Many are the Troubles of the Righteous

I recently sat down to do devotions. I had skipped a few days and had been tempted to fall into the mindset, “it’s not that helpful to read the Bible every day.” Note that this generally happens when I haven’t done devotions in a few days. Well that morning, every passage was speaking to me. 

First, Psalms 34:19, 22: “Many are the troubles of the righteous but the Lord will deliver him out of them all. The Lord ransoms the life of his servants and none will be punished who trust in Him.”

Hold up. I thought only wicked people had troubles, or people with not enough faith. If you listened to my recent podcast with Fr. Ken Tanner, then you heard us discuss this troubling tendency in our minds as Western Christians. Calamity is too often treated as a matter of punishment. Just last night, my wife and I were talking about our own tendency to look for a reason in our own life when times are difficult. The question, which is also dealt with extensively in the soon-to-be film-adapted Silence by Shusaka Endo, is “what have I done to deserve this?” 

But the scripture says, “many are the troubles of the righteous…” and “…none will be punished who trust in him.” and, elsewhere, “There is now, therefore, no condemnation in Christ Jesus.” So why do we think that difficulties or tragedies in life are somehow punishments? Is God the impartial judge handing out cruel and unusual punishments to those he supposedly loves? Well maybe a misunderstanding of the Cross has distorted our view of God.

We often use judicial or economic language to metaphorize the cross: “It’s like if you were going to be condemned to death for your crimes, but the son of the judge jumped up and said, ‘I will die for him.’ And the judge said, ‘oh perfect, let me take out my wrath on you. As long as I have someone to kill for this crime, I will be satisfied'” Wait what? That’s kind of terrible. How should we feel about a God like that? 

Instead, we should look at the cross like this: We turned from God. God never gave up on us, but sent prophets and eventually his son to turn us back to him. Except that we could not accept God’s redeeming work but had to take out our guilt and anger on those who came to reconcile us. We continually persecuted and killed his prophets in our attempt to alleviate our own guilt and have our own way. So, Jesus took on himself all of our anger and hate and fear(the iniquities of us all) and gave himself up for us in perfect union with the Father. So the Father watched and wept as we put all of our sin onto him who knew no sin. It was not the Father’s wrath that was appeased that day, but our own wrath was absorbed by love and forgiven by grace. The Father somehow thought it was worth the sacrifice of his son to gain us. We were the pearl of great price and he went and sold all he had and bought that pearl. 

Yet we think that God is doling out punishment on us for our sin or our lack of faith. We think that our negative circumstances are due to our failures to live up to the impossible standard of perfection. In a similar mistake of ego, we think that our success is due to our great faith and works. Again, scripture says, “Many are the troubles of the righteous but the Lord will deliver him out of them all.” 

That’s the story of redemption. So when we fall, when times are hard, when we think that God has forsaken us, we can turn to the cross and know that God loves us, God is not mad at us, and God will never leave us or forsake us.

Advent Gratitude

There are many people who have explored this idea in better ways than I, (most notably, Ann Voskamp) but I have been thinking a lot about gratitude lately. As a manager in the restaurant industry, it is hard not to become a utilitarian manipulator who encounters your staff members as a means to an end: running a great shift. When someone calls out and we know we can get Susie Q. to cover it for us if we ask just the right way, we can lose our sense of engaging a person. We say “thank you so much!” and we mean it, but it can become just a part of the transaction. If we don’t make them feel appreciated now, they may not do A, B, or C for us later.

This mindset ends up eating its own tail as we begin to view people’s interactions with us as merely a means to an end. We go out of our way to help someone who is useful to us and we ignore the needs of those who ask too much or don’t benefit us in any way. Even with your friends, people who entertain us or encourage us are foremost amongst our friends and those who annoy us or are “needy” are held at arms-length. True gratitude and a realization of that which Advent teaches can help turn this utilitarian model on its head.

In Advent, we encounter the brokenness of the world before Christ came to enact God’s plan of redemption. God made the world good and beautiful, but we perpetuated brokenness and evil. We created the world of “might is right” and took advantage of our fellow man as often as helping him. We ran from the loving embrace of God and were self-centered above all else. The truth of Advent is that even in the midst of a world filled with suffering and widespread oppression, Jesus became one of us to emphasize and fulfill the value of every human being.

Jesus came to be the “human face of God and the Divine face of man.” Every man was embraced at the cross where a political torture device was used to kill a man who had done no wrong but was condemned by the religious crowd who had stripped him of his humanity as they used him as a scapegoat for their own guilt and shame. The irony was that Jesus still encountered each individual on his way to the cross with love and gifted each of them value.

Advent shows us that no matter how useful or useless we are, no matter how oppressive or oppressed, no matter what our origin, we are all sought after and valued as a “pearl of great price.” Where does gratitude come in? Well, we must be grateful for each person we encounter. We must learn to look in the eyes of our enemy and see our brother. We must see the world as God saw it when he sent Jesus. We must see through the eyes of God during the Advent before Jesus. The world was groaning and yearning for the true, the good and the beautiful. The world was broken and people were perpetuating that brokenness. Into this, God looked and He loved. He looked and he was grateful for our existence. He looked and he sent Jesus to restore relationship with those broken individuals whom he adored. So now, we must see Jesus in every man and woman, in every situation and system. Jesus came for the redemption of the world.

So now, we must see Jesus in every man and woman, in every situation and system. Jesus came for the redemption of the world. He came to strengthen the feeble knees and make glad the faint hearted, to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives. If we are not encountering people with this heart, if we are not truly acknowledging from whence we came and to where we are going, if we do not live out of gratitude for every  person we encounter, then we will not be living the kingdom Jesus established.

Let’s be grateful. A simple moment of showing someone that you are truly grateful for them as a person can make all the difference. Let’s acknowledge every person as the pursuit of God in Christ Jesus. And let’s enjoy the anticipation of the coming of the redemption of the world this Christmas and in eternity to come.

Episode 2 – Pastor Brian Carlson

Hello! This week I spoke with my current pastor, Brian Carlson. It was a great conversation and in it Brian recommended the book, The Longest Bridge Across Water, which is about developing friendship with Jesus. Check it out at: https://www.amazon.com/Longest-Bridge-Across-Water-Encounters-ebook/dp/B00HKN18HO

Enjoy the show and subscribe to my podcast on Itunes or Stitcher:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-unfamiliar-name/id1118467057

http://www.stitcher.com/s?fid=91391&refid=stpr

The Discipline of God

 

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:1-2)

The opening verse of Hebrews chapter 12 give a vision and a context for the writer’s discussion of God’s discipline. First, we must see that sin is the weight that keeps us from running the race to the fullest of our ability. Sin here is not addressed as shame to be hidden or fearful of. You can hear the heart of the writing: “put away your sin, it’s weighing you down, it’s holding you back from what God has for you.” Our call against sin is only Godly and effective if it is an invitation into God’s best and not a condemnation into God’s worst. This is mandated because, “There is now, therefore, no condemnation in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1)

The second highlight in the verses above is the communal aspect of our life in Christ. We are never alone, but are “surround by so great a cloud of witnesses” and “looking to Jesus” we are able to run this race. Not only are we called to be a part of the body of Christ on earth which practices the gifts of the spirit for the building up of the faithful, but we are also surrounded by a heavenly witness. I am reminded of the powerful story in the Old Testament when Elisha and his servant are surround by a great army who has come out against them. Elisha is as calm as Jesus sleeping in the bottom of the storm tossed boat, but his servant cries out, “What’re we gonna do?” with the echo of the same desperation from Jesus’ disciple, “Don’t you care that we are gonna die?” Elisha simply prays that God will open the servants eyes to see that, “those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” (1 Kings 2:16) Do we really live our lives like this? Do we confront our personal mountains with confidence and faith that we are surrounded by a powerful heavenly host?

It’s in this context that God’s discipline is addressed. It is not addressed in a spirit of condemnation and it is in no way addressed as God punishing a lone individual who is expected to overcome sin on their own. The last major point I want to address in this verse is the image of Christ going to the cross “for the joy that was set before him.” Now here I find it necessary to make one very important distinction that will help us to understand God’s discipline in our own lives. I do not believe that the cross was God’s divine will in the sense that God orchestrated and caused the cross to occur so that we might be saved and Jesus might, “learn obedience through the things he suffered.” Rather, I believe that it was God’s divine will to allow our free choice of the rejection and crucifixion of his son. God sent Jesus to preach the way of peace, knowing full well that we would reject him and his teaching and crucify him by our own sin. “He took on him the sins of us all,” is more literal in this image as our sin literally condemned him to the cross. So we see the distinction here is that God can use our sin and the results of that sin to save the world and teach obedience in Christ. Now, Christ was perfect, and yet he was learning obedience. This is the mystery of incarnation and it is so good for us because we do not have a high priest who does not know our suffering and temptations. Jesus can teach us obedience in suffering because he learned the same way. The important point to remember throughout is that Jesus did all these things for the “joy that was set before him.” The key to growth through God’s discipline is to remember that it is for the joy that God has set before us. Discipline’s purpose is to remove that which keeps us from joy and fulfillment in Christ.

One last note on this seeming paradox about enduring suffering and giving up sin in exchange for joy… There is a parable Jesus tells that seems to sum up what is meant by these things: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44) This is what the discipline of God calls us into: joyful surrender of all that we have. “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.’” (Heb. 12:5-6)
This is so powerful. God is using the trials and tribulations in our life to train us in the way we should go as a father would for his children.

So what does this Godly discipline look like? It looks like bringing everything that we experience before God in humble submission to him. Are you experiencing financial difficulties? Bring it before God, get counsel from a wise brother in Christ. Maybe God desires to teach you to trust him, to steward your finances well, to rejoice in all things. Are you experiencing relational difficulties with your spouse? Bring it before God, get counsel from a wise father in the church. Maybe God is teaching you how to prefer others before yourself, maybe God is teaching you to build your house on the Rock instead of on your own ability to maintain yourself. Are you struggling with a sin pattern in your life? Bring it to the Lord, submit yourself to a leader in your church. Maybe God desires to teach you grace and humility and the life-saving power of the Holy Spirit.

God’s discipline is not an act of punishment that seeks to cause pain, rather, it is the transformation of the tribulations in this life into the life changing lessons of how to be like Jesus. God takes our earthly suffering and uses it like fire to forge us into people who can enjoy perfect freedom and communion with him. Simplest definition of the discipline of God is this: God’s miraculous ability to transform the suffering resultant in the effects of sin (our own sin and that of others) into the lessons that shape us into who he has called us to be. Even the effects of sin and a broken world are used by God to meet us and heal us and change us. Does this mean that you must look for sin whenever you experience tribulation? No, instead look for God and what he has provided you in this time for your benefit and sustenance. The ultimate result is the kingdom of God in your heart, a kingdom that cannot be shaken. The result of God’s discipline is “the removal of things that are shaken… in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb. 12:27-29) What then remains? “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13)

The Problem of Evil

To conclude my series of blog posts with an apologetic theme, this post will wrestle with one of the classic objections to the Christian faith, the Problem of Evil. It can be stated as follows:

If God is all-powerful and all-good, there would not be evil and suffering in the world.

There is evil and suffering in the world; therefore, God is either not all-powerful, not all-good, or non-existent.

This argument is probably the most compelling argument I have heard and most people I have engaged with seem to find their biggest issues with Christianity here. I think this is because we are hurting and something in us knows that the world is not how it ought to be. Even if you believe in Christianity, you must answer this objection. First, I will layout the philosophical answer to the problem of evil and then I will give the uniquely Christian answer to this problem.

Imagine a perfect world where no-one ever does anything wrong… Did you come up with an image? If you did, it was probably grey, sterile or even boring and oddly futuristic. Maybe that’s not what you thought of, but because of our over-saturation of dystopian films and literature, we are often given a view of the issue that occurs when someone in power tries to eliminate all evil and suffering from the world. Equilibrium, Divergent, 1984, and even Avengers: Age of Ultron or Captain America: Winter Soldier are wrestling with the trade off between eliminating suffering and eliminating freedom. The focus of the debate on the problem of evil has always been whether God could, in His infinite power, create a world where evil did not exist but freedom of choice did exist. It truly seems impossible for such a world to exist. It seems that in order for human beings to have the ability to choose to live by love, they have to have the ability to reject the same. If God were to have created the world without that freedom, then we would be robots following our programming and functioning well, but we would not be humans loving well and creating community. While this is a much-repeated response, it seems to solve the philosophical dilemma. God is all-powerful and all-good. In his goodness and power, he created humans with an ability to choose freely (thus choosing to limit his power by his goodness) and God is constantly drawing humanity towards himself and towards love. This may seem like a sterile philosophical answer that does not go into the depths of suffering, but the next section of the blog will explore the uniquely Christian response that does not shy away from this tension.

Every worldview wrestles with the problem of evil. Some Buddhists claim that suffering is illusion, Hinduism claims that suffering is the result of Kharma, Muslims claim that God is ineffable and unquestionable in his absolute power but also balances his own scales of justice, Secular Humanists claim that innovation and progress will free us from incorrect thinking or the imbalance of power, Naturalists really have no grounding for what evil is but tend to cry out against injustice all the same. Amidst thousands of answers, Christianity tells the most compelling story in response to evil in the world.

God created the world and it was beautiful and good. He created humans and they were very good. Humans, in their freedom, chose pride and control over relationship with God. Since that point, God has been pursuing humanity throughout the ages. First he spoke to a small backwards tribe, the Hebrews, and constantly met them in their evolving understanding of God and the world. His message was communicated in poetry and power, in beauty and story and it was always an invitation to return to God. Instead, they chose to kill the prophets he sent and worship other gods (gods of power, money, and debauchery). The Hebrews were a microcosm of the problem with humanity in the entire world. We all needed healing from the cultural, systemic sin that demanded sacrifice and violence. Rene Girard spoke of the mimetic desire that describes human tribe’s need to find a scapegoat for their own guilt and difficulties in life. There is a famine, sacrifice a virgin. There is a murder, kill the murderer. A woman will not have you, take her anyways. There is a land dispute, go to war. Always moving towards violence instead of relationship with the Creator and the Created. Throughout all of this, God kept calling the Hebrews towards the beautiful and the good. He still saw the beauty that humanity could be and create. The world was broken but good and man would occasionally respond to challenges with singular acts of love and beauty. Yet still the cycle of violence and hatred remained.

Finally, at the time when his message could be heard and spread, Jesus came and entered into our suffering. God, the God of the universe, did not shun the world that was marked by suffering and evil. He dined with sinners and healed lepers. He lost loved ones to death and he experienced betrayal. God-as-man was tempted in every way as we are, but Jesus resisted and learned obedience through what he suffered. The uniquely Christian answer, and the one answer that truly gets to the core of the problem, is that God took upon himself the pain and suffering of us all. We demanded sacrifice, He provided the Lamb. All of our brokenness and systemic sin took Love personified and nailed him to the cross. God did not demand Jesus’ death, we did. God did not fear our darkness, he entered into it and the light overcame that darkness. Jesus entered into the depths of Hades and returned victorious over death.

He then returned to the close friends he had invested in (because it’s always a relational transformation) and empowered them with the knowledge and peace of the risen Christ. God’s answer to evil was submission to the effects of evil and victory through that submission. He then began with a small group of Hebrew fisherman and transformed the world by their lived message. Many of them were persecuted and killed, again conquering evil by giving themselves up in love. “Greater love has no man then he that lays down his life for his friends.” So when we consider the philosophical problem of evil and are faced with the reality of evil and suffering in our lives, God has an answer and it is Jesus. Because of Him we can be transformed into people who are free from systemic sin and healed from brokenness. A people transformed conquering the world through love and not violence. A people who do not have to fear injustice or even death, but can embrace all men through the power of the resurrection. The problem of evil has been answered, the challenge for Christians is to be a part of the solution.

Children of the Promise

More than any other thing, the past 5 years since I left home for college has been a journey of learning about the promises of God. Our whole faith is based on the promises of God. The Bible is framed in the context of covenant (can be read as promise). God’s interaction with His people in the Bible is always framed in promises. If you look at our world, you will see that in our very nature is a need to worship. Bob Dylan sings, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody…” What is the basis for our worship? Our subservience? The basis is in promise. Money promises security, power, and freedom. Religion promises redemption, self-worth, and community. Sensuality promises escape, connection, or significance. Self-help gurus promise impact, effective change, a banishment of insecurity. Really, anything that we worship finds, at its root, a promise to fulfill something we seek. This is because we were made to be a people who live by promises. The ultimate promise, of course, is love. All of these things we seek are rooted in our desire to be known and loved by our Father.  This desire can often be twisted and is linked to our desire for significance, impact, security, etc. The problem comes when we are “looking for love in all the wrong places…”

In the first part of the Bible, which is titled “the Old Testament” (also translated Old Covenant), we see Israel attempting to obtain God’s promises through the Law. This leads to a truth that we are all very aware of: none of us are perfect. The promise is unattainable through the law. Throughout this Old Covenant, God is constantly promising a Messiah who will fulfill His promises towards the people of Israel. We see the out working of this in the life of Jesus and the theological out working in the writings of Paul. Paul begins with the story of Abraham, the original father of promise. He uses the story of Israel’s journey from Abraham to Jesus to show that all along God’s focus was on clinging to the promise and not on the power of the Law. “For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” Galatians 3:18, 22 Paul has shifted the focus from the Law to the promise and shows that our inheritance is by faith in the promise of Jesus.  “This means that it is not the children of the flesh (or children of the Law) who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” ‭‭Romans‬ ‭9:8‬ ‭ “Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.”‭‭Galatians‬ ‭4:28‬ ‭So we see that we are called to be children of the promise; the promise of God to Abraham, the promise of God through Jesus. In fact, when we face opposition or tribulation in our life, we are to come running to the promises of God. It is by the promise that mankind receives salvation.

To bring this concept to bear on our own life, the question arises, “How then shall we live?” How do we live as children of the promise? First, ask yourself, “What has God promised me?” If nothing comes to mind, then think on these promises made to all of His people. He has promised abundant life, adoption as His sons and daughters, eternal life, all the fruits of the spirit, power to fulfill every good work, power to perform miracles in His name, a provision for every need in your life. If any of these promises seem to big for you or too impossible for God, then there is room for growth. They are all found as promises in Scripture. How do we begin to believe these promises? First, knowing the promises of God is important and we have a whole book based on the promises of God and the story of His fulfillment of those promises: the Bible. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Romans 10:17 Further, God has specific promises for us. Ask him. Take a pen and some paper and write, “Father, what promises do you have for me?” Then write, “[Your name] I have promised you _______” and just let God speak to your life. Do not be afraid of Him not speaking, because we see throughout Scripture His longing to communicate with His sons and daughters. And do not be afraid of hearing Him wrong; if what you write comes from a place of love and encouragement and aligns with God’s heart in Scriptures, then it is probably God.

Next, have faith that the promise will be fulfilled. “And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise.” Hebrews 6:15 God’s promises in Scripture are doubly guaranteed by the fact that anything God speaks is true and He swears by Himself (the greatest thing on which to swear). This is found in the following Scripture although Paul’s wording can be difficult to understand on the first reading, “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain…” The key to holding on in the midst of difficulties in our life is to “hold fast to the hope set before us,” which is “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…” This is the key to Christian living. This is how the great saints and martyrs who have gone before us faced their trials and were “more than conquerors.” They held onto the promise and, as Jesus, “for the joy that was set before [them]  endured the cross despising shame…” And so we pray,  “Let your steadfast love come to me, O Lord, your salvation according to your promise.” ‭‭Psalm‬ ‭119:41‬ ‭And, “Remember your word to your servant, in which you have made me hope. This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.” Psalm‬ ‭119:49-50‬ ‭

So, whoever you are, wherever you are at, remember that our faith is a faith of promise. It is not by our works (thank God) that we receive the salvation and joy of the Lord but by holding fast to the effective promise of God. This extends even to our identity as perfected coheirs with Christ. Read the word, journal with God and get the promises inside of you. Then let them change you as you cling to them in spite of all that you see and experience. By the power of God’s promise, we can participate in the redemption of the world as His kingdom comes on earth as it is in Heaven (the realm of the promise fulfilled).

“And all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well when the tongues of flame are in-folded into the crowned knot of fire and the fire and the rose are one.” T.S. Eliot

Freedom

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about freedom. Freedom is the promise of America. The land of the free. Freedom is the promise of money. If only I had enough money, I would be free to do whatever I want. There is some truth to these promises: America has radically changed the world by offering freedom of religion, speech, etc. in a time where that freedom was not guaranteed and we often take this for granted today. Money will allow you to be free to give to charities, spend less time working, have more choices of where to live or what to do with your life. Ultimately, freedom is not about these things and the promise rings hollow for many who should be the most free. Ancient Greek philosophy will help us understand this.

Aristotle taught that the truly free were the self-disciplined. True freedom lay not in the multitude of choices, but the mastery of one’s desires. A man who can do or have anything he wants, but cannot control his desires for money, power, or physcal pleasure is enslaved by those very desires. In fact, the more choices one has, the harder it might be to restrain those desires and achieve freedom. Many philosophers have followed this line of thinking and the stoics and ascetics focus there energy on mastering oneself by self denial. We can all see the truth of this in our own lives, but we can also see that simple self discipline can become it’s own enslavement as one begins to idolize one’s own control. This can lead to pride and an inflexibility that is equally binding.

So where does true freedom come from? Materialists argue that freedom is an illsuion, existentialists argue that “carpe diem” and a rejection of delusions regarding the semblance of meaning is the answer, Neitsche argues that the will to power is the path to freedom. The answer lies in a seeming paradox. True freedom comes when a life is wholly submitted to the God of the universe. We have already seen that freedom as a multitude of choices does not satisfy. In an essay by C.S. Lewis, he likens that version of freedom as trying to play a board game while disregarding any rules. It would be ultimately unsatisfying and pointless to play a game without any structure. In contrast, as we submit to God’s will, we learn self-control and self-denial, but neither become our obsessions. Neither self-control nor self-denial are a goal in themselves, but the path to Love, to serving God.

In my own life, I have seen a particular struggle play out as I have gotten married and become a restaurant manager in the same year. I have less free time than ever and I often find myself desperate to be “free” during my time off. The mistake I make is to think of freedom as the ability to choose to do whatever I desire at that time. I find myself trying to follow every whim to read or watch tv or eat or buy something. Each of these things are then feeding the idol of false freedom. I have found that when, instead, I ask God what He wants me to do with my time or I spend that time serving my wife (by cleaning or spending quality time with her, etc.) I feel truly free. In submission, in serving, in giving up my time, I find life. That hour I spend in devotions, or cleaning the apartment, or loving my wife multiplies my energy and releases me from my fears of not having “enough time.” God has freedom for us all. In our time, in our self-control, in our decision-making, God knows what we need and He pursues men and women who will say yes to Him and fully give up their freedom only to find it resurrected. Whoever seeks to save his freedom will lose it, but he who gives up his freedom for my sake and the sake of the gospel will find it.

Story and Just do It.

I live my life as a story. This is not a unique way to live. In fact, I would guess that every human being does too. We all are born with an inherent desire for meaning and connection. This is reinforced by human society which always points us towards the imposition of meaning onto any event. There is a logical fallacy that arises directly from this impulse, “Post hoc ergo propter hoc.” In plain English, “This came after that, therefore this caused that.” We immediately draw conclusions based on the sensory data with which we are presented. We write stories in our minds about what must have happened to cause the events that we experience. When we talk about our lives, we have an order to events and a commentary (internal or external) that connects us from where we have been to where we are. One of the most terrifying experiences is losing that connection, wondering, “How did I get here?” Movies like the Breakfast Club emphasise this aspect of defining our identity. The characters spend their Saturday in detention attempting to discover who they are through the stories they tell about their lives.

This is the power of being human. The power to tell a story so well that it becomes true, the power to engage another person and transmit a piece of your cognitive reality into the mental consciousness of the other, the power to transform events into comedy or tragedy by the context of interlocking ideas drawing real or imaginary connections. There is an immense responsibility as human persons to bestow meaning onto a world that can so often appear random and purposeless or even cruel and depraved. In our own lives we constantly play a narrative the contextualize our actions. One person gets up early in the morning and goes to the gym and thinks, “I love pushing myself to the limits of my physical potential and I love the way working out makes me feel more energized and positive about my day” Another person goes to the gym thinking, “If I work out hard enough and often enough, I will be able to stand in front of the mirror without being disgusted,” or “If I don’t go the gym, I will feel ugly and unproductive for the rest of the day.”
These two examples are over-simplified, but they come from the story each person tells about their lives.
Too often in the “digital” age we are experiencing others through the stories they attempt to tell about themselves. We don’t encounter people, but their images and words meant to portray a certain idea and provoke a specific reaction. Even worse, we only encounter a character in the TV show we binge watch for three days. We are immersed in stories that are shadows of reality. We watch friends playing a board game and making fun of each other or people dating and attempting to connect romantically or applying themselves and beginning businesses or pursuing their dreams. These stories are powerful images because they are echoes of the lives we could, or even should be leading. We live the lives of others from a couch instead of experiencing our lives and creating our stories. Of course our stories about ourselves tend to get confused or mired down in a war of comparisons! We are constantly engaged by other people’s make-believe.
Stories have the power to change the world. Books, movies, TV, theater, images, music, and art are all mediums for the most important and human work being done on the planet. We should be plugged in to the excellent stories that are being told around us, but we should also unplug and live our own stories. Content saturation produces a false feeling of accomplishment, but take a walk in the woods on a brisk winter day and you will immediately begin to quiet your soul and reconnect with your agency. In fact, “agency” is the key to this concept. When you begin to lose your ability to act on the world and affect your story, or when you become too complacent with the half-worlds of portrayed in media to seek change in your own reality, that is when we lose our ability to be the story makers we are meant to be.
There is nothing more insidious than the 9 to 5 job that you escape from by coming home, sitting on the couch with your wine and watching Netflix. This is often accepted as the appropriate way of living our lives. We become the secondary characters in the story of our company or our city or America. We are meant to be focal points of meaning and beauty. This can be done in simple ways. Get together with some friends to have coffee and talk and laugh. Write that blog post that you started and ditched out of fear or busyness or slothfulness or apathy. Go to church on Sunday instead of catching the satelite stream from your home or listening to the podcast in your car. Join a charity or small group or community sport league. Nike has a brilliant slogan that never ceases to engage my theological cogs: Just do it.
Maybe I am ringing an old bell that has been sounded in alarm for years in movies like Fight Club or Office Space or The Matrix, but then why are there still so many people living in a shadowy existence of escapism and apathy or fear and facebook stalking? There is a story out there. There is a story just for you. God is inviting you to co-author it. And your story, it will be apart of the redemption of all-creation. Step one is to get out there and just do it.

Moment of Surrender


There once was a man who flew to Rome to meet Jesus. He had been told my a close friend that Jesus wanted to meet him there. When he got there he skipped the tourist sites and went to a basement chapel in one of those storied cathedrals. As he walked towards the altar he saw a man kneeling in the dust in unremarkable clothing. Jesus knelt before him and despite his promises not to ask anything stupid, the man asked, “What are you doing?” “Praying,” Jesus replied. “For what?” the man asked. “I gave man free will and I will never take that away, but I pray always that the hearts of man would be surrendered to my will.”

The most powerful moments in the Bible are characterized by the weakness of surrender. Abraham who surrendered his comfortable life to become a nomad with a promise. Moses who left his dessert home to return to certain death in Egypt as a prophet declaring freedom without hope of success. David who was so surrendered to God’s will that he would not kill Saul even as Saul hunted him. Mary who said let it be, disregarding the scandal and death that might await her if she was found to be pregnant. The ultimate moment of surrender as Jesus prayed, “Father not my will but thine,” in a garden; the very opposite of the first sin in the Garden.

The first sin of man was to reject God’s will, not to surrender. Ever since then, the battle for men’s hearts has been fought with the goal of surrender. The mystery of Christianity is that our surrender does not lead to the abolishment of identity or efficacy, in fact it leads to the very opposite. We surrender to God and become more truly ourselves. We surrender to God’s will and find ourselves more in control of ourselves than ever before.

Nevertheless, we continue to seek control in our lives. We are an anxious and striving people. We find the illusion of control in many ways. We try to get money which symbolizes the power to control our lives. We buy shiny things to distract ourselves from the lie. We build ourselves little kingdoms which are characterized by addictions, escapes from reality, self-loathing, or a false sense of holiness. The call of Jesus denies all these things. Our plans for our lives, our guarantees of success, our dependence on substance abuse, our media-insulated isolation… all of these things are obstacles in the way of surrender. Bonhoeffer writes that the call of Jesus can be summarized, “Come and die.” Everything in our fallen outlook screams at us to run from this invitation and clean to our false sense of control.

The lie is shown in the reaction that follows excess, the emptiness that succeeds our attempts at self-fulfillment. “There is a God-shaped hole in the heart of every man.” That moment of emptiness is when the call can be heard. “Pain is God’s megaphone to an unhearing world.” That is why Jesus says, “It is harder for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven…” When we fill ourselves with the shadows of God’s goodness, the earthly things that fade, we cause ourselves to believe in our own control, our own sufficiency apart from God. When that rug is torn out from under us we have two responses before us: we can proclaim all is meaningless and eventually cycle back into the illusion of control (whether through suicide or less extreme sedative) or we can embrace the moment of surrender. The invitation is always there, He stands at the door and knocks. It is an invitation into a “condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.”

The most powerful moments in history are when humans give back the gift of free will and find themselves truly free. God is always calling us to give up that thing that we need to be happy, that thing that you cannot live without. That is why it is a call to die, a call to die and experience resurrection. The result is love, joy, and peace if we will only let go. We need the moments of surrender, because it is only in our weakness that Christ can be strong in us.