Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Essence

I read this in a book I just downloaded on my Nook.  I stopped at this sentence.

"The essence of being a Christian is placing all our hope in God, knowing we can trust Him to fulfill all his promises..."  (Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room, by Nancy Guthrie)

That is the essence.  I agree, and it is something that is easy to lose sight of.  Obviously, there are plenty of details left out of this statement... specifically about Jesus and what He did for us.  The promises contained in Jesus are the main promises to which the author refers.  But in essence, being a Christian is about God's promises (in Christ) and us trusting those promises. 

It isn't primarily about living a more moral life, though if you really trust God's promises you will want to come down to earth and live a more humble life, which includes following Him.  It isn't about going to church more, though if you really trust God's promises you will want to join others in worshipping Him.  It isn't even primarily, in essence, about being kinder and more loving to others, though if you really believe in what God did for you in Jesus, sending Him to die for your sins while you were an enemy and rise from the grave for you, and trust in God's promises for you in what He did you will soften and want to be more compassionate, even toward your own enemies.

Part of the reason being a Christian isn't primarily about these things is because you can do all of these things, on the outside, and have it still really be all about you.  You can be a "good person," and have it still be about you being good.  In other words, you can look great on the outside and have it be utterly disconnected from a living trust in God.

And being a Christian definitely isn't about becoming more religious or trying to perform our way into heaven, which is impossible anyway -if getting into heaven and being acceptable to God by our own good deeds was possible, then Jesus died for no reason (paraphrase of Galatians 2:21).  That is the whole point and the "prerequisite" to being a Christian: realizing that you are lost, that your "goodness" is a sham, and that you need a Hero. 

No, the essence is primarily about God doing something and God promising something, and us believing that He will be faithful.  Our belief in His faithfulness is our faithfulness... and all that flows out of that in our lives.

This is not an easy thing to do.  That is why it is likened to a race of endurance, or a "walk," or any of the other such metaphors.  What happens when tragedy strikes your life?  What happens when you try to do the right things and bad things still happen?  Why did God allow it?  Did He give up on you?  This is where the rubber meets the road.  This is where you must look again at what it all means to believe and give up on the notion that you can or should be able to control your universe by being "good." 

This is where you face a challenge: will you believe Him?  He hasn't given any answers for why this bad things happened.  He doesn't even tell you what He is doing or when it will end.  All you have, the fullest and clearest expression and revelation of God, is found in the Son of God, Jesus, hanging in shame, like a weakling, on a cross... only to raise from the grave as the first of a new creation.  That's it.  In that is the heart of God revealed.  That -He- is the encapsulation of all of God's faithfulnes and all of His promises.

Walking by faith, believing in Jesus, means that this is enough.  I may not like how things are going.  I may not like that God allowed it and continues to allow it.  I may be suffering painfully.  But can I still look at that scene, at Him hanging there, bleeding, and then at the empty tomb, and say, "That is enough.  I know God is still here, with me.  I know He has not left.  I know He will fulfill all His promises to me."  That is where the rubber meets the road.  That is where the superficiality of feel-good spirituality and churchy religion and push-pull-morality-to-get-an-easy-life doesn't address real life.  That is where we either begin to enter the cross or walk away from it.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Strings Attached

So you put in tons of hard work for someone, maybe when nobody else would.  You try to give them the best you have.  But they treat it like nothing, and they give their thanks to someone else.

Have you ever been in a situation like that before?

And some people will make you feel terrible for being upset about it.  Some people, often Christians especially, will make you feel like you are being selfish for being hurt.  Some of them might also tell you that they don't get upset like that when their overtures are rejected.  They tell you that you are giving with "strings attached."  That doesn't help.  It helps to only embed your negative feelings more deeply, leading to resentment.

But the thing is... it does hurt when you put a lot into someone and they reject or minimize or dismiss your efforts.  There isn't much you can do about it hurting.  We aren't robots, and it isn't selfish to have it hurt.  It isn't having "string attached."

And when people tell you that they never feel this way, stop and take a look.  You probably don't have to look too long to see how they struggled (and maybe still struggle!) with having their overtures rejected by certain people in their lives.  In other words, nobody is immune to this, and if someone thinks they are then they are lying or blind.

It becomes "strings attached," however, when you can't let go of the hurt.  When you hold on to it, and it settles into bitterness, and you need them to respect you and validate your overtures, then there are "strings attached."  That way of relating to people is not only sinful, it will not get you anywhere.  It will destroy what you seek to create.

That is why the only real solution to having your overtures rejected is to embrace the hurt head on and move through it, letting it go, and continuing to pursue and engage others.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Living under the Law

A young woman tried so hard to remain pure until marriage.  Her youth group, which she didn't like for various reasons, was pretty up front about the importance of remaining sexually pure.  They explained how sex outside of marriage is sinful.  They probably even warned her about all of the emotional baggage that comes about from these types of non-committed sexual relationships and encounters.  She was on board.  She wanted to do the right thing.

Then she met a guy.  She really liked him -a lot.  They were in love.  It was the first time she had ever felt this way about a guy.  And they had sex.  She rationalized it by explaining to herself and others that she loved him.  But soon after that their relationship took a turn, and they broke up.

What happened next?  She decided that remaining pure didn't matter any more, since she had already blown it.  So, she began sleeping with guy after guy, digging herself into a deeper hole, emotionally scarring herself more and more -all the while covering up those scars with numbness and apathy.  The Jesus she thought she knew became someone she avoided, along with church and Christians.  She didn't like the judgmental people in youth group, which was true, but she was also running away from any further sense of guilt and condemnation she felt.

This is what happens when we, even as Christians, still live under the Law.  It doesn't make us better people.  It shoves us down the path of rebellion further.  She believed that Christianity was essentially this:  you "get saved" by giving your life to Jesus who died on the cross for your sins, and then, as a Christian, you must keep your nose clean and live in such a way as to keep Jesus happy.  And what happens when you finally come to the point where you realize you have blown it?  Well, most religious people will continue to try and make amends and clean themselves up, but sometimes... sometimes a person will see that they have blown it and realize they can't undo what they have done.  So, they run away.  They run away from Jesus, and they run toward a life of "who cares, now -I've screwed it up, so it no longer matters..."

But they never understood the Gospel to begin with.  No, I'm not going to start going after the whole "purity" thing that youth groups try to indoctrinate youngsters with.  I agree with staying pure -not just because the alternative is sin but because life would have much fewer headaches if everyone did.  The issue here is that the Gospel is not grasped, not understood, and it is utterly disconnected with living as a Christian.  The Gospel becomes merely something you need to "get saved," and then we stay saved by keeping our nose clean (i.e. by living under the Law).  Nobody would say we have to be perfect.  Gossip is bad but not that bad, being jealous and spiteful fall into the same category, but for a teen who is told how important remaining sexually pure is, to "break" that is to cross the line which cannot be erased and redrawn.

But what is the Gospel?  The Gospel is the good news of how God has sent His only-begotten Son, Jesus, down into our world to live, die, and rise from the dead for us, to break the curse separating us from God, to defeat our enemies, and to restore us to a new relationship and new people with God.  In other words, the Gospel is about God creating something new and removing all the obstacles keeping us apart.

There are two main ways to keep from being close to someone.  The obvious way is to just avoid them and live as though they are not in your life.  The less obvious way is to relate to the other person like they are a boss, someone to please or placate, someone to keep up appearances for so that they will not react in a way you dislike.  It is less obvious because it appears good on the surface, but underneath all of the pleasing and placating is a heart that is keeping the other person at arms-length.  "Here's what you asked for, nor give me what I want or just let me be."

This is true in both human pscyhology and Biblical theology.  Take the parable of the "prodigal son" in Luke.  There are two brothers -there is the one who wanted the father's money and took it to run away and live wildly, but there is also the brother who always did what the father asked and worked like a slave for him.  At the end of the parable, it is revealed that the "good" brother only wanted the father's things, too.  He placated the father in order to gain control of his things, not because he loved his father and wanted to be close to him.

Living under the Law, while appearing to be "good" (sometimes very good), is just another way to avoid closeness with God.  The problem is not with the Law, per se, because the Law is very good and reflects the goodness of God and the goodness He wants for us.  The problem is us.

But with the Gospel, we who believed are no longer under the Law.  We have died to the Law... in order to be married to a new Husband, to Jesus (Romans 7).  God came down, came close to us, drew near to us, saw the ugliness of our sin, and bore it Himself.  When you see that your Best Friend gave up everything to free you from your prison and have you for Himself, when you see that He knows your deepest flaws and not only loves you anyway but bore the burden of your flaws, does it bring you to live as though he is a boss to placate?  No.  It brings you to live out of love, out of true closeness and transparency with that Person.  And to know that the Person who did all of this is your King only adds to the motivation.

See, the Law is good, but it can never create in us what it demands -a heart which loves God with all its strength and loves its neighbor.  In fact, living under the Law propels us further away from God, as seen with the young woman I discussed in the beginning of this article.  It was her non-relational, Law-based view of the Christian live which created fertile soil for her to walk away once she realized she "blew it."  Only faith, only true closeness with the One who died for us, creates in us what the Law requires: love.  He established and opened the door of that closeness by coming down to you and dying for you and rising from the grave for you to create something new, a new creation, a new life, a new way of relating to God and others, a new people.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Harsh or Holy?

The God of the Bible kills people.  He sends people to hell.  The Bible is replete with example after example.  God flooded the earth in Genesis 6, killing millions.  God killed hundreds or thousands when He rained fire on Sodom (Genesis 19).  God killed Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, for making an impure offering before Him.  And in Revelation 21, it says that God sends the cowardly and faithless to the "lake that burns with fire and sulphur."  There are many, many more examples, but these will do.

This God is "harsh."  He seems temperamental, capricious, and ready to snap -allowing certain things to go unpunished while killing someone for something as small as touching the Ark of the Covenant when it almost fell to the ground.  Whoa.  So unlike the Santa Clause-type god we like to imagine.  "Harsh," seems like an appropriate word, but isn't calling God "harsh" a veiled way of saying He is overbearing, overly-sensitive, and ultimately unjust?

But is He unjust, or is it just that we don't understand Him? Is He really unjust, or is it that we are unwilling to see things differently? 

God is not unjust.  Turn it around for one minute and think to yourself that everything He does, even in killing people, is right. He has the right to do it, and He is right to do it -even when we don't get it. If you look at it this way, what does it mean? It means that God is holy, in a way unapproachable, and that He has the right to do with us as He pleases. We have personal rights when it comes to each other, because He endowed us with personal dignity as His image-bearers, but in comparison to Him we are like ants and His rights transcend all. He has the right to do with His creation as He sees fit.  He has the right to take the life that He gave. And He has the right to act when His creatures act against and defy His character.

Yes, that is scary, but it is scary in a different way than saying He is tempermental or harsh like an abusive parent. It is scary because it means that you and I are powerless before Him.  We have zero claim on Him, and He has all the claim on us.  We have no ultimate say.  We are clay in the Potter's hands.  Our delusions of our goodness and our control and our "rights" fade quickly.  We are creatures and God is God.

In a world where we are always demanding our rights be heard and complain and even get angry with God when our plans never don't out, this is worthy of pause and reflection.

And then it comes...

"I could never believe in and love a God like that," some of us protest, if we are honest with ourselves.  My response to that is, "I know.  That is my point."  We don't like the idea of God having that much right over us.  "What abour our rights?!"  We are perpetually stuck on ourselves, even when it comes to God.  It would be too much for us to humble ourselves, bend the knee, and admit with full agreement and no reluctance that God is holy and just and has the right to take the life He gave, to execute judgment on anything that defies His character and desires, and otherwise do whatever He pleases whenever He pleases.

God is God and God is holy, and this pride of ours -this demand to be treated as God's equal, to have our rights be equal with God's, and to be consulted when it comes to the affairs of our life- is our problem, not His.  When we turn it around and see that God is God and we are not, that God is right to do whatever He pleases, our mirage of grandeur vanishes.  But then something happens.  We see an altogether different side of God, a side that is not just "righteous and just," not just transcendent, but something more.

That is what Isaiah experienced when he had his vision of God in Isaiah 6. I read from some commentaries that Isaiah was smart, intelligent, fairly confident, and capable. He was like the opposite of the timid Jeremiah. But when Isaiah saw YHWH God seated on His throne, all of that went away. He fell on his face and cried out, "Woe is me... I am a man of unclean lips!" How did God respond? Did He gloat and send bolts of lightning to terrorize Isaiah? No. He sent an angel with a hot coal to touch it to Isaiah's lips. He then pronounced, "You are clean."

It is God's holiness that makes His grace so profound. The God who sits exalted, from whom the earth and sky flee, who has the right to take the life He gave us when He sees fit, who has the right to execute perfect justice on the self-ruling heart of all of His human creatures, and who would still be perfectly righteous in doing so, is the same God who chose to come down from above, to humble Himself, to enter our creation as one of us, to walk among us, to be tempted as we are tempted, to know what it is like to be us, to fulfill all the obedience for us that we do not and could not fulfill, and then to die for our sins and rise from the grave in victory over the enemy of sin and death. It is the same God who took all of our sin and all the obstacles between Him and us on Himself so that we could return to Him and be His. It is the same God who calls the spiritually lost and "thirsty" to come to Him, who ate and drank at the table with sinners and tax collectors, and who built His Church on earth from broken, sin-sick people who know they need a Savior.

When we look at the cross of Christ, we can see both sides. We can see a God who hates sin so much and takes sin so seriously that He had His own perfect Son suffer horribly for it. But we can also see a God who is so full of love and grace that He took that sin on Himself for us, to bring us back completely by His grace. Sure, some people claim that they believe in Jesus and then live as if He doesn't even exist. But if you really see the whole picture of God, you can't do it. The only response is to be amazed and love Him. Even as I write this, I am amazed a bit.