a great theological truth. When we are surrounded by terrible temporal circumstances and everything around us looks bleak, we need to fix our eyes on the unchanging truths in God’s Word. These tell of a world that will not change, of a God who is sovereign and who will ultimately conquer evil. This God loves us and is with us, to comfort us and help us amidst the confusion all around and to turn even the terrible situation into something good! The security of this eternal, unchanging world of God’s programme brings the joy of the Lord back to our hearts. I have learned to linger in God’s presence in prayer or with the word or with my hymnbook and not to give up doing so until the joy of the Lord returns. Through this means theology addresses experience and challenges its mood of despair; the mind addresses the heart until truth penetrates the heart yielding the joy of the Lord.

We have indeed experienced a lot of pain because of the turmoil in the land, however I think that even greater pain comes when there is turmoil within the body of Christ. I experienced this a few years ago when our ministry faced a huge crisis. There was a major division of opinion about the way that we were going to resolve a serious situation that had arisen in the work. I had always worked on resolving crises using the strength of the unity of our leadership team as a basis for action. Now even the leadership team was divided. The leaders in YFC know my weaknesses and usually try to compensate for them often even laughing about them. But as often happens in a time of crisis, people were now blaming the crisis on my weaknesses. People I loved dearly were very angry and disappointed with me.

I thank God that, though the leadership team was dysfunctional at this time, I still had colleagues and Board members with whom I could share and pray. However I felt that at this time I was leading YFC more through personal prayer than through any other thing. I learned the need to spend long hours, sometimes whole nights, seeking God’s face. Out of this period of pain came one of the most important principles of ministry that I have ever learned: in a time of crisis, we must first meet with God and only after that meet with hostile people. Our ministry springs from the security and joy of God’s acceptance and anointing rather than as a reaction to people’s rejection. If we react in the flesh when faced by hostile people we will aggravate the situation. Leaders need to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” if they are going to be agents of healing in situations of conflict (Eph. 6:10).

Another comforting truth that has helped us is that God never permits us to be tested beyond what we can bear (1 Cor. 10:13), and that with every problem comes sufficient grace to tide through it (2 Cor. 12:9). If fact God often sends us his comfort in some wonderful ways which gives us the assurance that he has taken a personal interest in our situation (see, for example, Acts 18:9-10; 23:11; 27:23-24). Many of us will testify to the amazing way in which our Bible reading for the day clearly spoke to the situation that we were facing at that time. This made us realise that God, in his miraculous providence, arranged for us to read that passage that day.

But there are also other ways in which God comforts us. When the bombing got very bad in Jaffna, Suri and Shanthi Williams went with their two children to a school that had been converted into a refugee camp. Suri would lead devotions each day with those staying with them in their room. One day when he gave an opportunity for prayer requests, Shanthi asked for prayer for an egg to give her little boy. Suri was a little embarrassed because food was scarce and an egg would almost be a luxury. But the request was made in public and it had to be prayed for. The next day there was a severe round of bombing and a shell fell on the home of a Christian lawyer next to the refugee camp. The poultry run they had was destroyed totally, and the only thing that remained was a solitary egg. The lawyer’s wife remembered that there was this Christian worker with a little boy in the camp next door. She decided to give the egg to Shanthi who was thrilled by the specific way in which God answered prayer. Shanthi says that such acts of God’s comfort were a great boost to her and helped her in her resolve to stay on in Jaffna despite the troubles.

Many of the truths presented above are illustrated in the events surrounding the arrest in 1998 of YFC staff worker Jeyaraj who was at that time a volunteer in our ministry. Jeyaraj’s identity card states his place of birth, which happens to be a place from which many militants hail. So he is often arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist. On one of his seven previous arrests he was tortured so badly that he had to be operated for injuries to his stomach. As soon as I heard of his arrest I went to the Police station around midnight along with a Christian lawyer, armed with a letter guaranteeing that I know he is not a terrorist. The arresting officer chased us out of the station. Jeyaraj was subjected to torture in the Police station and then sent to the remand prison. There he was in a state of deep discouragement. It is emotionally very painful when Christians are arrested for being terrorists when, at great cost to themselves, they refuse to condone the use violence as a means of struggling for rights.

After a few days in the remand prison, Jeyaraj was transferred to a special prison for those condemned or suspected of being terrorists. There he met another Christian and his spirits picked up. The two of them started a Bible study in the prison and this became so popular that they soon had to divide it into two studies. Then they began a Sunday service, which attracted about 55 people each Sunday. In order to bring some brightness to the lives of his fellow inmates, Jeyaraj also organised sports, drama and music programmes and general knowledge quiz competitions in the prison. Realising that some of the young people there could sit for the public exams he also helped foster some educational programmes in the prison. The inmates spoke Tamil, but the prison personnel did not speak this language. So he began to act as an interpreter and then a mediator when there were conflicts between prisoners and the authorities. Some of the hierarchy of the militant organisation were not very happy with some of the things that Jeyaraj did, and this meant he was taking a big risk in being obedient to God’s call in the prison.

I will never forget taking a group of YFC staff and volunteers to the prison on Christmas day 1998. We provided a good Christmas meal for all the 800 people there and also conducted a Christmas service. Tears flowed freely as brothers in Christ from outside and inside the prison had fellowship with each other. Several inmates told us that they were thankful to God that they came to this prison because in the prison they met God. I met the young man who had carried out a bombing of a military building next to my son’s school. I had heard the sound of the bomb, and when I made inquiries I was told that it had gone off at my son’s school. It was probably the scariest day of my life. I rushed on my motor cycle to as close to the scene as I could get to. Then I ran to the school through private properties jumping over walls as the roads were closed. Fortunately my son had only a slight cut on his face. Now I stood in front of the man who had planned the bomb. I was told that he was close to committing his life to Christ. When I heard who he was there wasn’t even a tinge of animosity towards him. Such feelings were buried amidst the thrill of knowing that God had been working so powerfully among these people.

Though there were no specific charges that could be made against Jeyaraj, the case was postponed so often that he stayed in prison for 15 months before he was finally released. We would often send word far and wide the day before the case came up in the courts asking for prayers for his release. But after seeing everything that God was doing in prison through him, we began to add, “…if it is your will,” when praying for his release. Shortly before his release a pastor came in to the prison, also as a terrorist suspect, and he has been able to continue the good work. Before he was released the head of the prison told Jeyaraj that he could come back to continue his ministry. On his release Jeyaraj joined our full-time staff, and he now visits the prison often and also ministers to the families of the prisoners and to those who have been released from prison.

So our belief in the sovereignty of God not only brings comfort and strength to us amidst turmoil, it also enables us to keep serving and being part of God’s action to turn even the greatest tragedy into something good.

Sovereignty, Prayer and Perseverance

June 2008

Ajith Fernando

Youth for Christ

 

I’m going through what could be called a “traumatic experience.” I needed a visa for a country which has no embassy in Sri Lanka. So I send my passport to the embassy in neighbouring India through a courier. Over two weeks after sending it, I called the embassy and was told that they have no trace of the passport. My travel agent found out from the courier company that the passport had been delivered at the embassy and we were even given the name of the person in the embassy who had taken delivery of it.

 

The process that followed was really tough on me. My travel agent called India twice and I called a total of 14 times in the space of a little more than three days. Sometimes I was kept on hold for a long time only to be told that I should call in an hour’s time. And when I called again I was told that the officers were at a meeting, and so I must call an hour later. When I did that I was told to call the next day. It went on and on like this. I was to speak five times at this conference and chances of my going on time were getting less and less. I was feeling more and more nervous and severely humiliated.

 

I know that the visa has been granted, but now I am waiting for my passport to come to Sri Lanka. I think I will be able to go for the conference three days late. I think I will be able to give four of the five messages I was scheduled to give. If I do not go, it would be a personal “blessing” to me—I would have had a whole week without appointments to catch up on the many things I am behind on. Nelun and I would go to our drug rehab centre and spend about three or four days there, grading papers, studying, writing and spending time with the students and staff there. It would be a heavenly break from the busy schedule. Travelling lost its appeal to me many years ago. But I am called to be a preacher of the Word, and I love doing that. I believed that God had called me to go for this conference to minister to some of God’s choice servants working under really trying circumstances. So I decided that I must make every effort to go.

 

If I am an ambassador of the King of kings, and if this King is sovereign over history, why did I have to go through so much struggle, pain, tension and humiliation while performing my royal duties? The Bible says that in all things God works for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28). There had to be a reason for this trial. It says that the trial would be for my good and that I should come out of it more than a conqueror (Rom. 8:37)—better off because of the trial. If I did not believe that and rejoice over this situation, I would become an angry person and would disqualify myself from my call to be a minister of the Word. Angry preachers are poor representatives of the God they commend to the world. They lack a key aspect of the gospel they proclaim: joy. I did not want to be that.

 

So I am grappling with this problem in my mind and I am writing what comes as a result of the theologising. I have concluded that there were two reasons for me to be happy even at this time. The first is that God is using this experience to do something good in my life. And the second is that perseverance against all odds is the way that God often uses to express his sovereignty in the world.

 

 

BEING PURIFIED

 

Often the process used by God to give us his good gifts is more important than the gift itself. If the Bible is true then I needed this trial for my personal good. Even though I am extremely busy with some new responsibilities in YFC God seems to have thought that he needs me to get away from my work to devote myself to this trial—for example, to making fourteen calls to India.

 

My biggest battle in life is not directly tied to my ministry. It is the battle to be more Christlike. And here I have a long, long way to go. For example, if in the course of our work we get tense, humiliated and angry, that does not give us the licence to snap at the people who do not have to blame for this situation. When my wife Nelun came into my room and asked me to explain the situation after a particularly humiliating call to India I got annoyed and snapped at her. Fortunately she is committed to me and loving enough both to express her hurt at my wrong actions and to forgive me when I apologise.

 

I have a long way to go in the battle for patience—which is clearly one of the most important qualities of a genuine Christian, given the number of times it appears in the Epistles. May God use this experience to make me more patient!

 

So I thank God for using this trial to reveal my weakness and hopefully to purify me. Revealing our weaknesses and purifying us can be subsumed under the word “testing” which James says is a key result of facing “trials of various kinds” (Jas. 1:3).

 

FRUSTRATION, PERSEVERANCE AND PRAYER (ROMANS 8:18-39)

My experience is an example of situations God’s children typically go through in this world—situations which call for perseverance and prayer. Let me send this through the grid of Scripture.

  • God said that because of the fall, toil and hardship will become a normal part of life on earth (Gen. 3:17-19). Paul explains how this “curse” works in our lives in Romans 8.  He explains the results of this curse upon humanity by using the term “frustration” (NIV) or “futility” (ESV): “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope” (Rom. 8:20).
  • Because of this frustration groaning is a regular part of life on earth even for the believer (Rom. 8:22-23). Paul said, “…when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn— fighting without and fear within” (2 Cor. 7:5). We should not be surprised then when we feel like Paul did in Macedonia. And this is how I feel as I wait for my passport.
  • Yet creation was subjected to futility “in hope” (8:20) and our groaning is as “in the pains of childbirth” (8:22). We know that out of our pain something good will emerge (8:28). In fact one day the effects of this curse will be completely destroyed and, with the whole creation, we will experience the redemption of our bodies (8:23). Until then we will groan because of the frustration we encounter. This is why hope is so important to us. Paul points out that such hope is part of the basic, initial gospel we responded to when he says, “…in this hope we were saved” (8:24).
  • Because of this hope we respond with patience. Paul says, “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom. 8:25). But Christian patience is not the resignation of a quiet acceptance of our fate. Some say, “This is my karma” Others say, “Insha’llah”—if God wills—without the positive attitude that this is the best thing that could happen. Leon Morris says that the Christian understanding of patience is like “the attitude of the soldier who in the thick of the battle is not dismayed but fights on stoutly whatever the difficulties.”We don’t give up when we face huge problems. We persevere knowing that God will finally give us the victory. In fact not only do we conquer—we “over-conquer” (literal translation): “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (8:37). We are better off because of the battle.
  • Because of these truths about ultimate victory we can go on rejoicing in God throughout the crisis. But there is an even more blessed truth which spurs us joyfully on: the most important thing in our life is not touched by this—in fact it may even be deepened. That is our love relationship with God. So Paul has two powerful statements giving his conviction that nothing can separate him from this love (8:35, 38-39). Paul’s uses the perfect tense in verse 38, “I have been persuaded” (literal translation), suggesting that he is talking about a firm conviction that he has arrived at. This truth has been validated by experience and is now part of Paul’s way of looking at problems.
  • How do we pray at such a time? Well, Paul says that because of the frustration we encounter we do not know how to pray. But the Spirit is there to help us: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought” (8:26a). His help is in the form of interceding for us: “Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (8:26b). As we groan through frustration and through not knowing what the will of God is, the Holy Spirit identifies with us so closely that he himself groans along with us. What comfort this is to us in our times of perplexity!
  • But unlike us the Spirit knows the will of God. So his intercession for us is in keeping with God’s will: “And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (8:27). The Spirit helps us by being a divine editor who takes the prayers coming from our ignorance and edits them so that they conform to the will of God. So if what happens is not what we prayed for, we are not disappointed. It is a positive answer to our prayers which were edited by the Spirit to conform to God’s will. We will persevere in prayer knowing that God will use our prayers to achieve the good he wishes for us.

 

Paul’s vision of going to Rome is very instructive here. He dreamed of this trip for a long time and wrote to the Romans about it and about how he was planning to come so that he can make Rome his base of operations for his next big thrust into unreached areas with the gospel (see Rom 1:8-15; 15:22-33). He appealed for prayer that the doors would be opened for him to make this visit (15:30-32). He did eventually reach Rome, but it was by a way he least expected. He was arrested in Jerusalem and spent a long time in prison awaiting trial. He finally appealed to Caesar, and his journey to Rome was made as a prisoner. It involved an extremely uncomfortable two weeks on a storm-tossed sea. I will never forget about three hours spent on a much calmer sea travelling south from Mannar in Northern Sri Lanka. It was nearly unbearable. Paul had two weeks of worse weather.

 

But he continued serving God while he was a Prisoner. His joyful letter to the Philippians was written from prison. Here he talks about how his sharing the gospel has encouraged other Christians outside to be bold to share their faith (1:14). He even exhorts his readers people, “Rejoice in the Lord always;” and lest they forget he continues, “again I will say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). So struggle with frustration, we pray and ask others to pray and we keep rejoicing.

 

We won’t give up dreaming! But we submit our dreams to God. He may cause us to abandon the plans we had made about how we were going to achieve those dreams. While dumping those plans may cause natural disappointment we will continue dreaming, obeying, rejoicing, praying and persevering knowing that he is working everything for the good. Along the way he delights us by giving us many of our dreams—not in the way we planned but in a much better way! “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).

 

 

SOME PRACTICAL EXAMPLES OF THESE PRINCIPLES

 

Let’s see how the principles described above work in daily life:

  • The most important thing about us is that we are children of God created to know God, enjoy him and glorify him. Our ministry springs from that. We are children first and only then are we servants. Our highest priority is to nurture our relationship with God. So our personal time with God each day is the most important activity of the day. We can neglect that as we struggle with the challenges of ministry. Then even though we may be able to overcome the ministry challenge we will fail in the most important challenge—that of being close to God. We must persevere in seeking God’s face daily however immense our ministerial challenges may be.
  • You’ve had a torrid night being with the family of a dying man. You look forward to a long sleep the next night. But your daughter comes home that night deeply discouraged over something that has happened at school. She needs the encouragement and strength that would come from a long talk with her. Because of your call to be a father you forfeit sleep again, so that you can minister to your daughter.
  • But though you are facing huge challenges which take up much time you must also persevere in meeting your need for rest. After several efforts you will find time to rest and recuperate. This persevering for rest is beautifully expressed in the life Jesus in the events surrounding the feeding of the five thousand. Mark prefaced this narrative with the words, “And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31). He set apart a time for rest because of his very busy schedule. But he couldn’t rest as he had planned because the crowds found him. So he had to have another marathon teaching session. The people were hungry so he fed them. But he did not give up persevering for rest. He did find time to be alone after that by dismissing the crowds and packing off the disciples on a boat ride. Finally he was able to be alone and pray (Mark 6:45-46).
  • We have a dual call to proclaim Jesus as Lord and to be servants of the people we minister among (2 Cor. 4:5). Often if we are to do both these jobs adequately we have to really push ourselves. An emergency situation with a member of the church (whose servant you are) may necessitate your spending five hours with him on Saturday when you are supposed to be preparing your Sunday sermon. To go to church with your message unprepared would be to commit the ecclesiastical crime of dishonouring God by not exhibiting the glory of the Word in your preaching. Because you had to serve this person, you have lost five hours of preparation time. Perhaps you will need to reduce your sleep and persevere into the night that day in order to get a good message prepared. But you dare not go to preach unprepared.
  • While under terrible pressure from all that is happening around us, we must persevere with obedience to the Christian ethic. People are very angry in Sri Lanka these days as the country deteriorates into more and more lawlessness and abuse. Many have given up hope, and their despair is expressing itself in outbursts of anger (e.g. on the road). But we cannot burst out angrily like that for Christian love is always patient (1 Cor. 13:4). We are seeing a lot of impoliteness especially in workplaces. But Christian love is not rude (1 Cor. 13:5). People are rejected and spoken to as terrorist suspects simply because of the race they belong to. But such racial profiling contradicts Christian love which believes all things and hopes all things (1 Cor. 13:7). People are giving up on Sri Lanka and leaving even though millions in this nation desperately need Jesus and Sri Lanka desperately needs people of integrity in public life. Such flight contradicts Christian love which endures all things (1 Cor. 13:7). One of the greatest challenges Christians face in this fast paced, competitive, impatient, results-oriented, appearance-fixated world is being thoroughgoing followers of the Christian ethic all the time.
  • I am both a public preacher and leader of an organisation. An important aspect of my ministry as leader of Youth for Christ is writing letters on behalf of our staff and volunteers. Letters to raise funds for their projects, letters to help them be released from custody when they are taken in on suspicion of being terrorists, letters to help them or their children gain entrance to an educational institution, letters to help them get good jobs. If an urgent request for a letter comes at a time that I am fully occupied with some big challenges in the ministry, shall I refuse the request? Sometimes I may have to ask for a delay. But when we keep ignoring micro needs because of mega problems we lose our soul! Usually I will write the letter. But that calls for perseverance for I cannot neglect the urgent task of dealing with the challenge in the ministry.
  • Even when things seem impossible we will keep praying knowing that all things are possible with God. If what we prayed for takes place we will praise him, and if it doesn’t take place we will still praise him because he will turn even this situation into good.

 

The above examples would have shown that a key to bearing lasting fruit is the ability to persevere without giving up. It is through the perseverance of working under difficult circumstances that books are completed, that sermons that are both biblical and down-to-earth are prepared, that excellent programmes are prepared, that spouses and children are given a happy environment at home, that the resistant are won for Christ, that backsliders are reclaimed, and that vibrant disciples are nurtured.

 

Persevering against all odds is the way all effective ministry is done. My visa episode was just another example of a thing that happens everyday in our lives and ministries in less dramatic ways. After our fourteenth call to the Embassy, I felt so humiliated and angry that I told myself, “Why don’t I just stay back in Sri Lanka and have a good rest at home?” Then I thought I will try just one more time. I called two staff workers and my wife and had one of the staff pray for me. Then I went to the phone for the fifteenth call; and for the first time I was spoken to politely and even told that my visa had been approved!

 

The next day the courier company called the embassy to pay the visa fee and collect the passport. They also got the “call later” treatment. That would have meant they cannot pay for the visa that day. So they wanted me to call the embassy to ask what to do. Again I was reluctant but again I prayed with a colleague and called. This time too I got to speak to an officer who told me to ask the courier company to go and pay the money.

 

They went and paid and were told that they can collect the passport only after the weekend. Again we are stuck! So this time it was the travel agent’s job to persevere and fix new flights. Now here I am on Monday, still uncertain, but praying without losing heart (Luke 18:1).

 

 

A PRESCRIPTION FOR BURNOUT?

 

If we push ourselves like this, won’t we get burned out? I believe burnout is the result of insecurity; not of hard work. Insecurity drives us to succeed, and success becomes more important than our spiritual lives, our families and our colleagues. Soon we drive ourselves to the ground. But if in the midst of frustration we maintain warm and fresh relationships with God, family and colleagues—we can groan and lament with them over our pain. And God will comfort us directly or through others. His comfort brings great joy. We may be tired, but we are happy. We are energised to work on without getting burned out.

 

Besides because obedience to God is primary in our lives, however busy we are, we would be obedient about God’s Sabbath command. The Sabbath gives us physical rest, and it takes away strain from our lives. In addition, by not working on one day we are affirming that God is the one who does the work in our lives and ministry and not us. And that is so liberating! We work with the security that this is God’s work. Disappointments will come, challenges will come—but in the midst of all of that deep down something tells us—God is in control both of our lives and our situations, so it’s going to be alright. We don’t have the resentment, disappointment and the feeling of having been used unfairly by people which is so characteristic of burnout. How can we have such feelings when we know everything is working out for our good?

 

  • God is sovereign.
  • But this fallen world has been subjected to frustration.
  • One of the means God uses to express his sovereignty in this frustrating world is the perseverance of the saints.

 

Let us persevere in prayer and action!

 

 

NOTE: I did not get the passport back on time. I did not go. I hope that the lessons about perseverance, patience and prayer which I learned will make this experience worthwhile. But at the moment by biggest prayer is that God would bless the conference which is going to be without its main speaker.

Seeking God in Crisis Times

October 2011

Ajith Fernando

Disciplines we develop during the normal times help us handle the challenges we face in times of special need. I found this to be true since finding out that my wife had breast cancer.

 

Psalm 27 talks about how David faced a huge crisis. We could summarise his reaction by saying that at this time what he did most was to seek God’s face: “You have said, ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to you, ‘Your face, LORD, do I seek.’” (27:8). To seek God in this way is to wait with him and for him until he assures and calms our troubled souls. I found myself using six disciplines developed in the past to help me during this family crisis of ours. They can all be included under this idea of seeking God.

 

  1. I got the news that Nelun was having cancer while in Northern Ireland about 20 minutes before going to preach. I went to preach knowing that the sovereign God who called me will help me to do what he called me to do. I was staying in a home near the sea. So that evening I went to the sea with my Bible and had a long walk with God, something I do at home when I am troubled. I meditated on Psalm 46; the Psalm I often read when I visit the sick. This act of meditating on the Word and praying alone with Godin beautiful natural surroundings was like what David wanted to do in Psalm 27:4: “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.”

 

  1. I had to wait four days before starting my journey home. Going to sleep at night on those days was an ordeal. I wanted to be near Nelun. I wanted to cry, and I did cry out to Godon that lonely bed, just like David did in Psalm 27:7: “Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud; be gracious to me and answer me!”Children sometimes cry themselves to sleep. How wonderful to fall asleep crying to God. I must also say that it was a wonderful providence to be staying with some loving Christians rather than in a dreary hotel! I felt uplifted by their love and prayers.

 

  1. I cancelled several preaching appointments, but did go to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the USA eighteen days after Nelun’s operation. On my first morning there I was in turmoil asking, what am I doing here? Seeking God’s consolation I took my Methodist Hymn Book, turned to the section on “Service and Influence,” and sang hymns that reminded me of my call. When our emotions tell a very different story to the realities that undergird our lives God often uses the words of others set to music (the language of the heart) to speak to our situation. As we sing, gradually the doctrine in the mind travels to the heart. In a similar vein David in our Psalm resorted to a creed to give him courage, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (27:1). Unchanging truths speak to changing circumstances!

 

 

  1. While I was at Trinity Nelun went for her first round of chemotherapy. It was a key event in the life of our family, and I was not home! What could I do? After praying with Nelun on the phone I went for a prayer meeting that a person at Trinity had organised to pray for another Sri Lankan there and me. Providentially at the same time that Nelun was setting out for chemo with my daughter I was with God’s people praying for her.God does not intend for us to bear our burdens alone (Gal. 6:2). What better way is there to share our load than praying with God’s children?

 

  1. After a week at Trinity I went for the Youth for Christ International General Assembly. One night I talked to Nelun on the phone just before going to sleep. That day she had her worst reaction to the chemotherapy. Her voice was weaker than I have ever known before. How could I go to sleep? Almost two decades ago, I had the most serious crisis I faced in my ministry. The leadership was divided. In times of disagreement the leaders had always worked by hammering out issues until there was a resolution. Now we were unable to do that. How could I lead? I realised that the only way I could lead was through prayer. During those days of crisis, I got into the habit of sitting in the presence of God into the night waiting for him to calm my troubled soul. Often I did not say anything but I wasconscious of the fact that I was a helpless child under the wings of my Refuge and Strength. This is what I did that night. Unable to talk to God, I lingered with God into the night until I could go to bed experiencing his peace. David said, “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” (Psa. 27:14)

 

  1. I came home deeply grateful to God for his faithfulness to me, but also conscious of my unfaithfulness to him. He was adequate for my need, but I did not always act in ways that demonstrated his adequacy. This brought me to the sixth way of seeking God: seeking his forgiveness and his strength to live a holy life. After pleading for his forgiveness I prayed a prayer similar to David’s in Psalm 27:11: “Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path….” Again my feelings were best expressed in a hymn. This one was by William Walsham How, titled “It is a Thing Most Wonderful,” and has been a favourite from childhood days.

It is most wonderful to know

His love for me so free and sure;

But ’tis more wonderful to see

My love for him so faint and poor.

 

And yet I want to love Thee, Lord;

O light the flame within my heart,

And I will love Thee more and more,

Until I see Thee as Thou art.

 

Let me urge you to develop your disciplines for seeking God. They will serve you well when you encounter crises and trials.