Monday, August 24, 2009

Markings, by Dag Hammerskjöld

"Never, 'for the sake of peace and quiet,' deny your own experience or convictions."

"It is easy to be nice, even to an enemy--from lack of character."

"To be, in faith, both humble and proud: that is, to live, to know that in God I am nothing, but that God is in me."

"Dare he, for whom circumstances make it possible to realize his true destiny, refuse it simply because he is not prepared to give up everything else?"

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Divine Challenge

My last post didn't really communicate what I wanted to say--the words just kind of took on a life of their own and I couldn't rein them in. I asked Rick about it and he said I combined too many ideas. He's right. (But at least the stock photo was adorable, don't you think?)

So I will take one small part of that last post and elaborate on it: our free will, and how God uses it to further his will. Free will truly is the great divine challenge. Without it, there would be no evil. But God saw fit to bestow on his creatures the dignity of choosing whether or not to serve him. He is not a laissez faire Father, however; he works in our souls and circumstances to unify our wills with his.

In my own life God has chiseled away at my stubborn pride without once violating my freedom to choose (but he still has a long way to go). If God was willing to undermine my freedom, he could have done so easily a long time ago and forgone this painstaking process. But he wants us to serve freely, by the power of his Spirit within us.

I see the interplay of my will and God's when he orchestrates divine appointments between me and another person. I usually sense that God is at work, even though I don't always understand the dynamic until afterwards. His Spirit takes the lead, and he works through me, but not in an absolute way. He leaves me the power to completely blow it, which does happen, especially if fear or pride overtakes me. And sometimes everything goes well until God says, "Okay, that's great--you can stop talking now." But I'm not ready to turn off the flow of words quite yet and clunk!--I say something that hits the wrong noteSo I learn to listen to his Spirit more closely next time. 

But there is no question that my free will is very real and that God respects it. It is a costly gift. In fact, he died for it. He could have stopped Adam and Eve from eating that fruit. But instead, he went to Calvary to pay the cost of that mistake and redeem for himself a people who will serve him in freedom.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wrestling with God

Jacob the patriarch didn't always seem like such a nice guy. He tricked his blind, possibly senile father who couldn't tell the difference between his son's hairy arm and one covered with the fur of an animal. I think I like Esau better. Just look how graciously he received his manipulative brother after all those years: "But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him." (Genesis 32:4) And yet God said, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." (Romans 9:13) Why?

Romans 9 tells us that it was because Jacob was one of the elect and Esau was not. Quite simply, Jacob was chosen before he was even born. So the Calvinists are right. But in Genesis 32, we see Jacob using his free will to wrestle with God all night even when God told him to stop, and God blessed his persistence. So the Arminians are right. On the other hand, God established his sovereignty by touching the tendon of Jacob's thigh and giving him a limp. So the Calvinists are right. But God declared Jacob victorious by saying that he had struggled with God and man, and had overcome. So the Arminians are right.

Or maybe the truth is a divine paradox that cannot be separated into two mutually exclusive doctrines. And if we take a dogmatic position on the issue, we miss out on the power of these apparently contradictory doctrines to balance each other out to move us forward on the journey of faith. Our job is not to sort it all out perfectly, but to respond to the Spirit's prompting in light of what God's living word teaches.

Quite apart from Jacob's election, there was something that distinguished him from his brother Esau: he was persistent. Jacob was a do-or-die kind of a man, whereas Esau's attitude was: "So what if I lose my birthright--I'm hungry!" Is that just a personality difference? No. Esau focused on the things of this world, while Jacob sought God's blessing persistently--he wrestled with God and overcame. Revelation 21:7 tells us that he who overcomes will inherit all these things. Revelation 3:5 says, "He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life." Revelation 3:12 says, "He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God." Finally, Revelation 3:21: "He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne."

What does it mean to overcome? 1 John 5:4 says, "Whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith." So we overcome through a living faith that advances God's kingdom in this world. That doesn't mean that this world is our ultimate destiny--God will make everything new--but God's power within us through faith brings more souls to him and fulfills his will in this world.

You might ask what that has to do with wrestling with God. If we want God's will, what's the point of wrestling with him in prayer? Wouldn't it happen anyway? Before sharing what I've learned in my own life I should confess that I relate more to Esau than to Jacob (I'm not much into stew, but if I was tempted with a bottle of coffee Frappucino I would have a major soul-searching struggle). Complacency and worldly-mindedness is a daily battle for me.

But God has brought major crises into my life that have forced me to come to him in prayer, most notably my daughter Ingrid's epilepsy and developmental delay that was diagnosed when she was five months old. As I've mentioned in previous posts, I prayed almost continuously for her during the three months she was in various hospitals with constant, uncontrollable seizures. I fully believe that my persistent prayers were God's will, but he didn't heal Ingrid. Instead, after I'd worked myself into a prayer-frenzy he taught me the true meaning of surrender. It has nothing to do with admitting defeat and everything to do with receiving him in all his fullness. It's about putting him first even if I don't get what I want.

This is important because Hebrews 12:1 defines faith as "the substance of things hoped for." Through faith, we have Christ and everything he accomplished on the cross. So God wasn't saying to me, "I'm not going to heal your daughter." He was saying, "You're going about it the wrong way, but now that I have your attention I will teach you something."

Over the years, God has been teaching me persistent surrender--wrestling to lay hold of God's will through faith, or by his power. The persistence keeps me praying, but the surrender puts God in the driver's seat of my life. This is a lesson I've had to learn again and again, because my natural inclination is either to be in control or complacent. Surrender and complacency are two very different things, because through surrender we open ourselves up to God, but complacency shuts him out.

And I don't believe that God's will necessarily happens by default. Jesus tells us to pray, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Why bother praying for God's will if it happens regardless? We know that God's will is done in heaven, and it will be done on the New Earth. But is it always done in this fallen world? Not according to the Lord's Prayer. It is through persistent faith that we lay hold of God's perfect will--the advancement of the kingdom of God on earth. God was pleased with Jacob's persistence. "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it." (Matthew 11:12)

The more I persistently surrender, the more power God has in my life, and the more I can "work out [my] salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in [me], both to will and to work for His good pleasure." (Philippians 2:12) So the Arminians are right after all. Or is it the Calvinists?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Secret of Life

What comes to mind when you look at this picture? Oh . . . it makes you want a glass of wine? Well, other than that. Are you impressed with the branch for bearing such wonderful grapes? Of course not. If anything, you're thinking that the vine must be healthy. The branch does nothing except stay connected to the vine, and the grapes come naturally. The secret of all fruit-production is very simple: the branch must stay connected to the tree, and if a fruit-bearing tree is healthy, there will be fruit. As long as there is life and health, there's also fruit. But if the branch decides to rebel and go off on its own, it will dry up and stop bearing fruit.

This is how Jesus illustrates the life of vibrant, fruit-bearing faith in John 15. "Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me." (John 15:4) What is fruit? "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." (Galations 5:22) Those qualities don't come to us because we try really hard to produce them; they grow into our character when we abide in Christ.

This is a very simple principle that none of us need a doctor of divinity to understand: Just as the life of the vine flows through to the branches, so the abundant life of Christ flows through to us when we abide in him. This is the apex, the simple Truth that silences bickering theologians, the wisdom that God has hidden from the wise and intelligent and revealed to infants.

What does it look like to abide in Christ? If you read no other Christian book this year (or this decade for that matter), I would recommend The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence, an uneducated French lay brother who lived in the 1600s. The book, quite simply, demonstrates what it means to walk with God in faith and obedience. Brother Lawrence tried always to abide in God's presence like a branch on the vine.

My version is sixty-two pages with a lot of white space, and in that small volume Brother Lawrence demonstrates true repentance and spiritual rebirth, the relationship between faith and works, justification and sanctification by faith, and eternal security based on faith, not presumption. But he is no theologian, and he doesn't use any of those words. His words are simple and direct, and he allows us a clear view into his soul, including his struggles.

Brother Lawrence never actually sat down and wrote the book. It is a compilation of letters written by him and notes taken by someone else during conversations with him. Important people came from everywhere to meet this humble, uniquely Spirit-filled monk and learn his secret. Over the years, he has been loved by Protestants and Catholics, Arminians and Calvinists alike, because he focused on the Treasure itself, not just words describing it. He dispensed with form and sought the substance. In short, he lived a true John 15 life of faith.

Why did Jesus come? In his own words: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." (John 10:10) John 15 demonstrates how we may receive it.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Power to Receive

Rick usually takes out the garbage. But one Wednesday back in the diaper days he was out of town, so I had to manage the overstuffed, unwieldy dumpster out to the curb, and I was having trouble keeping it steady on its two wheels. I glanced up and saw one of our neighbors coming toward me. How nice! Someone to help, right? Well, all I could think was, Must manage this thing on my own! and the threat of having to admit defeat gave me superhuman strength to keep the dumpster upright and moving. By the time he arrived I was almost at the curb, so I was able to just smile and say, "I've got it, but thank you so much for offering!"

If somebody asked me, "Are you opposed to chivalry, Anette?" I would reply, "No, of course not!" But some deep part of me has a hard time accepting help. It's not a rational thing, so if you tell me I'm wrong to feel that way, I won't argue. Sometimes it's because I don't want to impose. Most of the time it's my pride.

If the things of this world were all that mattered, that wouldn't be such a big deal. Self-sufficiency is a good thing from a sociological perspective. But pride is a spiritual barrier. Why? Because faith is all about receiving, and without faith we have nothing of eternal value.

I mentioned in "The Substance of Things Hoped For" that faith is our measure of an objective reality, namely Christ and his work on the cross. Christ is real whether we believe in him or not, but if we believe, he becomes real to us. And to the extent we have faith, we share in his victory on the cross.

Faith is not a virtue. It's not something we do for God. It is our power to receive what God wants to give us in Christ. So if we're proud and want to do everything ourselves, we have a problem. We can't please God with our own goodness. Without faith it is impossible to please him, but when we come to him in humility, he will give himself and his goodness to us. The more we can empty ourselves of Self, the more of God we can contain.

Sometimes it's good to practice letting others help us, because it creates in us that all-important power to receive. So maybe the next time the grocery store bagger asks me if I would like service out to the car, I should say "yes" for once.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

My Cocaine Habit

The other night my eleven-year-old son Stein read several of my blog posts. I was really proud of him for his interest in theology and his thoughtful questions. But afterwards I heard him whispering to Rick: "Did Mom really used to have a cocaine habit?"

I suddenly remembered that in my discussion of sin and suffering in "The Curse," I wrote: "Let's say my cocaine habit caused Ingrid's disabilities." I told Stein that I never used cocaine--that was a hypothetical example. "Well," he said, "you should have said it differently then, because some readers might have stopped reading your blog after that."

So to all you readers who were offended: COME BACK!!! I DIDN'T EVEN USE TYLENOL DURING MY PREGNANCIES!! AND I'VE BEEN OFF METH FOR YEARS! ;) (Hopefully they heard me across the blogosphere.)

Thank goodness for test readers! 

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Substance of Things Hoped For

Is there anything more gut-wrenching than having prayed for a healing miracle that never comes? God's promises are right there in the Bible, and yet he failed to come through. It's easy enough for people who have never seen their young child severely damaged by seizures or who have never known a young parent taken too soon, to dismiss prayer for healing. But before my brother-in-law Richard died of cancer at thirty-eight, hundreds of people prayed for him. We were non-denominational evangelicals, mainline Protestants, New Agers, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Pentecostals, and even unbelievers. We all agreed that he was too young to die, and we all wanted--needed--to believe in miracles.

Yet there's something potentially destructive about that kind of prayer as well. We come before God with the rawest of emotions. Can we talk about the fear and doubt, or would that be admitting defeat? And then there's the possible carnage at the end, when everybody leaves the battle scene in silence, coping with it in their own way.

I remember when Ingrid was an infant and spent three months in the hospital while doctors tried to stop her seizures. I prayed and read the Bible all the time. My mind was completely made up that she would be healed, and no doubt could possibly seep through my defenses. But when she wasn't healed, the first thought that entered my mind was, "I knew it." The doubt was there, held back by sheer will-power.

Whatever faith is, I didn't have it. But why should it matter? Does God require it like a currency? Is he like the Egyptian task masters who forced the Israelites to produce just as many bricks after their masters took away the straw? If I don't have enough faith despite my very best efforts, what hope is there?

God has never let me abandon that question. Because it really, really matters. Faith matters. And it matters more than the healing. Healing may be a matter of life and death, but faith has eternal significance. "By faith our ancestors won approval." (Hebrews 11:2)

So what is faith? First, let's talk about what it's not. It is not looking at a promise in the Bible and saying, for example, "God's word says, 'By his stripes we are healed,' so therefore my loved one will be healed.'" We may be convinced of God's power and willingness to heal, and still not have faith. It is not intellectual acquiescence, logical deduction, or mental gymnastics.

What is it then? Hebrews 11:1 gives us the definition: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (KJV) The word "substance" is very important here, so I chose the King James Version rather than the New American Standard, which uses the word "assurance." The Greek word hypostasis means "reality, essence, or substantial nature." Later in the definition we get the word "assurance," but by itself that translation might be misleading. (I can almost feel your eyes glazing over, so I'll stop talking about Greek words!)

Faith is not just a state of mind. It's not synonymous with positive thinking. It is our measure of an objective spiritual reality, and it doesn't change depending on our moods. Jesus wept before raising Lazarus from the dead, but that didn't undermine his power to resurrect him.

What is that objective reality? It is Jesus Christ and everything he accomplished on the cross. When he died, he won a complete victory over sin and death. He defeated Satan decisively, and paid for all our sins. The curtain keeping us out of the Holy of Holies was split in two, so every person may enter into God's holy presence without guilt. Sin no longer has any power over us. And "by his stripes we are healed." (Isaiah 53:5) All of that is an objective historical and spiritual fact. Jesus is the rock of our salvation.

So what does that mean for each individual? Faith is what links us to that objective reality. Some people have great faith, others have little faith, and many have none. Faith is our ability to receive everything Jesus purchased with his blood on that cross. So a Christian who is indistinguishable from an unbeliever and stays that way is an oxymoron. He or she by definition does not have what Jesus offers. Faith is so important because it's about having what Jesus came to give. And he came to give us himself--his Spirit. The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives will have a profound impact on everything. We can't just decide to take the healing but pass on the sanctification.

Although God cares deeply about our suffering (again, Jesus wept when Lazarus died), he knows that our bodies are temporary, but our souls are eternal. So he may have to allow illness and loss in order to heal our souls. He wants to give us an eternal treasure but can't if we're not paying attention, and we tend to pay attention to him when something goes wrong. Paradoxically, our faith often grows through suffering. After many disappointments (but also many amazing answers to prayer), my faith is much stronger now than before Ingrid had her first seizure. That is because hardship has forced me to rely on God, which is the only way I can share in his victory. In "The Needle's Eye," I talk about how God blessed me spiritually right after my disappointment of Ingrid not being healed. (Just in case this post isn't long enough for you. ;)

And the prayers for Richard were not in vain. With all the people lifting him up in prayer, he was empowered to live in ways that were possible only through the cross. In spite of his pain, he talked often about God's love. It was very real to him, and he wanted others to experience it, too. His only concern about dying was how it would impact other people, especially his wife Karen and daughter Amelia. A couple of weeks before he died, when his strength and ability to focus were almost gone, he wrote the following: "Do not fail to seize the love of God, which is available to you in the all-embracing sacrifice of Jesus Christ."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The God Who Sees

The story of Sarah and her maid Hagar is a poignant illustration of God's ability to peel back the layers to see the brokenness at the core of any bad behavior. God understands that which we have no words to explain. And he meets us with his love in the deepest part of our souls, to heal and empower us. 

Sarah had grown impatient with God's promise to give her and Abraham a son, so she decided to help God along by giving Hagar to Abraham as a wife. As soon as Hagar conceived, she started acting superior to her infertile mistress. Sarah responded by treating her so harshly that she ran away. But God met Hagar with kindness in the wilderness, by promising to bless her descendants and telling her to go back to Sarah and submit to her authority. Hagar said, "You are a God who sees," and returned to Sarah. 

The friction between Sarah and Hagar never ceased, however, and eventually Sarah told Abraham to get rid of the maid and her son. Abraham was sad about sending his son Ishmael away, but God told him to do whatever Sarah said because he would take care of his son. God kept his promise by providing water in the wilderness when Ishmael almost died of thirst.

This story shows God's compassion in so many ways. First, what was Hagar thinking when she provoked her powerful mistress by belittling her in the most hurtful way possible? Hagar was probably asking herself the same question while running pregnant in the wilderness. But God surprised her with his gentleness. I don't know exactly what Hagar meant by saying, "You are a God who sees," but given the circumstances, she may have felt truly understood for the first time in her life, even though she deserved to be judged. 

Second, Sarah disobeyed God when she gave her maid to Abraham as a wife, but when it backfired, she was angry with her husband. That doesn't seem rational, but it makes perfect sense from an emotional standpoint. When she spawned her plan she was probably just in an "Oh, Abraham, all that matters to me is your happiness" mood. He wasn't supposed to actually take her up on it! And even if she did mean it, how could she have foreseen that such complicated emotions would arise out of a pragmatic, culturally acceptable decision like that?

When Sarah told Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, Abraham turned to God, who could have replied by saying, "You're the head of the household, man! Besides, this was Sarah's idea to begin with. Did you remind her of that? It's time you tell her who's boss!" But God showed compassion to Sarah because he understood her pain. And he gave Abraham yet another opportunity to act in faith. 

This story is so compelling not just because it shows God's compassion, but because it demonstrates his deep understanding of our emotions. God does not condemn us with a broad brush, like we tend to do to each other. In all our motivations, he will filter out and satisfy our true needs when we let him. He meets us where we are, lost in the wilderness, and his kindness leads us to repentance. (Romans 2:4)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Nature of the Gift

Every now and then I hear someone make the argument that if salvation is a free gift, there can be no conditions attached to it. If God requires anything from us, they argue, salvation is no longer a gift without strings. A free gift, by its very nature, requires only that the recipient accept it.

This logic has some superficial appeal, but it just doesn't hold water. Let's say a king wants to rescue an ugly slave woman by purchasing her freedom, bringing her to his castle to live, giving her a royal wardrobe to replace her rags, beautifying her with the help of the court plastic surgeon, and marrying her. Seems like a pretty good deal to me. I would go so far as to call it a gift, even though the woman would have to give up her rags and her old life, and the plastic surgery might be painful. Suppose she answers: "Thank you! I'll take the gift of freedom and marry you, as long as I can keep my rags and ugliness and stay here with my master. When he dies, I'll join you." Then she parades around in the same rags worn by the other slaves, calling herself the king's wife. Will the king accept her under those terms? Or will he demand that she give herself completely to him or stop defaming him by calling herself his wife?

Someone may reply: "But if the king bought her freedom, it's up to her what she does with it." Let's say for the sake of argument that that's true (even though the Bible says nothing of the kind). If she stays with the slave owner, she is, for all practical purposes, a slave. She has chosen to forfeit the benefits of marriage to the king. Could she suddenly wake up one night and decide to leave the slave driver? Yes, because the king has purchased her freedom. But she has to actually leave in order to enjoy that freedom.

Still, my opinions are a dime a dozen (less than that--they're free!); the real question is what the Bible has to say. Is the gift completely without condition? "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." (John 3:16) Who shall not perish, but have eternal life? Those who believe in him. Isn't that a condition? If we remove all conditions, we're left with Universalism, which most evangelicals reject. Charles Spurgeon, using the old translation "on Him," rather than "in Him," says: "The faith that saves is not believing certain truths, nor even believing that Jesus is a Savior; but it is resting on Him, depending on Him, lying with all your weight on Christ, as the foundation of your hope." That kind of faith cannot but change us. 

Let's look at a few more verses: "Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience, resulting in righteousness?" (Romans 6:16) "For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries." (Hebrews 10:26-27) "God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth." (2 Thess. 2:13) Salvation is through sanctification, by the Spirit and faith. This is not optional. "Faith without works is dead." (James 2:26) "For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God." (Romans 8:14) Does God's Spirit direct our lives? If so, we are sons and daughters of God. If not, we are like the woman living in sin with her slave owner, while pretending to be married to the king. 

But God's word also says: "He is mindful that we are but dust." (Psalm 103:14) The king doesn't expect his new bride, rescued from slavery, to be the perfect wife right away. She'll have relapses for some time as the slave driver tries to get her back. There will be times when she believes his lies, and the struggle will not cease until he is dead. But if she is the wife of the king, she can't ever go back to live with her old master.

Just like we can't ever make peace with our sins.