1 Thing We About Faith We Often Forget: Faith Hacking #4

We constantly stumble over the word—faith. How do we know we have it? What does it mean to lose it?

But really, faith is weirder than we think. And there is one thing we often misunderstand about faith.

We are almost done with our Faith Hacking series. Previously we covered…

  1. Making room for the God who comes.
  2. Understanding that the gospel who is a person.
  3. Discovering that salvation is entrance into a new family.

Now it’s time to tackle the idea of faith.

So, what is the one thing we forget about faith?

What Faith is Not

In my teaching and preaching I often define a word by what it isn’t.

Faith is not

  • An Idea: not just something we think about.
  • An Emotion not just something we feel.

Faith is not an intellectual or emotional state. It is not what we think about God. It is not believing God exists. It is not what we feel about God, that we sense God loves us in our hearts—or that we don’t.

Ideas and emotions aren’t bad. I affirm God existence. And I think it would be a good idea for you to affirm it also.  I affirm the love of God. And I would love for you to feel the comfort and acceptance of God too.

But when we say faith, that is not what the Bible generally means.

Faith is much more robust than merely an idea or an emotion.

Faith is Allegiance?

Faith—in the ancient world, which includes the Bible—meant something much closer to allegiance or loyalty.

But loyalty and allegiance are weird words—they have a bad wrap these day.

Allegiance is something we probably don’t think much about. Except something like “I pledge allegiance to…”

And loyalty—especially when it is demanded—seems manipulative and controlling.

Isn’t it just military dictators or tyrants who demand loyalty?  Don’t cult leaders who demand total allegiance?  Isn’t it just Darth Vader and the evil Emperor who demand unthinking loyalty and allegiance?

Faith in the Bible

But faith as loyalty or allegiance is very common in the Bible.

In the Old Testament God repeatedly tells Israel not to look to Egypt or Babylon for help against their enemies.  God is supposed to be Israel’s help in times of trouble.

Israel is supposed to have faith in God.  Their allegiance is with God, not Egypt. Their loyalty is with God, not Babylon.

 

And what does that mean practically?

It means Israel’s help comes from the LORD, not Babylon. Their deliverance comes from God, not the horses and chariots of the Egyptian war machine.

 

Faith answers these basic questions:

  • Who do you look to for help, assistance, or deliverance? That is the one you have faith in.
  • Who do you call on in times of trouble? That is where your allegiance and loyalty today.
  • Who do you call on for reinforcements? That is where your loyalty is.

Life is War Zone

You see, our lives are not so much a calm place where God wonders about our thoughts and feeling about whether God exists.

ACTUALLY, life is a war zone full of hazards and dangers, full of spiritual forces out to destroy us, AND WE ARE DYING OUT HERE.

And God promises to rescue us. And God IS rescuing us,  leading us to safety, to salvation.  And the way out of this war zone is to stay close to Jesus, to stay on narrow path that leads to life.

And the question is, Will you give your trust, your allegiance, your loyalty to God, to the one getting us through this?

Or will you, when trials and suffering and sorrows come, will you abandon him for something else. Will you put your trust and loyalty somewhere else?

Faith Hack: Allegiance to God

In this war zone of life, the genuineness of your faith going to be tested. Will you stay loyal to Jesus or not?

Jesus has the power to save us. Jesus is willing to protect us. Jesus is leading us to life in a new family. Will be given him our allegiance?

Will we trust him?
Will we cling to him?
Will we call to God for help?
Will we place our faith in God?

How would your relationship to God change knowing that faith is not a feeling or an idea?

How would your faith as loyalty and allegiance change how you perceive the ups and downs of life? What is God calling you to right now?

Don’t miss the last “faith hack” on holiness coming out the next couple of days (the first three were on God, the gospel, and salvation). Subscribe and receive a free gift about how God’s glory is intimately connected to God’s love for us.


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1 Thing about Advent We Usually Forget

We lose sight of the Spirit of Advent—and I don’t mean what you think.

Advent is training in the art of waiting, learning to anticipate and long for the coming kingdom of God. Advent is learning to say, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.” Advent reminds us of the glorious coming of the Son in the first advent, and the return of the Son in the second advent. We hope, we wait, we hope.

And pushing through Advent we get to Christmas where we celebrate the birth of Jesus, our Lord and Savior.  Sure, we have different family rituals and rhythms for Christmas. We have different Christmas parties and exchange Christmas presents.  We remind ourselves that Jesus is the greatest gift from God. And we might all think this is the Spirit of Advent.

But this isn’t the Spirit of Advent. I’m not talking about remembering the discipline of waiting or focusing on the greatest gift.

When it comes to Advent we forget the role of the Spirit.

Does the Spirit Only Come After?

Growing up I learned just about nothing about the Holy Spirit. Up until high school I don’t even know if I even knew about the Trinity. All I ever heard about was the Father and the Son and all they had done.

It wasn’t until high school that our church started talking about “spiritual gifts.”  But I for sure didn’t the full Pentecostal presentation of the Spirit.  The Spirit was like the silent partner in the Trinity who just pointed toward the Son—like a sign that said, “Go that way.”

In college I learned about being immersed in the annual liturgical calendar.  That’s when I learned about celebrating Pentecost every year—remembering how the Spirit was poured out on the church for blessing and mission.

And in each of these I learned that the Spirit always comes after. The Spirit comes after the advent of the Son, after the resurrection, after the ascension. The Spirit comes after to point to the work of the Son. The Spirit comes after to remind the disciples of the truth.

But the Spirit actually comes before.

This is the one things we forget about Advent: the Spirit at work.

The Spirit Leads the Way

The gospel of Luke opens up with an amazing display of the Spirit at work.

  • Zechariah—the father of John the Baptist—receives a Spirit-enabled vision about his son who will be filled with the spirit and power of Elijiah in order to prepare the way of the Lord.
  • Mary is told the Holy Spirit will come to hear and overshadow her so that she might bear the Son of God.
  • Mary visits Elizabeth—the mother of of John the Baptist—and Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit.
  • At the birth of John Zechariah is filled with the Spirit and prophesies and sings.
  • John the Baptist grew and was strong in the Spirit.

What we get in Luke is an explosion of Spirit at work.

And this is after the Spirit of prophecy had left Israel for about 400 years.  There hadn’t been any prophets who spoke, no prophecies to hear—nothing, for 400 years!

And now the Spirit is everywhere in preparation of the Son’s advent.

The Way It Always Has Been

The Spirit and the Son (or the Word) have always worked in tandem. We could say that the Word of God as revelation is always conjoined to the Spirit of God as presence.

  • The Prophetic Word only comes through the Prophetic Spirit.
  • The Revelation of God through the Word is always accompanied by the Residency of God is secured through the Spirit.
  • The Torah (Word) is always joined to the Temple (Spirit).
  • The Word of God in creation is only “spoken” through the Breath/Spirit of God.

So the Spirit’s work should comes as no surprise in Advent.  The Incarnation of our Savior comes through the activity of the Spirit beforehand, not just after.

Preparing for the Spirit

If we long for the coming of Christ, then we need to long for the Spirit to be unleashed in our lives.  If we hope for the coming King, then we need to hope for the filling of the Spirit. If we wait for the God’s kingdom come, then we need to yearn for the Spirit to be poured out.

If we forget the work of the Spirit this Advent, then we are in danger of missing the work of God in Advent.

When You send Your Spirit, 
they are created, and You renew
the face of the earth. Ps. 104:30

Veni Creator Spiritus (hymn)

Come, Holy Ghost, Creator, come
from thy bright heav’nly throne;
come, take possession of our souls,
and make them all thine own.

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What is Salvation For? Faith Hacking #3

Often we think of “salvation” as a movement from or against: away from sin, hell, or the “world.”

But what is salvation for? What is it leading us to?
Is heaven the extent of our answer?

What if our idea of salvation needed to move away from  a “place” (going to heaven instead of hell) and more toward a “person”?

Fullness of Life?

When I was in school preparing to become a pastor I had to practice evangelizing.  At a local community college I talked with students about sin and death and heaven and hell (I know, not really the approach I would prefer taking).

While talking with a student I mentioned something about how Jesus came to bring “fullness of life” or “abundant life” (John 10:10).  The student then ask me what that meant, what did the abundant life look like in my life.

Uh oh, I thought. Now I’m in trouble. 

I didn’t have a good answer.

For me, at that time, salvation was primarily summed with going to heaven instead of going to hell.  But this student was asking me what “fullness of life” looked like right now.

And I didn’t have a good answer for that—AND I KNEW IT.

I left with a valuable lesson—not about evangelism, but about my understanding of salvation.

Why Go to Heaven?

So often our first idea about salvation is going to heaven.  But if we are asked what heaven will be like we have very little idea (clouds, singing… [crickets]).

My oldest son once commented that he didn’t really want to go to heaven. After overcoming my shock and surprise at being such an awful Christian parent I decided asked what he meant.

Heaven sounded boring to him. He didn’t know what we were going to do there.  All his friends and family are here. All the things he likes to do are here.  Everything he knew and loved was here.

And I couldn’t blame him.  He was focused on the relationships, the people he loved, and the people who loved him.  He isn’t old enough to think about death and the absence of people he loves.  Everyone he loved was here.

But he was on to something. Salvation is all about the people, not the place.  This is why salvation is coming, rather than going.

Salvation is A New Family

This is especially clear in the letter of First Peter.

Peter uses a preponderance of “family” or “household” language to describe salvation.  He even speaks of salvation as a “new birth” through which we enter the family of God the Father through Jesus the Son (1 Peter 1:3).  And as “new born babies” we must grow up into this family of salvation (1 Peter 2:2).

Many of us take this “new birth” or “born again” metaphor lightly, but for the early church this was a revolution.

• Your social status no longer mattered.
• Your wealth no longer mattered.
• Your poverty or slavery no longer mattered.
• Your legal or illegal status no longer mattered.

You were now part of the family of God. 

As I’ve said before, salvation is more about at-home-ment than atonement.

Brought to God

Ultimately, salvation is not just entrance into a new family—as great as that is.

Salvation is “access to God” every moment of the day.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. (1 Peter 3:18)

God is the source of life and love, the place where we find our home.  And Jesus brings us directly into the presence of God—Jesus, God the Son, brings us before God the Father.

And this isn’t true just for some point in the future, but right now through the Spirit of God (see how I got the entire Trinity into this).

This entrance into God’s life is what makes “abundant life” possible here and now, and what makes heaven what it is later—life with God always!

Salvation is more of a home-coming, than a going home.

Faith Hack: Life with God

If, as I said in the previous Faith Hack, if the gospel is “God with us” then salvation is entrance into that abundant life with God—beginning now and going on for eternity.

Can we think of salvation more in terms of people (God and others) rather than place?

Can we think of salvation as something that is coming into our relationships now rather than something to come later?

How would your view of God change if you focused primarily on your family relationship with God (rather than something else like “sovereign God” or “Lord of all)?

How would your view of others changes if your saw them as already part of your family, or a people you would love to add to your family?

 

Don’t miss the remaining 2 “faith hacks” on faith and holiness coming out the next couple of days (the first two were on God and the gospel). Subscribe and receive a free gift about how God’s glory is intimately connected to God’s love for us.


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What we forget when we focus on culture

In our hopes to transform culture we often forget about society.

And too often we split apart culture and society. This is bad for culture, society, and the church.

Culture is usually viewed with suspicion leading to separation or withdrawal.  We have “culture wars” after all. 

But society is usually viewed neutrally (if thought about at all). Christians just blend in with society, leading to capitulation.  

Culture

Many view culture as the field of values and worldview, of messages and meaning.

Culture is where one must battle over a Christian worldview and Christian values.  Culture is where the battle for hearts and minds is won or lost.  This understanding leads to a “culture war” mentality based around key issues public prayer, whether to says “Merry Christmas” or not, or what it means to say “God bless America.”

This view of culture often leads feeling like we need to stand against and stand for certain things.


Society

We often view society in a neutral light (if wethink about at all).

Society includes the structures and institutions through which culture expresses its values (education, economy, government, etc).  But we often have a neutral view about these vehicles.  The structures of society (politic systems, economic policy/practice, healthcare, military, police forces, prison systems) are neither good or bad.

This view of neutrality often leads to accommodation and capitulation to the structure of society.

Culture & Society Need God

Two things happen when we separate culture from society (focusing on one and forgetting the other).

  • First, we assume that sin is at work only in culture.

Too often we view sin as lodged with in the values and mindsets of people, and we see culture as the primary place to battle these influences.  What this practically is that we don’t think sin has influenced our social institutions as a whole.  But the Bible clearly teaches

When we focus on culture and forget about society we Christians blind ourselves to the effects of sin around us.  We become blind to how the structures and systems of society are themselves possibility at odds with the kingdom of God.

  • Second, we then forget that the church is God’s alternative society.

When we focus on culture and forget about society we forget that God has created a new kind of society in the church. The church has a different kind of economics, a different kind of governments, and a different kind of education.

This doesn’t mean we can’t participate in the structures and systems of society. We can and we should.

But we must always remember and witness to an alternative way of living our lives. And this goes way beyond our “cultural” values.


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Is Your Gospel Holding You Back? Faith Hacking #2

Why Still So Tired?

For all the weary and over-burdened, we were told that if we followed Jesus then his “yoke would be easy and his burden would be light” (Matt. 11:28-30).

But often times we don’t feel that way.

We haven’t found that kind of rest in Jesus. We feel still feel disconnected, tired, and stuck. We feel overwhelmed, lost, and forgotten.

We believe in the gospel, but the peace and joy has worn off.

A Problem with the Gospel?

It is easy to believe this is just the nature of things.  Eventually the vibrancy of faith fades and the urgency of hope dissipates.

People tell us to embrace a childlike faith, but often we feel the need to grow up and take an honest look at life.

But what if our problem wasn’t with our faith, or with Jesus?
What if our gospel is holding us back? 

The gospel can hold us back if we only hear part of the gospel.  This can happen in two ways. We can either hear about the “gospel of salvation” or the “gospel of the kingdom.”

Only a Gospel of Salvation?

The “gospel of salvation” focuses on individual sin.  This gospel looks back to the cross as the place that God forgives our sins.  And this gospel looks forward to heaven as the reward for believing in Jesus.  And both of those things are good news.

But too often the “gospel of salvation” leaves us wondering how we are supposed to live right now.  What should I be doing with my life right now? How do I find meaning and purpose right now if the goal of everything is just life in heaven in the future?

But in the meantime people give us a list of things to do (evangelize others, serve in the church, minister to the outcast).  And all those activities are good things. But too often they can feel like another burden to bare, another law to keep.

It is easy to be discouraged, wondering how to make sense of the “peace and rest” that Jesus promised but now feels so elusive.

Only a Gospel of the Kingdom?

But maybe some of us focus more on the “gospel of the Kingdom.”  This focuses on the here and now.  God is on mission to transform the world, and we are called into this work.  This perspective looks more to the resurrection of Jesus as the place where new creation springs forth.  And of course this also is good news for us.

But too often focusing on our work to bring God’s kingdom to earth can burn us out.  We can feel that every burden of the world, every injustice against the innocent, every evil  action, is somehow our responsibility to fix.

No wonder we feel overwhelmed and burned out.  No one could ever carry that load.

The Gospel of God with Us

But the good new is that the gospel IS NOT primarily a plan for our personal salvation.  The gospel IS NOT primarily a plan for God’s kingdom come.

The gospel is not a plan at all. The gospel is a PERSON.

For the gospel is Jesus Christ himself, God become human—in order to dwell with us, in order to be with us.

4 Ways We Know The Gospel is a Person

  • The Apostle Paul describes the essence of gospel in terms of the person of Jesus (not a plan for salvation or God’s kingdom come).  He does this in 1 Cor. 15:1-5 where he describes not a plan of salvation, but the live of the person Jesus.

Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I [gospeled] to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

 

  • The Gospel of Matthew has the bookends of “God with us.”  At the beginning an angel tells Joseph that the son Mary will bear will be called “Emmanuel”, or “God with us” (Matt. 1:23).  At the end Jesus himself say,  “Behold, I am always with you, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

 

  • The Gospel of John begins by telling us that the Word of God (John 1:1) took on flesh and lived—or dwelt— among us (John 1:14).   The idea of God dwelling with humanity echoes the Old Testament Tabernacle which was made so that God could live with his people.

 

  • Lastly, all the books in the Bible that tell the story of Jesus are called “gospels”.  This is because the early church understood that the entire life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was the good news of God for them.

The person who is Jesus is the good news, the gospel of God.

Faith Hack: The Gospel of God with you

Can we hack our understanding of the gospel?

Can we move our understanding away from a “plan” that accidentally leaves us as burdened, tired, and restless as ever?

Can we move toward the gospel as the good news that a person, the very person of God, has come to us, to be with us.

Can we place the good news of salvation and the good news of God’s kingdom come within the person of Jesus who comes to us?

How would your life of faith be different if you focused on Jesus who IS THE GOSPEL? What would be different right now, no matter what is happening in your life, to believe that the good news is that God is with you?

 

Don’t miss the other 4 “faith hacks” coming out the next couple of days (the first one is here). Subscribe and receive a free gift about how God’s glory doesn’t mean God hates us.


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The Loving Militancy of Church Clarity: 5 Ways its just like the Nashville Statement

I choose messy relationships over Church Clarity.

And I choose messy relationships over the Nashville Statement (as I’ve said here and here, and David Fitch and I discussed on our podcast).

In fact, as I process the launch of Church Clarity I see 5 ways that Church Clarity is just the inversion of the Nashville Statement, albeit as a loving militancy.

What is Church Clarity?

You can read a supportive or critical summaries.  But roughly, Church Clarity believes (from their site)

“that churches have a responsibility to be clear about their policies on their primary websites [about being affirming or not of LGBTQ]. Following a simple, yet consistent method, our crowdsourcers submit churches to be scored on how clearly their website communicates their actively enforced policies. Once the information is verified by Church Clarity, it is published to our database. We believe that ambiguity is harmful and clarity is reasonable.” (emphasis added)

Their desire is to minimize confusion by maximizing clarity.  All of which—on the one hand—seems reasonable enought.

But let us think about the implication of a website like Church Clarity evaluating websites of local churches and posting the results. All of this is so abstract and disconnected—so far from the lived realities of local church life.

For this reason, beyond all their differences, Church Clarity is just like the Nashville Statement—but in an inverted way.

5 Ways Church Clarity is Just like the Nashville Statement

1) Truth and Love Dichotomy

On the one hand, the Nashville Statement pushed the agenda of truth without much regard for love or mercy.  This was the complaint for many people I know.

Church Clarity, however, is pushing hard for love without regard for truth—except expressing the “truth” of being either affirming or non-affirming.

Church Clarity explicitly says it doesn’t care about matters of doctrine, only of policy.  This is a typical progressive-liberal bifurcation of how love and truth need to work together.

Those of us upset with the “need to stand for the truth” posture coming from the Nashville State are likewise uncomfortable with the militancy—yes, militancy—of the Church Clarity site.  Church Clarity positions itself on the side of love, but a love reduced to one issue, an issue reduced to whether or not it is posted clearly on the church website.

2) Push Toward Statements—Away From Relationships.

Both the Nashville Statement and Church Clarity lead us away from relationships. They prefer to substitute relationships for statements.  The Nashville Statement says this explicitly, that we should separate from church that don’t sign.  But Church Clarity also says this implicitly.

Church Clarity suggests that churches are merely a different form of consumerism and that churches who are not clear on the LGBTQ stance are engaging in false advertising (See their FAQs, first section).  “Customers” could join a churches—engage in real relationships— and then find out the product was not what they thought.

This is a disastrous reduction—not just of the Church, but of all human ways of relating—the to principle of consumer choice. The application of this kind of clarity amid consumerism will just continue the deep antagonisms of our contemporary culture.

My questions is, Did Jesus function this way? Did he provide such clarity on his identity, the means of salvation, and every other question he was asked? No, he didn’t.

3) Tendency To Instrumentalize Humans and Institutions.

Both the Nashville Statement and Church Clarity drive toward reductionism and instrumentalization.

On the one hand, the Nashville Statement does this by instrumentalizing human beings for “God’s Glory.”  Humans are just a tool by which God accomplishes certain goals, principally the exaltation of God’s own glory.

But Church Clarity goes the opposite direction. It instrumentalizes the church according to the goals of the state.  As they say, churches

“are recognized by the IRS as tax-exempt religious organizations. In exchange for these subsidies, churches are expected to play a vital role of serving their communities. But there is very little accountability to demonstrate that they are earning that subsidy.” (emphasis added)

This continues the reductive, capitalistic view of human institutions—see the words “exchange” and “earning”.

But it adds the twist that the church is ultimately a tool of the government.

This is a curious inversion of the goal of the First Amendment where church and state would be separated—i.e. tax-exempt (esp. see this on tax-exemption)—so that government wouldn’t interfere with the Church.

But now, for Church Clarity, the government is expecting a return on investment from the church, with accountability pending if there is not (this is partly why I said this is more militant than the Nashville Statement.  It is not for nothing that people fear this database is just a precursor to litigation).

The signers of the Nashville State undoubtedly seek to use the government in service of the church.

Church clarity inverts this and seeks to use the church as a tool of the government.

4) Engaging in Culture Wars

It is interesting that Jonathan Merritt quotes conservative Al Moler of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on the importance of gaining clarity.

As Merritt states, “If one can set aside [Church Clarity]’s leadership team for a moment, it’s obvious that the organization shares a common goal with conservative Christians like Mohler: to pressure pastors and churches with unclear positions on homosexuality to unambiguously state their views.”

Yes, it is obvious that conservatives and progressives agree.  Which means they agree that they are playing the culture war game, but from different sides. The church, however, should not engage in this war any longer (see the previous three reasons for why).

5) Ideological in Nature

I suppose this is a restatement of #2 and #4, but I just want to say it again.

Both the Nashville Statement and Church Clarity, in the name of helping and serving people, reduce the entire complexity of human relationships and interactions to a narrow grid of ideas and affirmations.

This approach sucks the humanity right out of the situation, all in the name of clarity.

How Peace is Achieved

I spent 11 days in Israel this summer learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the different ways they are seeking peace there.

The ONLY ONES working are the ones worked out on the ground in actual relationships.  I heard of a water ministry helping to secure drinking water for everyone living off the Jordan River. I heard of school programs that brought Israeli and Palestinian children together. I heard of farming co-opts bring Palestinian and Israeli neighbors together.

On the ground relationships are the only way toward peace, mutuality, and reconciliation.  Everything else is lost in abstraction and will only reproduce the entrenched tendencies present between people.

The Clarity of Jesus

To both the signers of the Nashville Statement and the directors of Church Clarity, I ask this: If clarity is so important, why did Jesus offer so little of it?

Why did he answer questions with more questions? Why did he speak in parables? And why do we have FOUR different Gospels instead of one?

It is because the clarity we often seek is not the kind of clarity God is drawing us into. God is drawing us further and further into the messiness of relationship, and further and further away from ideological encounters.

And it is time for people on all sides of the ideological—cultural war—spectrum to get used to it.  Relationships are messy.  Let’s get to work.


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Who is God Really? Faith Hacking #1

Our faith bogs down when we don’t know who God really is.

Sometimes we think God is so distant that he can’t make a differences.  Or we think God is so vaguely everywhere that God is really nowhere at all.

But we need to hack these understandings of God, take what is good, get rid of what is not, and see that God is more and better than merely distant or vaguely everywhere.

A Distant Star?

A neighbor once asked me, “When you think about God, do you get a picture of an old man behind a desk running the universe?”

Have you ever thought that? Many of us have from time to time.

God is in charge.  God is in control.  God is important.  And in charge,  in control, important people tend to sit behind a desk.

And certainly the Bible tells us that God is sovereign over all things, that God is high and lifted up, that his ways are higher than our ways.

It’s like God is a distant star hanging in the heavens.  If we look up at God as we drift along the ocean of life then hopefully we can navigated by God’s distant light.

The Distant God

On the one hand we should affirm that God is in charge and in control.

But on the other hand, when the storms of life come, rocking our little boats back and forth, the “Distant God” provides little comfort in our terror.

This view of God can’t fill us with a “living hope” (1 Peter 1:3) if he is so far away. Our faith easily becomes resigned and withdrawn. Our hope becomes shallow and depressed when God is so distant.

The Enveloping Cloud

In response to the “Distant God” we can over-compensate and think that God is everywhere all the time. We image that God is in everything, working through anything.

God is not a distant star. God is an enveloping cloud. God is close enough to touch, taste, and feel at every moment in life.

Floating on the ocean of life we don’t need to look up to the heavens for a guiding star.  God is all around we, tell ourselves. God is everywhere.

God is nowhere

Again, it is true that God is everywhere.  “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Ps. 139:7-8).

But claiming to see God everywhere can obstruct our ability to distinguish the illuminating work of God from shadowy semblances.  This kind of thinking, when absolutized, fails to distinguish good from evil in the world.  It can become wishful thinking that just looks away from pain, hurt, or suffering.

The Gracious Gash in the Universe

Our faith needs to hack these two understandings of God. We need a better way of understanding who God really is.

God is not just distant.  And God is not just everywhere.

The truth is, God is coming to us. As Joshua Ryan Butler says, God is a pursuing God.


Let’s just look at the baptism of Jesus.

 

As Jesus was coming out of the water, he immediately sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit of God descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

The Heavens Torn Apart

In the Bible, the tearing of the heavens meant God was coming down to save his people. “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down” cries Isaiah (Isaiah 64:1).

With the appearance of Jesus God is not distant. God is not an abstract entity off in space somewhere. God is coming down to us in Jesus, right now.

The Spirit Descended on Him

Just as the Spirit of God hovered over the waters of creation, now the Spirit hovers over the one emerging from the waters of the Jordan, the one who will confront chaos and darkness. 

Through Jesus God is beginning a new work of creation, tearing open a new possibility for a wandering and estranged world.

It is as if

God has ripped the heavens irrevocably apart at Jesus’ baptism, never to be shut again. Through this gracious gash in the universe, he has poured forth the Spirit into the earthly realm.”
(
Joel Marcus, Mark 1–8, Anchor Yale Bible, 165.)

Faith Hack: The God who comes to you

Can we hack our understanding of God to make room for the God who comes?

God is not merely distant. God is not merely everywhere.  God is coming to you.  And God is coming to rescue you where you are, to bring new creation right where you are.

God coming to us is not merely as aspect of who God is. It is the defining characteristic of God. God always longs to be present and intimate with his people, with you.

As John 3:16-17 says,

For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

How would your life of faith be different if you believed God is coming to you right now? Can you hack your faith to make it work better?

 

Don’t miss the other 4 “faith hacks” coming out the next couple of days. Subscribe and receive a free gift about how God’s glory and holiness doesn’t mean God hates us.


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Haunted House or War Zone: Does God Test Our Faith?

Now that we are saved, why aren’t things awesome all the time?  Why isn’t life one continuous ascent into the perfect life with God?

And why are we told that God is testing us?

As 1 Peter 1:6 says,

In this [salvation] you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith…may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Why would God test faith like that?

Answering this question properly all depends on how we image these tests. It depends on whether we think of life as in a haunted house or a war zone.

Is God Scaring us or Leading Us?

Ready to Jump Out

Our youngest son loves to scare people when they enter the house.  He will hide behind a doorway or some furniture, lying in wait.  And then he pounces. Sometimes he scares us. Sometimes not. Sometimes we see him getting into place. Sometimes we don’t.

It’s in all good fun.

Except when we think of God acting like this?

Sometimes we image our Christian lives as if God is lying in wait, ready to spring out and test us. We think that God is actively testing us, laying out traps to see if we will fall away or lose our faith.

Sometimes we think God is testing us to see if we really, Really, REALLY believe.  And if we fail the test then God is going to…well, who knows what will happen.

The Haunted House of Faith

Sometimes we can image our life of faith like a haunted house.  God is actively trying to scare us, jumping out unexpectedly and tripping us up.

But—as the idea goes—if we can get through without freaking out too much then we will be saved.   If we prove to God that we won’t doubt or run away then we will be saved.

But his image of God actively testing us is horrible—and inaccurate. This view of God lurking behind doors to test us distorts who really God is and how God is accomplishing salvation for us.

Ready to Rescue

Life is not an artificially created haunted house where we need to steel our nerves against any surprises.

Rather, life is better thought as a war zone.

We live in a war zone full of hazards and dangers.  And it is filled roaming spiritual forces seeking to destroy us.

But God, in Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, has promised to rescue us from this war zone.  Not only is this promised, but God IS rescuing us and saving us as the one who has come to us and is leading us to safety.

And the only way out of this war zone is to stay close to Jesus, to stay on the straight and narrow path that will leads to life.

The Loyalty in the War Zone

And the question is this, Will you give your trust, your allegiance, your loyalty to Jesus who is rescuing us, who leading us through this war zone?

Or will you, when trials and suffering and sorrows come, will you abandon him for something else? Will you put your trust and loyalty somewhere else when the attack comes?

In this war zone of life, the genuineness of our faith will be tested. But not because God is creating ways to scare us. But because this war zone is already scary enough, and we have continual opportunities to break loyalty with Jesus.

Jesus has the power to save and rescue us. And Jesus is willing to protect us. Jesus is leading us to life.  Will we trust him? Will we place our faith in him?

The Testing of Faith

God is not testing our faith.
But our faith will be tested.

Our faith–allegiance in Jesus is the beginning of our rescue. And our faith–allegiance to Jesus will lead us safely home.

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At-home-ment: Born Again in the Bible

We need to change our understanding of being born-again. And we need to change our emphasis on atonement.

“You’re a ‘born-again Christian’, right?”

I was asked this while at O’Mei, a fine dining Chinese restaurant I worked at through college.

My first thought was, Aren’t all Christians born-again?  But I said, “I don’t know. What do you mean?”

There, in the back room of O’Mei my religious understanding of Christianity in America changed.  My co-worker had just taken a sociology class on “Born-Again Christian Religion in America.”

But I didn’t know what a “Born-again Christian” was. I thought every Christian emphasized the need for adult conversion, the deep spiritual crisis brought on by consciousness of sin, resolved through faith in Jesus who died to forgiveness our sins.

In those years of college I was slowly learning that was an evangelical, a ‘born-again Christian’ who believed I needed to made a decision for Christ and believe with my heart in order to be saved.

Born-Again Atonement

Being ‘born-again’ roughly consists of two major movements (depending on which evangelist or tradition you come from).

First, you need to become aware of your sin and the consequences of sin.  This usually entails fiery illustrations used to scared the hell out of you, or to put the fear of hell in you.

Second, you needed to have faith in Jesus to forgive your sins because he had paid the penalty for your sins. He paid the penalty by dying on the cross as a substitute for us.

This is the “penal-substitutionary” view of the atonement (a theological word I wouldn’t learn until seminary a couple years later).

Atonement = At-one-ment

Atonement is a funny word.

It is an English word created—yes, it was created—in order to translate the Greek words for sacrifice for the King James Bible.

People often break up the word “atonement” as “at-one-ment” to emphasize how the sacrifices bring people into relationship with God. They are now “one” with God.

We usually think this is just a cute preaching device to teach a concept. But funny thing, this is EXACTLY what the word means!  It was created to mean coming to be “at-one” with God.

Trouble with Atonement

The trouble with focusing on the idea of atonement is that the process of often overwhelms the purpose.

We now have so many atonement theories, so many mechanisms for explaining what Christ’s death accomplishes, and so many disagreements about what is “most important”, that we often forget the goal of atonement.

And the goal of atonement is union with God, it is to live with God.

Born again into a new family

To be “born-again” is a fairly rare concept in the New Testament (though you might not know this in certain conservative circles).  It shows up in John 3:3-7 and in 1 Peter 1:3 and 1:23.

From use in evangelical circles “born again”, one might think it means individual salvation from the consequences of sin. But this is wrong.

Being “born again” is a family term.  It emphasizes one entering into a new family and living in a new household, a new home.  To be “born again” is to enter God’s new home and live with God.

At-home-ment

John H. Elliott says that one of the main themes in 1 Peter is the “at-home-ment” accomplished by God. In Jesus we can now approach God, live in God’s home, and call God Father.

Through God’s at-home-ment we live with God and God lives with us. 

Now, if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter you know that “God with us” is a major theme for me.  In fact, I think it is the theme the holds the entire Bible together, and indeed, it is the fabric of salvation itself—and the cosmos too.

(In fact, if you Subscribe to the blog I’ll send you the first chapter of a book I’m writing with my wife about all this “God with us” stuff.)

Two Things

So I submit before you two things for consideration.

  1. Being “born-again” is all about salvation, but not salvation through some atonement theory.  It is salvation through entrance into a new family and a new home.
  2. We should focus less on theories of atonement and more on practices of at-home-ment—”at home” with God and “at home” with one another.

How would a focus on at-home-ment change your understanding of the Gospel, of life, and the church? (Non-rhetorical question. I would love to hear your thoughts).


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Is Prayer the Answer to Shootings?

Responding with prayer is right (but not in the way you think).

The immediate reaction to shootings like the one in Las Vegas is to offer “thoughts and prayers.”  We make an image-card and post it on social media. And we say prayers for those grieving.

But the immediate response to this by progressives is to complain that “thoughts and prayers” are no help at all. “What we need is a change of laws,” they say.

The call to prayer—for so many—feels like an abdication for responsibility.

“Why pray when we know the problem and the solution?”
“Why pray for those grieving when we could have avoided this?”
“Why pray when we can go out and do something?”

And they have a point.

Is the call to prayer that we make just a platitude thrown around to sound more concerned than we are? Is the promise to pray just a vacuous statement signaling how compassionate we are (or would like to seem to be)?

Even if it is genuine, even if we are pleading before God for mercy with countless other, is there more we could be doing?

I say, No.  We should keep praying.

We should pray without ceasing.

Prayer without ceasing

Paul tells us to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:16-18).  But what does mean to pray without ceasing? How can you pray without ceasing if you have to go about your regular life?

 

One view of “praying without ceasing” understands all our loving connections with others as a type of prayer, a kind of connection with God.  All our good works and compassionate acts constitute our praying without ceasing.

Prayers for those affected by violence

So we should offer prayers to God for all who suffer from these shootings.

And we should do this by acting compassionately and by seeking justice on behalf of these and future victims. Part of our praying without ceasing is to advocate for a change in the gun laws in America.

Prayers against the spiritual forces of violence

But I’m not siding with the progressives by redefining prayer as merely political action.  I don’t think the answer to all of life’s problems can be fixed through government regulation.  It can’t.

It doesn’t seem like anyone has the will to change our gun laws. And as one has said, “You can’t regulate against evil.

Many progressives have thrown up their hands in despair over the possibility of changing our guns laws.

And this is exactly why we should pray! 

As Paul reminds, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

So Let us Pray

To all progressives calling for us to stop praying and instead take up the cause for gun regulation, I say, “No way! Without prayer this cause is lost.”

Today, may we pray for those who grieve, for those in pain, for those who lost a loved one.  May we pray without ceasing in seeking justice and righteousness in the laws of our land. And may we pray to overcome the cosmic powers of darkness and evil.

So by all means, please pray.


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