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Army of Gondor outside Minis Tirith

Cultivating Christian resilience

I was sitting in the public gallery of Church House on 15th November last year. As the afternoon session closed, bringing another cycle of LLF(Living in Life and Faith) debates to an end, I caught the eye of the lady sitting to my right. We silently shook our heads at each other in polite and pained disappointment at what had happened. Giving a look around the circular hall, she said, “I can’t feel Jesus here anywhere. I just don’t know where He is.”

What has made me reflect most on this encounter was, to my shame, what I silently thought in response: “Well, what did you think was going to happen?” I am not pleased with that response; but it was true that I felt like that. I nodded in vague agreement and mumbled some meagre encouragement as I slid along the row of seats on my way out.

We may grow tired, but God doesn’t

As an ordinand (a person training to be a minister), who is same-sex attracted, this past year has had a dull inevitability about it. To be sure, I’m convinced as ever that Christ is building His church. But watching the drip-drip, bit-by-bit nature of the Church of England’s letting go of the Lord’s teaching on marriage and sex is wearying.

In light of current goings on, my fellow orthodox ordinands and I have been thinking a great deal about how to navigate fellowship, communion services, curacies, ordinations and licensing from diocesan structures that we sadly believe to be departing the Bible’s life-giving sexual ethic. To be candid, I find myself annoyed that this is something I even have to spend time thinking about.

But the Lord is kind. When my resilience for this work has been wearing thin this past year, I have been so encouraged by the faithfulness of my church and its leaders, as well as the hundreds of fellow ordinands - evangelical, catholic and others - who have united in prayer and support. I dearly pray that all Ascend readers can point to the Lord’s kindness in their daily lives when resilience in the face of the world, the flesh and the devil is low. 

In fact, stop reading this article right now. I’m serious. Spend a few minutes praying before we continue.

Why not identify three things in your life this past year, big or small, through which your shepherd-king has demonstrated His boundless love for you? You, his vulnerable, every-wandering little sheep. Close your eyes and spend a few minutes thanking and praising Him now.

Welcome back! He's great, isn’t He?

I want to spend some time now reflecting on and encouraging us from the drama of Isaiah 36-37. Personally, I have found these chapters to be a timely balm following the November synod. The weariness of Lord’s people, the pride of the world and the apparent inevitability of historical progress and outcomes are all swept up by the Lord in a gloriously wrought salvation. Our encouragement in these chapters comes simply from drawing deeply on the character and sheer majesty of the One who is and will always be for us in Christ.

A little over 2700 years ago, Jerusalem lay as the last piece of unconquered ground in The Promised Land. The Assyrians had swept away the northern kingdom of Israel and were now bearing down on the city where the Lord dwelt with His people. We read in 2 Kings 18 that the kingdom of Judah was being ruled by un uncommonly godly king, Hezekiah, who:
“… did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father David had done. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles …. He held fast to the LORD and did not stop following him; …. And the LORD was with him; he was successful in whatever he undertook.” - 2 Kings 18:3-7

But even God-fearing Hezekiah was afraid of the unstoppable power of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib. By the time the Assyrian army arrived at the gates of Jerusalem, Hezekiah had already emptied the royal treasury and stripped the temple of its gold in order to placate Sennacherib. With the city surrounded, the Assyrian king sends his envoy, the Rabshakeh, to threaten and mock both Hezekiah and the Lord.

The Rabshakeh’s speech in Isaiah 36 is fantastic for us to meditate on, as it is full of the same jibes, accusations and petitions that we can expect to hear today as people faithfully trusting Christ. Nothing’s changed! 

The Rabshakeh first points out the vast difference in numbers on each side:
“On what are you basing this confidence of yours? You say you have counsel and might for war—but you speak only empty words. … Come now, make a bargain with my master, the king of Assyria: I will give you two thousand horses —if you can put riders on them!” - 2 Kings 18:19-23

Some days I feel like the whole world - including my denomination - is telling me that I am on the wrong side of history for my faith in the Bible’s teaching. It often doesn’t seem to me like we have the ‘numbers’, so to speak. And then, too, there are the sweet overtures from all sides persuading the Lord’s people to give up and give in:
“This is what the king of Assyria says: Make peace with me and come out to me. Then each of you will eat fruit from your own vine and fig tree and drink water from your own cistern, until I come and take you to a land like your own —a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards.” - 2 Kings 18:31-32

Whether its publicly contending for Christ’s teaching on sex and marriage or just our daily plod towards glory, the temptation to walk a smoother, pleasanter or wider path will always be there. And even when we resolve to trust in the Lord through all this, we are confronted everywhere in our culture with the heralds of inevitability:
“Do not let Hezekiah mislead you when he says, ‘The LORD will deliver us.’ Have the gods of any nations ever delivered their lands from the hand of the king of Assyria? … How then can the LORD deliver Jerusalem from my hand?” - 2 Kings 18:33-35

The gods of the surrounding nations were no match for Assyria, says the Rabshakeh. And now Sennacherib’s army has swept through to the gates of Jerusalem with ease. When the Assyrians take Jerusalem, as they surely will, the Lord will be just another notch on Sennacherib’s sword. The remnant of the people cannot possibly think that merely trusting in the Lord will allow them to resist the inevitable?

But Hezekiah provides us with wonderful encouragement in Isaiah 37. The prayer he prays when all outcomes appear inevitable is one of the best in Scripture. He offers the Lord no advice (which I am often guilty of doing) and he makes no supplications on behalf of the people’s long suffering and weariness. In the face of catastrophic defeat, he petitions the Lord simply on the basis of the majesty and glory of his name:
“Give ear, LORD, and hear; open your eyes, LORD, and see; listen to all the words Sennacherib has sent to ridicule the living God. … “It is true, LORD, that the Assyrian kings have laid waste all these peoples and their lands. They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands. Now, LORD our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, LORD, are the only God.” - Isaiah 37:17-20

I am resolved this year to make my prayers more like that of Hezekiah. It is true that our 21st century culture has many ‘gods’, and their growth can seem inevitable. Their worshippers are many too. But only one God is the living God. We may grow tired, but He doesn’t; we may grow despondent, but He doesn’t.  He will surely deliver His people time and time again, before one day all will bow before His throne: 
“I will defend this city and save it, for my sake and for the sake of David my servant!” - 2 Kings 19:34

Sennacherib doesn’t set foot in the city. Neither do his armies. Nor the Rabshakeh. No siege ramps are built and not one arrow is fired. Instead, with His people on their knees before Him, the Lord destroys ‘a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp.’ And a little while later, great King Sennacherib is assassinated by his own sons, while worshipping in the temple of his god. He comes to the same end as what he worshipped: nothing.
As well as the promise of salvation to Hezekiah and the people, as an Anglican, I draw particular encouragement from one aspect of the Lord’s response to Sennacherib:
“Have you not heard?
Long ago I ordained it.
In days of old I planned it;
now I have brought it to pass,
that you have turned fortified cities
into piles of stone.” - 2 Kings 19:25

Yes, the Assyrians have the numbers. Yes, they have many horses. But their success has only ever been at the Lord’s will. He had planned it and ordained it. The Lord’s enemies are a mere instrument in His hand. When His people were scared and panicking, He was not surprised by any new threat or development.

In light of these verses, I find myself needing to repent of my despondency at Synod. (That is not at all to say that there is no place for weariness and despair, far from it. A life of relentless stoicism is not required of sheep with so tender a shepherd). Isaiah 36-37 reminds us of the truth that each night we can close our eyes and speak to the same living, unstoppable God who acted 2700 years ago outside Jerusalem. He acted then so that we might know now in 2024 that He will not let his name be defamed. Nothing that happens in our culture, or our churches, or in our lives is outside of His endless care or plan. Nor is anything inevitable. Ever. He sees us, He knows us, and through his Son, our shepherd-king, He is attentive to us at all times.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2024 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.

Download the Spring 2024 edition of Ascend

To give space to discuss certain articles in greater depth, the TFT staff team will be recording occasional podcasts under the banner “Ascend Higher”, covering the issues raised in a more conversational style. To hear it for yourself, you can use the audio player below.