I actually remember the time when it dawned on me that God had 'invented' color and music...
I grew up with a notion of God as a Judge (as many people in the western world do--sometimes courtesy of popular media portrayals of Him, and sometimes courtesy of lifeless religious groups), and as I came into a relationship with Him, through Jesus, in college, this image began to soften...God's "edges" became softer, and His intentions became warmer, and His dictates became more 'reasonable' (smile)...
But the moral world of absolute black and absolute white (or absolute yes and absolute no) persisted...and so I assumed that reality at its core must also be such stark non-colors...
Then, as a young seminarian (working, married with 2 kids at the time--therefore surrounded by the 'real world'...tired smile) I somehow got into thinking thoughts in the 'natural theology' realm. In natural theology you 'work backward' to the Creator, from the nature of the Creation. (...As 'opposed' to revealed theology, in which you start with the cognitive disclosure of God in history.) The world was rational, because it was created by a God who liked order and reason. Language and communication existed because it was architected by a God who liked people to communicate. "Society" was engineered into our very efforts to survive (i.e., humans cannot survive in the wild--a baby takes years and years of care from a social group before it can contribute much to its own survival). So, I started pondering the structures of the world and creation, in order to ascertain things about my God.
And one day, I bumped into the existence of color...I realized that the riot of color that makes up our world--the gold of poppies, the crimson of a rose, the blue of summer sky, and the golden dance of the sunset-told me something about my God, too. He could easily have made a universe of all grays or all greens or all whatever, or He could have created the world in color but made eyes which only saw one shade...
But He did otherwise...and we are confronted with a matrix of brilliant, sensual, arresting colors...I learned something about the beauty (and color!) of God's heart that day...of His love for beauty...of His heart to share that with us...
And, it was only a matter of minutes until I realized that the same thing applied to music...a world in which music was present in the very structure of physics and mathematics and in the very instincts of the tiniest songbird...a world in which music-in every culture-moves the soul perhaps more than any other element of our sensory landscape...
Of course, it was a short step from there to the fragrance of honeysuckle, or flowers, or spring rain, or sea breezes, or lilac, or jasmine or...to the touch of silk and cool water and warm fires...
This range of sensory 'opportunities' seemed gratuitous (in the best sense of that word!), relative to strict "survival needs", and it dawned on me why we started out in a Garden...
And God, whose heart launched a billion colors, and thousands of aromas, and untold melodies suddenly made ME appear like the colorless, tone-deaf, and muted-sense person by comparison...His life was vivid, His life was a charging wave of color and joy, His life was a fountain of beauties both simple and complex...
God never quite seemed the 'same' after that day...
I wrote somewhere else on the Tank this:
"A wise old Bible teacher once told a story of a bright, young student who was worried about losing his faith over some Bible difficulty he had been agonizing over for some time. The professor kindly admonished the student with a simple "Son, why are YOU trying to hold the ROCK up, instead of letting the ROCK hold YOU up?!"
There is a powerful reality hiding in this simple story and it is this: any relationship (with God especially) worth having is one that contributes to life, not drains it off (remember Jesus; "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath"?)...
When I am challenged by some atrocity in my experience, sometimes it is easy to see my way through it. Often this involves giving God "the benefit of the doubt" (see below). But sometimes the challenge is so difficult that there is no way to calm myself down (smile)...I have to run to the Lord and cry for help.
There have been a couple of experiences in my life this past year (2000) in which the crushing weight of some event or crisis seemed beyond endurance, and when the challenge was beyond my ability to 'focus my faith' or 'gird up my loins' or 'grit my teeth in stubborn trust', I instead went and sat down on a stair step in my apartment and told Jesus I needed Him to just sit by me there...I would sit on the stairs, trembling in pain and fear, overwhelmed to the point of not even being able to pray or think...only weeping and sobbing and groaning there, counting on Jesus' presence-sitting on the steps with me-to give me my next breath. And He always was there, holding me up, guiding my tears, holding up my heart through it all, and washing my soul with the beauty of His peace and comfort when it was time to stand up and move forward again.
I didn't try to hold the Rock up, but relied totally on the Rock to
hold me up (and hold me together, too---obviously). And the same applies
to challenges of doubt, of difficult decisions, of moral uncertainty...we
count on our Lord to be the ground of our faith, not our faith to the ground
of our Lord.
Our confidence in God's goodness or power or even presence/existence, in some cases, will undoubtedly be challenged by circumstances-just like in any personal relationship.
Consider a personal relationship of commitment.
The longer you know somebody, and have interacted with them, and the longer they have demonstrated commitment/love toward you, the more likely you are to give them the benefit of the doubt in cases where their (unexplained) actions seem incongruous with what you know about them.
For example, if your loving spouse of twenty years left you a handwritten note that sounded completely out-of-character (to the point of even sounding 'mean'), you would likely assume you misunderstood them, and would ask them what they meant by it at the next opportunity (the "help me understand" request). But, in the time between getting the 'incongruous' note and getting the explanation (later), you would likely just suspend judgment as to what the note meant. The dissonance between perhaps a negative understanding of the note and the positive pattern of interactions over two decades is 'noted' and perhaps even agonized over, but is not 'large enough' to convince you that you have radically misunderstood your spouse's heart.
And, in the modern world of store-and-forward communication, you would likely leave the "help me understand" requests on their voicemail, email, or pagers, in hopes of shortening the time you were in the "in between with no answers" zone.
But two things would get you through this: (1) the solid pattern of positive data about your spouse's attitude towards you; and (2) the explanation by them of what they 'meant to say' when they finally are able to answer your question. You rely on two things: their revealed character, and your expectation that they will explain it adequately (and commensurately with two decades of experience).
Depending on our depth of history with the Lord (as with our depth of history with another human), we will give the 'benefit of the doubt' to Him, when the data of an immediate experience seems to contradict the data of our prior patterns of experience with Him. When it gets tough, we quickly start asking the "help me understand" questions in prayer, but in that 'in between' zone we often have to look to our past history with God-that He has proven Himself good-hearted to us, in both general history (e.g., dying on the Cross, giving us the Word of Life in the Bible) and in our personal history (e.g., answered prayer, comfort in suffering, character development). God has an "audit trail of grace" in our lives and we are justified in giving Him the benefit of the doubt.
But of course, we will keep 'forwarding' our 'help me understand' requests, which He often will answer after some time period (some later than others, obviously!). But every time we DO see the answer later, this also builds a reason to give God the benefit of the doubt-because He has repeatedly explained how a seemingly out-of-character experience did indeed make sense (when seen from a wiser perspective).
So, in times of difficulty and dissonance (and even sometimes, periods of dryness can fall into this category), I have to keep reminding myself to give the Lord the benefit of the doubt. I have seen the beauty of His character for too long, and have seen Him answer too many "help me understand" questions in wise and wondrous ways.
The scripture consistently challenges us to 'walk as Christ did':
By this we know that we are in Him: 6 the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked. (1 John 2.5f)
For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you (John 13.15)
For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps (1 Pet 2.21)
Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. (Matt 16.24)
You became imitators of us and of the Lord (1 Thess 1.6)
Wherefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God. (Rom 15.7)
When I was a new (and certainly in the zealous-without-knowledge category) believer, I assumed that 'following Christ' included all the external aspects of His life: becoming an itinerant preacher, living off the donations of traveling companions, not staying in one place very long, living from day to day, not going to 'college', not marrying, not having a job (or even maybe quitting one to 'step out on faith'), and the such like. And I struggled with my inability to do all those things, especially at first.
Then later, the problems in this position became apparent-was I supposed to move to Israel? Go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel? Become a carpenter? Base some traveling ministry in Capernaum (now non-existent)? Find a Jewish blood donor and get a transfusion?
Or what about the contradiction-Paul told me to become like him (a tentmaker?) yet I was also supposed to become like Jesus (a carpenter?)...Did this imply two jobs? But Paul didn't seem to be a carpenter...and Peter and James and John didn't take up carpentry instead of their vocation of fishing...
So I began to see that 'walking as He walked' might NOT involve the kind of 'incidental' aspects of His life, and maybe not even of His ministry. For didn't Paul go 'solely' (or at least mainly) to the Gentiles-a completely 'different' ministry from Jesus and Peter to the Jews (cf. Gal 2.7,8; Rom 15.8)?
But surely the "giving everything up" was part of what was needed to be imitated, especially selling all you own-like He told the Rich Young Ruler to do (Luke 18.22), wasn't it?
But maybe not-Zaccheus was accepted at only half of his possessions (Lk 19.8), and Joseph of Arimathea was clearly a disciple, although wealthy. Maybe it had to do with our personal false gods, and individual god-displacing addictions, and carefully guarded personal caches of significance.
And Paul specifically told the Corinthian believers to "stay in the circumstances in which you were called" (1 Cor 7.17ff), which for some would involve honestly-earned or inherited material wealth/position (1 Cor 1.26)
And so, as I returned to the various passages that enjoined Christlikeness
upon me, I noticed they all dealt with matters of the heart, with special
reference to (a) compassion/love/service for others [cf John 13.15]; (b)
qualities of grace [e.g., 'the meekness and gentleness of Christ'-cf. Matt
11.28,29 and 2 Cor 10.1]; (c) non-pretentiousness and non-arrogance [cf.
Phil 2.5]; and (d) attitudes toward personal suffering [cf. 1 Peter 2.21].
So, I stopped beating myself up about being married, in graduate school, with a computer science job, living in a rental home, and not being targeted by religious assassins...and I started beating myself up for my shallowness of outreach and aggressive love, insensitivity to the suffering of others, my preferences for the comfortable world of theology and 'cognitive truth', and my lack of progress at having a heart of life and hands of action-like His.
This was an odd lesson for me, and one that I have to re-learn occasionally.
The Lord is working in my life to transform me into a living replica of the heart, perspective, and responses of the Lord Jesus, and some areas of my life are either more 'resistant' (smile) to His gentle and gracious efforts, or simply require more time-in-life to mend. The result is very real to me: I can easily get impatient with my growth, frustrated in my still-dug-in personal limitations, and/or discouraged even as to if God is working AT ALL in my life(!).
In times past, I could get really, really frustrated and discouraged about this, and would even question the reality of the faith (or sometimes a milder form-the reality of MY faith!). Given my earlier temperament, this could affect me negatively for days, and have my heart tied up in knots for stretches of time.
Over time, though, I noticed a few things from scripture:
1. Paul consistently thanked God for His demonstrable work in the lives of "everyday" Christians (like me), yet he would still pray and work for their progress in maturity.
2. Paul could call himself the "chief of sinners" and yet still tell the believers to "imitate" him.
3. Scripture affirmed that God was working in me all the time
4. Scripture taught that the trials and sufferings of my life were carefully orchestrated/allowed by God specifically to grow my character into the type of person I have always wanted to be
I remember, as a new Christian in college, my preacher Nap Clark telling us in the pews of that church that God was doing everything he could--at that very moment-to transform us into the image of His dear Son. The first time I heard him say this, I remember thinking "Hmmm, I don't feel anything and I don't see any changes happening"...and the truth became obvious to me: So much of the change is foundational and structural, and doesn't become visible until some incident triggers a response that reveals it. Plus, God works on the deep stuff first (typically) and then uses those deep changes as elements in changing 'easier' things later.
The result is that I realized that I am a mix of various 'initiatives' by God. He is working on numerous parts of my character, no doubt, and these separate 'change processes' are all at different stages of progress. Some processes have already finished, and others can see these changes in my life (and often, I can too). Some processes are partially done, and others/myself can see sporadic victories in that area, although I myself can also see that more ground has yet to be covered.
And some processes either don't seem to be making progress, or don't seem to have started, or maybe even seem to be going in the wrong direction! Sometimes it almost seems like I'm getting worse in a certain area. But often, upon reflection, I can see that the data is otherwise-I actually am making a little progress, and part of that progress is in a heightened sensitivity to that issue.
[Sometimes I have also noticed that the 'old nature' (e.g., habits, perspectives, preferences) accelerates its resistance as progress starts appearing, and I am reminded by the Galatians 5 passage: "the flesh and the spirit war against one another", and thereby encouraged that at least the battle is on!]
Romans tells us to think 'soberly' about ourselves (Rom 12.3), and the Christian is called to be honest, truthful, and to look deeper than the surface (cf. 2 Cor 10.7). Accordingly, it is dishonest to not admit what God has already done in our character, in our relationships, and in our lives. This, I might add, is not simply a matter of honesty-we are supposed to give thanks for these things! This is not boasting at all, but rather a celebration of God's gracious victory in our lives. He fills our mouths with songs of deliverance (Ps 32.7), even when the 'enemy' is us!
In truth, we are not to consider ourselves 'higher' OR 'lower' than what we are at any given moment...Just as I am supposed to accept others as they are (a work-in-progress), so too I can accept me as I am (a work-in-progress also)...
So, I am a bundle of successes, successes-in-the-making, and projects-not-yet-started...and, since the Scripture seems to be patient with people like me, perhaps I should learn from that and be patient with myself...Now, I certainly still get frustrated sometimes over personal limitations and works-in-progress, but I have learned to stop wasting time wallowing in self-contempt, and instead get up, thank God for the progress/successes in other areas, and then go ahead and thank Him that even this difficult area will improve-thanks to His gentle craftsmanship.
I won't be perfect the second before I die, but I WILL be better than I was a year earlier...
And besides, patience is one of the aspects of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5.22f), and there's no reason not to 'use it on' myself...(smile)
[Needless to say, you have to be careful here that 'patience' doesn't
turn into complacency or lack of urgency about growth, transformation,
development...these are all part of the disciple's life and calling, and
patience is not an excuse to avoid obedience!]
Growth is different from simple change.
Growth includes the notions of development and unfolding and a basic plan/architecture (e.g., genes). It is an organic notion, one in which the various elements are part of a functioning whole. It implies continuity with something in the past, and a basic 'family resemblance' between the end and the beginning.
Growth also, in complex organisms, includes the possibility of disequilibrium-where some growth processes are out-of-synch with others, creating imbalance and awkwardness occasionally.
This can be seen in pre-school children particularly (in the 2-5 year old age groups), in which each successive six month periods are alternating periods of disequilibria and consolidation. In periods of consolidation, the processes all 'arrive at the same place, at the same time' and the result is a balance in behavior and temperament.
Notice that growth can be pathological, if the process is invaded or usurped by negative elements (e.g., cancer, mutation), or if deprivation of important nutrients occurs (e.g., water, light, food). In some cases, lack of exercise/usage of new elements can lead to atrophy, and stunted growth.
Growth always brings a higher level of definition and detail and robustness to the organism ("you" are more "you" as you grow...)
The end result is not PURELY a function of the internal design (e.g., "genes") but is also influenced by interactions with external factors (e.g., environment, people, ideas, experience), and can be influenced by our individual choices (e.g., we can CHOOSE what things we allow ourselves to come in contact with on a regular basis). In other words, there is often enough "play" in the basic design to allow individuation to express itself in several different ways (within the range of possibilities laid out by the DNA-like blueprint).
Growth is sometimes also imperceptible, in situations where the growth is so slow or "under the surface"...we use time-lapse photography to watch flowers open/close, or the moon to rise, or fields to bloom.
Christian growth has a similar set of dynamics and elements. The internal plan is what the bible calls the "new self" in us. It is fed and influenced and nurtured by the Holy Spirit in us, by our contact with the image of Christ in our experience (e.g., the Word, Christ-displaying believers, God's patterns in history). It can be influenced (positively or negatively) by what we choose to 'hang around with', and it is often imperceptible. And its goal is a complete level of definition-maturity, complete conformity to the beauty of His heart, robustness of expression, and what the bible calls "fullness"...
What was important to me about this notion of growth was that the process was organic and that it took time...I had earlier looked at it more mechanically ('plug and play' or 'engineering changes') or perhaps more process-oriented (e.g., action items required to achieve some goal). Although behavioral changes are sure to accompany growth, and sometimes are part of the growth 'influences', growth IS NOT a simple matter of learning to "do some different things"...legalism can do that, and suffers greatly for it...
No, in the case of Christian growth-from God's gentle and quiet and gracious activity within our hearts and lives-our hope is NOT in our strength to be able to 'get the tasks done' but rather in His new-life power working within our personal existence...
This, of course, gives us a freedom to 'relax' and see God's great work
in our hearts, as we simply 'partake' of the nutrients and sunshine and
direction we see in the experiences of others. This kind of organic, natural,
time-taking growth seems to be the type of experience Jesus described in
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."
Growth is a beautiful thing to watch and see, and we can rejoice in expectation of a lifetime of such growth-because of His tender care, nurture, and 'husbandry' of us (cf. John 15)...smile
Theology as clear as the stratosphere (and twice as cold)...
The stratosphere is a layer of the atmosphere that starts around 12 miles above the earth and goes up to about 30 miles. It is essentially cloudless and very sparse. The famous Ozone Layer is in the stratosphere.
Needless to say, the stratosphere is very clear. There is essentially no weather there (75% of the mass of the atmosphere is in the bottom 7 miles of the atmosphere-called the troposphere). The ozone layer is quite clear, and visibility in the stratosphere is excellent.
But it is also very cold there...at the place where you would enter it from the ground, the average temperature is around -70 degrees Fahrenheit...
Some people's theology is a little like that too...clear and lucid and spotless and without 'turbulent weather'-a neat and tidy doctrinal 'system'...They have all the bugs worked out, all the difficult passages 'smoothed over', all the exceptions explained...
But the theology produces no tears, no blood, no sweat...and no celebrations of thankfulness, on the part of recipients of its action.
In popular terms, we sometimes talk about this in terms of "heart versus head" knowledge, or we refer to Paul's dictum "knowledge puffs up, but love builds up". James would call this 'dead faith', and Paul might allude to preoccupation with "quarrels and controversies".
I have been in theological discussions that seemed so sterile (some begun my me, of course...duh), and so detached from God's passionate actions in history to rescue people, that it numbed me and seriously made me wonder if there was any connection between the two...I remember the theological 'correctness' of the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10)...or those ready to stone the adulteress in John 8...or the exactitude of the Pharisee's tithe of the garden herbs-at the expense of justice, mercy, and goodness (Mt 23)...
I remember a story a teacher told our class, about an executive who was going away on a long trip. He carefully wrote down all the instructions for all the tasks that he wanted down in his absence. He entrusted the instructions to his employees, so they would carry on the work/service of the organization in his absence.
When he returned, he found that nothing had been done! When he called the employees together to ask them why they had not followed the instructions, they weakly explained, "well, we've been STUDYING your instructions all this time, to TRULY understand your perspectives and wisdom...we've studied your background, your history, your language-to get the FULL meaning of your instructions..."
To be sure, we are called to meditate and ponder and study diligently the Word of God...but that is not the end in itself...the end is to walk as He walked, to love as He loved, to weep and comfort as He wept and comforted, and to celebrate and enjoy as He celebrated and enjoyed...to move the Kingdom forward, to cause thanksgiving to increase, to sow grace and reap new life from new hearts...
I learned to ask myself-what difference does this theological point make?...What do I need to do differently because of it?...What action do I need to be prepared to take, in light of it?
Paul prayed for theological knowledge for the Philippians, so that knowledge
could help them separate the "best" from among all the "goods"...[Remember
the old saying-"never let the good keep you from the best"]: And this
is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and
depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best
and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, 11 filled with the
fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ-to the glory and
praise of God. (Phil 1.9ff).
The various words for 'glory' in the New Testament all have the central notions of splendor, remarkable appearance, brilliant, and sometimes luxurious. Occasionally, it will include a notion of "marvelous"-as that which provokes awe or marvel.
As a young student, I consistently thought about glory in terms of the OT theophanic expressions-the Luminous Cloud at Sinai or the Shekinah Glory (which would dazzle and cause the priests to flee from the Temple/Tabernacle). I consistently assumed that the "Glory of God" referred to His external manifestation of power, splendor, or something equally overwhelming...
Then I had to do a study in seminary on the root word for OT glory (kabod) and was surprised to find it used in cognate languages (and once or twice in the OT) for 'soul' or 'essence' ...its underlying notion was that of heavy or large or severe.
The Greek word used to translate the Hebrew OT word was doxa, which had a range of meanings. Although it could be used of the visible manifestation of God, the NT also adopted the popular sense of "reputation":
"When used ethically to mean "reputation" it always has a positive note. On those occasions when it is used in a visible sense it seems to mean "radiance" and is especially related to the light that radiates from God's presence....From a theological standpoint it is the ethical usage that is most significant. The glory of God, conceived of as the revelation of his character, is the loftiest of truths." [Dr. Robert Cook]
So, when I fast-forwarded from the OT to the NT, I found passages like:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1.14)
This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him. (John 2.11-the miracle at the Wedding)
Then Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" (At the raising of Lazarus, John 11.40)
I have given them the glory that you gave me (John 17.22)
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor 3.18)
For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (2 Cor 4.6)
And I began to understand that God's glory-in the face of Jesus-was the expression of His heart and character...Jesus only was 'radiant' once (the mount of Transfiguration), but John ties His glory to His being "full of grace and truth"...quite a difference from power, awesomeness, and overwhelming appearance/presence...
In the New Testament, God's glory seems to be "harnessed", if you will, to His rescuing work and to the expression of His kindness (instead of His terrifying aspects):
"The radiance of God's many-splendored character is seen in his redemptive work (the gospel), in the life of his redeemed people (the epistles), and ultimately in the triumph of the kingdom of God in history and beyond (the Apocalypse).
And, for me, the verse that had the most impact in transforming my view of God-from something overpowering to something graceful, winsome, and gentle-was Ephesians 1.6:
"to the praise of the glory of His grace"What is the 'glory' of 'grace'? If 'glory' meant something like splendor or awesome beauty or radiance, then this made will-shocking sense...God is revealing His resistance-melting heart, and His confidence-inspiring tenderness, and His "overwhelming" gentleness to us...through the gentleness and meekness of Christ, the Suffering Savior, the model of love...instead of fearful displays, we have an approachable Jesus, who we gladly run to in freedom and acceptance...instead of power, we have love-which multiplies itself through our serving and helping others...instead of distance from a powerful King, we have communion and solidarity with a God who weeps and works for His loved ones...
God's quietness (i.e., His lack of ostensible displays of power and
majesty in plain sight of the world) teaches us to look elsewhere for His
glory-in the hearts of His transformed and freed and celebrating and compassionate
ones...His power at overcoming the deeply-rooted lack of love and loyalty
in humans can be marveled at and 'gloried over' in the faces and lives
of those true followers of the First Lover...