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.
Richard Sibbes’ reading of Augustine’s The Trinity supported some important themes in his preaching as in a believer’s union with Christ in “A Description of Christ.” The 17th century English Puritan knew and loved his 5th century African mentor. And he was probably reassured to find this theme restated in Luther’s Freedom of a Christian (1520).
What about this theme? As a starter, God the Father loves his Son’s bride with the same love he has for the Son. Assurance of this familial love, these writers believed, helps stir and sustain a lively faith.
Let’s press on. These earlier Christian teachers all believed God’s creation plan was for his Christ to have a bride. And this collective bride—consisting in all whom the Spirit draws to know and love him—enters into the ultimate and eternal marriage. The Father delights in the outcome as he views the divine groom and his new bride as “one” in their marital union. Both bride and groom, then, are loved with an undifferentiated love.
Despite a strong theological heritage this theme isn’t widely held today—but it should be. It sets up two key biblical insights: how God engages us affectively—that is, how he “feels” about us—and how he achieves our salvation in the context of his very real love for us.
References to the bride as “Christ mystical” reflect the apostle Paul’s language in Ephesians 5:32 where he treated the inaugural marriage text of the Bible, Genesis 2:24, as a mystery unfolded in Christ: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that [the Genesis text] refers to Christ and the church.” Human marriages, then, offer a workshop that anticipates an ultimate and ideal marriage focused on relational devotion rather than sexual intimacy or procreation.
Yet there are sticking points here for many. One is the language of mystery and another is the related question of ontology. I’ll only touch on these two and invite any interested readers to chase them in advanced resources.
Let’s start with the ontology—the question of being. Many readers share a misgiving about claims that we can participate in God’s life or being: that we have real union with Christ. Yet it’s a teaching the New Testament offers regularly with the language of believers being “in Christ” and Christ being “in us”—we find a crescendo of this teaching in John 17—so that we even become “partakers of the divine nature” as cited in 2 Peter 1.
There is, of course, a proper restriction here: we never come to be blended or fused with God so that we gain a sort of autonomous and essential deity in ourselves. One historical example of apparent overreach here came with Anne Hutchinson’s “mortalism” in Boston’s 1536-38 Antinomian Controversy. She viewed herself as wholly dead as a human soul and newly alive with Christ’s life in her. So she spoke with a misapplied confidence that Christ’s voice was present in what she was telling others.
What the Bible does tell us—as in Paul’s confrontation of illicit sexuality in Corinth—is that we are “joined” to Christ by his Spirit who unites with our spirit in marital oneness: “Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is written [in Genesis 2:24] ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him…. [so that] your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God (1 Corinthians 6:16-17, 19).
This piece of ontological revelation elaborated Paul’s earlier summary in the same epistle, in 2:9-13. And, as in a human marriage of believers, the two who are married still remain distinct persons even in their spiritual and physical union—they aren’t somehow blended as souls although they are truly “one” in their union. In strictly human terms this oneness is displayed by the procreation that normally accompanies human union.
Two recent books that chase this long-established theology of our union with Christ—known as participation or impartation theology—are Marcus Johnson’s One with Christ and William Evans’ Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology. Both invite a patient and reflective read.
The second question—about the rubric of “mystery”—invites a read of Heiko Oberman’s collected studies, The Dawn of the Reformation (1986) and chapter six in particular on “Luther and Mysticism” where Oberman helpfully discriminates various uses of the term. It’s enough to say here that Paul’s use of “mystery” is very different to those who have spiritual absorption—or who knows what else—in mind as they speak of mystery.
I began by mentioning Sibbes and his sermons on “A Description of Christ” and I’ll end by citing a segment of what he offered: “Doth God delight thus in Christ, in his person, or considered mystically? I answer: both. God loves and delights in Christ mystical, that is, in Christ and his members, in whole Christ…. Is it possible that he should delight in the head, and refuse the members? That he should love the husband, and mislike the spouse? Oh no; with the same love that God loves Christ, he loves all his. He delights in Christ and all his with the same delight.”—Sibbes, Works, 1.12.
So may all who are “in Christ” love the Father more than ever, even as he delights in us as in his Son: enjoy!
This entry repeats my Cor Deo post: please offer any responses on that site – thanks!
God seems to be at a disadvantage in the world today. His self-appointed biographer happily leaves people unimpressed with him at best and disgusted at worst. And this biographer—the “angel of light”—has an ambition to twist our view God whenever possible.
One of his twists is that God is necessarily distant from the creation. This portrayal of God as “incommensurate” to us shows up most often in the mystical wing of Christianity that relies on the Platonic themes of Plotinus and Proclus—both non-Christians. It was carried into Christianity by a mysterious figure we now call Pseudo-Dionysius. He earned his tag by claiming to be Paul’s Athenian convert of Acts 17:34. It was a lie: his writings were actually composed late in the 5th century and relied on Plotinus and Proclus, and not on the Bible.
The twist here is that God is eternally inaccessible to us as one who is “beyond being”—so he is only engaged by exposures to his darkness or unknowability. In other words we can never hope to know him but we can somehow still experience him. The secret is to “undo” our thinking and to engage in a three-stage ascent into this Unknowingness of a non-discursive “One” by taking steps of purgation, illumination, and—hopefully—union.
God, however, begs to differ.
God’s whole point in the creation is, instead, to invite us into the eternal communion of his Triune sharing—what and who he really is! Jesus is God’s “Word” who makes God known in terms we can grasp.
Jesus reminded followers of this in stunning terms: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Later in the same gospel Jesus set out the true basis of faith—versus claims of a passive mystical ascent: “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:3). Jesus is the true source of knowledge about God.
And the communion God shares in himself—as One God in three eternal distinctions—explains his creation and redemption purpose as a self-sharing love: “I have made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it know, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (17:26).
Another misportrayal of God focuses on his wrath. This is a bit tricky because God is, indeed, furious at times and in his wrath he will eventually confront all those who oppose him. But the way this feature is marketed by his Enemy has a huge twist in it.
The twist comes when God’s wrath is presented as a quality of his essential being: as the fiery side of his justice. And God’s justice is linked to his holiness as if these labels are two sides of one divine coin.
The reality, however, is that before Satan and Adam came along God always existed as Father, Son, and Spirit: so he is eternally relational. He was, of course, always holy but before the fall nothing unholy existed. So, too, God was and is right or “righteous” in all his ways, but there was no counterpoint called unrighteousness to support such discriminations. Instead the label of 1 John 4:8&16—“God is love”—forever summarized his eternal communion.
So this is a second point where God begs to differ.
Why? Because he tells us that love was his motivation for creating and engaging humanity—not justice, holiness, or even glory. Consider John 3:16—“For God so loved the world”—and John 17:24—“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.”
But what about the many biblical references to God’s righteousness, holiness, wrath, and glory? First, these aren’t eternal commodities. God isn’t made up of building blocks. Instead these terms speak of God’s triune relationality that only appear because of sin.
Holiness, for instance, refers to moral alignment in the Trinity: no disharmony or discord exists in God’s communion. Thus he is holy—fully harmonious and coherent as Father, Son, and Spirit—without any violation ever occurring. It is only when sin brought discord into God’s creation—a misalignment with God’s character—that unholiness emerged. It is not an eternal reality; and its counterpoint, holiness, made sense only after Adam’s fall.
Righteousness and goodness are also relational realities in God. He is always right and good as the measure for such terms. But rightness and goodness only come into view when sinful alternatives emerge. Before the creation God was not trying to satisfy a greater-than-God reality called goodness or righteousness.
Love, on the other hand, was always present in the Father’s heart toward the Son, and vice versa, as shared by the Spirit who searches out the depths of the one and reveals it to the other.
But, again, what about wrath?
Wrath exists in the context of sin as seen in John 3. There we find God’s love for the world has been dismissed by the world: “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (3:19). This was a realm where the Son is despised. The Father, properly jealous for his Son’s bride, warns that only one realm will continue into eternity: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (3:36).
The “angel of light” has other misportrayals in play. He treats God as a cultural misfit; as a self-absorbed narcissist; and as somehow fixated by his own power—to name just a few. Given his effective rhetoric we need to abide in Christ’s word where he begs to differ with the twists Satan continually offers.
He alone offers us the truth that keeps us free.
Not many of us want to be known as “low and despised.” And if a close friend calls us “foolish” and “weak” we’re not likely to be thrilled—right? So why was Paul so rough in writing to his friends in Corinth?
Our best answer is that he was being honest.
This young church, it seems, was not much to talk about. Members were not from the impressive side of society. Most didn’t come from the upper classes—with homes in nicer neighborhoods. No one was chasing them for autographs. Instead they were on the low side of ordinary: a socially, economically, and academically unimpressive lot.
That’s not to say they wanted to stay there! It seems the rhetorically impressive Apollos had turned some heads. His status, along with the status of some newly arrived guests who claimed to be “friends” of Peter, had stirred divisions. Church members were becoming 1st century groupies: looking to be important by ‘friending’ others who were already important. Paul was even told he had his own followers; and so did Jesus.
Peter was not impressed! Nor, he reminded the Corinthians, was God. Only Jesus was worthy of their following. So in 1 Corinthians 1:31 Paul criticized these groupies by citing Jeremiah 9:24—“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
This chapter in 1 Corinthians reminds me of what Augustine of Hippo wrote in Nature and Grace. Pride, Augustine argued, was the motivation in Adam’s fall: “For the serpent, in fact, only sought for the door of pride whereby to enter when he said, ‘You shall be as gods’” so that “‘The beginning of pride is when a man departs from God.’” [NPNF 5.132]
Augustine had already noticed how pride is an insidious moral trap because pride can be present even when a person does what is considered to be good: “For all other sins only prevail in evil deeds; pride only has to be guarded against in things that are rightly done.” [NPNF 5.131]
In other words lots of activities are obviously evil—and easily avoided by careful moralists—but the ultimate problem of sin is self-elevation or self-focus. It consists in any self-ward gaze that reduces God to the status of a helper or observer—even if good deeds are done in the process.
Was Augustine overstating his point? No. He was reading Paul—and Jesus—properly when he made the soul’s ultimate point of reference the indicator of sin or righteousness. In any moment we are living as those devoted to our Lord and loved one, Jesus; or we are devoted to our own security and status.
Boasting displays love—we talk about what we value, and we talk most avidly about what we love the most. As people created by God and for God our boasting is only sound when we most value our relationship with Christ and what he values. A heart captured by Christ is no longer proud or boastful about itself.
This makes sense of Paul’s litany of upside-down references when he wrote to the Corinthians. God’s plan is to expose evil and he does this in large part by setting humble people next to proud people. And this makes his point in tangible terms: how many of us enjoy self-absorbed people? At best they may be useful to us if we’re also self-absorbed. Yet everyone enjoys humble and selfless people: they’re easy to be with, ready to invite others into their lives.
So Paul made this his big idea in confronting the groupies of Corinth who wanted to boast about their particular affiliations with mere men rather than in their delight in Christ. God, knowing how to draw hearts to himself—without any coercion—knows that humble hearts are more accessible and responsive than proud hearts.
This, in turn, explains how God selects a people for himself. He knew what sin would do to humanity. Some would seem to prosper as they usurped God’s place by trying to be like God. Others, by contrast, would never stand a chance of being godlike—they’re too ordinary, plain, and low. So it is that, “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
This may be consoling if and when we find ourselves around the spiritually, academically, morally, economically, and socially elite and discover we aren’t invited to their parties. That, we learn from Paul, isn’t so bad after all! But even that scenario—being rejected by proud society—isn’t to be our focus.
Our gaze, instead, should be on the remarkable reality that God loves us and wants us to be united with him through his Son and by his Spirit for the rest of eternity. And with the joy of that bond we readily invite others to come and enjoy the kinship we have in Jesus as we meet together at the lowly yet glorious cross.
My father and two brothers were military aviators. I also applied to be a pilot in the Navy but I didn’t have the eyesight to qualify. That was fine—I’m more than pleased with the way things turned out. But I still have an interest—as a bit of a ‘wannabe’—and keep up some aviation reading. For years I even subscribed to Aviation Week, a news journal for those in the field.
What’s odd is how often I’ve crossed paths with genuine aviation or space flight specialists over the years. Dave—a Cor Deo alum—is an aviation engineer and UK friend. We’ve driven to Bristol together on a couple of occasions to attend lectures offered to the British community of aircraft engineers. I loved it!
There’s more. On one occasion my seat companion on a flight to London was the Boeing space engineer in charge of integrating the International Space Station! On another flight I was seated next to a Royal Navy officer who was exploring the question of what kind of aircraft launching device to use—if any—on two British aircraft carriers then under construction. On yet another flight I sat next to a man who owned a number of racing aircraft, including a Czech L-39 Albatross jet flown in the Reno Air Races. On each case I enjoyed a great conversation!
But what do my flying interests have to do with anything? Just this: if people share a common interest it’s natural and easy to talk about that subject. And, once discovered, social barriers quickly fade away.
Here’s a related question. What if we claim to have a profound interest in a given topic but in reality we never talk about it? And if someone raises that topic we quietly slip away? Is the issue actually important to us, or is it merely one of the “right things” we need to affirm in life?
Most readers will have guessed by now that my reflection has Jesus in view. He offers the natural point of shared interest for Christians. We worship him as God and have given our hearts to him. So it only follows that he must be the main topic of conversations among Christians . . . right?
Okay—that may be a nice theory but in practice it’s hardly the case. Try talking about him spontaneously in most church settings and things may go very quiet. Friends are far more likely to talk about local sports teams, new electronic devices, websites, movies, restaurants, the weather, or even aviation topics. I just don’t hear Jesus talked about unless it’s in a sermon or a Bible study.
I could end here. All this entry would be, then, is a guilt trip. But that’s not my point: what would that accomplish? Instead let’s consider the deeper question of how we view God. Do we realize how relevant the Triune God is to our present life and to our life to come? Have we come to grips with how attractive and fascinating he is? Have we ever heard him speak to us?
Most haven’t! At best we’ve only scratched the surface of who he is. We know this when we read the Bible. There the apostle Paul, for one, wrote in almost melodramatic terms about knowing Jesus: in Ephesians 3, Philippians 2-3, 1 Corinthians 2, and more. He was an ultimate enthusiast who assumed readers would certainly share that delight. But most of us aren’t there.
His fascination started when he first met Jesus in the road near Damascus. That meeting shaped everything about him. Even the threat of death never quenched his enthusiasm—a very clear reality in the Bible book of Acts. Paul was all about Jesus.
What that tells us is that we may be missing something. Jesus, as Paul’s experience should tell us, is an absolutely compelling personality. The apostles John, Peter, and James all had the same opinion: by the measure of their responses Jesus was as strong a presence as ever walked on earth.
What’s missing for the rest of us is exposure. If we don’t have contact with him we’re not too likely to be too impressed with him. And we won’t have reasons to talk about him with others.
This touches a Bible theme called “illumination”—the teaching that God’s Spirit awakens us to the Son’s personality in ways that startle and change us. After we have a heart-changing exposure—getting to “know” him—we start to look for others who want to talk about him. Other topics start to seem empty by comparison.
Yet for those who aren’t “there” yet—who don’t get illumination or revelation or even relationship with Jesus as more than a notion—the question comes, why not?
It might be that Jesus withholds himself from most people and only gives himself to a few select folks. But that doesn’t fit the Bible portrayal of Jesus as one who was rejected by humanity; and not the other way round. He came and gave his life to capture us.
So another possibility is that he shares himself freely but no one hears him because they find other topics and personalities more interesting. The shared interests of this life drown out the whispers of his Spirit seeking to draw us into that conversation.
This is how the Bible answers the question.
So what should we do if we don’t find Jesus interesting? Simply tell him. I’m sure he can handle it.
And then, if you’re bold, say, “But I’d like to have some lights turned on—to be able to see you and to hear you.”
Then pick up your Bible and start to read. Don’t quit anytime soon. Then come back for more. I can promise: he’ll be there, waiting!
And, after that, let’s talk—a great conversation is sure to follow!
This post is shared with the Cor Deo website: please post any responses there. Thanks!
Pharaoh, in the Exodus account of Israel leaving Egypt, had a fight with God. The ruler moved by stages from being dismissive of Yahweh—a God he only learned about through Moses—to being beaten and compliant in the end.
How did it come about?
It was a battle of hearts. Moses told the Egyptian that Yahweh is the only true God. Pharaoh, with a hard heart, scoffed at his claims.
Pharaoh had every reason to be self-assured after his first meeting with Moses. Moses was an old shepherd—just in from the wilderness—telling Pharaoh to release the Israelite tribal clans. The Israelites, as a slave-labor workforce, were a major pillar in the Egyptian economy.
Moses came as a negotiator without any apparent leverage. Pharaoh seemed to hold all the cards.
To list the obvious, Pharaoh represented the Egyptian pantheon of gods. This carried the social function of bonding people in superstitious compliance: everyone knew not to offend the gods. And Pharaoh, working with the local priests, called all the shots here.
Pharaoh also held the powers of state: ultimately every element of economic, political, and military force was under his direction.
Moses, by contrast, seemed an unlikely spokesman for God. He was not driven: in later years his inspired editor—probably Joshua—noted his unique meekness. A speech impediment meant Moses was no rhetorician. Even more troubling was the deity he represented: Yahweh wasn’t on Pharaoh’s list of gods. Any meaningful god in that day needed a track record of displayed powers—mainly by the arts of priestly magic—and Yahweh wasn’t part of that competition.
So Moses needed to do something effective; something soon; and something compelling. And all he had on his side was God.
That was more than enough.
The particular events of the story are well known. What we want to notice here are the hearts—the motivations that shape thinking and choices—in this confrontation.
God’s heart was the guiding feature of the story: he came as the compassionate caregiver for his people. His concern was for his chosen nation, whom he called his “firstborn son.” God had heard the “groanings” of his people. He “saw” and he “knew”—intimately aware of how his collective son was being treated (Exodus 2:24 & 3:16).
As events unfolded there were two firstborn sons in the story—God’s and Pharaoh’s—and God was determined to care for his own son. Even if it meant Pharaoh’s son would die in this battle of hearts, an opposition first elevated in Exodus 4:22-23.
God, we read, was a caring father—protective of his beloved child. Pharaoh, on the other hand, was using social consensus to oppress Yahweh’s child. The local religions of the day, epitomized by the gods of Egypt, were being used to elevate Pharaoh’s status quo and to oppress the Israelite workforce.
And God, after 400 years of patience, had finally seen enough and acted.
After a set of famous plagues—with each plague targeting the realm of a given god in Egypt’s pantheon—God finally confronted the supposed divinity of Pharaoh himself. He killed Pharaoh’s heir-apparent, his firstborn son (Exodus 12:12-13).
“For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD [Yahweh].”
Here was the ultimate power of Moses: when God made his promise through his old, meek, and unimpressive shepherd, he kept his word. And Pharaoh—whose heart was always opposed to all that Yahweh represented—finally caved in.
To be clear, God never changed Pharaoh’s heart. There was nothing unfair in what God did. But he did make the Egyptian ruler’s heart harder by using the pressures of the plagues to expose what defined Pharaoh: his love of power—power he used to oppress God’s beloved son.
Are there continuing implications from this story for today?
Are there, perhaps, some settings today where God’s “sons” are being confronted by the rulers who are using their pantheon of powers—under the guise of false gods or even under the rubric of enlightened progress—for oppression rather than for good?
Only as much as there is still a demonic spiritual ruler who hates Yahweh and his Son—and all who are united to the Son by faith.
Is God still paying attention? Yes. We can be sure he has every hair of every head counted, and knows every word and work of every life.
Will he wait hundreds of years before he acts again to show who is really in charge?
Perhaps . . . but probably not.
Whatever the case we still get to cry out to him whenever the inevitable anti-Son hostilities emerge. It may come through social and political forces led by powerful media. It may be in the fierce beheadings of innocents in unsettled lands. We can be sure Yahweh still has a heart for his Son and for his sons and daughters through Christ.
Wait and we’ll get to see how things turn out. God’s heart is still with us.