Using Hardships for Good

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Today was interesting. I had been putting off registering with the local doctor, and after nearly 11 months, I finally completed the paperwork this morning and set off on foot to hand them in. Then only a couple of minutes into my journey, I noticed smoke coming out of the chimney of the Anglican church on my road, in which I had never been. So I made my way around the building and entered, to find a service had just started a few minutes before.

An old, short man was speaking. Bald head and glasses, and wide and deep eyes like marbles which seemed to lean together and look up, like hands coming together in prayer. He spoke from Romans 8, and talked about the futility of our daily lives, that so many trivial and often inconvenient or painful things happen in life, and these were not God’s will. He said our hope is in a promised future of a new earth, where all things would accord to God’s will and have purpose, but in this life it is simply not the case.

“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” – Romans 8:20-21

However, he conceded, this does not mean that God does not intervene at all, as he most surely does! And also that He works together with us in all things, and within these futile or unpleasant experiences, he is able to use them to bring about good.

“That in all things God works together with those who love him to bring about what is good—with those who have been called according to his purpose.” – Romans 8:28

I am reminded of the story of Joseph, who suffered many hardships, such as being thrown down a well and sold into slavery by his brothers, ending up in prison. As it turned out, these events were part of a bigger story, where he ultimately ends up saving many lives and becoming spiritual father to the Pharaoh of Egypt himself. So did God cause or allow Joseph to suffer in the beginning, as he knew it would all be worth it in the end? I don’t think so exactly. God is good. He is love. God would never want us to suffer, not even for the smallest moment, not even in the smallest possible way. The reality however is that we do live in this fallen world, where the futile and painful happens. So it’s not that God causes us to suffer, it’s that he uses what is here now and, through our trust in him, he shapes the clay of our corrupted lives towards something redeeming.

The sermon was concluded with the comforting words of Jesus from Matthew 6:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” – Matthew 6:25-34

The words penetrated a bit deeper into my heart than usual. “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Upon hearing these words, I realized the truth of them, that for every man there is a time to die. We do not know when this time will come, but it will come, and it will come regardless of whether we worry about it or not. The same goes with most else that goes wrong in our life, we often have little control. We cannot avoid being thrown into the many wells in our life, so there’s no point worrying about them, but if we trust in the Lord, it will all work out for the good.

Spiritual Lust

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When I was a baby, I was baptised in the Church of England. My mother never claimed to believe in God, but out of love she wanted to “make sure I was covered, just in case!” She also sent me to a Christian primary school when I was around 4 years old, where we prayed to the Lord before our meals and would sing Christian hymns in assembly to the energetic tune of our old headmistress’s piano. In spite of her own lack of a faith, my mother was always, and still is today, eternally supportive of whatever I put my heart to. She would offer her views if asked, but always maintained it was something one had to decide upon for themselves. So in my early years, I don’t think I was ever quite sure, but I remember speaking to God. My favourite story growing up was the Chronicles of Narnia, which I would find out much, much later were written by C. S. Lewis, who was renowned in the Christian world. I was very imaginative back then, and I would dream a lot. I also remember supernatural experiences, of voices talking to me from the darkness and at other times my bed seeming to rotate as i lay down, enveloped with an intoxicating presence in the room.

However, as I got older, I found myself drawn to more exotic spiritual things. I met a native american man online when I was around 17, who first taught me to meditate. He told me to lay down on the floor and let go, to stop my thoughts and wait for “the helper” to come. I remember doing this late at night and feeling waves of energy wash over me. Then later, I found myself getting interested in Zen Koans and Taoism, and I eventually fell headfirst into Tibetan Buddhism. Looking back, I see all these things now as escapism, a spiritual lust. It’s that dissatisfaction in a man that makes him seek out the exotic and new and exciting. On a larger scale, we see this now in the west, where we have become discontent with our own Christian heritage and now seek out the exotic religions of the east. The Lord our God is like our loving wife at home, who has cared for us through the years, staying faithful and good, reliable and kind, and then out of our dissatisfaction, with a lust for the exotic, we turn to many mistresses.

But the Lord, in his kindness, never left me, even when I had left him. I remember once during my early meditations, I had entered a state of sleep paralyses, and instinctively, even though I thought I no longer believed in Him, I cried out “God, help me!” internally, and was immediately restored to normal. An experience that left me a bit confused and feeling I had failed in some way by needing him again, like a child who wanted to be independent but found they still needed their father. He tried to reach me many times over the years too, through my dreams and even the women I encountered in my life. I remember when I was 18, I got close to a girl who had me reading the bible and even attending her church and taking communion. What’s sad to me now is that I remember I really felt the Lord’s presence in those moments, but my heart was set on the exotic and I didn’t want to give up my other spiritual practices.

I do remember missing the Lord at many times and sometimes feeling a deep sadness or longing. I would read stories about Jesus and watching the Passion of the Christ even made me cry. I wanted him to be real, but I didn’t believe in him. In the end, I didn’t find the love I was looking for in the exotic. The things I had chosen over the Lord ultimately let me down. I had gone so far as to become a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan tradition, but I left it feeling broken and psychologically damaged, and I would then abandon all religion and enter a period of depression that lasted many years.

Then one day, when I was at my lowest, I went for a slow and apathetic walk into town. There was a man singing on the street, so I decided to sit on a bench and just listen for a while. It turned out the man was singing about Jesus, and I had a moment where I just felt an unusual calm wash over me. Then I got up and kept walking through town, and on the next street I came across a table. At that table was a pastor and his wife. At first I just passed the table, but then I felt something stop me, and in my head I said “okay, fine, I’ll just talk to them”. So I went back, and there was just something so good and kind about these people. I went to their church, ate with and spent time with these people. Even though in my mind, I was intellectually resistant, it’s like my heart just knew this was right, this was good, and this was what I had been missing. It touches me now to think, that even after all my “spiritual mistresses”, even after turning away from him and denying him for so long, he still prepared a table before me, when I needed him most, and welcomed me back home with love and open arms. I went astray for a while, but now I am back home.