I was walking the 1.5 miles home from my doctor’s appointment this morning, along busy Treat Boulevard, when I came upon a goose and her four goslings. Mama apparently wanted to take the kids out for a walk—water nowhere in sight—and chose to parade down Treat Boulevard. Two lanes of traffic were blocked by motorists either enthralled or frustrated with the slow-motion chase I was on. I tried to herd the birds back onto the sidewalk, but Mama was getting mad at my interference. I even called 911 for traffic help, but the dispatcher said, “We don’t dispatch police officers to help geese.” A kind-hearted gentleman in an SUV figured out a way to herd the gaggle with his truck, and we finally got them safely to a side street. But darn it! I saw them heading in the wrong direction toward danger, and all I could say was “No, no! Follow me! Don’t go that way!” One of the goslings fell down a drainage grate! We—a nearby construction worker and I—managed to rescue the other three before they fell in. But that pitiful squeak five feet down was enough to tug at anybody’s heart. We worked the grate free, lifted it heavily, and the man jumped down in to retrieve the baby. Family reunited and safely ushered out of harm’s way.

Mama was not too happy that someone (me) got so close and was so insistent on changing her route. She sounded a little like me when, before knowing Jesus, I was wayward. Following my own path, fiercely independent and self-satisfied, and not following directions I now know God was giving for my good. Or like C. S. Lewis, who described himself in Surprised by Joy: “the most dejected, reluctant convert in all of England . . . drug into the kingdom kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape.” Sometimes we really do not know what is good for us.

Fundamental to our Christian faith is that God is good, and that he wants for us that which is also good. We say God is benevolent, having the desire to benefit us. The Scriptures are full of references to God’s basic good nature. My favorite (excerpts from Psalm 145):

8          The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

9          The Lord is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made.
. . .

13         The Lord is faithful in all his words,
and gracious in all his deeds.

14         The Lord upholds all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down.

15         The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.

16         You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing.

17         The Lord is just in all his ways,
and kind in all his doings.

I circled all the adjectives describing God’s character in this excerpt, and doing so, I am overwhelmed that this God is looking after me! And yet, I sometimes live with the illusion that it is I who is protecting my little charges, my interests, and my future. When I get mad at God’s interference, I am only revealing how little I know of the Big Picture, which is God’s to know and mine to trust.

 

 

So What IS God Like?

May 27, 2015

Somebody made a quirky comment about God and Jesus the other day; it got me thinking. It went something like this: “I’m a Jesus person; the God of the Old Testament needs rehabilitation, and Jesus did that.”

Aside from who/what you think might be “the God of the Old Testament,” can you see what is wrong with this statement? The comment basically states that Jesus is not the same God as YHWH of old! It also suggests that the speaker might not be truly Trinitarian.

But let’s take a look at one statement of the character of God found in the Old Testament, Psalm 145.

1          I will extol you, my God and King,
                        and bless your name forever and ever.
2          Every day I will bless you,
                        and praise your name forever and ever.
3          Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised;
                        his greatness is unsearchable.

4          One generation shall laud your works to another,
                        and shall declare your mighty acts.
5          On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
                        and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
6          The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed,
                        and I will declare your greatness.
7          They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness,
                        and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.

8             The LORD is gracious and merciful,
                        slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9          The LORD is good to all
                    and his compassion is over all that he has made.

10           All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD,
                        and all your faithful shall bless you.
11        They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom,
                        and tell of your power,
12        to make known to all people your mighty deeds,
                        and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
13        Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
                        and your dominion endures throughout all generations.

The LORD is faithful in all his words,
                        and gracious in all his deeds.
14        The LORD upholds all who are falling,
                        and raises up all who are bowed down.
15        The eyes of all look to you,
                        and you give them their food in due season.
16        You open your hand,
                        satisfying the desire of every living thing.
17        The LORD is just in all his ways,
                        and kind in all his doings.
18        The LORD is near to all who call on him,
                        to all who call on him in truth.
19        He fulfills the desire of all who fear him;
                        he also hears their cry, and saves them.
20        The LORD watches over all who love him,
                        but all the wicked he will destroy.
21        My mouth will speak the praise of the LORD,
                        and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.

Just look at all those adjectives and verbs to describe our gracious and loving God! Doesn’t it hit you that Jesus is the same God as YHWH, God come in the flesh entirely. Jesus did not come with a purpose or intent any different from what he, as God, had been pursuing through the millennia. Any description or character we attribute to Jesus must be attributed equally to God, and visa versa: any description or character we attribute to YHWH in accordance with the Scripture must be applied to Jesus. To do anything else theologically is in error.

When Jesus introduced himself to his disciples—comments recorded primarily in the gospel of John—he identified himself as one with the Father, of one will with the Father, the one sent by his Father, not to mention the one who would send the Spirit. These Trinitarian links are extremely important to us, because here is where they point: if we get to know Jesus, we get to know God. Jesus is the face of God made accessible to mere mortals who otherwise would fall blinded before the glory of the Almighty. Jesus is the one through whom we relate to the triune God. By being so, Jesus enables us to participate in the love, power, and purposes of the fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit.

But, you say, look at verse 20b: “But all the wicked he will destroy.” Didn’t Jesus say, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him”? Yes, he did! He came to save . . . he came to redeem us so that we could be made righteous and be able to stand in the presence of God who is righteous and pure. And we are saved from what? Saved from the folly of trying to find Life by another way than its Source, Jesus the Lord.

Jesus went on to say, “Those who believe in [the Son] are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:17-18). There is no getting around it: some day there will be a reckoning, the standard being belief in the name of Jesus Christ as God’s Son come in the flesh. Jesus made his appearance specifically to help us see the mercy and compassion of God, which (Paul reminds us later) “draws us to repentance” (Romans 2:4). God wants us to be saved; God cares about how we are doing spiritually. God has made a great effort to introduce us to the means of salvation. All we have to do is grab hold of it!

But I presume that some will not avail themselves of God’s mercy, as hard as that is to believe (I mean, what an offer!). Some day those who have rejected Christ will be destroyed, the last chance for their salvation exhausted. While the righteous will not rejoice that some are lost because of their refusal to submit to God’s sovereignty, those who have been saved will be glad that wickedness can no longer touch them or threaten them. It is an expression of God’s mercy and compassion that he cares about the well-being of those who find shelter in him.

 

I have heard it said, even in PCUSA General Assembly committee meetings, that God is unknowable. “God is so vast and so big that we cannot possible know or understand what God wants to do.” This is a bogus claim in the guise of humility. As I have written before, God wants to be known and has gone to great lengths to make himself known to his creation (cf. Deuteronomy 4:5–8, 32–36). Not only can we know about God—his nature and character—we can actually know God (more on that in a later post). Our investigation into God’s background is not a clandestine operation done despite some effort on God’s part to hide. No, God delights when we seek him, and he will be found by those who search for him wholeheartedly (Deuteronomy 4:29). Tuck that assurance into your heart and mind while we proceed.

As we ponder the nature and character of God, it is important first to answer the question, “How do we know?” How is it that we can actually describe—with confidence and clarity—what God is like? We know by three ways:

God’s Fingerprints Throughout Creation. The apostle Paul makes this point most succinctly in the opening chapter of Romans:

19″For what can be known about God
is plain to [all, even those who are opposed to God],
because God has shown it to them.
20Ever since the creation of the world
his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are,
have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”

When I stand at the top of a ridge in the high Sierra Nevada, I am in awe of the beauty of granite, sky, and water (Psalm 8). When people pursue scientific inquiry down to the chromosomal level or up to the astronomical level, they are in touch with created things that are still smaller than the Force that put them in motion “in the beginning” (Genesis 1; Job 38). At the very least, an appreciation of nature moves us to ask, “Where did all this come from?” which is a question God recognizes as coming from a seeker.

The one who discovers, perhaps through observation of the natural world, that there must be a God behind it all has taken the first step of faith. Just the recognition of a Being not only bigger and better than we are but also greater and stronger than any other possible god has set us on a quest for truth. For ages, indigenous people around the globe have looked to the heavens and understood, perhaps wordlessly, that an omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent God exists somewhere, somehow. You can read accounts of these discoveries in an old book called Eternity in Their Hearts by Don Richardson (Regal Books, rev. ed. 1984).

God’s Revelation Specifically in Scripture. Incapable as we are for finding God without help, God has put into words—the words of Scripture—his own singular story in order that we might be introduced to him. From the beginning of time at creation all the way to a projection of the end of time, God is interested, according to the Scriptures, in sharing his great benevolence and joie de vivre with us. Testimony of God’s presence and power was accumulated with the cooperation of many human writers through thousands of years of history. Organized into 66 “books,” the whole Bible is the Word of God written, “God’s Word in human words.” Holy Scripture, comprising Old and New Testaments, submits itself as the revelation and self-disclosure of God, the journal of God’s relationship to creation and to a people of Israel, the plan God implemented to reconcile everyone to himself, and the invitation to know God and experience Life in him. Everything we need to know is found here, if not everything we want to know—there is some mystery, after all, because it is true that God is bigger than we are and “out of sight.” By saying this, I am not contradicting my previous comments, but only saying that God has revealed himself and his will to us in the Scripture to a degree sufficient for our salvation and discipleship. The Word of God points us specifically and effectively toward the One who holds the keys to our future.

Don Richardson, previously mentioned, writes in his book about how native, unreached people on desolate islands for instance, had known for generations about a God who was above all gods. When missionaries identified him as Jesus Christ, they gave thanks that they could now address God by name. And so it is for us, when we receive the scriptural testimony from God, that we are exposed to the specific revelation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

God’s Embodiment in Jesus Christ. The third way we know about God is by taking a very close look at the One he sent, Jesus of Nazareth. If you want to know God, get to know Jesus. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus was not only holy, talented, smart, and gifted as a teacher; Jesus was God come in the flesh to save sinners:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.  (John 1:14)

4But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son,
born of a woman, born under the law,
5in order to redeem those who were under the law,
so that we might receive adoption as children. (Galatians 4:4f)

Jesus was not a different god than YHWH. Jesus did not come to correct excesses of an Old Testament tyrant. Jesus was and remains fully God even as he was fully human. That means, if a person wants to know God, then a person must get acquainted with Jesus Christ. If you see Jesus, you see the Father (John 14:7).

So much more to be said! Stay tuned . . .

The human lust for power is a natural outflow of Adam and Eve’s resistance to God’s authority. When a person, a group, or a nation believes itself to be any equivalent of “the center of the universe,” bad things begin to happen. Adam and Eve’s choice may seem innocent enough to modern eyes, but within a generation, murder had entered human experience. The desire of one to dominate another comes out of the irreconcilable demands of two adjacent egos vying for the center of the universe.

If a culture adopts the philosophy that all people are free to do whatever they wish, to pursue happiness on their own terms, to be in essence the center of their universe, then several things unravel:

  • people get locked into competition mode in order to win the pot of finite resources

  • politics seeks personal power above the common good

  • the basis for law erodes and it becomes impossible to protect individual rights against the libertine advances of others

  • no one can be truly happy as long as an opponent or a rival, exists

  • there will be wars

If this isn’t a picture of hell, I don’t know what is.

But it is rapidly becoming the picture of the world, including American culture, and some of its micro-systems. It would be an interesting exercise simply to read the newspaper through these lenses and count the number of stories that relate to the above list. As a side note, I would observe also that these dynamics exist within the church, including my own tribe the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Disputes over property, doctrine, and inclusivity have their genesis in human resistance to God’s authority and power.

Power in the hands of human beings who are flawed and damaged by sin can turn into exploitation very quickly. This is one reason why Presbyterians, for example, generally exert power through their governing bodies rather than through individuals. But even so, original sin permeates the system because it has infected every person involved.

Power-seeking can also turn violent, as we saw in the Waco meeting of rival motorcycle gangs this week. Power corrupts the human spirit, because people have nothing within themselves to stop its insistent march toward dominance.

This is where God comes in.

The Bible teaches, and I believe, that God is the center of the universe. More than that, the one and only most holy God is bigger than the entire creation. You can get the picture through God’s thunderous objection to Job’s complaints, in Job 38-39. By virtue of his eternal existence, his unmatched might, his complete knowledge of all reality, and his inherent goodness, God holds all authority and possesses all power to rule the universe. His is not an idle interest in the affairs of the world, for he has known and governed every person on earth and through all history. God’s care is active, personal, and effective, and no person is beyond God’s reach, whether one is aware or not.

If it is true that God possesses all power and dominion, then we mere mortals do not. This is a fact that does not depend on our feelings about it. Here is where we find relief, if we want it, for the lust for power. The god of self must stand down. The fundamental transaction requires us to give up, give in, and give to the One who is sovereign over all. A tall order for sure! Who really wants to do this, in their heart of hearts? Nobody! That’s why we’re in this mess to begin with! But if giving up, giving in, and giving to God are required, what is to be done to make this happen?

For now, let’s frame some questions that will direct future thoughts:

  1. Is God worthy of my trust?

  2. Can God help me give up, give in, and give to?

  3. Is the effort to reorient my life going to be worth it?

Stay with me in this discussion, which will unfold slowly for some. I am laying a groundwork for Christian faith.

Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Seminary, recounts the story that took place when he was pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley (California). A very brief report of the story appears in his book The Dangerous Act of Worship (p. 64), but he shared an expanded version in a talk a few years ago:

A gentleman came to him a bit confused and befuddled, because his wife had just become a Christian. His purpose for the visit was to get the Cliff Notes rendition of the faith—“just bullet points, please”—so he could hold his own in the nightly conversation he and his wife were having. He made it clear to Mark that he was a very busy, very successful businessman who really didn’t have time for this, so “just bullet points, please” and like, right now, so I can move on to the next thing on my list. Mark resisted the urge to hand him a pamphlet or two, and instead gave an honest reply. “I can see you are a busy and successful person, so I don’t think what you’re asking for is a good idea.” The gent, frustrated, shot back, “Why not?” Mark told him, “Look, if I were to give you some bullet points, and you were to really understand them and act on them, it would totally mess up your life. You don’t really want that, do you?” The man gets credit for honesty, because he said, “No.” And he left, and Mark wondered if he had been too hard on him.

But the businessman with the Christian wife came back a couple weeks later, looking just a little more desperate and coming across a bit more insistently, again asking for a brief outline of the Christian faith. Mark again refused, saying, “This isn’t something I can pass on to you here on the church patio between worship services.” “Well then, can I come in to see you for twenty minutes this week?” Mark said, “No, I think it would require more time than that, and besides, I have to tell you, the gospel will ruin your life as you know it. Do you really want to open that possibility?”

[Do you get what Mark was doing? Without sharing the gospel—yet—he was asking questions that he hoped would help this man to recognize his first big obstacle: his allegiance and loyalty to a way of life that made no room for God.]

The very successful and extremely busy businessman came back again, and this time for an hour-long appointment. What unfolded over the next several months was the examination and reordering of his priorities, his focus, his passion, and eventually even his money toward God and God’s purposes rather than his own.

I share this story because it made a big impression on me at the time I heard it, and its challenge has rung true. It has been a long time in my own life since this radical, initial turning—the Bible calls it repentance—took place, and it is easy to forget how life-altering it is. God met me and changed me from the inside out. But keeping at the center of my life God, around whom everything else revolves, remains a struggle to this day. What does this look like in my experience?

No, I have not sculpted idols of wood, gold, or silver, like the ones rebuked in Habakkuk 2:18-20. As mentioned last time, my possessions in competition with God are more likely to be financial or electronic or gourmet. But even more central is the Other God, the fundamentally wrong one:

The self. Myself. Yourself. Ourselves. Our self has been deified when our authority for decision-making comes only from within, what I want or how I read the situation or what is to my advantage. We do this all the time; it is as natural as breathing, which is precisely the point. Our own nature—with ourselves at the center calling the shots, keeping things in our control according to our own definitions and desires—is our snake in the grass (to borrow from the imagery of Genesis 3:1).

Let’s be clear at the outset: God does not need anyone’s faith to verify his power or authority.

God does not need my allegiance in order to be fully himself, fully divine.

But I, in one sense, dethrone Almighty God in my soul when I follow the bad habits first introduced by Adam and Eve in the garden, that is, when I

  • fail to worship God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, and eternal maker of the universe and my Creator, too

  • fail to acknowledge God’s superior wisdom and gracious provision at decision-points in my life

  • fail to listen to God when I get input contrary to his Word; this static is the pervasive worldview in which we are immersed that contradicts God’s intentions

  • dismiss the Word of God as not applicable because I am special, an exception to the rule

  • allow my own emotions and desires to redefine life and happiness to accommodate them

  • think only in the short-term of what I want, rather than consider the long-term wisdom of aligning myself with what God wants.

Does any of this sound familiar? My attempts to define myself as the center of the universe, the fount of wisdom, and the deserving beneficiary of freedom without limits are not just narcissistic but spiritually dangerous. This form of idolatry, reduced to its essence, is precisely what was imbedded in our nature when Adam and Eve took the first rebellious step in that direction (Genesis 3).

So what does this have to do with God? Everything! We’ll be working on this in the next few posts, but a view of self I have described is a living denial of the claims God has placed upon us. They can be summarized with these verses from Scripture:

For you, O LORD, are most high over all the earth;
you are exalted far above all gods. (Psalm 97:9)

[God said to Job,] “Where were you
when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4)

[God says to us,] “Be still, and know that I am God!”
(Psalm 46:10)

All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades . . .
but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6-8)

 

 

The Gods We Worship

May 15, 2015

My second prod to think and write about belief in God comes from my experience in Turkey and Greece, where “gods” were everywhere—or at least remnants of worship spaces, icon niches, and other ancient signs of pantheism and Greek/Roman mythology. Walking up the hill through the ruins of Delphi (Greece), we encountered the monument to Argos, the sanctuary of Gaia, and the great temple to Apollo. In Ephesus (Turkey), strolling down the main road made of marble, we saw what is left of the Temple of Artemis (one of the seven Great Wonders of the Ancient World, but represented now by only one surviving column). Hadrian and Domitian have their temples, too, giving some evidence to a Roman emperor cult.

The point is, in ancient Greece and then Rome, objects of worship, gods if you will, were present and the focal points of cult worship, treasure-building, and interpretation of life. We get a feel for what this dynamic produced, by recalling the Apostle Paul’s visit to Athens:

16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace . . .. 18. . . Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? . . .

22Then Paul . . . said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. . . . .

29 . . . we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:16-31)

Pow! The dark backdrop of paganism provides dramatic contrast to the light of Jesus Christ, the one who has been raised from the dead and thereby having a rightful claim to supremacy over all other deities.

Yesterday, I wrote about the “nones,” those who do not believe in anything particularly. An irony of history is noted in the accusatory language directed at first century Christians, who were called “atheists” because they did not embrace the pantheon! Here we have the two extremes, those who claim no god whatsoever, and those willing to identify anything with deity.

The great contribution to the world of Judaism and Christianity is the insistence that there is only one God. Whenever pagans—be they Greek, Roman, Celtic, African, Incan, you name it—are engaged in dialogue with the Christian faith, the first step toward faith is not necessarily to meet and submit to Jesus Christ but to espouse monotheism. The idea that our fortunes and futures rest upon only one God—the Lord Almighty, the highest power with no rivals—represents a huge leap for a vast number of people around the globe. This is not only an ancient challenge, or a foreign challenge. I suggest also that monotheism is a difficult pill for many Americans to swallow.

We are people of no god or of many gods, or perhaps the wrong god. Belief in no god requires a person to self-define goodness, rightness, and meaning. Belief in many gods requires a person to keep them all appeased somehow, like the Chinese acrobat spinning several plates at a time. Many deities command our frequent and intense attention, our money, our commitments and our loyalty. I can think of a few: the iPhone, the television, our homes, our money, our places of employment. We sacrifice ourselves at their altars every day it seems, and yet we do not comprehend that this is worship of a materialistic pantheon. When we do get it, God Almighty turns our world upside down and everything has to be realigned under God’s banner.

In my next post, I will expand on the possibility of worshiping the wrong god.