Friday, September 17, 2010

Wheat Kernels and Suffering Saints

J. Oswald Sanders, in his book Spiritual Maturity (The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1962), writes of the presence and purpose of suffering and trials in the Christian's life. Here he is speaking of the unique nature of these trials for each believer:
The farmer has regard to the nature of the seed as well as its value and adapts his threshing technique accordingly. To treat each seed alike would irreparably damage some or leave others unseparated from the husk. He must apply exactly the correct length of time to achieve the end in view. Gentle tapping with a rod is sufficient for the dill but the wheat requires the tribulum, a heavy threshing-sledge. His intelligence and experience prevents the farmer from excess in his threshing method. As soon as the seed is separated from the restricting husk, the threshing process ceases. (p. 40)
Here we see that the trials God allows for each believer may be distinct, specific to the individual. God can be trusted to not give us more than we can bear, or, to continue Sanders' analogy, to not crush the kernel of wheat or the dill in this process, but to apply what is necessary for our growth in Christ.

One of the questions I have been considering recently follows on this topic. Considering again the role of suffering in the Christian life, to what extent are we to seek out suffering--rather than simply accepting the suffering that God grants us? Or perhaps, if we simply walk in obedience, will the necessary suffering come through that?

We live in a culture in which we expend a wealth of energy and resources to escape from and alleviate suffering and discomfort. To what extent might we be trying to escape at all costs the very thing that God is using for our growth in Him?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Soccer Balls and Stubbornness

Last week, after playing in a local pick-up soccer game, I was sitting by the field watching as others continued to play. Several others were also watching, two of whom were a mother and her toddler son. He was toddling around by the field, and despite his mother's repeated warnings, he wandered close to the sideline and ultimately was hit by a stray soccer ball. Though shaken and in tears, he wasn't hurt.

One of my first thoughts as I saw this situation pan out was something like "How stubborn and disobedient! He won't even listen to his mother..." In thinking this, I was placing myself in the position of the observer who knows that it is stupid to not listen and obey.

And then I realized that I am all too often far more like this disobedient toddler, than like a child who heeds his mother's warnings and stays where he should be. Though God tells me the result of disobedience, I still all too often pursue it stupidly and stubbornly. I block my ears to His words and persist in my own way until I get hurt.

I - who am 24, who have been to college, who read my Bible, who should know the consequences of behaviors - still stubbornly wander away from where I should be, and all too close to those things that God warns me about. The toddler may well have more cause to judge me than I him.

But one final thing to remember: when the toddler who was hit by the soccer ball realized his mistake, he came back to his mother. Something to remember for those of us who - even despite being hurt by going our own way despite God's warnings - may still stubbornly may try to keep going that same direction. Let's learn from this toddler, and come back to God. And hopefully learn to better hear and obey, so that we won't be knocked down by a soccer ball again.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Late Repentance (November 6, 2009)

J.C. Ryle, in his book Thoughts for Young Men, pleads with his readers not to count on a "late repentance" - the notion that we will serve ourselves and our pleasures when young, and then turn to God when we are older. He says,
I grant you that true repentance is never too late, but I warn you at the same time, late repentance is seldom true. I grant you, one penitent thief was converted in his last hours, that no man might despair; but I warn you, only one was converted, that no man might presume (see Luke 23:39-43). (J.C. Ryle, 1996. Calvary Press: Amityville, NY. Thoughts for Young Men, p. 11.)
Ryle continues, illustrating the course that sin so often takes if we always count on a late repentance (We might add our own excuses here: "Perhaps tomorrow...just this time...maybe when I have different friends...maybe when I'm past this stage in life..."): "Habits are like stones rolling down hill, the further they roll, the faster and more uncontrollable is their course. Habits, like trees, are strengthened by age." (p. 12)

I would urge us all - including myself, as I know my tendency to use these excuses - to discard these deceptive promises that we will fulfill "later," and rather do so now by the grace of God! When we sense the conviction and the tug of the Holy Spirit, let us respond in that moment, and continue responding.

"Today, if you hear his voice, / do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah..." (Psalm 95:7b-8a; see also Hebrews 3:7 ff.)

Wisdom for a Lifetime (November 6, 2009)

I was talking with an older friend/mentor a couple years ago, and asked him what he would say to me if he could say only one thing. His words have stick with me ever since:

"Cultivate gratitude."

Our Boast (October 30, 2009)

Psalm 89, verses 15-17a says:
Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you,
who walk in the light of your presence, O LORD.
They rejoice in your name all day long;
they exult in your righteousness.
For you are their glory and strength... (NIV)
In a world where humans seek to rejoice in their own name, exult in their own "goodness," and boast in their own glory and strength, this God-centered boasting is all too often an alien concept. We are all guilty of it. And so, lest we sink more deeply into believing the lie of human-centered pride, may we remember Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 1:28-31.
[God] chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things - and the things that are not - to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God - that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 1:28-31, NIV. Also see Jeremiah 9:23-24 regarding the final quote.)

Whom do we seek to please? (October 29, 2009)

Yesterday, I met a pastor who was a friend of someone I know. He said something that has really stuck with me, and though he specifically applied it to those who wish to enter ministry, I think it is a crucial rule for life for all believers:

"Please God, not man."

We can seek to make our lives an endless, weary pursuit of the often shallow and fickle praise of other people, or we can (by the power of the Holy Spirit) seek praise from God: whole, real praise that is at its very essence truthful. And our lives may be lived to His praise forever, for to God belong the glory and the honor and the praise.

Do you, I know Jesus Christ? (October 25, 2009)

I have been challenged recently in thinking about how easy it is to neglect actually seeking to know God in favor of trying to rack up knowledge about God. It is socially more acceptable to ask someone what church they attend or even to have debates about certain doctrinal beliefs, and yet it is a whole different issue when the question "Do you know Jesus Christ?" arises. This is a much more challenging question that actually reaches the recesses of our heart. A.W. Tozer, in The Pursuit of God, writes of this contrast:
It was Canon Holmes, of India, who more than twenty-five years ago called attention to the inferential character of the average man's faith in God. To most people God is an inference, not a reality. He is a deduction from evidence which they consider adequate; but He remains personally unknown to the individual. `He must be,' they say, `therefore we believe He is.' Others do not go even so far as this; they know of Him only by hearsay. They have never bothered to think the matter out for themselves, but have heard about Him from others, and have put belief in Him into the back of their minds along with the various odds and ends that make up their total creed. To many others God is but an ideal, another name for goodness, or beauty, or truth; or He is law, or life, or the creative impulse back of the phenomena of existence.

These notions about God are many and varied, but they who hold them have one thing in common: they do not know God in personal experience. The possibility of intimate acquaintance with Him has not entered their minds. While admitting His existence they do not think of Him as knowable in the sense that we know things or people.

Christians, to be sure, go further than this, at least in theory. Their creed requires them to believe in the personality of God, and they have been taught to pray, `Our Father, which art in heaven.' Now personality and fatherhood carry with them the idea of the possibility of personal acquaintance. This is admitted, I say, in theory, but for millions of Christians, nevertheless, God is no more real than He is to the non-Christian. They go through life trying to love an ideal and be loyal to a mere principle.

Over against all this cloudy vagueness stands the clear scriptural doctrine that God can be known in personal experience. (The link to the chapter can be found here.)
Let us pray that we may know Christ.

Preaching is Not Enough (October 13, 2009)

I can't resist another quote from John Piper. He begins a sermon entitled "The Love of Human Praise as the Root of Unbelief" by pointing out his conviction that though preaching is important, listening to it in a large group setting is insufficient for believers. He gives seven reasons that highlight the need for small groups, which I find convicting, and which invade our all-too-pervasive desire for passivity and ease. Here they are:
1. The impulse avoid painful growth by disappearing safely into the crowd in corporate worship is very strong.
2. The tendency toward passivity in listening to a sermon is part of our human weakness.
3. Listeners in a big group can more easily evade redemptive crises. If tears well up in your eyes in a small group, wise friends will gently find out why. But in a large gathering, you can just walk away from it.
4. Listeners in a large group tend to neglect efforts of personal application. The sermon may touch a nerve of conviction, but without someone to press in, it can easily be avoided.
5. Opportunity for questions leading to growth is missing. Sermons are not dialogue. Nor should they be. But asking questions is a key to understanding and growth. Small groups are great occasions for this.
6. Accountability for follow-through on good resolves is missing. But if someone knows what you intended to do, the resolve is stronger.
7. Prayer support for a specific need or conviction or resolve goes wanting. O how many blessings we do not have because we are not surrounded by a band of friends who pray for us.
Still, all too easy to listen to this exhortation as a podcast from the comfort of my own living room, and neglect to apply it. May we each respond to these wise words by seeking out fellow Christians who will walk beside us and spur us on toward love and good deeds, confession and repentance.

For those interested in listening to the whole sermon, it can be found here.

A Gospel of Ego (October 6, 2009)

John Piper, in a talk he gave to the American Association of Christian Counselors entitled “Beholding Glory and Becoming Whole: Seeing and Savoring God as the Heart of Mental Health,” includes an Edwards excerpt:

True saints have their minds, in the first place, inexpressibly pleased and delighted with the sweet ideas of the glorious and amiable nature of the things of God. And this is the spring of all their delights, and the cream of all their pleasures. . . . But the dependence of the affections of hypocrites is in a contrary order: they first rejoice . . . that they are made so much of by God; and then on that ground, he seems in a sort, lovely to them. (Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2, ed. John Smith [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959], 249­250. Emphasis added)
Piper continues to unpack the implications of this quotation:

This is my concern. Do we make clear to people over and over again that yes, they should feel loved because Christ died for them; and yes, they should feel loved because they are undeserving and he loves them anyway; and yes, they should feel loved because their sins are forgiven and God’s wrath is removed through Christ; but to what end? Died for while undeserving. Forgiven. Wrath removed. But to what end?

And just at this point, I wonder if many of our people are left thinking that what it means to be loved by God simply that he affirms their desire to be made much of. “Christ died for me to make much of me. He rescued me while undeserving to make much of me. He forgave me to make much of me. He removed his wrath to make much of me.” Oh how gloriously good this feels! What a precious gospel! And it’s all merely natural. There’s nothing supernatural about it. It looks like recovery and healing! It works. But at root, it is not “to the praise of the glory of his grace.” It’s all to the praise of the glory of his affirmation of me.

So my second implication is that feeling loved by God means feeling glad that God not only crushed his Son for me, but that he is now crushing every vestige of desire in my life that competes with the pleasure of the praise of the glory of his grace.

The entirety of John Piper's talk is well worth listening to, especially for those in the helping professions, and can be found here.

Pride's downfall and Humility's hope (September 22, 2009)

I found this sermon clip very convicting. Pride is fatal - may God make us humble, gospel-centered people.

Every Moment (August 31, 2009)

Perhaps when we lose a job, fail to make the cut, get dumped, or lose someone we care about, we often hear the verse " all things God works for the good of those who love him..." (see Romans 8:28). This is seen as a word of comfort, and yet it can also be misunderstood and misapplied.

Let's look at the verse in its immediate context (read also the surrounding verses/chapters for a greater context): "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers." (verses 28 and 29)

What does it mean for God to work for the good of His children? Does it mean that everything will be easy? Or that we'll always get what we want when we want it? Or that our current problems will all be fixed according to our solutions?

Or does it mean that He will work something even better--a good even greater? For what could be more blessed than to be conformed to the image of Jesus? "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son..."

And since God is sovereign over all, we can take comfort in this. Let us seek out His work in every situation and moment, longing for the greatest good at all times: conformity to the image of Christ by God's grace and work and sovereignty.

When We are the Crowd... (July 8, 2009)

A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, "If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed." Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, "Who touched my clothes?"

"You see the people crowding against you," his disciples answered, "and yet you can ask, 'Who touched me?' "

But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering." (Mark 5:24b-34; NIV)
How many are there within the walls of the church who listen to the sermons, sing along with the worship music, and bow their heads for the prayers, yet who are not present in faith? How often do we who profess to follow Jesus "press around" and "crowd against" him (see verse 24 and 31), yet fail to touch him in faith?

I don't think this is just a story about the woman; I think it may be a story also about the crowd. So many are present with Jesus in this scene - perhaps jostling him, bumping up against him, and gathering around him, thrilled by his miracles. And yet in this part of the account, one woman is especially highlighted who was most truly present, who truly touched Jesus.

A multitude was crowding around Jesus, but the healing that this passage recounts comes when one woman touches him in faith.

Let us not simply crowd around Jesus in our churches, prayers, or Bible studies, but let us touch him in faith, knowing that in him is healing; in him is life!

Proper copyright credit to the NIV (July 1, 2009)

To give proper credit to the source of the Scripture quotations in Eleomai's posts, I include the copyright notice from my NIV Bible (from which all quotations are taken, unless otherwise noted):
Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (R). Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.

The "NIV" and "New International Version" trademarks are registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by International Bible Society. Use of either trademark requires the permission of International Bible Society.

Grace in the Old Testament (July 1, 2009)

I am currently reading through the Old Testament, and instead of simply reading it as a series of individual stories, I am seeking to better see how it points to the gospel. Leviticus 16:29-31 stuck out to me especially:
This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work - whether native-born or an alien living among you - because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a sabbath of rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance. (NIV)
The whole chapter is an amazing read, and this passage in particular seems to clearly foreshadow the grace we find in the gospel. On the day of atonement, they were not to do any work, because atonement was to be made for them. This seems to be a strong way to phrase it, and seems to show that the atonement is God's work - something done for the people - and not something that the people do or earn. They were to abstain from work, and God would cleanse them from their sins. The gospel, foreshadowed in the Old Testament!

Skillful Ministry (June 17, 2009)

I have worked several jobs in which I come into very regular contact with people. Throughout such experiences, and through one's desire to continue to do a job with greater excellence, it is a relatively simple and sometimes systematic thing to grow in skill socially. We learn how to read others; we learn what to say and what not to say; we learn when humor may lighten a situation and when a serious word is called for.

These skills are good. However, when improvement in them takes primacy in our life or our job (something I find I too easily fall into), we are not living the life of faith and dependence on God to which we are called. Ministry can, it seems, too easily become something in which those who minister seek greater skill, but neglect seeking a greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit in their lives. I know I speak for myself in this. A salesman may appear friendly, amiable, and good-natured--all attributes which may well reflect his or her skill in relating to others, rather than a genuine attitude of care for others.

I can work at gaining ministry "skill," but having this skill does not itself mean that I have a heart for those whom I serve as a Christian. And if I do not truly love those I serve, then I believe that such service--though skilled--can easily become a mask that I put on. It does not then reflect my true desires, and such service can, it would seem, easily become burdensome and devoid of the joy of serving others in love.

Skill in important in ministry, but without a heart for service, I would hold that it is hollow. So how do we build a heart for those we serve? Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will show us the love of Christ, and allow us to love others. Then will ministry be something that engages our heart, and not simply our head. Genuine love--what is at the heart of true ministry--is not something that can be gained simply by systematic study or human effort; it begins with the love of God. So let us seek His love and the empowerment of His Spirit, that we may serve Him truly.

Generous (June 15, 2009)

Proverbs 11:25 says "A generous man will prosper; / he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed." (NIV)

I have recently, through the example of a friend, had the privilege of better learning the joy and freedom of generosity. It is freeing to realize that our possessions are not our own, but that they belong to God. And trusting in His provision as we seek Him, it is a wonderful thing to begin to see the freedom we find as we loosen our grip and freely give. I do not believe the amount we give and the amount we have are a zero-sum game. In other words, giving does not simply subtract the amount given from the giver. Yes, we will have to sacrifice if we let God form us into generous people, but I believe that it need not feel like we are simply losing something. We may experience reciprocal generosity, and we will see more of the peace of being able to trust in God as our generous provider. "He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed."

Men of faith (April 20, 2009)

Larry Crabb, in The Silence of Adam: Becoming Men of Courage on a World of Chaos, writes the following:
I love to read biographies, the stories of men like Oswald Chambers, C.S. Lewis, John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, Augustine, Paul, and Jeremiah. As I read about their lives, I get the impression that our modern ideas about masculine maturity are a far cry from what godly men of earlier generations understood and practiced.

We talk a lot today about things like vulnerability and the courage to feel our pain. They seemed more interested in worship and witnessing. We speak of honest communication and living up to our potential. They fell to their knees in brokenness and got up to serve.

I wonder if the virtues we try to develop came naturally to those men from years ago whose toughest battles were fought against whatever kept them from knowing Christ.

We get together in small groups to share our feelings and to discuss principles for relating more intimately or building self-esteem. They took long walks with older men who spoke easily about God and broke into prayer without warning. (p. 30)

Granted, the ability to be vulnerable and discuss feelings are valuable and necessary (and the "tough guy" image that these characteristics are legitimately reacting against has its problems), but all too easily these seem to replace depth and worship in our lives. Perhaps we do spend far too much effort on coming to "know ourselves" to the detriment of coming to know Christ. Perhaps we must come to the One who, when we submit ourselves to follow Him, will not let us foolishly walk in the paths of darkness and mirages that we all too easily embrace. For He offers life--not an easy life, not a comfortable life, not a self-centered life, but a transformed and worshipful and true life.

Quote for the day--More Empistemology (April 17, 2009)

When people come to Christ in search of an answer to a felt need, they will be on unstable footing unless they are quickly grounded in the truths of the gospel....After twenty-one years of evangelistic ministry with non-Christians, I have come to the conclusion that most people come to Christ in order to have a felt need met, but they stay with Christ because they have come to believe that the gospel is true. (Ajith Fernando, Acts NIV Commentary, p. 113)
Why do you believe the things you do? I was once talking to someone who, in effect, expressed the sentiment that he didn't believe in God because he didn't like the ideas/implications that the truth of God's existence would entail. Of course, when we think about this, it is apparent that our feelings and desires do not dictate what is true. I am not fond of the fact that I will injure myself if I try to bench too much weight at the gym, but if I am to avoid injury I must accept this truth. Similarly, whether or not we like the idea of God's existence, we must each address such a possibility apart from simply our desires concerning it. The fact of whether or not He exists is not dictated by whether or not I want him to exist.

So we must answer this question.

The Pitfall of Questioning (March 24, 2009)

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis sets up a story in which a busload of people come from Hell to take a ride through Heaven. Throughout the book, several of the "ghosts" (those who are on the bus tour) are met by individuals they had known on earth who are now in Heaven--referred to as "Spirits." These latter are bright and beautiful, and more real--as is the land in which the bus has now brought those from Hell--than any of the ghosts. As they talk, the Spirits are seeking to show the ghosts the way to life and Heaven, and as the readers we can listen in on their conversations.

Though the whole book is powerful (and well worth the read), one conversation/interchange stood out to me more than the others, especially in light of the postmodern fascination with questions. Before I quote the passage below, I will say that I do see some value in certain postmodern concepts, and I do believe that it can be harmful to never be able to hold any questions in tension in this life. We are fallible, and we do not possess all truth; however, God in His grace has revealed truth to us, and it is this that is especially relevant in the following interchange between a ghost and a Spirit. Here, the ghost is responding to the Spirit, who just intimated that Heaven is a place of answers:
(Ghost) ‘Ah, but…The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? “Prove all things”…to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.’
(Spirit) ‘If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for.’
(Ghost) ‘But you must feel yourself that there is something stifling about the idea of finality? Stagnation, my dear boy, what is more soul-destroying than stagnation?’
(Spirit) ‘You think that, because hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched.’
(Ghost) ‘Well, really, you know, I am not aware of a thirst for some ready-made truth which puts an end to intellectual activity in the way you seem to be describing. Will it leave me the free play of the Mind…?’
(Spirit) ‘Free, as a man is free to drink while he is drinking. He is not free still to be dry…Listen!...once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now…Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you now call the free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given than masturbation has to do with marriage.’ (C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 40-41)
When are we--perhaps caught up in the intellectual challenge of argument and discussion--avoiding actually accepting truth? It is far easier (and I know this because I do it too) to discuss and debate than to live and truly believe the truth. In saying this, I am not denigrating debate or discussion: they are often necessary for us to better understand the truth as we are challenged by others and not simply left to form our own personal worldviews (that we too easily shape in the image of our own fallen selves or our own sin). However, discussion and debate, when rightly applied, should not only result in a better understanding of truth, but then a better application and living out of this truth. I may know every text in Scripture that reveals Jesus as the Messiah, Savior of the world, but unless I truly live this truth out by trusting in Him and what His death accomplished, I am a fool.

Questions are good, but they ought to lead towards truth...towards God.

A Challenge from Brother Lawrence (March 20, 2009)

In a letter in The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence writes of someone's (who I believe may be himself) thoughts about seeking God:
He complains often of our blindness, constantly crying out that we are to be pitied for our willingness to be satisfied with so little. 'God,' he says 'has infinite treasures to give us and still we are satisfied with a brief passing moment of piety; that we are blind and by our blindness we restrain the hand of God and so stop the flow of the abundance of His graces. But when He finds a soul imbued with a living faith, He pours into it His graces in abundance. It is like a torrent forcibly diverted from its usual course which having found a passage pours through irresistibly in an overwhelming flood.'...Yes, often we restrain this torrent by ignoring it.

How true! All too often, I may find myself more truly worshipping God with joy, and yet I then consider that passing glimpse of relationship and fellowship with Him sufficient, and leave without seeking more. If "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4; see also Deuteronomy 8:3), then how can I deceive myself into thinking that these "brief passing moment(s) of piety" are sufficient? Ought we not to seek God more, and not stop when He blesses us with some such moment?

Good Apart from God? (March 17, 2009)

Saint Augustine, in his Confessions, writes the following as he speaks to all those who are not seeking God (bear with the antiquated translation):
Stand with Him and you shall stand fast. Rest in Him, and you shall be at rest. Whither go ye in rugged paths?...The good that you love is from Him; and as it has respect unto Him it is both good and pleasant; and justly shall it be embittered, because whatsoever cometh from Him is unjustly loved if He be forsaken for it. Why, then, will ye wander farther and farther in these difficult and toilsome ways? There is no rest where ye seek it...Ye seek a blessed life in the land of death; it is not there. For could a blessed life be where life itself is not?" (Confessions, p. 74, emphasis added)
It seems that when we think about heaven and hell, life and death, we tend to make them states or places distinct from reference to God. In other words, we might argue that if someone is saved and goes to heaven, they have eternal life. They are with God, it is true, but we may think that the life they have is simply some separate reward (like a birthday present bought by the giver) that God bestows upon them. While it is true that believers are gifted with Christ's righteousness, I believe there is still more to unpack here. We often neglect to further see what this eternal life actually is. In the gospel of John, Jesus prays to God the Father:
"Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." (John 17:1-3; NIV)
Here we see more of what this life really is: rather than being (as I know I have though of it at times) something completely extraneous that God simply bestows upon believers, it seems here that it is to be understood as a relationship with God. Referring to Jesus, the apostle John writes that "In him was life, and that life was the light of men." (John 1:4; NIV)

This is where Augustine comes in. He reminds us--his readers--that ours is a futile quest if we seek 'the good life' anywhere apart from in God. Why? Because by definition, with God is life, and without God there is no life. If we then seek life anywhere apart from in Him, we can and will never find it. Death, in this understanding then, would not simply be an extra punishment for not following God; rather it is the state everything is in when turned away from God. Just as I am in the dark when I enter a room without any light, so am I dead if I deny the One in whom is life.

But God is gracious, and He is a seeker of the lost.

Restoration, not Rehabilitation (March 15, 2009)

As a sort of addendum to my previous post, I want to share a comment from one of my friends. We were discussing work and ministry in the mental health field, and how Christians can approach their work in this field in a distinct manner because of our beliefs. My friend then said, in effect, that "As Christians, our work is not about rehabilitation; it is about restoration."

In working with the down-and-out, the mentally ill, or those with behavioral issues, it is easy to accept one's purpose and goal as "rehabilitation" of those individuals to lead a normal life like the "rest of us." Thus, the patients in this field have characteristics that push them down below the average level of human functioning--below "par"--and as psychologists and nurses and doctors and counselors we are trying to rehabilitate them back to normal.

This ought not to be our goal as Christians. We do not believe that the "average" level of human functioning and "normal" human behavior is good; rather we believe that every single person is maladjusted, sick, erred, and sinful--and it is in this state of being we remain, except by the grace of God. Thus, though people were originally created good, we have chosen evil above God, and so made the "normal" level of human functioning a state of sinfulness.

The implications of this belief reach to our work in the mental health field and far beyond it. As Christians working with these people, we do not want to "rehabilitate" them to the level of normal human functioning; rather, we pray for God's gracious work of restoration in their lives. We hope that God will restore them to a right relationship with Him (and the only place where there is fullness of joy and life!).

And this does not only apply to certain select individuals we might label as "mentally ill" or "maladjusted"--this applies to us all. We are all sinful and in need of God's grace and restorative work in our hearts. The only difference may be found in who is more willing to accept their need for such a work in their lives. Jesus came for sinners, and by God's grace, may we all know ourselves as such, and thus accept His gracious work of restoration in our lives.

One final note: Scripture seems to talk about restoration as a future event still, as indicated in the passage below. I have used the term here to refer to the restoration of a relationship with God, and so I hope that is in agreement with Scripture: It seems that this work of restoration, which Christ accomplished and which seems to begin to take place in our lives now, will finally culminate when He comes again.

Peter, in a speech in Acts, says the following: "Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance [in crucifying Jesus], as did your leaders. But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you--even Jesus. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets." (Acts 3:17-21, NIV)

Should we not hope for so much more than simply "rehabilitation," when the state to which that alone would bring us is one of estrangement from God--and thus a state of death? I would rather be restored.

Big Ministry (March 19, 2009)

I was reading "In the Name of Jesus" by Henri Nouwen today, and came across this passage. I find the sentiment he expresses (and the general observation) all too true in how I have approached my own interactions with others. I recently worked in a locked residential home for adolescents, and it was easy to seek to offer the residents empathy, and security, and encouragement, while forgetting that I am called to be an ambassador of grace and reconciliation to them. This may well involve showing them love in these aforementioned ways as well, but above all it means showing them the life that is found in God through Christ--not just how to cope with their problems in this world. Our mission is so much more important, and Nouwen highlights this in the passage below:
Most Christian leaders today raise psychological or sociological questions even though they frame them in scriptural terms. Real theological thinking, which is thinking with the mind of Christ, is hard to find in the practice of the ministry. Without solid theological reflection, future leaders will be little more than pseudo-psychologists, pseudo-sociologists, pseudo-social workers. They will think of themselves as enablers, facilitators, role models, father or mother figures, big brothers or big sisters, and so on, and thus join the countless men and women who make a living be trying to help their fellow human beings cope with the stresses and strains of everyday living.

But that has little to do with Christian leadership because the Christian leader thinks, speaks, and acts in the name of Jesus, who came to free humanity from the power of death and open the way to eternal life…

The task of future Christian leaders is not to make a little contribution to the solution of the pains and tribulations of their time, but to identify and announce the ways in which Jesus is leading God’s people out of slavery, through the desert to a new land of freedom. (Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus, 86-87)