You Know The Way

“You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going,
so how can we know the way?” John 14:4-5

This is an interesting exchange because the disciples apparently know something they do not realize they know. Jesus insists, and I do not believe that he is mistaken, that the disciples do know these things. So why were they confused?

As is often the case with us as well, they tended to think about what Jesus said literally and in an earthly sense. Thomas likely assumed Jesus meant some location that one could find on a map, perhaps another town or city. Without knowing the destination it would be impossible to follow the route to get there.

However, Jesus was speaking figuratively of a journey of the soul and not just the body. Everything he had been teaching them was how to travel into a closeness with God, into oneness through love, and he had explained in detail how to do it. He had announced the coming near of God’s kingdom (Matthew 4:17) and had taught extensively how one might enter, receive, and live within it.

In some respects, Jesus had always been in that place.

That where I am, there you may he also. John 14:3

I and the Father are one. John 10:30

Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me . . . John 11:41-42

And yet, in another sense, he was returning to the closeness that he had previously shared with the Father (John 17:5). Jesus believed that he was headed into the beauty of a more profound fellowship and intimacy with his Father, which we commonly call heaven. Though he had emptied himself in becoming human (Philippians 2:6-7), Jesus lived his life thoroughly present to God, and God to him.

Our journey is into that rich fellowship with God. It is not to a place but into a love. We cross not physical distances, but come from the far country of spiritual separation, on account of our ignorance, rebellion, and willfulness, to the home of union with God.

When Jesus promises to be with us always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20), we are being assured that we are and will always be inseparably related to God throughout our life in this world. In a sense, we are always in heaven through the abiding presence of Christ.

Trusting Jesus, what he shows, teaches, and graciously does, is how we live into the kingdom, relationship, and presence of God. Jesus is clearly the way to this experience of love.

The disciples did know where Jesus was going. He was returning to the Father, the One he had shown them and into whose care he had entrusted them. The reign of God that Jesus announced and brought near is his gift to join into the eternal life of God’s presence.

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Confined To Our Thinking

Simon answered and said, “Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but I will do as You say and let down the nets.” Luke 5:5

When Peter, Andrew, James, and John were first given instructions by Jesus, they did not have great faith. In fact, they began reluctantly and with strong doubts. 

Peter did not believe any good would come from going out into deep water and letting the nets down again. Everything he knew about his family’s fishing business and past experience tells them that this is futile.

Their willingness to try, against all their better judgment and common sense, becomes the very way in which they experience God’s work. The type of faith which barely trusts, but is willing to attempt the unlikely, is the seed of spiritual renewal. We do not need great faith in God as much as to submit and attempt what God says, even if with skepticism.

Doing what God enjoins, is, in this sense, more important than believing anything particular about what God will or will not, can or cannot, do. I would much rather people attempt with doubts and skepticism to follow the teachings of Jesus, than profess great confidence in God but actually do little that they believe is nonsensical.

What could be nonsensical, you ask? Forgiving endlessly (Matthew 18:22). Loving your enemies (Matthew 5:44). Asking God to bless those who torment you (Romans 12:14). Hoping that none perish (1 Peter 3:9). Living as one already is in heaven (Ephesians 2:6). Eagerly waiting for Jesus’ return (Philippians 3:20). Not worrying about what you will eat, drink, or wear (Matthew 6:25). Need I say more? 

In fact, is not every teaching of Christ initially counter-intuitive? Who in their right mind would confess their sins, be servant of all, become as a little child, or die to themselves? The logic of the way of faith does not seem reasonable when we are not accustomed to a world of mercy and grace, of forgiveness and love, or where the first is last and the last is first.

We approach the life of discipleship, as we must, expecting it to make sense. Unfortunately, when it does not, we tend to construe the faith into a system of belief and life that does make sense to our unenlightened thinking, rather than allowing the “nonsensical” way of faith to renew our thinking. 

We expect there to be winners and losers in a way that subverts the possibilities of eternal love and unending mercy. We cannot imagine that God is bringing everything together in Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10), and so insist on what, or who, must be excluded and left out. 

Likewise, the bread and cup cannot be the body and blood of Christ, so we create alternatives to the unreasonable thought that we are eating God. We wrestle with the trinitarian nature of God because we depend on our limited thinking as the standard of what is possible. As long as we are confined to our thinking, holding to our reason, the mind of Christ will elude us.

There is a consistent logic to the life of faith, but such that it is neither one of the two options of the truly absurd nor what is reasonable to human thinking. The coherence of faith is another way entirely. The mind of Christ is granted through the Spirit, which requires that we let go of the thinking that comes most naturally to us, and learn another way. 

The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. 1 Corinthians 2:15-16

Our part in readying ourselves for this new manner of thinking begins with the intellectual humility to entertain what is revealed but seems strange and unreasonable. We hold it reverently, despite how our logic resists it, until the Spirit reveals God’s wisdom in what seemed intellectually not viable. We need to let our nets down into the deep when everything in us is insisting that doing this is nuts.

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Unknown Hope

If all you hope for is what you want, you don’t have much hope. Most of our wants are from the ego-centered self which dreams of arranging everything for its satisfaction. The Greeks warned that getting what you want, as seen in the tale about King Midas and his golden touch, is not as good as one might think.

For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. Galatians 5:17

The real dilemma is that my non-Spirit-derived longings do not appear to me to be a trap, at least not initially. In fact, these hopes often seem to me like the very expression of God’s will for me. Though I rarely find anything wrong with what I hope for, the content of my desires is where change needs to occur.

Part of our personal transformation is learning to not want what we typically desire, but to seek the unknown possibilities which would really satisfy. Our usual desires are too limited to give us true and enduring (eternal) life. 

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 1 Peter 2:11

As Peter declares, the not-at-all-virtuous longings that are common within me (sinful desires) war against who I actually am (soul). What I want in my self-serving impulses is ultimately self-destructive, rather than freeing or enriching. The limited future I humanly hope for, long for, and desire, is fundamentally incompatible with a much better possibility, but one which I cannot see or even imagine.

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Romans 4:18

Abraham is the model of hoping in a way that is a complete renunciation of what is reasonable or seems possible. His “hope against all hope” was trusting in what lies beyond plausible human thinking. He hoped for the unheard of.

By reaching all the way back to Abraham, Paul is making it clear that this type of hope in the unthinkable has always been the way to live with God. If we can fully comprehend what we are hoping for, our hope is too small to be what the Spirit gives.

In Christ, we long for an inexpressible “union with God” that cannot be defined or adequately described. Though we call this state of oneness and life with God “heaven”,  its reality is beyond knowing, except by experience.

“What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—
    the things God has prepared for those who love him—
these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.
1 Corinthians 2:9-10

God reveals by the Spirit not what no one has seen, heard, or conceived, as if now we know. What is revealed is that God plans for his beloved ones more than we can imagine. The Spirit is telling us to hope in a more beautiful future than can be named. This should not surprise us, for the Spirit ultimately moves in realms beyond words (Romans 8:26). 

The reason I sometimes say things like “whatever comes next” or “the life to come, whatever that means” is not that I am unaware of the descriptions of heaven in scripture (or hell, for that matter), but because I view those as poetic images to intrigue our imaginations and teach us. The realities are beyond words, just as our feeble attempts to speak of God always fall short.

Our sinful desires are well-defined in our minds. The desires of the Spirit are not just a switch to other well-defined, godly longings, though this change may be a start. Ultimately, the move is to a humble unknowing hope that trusts in what we know not.

If we detach our hope from what we find personally appealing for an openness to the unfathomable goodness of God, our hope is in the unknown. Here, we hope against all the hope that can be conceived in the human heart, and instead are waiting for what will be revealed.

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Afraid Not To Be Afraid

I have met too many Christians whose fear of God and of displeasing God have made it virtually impossible for them to experience peace or comfort. They are afraid of what God’s judgments, that they will anger God, and believe that only by being scrupulously careful to do everything correctly can they avoid condemnation.

This sense of fear is so endemic to their relationship with God that they equate this fearfulness with religious devotion. Constantly being on edge, because God will judge, is believed to be the proper emotional and psychological state of the faithful. Anything less is interpreted as not being committed to God.

These sincere but unfortunate believers affirm God’s love and grace, but in no practical sense do they experience the peace of being in God’s mercy. To suggest to them a less fearful way of relating to God sounds like you are attempting to lead them astray. 

If they were to actually relax into God’s gracious care, they would be losing their zeal and faith. They are afraid of not being afraid enough, and therefore retreat immediately from joy, peace, and hope. These graces do not seem godly to them, but signs of succumbing to spiritual malaise.

Certainly, scripture talks about fearing God, as in these passages:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. (Proverbs 1:6)

Fear God and keep his commandments. (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

I believe these statements are simply saying that God truly matters. God is important, vital, and to be taken seriously. God is not to be dismissed, discounted, ignored, or overlooked.

To fear God means to know that we need to be directing our constant attention to who God is, what God does, and to God’s will for us. To not fear God is to give no thought or consideration to the ways, words, or character of God.

In the process of human spiritual awakening, our first, unenlightened response to awareness of God is terror. Our innate sense of guilt makes us fear that God must be furious with us. The initial encounter with Light makes us ashamed of our own darkness, and we understandably assume, because we do not know God, that God’s reaction to our sinfulness must be similar to our own dark impulses. We are not gracious or forgiving.

Unfortunately, the language of “fearing God” fits our immature perspective and we imagine that we are to be in a constant state of dread of what God will do if we do not obey exactly as he wants. However, we do not know perfection, holiness, goodness, or love. Awareness of God’s existence without knowing God’s character means that we project our own assumptions onto God.

Terrible fear is normative for us when we are spiritually immature. The fear of judgment, punishment, and death is the tool that Satan uses to keeps us slaves. This is precisely what Jesus destroys.

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

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18

The word perfect here means complete, or mature. Until we realize that Satan has been using the terror of punishment to keep us captive, and that such fear is not the proper, God-given religious feeling, we cannot progress into life in God. 

The initial fearfulness of immaturity is swept away with God’s unexpected mercy and grace. We move from a fear nurtured by Satan, to hold us captive, to being enthralled with a God in whom our whole existence is kept in love.

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God’s Providential Care

Often we hear everything happens for a reason, God has a plan, or God is in control when something awful happens. These statements are meant to comfort us, saying that the terrible, unfortunate, or hurtful event is somehow part of some good that God is doing. It is part of his plan for us. 

The accurate part of these statements is that God does have a plan for us which is good. However, how are we to understand these situations? Are they purposefully caused by God as part of the plan he has set out for us? I do not think so. Instead, I believe that these are foreseen and anticipated by God, and he makes provision accordingly.

In other words, God knows what kinds of difficulties, tragedies, evils, and trials come upon us and is prepared in advance to aid us in all such times of trouble. This is the meaning of the familiar statement by Paul that God makes all things work together for good (Romans 8:28). All things are not good, nor are all things made to happen by God, though God is bringing to a good end all that does happen.

Consider Jesus’ comments on bad events or situations, such as concerning the man born blind (John 9:1-3), Pilate’s murder of the Galileans, and the victims of a fallen tower (Luke 13:1-4). Jesus does not say anything about God having a plan, nor that there is a good reason that we just cannot see. Doesn’t the  book of Job specifically refute the idea that every terrible occurrence is the work of God?

What scripture does teach can be summed up in the idea of God’s providence. Believing in the providence of God is not the same as believing that God is planning and causing every specific event, but is instead planning to bring about his good ends. God is always providing and making provision in response to evil events. 

Scriptures which teach this include Paul’s assurance that with temptation God provides a way of escape (1 Corinthians 10:13) and that grace is supplied to meet our struggles with the thorns of our flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). God’s providential care is the way angels come to minister to Jesus after his temptations (Matthew 4:11). The ravens bringing food to Elijah (1 Kings 17:2-16), water from the rock in the wilderness (Exodus 17), and numerous other examples show how God provides in our time of need. 

The story of Joseph’s life shows God’s providence. God did not cause his brothers to sell him into slavery, but God provided for him when they did. God did not cause Potiphar’s wife to falsely accuse him of sexual assault, but helped Joseph when she did.

On and on, his life’s story shows how God kept aiding Joseph through every evil event. This providential care Jospeh described as transforming what his brothers intended for evil, God intended for good (Genesis 50:20). 

The ultimate example of God’s providential care is that he receives Jesus at his death, when he says, “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). We are shown that we can also trust God with our life and death, for he will make provision for our care no matter what happens.

We live in hope because God is capable of responding to every attempt of evil to undo his good will for us. His grace restores and finishes what he began, overcoming evil with his good. 

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Ever-Present Grace

We should talk incessantly about grace, and attribute everything good, helpful, restorative, and loving to God’s grace. But what exactly do we mean by grace? For many, it is synonymous with forgiveness, as if speaking of grace is restricted to discussing God’s removal of our sin. We do need grace to be forgiven, but we also need grace to breathe (Acts 17:25)!

A common definition of grace is “unmerited favor”. This is a good definition unless we think that we only need this favor for forgiveness. In fact, we need the favor of God in order to live, move, and have our being (Acts 17:28). For what do we not need God’s undeserved goodness? What could we do apart form God’s help?

Grace is the constant and unstoppable movement of God. We should think of it as naming anything and everything that God does. Grace is the dynamic outpouring of God’s love, the pervading and sustaining power that animates and restores. Grace is constantly undoing the undoing of the world, because God is recreating all things.

Grace is not about a power that comes and goes, which is present only occasionally, bursting in at opportune moments. When we remind ourselves that such and such may be done by grace or require grace, we are calling ourselves to the remembrance of the energy of God’s healing mercy that is always present.

There is never a lack of grace, only the absence of awareness of the active mercy of God that fills everything. The appearing is perceptual on our part, just as the appearing of Christ was the revealing of the Christ who had always existed (John 1:1-3).

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age. Titus 2:11-12

When Paul says that grace has “appeared” he does not mean that it came into existence, arriving where it had not been previously. Instead, he means that the reality of the eternal grace has appeared to us. In other words, we became aware of what we had not known. It is like the sun which “appears” when the clouds part.

Our encounter with the underlying reality of mercy of God in the world radically transforms us. Paul says that experiencing grace changes how we live, because being aware of the fundamental nature of God in the world teaches us a new way to conduct ourselves in this world and empowers. Grace becomes the pattern for living “self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age”.

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The Goal of Teaching

The goal of this instruction is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 1 Timothy 1:5

In this passage Paul identifies the true goal of all spiritual and religious teaching. In contrast to the empty instruction of certain others which focused on matters that were meaningless in developing a spiritual life (1 Timothy 1:3-4), Paul says that what he teaches is to bring us into love.

If God is love, and God has created everything, then love is the source and origin of everything we know in the world. Traces and the imprint of eternal love is everywhere and in all that exists, even though God himself dwells in unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16), a poetic way of stating that though God is everywhere present he is not to be equated with the material world. 

Because divine love is true and makes everything what it is, spiritual teaching is focused on developing our understanding of, experience with, and participation in this ever-present divine love. Paul elaborates on three ways in which the love of God comes to us, which are therefore where we need to be shaped and formed. 

The first  he mentions is in the cultivation of a pure heart, which makes us immediately think of the beatitude, 

Blessed are the pure in heart,  for they will see God.  Matthew 5:8

Instead of being the source of only our emotions, perhaps we ought to think of “heart” in this context as our whole capacity for thought, feeling, perception, intuition, and wisdom, integrated and harmoniously submitted to God. For Paul, religious instruction is toward the cultivation of a pure heart so one “sees” God.

The second aim of teaching is to form a “good” conscience in us. This is not the same as a”clear” conscience (Acts 24:16). A clear conscience is one in which our inner sense of right and wrong does not find fault with ourselves, but this does not mean we are actually innocent (1 Corinthians 4:4). Having a clear conscience is not the same as having a good one.

A “good” conscience is acquiring an understanding of right and wrong that is well shaped and formed, where our sense is quite close to what truly emulates God’s nature. Everyone has a conscience, but those of some are not very helpful in actually directing them to be godly. 

A final focus of spiritual teaching is that is guides us into sincere faith. To truly and genuinely trust God is part of what it means to love God. This is why Jesus says that if we love him we will keep his commands (John 14:15), Obedience is the practice of sincere faith and a demonstration that the trust is being lived out.

I write this because awareness of why we are being taught can help us be better learners. The real goal is to be instructed in the love of God, so that we are living in harmony with the actual shaping drive of the universe. Learning the love of God will entail the purification of our mind-heart, the formation of a God-emulating conscience, and the instilling of a robust trust.

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