Whom He Loves, He Chastens

I am prone to long bouts of melancholy when life gets stressful. Existing problems magnify themselves, I grow to worry about problems that don’t yet exist, and the resulting mass of stresses becomes crippling. Sometimes, swamped with my mess of fears, I cry out to God, commit my worries to him, and plow ahead, unafraid of–or at least unconcerned with–failure.

Recently such a time of stress and darkness came to a head, and it seemed I was delivered miraculously from my troubles. Not by my hard work or some inner strength, this deliverance was entirely undeserved, a free gift. The days that followed were filled with joy, sunshine, and fresh air. My life took an upward turn, and just kept ascending. Each day was better than the last. Soon all my trials lay in the past, forgotten.

 

“So it shall be, when the Lord your God brings you into the land of which He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give you large and beautiful cities which you did not build, houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, hewn-out wells which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant—when you have eaten and are full— then beware, lest you forget the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.”

Deuteronomy 6:10-12

Men have a habit of forgetting where they came from. When life is good, we shove our troubles into the past, and dwell in the present. We cry out for deliverance from our enemies, and when we are delivered, we forget they ever existed. And when our Egypt is forgotten, why should we remember the one who brought us out?

“Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments, His judgments, and His statutes which I command you today, lest—when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them; and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied; when your heart is lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage; who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, in which were fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty land where there was no water; who brought water for you out of the flinty rock; who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do you good in the end—then you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.’”

Deuteronomy 8:11-17

In the wake of deliverance, as land and wealth and freedoms accumulate, we begin to think that they belong to us. It was our own brilliance, our own unique insight, our skills and strengths and mighty arms that won the day. We built these cities with our own two hands, we raised these crops, this is our land.

But it is not. What was a gift in the day of deliverance, what looked like salvation in the deepest pits, remains so when we have grown used to our new graces. Salvation and later glory have always been out of our hands, and always will be. What the Lord gives, the Lord can take, and still his name is blessed. It is his to do with as he pleases.

“Two things I request of You
(Deprive me not before I die):
Remove falsehood and lies far from me;
Give me neither poverty nor riches—
Feed me with the food allotted to me;
Lest I be full and deny You,
And say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or lest I be poor and steal,
And profane the name of my God.”

Proverbs 30:7-9

There is no worse fate than to grow apart from the God of the Universe. Nothing is worse than to be disconnected from the one who gives life, and gives it meaning.

Not all times of trial are a curse. The ordinary pressures of life and the consequences of our foolish actions fall on our heads, not always as a punishment, but as a blessing. Better to suffer from time to time than to grow rich and forget the one who made us so. Better a life of wear and tear with thanksgiving than a life of ease with pride. The troubles of one are superficial and temporary. The dark heart of the other is eternal and spoils all we might enjoy.

“Some trust in chariots, and some in horses;
But we will remember the name of the Lord our God.
They have bowed down and fallen;
But we have risen and stand upright.”

Psalm 20:7-8

Have a blessed week.

David H.

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Evangelical Audacity

Evangelical Christianity is centered on a radical claim: that each individual Christian has a personal relationship with the almighty Creator and Lord of the universe. The very idea is incredible: that even the lowest, most sinful members of the Church have a direct line to the throne-room of the King of Kings. Why would such a holy God have anything to do with such unholy, unimportant sinners? But, staggering as it is, that is the claim we evangelicals make.

If true, this idea has very interesting implications. Consider this: where is the center of such a society? Who is charge? It is no elected official, no pastor, no charismatic personality. All these influences and authorities certainly exist, but they are trumped by direct responsibility to a higher authority. While men must obey human magistrates, those men do so because God has required it, not in response to an independent earthly right. Such a society is a Christ-centered, theocratic society whatever its constitution may be.

This also means that society, though it may have its inequalities (not all of them results of sin), and though it has a great diversity of callings, is not hierarchical. The pyramidal power structure humanity might otherwise create is undermined by a God who speaks to the common man. This is a frightening leveling, a revolutionary equalization. Rich and poor do not matter, nor do ruler and ruled, white and black, or male and female. What matters is each individual’s relationship to Christ.

The claim that every individual must have a personal relationship with Christ not only flies in the face of human pride, it is a threat to earthly power. It is unsettling, removing the reins of rule from human hands to a heavenly Savior. This is a thought that should fill us with fear, certainly, but also provide comfort and a sense of gratitude. We are not in control–but one infinitely more worthy is.

Salvation and Ornery Conservatives

Have you ever wondered why devout evangelicals get up in arms about stuff like getting up in arms? Or raising their children the way they want to? Or not letting the government handle their money? I mean, we tend to be pretty darn touchy about our individual liberties. Hence the Tea Party movement. Have you ever wondered why that is?

Well, I’ve got a theory.* it could be personal salvation. We derive our ultimate meaning in life from our relationship to God. And that relationship is, ultimately, individual. Sure, you can read the Bible or listen to the way we talk and know we do actually believe that groups of people get blessed or cursed and whatnot. But at the end of the day, you die as an individual, you go before God’s throne as an individual, and you are saved solely based on your individual relationship with him.

Now think about that for a minute. Ultimate meaning is derived from an individual’s relationship to God. This means you are primarily responsible for your actions as an individual. You–individually–have been given commands, and you–individually–must obey them. Corporate obedience, while important, is secondary.

Translate that to political terms. You have individual responsibilities, therefore you have the rights to whatever you are responsible for as an individual. Individual liberties take precedence over participation in society. Now, I’m not saying every devout evangelical has worked this out and uses it to justify their political views. What I am saying is that since we believe we are personally responsible for most of our choices, seeing people take away our power to choose regarding those things really rankles us.

Flip this around. A lot of non-Christians in America today, especially those who simply don’t identify with any religion, derive meaning from the human experience. What is important in life is how we interact with others. If there is a way of transcending ourselves and achieving greater meaning, it is in being to good to humanity in general.

Put that in a political context. If greater meaning comes through our participation in the greater collective, you are going to have less of a problem trusting society, or its hired hands, with things like self defense, raising children, or helping the poor. Rather than taking away our God-given rights/responsibilities, that sort of thing is a way of transcending ourselves and participating in something larger and more important.

Often these issues get dealt with by both sides throwing insults around and calling each other names. Liberals might not have any sense of personal responsibility, or conservatives must just be greedy and antisocial. Because if someone disagrees with you, they must be either evil or stupid. Can’t you feel the love? The empathy? The human kindness? The neighborliness? Me neither.

So I’m suggesting that while we continue having these discussions, we keep in mind the fact that our political differences may be powered mostly by differing views of the world. That is a major underlying issue, and realizing that can help us come to more reasonable compromises, if such a compromise is possible. At the very least, it will help us understand one another.

*No, it couldn’t be bunnies.

POST SCRIPTUM:

I do want to qualify this real quick. We Christians, even us hardcore evangelicals, do think in terms of loving one’s neighbor and in being part of a community. But because that is not the ultimate thing from which we derive meaning, the way in which we do is going to be a bit different than the way a secular humanist would. And keep in mind that we will have the same misunderstanding when you place those things above individual responsibilities, since that would be counter-intuitive to us.

The Crafty Whites of West Virginia

I recently watched a documentary titled “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.” The family in question, descendants of the Appalachian entertainer D. Ray White, are all notorious criminals. The camera follows them for several months, recording outrageous interviews and wild parties, births and deaths, prison visits and one sad farewell at the entrance to a rehab center. We meet murderers, thieves, and plenty of drug traffickers and addicts. When all was said and done, however, it was not the horrid lifestyle or its grim consequences that held my attention. What that left me thinking were the insights these white trash criminals had into human nature and the way the world works.

Towards the beginning and end of the documentary, there are several interviews with local lawyers and justices of the peace. One of these men was very insistent that while the Whites were not educated, they were far from stupid. Every one of them, drug addled as they were, was intelligent. And despite this native intelligence, they were all trapped in an endless cycle of drugs and violence.

Behind this lifestyle is a belief that the world is inherently a hard place. We have no control over the course of our lives, because those around us with more wealth and power are determined to use us for their own ends. And if we are not stabbed in the back by someone in authority, or struck down by some crippling accident, in the end death will come for us all. Life here is nasty, brutish, and short. All we have is our family, our wits, and a brief opportunity to work the system and enjoy the ride while it lasts.

It is not as if they are unaware that the fast and loose lives they live have consequences. Throughout, the Whites are quick to admit what they did to get themselves into any given mess. They do not even necessarily think those consequences are undeserved. This is simply how life is–you try to get away with as much as you can, and if you are caught, tough luck.

More striking is the fact that this family is quite firmly grounded in a Biblical view of the world. They are aware of heaven and hell, aware of Christ’s free offer of salvation. There is also no mistaking the fact that they are hell-bound, and know it. That is simply where they stand.

I find it funny that Christians will sometimes compare outlaws like these to more reserved upper-middle class pagans, and come out on the side of the more respectable sinners. The Whites have a real insight here. If life is hard and the world ahead is hell or annihilation, then living a quiet life is ridiculous. Eat, drink, and be merry. Get high on whatever you can find, get money however you can, fight whenever you feel like it, and sleep with whoever you can get. Tomorrow we may be dead, so live now. When Mamie White was asked what she wanted people to do at her funeral, she said, “Party their balls off. Blow pot in my face and snort pills on my head, and…f***in’ rock and roll, baby!” Death comes to us all, so live like you’re dying.

There is no doubt that the Whites pay for their wild ways in the here and now. Hangovers, heartbreaks, addiction, jail time, and lost family members haunt every one until they meet an early death. They may die thinking the party was worth the price, but that is hardly a world worth living in. I do not want to settle for that world, and I do not believe we have to.

As Mamie White and Jesco affirm, there is a God in heaven. He offers us salvation freely. And here is the thing: death–which haunts our heels every day we live–death claimed the very Son of God. But Jesus came back from the grave. He came back whole and healed, and he will never die again. The world was given into his hands, and nothing can any longer stand in his way. The Bible says that if we believe this, and if we confess that Jesus is Lord, we will be saved. Death no longer has any claim over us. Any suffering in this life is only temporary. There will come a time, at the end of all things, when those who follow Christ will be raised from the dead and given an eternal reward. That is a hope worth living for.

But someone who lives like the Whites, if they fall on their knees and repent and follow Christ, is still left with addiction and bad habits and a world of consequences. Because they are now the temple of God, they cannot keep living as they once did, and that is a big change to make. But Paul assures us in Romans that if we will to do what is right, it is no longer we who sin, but the sin that dwells in us. And we have been freed from that law of sin and death, so it can be conquered. Furthermore, Christ has promised to help us walk in righteousness if we simply ask him.

The Whites of West Virginia have a far greater insight into the human condition than many who live cleaner lives. But the consequences of that clear vision is a life that matches the despair they see. But the Gospel is an answer to that despair, a way out of Boone County and the world of drugs and violence they have created. Their lives pose a great question for all of us, and Christ is the answer. I pray that the Whites, and people like them, would come to see it.

God bless.

I Have Meant It For Good

When I put up this post, someone brought up a good question. Doesn’t a high view of God’s Providence make him the author of evil? I said “No–depending on what you mean by ‘author of evil.'” Let me explain.

Amos 3:6, “Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?” It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is “of course the Lord hath done it.” In some sense, whenever evil happens, God has not only allowed it to happen, he has done it. Nothing is outside of God’s control, not even sin and its consequences.

This issue is dealt with most directly in Romans, especially around chapter 9, where Paul points out the fact that God had already chosen who, between Jacob and Esau, he would bless and who he would curse. Not only that, he chose which of their hearts to harden, and which of them to redeem. If this is an issue you want to dive into real deeply, I suggest you read Romans. But for now, let’s take a look at one section, 9:18-24:

“Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?  Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?”

When the Scriptures address this question, the immediate response is “Who are you to ask that question?” The relationship between God and man isn’t the relationship of one created thing to another, of one big clay pot to a bunch of small clay pots. He stands outside the world, as the creator, as the potter. He decides what kind of pot to make, and how to use it.

Another analogy is that of an author. When J. K. Rowling had Voldemort kill off Lily and James, did that make her a murderer? Of course not. God is telling a story, and it has bad guys and it has their victims, and it has good guys and those they rescue. As an author, he can write sin and pain and sorrow into this world without being a sinner.

Paul then goes on to point something else out. What if–and note that he does not feel obligated to give more than a hypothetical answer–what if God was patient and put up with sinners far longer than they deserved so that he could demonstrate his justice on the one hand, and his mercy on the other? After all, we are all sinners, all deserving of death. But God didn’t give us that. He let the human race keep on living and the globe keep on spinning. More than that, he chose to redeem that world, to transform it from the dark place it was to shining city that is yet to come. He chose to deliver people from the death they deserved. If he does that, for his glory, who are we to complain?

Having touched on Paul, let’s shoot back to the Old Testament for a minute and reference Joseph. Joseph thrown into a pit by his brothers, who considered killing him. Instead, they sold him into slavery, and he was hauled away to a foreign land. There he proved himself to be a very good slave, and was made the head over everything in his master’s house. Falsely accused of trying to lie with his master’s wife, he was thrown into prison. There he proved himself a good prisoner and was given more responsibility. He interpreted dreams to two men who promised to help him get out of there, but they forgot him.

Finally, though, one of them did tell Pharaoh about this man who could interpret dreams. Pharaoh called in Joseph, who interpreted his dreams. He said a huge famine was coming, but that it would be preceded by several years in which they could prepare. Joseph was made head over most all of Egypt and prepared for the famine. When it struck, his brothers came down to buy grain. Long story short, Joseph revealed himself and forgave them. In Genesis 50:20 he said, ” But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.” And indeed, all of Egypt and Joseph’s family were saved.

So all of Joseph’s suffering, besides making a good underdog story and a lesson about God’s faithfulness to those who love him, ended up working out for good. And Joseph says that “God meant it for good.” This tells us two things: first, that God meant the brothers to commit this heinous act, and second, that God meant it for good. So God meant for sinners to sin, for a righteous man to suffer. But, he meant it for good.

Honestly, I don’t think it’s hard to answer this question from the Bible. What’s hard is what lies behind the question: trust. We have a choice between a world of pain and suffering with a benevolent higher power we can understand, or that same world where that higher power can not only help us out, but is in control of that pain and suffering. And that is hard to understand.

Trusting God with absolute control means trusting him with everything we hate about life, everything that makes it hard. In the midst of the struggle, it’s hard to see why God would put us through all this. It’s a lot harder to trust him with that kind of power than to trust him with general good will and the possibility that he can get us out of this bad situation when it’s all over. But that’s not the Bible’s solution. The Bible looks the problem of evil in the face and tackles it head on. And it’s answer is “Who art thou?” and “I have meant it for good.” And these are the best answers man can get.

The God Worth Trusting

When people hear about “Predestination,” they have a habit of cringing. The idea that God is all-powerful, that nothing happens without his say-so is scary to human beings. It seems to hurt our human dignity, to take away some of our freedom. We prefer to think of God as a benevolent Santa in the sky who only comes around at convenient times, like Christmas, to check some boxes off our wish list. We want to be the ones who choose our own salvation, who are the masters of our fate, who are the captains of our soul. But no Christian, when the rubber meets the road, really believes this. In prayer, in the trials of life, and in salvation God alone is in charge.

To begin with, who prays to a God who is not all powerful? Would you really ask God to grant you something that is out of his power? Of course not. Whenever we pray for something, we are asking God to exercise his authority over the world in a way that will surely make an impact on the freedom of others. Do you pray for God to guide the doctor’s hands when a friend goes in for an operation? What about their freedom of will? Do you ask that God would bring someone to repentance? What about their choice in the matter? Do you ask that food or money be provided to someone in need? How many butchers, bankers, and businessmen have to be guided by God to answer that prayer?  A man may deny God’s absolute control in the rest of life, but the man on his knees believes in predestination.

But this doctrine is central to the Christian life in areas other than prayer. There are times when tragedy strikes, when disaster befalls us or those we love. In such times, where do we go? As Christians, we go to God for comfort. We go to him because we know he can deliver us from these situations, or if he chooses not to, that he can and will use them for the good of those who love him. A God who has no more control over a situation than we do, whether that situation is war or weather patterns, is hardly a comfort. He can be no more than a fellow-mourner, not exactly a savior, a deliverer.

Salvation itself is the place where the sovereignty of God comes out strongest. If sin means anything, it means we are dead. We are trapped in a pattern of living that hurts us and hurts others. Like a druggie, we can’t break the habit. As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool returns to his folly. But while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. In that moment, when we were dead in our sins, God came into the world and took our place and freed us from that death, that addiction. Once dead, we are now alive with the risen Savior. There is no way we could have saved ourselves, and surely no Christian will claim there is. No, Christ saved us when we couldn’t do it ourselves. And for that, we should be grateful.

God’s sovereignty, his providence, is not something that should make us nervous, but something that should make us rejoice. We should rejoice that he is a God who answers prayers, who provides for us when we need it most, and who rescues us from death. Any lesser God would not be God at all.

Free, Forgiven, and Adopted

A long time ago I heard a lecture by Francis Foucachon on how different cultures talk about sin and salvation. There are essentially three ways of doing this, all of which are found in the Bible. Understanding each of them individually gives us a better understanding of the whole picture. In expanding our understanding of these things, this also allows us to better to communicate the Gospel.

The first way of talking about sin is probably the most familiar in general American culture. In this paradigm, sin is about violating laws. You are guilty or innocent, having transgressed God’s rules, and are in need of a substitute to take the punishment for you. Since this is such an obvious and common way of talking about the Gospel in our culture, I won’t say anything more about it.

The second way is just as true, but not as commonly used around here. This is the language of fear and power. In this paradigm we are slaves to sin and the devil, and under the power of death. When Christ comes, he is the liberator. Instead of a substitute, he is talked about as the one who conquers evil, sets free the captives, and empowers his people. This is the story of the Harrowing of Hell and the inspiration for various movement towards freedom in newly Christianized cultures. Here most of all, Christ is conqueror.

The last sort of language that gets used is that of honor and shame. This was a little more complicated than the other two, or so it seems to me. It also is the one that fascinates me the most. To properly understand it, you can’t think of honor and shame as expressions of self-importance, but as one’s relationship to society. An honored man is one accepted, respected, and loved by society. A dishonored man is shunned and cast out. Sin is shameful, the sort of thing that causes God to disown us.

In an honor/shame paradigm, God our Father has become ashamed of us and disowned us for rebelling against him. But Christ has taken that shame on himself, been shunned in our place. At the same time, he lived righteously, endured every insult and injury given to him, and honored both God and the people he came to save. In taking on our shame, he became yet more honorable. And, crucially, he acted as our intermediary, being separated from the Father for our sake and asking the Father to accept us once more for his sake.

A lot more could be said about these, and I do want to do more delving, especially in that third category. But what’s necessary to realize is that all three are true, and they are more or less dependent on each other. You cannot be shamed unless you have violated some code, broken some law. You cannot be freed from the power of sin and death unless you are honored by the Free Man and accepted into his presence and that of our Father. You could not be under the power of the curse unless you had violated the law and become subject to the curse. You can’t have any of them without the other.

On the other hand, it makes perfect sense that some people and some cultures emphasize one aspect more than the others. We’re finite beings with a finite attention span and a finite amount of time in the day, so we pay attention to what we can. We also have unique stories and therefore things that draw us specifically. So long as we don’t lose sight of the truth of the other points, there is nothing wrong with emphasizing one over the others.

At any rate, there’s an interesting thought to think about. Peruse your Bible with this in mind. It’s fun.

Have a blessed weekend.