Stephen Steele

When God Blesses Others and Not Us

“The Spirit of the Lord is not straitened, and what he bestows on one corner of the vineyard is not given at the expense of another. It is rather designed to awaken a desire and expectation for like gifts of grace, where they have not yet been received, and to give manifest proof to all of God’s infinite power and goodness.”

How do you react when God blesses others and not you? When a neighbouring church sees conversions and yours doesn’t? Particularly if questions could be asked of both their theology and their practice?
The temptation is to be bitter. Or even try to belittle what’s happening in order to make ourselves feel better.
In his commentary on Jonah, nineteenth century pastor Patrick Fairbairn counsels a better way:
“Whenever and wherever God is pleased to manifest of his grace and goodness, it is our part to acknowledge and rejoice in the manifestation.
“It may possibly be done through instruments that we should not have expected to be peculiarly honoured, or in regions which are in a manner cut off from our sympathies and regards. That such showers of blessing should descend there, while scarcely a drop falls where our desires and efforts are mainly engaged, may often appear strange. It may even be felt to be mortifying, as if what were given to the one were somehow withheld from the other.
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Retirement: The New Afterlife?

It used to be that people believed in an afterlife. The Christian hope is that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us”(Romans 8:18). But take away the hope of a glorious future beyond this life and we have to try and find it here and now. The idea of ending our days in a retirement community in Florida might be beyond most of us. But increasingly, people are living for retirement.

The fastest growing metro area in the United States is called The Villages. It’s a retirement community that takes up eighty square miles of central Florida and is home to one hundred and forty thousand people. It contains nine state-of-the-art hospitals, a dozen sprawling shopping centres, over one hundred bars and restaurants, and more than fifty golf courses.
Retirement is certainly big business. The US has a total GDP of twenty-three trillion dollars, but the assets of all American pension funds are nearly fifty percent larger, making them easily the biggest players in the financial markets. In the words of journalist Sam Kriss, ‘mass consumer pensions have turned our entire adulthood into a preamble to old age. You work for three, four, five decades—all so you can enjoy those few, brief, useless years between retirement and death’. He goes as far as to say that ‘the entire global economy is now a machine for producing satisfied retirees’.
The Villages attempts to sell people the thing they have been working for all their lives – perfect leisure before they die. Sounds ideal? Kriss visited the Villages and says that it’s the worst place he’s ever been to.
So what’s not to like? According to Kriss, the message of The Villages is that ‘the true purpose of human life is to have fun, to drink and play golf, and you can only really experience the true purpose of human life once you’ve retired’.
It used to be that people believed in an afterlife. The Christian hope is that ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’ (Romans 8:18). But take away the hope of a glorious future beyond this life and we have to try and find it here and now.
The idea of ending our days in a retirement community in Florida might be beyond most of us.
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It’s Not Enough to Be Right

“There is scarce anything that gives such mortal stabs to religion among a people as contention. Where contention is alive, there religion will be dead; and there will be nothing flourishing that is good.” [Jonathan] Edwards goes as far as to say that Christ’s wounds “have been as it were opened afresh by the selfishness and sinister ends, and high spirits, and envy, and anger of contentious persons.”

It’s been well said that it’s possible to win the argument but lose the person.
Similarly, it’s possible to be on the right side of a debate, but conduct ourselves in a way which undoes any good that might have come from it.
That’s something which Jonathan Edwards highlights in a 1737 sermon on a lesser-known Bible character – the “wise woman” from the city of Abel (2 Samuel 20:19). Although we don’t know her name, she was, to quote the title of Edwards’ sermon, “Peaceable and faithful, amid division and strife”.
A Time of Division
This time of division in Israel had seen the rejection of God’s anointed king, David, in favour of his son Absalom. (This of course pictures the rejection of “the true David, the rightful king of the church”). Absalom’s death brought an end to the conflict, but there were still clear tensions between the tribes, and a man called Sheba saw the opportunity to exploit them and lead another rebellion.
Yet amidst the chaos, this wise woman was, in her own words, “one of those who are peaceable and faithful in Israel.” Her great concern was not for herself but for “the heritage of the LORD” (v. 19) and her wise actions led to Sheba losing his head (literally) and the conflict coming to an end.
You Can Be on the Right Side—and Not Be Saved
As Edwards points out however, it’s possible to be on the right side of a debate without being “one of those who are peaceable and faithful in Israel.” “Though he may be right in his judgment, and the party he opposes wrong…he may, notwithstanding this, be exceeding far from the character of the wise woman.” Indeed, “He may be a very contentious person, and carry himself very contentiously, and be the blamable cause of a great deal of that strife that is carried on.”
For an example of someone who fits that description, we need look no further than Joab, who had recently been stripped of his role as army commander by David. Joab, as Edwards points out, “was on the right side in this quarrel… yet he was not influenced by good principles, nor did he act from right ends, in what he did. He minded nothing but his own interest and, to get his will, acted from a proud, revengeful spirit; and this drove him to very unwarrantable and spiteful actions.”
When Joab – who is now effectively commanding the army once more – exclaims to the wise woman “Far be it from me, that I should swallow up or destroy!” (v. 20), he is literally just fresh from the cold-blooded murder of his rival, Amasa. For Edwards, it’s all very up-to-date:
“So in cases of strife among a people, ’tis often so, that though men are of the right side, yet in the management of things, they are like Joab. They justify themselves by their having the right of the cause; but indeed they act mainly from private views, to gratify their own envy, and the spirit they have against some particular persons. They manage things in a very unsuitable, fierce, and un-Christian manner. These therefore are not some of those that are peaceable and faithful in Israel.”
Such people might even oppose others for their contention, “yet their manner of opposing it is itself contentious.” “The way to put out fire,” Edwards contends, “is not to oppose fire to fire, but to throw on water.” Joab “condemned the factious spirit that others showed…but did all in a fierce, furious manner.”
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