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.
Curt sent me a link to a “nerdist” website that features a bicycle with a gear added to reverse the steering. When a rider turns right the front wheel turns left, and vice versa. So every instinct of the rider is wrong. The results are awkward: each effort to pedal ends in an instant upset.
The video didn’t end there. The featured cyclist tells of working hard to retrain his instincts and after many weeks of practice he adapted to his new bicycle. The video shows his eventual—but still slightly clumsy—success. It also traced his young son’s much faster adaptation on his smaller version of a reverse-steering bike. This was due, the father noted, to the child’s much greater neural plasticity. Very nerdish!
What came next was another surprise. When the father, for the first time in months, mounted a normal bicycle his every effort to pedal went awry. His mind had been reformed and refused to provide ambidextrous cycling instincts! The old patterns only reawakened with time and practice.
It occurred to me after watching the clip that reverse-instincts explain some of what we see in daily life. My brother, for instance, was a career fireman. So his instincts are different to mine when a dangerous fire erupts: I run from fires and he runs to them. Images of emergency responders and panicked crowds running in opposite directions in the New York twin towers tragedy offer a dramatic example of the difference.
Another example comes to mind: the reversal of spiritual instincts. When a person responds in faith to Christ everything changes. That’s why the term “conversion” is linked to the moment of spiritual awakening in a soul.
In ideal cases of conversion—using the Bible as our guide—a set of reversals takes place. Let’s trace a few.
First and foremost Christ, by his Spirit, enters our soul—so we are “born again” or “born from above” in the terms of John 3. This begins our participation in Christ. We are now Spirit-to-spirit partners with the Son of God and, in the terms of 2 Peter 1:4, “partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”
The point is that our old orientation of self-interest—our commitment to personal success, social standing, comfort, and security—is abandoned in favor of our new devotion to Christ. What was, collectively, a self-love is replaced by a new love for Christ and for those he loves. Call it the greatest miracle of rebirth.
A practical example of this sort of life-transformation is human love: when a man meets a woman who captures his heart everything changes. I remember my university days when most of my closest companions married. A pattern formed: after the wedding I was invited to a single meal and then the couple all but disappeared, socially, for almost a year. This was their time for learning to live with the reversed gears of a loving partnership. After the new skills of other-centered life were in place our full friendship came back on line but now with a new friend added.
In spiritual terms we have an even more dramatic transition—one so dramatic not all professed Christians are ready to embrace it. We shift from living according to “the Lie” and begin to live according to “the Truth.” This polarity isn’t as clear as it might be because our Bible translations invariably convert the underlying Greek use of a singular term and its article, “the Lie,” into a global notion such as “falsehood” (in, for example, John 8:44; Romans 1:25; Ephesians 4:25; and 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12).
These translations aren’t huge issues but they may mask just how the spiritual reverse gears operate: the devil has a single lie that manages to deceive everyone. Only when we dismiss the Lie—in what is called repentance—are we converted.
And what is this singular Lie? It was first uttered in Eden to Eve and then to Adam: “You can be like God.” The Truth, against this, is that God alone is God.
So a key tagline for Satan is “the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9) who rules the world by stirring a comprehensive and persistent devotion to the idea that self-concern—or, today, personal freedom—is the proper focus of life. Paul referred to this as the realm of death—of all who are “following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2).
The Truth is that real life—a life eternal—has a different ambition: faith rather than freedom; or, in other words, dependence rather than independence; or obedience rather than disobedience.
The key to having this new life in Christ work—of our being able to ‘ride’ by faith without constantly crashing—is to have a new love. A good marriage is the workshop God offers us for the ultimate marriage of Christ and the church. This love re-gears our lives and changes the way we steer: “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5—to be read with ch. 8 & 12:1-2). He alone brings the spiritual ‘plasticity’ that allows us to abandon the Lie and to live by the Truth.
Enjoy the new ride—but watch out for those who keep crashing as they try to ‘ride’ like Christians without having first responded to Christ and his Spirit. That’s awkward. The key is to repent and let God be God.
The cry was a constant imperative among the criminals of my childhood world. The adventures of our favorite superhero captured my brothers and me. No one, no matter how nefarious, could spread mayhem when Superman was around. Unless, of course, the evildoers had a bit of kryptonite on hand. Kryptonite was the stuff that undid Superman’s super powers.
I soon outgrew Superman along with the mythical claims of kryptonite but the idea that every known power could have an antidote was planted. Is it true in reality?
More recently I read about the first atomic reactor—a device built at Stagg Field in Chicago. The role of boron caught my attention in the story. It functions as a neutron inhibitor that can stop or “quench” nuclear fission. So boron is to atomic reactors what the fantasy of kryptonite was to Superman: massive energy can be blocked by an otherwise innocuous substance.
With the boron analogy in mind let’s shift to another power. God’s Spirit at work in Christians led the apostle Paul to rhapsodize about his power: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father . . . that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being . . .” and, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:14-16, 20-21).
Paul clearly had more Spiritual power in mind than many Christians experience today. Yet in reading about Paul in Acts and in reading his epistles we see he practiced what he preached: he displayed remarkable power as he shared the gospel. So, too, the first-century church “turned the world upside-down” for many who lived in that pagan era.
Transformation by the Spirit’s power is still available today. All we need is for God’s power to be at work in and through us as in the early days of the church. With the imagery of C. S. Lewis and his Screwtape Letters in mind, we can almost hear the Devil and his evil minions shouting to each other, “Stop them!”
And, sadly, they seem to have done all too well.
Instead of transforming power in the church today we more often find weakness and, in some settings, wholesale accommodation to the enemy’s schemes. But why—or how?
Let me suggest that a spiritual version of boron—something that blots out God’s work among us—is active today. Again, in Ephesians, we read: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (4:30).
The thought of our bringing grief to God’s Spirit may sound grandiose but it’s a biblical axiom. Paul also speaks of our capacity to “quench” the Spirit by embracing values and actions that repel him (1 Thessalonians 5:19).
So what do we do to avoid the enemy’s stifling work—to get away from his spiritual boron?
We should at least ask what he’s doing or using. What on earth does he have in his bag of tricks that can blot out the power of God in us?
The simple answer of the Bible is that we can dismiss God’s love by our pursuit of self-love. And by self-love the Bible is speaking of our longing for personal status and security, as well as any preference for darkness rather than light because our deeds are evil. Anything that elevates self-interest in place of a love for God and for our neighbors is self-love.
A corollary here is that we aren’t talking about God’s “willpower” versus human “willpower.” The lack of God’s power in believers—to repeat the biblical point—is all about a lack of love for him. The point is that God allows us to withhold our love from him and to look elsewhere with our affections. When we embrace that freedom, he retreats. Yet if we draw near him by responding to his offered love, he draws near to us.
This explains the widespread charges in the Old Testament of spiritual prostitution—“whoredom”—against Israel. It also explains the weight of Christ’s charge against the church in Ephesus, “you have abandoned the love that you had at first” (Revelation 2:4). God made us to love and delight in him so it grieves him when we worship and serve the creation rather than the God who created us.
So just as boric acid—a liquid form of boron—serves as a neutron sponge to atomic chain reactions, our self-love is a sponge that blots out our responsiveness to God’s love. And this grieves God: we can hurt and repel him.
The enemy knows this. So what does he do? Does he call us to love our entertainments more than God? Does he invite us to grumble more and give thanks less? Does he give us social popcorn in order to distract us from the feast of God’s personality? Does he stir church teachings that dismiss the primacy of God’s love?
However he does it, he’s effective. Jesus even warned us against demonic antidotes in his parable of the soils.
Yet there are some who will ultimately bear fruit. Some who, like Paul, are compelled to live a new life of love, now captured by Christ’s love.
Try it if you aren’t there yet. And if anyone starts shouting, “Stop it!” just consider the source and keep looking to Christ.
Can you recall a time when a friend or family member made a promise so weighty you had to stop and wonder?
I remember one such case—when Steve offered to cover almost half the cost of my hoped-for studies in London. I had all but given up on the project when he made his promise, a commitment he later fulfilled. And that changed my life.
Let me retrace part of that experience. At the time I didn’t know Steve very well—where he worked, for instance, or anything about his resources. He was just a new friend I met when he and his wife joined a Bible study I was leading.
On that evening—when he made his promise, “I’d love to help”—I didn’t know what to think. I hadn’t requested any help! Nor did he know how much I needed. It was just an open offer.
I remember being skeptical. “Thanks, Steve! But about a dozen people will need to say the same thing before I make any plans.” So he asked how much I needed and I told him. He responded, “That’s not a problem.”
Let’s step back to our first question, then, and look at three features of important promises. First, the promise itself; then the one who made it; and, finally, the one who receives it.
A significant promise speaks to a need or desire. Someone, for instance, may make a passing promise after a chance encounter: “I’ll call you soon!” If that friend is only a loose acquaintance we probably won’t be holding our breath waiting for that call. But if a physician promises to call us with his report on a biopsy we’ve just had, we’re sure to have our phone fully charged!
Second, the question of who made the promise is important. Our contrast of a casual acquaintance and a reliable doctor points to the differences between a social nicety and a professional commitment. The devoted person is someone we can trust. And the people we really trust may be a cozy few.
Finally, what about receiving a promise? In our example of the doctor and the expected biopsy report, the need to keep our phone handy is obvious. The underlying point is that a trustworthy person needs to be trusted. We reshape our behaviors in light of trusted promises.
Yet, in returning to my experience with Steve, I didn’t have any reason to trust him at first—there wasn’t enough history to go on. But his promise was so significant and my need was so real that I took steps to receive it. Yet I didn’t charge ahead; my responses came in stages. I didn’t buy the airline ticket to Heathrow, for instance, until the promise was fulfilled! But in good time he did come through and I was off to London.
So what about God? When he makes promises what difference do they make?
Let’s retrace our three features of a promise, but this time with God as the promise-maker and ourselves as the recipients.
First, what kind of promises does God make? Some possible categories come to mind.
One is the “Whatever you ask in my name” sort of promise. This seems like an open door to every sort of happiness: to personal health, wealth, and security!
Another is the “Whoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life” category. This sounds fine, too, since eternal-fire-insurance—as some would present it—seems like a great arrangement: who won’t want to sign up?
Other promises may seem a bit narrower as in the case of my own conversion verse in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all [your life concerns] will be added to you.” The “seek first” item has some complexity in it.
Now to our second question: how reliable is God—are his promises trustworthy? This one gets tricky. Most of us who are churched will affirm him in theory, but in practice we may find him wanting.
I can think of one friend, for instance, who years ago set up a test for God—with the “whatever you ask” promise in mind—and God didn’t seem to respond to him. So until today this man attends church with his wife but he refuses to believe in the God who didn’t come through in the test. He’s a successful businessman and refuses to work with anyone, God included, who doesn’t fulfill contractual commitments.
Many others, like my friend, aren’t fully convinced by claims about God. So they take a pragmatic approach: not ready to trust him even if continued listening is still an option.
This is, I’m sure, linked to the efforts of God’s most creative enemy who is forever trotting out his favorite device: skepticism. This is the serpent who asked, “Did God really say?” and who tried three times to get Jesus to doubt his Father as he was being tested in the wilderness. By now most academics are captured by themes of doubt; and many entertainers and politicians promote upside-down moral values rooted in denials of God. And even ordinary folks doubt God’s goodness.
This brings us to the final item: receiving God’s promise. The Bible call to love God with all our heart is behind all his promises. He has just one real ambition and that comes to us in a huge promise: we are meant to be part of his Son’s wedding feast, as the bride!
All who respond will turn out to have been chosen. Yet in a parable Jesus tells us that at first no one responds! So God has to pursue a very unlikely lot and convince them to come. I’m one of these.
It’s a breathtaking promise. And—using the terms of Romans 4—all of us who are “fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised” in making this possible will be counted as righteous. Amazing!
This entry is shared with the Cor Deo site: please offer any comments there. Thanks!
Years ago the caricature of a librarian was a matron who roamed the library shushing everyone. I hope the title for this entry won’t stir that image! Picture, instead, an auditorium in 2013 filled with the clamor of scientists awaiting the arrival of speakers who would confirm the discovery of the Higgs boson—the so-called “God particle.” It’s great to visit but when the speakers arrived it was time to listen!
So who invites even more attention? Perhaps the God who created the God particle? Certainly, when God speaks we will want to listen, right?
That, in turn, raises a question about God speaking: will he be offering a talk or a speech at a conference in days to come? Do we have an auditorium we can visit or a channel to watch?
I don’t ask this to be careless or absurd but to try to build a bridge between the real world and a premise of faith that God is the ultimate communicator. As a Triune God he has always been in a communion of conversation. And he is still speaking today, even if he doesn’t come to us in the ways we might desire or expect.
So our underlying question is this: When God speaks today, where, and how does he do it? This brief blog can only tease the question, but here goes.
First, God sets a platform for his sharing by what he does. I mentioned the God-particle in opening. Recently I listened to an audiobook on Europe’s Hadron collider and the hunt for the predicted Higgs boson. One feature stood out: the overall orderliness and symmetry of nature allows scientists to make such predictions. My own response was to credit an intelligent design to a Designer who stands above nature and rules it in ways we can see and admire.
Second, and more to the point of communion, God wants to share himself with us in Christ. John was sensitive to this as he wrote his gospel. Jesus was introduced as God’s “Word”—who is “the only God, who is at the Father’s side, [and he] has made him known.”
John goes on to report how the Spirit takes what Jesus reveals of the Father and shares it with the disciples: “All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he [the Spirit] will take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:14).
Here is a pattern: whatever the Father offers belongs to the Son; and his Spirit, in turn, declares it to his disciples. Then in John’s next chapter this self-giving of the Father, Son, and Spirit is carried forward through the disciples to our day—and “also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (17:20-21). In effect, divine union and communion breeds human union and communion.
So this word-based communion—“that they may all be one”—points to God as its source: “just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you.” A relational bond in an alienated world is a compelling signal of God’s presence in us. It helps others to hear what God is saying when they see him acting in and through us.
We know, too, that God shares himself in a fully accessible form: in writing. The apostles, with the Spirit’s oversight, recalled what they learned from Jesus as they wrote the New Testament. Jesus also reassured his disciples of the reliability of the Jewish Canon—the Christian Old Testament—as the Spirit’s disclosing ministry. It’s available to any and all readers.
As for the Spirit’s unique place in the Trinity one roles stand out: he is the active voice in sharing God’s heart to all who will hear. And this is crucial—and the reason for Christ’s warnings not to dismiss the Spirit. To hear God we must have his Spirit.
Listen to 1 Corinthians: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (2:14). The Spirit-to-spirit ministry calls for a new heart, attuned to God’s heart. Our sole role is to repent of our old hardness of heart.
A person’s not hearing God, we learn, comes from distaste, not disability. In John 8 we read of the deceit of the great Liar—the devil—as the reason people do not hear God’s voice. As Jesus put it, “my words find no place in you” and “you cannot bear to hear my word.” These comments followed his premise that only authentic believers will know “the truth” that comes by “abiding” in his word.
Later in John, as Jesus spoke to Pilate, he returned to the appetite for truth as the basis for hearing and responding: “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (18:37).
His final line brings weight to our question. Hearing God is truth-defined. And some are drawn to the Truth; many are not. And in John 8:42 we read that the Father stirs a love for Jesus in the soul; then in John 14:6 Jesus is personified as “the truth.”
But how much truth will we find in a world that dismisses God? Are we likely to hear the Spirit’s whispers as we spend most of our time listening to the world’s entertainments? Or to worldly politics, counseling, leadership, or to any other realm where God is ignored?
Christ’s invitation to “abide in my word” takes time and quiet. Yet once we get a taste for truth nothing else satisfies. So perhaps it’s time to “be quiet” and enjoy!
Today is Easter—when Christ’s followers celebrate his resurrection. By going to the cross he kept the promise of Isaiah 25:7—“And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces.” Easter tells us he succeeded.
This truth has both immediate and enduring power.
The immediate impact is that Christ’s saving work is “once for all.” We have freedom from the fear of death, a fear that once ruled our hearts: all our sins are resolved at the cross in a single moment. And all who believe are forever free of the death that came when Adam dismissed God.
And it’s only because of Easter that Augustine’s memorable claim is practical: “Love, and do as you please.” Yet his aphorism, once it got around, created a storm of protest led mainly by a British moralist named Pelagius.
Augustine’s comment does need some unpacking—it can be abused. Joseph Fletcher, an American ethicist of the last century, illustrated the misstep of treating love as an ultimate moral touchstone. In his “Situation Ethics” Fletcher took the Christian language of love to build an ethical system: “Do the loving thing in every situation.” Yet in his apparent paraphrase of Augustine’s fifth century thought Fletcher actually missed the key point.
Augustine’s point looked back to the language of love in a pair of texts from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
The first was, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (5:5); and the second, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (13:8-9).
What Augustine drew from Romans, and the Bible in general, is that love is a soul’s bond to God—and not a simple sentiment or private decision of the soul. Love, in other words, isn’t an end in itself but a response to God. The ultimate focus of God’s love is his Son, Jesus. True faith—and any sound ethic—only works through this love of Christ. He makes all the difference.
Salvation restores what Adam lost: our love for God. So we come to Christ as the Spirit pours God’s love into our hearts. Where we once had hard hearts—dead to God—we now have his life restored in us. Our ultimate motive is no longer self-love—with the ugly desires that once ruled us—but a love for Christ and for those he loves.
And this is where Easter is so important. When Jesus conquered death he released his children from the spiritual death that rules unresurrected souls. The first Easter meant all of us who share his Spirit will also share his new life. He died by taking on our death and we live by receiving his life.
So Fletcher made the mistake of applying a truth to all humanity when what Augustine promised only works for those who have God’s Spirit pouring God’s love out in their hearts.
And Pelagius was just as mistaken in ignoring Augustine’s underlying premise—the point Paul made in Romans 13—that love will fulfill all the demands of the law. God’s love always does what is right, pure, and holy.
Fletcher’s misapplication and the Pelagian error are still active today. Neither man grasped the focus of Easter. They focused, instead, on human functions. But the Pelagian call to clean up behaviors; and Fletcher’s reliance on unredeemed human love, don’t work.
God’s answer relies on heart-transplants. Behaviors and emotions, apart from the Spirit, only display an underlying problem: hard or sin-deadened hearts. Our old hearts may even appear to be noble for much of the time but any souls that aren’t alive to God are ultimately self-concerned.
God’s Spirit restores a transforming love in the hearts of all who are saved. And by this means faith is “working through love” as presumed in Galatians 5. The Spirit’s presence produces love, joy, peace, patience, and more; and, “against such things, there is no law.” The fruit may not be fully developed in any of us, but it is sure to be growing in us as newborn believers.
So the wonderful focus of Easter is properly on Jesus who swallowed death for us. And he now shares his life with us by his Spirit pouring love out in our hearts. And with that we get to explore a new way of life: “Love, and do as you please.”
And this will by morally safe because our deepest ambition is to please our resurrected Lord. It’s by his love that we celebrate today: Christ has risen. And so have we!
Last week I was shocked to hear of the airline copilot who flew his airliner into a mountain, killing many while taking his own life. But he was not alone in dealing out death. During the week there were suicide-vest killings in a Somalia hotel; killings in Nigeria, Syria, Tunisia, America, and more.
So my question: how are senseless killings birthed? By failed parents? Anarchic video games? Jihadic religion? Poor education? Poverty? Mental illness?
These links don’t offer real answers. Some affiliations between circumstances and tragedies can be made but there are no assured causal links: both weeds and wheat grow in the same soil. So these acts of murder seem inexplicable.
Jesus, however, did point to an ultimate source in John 8. He taught, using a binary opposition, that everyone is either a child of God or a child of the devil. And murder displays Satan’s paternity.
So what the copilot did—looking beyond any secondary issues, including mental illness—displayed that reality. And our list of distressing news reports reveals Satan’s indirect but very real role in the world today, a role going back to Genesis 3. If Adam and his offspring—all of us—had rejected Satan’s lie no murder, mental illness, or shattered lives would have followed.
What sharpens the issue here is that Jesus was speaking to an audience of professing followers. Profession wasn’t enough. He told them their continuing sins displayed an enslavement to sin, and they needed to become sons of God. Only sons, not slaves, share in God’s eternal life.
But the men quickly dismissed what Jesus said. And their dismissal pointed to an underlying resistance to God. So Jesus put it more bluntly: “You are of your father the devil.” And, “If God were your Father you would love me.” Two options—just two.
Was Jesus wrong or merely reacting when he made his binary claim? Or are we overstating the point if we apply it to today’s events? Our instincts certainly run opposite to what Jesus taught: isn’t the world ‘non-aligned’ unless, and until, people formally invest in a given faith? And, beyond that, enlightened people today know better than to believe in boogeyman stories of devils or demons.
But Jesus would treat our perspectives as so much nonsense. He saw all humanity as family members of Adam who share his spiritual DNA. He was enslaved to the serpent’s promise, “You can be like God,” and all his offspring are too. So there is just one paternity: the Liar and all who embrace his lie.
Except when someone is born of God. And here we return to John 3 and the need for new birth in a fallen world.
Jesus also knew Adam’s offspring share the devil’s ultimate ambition: “And your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning . . .” (verse 44). He was speaking of more than Cain killing Abel. The ambition of the serpent is to kill the Son and all his offspring.
But labeling everyone but Christians as children of the devil seems outrageous. For instance, if we compare the dedicated recovery teams at the crash site to the copilot’s evil actions we see a clear difference. So the assumption that all but Christians are under the devil’s leadership has to be a moral non-starter, even if Jesus held it to be true.
Okay, that sounds noble. But let’s step into Christ’s sandals and think again. The Bible tells us he created us and came to earth to take us as his own. But everyone rejected him except for a few followers who worshipped him. His crucifixion—an event we will recall this Friday—was the finale. Humanity loved darkness rather than his light and life. And today Jesus is still dismissed rather than worshiped by the world at large. Even among good folks. This was the devil’s ambition and he succeeded—except among those born of God.
That’s the point. The devil is satisfied with that for now. But an ambition to usurp God consumes him. He wants to show off his power and murder is his ultimate device. As such he’s the ultimate terrorist: he can blend in as an angel of light until he finds a good opportunity. Events this past week offered such moments.
So the certain litmus of Satan’s work is this: in denying or distorting what Jesus says. And the devil’s power to rule in a given soul comes through pride: the most ambitious among us are the most vulnerable to Satan and to his unseen minions. C. S. Lewis captured all this in his Screwtape Letters. Self-love is the devil’s lifeblood.
But enough of the devil. The Bible reminds us of his finitude: he is merely a creature gone sour. And God, as we read in Job, restricts his movements and trumps his ambitions. When sin prospers, grace is even greater.
Now the surprise: Jesus invites listeners who are grieved by hate murder, lying, pride, and loneliness to change parents! He offers this to all who will respond: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
This brings us to the joy of Easter. God allows us to taste evil to know its bitterness: its pain, death, and sorrow. And by that exposure—as we taste God’s love on Good Friday—we find what we were made for: to be lovers of God, not lovers of self. So—as in an immunization—our pain sets us up hate the Lie and to embrace God as our Father.
Jesus swallowed death for us and, as God, death couldn’t hold him. So by his resurrection we now live with him. And we come to trust him and his words forever.
Easter, then, is the ultimate answer to the tragedies of this past week. Our tears are dried as we come to the empty grave: Jesus has risen!
A week ago a USA church denomination led by progressives changed its stance on a big social issue. In reading jubilant news responses I thought of God. Why is he so slow to change, even when visionaries offer to coach him?
The question reaches back over many centuries. Some leaders in Genesis, for instance, realized that God’s call to spread out and fill the earth was misguided. So they pursued Babel’s Heavenly Tower project instead. And their courageous vision was nothing new. Years before even Adam needed to confront God by defending our human right to choose good and evil.
Later in Genesis we read of Abram rescuing God when the Lord lost track of his promise to give Abram a son. Abram solved things by taking one of his house ladies—Hagar—to be a surrogate mother for Sarah. Bold leaders always find a way.
Then there was Moses who killed Egyptians who abused God’s people. His strategy didn’t work so well, but years later God called him to a proper rescue mission. At that time, when Moses was away meeting with God, his brother and aide, Aaron, brought more creative leadership to the nation. Aaron’s golden calf initiative was a wild success, offering a more tangible vision of Yahweh and a better focus for major worship events.
Other progressive figures emerge over time. There were Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus who improved God’s unimaginative incense formula. In Numbers we read of Balaam who realized ministry could be turned into moneymaking opportunities. Later we read of Saul who was bold enough to question God’s kingdom vision. Saul, instead, adopted a bigger idea: the goal of a dynastic heritage. David, who replaced Saul, was by comparison rather ordinary in his vision—mostly winning wars, writing poetic prayers, and designing a temple—but his son did better.
Solomon, David’s son, adopted a more progressive strategy of kingdom-building. He married the daughters of regional kings—in standard ‘bridal-treaty’ arrangements—and allowed the wives to keep their homegrown deities. His only rule was that foreign gods were to be restricted to his wives’ homes—with all these mini-palaces built well away from God’s Temple. So when Solomon visited a given queen he only worshipped her god as a courtesy and didn’t stay for long.
As we go on to other progressive figures in the Bible, King Jeroboam was a remarkable visionary. In Israel’s civil war he captured most of the nation and, as victor, he realized that politics and religion work best when blended.
His problem was that he hadn’t captured Jerusalem and its temple. So he revived Aaron’s golden calf strategy. First he cast two golden calves as Yahweh-icons—one for the northern region and one for the south—and then he set up a new priesthood. Anyone who wanted to be a priest and had the money could buy the position!
The biblical pantheon of progressives goes on and on. There was King Ahab who recognized that by worshipping a variety of gods at the same time he could please more people and not have to defend the divine vision of Bible-thumpers like Elijah.
In Jeremiah’s era gender equality got a boost from the “Queen of Heaven” religion. And in Ezekiel’s day—in the years of captivity—there were those who assumed Israel could only be restored by accommodating herself to the religions of the Babylonians who conquered her. So the Jerusalem priests—while still maintaining some features of Yahweh worship—added a bit of sun-god worship and the option of worshipping Tammuz.
There were many other brilliant figures of course. But we need return to God’s enigmatic role. We would expect him to be excited about the strong and effective leaders in history but that’s not always the case. Instead he’s often silent; and when he does speak up he often seems misinformed.
Take Elijah, for instance. He actually thought he was the only man left in all Israel who still stood with God. But as a reactionary—always looking back and not ahead—he was sure to find other laggards no matter how many of their friends and neighbors are aligned with the times.
So how did God answer Elijah? He sided with the prophet! And told him that 7,000 people were still aligned with them. This is where God’s myopia shows up: Israel had a population of millions by then. So God, Elijah, and a small remnant showed their lack of social progress when any of the polls of that era could have corrected them.
There’s more. God the Son was similarly out of step during his earthly ministry. His short career only achieved a ghastly crucifixion and 120 followers by the time he returned to heaven.
To be frank, God—at least the God portrayed in the Bible—always seems out of touch.
Yet religious progressives know not to be bothered. In the 19th century as the Enlightenment was in full swing many religious leaders—the “modernists”—dismissed all the miracles of the Bible. Many argued that God is simply a human superstition who should be re-envisioned in order to meet human needs.
More steps of progress followed. Major advances in sexuality now allow people to break free from the lifelong marriages and fetus fixations of the past. Marriage has been re-envisioned.
And even the Christian faith is now free to be a therapeutic project in place of the older ambition to know and love God for his own sake. Love and heartfelt devotion can be left to the backward-looking enthusiasts who probably don’t number more than 7,000 in any big city by now.
Despite such progress there are still major divisions among Christians. For instance I’m still an old school enthusiast and still embrace many of the reactionaries of the past like Jesus.
Yet wherever we are in our progress we may want to ask why the biblical God is so out of touch. The Bible offers some amazing answers.
This post repeats a Cor Deo offering. Please offer any comments at that site. Thanks!
A Friday morning chat with Terry about conversations, and then reading Pete Sanlon’s book on Augustine—including a feature on Augustine’s conversations with God—set me up for this post.
It’s a topic worth revisiting on a regular basis even apart from these reminders. Conversations are the threads that make up the fabric of life and our sense of belonging to community.
What is a conversation? In basic terms it’s a word-based exchange of thoughts: the informally expressed first fruits of inner reflections exchanged between or among any participants. They are topical and spontaneous, usually maintained by social conventions of mutual curiosity, caring, and humor. Assertions, questions, answers, and counter-questions prosper in a good conversation.
The reflections are reciprocal: an exchange of thoughts in a dialogue. What one says will shape, in some measure, what the other says. Yet each is also contributing from his or her unique point of view. So a new reality—the substance of shared thoughts—is formed by every conversation.
It’s possible, of course, for one voice to dominate—to move to a monologue. It’s also possible for the combination of lecture and dialogue to occur: for a teacher to engage any questions. But these variations only serve to accentuate the unique quality of a true conversation: when two or more hearts and minds are joined in a search for insight and accord.
The place of the heart is important here. In Bible conversations the writers regularly assume the heart to be prior to the mind in what a speaker says. And with that they assume the affective foundation of a true conversation.
Isaiah cites the LORD, for instance, in challenging the citizens of Jerusalem, “this people draws near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (29:13); and centuries later Jesus cited this text against a different generation of Jerusalem leaders (Mark 7:6). This addressed a truism that it’s always possible to be insincere in what we say. So, as we discover here, God makes it clear he isn’t thrilled with insincerity.
Consider, too, the exchange in Judges 16 between Delilah and Samson. In a scene that anticipated television soap operas, Samson was holding back information from his girlfriend as they talked at night. Her complaint? “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me?” In time he caved in and “told her all his heart” with a transparency Delilah recognized at once. And, given her own insincerity, she promptly betrayed him.
And this feature of heartfelt motivation is where examining conversations becomes intriguing. If we recognize a difference between “good” conversations that consist in heart-to-heart exchanges, and our “ordinary” conversations that consist in swapping loose thoughts and opinions about football or restaurants—exchanges in which our hearts are largely out of sight—we may have stumbled into something important.
And we have. A host of Bible texts presume that our souls consist in the substance of our collective conversations: the stuff of who we talk to; what we talk about; and the level of heart-birthed honesty in our sharing. In Isaiah 32, for instance, the prophet set up a contrast between the transformation of all who will respond to the coming King of righteousness versus “the fool [who] speaks folly”—“But he who is noble plans noble things, and on noble things he stands.”
Jesus also allowed his disciples to listen to one side of a conversation with his Father in John 17. In this prayer Jesus discriminated between those who will “see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” and those who are with “the evil one”—a judgment that was based on their being conversation partners with Jesus.
The disciples, in other words, had been drawn into the substance of the Son sharing what the Father had shared with him: “For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you” (verse 8).
And this participation by the disciples in a conversation with Jesus also set up a participation by us—in a chain of hearing and responding—so that even today we share in a line of conversations going back to the Triune conversation in glory: “I [Jesus praying] do not ask for these [immediate disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (verse 20).
Let me return to my Friday visit with Terry. We talked, in part, about the proper boundaries of conversations: what makes a good conversation? And when are conversations fruitless or misguided?
This morning I took that question to God. The conversation started when I both listened to—on my iPod—and read Isaiah 25-44, and then talked to him—praying—for the next couple of hours. The day started at a friend’s house in Cannon Beach. From there I drove the short distance to Hug Point soon after my time in the word.
What came to mind and to voice in my prayers? My concerns included some recent decisions I’ve made; some thoughts stirred by Terry and by Pete’s book; and the most compelling thoughts came from reading Isaiah at length. My earlier questions and circumstances stirred my reading and listening, and then my praying. It was a working conversation, and it’s certainly not finished!
Two final thoughts.
First, if I had more space I’d love to return to 1 Corinthians 2—a hobby-horse passage for me—to trace how the Spirit supports a Heart-to-heart, Spirit-to-spirit, communion with God. Please go there if you don’t know it already.
And second, I always come away from Hug Point wanting to talk to others who love God. It’s a joy to talk about him and the difference he makes in real life. He changes us, and then he changes the conversations we have with each other!