Alfred Place Baptist Church

11:22-25 Have Faith In God

Mark 11:22-25 “‘Have faith in God,’ Jesus answered. ‘I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, “Go, throw yourself into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.'”

The Lord Jesus has just pronounced closure on the temple, the greatest by far of all the Jewish institutions, established by God himself. Christ has also given an extraordinary sign of the temple’s termination, he has smitten a fig tree – the classic symbol of Israel – and it has withered and died. All the activities of the Jerusalem temple, this third building to have been set up on the site, the one instigated by Herod over fifty years earlier, have now reached their sell-by date in Jehovah Jesus’ estimation; they are done for; the sacrificial system is finished; the priests and levites had all better start looking for other jobs. The financial system of the temple and its taxes are bankrupt. It is all over.

This action of Jesus in going into the Court of the Gentiles and bringing the activities of the temple to an end by turning over the tables of the money- changers, and driving out the worshippers and the temple staff, and stopping any more deliveries of wood and water and clean clothes was the most revolutionary act of Christ that the Twelve had witnessed. What an immense problem they were having in coming to terms with this. How were they going to survive without God’s temple? Where else could people get forgiveness for their sins? How else was a holy God reconciled to man? They were stunned, but not as shocked as they were going to be when they’d see Christ hanging on a cross in a few days’ time, and rising from the dead on the first day of the week. These were only the early days of the most extraordinary week in the history of the world. So it was, that at this time, in the face of their perplexity, that the Lord Jesus turned to them and he said these words, “Have faith in God” (v.22). He is the Lord; he knows what he is doing; he has an answer to all our deepest questions.

There is something more to this exhortation. In our text the Lord Jesus is describing what from now on is going to characterize the real temple, a frame of mind and a lifestyle which had been conspicuously absent from the temple made of stone. Primarily it’s going to be a living faith in God that will characterize the new temple, the people indwelt by God, and Jesus is describing the life of this real temple throughout our text. In other words, these words are setting before us the essence of Christian living. Most people have dismissed Christianity without knowing what it is. That reminds me of Charles Moore’s brother aged five, who was asked whether he liked pizza. He said, “No . . . what is it?” That is invincible ignorance. Here the Lord Jesus describes real Christianity. He is saying that henceforth there would be a believing community of both men and women, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free men, without walls of division. All its disciples would be characterized by a praying and forgiving spirit. That is the theme of these verses in Jesus’ counsels to these men. Jesus is saying, “Through every day of this coming week have faith in God. One hour you all run away, and Peter will deny me, and you will see me hanging on a cross taunted by the leaders of Israel; when you see them take down my body and bury it in a grave – have faith in God. When you hear the women tell you that they have seen me risen from the dead – have faith in God. A few months’ time when you stand here in Jerusalem and preach a message of forgiveness to those who crucified me – have faith in God! When you spread this message of the gospel across the whole world – have faith in God! Henceforth this will be the real temple, where two or three gather together believing in my name and forgiving one another’s sins. So have such faith in God!

Today every denomination and religion gravely intones about ‘having faith in God.’ Christians and Moslems and Hindus all agree abut the importance of having faith in God. The cults too, the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses – they all have faith in God. The Pharisees and the high priests who ran the temple had faith in God. What was the Lord Jesus talking about when he urged his disciples to have faith in God? Surely he was not encouraging some vague faith in some vague god? No. He was encouraging faith in the one he knew as his own Father, and in himself as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. “I and my Father are one,” he claimed. He was encouraging them to believe that he was the way and the truth and the life and that no man came to the Father but by him. That is the faith he was commending. He had come from the Father into the world to give his life a ransom for many. Entrust yourselves to him. Be sure that he has become your Saviour. There is nothing in the world that you should desire more fervently than that, not getting married, and not having children, and not being successful in your studies, and not doing well in the business world, and not making a lot of money, but this, that Jesus Christ has become your Teacher, and your great High Priest, and your Lord, and you know it. When Jesus says, “Have faith in God,” that is what he was talking about. You are not going to save yourself; you are not going to find deliverance and peace and everlasting life in anyone else but Christ. You abandon every confidence in men, and in culture, and in science. You turn your back on all the pleasures of the world. “Have faith in God! Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” That is the beginning of the Christian life, the great definitive first step, putting your trust in the Lord. ‘Faith’ is F.A.I.T.H. – ‘Forsaking All I Trust Him.’ The gospel is not about faith, the gospel is about Jesus Christ. Christian faith is unambiguously, unremittingly, Christ-centred. Faith springs into existence as people trust in the Lord Jesus and give their lives to him. Have you done that? Have you put your foot on the first rung of the ladder? You will get nowhere until that is done. But how are we to show this faith? This is where these words of the Lord Jesus are so challenging.

1. WE ARE TO BE CONVINCED OF THE TRIUMPHS OF FAITH.

The Lord is not talking here to the super-Christian who has learned the techniques of prayer so that he always gets what he asks. He is addressing every limping staggering believer – the mere Christian. You see his encouraging promise to us all? “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him” (v.23). Can this be true?

Let us start here: the Saviour is talking about the need for us to believe that “what he says will happen.” Who does this refer to? It is frequently taken to refer to the man praying. He is faced with an enormous mountain and he exhorts it to be thrown into the sea. If he believes that it will then it will. That is the usual interpretation, but it is one full of difficulty. Have we any ground to believe that our own mere belief in God’s power to remove any mountain will always remove it? If is focusing the prayer on ourselves and our own frames. Usually other dimensions are added to such an interpretation, especially those of assurance. For example, if the man praying has a strong sense of assurance as he asks for something that he is going to obtain what he asks for then the mountain will go. But there is no word concerning assurance in the text. Our Lord is talking about faith. This verse seems much plainer that referring to those rare occasion when we pray and we have an overwhelming sense that we are going to get what we ask for. Such prayers do happen to every Christian, but rarely during the whole course of our pilgrimage. Our Lord is not talking about some of the occasional benefits of knowing God but of normal every day devotion in the temple of faith

Then such interpreters add that there has to be built into this text the assumption that one is always asking according to the will of God. “You cannot ask for anything,” they say, “‘O Lord won’t you give me a Mercedes-Benz,’ is not on, or that you’ll marry a tall blonde; and you can’t ask for anything sinful.” They point out to us that if we pray for the things God wills, and do not doubt, but believe that what we have asked for (which we know to be God’s will for us) then it will happen. All that is true and it is a move in the right direction.

Consider the words again: “and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him” (v.23). The man praying is to believe that what he says will happen. It may well be that this is referring to God, and the best interpretation always has to bring in the will of God, praying according to what God says. We always have to go back to God’s will to correctly interpret this verse. We have this faith as Christians that what God says will most definitely happen, and that is to end my doubts as I pray.

Certainly Jesus cannot be saying that whenever any Christian can work up enough faith to believe that what he has asked for is really going to happen then it will happen. It is not faith in yourself here – or anywhere else in the Bible, it is faith in the will of God that is the foundation of this comforting verse. The Lord is talking about the interface of his promise and our praying, and that is our trust. People in the true temple are trusting people. They know that God’s promises are not fickle; they are yes and Amen. What God has said will be done. That is the basis of our worship and peace with God. When we pray we are to believe that, not thinking “maybe this will happen, maybe not.” We are not to think of prayer as some last ditch effort, “I’ve tried everything else and so I may as well now say a prayer.” No. I am to go to God and I am trusting all that God has said in his word. I am not to doubt at all in my heart what God says is going to happen. It most certainly will happen.

So let us examine a single sample, one of the many great and precious promises that God has made in his word, all of which will be done for us most certainly. Consider Romans chapter 8 and those interrelated words of Paul, that nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ (Roms. 8:35), that he will keep loving us who trust in him through thick and thin, and that thus we will be more than conquerors through his love. Christians are not merely going to survive, nor hang on by the skin of our teeth. In our troubles, he says, we are going to conquer gloriously; we are going to be hyper-conquerors through him who loved us (Roms. 8:37). God has said this and so it is going to happen for every Christian.

Incidentally, do you notice that verb? He ‘loved’ us. If you had been writing that verse you wouldn’t have phrased it in that way. You’d be under the influence of the modern church, and so you’d have written, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loves us.” That is what people want; to know that God does love them despite everything. Why did Paul use the past tense? Because he could never get away from the cross. Of course he knew himself to be the object of the ongoing, unceasing, sustaining love of God, but he knew that if he wished to keep plodding on in the Christian life then he has to keep returning to the cross. There his sin and the judgment of God had come together in the condemnation his Saviour had embraced in his place. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.

In Romans 8 Paul is considering the mountains that every Christian has to cross, ten peaks of difficulties that destroy many people. He mentions first the fearful mountain of “death” (v. 38), our own decease, or the death of one of our family, a parent, a spouse, a child, and how crushing such occasions can be; they cannot separate us from the love of God. Then he mentions the mountain of “life,” and what does life have for many Christians in the world today? “Trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword. As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered'” (vv.35&36). What mountains of pain! But none of them can separate us from the love of Christ. Then the apostle thinks of “angels” (v.38); how mighty they are; one could destroy the whole Syrian Army, and yet they are all serving God and serving us; they won’t separate us from the love of God. Then Paul mentions “demons” (v.38), and you consider how the gates of hell are described for us in the Bible – principalities, powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world, spiritual wickedness in high places, the god of this world, Beelzebub, and so on. Those dark Satanic mountains, so well organized, breathing our threatenings and slaughters against the church. How can this little Christian girl survive against such malice? Because what God says will happen. It will be done for her. The evil empire is unable to separate her from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Then you see how Paul mentions “the present” (v.38) and the great mountains that threaten the Christian faith today, in Islam, and the cults, and humanism, and modernism, and materialism, and the pleasures of this world. Millions of people trapped by such things, but all of God’s people are going to be delivered from them. “With salvation’s walls surrounded, thou mayest smile at all thy foes.” Then Paul mentions “the future” (v.38). And what mountains lie before us all; the care of our families; advancing old age; financially being able to survive and pay our bills; sicknesses and caring for those who have an incurable illness, while all the time enduring temptations and trials – is that not our future? What mountains lie before us, and yet none of these will separate us from the love of God. Then Paul mentions “any powers” (v.38), and we think of the power structures in the world today and what mountains they are, religious power structures, economic powers, political powers, the power of the media, the power of what we can term ‘Hollywood’ – popular entertainment – and the power of sport, the power of oil and gold and diamonds. Yet these powers will not separate one of God’s people from his love.

Then Paul mentions “height” (v.39) and you can press that into any dimension you care – outer space, extra terrestrial forces, asteroids hurtling towards this planet – whatever they may be they cannot separate us from the love of God. Then he mentions “depth” (v.39), and we can consider the mighty forces that work in the core of our planet, sometimes bursting forth in volcanoes, or the extreme water pressures that are exerted on the strange creatures who live in the utter darkness of the ocean’s depths, but nothing in those depths is able to separate us from God’s love. And finally Paul gathers all the other creatures and powers that he hasn’t yet specified, “anything else in all creation” (v.39), whatever it is, if you can describe it, if you can put it in words or if it is some great unspeakable horror – the terror by night – it is unable to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. It doesn’t have the ability to do so. Confronting all these mountain peaks we are more than conquerors, not the super-Christian, the Spirit-baptized Christian, but every ordinary believer whose trust is in the Lord Jesus. “Go throw yourself into the sea!” We may taunt such mountains as they threaten us, and that will happen. It will be done! They are not going to be the means of separating us from the love of God in Christ.

We are not to doubt in our hearts that that will happen again and again as it has happened throughout history. The great mountains will becomes plains. We are to believe that what God says in Romans 8, and in many other parts of the Bible, will indeed happen. It will be done for us. Believing the gospel is the most wonderful and blessed experience. There is no experience like the experience of being found by God. But this is merely the beginning of a life of knowing the faithfulness of God. Morning by morning new mercies we see; new mountain ranges are traversed, and again and again we are more than conquerors through God’s wonderful love. We sometimes are amazed at the answers to our prayers, or are astonished by what God does. There are times when our hearts burst with love in the presence of God.

This will come to us through the Word, I mean, as the Bible is preached to us week by week, and constantly applied to us in every stage of our pilgrimage. This is the means of strengthening faith and educating our faith in Jesus Christ, and so the individuals and families and groups of people attached to our church will not be counselling groups or therapy groups. They will be men and women, young and old, whose lives all centre on the Bible and who articulate their faith in the God of the Bible in prayer meetings. The people who gather there don’t doubt in their hearts but believe what God says is bound to happen, and indeed it is done for them. They rejoice in answers to prayer.

You know that there can be convinced faith that’s grounded in error or nonsense and it is useless faith or dangerous faith. Think of the Book of Mormon and the lies and fantasies it contains, and how multitudes of young men give a year of their lives to spread its errors all over the world. Think of the Koran and how it denies that the Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross; it cuts at the heart of the Christian faith; it denies that Jesus rose from the dead. Yet many become suicide bombers who believe that error. Large faith, if it is resting in nonsense, is self-destructive faith.

But little faith, as long as it is focused in the truth, will bring great blessing. In Luke 17:5&6 when the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord increase our faith,” He didn’t give them the latest best-selling book to come from America on the technique of living the Christian life. He didn’t send them away to do a course, or sing in tongues in a conference centre in Wales. He said these words, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” What an extraordinary answer. Small faith in the truth brings great blessing. It is not the size of our faith that matters in the end, it is the size of our God that matters. A little faith in a great God can subdue kingdoms and obtain his promises. God is moving mountains every day and we can rejoice in the great things done. This is the spirit you find in the true temple of God established in the world today.

2. WE ARE TO PRAY WITH ANTICIPATION.

You see what the Lord Jesus says next? “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (v.24). Again, it is crucial for you to understand what Jesus is talking about in our text, that its focus is on believing what God himself has said, and that his promises are always going to happen. Such things we are to take to God in prayer and long to see fulfilled, what God himself has promised. “Lord do these things for me, and for the family and friends, and my church, because you have promised you will. Work all things for their good. Give them the peace that passes all understanding. Supply all their needs. Make all grace always abound to them. Build your church and ensure the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Give them the blessing of being persecuted for righteousness sake. Make them more than conquerors through this.” You pray believing that you and the whole church have already received God’s guarantee that such things will happen. All such things are going to take place. That is what the Lord is talking about.

These words of our text cannot at all mean, “if we pray, and we don’t doubt that whatever it is we happen to ask for is going to be given to us, and even cultivate a sense of assurance that we are going to get it, then that is going to happen.” The Lord Christ is not talking about a particular technique in prayer. There is no technique that can achieve whatever we ask for in praying. Rather, believe what God has promised! Don’t doubt his word! Ask him for such things, and you know you are going to get them, because he has promised them. We face many trials as Christians, and God has nowhere promised that they are all going to work out to our perfect convenience so that we live pain-free lives. He has not promised that I am going to pass all my exams, of that everyone I pray for is going to be converted, or that I am going to become a millionaire, or that I am going to get married, or that I am going to have children, or that I and my loved ones are going to be healed of all our diseases. There is no technique of praying, including the greatest feelings and great assurance, that will guarantee that my life will be freed from sickness and pain and I’ll always get what I ask in prayer.

Let me give you three examples of this in the Bible that confirm that this cannot be so. The first is of Christ in the garden, and he has received the cup from his Father. He has looked into it and he has seen the anathema and damnation that is in it, all the extreme pain, both physical and spiritual, that he would have to endure. He asks God concerning the possibility of another cup. Is there another cup he can drink besides this one? He asks his friends to pray with him. He has three sessions of prayer focused on this. He prays with deep earnestness; strong cryings and tears; his sweat is as if it were drops of blood. It is the most perfect and sublime prayer, made in faith, unmixed with sin. Yet God’s answer is, No. No other cup. No other way. There is nothing wrong with the prayer at all; Jesus believes without doubting, he believes that he is going to receive the best answer from his Father, and the answer is No. There is no technique the Lord had failed to learn that could have made God’s ‘No’ ‘Yes.’ So let’s see how that praying of Jesus is illuminated by our text: “Whatever you ask for in prayer [that the Father’s will might be another cup, nevertheless not Jesus’ will but God’s be done] believing that you have received it [Jesus knew that whatever the answer would be he would receive God’s will], and it will be yours” (v.24).

The second example is Paul’s three sessions of prayer that the thorn in the flesh might be removed from him. In all three Paul prays in faith, not doubting that God can remove the thorn. He believes that the answer he’ll receive is going to be the will of God, yet the thorn in the flesh is not removed. God’s will is that the thorn will remain but that the Lord Jesus’ grace will be all sufficient for everything God wants Paul to do, even with the thorn in his flesh. Paul believed that however the Lord chose to answer his request that he would get God’s will and so he rejoiced in his necessities and distresses. Paul knew that when he felt weak he was really at his strongest because then he was working with a consciousness that God must help him to get by hour by hour or else he would fail.

The third example is how the writer of the Hebrews describes those who were victorious in their faith in Hebrews 11. Here is this great crowd of believers, and all of them were the true temple of God, and every one was praying as Jesus describes in our text, not doubting in their hearts, believing what God said would certainly happen, believing that when they asked something from God they would get the will of God always. All of them were true believers and true pray-ers, but how were the answers? Some through believing prayer conquered kingdoms and gained what was promised. Some shut the mouths of lions and quenched the fury of the flames. Some became powerful in battle. Women received back their dead. All this was the result of true faith and believing prayer. But there were others who believed and prayed in the same way and the answers they had from God were very different. They were tortured, faced jeers and flogging, were chained and put in prison, they were stoned and they were sawed in two; they were put to death by a sword. They were destitute and they wandered around without homes to live in, living in sheepskins and goat skins, and their dwellings were caves. All these people believed. All trusted in God. All knew what God said he would do, and when they prayed they believed this, and God’s answer for some was miraculous deliverance, while for others it was a cross like Jesus’. There is no technique in prayer that can deliver us from a cross. Faith is fixing your eyes on Jesus, struggling against sin, being aware of the Lord’s discipline, enduring hardness, and inconvenience. So we are to pray believing, and we are to pray anticipating what we get will be the will of God. God is always going to work all things together for our good. Nothing can ever rob us of the will of God. Believe that you are going to receive the will of God whenever you pray – for you are! That is the praying of the true temple of God.

3. WE ARE TO WORSHIP WITH A FORGIVING SPIRIT.

Isn’t all of life worship? No, Jesus says. There are times when you stop whatever it is you’ve been doing to the glory of God and you stand still, and you enter (as it were) the temple of God, and you address God. See what the Saviour says: “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (v.25). How often does Jesus speak of the need of his people to forgive those who have sinned against them? Very often. Always he mentions it in the context of our assurance that God has forgiven us. If we’re not forgiving people then we’ve no reason to believe that God has forgiven us. We are still in our guilt. We are lost men if we are not forgiving men. Jesus teaches this in the Lord’s Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6, pray saying, “forgive us as we forgive those who sin against us”. The Lord makes the peril spectacularly clear, that if you forgive men when they sin against you your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you don’t forgive men their sins your Father won’t forgive you your sins. A man in Georgia said to John Wesley, “I never forgive.” Wesley said to him, “I hope you never sin.” The Lord Jesus in Matthew 18 told the parable of a man with a huge debt which was all kindly dismissed by his master, but that same man, leaving that scene of forgiveness, bumped into someone who owed him a small sum of money, and he had the culprit thrown into prison. Jesus said that when his master heard this he sent his soldiers to arrest that man and he handed him over to the tormentors until he had paid all the vast sum. Jesus brings the threat of eternal punishment to bear on his disciples in order to assist them in forgiving people.

How many times are we to forgive our brother? Seven times? No, limitlessly, said Jesus, seventy times seven. That is the spirit of the true temple of God. That is most challenging teaching isn’t it? A man came to Spurgeon knowing that the great preacher suffered with gout, but this man claimed that his rheumatism was more painful than Spurgeon’s gout. Spurgeon disdained the claim; “I’ll tell you the difference between rheumatism and gout: Put your finger into a vice and turn it until you can’t stand the pain. That’s rheumatism. Now, give it three more turns; that’s gout!” It is so hard for the natural man – the man without Christ – to forgive someone who has hurt him. You need all the power of God to do that. But having access to that power you are able to forgive someone their worst sins. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. You understand that to forgive someone is to make a certain commitment; “I will never hold your sins against you again.” Forgiveness is not a feeling; forgiveness is a promise. “I refuse to remember your sins to charge you with them.”

The Lord Jesus shows this in one of his parables in Luke 17:7-10: “Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’?
8 Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’?
9 Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?
10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'”

This is the perfect reply to Christians who plead, “But I feel I can’t forgive him, so I don’t forgive him.” “Picture this slave, who has been working under a hot Palestinian sun all day long, coming home. He’s tired, thirsty, hungry, sweaty, and smelly. Does his master size up his condition and say to him, “Go take a shower, and get something to eat”? No, not on your life. What he says is, “Go get those sweaty, smelly clothes off; take a shower, and then go into the kitchen and fix my dinner. And don’t you take a bit of food until I have finished eating.” Perhaps the master even posts a guard to see that his orders are followed.

“Now here is this servant throwing golden lumps of butter into a pot of mashed potatoes. There are the green peas bubbling on the stove, and the aroma of roast beef is filling the air. Can’t you see him? There he stands, his own stomach growling, his mouth watering, but he can’t touch a bite of the food. By the time he brings the food out, it doesn’t even look like food anymore. It looks like mountains of potatoes, lakes of gravy, fields of green peas, and forests of roast beef reaching into the sky. And he has to stand there, with a towel hanging over one arm, waiting for his master to finish toying with the last pea on the end of his fork. Then he has to bring in the dessert! But instead of dessert, it looks like Niagaras of Cornish cream cascading over cliffs of apricots!

“OK, got the picture so far? Now think about it. Everything in that slave says, ‘Eat it yourself; forget what that guy out there has said.’ But he can’t. He must obey his master – against all his feelings. He cannot say, ‘If I feel like it I’ll obey.’ And Jesus makes the point that even then the servant hasn’t done anything exceptional but only what he was supposed to do. So you can’t beg off from Christ’s commands regarding forgiveness by simply saying, ‘When I get more faith I’ll forgive him,’ or by saying, ‘When I feel like it, I’ll forgive . . .'” (Jay Adams, “From Forgiven to Forgiving,” Calvary Press, Amittyville, 1994, p.22).

Last week I visited a former New York policeman, Tim Daley, a member of Steve Martin’s congregation in Atlanta, badly hurt when a criminal drove his car off the road and then the man crashed his own car, and Tim had to drag him out before the car was consumed and in the process he got injured. Later another criminal drove at him and he had to dive into his police car for protection but he caught Tim’s feet, and so he has been invalided out of the force. He and his wife and six children – Italian Americans – gave me their friendship when I took their family camp last year. He had just needed another operation on his back, and Steve and I went along to see how he was doing a few days after the operation. We found him lying down on a settee in their den. He is not being eaten up in resentment at what’s happened to his life. He is getting on with life as a Christian and a skilled carpenter.

There’s another policeman whom I’ve not met, Steven McDonald, who was also working in New York in 1986. He was questioning three teenagers in Central Park when one of them pulled a gun on him and shot him, paralyzing him from the neck down. Steven had been married less than a year, and his wife Patti was two months pregnant. He was 29 years of age. Today he moves in a wheel chair and he’s needed a tracheotomy to breathe. The teenager who shot him, Shavod Jones, was quickly arrested and convicted and sent to prison. Even when Steven was in hospital he found he couldn’t hate the young man. He hated the circumstances that had brought the boy to Central Park that afternoon, and hated the handgun in his pocket, but not the lad himself. So he began to write letters to Shavod Jones, and at first the boy didn’t reply, but then he began to write back to Steven. Those letters stopped only because Shavod Jones wanted parole and Steven wouldn’t assist him to get out of jail quickly. The boy served nine years and then was released but three weeks later he was killed in a motorcycle accident. You wanted me to tell you that he’d been converted. I don’t know what the state of his heart was before God, but I know that he often heard of the grace of God through Steven McDonald.

Today Steven McDonald has a ten year old son he is never able to hug, but there is no bitterness. He is always having to fight back discouragement and there have been black times when he has battled with thoughts of suicide. He has a gentle demeanour and sparkling eyes. To begin with this forgiveness was a way of moving on. If you ask him if forgiveness was hard he would say, “No, it’s a gift of God.” He has himself been forgiven for his sins by God through the work of Jesus Christ, and the Spirit of Christ in him has been his great enabler. Then Steve began to visit schools and speak to them about his experience, and now wherever he goes he teaches about these words of the Saviour, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (v.25). That is his great contribution to spreading the temple of Jesus Christ. He tells people as they pray at the end of every day and ask God to forgive their own sins that they add, “And I forgive that woman for saying that, and that man for doing that . . .” We live in a forgiving atmosphere.

We are living in a world full of bitterness; there are gangs of men dominated by hate who kidnap people they don’t know and if they can’t get what they want they’ll cut their victims’ heads off with video cameras recording what they have done. We are back in the dark ages. That is the reality of 21st century life and it will get little better. Men are faced with a choice: to love or to hate, to forgive or to condemn, to seek reconciliation or retribution. This is the world in which we are to plant the temple of God. It is a place of faith in Jesus Christ, and a place of prayer, and a place of forgiveness.

Christ is telling us what we must do, not to doubt in out hearts but believe the promises God has made. “Pray in confidence,” he says, and then he tells us that forgiveness is not some challenging option. Loving our neighbour is not a nice alternative. Worshipping the Lord is not an option. They are all indispensable marks of being in the true temple of God. How important is it? The Saviour says that forgiveness for our own sins, getting to heaven, not going to hell hangs upon having a forgiving spirit. How can you be certain God has forgiven you if you refuse to forgive others? Of course, we all plead the special case, the unique case, where we think, ‘God understands why I can’t forgive this person for what they’ve done to me. In every other case I do forgive; I forgive my husband, and my children, and the people in work, but not that one case.’ But if I am understanding the teaching of the New Testament correctly there can be no exceptions, and it is in these tough cases that we are being tested, whether we have a forgiving spirit or not, whether we are full of wonder and love to the Lord for forgiving us our sins, or whether God’s immense mercy bought with the blood of the Redeemer is something we don’t really esteem but which we are taking in our stride on the way to self-fulfilment? Then we are lost men.

26th September 2004 GEOFF THOMAS