The Christian Soul: Interlude

In our previous discussion on Christian spirituality, we took up the topic of obedience, and then proceeded to demolish any semblance of freedom we might be entitled to under the guise of “our freedom in Christ.” It was rather unfair of me, actually.

So before we launch into our discussion today, I would like to state plainly that I am all for freedom and like most have a part of me that fears its loss. That part of me imagines a life whereby I am denied every choice till I am left with nothing but the worst version of myself.

But there is a fear greater, and it is a life lived without purpose and destiny. We must be honest: Freedom has its limits. I am sure my friend Citizen Tom would agree that the purpose of freedom is not freedom itself, but what freedom is able to achieve. The country in which I live is based on the ideal of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But even in that single phrase, we find liberty (that is, freedom) does not make a good solitary traveler: It must have companions. Freedom follows life, and it yields to pursuit. Continue reading “The Christian Soul: Interlude”

The Christian Soul: The Problem of Freedom

In our ongoing discussion of Christian spirituality, I would like to go back to the basics and turn to what might seem like an unlikely topic: Obedience.

Obedience seems to be a confusing topic in our modern age. In fact, for many of us, it doesn’t exist. Continue reading “The Christian Soul: The Problem of Freedom”

Maybe Life Is Not a Problem

I awoke the other morning with a thought too good to be my own. It was the type of thought that sheds light on all your other thoughts, even thoughts you have been thinking without even knowing it, as morning sunlight might do to your back lawn, revealing the toys left out the night before.

As the thought too good to be my own (which we shall return to shortly) rose up within me, one such toy thought it revealed was this one:  The goal of life is to solve problems.

The problems of life for the modern-day Christian are many. First, there is the problem of living in a manner so as to be perfectly acceptable before our Creator. Then there is the problem of living in a manner so as to be maximally blessed, which has its own set of sub-problems, such as the problem of walking in divine health and divine favor, and also the problem of walking in divine financial prosperity.

Then there are the problems of everyday life (in case you think the above ones are not about everyday life) such as how to find a mate and have a good marriage, how to raise godly children, how to communicate effectively, how to avoid worry, how to be a good leader, how to break free from destructive behavior and addiction — and so on.

Life has so many problems, it is reasonable to think that the goal of life is to solve them. It is reasonable to think of life as sort of a super-problem, consisting of a matrix of smaller problems, all designed to challenge our problem-solving abilities. And that our highest calling before God is to do so.

Especially when one consider the modern three-point sermon, and the vast selection of Christian blog post titles out there, such as:

  • 5 Tips for Overcoming Fear about the Future
  • How to Make Right Decisions
  • How to Break out of a Victim Mentality
  • 8 Steps for Walking out of a Poverty Mindset
  • 5 Ways to Stop Discouragement from Getting the Best of You
  • The Number One Way to Get Unstuck in Life

Yes, life is a problem, and God is the problem-designer, and we are the problem-solvers. And God’s deepest desire is that we get better at solving problems. And the better we are at solving problems, the more of God’s blessing we experience. For solving problems is what it means to be fully human.

As opposed to solving problems being merely the means by which we become fully human.

That was my thought at least. As I have mentioned already, I was not aware I had even been thinking it. It wasn’t as if I had heard it in a 3-point sermon or read it in a recent blog post. None of my fellow churchgoers had uttered it to me in passing conversation. It was just there, in the cadence and activity of the modern church body, each member focused on figuring out how to get more of God to improve their lives.

But then the thought too good to be my own rose up within me, in all its simplicity: Maybe life is not a problem.

Maybe life is not a problem to be solved. Maybe the purpose of life is not to solve life’s problems. Maybe the purpose of life is something else entirely.

But in life, there are problems. And those problems cannot — should not — be ignored. What do you mean, maybe life is not a problem? For me, life is certainly a problem. And I am hell-bent on solving it!

So I said in my heart. But as I sat pondering this new thought, I realized there is a big difference between life having problems and life being a problem.

If life merely has problems, then we are — and life itself is — more than the problems we solve. We are called to something greater than solving problems. Granted, we might have to solve problems in this life. But we only do so that we might be in a position to fulfill the real goal of life —that we might be fully human.

But if life is a problem — that is, we see the goal of life as figuring out how to master God’s laws and principles that we might live most successfully — then solving problems becomes our purpose. Our highest calling before God becomes being really good problem-solvers.

Maybe life is not a problem to be solved. Not only this, maybe the problems we encounter in life are not even ours to solve. Maybe life is such that the problems we face are solved while we are focusing on something else.

While I was caught up with the thought too good to be my own, I saw a picture. It was the body of Christ spread across the whole earth. And when the world looked upon it, it did not see a people diligently trying to figure out the problems of life. It saw instead a reflection of Himself. From greatest to least, each member a uniquely created expression of all that He is, and all that He hopes to be, to a lost and dying world.

So lift up your eyes, child of God. Beyond your problems, and all your efforts to to solve them. Your destiny lies beyond.

Seeing God from the Rocket

“Take care of that cursed woman,” [Jehu] said, “and bury her, for she was a king’s daughter.” But when they went out to bury [Jezebel], they found nothing except her skull, her feet and her hands. They went back and told Jehu, who said, “This is the word of the LORD that he spoke through his servant Elijah the Tishbite: On the plot of ground at Jezreel dogs will devour Jezebel’s flesh.”

There seems to be a crisis in the modern-day church concerning who God is. In the charismatic renewal movement, for example, there seems to be a great drive to redefine both who God is and what the Cross represents. One a ministry growing in popularity among renewal advocates has even proposed that the accounts of God’s judgment we see in Scripture are not because of God but because of “the Law” under the Old Covenant, and as as a result, God’s judgment no longer exists.

The Bind That Ties

As a supporter of the renewal movement, I find developments like this perplexing. After all, why would I wish to split hairs and pin God’s judgment on “His law” instead of Himself? Why draw a distinction between the Law and the Law Giver? Or why would I go so far as to suggest God is too good to even allow (let alone execute) judgment in the first place, given the mountain of evidence in the Bible for it?

The answer I believe is found in the fact that the charismatic renewal movement today, and the church at large, finds itself in a bit of a bind. This situation might be best expressed by the following words penned by one of its advocates (emphasis added):

“As I preach this gospel of grace and proclaim the goodness of God one of the major obstacles people have in accepting this is the topic of God’s wrath and judgement. I myself have struggled to come to terms with this topic.”

One of the cornerstones of the renewal movement’s theology is the goodness of God. This is not surprising, since the renewal has witnessed an extravagant outpouring of God’s goodness. But what this has led to I believe is what I would call a myopic view of God. Instead of understanding God’s goodness in the context of the Cross, we are now inclined to emphasize God’s goodness in spite of it.

What I mean, theologically speaking, is that we have sought to define God purely in terms of His mercy at the exclusion of, rather than in the context of, His judgment. Many are not merely downplayed the role of God’s judgment in light of the Cross: They are flatly denying it.

Not surprisingly, this has led to a crisis among believers — which we see in the words of the renewal advocate just quoted. Because believers have been told that God is simply too good to execute judgment, they now struggle with Scripture that clearly says otherwise. They come across examples of God’s judgment in Scripture — like the one that introduces this essay concerning Jezebel’s death — and cannot figure out how the only-good God they have been told about could possibly prophesy and ordain what reads to them like a mob hit upon a woman.

It is important to note here that, contrary to what many seem to believe, the real crisis is not the discovery (or suggestion) that God is an executor of judgment. Rather, the real source of the crisis as I see it is believers simply coming up against a God in Scripture that directly contradicts the God they are being taught.

The Crisis from Space

Let’s say you were raised in a sheltered environment where you were taught the world was flat. Years later, you ventured beyond the borders of your home, boarded a rocket and viewed Earth from space for the first time. To your horror, you discover the world to be as it truly is: Round. But the source of your horror would not be found in the roundness of the Earth; it would be because its roundness now calls into question all you were led to believe to be true.

This is the crisis many in the church are now facing. Having sat under teachings that have exclusively emphasized God’s goodness — and often flatly denied God’s role in judgment — they now find themselves looking upon God from the rocket ship of Scripture only to find an entirely different picture. God is not Flat: He is Round. That is, His nature is more complex than the God-is-only-good theology has allowed for, and now believers do not know what to think. True, the God of Judgment haunts them. But it is not God’s judgment, per se; it is rather the vast chasm between the God they have been told about and God as He truly is.

In saying this, I realize there are many who are troubled by a God who could pronounce judgment at all. But my point is that this issue becomes monumentally more challenging with a theology that refuses to acknowledge God’s role in judgment in the first place. The truth is, there are perfectly good reasons to believe that God is a God of both judgment and mercy, and neither aspect contradicts His perfect nature. In fact, both aspects provide insight into the nature of life and of reality and are indispensable for properly understanding God’s most profound achievement, the Cross. Remove either one and the Cross ceases to have meaning.

The difficulty, however, is that we will have no such God, and this trend leaves us vulnerable.

Any Explanation

If we — like the Christian believer we quoted — find ourselves struggling and lacking peace over arguably a significant aspect of God’s nature, we are prone to hasty theological conclusions rather than what is really needed, which is a theological reset. We are more inclined to find any explanation, rather than the right explanation, to restore that peace.

What I would like to do is briefly discuss one such explanation I have come across recently (we can call it Theology X) and demonstrate why, though it attempts to provide a band-aid to the renewal’s theological crisis, ultimately does not solve it. In fact, it only serves to fundamentally alter our understanding of both God and the Cross — and I believe, not in a good way.

Theology X, which being adopted by a number of prominent leaders  in the renewal movement, is a rather conspicuous if not elaborate attempt to address the judgment crisis, which might be stated as follows: If we are committed to denying God’s role in judgment, how can we possibly deal with all the Scriptural evidence to the contrary? The answer is to suggest that God’s history with mankind has been marked by several time periods, each corresponding to and governed by a distinct Divine covenant. So far, so good.

But Theology X goes on to explain that “God’s wrath was connected to the Old Covenant” and also that “clearly, the wrath of God is an Old Covenant Law-based concept.” It also goes into painstaking detail to explain that “the crucifixion of Christ did nothing to assuage the wrath of God.” It also proposes that for a period of seventy years, both Old and New Covenants were in effect simultaneously until the destruction of Jerusalem, which marked the “official” end of the Old Covenant.

This somewhat speculative interpretation of Scripture is puzzling at first until one realizes its goal: To remove every trace of judgment from the God we now serve. By proposing that God’s wrath is an attribute not of God but of the Old Covenant, and further by proposing a transition period where the Old Covenant was still in effect, it is able to suggest that all traces of God’s judgment found in both the Old Testament and New have been done away with. God’s wrath literally ceases to exist as part of God’s nature under the New Covenant.

This line of reasoning even allows us to suggest that judgment has never really been a part of God’s nature to begin with. The answer to the follower struggling with passages like the one concerning Jezebel becomes: “Ah, don’t worry about it: That was not God; that was just the covenant talking.”

More Questions than Answers

But Theology X raises more questions than it hopes to answer. The first is: Why would God implement a covenant involving a “law-based concept of wrath” if wrath was not in fact an integral part of His nature? Why implement a covenant that did not reflect who He truly is or what He truly intended? It raises the question why God would ever allow something like that to happen.

There are really only two possible answers: Either something beyond God made it necessary for Him to establish a covenant that went against His own nature and intention, or God is purely arbitrary in His implementation of covenants. In the first case, it would suggest that whatever that “something” is, it is greater than God. Which, of course, does not bode well for the idea that God reigns supremely over His creation, that He “is in Heaven: He does as He pleases.”

But if we wish to preserve God’s supremacy, then we have no choice but to conclude God’s decision to establish a wrath-based covenant was completely arbitrary. He poured out wrath under the Old Covenant simply because He could, and under the New Covenant He simply changed His mind. Who knows what the next Covenant might bring?

A Death without Explanation

The second problem raised by Theology X is: Why was it necessary for Jesus to die in the way that He did? Theology X belittles the idea that Jesus’ death had anything to do with God’s judgment, remarking somewhat disparagingly that “Jesus was not the Father’s ‘wrath sponge’ soaking up His anger toward sin.” Instead, he argues, Jesus was merely “the perfect lamb sacrifice thus creating a brand new covenant through which the Father could forgive sin once and for all.” If this seems confusing, it is.

What Theology X is trying to do here is to show that sacrifice and forgiveness have nothing to do with judgment, that they are presumably as far from one another as the East is from the West. In doing so, it resurrects an age-old question theologians have asked concerning how the death of Jesus worked exactly — that is, how are we to best understand how the death of one man, who was fully God, paid for the forgiveness of sins of all of mankind? The question is not whether it did, but how it did.

The evangelical answer to this question is that Jesus took our place and suffered the punishment we deserved. This idea is as accepted among Protestant evangelicals as the four spiritual laws. This newer theology, however, denies this. It reasons that “no Scriptures point to God’s wrath being poured out at the Cross.” Which, I would argue, is not a strong case for its rejection. (On the same basis, we would have to reject the doctrine of the Trinity, since it is not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, either.)

Instead, Theology X explains that under Old Testament Law, “no lamb sacrifice was ever punished for sin. Rather, the lamb’s death simply enacted covenantal forgiveness.” By analogy, it implies Jesus’ death was this simple, also: It was not actual punishment for our sins, nor presumably did it have anything to do with God’s judgment (for this is the whole point he is making): It was simply the act that was necessary to bring about forgiveness and usher us into a new covenant.

Theology X’s almost nonchalant portrayal of Jesus’ death on the Cross should give any Bible-believing Christian pause. But even if we accept its version of events in order to avoid a God of judgment, we now have new problem: We have no good reason for why Jesus had to die in the way that He did.

If Jesus’ death had no connection to God’s judgment, then why did God the Father require that Jesus die — and die in such a horrific manner? If judgment was not at issue, God could have conceivably used any means to bring about forgiveness. He could have released a swarm of butterflies. Or He simply could have had Jesus wave His hand. Why death at all? And why death on a Cross?

A God Far Worse than Imagined

Again, there are really only two possible answers here: Either God had to do it this way for reasons beyond our knowledge and presumably beyond His control, or God simply chose to do it this way for no good reason: He simply wanted His Son to die a horrific death. Theology X then would strongly suggest that God is either not in control of his own Creation or that He is somewhat of a monster.

And this is a point worth mentioning: Theology X hopes to rewrite the Bible in a way that distances God from any trace of judgment. But any attempt to do so will always have the effect of making God out to be far worse than ever imagined.

In my opinion, we must come to terms with the fact that God’s judgment is the only just reason for God’s actions in human history, from beginning to end. We must also realize that any attempt to “sanitize” God’s character and conform it to our own ideas of what is good will only serve to undermine the Gospel itself. By attempting to rehabilitate God’s character, we only serve to demean the work of the Cross — as seen above.

One Question Remains

I know I have kept my readers far longer than blog post etiquette allows. But let me conclude by briefly addressing the one question that remains: How can we understand God’s judgment in light of His goodness? The answer is quite simple: By understanding God’s goodness in light of His judgment.

There’s a terrible misunderstanding among renewal advocates that God’s judgment amounts to no more than God being in a really bad mood. As one teacher puts it, “I remember growing up thinking that God the Father was angry, and it was Jesus who calmed Him down.” But contrary to what some think, the Old Testament does not, in fact, confirm this misguided idea. Rather, it establishes the fact that God’s perfect holiness demands punishment for sin. In other words, God’s judgment is not a product of a bad mood: It is a product of justice.

Imagine a father who lashes out at his own child for no reason whatsoever and sends him off to his room without supper. We would all agree he is an angry father; we might even agree he is an abusive father. But what if the child was no child at all but instead a criminal — in fact, a murderer? And what if the father was actually a judge, who did not send the criminal to his room, but instead to prison, and eventually to his death? Would we still say the judge was angry and abusive? Or would it not be more accurate to say the judge was perfectly right in his execution of justice? That between the two, it was the criminal who had acted unjustly?

The reason for our present discomfort with God’s judgment lies in our failure to make this distinction. We are mistaking the actions of a judge for those of a father. We are viewing God’s actions as judge through the eyes of a child. A young child of a judge might wonder how his own father could possibly send a man to his death — and may even question whether his father is a good man. But this is not so: His father is perfectly good in his execution of justice. The child can also rest in the assurance of his father’s kindness toward him, expressly because of the special relationship they share: He is his own son.

I fear God’s abundant kindness to us has caused us to lose sight of the fact that we we were once criminals. We have forgotten that the extravagant kindness and mercy we experience from God the Father is based solely on our adoption as sons and daughters — the most costly adoption in human history.

In Closing

I would like to go out on a limb here and propose a few things.

First, I would like to propose that the really disturbing thing we find in Scripture is not the accounts involving God’s judgment  — such as the death of Jezebel, who was a manipulator, a murderer, and who systematically hunted down and killed the prophets of God.

I would also like to propose that Jesus did not have to go to the Cross in order for God to be good. Had Jesus never gone to the Cross, God would in no way be any less good — not even one hair — in His pronouncement of judgment upon mankind. For in His pronouncement, His judgments would be just, for it is a judgment we rightly deserved.

I would also like to propose that in attempting to strip from God of all traces of judgment, it is not really His good name we are protecting, but our own. For the only people who could ever possibly consider God’s judgment to be unkind are those who are not entirely convinced they deserve it. It is the unrepentant criminal who accuses the judge of injustice, but it is the repentant criminal fully convinced his sentence is deserved, who understands the judge’s pardon for what it is.

No, the really disturbing thing we find in Scripture is a God who humbled himself as a man and went to the Cross to take upon Himself the punishment we rightly deserved. As the apostle John says, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” These are the accounts in Scripture we should find most disturbing. They are the ones that should cause us to struggle, lose a great deal of peace, and keep us up at night. For it is a love so unjustified, it borders on the obscene.