Sunday, November 29, 2015

Deadly Side Effects

Recently I asked myself this question: "Is my interest in continuing to learn and to grow in knowledge so that I can understand God better and thereby love Him and others more, or is it so that I can prove that I'm 'right' and win arguments? Is it so that I can give life to others or so that I can feel superior to others?"

I believe this question was prompted by the Spirit of God and was His way of continually re-calibrating my journey in Him to keep me focused on loving Him with all my heart, mind, soul and strength and loving my neighbor as myself.

In the story of the garden of Eden, we see the two ways of knowing that humans are offered: knowing independently of God (the tree of knowledge of good and evil) and knowing in God (the tree of life). We humans have a wonderful capacity for knowing and learning, making great and wonderful discoveries because of being made in the image of our Creator; but when we exercise this capability apart from relationship with Him, even the discoveries we make that are beneficial to others have a dark underbelly to them and side effects that are worse than the knowledge/discovery.

The follower of Jesus is not immune to this reality. We never reach a place where trust and dependence on God is not necessary in our growth in understanding (whether that be theological understanding or any other discoveries). As we pursue knowledge that leads to creativity, we must do so in Him and dependent on Him; in other words, we must seek knowledge while in vital relationship with Him and with the awareness that the purpose of learning is to better understand God and His creation and be conformed to His likeness so that the way we live our life is like Jesus lived His: in loving communion with God and loving actions towards all humans. A common deadly side effect to gaining better understanding of God and His ways is pride and a sense of being superior to others.

When we grow in knowledge while depending on God, the benefits of that knowledge will have no deadly side effects.

If increased understanding is not producing increasing tenderness towards God and others, then it may be time to step back and allow His Spirit to examine us. For each person this will look different, but a periodic time of healthy self-reflection (not a morbid unhealthy religious self-hatred type of exercise) is helpful in re-calibrating the direction in which we are headed. Our natural propensity towards taking what we are learning and using it in unloving, self-serving ways requires that we allow God's Spirit to call us apart (for a moment, a day, a week...) for renewal and a fresh reminder of what life is really about: receiving His freely-given love in order to freely love Him and others with the same love and therein bring life and peace into our small corner of the world.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

There is no Fear/Control in Love (In other Words, Is God 'in Control'?)

This is the third and concluding post on the topic of God's uncontrolling love. Having shared thoughts on the general idea that true love by nature is uncontrolling (here) and then some thoughts on where we see this clearly in operation (here), I will share some random thoughts about the implications of this kind of love. This is not comprehensive at all but perhaps can help generate more thoughts on the topic. The following are a few implications that come to mind:

One implication is that God is more interested in His creation's well-being than in His own well-being, because to love someone without trying to control them will, in one way or another, ultimately cost the lover his/her life. It is a dying to oneself and a giving up of one's power for the sake of the other.

Another implication is that God is willing to take risks in order to win voluntary love from His creatures. By taking hands off and not manipulating a person to behave in a desired way, the lover is risking that the person will walk away from life and goodness.

A third implication is that God wants love that is freely given to Him. God must exercise the kind of love He wants back from us. Voluntary love is not produced through using controlling love.

Another implication of God's love being free from control would be that, contrary to what we Christians say about God all the time, He is not controlling all that happens in our lives and in the world. God so loves the world that He gave up control over us in order to have a family that loves Him voluntarily. If God is not controlling everything, this would explain why the world is in the mess it's in; humans must be allowed free choice in order for true love to be operative in the world.

All of this could make God look impotent and weak to the point of His being unable to accomplish anything. But my final thought about uncontrolling love may apply here, and that is that uncontrolling love is actually the most powerful force there is. GOD IS LOVE. The presence of God among men is transformative. His power is in the ability of uncontrolling love to ultimately win over the heart of the loved one because the human heart is created to be loved. The apostle Paul says that LOVE NEVER FAILS; if this is so, then the God who is love will ultimately win the loved one through His loving presence rather than through His control.

"God is love, and the man whose life is lived in love does, in fact, live in God, and God does, in fact, live in him. So our love for him grows more and more, filling us with complete confidence for the day when he shall judge all men—for we realise that our life in this world is actually his life lived in us. Love contains no fear (control)—indeed fully-developed love expels every particle of fear (control), for fear (control) always contains some of the torture of feeling guilty. This means that the man who lives in fear has not yet had his love perfected." (I John 4:16-18  JB Phillips paraphrase - I inserted the word 'control')

Sunday, November 15, 2015

There is No Control in Love (In other words, "Sovereignty is More Like the Pathos of a Slaughtered Lamb than the Omnipotence of a Totalitarian Emperor")

Following up on the topic of true love being uncontrolling (see There is No Fear/Control in Love), I will touch this week on where we can see this kind of love most clearly in operation.

As a starter, I'd like to suggest three places we can see this at work. The three places that come to mind are in the stories that Jesus told, in the life that Jesus lived, and in the death that Jesus died.

First, the stories Jesus told. Perhaps the most famous of His stories, the story of the lost son (Luke 15), displays uncontrolling love most clearly. The father in the story had points of control over the situation through which he could have controlled both sons, thereby gaining a contrived desired result. After all, as long as the father was alive, everything technically belonged to him and he could have used that as a means of controlling the behavior of his sons, strong-arming them into being how he wanted them to be. This story has no hint of attempts at control on the part of the father; he loved them with pure unadulterated love.

Second, the life Jesus lived. Time after time we see Him relating with people in a non-controlling way. Statements made by Jesus in the gospel of John sum up the way He lived His life: "The Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing...I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me." (John 5:19,30) Obviously, Jesus lived His life of love without trying to make things go the way He thought they should. He lived trusting His Father; in other words, His life was one of loving trust without fear and control. 

And third, the death Jesus died. His death by crucifixion meant that He was literally immobilized, rendered incapable of doing or controlling anything; it climaxed a life lived free from controlling people and situations. The cross is the ultimate expression of the words of the apostle John, "There is no fear/control in love..." The non-controlling love of God is seen in living color in the death of Jesus. In Jesus we see in clearest terms what God's love is like - no fear, no control, no coercion nor manipulating, fully self-giving for the sake of the other. The cross shows the voluntary helplessness of the Creator to do anything to control creation; it was a voluntary helplessness because He understood that His creation can only respond freely to freely given love.

Morgan Guyton says: "...many Christians like me are wondering if God’s sovereignty looks more like the pathos of a slaughtered lamb than the omnipotence of a totalitarian emperor." 

Next week I'll write about some implications of this kind of love.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

There is No Fear in Love (in other words, There is No Control in Love)

-->As I continue to seek to know God, I'm discovering that His love is of a nature that is beyond human understanding of love. Recently as I was teaching, I had a new understanding of how uncontrolling His love is. And it dawned on me that true self-giving love must be uncontrolling or else it is not pure.
With this in mind, I plan to share some random thoughts on this topic that are helping me know and love God more. This isn't comprehensive but simply a starting place for prayer and discussion about God and His love.

In this post I will share thoughts on the nature of true love and the issue of control in love.

According to I Cor 13, the nature of true love is the following:

* Love is patient, which implies long waiting for the sake of the loved one; this is a form of suffering because waiting for another person means putting my plans and desires on hold.

* Love does not claim "ownership" of the loved one even though I may have a role in the person's life that would give me permission to "own" that person.

* Love doesn't flaunt itself (whether in obvious or in subtle ways) to get the attention and praise of the other person(s).

* Love is polite (recognizes the dignity of the other), not simply for the sake of politeness, but for the sake of honoring every human as a being of great value to God.

* Love isn't overly sensitive to every little word and action by others but overlooks many offenses whether they are intended or not.

* Love is inclusive, genuinely happy when good things happen to anyone, and has no desire to gloat when bad things happen to another person or group that is not part of its clan or way of thinking.

* Love endures forever; it believes the best about others and keeps hoping in the face of everything; it doesn't quit when it's not accepted and will prevail when all else has collapsed.

As I take the time to ponder each of these qualities of love, I can see how uncontrolling true love is. For example, exercising patience and waiting for a loved one to find and experience God is a form of taking hands off; it's refraining from manipulating to hasten the person towards God. Being willing to wait is a form of non-controlling love, and it is risky...and so on.

I'll let the reader go through each of the qualities of love and think through how letting go of control is at the back of each one. This makes sense, because fear is what pushes us to want to control life, and fear is the opposite of love (according to I John).

Next week we'll look at where we best find this kind of love in operation.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Repentance Means to Accept Being Found

An assignment I gave the students in a 2-week intensive course that I just completed was that they work in groups to rewrite Jesus' parable about the lost son (what we call the prodigal son). I was deeply moved by their work and freshly reminded of what an amazing story this is of the nature of our heavenly Father.

Even by those who don't claim to be "Christian", this story is considered to be the greatest story that's been told. It is our story, the story of each of us; it is the gospel story. In his book The Cross and the Prodigal, Kenneth Bailey says this of the father in the story:

"Traditional Western interpretation has said that the father interrupted the son and didn't give him a chance to finish his speech. Rather, faced with the incredible event (of his father's stunning display of love by shamelessly running bare-legged towards him), he is flooded with the awareness that his real sin is not the lost money but rather the wounded heart. 

The reality and the enormity of his sin and the resulting intensity of his father's suffering overwhelm him. In a flash of awareness he now knows that there is nothing he can do to make up for what he has done. His proposed offer to work as a servant now seems blasphemous. He is not interrupted. He changes his mind and accepts being found. In this manner he fulfills the definition of repentance that Jesus sets forth in the parable of the lost sheep. Like the lost sheep, the prodigal now accepts to be found."

What if God were really this good (with none of the qualifiers that we add)?? Think about it and be in wonder...

Saturday, October 24, 2015

We Have Been the Real Reductionists...

More words from other Jesus followers to challenge us to understand God more:

N.T. Wright (Simply Jesus):
"Jesus - the Jesus we might discover if we really looked is larger, more disturbing, more urgent than we had ever imagined. We have successfully managed to hide behind other questions and to avoid the huge, world-shaking challenge of Jesus's central claim and achievement. It is we, the churches, who have been the real reductionists. We have reduced the kingdom of God to private piety; the victory of the cross to comfort for the conscience; Easter itself to a happy, escapist ending after a sad, dark tale. Piety, conscience, and ultimate happiness are important, but not nearly as important as Jesus himself."

Albert Nolan (Jesus Today):
"Jesus' respect for the dignity of everyone he encountered was boundless. He treated each individual as unique and lovable - whether that person was a blind beggar, an epileptic, or a Roman centurion. He was particularly attentive to the needs of women and children: the widow of Nain who had lost her only son, the poor widow who put her last coin into the collection box, the woman suffering from hemorrhages, the women of Jerusalem who, he says, should weep for themselves and their children rather than for him, and, anticipating the day when the Roman armies will attack, the focus of his attention is on children, pregnant mothers, and those with babies at the breast..."

George MacDonald:
"How terribly have the theologians misrepresented God's character. They represented him as a king on a huge throne, thinking how grand he is and making it the business of his being and the end of his universe to keep up his glory, wielding the bolts of a Jupiter against them that take his name in vain...

But how contrary this is to what the Gospel accounts plainly tell us. Brothers, sisters, have you found our King? There he is, kissing little children and saying they are like God. There he is at the table with the head of the fisherman lying on his chest and (with) somewhat heavy heart that even he, the beloved disciple, cannot yet understand him well."

Saturday, October 17, 2015

God is Different than We Think

More quotes to lead us to fuller understanding of our God:

Greg Boyd:
"God is different than we think.  The revelation of “[a] God humiliated even unto the cross,” as Pascal put it, flies in the face of what most Jews of Jesus’ time, and of what most people throughout history, have expected God to be. For example, few people in Jesus’ day would have expected God to “justify” a tax collector who was too ashamed to “even look up to heaven” (Lk 18) instead of the righteous Pharisee who fasted twice a week, gave a tenth of all he earned... Similarly, few if any expected God to welcome into his kingdom “tax collectors and prostitutes” before religious leaders whom everyone held in high esteem (Mt 21:31; cf., Lk 7:38-50). Indeed, because the God he revealed was so contrary to what people expected, Jesus repeatedly taught that those whom most assumed were “outsiders” would find themselves “inside,” while those whom most assumed were “insiders” would find themselves “out” (e.g., Mt 7:21-3; 22:1-9; 25:31-46)..."

Brian Zahnd (Beauty Will Save the World):
"Our task is not to protest the world into a certain moral conformity, but to attract the world to the saving beauty of Christ. We do this best, not by protest or political action, but by enacting a beautiful presence within the world. The Western church has had four centuries of viewing salvation in a mechanistic manner, presenting it as a plan, system or formula. It would be much better if we would return to viewing salvation as a song we sing. The book of Revelation...doesn’t have any plans or formulas, but it has lots of songs. The task of the church is to creatively and faithfully sing the songs of the Lamb in the midst of a world founded upon the beastly principles of greed, decadence, and violence. What is needed is not an ugly protest, but a beautiful song; not a pragmatic system, but a transcendent symphony. Why? Because God is more like a musician than a manager, more like an composer than a clerk keeping ledgers."

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Power of Powerlessness

Continuing the series of quotes this month with the prayer that they will help awaken desire to grow and change in our understanding of God in Christ Jesus:

Doug Frank (A Gentler God)
"In the most brutal episodes of human history, God has been present - not in power, the kind that we understand or reach for, but as the humble whisper of love into the hearts both of the butchers and the butchered...If God cannot straightforwardly micromanage human events so as to rescue the abused child, the tortured prisoner, the cancer victim, neither can God rescue God's very own self incarnated in Jesus...There is a kind of power in God's whispers. But it is the power of powerlessness. It changes things, but invisibly, unpredictably, unaccountably and, from our point of view, unreliably. It is not the kind of power we imagine, or wish, God to have."

Kenneth Bailey (The Cross and the Prodigal):
Luke 15:1-3 "The Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them.' In this verse we have (the word) prosdechomai which means 'to welcome into fellowship.' ...The crowning blow was that Jesus ate with them. In the eyes of his opponents Jesus was defiled by such contact. But there was more! To eat with another person in the Mideast is a sacramental act signifying acceptance on a very deep level."

"A true knowledge of the Lord Jesus will reverse a good many of our ideas, and a good many of our procedures."  


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.