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!
Today is Easter—when Christ’s followers celebrate his resurrection. By going to the cross he kept the promise of Isaiah 25:7—“And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces.” Easter tells us he succeeded.
This truth has both immediate and enduring power.
The immediate impact is that Christ’s saving work is “once for all.” We have freedom from the fear of death, a fear that once ruled our hearts: all our sins are resolved at the cross in a single moment. And all who believe are forever free of the death that came when Adam dismissed God.
And it’s only because of Easter that Augustine’s memorable claim is practical: “Love, and do as you please.” Yet his aphorism, once it got around, created a storm of protest led mainly by a British moralist named Pelagius.
Augustine’s comment does need some unpacking—it can be abused. Joseph Fletcher, an American ethicist of the last century, illustrated the misstep of treating love as an ultimate moral touchstone. In his “Situation Ethics” Fletcher took the Christian language of love to build an ethical system: “Do the loving thing in every situation.” Yet in his apparent paraphrase of Augustine’s fifth century thought Fletcher actually missed the key point.
Augustine’s point looked back to the language of love in a pair of texts from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
The first was, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (5:5); and the second, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (13:8-9).
What Augustine drew from Romans, and the Bible in general, is that love is a soul’s bond to God—and not a simple sentiment or private decision of the soul. Love, in other words, isn’t an end in itself but a response to God. The ultimate focus of God’s love is his Son, Jesus. True faith—and any sound ethic—only works through this love of Christ. He makes all the difference.
Salvation restores what Adam lost: our love for God. So we come to Christ as the Spirit pours God’s love into our hearts. Where we once had hard hearts—dead to God—we now have his life restored in us. Our ultimate motive is no longer self-love—with the ugly desires that once ruled us—but a love for Christ and for those he loves.
And this is where Easter is so important. When Jesus conquered death he released his children from the spiritual death that rules unresurrected souls. The first Easter meant all of us who share his Spirit will also share his new life. He died by taking on our death and we live by receiving his life.
So Fletcher made the mistake of applying a truth to all humanity when what Augustine promised only works for those who have God’s Spirit pouring God’s love out in their hearts.
And Pelagius was just as mistaken in ignoring Augustine’s underlying premise—the point Paul made in Romans 13—that love will fulfill all the demands of the law. God’s love always does what is right, pure, and holy.
Fletcher’s misapplication and the Pelagian error are still active today. Neither man grasped the focus of Easter. They focused, instead, on human functions. But the Pelagian call to clean up behaviors; and Fletcher’s reliance on unredeemed human love, don’t work.
God’s answer relies on heart-transplants. Behaviors and emotions, apart from the Spirit, only display an underlying problem: hard or sin-deadened hearts. Our old hearts may even appear to be noble for much of the time but any souls that aren’t alive to God are ultimately self-concerned.
God’s Spirit restores a transforming love in the hearts of all who are saved. And by this means faith is “working through love” as presumed in Galatians 5. The Spirit’s presence produces love, joy, peace, patience, and more; and, “against such things, there is no law.” The fruit may not be fully developed in any of us, but it is sure to be growing in us as newborn believers.
So the wonderful focus of Easter is properly on Jesus who swallowed death for us. And he now shares his life with us by his Spirit pouring love out in our hearts. And with that we get to explore a new way of life: “Love, and do as you please.”
And this will by morally safe because our deepest ambition is to please our resurrected Lord. It’s by his love that we celebrate today: Christ has risen. And so have we!
Last week I was shocked to hear of the airline copilot who flew his airliner into a mountain, killing many while taking his own life. But he was not alone in dealing out death. During the week there were suicide-vest killings in a Somalia hotel; killings in Nigeria, Syria, Tunisia, America, and more.
So my question: how are senseless killings birthed? By failed parents? Anarchic video games? Jihadic religion? Poor education? Poverty? Mental illness?
These links don’t offer real answers. Some affiliations between circumstances and tragedies can be made but there are no assured causal links: both weeds and wheat grow in the same soil. So these acts of murder seem inexplicable.
Jesus, however, did point to an ultimate source in John 8. He taught, using a binary opposition, that everyone is either a child of God or a child of the devil. And murder displays Satan’s paternity.
So what the copilot did—looking beyond any secondary issues, including mental illness—displayed that reality. And our list of distressing news reports reveals Satan’s indirect but very real role in the world today, a role going back to Genesis 3. If Adam and his offspring—all of us—had rejected Satan’s lie no murder, mental illness, or shattered lives would have followed.
What sharpens the issue here is that Jesus was speaking to an audience of professing followers. Profession wasn’t enough. He told them their continuing sins displayed an enslavement to sin, and they needed to become sons of God. Only sons, not slaves, share in God’s eternal life.
But the men quickly dismissed what Jesus said. And their dismissal pointed to an underlying resistance to God. So Jesus put it more bluntly: “You are of your father the devil.” And, “If God were your Father you would love me.” Two options—just two.
Was Jesus wrong or merely reacting when he made his binary claim? Or are we overstating the point if we apply it to today’s events? Our instincts certainly run opposite to what Jesus taught: isn’t the world ‘non-aligned’ unless, and until, people formally invest in a given faith? And, beyond that, enlightened people today know better than to believe in boogeyman stories of devils or demons.
But Jesus would treat our perspectives as so much nonsense. He saw all humanity as family members of Adam who share his spiritual DNA. He was enslaved to the serpent’s promise, “You can be like God,” and all his offspring are too. So there is just one paternity: the Liar and all who embrace his lie.
Except when someone is born of God. And here we return to John 3 and the need for new birth in a fallen world.
Jesus also knew Adam’s offspring share the devil’s ultimate ambition: “And your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning . . .” (verse 44). He was speaking of more than Cain killing Abel. The ambition of the serpent is to kill the Son and all his offspring.
But labeling everyone but Christians as children of the devil seems outrageous. For instance, if we compare the dedicated recovery teams at the crash site to the copilot’s evil actions we see a clear difference. So the assumption that all but Christians are under the devil’s leadership has to be a moral non-starter, even if Jesus held it to be true.
Okay, that sounds noble. But let’s step into Christ’s sandals and think again. The Bible tells us he created us and came to earth to take us as his own. But everyone rejected him except for a few followers who worshipped him. His crucifixion—an event we will recall this Friday—was the finale. Humanity loved darkness rather than his light and life. And today Jesus is still dismissed rather than worshiped by the world at large. Even among good folks. This was the devil’s ambition and he succeeded—except among those born of God.
That’s the point. The devil is satisfied with that for now. But an ambition to usurp God consumes him. He wants to show off his power and murder is his ultimate device. As such he’s the ultimate terrorist: he can blend in as an angel of light until he finds a good opportunity. Events this past week offered such moments.
So the certain litmus of Satan’s work is this: in denying or distorting what Jesus says. And the devil’s power to rule in a given soul comes through pride: the most ambitious among us are the most vulnerable to Satan and to his unseen minions. C. S. Lewis captured all this in his Screwtape Letters. Self-love is the devil’s lifeblood.
But enough of the devil. The Bible reminds us of his finitude: he is merely a creature gone sour. And God, as we read in Job, restricts his movements and trumps his ambitions. When sin prospers, grace is even greater.
Now the surprise: Jesus invites listeners who are grieved by hate murder, lying, pride, and loneliness to change parents! He offers this to all who will respond: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
This brings us to the joy of Easter. God allows us to taste evil to know its bitterness: its pain, death, and sorrow. And by that exposure—as we taste God’s love on Good Friday—we find what we were made for: to be lovers of God, not lovers of self. So—as in an immunization—our pain sets us up hate the Lie and to embrace God as our Father.
Jesus swallowed death for us and, as God, death couldn’t hold him. So by his resurrection we now live with him. And we come to trust him and his words forever.
Easter, then, is the ultimate answer to the tragedies of this past week. Our tears are dried as we come to the empty grave: Jesus has risen!
A week ago a USA church denomination led by progressives changed its stance on a big social issue. In reading jubilant news responses I thought of God. Why is he so slow to change, even when visionaries offer to coach him?
The question reaches back over many centuries. Some leaders in Genesis, for instance, realized that God’s call to spread out and fill the earth was misguided. So they pursued Babel’s Heavenly Tower project instead. And their courageous vision was nothing new. Years before even Adam needed to confront God by defending our human right to choose good and evil.
Later in Genesis we read of Abram rescuing God when the Lord lost track of his promise to give Abram a son. Abram solved things by taking one of his house ladies—Hagar—to be a surrogate mother for Sarah. Bold leaders always find a way.
Then there was Moses who killed Egyptians who abused God’s people. His strategy didn’t work so well, but years later God called him to a proper rescue mission. At that time, when Moses was away meeting with God, his brother and aide, Aaron, brought more creative leadership to the nation. Aaron’s golden calf initiative was a wild success, offering a more tangible vision of Yahweh and a better focus for major worship events.
Other progressive figures emerge over time. There were Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus who improved God’s unimaginative incense formula. In Numbers we read of Balaam who realized ministry could be turned into moneymaking opportunities. Later we read of Saul who was bold enough to question God’s kingdom vision. Saul, instead, adopted a bigger idea: the goal of a dynastic heritage. David, who replaced Saul, was by comparison rather ordinary in his vision—mostly winning wars, writing poetic prayers, and designing a temple—but his son did better.
Solomon, David’s son, adopted a more progressive strategy of kingdom-building. He married the daughters of regional kings—in standard ‘bridal-treaty’ arrangements—and allowed the wives to keep their homegrown deities. His only rule was that foreign gods were to be restricted to his wives’ homes—with all these mini-palaces built well away from God’s Temple. So when Solomon visited a given queen he only worshipped her god as a courtesy and didn’t stay for long.
As we go on to other progressive figures in the Bible, King Jeroboam was a remarkable visionary. In Israel’s civil war he captured most of the nation and, as victor, he realized that politics and religion work best when blended.
His problem was that he hadn’t captured Jerusalem and its temple. So he revived Aaron’s golden calf strategy. First he cast two golden calves as Yahweh-icons—one for the northern region and one for the south—and then he set up a new priesthood. Anyone who wanted to be a priest and had the money could buy the position!
The biblical pantheon of progressives goes on and on. There was King Ahab who recognized that by worshipping a variety of gods at the same time he could please more people and not have to defend the divine vision of Bible-thumpers like Elijah.
In Jeremiah’s era gender equality got a boost from the “Queen of Heaven” religion. And in Ezekiel’s day—in the years of captivity—there were those who assumed Israel could only be restored by accommodating herself to the religions of the Babylonians who conquered her. So the Jerusalem priests—while still maintaining some features of Yahweh worship—added a bit of sun-god worship and the option of worshipping Tammuz.
There were many other brilliant figures of course. But we need return to God’s enigmatic role. We would expect him to be excited about the strong and effective leaders in history but that’s not always the case. Instead he’s often silent; and when he does speak up he often seems misinformed.
Take Elijah, for instance. He actually thought he was the only man left in all Israel who still stood with God. But as a reactionary—always looking back and not ahead—he was sure to find other laggards no matter how many of their friends and neighbors are aligned with the times.
So how did God answer Elijah? He sided with the prophet! And told him that 7,000 people were still aligned with them. This is where God’s myopia shows up: Israel had a population of millions by then. So God, Elijah, and a small remnant showed their lack of social progress when any of the polls of that era could have corrected them.
There’s more. God the Son was similarly out of step during his earthly ministry. His short career only achieved a ghastly crucifixion and 120 followers by the time he returned to heaven.
To be frank, God—at least the God portrayed in the Bible—always seems out of touch.
Yet religious progressives know not to be bothered. In the 19th century as the Enlightenment was in full swing many religious leaders—the “modernists”—dismissed all the miracles of the Bible. Many argued that God is simply a human superstition who should be re-envisioned in order to meet human needs.
More steps of progress followed. Major advances in sexuality now allow people to break free from the lifelong marriages and fetus fixations of the past. Marriage has been re-envisioned.
And even the Christian faith is now free to be a therapeutic project in place of the older ambition to know and love God for his own sake. Love and heartfelt devotion can be left to the backward-looking enthusiasts who probably don’t number more than 7,000 in any big city by now.
Despite such progress there are still major divisions among Christians. For instance I’m still an old school enthusiast and still embrace many of the reactionaries of the past like Jesus.
Yet wherever we are in our progress we may want to ask why the biblical God is so out of touch. The Bible offers some amazing answers.
This post repeats a Cor Deo offering. Please offer any comments at that site. Thanks!
A Friday morning chat with Terry about conversations, and then reading Pete Sanlon’s book on Augustine—including a feature on Augustine’s conversations with God—set me up for this post.
It’s a topic worth revisiting on a regular basis even apart from these reminders. Conversations are the threads that make up the fabric of life and our sense of belonging to community.
What is a conversation? In basic terms it’s a word-based exchange of thoughts: the informally expressed first fruits of inner reflections exchanged between or among any participants. They are topical and spontaneous, usually maintained by social conventions of mutual curiosity, caring, and humor. Assertions, questions, answers, and counter-questions prosper in a good conversation.
The reflections are reciprocal: an exchange of thoughts in a dialogue. What one says will shape, in some measure, what the other says. Yet each is also contributing from his or her unique point of view. So a new reality—the substance of shared thoughts—is formed by every conversation.
It’s possible, of course, for one voice to dominate—to move to a monologue. It’s also possible for the combination of lecture and dialogue to occur: for a teacher to engage any questions. But these variations only serve to accentuate the unique quality of a true conversation: when two or more hearts and minds are joined in a search for insight and accord.
The place of the heart is important here. In Bible conversations the writers regularly assume the heart to be prior to the mind in what a speaker says. And with that they assume the affective foundation of a true conversation.
Isaiah cites the LORD, for instance, in challenging the citizens of Jerusalem, “this people draws near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (29:13); and centuries later Jesus cited this text against a different generation of Jerusalem leaders (Mark 7:6). This addressed a truism that it’s always possible to be insincere in what we say. So, as we discover here, God makes it clear he isn’t thrilled with insincerity.
Consider, too, the exchange in Judges 16 between Delilah and Samson. In a scene that anticipated television soap operas, Samson was holding back information from his girlfriend as they talked at night. Her complaint? “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me?” In time he caved in and “told her all his heart” with a transparency Delilah recognized at once. And, given her own insincerity, she promptly betrayed him.
And this feature of heartfelt motivation is where examining conversations becomes intriguing. If we recognize a difference between “good” conversations that consist in heart-to-heart exchanges, and our “ordinary” conversations that consist in swapping loose thoughts and opinions about football or restaurants—exchanges in which our hearts are largely out of sight—we may have stumbled into something important.
And we have. A host of Bible texts presume that our souls consist in the substance of our collective conversations: the stuff of who we talk to; what we talk about; and the level of heart-birthed honesty in our sharing. In Isaiah 32, for instance, the prophet set up a contrast between the transformation of all who will respond to the coming King of righteousness versus “the fool [who] speaks folly”—“But he who is noble plans noble things, and on noble things he stands.”
Jesus also allowed his disciples to listen to one side of a conversation with his Father in John 17. In this prayer Jesus discriminated between those who will “see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” and those who are with “the evil one”—a judgment that was based on their being conversation partners with Jesus.
The disciples, in other words, had been drawn into the substance of the Son sharing what the Father had shared with him: “For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you” (verse 8).
And this participation by the disciples in a conversation with Jesus also set up a participation by us—in a chain of hearing and responding—so that even today we share in a line of conversations going back to the Triune conversation in glory: “I [Jesus praying] do not ask for these [immediate disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (verse 20).
Let me return to my Friday visit with Terry. We talked, in part, about the proper boundaries of conversations: what makes a good conversation? And when are conversations fruitless or misguided?
This morning I took that question to God. The conversation started when I both listened to—on my iPod—and read Isaiah 25-44, and then talked to him—praying—for the next couple of hours. The day started at a friend’s house in Cannon Beach. From there I drove the short distance to Hug Point soon after my time in the word.
What came to mind and to voice in my prayers? My concerns included some recent decisions I’ve made; some thoughts stirred by Terry and by Pete’s book; and the most compelling thoughts came from reading Isaiah at length. My earlier questions and circumstances stirred my reading and listening, and then my praying. It was a working conversation, and it’s certainly not finished!
Two final thoughts.
First, if I had more space I’d love to return to 1 Corinthians 2—a hobby-horse passage for me—to trace how the Spirit supports a Heart-to-heart, Spirit-to-spirit, communion with God. Please go there if you don’t know it already.
And second, I always come away from Hug Point wanting to talk to others who love God. It’s a joy to talk about him and the difference he makes in real life. He changes us, and then he changes the conversations we have with each other!
Human “free will” is a misleading premise—a common sense axiom of the post-Genesis 3 world. Adam embraced it when he accepted the promise that he could “be like God.” It offered him and his offspring a relative independence from God, and with that the freedom to redefine good and evil.
The Bible regularly dismisses these claims of pride or independence. Jesus said as much and Paul restated his teachings. And the Bible guided Augustine’s belief in Original Sin. It was also central to Martin Luther’s efforts in the Reformation and was later affirmed by John Calvin, Richard Sibbes, Jonathan Edwards and many others.
Yet as a pastor whenever I dismiss free will rebuttals are sure to follow—whether directly or indirectly. It might be, “I’m more of an Arminian.” Or, “free will is necessary to our being human!” Or, for moral effect, “Free will is crucial to being responsible beings.” These all display a belief that free will can lead to both salvation and spiritual growth.
But it’s not true. The focus is wrong. When we embrace the premise of free will we’re left looking in the mirror of self-effort rather than at Jesus who meets us with free grace.
So let’s revisit the question one more time, but with humility also in view—and with humility defined as our rejection of any ambition to be like God.
By making this link to humility it should be clear that this post isn’t meant to persuade those who presume they can navigate good and evil on their own. That’s Adam’s turf. Instead it’s meant to call humbled sinners to stay focused on Christ. It’s for all of us who know that choosing to become righteous is as realistic as telling a brick to become holy.
Let’s switch the language. The humbled person recognizes sin as a slavery; so that unless Christ sets us free, we’re lost. We are the woman-at-the-well in John 4. We are today’s tax collectors of society. We are the weak, the foolish, the needy, the blind—the sinners.
Over against this humility we learn that the key premise of the will-focused proponents of human freedom is the function of decision-making. As they might put it, “When we have a choice to make, we make it!” But the simple function of choosing isn’t what constitutes a free will. It goes deeper than that. It goes back to the motives behind the choosing.
So let’s agree that there is an appearance of decision-making in play. But that doesn’t address the nature of sin—the problem that first occurred in Eden. Adam made choices both before and after the fall, but after the fall he made his choices on the basis of living as if he was God.
Sin, then, is located in the “what I want” of the chooser—in the desires. This is a heart-condition that “wants” the role of choosing good and evil as an independent exercise of selfhood. As such, our intellect serves the heart. Jesus made this clear in Mark 7 when he traced evil thoughts and deeds—functions of the mind—back to the heart.
And the heart—our motive center—is not to be confused with the processing work of the mind; or with our application faculty, the will. Our heart defines our thinking by the values and desires it prescribes. So the biblical language of heart is all about God having created us as responders—and, with that, as dependent creatures. As the motivation-center of our soul the heart is where God’s Spirit desires to reside and commune with us: where he offers his love, and we then are captured as we respond to that love.
The “mind,” then, is our processing instrument—our conscious reflections—that looks within to learn what our hearts find appealing or appalling. It processes these responses as our guiding information: as in “What do I really want?” It’s how we rationalize buying something we can’t afford; or eating something we shouldn’t eat; or saying something that we shouldn’t say.
Jesus made this case most directly in his exchange in John 8:30-59 with a group of apparent believers. This group quickly rejected what Jesus had to say when he defined authentic faith over against professed faith: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
The last phrase was the tripwire. The pseudo-disciples immediately declared themselves to be freedom advocates: “We . . . have never been enslaved to anyone.”
What tripped them up? It was that Jesus linked freedom from sin to a heartfelt response to his word, and vice versa—“everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin”—so he was exposing the essential nature of faith as a response, and not a self-determined moral effort: responsibility.
Jesus cemented this in the dialog that followed: “my word finds no place in you.” Why not? “If God were your Father, you would love me . . . . Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father, the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” Notice the underlying conflict of motives between the “love me” and the counterpoint, “[you] do your father’s desires.”
Now back to the role of humility in all this. Humility is our heartfelt agreement with what Jesus tells us, including his epic statement later in chapter 15 of John’s gospel, “for apart from me you can do nothing.” And, “Abide in my love.” If my focus is on myself and on my responsibilities to be more and more righteous, I’m missing the point that our only hope for spiritual transformation is to set our heart’s gaze on Jesus. His mercy is what makes it all work.
And this was the basis for life before Adam’s fall. Let’s return—now humbled by the certainty that God alone is God—and enjoy the love Adam left behind!
Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who wants to push a topic you find tedious or awkward? You try to change the subject. That fails. You try silence. That fails! In fact your silence gives him twice the time to talk. Finally you sigh inwardly and say you have somewhere you need to be.
Now let me confess. I can be that bore. I’ve seen eyes glaze over; and I’ve noticed the quick glances at a watch or a clock.
So please listen with the compassion of a counselor. Let me explain my problem and then you can offer advice.
Here’s my issue. The Triune God of the Bible has captured me—even though it’s obvious that I’m just getting to know him. Nothing about me suggests sainthood—all I have is a big appetite.
Each morning, for instance, I’m drawn to meet him in the Bible. I only get thirty or forty minutes before I need to move on to the rest of the day, but even that brief time brings new reminders of his surprising and captivating personality. He’s a joy to know! And the more I have, the more I want. So throughout the day I look for opportunities to have more—to read books by others who love God, and to find groups and conversations where he’s the focus.
But over time I’ve realized I’m in a minority—not everyone finds God to be so winsome. In fact—like anyone in a minority—I have to ask if I’m out of balance. So I’ve done some soul-searching and the rest of this post is my progress report. And a call for advice.
One question is obvious. Am I getting God right? I certainly hope so. But if not I hope someone is willing to correct me. That’s partly why I want to talk about him so often—I want to hear what others are learning from him.
Another question is more difficult: the matter of priorities. It goes like this: “Given that God is such a huge and controversial subject, aren’t there better things to talk about?”
I still stumble here. I know, for instance, that men can spend hours jousting over sports. And it’s easy for almost anyone to talk about a current movie. Or in professional circles some arcane topics can absorb hours: engineers, educators, truck-drivers, pilots, theologians, and accountants can talk at length with others in their field. Even politics can devour hours of talk.
So why, some may ask, do you want to talk about God, his Son, and his love for the world so often? Can’t you find more neutral, interesting, and useful topics? My problem here is that I see God as the ultimate reference point for every subject—he’s a fully engaged God.
Of course something else may need attention: the matter of who I am and how I present myself. Like someone who sings but can’t really sing, I may just be a poor conversationalist. God, in principle, is a worthy topic; so a skilled conversationalist should be able to navigate such waters. A key here is to know what issues to avoid. So maybe I need better social awareness. That could be. I know, for one, that I’m a bit too enthusiastic about Christ for most people’s tastes.
I’ve thought about that. Overstated devotion puts off those who lack a shared enthusiasm. So I may need a more detached approach—to speak of Jesus more as a curiosity, or as a historical figure. So, it would follow, if my worshipful devotion gets in the way, I need to be more dispassionate—more professional or professorial in speaking of Jesus.
It might also be important for me to be more alert to where my conversation partner is in life. If, for instance, I learn about his or her fears, doubts, and longings; or about any current pleasures and successes, I’m sure to have more success. I get that.
My problem comes when I’m alert to how well the Bible addresses human fears, doubts, longings, and successes in profound and helpful ways. So I’ll mention God and the Bible—gently and carefully, I think—but this is where the cringing begins. I mean to be helpful but it doesn’t work.
Probably the biggest problem, though, is the tendency of all of us who do know our Bibles well and who find God lovely to come off as proud. There’s nothing more awkward than to be around someone who wants to be God’s personal messenger: “I’m speaking on God’s behalf; and I’m also his local judge if you don’t listen!”
That’s a huge problem and I’m sure I’ve gone there all too often. And if I take up that stance, the conversation is over—and properly so!
Yet there’s another side to that issue. Pride can run in both directions. What if I say, simply, “I love what the Bible offers us here.” And then things go silent? Could it be that the conversation is missing a key spiritual component?
Paul wrote about the spiritual component of relationships in 2 Corinthians 2:15-16.
“For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?”
So that’s where I am: that awkward friend. I also bring a certain fragrance into any room.
I’m not alone, of course. Others like me may need some coaching too. And if a conversation stalls because we’re offering our ignorance, pride, or flawed personalities, we need to learn and grow.
But if it’s because we’ve brought the “Christ to God” aroma to our friends, that conversation may remain eternally awkward.
Here’s a question we all face each day: How much self-indulgence is acceptable? And what kinds of self-indulgence are allowed to Christians? The question may sound like a setup for a dose of moralistic chastening—and there will be a moral bite involved—but I ask it as an honest reflection.
Self-indulgence offers a wide range of possibilities. It may be a passing moment of pleasure-seeking—a decision to watch a nice sunset even if it means we’ll be a few minutes late for the next event of the evening. Or it might be a life-changing impulse—quitting a job that pays the bills in order to chase a heartfelt ambition. And the particulars will differ for each of us.
Self-indulgence may also be as simple as ordering whipped cream with a coffee mocha. Or sleeping until noontime on a day off. Or buying a new car that trumps anything the neighbors are driving. Or flying to Kauai as an impulsive and budget-breaking vacation.
Does it feel like there’s a moral tension forming here? We really need to press the question.
For one, do we even know what defines self-indulgence? Descriptively, it seems to be the act of dismissing our sense of duty that normally guides us in favor of something we desire. It’s our giving in to what we really want to do.
The desire may be easy and innocent. As in hitting the snooze button once before getting up. Or pausing on a busy day to text a friend. It can also be unhealthy or even self-destructive. Such as indulging in a big piece of chocolate cake with ice cream even when we’re dealing with serious weight issues or a pre-diabetic condition. Or in allowing a bit of eye-to-eye time with a coworker who doesn’t keep boundaries. Or in finding some time for pornography.
Does the Bible help us? Did Jesus, for instance, ever speak to the question?
Yes. Jesus took his apostles on at least one retreat, to Caesarea Philippi. The region was, and still is, a pleasant vacation spot in Israel. But he was also ready to challenge improper self-indulgence, as seen in a rebuke: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of a cup and a plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25).
Peter also used the imagery of spiritual weight-lifting—of tightening the lifting-belt of our minds—along with being “sober-minded” (1 Peter 1:13). In the next verse he linked our personal conduct as believers to family imagery: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”
One of Martin Luther’s key insights in the sixteenth century was aligned with this. He followed Augustine of Hippo, among others, in treating our collective responsiveness—our heart—as the sole motive center of the soul.
Spiritual struggles, in that view, are always battles between affections—as we respond to competing passions. So at any given moment we have multiple desires in play—some stirred by our newfound love for Christ and others still recalling past pleasures, from before we were members of God’s family.
Our behaviors, then, display the “winning” affection at a given moment. Some affections will be unholy while others will be holy. And, as Peter reminded us, God calls us to be holy as he is.
But what does it mean to be holy? We use the word in Christian circles but it’s not well defined. What may come to mind are sanctimonious naysayers—those who feel superior to others because they stay inside the behavioral boundaries of their community.
But the real measure of holiness is God himself—to be holy “for I am holy”—in a way that shapes “all your conduct.”
Here’s where the reality of God as the Triune Father-Son-and-Spirit God will help us. If we use the singular term “God” without always keeping his Triune and relational reality in view, we may slip into unconscious but reasonable distortions. We can misread statements such as “God is love” and “for I am holy” as if the descriptive words “love” and “holy” are commodities God has and uses.
Instead we need to treat these words as descriptions of God’s inherent relational being: God the Father-Son-and-Spirit God is bonded in his unity by the mutual devotion labeled “love.” In other words he doesn’t use love or send love as a capacity or a force external to himself. Instead he draws us into his communion of love: into his spreading goodness.
Holiness, then, is the moral quality of that love. Nothing the Father thinks or does will ever violate his love for his Son. And vice versa. So, too, the Spirit who communicates this mutual bond of love within the Godhead can be rightly seen as the one who is the love of God—as in Romans 5:5 and Galatians 5:22. Augustine, Luther, Richard Sibbes, Jonathan Edwards, and others in history saw this relational grace as the sole basis for effective—life-changing—spirituality.
So in authentic faith an effective spirituality always begins with an affective devotion to the Father through Christ as stirred by his Spirit. And as our conduct is stirred by this Triune affection of God—with his holy desires shaping our desires—we’re more than free to indulge ourselves!
Jesus warned his disciples—and, by extension, us—of what to expect before his return.
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:9-13).
What should we make of his linkage of lawlessness to a loss of love among members of the believing community—the “many” who “will fall away”? From the beginning there have been both martyrs and apostates among those who identify with Jesus. Was Jesus warning that in a coming time of tribulation the number of those willing to be martyrs would decline while accommodation and apostasy would be much more common? It seems so.
And what about “cold” love? Christ tied this deformed love to the oppression to come. Is it because the love of his followers at that time won’t be authentic? That instinctive self-protection will supersede a superficial love? Or is it because the power of social compliance is so great that the resistance of a hostile community can carry even believers away from their first love—perhaps like those whom Jesus warned in Ephesus in Revelation 2:4?
It’s also useful to ask what this “lawlessness” represents, given that every age has been spiritually lawless in some measure. Paul even identified the entire world as Satan’s realm of disobedience—under whose rule “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh” (Ephesians 2:3). So is Jesus promising an age to come when this chronic reality becomes uniquely acute?
Some have argued, for instance, that Jesus was promising an age when the church will have been supernaturally taken up from the world—so that her fabric of faith will be missed by those newly awakened to God by the dramatic events of that time. It’s easy to read Christ’s broader discourse this way—yet other interpreters are dismissive of this reading.
But I digress. The ins and outs of the last times are not what I mean to chase here. Instead let’s look at the function of love: how it stands behind what Jesus promised. Can a growing hatred for God’s ways cause love to grow cold among Christians today?
A day of major reversals—of spiritual lawlessness—is here already. Biblical beliefs that for centuries guided the Western world in forming the boundaries for life and death and the mores of sexuality and marriage have been effectively challenged. Proponents of revised and reversed views suddenly found traction through media promotions and judicial activism.
And with that momentum the work of political assimilation is now alive. The enduring, broad, and deep resistance to values that flourished in ancient Rome—before Christianity arrived—is now fading. And with that shift any of us who still embrace Bible teachings are beginning to face hostility from post-Christian and secular neighbors. In time we should also expect judicial punishments for failing to embrace their new values.
There are other even more ominous challenges emerging in the world. Christians have been beheaded for their association with Christ in some places today. And Christian faith has been losing momentum in the Western world as secularism and institutional skepticism prospers. So Christ’s warnings were—dare I say it—prophetic.
So let’s shift gears here. Rather than bemoan the lack of faith now—or in the future—let’s ask about gaining a love for Christ that can endure “to the end.” In other words we aren’t looking for a stoic determination to make the difference.
Instead the battle Jesus describes is located in the affections. Nations will “hate” followers of Christ. And those who apostasize will come to “betray” former companions and to “hate one another.” False versions of faith will also prosper—necessary, no doubt, to accommodate the demands of a fallen culture.
So what is the ultimate protection Christians have when the world turns more hostile than ever? Jesus offered the answer in Matthew 22:34-40 when he restated the great calls to love of the Old Testament: “Love God” and “love your neighbor.” There is no type of law—biblical or secular—that is greater in weight or more effective in function than this pairing.
Yet in each case the power of love relies on the focus of love. It begins when Christ captures our hearts. And it can only be sustained by gazing on Christ—not in self-protection or by efforts to navigate a broken world.
The writer of Hebrews captured this just after he wrote his chapter on faith—a faith that led some to give up their lives: “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”