God As Initiator

Oh Lord, thou hast searched me and known me . . .

Psalm 139: 1

I’ve been posting lately about self-deception, how it obstructs our relationship with God, our knowledge of God.  And I have emphasized how deep and involved these deceptions often are and I have at last said that our way out of these prisons we make for ourselves does not lie in ourselves.  That is to say, once we make our own trap, we can’t get out of it by ourselves.

Then this morning, in my devotional reading, I ran across this old poem that says the same thing.  The poet, Francis Thompson, says it much better than I have.  But, it is comforting to me to see the same theme expressed by a great writer.  Makes me more confident that what I am saying is true.  Here is the quote from the poem “The Hound of Heaven:”

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

I fled Him down the arches of the years;

I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears

I hid from Him

Deception and Enslavement

In my early years I hid my tears

And passed my days alone
Adrift on an ocean of loneliness
My dreams like nets were thrown
To catch the love that I’d heard of
In books and films and songs
Now there’s a world of illusion and fantasy
In the place where the real world belongs

Jackson Browne, “Farther On”

 

Colossians 2:8

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

I’ve been writing for the past few posts about self-deception.  It’s a worthy subject and inexhaustible.  The dimensions and depths of the lies we tell ourselves and about ourselves have no limits.

My college roommate was, and remains, a great friend of mine.  He was and is a practical guy – smart, able, willing to help – and his career as an orthodontist has been a big success.  I gained a lot by being around him those four crazy years.  But he was no philosopher.  He did not deal in speculation or pontificate about the great existential questions.  I guess that’s why this little bit about him has stuck with me for so long.  It was, in a way, out of character for him, but it was one of the most perceptive, trenchant, and perfectly-stated observations I have ever witnessed.

He was arguing with his girlfriend.  This was not a rare thing.  She was a prim, sort of business-school type, who felt she had all things coming to her and rather kept book on my roommate to remind him, as often as necessary, that he was never really quite measuring up.  She was from Pennsylvania and had condescended to attend college in West Virginia, my own – and my roommate’s – home State.

People from Pennsylvania talk differently from people from West Virginia.  They say “you’uns,” we say “ya’ll.”  That kind of thing.    They call that NFL team in Pittsburgh the “Stillers.”

But on this occasion she was complaining to my roommate about his “hillbilly accent.”

“Well, you’ve got an accent, too.”  He replied.

“No, I don’t.  You’re the one with the accent.”

At this moment – this golden moment, in my book – my wise roommate said, without fanfare or ado:

“You’ve got it so bad that you don’t even know you’ve got it. . .”

And that is just it!   With regard to self-deception generally – we’ve got it so bad that we don’t know we’ve got it.  So, it is a very hard trap to get out of, even though we designed it ourselves.

But today I want to write a bit about how the deceptions that imprison us and keep us from being honest to God and thus enjoying a fuller communion with Him are fed and watered by the “powers and principalities” of this world.  If you’ve spent much time in the Bible, you’ll recognize that term.  If you haven’t, it will be a mystery to you.  In my case, both things were true, at least until I read Andy Crouch’s excellent book Playing GodYou see, I had read that phrase about the “powers and principalities” time and again and was in that sense familiar with it, but had no real understanding of what it meant.  I guess I thought it was a reference to Satan and his minions.  That is true, I still believe, but look at what Andy Crouch has to say:

The first-century Mediterranean world did not know about zombies, but it did know about shadowy powers that lurked behind human institutions and indeed the whole natural world.  The Greeks called them the stoicheia, a word that in our English Bibles is translated “elements” or “elementary principles.”  A handful of times in Paul’s letters we find references to them, as when Paul refers to “the stoicheia of the kosmos” (Colossians 2:8) that once kept his Colossian readers bound in ignorance.

**

In the early Christian’s view, then, there are powerful patterns of life, with more than merely earthly reality, that have enslaved God’s image bearers, cutting them off from sight and life.

That helps me.  And what I see in our modern world, for one thing, at least, is the spirit or powers that lurk behind advertising.

I am thinking in particular about the ads I see on television for pickup trucks.  They are all about image – all about cachet.  If you buy this $50,000 truck, you’ll be one of the boys.  You’ll be a tough guy.  A guy who can handle a shovel and a square and who can knock back a few with the boys when the ten-hour shift is over.

 

This is naked exploitation and the people who are doing it have to be aware of that.   I really wonder how many of these trucks are sold to guys who don’t make $50,000 a year, who don’t have construction jobs, who don’t know how to use a square, who don’t know the difference between a joist and a stud, and who couldn’t do a pull-up if their lives depended on it.  I really wonder how many of these $50,000 vehicles are never put into 4-wheel drive.  I really wonder how many of them have clean, unused beds three or four years after purchase.

And yet.  And yet.  These guys buy the big red truck and that’s what they spend their lives paying for.  As Tyler Durden put it in Fight Club:

“working jobs we hate so we can buy [stuff] we don’t need.”

This is deception.  And it is deception that exploits and enslaves.  Is it not the product of some elemental spirit.

Getting Ready for Love

 

Philippians 2: 12-13 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

 

This is my same old coat
And my same old shoes
I was the same old me
With the same old blues
Then you touched my life
Just by holding my hand
Now I look in the mirror
And see a brand new girl
I got a brand new walk
A brand new smile
Since I met you baby
I got a brand new style
“Brand New Me” by Kenneth Gamble, Theresa Bell, and Jerry Butler

 

 

When I thought more about my last post – the whole business about our relationship with God depending on our own honesty, our willingness to recognize and let go of the delusions that we’ve created to protect our own egos – I thought maybe I had made things appear like “Okay, you’re saved, but I’m not having any more to do with you until you get it all cleaned up here.  No more light and no more word from Me until you get your act together.”  I didn’t really say that in the post, but, nonetheless, today I want to actively disabuse any reader of any such notion.

The honesty on our part that is essential to a growing relationship with God is not some bar that God wants to see us jump over before He rewards us with His presence.  Rather, our dishonesty – our false face – is at bottom a withholding of our true self.  This, of course, is a profound impediment to any real relationship.  But even here, God initiates, provides and empowers.  This taking off the mask and the drawing out of our true, vulnerable self is also the work of God.  He will not override our personality and our coming clean involves the exercise of our own will, but God provides the means and the energy.

As I thought this over, I remembered a passage in Rod Dreher’s wonderful book How Dante Can Save Your Life.   What I remembered, unaided by a review of the book or my notes from the book, was his recounting of his years of living according to the sexual morays of the modern, secular world.  In other words, of his being promiscuous.

When he began his relationship with God, he started to understand that what he’d been doing was wrong and he embraced – though not perfectly, at first – the discipline of chastity.  It’s a beautiful story, all in all, and he tells how this resolution – this effort – wrought changes in his life and outlook that prepared him to meet and then wed the love of his life.  His “coming clean” prepared him for a relationship – made entering in to that rewarding and fulfilling relationship possible for him.

Yep.  I was going to talk about all of that.  But when I went back to Rod’s book, and particularly to my kindle notes and highlights, I was a bit overwhelmed.  It’s not that there is something here or there in the book about opening ourselves to God.  The whole book is about that very thing.  I said earlier, quoting Donald Miller, that everyone has a story to tell and it’s not the one they’re telling.  But in Rod Dreher’s case – in this book at any rate – he’s coming very close, I think, to telling his true story.  Close enough to make the book a captivating and worthwhile read.

Waiting For The Lord

Psalm 130:6
my soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen for the morning,
    more than watchmen for the morning.

Waiting implies a relationship with a person.

If we are dealing with the internet – with robots and artificial intelligence – we – if things are working right – don’t have to wait.  We ask Siri how many years Babe Ruth played for the Boston Red Sox and the answer is instantaneous  – six.

But dealing with a human being is not like that.  And dealing with God is even less like that.  It’s true that God loves us, but He knows us better than we know ourselves and He knows what we need and even what we desire better than we know ourselves.  We lie to ourselves, deceive ourselves, for many reasons: to cover up for wrongs and failures we don’t want to face up to; to keep up appearances, even to ourselves.  Our self-deceptions are epic in both width and breadth.  It takes work to undo them.  It takes effort to see these deceptions or what they are – to remember why we concocted them in the first place and to at least get to the point where we might honestly assess what the truth might actually have been.

Donald Miller, who makes his living giving counsel to writers, says that everyone has a story and it is not the story that they are telling.  When we talk with another – even with our closest confidant and even in the strictest confidence and even about the matters that our deepest in our soul – we don’t tell the whole truth.  God wants the whole truth.  Not because He wants to embarrass or punish us or to prove to us that, in spite of our protests, life was fair; He wants the truth – wants us to get to the bottom of things and tell ourselves the truth about ourselves – because this is the only way to get the ship righted.  He doesn’t want to let us go on wandering down this dead-end road we’ve created for ourselves.

Jane Austen gives us a dramatic example of this process of “coming clean” in her great novel, Pride and Prejudice.  Elizabeth Bennett receives a letter from Mr. Darcy that contains enough information to convince her that the “reality” or “truth” that she has constructed for herself – that she made her decisions, big decisions, based on – was completely, utterly false.  Here is Elizabeth’s confession:

How despicably I have acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”

If that is our natural tendency and bent – and it is – then our relationship with God won’t be one of instant gratification, but, rather, one of long and deep searching and confession.  Thus, “waiting on the Lord” as we hear about it in the Bible and as we think about it may really be more God waiting on us!  That is, waiting on us to “come clean” so that the conversation will be meaningful and not just some feel-good rambling about the person we pretend to be and the wants and needs that we have half-convinced ourselves that we have.

I am not for a minute saying that God will have no help for us until we’ve gotten it all together.  Nope.  I am right there with the Reformers and Protestant tradition in saying and believing that God initiates.  That is, He comes to us – saves us, accepts us – “just as we are,” self-deceptions and all.  What I am trying to say is that the relationship that follows is one that depends on honesty and, given the fact that this is such a task for us – letting go of our precious smoke screens and delusions – there is some waiting involved; maybe a lot.

What Are We Waiting For?

 

We talked this Sunday about what a big part of life waiting is.

 

We must wait for this and that, it’s inevitable and usually not enjoyable.  We wait, but we wait impatiently.  We also talked a bit about how central the idea of waiting is to our faith – the Christian faith.  We wait for the promised Second Coming, when all will be set to rights:  perfect justice, complete fulfillment, full adoption as sons of God, every tear wiped away.

Yep.  That’s what we are waiting for.  And we – the church – have been waiting for that for around 2000 years now.  But are we waiting for anything else?  Someone in class mentioned the idea that we’re waiting for death, so that we can enter heaven.  Well, yes.  I guess so.  Paul wrote that to him “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”  But are we waiting for anything else?

 

Someone in class mentioned having inadvertently listened to a gospel-music radio program the other day and being impressed by how all the songs were about getting away to heaven.  You know, “this world is not my home” and all of that.  Undoubtedly, there is a sense in which that is true, but it seems to me that there is a possibility of an unchristian escapism here.  In many ways, this world is our home.  It’s where our living friends and relatives are and the place where all of those relationships unfold and flourish (or not).

Maybe when we say “the world” in the sense used here we don’t mean “the earth.”  Rather, we mean the mess that Satan and fallen humanity have made out of society and the conditions of the human race.  But the earth – this place where we, ahem, live, is a place of staggering beauty and wonder and we don’t honor God or really know His grace if we don’t appreciate the beauty of His creation.

 

Are those gospel songs the product of an unhealthy escapism?  Are they written maybe not so much by inspired saints as by those who have simply failed at their own duties to love, flourish, prosper, and to appreciate life here and now?  Are they written by those who may be jealous of the success and happiness of others – who may have flourished – and want to sing about the day when they will “get even?”

What are we waiting for?  The Second Coming?  Well, yes.  Heaven?  Well, yes.  But look at these verses from Eugene Peterson’s translation (The Message) of Paul’s letter to the Romans:

This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?”

Romans 8:  15

And:

3-5 There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

Romans 5: 3-5

 

I don’t know about you, but I can’t read these verses – at least this translation of them – without concluding that we are right to wait expectantly not only for the Second Coming and not only for death, but for life, here and now, as God unfolds it before our eyes.  If that is the case, it occurs to me to ask of myself: am I waiting in the right way?  Am I waiting for the right things?  Do I even see God’s grace as it unfolds?  Do I thus frustrate His plans?  And fail to appreciate Him and this life He has given me?

Am I living in black and white when God has offered me life in color?

More Thoughts on Christian Patience

I left off the last post this morning with a note toward balance.

It was kind of an afterthought.  The post was about patience and waiting and I ended with just a bit about what that waiting should be like.  Maybe I should have said a little more about that.

While we, as Christians in this age after the resurrection but before the Second Coming, live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet.”  That’s old news to any of you readers who have spent much time in church.  It’s kind of a cliché in our circles, I guess.

But I thought more about what I wrote this morning as I pedaled up and down the hills and hollows here in my home State of West Virginia on my daily bike ride.  I do almost 17 miles on a “short day,” and that’s what I did today.  This exercise in the open air – and today in the sunlight – always seems to get the mind stirring.

And as it stirred this morning, and as I thought again and again about this morning’s post, some language from Eugene Peterson’s translation of the New Testament (The Message) popped into my head.  It relates to the concept of waiting, which I wrote about this morning.  But, like so much of Peterson’s translations, it gives us just a little more emphasis here and there.  I love Peterson’s translations of the Epistles, particularly Galatians and Romans.  He has said that his aim in translating was to give the reader not a literal, word for word translation, but a translation that would be faithful to the look and feel of the original writing.  That is, this writing would sound to us modern readers – have the same “ring” as – the original Greek would have had to the early churches.

Peterson translates a couple of passages in Romans that deal directly with the kind of “waiting in tension” that I wrote about this morning.  Look at this:

Romans 5:3-5

There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

 

Look at that!  Patience, yes, but passionate patience that includes great expectancy;  that expects surprise and fulfillment.

Here is one more bit, this one around Romans 8: 23-24 or so:

These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

 

Don’t you think these passages help to understand the nature of the Christian’s waiting?  It’s not a dull, grinding thing that is too timid to hope for much.  Rather, it is “alert expectancy,” “joyful expectancy.”

Meditation on Psalm 131

Psalm 131 
131 Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me.
Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child.
Let Israel hope in the Lord from henceforth and for ever.

 

 

The psalmist does not assume or pretend to high knowledge, but has humbled his soul like a child weaned from its mother.
His relationship with God is one of patience and waiting.  He is not nursing at the breast of God – not taking in all and satisfied with warmth and floating in fullness.  No.  That may have been his or her experience at one time – maybe when faith was first kindled.  But now he has learned to be content and that all will come in time.  This is the Christian life.  We live in tension between what is promised and desired, on the one hand, and what has been already given on the other.  What life teaches us is to have patience and wait as a weaned child waits for the satisfaction of its needs.

 

But we must also not lose the hope for the perfect fulfillment – the satisfaction of heart’s desire.