What should we make of the WWJD movement—What Would Jesus Do?—of the 90’s?
Proponents of that movement updated Charles Sheldon’s book, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? They also borrowed from The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis of the 16th century.
I’ve been a skeptic. My hesitation has nothing to do with the underlying premise that a Christian ought to be Christlike. We are, certainly, to be imitators of God (Ephesians 5:1 & more). But how do we get there?
Sin is able to redirect even that good ambition. In the case of WWJD we can turn faith into a responsibility in place of a response. Religion then becomes a performance, with followers seeking to be good—imitating Jesus—in the eyes of a given audience. But real goodness is something that comes from God and not something we bring to him.
The trap is obvious once we see sin as self-love. As sinners who focus on behaviors—as is true of WWJD—we are religiously looking in the wrong direction: at self. Jesus serves as our resource with some of his Bible lines excerpted to become a script for improving performances. He then serves as a utilitarian icon rather than as a captivating companion.
This form of behavioral faith is both moralistic and tiresome. Tiresome because it is hard work to pretend to be moral if our hearts are distant from God. So the question is one of motivation.
The actual call of Christ is to receive a new heart—offered by the Spirit’s ministry—and then to do what is increasingly natural as his love moves us. So the true imitation of God is to have a heart moved by his heart: to love what he loves. We begin to walk in step with the One who is loved—not as a performance but as a response.
But back to the WWJD theme. Despite the concerns just noted it seems to me there is a proper place to ask what Jesus did during his first century ministry. But the question should be broader—community-based—and affective. In other words, what were the social settings or activities Jesus used and affirmed? And HDJL—How Does Jesus Love?
Let me sketch some potential lessons by briefly comparing how we function as churches today over against Christ’s first century ministry.
For one, Jesus spurned a headquarters-based ministry in favor of itinerant processions, mainly through the regions in and around Galilee, but also to the Jerusalem region for Jewish feasts.
Jesus did return to Capernaum and to Bethany in pauses between his travels but not much is made of these settings. Peter’s mother-in-law lived in Capernaum. This suggests the town was Peter’s home as well as the home of the other fishing-industry apostles. But nothing much is made of the community or its synagogue apart from Christ’s dire warning in Matthew 11:23.
Churches today, by contrast, are invested in place and permanence. Material settings receive huge resources while investments in missions often lag. One lesson here is that Jesus loved to engage people wherever he spent a given day, yet did little to create spaces and places for ministry. His was a “go and share” vision rather than a “come and settle” model.
Jesus offered himself to the poor and needy instead of the privileged and powerful. His mission was notably upside-down in this regard—something he needed to restate even among the disciples—as he came not to be served but to serve. He knew the meek are always more responsive than the mighty.
In contrast to this, business growth models and numerical goals often shape modern churches. Pastors are CEO’s in structures that mirror the values of their given community. Bible colleges, in turn, adapt their teachings to remain aligned with cultural demands.
Jesus was also a controversialist. He stirred a hornet’s nest by his Sabbath activism. He also confronted religious leaders with his uncomfortable parables and his “woe to you” statements. He forced audiences to realize there are only two masters: we either serve God or the world.
The church today, by contrast, is often placid and accommodating—acting as if most of our culture is spiritually neutral. Therapeutic coaching and training in creedal compliance often displaces a passion for Christ and a sacrificial love of neighbors.
Jesus was also boldly relational. His closest companions loved him, with only one exception. They were ready to die for him, as they did in the end, because they knew he loved them.
As part of this Jesus was conversational. He offered himself to his followers during their long treks to and from Jerusalem. His disciples asked him hard questions without fearing a rebuke. He also stirred their thinking—and elicited more talk—whenever they were passive or confused. He loved them and he told them that their mutual love is a signal of authentic faith. It was this group who then carried Christianity into its explosive growth.
The church today, by contrast, elevates teacher-centered education rather than student-centered conversations. Engagements tend to be top-down—or podium-based—rather than face-to-face and interactive. And deep-seated love is replaced by admiration and affirmation.
More can be said. It’s enough for now to invite the Spirit’s inspection: how well do we listen to Jesus these days?
If we fail to walk as he walked and to love as he loved the church becomes moribund. Isn’t it time for us to return to our first love? And then to respond to Christ’s love as our proper motivation? If we do our churches may once again begin to have an impact on the world.
A friend recently commented on what he sees as a widely embraced twist in our Christian circles: “We believe in the Trinity . . . of a sort: in the Father, Son, and the Holy Scriptures.”
His wry point invites some reflection. He wasn’t saying that an overt opposition exists in some circles between honoring the Spirit and using the Bible. He was saying, instead, that the Spirit’s ministry is understated in too many settings that make much of the Bible and its authority. In my experience he’s right on target. Over the years many of my Bible college companions and pastoral colleagues have been Bible-strong but Spirit-shy.
Yet consider the connection. The Scriptures’ honor is ultimately due to the Spirit’s handiwork. He offers God’s heart through the Bible as its indirect author and as the defining presence in all its content. His role—as the Spirit of both the Father and the Son—is critical both to the writing and the proper reading of its substance. Through the human writers he offers encouragements, exhortations, exposés, historical narratives, devotions, poems, self-portrayals, and more—so when we read we have, potentially, the thrill of a Spirit to spirit engagement with God himself. This is what we call spiritual illumination—the promise of moving “from glory to glory” offered in 2 Corinthians 3.
Without a keen awareness of the Spirit as both the original author and the abiding presence in the Bible we may treat its writings as opaque resources rather than relational lenses through which we find a living presence awaiting us. Think of the relational difference, for instance, between a conductor reading a train schedule and wife reading a letter from her beloved husband.
Let me press the point: if we separate Bible words from God’s intention to share himself with us our Bible reading and study will soon reduce to an archiving exercise or a mining expedition for religious ideas. Yet the real point of the Bible is to present God and to engender faith. Faith comes by hearing the word so that we begin to trust the God who offers us his spreading goodness in the texts we read.
For readers still puzzled by this distinction let me turn to a tradition of bold Bible reading as an illustration. Years ago—when I was a newly minted high school graduate—I met a retired missionary, Sam, who had a habit of daily Bible reading. For fifty years he read from Genesis to Revelation twice or three times a year—taking about thirty minutes a day for the reading. The benefit was obvious: he knew and enjoyed the Bible like no one I’d ever met before. The Bible inhabited his life: he knew Christ in a very personal way. So, as an impressionable and spiritually hungry youth, I adopted his approach and never turned back.
Here’s what I discovered: in the Bible the Spirit communicates God’s personality to the caring reader. Personality as in what God likes, what he dislikes, what he emphasizes and what he dismisses. He’s frightening at times and winsome at others. He won’t put up with nonsense and doesn’t feel obliged to keep humans happy. Instead he wants us to be fit to dwell with him for ages to come. And by “him” I mean the Father-Son-and-Spirit who is the One God. He also loves to intrigue us with his puzzles and he prefers to whisper rather than to shout. He rewards patience and persistence and turns away from skepticism and arrogance.
Here’s an analogy. This weekend I was in Poland where I met a Pole named Adam who knew my friend, Dan. Dan and I, in 1989, had driven on a round trip to Poland from Fulda, Germany. Let’s just say the trip was an adventure! Adam, with a big smile, asked me about it. We were soon both laughing because we both knew how Dan’s unique personality would play into making the trip lively.
Think, next, of where “personality” comes from. God, himself, is the fount of every good quality of life, creativity, beauty, and intelligence. We were created in his relational image so that our own sense of what constitutes a close bond is only an echo of the Triune original. And he shares his character freely with any who meet him. So much so that I expect that anyone else who knows him will have the same sense of what he always brings into a relationship: his love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And anyone who knows him well will be deeply shaped by the impact of this immense personality.
Yet too many Christians have been put off from expecting this in their faith. Part of the reason, I’m sure, is that a false version of the Spirit is at work and he offers a distorted portrayal of God. We know from Paul’s warning in Ephesians 2:1-3 that this alternative spirit is now working in the “sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived” and that he has certainly done as much as he can to blind us to the true Spirit. His personality produces followers who promote sexual immorality, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger—and the list goes on in Galatians 5.
So here is the clearest indication of the true Spirit: he always magnifies the Son and not himself, just as Jesus promised: “he will bear witness about me” (John 15:26). And, as we spend time with him, and with the Bible he wrote, we too “will bear witness, because you have been with me” in the Word.
To wrap up, let’s always come to the Bible to meet someone. To meet with God himself by his Spirit who is there awaiting us…
We were made for conversation.
This realization comes in the first hours of birthing and never ends. Every child who grows into successful adulthood will have started with a mother’s tender gaze, cuddles, and whispered words. This parent-child bonding is woven by words of devotion and love. The child also smiles and learns to respond to a unique articulation—a name—and in time offers his or her own words of mum, mommy, abba, dada, and more.
As days and weeks turn to years the conversation of parent and child grow ever more lively and creative. More words are needed to extend the bond of shared family life. Innate creativity reaches for new ways to please and to extend the bonding work of conversations: “Daddy, what is that?” Or, “Mommy, can I help you?” And later, “Dad, what do you think of my new car?”
If we look for the source of this wonderful glue of life—the conversations of creative mutual devotion—we find it in God. We hear bits of the divine conversation of Father, Son, and Spirit from the beginning of the Bible to the end.
If, for instance, we engage the Bible account as a whole and see—as Irenaeus suggested centuries ago—the Son and the Spirit as the two hands of the Father we see the tangible creation as their shared accomplishment. And then the repeated refrain of Genesis 1 is more striking in this relational context: “and God saw that it was good.” Picture the Son coming to the Father with the latest feature of creation and read the refrain as the Father’s delighted response.
We also learn, in Ephesians 1, that the Father, “in Christ,” chose us “before the foundation of the world” to be his children. This, we realize, involved a Triune conversation “in love” that anticipated each believer—and our eternal family standing—with God.
We also find God’s invitation for us to join him in the eternal conversation. In Genesis 18, as one early example, “the LORD” spoke with his two angelic companions about including Abraham in their conversation about the coming judgment of Sodom. Abraham would be speaking to his offspring about God so he needed to be part of a two-way conversation—with God and with his offspring—“to keep the way of the LORD . . .”
In the episode that followed we find a complex account that included Abraham trying to coax God into sparing Sodom from fiery judgment. The patriarch used the premise that God’s righteousness must always be particular and never brandished in a broad sweep. God agreed, but how particular did Abraham want him to be? “Fifty?” Abraham suggested. Somehow Abraham—no doubt thinking to shelter his nephew Lot and Lot’s family—quickly realized that Sodom was well short of having fifty righteous inhabitants. So in a set of tighter requests Abraham eventually came down to the number ten. God still agreed.
Yet when the two angels came to Sodom their proffered conversation met with resistance apart from Lot himself: the citizens of Sodom had no interest in a conversation with God’s delegates. Instead they had their own ambitions. Even the families of those engaged to Lot’s daughters laughed him off. And, in the end, only four were saved along with Lot—as many as the two angels had hands to drag them away from the doomed city. And then even one of them, Lot’s wife, broke away and turned back to die.
The pattern of God coming—ready to speak with people through his prophets—only to have his words rejected and many of his prophets killed reached the finale of Christ’s arrival. Here was the Son of God, himself, who was portrayed as God’s “Word”—the ultimate basis for communing with a communicating God. But the offer of a conversation with God was rejected by all but a few.
The picture in John 17 of the Father’s heart, revealed through the Son, makes his words the bonding feature of all his true followers: “Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. 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: and they have believed that you sent me.”
Paul, in turn, wrote about the communion—the conversation—that comes as God engages us by his indwelling Spirit: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
But most of us are at least a little hard of hearing. The conversation isn’t particularly audible to our hearts. Call it the battle of sin.
Remember, for instance, the first expressed antagonism against God questioned his words: “Did God really say . . . ?” And, since the fall, problems in maintaining good conversation continue. Many, if not all children, for instance use words from early days that are conversation-breakers: “No!” or, in social settings, “Mine!”
The same takes place in schools when conversational learning is replaced by lectures. Or in the office where conversations about successful methods may be displaced by demands and dictates. Or in marriages where one spouse takes up a steely stare and says to the other, “Dear, we need to talk . . .”
We were made for conversations. So the dangling question for today is just this: Are you listening? And are you open-hearted to whatever God may be telling you?
Gretchen, who has contributed here before (see her last in August 2013), invites us to a deeper faith. Be sure to read her post with an open heart!
The beginning of a new year brings with it a flurry of New Year’s resolutions….lose weight, exercise more, de-clutter the closets, etc. We all have issues and things about which we feel guilty. So with the dawning of the new year, we muster up a renewed determination to rid ourselves of that guilt!
For those of us who are Christians, one of the things we feel guilty about is not reading our Bibles enough. This was underscored at a recent church service I attended when the pastor asked, “How many of you feel guilty about how much you read your Bibles?” Virtually every person in the congregation raised their hand. We know we ought to read our Bibles more, but we don’t. So for many Christians, January 1 begins with a stalwart resolution to read through the Bible by the end of the year.
Usually, this begins well, reviewing the exciting lives of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph in Genesis. Next, we are riveted by God’s incredible rescue of His people from Egypt in Exodus. Ah, but then, we reach Leviticus. Why did God have to put Leviticus so close to the beginning of the Bible to stop us in our tracks just as we were doing so well with our New Year’s guilt-bashing project? We miss a day of reading, then two days, then a week. Then we think to ourselves, “Well, I’ll try again next year.” We feel guilty for having failed yet again. I don’t know about you, but for me, this was a common pattern for decades.
For many years now, however, my experience has been entirely different. My heart delights to spend time reading my Bible, and it aches when I don’t. I can’t wait to read through and then start over again! What’s changed? Have I become more disciplined than ever? Have I unlocked the secret to optimal time management? No. Anyone who knows me can affirm that my closets are still messy, and my schedule is as full as always.
What’s changed is the discovery that behind all the poetry, the history, the commands, the genealogies—behind every word—is a person: God. The Bible is God sharing His heart with us. The accounts of peoples’ lives, the retelling of history, the instructions regarding how to relate to God and others all reveal the heart of a God who loves us and longs for an intimate relationship with us.
In Leviticus 26:11, God says, “I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God and you shall be my people.” It’s a theme that’s repeated over and over again in the Bible, until its culmination in that beautiful passage in Revelation 21: 3-4 “Behold the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. ”
Can you hear the intimacy and tenderness in that? Only in a close relationship would one reach to touch the face of another and wipe away a tear. From Genesis to Revelation God reveals His desire for that kind of relationship with us—not out of some human-like neediness—but because He loves us.
You might be thinking, “Well, of course He loves us. He’s God. That’s what He’s supposed to do. John 3:16 and all that.” But this love is not just a global God-loves-the-world kind of love, though He certainly does. He loves you. And me.
At Jesus’ baptism, we get a glimpse into the intimacy of the relationship of the Trinity when the Father, through the Spirit, expresses His love for the Son. Mark 1:11 says, “A voice came from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Again at the transfiguration in Mathew 17:5, we hear the Father’s words of love to His Son, “…and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’ ”
Romans 5:5 tells us that “…God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Yes, in the same way that the Spirit shares the love of the Father with the Son, so the Spirit shares God’s love with us. Is the love He shares with us something He tosses at us from afar? Absolutely not! As Jesus prays for us in John 17, He prays that we might know that the Father loves us even as He has loved Him (Jesus). And Jesus goes on to pray, in John 17: 26, “…that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” The love the Father and Son share, through the Spirit, is the same kind of relationship God wants to have with us.
This is the God who shares His heart with us in the Bible. The God who tells us over and over again that He wants to be our God, and He wants us to be His people. The God who is so close He can wipe the tears from our eyes. The God who pours His love into our hearts though the Spirit. The God who loves us in the same way He loves the Son.
If you are considering reading through the Bible in the coming year, may I offer a suggestion? Instead of opening your Bible to “do the right thing”, or to keep your New Year’s resolution, open your Bible to listen to the heart of the One whose love overflows as He speaks to you in close, intimate relationship. He’s waiting for you.
This entry repeats a post at Cor Deo: please offer any responses on that site. Thanks!
Jesus offered a parable about the types of soil farmers find in casting seed. He then explained the parable. Those who hear God’s word are the soil and the quality of the soil defines the fruitfulness of a teaching ministry. As context, Jesus was preaching God’s word and was finding mixed responses from the crowds.
Most of us recall the key points. God’s word may cause a momentary stir in people whose lives are like packed earth so the seed has only a superficial placement. The devil, like a hungry bird chasing exposed seed, then comes and swallows the moment. For other listeners the words land on rocky soil where personal issues keep the truth from taking root. Or, again, there are people with competing concerns—the “cares and riches and pleasures of life”—that, like weeds, choke any growth from the word. But, finally, in some listeners there is a good response that produces multiplied growth.
Here’s a question. Was Jesus being prescriptive in his story? Was he calling his audience to make some changes in life? Was the parable a moral lesson: “So, work hard to become good soil!”?
No, it was actually a description of his experience with crowds. Soil is what it is: either good or bad and people either respond or fail to respond. Nothing Jesus taught says otherwise.
So, too, the focus was not on the seed. We can be sure it is potentially life changing for all listeners. And the same is true today whenever God’s word is offered. There will always be a range of responses.
Think, for instance, of how many people today may have just been stirred by the message of Christmas: of Jesus who brings “joy to the world.” Yet for some this seed of truth may last about as long as the Christmas tree. Or, if the impact lasts a bit longer, it fades when the entangling pleasures and cares of ordinary life come along.
Yet when responsive hearts do receive God’s word and bear fruit it always comes as a sustained joy: Jesus finds space and freedom in them to bring new life, and that life readily spreads to others through their joy.
Why do some retain this joy while others don’t? Once again, shouldn’t we press people to be more responsive?
Again, that’s not a question Jesus addresses here. What he is saying is that the very same words that fail to touch many people will bring dramatic results in others. So the content of the message has its own power—assuming the words are God’s word—and those who share only need to wait to see results from their preaching, teaching, or simple sharing. The truth of Christ’s teachings has the power—not our rhetoric or brilliant logic.
It also explains why some people who heard Jesus preach would later shout, “crucify him!” And why others, after hearing the same words, would come to worship him: “this is the son of God!” Or why, in John 12, some who believed in him still refused to acknowledge him.
It’s not as if Jesus was callous in telling this parable. In Luke’s gospel the parable is offered in chapter 8. Later we hear how Jesus grieved over the resistant hearts of Jerusalem:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not” (13:34); “And when he drew near the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (19:41). He wept in his longing for fields of fertile soil; but more often than not he found hearts packed down with rocks, footpaths, and flourishing weeds.
Yet there are lessons to be learned elsewhere about what makes soil receptive or unreceptive to the seed of Christ’s words. Hypocrites—the unrighteous moralists of any age—for one, are never good soil. This includes religious leaders who press congregations for better tithing yet “neglect justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42). Or teachers who love to be honored for their education and academic posts yet who are, in fact, spiritually dead—“like unmarked graves”—that people unwittingly walk across (Luke 11:43-44).
Instead, Jesus tells us, his house will be filled with socially awkward and morally unlikely figures, including “the poor and crippled and blind and lame” (Luke 14:21). We can think, for instance, of the Samaritan woman at the well; or Zachaeus, the tax collector; or the begging man who was born blind, as good soil. Jesus, after all, came for sinners rather than for the self-righteous.
So, as we think about the kind of soil we represent, perhaps God’s grace will be at work this year by running a plow through the soil of our lives: turning up hidden sins, tearing up weedy comfort zones, and making a mess out of our self-sufficiency.
Just be sure to give thanks if and when that happens! And listen for Christ’s comforting words that are sure to come with any plowing. He isn’t uncaring—he may even be weeping.
It’s nearly Christmas and the time for Christmas pageants: baby Jesus, all aglow, in a cross-legged wooden manger with a docile cardboard donkey, a couple of sheep, and Mary with Joseph looking on. Sweet. Yet we can be sure this sterile setting misses the original scene by a long mile.
Think, instead, of an animal stall or partial cave—with the sour smells of “stuff” all around, if not underfoot—and the discarded remains of an awkward birthing. We can hope a midwife was found, but clean towels and hot water with soap were not likely to be seen. The best news we have is that some swaddling cloths were available.
My point isn’t to be a Christmas killjoy, but to make sure we find the glory where it’s meant to be found—which was not in the Bethlehem manger.
The Father, we should remember, sent his Son to a world opposed to him—as it still is. Jesus was in the fallen world as an outcast from beginning to end. His arrival started ugly and it only got worse. The crucifixion—the finale of his time on earth—was even uglier than his arrival. It was the worst sort of death a Roman torturer could dream up.
Yet our instinct to celebrate the manger—as followers of Christ in a hostile world—is proper. We want to elevate Jesus at the rare time of year when the rest of the world pays at least some attention to him. So we clean up the stable, use colorful clothing, sing beautiful songs, and create an antiseptic scene to say: “Look, he really is glorious!”
But God’s actual message was different: “The world opposes my Son—and his birth showed him to be the ultimate outsider in the world he created and whose lives he sustains.”
So as much as the Bethlehem Inn was too full to accept the coming Jesus, so too were the hearts of the nation: full of self-interest and self-sufficiency. It was an ugly scene: God came to his own but they rejected him. He was degraded and despised during his visit. So much so that even today the main icons for Jesus are the manger and the cross—both symbols of rejection.
Where, then, did the glory of the first Christmas actually appear? It came to a group of shepherds working the night shift. This was, in modern terms, God announcing the Son at a local truck stop where a cluster of tired drivers—working night hours to get all the Christmas packages delivered—were startled by bright lights, an angel speaking, and a heavenly choir.
But why this odd selection of an audience by the Father? Two thoughts come to mind.
First, God and heaven could not hold back the joy of the event. Some on earth needed to join the celebration taking place in heaven! The good news was electrifying: now, at last, sin was to be confronted and death finally defeated!
And, second, the best earthly audience, in God’s view, were shepherds. Not the proud crowd, but the ordinary lads! These workingmen lived on the hard ground of humility and self-sacrifice. God regularly found people after his own heart among shepherds—the servant class of that society—and even Jesus later identified himself as the “good shepherd.”
The Father, then, shared his glory with the selfless side of a selfish world. Not with the mayor of Bethlehem; or the owner of the Bethlehem Inn; and certainly not with the leading religious and political figures of Israel who lived a few miles away in prosperous and powerful Jerusalem. These figures, in fact, later killed him. Sin loves to swim in the sea of self-sufficiency and pride—not in the quiet backwaters of a nighttime campfire. So God’s glory came to the shepherds.
There’s a pattern here. Later in Christ’s ministry he showed off his true glory to three of his followers on the Mount of Transfiguration. For a few moments he unleashed a brilliant viewing of his true standing as the glorious Son: cloaked in light and one with his Father. And then he once again became a seemingly ordinary itinerant teacher and healer.
There are more lessons here.
First, this occurred not long after Jesus told his disciples he would soon be crucified. It would be easy for them to see the cross as the tragic end of his ministry and not as the culmination of God’s saving plan. So he gave them a snapshot of his true status for reassurance.
Second, who was the audience? They were three partners of a Galilee fishing company—the ordinary, humble workingmen in their day. Not unlike the shepherds near Bethlehem.
And then we get a final reference to Christ’s glory at the end of his stay on earth. Jesus prayed for all his disciples—believers both then and now—in John 17:24, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”
So the Son’s glory, we discover, comes through God’s love. The manger, it turns out, is merely a cover that allows the proud folks of this world to dismiss him. Yet all who belong to the humble yet glorious savior will eventually see the “whole show” of his glory in eternity to come. But until then it only comes in snapshots.
So let’s enjoy the glory of a living faith, sitting at the shepherds’ campfire, and let the manger scene remain as humble as it was meant to be.
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.