think, think some more, and don’t quit thinking

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Philippians 4:8

The Apostle Paul uses terminology and actually says something here which makes it clear that we draw truth and what is good from various sources, from anywhere they might come from. Of course he would say that we have to test everything in terms of what God has revealed in Scripture, but so much is not contradictory to that. For example today we take much of medical science for granted, at least on some scale. And I completely accept the idea of mental illness and psychology along with medications which can help alleviate or at least deal with that. And then I’ll go to the arts: painting, music, etc. Much of beauty and what is good found there, and much of it from non-Christians.

When it comes to the faith itself, there is a rich tradition of deep theological thought and reflection on Scripture and life. I lament because it seems like much of that is set aside as less than lame, more like dead. But if one seriously reads through all of Scripture themselves, they’ll come to realize that such is not the case. The depth found in Scripture is something to remain in and explore the rest of our lives, in prayer and in life.

Of course we need discernment. Not everything out there is good. There is the cunning deceptive work of the enemy, the devil. We have to have discernment from God to see through anything that is contradictory to the main point of Scripture: the gospel. And we weigh what is good and not so good, along with rejecting what is false. If we don’t learn to think, pray and live deeply, we will fail to discern what is good, and might fall for what is not.

There at least needs to be a broad agreement on what Paul says here. Certainly Christians won’t see eye to eye on everything; we all bring a different perspective. But we should at least have the bigger picture in view, fulfilled in Jesus, so that we question many things, and remain true to the big picture found in Scripture along with the details, that of God’s grace and kingdom come and being fulfilled in and through Jesus.

theology for real life

The book of Job is a good case in point of how all of Scripture (the Bible) is meant for real life. No one is likely to be affected much by how many angels can dance on a pin, something allegedly, Christian theologians were contemplating in the past. It’s not like we have to look for only what seems relevant and ignore the rest. We need to prayerfully consider just what God might be saying to us through everything, especially through the words found in Scripture.

I like our church’s statement of faith, because it’s not simply about knowing or confessing something. It is about applying truth to life, or letting Scripture critique and change us.

The danger in all of this is that we want quick, pat answers. We think the Bible is written for us to solve all our problems and answer all our questions. Not. Scripture, God’s word is meant to shape us according to God’s will, which means conformity to Christ.

I am blessed too to work for a solid evangelical ministry which has the motto:

The mission of Our Daily Bread Ministries is to make the life-changing wisdom of the Bible understandable and accessible to all.

We have to beware of piling in information which we’re not applying. According to James, that is a sure recipe for self-deception. We can think we’re doing well and in the clear just because of what we know. But what we’re given to know is meant to be applied, every single bit of it. We may not know how, but we should be in prayer over it. God’s word has some effect on us, whether we always get it or not. But our goal should be to listen and learn for faith and life. What we believe is meant to impact how we live. And how we live can either confirm or undermine what we believe. The two go together.

This isn’t easy. It’s not like, here it is, plain and simple, so do it. Yes and no. Because although that’s the clear path, it’s beset with challenges to our faith, so that either our roots will have to go deeper in search of God’s wisdom, or we’ll more or less give up, shrivel and die. To live in between is to remain unsettled and eventually sets us up for failure, because it won’t work (James 1:6-8).

So we have to set our sight on one thing: God and God’s will in Jesus in this life. Everything else is secondary and subsidiary to that. In and through Jesus.

does the Bible really say that?

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation[c] has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted[d] beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted,[e] he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

1 Corinthians 10:11-13

This is a good passage out of which this part is shared here (click link) to critique popular theology. Paul’s voice seems so foreign, yet it actually resonates with Jesus’s voice, and that of the rest of the Bible on matters like sexual immorality, idolatry, and simply putting God to the test instead of in faith, trusting and obeying him.

One popular take out of pastoral concern (as a friend pointed out to me) is the point that indeed God doesn’t give us more than we can bear; he actually does, so that we won’t depend on ourselves, but on God to see us through. There’s truth in that when you consider it with the rest of God’s word. But I want to take seriously just what is actually said in these scriptural passages.

We’re told that God won’t let us be tempted or tested more than we can stand. But with that temptation will provide the way out, so that we can endure it. Plain and simple. Maybe not the way we want to hear it. We want somehow a miraculous breakthrough which requires no effort on our part. But as Dallas Willard pointed out, grace is not opposed to human effort. While God’s grace given to us in Jesus is nothing we can merit, earn, or deserve, that does not mean it is received passively by us. That happens, but it seems more often than not, we are active, at least in being attentive if nothing else.

If we think the Christian life isn’t without a struggle, or often against the grain of culture, then we have another thing coming. Or we may end up going, as a few leaders have in recent days, leaving the faith behind. There’s more to it than just this, much more. That is why we need to turn the pages of all of Scripture from beginning to end, and keep doing so. In prayer and with the commitment to a faith which receives and responds. Accepting the warnings of God’s word, even when they may seem to make little sense to us. So that God might do his work of grace in us, a process no less. In and through Jesus.

 

neither underestimate nor misunderstand the grace of God (nor think we can comprehend it)

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Titus 2:11-14

We find again and again in scripture that God’s grace is key in our lives, in the lives of others. There are differences in teaching on this, as one might and should expect. There is what theologians call “common grace,” in which God pours down his blessings on all, in sunshine and rain, and provisions for life and more. This is not the grace described in this passage which brings salvation, according to scripture.

This is a big subject, but this post will touch mainly on one aspect of it, while addressing one common misunderstanding. God’s grace is alive and well in the world, and there is the light which enlightens every person (John 1). But the goodness and kindness of God is meant to lead people to repentance (Romans 2). There is no salvation apart from faith in Christ. It’s not just that somehow in an inexplicable, mysterious way that in the end all are saved through Christ. The NIV avoids this misunderstanding in the translation above, even if less literal. God’s grace is at work in all kinds of ways, but the special grace of salvation is always linked to repentance which means a turning from sin to God, and to faith, which means a trust in God and in God’s word, the message of the good news in Jesus.

Theologians also refer to “prevenient grace” which means the grace by which people receive the good news of the gospel for themselves by simple faith and trust in Jesus. Through Jesus’s death for our sins, and resurrection. We trust in what God has done for us through Jesus’s death, and receive forgiveness of our sins and new, eternal life.

So the grace which saves, to which the passage above refers, is not a cheap grace by which people get in with no change of life. Not at all. But at the same time grace is at work in spite of us, not because of us. That’s not to say that our efforts toward understanding and entering into this grace are a waste of time. Grace termed as prevenient by theologians might well include some of this striving, making every effort to enter into God’s rest (Hebrews 4). But also we have to remember that we still sin and have indwelling sin (1 John 1). And that is all the more true of those who have yet to cross over from death into life. They are sinners, period. Maybe Christians are both sinners and saints (Luther), depending on what you mean by that. God’s grace at work in people’s lives is in spite of so many things. God in his grace accepts us completely exactly where we’re at, but in God’s good grace, he certainly doesn’t leave us there.

Grace means we’re satisfied with nothing less than God’s salvation, which doesn’t mean only the forgiveness of sins, but also new life, a new way of living. By the Spirit in the love of God. Which means a changed life, a transformation both complete at conversion, and incomplete until Jesus returns (Philippians 1:6), meaning there is a process involved.

This grace gives us hope, and helps us to get out of God’s way, simply presenting the gospel, and trying to be responsive to God’s word. But this grace teaches us, teaches others. God’s full, unmerited, undeserved favor in helping us in ways beyond us, but in ways that indeed reach us in and through Jesus.

thinking God’s thoughts after him

I was merely thinking God’s thoughts after him. Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it benefits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God.

Johannes Kepler

I love this thought attributed to this German mathematician and astronomer, even theologian, “a key figure in the 17th-century scientific revolution” (see Wikipedia article). Here is what he wrote where the above quote might have come from, although I don’t think that lessens its thought:

Those laws [of nature] are within the grasp of the human mind; God wanted us to recognize them by creating us after his own image so that we could share in his own thoughts.

Kepler’s Christianity

I know for myself, I can easily become confused in my own thoughts, although I have long since abandoned any belief in their benefit, except insofar as they are latching onto, and derived from God’s thoughts. And where can we find his thoughts except both in the book of nature (general revelation) and in the book of scripture, called God’s written word (special revelation). Not to say that we can’t find something of them even in humans who don’t acknowledge or know God, since they are created in God’s image. But we want to go to the source. So I seek to think something of God’s thoughts after him.

That is my only hope to get through and past what amounts to the confusion within the labyrinth of life, and the deceptive lies of the enemy, which we as fallen, broken humans are all too susceptible to. And so I make it my aim to be in the word as much as possible, throughout my days (and nights), as well as taking in God’s beauty in nature/creation, which I have not done nearly enough in my lifetime. Sleeping Bear Dunes is just one place in Michigan where we live, which helps one do that. I receive a lot of this general revelation through listening to classical music which gives us something of that through humans created in God’s image. And for me again, it’s a necessity for me to try to find and get immersed into God’s thoughts, rather than get literally lost in my own.

Psalm 19 is a beautiful encapsulation of all of this:

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring forever.
The decrees of the Lord are firm,
and all of them are righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can discern their own errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.
Keep your servant also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Psalm 19

 

looking at the old world with the vision of the new world

I was listening to N. T. Wright, thoroughly enjoying his talk entitled, Speaking of God in a Confused World. It makes me wonder just how and why we Christians see things in the present the way we do. And we’re all over the place on that. What I like about N. T. Wright’s critique is that he helps everyone see the much larger picture, so that the scuffles we are in appear to be not as significant as we make them. Or so that we can see better to understand just where our own blind spots might be.

Right now, with another mass school shooting, many Christians are crying out for government action with rebuttals from other Christians citing abortion as the great evil. Ready access to semi-automatic guns has a cult following here in the United States, but arguably is appreciated by those who just like guns, and certainly are not dangerous themselves. But it seems apparent that the more the guns, and the more ready access to them, the more gun deaths there are. And the insistence that Christians need ready access to them to defend their loved ones and others, as well as themselves, seems to fly in the face of what Jesus taught and lived out. At the same time abortion has to be seen as an evil itself. The best way to approach it in the United States might be to work at reducing its underlying causes toward the day when abortions would be no more. And having such a groundswell of grassroots support for overturning Roe v Wade, that eventually that day will come. These are only two evils of the day, another being how African Americans continue to face discrimination and marginalization on a large scale. There you have my own opinion, and there are numerous other things for us to sort through if we have the time and believe it to be helpful to do so.

The big question might be just how we look at this old world destined for judgment in light of the new world to come, and already present in Jesus within and out from the church. When you break it down, that is not nearly as easy as it might look. There are the Reinhold Niebuhr realists all the way to the Anabaptist (with others) Sermon on the Mount followers of Jesus. And within those two camps, there’s some variance, and certainly variety in between. Trying to break it down in this matter is a human construct for sure. We need to keep going back to scripture again and again, and ask the difficult questions in the real world, not thinking we have to come up with hard, fast answers.

Perhaps the best way to approach this is to recognize that there’s both a division as well as overlap between the two worlds. We can think of that in terms of creation, now fallen and broken, and new creation, present already in Jesus, but not yet in its final state when heaven and earth become one at his return. The question for believers and followers of Jesus becomes just what our role in the midst of this is, both in general, and specifically in terms of what we might be able to do, as well as what we shouldn’t do. That is where the debate would lie, and where Christians, even within the same church might vary. But it’s a problem and issue we can’t avoid, unless we see the gospel and scripture as not really addressing any of it. We have to use our God-given minds for understanding and wisdom, and keep working at it. But with an emphasis always on our primary calling as God’s people: devotion to Christ and the gospel. Which is for the world’s salvation, but never a part of this world in terms of its origin. But hopefully helpful for the old world. With the hope always lying in a better world to come when Jesus returns, the beginnings of which are already present through the gospel and in the church, in and through Jesus.

becoming aware and remaining silent

When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.

Job 2:11-13

Good start, but bad ending for Job’s three friends. Actually a good ending, considering that God had Job pray for them in the end. The fact that they sat with him in silence for seven whole days is exemplary. But what we can see from the rest of the book is that likely during those seven days their hearts and minds were stirred with thoughts for their words, essentially diatribes against Job, which followed.

Of course we wouldn’t have what turns out to be a long wisdom book without their sayings, and Job’s reply to them. It’s almost as if that dialog becomes what’s important, and especially God’s answer in the end. Not really giving Job an explanation, but instead, what Job really needed. But at the same time exonerating Job, while rebuking Job’s three friends. Interestingly, the young man who said something before Job spoke, is not corrected by God, unless one might say that he kind of anticipates God’s answer, yet even if he thinks he’s above Job’s friends, does seem to faintly echo them.

Job is actually a great book, even if puzzling and troubling on a certain level. My favorite group Bible study was one we had going through Job. It is more like an exercise in humility, rather than finding answers to help us through life. But that’s the point. We need to be silent and still before God, not just in regard to ourselves, but also concerning others. Rather than think we have all the answers based on our theology and understanding.

Does that mean we don’t try to understand the plight of others? I don’t think so. It might mean that in doing so, we try not to lean to our own understanding of even what we believe from scripture, but instead, actively lean on God. Much in our understanding might be true, as was the case with Job’s three friends, but like them, misapplied. We need to be in prayer, ask questions, and investigate. And never think we arrived to the final answer.

Of course the final answer in scripture is the gospel: God in Christ reconciling the world to himself and his good will and purpose. And that applying to every situation in some way, believe it or not. But still holding everyone accountable to accept in faith God’s word to us in Jesus, and specifically in Jesus’s incarnation, life, teachings, death and resurrection, along with his ascension, the pouring out of the Spirit, with the promise of his return. That is God’s answer to everything, which in itself is not simplistic, but points toward the completeness of the gospel itself.

So although Job’s friends did have a lot of knowledge in the way of theology, they lacked wisdom in applying it. Just the same, it is the inspired word of God, and is a case in point of how the parts as in the responses of Job’s friends need to be seen within the whole, and help us at least begin to appreciate what otherwise we never would. Job answers his friends who don’t let go, but answer back for awhile. And then God answers. All of it is instructive and important in its place.

This is a wisdom book, and unfolds in such a way as to simply make us aware of our need of God rather than some textbook answer which we can write down, and then carry out. Not that there isn’t instruction throughout, and especially in what God tells Job in the end, which really amounts to helping Job see that when it’s all said and done, Job can’t understand what only God can. And his friends failed to speak the truth about God, unlike Job, who at least was seriously wrestling with God over his disaster and the dilemma that followed. And in faith received God’s word. All of this now for us, in and through Jesus.