To see him

January 29, 2011 2 comments

I realized the other day that I’ve spent a good amount of time, probably far too much time, praying about myself: praying that God would make me a better person. I see what I am like, repent of this, and I ask God to change it. This is all well and good, probably something I should be doing. Except that, so very often it does not work. So often, I do not find myself becoming a better person. And I think I know part of the reason for this. Maybe the whole reason. I ask with the wrong intentions. The reason is that I want to be good in order to feel good about myself, rather than to know God. And that, my friends, is the deepest, most entrenched sin in the human heart. Adam desired the knowledge of good and evil, yet hid himself from God.

Oh I have certainly asked: God show yourself to me, let me see you, so that I can worship you better, love you better. But notice the conditional: “so that I…” I want to have fellowship with God so that I can be a holy person; I want to know him because I have a desire to be the sort of person that knows him. Have I ever asked God to be present to me simply because I actually want to see him, simply because he is good and worth seeing, and not because of some result that it will produce in me? That is the fundamental question: do I, fundamentally, want to be a certain way or do I, fundamentally, want to know the presence of the living God? This is the question that the good news of Jesus addresses, the Jesus who says:

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.

It is so subtle for us, so difficult for us to grasp, how being good does not make us right with God, but rather (and only) that being right with God, by beholding his precious Son, will make us good. And the point, really, is not to become good, but is to behold him, to know and accept him. I’ve heard a hundred sermons that make this point; I believe the entire sermon series at church right now, about the book of Galatians, is basically about this point. But it still escapes me. The beautiful thing is, though, that his mercy is still there, his mercy is ever new. The unconditional love of our great king really is unconditional; the only conditions are the ones we invent for ourselves–and when we do we cut ourselves off from being able to see what he is really like.

Jesus Christ is mercy incarnate, and love incarnate. It is a beautiful and awesome thing that we need do nothing; it is freedom to know that he has paid the way, that the journey is a free ride. We, who trust in Christ, need not worry about being good. Positively, please do not worry about that. In fact, do not worry about anything at all. Rather focus your gaze on our great King; he will take care of the rest.

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Backwards cause and effect

December 22, 2010 2 comments

I was watching a children’s program the other day. It was an educational program, I believe–the segment I was watching was attempting to teach kids about the notion of “elasticity.” This is a notion in physics that describes how various different materials react to collisions. Essentially, bouncy things (like basketballs) are said to have high elasticity, whereas un-bouncy things, like grapefruits, have low elasticity. Something interesting happened as this concept was being described by the narrator, as he showed various examples, something that I think speaks well to how our society understands science. I don’t remember what the exact objects were, in his examples, but let’s pretend they were basketballs and grapefruits.

First we are shown a clip of a grapefruit being dropped. The narrator said “this grapefruit doesn’t bounce much, because a grapefruit has low elasticity.” Then we are shown a clip of a basketball being dropped. The narrator says “this basketball bounces almost to the point at where it was dropped from. This is because a basketball has high elasticity.” The point was then hammered home with a few more similar demonstrations.

As you might expect, I have a philosophical objection to how things are being phrased here. My basic objection is that the concept that is being used to describe reality is being given a metaphysical status greater than the actual reality itself. They have things backwards. The ball does not bounce high because it has high elasticity, but rather it is said to have high elasticity because it bounces high. The more general problem is that we talk about scientific concepts that describe nature as if they determine nature. We act as if our description caused nature.

Of course, this is difficult philosophical territory. But suppose we simply chose a different words to say essentially the same thing. Suppose we said, as a child would say, “the basketball bounces high because a basketball has lots of bounciness.” This is a cute remark, the kind of endearingly tautological sort of remark that little kids are prone to make. No one would argue that a child who said such a thing had some deep understanding of the nature of reality. Rather, we’d say that the child came up with a word for what he saw the object doing, and turned it into a substance. He made a noun out of a verb.

Now, I propose that we lay aside for now the amazing ability of science to predict certain sorts of events and patterns in nature, and just consider science metaphysically. I ask you to consider whether not science, in its purely metaphysical content–that is, in its ability to tell us what things really are–has never really been much more than something like this practice of the child, of giving a name to what he saw. And I think this takes nothing away from science; rather it liberates it from the oppressive task of having to deliver absolute truth.

Ah, but you might protest, the child and the scientist are different. There is a deeper concept at work in the scientists mind than in that of the child. He knows about molecules and thermodynamics and the internal chemical structure of the object–the concept of “elasticity” is a lot deeper, a lot more general, than you are giving it credit for. It says things about the object beyond simply how high it bounces. It has a precise mathematical formulation. This is true, and important, but my point remains. The deeper level of abstraction of the physicist, and the use of advanced mathematics in his reasoning, does not make things fundamentally different from a metaphysical standpoint. Rather, it conceals the error. Thus I had to state my point in the terms I did, in order to make it clear that there is an issue here. The issue is taking something that arises in language and thought, and treating it like a fundamental reality.

This is how we are taught science as children; it is how we are gradually sold a false philosophy without the chance to challenge it. If the child does not know about molecules and thermodynamics and internal chemical structures, then why are we telling him about elasticity? What is the point of introducing a concept that cannot be more meaningful to the child than what he is already able to conjure up via his own imagination? All this does is create in his mind the idea that there is some sort of deep reality behind the concept. Further it begins the lifelong process of selling his mind the concept that “the scientists”–who barely exist at all except in the imagination of educators and media personalities–who are the imagined priesthood of the modern religion of science, have access to truth on a more basic level than the rest of us.

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December 20, 2010 Leave a comment

There are moments in life when I feel such great joy that I am overwhelmed–especially recently. And I promised myself that, one of these times, I’d write about it, which I am doing now.

Somehow I managed to go through a good portion of my life without believing that true happiness is possible. When I was found by my beautiful Savior Jesus Christ, I knew joy then, and that joy was mostly based in hope: hope for a redeemed heart, a heart at peace with God, a heart that dwells in his love and is no longer oppressed by evil. I was given glimpses of what the love of God brings to the human heart, and that is a beautiful thing, and I believed God and his promise for me to deliver that. But there has always nagged in the back of my head the sense that the true release is yet to come; yes I hope for the kingdom of God, but can I really be happy now?

I don’t want to ask that question in the wrong way. I don’t want to ask if I can have “my best life now,” as it is falsely offered in various corruptions of Christianity. We are destined for suffering, and being happy isn’t the most important thing; it is not what we should seek. We should “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness…” That is true. But also “…and all these things will be added unto you.”

What I want to express is this: God has blessed me, enormously. I am actually grateful to be alive now; I knew before that I ought to be grateful for this, but in truth I wasn’t. And, not only that, I wished I were grateful for the promises of God to me, for the new heavens and the new earth, for eternal fellowship with him. I wished that I were, but I wasn’t, so much of the time. I didn’t feel it; I believed, but something in my heart always held back.

I believe God has broken this barrier by showing me true joy from his own hand. But my heart is still inclined this way, inclined to trample God’s good gifts, to forget them. And it makes me sad to know this, to know that in a few days, in maybe a few hours, I might, like stubborn Israel, forget the works of God and turn again to myself, to become cynical, to see all his work in a different light, to submit to fear and worry and self-concern, and complain about what I don’t have. Pray for me, that I’d remember God’s blessing, that he’d show me his grace even as I forget his love.

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The Path to Misery

December 6, 2010 1 comment

“Oh, come, O Key of David, come,
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!”

The path to misery is selfishness. We often think of selfishness as an outward thing–a selfish person treads on others, and will hurt others for personal gain. And for some that is undoubtedly true. But for an introvert like me, selfishness can be more of an internal preoccupation, a self-obsession that blocks my concern for others and chokes my ability to love my neighbor. I wonder how much of my time is spent thinking about two or three of my favorite worries, devoting mental energy to hypothetical line of reasoning that serves no end, that benefits no-one, including myself. For an introvert, selfishness can often take the form of an endless, self-concerned internal monologue.

Right now (and much of the time), that monologue concerns the future; the decisions I have to make, the circumstances that might occur, and what those mean for my future. This monologue will cause me to forget the basic fact that God is sovereign and the only real harm that can really befall me will come from my own sinning. And even that, Christ has paid for.

What the tempter affects, in me at least, during these sessions of self-concern, is impressions. I have every reason to be happy, and no reason right now to fear or doubt. But my flesh, and the kingdom of darkness, will destroy a completely beautiful thing simply by creating a worrisome feeling, which the mind then latches onto, deciding that it must pursue an endless internal line of questions, a vague and undirected attempt to resolve the worry by thinking about it. This sort of worry has no living root, it has no purpose; frankly, it is sent from hell to destroy faith and joy.

The tempter will make you feel as if something is awfully wrong, but he will not tell you what it is. Goodness is simple, it is not hard to see. Well, perhaps it is hard to see. But it is not a mystery how to be blessed, how to make things alright, how to have nothing to fear. Trust in Christ. God is present with us, and for those who trust in Christ, there is nothing to fear. The word of Christ is joy and life, it is clarity. Let us listen to him.

Why do I worry? I worry because I am selfish, because I want a plan that works out in the end, in a way that I can see, in a way that I can control. And I want to deal with things according to my own resources: my own strength, courage, and wisdom. I cannot simply trust God, behold the beauty and goodness that is before me, or even sometimes the ugliness and despair, and say to God: “you know all things, you are the one with the perfect plan, your will be done. Help me to love you and love my neighbor, and rejoice. Let me trust you.”

When life is considered in light of the Kingdom of God, the big decisions will not seem so big. The outcomes don’t really matter that much, unless we do not believe that God will turn any life lived in service to him into something beautiful in the end, into a root which may grow in his eternal kingdom, in the new heavens and the new earth.

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Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers

October 31, 2010 Leave a comment

9But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

10In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. 12He says,
“I will declare your name to my brothers;
in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.” 13And again,
“I will put my trust in him.” And again he says,
“Here am I, and the children God has given me.”

14Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. 17For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2.9-18)

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whosoever shall lose his life

October 26, 2010 1 comment

The greatest lesson that the world teaches us, the greatest lesson that we have to learn from all worldly pursuits, is that we may save our life only to lose it. This is a worldly lesson, built upon a worldly understanding of life as what can be accomplished in a lifetime, what we can attain, the “mark” we can leave on the world, whatever that means. This viewpoint reveals itself as despair when we realize that, from the worldly perspective, all must perish in the end. Really we can’t leave a mark. If we really and truly learn this lesson, then we are “not far from the kingdom of God…”; that is, we are ready for Christ, for his rule, for his way of living. The man in the gospels who Jesus told this to was a person who had realized that love of God and love of neighbor were more important than all religious ritual (cf. Mark 12. 34).

And so Christ comes along and solves the puzzle, by telling us two facts. First, he tells us that we actually do leave a mark. But it isn’t the mark we were trying to leave. Every deed, every word, every thought and action will be remembered. Really this could not be otherwise; God does not forget. And because of this, and by his grace in other ways, we come to see that how we have been living–our efforts to have led the good life, to have left our mark, to have made the most of things, etc–are not necessarily pleasing to God, the good judge of all things.

The mark is not what we thought it was; we didn’t really know the things that mattered. In the things we had pursued, we forgot about loving our neighbor. And we hadn’t honored God in what we did, but rather sought to glorify ourselves. This can be horrifying, and is horrifying, but he gives us the second fact, which is the comfort: whosoever shall lose his life shall save it. We didn’t really know what life was, you see. We strove after the sort of life that perishes, but he gives us his life, the eternal life, the sort of life that will not perish. He gives us this by giving us himself. But we had to give up the life we thought we had, in order to gain it.

Many people think that if they come to Jesus, if they become Christians, that they are giving up something that they could never give up, and thus that it’s not worth it to pursue God. And indeed, much of religion conveys this message, making it seem as if we have to choose between God and pleasure, between God and joy. But it is not so. This is not the offer. Jesus’ words confirming this are as follows:

“I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19.28-29)

The parallel in Mark has a valuable shift of emphasis that helps us understand the meaning:

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.” (Mark 10. 29-31)

Everything in this world that is of value that we give up will be replaced. In fact, “replaced” is not the right word. Mark makes it clear that the we get the same things back, including things that are irreplaceable (for example, mothers). The point is, everything that really has eternal value in the present age will be given to us now according to God’s good love for us, and will survive into eternity. It’s just, at this point in time, our hearts have very mixed up priorities, so that the call to follow Jesus will seem like a loss. It seems like many good things will have to be absolutely abandoned. What Jesus is telling us here is that this is not actually so.

The renewal of all things will feature abundantly more of what we had clung to, and if we hope for the redemption of these things that we cling to, we must abandon them as our idols in order to follow the one and only God. So we do have to abandon many things in the way that we had considered them, and this will be difficult. We ought never trivialize this. And we ought never pretend that the things we have selfishly pursued are actually God’s blessing. For these things do perish, and we along with them, if we make them our gods. Jesus tells us above that the good in the present age comes “with…persecutions”–we must take this to heart and realize that even the joys of this age come with difficulty and strife. But strife which we can endure because we know the promises of our great king, that the goodness he is building on earth now will survive and blossom in the new heavens and the new earth.

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Have you not known? Have you not heard?

October 17, 2010 Leave a comment

1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.

3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

6A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
7The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the LORD blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.

9Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Behold your God!”
10 Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.

12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance?
13 Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD,
or what man shows him his counsel?
14Whom did he consult,
and who made him understand?
Who taught him the path of justice,
and taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?
15Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.
16Lebanon would not suffice for fuel,
nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering.
17 All the nations are as nothing before him,
they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.

18 To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him?
19 An idol! A craftsman casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
and casts for it silver chains.
20 He who is too impoverished for an offering
chooses wood that will not rot;
he seeks out a skillful craftsman
to set up an idol that will not move.

21 Do you not know? Do you not hear?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
23 who brings princes to nothing,
and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.

24Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows on them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

25 To whom then will you compare me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
26Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name,
by the greatness of his might,
and because he is strong in power
not one is missing.

27Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
30Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
31but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah ch. 40)

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