Anger remains a puzzle for many Christians. We all wrestle with it in daily life but it still holds some mystery. Is it ever okay to be angry? The puzzle is that the Bible affirms God’s anger—and sometimes allows for it in believers—but then confronts it as evil in most cases.
Why? Is there an inconsistency in God? Or are there different types of anger? Or does the basis of anger make a difference?
Let’s start by noticing two broad categories of anger in the Bible. One is reactive—a response to evil. The other expresses evil. One carries the energy to oppose evil and correct wrong; the other produces the wrong that needs to be corrected. One builds up; the other tears down.
For instance, the “nations rage” against God in Psalm 2—an evil—while Jesus was properly angry when he knocked over the illicit trading tables in the Temple. Jesus was also righteous when he pronounced his angry “woe to you” charges against the spiritual leaders of his day.
Paul, then, was following Christ’s example when he counseled believers: “Be angry and do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26).
Yet Paul added a corollary—“do not let the sun go down on your anger”—to guard against giving an “opportunity to the devil.” In other words, proper anger, once aroused, should help reform the wrong it confronts but if the anger is prolonged something is broken.
Paul’s corollary, by the way, is part of our puzzle about the seeming inconsistency of Bible responses to anger. Let’s ask a question, then: how does prolonged anger—going to bed and waking up angry—relate to Satan’s efforts? Does time somehow transform anger into a satanic device?
Let’s also draw on something Paul said about anger in Galatians 5. There “fits of anger” are included in a sin list tied to the “flesh.” Juxtaposed to this list is Paul’s summary of the fruit of the Spirit, a list that doesn’t include anger but does include love, joy, peace, and more. So we’re reminded that the Spirit is active in the one but not in the other.
In thinking of Paul’s call to resolve anger before bedtime, two things come to mind. First, we can be angry as long as our anger reflects God’s view of evil. He hates evil and the sins it breeds, and so should we. The Spirit’s active presence in a person’s heart uses Scriptures to guide believers in discriminating good and evil.
Second, in speaking of evil we need to get below the presenting features of sin and consider the source. What motives form the particular behaviors? For Paul the countless features of sinful behaviors narrow to one underlying evil: misdirected love. He, as elsewhere in the Bible, presumes that God made us to know and to love him—to taste and see that he is good.
Satan, against this, captured humanity in Eden by promising a greater “good”. What was this good? Absolute freedom. And with this false promise—false in the sense that we were created as heartfelt responders—he implanted an insatiable appetite for independence and, with that, a complete distaste for God.
With this heart-based context we soon notice the widespread language of spiritual promiscuity in the Bible. The Old Testament prophets, for instance, regularly portray God’s jealous anger: his spiritually amorous bride betrayed him so he both confronts and woos her. Jeremiah 16 and Hosea are particularly vivid examples of this theme.
So—as humans with our own spiritual carelessness—the greatest challenge we face may be looking back at us in the mirror each morning. A devotion to self-protection and self-advancement is pervasive when the Spirit isn’t active. And when we look at self rather than at God, anger is near at hand because we never get the treatment we think we deserve.
From the start Satan’s main ploy has been to distract our gaze from God and his goodness—as he did in tempting Eve in Eden by calling her to self-concerns. He continues to do this by blinding us to God’s loving purpose for creation—a love that promises intimate care for each of us.
Anger, then, is a litmus of our response to God’s love. If, for instance, we share his grief and anger because we share his heart of loving kindness, justice, and righteousness in the face of evil, then anger will be spontaneous and proper. But if we’re angry because our own agenda or circumstances are upset, then another motivation is in play. Our own divinity has been ruffled.
But, again, why did Paul include the “not overnight” provision?
Here’s my best answer in light of what we’ve considered so far. God’s gracious care and greatness will ultimately overcome evil. So we aren’t to be distracted by evil. God himself wants to be our sole focus and source of confidence.
We are right, then, to warn the world that sin is present when we express spontaneous anger in a given moment. But after such moments the Spirit will quickly draw our gaze away from a given evil to the broader confidence that God, in his providence, is working everything for good to those who love him.
Joseph’s account in Genesis captures this. What his brothers did to Joseph in his early years was evil but, as Joseph reminded his worried brothers, “God meant [their actions] for good.” It also explains Paul’s call in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, and elsewhere, to “give thanks” in everything. So a short transition from anger—reflecting God’s heart—to thanksgiving in light of God’s rule, even over sin, is always the sequence of sound faith.
So anger may be fine for a moment—as long as it’s a proper anger—but it’s not something we embrace. We may be victims for a moment but, because of the cross, we are not truly victims. God knows how to manage evil. That alone allows for truly spiritual anger management.
In effect we’re told by Christ’s Spirit, “Go in peace.”
This post repeats my Cor Deo entry. Please post any responses there. Thanks!
Through the centuries the Church’s perception of the Holy Spirit has often been overstated or understated.
The Montanists, for instance, stirred a strong reaction by their claims of immediate Spirit-direction. And centuries later Joachim of Fiore mistakenly posited a new Age of the Spirit to displace the presumed passing of the ages of the Father and the Son. Many followed his lead, to the growing concern of church leaders.
The 17th century Puritans were then equally errant—in the face of cultic Spirit groups like the Familists—by reducing the Spirit’s role to the invisible “doctrine of means”: holding that he only works indirectly, through “means of grace” such as preaching, praying, Bible reading, and the like.
So what is the proper place of the Spirit in the Church for today?
The answer, of course, is: Whatever God wants it to be. And he gives us some clear indications in the Bible. The book of Acts, for instance, tells us how the Spirit was the overt director of early Church growth. His activism was powerful and pervasive.
Yet there are arguable hesitations in treating all the descriptions in Acts of the Spirit’s activism as normative for today. So in asking how the Spirit means to minister today, especially given the historic cycle of abuses-and-suppressive reactions, we look for guidance from the Bible.
And the New Testament epistles offer as much as we need to know about the Spirit’s work. In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, for instance, we have crucial coaching on the Spirit’s role in forming faith. Paul’s Spirit-rich ministry was described in Acts; then in Romans Paul presents the Spirit’s work with special care. So let’s go there.
In an overview reading of Romans we find what might be called Spirit-bursts among longer stretches of relative silence. The epistle starts with a reference to the Spirit in Paul’s introductory remarks. Following that are one-off references in 2:29, 5:5, and 7:6. Chapter 8 then explodes with 21 references—the greatest concentration in the Bible—followed by notices in 9:1, 11:8, 12:11, and 14:17. And, finally, there Paul ends with a micro-burst of 4 references in chapter 15.
References to the Father and the Son, by comparison, are much more common and evenly distributed. And that raises a question: is the Spirit’s role diminished by Paul’s relatively localized references?
No. The same pattern is found in the Gospels and elsewhere in Scripture. John, for one, has his own major Spirit discussions in chapters 3 and 14-16. Even the Old Testament has concentrations as in Isaiah 63 and Ezekiel 36-37.
Reasons for this pattern grow out of the Spirit’s unique role—his ministry in the “economy” of the Trinity. The Spirit, in very simple terms, has the role of facilitating fellowship or communion both within the Godhead and in our union with Christ. The Father, for instance, planned our salvation; the Son accomplished it; and the Spirit applies it. Each role is crucial but the narrative discussion of the planning and the accomplishing has the most print.
With that in mind, let’s trace the Spirit-in-Romans in a very brief overview. We’ll need to read between the lines at points and I invite each reader to take a look for himself or herself.
Paul launches the epistle with a Trinitarian reference to the Son’s human heritage in King David and to the Holy Spirit in his deity—the latter being witnessed to by the power evidenced in Christ’s resurrection (1:4). The text is cryptic—reflecting some assumptions we need to chase elsewhere.
Paul’s concern in writing to the Romans features a disturbing tension between one or more of the Jewish Christian house-churches—a group still devoted to Jewish practices—and the Gentile-Christian (with some Jews involved) house-church. The former presumably saw Jesus as the Messiah who came in a Jewish context—with Gentile Christians then expected to take up Judaism in expressing their faith. In chapter 2 Paul dismisses this vision and, with that, he reminds these Jews that their own spirituality lacks moral credibility.
The Gentile-Christian house church—certainly the community led by Aquila with his wife Priscilla (16:3-4)—offered a healthy contrast to the unhappy Jews. The Gentile Christians had an exemplary spirituality (2:14-16). Paul attributed the success of their genuine spirituality to the Spirit’s work of circumcising the heart—of aligning the heart to God’s ways by inner reformation (2:29).
The key text in Romans for understanding this inside-out change of heart was then offered in Paul’s call for hope in the face of external persecutions: “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (5:5).
Love, then, is God’s power for change. The sin of self-love or pride can only be dissolved by a greater love. And the Spirit—the Trinity’s agent of fellowship—carries God’s love to the soul. Paul—without losing sight of this truth—then called on Romans to embrace this grace of love—“that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (5:8)—with a new sense of freedom and power.
Then when we reach chapter 8 we find that, despite Paul’s silence about the Spirit’s presence and fellowship in chapters 6-7, his presence was still seen as the basis for transformation. Once again this is accomplished by the Spirit sharing God’s love with his chosen ones: “[Nothing of any sort] in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39). In other words the Spirit is forever pouring that love out in our hearts and that sets up the security we need!
There’s much more to be said but I’m out of space. Let me just say that later texts like chapter 12:1-3 call for rethinking everything in life on the basis of this love. We see this link to love in later references—“Let love be genuine” and “love is the fulfilling of the law” (12:9 & 13:10)—and in the summary of 15:13 we return to the Spirit’s work of producing hope: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
So how does the Spirit change us? By dramatic signs and wonders on the one hand? Or by disappearing and leaving the task of faith to us, on the other? Or—as in Romans—by living in us, and forever speaking into our hearts: “The Father loves you and he wants you to call him Daddy! Come with me and let’s enjoy him as much as the Son does!” Read Romans and see for yourself.
Paul’s epistle to the Romans is well known for presenting the nature of faith. One commentator claimed, more broadly, that knowing Romans well will keep readers from heresy. Amen! Yet there are some interpretive shoals to navigate.
Let’s consider one, in chapter 2:14-15. Competing views of this text have produced very different and competing versions of faith.
To remind you of the text—and please pick up a Bible to see for yourself—Paul spoke of “Gentiles, who do not have the law” but who “by nature do what the law requires” and “show that the work of the law is written on their hearts”.
Paul set these Gentiles over against Jews who felt superior because they had grown up in Synagogue-School and knew God’s commandments by rote.
The prospect Paul seems to raise is here is that every human has an innate moral capacity to be righteous: that every person in the world retains a basic moral capacity for good by having “the law [of God] written on their hearts”. And if that’s the case this capacity is the logical basis for God deciding who deserves divine aid in achieving salvation. In effect God helps those who are inclined by this natural law to ask for his help.
In this view all humanity is damaged by sin from Adam onward but we still retain enough moral capacity to be guilty if we don’t use this innate moral law. And God gets the credit for providing this capacity if and when we do use it. It’s a neat and simple solution to the question of who does and who doesn’t get saved.
But there’s another reading to be had and, with it, a version of faith that doesn’t feature innate human morality as the basis for salvation.
It comes by our asking, who are these “Gentiles”?
The label, Gentiles—or its synonym, “the Greeks”—is sometimes used for all non-Jews who are separated from God because of their individual and collective unbelief. Paul, for instance, used this sense in 2:24—“The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
Yet there is another type of Gentile in Romans: those who are not Jewish by birth yet who have come to faith in Christ. And, in the alternate reading of the text, it is this group Paul has in mind in 2:14 as he spoke of Gentiles who obey God’s laws as “written on their hearts”.
What’s the basis for this distinction?
It begins in Romans 1:13 where Paul spoke of his apostolic calling to “harvest” those from “among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles.” This suggests at least some Gentiles are among the believers in Rome.
And later, in 9:30, Paul spoke again about these Gentile believers or converts who have “a righteousness that is by faith.” And, again, in chapter 15, Paul repeatedly spoke of his ministry in bringing about such conversions—pointing to his aim in the epistle to resolve a divide between some of the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers in Rome.
With this crucial discrimination in mind—between unbelieving and believing Gentiles—Paul is clearly telling a group of the Jews in Rome to quit insisting that Gentile converts must keep up with the demands of Jewish law-keeping (something the Jews themselves weren’t even doing!) because, in fact, these Gentiles were already devoted to God’s laws “from the heart.”
As he makes clear at the end of the chapter (in 2:29) a person’s heritage is not the key to being a proper “Jew” but the inward change “of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” is the basis for salvation. And, by logical extension, this inward change is never a feature of non-believing Gentiles.
This reading is reinforced by Paul’s next point, in 3:9-11, “that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” and that “no one seeks for God”. He goes on to say that the only practical benefit of the Jewish moral laws is that they make people aware of their innate lawlessness, “since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (verse 20).
So, given this tracing of Paul’s actual distinctions in Romans, how is anyone saved if “no one seeks for God”? His answer is what we read in 2:29—it “is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit”—and as we read later in the epistle, in 5:5, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” The “us” refers to active sinners who now believe: “God shows his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us” (verse 8).
So is faith based on our own innate morality?
Paul is similarly blunt about this in another epistle, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked,” but God—rich in mercy and grace—saves all who believe from among those who were “dead” (Ephesians 2:1-8). Is this faith a product of our effort? Listen to Paul once again: “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
So what is our role in salvation? Nothing more than our response to the Spirit telling us, “God loves you!” Faith, in other words, is our response to the Spirit’s wooing love and not a responsibility based on our innate morality. So our only boast is in what Christ has done in and for us.
I’ve experienced many of the services offered by service industries. Airports, hotels, trains, car rentals, restaurants, and the like, are regular features of life lately. So here are some thoughts on how to find the best service possible.
First, services are reliable: companies remain consistent in being either strong or weak. So I always pay attention to reviews on the Internet. TripAdvisor, for instance, offers great scuttlebutt on most major travel services. Before I book a hotel room I always check their site to see the applicable service scores. If a hotel review averages a 3 or lower out of the top mark of 5 I know it’s time to look elsewhere. And any hotel with at least a 4 is a winner.
Second, I know I have to pay for good service. The more expensive servers generally have good management and good management expects its staff to serve well and will pay them accordingly. This, in turn, sets up a reputation that allows good service providers to charge more. So while I love a good value I also hate miserable travel experiences that masquerade as values.
As a negative example I recently flew on an airline that was both cheap and had poor reviews. I used them despite the growling reviews because their city connections were convenient. The trip came off as planned but only with a number of cringes along the way.
To start, their equipment was shabby and dirty; flights were late; communications poor; and standard safety rules were violated. Two gate staff for one flight were more interested in mutual flirting than in checking us in. On the flight itself two passengers were still searching for seats even as the aircraft was backing away from the gate—the flight attendants hadn’t enforced seat assignments so they were left to negotiate on their own. Then a couple of the attendants were still fiddling in the galley when the take-off roll started. Cheap service and weak service are common partners.
Third, there can always be diamonds among ordinary service providers. I remember a staffer from a service-weak airline from a few years ago. An Icelandic volcano had me parked in Estonia for most of a week. As flights were restored I needed some serious rebooking help, and soon. But the airline contact systems were virtually shut down. After many hours of dead ends I thought to call an airline center outside Europe: it was a desperate reach. Happily I finally connected with a staff member in Los Angeles who gave me all the time needed to solve things. She was a gem of wisdom and care when it was most needed.
Finally, the very best service is the product of selfless devotion. And it’s here that the best service differs from merely good service: authentic care always trumps imitations. Merely good service is pragmatic. It restricts selfish interests while still applying them. Those who care for others, on the other hand, offer the best services. They serve others in ways they would want to be cared for—with such judgments always shaped by love.
Now let’s shift categories but not topics.
How do we see God? Have we recognized him as the ultimate servant? He is. And those who know him are able to offer the very best services, services stimulated by the best source.
Behind this claim is God’s love: a love characterized by humble, selfless giving. We can think of John 3:16, of course, as the Father gave up his Son to death to provide for salvation. We also think of the Son’s example of humbling himself on the cross—Philippians 2:1-11 on this—along with the Hebrews 12 insight that Jesus despised the shame of the cross for the joy of gaining a people for himself.
God’s service also reveals what we were made to be: lovers of God and others. We were made to be like him and, with that, to discover there is more joy in giving than in receiving. Even when the cost of such service is dramatic, calling for everything we are and have.
Alternative types of service still operate in the grip of self-concern and can’t be trusted once pragmatic issues reach the bottom line. Selfishness, if present at the heart of a person or a company, eventually distorts every relationship and service.
Let me wrap up, then, with the best service statement we’ll ever hear, from Mark 10:45—“ For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Amen, and thank God for the real thing!
This entry repeats my primary posting at the Cor Deo site. Please offer any responses there. Thanks!
Everything. God wants everything we have, and all of who we are. Not more and not less. God’s ambition for us is heart-based: he wants whole hearts.
That includes our mind, soul, and strength. Or, in contemporary terms, our time, our employment, our money, our devices, our attitudes, values, marriages, plans, and everything else we can think of.
This radical divine ambition came as a dawning when I was converted: the basis for my response to Christ. Jesus came to me with the language of “two masters” in Matthew 6:24. He was saying, in effect, “I want to be your master but you have another master right now—and that must change.”
I mention my embrace of Christ’s calling for my life to highlight a point that many Christians seem to have muddled. The point is important: God isn’t looking for our cooperation or appreciation. He wants, instead, a marriage-like devotion. So when I next read Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” and responded so that he began to reshape my deepest values, the implications of this calling started to unfold.
My response of, “Yes, Lord, I’m yours!” meant everything started to change. Knowing Jesus became both my immediate and my ultimate ambition. That’s not to say that I was always consistent or wholly persistent: by no means! But my movement toward him was a new trajectory in life. Later on I realized my “yes” reflected the ministry of the Spirit winning my heart and uniting me to the Son as in the marital-union language of 1 Corinthians 6:15-20.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when at theological college a few years later I read a book by a Christian scholar that treated this kind of faith as “crypto-sectarian.” The author actually made the charge against a 17th century Puritan, John Cotton, but it also applied to me.
Cotton, by the way, was converted by the preaching of Richard Sibbes when Cotton was already a trained and respected Puritan preacher. Sibbes’ teaching of Christ’s love and free grace by the coming of the Spirit caught Cotton’s heart and changed his life. And, obviously, it said something about Cotton’s new view of his earlier version of faith.
What I shared with Cotton, and Sibbes before him, and Calvin before him, and Luther before him, and Bernard before him, and Augustine before him, and the Bible before them, was a marriage-like commitment. God, by the Spirit using unconditional Bible promises of his love and mercy in Christ, made all the difference. His love is both captivating and freeing. And we love him because he first loved us.
The troubling book I read—by William Stoever—was a creed-based critique of the free-grace movement among Puritans. It was, arguably, a lively exercise in Whiggish history—the measuring of earlier historical events by later values. In other words, what Stoever today believes to be correct doctrine was imposed on the 17th century Puritans. So Stoever’s personal Reformed convictions were his basis for criticizing Cotton as a heretic.
As such it buried the real issue: that the Reformed movement was, and still is, divided by two competing versions of Reformed faith. One version—Stoever’s modern view—treats God’s grace as an empowering gift to the elect. This newly created grace offers power to live in line with God’s demands. In turn this obedience displays their status as genuine believers. Obedience, then, is the hallmark of faith.
Cotton’s alternative version of faith followed Luther’s Reformation insight—also embraced by Calvin—that saving grace isn’t a created power but God’s indwelling presence by the Spirit. He then changes us from the inside-out by changing our desires. And with new and holy desires the fruit of obedience follows. But obedience isn’t the focus of faith. Only Christ has that pedestal and any call to look to self by focusing on obedience is to look in the wrong direction.
What Stoever either missed or dismissed, as a result, was the continuity between Cotton and Calvin. This was a key issue in the original Puritan debate: transformation comes only by the Spirit’s participation in a convert’s soul. He stirs the reciprocity of mutual love.
So Calvin himself would need to be seen as a “crypto-sectarian” along with Cotton if Stoever had followed the trail of evidence based on what Cotton kept saying to his colleagues, “I’m just following Calvin!” And he was.
In a nutshell Stoever insisted that God wants a balance between himself and his believers—a symmetry between Nature (humans) and Grace (God). Stoever argues that Cotton’s newfound belief in the abiding presence of the Spirit violates this symmetry. How? By Cotton’s claim that believers, by this union with Christ, are fully dependent on God.
Such complete dependence, Stoever warns, violates God’s desire for a Nature-Grace partnership by means of enabling and saving grace. Grace, as a booster force given by God to the Elect, allows them to retain a certain independence that pleases God.
But Independence, even of this type, is a curious thought to all of us who were converted by repenting of our independence. Adam started the problem by declaring independence so it’s certainly not likely to be a feature of salvation. So Cotton dismissed independence and moved from one version of Reformed faith to another. And he got it right.
Go read and see for yourself. Boasting or Nature-boosting just doesn’t cut it. God still wants everything.
Are you happy? And—to press the issue—is happiness your aim in life?
I ask because the answer, yes, is widespread. The classical religions and their teachers—led by Greek and Roman philosophers in particular—made happiness an ultimate value.
Aristotle, for instance, was a “eudaimonist”—one who seeks goodness-satisfaction-happiness—and he made the state of happiness his measure of ethics. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics—a virtue-based system defined by eudaimonic values—is present in much of modern moral thought.
Happiness was, in turn, at the heart of the 18th century Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson, a child of that era, reflected this in his creedal Declaration of Independence by assuming that “the pursuit of happiness” is an ultimate and proper ambition for all.
Even today the pathway to personal happiness is a trajectory Baby-Boomers successfully passed along to their offspring. Entertainment—reflecting this transmission—is now central to Western life. Neil Postman’s prescient study of the 80’s, Amusing Ourselves to Death, was spot-on in anticipating how media would nurture this appetite among post-moderns—the realm of most teens and twenties today. Their screen-devices have become venues of happiness.
By now some readers may be wondering: “So where are you going with this; are you ready to say we should pursue unhappiness? Is your big ambition to be a gloom-monger?”
God forbid—that’s certainly not where I’m going. But let’s at least ask where following Christ will take us.
And I say “God forbid” advisedly because in Scriptures we find that God is not about the pursuit of happiness or unhappiness. Instead he warns us—as we move to a bottom line—that we must not eat the forbidden fruit of trying “to be like god” and, with that, of determining good and evil by our own measures. By missing this warning Aristotle and Jefferson were wrong. Both used human happiness as an anthropocentric measure of good and evil.
C. S. Lewis, by contrast, charted a proper trajectory in Surprised by Joy. His book—the story of his conversion to Christianity—tells of how he felt moments of joy in his early life. These brief encounters with joy—a term overlapped with happiness—became a fixation for Lewis. He found that joy couldn’t be predicted or controlled—it was real but ephemeral. So whenever he experienced joy he tried to capture it. That is, in the moment of joy he quickly made joy itself his focus; but in his trying to nail down the substance of joy it instantly evaporated.
Eventually it dawned on him that joy isn’t an independent quality—an emotional end in itself—but the result of encountering one who stirs joy in us: ultimately, God.
A distinction between joy and happiness is now worth noting. Both are positive emotions but in common usage happiness is more pleasure-centered—a video game, for instance, may keep a child happy for a time.
Joy, on the other hand, is a more complex emotion that can be sustained even in the face of pain or loss. I recall, for instance, my mother’s tears as my parents saw me off to university. She wasn’t happy—it wasn’t a pleasure for her—but in the moment of loss she also experienced joy in my moving forward in life. And, much more deeply, Hebrews 12:2 speaks of Christ enduring his crucifixion “for the joy set before him.”
So let’s embrace joy as a proper longing rather than happiness. And, with that, let’s return to the lesson Lewis learned: joy is a relational word. We can find real joy in a someone rather than in a something. We might be “happy” with a new toy but the emotion fades as soon as the battery runs low, the fuel is used up, or the paint is scratched.
Joy, on the other hand, is ever and always reawakened whenever we see the smile of one we love and trust.
Why? Because God made us to be relational beings—made in the image of the eternally loving and trustworthy Father-Son-and-Spirit God. He, the relational One, captures us with his love and loveliness.
What, then, of the widespread ambition to be happy? Is it, perhaps, an ultimate idol meant by God’s Enemy to distract us from joy? Is it possible that in our pursuit of happiness we’ve replaced God with an unending appetite for shallow and fleeting pleasures?
Certainly, yes! And happiness is an idol so deeply entrenched in our hearts that we won’t see its falsity until by the Spirit’s urging we look away from self to see Christ gazing at us in his grief and love.
Repentance, by this measure, is a turning away from our toys, our devices, our material passions, and our degrading entertainments. In their place we look to Jesus who loves us and brings us to his Father.
In God’s communion, then, we find unending joy as it spreads first to us and then through us. Call it happiness if you like, or blessing, or delight—just be sure to keep the focus where it belongs: on Christ alone.
Here’s a practical question that quietly divides Christians. Is Christ personally present to believers in faith? Or is he an iconic object of faith who offers us spiritual benefits from afar?
Different answers change the basic shape of applied faith and explain some key distinctions among Christians.
To be clear, this question differs from our asking whether Christians should seek to learn more about Jesus. Growing Christians of any stripe always value learning about him as a biblical and historical figure. And any gains help build our picture of his ministry that, in turn, ground our values and creeds.
Nor are we asking if those who hold Christ to be more detached—rather than immediate and accessible—have dismissed his eternal status as the living Son of God. That’s a separate question that, depending on the given answer, formally divides belief and unbelief. Our concern here is an intramural difference.
To begin, I think it’s fair to say that a more detached faith usually features divine process. That is, the believer looks to Christ’s work in particular as a gracious legal solution to a moral conundrum.
The conundrum of how an absolutely righteous God resolves the unrighteousness of humans is primary. Most often God’s moral demands and his wrath against sin are set out in a courtroom scenario. The Father, as judge, condemns sin. The Son intervenes both as defense attorney on behalf of the elect and as a placating sacrifice—the one who dies for the elect—as demanded by divine justice.
This judicial scenario is set out in the broader process of a basic moral contract or covenant between God and his creation. God, as creator, sets out his proper expectations that are wholly and perfectly aligned with his attributes. Humanity then must fulfill the expectations that come with his being. God, for instance, is glorious so his people are called to glorify him. He is holy so his people must be holy. He is faithful and we are called to be faithful. And so on.
So the divine process consists in a progression that traces God’s plan and our assigned roles. It begins with creation and fall; then moves to incarnation; followed by Christ’s death-burial-and-resurrection; and it wraps up with ascension and a future reunion with God in store for saints; and with eternal judgment of the unredeemed.
To a critical eye there are features of this divine process that must be affirmed. But there’s also a major blind spot that invites us to look for an alternative presentation. On the positive side we find that the biblical features of God’s incarnation in Christ, his vicarious death for his people, and his promise of eternal life for all who believe is properly noticed. Jesus paid the price of sin and provides life to sinners saved by his grace.
But the ‘strictly judicial’ portrayal is too detached—too mechanical: the contract is met in Christ; God’s ambitions are fulfilled in the process; and believers get eternal life. Each believer fulfills a role—offering faith, for instance—in order for the plan to work. And God’s supernatural power is behind it all so that he gains all the glory. God uses the creation to feel good about himself for reasons we, ultimately, are not to question.
The blind spot here is the loss of God’s heart—his being portrayed as an emotionally detached divinity. It’s a portrayal that misses or dismisses a number of emphatic themes in the Bible.
So let me at least launch the inexhaustible relational alternative: a view of God as one intent on fully engaging us by his love, both now and in eternity.
To begin we turn to the question of God’s eternal past. What was God about before the foundation of the world? The Bible answers this: he was enjoying his communion of mutual love and glory as the Father and Son delighted in each other and the Spirit facilitated that love and glory. See John 17 on this along with 1 John 4.
And what is the eternal future God has in mind?
He invites his followers to share in this love-produced-glory (John 17:24) for the ages to come.
We also see the motive of God reiterated throughout the Bible from beginning to end: he is a triune lover whose heart overflows to his creation. The Father sends his Son to die for our sins. Why? Because he loves the world. Yet the Father is just and shows wrath. Why? Because his jealous love for the Son has been violated by the Son’s bride who became a spiritual whore—see Psalm 2 and Ezekiel 16 for glimpses here. But, as seen in Hosea, he calls her back to himself.
And with this we find the role of the Spirit as the intimate—as in marital intimacy—bond of Christ and believers. This is given explicitly in 1 Corinthians 6 and Ephesians 5 and implicitly in all the marital language God uses towards his people.
But how, we might ask, does such theological content compare to the sort of relational immediacy we expect in human bonds? The answer, in paraphrase, is blunt: “get over your hardness of heart and blindness in sin and you’ll begin to hear the Spirit speaking through the Scriptures in the ways God always meant for you to hear.” And what he shares is a husband’s love. In other words, sound marriages are workshops for what God is offering us.
Jesus, then, was speaking to more than his first set of apostles when he promised the benefits of the Spirit’s immediacy to his followers in John 14 and 15. So the faith the Bible invites and produces, when the Spirit is working in us, is a dynamic life: we are assured of God’s love for us and we enjoy his communion in each day if we have ears to hear by Spirit-aligned hearts.
So let me suggest to all who are living by a detached faith that you’re missing something. Come to Christ and tell him you’d like something more immediate. Then chase him in the Bible and in giving your heart to others.
When we meet a passionate God we soon respond in kind.
This post is shared with the Cor Deo ministry site. Please post any responses on that site: thanks!
Where do we stand with God? Is he pleased with us? Are we confident about the future—sure about eternal life?
Hopefully, yes, but let’s pause to think about it. And let’s ask the question in light of God as the Father, Son, and Spirit God.
Justification—our engaging God’s righteousness—is a biblical linchpin for Christians. The English terms “righteous” and “just” are two translations of one root word in the original language. The idea of being set right with God seems simple enough but how it happens is more complex. Debates about justification are common as was illustrated by an exchange between Tom Wright and John Piper not so long ago.
In this small space I’d like to consider a narrower aspect of justification that doesn’t get much notice: what does our justification accomplish for God?
To answer I’ll return here to a theme I see throughout the Bible. I now refer to it regularly but I was shy to use it until I found it in the writings of Martin Luther and some of the 17th century Puritans.
Here it is. God the Father wants to share his beloved Son with others. So he created those who would become the Son’s beloved ones—his collective “bride”—to receive from the Son what the Son receives from the Father: devoted care and creative fellowship.
This narrative starts in the beginning as we meet God in his plurality: “let us” make “him” and “them” in “our” image. Later we discover the Son as the Father’s beloved companion—his “Word”—who reveals the Father to others. Together with the Spirit they are “one.”
Later in the Bible we discover labels for God: He is good, holy, righteous, pure, blameless, just, wise, and so on. These are words that describe his triune communion. And so it is that he is also said to be love—a word expressing God’s mutual devotion and the basis of his overflowing care for the creation.
This love sets up God’s gift of companionship. In love he walked in the Garden of Eden to be with Adam and Eve. Adam, however, spurned God’s love and lost confidence in God as he usurped God’s place.
Adam’s lost confidence was tied to his lost love: for a fallen person to trust God, God must fulfill that person’s will. And God must live under the fallen pretense that humans are autonomous: made to be free.
But God treats this as utter nonsense. He knows that all humans were enslaved from Eden onward by the great Liar and his one Lie: “You can be like God!”
But even after Adam’s fall God was determined to live among us. He chose a people for himself and set up, first, a tent and then a temple as his earthly home among us.
The Father also sent the Son at an appropriate time to offer humanity the ultimate expression of his love—the God-man who was not fallen. His was a life of total dependence on, and unrestrained affection for, the Father and with that a love for his creation.
Sin is a violation of this love: a complete disaffection for God. The bond of the Father, Son, and Spirit is a mystery to fallen people—and the willingness of the Father to send the Son to die and redeem his bride is sheer folly. Life in sin, instead, endorses the Enemy’s ambition to dismiss God.
The Father laughs at this—as the “nations rage”—and refuses to allow for self-love as an alternative to a love for his Son (Psalm 2). God’s love is unrestrained and unrestricted otherness—what fallen humanity can’t begin to comprehend—as in the eternal love of the Father and the Son as communicated by the Spirit.
So the sum of God’s eternal communion is love. The Old Testament refrain, for instance—“his loving kindness endures forever”—sets out God’s motivation. And that warns humans that self-love—the motive behind fallen assertions of freedom and independence—has no future. God condemns sin to a single realm: death.
The Spirit shares this mutual love of the Father and the Son. His role in humanity is to whisper God’s word—expressing his love—in our hearts. Most humans remain deaf in their sin—hard-hearted. But others begin to hear and respond to Scriptures—especially those who have been damaged by the proud and successful god-pretenders. The hearers are the elect: the bridal ones.
There’s much more to be said about God, of course, but this is enough for now. As we return to the question of our being righteous with God—of being justified—we find a lover waiting for us. The Father offers his Son in love. The Spirit woos us with that love and wins some but not all. Faith is a dawning that Satan lied and that God loves us on his terms, not ours. We were made by God, for God. And faith works through love.
Listen, then, to Jesus as he prayed on our behalf:
“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you and these know that you have sent me” (John 17:24-25).
So justification is the culmination of a love story: it is our gazing into Christ’s eyes by faith and saying, as his bride, “I do.”
And with that we become what God meant us to be from the very beginning: his beloved ones who share all that he is, including his righteousness.
A month ago some news sources offered passing comments about a June, 1914, assassination in Sarajevo—a century ago—that launched the wars of the twentieth century.
The first stage of warfare was called the Great War because of its breadth and ferocity. Some—the optimists of the day—called it the War to end all wars. Instead it was just a first round—World War I—to be followed by an even broader and more destructive round, World War II.
Then came a set of conflicts—smaller but still terrible wars—that filled the balance of the century. It’s said that more people were killed by war in the twentieth century than were killed, in total, by all the prior wars of human history.
A question we might ask, then, is “what’s next?” And, even more directly, could 2014 be a year that mirrors 1914 in a terrible irony of cyclic human behavior? It’s at least a possibility. The very dry economic and political tinder of the world today could be enflamed by any of the many lightening storms now brewing.
Some in Russian, for instance, seem hungry to reacquire the lands and powers lost in the collapse of the Soviet state that itself was formed out of the upheavals of the last century.
And the Chinese are claiming the South China Sea as their realm—with the oil sources they hope are there—even when those waters are much nearer to the Philippines and Vietnam than to China. The same sort of economic appetites led to the holding of Southeast Asian colonies by the West and the counter-colonial ambitions of Japan in the twentieth century.
And the growth of radical Islam has been stirred by Persian Gulf conflicts at the end of the last century. These Jihadists look to set up a broad and powerful Islamic state that recalls the great Islamic Ottoman Empire that was broken up by World War I.
At the same time Europe and the United States—the dominant powers of the last century—have been weakened and distracted by economic plights that make them less ready and effective in challenging the ambitious Russians, Chinese, and Jihadists.
I hear a question some might be thinking: why is a blogger who writes about Trinitarian spirituality now taking on global economics and politics?
Here’s why. Our spirituality only works if God is God overall—that he rules over the nations as much today as he did in the times of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. We are too near-sighted if we only think about God’s work in our hearts and in our near circumstances.
It comes from reading the Old Testament prophets just named, and the Bible as a whole. It comes from Jesus’ warning that the end of the age will be accompanied by wars and rumors of wars. He told his followers that lawlessness will increase and the love of many will grow cold (both in Matthew 24). Even if these warnings have other applications—opinions differ—at the very least Jesus is telling us to take world events seriously.
Isaiah and Daniel are especially intriguing. Daniel was warned of a sequence of kingdoms—each displacing the former. He started with the Babylonians, then the Medo-Persians, followed by the Greeks, and ending with a collection of rulers representing the Roman era. History followed Daniel’s predictions.
Isaiah is especially intriguing because he framed this sequence of nation-states rising and then collapsing within God’s overall providence. Let me say, in passing, that I see the entire book of Isaiah as the work of one author—its namesake figure.
Here’s a snapshot of what I mean. Isaiah’s sweeping coverage includes the first breach of God’s bond with humanity—Adam’s fall and the cursed earth—“The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth” (24:5).
Isaiah also pressed on to the end of this creation: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (65:17). In between he promises that God will “swallow up death forever” (25:8) and tells God’s people how this is done by his own right arm—the suffering Servant—whose “soul makes an offering for guilt” (53:10).
Now let’s turn back to the question of history—to the cycle of the centuries. In the first half of Isaiah a set of oracles—prophetic declarations—should catch our attention. God, through Isaiah, confronts all the powerhouse nations along with the less potent pretenders of that period: Assyria, Babylon, Syria, Egypt, Philistia, Tyre-Sidon, Moab, Israel, and Judea.
What does God have to say?
“The LORD of hosts has purposed it, to defile the pompous pride of all glory, to dishonor all the honored of the earth” (23:9).
This is a guiding refrain that offers a glimpse of how God views nations that think they can ignore his sovereign rule. Babylon, the great nemesis kingdom in Isaiah’s day is told, for instance, “I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant, and I will lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless” (13:11).
The great kingdom of Assyria—from which Babylon emerged—was also told, “I will break the Assyrian in my land” (15:25).
God also made it clear that he uses evil nations to confront the evil in other nations—showing his rule over evil even as he is righteous in all he does. Assyria, for instance, was “the rod of my anger” again Israel, yet also a nation that would soon be judged: “When the LORD has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria” (10:5&12). And so on.
The point is that God is still in control even when the nations plunge ahead in hideous wars. He allows evil to confront evil. But his purpose is for good. Pride has no place in heaven. So the pride of Russians, Chinese, Arabs, Israelis, Americans, and Brits—to name a few—will be confronted by God’s fearsome mercy.
Listen, then, to God’s heart amid the disruptions of cyclic wars:
“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock. For he has humbled the . . . lofty city” (26:3-5).
In 1509 Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote a biting critique of society in his day, In Praise of Folly. Among other issues he had the corruption of the church in his cross-hairs. His satire was so engaging that even Pope Leo X is said to have enjoyed it . . . without quite realizing that he was a target.
In his writing Erasmus personified Folly, giving her a feminine voice and a blinding self-devotion. Folly’s unrestrained self-delight treated all that is immoral as moral as long as enjoyment is involved. All that is selfish is satisfying. Ignorance, Drunkenness, Flattery, Forgetfulness, Self-love, and Laziness are among her closest companions. Pleasure is Folly’s driving ambition and she insists that life will be dull and tasteless to all who avoid her company.
The connection between Erasmian satire and our contemporary society came to mind last night as I watched a PBS Newshour interview of a spokesman from the US Justice Department. In the interview he explained that a major bank has been punished for its part in the great financial scandal of 2008.
A multi-billion-dollar civil judgment had been made, he said. This confronted the reality that a vast number of worthless mortgage loans had been knowingly bundled and sold as trustworthy investment bonds by this bank. He acknowledged that many other banks had done the same but haven’t been fined. Never mind. The deceptive scheme eventually collapsed as the bonds lost any value. From this there followed a breathtaking economic crisis that shattered the lives of millions of ordinary folks.
The spokesman smiled broadly: justice has prevailed!
The interviewer then asked the obvious question. Why, she wondered, weren’t any of the guiding figures—the leading bankers and investment officers—charged with criminal wrongdoing? Or at least fined in light of the immense—grotesque—profits they earned by shepherding this corruption? The spokesman didn’t blink or wink: “If any criminal wrongdoing is found it can still be prosecuted.”
It was breathtaking stuff! A fine of this size seems not to have had anyone culpable enough to account for it. And these same leaders are still in charge of the banks. Amazing stuff.
It’s not as if some of the guiding figures can’t be identified—a number of exposés have been published and hard-hitting documentaries shown—but public outrage has only bubbled and never erupted. I suspect the spokesman was really saying, “We’ve done all we mean to do, given the modest level of political pressure we’ve felt—please remember that we need political donations from these people.”
I suspect that by now some readers may be puzzled, wondering how a blogger who writes about Trinitarian spirituality has stumbled into a commentary about investments and politics.
Here’s why. Jesus warned against being mastered by money (Matthew 6:24). Paul followed him by warning Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim. 6:10). He also warned the Colossians that coveting—the heart of greed—is “idolatry” and something that will account for God’s coming wrath (Colossians 3:5).
And in my Bible reading I returned to Proverbs this morning. The warnings there against folly offer a weighty biblical complement to the sly critique of Erasmus. The call in Proverbs 4:23—“Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life”—follows many reminders to seek Wisdom—personified by Proverbs in feminine terms to speak of God’s goodness and creativity. She is the counterpoint to Folly.
Now let me mention a memory stirred by last night’s news story about the bank. In a television interview Oliver Stone commented afterwards on the movie he produced in the late 1980’s, Wall Street. He was startled by the public reaction to the driving theme of the movie: absolute greed. He had expected revulsion and instead the squalid character whose greed generated incredible wealth was admired. It was, he said, as if the public had found a new role model! And perhaps they have.
At least one young man of that decade, Jordan Belfort, gave himself to the pursuit of wealth with a criminal vigor that led to a more recent movie based on his youthful memoir, The Wolf of Wall Street. I haven’t watched the movie—and my point here isn’t to scold movies about dark devotions—but to ask a question about our own ambitions. What shapes our hearts as those who love God and delight in his Son?
Do we feel his grief over the pain felt by millions of ordinary people—the pain of lost homes and shattered security caused by those who wittingly skimmed vast fortunes for themselves? Do we have his ambition to care for others, even to death if necessary, rather than to follow the alluring calls of Folly and her friends? Do we share a devotion to truth and morality that comes from loving the One who personifies “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”?
Oh that we Christians were outraged by evil! It’s what Oliver Stone expected but it never came. Many, even in the church today—like Pope Leo long ago—find Folly attractive.
So has Folly won the fight? Maybe for now.
But let’s remember that Christ is coming again and he will send Folly to her ultimate destiny. In the meantime let’s guard our hearts from the allurements Folly offers and enjoy, instead, the love of the one who graciously died for us and now lives that we may live. Here we find true Wisdom.