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.
The Bible invites readers to thank God always. Even in hard circumstances. But when we’re in those times it’s easier said than done! Challenging times invite a good grumble—not a praise session. Yet this reversal of common sense sets up a pathway to faith-growth.
I know I’ve chased this topic before but we can never say too much about it. This time let’s probe thanksgiving in a more dramatic setting than before. More than we’re ever likely to face ourselves.
Picture an army in ancient times faced with an invasion by a massive enemy army. The home team is small: up against insurmountable odds. So their king, in desperation, called for divine help.
The prayer is recorded in the Bible: “We are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”
We may recognize the story—in 2 Chronicles 20. The soldiers were Judah’s national army; Jehoshaphat was the king; and they were facing a coalition of hostile forces coming from across the Jordan—both Ammonites and Moabites.
God’s answer to the king was also as simple and direct as the king’s prayer. He spoke through a prophet, Jahaziel: “Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s.”
God gave added instructions. The next day Jehoshaphat was told to muster his army to be sightseers: to watch. They had God’s firm assurance they wouldn’t need to fight. So they gathered on the front lines as requested and waited to see how God would keep his promise.
Jehoshaphat also did something unusual as they gathered. Rather than set his strongest soldiers to the fore—his equivalent to Army Rangers or Navy Seals—he ordered the Temple choir from Jerusalem to go to the front and start a worship service!
It wasn’t a traditional approach, to say the least. We even have the main stanza of their singing: “Give thanks to the LORD, for his steadfast love endures forever.”
There were other pieces to the story. When warning of the invitation came the king made the response a nationwide event. He proclaimed a fast and invited all the Judeans to come to Jerusalem to “seek the LORD.” But what did that mean in practice?
It meant, at least, that Jehoshaphat prayed. He prayed publically and on behalf of his people.
The particular prayer in the text is the one we cited at the start. But then we only noticed the final sentence. The earlier elements of the prayer offer a lesson: the king used strong theological and historical truths to set up the finale to his prayer.
Jehoshaphat started with theology: he remembered God’s standing over all the nations. God rules both the invaders and the defenders.
History came next. The king reminded God that Jerusalem was home to the temple: God’s meeting place on earth. And when the temple was first built God promised his people they could always come there to pray; and especially if they were threatened or oppressed.
Jehoshaphat also reminded God that, during Joshua’s invasion of the land, centuries earlier the two current invading nations had been spared by God’s mercy. So it didn’t seem right at this later stage in history for them to destroy the Judeans who had once spared them.
A couple of lessons here: God seems pleased when we cite his words and values back to him! And prayers focused on his greatness and reliability—as the ultimate promise-keeper—are welcome.
But what about the battlefront choir and the worship service? How did that fit in?
Let’s give Jehoshaphat credit for an applied faith. Based on his confidence in the theology of his prayer; and his confidence in God’s promise through Jahaziel of victory, the king did what the situation called for. He offered a big, “Thank you, Lord!”
In other words, his faith wasn’t in the circumstances—so that he only gave thanks afterwards—but in God and his word. So the thanksgiving reflected the confidence of the king and his people that God still ruled over the nations and that his promise of security could be trusted.
What happened in the battle?
The consortium fell apart! The two armies fell into fighting with each other and a slaughter followed. Judah only needed to watch the scene.
And while they watched the unexpected battle they were singing their praises. So God kept his promise and Judah was providentially spared.
The line in the prayer we cited at first—“We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you”—was, and still is, key. God alone offers a basis for our faith. And our faith is evident by our honest expressions of thankfulness. No matter what our circumstances bring.
This is the season for graduations.
Speeches, diplomas, and congratulatory cards are showered on the graduates. And their potential—the promise open before them—is a common theme in these cards, speeches, and toasts. The grads are told they have the potential to touch lives for good—perhaps to start an amazing tech firm or a worldwide charity. And even the potential to become President. Nothing is ruled out!
But is it true?
Well—without wanting to rain on any graduation parades—let’s be honest: it’s a misleading sentiment.
In the real world every person’s potential narrows very quickly from birth onward. Like a small descending rivulet that leads into a valley, that leads into a tightly descending draw, which finally reaches the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, we all find boundaries in life. Our natural gifts, our circumstances, and our early and often mundane life choices set up most of our life options. Early steps start to preclude a host of once-possible opportunities in life.
There are two main features of potential. The first is personal and the second is circumstantial. These overlap with nature and nurture distinctions.
Circumstances are critical: they set up channels for most of the personality-based features of the graduate’s potential. A child born in Peru, for instance, has a different range of options compared to a child born in Poland. And a farmer’s daughter raised in Nigeria will have options that differ markedly from those of a pastor’s son raised in Norway. Both will enter life with a certain range of educational, social, and economic circumstances already in place. And some settings will offer greater potential for personal initiative than others.
A child’s freedom to explore their unique personal interests will also narrow very quickly depending on their nurture. A child raised in a Christian school or homeschool environment will have a matrix of values and vision very different from what most public schools offer today.
The point is that any graduation discourse about personal potential makes about as much sense as a bowman telling his arrow about the wonderful potential the arrow has in deciding where to land!
Yet let’s avoid cold determinism. My arrow analogy is useful but it has limits—as does our probing of personhood and life placement. Each soul does, indeed, have freedom. Not the traditional “free will” of Adam’s fall but the freedom of a heart-response to love. And God’s love is offered to all: divine predestination, while biblical, isn’t a prison made of some sort of eternal concrete. Instead it’s a promise, based in God’s love (as in Ephesians 1), that his plans for good aren’t overruled by our Enemy’s ambitions. His love is still offered to all even if, after Adam’s Fall, it draws only some to salvation. As Jesus reminded us, many are called but few are chosen.
What, then, would I say if I happened to be a graduation speaker this coming weekend? What sort of potential can be promised, properly, to our happy graduates?
I would start with God. He created all of us for the good works he prepared beforehand for us to engage and enjoy. The fountain of this plan is his triune being: he is a God who lives in love. His love consists in the eternal relationship of the Father and the Son, facilitated and sustained by the Spirit. Both creation and redemption display the spreading goodness of God’s love.
So in the great analogy of marriage, the Father wants his beloved Son to have a bride. But the bride is not coerced or bribed to respond. Instead she, despite any initial doubts or fears, eventually finds her Pursuer to be captivating: one whose truth, creativity, and faithfulness are unsurpassed.
While his love is offered freely to the world, the world has loved darkness rather than his light. And in the end we will find a pattern was in play. From the beginning God determined that only those who recognize their need for this love would respond and become the collective male-female spiritual bride. They are, mainly, the poor and lame and weak—the lowly rather than the proud. He knew ahead of time—before the creation—whose hearts he would draw to become the bride. Figures like Paul and the woman at the well in John 4 stand out—both, though conspicuous sinners, were pursued and captured by divine love.
So the question in front of each graduate revolves around love: whom—or what—will they love? It makes all the difference for what follows. If they respond to God’s love in Christ they have the opportunity—the potential—to discover life in Christ. But if they dismiss God’s love they also dismiss that potential. Instead they take on for themselves all the demands and responsibilities of trying to function as independent, self-directed agents: as little gods.
I would end: “And so, dear graduates, here’s the potential that lies before you: God invites you to taste and see how good he is. And once you come into his embrace—if you aren’t there already—you will have the potential to become all he’s made you to be. Go for it!”
This morning we shared and prayed at Pat’s home—fifteen men who do global ministry. Then I moved on to a local coffee shop to write this piece about change. At Pat’s place we talked about a variety of worldwide changes. And with that conversation in mind I found myself noticing some of the changes represented by my Starbucks neighbors. Having sixty-plus years as a grid helped.
Some changes are superficial. Tattoos, for instance, were once exceptional but they now define proper style. So, too, skinny jeans. And some of the men in nearby tables are as dramatic in their hair fashions as any of the women. There’s also a nearly complete shift from the books and newspapers of the past to the phones, tablets, and laptops of today.
Deeper changes are also in view. One cuddly couple at a nearby table reminds me that same-sex preferences are more overt than ever before. And, in a separate arena, my laptop news summary for the day reminds me of changes in the American political scene. The major parties are both selecting presidential candidates whose personal values—though radically opposed—would chill a polar bear… if, of course, our metaphorical bear had biblical values!
So is this just an “I hate change” rant?
No. I’m just inviting us to be more conscious of our shifts. Change is pervasive, constant, and cyclical. Some change is good and some evil. We can be sure that in another couple of decades the more superficial fads will be passé, readily replaced by new devotions; and some of the deeper moral and political shifts of today will either be reversed or will have solidified into concrete social realities. What is certain is that change always swamps efforts to protect the present moment.
I also reflected on a cyclical quality of change during my latest trip to Poland. For one of my transit nights I picked an inexpensive lakeside hotel after reading that it was once Kaiser Wilhelm’s hunting lodge. Wilhelm, the final emperor of Germany, ruled during World War I and then stepped down after Germany lost the war.
On checking in at the hotel I saw a photo of the splendid Kaiser and his retinue standing on the lodge steps in 1905—the same steps I took to reach my modest overnight room. Time has a way of humbling the lofty and affirming the humble.
So here’s a thought question: given the certainty of change, what direction is our own change taking? What are we becoming? As Christians, for instance, we speak of change as transformation—what Paul refers to in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…”
Notice how Paul treated change as an inward movement that brings about new behaviors. Any change in the world—whether in us as private citizens or in society at large—starts in the soul. And in tracing this theme through the rest of his letter to the Romans—mainly in chapters 5, 8, and 13—Paul traces every positive change to God’s love poured out in the hearts of believers; or, negatively, to a devotion to the creation rather than to the Creator.
So the world is always changing; and so are Christians. And the direction of our change always depends on how we engage this basic biblical opposition. There is one whose Lie—his claim that we can “be like God”—is only overcome by a delight in Jesus Christ as our true Lord and lover. Jesus, alone, brings changes that are rich, satisfying, and nurturing to others. It all starts in the soul—in our devotion; in what we love.
That, in turn, exposes the locale of change—the place in the soul where love turns into action.
So even as we speak of “choosing” to do things it only expresses a love at work in us. If we love what the Lie offers, we’re immediately and necessarily self-deceived by precluding God from the process. We pretend that our choice is an autonomous creative act—as if we live ex nihilo lives. Yet it’s obvious to a critical—biblically grounded—observer that we’re simply following a current social fad or, ultimately, a satanic cultural impulse. There are, ultimately, only two masters in life.
As Christians, then, we realize how heart-based we are. Our hearts have been awakened to a new and living focus: to our love for Christ. And in response to that love we know how derivative our actions are. We are lovers. And in Christ we get to be creative responders: not as automatons but as lovers of the One who created us to be creative in the context of his love.
So, for instance, we’re free to pray, “Oh Lord, I want to get another tattoo as my expression of love for you today!” Or, perhaps, “Lord, please be with me at the hospital as I go to see my friend who just had surgery this morning for his colon cancer.” We have real freedom in love.
Yet what we soon discover is that some prayers have more weight than others—and that’s where transformation by the renewal of our minds starts to show. And once we’re transformed to look more like Jesus; and as we live as a community of transformed believers, we start to change the world around us.
So let’s give three cheers for change! And let’s pray for Christ’s love to be more and more obvious in us.
Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) loved Jesus. It spilled out in his life and sermons as an infectious joy. And today more and more kindred hearts are hearing of Sibbes.
So what did Sibbes offer?
The records of Gray’s Inn offer a tease. The Inn was an important residence hall and training center in central London, set up to supply England with her next generation of political, legal, and commercial leaders. Sibbes was the chapel preacher at the Inn for much of his adult life.
In the days before Sibbes arrived the records include scolding reminders that chapel attendance was required of all residents. But that ended once he started preaching. In his days the chapel was enlarged and the residents were reminded not to bring guests: space was limited and reserved for those who belonged!
If you’d like to read a bit of Sibbes I recommend starting with his Description of Christ. It was his lead-in sermon series to his signature work, A Bruised Reed. Both are available in the first volume of his collected works. And on the Internet.
In his description of Christ Sibbes knew that most people feel distant from God. The distance, he believed, came mainly from a sense of human sinfulness in the face of God’s holiness; and a sense of human finitude over against God as the unbounded creator. So it was both a moral and an ontological gap.
Sibbes, however, didn’t accept this gap. There is, he believed, a reversal of pride and humility in Christ’s incarnation that opens a way to full communion with God. Jesus humbled himself to address human pride—becoming a man, dying on the cross, and then offering life to all who respond to him.
Sibbes saw the irony of this reversal: Jesus humbled himself even though humility is wholly inappropriate for him! Yet by this humility he draws people away from the arrogant ambition to be like God, and then offers union with the Father through a faith birthed by love.
“Whence comes it that Christ is a servant? It is from the wondrous love of God, and the wondrous love of Christ. To be so abased, it was wondrous love in God to give him to us to be so abased, and the wondrous misery we were in, that we could not otherwise be freed from; for such was the pride of man, that he, being man, would exalt himself to be like God. God became man, he became a servant to expiate our pride in Adam, so that it is wondrous in the spring of it.” [Sibbes, Works, 1.7]
Sibbes, in other words, understood sin to be the default of every soul. And sin consists in pride—self-devotion—so consuming as to be inescapable. Inescapable because the proud heart has no desire to be set free from self-love.
So Jesus, sent by the Father, gave up his life in order to expiate Adam’s sin. This, the man-who-is-God, then shows us the joy of his own humility and invites us to join him at the cross.
An amazing plan that we never expected! At least until we met Jesus and saw him as a servant to all of us who caused his death. All this by way of God’s Triune love.
Thank God for such winsome humility!