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Friday, March 26, 2021

Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

 Asking questions

Years ago, a young child asked me, “Why did Jesus have to die?” Of course I gave him a simple answer, “So that we can be in heaven with Him one day.”

How many of us, of all ages, still ask that question: Why did Jesus have to die?

What kind of simple answers do Christians usually provide? Because death is the penalty for sin. (Why? Couldn’t God have chosen a different penalty?) Because God demands a sacrifice to cover our sins. (Why? Couldn’t He have provided a different cover?) Because sin separates us from God, and the only way back to Him is by paying a great price. (Why? Couldn’t He have come up with a different way back?)

Why did God set it up this way? He’s God. He can do anything He wants to do. He has a power and creativity and intelligence far beyond my wildest imagining. He can come up with the most brilliant plans, devise the most intricate systems, all in the blink of an eye. He spoke and the entire universe came into being. Did He really have to choose a painful, humiliating, bloody way to bring us back into fellowship with Him?

I don’t know. Maybe He could have chosen another option. But the fact that He didn’t tells me some things about this God who has revealed Himself to us in the Bible.

Seeing some answers

It tells me that sin is very, very serious in His eyes.

When I first heard the gospel, I was appalled by the idea that I wasn’t good enough to go to heaven. As far as behavior went, I was better than most of my friends, who were beginning to experiment with sex and drugs and alcohol. When it came to character, I knew that I cared about others more deeply than most people do. I was kinder, more sympathetic, more understanding. Why wouldn’t God be proud to have me by His side? How could He possibly reject me?

It took about a year of hearing the gospel over and over again before I finally reached the point where I could see my sin as being bad enough to prevent God from accepting me into His family just the way I was. The good news of Jesus’ sacrifice for my sake eventually broke through my pride and convinced me of how serious sin is in His eyes. Even my relatively minor sins.

The painful, humiliating, bloody manner of His death emphasizes it even more. Many people today consider it a virtue to disdain any form of brute violence. They seek to overturn the death penalty. They want to bring an end to all wars. They speak up for the weak and the vulnerable (other than babies in the womb).

They reject the very idea that God would be so coarse, so inhumane as to condone or even orchestrate the death of His own Son. If they claim to be Christians, they see Jesus as an unfortunate martyr, not as a necessary sacrifice. They place their own sense of morality above that of a God who would demand the shedding of blood to satisfy His requirements. (My point here is not that their actions in opposing violence and oppression are wrong, but that they consider themselves superior to God.)

But if Jesus really did die to make atonement for our sins (as orthodox Christians have always believed) does that imply that God enjoyed the process? Or that He stood back stoically and felt nothing during the hours that His Son hung on the cross? No. It’s the very pain and revulsion that God Himself experienced that tells me how serious sin is in His eyes. No lesser price could convey that message.

It also tells me how precious His creation is to Him. He went to the greatest lengths possible to redeem this fallen world. Jesus, God the Son, gave His all for our sakes. We evangelicals tend to focus on the cross as the moment of Jesus’ suffering. But, as I wrote in an earlier post, Jesus suffered from the instant of His conception in Mary’s womb. Compared to His life in heaven, He was constantly being bombarded by distressful sensations and situations long before that first Good Friday.

And then He gave even more—He sacrificed His life in a brutal, painful, lengthy act of dying. And it wasn’t just His physical death that hurt so much. It was also His separation from His Father (Matthew 27:46) and His bearing the guilt for all the sins of all the people in all the world for all time (Hebrews 7:27).

What if God had chosen an easier way out? What if He had been able to devise an equally acceptable means of covering my sins? What would that tell me about the depth of His love for me? Who loves me more—the man who pledges “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” meaning that he’s committed to building a strong marriage regardless of circumstances, or the one who says that if it doesn’t work out we can always get a divorce? The one who promises to give his all or the one who intentionally holds something back?

Jesus’ death tells me that God’s creation is so precious to Him that He was willing to suffer through the greatest possible sacrifice to redeem us. It also tells me that He desires a deep and lasting relationship with us. Which of the two men in the previous paragraph will I respect and value more? Which one will I be more willing to give my heart to in gratitude and adoration? Which one will I trust with my hidden thoughts and feelings? The richest relationships are based on the type of love that God demonstrated on the cross. That’s the kind of relationship that He wants to have with every one of us.

Experiencing the greatest relationship

Jesus’ death wasn’t the end of the story. His relationship with His disciples wasn’t over at that point. It got even better. Easter Sunday followed soon after Good Friday.

I’ve heard the story so many times that it’s hard to fully appreciate the intensity of the joy and wonder that His followers experienced when they encountered the risen Messiah. They had left everything for His sake. They knew He was the Son of God. But they’d seen Him crucified, dead, and buried.

And then, suddenly, there He was, alive again. More alive than He’d been before His death. Forgiving their fears and doubts and betrayals. No longer limited by time and space, as He had been before the crucifixion. And with Pentecost it got even better again. Through the Holy Spirit, He was present with every one of them at every moment in every circumstance. Guiding, loving, comforting, sharing their joys and their sorrows. A relationship beyond anything that they’d ever imagined.

Did Jesus have to die? Or was it a sovereign, gracious, exquisitely compassionate choice freely made by the God who takes sin very seriously, who loves His creation beyond all measure, and who desires to have an intimate relationship with every human being that He’s brought to life in this world?

Friday, March 5, 2021

Dirty

 Staying clean

Two truths that I’m seeing during this coronavirus pandemic:

1. I can never be completely clean. (Or at least not for long.)

2. That just might be a good thing.

I get up in the morning, go to the bathroom, wash my hands. Get dressed, put on my shoes. My hands are obviously dirty again. Better wash them a second time.

Just making my way to the kitchen and preparing breakfast requires contacting many surfaces that could be harboring germs. Do I have to wash or use sanitizer every time I touch something? A year ago, when the experts were talking about flattening the curve, that seemed to be the implication. But my skin would shrivel and crack if I tried to stay completely clean all the time.

Spiritually, can I ever be one hundred percent clean? As in the physical realm, not for long, if at all. My spirit is always being exposed to the world, the flesh, and the devil. The dirt rubs off on me even if it doesn’t make me sick.

It reminds me of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 13:1-11. He describes those who believe in Him as already having had a bath. All they need after that is to have their feet cleaned. But aren’t their arms and legs and faces dirty, too? And He only washed their feet once. Don’t we need it more often than that? I find it encouraging that He addresses both the necessity and the limits of our need for cleansing.

I try to make it a practice to confess and repent when I know I’ve sinned, but I can go to one of two extremes. I can get so hung up on my dirtiness and my need to seek out and confess every little detail of every little sin that I miss God’s calling to forget my self and reach out to others. And I miss the opportunity to turn my thoughts to His grace and power and love and glory in selfless worship.

Or I can call to mind the Bible verses that tell me how He’s forgiven and forgotten all my sin for all time, and ignore the ones that remind me of my need to confess and repent. In Jesus’ analogy, I’ve had my bath. Because I’m covered by the Son’s blood, the Father always sees me as clean. Isn’t that enough? No. Sometimes I need to have my feet washed. Not for my salvation, but to keep my relationship with God as intimate as it can be. I need to go to Him in humble repentance and acknowledge my sin. I need to stay as clean as I can.

Building immunity

But some dirt will still cling to me most of the time. Because of that, God in His wisdom created a world in which everything works together to sustain life as we know it. Including death. Including germs.

Limited exposure to germs builds immunity. Vaccines are made from the viruses that they protect us against. A few years after antibacterial hand soaps became popular, many doctors discouraged their regular use by healthy people. They argued that we need some bacteria in our lives to maintain a robust immune response.

I once read a magazine article about the polio epidemic of the mid-twentieth century. The doctor who wrote it said that the reason polio suddenly became a problem was because parents were keeping their children too clean. Anyone under two years old who’s exposed to polio develops a natural immunity. Older children and adults are more prone to contracting the disease once they come into contact with it. As American homes became more and more sanitized, no natural exposure was occurring before the age of two. The result was lower immunity and greater suffering.

What about in the spiritual world? Do I need exposure to temptation? Can I benefit from the dirt that rubs off on me from the world, the flesh, and the devil? My natural tendency is to say “No! Temptation is bad. I need to avoid or prevent as much exposure as possible.” Stay in my bubble. Hang out with Christian friends. Read books by Christian authors. Listen to Christian music. Watch Christian videos.

But if I’m honest with myself, I realize that each time I resist a little temptation I grow stronger,  more capable of resisting a bigger temptation. Sooner or later that big temptation will come. Will I be ready to resist it if I haven’t faced and defeated those little temptations? I also grow closer to God every time I rely on His Holy Spirit for the strength to overcome.


Jesus’ example

Did Jesus Himself experience this type of growth? The Bible says that He was made perfect through suffering (Hebrews 2:10), that His suffering included facing temptation (Hebrews 2:18), and that He learned obedience from what He suffered (Hebrews 5:8). I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this whole idea of Jesus—God—learning and growing, especially by means of the evils of temptation and suffering. I don’t hear a lot of teaching about this experience of His. But it’s a powerful example of how God brings good (strength) out of evil (temptation).

If Jesus could learn and grow as He was tempted, maybe it’s best for me to get out of my Christian comfort zone and allow myself to be exposed to the dirt of the world. How can I mature in my faith if I never face the challenges out there? (And how can I be a witness to those who need to hear the Good News if I stay huddled in my own little corner?)

Of course there has to be a balance. I have to follow the teaching of Scripture and the leading of the Holy Spirit to find that balance. I need to be out in the world getting my feet dirty and building my immunity, but I don’t need to take a mud bath.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Really?

 Questioning God’s Word

    I’m so bad about questioning the Bible. I know it’s the truth, I know God inspired every word, I know He knows what He’s talking about. But too often I read a passage and a little voice in my head says, “That’s not how life really works.”

    It’s just a little doubt, a minor disagreement with God. Is it all that important? Probably. After all, what I’m actually thinking is, “This one brief phrase, this one tiny sentence isn’t true. Even though it’s part of God’s Word, I don’t believe it.” At those times, I’m grateful for the many examples in the Old Testament of how God responded patiently and tenderly to people like Abraham, Moses, David, and Job when they questioned Him.

    My latest issue is with Psalm 145:14-16 (italics added): “The Lord upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.”

    Really??? All I have to do is look at the world around me to see that this claim isn’t true.


Taking it too literally

    My basic nature is that of a left-brained nerd. I want to take every word, every verse, every book of the Bible completely literally. So I stumble over passages like this.

    But the Bible isn’t always as literal as many of us (evangelicals in particular) want to believe. Especially certain parts, like the Psalms. When I stop clinging to my own way of thinking and let the Holy Spirit guide me, I realize that maybe this passage is not intended to be an exact description of how the world actually works or a promise that God will always fix whatever's broken. Instead, it might simply be a joyful celebration of God’s generosity and provision, written in hyperbole to emphasize just how amazing and overflowing that generosity is.

    I’ve come across other passages where the Holy Spirit seems to be using hyperbole (an exaggeration of the literal truth in order to emphasize a point or create an effect), rather than stating a fact. When I looked up “hyperbole” in Wikipedia, one of the three examples the article listed was from the Bible. Maybe Wikipedia recognizes nuances in Scripture better than we evangelicals do.


Examining my mental images

    As I’m reading these verses today, something else that helps me to understand them is to reflect on the image they create in my mind. I’m picturing someone who has fallen and is supernaturally set upright on their feet by God. Someone who is bowed down with a heavy weight and whose back is miraculously straightened by our Lord. Complete instantaneous healing.

    But then I remember days when I’ve fallen or been bowed down and remained in that position, and yet, at the same time, felt the upholding and lifting up of the Lord.

    I heard a song a few years ago on a secular radio station. I was in a hard place at the time. A medical issue was messing with my brain, and bad things were happening in my life. When I heard this song, though, I smiled at the refrain, “My head’s underwater, but I’m breathing fine.”*

    I didn’t pay much attention to the rest of the lyrics, but that one line, at that time, kind of summed up what was going on inside of me. My head was underwater. I should have been drowning. I should have been fighting for each breath and finding only water filling my lungs. I should have been panic-stricken, straining to reach the surface in search of oxygen. Instead, I was breathing fine.

    I had fallen on the floor. I was bowed down by the weight of many sorrows. God didn’t set me up on my feet or straighten my back, as I thought this psalm was promising. He didn’t take the pain and the helplessness away. But He elevated and supported my sprawled-out body. He lifted me up in His everlasting arms with my back still bent. He was the reason I could breathe just fine even though my head was underwater.

    Did He follow through on His apparent promise in Psalm 145? Not if I take it in a more literal sense, meaning that he solved all my problems. But spiritually, He went far beyond my expectations and understanding. Although I was still hurting, He upheld me on the inside. He lifted me up into His joy and peace and love. He provided the kind of food that I needed the most—the spiritual, not the physical. He satisfied my deepest desires—to know Him, to walk with Him, to experience His presence.

    Will I remember this lesson when I read other similar passages and that little voice in my head says, “That’s not true!”? Will I keep my perspective and praise God for His compassionate, generous, faithful character even when life is tough?

    Some day, I hope to move on to where I can fully trust Him and take Him at His Word. Not sure that will happen in this lifetime. But I know that through this latest reading of Psalm 145 He’s taken me one more step in that direction.

*by John Legend

Friday, January 22, 2021

Alone

 Pandemic-induced aloneness

    My friend Kyle died in September. An aggressive brain tumor took his life just three months after his first symptom. One day he was feeling fine, going about his business as usual. The next day he was thrashing about on the sidewalk, convulsing uncontrollably as a violent seizure swept through his head.

    The paramedics rushed him to the hospital. Alone. He had brain surgery. Alone. He spent three weeks in the hospital and rehab center recovering. Alone.

    At a time in his life when all he longed for was the presence of his wife of forty years and other loved ones, Kyle was more isolated than he’d ever been before. He was suffering with pain and seizures that the medications reduced but didn’t entirely control. With the shock of learning that he would not survive this cancer. With the helplessness of watching his family and friends struggle through the sorrow that he was causing them. Alone.

    Due to the coronavirus pandemic, he had no visitors, no comfort or touch from the people he valued most. When he was moved to the rehab center, his son-in-law delivered a cell phone to be placed by his bedside. Every morning Kyle’s wife dialed his number, then left the connection open for the remainder of the day. As friends and family members came and went from his home, he could hear their voices, join in their conversations and prayers, feel like a part of the group.

    But it wasn’t the same. He needed people. He needed people with him, beside him, looking into his eyes, touching his hand. Instead, he was alone.


Is God all we need?

    Kyle was one of the most mature Christians I’ve ever met. Even with working full-time for a local business, teaching college and Sunday school classes, reading a wide variety of books, and spending time with his family, he still made regular appointments with other Christian men to sit down with a cup of coffee and talk. He and his friend would share whatever was going on in their lives—the good and the bad, the mundane and the profound, the spiritual questions and insights.

    And then, suddenly, this man who intentionally gave so much time to others was alone. And lonely. He drew great comfort from knowing that the Lord was with him. But since he made it a practice to be honest with God and with people, Kyle occasionally voiced his frustration and his loneliness. Was that okay, or was he failing one of the final tests of his mortal life? Did he really need people, or should he be so content with God’s presence that he never knew the definition of the word lonely?

    “Jesus is all I need.” I hear that message in songs, in church, in Bible studies, in my own head when I’m feeling lonesome or rejected. In one sense, it’s true. Jesus is all we need for our salvation and our relationship with God. No one else can save me. No one else can provide a way into His presence day after day.

    But what about my psychological needs? Some believers openly declare that Jesus is all we need when it comes to loneliness or anxiety or depression or any other type of emotional suffering. They would proclaim that Kyle was falling short of God’s expectations when he expressed a need for human companionship. Jesus was right there with him. What more could he ask for?

    It sounds so spiritual to say that I should be happy, content, filled with the joy of the Spirit even if I’m separated from my loved ones. Even if I’m stranded on a desert island with no human interaction. But is that really God’s plan?


Adam’s need, our need

    I remember the first time a Bible teacher drew my attention to the implications of Genesis 2:18 so many years ago. I had recently found relief from my first depressive episode through an antidepressant. My view of emotions had changed drastically during that experience. I was trying to reconcile real life with the theology I’d heard so often—Jesus was all I needed, even in the emotional realm. I mustn’t be dependent on mere humans when God was there to supply all my needs through Himself alone.

    Then I heard this lesson from Genesis. The Lord God created the heavens and the earth, the sea and the sky, all the plants and all the animals, and, finally, Adam. Each day, for six days, God worked on His creation. And each day He saw that it was good. But after creating Adam, the Lord declared, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” There was one thing, and one thing only that was not good in all of His perfect creation. That one thing was Adam’s aloneness.

    God could have created an Adam who would be perfectly well off with His presence alone. Happy. Content. Filled with the fruit of the Spirit. Without any need for other people. But God didn’t. He chose to create an Adam who needed an Eve. Even before the Fall, Adam had a need that couldn’t be fulfilled without human companionship. How much more do we truly need others?

    Kyle was only one of many, many people hit by the terrible loneliness brought on by the pandemic. Around the time of his passing, the national news spotlighted a group of seniors who had been denied in-person visitors at their care center for months. They were sitting outdoors in their wheelchairs holding signs saying, “I’d rather die of COVID than loneliness.” They were willing to risk their very lives in exchange for a few moments with a loved one.

    I don’t know the best way to handle this coronavirus crisis. It’s painful to see so many dying. It’s equally painful to see the suffering triggered by shutdowns and isolation. But this I do know: We need people. The need is real. Loneliness is not a lack of faith or a sign of spiritual immaturity. God designed us this way even before the Fall.

    So it’s okay to feel it. It’s okay to admit it. And it’s okay to seek relief from it—to seek out and enjoy the fellowship of other human beings (as safely as we can), rather than insisting that God is all I need.

Friday, January 1, 2021

New Creation

 What is this new creation?

    “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Sounds good. I like it. But what exactly does it mean?

    For my first ten years or so in an evangelical church, the implication seemed to be that when we accept Christ everything changes so dramatically that we don’t need to deal with the past. It’s been erased. We’ve been made new. We need to forget what’s behind us and strain toward what’s ahead (Philippians 3:13). This idea wasn’t usually explicitly stated, but the assumption was always there. And it always bothered me.

    Then I met a man named Cory who was a dedicated believer, but who constantly questioned evangelical correctness. God used him to open my eyes to the flaws in evangelical thinking and the shallowness that it encourages.

    Cory helped me to see that we come to Christ with many false beliefs that aren’t just wiped away at the moment of conversion. We come with a heavy load of painful experiences, grudges against those who’ve hurt us, anger, bitterness, and misunderstanding about who God is. Being a new creation doesn’t mean that He just magically makes all our baggage disappear, as so much evangelical teaching implies.

    Then what does it mean? What is the old that’s gone and the new that’s come? Who am I now?

    After struggling with this question for decades, the best explanation I’ve heard goes something like this: what’s gone is the old inability to understand the truth revealed in God’s Word, the inability to develop the fruit of the Spirit, the inability to see and believe and obey.

    And what’s new is our capacity to grow, to overcome the pain of the past, to become more like Christ. We have this capacity because we’ve been given a new spiritual life. We also have the Holy Spirit within to enable us to see where we need to change, to prompt us to want to change, and to strengthen us to persevere so that those changes can happen. We never do this perfectly. We still have a tendency to rebel against our Lord’s attempts to grow us into something better. But this is a truly amazing newness well worth celebrating.


Two models

    Another aspect of the evangelically-correct view of becoming a new creation is the implication that at the moment of salvation I had perfect faith, which led to God’s forgiveness for all my sins. This is what I think of as the “new car” model of the new creation: the new me is like a shiny new car that runs smoothly, looks pretty, and even has its own special smell. It’s perfect.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but at the moment of my conversion, even my faith was warped by my sinful nature. If I’d had to depend on it alone, I wouldn’t have been saved and I wouldn’t be writing these words. It was God’s grace that saved me. He worked through my faith (Ephesians 2:8), but He didn’t sit around waiting until it was perfect, or it never would have happened.

    I’ve heard some people teach that while we’re still sinners, God miraculously creates in us a perfect faith so that we’re able to turn to Him and believe. But that sounds kind of cruel to me. Would a kind and loving God give me such a precious gift, then snatch it away again after I’ve entered His kingdom? It obviously doesn’t last. And yet, if I believe in that perfect faith, I expect myself to live as if it should.

    Life becomes a constant struggle and disappointment. I’m a new creation. I shouldn’t be subject to the old thought patterns and behavioral habits. They’re supposed to be gone. But they’re not. I watch helplessly as my new car ages and rusts and falls apart. Life can never be as good as it was in that moment of my salvation. Is this the resurrection life that Jesus promised me?

    What happens if we change our thinking from a shiny new car to a new baby model? The new creation is like a baby who has a lot to learn and who will make a lot of mistakes as she stumbles along trying to figure out this thing called life.

    A baby isn’t expected to be perfect. She’s expected to mess up, to need direction and correction. Parents don’t give up on their child the first time she falls down as she’s learning to walk. They don’t kick her out of the house the first time she says no to their instructions. Some parents even continue to demonstrate their love to their child when she flaunts God’s standards for sexual purity, when she becomes addicted to drugs, or when she’s arrested for some terrible crime.

    This is how God loves us. He doesn’t expect us to remain a shiny new car day after day. He doesn’t reject us or disown us the first time we stumble. He knows that we started the Christian life as a tiny baby with certain in-born capacities that we didn’t have before, but also with the one-hundred-percent likelihood that we would still sin, still cause Him grief, still hurt ourselves and all of those around us.

    But in His unconditional love, He promises that He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). We have the capacity to resist the draw of worldly comforts and pleasures. But when we give in to them, like a perfect parent He will always be there for us, forgiving us and helping us to overcome those temptations.

Freedom and joy

    How does this impact our everyday lives? Instead of constantly feeling defeated and disappointed in ourselves, we can rejoice in His love and in our small steps of progress. Instead of focusing on the dent in the door or the chip in the paint or the funny sound under the hood of our once-new car, we can marvel in our first words, our first steps, our developing understanding.

    We can witness the changes He’s bringing about in us and live lives of gratitude and praise. We can be certain of His compassion and forgiveness no matter how many times we give in to that same pet temptation. We can be free of the shackles of our own weaknesses even when those weaknesses have not yet been overcome.

    This is the joy of the resurrection life. This is the freedom Jesus promises. He never intended for His followers to live lives of weariness and discouragement, as in the new car model. Instead, He offers us an easy yoke and a light burden (Matthew 11:28-29), as in the new baby model.