Can you think of the times you’ve called out to God without a response from him? Do prayers seem to bounce back from heaven? Have you ever asked him, “Where are you when I need you? Why don’t you answer me?” Do we need to find some magic formula to stir God? Or to placate him first? Does he even exist?
I was at this point once; starting to think God was a fantasy for fools. But that changed when he answered me. After that moment—when I first came to faith—prayer came alive for me.
Yet I say this as a confession, not a boast. Here’s why.
I used to approach God on my terms, not his. I expected him to support me in my sin: something he, as a good God, never does. How likely, for instance, is it that the head nurse of a treatment center will give a flask of whiskey to an imploring alcoholic? And what is the prospect that God will answer my prayers when I’m in active rebellion against him?
This analogy may seem misplaced at first glance. Many prayers even among non-Christians are selfless: offered for the healing of a friend or relative; for a marriage to be restored; or employment to be gained. And God certainly doesn’t have a ‘sin-o-meter’ to measure whether we’re naughty or nice before he hears a prayer. So why use the analogy of an addict searching for codependent support?
The analogy points to a larger context for prayer: to a proper relationship with God. Am I asking God to do my will? Or am I coming to ask God—as my loving Lord and shepherd—to share his love with others? If I’m united to Christ I know his compassion for those who need to be healed, restored, or employed is greater than my own. And that’s always true of him no matter where my heart is towards him.
So the question of relationship is the proper starting point as we think about prayer. Are we still sinners: those who prefer independence from God? Are we maintaining a pretense of semi-divinity even as we pray to the only true God? Are we asking God to serve us when, in crisis, we realize he alone has the powers we wish we had?
The underlying issue is an ambition to be like God. It comes with a desire to control life: to avoid pain and death while gaining comfort and security. And, with us, to have our friends and family avoid pain and find security.
This is the life of sin. God allowed—but did not impose—this sin in the world. Why? To expose sin for what it is: a destructive reversal of all God’s ways. And the Father sent the Son to rescue us from the reversals of sin. He not only paid the price of sin—dying our death for us—he also wants us to despise sin before we join him in eternity as his bride.
In effect this age immunizes believers to the devil’s offerings. We’ve tasted sin and now—after tasting Christ’s alternative love—we hate evil. So the epic story is relived in each soul that repents: Adam got what he wanted and we now get what Christ wants. To ask the question again, do we still want what Adam sought, or have we acknowledged our sin and repented?
Sin, by this measure, is the starting point of faith. Jesus said as much: “For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). Sinners, in light of Christ’s saving call, then, are all who think they are righteous even as they remain independent of Christ life and love.
As further background, sin was conceived by the devil to take the goodness out of all God made to be good. He replaced it with opposites. Moral light is replaced by moral darkness; truth is displaced by falsity; life is replaced by death; and an endless cascade of options for life-away-from-God pours out as normal life.
This independence can mimic goodness—offering happy vacations, good health, and successful employment—while resisting the reality that we were made by Christ and for Christ.
So what we hate about this life—and what we pray to avoid—is the fruit of the devil’s ambition to build a kingdom of freedom from God. Yet the truth is that if sin had not entered the world we would have avoided disease, suffering, deceit, despair, and death.
So my discovery of prayer came by way of repentance. It finally dawned on me that we are not in a position to expect God to do things just to please us. The real question is whether we have moved back under his caring leadership as our God and shepherd: no longer in rebellion against him, trying to “be like God.”
With this reality before us as followers of Christ we come to prayer with a new heart.
We start our prayers with God in view, not self. And, given the stubborn habits of the past, we even need him to inspect our hearts: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).
And then we speak to the Father as Christ prayed, “not my will, but your will be done,” knowing that he can be trusted by every measure of goodness.
And, finally, God invites us to pray constantly and with confidence—assured that God’s Spirit equips us to “judge all things” and to have the “mind of Christ” as we pray (1 Corinthians 2:15-16). Does that guarantee what we ask for?
Yes, as long as our bottom-line request is this: “Lord, I want your name to be honored in whatever you choose to do.”
How do we define and apply morality?
Is our morality intention-based? So that we examine motives, whether our own or others, to know whether a person is authentic in what they choose? If so, this calls for us to find our true identity so we can be “true to self” no matter what others might think about our choices. In the book of Judges we learn, for instance, that “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”
Or is our morality an existential act of will? Do we impose our own moral point of view on an otherwise confusing and chaotic universe? Call this the “might makes right” model. It will face challenges from others who have their own versions of morality, but more often than not it allows the boldest person to win the day.
Or, again, do we focus on behaviors? So that we set out options that are right, wrong, or ambiguous so we can become better Christians by making good choices from among the options before us. Is the Bible, by this measure, a moral guidebook that we mine for the innumerable nuggets of God’s golden will to guide us? Do we use WWJD (“what would Jesus do?”) as our code of conduct?
Let’s listen to one man’s answer—a response attributed to Asaph.
Psalm 73 in the Bible gives his answer.
Asaph first identified the problem: evil has practical benefits. So much so that his own motives were getting twisted because he could see how some people around him—the act-of-will existentialists—were prospering. It was all too easy to envy, and then to imitate, the arrogant.
Asaph’s starting point had been among the “pure in heart” (v.1). He soon realized, however, that the “arrogant” and the “wicked” were prospering. In other words, the overt behaviors of evil were effective for the proud as seen in their growing wealth. The “innocence” (v.13) of the heart-based crowd, on other hand, seemed naïve and financially fruitless.
A key premise of the arrogant-yet-successful crowd is that they weren’t bothered by what others thought, God included: “And they say, ‘How can God know? Is there knowledge [of our activities] in the Most High?’”
This skepticism towards God set up the big question of morality for Asaph. Does God really care?
Yes! Asaph reports how troubled he was “until I went into the sanctuary of God” (v.17) where he discovered that God does, indeed, know about the arrogant and has an appropriate “end” in view for these people: “Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall into ruin.”
Asaph, by contrast, learned that his own future—as a pure-in-heart man—had a relational end: “you will receive me to glory” so that, “there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you [God]” (v.25). It’s interesting to note how he adopts a selfless point of view: there’s no introspection or self-serving vision here! God alone is in view.
And for God it’s all a matter of timing. Everyone will have a chance to respond to the moral options before them but only one ambition has a long term future: a desire to know and please God for God’s sake.
Asaph summarized this personally, and directly to God, as a prayer (v.27): “For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.”
He then ends by sharing his own renewed and heartfelt ambition: “But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.”
Amen and amen! Let God be our ambition, our desire, and our reward. That’s life lived right.
This entry repeats a Cor Deo post. Please offer any responses at that site. Thanks!
An unlikely Old Testament hero—the African eunuch, Ebed-melech—offers us a model of courage.
We first meet him in Jeremiah 38 when he rescued Jeremiah. The prophet was in trouble—discarded to die in a muddy cistern—until Ebed-melech acted. In the rescue this African’s faith invites admiration and imitation. And through his story we gain another facet in knowing God.
But before taking up any lessons let’s review the episode.
First, who was Ebed-melech? We don’t know him apart from Jeremiah. His name in the text seems to be a title rather than a personal name. It means “servant of the king.” And so he was: one of the palace staff for Zedekiah, King of Judah. This raises a related question. Was he a free man? Probably not. He was an Ethiopian and a eunuch. Men don’t volunteer to be eunuchs and as an Ethiopian—an African—he was almost certainly a black man serving in a non-African setting. This is the profile of slavery.
Second, who was Jeremiah? God’s iron-like prophet in a nation of balsawood characters. He spoke on God’s behalf to warn Judah, a nation miraculously rescued from an Assyrian invasion only a few decades before, of coming doom. Judeans, with the earlier rescue, felt they were bulletproof because God lived among them in his Jerusalem temple. And with that they were spiritually faithless as this citation reveals, among many, from Jeremiah 18:11-12.
Jeremiah speaking—“Return, every one from his evil way, and amend you ways and your deeds.”
The answer—“But they say, ‘That is in vain! We will follow our own plans, and will every one act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.’”
The Judeans soon wanted to kill this messenger for exposing their sin. Jeremiah, we should add, was an equal opportunity prophet. His targets included almost everyone: the people, other prophets, the priests, and the kings of his era. Even his own family wanted to kill him. So he was, to say the least, a lonely voice.
Yet Jeremiah was reliable. Whatever God told him, he told the people—and whatever he said came true. So when we pick up the cistern episode the local disaster was nearly at a crescendo. Jeremiah warned that the Babylonian Army would soon defeat Judah; and the Babylonians already had Jerusalem—Judah’s capital—under siege.
Jeremiah was imprisoned at this stage but still safe. The question—given the hostility towards him—was how long this would last. Eventually a group of officials came to King Zedekiah and asked for permission to kill him. The king gave his passive approval—“[I] can do nothing against you”—and Jeremiah was soon in the cistern.
Cisterns—emergency water tanks carved into bedrock stone—didn’t have outlets; so any dirt or debris that collected on roofs and in rain channels were washed into the tank and settled to the bottom over time. With Jerusalem under siege—and her main water springs located outside the city walls—all the free water had already been drawn out of this cistern. All that remained was deep mud. The only way out was by the mouth of the tank and that was beyond Jeremiah’s reach. He was without food and the suffocating ooze would drown him if he tried to sleep. Jeremiah was doomed.
That’s when the African servant had enough. He went to the king and called for a moral reversal: “My lord the king, these men have done evil!” His stunning charge either cowed the king or stirred his conscience—or both. Zedekiah quickly gave new orders, this time for Jeremiah to be rescued and Ebed-melech led the effort. This part of the account was uniquely specific: a looped rope was lowered and Ebed-melech told Jeremiah to use rags to pad his arms against the rope as he was drawn out of the thick muck. Jeremiah survived and was then protected to the end.
The story of Ebed-melech didn’t end with the rescue. It concludes later, in chapter 39:16-18, with another rescue, this one from God who spoke to Ebed-melech through Jeremiah when the Babylonians finally conquered Jerusalem: “For I will surely save you, and you shall not fall by the sword, but you shall have your life as a prize of war, because you have put your trust in me, declares the LORD.”
We leave the story with some final reflections.
First and foremost, Ebed-melech was not passive in the face of evil. Even though he was virtually powerless—an African slave—he stepped out to stir the king’s conscience. God also spoke of Ebed-melech’s conduct as his “trust in me.” By this trust he refused to be intimidated by powerful men. And this, in turn, gives us the source of his courage: a vision of God that matched Jeremiah’s at a moment when it counted most.
This is what faith in God can and should produce: courage and action whenever it’s needed.
How do we present the gospel to a skeptical world? Let’s consider a few common approaches.
Arguing is one option: God’s existence is affirmed by proofs such as Christ’s miraculous resurrection. The premise is that undeniable evidence for the supernatural—with the moral implications of the supernatural God in view—will stir a decision to believe. This is the evidence-that-demands-a-verdict approach.
Others may prefer pragmatism. Bill Bright’s Four Spiritual Laws set out the benefits of God’s wonderful plan to all who follow a simple problem-solution progression. Or Pascal’s wager is a similar logic-defined and benefit-based option: if God actually exists and calls for a response then a bet in his direction, expressed by faith, will have infinite rewards. Betting against him, on the other hand, will have eternal consequences—so why not make the safer bet?
Another popular option is evangelism by socialization. The aim here is to expose nonbelievers to attractive and socially adept Christians in community activities. Community based friendships allow Christians to share their faith in natural social settings. Even the more structured forms of community evangelism call newcomers to faith through group talks and individual conversations. Personal formation is the key, with the believers offering a social template for faith.
One observation stands out. Each model relies on human initiative: the reason-based models press for informed choice while the social models sell community benefits. God is ultimately and mysteriously credited with conversions once they occur but the duty to get the process moving is strictly human. And each approach, if done well, seems to bear good fruit.
Now let’s shift gears and consider God’s initiative in evangelism with John’s gospel as a guide. And, with that, let’s dismiss human agency as our first focus.
A text that sets a proper starting point is John 1:12-13. Here John elevates belief in Jesus—the “true light”—as if receiving him is a human choice. Yet the caveat is added that all who become the children of God “were born, not of blood nor of the will of man, but of God.” God’s role is crucial. Jesus affirmed the point, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).
Yet this God-centered starting point seems like a contradiction to other texts in John that promote human choice. Just a few verses prior to the text just cited Jesus answered a question about faith: “‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent’” (John 6:28-29).
So the call to believe is clear. But Jesus didn’t treat all believing as equal. Nicodemus was an example in chapter 3. Nicodemus initiated the exchange by approaching Jesus with a form of faith: he believed Jesus to be a divinely enabled miracle-worker. This repeated what some men believed about him in the preceding context—John 2:23-25—and which Jesus dismissed. So Nicodemus exemplified a flawed faith.
What was missing? Jesus pointed to the divine role in conversion: the Spirit brings God’s life to a soul. Let’s call this a faith-by-participation: a union with God by his Spirit is necessary.
Two later exchanges in John add to this picture of participatory faith.
In John 8:30 another group of professing believers tripped over Christ’s call to an authentic faith. The dispute began when Jesus called on them to embrace his words in full. But they didn’t buy what Jesus was saying and eventually tried to kill him.
The problem? By rejecting what Jesus taught they showed they couldn’t “bear to hear” his word because they were actually children and slaves of the devil and not of God—“If God were your Father, you would love me” (verse 42). So the family issue was critical: “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever” (verse 35).
The next example comes after Jesus healed the man born blind (John 9). In that episode Jesus asked the man if he believed. The man responded, “‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him” (verse 38). What comes next, in chapter 10, is a continuation of that event as Jesus compared the leaders—who claimed to have spiritual insight but were actually blind—to bad shepherds, “a hired hand,” rather than the “good shepherd” who is Jesus.
Jesus then offered the punch line for true faith: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me” (verse 27).
What do we do with this? As a starter let’s shift from a human-centered version of conversion to a response-based faith. And the key here is to invite people to hear the Father’s heart “who so loved the world” that he gave us his beloved Son and sent the Spirit to whisper that love into the hearts of all who are sheep longing to be led. It’s an invitation guaranteed to work.
Is God sensitive? And if he is, what difference does it make?
But first, what do we mean by sensitive? Is it another way of saying “very alert” or “acutely aware”? God, as Psalm 139 promises, knows all our thoughts and our every word even before we speak. And in Matthew 7 we read that he has every hair on our heads counted.
That’s reassuring, of course, as it reveals God’s full awareness. But it doesn’t answer the affective question: does he care for us? As in a wife whispering to her husband after a difficult exchange, “Thanks, dear, for listening so well.” Or a friend who knows just what to say to his or her companion about a crushing loss.
In asking about God’s sensitivity we also need to consider the reciprocal: does he desire to be cared for? Can we hurt him? We ask this because in our human experience sensitivity is mutual. We love and are loved; and we offer love and are grieved if our love isn’t received and returned.
But do these emotions represent an exception: a realm of incommensurability where God is wholly unlike his creatures?
Not if the Bible speaks clearly. Scriptures regularly present him as like us; this because we are made in his image and share his prior relational qualities. God’s tender mercies are seen, for instance, in Hosea 11 where God’s heart is torn by his chosen people: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? . . . My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim.” Elsewhere we find Jesus grieving over Jerusalem; and in separate settings the Spirit is said to have been grieved and quenched.
Our understanding here has implications for faith. We guard or hide our emotions around emotionally distant figures. So when we read of “faith working through love” in Galatians 5:6 our view of God is in play. Can real faith exist apart from our having a felt assurance of God’s love?
By now many readers may by wondering why I’m exploring the prospect of a disaffected God. The Bible, after all, is thick with the language of God’s love, loving kindness, mercy, tenderness, and more. And we regularly sing songs, hymns, and choruses that celebrate God’s love. So why this question?
Here’s why. If we assume that power sustains authority—and God is the ultimate authority—then God’s power must be his defining quality. Aristotle, among the classic Greek theologians, made this a starting point for deity and many Christian thinkers have since assimilated his view. God is seen as the ultimate cause of causes: the unmoved mover. So to think that he can be moved—as in responding to human emotions or actions—is to deny his status as God.
This, in turn, leads these theologians to reinterpret the biblical language of God’s love. A face-value reading—in which the affective mutuality of love is a given—proves to be incoherent. So they quietly shift away from the language of human love in favor of a divine version of love as disaffected choice. This, in turn, means that God is eternally insensitive.
Yet—because most young Christians presume that God’s love is affective—the shift isn’t widely advertised. That, in turn, creates a conflicted middle ground in Christian education. Teachers who embrace this anthropopathic reversal—and who write our theology textbooks—have a major chore on hand: almost everything the Bible says about God calls for an intellectual revision and theological training features a shift to this more ‘mature’ understanding.
So this information is only for the stout of heart and not for young believers. And it accounts for the cooling of affections that regularly occurs as vibrant students enter theological training and shift from their early confidence in God’s love to a growing focus on God’s power.
Our question about God’s sensitivity, then, has a new weight in this light: is the portrayal of God as the unmoved mover accurate?
No. Let me suggest that it comes from the wrong source—from a disaffected, selfish, and unholy spirit who wants to mar the image of the truly relational God. This spirit turns the triune God—who “is love”—into a self-concerned and disaffected Power (i.e. into what Satan himself represents!).
This calls for serious chutzpa in the face of John 3:16 and the broad thrust of revelation. The biblical God features an eternal, giving relationship—with power and authority only present in the background—in which the Father has always loved the Son and the Son has always loved the Father in a reciprocal bond.
God now invites us back into this love that Adam abandoned. This love sent the Son to the cross and released God’s love to all who die with him and are raised with him. At the heart of this message is a triune God who has a heart—and whose stability and authority are not at all threatened by love. Instead we find that God has anticipated us—knowing us intimately even before we were created—with an ambition to call out a bride for the Son.
How? By drawing us with his love.
And what is the affective quality of this eternal relationship? An exploration of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. The Spirit—no longer grieved or quenched—will pour that love out in our hearts and we will live with the joy we’ve always longed for.
God, in turn, will be delighted.
Who are we?
This is a question about ultimate identity rather than constructed identity—about a defining bond rather than behaviors or circumstances. Our national identity, our socio-economic standing, our employment, our marital status—and all other circumstances in life—are only background items for this deeper question.
Deeper in this sense: the answer shapes all else and is eternal.
Eternity is the clue, of course: it’s the question of God-to-us. I first bumped into it in reading A. W. Tozer as a young believer. He claimed—and I paraphrase—that the greatest matter in anyone’s life is what he or she conceives God to be. He was right.
I’ve seen, for instance, how Hindus live in India with their plurality of deities and a caste cycle of life. I’ve been around Buddhism in Japan and India. I’ve been with Muslims in London. I’ve crossed paths with some animists, watched a few Shinto processions, and have known a number of secular naturalists. It’s not that these varied exposures set me up to say much about their quality of life. I just know they operate with a view of God that shapes them.
From a distance most people seem to be busy and engaged with life. There are, of course, certain to be variations in the quality of life within particular belief systems: some under a given divinity are poor, struggling and desperate. Others are affluent, powerful, and arrogant. Some are affluent and happy while others are poor and happy. Others are poor and angry while still others are wealthy and angry.
So the quality of person’s life isn’t the point of our question. It is, again: who or what is God to us, no matter what our varied settings and circumstances might be?
Our perception of God, then, is the lens through which we all engage life. Is God an ultimate power to be obeyed? Is he—or, perhaps, she or it—a lover to be enjoyed? Is God a moralist to be feared? Is it an impersonal force that gives vitality to life but is otherwise disengaged? Or is he a myth who leaves one with the role of creating a personal vision of life and meaning? The options are myriad!
And even among Christians the options are innumerable. Some Christians see God as a power figure: whose defining ambition is to apply his sovereignty. Others see him as a moralist: defined mainly by his holiness. Others see him as focused on glory. Still others see him as a planner who anticipated everything that now exists—picture a vast domino-tipping scheme—and then launched it. So now he’s free to sit back and watch the chain of events he once decreed come about.
None of these options is to be completely dismissed. God is wholly in charge; he knows and guides everything from the beginning to the end. And he is also holy. His glory is wonderful and invites praise. But which of these, if any, defines what he does? What motivates God?
A proper perception of God is that he is triune: a Father, Son, and Spirit God. And with that comes God’s intrinsic, eternal communion. The Father has always communed with the Son and the Spirit facilitates this bond of mutual delight. The label for this bond is love.
Why this view? Because of the cross. God gave up the Son to give us eternal life in an exchange of Life for life. The eternal Son swallowed death for us as promised in Isaiah 25:7. Death, when he entered it, wasn’t able to consume him; he, instead, consumed it. It couldn’t hold the infinite, holy Son. So he now offers freedom from death to his bride: to all those who love him.
The cross offers a picture of a holy God—the Father—whose love for the Son motivated him to create a realm by which he would extend this Triune love. His ambition is to have a people who would respond to the Son—or, in Psalm 2, those who “kiss the Son”—to be his bride for all eternity.
The means of sharing this love came in the sharing of life. The bonding presence of the Spirit—who eternally unites the Father and the Son in mutual love—was also shared with God’s newly created Adam. But the call to become the Son’s bride allowed space for alternative loves to exist. God doesn’t impose love on anyone: it’s always a heartfelt response to a pursuer’s love. And Adam’s heart turned away from God’s selfless love in favor of a selfish love: an ambition to “be like God” as a free agent.
The moral quality of God’s shared mutual love is holiness. That is, there aren’t any competing loves to be found in this eternal divine love—no discordant notes of discontent or disaffection. So Adam became unholy because of his self-love: no longer living in the communion of God’s mutual love.
The Son came, then, to gather those whose hearts were won—drawn by the Father’s mercies and the Son’s love. As God poured out his love in their hearts by his Spirit with words of self-sacrificial devotion the hearts of some, but not all, are won over.
This, then, is only a snapshot of God’s Triune love, yet it corrects the manmade distortions of God as a selfish being. Instead of delighting in his plentitude of power, the Son emptied himself to be made a man—as he and the Father had purposed from before the creation—in order to allow his beloved ones to partake in his divinity. Instead of being captivated by his own glory the Son delights to bring his beloved ones to share the glory he had with the Father before the creation came about.
What, then, is an identity that overwhelms all other false or superficial identities? Just this: God love us and we who respond to this love have a new basis for life. And it changes everything—both now and forever.
In the past year I’ve had two friends fail in ministry. I’m grieving and praying for them. I’m also learning some lessons. A church collapse also fits our focus.
Let’s begin by noticing an obvious challenge: failures bring shame. Yet we are wise to carry on despite shame. Some souls have even dismissed their shame to embrace the benefits of failure.
A tangible instance of learning from mishaps is the recent crash of the Virgin Galactic spacecraft. The co-pilot died and the pilot suffered serious injuries. The loss of life was tragic yet lessons are sure to be gained that will lead to greater safety in years ahead.
A crash is also a metaphor for what it feels like when failure impacts close relationships or a person’s identity and ministry. The church collapse I mentioned feels like an airplane crash to many of us in my region. The finale was announced yesterday as a front-page headline in Seattle area newspapers: leaders of the Mars Hill Church are dissolving that ministry.
Mars Hill—a mega-church with many outlying campuses—featured an energetic, articulate, and self-assured pastor, Mark, whose sermons at the headquarters church were distributed by video feed to the other settings. A few weeks ago he resigned under pressure. According to newspapers others on the church staff had confronted him for his overbearing and demeaning leadership. The news and television coverage noted other issues but Mark’s perceived arrogance was central.
Who knows what actually happened at Mars Hill but the outcome is clear: a church where the Bible was once well taught is now in tatters. Something went badly wrong and the ministry failed.
My two friends had very different failures. Each story was unique yet both grew out of long-term and complex underlying issues. To all outward appearances the men were morally sound when they crashed; and doors are still open for restoration. But they seemed to share a crippling fixation on life circumstances.
But that’s enough of the problems. Now let’s consider success. What, for instance, do we have in mind when we think of success in ministry? Was Jesus a success or a failure when he alienated the ruling religious and political elites of his day? Was his crucifixion a sign of success or did it signal a failed ministry strategy? And how did his followers measure ministry success in the decades after he departed?
Was the early church crushed when James was martyred? Did Stephen’s death lead to despair? Did restrictions on the early church growth in Jerusalem—as the church became less visible and started to move outward after Stephen’s death—cause a sense of failure? Wasn’t it true, instead, that the church was energized by these challenges?
Here, then, is a New Testament era measure for success. It always begins with our gaze at the cross as the place where Jesus swallowed death. It wasn’t a defeat but a victory. Paul said as much to King Agrippa and Festus, “[the Scriptures tell us that] the Christ must suffer . . . and rise from the dead” (Acts 26:22-23).
So our success as believers grows as we embrace the cross. And in a coming day God will measure us by our devotion to the crucified Jesus rather than by today’s measures of success: numbers, buildings, and finances.
What, then, does a ministry failure offer us in light of the cross? It might be God’s effort to draw us back to a proper focus. It might be a way for Mars Hill survivors to rebuild churches with the cross more clearly in view than ever before—and where love is so lively that local newspapers marvel at the humility of both pastors and members.
And what is the potential of the cross for my two friends? Can it redirect their heart-gaze?
We think, for instance, of the immoral woman who was “forgiven much” and who then “loved much.” Or of Peter whose failures on Friday paved the way for his bold assertions of Christ’s mercies in Jerusalem after Christ ascended. Paul also viewed all his early ministry efforts as “dung” after he came to see Christ as crucified for his sake.
The biggest lesson is that it’s only when we realize that failure by the standards of this world are part of coming to Christ on the cross: we die to the world and begin to live in light of eternity. And with that vision everything else grows strangely dim.
So let’s thank God for any failures that lead us to real success!
This post repeats an entry offered at the Cor Deo site: please offer any response there. Thanks!
Sound hermeneutics—the principles of interpretation—are crucial to effective Bible study. Good interpretation offers a reliable grasp of the meaning of a given text and a proper sense of how to apply it.
This interpretive work comes as part of a Bible college education. Graduates ideally go on to coach church members in sound Bible study. It all starts with impressive texts on Bible Exegesis and Bible Interpretation to help students build their expertise.
Given this level of support we should be secure in the benefits of formal hermeneutics. But that’s not the case: instead we find many Bible texts—especially those that address morally sensitive issues—being read differently by various ministers. A survey, for instance, of current discussions in gender issues and sexual preferences makes the case; or, in earlier days, issues of church polity, baptism, or the certainty of salvation.
So what’s wrong?
One crucial interpretive principle offered by Jesus during his ministry is being overlooked.
But before turning to Jesus let’s consider what a standard Bible study methods text offers. There will be discussions of the Bible documents: how they were first composed, including the literary, grammatical, and historical features that carry their content. Then the job of analyzing the texts is explored. This includes rules of context, of poetry, of narrative elements and literary devices. Each element is weighed and applied.
While this brief list may not represent all the contents of a given text it still illustrates a silence shared by virtually all hermeneutics texts. They remain quiet about the reader’s subjectivity; especially about the biasing effect of the reader’s morality.
This first dawned on me as I had a front row seat for a fascinating slow-motion event. I arrived in Chicago as a theology student in 1978—in time for The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy that met there in 1978, 1982, and 1986. These meetings eventually produced The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics.
I came to see this event as a disappointment. The Council began in 1978 with a keen sense of purpose as inerrancy was loudly affirmed. Next came a less-ringing affirmation of key hermeneutical principles in 1982. Then it ended in muted tones with a host of disagreements as the conferees tried to apply their principles to particular ethical issues in debate. In the end it seemed that all the applied issues remained as contested as they had been in the beginning.
How does this speak to the subjective element of interpretation? Let me risk using a broad brush. Those who came to the Council as infant-baptists remained infant-baptists; and those who were adult-baptizers held their ground as well. All the hermeneutics in the world didn’t change their views because their views, from the beginning, were all heartfelt and community based. The same was true of the feminists and the anti-feminists; the gay-receptive and the gay-opposers; the covenant theologians and the dispensationalist theologians. And so on.
Now to the point Jesus made. He viewed all humans as essentially subjective: as heart-driven. In Mark 7:21-23, for instance, he made this clear: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder . . . All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” In effect he identified thinking and choosing as instruments of the heart, and the heart as the location of motivations; and never the other way round.
So any notion that rationally derived interpretive principles will reshape a heart disposition is naïve. In New Testament terms we are always responders, either to the Spirit of God, or to the spirit of the world. There are just two masters of the world: God or his foe. So our hearts are ruled either by a love for the one or the desires of the other. Jesus made this clear in John 8:31-44.
That’s not to dismiss the rules of interpretation. But they only work properly when the interpreter’s heart is aligned with God’s heart. We see this in John 5 where a group of Bible scholars were ready to kill Jesus even in the face of compelling evidence that he was the Messiah. Their problem, according to Jesus? “But I know that you do not have the love of God within you” (verse 42).
Their problem was compounded by the mutual “glory” they received as a community of scholars: they operated on the basis of mutual approval—a point reaffirmed in John 12:43, “for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.”
So the only proper starting point for sound Bible interpretation—for reading the Bible rightly—is a love for God. Then all the other rules have a proper subjective grounding.
Here, then, is the first rule for heart-defined Bible students: hermeneutics must begin with the prayer of Psalm 139:23, “Search me, O God, and know my heart!”
Let’s think a bit more about the Spirit’s ministry in salvation.
Here are some basics. Paul wrote of our “having begun by the Spirit” as we meet God in faith (Galatians 3:3). The need for this ministry began with Adam’s death—a death that left him still walking and talking. Paul said more about this in Ephesians 2:1, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked [while following the devil]”.
So a key but surprising feature of God’s warning in Genesis 2:17—“for in the day you eat [the forbidden fruit] you shall surely die”—is that death is something other than flat brain waves and meeting a mortician. Adam ate and he died, but his physical life still continued for many more years.
God confronted this side of Adam’s existence by cursing the physical creation with death; and by disallowing Adam’s access to the Tree of Life. So the condition of physical death still hovers over all of human history and is only resolved in Revelation 22:2-3 when the Tree is once again available and the Curse ends.
In John 3 Jesus took up the seeming paradox of being alive-but-dead when he told Nicodemus that life in the “flesh” differs from having life “of the Spirit.” His point was that real life—speaking of eternal life—comes by our union with God’s Spirit.
Adam, by implication, had despised that union in Eden; and now the Spirit’s absence is a continuing void for all Adam’s offspring. So after the Fall God is external to human souls at birth, awaiting a possible return by his mercies. It was this reality that Nicodemus had missed: though he was walking and talking, he was dead.
Another basic truth that helps explain this is that the Spirit is fully God along with the Father and the Son. So to know one is to know all; and to despise one is to despise all because this one God always exists as the Father-Son-and-Spirit God. And each Person of the Godhead has a unique role in the divine economy as he reveals himself to the world.
The Spirit supports the communion of the Godhead as he fills the relational space between the Father and the Son—carrying the Father’s heart to the Son and vice versa. We catch a glimpse of this in 1 Corinthians 2:10-11.
What invites special attention is how the Spirit shares this divine relationship with the creation. I’ll return to this below.
Another basic is an oft-ignored distinction between the Father and the Son. The Father is the “unseen” God; so that the visible God is always the Son. We first find this in Exodus, comparing 24:10 and 33:20, and have it affirmed in John 1:18—“No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” So in looking back to the Old Testament we realize that the pre-incarnate Son is the God who walks in Eden in Genesis 3; and who meets and speaks with Abram in Genesis 18; and who is seen in all the other Theophanies.
In the New Testament we learn more: the Son always reveals the Father’s heart, as in John 5:30, “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” Later, in John 12:10, Jesus pressed his full identity and union with the Father: “The word that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.”
Now let’s turn to the Spirit’s role in sharing God’s communion with God’s people. Jesus promised his disciples that the “Helper” who, in the Triune oneness is God, “dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:17). And his role is Christ-centered—sent in Christ’s “name” (15:26)—so that “he will bear witness about me.” Furthermore, “whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he [the Spirit] will take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:13-15).
What do we make of this? This much is clear: after Jesus lived out his life on earth God, the Spirit, took up a new job. While he has always communicated God’s life to saints in the Old Testament—with his focus on the “gospel” or “promise” offered in Genesis (see Psalm 51 and Galatians 3 on this)—we discover that after Christ’s ascension the Spirit is at work in making the now-invisible Jesus visible.
This follows from the text we just noted in John 16:15. The Spirit extends the Son’s revealing ministry to a new stage. While Jesus made the Father visible during his earthly ministry, the Spirit now makes the Son visible by his Church ministry: revealing the Son through his activities in Christ’s Spirit-guided followers. Where Jesus was a perfect communicator, we in our flawed churches need to “mature” into the job!
It’s important to understand, then, that the Spirit has always been the agent of eternal life. But his new role—after the Son’s incarnation and ascension—is to communicate Christ’s life to the world. So that when Jesus told Philip, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” he set up a pathway to Paul’s insight that, by the Spirit, “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).
So with the Spirit’s “new job” we learn that the era of the New Testament is continuous with his Old Testament work of sharing God’s Life; and that his New Testament role is to focus on the Son just as the Son’s role was to focus on the Father.
So let’s enjoy what—or, better, who—he offers as we now walk and talk by the Spirit!
Let me come back once more to the late Heiko Oberman’s outstanding biography, Luther: Man between God and the Devil. In this work Oberman saw Luther’s reformation ambition for what it really was: an effort to correct the misportrayal of God that dominated the church in his era.
Oberman summarized a representative question on Luther’s behalf: “What kind of a God can it be who has to do battle against the Devil, who suffers and is crucified?” [p. 170]
Oberman then answers for Luther.
“The reproach is plainly directed at far more than just ‘Aristotle’ or ‘scholasticism.’ Since the Fall every man has been a philosopher, for he has taken his experience of the world and his knowledge of reality—which he has succeeded in describing scientifically—as a standard by which to measure God. But the intellect does not suffice to grasp the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; He must be apprehended through the Scriptures. The ‘God’ created by man is a false god of his own making.”
Let’s consider Luther’s main point: God is known only “through the Scriptures.” He set a tension that still applies. Are professing believers all in agreement with Luther? Or are many actually informal philosophers, busy creating separate gods to suit personal needs and desires?
The most telling measure of any believer—and where Luther starts—is how one sees the cross. Is it a starting point of faith? Or is it a salvation sidebar—the basis for justification but not a defining portrayal of God? The apostle Paul portrayed the cross as Christ’s dismissal of human pride and independence in Philippians 2:8—“And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
For Luther a cross-focused life violates common sense and intellect as it gives birth to faith. Faith responds to the compassionate God in the Bible: he was humiliated in death for our sake. By despising the shame of the cross God undermines pride and confronts the Devil who is a proud Spirit. With this in mind at the Heidelberg Debate of 1518 Luther pitted a “theology of the cross” over against “a theology of glory.” The cross, he insisted, is incomprehensible to the glory-driven intellect. Not because it has to be intellect-boggling, but because the intellect rejects the underlying values of the cross.
Luther’s insight—recognizing Aristotle and scholastic theologians as mere mirrors of Adam’s fallen perspective rather than guides—accentuates the role of Scriptures. The problem of sin is inclusive for all of humanity so that without the corrective lens of God’s revelation and the humility of Christ’s Spirit in a soul, people will always see life as an upside-down image: right is wrong and good is evil.
Even a quick scan of Scriptures—one of the gospels, for instance—will offer any number of these reverse-image spiritual contrasts: the call to seek Christ first; to serve rather than to be served; to count others as more important than ourselves; and many more.
So Oberman’s quip about every man needing to serve as a philosopher from Adam onward actually makes sense in this light: philosophy—the love of wisdom—is the exercise of making life work on the basis of a given set of values. If self-concerns are central, the structure of wisdom is built on that ambition. But if a person’s deep delight is to please God through love, another type of wisdom takes shape.
Scriptures, of course, don’t endorse a human-centered world and, not surprisingly, the Bible doesn’t attract a following from the self-concerned philosophers. Yet for those who have the true God in view no other resource carries much weight: only the Scriptures are full and coherent in presenting us the God who died on the cross, was raised from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of his Father.
So feel free to chase creative philosophies if you like; but the only way to approach life with a proper lens is to abide in the Scriptures. God will be waiting at the cross, just as he was for Martin Luther. And only then will the Bible make sense and become captivating; and life will begin to be all God means it to be.