God’s Will and Jesus’ Death

We know Jesus’ statement of submission to his Father’s will, “not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Because of this verse and many similar ones we are correct to say that it was the Father’s will that Jesus die. But I believe it is also very easy to misunderstand what we mean about the will of God in this matter. We are speaking about God’s will regarding a response and not the situation itself. Let me illustrate the distinction using an example from the teaching of Jesus.

Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Luke 6:28-29

Does Jesus want his disciples to be cursed? Does he want us to be slapped on the cheek, or someone to take our coat? Surely not! The will of Jesus is not that his followers are in a situation where they are mistreated or that would make Jesus a sadistic master indeed. The will of Jesus is that we turn the other cheek in response, but it is not his will that we are slapped on the cheek in the first place. Jesus is not willing the situation but telling us what he wills for us to do in response to such situations.

In the same way, when we say that it was God’s will that Jesus die, or affirm that he was sent for this very purpose, we are not saying that God desired for people to torture and kill Jesus. God’s will was that when faced with a cruel and unjust death, Jesus would suffer rather than fight back, which is exactly what the Father would do. When faced with wickedness he would forgive. When cursed he would bless. So we correctly say that it was the Father’s will that Jesus die on the cross. The will of God for Jesus, and for Christians always, is that we respond to evil and mistreatment with grace and the willingness to suffer rather than inflict suffering. We are to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

However, one might think if it was God’s will that Jesus die did not God have to plan and orchestrate that death to “make sure” it would happen? Could God really count on us to kill Jesus if he wasn’t himself causing it? If you think that apart from God’s prompting we might not have killed Jesus you have a naive hope in human goodness. Even Plato, nearly 400 years before Jesus, knew enough to make the following statement about the fate of a truly righteous man.

The just man, then, as we have pictured him, will be scourged, tortured, and imprisoned, his eyes will be put out, and after enduring every humiliation he will be crucified, and learn at last that in the world as it is we should want not to be, but to seem, just. – Plato’s Republic

The death of Jesus is only pleasing to God as the righteous response to evil. The killing itself was an evil act against a righteous man. We should not imagine that God in any fashion wills the death of anyone, much less his Son. Death is what God is defeating on the cross, not wanting to occur.

As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). 

Since God is not pleased with the death of a wicked person, to say God willed the death of Jesus is not to speak of death itself, but the willingness to die selflessly. When we say the cross was the will of God we must remember that we are speaking of it as the response to evil that God desires, and we are not saying that God ever actually desires any death that evil causes, spiritual or physical. The torture and murder of Jesus shows the extent of abuse God is willing to endure at human hands so that he might defeat death and sin, while loving and saving us. 

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Judgment And Salvation

For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. John 3:17

John is very clear in the beginning of his gospel that Jesus came to save and not judge, that is, to rescue and not to condemn to destruction. However, we may be puzzled why John quotes Jesus shortly thereafter saying this:

He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day. John 12:48

Is John saying that while Jesus was not sent to judge, or as some translations read, condemn, his words will do just that? If this is the case, then it is a stretch for John to claim that Jesus did not come to judge when his very words do judge. Are we to think that Jesus ends up doing the very thing he was not sent to do, that is, judge/condemn the world?

To make sense of this we must recognize that we can speak of judgment in two ways, which is why the word is sometimes translated condemn and other times simply judge. One meaning of judgment is the pronouncement of destruction. Another meaning is the act of distinguishing between two things. In this second, judgment is part of the process which is transformative. One type of judgment is to condemn utterly, while the other is to clarify things so as to ultimately help us.

We have often misunderstood, and in fact feared, that the judgment of God is only about the former. Actually, God’s judgment that brings destruction is for sin, death, darkness, and evil. What God judges so that he might destroy is all that has ruined his good creation. This is what Paul means when he says Jesus came to “judge sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3).

The kind of judgment that God brings on us is always for our good and salvation, and not meant to simply destroy us. So, as John says, Jesus did not come into the world to judge it (destroy everything), but the words which Jesus spoke will be what judges us for the ultimate purpose of freeing us from our captivity to sin. In the end, his words are the judgment we need.

This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. John 3:19

Sin is condemned, and our participation in it shown for what it is. The judgment that shows us that our deeds are of darkness is what must happen so that we might repent of them and be rescued from them. God has always been doing this judging that helps.

He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore. Isaiah 2:4

God judges and what is destroyed? War and violence! What is the result of God’s judgment of the nations? Peace! God does not judge the nations to destroy them, but to save them from their hatred toward one another which is the source of the destruction they experience. God judges people to teach them and this is part of rescuing them.

For when the earth experiences Your judgments
The inhabitants of the world learn righteousness. Isaiah 26:9

Only through the judgment of God can we learn what is righteous and what is evil. We need to be taught to know good from evil, and the judgment of God is this necessary and helpful work. Jesus is saying the same about his own words. In the end, what he says teaches us righteousness. Our actions will be seen for what they are in light of his teaching.

There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy. James 4:12

We tend to hear James as saying that God can either save or destroy, as if we will receive one or the other from God. Instead, he says that God is able to save and destroy. To save us, God must destroy what is killing us, that is, sin. No doctor can heal a sick person without eradicating the disease. God will save and destroy.

James also reminds us that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:4). Mercy has the last word. Judgment does condemn a behavior or attitude as sinful, which is a prelude to its destruction and our healing. God’s judgment is a needed remedy but very hard on us, especially the more stubborn we are. Fortunately, we hope in the mercy that is even expressed in the judgment itself, which will free us from all that ruins us.

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The spiritual life is not what we expect, or even what we are looking for. Neither is God. We want results, the outcomes that we desire, and a God who will make it so. Who would not want their idea of “good” brought about by their God? Isn’t that what gods are for?

To me, the Christian faith is clearly not a human invention precisely because it is centered on the cross. No one would ever think to base everything on a dead God. On the cross God is shown to be utterly powerless in any conventional sense. He is not fixing what is wrong with the world, but becoming a victim of all that hurts me. I want a champion who will defeat my enemies, not end up defeated by them. We all tend to worship power, and if we cannot have it ourselves, we want someone on our side who has it. Blessed are the winners.

This is what Paul calls the “scandal” of the cross. The word translated “stumbling block” (skandalon) is where we get our word.

We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  1 Corinthians 1:23-24

For Paul, the crucified Christ is both power and wisdom, but admittedly a form of power and wisdom that seems the opposite of our normal definitions. We may want to skirt the absurdity and insist the language of the cross implies his resurrection, but we miss the point if we do this. The resurrection is more about God affirming the cross rather than to taking our focus off of it. We are to take up our cross, not an empty tomb.

I should aspire to what the cross means in my own life, while I hope in the resurrection. There is nothing for me to emulate about the empty tomb, but to live a cross-shaped, cruciform, life is the essence of the spiritual life. Being raised with Christ is what happens when I die with him (Romans 6:5). The spiritual life is working on the dying while trusting in the raising. 

The cross is the eminent Christian symbol, not an empty tomb. Jesus is the lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8), not the lamb healed from the beginning. The cross may be the epitome of the ludicrous view of a powerless God, but the incarnation is one with it. God becoming human is a descent from power to powerlessness, and the course remains constant until Jesus is dead and buried. 

Jesus knew his way was narrow and few would find it precisely because we are not looking for it. What we are looking for is not a cross but the power to crucify everything we do not like or want. The life of faith and transformation is very difficult because it necessitates going against our instincts toward power and control. If we do start to recognize that we must abandon our preconceived ideas and belief in what is ultimately good and desirable, to find true goodness, this is the work of grace. We would not do this of our own accord. 

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Death’s Death

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23

How do you hear these words of Paul? Is he describing two things we might receive from God, death for our sins or eternal life because we believe in Christ? If this what we hear, then we need to amend Paul’s words to say “for the wages of God for sin is death . . .” which is obviously not what Paul says. Death is not what God gives us, not for sin or anything else. God, who is life, only gives life. I am not merely asserting a semantic distinction with barely any real difference. Realizing that God is not the source of death, physical or spiritual, is crucial to truly understanding the good news.

In this passage Paul personifies sin as a cruel tyranny who pays us with death. If we serve sin, then we receive death from sin as the reward for being imprisoned in his miserable servitude. Paul is contrasting what God gives with what sin gives, not two things which come from God.

Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. 2 Timothy 2:25-26

Paul has a full and robust understanding of the forces of evil, which sometimes is diminished in modern Christianity as if such belief would imply a weakness on God’s part. As Paul sees it, we are taken captive by Satan so that his will becomes ours. We are prisoners bound to die. This problem stretches back to the dawn of humanity.

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned. Romans 5:12

Death is not what God created or willed, even as darkness was not created by God, but rather pierced by the coming of Life-Light (John 1:4-5). Death is not God’s punishment for sin, but sin’s punishment for sin about which God warns us. In fact, death is clearly identified as the devil’s power, not God’s.

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. Hebrews 2:14-15

The devil holds and uses the power of death against us. He lures us into sin and then He claims us as his, and death is the end for us. The author of Hebrews is pointing to the incarnation, that God became one of us to break the power of Satan. Because Jesus defeated Satan and the power of sin and death, we are now free from death and the fear of it.

I hear too often, and myself once thought, that God would give me either life or death. If I would believe in Jesus, God would forgive my sins. But if I did not, God would give me death. I mistook as the work of God that which is the power of the devil and from sin itself. Thinking that God exercises the power of the devil can obviously mess you up theologically, and too many of us are. It is hard for the news to be good if God is saving me from his punishment, rather than from sin’s wages and the devil’s slavery.

When the story is told well, through sin we became slaves of Satan, the one who holds the power of death. Satan demands that I die for my sin because he owns me. He is not about to be merciful and let me go. The death of Jesus on the cross breaks the power of the devil and sets me free. This is the good news of the cross, that God himself has defeated sin and death, as only God could.

For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. Romans 6:9

In Christ, death has no power over us either. We can joyfully ask with Paul, “O Death where is your victory? O Death where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).These are no more because God has triumphed and set us free. The devil’s wages is death, but God’s free gift is life eternal!

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Gaining the World

What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Mark 8:36

Despite how Jesus’ words sound, it is not actually possible to have the world by forfeiting one’s soul. His point is not that we can truly make that trade, but that many are attempting it in the way they live. If we think that this is indeed the choice before us, we may conclude that holiness and tending to one’s soul means rejection of the “world”. We do have to reject the world of men, but it is a false and empty one anyway. The world of God is for us, and we for it!

In striving for the world we do lose ourselves, our souls, who we were made to be. If we could obtain it all (we can’t) but not be whole within ourselves, what would we actually have? Part of what is futile is that sacrificing one’s soul, not being integrated, whole, and mature, leaves one without the world as well.

If we lose God we lose his world too. To “gain” God means knowing ourselves and having our own soul intact. As St. Augustine said, he wanted to know God and the soul.

. . . All things are yours, . . .  the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God. 1 Corinthians 3:21-23

To have God, though Christ, is to have all that we lost in the fall, now remade, redeemed, and returned to us. Attention to one’s own soul leads us to God . . . through whom all is set right.

To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. Titus 1:15

Those who have become pure, and Paul is thinking of something possible and not theoretical, possess the whole world in this holiness. As Jesus stated, the pure in heart will see God and the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5,8). There is connection here! We may say with confidence that those pure in heart and meek have their own souls well-kept, rather than lost. The whole world is theirs as they behold God.

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. Colossians 1:13

The goal of our spiritual journey is not to escape the world, but to escape the corrupted world and enter the world of God. There are two worlds which we can call two kingdoms. Both are right here, now, and accessible. If to lose God is to lose the world as well, to find God, or more correctly, to be found by God, is to gain the world. God cannot be separated from his world, nor his world from God. As creatures of God, we cannot find ourselves apart from God. The reality is that if we do not “have” our soul, we do not have the world either. The only ones who have the world are those who know themselves through God.

For us, we need to examine ourselves with regard to the degree to which we we pursue the unattainable and lose ourselves in the process. We are taught to attend carefully to our soul, which is healed through relationship with God, and brings us the fullness of life and the goodness of the world as created by God. His kingdom is beautiful, is so very close, and is discovered by those who know not to go chasing after the wind.

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God: Source of Only Good

Within scripture some verses carry more weight than others. When the writers are teaching, describing, and reasoning, certain statements stand out as the basis for what they are saying. Those statements are the starting point for what they are saying, even if they are made somewhere other than at the beginning of what they write.

In the first chapter of his letter, James has been talking about temptation in the life of a believer. He acknowledges our struggle with disordered desires and of wanting to act on them. He has said that our corrupted desires are the root of the problem (1:14-15). He has already said that no one should say that God is doing the tempting (1:13) when he makes this fundamental claim about God:

Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. James 1:17

This statement about the character and nature of God is the foundation for what James is teaching. He prefaces this verse with the warning to not be deceived (1:16). Apparently he anticipates that one could reason this way: God has made everything, some of the tings that I encounter in life are temptations, therefore God must be Creator of these temptations. He warns us not be deceived into thinking that our temptations are the work of God.

The claim about God being the source of all good things is central because it shows James’ understanding of God as the Creator. He employs at least two metaphors: God is the One “above” who is sending down gifts, like rain, and God is the Father of the lights which dispel the darkness. In God himself, James says, there is only pure consistency and no changing shadows, that is, subtle manifestations of something other than light. However, we may reasonably ask why we encounter temptation and evil if these were not created by God.

If anything is truly good, and we must confess that in our limited perception we may believe something is good which is not, then it is a gift coming down from God. This is what James says is our true situation. The problem is our own desires to use some good gift of God in a way other than as God intends. This is the corruption of good things by evil desire. Everything, as created by God, is good, but anything may be misused and become distorted and harmful. Evil does not exist as a created thing, but only as the misuse of a good gift of God. Therefore, evil has no “being” by itself, but is like rust on metal. First, there must be metal in order for rust to corrupt it. Rust does not exist by itself, but only as the stain on something whole.

We can see the same truth in the oft-used metaphor of light and darkness. There is no substance to darkness; it exists only where light is not present. Light is what actually exists. Light is a creation of God, but darkness what God dispels and has not made.

Like James, we need to begin our thinking with the nature and character of God. Thinking theologically means starting with who God is, and then working toward the implications for our lives. God is unchangeable in his goodness and he is the source of all things good, and all created things are good. The absence of God is what I must guard against. When God is not present in my thinking, shaping and driving my actions, unrestrained disordered desires lure me into temptation and sin.

“Lifting our hearts up to God”, the actual wording of Psalm 86:4, the call and response of the traditional liturgy, is the essence of prayer and spiritual practice that connects us consciously to the Father of lights. God rains down on us all good things, and we lift up our hearts to him in thankfulness. To be mindful of this relationship makes us more aware of the disordered desires which can stir in us, and helps us return to lifting up our hearts to God.

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The Good of God

If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself. 2 Timothy 2:13

Paul is describing God’s faithfulness. Some versions translate Paul as saying that God cannot deny himself, or that he must be true to himself. Each wording gets at Paul’s point, but what does he mean? Let me suggest a few ideas about how to understand Paul’s statement, and then what this means for the spiritual life which Jesus teaches.

First, I think God could actually be untrue to himself, but he will not. Paul is emphasizing that God will not be untrue to his own nature. God is love, and love is always faithful. Paul assures us that we can trust God. He is not speculating on what is, or is not, possible for God to do, but what God can be trusted to do. When Paul says God is not able, this inability is due to his faithfulness rather than unfaithfulness being outside of God’s possible action. In other words, God is choosing faithfulness, just as we are called to choose faithfulness.

God has a choice in such matters, but unlike us, God is always choosing what is good. To say it another way, God is light within whom there is no darkness (1 John 1:5) precisely because God constantly chooses light over darkness. God chooses to be true to himself. God could conceivably embrace darkness, which would be to deny himself, but God is faithful to his own goodness.

Thinking of God as eternally choosing good over evil, light over darkness, means that God is asking us to live, and the spiritual life is not something other than, God’s own life. Paul Tillich described our faith as the courage to be, meaning that faith is a constant choice toward life and light, instead of opting for non-being, which would be death and darkness. He described God as that same ground of all being, the constant choice of light over darkness.

We have been created with the capacity, and necessity, to make decisions and choices. Such freedom of will, given to us by God, is essential to love itself. Genuine love must not be forced, but flows out of a willingness to selflessly give of oneself to others. To say that God is love acknowledges that his love is freely given, not forced, and therefore an act of grace, as ours must be.

God is always choosing to be love so completely that we can say God is love. God can no more say, light is darkness and darkness is light, love is hate and hate is love, than he can change who he is. God’s choice is to be true to himself, and in the words of Paul, he can do no other. We can trust God to be who he is, Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).

One reason it is helpful to think of God in this way is so we recognize that God has not simply chosen to make “good” those things which are difficult for us. Likewise, he has not chosen to forbid as evil what we may like and are drawn to. God is not declaring “good” those actions and attitudes which we find challenging, such as loving our neighbors and even our enemies. Good is defined by who God is, and is not what God decides to make it. God is love. He can either be who he is or not, but God is not “making up” what is good and true. Selfishness could never be righteous, and God could not simply make it a holy trait. He would be denying himself.

God tells us what love is, which is who he himself is. We can either pursue being conformed to love or not, but this is no arbitrary declaration of God. It is not as if he could have done things differently. God chooses to be true to himself, and calls us to be true to his nature as well, which ultimately is the image in which we were created and the true destiny of our being.

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