For some of us, attempting a thousand-piece jigsaw or a massive cryptic crossword puzzle can stimulate the little grey cells; and a whole range of activities – watching ghost movies, or venturing into sky-diving or swallowing Viagra – can induce tension, or fear, or ecstasy in others of us humans. Thankfully, the normal Christian life, lived ‘in the Spirit’, is never bland; even when sometimes we must plod through a routine phase that is somewhat ‘daily’, it need never be dull.
Peter was usually ‘Mr. Motor-mouth’, so what could possibly have made him become speechless? And Paul was not only a smart theological analyst but also king of the wordsmiths; so whatever was it that caused him to become both dumbfounded and dumbstruck? Let’s see if we can find out the reasons by taking a close look at a few scriptures about matters that left each apostle gasping, unable to put into words what he experienced nor, in fact, could he begin to understand what was happening. And could any of these revelations still astound us today? We’ll consider the texts in biblical order that scholars reckon was also the sequence in which they were recorded in writing.
- Inarticulate groanings in prayer (Romans 8:21)
Paul thought of the present order in creation as groaning with labour pains to give birth to new heavens and earth when Jesus returns (Romans 8:19-20; all quotations from the New International Version of 2011). In Romans 8:14-30 Paul highlights two inspiring activities of the Holy Spirit in the born-again believer:
* First, ‘by him we cry, “Abba Father”.’ This is because: ‘The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children’ and therefore ‘co-heirs with Christ … if indeed we share in his suffering in order that we may also share in his glory’ (Romans 8:15-17).
* He then elaborates on how Christians at times simply cannot put their travailing prayers of intercession into actual intelligible word (Romans 8: 22-23 and 26-27).
I doubt very much that Paul here was thinking of praying in tongues, which elsewhere he says make no sense to the speaker or his congregation (see 1 Corinthians 14:13-17). He had already mentioned that ‘anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understand them; they speak mysteries by the Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 14:2).
Speaking in tongues makes no sense to the scientific mind – but it can be powerfully productive as a weapon of spiritual warfare. I learned this lesson soon after I first spoke in tongues. I joined other ‘charismatics’ across Bristol each week to study God’s word afresh and to pray for the advance of the kingdom of God in our city. One evening at home I felt prompted to withdraw from my family to the quietness of another room to pray. I found myself praying for members of these new groups of Spirit-filled believers, and as my attention focused on Nancy I drew a blank about what I should ask for. However, I had a strong sense that she was right then in some specific need of God’s grace, so I switched to praying for a while in tongues. Eventually the burden lifted, I checked the time and left off to read a bedtime story to my children. When next we met together two days later, Nancy testified that she’d been ironing one evening just as Ron her osteopath husband left home to treat one of his patients, and she felt quite neglected and selfishly angry. As she thumped the iron on some cloth item, ‘Suddenly I felt peace overcome my temper and I thought, “Someone is praying for me”.’ When I asked her what day and what hour this had occurred she told me to the very minute – the same moment that I had been in prayer for her!
On another occasion I joined our class of Bible college students to pray around Sarah’s bed where she was grounded with yet another threat of a miscarriage. She and Raymond had only been married a short while before they joined us as live-in resident students. Now, while several prayed empathetically for the life of the unborn, I found myself unable to add my request to theirs, and felt quite bad about it, so I quietly called to God in tongues. A missionary was present who had come to visit a student from his church; he overheard several phrases of my whispered praying. He phoned Marilyn a few days later, and in the course of conversation asked, ‘Where did Hugh learn Italian?’ She assured him that I knew none [well, only odd words about music and food – like crescendo, pianissimo, spaghetti and macaroni]. When she asked: ‘So, what did he say?’ this missionary to Italy replied: ‘”God bless this ‘saint-ess'”; and he used correct vocabulary and grammar, with an Italian accent.’ And, in fact, I had not prayed for an unborn baby. Soon after that, medical examination revealed that Sarah had never been pregnant. In fact, she was unable to conceive because of severe ovary problems. Later they adopted three adorable children.
How much more efficient our praying could be if we harnessed the gift of tongues purposefully.
- Unspeakable ecstasy (2 Corinthians 12:3-4)
Paul’s spiritual family in Corinth had been completely taken in by the grand style of false apostles whose spiritual boasting was hollow. He felt so exasperated that he decided reluctantly to disclose to them, for the first time ever, a heavenly vision that he’d experienced some fourteen years earlier.
I ‘was caught up to … heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know – God knows … and heard inexpressible things … that no one is permitted to tell’ (see 2 Corinthians 12:1-10).
- Mind-blowing blessings (Ephesians 3:20)
’Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church, and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.’ (Ephesians 3:20-21).
Reviewing my life of more than eight decades, most of it spent in Christian ministry across the nations, the testimonies of God’s guidance, safe-keeping and timely provisions would fill a book – all marvellous, some truly miraculous, and not a few unimaginable beforehand. For half-a-century I never had a humanly guaranteed income. At no time did my family ever suffer; even when we moved our home-base a few times to another part of the country and their school curriculum seemed out of kilter, still they thrived.
Even some of God’s minor interventions were mind-blowing. Once I left home with enough fuel but an empty bank account. And when I returned with spending money, the children couldn’t wait to tell me of how Mum had run out of cash, but while they were taking a family stroll, the eldest spotted a five-pound note on the ground – that had a lot of spending power in those days.
And when I knew it was time to retire from my final local church pastorate, a brand new car was provided from a quite unexpected source – our first new car ever! – and a cheque arrived in the mail that enabled us to pay off the balance of our mortgage.
- Incomprehensible peace (Philippians 4:7)
‘Rejoice in the Lord always … Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:4-7).
We have a choice as to how we will respond to any situation that may arise. ‘There are no problems,’ someone has said, ‘only difficult life situations that will need to be dealt with.’ ‘Sorry to keep you waiting’ is often said. I recall once replying: ‘Oh, I wasn’t waiting, I was enjoying myself’ – or, more truly, I could have said, ‘I was enjoying God.’! Paul did not rejoice in his circumstances while in captivity in Rome, but ‘in the Lord’. ‘How are you under the circumstances?’ should be given the answer: ‘I’m on top of the circumstances.’ Of course, you have to discipline yourself constantly like a good athlete to attain that as a way of life.
Paul here tells the church in Philippi that they must choose at all times and in every circumstance to ‘rejoice in the Lord’. After all, Paul had done just that in the dungeon of their neighbourhood jail and out of that situation their church had been brought into being.
‘Let everyone see your flexible adaptability’ [Greek = ‘yieldedness’]. He reminds them that the Lord is close by. So:
(i) Don’t worry about future matters.
(ii) Tell God what you need in this present time; and
(iii) thank God for what he has done in the past.
Then you will experience God’s illogical peace, that will guard your hearts like a garrison [=Greek] – a garrison of commando troops with night sights and high velocity guns, we could paraphrase it nowadays!
- Astounding joy (1 Peter 1:8)
Straight off in this letter, Peter praises God because: ‘In his great mercy he has given us [‘God’s select exiles, scattered throughout’ Eastern Mediterranean countries] new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’, and ‘into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade … ready to be revealed in the last time’. He then expresses his confidence that: ‘In all this you greatly rejoice‘ despite their current variety of trials – that resembles the refining of gold by fire – they will shine brightly ‘when Jesus Christ is revealed’. Because of their faith ‘in him’ they ‘are filled with an irrepressible and glorious joy‘ (see 1 Peter 1:1-9).
In the game of Ludo, when a counter gets home it cannot be captured or even attacked again. But the remaining related pieces that are still in play may be put under pressure. But, oh the joy, a joy that is quite illogical to the natural mind, when we realise that the risen Jesus has already reached home.
Pastor ‘George’ had served the Lord faithfully in China under the ruthless atheistic regime of Chairman Mao. Because of his testimony to Christ he was not merely imprisoned but sent to hard labour. While working all day in a human cesspit that reeked obnoxiously, he would sing the hymn ‘I come to the garden alone.’ And he rendered the chorus zealously after each verse:
‘And he walks with me, and he talks with me
And he tells me I am his own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known’!
Enough said! Any complaints, dear readers?