Information overload

We live in world that suffers from too much choice and too much information. I imagine most of us would easily agree with that, and it’s not too difficult to prove. Just take a walk in your local supermarket and see the number of messages and choices you are presented with. Simply the breakfast cereal aisle is a bewildering assault of colours, eye-catching designs and sheer number of options. Apparently, back in 1976, the average supermarket stocked around 9,000 items. Today the average supermarket stocks a staggering 40,000 items. Yet we get 85% of our weekly shop from only 150 items!

We are surrounded every day with a huge array of choice and information. Actually this is not a new problem.

In 1525, Erasmus’ wrote a tirade about the “swarms of new books” that he saw arriving all around him (thank goodness he didn’t have Amazon!) In the seventeenth century, René Descartes complained that “even if all knowledge could be found in books, where it is mixed in with so many useless things and confusingly heaped in such large volumes, it would take longer to read those books than we have to live in this life and more effort to select the useful things than to find them oneself.” One can only speculate about what Descartes might have thought about the internet.

Information overload is not a new phenomenon. But we must also recognise that there is an unprecedented amount of information today

We have shifted from a society based on industry to a society based on information. Because of this, the amount of information generated and transmitted has increased astronomically. And the dawn of the Internet has only fueled that trend.

Something like 300 million words are tweeted on Twitter each day. That’s the­ equivalent of 4,500 books. Information amounting to more than a person could read in a lifetime is transmitted and received every single day across only one platform.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt once said, “The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand.” If we don’t understand it, we also cannot consume all that the internet holds or generates. In 2002 there were 5 exabytes (1 billion gigabytes) of new information created, and 23 exabytes both recorded and replicated. Now, we record and transmit that level of information every week. That is information overload on an unprecedented level that would blow the minds of Erasmus and Descartes! But is that such a bad thing?

The problem is that in our modern society, the amount of information has increased enormously, yet our ability to deal with information has not changed at all. We are still human beings, not information processing computers. The issue at the heart is one of attention. Key to understanding the experience of information overload, is to grasp that our attention is a finite resource.

We’ve all experienced this. Just think about what happens when you are driving on the motorway. You can listen to music, or have a conversation with someone without any problem at all. But when you come to look for the right turning to take, you stop talking and turn down the music.

Or when you come home, how many of us have put down our keys, manhandled a laptop bag, answered a ringing phone, tripped over the dog… only to realise you have no idea where your keys are. It’s not senility (probably), it’s that other things have grabbed your attention instead.

We only have a certain amount of attention to go around. Listen to this quote by Daniel Levitin from his book ‘The organized mind’:

“Our brains do have the ability to process the information we take in, but at a cost: We can have trouble separating the trivial from the important, and all this information processing makes us tired. Neurons are living cells with a metabolism; they need oxygen and glucose to survive and when they’ve been working hand, we experience fatigue. Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport, or how best to reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with.”

We can experience ‘attention fatigue’. There are so many stimuli, so many things clamouring for our attention, that if we aren’t discerning we can become easily exhausted.

This issue of information overload, therefore, isn’t just a societal issue, it is a spiritual one too. Unless we direct our attention well, our attention will be drawn away from what’s important. That may be our savings account or our passport, but there are other more important things at stake. Without attention to our attention, we can easily be drawn away from Christ.

So, over the next few posts, we are going to take a look at a few strategies we can use to combat information overload, and to keep our attention on Jesus Christ.

The prayer we all pray

Everybody worries. I don’t think I have ever come across a person who doesn’t worry at some point about some thing in their life. Worry seems to be a universal human experience. I worry all the time – about things that are important, and things that are not; about things that I can change, and about things that I can do nothing about. I am sure that is your experience as well. Perhaps you are worrying about something right now. Those thoughts about the issue and what might happen buzz around in your head like an incessant fly that simply won’t go away.

We all worry. But what does worry have to do with prayer? I am convinced that worry is a type of prayer. But not a terribly helpful type of prayer, because it is not a prayer focused on God.

Just think for a moment what you do when you worry. A particular issue or situation is on your mind. You go over the different possible outcomes, concerned for a good solution and concerned about the possible painful results. I think the biggest part of worry, however, is the part we play in those outcomes. We run over possible scenarios, how we might respond, and how others might react. We go through these interactions over and over again in our minds. Worry obsesses over those details, trying to figure out the best way to act and whether or not we are able to get the right outcome.

Is this sense, worry is a kind of prayer. It takes a set of circumstances of importance to us and brings it before the person who we think can do something about it. The trouble is, worry is a prayer to ourselves. When we worry, we bring this area of concern to ourselves and ask, “Can you do something about it?” The pain of worry is that we don’t know whether we can, or we are pretty sure we cannot, deal properly with the situation. Worry asks of us, “Please fix it!” And worry realises that we cannot fix it.

We are not going to stop worrying overnight. In fact, I’m not sure we will ever be realised from worry until Jesus returns! But if we realise that worry is a prayer, then we might remember to turn that prayer to the one who can truly help – our Heavenly Father. And we might be released from the pain of worry by giving it over to Him instead of holding on to it and trying to fix it. Jesus knew that worry was a prayer to ourselves, and so advises:

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

Matthew 6:31–32

We should not run after the things we need, or run over them in our minds in worry. Instead, we should run to our Heavenly Father, who hears our prayer and knows what we need already.

Godly friendship, part two

In the previous post, we looked at the importance of friendship, and why friendship matters to God. So with that in mind, what does good, godly friendship look like? How can we cultivate those kinds of friendships in our lives?

It ought to be said at this point, that I am not the best example of friendship you can find. I love my friends dearly and want to be a good friend to people. But the fact is that I often fail, and don’t invest in my friendships as much as I would like to. I’m not writing as an expert in friendship, but rather as someone who wants to learn how to develop godly friendships.

Thankfully, since friendship matters to God, the Bible contains many examples of friendship to follow. Perhaps one of the best is found in the really short letter of 3 John in the New Testament. In this letter, the apostle John writes to a friend of his called Gaius. While there is much we can learn from the letter about the Christian faith and discipleship, there is a great deal in this short letter about friendship too.

Make strong friends, v1

To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth.

3 John 1

it’s tempting to think of the apostles as self-sufficient lone rangers who didn’t need anyone else in their Christian walk. But John, and others, had good friends with whom they could share the ups and downs of discipleship.

John describes Gaius as a dear friend “whom I love in the truth.” We tend to be afraid of talking about love among friends for fear that we might be misunderstood. But the Bible writers knew that love extends beyond the romantic or sexual to include deep love between friends. We would do well to recapture something of this.

John’s love for Gaius is love “in the truth”. It is their mutual love for Jesus that allows them to be such good friends and companions. This is vital, since it works against the danger of a friendship becoming a clique. A friendship that is based around the truth of following Jesus should never become an inward looking huddle. Rather it should extend to reach out to those outside the friendship group too.

Godly friendship begins with friendship with God, and then to others who share that common friendship. That great, extensive Psalm 119 includes the affirmation that “I am a friend to all who fear you” (Psalm 119:63). May that be true for us.

Mine deep friendships, v2–4

After the opening greeting, 3 John starts with one of the most down to earth verses:

Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.

3 John 2

John clearly cares about his friend. His friendship is not a super-spiritual one where the only thing that is discussed is the content of their latest Bible study. He cares about, and asks about, his friend’s health and well being. He is interested in the whole person. He wants to know and share the whole of his friend’s life.

There is an honesty and openness to godly friendships that is something rare and valuable. We live alongside plenty of people, but there are very few with whom we share every aspect of our lives. Marlene Dietrich once said:

“It’s the friends you can call up at 4 a.m. that matter.”

Marlene Dietrich

It’s very true, isn’t it? The friend who is there in a crisis is a true friend indeed. The friend who you can be honest with, and who is honest with you, is a great treasure. Perhaps the rarest friend is one from whom we can hear challenge and criticism and still know love and support at the same time.

“It is a great confidence in a friend to tell him your faults; greater to tell him his.”

Benjamin Franklin

That kind of honesty and openness in friendship is a rare thing in today’s age. We have many friends on social media perhaps, but we present to them a carefully curated image of our lives. True, maybe, but certainly not the whole truth. An honest friendship who you can be completely truthful with is hard to come by.

Actually, this has always been the case. Here’s a very poignant quote from George Bernard Shaw, relevant to all but especially to those of us who live in London:

“If you lived in London, where the whole system is one of false good-fellowship, and you may know a man for twenty years without finding out that he hates you like poison, you would soon have your eyes opened. There we do unkind things in a kind way: we say bitter things in a sweet voice: we always give our friends chloroform when we tear them to pieces.”

George Bernard Shaw, ‘You Never Can Tell’

How wonderful it is to have robust friendships who tell it like it is. How wonderful it is when the Holy Spirit so works in us that we can be that kind of friend for someone else!

Model good friendships, v9–12

The righteous choose their friends carefully

Proverbs 12:26

While we want to be open and not insular in our friendships, it is also important to choose good friends wisely. Equally important is to choose our models for friendship wisely too.

As John speaks to his friend Gaius, he points out two other examples of friendship and relationship, the first in verse 9:

Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us.

3 John 9

I don’t know if Diotrephes was a friend of John’s at some point, but he is certainly not now. His pride has made him jealous of John and he refuses to welcome him into the church. Here is an example of interpersonal relationships gone wrong. In one sense, there is nothing extraordinary and sinister happening here: it is ordinary pride and self-seeking that is driving the breakdown in relationship; it’s a pattern you can see working in churches and fellowships all around the world.

Compare that to John’s second example in verse 12:

Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone—and even by the truth itself.

3 John 12

Here’s a good model of friendship. Demetrius is spoken well of by everyone he comes across; he is someone who wants to build relationships. But more important than that. he is spoken well of by the truth. That is, he measures up well against God’s word. That is the kind of person to take note of, to be friends with and to watch how they build friendships. Is there a Demetrius around you that you can watch and learn from?

Maintain friendships deliberately, v13–14

I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.

3 John 14

John has written this letter to Gaius and we are profoundly grateful because it forms part of our Bible. But John doesn’t really want to write to Gaius, he wants to talk to him face to face.

Face to face is the way that friendships are made. Circumstances might mean that email or video calls or other means are the only way we can communicate at this point in time. But we should long to see people face to face, just as John did.

Face to face friendship takes time and takes effort. It doesn’t happen overnight or by accident. This kind of friendship needs to be intentional, something we seek after and something we invest in. Our busy lives and packed schedules rarely make time for good friendship building. Yet it is something we would benefit enormously from investing in.

One who loves a pure heart and who speaks with grace will have the king for a friend.

Proverbs 22:11

…so make good friends

3 John is, amongst other things, an encouragement to make good friends. The kind of friendship that John describes here is best illustrated by a passage from J. R. R. Tolkein’s masterpiece, the Lord of the Rings. Having set out from the Shire to carry the Ring, Frodo is unexpectedly caught up by his friends Merry and Pippin:

“It does not seem that I can trust anyone,” said Frodo. “It all depends on what you mean,” put in Merry. “You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin–to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours–closer than you yourself keep it. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo. Anyway: there it is. We know most of what Gandalf has told you. We know a good deal about the ring. We are horribly afraid–but we are coming with you; or following you like hounds.”

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (Houghton Mifflin 1994), 103

We are horribly afraid, but we are coming with you or following like hounds. That’s a great description of persistent, committed friendship; the kind of friendship that model and promote godliness.

Godly friendship, part one

How many friends do you have?

That can be a tricky question to answer. Many of us will turn to social media as a measure of our friendship circle: I have this many friends on Facebook or so many followers on Twitter. While there can be tremendous value in those online contacts, it is quite difficult to view them all as deep, significant friendships. Perhaps we turn to think about those we keep in touch with in other ways, like the number of people who are on our Christmas card list. Yes, once again, although it’s good to keep in contact with people, how many of those contacts know what is going on in your life at the moment?

We might go on to think about our neighbourhood, those we see regularly at work, at church, at the gym or school gate. However we count it, the chances are we have a large number of people we see often. But how many are true friends or simply acquaintances? How many know the details of our struggles, and how many confide in us with their struggles? The chances are not very many.

Friendship is a significant and important thing, yet something we rarely give much active thought toward. Friendship is something that God values highly too. Friendship crops up in many different ways throughout the Bible story and good friendship is held up as a powerful treasure. Ultimately, we see that friendship matters to God. Here are a few reminders of that:

Friendship begins with God

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

1 John 4:7–8

John talks about love a great deal in his first letter (and in his other writings). Reading John’s letter, however, you would not get the sense that he is talking about the kind of romantic feelings that might spring to mind when we hear the word ‘love’. Instead, John’s love describes the relationship that God desires between all Christian believers – care, concern and compassion for one another. You might replace ‘love’ with ‘friendship’, except for the fact that this view of relationships surpasses our often too small view of friendship.

So says John, ‘Dear friends, let us be friends with one another, for friendship comes from God.” Love – caring, compassionate love that lies at the heart of true friendship – comes from God. Friendship in its ideal form begins with God. We only know what to aim for in friendship by looking at the love and compassion of Almighty God.

Friendship is valuable

The wisdom literature of the Old Testament has a lot to say about friendship. Again and again the book of Proverbs talks about the value of good friends, and the danger of ill-chosen friends. Many of the psalms bemoan the betrayal of close friends and the pain it causes.

What you find in these books is that friendship is valuable. We are not meant to be ‘lone rangers’ and God has not designed us that way. We have been made to live in community, alongside others, to enjoy friendship.

In particular, good and godly friends help us to grow in godliness. “Wounds from a friend can be trusted,” says Proverbs 27v6, and it followed by this sound advice:

Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of a friend springs from their heartfelt advice.

Proverbs 27:9

The industrialist Henry Ford once said, “My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me.” The book of Proverbs would certainly agree. True friends are a source of growth in godliness. At the same time, a lack of investment in friendship can demonstrate a lack of godliness.

Anyone who withholds kindness from a friend forsakes the fear of the Almighty.

Job 6:14

Some of the most powerful arguments for the value of friendship also come from the example of godly friends. David and Jonathan had an unlikely yet transformative friendship; Daniel and his friends stood together for God in the midst of a foreign land. The Apostle Paul, who was seemingly very competent and able, benefited from close friends and companions such as Barnabas, Silas and Timothy.

Friendship is something God invites us to

Given all of the above, one of the most astonishing things that the Bible claims is that God wants to be friends with us. The power and value of friendship reveals how far short I fall of being a good friend. Yet the God of the universe is about calling people into friendship with himself.

Abraham was far from perfect, but he is called in various places a ‘friend of God’ (Isaiah 41:8; 2 Chronicles 20:7; James 2:23). Moses had a bad temper and yet he was called to speak to God face to face “as one speaks to a friend.” (Exodus 33:11). God calls imperfect people to be his friends.

Then enters Jesus, who is called “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” (Matthew 11:19). On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus says these extraordinary words to his disciples:

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends

John 15:13–15

Jesus calls us his friends. Jesus calls us into friendship with himself, with the Father and with the Holy Spirit. And Jesus went on to prove that friendship by laying down his life. For me. His friend.

From pain to praise

The Bible is full of calls to praise God. It is a constant theme through God’s word that we ought to say, sing and shout praise to our awesome Creator. The book of Psalms in particular is a constant reminder to give God glory and praise. Almost every psalm in the book has that theme and aim. Take Psalm 89 for example:

I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations.

Psalm 89:1

As the psalm continues, the song not only encourages praise, but gives reasons for praise: God’s love and faithfulness, and that this love and faithfulness endure forever. We are painted a picture of God whose love never falters, fails or fades. No wonder this God is worth praising, and no wonder that the psalm calls all of creation to join in this praise of God.

But this psalm takes a surprising turn. Most psalms have a twist in them, in fact. Many of the songs of the book of Psalms take us on a journey: they start with danger, difficulty or distress and move toward trust in God; they start with pain and end with praise.

But this psalm is different. It begins with praise and then, as the psalm draws to a conclusion, turns to pain: “But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry…” says verse 38. Having spoken of God’s praise, the psalmist now speaks of his pain, and the ‘forever’ of the opening verses becomes the “How long O Lord?” of verse 46.

O Lord, where is your former great love, which in your faithfulness you swore to David?

Psalm 89:49

The psalms are beautiful, not only by leading us to praise, but also in speaking of our pain. They give voice to our thanksgiving, and they also give voice to our grief. They teach us to sing, and they also teach us to wail. They allow us to vocalise our suffering and give us permission to speak of our struggles. We are allowed to talk of pain and distress, even to sing of it. It is part of our experience and the experience of being a follower of Jesus.

Wonderfully, as Christians, we are not stoics. We do not put a brave face on grief or suppress emotions. We are allowed to feel.

One of the reasons we can, and should, pour out our struggles to God is because he is the one who can truly make sense of them. Too often, my emotions don’t make sense to me, let alone to anyone else! But they make sense to God and he is more than willing to accept them.

Psalm 89 is a psalm about human experience. It’s also a psalm about the king. It talks of King David, and picks up the thread of his descendants. It’s probably written in the wake of attack by enemies. It is possibly penned in response to a failure by the king.

But verse 48 points to a greater hope in the face of failure:

What man can live and not see death, or save himself from the power of the grave?

It points us forward to the greater Son of great King David, the Lord Jesus Christ. He was the one who did live and not see death. He conquered the power of the grave. It is that hope that we hold onto in suffering and struggle. And it’s that hope that takes us from praise to pain and then back to praise once again.

Seek peace and pursue it

“Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it” Psalm 34:14

In the midst of Psalm 34 come these challenging words: “seek peace and pursue it.” As King David writes this psalm, he reflects on God’s salvation towards him. Rejoicing in God’s goodness, David describes what a person who knows God’s grace looks like: it looks like someone who turns from evil and does good; it looks like seeking peace and pursuing it.

Often I can think about Christians as those who have received peace, which of course is true. If we are trusting in Jesus, we have been given peace: peace with God and peace with others. Paul affirms to the Ephesians that Jesus “himself is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14). Following Jesus means we have received peace.

But being a Christian also means seeking peace too. If we know the peace of God that passes all understanding, then we will be drawn to be peacemakers ourselves. Peace is something we know, we love, and we value.

More than that, we are not just to love peace, but we are to seek it. David describes the one who knows God as someone who pursues peace. We don’t just wait for peace to happen or to come our way. We go out to find it, we are driven to make peace happen, we are those who run after peace and opportunities to cultivate peace.

What does that look like in the life of a believer? It certainly means seeking peace on a global scale. God is at work reconciling all of creation to himself in Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:20). As his disciples, we follow his lead in seeking peace between people and between us and God’s creation. Peace should be a constant theme of our prayers. Where we are able, we should join in action for peace around the world.

But global peace can seem like a huge and insurmountable thing to pursue. It’s only possible when God brings his kingdom in completely and fully at Jesus’ return. For that reason, the pursuit of global peace can leave us exhausted and tempted to stop the pursuit of peace.

That is why we need to seek peace and pursue it in the detail of our everyday lives as well. We are to think of peace globally and locally; we are to pursue it in the worldwide agenda, and in the nitty-gritty of our everyday lives.

In fact, it can sometimes feel easier to be a peacemaker on the global stage than it is to pursue peace in the mess of our relationships. Yet God calls us to both. He asks us to pray for peace in the world, and to work for peace in our own families and friendships. Both are needed, and both are part of the pursuit of peace. May God prevent us from pursuing one and neglecting the other, but rather give us grace to be peacemakers in every area of our lives.

The numbers game

This past Sunday was a significant point in our church’s life: our annual church meeting. It’s a powerful time for us to celebrate what God has been doing over the past year and look forward prayerfully to what God is doing in the future.

Along with all these things, we have a number of pieces of business we need to do as well. Two of those are to do with our electoral roll (an equivalent of membership in the Church of England) and finances – activities that are concerned with numbers.

Numbers are an attractive thing in church life. They are concrete and quantifiable, easy to measure and easy to compare. For that reason, it can be terrifically easy for us to measure success in terms of numbers.

After all, numbers allow us to compare one church to another. Do I have more people coming to my church than this church or that church? Do we have a bigger budget, a larger income, more substantial giving than this other church or congregation or gathering?

Numbers also allow us to compare one year to another. Have our numbers gone up or gone down? Are more people coming to church this year compared to last year? Are more people giving this year? Do we have more to spend or less?

Numbers have an insidious sense of power attached to them. If this church has bigger numbers than that church, then does that make them more influential? Better respected? More important?

All of these things slip easily into the minds of church leaders. I like to measure with numbers because numbers feel familiar, they feel understandable, they feel safe. But the church, and growth in God’s kingdom, is not a question of numbers.

Numbers do have a place in church life, however. Finances are important to kingdom work, and it is vital that we are careful and responsible stewards of the money people have given to the work of the church. A finance report at a church meeting, therefore, is a necessary thing.

Equally, knowing the size of the church is helpful at times too. It is good to know if people have left the church, to follow up with them, find out why and help as needed. It is good to know if people have joined the church, and especially to celebrate where people have come to new faith in Jesus Christ. It is not necessarily wrong to know the size of a church in numbers.

Ultimately, however, it is not the numbers that are important. It is what those numbers represent: generous giving, sacrificial service, people with the complexities of their lives and struggles. Church life is about those things, not the numbers. Church life is also about those things that numbers can never measure: growth, life, spiritual health, fruitfulness, the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. Those are the things that we can never really quantify in numbers but should look for and celebrate. Numbers have their place, but they are a tool, not a goal.

Turning Godward

‘Repentance’ is a word that you come to know quickly in Christian circles. It’s not a phrase that is used all that much in daily life outside of the church. You might talk about someone as being ‘repentant’ if they are particularly sorry about something or other, but repentance itself is a concept reserved for church life.

Repentance is essential for the Christian life. When Jesus began his earthly ministry, as he went around the villages of Galilee and Judaea, his message was ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.’ If we are to grow in following Jesus, therefore, it is important that we grapple with the idea of repentance.

When we think of repentance we most likely think of it in relation to the start of the Christian life. To become a Christian is to repent of our sins and ask Jesus for forgiveness. That may well be the way in which we summarise the good news of Jesus Christ. Jesus calls all people to come and repent, and repentance is the gateway into the kingdom of God.

All that is true, but it presents a one-sided view of repentance. It only shows the negative part of repentance: what we turn away from. But repentance contains a positive too: we turn away from things, in order to turn toward something else. For the Christian the essence of repentance is that we turn from sin and turn toward God.

This is, I believe, a helpful way of thinking about repentance as not only the start of the Christian life, but the way of living the Christian life. Certainly we continue to sin, and continue to have sinful behaviour that we need to turn away from and bring to Jesus for forgiveness. But more than that, our daily life as followers of Jesus is turning away from our own sinful and selfish ways and turning back towards Jesus Christ. It is turning Godward.

Another summary of the gospel could be found in Isaiah chapter 45:

“Turn to me and be saved” Isaiah 45:22

The daily discipline of repentance is moment by moment turning Godward. This is more than an action, it is an attitude and a way of life. It is looking to God for our strength and wisdom; it is turning to Jesus as the way and the truth and the life. Turning Godward involves all three members of the Trinity: we turn our face toward God the Father, we turn through the saving work of Jesus the Son, we are able to turn by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

I find this idea of turning Godward to be a tremendous help in cultivating a life of repentance. I am not only turning away from what is bad; I am turning toward all that is good and holy and right. Being a Christian is turning to Jesus, not once but always. Following Jesus is turning Godward day by day.

Being washed

The night before Jesus was crucified, he taught his disciples an important lesson. He gathered with his closest friends to celebrate the Passover meal. But before the meal began, he took off his outer garments, wrapped a towel around his waist and washed their feet. It was an act that astonished and bemused those first disciples. Here was the King of Kings taking the form of a lowly servant. Here was the Mighty and Majestic One stopping down to serve. Here was the one who deserved all honour and glory seeking to honour others.

Jesus takes this amazing act of humble service and uses it to illustrate the life of a disciple. Anyone who claims to follow Jesus must follow this example. To belong to Jesus is to serve others. Since he came not to be served, but to serve, we will do the same. The life of a disciple of Christ is one of life-giving service and love for others. The church’s calendar remembers that meal as ‘Maundy’ Thursday, from the Latin for ‘command’, honouring Jesus’ command to his disciples to love one another.

Despite the powerful picture of service that Jesus acts out, there is a lesson we need to learn before that. As Jesus takes the position of a slave and washes his disciples’ feet, each are speechless by this act of humility. All of them, that is, until Peter. Peter cannot believe what he is seeing and his disbelief spills out of his mouth:

”Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” John 13:6

In fact, Peter refuses to be served by Jesus. I am sure this is out of a desire to honour and respect his Lord and Master. How can Jesus, the Messiah, go about washing the feet of his disciples? Surely it should be the other way around?

Peter doesn’t think Jesus should serve him; he thinks he should be serving Jesus. And so Jesus gently rebukes Peter, saying:

“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” John 13:8

Here is a lesson we need to learn along with Peter. Before it is a picture of service, Jesus’ actions are a picture of being washed. It is a powerful illustration of what Jesus would go on to do the next day. As his body is broken and his blood poured out, he dies to wash us clean. As he rises to new life on Easter Sunday, he enables us to stand as new people, renewed through Jesus’ work.

This work of being made clean comes first. Peter wants to serve and Jesus will commission him to serve (after a few bumps in the road on the way). But before action comes cleansing. Before service comes being served. Before working for Jesus we need to be washed by Jesus. This is the order of the kingdom. We cannot swap things around. We need the grace of God given through the cross before we can serve others and love as Jesus loved.

Grounded guidance

The question of guidance is something that every Christian ends up grappling with at some point or another. The whole area of guidance can be a tricky thing to navigate. How do I know which way the Lord is leading me? How can I listen to God’s direction? How can I step forward with confidence?

One of the tricky areas of guidance is the balance between God’s direction and our responsibility to act. Should I simply sit and wait for God’s clear leading before taking a step forward? Or should I make plans and decisions and hope that God is in it, and that he would direct if I was heading the wrong way?

There is no easy answer to these questions, and the balance between these two things – God’s leading and our action – is a mysterious one. Yet, I was intrigued to read the following combination of verses in the Old Testament book of Numbers.

In Numbers, God has saved his people Israel from slavery in Egypt. They are on their way to the promised land, and God is leading them to where they need to go. During this period of Israel’s life, God’s direction comes to them in what appears to be the most direct way possible. So Numbers chapter nine records this statement:

At the Lord’s command the Israelites set out, and at his command they encamped.

Numbers 9:18

That’s the kind of direct leading from God that most of us would long for! In practice, this guidance from God came in the form of a cloud, which rested on the Tabernacle where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. When the cloud rose, it was time for the Israelites to move, and when the cloud rested it was time for them to stop. God guides and directs his people. It could not be clearer and plainer then that.

However, a chapter or so later, we have another intriguing verse. Here Moses is talking to his father-in-law’s son, who is planning to head back to his own country. Moses wants him to stay, so says to him these words:

Moses said, “Please do not leave us. You know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you can be our eyes.

Numbers 10:31

It’s a great argument. This man knows the area well and has great wisdom to apply to the situation. He can advise on the best places to stop and rest, and for the people to set up camp.

But it raises a question: Isn’t God guiding the people of Israel? How should Moses’ relative guide on the places to camp, if God is guiding them?

The Bible doesn’t explain. It doesn’t give any answers or explanation. It is just happy with these two truths sitting side by side and both being true. God guided the Israelites from the cloud over the Tabernacle. And, at the same time, the wisdom of Moses’ relative guided them to the places to camp. Perhaps the cloud of God’s presence showed them the area to stop in, and then more specific guidance was needed about the best place to camp there? Maybe, but we simply aren’t told.

What this incident tells me is that the complexities of God’s guidance and human wisdom and action are closely intertwined. God may guide in a very visible, supernatural way, like a pillar of cloud or fire. Equally, God may guide my thinking as I carefully consider how to honour him with my options, and seek the counsel and wisdom of others. It is not as if God is in one, but not in the other. God is guiding and leading in all these different ways, and we can trust him to do so.

Our desire for guidance might look for the cloudy pillar, but we might find God directing in the wise words of others, or as we take a considered step forward for his glory.