Posted in Christianity, Faith, Love

The Greatest Love Story Almost Never Told

love-story

In a burial scene during the latest X-Men movies, one of the characters picks up the cross at the head of a newly dug grave and turns it before placing the two sticks back into the ground so that an X now stands at the head of the grave.

It’s supposed to be a simple statement about the person buried in the ground,  but I couldn’t help myself from seeing something deeper behind the symbolic gesture. It seemed to me that by taking down the cross in this way, the movie had literally “X-ed” out God.

But, should I really give in to the righteous outrage this degradation of my God stirred in my chest? If I look really hard at the way we Christians try, and mostly fail, to reflect why Christ’s message is good news, how can I really blame the secular world for its obsession in breaking down the things they perceive that I stand for?

I recently listened to one of N.T. Wright’s speeches at a Pepperdine Bible Lecture series. In it, he claimed that the story the world at large has learned from us when it comes to Christ is one in which God’s hatred of us led to the need for the sacrifice of His Son to save mankind instead of the truth of the absolute love story the gospel really is.

For God so loved the world. Growing up listening to too many sermons where I was reminded, like Jonathon Edwards’ congregation of the 18th century, that I might be likened to a spider dangling above the open flame of God’s wrath, I easily supplanted His overwhelming love in my fear of His inevitable judgment.

In a world where you are reminded of your failings, the love you feel from God too easily becomes understood as conditional. You have to earn His love for you, just as you earn the respect of your peers. Considering how often we stumble, I can only imagine how much He rightfully hates me. Looking at life through these conditional lenses, I can’t help but hate myself.

It’s easy enough to fall into this trap of doing to earn God’s love and salvation. We live in a world where we delineate winners and losers. We judge others according to their accomplishments. We study a Bible in which we struggle to match the Old Testament God of Wrath with the New Testament God on a Cross.

We Christians are not immune from failing to fully accept that our belief alone in Christ and His teaching is what saves us, even though nothing else we do adds anything to our actual salvation. Too often, we make these unconscious checklists of the things we should be doing to ensure what is already ours through faith, things like never missing church on Sunday or never passing a person wanting a handout without giving him something. These to-do lists are commendable goals for a grateful heart that wants to live for God, but making them a requirement for salvation proves we have fallen victim to rendering conditional a relationship that is actually unlimited.

If Christians are unclear on the absolutely unconditional love of God for humanity, how much more so will those who do not believe fall victim to our seemingly confused theology? We make it so much easier for a secular world to X out the one good thing it has going for it because the light we shine is shrouded in this confusion over the height and depth and breadth of God’s love.

The good news is that the story of Christ is not a story of sinners in the hands of an angry God, but a true love story, the truest love story, about a God who made us in love, in His own image, and has never stopped loving us unconditionally, even when we turn our backs on Him.

If you need examples of man’s inability to break the bonds of God’s love for us, the Bible is replete with them. How many times did the Jews turn from the ways of a God Who only wanted them to love Him first and foremost? And, every time, He waited patiently for the stiff necks to turn in true worship to Him once more.

The parable of the Prodigal Son is another example of God’s capacity to feel love, only love, even when we deserve His disgust.  When the prodigal wastes his inheritance, returning to his home only after he has led the most ignoble of lifestyles, the father doesn’t tell him that he got exactly what he deserved. The father greets him in love, with mighty hugs, tears of joy, and a grand feast. When one lost lamb returns to the herd, the Shepherd who loves beyond human understanding rejoices.

Perhaps the most powerful example of the love story that is Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation is the assurance that we who believe are no longer condemned. There is now no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, Paul assures us in his letter to the Romans (8:1), one of the New Testament’s most powerful treatises on the gift of Grace.

We’re human. We’re still going to stumble and fall. But, no matter how hard we hit the pavement, God refuses to condemn a saved soul. That doesn’t mean He won’t want better from us next time. It doesn’t mean we should go through life without thinking about our actions or trying to be a better person. It just means we can free ourselves from the burden of judgment that has been lifted. The yoke of our Mighty God is truly light. It is a yoke held up by the truest love there is.

You want to argue politics or stand on your moral high ground about hot-topic issues? Maybe there is a time and place for all of those things. But today, in this divided country we live in, I think it is much more important to make the Christian job description conducive to spreading the love story of our Awesome God.

If you want to change the world, start by making sure the world knows just how much God loves it. He put a piece of Himself on that rough wood and gave up all the power of the universe so that His children, which includes all of us, could be in relationship with Him again in a heavenly home where love conquers all.

That’s a love story of the ages, for the ages. And it always has a happily ever after.

In Christ,
Ramona

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Posted in Christian Living, Faith

Live In Full Knowledge Of Your Becoming: God’s Perspective On A Life Lived Well

God is interested in my becoming, not my being

I wake to sleep and take my waking slow.

Poet Theodore Roethke sums up life in this refrain to his famous poem. A life fully lived takes the most advantage of every waking moment, squeezing out of every experience as much learning and joy, love and hope as is possible.

God longs for us to live this way, in constant communion with Him. He wants us to seek Him on our best days, our worst days and every day in-between. He promises that if we concentrate on Him, on His blessings in our life, on His dreams for us, on the kind of actions that bring Him glory, we will know a kind of peace that supersedes any challenges this troubled life may offer.

How unfortunate it is that when bad things happen, we flawed human beings tend to rationalize our way out of our relationship with God. We wonder how a good God could let such bad things happen to us, especially when we have spent our lives worshipping Him, studying His word, praying.  Some, like seed planted in thorny ground, give up on knowing God at the first sign of real hardship. Others continue reluctantly in the path of righteousness, maintaining a wary contact, wondering what is left for us in this world if even the worst of things can happen to people who believe.

But these reactions are in antithesis to how God is really acting in our lives. For God, the point of us lies not in our being but in our becoming. When I first had that said to me in a Sunday school class on Romans, I jotted it down in my notes and then promptly went on with the busy-ness of living. Then, I read a similar sentiment in the devotional, Jesus Calling, and something inside me clicked. So, let me say it again:

For God, the point of us lies not in our being, but in our becoming.

My limited perspective wants to settle into the being part of living. It wants to wallow in self-pity when things get rough, give in to pain, and sometimes just give up. But, if I faced a problem knowing that God can use each situation to help me become the kind of soul He needs for His kingdom, imagine how my concentration shifts from why me, to how might I grow.

I don’t believe God causes pain. Pain is a natural part of our fallen, evil-exposed world. But, I do believe God feels my pain, and that He approaches my pain from the perspective of what the sum total of my experiences will eventually make of me. No wonder Paul assures us that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28).

Realizing that God is always working in my life to make something of me that only He knows the full ramification of and need for puts tragedy and pain into a completely different, mind-blowing paradigm for me.

Romans 8:28--God works for the good, always

Our being, our pursuit to stay in the moment of being us is where our limited human brains stay most of the time. When we set goals, they tend to reflect our most limited human perspective: we want to exercise more, eat better, follow God’s commands by being more loving toward others or increasing our volunteer time or giving, reading the Bible more consistently. It’s not that these goals are unworthy or should be cast aside. It’s not even that these goals won’t also teach the perseverance that leads to stronger character.

Even from our limited human perspective we know that a life lived without challenges is a life that is hard-pressed to grow. God, who has His heart set on what we are becoming, is the only One who grasps the full picture. He is the One who tells the oceans they can only come so far. He is the One who underscores our limited-ness by always giving us just enough. We have exactly what we need to know about Him and our reason for becoming in His Word and through our open communication with Him through prayer.

God cares about my becoming. And I only go through becoming like experiencing the pains of childbirth. I cannot think my way into another person. I must experience joy and pain, triumph and tragedy in order to change.

No wonder His word admonishes me to seek Him with a grateful heart, casting each need in the light of the thankfulness I owe my benevolent Creator. If my mind is set on being thankful and loving, my becoming will remain in the all-important arms of the One who knew where my becoming would end even before I was born.

I wake to sleep and take my becoming through the grace of my loving God. Next time you are tempted to wonder why bad things happen to good people, wonder instead at the mystery of your becoming in the arms of a God so loving that He knows all your flaws and yet willingly died for you anyway.

In Christ,
Ramona

Posted in Christianity, Faith

This Cup of Wrath: Part 3 of 3

wrath

We all get angry, some more than others.  Think about the last time you got really, really angry, the kind of angry that makes your whole body shake as you clench your teeth.  Chances are the person who made you so angry is someone related to you or someone you otherwise know quite well.  Why is that the case?  Perhaps because we feel safe to be angry at that person.  They can’t make themselves unrelated to us, can they?  Perhaps it is because we share a past that is so similar that we do not understand how the person who made us angry could have made decisions so different from what we might have done.

But none of these examples of anger are comparable to the wrath of God.  He who made all things is the only One who has the right and full knowledge to be angry.  Pride, jealousy, hatred–the human emotions connected to anger have nothing to do with the wrath of God.  His wrath is reserved for those who refuse to follow His edicts, no matter how patient He is in explaining them to us.  The great essayist Annie Dillard explains it this way:

A high school stage play is more polished than this service we have been rehearsing since the year one. In two thousand years, we have not worked out the kinks. We positively glorify them. Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty he can stifle his own laughter. Week after week, we witness the same miracle: that God, for reasons unfathomable, refrains from blowing our dancing bear act to smithereens.

Who can believe it?

The greatest wonder of all is that the same God whose wrath can and has wiped out the entire human race (don’t forget Noah), is tempered by an even greater love.  Because of God’s love for us, He sent His one and only Son, who took on the wrath of God unto Himself, the wrath that you and I deserve, so that we would be saved from it.

In his series on the book of Revelations, preacher Rick Atchley spends some time discussing the cup of wrath that is mentioned throughout the book.  Rick makes a clear connection between the full, judgmental wrath of God that will be poured out on all who do not repent at the end of times with the cup that Jesus prays to God about in the garden of Gethsemane before He was sacrificed on the cross:

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”  Luke 22:42

In dying on the cross for my sin, Christ drank the cup of God’s wrath for me.  None of us is perfect.  None of us can say we are without blame, without reason for God to be angry or disappointed with us.  But because Christ drank from the cup of wrath, we are free to face God and feel the full force of His love for us. 

As you take your next Lord’s Supper, think about the cup you drink not only as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, but also as a symbol of the wrath of God you so deserve but from which you have been so lovingly spared.  You may, as I, find it hard to actually swallow.

There is no greater knowledge than this: that God’s love for us is such that He gives us what we need and not what we deserve. The cup of wrath is real, but not a thing to fear for those who believe in Christ.  Instead, we Christians should use the cup of wrath as a reminder to be more patient, more loving with others, just as Christ is patient and loving with us.  We have been saved from God’s wrath.  Shouldn’t we long to help Him in His quest to see that all are saved?

Because of Christ, God’s wrath is like words scrawled on the sandy shore, where the waves can wash them out to sea over and over again, holding nothing against us.