The lady was angry. “You don’t tell me what I’m expected to do! All you do is talk about God!”
It was an awkward moment. I had preached that morning with heartfelt commitment to the Christ-centered focus the text offered. And beforehand I had prayed for God’s gracious presence to be among us touching hearts. But my talk clearly missed the mark for at least one member that morning. And who knows for how many others like her.
But I wasn’t surprised by anything but her fire. She was right: the “applications” for my talks always amount to a relatively brief invitation to seek for more; to taste and see how good the Lord is whom we saw and heard in the message. And it’s not an oversight. I like to leave room for the Spirit to spend time with his followers, to offer his own applications.
What’s the point? Just this: the church is divided between those who treat saving faith as a response and those who take it to be a responsibility. I preached from one side of this divide and my friend from the congregation was looking for benefits from the other side.
This division needs some notice, especially because I know I’m in the minority and I’d like more companions. But the responsibility-promoters have huge momentum on their side.
Think, for instance, of the formidable and godly figure of Moses. He issued hundreds of commands meant to direct an entire nation on God’s behalf. Given the failed love of Israel Moses was a fountain of responsibility-based edicts meant to keep them in line. And that experience produced a huge trove of responsibility-centered lessons.
Added to that we find James in the New Testament who calls readers to good works because “faith without works is dead” (James 2:8). As God’s servants we must need God-like pastors to direct us into these works. That said, James offers a disappointingly brief list of behaviors to follow: visit orphans and widows and don’t be stained by the world. So for the throngs of responsibility-focused preachers Moses remains the real star.
A sophisticated preacher from this camp is able to expand this list by switching the negative “you shall not” commands of Moses into more expansive “you shall” duties—as in “you shall not commit adultery” being swapped into “you shall always be faithful to your spouse.” We can’t help but agree, of course. But we soon have a flood of duties that bright ministers use to shape all those who want to be trained in forms of godliness—even if the intrinsic power of love may be missing. Preaching, then, turns into training and directing—into spiritual formation.
Along with this flood of pastoral directives comes the buttressing work of all the counseling and self-help guides that instruct us in “steps-to-success-with-God”. If the weight of numbers is any measure of truth, the responsibility-clan wins the debate hands down.
So what is a response-based preacher left to say? Just this: listen to what the Bible actually offers us.
No one can hear God’s heart apart from the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2). New birth—the coming of the Spirit to live within us—is the only “how to” that makes a difference in us (John 3 & 2 Corinthians 3). If we want real a transforming application, listen to the Spirit. He’s very good at speaking effectively to morally deaf souls. And only by his stirring will any authentic works of God appear, happily displacing what Paul called the works of the flesh.
Is that radical enough? Without the active presence of the Spirit in a Sunday morning listener’s heart no preacher stands a chance of making that person into more than a nicely polished Pharisee. So in preaching do I want to cultivate compliance, or to invite listeners to Jesus who offers us “rivers of living water” by his Spirit’s coming into our hearts (John 7:38-39)? You’ve heard my vote.
Did James—since we mentioned him above—grasp this? Yes! Read James 3:11-12 where he embraced his half-brother’s teaching about good fruits that come only from good trees (Matthew 7:15-20). True spiritual change only comes from the inside-out, not the other way round.
And what about Moses? His work was to ride herd on a throng of mostly-unbelieving Israelites—see Hebrews 4 for a wry assessment of that clan—so his laws were boundaries among unbelievers. It’s certainly not “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). What was the real contribution of Moses, according to Jesus? His invitation to love God and neighbor.
And how is that invitation fulfilled today? Only by God who pours out his love in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us as a free gift. Apart from him “we can do nothing”; and “we love because he first loved us.” Somehow it all comes back to God’s initiative.
So, as the angry lady walked away from me that Sunday I could only pray, “Lord, please let her hear your heart: I know how much you love her.” I knew I didn’t meet her needs. But he can.
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The 17th century Puritan preacher, Richard Sibbes, was brilliant in his exposure of the human condition: “Oh! We should dismount from the tower of our conceited excellency. The heart of man is a proud creature, a proud piece of flesh. Men stand upon their distance” [“A Description of Christ”, Works, 1.9].
At this stage of his sermon Sibbes compared the motives of sinful humanity and the heart of Jesus, God’s Son. One is proud while the other is humble; one seeks standing while the other is a servant; one is frail and dependent while the other is the creator and ruler of all creation.
Did we catch the last element of the comparison? The irony is that the true God-man serves all of us even when we seek to usurp his Divine role—to become “like God”. And this even though we are utterly, if unwittingly, dependent on him for our every breath and heartbeat. The result is blindness. Sin confuses our thoughts about God and his ways so that we miss him, even when we think we have him analyzed and tamed. Pride turns keen thinkers into brilliant fools.
The problem, I suspect, comes with our need for coherence in life. We need a sense of order and rational symmetry in our beliefs. So if we happen to be proud—if we think of ourselves as a little bit better, kinder, smarter, and more alert than many of our neighbors and colleagues—then we’d like to have a God who supports our prejudice. With that ambition in place we find it easy to recreate God in our own image.
If, for instance, we find it hard to be around people we hold in disdain—whether socially, racially, educationally, theologically, or otherwise—we need a God who approves of our distaste. And, voila, before long we find (or found) a religious community that affirms us; or we abandon formal religion. Remember how Christ’s disciples fell into this trap when a Samaritan village rejected their efforts to rent a few rooms (Luke 9:32): “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Call them the wrath-of-God team!
Another option, for those who love financial security and power, is to take up the path followed by Balaam, Judas Iscariot, and Simon Magus. They all treated religious connections with God as a means to personal benefit. Sadly not one of their stories ended well.
Yet another option is to chase status and honor through our intellectual strengths. By elevating God’s qualities of omniscience and wisdom we can distance ourselves from the less able and, if we try hard enough, even become his priests. This involves setting ourselves above the ordinary folks who lack our gifts by taking on doctoral titles, wearing fancy regalia at graduations, and using impenetrable jargon to show how clever we are as God’s most gifted representatives. We need only read the series of “woe to you . . .” warnings by Jesus to the academics and religious leaders of his day to spot this as a dead end.
The problem? We have an infinite capacity to rationalize—to think up ways to justify—our sinful self-affirmations with God’s name as our cover. And all our efforts to rationalize this nonsense results in Christ appearing to be upside-down to who he actually is. Then, if we happen to meet him in the Bible or see him in some of his actual followers, we experience serious dissonance.
The result? Lots of “Christians” who don’t like the Bible. And theologians who transform God into attributes and essences that lack any personhood. And scholars who replace “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6) with creeds and concepts that lack a real love for God.
What did Jesus think of this sort of thing in his own day? Taking on one of the misaligned groups—religious leaders who loved their salaries more than God—Jesus warned them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).
What, then, will we do with this epidemic of upside-down faith? I suspect we all need Christ himself to make us right. So maybe a brief prayer is in order: Lord, search me, please. I’m sorry for living in my tower of conceited excellency. Let me see you as you really are, and lead me, please, in your true ways.
It’s a prayer he loves to answer.
How do caterpillars turn into butterflies or tadpoles turn into frogs? The term we use for the change is metamorphosis. With that in mind I was intrigued years ago by a study I did on Christ’s transformation on the Mount of Transfiguration. I found that the underlying Greek word for the transfiguration comes from the Greek term, “metamorphao”.
I was intrigued because the same Greek term for transformation is used in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind . . .”
Is it possible that the same sort of brilliance Jesus displayed on the mountain when “his face shown like the sun” is what Paul calls us to as growing believers? In a certain way we can say, yes, it’s true: God will change us to look like Christ did in his glory on the mountain that day.
But first we should ask how to read this section of Romans. Is this a call to self-transformation based on better teaching and stronger discipline? Is Paul calling on us to work harder as we try to learn and apply “the will of God” (verse 3) with more energy and consistency? Are we expected to “transfigure” our own character?
Many Christians seem to think so. And Romans 12:1-3 seems to fit this view of the soul. That is, that everyone has three mutually engaged motivational centers: the mind, will, and affections. The mind does the objective work of processing information; the will brings thinking to action by making choices; and the affections respond to whatever stirs our desires and then pursues those preferences with varied degrees of force. If the mind is taught, the will disciplined, and the emotions controlled, a person is certain to grow properly. So Paul is calling all believers to start employing what he taught in the first eleven chapters of Romans on the basis of this model.
We can agree that he is, indeed, calling for a response to chapters one through eleven, but I hope we won’t agree that he has the Stoic troika of mind-will-affections as his basis for seeing this transformation take place. He certainly did not.
How can we be certain? Because of his earlier scolding of Israel for pursuing their own spiritual growth by works rather than by faith (see 11:30-32). A steady point Paul makes throughout his New Testament writings is that transformation is God’s work, and God does that work from the inside-out: changing our hearts. Only a new heart will lead to changed behaviors. And with that he views the affections as the one-and-only motivational basis for life, so the question to answer is, “Who do you love?” and not “what must I think or do?”
Faith works solely through love, as Paul said very clearly to the Galatians (in 5:6). And he is saying the same here in Romans 12. In Romans 5:2 Paul explained that our “hope of the glory of God” relies on “God’s love [that] has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (verse 5).
This Spirit-gift is what transforms us, and our thinking now responds to that reality. So where we once lived among those who are “haters of God” (Romans 1:30), we now “delight in the law of God in [our] inner being” (Romans 7:22) and are being called to our new lives as “more than conquerors through him who loved us” so that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37&38). That’s what we reflect on in chapter 12 as our minds engage this love as our new basis for life.
But what of the “metamorphosis” sort of language that Paul used? I think it offers a crucial clue we need to embrace in understanding Paul’s overall thought. He used the same term in 2 Corinthians 3, and there he links it to the sort of brilliant “glory” the apostles got to see on the Mount of Transfiguration.
In the Corinthians text Paul referred to the glory Moses had when he came away from the presence of God’s shining, glorious person in the Tent of Meeting: with a glowing face! What Paul suggests to the Corinthians is that any direct exposure to Christ’s presence, when he is unveiled, will have the same result. But the “glory” is now inward, where the Spirit resides and shares Christ with us, so that he “transforms” us “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).
Here’s the point: change only comes from God. He alone can transform us. And our sole role is to be present to him: to be with him, loving him, enjoying him. The product? New thinking, new ambitions, and new behaviors, as in Romans 13:10, “love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Isn’t it time to change our minds? Let’s do it by abiding in his word where we can abide in his love. The world can use a few more frogs, butterflies, and glory-filled Christians.
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Sitting in a busy coffee shop in downtown Chippenham as lots of ordinary folks stroll by I’m reminded of a movie title, “Ordinary People”. It was an ironic title because the movie was filmed mainly in a posh suburb of North Chicago—Lake Forest—and portrayed people on the high end of the socio-economic spectrum. The contrast between comfortable Chippenham and toney Lake Forest is striking.
Here’s a question, then. Why are there so many more towns in the world like Chippenham than Lake Forest? I’m guessing that both are roughly similar in their head counts. But if we compare the number of high-end names in either town it wouldn’t be a contest. I’m told that Prince Charles’s present wife lived near Chippenham in her earlier marriage but she’s long gone and I’m not sure who’s left to count. Lake Forest, on the other hand, reportedly still has a number of movers and shakers living in elegant and inaccessible estates.
As I pondered the Chippenham crowd I was struck by our ordinary features: our plain clothing, plain speech, plain faces, and for most of us, too many spare pounds around our waist. And I count myself as a full member of the ordinary crowd. I have a load of education but by most standards I’m a fit: I’m slightly disheveled and obviously aging, I regularly fumble events and names in my forgetfulness, constantly make silly errors in speaking and writing, and I can’t carry a tune in a bucket when I sing. There’s much more ordinariness to me, of course, but I don’t really notice my limits until I’m around some of the Lake Forest crowd.
I know the Lake Forest crowd because I once served as an associate pastor in a Lake Forest church. But I wasn’t invited into the crowd. Mere presence doesn’t bring participation. A single social faux pas closes doors, and any cluster of awkward features causes latches to be locked.
That’s a key rule in gaining and maintaining elitism: those who don’t belong are made aware that they don’t belong. Distinctions and distance are important. So the truly elite only cross paths with ordinary people as short term social gestures because that’s the point of being elite: one’s standing in the pyramid of life is everything and it needs to be displayed from time to time. Separate entrances to hotels, airports, and lounges are the standard fare.
Then there are places like India, Nepal, and Cambodia, where I’ve traveled. Places where most Westerners are immediately elevated into a modestly elite status: using air-conditioned hotels, traveling by cars, and so on. So I’m conscious of how relative the notion of “ordinary” actually is. But let’s set that aside for a moment.
These comparisons raise a theological question: why is God so unfair? How is it that he allows huge numbers of people to be born into poverty and to be bound to lesser positions in life by their modest heritage, intellect, beauty, skills, and training? And why is it that so few are graced with sparkling intelligence, impeccable social instincts, striking appearance, top physical skills, gifts of leadership, and the like? If God created all of us, isn’t he finally responsible for our low estate? And, presuming he is, does he even care?
The Bible, as it answers our complaint, shocks us. It offers us a vision of a humble God. So humble, in fact, that he doesn’t begin to fit the profile of Aristotle’s deity and the adaptation of that deity to Christianity that is widespread. The Bible’s God, for instance, counts others more important than himself: the Father glorifies the Son, and the Son glorifies the Father, and together they share their glory with their followers. Aristotle’s elitist God, on the other hand, can only think of himself. And he regularly reiterates his status as the peak figure in any pyramid of power because his power defines him.
The Bible’s God, by contrast, is moved by the power of love—as epitomized in the cross—and he uses his powerful love to draw people into his fellowship of free grace. His goal is to give of himself to his followers for all eternity in every way he can imagine.
This helps explain why it was always the religious, the political, and the academic elite who killed God’s prophets and in a finale of rage crucified his Son.
Do we see the point? To be elite is to be like God. And it’s awkward to be increasingly successful as a Godlike person only to discover that the true God is the opposite to what was expected. He’s selfless; they’re selfish. He can describe himself as the God who “is love” while the elitist God is defined mainly by ruling and reigning. The true God longs to walk among us while the elitist God insists on being above and wholly separate from all in his transcendence.
All of which explains God’s promise in 1 Corinthians 1—that he draws his heavenly community mainly from those in the world who are foolish, weak, low, and ordinary. They much more readily respond to humble love.
That brings us to a final question: why do the humble folks in Chippenham, Cambodia, India, and Nepal get such an unfair advantage! Don’t the elite deserve something more than Sheol for all their efforts?
Paul started his letter to the Corinthians with a stark appeal: stop elevating people and pay attention to Christ! Who were the competitors to Christ among Corinthian Christians? None other than Paul and, with him, Apollos and Peter.
Let’s review this cluster of Christ’s Corinthian competitors. Paul founded the church in Corinth so he had support as a paternal figure. Peter was known for his place as the leader among the apostles in Jerusalem and as a traveling emissary of the faith. But who was Apollos?
Our few clues about Apollos come from Acts 18. He was a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria, Egypt—one of the great educational centers of the world in that era—with impressive personal and spiritual qualities. He was a follower of Jesus and was known for his eloquence; he knew his Old Testament; he was fervent in his faith; and he seems to have been a natural teacher—strong and clear.
There were, however, some gaps in his understanding so in Ephesus the couple Aquila and Priscilla—ministry companions with Paul in Corinth before Paul brought them to Ephesus—coached him in the faith. Apollos moved on to Corinth from Ephesus and there “he greatly helped those who through grace had believed” (v. 27). His skills as an apologist were impressive: “he powerfully refuted the [antagonistic] Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus” (v.28). In all he was one of the more impressive converts of his age. Paul even spoke of him as a partner to his own ministry to the Corinthians: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6).
Here’s a question: did Apollos mean to create a problem for Paul in Corinth? Was he competing with Paul to be the spiritual leader of the church? Paul seemed to have anticipated that question by the way he phrased the list of roles in 3:6—he and Apollos were merely two instruments used by God to build up the church. So, in effect, Paul answered, “No, we’re just fine with each other.”
What wasn’t fine was the way church began to divide among the three—or, in line with verse 3:6—between the two strong leaders who ministered to them. But Paul, rather than treating Apollos as a latecomer with less authority, instead challenged the immaturity of the Corinthians. Christ and the cross are to be elevated, not the stylish capacities or presence of any given leader.
Paul chastened the church by citing Jeremiah 9:23-24, a text that warned against boasting in human wisdom, power, or wealth. Boasting is assigned to God, not to humans: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31).
In a later letter, 2 Corinthians 10:17, Paul returned to the Jeremiah text. But this time there was no sign of Apollos but the problem of spiritual division was still alive. This time the disruption centered on “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (11:13).
Here’s another question: is it possible that the faulty elevation of Apollos by some in the church paved the way to a later elevation of corrupted leaders? Did these party-spirit folks later facilitate those who would “disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (11:15). Probably so.
So here’s a lesson about spiritual maturity: Christ needs to be central in our ministries. If we find a great leader, or a charismatic personality, or a winsome and articulate speaker, we need to ask this question: what do people talk about after the leader finishes speaking or performing? Is it Jesus? Or the speaker? What if a less-skilled speaker, after speaking, has people talking about Jesus: will he be invited to speak again?
Our response to any Apollos-like people in our churches today, then, may help us see where our boasting is centered: whether in Christ and the cross, or in the strength of that leader’s personality. Paul intended to lead the Corinthians, not on the basis of “outward appearance” but on the basis of “what is in the heart” (2 Corinthians 5:12). And what was in Paul’s heart? “For the love of Christ controls us . . .” (5:14). We will do well to respond with a similar heart: as those ultimately devoted to Christ rather than to our human leaders, no matter how winsome and compelling they might be.
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What do we think about in our free moments? What delights us? And what worries us? I’m not asking about the immediate thoughts and concerns stirred by our latest circumstances but the deeper, persistent currents that stay with us over the years. What, in other words, is the main motor of our soul? Our deepest reflections reveal what we’re really about underneath it all.
Abraham Maslow, a noted psychologist of the last century, studied human motivation and concluded that humanity has a hierarchy of needs that shape all human behaviors. The ultimate concern within a web of related concerns is self-actualization—greater even than our physical needs, our drive for security, our need for caring relations, and our need for social esteem. We are, Maslow suggested, ultimately in search of fulfillment in life. And with that longing comes thoughts of personal advancement and fears of personal failure. An appetite for personal meaning is the navigational north star of life for most of us.
Our experience, I’m sure, affirms Maslow’s scheme for the most part. But some Christians will insist that he missed a counterpoint displayed in Jesus of Nazareth and some of his kin. Jesus was wholly other-centered: always moved by his Father’s love. His interests were bound up in his bond with the Father—in a responsive love—so that the purposes of his Father defined his own purposes. And his responsiveness, in turn, elicited his Father’s pleasure: “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased.” The eternal glory of the Triune God was and is his mutual love. And so it was that in his coming into humanity the Son brought with him this divine impulse.
In other words there is at least one human whose life offers a counterpoint to Maslow’s thesis. And with that there are, in fact, two options, not one, in explaining human motivations. The two motivations, in turn, extend to produce very different ways of life.
This isn’t a small matter. We realize, too, that Maslow’s view is well affirmed in Scriptures. From Adam onward we find an ambition for self-fulfillment: in Cain, in Laban, in the early Abraham, the early Jacob, in Reuben, in Samson, in King Saul, in Pontius Pilate and in myriads more. But there are also Bible counterpoints: Enoch, the later Abraham, the later Jacob, the converted Paul, and many other followers of Christ. The very point of the Bible, then, is to display the contrast of two possible motivations in life: the self-concerned life and the God-concerned life. Ultimately there are just two masters and we, in turn, serve either one or the other.
My point in noting Maslow is not to engage Maslow specialists, nor to use his assessment to target non-Christians, but to probe what it means to Christians. Here’s the question: does a person who claims to know Christ really know Jesus if he or she isn’t bonded to him in the way he was bonded to his Father. Jesus made that point in John 8:42, “If God were your Father you would love me . . .”
Maslow’s singular point, we should note, precludes any middle ground: a “neither self nor God” as an ultimate motivation. His only mistake was that he was too narrow and too human when he ignored the second option: a delighted-response-to-God’s-love.
Too many Christians, I fear, think Maslow was right: believing that we can treat benefits of the Triune God as great assets in our quest for self-fulfillment. And in that quest we make God a mere servant to our personal ambitions.
Jesus knew better. His earthly ministry really served to polarize religious people while he hardly addressed the truly irreligious. The religious leaders in John 5, for instance, were cut off at their spiritual knees when Jesus charged them with faithlessness because, “I know that you do not have the love of God within you” (v.42). The number of books published, papers presented, and titles achieved only served to bond these Jewish Bible college professors to their quest for personal success—a quest aimed wholly in the wrong direction.
So now, here’s a challenge for any readers who consider themselves Christians but who also want to reach Maslow’s pinnacle of self-actualization. Read the entire Bible through in a month or so and pay special attention to the simple polarity that beats like a heart throughout the whole: there are those who “know that I am the LORD” and love him; and those who don’t.
Just two options. Please, go see for yourself if you don’t believe me. And then see if that won’t change what you find yourself thinking about.
Imagine being perfect.
Think about a life without hurting or being hurt. Of not disappointing others. Of making choices that are always good and wise. Of pleasing God and neighbors. What would it be like to care for others with a complete and ongoing integrity? To trust and to be trusted without any hesitation?
We would be free from ugly habits and stubborn addictions. All our relationships would be enriched as friends and neighbors started to enjoy us as never before. No clouds of conscience would float over us or wishes for new starts plague us.
So here’s an invitation: pursue perfection! It’s a real prospect and may be coming very soon. What’s more, for those of us who know Christ it’s already starting to take place.
Is this just a flight of fancy? No. It’s a certainty for all of us who know Christ. It’s called “hope”.
Listen to the Bible here: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3).
Talk about a vision of the future! This little verse is like a roadmap to what we long for but don’t dare treat as a real prospect. The apostle confronts and corrects our pessimism with a promise.
But first let’s consider what biblical hope does not mean. It is not the promise of future harp-strumming on an everlasting cloud. Nor is it the promise of our gaining omniscience along with any other divine capacities. Or the fantasy of an eternal haven for hedonists.
The Bible, instead, gives us the hope of a new heaven and a new earth—a tangible and lively place—completely free of the curse and decay that came with sin. We will delight to walk once again with God and with each other while gardening and tending to the creation as Adam was invited to do in Eden.
This future is glimpsed in 2 Peter 3:11-13; in the final chapters of Isaiah; and in the finale of John’s Revelation. So the old, broken, and imperfect world of today—shattered as it is by Adam’s independence and God’s judgment—is only temporary. Our hope lies beyond the present realm.
The promise of 1 John 3 is that Jesus displayed the pristine life of heaven. He is, indeed, God’s Son, but he is also wholly human in every way; but without the moral faults we expect of humanity. We need to recall that beneath any of our particular sins is the single impulse of self-love. So Jesus’ perfection is seen in his relationships. Where Adam broke his bond of love with God, Jesus did the opposite, maintaining his bond with the Father even to the point of enduring the cross; and, in that, he demonstrated his perfect love for us.
John 17 gives the clearest exposure to what lies ahead in Jesus’ conversation with the Father. It was both a reminisce—looking back to “the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (v.5)—and an anticipation of offering his followers the chance “to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (v.24).
Paul understood this hope of coming “glory” as the relational space within the love of the Triune God. We who know and love God are invited to look beyond the decay of this present estate to “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). Paul pressed the point by addressing our present struggle with habitual sins: we “groan inwardly as we await for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved” (vs. 23-24).
Let’s return to the vision of 1 John 3:2-3. The apostle knew that our present struggle with sin is not solved by our working to be “good”. Instead we become like the one we love. The focus of our soul’s gaze—the pristine and loving Jesus—reshapes our desires in alignment with his own.
So our hope is not uncertain. Rather it’s a certainty based on God’s promise that the glory of his eternal mutual love has enough space in it for us. It’s a perfect community and Jesus plans to change our hearts to be able to fit in.
Let me raise a question about Christian missions. How robust is the growth of Christianity today? Better yet, how did Christianity grow in the first century; and how does our present growth compare with early church expansion?
I don’t have specific data but allow me to generalize from what I see, hear, and read in today’s missional world. Early church growth was explosive while present day growth is modest. Today’s growth ranges from moderate in parts of Africa, South America, and Asia, to dismal in Europe and America—including retractions in some settings.
Evidence of the early growth of the church was both internal and external. An external witness came in the year 111 when a regional governor, Pliny, wrote to Emperor Trajan from his post in Bithynia (now part of Turkey) about the “contagion” of Christianity:
“For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found.”
This report of “deserted” pagan temples corresponds to the report in Acts 19:26 where an unhappy pagan, Demetrius, charged that “not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia [present-day Turkey] this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people [from idols].”
What these accounts depict is that for fifty years—from the mid-40’s to the late-90’s—the church experienced dramatic growth in Roman regions as illustrated in the book of Acts. And the momentum of that growth continued even into the early 4th century as the Roman Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity and made it the state religion.
Yet at some point, as Pliny noted in his report, that expansion slowed. Jesus himself offered a comment on the change—particularly in Ephesus, a mother church in the Asian/Turkish region—when he appeared to the Apostle John about 15 years prior to Pliny’s report: “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:4).
Lost their first love? Is love really so important in spreading Christianity?
Yes! We think of Paul’s reference to his own love—“For the love of Christ controls us” (2 Corinthians 5:14)—as a basis for his own devotion to missions. And we see how an earlier absence of love in Judaism caused their theologians to miss Jesus as the Messiah: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me . . . . But I know that you do not have the love of God within you” (John 5:39-42).
Simply put, love is the basis both for launching and spreading faith. Paul said as much to the Galatians when he called them to a “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6—see, too, 1 Corinthians 13).
Now back to our earlier question about the difference between the early growth of the church and the widespread inertia of today. Jonathan Mangels caught my attention as a teacher with his master’s thesis on the motivation for missions. He addressed the current motivation for Christian missions: duty.
He showed how the “great commission” of Matthew 28:19 is regularly treated in the literature and rhetoric of missions as separate and different from the “great commandment”—to love God and neighbor—of Matthew 22:37-40. That 6-chapter separation—from Matthew 22 to 28—too readily removes missions from its motivation of love. And in its place we find the commission turned into a duty: “Go!”
Whenever love, as a response to Christ’s prior love for us, is replaced by a responsibility to extend the truths of Christianity we run the risk of becoming coldly professional: the error of the Ephesian church. A heart-to-heart growth, as enflamed hearts draw hungry hearts to Christ, is too readily dissolved into educational efforts, accountability checks, organizational charts, and literature or media distribution campaigns.
These instruments may be fine as long as they aren’t replacements for the “first love” that once carried the church in its dramatic growth. Some of us in missions—a role for all Christians—may even want to invite the Spirit to give us a heart-inspection. It’s free and very effective in changing motives!
Think about how our vision of God shapes the way we live. If our God is an activist he fills our lives with activities. Alternatively a token God is a backstop for difficult moments in life but he, she, they, or it—the best term for God isn’t a matter of consensus so I’ll stay with the traditional “he”—will stay off stage most the time. And any number of questions apply: is he good? Harsh? Inviting? Clever? His qualities make a real difference for us.
And how we view God makes a difference for him. If, for instance, his existence depends on our efforts as God-makers, then our attention, our creativity, our clarity, coherence, and energy help to sustain him. Imagining and maintaining a proper and full-orbed God is a serious project. How many Bels, Baals, and Ashteroths have evaporated in past millennia for lack of proper attention?
Persistence is a major concern: it takes a devoted community for a serious God-making project to last. Prophets, priests, and practitioners all need to work together to support a given God. Finances, temples, and creeds are crucial. Tablets or documents—hopefully with jargon or archaic language—need to be developed too. It all gives weight to the project.
As a reminder, if we—or our favorite religious community—are God-makers, then we are the true gods behind the God we visualize. Either by our own creative role in the project, or by our selection of one option over others. Our decision involves self-deification in whatever measure the God we worship is shaped by our preferences.
As a sidebar comment, many folks today believe they’ve dismissed God. These include the atheists or naturalists among us. But all they’ve done is dismiss some of the overt features of God-making. In one way or another they still promote features of meaning, morality, and some sort of hope—the functions of deity—while claiming to be devoted to a chance-based “neutral” cosmos. Their God may be called Science (often separate from actual science), Nature, Evolution, Progress, or the like. And energetic promoters serve as priests and law-givers. The product—a non-god God—offers a sense of order and direction in life without requiring any personal accountability.
There are also the Christian god-making communities. A wide variety of Christian Gods exist ranging from a health-and-wealth God for materialists; a self-absorbed God for the self-absorbed; an omni-God for the power-centered folks; a love-is-God deity for experience-mongers; and many, many more.
Now let’s look at another prospect: that God—the true God—created us and not the other way round. If he created us then the real question of life is this: who is he? And, with that, what is he like? What pleases him? What displeases him? In other words, we recognize a God-centered universe in place of a human-centered universe.
The key feature in meeting the true God is that he tells us what he’s like. Our role is to listen and to embrace what he shares.
In case it helps, here’s a key indicator of whether we’ve made up a God for ourselves, or if we’ve met the true God: our anxiety. Once we meet God we get to relax. He’s able, reliable, and caring. In fact, he’s had an eternity of caring as the triune Father-Son-and-Spirit God whose mutual bond is love.
Let me add a caveat that in the fallen world there are a variety of sources for anxiety, including our physical chemistry, recent traumas, and the like. Let’s offer compassion and comfort in those cases. What we’re noting here is different: the anxiety that comes with trying to “be like God”—to be God-makers. God worshipers, by contrast, begin to experience peace.
So how does our vision of the one true God make a difference for us? He offers us an ongoing conversation. He offers the Bible as his voice and he responds to our questions and requests, as would any caring figure.
Here’s the key insight to hold on to: he’s the Creator, not us. So look to him, abide in his words, and see how good he is. Meeting him as he really is changes everything.
This entry is also published on the Cor Deo site. Please post any comments on that site. Thanks!
What if every Christian loved God above all else; and, with that, loved his neighbor as himself?
Would friendships be stronger? Marriages sweeter? Families healthier? Churches more winsome and dynamic? Businesses staffed with Christian employees more productive? Governments of Christian-majority nations more just and trustworthy? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes! The potential for change is unending.
So what holds us back? Why not start today? The only thing to stop it happening is me. And you. And our Christian friends. And their friends. So we have a clear pathway to follow: I start today; and you start too; and we share with our friends, and they share with other friends; and soon Christianity will once again bring life and meaning to the world.
It sounds pretty utopian, I know. I can’t change you, nor our friends, nor their friends. But why not start with us and see what happens next? There’s nothing to stop us apart from an already defeated enemy whose sole device is distraction, and our habits of enjoying his distractions. Which leads to the next question: “How to?”
God does it himself by changing our hearts. As the Bible reminds us, apart from him we can do nothing. His work is to “pour out God’s love in our hearts” and with that love our motives change. This change represents God’s Spirit with and in us as in a marriage union—see 1 Corinthians 6:17-20. So the biblical language of love isn’t some sort of ethereal love—a “willful devotion and obedience”—but a real “I care for you and find you delightful” sort of love that reflects a sound marriage.
So—knowing that his stirring is already at work in us—we turn to him and say, “Lord, I’m available . . . right here, right now!”
We will also do well to add an invitation for him to search us, to know our hearts, to see if any false values are blocking the Spirit’s work in us. Only he can deal with spiritual snags.
Next we pick up the Bible and read it from the heart—to know him better. Love needs a real person—not a noble idea, a loose sentiment, or a Christian duty—in order to form and grow. Duty and disciplines are for workers and employees. Love is a response to a lover by a lover.
The Bible gives us access to God’s loving heart: to his personality, his values, his distastes, his desires. There we meet the triune Father-Son-and-Spirit God who is drawing us, teasing us, intriguing us, and opening the “eyes of our heart” to see more and more of his glory.
I realize this is not so easy for those of us who have been “trained” as Christian: taught to view our affirmation of creeds as faith; and to see our obedience to moral traditions as signs of spirituality. Jesus comes, instead, as a living presence. He is not a creedal icon or a moral litmus, but one who invites us to a “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Only when this personal connection is made will we recognize that church creeds and traditions are products of faith—in the measure the original authors knew and loved the Lord—but never its basis.
Conversation is the true measure of our faith: we speak with Christ in response to what he shares with us. After we meet him in person the Bible comes alive to us. Pages that were once opaque now become lenses we look “through” to see the one who speaks in the written words. As in any human relationship, we respond to the personalities of those who write to us and we visualize them as companions.
Prayer, then, is our response—our hearts speaking in return to the one we hear, see, and care for.
Now, let’s tie the “what if” to the “how to”. Both come together whenever we ask, from the heart: “Lord, how can I please you?”
Immature faith may ask that question once a week, on Sunday. Mature faith asks it every moment of the day. We ask it when we call a friend, knowing that Christ’s love for our friend is greater than our own. We ask when we turn to our electronic devices; when we watch a movie; when we make an appointment, plan a trip, or spend our money. We ask because he loves us and we love him.
I’m ready to go there today. You too? Be sure to invite your friends. His love is calling.