Easter’s next Sunday, people. Easter’s every day.
Easter’s next Sunday, people. Easter’s every day.
Last night we wrapped up a few weeks look at what we were calling “practical spirituality” by examining the scripture’s teaching on how to forgive. Next week, Lord willing, we’ll begin a study through the letter to the Hebrews, and maybe when we’ve worked through Hebrews we’ll get back to a few more weeks of the practical spirituality studies. Anyway, here are the notes from last night:
We saw last week, as we studied prayer, that Jesus singled out one issue in particular that seems to especially affect our ability to relate to God in prayer—the issue of forgiveness. (See Matthew 6:12-15 and also Mark 11:25-26 (where Jesus says, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive.”) So forgiveness (that is, learning how to forgive people, and actually being a forgiving person) is a centrally important thing to being able to walk as followers of Jesus and live truly spiritual lives.
Here is one of those areas where we see an important difference between what most people think of when they talk about “spirituality” and what a Christian experiences when they live a spiritual life. Most people outside of Christianity think spirituality is a personal (even private) thing. But in the Bible the Holy Spirit teaches followers of Christ that true spirituality is essentially relational—that is, it only comes from a right relationship with God, and it can only be truly lived out as we experienced healed relationships with the other people in our lives. True spirituality is in that sense communal—it is about a new family God is creating, where he is the king, father and head. He’s giving this new family a kingdom—and in that kingdom everything depends on everyone being changed by his own love. So if we ever get tempted to think that forgiveness and reconciliation in relationships is no big deal, we’ve fundamentally misunderstood what God is all about in saving us. We can’t ignore and destroy our relationships but just be excited to go to heaven. And we can’t neglect reconciliation with those around us (especially other believers) just so we can get on with the real work of “serving Jesus” or something like that. No, this is the real work, or at least, this is one of the main things we can’t ignore if we really want to know God and live our lives following Christ.
Theological and Historical Background: First, we need to remember that when we read Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness, he is operating with a certain view of the world that most people around us don’t share. That view is the one found in the scriptures, starting in Genesis 2:17 and 3:7-24, where we see that all of us humans are currently under a death sentence. This is true, first because we’re part of the family founded by Adam, who violated God’s commands and brought down the sentence of Genesis 2:17 (“in the day you eat of it you shall surely die”), and second because we’ve all personally sinned and become guilty ourselves. Thus, Romans 3:10-23 is true of all us us—we’ve all offended God and are justly under the penalty of his wrath.
But…God is patient and forgiving. The whole world continues to exist because he’d rather reconcile, fix and heal than destroy and walk away. Everything waited through the long years of human evil so that Jesus could come in the right time. When he came he provided a way to fix it all, and also demonstrated that God wasn’t simply looking the other way as people used his good world to do such evil things. So when we find commands to forgive in the scripture, we have to realize first that everything we do is in a world made possible by someone who is patient and forgiving. We owe our life to God’s big heartedness.
So, how do we actually learn to forgive?
Read Luke 6:27-38.
Read Luke 7:47-50
Read Matthew 18:15-20 (Note: Forgiveness does not mean that sin cannot be dealt with. Christians are called to confront sin when it is injuring the church or others. This passage also teaches that forgiveness can look different based on what relationship is involved, and may still involve a change in the relationship.)
Read Ephesians 1:7 and 4:32
Notice the movement: We live in forgiveness, offer it to others.
The Process: Learn these things. Remember them when you need them. Pray for the Spirit’s help. Obey – what physical thing can I do to show forgiveness?
Summing it up, and seeing the Gospel of forgiveness: Read Luke 23:33-34
The center of the Christian message is right here—that the only true God is the one who came as Jesus Christ in order to let humans kill him—all so he could secure a just and real forgiveness for them. If you don’t know this God, and follow this Jesus, what forgiveness do you have? If you screw up, if you hurt someone, if you do something wrong—how will you ever deal with your guilt or the damage you’ve caused? How will you deal with the God you’ve offended? What about bitterness from what other people have done to you—do you have any answer for it? So many are living their lives totally dominated by pain other people caused them. Only Jesus Christ offers a way forward—and that way forward is to first receive the forgiveness he offers you for all the wrong you’ve done. As that changes you, he’ll show you the freedom of releasing your bitterness by forgiving others. All of us in who’ve experienced this invite you to become a follower of this Jesus, and to find true freedom—freedom from eternal guilt, and freedom from life-dominating pain.
This past weekend, in the booklet we used to study through 1 Peter, I included a note on why we spoke about the letter as something that was both written by Peter, and–at the same time–God’s word. How do Christians conceive of this being possible?
The answer to that question is found in one of the most interesting and fascinating parts of Christian doctrine, the doctrine of inspiration. Seriously, after the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, this has to be top on your list. Anyway, for any of you who’ve never thought through this before, here’s the section from the booklet, which is taken from the Truth on Campus booklet you can download here.
HOW DOES THE BIBLE WORK?
OR, HOW CAN IT BE THE WORDS OF A HUMAN AND GOD AT THE SAME TIME?
You are a totally unique kind of being in the universe. You are a human, and a human is that kind of creature who—by definition—can be in relationship to God. Of all the universe, we are the one part God talks to. (This idea was suggested to me in Robert Letham’s book The Holy Trinity. He quotes an author named Alar Laats, who says this: “A human person is one who is in principle open to the Holy Spirit and who is able to respond to him. Or to put it in other words: a human person is the one who can in principle be in communion with God.” How can we know this is true? Because of who Jesus is. Letham explains, “If it were not so and could not be so, then Jesus Christ—God and man—could not be one person, for the difference between Creator and creature would be so great that incarnation would not be possible.”)
What does this have to do with the Bible? Well, we can take it one step further: a human is that kind of creature who can be indwelt with the Spirit of God. As Christians so often say: “We have a God-shaped void in our hearts.” To put it another way, God created us to be so close to him that he could actually live in us, permeating our Spirits and uniting us to him. It’s an elevation beyond our wildest dreams—to be in union with the One who made us. And the writers of the Bible say that it is exactly this reality that allowed them to be humans who wrote God’s words.
In a special way through history, some people (first known as the Prophets and later Jesus’ followers known as Apostles) were so in union with God that, at times, what they spoke or wrote were God’s words, even while they were simultaneously their words. In the scriptures we learn that it is God’s Holy Spirit who is the key link between God and man. “We have received…the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God,” wrote the Apostle Paul in a letter to a church in Corinth. This Spirit, Paul says, knows “the deep things of God.” (That’s in 1 Corinthians 2.) “Holy men of God spoke,” the Apostle Peter wrote, “as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21)
Here’s where we may run into, and should solve, an old assumption about the way God and humans relate. Many people seem to have a way of seeing the God-Human connection as a kind of pie graph. The bigger God’s slice gets, the smaller ours gets. When some people talk about the Bible, they seem to assume that the fact that humans were involved means that God wasn’t involved. Or at least, if God was involved, the human part messed up his part. In other words, since people wrote the books of the Bible, it’s not God’s word. But how do we know that humans are, by nature, the kind of beings who cancel out God wherever they are?
It might sound powerful to say “The Bible is man’s word, not God’s,” but do you see the “either/or” thinking here? Why must it be either God or people? Why couldn’t it be both? Maybe there are better ways for us to think about these things. When we truly encounter the Bible, we have that kind of thinking challenged. God is not the kind of God who has to cancel out our humanity when he wants to do or say something. He doesn’t push us aside to get his work done. The whole universe is a theater for God to work in, through, and with us. We are, by nature, the kind of beings who find our highest expression when we are united to, becoming like, and working with our God. And that’s exactly what happened—in a totally unique and never-repeated way—when the Spirit of God indwelt and guided the writers of the Bible. What they wrote was completely their words, and completely God’s words. That’s why, in the Bible, different books and letters and poems by different authors sound different. Each author has a unique touch that shows individuality, exactly as we’d expect from a collection of books written by different people. And yet, all this humanity is no problem at all for God, who seems to like to speak his word in this way. He doesn’t erase the individuality of the authors as they write—he actually seems to use their particular personalities. As Bible scholar Vern Poythress puts it: “We can see that God manifests the infinity of his wisdom and his harmony with himself exactly when his speech resonates with the particularities of the personality of a particular human being. For example, we can see in Paul’s writings the person of Paul…What do we think about this presence of Paul as a person in his writings? Do we think that it harmonizes with inspiration? Is it strange? Some people may be tempted to conclude that such personal expressions, by showing a human side, contradict the divine side. But that sort of reasoning misunderstands human nature, inspiration, and the way in which God’s presence can affirm and take account of human contexts. In fact, once we have come to understand in some measure who Paul is and how he speaks, these personal touches are in full harmony with who God is and how he expresses himself. He speaks in harmony with the person of Paul when Paul is the person through whom he speaks.”
This is what Christians mean when they say the Bible is inspired. Or, as the Apostle Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy: “Every word of scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16).
In seeking to explain how this works when it comes to writing, theologian John Frame explains that inspiration is “a divine act that creates an identity [that is, an exact match] between a divine word and a human word.” If you’ve moved in Christian circles for a while, you might be seeing that this way of thinking about what the Bible is can help address some issues Christians sometimes disagree on—like the extent to which the Bible does or does not contain mistakes. Even in the Christian camp, some people may assume things about God and humanity that make it hard for them to see how God could have given us a clear, error-free book that is at once totally human and completely, perfectly, divine in origin. And yet, once we allow ourselves to be open to a biblical way of thinking about both God and humanity, we see that we don’t have to play the human and divine off against each other. They exist together in perfect harmony.
In other words, the Bible shows us a supreme example of these horizon-opening truths: God exists. He speaks. We can hear and understand. We can know him. He can live inside us. And, even though we won’t be writing scripture (those days are over), when we allow him to rule in our lives, it won’t mean the end of our individuality or personality, but rather the fullest, truest expression of who we are.
If you’d like to download and read the entire booklet entitled “What is the Bible?”, you can find it here.
The other day a friend sent me this blog post by Peter Leithart. He quotes a cultural commentator and psychologist who laments “the infantilization of relationships that technology permits.” What a great phrase! Something to seriously consider: have I let my relationships get “infantilized”–that is, made immature, like an infant–by technology? This psychologist, Leithart writes, warns us about, “The ‘cleaner, less risky, less demanding’ interactions we have with robots or across screens.” He continues:
She is dismayed at how quickly we “settle for the feeling of being cared for and, similarly, to prefer the sense of community that social media deliver, because it comes without the hazards and commitments of a real-world community.”
There is a form of misanthropy at work, a “deep disappointment with human beings, who are flawed and forgetful, needy and unpredictable, in ways that machines are wired not to.” Mediated through technology, we don’t have to deal with the boredom that descends on live conversation; and, in [her] words, “in bits and pieces; it is as though we use them as spare parts to support our fragile selves.”
I’m not aware this psychologist claims to be a Christian of any sort. But don’t you find her analysis accurate? Reading this reminded me of our discussion this past weekend. Those of you who were with us took the time to work through the entire letter of 1 Peter. At one point we were all challenged by Peter’s words in chapter four verses 7-10. Included in this section is Peter’s instruction to “have fervent love for one another, for ‘love will cover a multitude of sins.'” We noted that Peter is giving us direction for what is needed to experience authentic Christian community. This is the kind of community built of relationships which span decades and generations. It’s full of people who know each other well enough to take care of each other and confront each other. And we saw that Peter is telling us that if we want that true, deep kind of community, we need to have a love that can cover the kinds of sinning against us that happens in the experience of real community–that is, the kind of love that can cover those sins rather than nursing grudges which tear relationships apart. Now we’re not talking about hiding or ignoring sin which is exploiting or injuring people at any deep level. We’re talking about all those normal things that happen when people are actually in each other’s lives for longer than a weekend retreat or a short-term missions trip. It’s easy to fabricate a sense of community over the short term–and it can be a beautiful thing. But the real work of living as the body of Christ happens when we’ve been together long enough to get past the extraordinary and into the ordinary–where we have to run into each other’s failings and annoying qualities.
And this is where I find the comments above so insightful. It is exactly this “deep disappointment with human beings, who are flawed and forgetful, needy and unpredictable” which leads people to bail on Church, and leave their Christian community for “greener pastures” when maybe the better thing would be for them to stay. And I think the things which cause this disappointment are precisely the “sin” which Peter says we need to love people through (that is, we need to cover) if we’re going to be able to minister God’s grace to each other (4:10-11). That much is right there in Peter.
The final insight from this psychologist is about something Peter did not deal with in his day–all these devices. Technology can become a pacifier, a way to avoid the real issues and numb the pain from lack of real relationships. It can lead to an unwillingness to put in the effort required to actually stick with people, because we fake relationships with a lot of online connections. If this is true, it’s one more reason to be wary of our Smart Phones, and the kind of interactions they promote–Facebook can kill your church life. Texts can make real conversation extinct. Choosing the easy and fake can make us miss out on the difficult, but real.
Last night we continued our study of the Bible’s practical teaching on how to live the Christian life by looking at how we are taught to pray as Christians. Here are the notes:
1. What Jesus taught us to pray for (Matthew 6:9-13)
2. How to pray:
Christians: If we won’t pray, what does it say about us? God will educate us in how to use this important part of the Christian life. Jesus knew it wasn’t “natural”—that people weren’t born knowing how to pray. SO he taught us. Part of being his follower is embarking on a life-long journey of learning how to talk to God and how to depend on him by praying to him, all the time.
Non-Believers: What do you depend on in life, for your ultimate safety, and as the ultimate guarantee you’ll be taken care of in the end? Who’s there for you? The God who made you, and the Lord who died for you, are calling out to you—God commands everyone everywhere to turn from depending on themselves and trusting in other things, and to look to him as their provider and their sustainer. The bible calls this faith. If you trust him this way, he’ll be your Father. Anyone who refuses to trust him is called out for being a worshipper of idols. The bible is that cut and dry. God calls you to come under his authority and protection. He sent his son to die for us to prove once and for all his love, even for those who are sinful.
Following up on Wednesday’s post, here are some more observations about our cultural moment, in a slightly more academic vein, from Mars Hill Audio, by Ken Myers. I highly recommend taking the time to digest this, and think about its implications. Notice especially how Myers takes Cam Newton’s criticism of media morality, and explains the actual philosophical basis for it all, and what it means for us.
One of the defining characteristics of modern Western culture is that its artifacts, practices, and institutions convey the belief that there is no intrinsic meaning in the universe. In the words of sociologist Daniel Bell, to be modern is to embrace “the proposition that there are no ends or purposes given in nature; that the individual, and his or her self-realization, is the new standard of judgment; and that one can remake one’s self and remake society in an effort to achieve those goals.”
The reigning belief of modern culture is that each individual is the sovereign maker of meaning. Where premodern cultures assumed a Creator and Governor who established cosmic order to which human societies and individuals must conform, modern culture denies the existence of such an order and encourages each individual to assert his or her own order.
This organizing idea of modernity has several prominent cultural consequences. The most dramatic of these is the radical reorientation of the purpose of cultural institutions. Historically, cultural forms served to establish boundaries for belief and behavior based on assumptions about the nature of things. But since there is, for modern culture, no nature of things to guide us, cultural institutions now serve to equip each individual with as much freedom and power as possible so as to assert his or her own account of meaning. Premodern cultures were systems of restraint; modern culture is a system of liberation.
A few weeks ago the Super Bowl happened. In case you’re not familiar with how the game went, Cam Newtown, who had been one of the most dominant players in the whole league, was not able to lead his team to victory. (Incidentally, it’s a bizarre culture we’ve created where we first worship athletes, then immediately harshly criticize them for failure, when we could never do half of what they do. But that’s for another day…) After the game, Cam gave the mandated press conference where he was to answer questions from reporters. Except he really didn’t. His disappointment over the outcome of the game made him unable or unwilling to really be emotionally present for any questions or to give any answers at all.
The criticism Cam receieved for this press conference turned out to be even more intense than the criticism he received for his play during the game. The chorus of professional and amateur writers typed endless stories about how inappropriate his demeanor was. The sense of morality was very strong–here was something clearly wrong!
Now, there was a time when something called “sportsmanship” was esteemed and practiced. Some professional athletes still seem to abide by versions of it. And we could say it was a positive thing–it was kind of a stripped down version of biblical morality which acknowledged the limited importance of sports and the greater importance of other people and realities outside of the game. It led to people being gracious in defeat, and acknowledging the skill of an opponent, even when one ended up on the losing side of things. And it does seem, from a biblical perspective, that it’s too bad to lose this, especially as we witness its alternative. It does seem to be disappearing.
Evidently, Cam ran afoul of the last vestiges of this sense of sportsmanship still hanging around in popular culture. That’s the only sense I can make out of everyone’s criticism of him. Let’s be honest–the same media outlets that push all kinds of morality-discarding material for profit were the same ones who turned around and criticized Cam for his conference. Now this is bizarre. Any number (and all kinds) of infidelities, perversions, and deceits are not to be criticized, and must even be celebrated, but failure to answer questions about a fumble, wearing your hoodie up, and sporting a mopey disposition after a long night–this is just wrong!
Cam, true to form, called everyone out on this hypocrisy. In a press conference the following day, where he had to answer questions about the other press conference (funny, right?), he said:
“The truth of the matter is, who are you to say your way is right?…That’s what I don’t understand. We’ve got all these people condemning, and saying ‘he shouldn’t have done this, that and the third.’
“What makes your way right?…
“I said it since day one: I am who I am. I know what I’m capable of and I know where I’m going. I don’t have to conform to anybody else’s wants for me to do. I’m not that guy.”
See what he did there? He used the number one “truth” our culture affirms, that there are no right or wrong ways of doing anything, and simply, logically, applied them to his press conference. And based on what the media, government, corporate America, and public schools all preach, he would be right! How can the criticism of Cam, coming from the sources it has come from, make any sense? Who are these people to criticize? Do they believe in a moral law to the universe? Does it apply to everything? Does it apply to everyone? Or does it only apply to quarterbacks and post-Super Bowl press conferences?
While we all charge headlong into the brave new world where we create meaning and morals for everything–in the moment, from scratch, according to our moods–maybe we should stop and think about some of the things we’re losing. And if we think sportsmanship and nice media moments will be the only casualties, we’re living in a fantasy.
Let Cam Newtown explain the reality to us. We in the West are in the process of losing everything–and all ability to evaluate or criticize or shame any behavior. As Christians in this cultural moment, we need to help our friends see this, and all its implications. Are we really ready to live in a world where nothing can be called wrong? And if not, if we want to hang on to some cherished bits of the former morality–by what right do we hold on to those? Who are we to say which way is right?
Only Christians hold the answer–the message that there was a man who proved his right to define the universe to us. He told us what was right. He said it was the height of folly to ignore him. And that man is coming again soon, when he will be the judge of all athletes, all actions, and all flesh.