All of us collect low-grade bruises on a regular basis.
I felt like a victim again last night when the hotel clerk sweetly told me I needed to sign over another $45—“just overnight”—after I had prepaid the room fee weeks before. This was “just a security hold” for any added services I might use. But this time it was more overt than usual—she wanted a signed bankcard payment slip for the amount. I was headed straight to a wash-up and bed but first I needed to pay a fee for nothing.
It felt like a bribe: pay this un-agreed-upon extra or you won’t get your room. At 10 PM when I’m a tired and unwashed traveler just in from the Gatwick airport.
So in the morning when I asked whether my money would now be restored a new clerk answered with another broad smile, “That may take up to a full week, depending on your bank.”
I sniffed a game here. If this prominent hotel chain with hundreds of local hotels worldwide does this to thousands of customers each day and holds that money for up to a week, what comes of it? Are all those holds averaged and included in their books as a stable fund—as millions of dollars a year in added revenue?
Did I, in other words, just get squeezed?
Hopefully I’m off base on this one, but why my twitchiness? Is it because of my experience of paying airfares that don’t allow for the luggage I’ll need? Or finding that a box of cereal yields a surprisingly small amount of product? Or knowing that my private information is being collected and sold by banks and software companies?
I’m sure we all recognize an underlying issue: most businesses see us as money carriers waiting to be unburdened. But isn’t that just good business practice? If laws don’t stop our smiling hoteliers, bankers, and airline reps from nicking us then their deeds can’t be wrong, right?
But let’s think about it. What actually defines right and wrong? Do legislators and courts represent a final touchstone of morality? So that—knowing some fine-print approval is always in play—we need to remain docile for our daily milking? Or should we press for reforms?
Or is yet another consideration—something deeper—in play here? While not dismissing calls for reform let’s ask about a greater and more troubling problem. What do these social irritations tell us about our collective societal heart?
What, for instance, would the chief executive officer of the hotel chain I used last night say if I could ask him, “What matters most to you and to your business?”
He might answer, “Satisfying our customers by meeting their every need at the best price possible!” Or, perhaps, “We aim to maintain the highest standards of our trade!” Then, again, he might look at me straight in the eye: “We need to satisfy our investors with the highest returns possible by any means possible.”
The CEO knows, of course, the advertising director will call for one answer while his chief financial officer will whisper another. One is promotional—what we might call soft hypocrisy—and the other is the working policy.
So what is our deeper measure?
Jesus offered it in his Sermon on the Mount: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). This golden rule offers a test both for businesses and for private relations.
If, for instance, my hotel owner was invited to loan all his guests $45 for up to a week whenever we stay at his place he might have a rethink. Or if an airline president had to cross an ocean once a month in the economy seats of his own airline he might reconsider the seat dimensions. Or if any manager were asked to apply a new revenue enhancement idea to her spouse or oldest child for a year before adopting it, she might have an awakening.
All this will never happen, of course. But why not?
Because of our hard hearts. We—both individually and societally—don’t have the personal convictions and courage of love. Even Christians may too often dismiss Paul’s call for us to be like Christ—to view others as more important than ourselves.
And the result is a consensus that we need to accommodate selfishness: it’s a necessary evil we all embrace. So strong business leaders will always trim moral corners at the expense of relatively invisible and unloved others. The undefended need to suffer for the sake of avid investors. And it’s acceptable because everyone in the world practices it—though not with those they love.
The deeper question, then, is what will come when we finally meet God? Is selfishness embedded in his creation aims?
Or is carelessness towards others the product of a competing spirit who wants to be God and who hardens hearts with his ambition?
The gentle warning in Romans 14:12 is instructive and concerning. In the prior verse Paul cited the Isaiah 45:23 text about every knee bowing to God in a final day and then he added, “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
What’s the deeper lesson?
At least this. If we grow in our knowing and loving God—the one who changes hearts—we will grow to love others in ways that reflect the Father’s love for us in Christ.
Because he matters most to us.
The other day Terry asked me about evil. He’s a regular at the coffee shop where I do my morning reading and writing.
His question had a sharp edge. Most of us began adult life with hopes for a successful career, a happy marriage, and a satisfying retirement. But who promised us this hoped-for stability? Did God? Is it a right due to all humans?
And if the wheels come off—with unexpected job losses; divorces; the chaos of dementia or cancer—is God to blame?
God answers our questions at the cross. Christ’s crucifixion was the meeting point of every moral, societal, and cosmic disruption. We recall that all reality connects in Christ. Everything was made through him and for him—everything still holds together in him. Yet human sin took over all he had made. And when he became a man to win back his creation we crucified him.
Let’s be more specific. In the Edenic fall life was completely disrupted. So our human struggles are ultimately a legacy of Adam’s reach to “be like God.” With this overreach God cursed the creation with dying and death. The glory and stability of Genesis chapters one and two died.
“So,” Terry asked, “why does God allow this mess? Why did he create Satan and evil? And why did he bless Ishmael even though it would be through Ishmael’s children that the Middle East is such a mess?”
It was the last bit that startled me. Terry knows the Bible! So I asked him, “How do you know about Ishmael?” His answer surprised me. “I’m a pastor’s son so I learned this stuff as a kid.”
Somewhere between then and now he seems to have put faith aside.
“Why,” he continued, “does a good and all-powerful God allow evil to exist?”
His question wasn’t original but it was clearly heartfelt. And it’s a question God is happy for us to raise. The Bible is his response.
We may not like God’s answers but the tension sets up his call to faith. He wants us to trust him even in the face of disruptive evil. To have a faith that only operates in a happy life is not a real faith.
A closer look at the account of Ishmael may help. God wanted Abram, Ishmael’s father, to experience faith even in the face of challenges. At the beginning of his walk with God Abram was given a gratuitous promise: God would bless Abram and through him, the nations. The key would be Abram’s “seed”—an obvious reference to the “seed of the woman” in Genesis 3:15—by whom evil would be crushed. Then God gave Abram time to embrace the promise.
The blessing included instructions: God would provide Abram with both a land where he could live and a son to carry the promise forward to others. In the process Abram needed to leave his clan behind and go to the place God would show him. Abram was slow to engage the plan: a close reading of Genesis 12-22 shows this stop and start pattern.
Part of his learning came when God was slow to provide a son to Abram and his wife Sarah. Call this Abram’s disrupted dream. Sarah decided to help God with a plan for her servant, Hagar, to be a surrogate mother. So Abram slept with Hagar and Ishmael was born.
But Ishmael was not the son God promised to Abram. So God disrupted Abram’s plan. He made him wait thirteen more years—until after Ishmael’s bar mitzvah—before bringing along the promised son, Isaac, through his wife Sarah.
What about the blessing Terry mentioned?
God had already blessed Abram. So God blessed his illegitimate son, Ishmael, as an extension of Abram’s status. But it was a disrupted blessing since Ishmael came by way of an illicit faith. So the blessing to Ishmael was an upside-down blessing: he would be “a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him” (Gen. 16:12). By tradition, then, he became the paternal figure for Israel’s most earnest enemies, the Arabs. This was behind Terry’s question.
What, then, is God’s answer?
He allows humans like Abram and Sarah to fiddle his plans. But he, in turn, disrupts our plans by letting our faithless plans bear disruptive outcomes. So the more the world disrupts God’s ways, the more unstable the world becomes. This is not what Adam and Eve first experienced, nor is it what God intended in an ideal world.
But Adam did sin and in response God cursed this creation with decay and, ultimately, a death still to come.
Why? Because death graciously disrupts Adam’s ambition to “be like God” till the end of time.
The realm of spiritual rebellion is, after all, the serpent’s turf. His alternative ‘life’ that denies God’s true ‘Life’ is a living death. So God condemned his fallen world of spiritual death with the consequence of cosmic death—something Paul traces in Romans 8:18-25.
The cross, then, is where God disrupts death by defeating its power in all who, by faith, unite with God’s promised Seed, Jesus. There he conquered death and draws his people into the realm of faith and Life.
So in my answer to Terry’s question I went back to the beginnings. Terry is longing for what Adam abandoned: an enjoyment of communion with God and others in a pure and beautiful world.
But we only get there by dying with Christ on the cross as the place where he graciously disrupts all our efforts to live life “my way.”
God’s plan—for us to walk by faith—happily disrupts Adam’s original disruption. So, Terry, let’s taste and see what Life after the cross really offers.
Think of a time you were surprised when a person you’ve just met turns out to be close to one of your very dear friends who lives in a distant place. A pair of responses usually follows.
First you both compare notes about the shared friend and these validate the connection. And next the new acquaintance gains credibility in line with the esteem you both have for your shared friend.
Let’s reflect on what happens here.
For one it captures a truth. We are relational beings. To be human is to be formed by a vast and complex set of encounters. A host of relationships—the good, bad, and uneven—are all threads woven into the cloth of our identity.
We bring our unique contribution, of course, but our closest family and friends mark us deeply. So a newcomer already bonded to someone we love can be ushered rather quickly into a favored space.
Christians, especially, find joy in this truth. Our identity is communion-based. Or, in Bible terms, we are all members of Christ’s Body by his Spirit living in us. And, as such, we are tightly knit to others who also have his Spirit.
The Spirit, of course, isn’t present in everyone. As Christians our union with Christ consists in the Spirit’s awakening and sustaining presence. And, conversely, any who don’t yet know Jesus lack his presence.
Why? Because in Eden God’s Spirit was instantly grieved and his ministry quenched. So Adam lost God’s magnetic presence—a benefit he enjoyed by the presence of the Spirit’s divine life—and immediately curved in on himself as signaled by his newly felt nakedness. Adam’s new freedom from God also ended his enjoyment of God’s spreading goodness.
But there are memories of the relational fabric we were made to share, even among those who are now distant from God. In meeting that person who shares a friend in common there is an echo of God’s relational Image being heard. We were made to share deep bonds with others. But now that remains a memory instead of a living reality.
For non-Christians there is, of course, an alternative way of relating. Sin always retains its devotion to freedom. Yet there remains a need and willingness to engage others. Success, after all, only comes in a community that can satisfy Adam’s appetite for glory.
And some form of community is needed to salve the loneliness of autonomy. Yet even as this mitigated sort of caring is widespread it comes with a prospect of being despised as dependent and needy. In the end it amounts to linked selfishness—to using others to support a lonely vision of self.
The Bible treats this upside-down sort of relating as something God offers to solve through the Son. Jesus came to present God’s living relationship: to share his love for the Father by his full dependence and by the power of the Spirit working in him. He mocked his mockers by overcoming their societies of mutual-glory with a sacrificial devotion to his Father’s glory. His life exhibited love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and more!
Christ’s approach was so shocking to the fallen world—to both the pious and the impious; the religious and the irreligious—that they soon killed him.
But some people—but not many—recognized him as the true God-man and the antidote to Adam’s pride. And with that recognition their lives changed as they received his Spirit and, with him, Christ’s love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and more.
And this little clan of transformed people started to enjoy God’s spreading goodness among themselves. What was unique about them was just one feature: they had all come to know Jesus by his Spirit who offered the introduction. Or, to be accurate, by a person in whom Christ’s Spirit was present and active—who showed Christ’s qualities of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and more.
And this brings us back to our starting point. Today there are millions of people who profess to be Christians. But among them there’s a smaller community: the people who, when they meet someone who has qualities of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and more that remind them of Jesus. Then the question comes, “Do you, by any chance, know Jesus?”
“Yes! He’s my dearest friend and savior!” And with that the conversation turns into an exchange of compared notes about Jesus, an exchange that validates their shared relationship with God. This is the instant recognition of Christ’s Spirit whose ways are unmistakable. And it’s an easy relationship to share with others!
John twice alludes to Genesis 1:1—“In the beginning God”—to launch his own writing. In the fourth Gospel we find “In the beginning was the Word” and in 1 John 1 he starts with an almost identical reference “That which was from the beginning.” John, obviously, held this to be critical in orienting his readers to God’s ways.
This Sunday I’ll preach on John 1:1-3 with the New Year having just arrived. As I prepare I’ve been intrigued with John’s two allusions to Genesis. Let me tie them here to my broader interest in God’s eternal triune Conversation.
For one, the verses have an obvious temporality. Beginning refers to something from an earlier time that accounts for a later outcome. Yet our texts all assume a divine ultimacy. In other words they point to an absolute beginning: to that which is the most before now! It implies a starting point before which there was nothing.
And here we have a hitch. The Bible never allows for some sort of starting point in God’s personal existence: his being is unbounded. So “the beginning” may speak of God’s creation of all other forms of being out of nothing. Or it may be a temporal euphemism for God’s greater reality: an arrow that points us as temporal creatures to see and acknowledge our non-temporal source.
Support for the latter option is suggested by Exodus 3 where God’s eternal being is linked to the intransitive verb of being, “I am.” By taking this as an eternal present tense we have a label for God’s existence that still engages us in our present reality. I say, properly, “I am God’s creation” in light of God having already said, “I Am.” John was certainly alert to this dynamic language-bridge by tracking a number of “I am” statements made by Jesus in his life on earth—a usage his enemies treated as blasphemy.
“Beginning” also represents standing or status in a way that may be less familiar to us. The words “chief” or “head” are useful synonyms, as in “the chief factor of the equation” or the “headwaters of the river.” In God’s case he has an absolute status: he surpasses every other claim to standing or significance in the sense that as Creator he is superior to all he creates.
Now let’s take up a question for the New Year. As we think of ourselves coming to the “beginning of the year” how do our personal beginnings fit into God’s absolute “In the beginning”? Are we treating the New Year as the start of one more chapter in life? Or are we, by faith, thinking of our ongoing dependence on God’s unbounded Beginning? So that our more limited sense of having life is set in the context of God’s ultimate Life?
Let’s consider what John wrote in John 1:1. There he distinguishes God’s triune reality when he refers to God by his distinctions as the Father and his Son—with the Spirit assumed in the broader context. By alluding to Genesis 1 he was alert to the divine distinctions implicit in the conversational “let us” language. John takes this feature of Genesis and labels it: the Son is God’s “Word” who reveals the Father—a reality he underlines in John 1:18.
And by using the analogy of language—with Christ portrayed as God’s “Word”—we have the helpful imagery for our faith. We exist as part of God’s Conversation. We also have a connection to our finite viewpoint: each of us fits into the ‘conversation’ of world history. From our birth onward we are part of a unique family history.
So while we can treat each New Year as a temporal transition—as a new phase in our life conversation—it can also have a broader significance. If, for instance, we were to write an autobiography each New Year might be treated as a new chapter of the story. I could write, for instance, “I changed jobs in 2007.” The year offers a helpful reference point in an ongoing story.
The broader reality comes in the way we treat our unique place in world history. Our story is a small but meaningful part of a vastly bigger Story. So John brings words about us to “the Word” who is God. And the Word exists eternally in the absolute Conversation. He and the Father, with the Spirit’s facilitating presence, are always active in a divine exchange. And yet in some sense this absolute conversation is also “finished.”
In other words there are no external elements in God’s Conversation. His eternal being frames all that is. So there will never be an unexpected conversation partner who surprises God, or a particular conversation that is alien to the ultimate Conversation. The triune Being is complete and absolute. He exists as both “the beginning and the end” even as he also exists—in temporal terms—without a starting or an ending point.
We have glimpses of this in Psalm 139 and Ephesians 1. The psalmist reminds us that God’s Conversation includes “[our] book [of days that] were written . . . when as yet there were none of them.” And Paul tells us that God “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world . . .”
So as we come to each New Year we apply a human convention: a punctuation point of life that sets up a new paragraph of our story. Yet as followers of Christ we have a greater reality in view: our part of God’s eternal Conversation. The beginning of our New Year, then, is framed by his ultimate and timeless Beginning and End.
That invites us, in turn, to frame our daily conversations within God’s Conversation. As believers we come to the New Year in Christ who embraces us in his eternal love. It’s sure to be a remarkable Story.
Are you ever hungry for a good conversation? For a meal of rich ideas and strong values?
If you answer yes I’m with you! And if you find yourself turning to books, crossword puzzles, or stacking pennies for lack of good dialog then you’ll catch the point of the question.
But first let’s acknowledge the obvious: we’re almost always immersed in words. Voices—both from people and devices—fill most open spaces in life.
But not all words and settings have the same weight or value. Words at work, for instance, are more practical—managing change, weighing options, building skills, or correcting mistakes. Television dramas, coffee klatches, radio talk shows, gossip sessions, and church home groups all represent word venues, but they aren’t equal. And few of these satisfy the soul with good.
So the “good” in “good conversations” is our operative word. And making assessments—citing the good, bad, or indifferent—calls for a reliable measure.
For Christians God is the ultimate measure of a good conversation.
Think about it. Every human exchange points back to our creation in God’s image—to the eternal communion of the Father, Son, and Spirit. We exist only because of a conversation that began, “Let us make man …”
Yet our daily exchanges tend to be spiritually quiet. Call it the stifling effect of secularity. But God still invites us to build every conversation around him: to “do all to the glory of God.” The Father, we recall, gives us the Son as his “word” and Jesus, in turn, defined believers as those who trust his words. So, too, God—who “alone” is good—sets that standard. And by that measure every good conversation looks back to God.
Of course for critics this claim amounts to nonsense. Good conversations are hardly limited to Christians!
And at first glance that seems credible. So a sympathetic response by many Christians is to divide life. To swing between the secular and sacred—so that the working week offers one world and Sundays offer another. Conversations, in other words, can be spiritually neutral.
Yet there’s a serious integrity problem here. A healthy faith—with God’s love at its core—will always be steady and strong. And, with that, it will deny any premise that God can be dismissed from life and the conversations of life at any point.
So let’s look for a biblical approach to good conversations. As starters we need to engage God’s Spirit and God’s providence.
The Spirit is God’s bonding presence—his living “seal”—who defines authentic Christianity. And he communicates—“pours out”—God’s love as he resides in every Christian heart. His presence, in turn, so shapes the believer’s soul that a family likeness forms—showing God’s love—and other believers are able to see this and link up.
The Spirit’s life in a believer is always signaled by a love of God for God’s sake. Which is to say, he gives us our proper focus in life! And this guarantees good conversations among all who share that love!
So for believers who are maturing there will be a joy in speaking of their life in Christ with each other. Paul’s summary of his ministry in Ephesus—in Acts 20—captures this sort of dramatic spiritual energy. And Paul’s reflection on the shared status of all humanity—being “dead in our trespasses and sins”—points to the sole alternative. Conversations, in other words, operate in the context of God’s life; or they serve as extensions of spiritual death.
Providence offers the second feature in good conversations. In Colossians 1 Paul tells us about Jesus. Among an extraordinary set of claims about Jesus Paul concludes by stating that, “all things were created through him and for him.” Which is to say that every feature of biology, history, anthropology, sociology, theology, housekeeping, bookkeeping, beekeeping—and more—all share Christ as their ultimate context!
Of course not too many people will see it that way, and I’m not suggesting that we start by barging into a conversation with this claim. But as a Christian I must have it in mind as the background of all I say and do.
Consider, for instance, how Jesus started in his earthly ministry—it should tease our own imaginations. He showed that waters, storms, illnesses, and opposed spiritual forces were all realms he was happy to engage. Why? Because everything in space and time belongs to him; and he is happy to make that connection in whatever he said and did. And so should we.
Paul understood all this. And he reminded readers in Romans 1 that fallen humanity won’t be easily convinced. Humans, from Adam’s first claim of independence and onward, have always sought to “suppress the truth”—but “while claiming to be wise, they became fools.” So we aren’t naïve about the resistance our secular friends and family will offer. But love isn’t easily silenced!
Which brings us back to the Spirit’s ministry in us. As we respond to his shared love; and we talk with each other about loving God for God’s sake; and then we love the world with God’s love; what might happen?
What is sure to happen is that we’ll discover the adventure of living in God’s gracious and surprising providence. We begin to see how he draws and captures hearts once ruled by a vain and painful vision of independence.
And, as believers, if the Spirit is our shared coach and companion will we ever run out of things to explore? Will we ever stop enjoying life lived with Christ’s point of view? Maybe not!
Let’s at least talk about it—and maybe grow our conversational skills in the process.
This entry is shared with the Cor Deo website – please offer any responses there. Thanks!
We believe God is one. One as in “the Father-Son-and-Spirit.” Not meaning three gods working together; or one God with three faces. He is, instead, one who exists in his subsistent relations: in an eternal and immaterial communion of relational distinctions (or “Persons”). The Father is always the Father because of the Son; and the Son is always the Son because of the Father; and the Spirit is God’s bonding communicator. That, in turn, defines who he is to us and who we are meant to be with him and with each other.
This truism will stretch us but, as followers of Christ, we must receive it. And as we explore it we have at least two rails to run on. First we take up the Genesis disclosure that in marriage, by God’s Spirit, two become one—making a single male-and-female human. And, second, we embrace the New Testament disclosure that all who share Christ’s Spirit are one in Christ.
The common point is that the Spirit shares and sustains God’s eternal, invisible, and immaterial relationship and, by the Father’s love, extends that relationship to us and, potentially, through us.
In other words God’s being explains our being. He created us in his image as beings-in-relation. Yet, as an important sidebar, God’s enemy posits just the opposite. He insists that both God and humanity exist as autonomous beings—as individual gods. So we won’t find these relational insights affirmed by any who lack the Spirit’s life—anyone not “born again.” Which is incredible, given that in life we are immersed in relationships.
That warning aside, this relational image—our “likeness” to God—allows us to commune with him once we know him. The eyes of our hearts are opened when we turn away from satanic premises of autonomy and live, instead, by faith in God working through his love.
Love is key. Love is the label for God’s inherent mutual devotion. Importantly, it is not something external to God—some sort of commodity or power. It is, instead, God’s relational bond. The Father initiates love; the Son responds to it; and the Spirit shares it. Or, as Augustine of Hippo summarized it, in God we meet the true lover, his beloved, and the one who communicates their reciprocal love. And salvation is the fruit of the Spirit sharing that love in human hearts.
From the very beginning, then, as relational beings we were made to love and to be loved. And, in human marriage, to be united in the flesh as the male-female who can then bear children in love engendered by the Spirit’s indwelling presence.
The distinctions in God and in us are key. In reading John’s gospel, for instance, the differing roles of the Father, Son, and Spirit are underscored. So, too, partners in a marriage differ in ways that make a whole—not simply in biological distinctions but as whole persons—with differences that attract and intrigue. God means for these wonderful and sometimes mystifying distinctions to complement and fulfill the one-with-another bonding of love.
And even apart from marriage Christians are members of Christ’s body by his Spirit—and, collectively, the bride of Christ. Our being-in-communion is God’s shared love present in us. By his love we are bonded both to him and to each other.
But what does this mean in practice? Much more than any blog entry can explore! But let’s at least start.
I picked up one lesson in a seminary counseling course. “Remember,” the professor told us, “in marital counseling you counsel the marriage, not the individuals.”
His point was that the two spouses share a relationship. And the relationship is what needs the care. It consists in shared values, choices, hurts, hopes, friendships, children, and more. Each spouse brings different qualities to the whole—as complementary distinctions—so any problems will only be resolved when the spouses come to a more profound and effective bond through Christ’s love.
The claim of 1 John 4 that “God is love” sets all this in play. His love in us makes all the difference—something John unpacks in his letter.
Another lesson comes by collating the Bible accounts of Genesis 3 and John 3. The Spirit has been eternally present in the divine communion of the “one” who is also the “us” of the Genesis creation account. Which is to say that the fruit of the Spirit—his sharing Christ’s heart—should characterize growing Christian relations.
This lesson—that the Spirit grows us—was the point Jesus made to Nicodemus in John 3. At a minimum, knowing God involves a wholehearted response to God’s love as the Spirit shares that love. His voice, offered in the Scriptures, is needed to make salvation—and marriages—work. It also offers the basis for true church growth.
Jesus summarized this in John 13:15—“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This characterizes his bond with the Father and he treated it as the goal of his incarnation in John 17:22, “that they may be one even as we are one.”
So the practice of responding to God rightly consists in always treating his being-in-the-communion-of-love as the basis for every relationship. He is the ground of every true aspect of creaturely reality. We are, in other words, meant to live in the union and communion of love by always aligning our hearts with God’s heart. There we find shared values and practices.
This isn’t simply a matter of learning truths—though learning is always present—but growing in love. The Father is always initiating in love and the Son is always responding; and the Spirit is always communicating in an eternal swirl of initiative-and-response. And we are invited to join in.
So we are called to be one, just as God is one. This takes place in a progression of heart changes as we have his Spirit working in us. We begin to grasp our own unique distinctions as elements of a whole—as members of Christ’s body—and not as capacities to be used for our selfish ends.
Then in our self-giving we reveal God’s heart—as a holy whole—to the world. And that invites unbelievers—those enslaved to autonomy—to taste and see God’s goodness through our love for each other. His loving kindness lasts forever and we, as his beloved children who are all distinct yet one, offer living samples of what that means!
I came to a living faith reading the Sermon on the Mount. The transforming moment came when my reading unexpectedly turned into a conversation. Jesus was present in his words.
As I moved through the sermon each segment stirred a response and some questions. What Jesus said about sin startled me. So much so that I asked a spontaneous question: “So what do you expect of me?” He answered in what I read next: “You, therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Again, I was stunned.
It didn’t end there. The cycle of questions and answers continued until I reached Christ’s call, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness . . .” So I responded, “Yes, Lord. I will!” And with that everything changed. In that moment I became devoted to my new conversation partner. And I kept reading and asking more questions!
That experience transformed my Bible reading. I now come to the Bible as the place where the conversation continues. I bring my questions and I get to hear the Father, Son, and Spirit God offering answers. The Spirit, as promised, continues to open my eyes and ears.
At a basic level that first meeting gave me a new focus in life. While my values and too many of my sinful choices didn’t change at once, my sensitivity to sin came alive. I was more aware of my selfishness and hated it. So my old struggles continue—and I still manage to disappoint others—yet Christ’s “once, for all” forgiveness continues to invite me forward. He’s profoundly attractive as one who loves me even in my weakness.
Why confess to this awkward place of being both “changed” but “still changing”?
I write in order to ask what other Christian readers are doing with the Bible. And to offer the Bible as a coffee shop for the soul: as a place where God is available for conversations about how to change. God, I’ve discovered, loves to talk about truth, restoration, rest, and hope. And much, much more!
So my surprise is that many Christians seem clueless about the opportunity we have to hear God’s heart. I’ve raised this issue before. Let me come back to it.
But first let me say what I don’t promote.
I don’t promote Bible reading as a discipline. No one, for instance, will ever find a Bible reading schedule posted on my blogsite or in anything else I write. Many of my friends like reading programs but I refuse to go there. What I do suggest is an aggressive reading pace—and by aggressive I’m only talking about 30-40 minutes of uninterrupted reading each day. And even more as opportunities allow. That just happens to result in three or more Bible read-throughs each year.
Why not a schedule? Because Bible reading is a conversation with a real companion—the Triune God—offering himself through the pages! And a more involved conversation just might emerge if we ditch the schedule. It’s a natural feature of love relationships!
To use the analogy of marriage—something the Bible promotes—how would a marriage work if it only operated with scheduled daily meetings: if the spouses came together to talk for ten minutes each day, and then stepped apart to journal privately about how to apply that conversation?
It doesn’t suggest a great relationship. In fact it actually tells me they aren’t very engaged with each other!
For another, I don’t promote daily Bible study. The key word here is “daily.” I do study the Bible rather often when I’m preparing to preach or teach on a given text. But I do it separately from my Bible reading: it plays a different role in approaching God and offers a very different benefit.
But why not daily study? Because it’s not particularly relational! And worse than that, it actually reduces the prospect of enjoying God. In a study he’s more of an object to be inspected than a person to be enjoyed.
Let me go back to the marriage analogy as a relational touchstone here. Would a marriage prosper if two partners gave each other a paragraph-for-the-day to study? Especially if that was the total substance of the marriage? What nonsense!
Instead we get to know another in the flow of life. So in the Bible God’s word comes to us mainly as a set of extended narratives or units of thought—as faith stories that stir and invite our own growth in faith. The more we read, the more we see parallels: how God has engaged others. The Spirit then uses these to say, “This fits you, too!”
This morning, for instance, I read Amos, Obadiah, and Jonah in one go. And through these books God raised lots of conversation points with me!
What I do promote is what Jesus called for: “Abide in my word.”
What does that mean? I certainly don’t know all the elements but in the context of John 8—where Jesus gave this invitation—he spoke of the contrast between those who listen to him because they hear God’s heart in his words: “If God were your Father you would love me.”
But for those for whom his words find “no place” and who “cannot bear to hear” what Jesus offers there is another explanation: “your will is to do your father’s desires” and “you are not of God.” And, by the way, Jesus was speaking to men from among the “many [who] believed in him.” Staggering stuff!
So let’s try abiding—engaging Jesus as in a delightful marriage. It’s a transforming opportunity!
With the rhythm of a drummer the prophet Ezekiel called on readers to know and respond to God—Yahweh—as the only true God. His repeated refrain was a promise: “Then they shall know that I am the LORD.”
What brings about this “knowing”?
Mainly it comes by experiencing promised disasters when they arrive. Tragedies are God’s wake-up alarms. But knowing God can also be generated in a positive way—as he shares himself in a unique way with certain people.
On the negative side of this refrain God assures nations that ruin will be coming to all who despise him and his ways: who prefer moral independence. Death and disaster lies ahead. Why? Because God rewards the promoters of spiritual and behavioral independence with the relative absence of his own goodness.
In one of many examples God warned the people of Edom, “I will deal with you according to the anger and envy that you showed [Israel] because of your hatred against them” (Ezekiel 35:11). So when national disaster did, indeed, arrive it should have dawned on Edom that this was what God had promised!
The positive side of God’s promise is a dramatic contrast. First he warned his chosen people that they too would face chaos in return for their own moral chaos: death and exile was their reward. But within this standard arrangement God promised to some “a new heart, and a new spirit …. And I will put my Spirit within you … and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”
So these favored people are rescued from the pendulum rhythm of evil versus evil. But is it fair that only some are rescued?
Fairness, of course, can be an uneven, self-serving standard. What is fair—using elementary moral logic—is that evil is its own just reward: sin bears the fruit of more sin. Falsity produces corruption. Death generates death. And God’s ways are always good and right as he allows evil to run its course in a fallen world.
So God’s fairness, properly framed, is that he always allows humanity its greatest desire: independence. From Adam onward humans have always been ambitious to be like God; and with that, to have the freedom of self-determined good and evil.
By now this autonomy is viewed as essential to life. God, in fairness, allows us to discover how life works when we use our free will to do whatever happens to be right in our own eyes.
The outcome of this freedom? Decay, distrust, death, and ruin—at personal, regional, national, and international levels. Not all at once, but over time. Not as a tight tit-for-tat arrangement but as a principle of human history that sees evil sloshing freely throughout the world as the prophet Habakkuk discovered.
As one current and tragic example of this chaos the religious radicals who recently attacked Paris would have been convinced of their own rightness. By killing ordinary people and tourists they believed they were defeating immoral representatives of crusading Westerners: the people who refuse to submit to the version of Allah they embraced deserve to die.
Were they right in pressing their own version of good and evil on Paris? Is ISIS the true source of God’s will for humanity? Could the West actually be guilty for its dismissal of God and its past invasions of Middle East countries? Is ISIS right to reject Western atheism, materialism, licentious sexuality, and secular justice?
Or is ISIS wrong and the West right? Is ISIS terrorism intrinsically evil: a massive moral distortion even in the face of perceived wrongs from the past? And with that, don’t we in the West have the endorsement of sound and enduring civilization on our side? Don’t the personal freedoms and self-fulfillments of democracy express an inherent rightness compared to the lethal claims of the Paris killers?
The point is that in such debates each side presumes a keen sense of self-righteousness. By their personal and national measures they are holy while others are evil.
And that’s been true throughout the ages. Were the Japanese right to seek self-protective measures at the outset of WWII? Or were the Americans right to have blocked their economic aspirations? Were the Germans right to invade Poland to extend their national security? Or were the Allies right to bomb Dresden? And was the Soviet Union right to subjugate many of their neighbors after the war as a defensive measure?
In their own day the answer to each of these questions was different depending on who was asking. And with the distance of decades we can now see how often the aphorism “might makes right” formed such judgments.
That brings us back to our first question: what will it take for us to “know” Yahweh—revealed to us in Christ Jesus—as the sole ground of righteousness? When the day of final judgment arrives will our personal views of morality prepare us to meet with God?
The awkward answer is that God is still allowing disasters that answer, “no!” We are still living in the folly of trying to be “like God” and are finding terror, death, and corruption as the fruit of our relative autonomy. So his promises should haunt us as human efforts to bring about competing versions of justice slosh back and forth with dire consequences in world history.
But a day will come when all that gets straightened out. And in the meantime God has been gracious to send his wooing Spirit. So Jesus, by the Spirit, has awakened some people—his “sheep”—to hear his voice. We know him and his father; and we follow him.
In the meantime we can expect more wars and rumors of wars. At least until the cycles of life finally end. And then we all will all know that only Yahweh is God.
So please, LORD, come quickly!
This entry repeats an entry already offered at the Cor Deo site – please offer any responses there: thanks!
The Bible is an epic story: a true and transcendent portrayal of reality. It invites us to live in light of God’s purposes and in line with his truth.
In this story God—the Father, Son, and Spirit God—is the protagonist. And the Son’s captivating qualities set the scene: to know him is to love him. The Father delights in the Son and wants him to have a Bride who can love and enjoy him as the Father does. The Spirit’s mission is to arrange the marriage: he sets up introductions.
God’s motive in this is love—a giving heart—and marriage is his venue for sharing. The story began before the foundation of the world as the Father, Son, and Spirit communed in a shared glory. It was in this period that the Bride was anticipated: “chosen” even before creation.
Of course this marriage transcends human marriage: it is neither physical nor temporal. Instead the Bride is the collective body of men and women who respond to the Spirit’s wooing. So the Bride is spiritual in the sense that she is “one” not in any tangible sense but in the reality of the shared Spirit.
How the divine Son can take a bride from the creation is central to the plot. First, humans were made in God’s “likeness” to be suitable candidates. But another step was needed. The Son had to join humanity: to share the tangible life of the Bride. And as such he became a bridge for the Bride to join the Father’s family. The Son was already united to the Father in his divinity and then by a physical birth he joined humanity to take his Bride. And all—Father, Son, and Bride—share the one Spirit. By this bond the Bride has eternal life.
This epic story explains both our creation and, for the Bride, salvation. Yet to many of us it sounds odd and unfamiliar. Why?
Because an antagonist muddles this true story with false accounts.
This is the Liar: an angel gone bad. In his beauty and free self-expression this figure became an arch-narcissist: loving himself in place of God. And with that he sought to take over the creation by forming a counter-kingdom: a realm of moral opposition.
He was, of course, only a creature himself and unable to form his own creation. Instead he plotted to take over humanity and through seduction to rule the creation through humans. His ploy has been to replace good with evil in every aspect of reality. This is the moral equivalent of making old-style film negatives: he converts light to darkness and vice versa.
In his plan he presumed God, as pure goodness, would lose access to all who were part of this morally-reversed realm. And when the Holy Spirit’s bonding love was quenched in Adam—and the Spirit now stood outside human souls—humanity as a whole turned instead to the reversed narratives offered by the Unholy spirit.
And this spirit—Satan—reconceived each element of God’s goodness by overt reversals. His new realm treats God as a disaffected singularity rather than a God who is love; it offered animated death in place of Life. It replaced love for others with a love of self; a devotion to light with a fascination for darkness; the power of love with the love of power; a proper form of marriage with improper forms; and much, much more.
So the Bible calls him the Serpent, the Devil, the Accuser, and more. The Son called him the Liar and the Father of lies. No truth will ever be found in him or offered by him.
His ultimate Lie is that we can “be like God.” As if humanity, apart from God, can do just fine. God may still be useful since he sustains the creation but he seems to be impotent.
The Bride in God’s story is gathered from those who accepted the Lie and were then devoured by Satan’s living death. But, in an amazing turn, the Son devours death for those who love him. He entered death to rescue us and to reverse our moral polarities. Satan didn’t anticipate this.
How did the blameless Son die? In the great exchange of marital properties he took on our evil; and we received his life. He, as God, swallowed our death and was raised from death on the basis of his unquenchable life. And so we now live in him by faith.
So the true Epic ends with the Bride returning to the Living Truth and sharing his glory—the glory of the Father—with the new life of the Spirit making it all work. The Unholy spirit, on the other hand, still has death—along with all who spurned the Son’s Life—forever.
It’s an epic reality that brings us to the one True Love worth living for.
Job, an epic sufferer in the Bible, was both confronted and affirmed by God. God confronted him as a “faultfinder” (40:1) but he also affirmed Job for having “spoken of me what is right” (42:7) in contrast to Job’s moralistic friends.
God’s contrasting references to Job invite attention.
First, what in Job pleased God? A clue comes in Job 23:12 where late in the story Job’s ultimate focus was still clear: “I have treasured the words of [God’s] mouth more than my portion of food.” Job said this even as he complained about his divinely disrupted life.
Job’s terrible circumstances were a key feature. The book began with a conversation between God and his archenemy Satan. Job’s devotion to God was the issue. God pointed to Job’s character: “there is none like him on the earth” and that’s where the disruptions began for Job.
Satan’s ready answer to God was that human comfort always explains faithfulness. If Satan could turn Job’s happy life upside-down he would be predictably human: he would blame God. This was and still is central in Satan’s arsenal of big ideas. We humans, he believes, can all be controlled by our ambitions for security and comfort. When things go well we’re happy with God. If, on the other hand, we aren’t happy and well fed we will be hostile to God.
In Job’s case Satan was wrong.
As we get into the account we find an illustration of divine double-agency. The dark events—including the loss of Job’s children in a storm—belonged both to God and to Satan. Satan initiated Job’s losses but in Job 2:3 we read that God also owned them. Satan, in other words, was the immediate cause or agent as he acted with an evil intent. God, on the other hand, was the greater agent and his purpose was to use Satan’s evil actions for good.
The reality of double-agency in the Bible is critical in grasping how a good God deals with evil: God intends everything for good for those who love him, even things that his enemies intend for evil. Both the patriarchal story of Joseph—see Genesis 50:20 here—and the happy tragedy of Christ’s crucifixion illustrate this. Paul also took up this truth in Romans 8:28.
In the overall story what separated Job from his unhelpful friends was his recognition of God’s double-agency. He hated his painful experiences but he also recognized that in the end he would come out “like gold” (23:10). There is, in other words, always a benefit in suffering. His friends, by contrast, saw a strict sin-and-punishment linkage: Job’s dramatic suffering could only be explained by his equally terrible sins.
We readers now know Job was right and they were wrong.
Even more to the point was Job’s confidence in God’s character and his word. He remained certain that God is trustworthy. And with that confidence he also had grounds for treasuring God’s words.
What explained Job’s confidence? If a reader goes through the book at a pace certain qualities in Job stand out. Three of these invite comment. First, Job relied on God’s full engagement with him in his plight: everything he was going through ultimately came by way of God. Second, he still trusted God’s goodness. And third, he was so sure of God’s engagement and goodness that he regularly pressed God for an explanation of, and solution to, his pain.
Job’s complaints were sharp enough to invite the confrontation as a “faultfinder” from God. Job was particularly pained to have his authentic faithfulness to God challenged by his friends. So while he wasn’t perfect he kept his confidence in God’s ways and words. Even in his suffering he knew God is always achieving good.
By the end of the account God gave him relief and Job’s character was reaffirmed. But the reader is left wondering, what happened to Satan after chapter two?
Here’s a guess. Satan had an empty hand with Job so he folded his cards and left the table. Job’s friends then took up his cards. Satan’s departure reminds us that Job was written in the shadow of Genesis chapter three.
Then Satan used the same two devices: he first challenged God’s character by focusing on God’s single restriction—not to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—to portray him as unfair. The restriction blocked Adam from being “like God.” Second, and tied to the first, Satan held God’s word to be false. While God promised death if Adam ate from the tree, Satan promised, “You will not surely die.”
God, of course, came and confronted the lying Serpent. Adam did, in fact, die spiritually that day. And God promised Satan his end was on the way. So Satan went silent and disappeared from the scene.
What does Job offer us here? At least this: even in the face of Satan’s twin lies he still trusted God’s goodness and his words. As a result Job’s response to suffering makes more sense: “I have treasured the words of [God’s] mouth more than my portion of food.”
Satan was silenced; Job’s faith in God is now legendary; and we who know Christ are certain to have our own opportunities to live like Job.
Let’s be sure to take up Job’s treasure.