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: firstname.lastname@example.org). 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.