What God looks like

Let’s talk about the nature of God.

Elohim is the name used for God in Genesis 1:1, making his very name our earliest glimpse of the nature of God in scripture.

This Hebrew term is plural; because we believe every word of the Bible is inspired, we trust this is not a coincidence. From the very first words of God’s story, He shows up as Trinity. And in that first scene of creation, He is all there: the Father creates; the Spirit hovers; the Word speaks.

Elohim.

The Hebrew letter that represents Elohim is shin, the twenty-first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (see the image above). Meditate on that image for a moment. Take it in. What do you see?

Isn’t it interesting that in this one letter, representing the earliest name for God, we find this three-pronged image on a single foundation? It is as if the letter itself calls us toward Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. — a three-in-one wholeness and complex simplicity. Such a beautiful symbol for our three-person God! Some have even seen the floating dot above the third prong as a dove, suggesting the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism, or as the fire of Pentecost. Because I believe God is just that creative, I am prone to believe he hand-picked this image.

Here in this symbol and name, we encounter God as community. He exists in three parts and demonstrates within Himself the very nature of complete sanctification—pure love encountered without flaw within community. The essence of the Trinity is deeply embedded in the story of God and the love of God is deeply rooted in the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in perfect harmony, perfectly loving within the Godhead. Our Father is both big and bighearted! This is what the Trinity (the tri-unity) teaches us about God. At His core, our Father is loving and that ought to change everything. When we hear that he is for us, we can believe it fully. His motives are holy, pure, self-giving.

Truly, our God is an awesome God. He is Elohim. All we need. Hallelujah!

Has your teaching on the nature of God given you a balance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? If not, which understanding is weakest? Confess that aloud, and ask God to help you know Him in His fullness even as He knows you fully.

 

(This excerpt was taken from a six-week Bible study called Encounter the Father, published by Seedbed and found here.)

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What Wesleyans believe about “once saved always saved”

“We who have believed enter that rest.” — Hebrews 4:3

You never know when you might need to defend your position on the theology around the phrase, “once saved, always saved.” It happened to me a week or so ago while I was purchasing a couple of things from a small-town boutique. The woman behind the counter shared that her mother was a preacher, that for years she preached in a holiness church until becoming a Baptist. She changed theological streams because she couldn’t make herself believe in the Wesleyan doctrine of free will to the extent that it allows us to actually lose touch with our salvation.

Since I live in the birthplace of the Southern Baptist Convention, this isn’t the first time I’ve had this conversation. I’ve come to suspect there is a gross misunderstanding of how Wesleyans approach free will and salvation. Often, it is made to sound as if it is God’s choice to drop us whenever he feels like it. “Mess up on Facebook? You’re fired!” “Yell at your dog? You’re not saved any more.”

That take on the gift of free will misses the mark by a wide margin. Free will is not God’s prerogative to exercise; it is ours. We are the ones who place ourselves in jeopardy of moving beyond His presence, though even that isn’t as easy to do as we make it sound.

Think of it like a parent holding a child’s hand as they walk across a busy street. The parent’s whole desire in that moment is to get her child safely across that street. That parent isn’t making decisions while they walk about whether or not she really likes that child, or whether this parenting thing is worth it. No! All that parent is thinking is, “Let me keep my child safe.”

Now, suppose this parent has a particularly strong-willed and active kid who is easily distracted. Is she going to hold on more loosely or more tightly to that little one? More tightly, of course! But suppose that active and strong-willed child sees a quarter laying in the street just up the way, something shiny enough to get his attention and valuable enough to make him want it. The child begs his mother to let him go after that shiny thing, but she says no. She realizes the danger of loitering too long in traffic. She knows the destination is the other side — not shiny, distracting things. Her sole intent is to get them both safely across; she is not about to let him go.

The child, however, is relentless. The more he watches the shiny thing, the more sure he is that it is worth the escape so when he sees a split-second of opportunity, he wrenches his hand out of his mother’s and darts into traffic. Now he is out from under the cover of his parent’s care, not by her choice but his.

Did the mama let him go? Did she want him to do that? Did she cause him to do that? Absolutely not. The intention of the parent at every point was to get her child through the traffic safely. The intention of the child when they stepped off the curb together and headed into traffic was to go where his mother led him. But that desire only took him so far. Having held onto a predisposition toward shiny things for too long into the journey has kept him from being completely surrendered to his parent’s plan.

And that is how Wesleyans view salvation. God gives it, but we have to accept it. By the same token, God walks us through the journey of salvation, inviting us to work it out daily with fear and trembling, but at every point on the way we must make the choice to keep our hand in His. This is the responsibility we bear for the gift of free will.

So what about that “blessed assurance” we always sing about? Is it so blessed after all? Is there really any assurance? Absolutely! Assurance is not the promise that once you say yes to God, you’ve got it easy. That promise is given to no one, believer or not. Assurance is the promise that with your submission and surrender, God will get you safely through the traffic to the other side. Our decision to simply rest our hand in His — to submit to His will. That is all that’s required, and that is only a struggle if we choose it to be.

And that, brothers and sisters, ought to create a deep well of rest within your soul and mine. Because if I believe God is good, God is for me, and God will see me through to the other side, then the rest is details.

Listen: The biblical meaning of rest is not a cure for exhaustion but a pathway to assurance.* When we are in sync with God, assured of his character and presence, willing to let him carry us safely across the chasm, we rest.

Blessed assurance, indeed.

 

*I recently heard it put this way: The cure for exhaustion is not rest, but wholeheartedness (Brother Rast). I think we’re saying the same thing. When your whole heart is for God, when you are undivided in your devotion, you will be able to rest completely in his care and cover.

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God in the darkness

Another guest post by Angel Davis, my friend and collaborator in ministry. In this blog she shares how a friend (whose story is told with permission) experienced the grace of God in a desperate season:

“Why? How could this happen?”

This was the broken-hearted cry of a woman sitting on my couch. Her heart literally felt like it was breaking and for very good reason. Her decade-long marriage which had begun centered around Christ had now dissolved, and not by her choice. She had entered into marriage believing it was a covenant with God that was not to be broken. Despite the years of subtle abuse and unloving treatment, she desperately prayed her marriage would be saved. She wanted her children to grow up in an intact family. She wanted to honor and keep the vows she had made to God.

And yes, she still loved her husband.

She had spent a solid year seeking counseling and receiving inner healing. She allowed God to heal the wounds of her heart and help her forgive. She prayed and asked others to pray — fervently — that the marriage would be saved. She prayed right up to the last minute, but her husband’s heart never softened. They divorced, and now the custody of their children hung in the balance.

And now she sat in great distress, true agony; the judge had ruled in favor of the father. Her children’s father, now her ex — this man who had treated her badly, who had lied, who had broken some of the separation agreement guidelines — this man would get “favor” financially from the judge and “favor” regarding the custody of their children.

“How could God allow this to happen?”

“Where is He?”

“Does He not even care?

“I just don’t see Him working.”

“It’s not fair!” 

My friend was devastated, not to mention legitimately concerned for her children’s well-being. She was desperate now to realize she wouldn’t be able to mother them daily. She’d miss out on developmental milestones. She’d be separated from them at such tender ages. The pain was beyond words.

Fast-forward several months. The ache was still there and depression had settled in around the sadness of having to split time with her kids with their father. There was still hurt over the unfairness of the settlement … but the pain was lessening. She was more ready now to process her situation through healing prayer.

As we prayed into her pain and concerns, what can only be humanly described as feeling like a lightning bolt from heaven, came down — first downloaded into my brain, and then into her heart. A flash of understanding: “God had to allow the ‘unjust’ settlement in order to soothe the anger of your ex-husband!”

I have to say that humanly, this didn’t settle well. It seemed … well … unjust. And it was, by any earthly standard. I can say with certainty that God didn’t cause this man’s hard heart, nor did God cause the divorce. But as I searched within for some scriptural anchor for this word about how God used the circumstances of fallen people, I saw it.

It was the unjust cross of Jesus Christ. 

He who committed no sin was slain and buried for three dark, bleak days. He who did not deserve that penalty became the very sacrifice that freed us from the penalty of sin. His willingness to do a very unfair thing allowed us to finally see the darkness for what it is. That unjust settlement bought us new life and paid for our sins while it negated the power of the enemy’s weapons against us.

Think about the death of Lazarus (Luke 11). When they brought news to Jesus, Lazarus was already arguably dead, but Jesus waited three days after he was pronounced dead to visit. Nothing seemed to be accomplished in that waiting, as far as Lazarus’ loved ones were concerned, except they got mad with Jesus. After all, Martha had asked him to come, and he waited … almost like he didn’t care. But when he finally did show up, he entered into their suffering and then did the impossible. He called forth life from a dead man, out of a tomb where unfair death resided. The effect? The witnesses to this miracle saw God in ways they couldn’t or hadn’t before. The glory of God was exposed.

The waiting time, where “nothing” was happening, became the soil for the greater revelation. 

And my friend? After this unexpected revelation from God, she started seeing … really seeing. She saw God do the impossible as He provided tangibly for her in ways that were totally unexpected — money for a car, down-payment on a house, extra days of visitation — exceedingly and abundantly more then she thought could happen (Ephesians 3:20). She began to get it that justice wasn’t dependent on “fair” or “unfair” treatment. Justice was dependent solely on God and His promises.

If you are waiting for Jesus to show up in an unfair situation, take heart, my friend. God is working in the darkness. The “nothing” days, the “unfair” treatment, the waiting time … in God’s care it all becomes a breeding ground for slaying the enemy, raising up redemption and exposing in His glory.

Take heart and hold on …

Angel H. Davis is a Christ follower who lives in Athens, Georgia and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker specializing in healing prayer. Read more from Angel in her book, The Perfecting Storm: Experiencing God’s Best Through the Trials of Marriage. This is an exceptional resource for those who want to see transformation in their marriage.

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This year: Migrate from “Why Me?” to “What now?”

Simcha Bunim was a Jewish rabbi who lived in Poland in the 1700s. He is best known for what might be called the parable of the two pockets.

The parable begins with two slips of paper. On one slip is written, “I am dust and ashes.” On the other slip is written, “For my sake the world was created.” These two slips of paper are meant to be carried around in two pockets.

Rabbi Bunim said, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: ‘For my sake was the world created.’ But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: ‘I am dust and ashes.’”

The rabbi’s point was that we are at once both things. We are both sinners and saints, dust and treasure, limited but with tremendous potential, fallen but loved. And we ought to approach our goals and lives with that mind set. Christians would say we are fallen people for whom Christ died.

Dust, yes … but dust so loved by God that he gave his Son.

What if you entered into Rabbi Bunim’s exercise? Write these two statements on slips of paper, then spend time with each of them. Begin with the one with which you are less comfortable. Which of these two statements resonates with you?

Are you more of the mindset that the world was created with you at the center? Many of us live there a bit too comfortably, whether we admit it or not. We are the center of our universe. We will make sure our own interests are served and we will let pride keep us from learning the hard lessons. We are the ones who need a little more time with our dust-and-ashes reality — to understand that our value isn’t self-generated. It comes from God. And because our value comes from God, we have a certain responsibility to steward our days well, because even if we hit the ball out of the park today, we’re still going to die. Our time here is a gift, and our assurance of a life beyond this one rests not on our merits but on Christ’s.

Not all of us need more dust and ashes. Some of us have lost sight of the fact that we bear the image of God. We live in too much self-condemnation, self-hatred … self. We live self-protectively because we have not yet owned our value and strength. We short-change ourselves by low-balling our value. We who live too much in dust and ashes need to remember that we are not here simply to exist but to make a difference. For our sake the world was created. God thinks highly of us! In light of that, our challenge is to stop making excuses for why we can’t do more and decide that even if we can’t do everything, we can do something.

Let me say that again: Even if we can’t do everything, we can do something. 

This is the mindset of abundance, which is at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ. His victory over sin and death are my assurance that I don’t do any of this on my own effort, skills or abilities. I do all of life in partnership with God, the creator of the universe, and if God is in it then anything is possible.

Which is your mindset? Dust and ashes … or abundance? Dust and ashes … or image of God? Limit, or possibility?

This is the shift I want for you this year. I want you to move from “why me” thinking to “what now” thinking. Maybe you can’t do everything you’d like but you can do something. What will it be?

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Dealing with the unsaved parts of your life

A friend who counsels through healing prayer shared a story a while back of working with a middle-aged woman who had a form of dissociation (we used to call it multiple personality disorder). Significant dissociation is an effect of significant childhood trauma. In simple (and probably inadequate) terms, it happens when the part of the brain that is wounded sequesters itself, creating a separate personality and resulting in  something like another person inside your head.

This woman being treated by my friend had a six-year-old child living in her head who had been hiding there for decades, ever since the trauma occurred in her life. My friend said that as he prayed with this woman, the six-year-old would come in and out. It was as if he was talking to two different people. This wasn’t a demon; this was a dissociated or fractured part of this person’s personality.

In the course of the prayer, a problem surfaced. As it turns out, the adult had come to Christ in recent years but because that happened after she was six, the child didn’t know Jesus. This was a point of contention. The adult would tell the child, “You need to find Jesus so we can get together.” That sounded reasonable enough to an adult mind but not to a wounded child. The six-year-old was afraid; there had already been so much hurt and distrust. Even between the adult and child living in the same body there were hurt feelings and resentments.

What eventually broke the stalemate? The adult decided to act like an adult. Instead of telling the child, “You need to go meet Jesus,” the adult embraced the child and the two of them walked toward Jesus together. My friend says it was like watching a six year old girl get saved. When she accepted Jesus, he spontaneously integrated them. But to get there, the more mature side of this person had to go after the healing.

Good healing starts with a decision to go after it. It starts with a choice to act like an adult and walk the unredeemed parts of myself out of the darkness and toward Jesus.

I wonder if there are some parts of you that need to challenge other parts of you to get up and go after God? Is there is a conversation inside of you waiting to happen so you can move through the broken places to the next rise?

A while back, I wrote the following in my journal on a day when I was challenging myself on the shallowness of my personal Bible reading. I wrote: “It is tempting to read the Bible only for what it might reveal to me today about myself or my circumstances. I begin looking for nuggets of hope or support. I read into the lives of the Israelites — harassed by the Babylonians — slivers of truth for my middle-class life today. I compare apples with automobiles, bowing to the tempting belief that some of the most profound moments in history are really just bits of advice for my day. The Word of God becomes a fortune cookie, and my part is to believe that whatever snappy phrase I can uncover is my destiny.

“But what if that isn’t God’s best for my relationship with him? What if, instead, I’m to be looking for the life of God rather than my own?

“Lord, forgive me for treating your Word like a fortune cookie and for allowing it to suffice only for how it can improve my immediate circumstances. And Lord, pour through me today your cleansing and renewing power. While I’m praying for folks and listening to stories, I need your power to cleanse me. Make me kinder, gentler, more loving, forgiving, pleasing to you. Bend my character toward your will. Kill all the unsaved parts of me. Jesus … circumcise my heart.”

This is what it means to seek after the life of God, and to bring it into my life so that my faith becomes an expression of Jesus being lived out in me. It means seeking out and embracing the unsaved parts of me, so I can walk them into the redemption of Jesus.

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The difference between repentance and saying you’re sorry

Forgiveness is the centerpiece of our gospel. It is half the gift God offers through the cross, the other half being an invitation into the fullness of life.

Repentance is how we receive that gift. The word has a bad reputation these days. It has been yelled far more often than taught, so it has gathered more shame than freedom as it has rolled through the Church. Which is a shame in itself, because repentance is a far cry from shame-producing. To the contrary, it is yet another freedom word in the vocabulary of Christ.

To repent means to make a conscious decision to change behavior away from immaturity and repentance2toward maturity. It is a decision to walk out of dysfunction and toward health. Repentance frees us up to more joyfully live into our created design as it shakes off of us the destructive behaviors that cling so tightly and hold us captive.

In its most spiritual sense (which is its deepest definition), to repent means to turn away from something that offends a good, holy, loving, wise God. We do this not because God will strike us dead if we don’t, but because offending a good and loving God is not life-giving. To repent means shifting gears, making a genuine choice to practice life so that we (our whole selves) become an offering pleasing to God. We become no longer our own, but His. That thing we did becomes no longer ours but His.

True repentance releases us from shame and guilt that too often distort our decisions and behaviors and send our lives down dead-end paths.

But here’s the thing: for real repentance to happen, there has to be a willingness to let something go. There has to be a death to our self-centered tendencies. Humility (the primary personality trait of Jesus, always characterized by self-sacrifice) is the fruit of genuine repentance. It is very much what Jesus meant when he advised his friends, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” There is more to repentance than just saying, “I did it,” or “I’m sorry.” When practiced, authentically, there is a transformation proven by a character shift. What happens after we repent proves the sincerity of repentance itself. Humility surfaces, showing up beneath the words in some unmistakable way. In an honest act of repentance, the watching world sees a spiritual shift in one’s relationship with God, with others, with oneself.

Let me say again: In genuine repentance, something has to die. 

You see the point in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son. When the rebellious son first went to his father, he was bent on getting something for nothing. He said to his dad, “I don’t want to wait until you die. I want my share of the estate now.” Somehow he wanted to receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut.

Even Jesus asked (remember? on the night before he died?) if it could be done any other way. The answer is no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something has to die. Jesus said (John 12:24), “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This is the great news on the other side of repentance. If we’ll fully submit to the act of it, we will find such progress on the other side. But as Psalm 23 teaches, we can’t get to the feast on the mountaintop without first walking through the valley.

There is no shortcut to fruitfulness.

That’s what I’m waiting for in stories of people apologizing for things misspoken or for misbehavior that doesn’t honor their best or benefit anyone. I am looking for a spirit of Isaiah, for a deeper understanding of Paul’s truth. There is something to be said for sober judgment, for falling down before God in an honest recognition of our imperfect state, with a less arrogant defensiveness. There is something attractive about a sincere acknowledgement that we’re on a journey … and not there yet. I’m not talking about self-flagellation (a false humility that belittles us). I’m talking about eyes-wide-open reflection on the distance between our current reality and what is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable.

Yes, we are free, but not free to do as we please. To think otherwise is to completely miss the point of true community.

I guess what I’m looking for in those who lead, in those who serve, in those who live in Christian community is a little holy humility. I’m looking for a death worthy of repentance. And what I’m asking of others — I realize even as I’m writing this — I must also be willing to do within myself.

Lord, have mercy.

Are you practicing the art of repentance, transparently confessing before God areas of offense in your life, so you can experience freedom?

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Evaluate your list and improve your discipling system.

I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” – Revelation 3:15-16

Funny that we humans tend to fear failure when “lukewarm” is the real danger, according to the risen Jesus. The Holy Spirit brought this verse to mind recently, challenging me to survey my life and get honest about the places where I’m practicing lukewarm living. There are obvious places, of course. I’m never going to get that early morning devotional hour consistently “right” in the way I think “right” should look. I stink at fasting, though I have never sensed God releasing me from the need to press in to it.

Then there are the not-so-obvious places, like list-keeping. As I explore ways to “warm up” the way I relate to others as a pastor, I am discovering that the lists I keep are a way I can treasure people. In fact, I hear the Holy Spirit teaching me that lists are a key to both treasuring and mobilizing lay people.

Simply put, a good list sparked by the fuel of the Holy Spirit can start a fire. If our lists are not current, accurate and hopeful, how can we expect the people in our communities to know what we’re doing, what is needed and what is effectively drawing down the Kingdom into our midst?

With that in mind, here are a few questions to help you get started on the path toward building a better list of people:

Is your list current? Does your list include everyone who is involved at any level right now in your ministry? Is your leadership list up to date? Is your participant list up to date? Does it include the latest information on every person? Do you have a clear and easy system, so the information can be accessed quickly when the need arises?

And are you sensitive in the ways you communicate, both to those just joining and those who have asked to step away?

A few months ago, I found myself on one Board too many. I asked to be removed from a Board on which I was serving. I sent a nicely worded email explaining my decision to be removed. I heard nothing.  Meanwhile, group emails for this Board continued to include me so I had no idea whether or not they’d gotten my notice.  I emailed again. No response. I called. No return call … and still, the group emails kept coming. Finally, I got a response and not that I needed it, but I noticed that the last communication I received included no “thanks for serving” or even a word of understanding. They just dropped me.

Meanwhile, I noticed recently just how well another Board on which I have served honors those who step down. They held a dinner, gave a gift and said nice things about those people who were leaving. It was a great way to honor people who had given time and gifts to that organization.

Keeping a current list helps you honor people (see, hear and treasure them) as they come and go. I have learned, too, that when families move to other churches the kindest thing I can do is offer my blessing. I’ll admit: it is hard. I hate seeing people move on. But if I can’t trust God with their hearts and bless them on their way, I’ll have no opportunity to be there when they need someone down the road.

(Side note: If I could instill a four-word caution into every pastor who serves well, it would be these four words: Pick up the phone and call. When people are hurting, when life changes happen, when you know something is up … call. It makes a ton of difference, and I believe it proves emotional maturity.)

Is your list accurate? Does it include all contact info (phone, email, Facebook, street address, work number, birthdate … anything that might connect you meaningfully to others)? Does your list reflect life changes? People notice when they are still listed with a spouse after a divorce, for instance. You may not have made that mental shift yet, but they certainly have. Caring for that informational change shows respect and sensitivity.

Every Monday morning, our staff passes around a list of names of every person in our orbit. We put hundreds of names into the hands of every leader each week and ask them to mark off three with whom they will be in personal touch before the week is out. We tend to choose folks we haven’t talked to in a while. We send notes, make coffee appointments, text, email and call … whatever it takes to be intentionally in touch in a way that makes them know not just that they are remembered, but that we care about their spiritual progress.

(Side note: the most asked question at Mosaic is, “How is it with your soul?”)

Is your list hopeful? Does your list include not only current volunteers/leaders/participants, but also emerging volunteers/leaders/participants? I’m thinking about the person who might be on the verge of a new level of involvement, the person who isn’t stepping up now but could be. One leader on our staff team developed a list of current leaders, a list of potential leaders and another list of “potential-potential” leaders. This list was one of his discipleship tools. It was also a way to be intentional about speaking prophetically into people’s lives, calling out what we see that they don’t.

An active list helps us cultivate the potential in others, leading them from “lukewarm” to “on fire.” Who needs to be on your list, so they can begin to receive more regular communication from you, so they can begin to get acclimated to the next level of involvement? Lists that focus on emerging leaders are a great tool for intentionally mobilizing laity.

Most of all, is your list being used? Healthy, consistent communication requires a list and a list helps us to consistently, effectively communicate.

Are people on your teams and in your orbit hearing from you regularly, beyond the time they take to walk into the building? Are they receiving regular, constructive (and spiritual) communication from you mid-week? Back in my marketing days, we used to say, “If you want your list to work, then work your list.” Its true. If we want to flatten the power structure in our churches, if we want to involve more and more volunteers in ministry, if we want to see every member engaged and using their gifts, we have to immerse them in the culture of our community. And that happens with healthy, consistent communication — communicating the needs, inviting participation, building the relationships, strengthening the connections. And picking up the phone to have solid spiritual conversations.

Bottom line: A current, accurate and hopeful list is a way to treasure people. It keeps the fires of the Holy Spirit stoked. It communicates, “You are part of the family and your life matters.” It tends to souls and puts us in line with our mission, which is not primarily to build attendance but to make disciples. Tend to this, and everything else will be fall in line.

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Ten Marks of Wise Living

Solomon didn’t sugar-coat human existence. Often called “the wisest man who ever lived,” Solomon wrestled with the meaning of life. In his diary of that wrestling (the Book of Ecclesiastes), he begins with that seems to be the case — that life seems meaningless. People work; they have kids. The wind blows; rivers run into the sea. All this movement … for what? Because we can be rich, smart, fixed for life, with every move perfectly calibrated, and still be miserable. We can be incredibly busy and organized and put miles on our pedometers and odometers and still go nowhere.

After examining all the options, Solomon came to this conclusion: Life cannot be its own good. The circumstances of it don’t generate the kind of fulfillment for which humanity longs. There has to be more to life than simply living it. Solomon’s wrestling offers alternatives to the drudgery of simply existing so we can live as we are designed.

Here are ten suggestions from a very wise man:

1. A positive approach is half the battle. 

The starting point for finding meaning in a seemingly dead-end existence is to change our perspective. A simple decision to see life as hopeful is a good first step toward wisdom. The smart ones are not the ones who can criticize everything; they are the ones who can see through to creative solutions. In our current culture, it is no small thing to choose positivity over criticism.

2. Evaluate your values.

Our church has set three simple values for ourselves to help us decide what to say yes to and what to say no to. Those three values have changed us. They took away all the hesitation and need to please. Instead, we are now more focused, more determined, and our decisions have more integrity. Take time to figure out what matters to you, so you can begin to make choices based on values rather than the moment.

3. Timing is everything (but not everything is up to us).

Singing the words of Ecclesiastes 3, The Byrds informed a generation that there is a time for everything. There will be times when we must restore something that looks for all the world like dead, and also times when we have to tear everything up that we thought we cared about in order to be on the side of right.  Knowing which time is which is the real trick and if it were all up to our always getting it exactly right, we’d be sunk. Timing is everything, but God’s sovereignty is able to work God’s design into our choices. Are you being stepping up when the time is right, trusting God to place the floor beneath your feet?

4. Embrace the power of partnerships.

In his book, Bowling Alone, Steve Robert Putnam theorizes that since the 1960s our nation has dramatically decreased its ability to foster friendships. Along with a decrease in social interaction has been an increase in panic attacks, paranoia and other fears; intolerance of noise; difficulty with concentration; and an increase in aggressive fantasies. Why? Because we have lost touch with the divine design. We threaten our own quality of life when we put self above others. Healthy partnerships are the cure. They require vulnerability, accountability and honesty. Pursue partnerships that honor God and add value to your life and work.

5. Learn to trust by becoming trustworthy.

God is not as committed to our happiness as he is to our character. Becoming trustworthy is what happens as we become holy. So how can we improve our trust factor? For starters, we can learn to listen first before we form opinions. The fact is, we probably know less than we think we do about any situation. Lean in and learn to trust others’ good intentions rather than assuming the worst in the absence of information.

6. Practice grace (it is the key to healthy relationships).

Grace is not for wimps. Solomon’s version of grace looks a lot like accountability (Ecclesiastes 7:5): “It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person than to listen to the song of fools.” We need people who love us enough to speak the truth in love. Grace is not only unmerited forgiveness; it is that willingness to lean in and stick together, no matter what.

7. Pursue joy, and not just happiness.

If we’re waiting for all the clouds to break and for everything to become clear this side of death, we will be sorely disappointed. And anxious. What if, instead, we just decide to enjoy the rescue, instead of rebelling against it? What if, as Hugh Halter has so wonderfully counseled, we decide to “enjoy life, and live like a missionary”?

8. Live for the long haul (and not for the moment).

Soren Kierkegaard was a Christian philosopher in the 20th century. He once said that to make progress, we should define life backwards, then live it forwards. In other words,  instead of just getting up every morning and putting one foot in front of the other, hoping that it all leads someplace, we should start with a goal, then work back from there. What do you value? What do you want to accomplish? Start there, then plan backwards toward your present.

9. Weigh your words.

Somehow, we’ve managed to create an atmosphere where you can say just about anything and even get applause for it. In the right atmosphere and for the right reasons, transparency can be a marvelous freedom. Undisciplined opinionating, on the other hand, is the surest way to expose your own foolishness. In fact, I am now convinced that discipline is not only the key to spiritual maturity and effective fruit-bearing, but also the root of all joy.

10. Fear God (it is the beginning of wisdom).

This is where Solomon concludes his quest for the meaning of life. He counsels his reader to learn how to fear God, not in the guilt-generating sense of thinking God is out to get us but in the humbling sense of recognizing there may be more to this than we can understand. It is the stark realization that in order to love this life, we have to love God more. And that in the process of loving God more than our own lives, we will find ultimate freedom, wisdom and joy.

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When Calvinism Becomes Dangerous

I have great respect for many colleagues in ministry who espouse a reformed or Calvinist view of the world. That said, it should be no surprise to those who read and listen to me regularly that I am enthusiastically and unapologetically Arminian (really interested? Read this book). I am far too deeply committed to the notion of God’s pure love exercised in his gift of human free will to appreciate most of what reformed theologians teach us. I can manage about two  and a half letters of the TULIP; the rest of it does not convince me.

I suspect that at least some of our theological differences are just a matter of how our brains work but there are concepts that cross a line into dangerous territory. Here are three Calvinist ideas I’ve heard voiced in real conversations that cause real damage when spoken into a secular culture:

Misconception #1: God has my days numbered and nothing I do can change that. This line was shared (verbatim) while someone I love was animatedly sharing his participation in some fun but risky behavior. He said, “Listen, I know where I’m going when I die and God knows exactly when that is going to happen and nothing I do can change that.” His point was that since God has already ordained the day of his death, his choices have no power to change his future.

What?

Calvin not only taught that God’s grace is irresistible but that a true believer in Christ cannot possibly fall from grace. And in fact, he took this idea a step further. He believed every detail happens according to the will of God, that even evil people are operating under God’s power so that no matter what a person does, God has caused it.

Maybe on my weak days, I wish this were true. I sometimes wish God would just override my will. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been with people who struggle to believe; in those moments I’d give anything if God would just save them from themselves.

Make them believe, Jesus! Because they’re killing me!

But that isn’t how it works. People come to Christ every day and every day people resist the grace of God. Not only that, but every day people make horrible choices against the will of God that limit the length or joy of their lives.

Our behavior matters. If I smoke two packs of cigarettes  a day, it will affect the length and joy of my life. To persist in such behavior isn’t God’s will, and our behavior matters to God. As Moses said to the Israelites, we have two choices before us — blessings and curses, life and death. “Choose life, that you might live.”

Misconception #2: Everything happens for a reason and all reasons are ordained by God (even the evil ones). I most recently heard this one at the funeral of a young adult who overdosed. How such a hollow statement could have provided comfort to a family dealing with such a tragedy is beyond me. Is even an overdose ordained by God? I can’t imagine the thought of having to endure such a tragedy believing that God had done this to my loved one … or at least blessed it.

Paul’s word to the Romans was that God can work all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. There is a ton of solid theology in that one line; it assures me that God can make good out of even my worst mistakes. What it doesn’t tell me is that God causes my mistakes. He can work redemption into a circumstance without causing it.

The fact of God’s sovereignty does not have to mean that God has made toys to play with. People are not puppets. To the contrary, he has made free humans with heads, hearts and wills, “just a little lower than the angels.” I can have  tremendous trust in who God is, in his great love for us and in his power to redeem anything without having to believe that he causes even my worst mistakes and sins.

Misconception #3: Jesus died for the ones he came to save, but not for everyone.
This is how many people deal with the fact that many in the world have never heard and will never hear the name of Jesus. It is because Jesus didn’t die for them. The “L” in TULIP means God’s atonement is limited. A Calvinist would say, “It is not my salvation to get and it is not my salvation to lose. It is Christ’s salvation of me.”

An Arminian would agree. God’s salvation is his gift to us, and nothing we do can generate it. But everyone is offered the gift. Every person on this earth has both the right and the opportunity to have their chains broken, their guilt removed and their value restored. There is no one beyond the reach of his mercy. To think otherwise is to judge someone before Christ himself has had the opportunity to do so.

Salvation is a free gift for everyone. Not everyone will accept that gift, but everyone is offered it. Otherwise, what was the cross for?

This is the strength of His grace. It is that willingness of God to be there no matter what, so that when we awaken to him, he will be there. Grace is that strong willingness of God to bear our stories of rejection and inadequacy, of dark nights and angry days, even our own stories of sin and shame. God’s grace is strong enough to bear the pain we’ve caused others as well as the pain of others we feel. God is there through all of it. That is what it means to be sovereign. God has been there the whole time, watching and in his strength, waiting.

And God knows what you are made of and God knows what you’ve been though. And that same God has never once given up on you, not even once.

 

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Haters gonna hate.

Let’s talk about hate.

In the first few verses of the Bible, we meet our God in his trinitarian wholeness. The Father creates, the Son speaks, the Spirit hovers. This Trinitarian God partners within himself in the work of creation. You can sense his single-mindedness — the energy flowing within Himself creating goodness. There is no sense of hierarchy here. In fact, a hierarchy within the Trinity would tear at the fabric of unity and prove our faith in one God to be a lie.

God is love, and within himself he is in complete unity and complete partnership. This is the substance and character of our God.

Humans were created in the likeness of this loving God, so the first two chapters of Genesis tell the story of humans being created as partners in the work of stewarding God’s creation. Side by side, male and female were to tend the land, govern the animals and be intimately unified. There was a creative energy and goodness between them. As with the one, true God, a hierarchy among humans would tear at the fabric of created design.

And yet, this is precisely what happened at the Fall. In Genesis 3, we learn that the enemy of God turned what was created as a partnership into a hierarchy. Ever since, humans have battled for control. This battle rages across genders, races, languages (in some countries, hierarchies are established by what language you know), nations … you name it. On this side of Genesis 3, fallen humanity is conditioned for division. If we can pit things against each other, we will. It is our ungodly inclination to compete, compare and control. This inclination is an incubator for hatred.

If God is love, then the enemy of God is hatred incarnate and that hatred has become the primary driver of unholy hierarchies. Whether we sense it dramatically or subliminally, it is this pull toward hierarchy that causes us to rank one another in order to justify our own value.

Let me state the obvious and say that hierarchy and hate are at the root of white supremacy and pretty much all the other hate-filled expressions of protest that surface not just in our country but around the world. Haters are obsessed with creating the kind of hierarchies that rank everyone not like them as “lesser than.” Most of us are appalled by the extremes to which the “real” haters will go. The “real” ones make the news. They have become so hardened by their own proclivities that they will shamelessly stand in the public square and spew their hate without the slightest sense of their absurdity.

The real haters are enemies of God, and what they do deserves our immediate and direct condemnation. There is never an option for a follower of Jesus to hate people. Never. What we so often see in the public square is simply not reflective of the heart of Christ. Our constant pull as Christians must always be against hate and toward genuine love.

Christians never have the option to hate other people or to act in hateful ways. 

This does not mean I will always agree with you, or you with me. There are things worth our righteous anger and sharp opposition. It does mean we are required by the law of Christ to treat one another as human beings, to treat with decency even those whose values are in direct opposition to ours. This is a sticking point for those of us who follow Jesus, many of whom have confused holiness with hierarchy. We cannot allow our pursuit of holiness to devalue others. Not politically, racially, or in any other of a million different ways we compete, compare, control.

This isn’t the way of Christ.

Somehow we have to learn how to talk in the public square about the things on which we disagree — and even acknowledge our disagreements as uncompromising — without labeling everything that doesn’t look like us as hate-generating or worse, as “less than.” After all, the ground beneath the cross is level.

Brothers and sisters, somehow we have to learn how to fight fair again, to engage in public debate so that honest differences can be acknowledged in mature and loving ways without devaluing one another. Because as long as we live on this side of Genesis 3, haters are going to hate but Christians simply can’t. It is not how we are designed, and it is not how we honor a loving God.

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