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)

 

 

A few years ago, in response to the drought conditions then (a chronic problem in California), we re-landscaped our front yard. It involved replacing our driveway and putting in a new walkway directly from the street to our front door. Things were torn up for weeks, but on concrete pouring day everybody’s spirits lifted. A crew of skilled laborers congregated in the middle of the now excavated dirt pathway for the 7 a.m. briefing. With water and tools at the ready, the team turned to welcome the big cement truck of your dreams, and an amazing procedure unfolded.

Given wet cement, the crew had to work quickly and in a coordinated fashion. The job was to direct the heavy flow into waiting forms, level the cement, and smooth it within the allotted time. We watched from the window above, with goofy grins on our faces. One of the reasons we were so enthralled was that each and every one of the crew members looked as though he were back in his boyhood playing in a sandbox. The men were having fun, even as they executed the plan with great skill. They were “all in,” fully committed to the task, and when it was completed, they shared our delight at how well it had turned out.

In contrast, can’t you tell when a person is just going through the motions at the job? What gives them away is the absence of any sense of joy or meaning in what they do. Sometimes you can detect anger, discontent, or mistrust that shows up at the oddest moments. It makes you wonder if the worker is having a problem with his or her employer or co-worker. It has been my observation over the years that a person who is not—in some way, at some phase—enjoying the job is not going to do as good a job as someone who is all in.

We were all designed to work, even in Eden, even before the Fall. Adam and Eve were given responsibilities to carry out as stewards of the marvelous creation God had put around them. Any notion that there is no effort in heaven is mistaken, for John records in the Revelation (the last book of the Bible) that all those in God’s presence shall reign with him over the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 5:10). So work is supposed to be a good thing, a fulfilling activity that bears fruit and offers an opportunity to worship God with one’s labor.

But as we all know, things took a bad turn in the Garden, and hard labor and fruitless toil would become part of the human experience (Genesis 3:17b-19). Not only would the work be difficult, the relationships in the workplace would be twisted by exploitation and injustice. The epitome of this arrangement is slavery, which was present in the Greco-Roman world at the time of Paul’s writing. Slaves were often kept in inhumane circumstances, expected to labor relentlessly, and were abused—all because they were not viewed as human but as property.

In Paul’s worldview, even these people—slaves and their owners—were included in the Colossians 3 instruction to show kindness, compassion, meekness, and humility, as befits the household of the faith. And just like the other power-balancing teaching for husband and wife, and parents and children, it is now applied in the owner and slave scenario:

22Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything;
and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor,
but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.
23Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart,
as working for the Lord, not for men, 24since you know that
you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.
It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
25Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong,
and there is no favoritism.
1Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair,
because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

Pow!

Slaves, do not work just to appease your master, but work heartily for your true Master, the Lord! Though you are not heirs in this life, rejoice that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward for your faithful service now.

Masters, enough of this abuse, favoritism, and injustice! It is time to treat those working for you with righteousness and fairness. If you have trouble with the concept, remember this: you have a Master in heaven who will treat you as you have treated others!

So once again, Paul reminds his readers that nobody can truly flourish unless they understand their position as one in complete submission to and dependence upon Jesus Christ the Lord. We, too, must remember that we—as workers—are not just employed by a human being but are responsible to God for honest labor. Just knowing that what we are doing is appreciated by God goes a long way to imparting meaning to our work, with joy as a result. As employers, we are required to do our work as though Jesus were our boss, too, with the expectation that he is looking for evidence of God’s justice and righteousness in the way we communicate with, direct, and compensate those who work for us.

So, regardless of our station in life, let us all serve the Lord Christ in all that we do. It will demonstrate a world of difference to those who only observe the church from afar. Let us show our culture the difference between the power struggles and dehumanizing relationships it experiences and the life-giving interdependence that is characteristic of the Body of Christ.

 

As we come to the Apostle Paul’s very brief instruction on marriage, there is one point to be made in general. Whatever Paul has been teaching up to this point has direct application at home as well as the church. In one sense, the household is a mini-church, a community of believers centered on Jesus Christ. I picture this centeredness with the following analogy:

Imagine a Chinese acrobat who spins a plate on the tip of a pole. Imagine that pole extending all the way through the plate to become the axis around which it spins. Think about your plate—your life and all its various relationships and activities—as spinning around the center axis, which is Jesus Christ. All analogies have their limitations, and this one does, too. But the idea is that as long as Jesus is at the center, everything else holds together around it by centripetal force.

As long as all other relationships and activities revolve around Jesus, they find order and balance. Marriage is one of those relationships, that, when ordered around Jesus Christ at the center, holds together in a God-honoring way.

Here in Colossians, from verse 12 on, Paul has been giving a positive exhortation to the church on how to be with one another in Christian community. In similar passages, like Ephesians 5, Paul uses the same pattern:

21Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,
22wives, to your husbands as you are to the Lord.
23For the husband is the head of the wife
just as Christ is the head of the church,
the body of which he is the Savior.
24Just as the church is subject to Christ,
so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church
and gave himself up for her, . . .

He exhorts the church community to live in mutual submission to one another, under the authority of Jesus Christ. [In the Colossians context, this is described in terms of compassion, kindness, love, meekness, humility, faithfulness, and forgiveness.] With this as a backdrop, wives are to submit to their husbands as they are submitted to Christ. Their husbands are not Jesus Christ, for they, too are to be subject to him out of reverence for his Lordship. So when, in Colossians 3, Paul writes: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord,” he is applying specifically to the household what is required of the whole Christian community.

This teaching speaks to reality with a biblical understanding of human nature and the stresses possible within a marriage, since Adam and Eve in the Garden. Remember, after their sin against God, God described the kind of life they were going to have together: [to the woman]

“ . . . yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16b)

The word translated “desire” in this context means “fixation,” or “longing,” or even “with an eye to devouring.” The idea is that wife Eve is likely to find ways to manipulate husband Adam in order to get what she really wants. I know I am treading on sketchy ground here with my sisters in the faith, as if we are not aware of how we do this. But people who, by station or rank, do not have imputed power nevertheless attempt to gain power over another by manipulating situations to land in their favor. It’s called “reverse psychology,” and we even use it with our two-year-olds who are in their self-defining period. Given a choice, they will not do what Mom wants, but anything else just to assert their independence, right? It is a smart mother who can use this fact of life to best advantage. Yep, I did it myself. And wives are capable of doing this to their husbands as well.

But Paul says, no, in Christ there is a better way that is based on mutual submission. Do not be afraid to fully invest yourself in aligning your life with your husband’s! With Christ at the center of your life (and, we hope, in the life of your spouse), keep an eye on the Lord Jesus and act unselfconsciously and generously toward your husband.

Some of you are protesting, because your husband is abusive, absent, or adulterous. Are you to submit even to him? No, of course not. Paul conditions his instruction with “as is fitting in the Lord,” and I think that covers a lot of this ground. Unlike some of the early teachers of hierarchy, who used top-down dominance to subjugate and control women, the Apostle Paul—in the Spirit of Christ, I am sure—is not requiring women to be victimized by their husbands in order to show biblical submission. If it’s not mutual, it’s not biblical or “fitting in the Lord.” This will become more clear when our discussion extends to Paul’s instruction to husbands.

 

A few years ago, my plans changed at the last minute, preventing me from accompanying my husband to Yosemite National Park for the annual Spring Forum. My ticket was prepaid, and I had registered for some interesting seminars. So rather than let all that go to waste, Andy decided to invite his friend Ron to accompany him for the long day-trip. Upon arrival, Ron claimed my nametag, but whited out the tail on the Y to make the nametag say “Marv Naegeli.” For the day, “Marv” lived in my name. I told him before they left, “Make me proud. Don’t embarrass me.”

This idea of doing something in another person’s name is legalized with a “Durable Power of Attorney.” When one has DPA for another, one feels very responsible to carry out the wishes (if known) of the person who signed the document.

So does it surprise you to know that God has given each one of us his “durable power of attorney” to act in a manner and with the same authority that he himself possesses? This DPA was first issued back in the Garden, when God told Adam and Eve to steward and tend the earth. Creation has always belonged to God, but he commissioned human beings to take responsibility for its care and feeding.

All along, our task has been to ask, “What would God do in this situation if he were in my shoes?” This focus is embedded in the Judeo-Christian psyche, to act on God’s behalf according to God’s purposes, for the glory of the One who made us and for the good of the creation we are stewarding.

The Apostle Paul concludes this first round of positive exhortations in Colossians 3 with a reference to this stewardship mindset:

17And whatever you do, in word or deed,
do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through him.

What a blanket statement! Paul is saying, whatever activity you are engaged in or whatever you are saying, conduct it “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” This instruction can be understood two ways, firstly, “representing Jesus,” and secondly, “with the power and authority of Jesus.”

As an ambassador for Christ, Paul was well aware that he was representing Jesus Christ to those who were just being introduced to the Savior as well as to established believers (2 Corinthians 5:20; Ephesians 6:20). It didn’t matter what the particular activity was, but Paul aspired to do it representing the goodness, life, power, love and message of the One who had transformed his own life. He is telling us in this verse that we are to do the same.

Further, whatever we do, we can (and should) do it in the power of Jesus Christ. We can expect Christ’s power only for those activities and words that are in the Lord’s service, consistent with his values, demonstrative of his nature, and aligned with his purposes. When we do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, we are inviting the helpful scrutiny of the Holy Spirit to stay on the straight and narrow. Rather than feel threatened by God’s interest in what we are doing, we are reminded to give thanks to God, our heavenly Father, who loves us so much as to entrust us with important decisions. The least we can do is honor him and act in a way that would help others recognize God at work through us.

There is another “whatever you do” passage coming up, so I will save the rest for later. In the meantime, though, Paul is elevating all normal activity to the possibility of divine ambassadorship. Food for thought, don’t you think?

 

Many years ago I saw a regional theater production of the Stephen Schwartz musical Children of Eden. A theatric rendition of the first few chapters of Genesis is certainly enough to bring me out on a Friday night! It was a fascinating interpretation of Eden, Adam and Eve, the snake, and the tragic human choice to sin against God’s will. What I remember most vividly is the form the temptation took:

The Garden on stage was fenced off around the edges, defining its parameters and focusing attention on God’s realm. But soon the snake starts talking to Eve, and introduces a new word to her vocabulary, the word “ beyond.” Look over there, Eve, beyond the fence is something you should examine! Yes, beyond the boundary that has limited your experience and deprived you of full knowledge. Yes, beyond this line is something beautiful, and bright, and so intriguing. It’s worth checking out!

The way Schwartz conveys the story, it is one word that opens the door to error. One concept just close enough to the truth but beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy opens the gates of Eden for her. The door opens not towards her enlightenment, it turns out, but to her exit.

The Apostle Paul understands the power of words, of rhetoric, and of ideas. If wrong (meaning incorrect) ideas lodge in our heads, the way out of orthodoxy is paved. Something along this line was happening in Colossae, though scholars disagree on which “wrong idea” was being promulgated there. Doesn’t matter. We all know that there are plenty of unsubstantiated but enticing ideas swirling about our airspace, so Paul’s word is just as important for us as it was to the first century church in Colossae:

8See to it that no one takes you captive through
philosophy and empty deceit (NIV: hollow and empty philosophy),
according to human tradition,
according to the elemental spirits of the universe (Gk. stoicheia),
and not according to Christ.
9For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,
10and you have come to fullness in him,
who is the head of every ruler and authority.

Paul’s first command in verses 6-7 was framed in the positive, an exhortation to continue our lives in Christ. The next command here is in the negative: “Be sure no one takes you captive . . ..” The language evokes a sense of urgency about preventing spiritual kidnapping. What makes a person vulnerable to such an attack? solitary travel, emotional neediness leading to gullibility, not paying attention to one’s surroundings, to name just a few factors. In spiritual terms, the Apostle Peter says elsewhere that God’s opponent (the evil one) is prowling like a lion to see whom it can devour (1 Peter 5:8). The image is apt here.

It is up to the believer to be on alert and to thwart intellectual captivity that uses “hollow and empty philosophy” as its snare. A strategy for spiritual safety includes traveling in groups, Christian fellowship that is rooted in biblical and historical faith; working through the events of life (with help if need be) that leave one scarred or hurt; continuing to learn from the Scriptures so you are very familiar with its vocabulary; and becoming aware of the hollow deceptions rampant within our culture. Do you hear the special word to the sojourner, the de-churched, those who are done with church? It is essential for our spiritual health to get back into fellowship that holds tightly to the gospel.

Paul here attributes the bad ideas not just to wayward, intellectually wandering humans, but to the stoicheia, the elementary principles of the spiritual realm that are opposed to Christ. He is telling the Colossians that they must reject the deceits and promises of an empty philosophy that are opposed to Christ’s person, work, and teaching.

Forget these other gods, Paul says, it is Christ in whom all the truth and goodness of deity dwells bodily! And you, my friends, have come to the spiritual place where you, too, find your spiritual completeness in him. Being found in him, you are aligned with the only One who has power and dominion over every other ruler or authority.

So just as one word, “beyond,” drew Eve and then Adam astray, so it is one Word, Jesus, who has brought us back to spiritual safety. With verses 3 and 4 of the great hymn “A Mighty Fortress,” we close:

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure;
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours, thru him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still;
His kingdom is forever.

 

The multi-layered tragedy of Ferguson, Missouri, has caused some soul-searching in America. It is not the first such debacle to do so, nor will it, sadly, be the last. We seem to be a particularly blind and stiff-necked people when it comes to facing our racial history, cultural misunderstandings, and impoverished view of humanity. My prayer is that compassion and understanding would overtake anger, frustration, injustice, and violence. It will take a transforming act of God to help us become much better listeners, more patient citizens, and seekers of truth and justice.

The soul-searching that is necessary, however, must get far deeper into my heart and my soul than conviction over one attention-getting news story.

Yesterday, President Obama requested $75M to buy 50,000 more body-worn cameras for local law enforcement. A report from the Justice Department, which had been in the works before the Ferguson shooting, said there’s evidence both police and civilians behave better when they know there are cameras around. The aim is to rebuild trust between police departments and communities of color. You can read the full AP article here.

What struck me about this story was the statement that “people behave better when they know there are cameras around.” In other words, people make different choices, restrain their basest impulses, and otherwise demonstrate greater self-control if they know they are being observed by Big Brother. TV crime shows make much of the power of surveillance to catch law-breakers or even disprove false testimony.

What is very sad to me is what body cameras replace. While crime has always been a problem—that one started in the Garden, no news there—the escalation of violence in our country occurs at a time when the public acknowledgment of God’s powerful presence is muted. In my lifetime, there has been a huge shift in perception. It used to be quite common for a parent to say to a child, “Even when I am not there, God is watching you.”

Our children experience this discipline first as “Mom is watching you.” One of my darling daughters was tempted by her junior high friends to leave campus and have lunch at the Burger King half a mile away. Upon her initial protest, they said, “Oh no, your mom never has to find out.” Yes, we lived in a fairly small community of 17,000 people, and yes, she was a PK; but I loved it when she reported to me later that she insisted to her friends, “No, I can’t do that. I don’t know how she does it, but my mom always finds out.” [Score!]

The fact is, God always finds out, too. That is both a threat and a wonderful and great promise of our faith. It is a threat only if you or I are guilty of immoral premeditation, like I was on a traffic-heavy day. I was tempted to take the not-yet-open freeway fly-by to avoid congestion in the soon-to-be replaced interchange. At the very last second, I decided not to do that, and you can imagine my guilty relief when I saw a California Highway Patrol car parked at the end of that fly-by just waiting for the next impatient scofflaw to attempt a pass. But it wasn’t I, because my well-formed conscience (a corollary to “God watching”) was in full operation that day.

In this shameless generation, the statement “God is watching” carries no weight or threat. But cameras on light-posts do; cameras affixed to a police officer’s chest or dashboard do; cameras in hallways and doorways do. If we had not lost so much moral ground built upon a Judeo-Christian foundation (as basic as the Ten Commandments), cameras would not have replaced the Seeing Eye of our Almighty God.

God is watching for our protection, but you can be sure that God sees our rebellion and knows our callous hearts as well. Whether or not we participate in visible violence, God knows our hearts that harbor prejudice or any number of other sins. Knowing this should propel us to the floor in remorse, confession, and repentance before the One who is able to change us from the inside out. Knowing this should drive us to our knees and plead for the Spirit of God to work behavioral miracles in us. Knowing this should transform us into trustworthy people, law-abiding citizens, and loving neighbors.

            Search me, O God, and know my heart;
                        test me and know my thoughts.
            See if there is any wicked way in me,
                        and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23f)

And then, we won’t need any more body cameras or live-streaming surveillance.

 

Quite often I find myself asking the question, “How did things get this way?” particularly in reference to my tribe, the PC(USA), but also to the culture developing around us all. It is safe to say that we are shaped over time, individually and corporately. The way things are now is the result of decades of shaping mechanisms at work in and among us. You could say the same for any culture anywhere in the world, but my experience limits my thinking to American culture.

This weekend I had a chance to air my brains out as I breathed in sea air and enjoyed miles and miles of hiking. My thoughts turned to how my parents, both deceased, shaped me. Though my personality type was quite different from theirs (which is important to note since a lot of their discipline was aimed at producing offspring to be like them), their relentless discipline did shape my mind, my emotions, my musicality, and my faith. There were a lot of baby steps watched and encouraged along the way; they also shut some doors while opening others. Pleasing them required a lot of energy, and I was not necessarily successful; but it wasn’t until I hit my 20s that I really felt that God’s hand in shaping me was stronger than my parents’.

As God shaped the people Israel—starting with Abraham’s call in Genesis 12 and intensifying at the time of the Exodus and wilderness wandering—he did so out of love and desire for covenant relationship. In order for the Hebrews to love and appreciate God, they were going to have to understand the righteousness, justice, and holiness that made God tick. How fortunate they were for God to reveal himself, speak to them, and point them in the direction that would bring them life and prosperity as a people. Deuteronomy 4:32-34 picks up this theme with the comment that YHWH God connected with a called and chosen people, creating a completely unique circumstance for which they should be extremely grateful. The passage goes on:

To you it was shown so that you would acknowledge that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him. From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you. On earth he showed you his great fire, while you heard his words coming out of the fire. And because he loved your ancestors, he chose their descendants after them. He brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power. . .” (Deuteronomy 4:35-37).

God showed his love to Israel by disciplining them, by instructing them, by setting parameters that would keep them safe spiritually. He is still doing this today, albeit by means other than pillars of fire or stone tablets. From a New Testament perspective, we understand that Jesus, the Word become flesh, embodied God’s self-revelation. The Holy Spirit dwells in each believer’s heart by faith, to be God’s voice and instructor and even a loving drill sergeant when that is what we need. To actually know God, to have a relationship with him, and to have his Word is not to be taken lightly! Consider everyone else in the world who worships gods that have no power, that cannot hear or speak, and actually do not care for the well-being of their followers.

But God insists that if we are people of his possession, then we must welcome the discipline he gives. We are given many privileges as children of God, but we are not given the prerogative of determining on our own what is right and wrong. God has been extraordinarily gracious to let us know what is right and to point us toward the life that results.

Unfortunately, ever since Eve, we have been having our adolescent rebellion. Just like I did as a kid, we go off and experiment with some other way of living, if only to irritate our parents and assert our independence. The difference in the spiritual realm is that independence from God is self-destructive.

If only we could truly embrace the love of the Father and trust Christ as Teacher and Lord! With God’s help, we can grow up and find ourselves. The God-centered life is what we were designed to live, and we are most fully ourselves when we are not the center of our universe.

I fear, however, that aspects of PC(USA) life are in active rebellion against God, and the church is going to suffer great damage as a result. We are in a period of ecclesiastical experimentation, trying out new ways of worship, theology, and relationships. The experiments that are not God-centered are going to come back to haunt us. When we lose sight of God’s definition of acceptable behavior and weaken a good system of discipline that holds us accountable to God and to each other, we suffer. When we lose a desire to please God, we get lost in self-orientation. We are so hell-bent on making sure God is pleased with us despite what we are doing, we are dulled to God’s requirements and empowerment to live for him. Consequently, our hearing goes bad as we let the world’s voices blare and drown out the voice of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures.

What the denomination does is one thing. But what are you and I to do to stay alive spiritually? God calls us to obedience for our own good:

So acknowledge today and take to heart that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. Keep his statutes and his commandments, which I am commanding you today for your own well-being and that of your descendants after you, so that you may long remain in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for all time. (Deuteronomy 4:39f)

Is it not time, individually and corporately, to embrace the discipline of God, submit to the shaping work he wants to do in our lives, and thereby choose life? Yes, it is!

(I am called to appear for a second day of jury duty tomorrow. It all depends on how the jury selection process goes whether I can write a blog post then. Otherwise, I will pick up where I left off on Wednesday.)

 

Yesterday we considered the human drive toward newness. The writer of Ecclesiastes helped us to see that “under the sun,” that is, in the realm of purely human experience, there is nothing really new. People think they’ve found something new to entertain, feed an addiction, or eat; but chances are pretty good that even a primitive form of that thing has been around for a very long time.

To this restless searching, God—through the voice of Isaiah—asks the pertinent question: Why do we waste our money on stuff that does not satisfy (53:2)? God implanted in human DNA a yearning for something unreachable. Read carefully the Garden of Eden story (Genesis 2). Why would God include in Paradise one lousy tree to which Adam and Eve were barred access? Note that this limitation is pre-Fall, telling me human beings were never meant to have it all.

Until Eve started conversing with the snake in Genesis 3, she and her husband apparently were fine about not having it all. Why would God have considered this limitation an essential part of his created order? Because God hoped that when human beings encountered feelings of longing, of need or expansiveness, they would turn to him! God has always been completely equipped and empathetic to give us whatever we need. Adam and Eve apparently didn’t realize that a sense of need for their Creator was something they needed! If they were to “have it all,” that sense of incompleteness or need for God would disappear, and in fact it did after the Fall.

So where does this leave us? First of all, realizing that humans of every generation have tried just about everything to feel satisfied. There’s nothing new under the sun. Second, that God is the One who can and will satisfy us at the core level, if we would turn our longing and affection in his direction. The pointed question that opens Isaiah 53 resolves with God’s declaration:

2          Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
                        and delight yourselves in rich food.
3          Incline your ear, and come to me;
                        listen, so that you may live. (Isaiah 53:2b-3)

The key to feeling satisfied, emotionally and spiritually, is in our listening to God, delighting in his fare, and trusting him with our lives.

Listening to God means feasting upon his Word, “eat[ing] this book” as Eugene Peterson put it. It means seeing the world through the filter of God’s revelation in Scripture and relying on the Holy Spirit to apply it appropriately in our lives. We must be careful not to read into Scripture our current experience but to welcome Scripture to interpret our current experience instead. This is crucial to a proper exercise of spiritual discernment. If our process of figuring out what God is saying to us is unhitched from Scripture and relying on a rogue Spirit to tell us something novel and clever, we are going to end up on the wrong side of things or headed in the wrong direction.

Delighting in God’s fare means receiving what God has given in joy and repentance. God has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3), loves us and feeds us and clothes us (Matthew 6:25-27), forgives us and seeks to rebuild our life from the inside out (2 Corinthians 3:18). The only adequate response for that is to receive God’s great gift of abundant life (John 10:10b) with gratitude and good stewardship and live a life that is ordered by God’s Word. It means being satisfied with what God gives and rejecting the notion that we can do better on our own.

Trusting God with our lives means relinquishing the right to call the shots. It means realizing that we are God’s in life and in death; and living without fear, anger, dread, or frustration is something God’s Spirit works in us. Trusting God is the fulfillment of our faith, the completion of the process that begins with knowing God, embracing to his Word, and saying “yes” to him in all things. When one puts Jesus at the center of one’s life, all the other things that have distracted or dissatisfied us no longer drive us. We are truly free to enjoy being a beloved son or daughter of God.

I hope it is obvious by now that reimagining God or reinventing the spiritual wheel are unnecessary and untoward actions for Christians to take. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). God’s Word is eternal and true (Isaiah 40:8). This isn’t to say that the world in which we live, “under the sun,” isn’t changing. But because it is, we must hold tight to the One who never changes. I love the slogan that has been a part of Fuller Seminary’s ethos for years: “The unchanging gospel for an ever changing world.” Seems to me, as Presbyterians (for instance) embark upon the 1001 New Worshiping Communities journey, that we encourage a renewal of our commitment to the unchanging gospel, because that is ultimately what our culture is hungering for.

[Got sidetracked yesterday, first with Jury Duty and then with the Giants-Pirates wildcard match-up last night. Okay, I am back in focus!]

In my last post, I suggested that just because something is new or experimental, it does not necessarily follow that it is good or orthodox. The catalyst for my comments was an “outside the box” worship service conducted during the last meeting of San Francisco Presbytery.  It makes sense now to explore whether the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other historic mainline denominations have fallen off the deep end in their efforts to try something new. The motivation, it seems, would be to attract new people to worship, to reach the next generation, or to break through the culture’s din to get its attention.

An oft-quoted Scripture that is bent out of shape to justify all kinds of practices within my tribe, the PC(USA), is this one:

            Do not remember the former things,
                        or consider the things of old.
            I am about to do a new thing;
                        now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:18f)

How is it that Christians are to be open to “a new thing” God might be doing while retaining orthodox, historic doctrine? I realize that I have framed the question such that progressives have an opening to say, “Old doctrine prevents us from doing a new thing. The new thing is more important; we should jettison the old doctrine.” The “Reformed and always reforming” crowd goes so far as to say that chucking the old doctrine is part of our Reformed Heritage! I have contested that view before the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission and on committees I have served, to no avail. Some of my previously written thoughts are found here.

The present generation is restless for the new thing, intellectually and spiritually speaking. I have seen this dynamic among friends who have moved to the left on issues and practices. Their journey begins with a sense of boredom with the old ideas, an attraction to the new and novel, a lure toward creative theology. This restlessness is an almost universal motivator, as described by the writer of Ecclesiastes:

            All things are wearisome (or, perhaps, restless);
                        more than one can express;
            the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
                        or the ear filled with hearing. (Ecclesiastes 1:8-9)

The problem identified here is spiritual dissatisfaction. What exactly about the Christian faith is less than satisfactory, enough to cause a person to let go of the anchor of God’s Word and paddle out to sea spiritually? Does this spiritual dissatisfaction leave us open to the enticing words of the tempter, “Did God really say . . . ?” (Genesis 3:1ff). I think so. I also think some people are just plain explorers by personality. They have made it a habit over a lifetime to keep moving on to new thoughts, new views, new commitments. Sometimes that has meant leaving behind treasures, like the Word of God, as eyes and ears perk up to novel new ideas that tickle in just the right place.

From an adult development standpoint, a person’s worldview naturally expands, as new experiences require new categories of thinking. What used to be a satisfactory answer to a heartfelt question is no longer adequate to cover a new, very real, often very difficult experience in life. As an example, a little girl age four loses her mother in a fatal car accident. An explanation is given that is appropriate for a four-year-old. But at twelve, that same answer simply does not address the new, expanded question in that child’s heart, and someone must tackle it at the twelve-year level. At age thirty-two that same little girl with adult questions is left dissatisfied by an answer given twenty years before. With good guidance, this woman can land in a good place emotionally and spiritually. But for some in a search for answers, paths of “healing” can go in directions that have warning signs along the way. The seeker may miss them in the pain or confusion of the moment. I’ve seen it happen, and it is very sad.

The Scriptures teach that restlessness of this kind can never be satisfied fully by earth-bound things, because nothing actually is “new”:

            What has been is what will be,
                        and what has been done is what will be done;
                        there is nothing new under the sun.
           Is there a thing of which it is said,
                        “See, this is new”?
            It has already been,
                        in the ages before us. (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10)

Meanwhile, in our search for what cannot satisfy (thinking of Isaiah 55:1-2), we find ourselves at a dead-end. The so-called “new” thing soon feels just as stale and ineffective as the “old.” To this dynamic, the Word of Life introduces the incarnational, intrusive, and transformative power of God, who by doing the old thing makes all things new. More on that tomorrow.