SHAPING OUR CHARACTERS Reading: Colossians ch. 3
What a wealth of meaning is conveyed to us by the use of that expression: "If the Lord will"—God willing. It should never be used by us without thought, for it is a complete acknowledgment of the truth and of the fact that our lives in all their varying requirements are under the definite control and are the direct concern of our heavenly Father. Further, what a wealth of comfort and encouragement and exhortation is there for the taking. That God does rule in our lives is a fact, whether we acknowledge it or not, because we have become His children, good or bad. Because of that truth, we are His, to care for and to discipline according as His foreknowledge knows best.
To know this is to trust. It is an end to undue anxiety or worry, for God wills, God is in control. We need not seek a reason or an immediate explanation for the things that come upon us. All our ways and our days are under the control of our Father who is directing things according to His purpose with us. Always provided that we are striving to live our lives in obedience to His revealed will, then we just cannot fail, for God is in control.
The Word of God, and six thousand years of history, teach us that for His children happiness can be based only upon an acknowledging of these principles. They are set out in our readings from Paul's letter to the Colossians. Turn for a moment and reread some of the verses in chapter 3. Verse 1: "Ifye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. Forye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God." Then comes, after the statement of that truth that our lives are not our own but are God's, the statement of how we should regulate our lives upon godly standards, godly principles; and so verse 8 (and these are not easy commandments for, as we read them, if we examine our hearts, we shall each one acknowledge how often we fail in one or more): "But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him." Verse 12: "Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you" (and please God, Christ has forgiven us completely) "so also do ye. And above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfectness." And when we have done that—and this is what we mean when we say that happiness is based upon these principles—"Let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful."
Let us now analyse a little more deeply the working out of this principle. Perhaps for a short while, if we have good health and a measure of worldly prosperity, we can fall into the error of thinking we can live our lives much to ourselves: not consciously leaving God and His purpose out of account, not consciously denying the truth of these principles, but in fact, in our very attitude to life, so doing. Then let His controlling hand fall upon us; let it be a chastening hand, and sad indeed becomes our plight if the basis of our lives is other than a striving after righteousness, a striving after putting these principles into daily practice. Our readings combine to teach this lesson.
Israel in captivity resented the purpose of God with them, opposed His prophets, refused to commit themselves to His commands. God's purpose worked out with them, for God was in control, but it worked out to their condemnation generally. Now we in this twentieth century are the Israel of God, and the responsibility now has become ours to shape our characters according to His laws and according to our appreciation of His purpose with us. We should all clearly appreciate that God has a purpose with each of us as individuals. So God sees beyond these few years of the present to the eternity of the kingdom and beyond; and He knows the part allocated to us to play in that eternity. We should appreciate this truth and shape our lives accordingly, being disciplined, working out that character, that strength of character; not caring about the weaknesses of the body but working out strength of character so that when the day comes for God to perfect His purpose we shall be ready, not having opposed what we know to be the purpose of God—God's will.
When we arose from the waters of baptism—as Paul told those at Colosse—we were dead to our past life, and we continued to be dead to it, or should have done. We accepted with joyfulness the fact that from that moment onwards, through Jesus, God was in charge, in complete control of our lives. No longer were our ways our own. Our life was Christ's and it became our duty to shape it according as God pleased. We believe it is most important that we should each realize how far the lives of us all are the direct concern of our Father and are the subject at all times of the watchful control of the angels whom He has appointed. As long as we try to continue to cultivate godly characteristics, the angels will work out His purpose with us. Our failings will be forgiven and we shall be strengthened, even as He prepares us through trials and sufferings in differing degrees.
Unseen by human eye, throughout every day and night the angels are there, busily controlling the affairs of the children of God. This has always been. Paul exhorted those at Colosse to recognize it and to enjoy its truth. Peculiarly, we never have any trouble in seeing it in the lives of others, especially where God has revealed the truth of it. For example, we know God intervened in the life of Abraham. Abraham was there, living his daily life with his parents and relatives in Ur of the Chaldees, and he would have died there if God had not had a purpose with him. Throughout Abraham's life he never ceased, each hour, each minute, to be under the charge and control of the powerof the angels. God's hand prepared and shaped him throughout his life, and he was a willing and an appreciative subject—that is important— and because of that Abraham will be blessed.
Think of Isaac. He would not have been born had it not been for the purpose of God with and through his parents. If the angel had not been there, Esau would surely have killed Jacob—so great had his hatred been toward him—when they met, when Jacob had (rightly) so much fear of the reprisals that Esau would take. If the angel had not been there, Joseph would very likely have stayed down in the pit and died there.
Then think of David when he went out to kill the lion or the bear. Could he possibly have succeeded? The strength was not his own; the weakness of the lion or the bear was not their fault. It was the power of God's angel in the life of one whom he had chosen.
Mary, would she have borne Messiah, who is the Saviour? Those men and women at Colosse would not have been separated by the call of the gospel to God's purpose with them; whilst we, sitting here, would probably never have met each other. We would have gone our ways, each in our individual lives, and lived our lives according to our own whims and fancies. But God had a purpose, and that purpose He is working out in and through us all. The hand of God is ceaselessly at work through the lives of every one of His children, preparing them by their daily lives and their daily experiences for the eternal future which He has for each of them as an individual son or daughter.
Turn to Psalm 34. The whole of the Psalm emphasises the truth of this, but for the moment read from verse 19: "Many are the afflictions of the righteous." Now stop to think. There is no qualification there. It is a statement of truth. Almost, one might say, because they are righteous in God's eyes they must have affliction, for God brings it upon them according as He knows best. That, then, is a statement of truth, that "Many are the afflictions of the righteous." "But", the Psalmist continues, "the Lord delivereth him out of them all." Stop to think. Not immediately. No doubt He let David struggle for quite a while with the lion and with the bear. We know he let Joseph stay down in the pit for quite a while, whilst he pleaded. But, "the Lord delivereth them out of them all." "He keepeth all his bones:" and, in the final sense, "not one of them is broken." "Evil shall slay the wicked: and they that hate the righteous shall be desolate", and their end is to be as though they had never been; but for those with whom God has His purpose—"The Lord redeemeth the soul of his servants: and none of them that trust in him shall be desolate."
This is the mystery of godliness referred to in the opening chapters of the epistle to the Colossians—the divine purpose of selecting and preparing a family of earthborn mortals. During the period of preparation all things are for their sakes. This is true of the major issues of life and of the seemingly unimportant details of day to day happenings. The hearts and minds of those in power are in God's hands. We tell our interested friends that, and we prove it by references to Daniel chapter 4 and other conclusive passages. But see the truth of it in our own lives. The angels turn them which way God wills: whether it be war or peace, world harmony or disunity; whether it shall be a Labour or a Conservative Government; all is of God, as God wills. And for the daily life of each of His children, what is it? The angels tirelessly, patiently, ceaselessly are at work.
Is there a serpent needed to test a son or daughter of God? Then one in one guise or another will be provided. We do not see them as serpents, we do not see it as the hand of God. It is just one point of our weakness held open to temptation. Shall we fail? Shall we succeed? Shall we be strong to resist, or shall we after a while give in, excusing ourselves? That is the test. It is of God. A temptation will be placed to test the godliness and the strength of God's children. It is for them to remain faithful; and if they fail it is for them, with absolute humility, to recognize their failure, to pray for forgiveness, and to gain strength. If it is required for a wandering tribe of Arabs to find a Joseph just drawn out of a pit, then their steps will be so directed. Is there someone needed to help us out of a particular emergency? Trust in God. That person will come, just as the steps of those Arabs could not fail to find the place where Joseph was. It may be some while. It may be longer than we think. But God is there.
If the hand of a young boy wants steadying, and the flight of a stone needs to be directed into the forehead of a Goliath, then the angel will be there to direct and to control—unseen but in complete command. All the brute strength of the giant was of no avail. But we must realize that David had to have the faith and the courage to go out there alone and fight. He had to have the courage to stand in front of the giant, who was not going to play with him but kill him. He had to have the faith to pick up the sling, to put the stone in it, and to throw it. And what was his appreciation of the position? We are left in no doubt. Turn to I Samuel 17.34: "David said unto Saul, Thy servant kept his father's sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock: And I went out after him, and smote him." Have you noticed that David was not attacked by the lion and the bear. He went out after them and caught them and smote them. "Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear: and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the armies of the living God." Was that boasting? Being over-confident? No, it was just faith and trust in the truth that the angel of God was never away from him. Verse 37: "And David said moreover, The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine. And Saul said unto David, Go, and the Lord be with thee." And the Lord was with him. The angel directed that incident for the salvation of David and of Israel.
Is this our appreciation of the hand of God in our daily lives, or are we spiritually blind to the presence of our individual angels? We turn back to that 34th Psalm and take the comfort which is given. Psalm 34.7 (We are not taking to ourselves a comfort of which we are not sure.We are not required to hope that God is with us. We are not even required to trust. We are expected to know, because we have been told so.) "The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them. O taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in him. O fear the Lord, ye his saints: for there is no want to them that fear him." That is, no want in the absolute sense. Of course God's children will have their periods of want, their periods of privation, their periods of difficulty, as David had, but in the full and complete sense there will not be any want. "The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger: but they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing. Come, ye children, hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord. What man is he that desireth life, and loveth many days, that he may see good?" Then comes the discipline of the way of God: "Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it" (verses almost parallel to those in Colossians). "The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry. The face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth. The righteous cry, and the Lord heareth, and delivereth them out of all their troubles. The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit."
It is stated so clearly and positively that we need not doubt. Here is a truth of which we must never lose sight. None of us is without trials, anxieties and problems. Some are very severe. If we had our way we would never have had them. Would we willingly have afflicted ourselves with the things that come upon us? We know we would not. We would have found a reason for doing without them. And when they came upon us, if we had had our way we would have removed them in an hour, a day or a week—and perhaps by so doing have lost our hope of life, lost our chances of sharing in God's family in the kingdom. The weight of each trial is the direct concern of God, through the angel. God will not suffer us ever to be over-tempted, but He does expect us to bear with understanding the trials brought upon us. We ought to have the spiritual foresight and strength to stand firm, with thankfulness, knowing what is being accomplished.
Again, let us realize that not enough of the trial would be just as bad as too much. God alone knows our needs; God alone knows our will to bear; and God is directing. We are helped to understand if we turn again to the circumstances of the lives of others of the children of God. It is very difficult to see in our own lives, but if we see the cases of others, especially those revealed in the word, and then apply what we learn from them to ourselves, we shall find the strength and the comfort.
Take Paul. He illustrates perfectly what is meant. He was to be shown "how great things he must suffer"—not once, not twice, but continually throughout his probation. Was the trial hard for him? He besought thrice in regard to one trial, and God still did not take it away. We recall that long list of sufferings, almost beyond physical endurance; but what was the truth? There was the overruling care of the mighty angel, and towards the end of his life Paul was permitted to see him, to know of a truth that he stood with him. Turn to Acts 27 and let us try to realize what this must have meant to the apostle. Verse 21: "But after long abstinence Paul stood forth in the midst of them, and said, Sirs, ye should have hearkened unto me, and not have loosed from Crete, and to have gained this harm and loss. And now I exhort you to be of good cheer: for there shall be no loss of any man's life among you, but of the ship. For there stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve, saying, Fear not, Paul, thou must be brought before Caesar: and, lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee."
Did the angel miraculously take the ship by the power ofGod, lift it out of the tempest and place it gently on the foreshore? No. They all had to undergo the fear, and the terrible might of the storm as it broke the ship into pieces, and clinging on to pieces of wood they were dashed through the waves to the shore. Were they all saved? Yes, after they had undergone the trial to its full. Over and over again Paul emphasizes the truth of this. Verse 33: "And while the day was coming on, Paul besought them all to take meat, saying, This day is the fourteenth day that ye have tarried and continued fasting, having taken nothing. Wherefore I pray you to take some meat: for this is for your health: for there shall not an hair fall from the head of any of you." So verse 44: "And the rest, some on boards, and some on broken pieces of the ship. And so it came to pass, that they escaped all safe to land."
What do you think Paul was thinking when, having heard the assurance of the angel, there were some amongst the soldiers who wanted to put the prisoners to death, wanted to draw their swords to kill them? Paul must have been absolutely sure that the soldier had no power whatsoever against his angel. He had the sword in his hand. Was he going to kill him? It could not have mattered in the slightest to Paul to see that sword, for he had heard from God that he must appear before Caesar in Rome.
We do not actually see this angel in our lives, but we can be confident and certain that he is always there, and only the spiritually blind will fail to acknowledge his presence. The recorded inspired history of four thousand years leaves us without excuse. Our Father's hand has always been held out to us, His children; it is there to save, and because of that truth our lives should never become despondent or apparently hopeless. Again we say, do not look for the reason, do not try to understand the trial. Let us work out the principles upon which God works in our lives and leave the rest to Him.
Remember Jacob as he came near to Esau. He put one drove in front of the other, knowing that he must eventually come face to face with the one who was apparently stronger than himself. See David as he walked out to meet Goliath, a boy against that trained giant. See Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego as they were thrown bound into the fire. Could anything have been more apparently hopeless? See Daniel when he was thrown amongst the lions who could have torn him to pieces with their mouths or cut him into ribbons with their claws. Look again at Joseph as he lay in the pit after his brethren had put him there; and see Paul tossed in the water on a piece of wood. Hopeless? Look again at Jesus hanging on the cross, with his life's blood flowing out; then the breath going, and his body being taken and laid in the tomb, helpless. Where were their angels? Were they in the hands of chance, circumstance, time?
Look again. See Jacob now being blessed and embraced by Esau, whom he had feared. See David as Goliath sinks to the ground with the stone in his forehead. Look at Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego walking about in the midst of the flames, unhurt, unsinged.
Look at Daniel lying by the side of the lions. They could not touch him. Look at Joseph, though sold, yet delivered from the pit and his brethren, and given food and drink. See Paul standing on the seashore, safe after the storm. And above all, look at Jesus as he emerged from the tomb to complete newness of life. See them all, and look at ourselves, sons and daughters of God even as they, and "let the peace of God rule in our hearts." "Our life is hid with Christ in God." We have neither to fear nor to worry, but submit ourselves to God from day to day as He works out His salvation in us. None of us knows what is necessary to bring us to the kingdom. That God alone knows. Is it to be suffering or pain? God will bring it. Is it to be loneliness? We shall have it. Is it to be extreme anxiety? It will be there. The denial of what we greatly desire? God will withhold it. Loss of sight or of hearing? God will bring it. Let us learn not to resent or to regret, but to see the angel helping, guiding, strengthening, so that in that great day of family union we may stand alongside those who have all come out of great tribulation, less or more, and have been judged worthy to be sons and daughters of God throughout those ages of completeness and perfection:—C. Parks