Article for the June edition of The Hillside Messenger
A hymn written by Johnson Oatman, Jr. begins like this:
When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.
– Hymn 563, The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration. Waco, Texas: Word Music, 1986
The hymn writer counsels the discouraged and despairing Christian to do the opposite of what he feels inclined to do. What he feels like doing is complaining, perhaps to some sympathetic ear, in the hope that he will receive relief and maybe even a reversal of his situation and a happy outcome. St. James’s advice to the afflicted is that he should pray (James 5:13), and another hymn writer, Joseph Scriven, elaborated on this insight in his hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus” (Hymn 422 in our Hymnal), by encouraging the faithful to carry everything to the Lord in prayer. In the first verse of his hymn, he proclaims that we often forfeit peace and bear pain unnecessarily, because we do not take everything to God in prayer. Besides taking everything to God in prayer, a very necessary thing to do, we should also look on the bright side when encountering adversity. Here is the importance of counting our many blessings. When we do this, we are not simply burying our head in the sand and ignoring our troubles and adversities. Having trusted our sorrows and problems to God, we find it helpful to give Him thanks for the blessings God has bestowed on us. The very acts of remembering these blessings and thanking God for them, bring a transformation in our attitude to life, so that our hope is renewed and our patience and endurance are strengthened by the Holy Spirit at work in us.
The first chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians encourages Christians to appreciate the many blessings that they have received from God. God the Father has blessed Christians “with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.” (Ephesians 1:3) In itself this statement of what God has done is amazing! All the spiritual blessings that exist in the realms of the heavenly places are in the Lord Jesus Christ, and because we are spiritually one with Christ through Holy Baptism, we have received from God all of these spiritual blessings. Now we have received them, although we have not yet experienced the fullness of some of them, since the resurrection of the faithful has not yet occurred. Many of these blessings are outlined in the first chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. The first of these is that God has chosen all Christians in Christ before the creation of the universe to be holy and blameless in his presence in love (Eph. 1:4). What this means is that, before He created the universe, God chose and destined all believers to be brought to perfection in Christ. Though we are accounted righteous on the basis of Christ’s atoning death, the Holy Spirit is always at work in us, sanctifying us with the goal of one day presenting us faultless before God.
This itself is a truly joyful blessing, for many times Christians are either unaware of their many imperfections and sins, or they are overwhelmed by the burden of them. The confession of sin, in which we participate in daily Morning and Evening Prayer or in the service of Holy Communion, brings us an awareness of our many sins, and the burden of them. The blessing described above assures us that Christ is bringing us to perfection and blamelessness, so that on the Last Day we shall be found blameless before God, through the effect of Christ’s sacrificial death and our faith in Christ, as well as the inner, sanctifying grace and work of the Holy Spirit.
A second great blessing is that through Christ, and by our Baptism into union with Him, we Christians have been adopted by God the Father as his spiritual children (Eph. 1:5). It is the Father’s good pleasure to adopt as his children all who believe in His Son, and to give them eternal life. Further blessings accompany this one, namely redemption from sin and from its power over our lives. This means that, by His sacrificial death on the Cross, Christ has delivered Christians from the power of Satan and sin. Christians are redeemed by the blood of Christ. With this comes the forgiveness of all our sins (Eph. 1:7). What a blessing this this! It means a new start, a fresh life for each one of us! Forgiveness by God carries with it the responsibility upon us to forgive one another every sin, so that everyone may have a fresh start given them by everyone else, as well as by God.
Another great blessing lies in God’s revelation of “the mystery of his will”, at least in terms of his general purpose for Christians and the world, to unite all things in Christ. One implication of this blessing at least is that all will be gathered out of their separate spheres of existence, denominational churches, races, cultures, languages, and be united as one Church of believers. God’s purpose in uniting all things in Christ, is to bring them into the fullness of His love and unity, to the praise of the glory of God. All sources of division in Christendom will go, since they have no place in God’s kingdom. In a very fragmented visible Church today, this is certainly a great source of comfort, and it is exciting to see how God is moving among all Christians to break down divisions and bring the unity which is both His gift and His will (John 17).
A further blessing is that in Christ, Christians have obtained an eternal inheritance, being predestined by God to exist for the praise of his glory and grace (Eph. 1:11-12). Finally, as guarantee of this inheritance, we have received the promised Holy Spirit, after our profession of faith in Baptism (Eph. 1:13-14). The Holy Spirit is our Counselor and Comforter, leading us into all the truth and empowering us to bear witness to the Lord Jesus Christ boldly and effectively.
Much of this first chapter of Ephesians concerns the spiritual graces we have received as Christians by belonging to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is also instructive to see how this chapter and the two chapters following illuminate and relate to Article XVII “Of Predestination and Election” in The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, which affirms that “the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things….” I leave the relationship between Article XVII and Ephesians 1-3 for you to explore.