Faith is not something God ever intended we draw from our broken experience and apply to God. It is rather a thing that we draw from our confidence in God and apply to a broken world. #faith #jesus
If anything has led to the loss of religious faith in the modern world, it is the idea that “science” has proven that God does not exist. Much of the disdain in our society toward religious faith I spoke about in our last post can be traced back to this idea.
Which may not be obvious. But to the extent society believes that God is an irrational concept, those who believe in God will be seen not only as violators of human freedom but also violators of compassion and justice. Continue reading “The Christian Mind: Irrational”
Can anything separate us from the love of God poured out for us through Christ Jesus?
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8)
It does not appear to be so. It is interesting in the above passage that the Apostle Paul finds it necessary to mention that not even life can separate us. Perhaps he has in mind life as in the opposite of death, but I like to think he has in mind “life” as in the daily grind of life, that place where we experience it. Not even what we experience in life, both good and bad, can separate us from God’s love.
Which is an astounding thought. Don’t take this the wrong way, but in many ways I have felt my life to be a complete failure. I have accomplished much, but I also feel I have failed at life in the most significant way possible, according to the only perspective that really matters: I have failed to live a life pleasing to God.
And I have come to this realization in the daily grind of life, where it is experienced. There, I have learned what stuff I am made of. And I have discovered it isn’t pretty. Like the Apostle Paul, I discovered with no small degree of anxiety that “in me, there is no good thing.” But unlike Paul, it has been hard for me to be okay with that. How can anyone be okay with that?
Growing up, I was always told that as long as I did my best, that was good enough. That is a good personal philosophy that produces a great work ethic. But somehow it does not work so well when we turn to the spiritual life. There is something that happens when we compare our lives to Jesus, knowing He is our example, that makes the wheels fall off “at least I am doing my best.” When God opens our heart and we see our motivations for what they really are, doing my best seems to lose all meaning. Doing my best actually becomes part of the problem.
But this I feel is part of the process, and in fact the beginning of the solution. The journey with God — unlike any other task we face — is not one where we work for God but rather God works in us. He is repairing us. And that process is not so much Him quickly fixing whatever keeps us from doing the things that please Him as it is understanding — despite whatever real failure in our lives we encounter, whether in plain sight or hidden from view —we are just as pleasing to Him.
Processing failure, I feel, is a critical part of my journey with God. For there is one thing that can separate me from the love of God, and it is myself: Particularly how I perceive my own failures. Does my failure, in the particular or general sense, change how I feel about myself? Am I still deserving of the very best God has to offer? Is He still extravagantly generous toward me if I feel I have failed to keep up my end of the bargain?
This is where an overactive work ethic, with all its good, can get us into trouble. Excelling in life is good, and God desires us to live fully-functioning lives where we accomplish great things. Because this is how He has made us to function. But if our ability to function becomes the criteria for our right to be accepted and loved, things begin to break down. The way it works in God’s kingdom is that first we are loved and accepted, then we function. In fact, we only function as we were truly designed to function to the extent we know we are loved.
I begin then to realize what God is really working on is not my ability to achieve but my capacity to be loved, even (and especially) in my failure. Nothing can separate me from the love of God. And I suppose in the final analysis, not even myself. For God simply loves me too much to keep me on the shores of failure when, in truth, an entire ocean of His extravagant love awaits me.
I awoke this morning in Long Island. Our cousins were sweet enough to open their home to us as we, this week, celebrate a family reunion with Catherine’s side of the family. I have never been to their house and so my first order of business was to wake up before anyone else, of course, and explore every room in the house.
That may not exactly be true, but it is what I did — at least downstairs. And I had the assistance of the two or three cats who live here, and who were more than happy to oblige.
As I did so, I was struck by how peaceful it was. We West-Coasters tend to think New York is all about the city, and it is if you are in Manhattan. But escape just across the water and you find a different world, a small piece of Heaven nestled among trees: A place which despite the busy trappings of modern life has a memory long before you and I were born, let alone before the smartphone was invented, a place inviting you to rest.
I come from a long line of religious followers who believe devotion to God is anything but restful. On the contrary, it can be quite stressful: Making sure that the Creator of the Universe is happy with you. It may not be too stressful if you avoid Him in the hallways of life. But run into Him in a private room and things can be quite tense. You can wish you were someplace else.
And this can be true even in the “best” of church traditions. Some traditions of course seem to enshrine this distance, keeping God in a place of unrelenting holiness and us in a place of fearful and reverent devotion. But I am thinking of those traditions who have embraced the message of the Bible that God, in His holiness, actually chose to come close in mercy: Becoming a man and taking upon Himself the reason for the discomfort we feel in His presence.
For the church traditions I have in mind, “faith” is a big topic. All the blessings of Heaven are available to us through faith, and so a lot of emphasis is upon “having faith.” But more times than not, be it the way they have approached it or I have received it, “having faith” has been more stressful than the standard “fearful and reverent” devotion. If I am already having difficulty at the religious duty thing, I will certainly fail (trust me) at the faith thing.
But here is the amazing thing: God requires neither. Whatever act we feel we must do or moral quality we feel we must possess in order to feel perfectly comfortable in God’s presence, Jesus has provided. “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthains 5). He has made the private room comfortable.
The natural outworking of faith, then, is rest. It is not the solemnity of a cold cathedral instilling a sense of uneasiness, nor the tireless striving of faith-based Bible-believer attempting to “live by faith.” It is the quiet of a Long Island morning. It invites us.
Such rest causes me to see things differently, though nothing in the fabric of my circumstances has changed. I see beauty where I could not see it before: In the early sunlight, in the dew that covers the grass, in the birdsong — even in the cat that nuzzles up against my leg. I realize this beauty was made for my pleasure — for I am deeply loved.
And then something begins to happen — I cannot explain how. The polarity in me shifts from my fearful and futile efforts to reach God, to God’s inexhaustible ability to reach me. My heart, my mind, my body — my very circumstances are all candidates of His unfathomable love. And no matter where I am in life I realize: My life has just begun.
I awoke with the thought this morning, “Be still.” It comes from the oft-quoted verse, “Be still and know that I am God.” The full verse is:
Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:10)
So we can be still, because God is not remaining still. God is on the move, both on the earth and in our lives. Indeed, what causes us to lose our place of stillness is the fear that no one but ourselves is moving: That we are the only ones in charge of this operation, and if we do not do something about it, catastrophe inevitable.
And this feeling can come in all shapes and sizes. We need not be eyes-bulging and paranoid to be one who has lost our peace. Sometimes we can be quite accomplished. Or, we are not fearing big things, like death, but quite small things like managing a trip to the airport. Virtually anything can be a cause for lost peace.
The other day, I found myself in our sun room (which also serves as a place of prayer). The days leading up to that day, I had felt such a sweet, continuous presence of God upon me. But this particular morning, I seemed to be feeling nothing but the hard cold facts of my situation. I felt anxious and finally said to God, “I can’t do this” with tears. Immediately I felt God say, “I am at work; I am doing a deep work.” With that I lay down and fell asleep.
The Lord once said to my wife, “Do not underestimate the power of My comfort.” And the same I feel is true about God’s peace. When we lose His peace, we are not just irritable: We are vulnerable. We were never designed to take matters into our own hands and meet our own needs. It is counter to our true nature. We were made to partner with God in all we do. And when we break that bond (always because of lack of trust) we end up partnering with something else. And it is never good for us.
I think it is often difficult for you and me to understand being still because we do not realize God is at work and is always doing a deep work. We are told often what we must do to better our lives: There is a message broadcast constantly that implicitly assumes we are all alone and on our own. So when we try to practice stillness, it does not work.
But stillness is about realizing God is always at work. That Jesus chose us, that He began a good work, and He is bringing it to completion.
Often I find: The moments I am tempted to think God is not at work are those important moments in life when God is pushing up to the surface a thing in my life He wishes to heal. That is, the times I fear God is not at work are the times God is most at work.
At times I will feel God’s sweet presence and favor; at other times I may recognize God is bringing correction and healing to an area of my life. But there are other times — or shall I say other areas — where God’s work in me is so delicate that my response is not stillness but fear. And fear always leads to control. It may not feel like control to me. The area of my heart demanding control may have been with me for so long that control is unconscious. In those areas, it may seem to me God is nowhere to be found. But this is where He is doing His most profound work.
And this is where stillness is most powerful. For as we come to rest, we let God in. God will be exalted among the nations, He will be exalted on the earth.
And he will be exalted in those places of our hearts where we have long given up hope we can ever be rescued.
I cannot get away from the idea that life is an expression of God’s beauty and that his most beautiful work is our very lives. It continues to cast reflections upon my heart and mind as I go about my day.
I made mention of this briefly in my last post, but I must elaborate. Two weeks ago, the thought struck me that the words I write are sacred, but I realize now it goes much deeper: Everything I do is sacred. All that I say and do matters: All that you say and do matters. This is because, from Heaven’s perspective, all things matter.
Every star in the Universe is known by name. The very number of hairs on your head are numbered. Every tear you shed is collected by God; every thought you think is known before it is said. And you and I: We were created to be a reflection of His beauty.
I really hope to convey this idea without it becoming in the minds of my readers yet another “have to” in the course of life. We do not “have to” find a way to reflect God’s beauty; this essay is not a “have to” lesson.
With the events that have transpired in my life in the past several weeks, I realize I am way beyond “have to.” I am at the very heart of “need,” with an occasional wandering into “want” and “desire.” “Have to” is the farthest thing from my mind right now.
Which — if you ask me — is a very, very good thing. And I wish the same for you. For there is something precious about life that has nothing — and I mean nothing — to do with “have to.” Life, if you are willing to accept it, has everything to do with “need”, “want” and “desire.” That is, It is about what we, as human beings, ultimately need. And more and more I realize it is about coming before God and pouring our hearts out before Him with all that we want and desire. We were simply not created for obligation; we were created for passion.
Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” And he answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22). The interesting thing about this commandment that we often overlook is that it is absolutely impossible to fulfill it by adopting a life of obligation. I cannot oblige my way into love. I can only fall in love.
And when I fall in love, I am not thinking about “have to” at all. I am thinking about another person, and how I can lay down my life for that person. I am thinking about spending every moment with that person. I am thinking about opening my heart wide, coming to know them just as I wish to be known. This is love.
So when I think about the fact that everything you and I say and do matters and and that we were created to be a reflection of His beauty, I am not thinking about obligation; I am thinking about love. I am thinking about being loved, and being in love. And I am thinking how that is possible with God because of Jesus demonstrating to us the greatest act of love the world has ever known.
That by humbling himself and becoming flesh and willingly taking all my sins upon Himself — taking my place to die on a Cross that I might be found innocent before God the Father — He demonstrated a love so profound that every other expression of love we see in this life is but a dim reflection.
I cannot help but think of the woman in the Bible who poured out an alabaster jar of precious perfume upon Jesus’ head and washed his feet with her tears. Professor Brian S. Chan of Biola University is quick to point out three things Jesus says in response to this. He says, first of all, that this woman has done this in preparation for His burial. He also says that wherever the Gospel is preached, what she has done will also be told. Most importantly, He says this woman has done a beautiful thing.
When we are in love, we are inclined to do beautiful things. And if I think, “I am afraid I am not in love with God,” then I must recognize this is not a deficiency but an opportunity. For we love by first being loved. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4). We love by coming to know the God who is love, whose love is unfathomable, whose mercy is inexhaustible. We love not by trying to love but by falling in love.
And when we do, we cannot help but love in return. We become beautiful creatures. And though it may not be our goal, the world takes notice.
Last night I attended a conference for Christian artists: Painters, dancers, writers, even basket weavers (I kid you not — and world renowned). Earlier in the day, Jesus said something to me that was one of those things that sounded ordinary but was quite extraordinary. He said, “Your words are a prophetic act.” In the Revival (Charismatic) culture, everything these days is a “prophetic act.” You here the term so often it has lost all or most of its meaning.
But God was telling me something important about my gift (and I will add here, yours as well). He was saying that the very words I write bring the presence of God — bring, as we like to say in revival circles, Heaven to Earth. This was important to me not because God was validating my gift but because He was telling me that what I write has inherent value regardless of what purpose or value I subscribe to it. Art, in other words, does not need to have a purpose; the fact that it exists is purpose enough.
For years I have struggled with how this gift works. Many of you may not know I am a writer of fiction and that it in fact is my primary gift. And the one thing that has always been self-evident to me is that in any form of artistic expression, freedom is paramount. But it is real difficult expressing any artistic gift you possess with freedom when you are trying to make sure it has a “purpose.” How is this going to reach the lost? How will this advance the Kingdom?
The answer is rather simple yet profound: Our very act of artistic expression, conceived in freedom, is itself an advancement of the Kingdom. The creativity that God has placed within us, and wishes to release through us, is not neutral. God told me during worship last night, “Do not underestimate the power of art. Do not underestimate the power of your words.”
We may agree, but this is a bit of a paradigm shift for many in the church who feel everything should have an overt purpose. To say artistic expression matters and should have a place is to say something deeply theological: That we weren’t put on this planet to simply save the lost or “advance the Kingdom” through preaching and the latest local church initiative to make Christianity seem really appealing to others. (Or worse, to try to get our art to explicitly do the same, all of which is a hopeless form of manipulation). Rather, our very lives are a work of art, not an effort to advance the Kingdom but the very expression of the Kingdom.
All of this took a great burden off my shoulders, for I realized I had been trying so hard to make this life work, it was destroying any semblance of art within me. It caused me to write the following words, which I hope bless you:
My life is not an act of futility or frustration; my life is an act of worship.