Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Discontent is the “if justs” in our life:
  • If I just got a higher paying job…
  • If I just could get that promotion….
  • If my wife would just…
  • If I just could get accepted to that school…
  • If I could just afford a house….
  • If I could just loose a few pounds….

  • things would just be so much easier if just….
  • I could have more time for ministry if just…
  • We could have more children if just….
  • I could pay next month’s rent if just….

We know that God wants us to trust him, we know that he wants us to be satisfied in him
but sometimes those things that are really important are so far out of reach, and we think we could have peace if just….

Discontent can start small, but over time it grows, it becomes restlessness, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness.  The “if justs” can consume our thoughts, make sleep difficult, and remove any peace in our lives.

Certainly this is not the way God wants us to live, but it’s just so easy to live in these sorts of places.  Just when we think perhaps we’ve found contentment, life brings a new twist or turn and we’re back to “if just…”

So how can we remain content?  Paul has a pretty incredible answer

  • First we’re going to see how Paul learned to find contentment in his life
  • Then we are going to see why he was content
Let’s turn to Philippians 4

First, how did Paul learn to find contentment?

Learning content without Context 

When Paul wrote the letter, he was in a pretty rough spot.  He was in prison pending a trial, and he knew there was a good chance he would be executed.   Death was just around the corner.  The Philippian church sent him a gift (probably money) to help him

At the end of the letter Paul wanted to thank them for their gift, starting in verse 10

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity.  Not that I am speaking of being in need….
Paul wanted to make it clear with the church that his joy is in their friendship: they were concerned for him.  But he very quickly adds he’s not saying his joy is because of their gift

Paul uses a very strong negation here: he is saying “most certainly I do not mean…”  Of course the Philippians knew Paul was in poverty and prison and he certainly lacked the basic essentials in life. 

It would be very easy for them to think that his joy was at least in part because their gift had relieved some of the suffering in his life.  Quite the contrary, Paul was saying he was overjoyed only because of their friendship and concern for him.

Paul continues to explain why:

for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 
I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.

Contentment learned

It’s interesting that Paul uses learning language 3 times here: he has learned (twice) and he knows (twice).  He’s emphasizing learning through experience.  It’s not as if Paul converted and instantly knew contentment.  Instead, over time and through a wide variety of situations he has been moving towards a place of knowing true contentment.

Paul’s life certainly had a lot of suffering: he had been beaten many times, been arrested, and shipwrecked.  He faced persecution, rejection, and he lived in poverty. 

But for Paul, the contentment he had learned wasn’t “if just” but “now always”.  Contentment wasn’t tied to his context in life.  No matter the situation, he has learned how to be content.  He knew contentment without context

He has been brought low, hungry and in need
This is language of humiliation, poverty, and dire need

But he has also abounded, had plenty, and been in abundance
I’m not really sure when in his life he is referring to, but what’s important is that he was content through any and every circumstance!  No context in life would change the contentment he knew

He’s learned through times of plenty and times of none.  The journey God had taken him on has brought a wide variety of contexts and they have all taught him contentment.  So really, contentment is really a part of the process of following Jesus

So Paul learned contentment through any context.  His relationships, the financial support he received, and any aspect of his context… none of these affected his contentment.  His situation had no bearing on whether he was content or not.  Contentment is “always now” and not “if just”

Paul says he has learned the secret for why he can be content.  What is it?

Contentment in Christ

I can do all things through him

So often this passage is read without its context.  We understand Paul to be saying “I can do anything through Christ”, as in “because of Christ I can accomplish extraordinary feats”.  It’s the slogan of Christian athletes, employees, and students.  In Christ we can accomplish, achieve, and triumph.

The problem is that we are taking this verse out of its context: Paul isn’t saying in a general sense “I can do anything” but rather something specific: “I can be content in all situations”.  “all things” refers to what he’s talking about: being content in every context.

So Paul has something very specific in mind: in Christ we are able to be content in any context.  It’s not a general notion of achievement but a specific notion that we can endure all the contexts of life because of Christ.

It’s interesting because Paul’s word for “contentment” is a word that in his day actually referred to a Greek philosophy known as stoicism.  For stoics, contentment meant exercising reason over emotions so that a person is unaffected by discontent.  A person is “independent” and “self-sufficient” because their peace, serenity, and happiness cannot be affected by others or their context.  

To his audience, Paul’s words would have immediately brought to mind this philosophy.  But Paul’s language of “in Christ” takes a sharp turn away from stoicism.  Contentment isn’t becoming indifferent to one’s circumstance and self-sufficient like a stoic believed.  It’s not about being detached from others or our situation, but attached to Christ.  It’s not about self-sufficiency, but complete dependence.

I think what Paul is painting here is actually a continuum: on the one end we have discontent and the “if justs”, and Paul is saying “no, contentment is not about our context”.   On the other we have detachment (i.e. not caring) like the stoics, and Paul is saying “no, contentment is by being attached to Jesus”.  Real contentment is in between these: it’s being completely dependent on Jesus

It’s this dependence that further moves us away from a triumphant “I can accomplish extraordinary things” to “I can endure extraordinarily difficult situations”.   It’s neither detachment nor “if justs”.  Paul is saying his contentment is without context, it’s “always now” not “if just”, and it’s because of his dependence on Christ. 

Paul has one more key phrase we need to unpack… it’s quite familiar but it really brings into focus what this contentment through dependence means

Power for a purpose

through him who strengthens me.

In Greek Paul’s language is “I am empowered in Christ because of the one who empowers me”.  He is “strong enough” because he is “strengthened” in Christ.  He can be content in any situation he is strengthened with Jesus’ power.

It’s very common for Christians to talk about the strength or power of God in their lives.  I have noticed that often when I pray for God’s strength I really want him to improve my present situation:
  • “help me to have a good attitude today”
  • “help me to have the strength to be disciplined”
  • “help me to meet this deadline”
  • “here are specific ways I want your strength to make my life better”
but Paul’s meaning is far more profound and is worth some reflection

The concept of the strength or power of God in our lives is rich and worthy of an entire series.  I just want to offer one brief observation:
God’s power in our lives is for a specific purpose: to be holy and obedient, remaining in him and bearing fruit
  • The power to stand strong when the enemy tries to trip us
  • The power to resist temptation and sin. 
  • The power that works through us in ministry. 
  • The power to remind us of God’s promises so that we can have hope

Paul gives us a good example of what this power looks like in our lives in his later letter to the Corinthian church.  They were very frustrated because he appeared so weak to them: he wasn’t a good public speaker, he didn’t perform miracles like other “apostles”, he lived in poverty, and he refused their support (accepting support was a way to honor someone)

To them he said:

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

For Paul, Christ’s strength most vividly manifest when he appeared weak.  Paul certainly had a lot of talent and ability, but it was when his ability faltered, when he looked humiliated, when others had little reason to respect him…. These times are when Christ’s power was strongest in his life.

I think this is where the secret to contentment is for Paul.   He learned that he had to surrender those things he wanted: whether it was his desire for the “thorn” to be removed, or anything else.  The power of God in his life wasn’t about improving his situation, but about God’s power working through his weakness.

This means if we want to experience God’s power then we absolutely must surrender our intentions, desires, and goals.  It’s not that the things we want are bad, often they are good.  But what’s important is that we are surrendering what we want because the power of God in our life is not about improving our situation.

I think this is the real reason why discontent can grow so fiercely because even though we have good intentions, they aren’t actually surrendered to God.  When something we want isn’t surrendered, then it very quickly can turn into discontent because we are not depending on God’s strength.

Really discontent is the desire for things to change.  But if we have this kind of dependence, then really we are also surrendering even our desire for things to change.   So really, being content is being okay with God not taking away hardships.  God’s strength is in our lives because we aren’t waiting on him to improve situations.

Contentment then is surrendering those things we are discontent with
It’s surrendering and being okay with God not taking away tough times
It’s learning that in our weakness we can most experience God’s strength
So we are at peace with present circumstances because we are dependent and surrendered to God’s way
Because Christ’s strength is power for a purpose

And as we can surrender and become more dependent on his strength
We can be content in easy times 
We can be content in hard times
This is ironic because in many ways for me it is harder to recognize our need for dependence when things are easy.  So really, discontent happens more when we have a lot of good things, and we just keep focusing on the “if Just” to move us even further into contentment.

But the truth is, in either circumstance, if we are surrendered completely to his power we can know contentment
It’s not detachment and giving up, but being attached to Jesus
It’s not on our terms, but his
And it’s a process

Being content is not because things are good or will get good, but contentment is being at peace with present circumstances, even if they don’t change!  It’s ironic because we need to equally depend on Christ in the easy times of abundance, but in some ways those are the hardest.

God wants us to learn to be content in every context,
He wants us to depend on Christ,
and He wants his power to work in our lives for his purpose, so that our “just ifs” became “now always”

Discussion Questions
  • What kind of situations have helped teach you contentment?
  • What things are you discontent with?
  • Is disengaging true contentment?
  • Which is harder: to be content when things are easy or when they are hard?  When things are easy or hard, do you find yourself in more of detachment or “if just”?
  • How do you normally pursue contentment?
  • How do you normally experience the strength of God?
  • What does it look like to be in Christ in those areas you are discontent with?
  • What do you think about the idea of being content even if things won’t improve?

Prayer topics
  • Pray that God will focus our minds on his will and not our own
  • Surrender those areas where you struggle with discontent
  • Surrender those areas where your contentment really is “waiting on God to fix them”
  • Surrender those areas where you are content because things are “okay” or “good”
  • Pray for God’s strength to focus us on his Kingdom and his Will
  • Pray for God’s strength to be holy and obedient children
  • Pray for God’s strength to be seen where we are weak
  • Pray for God’s strength to trust him and be content even if things don’t change
  • Praise God for the many blessings he has shown us
  • Praise God for the strength he has given us
  • Praise God that he is the reason for our hope, not our circumstances


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Building a Statement of Faith

Choosing verses for a statement of faith can be challenging.  A statement of faith should reflect our understanding of what the whole Bible teaches.  But a statement of faith is expected to address several key questions (such as what is the Trinity, or what is the church, or what is faith).  For each question it’s hard to find time to read the whole Bible to answer that question.  Often we find short-cuts (such as key word searches, cross references, or examining other statements of faith).  And to make matters more challenging we want to find several references for each point.

But this leads us to a problem: we are starting with a theological statement or question and trying to find support in the Bible.  For example, we are starting with our question “Is Jesus divine or human or both and how?”  We have specific questions about issues like the Trinity or the nature of Inspiration.  For good reason we want to understand how this all makes sense and fits together with what we know.  It’s not that these questions and answers are wrong, but that the questions aren’t always the questions the Bible is specifically dealing with. The questions are questions our system of theology brings to the table.  Church history has done a good job of developing some of these questions and provides good answers.  But we are skipping some important steps if we start with those answers and try to find them in the Bible.  Instead of starting with the Bible’s answers to the questions it raises, we are starting with our questions and tradition and are trying to find answers for these within the Bible.  So really we are assuming our frame of thinking, our questions, and our answers on the Bible.

An issue such as “the two natures of Christ” might lead us to search the Bible for verses that support his full humanity and for verses that support his full divinity.  And I’m sure we would find several verses that speak about Jesus as a human and that speak about him in divine language.  (After all, the biblical themes interact at some level with these points).  But since we have started from our frame of thinking, we haven’t had the chance to really grasp the biblical frame of thinking.  We take those verses and put them into categories of “Jesus is divine” or “Jesus is human” as if that is all the passages were trying to communicate.  This grouping of verses really doesn’t adequately deal with the questions and answers the Bible raises about who Jesus was and is.

 This can be tested very easily: does our doctrinal statement about Jesus reflect the bigger themes in the Bible (as in emphasis)?  If our statement of faith spends more time talking about important points like Jesus’ divinity and the atonement, then we are missing those great (and very prevalent) themes about Jesus as messiah, Jesus as king, Jesus as son of God, Jesus as high priest, and Jesus as the perfect human.

Really this means we are dealing more with implications of these verses rather than what they teach.  And when these implications become the grid through which we read the Bible, we end up modeling a very bad example of how to read the Bible.  If the larger narratives and themes of the Bible don’t clearly inform our statement of faith, then this can convey the impression of needing to “hunt” for those key verses to defend our theology (or worse, those themes will be misunderstood as the theology.)  It’s not that questions such as the Trinity or Jesus’ divinity and humanity have no answers, but that our questions and answers demand more specific details than the Bible always provides.  And our focus causes us to miss so much of what the Bible does actually say about those topics.  We hunt through the Bible trying to find verses that support these answers, but we miss out on what the Bible spends the most time teaching.  And rather than our theology conforming to the shape and context of the Bible, we try to conform it to our theology.

This is the perspective that I try to approach the Bible from.  This approach is more generally under the banner of "biblical theology" as opposed to "systematic theology" or "historical theology".  The latter two are important to interact with, and I need to grow in interacting with them more.   After all, without historical theology, we're bound to repeat the mistakes of prior Christian thinkers.  And without systematic theology, we're bound to gloss over important questions and distinctions.  All three are important for theology, but I think by and large a lot of Christians could use a bigger dose of biblical theology in their preaching and bible study times.


Friday, February 24, 2012

Who is an Arminian?

Roger Olson recently posted an interesting (although a bit out of character for him) discussion on the essentials of Arminianism: Who Is (or Might Be) an Arminian?

Three Litmus Tests:
1. Commitment to a basically Protestant theology: sola scriptura, sola Christi, sola gratia et fides, justification as a declaration of righteousness by God’s grace alone because of Christ alone, through faith alone.
2. Commitment to corporate election, conditional predestination, universal atonement, resistible prevenient grace, and the necessity of freely accepting God’s saving grace for salvation.
3. Belief in the universal love of God and God’s desire that all be saved.

Three Norms:

1. Belief in total depravity such that the natural person, apart from supernatural prevenient grace, cannot respond to the outer or inner call of the gospel.
2. Belief in non-compatibilist free will as power of contrary choice restored by means of prevenient grace in matters of salvation.
3. Belief that God is not the designer of evil or innocent suffering in the world, but that these exist only because of the fall which God permitted but did not desire or plan.

Five Reasons why one cannot be:

1. Denial of the supernatural and miracles (as in liberal theology, not cessationism).
2. Denial of the deity or humanity of Jesus Christ.
3. Denial of the unique inspiration of the Bible.
4. Denial of God’s omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence.
5. Denial of God’s eternal, unchangeable character as loving and just (nominalism).

I'm certainly no expert on this subject, but I definitely resonate with all of these!  I especially appreciate how he included total depravity, and how he also made a point to define Arminian by conservative / orthodox theology.  (Some seem to automatically equate Arminian with either liberal or pelagian, both of which his definition denies)

Incarnation and the Bible

I started reading Peter Enns recent book: Evolution of Adam, The: What the Bible Does and Doesn't Say about Human Origins. In chapter 1 he references that he operates from an incarnational view of the Bible. (I think this is the theme of his book Inspiration and Incarnation, and a brief introduction can be found here. I really find this language attractive!

Theologically we say that the incarnation of Christ (his coming to earth as a human) means he was fully and perfectly human, and fully and perfectly divine, yet remained one person. (Two natures, one person). How this actually works out can be very complicated, and to some extent is beyond my comprehension, but it makes for a very powerful metaphor for Scripture. What I mean is the Bible is both a human and divine. Sometimes we evangelicals like to make it mostly if not entirely divine, (as in “these are the very words of God”), and I’m sure many have a knee jerk reaction to the “humanity” of Scripture as mere liberalism.

But the truth is it is both, and that is a good and necessary thing.

I think a good starting point to define these could be:

The humanity of Scripture
  1. Language - Language is inherently symbolic, so the humanity of Scripture means it includes our metaphors, symbols, language, and so on in order to communicate its message. I think this is really important because sometimes we look at “divine texts” as very abstract, proverbial statements that require a lot of interpretation, and even more so because of human finitude often result in a wide variety of interpretation. But I think the humanity of the Bible means that there is a message, and it’s intended to be understood because it uses our language. There still might be some differences of opinion, but it’s not because there is no message but because we are moving closer to that message

  2. Context - Our humanity in a large part is defined by context. We inherently see the world from our perspective, our emotions, thoughts, ideas, and dreams are all shaped to some degree by our various contexts in life (whether career, relationships, geographic, demographic, etc.). I think the Bible has the same context because each author speaks from a unique perspective with a unique voice. We’d be at a huge loss if we didn’t have four different Gospels with very different personalities. I don’t mean they contradict one another, but they do offer unique perspectives on Jesus that I think complement one another very well to give us a fuller picture of Jesus. So we have to acknowledge that the Bible is written from a particular context, just as we have to acknowledge that we read and study it from a particular context. One important question that has to be wrestled with is how we distinguish between historical context and timeless message, but this is in many ways the heart of why we study the Bible!

  3. Narrative - This is a popular buzzword, but I think narrative is another essential attribute of humanity. Our lives are an unfolding story, and story is a primary way we communicate. (I am often amazed at how much of our conversation is telling stories!) I think story is how we express deep emotions, abstract ideas, and how we work through various conflicts and difficult scenarios (like ethical dilemmas)

The Divinity of Scripture
  1. Authority - If this is really an inspired message from God, then it must carry the full authority of God. We might differ on what inspired means, but at the end of the day, I think it’s important to acknowledge that if the Bible is at all true, then it must stand with the full authority of God behind it.

  2. Unity - While the humanity pushes us towards diversity, I think the divinity of the Bible pushes us towards unity. While there are some beautiful differences in the Bible, at the end of the day it does tell a unified story, with a unified picture of God, his love for humanity, and his story of redemption. I do think however that those who overemphasize the divinity will often overemphasize this point (e.g. proof texting).

  3. Truth - I could have used the word inerrant, but that word is just too loaded to accomplish anything productive. What I mean here though is that the Bible, as a message from God who is the creator of the universe, communicates a true message. Some might disagree on whether this should include the details of the narrative, but in my mind the very least we can say is it must include the message. I believe this demands that if we want to accept this message, we cannot just compartmentalize truth in our minds: we cannot have the “truth of science”, the “truth of psychology”, the “truth of my experience”, and the “truth of the Bible”. Truth simply means what really exists. Since God is the God of truth, it is therefore important for us to have a unified view of truth and work through some of the tough questions when our different worlds of truth disagree.

I think this is a good starting point for our view of the Bible. We might think ourselves more pious if we emphasize the divinity, or more sophisticated if we emphasize the humanity, but we need both. Honestly, overemphasizing the divinity strikes me as a form of idolatry, and overemphasizing the humanity really empties the Bible of any useful substance. Just as Jesus’ incarnation means the uniting of two very different natures in a profound and mysterious way, I think the Bible is a uniting of the divine and human to result in a profound and true message.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Tough Questions

A few months ago a man named Rob Bell released a book that has stirred up quite a storm in the church. This book raised a number of important questions about the Christian view of Hell, and really hit a nerve with the church on the question of the character of God. Questions like, why would God condemn people to hell for eternity? For that matter, why did God command some of the things he commanded in the Bible? Why do very morally upright people not have a better chance at knowing God?

These questions are punctuated by even more questions, such as why do Christians today spend more time excluding people based on their different views of Jesus, why is pronouncing judgment such a popular theme, why do Christians seem more interested in getting into heaven than anything else happening today? And I’m not even going to get into those Christians who cannot separate their politics from their faith….

These questions aren’t unique to Rob Bell. Whatever we may think of it, the reality is our culture today has a certain view of morality that cannot mesh with a surface understanding of the biblical portrayal of God. I’m not just talking about things like genocide in the Old Testament, I mean the fact that a loving God might condemn the majority of humanity to eternal torment simply for not responding favorably to something they might not even have heard of. The category of “loving and moral God” makes sense, but “loving and judging” God is a flat contradiction.

On the one side you have a group that cannot reconcile the presentation of the character of God with their most basic sense of morality, and other is bewildered why the questions are even being asked. One side feels disenfranchised, frustrated, confused, and cries out for better answers, while the other confidently lists their theological points, but effectively is a “resounding gong”. The latter doesn’t want to legitimize the questions, and the other can’t move past the questions. Worse than that, you have many “big names” in the church that seem more eager to label those asking the questions as heretics and move on as if the problem is solved. These are tough questions for a reason: they reflect deep misgivings about the picture of God that we see in the Bible. These misgivings are to the point that I think some (maybe many?) are unable to have biblical trust and faith in a God like that.

So the question is how can we arrive at the answers to these questions? I don’t think we can just dismiss the questions as immature and move on, nor can we give the traditional answers to questions about hell or the problem of evil. While these certainly are true, they aren’t connecting in a meaningful way with many in a way that offers some resolution to these challenging questions. The problem is there are so many differences between this world view and these questions being asked that this list of answers falls very short. Further, these answers come across more as a defense of an immoral God and do very little to really get at the heart of the problem. Arguing from the debt of sin, appealing to “mystery” or God’s transcendence all fall flat. I don’t think those answers are ever meant to depict God as a capricious, arbitrary moral monster, yet because of this radical disconnect they end up having quite the opposite effect of what was intended. Many inside and outside of the faith are turned off because it seems foolish (if not sociopathic) to devote one’s life to a God that defies all of our notions of morality. So answers just end up coming across as cop-outs, and I don’t believe really help people move closer to the Gospel.

I think we really are at a crisis where the church has got to do a better job of contextualizing the Gospel. I don’t just mean contextualize to those outside the faith but even to those inside as well. On the one hand, we will never escape the “offense” of the Gospel (that path is fraught with peril). But on the other, failing to rightly contextualize the Gospel is just adding offense. The worldviews are so different today that I think it’s very easy to forget the urgency of good contextualization. That word normally is used of in extreme cross-cultural interactions (such as bringing the Gospel to some unreached tribe in Africa), but I think the same need exists in American churches today. In failing to lovingly communicate the truth of the Gospel in the context of the Gospel, we’ve portrayed the Gospel as something altogether different than it really is. The fact that some perceive the Gospel as “fire insurance” or “a few lucky people make it in” reveals significant misunderstanding and confusion. Some seem to believe the Gospel is just a set of theological beliefs and/or a moral code, or just heaven. As a good friend of mine likes to say, it certainly is no less than these, but it’s certainly much more! It’s an invitation to a life of devotion to God, a life of transformation, having real life, joy, hope, and being a part of his world and his way. The Gospel is supposed to be good news, but in today’s discussion it’s quite the opposite. Topics like hell take on a very different flavor when we start with this picture of the Gospel. Questions like “why would God send some people to hell” become “why would some people reject all that God has to offer?” I don’t mean to over simplify the issue, I know there is so much more to these questions than this answer alone gives, but I think this is the sort of biblical starting place we must have.

So contextualization has to start with understanding what the Gospel meant. This isn’t easy work, and to honestly engage these questions we have to be willing to reevaluate anything based on where the text leads us. How can we bring the good news to today if we don’t even understand what the good news was, or we’re spending more time clinging to our notion of the good news? When we start with what Scripture said in its context we let the Gospel retain its biblical flavor, and ultimately its truth retains its real power. When we approach questions such as genocide in the OT in their historical context, we see the text not portraying an evil genocidal God, but a Holy God and ultimately a moral and gracious God. But if we divorce the events from the text, it’s very easy to lose this focus. It’s really unfair to the text, because we say “this happened, how could God ever do such a thing” without letting the text give its answer. This also means that if we are to retain the Gospel’s flavor in its context, we have to take care in what we emphasize. If we find ourselves preaching more about hell and judgment than the offer of salvation and life I think we’ve already lost the discussion.

But taking these tough questions and arriving at a clearly understanding of what Scripture teaches isn’t enough. Contextualization means taking this truth and bridging it to our culture. In some ways I think this is even harder, because it doesn’t just mean we pick up a book and study, but it means we’re actively engaged with the world around us. We’re reading the same books others are reading, we’re watching the same media they are watching, we’re engaged in the same discussions, actively listening to their points of view and not jumping down their throats to rip apart their argument (as tempting as it might be!) It’s not just connection but it's a deep level of discernment, humility, love, and grace that actively pursues a better understanding of where people are at. We can’t really speak the truth of the Gospel into a world and culture we know very little about, or people who we have very little connection with. We have to really understand what’s going on. If our answer to the question of hell is a list of theological conclusions alongside a few Bible verses, we’ve failed to connect this to people’s lives. We’ve failed to discern why these questions are being asked, we’ve failed to bridge the world views at play. This is why the status quo doesn’t work.

Perhaps some just aren’t interested in the answers Christianity really has to offer, and that is their right as creatures with free will, (although it’s no less a tragedy). My fear is that many with faith, many with open hearts to God, are having massive stumbling blocks dropped in their path. They have real and important questions, and the answers they are being given isn’t helping their faith grow. Being fed the tradition or theology isn’t enough and they either remain stuck in crisis or apathy and agnosticism. Maybe they just don't like the language of the answers, but I think for many they don't even understand why the answers are answers. They don't have a solid Christian world view, they don't have much of an understanding of the real substance of biblical truth, and so their walk is significantly hindered if not brought to a grinding halt. Some even tragically walk away.

The answer never can be anything other than the Gospel. God saves people, God’s truth, God’s way, by God’s power. But this is so much more than just a set of theological statements, so much more than a moral code, and so much more than mere traditions. The reality, the beauty, and the surpassing greatness of God’s good news, rightly connected to people’s lives, is truly transforming and is truly good news that brings salvation. The tough questions are worth engaging, even if they challenge some of our deepest beliefs. After all, if God’s truth is what we believe it is, then it’s certainly up to the task. So we do need better answers, even if they aren’t different answers. We do need a better presentation of God’s character, a fuller understanding of what the Bible teaches, and a clearer Christian framework for discussing these tough questions and working through the answers exegetically, theologically, philosophically, emotionally, and spiritually. We need to contextualize the true good news that the Gospel represents. Our world needs this good news, our people want it, and our mission demands it.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Reflections on death

For the last several months, I've spent some time reflecting on the reality of death. I suppose this is part of the "growing up" thing, but it has been a humbling and sometimes terrifying process. For more of my life I've believed a few basic things about death: that death isn't the end (we have eternal souls), that after death we spend eternity with God or without God, and depending on this outcome, life after death can be far better of an experience.

I haven't really been challenging these beliefs, but for a number of reasons my reflection on death has been more to understand how other's think of death: especially those who don't believe in the soul.

This has been hard because it requires "setting aside" my reasons for believing what I believe, but it has been a rewarding "exercise". It's interesting how often we experience death. Obviously death is a constant in the universe, all of us have friends or family that either have died or will die. More than that, death is something we read about daily, watch on the news or the latest prime time show, and one is hard pressed to find video games that don't include death in some fashion. The tragedy and pain of death is too potent to escape (maybe there are some powerful drugs to do that?). It's rather disappointing that we consume death in so many forms that we can be a bit numb to it's reality. Maybe this is part of why when it happens to someone we are close to, it blind sides us and brings our world to a crashing halt. Or maybe we like to consume it because it's easier to consume the fiction of death rather than the reality.

Over the last few months, I've had a few moments of near terror when I was able to wrap my mind around the notion of death without an afterlife. It seems rather foolish, but to imagine the entire cessation of one's existence is impossible to comprehend (obviously because comprehending usually involves some relationship to myself, and so comprehending not-me is rather contradictory). It's very empty to think of everyone else having their stories continue and mine not only stopping, but my awareness of their stories ceasing as well. The end of life being a hard termination really provides little to live for. I suppose for such a person all that is really life is one's legacy and children. Some might add "live life to the fullest", but no one experience really lasts so this seems rather pointless.

Really, this perspective seems like such a hopeless cycle: my purpose in life is to provide the best for my children, so they can provide the best for their children, and so on. This really sounds like evolutionary naturalism at it's cruelest: the purpose for life is to continue life. This seems a rather poor purpose. Certainly we could do better, right? Notions such as beauty, joy, creativity, friendship, hope, justice, charity, and love demand more, because otherwise they are just pale distractions instead of the spice of life that they rightly ought to be. More than this, parenting for legacy seems more destructive and self serving (thankfully this was not my experience!). It would be interesting to read an anthropological study on telos through history and culture. I suspect everyone has always sought one, and many have included the afterlife in the equation of life. It's hard to reduce this whole mess of humanity to just procreation, and it makes sense why despair is the result if this is our only purpose.

But as with all things, this is the point where I'm inevitably and rightly drawn back to the cross. I don't want to hold on to a child's dream of an afterlife just because the reality of death is too dark or terrifying to hold on to, I'd rather live in that despair than buy into a lie. But as I've been reflecting, I cannot help but be reminded of all of the reasons for why I believe in God. I cannot watch a sunset, listen to a beautiful song, or see a beautiful vista without praising God. I cannot escape the order and harmony in a universe, the rational structure that our mind's desire, nor the reality that the statement "I exist" must be more than the computation of a complex biological computer. (At this point I want to read more, the notion of consciousness as nothing more than neurons and brain chemistry seems like very poor philosophy). I am drawn to the long list of reasons that I think most rationally argue that God exists, the Bible reliably and faithfully reveals him, and Jesus was who he said he was. Like a child rescued from a well, I've felt the despair melt and hope return as the light returns. What began as an intellectual "game" actually took me to a bit of a dark place, but the truth of Jesus rescued me once again from the darkness.

Death is still a tragic loss, but in Christ it is not the end. This life is just the beginning of our story. I do reject the notion that we are souls "driving" bodies, I believe the two are profoundly intertwined and connected than we always realize, (e.g. Phil 3:20-21; 1 Cor 15:36-38), so this life isn't just a waiting room. I think this is part of the genuine real joy and hope that Christians have: today we not only have a connection with our creator and high priest, but we have a deeper connection with one another and a real purpose to life: to know God, to experience real fellowship in community, and to love other's with God's love.

I have to be honest, I still have doubt, but honestly I doubt just about everything to some degree. Certainty doesn't mean 0% doubt though, certainty means reasonable confidence, and I feel reasonably certain about my current stance. I still have a lot of processing to do on the notion of my own mortality, I'm guessing that's something that will never change. But over the last few months, I've at least found confidence and hope in this process. I think this is an intellectually satisfying conclusion, but more than that, it is an emotionally satisfying perspective. It's nice when things are a double win like that!


Saturday, May 21, 2011

What is God’s love like?

Romans 8:38-39 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, or things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is an amazing pair of verses at the end of Romans 8. But what exactly does this pair of verses say about God’s love?

I get rather confused whenever I hear these verses used to describe a love that cannot be resisted. A love that is so compelling that “nothing I do can separate me from God”. On the one hand, this phrase might only mean something like “no matter what I do, God will still love me”. To this I can absolutely agree, so long as we agree that God loves everyone. God doesn't love the lost any less, so while that truth might give us comfort at times, it really doesn't say anything about our relationship with God. But instead, I think this phrase often betrays something else, something more like “no matter what I do, there aren’t consequences to my relationship with God”. This often is backed up with an appeal to God’s love being unconditional. I believe this interpretation reflects a diminished view of God’s love.

To this I think we have to first look at the story of Israel wandering in the desert. God made a covenant with Israel that he would be there God, he would rescue them from Egypt and make them into a nation. But right after being saved from Egypt, Israel began to quickly rebel and reject God. Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 10:1-11 that many in Israel missed out on the benefits of a covenant relationship with God because of their rejection of God’s love and persistence in rebellion. Hebrews 3:7-19 expresses the same warning: because of their consistent disobedience, rebellion, and unbelief, they failed to enter the Promised Land. Was God any less loving to these individuals? Clearly that is not the case. But it also reveals that there are consequences in God’s love. God’s love isn’t a compelling love that we cannot
reject. If we take what Luke 14 (or even John 3:16) says about the extent of God's love seriously (everyone, even sinners), then people reject God’s love all of the time! If God's love truly is for all people, then it cannot be irresistible because people all over the world don't know God's love (these two truths are incompatible). I
would argue that Scripture regularly shows God sovereingly allowing for his creation to freely reject him.

So God's love can be resisted. But the real question that the above attitude raises is about relationship: for those who know God, does God's love hold them so that we cannot reject it? The story of Israel says a lot about this, but I believe even some of our basic notions of human relationships can begin to answer this. I cautiously submit an analogy from marriage: I've been married for 6 years now, and I know
that I fail my wife regularly, yet she still loves me. But let's say I decided to move out, regularly call her tell her I hate her, and I started dating another woman. It would be foolish not to think that our relationship would undergo significant change. She might still love me, but our relationship would be severed. It would be a rather odd notion to expect that if one day I decided “never mind, I do love you” that things would be instantly restored.

My point is that the whole notion of any kind of relationship assumes some degree of mutuality. This gets very muddy when we talk about our relationship with God because it's a different type of relationship, and we do fail him very regularly. But there is an important distinction here: there is a difference between a relationship that is
temporarily broken and a relationship where one party no longer has interest in the relationship. The latter isn’t really a relationship at all. In other words, Christians daily battle ("struggle") temptation and sin, and might even have seasons of darkness. This is a very different quality of relationship though than an individual who not only is in sin and unrepentant, but has no desire whatsoever for
truly knowing God. Individual Jews in the desert seemed to fall in the later category. Because of their actions, their relationship with God was severed enough that they missed out on the experience and blessings of this relationship.

This distinction is further important because it really gets at the heart of what loving God looks like. God doesn’t want us to love him just with an emotion, a set of accomplishments, or a religion (acting a certain way, obeying certain rules, following certain traditions, or practicing certain ceremonies). More than that, God doesn't want us to love him as a means to an end (whether it be eternal life or the promised land). Like the prodigal son in Luke 15, all that God wants is for us to turn to him in repentance. The Bible makes clear that for us to love God means continuing to remain in Christ (John 15:9-10), it means living by faith (e.g. Gal. 5:6), it means in repentance (the primary imperative of Jesus' ministry). I think it is important to
remember that this condition of experiencing God’s love isn’t entirely on our shoulders (Eph. 2:8 teaches that the work of salvation is God’s), and Jesus is always there willing to help us through the difficult times (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:13). Further, there is real security when we remain in Christ (John 10:28). But God’s sustaining power and the security we have in Christ are never emphasized at the expense of our need to continually remain in him (John 15).

And this is really where I see the heart of God’s love: he desires to redeem the lost and restore people to relationship with him, but he also desires that people continue to choose him and continue in repentance and faith. God always accepts the repenting sinner, and his love, mercy, and grace are inexhaustible. God lovingly (and sovereignly) respects his creation’s free will. God loves us unconditionally and more profoundly than we ever could know, yet he does want a loving response of faith and repentance. Some refer to this with the metaphor of a journey: salvation isn’t just a past tense event, but rather something that in Christ and the power of the Spirit we are moving towards. In Galatians Paul argues that when we try to accomplish anything more than faith we really are surrender to slavery. It’s like a train getting derailed; it’s no longer on the path towards its destination. He uses very harsh language for this person, describing them as severed from Christ (Gal. 5:4). Instead,
he contrasts this effort with being led by the Spirit (Gal. 5:18), and argued that we are alive in Christ because of the Spirit, and as a result we should allow him to continue to lead us (Gal. 5:22). While this may be through the narrow gate (Matt. 7:13-14), it is the way to salvation and it is the way to knowing God’s love. This last point is rather controversial within the church, but I believe the New Testament is very clear that failing to remain in Christ, failing to trust him and live in repentance means the hardening of one's heart. It's a form of rebellion, and there is at least the possibility that persisting in rebellion and unrepentance eventually can lead to a severed relationship with God (e.g. Heb. 3:12-14; Heb. 6:4-6; Heb. 10:26-27; John 15:6; Gal. 5:3-4; Luke 8:11-13; 1 Tim. 4:1; etc.). Some may say these are only hypothetical warnings, but at the very least I think we cannot escape the reality that these are real warnings addressed to Christians to encourage continued faith.

This continual faith and continual repentance is necessary because so much of our circumstances challenge this attitude. We are neck deep in a world with values opposite of God’s, a world that wants to make the case that God’s way isn’t the best way. Many Christians face ridicule, pressure, or even persecution for this love. More than that, we experience the allure of sin, many of us have sinful habits and desires, and above all everyone has an insatiable pride that likes to substitute ourselves for God. This is why the only two options are rebellion or repentance: it’s either we align with God’s way or try to make another. God’s love is always available to those who repent, but repentance is necessary for relationship.

This is why Paul says what he says in Romans 8: in Christ we are children of God, we are free from sin, we are alive and led by the Spirit, and we know the love of God. Our present circumstances pale when compared to the joy of knowing God, and we know that God is victorious, even when victory is a word not even mentioned in the story of our lives. But no matter how much the forces around us might try to push a wedge between us and God, no matter how often failure challenges hope, God’s love us is always bigger. I think it's missing the beauty of Paul's hope here to make Romans 8:38-39 about our inability to resist God's love, especially when Scripture speaks so clearly to the contrary. Paul's point is the surpassing power of God's love, that no matter the circumstance his love can prevail. No power is able to overcome it, and as long as we are abiding in him, nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God’s love.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Resurrection: who dun it?

Today Christians worldwide celebrate the awesome truth and reality of Jesus' resurrection. This is the cornerstone of the Christian faith, and an equally powerful counterpoint to the cross. Paul is absolutely right: without the empty tomb, the Christian faith is in vain. Jesus resurrection has great theological significance: just as the cross dealt with sin, the resurrection brings life, hope, peace, and joy. Further, the resurrection is the capstone to Jesus' earthly ministry: it proves he wasn't a lie, it proves he was who he claimed to be: Messiah, the eternal Word of God, the Son of God.

But there's been one question that's been nagging at me for awhile: who is responsible for it?

Sunday school answers are appropriate here: God. Obviously so. But some argue more specifically: Jesus is responsible for it. This is a bit troubling, because by and large the New Testament places emphasis on the Father as the agent of the resurrection. Paul consistently teaches this, it's all throughout Acts, and shows up in Hebrews and 1 Peter.

For example, Paul consistently and regularly makes the Father the agent of the resurrection, (Rom. 4:24; 6:4; 10:9; 1 Cor. 6:14; 15:12-20; 2 Cor. 4:14; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:20; 2:5-6; Col. 2:12; 1 Thess. 1:10), Acts repeatedly names the Father (Acts 2:24; 2:32; 3:15; 4:10; 5:30; 10:40; 13:30; 13:33-34; 13:37; 17:31), and Hebrews and 1 Peter also echo this idea (Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 1:21).

Further, there are a number of passages where Jesus is “raised” without an agent mentioned, and most biblical commentators refer to these as “divine passives”, i.e. a passive verb where it is implied God is the agent. These are mostly in the Gospels before the resurrection. Some examples of this: Matt. 16:21; 17:9; 17:23; 20:19; 26:32; Mark 14:28; Luke 9:22; John 2:22; 21:14; Rom 6:9-10; 7:4; 8:34; 1 Cor. 15:4; 2 Cor. 5:15

This idea of Jesus raising himself is largely rooted in John 2:19: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."

This might mean that Jesus was saying he himself by his own divinity would raise himself (that certainly is the more clear meaning from the words), but John explains Jesus’ statement in John 2:22 by using a divine passive: the disciples understood what Jesus was saying after “He was raised from the dead”. Further, given the overall context of John (that Jesus was living in submission to the Father’s will, John emphasizes this far more than the synoptics), I think Jesus’ point was more inclusive: he was going to be raised because he was doing the work of the Father and the resurrection was a part of God’s will.

His resurrection, just like his life, was in accordance with the Father’s will, and just as the Father on several occasions declared audibly to those around Jesus of this association, the resurrection is the ultimate vindication by the Father. There are parallels here with how the OT prophets functioned: they were commissioned by God, and on earth were representatives for God with such a unique and close association that their actions were considered the work of the Father. John 10:17-18 carries the same idea: we could say Jesus is saying he himself lays down his life and will take it again, but John explains that this isn’t a matter of agency but authority: the Father gives him the authority, and Jesus acts in accordance with the Father’s will.

Theologically this is important for a number of reasons:

1) Jesus’ identity or divinity wasn’t proven by his agency in the resurrection, but rather Jesus’ connection and association with the Father. The Father raised Jesus as a sign that Jesus was bringing the message of the Father, Jesus was doing the work of the Father, and ultimately Jesus was bringing redemption that the Father willed.

2) As a part of this, Jesus entire earth ministry was an act of humility and submission to the Father’s will (Phil. 2:5-11). By and large this is because Jesus on earth serves as a model for what discipleship looks like: in many ways we are continuing his work in his footsteps, with his triumph and victory in life as a source of hope for what God can do in our lives (e.g. Heb. 14:14-16).

3) Further, Jesus, as our great high priest, is the only mediator between God and man. I think a big point that Paul hits on repeatedly is that in Christ we not only have direct relational access to God, but also because of the Father raising Jesus from the dead, in Christ we have access to that same resurrection and life (e.g. Rom 6:1-11)

4) Finally, although this view sounds like it diminishes the divinity of Jesus on earth, I think it's his humanity which is the main focus of Jesus' earthly ministry. Theological balance is found in the reality of his pre-incarnation divinity, and the combination of both in his glorification. I know some like to argue that the entire trinity was involved with the resurrection (the Spirit could be argued from Rom. 8:11, although this could also apply to the Father). This certainly is true, and we don't want to overemphasize the division of the persons of the Trinity. However, the fact that the Scripture's reflection on the resurrection makes a point to emphasize the Father's agency leads me to think we do the text a disservice to make it all about the unified Godhead. We diminish the distinctions amongst the persons of the Trinity and their distinctive roles, we loose the primacy of the Father's will and his action, and especially we de-emphasize the humanity of Jesus while he was on earth.

At the end of the day, this is a minor theological point. The real important point is the historical reality of the empty tomb, but it's also important to emphasize that Jesus' ministry on earth wasn't as a loan ranger: He came at the behest of the Father's will, in submission to the Father's will, to model true submission and discipleship so that in Him, we might also know and glorify the Father.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Matt. 8:7-8 and the issue of lexical overlap

Some teachers & commentators like to make a big deal about the interplay of the verbs for love based on agape and phileo in John 15. I am not convinced that there is much (if any) exegetical significance in this interplay, as the objects also change in this passage, and more importantly there is a lot of evidence that agape was taking over the usage of phileo in the 1st century.

I think that astute students of scripture rightly take note of interesting lexical changes like this, especially when such shifts aren’t reflected in the English translation. Potentially, such nuances of the Greek might shed some interesting insights into the passage’s meaning. However, while there is this important possibility, we also need to exercise care and not assume that this is always the case (viz. Carson's "Exegetical Fallacies"). I think John 15 is a good example of this problem… the lexical evidence just doesn’t support anything exegetically significant.

After all, we are all instinctively aware that people use the same language in vastly different ways. My boss uses far more pronouns in a sentence than I ever would, and my wife regularly will casually use a word that I’ve never even heard of. There is something to our own personal expression of our selves that also involves how we phrase and word our ideas.

I came across a good example of this today while reading Matthew. In Matthew 8, Jesus is approached by a Centurion appealing to Jesus to heal his servant. Jesus responds in v. 7 with “I will come and heal him”, (which, it appears that it’s actually a question: “Should I come and heal him?”, probably due to the fact that Jesus is a Jew and this is a Gentile military leader). Jesus uses the verb therapeuo.

However, the Centurion replies that he isn’t worthy for Jesus to be in his house, and adds “but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed”. The Centurion however uses a different word for heal, iaomai. Jesus then responds in praise for the Centurions faith, and lamenting Israel’s lack of such faith. The narrative then adds, that the Centurions servant was healed (iaomai) that hour.

Therapeuo is a common word in the NT (43x), and Matthew uses it a lot (17x). Iaomai is less frequently used in the NT (26x), and even less frequent in Matthew (4x, two of which are in this passage). BDAG lists both words with similar senses of “to heal, to restore”, (although therapeuo can also be used as “service”, which doesn't fit this context).

Should we make a big deal of this? Doubtful. It looks like the evidence is pretty clear that this is just a stylistic change in vocabulary. Luke also echoes the Centurion’s use of iaomai, so I’m guessing it is either a more “proper” word fitting for his class, or it was just a stylistic difference. It is interesting that both Luke and Matthew echo the Centurion’s word for heal in describing the actual healing of the servant, but again this seems hardly exegetically significant.

In any case, in our quest for interesting exegetical nuggets, I think we have to be careful not to let our ambition for presenting the text in a fresh or new way to overplay the evidence. Good exegesis doesn’t always result in “newness”, after all most of us pale in comparison with the great exegetes who came before us.


How do I know that I’m a Christian?

Most believers, if honest, struggle with this question from time to time. It’s not always an easy question to satisfy, because behind it are many emotions related to doubt, and sometimes intellectual problems / frustrations.

How can we be assured that we are a Christian?

A first problem relates to understanding of “being in”. Do we view our salvation as something that happened entirely in the past? Something that defines us positionally? There certainly are themes in Scripture that fit this description, but there are a lot of passages that describe out salvation as present and future. The present sense is the ongoing work of the Spirit in our lives, molding and shaping our character to be more like God’s. This is something that is a daily part of the Christian life, and it won’t be completed until Christ returns.

The future tense though (I believe) occupies the majority of passages talking about salvation. Even though we experience regeneration, justification, and sonship today, we haven’t been completely saved from sin. We’re free from sin, alive and not dead, but we still fight sin. We have to struggle against the powers of this world to abide in Christ daily… and we look forward to the completion of our salvation when He returns.

This is an important theme to understand when we think of our own salvation. Our understanding should be less of “I became saved”, and more of “I’m journeying towards salvation”. We know Christ, we can experience his love and salvation, but we are on a path towards his completed salvation. I think this can not only alleviate the frustration when we see failure in our lives (I’m a work in progress), but also can bring clarity to oversimplifications (here are 10 signs you are not saved, and 15 signs you are).

With this in mind, what does Scripture offer as identifications of those in Christ, his disciples, his church?

First, our Actions. This one is simple enough, do our lives demonstrate evidence of the Spirit working in our lives? Are we abiding in Christ, and allowing his love, grace, and mercy to poor through us to others? Are we remaining in the Vine, and bearing lots of fruit?

This isn’t the only test, scripture offers a second: Beliefs. Do we believe the right things about who God is? There certainly are “secondary” and “primary” beliefs (these terms bother me, but I cannot think of a better way of describing it). Both matter and are important, but only one category is especially vital to being a Christian. For example, if we believed God liked to eat kittens for breakfast and puppies for lunch, that would be a significant difference from the Bible’s presentation of God. If we believe that Jesus isn’t the only way to God, this would be a significant departure. However, whatever we believe (from Scripture!) about the end times, it doesn’t affect the center of our Faith (which should be Christ!).

But even those who do great miracles and have effective ministries, those who know a lot about God from his Word, might hear the painful news on that day “depart from me, for I never knew you”. Scripture offers a final test: have we had an encounter with Christ? This isn’t as easy to quantify or prescribe, because no encounter is the same. Some of us have an instant, life changing encounter like Paul did on the road to Damascus, others have a slow, but progressively unfolding encounter where their eyes are slowly opened (like a newborn getting the first glimpses of the world) and their lives are progressively changed, sort of like the disciples had.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on this latter category: what has my own encounter with Christ looked like? I can rest assured in my salvation based on the first two (though less of the first than I’d like), but sometimes it’s very easy to forget who Christ has been in my life. That I know that he is concerned for me, that he loves me and wants me to grow. That has been faithful countless times, even when I had no faith. That I know and can trust that his ways are better than mine, even though my emotions regularly steer me in a different direction. That his ways are true, that he is always there forgiving me when I’ve fallen, and that his Kingdom is real.

I don’t know if this is the best description of it… but these aren’t just mere words or reciting church formula. I think it’s healthy to regularly reflect on how we’ve personally encountered Christ in our lives, not only in generalizations, but in specific times and places. Sometimes it’s very easy to forget when we pray that we’re praying to the almighty, sovereign, creator of the universe. Sometimes I think I have the mental image of Santa Clause or a parent, and not the person of Jesus. The more we can remember who Christ has been in our lives, I think the closer we can grow to him and the greater assurance we can have of our salvation, not as something we have, but as someone we know.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

And the Lord Said....

I had an idea for our fall Worship night to try to retell the story of Scripture from the perspective of God speaking. I wanted to focus on key points in the biblical story when God spoke…

In any case, Steve (the worship leader for the night) liked it and we started working on it. The night will revolve around a number of “narratives” where either God is speaking or fictional characters are responding. I had the fortune of writing the first drafts, and even though they required some pretty heavy revising and rewriting by me and Steve, below is the “final” draft:

And the Lord Said… God’s Story of Hope

Act 1: The Beginning His Word Revealed

God speaking:
In the beginning, God Spoke and the story of life began.

For the first time ever, my creation, though only moments old, is enjoying life. Small creatures dart through the grass, the trees sway to the power of the wind, the air is thick with the sweet smells of flowers, the birds have stretched out their wings and soared higher than mountains, the horses charge through the fields worshipping me with their speed. My creation sings with one voice, glorifying me and enjoying the life that I have given. The story of this world has begun, and a wonderful story it is.

Genesis 1:31 God looked over everything he had made; it was so good, so very good!

Act 2: The Promise His Plan Revealed

God speaking:
The story has only begun, and already the crown of my creation has forgotten me. They have rejected their Creator for created things, and yet… I love them. I have not given up on them, I have a plan to remind them of who their God is. I will make a great nation for my name’s sake, a people who will love me and know me. I will poor out my love and blessing on these people, and I will give them my law so that they can honor me. I will be with them and they will worship me. And all the nations will see how blessed and glorious they are because of me, and they will be drawn to glorify and know me. All the people of the world will gather with the children of Abraham to worship the God of Israel.

Character Responses:
In the time of Abraham
I was Abram, son of Terah, I am now Abraham God’s chosen servant. I had wealth, land, and status, but my God had something greater in store for me: a part to play in his story. He called me to leave my people and travel to a land he would show me. He promised to make my family a great nation, a beacon to the world of God’s mercy and love. Yet, I am old and have no heirs. God said go, so I went, but the land is full of evil. I cannot see how God’s promise will be fulfilled. Still…. my hope is in God.

In the time of David
My God is truly glorious. He has made his nation great, he has defeated our enemies, given us wealth, land, glory, and honor. His glorious king David sits on the throne, and God promises that his son will build us a temple that will be worthy of His name. Our generation is blessed to know the fullness of God’s promise; we live in our promised land, something our forefathers only longed for from a far. Israel is great, God’s covenant is here, and the nation has faith. The people are blessed beyond all measure, our hope is in God.

In the time of Daniel
All seems lost. We had blessing and lived in the covenant, but we forgot our God and turned to idols and sinful pleasures. Our shepherd’s led their people astray. God had a plan for us, and all we had to do was trust in him. But we didn’t, and now the land is desecrated, the temple and city are in ruins, and the nation is scattered. Israel has fallen, her enemies have triumphed, and our glory is ruined.

It is in this darkness that I am beginning to actually listen to God. Even in the days of Abraham God’s promise was about something more than a mere city. God’s plan always pointed to a Messiah who would save us, not just from our enemies but from our sin and pride. Perhaps God blessed Israel not so that we could just be a great nation, but so that all would bow their knee to him. Our glory was lost, but my hope is in God.

Hebrews 8:6-12 But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises. 7 For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:
The time is coming, declares the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.
This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God, and they will be my people.
No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,'
because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more."

Act 3: Immanuel His Son Revealed

God speaking:
This was the plan. It always was. Even as I formed you, my children, I knew my Son would have to come. When I sent my servant Abraham to the promised land I saw the advent of the Promised One. When Isaac was conceived, and Jacob was born, I saw my beloved in Mary’s womb. When I drew my people out of Egypt and raised up my servant David, I saw him nailed to the tree. I saw how he would fulfill my promise. He is the Promise. The eternal Word. Born to deliver my people, not from the bondage of any nation, but from the bondage of sin. The Messiah! Greater than Abraham, Moses, David, and the Prophets. The Great High Priest. Mighty King. Lamb of God. My Son. It is our will that he be crushed.

John 19:30 It is Finished

Act 4: The New Beginning His Kingdom Come

A new voice
It is finished. All you who are weary, all you who have heavy burdens, know me! Look at my hands. Feel my side. I am risen! Death is conquered! The promise has been fulfilled. You have wept because of your sins and you have wept because of my love. It is good that you remember the cross, but do not mourn as one who does not know. Let your sorrow pass and receive our forgiveness completely. You have crossed from death to life.

Now is a new beginning, a new chapter in the story of our creation. You are now children of the Most High. You are my brothers and sisters. Rejoice! For I am with you today, and will never leave you. We have much work to do, you and I.

Rejoice! Your King has triumphed. His Kingdom has come. The end is near, and the wedding feast is about to begin. But listen. Once again all creation sings in one mighty melody; my Holy Angels lift their voices; join them. Worship your King.

Rev. 5:11-14 11Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. 12In a loud voice they sang:
"Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!"
13Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:
"To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!" 14The four living creatures said, "Amen," and the elders fell down and worshiped.

Revelation 21:1-8 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away."
5 And he who was seated on the throne said, "Behold, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true." 6 And he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. 7 The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death."

Acts 1:7-8 He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth."


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Why Isn't Life More Like a Good Story?

Good stories are driven by similar attributes.
Good stories have a lifelike character to them.
Stories are very important to us.

We are surrounded with enough stories that I think sometimes we can be tempted to judge real life by the lifelike. Sometimes we might try to compare our story by the attributes of good storytelling.

For example:
  • Are there interesting things happening to our main character?
  • Is there interesting character development?
  • Are there unexpected turns that "change everything"?
  • Is there enough drama and action?
TV & Movies are great examples of stories, but with these stories come even more attributes:
  • What (normal) attractive people look like
  • How interesting people interact with one another
  • How interesting people respond in different situations, crises, and dramatic moments
Maybe our life might not make the greatest story, but that's not a bad thing. The more interesting stories are interesting because they are bigger than life, they transcend reality yet are still life like. If they weren't, then they would be so life like that they might not be as interesting. Stories can give us insight into life, but they shouldn't define our lives. Stories can take us emotionally and intellectually to other worlds, but like waking up from a good dream real life "sets in".

It's really interesting how good story telling is derived by pulling familiar elements from contemporary life, but in that portrayal many people find definition (whether to a greater or lesser degree). I think movies and TV and stories in general really are a large source of influence in our lives, more than some of us realize. It's really fascinating how there is a cyclical pattern to stories, as they are based on people's experience in life, but then change people's lives. This certainly can be negative, but also can be positive.

I'm not sure why, but sometimes it feels like contemporary stories impact my life more than His story of Good News. His story is certainly more than a story, but also the greatest story ever told. If any story should change our lives in significant ways, if any story is worth emulating and striving to be a character in, His story certainly stands far above the rest.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Faith that moves mountains

Faith is a nice buzzword in our culture, often synonymous with “religion” or “religious”, but not always. It can mean a lot of different things to people in different contexts. Some examples:

- Faith is Blind, opposed to knowledge
“There are those who scoff at the school boy, calling him frivolous and shallow. Yet it was the school boy who said, 'Faith is believing what you know ain't so'.” – Mark Twain
- Foolish, leading to disaster (see picture to the left)
- Useful for being a whole person, but it doesn’t
matter what you believe in (see Shepherd Book)

But what is biblical faith? What is Christian faith?

For the Christian, faith is pretty essential. Scripture makes clear faith is not only the foundation of our salvation (e.g. Eph. 2:8; Rom. 4:5; etc.), but the early followers of Christ called themselves simply those “of the faith”. Faith is the primary expression of our relationship with God, and we can’t really know God in any real way without it.

Jesus describes faith as able to “move mountains” (Matt. 17:20). This is a rather remarkable notion of faith! After all, how many of us can say with honesty that we see our faith accomplishing such things? Now Jesus isn’t speaking of literally moving mountains, but is instead using language that Rabbi’s used to describe accomplishing “exceptional, extraordinary, or impossible” feats. While we don’t expect to move mountains, Jesus’ point is that even with a little faith we can accomplish what seems impossible. After all, right after this he adds “nothing will be impossible for you”. This still sounds rather out of character with our own experience of faith, and it certainly seems to be a bit out of character with a lot of Christians around us.

So the question for this blog is: how does faith accomplish this?

I want to begin by briefly outlining what the Bible has to say about faith. I think three basic concepts seem to capture the biblical notion of faith (not because 3 is a magic number, but because that's all I could come up with).

Faith is Turning
The first is Turning. Throughout the Bible faith and repentance are tied together. You cannot have faith without repentance, and true repentance leads to faith. Repentance is turning away from something, in this case sin. But turning away from sin by itself is no more effective than repairing a broken car is by simply removing t the defective parts. For the repair to actually be a repair, the broken parts need to be replaced or fixed. We aren't "fixed" to just turn away from sin, there has to be something (or someone) to replace that. Faith is the expression of this turning to God, so that we are turning away from sin (Paul calls this dying to sin (Rom. 6:6), being freed from slavery to sin(Rom 6:7)) and turning to God (offering ourselves as instruments of righteousness(Rom.6:13), being raised with Christ for new life(Rom. 6:4)).

In scripture, turning to God entails several things:
Accepting Jesus as Lord over your whole life (after all, you cannot serve two masters Matt 6:24)
Freely submitting your will to God’s
In dying to sin, dying to your self in order to live for God (Mark 8:34-35; Rom. 6:6; etc.)
Committing to a life of obedience -- faith isn't just passive, it's active and revealed in it's fruit (e.g. John 15, James 1, etc.).

Faith is Trusting
The second concept of faith is Trusting. Trust is a rather familiar concept involving reliance and confidence. Biblical trust begins by responding to Jesus’ invitation positively. John describes this as the thirsty coming to Jesus for a drink (John 7:37), Matthew describes it as the weary coming to Jesus for rest (Matt. 11:28), and Hebrews describes us as confidently approaching his throne of grace (Heb. 4:16). We can't begin to trust God without first approaching him. This concept of approach is rather radical as it reveals mere sinful humans approaching God, coming into his holy presence. Biblical trust begins with this unique relationship of nearness with God.

In addition to this positive response, trusting includes several other aspects of our relationship with him:
• Trust involves being led by God. In Heb. 11:8-9 Abraham trusted God to lead him, even though he didn’t know where he was going. This kind of trust means we shouldn’t be worry about things God will provide (Matt. 6:26ff), but trusting in God’s wisdom and power in his plan for our lives, either in specific works he wants us to do today, or the bigger life choices he would prefer we take.
• Trust involves being grounded in God. James describes faith as producing steadfastness (James 1:3), which is opposite of doubt “For the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind”, (James 1:6). When we trust in God we are grounded and find assurance only in him and his proven faithfulness. We aren’t swayed by mere doubt, and when doubt does creep in we quickly fall back on our foundation of trust in who God is.
• Trust involves confident in God’s ability to do great things. The Centurion believed in Jesus’ healing power, in contrast with the majority of Jews at that time. Jesus described future believers as “blessed” when they believe in him even though they were not witnesses to his miracles (John 20:29). This confidence is in manifest when we act when God leads. We cannot say we really trust God if we don’t believe he’s able and will do the things he says he will.
• Trust also involves hope. Biblical hope is centered on the future realization of our salvation. The Christian hope is that this world and this life are not all that there is to living. Instead, we trust in God’s promises to bring salvation and restoration. This hope drives us to trusting that God will act in the future in ways consistent with how he’s acted in the past.

Faith is Knowing
The third concept of faith is Knowing. Faith is a form of knowledge that we all recognize, even if some argue it is in contradiction with fact. Most religious people would consider themselves as having faith of some sort. The common thread here is an understanding that faith involves an experience of God or the divine in some way. For the Christian, this experience is not just an emotional / spiritual experience, but an encounter with the living and risen savior, knowing the real, personal, sovereign, immanent, and transcendent creator of the universe. Further, this encounter changes who we are. Jesus is an active participant in the strengthening and growth of our faith, (Heb. 12:2).

But what is more unique to the Christian faith is that knowledge isn’t just an experience of God. It is also knowledge of something factual, historical, and true. Hebrews begins this knowledge with simply acknowledging that God exists (Heb. 11:6). Paul argues that we cannot call on God without first hearing the good news about God (Rom. 10:14). Paul continues in 1 Cor. 15:14 that without the real, historical resurrection of Jesus our faith is empty and in vain. This means that in order to experience God, we have to know something about him, (which is a good reason why Christians should read their Bible: over 1,500 years of reliable stories about our God and how he is faithful!)

More importantly, the Christian faith isn’t just “faith in something”, but faith in the person of Christ. John describes this as “whoever believes in”, which he doesn’t use the normal preposition for “in”, but the preposition eis which means “into”. The notion here is not just a mental ascent to a fact, but the activity of knowing and being united with the person of Christ. "Believing in" Jesus is more than just knowing about Jesus, or having an experience of Jesus, but is trans-formative and points to a deep and unique relationship.

A final aspect of knowing faith is endurance. Faith that involves a real experience of Jesus and includes knowledge about him must endure. Throughout the Christian life our faith will face temptation, persecution, and challenges against hope. Paul describes faith as a shield against these challenges, against the “the fiery darts of the enemy” (Eph. 6:16). Hebrews makes clear that we can endure, because we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses”, we can endure by focusing on Christ, who for the joy of our salvation endured far worse (Heb. 12:1-4). Not only that, but we can have confidence in enduring because Jesus will be faithful to help us along the way (1 Cor. 10:13; Heb. 10:23).

So what it is about this faith that enables us to move mountains?
1) Faith means being close to the heart of God. We can accomplish the impossible when we seek and know things that are in God’s will. This notion of “being close to the heart of God” is grounded in the concept of transformation. Christianity is fundamentally about being “transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect”, (Rom 12:2). This means by having a faith that includes turning, trusting, and knowing God we can grow in our understanding of God and what he wants.

2) Faith means being “in”. John loves the notion of being “in” Christ and “abiding” in him. John uses this language to express our reliance on and trust in God, our being rooted in God, and God using us to bear fruit. One image John likes to use is of a vine that bears fruit (such as John 15). The branch bears the fruit, but without the life giving sustenance provided by the vine the branch is useless and dead. Hebrews describes this concept as a heavenly citizenship, (Heb. 11:14-16). Our citizenship and our identity are rooted in God, so that our goals and desires are oriented towards his kingdom.

3) Faith means “trust and obey” by His power. In Matt. 17:20, Jesus’ promise of “moving mountains” is in the context of responding to the apparent failure of the disciples in exorcizing a demon. The disciples’ failure was not for a lack of power, but a lack of trust and reliance in Jesus. Jesus explains that even if they had a small portion of faith, they would have succeeded. It’s not that faith is a quantity, but that it requires trusting in God and confidence in him. To me, this sounds a lot like the disciples, even though they were trying to be obedient, were trying to act in their own power.

Instead, scripture is full of success stories of people who accomplished amazing things by faith. Hebrews 11 gives us a long list of such examples. What is interesting is that all that they really did was trust God. The power wasn’t from themselves, but instead their faith meant God’s power was expressed through them. All they needed to do was trust him and act in obedience.

How then can we grow in this faith?
Simply put, are turning, trusting, and knowing a reality in our faith? All three are interconnected and necessary for one another, and all three are necessary for knowing God. But are they a part of our faith?

Paul says we should examine our faith (2 Cor. 13:5). We should test whether the faith we have is real by comparing it with these telltale signs of true, living faith:
Producing the fruit of good work (John 15; James 2:17-18)
Lives continually marked by trusting God (Matt. 6:25-34)
Lives marked by love and obedience
Lives marked by relying on God’s power
These are the marks of a vibrant faith. If we see areas of turning, trusting, or knowing that are failing, then we should confront those areas in prayer (and work through them with other believers).

What is the root of the problem?
Are there other desires, concerns, fears, or emotions getting in the way?
How can I surrender these areas to God?

No Christian this side of eternity is perfect, so even if we’re doing “okay”, we most certainly have a lot of room for improvement. If we really want to know God more and be used by him, we need to regularly be asking ourselves

What area of my life do I need to turn to God more?
What area of my life do I need to trust in God more?
What area of my life do I need to know God more?