faith and foolishness

It is no secret that our materialistic, western culture has no time or interest in matters of genuine faith, unless of course we follow the acceptable party line of allowing faith to exist privately, as a talisman or a balm soothing our own frazzled psyches. Of course, there are all sorts of “feel-good” self-help ideas and techniques we are encouraged to try, and when life becomes hard and dark, we hear repeated the ever-present mantra that informs us, with artless sincerity, that we need to “have faith.” But faith in what? Faith in human ability and reason, or in human goodness, or in the goodness of the earth, or the fidelity of the universe–faith in faith. Anything but faith in a supreme Creator based on the assumption that such faith represents a connection with reality as it actually exists, despite our inability (usually) to encounter such reality through physical sensation.

And of course, for some individuals, faith is an enemy of humankind, a slog through the toxic waste of superstition and stupidity, an engine of repression and hatred through millennia of history. People who subscribe to any religious belief or spirituality deserve ridicule; or at least condescending pity. The so-called “new atheist” assault (their ideas are not necessarily all that new) on religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is alive and well and shows no sign of abating. It is not surprising that people who hold to these dogmas are intent on scandalizing and attacking “faith” with pure, empirically-proven reason on every intellectual front.

Christians stand for truth, and boldly proclaim the reality of a kingdom “not made with human hands.” Unfortunately, many believers quietly harbor fears and doubts regarding what they believe, and may even ignore a nagging suspicion that perhaps, if they were smarter and better-educated, they might actually find that their faith seemed foolish to them, too. They read about new advancements in science and technology, or ponder the worldview of brilliant philosophers, or try to engage angry and potent—and sometimes surprisingly entertaining—arguments from individuals such as the late Christopher Hitchens, and something inside just sort of wilts. But, they determine to believe, just the same, and do their best to marshal facts and evidences to buttress their faith. Unfortunately, often such people have intellectually and emotionally equated their faith with their opinions.

Let’s be clear: faith is not opinion. We are not ushered into relationship with the God of the universe, the Father of Lights, the One those image we bear, by an opinion we have formed! Opinions are necessary and we can’t come to conclusions about any aspect of life without them. Reason is vital for human life, and it is actually a valuable component of our faith. Our ability to reason is a good gift from our Creator and it enables us to sift through ideas and concepts that compete for our attention. However, we run into trouble when we insist that faith in God’s existence make a case for itself under cross-examination from our limited understanding of life in a vast and (so far, still) incomprehensible universe. Faith is not opposed to reason, but neither is it subject to reason. The honest seeker in this Internet age can find all kinds of resources that give good, reasoned answers to their questions; answers that will at least give them something to honestly ponder, even if they are not ultimately convinced.

Because, even though it rubs against our nature, the truth is that we become citizens of the Kingdom of God through faith, not with faith. In other words, we do not get to figure everything out. We don’t carry a parcel of faith as a gift for entrance into the glorious privilege of being made children of the King of kings. We do not base the reality of our encounters with him on our knowledge or our feelings. We base our hope on the sure confidence we have in God’s faithfulness. His promises are true, and he never changes.

Now, I am aware that I am arguing in circles. I am saying I have faith because it is true, and I know it is true because I have faith. Unfortunately for our rational minds, that sort of is the deal. Faith requires humility; humility conceives faith. To see with eyes of faith requires a different way of looking at our lives and ourselves. Very early in our existence, we learn that we are the Most Important Person Alive. We gain our ability to navigate life by the knowledge we discover through our five senses; and then, as we grow in intellect, we come to understand the power we have to determine our reality and truth. But pesky old faith runs counter to that very common understanding, and forces us to confront mystery and admit that we don’t have all the answers. The glorious gift that accompanies faith is that faith allows us the privilege of pleasing God, because it is admission of our own creature hood. It is acknowledgement of our limitations.

Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensées that God “…so regulates the knowledge of Himself that He has given signs of Himself, visible to those who seek Him, and not to those who seek Him not. There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.” The apostle Paul told us the same thing in Romans 1:20: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made….” And over thirty centuries ago, the warrior-poet King David wrote:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech nor language
Where their voice is not heard.
T
heir line has gone out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world (Psalm 19:1-4).

If we will be honest, we humans do not like the fact that we are finite, because we want to be in charge of our lives and our thoughts. The Bible teaches us that the essence of sin is insistence that I am right. I have the right to control my life and my view of reality and the world. No one can tell me how to think, how to believe, or how to act (other than obeying laws that are for the common good of society. Although some people won’t even agree to that.) Certainly there is no overriding, ultimate authority that I must answer to. Some things are true, but there is no such thing as Truth.

So ideas such as “faith” and “ultimate truth” are foolish vapor, intellectual cotton-candy for the masses who want to comfort themselves with sugary thoughts. Individuals who are truly rational are the courageous pioneers of our species, determined to live solely by intellect and reason, free-thinkers protecting us from primitive superstitions and comfortable, sculpting-clay philosophy shaped by the mentally deficient. They will not be confused or deceived by such twaddle.

But the man who insists on living by his own understanding is already confused and deceived.

The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” (Psalm 14:1.)

You may have thought I was just like you; but I will rebuke and indict you to your face. (Psalm 50:21.)

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man is he who listens to counsel. (Proverbs 12:15.)

I know these passages might seem like in-your-face, “my dad can beat up your dad” playground posturing, and it would be if God were not real. But if God is real, then in kindness, he is letting us in on some inconvenient truths, which unbelievers dance away from with their fingers in their ears, humming their own tune and refusing to listen.

Our Creator loves us. He has given us life and provided a good world for us to live in (and yes, there is tremendous injustice and cruelty, but we will discuss that soon in another post). We have been made in his image, and he cherishes every person as a unique representation of himself. He woos us with his kindness. If he chose, he could explode upon the earth with an overwhelming display of his power and glory, silencing every tongue and destroying every enemy. But he chose instead to treat us kindly, subverting our propensity for self-exaltation by humbling himself and appearing on the planet as the Man, Christ Jesus. He then destroyed our foolish pride through the grotesque and unexpected: He died a criminal’s death on a cross; bloodied, beaten, and treated with contempt. And then, with supreme, delicious irony, he returned to life, exalted beyond all measure!

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe…because the foolishness of God is wiser than men….(1 Corinthians 1:18, 20-21, 25).

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:8-11).

Whenever we think we are getting really smart, the Lord shows us up to give us a dose of reality. In Jesus, all God’s promises and goodness are on display, and he invites those who are willing to come and receive all that he offers. It is glorious, and it is free for anyone who will believe.

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ex tenebris lux

You never change in the Land of Shadows….

I was a young man of seventeen when the Holy Spirit opened my eyes to the reality of Jesus, and I fell absolutely in love with this Man who gave everything to me. It was exciting and wonderful, and I found out I had become part of a large family of (mostly) really interesting people, who just a short time before I had thought were mentally disturbed, and perhaps dangerous.

But now, I found that God was real—actually real—and this “Christian thing” was fantastic. I was freely given a new life of joy, and adventure, and forgiveness.

Pretty much right away, I learned that there was lots of stuff for us Christians to do to keep us busy and walking on the right track with Jesus. Pray, worship, go to meetings, fast, read and study the Bible, witness, give money, love everyone.

I also learned that those who “had a real heart for God” were the kind of people who “pressed in” with everything in them to know him. No sacrifice was too great. I decided I wanted to become a missionary, because they were the best—and most dedicated—people in the Kingdom. If I could live in a leaky tent somewhere, eat disgusting food, and cast demons out of bloodthirsty heathens before they could kill me, well, life would be good. If I was truly fortunate, I would end up a martyr; but even if I didn’t, Jesus was returning soon (this was in the mid-1970’s) so there was no time to waste.

Except.

The years passed, and much as I still wanted to live a life of devotion greater than any that had yet been seen on this earth, I found that I failed a lot more than I succeeded, and I liked comfort a whole lot more than I realized.

Plus, there was this nasty issue of sin that kept getting in the way. I wanted to do right, I wanted—really, really wanted—to be holy as HE is holy. So, I knew that he offered forgiveness freely. But I sinned A LOT, and somehow lived with this continually empty feeling that I was letting God down. Badly.

Over the years, I heard enough sermons and read enough books to know that rationalization was a horrible scourge of the human heart, and I was terrified of becoming someone who would give in to that, so I kept strict watch on my life. A good portion of my prayers were centered around asking forgiveness, seeking to feel horrible about the wretchedness of my sin, and begging God to draw me closer to him. Other people that I knew, or read about, had amazing encounters with the Lord that filled them with hope and joy and a constant sense of refreshed purity that energized them. I, on the other hand, felt just a little dirty most of the time, and felt like God was probably pretty darn sick of the mess I was.

I am keenly aware that there is nothing unique about my experience. There are many who go through this. We know the truth, but we just don’t feel it.

So, we seek to feel closer to Jesus by repenting, desiring to mourn greatly over our sin. The preachers tell us we HAVE TO HATE SIN. (For the record, I do happen to believe that is true. But you won’t get too far hating it by focusing on it.) So we cry, and confess, and pound the ground, and promise this is it! From now on I’ll serve only You, not myself! In my case, I tried to dig into the very core of me to encounter all the wretchedness and sewage that had to be down in there. If I could somehow see the awful full accounting of my rottenness, then my repentance would be real and God would be pleased. (“Aww, hey, look! This guy’s finally Really Sorry!”)

Oddly—tragically—by focusing on the darkness, darkness got deeper and darker, and self-absorption flourished and spread like a fungus. Self-loathing masqueraded as a desire for holiness and the abundant life of Jesus.  I was a modern version of the medieval flagellants, whipping themselves for their sins in a desire to ward off the Black Death.

So for all us guilty ones holding whips, preparing to lay into ourselves, here is liberating truth, “…a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners….” (1 Timothy 1:15). The heart of our Creator is lovingly displayed in Jesus and radically revealed through the Scriptures, if we have hearts humble and open enough to just believe that he is faithful and he doesn’t lie.  Jesus did everything for us. He is the Light that dawned in our darkness. He is the one who leads us out of our foolishness and our duplicity. He is the one who makes his way straight before our face (Psalm 5:8).

It is human presumption and foolishness to think that we have to grovel our way back into the “good graces” of the One who is grace and truth. We feel dirty, unclean, and ashamed to come before him. We mourn and sigh over our failure and inability and lack. But he is everything and wants to be everything to us. There is no need for us to make him feel better about forgiving us because we are “truly sorry”, or feel “truly guilty” and repentant, thereby proving we want to change.

When I insist on pressing in to know him or get close to him through my faithful effort, I am believing a lie and focusing on my own works, or lack thereof. I spent far too many years in unnecessary sorrow, always focusing on me and my failure of performance and my wickedness of heart. But the white-hot holiness of Jesus is so much greater than the contagion of my sin or your sin. He paid the full price; absorbed every filthy thing satan and our depravity could assault him with, and he arose, our Conqueror Hero.

And when we simply believe that, he gives us a new heart with all his ways and his laws written within, and Holy Spirit living in us as a down payment of his glorious inheritance in us.

When we insist on dwelling the Land of Shadows, all we will perceive is darkness, and we are not conscious of his light. Staring continually into the abyss of failure eventually causes our legs to falter, and we become dizzy and fall in. Jesus has come to give light and remove us from the miry pit. Light shows everything clearly. Light brings life and joy. Light allows us to live and work for him with clear focus, understanding that we have been redeemed. We do not hide from sorrow, or from our need for holiness. Without holiness no one will see the Lord. But it is he who makes us holy.

With what shall I come before the Lord,
And bow myself before the High God?
Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings,
With calves a year old?

 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
Ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

 He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:6-8).

We are to humble ourselves and trust him and follow him, to allow him to teach us what is good and true and right, and to vanquish our sin and uncleanness—as indeed, he has! We are to focus on HIM, filled with joy as people released from bondage, who lived in darkness and now live in the glory of his great light.

He has made the way for us to leave the land of darkness and shadow, and bask in his shining love.  Let us believe, and dwell there!

the real victors

Who has ever seen a king who enters battle waving a white flag of surrender?

Our great Savior did just that. Behold Jesus, Eternal Majesty humbly come to earth, standing silently before the people he had created as they spit accusations and foamed and raged against him. Roman governor Pilate, perhaps frustrated that Jesus would not defend himself, finally asked him “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus replied that his kingdom was not of this world; if it was, then his servants would take up arms and fight for him. But the “not-of-this-world” kingdom is not advanced by physical exertion of violence; rather, it is advanced through subversion of the evil standards of the earth through bearing witness to the truth. Our world’s Babylonian systems of influence through power and manipulation cannot stand against the tide of truth and love. The spoils of war will go to the one who fought by wielding the supreme weapon of pure, unadulterated, sacrificial love and complete obedience to his Father’s will, with no thought for his own welfare, no consideration of his own deserved glory.

Jesus’s death seemed to be grotesque and crushing defeat, the end of all hope and promise. But come Resurrection Day, all the universe—seen and unseen—was blinded by the flash of life and promise as the angel rolled away the gravestone and our Living One strode up from decay, into the land of the living. His death and resurrection completely blindsided satan; made mockery of the powers of hell; thoroughly defied and vanquished the pollution and depravity of sin; was victorious over our dreadful, final enemy—death; and breathed life into a people without strength or hope.

So, anguished helplessness became overcoming victory; humiliation and surrender became exaltation and triumph. The people who had dwelt in darkness, then rejoiced as they saw a great light, and then were plunged into despair as that light was viciously snuffed out, now realized with astonished clarity that the Light of the world, alive and glorious, had been revealed to humble earth and was the true Lord of life and Conqueror of wickedness. “So powerless that he could not save himself, Jesus was dying to save others and embrace the whole world.” (Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk). By stretching his arms out in ignominious death, Jesus extended the embrace of the Triune Eternal One to all creation.

In a world that seeks power and influence, the one who did not grasp after his own glory bids us to come and bow in humility, with love and gratitude for all he has done for us. In Jesus, all God’s promises and goodness are on display, and he invites those who are willing to come and receive all that he offers. It is glorious, and it is free for anyone who will believe.

And the angel showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb…And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely (Revelation 22:1,17).

 

beyond fantasy

A life lived with Jesus is a journey, filled with hidden treasures waiting to be uncovered. If we divest ourselves of our religious mindsets and our spiritual preening, approach our Savior with humility, admit that we don’t know half of what we think we know (and most of that is probably wrong), and realize that he wants to sweep us up into his eternal story, we will discover that Scripture is the recounting of a fairy tale, written moment by moment into the fabric of reality by the Author of all things. After all, we inhabit a story of intrigue, and passion, and danger, and betrayal, and romance, and heroism beyond imagination. If we can humble ourselves and gain renewed minds and let the Holy Spirit wipe the scales from our eyes, we become available to encounter wonders.

The Bible is filled with glorious promises and stories of great faith and heroic deeds. With awed imagination, we ponder the great miracles God has done in the lives of his people. Scripture is clear that God is for us, not against us, and that nothing can separate us from his love.

Yet, many people exist with unspoken, nagging doubts as to their genuine standing before the King. They feel that they are not living in anything like what could be considered overwhelming victory. They have the occasional, momentary flash of confidence in the Lord; the sense of his nearness and his triumph in their lives. Yet in most of their day-to-day living, they feel as though they are being battered and bullied by circumstances and personal failures and unanswered prayers.

They are like Zion, addressed in Isaiah 54:11,

O you afflicted one,
Tossed with tempest, and not comforted….

There is not a person alive who has not felt thrown about by waves of insecurity and fears. Also, we are assaulted by the enemy of our souls—the accuser who slithers to our side to remind us of the “facts” of our lives, pointing out every spot on our garments, every stain on our reputation, every failure to live as we should.

We too often fall into the mind-set that thinks the Lord has forgotten us. We don’t want to believe that he is too busy for us, but somehow we carry a nagging suspicion that he is aloof from our concerns and circumstances. If he truly cared, if he was aware of my needs, he would do something. In our foolish frustration borne of fear—in the “fretting unbelief of our hearts” (Francis Frangipane)—we think that our circumstances, or sin, have taken God by surprise.

This, we come to believe, is unpleasant and unavoidable reality.  We long for “something more;” we ache with longing to feel close to our Creator and to really experience his love. We feel a thrill of glory and excitement as we discern the echoes of our desire in tales of imagination–stories sad and beautiful, wretched and charming, frightening and uplifting. Fables and fairy tales ignite our passion as we recognize, even if it is only for a few moments, our deepest desire for significance, for adventure, for heroism; we dream of the chance to battle for good and overcome evil, the wonder of being swept away in love, and the honor of truly living a life of sacrifice for a great and noble cause.

This is the lure and appeal of the great stories we love. Yet when we lay down the book or leave the movie theater or turn off the television, we return to our mundane lives, our hearts weighed down with empty resignation. Like Norman MacLean, we realize that “life is not a work of art.” Such moments cannot last.

But, what if we’re wrong? There is always a greater and deeper reality than the journeys of feeble men and women. In C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan the lion tells the children about the “magic deeper still” from “the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned.” From endless ages past, our names have been written in the Book of Life belonging to the eternal Lamb who was slain for us. He is the great, noble, and powerful King who woos us by his mercy, delivers us from our selfishness and foolishness, and then catapults us into a story that catches us off-guard with its intensity and fire. We have been captivated and captured by a magnificent monarch who has determined to use his limitless resources to present to himself a breathtaking bride, stunning in her beauty, possessing neither spot nor wrinkle, but only transcendent loveliness.

Behold, I will lay your stones with colorful gems,
And lay your foundations with sapphires.
I will make your pinnacles of rubies,
Your gates of crystal,
And all your walls of precious stones (Isaiah 54:11-12).

Your Lord has promised he will set the foundations of your life with precious stones; he is establishing his glory and beauty as the bedrock of your life. He created you for significance—for magnificence—and he will settle for nothing less as he moves you forward in your destiny.

So the King will greatly desire your beauty;
because He is your Lord, worship Him…
The royal daughter is all glorious within the palace;
Her clothing is woven with gold.
She shall be brought to the King in robes of many colors….(Psalm 45:11, 13-14).

The glory you will display is a mysterious and powerful work of his own hand:

 Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who call you is faithful, who also will do it (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24.)

I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them (Ezekiel 36:25-27.)

Our God is the Originator of all that exists (Genesis 1; John 1:3; Colossians 1:16-17.) He is from everlasting to everlasting, and knows the end from the beginning (Psalm 90:2; Isaiah 46:10.) He is First and Last; He is the Beginning; He is the End (Isaiah 44:6; Revelation 1:8, 22:13.) The ageless past and endless future are in his hands (Isaiah 43:10-13.) He controls the destiny of everything he has made—and he made everything that is—so he determines our value, our worth, our significance, and our place in the tapestry of eternity.

The Lord knows full well who he intends each of us to be. In fact, this one who knows the end from the beginning has a destiny for you beyond anything you could begin to perceive.

But as it is written:
“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9.)

Our present world is burdened by trouble and chaos; even our best intentions and systems are afflicted with wickedness and injustice. Jesus told us that we would have tribulation in this world, and we feel the anguish of the darkness that surrounds us, as well as the awareness of our own failures. Our Father knows all this and feels the pain too—and infinitely deeper than we could ever experience. He understands every minute detail of our journey here—every thought, every action. He understands our successes, our failures, our fears and our doubts.

But, do you not realize that when you worship and pray, presenting yourself before the Lord of glory, he is able to see you as you will be in eternity? He can interact with that glorious being he knows you will be. He sees the true you; the You you will become. Because he has determined to lead you into that destiny, he is able to respond to that person he has created. He knows you as the magnificent expression of his image that you will be throughout eternity. This is not wishful imagination or fanciful thinking. Your future identity is, to God, a reality now, a person who is locatable and knowable by our great King.

He is drawing us out of our “reality” into his. You have been created as an awesome image of our glorious Lord, destined to display his splendor not only in this age, but in the age to come, and to give glory and praise to him, dwelling in love with him for all eternity.

We will never, never cease to be the people who love the LORD our God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength. And what glorious people we are, and will be!

nothing is wasted

Recently, I wrote of a very dark season in my life. I had been a Christian for decades, and had served in leadership in various ministries and churches. But all that time, I carried unhealed hurt that, in my self-sufficiency, I felt I could ignore. I also never addressed my subtle but persistent unbelief in God’s goodness and love for me personally. I was always able to connect with His heart for others—especially the innocent and neglected—but somehow it did not transfer over to an ongoing encounter of His love and favor in my personal experience.

I think many believers can relate. We know that the Lord loves us—at least, we give lip service to that truth. But in the deepest recesses of our souls, when we lie awake in the middle of the night, we find ourselves appalled and frightened by the darkness we feel is still within us.

Guilt can be a merciless and unmovable monster, screeching condemnation and clawing at our sensitive conscience. We feel overwhelmed and ashamed by weakness and failure. If we fail to recognize the incalculable pardon and mercy we have received from Jesus’ sacrifice, we will cower before its onslaught, aghast at the thought that God must be angry and disgusted with us, and frantic with fear that other people might discover what we are really like. Like someone in the bulls-eye of a tornado’s path, we are whirled ruthlessly in a maelstrom of questions:

Why aren’t I obeying/praying/reading Scripture/ministering as I should?
Why don’t I love God more?
Why do I keep sinning the way I do?
Will I ever stop failing? Has the Lord really forgiven me…….?

A few mornings ago as I prayed, my thoughts stumbled upon that ugly path as I began to recall many instances of dreadful failure from my “dark night of the soul.” I had been forgiven by God and man, but I still found myself sick at heart with regret about the wasted years of sin and unfaithfulness. I felt I personified Jeremiah’s words:   The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked….(Jeremiah 17:9). Surely my actions had proven that to everyone.

Several months ago, the Holy Spirit powerfully spoke to me the promise of Joel 2:25: I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the crawling locust, the consuming locust, and the chewing locust. Although I believe the promise, as I prayed it didn’t seem to have much reality in light of the parade of wretchedness reminding me of the incredible defeat in my life. I felt disqualified from any promise or fullness of what my life could have been as I knelt, ashamed and dejected.

Suddenly, I felt as if I was transported to the feet of Jesus, much like the woman caught in adultery in John chapter eight. I sensed Jesus asking me: “Where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?”

In an instant I realized the gracious truth of Romans 8:1 (There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus!) as I lifted my head and replied: “No one, Lord.”

He said “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

As His words washed over me, I was aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit and I was conscious of the awesome I AM overseeing the timeline of my life. I couldn’t see the details—my life did not flash before me—but somehow I knew at that moment HE examined it all, reviewing and sifting all the evidence.

And in that awareness, I heard His quiet, powerful voice: “Son, nothing is wasted.”

I was overcome as I realized that even in my weakest, darkest moments, He understood, with utter perfection, every desire and motivation of my heart. He was intimately aware of every howl of pain when I screamed and cursed in anger instead of crying out in humble brokenness. He saw every wicked craving that sprouted and flourished like twisted vines, choking my true desire to be satisfied in Him. He recognized that even as I attempted to numb myself so I would not feel the inferno of torment and despair that I carried because of my sin, I was crying silently with desperate hope that I might find a place of true repentance.

God Himself presides as Refiner’s Fire (Malachi 3) over each moment of our existence. As we humble ourselves in the fear of the Lord, He hears us and writes in His book of remembrance. He declares over us that we are His. In His mercy He reaches into our lives and extracts the precious from the worthless (Jeremiah 15:19).

You may feel that you have failed, perhaps wretchedly and repeatedly, as I did. But the Father has a different viewpoint. You may believe you have been unfaithful, you have sinned, you have spurned His love and grace, you have done things you should not have, you have not done what you ought. But God doesn’t look at outward appearances; He reads the heart. He is able to discern and nurture the true and precious promise of life He has placed within you. He is able to take even your failures and your weaknesses and extract what is precious.

Do not be afraid to run to your Father, who knows you intimately and perfectly (Psalm 139).

If I should shrink back from the light
So I can sink into the dark
If I take cover and I close my eyes
Even then You would see my heart

You’d cut through all my pain and rage
The darkness is not dark to You
The night’s as bright as day …

Time cannot contain You
You fill eternity
Sin can never stain You
And death has lost its sting

And I cannot explain the way You came to love me
Except to say that nothing is beyond You  …
(Rich Mullins, “Nothing is Beyond You”)

Even though you may only see worthlessness and sin from the failures of your life, He perceives every pure seed of love and faithfulness. He has not forgotten every wavering resolution to obey Him. He remembers it all, and from the ashes of failure He extracts what is precious, purifies it, and creates radiant jewels for His eternal glory within you.

Nothing of value, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is forgotten.

Nothing is wasted.

we do what we’re told

(I wrote this a couple of years ago for my blog Raw Fruit). 

Here now, are ideas oft repeated:

  • If we could get rid of religion, there would be no more war or social chaos.
  • God is a sadistic tyrant who eternally tortures people just because they don’t believe in him/her/it.
  • Churches expect their people to accept all their teaching, and punish independent thinking. No intelligent, informed person believes in God.
  • Religion has poisoned every culture and resisted all human progress.
  • The Bible is an incoherent mess of writing by superstitious ancients, and is full of contradictions.

I could list many more, but these are the first few that popped into my head.

These notions are dogma to a large segment of our society; ideas so pervasive it almost seems they exist in the intellectual air our minds breathe. It makes sense to turn away from “God” and religion in disgust, since religious zealots scurry about raping the environment, carrying weapons, and secretly plotting to overthrow governments and force the entire world to become a theocracy.

I wonder how many who cling tenaciously to these positions are aware that there are rational, reasoned responses to every single assertion, and others like them? Thinking people through the centuries have wrestled with gigantic questions and doubts and fears, and have come to rational conclusions and positions of faith that can be well-articulated. Whether you agree or not is your prerogative, but you should not dismiss their findings out of hand as if they are ridiculous. To do so is dishonest and foolish.

I have not set out in this post to “prove” the existence of God or the love of Jesus. I am not here to perform quantitative analysis of empirical research. I am merely a pilgrim pointing past myself, past all the garbage and the fluff and even the good and bad “stuff” to signposts, sometimes only dimly perceived, leading us to a place where we can all find hope and truth (and hopefully hope through truth).

Now, it is true that there have been terrible atrocities throughout history performed by individuals and groups claiming to be people of faith. Churches can be hotbeds of uncritical, mesmerized group hysteria, filled with preachers whipping their followers into a frenzy. Religious fundamentalists often speak out with venom and bitterness and appear to hate anyone who feels differently than they do. Since I am a christian, let me confess for us all: mea culpa.

But, consider this well-known quote:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion)

Or this comment from a blog post (note: I previously included the link, but the post no longer exists):

…if your storybook was true, I find it funny your warped idea of gods love. The relationship your hold with god and jesus isn’t some friendship, your not walking through the woods skipping and dancing. you are being an obedient slave who worships him and strokes his ego and if you don’t you go to hell. seems to me god is a bit of tyrant and is extremely egotisticals and will have anybody who is willing to get on their knees and worship him. if you want to be that pathetic then i really to pitty you all. (comment from “not stupid”)

It appears christians do not “corner the market” on anger and bitterness. When I read comments containing this kind of contemptuous hostility, it sounds as though there is deep hurt beneath it.

I think Mr. Dawkins and “not stupid” both need a hug.

Let’s be real. Anyone who holds to dogma and opinion without at least a bit of examination is a religious fundamentalist. Many militant atheists fall into that category. When we cease to process information critically, with at least a modicum of humility, we are prey to the conformity of “groupthink”.  We have moved lockstep into a herd of sheep who all run the same direction, over the same packed ground. This mentality affects us all in one fashion or another. I have read publications from supposedly enlightened “freethinkers” who spend their energy spouting the same tired rhetoric as they pat each other’s intellectual backs.

Every human has a worldview, a matrix through which they process information. That is important and necessary. It’s just that we need to be continually reminded of mystery. No matter how you slice it, none of us possesses every piece of the knowledge pie. The sheer volume of what we don’t know–and I am speaking of the entire human race en masse here–is staggering. To be a seeker is to be humble, which is one way to become truly wise. It doesn’t mean that a seeker won’t have opinions–strong ones in some cases–it just means that he or she is willing to engage with others in a respectful, open manner.

It has become a tired cliche’ to say “I’m not religious, I am spiritual.” But it is true that every person ever born is a spiritual being. We crave transcendence. We seem to be “hardwired” with a desire to connect with humanity, nature, and the cosmos. Most of us sense intuitively that it is a marvelous thing to immerse our lives in causes greater than ourselves. Those who focus on living for their own pleasure and gain end up shriveled and emaciated husks.

I often marvel at the beauty of nature, or contemplate the magnificence in a clear night sky, and I tremble with awe for the wonders laid out before me by a loving creator. I pray and experience a peace from something or someone outside myself. I ask for wisdom, and am granted understanding that comes from sources I didn’t uncover with my own intellectual ability.

I encounter the love of Jesus Christ, the living God, every day in numerous ways. It would take far more than one post to explain how and why I came to believe and experience him, and continue to have that experience. Many millions of other people through the millennia have lived the same way.

This is a Grand Adventure.

I do not claim to have new understanding; all I can do is share my story, which I do gladly. But I am aware that if someone fortifies themselves with disbelief, any thoughts I could offer will most likely fall on deaf ears.

You can lead a sheep to Living Water, but you can’t make him drink.

ashes to beauty

Today, as I write this, I mark three years to the day that I began my journey out of a profoundly dark season of my life, into the joy and pain of deliverance and healing and the relief of finding mercy and acceptance from my Father and from family and friends I had deceived and sinned against.

Three years ago, at this time, I was in the process of drinking myself into an alcoholic stupor. Sometime in the early morning hours of the next day I lurched back into a semblance of coherence and discovered I was lying on a bed in a local ER. I saw my wife sobbing; I looked into the shocked faces of precious friends; I beheld my children as they struggled through tears to understand what was happening, and what had happened.

I had walked with the Lord almost forty years and had served in a leadership capacity in many local and international ministry venues. Yet now I lie on a hard bed, wasted, bloated with alcohol, wretched, angering the nurses with my continued lies as I insisted I had “only had a few beers.”

I won’t go into details about my descent into alcoholism—that is for another time. But through the years of ministry, and all the decades of good Christian activity, I still found it difficult to fully accept the love and forgiveness of God. Somehow, I was hesitant to completely trust the tenderness of His mercy. I somehow wasn’t convinced that as a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him.  For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust (Psalm 103:13-14). In my foolishness—in my pride—I assumed my frame should be made of “sterner stuff”.

We read in Isaiah 53:5 that Yeshua was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. He took the full brunt of my anguish and rage and dishonesty and wickedness and bore it away from me by fully bearing it in His pierced and severed flesh. My angry recriminations against God, who I felt was unjustly ignoring me, found full-throated expression in His howl “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?”

Because He took all my iniquity upon Himself, I am fully and completely free, and I have been able to walk a path of profound healing and renewal. I am forgiven, and justified by His grace alone.

I write about my experience today to proclaim that the past one thousand ninety-six days (one of the years was a leap year) have been a source of amazement to my family and me. God was able to take a series of events that had the potential to smother us in cerements of despair, and instead use them to craft a multi-colored tapestry of hope and healing.

For years I read Yeshua’s words in John 15:5: “Without Me you can do nothing.” I agreed with Him, of course; but through my filter, what I really believed was: “Without Me, you can’t do a lot of things.”

Well, funny as it might seem, when you look into the original language, what Yeshua actually meant when he said “nothing” was NOTHING.

Weird.

Interesting, isn’t it, how regularly and easily we fall into the trap of thinking we can accomplish much. Even worse, we also feel that our salvation, our holiness, our love for God is primarily self-generated. We pray and cry, we mourn because of our failures, we wail that we“should be closer to God”, when all the while Yeshua holds out His nail-pierced hands and tells us: “I have done all and more than you could ever imagine. You are fully forgiven and accepted in the Beloved. I desire to manifest My goodness to you and live My life through you, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Come boldly to the throne of grace, to find mercy and grace to help in all your need.”

The worldly spirit of self-reliance and the spirit of dutiful religion are two sides of the same coin. Both give credence to the lie that we are our own god. Either way, we view our lives through the filter of our own works. That is the reason brutal self-condemnation (my specialty) brings no awareness of our Lord’s loving presence, and does nothing to foster deeper holiness within. Yeshua accomplished our salvation and our righteousness through His sacrifice on the cross, and there is nothing we can accomplish to add to His finished work.

So I rejoice today in a life made precious and beautiful in His image; a life saved and catapulted into new hope even as I thought I had plunged myself into a pit of degradation. Our Savior is the God of restoration, the One who gives

 …beauty for ashes,
the oil of joy for mourning,
the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.
That (we) may be called trees of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD
that He may be glorified (Isaiah 61:3).