Sunday, 24 February 2008

Why We Need A Jesus (Part 1): Great Humanity's Tragic Flaw

Why do people so often disappoint us? Why are we so deeply hurt when they fail to match up to our expectations? What keeps us hoping for a purity, a greatness of character that rarely fails to elude us, in ourselves and in others?

Isn't it that, despite the glaring flaws in the very best of us, there is something deeply a part of humanity that is inexplicably lovely - something so wonderful that it teaches us to hope, again and again?

We like to talk about "good people" and "bad people". A friend of mine stays with a man who hits her because "he's not a bad person". She sees something in him, despite his violence, that is pure and beautiful. Knowing what goodness lies within, she can't bring herself to toss him out, even though the very same man may someday, in a rage, kill her.

The truth we don't like to face is that there aren't any "good people" or "bad people". In each of us lives, side by side, a nature that is loyal, loving, kind, and true - and a nature that is selfish, hateful, spiteful, and proud. Whether because of personality or experience, some of us are better or less able to control which side shows itself, but both exist in us all.

Occasionally we meet people whose characters are so shot through with beauty that we begin to hope - perhaps they will be the ones to satisfy that stubborn longing within us that, seemingly without any basis, seeks purity, nobility, and an unfailing heart of love. And reality comes to bite us on the bum time after time. Oh, we still love them in spite of their failure to meet our expectations. We don't have any business doing it any other way, since we know ourselves to be so flawed. But the point is, we are disappointed.

What teaches us to hope? What is it about the human imperfection we can discuss intellectually, that doesn't translate to the subconscious us - the part that hopes, in the face of knowledge and experience, for someone (a friend, a lover, a mother or father) that won't let us down? How is it that such rich, dear, loveliness can exist alongside violence, stubbornness, arrogance, selfishness?

What else, but that we are made in the image of very God - so that our deep essence is no cheap thing, but a thing made with his own beauty and greatness and love? What else, but that sin eats away at that precious thing, destroying its usefulness but unable to nullify its rich value?

Our world is built upon a great tragedy - one that, to understand, we need not study science or history or theology. We have only to look with honesty at that thing we know both least and best - our own heart.

Outside of Jesus Christ, we have neither explanation for the tragic reality we know in every fibre of our lives, nor have we any cure.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

On Beggars and Choosers

Modern capitalism is based on the manipulation of desire. We find ourselves a consumer society; one that has gone softly into a long good night in which guilt and fear prevail, and longing is dulled and re-directed. Our need to choose has been substituted with the much more glamorous privilege of choosing from.

Willingly, we have accepted the outrageous lie that individuality and personality may be satisfied by making consumer decisions. Our need for freedom is sublimated in the exercise of consumer privileges. That I may select from twenty varieties of toothpaste, or twelve movies, or four electoral candidates, appears as freedom. We have become convinced that choice need involve nothing creative: it is enough for us to merely select from an array of options.

Ideas, too, have been added to shelves of the grand marketplace in which we all live. Having succeeded in throwing off our need to seek and think and feel and consider, we have succumbed and contented ourselves with selecting entire blocks of thinking, based on processed and packaged philosophies, theologies, and belief-systems.

Consumerism creates the illusion of luxury, which is tied to the act of selecting. Since beggars can't be choosers, we must all be first convinced that we have no needs, only desires. We are all choosers with no real needs, but only the luxurious privilege of selecting the goods and the packets of theory that best match our personalities.

In allowing ourselves to be transformed from thinkers to consumers, we have been elevated from scrabbling in the dust of reality and experienced truth. Instead, we discuss theories that we have chosen to ascribe to, but hardly even understand. From trusting and experiencing a God that we can't see, we have gone to trusting what amounts to little more than popular opinion. Science has been unjustly discounted in the Christian world; but much of what is passed off as scientific truth in the secular world is only that portion of science which agrees with other socially and economically convenient truths. We toss around scientific arguments and other "facts" as though we aren't simply trusting those who purvey them; as though they have been researched by us; as though we deeply understand why they must be true.

We look for ideas that have been well-packaged, endorsed by appropriate authorities or celebrities, and carefully branded. I select and carry about my preferred brand of truth as I might a new handbag. It's a fashion statement; something that sets me apart and tells the world what type of person I am. Even we who call ourselves Christians want to think it's enough to believe that Jesus exists; that on that basis we will be acceptable to God. The demons themselves know that he exists!

Because you say, "I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing," and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked... (Revelation 3:17)

Truth is not something to be consumed. If I am to know it, I must first know my need of it. We are not, after all, choosers, but beggars, if we only knew it. The question is not, "Does God exist?" or "Who was Jesus?", but one that I may have a full answer to: "Who am I? What do I need?" If we can see the problem within that is utterly destroying us; which makes a mockery of all that is beautiful and true in us, then we know that, whether or not he exists, we need Jesus. That he is the only solution that matches our one great need. And if he does not exist, then there is no hope for us anyway.

The man who knows himself carried swiftly along a river that ends in a waterfall asks no questions about the rope thrown to him. He grasps it, because, though he knows not whether it may be trusted, he knows his problem. There is no shortage of solutions being bandied about by the philosophical and religious people of our world, and what can we know of their viability? If we know our problem, we will take part in no elevated selection of an appropriate solution, but a desperate grasping of what will meet our deep need.

Jesus Christ the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

My Scary, Surprising God

How can we be sure that our God is not a product of our own minds? How can we know that the God we believe in is not a projection of ourselves and our wishes and hopes?

This post is in answer to a challenge presented by DagoodS: "How does your god Frighten you? How does your God surprise you? How does your God change your thinking?"

Power can be exciting and comforting at the same time. What child doesn't like to imagine superheroes with great powers? In the same way, our imaginations of God make him an all-powerful genie, and Jesus the ultimate Superman. We can love this kind of a God because his unlimited powers are, in a way, at our disposal. He is on our side. We just have to pray diligently enough, sprinkle a little faith-dust, and *poof* - our wishes are granted.

The God of the Bible bears no resemblance to such a magician. His purposes are vastly different from ours. He does not grant wishes to his favorites. The privileges I am offered if I follow him are himself, and the privilege of knowing him - though my choice allows God to use his power for my benefit, he doesn't use it for my comfort; nor is his power given into my control. Similarly, we experience this in nature. As we take our rightful place in the natural world, the benefits of nature come to us - but never is nature under our control. The universe laughs at a person or people who think they can through study or industry bend the natural forces.

I love the ocean whose salt waves cool my body in summer; whose unseen depths and ceaseless tides at the same time calm and intrigue me. But though I splash and play in the waves, they are no playthings. The ocean is relentless. It is set upon principles that will not be denied, though I cry and beg. It is a thing wholly outside of my control, and is therefore a thing to be feared as well as loved.

So is God. His principles go far deeper and higher than my wanting. He is not controlled by my pleading. He is not devoted to my comfort. He let Joseph be falsely accused and languish in prison for ten years. He let the Hebrews be made slaves to the Egyptians. He allowed John the Baptist to rot in Herod's dungeon until John questioned all that he had lived for - then he let them cut off his head. Who would imagine such a God?

But wait - there's more. The same God who seemingly ignored the pleas and tears of those who followed him the most closely all through history showed that he is merciful, not by granting them favours (as you and I would imagine) but by becoming a man. He became one of us, with all of the human weakness that we despise in ourselves (except sin). He was tired, hungry, dirty, lonely, weak. He had, like us, to seek even his spiritual strength and comfort from heaven. The power that allowed him to give to others offered him no pillow, no home, no dainty food, no freedom from pain or weariness.

Even if it were possible for me to conjure such a God in my own thoughts, if he is an illusion only, then he is a God for contemplation; for philosophizing. When I am cold, I want a blanket. When I am hungry, I want bread. When I am tired, I want a place to lay my head. When I am lonely, I want a friend. The mere thought of a God as the Bible describes him is awe-inspiring when I sit comfortably on my couch and meditate - but such thoughts are easily quenched by the realities of life: loneliness, disappointment, tiredness, hunger, pain. Only the experienced reality of a God who sees and knows - though he denies my request - is enough then.

This sort of a God is frightening. He's too complicated. He's too big, not in the good, "my-Dad-can-beat-up-your-Dad" way, but in the "do-you-even-know-I'm-here?" way. He can give me pain. He can leave me lonely. He can let me be confused. On top of it all, he expects far more from me than I want to give. He's disconcerting.

Then, too, he surprises me. He doesn't do what I expect him to do. He reveals himself as a person I didn't expect him to be.

God surprises me by not being the person I expect; by being subject to reality in a way that he is not in my imagination. In my mind, no one characteristic of God has to have a bearing on any other characteristic, because he doesn't have to make sense except in the way I think of him. In real life, he has to be what makes sense even before I've gone over the parameters and the consequences of his characteristics; even before it makes sense to me. I have to know what he is before I understand why it's necessary for him to be that way.

I used to think that God was completely unlimited; that he could do anything - just anything. Of course, that left me with a million problems that began in my own life and ended in places like Darfur and Indonesia. The God I imagined didn't have to make sense - he could be good AND unlimited AND thus have both the ability and the will to relieve the plight of millions of suffering people down through history... but in reality my little daydream broke down. The God I came face to face with in reality looked astonishingly different because he was limited in the way EVERYTHING is limited in reality. He can't be what he isn't. He can't serve opposing purposes. He can't make a rock so big that he can't lift it. There are reasons for what he does. And yet, the Bible tells me what he is like without my being able to understand how that fits with what I see. It corrects both my imagination and my reasoned deductions. I can see what he does BEFORE I understand why; and I can know (from the Bible) who he is BEFORE I can reconcile that with the evidence. Both of those things are baffling to the imagination. But the fact that I can know who God is before I can understand why it is necessary for him to be that way offers me evidence that my knowledge of God comes from outside my own thoughts.

I thought I could please God by being kind, by helping others, by doing my best to conform myself to the teachings of the Bible. I also thought that by pleasing God, I could expect some favours in return. Oh, not so simply as that. I wasn't thinking that God would ply me with sports cars and overseas flights because I traded in my time and money and tried to be kind to hurting people. But I did expect that there would be some kind of return on my investments. I thought there was some sort of perk to be had for those who follow Jesus. Not so, as it turns out. Well, not like I expected, anyway. No extra comforts, no signs that the King of Kings is my own father.

Just Him. He is the perk. There is deep peace in knowing him. There is joy and purpose, even in the midst of struggle, confusion, and depression.

The more I get to know him, the more he surprises me. He wakes me up early, just to talk. (Ask my mother how likely it is that I'd wake up early on my own!) He shows me the selfishness at the core of the sacrifices I make, and the pride that surrounds my most selfless acts. He bursts all my balloons, and replaces them with himself. Oh, he is lovely, but make no mistake - God is a party pooper. Just when I'm feeling great, patting myself on the back for a particularly selfless act, he sticks his foot out and I'm flat on my face. That's not just surprising, it's frustrating.

And just when I've got him in a nice, neat little box - the kind you can hand to someone like a present - I come smack up against a whole new side of him I've never seen before.

He tells me I'm wrong. In fact, sometimes he shows me that my whole perspective is wrong. I used to think that it was my job to point out sin - from my schoolfriend who lived a gay lifestyle to my sister who hurt my feelings with her carelessness. One day God showed me that judging is his job, not mine, and that being right is far from enough in his eyes. In fact, in trying to take his place, I am worse than those I judge! Do I like that? Nope. When somebody does what I know is wrong, I love the rush of knowing that I'm right and they are wrong, and I want them to understand exactly what the situation is. (There, now you know just what a little prig I am, though I usually try my best to hide it!)

Then, when I thought I was doing a pretty good job of showing what God's love is, He showed me that I don't know a thing about love. He pointed out how much of my "love" is emotionalism, neediness, and pride. He let me see how fast my brand of love turns to hatred and resentment when it is met with rejection, weakness, or apathy. But he didn't leave me there - this is the wonder and the loveliness of the God I worship! - he let me have a little of his love. I had to receive it myself before I could give it, and even then, it wasn't anything like I expected. As it turns out, God's love isn't a warm, smooshy feeling, but a heaviness. It isn't what makes me smile and hand out sandwiches to homeless people - it's what lets me come back for more when I've been kicked in the teeth; it's what lets me sincerely want good for someone who has rejected me; it's what makes me see the beauty of God himself in the kind of person whose sinfulness is all too evident to me; it's what allows me to want another's good at my cost. Don't get me wrong, I've experienced real love in trace amounts - but even the minutest grain of such a thing was enough to turn my whole thinking on its head.

Oh, I am smart enough to figure out what my weaknesses are - but God shows me the deep darkness and the flapping foolishness that entwine themselves about my strengths. The better I know him, the less I trust myself.

No, the God I worship is far more frightening, more complex, more deep, vast, and breath-takingly beautiful than I could ever dream up. I know myself more free as I am changed by him, but I am not released from the chains of selfishness with smooth sighs - it is a bitter struggle with one who is stronger than I. His purpose cuts across mine. He offers me pains that I could not and would not choose for myself. Many in our world have pain, but the pain God gives is different in this - it results in love, joy, and peace. It sets free those who choose Him.

The idea that I could imagine a God so wise, so pure, so full of the kind of love that doesn't even make sense to a human being, is not only laughable but indeed, if it were possible, it would make me - the dreamer of such a dream - myself worthy of worship. That I am patently unworthy is a fact beyond dispute.