“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.

There’s a book that I’ve been wanting to read for several years called The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith, so when the life group that Breena and I recently joined decided to start going through it together, I was very excited. I’ve only read the first chapter so far, but it was very insightful, and I hope to use this blog to post some of my thoughts and reflections on the book.

The thesis of the book is this: Transformation happens through training my soul. (20) Transformation is a vital part of life for the Christian, as God both promises and commands it in Scripture. It does not happen magically, however. Rather, it demands our full participation, though perhaps in a way that is different than you or I would expect.

Smith tells of a “false narrative” that almost all of us believe. That narrative is this: We change by our willpower. “When people decide to change something, they muster their ‘willpower’ and set about trying to change some behavior. This nearly always fails.” (21) It fails, he says, because the will actually has no power. The will is the human capacity to choose. (22) The will is not something that acts or has power. Rather, the will responds to outside agents, and there are three primary agents that influence the will: the mind, the body, and the social context. (22) In other words, we make choices based on the input we receive from our minds (I’m turning left on this road because I know my destination is in that direction), our bodies (I eat lunch because I’m hungry), and our social contexts (I cheer on the Buckeyes because I grew up in Ohio). Change, therefore, happens not because I muster up the strength to make a new choice, but because the influencers on my will are somehow modified (I learn new things, I exercise, I make new friends). “When new ideas, new practices and new social settings are adopted, change happens.” (22)

Rather than reinforcing the old narrative of willpower, Jesus created a new change narrative: We change by indirection.

If we adopt Jesus’ narratives about God, we will know God properly and right actions will follow. And the opposite is true. We change not by mustering up willpower but by changing the way we think, which will also involve changing our actions and our social environment. We change indirectly. We do what we can in order to enable us to do what we can’t do directly. …We cannot change simply by saying, “I want to change.” We have to examine what we think (our narratives) and how we practice (the spiritual disciplines) and who we are interacting with (our social context). If we change those things – and we can – then change will come naturally to us. This is why Jesus said his “yoke” was easy. If we think the things he thought, do the things he did and spend time with likeminded people, we will become like him, and it will not be difficult. (22-23)

The first step toward change is to examine the fundamental narratives (stories) you believe to be true. How does the world work? Who am I? Who is God? Answering these questions, and ones similar to this, will help you to verbalize the narratives you believe. What are the fundamental narratives you believe to be true? Let me tell you mine.

One of the narratives that I’ve believed (in my heart, not necessarily in my head – and that distinction is important) is this: God makes prosperous the lives of those who step out in faith for him. I do not mean by this that all pastors and missionaries will be financially prosperous, but that their lives will be free from certain troubles and trials, like family health issues, necessary but inescapable debt (perhaps from medical bills), unjust job loss, and ministry failure. (Basically, all the things that have happened to me and my family in the past few months!) I have believed that bad things only happen to God’s servants because of discipline or punishment, and not as the natural course of living in a fallen world.

Besides being a demonstration of poor theology, my narrative is wrong in one rather large way. Can you spot it? Although God is the subject of that sentence, my narrative is fundamentally about me. I, and the quality of my life, are the center of that story. It’s all about me.

But Jesus’ narratives are fundamentally about God.

“God is good.”

“God is beautiful.”

“God is agape love.”

Perhaps the first thing that you and I need to examine is the subject of the stories we believe. Are we believing and telling and living stories about God, or stories about ourselves? “In order to change we first have to change our minds. …Adopting Jesus’ narratives is a way we come to have the mind of Christ.” (26) The world that Jesus saw and experienced was as broken as our own, but at the center of it all he could see, not himself (though he is God), but his Father. Jesus saw the truth, testified to the truth, and told stories of the truth. God is the truth, and in order to be set free by the truth we must learn to live and believe the narratives of Jesus.

What are the narratives that you have been believing and living?

 

This idea of being a parable of Jesus has been haunting me for the past week. What is that supposed to look like in my particular context? How can I be the visible description of the invisible Jesus in the face of job loss, a child’s overwhelming illness, and the death of a church? How can I be a parable of Jesus today, when life is as it is, and not as I wish it were?

At times like this I look to the words of Paul in Philippians:

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings,becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

There’s a key phrase in there that often gets overlooked: I want to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. I’ve always thought that the way in which we participate in the sufferings of Jesus is through persecution. The suffering is inflicted upon us by an outside, human force that stands in opposition to the kingdom of God. While this is certainly a huge part of what it means to participate in the sufferings of Jesus, I’ve become convinced that it’s not the whole story. In the absence of persecution, we can sometimes take on the suffering of Jesus by becoming, as he was on the cross, Godforsaken.

It’s important to remember, here, that Jesus didn’t sin or do anything wrong that brought upon his Godforsakeness. That Godforsakeness was a part of the Father’s larger plan, and was soon followed by the resurrection, and an entirely new way of being Trinity. In the same way, we don’t necessarily do anything to bring about Godforsakeness in our lives; it can be (and I say “can be” because it is certainly possible that we are so stubborn in our sinfulness that God “gives us over to the desires of our hearts”) a part of the Father’s larger plan to create a whole new way of being human, that is, becoming like Jesus.

God has not forsaken you because you or he are unfaithful. On the contrary, God’s distance in the midst of our suffering is a part of his redemptive plan that always pushes toward resurrection – to new life arisen out of the ashes of death and decay. As Paul says in Romans 5:

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;perseverance, character; and character, hope.

God’s aim in all of this is to produce, in you, the power of the resurrection of Jesus and the hope of your own resurrection. Therefore, whatever suffering you are enduring now, know that God may feel distant, but he is not absent. You may be forsaken now, but you will not be forsaken then. Only persevere. Take courage, and be faithful. God is faithful even when it seems that he is faithless, and the stories of God’s faithfulness belong to those who persevere through their Godforsakeness and into their resurrection.