I never really achieved my potential when I was at school, or even at college. I scraped through my 11+ exam and got to Grammar School but did really badly there. The first time I took my ‘O’ Level exams I only passed one – in Art – and had to ‘re-do’ the 5th Year. The only thing I ever got ‘Excellent’ for on my School Report was Sport … but every Report also said ‘This boy has ability … if only he would make use of it!?’ Even after I became a Christian, eventually scraping together a few more ‘O’ Levels and even an ‘A’ Level and ultimately gaining a place at Spurgeon’s College to train for the Baptist Ministry, I continued to struggle academically. It took me a long time to actually put my finger on exactly ‘Why’ this was? Most certainly I suffered from some kind of ‘inferiority complex’. I was very conscious of other people, and felt that everyone looked down on me and, that as far as the overwhelming majority were concerned, I just didn’t ‘measure up’ to what was expected of me?! Despite being tall, and seemingly very outward going, I was actually quite shy and self-conscious. My outward bravado at the time was essentially a cover-up for how I really felt about myself. I felt that no one really understood me, I feared failure and at the same time believed that failure on my part was inevitable!?
On reflection – and it much easier to see this looking back – much of this negativity stemmed from being an only child and the pressure to succeed that my father put on me from a very early age. Although I am now seen as a ‘glass half full’ person – indeed it has been suggested more than once that I am actually a ‘glass completely full and overflowing’ person – as a child I was definitely a ‘glass half empty’ person. As an only child both my parents doted on me, and my father especially was desperate for me to succeed. He married late – well into his 40s – and wanted me to achieve what he himself had failed to achieve. My father was an intelligent man. He spent 15 years in the army, running away from home at the age of 14, lying about his age, and enlisting in 1914. He fought throughout WWI and then served in India for ten years before returning to the UK. During his latter years in the army he taught Maths and English to his fellow soldiers. He was widely read but had little or no formal qualifications. He worked as a builder and decorator but was a poor business man and, as a result, never achieved anything significant in life. I guess that he too felt the same kind of ‘failure’ that I felt from my childhood right up to early adulthood.
Despite being one of life’s ‘non-achievers’ my father was a good father in many ways. He, and my mother, sacrificed a lot financially to help me ‘achieve’ his ambitions for me – buying me books and encyclopaedias to hopefully help me learn, sending me on ‘foreign holidays’ abroad with the school to increase my understanding of the world, and so on. One of my real regrets in life is that I did not spend enough time with my father when he was alive (he died when I was 23) just really getting to know him? Sadly, one of the ‘spin offs’ of becoming a Christian in my mid-teens was that (like a lot of evangelical Christians in those days) I spent so much time either at church, or doing ‘church things’, that I neglected to spend quality time with my parents? I was ‘too holy’ to even go down the pub with my father on a Sunday lunch time for a drink and a chat? I really regret those ‘wasted opportunities’ now, and would do things very differently today if I had that time all over again. Fortunately my mother lived for another ten years, after my father died, and I was able to spend quality time with her and as a result (despite the fact that she too had no formal qualifications) found her to be a very kind, supportive, caring, and very wise person!
Perhaps because my father felt that he had under-achieved in life himself, he saw in me an opportunity to redeem himself, to live the kind of life he had really wanted to have through me. Consequently, from a very early age he put constant pressure on me to achieve. In fairness to him, his efforts were not entirely unsuccessful. He did teach me to read from a very young age, and instilled in me a love of good books which I retain to this day. He did coach me in various sports which enabled me to play both cricket and football to a reasonably high amateur standard. But in reality the negatives outweighed the positives. He tried to teach me Maths, but his methods clashed with the way the school taught Maths, which resulted in total confusion for me? He put pressure on the school to put pressure on me to do better than I was doing in his eyes. At Junior School level this appeared to be successful because I passed my 11+ Exam and got a place at Grammar School. It was just the local Grammar School, however, and not the ‘highfalutin tooting’ Grammar School that he really wanted me to go to? The reality was that I failed to get a place at either his first or even second choice of Grammar School? This, in itself, was highly embarrassing for me because my father made no secret of his feelings on the matter, whereas the reality was that I was probably fortunate to scrape into his third choice of Grammar School?! On reflection, I would probably have been better off going to the local Technical School rather than a Grammar School since, like my father, I have always been good at DIY? At Grammar School my father’s ‘interventions’ on my behalf were even more embarrassing – excruciatingly so at times – because I was clearly struggling academically, and my father’s expectations of me only served to make me worse rather than better?!
Before you start to feel too sorry for me, however, I have to say that since leaving school I have actually done quite well academically. I have proved to be what is ubiquitously termed ‘a late developer’. Over the years I have gained a Bachelor’s Degree in Theology, two Master’s Degrees in Applied Theology, and Philosophy, and am about to commence further study for a Doctorate. To be honest, the old way of education, prevalent in the 1950s and 60s, with its total emphasis on learning by rote and written examinations, did not suit me at all. I just didn’t have the kind of mind that could retain facts like that. But the subsequent switch to modular education, with its emphasis on thoughtful research, suits me right down to the ground. Perhaps whoever it was who used to write on my School Reports back in them late 1950s, ‘This boy has ability … if only he would make use of it!’ had a prophetic gift?
Nevertheless, right from childhood, through secondary schooling, during my short career at Taylor Woodrow as a ‘trainee draughtsman’ after leaving Secondary School, and even including my years at Spurgeon’s College, my father’s legacy to me was an over-bearing sense of inadequacy, inability, and impending failure just around the next corner?! Consequently I struggled at school, at work, and in college. My feelings of inadequacy appeared to be repeatedly reinforced by others – teachers and class mates at school, colleagues at work, members of the Faculty and fellow students at college?! Now, I am sure that a lot of this was in my imagination. Not all my teachers and tutors, school and college friends, saw me in this light – although some did. Nevertheless this is how I felt … and it deeply affected me and held me back because I allowed it to become my ‘default position’ in life!?
One day towards the end of my time at Spurgeon’s – I cannot recall exactly when – I was spending time in prayer, when I distinctly heard God say to me, ‘Look, it doesn’t matter what other people think of you … all that matters is what I think of you!’ For me it was a kairos moment when, like Elijah of old, God spoke to me in ‘a still small voice’ (1 Kings 19:11-13), a moment in which everything changed. Perhaps for many of you reading this blog, the truth of what I am saying here is obvious!? You have always known that what other people think of us is not really that important, and that what really matters is what God thinks of us? Well, for me, this was a revelation. It was a shaft of light suddenly breaking into my darkness, and what I previously had been totally ignorant of suddenly became blatantly obvious.
Furthermore, I came to see – and this seeing has grown over the years – that God is for us and not against us! It is one thing to recognise that what God thinks of us is the really important thing, rather than what other people (or even we ourselves) think of us, but it is also important to have a right view of the God to whom we do have to give account. Two very important inter-connected theological questions we need to constantly ask ourselves – and we all ‘do theology’ of one kind or another – are ‘What kind of God?’ do I believe in, and ‘So what?’ If the God we believe in is a harsh, judgmental, always intent on punishing us, kind of God, then we are no better off? Whether we condemn ourselves, or feel condemned by others, or condemned by ‘our kind of God’ … we stand condemned!?
I was brought up in a Roman Catholic home – my mother worked for a Roman Catholic family and we had rooms in the house – and the Catholicism I was exposed to seemed to me to be very hard and harsh. The Church ruled through instilling ‘the fear of God’ into the hearts of the people. I know all Roman Catholics are not like this – but this was my initial experience of Catholicism at that time. Even when I eventually committed my life to Christ as a teenager – and began to see God in a new light – I soon became very influenced by a stringent form of ‘Calvinism’ whose God seemed to me to be every bit as hard, harsh and judgmental as the God of the Catholicism I had previously experienced? Consequently, my feelings of personal uselessness, and impending failure were both affirmed and compounded! For me, then, it was important not only to realise that what God thought of me was more important than what other people thought of me, or even what I thought of myself, but also to come to see God in a new light. To see God for who he really is – loving, gracious, kind, merciful, forgiving, constantly longing to draw us to himself in a meaningful way – and not the harsh, critical, judgmental God whose seemingly greatest pleasure is to punish us, with whom I had been presented!?
Now ‘hearing voices’ – even the so-called ‘voice of God’ is very dangerous. I am sure that God does speak to us in the quiet of our own hearts by his Spirit but any kind of ‘extra-biblical’ revelation needs to checked against the plain teaching of Scripture itself. Amongst my numerous friends in the social media I have a few who are always ‘publishing messages from God’ on their Facebook and Twitter pages for the benefit of the rest of us … and to be honest, for the most part, what they have to say is usually stark staring bonkers?! Fascinatingly, however, following this experience of God speaking directly to me in prayer, I found myself reading the Bible in a new light. Various verses and passages began to stand out to me in a new way, throwing new light onto my understanding of ‘What kind of God?’ and ‘So what?’ I began to see that God, the God of the Bible, the God of the New Testament, and particularly the Gospels – the God who especially reveals himself to us in the Person of Jesus – was loving, gracious, merciful, forgiving, restoring. A God who is very much ‘for us’ rather than ‘against us’!
God is a God who ‘loves the whole world’ not just a small number of select individuals, a God who, in the Person of Jesus, came into the world ‘not to condemn the world, but to save the world’ (John 3:16,17). God is a God who wants the very best for us. As the Apostle Paul tells us, ‘in everything God is working for the good of those who love him, who are called by him’ (Romans 8:28). Writing to his protégé Timothy, Paul tells us that ‘God desires everyone to be saved and brought to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Timothy 2:4). The same Apostle also reminds us that God’s ‘grace is sufficient’ for every situation we face (2 Corinthians 12:9) and that we ‘can do everything through Christ who strengthens us’ (Philippians 4:13). The Writer to the Hebrews tells us that we can ‘come confidently into God’s presence and that we will find grace and mercy there to meet our every need’ (Hebrews 4:16). These are just a few examples of Scriptures that illustrate that God is a kind, gracious, loving, merciful God who is ‘on our side’, always wants the best for us, and is always for us not against us! The more I read my Bible – even to this day – the more I see that this is the kind of God the Bible portrays for us!
Consequently, my ‘default position’ in life has radically changed. I now live each day with a ‘Godly presumption’ that God is for me and not against me, and that I can venture out into each new day confident that not only is God with me but that he has also gone ahead of me. I go out expecting to both be taught new things in God and be used by God to glorify him and bless others. I presume that, because of all that God has already done for me in Christ, I am right with God and can be used by him. I know that I am not perfect, and that from time to time I fail, but I believe that if I am at any time ‘out of step with God’ the Holy Spirit will ‘convict’ me of that, help me to put things right, and get back on track (John 16:8). To be constantly looking over my shoulder, or hiding under the bedclothes, just in case I take a wrong step and offend God or grieve the Holy Spirit, is no longer my ‘default position’. Rather, my new ‘default position’ is to go out into each new day recognising that God is both for me, and with me, and that ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ (Philippians 4:13)! I pray believing that God both hears and answers my prayers, not because I am righteous in and of myself but because Christ has made me righteous in God’s sight (James 5:16). I can preach, teach, and speak to others believing that God will take my words and enable me to ‘speak as though God himself were speaking through’ me (1 Peter 4:11)!
Of course it has taken time for this truth to ‘sink in’ with me. I am still surrounded by numerous voices – both outside and (sadly) inside the Church – that constantly seek to make me feel bad and negative about myself. Daily, I have to remind myself of who I am in God – that I am ‘raised with Christ and seated with him in heavenly places’ (Ephesians 2:6), that in Christ ‘I already have everything I need for living a Godly life’ (2 Peter 1:3), that ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ (Philippians 4:13), and that ‘there is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1)! There will always be those who ‘write us off’ or ‘put us down’ – even in Christian circles? There will always be the ‘You suck … try harder!’ type of preaching that makes us feel worse, rather than better, when we go to church? But thankfully there will always be those, who like Barnabas, encourage us to look to God rather than listen to negative men and women (Acts 4:36)!
When I was a Ministerial student at Spurgeon’s College back in the mid-1960s, the Student Chairman attempted to force us all to do physical exercises first thing in the morning (we nearly all lived in college in those days). It was a dismal failure – it lasted about two days, I recall?! I did learn one thing, however, from all the reaching and bending and stretching we were supposed to do. In God ‘Up-reach and Out-reach, are much healthier than In-reach and Down-reach’! We are so much the better for looking up to God, and out to others, rather than looking in to ourselves and then getting down about ourselves as a result!?