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.

He was Tempted in Every Way as We are

One of the most remarkable stories in the Bible is the story of Jesus’ temptation. It is written, “[He] was tempted in every way as we are, yet he did not sin.” (Heb 4:15) And yet, we only have one instance of temptation recorded, and we have that same instance recorded in three of the four gospels. I am not saying that Jesus wasn’t tempted elsewhere in his life, but it seems that this was a very important example of temptation. In fact, I would venture to say that the story of Jesus’ temptation is one of the most important stories in the gospel for Christians. In it are the principles for how we navigate temptation and challenges in our life. 

Before we look at his temptation, it is important to to think through the implications of the theological concept of “Kenosis.” This is a Greek word that means to self-empty. It is used in Phil 2:6-7,

“[Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” 

The crucial idea within Kenosis is that Jesus came to earth as a human without access to his Godly powers. “He made himself nothing…” This is the emptying of all God-qualities. Jesus was not a super-baby. All the iconography of Jesus blessing people as a baby is misleading. He did not have some sort of supernatural intelligence or power as a man. Rather, he lived his life as we lived, learning and growing as a young Jewish male in the first century AD. This means that he could actually experience temptation. If he were God, with the knowledge of all that is and was and is to come, how could he be truly tempted? If he had the unlimited power, knowledge and communion of the Trinity, how could he be tempted by anything?

Instead, he had to learn of his identity as we do. He searched the Scriptures, he learned of God from his parents, he was brought up in the way of the Lord by his local community. I am sure that he grew up hearing the stories of his miraculous birth. He had promises spoken over him. He grew in “wisdom and stature and favor with God and man.” So when we get to Jesus’ baptism, we can imagine that he was working from his relationship to God at that point. He seems to have had some idea of his identity. When he was eleven he replies to his mother and father after going missing for three days, “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49) So when he turns thirty, God tells him to go get baptized in the Jordan. This perfect man gets baptized as a representation of all of the new creation. John tries to turn him away, but Jesus knows enough by now to know that this is for the “fulfillment of all righteousness.” And then he gets the clear call of his identity as the dove decends upon him and the voice of God speaks, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” 

The firstborn of the New Creation gets baptized into his true identity as the Son of God. He has been reading about the Messiah his whole life. His knowledge of the Torah is shown throughout his ministry. He knows the prophecies about Messiah and now he has been confirmed and commissioned in his call. Throughout the Bible, as people are called into their identity and given promises about their life, they enter into a period of testing. Joseph was promised to be a ruler with the stars of heaven and sheaves of wheat bowing down to him then he was sold into slavery by his own brothers, then he was falsely accused and thrown in prison. It says in Psalms 105:19, “the world of the Lord tested him.” So now, Jesus is tested by the word of the Lord. 

He is led by the Spirit into the wilderness and after forty days of fasting he is hungry (ya think??). So in his weakest moment, the devil comes and tests him. The fascinating part of this dialogue is the nature of the temptations. There is no obfuscation here, the entirety of his temptation is about the identity and the promises God has spoken over Jesus. Jesus, the presumptuous Jewish man who has the audacity to believe that God has called him “Son” and to promise him the salvation of the world. 

Satan begins, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

Hold up. This isn’t even a sin! The tempter is merely asking him to perform a miracle of provision in confirmation of the word God spoke to him. But we know better. This about whether Jesus trust the identity God spoke over him and his answer shows how tightly he is holding to God’s word.

He answers, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”

All of our temptation to doubt the word of God, to be anxious for provision, to want proof of God’s favor, and Jesus clings to the Word of Truth. 
Again, Satan tries a different tact. He takes him to the Jerusalem and sets him on the pinnacle of the temple. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you trike your foot against a stone.'”

Satan throws Scripture in Jesus face. You can imagine him thinking, “Two can play at this game…” Now Jesus has a promise and Satan is only asking him to test the promises of Scripture. 

Jesus answers, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

Not only is he choosing to believe God’s word of identity over him, he is choosing to believe in the promises God has made about him without any proof, without seeing their fulfillment. “Blessed is the one who believes without seeing…”

Lastly, the devil goes after the destiny of Jesus. Ok, maybe you know who you are, but now you have to decide whether you can trust God’s calling on your life. Jesus has an impossible task before him. The Devil takes him to a very high mountain and shows him the kingdoms of the world and their glory. Now, remember, Jesus knows that, “Kingdoms shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” (Isaiah 60:3) So Jesus is seeing the smallness of himself in the light of what God said he would do. Satan offers him a shortcut. “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 

Ok, so we all know not to sell our soul to the devil, but how often do we make small compromises to get what we want? God promised to provide, but I don’t see the provision so I am going to go apply for a credit card. God promised to fulfill me, but I feel unfulfilled so I will enter into a relationship without consulting him to see if the relationship is one that God wants for me. These are broad examples, but every day we are confronted with choices of priorities. Are we going to worship God or _____? 

Jesus shows us once more the power of the Word: 

“‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'”

One more note about this last temptation. Idolatry is the most confronted sin in the Old Testament, and we often think that we have not struggles with that. We would never worship a statue, but the nature of idolatry is far more insidious than that. The pastor of my church is always saying, “Idolatry is when we say, ‘I will be happy if I have God and ____.'” Whatever is in that blank–romance, money, a career, security, children, etc.–is the idol that we are serving.

How many of us have know our identity in Christ? How many of us know the promises and prophecies that have been spoken over us? We should hold fast to these words and not give in to fear when the words test us, when we don’t yet see their fulfillment. Jesus was unwilling to shortcut God’s process even though it led through suffering and death. Because he held to the promises of God over his life and the specific words God had spoken to him about his identity (both through prophecies directly to him and through the Scripture), Jesus was able to walk in the power of God and not stumble. We should do the same. When confronted with our various challenges and temptations, let us focus on the promises and the identity God has given us and cast our mountains into the sea. 

 Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 1:24-25) 

Life and Death are in the Power of the Tongue

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and Word was God.”

It’s hard to overemphasize the attention the Bible gives to the power of our words. Jesus is the Word. God created the world through words. Our world is still being created through words. The most valuable resource in the world is intellectual property which is communicated through words. Books from Nietzsche to Plato to Malcolm Gladwell to Ray Bradbury change the way that we see the world and what we envision as right or good or possible. Blogs and newspapers serve as our window into the world around us. There is no end to literature on the power of words to shape our internal and external realities.

And yet, we think that venting and complaining is a healthy part of life. We will say things like, “My life sucks, this sucks, everyone has it better than me, I hate this.” Well if that is the narrative you tell yourself every day from the moment you get out of bed until the moment you go to sleep, then that will become your reality. I recently heard a preacher say, “We will recreate externally our internal environment.” So if you are negative internally, you will create negativity around you. Our brains are shaped by what we consume, but they are transformed by what comes out of our mouths. “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” We can actually choose the abundance of our hearts by picking our words carefully.

When we encounter a situation that is challenging, we can speak life and not death. To give a seemingly mundane example, we can look at two responses to car troubles. My car has only been owned by me for a year. It is two years old and has 45,000 miles on it and the engine light is on and it has difficulty shifting gears even though it is an automatic. One response, “I just got this car a year ago and it’s already having issues! This sucks. It’s probably a poorly made car. What if it’s not covered under the powertrain warranty? I am sure that there will be more and more problems as it gets older. This is just my luck!” or “Hmm. I should take this in and get it looked at. Good thing I am noticing this now before the power train warranty is up! That’s totally God’s favor because if I had noticed it in a few months I may have been over the 50,000-mile limit. If it’s not covered, then I will just have to trust God to provide like he always has.”

OK, I know, that’s a cheesy example, but it illustrates the big difference between people who have been transformed by God’s truth that you are accepted, provided for abundantly, and equipped for good works and people who are stuck in the world mindset that says prepare for the worst and give up hope because if you don’t you are just pretending and lying to yourself. The cynical spirit is more pervasive and destructive to God’s transforming work in our life than any other attitude, and you regularly encounter it in the Church.

Instead of complaining and prophesying destruction over our situation, we need to speak life and prophesy the promises of God over every situation. This is no hopeless optimism or prosperity Gospel. Paul learned to praise God and be content in all circumstances: whether being beaten for the faith, imprisoned, feasting with friends, or doing the work of ministry. Prosperity Gospel says that you will be happy because your circumstances will be what you want them to be. Paul was joyful and content and worshipful in spite of his circumstances. And this is no naive optimism, it is faith in the promises we have received that God will work all things for our good (whether we think it is our good or not) and that we have been created to love Him and enjoy Him forever. So, today why don’t you evaluate your inner monologue. Is it based on convincing yourself of your difficulties and your right to be upset? Or is it encouraging your soul to praise God in all circumstances and reminding yourself of His truth and promises?

We are Called to Bring Redemption

A study of Isaiah 42:1-9 and 61:1-4
“Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights;In these passages Isaiah writes of the Messiah. He calls out against injustice and idolatry throughout the book, but the answer to these devastations is found in the passages about Messiah. No matter how dark the path of Israel, no matter how much evil is seen in the world, Isaiah brings the prophetic call for Messiah to the forefront. While Jesus was on earth he claimed Isaiah’s Messianic prophecies for himself. Now that Jesus has gone before us as the first fruit of the New Creation, we have been called the body of Christ. We, the universal Church, have inherited the annointing of Jesus and are called to the fulfillment of his redemption. We are now the servants in whom God delights. Wherever you are, whatever you have done, when God accepts you into his family he rewrites your identity and causes you to be a delightful servant. Our identity is no longer predicated on what we have done, but, instead, it is wholly found in what He has called us.

I have put my Spirit upon him;

No longer is this only true of Christ, at Pentecost this became the true of His Church. We are given the Holy Spirit even as Christ walked in the Spirit of God. You haven’t raised the dead or performed works of healing or received specific guidance for your life? Well then you haven’t yet experienced the fullness of the Spirit in you. In all likelihood, none of us has experienced the fullest manifestation of the Spirit, but we will; the same Spirit is in you that raised Christ from the dead! 

he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.

Christ began the process of redemption. He began to bring justice to the nations when he took on himself the iniquities of us all. He modeled a humility and trust that can only be represented by a lamb being lead to the slaughter. He did not cry aloud, he was gentle and meek. He was the paradox of absolute power and authority surrendered even unto death. By his very acts of submission he gained the name above every name. We are far too often concerned with being heard. Especially in our pain we feel the need to shout it from the rooftops. Social media shows us our desire to be heard in all things and Facebook is filled with cries for attention. But God will not break a bruised reed and will maintain a faintly burning wick. It’s not our power that gets us through the times when we are beaten and down. It is God’s life-preserving grace that walks us gently through the times when we feel all used up. He provides for us the oil that does not run out. He faithfully brings forth justice. We are not called to cry injustice at the slightest insult, but to be instruments of God’s plan to rid the world of injustice. Not a plan that calls out with fury, but a plan that involves sacrifing ourselves for others, a plan that is based on the ultimate condemnation of injustice found in Jesus laying down his life for his enemies and calling out for their forgiveness as they crucified him. 

He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.This is where we know that ours is a supernatural calling. We know that there is nothing in nature that does not grow faint, we know that not one of us can go through life without being discouraged, but the God of the universe does not faint or grow weary and he will bear us through into the calling of justice on earth. The beauty of Isaiah’s poetry always calls us to earthly restoration. The dry lands will become springs of living water… Isaiah is not concerned with a Heaven that has specific entry requirements and will someday save us from the bad world. Isaiah talks of a time when that Heaven comes to earth in the glorious restoration of all Creation. Jesus is the first fruits of that and is calling us to a ministry of bringing Heaven to our world. 

Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it: “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols. Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.”This is our call! God who created all that is, who gives us our very breath, who enlivens our spirits, is calling us. His call is in righteousness, but, just in case you were tempted to think that this was a call to live under an impossible Law, he will take us by the hand and keep us. Now to him who is able to keep us from stumbling… He will give us as a promise for the people and a light to the nations. We will be the beacon, and the hands and feet of the Lord’s purpose on earth. His purpose to give sight to the blind, set captives free, bring light to those in darkness. God is concerned with actually healing physical blindness and God wants real prisoners freed. God wants to end slavery and release those held in injustice. However, there is more to this imagery. God also wants to heal spiritual blindness and set free people from spiritual prisons. Remember the story of the paralytic lowered through the roof in front of Jesus. He said, “Your sins are forgiven you.” He said this first because his first concern is with our spiritual lameness. He also brought physical healing, but as an outward representation of the spiritual healing. In this calling we may be tempted to give the glory of our call to others. We can worship money or power or medicine or other spiritual practices or powerful ministers, but it is God who redeems the earth. His glory he gives to no other, except us as we walk in his purposes. For we are called to move from glory to glory. As his body on earth, we are coheirs with Christ. These are the new things being declared. There is nothing new under the sun is a truth outside of relationship with the Almighty Creator of all things. We are called to walk in new things, in even greater things than Jesus did as an individual on earth. He now does greater things through the multitude of members of his body.

All of this can be read in the call that Jesus read for himself in the synagogue. We can read this about ourselves, about the body of believers:

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”

‭ It’s fascinating that Jesus did not even read “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus stopped before the first sentence was over. Jesus edited Scripture because he knew that, in the hardness of their hearts, the listeners would read all sorts of bad theology into that phrase. Israel thought that God’s vengeance would be the vanquishing of their earthly enemies. They did not understand that we fight not against flesh and blood; God’s vengeance is against the spiritual forces of wickedness. God is against no man, he is drawing all men to himself and vanquishing the enemies of man which are death, jealousy, strife, pride, hatred, and all evil. We are proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor over every situation. We are not called to condemn cities or peoples. We are called to comfort those who mourn, cloth them with garments of praise and give them the oil of gladness. We are called to raise up oaks of righteousness for God’s glory. We are called to build up ruined cities and redeem generational sin and depravity. No more are we to call down fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, we are called instead to bring the fire of the Holy Spirit into the cities that they may be raised up and rebuilt in the glory of the Kingdom. This act is inseparably tied to the clothing of those without clothes, the feeding of the hungry, the healing of the blind, and the setting free of captives. If these are not your church’s ministries, physically and metaphorically, then you are not participating in God’s plan of redemption. If you are more concerned with condemning the sinner than setting them free with love and clothing them in garments, then you may have missed Jesus’ ministry. 

Let us go forth into the world empowered by our call. Let us bring the Kingdom into the lives of those around us, always remembering the call and by whose power we fulfill it. Let us be the body of Christ and walk as he walked. Let us be in constant fellowship with the Spirit we have been given and set people free by that same Spirit. We are called to nothing less than the transformation of the world. It starts with you, Seek ye first the kingdom of God…

Inspired by my Dad

In the beginning, God made man and woman to be the first expression of his likeness. The center of God’s purposes for humanity begins and ends with the love of a man and a woman for each other and the raising of children out of that love. God himself relates to us as a Father and Jesus is his son. This relationship of love and unity forms the foundation for the cosmos. 
Before you can be a good father or husband, you must first have been fathered well. This is only partially fulfilled by your earthly father. As one of my favorite scenes in all of literature points out so vividly, “We have never known our true Mothers and Fathers.” This from Perelandra by C.S. Lewis as Ransom weeps before the revelation of a true and unblemished Adam and Eve. God’s intent for the perfect manifestation of fatherhood and motherhood was marred by the Fall and we are only partially able to represent that heavenly perfection through the grace of God. This does not mean parenting is hopeless, God fills all things, restores all things, and makes all things good. This does mean that we need to be fathered by the one Good Father. “We love because we were first loved.” If your dad was amazing, or absent, or abusive, or average, then you must turn to God and experience the true love of the Father. It was always meant to be that we would be fathered by an earthly representative and also by the true Father of all. In no way does this diminish our earthly fathers, they are the first expression of fatherhood most of us experience and that can either push us from the fullest expression found in God or draw us close. This can make all the difference. 

Once you have been fathered by God and shown the amazing love of the true bridegroom, the first key to being a good father is found in the relationship between husband and wife. It is out of that relationship that sons and daughters are created and the reflection of that relationship will be manifested in the children. In order to be a good father, one must first love his wife and even give himself up for her as Christ gave himself up for the Church. Love begets love, and being committed to your wife will form the most sure foundation for your children. This should be abundantly evident in our culture that is filled with fatherless people. 

A prevailing opinion among women these days is that the children must always come first. This is not true. First, you must love each other as husband and wife, it is only out of that love that your children will feel stable and safe. Out of the strength of your relationship as husband and wife, one flesh, you will be able to love and provide for your children in a way that you could never have accomplished by yourself. There is a Divine plan and intelligence in the design of the family. One person can never fulfill the role of both parents. Of course, God is faithful to widows and orphans and they are his special care. So if there is a single parent, God is quick to fill the role of the absent father or mother. 

The mother/father unit is the single most powerful force for change in the world. When raising children, the most important concept is to listen. First, listen to God, then listen to each other, and then listen to your children. If you humble yourself and listen, you will love in your action and inaction. God is the true Father and he will lead you in all that you need. Your wife is your mirror, partner, helper and she will give you strength and discernment or give you the opportunity to encourage her (which will grow your strength and discernment as well). Your children are often more in tune with their needs than you might think. And even if they are not, they will give you Windows into themselves if they know you are listening and your discernment will sift the wheat from the chaff. If you are receiving direction from above, insight from your wife, and the identity of your children, then you will be able to act in accordance with love. You will make mistakes, but you will always come back to listening and loving. By this you will lead. 

There is a special anointing on husbands to pray for and lead their family. God empowers us to accomplish our purposes and the purpose of a husband to love his wife and children starts in a place of prayer. This is listening prayer as we learn to pray the heart of God into all situations. Our first place of praying with God allows God’s heart to flow down into all aspects of our family.

Ultimately, there are a thousand more things to say about fatherhood, but these are the keys that I have seen in my dad. 

While these principles are listed in order of importance, they can often happen out of order and that is okay. We are living redemptive stories and God is always bringing us from brokenness to healing. Wherever you are at, come to Jesus. He will transform your relationships from the top down. He will restore your relationship with him, he will redeem your relationship with your wife, he will renew your relationship with your children. 

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.