As I was writing this post, I came across this quote.
“What is love? Love is the absence of judgment.” The Dalai Lama
Maybe it depends on what you mean by judgment, or maybe the Dalai Lama and I just disagree.
Judgment is a dirty word in our society. It is one of the most carnal and insensitive acts a human being could perpetrate on another–to judge them. It is one of the two deadly sins Christians most frequently accused of perpetrating–judgment and hypocrisy. It is regularly berated by Christians as they remind us that we are called to love, not judge. It is the trump card tossed at people with whom we’d rather not have a dialogue–“Stop judging me (or them or whatever)!” Accepting the narrative that judgment is antithetical to love and in itself is a vice is deeply problematic.
Our legal system is based on judgment. When a murderer is judged to be guilty and subsequently sentenced we don’t object that the judges are just being judgmental. Parenting is an ongoing exercise in judgement. When my son threw away our trash at the frozen yogurt shop without being asked today, I judged that he was performing a kind act of service and affirmed him for it. When he yells at his sister I judge that he is being unkind and instruct him to adjust his actions, and hopefully his posture toward her. Hiring and firing are direct outcomes of judgment. We inspect a resume and judge a candidate’s personality and fit before deciding to hire. We judge that an employee’s performance is not good enough and we fire them. Is the act of making these judgments wrong (and if it is, isn’t that a judgment?)?
Judgment divorced from love is harmful–at times even abusive. But I don’t know that it is best to call judgment divorced from love judgment. I think it is something else. It’s something Jesus gets at.
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
There is a type of judgment that is “unChristian,” but there is also a type of judgment that is essential to following Jesus. What Jesus is denouncing here is twofold. First, it is judgment without self-reflection. It is not that there is no speck in the eye of the other, but that one cannot remove that speck without dealing with the blurred vision being caused by the plank in his own eye. The passage does end with the plank and the speck being removed. The other sense in which judgement is denounced is when judgment is condemning. We should not stand in condemnation over another. When judgment is divorced from love it quickly becomes condemnation. There is no room for us to condemn others.
So judgment of condemnation or without self-reflection is wrong and deeply harmful. Period. Moving on from this point, there is a proper judgment that is wed to love. We can describe this judgment as discernment leading to action. There is no way to read the rest of the Bible and come away thinking what Jesus was getting at in the passage above was that we should not discern the difference between right or wrong and take action based on that judgment. The good of each person and the whole world requires an ability to judge the difference between light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong.
It is fashionable to say that right and wrong are matters of personal fancy, but when the truly reprehensible happens we cannot toe that line. A teacher in our city was just arrested for sexual assault of a student. No one is advocating that the morality of this act is in the eye of the beholder. Right and wrong are only matters of preference until it makes us uncomfortable. No doubt the lines between good and evil are not always clear. Gray areas are real things. But the complexity of virtue and vice does not negate their existence, it only increases the need for wise and loving judgment.
The sacrificial death of Jesus is the pattern of the deepest love–a love that is wed to judgment. It was the judgment that sin and death were destructive and needed to be broken that led Jesus to give his life. In that act of sacrifice he levied judgment against sin (something present in all people and enacted by all people) and loved the world in the deepest way possible. Without judgment this love would not have been necessary. In our culture it may be wise to use the word discernment rather than judgment. However, talking about this issue is important because when people are accused of judgment in our society it is often a discernment that is unfavorable to the sensibilities of another, not a condemnation. And we cannot lose wise discernment (judgment) that leads to action. For the sake of our selves, families, friends, neighborhoods, cities, and the good of the world we must allow judgment and love to remain deeply wedded.
I am hesitant to write about things like what is happening in Baltimore because I know I am culturally. socio-economically, and geographically distant from what is happening. I’m writing today because I feel compelled to as a pastor. I see so much coming from people like me that looks and sounds nothing like Jesus. For those of us who claim the name of Jesus, he is our King and example. Our common call is to be conformed to him and his ways–not to bow to any particular cultural ideology. We’re not doing that.
The idolatry of order.
Destruction of property is wrong. Violence is wrong. But what about systemic injustice? What about huge numbers of people peacefully protesting out of their anguish and frustration? Is violence only wrong when it is directed at those in power? Listening to the reaction of many who claim to follow Jesus generates the feeling that some feel relieved by the pockets of violence that arose among the protests. It serves as an opportunity to decry everything that’s happening and move 100% of the focus off of the misuse of power and seemingly rampant injustice. Order has been removed! How could you ever support people who mess with order!? Civility and order are good. Violence is not. But for the love of God (and yes, I mean love of God), can we please stop acting like order is the only virtue that matters to God? Let’s look to the Bible we claim has authority and see the beautiful picture of God’s intentions for the world. Does it include violence and chaos? No. (Except when God’s Spirit shakes things up!) Does it include systemic injustice, lack of compassion, hatred, and racism? No! We are making one virtue an idol and bowing before it.
Engaged concern for the poor and oppressed.
Jesus said he came to proclaim good news to the poor and to set the oppressed free. We are proclaiming bad news to the poor and telling the oppressed to deal with it. There are Christians I have seen say that people don’t deserve to be heard because some have perpetrated disorder and violence. What?! We ignore the plight of the poor and oppressed because some people acted wrongly? It just doesn’t make any sense from a Christian perspective. We are the people called to see the image of God in all people. We have the strongest reason of all people to pursue true equality and dignity for everyone. Why are some of us its greatest opponents? We are the ones who should be praying for and pursuing, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The kingdom of heaven is one of holistic peace–not just peace for a few people who are like me. Can we PLEASE listen to Jesus instead of FoxNews or MSNBC?
Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Love should drive us. I would just ask each of us to take a few quiet moments and ask ourselves, “Am I honestly being motivated by love in my current approach?” Not by a shallow love that has no tolerance for pain, but by the sacrificial and enduring love most starkly displayed in God on a cross?
Let’s take these words about love and let them form our responses and thoughts…
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
“There will never be a system so good that the people in it no longer need to be good.”
Since I heard those words from Gary Black at a recent seminar, I have begun seeing its implications in our world like the kid in Sixth Sense sees dead people. We are often ignorant of the components of the culture in which we are entrenched, and I I was not aware how much faith we place in systems. But since it was pointed out to me, the places I see it are overwhelming.
When a pilot crashed an airplane into the French Alps, there was immediate attention given to the systems of security on the plane and the systems meant to encourage mental health in pilots.
Our church has been working on bylaws, and no matter how much we tweak them, we can always find ways that something could still go wrong. We just can’t get the system tight enough.
The illumination of violent police behavior across the country has ignited the debate about how to fix the system with increased surveillance, changes in leadership, and adjustments to training procedures.
Wherever you find tragedy, injustice, or shortcomings, you will find people clamoring to change systems. On one hand this is good. Systems do indeed play a substantial role in shaping our world. They can contribute to restraining evil, promoting justice, and providing opportunity. We should be concerned with systems. The problem comes when we move from understanding the importance of systems to asking them to bear the full weight of responsibility for reality.
One of the reasons we place so much emphasis on systems is that we are reticent to talk about character and virtue. We dare not offer that there are certain human characteristics and behaviors that are more noble than others. Ways of being and acting that are better for the individual and for society as a whole. These ways of being and acting are generally sacrificial and difficult. They are not founded on the self, but on the common good. At times we praise these characteristics when they are displayed, but we celebrate them as unattainable anomalies, not virtues which all might pursue.
That leaves us with nowhere to go but to systems. We should work on systems, but we should not be surprised when the systems fail us, and we tweak them, and they fail us again, ad infinitum. The only sure way to attain justice and flourishing in the world is by the agency of virtuous people working for the good of all. If all people put evil to death in themselves, the systems of the world would still promote goodness but would no longer need to restrain evil. Indeed, that is our ultimate destination.
We live in a time where despair, evil, and frustration are mixed in with hope, love, truth, and goodness. We need people who will live as good, courageous, upright people in the midst of whatever systems they function. Because “there will never be a system so good that the people in it no longer need to be good.”
There are many reasons I like Facebook. I keep up with people from whom I’d otherwise be completely disconnected. I read articles that I’d never find if people didn’t recommend them. I even get a laugh now and then.
There is at least one thing I really don’t like about Facebook–memes relating to significant issues. I reached the breaking point today. So here are the four reasons I hate Facebook memes about serious issues.
They have no nuance.
Memes are inherently VERY short statements that have no context. This isn’t a big deal when they are just making a joke, but when they attempt to address serious issues in our culture they suck all nuance from the conversation. Foreign policy that involves hundreds of people, centuries of history, and layer upon layer of cultural dynamics cannot be reduced to a sentence or two with any integrity. The same could be said for the cultural issues that seem to be raging in our country. The lack of nuance leads to the next one.
They are unintelligent (at least most of the time).
I am not saying the people who post them are unintelligent. I’m sure I have improperly reduced complexity for the sake of a point in the past. And I am not saying that complexity cannot be simplified for the sake of understanding. However, very few Facebook memes are legitimately bringing clarity to complexity. Nearly all the ones I see are quippy and poorly reasoned. It takes about five seconds to come up with ways they are grossly deficient.
They are intentionally polarizing and inflammatory.
Facebook memes are intentionally polarizing and inflammatory. Those who agree with the sentiment they’re expressing read them and say, “Of course, no one could argue with that!” Those who are not on board with the sentiment being expressed read them and either lash out in anger and frustration or think, “I disagree but that isn’t fair to my viewpoint at all!” I submit that the authors of these memes do that on purpose. Conciliatory, gentle, and generous comments on polarizing issues don’t get reposted. Comments that whip people into a frenzy on both sides do. We live in a world desperately in need of dialogue and cooperation. A world where we see each other as people, not issues. These memes are diametrically opposed to that.
They shut down dialogue.
There are numerous times I have considered responding to one of these memes. My potential responses were going to be earnest. But when I thought about actually typing them into the comments and hitting “enter” they came across as dismissive and sarcastic–even to me. So many of these issues need real dialogue and understanding, but the form of these memes shuts that down before it has a chance. Certainly Facebook isn’t the best forum for dialogue in any case, but I have experienced posts where people ask genuine questions or share honest thoughts, and something resembling a beneficial dialogue ensues. Most Facebook memes essentially say, “Here’s how it is. Period. Take that.” Not exactly an invitation to dialogue.
I’d encourage all of us to think about what we post on social media–especially if it pertains to volatile issues. For those of us who say we want to follow the way of Jesus, we are to seek peace, to love others as we love ourselves, and to be ambassadors of Jesus who seek reconciliation. Social media is far from the best place to do all these things, but let’s not let it be a domain where we jettison them for memes that work against all of that.
My wife (Michelle) is awesome. This is not a post about that. It is not “an open letter about why I love my wife.” But she’s a pretty phenomenal spouse, and when someone is good at something it’s good to learn from them. So here are five things I’ve learned about marriage from her. I imagine they could be helpful for others too.
I have some control over the state of my marriage.
“I just don’t love him anymore.”
“There’s nothing I can do. Our marriage isn’t going well, but that’s just how it is.”
Michelle has taught me that the idea that the state of marriage is something that exists entirely outside my control is a lie. A lie lots of people believe. There is a widespread cultural dogma that holds that romantic love is based on feelings that are entirely outside our control. We don’t believe that about love for our children, our friends, or even our sports teams. But when it comes to marriage we just hold on and hope “those feelings” don’t totally go away.
Michelle is intentional about doing things that contribute to the strength and beauty of our marriage. Through her actions she reminds me that I have some control over the state of our marriage. I can do things that contribute to its strength and beauty and I can do things that detract from it. We all get that there are big things that can do this, but every day there are little things that add up to great importance. She builds our marriage daily and I’m the glad recipient of this gift. I’m learning to get better at doing the same.
I have choices even when my marriage feels out of control.
There are times when things feel out of control in marriage. For a variety of reasons we find ourselves in a place we wouldn’t choose. We aren’t as connected as we’d like to be. We find ourselves butting heads out of the blue. There are things that contribute to this, but they go undetected and all of the sudden our marriage feels out of control.
When that is the case it is so important to understand that we have choices about what we do in the midst of it. Michelle and I have gone through some times like this. As I look back on those times I realize that it was in those times where she stepped up the things that build up our marriage. She encouraged me more than normal. She reminded me that she loved me with a love that goes beyond how she feels at a given moment. She bought my favorite iced coffee even though the price tag usually keeps me from buying it.
I can guarantee she didn’t FEEL like doing all those things. She just made up her mind to do them. In the midst of marital turbulence she made choices to move toward me rather than away from me. That is not the natural direction in those times–it is a direction that takes courage, intention, and practical action.
Working on myself is an act of love.
Lately God has been working with Michelle in some really deep, and at times painful ways. She has entered into those tender and difficult places with grace and courage. She has developed tremendous vision for how this is something that is important for our marriage. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that is the primary point, I’m just saying she has helped me to see that not working on myself can really be an act of selfishness. I’d rather buy her flowers or rub her shoulders than enter into the painful places where transformation is needed. But the latter is a greater gift. She’s inspiring me to see that working on myself is an act of love I can offer to God and to her.
A spouse helps us see what is and what can be.
Michelle’s vision of who I am and who I can be is significantly different than the vision I have of myself. She knows my faults. Well. And somehow, with that knowledge, she is still able to look at me and see the person who is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” I often cannot see that in myself. It is a tremendous gift to have someone who can.
That is the vision we should pursue of our spouse. Not a vision that denies flaws, but one that sees the beauty that is there despite the flaws. A vision that sees the potential of what can be when the other struggles to see it. I know the love of God more because of what I have experienced in this area with Michelle. She sees my deep flaws and loves me anyway. That’s what God does too. She loves me as I am and out of love wants me to become what I can be. God does too.
There is a deep and mysterious gift a wife or husband can offer their spouse when they do this. There is power there.
1 Corinthians 13 is true.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
This is possible. It is possible. It is not easy. It takes the work I’ve talked about in the other four points. But I have seen and experienced it. I believe that our marriages, animated by the life of God, can look like this. And it is beautiful. It is worth the struggle, pain, work, and commitment.
What is it that I’m supposed to do? What am I meant for? What is my calling?
We ask more questions to figure out the answer to this question. I think some of the questions we’re asking aren’t the right questions. Let me explain.
The answer to this question is profoundly influenced by what we believe about the purpose of life. This post in particular is meant to give some direction to those who claim to follow Jesus. For those who are followers of Jesus, there is a definitive answer to the purpose of life. We are part of a larger story that begins at the beginning and carries on into eternity. Our calling is deeply rooted in playing our part in this story rather than letting our calling grow out of writing our own story. No doubt our own stories will still be diverse and exciting, but they are situated in the larger story of what God is doing in the world.
In this story God created all things perfect, complete, whole. As humanity sought life outside connection with God and his purposes sin and death flooded the world, bringing brokenness, hurt, and distortion. In Jesus, God acted to cover this sin and death and birth the new reality–the kingdom of God. One day Jesus will return to consummate his kingdom of perfect peace, and until that time we have the holy calling to work with him to turn back sin and death and see his kingdom come.
With this as a backdrop, here are three questions to help us think about calling.
Have I fully accepted my primary calling?
All who are followers of Jesus must start not with wondering “what is my calling,” but by accepting a shared calling. One way of expressing this is to say that we are called to bear the image of God faithfully by living with God for others and the world. Or as Jesus said, “love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
For followers of Jesus this is the primary calling. This calling is in force no matter where we go. In one sense the answer to “what is my calling,” is just this–to bear the image of God faithfully in every place we inhabit. Your calling is not something etherial you must discern with trepidation. Your calling is to bear the image of God faithfully in all of life.
This is something we must let sink in. It is so easy to say, “oh yes, I live for Jesus in all of life,” and then move on living for ourselves. We need to let the desire of God for humanity and the world sink into our bones–to let it form our desires and hopes. Until this happens we will tend to keep this shared calling compartmentalized. It cannot stay that way. It must flow through everything we are and everything we do.
With this context, we can and should find calling no matter the details of our lives. No matter our occupation, living situation, relationships, or aspirations we are living out a calling every minute of every day. It’s not something we wait for, it’s something we already have.
Within this shared calling there is still the question of our individual calling. Two more questions to help us think about this.
How can I offer myself as a gift to the world?
This question presupposes a desire to make an impact beyond ourselves. If our desire is only for ourselves then this question might be “how can I use my abilities to be happy?” There is a wide gap between those two questions because they have vastly different ramifications.
In asking how we can offer ourselves as a gift to the world we are not beginning with self-fulfillment. We are still beginning with the self, but asking how our unique self can be given to the good of the world.
I have a friend who is both very entrepreneurial and great at construction. He’s in his early 30s and has already built and sold a sizable business. In his current business he has intentionally stayed smaller, affording him more flexibility. But recently he’s been asking how he can offer his abilities and skills to the world as a gift. Because of this he is moving forward with a plan to apprentice people who have struggled to find work for a year and then partner with other companies to supply them with employees.
He could make more money if he didn’t do this. It will require patience. It will mean doing less work because the work will go slower. It entails hiring a project manager who will also invest in the lives of people beyond construction skills.
My friend isn’t starting a non-profit. He plans to profit. But he’s letting different questions shape how he approaches his work. He loves what he does and wants to offer himself and his abilities as a gift to the world. That leads to different outcomes.
In every situation we can become increasingly aware of our abilities and offer ourselves as a gift to the world in the name of Jesus.
Am I open to God’s specific calling?
Much of the time God does not give us specific callings within our shared calling. He calls us to faithfulness to his purposes–something that can be done in nearly any situation. However there are times when God calls people directly and specifically. Abraham was called to leave his people and move to a new land. God called to Moses from a burning bush and told him to be the instrument of deliverance for the Israelites. Jesus confronted Saul on the road and called him to become Paul–an apostle of the good news of Jesus Christ. Direct calls from God to specific things do happen.
For a number of years now my wife and I have believed that God has specifically called us to take Denver as our home. There have been choices within this where we have not felt a specific calling, but we are convinced we are to invest ourselves in this place as our home.
I’m convinced that if we remain intentionally open to specific callings from God we won’t miss them. Our part it to make a point of staying connected to God, cultivating a spirit that is willingly obedient to him, and submitting our plans to him. “If it is the Lord’s will we will live and do this or that.” We can miss a specific call from God. We will miss it when we close our ears to him through disobedience or neglect. If we remain open to him he will let us know when he has specific things for us to do within our shared calling.
We have a problem with the way we read the Bible.
The problem has its root in our self-understanding. Put another way, it is how we think of “me.” Modern (or postmodern or whatever) Western culture places overwhelming emphasis on the beliefs, preferences, and untethered identity of the individual. This is often called individualism. Individualism exercises significant power in shaping our understanding and approach to the world–and for purposes of this post, the way we read the Bible.
The biblical picture of “me” is fundamentally different than our modern perspective. In our culture the “me” comes first. The way the Bible is written suggests that “we” should come first. In other words, do we see a collection of “me” forming the “we” or “me” as a part of the “we.” Sheesh, I’m confusing myself with all this we and me. Let me illustrate.
Consider the self-understanding of the Israelites—the chosen people of God. Their favored status with God was something they received as a people. Ebenezer was not chosen by God because he was Ebenezer, but because he was an Israelite. His connection with God began with the “we” of being an Israelite. However, this did not negate what he did or who he was individually. His faithfulness to God, or lack thereof, contributed to the overall faithfulness of the Israelites. His actions impacted the community. As he lived faithfully he set an example for others and contributed to the faithfulness of the people as a whole. As he was unfaithful it began to undermine the faithfulness of the people as a whole. So his “me” was firmly situated in the reality of the “we.”
This impacted the reading of Scripture. The books of the Old Testament were a community history (books like Genesis and Exodus), instructions for community life (Leviticus, etc.), and God speaking through the prophets to the whole people (Jeremiah, etc.). All of this literature was received in community and understood from the perspective of “me” being a part of “we.” It had individual implications, but these implications were rooted decidedly in an understanding of being a part of the whole.
What about the New Testament? This paradigm is strongly echoed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 where he is talking about the now-chosen people of God, the Church. He says the people of the Church are a body. What each one does affects all the others. The “me” of each individual is important, and this is largely true because each “me” affects and forms the “we.”
The Gospels were written to serve as a witness to the truth of who Jesus was and what he did. This formed the foundation of the Church as it took shape. The Epistles of Paul were certainly not written to individuals. They were sent to an entire church and read aloud to everyone. They were received in community, not by individuals in a study. This doesn’t mean it is wrong to sit alone with these letters, it is wonderful! However, we should be careful to remember that they were written to communities. Places where the “me” was fundamentally a part of the “we.” The individuals who heard the letters of Paul heard them BECAUSE they were a part of the whole. Had they not been they would not have heard them.
With this understanding we can certainly still read the Bible and ask what it’s implications are for me. However, by understanding ourselves as a part of a community I think we will ask that question in less isolation. It is not just a question of what the implications are for me alone in relationship to God, but me in the context of a community that is in relationship with God. The questions can be the same, the framework is just different. And each of us, as individuals, still need to make decisions about the things we do, be aware of how we are being shaped by God, and make decisions to live as followers of Jesus. We just do this with the understanding that it’s about more than just “me” and that these decisions have an impact on the whole.
The Bible was written to us. And because I am a part of that “us,” it was written to me.
This is a meditation on knowledge, wisdom, and understanding inspired by Colossians 1:9-12, Proverbs 9, and Psalm 46.
“Be still and know that I am God.” The beginning of knowledge. True knowledge. The knowledge that founded the earth and hung the stars. Knowledge that is not used for material gain, or utility, or propping up the ego. It is knowledge that wears the gown of wisdom and understanding. It is cloaked in beauty; majesty; grandeur. A knowledge that is “too wonderful for me to attain.” A knowledge that inspires awe, wonder, and fear.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” says the writer of Proverbs. Not a book. Not a course or a Facebook post or the whisperings of a sage. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Yet it is often our very knowledge that leads us not to fear the Lord, but to oppose him. “How can you be God and allow me pain?” “I have read much and have concluded you must not exist.” I will be the arbiter of truth, and should you desire my approval you must explain yourself.
We have puffed ourselves up with knowledge and disqualified ourselves from wisdom. But this knowledge is not cloaked in beauty and grandeur. It’s garments are arrogance, utility, and disdain. “Be busy and know that you are God.” The poisoned spring from which our knowledge flows.
But there is a pure spring, if we will have the courage and humility to accept it. This spring is the fear of the Lord. Not trepidation. Though at first it may feel that way. “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.” These were the anguished words of the prophet Isaiah when he entered the presence of this infinite God. Something akin to trepidation. For he was in the presence of something beyond him in every way. And then, only then, “your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for.” Love. Peace. Assurance. A fear that can be accepted in the face of unspeakable grace, but a fear nonetheless.
“Be still and know that I am God.” If we have the courage to do this we will find that we are not god. A position altogether untenable to our modern mind. For we have been convincingly persuaded that we are gods. We control happiness with the swipe of a card or the click of a button. We bend pleasure to our desires and it obeys, if only for a time. We are gods. And we stand in tension with the one who said “you shall have no other gods.” Instead of fearing the Lord, we fear only ourselves, and begin down the path of foolishness.
Wisdom—the fruit of true knowledge—does not begin with an explanation of the Lord, but the fear of the Lord. This is a good fear. One that springs from a right reaction to what is true. A response to the One who “was, and is, and is to come.” The One who humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross. He is great in his majesty, righteousness, and love. It is a fear that C.S. Lewis knew when he placed these words into the mouth of one of his characters as he spoke about the Christ-figure, “my dear, he is good, but he is not safe.” Yes, this is a fear that responds correctly to what is. Like taking a step away from Niagara Falls even as you marvel at it’s power and splendor. A response of awe, wonder, and fear, is the only right response in the face of such beauty, such power. If this is a right response to a natural wonder, how much more is it the fitting response to the one who made every wonder and is himself far beyond all of them?
We have made God many things. Things more palatable to our sensibilities than One to be feared. Things more easily controlled, manipulated, and set aside. This is why “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” To fear him is simply to know him as he truly is. In Colossians 1, the Greek word for knowledge is epiginosis—to know thoroughly and accurately. It means we know God well enough that we find the capacity to know him rightly. To acknowledge him rightly.
It is a knowledge that must go beyond one plus one equals two. “Be still and know that I am God.” Niagara Falls cannot be thoroughly and accurately known by reading books and looking at postcards. It must be experienced. One must sit in the mist of it’s overwhelming cascade, listening to it’s power, basking in its beauty. “Be still and know that I am God.”
It is from this vantage point that we will be able to know everything else rightly as well. From the knowledge of God flows right knowledge of ourselves—both crowned with glory and honor as well as dead in our transgressions. And in our glory and our shame, redeemed and loved by the one who is “over all, through all, and in all.” From knowledge of God flows right knowledge of other people—not characters in our story, but people pursued by the Good Shepherd. And from right knowledge of God flows a right understanding of his will, leading to a life that is pleasing to him and bears the fruit of his kingdom of shalom.
And it is from this vantage point that we can even begin to grasp the depth and power of his love for us. A buddy might love us because of what they can get in return or out of their own insecurities. But this great and wonderful God? He does not love us out of need or insecurity. Quite the opposite. His love flows from the very majesty, power, and depth that lead to right fear. Fear and love are not in conflict, though our modern language might lead us to think so. In God, fear that flows from knowledge aligned with reality and love deeper than our imagination flow from the same Source. C.S. Lewis expresses this well when he says, “His love is not “a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, nor the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests.” Instead, it is “the consuming Fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds.”
“Be still and know that I am God.”
“Be still and know that I am God.”
My Kids are my Sunshine (but not just in the good way)
In our family, Michelle and I have faced an ongoing battle to make our kids a part of the family rather than the center of the family. The path of least resistance is to play whatever games our kids want to play at a moment’s notice, to absolve them of any responsibility for the maintenance of our home (which leads to my daughter’s room having an invisible floor), to make sure they are entertained at all times (it would be a sin for our children to be bored!), and to tend toward being the proverbial helicopter parents who cannot allow their children out of their sight. I don’t know why Michelle and I both struggle with this tendency to make the entire life of our family revolve around our children, that might be a post for another time.
The result of this child-centric approach to family is largely negative. First, it breeds selfishness in our children. When life at home is contingent on their whims and fancies, we are training them to expect that everyone should bow to their wishes. Connected to selfishness is tremendous impatience. They come to expect that whatever they desire is a higher priority than anything else in all creation. Why should they have to wait for five minutes to play a game while I finish doing the dishes? We are training them to be absolved of responsibility. They can throw all their clothes on the floor–Michelle will pick them up. They are unable to learn how to solve problems. Whenever there is a conflict or problem they know that a parent will swoop in to solve it. They believe this because too often Michelle and I have failed to let them work it out themselves.
On the whole, a family where everything revolves around the children cultivates deep and lasting dysfunction in the children. Helping our children mature into healthy adults is far better accomplished by helping them to see themselves as a valuable part of the family. Weaving them into the fabric of our family, not making them the center of it, and thereby teaching them responsibility, mutual concern, selflessness, contribution, patience, and sacrifice.
I believe the same thing is at work in church communities. The decisions we make about how to engage our kids have implications, just as the decisions Michelle and I make in our family have implications.
Implications for Personal Formation
When we structure the life of the church in a way that communicates to children that they are the center around which everything revolves, we are forming them (or discipling to use biblical language). The church teaches them to be selfish, impatient, and irresponsible in the same ways Michelle and I often have taught our children this. It’s not done on purpose, but it happens.
When this is true it is a substantial problem. Jesus gave all his followers the task to teaching new followers to “obey all he has commanded.” This certainly must include our children. Jesus, the King of kings, said he came not to be served but to serve. Paul said that the church is a body that looks to the needs of the whole. If we structure our community in a way that fosters selfishness, lack of responsibility for the other, and an expectation of being served, we are forming kids away from what they are meant to be.
Implications for Being the Church
In these formative years we are also teaching them what it means to be the church. Many people decry the selfish nature of church engagement in the United States. It can seem the focus is more on whether we like the music, preaching, groups, or carpet color than whether or not the church is a faithful representation of the bride of Christ. What we do with kids in our community today will shape their approach to the church in the future. We are teaching them today either to go on the never-ending journey of church hopping for self-fulfillment or to engage whole-heartedly in the always-imperfect community of faith. We are training them to focus on what they can give or what they can receive. We do this powerfully through our approach as much as (or more than) our words.
The pursuit of teaching kids what it means to be a part of the body of Christ in a church community can be thwarted in two ways. The first is what I’ve already been saying–to engage them in ways that teach them they are the center of the universe. The other way is to keep them from offering themselves and their abilities as a gift to the community. Too often churches treat children as something to be managed until they grow up and can participate in the “big church.” How damaging! Paul’s metaphor of the church as a body teaches that when any part of the body is sick or not functioning it hurts the whole. Children (and youth) who are a part of our communities are not “body parts in waiting.” They are a part of the body now, and allowing them to function as such is essential to the overall health of the body. We should encourage them to give themselves as a gift to the community, not subtly indicate that someday they’ll grow up and be a real part of the church. We need to show our kids what it means to be the church!
It gives footing to our fear.
There are many reasons for centering all we do around children–either in a family or a church–but I believe one large reason is fear. I know that an underlying fear drives many of the unhealthy ways I engage my kids. I fear that if I don’t cater to them they will grow up to feel unloved. If I don’t watch them all the time they will suffer some debilitating injury. I have to fight these fears to fight my behavior. I think there is also a fear in the church when it comes to kids. We have heard the statistics about how many kids leave the church. Then we hear our own kids say they don’t want to go to a worship gathering because it’s boring. They don’t want to do a service project because it’s no fun. Out of this they may even say they don’t like church–or God. This breeds the fear that we will force our kids away from God. If they are bored, or challenged, or frustrated, then they will leave the church, and God, and it will be our fault.
THIS IS A LIE. If we can glean anything from the inexact studies that have been done on why kids disconnect from church and God as they grow up, it is that entertaining them and catering to them is a part of the problem. They have not felt challenged to make faith their own. They have seen a faith that is more about pizza parties that sacrificing in the way of Jesus for the life of the world. They are not encouraged/challenged to draw near to Jesus–love him and be loved by him. They don’t feel connected to the whole church because they have been sectioned off to be entertained and kept content. It is learning to follow Jesus and live as a part of the fabric of his church that has the most impact on their future.
And the reality is that even in that there are no guarantees. We may do everything right and they may run from God. We may do everything wrong and they could cling to him. If you are following Jesus you probably need look no further than your own background or that of people you know to see this.
The reality is that very often doing the right thing is the hard thing. It is easier to have my kids play video games than it is to have a conversation. It is easier to intervene in their problems than to allow them to face them. It is also very easy to focus on the moment over long-term implications. The things that form my kids well in the long run are often hard in the moment. In our churches we are called to help kids become followers of Jesus–people who love God and their neighbor well. Doing this will most certainly require an approach that sees them as a valuable part rather than the center.
As I child I didn’t know the first names of the adults in my life. My parents’ friends were not Norris and Grace, they were Mr. and Mrs. Friesen. Our pastor was not Dennis, he was Pastor Miller. Through subtle practices like this, and less subtle reminders, we were taught that there was a proper respect we should have for adults. Don’t fear, my point here is not to advocate the necessity of children using titles with adults. My aim is to reflect on our current cultural location and how this permeates and shapes the ways we relate to God.
We live in a society that seems to have lost the ability to have proper respect for anyone or anything. (I say “proper” respect not as a means of scolding us, but as a means of indicating that there is such a thing as improper respect.) The leader of our country is used as a punching bag. It hardly matters if that person is a Democrat or Republican. The only thing that changes is who is doing the punching. Those who disagree with the President do not stop at disagreeing with his policies but move on to demonizing him and aiming venom-filled barbs at his character and his family. There is a way to respect someone while disagreeing with him/her.
Even those who agree with the President don’t seem to respect him so much as lick their chops as they imagine what he can do for them. Their devotion is driven less by respect than the belief that he will do their bidding. I’ll leave the example of our President here as it is not my purpose to consider the proper respect for that specific office/person. I only use the President as an example of a person or position for which there used to be respect, even in disagreement, where now there is not.
We live in a time and place where a healthy understanding and practice of respect has been largely lost. This is one of the brush strokes of the picture I want to paint, but there is another.
I assumed my first pastoral position as a twenty-six year old seminary student. I knew everything. I had the answers to the problems our church was facing. I knew the deficiencies of the approach of the church leadership. I knew enough to veil my arrogance behind a veneer of humility, but the veneer was thin. There were ways our Senior Pastor and elders were leading the church that I knew were wrong. I assumed it was my responsibility to push against these missteps and help them see the light. My supposed knowledge and insight ran wild and refused to be tamed.
In the years since then I have matured, some. I have learned that I am not always right. I am learning that there are times to submit to others even when I think I am. In our culture of rampant individualism—the worship of self—it is increasingly inconceivable to imagine willingly bowing the knee to anyone or anything but self. It is a great act of discipline and humility to submit our will to another. One in which we have become clumsy.
Proper respect. Willing submission. To these I’d like to add one more stroke.
Before my sophomore year in high school I joined a band of fifteen adolescents and a couple brave adults on a camping and canoeing trip to the boundary waters of Canada. I had no idea what I was in for. As I sat in the pounding rain on the back side of an isolated island with my friend Casey, all I wanted to do was to go home. It felt unsafe. No means of communication. Wild and untamed. Who knew what could happen? The trip was uncomfortable, but it was necessary. We paddled until we were sore, and then some. We jumped off a cliff into the waters below. We shared with a vulnerability that seemed unattainable in the context of home. On the whole that trip was not safe. I felt exposed and vulnerable. But it was good. I lived those days with a healthy fear of the land and the water. I understood my smallness and that sense of smallness seemed to inspire growth. When things are great and untamed there is a sense of fear that is right, necessary, and beneficial.
This is not where I live on a regular basis. The world may be dangerous, but I live in a place founded on the bedrock of safety and comfort. Aspects of life that do not sit well on these foundations are not tolerated. I propel my children into this safety and comfort without much thought. I seldom experience a proper sense of fear—or awe—because I have positioned myself to avoid it. There are those who experience the other side of this. They live with fear daily. Real fear that their children will be taken, their homes burned, their jobs lost, or the well-being threatened in some other way. They do not experience the safety and comfort I thoughtlessly inhabit, but their experience could not rightly be called proper fear (or awe) either. It is a fear of what is inhibiting and evil, not challenging and good.
Proper respect. Willing submission. Awe. Ways of being we have jettisoned and forgotten.
All of this works to profoundly impact the way we live with and relate to God. Certainly the Bible speaks of the character of a right relationship with God in many ways—friends, parent and child, master and servant, forgiver and forgiven, husband and wife. It is natural that a relationship with an infinite God would be deep and complex in ways that are difficult to categorize or sum up. I am not attempting to remove these in favor of proper respect, willing submission, and awe, but to highlight a significant component of a right relationship with God for which we have lost capacity. The Scriptures and nature itself proclaim a God who is great and majestic in ways beyond our full understanding. Ways that should inspire proper respect, willing submission, and awe. These are things we have consciously and unconsciously taught ourselves to despise.
“When the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” Exodus 14:31
“12 And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?” Deuteronomy 10:12-13
The consequences of our loss of ability to rightly fear (awe) God are substantial. Right fear is a foundation of trust. Surely love is another foundation of trust, but we embrace the latter while dismissing the former. We talk about trusting God, and falter. There is not one reason for this, but one of the reasons must be that we have given up proper respect, willing submission, and awe—removing an essential component that leads to trusting him. When the Israelites feared the Lord they put their trust in him. God called Israel to fear him, which would lead to obedience, which would lead to their good. We do not trust God unless he seems to be doing our bidding.
“You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!” Psalm 22:23
Our current situation also leads to a decreased willingness and ability to worship God. It is natural that we would struggle to worship someone we see as an equal, or even an underling. Worship is a stream that flows from proper respect, willing submission, and awe. Yes, it flows from love, adoration, and gratitude as well. The truth of the latter does not negate the former. Failure to properly fear the Lord leaves us struggling to worship him, and we should not be shocked by this.
Do a search of “fear” and “Lord” in the Bible. Read through these passages. As you do you will find a robust picture emerging in which the fear of the Lord and the experience of his love, protection, healing, hope, and joy are deeply interwoven. In my life and the lives of those with whom I seek to live following Jesus, I often sense a deficit in willingness to trust God, ability to worship him sincerely, and experience of his love, protection, healing, hope, and joy. I do not mean to over-simplify, but I am convicted that a proper fear of the Lord contributes to all of these.
We live in a society that will erode our concept of proper respect, willing submission, and awe. For those who desire to live a life with God, they must be cultivated.