Last week I was shocked to hear of the airline copilot who flew his airliner into a mountain, killing many while taking his own life. But he was not alone in dealing out death. During the week there were suicide-vest killings in a Somalia hotel; killings in Nigeria, Syria, Tunisia, America, and more.
So my question: how are senseless killings birthed? By failed parents? Anarchic video games? Jihadic religion? Poor education? Poverty? Mental illness?
These links don’t offer real answers. Some affiliations between circumstances and tragedies can be made but there are no assured causal links: both weeds and wheat grow in the same soil. So these acts of murder seem inexplicable.
Jesus, however, did point to an ultimate source in John 8. He taught, using a binary opposition, that everyone is either a child of God or a child of the devil. And murder displays Satan’s paternity.
So what the copilot did—looking beyond any secondary issues, including mental illness—displayed that reality. And our list of distressing news reports reveals Satan’s indirect but very real role in the world today, a role going back to Genesis 3. If Adam and his offspring—all of us—had rejected Satan’s lie no murder, mental illness, or shattered lives would have followed.
What sharpens the issue here is that Jesus was speaking to an audience of professing followers. Profession wasn’t enough. He told them their continuing sins displayed an enslavement to sin, and they needed to become sons of God. Only sons, not slaves, share in God’s eternal life.
But the men quickly dismissed what Jesus said. And their dismissal pointed to an underlying resistance to God. So Jesus put it more bluntly: “You are of your father the devil.” And, “If God were your Father you would love me.” Two options—just two.
Was Jesus wrong or merely reacting when he made his binary claim? Or are we overstating the point if we apply it to today’s events? Our instincts certainly run opposite to what Jesus taught: isn’t the world ‘non-aligned’ unless, and until, people formally invest in a given faith? And, beyond that, enlightened people today know better than to believe in boogeyman stories of devils or demons.
But Jesus would treat our perspectives as so much nonsense. He saw all humanity as family members of Adam who share his spiritual DNA. He was enslaved to the serpent’s promise, “You can be like God,” and all his offspring are too. So there is just one paternity: the Liar and all who embrace his lie.
Except when someone is born of God. And here we return to John 3 and the need for new birth in a fallen world.
Jesus also knew Adam’s offspring share the devil’s ultimate ambition: “And your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning . . .” (verse 44). He was speaking of more than Cain killing Abel. The ambition of the serpent is to kill the Son and all his offspring.
But labeling everyone but Christians as children of the devil seems outrageous. For instance, if we compare the dedicated recovery teams at the crash site to the copilot’s evil actions we see a clear difference. So the assumption that all but Christians are under the devil’s leadership has to be a moral non-starter, even if Jesus held it to be true.
Okay, that sounds noble. But let’s step into Christ’s sandals and think again. The Bible tells us he created us and came to earth to take us as his own. But everyone rejected him except for a few followers who worshipped him. His crucifixion—an event we will recall this Friday—was the finale. Humanity loved darkness rather than his light and life. And today Jesus is still dismissed rather than worshiped by the world at large. Even among good folks. This was the devil’s ambition and he succeeded—except among those born of God.
That’s the point. The devil is satisfied with that for now. But an ambition to usurp God consumes him. He wants to show off his power and murder is his ultimate device. As such he’s the ultimate terrorist: he can blend in as an angel of light until he finds a good opportunity. Events this past week offered such moments.
So the certain litmus of Satan’s work is this: in denying or distorting what Jesus says. And the devil’s power to rule in a given soul comes through pride: the most ambitious among us are the most vulnerable to Satan and to his unseen minions. C. S. Lewis captured all this in his Screwtape Letters. Self-love is the devil’s lifeblood.
But enough of the devil. The Bible reminds us of his finitude: he is merely a creature gone sour. And God, as we read in Job, restricts his movements and trumps his ambitions. When sin prospers, grace is even greater.
Now the surprise: Jesus invites listeners who are grieved by hate murder, lying, pride, and loneliness to change parents! He offers this to all who will respond: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
This brings us to the joy of Easter. God allows us to taste evil to know its bitterness: its pain, death, and sorrow. And by that exposure—as we taste God’s love on Good Friday—we find what we were made for: to be lovers of God, not lovers of self. So—as in an immunization—our pain sets us up hate the Lie and to embrace God as our Father.
Jesus swallowed death for us and, as God, death couldn’t hold him. So by his resurrection we now live with him. And we come to trust him and his words forever.
Easter, then, is the ultimate answer to the tragedies of this past week. Our tears are dried as we come to the empty grave: Jesus has risen!
A week ago a USA church denomination led by progressives changed its stance on a big social issue. In reading jubilant news responses I thought of God. Why is he so slow to change, even when visionaries offer to coach him?
The question reaches back over many centuries. Some leaders in Genesis, for instance, realized that God’s call to spread out and fill the earth was misguided. So they pursued Babel’s Heavenly Tower project instead. And their courageous vision was nothing new. Years before even Adam needed to confront God by defending our human right to choose good and evil.
Later in Genesis we read of Abram rescuing God when the Lord lost track of his promise to give Abram a son. Abram solved things by taking one of his house ladies—Hagar—to be a surrogate mother for Sarah. Bold leaders always find a way.
Then there was Moses who killed Egyptians who abused God’s people. His strategy didn’t work so well, but years later God called him to a proper rescue mission. At that time, when Moses was away meeting with God, his brother and aide, Aaron, brought more creative leadership to the nation. Aaron’s golden calf initiative was a wild success, offering a more tangible vision of Yahweh and a better focus for major worship events.
Other progressive figures emerge over time. There were Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus who improved God’s unimaginative incense formula. In Numbers we read of Balaam who realized ministry could be turned into moneymaking opportunities. Later we read of Saul who was bold enough to question God’s kingdom vision. Saul, instead, adopted a bigger idea: the goal of a dynastic heritage. David, who replaced Saul, was by comparison rather ordinary in his vision—mostly winning wars, writing poetic prayers, and designing a temple—but his son did better.
Solomon, David’s son, adopted a more progressive strategy of kingdom-building. He married the daughters of regional kings—in standard ‘bridal-treaty’ arrangements—and allowed the wives to keep their homegrown deities. His only rule was that foreign gods were to be restricted to his wives’ homes—with all these mini-palaces built well away from God’s Temple. So when Solomon visited a given queen he only worshipped her god as a courtesy and didn’t stay for long.
As we go on to other progressive figures in the Bible, King Jeroboam was a remarkable visionary. In Israel’s civil war he captured most of the nation and, as victor, he realized that politics and religion work best when blended.
His problem was that he hadn’t captured Jerusalem and its temple. So he revived Aaron’s golden calf strategy. First he cast two golden calves as Yahweh-icons—one for the northern region and one for the south—and then he set up a new priesthood. Anyone who wanted to be a priest and had the money could buy the position!
The biblical pantheon of progressives goes on and on. There was King Ahab who recognized that by worshipping a variety of gods at the same time he could please more people and not have to defend the divine vision of Bible-thumpers like Elijah.
In Jeremiah’s era gender equality got a boost from the “Queen of Heaven” religion. And in Ezekiel’s day—in the years of captivity—there were those who assumed Israel could only be restored by accommodating herself to the religions of the Babylonians who conquered her. So the Jerusalem priests—while still maintaining some features of Yahweh worship—added a bit of sun-god worship and the option of worshipping Tammuz.
There were many other brilliant figures of course. But we need return to God’s enigmatic role. We would expect him to be excited about the strong and effective leaders in history but that’s not always the case. Instead he’s often silent; and when he does speak up he often seems misinformed.
Take Elijah, for instance. He actually thought he was the only man left in all Israel who still stood with God. But as a reactionary—always looking back and not ahead—he was sure to find other laggards no matter how many of their friends and neighbors are aligned with the times.
So how did God answer Elijah? He sided with the prophet! And told him that 7,000 people were still aligned with them. This is where God’s myopia shows up: Israel had a population of millions by then. So God, Elijah, and a small remnant showed their lack of social progress when any of the polls of that era could have corrected them.
There’s more. God the Son was similarly out of step during his earthly ministry. His short career only achieved a ghastly crucifixion and 120 followers by the time he returned to heaven.
To be frank, God—at least the God portrayed in the Bible—always seems out of touch.
Yet religious progressives know not to be bothered. In the 19th century as the Enlightenment was in full swing many religious leaders—the “modernists”—dismissed all the miracles of the Bible. Many argued that God is simply a human superstition who should be re-envisioned in order to meet human needs.
More steps of progress followed. Major advances in sexuality now allow people to break free from the lifelong marriages and fetus fixations of the past. Marriage has been re-envisioned.
And even the Christian faith is now free to be a therapeutic project in place of the older ambition to know and love God for his own sake. Love and heartfelt devotion can be left to the backward-looking enthusiasts who probably don’t number more than 7,000 in any big city by now.
Despite such progress there are still major divisions among Christians. For instance I’m still an old school enthusiast and still embrace many of the reactionaries of the past like Jesus.
Yet wherever we are in our progress we may want to ask why the biblical God is so out of touch. The Bible offers some amazing answers.
This post repeats a Cor Deo offering. Please offer any comments at that site. Thanks!
A Friday morning chat with Terry about conversations, and then reading Pete Sanlon’s book on Augustine—including a feature on Augustine’s conversations with God—set me up for this post.
It’s a topic worth revisiting on a regular basis even apart from these reminders. Conversations are the threads that make up the fabric of life and our sense of belonging to community.
What is a conversation? In basic terms it’s a word-based exchange of thoughts: the informally expressed first fruits of inner reflections exchanged between or among any participants. They are topical and spontaneous, usually maintained by social conventions of mutual curiosity, caring, and humor. Assertions, questions, answers, and counter-questions prosper in a good conversation.
The reflections are reciprocal: an exchange of thoughts in a dialogue. What one says will shape, in some measure, what the other says. Yet each is also contributing from his or her unique point of view. So a new reality—the substance of shared thoughts—is formed by every conversation.
It’s possible, of course, for one voice to dominate—to move to a monologue. It’s also possible for the combination of lecture and dialogue to occur: for a teacher to engage any questions. But these variations only serve to accentuate the unique quality of a true conversation: when two or more hearts and minds are joined in a search for insight and accord.
The place of the heart is important here. In Bible conversations the writers regularly assume the heart to be prior to the mind in what a speaker says. And with that they assume the affective foundation of a true conversation.
Isaiah cites the LORD, for instance, in challenging the citizens of Jerusalem, “this people draws near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (29:13); and centuries later Jesus cited this text against a different generation of Jerusalem leaders (Mark 7:6). This addressed a truism that it’s always possible to be insincere in what we say. So, as we discover here, God makes it clear he isn’t thrilled with insincerity.
Consider, too, the exchange in Judges 16 between Delilah and Samson. In a scene that anticipated television soap operas, Samson was holding back information from his girlfriend as they talked at night. Her complaint? “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me?” In time he caved in and “told her all his heart” with a transparency Delilah recognized at once. And, given her own insincerity, she promptly betrayed him.
And this feature of heartfelt motivation is where examining conversations becomes intriguing. If we recognize a difference between “good” conversations that consist in heart-to-heart exchanges, and our “ordinary” conversations that consist in swapping loose thoughts and opinions about football or restaurants—exchanges in which our hearts are largely out of sight—we may have stumbled into something important.
And we have. A host of Bible texts presume that our souls consist in the substance of our collective conversations: the stuff of who we talk to; what we talk about; and the level of heart-birthed honesty in our sharing. In Isaiah 32, for instance, the prophet set up a contrast between the transformation of all who will respond to the coming King of righteousness versus “the fool [who] speaks folly”—“But he who is noble plans noble things, and on noble things he stands.”
Jesus also allowed his disciples to listen to one side of a conversation with his Father in John 17. In this prayer Jesus discriminated between those who will “see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” and those who are with “the evil one”—a judgment that was based on their being conversation partners with Jesus.
The disciples, in other words, had been drawn into the substance of the Son sharing what the Father had shared with him: “For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you” (verse 8).
And this participation by the disciples in a conversation with Jesus also set up a participation by us—in a chain of hearing and responding—so that even today we share in a line of conversations going back to the Triune conversation in glory: “I [Jesus praying] do not ask for these [immediate disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (verse 20).
Let me return to my Friday visit with Terry. We talked, in part, about the proper boundaries of conversations: what makes a good conversation? And when are conversations fruitless or misguided?
This morning I took that question to God. The conversation started when I both listened to—on my iPod—and read Isaiah 25-44, and then talked to him—praying—for the next couple of hours. The day started at a friend’s house in Cannon Beach. From there I drove the short distance to Hug Point soon after my time in the word.
What came to mind and to voice in my prayers? My concerns included some recent decisions I’ve made; some thoughts stirred by Terry and by Pete’s book; and the most compelling thoughts came from reading Isaiah at length. My earlier questions and circumstances stirred my reading and listening, and then my praying. It was a working conversation, and it’s certainly not finished!
Two final thoughts.
First, if I had more space I’d love to return to 1 Corinthians 2—a hobby-horse passage for me—to trace how the Spirit supports a Heart-to-heart, Spirit-to-spirit, communion with God. Please go there if you don’t know it already.
And second, I always come away from Hug Point wanting to talk to others who love God. It’s a joy to talk about him and the difference he makes in real life. He changes us, and then he changes the conversations we have with each other!
Human “free will” is a misleading premise—a common sense axiom of the post-Genesis 3 world. Adam embraced it when he accepted the promise that he could “be like God.” It offered him and his offspring a relative independence from God, and with that the freedom to redefine good and evil.
The Bible regularly dismisses these claims of pride or independence. Jesus said as much and Paul restated his teachings. And the Bible guided Augustine’s belief in Original Sin. It was also central to Martin Luther’s efforts in the Reformation and was later affirmed by John Calvin, Richard Sibbes, Jonathan Edwards and many others.
Yet as a pastor whenever I dismiss free will rebuttals are sure to follow—whether directly or indirectly. It might be, “I’m more of an Arminian.” Or, “free will is necessary to our being human!” Or, for moral effect, “Free will is crucial to being responsible beings.” These all display a belief that free will can lead to both salvation and spiritual growth.
But it’s not true. The focus is wrong. When we embrace the premise of free will we’re left looking in the mirror of self-effort rather than at Jesus who meets us with free grace.
So let’s revisit the question one more time, but with humility also in view—and with humility defined as our rejection of any ambition to be like God.
By making this link to humility it should be clear that this post isn’t meant to persuade those who presume they can navigate good and evil on their own. That’s Adam’s turf. Instead it’s meant to call humbled sinners to stay focused on Christ. It’s for all of us who know that choosing to become righteous is as realistic as telling a brick to become holy.
Let’s switch the language. The humbled person recognizes sin as a slavery; so that unless Christ sets us free, we’re lost. We are the woman-at-the-well in John 4. We are today’s tax collectors of society. We are the weak, the foolish, the needy, the blind—the sinners.
Over against this humility we learn that the key premise of the will-focused proponents of human freedom is the function of decision-making. As they might put it, “When we have a choice to make, we make it!” But the simple function of choosing isn’t what constitutes a free will. It goes deeper than that. It goes back to the motives behind the choosing.
So let’s agree that there is an appearance of decision-making in play. But that doesn’t address the nature of sin—the problem that first occurred in Eden. Adam made choices both before and after the fall, but after the fall he made his choices on the basis of living as if he was God.
Sin, then, is located in the “what I want” of the chooser—in the desires. This is a heart-condition that “wants” the role of choosing good and evil as an independent exercise of selfhood. As such, our intellect serves the heart. Jesus made this clear in Mark 7 when he traced evil thoughts and deeds—functions of the mind—back to the heart.
And the heart—our motive center—is not to be confused with the processing work of the mind; or with our application faculty, the will. Our heart defines our thinking by the values and desires it prescribes. So the biblical language of heart is all about God having created us as responders—and, with that, as dependent creatures. As the motivation-center of our soul the heart is where God’s Spirit desires to reside and commune with us: where he offers his love, and we then are captured as we respond to that love.
The “mind,” then, is our processing instrument—our conscious reflections—that looks within to learn what our hearts find appealing or appalling. It processes these responses as our guiding information: as in “What do I really want?” It’s how we rationalize buying something we can’t afford; or eating something we shouldn’t eat; or saying something that we shouldn’t say.
Jesus made this case most directly in his exchange in John 8:30-59 with a group of apparent believers. This group quickly rejected what Jesus had to say when he defined authentic faith over against professed faith: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
The last phrase was the tripwire. The pseudo-disciples immediately declared themselves to be freedom advocates: “We . . . have never been enslaved to anyone.”
What tripped them up? It was that Jesus linked freedom from sin to a heartfelt response to his word, and vice versa—“everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin”—so he was exposing the essential nature of faith as a response, and not a self-determined moral effort: responsibility.
Jesus cemented this in the dialog that followed: “my word finds no place in you.” Why not? “If God were your Father, you would love me . . . . Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father, the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” Notice the underlying conflict of motives between the “love me” and the counterpoint, “[you] do your father’s desires.”
Now back to the role of humility in all this. Humility is our heartfelt agreement with what Jesus tells us, including his epic statement later in chapter 15 of John’s gospel, “for apart from me you can do nothing.” And, “Abide in my love.” If my focus is on myself and on my responsibilities to be more and more righteous, I’m missing the point that our only hope for spiritual transformation is to set our heart’s gaze on Jesus. His mercy is what makes it all work.
And this was the basis for life before Adam’s fall. Let’s return—now humbled by the certainty that God alone is God—and enjoy the love Adam left behind!
Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who wants to push a topic you find tedious or awkward? You try to change the subject. That fails. You try silence. That fails! In fact your silence gives him twice the time to talk. Finally you sigh inwardly and say you have somewhere you need to be.
Now let me confess. I can be that bore. I’ve seen eyes glaze over; and I’ve noticed the quick glances at a watch or a clock.
So please listen with the compassion of a counselor. Let me explain my problem and then you can offer advice.
Here’s my issue. The Triune God of the Bible has captured me—even though it’s obvious that I’m just getting to know him. Nothing about me suggests sainthood—all I have is a big appetite.
Each morning, for instance, I’m drawn to meet him in the Bible. I only get thirty or forty minutes before I need to move on to the rest of the day, but even that brief time brings new reminders of his surprising and captivating personality. He’s a joy to know! And the more I have, the more I want. So throughout the day I look for opportunities to have more—to read books by others who love God, and to find groups and conversations where he’s the focus.
But over time I’ve realized I’m in a minority—not everyone finds God to be so winsome. In fact—like anyone in a minority—I have to ask if I’m out of balance. So I’ve done some soul-searching and the rest of this post is my progress report. And a call for advice.
One question is obvious. Am I getting God right? I certainly hope so. But if not I hope someone is willing to correct me. That’s partly why I want to talk about him so often—I want to hear what others are learning from him.
Another question is more difficult: the matter of priorities. It goes like this: “Given that God is such a huge and controversial subject, aren’t there better things to talk about?”
I still stumble here. I know, for instance, that men can spend hours jousting over sports. And it’s easy for almost anyone to talk about a current movie. Or in professional circles some arcane topics can absorb hours: engineers, educators, truck-drivers, pilots, theologians, and accountants can talk at length with others in their field. Even politics can devour hours of talk.
So why, some may ask, do you want to talk about God, his Son, and his love for the world so often? Can’t you find more neutral, interesting, and useful topics? My problem here is that I see God as the ultimate reference point for every subject—he’s a fully engaged God.
Of course something else may need attention: the matter of who I am and how I present myself. Like someone who sings but can’t really sing, I may just be a poor conversationalist. God, in principle, is a worthy topic; so a skilled conversationalist should be able to navigate such waters. A key here is to know what issues to avoid. So maybe I need better social awareness. That could be. I know, for one, that I’m a bit too enthusiastic about Christ for most people’s tastes.
I’ve thought about that. Overstated devotion puts off those who lack a shared enthusiasm. So I may need a more detached approach—to speak of Jesus more as a curiosity, or as a historical figure. So, it would follow, if my worshipful devotion gets in the way, I need to be more dispassionate—more professional or professorial in speaking of Jesus.
It might also be important for me to be more alert to where my conversation partner is in life. If, for instance, I learn about his or her fears, doubts, and longings; or about any current pleasures and successes, I’m sure to have more success. I get that.
My problem comes when I’m alert to how well the Bible addresses human fears, doubts, longings, and successes in profound and helpful ways. So I’ll mention God and the Bible—gently and carefully, I think—but this is where the cringing begins. I mean to be helpful but it doesn’t work.
Probably the biggest problem, though, is the tendency of all of us who do know our Bibles well and who find God lovely to come off as proud. There’s nothing more awkward than to be around someone who wants to be God’s personal messenger: “I’m speaking on God’s behalf; and I’m also his local judge if you don’t listen!”
That’s a huge problem and I’m sure I’ve gone there all too often. And if I take up that stance, the conversation is over—and properly so!
Yet there’s another side to that issue. Pride can run in both directions. What if I say, simply, “I love what the Bible offers us here.” And then things go silent? Could it be that the conversation is missing a key spiritual component?
Paul wrote about the spiritual component of relationships in 2 Corinthians 2:15-16.
“For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?”
So that’s where I am: that awkward friend. I also bring a certain fragrance into any room.
I’m not alone, of course. Others like me may need some coaching too. And if a conversation stalls because we’re offering our ignorance, pride, or flawed personalities, we need to learn and grow.
But if it’s because we’ve brought the “Christ to God” aroma to our friends, that conversation may remain eternally awkward.
Here’s a question we all face each day: How much self-indulgence is acceptable? And what kinds of self-indulgence are allowed to Christians? The question may sound like a setup for a dose of moralistic chastening—and there will be a moral bite involved—but I ask it as an honest reflection.
Self-indulgence offers a wide range of possibilities. It may be a passing moment of pleasure-seeking—a decision to watch a nice sunset even if it means we’ll be a few minutes late for the next event of the evening. Or it might be a life-changing impulse—quitting a job that pays the bills in order to chase a heartfelt ambition. And the particulars will differ for each of us.
Self-indulgence may also be as simple as ordering whipped cream with a coffee mocha. Or sleeping until noontime on a day off. Or buying a new car that trumps anything the neighbors are driving. Or flying to Kauai as an impulsive and budget-breaking vacation.
Does it feel like there’s a moral tension forming here? We really need to press the question.
For one, do we even know what defines self-indulgence? Descriptively, it seems to be the act of dismissing our sense of duty that normally guides us in favor of something we desire. It’s our giving in to what we really want to do.
The desire may be easy and innocent. As in hitting the snooze button once before getting up. Or pausing on a busy day to text a friend. It can also be unhealthy or even self-destructive. Such as indulging in a big piece of chocolate cake with ice cream even when we’re dealing with serious weight issues or a pre-diabetic condition. Or in allowing a bit of eye-to-eye time with a coworker who doesn’t keep boundaries. Or in finding some time for pornography.
Does the Bible help us? Did Jesus, for instance, ever speak to the question?
Yes. Jesus took his apostles on at least one retreat, to Caesarea Philippi. The region was, and still is, a pleasant vacation spot in Israel. But he was also ready to challenge improper self-indulgence, as seen in a rebuke: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of a cup and a plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25).
Peter also used the imagery of spiritual weight-lifting—of tightening the lifting-belt of our minds—along with being “sober-minded” (1 Peter 1:13). In the next verse he linked our personal conduct as believers to family imagery: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”
One of Martin Luther’s key insights in the sixteenth century was aligned with this. He followed Augustine of Hippo, among others, in treating our collective responsiveness—our heart—as the sole motive center of the soul.
Spiritual struggles, in that view, are always battles between affections—as we respond to competing passions. So at any given moment we have multiple desires in play—some stirred by our newfound love for Christ and others still recalling past pleasures, from before we were members of God’s family.
Our behaviors, then, display the “winning” affection at a given moment. Some affections will be unholy while others will be holy. And, as Peter reminded us, God calls us to be holy as he is.
But what does it mean to be holy? We use the word in Christian circles but it’s not well defined. What may come to mind are sanctimonious naysayers—those who feel superior to others because they stay inside the behavioral boundaries of their community.
But the real measure of holiness is God himself—to be holy “for I am holy”—in a way that shapes “all your conduct.”
Here’s where the reality of God as the Triune Father-Son-and-Spirit God will help us. If we use the singular term “God” without always keeping his Triune and relational reality in view, we may slip into unconscious but reasonable distortions. We can misread statements such as “God is love” and “for I am holy” as if the descriptive words “love” and “holy” are commodities God has and uses.
Instead we need to treat these words as descriptions of God’s inherent relational being: God the Father-Son-and-Spirit God is bonded in his unity by the mutual devotion labeled “love.” In other words he doesn’t use love or send love as a capacity or a force external to himself. Instead he draws us into his communion of love: into his spreading goodness.
Holiness, then, is the moral quality of that love. Nothing the Father thinks or does will ever violate his love for his Son. And vice versa. So, too, the Spirit who communicates this mutual bond of love within the Godhead can be rightly seen as the one who is the love of God—as in Romans 5:5 and Galatians 5:22. Augustine, Luther, Richard Sibbes, Jonathan Edwards, and others in history saw this relational grace as the sole basis for effective—life-changing—spirituality.
So in authentic faith an effective spirituality always begins with an affective devotion to the Father through Christ as stirred by his Spirit. And as our conduct is stirred by this Triune affection of God—with his holy desires shaping our desires—we’re more than free to indulge ourselves!
Jesus warned his disciples—and, by extension, us—of what to expect before his return.
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:9-13).
What should we make of his linkage of lawlessness to a loss of love among members of the believing community—the “many” who “will fall away”? From the beginning there have been both martyrs and apostates among those who identify with Jesus. Was Jesus warning that in a coming time of tribulation the number of those willing to be martyrs would decline while accommodation and apostasy would be much more common? It seems so.
And what about “cold” love? Christ tied this deformed love to the oppression to come. Is it because the love of his followers at that time won’t be authentic? That instinctive self-protection will supersede a superficial love? Or is it because the power of social compliance is so great that the resistance of a hostile community can carry even believers away from their first love—perhaps like those whom Jesus warned in Ephesus in Revelation 2:4?
It’s also useful to ask what this “lawlessness” represents, given that every age has been spiritually lawless in some measure. Paul even identified the entire world as Satan’s realm of disobedience—under whose rule “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh” (Ephesians 2:3). So is Jesus promising an age to come when this chronic reality becomes uniquely acute?
Some have argued, for instance, that Jesus was promising an age when the church will have been supernaturally taken up from the world—so that her fabric of faith will be missed by those newly awakened to God by the dramatic events of that time. It’s easy to read Christ’s broader discourse this way—yet other interpreters are dismissive of this reading.
But I digress. The ins and outs of the last times are not what I mean to chase here. Instead let’s look at the function of love: how it stands behind what Jesus promised. Can a growing hatred for God’s ways cause love to grow cold among Christians today?
A day of major reversals—of spiritual lawlessness—is here already. Biblical beliefs that for centuries guided the Western world in forming the boundaries for life and death and the mores of sexuality and marriage have been effectively challenged. Proponents of revised and reversed views suddenly found traction through media promotions and judicial activism.
And with that momentum the work of political assimilation is now alive. The enduring, broad, and deep resistance to values that flourished in ancient Rome—before Christianity arrived—is now fading. And with that shift any of us who still embrace Bible teachings are beginning to face hostility from post-Christian and secular neighbors. In time we should also expect judicial punishments for failing to embrace their new values.
There are other even more ominous challenges emerging in the world. Christians have been beheaded for their association with Christ in some places today. And Christian faith has been losing momentum in the Western world as secularism and institutional skepticism prospers. So Christ’s warnings were—dare I say it—prophetic.
So let’s shift gears here. Rather than bemoan the lack of faith now—or in the future—let’s ask about gaining a love for Christ that can endure “to the end.” In other words we aren’t looking for a stoic determination to make the difference.
Instead the battle Jesus describes is located in the affections. Nations will “hate” followers of Christ. And those who apostasize will come to “betray” former companions and to “hate one another.” False versions of faith will also prosper—necessary, no doubt, to accommodate the demands of a fallen culture.
So what is the ultimate protection Christians have when the world turns more hostile than ever? Jesus offered the answer in Matthew 22:34-40 when he restated the great calls to love of the Old Testament: “Love God” and “love your neighbor.” There is no type of law—biblical or secular—that is greater in weight or more effective in function than this pairing.
Yet in each case the power of love relies on the focus of love. It begins when Christ captures our hearts. And it can only be sustained by gazing on Christ—not in self-protection or by efforts to navigate a broken world.
The writer of Hebrews captured this just after he wrote his chapter on faith—a faith that led some to give up their lives: “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
All of us have scars and hurts: perhaps a physical disability, a mental limitation, a sexual violation, a major relational loss—or a combination of these and more. And even as Christians the damage may have stolen our hope and left us in a debris field of disappointment.
Yet people respond differently to disappointments. Some are crushed and continue to live as victims. Some muddle ahead but they feel like they’ve landed among the leftovers. But some see the debris field as offering raw material for a new life.
Let’s chase the latter—the rebuilding model.
Even here alternatives exist. One, for instance, is the Pollyanna approach. It calls for wishing-our-hurts-away with artificial smiles, hugs, and clichés that don’t really work in the long run. The outward pretense barely covers the pain; and real resolve never arrives.
Another option—and perhaps the most common—is to medicate our pain with short-term pleasures. God made us as affective beings—as responders. This means our emotional hurts can be buffered for a time by new emotional stirs. As we respond to new stimulants we’re briefly distracted from our deeper disappointments.
But this sort of relief is both deceptive and addictive. Deceptive because it relies on denial; and addictive because the new experiences only offer diminishing returns—more is always needed. Self-medication can be as ordinary as a devotion to comfort foods; or to a world of music; or to careless entertainments; or to busy but empty relationships—or to a combination of these and more.
Still another option is the highly regarded but fundamentally broken therapeutic option—the self-help model. It’s a close cousin to self-medication. I’m not thinking here of the interventions of professional counselors—who know how to help out in a time of crisis or who can help us navigate a chronic condition. Instead I’m thinking of those who promise relief through self-improvement schemes. The problem is their focus: it’s always on self—and that’s where our pain is still waiting for us.
Promoters of this approach may be lively television figures, writers, and even preachers who promise relief through a set of steps-to-success. Yet with the focus still on self—where our problems first started in the Garden of Eden—we miss the alternative call from the Bible.
Which brings us to a proper rebuilding approach. We need to hear Christ’s call to “take up your cross and follow me” and Paul’s call to be “crucified with Christ.” The starting point is not in a focus on self. Instead we realize that sin is rooted in self-love—2 Timothy 3:1-5 can help us here—and a new focus is needed.
So the biblical answer feels upside-down to what our common sense tells us. We’re invited to look to Christ’s death as a pathway to successful life.
Jesus, we discover, came into the world not to patch up our pain but to replace a failed model of life. Adam had once been happily dependent on God: a responsive child. But temptation came and Adam responded to an alternative option: he declared independence. He turned away from God by trying to become like God. And that’s where the pain began.
The effort to be like God was—and still is—utterly unrealistic. Adam was fully dependent on God for his every breath both before and after the fall. But his pretense of success—as he continued to “live” in the realm away from God’s life—was actually a living death. And God refuses to support Adam’s independent life. So any hope that God wants to supply him, or any among us who follow him, with success is folly.
Salvation, then, is our step back into a life of complete dependence. There, in our humility, we begin to hear the Spirit and the Scriptures urging us to trust God. He, alone, offers peace that passes understanding. He, through Christ’s death to sin, invites us into Christ’s resurrection life.
So the resolution to our having been victimized, hurt, scarred, and frightened, is to come to the God who heals and restores. He does the work in us. And he shows us that where sin once dominated us, grace is much greater. And in the comfort of the cross we begin to have more than enough comfort—enough, in fact, to begin to share our comfort with others.
So the solution to our struggles is in Christ—in Jesus who loves us—and not in self-improvement programs or in self-medications.
And, finally, in Christ’s care there are no leftovers. Instead we learn that we are his treasured companions. And growing participants in the glory he shares with his Father.
This entry repeats a post offered at Cor Deo. Please offer any responses at that site. Thanks!
God is devoted to a good outcome in whatever he does. Right from the beginning we find God making the heavens and the earth as “good,” “good,” and “very good.”
We also find Jesus calling on his disciples to bear good fruit: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8).
So a lesson we learn is that God is outcome-oriented: he wants a good product. And with that reality we have our own instinct to produce things—perhaps a reflection of our creation in God’s image.
But what constitutes a “good” product in God’s work?
I ask because many churches today use outcome-based measures. Growth in weekly attendance—along with strong financial numbers—are key signs of success. Bigger is better. And to get there the “good” churches adopt the best business practices of the day. That, in turn, calls for driven leaders who understand bottom lines and firm leadership.
Yet the earlier question of God’s measure of success isn’t necessarily answered.
Jesus, in fact, didn’t measure up if we apply these metrics to his ministry. His end-of-life-on-earth numbers were very modest: he only managed to gather about 120 dedicated followers by the time he ascended to heaven. This despite his having had some golden moments with larger crowds—sometimes reaching into the thousands. Yet he seems to have squandered his momentum with an “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood” talk cited in John chapter six.
As a second question, what defines a proper process in ministry? Is that also important?
I can think, for instance, of a major church in Seattle that imploded last year. It had numbers, finances, publicity, property, and polish. But over time rumbles emerged that the lead pastor was insufferable with his staff. I’m in no position to assess the charges but I was saddened to read them—whatever their merit—as headlines in the local newspaper. Something in the process failed no matter how great the product seemed to be in the heyday of this church.
Other less dramatic examples exist, of course. We all know what it feels like to be treated as a useful object rather than a person, even in church settings. So maybe it’s time to reconsider the relationship of process to product.
Is it possible that for God the process is the product? So that God is not motivated to reach a destination as much as he wants us to enjoy the communion that comes with the trip. Is it even possible that the eschaton—the eternal future of God with his saints—is simply the continuing communion in God’s love that is already present in the hearts of the converted?
The Trinity comes into play here as we answer. The twice-stated truth that “God is love” in 1 John 4 offers an Trinitarian insight: God’s eternal communion as Father-Son-and-Spirit defines love. As Jonathan Edwards once noted, love is the label for God’s inherent bond. It speaks of the shared motivation of self-giving and mutually shared glory of the Father and the Son as facilitated by the Spirit.
With this in mind we can return to Jesus in John 6. The context there is intriguing: the crowds were pragmatists as they came to Jesus for the products he seemed to offer.
Some wanted to make him their king (verse 15)—probably the Zealots who were intent on overthrowing Roman rule—but most wanted him to provide an ongoing breadline after Jesus fed the five thousand as a one-day event (verses 1-14). So they came to Jesus as utilitarian followers: seeing him as a potential source of power and security.
Yet Jesus, following the Father, had a different ambition: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (verse 35). He continued. “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” And then again, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me . . . . Truly, Truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life: I am the bread of life.”
Jesus was, in fact, offering the crowds the gift of joining his love relationship with the Father. Their problem? They were looking at their own interests. Their soul-gaze was on the products he offered in this life—for meals and power. Jesus was instead inviting them to gaze on him and share in his life as the relational entry point to eternal life: this was the bread of real life and the true drink they needed.
So, in the end, only a few responded. Most walked away, still looking for meals or better schemes to overthrow the Romans. In the process they missed the real gift of Jesus—a gift that is both a process and a product.
Listen, then, to this in his wonderful prayer of John 17. He offered it for the few who didn’t walk away from him: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”
So what lies ahead for authentic believers? The shared glory of God’s love. And by this all men will know his true disciples from mere “users,” even in this age, by the fact that we love each other. We are those who are captured by the process of his love spilling through us to our neighbors. The future product will be more of the same, but in the eternal state.
If this is true let’s leave our utilitarian aspirations in this life—both religious and secular—where they belong: in the trash bin. And with that let’s taste and see that the Lord is good!
What should we make of the WWJD movement—What Would Jesus Do?—of the 90’s?
Proponents of that movement updated Charles Sheldon’s book, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? They also borrowed from The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis of the 16th century.
I’ve been a skeptic. My hesitation has nothing to do with the underlying premise that a Christian ought to be Christlike. We are, certainly, to be imitators of God (Ephesians 5:1 & more). But how do we get there?
Sin is able to redirect even that good ambition. In the case of WWJD we can turn faith into a responsibility in place of a response. Religion then becomes a performance, with followers seeking to be good—imitating Jesus—in the eyes of a given audience. But real goodness is something that comes from God and not something we bring to him.
The trap is obvious once we see sin as self-love. As sinners who focus on behaviors—as is true of WWJD—we are religiously looking in the wrong direction: at self. Jesus serves as our resource with some of his Bible lines excerpted to become a script for improving performances. He then serves as a utilitarian icon rather than as a captivating companion.
This form of behavioral faith is both moralistic and tiresome. Tiresome because it is hard work to pretend to be moral if our hearts are distant from God. So the question is one of motivation.
The actual call of Christ is to receive a new heart—offered by the Spirit’s ministry—and then to do what is increasingly natural as his love moves us. So the true imitation of God is to have a heart moved by his heart: to love what he loves. We begin to walk in step with the One who is loved—not as a performance but as a response.
But back to the WWJD theme. Despite the concerns just noted it seems to me there is a proper place to ask what Jesus did during his first century ministry. But the question should be broader—community-based—and affective. In other words, what were the social settings or activities Jesus used and affirmed? And HDJL—How Does Jesus Love?
Let me sketch some potential lessons by briefly comparing how we function as churches today over against Christ’s first century ministry.
For one, Jesus spurned a headquarters-based ministry in favor of itinerant processions, mainly through the regions in and around Galilee, but also to the Jerusalem region for Jewish feasts.
Jesus did return to Capernaum and to Bethany in pauses between his travels but not much is made of these settings. Peter’s mother-in-law lived in Capernaum. This suggests the town was Peter’s home as well as the home of the other fishing-industry apostles. But nothing much is made of the community or its synagogue apart from Christ’s dire warning in Matthew 11:23.
Churches today, by contrast, are invested in place and permanence. Material settings receive huge resources while investments in missions often lag. One lesson here is that Jesus loved to engage people wherever he spent a given day, yet did little to create spaces and places for ministry. His was a “go and share” vision rather than a “come and settle” model.
Jesus offered himself to the poor and needy instead of the privileged and powerful. His mission was notably upside-down in this regard—something he needed to restate even among the disciples—as he came not to be served but to serve. He knew the meek are always more responsive than the mighty.
In contrast to this, business growth models and numerical goals often shape modern churches. Pastors are CEO’s in structures that mirror the values of their given community. Bible colleges, in turn, adapt their teachings to remain aligned with cultural demands.
Jesus was also a controversialist. He stirred a hornet’s nest by his Sabbath activism. He also confronted religious leaders with his uncomfortable parables and his “woe to you” statements. He forced audiences to realize there are only two masters: we either serve God or the world.
The church today, by contrast, is often placid and accommodating—acting as if most of our culture is spiritually neutral. Therapeutic coaching and training in creedal compliance often displaces a passion for Christ and a sacrificial love of neighbors.
Jesus was also boldly relational. His closest companions loved him, with only one exception. They were ready to die for him, as they did in the end, because they knew he loved them.
As part of this Jesus was conversational. He offered himself to his followers during their long treks to and from Jerusalem. His disciples asked him hard questions without fearing a rebuke. He also stirred their thinking—and elicited more talk—whenever they were passive or confused. He loved them and he told them that their mutual love is a signal of authentic faith. It was this group who then carried Christianity into its explosive growth.
The church today, by contrast, elevates teacher-centered education rather than student-centered conversations. Engagements tend to be top-down—or podium-based—rather than face-to-face and interactive. And deep-seated love is replaced by admiration and affirmation.
More can be said. It’s enough for now to invite the Spirit’s inspection: how well do we listen to Jesus these days?
If we fail to walk as he walked and to love as he loved the church becomes moribund. Isn’t it time for us to return to our first love? And then to respond to Christ’s love as our proper motivation? If we do our churches may once again begin to have an impact on the world.