Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who wants to push a topic you find tedious or awkward? You try to change the subject. That fails. You try silence. That fails! In fact your silence gives him twice the time to talk. Finally you sigh inwardly and say you have somewhere you need to be.
Now let me confess. I can be that bore. I’ve seen eyes glaze over; and I’ve noticed the quick glances at a watch or a clock.
So please listen with the compassion of a counselor. Let me explain my problem and then you can offer advice.
Here’s my issue. The Triune God of the Bible has captured me—even though it’s obvious that I’m just getting to know him. Nothing about me suggests sainthood—all I have is a big appetite.
Each morning, for instance, I’m drawn to meet him in the Bible. I only get thirty or forty minutes before I need to move on to the rest of the day, but even that brief time brings new reminders of his surprising and captivating personality. He’s a joy to know! And the more I have, the more I want. So throughout the day I look for opportunities to have more—to read books by others who love God, and to find groups and conversations where he’s the focus.
But over time I’ve realized I’m in a minority—not everyone finds God to be so winsome. In fact—like anyone in a minority—I have to ask if I’m out of balance. So I’ve done some soul-searching and the rest of this post is my progress report. And a call for advice.
One question is obvious. Am I getting God right? I certainly hope so. But if not I hope someone is willing to correct me. That’s partly why I want to talk about him so often—I want to hear what others are learning from him.
Another question is more difficult: the matter of priorities. It goes like this: “Given that God is such a huge and controversial subject, aren’t there better things to talk about?”
I still stumble here. I know, for instance, that men can spend hours jousting over sports. And it’s easy for almost anyone to talk about a current movie. Or in professional circles some arcane topics can absorb hours: engineers, educators, truck-drivers, pilots, theologians, and accountants can talk at length with others in their field. Even politics can devour hours of talk.
So why, some may ask, do you want to talk about God, his Son, and his love for the world so often? Can’t you find more neutral, interesting, and useful topics? My problem here is that I see God as the ultimate reference point for every subject—he’s a fully engaged God.
Of course something else may need attention: the matter of who I am and how I present myself. Like someone who sings but can’t really sing, I may just be a poor conversationalist. God, in principle, is a worthy topic; so a skilled conversationalist should be able to navigate such waters. A key here is to know what issues to avoid. So maybe I need better social awareness. That could be. I know, for one, that I’m a bit too enthusiastic about Christ for most people’s tastes.
I’ve thought about that. Overstated devotion puts off those who lack a shared enthusiasm. So I may need a more detached approach—to speak of Jesus more as a curiosity, or as a historical figure. So, it would follow, if my worshipful devotion gets in the way, I need to be more dispassionate—more professional or professorial in speaking of Jesus.
It might also be important for me to be more alert to where my conversation partner is in life. If, for instance, I learn about his or her fears, doubts, and longings; or about any current pleasures and successes, I’m sure to have more success. I get that.
My problem comes when I’m alert to how well the Bible addresses human fears, doubts, longings, and successes in profound and helpful ways. So I’ll mention God and the Bible—gently and carefully, I think—but this is where the cringing begins. I mean to be helpful but it doesn’t work.
Probably the biggest problem, though, is the tendency of all of us who do know our Bibles well and who find God lovely to come off as proud. There’s nothing more awkward than to be around someone who wants to be God’s personal messenger: “I’m speaking on God’s behalf; and I’m also his local judge if you don’t listen!”
That’s a huge problem and I’m sure I’ve gone there all too often. And if I take up that stance, the conversation is over—and properly so!
Yet there’s another side to that issue. Pride can run in both directions. What if I say, simply, “I love what the Bible offers us here.” And then things go silent? Could it be that the conversation is missing a key spiritual component?
Paul wrote about the spiritual component of relationships in 2 Corinthians 2:15-16.
“For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?”
So that’s where I am: that awkward friend. I also bring a certain fragrance into any room.
I’m not alone, of course. Others like me may need some coaching too. And if a conversation stalls because we’re offering our ignorance, pride, or flawed personalities, we need to learn and grow.
But if it’s because we’ve brought the “Christ to God” aroma to our friends, that conversation may remain eternally awkward.
Here’s a question we all face each day: How much self-indulgence is acceptable? And what kinds of self-indulgence are allowed to Christians? The question may sound like a setup for a dose of moralistic chastening—and there will be a moral bite involved—but I ask it as an honest reflection.
Self-indulgence offers a wide range of possibilities. It may be a passing moment of pleasure-seeking—a decision to watch a nice sunset even if it means we’ll be a few minutes late for the next event of the evening. Or it might be a life-changing impulse—quitting a job that pays the bills in order to chase a heartfelt ambition. And the particulars will differ for each of us.
Self-indulgence may also be as simple as ordering whipped cream with a coffee mocha. Or sleeping until noontime on a day off. Or buying a new car that trumps anything the neighbors are driving. Or flying to Kauai as an impulsive and budget-breaking vacation.
Does it feel like there’s a moral tension forming here? We really need to press the question.
For one, do we even know what defines self-indulgence? Descriptively, it seems to be the act of dismissing our sense of duty that normally guides us in favor of something we desire. It’s our giving in to what we really want to do.
The desire may be easy and innocent. As in hitting the snooze button once before getting up. Or pausing on a busy day to text a friend. It can also be unhealthy or even self-destructive. Such as indulging in a big piece of chocolate cake with ice cream even when we’re dealing with serious weight issues or a pre-diabetic condition. Or in allowing a bit of eye-to-eye time with a coworker who doesn’t keep boundaries. Or in finding some time for pornography.
Does the Bible help us? Did Jesus, for instance, ever speak to the question?
Yes. Jesus took his apostles on at least one retreat, to Caesarea Philippi. The region was, and still is, a pleasant vacation spot in Israel. But he was also ready to challenge improper self-indulgence, as seen in a rebuke: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of a cup and a plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25).
Peter also used the imagery of spiritual weight-lifting—of tightening the lifting-belt of our minds—along with being “sober-minded” (1 Peter 1:13). In the next verse he linked our personal conduct as believers to family imagery: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”
One of Martin Luther’s key insights in the sixteenth century was aligned with this. He followed Augustine of Hippo, among others, in treating our collective responsiveness—our heart—as the sole motive center of the soul.
Spiritual struggles, in that view, are always battles between affections—as we respond to competing passions. So at any given moment we have multiple desires in play—some stirred by our newfound love for Christ and others still recalling past pleasures, from before we were members of God’s family.
Our behaviors, then, display the “winning” affection at a given moment. Some affections will be unholy while others will be holy. And, as Peter reminded us, God calls us to be holy as he is.
But what does it mean to be holy? We use the word in Christian circles but it’s not well defined. What may come to mind are sanctimonious naysayers—those who feel superior to others because they stay inside the behavioral boundaries of their community.
But the real measure of holiness is God himself—to be holy “for I am holy”—in a way that shapes “all your conduct.”
Here’s where the reality of God as the Triune Father-Son-and-Spirit God will help us. If we use the singular term “God” without always keeping his Triune and relational reality in view, we may slip into unconscious but reasonable distortions. We can misread statements such as “God is love” and “for I am holy” as if the descriptive words “love” and “holy” are commodities God has and uses.
Instead we need to treat these words as descriptions of God’s inherent relational being: God the Father-Son-and-Spirit God is bonded in his unity by the mutual devotion labeled “love.” In other words he doesn’t use love or send love as a capacity or a force external to himself. Instead he draws us into his communion of love: into his spreading goodness.
Holiness, then, is the moral quality of that love. Nothing the Father thinks or does will ever violate his love for his Son. And vice versa. So, too, the Spirit who communicates this mutual bond of love within the Godhead can be rightly seen as the one who is the love of God—as in Romans 5:5 and Galatians 5:22. Augustine, Luther, Richard Sibbes, Jonathan Edwards, and others in history saw this relational grace as the sole basis for effective—life-changing—spirituality.
So in authentic faith an effective spirituality always begins with an affective devotion to the Father through Christ as stirred by his Spirit. And as our conduct is stirred by this Triune affection of God—with his holy desires shaping our desires—we’re more than free to indulge ourselves!
Jesus warned his disciples—and, by extension, us—of what to expect before his return.
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:9-13).
What should we make of his linkage of lawlessness to a loss of love among members of the believing community—the “many” who “will fall away”? From the beginning there have been both martyrs and apostates among those who identify with Jesus. Was Jesus warning that in a coming time of tribulation the number of those willing to be martyrs would decline while accommodation and apostasy would be much more common? It seems so.
And what about “cold” love? Christ tied this deformed love to the oppression to come. Is it because the love of his followers at that time won’t be authentic? That instinctive self-protection will supersede a superficial love? Or is it because the power of social compliance is so great that the resistance of a hostile community can carry even believers away from their first love—perhaps like those whom Jesus warned in Ephesus in Revelation 2:4?
It’s also useful to ask what this “lawlessness” represents, given that every age has been spiritually lawless in some measure. Paul even identified the entire world as Satan’s realm of disobedience—under whose rule “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh” (Ephesians 2:3). So is Jesus promising an age to come when this chronic reality becomes uniquely acute?
Some have argued, for instance, that Jesus was promising an age when the church will have been supernaturally taken up from the world—so that her fabric of faith will be missed by those newly awakened to God by the dramatic events of that time. It’s easy to read Christ’s broader discourse this way—yet other interpreters are dismissive of this reading.
But I digress. The ins and outs of the last times are not what I mean to chase here. Instead let’s look at the function of love: how it stands behind what Jesus promised. Can a growing hatred for God’s ways cause love to grow cold among Christians today?
A day of major reversals—of spiritual lawlessness—is here already. Biblical beliefs that for centuries guided the Western world in forming the boundaries for life and death and the mores of sexuality and marriage have been effectively challenged. Proponents of revised and reversed views suddenly found traction through media promotions and judicial activism.
And with that momentum the work of political assimilation is now alive. The enduring, broad, and deep resistance to values that flourished in ancient Rome—before Christianity arrived—is now fading. And with that shift any of us who still embrace Bible teachings are beginning to face hostility from post-Christian and secular neighbors. In time we should also expect judicial punishments for failing to embrace their new values.
There are other even more ominous challenges emerging in the world. Christians have been beheaded for their association with Christ in some places today. And Christian faith has been losing momentum in the Western world as secularism and institutional skepticism prospers. So Christ’s warnings were—dare I say it—prophetic.
So let’s shift gears here. Rather than bemoan the lack of faith now—or in the future—let’s ask about gaining a love for Christ that can endure “to the end.” In other words we aren’t looking for a stoic determination to make the difference.
Instead the battle Jesus describes is located in the affections. Nations will “hate” followers of Christ. And those who apostasize will come to “betray” former companions and to “hate one another.” False versions of faith will also prosper—necessary, no doubt, to accommodate the demands of a fallen culture.
So what is the ultimate protection Christians have when the world turns more hostile than ever? Jesus offered the answer in Matthew 22:34-40 when he restated the great calls to love of the Old Testament: “Love God” and “love your neighbor.” There is no type of law—biblical or secular—that is greater in weight or more effective in function than this pairing.
Yet in each case the power of love relies on the focus of love. It begins when Christ captures our hearts. And it can only be sustained by gazing on Christ—not in self-protection or by efforts to navigate a broken world.
The writer of Hebrews captured this just after he wrote his chapter on faith—a faith that led some to give up their lives: “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
All of us have scars and hurts: perhaps a physical disability, a mental limitation, a sexual violation, a major relational loss—or a combination of these and more. And even as Christians the damage may have stolen our hope and left us in a debris field of disappointment.
Yet people respond differently to disappointments. Some are crushed and continue to live as victims. Some muddle ahead but they feel like they’ve landed among the leftovers. But some see the debris field as offering raw material for a new life.
Let’s chase the latter—the rebuilding model.
Even here alternatives exist. One, for instance, is the Pollyanna approach. It calls for wishing-our-hurts-away with artificial smiles, hugs, and clichés that don’t really work in the long run. The outward pretense barely covers the pain; and real resolve never arrives.
Another option—and perhaps the most common—is to medicate our pain with short-term pleasures. God made us as affective beings—as responders. This means our emotional hurts can be buffered for a time by new emotional stirs. As we respond to new stimulants we’re briefly distracted from our deeper disappointments.
But this sort of relief is both deceptive and addictive. Deceptive because it relies on denial; and addictive because the new experiences only offer diminishing returns—more is always needed. Self-medication can be as ordinary as a devotion to comfort foods; or to a world of music; or to careless entertainments; or to busy but empty relationships—or to a combination of these and more.
Still another option is the highly regarded but fundamentally broken therapeutic option—the self-help model. It’s a close cousin to self-medication. I’m not thinking here of the interventions of professional counselors—who know how to help out in a time of crisis or who can help us navigate a chronic condition. Instead I’m thinking of those who promise relief through self-improvement schemes. The problem is their focus: it’s always on self—and that’s where our pain is still waiting for us.
Promoters of this approach may be lively television figures, writers, and even preachers who promise relief through a set of steps-to-success. Yet with the focus still on self—where our problems first started in the Garden of Eden—we miss the alternative call from the Bible.
Which brings us to a proper rebuilding approach. We need to hear Christ’s call to “take up your cross and follow me” and Paul’s call to be “crucified with Christ.” The starting point is not in a focus on self. Instead we realize that sin is rooted in self-love—2 Timothy 3:1-5 can help us here—and a new focus is needed.
So the biblical answer feels upside-down to what our common sense tells us. We’re invited to look to Christ’s death as a pathway to successful life.
Jesus, we discover, came into the world not to patch up our pain but to replace a failed model of life. Adam had once been happily dependent on God: a responsive child. But temptation came and Adam responded to an alternative option: he declared independence. He turned away from God by trying to become like God. And that’s where the pain began.
The effort to be like God was—and still is—utterly unrealistic. Adam was fully dependent on God for his every breath both before and after the fall. But his pretense of success—as he continued to “live” in the realm away from God’s life—was actually a living death. And God refuses to support Adam’s independent life. So any hope that God wants to supply him, or any among us who follow him, with success is folly.
Salvation, then, is our step back into a life of complete dependence. There, in our humility, we begin to hear the Spirit and the Scriptures urging us to trust God. He, alone, offers peace that passes understanding. He, through Christ’s death to sin, invites us into Christ’s resurrection life.
So the resolution to our having been victimized, hurt, scarred, and frightened, is to come to the God who heals and restores. He does the work in us. And he shows us that where sin once dominated us, grace is much greater. And in the comfort of the cross we begin to have more than enough comfort—enough, in fact, to begin to share our comfort with others.
So the solution to our struggles is in Christ—in Jesus who loves us—and not in self-improvement programs or in self-medications.
And, finally, in Christ’s care there are no leftovers. Instead we learn that we are his treasured companions. And growing participants in the glory he shares with his Father.
This entry repeats a post offered at Cor Deo. Please offer any responses at that site. Thanks!
God is devoted to a good outcome in whatever he does. Right from the beginning we find God making the heavens and the earth as “good,” “good,” and “very good.”
We also find Jesus calling on his disciples to bear good fruit: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8).
So a lesson we learn is that God is outcome-oriented: he wants a good product. And with that reality we have our own instinct to produce things—perhaps a reflection of our creation in God’s image.
But what constitutes a “good” product in God’s work?
I ask because many churches today use outcome-based measures. Growth in weekly attendance—along with strong financial numbers—are key signs of success. Bigger is better. And to get there the “good” churches adopt the best business practices of the day. That, in turn, calls for driven leaders who understand bottom lines and firm leadership.
Yet the earlier question of God’s measure of success isn’t necessarily answered.
Jesus, in fact, didn’t measure up if we apply these metrics to his ministry. His end-of-life-on-earth numbers were very modest: he only managed to gather about 120 dedicated followers by the time he ascended to heaven. This despite his having had some golden moments with larger crowds—sometimes reaching into the thousands. Yet he seems to have squandered his momentum with an “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood” talk cited in John chapter six.
As a second question, what defines a proper process in ministry? Is that also important?
I can think, for instance, of a major church in Seattle that imploded last year. It had numbers, finances, publicity, property, and polish. But over time rumbles emerged that the lead pastor was insufferable with his staff. I’m in no position to assess the charges but I was saddened to read them—whatever their merit—as headlines in the local newspaper. Something in the process failed no matter how great the product seemed to be in the heyday of this church.
Other less dramatic examples exist, of course. We all know what it feels like to be treated as a useful object rather than a person, even in church settings. So maybe it’s time to reconsider the relationship of process to product.
Is it possible that for God the process is the product? So that God is not motivated to reach a destination as much as he wants us to enjoy the communion that comes with the trip. Is it even possible that the eschaton—the eternal future of God with his saints—is simply the continuing communion in God’s love that is already present in the hearts of the converted?
The Trinity comes into play here as we answer. The twice-stated truth that “God is love” in 1 John 4 offers an Trinitarian insight: God’s eternal communion as Father-Son-and-Spirit defines love. As Jonathan Edwards once noted, love is the label for God’s inherent bond. It speaks of the shared motivation of self-giving and mutually shared glory of the Father and the Son as facilitated by the Spirit.
With this in mind we can return to Jesus in John 6. The context there is intriguing: the crowds were pragmatists as they came to Jesus for the products he seemed to offer.
Some wanted to make him their king (verse 15)—probably the Zealots who were intent on overthrowing Roman rule—but most wanted him to provide an ongoing breadline after Jesus fed the five thousand as a one-day event (verses 1-14). So they came to Jesus as utilitarian followers: seeing him as a potential source of power and security.
Yet Jesus, following the Father, had a different ambition: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (verse 35). He continued. “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” And then again, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me . . . . Truly, Truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life: I am the bread of life.”
Jesus was, in fact, offering the crowds the gift of joining his love relationship with the Father. Their problem? They were looking at their own interests. Their soul-gaze was on the products he offered in this life—for meals and power. Jesus was instead inviting them to gaze on him and share in his life as the relational entry point to eternal life: this was the bread of real life and the true drink they needed.
So, in the end, only a few responded. Most walked away, still looking for meals or better schemes to overthrow the Romans. In the process they missed the real gift of Jesus—a gift that is both a process and a product.
Listen, then, to this in his wonderful prayer of John 17. He offered it for the few who didn’t walk away from him: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”
So what lies ahead for authentic believers? The shared glory of God’s love. And by this all men will know his true disciples from mere “users,” even in this age, by the fact that we love each other. We are those who are captured by the process of his love spilling through us to our neighbors. The future product will be more of the same, but in the eternal state.
If this is true let’s leave our utilitarian aspirations in this life—both religious and secular—where they belong: in the trash bin. And with that let’s taste and see that the Lord is good!
What should we make of the WWJD movement—What Would Jesus Do?—of the 90’s?
Proponents of that movement updated Charles Sheldon’s book, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? They also borrowed from The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis of the 16th century.
I’ve been a skeptic. My hesitation has nothing to do with the underlying premise that a Christian ought to be Christlike. We are, certainly, to be imitators of God (Ephesians 5:1 & more). But how do we get there?
Sin is able to redirect even that good ambition. In the case of WWJD we can turn faith into a responsibility in place of a response. Religion then becomes a performance, with followers seeking to be good—imitating Jesus—in the eyes of a given audience. But real goodness is something that comes from God and not something we bring to him.
The trap is obvious once we see sin as self-love. As sinners who focus on behaviors—as is true of WWJD—we are religiously looking in the wrong direction: at self. Jesus serves as our resource with some of his Bible lines excerpted to become a script for improving performances. He then serves as a utilitarian icon rather than as a captivating companion.
This form of behavioral faith is both moralistic and tiresome. Tiresome because it is hard work to pretend to be moral if our hearts are distant from God. So the question is one of motivation.
The actual call of Christ is to receive a new heart—offered by the Spirit’s ministry—and then to do what is increasingly natural as his love moves us. So the true imitation of God is to have a heart moved by his heart: to love what he loves. We begin to walk in step with the One who is loved—not as a performance but as a response.
But back to the WWJD theme. Despite the concerns just noted it seems to me there is a proper place to ask what Jesus did during his first century ministry. But the question should be broader—community-based—and affective. In other words, what were the social settings or activities Jesus used and affirmed? And HDJL—How Does Jesus Love?
Let me sketch some potential lessons by briefly comparing how we function as churches today over against Christ’s first century ministry.
For one, Jesus spurned a headquarters-based ministry in favor of itinerant processions, mainly through the regions in and around Galilee, but also to the Jerusalem region for Jewish feasts.
Jesus did return to Capernaum and to Bethany in pauses between his travels but not much is made of these settings. Peter’s mother-in-law lived in Capernaum. This suggests the town was Peter’s home as well as the home of the other fishing-industry apostles. But nothing much is made of the community or its synagogue apart from Christ’s dire warning in Matthew 11:23.
Churches today, by contrast, are invested in place and permanence. Material settings receive huge resources while investments in missions often lag. One lesson here is that Jesus loved to engage people wherever he spent a given day, yet did little to create spaces and places for ministry. His was a “go and share” vision rather than a “come and settle” model.
Jesus offered himself to the poor and needy instead of the privileged and powerful. His mission was notably upside-down in this regard—something he needed to restate even among the disciples—as he came not to be served but to serve. He knew the meek are always more responsive than the mighty.
In contrast to this, business growth models and numerical goals often shape modern churches. Pastors are CEO’s in structures that mirror the values of their given community. Bible colleges, in turn, adapt their teachings to remain aligned with cultural demands.
Jesus was also a controversialist. He stirred a hornet’s nest by his Sabbath activism. He also confronted religious leaders with his uncomfortable parables and his “woe to you” statements. He forced audiences to realize there are only two masters: we either serve God or the world.
The church today, by contrast, is often placid and accommodating—acting as if most of our culture is spiritually neutral. Therapeutic coaching and training in creedal compliance often displaces a passion for Christ and a sacrificial love of neighbors.
Jesus was also boldly relational. His closest companions loved him, with only one exception. They were ready to die for him, as they did in the end, because they knew he loved them.
As part of this Jesus was conversational. He offered himself to his followers during their long treks to and from Jerusalem. His disciples asked him hard questions without fearing a rebuke. He also stirred their thinking—and elicited more talk—whenever they were passive or confused. He loved them and he told them that their mutual love is a signal of authentic faith. It was this group who then carried Christianity into its explosive growth.
The church today, by contrast, elevates teacher-centered education rather than student-centered conversations. Engagements tend to be top-down—or podium-based—rather than face-to-face and interactive. And deep-seated love is replaced by admiration and affirmation.
More can be said. It’s enough for now to invite the Spirit’s inspection: how well do we listen to Jesus these days?
If we fail to walk as he walked and to love as he loved the church becomes moribund. Isn’t it time for us to return to our first love? And then to respond to Christ’s love as our proper motivation? If we do our churches may once again begin to have an impact on the world.
A friend recently commented on what he sees as a widely embraced twist in our Christian circles: “We believe in the Trinity . . . of a sort: in the Father, Son, and the Holy Scriptures.”
His wry point invites some reflection. He wasn’t saying that an overt opposition exists in some circles between honoring the Spirit and using the Bible. He was saying, instead, that the Spirit’s ministry is understated in too many settings that make much of the Bible and its authority. In my experience he’s right on target. Over the years many of my Bible college companions and pastoral colleagues have been Bible-strong but Spirit-shy.
Yet consider the connection. The Scriptures’ honor is ultimately due to the Spirit’s handiwork. He offers God’s heart through the Bible as its indirect author and as the defining presence in all its content. His role—as the Spirit of both the Father and the Son—is critical both to the writing and the proper reading of its substance. Through the human writers he offers encouragements, exhortations, exposés, historical narratives, devotions, poems, self-portrayals, and more—so when we read we have, potentially, the thrill of a Spirit to spirit engagement with God himself. This is what we call spiritual illumination—the promise of moving “from glory to glory” offered in 2 Corinthians 3.
Without a keen awareness of the Spirit as both the original author and the abiding presence in the Bible we may treat its writings as opaque resources rather than relational lenses through which we find a living presence awaiting us. Think of the relational difference, for instance, between a conductor reading a train schedule and wife reading a letter from her beloved husband.
Let me press the point: if we separate Bible words from God’s intention to share himself with us our Bible reading and study will soon reduce to an archiving exercise or a mining expedition for religious ideas. Yet the real point of the Bible is to present God and to engender faith. Faith comes by hearing the word so that we begin to trust the God who offers us his spreading goodness in the texts we read.
For readers still puzzled by this distinction let me turn to a tradition of bold Bible reading as an illustration. Years ago—when I was a newly minted high school graduate—I met a retired missionary, Sam, who had a habit of daily Bible reading. For fifty years he read from Genesis to Revelation twice or three times a year—taking about thirty minutes a day for the reading. The benefit was obvious: he knew and enjoyed the Bible like no one I’d ever met before. The Bible inhabited his life: he knew Christ in a very personal way. So, as an impressionable and spiritually hungry youth, I adopted his approach and never turned back.
Here’s what I discovered: in the Bible the Spirit communicates God’s personality to the caring reader. Personality as in what God likes, what he dislikes, what he emphasizes and what he dismisses. He’s frightening at times and winsome at others. He won’t put up with nonsense and doesn’t feel obliged to keep humans happy. Instead he wants us to be fit to dwell with him for ages to come. And by “him” I mean the Father-Son-and-Spirit who is the One God. He also loves to intrigue us with his puzzles and he prefers to whisper rather than to shout. He rewards patience and persistence and turns away from skepticism and arrogance.
Here’s an analogy. This weekend I was in Poland where I met a Pole named Adam who knew my friend, Dan. Dan and I, in 1989, had driven on a round trip to Poland from Fulda, Germany. Let’s just say the trip was an adventure! Adam, with a big smile, asked me about it. We were soon both laughing because we both knew how Dan’s unique personality would play into making the trip lively.
Think, next, of where “personality” comes from. God, himself, is the fount of every good quality of life, creativity, beauty, and intelligence. We were created in his relational image so that our own sense of what constitutes a close bond is only an echo of the Triune original. And he shares his character freely with any who meet him. So much so that I expect that anyone else who knows him will have the same sense of what he always brings into a relationship: his love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And anyone who knows him well will be deeply shaped by the impact of this immense personality.
Yet too many Christians have been put off from expecting this in their faith. Part of the reason, I’m sure, is that a false version of the Spirit is at work and he offers a distorted portrayal of God. We know from Paul’s warning in Ephesians 2:1-3 that this alternative spirit is now working in the “sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived” and that he has certainly done as much as he can to blind us to the true Spirit. His personality produces followers who promote sexual immorality, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger—and the list goes on in Galatians 5.
So here is the clearest indication of the true Spirit: he always magnifies the Son and not himself, just as Jesus promised: “he will bear witness about me” (John 15:26). And, as we spend time with him, and with the Bible he wrote, we too “will bear witness, because you have been with me” in the Word.
To wrap up, let’s always come to the Bible to meet someone. To meet with God himself by his Spirit who is there awaiting us…
We were made for conversation.
This realization comes in the first hours of birthing and never ends. Every child who grows into successful adulthood will have started with a mother’s tender gaze, cuddles, and whispered words. This parent-child bonding is woven by words of devotion and love. The child also smiles and learns to respond to a unique articulation—a name—and in time offers his or her own words of mum, mommy, abba, dada, and more.
As days and weeks turn to years the conversation of parent and child grow ever more lively and creative. More words are needed to extend the bond of shared family life. Innate creativity reaches for new ways to please and to extend the bonding work of conversations: “Daddy, what is that?” Or, “Mommy, can I help you?” And later, “Dad, what do you think of my new car?”
If we look for the source of this wonderful glue of life—the conversations of creative mutual devotion—we find it in God. We hear bits of the divine conversation of Father, Son, and Spirit from the beginning of the Bible to the end.
If, for instance, we engage the Bible account as a whole and see—as Irenaeus suggested centuries ago—the Son and the Spirit as the two hands of the Father we see the tangible creation as their shared accomplishment. And then the repeated refrain of Genesis 1 is more striking in this relational context: “and God saw that it was good.” Picture the Son coming to the Father with the latest feature of creation and read the refrain as the Father’s delighted response.
We also learn, in Ephesians 1, that the Father, “in Christ,” chose us “before the foundation of the world” to be his children. This, we realize, involved a Triune conversation “in love” that anticipated each believer—and our eternal family standing—with God.
We also find God’s invitation for us to join him in the eternal conversation. In Genesis 18, as one early example, “the LORD” spoke with his two angelic companions about including Abraham in their conversation about the coming judgment of Sodom. Abraham would be speaking to his offspring about God so he needed to be part of a two-way conversation—with God and with his offspring—“to keep the way of the LORD . . .”
In the episode that followed we find a complex account that included Abraham trying to coax God into sparing Sodom from fiery judgment. The patriarch used the premise that God’s righteousness must always be particular and never brandished in a broad sweep. God agreed, but how particular did Abraham want him to be? “Fifty?” Abraham suggested. Somehow Abraham—no doubt thinking to shelter his nephew Lot and Lot’s family—quickly realized that Sodom was well short of having fifty righteous inhabitants. So in a set of tighter requests Abraham eventually came down to the number ten. God still agreed.
Yet when the two angels came to Sodom their proffered conversation met with resistance apart from Lot himself: the citizens of Sodom had no interest in a conversation with God’s delegates. Instead they had their own ambitions. Even the families of those engaged to Lot’s daughters laughed him off. And, in the end, only four were saved along with Lot—as many as the two angels had hands to drag them away from the doomed city. And then even one of them, Lot’s wife, broke away and turned back to die.
The pattern of God coming—ready to speak with people through his prophets—only to have his words rejected and many of his prophets killed reached the finale of Christ’s arrival. Here was the Son of God, himself, who was portrayed as God’s “Word”—the ultimate basis for communing with a communicating God. But the offer of a conversation with God was rejected by all but a few.
The picture in John 17 of the Father’s heart, revealed through the Son, makes his words the bonding feature of all his true followers: “Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you: and they have believed that you sent me.”
Paul, in turn, wrote about the communion—the conversation—that comes as God engages us by his indwelling Spirit: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
But most of us are at least a little hard of hearing. The conversation isn’t particularly audible to our hearts. Call it the battle of sin.
Remember, for instance, the first expressed antagonism against God questioned his words: “Did God really say . . . ?” And, since the fall, problems in maintaining good conversation continue. Many, if not all children, for instance use words from early days that are conversation-breakers: “No!” or, in social settings, “Mine!”
The same takes place in schools when conversational learning is replaced by lectures. Or in the office where conversations about successful methods may be displaced by demands and dictates. Or in marriages where one spouse takes up a steely stare and says to the other, “Dear, we need to talk . . .”
We were made for conversations. So the dangling question for today is just this: Are you listening? And are you open-hearted to whatever God may be telling you?
Gretchen, who has contributed here before (see her last in August 2013), invites us to a deeper faith. Be sure to read her post with an open heart!
The beginning of a new year brings with it a flurry of New Year’s resolutions….lose weight, exercise more, de-clutter the closets, etc. We all have issues and things about which we feel guilty. So with the dawning of the new year, we muster up a renewed determination to rid ourselves of that guilt!
For those of us who are Christians, one of the things we feel guilty about is not reading our Bibles enough. This was underscored at a recent church service I attended when the pastor asked, “How many of you feel guilty about how much you read your Bibles?” Virtually every person in the congregation raised their hand. We know we ought to read our Bibles more, but we don’t. So for many Christians, January 1 begins with a stalwart resolution to read through the Bible by the end of the year.
Usually, this begins well, reviewing the exciting lives of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph in Genesis. Next, we are riveted by God’s incredible rescue of His people from Egypt in Exodus. Ah, but then, we reach Leviticus. Why did God have to put Leviticus so close to the beginning of the Bible to stop us in our tracks just as we were doing so well with our New Year’s guilt-bashing project? We miss a day of reading, then two days, then a week. Then we think to ourselves, “Well, I’ll try again next year.” We feel guilty for having failed yet again. I don’t know about you, but for me, this was a common pattern for decades.
For many years now, however, my experience has been entirely different. My heart delights to spend time reading my Bible, and it aches when I don’t. I can’t wait to read through and then start over again! What’s changed? Have I become more disciplined than ever? Have I unlocked the secret to optimal time management? No. Anyone who knows me can affirm that my closets are still messy, and my schedule is as full as always.
What’s changed is the discovery that behind all the poetry, the history, the commands, the genealogies—behind every word—is a person: God. The Bible is God sharing His heart with us. The accounts of peoples’ lives, the retelling of history, the instructions regarding how to relate to God and others all reveal the heart of a God who loves us and longs for an intimate relationship with us.
In Leviticus 26:11, God says, “I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God and you shall be my people.” It’s a theme that’s repeated over and over again in the Bible, until its culmination in that beautiful passage in Revelation 21: 3-4 “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 their God. 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. ”
Can you hear the intimacy and tenderness in that? Only in a close relationship would one reach to touch the face of another and wipe away a tear. From Genesis to Revelation God reveals His desire for that kind of relationship with us—not out of some human-like neediness—but because He loves us.
You might be thinking, “Well, of course He loves us. He’s God. That’s what He’s supposed to do. John 3:16 and all that.” But this love is not just a global God-loves-the-world kind of love, though He certainly does. He loves you. And me.
At Jesus’ baptism, we get a glimpse into the intimacy of the relationship of the Trinity when the Father, through the Spirit, expresses His love for the Son. Mark 1:11 says, “A voice came from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Again at the transfiguration in Mathew 17:5, we hear the Father’s words of love to His Son, “…and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’ ”
Romans 5:5 tells us that “…God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Yes, in the same way that the Spirit shares the love of the Father with the Son, so the Spirit shares God’s love with us. Is the love He shares with us something He tosses at us from afar? Absolutely not! As Jesus prays for us in John 17, He prays that we might know that the Father loves us even as He has loved Him (Jesus). And Jesus goes on to pray, in John 17: 26, “…that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” The love the Father and Son share, through the Spirit, is the same kind of relationship God wants to have with us.
This is the God who shares His heart with us in the Bible. The God who tells us over and over again that He wants to be our God, and He wants us to be His people. The God who is so close He can wipe the tears from our eyes. The God who pours His love into our hearts though the Spirit. The God who loves us in the same way He loves the Son.
If you are considering reading through the Bible in the coming year, may I offer a suggestion? Instead of opening your Bible to “do the right thing”, or to keep your New Year’s resolution, open your Bible to listen to the heart of the One whose love overflows as He speaks to you in close, intimate relationship. He’s waiting for you.
This entry repeats a post at Cor Deo: please offer any responses on that site. Thanks!
Jesus offered a parable about the types of soil farmers find in casting seed. He then explained the parable. Those who hear God’s word are the soil and the quality of the soil defines the fruitfulness of a teaching ministry. As context, Jesus was preaching God’s word and was finding mixed responses from the crowds.
Most of us recall the key points. God’s word may cause a momentary stir in people whose lives are like packed earth so the seed has only a superficial placement. The devil, like a hungry bird chasing exposed seed, then comes and swallows the moment. For other listeners the words land on rocky soil where personal issues keep the truth from taking root. Or, again, there are people with competing concerns—the “cares and riches and pleasures of life”—that, like weeds, choke any growth from the word. But, finally, in some listeners there is a good response that produces multiplied growth.
Here’s a question. Was Jesus being prescriptive in his story? Was he calling his audience to make some changes in life? Was the parable a moral lesson: “So, work hard to become good soil!”?
No, it was actually a description of his experience with crowds. Soil is what it is: either good or bad and people either respond or fail to respond. Nothing Jesus taught says otherwise.
So, too, the focus was not on the seed. We can be sure it is potentially life changing for all listeners. And the same is true today whenever God’s word is offered. There will always be a range of responses.
Think, for instance, of how many people today may have just been stirred by the message of Christmas: of Jesus who brings “joy to the world.” Yet for some this seed of truth may last about as long as the Christmas tree. Or, if the impact lasts a bit longer, it fades when the entangling pleasures and cares of ordinary life come along.
Yet when responsive hearts do receive God’s word and bear fruit it always comes as a sustained joy: Jesus finds space and freedom in them to bring new life, and that life readily spreads to others through their joy.
Why do some retain this joy while others don’t? Once again, shouldn’t we press people to be more responsive?
Again, that’s not a question Jesus addresses here. What he is saying is that the very same words that fail to touch many people will bring dramatic results in others. So the content of the message has its own power—assuming the words are God’s word—and those who share only need to wait to see results from their preaching, teaching, or simple sharing. The truth of Christ’s teachings has the power—not our rhetoric or brilliant logic.
It also explains why some people who heard Jesus preach would later shout, “crucify him!” And why others, after hearing the same words, would come to worship him: “this is the son of God!” Or why, in John 12, some who believed in him still refused to acknowledge him.
It’s not as if Jesus was callous in telling this parable. In Luke’s gospel the parable is offered in chapter 8. Later we hear how Jesus grieved over the resistant hearts of Jerusalem:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not” (13:34); “And when he drew near the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (19:41). He wept in his longing for fields of fertile soil; but more often than not he found hearts packed down with rocks, footpaths, and flourishing weeds.
Yet there are lessons to be learned elsewhere about what makes soil receptive or unreceptive to the seed of Christ’s words. Hypocrites—the unrighteous moralists of any age—for one, are never good soil. This includes religious leaders who press congregations for better tithing yet “neglect justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42). Or teachers who love to be honored for their education and academic posts yet who are, in fact, spiritually dead—“like unmarked graves”—that people unwittingly walk across (Luke 11:43-44).
Instead, Jesus tells us, his house will be filled with socially awkward and morally unlikely figures, including “the poor and crippled and blind and lame” (Luke 14:21). We can think, for instance, of the Samaritan woman at the well; or Zachaeus, the tax collector; or the begging man who was born blind, as good soil. Jesus, after all, came for sinners rather than for the self-righteous.
So, as we think about the kind of soil we represent, perhaps God’s grace will be at work this year by running a plow through the soil of our lives: turning up hidden sins, tearing up weedy comfort zones, and making a mess out of our self-sufficiency.
Just be sure to give thanks if and when that happens! And listen for Christ’s comforting words that are sure to come with any plowing. He isn’t uncaring—he may even be weeping.