Sunday, February 07, 2016

Fear, Insecurity, Rivalry and the Love of God

In the lifelong process of being transformed into the likeness of Jesus, our way of seeing changes dramatically. Because we are born mortal, we are born afraid of death; and because we are afraid of death, we have a natural affinity with the world system that thrives on competition and rivalry. We believe that our survival depends on how well we can prove our value over and above the next guy.

This mindset, which is so deeply embedded in us that we can't see it unless God's Spirit helps us, causes us to see life through the eyes of insecurity. We must somehow put others down in order to feel good about ourselves and in order for us to be compared favorably over the competition. We're caught in a rivalrous system that reinforces our fallen predisposition towards fear. This system pits individuals against individuals, churches against churches, political parties against political parties, races against races, nations against nations.

But as the Spirit of God does His loving and ongoing work of driving out fear through love and therein making us increasingly like Jesus in the way we see others, we begin to be able to look beyond the outward obvious defects that are part of being human to see the hidden and unobtrusive good qualities that are also part of being human. Paul Billheimer says the following in his book Love Covers:

"We see the evil in our fellows much sooner than the good. On a very short acquaintance with persons, we discover their defects and the things in them which are disagreeable to us, and soon find the weak point in them...but their better nature is more slowly unfolding itself. The invisible character of goodness is not so obtrusive as defects, because there is an instinctive bashfulness in real goodness, even without a man's intending it. When we know people a long while, especially if we love them, there is apt to be the continual breaking forth of virtues in them we never dreamed they possessed; and oftentimes in little things, in the ordinary wear and tear of life, there will come forth in unostentatious ways traits of humility and self-depreciation, or a patience and sweetness and unselfishness beyond what we expect of them..."

In order for us to more readily see beyond the obvious flaws in others as Jesus does, we must be secure in God's love; we become more secure in His love by freely receiving His love. The apostle John sums it up by saying that we love because He loved us first (I John 4:19).


Sunday, January 24, 2016

Is the Brain Hard-wired to be Narrow Minded? (Part 3 - Seeing as God Sees)

In this third and final part of my 3-part series on the human propensity towards being narrow-minded (part 1) and (part 2), I want to suggest a couple of practical things we can do to cooperate with the Holy Spirit's work of renewing our mind. I believe His ultimate goal in the renewing/rewiring of the brain is that we become increasingly like God in our responses to people who are different than us and to situations that run contrary to our notions of what is right and wrong.

There is no magic bullet that will do this for us, so what I suggest won't be the only way nor is it comprehensive but perhaps it may serve as a starting point from which you will develop your own way of cooperating with God as He re-forms and rewires our brain to be more aligned with His open and all-embracing heart and mind.

One primary means of becoming more like Him is to spend time looking at Him. Sometimes we call this "contemplation" or "meditation". A primary source of material for meditation and contemplation of God is the Scriptures. We first need to understand what He is like before we can hope to be transformed into His likeness. The New Testament Gospels are some of the best material for seeing what God thinks of us humans, because in Jesus we see God in action. Jesus is the perfect and most trustworthy revelation of what God is like. Taking time regularly to ponder the stories about Jesus, putting yourself in the story and imagining Jesus as he moved among all kinds of people will begin to help you see the beauty of God in the face of Jesus. The more you invest in contemplating His beauty (His nature and character), the larger and more inclusive your heart and mind will grow; in other words, the more you will become like Him (II Cor. 3:18).

If you're interested in more direction about being transformed by looking at Jesus, here is a helpful article about this.

Another practice that can help rewire the brain is a focusing exercise, much-needed in our high tech world with its countless distractions which has resulted in the loss of the ability to focus and listen well. This practice is very simple and involves repetition: pick a one-liner from Scripture (the Psalms is full of short declarations/prayers), and develop the habit of repeating that one short phrase every day several times a day. An example phrase is "I am yours; save me." (Psa.119:94)

If needed, devise a means of reminding yourself to repeat it over and over. Don't be concerned with whether or not you are concentrating on the phrase, simply repeat it whenever you think to do so. The idea is to help the brain learn to focus through repetition; this ability to focus will aid in the practice of looking (contemplating) at God in Christ which in turn will cause us to become more like God and see our world as He sees it.

Anything we do to cooperate with God's Spirit requires humility because we will only do this if we acknowledge that we are narrow-minded. I believe that the humble posture of getting under His yoke with Him and learning from His meek heart can lead to having renewed and disciplined minds in which the neo-cortex (reasoning part) of the brain is strengthened and enabled to govern our responses to that which we fear. We can become more objective and look through the loving Creator's eyes rather than through our fear-filled emotions.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Is the Brain Hard-wired to be Narrow Minded? (Part 2 - God Isn't Like Us...)

Following up on last week's post (Is the Brain Hard-wired to be Narrow Minded?), I want to share briefly about how awareness of our bent towards narrow-mindedness and of God's open-mindedness can help us who are followers of Jesus.

If it's true that we are born mortal and therefore fearful of death, it shouldn't surprise us that our brain's default reaction to perceived or real threats is the 'fight or flight' mode. If we realize that fear causes us to respond aggressively (or passive aggressively) towards anything we perceive to be a threat to our way of life or way of thinking, then it's easier to step back and give space for the neo-cortex (reasoning) part of the brain to activate. This allows us to see the situation with greater objectivity rather than with purely subjective reactions. In other words, we give ourselves the chance to look at the situation through God's perspective rather than through our own narrow-minded perspective.

I want to suggest two underlying truths that we need to be aware of in our journey towards Christ-likeness:

First, we must be aware that we are prone towards fear, therefore we cannot trust our automatic fear and discomfort responses when we encounter opinions/thoughts/ideas that differ from ours (Proverbs 3:5). Romans 12:2 admonishes us to be transformed by the process of the reforming of our minds, and part of that is a continual rewiring of our brain responses from fear based reaction to love motivated response.

Second, we must be aware of the fact that God loves ALL people without partiality and fear. His perfect and impartial love for all humans drives out fear and supersedes all else, meaning that whatever good arguments I may have for self-preservation and self-protection are subservient to the love of God for all, including those that I feel threatened by.

In other words, because of our bent towards fearful responses to threats of any sort, we live with closed and restricted hearts. God isn't like us; God is like Jesus and lives and operates with a wide open heart and mind towards all.

These two basic truths, if remembered and contemplated regularly, will help us as followers of the Lamb to pause long enough to begin to reshape our responses to our fears.

Next week I will conclude thoughts on this topic by talking about a few practical ways to help rewire (renew) the brain so that we cooperate with the Spirit of God in our walk with Him and others.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Is the Brain Hard Wired to be Narrow Minded?

There are wonderful discoveries being made about the human brain in recent decades; I believe this can be a helpful tool in our growth in understanding our life in God.

Recently I read about a study that was done on a select group of people; each person had strong convictions politically (from both the right and the left). When they were presented with information that was contrary to their political beliefs, the part of the brain that was activated was the amygdala, the "fight or flight" part of the brain. When presented with information they agreed with, the pleasure center in the brain was triggered. In both instances the neo-cortex, the reasoning part of the brain, was virtually inactive. (I suspect that similar findings would be made if this kind of study were done with Christians with dogmatic doctrinal convictions, whether conservative or progressive.)

Studies have also showed that since the 1970's, Americans have become increasingly polarized politically, making it virtually impossible for our political leaders to make needed compromises in order to benefit all citizens. Alongside this is the growing divide between American Christians who are viewing issues differently.

This all confirms what is obvious as we hear the news, which is that growing numbers of people are holding extreme positions, unwilling to listen to and learn from others who hold different views.

Could it be that the human brain is hard wired to be narrow minded when it comes to issues that affect us? If so, this may be another way of understanding that we, as fallen creatures, are born fearful; the natural response to anything that threatens our life and well being is the "fight or flight" response which is a fear-based and self-preserving response.

(In a past blog post I touched on the topic of fear as the fundamental human predicament: The Picture Frame Makes a Difference.)

In the next post I will touch on how being aware of this reality can help those of us who are followers of Jesus as we seek to live in His life and grace each day and influence the world we live in.

Friday, January 01, 2016

The Biggest Loser...Wins

Those familiar with the popular TV show, The Biggest Loser, know that the one who wins the prize is the one who loses the most (weight).

The biggest loser of all time is Jesus, the One who lost everything but has come out the winner. Hear His words in John 12:24,25 (The Message) where He refers to His approaching death:

“Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal."

He has gained everything by losing everything. The systems of the world are all designed so that winning is for those who are the most cunning, powerful, coercive, rivalrous, dominant, intelligent, manipulative, self-assertive, hard-working...The way God lived and died in Christ tells us that His system is of an entirely different nature; it's built on losing one's self life through self-giving love in order to gain one's real life in God.

As we enter the new year, we hear Jesus' challenge (Mark 8:35-37 The Message) to any who would be His followers:

Calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?

Just like our Leader Shepherd, we win by losing; we find our true selves by giving up our autonomy and following His lead. May the new year be one in which we His followers, individually and collectively, measure winning as God does and find ways to align ourselves with the Biggest Loser...only to find one day that we are winners of that which really matters! 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Finally God Unveils His Face!

To finish out the year, I'm sharing seven quotes from George MacDonald, thought-provoking words that may provide the reader with material to meditate on as we transition from the end of this year into the start of a new year. I've chosen different themes from his writings; perhaps one of these may catch your attention. If so, a helpful practice is to take a moment and contemplate it together with Him:

"God hides nothing. His very work from the beginning is revelation - a casting aside of veil after veil, a showing unto men of truth after truth. On and on, from fact to fact divine He advances, until at length in His Son Jesus, He unveils His very face. Then begins a fresh unveiling, for the very work of the Father is the work the Son Himself has to do - to reveal..."

"I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most glorious creature that I could think of; for to have been thought about, born in God's thought, and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest and most precious thing in all thinking."

“You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it himself." (Quoted by C.S.Lewis in Mere Christianity)

“...there is no harm in being afraid. The only harm is in doing what Fear tells you. Fear is not your master! Laugh in his face and he will run away.”  

“...though I cannot promise to take you home," said North Wind, as she sank nearer and nearer to the tops of the houses, "I can promise you it will be all right in the end. You will get home somehow.” 

“But we believe – nay, Lord we only hope,
That one day we shall thank thee perfectly
For pain and hope and all that led or drove
Us back into the bosom of thy love.”

“It is vain to think that any weariness, however caused, any burden, however slight, may be got rid of otherwise than by bowing the neck to the yoke of the Father's will. There can be no other rest for heart and soul than He has created. From every burden, from every anxiety, from all dread of shame or loss, even loss of love itself, that yoke will set us free.”

May the coming year be one of looking into the face of Jesus and experiencing His work of "casting aside veil after veil...until at length in His Son Jesus, He unveils His very face." God is Christlike!  II Cor. 4:6  For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made us understand that it is the brightness of his glory that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Astonishing News for Everyone about an Astonishing Person

In the previous post about "astonishing news", we looked at Luke 2 and the announcement made by the angel to the shepherds:

Luke 2 - "And in the same area there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And then an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were very afraid. But the angel said to them, “Listen! Do not fear. For I bring you good news of great joy, which will be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign to you: You will find the Baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” Suddenly there was with the angel a company of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and good will toward men.”

I want to follow up on how Jesus wonderfully fulfilled each part of the announcement that is highlighted above.

First, "Do not fear." In taking on human flesh and dying, Jesus faced fear and broke the power of the fear of death that haunts and torments every human. His pure love for humans drove out fear, opening the way to trust God rather than to fear.

Second, "good news of great joy." Jesus was the joyful good news. His presence among people always inspired joy and expectation. Here was a person who was fully alive, filled with the love of God for everyone. His presence caused great hope and rejoicing to all who were hungry and thirsty.

Third, "to all people." In spite of the fact that the first century world was "small" and that Jesus moved about in a very limited geographical space primarily among the Jews, He was always relating with and ministering to those who were not Jewish and left no doubt about God's love and redemption being for all peoples. In Jesus we began to see clearly that God has no favorites; all are His own.

Fourth, "the Baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a manger." Jesus' life began as any human life begins - as a baby, helpless and vulnerable. The way He lived His life as a grown man reflected His identification with the average person. God came in a way that was unexpected and non-threatening.

Fifth, "on earth peace." This announcement of peace concerning this birth indicates that His nature is that of peace. In Jesus peace came to earth. Because He understood that violence only begets more violence, He did not try to resolve force with force. He lived this way of peace and His death manifested His refusal to respond to violence by use of force. He promised peace before His crucifixion and pronounced peace immediately upon appearing to His followers after His resurrection. Jesus was and is the Prince of peace.

Finally, "good will toward men." In Jesus God was showing that He has good intentions for humans, all humans. When we see how Jesus treated humans, we see the good will that God has towards us. God was in Christ saying through Jesus' words and deeds and the outpouring of His life that He loves and wants everyone to experience the goodness that there is in relating with Him.

...astonishing news for everyone about an astonishing Person! GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST!

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Astonishing News for Everyone

The dramatic announcement made to the shepherds about God's coming in human flesh shows us a lot about God.

Luke 2 - "And in the same area there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And then an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were very afraid. But the angel said to them, “Listen! Do not fear. For I bring you good news of great joy, which will be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign to you: You will find the Baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” Suddenly there was with the angel a company of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

                                                                 Glory to God in the highest,
                                      and on earth peace, and good will toward men.”

As I reflect on this beautiful portion afresh, I see the following truths about God in the highlighted phrases:

First, "Do not fear." This suggests to me that God knows we are fearful people and wants us to understand that, unlike the intimidating gods of the nations, He is coming to us in a non-threatening way. Rather than fearing Him, He desires that we trust Him.

Second, "good news of great joy." Our God is a joyful God with good news for us. This announcement isn't that of a vengeful, vindictive God but One, who like loving parents, is eager to surprise their children with a gift that the child knows he/she doesn't deserve.

Third, "to all people." This God is not tribal. He isn't coming for only one particular group of people but for all people, all nations. This is staggering news for humans whose bent is toward thinking that God favors people like ourselves over others.

Fourth, "the Baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a manger." Wow! This God comes in the most vulnerable form possible and is born into the poor of society, underscoring His desire to identify with the lowliest and to come in the most non-threatening way possible.

Fifth, "peace on earth." This tells us that His nature is peace-loving and non-violent. He comes, unlike all other gods and kings, with no rivalrous nor competitive agenda, no need to prove Himself. The rule of His kingdom is a rule of peace.

Sixth, "good will toward men." This God comes with good will, good intentions towards all people. All other gods and rulers view people as a means to accomplish their agenda and glory. Our God is all about good for everyone.

This is an astonishing announcement! Everything about it shouts that this God has no animosity towards humanity but rather is madly in love with humans and will do anything to come to our aid. The world has never known such a God; but because He is how He is, He won't assert and force Himself and His ways on anyone; it requires a lowly attitude in us to see and receive the good news that the angel announced that splendid night.

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')