“Abba! Father!”

I wrote the following several years ago and posted it as a “note” on Facebook.com Though I had nearly forgotten about writing this short reflection, the concept has remained precious to me for years. I republish it now in the hope that it will bless you in a similar way.

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. Romans 8:15-17

I recently learned that “abba” in Aramaic means something close to “papa” or “daddy.” This has got me thinking.

You call your dad “father” when you go off to war, when you come home blushing, when you’re being punished, and when you’re being adult. You call him father as you march away, avoid his eyes, or ask for his help, when things are serious and grown up.

We call God “Father” when we pray, repent, beg, doubt, and suffer, when we are being tested or tempted, and when we are alone. We call him Father in his holiness and enormity, and in our own guilt and helplessness. We call him father with our heads bowed.

But he also invites us to approach him as intimates, as his children, quietly confidant in his powerful good work. He lets Paul – a very mature, Roman, Jewish, man – call him abba, papa, daddy. I haven’t even called my own dad “daddy” since I was a little kid, and he is much less intimidating than God.

“His compassions never fail, they are new every morning.”

God delights with a simple joy in his own creation. Like a child admiring his own handiwork, he has named every star; he wants new songs and shouts of joy. As father he is strong and mighty; as daddy he is gentle and tender. As father he humbles us and breaks our proud hearts; as daddy he lifts us up high, then rejoices with us in our still small triumphs. God the Father is our fortress in the battle. God the Daddy welcomes us back once the battle is won.

That God runs to me even as I wallow in my own doubt and trepidation, slaughters a fatted calf at a feast in my honor, puts his ring on my finger, and makes me alive again.

But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.” Lamentations 3:19-24

it’s a relationship

Yes. I first saw the slogan “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” on a bumper sticker…

To realize the dramatic difference between God as an idea, or an ideal, and God as a Person, however, is life-changing. To discover Christianity as, above all, a relationship with this God, the living God, and not as a system – of morality or even belief – is staggering. It’s like the difference of knowing things about someone and knowing the person intimately, personally. The kingdom of heaven really is like finding a treasure in a field.

And, as in the parable, once you discover the treasure, it becomes worth it to give up all you have to make the treasure your own.

Everything Christians do is, in the end, a quest for deeper intimacy with this God. Scripture teaches us of his character, of what matters to him, of how to think of him and approach him. Prayer is the means by which we speak to and entreat him. Communion is just that: communion – intimate, spiritual communication – with God by participating in the Son’s death through the physical presentations of his blood and body, the wine and bread. Joining a local church means joining up with other people on the same quest for the purpose of helping each other “press on to know the Lord.”

Other things Christians do as they progress in their understanding of the faith, such as: researching, sorting out, and taking sides on thorny doctrinal issues; cultivating habits of personal holiness, discipline, and devotion, such as fasting and memorizing scripture; serving and exhorting other people with greater self-abandonment; teaching, leading, and counseling; recognizing and confessing sin more specifically and more often; all these things and many others ultimately serve to advance the one underlying purpose of the Christian life: to deepen and more fully express the relationship between human and Creator, child and Father, sheep and Shepherd, subject and Author of salvation.

Lose sight of the end, and the means become empty. Worse, they become idolatrous, replacing the living God with ritualized observances, meaningless exercises, and mere habits of lifestyle. “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.”

Christians treasure the Bible’s teaching that Jesus Christ, the Man who is God, is the clearest revelation of who God is. He is the “exact representation of God’s being” (Hebrews 1:3). In him, we see God manifested and played out in our grimy, physical, human world.

19th century preacher C. H. Spurgeon said this:

Our faith is a person; the gospel that we have to preach is a person; and go wherever we may, we have something solid and tangible to preach, for our gospel is a person. If you had asked the twelve Apostles in their day, ‘What do you believe in?’ they would not have stopped to go round about with a long sermon, but they would have pointed to their Master and they would have said, ‘We believe him.’ ‘But what are your doctrines?’ ‘There they stand incarnate.’ ‘But what is your practice?’ ‘There stands our practice. He is our example.’ ‘What then do you believe?’ Hear the glorious answer of the Apostle Paul, ‘We preach Christ crucified.’ Our creed, our body of divinity, our whole theology is summed up in the person of Christ Jesus.

-C. H. Spurgeon, in Lectures Delivered before the Young Men’s Christian Association in Exeter Hall 1858-1859 

John said this:

Indeed, our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 1 John 1:3

Paul said this:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Philippians 3:8

The Lord Jesus himself prayed this:

This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. John 17:3

Many writers and thinkers have long pointed out that the most effective people on earth – horizontally – are those most caught up with heaven – vertically. There is absolutely nothing like encountering a person whose relationship with God is so profound and extensive that every thing they do and say smells of him. I remember a handful of momentary introductions with people like that, which, years later, I still think about and long to imitate. “God, help me to begin to begin.” Abandonment to God is the single most crucial element of any person’s spiritual growth, any ministry, any church’s effectiveness within its community.

Why? Because our faith is a Person. Therefore, our life is a relationship.

the jealous God

You shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. Exodus 34:14

“Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” wrote Solomon, speaking of the human sin of covetousness, the “green-eyed monster” (Proverbs 27:4). Such is the jealousy that contributes to such a large percentage of murders each year – literally as well as in the sense of heart-level murder (Matthew 5:21-22). Jealousy-fueled hatred is ugly, obsessive, and alienating. And it is absurdly proud.

Yet, God tells Moses in Exodus 34 that his very name is “Jealous.” Throughout the Pentateuch and the rest of the Bible, God says the reason he hates idolatry is because he is a jealous God (e.g. Deut 4:23-24, Ezek 8:3-5, 1 Cor 10:21-22). God’s jealousy is worlds different from our self-obsessed covetousness. The jealousy of God is a holy zeal to establish and protect the love-relationship between himself and his people. It is analogous to the jealousy of a wife for the husband she loves, which adultery so deeply and penetratingly wounds. A marriage which adultery does not affect is a sham, and loveless.

The companion of God’s jealousy is not hatred, but love, a love that is righteous and relentless. If you read the Old Testament, you cannot help but notice that the biblical God is intensely concerned, and intimately involved, with the lives of the humans he has made. He cares; about our lives, our suffering, our actions (whether good or evil), and most fundamentally, how our hearts are related to himself. He sends plagues, he parts seas, he creates nations, he destroys nations, he decrees laws about what animals to eat and what clothes to wear, he rains down fire, he rescues the poor from their oppressors, he whispers in the storm, because he is a jealous God.

The fact that he knows, and passionately cares about, the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts is, on the one hand, terrifying. He knows as no one else does the darkest corners of my depravity. He sees how much I love to hate, how little I love to trust him, how little I thank him. He sees my excuses. He sees the ridiculous struggle I go through to carry out even the most insignificant acts of selflessness, the struggle to which all others are blind. He knows, and he cares, and he hates my sin with ferocity. The hatred I am learning to feel toward my sin pales in comparison to the reaction of his holy nature against it. He is a jealous God, jealous for his own glory, jealous for my worship. My spiritual adultery against my Creator is uglier than the wickedest affair, the most flagrant betrayal. (If you want to know what it’s like, see, for example, Ezekiel 16.)

God’s jealousy scares me, because I know how far short I fall. It also makes me cry, and sing, and hardly know what to do with myself, when I think of how he loves me. God is jealous for me. God is the prodigal son’s father in Luke 15, running out to me, embracing me, kissing me, hardly able to express his joy at having me home. He is the prostitute’s husband in Hosea 2, romancing me all over again, betrothing me to himself in tenderness, in love determined to win me back. He is, most of all, the man on the cross, dying in torment, declaring in paradoxical victory, “It is finished.” My sin, atoned; my debt, paid in full; my inheritance, secured forever.

He is a jealous God. He is jealous for his glory, tolerating no rivals, going to every length imaginable to protect the relationship between himself and his creation, avenging himself in justice when that relationship is violated. He is jealous for you, whoever you are, whatever you have done, for “he yearns jealously over the spirit he has made to dwell in us” (James 4:5 ESV). He wants you to be close to him, to experience his mercy, to be who you are and who you are meant to be by living in a right relationship to him by faith.

But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. Acts 20:24

The counterpart of God’s jealousy in us is zeal: zeal for God’s glory, passion to show his love to other people. Paul had it – see above. Jesus never lived a moment without it – his disciples recognized the scripture “zeal for your house will consume me” as describing him perfectly (John 2:17). He said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). If any of us understands God’s jealousy in any sense whatever, zeal for him simply becomes the appropriate response. Lukewarm people, lukewarm churches, respectable though they may be, are inadequate for a God like this one. He is too amazing, his gospel too good, to be an afterthought, or anything other than the goal and glory of our lives.

thirsty souls and the God who satisfies

Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David. Isaiah 55:1-3

Isaiah 55 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. God is a stunningly beautiful poet.

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Salvation and relationship to the living God are completely free. No one can pay in willpower, good attitude, or busyness. Likewise, no one who comes is ever disqualified, for “though your sins are like scarlet, they will be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18). Grace cannot be earned. It cannot be earned, it cannot be earned, it cannot be earned. The invitation is to simply surrender.

“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” How many people do I know who are doing everything they can, using everything in themselves, to find some kind of happiness and peace in this world; young people looking for something to live for, old people looking for some reason to keep going. How many people do I know who want nothing more in life but to be loved by somebody, anybody; who commit crimes and destroy relationships in futile attempts to choke out love from their parents or friends; who hide behind false personalities, desperately hoping for someone to break in, inwardly crippled by the overwhelming fear that no one ever will; who exert every ounce of their willpower trying to live up to human-imposed religion, terrified they will never please God, empty inside because of broken promises. How many people do I know? How many people do you know? Are you one of them?

I lived like that completely, not long ago. Four years ago, Jesus broke through to me. For four years I have thanked God for the difference between that life and this one. For four years I have grown each year and each day in love for and satisfaction in the God who broke into this world in the person of Jesus Christ. I promise you, there is a different way to live than the life of desperation and emptiness. There is a life of satisfaction and joy and peace, because there is a God who offers himself to you, freely. That God says, “Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.”

While on this earth, Jesus called himself “living water” (John 4:10) and “the bread of life” (John 6:35). “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day,” he said (John 6:53-54). Graphic, isn’t it? He intended it to be. He wants your attention.

Jesus is the “food” for our hungry souls of which Isaiah spoke. He is what every empty, loveless life is missing. He is the promised son and Lord of David, the Messiah, the hope of nations, the Savior of screwed up people. He wants nothing to do with fakers who pretend they are all right or hypocrites who condemn others without feeling their own shame. No, he wants broken people who put their “money” away and drink the “water” of his grace, grace which he purchased once and for all with the precious payment of his own life, sacrificed on his cross.

God ends the Bible, and I will end this post, with a final plea for you to consider Jesus and the life to which he invites you. “The Spirit” – of God – “and the Bride” – that is, the universal, invisibly united church – “say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17).

I Wish I Had The Metaphors

I wish I had the metaphors to
lend description to the love of God.
“A father throws his own son in front of a train…”
What an inadequate thought. You threw
him from heaven to earth – no.
More, he jumped.

I wish I could create a painting
that could capture the nature of his rescue mission.
It would need much red, white, and gold,
for the blood, the purity, and glory.
What pale colors they are, compared to his story.
Just flat colors.

I do not understand your choice of
loving us, Father. Why send him in the likeness
of our wicked brutal flesh? My God! What a wretch
I am, my heart and flesh at war within me.
In awe I am quiet, like a weaned child
in your arms.

I give up on trying to explain
your love. Surely it is surprising
when I feel the murder in my mind, the sloth in my soul.
Oh my God, had the contract not been signed in blood,
I could not believe it. But there it is, and now,
there I rest.

compartmentalizing God

In my personal devotions, I am currently in the Old Testament book of Hosea. It’s one of my favorites. I love it because in it, God is so passionate about capturing his people’s hearts. He addresses Israel as a wounded husband whose wife plays the part of a whore by chasing after other “lovers” – i.e., other gods and the things of this world. He does everything he can – pleads, promises, threatens, woos, thunders, mourns – to get Israel’s attention back on him. The God of Hosea, and of the whole Bible, never submits to being put in a box, never resigns himself to the sidelines, never rests content as one among many (whether among ancient pagan deities or the equally idolatrous modern equivalents of comfort, doing what we want with “our” time, other people’s respect, etc.). And do we really believe that he should?

We “compartmentalize” God all the time. For me, it often goes something like this: “God is relevant to what I pray about and to what happens after I die, but not to how I spend or save my money. Or to how I treat my parents. Or to my attitude when I get up in the morning. Or to how I drive, what standard of living I live at, my choice of college major, or…” On and on. Fill in the blanks for yourself.

The lie we believe is that we can create a “religion” compartment in our lives, into which God fits quite nicely, and call it satisfactory. We try to “fit” God into our lives instead of fitting our lives into him. The assumptions behind this compartmentalizing attitude can be basically summed up with the title of a J. B. Phillips book I read last year: “Your God Is Too Small.”

Phillips discusses some of the “too small gods” that Christians attempt to worship, such as: the resident policeman; the parental hangover; the grand old man; the meek-and-mild; the managing director; the pale Galilean; the impersonal force. Sometimes God’s holiness gets minimized, leaving him as a friendly, cosmic grandfather-type who just wants people to be happy. Other times his grace is ignored and he becomes something like the cosmic projection of an impossible-to-please, emotionally distant human father. In every way these conceptions of God are lies. The holy, infinite, active, personal, Lover-God of the Bible does not resemble them at all.

God is “above the earth and heavens;” he is “over all the nations” (Psalm 113:4, 99:2, 148:13, and many more). He is beyond the vastest expanses of the universe. He is the king of and provider for every creature that has ever walked, crawled, swum, grown, or breathed on the earth. He knows the full personalities of all people, and he understands every facet of who they, and you, are. His glory is inexpressible and his character is irrepressible. He is a consuming fire, a thundering lightning storm, brighter than the brightest star, deeper than the deepest ocean; he exhausts every metaphor. How else can we respond to him but to join with the psalmist in saying, “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised” (Psalm 96:4)?

Stop limiting God, and thereby limiting your life with him. Refuse to believe the lies of American culture and your own biased take on things, both of which are so often based on inaccurate, unquestioned assumptions. Look up quietly at the stars on a dark night, embrace your own smallness, and begin to understand the greatness of our God. His creation, his word, and his Son declare him to be so big, so glorious, so much more solid and powerful than us, that the only thing for it is to bow down in worship.

The Israelites in Hosea’s day viewed Yahweh, the true God, as just another deity among many, who, like all the others, would be easily appeased with the religified offering of some dead animals (cf. Psalm 50). We too expect God to be appeased with a nice show of religion, an average-type level of commitment, a half-hearted spiritual life. Thank God we are saved by none of these things, but only by the cross of Jesus; thank him that because of the cross he does not hold our complacency against us. With him, there is inexhaustible forgiveness! Really, truly, God is good.

Do you understand that he demands total allegiance in all things and in every way? He is a “jealous God.” He loves you as a husband loves his wife, yet so much more than any man has ever loved a woman. He loves you as a father loves his firstborn son, yet so much more than any parent has ever loved their child. He is the great Lover, the eternal Giver. His passion concerning you is that he himself will be your beloved, your sole refuge and greatest joy, your closest friend, your one and only. He wants deep, uncompromised intimacy with you. What was the purpose for which he bought us back with his blood? To “dwell among us.” To be, he himself, our God. How breathtaking – we are so foolish and blind to settle for anything less than all of himself.

Allow God to begin breaking out of the compartments you put him into, and witness the changes in how you live. Cling to the cross as your only hope for bringing you close to this God “above the universe,” as your sole salvation, as your greatest proof of the never-running-out love of God. Live in awe, for our God is great; live with confidence, for our God is good.

Who among the gods is like you, LORD?
Who is like you—
majestic in holiness,
awesome in glory,
working wonders? Exodus 15:11

For your Maker is your husband,
the LORD of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called. Isaiah 54:5

But with you there is forgiveness;
therefore you are feared. Psalm 130:4

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. Revelation 21:3

the gospel

gospel = good news that brings great joy

There is no other place to start than with the gospel. The gospel is the central message of Christianity and the grand theme of the Bible. It is the starting place and ending place of the whole Christian life. It’s a story, and it begins with God…

Get a bigger idea of God than the one that you have. God exists: he is completely self-sufficient, independent, perfect, pure, and eternal. He exists in an eternal fellowship of three persons in one essence, whom we call Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. John 5:26

As for God, his way is perfect: the LORD’s word is flawless. Psalm 18:30

Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor? Isaiah 40:13

God created the universe out of nothing, from the vastest galaxy to the protons and electrons of the smallest atom. He created spirits and a spiritual world. He created the earth and everything that lives on it. He created all these things for his own glory and purposes, and for the love and joy of his creation. At the pinnacle of his creation on earth he created humans to “bear his image” (represent his qualities; hold in themselves a reflection of who God is) and to rule the earth: not autonomously, but in everything dependent on God; loving him, praising him, loving and helping each other, and willingly submitting their wills to his.

You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you. Nehemiah 9:6

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27

Humanity rebelled, and has continued to rebel to this day. Humanity’s rebellion against God, called sin, is an exchange of the worship of God for the worship of self and things God has created. God hates it, for it is a perversion and distortion of what he has made. Its results are suffering, misery, evil, and, ultimately, death and the holy wrath of God.

They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Romans 1:25

All humans participate in this rebellion. Not just occasionally, when they lie or steal, but constantly, whenever they fail to worship God with everything in them, or when they love themselves more than other people. All humanity has turned away from God and gone their own way, and as a result, the world is evil, violent, self-serving, and corrupt. All of us have rejected God and pretended we were gods instead. And all of us deserve nothing other than his anger and judgment.

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. Ephesians 2:1-3

[God,] your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Habakkuk 1:13

It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Hebrews 10:31

Now, God – eternal, independent, all-powerful, self-existent, glorious – did not leave it at that. He never planned to leave it at that. In all love, in all kindness, in unimaginable grace, God the Son entered time and space as a man, a real man. He was conceived miraculously, was born naturally, lived sinlessly, was murdered unjustly, and was resurrected to life again after three days. His name was Jesus, which means “God saves.”

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14

Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. Acts 2:22-24

Through Jesus and only through him, reconciliation to God and freedom from sin and death are freely available. He lived perfectly so that those who believe can be credited before God with his perfect record. He died on a cross so that their debt to God can be paid for and their sins forgiven by his own taking on of the wrath of God. He rose from the dead because death could not hold him. God accepted his sacrifice on our behalf and promises the same kind of resurrection life to all who believe.

He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. Colossians 2:13-14

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” John 11:25-26

Through Jesus, the image of God in a person, once broken and distorted by sin, is restored. Through Jesus, sinful humans are recreated into what we were always meant to be. Through Jesus, the judgment of God is turned away and the love of God is lavished on us. Through Jesus, the unapproachable Deity becomes freely accessible; we are adopted into his family. Through Jesus, the Holy Spirit of God lives in us and changes us. Through Jesus come peace, joy, hope, freedom, value, and meaning. Through him comes true, indestructible life. He is the answer to our need, and the purpose of our lives. His love is the most incredible, truest reality in the whole world.

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 2 Corinthians 5:14-17

In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. Ephesians 3:12

It is through faith – belief and trust in what Jesus has done – that any person receives this free gift of God called redemption. No one can earn it; any good thing a person does is merely what they ought to have been doing all along. And even the good things we do outside faith are distorted by wrong motives and self-love. If you think God will save you from judgment because you are “good enough” or because you try to love him, understand that you not good enough and that you hardly love him. Instead, understand, know, and believe that Jesus is in all ways good enough and that he has loved you first.

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:9-10

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mark 1:15