We live in a world tired and bored with itself. Each day, week, month and year is for them just the same old scene. Flat emotions, a radical indifference to others, the sensation of drifting, numbness, a resigned acceptance of a world gone mad… And we too, in our weak moments, can feel the same. Why am I living? What is this circus all about? Can one person among five billion make a difference on this planet? What is a human being, but a tiny blip in the billion-year progression of history? “Carl Jung reported that a third of his cases suffered from no definable neurosis other than “the senselessness and emptiness of their lives”. He went on to name meaninglessness the general neurosis of the modern era” (1). And this isn’t only true of the richer worlds. Poorer people, locked into a cycle of struggle for survival, doing repetitive work, riding crisis after crisis towards no meaningful end, are in just the same problem. Everyone, rich or poor, predictably sequence their lives, and the syndrome of ‘the same old scene’ inevitably develops.
One of the hardest things about God to believe is that really, all men matter…you matter. I matter. How we speak, what we do and think, is incredibly significant to God. It is a staggering thought that the Creator of heaven and earth should care about how an obscure individual man behaves toward poor widows, orphans, his wife… Perceiving that we are so important to God means that for us, life needn’t be the same old scene, weighed down in the mire of mediocrity. For us, there is newness of life in Christ; the urgency to the daily round that comes from truly knowing our desperation; a dynamic relationship with a passionate, feeling God; a life that shares His undying passion for the lost; an emotional prayer life; and the constant energising that comes from our grasp of the Gospel. These are the headings under which I want to consider why for us, life is far from that ‘same old scene’.
The Lord Jesus died and rose as our representative. Therefore we live out His life, His death, His rising again to new life; and so as we sing, “into my life your power breaks through, living Lord”. The life that He lived and the death that He died become ours (Rom. 6:10 RV). We identified with that life, that death, at baptism. But it’s an ongoing thing. We live in newness of life. The life in Christ is not a stagnant pond, but rather living water, spring water, bubbling fresh from the spring. And this is what we give out to others- for “he that believeth in me, out of his innermost being shall flow rivers of springing water” for others (Jn. 4:10; 7:38). We can experience the newness of life of Christ right now. His life is now made manifest in our mortal flesh (2 Cor. 4:11), insofar as we seek to live our lives governed by the golden rule: ‘What would Jesus do…?’. The life that He had and now lives is the essence of the Kingdom life. Who He was and is, this is the definition of the Kingdom life. It’s why one of His titles is “the kingdom of God” (Lk. 17:21). And it’s why it can be said that we ‘have’ eternal life now, in that we can live the essence of the life we will eternally live, right now. Is. 42:9,10 says that we sing the “new song” now, because we sing / meditate of the “new things” which will be in the Kingdom. In that day, we will “sing a new song” (Rev. 5:9; 14:3). And yet this is undoubtedly picking up on the way in which we can now sing the ‘new song’, every morning, in newness of life (Ps. 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1). Likewise, all things will be made new at the Lord’s coming (Rev. 21:5), and yet those in whom the new creation is worked out already have all things made new in their spiritual experience (2 Cor. 5:17,18). The Kingdom will hardly be the same old scene. There is and will be something dynamic in our relationship with the Father and Son. The Lord Jesus spoke of how He ‘knows’ the Father and ‘knows’ us His sheep in the continuous tense (Jn. 10:14,15)- He was ‘getting to know’ the Father, and He ‘gets to know’ us. And this is life eternal, both now and then, that we might get to know the one true God and His Son (Jn. 17:3). The knowing of God and His Son is not something merely academic, consisting only of facts. It is above all an experience, a thrilling and dynamic one. There is no “new thing under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9)- all in this world is born to roll downhill. And yet in Christ, all things are made new in an ongoing sense. The emotions and feelings of meaninglessness are commented upon in great detail in Ecclesiastes. There is a thrilling duality in that book- the contrast between life as it is “under the sun”, and the contrasting imperative for the believer to live life God’s way. The exhortation is to live life God’s way with all our zeal, exactly because of the vanity and ‘same old scene’ nature of the natural life.
It can be, though, that we perceive even our service of God as the same old scene- the same round of daily Bible readings (although, why not try reading from another version or in another language?), the same cycle of ecclesial meetings and Bible schools. The same faces, the same issues. But our experience of grace means “that we should serve in newness of spirit and not in the oldness of the letter” (Rom. 7:6). We don’t have to serve God in the sense that He grants us salvation by pure grace, not by works. The blessing of the Lord has nothing added to it by human toil (Prov. 10:22 RVmg.). But just because we don’t have to do it, we do. This is the power of grace; it doesn’t force us to monotonous service, but should be a wellspring of fresh motivation, to do perhaps the same things with an ever fresh spirit. The pure wonder of it all needs to be felt- that for nothing but pure faith the Lord will grant us eternal redemption for the sake of the Lord’s death and resurrection. Which is why Rom. 6:4 says that because of this, and our appropriation of it in baptism, we therefore live in newness of life, a quality of life that is ever new. Through His death, a new and living way is opened (Heb. 10:20). We share the ever fresh life which the Lord lived from His resurrection. It does us good to try to imagine that scene- the Son of God, coming out of the grave at daybreak. He would have seen the lights of Jerusalem shimmering away in the distance, a few kms. away, as everyone woke up and went back to work, the first day after the long holiday. Getting the children ready, caring for the animals…it was back to the same old scene. But as they did so, the Son of God was rising to newness of life, standing alone in the fresh morning air, with a life that was ever new, with a joy and dynamism that was to know no end…His feelings are beyond us, but all the same, distorted by our nature, by our spiritual dysfunction, into our lives His life breaks through.
If in the daily round we can know how desperate we are, the urgency of our spiritual situation, we will appreciate the more finely what the Lord has done and is daily doing for us, and will be motivated to make an urgent, joyful response. As a student at London University I recall an over-zealous evangelical spraying on a wall: “Jesus is the answer”. But a few days later, someone scrawled underneath: “OK, but what’s the question?”. And this is simply so. The whole wonder of God’s truth as it is in Christ is totally lost on us unless we see our desperate need; unless we perceive the problem. And the wider wonder of it will only be appreciated, the thrill felt, if we feel something of the whole of humanity’s desperation; if we see the tragedy of human existence without the Truth.
One way of realising the seriousness of our sin is to recognise that each sin we commit, we could have avoided. We must hang our heads, time and again. In the very end, we can blame neither our circumstances nor our natures, even though these are factors in the committal of each sin. We must each bear total personal responsibility for every sin, both of commission and omission. We must hang our heads. James, as he often does, foresees how in practice we may reason that fervent prayer isn’t possible, because…we are angry, low, tired, don’t feel like it. So we tell ourselves. But James cuts across all this: “Elijah was a man subject to like passions [RVmg “nature”] as we”- and yet he prayed earnestly (James 5:17). We can’t excuse our lack of prayer by blaming it on the “passions” of our natures. Men like Elijah had the same nature as we do, and yet they prayed fervently.
Job fell into the trap of thinking that his terrible situation somehow allowed him to speak whatever words came into his head. Consider:
-“Doth the wild ass bray when he hath grass? Or loweth the ox over his fodder?” (6:5). Job felt he hadn’t been ‘fed’ and so he was entitled to “bray” and “low” over his misfortune.
-Because “my calamity [is] heavier than the sand of the seas, therefore have my words been rash” (6:3 RV).
-“Therefore I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit” (7:11).
-“I will give free course to my complaint. I will speak in the bitterness of my soul” (10:1 RV).
-Zophar criticises Job being “full of talk” and speaking “the multitude of words”, “for thou sayest, my doctrine is pure” (11:1-4)- as if Job felt that because he held true doctrine he was justified in pouring out words as he did.
-“Why should I not be impatient?” (21:4 RV).
-“Today is my complaint bitter. My stroke is heavier than my groaning” (23:2)- i.e. his complaining was due to his sufferings.
-“If I hold my peace, I shall give up the spirit” (13:19 RVmg.).
Job felt that the situation he was in forced him to use the words he did, and certainly justified it [we may well have used this reasoning ourselves when justifying the use of bad language]. But in the end, Elihu on God’s behalf rebuked him for his wrong words. And Job himself recognised: “I am vile. I will lay mine hand upon my mouth” in regret of his words (40:4). “Wherefore I loathe my words and repent” (42:6 RVmg.). He realized his mistake: he had thought that the situation justified his words. Now he hung his head and admitted that there was no justification for speaking in the way he had. Especially in the matter of the tongue, we can so easily justify ourselves; ‘I only said / did it [or didn’t do it] because…’. And it is all so child-like. Once we leave off all attempts at self-justification, we will face up to our sins. Let us kneel at our bed sides and confess without reserve our sin. And we will thereby realize the more finely our utter desperation. And the vital force, the nerve, the most essential idea of Christianity will be unleashed in us afresh: that we are desperate sinners, and the Son of God, as one like us, died to save us from our desperate situation, and to grant us a gracious place in His Kingdom. And we will respond, not therefore in mediocrity, but in lives of active grace and dynamic service.
Insofar as we realize that God is not passive, but has feelings toward us far more deep and passionate than we can ever know, so far we will realize that life with Him is a daily, passionate experience. It is indeed newness of life. It cannot be ‘the same old scene’. Consider the passion of God: “For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant” (Is. 42). “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? My heart is changed within me; All my compassion is aroused” (Hosea). “Mmy heart is changed” explains why God could say “they shall return to Egypt” and then later “he shall not return into the land of Egypt” (Hos. 8:13 cp. 11:5). Likewise “I will love them no more…I will love them freely” (Hos. 9:15 cp. 14:4). The prophets are full of such emotion and passionate intensity and newness of life. The prophets are not just predictions of the future. They reveal the passion of God’s feelings for His people. At the very time when He condemns them for their adultery against Him, their ingratitude, their worthlessness, He cries out His belief in the blessedness He will one day grace them with.
Can one person on a speck of a planet in a speck of a solar system in a mediocre clump of a galaxy really make a difference to the creator of that universe? As David looked to the heavens, he felt what surely we all have: “What is man, that thou art mindful of him…?”. Reflect how Almighty God created a bush to give Jonah shade from the sun; and created a tiny worm to take it away, to teach Jonah something. We matter to God. Our lives and experiences and the things in our lives are important to Him, down to the micro level [a worm, in Jonah’s case]. And we should reflect this in the way we treat others- all men. And of course, we matter and mattered to the Lord Jesus, to the extent of Him laying down His life in the way that He did- for us. “The saints in the earth” are those “in whom is all my delight”; this was the mind of Jesus toward us (Ps. 16:3). People should matter to us; their lives, their feelings, their eternal destiny. I am not preaching some kind of humanism. Rather, appealing for us to reflect the same senseless, illogical, caring and saving spirit of our Lord and our Creator. He rent the heavens to come down and save us. And the extent of that rending and coming down was in the death by torture of His only, beloved Son. We can push pass people in a line, or on transport, ignore the old lady who slipped on the ice, the child lost in the bus station or taxi park; the driver needing a tow…because we are just too busy. Because, even, we are busy on the Lord’s business. So we tell ourselves. The reality is, we just don’t care, or, we don’t care very deeply. And we can remain untouched by the tragedy of all those who have not known, as we see them streaming before us on a city street, as we look out over the thousands of lights on a city night. From Nairobi to Moscow to Mumbai…all the way back home. It should concern us, worry us, that we have what they so desperately need. To say ‘they’re not interested’ is, for me, just an excuse. Of course they’re not (nobody is)…until they meet you or me, until we have gotten them to see, to listen, in whatever form, to the Truth we have. The Angels in Heaven rejoice over one sinner who repents. A solitary act on this speck of a planet reverberates throughout the cosmos. One solitary life…thrills Almighty God. Just because He doesn’t show His feelings doesn’t mean this isn’t so. The prophets especially, and the parables of Jesus, help us to see beyond the mask of His silence, the mask of a sky above us that rarely reflects the Creator’s feelings. The life of the Father was manifested unto us in the Son (1 Jn. 1:2), and He has shared that life with us. God’s life is essentially activity; it is hardly the same old scene, even though to the unspiritual observer it may seem He acts repetitively.
One of the repeated features of the Lord’s witness was His compassion towards humanity: “When he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd. [Mk. 6:34 adds at this point that He therefore, as a result of that compassion, started to “teach them many things”]. Then saith he unto his disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest…” (Mt. 9:36-38). It was their spiritual as well as their material and human need which evoked His compassion. I have to say that this spirit of urgent compassion is not as strong in our community as it should be. There seem few if any tears shed for the tragedy of humanity. The world’s desperation seems written off as ‘they’re not interested’ rather than felt as a tragedy that should evoke our emotional and practical response. When Jesus saw the leper who wanted to be “clean”- not just ‘cured’ or eased of his discomfort- He made an emotional response. He put forth His hand, touched him, and made him clean- because He was “moved with compassion” (Mk. 1:40,41). Mt. 14:14; 15:32; 20:34; Mk. 5:19 and Lk. 7:13 all record other times when the sheer humanity of the situation evoked the Lord’s compassion: e.g. the woman in the funeral procession of her dear son, or the hungry crowds, unfed for 3 days…
Yet the Lord’s compassion is clearly intended to be ours, who are to live and move and feel “in Him”. The Lord of the servant “was moved with compassion and forgave him”- the very words used about the Lord being “moved with compassion” for the spiritual and human needs of the Galilean Jews He lived amongst in His life. But the point of the parable was: “..shouldest not thou also have had compassion…?” (Mt. 18:27,33). If we have seen and known His compassion, ought we not also to show that compassion in the same way as He did and does? His compassion must be ours. The Samaritan of Lk. 10:33 was clearly intended to be interpreted as the Lord Jesus. He “had compassion” on the dying man of humanity, not counting the personal cost and risk; and then the Lord bids us each to go and do likewise. Our ‘doing likewise’ will issue in us too sensing the tragedy of those who have not heard, of those without a shepherd, of those who have fallen out of the way. We will be like the Father who was likewise moved with compassion for his wayward son (Lk. 15:20). The crowds of unknowing people who stream before us each day, the sad fact that true Bible believing Christians are hopelessly outnumbered in this world, that those you live and work with are dying in ignorance of the wonderful eternity that could be for them…that they live their lives in the darkness of selfishness, as existence rather than real life, without the light of the knowledge of the glory of God as it is in the face of Jesus Christ…all these things will powerfully move us to witness after the pattern of our Lord.