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Simply Divine: Worshiping a God Who Lacks Nothing 18.8.2022 03:00

Simply Divine

One of the key moments of God’s self-revelation in Scripture happens at the burning bush, when Moses asks God, “What is your name?” God answers, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14).

Here we see that God does not receive his name, identity, or existence from anyone or anything else. He does not depend on anything to be who he is. He simply and eternally is. It is a truth picked up many times in Scripture, for example in John’s Gospel, where we see that the Word (who again calls himself “I am,” John 8:48) does not acquire life but has “life in himself” (John 5:26).

This is why Paul can tell the Athenians, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything” (Acts 17:24–25). The living God isn’t in any need. He doesn’t need anything to be better, to be more God, or to be more fully himself. He depends on nothing. He has fullness of being. He has life in himself.

Theologians call this the doctrine of God’s self-existence or aseity (from the Latin a se, meaning “from/of himself”). From this characteristic of God, we will see, flows all the graciousness of the gospel.

God Needs Nothing

In this lack of need, God is utterly different from idols.

In Acts 19, in Ephesus, Demetrius the idol-maker makes a striking admission. He complains that if Paul is allowed to say that man-made gods are no gods at all, then

there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship. (Acts 19:27)

In other words, the divine majesty of Artemis is dependent on the service of her worshipers. For all her apparent magnificence, she needs her minions. In herself she is empty and parasitic.

In absolute contrast, God does not need the world in order to satisfy himself or to be himself. The divine majesty of God is not dependent on the world. God did not create the world because of any lack in himself. He created because he was so happily self-existent, so bursting with benevolence. God is so overflowingly, superabundantly full of life in himself that he delighted to spread his goodness.

Because of God’s blessed aseity, we can know that the very creation is a work of grace. Grace, then, is not merely his kindness to those who have sinned. Before there was sin, God brought creation into being out of grace. With the self-existent God, love is not a reaction. God’s love is creative. He gives life and being as a free gift, for his very life, being, and goodness are yeasty, spreading out that there might be more that is truly good.

Where idols need worship and service and sustenance, God needs nothing. He has life in himself — and so much so that he is brimming over. His glory is overflowing, radiant, and self-giving. Because God is self-existent and does not need us, he relates to us by sheer grace. No other god can do that.

God Needs No ‘Parts’

God’s divine simplicity is really just an extension and reinforcement of that truth that God needs nothing.

Divine simplicity means that, just as God does not depend on anything outside himself, so in himself he does not have any parts he depends on in order to be who he is. In other words, God does not derive his being from any quality or idea or thing that might pre-exist him. There is no feature of God that predates him.

It means that God does not “have” some thing called love or holiness or goodness, as if those were removable organs of his that you could transplant. No, God is love — he is goodness itself, truth itself, beauty itself, holiness itself. Goodness, for example, is not some external standard he tries to emulate. He is goodness. God has no parts on which he depends.

So while we talk about the different attributes of God, it is not as if holiness and righteousness and justice are different ingredients that have been mashed together to produce God. He is simple, not a compound.

Regretfully, Christians do often speak of the divine attributes that way, as if they were divine flavors that sometimes sit uncomfortably alongside each other. For example, how often have you heard Christians say, “Yes, God is loving, but he is also wrathful.” We may know what’s meant, but phrased like that it can sound as if love and wrath are different moods — so that when he’s feeling one, he’s not feeling the other. But these are not separable parts of God, as if sometimes he has love and sometimes he has wrath.

No, God is angry at evil because he loves. It is the proof of the sincerity of his love, that he truly cares. His love is not mild-mannered and limp; it is livid, potent, and committed. And therein lies our hope: through his wrath the living God shows that he is truly loving, and through his wrath he will destroy all devilry that we might enjoy him in a purified world, the home of righteousness.

God is simple. He has no such “parts.”

What About the Trinity?

Yet what of the Father, Son, and Spirit? Are they not three “parts” of God?

Crucially, no! For God has not chosen to have or co-opt three parts called Father, Son, and Spirit. God is Father, Son, and Spirit. The difference may sound petty, but it is in fact most profound.

Let me illustrate with a little thought experiment. Imagine that the Father, Son, and Spirit are just three parts, three qualities God has chosen to adopt. If that is the case, then deep down, God the Father is not Fatherly in his essential being. At some point, he simply decided to start becoming Fatherly. In which case the Father has not loved the Son for all eternity. God is not, eternally, love. The very character of God must be different from what we see in Scripture.

Yet in the New Testament, the Son can say, “Father, . . . you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). The eternal Son, the one through whom all things were created, who is before all things (Colossians 1:15–19), who is Lord and God, was loved by the Father for all eternity. The Father, then, is eternally the Father of the eternal Son, and he finds his very identity, his Fatherhood, in loving his Son.

It is not, then, that God the Father has some deeper, secret identity and only chose at some point to be Father — as if he has a nice blob of fatherly icing on top. No, he is Father. All the way down. And for that to be true, for him to be eternally Father, he must eternally have a Son. That is who he is. That is his most fundamental identity. Thus, love is not something the Father has, merely one of his many moods. Rather, he is love. He could not not love. If he did not love, he would not be Father.

He Remains Faithful

The self-existent, simple God is the only God who is not lacking. He is the only God who is inherently loving, abundant, and inclined to be gracious.

We may be lacking and needy, but he needs nothing, and so acts with constancy and kindness. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. It means we can turn to him with confidence — always — and with wonder at his eternal fullness and magnificence. He is, day after day, a marvelous, strong tower.

Only with this God can we know constancy of comfort and constancy of wonder-filled adoration.

Is Boasting Bad or Good? 1 Thessalonians 2:17–20, Part 3 18.8.2022 03:00

Is boasting always bad? If we answer yes, we miss opportunities to glorify the power of Christ on display in the lives of others.

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Is Motherhood Real Work? 18.8.2022 03:00

Is Motherhood Real Work?

“When are you going back to work?”

Before our son came, people asked. After he arrived, they asked even more. It didn’t matter to whom I spoke: friend, stranger, student, retiree, believer, nonbeliever. No one wondered, “Will you go back to work?” People assumed I would. No need to ask about if, just when. A cultural assumption emerged: new moms keep old, pre-baby careers.

Why do we expect women to take maternity leave rather than stay home when their first child is born? Maybe cost of living is to blame. Maybe it’s the belief that two incomes are always better than one. Maybe only a closed-minded thinker would dare to ask, “Will you stay home now?” Whatever the reason, we tend to assume new moms will return to old jobs.

But I was a new mom who left an old job. When am I going back to work? How could I answer that question? I felt awkward, even embarrassed, as I responded, “Oh, I’m not going back to work.” Both in what I said and in how I felt as I said it, another underlying belief bubbled up. This time, it was personal: stay-at-home moms don’t have real, meaningful jobs.

Other stay-at-home moms in my church say they often feel the same. One told me that when people ask “what she does,” she starts by saying, “Well I would work, but . . .” Another, who works part-time from home while caring for two kids, said, “I find myself thinking that the only ‘productive’ parts of my day are the ones I spend engaging with my paid work.” Rather than “missus” teacher or “doctor” so and so, we have all chosen to be “mom” from nine to five (and 24/7). Even so, it’s hard for us to see the payoff. Do we really work? Is our work meaningful?

The God who spoke both women and work into existence answers with a resounding yes. He wrote Genesis 1–3 into the Bibles of new moms like me, in part, to convince us not only that we do work, but that it’s rich, rich work. Not salaried work, but valuable, vital work. I have only just begun this work, but already I have realized that there is no stay-at-home mom. There are only work-at-home moms.

Entrusted with His Image

After all, God gave the very first woman he created the job of being a mother. When God made Eve from Adam, he made her a woman (Genesis 2:21–23). He did not make her a mother. Rather, he entrusted her with the task of becoming a mother.

As soon as God finishes fashioning Adam and Eve “in his own image” (Genesis 1:27), he commands them to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). With what job would the Creator of every subatomic particle in a gargantuan universe employ the first creature in his image he ever made? Making more humans: “Adam and Eve, work together to fill the earth with my glorious likeness. I could form a hundred children for you with a single puff of my breath, but instead I want you to labor to become ‘mom’ and ‘dad,’ to the glory of my name.”

God employs all creation to display his glory, but the first project he charged to the first people was to become the first parents of the first babies — babies whose makeup would showcase God. Sure, they would look like Adam and Eve, but oh, how they would they image God!

So through the lens of Genesis, “my” childbearing becomes God’s image-furthering. When we embrace God’s call to love and care for even one child, we are saying to the Holy One, “I love and care for your matchless likeness. I want to see your goodness, beauty, and worth spread to the ends of the earth, and in some mysterious way, you showcase your glory in the five-inch face of this newborn baby. So I will tend to the needs of this little image you have entrusted to me, to the glory of your name.”

Labor Pains

Seen in this way, we can’t but conclude that motherhood is worthwhile work. Even so, if we read further in Genesis, we can better understand why moms, especially young ones, struggle to value motherhood as its Creator and Giver does.

When our first parents sinned, God justly cursed the good work he had given humanity to do. God said to Eve (and as a result to all women), “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16). From infertility to miscarriage, from nauseating pregnancies to difficult deliveries, we feel the fall’s physical effects on motherhood. Many never become biological mothers. Some lose children. Where God does grant a child, knees tweak and backs strain under years of constant care for another’s well-being.

But sin ushered in an emotional struggle as well. Becoming a mother is painful; staying a mother is too. Raising children exhausts, frustrates, scares, and sometimes bores us. What we were made to embrace and enjoy — the God-given, precious responsibility to nurture life and so further his image — causes us to worry and sigh. We lose God’s grand vision for motherhood in the pile of dirty diapers we need to toss or (later on) the curfews keeping us awake until they’re home.

Mothers of the Living

We can find it again in the creation story. By God’s grace, we can be mothers who gladly continue the work of creation despite the fall’s effects. But at this point, we would do well to ask, “To what end? Why would God give me the job of nurturing humans made in his image first to biological life and then to physical, mental, and emotional well-being if ultimately the curse ensures everyone will die?”

God settles our angst in an unlikely place: Eve’s name. In Genesis 3:19, God delivers the final words of the curse: to dust you shall return. The first humans God created to enjoy eternal life in his presence — they will die. Any future humans entrusted to them — they will die too. With this news we would expect the garden to fall shamefully, despairingly silent. But it was not so. In the very next verse, we read, “The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20).

The mother of all living? Why would Adam give Eve this name? Didn’t God just say that Eve’s body, and all the bodies that come from hers, and all the bodies that come from theirs, would dissolve into dust?

He did, but he also said something else. While cursing the serpent, God declared that one of Eve’s offspring would stamp out this patron saint of sin and death (Genesis 3:15). God would permit Satan to sow evil on earth — but the clock is ticking. The enemy’s time short. For one day, through Adam and Eve’s childbearing, Satan would be overthrown, sin conquered, death vanquished. God promised it, and there and then, Adam believed God’s promise. He believed God enough to name his wife “the mother of all living” in the face of pain and death.

Mothers, do we believe God’s promise? This side of a tiny manger, a bloody cross, and an empty tomb, no childbearing is an exercise in futility. Motherhood is not meaningless, but a mission from God. Jesus Christ, the promised seed, has overthrown Satan, conquered sin, and vanquished death. Because of him, we are not just nurturing little bodies that take in first and last breaths. We are caring for hearts and minds and souls capable of enjoying this Jesus forever — in real, perfect, resurrected bodies, with chests rising and falling in eternal praise.

Job as Old as Eve

When does a new mom go back to work? She never stopped. People will still ask, but by God’s grace she will see motherhood as a job as old as work itself. What is more, she will believe that a mother’s labor matters, eternally so. We are not just nurturing image-bearers who reflect a glorious God. We are nurturing potential Christ-enjoyers and Christ-exalters. We stay home, and we work to this end with all our motherly might.

When rightly captivated by the God-given task of motherhood, then, we will not dread a change in or the loss of career, hobbies, or leisure upon a baby’s birth. Rather, we accept the task as both gift and opportunity to shape life to the glory of God.

Why Do So Many Reject Jesus? 17.8.2022 03:00

When the light of Christ shines upon the darkness of our sin, we either run to Christ as the only covering for our shame, or we run further into darkness.

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What Does Disunity Say? Three Common Types of Division 17.8.2022 03:00

What Does Disunity Say?

Things fall apart. It’s the second law of thermodynamics. It’s Romans 8:20 happening all around us. It’s a reality I increasingly experience in my body as I pass through the second half of middle age. Cracks permeate everything — including every church I’ve known.

Christian relationships encounter all the temptations common to man. That’s why Christian churches will rarely experience a kind of unity that knows no conflict or struggle.

But an absence of conflict and struggle is not what God has in mind for Christian unity in this age. As I’ve explained more thoroughly elsewhere, God gives unity as part of our inheritance in Christ (Ephesians 1:5, 11), but Christian oneness has a participatory dimension through which God accomplishes some glorious work in us and the world. So when God, through Paul, commands us to eagerly “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3), he intends for this endeavor to be hard — for some very good reasons.

But more than that, God intends our churches to experience seasons of noticeable disunity. In fact, these seasons are necessary, because they bring to light some very important realities. The old hymn pinpoints it well:

Tho’ with a scornful wonder
The world sees her oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed.
Yet saints their watch are keeping;
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song.

When it comes to Christian unity in this age of things falling apart, the reality we experience is “sorrowful” over our frequent factions, “yet always rejoicing” over the future grace of perfected unity set before us (2 Corinthians 6:10).

By Schisms Rent Asunder

Church schisms happen, as we all know. And they get a lot of bad press from Christians and non-Christians — often much deserved, as we also know. But schisms perform necessary functions in the church by revealing numerous areas requiring attention. Let me address three types of division in the church.

1. Fleshly Schisms

Paul illustrates the first type of schism in his blunt reproof of the Corinthian church:

I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? (1 Corinthians 3:1–3)

Fleshly schisms plagued this church. They were divided into partisan loyalties and impressed by worldly wisdom and rhetoric (chapters 1–3), easily swayed by those who slandered Paul in his absence (chapter 4), tolerating shocking sexual immorality (chapter 5), suing each other in civil court (chapter 6), damaging each other’s faith over issues of Christian freedom (chapter 8), and more. Paul didn’t call them false Christians; he called them fleshly Christians — people governed more by carnal discernment and desires than by the Spirit in numerous areas.

True Christian unity can be experienced and maintained only where Christlike love governs — the kind Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13. Therefore, it’s a much-needed mercy to bring our unity-killing fleshliness into the light so we can see it and repent. And church schisms often perform that function.

2. Maturity Schisms

A second type of schism overlaps with the first, but its function is distinct enough to highlight. I call them maturity schisms.

Any healthy, evangelizing, disciple-making church will have differing levels of maturity among its members. And when people of diverse maturity levels come together, conflicts will erupt. Different life experiences, scriptural knowledge, and overall sanctification will stretch the church.

Differences in maturity run many different ways. A younger person might have more life experience in a certain area than an older person. Or someone who’s been a Christian a long time might be more governed by the flesh than a newer convert. Or a less formally trained saint might have a more profound, life-transforming grasp of Scripture than a seminary-trained saint. On top of that, some members who “ought to be teachers” may have regressed in maturity by habitually indulging sin, and so they need milk again (Hebrews 5:12).

Here’s my point: the maturity diversity that’s part of normal, healthy church life produces a complex relational recipe for a lot of misunderstanding and plenty of pride-fueled conflicts. Positively, this gives us all opportunities to learn from each other and grow in grace. Negatively, we don’t always seize these opportunities, and sometimes they grow into various schisms.

3. Necessary Schisms

Paul also addresses a third type of church schism in 1 Corinthians 11:19:

There must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.

As Jesus taught in the parable of the weeds in the wheat (Matthew 13:24–30), our churches in this age will remain a mixture of Christians and non-Christians, no matter how seriously we take membership. Some weeds, thankfully, will become wheat by the end. But some are weeds, and often it’s schisms — factions — that reveal them.

And some of these weeds grow into a league of their own, as we know from urgent apostolic warnings of false teachers:

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. (Romans 16:17–18)

You must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. (Jude 17–19)

These false Christians are “fierce wolves” that prey on the flock of God, “men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30), causing distress in our churches by their heresies. And one clear way we can recognize that they are not genuine is by the disunity they create due to “contrary doctrine” and “ungodly passions.”

Gifted Unifiers

In addressing church unity, Paul explains why godly, mature, loving, wise, Scripture-soaked, straight-talking leaders in various roles are such valuable gifts to any church. They

equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11–13)

This is a hard calling, requiring proven character, wisdom, knowledge, and a track record of “walk[ing] by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). Therefore, church leaders must not be spiritually immature (1 Timothy 3:1–7) lest they pour the gasoline of fleshliness on the flames of emerging church schisms rather than the water of sacrificial love and godly wisdom.

Mature leaders foster cultures in their churches that help saints pursue “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” And they’re not naive. They know that factors like fleshliness, maturity diversity, and false Christians make this corporate pursuit hard. But they also know it’s necessarily hard. In this age.

‘How Long?’

But this age isn’t forever. An age approaches when weeds will not grow among the wheat, when our sinful flesh will no longer influence us, and when whatever different maturity levels may exist will no longer result in conflicts. “We [will] all [finally] attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). We will all experience the unity that is our inheritance in Christ, and all be one, just as Jesus and the Father are one (John 17:21).

Till then, let’s not give up the fight to be one. In this fight for unity, we experience numerous aspects of the Father’s varied grace. Forced to wrestle with our own sin as we pursue unity, we experience much-needed sanctification by the Spirit. And as we struggle to attain and maintain unity, we discover and experience priceless dimensions of the love of Christ and display it for the world (John 13:35).

And our desire to experience the “not yet” promise of the completed, perfected, harmonious oneness of the body of Christ causes us to long, groan, and pray for the age to come. It keeps us saints watching and crying out, “How long, O Lord?” And the promised joy of perfected unity set before us fuels our hope that “soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.”

When Death Does Us Part: Last Words of a Long Lost Love 16.8.2022 03:00

When Death Does Us Part

When it works as it should, marriage is a tragedy.

I have seen the quiet courage it takes for a widow to walk to her pew as the funeral begins. Once she entered the sanctuary as the radiant bride, and all eyes were upon her in her glory. Now she enters as the bereaved, and all eyes are upon her again, watching to see how she will hold up. I have seen the children of the widower worry as their dad made his precarious way to his funeral seat. Once he was the beaming groom watching for the first sight of his bride. So proud, so strong, his life before him. Now he shuffles. But he has resolutely rejected that blasted walker. He’ll go unaided, once more, for her.

What a grievous plight! A couple cleaves together for fifty or sixty years. They learn to know each better than anyone else. They communicate often without words but still with clear understanding. For some twenty thousand days and nights, they have given themselves to each other, died for each other, and lived for all the life that came from their love. Then, just as nerve fails and frailty rises, one of them dies. One is left to carry on alone, just when the deceased is most needed. One endures, heartbroken but resolute to live from love and vows pledged so long ago.

As Aragorn tells Arwen in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, “There is no comfort for such pain within the circles of this world.”

Aragorn and Arwen

I don’t remember reading the appendix of The Lord of the Rings before I was married. The saga of destroying the Ring and setting right Middle-earth had been enough for me. But early in our years together, Rhonda and I read the trilogy aloud. We didn’t want it to end. So I paged through the extras and stumbled on the history of the relationship between Arwen, the undying elf princess, and Aragorn, the rugged Ranger who was heir to the throne of Gondor.

Tolkien pierced me with beauty and sorrow in places of my heart I didn’t even know I had. I still can’t read those few pages without, at some point, popping tears. But neither can I stop returning to this story so filled with not only the sorrow, but also the choice and the hope of every enduring love. Following it will lead us to a set of the most beautiful and true sentences ever written.

The Meeting

As a young man of 20, Aragorn walks one evening in the woods of Rivendell, one of the fair realms of the elves. He sings as he wanders, taking up the ancient lay of Beren and Luthien, a man who dared to love an elven princess and she who gave up immortality to marry him. Just then, he sees Arwen walking among the birch trees. Smitten by her graceful loveliness, Aragorn feels he is living inside the song. For Arwen is the daughter of Elrond, the elf lord who rules that land. With confidence beyond any renown he has yet earned, Aragorn approaches Arwen. His heart is hers.

But the future appointed for them seems a block to any relationship. Though young in appearance, Arwen has already lived the years of many human lifetimes. Her destiny is to sail at the end of the age with her father and kin to the undying lands of the West. Aragorn has yet to win his way through the battles with the Shadow and undertake the near-hopeless quest to see the Ring of Power destroyed. Elrond will permit no talk of union with his daughter until Aragorn has proved himself faithful and victorious.

Decades pass. Then it happens that in Lothlorien, another edenic woodland of the elves, Aragorn comes again upon Arwen under the trees. This time, she loses her heart to him, seeing him grown into the fullness of manhood. For some days, they walk and talk together blissfully. Yet both know that the Shadow of Sauron deepens. His malevolence threatens the world. Great struggle lies ahead. Victory seems unlikely. Choices must be made. Will Aragorn forsake the war, withdrawing with his beloved as long he can? Will Arwen choose to depart for the West, mysteriously referred to as the Twilight, safe from war but never able to return to Middle-earth except in memory?

The Choice

In the moment of choosing one another, they also pledge their lives to the desperate struggle for the renewal of the world. “And the Shadow I utterly reject,” says Aragorn. Arwen replies, “And I will cleave to you . . . and turn from the Twilight [though] there lies . . . the long home of all my kin.” Their lives together will be in the mortal realm, where evil must be fought and a kingdom built through faithful service.

The more Rhonda and I have personally pressed into the depths of living from Christ and for Christ, the more we have realized our call to fight the evil one through our love. Trust in Jesus’s promised future fuels us to live in hope, even as the days seem to grow darker. We realize our marriage is a weapon against the unraveling of the world. Fidelity, forgiveness, hearing one another, giving grace — these are militant choices for love.

In cleaving together as Christians, we renounce the Shadow — understood as living for ourselves, merely to consume what we can of the good life. We also decline the Twilight — understood as withdrawing from the struggle and snatching as much peace alone together as we can afford. Of course, challenges to this vision enter every life stage. The time of our parting will, no doubt, nudge our faith toward despair. But courage can be found in the rest of Aragorn and Arwen’s story.

The Hope

Against all odds, Aragorn wins through. On midsummer’s day after the Ring is destroyed, Aragorn and Arwen marry. They have more than a century together while the kingdom flourishes. But at last, the time comes for parting. Though long lived, Aragorn still has to face the doom of men. On his deathbed, he says to his beloved the words already quoted: “I speak no comfort to you, for there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of this world.” Only long and joyful love could grow such sorrow.

It seems a rotten system. This sorrow can tempt us to give up. To curse God. To be cynics. To declare love only an exercise in futility. The pain in parting becomes the fiercest challenger. So Aragorn continues, “But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring.” All love in this world still languishes under the “futility” of our mortality and our ever-more-apparent “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:20–21). The choice for hope takes continuing effort. The vocation of committed love to bless the world demands renewed engagement of the last enemy’s challenge, especially when strength fades. Right in the teeth of the pain ahead, we look death and evil and sorrow straight in the face and nevertheless renounce selfishness and sin. We reject withdrawal into the shadows, and choose to love to the very end.

So we come to Aragorn’s beautiful sentences: “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory! Farewell!”

Within the world we experience, nothing now can remove the pain when two so interconnected must part. But that is not the final word! Reality is not limited to this world of time and space. We go to something more. Something more than oblivion, that awful emptiness of the atheistic future. Something more than a shadowy existence, that underworld the ancients perceived as the realm of the dead. Something more than merely living on in another’s memory, or as an impersonal part of the vast universe. Rather, something more real, more us, than ever before. Something founded on the rising of Jesus, who burst through these mortal constraints into an embodied and relational eternity.

Beyond the Circles of the World

Tolkien detested allegory and eschewed any one-to-one correspondence between the characters in his fiction and the people we meet in Scripture. Yet his faith undergirded all he wrote. Tolkien explored these underpinnings in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” He wrote that great stories fully acknowledge the sorrow and the failure in the world, and even the fear that these will be all that’s left. Yet the Christian story “denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat . . . giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

For Tolkien, this hope flows from the veracity of Jesus’s resurrection. Christ has conquered death and so altered the future of the world. “The story begins and ends in joy. . . . There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true.” This great turn toward joy against impossible odds is the enduring beauty in The Lord of the Rings, and on his deathbed, Aragorn became the spokesman for the faith that joy wins out. We cling to this.

How much did Tolkien believe his character? How deep did his faith run that in the world he created he was rendering truths from Christ’s redemptive reality? Ronald and Edith Tolkien share a headstone in Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford. I think it’s quite telling that under her name is etched “Luthien.” Married 55 years, she was his elf princess, his Arwen and true love. Under his name, “Beren” is carved, for he won her heart and proved his troth through the decades. Now they know that we are not bound forever to the circles of this world. Beyond them is more — oh, so very much more.

Who Is Paul’s Joy — Christ or the Church? 1 Thessalonians 2:17–20, Part 2 16.8.2022 03:00

Christians not only love Christ; they love what Christ loves. And since Christ loves his church, so do we.

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Our Gentle and Terrifying God: How Justice Holds Out Mercy 15.8.2022 03:00

Our Gentle and Terrifying God

Sinners rescued from the road to hell love to rehearse and celebrate the mercy of God. Where would we be today without mercy? Where would we be for eternity without mercy?

Without mercy, we would be dead in our sin, a death worse than death. Mercy called us from the tomb. Mercy lifted us out of the pit. Mercy opened our blind eyes. Mercy gifted us with faith, repentance, and joy. We deserved every possible ounce of rejection, punishment, wrath, but God gave forgiveness, love, and life instead. All that we have, we have by the mercy of God. Is there any other god, in all the religious imaginations on earth, who deals so gently and compassionately with sinners?

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” Jesus says, “for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). Knowing how we’ve treated him, all the endless ways we’ve each ignored and insulted him, he has every righteous reason to be severe and merciless, but he’s gentle with us. He stoops low to receive and restore us. Jesus recites these precious lines from Isaiah about himself: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench.” Who could know himself a redeemed sinner and not love the kindness and tenderness of such mercy?

And yet mercy doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s another side of this king — a holy, majestic, jealous, even vengeful side, a side sinners like you and me are often far less likely to rehearse and celebrate.

Bruised on the Battlefield

When Jesus drew near to bruised reeds and smoldering wicks, he did not coddle or compromise with sin. His mercy mingled with justice:

Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
     my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
     and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. . . .
a bruised reed he will not break,
     and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
     until he brings justice to victory. (Matthew 12:18–20)

He came to establish justice, and he wouldn’t stop until he saw it to the finish. We might imagine these bruised and vulnerable reeds hiding safely in backyards and community gardens, but here they’re crouching on the battlefield of a cursed world.

Why else is the reed bruised and the wick smoldering, if not because they’re caught in the awful, ordinary crossfire of sin? We all relate to that thin, fragile blade of grass because we’ve felt like that at times, if not often. We’ve all felt the sting of sins against us, and we’ve all watched, with sorrow-filled anger, as sin has torn apart marriages, families, friendships, communities, even whole nations. With our hearts aching with confusion and grief, we’ve cried out for justice. We’ve groaned, with creation, for a better world than the one we have.

Until Justice Is Done

Jesus came to bring that better world, to pour out justice like Niagara in spring, to declare war on all who opposed him, to put a certain end to centuries of rebellion. And yet, as he wages his holy war, he kneels down, with infinite strength, taking fire from every direction, to lift and support the weak, humble, trusting souls in his path. Toward his enemies, he’s severe, unyielding, terrifying. Toward his own, however, he’s gentle and lowly.

On that battlefield, his justice is not some dark cloud casting a shadow over his mercy; it’s the sunless, moonless night which makes his mercy shine. His justice and mercy are two parts in one holy symphony. Isaiah 30:18, for instance, plays the harmonies, mingling the tenderness of God’s mercy with the promise of his justice:

The Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.

Mercy and justice are not at odds here, but beautifully joined together. Because he is just, God will be merciful to you, in his perfect timing. His grace to you, in Christ, is justice. The purest enforcement of justice ever conceived or executed delights to show mercy.

God of Against

This mercy does not blunt the force of his justice. The justice of God is a soul-shaking, pride-shattering justice. Right before Isaiah 30:18, the Lord confronts Israel for desperately turning to the armies of Egypt for rescue:

Because you despise this word and trust in oppression and perverseness and rely on them, therefore this iniquity shall be to you like a breach in a high wall, bulging out and about to collapse, whose breaking comes suddenly, in an instant; and its breaking is like that of a potter’s vessel that is smashed so ruthlessly that among its fragments not a shard is found with which to take fire from the hearth, or to dip up water out of the cistern. (Isaiah 30:12–14)

Notice, the mercy of God doesn’t keep him from severity. Is the God you worship one who ever smashes rebellion against him? When you close your eyes to pray, is there ever a sense that he could, right now, righteously decimate billions of people for refusing and insulting him — that sin really is that repulsive and insidious? Some regular awareness of his holy furor against injustice, especially all our injustices against him, is vital to a healthy life of worship. The God of all comfort, after all, is also a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29).

For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up — and it shall be brought low. . . . And people shall enter the caves of the rocks and the holes of the ground, from before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth. (Isaiah 2:12, 19)

This is not a cruel God left behind in the Old Testament. This is the God of infinite mercy. The God who stoops, in Christ, to gently lift you out of your sin will one day terrify the nations again. His justice may be hidden, for a time, beneath his staggering patience, but its devouring fire will soon consume his enemies.

Justice Fueling Mercy

All of that makes his mercy all the more stunning. The terrifying flames of justice don’t undermine his mercy, but illuminate and enflame it. “The Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice.” But they were despising his word and trusting in oppression and perverseness — how could he be both just and gracious to them? How could he bless the ones who cursed and despised him?

By becoming the curse they deserved. Revel, again, in the familiar and shocking story of how justice and mercy meet:

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:23–26)

The wooden beams outside Jerusalem frame the wondrous marriage between justice and mercy. Through the cross, God is both just and justifier, both just and merciful. On that dark and bloody hill, the terrifying justice of God became a servant of mercy for all who would believe. In Christ, justice is no longer a threat, but a refuge. All the sovereign power that would have ruined us now promises to protect us. “‘In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you,’” Isaiah 54:8 says, “‘but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,’ says the Lord, your Redeemer.”

How could we feel the full weight of his mercy toward us if we tend to ignore or marginalize the fury of his justice?

Justice and Mercy for Me?

We know all of this about our God, and yet some reading this still struggle to believe that God will be so merciful. The guilt and shame they carry make everyday life feel heavy. They hate their sin, and have made efforts to be done with it, but are back on their knees, again and again, bearing the same painfully familiar confessions. The mercy they thought they’d found feels further and further from reality. Could God really forgive and love someone like me?

Others reading this, however, struggle to believe justice really will be done. Some days, it feels like their whole lives have been one long heart-rending headline. They watch the godless enjoy comfort, success, and prosperity, while they suffer for their faithfulness. They cling to the promise that everything will eventually be made right, but they search the corners and crevices of their lives in vain for evidence it might be so. And if they muster the courage to raise their eyes above their own plight, they see many more suffering in horrible, unjust ways. Could God possibly make anything good of all this pain and injustice?

We struggle to embrace the justice of God because we don’t trust him to fully deal with sins against us. We struggle to embrace the mercy of God because we don’t trust him to fully deal with sins done by us. To both groups, the bloody cross and the empty tomb stubbornly say, he can, he has, and he will. He will surely bring justice to completion. No stone in your life will go unturned. Every sin against you will be brought into the light and made right. Justice himself will call wickedness to account until he finds none (Psalm 10:15).

And in the meantime, he will not break a bruised reed. He won’t quench a smoldering wick. His mercy is as wide and deep as you are sinful. Our God is far more just than we realize, and far more merciful than we can now imagine.

Who Will Judge the World? 15.8.2022 03:00

Scripture speaks of the Father judging the world, the Son judging the world, and sometimes even the word of Christ judging the world. So, in the end, who will judge?

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Martyr or Madman? The Unnerving Faith of Ignatius 14.8.2022 03:00

Martyr or Madman?

“I am afraid of your love,” Bishop Ignatius wrote to the early church in Rome, “lest it should do me an injury” (Epistle to the Romans 1.2). It is hard to imagine more ironic words.

Ignatius, a disciple of the apostle John, was nearing seventy years of age when he sent the letter ahead of him on August 24 (somewhere between AD 107 and 110). He told them he remained “afraid” of the believers’ love — meaning he was afraid that they would keep him from martyrdom, that they would “do him an injury” by keeping him from being torn apart by lions.

Ignatius sent a total of seven letters to seven churches en route to the Colosseum. This letter to the church in Rome gave his thoughts on martyrdom and extended a special plea for their non-interference in his. Instead of asking for whatever influence the Roman believers may have had to release him, he bids them stand down.

In his own words,

For neither shall I ever hereafter have such an opportunity of attaining to God; nor will ye, if ye shall now be silent, ever be entitled to the honor of a better work. For if ye are silent concerning me, I shall become God’s; but if ye show your love to my flesh, I shall again have to run my race. Pray, then, do not seek to confer any greater favor upon me than that I be sacrificed to God. (2.2)

And again,

I write to all the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless ye hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. (4.1)

Martyr or Madman?

Michael Haykin’s assessment seems conclusive: “In the seven letters of Ignatius of Antioch we possess one of the richest resources for understanding Christianity in the era immediately following that of the apostles” (31). Surveying Ignatius’s letters to the seven churches on the road to Rome, Haykin summarizes three concerns weighing heavily upon the bishop’s mind: (1) the unity of the local church, (2) her standing firm against heresy, and (3) non-interference in his calling to martyrdom (32). The first and second are unsurprising, but what are we to make of the third?

What do you think of a man saying, “May I enjoy the wild beasts that are prepared for me; and I pray that they may be found eager to rush upon me, which also I will entice to devour me speedily. . . . But if they be unwilling to assail me, I will compel them to do so” (5.2)? Who is this Daniel praying not for rescue but looking forward to the lion’s den?

Some scholars, Haykin notes, have called him mentally imbalanced, pathologically bent on death (32). Christians had been killed in the past, but few, if any, with such enthusiasm. What right-thinking Christian would write, “If I shall suffer, ye have loved me; but if I am rejected, ye have hated me” (8.3)? Was he a madman?

‘Sanity’ to Ignatius

Did he have an irrational proclivity for martyrdom? Can his death wish fit within the bounds of mature Christian life and experience? If you were his fellow bishop and friend — say, Polycarp (later a martyr himself) — what might you say if you desired to dissuade him?

You might call his mind to the holy Scripture — for example, Jesus’s prophecy of Peter’s own martyrdom (which happened years earlier in Rome). Jesus foretold, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18).

The apostle Peter did not want to go and stretch out his hands in his own crucifixion. He did not want to be dressed by another and “carried” to his death. Granted, he wanted that end more than denying his Master again, but it stands to reason that if he could have ended differently, he would have chosen otherwise.

Or you might consider the apostle Paul and his second-to-last letter before he too was likely beheaded in Rome. “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1–2). He exhorts that prayers be made for rulers that Christians might lead quiet and peaceful lives. Pray for your leaders, in part, that they might be saved — and thus not given to killing you “all the day long” for public entertainment (Romans 8:36).

Ignatius to ‘Sanity’

“But,” the well-taught bishop might have responded, “did not Peter write much of suffering and necessary trials as tests to our faith? Does not God place our faith in the fire (or the Colosseum) that it might be found to result in praise and glory and honor at Christ’s revelation (1 Peter 1:7; 4:12)? Or did Peter not put forward the suffering servant, Jesus Christ, as our example to follow? Or is it not a ‘gracious thing in the sight of God’ to endure suffering for righteousness’ sake — something we are ‘called to’ and blessed in (1 Peter 2:20; 3:14)? And further, did Peter not tell the church to ‘arm’ themselves with this thinking (1 Peter 4:1), and to rejoice insofar as they share in Christ’s sufferings, evidence that the Spirit of glory rests upon them (1 Peter 4:13–14)?

“And what to say of our beloved Paul? Was it not he who was hard pressed to stay, even when fruitful labor awaited him? Did he not inscribe my heart on paper when he said, ‘To live is Christ, and to die is gain,’ and that to be with Christ is ‘far better’ (Philippians 1:21, 23)? And was it not also the case that, knowing he was walking from one affliction to the next, he walked the martyr’s path — against the behest and weeping of fellow Christians who threatened to break the apostle’s heart (Acts 21:12–13)?

“‘Constrained by the Spirit,’ did he not go forward (Acts 20:22)? He testified that he did not count his life of any value nor as precious to himself, if only he could finish his race and ministry to testify to God’s grace (Acts 20:24). He assured crying saints along the violent road that he was ready not only to be imprisoned but to die for the name of Jesus (Acts 21:13). They eventually submitted and said, ‘Let the will of the Lord be done’ (Acts 21:14). Will you not imitate them, beloved Polycarp?”

This imagining is to help us get into the mind of the “madman,” as well as to warn us from drawing hasty applications. Though most will not consent so insistently and passionately to a martyr’s death, some will pass by other exits on the way to testifying to the ultimate worth of Christ.

Messiah’s Madmen

What might we, far from the lions of Ignatius’s day, learn from the martyred bishop of Antioch? I am challenged by his all-consuming love for Jesus, a love that the world — and some in the church — considers crazy.

Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let breakings, tearings, and separations of bones; let cutting off of members; let bruising to pieces of the whole body; and let the very torment of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ. (5.3)

If we are madmen, let it be for Christ. Should not Paul’s words be stated over our entire lives? “If we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you” (2 Corinthians 5:13). If we are crazy, it is because of Christ. If we are in our right minds, it is for others to be won to the same madness we have. The love of Christ “controls us” (2 Corinthians 5:14).

Oh what a beautiful strangeness, what a provocative otherness, what an unidentifiable oddity is a Christian who loves Christ with his all and considers death to be truly gain. Such a one can see, even behind the teeth of lions, an endless life with him.

 

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