One of the later lessons I learned in my Christian life was about why God made beautiful things.
In the early days, I thought that God made beautiful things solely as a means to reach the world, as a witness to fallen man of God's goodness, as a tool in His plan of salvation.
Indeed, did not Paul mention something like this in Acts 14:17... "Yet He has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy" There is no question that God will use anything at all to witness to people--stones, stars, donkeys, even Gentiles! This was never the question--the question was rather did God ever make something just to be beautiful and pleasing to him.
Then one day I realized that the rain forests in South America and the prairies of Texas, and the jungles of Africa have seen the flowering and fading of thousands upon thousands of flowers. Many of these flowers have never been-- and will never be--seen by human eyes. So why do they come and burst into color?
Since nothing happens without His okay (and He has different 'types' of okays), there must be some reason, and a very probable answer is that God loves beauty in itself. He has staged a sunrise and a sunset every instant of earth's history (not to mention countless more throughout the universe!)--noticed by so few of us, but probably delighted in by Him...
And a little later I realized that some of the things He was doing in my character over the years were NOT NECESSARILY for 'outreach', but because he loved the beauty...and I began to enjoy them as such also...And I also learned a little more about the precious heart of our God...
Eph 2.10--"for we are His workmanship..."
I have two brothers in my family--two incredibly dear souls (if I were sure they would never see this, I would quote Heb 11.38a here...as it stands, they don't have web access yet, so they can't find this anyway!)...One consistently challenges me by the sheer strength and depth of his character/commitment; the other's tenacious purity of heart and integrity are unintentionally a constant reminder of my sporadic failures of heart...
The younger one does technical support in a large public utility firm in the US. His firm recently did a downsizing and re-org, in which the number of positions in his support group went from 70 to 12 (or something like that)...He was, of course, concerned about his ability to care for his family, should he not be selected as one of the 'survivors'.
When the announcement day came, he was indeed selected as one of the 12 to stay, and I called him to hear the good news from him. He was duly relieved and at some point in the conversation, I asked if his new position (which SOUNDED like a promotion) involved more money. His reply burned deeply into my spirit..."No" he replied "but I DO get to serve more people."
[His email signature line, seen by all his 'secular' co-workers, reads "Servanthood starts in the mind with three simple words--'change me, Lord'"]
Our world, our church, our families WOULD never be the same again, if all the serious disciples of Jesus Christ would adopt that attitude every day--EVEN IF JUST FOR A WEEK!
Mark 10:45 -- "for even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but
to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many..."
When I was a brand-new follower of Jesus Christ, I was always searching for the 'key' to the Christian Life...I read book after book, attended meeting after meeting, listened to tape after tape...and all of them were generally good, and all made important contributions to my relationship with my Lord...but none of the approaches worked for longer than 2-3 days before I was 'dry' again.
But I was a child of my western culture (esp. in the 20th century)--I wanted a formula or a technique to be able to 'optimize' or 'manage' my Christian life. I wanted to control it (for noble purposes, to be sure!), but it had the character of a 'thing' or a 'process' that could be factored and analyzed, and then mastered. There were buttons and dials and levers and such, no doubt...
Then one day I realized that maybe my approach to the 'approach' was wrong. Didn't God's provision of manna in the wilderness wanderings only last ONE DAY? Didn't his people have to go out EACH DAY for new sustenance?
And so that night, at a bible study I was teaching, I asked the class to help me fill in the blank to the question "The Key to the Christian Life is _______".
The answers starting coming: Jesus, the Holy Spirit, prayer, devotional life, honesty, forgiveness, faithfulness, obedience, love, faith, commitment, the Bible, fellowship...we came up with at least 25 different things that are necessary, but not sufficient for the task...
As we explored the issue, we realized that the Christian life was NOT 'locked'!--there didn't need to be a 'key'. The Christian life is simply a personal relationship with a living God...there are no 'keys' to personal relationships...there ARE issues that one pays attention to in those relationships (that can impede the relationship) but they do not guarantee success.
And so we learned that on each day, God may need to stress something different--obedience one day, enjoying Him the next...
Every day is a new creation with Him...a new quiet adventure...a new experience of growth...
It REALLY is a lot simpler than we sometimes try to make it!
One of my favorite quotes is from Martin Luther--one of his students asked him one morning what was his 'rule of life'...Luther replied (with his characteristic vigor) "Love God and live as you please!"
I have thought about this for many years...the order of the two phrases are, of course, ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL...you must love God first before you can really trust your 'as you please'ings! But once the relationship with God is characterized by a passion to please Him, then the second clause excites a flame in us for action that can change the world...
So...relax...(his yoke was 'easy' remember - Mt 11.28-30)..."lay back in his love"...roll around in His acceptance...take each day as a fresh "to do" list...
Micah 6:8--He has shown, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD
require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with
When I began approaching the end of my seminary days, I began considering career directions...perhaps even a little too obsessively...I spent considerable amounts of emotional energy in agonizing over the "teacher vs. pastor" dilemma...(even then in my life, I spent considerable time evaluating options I DIDN'T HAVE!)...Some of this is natural, and even more of it was profitable, but the thing that finally brought me back-2-balance was a short walk/talk I had with Him one sunny afternoon...
As I often do, I decided to take a long walk and try to 'talk through' the issues with Him. So, leaving my small family to fend for themselves without me for a few minutes, I started around a 'long block'. I remember vividly the moment when, after arguing in my mind the pros and cons of each alternative, I looked up and asked "do you want be aspire to be a college teacher or to aspire to the pastoral ministry?"...
And then, bubbling up from somewhere deep inside came the still, small, gentle idea (in my own idiom, of course--that seems to be the way He communicates with us sometimes...cf. Psalm 16.7!..)..."why don't you settle for aspiring to be a righteous man?"...
Point well taken, Chair is out of order...
As most serious lovers of God probably do, I think a lot about the problem of evil (both moral and natural)...Under the category of "natural evil" falls the problem of pain and suffering...
The Christian is often confronted with this issue--how can a good God allow this much suffering in the world?
I was pondering this recently, in the context of a dear friend who was suffering severe emotional and mental anguish...In this case it did not have a physical component, but the anguish and suffering were almost overwhelming...
In talking with her about this, I myself was seriously anguished...through what is normally called our 'empathetic abilities'...the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and 'feel' what they feel...In the case of physical pain, this is generally limited; but in the case of psychological suffering, it is VERY well developed by many people.
In this case, I had the 'advantage' of more years and experience than my younger friend, and this had the strange effect of making my experience of suffering PERHAPS greater than her actual experience...I saw ramifications of the situation that she did not...and as many people with developed senses of empathy, those feelings are NOT under my control...as I walk through a supermarket, and I see a parent mentally abusing a child, I cannot but 'hurt' deeply...
I can remember individuals in my life (esp. my mother) who hurt so much more than I did, when it was ME in a situation like that...and I always explained that by their additional 'depth from years' and their personal experience of suffering and their intense sensitivity to my heart...In other words, their suffering was related to how sensitive and caring and experienced they were...
(Even in some physical pain situations, I wonder who really 'hurts more'--the dying child or the parents, all things considered? We know countless examples of people, whose positive attitudes reduced the pain of cancer to "ONLY" the physical, and others whose attitudes contributed equal amounts of grief, bitterness, despair, etc.)
And then I thought about my God...infinite in love, infinite in sensitivity, infinite in experience/wisdom...and I wondered about His sense of empathy...did He have more control over His, than I do over mine?--or Does He 'hurt' with EVERY SINGLE suffering in human experience?!...With His capacity for caring and sensitivity, does this mean He experiences EVERY SINGLE SUFFERING incredibly MORE than even we do ourselves?! Does the 'problem of pain' for mortals become the 'PROBLEM OF PAIN' in His own experience?! Does this mean that His experience of suffering is the bigger problem than OUR experience of this?...Does this mean He hurts more than we do, in our moments of crisis and loss?...
I came away from that thought-track with a new perspective on the 'problem of pain' and a new understanding of our Lord's incredible love...
Isaiah 53.3 "A Man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering..."
There are times in my relationship with the Lord that I am intensely aware of my 'smallness' before Him, most notably in His acts of deliverance and forgiveness. I feel dwarfed in those contexts, albeit in a very warm and secure way...
But I have noticed that in my quiet times and in my one-on-one prayer times, He NEVER makes me feel 'small'. I am very much aware of my finitude and His immensity, but somehow the warmth of His Spirit in me never lets me feel insignificant... I know that I am of precious value and high worth to Him, by virtue of his actions in Christ, but to experience that in times of closeness and communion with Him...is such a testimony to beauty of his heart and the purity of his character and His openness to deep relationships with us. Such acceptance! Such warmth! Such attention from such a God!
"we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand."
I read Isaiah 40.11 the other day:
Isa. 40:11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.And I thought about Jesus the Good Shepherd, and 'all we like sheep have gone astray', and I pictured the image in Is. of God carrying me close to his heart...
The little lamb would not understand the power, or the language, or even the world of the shepherd...but she could sense the warmth of that heart, and the security of that embrace, and the goodness of that soul.
And then I thought of all the animals I have seen on airplanes, being carried along on the trip by their masters. I remember vividly the scenes of the owners putting their dear pets into the little box-kennels, with the fearful nervous eyes of the pet, and the anxious movements ...and all the while, the owner is speaking softly and reassuringly and kindly, in such a way that the pet lies quietly in trust and loyalty in such a strange and forbidding situation.
I think of how, without an understanding (or even a hope of understanding) of the 'why', those animals, in reliance upon a master who loved and cared for them, would quietly trust and wait...still a little nervous, with the sad eyes of questioning, but with the calmness that only comes from a significant and active relationship with their owner.
And then, I though of all the times I didn't get an explanation from MY Master as to a "why"...and probably for the same reason--no way I could understand! Did I respond in trust like that? I certainly am the beneficiary of a great, warm, active relationship with the living God...
Hmmm...needs work, eh?
"The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me." (Ps 23)
We are told in scripture many, many times to 'examine ourselves'--to check our motives, our hearts, our reasons for our behavior and beliefs. (e.g. I Cor 11.28; 2 Cor 13.5)
We are ALSO told to expect 'confusion' when we look inside! The heart is said to be "deceitful above all things" (Jer 17.9) and the mixed character of our motives as illustrated in Romans 8 and Galatians 5 QUITE obvious to the follower of Jesus.
When I put these two things together, especially as an ex-obsessive/compulsive, I realize that the introspective task cannot go on forever, for it will NEVER reach a conclusion. One has, rather, to 'settle for limited objectives' in this process. Introspection must have an end--we do have to 'get back to work' for the Master!
The way this works out in practice for me is this. I DO go looking inside, for my motives and thoughtlife and intentions, but once I have surfaced all the issues and considerations I can find (within some alloted timeframe), I make a judgment, trusting the Holy Spirit to be a subconscious influence on the decision process.
Although I will doubt this decision of faith (a little bit, and a little later), this is par for the course. Our life of faith does NOT eradicate all of the 'confused internals' generated by our two conflicting 'natures/sides' (cf. Gal 5.17). So, no matter how much peace the Lord allows to 'congeal' in my heart about a decision, I can ALWAYS expect at least one 'negative' or 'doubt' voice in there with it. Until I get the eschatological freedom from this confusion of intentions, I know to expect this 'mixed' witness of my heart.
This is NOT to say that the two (or more) "promptings" in my heart are of EQUAL weight. In many cases, a radical difference between the two is the clearest sign of God's will...assuming that I have practiced saying 'NO' to the ethically-negative impulses of my life, over time.
The point is to avoid time-wasting, unproductive, often depressing, and "bottomless" introspection. A healthy awareness of our tendency to moral failure, coupled with the reality of foregiveness "upon request"(!), should limit our need for endless review and examination. We must be honest with our Lord and with our Father--in our examination of our hearts and motives--but we must produce practical levels of confession and then 'get on with life'...
It took me almost ten years to discover the difference betwen contentment (biblically endorsed) and complacency (biblically repudiatiated). And I also discovered that this was related to a version of the "already / not-yet" tension in the Christian experience.
We are enjoined to be content with our circumstances in a number of passages--Phil 4, I Tim 6, Heb 13.5--and this contentment is essentially to be based on the fact that our historical circumstances reflect the current theatre of God's activity in our lives (I Cor 7:17ff).
However, sometimes the ETHICAL situations that we are in may need RAPID changing. If we are in ethical and/or legal relationships and arrangments that are contrary to those ethical directives and guidelines that are BUILT INTO reality (and as disclosed to us by our Loving God), then we should hasten to change those circumstances (e.g I Cor 5.1-5).
This also extends generally to "where we are" in our Christian character and worldview development. In other words, we should be content with the level of character development that God has accomplished in our life to date. [This applies to the POSITIVE areas--we are NOT to be content with persistent and habitual sin in our life, nor to limitations on our positive growth CREATED by deliberate and willful refusal to pay attention to God's instructions.]
In the first year of my Christian life, I ran across this principle in a church sermon. I was sitting in the church pew, and the preacher said something like "The God of the Universe is doing everything He possibly can in your life RIGHT NOW, in His task of conforming your character to the character of His precious Son"...I found this idea to be rather radical--that at any given moment, my Father is working in my life "full time" to make me better! This is IRRESPECTIVE of whether I can see His activity, of whether I can see progress, of whether others can see it. This is one promise of faith I can count on--"being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus".(Phil 1.6)
This is one aspect of the 'already'--I am "already" a source of life in the universe (i.e. a source of negative entropy in historical patterns, ethical manifestation/consistency, character integrity development).
Now, when I couple this thought with the reality that God has been working in my life for some time already, I come to the conclusion that I should give thanks for what he has ALREADY done in my character development. I AM better than I used to be--and I should be HONEST WITH GOD about my progress, and be thankful for the effects of His activity and 'historical engineering' in my life.
I should be 'content' with this progress.
Now, let's switch gears. Most of us have heard the Christian slogan "I am better than I USED TO BE, but not as good as I am GOING TO BE". We have made progress, to be sure, but there is still MUCH MORE progress to be made.
In Philpns 3.10-16, Paul points out that complacency is off-target. We should realize that we have 'attained' a certain success (and that we should never 'slip back' to lower levels of attainment), but that we should 'strive' to make more gains, to grow more, to please Him more, to know Him better--to grow.
We are to be content with our circumstances, WITHOUT being complacent in them. We should be thankful for what He have done in our lives in developing our hearts and wills, but we should aspire to grow more.
We ARE to try and better our circumstances. In the I Cor 7 passage, those called in Greek slavery were to be 'content', but not complacent--Paul told them to pursue their freedom if they had the slightest opportunity (I Cor 7.22), and he himself made an argument to Philemon to free a former slave Onesimus.
Of course, our aspirations of 'better circumstances' have to be spiritually-driven. Aspirations to satisfy our selfish 'cravings' (Rom 13.14; Jas 4.3) won't work, as will neither self-centered political ambitions (Matt 20.20f). We ARE to aspire to the more 'noble' things of life (Philp 4.8).
In summary, we should be thankful and content for where the Lord has brought us, and to aspire to 'go farther' than that. And, when we understand the reality that He HAS already made progress in our lives, we can have a firm hope that the future will see even greater development--our aspirations are NOT merely the 'vain and groundless hope' of those limited to their OWN resources!
This lesson I learned fairly early, although I have had to learn it more than once!
The basic thesis is that God seems to DELIBERATELY 'break out of' my conceptual and expectation grids--in order to teach me that He is GOD!
The first few times this was obvious was in prayer situations in the early days of my Christian experience. I would ask Him for an 'end' and often include a list of 'acceptable means' to that end. He would almost invariably answer the 'end-need' to through some OTHER means--generally 'better' than the alternatives I presented to Him.
Eventually, I learned enough to stop specifying the 'means' and started just asking for the 'ends'--trying to let Him be 'the God' in the deal! But I found I still had 'expectations' in my head as to 'how' God was going to meet the need and answer the request. And, again, He would 'go out of His way' to answer the need, but WITHOUT using the expected means. So I started working on not taking my 'expections' (which I could NOT 'cut off') seriously at all.
I later realized that I was approaching Him "magically" instead of "religiously". In other words, I was trying to manipulate God into obeying me (who was playing "god"--I knew the 'best way' to do stuff, obviously!), instead of trusting my God to meet needs with the bigger picture in mind.
I have seen this tendency to 'box God in' operating in more areas than prayer over the years--in theology, in Christian slogans, in cultural absolutes masquerading as biblical absolutes.
And I am still learning that HE is God--regardless of the 'terms and conditions' I try to place upon His warm and gentle activity in my life.