Saturday, October 03, 2015

"Sometimes It Seems God Loves Us Too Much..."

For some weeks I will be sharing quotes from various followers of Jesus that I pray will inspire us to desire God more. Today I will share two quotes:

Michael Spencer from his book Mere Churchianity:

"We don't see that the powerful change that happens in the life of a disciple never comes from the disciples working hard at doing anything. They come from arriving at a place where Jesus is everything, and we are simply overwhelmed with the gift. Sometimes it seems as if God loves us too much. His love goes far beyond our ability to stop being moral, religious , obedient, and victorious and we just collapse in his arms."


"How good it would be if we could learn that God is easy to live with. He remembers our frame and knows that we are dust. He may sometimes chasten us, it is true, but even this He does with a smile, the proud tender smile of a Father who is bursting with pleasure over an imperfect but promising son who is coming every day to look more and more like the One whose child he is. Some of us are religiously jumpy and self-conscious because we know that God sees our every thought and is acquainted with all our ways. We need not be. God is the sum of all patience and the essence of kindly good will. We please Him most, not by frantically trying to make ourselves good, but by throwing ourselves into His arms with all our imperfections, and believing that He understands everything and loves us still."

Sunday, September 27, 2015

To Love Truth Requires Courage and Humility

It's not a stretch to say that the apostle John loved the truth (as opposed to simply knowing truth). He wrote this in his third letter, "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth."

There's a vast difference between being a "lover of Truth" and being one who simply knows true information or true doctrines. I believe that one thing that shows that John was a lover of truth is that he loved and closely followed Jesus who is Truth personified. More than simply giving data and facts about the Man, John shares from a deep personal knowing of Him.

The following are some characteristics that I see of one who loves the Truth (as opposed to merely having correct information or beliefs):
  • The active seeking of the person of Jesus who is Truth personified; i.e., not settling for gaining correct facts or beliefs about Him but seeking His Spirit for a knowing/understanding of the person of Jesus...who He is, what He's like, what He desires, and how He feels and thinks about His creation in general, and about me in particular.
  • A holy dissatisfaction with what I presently know of Him and His ways; i.e., never content with what I have learned in the past. Although thankful for what I have learned, I should be ever pressing into His Spirit for further understanding and experiencing of this God-Man Who is unlike any other in the universe in His love and kindness and embracing of all.
  • A willingness to "unlearn" what I have known as truth; i.e., there are things that I have learned along the way that must be unlearned as I mature in God; this is a natural part of maturing in any walk of life, but it is painful for fearful humans because we find identity and security in believing that everything that we believe is correct. It disorients us to discover that something we used to be so sure of isn't quite aligned with the full truth as it is in Jesus.
  • A sincere walking in the Truth; i.e., loving Truth enough to follow Him in loving obedience.
Gaining correct information is fairly easy; loving Truth is risky and requires courage and humility.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Framing God's Story: Disinterested Love, the Way of Escape

In the previous three posts (here, here, here) I have shared an alternative way of viewing God's story of His creation and love of humanity. Today I will conclude this series with thoughts concerning how we escape from this awful slavery to the fear of death (self-preservation).

Born mortal, we are all slaves to fear...particularly fear of death in its many forms. The satan uses this deep fear against us; it pushes and pulls us into sinful living because of our panic at losing our life (be that our actual physical life or losing that which gives us a sense of significance and permanence in this age).

In becoming fully human like us, Jesus faced this fear of death. At every turn He succeeded in living free from its dominion by never yielding to the temptation to save His own life at the expense of another; in other words, through self-giving love. His death on the cross was the culmination of a life lived in love, choosing the life of "the other" over His own life when faced with that choice. By so doing, He broke the stronghold that the fear of death held over humanity.

We who are in Christ are empowered by His presence in us to overcome bondage to fear of death in the same way. Theologian John Romanides says: "The salvation of man is dependent upon how much, under the guidance of God, he is capable of exercising himself in the cultivation of a genuine, unselfish, and unconstrained love for God and his fellow man...Just as God, above all, is free of every need and self-interest, the spiritual man who has the Spirit struggles and becomes perfected in the love according to Christ, love that is delivered of all need and self-interest."

And so it is in our struggle to love purely and without self-interest as Jesus loved that we are little by little perfected in love and therein delivered from fear. Fear is cast out by love, and as fear and death loses its hold over us, sinful practices drop off. This is the process of salvation that we struggle to walk out together daily with the Spirit and with one another. (Scripture at times calls this 'dying to the false self' with its self interest and self preservation.)

May the Spirit of Jesus help us understand our dilemma and enter actively into the struggle to learn to love disinterestedly and thereby experience increasing freedom from the tyranny of fear and of its fruit, sinful living.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Framing God's Story: Fear of Death Enslaves Humanity

Continuing on the theme of reframing the story of God and His creation with the frame of the fear of death as humanity's fundamental predicament rather than of sin, I'll share some ways in which we humans are "held in slavery by their fear of death" (Heb. 2:14,15), according to Richard Beck. (For previous posts, go here and here.)

One way we manifest our bondage to the fear of death is in our denial of death which we do by attempting to remove signs of it in our everyday life. Arthur McGill says of the American lifestyle: "All traces of weakness, debility, ugliness and helplessness must be kept away from every part of a person's life..." Beck adds that "we are happy to help others but are loathe in this culture of death to ask for help...Beyond maintaining personal appearances, the culture of death avoidance demands that reminders of death, disability, age, failure, and weakness be removed from public view...In contemporary American culture our slavery to the fear of death produces superficial consumerism, a fetish for managing appearances, inauthentic relationships, triumphalistic religion, and the eclipse of personal and societal empathy."

Another manifestation of our enslavement to fear is our participation in cultural hero systems. All cultures have their hero system which defines success for those living in it. We all want to "make our mark" by creating or being part of something that is 'lasting.' "For example, my life is deemed meaningful because my children outlive me, or I wrote a book, or I helped the company have its best quarter of the year. Child, book, and company are all forms of 'immortality', ways to continue living into the future in an effort to 'defeat' death."

For the hero system to give a sense of permanence and security in the face of death, it must be experienced as absolute, eternal, transcendent and ultimate. When someone comes along who has different values, everything that has contributed towards my sense of significance and security in the face of death is threatened. This gives rise to demonizing (marginalizing and dehumanizing) the "other", the outsider.

Finally, Beck shows how our fear of death pressures us to attach ourselves in idolatrous relationships with institutions (including  Christian institutions). Beck quotes William Stringfellow who says that the contemporary equivalent to the biblical language of "powers, virtues, thrones, authorities, dominions, demons, princes, strongholds, lords, angels, gods, elements, spirit..." are realities such as "all institutions, all ideologies, all images, all movements, all causes, all corporations, all bureaucracies, all traditions, all methods and routines, all conglomerates, all races, all nations, all idols..." These entities exert a moral force in our lives in the form of demanding our service and allegiance and loyalty, and we willingly yield to this, finding ourselves in rivalry with those inside our organization and in competition with other institutions who may be a threat to our success.

Stringfellow explains why the temptation to yield to this moral force is so great: "Make work your monument, make it the reason for your life, and you will survive your death in some way...Work is the common means by which (people) seek and hope to justify their existence while they are alive and to sustain their existence, in a fashion, after they die."

The irony of giving our allegiance to these powers (be they institutions, nations, movements, etc) is that they too are mortal, and self-preservation is at the heart of their existence, meaning that to surrender ourselves to them is a form of worship of something mortal rather than worship of the eternal God. All of this can happen in the name of God as can clearly be seen in the religious and political systems of Jesus' day (and ours).

Next week I will conclude this series about framing God's story differently by sharing how the slavery to fear of death is broken in our everyday walk in God.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Framing God's Story: More About Human Weakness, Less About Human Wickedness

Continuing the theme of last week's post (The Picture Frame Makes a Difference), I want to share more about how some others in Christianity frame the human predicament differently than we western Christians generally frame it.

In his book, The Slavery of Death, Richard Beck says: "Where Western Christianity has tended to interpret 'sarx' as a depraved and congenital 'sin nature,' the Orthodox see 'sarx' as 'mortality' - our corruptibility and perishability in the face of death. And it's this vulnerability, Paul explains, that makes us susceptible to sin. The idea here is that we are less 'wicked' than we are 'weak.' As 'sarx' - mortal animals - we are playthings of the devil, who uses the fear of death to push and pull our survival instincts (our fleshly, sarx-driven passions) to keep us as 'slaves to sin.'...Sin here is seen as a symptom of death, the underlying disease.

"...our vulnerability to death makes us fearful, paranoid, and suspicious creatures and...these fears promote a host of moral and social ills...Because we are mortal and driven by self-preservation, our survival instincts make us tragically vulnerable to death anxiety - the desire to preserve our own existence above all else and at all costs."

According to Hebrews 2, Satan uses this fear of death to hold us captive to resorting to our own devices for survival rather than trusting God, and this sin of independence in turn brings separation from God, and so the tragic cycle goes on. In this particular framing of the story, salvation is from death and corruptibility and its cycle, whereas in the western framing of the story, salvation is from divine wrath.

Framing humans in God's story as weak rather than as wicked presents a different view of God and of humans; as I suggested in last week's post (here), it can significantly change our attitude towards others (and towards ourselves) and empower us to see all humans with compassion rather than with judgment.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Picture Frame Makes a Difference

Many years ago, I discovered that the frame around a picture makes a big difference. Framing, as well as painting, is an art. The color and design emphasize certain aspects of the painting and causes the person viewing the painting to focus on particular parts of the artwork.

As I'm rethinking different parts of the picture of God's story and His love for His creation, I'm learning to re-frame that picture, and it is helping me a lot. The Lord is using many means to help me re-frame the story. One means is through the writings of authors I have discovered, one of which is Richard Beck. In his very interesting and wonderful book, The Slavery of Death, he presents why he believes that humanity's predicament has more to do with our mortality than with our morality. In other words, our fear of death is the better framework for the picture of humanity's basic problem than is sin.

Beck says: "Death, not sin, is the primary predicament of the human condition. Death is the cause of sin. More properly, the fear of death produces most of the sin in our lives."

As I have read Beck's work and looked into some of the theology of the early church fathers, I've come to appreciate this framing of humanity's problem over the framing that many of us in the western stream of Christianity have been given. Many of God's people in church history and today as well understand humanity's need to be more a need for a Deliverer than for a Judge. In other words, we are born mortal and fearful of death rather than sinful. Sin is the result of fear of death which has us hopelessly trapped and in need of a Deliverer.

This in no way denies that we all sin, but it sees sin as the symptom of something more profound.

In a society in which lack of food is not a threat to physical life for most people, the fear of death takes on the form of neurotic anxieties, such as fears related to self esteem or having significance and acceptance from others. In our desire to be immortal, we attach ourselves to causes or organizations or religious groups that will last beyond our lifetime; or we place our hopes in our children's success as a way to ensure our success; we compete for positions and for recognition...etc.

I can see advantages to framing humanity's primary problem in mortality and fear of death rather than framing it in moral behavior. I'll share 3 reasons I like this framing:  first, it highlights God's graciousness and compassion towards humans.  The legal framework emphasizes God as angry Judge who demands that law-breaking humans be punished; but God is loving Creator and Father who in great compassion for His creation comes in His Son to rescue humanity from the grip of this fear of death by defeating it in His flesh (Heb. 2), forgiving and healing and reconciling us back to Himself to live in fellowship with Him; in that living fellowship we are empowered to walk free from anxieties that drive us to sinful practices.

The second reason I think framing the story of man's predicament in mortality is better is that it doesn't pit Jesus against God. In other words, it doesn't present Jesus as taking our side against God's anger towards humans; but rather it shows that God and Jesus have always been of one mind in unconditional, unchanging love for weak humans and that they are in agreement about our need for deliverance from the one who holds the power of death over us: (Heb. 2:14,15) "By embracing death, taking it into himself, he destroyed the Devil’s hold on death and freed all who cower through life, scared to death of death."  (2 Cor. 5:19) "In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them."

The third reason I believe framing humanity's predicament in this way is good is that it sees humans through a more compassionate lens and moves us away from our tendency as western evangelicals to see people primarily as sinners who ought to know better and so should be judged and condemned. Rather than seeing ourselves and others as primarily law-breakers of God's holy law, we see humans as born fearful and driven to sin because of the desperate need to escape death in its many forms. In my own experience, since changing how I frame the picture of humanity's fall, I find myself slower to judge and condemn others because I now see them (and myself) as captive to a fear that only Jesus can deliver us from. This awakens compassion and desire to help people know that there is freedom from the fear of death.

(Much of the way we frame God and His story is rooted in our beliefs about the atonement. If you're interested in viewing an interesting presentation of the eastern and western views of the atonement, you can go to this link:  The Gospel in Chairs.) 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

What Matters Supremely...

Deep down we all want to be fully known and still loved. J.I. Packer says the following:

“What matters supremely is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it — the fact that He knows me. I am graven on the palms of His hands. I am never out of His mind. All my knowledge of Him depends on His sustained initiative in knowing me. I know Him, because He first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me, and there is no moment when His eye is off me, or His attention distracted from me, and no moment therefore, when His care falters.

"This is momentous knowledge. There is unspeakable comfort — the sort of comfort that energizes — in knowing that God is constantly taking knowledge of me in love, and watching over me for my good. There is tremendous relief in knowing that His love to me is utterly realistic, based...on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench his determination to bless me. There is, certainly, great cause for humility in the thought that He sees all the twisted things about me that my fellow-men do not see, and that He sees more corruption in me than that which I see in myself.

“There is, however, equally great incentive to worship and love God in the thought that, for some unfathomable reason, He wants me as His friend, and desires to be my friend, and has given His Son to die for me in order to realize this purpose.”

For this truth to transform us, it's important to actually embrace it, accept it and practice it; one way to practice accepting this love is to pause a few moments during your day (doing this regularly) to listen for the Father's affirmation of you. For example, you could take these words of J.I. Packer and turn them into a personal statement by God to you, saying something like this:  

"(Your name), what matters supremely is not the fact that you know Me but that I know you. You are engraved on the palms of My hands, and I never stop thinking about you; I'm thinking about you right now. You know Me because I knew you first and continue to know you. I know everything about you, the good, the bad and the ugly, and I still want you as My friend; I want this so much that I went to death to win you for Myself..., etc."

Saturday, August 08, 2015

I Am His House

I wanted to quote a poem this week by George MacDonald and came across this beautiful and powerful poem from his book, Diary of an Old Soul. To get the impact of his words, I encourage you to take a little time to quietly ponder them. The form of English is a bit difficult but worth struggling to grasp:

"Too eager I must not be to understand.
How should the work the Master goes about
Fit the vague sketch my compasses have planned?
I am his house - for him to go in and out.
He builds me now - and if I cannot see
At any time what he is doing with me,
Tis that he makes the house for me too grand.

The house is not for me - it is for him.
His royal thoughts require many a stair,
Many a tower, many an outlook fair,
Of which I have no thought, and need no care.
Where I am most perplexed, it may be there
Thou mak'st a secret chamber, holy-dim,
Where thou will come to help my deepest prayer."

Amen, dear Lord...may it be so.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

To Make Converts to a Doctrine is to Make Proselytes

As I have often made reference to, I believe that part of what God is doing in the world now is breaking up the religious systems and practices that have become hindrances to people seeing Jesus and what God is like in Him. Our preoccupation with ensuring doctrinal correctness has become a stumbling block to our making disciples/followers of Jesus.

In his outstanding book, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes that Hinder It, Roland Allen addresses the desperate need for preaching Jesus rather than preaching Christianity. In the following quote, he critiques western Christianity for worrying more about getting our "doctrine" correct than about preaching Jesus. Jesus ends up being relegated to a secondary place. He is the First Cause but we tend to stress the secondary causes (doctrinal beliefs):

"...We speak as if the Gospel and the doctrine, preaching Christ and preaching Christianity, were identical terms.

"There is a difference between the revelation of a Person and the teaching of a system of doctrine and practice.

"...our doctrine so dominates our mind that we can scarcely believe that men can love Christ and be saved by Him unless they know and use our doctrinal expressions. Because we find this difficult we inevitably tend to give the teaching of our doctrine the first place in our work...But the Person is greater and far excels it.

"When we fall into this error, we inevitably tend to make the acceptance of the shadow (the doctrine, the system) the aim and object of our work. In doing that we are doing something of which Christ spoke in very severe terms. To make converts to a doctrine is to make proselytes."

Jesus recognized this in the religious leaders of His day, condemning them for making converts instead of disciples (Matt. 23:15). Only as we make Christ crucified our theme and passion will others become true followers of Jesus rather than mere adherents to certain prescribed beliefs.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Washing Feet...

The quote below from Dietrich Bonhoeffer helps paint a picture of what it looks like for Jesus' followers to wash the feet of others in His name:

"In the midst of discipline, the entire fullness of the Holy Spirit wants to unfold and to ripen, and we should give it full space within us for the sake of God, for the sake of others, and for our own sake. The entire world of God, the dear Father, wants to be born in us, to grow and ripen. Love—where only suspicion and hostility reign; joy—instead of bitterness and pain; peace—amid internal and external strife; patience—where impatience threatens to overwhelm us; kindness—where only raw and hard words seem to make any difference; goodness—where understanding and empathy seem like weakness; faithfulness—where long separations and enormous changes in all relationships seek to rock the foundations of even what is most stable; gentleness—where recklessness and selfishness seem to be the only ways to reach one’s goals; self-control—where short term pleasures seem to be the only reasonable option and all bonds are about to dissolve."

In a world where hostility, sadness, strife, impatience, harshness, meanness, infidelity, brashness and self-indulgence wear and tear people down, the fruit of the Spirit of Jesus at work through us brings refreshing as did the washing of tired and dirty feet in Jesus' day.

Galatians 5:22,23 "The Spirit however, produces in human life fruits such as these: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, fidelity, tolerance and self-control—and no law exists against any of them."