When I started reading The Good and Beautiful God, I had hoped to blog my way through every chapter. It seemed a reasonable expectation, given that I was only supposed to read a chapter per week. However, though my reading has stayed on pace, the busyness of life has prevented me from blogging about the book, or much else for that matter. I last wrote about chapter two of the book, and today I’m going to skip ahead to chapter 6.

This is the chapter that deals with God’s holiness. When we say that God is holy, what we mean is that he is pure, unstained by sin, and completely other than (meaning above and beyond) anything else in creation, including humanity. One of the most important consequences of God’s holiness is his hatred of sin. Yes, God hates sin. (No, I don’t believe that God hates sinners, but that’s another discussion for another day.) But when we think about God in relation to sin (and, therefore, in relation to us), Smith says that we tend to believe one of two false narratives: 1) We believe that God is in a furious rage at us because of our sin; or 2) We believe that God doesn’t really care about our sin, and is pretty much cool with whatever.

Neither of these stories tell the truth about God, which is that wrath is God’s right(eous) action. So then, what is wrath? The image that comes to my mind is much like that first false narrative–of someone in a furious and destructive rage, completely overwhelmed by their emotions and totally out of control. But God never lacks for self-control, and his wrath, like his love, is not contingent upon his emotions. Just as God’s agape love is his self-willed act to lay down his life, surrender his rights, and forgive sins, so his wrath is his willful act to consistently oppose sin and evil. “God is not indecisive when it comes to evil. God is fiercely and forcefully opposed to the things that destroy his precious people.” (121)

The key insight that I gleaned from this chapter is that wrath is not an attribute of God, but rather a temporary action. God is wrathful as long as sin exists and wreaks havoc on humanity; but when sin is swallowed up in victory, then God will never be wrathful again.


God’s wrath must be understood in relation to his love. Wrath is not a permanent attribute of God. Whereas love and holiness are part of his essential nature, wrath is contingent upon human sin; if there were no sin there would be no wrath. (121)

God’s wrath (remember, not his rage, but his just and pure opposition to all sin and evil) was poured out upon Jesus at the cross. God’s final and perfect judgment of sin and evil occurred in the crucified body of his son. The wrath that we should have received did not rain down upon us because Jesus stood over us. The only shelter from the wrath of God is in the son of God.

So, then, since God has directed all of his wrath against sin and evil toward Jesus, does that mean that Jesus is sin and evil? Yes, but only for a brief time (“God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us”), because God then vindicated Jesus (ruling that he was in the right all along) by raising him from the dead. In the end God’s wrath is only a servant, even a symbol, of his love.

Smith concludes the chapter by writing, “God’s first and last word is always grace.” (127) Amen. Even in the wrath of God we see the extent of his grace, because his son stepped in to receive God’s opposition to sin and evil, to fully satisfy it in his death, to be declared innocent and true in his resurrection, and then to become king over all in his ascension and present reign.

When I was in full-time ministry, I would often lament the fact that all my friends (at least the ones I saw and interacted with on a regular basis) were Christians. This seemed wrong to me for many reasons, not least of which that my life and faith felt too insulated as a result. Being inside of this isolated, relational bubble caused my soul to atrophy, and created an inner detachment from that which I believe to be most true. I imagine that this is true of any tribe or affiliation – whether religious, ethnic, political, or whatever. The more we isolate ourselves from the outside, the more sickly and diluted we become.

I’ve come to conclude, then, that it is good for my soul to have friendships with those outside of my tribe (which is evangelical Christianity). This, of course, means that having friendships with nonChristians is vital for my inner well-being. So, how do I do that? How can a Christian and a nonChristian form a true friendship? Is such a thing possible? Or will there always be some kind of underlying, evangelistic/judgmental/I-don’t-want-to-go-to-your-church tension? I’d like to share a few observations (we can even call them “tips!”) that I’ve made, and picked up from others along the way, for both Christians and nonChristians on this issue of cross-cultural friendships.

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5 Tips for Christians

1. Don’t be weird (unless you’re weird). Sometimes we can get so focused on evangelism that we become awkward around nonChristians, like the geek who somehow gets to dance with the prom queen. We think that one wrong word from our mouths will doom this person to eternal damnation, and so we find ourselves doing and saying ridiculous things because we carry the weight of their potential salvation on our shoulders. But that’s not your responsibility. Each person’s salvation, yours or your friend’s, is based on a relationship between the individual and God, facilitated through Jesus Christ. So relax. Don’t be weird, unless you’re just naturally weird. In that case, be yourself!

2. Shut up and listen. Sometimes the best way to proclaim the Gospel is by making eye-contact and closing your mouth. Listening is a lost art, as it seems more and more that everyone is just waiting for their turn to talk, or “multitasking” by “listening” while looking at their smart phone. In a world of frenetic noise, one of the greatest gifts we can give to another person is to endow them with the dignity of being heard. It’s okay if your friend has a completely different/unbiblical/nonChristian perspective; they deserve to be heard. Listen without arguing. Ask questions so you can more fully understand their life, thoughts, and perspectives. I believe that Jesus can speak as powerfully through sincere silence as he can through even the best sermon. (And that’s coming from a preacher!)

3. Don’t assume that you’re morally superior to your nonChristian friends just because you are saved/have the Holy Spirit. The sad reality is that despite having access to the Creator God through the Holy Spirit, despite knowing Jesus, despite having seven different versions of the Bible on our bookshelves, we Christians simply do not live more noticeably moral lives than our nonChristian neighbors. Perhaps we should all take a lesson from Paul, who at the end of his life said this, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.” If Paul is the worst sinner, then what are you? There is simply no room for self-righteousness in the hearts of those who follow Jesus–nothing could be further from the heart of God. As Paul said elsewhere, “In humility consider others better than yourselves.” I think this is especially important for Christians to grasp and live out in our friendships with nonChristians.

4. Be honest. By this, I suppose that I mean that you shouldn’t try to manipulate your nonChristian friends into becoming Christians. It’s better to just be up front about it in a way that is appropriate to your relationship. After all, honesty is what makes relationship possible. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with telling your friend, “I hope that someday you know and love Jesus as much as I do, because he means everything to me.” What is wrong, in my opinion, is steering and manipulating conversations for the sake of conversion.

5. Don’t feel like you have to own all the crappy baggage of Christianity. We’ve all been through it before. We tell someone that Jesus loves them and died for their sins, and we get a response like this, “ZOMG! BUT THE CRUSADES!” The last Crusade was over 700 years ago. Can we move on, please? “BUT WESTBORO BAPTIST CHURCH!” Well, I don’t go to there. …I’m happy to own all my own baggage, and God knows there’s enough of it to turn anyone away from becoming a Christian just like me. But I don’t feel any sense of responsibility to own things like the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, or fringe churches of which I am not a part. To apologize for things others have done and with which I disagree seems dishonest.

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5 Tips for NonChristians

1. Don’t stereotype your Christian friends. Nobody likes to be stereotyped, and yet sometimes it feels like it’s culturally acceptable to lump all Christians together into one ridiculous caricature. This may come as a surprise to a lot of people, but the average Christian doesn’t look like a white man from Kansas. On a global scale, the average Christian is actually an asian woman. There really is nothing more culturally, ethnically, socially, or politically diverse than Christianity. It’s not acceptable to stereotype other groups, so please extend the same respect to your Christian friends. I’m not saying that you need to pay attention to all the nuances or subgroups of Christianity, but just be aware that there are all kinds of people in the world who love Jesus and have given their lives to him.

2. Be yourself. I’ve often felt like my presence has made nonChristians uneasy because they don’t want to offend me, particularly by their use of foul language. (When you work in the broadcast industry, you hear A LOT of foul language!) While I appreciate the thought, I don’t want to become someone else’s social conscience, and I think a lot of Christians feel the same way. You shouldn’t feel like you have to change who you are when you’re around your Christian friends. While I can’t speak for all Christians, I think it’s safe to say that we want to get to know the real you, and we deeply believe that God loves you as you are now. Like it says on the front page of this blog, “You don’t have to get all fixed up to find God, because God got completely broken in order to find you.”

3. Shut up and listen. This is just something that’s true for all relationships. Specifically, your Christian friends are deeply invested in things that are eternal. The most important thing in the world to them is the God who created the world, and they really want to tell you about him and how much he loves you. I’m not saying that you have to accept that and embrace it in order to have a healthy relationship with your Christian friends; I’m just saying that you should listen to them when they tell you about God. He is the most important thing in their lives, and as with the top priority in your life, that subject matter deserves to be received with respect. Sure, they may not have it all figured out, and there might be some other stuff that seems weird or false to you that comes along with the core of their beliefs, but that’s true for all of us. What’s most important for all human beings in relationship isn’t being agreed with, it’s being heard.

4. Know that your Christian friend really, really wants you to love Jesus. There, the cat’s out of the bag. All the cards are on the table. Your Christian friend wants you to become a Christian. However, it’s not so that you can be assimilated into some religious sect, but because we truly believe that in Jesus there is life and healing and peace and so much else that just can’t be found anywhere else. Think of it like this: If your friend found a huge amount of gold deep in the heart of a mountain, wouldn’t you want to know about it? Well, Jesus is much more valuable than gold, and he’s a person! This might sound weird, but being the one to “introduce” you to Jesus would be a top 10 highlight of your Christian friend’s life.

5. If you feel like your Christian friend is manipulating conversations in order to proselytize, tell them. Because we really, really want you to love Jesus, we can sometimes lose our sense of propriety in a friendship. We are, at times, also motivated by the fear that you will spend eternity apart from God in hell, and fear causes us to become desperate. This fear can lead to all sorts of strange behavior, including manipulation and becoming judgmental. If you sense that your Christian friend is doing this to you, don’t be afraid to bring it up. You could even say something like, “Listen, I know you want me to love Jesus and become a Christian, but I’m not ready for that. I understand that it’s really important to you, and that you may even be afraid for me, but I don’t want to be judged or manipulated by you. I want to be friends.” Most Christians, and most people, will respect that kind of honesty, and change their behavior accordingly.

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What other insights do you have? I’d love to hear more thoughts that would apply to and from both perspectives.

“Who sinned?” That was the question the disciples asked Jesus when they came across a man born blind. It was also the question a pastor asked James Bryan Smith, author of The Good and Beautiful God, when James’s daughter was born with a terminal chromosomal disorder. The disciples, and this pastor, may appear to be insensitive, but they’re only vocalizing a narrative that so many of us believe. Behind this question, “Who sinned?”, lies the belief that “God is an angry judge. If you do well, you will be blessed; if you sin, you will be punished.” (40)

This has been humanity’s controlling narrative for millenia, and it continues to live on in the church in spite of God’s best efforts to finally put this misnomer to rest. (He did, after all, send his own son to die for the sins of the world so that we can all be reconciled back to God. How’s that for an angry judge?) Perhaps no organization lives out this false understanding of God more faithfully than Westboro Baptist Church. They are infamous for protesting soldiers’ funerals, carrying placards emblazoned with “God hates fags” and other such bile. For them, the clearest image of God isn’t Jesus Christ dying and rising again for the sake of the world, but of God (or is it Zeus) astride a thundercloud with lightening bolt in hand, ready to strike fornicators and sinners dead.

Fortunately for everyone ever and everywhere, that narrative is false. At the core of God, in the very heart of the Trinity, resides an infinite well of self-giving, self-sacrificing love. How can a God, who is love, be so angry? How can he be so quick to dole out punishment on “sinners?” The truth is that he’s not. God is not angry, but eager. He is eager for us to repent, believe, and love him. He yearns for us to be reconnected to him in life-giving and soul-refreshing relationship. He longs to make us new, so new, in fact, that we become like Jesus.

So then, who sinned? Jesus’s answer is simple. Nobody. And everybody. In the case of the blind man, like in Smith’s case (and in our case with our epileptic son), nobody’s sin caused this disease. God is not doling out punishment for some sin we may or may not remember. These diseases have come because death rules the world, and death rules the world because everybody has sinned, and the consequence of sin is death. However, and this is an awfully big however, Jesus has conquered death! He did it when he rose again from the dead. We live in an entirely new world, one where we can look death in the face and laugh, crying out in mockery with the apostle Paul, “Where, O Death, is your sting; where, O Death, is your victory?” The victory over death resides in Jesus Christ.

What is Jesus doing now? According to that same apostle Paul (here I’m drawing from 1 Corinthians 15), Jesus is putting all of his enemies under his feet; that is, he is conquering everyone and everything that opposes him. One of those things, I believe, is disease. Particularly, diseases like blindness and epilepsy. While there are many ways in which Jesus is defeating disease (through medical research, gifted doctors, spiritual gifts of healing, faith healers, and many others), one of the most important ways he is putting this enemy under his feet is through the prayers of his people.

My wife and I are dealing with this enemy in our son, and we are praying and believing that God will heal him of his epilepsy. We long for the rule and reign of Jesus the King to be made manifest in our son’s brain, where the enemy of epilepsy wreaks havoc on him. We pray over him everyday, and we look forward to the day when he will walk without falling down, speak clearly and with extensive vocabulary, and testify to the power of Jesus the King in his own body and life. Many of you who read this blog are praying for him, as well. We are deeply grateful for your prayers and kindnesses. Someday we will all rejoice together at the powerful work of God in healing our boy. God is not angry; he is agape love.

There is a lot of debate about marriage – what it is, who can participate, and why it exists. Gay marriage is obviously the hot button issue of the day, but I suspect in coming years we’ll be talking about polygamy (or polyamory), human-animal relationships, human-robot (for lack of a better word) relationships, and pedophilia. When I say these things, I’m not trying to be an alarmist or to invoke the “slippery slope” argument. Rather, as I look into the future, these are the sexually-oriented discussions/debates I see coming in our society.

In order to respectfully and effectively engage with an unconfessing society on these issues, it is important for Christians to have a proper understanding of how the Scriptures define marriage. The standard Christian definition of marriage is this:

one man + one woman = marriage

As I look into the Scriptures, I can affirm that a committed, monogamous relationship between two people of the opposite sex is God’s biological design for marriage and sexual intercourse. However, to say that the Bible defines marriage as one man + one woman is far too simplistic and fails to take into account the incarnation, a New Testament ecclesiology, and a fully biblical eschatology. The most biblical definition of marriage is this:

marriage = Jesus + Church

Let’s look at this passage from Ephesians 5.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wivesas their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body.“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Paul is going on and on about marriage, even quoting from God’s blessing upon the first marriage in Genesis, but then he makes this strange statement: This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. He was talking about marriage, but he was really talking about Christ and the church. The relationship between Jesus and the Church is the theological and cosmic reality that explains flesh and blood marriage. In other words, human marriage is a metaphor for the relationship between Jesus and the Church. Our marriages are but shadows of the ultimate relational reality, which is founded on the greatest demonstration of agape love the universe has ever known.

Marriage, according to Scripture, isn’t the inevitable, relational conclusion with the person you “love” most. Rather, it is a flesh and blood demonstration of the agape love of Christ for humanity, and the Church’s reciprocating agape love for Jesus. Biblical marriage is a parable of God’s great love for humanity.

[toggle title=”A Semi-Tangent on Revelation 21-22″ state=”open”] One of the most important passages in all of Scripture is at the very end: Revelation 21-22. In this text, we see the bride of Jesus coming down out of heaven from God – a glorious city. Now we should immediately ask ourselves this question: “Is Jesus really going to marry a city?” No, of course he’s not. So what does the city represent? The city represents us, the Church. The message of Revelation is essentially this: Through all the trials and tribulations meted out against believers (particularly by the Roman Empire, symbolized by the great city Rome/Babylon), God has been preparing a bride worthy of his Son. When the bride finally makes her appearance, her beauty, glory, power, and vastness is almost beyond description. The image is of a city that far surpasses the beauty and glory of Rome, so as to make the so-called center of the world seem like a small, insignificant, backwater hamlet. We can take heart, then, that God is preparing us in character and capacity to be betrothed to his Son for eternity in a marriage based not on eros (romantic) love, but on agape love. In other words, at the end of the Bible is a wedding. Jesus is the groom. The Church is the bride. Therefore, biblical marriage = Jesus + Church. [/toggle]

So, if the biblical definition of marriage is Jesus + Church, what does that mean for our marriages?

First of all, it means that we evangelicals need to repent of our idolatry of marriage. While the wider culture has prostituted themselves to the god Eros, the Church has prostituted herself to the gods of marriage and family. Rather than run to Jesus, we have turned to a “sanctified” outlet for our own uncontrollable sexual impulses. We have normalized marriage and marginalized singles. Because of our idolatry, God has turned Christian marriage into Shiloh (look at Jeremiah 7 and listen to this sermon for more info on Shiloh), and as a result we evangelicals have lost all moral authority to speak on the “sanctity” of marriage. It’s time to repent of our idolatry.

Secondly, it means that agape must be the definitive love of marriage. Romantic love is a beautiful gift from God, but it is only a temporary endowment from our Creator. The eschatological marriage between Jesus and the Church is founded exclusively on agape love, and because our flesh and blood marriages are metaphors and shadows of this eternal reality, agape is essential in Christian marriage. Our marriages most clearly reflect the cosmic reality to which they were designed to point not when we are most “in love” with our spouse (though that is certainly a beautiful gift for which we ought to be extremely grateful), but when we willingly lay down our lives, surrender our rights, and forgive offenses for the sake of our spouse.

Thirdly, it means that all sexual immorality is out of bounds for Christians because marriage is foundationally about Christ and the Church. So what is sexually immoral? All sexual activity that does not reflect the relationship between Jesus and the Church. Premarital sex is out of the picture because we patiently wait and persevere for Jesus to return, at which point we will be betrothed to him in agape forever. Adultery is out of bounds because Jesus is faithful, even when we are faithless. Polyamory/polygamy is immoral because there is one Jesus and one Church. Homosexual activity/marriage is out of bounds because of the “otherness” expressed within the eternal marriage – Jesus (the bridegroom) and the Church (the bride) are fundamentally different, and yet are united forever in agape love.

There is so much more that could be said on this topic, particularly as it pertains to abuse, divorce, children, and a host of other issues. But the point I wanted to make was that there is a theology of marriage that we often miss in our knee-jerk, reactionary opposition to gay marriage, and that without this theology the rest of the argument falls apart. Marriage is between one man and one woman because marriage is biblically defined as Jesus and the Church; to start anywhere else when engaging our culture on the issue of marriage is to put the cart before the horse.

We Christians ought to be leading the world in marriage, but we’re not. We have substituted politics for theology. We have shirked Jesus and worshipped the gods of marriage and family. We have used marriage as a safety-zone for our out-of-control sexual impulses rather than as the fertile ground of agape love. We have, frankly, been no different than the unconfessing world in lust, selfishness, divorce, ignorance, and sexual immorality. Is it any wonder that they won’t listen to us?

Our destiny is to live in agape-based, eternal marriage with the crucified and risen Son of God. No one on earth should have a higher view and practice of marriage than those who understand that it is a parable of the eternal reality that awaits those who believe. Let’s change that. Let’s get the foundation right, seeing marriage for what it is – the undying commitment in agape love between the Risen Savior and his Church.

I’m kind of a tech geek. A videographer by trade, I’ve also found myself on the business side of Photoshop crafting countless sermon slides and church program brochures. By far, the most common stock image we use in the Church is of some person standing on top of a mountain with their arms outstretched in exultation. They’ve conquered the impossible peak, and now they’re either, a) enjoying the fullness of life Jesus promised in that one glorious moment; b) worshipping God in the splendor of his creation; or c) celebrating the tangible reality that they can do all things through Christ who gives them strength – in particular, climbing this mountain.

The message we send through the use of this imagery is that this is the kind of life God wants you to live. Successful and free. Celebratory and worshipful. God wants all of us to climb our metaphorical mountains and find freedom from the trials and obstacles in our life. And to a certain extent I think that’s true, but it fails to tell the whole story.

Jesus went up on a mountain and stretched his arms out wide, but instead of smiling silently and embracing the accomplishment of conquering the hill, he screamed in agony as the Roman soldiers pierced his flesh with spikes. Rather than drinking in the scenery and breathing in the wildly fresh mountain air, he drank bitter wine vinegar and breathed his last. And it is this, the image of the broken and dying Son of God, not the conquering hero of the stock photograph, that God intends to be normative for those who would follow Jesus.

The real deal we make with God when we answer his call on our lives is to willingly enter into redemptive suffering. That is, after all, the essence of the cross. The call of Jesus is not to find success or fulfillment, but to take up our own crosses and follow him; that is, to live lives that reflect the crucifixion and resurrection (the Gospel!) of Jesus our King. This is the deal that God makes with us, the one that Jesus talked about again and again, but that we are angrily offended by whenever it manifests itself in our lives.

In my arrogant sense of entitlement, I thought the rules didn’t apply to me. I thought that the process of church planting, because it’s so inherently difficult (especially the way I decided to do it), was suffering enough. I thought the mere act of pursuing my dream of Ember Church was all the redemptive suffering my life required. My cup would be full. So when my son’s issues surfaced, I took offence at God. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I was already carrying my cross! (Although now I can see that the pursuit of one’s dreams is far different than carrying one’s cross.) I was doing God’s work, so God was supposed to take care of me.

The reality is that God was, and is, taking care of me. He was helping me to understand, to truly know, both his own son and mine. The deep, relational knowledge of Jesus Christ is forged in the furnace of suffering, loss, frustration, and disappointment. The secret of the kingdom of God is that redemptive suffering and failure are kingdom victory. The paradigm of true Christian faith isn’t the victorious and exultant climber atop the mountain; it’s the broken and bloodied Son of God stuck to the cross atop the hill. We who minister in this kingdom should expect our lives to more often reflect the latter than the former.