Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Truthful Me

A few years back, I used to handle things very differently than I do today.  I was terribly concerned about what other people thought of me.  For example, if there were ever issues of contention or stress or frustration with other people, I would get into a heated discussion and then, later on, feel bad about it and do whatever I could to make nice.  I would often hang on and keep myself involved with people and in situations that, honestly, did not hae much potential for much good.  But I would do it because I didn't want them to think I "couldn't handle" it.  I anticipated that if I walked away or got upset and backed out then the other person would call me "immature" or put me down or call me "weak"... because people had.  People do say things like that.

So, in order to avoid the dreaded rejection and condemnation, I would put myself through a lot of stress and emotional suffering.   Pretty sad, huh?  But then, though some seriously hard work, I realized a few things. 

First, there is no rule anywhere that says I need to be friends and buddies with everybody.  In fact, there is no rule anywhere that says I need to be friends and buddies with all Christians.  It doesn't mean I "hate" people just because I realize I don't want to deal with them or don't want to deal with them in a certain context.

Second, I realized that I put myself through a lot of suffering needlessly.  I held on much longer than I needed to and sometimes put those closest to me through distress because of it.  There was nothing really good that came out of it.  Sure, I was known for being so "nice," in fact I don't think I ever had any enemies, but I realized that this was mere cold comfort in light of the drain I felt on my life.  Plus, I wondered to myself why even Jesus had enemies.  Not like I was looking to make enemies just for the sake of it, but the truth is that having no enemies might just mean that you never stand for anything and you never draw a line for your own life about what you like or don't like, what you will and will not deal with, and what or who you do and do not want to allow in.  Maybe you have no enemies because you treat yourself like you aren't really a self at all.

Third, I realized that there is absolutely nothing wrong with saying, "Hey... I just don't want to deal with you or with this.  Nothing personal.  I don't want it to get personal, so let's part ways."  Not only is there nothing wrong with it, and not only is it a smart thing to know ones limits and boundaries, but I realized the very freeing truth that I do not owe anyone an explanation for myself.

Lastly, I realized that people are not going to like this.  There is an expectation that I will play by the "rules," and if I don't it won't be easy.  They are going to tell me that I am a bad person.  They are going to blame me and try to make me feel awful.  They are going to tell me I need to "grow up."  They are going to be offended.  They are going to assume malice behind my motives, and they are going to accuse me of wrong.  And I should expect it.

But, though I do not like one bit knowing that my actions have hurt, offended, or angered someone, and though I do not love the idea of people thinking badly about me, misunderstanding me, or even spreading things about me, I do believe it is worth it in order to preserve what I want to have and not have in my life.  It is true, truthful for once.  My actions will not always be the right thing, but now I can at least learn.  It is worth it to no longer mar and crucify any further the image of God in me, by imprisoning myself to the whims and opinions and thoughts of others.  It is worth it to be true and honest.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Are Christians Trying to Force their Beliefs Upon and Control Homosexuals by Opposing Gay Marriage?

Are Christians "forcing" their Christianity on homosexuals by opposing gay marriage?  Are Christians "oppressing" homosexuals by trying to use the law to control them?

These are questions that should be answered, because many believe the answers to be "yes."  I have known a number of Christians who have switched their view on this matter because they became convinced that to oppose gay marriage legally is to try to use the law to single-out and victimize a certain kind of sinner -homsexuals.

Before I get into this, I do want to say one thing.  I do really think that conservative Christians, in general, have a massive obsession with the bad behavior of others.  I think we become way too preoccupied with what so and so is doing, or what some group is doing, or what our government is allowing people to do now.  I believe this is partly due to the fact that we live in a democracy, so we take the idea that we all have an influence in the shape of our nation, inject our zeal and concern for what is right, add in perhaps a tad of self-righteousness (depending on the person), and obsess about it a whole lot.  I believe this attitude can turn people off and give a very distorted view of what Jesus and His Gospel are all about.  That concerns me.

But, back to the initial questions.  See, the problem I have with this kind of argumentation and line of questioning is that it makes assumptions about the motives of Christians who oppose gay marriage.  It, first of all, assumes all Christians who oppose gay marriage have the same reasoning and motive.  Is that fair?  I don't think so.

Secondly, it bypasses anything Christians try to say and assumes that our motive is a sinister and oppressive one.  Words such as "force" and "oppression" and "civil rights" are thrown out there to make it sound even worse.  Truly, some who name the name of Christ probably do single-out homosexuals and want to control them, but is it really fair to broad-brush all of us?  What if I said, "Oh, homosexuals just want to gain the right to marry other homosexuals because they hate Christians and want to rub it in our face and push us into obscurity?"  That would be pretty unfair, don't you think?  It would be unfair because I know, for a fact, that it is untrue.

And this is a problem, because this is used as a club to silence those who oppose gay marriage.  That is the irony.  I don't want to be guilty of the same error of generalization, but it is ironic because some use these kinds of assumptions as a way to attack those who oppose gay marriage.  By making these assumptions and painting the opposition as intending to attack and harm and oppress them, they build support for their cause while shaming the opposition into silence.  It is actually pretty clever.  Attack the opposition by accusing them of attacking you and then playing victim.  Label them.  Shame them.  Keep them quiet.  Call them bad.  Single them out and point your finger.  Gee... isn't that exactly what we are being accused of?  Hmmm...

True enough, many homosexuals have been victims, for sure.  But to use that as a way to shame and silence opposition, in order to push forward your agenda...?  That is an attack, that is hypocrisy, that is evil.  That is using force to oppress the opposing side.  It may not be physical force, but it is definitely a force -shame and accusation are powerful forces.  In high-school it is called bullying.  But in the public sphere of adult society, it is called "tolerance."

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

To Demonstrate His Justice

Have you ever forgiven someone -I mean really forgiven them?  Depending on the nature and degree of the wound, it is not always easy.  Sometimes there is no real need to talk about "forgiveness" because it is simply a matter of not being so self-obsessed and up-tight and to allow the other person to be human (to let love cover a multitude of sins).  But other times things are deeper and more painful.  More has been lost that will never be regained as it was in its original state.  Not easy.

Yet our culture is quick to talk about the benefits of forgiveness.  We often hear about how forgiveness is good for us, forgiveness frees us from years of bitter imprisonment in the wounds of our past, holding on angrily to what was done to it.  And there is total truth in that.  To refuse to forgive is to choose to swallow poison.  That is a good reason to forgive, I suppose.  But I don't really see God forgiving like that.  I don't see that Jesus forgave like that.  When he proclaimed someone's sins forgiven, he didn't walk away after saying, "Wow, I feel so much better.  What a load off my mind."  That is because he forgave for the benefit of the other person, not for himself.

And what was the result?  People got angry.  Who is he to claim that right?  And it isn't right to forgive those people -they are bad.  Forgiveness is dangerous business.  It is nice in theory.  We like it.  It sounds like a nice story or holiday greeting card.  It whiffs of sentimentalism.  But when it comes to real forgiveness for real crimes and offenses and acts of indiscretion, that is a different story.  We want to put restrictions and limitations on it.  We want to be able to say who should and should not be forgiven and when and why.

This reminds me of that passage in Romans 3 where the apostle Paul wrote:

"It [putting Jesus forward on the cross for sin] was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." (Romans 3:26)

In putting Jesus forward on the cross, God reclaims the right we want to take for ourselves.  In the cross, all of humanity is indicted under sin, no exception, and God takes back and declares openly what is rightfully his: the place of the just Judge.  This is, I believe, part of the offense of the cross -God reclaims from us what is rightfully his and simultaneously exposes our attempts to claim that right to open shame.

Monday, June 24, 2013

What's Your Favorite Flavor?

Do you have a favorite flavor of ice-cream?  I like Pralines n' Cream, myself.  But I also like Heath-bar.  My daughter like straight Vanilla or Strawberry.  Can you imagine what it would be like if I told my daughter she was wrong to like Vanilla ice-cream?  "Listen, Heath-bar is right... Vanilla is wrong."  Aside from being an utterly non-sensical thing to say, someone might call Child Protective Services on me for emotionally stunting my daughter's individuality!

The same would go for music.  As much as I joke about music and laugh at people who listen to Nickelback, for example, there is unfortunately no real place to say that liking Nickelback is wrong (though there should be! :P).  People like the music they like because, for whatever reason, it catches them and suits their preferences.  No matter how bad I feel their preferences is, or how bad they feel mine is, it doesn't even make sense to seriously call the others' preference "wrong." 

Unfortunately, this is how truth about God and morality as largely seen today.  They are no longer seen, in general, as objective realities to be found out.  They are not seen as objective realities that trascend our lives and preferences.  They are seen as subjective values and ideals and preferences, similar to having a favorite flavor of ice-cream or favorite rock band.  They are seen as things that exist for and under us.  We transcend them, it seems. 

It is more about what you like and what makes you happy or not.  We pick our favorite flavor of ice-cream based on how it tastes to us and, perhaps in some cases, based on how relatively healthy or unhealthy it is given the flavor.  A fat-free frozen yogurt of a particular flavor might win out, for some people, over a super-rich, sugary, creamy two-scoop with caramel ribbons in it.  This is how many of us are today about morality and spirituality.  Beliefs are based on what is liked, and since these things are completely subjective it is viewed as just as wrong and crazy to tell someone their beliefs are wrong as it is to tell them that their preference of ice-cream is wrong.

It is hard to know how exactly we arrived here.  I think some of this may partly stem from at least two under-girding beliefs.  First, it is often believed that you can't really know the truth.  And since you can't really know, it is foolish, if not mean and rude, to insist that your way is right.  Second, it seems that many believe that religious beliefs are purely pragmatic.  They are as good as they are useful in making your life more well-rounded and happy.  If you want to believe in, as Dawkins put it, the "flying spaghetti monster", and it makes you feel happier and more fulfilled in life, then good on ya' because that is all that really matters.

And there are a whole host of beliefs that are either associated with or linked to these.  For example, religious and moral convictions, according to our modern cultural norms, ought to be as privatized as possible.  It is "wrong" to "push" your beliefs on someone else, unless of course you are pushing your belief that their beliefs should be kept private and expecting others to respect and obey that belief -then it is ok. 

The golden calf of our society seems to be that you should never make any kind of judgment about the thoughts and beliefs and values of anyone who thinks differently than you (because almost everything is viewed as subjective).  It is a common conviction is that it is wrong (or much, much worse than being wrong, it is offensive) to tell someone they are wrong... unless you are telling someone who doesn't imbibe all of these norms that they are wrong for telling someone else they are wrong, then it is permitted and sometimes even visciously encouraged.  How's that for a confusing double-standard?  It seems the only objective truth is that it is wrong to tell someone else their beliefs are wrong, except for when it comes to this belief... I guess.  Go figure.  This is just an outworking of the idea that religious and moral truth is like a favorite ice-cream flavor. 

I'm wondering when this line of thinking will invade other areas.  Can you imagine its effect on something like mathematics?  It is almost comical to think of the day when a teacher is fired for telling little Johnny that the answer he put on his math paper was wrong.  I envision something akin to a strange dream or cheezy sci-fi flick where students are rewarded for their effort alone and praised for coming up with an answer, any answer, and taught to be happy with their answer, their truth.  Pure subjectivism and hyper-individualism at its finest.

I'm no sociologist, so I will stop there.  My speculations may be totally off, but regardless of why this seems to be the predominant belief, or at least the loudest belief, in our culture, it is worth pointing out that it is.  It is also worth pointing out that these are beliefs not universally shared by humanity.  Other cultures do not hold these beliefs are gospel.  Other cultures see spiritual truth and morality as objective -they simply may not always agree on what that truth is.  So, what makes our so culture superior?  Be careful... Are we guilty of the same superiority complex that we accuse those religious conservatives of?  Isn't the real issue that this view says that those who claim to have superior knowledge of morality and spirituality are wrong to claim such a thing, yet in making that judgment you are taking the same kind of superior position you accuse them of?

The bottom line is this, for me.  Either Jesus is who he said, and either he did die and rise from the dead or he did not.  If Jesus really is from God and those things really did happen, then God does not afford us the option of taking those things and turning them into "values" and "ideals" and "ideas" and "philosophies."  They are concrete historical events, and they are events that, unlike many other events in human history, have a direct impact on your life.  If it happened, it changes everything and puts a claim on your life whether you like it or not.  Are you trying to tell me that doesn't give you a reason to be biased against them, that doens't give you a reason to find ways to avoid the objective nature of such a question by making it more subjective?

That is the thing that can be so frustrating about Jesus and his death and resurrection.  There is no real room, if you want to consider it seriously, to turn it into some kind of subjective nonsense.  It either happened or it didn't.  Either Jesus is the Christ who rose from the dead or Jesus was just some religious leader, among a sea of other crazy religious leaders over the centuries who died as martyrs, whose followers faked his resurrection in order to preach a message that would ultimately kill almost all of them, and by some weird twist of fate this sham which took place two-thousand years ago, the story of this man, somehow changed the world and, at the very least, Western civilization.  It doesn't matter if I like it or not.  It doesn't matter if it makes me happy at the moment or not.  It has no pragmatic value as a mere idea or philosophy.  It is an historic event and person, or it is not.

In around 53 AD, about 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, well within the life-time of eye-witnesses to the events, the apostle Paul wrote in a public letter to the churches in Corinth:

"and if Christ has not been raised [from the dead], then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise...and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins... If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied."

Paul is pretty straighforward... if it didn't happen, then our faith is useless, vain.  It means nothing.  Further than that, it is wrong, an affront against God to spread untruths about him.  See, there is no room here for turning "faith" into some kind of virtuous possession, a spiritual hobby that we think will make life feel better but has zero basis in objective reality.  This is not a philosophy.  If it didn't happen and we build our lives on it, a man may be free to try to make it "his truth" because he likes it (for whatever reason), but the truth is that we are of all men most to be pitied.  I know for me that that if I found out that it didn't happen it would change everything for me.  It is that kind of thing, that kind of reality or non-reality, that kind of fact or fiction.   Hopefully I have at least begun to answer why that would be the case.  If this is an historic event with an historic person, then we cannot relegate it to the realm of feel-good spirituality based on our likes.  It is not one option among a sea of ice-cream flavors.  It is instead a hard, concrete reality, like the reality of running out in front of a speeding truck.  It doesn't ask you if you like it or not -that question has no bearing.  Time to come down from the clouds.  If it is true, it claims your life -and for Paul and the people at his time, it literally did end up claiming their lives.  But if it is not true, it has no value.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Atonement Thoughts - Part 3

Have you ever loved a really self-destructive person? It seems like no matter how many times you try to make things new with them, there is always that part of them that wants to destroy things with you, destroy them, and maybe even destroy you. There is this utterly sabotaging resistance that makes it painfully and frustratingly impossible to ever be close to them. It's like there is this thing in them that needs to die, that needs to go away, in order for you to have them. But it is part of them -they are willing captives to it. So, it can't really go away without them going away... and that is the crux of the matter. You love them so you want to be with them, but they only cause you pain and anger and suffering. So you must be away from them. But then you lose out on having them. You watch them go on with their life and build relationships with others that are not you. Either way you lose.

But if you were God, what if you could somehow have them die and come back to life anew, without that thing in them that incorrigibly wants to destroy them and keep them away from you? What if your love could effect something so profound, so reality-shifting, so reversing that it would overcome all of their resistance toward you and toward leaving their resistant captivity behind? What if you could love them and be close to them with hope and a future, without your pain and anger constantly being provoked by their refusal to receive you and without them constantly running and destroying things?

I believe that is what God did toward us. We are all the sabotaging, dysfunctional people.  He acted concretely toward us. His forgiveness is not abstract or "up in heaven".  He came to us in His Son.  Jesus entered our world, our insanity. He stepped into our shoes.  He walked under the yoke of our captivity, the curse which on one hand haunts and threatens us but on the other hand we love and hold onto like a dysfunctional sickness because it means keeping Him at a distance. There is no changing it. There is no fixing this system we live in. There is no fixing us.  There is no patch-job that will do. Before something new can come it has to be put to an end.  Before we can be new, we need to be put to an end.  The only way out is through it, to follow it out to it's bitter end... a cursed death.  So, he lived out under our curse to its fullest end, a criminal's death.  Though He knew no sin He became sin for us.  He became our curse for us.

But it did not end there. The curse did not win. He rose from the grave to be the first of something new, a new creation. And in Him, by faith, we are put to death and made new in Him. God gets what He wants: us. Wrath, the obsverse of his love and mercy towrd a people running from Him, is averted and satisfied because reconciliation is accomplished through the old us dying and a new us coming to life in Christ.

This is, I believe, what the atonement is about "from above."  There is no other way because of us, not because of God.  The curse needs to be put to an end, but we will not let go of the curse without being killed and made new.  There is no room for improvement, for a scheme of improvement brings nothing new -it only builds upon the same system of curse and law which proves us cursed.  We must die.  And in Him, we did.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Atonement Thoughts - Part 2

This post is a continuation of thoughts I began describing in my last post, Atonement Thoughts.

To continue the line of thinking, I will begin with a few words form our friend Gerhard Forde from his section on "the Work of Christ" in Volume 2 of Christian Dogmatics.

The statement from the Augsburg Confession points to the major question for this locus: Cur deus homo? Why did God become a human person in the particular way manifest in the actual story of Jesus? What is accomplished thereby? What does Jesus do? We are concerned about the action and the passion of Jesus and what results from them, as distinguished from his being. Why must he be crucified and raised? If it is a doing, a work of Christ, and not just a being with which we are concerned, then it must have some result, some effect. What is that effect, and why is there just this form of doing to achieve it?

Central throughout the discussion is the question of God's relation to the doing. Does God in Jesus do it for us, or does Jesus do it for God on our behalf? Is God propitiated, satisfied, or in some way altered by the event? Is God wrathful? Does God "need" Christ's work to become merciful? Or does God act on us through the event, changing us or the situation in which we find ourselves? Does God need the cross, or do we? Who is the real obstacle to reconciliation? God? Humans? Or some others -demons, perhaps?

I believe Forde is right.  The why's and the what's are intertwined.  Whether we are aware of it or not, any serious theory concerning the work of Christ on the cross must address, in particular, questions such as "Does God need the cross, or do we?  Who is the real obstacle to reconciliation?"  Right or wrong, these questions must be asked, thought about, viewed in light of Scripture, in light of the concrete facts, and answered.

Why so many differing views of the atonement?  Are we just limited in our ability to comprehend and express higher truths such as this?  Perhaps.  But Forde offers one suggestion which I have to agree with.

Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not (Isa. 53:1-3, as quoted in Christian Dogmatics by G. Forde)

"The question we face in considering the work of Christ is whether and to what extend our very attempts to find meaning for ourseles in the tragedy and horror of Golgotha are attempts to insulate against the offense." (Forde)

In other words, Scripture tells us plainly that we have a resistance toward the cross. It is a scandal for us, an offense, and we are both consciously and unconsciously biased toward looking for ways to insulate ourselves from its sting. If there is a way to water down or displace the offense, what it says about us in its full force, what it really means, we will find it. 

Often, it becomes just a very necessary and important part of the whole salvation process, a number in the equation -an equation which we take down off the black-board and figure out and solve; a process we are a part of which just gets us to heaven.  In other words, we familiarize it, like an inoculation, and thus lose the offensive character of it.  We layer a theory over the actual thing.  Theories are safe.  You can chat about them over coffee or a beer.  The cross is not safe.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Atonement Thoughts

For those of you who have known me closely as a Christian over the years, you know I have wrestled with the meaning and accomplishment of the death of Jesus, the Son of God.  I've wrestled through many issues and obstacles, painfully, from the land of the modern Calvinistic conception of "limited atonement".  I've thought through, struggled with, and dealt with issues involving details that seem too complex to be helpful and that many don't have the patience, or feel the need, to work through.  But I do.  To me, it is important.  To me, understanding the death of Christ is the single most important thing to understand in all of life.  There is nothing higher.

Lately, I have taken up this topic again in my thinking and reading.  A lot of personal things and very in-depth subjects I have been working through have prompted me to think through things afresh and take another look.  I think it is helpful to always take another look at Scripture, again and again, and another look at what it is we believe, again and again -not to be tossed to and fro, but to refine our understanding and wisdom and appreciation.

Today, in any kind of evangelical "non-denomination" or conservative Christian (protestant) denomination, by far the prevailing understanding of the death of Jesus Christ is that referred to often as "vicarious satisfaction".  That is, Jesus basically suffered horribly as a way to pay off the debt we all owe to God for our sins.  Other's call this the "objective" theory of the atonement, named thus because it implies that the death of Jesus effected an "objective" change in God toward us.  He was once angry and hostile, and now he is not because the bloody death of Jesus satisfied the debt we incurred for impugning his honor and legal requirements.

This theory traces itself back through history to a number of men, most notably Anselm.  It seeks to answer the questions concerning why Jesus died, why he had to die, and what His death actually did.  Calvinistic proponents of limited atonement especially hinge their view upon this theory, relying heavily on the very commercial understanding of "debt" and "payment." 

Truth be told, there is something to be said for this "objective" view, overall.  It seeks to take seriously the commercial-sounding metaphors used in the Bible, and it seeks to find a way to deal with all the issues relating to God's wrath, our justification, and the connection involving Christ's death.  However, there are a number of problems that are raised and a number of questions that cannot be answered very well.

First of all, it can tend to confuse something about God.  I remember reading John Calvin's commentary on John 3:16, and he was quick to note that it was God's love and mercy which sent Jesus to die for us.  The Bible depictes God as being merciful by nature, and it was His mercy that sent Jesus into our world to live, die, and rise.  It was not the other way around.  It was not the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus which made God merciful and compassionate and forgiving toward us.  It was the reverse.

Second, it gives the impression that there is something in God that prevents Him from being merciful to us.  There is, according to this theory, some higher principle to which God is bound.  God, it seems, cannot just forgive and be merciful because He wants to.  His justice must be satisfied.  The debt must be paid.

And this raises a third and rather obvious problem, if you think about it.  Is it really mercy if He has to be paid off?  Aside from asking the other obvious question, "Can God be paid off?" - a question which assumes a lot of theorizing and speculation, we must face the fact that there is a bit of a conflict here.  If the debt is paid or required to be paid, it is not mercy... it is justice.  It is not really forgiveness, is it?

Fourthly, it breeds a kind of endless speculation.  Theorizing built upon theorizing.  Just like the aforementioned question, "Can God be paid off?", we are forced to ask more questions that are paired with speculative answers.  We have to leave earth, if you will, and float up into the stratosphere.  Some have asked the simple question, "Well, if the reason that Jesus' death alone could pay for our sins is because He is the perfect Son of God, then why did He have to live so long?  Why didn't God have Him killed for us as a baby?"  And one of the common answers is something like, "Well, Jesus had to go through everything we would as a person and fulfill it perfectly as a perfect adult human being in order to pay for our sins."  Sounds like a good theory, but where is that written?  I know people will throw our verses that they believe can imply such a thing, but isn't this just more speculation to make the theory sound?  It leads to a lot of peering up into the clouds, a lot of theorizing, and a lot of leaving the main and plain, concrete events that sit right before our faces.

I believe that when unbelievers bristle at the idea of Jesus dying to pay for our sins there may be, to some degree, good reason.  They may be bristling at the picture it paints of God.  At the risk of sounding disrespectul in case I am wrong, it can portray God as a blood-thirsty tyrant who demands his pound of flesh before He will be merciful.

So where do we go from here?  I have been thoroughly enjoying the thinking of the late Lutheran theologian, Gerhard Forde.  There are a number of things I like, but the two most important things I see in his thinking are, first, his willingness to ask the hard questions, and second, his insistence on keeping our eyes "on earth," on not floating off so far into the land of speculation and instead just going on what we see, what happened right here on earth, and what we are told in Scripture.  There is a reason why God came to meet us here on earth in Jesus Christ.  He wants our attention to be here, not up in the clouds of religious philosophizing and scholasticism.  The answer, I believe, is found in the down to earth.

Jesus came down to earth.  He was born.  He grew up.  He was baptized and anointed with the Holy Spirit, and He immediately began preaching repentance and forgiveness and proclaiming the Kingdom of God.  It seems right to start with this.  These are concrete facts and concrete events.  God's desire to bless all nations and have humanity back climaxed in Him sending His Son to come for us.  And He came with "grace and truth", it tells us.  He came forgiving.  He came proclaiming a Kingdom unlike anything any of us were comfortable with -and that is the greatest understatement.  God did not be merciful to us in the abstract, as if that would mean anything.  The ultimate manifestation, the tangible and true realization of His desire to love and reclaim and be gracious to us is His sending of Jesus into the world.

And what was that met with?  It was met with rejection.

To quote Forde:

"...[W]hy did we kill him?  It was, I expect we must say, a matter of 'self-defense.'  Jesus came not just to teach about the mercy and forgiveness of God but actually to do it, to have mercy and to forgive unconditionally.  It is an act, not an idea... Now we are, no doubt, quite open, generally, to the idea of mercy and forgiveness in God and his "heaven," but actually doing it here for God is quite another matter...  The idea is nice, but what shall we do with one who actually eats with traitors, whores, outcasts, and riffraff of every sort and just blows away our protests...We should make no mistake about it.  One who comes actually to have mercy and to forgive in God's name is just an absolute and total threat to the way we have decided we must run things here.  So either Jesus must go or we must... Jesus is ultimately the most dangerous because his opposition is total; he gives unconditional forgiveness.  He has the razy conviction that such unconditional saving mercy is what God and his 'Kingdom' are all about, and that it is the true destiny of human beings which will make then new and pure and whole and won't ultimately hurt them at all.... In short, Jesus is most dangerous because he actually believes in God and his Kingdom, and because he himself realizes it, does it among us.  To consent to that would mean (just as he said!) for us to lose the life we have so carefully hoarded.  So he must go.  It is a matter of self-defense."

And a little further:

"The fact that we had to kill the Jesus who came to forgive exposes us for who we are."

A God who comes close, who forgives us, who is good and longsuffering, who wants us to be part of His Kingdom and who will move heaven and earth to come for us and actually be merciful to us, to knock on our door and come inside our world -that is a threat to us. It challenges our entire paradigm of human existence in this little reality we have created for ourselves without God in it, or with Him in it only to the degree we will allow -right down to the personal, individual lives we each live.  Don't believe me?  Look at the facts.  That is why Jesus was killed.  He came, the Son of God, bearing grace and truth and mercy and God's Kingdom, but we knew it meant a total upheaval of man's kingdom and, in particular, our own personal mini kingdoms we call our lives.

This is, I believe, the place we must start when looking at why Jesus had to die and what His death accomplished.  Why did He have to die?  Because we would not have it any other way and God would not leave us -He would go the extra mile to come for us and bring forgiveness and His Kingdom.  So, He sent His Son knowing what it would cost Him, what we would do.  And in seeing that, we see ourselves as we really are.  The veil is lifted.  It is not God who is against reconciling with us (unless some kind of payment is made).  It is we who are against reconciling with Him.  For all of our talk about how we would like a loving God, the truth is that that is a lie when the rubber meets the road.  If we want a God at all, we may want a God who loves us from a distance... but preferably a distance we can control.

And what of God's wrath?  God's wrath is, as Forde notes in this same essay, the obverse side of His love and mercy for us.  It is his jealousy toward a people who will not let Him in.

I realize this is far from a complete understanding of everything in this massive subject, but, as I said, I believe this is where we must begin.  Perhaps Forde is guilty of speculation, and perhaps I am, too.  But I believe this is the type of thinking we must have -to look at things from down here, from the concrete, from the actual events, from what is unfolded painstakingly in the Gospel accounts for us.  In other words, before we jump to theorizing, we must listen and observe.  I will leave you with two passages of Scripture with some short comments.

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!" (Matt 23:37)

Can we really say that within God is the obstacle to reconciliation?  No, we must admit that it is in us, but can we?  Can we admit, for all of our desire to think of ourselves as good people, that underneath it all is a resistance to anything that would really bring God near and allow Him to love us, for it would mean giving up too much?  

"Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”  When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, 'Brothers, what shall we do?'" (Acts 2:36-37)  

Here, at the end of Peter's sermon to fellow Jews, Peter delivers the cold hard fact that I have sought to put forward.  God came down to reach us, and we resisted and killed Him.  The death of Jesus opens our eyes to see us how we are.  It did for these Jews.  It says they were "cut to the heart."  

But, lest we think that the way of the world would have its victory over God's desire to seek, find, and have us, Jesus rose from the grave.  Our resistance did not ultimately have the last word.  It was defeated and swallowed up in God's merciful purpose toward us.

For further reading, check out Matthew 21:33-46

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Free Will

I remember some years back having a discussion with a brother in Christ about the topic of "free will."  I argued that people, as we are all born into this race as children of Adam, do not possess free will.  We possess "free choice" -we are free to choose what we want, but our will (our "want-er") itself is not free.  I argued that God chooses us and must awaken us before we will ever choose Him.  He argued that such an idea would make people robots since love is only possible if the other person is free to choose to love them.

A short while later, I heard another discussion rumbling.  I interjected a few points but mostly just listened.  The discussion was about how to reach a person who had become involved with the Jehovah's Witnesses.  Finally, my brother replied plainly, "Well, there isn't much you can do but tell them the truth, but you cannot make them see.  They are blind.  God has to open their eyes."  I smiled and thought to myself, "Exactly."

What we must all understand is that, apart from God opening our eyes, our will -the faculty in us which is the seat of our desires- is not free toward God.  It is bound, a slave to a kind of foolish, futile, spiritual slavery.  For what could be worse than a man who has no taste for that which he needs in order to live?  It is like an animal who hates food.  Far from being "free", our will is captive to a stubborn resistance.  Far from being "free" to choose to love God or reject Him, our will is bound to always run, resist, and hide from Him.

That is not a will that is free.  A will that is free is a will that is free to choose that which it needs, that which is best for it.

The late Lutheran preacher and scholar Gerhard Forde argued in his book, Where God Meets Man, that there is more to it.  Referring to Martin Luther's great work against the humanist ideas of Erasmus of Rotterdam, The Bondage of the Will, Forde argued that Luther understood the bondage of man's will to mean that not only is our will bound to resist God -it is also bound to stubbornly insist upon its own freedom.  It is bound to stubbornly assert, "No, I am not a slave.  I can do it on my own.  I do not need assistance!  I am not blind!"

In other words, Erasmus' entire piece on the "Freedom of the Will" was, in Luther's mind, a shining testimony to the fact of our will's common bondage.  For, what could be more stubborn and foolish than a person with a bound, enslaved will using that same will to try and prove, with all of his reasoning faculties, that he is not?

Another way to think of it is that we are constantly trying to insert ourselves into the equation.  That is our old Adam.  He will not go quietly into the grave where he belongs.  He insists on finding every opportunity to try to make himself his own god and savior, or at least a co-savior.

What is a free will?  A will is free which is able, by the power of God overcoming it's resistance, to run toward God and love Him back.  Or put another way, a will is free which is new, descended by the power of God, and set against the old Adam within us.