God of Peace

God is like a mirror because our thoughts about God are actually an accurate reflection of what is inside our hearts, and generally has little to do with who God truly is. We imagine God acting as we would in all circumstances, even though God has constantly said that he is not like us.

I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I devastate Ephraim again. For I am God, and not a man— the Holy One among you. I will not come against their cities. Hosea 11:9

Hosea’s message is one of unbelievable forgiveness and mercy. While men would surely destroy their enemies, God says that he will not. Despite what God says, we still persist in imagining God acting as we would.

One tragic misunderstanding about God is that God detests us because of our sinfulness. Many believe that God cannot stand being around us, that his anger is directed toward us, and that only Jesus, by dying on the cross, can avert this fearsome wrath of his Father. We are projecting on God our attitudes, thinking that God must be as angry and bitter as we would to be toward those who mistreat or disobey us.

For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Romans 5:11

These words of Paul are not describing God’s animosity toward us. The truth is, God has never considered us his enemies. We are the ones who hate, not God. In our minds we make God our enemy, though we are not enemies in his eyes.

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. Colossians 1:21

Paul says that it is in our minds that the hostility and animosity occurs. We make God our enemy in the way we think, and then project on God what we believe must be his attitude toward us. Though our ungodly behavior makes us believe this must be the case, the alienation is on our part and not God’s. Actually, in God’s eyes we are beloved children, disobedient for sure, but always loved.

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 5:1

We have peace with God through Jesus Christ, not because Jesus soothed his Father’s anger by satisfying his requirement that sinners be punished, Jesus taking our place. Instead, Jesus, by submitting to our worst and forgiving us anyway, breaks the human logic that believes we are enemies of God, winning us with impossible love. We can hardly maintain a mindset of being enemies of God when God becomes one of us, serves us, we kill him, he forgives us from the cross, and then rises from the dead, not to take vengeance, but to invite us to join him at his banquet table!

As others have said, Jesus does not change the mind of his Father about us, but our minds about God. Welcome to the Kingdom of the peacemaking God!

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Truth Worth Discussing

Frequently we hear how someone needs to speak his or her “truth”. The good and important sentiment of this expression is that we ought to listen to what other people have to say about their perception and experience. Especially when another person’s experience is very different from my own, they do need to speak “their truth” in the sense of adding it to the human conversation.

Aside from the emphasis on listening to the thoughts, experience, and perspective of others, which is quite essential for our collective good, the downside of this terminology is that the phrase also marginalizes what the person is saying. While I may listen politely to “their truth”, why should I concern myself with what they say, other than acknowledging that they have that perspective? After all, they claim to be telling me their individual truth, and that does not affect me, if indeed truth is merely the possession of each individual. I do not have to take it seriously.

Though this terminology is supposed to bring more voices into the conversation, instead it fragments any sense of a common and shared reality to which we all must give attention for our well-being. We are split into small, or even individual identities, not having enough in common that deserves our collective scrutiny. Why discuss our various individual truths?

A better way of describing what we need is to engage with one another in seeking the common and shared truth of our human existence. We are inevitably dependent on one another no matter how much we falsely believe we can manage on our own. I cannot dismiss someone else’s perspective when I believe we have a shared stake in a common truth. The truth worth discussing, and which I must take seriously, is the one which is endemic to being human. Don’t tell me your truth, tell me your experience and perspective on our truth, and challenge my belief that I have the truth and what is real totally within my grasp. Insist that your experience and perspective be part of the human understanding though it differs from mine.

The problem is that certain segments of society, particular groups within society, typically those with the most power at any given time, have throughout history believed that they alone knew what was true. That group understood and viewed reality in a certain way, and so they marginalized others and any differing perspectives. The voices of the weak are ignored, after all, how could the God of an enslaved people be worth heeding?

Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.”
(Exodus 5:2)

I believe the Christian way of thinking is to trust that all truth is God’s, as embodied in the Christ-experience, and we humbly seek to grasp more and more of God in all things. We do not possess the truth, but rather it takes hold of us and is bigger than us because God is truth. Discussing truth is a way of talking about God. God is our God, and the truth of God is our truth. This is why listening to others is necessary.

If I happen to be in a privileged group today, probably through no personal choice but because of my birth in a particular place and time, and social forces, then I must make a special effort to listen to those who do not experience life as I do. We have a common human meaning and purpose because one Creator and has made this diverse human family.

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. (Acts 17:26-27)

Our searching for God is not an individual effort or work of some select group, but the quest of the whole human family. From vastly different “places” where God has put us, we reach out for God. From our various God-ordained circumstances we have encountered certain aspects of the truth of God. When shared, our gropings, and by grace, findings, open us to the vastness of God who has revealed himself to us.

By all means, tell me what you have experienced. Insist that your perspective pertains to our truth, the beauty and mystery of our human encounter with God. Let us share in a common quest, each contributing to the conversation . . . one worth having.

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The “Only” Problem

We have an unfortunate habit of inserting the word “only” into many scriptures, which drastically changes the meaning. We do not actually write the word in, but mentally we add it without realizing what we are doing.

To illustrate what I mean, let me first use an analogy of throwing a party. Imagine that I am planning a party and say, “I will let in everyone who is wearing a red tie.” Then, imagine that on the evening of the party someone shows up with a red tie with blue dots, what do you think I will do? What if someone shows up with a blue tie with red stripes? Suppose people show up with blue ties and no ties, cowboy string ties, some red and some not, bowties, and every style and color imaginable. What would people think if I invite everyone in, whether they have a tie or not?

I know that some who dutifully wore their red ties will be unhappy because they will think it unfair that I let in the tieless after they went through the trouble of wearing a red tie. The problem is that they thought I said “I will only let in everyone who is wearing a red tie.” They inserted an “only” into my original statement. By promising to do one thing, they surmised that I would only do that and nothing more. 

Certainly, to be true to my word I am obligated to do what I promised, but I am not limited to doing only what I promised. My promise to let in red tie wearers did not imply that all others would be kept out. I just did not say what I would do about them. After all, it’s my party!

My analogy is essentially Jesus’ parable of the workers (Matthew 20:1-16). God will keep his promises and can be as generous as he pleases. Our problem with inserting “only” occurs consistently whenever we hear God’s promises. For instance, when we hear that those who do such and so will receive eternal life, we automatically think that those who do not do such and so will not, even if that was never said. We tend to think that every affirmative statement implies a negative one, but that is simply not the case theologically or logically.

Consider these passages that have no “only” in them:

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” John 6:35

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9

How easily we include an “only” into these verses! Only whoever comes to me will never go hungry . . . only if we confess our sins will we be forgiven.

We turn a verse promising forgiveness whenever we confess our sins into one that says that only confessed sins can be forgiven. Huh? What about the sins that we are unaware of? We can hardly confess those, and according to the “only logic” which distorts promises into their negative opposite, we can never be forgiven.

To fully address our “only” problem, we also need to distinguish between the promises of God and warnings from God. Promises are what God will do because he said it and he is faithful. These are invariably good and for our good, even if we do not realize it. 

“God never harms his creature, neither in this world nor in the world to come.” Vladika Lazar

God does not promise to do what he warns against, because God is warning not aboutwhat he will do, but what will happen if we pursue some sinful path. As I discussed in my blog post “Easter & Death” (5/20/2019), God warned Adam of dying if he ate the fruit; God did not promise to kill Adam. Too often we read God’s warnings as if they are promises to do harm, and also see phantom negative corollaries to God’s promises to bless and help.

For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. 2 Corinthians 1:20-22

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Ever Growing

A significant barrier to spiritual progress is when we fail to understand or expect a process of continual development in which what was learned has to be unlearned, to some extent, in order to move forward. Sometimes this seems like regression, or appears to be senseless, rather than a deliberate and necessary way of growing. To those who think of themselves as having fully arrived, the invitation to learning more is disturbing, particularly when it entails discovering that what they have previously understood is not totally true.

Consider an analogy from mathematics. We all learned very young that 2 + 2 = 4. We did not know it at the time but we were adding numbers in what we call “base ten”, where there are ten numerals, 0-9. When we want to go count beyond 9 we continue with two numerals, a 1 and 0, and so on. We all began with this system of addition.

Later on, a math teacher introduced us to addition in bases other than base ten. For instance, in base four there are only four numerals, 0-3. So the sequence of numbers is 0, 1, 2, 3, 10, 11, 12, 13, 20 and so on. In base four 2 + 2 = 10!

When we were taught that 2 + 2 = 4 we had no idea that this sum would not always be true. In math we have to learn the basics, but as we are taught more complex principles, we somewhat “unlearn” what initially seemed the only right answer. Progress in ever more advanced equations means unlearning in order to gain more knowledge.

The process of spiritual growth is very similar. What we learn along the way casts in new light what we learned earlier. Often we recognize that our earlier understanding, while not wholly wrong, was somewhat incorrect because it was incomplete. Our initial grasp was limited and now we need to modify our thinking. 

Unfortunately, when we do not expect this to happen spiritually, it is as if the arithmetic we learned in kindergarten is all the math there is. We can become alarmed to find out that what we learned about spiritual matters earlier was only partially correct and needs to be revised.

In the broadest terms Israel’s scriptures, which the Jews divided in the law, the prophets, and the writings, shows us this process. The law, which gives clear instructions and distinguishes good from evil, is where we must start. This is the needed beginning but hardly very far along the process. 

Later, the prophets began to explain, among other things, the limitations of the law. We might say that the prophets directed attention to the intent of the laws and not their simple, literal meaning. The prophets showed that one could keep the law technically and yet violate its meaning.

Finally, as far as the Hebrew Scriptures go, there are the writings, the  wisdom literature. These books, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon, are poetic, rely heavily on metaphor, and are often paradoxical. They assume one is already trained in the “right versus wrong” thinking of the law, and the nuanced discernment of God’s intent conveyed through the prophets. They point to a more mystical life in God which is better described poetically than through laws.

Because the nature of spiritual growth is a continual process of learning, unlearning, and revising, so to arrive at new understanding, we need to hold lightly our current perspectives. God has yet more light to shine, bringing greater illumination and knowledge. We ought to expect for long held notions to be revealed to have been less than whole. 

He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” Matthew 13:52

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Knowing Christ

The core of Jesus’ teaching involves how to enter into, or we might say, recover, a relationship with God. Jesus can explain how to share in what he has with his Father because he is the way to the Father.

The process Jesus describes requires a radical loss of the independent, prideful, and willful self. The path into communion with God will be over the corpse of all we have made of ourselves, either admirable or shameful, in order to become what cannot be achieved. 

The downtrodden have always been much more willing to risk this bargain, for they have much less to lose according to the world’s measures. Those conscious of their own awful sinfulness leap at the chance to lose themselves, but the self-righteous always resist. 

“He who has my commandments and keeps them is the one who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and will disclose myself to him.” John 14:21

Jesus promises intimate self-disclosure, a true knowing of himself through mutual love, to anyone who follows his instructions. This is not a reward, but the natural result of following what he says. Though this gift is open to all, Judas recognizes that this it not what he was thinking would happen.

Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, what then has happened that you are going to disclose yourself to us and not to the world?” John 14:22

Judas, reflecting what must have been the thoughts of all the disciples, had anticipated a day when Jesus would declare who he was to everyone. Obviously, that day was not going to come, and Judas asks what has changed? 

Actually, nothing had changed. The fault in our reasoning, and in Judas’ as well, is that we think we can somehow know God, know Jesus, apart from obedient love. It is not that Jesus is refusing to disclose himself to everyone, but that he cannot make himself known unless we enter into a relationship with him through obedient love. God is unable to fully show himself to us as an object to be observed, but only through a relationship that we experience.

Jesus is affirming that only disciples, followers, will really know him. No one who fails to put into practice what he taught will gain this deep life of divine love that fills the soul with knowledge of God. There can be no grand announcements to the skeptical crowds.

The knowing which is God abiding with and in us never occurs while we remain at a distance from God. We only know God by loving God, and loving God always means obedience to what he bids us do.

Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him.” John 14:23

We may easily misinterpret these words as indicating that God’s love is conditional, dependent on our obedience and love, as if God loves us when we love him. This is not the case.

What is conditional here is not the love of God, but our abiding in God and God in us. The love of God is constant, but spiritual union and indwelling happens only if we obediently follow how Jesus teaches us to love. Obedient love is the only way into a growing experience of living in God.

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God’s Punishments

Last week I suggested that we are punished by our sins and not for our sins. Specifically, I was pointing out that death is the punishment which comes from sin itself, its wages, and is not a punishment from God. God does not “kill” us because we sin, but we separate ourselves from life and so die.

Sinful, disordered behavior and thinking bring dreadful consequences which are sin’s punishments and can be regarded as a sort of dying. But doesn’t God also punish? Maybe we are punished by our sins, but are we not also punished by God for our sins?

So I will choose their punishments 
And will bring on them what they dread. 
Because I called, but no one answered; 
I spoke, but they did not listen. 
And they did evil in My sight 
And chose that in which I did not delight.
Isaiah 66:4

Then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment. 2 Peter 2:9

Let me suggest that there are two types of “punishments” which result from sin. From our perspective they often seem almost identical, but are truly very different. They are as different as what Jesus is talking about when he says,

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. John 10:10

One “punishment” only destroys and the other is part of a regenerative process which gives life. The punishments brought by our sin are senseless, have no helpful purpose, but only take life from us. These destructive punishments are malicious, cruel, and come only to inflict pain and suffering. Though we can speak of God punishing, he never acts in this intentionally cruel way.

We know that God is love and everything God does is an expression of his love. Because of his love for us, God admonishes, corrects, chastises, disciplines, rebukes, and in many other ways works to bring us to the necessary change (repentance) to give us life. We can call these punishments, as scripture often does, but the purpose is always to heal us, though no one enjoys discipline at the time (Hebrews 12:6-11).

God is never trying to destroy us, only to destroy sin, the deadly disease that has infected us. This is the difference between God’s punishments and the punishments of sin. God’s works are the strong medicine of healing. God’s chastisements are not retaliation to simply make us suffer. 

The farther we are from the ways of God, the more God’s corrective work seems like senseless punishment and merely the expression of anger. Father Thomas Hopko said that the wrath of God is how unrepentant sinners experience the love of God, and I think he was correct.

So much has to do with our perception, like the child who screams “I hate you” at the parent who has taken away some cherished activity in order to teach a lesson. The child believes that the parent is being cruel, but true cruelty would be to not train and raise the child toward maturity.

The redemptive and healing work of God, which is hardest on us when we are resistant, stubborn, and defiant, is what is meant by the ‘wrath of God’.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Romans 1:17

But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God. Romans 2:5

God’s wrath is strong and necessary corrective love, never meant to be cruel, but often very hard for those who dig in their heels. Read the two previous verses with that thought in mind, and does this not make sense?

He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. John 3:36

Until we trust Jesus and begin living into the divine life of God, we continue under the corrective love which urges us to repent. My advice is to surrender early. 

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Easter & Death

On Easter we celebrate that the tomb was empty and that death has been defeated. Jesus is just the beginning, for death is the last enemy which will be finally and fully eliminated (1 Corinthians 15:26). 

However, if death is something God Himself instituted as the punishment for sin, does it not seem strange to be giving God credit for defeating it? If death is God’s own doing, then Easter is when God triumphs over his own edict, which makes little sense.

Easter is more meaningful when we know that God is not the author of death. God is not undoing what he did, removing a sentence he imposed, but defeating what we have done. We brought death into the world through our sin. As we examine scripture we find that we are punished by sin itself rather than by God for sin.

We start with a look at Genesis. This is where we find death first mentioned. 

But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die. Genesis 2:17

At first it may appear that here God makes death the penalty for sin. However, we ought to realize that God did not say to Adam “on the day that you eat of it I will kill you.” Now that would be a punishment created and ordered by God, but that is not what God said. 

God is not threatening Adam with a penalty he will impose, but warning Adam of the dreadful consequence of following a disobedient path. Adam is about to bring death on himself. Death is the wages of sin (Romans 3:23), not the wages of God for sin. Sin inflicts death on us.

This becomes even more obvious when we think about how God is the giver and sustainer of life. To depart from God means abandoning the life which is in God, which can only mean death. This is no punishment imposed by God, but the inevitable consequence of separation from the One who has life.

Since Adam and Eve did not physically die the very day that they ate the forbidden fruit, the death God was warning Adam about was clearly not physical but spiritual. It is separation from God. Adam and Eve did die spiritually on the same day they disobeyed, because on that day they separated themselves from Life. God did not punish them with spiritual death, but urged them not to go that way. Their sin punished them with death. This is exactly what James says when he says sin, not God, brings death (James 1:15).

Easter, then, is God destroying what we brought into the world through our sin. For this grace and goodness we should be very thankful! God did this by submitting himself to the death we brought on ourselves, and which we imposed on him by crucifying him. In Jesus’ resurrection, the death that sin brings has been overcome. God has undone for our salvation what we had done to ourselves.

But what about physical death? How does it fit into the story?

Physical death enters into the Genesis story after spiritual death. Once Adam and Eve sinned and separated themselves from God, dying spiritually, God sends them out of the garden lest they eat of the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:22-24). The implication is that eating continually of this tree would mean one would never die. Because they can no longer eat of that tree, their bodies will grow old and eventually die.

This is not a punishment by God but more a reprieve from the consequences of sin. Now that the man and woman have sinned and spiritually died, and will experience hardship and difficulty in a corrupted world, God limits the suffering they have brought on themselves. Life in this world will be difficult, but temporary. God’s purpose is to reunite us to himself and give us back the life we lost.

Physical death has always reminded us of spiritual death, because both were the result of human sinfulness. Neither were imposed by God as a punishment he laid on us, but both are the consequences of our disobedience.

Easter celebrates God’s victory over both spiritual and physical death. Our separation from God is erased for all who are willing to accept it, and life more powerful than our mortality is granted. There is no self-imposed separation or death for anyone who does not want to go that way, for God has taken on death and overcome it.

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