Archive for May, 2016

Of Course He isn’t Safe, But He’s Good

May 10, 2016

My friend, Rich Hansen, who pastors a church in Chicago, has just published a book called Paradox Lost.  In one of the chapters, he talks about C.S. Lewis’ classic book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  In the book, two sisters, Lucy and Susan, are talking to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver about Aslan the lion, who is Lewis’ figure for Jesus.  Susan says, “I’d thought he was a man.  Is he – quite safe?”  I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”  Mrs. Beaver says, “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”  So, Lucy asks, “Then he isn’t safe?”  Mr. Beaver says, “Safe?  Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you?  Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But, he’s good.”

Rich describes this as a tuning fork paradox:  God isn’t safe, but God is good.  As with all biblical paradoxes, living within this tension is difficult and yet essential.  According to A.W. Tozer, the God we envision determines the person we are becoming.  What happens to people who are primarily focused on a God who “isn’t safe” or what the Bible speaks of as justice, judgment, or wrath?  We already know.  Those with the primary image of a wrathful God eventually become wrathful themselves.  Those who believe only in a judging God easily become judgmental.  They become unable to offer any mercy and, just as tragically, unable to receive mercy themselves.  This is not a pretty picture of God, and folks who see God only in these ways are not endearing to be around.  Since these judgmental caricatures are usually how Christians are portrayed in our media, who can blame churches for treating this unsafe God the way families deal with odd Uncle Harry:  keep him in the background so he doesn’t embarrass us in front of the guests.

But Rich asks:  what about the other side of Mr. Beaver’s statement:  “He’s good”?  Even beyond good, doesn’t the Bible say, “God is love?”  Unfortunately, we can subtly turn that biblical statement on its head until it becomes “Love is God.”  We then fall prey to the opposite caricature:  God the benignly loving heavenly grandfather, who smiles on his children no matter what they do.  If this is our mental image of God, we easily assume that any loving person is automatically a godly person or that any belief system with some love in it must also have God in it.  Experience shows that neither is true.  God is not only loving; God is also just.  In fact, if God were not perfect justice, neither could God be perfect love.

Rich reminds us of something else that A.W. Tozer wrote:  “The vague and tenuous hope that God is too kind to punish the ungodly has become a deadly opiate for the consciences of millions.”  An opiate is a drug that dulls our senses and makes us lose touch with reality.  It’s a fatal notion that a loving God could never judge anyone.  Why do we assume that love and justice do not coexist in God?  C. S. Lewis says with wonderful understatement, “Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun.  They need to think again.”  God is so good, and God’s love is so pure, that nothing impure can stand before him.  It’s the justice of God that shows us what terrible trouble we’re in.  And it’s the love of God, through Jesus’ death on the cross, that allows our burden of sin to be released.

Our view of God determines the kind of people we are becoming and the kind of lives we are leading.  The Bible teaches us that God is not shallow – God is deep.  God is so deep that sometimes He is difficult for us to understand.  The nature of God sometimes brings together seemingly opposite ideas in a way that is hard for us to imagine.  This is called a paradox.

So, while we can come to know God as children, it will take more than a lifetime to really understand God, Who He is, Why He acts the way He does, and why He calls us to be the kind of people we are becoming.  God combines revelation and mystery, certainty and wonder, questions and answers.  The challenge for us is not to reduce God down to something smaller than He is.  We need to allow God to remain big, bigger than our problems, and bigger than our world.  Only then can we catch a glimpse of how amazing God is, and how wonderful the Kingdom of God is going to be in the future.  Of course God isn’t safe, but He’s good.

 

 

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Already But Not Yet

May 3, 2016

My friend, Rich Hansen, who pastors a church in Chicago, has just published a book called Paradox Lost.  In one of the chapters, he describes how the church he grew up in paid little attention to the Kingdom of God.  For some reason, a lot of American churches haven’t paid a lot of attention to the teachings in the Bible about the Kingdom of God, but it was the main thing Jesus talked about when he walked on earth.  The Kingdom of God is mentioned 122 times in the four gospels including 99 times from Jesus’ own lips.  In the Gospel of Mark, the very first words that Jesus speaks are about the Kingdom of God: ”The Kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15)  The good news that Jesus brings into our world is about the Kingdom of God.

Rich writes in his book that the Jewish people had been expecting the Kingdom of God for a very long time, just as the Old Testament prophets had predicted.  All creation started off very good (Genesis 1:31).  But God’s good creation came under the brutal tyranny of Satan.  Now Jesus is leading a counterattack, recapturing the territory Satan has held.  Whenever Jesus heals someone, the Kingdom of God has come.  Whenever he casts out a demon, the Kingdom of God has come.  Whenever Jesus reaches out to love people no one else loves – like lepers or tax collectors or prostitutes or sinners – the Kingdom of God has come.  Whenever truth and justice defeat injustice, the Kingdom of God has come.  Person by person, piece by piece, Jesus is reclaiming the territory that has been under the dominion of Satan.

Rich points out that the reframing nature of Jesus’ parables presses home the paradoxical, unexpected nature of the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom will not arrive in overpowering might, as the Jews expected, but is already quietly at work, as insignificant to human eyes as a mustard seed or bit of yeast in some dough.  Jesus’ kingdom looks embarrassingly small and weak against powerful world systems that seem to have the upper hand in every quarter.  Yet he tells us it will expand to penetrate every corner of God’s creation.  As the nineteenth-century Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper once said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

Rich reminds us that other parables continue the beat of the Kingdom’s mystery.  The Kingdom of God will not be joyously received everywhere, as the Jews expected.  As we learn in the parable of the sower, it will never take root in some lives, it will be superficially received in others, and it will be choked out in still others (Matthew 13:1-9).  One of the hardest truths for Jesus’ audience, and for many of us today, to swallow is how many people ultimately reject the Kingdom (Matthew 7:13-14).  Also contrary to Jewish expectation, the Kingdom will not vanquish evil all at once, but comingles with an evil world, like wheat and weeds growing together until the final judgment (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43).

New Testament scholar George Ladd has written: “The new truth, now given to men by revelation in the person and mission of Jesus, is that the Kingdom that is to come finally in apocalyptic power, as foreseen in Daniel, has in fact entered into the world in advance in a hidden form to work secretly within and among men.”  Hence the classic phrase describing the Kingdom of God:  “already but not yet”.  It is already here, but it is not yet reaching its fullness until Jesus returns.  The future has already invaded the present, but not yet completely.

This is the tension that we live in today.  This is the challenge that we face.  How do we live in a world as people who have already been changed by God, but who have not yet been completely changed by God?  How do we live in a world that is in the process of being changed by God, but which has not yet been completely changed by God?  How can we be used by God to help advance His love and truth, to a world and to people who don’t always want to hear it?  It can be hard to live in a world with so many problems, but it can also be meaningful and rewarding to know that what we do matters, what we do counts, and what we do is important.  Every little thing that we do has the potential to make a difference in the world.  Even the smallest of words and the tiniest of actions can lodge in a person’s heart or mind and cause them to re-think what they believe and how they act.  Life can be hard, but life can be good at the same time.  Our labor is not in vain.  God can multiply what we do in ways we may not realize.  Life can be frustrating and rewarding at the same time.  This is the paradox of living between the now and the not yet.