As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God. (Psalm 42:1-6a)
So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.” As he was saying these things, many believed in him. (John 8:28-30)
The depth of our desires depends on accessibility. My desire for food may be real, but I am not overwhelmed by it when I stand before my full refrigerator. My desire for friendship doesn’t break my heart when I am surrounded by friends. But take away access and the desires peak.
Right after Emily and I were engaged, I was sent across the country for training in the US Navy. When we were together every day in our hometown, I wanted to be with her, but my desire was met because we had access to one another. While I was on the other side of the country, my desire to be with her was overwhelming because I knew it would not be possible to be together again for several months.
The psalmist speaks of a deep longing to be with God—a thirst for God. This is more than the cry of the pious heart; it is the cry of one who has lost everything. This psalm is a lament about the nation of Israel being crushed by foreign invaders and sent into exile. All that was familiar about their shared life of worship (as corrupt as it had become) was inaccessible to them. The people who had turned from God now demanded to know where God could be found in this disaster. The psalmist speaks of hope, but it is a hope experienced in bondage. He would long for God as a deer longs for flowing streams, especially when those streams have dried to dust.
Ten days after hurricane Katrina demolished the Gulf coast, I traveled with some friends to Louisiana to help people who had been dislocated by the storm. I met several people who confessed that they had been disinterested in God until all they had was lost to them. It was an important part of our time there to reach out to these hurting people.
It’s a bit like for all of us, isn’t it? When things are going well, God seems easily accessible and our longing for him can be minimal. Jesus, however, speaks of the Father differently. He refers to God as the one who is with him, who has not left him alone. Jesus seemed deeply connected to his heavenly Father at all times, and not just when things got rough.
Maybe it would be a good thing to stop every so often and reflect on the things that numb us to God’s presence. Mostly they aren’t bad things; they are the things of everyday life that produce a sense of self-sufficiency. If our paychecks stopped, how quickly would we be on the streets? How easily could sickness, accidents, or disasters leave us alone and desperate? This isn’t an exercise in despair, but rather a reflection on reality. All that we have is tentative and fleeting. When we stop to remember that, desire for God might reappear.
When our desire for God has dried up, hope is still accessible. When we remember who we really are, God becomes real to us, and our desire may now spring to life and be satisfied.
O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people! O that I had in the desert a traveler’s lodging-place, that I might leave my people and go away from them! For they are all adulterers, a band of traitors. (Jeremiah 9:1-2)
“But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels. O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!” (Psalm 81:11-13)
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
Getting what you want is not always a good deal. In one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, a criminal is killed and wakes up in the afterlife. His mysterious host tells him that he now can have everything that he has ever wanted. The man, assuming that this must be heaven, indulges himself in his every desire, getting any woman he wants, always winning at cards and pool, never without a pocket full of cash. After a while, the routine and boredom makes him crazy, so he demands from his host that he be sent to “the other place.” His host smiles wickedly and responds, “But Mr. Valentine, this is the other place.”
After generations of chasing after idols and investing themselves in international politics and conflicts, God finally gave the people of Israel what they wanted: A life without him. God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah in a voice that is filled with grief over the loss of the people. The psalmist, likewise, expresses sadness over the demands of the people to have their own way.
There is a renewed interest, at least among many American Christians, in the topic of hell. While much of the American imagination about hell is more informed by movies and images from Dante’s Inferno than it is by the Bible, it is still a topic worth exploring. In the end, hell appears to be a life without any trace of God, and it can be experienced while people are still alive. How it might work on the other side of death is where the discussion gets really heated. The idea of having some sort of existence without God—not just ignoring God, but having his presence completely extracted—is disturbing enough on its own; that we might exist in such a state because of our own demands is even worse. Hell just might be the ultimate in getting exactly what we want, if what we want is everything on our terms.
Following in the way of Jesus doesn’t always line up with what we want. Yet, Jesus claims that following him removes us from wandering around in darkness and places us in the light of life. I imagine that a life without God is the worst kind of darkness imaginable. It wouldn’t be just the absence of light, but also the absence of goodness, kindness, decency, compassion, and love. Think about being surrounded by like-minded people who lack all of those things because of God’s absence. That would truly be hell.
The very presence of Jesus among his own people is the in-flesh demonstration of God’s unfailing, persistent love. The numerous texts of lament in the Bible do not result in God finally giving up on his people. Jesus comes, in the fullness of the Father, and calls his people to reconciliation and faithfulness. They still respond violently, demanding what they want, which is a life without Jesus. But God still doesn’t give up, and in the resurrection he brings the light of life to bear on the world. If we demand and receive a life without God, it won’t be out of God’s neglect.
In the midst of the brouhaha about Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins, a number of questions have resurfaced, such as the concept of the Age of Accountability: The age at which God holds people accountable for their response to him. So, infants and small children are usually exempt from the ravages of hell since they are considered too young to be accountable for their faith. But what is that age?
Historically, those who subscribe to this concept suggest somewhere around age 13.
Age 13. Really? REALLY?!?!? I've been 13. I know people who are 13. Age 13 is when human beings lose their minds. Age 13 is when mind and body crash into each other, screaming with contradictory voices and violating every normal standard of human behavior. I wouldn't trust me as a 13-year-old to mail a letter, let alone be accountable for my eternal destiny. People who are 13 don't even have fully-formed brains.
People become mature adults later than in years past. I know of people in their 30's who still live with their parents or are trying to accomplish things that prior generations did 10 years earlier. Maybe the real age of accountability is somewhere around 37.
Imagine this scenario: A man, recently killed when driving his parents' 2009 Toyota Prius, stands before God, trembling at God's verdict that is about to be declared. God is clearly angry.
"AND WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY FOR YOURSELF?" Screams God.
"Nothing, sir. Except that it wasn't my fault," stutters the man.
"What—your LIFE wasn't your fault? Give me a break."
"I just couldn't get it together. Plus the economy . . ."
"ENOUGH!" The heavens shake at God's voice. "Give me your driver's license."
The man hands over his wallet and God angrily pulls out the license, reading it carefully.
"Hmmm," God hums. "Born in 1977. That makes you 34, right?"
"Okay," says God. "You clearly can't be held accountable for much of anything. Good thing you haven't yet turned 37, or I would have held you responsible for that night in Las Vegas."
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. (Psalm 78:1-4)
For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. (Jeremiah 7:30-31)
Therefore [Abraham’s] faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’, were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification. (Romans 4:22-25)
Nations like to tell stories of the past, especially when the stories are celebrative. The accounts of bondages broken, enemies overcome, and triumph over adversity fill national imaginations and are passed on to each new generation. Some of the stories are true and others are legend. The parts that are more likely to be avoided are the ways the nations have oppressed others, damaged their own citizens, looted treasuries, and any number of violations.
The psalmist opens up by preparing the hearers for a history lesson that must be passed on to succeeding generations. All must be taught, he claims, and so he begins an account that he describes as “dark sayings of old.” The national imagination of Israel included past sins and violations against God and others. The consciousness of the people would be branded with the recognition that Israel, a nation like no other, a people formed and nurtured by God to be his light in the world, had turned from God and suffered dire consequences.
The prophet Jeremiah offers graphic detail of Judah’s (the southern half of what was originally Israel) offences: The sacrifice of children in the fires of Topheth, a site of pagan worship in the valley of Hinnom (referred to by Jesus as Gehenna, which is usually translated in English as hell). Jeremiah goes on to say that the fate of wayward Israel will be in that same place, where their bodies will be stacked like cord wood, serving as food for scavenger birds.
The stories of the people of God are not sanitized in the Bible. Their own family history is both redemptive and dark, and it is, we are told, not to be forgotten. As a people before God, they are to always remember who they are and from where they have come. It is, in many ways, a dark story.
We, as followers of Jesus, now share that family history. We are given, however, a new act to this play of call, formation, sin, disaster, and exile. The apostle Paul says that we share the faith of Abraham as we trust in what God has done in Jesus. This Jesus, who represents all of Israel and the whole of the world, allows himself to be destroyed by all the forces of evil, suffering the consequences of this dark history on behalf of all. But this is not just a story of vicarious suffering and death; it is a story of God’s dismantling of the power of sin and death to close the book. In the resurrection, the story begins anew, and the people of God, while remembering our dark history, now trust in the author of the story to write the ending that he has always intended.
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” (Jeremiah 7:3-4)
Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low. Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake. (Psalm 79:8-9)
Yet many in the crowd believed in him and were saying, “When the Messiah comes, will he do more signs than this man has done?” The Pharisees heard the crowd muttering such things about him, and the chief priests and Pharisees sent temple police to arrest him. (John 7:31-32)
Institutions seem to take on lives of their own. People become committed followers of professional sports teams (often over multiple generations), even though the players routinely change, and most aren’t from the team’s hometown anyway. It is the institution of the team that captures the fans’ loyalty. A business might dominate the spotlight of an industry for decades, and people point to the long-term work that it has done. Yet, the personnel of that company and its structures have routinely changed over the years. Institutions appear to become bigger and more alive than the people who inhabit them. They can also create a loyalty that is focused on a concept rather than reality.
The ancient people of Israel allowed the institution of their temple to provide evidence of their faithfulness to God. Even though the prophet Jeremiah spoke to them of their duplicity, they would point to the institution of the temple and claim that they were acting justly when, in fact, they were oppressing the poor and worshipping idols. Jeremiah pointed to a disaster yet to come, one that would come as a result of Israel’s defiance.
The psalmist speaks in the midst of the people after that disaster had arrived. Israel chose to play politics by the ways of the rest of the world, and they lost at that game. Jerusalem was destroyed, and the people hauled off into exile. In their new existence, Israel cried out for a rescue and for forgiveness.
When Jesus came along, claiming to be the one sent by God to bring rescue and forgiveness, he was not received well by the ruling religious elite. Jesus didn’t speak of defeating foreign invaders or making Israel a dominant world power, but instead spoke of truly being God’s people, ones who lived out the implications of forgiveness and love in the midst of their own exile. His words challenged their control and their sense of being right. After all, they had evidence: The institution of Judaism was still alive, and their temple and holy city, Jerusalem, were in tact (even though they were now under the boot heel of Rome). Their best solution to the problem of Jesus was to try to arrest him.
When it comes to God, it is easy for us to get institutional. We find comfort in our affiliation with a particular church or denomination, or we lock ourselves into neat certainties with unquestionable doctrinal positions, and then point to those things as evidence of our piety. Being part of a community of faith is important, as is being able to affirm common beliefs. But believing in our institutions, even if they are religious ones, doesn’t equate with being a people whose lives are transformed and whose engagement with the world is redemptive. Even right belief alone doesn’t accomplish that (“You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” – James 2:19).
Institutions are fine, as long as we see them for what they are. God desires our hearts.
“Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed. (Mark 5:19-20)
Say among the nations, “The Lord is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity.” Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth. (Psalm 96:10-13)
Justice is an important idea in the Bible. In our world, justice can sometimes be translated as fairness, punishment, or revenge. But in the Bible, justice comes from God and is, at its heart, the work of putting right that which is wrong; of bringing restoration to that which is broken; of healing that which is sick. That’s why you read so much in the Bible about God’s concern for the poor and the disenfranchised.
The text in Mark 5 comes at the end of the story of Jesus healing a man who was infested with demons. The guy was a wreck—naked, filthy, living among the tombs, terrorized by his demonic parasites, and a horror to the local villagers. When Jesus cast out the demons, the man was transformed. Someone in Jesus’ group must have given up items of their clothing, because the man is described as being “clothed and in his right mind.” The local townspeople are a little distressed because the demons inserted themselves into a herd of pigs (this was obviously not a Jewish neighborhood) and ran them off a cliff. When Jesus starts to leave the region, the man begs to come with him, but Jesus refuses. Instead, Jesus sends him home to his family and his village to declare what the Lord had done for him.
In this story, we see Jesus enacting God’s justice. Everything about the demon-possessed man was broken. Jesus cast out the demons, someone found him some clothes, and then cleaned him up. Jesus, rather than letting the man come away with him, sent him home to declare what the Lord had done. But in doing that, more that had been broken would be restored. The man would be reconciled to his family and friends, he would engage in the productive life of his village, and be resocialized into the land of the living. He would become human again.
The psalmist declares that, when God brings his justice, the whole of creation will rejoice. When God’s justice comes, it is enacted with righteousness and truth, countering the dominance of all that is destructive, oppressive, and false.
God’s justice will, however, often run cross-grain to the dominance of the world culture. Just as the people in Mark 5 couldn’t appreciate the restoration of the broken man because of the loss of the herd of pigs, sometimes the enactment of God’s justice is obscured by other dominant cultural values. That’s just the way it goes, it seems.
For scoundrels are found among my people; they take over the goods of others. Like fowlers they set a trap; they catch human beings. (Jeremiah 5:26)
Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil.” (John 7:6-7)
But you indeed are awesome! Who can stand before you when once your anger is roused? From the heavens you uttered judgment; the earth feared and was still when God rose up to establish judgment, to save all the oppressed of the earth. (Psalm 76:7-9)
A few years ago I learned that my great-grandfather, a preacher and hymn writer, authored a lengthy book titled, The White Slave Hell: Midnight in Chicago Slums. Chief among the concerns he expressed about liquor, tobacco, and gambling, was sex trafficking. He wrote of brothels in Chicago that were staffed by young women recruited from Europe, whose lives had been destroyed by forced prostitution. His call was for the church to rise up and oppose this horrible industry. The book’s copyright date is 1910.
We increasingly hear stories of human trafficking all over the world, including here in the US. People’s hearts are stirred when they hear of the suffering of people who are forced into slave labor and sexual bondage. It is even more distressing when we recognize that these practices have characterized the world for a very long time, sometimes right under the noses of religious people.
God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah and identifies those among the people of Israel who are enslaving others. The combination of power and greed produces an evil that is absent of heart or soul, and those who benefit from the practices appear to be willing to fight to protect their work. Jesus recognized that when evil is opposed, hatred is the immediate response. It is a dangerous task to oppose evil.
People who like to talk about theology will often speculate about the nature of God’s wrath. I’ve heard some comments that make God sound like Zeus, zipping around the heavens looking for someone to smite with a lightning bolt. The psalmist, however, speaks differently about God’s wrath. It is anger that results in judgment, a judgment that pursues the rescue of the oppressed.
Bono (of the band U2) is quoted as saying, “God is with the vulnerable and poor.” I think the Bible would agree with him. When God establishes justice, oppression is revealed, and God gets angry—not, apparently, angry in order to destroy, but angry in order to rescue. The God of the Bible seeks to rescue a world gone mad, and he starts with the oppressed. Maybe that’s why, when John the Baptist inquired about whether or not Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus answered:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.” (Matthew 11:4-6)
But people did take offense, and Jesus was killed as a result. If, as we believe, the fullness of God was in Jesus (Colossians 1:19), then what happens when the ultimate messenger of rescue is killed by the dominant powers of the world? It means that evil won the day.
There is something coming, however, called resurrection. When the One who came to bring rescue to the world defeats evil and death, something awesome has broken into the world. And it is an awesomeness into which we are invited to participate.
More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; many are those who would destroy me, my enemies who accuse me falsely. What I did not steal must I now restore? O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you. (Psalm 69:4-5)
“You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40)
Many years ago at my daughter’s middle school, a young male science teacher was accused of inappropriate sexual conduct by two female students. He was immediately suspended pending an investigation and the story of the accusations appeared in the local newspaper. After a few weeks of drama, the two girls confessed that they had fabricated the story and that the teacher was innocent. Regardless, the teacher’s reputation and career had been ruined in the process. I don’t recall seeing a follow-up story in the newspaper.
The psalmist objects to the possibility of restoring something he didn’t steal in the first place. It just isn’t fair to have to do that. However, when false accusations come, the accused is put in that position. To remain silent is to allow the forces of evil to have their way with you. It isn’t that the accused is without fault or error; God alone sees those things clearly. But false accusations are not part of God’s agenda; they are acts of terror and power that seek to destroy.
Jesus must have scandalized his opponents even though he acknowledged that they were ones who searched the scriptures. They were religious leaders, so why wouldn’t they do that? But Jesus went on to say that they “think” that eternal life is found in those sacred texts. These leaders had indeed constructed theological positions crafted from their particular interpretations of scripture, and they used them to falsely accuse Jesus of everything from blasphemy to demonic possession. Jesus knew the scriptures better than his opponents did, and he understood that they pointed to him, and in him was life. His accusers, however, would have none of that. They believed they had a corner on eternal life and were willing to lie and kill to secure their positions. In the end, Jesus was silent, and allowed the forces of evil to unleash their fury on him.
We who follow Jesus can find ourselves at odds with one another over all kinds of things, from doctrine to practice, from high church to low church, from one interpretation of scripture to another, from one political position to another. It’s one thing for us to challenge one another, to disagree with one another, and to seek to correct one another. It’s another thing to take our interpretations of scripture, doctrine, theology, politics, and practice, and start thinking that in them we have eternal life. When our positions become concretized and canonized, we can find ourselves, intentionally or unintentionally, making false accusations against those we should be calling brothers or sisters.
Perhaps we need a corporate discipline of confession that should precede every argument or debate that we have with one another. We can gather our notes, review our positions, confer with those who support us, and then come together and pray,
“O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.”
Then, after our disputes and discussions wind down, we would come to the Lord’s Table, sit side by side, brought together in common fellowship by the One who has invited us to come and dine. In doing these things, we might not have to restore what we didn’t steal.
My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! (Jeremiah 4:19a)
“Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself . . .” (John 5:25-26)
I received news last night that I man I met many years ago—a former pastor—took his own life. It is a sad report, shocking and disillusioning for those who knew him. How is it that one who has lived his life in close relationship with God give up hope? What does God do when someone purposely ends his or her life?
Perhaps the real question is: What limits are there to God’s love and forgiveness? Is self-murder (which does not offer the opportunity for repentance prior to death) a final, desperate act that is unforgivable by God? Christians throughout the ages have offered numerous theological theories about suicide, some claiming it to be a final, unforgivable crime; others offer the possibility that God offers hope even to those who take this tragic, ultimate step (see the Roman Catholic Church’s official statement here).
Take, for example, Judas Iscariot. He tipped off the religious leaders so they could arrest Jesus. What did he think would happen? It is likely he wanted them to press Jesus to ramp up what Judas assumed was an agenda of revolution. Judas didn’t know until later that he had sold Jesus into death. When he discovered that, he tried to undo his work, giving back the money and confessing to the leaders. They scoffed at him and told him to take care of things himself.
How was Judas to do that? He operated in a religious culture that had certain ritual requirements regarding confession and forgiveness. When your own religious leaders abandon you to your sin, what choices are left? Judas took the only path that made sense to him. He saw himself as beyond redemption. With the psalmist, he would have cried out, “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart!”
Jesus claimed that God the Father had granted him the very life of God, a life that the Son could freely dispense. In Jesus, we see the character and heart of God expressed in living, human, flesh. So deeply did Jesus identify with the tragic nature of human existence that, even in the throes of death, he could cry out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). When a person commits suicide, as in so many of the tragic areas of human life, they do not know what they are really doing. They believe they are submitting to the power of hopelessness, that hopelessness has the last word for them, and they are wrong. On the other side of this life, they will encounter the author of hope. How many on that side will hear the voice of the Son of God, and live?
We should consider the boundaries and limits that we think we can impose on God’s love and forgiveness. The story of our Scriptures should inform us of the many attempts of the religious community to do that, only to find that God turns their certainties upside down with his generosity. While we can always refuse God’s love and demand a life without him—on either side of death—our theological theories that limit God do not have the power we try to grant to them.
In the life we will ultimately share in God’s new creation—a life beyond this one—it wouldn’t surprise me to bump into Judas along the way. I imagine him sitting by himself, maybe under a tree, staring off into space and saying to himself over and over again:
“Can it really be? Is it really true? I never really knew . . .”
It might take him a few thousand years to come to grips with the unimaginable generosity of God. And he will probably share that space with a lot of other people.
The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the Sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God. (John 5:15-18)
I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. (Jeremiah 3:15)
The Bible has a number of accounts of religious leaders reacting angrily, and sometimes violently, against the generosity of God. For example: God wants to redeem the gentile people of Nineveh, and Jonah the prophet gets upset when it actually happens; God sends the prophet Jeremiah to his own people, calling them to a place of forgiveness and faithfulness, and they put a contract out on his life; Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, and the leaders plot to kill him; the Holy Spirit falls on a bunch of gentile God-fearers, and the early Christian leaders in Jerusalem have to call a committee meeting.
When the generosity of God challenges the dominant power structures, all hell breaks loose. In Jonah’s case, it wasn’t the pagan power structures that railed against God—in fact, they led their own people to repentance. It was Jonah’s place of power as a Jewish prophet that was in jeopardy. If the Ninevites are beloved by God, then what would it do to Jonah’s sense of religious privilege? Jeremiah’s call for the people to turn away from worshipping idols and to return to faithfulness to God would be upsetting to the way the nation had ordered its corporate life. Jesus’ claim that the rules of the Sabbath could not bind God’s generosity threatened to unravel the control that the religious leaders had over their own people. If gentiles can receive the Holy Spirit, then the uniqueness of the Jewish Christians is at stake. This is dangerous business.
There is a natural push-back when we are told something we didn’t already believe. Tension is created when we believe one thing and then are told another. If you believe that God despises any work done on the Sabbath, and then some itinerate prophet heals somebody and claims that God himself is at work on your holy days, then your entire belief system is at risk. You can consider the new information and cast aside your old views in favor of this good news, or you can resolve the tension by destroying the one who is rattling your cage. Too often, in the Bible, the religious elite chose the latter.
God tells Jeremiah that he will give new shepherds to Israel. They will not only nourish the people with “knowledge and understanding,” but they will be ones who know God’s heart. It isn’t enough that these shepherds will be doctrinally sound; such claims to certainty often lead to elitism. They will also be tuned into the heart of God—the God who often scandalizes his own people by his generosity. Their nourishment will come from God’s heart rather than from a newly revised textbook.
The generosity of God pushes against our religious sensibilities, because those sensibilities are often framed by ways of thinking that are our own invention. We systematize God in an attempt to understand his ways, then set the systems in concrete and persecute anyone who challenges our thinking. We religious people have a long history of this kind of behavior. We should read the Bible more often so that we fear our own legacy.
God is generous, but he isn’t reckless. His generosity aligns with his desire to redeem the entire creation, and for some reason that makes us mad.
I received Rob Bell's book in the mail yesterday, and finished it this morning. After hearing some of the harsh critiques suggesting heresy and universalism, I am puzzled. I'm wondering if the critics and I read the same book.
If there is anything Rob claims, it's that the Bible offers the story of the God who pursues the whole world, and whose desires are the full redemption of all creation. I resonated deeply with most of the book (I should probably read it again, given my eagerness the first time through). I didn't hear a declaration of universalism, but I did hear about God being more generous than most of us have considered.
I think I'd like to offer two words of caution to my brothers and sisters who see this differently (after they have, of course, actually read the book):
The first relates to honesty. Critique if you must (that can be healthy and constructive), but do so with integrity. Make sure that you are offering an assessment of something actually written, and be civil in your engagement. After all, like the rest of us humans, you could be mistaken in your views. None of us wants to bear false witness.
The second is about something that has a significant biblical precedent. When Jesus spent time with tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, and those generally classified as "sinners," he was soundly condemned by his own religious community. They were angry about the possibility of a God so generously described through parables like the Lost Son, and therefore sought to silence Jesus permanently for his heresy. We need to be careful lest we cast our lot with their kind.
Upon finishing Rob's book, it occurred to me that it really wasn't for the people who are critiquing it. It's really more for those who have stood on the perimeter of faith, fearful of stepping in because of their fear that God despises them. It's for those who gave up hope that they could ever be favored by God because of their past and even their present. It's a book for those who can't imagine a God so full of love that he would pursue the broken and the lost with fervor. I know people like this, and I will give them this book. I think Rob knows people like this as well, because he is a real pastor.
Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? They did not say, “Where is the Lord . . . ?” (Jeremiah 2:4-6a)
Then he came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.’ The official said to him, ‘Sir, come down before my little boy dies.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your son will live.’ The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way. (John 4:46-50)
Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. (Psalm 62:8)
It has been said that people become like the things they worship. The prophet Isaiah wrote a satire about a man who cuts a piece of wood, uses half of it to make a fire to cook his food, and then fashions the other half into an idol that he bows down to worship. The man is portrayed as an idiot who acts like his head is made out of wood, just like his idol.
The prophet Jeremiah warns the people of Israel about their family legacy in forgetting about God and turning to idols. They became worthless, just like the objects of their worship. It’s an awful thing to be judged as having no worth, but by tethering their lives to things that don’t matter at all, the people began to reflect the images of their gods of choice.
The man who came to Jesus was a royal official, so he was very likely a person of prominence and means. If his son was ill, he would have undoubtedly sought out and paid for medical care, which appeared to have little effect. So he came to Jesus in the midst of a crowd who had seen Jesus do miraculous things, and they celebrated him like he was a rock star. The man was desperate and came to Jesus for help. Once Jesus assured the man that his son would live, the man “believed the word that Jesus spoke” and put himself into gear, heading home to see what had happened. We find out later that the son was indeed healed and restored to his father.
We westerners put a lot of trust in our brains. We are children of the Enlightenment and we find it easy to locate our identities in what we think. When we say we “believe” something, we usually mean we’ve come to a conclusion about the validity of something. So when we claim to believe in Jesus, we often mean that we’ve concluded certain things about faith that puts us in the Christian camp. For too many of us, it also means that, once having drawn such mental conclusions, we can move on with our lives, trusting in whatever suits us and identifying our lives with the other objects of our worship.
The man who believed Jesus about the healing of the son did more than give mental assent to Jesus’ healing powers. He trusted that Jesus was telling him the truth (in the Greek of the New Testament, the word for believe is the same word for trust) and went to receive his son. Belief can allow us to offer a nod to creeds and doctrines; trust, however, is about relationship. To believe in Jesus is not in the same category as believing in ghosts or believing that there are aliens in Roswell. To believe in Jesus is to trust the living Son of God to be real and present in human life right now.
When the psalmist says that God is a refuge for his people, he means that God offers the only safe place that is real. The other so-called safety zones of our lives—our money, our status, our careers, and so on—are temporary at best and are dehumanizing as definers of our worth.
So we pour out our hearts. We can do that with the One we trust.
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” (John 4:27)
In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid. What can a mere mortal do to me? (Psalm 56:10-11)
Fear is a powerful and reactive emotion. When we are frightened we move quickly and with energy. It’s part of our innate desire to survive, so when we hear a bear sniffing around our tent, we instantly come to high alert, without much thought except to remain safe. When we soon discover that the so-called bear is just the family dog checking out the surroundings of the campsite, the fear that overwhelmed us dissipates rapidly. Fear can hit 60 in 2 seconds and then stop on a dime as if nothing happened.
The larger context of John 4:27 is the conversation that Jesus initiated with a Samaritan woman. The reason that his disciples were astonished when they saw what was happening was that faithful Jewish men were not supposed to have any contact with Samaritans, especially the female type. Samaritans were considered to be half-Jewish heretics, and Jews stayed away from them. What were Jesus’ disciples to make of this violation? Was there fear woven into their astonishment?
Fear is often associated with the possibility of loss. If someone can take something from me, then fear and the need to protect rise up. Perhaps the disciples feared losing their faithful Jewish leader to the uncleanness and heretical ways of the Samaritans. This kind of fear of loss rose up in a number of people who opposed Jesus. They saw him reach out to tax collectors, prostitutes, and others defined by the general category of “sinners.” In fact, he was once mocked by being called “friend of sinners.” Those who feared losing their dominant place in their society sought to silence Jesus by having him illegally executed. Destroying what you fear normally causes fear to dissipate because everything can then go back to normal.
We who follow Jesus get caught up in fear all the time. The US legislature passes laws that we don’t like, and we join our party of choice to scream about fear. Someone writes a book exploring and challenging certain theological viewpoints, and fear drives the critics to cast the evildoer into outer darkness, where there is weeping, gnashing of teeth, and a loss of royalties. We hear a viewpoint about faith that is different than ours, and we withdraw, fearing that we are about to lose something vital to our eternal destiny.
Some of this is natural. When we are hit with something that runs cross-grain to our closely held beliefs, there is a reaction against the possibility of change. Often we seek to discredit the new idea. Other times we hunker down and shore up the props of our belief system. Less frequently to do we listen deeply and openly, asking God to show us if perhaps we have seen things incompletely and are now being invited into something richer and more generous than what we knew before. At the very least, we might actually learn to love those we had feared, even if we don’t agree.
The psalmist speaks of trusting God and not being afraid. “Do not fear” is the most common admonition in the Bible. It probably has to be repeated a lot because we humans carry fear around like keys in our pockets.
Love is also powerful. But unlike fear, it isn’t reactive or violent. It requires presence and the willingness to be changed by relationship. Fear is not the way of Jesus, but love clearly is.
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation. Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. (Psalm 24:3-6)
Then [Jesus’] mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)
I was a Boy Scout for one year when I was twelve. I signed up, got my uniform, picked up the Scout handbook, and started memorizing some things like the Scout oath and the 12 Points of the Scout Law (“A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind . . .” and so on). I didn’t have to know any of this stuff to get in, nor did I have to give evidence that I was good at any of those things before the Scouts took me in. But if I was going to be a Boy Scout, it was expected that I would act like one. Wearing the uniform came with an identity that was to be lived out in everyday life.
The psalmist describes a people with clean hands and pure hearts. These are the ones to receive God’s blessing. They are the ones who are to come to the Temple to worship. I don’t imagine that there was a guard at the Temple entrance checking everyone’s hands and interrogating them about their hearts in order to let the right people in. This Psalm describes the character of the people who are seeking God and living with integrity as a response to God’s love. This isn’t about behaving well enough to gain God’s favor; it’s about living in the identity as God’s beloved people.
In a similar way, Jesus speaks of those who do the will of God as if they are the equivalent of his family. Family members don’t do things to be qualified as family; they are family by sharing things like DNA, parentage, and love. Strangers don’t generally enter our homes and start doing the dishes in order to be accepted as family. Brothers and sisters and mothers are already bonded by familial connection, and as such they are supposed to live out that identity in ways that are real.
People often get confused at this point. A follower of Jesus does not have the job of trying to make everyone else feel guilty about the way they live. Instead, those who follow Jesus are called by God to live in that identity. The Bible tells us that we don’t even have to do that by our own strength, but by the presence of God’s Spirit within us. Doing the will of God and being Jesus’ family is not an issue of qualification, but rather being who God is forming us to be.
It is not enemies who taunt me—I could bear that; it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me—I could hide from them. But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company; we walked in the house of God with the throng. (Psalm 55:12-14)
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him . . . (Hebrews 5:7-9)
We’ve all been let down by a friend, cast away by a lover, or mocked by former friends. It’s always painful and usually a profound shock to our inner life. We don’t usually see these things coming, except maybe in retrospect. We are often deeply invested in these relationships, and we expect them to endure and to meet certain needs in our lives. Even in the healthiest of relationships, disappointment and betrayal remain possibilities.
There is always something missing in human relationships. Those relationships are incomplete and imperfect in some way. In the best of friendships, someone is bound to move away or eventually die, leaving a state of loss and grief behind. Yet, we continue to be shocked when pain comes to us through the people we have loved.
Sometimes we speak of our love for others as “unconditional.” This is mostly wrong. Human love always has some sort of condition attached to it. It is never given in a truly free way. Unconditionalality is the character of God’s love. Henri Nouwen describes it this way:
This unconditional and unlimited love is what the evangelist John calls God’s first love. ‘Let us love,’ he says, ‘because God loved us first’ (I John 4:19). The love that often leaves us doubtful, frustrated, angry, and resentful is the second love, that is to say, the affirmation, affection, sympathy, encouragement, and support that we receive from our parents, teachers, spouses, and friends. We all know how limited, broken, and very fragile that love is. Behind the many expressions of this second love there is always the chance of rejection, withdrawal, punishment, blackmail, violence, and even hatred. (In the Name of Jesus, 25-6)
God’s full, complete love is shown most clearly to us in Jesus. The writer of the book of Hebrews describes Jesus as “having been made perfect.” There is an important point to be made here: It isn’t that Jesus was run through an earthly boot camp in order to qualify as God’s source of salvation; it is that God, in the person of Jesus, experienced all of human life, which included suffering and death. In suffering and death Jesus became “perfect” (the Greek word in the New Testament for “perfect” can also mean “complete”). If Jesus would have dodged the dual bullets of suffering and death, then he would never have fully identified with human beings, because suffering and death are included in the drama of human life.
This is how God’s first, complete, and perfect love is portrayed to us. God comes among us in the person of Jesus and lives the fullness of human existence in his conception, birth, life, suffering, and death. In his resurrection, the limits of that experience are exploded. God does not let us down by saying, “There you go. Through Jesus, I’ve experienced it all, including death. Now quit whining and take your medicine!” Instead, there is hope and promise on the other side. There is no possibility of betrayal with God like there is with us. Unlike the second loves of human relationships, God’s first love is complete, full, and unconditional.
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen. (Deuteronomy 10:17-21)
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. (Psalm 40:17)
In a course that I co-teach with a friend of mine, we ask our students to respond in writing to a statement and a question that always challenges them: Imagine that God is thinking of you right now. What does he think? Every time we do this, the majority of the students struggle to believe that God would bother to think about them at all; and if he were to think about them, his thoughts wouldn’t be all that pleasant.
The psalmist makes the claim that God does indeed take thought for us. What is the character of this God who holds us in his mind? He is described as mighty and awesome, impartial, and worthy of fear and worship. He is also described as compassionate and loving toward widows, orphans, and strangers. The writer of Hebrews offers a metaphor for Jesus—the One in whom the fullness of God dwells—as a high priest who fully relates and identifies with human weakness. Because of that sympathetic identification, we can trust that God receives us when we approach him and is happy to extend mercy and grace to us as we need it, which is pretty much all the time.
While western Christianity can get a bit narcissistic about our relationship with God, making it all about me, it is about me as a subset of us. Yes, God’s concern is for the world, but I am part of that world. God’s love and care is universal (“For God so loved the world”), but it is also, it seems, particular. The Lord takes thought for you and me. I find that to be a stunning revelation.
This God who is awesome, mighty, and who is to be feared and worshipped, thinks about us. He cares for widows, orphans, and strangers. This is God unlike the other so-called gods, who were seen as distant and capricious, disdaining humans and not slow to cast bolts of lightning in their direction. This God is impossible to figure out, with his mightiness on the one hand and his loving care on the other. This is the God who has created all things and sustains all things, and yet, he takes thought for me.
Ask yourself: If God is thinking of you right now, what does he think? If your answer is a dismal one, think again. Then approach the throne of grace boldly. He has mercy and grace in abundance to give to you. At all times, you are in his mind.
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. (John 3:19-21)
So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. (Hebrews 4:9-10)
Mark this, then, you who forget God . . . (Psalm 50:22a)
I wish the Bible didn’t speak of judgment, but it does. We don’t see God clicking his tongue at the evil of the world and saying, “Oh, those crazy kids. What will they do next?” God’s judgment is inevitable, so says the Bible, and it’s a serious thing.
Most of the divine judgment we see in the Bible is directed toward God’s own people rather than the rest of the world (there are exceptions—for example, Sodom and Gomorrah, Ninevah. But before anything disastrous happened, God sent Abraham and Jonah to give everyone a chance to change direction). God’s plan of rescue is for the whole world, and his people were always to serve as a light to all the nations, that the world would turn to God. It’s a bad deal when God’s own people forget about him.
In John chapter 3, Jesus is conversing with Nicodemus, a prominent Jewish leader. Their conversation is more about Israel in general than it is about Nicodemus in particular, and the judgment of which Jesus speaks is directly applicable to those known as the people of God. Forgetting about God has dire consequences. You can’t forget about God unless you have known God in the first place. Judgment lands first with God’s people.
I had a friend who very insightfully defined sin as “forgetting about God.” He didn’t consider himself to be a Christian—more of a seeker, really—but his words have stuck with me. Once you forget about God you have to find another way of orienting your life. Drop God out of the picture and terms like good and evil become defined by things we prefer or by cultural consensus. Adolf Hitler, the 20th century poster boy for evil, was an expert at that. He recast God in Hitler’s own image, absorbed the German church into his Nazi agenda, and made the persecution and mass murdering of people acts of righteousness. This from the same nation that gave the world the likes of Martin Luther and Johann Sebastian Bach. Forgetting about God is costly.
The writer of the book of Hebrews, while offering the hope of entering into God’s rest by faith, also warns that there have been and will be those who fail to enter that rest because of disobedience. There is judgment in that warning, and it is again directed toward the people of God. If those who have been called to be God’s own people forget about God and recreate life by their own preferences, the consequences are dismal. A world without God is no place to live.
Hell might be the space God gives to the people who want to forget him for good. Imagine people who want a world where all goodness, all love, all healing, all mercy and grace, are extracted. It would be a dark place indeed. Imagine wanting such a place. Worse yet, imagine God giving people exactly what they want.
Richard John Neuhaus wrote, “. . . In this life and in the world to come, those who follow Jesus will receive everything they want, if what they want is to follow Jesus.”
Of all the things I want, not forgetting about God needs to be at the top of the list.
Before I was humbled I went astray . . . (Psalm 119:67)
So I turned and went down from the mountain, while the mountain was ablaze; the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands. Then I saw that you had indeed sinned against the Lord your God, by casting for yourselves an image of a calf; you had been quick to turn from the way that the Lord had commanded you. (Deuteronomy 9:15-16)
When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone. (John 2:23-25)
When you read about the wanderings of the ancient Hebrew people in the Old Testament, they seem like a roving band of idiots. Time after time God rescues them with some miraculous event, and then they turn around and do something stupid, as though nothing ever happened. Their leader, Moses, is mad at them most of the time because they aren’t getting what is going on: God has saved them from slavery in Egypt, provided for them in the wilderness, and is committed to their well-being. I don’t know if they think that God is just a nomadic deity who happened to be passing by Egypt when they cried out for help or what, but they sure are quick to forget about God’s great deeds and then recreate him in their own familiar images.
It appears that things hadn’t changed much when Jesus arrived on the scene. He healed people, chased away demonic spirits, raised the dead and a whole variety of other amazing things. People got excited about Jesus because of this, and believed that he was the long-awaited Messiah. Why wouldn’t they believe that, with all the benefits he was bringing to the people?
Yet, Jesus knew that behind that belief was something untrustworthy. Later in the story we learn that he was right, as the same people who cheered for him ended up populating the crowd that supported his crucifixion. Again, another band of idiots.
The only problem with my assessment is that I’m pretty sure we’re all part of the same idiotic family (okay, maybe me and not you). I’ve had things happen in my life that were, from my perspective, clear answers to prayer. Sometimes those answers have come in such a startling way that I’ve had to look around and see if God has materialized behind me just to enjoy the surprise. But it only takes a day or two and some more trouble and I’m discouraged and lamenting about how the pain of life now dominates my world. I may not build golden calves to worship, but I can create all kinds of familiar mini-gods as I attempt to solve my problems.
On one level it seems hopeless that Jesus knows what is in everyone. If he knows about my duplicity and my capacity for going astray, then why would he want to have anything to do with me? But on another level, it is a comfort that he knows what is in us, because in the midst of the brokenness that often rears its ugly head, he sees the ones always loved by God; the ones with whom God has fully identified in the person of Jesus; the ones on whose behalf Jesus lived, suffered, died, and was raised. We may be just a band of idiots, but we are also the objects of God’s love and care.
I also believe that God does not intend to leave us in our idiotic state. By degrees we keep learning to trust him, and to turn from all the mini-gods that we have created in an effort to make God into a predictable certainty. Along the way the awareness of our tendency toward sin humbles us, and in our humility we can cease going astray.
Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that would be spoken later. Christ, however, was faithful over God’s house as a son, and we are his house if we hold firm the confidence and the pride that belong to hope.
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, as on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your ancestors put me to the test, though they had seen my works for forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, and I said, ‘They always go astray in their hearts, and they have not known my ways.’ As in my anger I swore, ‘They will not enter my rest.’” (Hebrews 3:5-11)
Now that we have the Internet and various social media like Facebook and YouTube, information and images about Christians behaving badly can be passed on and enjoyed by millions of people. We can both see and hear about people disrupting the mourners at funerals with claims about God’s hatred, others who announce with glee that natural disasters in which many lives are snuffed out are clearly the judgments of God, and still others who jump into the political fray and mimic the dismal behavior too often found in that arena.
All of this helps people to come to the conclusion that Christians, in spite of all their convictions about sin, heaven and hell, and so on, are really no better than anyone else in the world. And they would be right in that conclusion.
The ongoing biblical story about the people of God reveals a lot of bad behavior: God rescues the ancient Hebrews from their bondage in Israel, and in no time they are acting up, turning from God and making an idol to worship. God gives them a place to live, where they will be a nation of worshippers, living under God’s leadership, and before long they want to compete with their neighbors, so they make an army, demand a king, and start playing national politics by the rules of the world. Jesus comes to call the people back to their destiny as God’s people, bringing healing and hope, so they create a conspiracy and have him nailed to a cross. It goes on and on. Even into our time.
It probably shouldn’t surprise us that much when we who follow Jesus act badly. After all, we have all the potential for misbehavior that is in anyone. At the same time, we would claim to be a people who are being transformed by God, and as communities of people called churches, we confess our weaknesses and failures to God and to one another, we turn again from our dark deeds, and when all is said and done, we try to come together as communities of hope.
Hope is the key here. The writer of the book of Hebrews says that we Christians are like a house that has been built by God and is cared for by Jesus himself. We are allowed both confidence and pride, but not in ourselves, because that never works out. Our confidence and pride comes in hope. This is not wish-dream hope, but rather hope that is in the God who has plans for the world, and those plans involve a people established by him, who will be a light to the rest of the world. Yes, sometimes we behave as badly as everyone else, but in this house built by God there is confession, forgiveness, and healing. We embrace those things now in a stumbling way; our hope is in God’s ultimate plan of healing for all of the world.
It’s not a good thing when we behave badly. But when we do, the One who cares for us, Jesus the Christ, is faithful to bring us into the desires of our heavenly Father, to be forgiven and healed, transformed yet again by his love, and given space to return to be forgiven and healed again when we stumble anew. There is great hope in that, not only for us, but also for the whole world.
Happy are those who consider the poor; the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble. The Lord protects them and keeps them alive; they are called happy in the land. You do not give them up to the will of their enemies. The Lord sustains them on their sickbed; in their illness you heal all their infirmities. (Psalm 41:1-3)
Why do you boast, O mighty one, of mischief done against the godly? All day long you are plotting destruction. Your tongue is like a sharp razor, you worker of treachery. (Psalm 52:1-2)
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, [Jesus] himself likewise shared the same things . . . (Hebrews 14a)
It isn’t difficult to have an enemy. As long as you have something to lose or protect, there will be enemies, both real and imagined, ready to take what you have. Whether it is a competitor in business, an opponent in politics, a nation across a border, or a neighbor across a fence, enemies remain a possibility in human relationships. And where there are enemies, there is drama.
This kind of drama requires a person to allow the enemy to take up rent-free space in our heads. You have to be vigilant about enemies, because they plot destruction. Therefore, you have to look for the signs, all the time, whether they are there or not. Psalms 41 and 52 both speak of this kind of drama. There are enemies who love evil, ones who plan to heap destruction upon the righteous. But Psalm 41, before it laments about enemies, opens with a celebration of those who care for the poor. There is something different about them, and the Lord protects them.
Think of the difference: Those whose lives are oriented around the fear of enemies can only think about enemies. Those who consider the poor are not being threatened by anyone; they are giving away what could have been protected, and in doing so they identify with those in need rather than with the ones who might forcibly steal and destroy. The orientation of life changes from an orbit of fear to an orbit of love.
The writer of the book of Hebrews describes Jesus as sharing the same flesh and blood as the rest of the human race. This is an important concept in Christian faith, because we believe that in Jesus, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19). In some inexplicable way, God, in and through Jesus, shared our human existence. In Jesus, God fully identified with us in our fear, our poverty, our brokenness, and ultimately, in human suffering and death. This is not God lashing out in a rage at his enemies, but God near and at hand, understanding everything about our weaknesses and sharing them with us.
Fear is not only a visceral response, it is also an identity. It creates closed fists and high walls, with strategies to keep enemies at bay. But God doesn’t summon us to fear. We are summoned to order our lives around the One who identifies and cares for us in a way that is only glimpsed when we care for the poor. In all of our drama, it is we who are the poor, and it is God who opens his hand to us in the person of Jesus.
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. (Psalm 63:1-4)
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity. (Psalm 98:7-9)
The news about the massive earthquake in Japan is now into its third day. The death toll rises sickeningly and the whole world seems to be crying out in pain. Many churches today will bring that pain before God in prayer.
When a tragedy like this strikes, people don’t usually blame the earth. They might blame God or global warming or some other source outside of the actual event, but the earth is not typically the culprit. We expect the earth to do what it does, even when we recognize the human suffering that might result.
Psalm 63 is framed as a Psalm of David when he was in the wilderness. This was a man who had seen the glory and beauty of the Jewish Temple and had worshipped God in it. In his displacement he reflects on those experiences, recognizes his circumstances, and engages in worship. He is without the familiar surroundings and trappings of his faith community, and his soul thirsts. He affirms, however, that the love of God surpasses life itself, and so David worships.
It is difficult to worship God during a time of pain and loss. The questions of why? haunt us and we try to find meaning in the hard experiences of our lives. Some of those experiences of life are consequential; we humans often take actions that produce destructive results. But something like an earthquake is not one of those things. The earth is a dangerous place and when it does what it does, we often suffer.
The Bible repeatedly speaks of God’s love and care for the whole of creation. Yet, the creation itself (including human beings) is fractured and wounded. Jesus proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God, proclaiming and demonstrating the victory of God over all evil, yet God’s rule and reign is over an earth that is deeply damaged. The Bible maintains that God intends for a better day to come.
Psalm 98 describes the future coming of God’s judgment of the world, but not as a judgment of anger or condemnation. Instead, it is seen as a judgment of righteousness and equity. It is a judgment that sets all wrongs to right, healing all wounds and reorienting the entire created order around the love and care of God. In that expectation, the physical aspects of the earth—seas, expanses of water, soil, rocks, and even tectonic plates—will rejoice. In the expectation that God will put all things right, the world trembles in anticipation.
In our world we have no shortage of tragedy, both natural and self-inflicted. We who follow Jesus worship regardless of circumstances, trusting our today to God, and anticipating a tomorrow when God’s intentions for a new heaven and new earth come to pass.
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.” By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed. (Psalm 30:4-7)
In the Bible, faith and trust are not different things. For example, the word commonly used in the Greek New Testament that is usually translated as faith can just as appropriately be translated as trust. It’s easy to see them as related but different concepts; faith may be viewed as a way of thinking, something abstract and conceptual, while trust usually implies relationship.
I might say that I have faith and mean that I have a belief system established in my mind. It can be come a place of certainty, a place from which I cannot be moved. I can operate my life independently and self-assuredly with that kind of certainty. Trust, however, is a bit messier. In a relationship of trust I can’t call the shots—I have to rest in the integrity of the one I have trusted and prepare myself for an outcome that I can’t control.
In my Bible, Psalm 30 is described as a song or reading for the dedication of the Temple. In one sense it celebrates Israel’s protection from international enemies. In another, there is the recognition that an overblown sense of security is unstable and risky, because when circumstances suggest that God’s face is hidden, dismay is the result.
When I am feeling prosperous, I find it easy to forget about God. When I have enough money to buy my weekly groceries, I feel no need to pray, “Give us this day, our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). God’s face becomes hidden, but not because he is hiding from me. It’s because I’m busy looking at myself.
In my experience, I have been amazed at God’s trustworthiness, even when I have been absent and self-possessed. It is never sufficient for me to ramp up my belief system to somehow please God; my response to God comes in the confession that I have trusted in my prosperity rather than in God. I need to release my self-trust in order to trust in the faithfulness of God. The psalmist describes what happens in that turning to the trustworthiness of God:
You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you for ever. (Psalm 30:11-12)
O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would listen to his voice! (Psalm 95:6-7)
He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). (John 1:42)
The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Political drama and radio talk shows are examples of how mouths and ears become disconnected. In those contexts, there is much talking but very little listening. In general, the art of listening is a rare expression.
There have been many times in my postures of prayer and worship that I have informed God about issues of concern, or spoken back to him musical doctrines and descriptions of himself that may or may not be accurate. Then I get on with my business or go to lunch. I suspect that God has a high tolerance for this, since he knows how we human beings can be. I can easily be all mouth and no ears.
The psalmist calls us to the place of worship, but also pleads for listening. In the rest of the text he recounts Israel’s past failures in this regard and the consequences that came about because of their refusal to listen to God. Worship is described here as a receptive posture, a place of readiness, where ears trump mouths.
In the gospels, Peter is regularly portrayed as a brash, mouthy, lout. He has his good moments, but he is quick to speak and react, only to get reigned in later on. His first encounter with Jesus, however, required that he listen. In that moment of listening, Jesus changes his name from Simon to Peter. Jesus affirms that he knows who Peter is, but he describes in a name who Peter will become.
Jesus’ counsel about prayer in Matthew 6 seems to include brevity (although, his prayer in John 17 takes up a whole chapter). The Lord’s Prayer is fairly short, and in the prelude to the prayer Jesus speaks of the folly of heaping up “empty phrases.” I wonder if Jesus is advising us to use our mouths sparingly (after all, he says, our heavenly Father knows what we need before we ask), because the most significant part of our prayer and worship is listening.
I’m not particularly good at listening for the voice of God, but I’m working on it. It’s not that difficult, really. It just involves being quiet and attentive. There are no magic steps to listening, except to move into the posture of worship, and be quiet. The ears are there for a reason. We don’t have to do anything to them to make them work.
The only risk with listening to God is that he might tell us something that changes us, like the way Simon was changed to Peter. Most of us resist change, even from God. But the posture of worship is one of vulnerability, and resistance to change closes the ears and results in self-protection. To not allow God to speak change into our lives is to grasp a former identity without receiving the word about what we will be.
Listening to God is not a passive process. When God speaks, it usually comes with a summons to trust and follow him into unknown territory. But when God speaks, our response brings life to that good word.
For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:6-8)
Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb. Trust in the Lord, and do good; (Psalm 37:1-3a)
As much as we might like the idea of a personal relationship with Christ being the definition of being a Christian, it just isn’t, at least not in the way that we usually think. It is about us as persons, but as persons who comprise the people of God. Christianity isn’t about me to the exclusion of us.
That God would chose to have a people, and to do that out of love, challenges the idea that this enterprise is all about me. On top of that, God’s choosing of a people is about his plan of rescue for the whole world (see Genesis 12:1-3 for starters), and it breaks the idea that Christianity is something exclusive; that it sets this special people apart from everyone else so that we know the difference between the good guys and the bad guys.
Exclusivity breeds fear because there is always something to lose. There are standards, convictions, certainties, and predictable environments that are at risk if we don’t remain exclusive. It’s not that there aren’t real dangers in the world or that there aren’t people out there who have evil designs, but those aren’t usually the fears that define us. We can be defined by who God has called us to be, or we can be defined by what we fear losing.
The Psalmist tells us not to fret. That is a consistent call in the Bible—to not be afraid. The answer, we are told, is not found in hunkering down and protecting ourselves from everything that is not us, but rather in trust and doing good. We can’t trust in the things we are grasping—those things we fear losing—but we can trust in the Lord. And we can’t waste our time in shoring up the props of protection (which too often means hammering down our doctrines, labeling the heretics, railing against enemies both real and imagined, and demanding a better world that is too often defined by our political preferences than by the desires and intentions of God), but we can do good. We can be the people that God has chosen, to be loved by him, and to demonstrate his love to the world. That’s the kind of good we can do.
I must admit that I’d often like this whole thing to be accomplished between Jesus and me. I wouldn’t mind being part of us if everyone else would behave. Then I remember that all the brokenness of the church and the world is in me as well, whether in practice or just in potential. So there is no escaping the us of Christian faith. From the life we share in the embrace of God’s love, we trust in the Lord and do good.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
. . . steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord. (Psalm 32:10b)
It bothers me that I can relate to the Pharisee at least as often as I can relate to the tax-collector in Jesus’ story. Regarding others with contempt—even those who have violated trust or committed serious offenses—requires a trusting of the self that allows me to assure myself that I could never be like “other people.”
But I am.
In Jesus’ great sermon in Matthew chapter five, he makes the claim that people who harbor anger have something in common with murderers, and that those who entertain lust have something to share with adulterers: The same state of the heart. Jesus seems to cut to the heart, so to speak, of what is really at the center of human desire.
The path to greatness and the achievement of significance is found in self-trust, we are often told. There are enough books on reaching one’s potential, capitalizing on strengths, grasping the riches of the market, or even finding the secrets to capturing the riches of God. But Scripture doesn’t offer self-trust as a way forward for the people of God. The way forward is trust in God. One of the signs of trusting God is confession. In confession, we open ourselves to God, offering up our vulnerability and shoving aside the false protection that is self-trust. The psalmist sings,
While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. (32:3)
Self-trust is costly. Surrounding ourselves with a false self of protection and strength is corrosive to the heart. Opening ourselves to God, by contrast, brings life and the embrace of God’s love.
One of my confessions to God is that I am, indeed like other people—even like the worst of offenders. I have a heart that is capricious and selfish, and until I open myself to God, I run the risk of trusting in a self that is ultimately untrustworthy. And so I confess.
Along with St. Augustine, I can now declare,
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.