In the Bible—1 Samuel 5—we read of Dagon, the Philistine God of Samuel’s era. For a brief time Yahweh, the God of Israel, shared a room with Dagon. And it wasn’t a happy time for Dagon’s team.
Let me summarize the events. At this stage of Bible history Israel was only superficially devoted to Yahweh—“the LORD”—and Israel’s priests epitomized a drift away from God.
The LORD’s role in the Dagon story was tied to the Ark of the Covenant. Earlier in the Bible we read that the space between two cherubs molded onto the lid on the Ark—the Mercy Seat—was God’s earthly throne. Here the invisible LORD would speak to Moses; so the Ark was God’s connecting point on earth.
By Eli’s day the Israelites had demeaned this gift and were treating the Ark as no more than a religious good luck charm. So in a battle with the neighboring Philistines Eli’s two morally and spiritually corrupt sons carried the Ark to the front lines. The Philistines were terrified—“woe to us” is repeated twice in the text—because they knew the LORD had already defeated the mighty Egyptian army. But the project didn’t work: Eli’s priestly sons were killed and the Ark was captured. When Eli heard this he collapsed and died.
This meant the Philistines now held Israel’s supposed connecting point with the LORD. They would have been both pleased and a little bit nervous. Capturing another nation’s god could be risky business!
They knew, for instance, not to discount the reports from an earlier era of the LORD’s power over Egyptian gods. Yet on this occasion the Philistines prayed to Dagon for victory over Israel and it worked. So in their view Dagon had the upper hand; but Yahweh—the LORD—still needed to be respected.
A standard program of the day was to collect as many gods as possible so the Philistine priests placed the Ark next to Dagon’s stone image in his Ashdod temple. The power of two gods might be greater than one.
A nice idea, but the next morning the priests found Dagon’s statue toppled from his pedestal. So they set it back in place and, no doubt, talked about building a better pedestal. Had a very local earthquake caused this? Were some blasphemous pranksters involved?
An answer dawned on them the following morning when they came back to the temple and found Dagon toppled a second time and lying on the ground “before the Ark” with head and arms chopped off—both acts of desecration. And reports came at the same time of a plague spreading among the Philistines. A Bible summary follows: “the hand of the LORD was against the city, causing a very great panic.”
Soon the Philistines started pawning off the Ark to other cities: Ashdod sent it to Ekron and a “deathly panic” followed there as well. It may have spent time in Gaza, Gath, and Ashkelon too—we aren’t sure. Finally, after seven months of illness and death among the Philistines the national authorities found a way to send the Ark back to Israel where it belonged.
Here’s the lesson: God is still in charge and he is greater than Dagon!
By now, of course, we don’t struggle with that debate. No one worships Dagon these days—and the Philistine religion is seen to be just so much nonsense. Dagonism may have had some demonic affiliations that offered religious punch in its day but it was only a passing pretense. Israel, alone, worshipped the one true God.
Another debate exists today. Is God is greater than our current deities?
Which deities? In the West we don’t often have the wood, stone, and metal idols of biblical times but we do find other forms of idolatry. An idol is anything that replaces God’s primacy in life. Paul, for instance, spoke of greed as idolatry.
But our purpose here isn’t to identify modern forms of idolatry. Instead let’s follow up the story of 1 Samuel 5 with a question.
Why did God allow his Ark to be captured? And—to suggest a present parallel—why is God so quiet in the face of widespread disregard for him today? Even in the church we can find spiritual and moral carelessness similar to the conduct of Eli and his sons.
Is it possible that God still refuses to be a good luck charm? Is he still working from positions of apparent weakness . . . while tipping over idols at night? If, for instance, someone claims to have faith in God while also living a life full of self-centered ambitions, is it possible that God might tip things over as a mercy meant to catch that person’s attention?
The question applies both in community settings—to church and state—and personally. Yet there’s always an alternative. Later in the same narrative God found a man “after my own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) to lead his people in new directions.
With that in mind let’s be bold to ask God to search our hearts and to tip over any idols he finds. And then let’s follow his heart wherever it may lead.
“Thank you” is a bonding phrase. When our service or kindness receives a smile and a “thanks” a satisfying relational loop is completed. The other person’s words recognize our action not as a duty but as an expression of care.
But thanksgiving is not as common as it could be.
I know a man, for instance, who as a rule doesn’t express thanks. He accepts whatever comes his way as an expected benefit—a service appropriate to his status. And it seems that he treats almost all his exchanges with others as transactions—not tied to mutual grace as much as to his unending expectations and to our ongoing duties.
Some other people, by contrast, are genuinely touched even by small kindnesses. They never take people for granted. What’s more they often recall things from the past—as if friendships are treasures they savor.
All of us will recognize these social contrasts. But what explains the difference? Is it just a matter of differing dispositions? Or differences in nurture; or life circumstances? It’s true that a well-cultivated life and a good disposition plays a role. But if we accept an ultimate measure found in the Bible the answer is no—it’s not a natural quality but a supernatural gift. A thankful response to Christ displays a truly changed heart.
Let’s chase this. In the Bible, we learn that thanksgiving—or the lack of it—is a heart condition. Thankfulness is an indicator of where we stand on a scale ranging from honest humility to unrealistic self-regard. Genesis chapter three—with Satan’s invitation to “be like God”—sets up the ultimate basis for dismissing thanksgiving. His deities are all at least deeply self-concerned and, in the extreme, committed narcissists.
Paul treated thanksgiving issues as a global reality in his letter to the Romans. In chapter 1:21 he set out thanklessness as the obverse of recognizing God’s status as God: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.”
This linkage of thanks and proper honor of God is an eye-opener. It reminds us that recognizing and appreciating God’s place as our creator and sustainer is crucial. It orients us to our place as his beloved creatures.
It isn’t that God is petulant, demanding proper recognition. Instead Paul saw the human experience of life as the main issue. Our orientation to reality is disrupted by thanklessness: “they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise they became fools.”
Paul then repeated the consequence of thankless-dishonoring-of-God-as-God three times with the ominous warnings in Romans that “God gave them up” to their folly (in 1:24, 26, 28). And today many of Paul’s identified follies are prominent world values. Godlessness is rife today.
A second feature of giving thanks to God is the pathway into mature spirituality it offers. Paul said as much to the young Christians in Thessalonica when he urged them, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18).
This Trinitarian ground for thanksgiving invites reflection: the Father’s “will” is “in” Christ “for you.” It seems a bit cryptic if taken out of context. The call comes as a concluding feature in a letter meant to reassure its readers of God’s redemptive purpose in history: “to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (in 5:9). The placement of a call to ongoing thanks as an application is key. It treats thanksgiving as a restorative process offered to us.
Jesus, in other words, achieved salvation for believers and that salvation extends into daily life. So believers can step more and more into this reality with ongoing steps of faith—a faith displayed in each expression of thanks to God for his ongoing care for us.
So as much as Adam’s fall turned humanity away from recognizing God’s providence, our new thanksgiving displays a heartfelt reversal of that trajectory. And it now bonds us to the Father as an applied feature of our reconciliation that started with the Son’s sacrificial work. Thanksgiving reflects our exploration of and appreciation for the new life we have in the Son: we now live in light of God’s love for us! And the Father, we can be sure, is pleased.
Finally, it’s good to note a range in Spirit-formed thanksgiving. Paul called the Thessalonians to give thanks “in all circumstances” rather than “for all circumstances.” This suggests that we aren’t called to thank God for a given exposure to evil that may come our way. But we can be sure that God is still certain to be working in that event—something we find supported in well known texts like Genesis 50:20 and Romans 8:28.
This allows us to trust God’s care for us in every circumstance: he’s fully in charge of the creation and in every moment his people get to experience of it. All the hairs on our heads are counted; and everything is working for good for those of us who love him and are called according to his good purposes.
So thanksgiving helps us to see God’s loving providence. If, for instance, a loss or a tragedy strikes us we’re invited to start thanking God even before we start to see him turn it for good. Faith, in other words, is our confidence in God’s character and our assurance of his love rather than in his providing us with happy circumstances. It also means our lifestyle of thanksgiving will both display and expand that faith.
If you aren’t already there, try it. You’ll soon enjoy God’s smile that comes with it!
Change is constant—there’s no escaping it. And our changes in life can range from profound to unsettling—though most land somewhere in between.
Nothing we experience in a given moment will ever return in exactly the same way. Our bodies grow and then decline and finally give up. Our primary relationships emerge in the heyday of life, flourish, and then begin to fade in old age. The cycles of birth, childhood, puberty, social emergence, family, career, retirement, and death are constants of life.
Change comes especially in our social settings. Childhood dependence shifts into interdependence as we become adults. A complex and shifting web of family, friends and colleagues surrounds us and in some measure defines us. Our choices both open and close options for us as they define who we engage and how we reach new opportunities.
In the process we grow and mature. This all reveals our collective desires, personality, and character—and this profile is what meets and engages others. We take on a discernable presence and trajectory that will eventually be eulogized at our funeral.
And this reminder of a coming end underscores the moral quality of growth and change. Some people change in ways that are productive and attractive; others reveal an unattractive brokenness. Some are selfless and others are selfish. Some respond to Christ while others prefer autonomy. Some wear garments of glory; others are clothed in humility.
So each of us is a work in process. Yet our changes are often so gradual we don’t notice how we look to others. Yet it’s easy for others to see and describe us so we may be able to catch reports about our current shape and trajectory. And we may or may not like what we hear.
Here’s a practical question, then. How do we change for the better? What sets up the direction of change, whether for good or for ill? If we hope for maturity with honor, how do we get there?
The Bible language of “heart” is a starting point. We read in Proverbs 4:23, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” This is not a one-off aphorism. The Bible language of heart is regularly repeated in speaking of our motivations. David, for instance, was contrasted to King Saul as being a man “after [God’s] own heart.” The great commandment starts with a love for God with “all your heart” in its every expression.
The heart is said to guide our thinking and choosing, and not the other way round. Jesus affirmed this in Mark 7:21: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts [and choices].” And in Psalm 139:23 David recognized the heart as his point of moral contact with God, “Search me, O God, and know my heart.”
The heart is properly called the defining center of the soul: the unique “us.” Yet it is also shaped by our relationships. So others move our hearts. We respond to lives that touch us: as a son to a father; as a wife and mother to a husband and children; and so on. We respond to others and we stir others. And, as believers, we love God because he first loved us.
So how does our life as a responder connect with the ebb and flow of life-change?
Life is too complex—too full of prior conditions—to suggest any one-for-one links in what changes us. Each moment is woven with innumerable threads. Yet there is an affective explanation that is greater than any particular causes. Think about the heart.
First the heart sets out a direction of travel. We all follow our heart-desires—doing what we “want” to do. Call these our priorities. So if God’s love, poured out in our hearts by his Spirit, draws us to his priorities, changes will follow after his ways. The Spirit uses Scriptures and his people in this process.
If, on the other hand, our heart is shaped by a vision of personal success, comfort, entertainment, and more, our choices will follow a self-focused track. It’s what we want.
Second, a heart drawn by God’s love allows us to hear other hearts. We move beyond the limits of our own concerns. Compassion and affection for others emerge. We can see things from another point of view—not just our own. And this is what God’s love always does: it draws us into the love for others we were made to enjoy.
Let’s return to David who had a heart aligned with God’s heart. He was called to be a shepherd to the nation of Israel as a man who loved God. So we aren’t talking about a tautology here. The ultimate source of change is God’s presence in our lives. And in Christ he offers his love to all.
So the great question of life—the question we will still be asking for the rest of eternity—is how were we moved by Christ’s love? For all who want Christ we will be privileged to learn more of his love for the rest of eternity. For those who ignore him—living in favor of self-interests—there will be an alternative place: the eternal cul-de-sac of autonomy.
It’s not to late to change. Even if we love autonomy right now, we still have an alternative. We have time to start listening to the Spirit’s whispers of love. It changes everything.
This entry has also been submitted to the Cor Deo site
In ancient days a violent storm or a volcano eruption were readily explained: “The gods must be angry!” “The gods” seem to have been capricious beings who used the earth as a whipping post.
So what about the true God’s anger and our experience of the storms of life—both metaphorical and tangible? Is most of life best explained by a theology of God’s capricious wrath?
No. God, no matter how he’s portrayed by his critics, does not struggle with anger management issues. Instead the Bible explains God’s wrath by starting with the serpent’s promise in Genesis 3, “You can be like God.”
This bold lie—a claim that replaces God as the single center of reality with a host of alternative centers—was embraced by humanity and instantly distorted every human perception of life.
The distortion is seen in human motives. Adam was made to be other-centered, with God’s love as his ultimate delight. But when the first man embraced the serpent’s premise of being like god it led him to a new self-concerned orientation—to focus on his nakedness and needs. An ambition for autonomy had replaced his prior rest in God’s providential love.
And with the resulting departure of the aggrieved Spirit each of Adam’s offspring now has to be wooed by God. The Spirit is no longer an indwelling companion but now stands outside the soul calling and inviting a response to God’s love.
This is where human anger emerges. Anger is a motivational defect of an upended metaphysic. From Eden onward our true being as creatures—made by God, for God—is denied. And anger is the sense of being violated while trying to achieve the destiny of a god. Or, more to the point, a given bout of anger almost always points to a circumstance where our ambition to be a god isn’t working.
Yet we must say “almost” because there are times when anger is a proper affection. Paul warned, for instance, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Eph. 4:26-27).
So when and how is anger proper?
We need to turn to the Trinity and to the first creation for our answer. As we probe the events of Eden the dispute between God’s word and the serpent’s word involves even more than a conflict about death and autonomy.
We recall the starting point of the debate as “you shall surely die” versus “you will not surely die.” This featured the nature of life. Jesus later exposed the ultimate issue as a contention about whether a life “born of the flesh” is the same as a life “born of the Spirit.” Life, he made clear, actually consists in God’s participation in the soul by the Spirit. The devil was offering a realm of ongoing animation apart from God’s life: a living death. Jesus exposed this as a false option.
There was another implicit element in this debate: how does God’s life actually exist?
The premise of Genesis chapter one is that God exists as a being-in-communion. He is a God who speaks in a plural voice: “let us make man in our image.” The rest of the Bible presents the substance of this statement as the Father-Son-Spirit reality unfolds over time. He was fully present from the beginning but after the fall his reality needed to be restated and demonstrated.
The serpent in his hubris dismissed this relational reality as he invited Adam to a new vision of deity: to singularity and autonomy as the basis of being. Why this arrangement? Because he needed to stake out metaphysical space for challenging God. And by positing being-as-a-singularity he could deny any need for dependence. In this scheme every “relationship” is strictly utilitarian and self-serving—a negotiation among gods who, when violated, become angry.
So after Eden the functions of individual thought and action were treated as the basis for being. And in this presumed reality deity is linked to every thinking-choosing creature. Taken in biblical terms this meant that any bond between the true Creator and his creatures is re-envisioned.
But the vision is nonsensical—given that God still sustains the creation—even as the devil redefines life, death, being, and morality on the basis of autonomy. He needs God’s gracious docility to make it work. The serpent, in effect, presumed on grace to dismiss grace. He declared each animated being to be a carrier of deity—the stuff of polytheism—and tried to make it work.
Without ever saying so the devil was and still is the guiding spirit in this presumed realm of autonomy. He was, in other words, still deploying the relational bonds of our creation in God’s relational image to slip into the coaching role once held by the Holy Spirit. As an unholy spirit he thought he could devour all God’s people by simply employing his ultimate Lie to redirect faith away from God while calling people to trust his Lie.
Now, back to anger. In John 3:35-36 God sets out the basis for his own anger. It has everything to do with the Father’s devotion to his Son—the bridegroom of the faithful (cf. 3:29): “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
So when is human anger proper? Only in the moments where we have our hearts aligned with God’s heart. When is it improper? Whenever our hearts are aligned with the Lie. That’s the realm of God’s wrath.
As we embrace the triune God, then, let’s allow him to make things right in the end. That means we don’t need to take anger to bed at night. We’ve dismissed the Lie; we love the Son; and we are certain that God is still God.
On my office wall I have a decades-old photo of a sunrise in Alaska. I took it from the bow of our fishing boat, Northern Light II, as we sailed to Steamboat Bay on Noyes Island. We were passing south of Prince of Wales Island at the time and it was my turn at the wheel.
This morning I was transported back to that time. Three of us leaned on the rail of a deck watching a spectacular sunrise from a Prince of Wales Island home. The scene was captivating with its brilliant yellows and oranges spread across the eastern horizon with painted clouds responding to a still unseen sun.
I had a huge smile. The dramatic view was a reprise of my first visit but this time I was in a different place. Not on a boat circling the island, but on the island itself. Not a deckhand but a guest. Not earning money to pay for my education, but using my education to serve others.
Was God reminding me of his care and creativity? Certainly! But probably not in the narrow sense of his arranging the weather simply to offer sunrise displays to please my friends and me. Instead I took it as a God-sighting because of the ways it stirred my faith reflections. The gracious God who cared for me in 1970 is still caring for me in 2015.
In this case my faith is growing as I get to see God’s heart at work among the Tlingit and Haida nations—the main indigenous people on the Island. Years earlier I was curious about the island as our boat transited between Ketchikan and Noyes Island—on the outlying side of Prince of Wales Island from Ketchikan—in six or seven round trips that season. I was, in effect, circling a place where I eventually landed 45 years later.
As a reminder, God loves to use landmark moments. In reading Genesis this week I’m reminded that he sometimes leads people in circular movements. Abraham and Jacob are two examples. Abraham’s mature life cycled around the town of Hebron. And for Jacob, Bethel—“God’s house”—was the place where he first met with God and later came back to him after a new set of life lessons were in place. The locations mattered: they offer reference points for seeing progress in life.
One “aha” is this: God’s providence engages us in more ways than we know. What feels like a random life is actually always being ordered by God. He shepherds all who love him. He knows us intimately and cares for us in all of life. So we do well to pay attention to his creative involvement—a secret that helps us enjoy life!
But how do we do that? How do we have eyes to see what he’s doing with us?
Here are some starter reflections.
First we should begin with an assurance that God’s loving kindness engages us in every moment of life. Paul drew from Isaiah 64:4 to make this point to the Corinthian believers who were being spiritually distracted by people who measured life by human standards and values: “‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.” [1 Cor. 2:9-10]
While this isn’t a proof text for finding a providential connection between sunrises in Alaska, it does tell us that we “who love him” can expect to see things “God has prepared” in ways a non-Spirit-engaged person “is not able to understand” [v. 14]. This morning the Spirit was teaching me a lesson I presume others might have missed.
Second, we can pray that the eyes of our hearts will be opened to see God’s presence in certain contexts, including his immeasurable power to change our hearts and our perceptions of life. Paul prayed this for the believers in Asia Minor in Ephesians 1:18-2:10. Once again this wasn’t a promise Paul made on spotting God’s providence in sunrises, but he did want believers to know that God’s life-giving grace engages us in “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” [in 2:10]. As we follow Jesus, then, our unique gifts will prosper in good works as in this Alaska trip. As a result we can start to see our Christ-focused activities as God’s hand at work in us.
Third, and finally, we can be sure that everything we do will “work together for good” [Romans 8:28] as part of our being captured by God’s love for us in Christ. Which is not to say that my similar-sunrise-reminder of God’s faithfulness is somehow a practical proof of this text. But it does reassure me that God’s good work has been present for many more than 45 years, and that this morning the Spirit was happy for me to reflect on that generous continuity.
What would thrill me most, though, is if my new Christian friends among the Prince of Wales Island Tlingit and Haida clans are able to see more of God’s spreading goodness through my life; and vice versa. God has been arranging this sort of thing throughout all of human history and this morning I was more alert to it than usual.
What a view!
God does good work. And his success doesn’t rely on us.
This paired premise of the Bible—and the experience of many who know him well—is obvious in principle. But it isn’t so easy to accept in practice. If this sort of confidence in God was widespread we would see much more of the transformation faith produces.
A couple of obstacles help account for this gap between promise and practice. For one there is the question of whether God is truly good or, more to the point, whether a God who meets these traditional claims actually exists. In a world filled with godless discord and natural tragedies all these claims about God seem empty. The “problem of pain” makes the idea of a good God seem implausible.
The second obstacle seems to follow from the first. Humans share an instinct to trust self in place of God. The person who greets us in the mirror each morning knows best: so why look for a second option? Seen in this light every life is a problem-solving exercise and we’re all called to make life work.
Yet the view that God is trustworthy and we should trust him is central to Bible content. All the faith stories of the Bible eventually point to God’s persistent providential care. Joseph, whose brothers arranged for him to be enslaved, still became the prime minister of Egypt. Ruth, a destitute widow, became a key link in Jewish history. David, a family runt, eventually became an exalted king. Peter, a village fisherman, became a world emissary for the church. God is the star in each of these stories.
So let’s explore this tension between what the Bible portrays and what most of us experience by taking the two obstacles just noted in reverse order.
Sin, as a reminder, started with the human declaration of independence from God in Eden. So our experience of life is shaped by that reality… or, to be accurate, misshapen because of that reality. So if we challenge God’s goodness because of the distress sin brings to our lives—causing our own “problem of pain”—some spiritual humility is in order. We caused the problem.
It’s not that we have any direct links to the distant computer whiz who stole our identity and is now making a mess of our credit reports. Or that we have immediate culpability for the terror reports we watch in the news each night. Or that we produced the cancer in our beloved friend.
Instead the point is that when we look in the mirror each morning and decide to trust self in place of the God who made us, we’ve voted for the serpent’s scheme: “You can be like God.” His Lie—that spiritual autonomy is harmless—is behind computer hackers, terrorists, thieves, killers, gossips, liars, and more—even behind the defects of a universe still under Adam’s curse. All the evil we hate is birthed by one basic sin. Yet too many of us still embrace it on a daily basis.
So what we really hate are the consequences of our sin but not the sin itself. Pride then blinds us when we blame God for the terrible-tasting stew we help cook each day.
The solution is for us to put out our personal and corporate “help wanted” signs. The same Lord who said, “apart from me you can do nothing,” also called on us to “abide in my word” and to “abide in my love” as a way of life. We were made both by him and for him.
The point isn’t to ask for assistance while we remain in our sin; but to give up our sin by acknowledging our failed rebellion. Remember where we started: God is good; and his success doesn’t rely on us. The point is that God’s goodness appears to us only in the realm of our dependence and not in the space of our autonomy.
Paul offers a reminder of how this works in his letter to the Romans in chapter 8:28. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” The solution starts with our response of love to the God who already loved us.
This passage and many others—as in Genesis 50:19-20 and Matthew 26:51-54—tell us that God’s goodness is never derailed from reaching its ultimate destination, not even by Satan’s most overt ventures. God knows what he’s doing.
But God, as with Adam, also gives us freedom to love and trust the face we see in the mirror each morning; and to reject his love in the process. It seems innocent enough but it isn’t.
The ultimate answer is to wait on the Spirit after we put out our spiritual help-wanted sign and then begin each day with a good read of his word that helps set us free from our former nonsense.
Another way to say it is found in Psalm 34:8—“Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!”
All of us have our humbling moments. Whether by way of a workplace mistake, or criticism from a colleague, or losing a foot race to someone we once outran with ease—the list is endless. Our ultimate and unavoidable humiliation comes with aging and death—something creams, workouts, and medications can’t fend off for long.
The problem of hurt pride may make us twitchy. We might fight back; or go away and hide; or curl up in shame. Or maybe all of these and more!
We’re also quirky about what humbles us. One person may stake his pride on what he cooks while another thinks burnt toast makes a fine snack. So comments about a meal might devastate one but be brushed off by another. Some people may treasure social events while others look for peace and quiet. So not being invited to a dinner party might shatter one and relieve another.
Doses of unwanted humility, we soon learn, point to our core identity: things that touch our self-image are the most painful. So a criticism that touches our identity may feel like an attack when a friend is actually unaware, or even trying to be helpful.
Given the place of self-perception in managing life there are few among us who are honestly humble. Most of us, in fact, are motivated by pride in the strengths we bring to the world. So the only question about us is where our pride has the most acreage!
We may rely on intelligence, knowledge, appearance, humor, management skills, creativity, reliability, talents in sports, dance or music, and so on. We’re all proud in some arena of life. And whatever drives us most is where we’re most sensitive.
So given how much we all hate moments of unwanted humility why is there so little coaching on the topic. Shouldn’t we have “Humility Avoidance” courses, seminars, or sermons on the problem?
The silliness of the suggestion reminds us of our love-hate ties to humility. We like humility in others. We may even be proud of our own pretensions of humility—at least until someone asks about the odd mask we’re wearing!
As I just noted, humble people make better companions than proud folks. They aren’t self-inflated and we aren’t forced to dance around the various weaknesses or limitations they deny but still bring to the room. The humble have a comfortable grip on what they offer and don’t offer.
What’s odd about our distaste for our own humility is that humility doesn’t limit or damage us. It doesn’t undo our intelligence, knowledge, creativity, talents and the like. It only changes the way we view and use those qualities. A physician, for instance, needs to be bright and knowledgeable but he or she remains a servant to the patient.
I mentioned the idea of a seminar on humility. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea after all! If I were ever asked to speak at one here are some topics I’d love to explore.
First, in God’s plan for mutual dependence in Christ’s Body he gives abilities and limitations so each of us has a distinct role to play. Second, we must not either understate of overstate the importance of the gifts we receive; or covet the gifts he gives to others. Third, with Christ as our lead, we use our gifts to be givers—and not to be status collectors. Fourth, our forefather Adam turned from God to the worship of creation: and he made his role in the creation central. He and his serpent mentor, then, were the pioneers of pride. And, fifth, the humility of giving God thanks in everything overturns that sin. Sin, in other words, is self-love; and salvation brings about a release to love others. Humility starts with an identity in Christ, not in self.
So in very simple terms the solution to humiliation is to say, thank you Lord! We will never face Christ’s ultimate humiliation—what we find in Isaiah 53—but we can at least rejoice whenever we experience his confrontation of Adam’s soul-destroying pride.
The apostle Peter is a great guide for us here. This is the man who had to be rescued in his failed water-walking venture. He’s the one Jesus confronted with, “Get behind me Satan!” He’s the awkward figure on the Mount of Transfiguration. He’s the soft touch Satan asked to “sift.” And, we recall, it was Peter who denied his affiliation with Jesus three times in succession after making proud promises of faithfulness.
Now let’s read 1 Peter 5:5-7 to see where Peter finally arrived after his doses of humility.
“Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
This is so helpful! He underscores pride as the devil’s turf. We also learn that our anxieties are linked to pride—to our efforts to play the role of a god. God’s care is our antidote to all this: so enough of living by our worries, self-protections, and fears!
Instead let’s go out and enjoy our humility whenever and however it comes. The solution starts with Jesus and makes for great relationships!
This entry is also offered on the Cor Deo site – please post any responses there. Thanks!
Spiritual life treats God as attractive and trustworthy. His character—wholly righteous—brings light to the darkness of our selfishness. And faith is our response to Christ’s call to “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”
God’s attractions become ever more obvious to the eyes of faith. We realize that he created all things well. Beauty displays his creative goodness. Healthy relationships reflect his Triune love as we—created in his relational image—first receive and then share this love. The Father’s love is expressed in Jesus who wants us to know the Father. And the Spirit lives in us to fulfill that vision.
Heaven is the future of faith—a hope that motivates us and grounds us morally. We are beloved children looking to our homecoming. And Christianity is an eternal community of those who know the Father, love the Son, and walk by the Spirit.
Yet this summary of God’s plan presents a puzzle. Why is it that so few seem to be delighted by Christ? Even among churchgoers? Those of us who do enjoy his beauty assume there should be throngs of captivated devotees. After all, everyone wants what he offers: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and the like. But when God the Son walked among us he was spurned and crucified. And even today he remains a marginal figure in most social circles.
Let’s chase this puzzle.
Jesus pointed to a problem when he engaged Nicodemus in John chapter three. Nick was a major religious leader of the day but he still lacked the life and love of the Spirit. His was a life “in the flesh” and Jesus dismissed it. Flesh is motivated by a love for what comes with darkness rather than light.
What may be missed here is that Jesus in speaking of “the flesh” as “from below” set it over against a life transformed from “above.” God is the sole focus of faith—never a mere option or add-on—and he changes everything. So the language of love is critical: to know God by the Spirit is to respond to God’s love. New life by the Spirit shows up as a heartfelt devotion to God. In this light Nicodemus wasn’t a reprehensible figure; but he was spiritually inert.
In the next chapter of John’s gospel the focus moves to a new place on the moral spectrum: away from the disaffected life of Nicodemus to the more overt ungodliness of the woman at the well. Yet notice how the stories are parallel. Like Nicodemus this woman lacked the Spirit but it showed up in different ways. Jesus offered the Spirit to the morally shiny Nicodemus; and he offered “living water” to the morally shady Samaritan woman.
And against our common sense—but in alignment with Bible texts such as 1 Cor. 1:26-30—it was the shady Samaritan who believed. Jesus, in her words, exposed “everything I ever did” yet he still cared for her. So she responded.
This certainly speaks to our mystery. If church members today are spiritually indifferent could it be the result of un-Spirit-based religion? Nicodemus was a religious leader but he still lacked the crucial connection to God by his Spirit.
Notice that Jesus didn’t call Nicodemus to a religious or creedal formula—but to be born by the Spirit. Nor did the Samaritan woman need to do anything special to receive his promise of living water. The apparent lack of faith on the one hand, and the woman’s spontaneous faith, on the other, set out two options in the narrative of faith. The religious leader didn’t respond—at least in this section—while the woman went off and started a local revival! What accounts for the difference? God knows. What we know is that the difference in the woman’s life was dramatic.
Now let’s return to the question I raised about the apparently small numbers of devoted and delighted believers in too many churches today. It could be that my sample is too small or peculiar. Or I might be misled by what looks like indifference. Perhaps most believers delight in Christ but for some reason are able to hide it.
The Samaritan woman’s response unmasks such prospects. She became spiritually magnetic as soon as she realized Jesus was the Christ and that he cared for her. He offered her an opportunity to “worship in Spirit and in truth” and she immediately began to collect others.
So the magnetic invitation Jesus offered still stands. If we prefer to look morally shiny while maintaining our spiritual autonomy and indifference . . . well, there’s already plenty of that to go around. But if we respond to his offer of life in the Spirit and find him captivating, feel free to spread the joy!
Most travelers share confidence in worldwide franchises. Tourists, for instance, can be sure a Starbucks in London will offer the features and format of counterparts in Portland or Miami. Familiarity and reliability invite customer loyalty.
Here’s a question: can we also use reliability as a sign of authentic Christianity? When we visit a new Christian community do we find the same faith? Does a cross above a door assure us that the community within represents the crucified Christ? Do they practice his words and ways?
The broad answer is no. Even Jesus was killed by the Jewish religious guides of his day. And Jesus expected this from erstwhile followers when he warned that, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” At judgment day he will “declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matt. 7:21-23).
The same may be too true today. Yet most Christian communities reassure visitors that their community is to be trusted: they offer a secure home for the faithful.
But what’s used to validate such claims, especially in light of Christ’s warnings?
Five main “franchises” of faith come to mind. All share overlapped features of Christendom but each remains distinct. They include, 1. Continuity-based churches, 2. Denominations, 3. Creed-focused churches, 5. Bible-focused churches, and 5. Spirit-centered churches.
First, the continuity churches—the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics—claim longevity as an ultimate virtue. Theological continuity through mostly unbroken lines of hierarchical leaders suggests their role in defining faithfulness.
Denominations, on the other hand, feature particular beliefs, ordinances, and polity—their branding devices—and they maintain these through formal oversight. The Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists are examples here—though with many subdivisions—and each presents its denominational identity as their proof of reliability.
Creedal movements, in turn, formed as denominations split over doctrinal disputes. The aim was to distinguish orthodoxy—correct faith—from less faithful options. They first affirm the old confessions—Nicaea and others—and then the creeds of the Protestant Reformation as proofs of integrity. The Gospel Coalition, for example, claims to offer the Reformed theological tradition—the “Calvinism” of Heidelberg and Westminster—as an ultimate safe haven for faith.
A similar effort to ensure church purity is offered by the Bible Church movement. These churches dismiss formal ties with denominations or creedal traditions. Instead they treat strict exegetical Bible study as the trustworthy basis for sound faith.
And finally, the Spirit-centered groups—the Pentecostals and Charismatics—offer a more immediate test of reliability: the personal experience of God’s presence. This, they hold, trumps all other groups because God himself, by his Spirit, endorses them.
Where do these leave us? Each has merits but they can also be misleading.
We need to recall that similar assumptions were active when Jesus came on scene. Among the religious franchises of his day were the Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, and more. Some were more hierarchical; some more Bible-focused; some were creedal; some were more experiential; and others relied on leaders who represented Old Testament Judaism.
Jesus, however, never joined these communities. But he wasn’t wholly dismissive as we read in Matthew 23:3 where he warned his followers against the scribes and Pharisees: “practice and observe whatever they tell you—but do not do what they do. For they preach, but do not practice.”
What Jesus did offer was his relationship with his Father as both the guide and substance of faith. A reliable faith doesn’t come by way of behavioral or creedal alignments, or by way of meticulous exegetical studies, but by turning to his Father in every way possible. And to “know” Jesus in this personal sense is to “know” the Father—as in John 17:3, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
We must not miss what Jesus meant by “knowing.” For him it was more than a cognitive process—merely collecting and assessing information. Instead knowing had the communion of the Father, Son and Spirit as its ultimate context. It involves information and truth but this is relationally rooted, birthed in love. So a cognitive devotion to creeds and Bible texts is inadequate. To know God is to know his love poured out in our hearts by the Spirit.
The Bible also uses “to know” to speak of marital intimacy. And this engages God’s plan for the ages: the Father’s purpose is to provide a bride for his Son. The goal is spiritual union as noted in 1 Corinthians 6:15-20. This intimacy explains the “great commandment”—our call to love God.
Jesus shares and receives spiritual intimacy: he invites us into the bond he shares with his Father. In fact his complaint against failed Jewish Bible study in John 5:42 pivoted on this: “you do not have the love of God within you.” And, by contrast, Christ’s ambition in the incarnation is summarized by what is “known” in John 17:26: “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
So as we travel from church to church, what should we find in common among them? Is it a list of marks to be affirmed by a theological inspector? Or is it a heartfelt delight that spills out in conversations of being “one” with Christ? Do we come to the Bible to collect and collate information, or to enjoy God’s heart as the Spirit leads our community?
So Jesus summed up the ultimate measure of sound confidence: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Paul agreed: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Years ago during my days in graduate studies I worked as an aide in a hospital psychiatric unit. I wasn’t trained in the field so I had to learn on the job how some of the patients struggled to distinguish reality from fantasy.
One young man, for instance, was by all appearances bright and settled but he struggled with frightening impressions. Once he came to me during unit visiting hours very upset and asked me to look at the back of his head.
“Am I bleeding?”
“No,” I answered, “you’re fine.”
“Oh good,” he whispered as he relaxed. “Do you see that man over there? He has a pistol and he just shot me in the back of my head!” This young patient really believed he was mortally wounded and he wanted me to examine the wound.
“No, you’re okay.” I assured him again. “We don’t allow anyone to come on the unit with a gun. That man is Karen’s husband, here to visit her, and he didn’t shot you. You’re fine!” My frightened friend let out his breath, clearly relieved. My reassurance made all the difference.
As weird as this story may sound it really occurred and wasn’t a laughing matter. The man knew his impressions needed to be tested with feedback he could trust. His fears were real and my emotional first aid was also real.
The hospital work ended once I earned my degree, but the work of distinguishing reality from fantasy is ongoing. I’m often reminded of those lessons.
Ironically most people today quietly view Christians as out of touch. In their eyes we’re preoccupied with religious fantasies: all a bit crazy for claiming to believe in a God who doesn’t actually exist. So the more religious we are, the crazier we are.
But the reverse is true. They live in the fantasy world and need to face reality. Non-Christians think they can live without God. Or—if they enjoy the language of religion—with a boutique god of their own making. And with this they try to manage life as free agents: deciding what they want to make of life; how to reach those ambitions; and who they want as partners in the process. They are the masters of their own fate. Or so they believe.
So we need to invite our self-sufficient friends to notice a repeated aphorism in the Bible: “And then they will know that I am the LORD.” This illuminating and potentially frightening refrain is found in Ezekiel, in Isaiah, and elsewhere. It promises a future humility for all who think they can succeed in playing God.
We who are Christians, on the other hand, can relax in a world filled with fantastic thinking. By abandoning narcissism we discover the joy of treating others as more important than ourselves. We’re free to give thanks in everything, even when we experience losses or disasters. We know that God is watching over us, caring for us in his greater reality—a reality anticipated from before we were created. We live by faith rather than by sight.
Yet the challenge is greater today than ever before. Digital rearrangements of photos and movies make the contrast between fantasy and reality more and more deceptive and confusing.
We also have reality television that is mostly unreal; virtual relationships – instead of natural encounters – with scores of friends who come to us mostly by texts and Instagrams. As a result people sit next to others, ignoring them while they build connections with screen images. The process is defined by the severe limits of a mobile device and turn into self-marketing exercises: recreating one’s own image for others to admire.
But that’s not the way God made us to live. We’re meant to walk together and to talk face-to-face; to be weak and clumsy and occasionally clever. We’re created by God to be inadequate—to need what others offer us—but also to be adequate in ways we can offer to others. Life is meant to be tangible and sweaty. And the biggest reality is that apart from Jesus we can do nothing.
We can, of course, pretend to do lots of things. But when we all eventually learn that he is the LORD we will see how much nonsense we were involved in. Psalms 37 and 73 are reminders of this. And only what we do in faith will endure into eternity. The rest will be assigned to flames.
So what is ultimate reality? Just this: that God the Father, Son, and Spirit created us for himself. And for all who come to him empty of self, reality arrives. Relationships with Christ as an ultimate touchstone have come to the living Truth. He, in turn, reveals his Father to us as the source of life, love, and meaning. And all of us who discover this will live happily ever after.
That’s the one true story. Everything else is a fantasy.