getting a grip on the world’s disorder

If you would like to get upset and out of sorts, then turn on a news channel, or go to news sites online. Even from those trying to get facts straight from whatever perspective or bias they have, there’s plenty to get worked up with nowadays. And this is true no matter what our understanding might be, however we might understand various issues.

I think we do well to turn to the entire Bible, and specifically the Old Testament Hebrew prophets. I think of Isaiah, which we might say in its own shape is kind of a miniature Bible in itself. And the relatively short book of the prophet Habakkuk might especially fit well into the current time, though it surely speaks to every time.

Habakkuk was complaining about the disorder of his day, the order for him surely being God’s shalom, meaning the flourishing under God’s rule meant for God’s people to display to the world. Instead Israel’s leaders were disrupting God’s order for their own gain, of course against God’s kingdom priorities, like caring for the poor and oppressed.

So God was going to use a new order which wasn’t at all like the kingdom order of God. The Babylonians were actually a law unto themselves, hammering one kingdom after another, and scoffing at every ruler and god, even at God himself. And yet God was using them. This was indeed troubling to Habakkuk, who didn’t know what to make of it as we see from the book, surely not liking it, either.

I think we need to settle down in our seats with open Bible in hand, and simply let the prophets speak to us in this day and age. If we hold to the Scriptural teaching that God’s sovereign reign is in some way over all, that God is at work in the mess of the world, surely that ought to help us to settle down and get a grip on our own emotions, as we learn to rest in trust in God. That seems to have been what happened to Habakkuk over the course of the book, as we see in his song of resolute trust in and praise of God at the end.

We do need a change of mind for sure, the right thoughts to enter in, before a change of heart, which we mean emotional can settle in. We begin to understand that whatever disorder and order in the world we see contrary to God’s kingdom does not mean that God is not at work. In ways we couldn’t have imagined and wouldn’t have planned, God can be at work. That doesn’t mean what the Babylonians were doing was good, even as Scripture tells us. And God was going to hold them accountable. But God was indeed using them in his transcendent wisdom.

Read the book of Habakkuk and let it soak in. We don’t need to get all worked up and bent out of shape over the news. God is in charge; we’re not. We should pray for government officials and be good citizens. And above all be witnesses of God’s good and perfect kingdom now present and to fully come in and through Jesus.

“Who is the greatest?” and the problem of comparison

They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Mark 9

We inevitably draw up comparisons in our minds as to which of us is better in this or that. We all tend to like to think that we might be better than someone else at such and such, and many of us are competitive by nature. But when we do so, we play into the hand of the world, the flesh and the devil. And we’re not like Jesus.

In the first place I might say, leaving the above text for the moment, to compare ourselves with each other is simply unwise, as we read elsewhere from Paul, who I would imagine, considering all that is said about and by him in scripture, was quite competitive himself.

We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you.

2 Corinthians 10

Paul was fighting the false apostles for the sake of the gospel, who were calling into question his ministry based on their false view of what spirituality was. And one sure key to see through them was how they compared themselves to others, and specifically in this case to Paul and surely all those with Paul. They were superior; they were the spiritual elite. They could speak better, and surely their content was better too, in their minds. And no doubt they did dazzle, since Paul had to devote an entire section of 2 Corinthians (chapters 10-13) to both refute and expose them, as well as indicate what makes one who is truly a messenger of the gospel. By their actions and comparing themselves as superior, they were preaching a different Christ, and acting by a different spirit other than the Holy Spirit. Paul’s example was one of humility and weakness, and the gospel as well as the Lord, who essentially is that gospel, and specifically him crucified, was the one people would come to see in Paul’s ministry, not Paul himself.

But back to our Lord’s words to his disciples. He took a little child, embraced her or him, and made it plain that this child was an indication of what true greatness is. That they were to become like this little child, last of all, and the servant of all, even like he was already, to be completed through the cross. Elsewhere on the subject of who is the greatest, Jesus told them that nothing less than a conversion, a change of heart is needed (Matthew 18).

I am so easily given to comparison, particularly in matters in which I’m competitive. Probably in most, I don’t think I am, including how I write, teach and preach. I know better, having learned over the years. In these areas, I have come to see clearly how we’re all in this together, and how much we need each other. And how it’s like snowflakes, or so many other illustrations from creation, how there’s no end to God’s creativity, and how therefore we miss out completely when we compare ourselves or someone else as better than others. Paul ended up being better than the false apostles he had to oppose, because for him it was about Jesus, not about demonstrating how great he was. In fact in his brokenness as a jar of clay (read the rest of that great letter, 2 Corinthians), Jesus was more clearly seen.

And so let’s appreciate the good gifts in others, and be glad about areas they may excel in and do better than us. Remembering that we’re all special in God’s eyes, and by his design. Both in creation and in new creation in and through Jesus, the one who is the measure of true greatness.

God understands

We say in Christian theology that God knows all things, the end from the beginning, in every minute detail with the big picture in mind. Precisely what that means might deviate some. Like I might ask, “Can God know what isn’t already in existence?” Surely yes, in that he can create and control all of that, but maybe no if he chooses not to control it at every turn, I am thinking of human volition. All of existence is out of God’s doing. And God can force us to choose or do whatever, if God so chooses, but it seems on the surface at least, that there’s a real give and take in life between the individual, as well as people, and God. Maybe some of this we do best to chalk up to mystery, and leave alone. But it does seem that God invites us to grapple with all he has revealed, while the hidden things remain with him, indeed surely outside of our limitation to grasp.

We can be at a place in which we’re challenged to know what to do. In small ways that happens a lot, and is usually fixable. In larger ways, sometimes that can be quite difficult, beyond our ability to navigate well, if at all. It is good during such times to be in prayer and in the word, looking to God to give us the understanding we need, and proceed from there. That is usually incremental, and one step at a time. God can be trusted to be present through all of it, but it seems to me like God leaves plenty of room for variation on our part, including even failure. God has the big picture in mind, but also wants to be present interactively with us through the small things, as well. That is lived largely in context of our day to day existence as individuals, but is best worked out in community with others in Jesus. Not to say that God might not use the broader human community as well, and another friend who does not yet know him.

I look to God for his wisdom, believing certain things are beyond me, really many things. Essentially what concerns God in us, I believe, is a character transformation rooted in God’s grace and kingdom in Jesus by the Holy Spirit. It’s not like other things are unimportant, all within the old creation is included in the new creation in Jesus. Salvation extends to every part, but perhaps its outworking is strange to us. And the fact of the matter is that we may not be necessarily included, if we don’t look to the source which is found in Jesus. There might be some major bumps on the road, and brokenness on the way to that salvation.

God understands. And can be fully trusted. In and through Jesus.

does God do a good job being God? (does our understanding of God measure up?)

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

John 3

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
    How unsearchable his judgments,
    and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
    Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
    that God should repay them?”
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
    To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Romans 11

It’s common nowadays to question the God of the Bible in more ways than one. And as N. T. Wright points out, when people use the word God, they don’t at all mean the same being as much as they once did. For a good many people God just seems to fall short both in the Bible, and in life. Anyone who reads the entire Bible will understand that the Bible itself is about real life with most of its characters flawed, and even in the case of one remarkably unflawed character, Daniel, he includes himself in his confession to God of Israel’s sins.

But what about God in these pages? We find a God who again in the words of N. T. Wright is both passionate and compassionate. A God who takes seriously human decisions, and lets the weight of them (even if not fully), good or bad fall into place with the consequences. And yet we also see the God who created all things work to restore all things in a redemption and salvation which brings in nothing short of a new creation. And God does that through humans, specifically through choosing Israel to be his light to the world, coming to culmination and complete fulfillment in Jesus.

There is no question that at times in both the Bible and in life we can’t begin to make sense of at least parts of it, sometimes very large parts which can impact individuals and nations. Of course one would have to see the entire story and really get inside the story to really understand and appreciate what is going on. We often don’t have that vantage point. With scripture, we can read from cover to cover, from Genesis through Revelation and get the gist at least of the story in it, in all its complexity and beauty. If we want an easy read, and easy answer, it’s not there. But such is life. Yet with the faith of a little child, we can enter in, and begin to understand the account of a loving Father in and through Jesus.

As the doxology in the Romans passage quoted above suggests, we can’t follow God completely, it’s not like we can retrace God’s steps or fully comprehend what God is up to especially in the affairs of the world as the sovereign ruler. But the point in that passage is God’s dealings with his covenant people Israel in terms of the gospel and the change that brought. Romans 9 through 11 talk about that, and it’s an important read. And we can understand quite a bit, and at least what is essential for us to understand from that reading. But we do best in the end to echo the doxology which follows it, acknowledging that God is God and his working is beyond us. Yet at the same time we need to keep looking to God’s final word (Hebrews 2) Jesus, who himself is the essence of God, even as a human, of course one with the Father in the Triunity of God.

No, we don’t understand God all that well, except for what God has revealed to us, and actually it is quite a lot in scripture. But we need the Spirit of God to help us really begin to understand God beyond concepts, even if those concepts contain truth and avoid error. We need what begins as an acquaintance into a full relationship with God in and through Jesus. The God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And the God who is love (1 John). We need to learn to not only accept the revelation of God in Jesus, but to learn by faith to rest in that God who comes to us in Jesus.

no avoidance of philosophy

Not many of us read philosophers and philosophical writings (such as from Aristotle, etc.). And we may imagine that we avoid philosophy altogether. But there is no avoidance of philosophy whatsoever. Philosophy simply stated is the study or consideration of life itself, what life is all about, why we are here. Whether it is one who is steeped in naturalism and what is called scientism, or someone caught up in studying philosophers and their systems of thought along with their worldview, such as from Aristotle or Plato, or someone closer to our time. That is what could be called philosophy proper. But actually we are all philosophers in the sense that we all have adopted and settled into some notion of what life is all about, even if we may not be able to express that well. Good questions could help us get to the bottom of that, even if we might find there’s not much there. Even agnosticism, the idea that we simply don’t know and perhaps can’t know is itself a philosophical view.  This, by the way is ordinarily something not static, but dynamic and ever changing, even if only in the sense of being refined over time.

Whatever my philosophy is, I hope it is steeped in solid Christian theology. I believe that Christ and Christ crucified is the wisdom of God, in opposition to the wisdom of this world. Scripture, and Paul specifically warns against worldly philosophy. It is potent and powerful and pulls people into its ultimately lifeless embrace. And away from Christ. To be in Christ and to be informed and formed in that is to begin to realize the true meaning and end of philosophy, indeed of life itself. There may be subsets of that to help us through the intricacies of the complexity and wonder of life. But the root of all truth is somehow found in Christ. Deriving its origin and meaning from him. Colossians is not a bad book to start in seeking to understand something of this philosophy.

John Walton on the book of Job teaching us to trust God no matter what

The message of Job is that we must trust God’s wisdom when we encounter suffering or crises, rather than attempting to figure out answers to the “why” questions. We should not think that the cosmos itself reflects God’s attributes of justice or that we can hold God accountable to running the cosmos according to justice moment by moment. If he were to do so, none of us would survive, for we all embody injustice at some level in our sinful condition. So justice would involve punishing us.

Trusting God’s wisdom does not mean adopting a belief that everything that happens to us ultimately represents justice even though we cannot see why that is so. Trust is not the conviction that there is a good reason (=explanation that justifies the suffering) even when we cannot fathom it. In other words, the book does not suggest a hidden, deeper justice behind what we perceive as injustice. If we were to think in those terms, we would still be clinging to justice as the foundation of the system and simply theorizing alternative ways that it could function, as Elihu did.

Instead, the book posits that God, in his wisdom, is willing to allow injustice in this world—perhaps  sometimes as a means to a greater end, but even that does not offer an explanation that justifies the suffering. We can assume that it grieves his heart, for he is just. In his wisdom, he elevates purposes above reasons… Even here, however, we must tread carefully. We cannot know reasons, and we cannot assume that there are reasons. We should assume that there are purposes, but that does not mean that we can or will ever know those purposes. The injustice, suffering, trials, and crises that we experience shape us into the people we are and the people God desires us to be. The truth is not intended to bring comfort to those suffering, nor does it do so. It is meant to bring understanding that might prevent us from committing Job’s error, which is the easy solution of blaming God. The alternative is to trust God.

John H. Walton, Job (The NIV Application Commentary), 415.

looking beyond the problem

I am one who can easily become fixated on a problem. In today’s information age, in which we can get quite a lot of data at our fingertips, that is a habit which can end up draining one of time and energy. Draining spiritually, as well.

Such times are good times for me to practice the discipline of looking beyond the problem, to the Lord, the Creator and Redeemer and Sovereign over all. That doesn’t mean I can’t consider the issue at all, but I must learn at the same time to approach it, not in my own efforts in trying to resolve it. But looking to the Lord for his answer, whatever that may be. With the desire to radically rest in that, in all my weakness.

A big part of my problem is that somehow I think I can solve a problem. Some problems we can solve rather easily. And sometimes we receive information which helps. Nevertheless, it is good, and actually a blessing to be put in a place in which we can look only up, beyond the problem, to God himself.

Job is a good case in point of this. Much of that great wisdom book is taken up with Job and his three “friends” focusing on the great problem at hand: the misfortune and suffering of Job. In the end God appears and with that comes a resolution, but not of the sort either Job or his friends were looking for, or could have imagined.

I too need to practice this by not thinking that the solution to a hard problem lies with me. And there are so many problems which arise not only in our lives, but in the lives of our loved ones, in the lives of those around us, yes, in this world, to be sure.

And so I turn my eyes away, or look beyond the problem to the one who is our help, our hope and our salvation. Together with others in Jesus and for the world.