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The Wayne’s Worldification of Christianity

In his book, Practicing the Way of Jesus, (also on kindle) Mark Scandrette recounts a very powerful conversation. A small group of friends had chosen to engage in a short-term experiment. The idea of the experiment was to live simply, making more space for devotion to God and service to others. One of the aspects involved simplifying their wardrobe – boxing up all their clothes except for two outfits.

After describing the experiment to another friend, that person was highly skeptical. He says that, having grown up in an incredibly legalistic faith community, he had hoped that “we” were moving into an age of more grace and freedom. And this experiment sounded a lot like that legalism.

Scandrette’s response was fantastic.

“A rule is oppressive when we impose it on others or judge them by it, but there is great freedom when we choose limits which add value to our lives.”

Now to be sure, the danger of being human is that we (or those who come after us) are tempted to take the helpful experiments of today and make them into the universal codes of tomorrow. My friend Nate used to say, “Disciples will be to an extreme what their teachers were in moderation.”

However, I also believe that using the slippery slope argument is typically nothing more than laziness built on the fearful anticipation of future laziness.

There is great wisdom in Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 4 to think upon those things that are true, noble, excellent and praiseworthy. This isn’t just about keeping our thoughts pure and untainted. Dwell on the excellent, noble things because the mind is a powerful tool. I’m not talking about “The Secret” here, I’m talking about human obsession and self-fulfilling prophecies.

For instance, in many “men’s purity” ministries, there seems to be an incredibly unhealthy obsession with our own sin and temptation. In the process we go from dehumanizing women as sexual objects to dehumanizing women as instruments of temptation. Men are encouraged to look away, attempting not to see this woman in order to avoid lust. This is seriously messed up.

What if we instead focused on that which is excellent and praiseworthy? If we struggle with seeing women as sexual objects, the solution isn’t to simply change the image to another object – the solution is to actually see the person. See the image of Christ. See the child of God. Because they are not the problem, we are and our continued obsession on sin just feeds our own brokenness.

As a blogger and purveyor of blogs, facebook posts, twitter feeds, etc., I hear a lot about Christianity’s “image problem.” We talk about the way that Christians are perceived by the media, by those who are not Christian, by those who feel (happily or indignantly) like outsiders. We talk about the “Shoot Christians Say,” to playfully deconstruct our constant use of insider language. But, I wonder if Christianity has a much more fundamental image problem: how we see ourselves.

There is a difference between acknowledging our imperfection and narcissistically obsessing about our depravity. Constantly commenting on our unworthiness sounds like false humility or compliment fishing. I don’t think that is what’s going on as often as it may seem. It’s an image problem. We don’t see ourselves very well and that makes it difficult to see God clearly…and vice versa.

A well known pastor recently said, “All theology is cat theology or dog theology. Let’s say two pets have an amazing, kind, generous owner. The cat thinks: “I must be an amazing and valuable cat.” The dog thinks: “I have an amazing and valuable master.”

There are about 37 things wrong with this brief quote. First, it makes me agree with a cat…and that should never happen.

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Second, it equates our relationship to God to a person’s relationship with a pet – also problematic. I’m not just being an overly literal metaphor reader here; the relationship dynamics that this brings to mind are off base. But that isn’t the real problem.

The biggest flaw is that it buys into the assumption that there is something wrong with rejoicing in our value and worth as image bearers and children of God. I’ve said this before, but if I found out my kids were telling people that I loved them even though there is nothing lovable about them it would break my heart. My children are amazing. I love their quirky personalities. I love how different they are from one another. I love Conner’s analytical thinking and tender heart; Micah’s artistic eye and stubborn individuality; Josiah’s constant passion for everything and quickness to show affection. My kids are amazing and I hope they know that.

Does God enjoy us less than I enjoy my own children? That seems odd.

The tendency to constantly belittle the human condition seems pious…but it only seems that way. In a sense, the running commentary of total depravity makes light of suffering, brokenness and sin. “Of course we do awful things, we’re awful…whatcha gonna do?”

We have become Wayne and Garth…and that’s only funny in brief doses.

Its very convenient, really. We have a built-in excuse for never growing, never taking responsibility for our actions and feeling spiritual throughout it all.

This denies Jesus’ claim and Paul’s exhortation that we are being made new – new creation, new life, new people.

Why do we not see more of this transformation? Perhaps its because we’re so busy giving ourselves negative reinforcement that we are unable to see anything else. We’ve trained ourselves not to see. We tell ourselves we’re worms and wretches, then gorge ourselves on self-centered consumerism like a half-gallon of Blue Bell after a break-up.

Or we become disillusioned with the whole thing and reject all discipline, structure and guidance…even that which would be life giving.

I’ve found that living with a Rule of Life – particularly in community with others (including the one I live with my boys) – is freeing and rejuvenating. I’m able to explore the possibilities of my own discipleship in the Way of Jesus because I’m not constantly trying to figure out where to start. I can embrace limits to my “freedom” which add value to my life by clearing away the clutter, because I trust that that which I will see more clearly is worth seeing. Like the grueling summit climb to a mountain top, I know that momentary discomfort will be rewarded with a view you can’t get from the valley.

But this won’t work if my heart and mind are filled with pseudo-pious self-loathing. I am an image bearer of God, a beloved child of the King, one who is worth much because I was fearfully and wonderfully made. I know that I am valuable because my Father has repeatedly told me so.

And this does not make me a cat, damn it.

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Telling Better Stories

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Some of those who have responded to my previous post on the wrath of God(primarily in person or by phone) seem to have understood me to say that God is not concerned with sin or that there is no response of wrath.

I understand how they could come to that since my first post on this subject was intended primarily to pull our focus away from the satisfaction of God’s wrath as the primary purpose of the cross. I made a case against this perspective not because I don’t believe it has a part in this story, but because for so many of us it has been the ONLY part of the story that seemed to matter.

I do believe that sin and injustice matter to God. I believe that violence and oppression certainly bring about the wrath of God; my friend Luke pointed out the story of Sodom and Gomorra…another good example would be the plagues on Egypt. I have said before, and still believe, that mercy taken to an extreme is injustice to those offended.

I believe that our obstinate desire to continue in sin when faced with the Truth of God, is something which does bring guilt and potentially wrath.

I’d like to talk more about what that means. When we read about the wrath of God being poured out or threatened to be poured out there are two basic categories: 1) evil and violent cultures/people groups and 2) God’s chosen people who continue generation after generation to refuse to worship God alone; who fail to be the people they’re called to be.

Notice that if the evil communities – such as Sodom and Gomora or Egypt – would have repented, then God would have withheld his wrath. Look at Ninevah – Jonah preaches the worst sermon in history and boom, the whole city repents and then, double boom God relents. No sacrifice needed to appease his wrath other than the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart.

Regarding the wrath poured out on God’s people – a story which is repeated throughout Israel’s history – let’s not forget how often they were given the chance to repent and turn back to God. The message of Jeremiah was that God’s wrath would come in the form of exile and control by a foreign power unless the people turned back to God. God’s wrath was NOT inescapable, it only came about after repeated refusals by His people to listen.

I’m not arguing that Jesus’ crucifixion didn’t serve as the final sacrifice for sin – I think that is absolutely part of what happened. However, I believe that it is false to assert that God is bound by his justice to require a sacrifice and therefore that must have been the primary reason for the cross. If God is bound to satisfy justice, then God is subservient to justice…we should worship justice because it is more powerful than God. But God is love. Love certainly involves seeking justice for others, but love also forgives offenses against itself.

I believe that there are some serious holes in the position that God is bound by his justice and so the pouring out of his wrath on someone (be it on us or Jesus) is central to his nature. While God is certainly just, God is not subject to anything – if so then, again, we should worship that. It is not okay to say that God IS justice and thus he is bound by himself. First of all, while Scripture says that God is just (an adjective) it does not say that God IS Justice (noun) – we’re told that God is Love…not Justice.

One response I’ve heard to this is that love must be just. Love certainly contains a component of justice yet it is also filled with mercy, long-suffering, forgiveness and grace.

Substitutionary atonement fails to acknowledge God’s longstanding history of offering forgiveness to those who have offended him without requiring the taking of life. Hosea 6 reminds us that God“desires mercy, not sacrifice.” In that passage God, through through the prophet, is urging his people to turn back and acknowledge him – they had ALREADY broken their covenant with God and thus justice demanded that they be put out. The entire point of Hosea’s life and ministry was that God is not bound by this expectation of justice. God is willing to set all that aside if his people will remember and return.

Isn’t that precisely what we are called to as well? Paul confronts the church in Corinth for their insistence on getting justice when they’ve been wronged: “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?(1 Corinthians 6:7)”

Demanding justice for yourself does not seem to carry the same weight as demanding justice for the weak and the oppressed (assuming you aren’t the weak and oppressed). God is the One who speaks up for justice on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves and yet where God is concerned he extends mercy and forgiveness.

When God is finally forced to pour out his wrath, he tells the people he will not remain angry forever – God’s wrath is redemptive rather than merely retributive (thanks Nate); God’s wrath is a means rather than an end.

How does Jesus describe God in relation to our “lostness”? Well, most of us are familiar with the three parables of lost things. The lost coin, lost sheep and prodigal son are important parables where Jesus stresses heavily the nature of God – hence three similar stories in quick succession. In these stories we find not a vengeful God of righteous wrath, but a compassionate caretaker, shepherd and father. The shepherd does not require the sheep to be sacrificed and the father does not require the son to become a slave – apparently being lost was punishment enough.

HOWEVER (Galatians 6:7) “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” God does take sin very seriously because sin is a component of the larger brokenness that plagues all of creation – a creation that is beloved by God and which God is even now working to restore and heal. Sin, brokenness and evil are true enemies of life, if that is what we sow then that is what we will reap.

What if that is what the wrath of God really is? Eventually God allows us to remain in the lostness we brought on ourselves. It isn’t that God brings about some vicious torture because his sense of honor has been accosted. He invites us to return but if we continue to refuse; if we continue to willingly sow evil, then how can we not reap destruction?

This shift in understanding does is not devalue the damage of sin or the need for a Savior. However, it does demand that we recognize how we’ve made sin the point for too long. Sin is only the point if our genesis (beginning) was in Genesis 3. But the fall of humanity is not the foundation of this story, the point is the power of a good creator God speaking all things into existence and being very pleased with his good creation (Genesis 1). The point is that this God desires to be in close communion with that which he has made and he will cross any chasm to rescue us from death.

Sin is a character in this story, but it is not the main character. The wrath of God is a potential subplot, but not the climax or the resolution. The wrath of God is no more central to this story than not failing a class is the central reason to study in school or gaining nutrients for physical survival is the primary reason to share a meal with friends.

God is a just God; he demands justice for those who are oppressed and he will not allow those who continue to defy him to remain unpunished. But God IS love. God is the One who is at work in healing broken lives and restoring damaged relationships. This is the central message of the cross – a new power and a new kingdom are available. No longer will the oppressive regimes of this world define power. The Kingdom of God is at hand, it is for everyone and it has a whole new definition of life.

The barriers have been torn down; the enemy has been vanquished and the invitation to enter into life has been given. This is not primarily about a loan shark collecting a debt, this is about a father running to meet his child on the road. Falling on his knees, kissing and embracing his beloved, putting rings on fingers and coats on shoulders and throwing a feast to celebrate the restoration of the father’s broken heart.

That is a much better story.

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