Loving God or “seeking” God’s kingdom?

In a recent conversation a friend and I considered the difference between “seeking” God’s kingdom and the command to love God. 

Which is more important?

My first concern was for clarification: Can love be commanded?  How are we to understand this ‘command’?  How should we understand love generally?

Many Christians claim that loving God is (or starts with) something one does rather than something what one experiences and emotes.  Instead, I maintain the importance of both one’s emotions about / toward God and one’s actions for / in light of God.  I do so in part because I believe that loving God always begins with a combination of understanding and experience (about / related to God), out of which emotional responses are awakened (and can, later, be dimmed).

But what about this ‘command’?

The command to love God is found in three passages in the synoptic gospels (Mt 22, Mk 12, Lk 10) and each points back to Deuteronomy (noting especially Deut. chapters 6, 7, 10).  Clearly much of Deuteronomy’s content has the sense of a commandment, yet I believe that this must be balanced with the biblical claim / trajectory toward relationality: from God to us, then from us to God.

Particularly, both textually and experientially, I believe that the notion of commanding love’s inception makes no sense: love never starts as as act of the will.  The biblical text corroborates this, as the ‘commands’ to love in Deuteronomy come after the Israelites’ quintessential experience of being delivered (that is, deeply cared for and loved): the Exodus.  Thus God is ‘commanding’ love within the pre-existing context of a long and established history with a people who have good reason to understand clearly how—and how much—God indeed loves them! 

Experientially love begins as a preoccupation, yet a preoccupation that results in action.  However, this is not to suggest that love “matures” from emotion into action.  Instead, I believe that love is an abiding orientation chiefly characterized by excess.  So the lover’s compunction for action corresponds to love’s ‘excessive’ nature which always seeks expression, as both joyful exclamation and as catharsis.  And while this expression may take the form of thoughts and words (letters, poetry, songs) it also become concretized, through our choice-making, into action.  

So while love is not an effort of the will, neither is it pure desire.  Instead love, like other emotions, has its roots in understanding.1  In other words, just as fear arises when certain phenomenon or states of affairs threaten my existence so love begins when I perceive, at a profound level, that in the other I am being offered goods necessary to my existence / flourishing.  And while love is often coupled with perceptions of the beloved’s qualities (beauty, character, etc.) love also distinguishes itself from admiration or infatuation.

So while it involves the will, love is not derived from the will.  And while it expresses desire, love is not solely desire.  This distinction both clarifies that emotions are not subservient to the intellect (but exist in tandem with it, each having its own role) and focuses on the necessarily self-involving nature of love: love involves (and is predicated upon) a deep, ‘gut level’ understanding that the beloved offers goods necessary to my existence and / or flourishing.

This relationship between love and understanding has three implications:

First, as an abiding orientation that is based upon certain ‘understandings’ and elicits desire, it explains why love cannot be commanded.  Thus it addresses certain Christian misunderstandings about how to enter into relationship with God, such as the claim that we must “act” as though we love God or that the command to love is really a call to obedience (because “obedience is God’s love language”).

Willpower can be summoned, but emotions must be evoked: I can no more be commanded to emote a certain emotion than commanded to experience those states of affairs upon which my emotions are based (i.e., understanding the benefits that God offers relative to my wellbeing and very existence).  Dually contextualized by the biblical text and the love’s functioning within human experience, the ‘greatest commandment’ is seen to be a poetic command: the command of love or of love’s significant possibility to the one who already loves (or very likely could / should love): love me!  And let this love relationship reorient you towards all aspects of your exsitence! 

Second, because emotions relate to (and indeed, are based on) understandings, emotions can be evaluated.  On the one hand, emotions arise out of perceptions and understandings that occur at a deep level, which explains why love’s occurrence is often surprising (e.g., we don’t “see it coming”).  Yet as we develop our skills of self-reflection and examination we may become increasingly capable “readers” of ourselves in this regard.

On the other hand, we do not evaluate our emotions in order to minimize or dismiss them, but in order to learn more about ourselves and to decide how to respond to them.  In other words, not every occurrence of the emotion of love needs to merit the same response!  So I may recognize that my disposition toward several people is love, but due to various factors I may respond to them differently.2

Third, the connection between love and what is needed to further my existence and flourishing raises the notion of “emotional responsibility”: the responsibility to be properly invested in one’s own value and worth (i.e., to be fully situated as a self within one’s world) such that I am able to respond appropriately to situations where I am offered goods the benefit my existence and enhance my flourishing.

Without this due and necessary attachment to oneself one cannot rightly understand (and so cannot develop proper emotional responses to) events that crucially support and / or renew my existence.  The content of these experiences—and the relationship between loving God and “seeking” God’s kingdom—will be the focus of several upcoming blog posts.

Grace and Truth or Love and Truth?

I take my sense of the word “grace” mostly from the New Testament (the word “charis” in Greek), though the English word grace is also found in Jeremiah 31, a crucial chapter relative to the “new covenant.”  Now there are some 155 uses of “charis” in the the NT (115 or so being translated as “grace”) and all of them bear examination.  For the sake of space I am focusing here on Romans 4:16.1

I have chosen this example because it offers a terse but ready contextualization for the use of grace (“charis”) in what I believe to be its correct context: in connection with both promise and covenant.

Romans 4:16  “For this reason it [the promise to Abraham] depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those that share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of us all . . .”  Grace in this sense means “a beneficent disposition towards someone” in the sense of “that which one grants to another / the action of one who volunteers to do something not otherwise obligatory.”  (From the Bauer-Danke Greek / English lexicon).

Two points appear important:

On the one hand, Romans 4:1-25 is considered to be a logical unit and the use of grace in Rom 4:16 in contextualized by its use in Rom 4:4, where “charis” is translated as “gift.”  Particularly, grace is the mode or manner of the action—the ‘how’, if you like.  So we have the close association between grace and gift: that which is given freely and without being earned.

On the other hand, Rom 4:16 is a wonderful encapsulation of grace within its actual context: the extraordinary reality that a) God committed to a promise before entering into the covenant (in Gen 12) and b) God “made good” on this promise by “making good” on the covenant, through the life and death of Jesus the Christ (see Rom 3:21-26, much of Rom 5, etc.).

In other words, grace (“charis”) is how God both a) began his main dealings with humankind through Israel and b) completed those dealing to the inclusion of all peoples, through Jesus.  But note that if grace is how God acted, it is not why.

Why did God choose to freely give both full relationship (via the covenant) and the means for that relationship to be accomplished (via the life and death of Jesus)?  While I would like to go much deeper with my argument here, the most basic answer is that God acted / chose to act according to God’s character.  And against those who focus on sovereignty to the exclusion of all else, the Bible clearly characterizes God as both sovereign and father / parent.

So with such clear biblical indications as “God is love” (1 John 4) and “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believed in him should may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3), I attribute the ‘Why’ of God’s action to God’s passionate love (in general and for humanity specifically), such that God enacted God’s love toward us for the purpose of furthering relationship with us and for establishing God’s kingdom with and through us.

God does require certain things of us as our sovereign, but the gift—the grace—of God comes to us as a matter of God’s love and specifically as an expression of God’s fatherly and parental love. In other words, grace is that mode of expression by which God most truly expresses God-self: grace shows God’s love in its truest and fullest light.

In this sense, while I deeply value grace as God’s “mode of engagement” that makes my relationship with God possible (i.e., how the relationship has been made possible) love, along with truth, is the overarching orientation both from God to me and from me to God.

Love is the reason why God offered grace in the first place (and God could legitimately do so because God is truly sovereign and truly father / parent).  Likewise, being loved by God and truly known by God are the reasons why I am nowhere more content and more myself than in my relationship with God (and why I both am passionately in love with God and seek to proclaim God’s existence and character as being truly true).

The love I have known

 

(I wrote this several years ago in response to an anonymous article in my graduate school newspaper.  The article was written by a young woman struggling with her husband’s addiction to pornography).

 

I want to reply to this anonymous article by recounting two experiences.  The first occurred recently when, here at graduate school, I talked with a group of new classmates about “prayer and fasting.”  Some had tried it, some had not, though no one had anything significant to relate.  As the discussion proceeded I became increasingly uncomfortable: I had tried it and had experienced something, something transformative and healing.

My point is not that God answers prayer or makes things “all better” if we pray (and perhaps fast) hard enough.  No.  My point is that I was embarrassed to speak because the environment precluded the very type of discussion that was sought—how could I be so vulnerable with people I hardly knew, share something so special with a 10 minute time-limit?

The second occurred years earlier when my wife and I grew increasingly anxious as her fourth pregnancy came to term.  Her high blood pressure and other symptoms hinted that we might lose another baby.  Looking for help, I turned to Ina May Gaskin’s classic, Spiritual Midwifery.  Rifling through the book I was completely deflated: where was the help that I needed?  Instead of re-assuring information it was simply filled with stories.

Yet as I read the book something strange started to happen.  I found myself in the presence of women whose experiences of birth and birthing covered the map—wonderful or tragic, complicated or serenely simple.  Yet among them all was the realization that they were involved in something more, something which they did not control, something which they longed for, something supremely real.  Through reading their stories, I came to understand that I was not alone.

These two accounts go together.

On the one hand I not only understand but believe the biblical accounts of God healing people because I have experienced such healing in my life.  Yet sadly it is also the case that our churches—like seminaries and Christian graduate schools—can often be the very places where discussing our best experiences of God (and sometimes our deepest needs for God) is hardest.

On the other hand, my experience is that God’s healing occurs partly as we tell our stories and hear those of others; as we realize that we are not alone nor without hope here and now: our lives and marriages aren’t designed to endure our brokenness until “eschatological” healing occurs.

Having been sexually abused I have some sense of the pain and recalcitrance of sexual brokenness.  To complicate matters, I understand that addictions are but symptoms—surface-level outworkings of deeper hurts and ills.  So more than stopping the symptoms we must know their causes, which means understanding oneself and one’s history.  This process of “reading” ourselves is one of self-discovery, of meeting the alien (and often unpalatable) aspects of our upbringing, life choices, and beliefs.

Despite the mending that is possible, this side of God’s full presence I don’t believe that we get ‘all better’.

But, maybe, that’s the point.

What I mean is that the journey towards wholeness necessarily travels through honesty, with stops at disappointment, defeat, and loneliness.  Yet it finishes via self-forgiveness and self-love.  In other words, my experience is that in healing us God also makes us real.  And this “realness” is not so much the product of being healed but comes through experiencing the core of God’s desire for our wholeness: God’s love.

Greater than my anger, deeper than my shame, nearer than my hurt, was a longing to be loved and to love, to be responded to as Job: where God spoke not of me (and my pain), but to me in my deepest and best personhood—where God was not simply divine or powerful but real, and God really loved me.  “ ‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you.  When [he] loves you . . . REALLY loves you, then you become real.’ ” (The Velveteen Rabbit).

God sees the heart; we are not so lucky.  Yet as I reflect on the pain in the hearts of that couple I’ll wager that they are not alone.  The woman wrote anonymously—without a name.  I suspect this is because much of their emotional currency went into living with this addiction: living on the margins of their Christian community and concealing a secret considered too ugly to share.

I am posting this with my name attached because I know how lonely the margins can be, so I hope that my story helps those who are there feel less alone.  And also I publish this because the fear of our ugliness (and the difficulty our churches have in bearing it) is overcome in the same way—by being made real: “these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” (Ibid.)

Such is the love I have known.

Stress, pain, and “surrendering all” to God…

 

What are we to do with the things that burden us?  Typically Christians respond that we should “surrender all” to God.

The idea, I think, is to give over my desire to control situations and outcomes, as well as my negative feelings about them, to God.  This way I can be at peace with the matter (and also with God and with others—even those who have hurt me).  And the sooner I do this, the better.

Great goals.

But I don’t think that immediately “surrendering all” to God will achieve them.  Let me explain:

My experience is that God responds to my pleas for help in a variety of ways, based on: a) who I am and understand myself to be, b) what the situation is / how I understand it, and c) the nature of my relationship with God (and who I conceive God to be).  In other words, God’s response always considers “who I am” and “where I’m at.”

And God’s response is always—always—conditioned by God’s greatest desire for me: that I be in right relationship with God (and thereby, in right relationship with myself, others, and the created world).  The core of this “right relationship” is spelled out clearly in the gospels: love God entirely, love yourself rightly (so that you may) love your neighbour likewise.

And this God whom I am to love entirely is one who knows me intimately and loves me adoringly.  So, strange as it may sound, my wager is that being in right relationship with this God means not letting go of our issues but embracing them.  More to the point, perhaps God’s response is not so much to take away our burdens but to be clear (and demonstratively so) that God knows us truly and yet loves us deeply even as we are burdened.

Knowing us truly, God distinguishes between hurts that wound us and our own orientations / filters that create worry, stress, or pain out of situations where they should not.  Both require healing, one because we are wounded by them and the other because we wound ourselves (and likely others) by them.

Loving us deeply, God determines how (and how much) I can understand the difference between the two and God is patient—patient enough to allow me to blunder through this the wrong way.  But God’s love always aims at returning me to right relationship with God.

So in this context “being in right relationship with God” might require such things as me releasing my fears, trusting God, experiencing God’s love, etc.  Yet doing so involves going through the fear, anxiety, or worry that impede this releasing, trusting, experiencing.  It involves literally “sitting in them;” living with the tension they evoke.

And while the Christian life is not to be marked by worry, stress, and negative emotions, I wonder if Christians are too eager to “surrender” what is uncomfortable… to their detriment.  My belief is that we are to rely on God by collaboratively “going through the issues,” understanding that resolution involves many stages.  This sometimes requires me doing (or not doing) certain things, sometimes God.  Sometimes both of us, and sometimes neither—just waiting.

So promptly “surrendering all” needs to be replaced with prudent, reliant stewardship.

As Christians we are to exercise prudent stewardship in the context of right relationship with (and so reliance on) God, even stewardship over things we don’t like.  Yes, I will be victimized—I will suffer rejection, mistreatment, and dismissal.  But, in addition to feeling pain, working through such situations has stimulated my intellect, developed my relational abilities, and cultivated my talents and imagination.

Yes, I may take seasons, years, or even decades to forgive.  But I accept the time because it is only through the full process that forgiveness becomes what it is meant to be: an embodied response capable of reconciling despite great betrayals, and fully able to point back to relationship where I am truly known yet most deeply loved.

Love (1)

 

What is love?

Poetically and philosophically, love is a disposition towards the other, and towards the self as other.  Love is not the relationship but is what characterizes the relationship.  Love is not a choice, rather love entails choices.

Scientifically, love manifests a particular bio-chemical reality (i.e., dopamine and endorphin responses / exchanges) that is perceived as certain emotive responses and that combine to create an attitude toward the beloved.

Love’s occurrence is intimately connected with knowledge of the beloved, even at its very beginning.  Take newborn babies:

Neonatal biology and neurology approach consensus concerning their acceptance of prenatal olfactory learning.[1]  Thus against viewing the earliest human disposition as faith or trust, the infant already ‘knows’ (or pre-understands) her mother’s scent, and is preferentially attracted to it, through the infant’s lived experience of being (indirectly) in relationship with the mother through the infant’s environment (i.e., the uterus).[2]

Yet though particular to her, the scent is not the sum total of who the mother is.[3]  Instead, being guided and soothed by the familiar and pre-understood scent, the neonate is welcomed and introduced—through the opening of her senses and the development of her pre-understandings—to the wonder of her nearly totally unknown mother.

So at its origin, love is an experience of overwhelming wonder and newness within a context of remarkable familiarity.  Infants accept this without question.  For adults, already beyond this stage of easy acceptance, love necessarily comes as surprise.

Love is not planned or predictable.  I do not ‘become’ in love but more aptly fall in love.  As such I am caught unawares, out of control, and disorientated in respect of ‘my world’.  I am, in a sense, out of myself as always seeking (toward) my beloved: I do not simply love, but am properly ‘in’ love.  Hence, love is always bigger than me and envelops my life.

Love is creative and life-giving.  So when we “make love” we see the creativity of our love-making gazing back at us in the faces of the children who are gifted to us.  Love, then, is the stuff of life that brings about life, and happens in and through daily living.

Love involves knowledge of the beloved and always seeks to know further but love, equally, defies the rational: love is without the reasonableness of reciprocity.  Thus we do not merely accept nor trade love: love is not measured but lavished.  We revel in it, offering and receiving it as gift.

Finally, when the emotion fades, love still remains.  Love may be re-evoked as a feeling, like when films or stories (our own included) prompt a response of love.  The durable quality of this feeling we may call a “mood,” a prevailing atmosphere like a kitchen—now empty—redolent of certain spices, used and reused.


[1] See J. Winberg and R. H. Porter, “Olfaction and human neonatal behaviour: clinical applications,” in Acta Paediatr 87 (1998): 6-10;  Benoist Schaal, Luc Marlier, Robert Soussignan, “Olfactory function in the human fetus: evidence from selective neonatal responsiveness to the odor of amniotic fluid,” in Behavioral Neuroscience 112, no.6 (1998): 1438-1449;  R. H. Porter, “The biological significance of skin-to-skin contact and maternal odours,” in Acta Paediatr 93 (2004): 1560-1562;  Katsumi Mizuno, Aki Ueda, “Antenatal olfactory learning influences infant feeding,” in Early Human Development 76 (2004): 83-90.

[2] Where earlier studies held the hypothesis that neonatal olfactory preferences “were either unlearned, i.e., genetically determined, or learned prior to birth” (Winberg and Porter, “Olfaction,” 8, emphasis mine), later studies concluded that, “the soothing effect of amniotic odour may reflect the infants’ familiarity with that scent resulting from prenatal exposure and learning.”  Porter, “Skin-to-Skin contact,” 1562.  This perspective is reinforced by broader, more recent findings where “prenatal learning of olfactory (chemosensory) stimuli has been demonstrated in all the major vertebrate groups.” Peter G. Hepper, Deborah L. Wells, “Prenatal Olfactory Learning in the Domestic Dog” in Chemical Senses 31 (2006): 207-212, 207.

[3] Studies do not show whether neonates can differentiate among lactating women, only that they can distinguish between lactacting and non-lactating women.  See Porter, “Biological Significance, 1561.

Without Jesus, apparently, we all “Suck”

What?!

But, on second thought, maybe I should not be too surprised:

In Kyle Idleman’s popular not a fan he states “that the reason that we were put on this planet is to answer this one question,” that being, “What if there really is a heaven and a hell, and where I spend eternity comes down to this one question?”  (p. 21, italics his).

For Kyle, Christianity is about reward and punishment.  Either we will accept Jesus and believe (and so receive the reward of heaven) or we reject Jesus and disbelieve (and so suffer the punishment of hell).  Further, throughout the book Kyle is at pains to emphasize how Christianity “costs” a great deal, such as how Christians should hate everyone else by comparison to how much they love God and how, as a Christian, I should “empty myself of me” to make space for the Holy Spirit. (pp 65 & 95).

So where Christianity is about gaining reward and avoiding punishment, and where loving God means (practically) hating others and effacing myself, it’s not surprising to find something like www.withoutjesusisuck.com (WJIS).  Both exemplify a key notion in evangelical Christianity: at best you’re a problem; at worst you’re worthless.

But this should raise a few questions:

Why would God create something that “sucks”?  Why, indeed, would God love something that “sucks”?  And why would God purportedly die for something that “sucks”?

Now many evangelicals would be quick to interject: “No!  God created us as wonderful, and then we messed it up by sinning.  While we sin we can do nothing right.  And the fact that God loves us so much that God gave up his only son to die for us and take away our sin, that is the wonder and mystery of God’s love that we can never comprehend.”

Yet the upshot of an incomprehensible situation, obviously, is that we can’t figure it out.  So we have only two options: either believe or don’t.  In fact, we are right back with Kyle Idleman’s two choices.  And really, if you can actually believe that God is real, then practically there is no choice: no sane or moral person would choose not to be a Christian.  Pretty nifty how that works, huh?

Not really.  I think it’s crap (and I’m not even Scottish).

First, the idea that God’s love for us is incomprehensible is both bogus and unbiblical.  Bogus because if God’s “love” were completely unrelated to human love then it would be impossible to experience it as love—it would not be “love” in any sense that we know it.  Unbiblical because the Bible is totally clear on this point: in order to be in right relationship with God we can and must experience God’s love, we must “taste and see” God’s goodness 1.  And this experience must, at minimum, be comprehensible and “square with” our general understandings of love.

Second, God loves us now, as we are.  For as I’ve tried to argue elsewhere, sin is not the problem but its symptom.  The problem?  Not being in right relationship with God, and a major part of the solution (along with having better, truer understandings of who God is, who humans are, and how the two should relate) is that we experience God’s love and understand it as such.

Third, it is clear that I can and do act, think, etc., in ways that are good.  Not “good” in some sort of absolute, modernist way—no one is arguing for that.  No, in the same way that Postmodernism never means “absolutely anything goes” (outside of advertisements for pizza toppings), so “doing right things” is not a claim to absolute goodness that challenges either God’s holiness or the necessity of Jesus dying in fulfillment of the covenant.

So you don’t suck, and neither do I.

God loves you, and God loves me. God loves us now, as we really are, and also as we best could be, as seen through the lens of God’s love and God’s truth.

And that’s the T-shirt we need.

Atheism’s “religious” significance—Part 1

 

What is atheism?

At base, atheism is a truth-seeking enterprise inquiring into the nature of material reality, human existence, and the divine.  Atheists champion the use of reason and emphasize the role of personal experience and the verifiability (scientific and otherwise) of information.

In their approach to religion, atheists maintain two prominent orientations.  First, evidential atheists—philosopher Bertrand Russell is a good example—disbelieve in God (and religion) because they find insufficient evidence for belief.  Second, atheists of suspicion—Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche are good examples—disbelieve because the practices of its adherents show religion to be something other than what it claims to be.

The first target belief content, the second target the belief’s outworkings.  But of course, this is not how Christians typically consider atheism.

Typically, atheism is identified with its conclusion that the most truthful characterization of the preceding is that no God or Gods exist—that the material world is all that there is and that human existence is the result of natural forces, including chance.

Yet by jumping straight to its conclusion, Christians overlook a lot:

They overlook the common goal that they share with atheists: an ardent pursuit of truth.  They further overlook that both claim to engage seriously with the real world in attaining this truth.  And many again overlook that they too, to a certain extent, are atheistic: most Christians would claim that the White Supremist church (in the early American South or during South African apartheid) is a false church, and that its God is a distortion of the true Christian God, and is not to be worshiped.

Before examining their significance, we must ask: Why do Christians typically overlook these similarities?  Because most have adopted a posture of dispute with those who oppose them.

Why?

My wager is because many of them understand loving God in much the same way that Kyle Idleman describes in his book, not a fan: being “so committed [to Jesus] that by comparison, you hate everyone else.” (p. 65).    And what happens when such Christians encounter outsiders to their views?  Let’s see what Kyle did:

He tells a story (pages 110 – 111) of a single dad who started coming to Kyle’s church and “fell in love with Jesus.”  Later the fellow’s mother, herself a churchgoer, wanted to meet Kyle with her son.  During the meeting the mother expressed concern that her son was going too far, becoming immoderate with his beliefs.  Kyle’s response?

“I tried to keep a pleasant smile, but my teeth were clenched, and my breath was short.  I was feeling defensive of my friend. . . . So I did what I always do when I get angry; I started quoting Scripture from Revelation.  I said to this lady who had been in church most of her life:

‘In Revelation 3 Jesus says to the Christians in Laodicea, ‘You are neither hot or cold but because you are lukewarm I’m about to spit you out of my mouth.’  Jesus doesn’t say: ‘everything in moderation”; he says you can’t be my follower if you don’t give up everything.’ “

On the one hand my reply is: Shame on you, Kyle Idleman.

You had an occasion to love you neighbour and instead of offering acceptance in order to foster a relationship and develop understanding, you chastised and excluded her.  Faced with an opportunity to discuss what it means to love (and be loved by) God, you instead chose to shut down dialogue by arguing against her with your righteous indignation?  Poorly done.

On the other hand, sadly, the problem is much larger than Kyle Idleman.  To begin, we need dialogue instead of dispute.

More so, we need church leaders who clearly perceive the deep kinship that exists between Christians and all “outsiders” to the Christian faith.  We need those who, given our common humanity, do not curtail dialogue because either we “don’t have Christ in common” or we do not view Christ (or Christianity) the same way.

And ultimately the Church needs leaders who understand the love of God aright, so that thereby they may model love of neighbour rightly.

Sin, Part Deux

 

Formulate, express, reformulate, clarify.

One of the best things about this writing process is the opportunity to interact with thoughtful people and, from that, to reformulate and clarify my thoughts.

In a recent conversation someone remarked that if Jesus came to take away our sin then isn’t being without sin what it means to be in right relationship with God?

In a nutshell, No.

For sin is not so much “stuff we do wrong against God” as anything that takes out of right relationship with ourselves, others, our world, and particularly God.

Perhaps a comparison will help.  Take Steve Brown’s book, Three Free Sins: God’s Not Mad at You.  For Brown we have “3 free sins” because nothing—nothing—Christians do can separate us from God (and God’s love) because of Christ’s death on the cross.  But I am saying that nothing can separate anyone—anyone, Christian or no—from the love of God because of who God is.

Putting it another way, not acting, thinking, or being of a disposition that distances us from God is not the same thing as being in right relationship with God, just as knowing about God’s love is not the same thing as being in love with God, and having all of one’s orientations informed and directed by one’s love.  Right acting—obedience—is essential for right relationship between humans and the Christian God but is not the relationship itself.

For example, the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15) did all the “right things” and yet was not in right relationship with his father, his brother, or even himself.

Why?

Because he lacked love.  He was completely obedient—he had done everything right—yet he was not rightly disposed towards his father, his brother, or himself.  And this was made clear by his response at his brother’s homecoming.

The error here is that there are two categories that are integral to God and essential to Christianity: love and truth.  In my experience, evangelical Christians typically set truth over love while liberal Christians set love over truth.  Neither works (though we’ll put that discussion on hold for now).

So I would say that we have “no free sins,” because every act, disposition, thought, etc. that puts me into improper relationship with myself, my fellows, my world, and with God is moving me further from my goal and not closer to it.  For what is the goal of one who is in love?  It is to be with the beloved, to be close to that one, engaged with that one.

So it is not a question of “what will be held against us” or of God loving us less on account of our wrongdoing.  Rather, it is a question of who we are and where we are versus who and where we long to be as those beloved of (and in love with) God.  In this context sin is not something that counts against us but that which, to whatever degree, keeps the lover from the beloved.

The pivotal point is this:

It is not only that God loves me but that I love God, because the fitting response to love—by one who in truth knows me more truly that I know myself and who, in love, loves me more deeply than I love myself—is love.

So sin is important, but the primary focus is that God loves us, God desires us, and longs to hear our voices.  And when I sin, I cannot love / relate to / be with God as I long to.

In this sense, then, we come full circle in that we fulfill a command (“Love the lord your God”) that is our greatest command and yet which is our greatest joy to fulfill.  And indeed, how much more could the “law be written within my heart” (Jer 31:33) than that it is my greatest joy to fulfill my greatest command? (NRSV)

Hell is… good?

 

Eternal damnation is good, because God is good.

For Christians like John Piper, God alone defines goodness, such that something is not good and so God does it.  Rather God does a thing, and so it is good.  Thus integral to questions about Hell is deciding (and how we decide) who God is, and deciding (and how we decide) what constitutes goodness.

Some Christians describe Piper’s perspective as a ‘high view’ of both Scripture and God’s sovereignty.  This high view amounts to prioritizing Scripture as the exclusive informer on this issue and, typically, identifying God exclusively as a sovereign or king.

Interestingly, for many Christians the “exclusivity” here is neither an option nor even a conscious choice, but is simply what is: their culture offers no other options, or excludes other options as (nearly) heretical.

Piper’s position (and the ‘high view’ of scripture that undergirds it) is thus handy because it intellectually “solves” any apparent contradictions with how God acts (or fails to act) and our understanding of God as infinitely good.  For Piper “it’s all good” with God, including Hell.

The problem is that intellectual solutions do not necessarily equate with either personal solutions or actual, real solutions.

More pointedly, Piper and others would insist that we take ourselves ‘out of our skin’ (or else harden our skin to rock) so that we do not feel loss as loss or hurt as hurt, and so do not perceive the notion of eternal punishment for finite actions as sadistic injustice.

The problem is that Piper is playing on one register while ignoring the other, and this in two ways.

On the one hand, he is taking a thoroughly modernist approach in prioritizing reason above the emotions, senses and other faculties.  For our emotions and senses clearly offer valuable information in everyday life (both to supplement and, at times, correct our reason) and are depicted in the Bible as essential to understanding God—humans are called to “taste” and “see” God’s goodness!

Thus true human understanding requires the use all our faculties that, for Christians, are God-given.

On the other hand, the exegetical basis on which Piper stands is remarkably one-sided.  By depicting God as primarily sovereign he ignores great swathes of the Bible that portray God as father and parent.  Re-stating Colin Gunton’s point, Piper is prioritizing the will to love.

Ironically then, by viewing God primarily as sovereign (with the goal, perhaps, of defending God’s ‘full divinity’) Piper denigrates our God-given humanity through falsely reducing us to rational beings who act according to our wills.  Even more ironically, this also strips God of so much of God’s own character, for God is love.  Piper’s position at best ignores this crucial point, at worst it imperils it.

For example, many people have abandoned Christianity because the goodness of God is contradicted by eternal, unending suffering just as it is when God doesn’t “show up” in the face of the hurt, loss, or evil in human existence.

Yet Piper’s view only compounds the issue because, according to his ‘high view’ of Scripture, God doesn’t need to “show up.”  To insist on such would reduce God to a puppet, not a king.  And on the injustice of eternal punishment, Piper and crew would likely side with St. Anselm: humans merit infinite, eternal punishment because they have transgressed an infinite majesty.

No, not so.

What I want is not a God who (purportedly) makes sense as a construct, but who loves me in ways that make sense in (and through) my lived existence—a God before whom I can sing and dance, and that I can adore as my children adore me: with joy.  Because no matter how powerful, clearly understandable, and awe-inspiring this God may be, I won’t bow to a tyrant—I won’t worship a beast.

We need a God who answers not with words, but with God-self; who answers not just our cries (or criteria or critiques) but ourselves.  Nothing less will do.

Tribal churches and “Relationship”

 

I recently approached a friend that is a pastor and told him that I was sad that weren’t spending time together.

My friend offered this explanation: “I’ve made mistakes before in ministry—given too much energy to the church and had none for my family.  So now I make sure I give my family what they need.  But I only have energy for them and the church, not for friends or even my family of origin.”

While disappointing to learn I could no longer spend time with my friend, it was also troubling and made me wonder if this was related to the phenomenon of tribal churches.  Several points are relevant.

First, the chief value in a tribal church is uncritical acceptance (of certain people, practices, and ideas).  Such a church is naturally averse to conflict, though this is typically expressed as valuing “Christian unity.”

In tribal churches ‘unity’ is maintained by avoiding contentious situations, so anti-intellectualism wins out (over critical investigation) as does conformity (over diversity).  Further, as anti-intellectualism and conformity become normative, such churches both cultivate and attract dullness and a lack of creativity.

Second, because in a tribal church members already have all the answers (and so have no need of truth-seeking), and because the prominent role of acceptance means that dialogue (and the contentious issues it can raise) is eschewed, the tribe can only approach outsiders in one of two ways.

The typical approach would be charitably to condescend to outsiders: “We have the truth, will you not listen?”  However, tribal churches also use another method: overwhelming outsiders with ‘goodness.’

Now arrogance is understandably problematic, but goodness?  Surely this is just the orientation that one would look for in a church.  What issue could be taken with it?

Take my pastor friend for instance.

My observation is that he exerts so much effort for new and existing church families that he effectively “spends himself” on their behalf and has nothing left for his parent, his siblings, or even close friends.

Now love is the epitome of ostentaciousness, and love  functions according to an “economy” of superabundance: of giving, and giving more.  Yet my friend’s actions deviate from this example.

On the one hand, “superabundance” does not mean that I have to reduce my love for X so that I can give some to Y, just as parents do not love their first child less when the second arrives.  Rather, their love grows so that they love all their children more.

Also, even where the other is incapable of meeting my needs (e.g., infants cannot understand a parent’s need for a break), loving another is based in self-love.  So I take breaks, enjoy my friends and family because I love myself as part of loving another!

On the other hand, selfless exertion has more in common with the freneticism of need: the need to prove (or prove oneself worthy of) something.  It thus makes the other into an instrument—an object—that I use to obtain my real goal, rather than the person being a goal in him/herself.

In such situations a person’s identity does not matter—even the special people that God may put in our paths, like one’s parents, one’s siblings, and one’s closest friends are not prioritised.  Instead, it is their conduciveness to my goal that counts.

———-

If you walk into my friend’s church, the word you see most is “relationship.”  But if this is the goal, what does it mean that he has no peer relationships (with friends or siblings) and that he stands atop the hierarchy of all the relationships within the church (i.e., he is ‘pastor’ to everyone)?