Early in the morning I lost my mother. As soon as she left us, grief arrived. She trusted in Jesus and we share the assurance of eternity—but grief is still a tsunami.
I’ve felt grief before and I hate it. I’ve lost a father and some dear friends. Grief always fills the empty space that once was theirs. The person lost is the real issue, of course, but the feeling of grief hovers next to us like a tragic companion who keeps reminding, “She’s really gone.”
I know . . . I know . . . I know. It’s not the way things are meant to be. I knew the end would come but knowing doesn’t reduce the pain. Information isn’t what the heart calls for when it’s wounded by loss.
Time, we’re told, will bring relief; but in the first days of loss the minutes seem like hours. Grief somehow slows the clock. It also turns conversations into charades. We stand next to people but they seem distant. We start to lie when they probe: “Yes, it’s hard,” I say, “but I’m okay.”
Yet it’s impossible to want it any other way; companions still need to stay near because grief is strongest when we’re alone. If only they would say less and mean more!
Yet words can calm the soul if someone knows what to say. Those who speak best are those who have gone before us with losses of their own. The comforted have real comfort to share.
So we’re forced to live out what the psalmist wrote: “I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” And, as in Psalm 23, we have God as the shepherd who comforts us—the one who restores our soul.
In faith I turned to him soon after mother gave up her last breath. I went to the living room and on my knees began to give Jesus the space grief wanted to rule: “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Lord.” Again and again.
I wasn’t thanking him for the pain. I was thanking him for being with me in the loss. I was thanking him for the gift of a mother who though one among many was my mother: the mother who birthed me, nurtured me, who loved me. God had given and now he was taking.
And I thanked him because he knew grief. Evil entered his creation and spoiled it. In place of faith came doubt. In place of communion we adopted the arrogance of autonomy. We grieved the Father. We grieved and quenched his Spirit.
And in Gethsemane we caused Jesus to grieve as he took on the curse of our sins and was forsaken for our sake. Yet in this great exchange we received his life and righteousness as he swallowed death on our behalf. And then he came back to life to receive those of us who trust him—inviting us to join him in eternity.
I thanked him because he offered me real comfort. He invited me to the still and peaceful waters of righteousness as I gave him the pain of our family loss.
So I hate death. I hate sin. It isn’t the way we were meant to live. I’m most reminded of this on my knees with tears flowing—when I receive the comfort he offers. His comfort is real and satisfying.
In the vigil before mother was taken we sang hymns. One was the song, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear. What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!” Mother, already near the end, startled us by singing with us—this chorus and others—offering her heart nearly to the end. It was a special grace.
So Jesus understands. I thank God for such a good shepherd who knows grief and overcomes it with his love. He is a friend who brings us peace. And mother has finally arrived.
Richard Sibbes’ reading of Augustine’s The Trinity supported some important themes in his preaching as in a believer’s union with Christ in “A Description of Christ.” The 17th century English Puritan knew and loved his 5th century African mentor. And he was probably reassured to find this theme restated in Luther’s Freedom of a Christian (1520).
What about this theme? As a starter, God the Father loves his Son’s bride with the same love he has for the Son. Assurance of this familial love, these writers believed, helps stir and sustain a lively faith.
Let’s press on. These earlier Christian teachers all believed God’s creation plan was for his Christ to have a bride. And this collective bride—consisting in all whom the Spirit draws to know and love him—enters into the ultimate and eternal marriage. The Father delights in the outcome as he views the divine groom and his new bride as “one” in their marital union. Both bride and groom, then, are loved with an undifferentiated love.
Despite a strong theological heritage this theme isn’t widely held today—but it should be. It sets up two key biblical insights: how God engages us affectively—that is, how he “feels” about us—and how he achieves our salvation in the context of his very real love for us.
References to the bride as “Christ mystical” reflect the apostle Paul’s language in Ephesians 5:32 where he treated the inaugural marriage text of the Bible, Genesis 2:24, as a mystery unfolded in Christ: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that [the Genesis text] refers to Christ and the church.” Human marriages, then, offer a workshop that anticipates an ultimate and ideal marriage focused on relational devotion rather than sexual intimacy or procreation.
Yet there are sticking points here for many. One is the language of mystery and another is the related question of ontology. I’ll only touch on these two and invite any interested readers to chase them in advanced resources.
Let’s start with the ontology—the question of being. Many readers share a misgiving about claims that we can participate in God’s life or being: that we have real union with Christ. Yet it’s a teaching the New Testament offers regularly with the language of believers being “in Christ” and Christ being “in us”—we find a crescendo of this teaching in John 17—so that we even become “partakers of the divine nature” as cited in 2 Peter 1.
There is, of course, a proper restriction here: we never come to be blended or fused with God so that we gain a sort of autonomous and essential deity in ourselves. One historical example of apparent overreach here came with Anne Hutchinson’s “mortalism” in Boston’s 1536-38 Antinomian Controversy. She viewed herself as wholly dead as a human soul and newly alive with Christ’s life in her. So she spoke with a misapplied confidence that Christ’s voice was present in what she was telling others.
What the Bible does tell us—as in Paul’s confrontation of illicit sexuality in Corinth—is that we are “joined” to Christ by his Spirit who unites with our spirit in marital oneness: “Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is written [in Genesis 2:24] ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him…. [so that] your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God (1 Corinthians 6:16-17, 19).
This piece of ontological revelation elaborated Paul’s earlier summary in the same epistle, in 2:9-13. And, as in a human marriage of believers, the two who are married still remain distinct persons even in their spiritual and physical union—they aren’t somehow blended as souls although they are truly “one” in their union. In strictly human terms this oneness is displayed by the procreation that normally accompanies human union.
Two recent books that chase this long-established theology of our union with Christ—known as participation or impartation theology—are Marcus Johnson’s One with Christ and William Evans’ Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology. Both invite a patient and reflective read.
The second question—about the rubric of “mystery”—invites a read of Heiko Oberman’s collected studies, The Dawn of the Reformation (1986) and chapter six in particular on “Luther and Mysticism” where Oberman helpfully discriminates various uses of the term. It’s enough to say here that Paul’s use of “mystery” is very different to those who have spiritual absorption—or who knows what else—in mind as they speak of mystery.
I began by mentioning Sibbes and his sermons on “A Description of Christ” and I’ll end by citing a segment of what he offered: “Doth God delight thus in Christ, in his person, or considered mystically? I answer: both. God loves and delights in Christ mystical, that is, in Christ and his members, in whole Christ…. Is it possible that he should delight in the head, and refuse the members? That he should love the husband, and mislike the spouse? Oh no; with the same love that God loves Christ, he loves all his. He delights in Christ and all his with the same delight.”—Sibbes, Works, 1.12.
So may all who are “in Christ” love the Father more than ever, even as he delights in us as in his Son: enjoy!
This entry repeats my Cor Deo post: please offer any responses on that site – thanks!
God seems to be at a disadvantage in the world today. His self-appointed biographer happily leaves people unimpressed with him at best and disgusted at worst. And this biographer—the “angel of light”—has an ambition to twist our view God whenever possible.
One of his twists is that God is necessarily distant from the creation. This portrayal of God as “incommensurate” to us shows up most often in the mystical wing of Christianity that relies on the Platonic themes of Plotinus and Proclus—both non-Christians. It was carried into Christianity by a mysterious figure we now call Pseudo-Dionysius. He earned his tag by claiming to be Paul’s Athenian convert of Acts 17:34. It was a lie: his writings were actually composed late in the 5th century and relied on Plotinus and Proclus, and not on the Bible.
The twist here is that God is eternally inaccessible to us as one who is “beyond being”—so he is only engaged by exposures to his darkness or unknowability. In other words we can never hope to know him but we can somehow still experience him. The secret is to “undo” our thinking and to engage in a three-stage ascent into this Unknowingness of a non-discursive “One” by taking steps of purgation, illumination, and—hopefully—union.
God, however, begs to differ.
God’s whole point in the creation is, instead, to invite us into the eternal communion of his Triune sharing—what and who he really is! Jesus is God’s “Word” who makes God known in terms we can grasp.
Jesus reminded followers of this in stunning terms: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Later in the same gospel Jesus set out the true basis of faith—versus claims of a passive mystical ascent: “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:3). Jesus is the true source of knowledge about God.
And the communion God shares in himself—as One God in three eternal distinctions—explains his creation and redemption purpose as a self-sharing love: “I have made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it know, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (17:26).
Another misportrayal of God focuses on his wrath. This is a bit tricky because God is, indeed, furious at times and in his wrath he will eventually confront all those who oppose him. But the way this feature is marketed by his Enemy has a huge twist in it.
The twist comes when God’s wrath is presented as a quality of his essential being: as the fiery side of his justice. And God’s justice is linked to his holiness as if these labels are two sides of one divine coin.
The reality, however, is that before Satan and Adam came along God always existed as Father, Son, and Spirit: so he is eternally relational. He was, of course, always holy but before the fall nothing unholy existed. So, too, God was and is right or “righteous” in all his ways, but there was no counterpoint called unrighteousness to support such discriminations. Instead the label of 1 John 4:8&16—“God is love”—forever summarized his eternal communion.
So this is a second point where God begs to differ.
Why? Because he tells us that love was his motivation for creating and engaging humanity—not justice, holiness, or even glory. Consider John 3:16—“For God so loved the world”—and John 17:24—“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me.”
But what about the many biblical references to God’s righteousness, holiness, wrath, and glory? First, these aren’t eternal commodities. God isn’t made up of building blocks. Instead these terms speak of God’s triune relationality that only appear because of sin.
Holiness, for instance, refers to moral alignment in the Trinity: no disharmony or discord exists in God’s communion. Thus he is holy—fully harmonious and coherent as Father, Son, and Spirit—without any violation ever occurring. It is only when sin brought discord into God’s creation—a misalignment with God’s character—that unholiness emerged. It is not an eternal reality; and its counterpoint, holiness, made sense only after Adam’s fall.
Righteousness and goodness are also relational realities in God. He is always right and good as the measure for such terms. But rightness and goodness only come into view when sinful alternatives emerge. Before the creation God was not trying to satisfy a greater-than-God reality called goodness or righteousness.
Love, on the other hand, was always present in the Father’s heart toward the Son, and vice versa, as shared by the Spirit who searches out the depths of the one and reveals it to the other.
But, again, what about wrath?
Wrath exists in the context of sin as seen in John 3. There we find God’s love for the world has been dismissed by the world: “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (3:19). This was a realm where the Son is despised. The Father, properly jealous for his Son’s bride, warns that only one realm will continue into eternity: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (3:36).
The “angel of light” has other misportrayals in play. He treats God as a cultural misfit; as a self-absorbed narcissist; and as somehow fixated by his own power—to name just a few. Given his effective rhetoric we need to abide in Christ’s word where he begs to differ with the twists Satan continually offers.
He alone offers us the truth that keeps us free.
Not many of us want to be known as “low and despised.” And if a close friend calls us “foolish” and “weak” we’re not likely to be thrilled—right? So why was Paul so rough in writing to his friends in Corinth?
Our best answer is that he was being honest.
This young church, it seems, was not much to talk about. Members were not from the impressive side of society. Most didn’t come from the upper classes—with homes in nicer neighborhoods. No one was chasing them for autographs. Instead they were on the low side of ordinary: a socially, economically, and academically unimpressive lot.
That’s not to say they wanted to stay there! It seems the rhetorically impressive Apollos had turned some heads. His status, along with the status of some newly arrived guests who claimed to be “friends” of Peter, had stirred divisions. Church members were becoming 1st century groupies: looking to be important by ‘friending’ others who were already important. Paul was even told he had his own followers; and so did Jesus.
Peter was not impressed! Nor, he reminded the Corinthians, was God. Only Jesus was worthy of their following. So in 1 Corinthians 1:31 Paul criticized these groupies by citing Jeremiah 9:24—“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
This chapter in 1 Corinthians reminds me of what Augustine of Hippo wrote in Nature and Grace. Pride, Augustine argued, was the motivation in Adam’s fall: “For the serpent, in fact, only sought for the door of pride whereby to enter when he said, ‘You shall be as gods’” so that “‘The beginning of pride is when a man departs from God.’” [NPNF 5.132]
Augustine had already noticed how pride is an insidious moral trap because pride can be present even when a person does what is considered to be good: “For all other sins only prevail in evil deeds; pride only has to be guarded against in things that are rightly done.” [NPNF 5.131]
In other words lots of activities are obviously evil—and easily avoided by careful moralists—but the ultimate problem of sin is self-elevation or self-focus. It consists in any self-ward gaze that reduces God to the status of a helper or observer—even if good deeds are done in the process.
Was Augustine overstating his point? No. He was reading Paul—and Jesus—properly when he made the soul’s ultimate point of reference the indicator of sin or righteousness. In any moment we are living as those devoted to our Lord and loved one, Jesus; or we are devoted to our own security and status.
Boasting displays love—we talk about what we value, and we talk most avidly about what we love the most. As people created by God and for God our boasting is only sound when we most value our relationship with Christ and what he values. A heart captured by Christ is no longer proud or boastful about itself.
This makes sense of Paul’s litany of upside-down references when he wrote to the Corinthians. God’s plan is to expose evil and he does this in large part by setting humble people next to proud people. And this makes his point in tangible terms: how many of us enjoy self-absorbed people? At best they may be useful to us if we’re also self-absorbed. Yet everyone enjoys humble and selfless people: they’re easy to be with, ready to invite others into their lives.
So Paul made this his big idea in confronting the groupies of Corinth who wanted to boast about their particular affiliations with mere men rather than in their delight in Christ. God, knowing how to draw hearts to himself—without any coercion—knows that humble hearts are more accessible and responsive than proud hearts.
This, in turn, explains how God selects a people for himself. He knew what sin would do to humanity. Some would seem to prosper as they usurped God’s place by trying to be like God. Others, by contrast, would never stand a chance of being godlike—they’re too ordinary, plain, and low. So it is that, “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
This may be consoling if and when we find ourselves around the spiritually, academically, morally, economically, and socially elite and discover we aren’t invited to their parties. That, we learn from Paul, isn’t so bad after all! But even that scenario—being rejected by proud society—isn’t to be our focus.
Our gaze, instead, should be on the remarkable reality that God loves us and wants us to be united with him through his Son and by his Spirit for the rest of eternity. And with the joy of that bond we readily invite others to come and enjoy the kinship we have in Jesus as we meet together at the lowly yet glorious cross.
My father and two brothers were military aviators. I also applied to be a pilot in the Navy but I didn’t have the eyesight to qualify. That was fine—I’m more than pleased with the way things turned out. But I still have an interest—as a bit of a ‘wannabe’—and keep up some aviation reading. For years I even subscribed to Aviation Week, a news journal for those in the field.
What’s odd is how often I’ve crossed paths with genuine aviation or space flight specialists over the years. Dave—a Cor Deo alum—is an aviation engineer and UK friend. We’ve driven to Bristol together on a couple of occasions to attend lectures offered to the British community of aircraft engineers. I loved it!
There’s more. On one occasion my seat companion on a flight to London was the Boeing space engineer in charge of integrating the International Space Station! On another flight I was seated next to a Royal Navy officer who was exploring the question of what kind of aircraft launching device to use—if any—on two British aircraft carriers then under construction. On yet another flight I sat next to a man who owned a number of racing aircraft, including a Czech L-39 Albatross jet flown in the Reno Air Races. On each case I enjoyed a great conversation!
But what do my flying interests have to do with anything? Just this: if people share a common interest it’s natural and easy to talk about that subject. And, once discovered, social barriers quickly fade away.
Here’s a related question. What if we claim to have a profound interest in a given topic but in reality we never talk about it? And if someone raises that topic we quietly slip away? Is the issue actually important to us, or is it merely one of the “right things” we need to affirm in life?
Most readers will have guessed by now that my reflection has Jesus in view. He offers the natural point of shared interest for Christians. We worship him as God and have given our hearts to him. So it only follows that he must be the main topic of conversations among Christians . . . right?
Okay—that may be a nice theory but in practice it’s hardly the case. Try talking about him spontaneously in most church settings and things may go very quiet. Friends are far more likely to talk about local sports teams, new electronic devices, websites, movies, restaurants, the weather, or even aviation topics. I just don’t hear Jesus talked about unless it’s in a sermon or a Bible study.
I could end here. All this entry would be, then, is a guilt trip. But that’s not my point: what would that accomplish? Instead let’s consider the deeper question of how we view God. Do we realize how relevant the Triune God is to our present life and to our life to come? Have we come to grips with how attractive and fascinating he is? Have we ever heard him speak to us?
Most haven’t! At best we’ve only scratched the surface of who he is. We know this when we read the Bible. There the apostle Paul, for one, wrote in almost melodramatic terms about knowing Jesus: in Ephesians 3, Philippians 2-3, 1 Corinthians 2, and more. He was an ultimate enthusiast who assumed readers would certainly share that delight. But most of us aren’t there.
His fascination started when he first met Jesus in the road near Damascus. That meeting shaped everything about him. Even the threat of death never quenched his enthusiasm—a very clear reality in the Bible book of Acts. Paul was all about Jesus.
What that tells us is that we may be missing something. Jesus, as Paul’s experience should tell us, is an absolutely compelling personality. The apostles John, Peter, and James all had the same opinion: by the measure of their responses Jesus was as strong a presence as ever walked on earth.
What’s missing for the rest of us is exposure. If we don’t have contact with him we’re not too likely to be too impressed with him. And we won’t have reasons to talk about him with others.
This touches a Bible theme called “illumination”—the teaching that God’s Spirit awakens us to the Son’s personality in ways that startle and change us. After we have a heart-changing exposure—getting to “know” him—we start to look for others who want to talk about him. Other topics start to seem empty by comparison.
Yet for those who aren’t “there” yet—who don’t get illumination or revelation or even relationship with Jesus as more than a notion—the question comes, why not?
It might be that Jesus withholds himself from most people and only gives himself to a few select folks. But that doesn’t fit the Bible portrayal of Jesus as one who was rejected by humanity; and not the other way round. He came and gave his life to capture us.
So another possibility is that he shares himself freely but no one hears him because they find other topics and personalities more interesting. The shared interests of this life drown out the whispers of his Spirit seeking to draw us into that conversation.
This is how the Bible answers the question.
So what should we do if we don’t find Jesus interesting? Simply tell him. I’m sure he can handle it.
And then, if you’re bold, say, “But I’d like to have some lights turned on—to be able to see you and to hear you.”
Then pick up your Bible and start to read. Don’t quit anytime soon. Then come back for more. I can promise: he’ll be there, waiting!
And, after that, let’s talk—a great conversation is sure to follow!
This post is shared with the Cor Deo website: please post any responses there. Thanks!
Pharaoh, in the Exodus account of Israel leaving Egypt, had a fight with God. The ruler moved by stages from being dismissive of Yahweh—a God he only learned about through Moses—to being beaten and compliant in the end.
How did it come about?
It was a battle of hearts. Moses told the Egyptian that Yahweh is the only true God. Pharaoh, with a hard heart, scoffed at his claims.
Pharaoh had every reason to be self-assured after his first meeting with Moses. Moses was an old shepherd—just in from the wilderness—telling Pharaoh to release the Israelite tribal clans. The Israelites, as a slave-labor workforce, were a major pillar in the Egyptian economy.
Moses came as a negotiator without any apparent leverage. Pharaoh seemed to hold all the cards.
To list the obvious, Pharaoh represented the Egyptian pantheon of gods. This carried the social function of bonding people in superstitious compliance: everyone knew not to offend the gods. And Pharaoh, working with the local priests, called all the shots here.
Pharaoh also held the powers of state: ultimately every element of economic, political, and military force was under his direction.
Moses, by contrast, seemed an unlikely spokesman for God. He was not driven: in later years his inspired editor—probably Joshua—noted his unique meekness. A speech impediment meant Moses was no rhetorician. Even more troubling was the deity he represented: Yahweh wasn’t on Pharaoh’s list of gods. Any meaningful god in that day needed a track record of displayed powers—mainly by the arts of priestly magic—and Yahweh wasn’t part of that competition.
So Moses needed to do something effective; something soon; and something compelling. And all he had on his side was God.
That was more than enough.
The particular events of the story are well known. What we want to notice here are the hearts—the motivations that shape thinking and choices—in this confrontation.
God’s heart was the guiding feature of the story: he came as the compassionate caregiver for his people. His concern was for his chosen nation, whom he called his “firstborn son.” God had heard the “groanings” of his people. He “saw” and he “knew”—intimately aware of how his collective son was being treated (Exodus 2:24 & 3:16).
As events unfolded there were two firstborn sons in the story—God’s and Pharaoh’s—and God was determined to care for his own son. Even if it meant Pharaoh’s son would die in this battle of hearts, an opposition first elevated in Exodus 4:22-23.
God, we read, was a caring father—protective of his beloved child. Pharaoh, on the other hand, was using social consensus to oppress Yahweh’s child. The local religions of the day, epitomized by the gods of Egypt, were being used to elevate Pharaoh’s status quo and to oppress the Israelite workforce.
And God, after 400 years of patience, had finally seen enough and acted.
After a set of famous plagues—with each plague targeting the realm of a given god in Egypt’s pantheon—God finally confronted the supposed divinity of Pharaoh himself. He killed Pharaoh’s heir-apparent, his firstborn son (Exodus 12:12-13).
“For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD [Yahweh].”
Here was the ultimate power of Moses: when God made his promise through his old, meek, and unimpressive shepherd, he kept his word. And Pharaoh—whose heart was always opposed to all that Yahweh represented—finally caved in.
To be clear, God never changed Pharaoh’s heart. There was nothing unfair in what God did. But he did make the Egyptian ruler’s heart harder by using the pressures of the plagues to expose what defined Pharaoh: his love of power—power he used to oppress God’s beloved son.
Are there continuing implications from this story for today?
Are there, perhaps, some settings today where God’s “sons” are being confronted by the rulers who are using their pantheon of powers—under the guise of false gods or even under the rubric of enlightened progress—for oppression rather than for good?
Only as much as there is still a demonic spiritual ruler who hates Yahweh and his Son—and all who are united to the Son by faith.
Is God still paying attention? Yes. We can be sure he has every hair of every head counted, and knows every word and work of every life.
Will he wait hundreds of years before he acts again to show who is really in charge?
Perhaps . . . but probably not.
Whatever the case we still get to cry out to him whenever the inevitable anti-Son hostilities emerge. It may come through social and political forces led by powerful media. It may be in the fierce beheadings of innocents in unsettled lands. We can be sure Yahweh still has a heart for his Son and for his sons and daughters through Christ.
Wait and we’ll get to see how things turn out. God’s heart is still with us.
Curt sent me a link to a “nerdist” website that features a bicycle with a gear added to reverse the steering. When a rider turns right the front wheel turns left, and vice versa. So every instinct of the rider is wrong. The results are awkward: each effort to pedal ends in an instant upset.
The video didn’t end there. The featured cyclist tells of working hard to retrain his instincts and after many weeks of practice he adapted to his new bicycle. The video shows his eventual—but still slightly clumsy—success. It also traced his young son’s much faster adaptation on his smaller version of a reverse-steering bike. This was due, the father noted, to the child’s much greater neural plasticity. Very nerdish!
What came next was another surprise. When the father, for the first time in months, mounted a normal bicycle his every effort to pedal went awry. His mind had been reformed and refused to provide ambidextrous cycling instincts! The old patterns only reawakened with time and practice.
It occurred to me after watching the clip that reverse-instincts explain some of what we see in daily life. My brother, for instance, was a career fireman. So his instincts are different to mine when a dangerous fire erupts: I run from fires and he runs to them. Images of emergency responders and panicked crowds running in opposite directions in the New York twin towers tragedy offer a dramatic example of the difference.
Another example comes to mind: the reversal of spiritual instincts. When a person responds in faith to Christ everything changes. That’s why the term “conversion” is linked to the moment of spiritual awakening in a soul.
In ideal cases of conversion—using the Bible as our guide—a set of reversals takes place. Let’s trace a few.
First and foremost Christ, by his Spirit, enters our soul—so we are “born again” or “born from above” in the terms of John 3. This begins our participation in Christ. We are now Spirit-to-spirit partners with the Son of God and, in the terms of 2 Peter 1:4, “partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”
The point is that our old orientation of self-interest—our commitment to personal success, social standing, comfort, and security—is abandoned in favor of our new devotion to Christ. What was, collectively, a self-love is replaced by a new love for Christ and for those he loves. Call it the greatest miracle of rebirth.
A practical example of this sort of life-transformation is human love: when a man meets a woman who captures his heart everything changes. I remember my university days when most of my closest companions married. A pattern formed: after the wedding I was invited to a single meal and then the couple all but disappeared, socially, for almost a year. This was their time for learning to live with the reversed gears of a loving partnership. After the new skills of other-centered life were in place our full friendship came back on line but now with a new friend added.
In spiritual terms we have an even more dramatic transition—one so dramatic not all professed Christians are ready to embrace it. We shift from living according to “the Lie” and begin to live according to “the Truth.” This polarity isn’t as clear as it might be because our Bible translations invariably convert the underlying Greek use of a singular term and its article, “the Lie,” into a global notion such as “falsehood” (in, for example, John 8:44; Romans 1:25; Ephesians 4:25; and 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12).
These translations aren’t huge issues but they may mask just how the spiritual reverse gears operate: the devil has a single lie that manages to deceive everyone. Only when we dismiss the Lie—in what is called repentance—are we converted.
And what is this singular Lie? It was first uttered in Eden to Eve and then to Adam: “You can be like God.” The Truth, against this, is that God alone is God.
So a key tagline for Satan is “the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9) who rules the world by stirring a comprehensive and persistent devotion to the idea that self-concern—or, today, personal freedom—is the proper focus of life. Paul referred to this as the realm of death—of all who are “following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2).
The Truth is that real life—a life eternal—has a different ambition: faith rather than freedom; or, in other words, dependence rather than independence; or obedience rather than disobedience.
The key to having this new life in Christ work—of our being able to ‘ride’ by faith without constantly crashing—is to have a new love. A good marriage is the workshop God offers us for the ultimate marriage of Christ and the church. This love re-gears our lives and changes the way we steer: “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5—to be read with ch. 8 & 12:1-2). He alone brings the spiritual ‘plasticity’ that allows us to abandon the Lie and to live by the Truth.
Enjoy the new ride—but watch out for those who keep crashing as they try to ‘ride’ like Christians without having first responded to Christ and his Spirit. That’s awkward. The key is to repent and let God be God.
The cry was a constant imperative among the criminals of my childhood world. The adventures of our favorite superhero captured my brothers and me. No one, no matter how nefarious, could spread mayhem when Superman was around. Unless, of course, the evildoers had a bit of kryptonite on hand. Kryptonite was the stuff that undid Superman’s super powers.
I soon outgrew Superman along with the mythical claims of kryptonite but the idea that every known power could have an antidote was planted. Is it true in reality?
More recently I read about the first atomic reactor—a device built at Stagg Field in Chicago. The role of boron caught my attention in the story. It functions as a neutron inhibitor that can stop or “quench” nuclear fission. So boron is to atomic reactors what the fantasy of kryptonite was to Superman: massive energy can be blocked by an otherwise innocuous substance.
With the boron analogy in mind let’s shift to another power. God’s Spirit at work in Christians led the apostle Paul to rhapsodize about his power: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father . . . that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being . . .” and, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:14-16, 20-21).
Paul clearly had more Spiritual power in mind than many Christians experience today. Yet in reading about Paul in Acts and in reading his epistles we see he practiced what he preached: he displayed remarkable power as he shared the gospel. So, too, the first-century church “turned the world upside-down” for many who lived in that pagan era.
Transformation by the Spirit’s power is still available today. All we need is for God’s power to be at work in and through us as in the early days of the church. With the imagery of C. S. Lewis and his Screwtape Letters in mind, we can almost hear the Devil and his evil minions shouting to each other, “Stop them!”
And, sadly, they seem to have done all too well.
Instead of transforming power in the church today we more often find weakness and, in some settings, wholesale accommodation to the enemy’s schemes. But why—or how?
Let me suggest that a spiritual version of boron—something that blots out God’s work among us—is active today. Again, in Ephesians, we read: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (4:30).
The thought of our bringing grief to God’s Spirit may sound grandiose but it’s a biblical axiom. Paul also speaks of our capacity to “quench” the Spirit by embracing values and actions that repel him (1 Thessalonians 5:19).
So what do we do to avoid the enemy’s stifling work—to get away from his spiritual boron?
We should at least ask what he’s doing or using. What on earth does he have in his bag of tricks that can blot out the power of God in us?
The simple answer of the Bible is that we can dismiss God’s love by our pursuit of self-love. And by self-love the Bible is speaking of our longing for personal status and security, as well as any preference for darkness rather than light because our deeds are evil. Anything that elevates self-interest in place of a love for God and for our neighbors is self-love.
A corollary here is that we aren’t talking about God’s “willpower” versus human “willpower.” The lack of God’s power in believers—to repeat the biblical point—is all about a lack of love for him. The point is that God allows us to withhold our love from him and to look elsewhere with our affections. When we embrace that freedom, he retreats. Yet if we draw near him by responding to his offered love, he draws near to us.
This explains the widespread charges in the Old Testament of spiritual prostitution—“whoredom”—against Israel. It also explains the weight of Christ’s charge against the church in Ephesus, “you have abandoned the love that you had at first” (Revelation 2:4). God made us to love and delight in him so it grieves him when we worship and serve the creation rather than the God who created us.
So just as boric acid—a liquid form of boron—serves as a neutron sponge to atomic chain reactions, our self-love is a sponge that blots out our responsiveness to God’s love. And this grieves God: we can hurt and repel him.
The enemy knows this. So what does he do? Does he call us to love our entertainments more than God? Does he invite us to grumble more and give thanks less? Does he give us social popcorn in order to distract us from the feast of God’s personality? Does he stir church teachings that dismiss the primacy of God’s love?
However he does it, he’s effective. Jesus even warned us against demonic antidotes in his parable of the soils.
Yet there are some who will ultimately bear fruit. Some who, like Paul, are compelled to live a new life of love, now captured by Christ’s love.
Try it if you aren’t there yet. And if anyone starts shouting, “Stop it!” just consider the source and keep looking to Christ.
Can you recall a time when a friend or family member made a promise so weighty you had to stop and wonder?
I remember one such case—when Steve offered to cover almost half the cost of my hoped-for studies in London. I had all but given up on the project when he made his promise, a commitment he later fulfilled. And that changed my life.
Let me retrace part of that experience. At the time I didn’t know Steve very well—where he worked, for instance, or anything about his resources. He was just a new friend I met when he and his wife joined a Bible study I was leading.
On that evening—when he made his promise, “I’d love to help”—I didn’t know what to think. I hadn’t requested any help! Nor did he know how much I needed. It was just an open offer.
I remember being skeptical. “Thanks, Steve! But about a dozen people will need to say the same thing before I make any plans.” So he asked how much I needed and I told him. He responded, “That’s not a problem.”
Let’s step back to our first question, then, and look at three features of important promises. First, the promise itself; then the one who made it; and, finally, the one who receives it.
A significant promise speaks to a need or desire. Someone, for instance, may make a passing promise after a chance encounter: “I’ll call you soon!” If that friend is only a loose acquaintance we probably won’t be holding our breath waiting for that call. But if a physician promises to call us with his report on a biopsy we’ve just had, we’re sure to have our phone fully charged!
Second, the question of who made the promise is important. Our contrast of a casual acquaintance and a reliable doctor points to the differences between a social nicety and a professional commitment. The devoted person is someone we can trust. And the people we really trust may be a cozy few.
Finally, what about receiving a promise? In our example of the doctor and the expected biopsy report, the need to keep our phone handy is obvious. The underlying point is that a trustworthy person needs to be trusted. We reshape our behaviors in light of trusted promises.
Yet, in returning to my experience with Steve, I didn’t have any reason to trust him at first—there wasn’t enough history to go on. But his promise was so significant and my need was so real that I took steps to receive it. Yet I didn’t charge ahead; my responses came in stages. I didn’t buy the airline ticket to Heathrow, for instance, until the promise was fulfilled! But in good time he did come through and I was off to London.
So what about God? When he makes promises what difference do they make?
Let’s retrace our three features of a promise, but this time with God as the promise-maker and ourselves as the recipients.
First, what kind of promises does God make? Some possible categories come to mind.
One is the “Whatever you ask in my name” sort of promise. This seems like an open door to every sort of happiness: to personal health, wealth, and security!
Another is the “Whoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life” category. This sounds fine, too, since eternal-fire-insurance—as some would present it—seems like a great arrangement: who won’t want to sign up?
Other promises may seem a bit narrower as in the case of my own conversion verse in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all [your life concerns] will be added to you.” The “seek first” item has some complexity in it.
Now to our second question: how reliable is God—are his promises trustworthy? This one gets tricky. Most of us who are churched will affirm him in theory, but in practice we may find him wanting.
I can think of one friend, for instance, who years ago set up a test for God—with the “whatever you ask” promise in mind—and God didn’t seem to respond to him. So until today this man attends church with his wife but he refuses to believe in the God who didn’t come through in the test. He’s a successful businessman and refuses to work with anyone, God included, who doesn’t fulfill contractual commitments.
Many others, like my friend, aren’t fully convinced by claims about God. So they take a pragmatic approach: not ready to trust him even if continued listening is still an option.
This is, I’m sure, linked to the efforts of God’s most creative enemy who is forever trotting out his favorite device: skepticism. This is the serpent who asked, “Did God really say?” and who tried three times to get Jesus to doubt his Father as he was being tested in the wilderness. By now most academics are captured by themes of doubt; and many entertainers and politicians promote upside-down moral values rooted in denials of God. And even ordinary folks doubt God’s goodness.
This brings us to the final item: receiving God’s promise. The Bible call to love God with all our heart is behind all his promises. He has just one real ambition and that comes to us in a huge promise: we are meant to be part of his Son’s wedding feast, as the bride!
All who respond will turn out to have been chosen. Yet in a parable Jesus tells us that at first no one responds! So God has to pursue a very unlikely lot and convince them to come. I’m one of these.
It’s a breathtaking promise. And—using the terms of Romans 4—all of us who are “fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised” in making this possible will be counted as righteous. Amazing!
This entry is shared with the Cor Deo site: please offer any comments there. Thanks!
Years ago the caricature of a librarian was a matron who roamed the library shushing everyone. I hope the title for this entry won’t stir that image! Picture, instead, an auditorium in 2013 filled with the clamor of scientists awaiting the arrival of speakers who would confirm the discovery of the Higgs boson—the so-called “God particle.” It’s great to visit but when the speakers arrived it was time to listen!
So who invites even more attention? Perhaps the God who created the God particle? Certainly, when God speaks we will want to listen, right?
That, in turn, raises a question about God speaking: will he be offering a talk or a speech at a conference in days to come? Do we have an auditorium we can visit or a channel to watch?
I don’t ask this to be careless or absurd but to try to build a bridge between the real world and a premise of faith that God is the ultimate communicator. As a Triune God he has always been in a communion of conversation. And he is still speaking today, even if he doesn’t come to us in the ways we might desire or expect.
So our underlying question is this: When God speaks today, where, and how does he do it? This brief blog can only tease the question, but here goes.
First, God sets a platform for his sharing by what he does. I mentioned the God-particle in opening. Recently I listened to an audiobook on Europe’s Hadron collider and the hunt for the predicted Higgs boson. One feature stood out: the overall orderliness and symmetry of nature allows scientists to make such predictions. My own response was to credit an intelligent design to a Designer who stands above nature and rules it in ways we can see and admire.
Second, and more to the point of communion, God wants to share himself with us in Christ. John was sensitive to this as he wrote his gospel. Jesus was introduced as God’s “Word”—who is “the only God, who is at the Father’s side, [and he] has made him known.”
John goes on to report how the Spirit takes what Jesus reveals of the Father and shares it with the disciples: “All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he [the Spirit] will take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:14).
Here is a pattern: whatever the Father offers belongs to the Son; and his Spirit, in turn, declares it to his disciples. Then in John’s next chapter this self-giving of the Father, Son, and Spirit is carried forward through the disciples to our day—and “also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (17:20-21). In effect, divine union and communion breeds human union and communion.
So this word-based communion—“that they may all be one”—points to God as its source: “just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you.” A relational bond in an alienated world is a compelling signal of God’s presence in us. It helps others to hear what God is saying when they see him acting in and through us.
We know, too, that God shares himself in a fully accessible form: in writing. The apostles, with the Spirit’s oversight, recalled what they learned from Jesus as they wrote the New Testament. Jesus also reassured his disciples of the reliability of the Jewish Canon—the Christian Old Testament—as the Spirit’s disclosing ministry. It’s available to any and all readers.
As for the Spirit’s unique place in the Trinity one roles stand out: he is the active voice in sharing God’s heart to all who will hear. And this is crucial—and the reason for Christ’s warnings not to dismiss the Spirit. To hear God we must have his Spirit.
Listen to 1 Corinthians: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (2:14). The Spirit-to-spirit ministry calls for a new heart, attuned to God’s heart. Our sole role is to repent of our old hardness of heart.
A person’s not hearing God, we learn, comes from distaste, not disability. In John 8 we read of the deceit of the great Liar—the devil—as the reason people do not hear God’s voice. As Jesus put it, “my words find no place in you” and “you cannot bear to hear my word.” These comments followed his premise that only authentic believers will know “the truth” that comes by “abiding” in his word.
Later in John, as Jesus spoke to Pilate, he returned to the appetite for truth as the basis for hearing and responding: “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (18:37).
His final line brings weight to our question. Hearing God is truth-defined. And some are drawn to the Truth; many are not. And in John 8:42 we read that the Father stirs a love for Jesus in the soul; then in John 14:6 Jesus is personified as “the truth.”
But how much truth will we find in a world that dismisses God? Are we likely to hear the Spirit’s whispers as we spend most of our time listening to the world’s entertainments? Or to worldly politics, counseling, leadership, or to any other realm where God is ignored?
Christ’s invitation to “abide in my word” takes time and quiet. Yet once we get a taste for truth nothing else satisfies. So perhaps it’s time to “be quiet” and enjoy!