the stuff life is made of

The Old Testament is an amazing document, written by dozens of authors over a period of more than a thousand years, containing literature as diverse as civil codes and love songs. Its cast of personalities is equally diverse, from the humble and devoted Ruth, to the power-hungry and pathetic Saul, to the emotional and pleading Jeremiah, on and on; all of them deeply flawed and intensely human. Its style is minimalist and understated, earnest and intentional, poetic and beautiful.

Many people think that the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is mostly about rules that stuffy old men, and a stuffy old God, made up to ruin everyone’s good time. To the church’s detriment, too many Christians think and act in a way that supports this impression. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you read the Old Testament, you will find it is full to the brim of life, the stuff human life is made of, the good and the bad together. It is full of the God who is passionate about human beings and intensely involved in the life of his creation, loving good and hating all that is evil, all the sin that rots and destroys the good world he has made.

The Old Testament celebrates and endorses the raw stuff of human life when it is not tainted by sin’s perversion and instead expresses “shalom,” the fullness of peace God wants between himself, people, and all of creation.
Gideon built an altar to the LORD there and named it Yahweh-Shalom, which means “the LORD is peace.” Judges 6:34 (NLT)
“The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.” – Cornelius Plantinga

God created the physical world. He created sex and wants his people to enjoy intimacy with their spouses instead of ruining themselves with sexual sin (Proverbs 5:18-23). He uses sex as a picture of the love-relationship between Jesus and his people, calling the church the “Bride of Christ” (Ephesians 5:31-32). He created food and drink and wants his people to enjoy them without indulging in excess, which deadens their joy (Nehemiah 8:10). Jesus instituted bread and wine as the constant symbol of his selfless love and describes the coming world as a wedding feast (Revelation 19:9).

Some pervert these good things with carnal indulgence, which the church is well-known for rejecting. Others pervert them in another way, however: by forbidding the gifts of God with artificial regulations and rules. Paul said,

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. Colossians 2:20-23

Elsewhere he wrote,

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. 1 Timothy 4:4

One of the many reasons I love all the stories and poetry of the Old Testament is that they include all the elements of human life, “everything created by God,” giving our lives real dignity and validating our diverse experiences. They are spiritual, but – rather, therefore – concerned with this life. This list serves as just a small example:

  • Love and sex in marriage – Song of Songs
  • Family life and children – Genesis, Proverbs
  • Artistic creativity – Psalms
  • Intense sorrow and depression – Lamentations, Jeremiah, Psalms
  • Searching for meaning in life – Ecclesiastes
  • Friendship – Ruth
  • Work and leadership – Ezra, Nehemiah
  • Facing obstacles and opposition – 1 Samuel, Esther, Daniel
  • Suffering and oppression – Exodus, Micah, Amos
  • Questioning God – Job, Habakkuk, Psalms

The church ought not deny or belittle authentic human experience, ever. Christianity does not stifle; Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). A biblical view of the world gives life to, is inspired by, illuminates, and celebrates all the stuff life is made of. God gives redemption and raises our eyes to heaven so that we can be truly human in the very fullest sense of the word, for his glory, for our joy.

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pride and humility

In reality there is perhaps not one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself… For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility. -Benjamin Franklin

Pride. It’s what we notice first and hate most in other people, but notice last and defend most fiercely in ourselves. Pride is the chief spiritual sin from which all the others come because it dethrones God in our hearts, replacing love of God with love of self, glorification of God with glorification of self. Pride insists on its own way, listens only to voices that affirm what it wants to hear, feels entitled to things from others and God, baulks at submission, gets bored with compassion, loves only when its easy.

Want to get a grip on the nature of pride? Read Matthew chapter 23. In the margins of my Bible I have privately titled this chapter the “anti-pride chapter.” In it, Jesus blasts the pride of the scribes and Pharisees (i.e. the ultra religious people of his day). On the one hand it is a fun chapter to read because Jesus comes across as being so obviously superior to his petty adversaries. On the other hand, reading it is almost painful because of the intensity with which it exposes and condemns my false humility and religiosity, both of which are manifestations of the pride in my heart. There is no escaping it, if you’re honest with yourself. As Mr. Franklin noted, apart from Jesus and submission to him, pride rules our hearts exclusively.

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:5-7

The opposite of pride is humility. People often misunderstand humility, confusing it with distortions of the real thing. Humility is not self-deprecation, false modesty, an inferiority-complex, or being a doormat to whoever wants to take advantage. “It is not pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools,” as C. S. Lewis said. Stirring up false humility in this way simply serves to turn a person’s attention back to himself or herself, just in a more subtle way. On the contrary – real humility means, simply, self-forgetfulness.

If you want to see what humility looks like, read Philippians 2:1-11 and John 13:1-20. Note Paul’s wording in Philippians 2:3. He does not say “in humility count yourselves as less significant than others,” but rather, “in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” The focus is outward. Note also the reason for Jesus’ breathtaking humility in John 13:3 – “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper…” Jesus acted in humility and love in that instance and in every other because he knew his identity. He knew his relationship with the Father was certain and immovable; therefore he did not need to assert or exalt himself with other people. God was enough for him.

The same is true of us when we as Christians recognize who we are. We know, first, that we did not create ourselves; all our talents and abilities are gifts from God. Second, we know we are sinners who do not go a day without needing forgiveness. We know, third, that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are completely sufficient for saving us and there is nothing we can add or take away. When this head-knowledge begins to creep into our hearts, lives change. Real, healthy humility begins to take root.

Even in secular estimation, Jesus was a man of amazing humility. It did not make him passive or fearful – he spoke the truth boldly. He also served, boldly and constantly, outcasts and lawbreakers. His humility expressed itself in tangible acts of love and generosity. He did not live for the attention and praise of other people, but only for the pleasure and glory of God and for the joy of serving his Father.

It sounds backward, but God is good to let us fail or suffer if genuine humility results. It is so beautiful, and so free, to live humbly. In a life of humility there is freedom from those gnawing desires for attention, success, admiration, or whatever else, that make our lives so unnecessarily miserable and so perpetually sinful. There is frank and honest joy in the good things in life, whether or not we get the credit, and sadness in the sad things in life, whether or not they directly affect us. There is unobstructed worship of the King and love for people – and people always notice when they are being loved without an agenda, served without needing to be thanked. Humble love is so distinctively beautiful, and so incredibly rare, that it is impossible to fake.

repent, believe, repeat

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:15

The Bible’s criteria for salvation are beautifully simple: repent, and believe. No mystic rituals, no secret info, no complex systems of moral progression. Simply: turn away from sin, toward God, and trust in Jesus, and what he has done, as your salvation. Repentance and faith are in fact two sides of the same coin, and one does not come without the other.

Repentance means reorienting one’s life, from sin to righteousness, darkness to light, life to death, idols to the living God.  Jesus told Paul at the beginning of Paul’s ministry, “I have appeared to you for this purpose… to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18).

Repentance was the major theme of the Old Testament prophets. For centuries, they pleaded with the people: repent! Your sin is evil in God’s eyes! Do not provoke him any longer. Come back to the God who loves you; humble yourselves and he will receive you. Repent and find life. “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7).

Their audiences, however, did not often listen. Israel excelled in showy religion and superficial repentance, imitating all the outward signs without any of the inner change. God said, “…this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me…” (Isaiah 29:13) Israel’s repentance was fake because they did not often take either the holiness of God, or the kindness of God, to heart.

Recognizing God’s holiness motivates repentance because it shows a person the gravity of their sin and the terribleness of God’s reaction against it. The prophets threatened the judgment of God in order to turn the Israelites back to the covenant they had made with him, drilling into their heads: God hates your corruption, injustice, irreverence, and complacency. If you do not repent, he will judge you for your sin, mightily and terribly. Look at the second chapter of Joel as an example. The first eleven verses outline Joel’s wake up call to Israel, predicting the impending judgment of God.

The prophets, and all the biblical authors, understood that something even more fundamental than the fear of God’s judgment motivates heart-level repentance, however. Paul said in Romans 2:4, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” The following twenty-one verses of Joel 2 describe the kindness of God, beginning with a character description: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” The most stunning display of God’s kindness is at the cross, the place at which the man who is God died for his enemies (Romans 5:6-11). The message of that story brings real change – and it really starts to mean something when the first point, about God’s holiness, is properly grasped.

Faith is the partner of repentance. Faith means trusting in something – Someone – outside oneself for rescue and change. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith looks out and up for forgiveness purchased by another person’s sacrifice and righteousness earned by another person’s effort – that other person being Jesus Christ. “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Faith does not trust itself. It doesn’t trust its own performance or effort. Faith rests – really rests – in the completed work of Jesus the Savior.

Faith learns from repentance the pervasive presence of sin in the heart and the total inadequacy of “good” deeds and “good” attitudes. Much of repentance is seeing sin for what it is, dragging it out of foggy darkness into penetrating daylight (Ephesians 5:6-14). That knowledge, though, if not coupled with faith which finds its security in Jesus alone, is devastating. Knowledge of our sin is always meant, without fail, to bring us back to simple gratitude for and wonder at the cross of Christ.

Conversion means: repent, believe. Christians too often forget that the rest of their lives follow the same pattern: repent, believe, repent, believe, repeat, repeat, repeat.

As the Holy Spirit opens a person’s spiritual eyes to their own sin more and more, that person will learn to repent weekly, daily, hourly. Life as a Christian is constant war against sin (complacency and apathy so often being the very sins in need of battle and repentance, of course). Turning, re-turning, re-turning from sin, meanwhile always resting, always secure, always satisfied, in the complete sufficiency of Jesus and his cross. That’s your life, Christian. There is so much grace in it. God does not give up on us. Until death or Christ’s return, the battle does not stop – but then neither does the rest.

with all your heart and mind

Intellect versus emotions. An eternal battle, it seems.

Christianity at its core is a reasonable worldview based on historical events. The life, death, and especially the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth either happened or did not happen. If you accept that they happened, you must accept it all: God, the Bible, creation, life after death, etc.

If any person wants to know the truth about God, the world, and themselves, there is a book – the Bible – which makes truth claims, and it contains the story of a man – Jesus – who made the most audacious truth claims in history. Such a person may read the book, meet the man, and investigate the claims of truth for themselves. Thousands of people have written thousands of books precisely on the subject of Christianity’s rationality, the argument for which, if anyone cares to look, is extremely strong.

Christianity engages the mind. God did not leave things primarily up to our feelings, as flighty as they are. Most, perhaps all, other systems of “spirituality,” as well as the reigning system of thought called post-modernism, downplay the mind. “Tune in, turn on, drop out”; “empty your mind”; “trust the prophet and don’t ask questions.” Manipulation is easy when intellect is unimportant, and feeling good is easy when feeling good is all that matters.

Any Christian who tends to cherish “logos” above “pathos” is probably nodding their head in agreement at the above paragraphs. “You tell ‘em,” such a person might be thinking. “Touchy-feely people who let their emotions control them need to get rational already.”

Emotions make a great deal of people in our culture very uncomfortable. Many parents never form real relationships with their kids in a lifetime because the idea of sharing their feelings makes them squirm in their seats. Many other parents damage their relationships with their kids because they pile the mess of their own emotional lives into the laps of their confused children. The point is that striking a balance between unthinking emotionalism and unfeeling intellectualism is difficult, and erring too far on either side is equally destructive.

Unfeeling intellectualism is first of all proud. It speaks harshly, critically, and condescendingly, with such zeal for truth that mercy is ignored. It cannot sympathize with either suffering or joyful people, because it views emotions as weak. People become objects to debate. Scripture becomes something with which to beat people over the head. Input may be accepted from only the tiniest group of people, who must already subscribe to its own rigid system of belief. All others may be ridiculed.

Unthinking emotionalism, meanwhile, is foolish, unstable, and self-absorbed. It picks and chooses what it wants to believe, or what the charismatic leader wants it to believe, setting itself up as the authority over God. Above all else it wants to feel good, seeking spiritual experiences and highs, basing its entire view of God on such experiences. Faith lasts only as long as the feeling lasts. Concern for others is directly proportional to the gratitude and admiration received in return. Love for enemies or ungrateful people is never attempted.

I recognize myself in each of these descriptions. Do you?

Jesus, our Lord and our example, was a stunningly emotional man. He felt compassion (Matthew 9:36, Luke 7:13), indignation (Matthew 23:13-15), anger (John 2:15), joy (Luke 10:21), love (John 15:9), anguish (Luke 22:44). These verses, of course, are only a small sample. Looking at Jesus teaches us how to feel, purely, in a way that magnifies God and does real good for others.

Looking at him teaches us how to think in that way, too. He said, “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I came into the world – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37). He loved truth and hated lies. He engaged the leaders and thinkers of his day on technical issues of the law, not for the sake of debate, but for the sake of representing God accurately. He based his commitment to the Father and to his work of salvation not on a fleeting feeling or for the purpose of personal fulfillment – everyone he loved abandoned him, God the Father himself abandoned him while he hung on the cross – but on his steady, unshakable love for sinful people.

Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart… and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Loving God is not purely a head thing; it’s not purely a heart thing. It is a beautiful combination of both. God asks for nothing less than our whole selves; head, heart, and all.