Christ is risen! But where’s the Hallelujah?

We’ve just had our Easter celebrations and I found myself needing to be renewed, so as to give thanks with a full heart.

We can get distracted, self-sufficient or inward—looking at things that are seen and felt rather than things that are unseen and eternal.

So, here’s my answer to myself—what the Psalms would call ‘lifting up our hearts’, or what the apostles would call ‘setting our minds on things above’. This is not a study. It’s just telling the truth to myself—and to us all.

The first disciples are glad when they see their Lord Jesus alive again.[i]

I should say so! Their whole life has revolved around him for three years. They have hoped for eternal life through him. They have expected the restoration of God’s reign on earth. None of this will happen without his presence, or with the way they have behaved through this crisis! But now, he’s with them!

And he’s still here. He said, ‘I will be with you always.’[ii] Our Leader and Saviour is not a memory. He’s a presence.

So, speaking personally, here’s what it means that Jesus has been raised from the dead. He comes to me with all that he has achieved as God’s Son and my Saviour.

First, the resurrection of Jesus means I’m justified in God’s eyes[iii]. He sees that I’ve turned away from self-trust, and he’s happy to count me in on what happened to Jesus.

Here’s how this works out. Jesus pleases God—totally—especially in being the willing offering for our sins. So, God vindicates or justifies him[iv]. That’s what I’m sharing in. The Father has reason to be pleased with his Son. But because the Son carries me with him in his love—through death and into resurrection, he is also pleased with me—a grateful recipient of what he has done.  I’m accepted—in the Beloved Son[v].                       

Like Peter, I’m aware of failures. But then, because of Christ’s resurrection, I’ve also been born again to a living hope. Christ’s alive, and so am I—alive to God and alive with a hope of transformation[vi]. Christ says to us all, ‘Peace be with you’[vii]. And like Thomas, I say, ‘My Lord and my God!’

So, I’m ‘all ears’ when it comes to the resurrection!       

Second, Christ’s resurrection means I’ll also rise from the dead[viii].

The Father always planned that the resurrection of Jesus would be the first one of many[ix]. We are the rest of the fruit that will make Father and Son deeply satisfied.

This wouldn’t be important if I’m living as though I’ve got forever. But I’m ‘numbering my days’. It’s wiser to do that[x].

So, there’s no shame in my death. No victory for the accuser. And it won’t be a terminus. I’ve been given eternal life and will be raised up again[xi]—with a better body and a better location. In fact, my present flesh is not good enough to inherit what God has prepared[xii].

Knowing I’ll be raised from the dead is not just a consolation. It’s a victory. I’ll see the Lord! And there won’t be a reason to cry ever again. The whole creation will be what it was created to be—and I’ll be part of it. And then, even while I’m getting weaker, God sees to it that I’m being inwardly renewed[xiii]—getting ready for the big day. 

I’m already living this eternal life[xiv]. So, right now, I can do things that will last forever[xv]. Life is full of purpose.

The difficulties along the way are lessened by knowing this. Jesus tells me to only deal with what must be done today[xvi]. And this leaves head space for the coming victory to shed its light back over my troubles—for God to fill my days with joy and peace in believing[xvii]. God is always doing something—for my good and for his glory[xviii].

Third, I have a narrative to live in that’s full of hope instead of pessimism.

Running and approving my own life, as Adam tried to do—is never workable. Rather, I’m free to live as God intended—receiving his gifts, his blessing and approval. And then, I will eat from the tree of life and live forever.

This world will never be a Garden of Eden. And my attempts to make the world perfect will never succeed. But Jesus has bruised Satan’s head. And the victory of Jesus, not the failure of Adam, dominates the narrative. He’s in charge.

Many around me drown their loss of immortality with ambition, self-indulgence, fun or bluster. But eating, drinking and being merry is what you do when you’re just expecting to die. Better by far to live in God’s story.

And so, I say, ‘Christ is risen. Hallelujah!’

[i] John 20:20

[ii] Matt. 28:20

[iii] Rom. 4:25

[iv] 1 Tim. 3:16; cf. Rom. 1:4

[v] Eph. 1:6

[vi] 1 Pet. 1:3

[vii] John 20:19, 21, 26

[viii] 1 Cor. 15:19-20

[ix] 1 Cor. 15:20-24

[x] Psa. 90:12

[xi] John 6:54

[xii] 1 Cor. 15:50

[xiii] 2 Cor. 4:16

[xiv] John 17:3

[xv] 1 Cor. 3:12-13

[xvi] Matt. 6:34

[xvii] Rom. 15:13

[xviii] Rom. 8:28, 37

Empty people finding fullness

Jesus begins his ministry by announcing that ‘the Kingdom of God is at hand’. He has come to implement all God has in mind for the world.

His kingdom will be an arena, not just for fixing problems and managing our messiness, but for creating lovers of God who are devoted to his project.

So, Jesus explains what people in this kingdom look like—very much like himself of course—because he is not just the King but the prototype of what a subject is.

This, of course, amounts to a declaration of war. People who don’t already love God will not be interested in his way of life. Even the birth of Jesus is seriously contested. The local man in charge kills hundreds of children in an attempt to head-off any competition for control.

Things haven’t changed much. In many countries, including our own, Jesus is downplayed and his people maligned as harmful. If God is for real, and if Jesus has come to reveal him, the world recognises a rival, meaning that those who believe in him should be cancelled.

We need to know who God congratulates for getting things right. Jesus teaches us a number of ‘beatitudes’ (Matthew 5:2-10). But the word usually translated ‘blessed’ actually means to be congratulated or happy.

First, the people who have chosen well and have a good future are those who are ‘poor in spirit’.

Jesus is not saying it’s good to be depressed. Rather, he commends the person who knows that everything they really need and value in their life is going to have to come from someone else. That’s how poor they are. They feel this deeply—they are poor in spirit

There’s a story in the Old Testament about the Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon. She sees his wealth. She hears his wisdom. And we are told that there is ‘no more spirit in her’ (1 Kings 10:5). Alongside of him, her wealth and wisdom are nothing.

Jesus does this to all of us. For a while, we think we can run our lives, change some things around us, keep ourselves happy and anticipate a good life. This soon runs thin.

Then, we see Jesus. He is not living for himself but for his Father—God. He doesn’t restlessly accuse us. He understands that our bluster is shallow and that we are really empty. And, he gives himself to us, and we know this. We begin to see that he’s the rich one and we are those in need.

Jesus demonstrates how to live in a world God looks after. He heals many who are sick. He delivers some who have fallen into the hands of evil spirits. He knows what he’s doing. Even better, he knows what God is doing. He’s believable. He’s real.

That’s when we become ‘poor in spirit’. If our life is going to amount to anything, it is going to have to start and finish knowing he’s the one who gets things right. He’s dwarfed us in the way he lives and speaks. But he doesn’t make dwarfs of us. He promises we will inherit God’s kingdom. We’ll be God’s special people—and he will be in charge of everything.

That’s why we are to be congratulated now. The reward is coming. But the congratulation is for now. We’ve chosen well.

God being with us is normal

I can understand people thinking the story of Jesus Christ is a myth. It’s phenomenal to believe that the world’s Creator takes a human body and lives among us. But that’s what Christians believe. One of the names Jesus is called is ‘Immanuel’ (Matthew 1:22-23). It simply means ‘God with us’.

The real question is not how such a thing can happen but whether it is something we should expect to happen. And a related question is whether we want it to happen.

In fact, God has always wanted to be among us. In our earliest human story, creation is described as God’s garden, and he comes seeking Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening (Genesis 3:8).

Then, God tells ancient Israel to build a tent for him and pitch it in the centre of their camp (Numbers 2:2, 17). He wants to go with them as they travel (Exodus 29:43-46), and to live among them when they settle. They know he is there and where they can find him (Psalm 122).

God has spent a long time teaching the world that he wants to be among us—to give us leadership, protection and certainty. And when his Son is born in Bethlehem, John tells us that the Word (who is God) takes on our flesh and ‘camps’ among us (John 1:14).

If your world doesn’t include God, this sounds foolish. But if you look at what God has been saying to us from early times, this is what you would expect to happen.

Among Christians, the coming of Jesus is great news. But the first Christmas is not all peace and joy. God coming among us raises questions, fears, and sometimes, hatred.

It’s the same now. The announcement that God has come to live among us is met with disbelief or distain. At best, it’s regarded as a nice myth to inspire or comfort us.

We need to look at what actually happens when God sends his Son among—us a baby. It helps us understand what’s going on in our own communities.

First, look what happens to Mary (Luke 1:26-38).

An angel arrives. He says God has come to show her great favour. But she is agitated—well beyond her comfort zone.

But she doesn’t need to be afraid. She will have a baby who will be Israel’s King, the world’s Saviour—nothing less than God’s Son.

She’s not married yet, but God says her baby will be a miracle. ‘… the power of the Most Hight will overshadow you’. No-one can work out how this happens. It’s not natural.

But this is what it’s like for God to be near. We’re not in charge! But then, we’re not being condemned either. And we’re not being set up to perform wonders of our own. God is not someone to compete with. But he is someone to co-operate with.

Mary’s reply gives us all something to say when God draws near. ‘May it be so to me as you have said’.

The world isn’t just nature—or things happening naturally. We have a Creator. He’s around! From the beginning, God has been revealing that him being near is normal. We should get used to it! It needs to be our new normal.

Second, see what some shepherds experience (Luke 2:8-14).

There’s no mistaking that an angel makes a night visit to some shepherds, and that his message is from God. He’s literally shining. The shepherds are terrified.

The way to deal with God being near is not to domesticate him but to listen to what he has to say. There’ll always be something unmanageable about this.

Here’s the message. The King that Israel has been taught to expect—their Messiah—has been born in their own town. This is good news for everyone. They get the details of where to find the baby.

Then there’s lots of noise. Many angels worship God and announce the peace God is bringing to those who share with Mary in receiving his favour.

This is what it means for God to be near. We can’t understand the logistics but we need the message. He’s announcing peace with himself, and the resources to be at peace with others.

It will never be us that makes this peace. It needs to be him—present and in charge.

Third, notice how agitated it makes King Herod. From his point of view, Jesus’ birth is a political event. He’s a rival (Matthew 2:1-18).

 ‘Wise men’ from East of Israel find out—somehow—that a Jewish King has been born. They call, understandably, at the palace, asking to see the new King.

Jesus can’t be hidden. He is world news. He attracts attention, and antagonism. Pilate does some research, gives directions to the visitors, and, deceptively, asks them to let him know what they find. He’s not interested in worship. He’s interested in cancelling Jesus.

Herod illustrates that taking authority to ourselves—as though God were not around—is dangerous.

Herod murders all Bethlehem’s children under two years of age. He needs to protect his tenuous kingdom—the peace he is trying to create by having people under his authority. This is the price the world pays for rejecting God coming to be among us.

So, here’s the new normal.

God has come among us—as a human being. He’s announced his way of peace with us. His way of going about this is not natural, or what we would do.

It’s not even what we like. We want God to leave us alone. And when we finally get an opportunity to do what we want with God, we kill him.

But then, Jesus reveals God—fully. While he is dying, he asks his Father to forgive those who are killing him (Luke 23:34).

The God who has come among us as a baby is still a human being—God, with human flesh. Except, now, raised from the dead, he’s been seated next to his Father, to superintend the peace he established.

This is certainly not natural. But it is God’s normal. And he is asking us to join him in the peace he makes. So, happy Christmas to you all. Just don’t expect it to be natural.

Saved from futility

‘What’s the use?’ We’ve probably heard that said, or said it ourselves. Nothing’s working and our time’s being wasted.

An old Greek myth tells the story of Sisyphus who is punished by being made to push a stone up a hill, only to have it roll down again when he nearly gets to the top. And he must do this forever! We now call a job that’s laborious and useless ‘sisyphean’.

That’s what life in this world is like—without God. Useless. And Christians have been saved from the futile ways we learn in this world (Ephesians 4:17-20).

In times past young believers were worshipping idols. And, of course, calling something a god when it can’t hear, think or act is futile. Nothing is going to happen by talking to it or offering it a bribe.

And the kind of life that grows from worshipping idols is also futile. There is nothing above us to lift us up. There is only a recycling of the mess we are already in.

Our own world dismisses giving reverence to God—any god. But we haven’t stopped worshipping something. We’ve been designed to look up and to be in awe of something. And people still say, ‘I just had to do that.’ It’s part of our being human to be compelled by something greater than ourselves.

If we don’t know the true God through his Son, Jesus Christ, we’ll install something in his place.

One writer (I’ve put a link to his article below) thinks self-worship is now the world’s fastest growing religion. This ‘religion’ or ideology teaches that each person’s own thinking, their emotions and choices, goals, values and creativity must determine everything else.

But then, he says, ‘When we try to be our own sources of truth, we slowly drive ourselves crazy. When we try to be our own sources of satisfaction, we become miserable wrecks. When we become our own standard of goodness and justice, we become obnoxiously self-righteous. When we seek self-glorification, we become more inglorious.’

Paul would say the same now as he did a long time ago. Without the true God, our understanding is darkened, not enlightened. It’s ignorant, not informed. It’s hard hearted, not sensitive.

It’s into this situation that God sends Jesus to live, and die, and rise again. He has come to lift us out of all this. That’s why Peter talks about being rescued from futility (1 Peter 1:8-19). Without him, we are slaves.

If you believe that the only things that are real are physical, it may seem strange to hear your way of life called futile. That’s why it’s important to look at the light God has sent into the world.

The story is told of a rebellious sailor who is lowered down into the empty hold of his ship as punishment. He has no light, no company. Only bread a water let down on a rope each day. Several days go by and the sailor defies the call to change his ways and return to the deck. So, the captain lowers a lamp down instead of the food.

Now, the sailor can see his surroundings—the filth and the vermin, and himself as part of it all. Quickly he asks to be pulled up out of his prison.

The way we are brought up, the way of life around us, seem normal. We can become accustomed to shallowness, to lies, and lust, and hollow laughter. Until, that is, we see Jesus Christ.

The only way to be freed from the futility of this world is for someone to pay for us—to be bought like a slave. And then be set free. That’s what ‘redeemed’ means in what Peter says.

God knows we are in the dark. He also knows we like being in the dark. We think it’s the only way to stay in control of our lives.

But then, God lets us see how bitter we have become—by letting us human beings kill his Son. He lets us see the meaning of love by his Son asking for us to be forgiven. He shows us there is a new way by raising his Son from death. We can begin to hope.

This is what it means to be ‘redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors…with the precious blood of Christ’.

All that the world has when it doesn’t want God is cravings.

Interestingly, one of the world’s religions—Buddhism—is focused on shutting down desire because it is the source of all our unhappiness. But desire is part of being alive! We want things. That’s what gets us up in the morning. It’s what makes us work hard and take risks.

What makes desire a problem is that we do not have God as our Father. Nothing we get is ever enough. It wasn’t meant to be enough. Only God can be ‘enough’. Under him, our desires are governed. Without him, they become insatiable.

We try to have a full life by letting rip with whatever we want. But without God, we generate endless unrest. We find ourselves yearning for what isn’t ours, or boasting about what we’ve done (1 John 2:15-17). But it’s all a temporary ‘fix’. If it doesn’t come from the Father, it won’t last. It’s futile.

But then, what if we come to know God as our Father? Our passions are under his care. We listen to what he says. We copy the way of life lived by his Son. We have something that will last forever. It begins to feel solid—even in this world. It’s not futile. We’ve be rescued.

It doesn’t take much experience, and honesty, to recognise that something isn’t solid just because we can see it. Why not, every time to find yourself getting fond of this world, taking another look at Jesus, and what he has done. Ask why he took so much trouble to show us what’s real. Ask if you can afford to give your life for what is passing away.

You can hear my talk on this topic at

Article: Self Worship is the world’s fastest growing religion; Thaddeus Williams

Friendship is all about other people

The story goes of a man coming home from a party saying, ‘I was surrounded by friends, but none of them were mine.’ Many people experience loneliness—including some who appear to be ‘the life of the party’.

These experiences demonstrate that loneliness isn’t mended with company. In the real world, having friends involves thinking—thinking about others.

Perhaps this is why many have experienced amazing community spirit when a catastrophe strikes—a flood or fire or accident. Everyone focusses on what needs to be done and forgets about themselves. They begin to ‘discover’ each other.

So, here’s the real issue. If we are only thinking of ourselves, there’s no real relationship going on. The other person is only ‘present’ to the extent that they are meeting a need of mine. They may be thinking the same. Neither of us are being real. We are like ghosts trying to hug each other.

A relationship with someone else is not just a matter of chemistry, or sex, or common interest. It involves love, and this means seeing who someone is and what they need—thinking about them and how we may be a part of their lives.

Paul tells his friends at Philippi to think of others and not just themselves, and consider others better than themselves.

That’s good advice but it’s easier said than done. Selfishness runs deep and takes us back to thinking about ourselves. That’s why Paul points to how Christ has lived among us (Philippians 2:1-11).

It would be worthwhile reading some Gospel stories about Jesus. People called him a friend of sinners (Luke 7:34). That’s what we need—not someone who expects high standards, conformity, or agreement but a friend who knows who we are, what we can become and what help we need.

And the first need we have is to be forgiven. We don’t merely need people we can follow, or who like us. We need a Saviour. We need Christ’s encouragement, comfort, tenderness and compassion.

We need to belong to a whole group of people participating in a love that’s bigger than all the funny things that go on between us people. We need to be God’s children—together.

Believe me, what we read here fixes the problem. We have a quality of life that doesn’t depend on our friends being friendly or us being perfect! There’s something different that happens among people who receive forgiveness from God, and receive the gift of his Holy Spirit.

Paul also says we need to put away selfish ambition or conceit (v. 3). In business circles, people talk about ‘networking’—finding relationships that may further their interests. But that’s not friendship. Friends aren’t concerned with their own interests but the interest of their friend.

In fact, we are called to consider others better than ourselves (v. 4). This is nothing to do with us being better or worse than others. We are talking about considering others better than ourselves.

So, is all of this just a game? Do we just act in a certain way because that will make other people feel happier with us? Hardly. That’s hypocrisy, and eventually, hypocrisy shows!

Here’s why it’s so important to know how Jesus thinks. He has been thinking about us—not himself. And because he is thinking about us, we can be freed from always focusing on ourselves. We can have the same thought in our minds as Jesus Christ.

How can this be? Stay with this! It might seem like I’m trying to crack a problem with a heavy thump of Bible, but thinking about ourselves doesn’t yield easily!

The way Jesus thinks starts with him being equal with God. He is God. But he doesn’t think this fact needs to be defended. He doesn’t need to protect his rights or have his identity acknowledged. Simply—he’s God. He knows it. And he acts accordingly.

Here’s what he does. He ‘made himself nothing’. That is, he pours out all that he is—for us.

The Son of God becomes one of us—a human being. As God, he is in charge. But, as a human being, he is told what to do. He’s become a servant.

Then, the job he is given is to show us who God is. So, he shows us the ‘comfort of his love’, his ‘tenderness and compassion’.  

It’s because we don’t know this that we have to protect ourselves. This is why we have to be surrounded with approving people. We’re not persuaded that God is friendly.

So, Jesus makes himself an offering for our sins. He’s already a servant, but he becomes a humble one and does the most despicable job you could ever take on. He’s nailed to a Roman cross. In our place.

This is the mind of Christ. He has come closer to us that we can come to ourselves. By being what he is—God, doing a human job—he’s shown us what it means to be human. He’s also shown us what it means to be God.

And then, Jesus is given the name above every name—that’s the name ‘Lord’, or God. There’s never been any risk of him losing his identity!

And there’s no risk of us losing our identity either when we think fondly about people around us—in just the same way we think about ourselves. If we’ve been united with Christ through faith, we have his encouragement, his tenderness and compassion.

So now, we are free to live, to love, to give and to share. It will seem risky. Sometimes, we may lose a friend rather than gain one. But we will always have Christ’s friendship.

Surely and certainly, we will discover the riches of relationships that flow from a reliable source—from no less than the God who made us to be like him.

It matters what you think

If you are asked, ‘What are you doing?’ you may say, ‘Just thinking.’ But we are never just thinking. What is going on in our heads—or not going on—affects what happens. Good thinking leads to good living.

It’s also true that if you are not thinking, someone else is doing it for you. And one day, you may resent giving your mind over to others—to musicians, playwrights, pressure groups or dictators.

But how does healthy thinking happen? I’m not trying to be an amateur psychologist here. I’m simply pointing out some directions we’ve been given to help us think well. They come from Paul, in his letter to the Philippians (4:4-9).

In human terms, if we are going to think well, we need to be inwardly happy—not depressed by our circumstances. We also need some confidence—so we are not embattled by rival opinions.

We need to be secure rather than anxious. And we also need lots of good options to choose from.

Many would agree with all this. Courses and therapies try to produce these states so that we can think and live well.

But Paul shows that these qualities arise from who God is, and from what Jesus Christ does. The world believes its enlightenment comes from our own history and experience. But we need to be enlightened by God speaking to us. Our thinking then becomes the way these unseen things become visible in the real world.

Let’s see how this works out.

First, Paul tells us to delight in the Lord—that is, the Lord Jesus Christ.

We are not just called to believe in Jesus Christ but enjoy him. A healthy mind starts by being happy, content, joyful—and Jesus Christ has given us good reason to do that.

Anyone who’s suffered with depression will tell you unhappiness is not healthy. It doesn’t lead to good decisions, or relationships or communities.

Because there’s a lot of trouble in the world, many would say we need to represent this in our attitudes and arts. For example, we have angry music, catastrophic news casts, dystopian novels and bizarre entertainment.

There’s lots in this world that’s going wrong. We can’t close our eyes to what’s painful or evil. Some things should make us speak up or try to change things. But if this is all we have, we tend to produce more despair than hope, more anger than action.

The Christian has a reason to be joyful. Jesus has died. Jesus has risen. Jesus is coming again. This is the framework for our thinking. The world has a Saviour. And we are part of what he is doing.

Notice, this joy is not something that happens to us. It’s something we decide. ‘Rejoice in the Lord, and again, I say, rejoice!’ We’re being called to embrace this. Some are waiting for their circumstances to change to give them some joy. God is giving us an opportunity to change our thinking. It could be that this will become the cause of a change in circumstance.

Paul describes himself doing this a little earlier in his letter. Things haven’t worked out well with his work. People are opposing him, competing with him. But he reckons that Jesus is still being made known. This makes him glad. Then he says, ‘And I will rejoice!’ (1:18).

This attitude helps him to think of things that will give joy to others (2:27-28).

We all need to find this source of inward delight. Is this what you have? Is this something you’ve been missing out on? Have circumstances been framing your thinking? What do you have that secures your happiness?

Think again of what you have in Jesus Christ—the forgiveness of sins, a place in God’s favour and purpose, a Father to approach and a goal to share. Set your mind on these things and see if life changes!

Second, our core confidence is that the Lord is near. So, we can be reasonable or gentle towards others.  

In practical terms, if we know where we are coming from, we don’t need to get rattled by people with opposing views. If we’re sure of our ground, we don’t need to shout.

This is a big ask—given the frustrating and frightening situations and people we meet. But Paul has a reason: ‘The Lord is near.’ He could mean that Jesus is coming back again to put everything right. Or he could mean Jesus is here now. Both are true.

Jesus has confronted this world’s corruption and rebellion head on. He let the world kill him. And he did it for us. And God raised him from the dead and put him in charge of everything. And now, he is near. The situations we are facing are being managed by him and he has us in the middle of it for some purpose.

People say you have to be strong when confronted by something really difficult. That’s true. But the Christian is saying that someone else strong is near—Jesus Christ. That’s our strength.

Many Christians can tell us about their experience of going through difficulty and finding Jesus Christ more real and powerful than they ever did before. Their difficulty made Jesus Christ more enjoyable—not less. Their thinking changed. And they changed. And things around them started changing.

Third, we need to call on God for what we need—and not let them run on into anxiety.

Think about this. Something is wrong, threatening, damaging or impossible to manage. Isn’t fright and flight an appropriate response?

In lots of situations, putting ourselves out of harm’s way is the best option. But that’s not always possible. And then, there’s lots of reasons why we feel anxiety. We can’t always switch these feelings off with some positive thinking.

It helps a lot if we know there’s something we can do. We can pray.

Now, here’s something very interesting. When we learn to pray rather than give way to panic, God’s peace will be like a wall around us. Notice, he’s not saying we feel peaceful. He’s saying the peace of God is around us.

Our God is the ‘God of peace’ (v. 9). This is who he is. He isn’t flustered, altered or surprised by anything. He has decided how things will work out best and that is the plan he’s working on. It’s this peace—a lot bigger than what will fit in our heads—that will keep our hearts and minds.

God doesn’t make us clever enough to cope. Our thinking needs to be going on inside his thinking. There are some things we just can’t work out. We weren’t meant to. We are meant to pray. And God will keep our hearts and minds in Jesus Christ. That is, he won’t explain the complexities of everything. He will keep us trusting his Son.

That’s where we can find help for our mental health.

Fourth, we have a list of good things to focus on.        

There are lots of things that are worthy of attention—things that are true, worthy, right, pure, lovely, admirable. The long list of similar words suggests that we won’t be stuck for things to dwell on.

There’s a Bible full of good things to read. But the list suggests people and events we are seeing, hearing, studying or sharing in. There are wonderful examples in people around us who do worthy things. We can seek out their company. Or we can read their stories. We can learn from what they discover and be encouraged

Of course, there’s plenty of things we can’t avoid seeing and hearing that are false, shameful, impure or ugly.  We need to grieve over them. We may have to deal with them.

Again, the Bible has many sad and gruesome stories. However, if you read the whole story, you can see that they are told from the perspective of a God who deals with evil and promises good.

These impure, things don’t need to frame our thinking. So, we don’t need to feed on them and let them fester in our heads. We need to hate them and put something better in their place (Jude 22).

We need a mind full of good things if we are going to form proper assessments, make good choices and act well. And we need to seek them out, delight in them and let them shape our decisions.

Elsewhere, Paul tell us that God transforms us by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2). This happens by thinking that starts with what God has done, and looks at everything else from that point of view.

I hope these pointers help us on the way to some good thinking.

God knows what is good

God has given us, his people, 10 commandments to tell us how to live. They are given to Moses and to Israel first, but Jesus says he came to fulfil them (Matthew 5:17). He has made this law universal so that it can speak to all of us and shape our communities. I’d like us to see how this happens.

We all need someone to tell us what to do. Many will dispute this, but then, we don’t seem to be able to avoid it. If it isn’t God telling us what is good, it’s someone else. We are surrounded with it all the time.

The difference between God’s commands and those we make for ourselves is that God’s commands arise from who he is—and he is good. Ours arise because we always trying to fix a problem—and we are not good. Again, this latter point is disputed, but the number of rules we have to make is increasing all the time, so, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a problem, and that the problem is us.

God is not trying to fix a problem. He is telling us who he is, and, because he is our Creator, he is telling us what is good for us. Moses says, ‘Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the Lord your God gives you for all time’ (Deuteronomy 4:40).

What God tells us to do is good in the sense that it works. It fits what we are and it enables us to live together in a way that benefits everybody. It’s not an ideology, a social construction invented by someone to solve a problem. It’s real, and really works.

It’s interesting to see where the ten commandments begin. They don’t start with, ‘You shall not…’ but with, ‘I am the Lord your God…’ (Exodus 20:2). His commands arise from him being in a relationship with us. He says to his people, ‘You belong to me and I belong to you.’

If we think that the way to have relationships is to get everyone doing ‘the right thing’—which means telling everyone what the ‘right things’ are—we wear people down and destroy real relationships.

Many children know what it is like having to perform in a certain way to secure the attention, approval or affection of their parents. But others have parents who have created a home where they know they belong. Their identity does not need to arise from how they perform but from belonging. They are beloved children. In that setting, they can hear what is required of them as something that will be in their interests to hear and do.

The same is true in a community. If we must conform to a certain set of rules to be heard or to have a place, we breed distrust, distain and social unrest. It doesn’t work—and it isn’t working.

God has made every human being in his image, so everyone has a place in it. It is because he is relating to us that he gives us his commands.

But God says more. ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery’. He calls this redeeming them—that is paying the price to release them from their slave-masters. Israel belongs to God, not only because he made them but because he has made it possible for them to obey him.

We must look some more at how this happens, but for now, we simply note that God’s commands are given to people who have been released from the pressure of false gods—that is, anything that’s taken the place of God. They not only should obey him but they can, and even want to.

This has been the whole point of Jesus coming among us. He comes to save us. We get trapped by our own sins. We get caught by this world—and do what it wants rather than what God wants. This isn’t freedom. We have to do things.

But Jesus says ‘I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’ (John 8:34-36).

If we know God is relating to us, that he has decided to love us, and that he is doing whatever is necessary to set us free from being trapped by what we have done, we will be able to receive his commands as his love reaching out to us.

So, commands might not be too bad after all! Certainly, those who realise God has made this world as a home for us, and who see what he has done to free us from our false gods, will listen to them with interest, heed them with diligence and find that it is good to be told what to do.

No other God but the Lord

Here’s the first command the Lord gives to those he has saved from slavery. He starts with what we should love. ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:3). The ‘before me’ means ‘in my presence’. The Lord is like a husband or wife who is jealous of any rival, so we must keep ourselves for the Lord.

Our Lord is God of the whole earth—its Creator! There is nowhere he is not present, nothing he doesn’t know and nothing too difficult for him. And given the power and the care he takes to set us free, there is nothing he won’t do to see that we are provided for. He doesn’t need supplementing with other gods.

This is stated negatively but its purpose is entirely positive. Moses restates it later: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength’ (Deuteronomy 6:4).

And Jesus says the same: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment’ (Matthew 22:37-38).

What does it look like if we have no other God than the Lord?

Simply, we know we are not God! This is a huge relief! Many of our personal and social problems arise because we don’t know God as our Father. But if he is, we know who we are and what we are here for. We are the Lord’s creatures, his children, his beloved, his servants.

We can trust the Lord to show us how to live. We can be part of the future God is creating—something wonderful and complete. Everything we do has great significance.

Then, if everything is going well, we know who to thank. If we are in all kinds of need, we know who to ask for help. If we’ve sinned, we can ask him for forgiveness. If we are confused, we know he will show us the way to go. If we are being attacked, we can entrust ourselves to him. If we’re always thinking about ourselves, we can ask him for love for others. The Lord, being God, can cover all bases!

On the other hand, what is it like to live under a ruler and in a community where other gods are in charge?

No-one needs to tell Israel this—it leads to slavery. The battle that has just happened between Pharaoh and Moses is really about who runs this world. Pharaoh gets his magicians to practice their ‘secret arts’, and Moses prays to the Lord (see for example Exodus 8:18-19; 9:29; 14:30-31). And in this contest, the Lord wins, and Israel is released.

All of us, like Israel, need to be released from the authority of other gods and the demands of those who worship them. This is why Paul says that Jesus ‘gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age’ (Galatians 1:4). The world makes out to be a wonderful place but, if the Lord isn’t our God, we make something in the creation into a god. And this eventually makes us its slave.

The apostle John tells us not to love the world—what it craves for and boasts about. It is passing away (1 John 2:15-17). Only the Lord truly cares about us! And only the Lord has the breadth of knowledge, authority, wisdom, strength, and especially love, to do the job.

The Lord has given himself to us fully. He has not even withheld from giving up his Son for us. And now, he calls for us to give ourselves wholly to him—with no other ‘god’ to back us up in case he fails.

We noticed before that the Lord uses a ‘shall not’ rather than a ‘you shall’.

Loving the Lord shouldn’t be any problem. Paul says he is ‘constrained’ by love because ‘one man died for all’ (2 Corinthians 5:14). That should settle the matter. But it isn’t just like that. Sometimes, we need God to say ‘No!’ Our hearts are a factory for making idols—one after another.

If we have tasted that God is kind, and good, and that he has saved us, we will be grateful for this ‘No!’ Faced with a crisis, or an attraction, or a pressing need, some other ‘god’ may appear very attractive, natural and powerful. It seems impossible to see it any other way. But then, God’s command protects us, and directs us back to the love of God.

We have to ‘wait on the Lord’. That is, we have to suspend our craving, for long enough to see what God is about, and how he is going to prove to us that he is our God. You can check a story about this in Israel’s journeyings (Deuteronomy 8:2-6).

God has been wonderfully gracious to us in saving us from this world and its idols. But his kindness does not mean softness. The Lord’s kindness has brought us to himself. There is nothing more wonderful than this. And there is nothing that is more designed to makes us strong—to be who we are created to be. So, don’t entertain any other gods in the presence of our God and Father! Wait, and see, that the Lord is good.

Something holy, at Christmas

When God is about to send his Son into the world, an angel comes to Mary to tell her she will be the child’s mother (Luke 1:26-38). She is told a number of amazing things. A son from her womb will be Israel’s Messiah. This child will be called ‘Son of the Most High’. And he will reign forever.

But the thing she asks about, understandably, is how she can have any baby without a father.

The answer is, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35).

This is not going to be an event for which any human being can take the credit. God has promised it, is now announcing it and will physically make it happen.

I want to speak about one word that applies to all of the things that are happening here—the word ‘holy’. The child will be holy because the Holy Spirit will ‘come upon’ Mary. God is holy and only he can cause anything else to be holy.

We tend to think that ‘holy’ refers to behaviour but it is more than that. It indicates that something comes from God, belongs to God and is to be used for his purposes. This leads to a certain kind of behaviour but it is a ‘belonging’ word.

For example, God tells Israel, ‘I am the Lord, who made you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord’ (Leviticus 22:32-33). And on the basis of this he tells them to keep his commands. It is because we belong that we behave.

The opposite of holy is profane. If we use something holy, like the name of Jesus, for a swear word, we utter a profanity.

The same is true for lots of other things. If I take my own humanity and use it for me instead of for God, I am turning something meant to be holy into something profane. I commit profanity. If I go to church and sing songs but am only interested in the form of the service and not its purpose, I turn something holy into something profane. (There’s an example in Ezekiel 22:26.)

Think for a moment about what the world would be like if it was holy. If we reverenced God, his nature would be reflected in all our behaviour and the resulting society. There would be no greed, rivalry or hatred, only generosity, mutuality and love. We would have a great vision of life, not mere ‘me’ goals. There would be no harming, cruelty, sickness or death. We would simply live in and look after the world God has made for us.

But think about a world that is profane. It is very self-righteous. We are constantly being told about what we should and shouldn’t do. But can we produce a loving community? We don’t just need a law to keep. We need a God behind it who says, ‘This is my law. It matters if you break it.’

If we are going to have faithful marriages, ethical business and if we are going to care for the planet, we are going to need a God who says, ‘This is my world. It matters how you live in it.’ A profane world can’t produce what it legislates.

And now, God’s holy Child is coming into this profane world. This is astonishing. It is very difficult to approach people who have no regard for us, but this is what God is doing. We disregard the fact that he made the world and sustains all its operations—and he sends us his own Son to be our Saviour.

An angel has told Joseph to call this son Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. We need healing for our profanity. We need something that only God can do. We have not been able to live without God interrupting our ease and presumption.

So, Mary’s life is all rearranged. She will have a son. There is nothing normal or safe here. God will hover over Mary, just as his Holy Spirit overshadowed the first creation to bring it to life (Genesis 1:2). Here is the beginning of a new creation. Nothing less will change us or our profane world.

These words of the angel are reflected later on when Jesus says to Nicodemus. ‘…no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again’ (John 3:3). And Nicodemus says almost the same as Mary. ‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ He is accustomed to the natural world, not to the world God owns and manages. Even though he is religious, he is profaning God’s world and his revelation. He needs a life that is from above—a holy life.

But now, see what Mary says. ‘I am the Lord’s servant. … May your word to me be fulfilled’ (Luke 1:38). And she becomes pregnant. The holy Child who will save his people from their sins, has entered our world. And his reign will never end. Holiness has arrived.

So easily can a profane world become a holy one. If with Mary, we say ‘let it be so to me according to your word’, God is our God, our sins are forgiven, love is born, eternity is in our souls, God’s will is done and the world can see its God reflected in the lives of his people.

The rest is over to God. We can only be holy by hearing his word, and letting him do in us what only he can do.

(If you would like to hear these things spelt out more fully, you can listen to a 25 minute talk at )

It matters who you listen to

None of us can live well without having a purpose. We find ourselves asking, ‘What am I good at?’ Or, ‘Why am I here?’ We are longing to be someone—to have a reason to live.

But here, it matters who you are listening to. Our culture says we should have a reason to live within ourselves. We just need to find it. We need to listen to ourselves. If we can just find our real self, and if everyone lets us be that, everything will be alright.

But the voice from within is never enough. We have evidence of that in the way we need affirmation or approval from friends, and from the community as a whole. Listening to our own inner voice is not making us more secure people.

There are many voices to listen to. And we are hard-wired to be listening to something or someone. We need a voice to tell us who we are and what we are here for.

Simply, God made us. And he talks to us. This is why we need something outside of ourselves. We were made to listen.

But there is another voice. In fact, there are many voices. None of us would have enough time to listen to all of them. But if they are not from God, they are coming from ‘below’. This is one way to describe the two kinds of voices that come to us.

Here is how I learned to tell the difference between a voice from above and a voice from below.

A voice from above, for starters, agrees with the teaching of Christ and his apostles—our Bible in other words. If it doesn’t do that, it must be coming from below.  This is a whole subject in itself, but I want to focus on what flows from this.

I know the difference between a voice from above and one from below because a word from below drags me down.  It condemns. A word from above gives hope—for me, regardless of what I think of myself, or what I have done.

There’s a reason for this. God isn’t limited to the processes of cause and effect. What I mean is the same as what we say about computers: ‘Rubbish in, rubbish out’. We know that systems can’t rise higher than the material we put into them. But God is outside his own creation. He is not limited to what we do.

God is good. We might say, ‘He can’t help himself!’ This is who he is. When we do bad things, he doesn’t spit it back at us with interest! In fact, he loves what he has made. He has decided to do us good anyway.

He has told us this in many ways. For a start, he hasn’t closed the solar system down because we pollute his creation. He doesn’t stop people having babies just because parents are selfish. There are lots of things like this to observe.

But the main way God has spoken to us is by giving his Son to us—to live among us. Even a casual reading of this Jesus story shows that he gave people hope. God was showing the way for our future—not a future that is the product of what we put into life but the result of his kindness.

He knows the reason why we feel bad about ourselves. He knows why we need constant affirmation from others. Simply put, we’ve tried to live without him. We’re not living truly—and it hurts. It’s called guilt.

No one can really deal with this unless it’s the person we’ve offended—God. And he does it by giving our burden to Jesus. This is what his death means. And God is entirely pleased with what Jesus has done. He’s entirely happy to announce that anyone who relies on him is forgiven. You can’t have a message like this unless there’s something outside the ‘system’—a loving God.

There’s a voice from below as well. It’s not just the accumulation of voices that don’t want to have God. It’s Satan or the devil. He hates what God is about. He is called ‘the god of this world’. He is the god you have when you don’t want the real one.

Now, here’s how I know one ‘voice’ from the other. When I ‘hear’ accusations, put-downs, nightmares of hopelessness, I know it’s coming from below. It’s not coming from God.

God’s voice tells me about his Son, about his resolve to give me something good that I don’t deserve. It teaches me to trust God. It gives me a future and a hope. It makes me change for the better.

There’s a lot more to say about this, but I hope you are persuaded that we can’t help but listen to voices besides our own. I hope you are persuaded that something needs to come to us from outside our own ‘closed system’. And I hope you are willing to listen to a Voice that gives you a hope you don’t deserve. Then, you may be able to see all sorts of possibilities for yourself!