Friday, May 30, 2014

Patience... Not Yet

There are times and situations that trigger deep feelings of anger, and I feel myself crying out inside, "WHY God?  WHERE is justice?!"  My heart enflames with indignation, and I groan with the Psalmist, "Who do the wicked prosper?"  And like the Psalmist, I can come to the point of becoming angry at God for not putting an end to it immediately and finally coming with peace and granting me the desires of my heart.

As Christians, we are often not comfortable with this.  We are not comfortable with strong feeling, strong core emotion.  We want to say something like, "Oh... well, let's not be proud.  Who are we to call something or someone wicked when we are sinners, ourselves?"  And this is a perfect example of how we can overthink things and impose our theology over the naked reality of Scripture, and in so doing we muzzle the God-given capacity to feel righteous indignation over what is broken in this world.

That indignation is a good thing, a healthy thing.  It does not make me sinless.  It makes me someone made in God's image, however.  It makes me someone who has eyes to see what is really going on and refuses to live in the numbing haze of trying to "be nice" all the time.

But when it does get to the point of anger with God, of accusing God of wrong, do we go too far?  I think we need to tread carefully, but no, I don't think so.  Remember Naomi in the book of Ruth?  She asked to be called "Mara," because "the LORD has dealt bitterly with me".  If there is one thing the Bible is filled with, it is unabashed honesty and strong emotion.  There is no "Christian filter" trying to throw a wet blanket over it, saying, "Now, now... let's not get angry or upset... strong emotions are bad... let's keep trusting God and calm down."  No, in the Bible, there are people who cry out in anger, frustration, disbelief, and horrible pain.

Besides, what I've realized about my anger toward God on those occasions is this:  it is based in hope.  It is based in faith.  It is based in believing that God can do something.  It is based in the belief that God ought to be looked to to do something.  And it is based in the hope that there will be a time when God will do something.  See, when in my anger and frustration I demand God fix things and stop those bad things and grant me my longings, I'm essentially demanding the age-to-come, the banquet feast, come to the here and now.  I'm demanding that the Promised Land exist in Egypt.  We both know that is not the way things work.  But it still shows my yearning for the Promised Land.  It shows that I am banging on the gates, sword in hand, waiting for His return.  "Come on!!!  When???!!!"

And God is angry along with me at the wrongs in this world.  And He says, "In time...  I am coming quickly.  And I will make all things right."

This is where I find a calm in the eye of the storm.  This is where I see that everything I long for is mine already, secured and delivered in Christ, along with all the treasure I store up as I faithfully carry the crosses he bestows upon me as I walk through this life in Egypt.  It is mine, but not yet.  I have it, but it is yet to be realized.  And though it may not seem real, it will be more real than anything experienced in this world.  Truth be told, this life is like a vapor.  There are many good things in it, but they are mine for a season, along with the paths and connections He calls me to.

Lord, I will do whatever you want.  I am yours.  And I await You and all that You have for me when You return.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

When God Doesn't Come Through

From Tim Keller:

"If you say: I believed in God, I trusted God, and He didn't come through, you only trusted God to meet your agenda."

This is true.  True and difficult.  But it raises a question that probably many suffering people have pondered: if "God" cannot be trusted to always help us in the way that we want, by giving us what we ask for when we ask, then is it possible that this is just a religious explanation for the simple fact that "s#*t happens" and there is no God at all?

I've wondered that.  I've wondered that maybe the truth is that there is no God who intervenes and answers prayers.  Maybe just whatever happens is what happens, and then we either say, if it falls down in your favor, "Praise God for answering my prayer!", or if it doesn't happen the way we want, "Oh, well God must have other plans."  Maybe these explanations are little more than religious attempts at self-soothing and making sense of a world that, on one hand, can seem so remarkably ordered and wonderfully designed, yet on the other hand, so chaotic and painful.

I think this kind of reasoning demonstrates how our knowledge of God's existence and working in our lives cannot be ultimately found in how often or how well God gives us what we want when we ask in prayer.  There must be a deeper foundation.

And I have glimpsed that foundation myself.  I spent years, over a decade, praying essentially for the same thing, only to have things get worse and worse, the suffering more and more acute and mind-numbing.  But now, looking back, it was not God giving me what I asked that showed me that God is there.  It is seeing how God finds me today in the suffering I went through.  It is in the intuitive, unspoken, know-that-I-know-that-I-know sense of knowing, while looking back, that God's hand led me to where I am today.  He called me.

I remember being a little boy.  I remember how simple life was back then.  I am broken at times when I think of it in comparison to some of the past years of my life.  But I also have a deep understanding that God called me to this, and He called me through this.  To say, "Ok, this is why God did so" would be to try to discover the climax of the story before the story is completed, though I do already see reasons why He did call me to where I am today -situations, roles, relationships He called me to- and I know it was from Him.

I believe this is one of the many reasons why the Bible over and over points to the faithfulness of God.  God is not God because He rescues us from every peril and situation we struggle through, and that might make us wonder if God is there at all.  God is God because He is faithful, and that faithfulness is often only seen on the other side of the battle, while looking back at Sodom we walked out from.  And in that, I can see why it is said that God always does come through, but not always in the way that we expected.  You can only really see how God did come through when you see how He brought you to where you are and know there was purpose in it that is for good.  Then our faith is realized.  Then our suffering finds meaning in His purposes and in His closeness with us.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Criticism

Criticism is a part of life -and not always a fun part of life.  It is something we must all face -from friend or foe, family or stranger.  The internet is replete with self-help articles on how to handle criticism without being offended.  Sometimes, our pride and self-absorption get in the way, but other times our feelings may be triggered for very real reasons, and we should sit up and pay attention.

There are, in my mind, at least three types of critics and criticism.

First, there is the kind of criticism that involves a critic giving his or her person opinion about something you have done for the public.  The goal is to give people an idea to the public so that they can decide if they want to spend their time and/or money checking out what you have done.  Movie critics and book critics are examples of this.  Most of us are not producing things for the public on a regular basis, so we usually don't always have to worry about this too much.

Second, there is the kind of criticism that is intended to be not only truthful but helpful.  This can overlap with the first kind of criticism (sometimes public criticisms can provide feedback to help us improve).  This can be hard to take, just as it is.  Many of us struggle with various forms of pride or perfectionism.  Still, this kind of criticism can be very good.  It says in Proverbs 27:6, "The slap of a friend can be trusted to help you, but the kisses of an enemy are nothing but lies."

But third, there is the kind of criticism that intends to cut others down so that the critic can feel better about him or herself and draw attention away from their flaws, failures, and guilt.  In other words, there are people out there who want to criticize you, and often do it in front of others, just so that you feel bad and are put on the defensive.  This provides them a way to feel important, powerful, superior, and not so bad about themselves, while pointing the eyes of everybody (including themselves) away from their own sense of failure and toward you.  Their goal is to always put the spotlight on someone else.  And these people can be very good and very tricky at doing this, disguising and denying their motives and condemning you for getting upset, accusing you of being the one who has "issues".

For a long time, I confused the second and third types of critic and criticism -largely because the critic I have in mind would recognize I was upset and tell me that I was angry because I was perfectionistic or "didn't know how to handle criticism."  Looking back, this was a half-truth used to manipulate me and avoid blame for what they were doing.  The real reason I was angry was because they were (and still are) this third type of critic, whether they recognize it in themselves or not.  I sensed that I was being manipulated and used as a scapegoat so that they could make themselves feel superior, get people on their "side", and probably avoid the guilt for their own failures.  Once I finally listened to what I perceived, I began to realize how frequently they criticize and judge  everybody around them.  Despite what they say with their lips, I can only imagine that they are very unhappy people inside.

If a friend comes to me with criticism and they sincerely mean my good, it may be hard but I can listen.  But you can sense when someone is doing something evil to you, can't you?  So what do you do in those situations?

The temptation is to be drawn into the game, to defend yourself, to retaliate.  But in so doing, you lose.  Even if you somehow "beat" them this time around, just by playing their game you lose.  You've lost the moment you utter your first word.  You bit their hook.  You played into their game.  You gave validity to their foolishness and credibility to their lie.

But you don't have to play their game.  Who cares if they make you look like a fool for a moment?  You could be Jesus Himself and they would find a reason to accuse and criticize you.  Jesus dealt with that all the time.  But they will show themselves to be the fools in the long haul, especially if you refuse to play the game and refuse to answer according to their foolishness, thereby mocking their kangaroo court.  These are childish games played by emotional children.  You have flaws.  Everybody does.  You get things wrong sometimes.  Everybody does.  What makes you lose is when you bite the hook and engage in their senseless game of theirs.  Time to say goodbye.  This is your life, the life God (and God alone) has given you and will judge. 

It is to Him whom you answer, and they will, too.  Who will be found faithful?  The one who "wins" the game by having the best comebacks, or the one who refuses to let those games distract them from being the person God wants them to be?  Refuse to play the game.  Refuse to retaliate.  Stand in the truth and let them tarry on... for a while.  If there is a grain of truth to anything they say, use it to bring yourself to God so that He can mold you even more.

Unconditional Love

In this article at ordinarypastor.com, the idea is set forth that while in one sense the love of God for us is unconditional, in another sense it is very conditional:  in essence, God loves us because of what Jesus did for us.

As the author wrote:  "The basis for God’s love for anyone is the doing and dying of Christ for them."

I used to believe this.  I think it is a pretty typical Reformed notion.  But there is a problem.  First, I don't believe it is Scriptural. Second, I don't believe it falls in line with the early thought of our own tradition (if I even consider myself "Reformed" any more).  Take a look at John Calvin's commentary on John 3:16.  But thirdly, it isn't even logical unless you want to come to all sorts of dubious conclusions about the Godhead. 

So, God (the Father) needed help loving us, so Jesus stepped in to save the day?  This notion reminds me of one of the valid criticisms of Anselm's view of the atonement.  Did the death of Jesus really make God merciful toward us?  I don't believe so.  I believe it is the other way around.  The mercy of God put Jesus on the cross.  What Jesus did was remove the obstacle of God's wrath and provide a way for God's love and mercy to reconnect with us, His creatures, without having His closeness and holiness utterly destroy us.

No, the cross of Christ did not make God merciful and loving toward us.  The cross of Christ is the result of God's love and mercy.  However, I would say that the basis for God's acceptance of anyone is the doing and dying of Christ for them.  Is this splitting theological hairs?  I don't think so.  I think it matters very much because the two ideas paint different pictures of God's character.

So what truly makes the unconditional love of God so truly remarkable?  Anyone who has ever had a wayward child or spouse has a glimpse of the answer: unconditional love suffers

Today, often we think of unconditional love in very sentimental terms... like God is a doting grandfather who loves us because he sees us through sort of... sentimental, rose-colored glasses.  He doesn't really get involved in our lives.  He doesn't want to really know about what we are doing in our personal lives (because that might change his opinion of us).  He likes to still think of us as innocent "little Johnny."  Or even if the grandparent image doesn't apply, our thinking of unconditional love often still lacks any truly deep involvement.  It may come out more like a sort of naive permissivism.  "Oh, shucks.  There you go again, you little rascal.  But you know I still love you."

What makes unconditional love so amazing is not that it permits and minimizes and turns a blind eye to evil and wrong.  What makes it amazing is that it stays rooted in reality, in the truth, and yet endures the wrong, the hurt, the betrayal, the suffering.  It takes it.  It doesn't take the wrongdoing forever.  At a point it stands up and says "No more!"  However, unconditional love is known by its refusal to cover itself, numb itself out, or changes its position.  That means that unconditional love will suffer.  In this world, it is the unavoidable consequence.

If we think of it this way, we can see that the cross of Christ is the embodiment of His unconditional love.  It is literally God suffering the rejection of the world -something which He still suffers even now.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Turning the Other Cheek

In Matthew Henry's Commentary on Matthew 5:39, we read

As in much of Jesus' teaching, pressing his illustration the wrong way may obscure his point. In fact, this would read Scripture the very way he was warning against: if someone hits us in the nose, or has already struck us on both cheeks, are we finally free to hit back? Jesus gives us a radical example so we will avoid retaliation, not so we will explore the limits of his example (see Tannehill 1975:73). A backhanded blow to the right cheek did not imply shattered teeth (tooth for tooth was a separate statement); it was an insult, the severest public affront to a person's dignity (Lam 3:30; Jeremias 1963:28 and 1971:239). God's prophets sometimes suffered such ill-treatment (1 Kings 22:24; Is 50:6). Yet though this was more an affront to honor, a challenge, than a physical injury, ancient societies typically provided legal recourse for this offense within the lex talionis regulations (Pritchard 1955:163, 175; see also Gaius Inst. 3.220).
In the case of an offense to our personal dignity, Jesus not only warns us not to avenge our honor by retaliating but suggests that we indulge the offender further. By freely offering our other cheek, we show that those who are secure in their status before God do not value human honor. Indeed, in some sense we practice resistance by showing our contempt for the value of our insulter's (and perhaps the onlookers') opinions! Because we value God's honor rather than our own (Mt 5:16; 6:1-18), because our very lives become forfeit to us when we begin to follow Jesus Christ (16:24-27), we have no honor of our own to lose. In this way we testify to those who insult us of a higher allegiance of which they should take notice.

I appreciate Henry's perspective on this, and I believe he is right.  While there are certain instances where it is right to "stand up for yourself," ultimately the demand to keep your own honor and dignity in the sight of men is a futile trap.  And human honor is not only of little value in comparison to our status before and fellowship with God, but there is a sense in which we mock the system of the world in our refusal to play by its rules.  We stand outside it, in judgment over it, just as Jesus did.  Far from showing surrender, it shows that we operate on a different plane and have the courage to remain there.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Let it Go

I love the movie Frozen.  I saw it with my girls in the theater.  Since then, the song "Let it Go" has apparently become quite a hit, with many people drawing inspiration from it. 

Not to be a killjoy, but has it dawned on anyone that the song occurs at the place in the film where Elsa essentially gives the middle finger to the rest of the world and runs off to establish her own little isolated ice-kingdom on top of a snowy mountain?  Has it dawned on anyone that this attitude not only hurts Elsa even more and ultimately puts her sister, Anna, in mortal danger?

The clear conclusion of the movie is that Elsa was wrong in her attitude, which I felt was such a timeless lesson.  But it seems to be a lesson we have a hard time learning.  See, we like the Elsa who says "screw you" and runs off to her ice castle more.  It feels stronger, more powerful.  This attitude is found all over Facebook -countless wounded people walking around with their middle finger in the air, thinking it makes them strong.  But as the film shows, it only imprisons you and hurts others -including others you did not intend to hurt.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Jesus and Idols

Money, power, sex... these are the kinds of things that people use as a means of exalting themselves and finding a sense of identity and purpose and status.  They are misuses of good things given to us, perversions.  They turn ordinary things into ultimate things... into idols, false gods, objects of our devotion and worship.

And Christians are right in pointing out that these things are idols, idols which will never deliver on what they promised.  The antidote is Jesus Christ.  And so, many demonstrate how Jesus gives us a far better status and identity and purpose.  Jesus gives us a lasting hope, a higher status that will not fade, unconditional acceptance and love, and purpose as a king, priest, and missionary in this world.  All true.

But what I posit to you is that this is still missing something important.  Lutheran theologians might notice that this is really just turning the Christian faith into another theology of glory.  It turns Jesus into another means, albeit a better means, to finding the kind of self-glory and self-exaltation we seek.  It neglects that perhaps the main problem is not merely the object of that pursuit but the pursuit itself.  The theology of glory, after all, describes what is wrong with us -our pursuit of glory, of turning everything into a means of getting ourselves up the ladder.

The theology of the cross, however, counters this, destroys this.  It shows that God's own Son, come down to us, lived in our shoes and did not escape death but went headlong into it, for us and for our sins, and was then raised from the grave as the first of a new creation.  It shows that God operates on a completely different system.  We think in terms of going up. He thinks in terms of coming back down, shedding the delusional need to go up. That delusion is the problem, and it needs to die.  But life is found out of death, our healing is found through a new life, and faith is coming back down to earth and realizing that the ladder was a total sham to begin with.

So, I would agree that Jesus is the antidote, but perhaps not in the way typically prescribed.  I do not think Jesus ought to be peddled as a better way to fulfill our self-defined plight.  I think in some way the cross of Christ must relate to us and expose our self-defined plight for what it is: the way of this world, the way of death and futilify itself.  It shows us that the system of the world, along with this, both deserves to die and must die in order for something new to exist.  That is the only way.  But because of His death and resurrection, on the other side of that death there is something new.  There is redemption and restoration and a new creation.  There is actual hope through death.  There is actual freedom found through the expiation of the lie, when that system is killed off and we realize that in truth we are all equals, all creatures of God by His unintelligible choice and design.

That sense of emptiness and unworthiness is the result of the curse, the backlash of our quest for glory, our "knowledge of good and evil", coming to meet us as we walk in real life, among others with the same curse and all the wounds and shame that go along with it.  Yes, we were meant for greatness, but the kind of greatness is not the kind we think.  God's idea of greatness is not a better fulfillment of our own ideas, of our own system.  It is a totally new and different system, where "greatness" is found in being a mere creature on God's earth, living to love Him, tend His creation, and love and serve others. 

Jesus, kill in me, by the cross, what is of the world in me so that You may restore in me what is of the earth, what is of your hand.