DEEPER HOPE

Deeper Hope:

An Abiding Virtue

This book explores the meaning -- and application -- of Christian Hope. It takes the fuzzy concept of Hope and reveals it in everyday settings

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Check Jesus at the Door, Please

A while back my friend attended a Christian university. He needed to fulfill a general education requirement in the social sciences, so he signed up to take a psychology course called “Mental Disorders.” Since it was a Christian Liberal Arts school he expected some consideration of the Christian view of the human psyche, but the very first day in class set him straight. “There are certain psychological problems,” the professor intoned, “That cannot be fixed by prayer. That’s what we will be talking about.” Prayer, Christianity, faith, the Bible, or Jesus were never mentioned again during the semester. In effect the professor said: “Enough with Christianity, let’s get down to how things really work.”

Poor Jesus. Each day, at workplaces all across North America, he gets checked at the door. I’ve begun to imagine high-rise office buildings where Christians can stash Jesus in the lobby cloakroom before getting on the elevator and heading up to their law offices, accounting practices, engineering firms, insurance companies, and investment bullpens.

In his essay, Jesus the Logician, Dallas Willard points out the separation between Jesus and the real world:

“There is in our culture an uneasy relation between Jesus and intelligence, and I have actually heard Christians respond to my statement that Jesus is the most intelligent man who ever lived by saying that it is an oxymoron . . . How could we be his disciples at our work, take him seriously as our teacher there, if when we enter our fields of technical or professional competence we must leave him at the door?”

What about it? Is he the smartest guy ever, or what? And if he’s so smart, why wouldn’t he have something to say about how to get the job done? Yes, we nod and sigh: Jesus can remind us to tell the truth and be kind to small animals, but what does he know about estimating the raw materials required for this construction site?

But what if Dallas Willard is right? What if Jesus was—and is—the smartest guy ever? What will he say to us in the everyday stuff of life? Was the Apostle Paul merely engaging in flowery speech when spoke of Jesus, “In whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3)?

The calling of a disciple is to make life application in Christ. Jesus was a carpenter, true—but what if he was a doctor? Jesus is looking for someone today to demonstrate the answer. What if Jesus was a marketing executive? Or a car salesman? Or a wife and mother? These are no idle questions. They go to the heart of our life in Christ and our calling to put him on display in the human situation. When my friend’s (Christian) psychology professor exempted the life of God from consideration of the human psyche, that professor set a course to ignore the surest reality in the field of psychology. Willard recommends the Christian faith because it helps you integrate with reality. After all, who created the human psyche?

This issue is significant for individual Christians but also for the church at large. Christian books pour forth daily, dealing with every conceivable life issue: marriage, family, business, personal discipline. Many of these well-meaning treatments look to “the latest” results of research, science or technology and attempt to baptize secular learning with Biblical window-dressing. If, in fact, all the treasures and wisdom of this age are hidden in Jesus Christ (Colossians 2:3), shouldn’t he be the first place we look? Why do we turn to “objective” sources of research or academia only to apply a Christian wrapping paper after coming to our conclusions?

How can we make life-application in Christ? How can we discover the hidden treasures of wisdom in him?

§ Recognize Jesus the Wellspring: Jesus is our model. Not a “spiritual model,” or an “ethical model.” He is simply the source of all wisdom and knowledge. Those who recognize the Source will turn to him first and ask for revelation from him before examining other sources.

§ Trust the Biblical record: The downside of Biblical scholarship in our age has been distrust of the scripture’s inspiration. To recognize the God-breathed nature of the Bible does not limit the text to one and only one meaning, but instead opens it up to the possibility that the infinitely intelligent and creative God has placed more and more in the Bible for us to discover.

§ Look for the Living, Resurrected Lord: Jesus, the smartest guy who ever lived, is alive today. Not only alive, he is accessible: he promised that he shows up whenever two or three get together in his name. He—and his wisdom—are not remote. His treasure-trove of wisdom and knowledge is, among other things, mediated by his Spirit and found in the communion of the believers who assemble in his keeping.

§ Look for His witness in so-called “secular” wisdom: Proverbs depict Jesus as the Wisdom of God, dancing daily in the Father’s sight, rejoicing in the creation of the world (Proverbs 8). Jesus is Lady Wisdom in the marketplace. Jesus, the wisdom of God, delights in the Father’s creative genius whether that genius is discovered in worship or in Wall Street.

What we must not do is check Jesus at the door. He is, in fact, the Wellspring of wisdom and truth beyond our imaginations.

Who is Welcome?

Surely Jesus believed that prostitutes were sinners, yet he welcomed them to his table. He ate and drank with them.

Surely Jesus understood that tax collectors betrayed their countrymen by helping the brutal Roman occupiers in his homeland, yet he welcomed tax collectors to his table as well.

Surely Jesus knew that religious hypocrites misrepresented Yahweh’s heart toward his people and laid heavy burdens on God’s people, yet he dined with them and invited them to participate in his Father’s kingdom.

Surely Jesus saw first-hand Peter’s temper, James and John’s foolish nationalism, even Judas’ tortured and divided motivations, yet he broke bread with each one of them, sharing his very blood and body.

Jesus welcomed everyone to his table. He welcomed the clueless and the cruel. He engaged the outcast and the insider. He shared his life with his enemies because he came to turn enemies into family. His method was startling: he ate and drank with them. Wherever Jesus ate, it was his table. He turned water into wine and transformed ritual into everlasting love.

He turned no one away from his table.

He gave no one a pass on his or her rebellion or self-destructive ways. The sinless perfect representative of God’s heart never lowered his standards or winked at injustice. Still, around his table everyone was welcome. He was no lightweight: if a moment called for brutal honestly, he fulfilled that need as well. He did not negotiate, he fellowshipped.

He set an example for us to follow. On his way to the cross he stopped to eat and drink each day, and each day he welcomed his enemies to his table. At the cross, he did what only he could do. At the table, he demonstrated what we can do.

He refused to let disagreement separate him from others. Jesus possessed the proper opinions, the right positions, and perfect perspective, but never--not once--did he use his correct standing as a reason to alienate other people.

Who is welcome at your table?

Doubt: Four Lessons From Thomas, the Honest One

I grew up in suburban Chicago among the stray dogs of Evangelicalism. Since 1970, I’ve not attended a traditional Evangelical church, right up until I became a Vineyard pastor. Reading the Bible and walking with God involved daily exercises in doubt because my friends and I would read a passage and say, "Huh—I wonder what that means?" No one ever told me I had to swallow everything at once in order to be in the club. Doubt kept me from indigestion because I had to take things one bite at a time.

Still, the Scriptures have been my standard for living since the beginning of my walk with God, but one of the benefits of congregating with misfits was I never had to endure other people insisting what the Bible meant. My grasp of the Bible is like my marriage: I love my wife very much, but after 33 years together I still don’t pretend to understand her. That’s true in marriage, and it’s been true in my walk with God: clueless, committed and willing to live with occasional tension when my limited intellect bumps up against the most revered document in Western history. So perhaps it will come as no surprise that on the subject of doubt, I’ve found what I think is a biblical model for doubt.

It will score no points for originality, but in my model for doubt in the big leather book is that guy named Thomas. Since I never had a Sunday school teacher wiggle her finger in my face and warn me not to be like "Doubting Thomas," I just figured he was one of the gang, like Puddleglum in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series: a real buzz-kill, but still part of the team.

Thomas taught me that there are worse things than doubt. He taught me it’s OK to be the downer in the group, and if the group doesn’t like it, that’s mostly their problem. Thomas taught me that my doubts belonged to me, and I had no business trying to sell other people my doubt any more than I should try to sell people my favorite doctrines. Thomas taught me it’s OK to be myself, as long I as I wasn’t a jerk. Most of all Thomas taught me you can be unflinchingly honest and still get face-time with Jesus.

Here are four things Thomas taught me about doubt:

Thomas put courage above faith: In the first half of Jesus’ ministry, the religious people had attempted to kill Jesus at least twice (Luke 4 and John 10). Then Jesus got word that His good friend Lazarus was sick, along with the request to go heal him. The only problem was Lazarus lived within sight of Jerusalem, and Jesus had already told His friends that Jerusalem meant death. While guys like Peter tried to say they would never allow that to happen to Jesus, Thomas simply said, "Let us also go, that we may die with Him." I want courage like that. Eeyore for grown-ups: ready to face death.

Thomas put honesty above faith: Thomas wasn’t there when the other guys on the team saw the resurrected Jesus. Yet when he heard them talk about this insane idea that Jesus was physically alive, he stood his ground: "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe." I understand church-people use this as an example of what not to do, but I admire his honesty. We’ve all met people who lie about their faith just to go along with the crowd and end up with neither honesty nor faith.

Thomas put relationship above faith: Thomas didn’t separate himself from his friends because of their differences. And to their credit, the other guys didn’t kick him out. The standard church model runs like this: you have to believe in order to belong. The Gospel model says, you can belong before you believe. I’ve seen people on both sides of the divide walk away from relationships over disagreements about faith. Too bad—some of my best friends are pain-in-the-butt "unbelievers." But what can I do? They’re still my friends.

Thomas got the ultimate creepy experience: I think the resurrected Jesus creeped everyone out: Appearing. Disappearing. Cooking. Eating. Floating away. But one offer Jesus made only to Thomas: "Reach out your hand and put it into my side." That’s right, "stick your hand into a spear-sized hole in my ribs, all while I’m living, standing and talking to you." Thomas’ doubt didn’t offend the Lord. Jesus simply called his bluff and freaked him out. It’s true, Jesus said "stop doubting," but only after pushing all the chips to the center of the table. In a way, his doubt opened the door to a unique experience with Jesus.

Thomas teaches me that there are worse things to be called than "doubter." His interactions with Jesus also teach me that Jesus is secure enough in His identity to display grace and patience with people who don’t have it all worked out—which, it turns out, is everyone.

Goodness

Goodness is a fruit of the Spirit, the by-product of a gentle, godly nurturing, years in the making. Yet, Jesus carefully separated himself from a human, earthbound idea of goodness. A careful reading of the scripture hints that when we expect to automatically carry our own earthbound ideas of goodness into our everyday life with Jesus, we are actually expecting his ways to conform to ours.

When a young man of substance and power tried to address Jesus politely, addressing him as “Good Teacher,” the Lord shot back, “Why do you call me good? No one is good—except God alone.” Certainly the young man was correct, Jesus was (and is) the Good Teacher, yet Jesus immediately drew a distinction between an earth-bound view of goodness and a godly one.

Who could be against goodness? I’m totally in favor of goodness—right up until goodness sits on the throne and demands worship. Beware the goodness that takes the crown from the King of kings. Beware the goodness of this age, and the wisdom of this age that tries to present a goodness divorced from the humility of worship, instruction, or servanthood. In short, beware when goodness masquerades as God.

The living God is dangerously good. We have made our own ideas of goodness safe and comfortable. The dangerous goodness of God cuts across our culturally based versions of “good.” It’s not about your version of good, or mine. The wisdom of this age wants to fashion a goodness after its own image, a safe goodness of which we are the judge. Our ideas of goodness may lead us to our doom. When we demand a god who conforms to our view of good and evil, we have made him over in our image.

We are, in fact, afraid of Absolute Goodness. When humankind saw True Goodness among us, we nailed him to the cross. We employed the powers of government and religion in a vain attempt to muzzle him and continue ordering the world after our own ideas of what is right.

But what is right? What is good? Pilate asked Jesus “What is truth?” In the last hundred years the wisdom of this age has answered that question by concluding there is no such thing. We have moved beyond the question of truth, and we are stuck today on “What is good?” Each of us should tremble if we reach the same result as we did with truth—that we should be be left to choose our own ideas of good. The goodness of this world is the promise that we will become like God—all we need is the knowledge of good and evil (never mind what shortcuts we take, or the source of this knowledge).

Jesus demonstrates goodness through his humility: that the human mind should bow before the glory of God. Goodness is the fruit of walking with the Master of Life, of learning his heart, gaining his mind, and making room for his Spirit. We would be wise to give up our definitions of goodness until his work takes root in us.

And this is just the start, because the same is true for each fruit of the Spirit. If we let him, the Spirit will redefine love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, (and goodness) faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We will discover heaven’s definitions of each good thing.

His Fresh Mercy

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
   his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
   great is your faithfulness.
~ Lamentations 3: 22-23
 

Is there anything quite like the aroma of baking bread? Without overpowering  the house it permeates the air with an invitation to come and eat. If you were lucky enough to grow up in a home that celebrates each morning with fresh biscuits, you woke up to the scent of goodness in the morning.
 
Perhaps because I’ve never met a carbohydrate I didn’t like, or perhaps because God served fresh biscuits to the people of Israel in the desert wilderness every morning for forty years, I’ve come to expect the smell of his goodness every morning. I’ve begun to train myself to discover his lovingkindness day by day.
 
Hidden midway through suffering poems of lament is the revelation of God’s constant and faithful provision for each one of us. In part, the lesson of these verses calls us to look for his mercies daily, to sniff them out, because regardless of our circumstances he is present and overflowing with mercy. If the weeping poet of Lamentations became convinced of God’s daily mercies can we not discover the same?
 
We were made to eat fresh bread. We do not have to live off of aging mercy. Who would be satisfied to breakfast upon biscuits three days old, or those frozen and served a month later? No. The Heavenly Father is a better parent than that. Amazingly, the poet of Lamentations suggested that even when life is at its most difficult stages, we can be assured of God’s constant and daily care. New morning, new mercies.
 
What if we determined to discover the reality of this revelation? What if each day were a hunt to discover the mercies which he prepared this morning? What if Monday’s Meditation is not simply a good idea, but the grace to restore our senses, heal our eyes and enable us to see his goodness? What if we engaged in the discipline of searching out and identifying his fresh mercy?
 
This week’s meditation is could be more than a meditation. If we choose, it can move us to daily action, to search for--and discover--the gifts he has placed in our path. Where will you discover the table he has set today?