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.
A lively conversation will often display a tension—either a disagreement or a misunderstanding. Maybe even a willful opposition. Yet if the speakers share mutual love, trust, and common values the exchange is likely to be productive. It may even be a pleasant process. But we’re less optimistic if the participants don’t like each other and the discussion involves competing values.
So what about conversing with God? Do we speak with him in the same way we talk to a good friend or to a beloved spouse? Or do we speak to him reluctantly—without much trust or care?
I ask this because I have the impression that too few Christians think of God as a close and congenial conversation partner. Instead he’s more of a potential resource for special needs, or an iconic figure at church meetings and ceremonies.
We need to acknowledge at least one obvious difference in talking to God. He isn’t physically present in the room so we can’t have the sort of back-and-forth exchange we’re used to when we think of conversations. And most comparisons between normal sharing and speaking to God won’t apply. We even have a separate term for talking to God—“prayer”—that recognizes the one-sided nature of coming to God. Prayers and conversations are not the same thing.
Or so it might seem to us.
The Bible actually portrays God as fully invested in us as potential conversation partners. His presence in all believers is immediate—a Spirit-to-spirit bond as in 1 Corinthians 2 and Romans 8—and is potentially more lively than any human bond. Psalm 139:4 portrays him as intimately aware of everything we ever mean to say, even before we voice our thoughts. God, then, is the greatest of communicators. He wants us to hear his heart and vice versa.
But if that’s the case how do we take advantage of such access? Imagine the benefits of a clear and strong connection with God! And with that vision in view let’s move ahead.
A starting point is to seek him. The term “seek” is Bible jargon for our ambition to start a conversation. Listen to Psalm 28:8—a Psalm attributed to David—“You have said, ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to you, ‘Your face, LORD, do I seek.’ Hide not your face from me.” And hear Christ’s call: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things [i.e. all our life concerns] will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
Next comes a willingness to listen. God, once again, is not a poor speaker. Instead we’re poor listeners. We don’t really want to hear what he has to say.
This conundrum of moral deafness calls for humility and openness. Making the connection work is something only God’s Spirit can accomplish. He alone knows our heart’s true motives. So the starting point for a clear connection with God is an invitation to him to check the connection. Let’s return to Psalm 139 here, to verse 23: “Search me, O God, and know my heart!” David recognized God as the solution to our deafness.
So the heart is crucial as the center of our values and motives. Before our new life of faith we had deadened hearts—wanting to “be like God” as usurpers and users rather than followers—but even in coming to faith our old interests still haunt us. God said as much in Jeremiah 17:9-10—“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”
And now we come to the main insight of conversing with God: he invites us to speak about important matters and not about the themes of our former rebellion. The near deafness of most Christians remains a problem as long as we make self the focus of our approaches to him. Such efforts represent our past spilling into the present—recalling how we once lived as lovers of self rather than as lovers of God and neighbor.
God’s Trinitarian existence is the ultimate measure here. God the Father wants us to take up our new identity: we are now his children by way of union with Christ. We are now his Son’s eternal bride: as much beloved by him as his Son is. So any efforts on our part to continue with the old values of spiritual autonomy and self-interest need to be crucified just as Jesus was crucified for our former life.
A clear connection with the Father is only made in our devotion to his Son. As we abide—living boldly and overtly—in Christ and in his love for us our values shift dramatically. We now discover the Bible to be speaking about this bond from beginning to end. This lesson that Jesus taught his still-dull disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24 is crucial: everything in the Old Testament was a story about the Father sending his Son, the Servant, to give us life.
Once we get the Spirit’s focus on the Son offered throughout the Scriptures we start to pick up on what’s really important. The story of fall and redemption stands behind God’s answers to all our questions. We then hear the Spirit whispering to our hearts as we read, “Yes, yes, you’re getting it at last!”
The tension of the past came when we tried to force God to treat our own stories as central to life. Now we know better. And we can join the Father’s delight in his Son, which is where the conversation reaches its peak.
A few days ago the United States Supreme Court rendered a judgment on marriage. Some decades earlier the Supreme Court rendered the Roe v. Wade judgment that unleashed abortions. Over a century ago the Supreme Court held that blacks are not qualified to be American citizens in Dred Scott v. Sandford.
So courts make judgments—it’s their job. Yet those of us who aren’t professional judges, let alone supreme judges, are faced with a question: do we always need to affirm their judgments?
In asking this question a related question arises: must we remain law-abiding citizens when we disagree with the courts?
No and yes. We can disagree but the fabric of society is woven by our agreement to abide by the laws we’re given. And as Paul wrote in Romans 13 anarchy is an unacceptable alternative to ordered society.
But in the Bible we also learn that resistance without rebellion may be necessary at times. In Acts chapter four Peter and John refused a directive to cease sharing their faith, no matter the consequences: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge.” A similar resistance was seen in Daniel chapter three—a story of faith even in the face of a furnace.
Three decades ago I saw modern examples of resistance without rebellion in my hometown. A pastor, Randy, and a layman, Ron, continued to picket an abortion clinic even after their action was prohibited by a court judgment. They believed, against all court rulings, that abortions are wrong: living fetuses knit together by God must not be shredded like so much pulled pork.
Their non-violent approach had been used in an earlier era by Martin Luther King to resist rulings that treated blacks as sub-human. Such legal traditions need to be resisted even if consequences are sure to follow. So Ron spent time in jail; and Randy—facing garnished wages assigned to the abortion clinic—resigned his ministry.
Such challenges will always be with us. In Genesis three and Romans one we read of humanity exchanging “the Truth” of God for “the Lie.” The serpent’s ultimate lie is that we can “be like God” and determine “good and evil” for ourselves.
And, with new versions of morality, humans claimed “to be wise” but they actually “became fools.” The attempted takeover of God’s role brought with it a plague of moral and sexual reversals as “God gave them up to dishonorable passions.”
An associated Bible axiom is that just two spiritual forces operate in the world. Either God’s holy Spirit is active in a soul, or direction comes from “the spirit now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” (Ephesians 2:2-3).
Yet in the end we will find there is only one true and supreme judge. And “those who say in their hearts, ‘The LORD will not do good, nor will he do ill” (Zephaniah 1:12) will be corrected. As Malachi promised, “Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between the one who serves God and the one who does not serve him.” We call this “the day of judgment.” Innumerable judges and politicians will finally face the living Truth.
In the meantime life may be hard for those who resist today’s upside-down judges. Last week in the television news I watched an almost gleeful report of a Portland bakery being fined $135,000 for refusing to supply a cake for an alternative wedding. One camera shot featured a Bible on the bakery counter—suggesting the unhappy basis for such “discrimination.”
It’s true, of course. We all make our discriminations—our judgments—based on the spirit we embrace. Some of us want to please God. Some want to please, unwittingly, another spirit.
Let me add one more example of the tensions faithful Christians face. In the 1930’s Germany’s National Socialist movement—the Nazi’s—came to power. Led by Hitler they promised to rule for a “thousand years” and warned Germans to adapt to their new Nazi values of racial-cleansing and world conquest. Most German churches quickly shifted to fit in with the new regime.
Yet there were some exceptions. A group of pastors and teachers gathered, at the risk of their careers and lives, to compose and sign the Barmen Declaration in May 1934. Take a look:
“The Barmen Declaration rejects (i) the subordination of the Church to the state, and (ii) the subordination of the Word and Spirit to the [unfaithful] Church. … We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.” And we hold the Church “is solely Christ’s property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance.” The Declaration points to the inalienable lordship of Jesus Christ by the Spirit and to the external character of church unity which “can come only from the Word of God in faith through the Holy Spirit. Thus alone is the Church renewed.”—available in Wikipedia.
Nazism in the end didn’t last long—although millions died in opposing it. The reality is that all the alternative approaches ultimately fail: when everyone does what is ‘right’ in their own eyes and God’s ways start to dissolve, many will turn back to truth. The real Supreme Judge—who loves us, who wants us to hear his heart, and who made us to enjoy the life he designed us to live—invites us to repent and to trust.
So may all who have God’s Spirit be discriminating as we love Christ and disagree with many of the world’s judgments. And may we, like God, continue to love those who hold alternative views.
A friend’s email noted his surprise at how often he’s heard Christians—including church leaders—speak of Bible reading as a chore or an unhappy challenge. He mentioned this as he wrote about his delight in finding a partner for a fast-paced Bible read-through. I celebrated with him.
In our shared pleasure I realized how rare we seem to be. It’s as if we’re members of a secret society: the “We like God” clan. The society is wide open but, despite incredible benefits, it remains poorly enrolled.
All Christians, in fact, should be members—given the Romans 5:5 promise that the Spirit has poured out God’s love in our hearts. But that love seems muted or missing in too many cases. A key indicator is that many, if not most, professed believers don’t read their Bibles with any delight or sustained devotion.
Some may ask, Why this focus on the Bible as an indicator of our response to God? Isn’t the linkage too narrow? I often hear, for instance, of many non-readers who claim to love God deeply even if they pay little attention to the Bible.
That’s a conversation non-readers can take up with God himself: he alone can process claims with a soul-searching ability we don’t have. I do know that love always finds a way to listen to one who is loved.
We also press this link because of Bible assumptions. Scriptures share God’s character and values—his attractive qualities—in sustained and tangible terms. This is especially conspicuous in the Old Testament periods of Josiah and Ezra where rediscoveries of lost Scriptures led to explosive responses. Bible exposure captivates searching souls.
So, too, in the New Testament Jesus dismissed claims of faith by a group who had “believed in him” but who rejected what he was saying—see John 8:30-59. In that encounter he eventually identified these “believers” as children of the devil! So professions of faith don’t always ensure true faith.
There’s no news in this, of course. Jesus said as much in his parable of the soils: “The sower sows the word” but most of the sown word/seed either fails to germinate or to prosper (e.g. Mark 4). The Word can be stolen, crushed, choked; but in some cases it will be fruitful, with multiplied growth.
By highlighting this reality—that not all professed believers delight in God’s word—we come to a crucial point.
Jesus isn’t angry when he’s ignored. He never begs for attention. In fact there’s nothing pathetic about how he presents himself—no pearls are cast before the crowds. He simply delights in those who delight in him and leaves it at that.
While gathering crowds wasn’t his aim he did, because of his compassion, feed thousands on a pair of occasions: one of these is reported in John 6. Yet even then some of the more vocal figures in the crowd tried to use his compassion as a lever: “We’ll follow you and even make you a king if you promise to feed us like this all the time!” Jesus responded by telling them to focus on his life as spiritual food rather than making physical food their big ambition. So the crowds soon evaporated.
There’s a lesson here. Jesus knows how attractive love is. He came to offer us his Father’s love, and to share that love in all he did. And if someone doesn’t find that love attractive it doesn’t change the reality that God’s love is, in fact, incredibly attractive! It only tells us that whatever a person or a crowd loves instead of, or in place of, God’s love is blocking their affective “heart-gaze” on Christ and his Father.
This brings us back to our secret society. Some of us have been stunned by God’s beauty revealed in Christ and presented in the Scriptures. Our faith is now working through love—with love being a response to his prior love for us. Nothing . . . absolutely nothing! . . . is more captivating than seeing and hearing Jesus saying, “Come to me, all you who are tired—who long for the real freedom of my embrace.”
We somehow were blessed with an insider’s awareness of his love and loveliness. Everything else is sawdust and popcorn by comparison.
So the invitation still stands: “Oh taste and see, the LORD is good!”
Early in the morning I lost my mother. As soon as she left us, grief arrived. She trusted in Jesus and we share the assurance of eternity—but grief is still a tsunami.
I’ve felt grief before and I hate it. I’ve lost a father and some dear friends. Grief always fills the empty space that once was theirs. The person lost is the real issue, of course, but the feeling of grief hovers next to us like a tragic companion who keeps reminding, “She’s really gone.”
I know . . . I know . . . I know. It’s not the way things are meant to be. I knew the end would come but knowing doesn’t reduce the pain. Information isn’t what the heart calls for when it’s wounded by loss.
Time, we’re told, will bring relief; but in the first days of loss the minutes seem like hours. Grief somehow slows the clock. It also turns conversations into charades. We stand next to people but they seem distant. We start to lie when they probe: “Yes, it’s hard,” I say, “but I’m okay.”
Yet it’s impossible to want it any other way; companions still need to stay near because grief is strongest when we’re alone. If only they would say less and mean more!
Yet words can calm the soul if someone knows what to say. Those who speak best are those who have gone before us with losses of their own. The comforted have real comfort to share.
So we’re forced to live out what the psalmist wrote: “I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” And, as in Psalm 23, we have God as the shepherd who comforts us—the one who restores our soul.
In faith I turned to him soon after mother gave up her last breath. I went to the living room and on my knees began to give Jesus the space grief wanted to rule: “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Lord.” Again and again.
I wasn’t thanking him for the pain. I was thanking him for being with me in the loss. I was thanking him for the gift of a mother who though one among many was my mother: the mother who birthed me, nurtured me, who loved me. God had given and now he was taking.
And I thanked him because he knew grief. Evil entered his creation and spoiled it. In place of faith came doubt. In place of communion we adopted the arrogance of autonomy. We grieved the Father. We grieved and quenched his Spirit.
And in Gethsemane we caused Jesus to grieve as he took on the curse of our sins and was forsaken for our sake. Yet in this great exchange we received his life and righteousness as he swallowed death on our behalf. And then he came back to life to receive those of us who trust him—inviting us to join him in eternity.
I thanked him because he offered me real comfort. He invited me to the still and peaceful waters of righteousness as I gave him the pain of our family loss.
So I hate death. I hate sin. It isn’t the way we were meant to live. I’m most reminded of this on my knees with tears flowing—when I receive the comfort he offers. His comfort is real and satisfying.
In the vigil before mother was taken we sang hymns. One was the song, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear. What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!” Mother, already near the end, startled us by singing with us—this chorus and others—offering her heart nearly to the end. It was a special grace.
So Jesus understands. I thank God for such a good shepherd who knows grief and overcomes it with his love. He is a friend who brings us peace. And mother has finally arrived.