Friday, February 22, 2013

What Is God Like?

My image of God has gone through transformation recently. Primarily, this transformation has been based on what Jesus said about God and Himself. Also, it has been based on what the rest of the New Testament says about Jesus. This transformation of my image of God is based on Scripture and I'm disappointed that I haven't grasped what the Scripture says before. I believe that I have a LONG way to go to mature in this view, but I recently had a breakthrough when reading the book of John.

I honestly admit that I have a difficult time imagining God. God seems abstract to me and always has. When I'm honest, even the concept seems nebulous. A being that exists beyond space-time? Space-time is all that I really know. I don't really like not being able to understand or describe concepts. I'm an engineer by education and by choice. I analyze data to find precise answers. I work better with the concrete. I need specific definitions. I prefer discrete to mysterious, and the Bible sometimes presents God as mysterious. I prefer homogeneous to paradoxical and the Bible offers paradoxical portraits of God. I struggle to understand and reconcile and accept this.

Most everything else that I know and I am familiar with, I can describe with words or symbols. I can describe my house. I can describe my car. I can even describe things that I can't see, like electricity or wind. I can describe how to solve a math problem or how to build a voice or data network. I can even describe more abstract things. For example, I can describe my emotions. I can describe happiness, sadness, anger, calmness, love and hate. But I struggle to describe God and I always have.

Who is God? What does He do? How does He treat people? How does He use His power? What does He want to tell us? What does He want from us?

Then, it hit me. Why am I so obtuse? Why am I so slow to learn?
John 5:19 Jesus gave them this answer: "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by Himself; He can do only what He sees His Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does." 
John 8:19  If you knew Me, you would know My Father also.
John 10:30  I and the Father are One.
John 12:45 The one who looks at Me is seeing the One who sent Me
John 14:7 If you really know Me, you will know My Father as well.
John 14:8-9 Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us." Jesus answered: "Don't you know Me Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?
God looks and acts exactly like Jesus. So simple yet so profound. The book of John really nails this point. There is this cycle throughout the book: one or more claims that Jesus is God followed by one or more stories that tell us something Jesus did. The message of John is so plain. Jesus is God. This is what God does.

Jesus is God.
God loves and helps the helpless. (water to wine) 

Jesus is God.
God loves and talks to and teaches the self-righteous. God loves and associates with and teaches the outcasts and immoral. (Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman)

Jesus is God.
God brings hope and healing to the lame. 

Jesus is God.
God rescues and does not condemn the adulteress. 

Jesus is God.
God gives sight to the blind.

Jesus is God.
God raises the dead!

Jesus is God.
God offers the most humble service (even washes nasty feet) and expects us to do the same.

Jesus is God.
God overcomes evil and violence with self-sacrificial submission and love.

Jesus is God.
God overcomes death!!!

John isn't just one book with a unique message in the canon. No, the early disciples agree. The rest of the Bible agrees. The main point of the Old Testament is Jesus (John 5:39, 45-46; John 1:45; Luke 24:27, 44, etc. etc.). The books included in the New Testament canon were included because they testify of Jesus.

The Hebrew writer said that the way God speaks to us now is through His Son, who is the EXACT representation of God's being (Heb. 1:1-3). Paul agrees. He wrote that the Son is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). ALL of the fullness of God dwells in Jesus (Col. 1:19; Col. 2:9).

Do you see how profound that is? God is not a book. God is not a doctrine. God is not a church. God is not rules. God is not a feeling. God is not a relationship. God is not an egotistical cosmic despot. God is Jesus. God is perfectly and completely revealed to us in the person, Jesus. Others-oriented, self-sacrificial, loving, and serving. In the past, when I've referred to the word of God, I've primarily meant the Bible. However, when the Bible refers to the word of God, it primarily means Jesus. I wanted words and symbols to describe God, but God gave me a person. This is what John was talking about when he said the the Word was God. Jesus is God's word.

The way God has always been, the way God is, and the way God always will be is shown in Jesus. Any concept of God or view of God that is incompatible with Jesus is erroneous.  Jesus is how God has chosen to reveal Himself to us. The Bible helps us to understand God in that the Bible says that the exact, flawless, complete revelation of God is Jesus. The Bible points us to Jesus, from beginning to end. It must be read that way.

This same Jesus dwells in us by His Spirit and wants us to grow to be made more like Him.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


When challenged about changing his mind on economic policy, John Maynard Keynes is reputed to have answered:
When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?
Whether he actually said that or whether it is original to him is up for some debate. Regardless, he did change his mind on some key economic issues and he was criticized for changing his mind, and was sometimes in the spot of defending his change of opinion. He probably did say something very similar to that at some point.  Anyway, those are wise words. I think it's fair for a person who is committed to learning and committed to truth to change his mind. New knowledge and experience sheds new light.

In contrast, one criticism I've heard of John Calvin is that he first published his definitive work,  The Institutes of the Christian Religion, in 1536 at the age of 27. There were several later editions with the final edition published in 1559. However, most agree that there were no substantial changes to the theology set forth in the original. So, between the age of 27 and 50, John Calvin didn't significantly change his mind on any theological topic. I think that criticism is legitimate. Calvin was a brilliant mind and his asceticism was incomparable. To produce a volume that monumental at the age of 27 is remarkable and I do not want to diminish that accomplishment. However, I find it quite suspicious that his theology did not change during those 23 years (or ever after that). Was he so knowledgeable and experienced and mature at the age of 27 that he was able to systematize his theology so airtight and perfectly that it required no significant change? Or did he stubbornly defend what he already believed and had already written in his magnum opus? The latter seems more likely to me.
John Calvin, Father of Reformed Theology
I see a similar problem with commitment to orthodoxy today. I'm afraid that many churches have a commitment to "fundamental" doctrines that is similar to Calvin's commitment to his Institutes. The conclusions are already defined. A member can study and research all he wants. Restudy, even. However, after the study and research, he still has to come back to orthodoxy. Anything other than orthodoxy will likely be met with resistance, suspicion, rebuke, and/or even derision. One may even get kicked out of fellowship or told that he is not really a Christian, all because he doesn't accept the group's orthodoxy after honest study and research.

In these churches, you can research archaeology, science, biology, and history all you want. Pursue degrees, even doctorate level degrees, in those disciplines. But in the end, you have to come back to the position of a literal Adam who lived 6,000 years ago beginning on the sixth literal day of the existence of the universe. You have to come back to the conclusion that Moses authored all of the Pentateuch. You have to conclude that the Exodus, wandering, and conquest happened exactly how the Bible describes them. If you don't come to those conclusions, your fellowship is at risk.

Another example, study hermeneutics all you want. Research how the Jews throughout history read and interpreted their Scripture. Research how the early church fathers read and interpreted the Bible. Learn all the Greek and Hebrew you can. It's especially good to learn Greek and Hebrew. But all of this learning and research is only good if you come back to the inerrantist / fundamentalist approach (unknown to the world before the 19th century) as the only valid way to interpret the Bible. Otherwise, you'll likely be accused of not having a high regard for Scripture.

And still another example... Restudy the topic of hell all you want. Find out all that the Old Testament says about it. Learn the Jewish beliefs between the testaments about the ultimate end of the wicked. Find out what people in Jesus' day believed. Find everything Jesus said about it. Consider all that the New Testament authors said about it. Find out what the early church fathers believed. But when you're finished with that, you must conclude that we have an immortal soul and that the wicked will be consciously tormented every second of all eternity in hell. Otherwise, much of evangelical Christendom will turn on you.

I could add more examples, but I think these make the point. Evangelical Christians have a problem. And dare I be so bold as to specifically mention my own group, the churches of Christ, as having this problem in particular. The problem is that the commitment to defending certain orthodox views and excluding those who don't hold those views is stifling the freedom to ask questions and learn and grow. Certain questions are off-limits. (This is not true of all evangelical churches nor is it true of all churches of Christ. For example, the church that I am a member of now is certainly not like this. I have immense grace and freedom to ask questions and discuss "off-limits" topics. I try to exercise that freedom responsibly, not attempting to persuade and not pressing too firmly on uncomfortable issues.)

The message that this commitment to orthodoxy sends is this. Certain issues are decided. Truth has been found. Restudy all you want. Just don't draw any different conclusions on these issues, no matter what else you learn. When issues are decided and codified, all you're allowed to learn when restudying are new arguments that support the existing orthodoxy. You may tweak the existing orthodoxy slightly to make it more resistant to arguments against it, like Calvin did, but you are not allowed to contradict these orthodox positions. I've even heard it said, "When someone says they're 'restudying' something, that means that they don't like the truth on that topic any more." I've restudied several topics, and I don't remember ever doing so because of an aversion to truth (or even just because I didn't like what I already believed). However, new (to me) information has prompted restudy several times.

So what's the solution? I don't know, except that we must eliminate the "they don't like the truth" rhetoric. Likewise, those who disagree with orthodoxy must also show gentleness and love. Questioning these issues is extremely uncomfortable, and frankly, not everyone is interested in asking these questions. That's okay. Those willing to question and even change their view on orthodox issues must be sensitive to that. They must not hold contempt for those who are comfortable with and/or agree with existing doctrines.

Some think, and will tell you flatly, that when interpretations differ, it's because one or both parties are wrong. When that narrow view of truth is held by one or both parties in a discussion, the discussion often becomes a contest to see who can resist admitting a mistake first. The first to admit a mistake loses the debate and nobody wants to do that. Then, pride, rather than love, wins. Rachel Held Evans has an excellent post on how to respond when our interpretations differ. I love this quote from that post.
In some cases, folks are so committed to their particular views on these issues they seem incapable of making a distinction between the Bible itself and their interpretation of it, and so any critique of that interpretation is seen as a critique of Scripture itself!  And so we miss one another entirely. Instead of a lively, impassioned debate about the text, we engage in lively, impassioned debates about one another’s commitment to the faith.
I've seen that play out too many times. I've been both the perpetrator and the victim in those kinds of discussions. It's not good and it doesn't display a Christ-like spirit. Is being right the basis (or even a goal) for unity or is service to one another and service to the community, Christ-like love in other words, the basis for unity? Let's strive to make Christ-like love, not orthodoxy, the basis for unity.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Book Review: In His Steps

I was reading one of my favorite websites, Patrick Mead's tentpegs, and he recommended the book In His Steps by Charles Monroe Sheldon. I looked about on Amazon, and lo and behold, the Kindle edition is free! I couldn't resist free, so I downloaded it and read it fairly quickly. It's an excellent classic that I can't believe I had never heard of before now. As Patrick Mead said about the book, when you read it, it may change your life. You've been warned.

The book was first published in 1897, so it's a classic to say the least. This book is basically "What would Jesus do?" before WWJD was cool. Way before WWJD was cool. Or a bracelet.

The book begins with a homeless man who is out of work and desperate to feed his family. He rings the doorbell at Henry Maxwell's house one Friday. Henry Maxwell is the preacher at the First Church of Raymond, and a fine preacher at that. The First Church is wealthy and comfortable and among its congregants are members of the highest of society in Raymond . Maxwell is behind in his preparation and had already been interrupted several times this Friday. He answers the door. He's polite enough, but doesn't actually do anything for the homeless man. He sends him away and the tramp continues to go door to door begging for work.

Sunday, the same tramp shows up at the First Church and begins to tell his story to the congregation. He's very respectful, calm, and polite. He waits until Reverend Maxwell is finished speaking to address the congregation. As he is telling his story, he collapses there in front of the congregation. Rev. Maxwell takes him into his care, and he dies just a few days later, before his family can arrive.

The following Sunday, Reverend Maxwell is obviously affected by the past week's events. He is changed. He challenges his congregation to do nothing, absolutely nothing, without first asking the question, "What would Jesus do?" Several members accept the challenge, and take it very seriously. The rest of the book follows the characters who take the challenge, and the difference they make in the lives of so many in the town of Raymond, and then the movement spreads to Chicago where more lives are changed.

It's a beautiful collection of stories of selflessness. There are characters who resist the challenge. Others take it but do not follow through. Those who take the challenge seriously are changed forever in ways they wouldn't have imagined.

And this isn't just the trite, "Would Jesus steal that candy? Would Jesus smoke that cigarette? Would Jesus take that drink?" No, it isn't just about what Jesus would NOT do, though the characters absolutely conclude that there are things they are doing daily that Jesus would not do. This book is much more about what characters actively DO for others.

A newspaper editor risks his fortune and loses a lot of it because he refuses to print sensational stories and prints positive ones instead. A foreman at the railroad improves the working conditions for his employees and arranges for them to know Jesus. An extremely talented singer foregoes singing in front of crowds of wealthy people and instead chooses to use her beautiful voice to draw poor and hopeless people to Jesus. A reverend leaves his position at a wealthy church to risk his life and serve his community in the roughest part of town. A group take on the political challenge of closing the saloon. What if every Christian really took this challenge seriously? Would the world be a markedly different place? Would we see the kingdom come and God's will being done on earth as it is in heaven?

I'll be honest. This book has caused me to lie awake at night. I realize that I have found it too difficult to honestly ask and answer the question, "What would Jesus do?" It's not so much guilt and shame as it is a sense of helplessness. I'm praying that I will have the courage to do what Jesus would do. To have the courage to help others, to relieve their suffering when I am able and to suffer with them when I am not. I'm praying that I will be made more like Him, as were the characters in this book. If you've read the book and have some encouragement for me, please, contact me.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Greatest Is Love

This post is related to my post about how to read the Bible. In that post, I recommended NT Wright's suggestion that we read entire books and entire letters at once instead of in small chunks. Taking this advice, I sat down and read all of First Corinthians. What caused me to read 1 Corinthians is that I stumbled upon a quote from chapter 15 that intrigued me and I wanted to see it fit. (In my opinion, chapter 15 is one of the most important chapters in all of the New Testament letters. Maybe more on that at another time.) During this reading, though, chapter 13 jumped out at me.

Reading 1 Corinthians as a whole and using it as a window through which to view the entire New Covenant changed my perspective on this chapter. Previously, I had used 1 Corinthians 13, especially verses 8-13, to condemn those who claim that the Holy Spirit works and lives in God's people today in a supernatural way. Why would such a beautiful description of love be used to condemn? I had totally missed the point.

When Paul wrote this beautiful chapter, the church at Corinth was a mess. He had already dealt very forthrightly with many of their problems in the chapters prior to this one. They were proud of their own wisdom and knowledge. They were divided personally, claiming allegiance to different preachers. They were divided spiritually by taking pride in their various spiritual gifts and holding other spiritual gifts in contempt. They were divided socially with the rich mistreating and shaming the poor, especially during the Lord's Supper. They were going to court over some of their differences. Apparently, some were not even convinced that there is only one God. They were tolerating, even taking pride in sexual immorality in their congregation. Their assemblies were chaos. Numerous men and women were interrupting one another and speaking over one another in the assembly. Some were even denying the resurrection. What a mess of jealousy, envy, bitterness, injustice, immorality, carnality, heresy, and rudeness!

What caused these problems? They lacked love. Chapter 13 is a beautiful description of love. It's filled with figures that magnify love. And love is the remedy to their problems. Let's read it together...
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And if I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profiteth me nothing. Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil; rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
(1Co 13:1-7 ASV)

Even the greatest of spiritual gifts and good deeds, if they are not from love, are meaningless. Love is filled with virtue and absent of any bad thing. Love never fails. Then, Paul finishes this chapter in a surprising way. What follows almost seems not to fit. Paul, in the midst of that beautiful description of love, says that we are at present incomplete, but we will be completed. Notice the present incompleteness below.
Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known. But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
(1Co 13:8-13 ASV)
This chapter is far more than a simple exhortation to love. Sure, patience, humility, truth, and forgiveness, love in other words, is our duty. But if viewed as a duty, it can at best bring temporary change. This chapter is telling us more than that. Love is ultimately what will characterize us when God completes His redemptive work in us. What NT Wright says about this chapter in Surprised by Hope on page 287 is beautiful.
The point of 1 Corinthians 13 is that love is not our duty; it is our destiny. It is the language Jesus spoke, and we are called to speak it so that we can converse with him. It is the food they eat in God's new world, and we must acquire the taste for it here and now.
This chapter is pointing to a glorious future with love. And Paul goes on to describe this resurrection future for us in chapter 15. Love is the greatest virtue of all, even greater than faith and hope. We will be resurrected and perfected in love! That's the point of this chapter.

I don't really understand how I once used this chapter to condemn others. I don't now understand how I could have drawn such a hard line that the "perfect" in verse 10 was the completed New Testament canon. Paul, as best as I can tell, never gives any indication of a completed canon and it is doubtful that his readers would have understood such a reference. I once thought that those who did not agree that the "perfect" was the canon were simply looking to justify their own disorder and good feelings. That was a harsh and presumptive position to take.

I don't believe that this chapter is at all about the canon of the New Testament. This chapter certainly isn't about condemnation. This chapter no more condemns supernatural spiritual gifts than it condemns anything else, except a lack of love, which it indirectly condemns quite a fair amount. Let this chapter remind us that a surprising, no an astonishing, destiny of love awaits us in the resurrection and we need to be busy preparing ourselves for that destiny right now. 

To be sure, I'm not saying that verses 8-13 can't be interpreted to support cessation of supernatural gifts though I disagree with that interpretation. Sure, now with a knowledge of history and a knowledge of the canon, one can read cessation back into this text. However, I can't imagine that the readers at Corinth would have understood the "perfect" to refer to the canon. I don't think that is an unreasonable or dishonest interpretation. I understand the arguments for it, and those arguments make some sense but they also have some flaws. I don't believe this passage teaches a cessationist position, but that's not the point. When its primary use is to prove a cessationist position, and then that position is held to very strongly and used to condemn others, then this passage has been abused. The theme of this passage is love, not condemnation and not cessationism.

I pray that I will be resurrected to a destiny of perfect love. But until then, I pray that I can grow in love to be more like Him.