Faith and Courage

Faith is absolutely necessary in order for anyone to have a relationship with God and for any degree of spirituality. This is because faith is how we are able to interact with anything which exists beyond the plane of the physical and created world. The spiritual and unseen realities cannot be known through our earthly senses, but can be seen and touched through faith and love. Without these virtues, we will be restricted to knowing only earthly things, which are passing away, rather than being able to lift our minds to set them on “things above” (Colossians 3:2).

Too often faith is misunderstood and misrepresented, especially by those who are critical or doubtful of it, as the unreasonable determination to believe things that are contrary to reason or evidence. For some, religious faith as a kind of willful ignorance contrary to what we know. However, this idea sees faith primarily as holding a set of beliefs about things, beliefs cannot be verified through the physical senses, and are therefore suspect. 

In stark contrast, Christian faith is not mainly about believing certain things to be true or factual. Instead, faith is about trusting and relying on the undergirding reality of the spiritual realm, from which the physical world comes and on which it also depends. The substantive and eternal is what is unseen to human eyes, while the universe, which owes its existence to the unseen, is temporary and impermanent. 

Faith is primarily about trust, and this trust is the courageous willingness to let God be God. Jesus rarely speaks of courage. On only a few occasions does he  tell people to “take courage” (Matthew 9:2, 22, 14:27, Mark 6:50, John 16:33). However, we ought to recognize that every mention of faith and belief, which involves the humble admission that we are insufficient in ourselves and must turn to trust God, is an act of profound courage. From this perspective, Jesus is always talking about courage, and a very particular form involving trust in God. To let God be the God of wisdom, perfect will, and loving power, means abandoning any insistence on our preferences for how things ought to be. We submit to and rely on God’s will, trusting that what we do not understand nor want, may be exactly what will draw us into union with God. This is how faith is related to courage. In faith we find the boldness to risk, trust, attempt to follow with hope, and let go of what we want. 

The challenging reality is that it is far harder to trust God to do whatever he wills than to expect God to act in ways pleasing to us. Little faith or courage is required to trust if we think we will get what we want. But real courage and faith is not trusting in a particular outcome, but in whatever God may do. Since the whole creation is his, God graciously works through all of it in whatever manner he chooses, in ways that seem to be ordinary to us and may not notice, or in ways we cannot explain at al and call miracles. These extraordinary examples are not the only times God works, though they may be the most astounding.

Living by faith is taking the unseen spiritual realities to be of greater value and importance through our trust in God. All the intangibles, such as joy, peace, love, and hope, are only found through a spiritual life which is fundamentally based on courageous faith.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Christ and His Spirit

Perhaps you have seen pairs of practices listed which are biblical, that is, the actions can be found in scripture, but only one of which is Christlike. For instance, owning slaves and freeing slaves are both biblical, but only one is Christlike. Killing your enemies and loving your enemies are biblical, but only one is Christlike. The same can be said for repaying an eye for an eye and forgiving all wrongs; for stoning evildoers and having dinner with them. On and on we could go. Taken literally, as a whole, the Bible is unclear about what is righteous and unrighteous. Murder is forbidden in the Ten Commandments, but Elijah slays the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:40). What are we to think and do?

We are not the first to recognize the scripture’s contradictory portrayals of what is godly. The early church saw the problem too. Aware of this, Paul declares that only in Christ is the veil which keeps us from understanding the scriptures removed (2 Corinthians 3:14). The letter, the literal reading, kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6). When we confess Jesus as Lord, the one who is the image of God and in whom the divine fullness dwells (Colossians 1:15,19), we are saying that he is the lens through which to read all scripture. Christ teaches us to distinguish what is consistent with God from what is not when looking at the history of Israel’s attempts to follow God.

To know Christ and his Spirit is essential to understanding how to read the scriptures. Without Jesus showing us the true heart and love of God, we would not be able to sort our way through the contradictory statements and examples found in the Bible. Are we warmakers or peacemakers? Do we take the lives of the wicked or lay down our own lives, taking up the cross? The way we make sense of all the stories and claims is by interpreting metaphorically anything which is inconsistent with Christ, so as to make it about Christ figuratively, and interpreting literally anything which is true to Christ.

For instance, when we are told to love our neighbors as ourselves we take this literally. When we read that Jewish men in Ezra’s time were told to divorce their foreign wives (Ezra 10:10-12), or that Joshua was to slaughter all the children of the Canaanites (1 Samuel 15:3), we take those as figurative ways of telling us to address our sinfulness. When we know Christ, we cannot advocate breaking marriage vows based on racial differences any more than we can believe Jesus would say to act like Herod the Great and kill babies. Christ and his Spirit lead us.

In Acts, it is the Spirit sent by Christ that guides the early church. When the Spirit is active among the Samaritans, the church does not resist or dispute the Spirit’s presence, but rather changes its perspective to include what the Spirit is doing (Acts 8). When the Spirit comes upon Cornelius and his household, the church again accepts the Gentiles, though without the Spirit’s obvious coming it would have been unthinkable. Christ and his Spirit are leading his disciples into what is new, a radical departure from their traditional ways of understanding God and his will for them, and all is now reinterpreted through Christ himself.

Christ, through his example and Spirit, has always been leading the church out of its own worst versions of itself, shedding prior paradigms for the disruptive coming of the Kingdom of God. We read not only the history of Israel from the perspective of Christ, but also the history of the church. The pronouncements and practices of the church thought he centuries has been sometimes as morally compromised and blatantly opposed to Christ as any of the actions of ancient Israel. Racism, slavery, the mistreatment of women, the persecution of unbelievers and the murder of heretics, pursuing worldly power, the failure to care for creation, division and sectarianism, war and violence, and many other sins are indisputably part of the history of the church. Only through Christ do fresh prophetic voices discern the wheat from the tares, the way of the Spirit of Christ from our horrific failures, calling us to repent, mourn, and follow Christ.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Spirit of Obedience

In his letter to the Romans, Paul twice uses the phrase “obedience of faith.” In  1:5 he states Jesus Christ gave grace and apostleship in order to bring the nations to this obedience of faith. In 16:26 it is the revelation of the mystery of Jesus Christ which is now known through the preaching of the gospel, and also through the scriptures of the prophets as they are now understood in the light of Christ, that is leading the nations to this obedience of faith.

The fact that Paul speaks of an “obedience of faith” contrasts with any idea of obedience as mere compliance. Dutiful action which conforms to and aligns with instruction or command, can occur out of fear, compulsion, a desire to please, to be rewarded, or obligation, but that would not be the obedience of faith. While it would be obedience in a literal sense, it would simply be a form of outward conformity that does not arise from trust. 

Paul’s desire is for an obedience which is given willingly, lovingly, and joyfully. He states boldly that the only thing that matters is “faith expressing itself in love” (Galatians 5:6), and so when he talks about obedience he imagines a love-expression of faith.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. John 14:15

Jesus’ own wish is that his followers respond out of love. We will receive little benefit for ourselves if we obey from something other than faith expressing itself in love. We will not be acting like Jesus if we compel obedience from others on any other basis.

Jesus called people to this “obedience of faith” when he said “follow me”. The obedience of Christian faith is not to a set of rules, to the letter which kills, but according to the Spirit who gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6). Such obedience is a way of living which imitates the Lord as empowered and taught by his Spirit.

You are to Imitate me, just as I imitate Christ. 1 Corinthians 11:1 

Not only are Jesus’ desires not fulfilled by grudging compliance, fear-driven adherence, or legalistically minded duty, imitation only flourishes from hearts that hunger and thirst for righteousness. To follow Jesus unwillingly would not be to follow him at all, for he went to the cross of his own accord and not because he was compelled (John 10:18). How else could we bear the cross like him except by an obedience/imitation which we choose freely out of love?

The language of imitation is the language of obedience, not to a list of rules, but as shaped according to a manner of life in faith and love. To obey Christ is to imitate him. Obedience within the community of believers is likewise not a matter of commands issued, edicts given, and instructions mandated, but rather a wholistic life of faith modeled so that in all things we are imitating Christ.

Admittedly, obedience can sound like such a legalistic term precisely because it is employed extensively by those who seem to know only how to live according to the letter and not the Spirit. However, we ought not to let the definition be improperly made to be legalistic. When separated from faith, hope, and love, demanded with the constant “or else” of subtle or explicit censure or punishment, our walk ceases to be the “obedience of faith” and becomes the “obedience of fear”. Such submission is unknown and undesired by either Jesus or his apostles.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Journey of the Mind

For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ. 1 Corinthians 2:16

Surely, if we can speak about the mind of Christ, we would do well to discuss the mind of Satan too. I do not mean the one that exists within Satan, his own mind, but our mind when turned in a devilish way. The mind of Christ is what exists among us corporately when together we are the body of Christ and begin receiving his mind. This shared “way of mind” is attuned to that of Christ himself, and is so very different from a Satan-influenced mind.

So, what would be characteristic of our human mind when distorted? It would always deceive us, for Satan is a liar from the beginning and the father of lies (John 8:44). Such a mindset would always be suspicious of God’s goodness, constantly suggesting that God’s supposed good is a ruse and cover for God’s self-interest (Genesis 3:4-5). It would also be characterized by constant accusation, fault-finding, and negativity, regarding ourselves and others, for Satan is the accuser (Revelation 12:10). This mind cannot not be at peace, but is always agitated and discontented. Fear, timidity, and self-centeredness are the marks of a mind that is set on the flesh rather than the Spirit (Romans 8:6).

For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son. Colossians 1:13

The spiritual journey for us all is the journey from the mind of Satan to that of Christ. We are born into a world under the sway of evil spiritual forces (1 John 5:19), and consequently the first mind we develop will reflect the darkness into which we come. Godly parents and community may mitigate that some, so that we we are also witnesses to the Light in our early life, but we all need a renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). We are children of darkness first.

For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. 1 Corinthians 2:11

The Spirit of God brings us to the mind of God which is in Christ. Though this is  the work of grace in the Spirit, we must also participate in the renewing of our patterns of thought. Paul’s instruction to think on virtuous and godly things (Philippians 4:8) is obviously a practice which helps to renew our minds and exorcise the negative, evil, accusatory, doubting, distrusting, and malicious mind of Satan. We must not only know the mind of Christ as revealed to us by the Spirit, conscious of the good and gracious way to which our thoughts ought to be turned, but we must know and identify the mind of Satan so that we may recognize when its patterns are taking over our thoughts. 

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. Galatians 5:19-21

Notice how what Paul calls the “works” or “deeds” of the flesh are also clearly thoughts, ideas, and patterns within the mind. Idolatry is not only the act of bowing to something other than God, but the prior disposition of the mind to give homage to the created rather than the Creator. Even though Paul here describes outward actions, these are the expressions of some source within the  mind. Sinful actions do not erupt out of nothing. On the contrary, our behaviors are coming from the fertile field of our inner thoughts. The mind is not sterile nor impotent, but very capable of driving either good or evil behaviors depending on what it entertains and embraces, in terms of patterns of thought, beliefs, or subjects. 

We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. 2 Corinthians 10:5

What is raised up against the knowledge of God, and the mind of Christ, is the mind of Satan. As Paul admonishes, all this must be destroyed. Every thought must be harnessed and made to conform to Christ’s own obedience. When our thinking is anchored to Christ’s example of faith, obedience being the practice of faith, then we will, with the Spirit’s work and guidance, grow more of the mind of Christ.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Christ Reveals the Eternal

And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.” Matthew 26:27–28

These words to the disciples when Jesus inaugurates the sacrament which we call the Lord’s Supper. We may notice something odd, or at least unexpected, because Jesus says the cup is his blood “which is poured out” and not “which will be poured out”. He says this on Thursday evening even though he won’t die until the next day. Literally, his blood had not yet been poured out.

Paul’s account of that event in 1 Corinthians 11:24 quotes Jesus as saying, “This is My body, which is broken for you”. Some Greek copies of this letter read simply “which is for you”. In the first version the bread is already his broken body though his body has not yet been broken. In the second reading the bread is “for them” though it had not yet been “given” on the cross. Why is the language in the present tense and not the future tense? Why say “is” when it seems like it ought to be “will be”?

We are noticing the simply stated and yet deeply profound truth, that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). What happens in specific events during Jesus’ earthly life is what has always been true. In these events we have the revelation of the eternal nature of God and not the occurrence of something new for God. We might think that when Jesus goes to the cross God becomes the God of the cross, but this is not true. God has always been the God of the cross, though he was not known to us in this way until Jesus was lifted up.

The moment of the Son becoming incarnate in the womb of Mary reveals that God, in another and very real sense, has always been incarnate. Nothing changed in the nature, heart, mind, or will of God. Instead, by taking on human flesh within history God reveals himself to be, in a mystical way of thinking, the eternally incarnate God. 

In Jesus, God is showing us not a new and evolving self but his eternal self through what takes place in the course of time. Returning  to the verses with which I began, the body of Christ has always been broken and his blood always poured out. John can rightfully call Jesus “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). The cross, though it occurs as a historical event within the created world, reveals an eternal God whose love has always been cross-shaped.

This spiritual, and not fleshly, manner of thinking about God requires us to suspend our habit of looking at things chiefly through the lens of history, as if the sequence of historical events is the deepest reality. We typically think of history as true, when we ought to think of God as True and history as the revelation of him. God is all that is Real, and earth’s history is an unfolding of the divine reality for our wonder and joy.

For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. Colossians 1:16

What may not occur to us, wedded as we are to seeing history as what is ultimately real, is the possibility that what Paul is saying here is less about Christ being at the beginning of history’s timeline but Christ being its beginning. Though Jesus is born somewhere in the middle of history, he is actually its source, its beginning, and the Creator. In a spiritual way of thinking which ponders eternal realities rather than historical and time-bound events, creation happens when Jesus Christ is born. The heavens and earth that we read are created in Genesis, are created by, in, and for Jesus. 

Obviously, this is not a historical way of thinking, which is about the only way we  ever think. Looking at eternal things beyond and without reference to time, itself a created thing, forsakes history as the standard and instead adopts Christ as the true and real standard. True history begins when God becomes man, the first real human.

Because Christ is himself the real beginning, we look back at what occurred before Christ in time and it is all remade and understood differently. We have a new point of beginning . . . when God sent his Son . . . and everything that had already happened in time changes and takes on new meaning. When we think like Christians, everything’s true beginning is in a manger in Bethlehem. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word became flesh (John 1:1, 14).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Faith We Need To Lose

And He said, “See to it that you are not misled; for many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not go after them. Luke 21:8

The only hope that does not disappoint is looking for God to restore all creation in the triumph of love. Our faith that the selfless, longsuffering, and eternally gracious One, who created all things, will restore them, means having no confidence in all other would-be saviors. Jesus warned his disciples about others who would come after him claiming to be the messiah, who would declare that the time had arrived for salvation to be realized in the way they were wanting it. Jesus said do not be fooled and deceived. There is only one Christ, and only he will be All and in all (Colossians 3:11). The glorious end is in the wholeness of all things, when God is All in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).

We ought not to think that Jesus’ words only warned his disciples back then and are not for us as well. He also is not only telling us to be aware of cultish leaders, egotistical and deluded people who make outrageous claims and want their followers to move onto secluded compounds. His cautionary words equally encompass the more typical purported  “saviors” of our time: economic engines of prosperity, political parties, scientific advances, social movements, or the promises of legislative initiatives. How often the hope has been “if only this law, this leader, this implementation of an ideology, this technology, then we will have made a better world.” We need to lose our faith in all these other would-be saviors.

The new heavens and earth will be God’s creation and will not arrive because of votes we cast, laws passed or repealed, economic policies enacted, new and innovative technologies, nor because some charismatic leader promises great things. Though some people hope for a change from the top, from the corridors of power, and others look for a grassroots effort will be the impetus of renewal, only Christ is the source of life. Scrutinize all the institutions, structures, ideologies, and movements large and small, and you will still not find a savior worthy of your faith.

More or less good may be realized in limited ways through any these, but not what will set the world right. Whatever progress we manage to achieve is plagued and twisted by our own weaknesses. We will eventually be disappointed when the movement fails to bring about permanent and substantive change, when the leaders were not what they seemed to be, and when what seemed like a true hope of progress merely switched who was favored and who was disenfranchised.

Am I cynical? Yes, about social movements, grand human plans, leaders making audacious promises, and the strength of nations . . . and I believe you should be too! We ought to be wary of earthly solutions and hopeful only in the person of Christ and his working. Refusing to put our faith in other supposed messiahs, and even in our own efforts, is a virtue. 

Whatever we try to do must be grounded in a belief that beyond, within, over, and transcending all our energies and good intentions is the movement of divine Love, which alone brings real change and newness. We view our own attempts at justice, goodness, reconciliation, and making a better world, as mere shadows and hints of the work which only God can do. Our longing is to join God and trust in God working in Christ to redeem the world, leaven society, and alter the tragic course of human foolishness. 

Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:14b-15

Jesus announced the coming of God’s Kingdom, which was the world-changing inauguration of God’s ways being done on earth as they are in heaven. In believing his gospel we trust that God himself is doing what none of us can possibly accomplish individually or collectively. And yet, we imitate and enact what we understand to be the ways of God’s reign without the least bit of confidence in our efforts. Instead, we nurture a radical trust that God is bringing a new creation. Jesus is the only true Savior of the world. We have no other faith.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Parable About Legalism

Jesus tells a parable in Luke 18:9-14 about a Pharisee and tax collector going to the temple to pray. He directed this story “to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt.” In other words, he was addressing legalists who thought their obedience and adherence to laws and commands made them right in God’s eyes. These people trusted in what they did rather than what God does.

I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted. Luke 18:14

When Jesus says the tax collector went to his house “justified” he means that in God’s eyes he was righteous. To his legalistic hearers this was a shocking assertion since by the tax collector’s own admission he was a “sinner”. They would certainly have thought so as well and looked down on him for his “lifestyle” of sin. 

The Pharisee, on the other hand, who was a morally upright man and was held in high regard by the common people for being holy, cited in his prayer his many good deeds and ways in which he was obedient to the law of Moses. Jesus did not dispute the Pharisee’s obedience and morality, but he said the tax collector nonetheless went home justified rather than the Pharisee. Though an upstanding man in many regards, the Pharisee who was trusting in his obedience was not justified in God’s eyes.

To be sure, Jesus himself kept all the law and prophets, and taught others to so as well. Jesus did what was good and right, and was obedient to the Father, but he was no legalist. According to Jesus, all that Moses and the prophets said was actually about love (Matthew 22:40), and yet careful and consistent obedience to those teachings is not what makes a person righteous. We are not righteous because we love God and others. We are not justified by what we do no matter how much our actions align with God’s commands. Would the  Pharisee have been justified if he had listed that he loved his neighbors, gave to the poor, and cared for the needy, instead of what he did list? No, it was not that he was not doing the right things, but that he was trusting in what he was doing instead of in God himself. 

The parable portrays the way for us to be righteous. The tax collector, whose deeds were sinful, in humility asked for God to be merciful. What does his request show? Faith in God. He trusts God to forgive and has no faith in trying to do enough good deeds. He has faith in God and does not count on his own obedience. Jesus teaching that just like with Abraham, it is the faith of those who trust God which is credited to them as righteousness (Genesis 15:6).

The virtue of humility which gives rise to the tax collector’s faith, even though a person’s sins may be numerous, is far more significant than the virtue of moral uprightness, especially when tainted by sinful pride and a legalistic outlook. Both men in this story have sins: the tax-collector has too many to innumerate, and the Pharisee has sinful pride and contempt for others. Each also has virtue, the tax collector has humility that leads to faith, and the Pharisee a moral life. But the Pharisee is a legalist who has faith in himself and his obedience. The tax collector has faith in God alone, and that makes all the difference. 

Legalism was a problem in Jesus’ day. It is a problem in ours as well. In every age, a legalistic mentality can ensnare anyone who genuinely wants to follow God and do good. We so easily think of what progress we have made, which has occurred through grace, as having been due to our own efforts. We then think that this good behavior makes us worthy, and also better than others. 

In truth, God makes righteous all who trust in him irrespective of their many moral or immoral actions. Those God justifies he also glorifies (Romans 8:30), that is, brings to share in his glorious nature. God will make those who are righteous by faith to be righteous in deeds as well.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Culture in Everything

To be a Christian is to live in a certain manner, namely, in imitation of Christ. We are to become little versions of our Lord. This way of conducting oneself, while not deriving its basis from culture, is always culturally expressed. The imitation of Christ is rooted in the teaching, example, and ultimately the Spirit of Jesus, but we need to understand the inescapable role of culture as well. In fact, we cannot even think of Jesus’ example and teaching without our culture being involved because all our words and their meanings are culturally defined.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. Romans 15:7

Taking this instruction as a simple example, we are to be hospitable to all people, to fellow Christians (1 Peter 4:9) and also to strangers (Hebrews 13:2). The theological grounding of hospitality is the welcoming of God as revealed to us by the love of Christ. We might think that we can understand this apart from our culture, but that is not actually possible. We can only think about being hospitable in a specific cultural way. What it means to be hospitable in the highlands of Papua New Guinea is not the same as how one is welcoming in Hong Kong. What constitutes hospitality in one setting would not be hospitality in another. Offering to wash a guest’s feet was required hospitality in Judea in Jesus’ day but would be a strange gesture among people living in Chicago today.

The Maasai of East Africa show respect and greet one another by spitting at each other. That would not seem hospitable to us, but rather offensive and a sign of disrespect. Do we greet with a kiss (Romans 16:16), a handshake, or spitting? Our culture dictates how we live out the way of Christ. As soon as we hear “welcome one another” or “be hospitable”, appropriate ways of doing this according to whatever culture we are in come to mind. 

My point is that the way to practice what Jesus taught has not been frozen in time to a particular, specific cultural expression, but finds new forms in new contexts. We hear the gospel and then respond according to the love of Christ in a our cultural context. We know that all cultures change. Egyptian culture today is not what it was in the time of the pharaohs. In fact, culture is always changing, and so the way in which the life of Jesus is lived out is always evolving as well. We must adapt in order to continue to be the authentic expression of Jesus in the current culture in which we live. To insist we continue to welcome in the same way will actually cease to be welcoming as a culture changes. What will it mean to be hospitable and welcoming in the future? We cannot know, though it will likely be somewhat like it is now and somewhat different. 

In our calling to imitate Christ, we pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Being hospitable is rather innocuous compared to more complex matters, like what constitutes meaningful practices of justice, forgiveness, righteousness, and mercy. Our prayer is for help from God to discern ever more carefully the best manner to do all things with grace and love in our particular place and time, that we may imitate Christ in a relevant way. When Paul talks about being all things to all people (1Corinthians 9:19-23), he is not trying to be a people-pleaser, but knows imitating Christ looks different in each cultural context.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cross-Shaped Living

For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. 1 Corinthians 2:2

When Paul says he “determined” to know nothing but Jesus and his cross, he is declaring that his focus on the cross is an intentional decision. It is no accident or afterthought. He deliberately resolves to go about everything with Jesus as his starting point, and in this regard, he bases all on one essential truth, the cross. Does he neglect the teachings and works of Jesus? No, he discards nothing. He knows that the cross sums up all the teaching and works of Jesus into one extraordinary and spectacular revelation, namely, that God died for the world.

This approach is not one he chose to adopt specifically and uniquely for the people in Corinth, but is his singular focus always, and his way of looking at everything everywhere. There is one thing he now knows, and knows he knows, and that is the cross of Christ.

Paul does not begin with the cross and the Old Testament scriptures, or the cross and the law of Moses and the traditions of the Pharisees, in which he had been schooled. No, Jesus and his cross has become for him the sole truth, the singular revelation of God which is large enough to hold everything we need for life. Starting with the cross, he tore down and rebuilt everything he thought he had known. He had to “unknow” what he had known and begin afresh with a new foundation, the cross of Jesus. The cross does not merely supplement his previous understandings of righteousness, mercy, sacrifice, holiness, goodness, forgiveness, love, or anything else. The cross demands he rethink everything he had understood previously, and that robust, singular, and exclusive focus becomes the sole subject informing how he lives and what he preaches.

For example, the way Paul understands righteousness and obedience to the law is now in light of the cross. Due to the cross, righteousness cannot be from our keeping laws. In fact, keeping laws, whether of society in general or those of Moses for Jews, is envisioned as joining with the cross of Jesus. Our obedience is like Christ’s, an act of faith, and faith is that through which grace saves (Ephesians 2:8). There is a call for obedience, an “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5), but it does not challenge the grace of God displayed in the cross. Such obedience lives out and celebrates grace.

When we read Paul’s letters, he is reflecting and expanding always on this one truth of the cross. Every word of guidance, every instruction and insight, is drawn from the revolutionary, worldview shattering, and disorienting-reorienting revelation of the cross. God has died, God suffers. God is self-sacrificing. God loves to his own hurt. God forgives his enemies even before they repent or believe. God defeats sin by absorbing its worst manifestations. God destroys death, the wages of sin. God acts freely out of love. God brings life from death. The cross is God doing for all creation what could not otherwise be done: the destruction of all that corrupts and the reestablishment of wholeness again.

We are called to imitate Paul’s ‘cross and cross only’ focus (1 Corinthians 4:16). We do not “bear the cross” only in some instances, but in all things. Taking up the cross is not only a way of referring to hardships we are called to endure with patience and faith, but is the essential form and pattern of every aspect of life in Christ. The cross should shape every decision, every action, and every attitude that we cultivate or reject. Is this a cross-bearing way to act, speak, or think? In what I am planning to do, am I reflecting what the cross of Christ makes clear about God? Is this a participation in the cross of Christ?

When the revelation of the cross controls our present, we live conformed to what it reveals. We glory in weakness, vulnerability, powerlessness, and selflessness. We do not seek to control, but to follow. Consequently, we will appear as aliens and strangers in a world that sees the cross as an utterly foolish way to live (1 Corinthians 1:18).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Unknown Journey

I heard somewhere that “the true self is embodied more than understood.” I am not sure that this is an exact quote of what was said or simply my recollection, but when I heard the statement it seemed intuitively true. Most times when something immediately strikes me as correct it is because it indicts me. It is indeed too easy for me, and I believe for many of us, to substitute holding a new idea for real change and talking about something instead of doing anything. We may think we have progressed simply because we are now more aware that there is a true self, which is how we are known to God. Realizing that the present way we think of ourselves is a false construct, and not the true self, does not mean we have actually changed. We may overestimate the depth of our understanding as well, especially if we have yet to live into anything new in a regular, daily rhythm.

Clearly, in most situations we do need to learn about and consider some change or path for growth before we begin a new practice. Trying to understand can be a necessary prelude to implementation, experimentation, and ultimately to transformation, but it can also become a barrier to substantive growth. We may be fooled into believing we have already progressed significantly by simply hearing and thinking about something new.

We ought not believe that our growth toward a more authentic and true self, the person who God created to reflect both his image and likeness, can be fully understood. It cannot. While we are still very much living in a false sense of ourselves we cannot have an accurate understanding of what it would be like to be stripped of all that untrue self. Understanding is not possible before we have actually lived it. Unfortunately, we do not perceive ourselves well even in our present condition, much less have trustworthy impressions of what we would be like if we were more like those God made us to be. We chronically underestimate how poorly we see things spiritually.

But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! Matthew 6:23

One might counter what I am saying by pointing out that Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15) and also the one we will be like as we grow “to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). Doesn’t this mean that we can understand the true self because it is being like Jesus? 

True, but we must also humbly ask ourselves if we understand Jesus all that well. Isn’t the way we see Jesus often a self-justifying portrait that is very similar to who we think we are? Though we are supposed to be transformed into his likeness, we tend to transform him into our likeness even as we read the gospels. Our ideas about what it means to be like Jesus in everyday life are shaped by our own need to feel good about ourselves, even though the Spirt is seeking to convict us of where we are wrong (John 16:8). So, what are we to do? 

The way forward is through the regular practice of the Christian virtues. Spiritual disciplines focused on cultivating virtues move us toward our true self even when we do not yet understand the actual true self. We start to embody the change and the true self before we understand it. We don’t even have to understand the virtues that well! To make an attempt at living in faith, hope, and love, even when imperfectly understood, opens in us the space for the Spirit to change us in ways we could not have planned. We do not know who we will be, or ought to be. 

When we persist in attempting to take on virtuous attitudes, actions, and perspectives, our inner selves begin to shift toward God in ways we may or may not have anticipated. This is why we need to remember that the true self is more embodied than understood. We are to strive to conform ourselves to the virtues of joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, goodness, and humility. Living by grace into these elemental traits of divine love will change us and is the spiritual road toward a true self who is in union with God.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment