Jesus was very direct.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
This is in Matthew’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount. Just before this Jesus spoke of the “narrow gate” that leads to life, and “those who find it are few.” So it seems he wasn’t counting on throngs of followers.
Jesus applied the same warning about false followers in his parable of the weeds. A farmer sowed his field with good seed but an enemy came at night and overseeded the field with weeds. So the good seed grew up mixed with fruitless weeds until they were separated at harvest.
Paul, following Jesus, was just as blunt about unbelieving-“believers” when he warned the Ephesian elders in Miletus that “fierce wolves” were certain to emerge in the church “from among yourselves” in order to recruit their own form of disciples (Acts 20). And he pointed to this as an applied problem among the Galatians and the Corinthians.
He even warned the Corinthians that some among them were “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ”—just like Satan who at times “disguises himself as an angel of light.” Satan, in turn, has servants in the church who also “disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:14-15).
In sum, not everyone who claims to be a Christian is actually a Christian. Not even among church leaders. Yet in the Matthew 7 text Jesus reassured his audience that separating authentic believers from the knock-offs is easy: “You will recognize them by their fruits.”
Jesus elevated two such fruit in John 8 and 13: abiding in his word, and loving other believers. Jesus’ analogy of the vine pictured fruit as products of heartfelt devotion to him, with authentic disciples abiding in his love and, with that, following his lead—even if it means dying for others. Paul followed Jesus with his own list in Galatians 5: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control.”
But where are we today? In many churches and theological colleges we find a devotion to non-discrimination. It’s as if discreet signs are posted: “No fruit inspections, please.” Not referring to the treatment of unbelieving newcomers but to enduring members and leaders.
So here’s our question. When did the narrow gate become the wide gate? Did Jesus change his mind in favor of drawing crowds at some point? Or did the church drift in a new direction?
It’s a question church history helps to answer. Let’s consider, for instance, the 1st, 4th, and the 16th centuries. In the 1st century, in the book of Acts, we read of thousands of new converts filling Jerusalem after Christ’s resurrection. But not all the conversions were sound. Many, in fact—the “circumcision party”—remained devoted to synagogue-school demands and rejected the gospel of free grace; and their critique of Paul stirred him to write some of his major letters.
In the 4th century the church had throngs of recruits join up when the Roman Emperor Constantine endorsed Christianity. And with that shift new waves of fruitless “Christians” came on the scene with pragmatic ambitions in play.
Then in the 16th century both the Lutheran and the Reformed camps had to deal with the “magisterial” Christianity the Roman church had in place. Which is to say that anyone who lived in certain regions of Germany newly designated as Lutheran then had to become Lutherans because their local ruler said so. Or, in Geneva, they had to be Calvinists. It was a simple political reality; and only sometimes reflected a real change of heart. That brought along a host of fruitless Christians.
Today we still find quantity being valued over quality in most settings. The church habit of absorbing as many recruits as possible under the name of Christianity—even when authentic fruit is missing—has stuck.
A skeptical question might be asked here: “Aren’t the ‘wide-gate-promoters’ more compassionate by offering an all-comers version of faith? And isn’t that more Christ-like?”
It’s a question addressed by the texts already noted—and there are more—but let’s at least put to rest any question about the Son’s compassion by noting Luke 19:41 and Christ’s heart for Jerusalem in particular: “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!’”
It seems not everyone has ears to hear his calling to a living faith—and the fruit of peace it brings. It’s a hard reality we’ll never enjoy but must still embrace.
People enjoy being with their own kind. Beautiful people gravitate to beautiful people. Bright people like to be with bright people. The wealthy find others with wealth. Artists enjoy other artists. Like attracts like: it’s a fact of life.
But it not always a good fact of life. Especially if elitism forms and only the brightest and most beautiful are valued. Or when pecking orders disrupt friendships in a continuing reshuffle of who is the most able; or the brightest by a given measure; or the most beautiful for the day.
At worst it can be formalized as a religious caste system. Indian Dalits, for instance, know they will never be Brahmins no matter how much wealth or education they achieve: they’re always untouchable.
At school it may be the grade-point-average; or membership in an exclusive club or elevation to a team. We all know how it works—whether or not we were successful. Value is based on ranking, and rank always has its privileges.
In most cases status is earned. Outstanding athletes or scholars achieve a higher place on an exclusive team by displaying physical or cognitive skills. Yet in some cases a person’s standing only comes by birth into a high caste or into wealth. So it seems tragic when a person is born into poverty or when some are born with serious birth defects.
But let’s shift directions now. What binds Christians to each other—the “like attracts like”—in biblical terms? And we need mention the Bible here because many Christian communities may be closer to their non-Christian neighbors than to Jesus and his New Testament followers.
Jesus certainly catches our attention here. He didn’t climb the social ladders of his day: he was a true outsider. His education was minimal and mostly informal. He didn’t join any important clubs, religious denominations, or political parties. He even played a role in having a man born blind so that begging was the man’s only life option. And most of Jesus’ closest companions smelled like used fishnets. So what was there to like about Jesus?
Just this: he came to earth to save sinners. Even as God’s only Son. He came to find and heal the lame and the blind, rather than those who claimed they could walk and could see. He recruited fishermen and tax collectors to his ministry team rather than the stars of the academy. And even in the exception—in his calling Paul who studied in Jerusalem under Gamaliel—Paul dismissed his academic period as so much dung in comparison to meeting and following Christ.
And that brings us to the ultimate “like” that bonds authentic Christians together: Jesus as the one who loves us. His personal attractiveness, depth of insight, and his self-giving is all beyond measure. He has unsearchable depths as a person and offers that depth to all who seek him and follow him.
So, once again, the Christian life is upside-down and we’re reminded of Christ’s warning in the face of 1st century materialism, that “what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:17). Yet he abandoned this sort of critique among those who knew their status as sinners: the guilty and the shamed underside of society.
Instead he offered grace: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).
So the “like” in us that attracts Jesus to us and us to Jesus is not found in any claims of our being good, but in the power of his love that captures us. He is active in meeting our needs and in extending his mercy. And we, with God’s love now poured out in our hearts by his Spirit, start to act like him in caring for others.
And it allows us to relax because we don’t need to compete any longer with all the social stars we know. Instead we get to love them if and when they have time for us. We get to be like Jesus.
Bible reading has remarkable power for some. But for most people it’s a serious put-off.
On the positive side of things I met with a new Bible reading partner yesterday. Even after just one week of reading he was gushing—honestly delighted with the venture. His wife has also picked up on it and now shares verses with him.
But Jerry and his wife are exceptions. Over the years I’ve found different responses. When I mention I’m looking for a man to do a four-month Bible read-through the crowds quickly scatter. Athletes run for cover; slower men start thumbing through car magazines; and younger men focus on their iPhones. It’s not a lively prospect for most modern men!
I also know there’s no point in shaming or scolding guys into bold Bible reading. It has to come from the heart. Like it has with Jerry. “A year ago,” he told me, “I felt the Spirit nudging me when you talked about read-throughs … but I ignored him. Then when you mentioned it again in your sermon two weeks ago I felt the same nudge and I knew I had to give it a shot.”
But let’s think about it. Why is an appetite for bold Bible reading so rare today, even in Bible-centered churches? And by bold I only mean the time we might offer a friend over a quick coffee, or in a pause spent in texting, or in watching a favorite television program: about thirty minutes each day. And I mean actual reading and/or listening to the text itself. Journaling is an added feature for those who go there. My time each morning, including prayer, takes about 40 minutes.
I can’t speak about the motivations of others—about why such reading is so rare—but I can at least track some leads offered by Jesus in the gospels.
In John 8:31, for instance, he set a standard with the term “abide”—as in, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.” It’s the same word he used in the branch-and-vine metaphor of John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
So Jesus treated time spent in his word—the Bible—as an identifier of his presence in us by the Spirit. The Spirit awakens our hearts to the Father’s Heart and that brings new desires. So apart from him a love for bold reading just won’t happen. Jerry’s “nudges” by the Spirit are a great example.
And that brings me to the point of this entry. If someone wants to be religious but doesn’t have the Spirit within—along with his nudges—he or she will need to recreate God. Even if a proposal to reconstruct God seems bizarre. The fact remains that we were made by God to have a God. He offers a basis for life and meaning. So we all need to have a God we can live with.
Let’s list some options.
Simple idolatry is one. I’ll never forget a visit to Kathmandu and driving by open-front shops that allowed us to watch wooden posts being carved, painted, and overlaid with precious metals. The objects themselves were not innately sacred but were avatars for less-than-divine spirits to come and own the owners of the objects. They offered gateways into a supernatural counterpart to God’s kingdom: a realm opposed by God’s word but with powers that could still change lives.
A Western alternative to such explicit idolatry is the muted worship of creation we find in most academic venues today. Westerners prefer this because it despises explicit icons and demonic practices but it still allows practitioners to navigate life. Irreligious science, for instance, adores nature as a closed system—without a Creator. As such it’s like a warm blanket that insulates worshippers from any explicit questions about the true God while at the same time justifying self-devotion—as beings at one with nature—to prosper. It also allows for a divinization of wealth as the basis for personal security.
Finally let’s touch on the most attractive Christian reconstruction: of turning God into a behaviorist. This offers a host of robust forms of religion that still keep the true God at a distance and self at the center.
Religious behaviorism was a preferred option in Christ’s time on earth. Today it appears in moralistic churches and in modern Islam among those who promote Sharia law. Leaders in such systems designate religious behaviors and creeds that must be followed in a carrot and stick arrangement. The carrot is the promise of eternal life. The stick is a social threat of some sort: of dismissal from the synagogue in the first century era; and, in modern times, a beating by the Sharia police, or ostracism from a local church.
While this reconstruction of God into a growling Behaviorist seems dark, it still allows him to be managed. His demands can be met with due diligence. And any oppressive features—his immense power and an ability to withhold eternal life—can be managed by feigned devotion. It allows, for instance, a certain autonomy to prosper as long as worshippers stay within well defined marks of orthodoxy. This was tangibly illustrated by the balustrade-wall around the temple when Paul was arrested in Acts 21—and dismissed by Paul in Ephesians 2.
Jesus, of course, made hash of this approach with his devastating set of “woes” in Matthew 23 as illustrated in verse 25: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”
Which invites us to one sound option: to love the Triune God as revealed in Christ; who sends his Spirit to pour out his love in our hearts; and who shares all this in the Bible.
Jerry certainly likes him!
Isaiah 40:3, as cited in Matthew 3, was fulfilled by the ministry of John the Baptist. Isaiah promised a bulldozer of a man to build a proper road for the Messiah, “crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”
In John’s day the imagery of carving a proper road might suggest leveling the dips and trimming the meandering corners. Not so—at least not in physical terms. Instead he faced a moral and spiritual challenge that called for strong words: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
The problem he and the Messiah, Jesus, faced were the meandering paths of religion in his day. Jewish hopes for the promised Messiah were still captured by wistful memories of David’s kingdom. David had been a pious and powerful king: famous for his Godly psalms; and for his ability to defeat all his enemies. So they longed for a Davidic king who could replace the Herodean and Roman rulers with God’s true kingdom. This was an easy aspiration to adopt since it represented security.
Memories of the glory days of Ezra and Nehemiah also would have defined that vision. These men had helped reestablish a temple-centered worship in Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. And later there had been a brief era of relative independence under the Hasmonean clan—the Maccabees. And all they needed now was another strong leader to overthrow Romans and obey God’s laws.
The spiritual reforms of Ezra came with this vision. The Bible-composing scholars of Ezra’s era set out clear distinctions between good and evil kings in the books of Kings and Chronicles.
Yet, despite the great benefits in these books, a problem emerged. Their call to God-centered worship was often heard to be a call to behavior-centered religion. Jeremiah, in 2:13, warned against this as he charged Israel with carving broken cisterns of social morality while ignoring the living water God offered.
So by the time of John and Jesus the moralistic tendencies of the Pharisees were dominant. Alternatively the Sadducees had accommodated the Jewish priesthood to the political realities of the day: chasing their love of power rather than living by the power of God’s love.
So John faced a spiritual and political mess when he took up his ministry. And one word applied to all: “Repent!” Which was his way of saying, “Abandon all your misguided notions, values, and ambitions—and change your direction in life!” Part of the warning was his call to abandon false visions of the coming Messiah.
The ministry of the Messiah, John warned, would not be that of a conquering king but more like a farmer at harvest. John used a vivid agricultural analogy from daily life: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Picture, then, a farmer piling crushed grain stalks on the upwind side of a smooth, swept threshing floor. When a proper breeze was blowing he would use a long pronged fork to throw the stalks into the air. The heavier seeds would drop out near his feet while the lighter chaff—the debris of broken stalks—would be blown farther along the threshing floor into a separate pile. Once the pair of piles formed—the useful grain and the useless chaff—the farmer gathered the grain into storage bins and then burned the chaff.
We get the burning part—the certainty of judgment—but what about John’s reference to the Spirit? A likely context would be the promise in Ezekiel’s prophecy to Israel of a new era to come, after the return from Babylon, when God “will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ez. 36:26-27).
The plan, in other words, was for the Messiah to offer a ministry that featured an inward work of the Spirit to bring about changed hearts. Those who received the Spirit’s ministry would be the “wheat” while the chaff would consist in those who resisted or rejected the Spirit. The kingdom of heaven, then, would consist in the Father sending his Son and the Spirit to create and then to collect “wheat.” The Spirit’s work did the creating and the Son’s work was to separate those with the Spirit from those who dismissed him.
In the balance of Matthew, then, we see Jesus warning against “blaspheming” the Spirit. Such a dismissal or misattribution, he warned, was unforgiveable (in Mt. 12:31-32). The misattribution in this context was the charge by religious leaders that Jesus did his miracles by the demonic powers of Beelzebul rather than by the Spirit.
So what do we make of this today? For one it presents faith as the Spirit’s work of affirming Jesus as the Messiah: he calls hearts to believe. And Jesus, then, merely sifted the crowds around him to discover who would respond to the Spirit’s call. And he warned all who dismissed the Spirit’s wooing in the strongest terms possible.
Is this two-stage arrangement still at work in the church today? Is the Spirit still changing some hearts so that our work in evangelism calls for winnowing rather than winning converts?
Yes – it seems to be exactly what Jesus had in mind, both then and now.
I met Sam fifty years ago. My home church recruited us—a couple of newly minted high school graduates—to help with a church plant in Sechelt, British Columbia. Sam, the pastor, was a retired missionary; a Scotsman by birth who had served for much of his life in Africa.
Yet he was still up to planting a church, even in his retirement. “We moved here,” he told us, “because it’s such a great location. But there isn’t a sound church to be found in twenty miles. So we knew we had a job to do!” His reference to “we” included his wife of fifty years.
By July 1966 the young church they launched needed a place to meet. That’s where Steve and I came in: we were there to help with the construction. But there was more than a church building to be built. Sam was actually a relay racer in line with Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 2:2, “and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
With Sam I was the much younger man, ready to receive what he had to offer. His real gift—as I’ve shared in an article on the Bible Read Through (available on the Spreading Goodness site)—was his easy familiarity with the entire Bible. He knew the Bible like I know my own neighborhood. And it was something I wanted for myself.
Yet there was more: I mostly wanted to have the bond with Christ I saw in Sam. He loved God. So when I pressed him about it he mentioned his habit of reading through the entire Bible between two and three times each year. He had been reading at that pace since he became a Christian at age twenty; and he was seventy when I met him that summer. So he had gone through the Bible between 100 and 150 times by then. And it showed. His relationship with Jesus was obvious in all he did.
I now see that summer as the passing of a baton—he handed me a treasure. So I started my own Bible reading that July, fifty years ago, and have been averaging three Bible readings each year since then. It takes about thirty minutes of reading each morning, often with my iPod audio Bible playing at double-speed, as I underline the text on my lap. It’s my time for companionship with the Lord as he shares his heart with me. And after the reading I pray in response to it.
Do I now have what Sam had? No. His obvious intimacy with Christ and his undiminished appetite for more still invites me to grow. I’m too flawed to offer myself as a model of faith to others. But I at least know where to turn in the face of my weaknesses. And I know enough to abide in his word and in his love as I ask for my soul to be washed. So I get to bring my weaknesses and celebrate Christ’s grace each new day.
I’m writing this—in my anniversary month—with a prayer that some young reader will take the baton I took from Sam. So that in another fifty years—if the Lord doesn’t return—a reader or two will carry Sam’s gift forward. So starting with July 2016 he or she will, in July 2066, offer this invitation to yet another era.
Once again, it’s the greatest gift—after my salvation—I’ve ever received. Please take it, carry it, and discover for yourself the joy that comes with abiding in God’s word. And then pass it along.
Only hours before his crucifixion Jesus was still reassuring his followers about the future. Twice over dinner he repeated his call, “Let not your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1&27). This even as he knew Judas Iscariot was arranging for his immanent arrest.
So, was Jesus having a Pollyanna moment? Or was he the ultimate promoter of positive thinking? Or maybe just emotionally disconnected?
No. He was, instead, the ultimate realist. And he was calling his followers to come to grips with the certainty that, come what may, the Triune God was still in charge of events. Jesus always had a bigger picture in view.
Notice what he told his men: “I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.”
The latter phrase is striking. Jesus loved to follow his Father’s lead no matter where it took him. Jesus announced the Father’s plan earlier in John’s account, in chapter 3: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
One verse earlier, in a set-up to this acclaimed text, Jesus told his listeners that he must first be “lifted up”—a euphemism for crucifixion—in order to provide this eternal life. So by the time we reach chapter 14 and the double reassurances, “don’t be troubled,” it’s clear that God’s plan to overcome death would come by way of his Son’s death. The cross offers life to all who believe.
There’s another critical feature here. While God loves the world, the world loves the darkness of sin rather than the light God offers (3:19). And that sets up the story of the gospel, both then and now: God’s Word—his Son and his teachings—tell us of the Father. He loves the world; but the world hates him; yet the Son’s words offer an open invitation to believe.
The reassurances of John 14 are for those who now believe in Jesus—who have embraced his narrative that he is God’s Son, ready to die for our sin. Jesus isn’t blind to the Devil’s power. But Jesus can also say, “He has no claim on me,” (14:30a) which is to say that Jesus isn’t facing death because of his own defection from the Father. Rebellion is Satan’s turf. He used the promise of a freedom to be like God to enslave Adam and all his offspring. Jesus never fell into his web of deceit.
So—picking up the implications of his message—Jesus came to the cross in full alignment with his Father’s purpose: “but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father” (14:30b).
The pathway here is clear: God loves the world. Jesus reveals that love in tangible terms by his life and teachings. The world hates what Jesus offers and eventually crucifies him. But some in the world listen to the Son’s words, see the light he offers, and come to love both the Father and the Son through the Spirit’s wooing ministry. This is to “believe” in him.
And with that faith comes the upside-down certainty that death to this world—to what the Devil offers as the “ruler of the world”—makes perfect sense. It means a realignment of the hearts and minds of all who believe in what God wants for us: the joy of knowing and loving his Son. This world is no longer our home!
Now the awkward but wonderful truth: we no longer need to be troubled because we no longer care for what this world offers! Personal security, social standing, career success—all the motivations that operate in this lifetime—can be set aside. We can, instead, understand Paul’s Spirit-led invitation to “be crucified with Christ” and, with that, to have freedom from the Devil’s false version of freedom.
Real freedom only comes to “whoever has my commandments and keeps them” as the fruit of a transforming love for the Father and the Son, by the Spirit. His commands are simple: not the myriad rules posted under the Mosaic regime—meant for a hard-hearted nation—but the ultimate call to love God and neighbor. To turn from a self-concerned life to a God-centered life.
Let’s wrap up this look at John 14 with another promise by Jesus in that dire dinner hour: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
And, just after that, Jesus went on: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.” It’s in this context that he offered the second invitation, “Let not your hearts be troubled…”
An amazing truth: God will make his home with us! We only need to respond to his love.
So never mind the disruptions crucifixion may bring in this lifetime. This world is no longer our home!
I’m revisiting Peter Sanlon’s helpful study, Augustine’s Theology of Preaching. One sentence caught me: “Augustine describes this life as a journey traveled by the affections” (p. 84). This link of outward journey and inner affections is what Pete offers as Augustine’s “interiority”—the realm of the soul’s longings and desires—that shapes “temporality.”
This statement reverses what most people take to be an ultimate truth: that we choose our own life journeys. So that our affections emerge on the journey as a product. Augustine turns this by treating the mind and will as followers rather than leaders of any soul. The heart, alone, guides our choosing—or, collectively, all our journeys.
Yet Augustine didn’t begin here. He started as we all do: presuming a free will. And then he moved to his affective stance, holding that our desires rule us. He believed God made us as responders. That conviction came with a corollary: love, then, shapes everything in every life.
The subject of Pete’s book—preaching—may seem odd in light of this soulish stuff. What’s the connection between preaching and how the soul operates? The answer is that Augustine’s preaching shaped his transition. His keen intellect formed his identity in his early years. But his conversion—described in his Confessions—started a change. Not instantly, but over time. And by way of his preaching.
In AD 391 Augustine requested relief from administrative roles to invest time in closer Bible study—with the fruit of his studies offered in his preaching. He felt he needed more depth in order to minister effectively. Bishop Valerius, his supervisor, agreed to the request. Changes in Augustine’s thought soon emerged from this pause. Sanlon notes one major shift during this period: Augustine began to take up the Bible’s language of “heart”—in place of intellect—to explain how the soul is motivated.
So the Bible changed his heart on how to view his mind. Augustine’s conversion was a key as he recognized God’s initiative in doing the converting. But expanding this insight to all of life took time and devoted Bible study—with the study done for the sake of his preaching.
This is not a switch between two equally valid options—in merely preferring one instead of the other—but a critical correction. Only one is true; so that if we claim to live in a mind-and-will directed life we are actually building a mythology that defends human autonomy. And all arrows point back to Adam in Eden as the first mythologist, defending his sin by pointing to both God and Eve as sources of his fault. And this distortion of sin is still inherent in all humanity.
Let’s turn now from reviewing Sanlon and ask how the interior life—this journey of the affections—works in a fallen world. The biblical imagery of Augustine’s affective journey presumes at least three elements: a pathway, partnership, and a destination.
The pathway consists in our unique time-space reality—what Augustine called temporality. Each of us has a daily setting—perhaps located in Australia, America, or Austria. Wherever we live we all need resources to make our way: food, drink, rest, shelter, and some basic equipment. Yet nothing in the Bible tells us that our location or resources define real life. Some of us may be well resourced and some of us are as poor as paupers; yet, whatever our circumstances, we have a specific journey to live out.
Caring partnership is far more important: our companionship shapes who we are—our interiority. Because a relational God created us to be relational: made in the Father-Son-and-Spirit’s “let us make man in our image” reality. God who “is love” made us to respond to his love and to share it with others. So we were birthed out of companionship for companionship.
But sin is antithetical to caring partnerships. Self-love displaces a proper love-for-others.
This has huge implications for any given traveler. If autonomy—being free from others—has primacy over love then the pathway becomes an end in itself. An affection for things, or for a higher status in the realm of time-and-space, stands in place of an affection for God and people. Cain can kill Able for self-centered reasons. People can be resources to use and discard.
And, finally, the destination is also crucial. In the mythology of self-defined existence we begin to treasure features of our time-and-space pathway. Our affections take the creation to be a replacement for the Creator.
But if our destination is a reunion with God—what Adam abandoned in Eden—we discover that every pathway, no matter how mean or difficult, allows us to live toward the end we were made for. God wants our companionship, a fellowship he offers to all whose affections are drawn to him through his Son and by his Spirit.
So, as transformed believers, we have a life with real direction. No matter how hard our given pathway may be for now, remember the interior presence of God, by his Spirit, who assures of both God’s love and our assured destination in Glory.
But, like Augustine, we need time in the Bible and some means to digest what we find there. For Augustine it was Bible study and preaching. For most of us it will be Bible reading and conversations with others who share our deepest affections.
Enjoy the journey!
The main mistake of the moralist impulse—what many people call legalism—is an instinct to focus on sins in place of Sin. To fixate on specific behaviors while missing the motives and trajectories that explain those behaviors.
But first let’s give the moralists their due. What makes them so sure of themselves is their high success rate. They regularly find Sin—essential evil—by tracking particular sins to a source. They spot a person who lies, cheats, curses, and kicks dogs and then shout: “Look, folks, here’s a minion of evil!”
Over time their success rate generates confidence. So much so that some even deputize themselves as divine sheriffs. And with more and more success their big ambition in life turns to assisting God in stamping out evil.
Before we go on let’s all agree that any person who lies, cheats, curses, and kicks dogs is on the wrong end of any moral spectrum: those in authority need to say “enough.” And what I’ll say next isn’t an attempt to say otherwise. We can always expect bad fruit from bad trees; and sour water from sulfurous springs. Jesus himself said so.
So why was Jesus such a magnet—in all the wrong ways—to the moralists of his era? They hated him! Think of the number of times Jesus was said to have a demon. Or was charged with being evil. Recall, for instance, John 9—“We know that this man is a sinner”—after Jesus healed a blind man. And in the end it was enough to get Jesus killed.
The “sin” Jesus tripped over most often was the prohibition against work on the Sabbath. He had six days of the week to heal, restore, and bless: Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and even Fridays before sunset. But never, never, on a Saturday! Yet he violated the Bible command to honor the Sabbath again and again. So the moralists had an open and shut case against him when they later shouted, “crucify him!”
But what if moralists regularly use a faulty definition of Sin? What if their version of evil is upside-down—so their ambition to crucify Jesus is actually a massive expression of evil?
Let’s chase that for a moment. What if the greatest impulse of God’s heart is to love rather than to confront and stamp out evil? Does it mean that all those who lie, cheat, curse, and kick dogs are now safe because God loves them? Not at all! But what it does mean is that divine deputies aren’t really on God’s side when they stamp out sin by stomping on sinners.
Think about it. God created the world, with the total human population in view, knowing that Sin would take over the entire neighborhood. And now we have the mess that came of it—the current immoral ethos of the world—and it seems that Satan has won. But Psalm 2 reassures us that God is, in fact, chuckling over Satan’s foolish chutzpah. Just wait.
But wait for what? Again we find the answer in Psalm 2: God is waiting to see who will “kiss the Son.” He sent us his only Son as his ultimate expression of love—think John 3:16 here. And his Spirit is now busy wooing his “sheep”—those who start to hear the Good Shepherd’s voice even amid the din of devices and loud calls to seek personal glory and success.
But most people despise the Son—both past and present—preferring self-love in place of a love for God as revealed in Jesus; and a love for neighbors as born by his Spirit. And this is real Sin.
This is also where the moralists and dog-kickers are common kin: they both prefer the Sin of trying to be “like God” as they take issues of good and evil into their own hands. In the end an ambition to be self-righteous is as malignant as an appetite for unrighteous actions. Both ignore Christ’s warning in John 15: “Apart from me you can do nothing.”
Now let’s get back to the question of motives and trajectories. One certainty in life is that God has a spreading goodness. He is not a selfish God. Instead his Triune love—as capsulized in 1 John 4:8 & 16, “God is love”—is his driving impulse for both creating and redeeming. And those who know him come to be increasingly characterized by that love. Call this the ultimate motive of authentic faith.
And with that motive in play we find a constant trajectory in believers: our love is always outward-oriented, not selfish. It’s centrifugal rather than centripetal. Bold sharing starts to replace both dog-kicking rebellion and rule-driven morality.
Back to Jesus: did he really violate the Sabbath as the crucifying moralists insisted?
Nope. The real call to Sabbath was expressed in his heart for others: to restore, build, and sustain relationships. The blind man Jesus healed in John 9 later worshipped Jesus—as one of the sheep who heard his voice and responded. It was especially fitting on the Sabbath, the day God meant for rest and relationship.
So let’s enjoy God’s spreading goodness; and then join in as his Spirit pours out that love in our hearts. Nothing in the world can match it!
Last week I heard an endearing story. Our speaker’s grandchildren wanted to play hide-and-seek. So after Perry, the speaker, finished counting to ten with eyes covered he moved to the game’s key feature: “Ready or not, here I come!” We all laughed when he told the rest of the story: in an instant he heard a child’s voice call out, “Grandpa, I’m hiding over here!”
We also know the precursor game to hide-and-seek. It’s called peekaboo. We make eye contact with an infant and then hide our eyes briefly before reappearing with a call of “peekaboo.” The infant always smiles. And so does the adult!
So here’s a question: do we ever outgrow our appetite for peekaboo and hide-and-seek?
Think, for instance, about our social inclinations. We all have friends. We find others who share our interests and enjoy a good conversation. We might be part of a reading club, a group of gamers, a health club, a model railroad club, a travel group, and more.
But it can be complicated. As we mature we also need some relational boundaries. What if someone we don’t know tries to lock eyes with us: do we return the gaze? The book of Proverbs certainly votes against it! And we’re also finite. A dozen close friendships are about as many as most of us can handle at any stage in life.
But let’s shift categories. What about having a hide-and-seek bond with Jesus? In hard times do we try to find him? Do we invite him to find us when we feel distant from him? Do we want eye contact with him? Or not?
It’s a real question. Let’s use our experience of playing hide-and-seek to think about God’s love. From Adam’s fall until now there’s been a broken connection. Remember how Adam hid from God. Yet God found him. But did Adam want to be found? Was it just a game to him?
No. He was afraid of God—ashamed of his nakedness. Yet God covered him and spoke to him with both a rebuke and a promise. A rebuke for not listening—for not responding to him as God. In love God had opened his goodness to Adam; but Adam listened instead to his wife who, in turn, accepted the serpent’s skepticism about God’s motives. God also promised one to come—the woman’s seed—who would solve the problem of alienation.
And now we all share Adam’s heart from birth. We struggle with inadequacy, shame, and the fear of dying. Yet something in us knows we’re made for more than this. We all know a painful privation: the felt loss of God’s presence in us. Apart from Christ we looked in a mirror only to see a lonely soul looking back, held tight by spiritual death.
But all this changes when we see Christ looking in our direction—looking into our hearts, inviting us. But to what? The “what” we’re offered is access to the ultimate Relationship. We get to meet God, who is love. The Father, Son, and Spirit meant for us to know God’s relational goodness: to enjoy the glory of his love.
But Adam looked away. He closed his eyes to God and opened his eyes in a new direction—to gaze at his own image in the mirror called “freedom.” But his freedom proved to be enslavement to aloneness.
Life in God, by contrast, consists in union and communion. God exists in eternal Triune communion and it’s here that we discover Christ looking at us. And through him we get to be united to his Father, and then to become one with all who are in Christ.
Now, back to hide-and-seek. Does God ever hide from us? Not really! In Psalm 139—“where shall I flee from your presence”—we find just the opposite. But he does play peekaboo with us. As in the parables. Jesus offered parables as veiled stories. And he later repeated each of them with the veil lifted—with a point-by-point explanation.
Listen, then, to the Christ’s explanation of his spiritual hide-and-seek: “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:13). Jesus next cited Isaiah’s warning—“For this people’s heart has grown dull”—and in his comment we see the problem. The listeners needed to wait long enough for Jesus to give his explanation. But most just walked away. They weren’t real seekers. The intriguing twinkle in Christ’s eye wasn’t inviting.
Who, then, sees Jesus as he looks in our direction? Listen to David tell his own story in Psalm 27. “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that I will seek after … to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple. … You have said, ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to you, ‘Your Face, LORD, do I seek.’”
My own conversion came when my heart heard Jesus say, “Seek first the kingdom of God.” I saw his eyes in that text and it made all the difference: “peekaboo!”
Last night I was in a dinner conversation with some good friends. We came to a topic I’ve been chasing for years. After a thoughtful early exchange I soon took over with a history and Bible-waving rant. And only after my friends lassoed me and wrestled me to the ground did I realize I had been selfish … and what I shared hadn’t been the least bit helpful.
Let me underline the point. I wanted to be helpful but I was actually selfish. I thought I was offering my knowledge as a resource but I was actually thumping my own passions in order to satisfy my own sense of rightness. And everyone else at the table was left in the dust as I raced ahead without noticing they weren’t coming along. They weren’t being helped. And at least a couple were being hurt.
Later in the evening, now alone in my room, I looked back. With deep sadness. I had gotten out of hand—but why? Why had I ignored my friends’ hearts as I pressed ahead to make my flamboyant points?
I have an answer. I was pressing ahead with what I viewed as truth; but love wasn’t the motor of my sharing. The connection of always speaking “truth in love” had been broken.
That’s not to say my convictions have changed. I’m still confident that what I meant to share had real value. But the matter of valid insights isn’t more important than the issue of heart-devotion that carries words. At some point I switched from caring for my friends to caring for my point. And the two—the truth-value and the value of relationships—must never be separated. Not if we love each other. But the two had drifted apart in my words. And I was wrong.
The ministry I work with, Barnabas International, has a theme text for the year—1 Peter 4:7-11—and it bears on my reflections. Notice these segments especially: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. … As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks the very words of God….”
So, how do any of us speak “the very words of God” today?
First, if what we share comes as part of God’s love for us—his grace—then we have the potential to offer that grace to others as we speak. We become stewards of his grace.
In other words love sets up a two-step process: we experience his gracious love moving our souls; and we then offer gracious words to others. At the start we love God because he first loved us. Then we love others as God calls us to love them by sharing what he’s doing in us.
Now, let me go back to the dinner gathering. I had reduced my thoughts to a single-step process. I took a big dose of knowledge and used it as a battering ram. Truth—including any elements of factual accuracy I might have to offer—hadn’t been communicated. Why not? Because I wasn’t embracing the Way, the Truth, and the Life in what I was saying. So what I offered instead was the stuff of sin—of my dismissing God’s communing presence as I spoke.
So now it’s time to consider a reversal of the order offered in our Bible verses. I violated the pathway of God’s grace. And now I need my friends to “keep loving me earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” And I’m sure they will because these friends know God’s words. And that his words express a love that brings healing.
On my part I need to return to God’s two-step process in my conversations. Only then will I again offer to others his words that carry love.