Thursday’s Thought

“Finding God’s Perfect Will”

Sincere and devout Christians often wrestle with trying to find God’s “perfect will” for their lives. They have heard that being within this perfect will of God brings the full goodness of what God intends for us. Getting outside that perfect will, however that might happen, means we experience less than what we could have enjoyed. We may conclude that hardship and disappointment have come because we are not within God’s perfect will for our lives.

Often this perfect plan of God is sought in finding the right job, marrying the right person, and other such “major” life decisions. Many agonize over trying to figure out this mysterious plan of God, fearing what permanent disadvantage they will incur if they fail. But if we think of Jesus, whom we must believe was within God’s perfect will, we begin to realize the faulty nature of this reasoning. Jesus did not enjoy a life free of trouble or that seemed particularly blessed! He was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). More significantly, I question the idea that the will of God for our lives is really all that mysterious or hard to discern. In fact, it is quite plain. Here it is stated by the prophet Micah:

He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8).

Jesus himself said it this way, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-38).

Numerous passages point to exactly what is God’s will for us. Forgive others, love lavishly, be concerned for the weak and vulnerable, and seek God’s kingdom. This is the perfect will of God for our lives and thankfully it is stated clearly. Difficult, yes . . . mysterious, no.

God is less concerned with “what” I do and much more with “how” and “why”. God has not chosen a job for you that you must find. God cares very little about what we do to earn a living, but how and why we chose that work. Was the choice made in faith? Do I intend to practice my faith in the doing of that work, whatever it is? Am I working in a just manner, loving kindness, and acting in humility before God? Am I loving God and my neighbor in what I am doing? There is no divinely appointed career for each one of us, but about which he won’t tell us! There are good works that God has planned for us to do . . . and those he has explained in detail (Ephesians 2:10).

The same is true about our relationships. God has not chosen one individual among the 7 billion in the world for you to marry. Good luck trying to find that person! Instead, God has clearly told us his will in how to treat all people with whom we have relationships. Being in the perfect will of God is a manner of living in all that we do by faith, hope, and love. The perfect will of God is not about getting certain “big” life decisions right, but how we do the smallest things and also undertake the greatest endeavors.

The Christian life does not involve following some preordained path in life that, if you should get off it, leaves you forever doomed to a less than abundant life. Is that Good News? You have one shot and if you miss then you will never experience what the perfect will God had for you! Rather, God’s perfect will is fulfilled through practicing love. The Christian life is a way of living that draws from God’s own nature, and God’s perfect will is that we attempt to imitate Christ in faith. Stop searching for God’s “perfect will” and start living into the new life that has been given to us in Christ!

 

 

 

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Thursday’s Thought

“God Doesn’t Make Mistakes”

Someone suggested examining this statement, which I’ve heard applied both to situations and people, though maybe you’ve heard it used in other ways. In one sense the statement is clearly true — God does not go around making errors. However, the way the saying is often employed implies that all things and people are just as God intends. In other words, you cannot say I ought to change because this is how I am . . . and God doesn’t make mistakes! How can you question the situation? God doesn’t make mistakes! The statement is being used to insulate the present against any critique.

Unlike this oversimplified view, I believe that our spiritual reality can be stated as a paradox: truly everything is just as God intends, and also not at all what God intends. In other words, we know the created world and all events within it, along with each one of us, are in an imperfect and not-yet-whole state. Nothing is yet what it will be. Everything in heaven and on earth is headed, by God’s will, toward being united in Christ (Eph. 1:9-10). Obviously, we are not there yet. Since we have not reached that oneness, we can truly say nothing is as God wills. However, since it is God’s will that we make this journey toward wholeness, our immature and incomplete state now is paradoxically exactly what God wills.

We can say that God has unmistakably made us and all things to require growth and change. If a person needs to change, or a situation is questioned, we are not implying God has made a mistake. Our present incomplete situation is no mistake, but neither are we where we need to be. Our imperfect present condition provides the very environment in which we can learn to love, which will be how all will be united in Christ.

The mystery of God’s will includes the truth that it is God’s will that we journey from incompleteness to wholeness. We are perfectly imperfect on a journey to being made complete! I am exactly who God made me to be, but not who God made me to ultimately be! I am simultaneously who God means me to be, and not yet who God wants me to be. The present work of God is as it should be, but it is not the finished work of God. Though God does not make mistakes, I must be willing to examine mine.

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Thursday’s Thought

How we use the word  “Christian”.

Instead of looking at a specific saying this week I want to examine the common practice of using the word Christian as a adjective. We label many things as Christian: bookstores, music and movies, radio stations, nations, schools, and so on. Just search for “Christian exercise” and see what workouts you find! Check out Christian Pumpkin Snack Cups and you start to wonder if we are damaging the word!

Let us first be clear about the Biblical meaning of Christian. In scripture the word Christian is a noun used to identify someone who is a follower of Jesus. Literally, it is person who is trying to be a “little Christ”. The term does not say anything about how well one is living a life of faith and good works, but simply indicates that the person is attempting to follow Christ. Anyone who tries to live by faith and imitate Christ is a Christian. Scripture does not use Christian as an adjective attached to anything else.

When used as an adjective with other nouns, we start dividing the world into Christian and non-Christian. This is a Christian song and that one is not. Usually, this means that one song is explicitly talking about Jesus and the other does not. What if the message of the other song is deeply true though not speaking about Jesus? Is that truth not “Christian” truth? Are we implying that unless a song is explicitly about Jesus it is less meaningful than so-called Christian songs? Should we only listen to Christian music, and who decides what that includes? This is another way of dividing the world into sacred and secular, and so failing to have a holistic spiritual perspective.

A movie like the comedy Groundhog Day is very true about the various ways we attempt to live life. Outright hedonism leads to meaninglessness. Our efforts to be good can be legalistic and self-serving. Some attempts at love are actually manipulative. The only way out of “our hell” of an unending Groundhog Day is through genuine love. No one calls this is a Christian movie, but I would argue that it contains more truth than some other movies that are given the “Christian” label. Besides that, it is funny!

Instead of talking about things being Christian or not being Christian, we ought to describe things as containing truth, goodness, or beauty. Paul did not say “whatsoever things are Christian, think on these things,” but  whatever is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, and of good repute (Phil. 4:8). Most things contain some element of truth or goodness, perhaps to a greater or lesser degree. Designating something as Christian or not is “all or nothing” language. Reality is seldom that way. Many things are incomplete but have some goodness or truth.

Using Christian as an adjective may also give the wrong idea of what being a Christian is really about. We are not people who live in our own little subculture. We don’t need a “Christian” version of everything, a Christian amusement park, a Christian neighborhood, or anything else.

When we divide the world into Christian and non-Christian, in ways not taught in scripture, we often withdraw and cease being salt and light. To be “good Christians” we must saturate ourselves in the approved “Christian” culture and stay away from dangerous non-Christian stuff. This thinking discourages us from looking for truth, goodness, and beauty wherever we can find it, even if in partial amounts. Others may see us as cutoff in our own exclusive world, and hear implicit judgmental critiques of all that we deem “not Christian”. The word Christian makes a useful noun, but a terrible adjective.

 

 

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Thursday’s Thought

“The Bible means what it says and says what it means.”

This is one of several popular sayings, such as “let the Bible speak for itself” and “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” These are based on the belief that holy scripture is quite simple to understand. No interpretive work is needed because scripture has a plain meaning that any person can recognize. Inherent in these statements is the suspicion that others are just trying to complicate matters when they talk about the need for interpretation or wrestling with difficult passages. Theological training or study is unnecessary. It means what it says.

However, even a quick survey of scripture will bring up many matters that defy a simple reading. In one place we are told to love our enemies, and in another God commands the slaughter of not only enemies, but innocents. Though Jesus says, “I and the Father are one”, he prays to his Father as if the Father is another altogether. Jesus tells us to pray in secret, and then scripture tells us to engage in prayer with others. The difficulties are too numerous to list! We cannot help but be confused if we are reading scripture and taking everything “at face value”.

Unlike these sayings, scripture itself does not claim that everything is simple and straightforward. Peter says of Paul’s writings that “some things are hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort . . ” (2 Peter 3:16). Rather than saying Paul’s writing “says what it means and means what it says,” Peter knows we must be taught how to understand his letters. The Bible does not simply speak for itself. Paul’s letters discuss difficult subjects and without being taught we can easily misconstrue his meaning.

When Philip asks the Ethiopian eunuch if he understands what he is reading from Isaiah, he answers, “how could I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31). The risen Lord appeared to his disciples and “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” (Luke 24:45). We all need to be guided to understanding and the enlightening work of God must underlie this endeavor. I cannot simply read the Bible and teach myself.

Consider the Bereans who “received the word with great eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” (Acts 17:11). Paul was guiding these members of the synagogue to understand the Hebrew scriptures in new ways — in light of Jesus Christ. Luke commends them for eagerly learning and being open to the new interpretation. Too often this passage has been used to tell us to scrutinize our teachers skeptically to make sure they are speaking the truth. That assumes we already know how to read scripture! It is like a freshman in a physics class thinking he must make sure the professor teaches quantum mechanics correctly!

Paul asks rhetorically, “how will they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14). We always need a teacher, which is why Jesus warned against false ones, saying we must choose well by observing each person’s fruit (Matt. 7:15-20). In other words, does that person’s life show evidence of faith, hope, and love? Are grace, mercy, joy, patience, self-control, goodness, kindness, and other such spiritual qualities present? We can only really see someone’s fruit by knowing that person through protracted interaction. Their fruit is not the content of their teaching nor how well they can deliver a talk, but how they live and have been formed spiritually.

One might counter that Paul says scripture is inspired and useful for teaching, instruction, and such (2 Timothy 3:16). Therefore, the Bible is all I need. But notice what Paul said just a couple verses earlier:

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it.”  (2 Timothy 3:14).

Timothy personally knew his teachers and the quality of their spiritual lives. He knew their fruit and that they were reliable instructors in the faith. Paul could remind Timothy of the beneficial uses of scripture because he had been taught how to read and understand it well. The suggestion that the Bible can explain itself or be read apart from instruction would have been absurd to the those who actually wrote the scriptures!

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Thursday’s Thought

“Love the sinner but hate the sin.”

While no one who loves God loves sin, this saying is not a good summary of Jesus’ way. Hating sin seemed to be where the Pharisees excelled, not Jesus. For Christians, the emphasis of this slogan is in the wrong place. It sets love and hate in equal parts, as if we are to be on one hand, loving, and on the other, full of hate. Jesus told us to be known for our love, but many see Christians as hating the behaviors, lifestyles, and beliefs of others. If we say we love sinners but hate sin, guess what everyone hears! If you state unequivocally everything you hate, don’t be surprised if no one thinks you are loving.
I also believe the flaws in this statement go well beyond the fact that the hate overshadows the love. While numerous scriptures tell us to address seriously and with urgency our own sinfulness, this saying is about the attitude we take toward the imperfections of others, how they fall short. Jesus warned us explicitly about too much focus on the lives of others. Hating the sins of others is not a virtue that we need to develop, but often a remnant of our own sinful spiritual pride and tendency to judge.
One passage that might appear to be similar to this saying, but is significantly different, is from Jude:
Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh. (Jude 1:21-23)
Here love and hate are mentioned together, but in a way that is different from “love the sinner and hate the sin.” First, Jude says we must be careful to keep ourselves within God’s love, that is, to be living and expressing God’s love. From within this love of God we mercifully help others. The hating here is toward how sin corrupts. We must get rid of whatever has been tainted, but Jude is not encouraging an attitude of hating others’ beliefs and the ways they live. We recognize that sin is like a disease that infects and corrupts all of us.
While we mercifully attend to others, we humbly know we have been infected ourselves. We have our own struggle with corruption. While “love the sinner but hate the sin” can sound arrogant and as if one is morally superior, Jude is saying the opposite. We fear, recognizing how easily we could be overtaken by the same destructive sin. Rather than hating the sin of others, which defines sin as the action itself, Jude sees sin as a destroying influence upon human actions and attitudes. There is a huge difference between hating the behaviors of others and hating a sickness that has distorted their behaviors, and discarding anything that has become corrupted.
We are not to hate sinners nor the various ways sinfulness is present in their lives, but rather the cancer-like sin itself which contaminates and ruins lives. For example, we should not hate a greedy person nor hate their greedy actions and behaviors. What we should hate is sinfulness which is the destructive spiritual force that distorts our desires so that we become greedy. This is why Paul says our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against evil spiritual powers (Eph. 6:12).
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Thursday’s Thought

“God is in control.”

This familiar saying seems at first to be obviously true. However, it has two very different meanings depending on how ‘control’ is understood. One possibility is that God is the cause and orchestrator of everything that happens. Being in control then implies that everything is authored or guided by God. Therefore, nothing is occurring apart from what God specifically desires. God’s control means he dictates every action and event.

A different sense in which one can say ‘God is in control’ is that God reigns supreme over all the affairs of this world, even though many specific events are not what He wills or causes. In this view, which I believe is the historical Christian perspective, God is opposed to and actually works against other forces in the world. Light is overcoming darkness, but God does not disallow freedom or the possibility of wills other than his own. God is thoroughly involved in all things though not directing each and every occurrence. Though much occurs that God does not cause, his ultimate desires will be accomplished and all else defeated.

The Apostles’ Creed speaks of the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, as well as Jesus Christ judging the living and the dead. This is the essence of how we understand God being sovereign. He is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega. While God is Source and Destiny, we are in a middle time where corruption has distorted what came into being through God’s love. God both creates what he desires and recreates when his creation has been corrupted. The corruption is not God’s doing, but the work of other forces that attempt and temporarily succeed at undoing God’s creative goodness.

God is in control in the sense that all began in his goodness, and will come back to that goodness unfailingly as pictured in the creation of “a new heaven and new earth” (Isaiah 65:17, Revelation 21:1). We exist between a good beginning and good end, though not all that happens now shares and unites with God’s goodness. We ought to recognize this in ourselves if nothing else. However, no force or power opposed to God can possibly succeed ultimately.

Maybe clearer than saying God is in control, we ought to use the biblical language that “God reigns.” Jesus preached the good news of the Kingdom of God, which declares that God’s reign is present. However, Jesus did not say that God’s reign was the only force active in the world.

Psalm 110:1 says,

The Lord says to my lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”

These words are quoted by Jesus (Matthew 22:44, Mark 12:36, Luke 20:43), Peter (Acts 2:34-35), Paul (1 Corinthians 15:45), and the author of Hebrews (Hebrews 1:13), suggesting it is a key description of God’s reign. God’s control, such as it is, will result in all enemies being defeated. All will finally submit to the reign of God, and in that sense, he has always and will forever be ‘in control’.

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Thursday’s Thought

For the next several weeks I will examine some common sayings which are often repeated as if they summarize Christian teaching. Perhaps we have heard them so much that we assume they come from scripture. However, I believe these can be misleading and do not truly reflect a Christian perspective.

“Everything happens for a reason.”

Typically, this is said when something has occurred that lacks any conceivable purpose. Though the event seems utterly meaningless and devoid of any good, the statement is intended to comfort us by suggesting there must be a good reason for it to have happened. Perhaps we simply do not recognize the good reason God did this or allowed it. The implication is that God is doing exactly what He intends in every specific event and we just do not perceive his wisdom. We are to trust that somehow this is part of God’s plan or purpose.

However, is there some good from God in everything that happens? As Christians are we to believe that every circumstance or event has some divine reason behind it? I don’t think that is the case. Instead of claiming that God plans everything that happens and there is a reason for all events, scripture assures us that God’s good purposes will eventually defeat all else. Some events are simply against God’s way and not caused by God, and are therefore absurd and meaningless. There is no hidden good in them. They are an undoing rather than a creating of good.

Rather than not perceiving the good reason within everything, what we truly do not see is how good will overcome terrible situations. How can the good of God somehow break in and undo the evil we are experiencing? How can God save us from this calamity?

When we say “everything happens for a reason” to others we dismiss the evil of a situation or event, and imply that what they are experiencing has hidden goodness. This belief can make us terrible at “mourning with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). We inflict a second wound on the person who is already suffering by criticizing their grief as a lack of spiritual insight. If only they would believe that everything happens for a reason they would bear the situation with a better attitude. The mystery of God’s working is not that somehow everything we experience as evil is actually good, but rather how God will conquer all evil with good.

The true statement comes from Jesus: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

He does not say “take heart because everything happens for a reason.” The word “overcome” means achieving victory over enemies. Jesus says our tribulations are enemies that he has defeated, and by faith we defeat them too (1 John 5:4). All that happens is not for some good reason, neither does God change evil into good, but overcomes evil with good. Our trust is not in hidden purposes which lie within evil events, but in Christ’s victory over all that opposes God’s goodness.

Whatever God Himself does happens for a reason, which is for our good. Those actions of God have, are, and will overcome all else, which, lacking any reason or purpose, are the result of the corruption which is in the world (2 Peter 1:4).

 

 

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