Life, Death, Heaven and Hell

Life, Death, Heaven and Hell

Versión Español

This is the seventh part in a series called “Simple Faith”, examining the simple concepts of the Christian faith. You can read the previous posts by following these links: Simple FaithGodThe Bible,  Sin and Death, and Jesus, and Livin’ la vida… Christian.

Note: The picture above is me with our third son when he was born (more than a decade ago).

The final section in our simple faith series relates to what happens to us after we die. This is an incredibly complex topic, in no small part because we have no way to actually study the afterlife or to have any sort of objective certainty about what is coming next. Our ideas are based entirely on what is revealed in the Bible and the interpretations people put on that information. It is also the most difficult topic because of our emotional reaction against hell. In fact, these things have made this post incredibly difficult to write – this is probably my fifth or sixth version.

The simple concept that I want to explain is the following: We have hope of eternal life instead of death. This might seem like an odd way to address this topic. After all, I don’t mention heaven or hell or the concepts of sin and punishment or rewards. I do that for a simple reason – as much as we might speculate about heaven and hell, I think the Bible primarily offers a stark contrast between life and death, with heaven and hell sort of being the symbols of each (I say symbols without necessarily meaning that they don’t really exist). So what can we say about what happens after we die?

At one level, it’s very simple. In its simplest form, we could just say that the wicked will be punished and the good will be rewarded. The wicked will face eternal death and/or destruction while the righteous will receive life. It’s really just that simple. And yet, it’s hard to just leave it there – I feel the need to walk through how we got to that point. So here we go.

  1. God is the Giver of life. He created us and gave us life, and He is the one who sustains it in every moment. This theme runs through all of Scripture.
  2. Sin is basically the destruction of good and life that God created. So as we sin, we bring destruction and death into the world and our own life. Left to our own devices, even if we struggle to overcome sin, it will still eventually destroy us.
  3. Jesus came into the world to do multiple things: First, he accepted the punishment that sin deserves; second, he destroyed death through his perfect life and his resurrection; third, he made it possible for us to be connected to God through the Holy Spirit. This allows us to be connected to the giver of life, and will eventually be what allows us to be changed after our death. By accepting Jesus, we are basically saying that we hate the sin and evil in this world and in ourselves, and we want to be saved and changed. After our death, this change will be completed – whatever that looks like!
  4. Even in the New Testament and even in Paul’s works (Paul, who stridently declares salvation through faith), we are constantly told that God looks at our heart and that we will be judged for our works. This does not, I believe, negate Jesus at all. If anything, it is just a simple way of expressing the situation that takes into account the fact that many people will never hear about Jesus, or may be taught incorrect things about him, etc. We will be judged based on what we know (God’s power seen through nature, our understanding of morality, etc.) and whether we have responded to that in faith (believing and living according to what we have understood) or denying that and living our own way. But it’s still only Jesus who paid for our sins and Jesus who restores our relationship with God and saves us. And we still only are saved by faith – even if that faith is very incomplete.
    Note: I need to emphasize that although it seems likely to me that some will be saved even without knowing Jesus, it also seems incredibly dangerous to know about Jesus and not accept him. If he is God’s chosen path for salvation and we reject him, we are essentially saying that we do not need his help to obtain eternal life, or that we are good enough to save our selves. It is a way of rejecting God and saying that we would rather follow our own way. It is a highly inadvisable path to follow.
  5. In the end, God is the one who judges us. This is not a cruel tyrant making random decisions. It is a Father and King who is revealing what is really in our hearts responding in grace and love to those who desire and seek what is right, and anger and wrath to those who reject Him and His ways, choosing to seek only their own power, control, benefit, and desires. I hope it’s pretty obvious why people like that wouldn’t be welcome in heave. They would quickly turn heaven back into a world just as bad as the one we presently have. It is also important to note that many who seek only their own way can appear to be pretty good people, but what lies underneath is not so nice. In the same way, some can appear pretty ugly, perhaps for their upbringing, poor teaching, or bad life circumstances, but they honestly desire what is good. This is why we leave those judgments up to God.
  6. Heaven is spoken of as the place of life: all good, no sin, the presence of God, and the tree of life, among many other images. It is what we were created for. For those willing to acknowledge God as both their King and Father, it will be glorious. But many will never be willing to make that confession. Again, heaven would be hell for them, and they would make it awful for everyone else.
  7. Hell is consistently described in terms of darkness, gnashing of teeth, weeping, and destruction. It is hard to know how much of that is to be taken literally (as has been most common throughout church history) and how much is to be taken figuratively. Some Bible verses emphasize the concept of eternal punishment (Matthew 25:41, Revelation 19:20, 20:10-15), while others emphasize the concept of permanent destruction (Matthew 10:28, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). Perhaps it’s even a combination of both – punishment that eventually leads to destruction as sin slowly destroy our soul. There’s a lot of debate about the exact nature of hell. The main point, though, is that those who are “in hell” are not the poor innocent people begging for mercy, but those who have already set their hearts against God. They will not be begging to get into heaven – or if they are, it would only be so that they could do whatever they want and turn it into their own kingdom, not so that they could actually work with God in making something beautiful.

I think that about sums it up. At then end of all of that, we still come back to the simple concept – that the good will be rewarded and the evil will be punished. Those who seek God and life will find it. Those who seek their own way and follow the ways of death will also find that. And while God seems willing to judge people on what they know, He earnestly desires that all would know about Jesus – the one who conquered death so that we may have life, the one who took the punishment for our sins, the one who offers us a relationship with God. He is our Saviour, and the one who makes eternal life possible. Through him we have hope for eternal life instead of death.

Livin’ La Vida…Christian

Livin’ La Vida…Christian

Versión Español

This is the sixth part in a series called “Simple Faith”, examining the simple concepts of the Christian faith. You can read the previous posts by following these links: SimpleFaithGodThe Bible,  Sin and Death, and Jesus.

“I’m a Christian”. The statement sounds so simple, yet it can have many layers of meaning behind it which cause confusion. The speaker might simply mean that they have been raised in a Christian culture, and are not buddhist or muslim. Or they might (likely will) have a specific “brand” of Christianity behind the statement – Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Baptist, Reformed, etc. There are a million of them. There are also those who would use it for its explanatory power – to say why they do or do not participate in a certain activity or event. All in all, it can be a confusing term.

So how do we cut through all of the complexity to get to the heart of Christianity and what it means to be a Christian? If we look at the historical concept, it originally meant, quite simply, to be a follower of Jesus. This captures much of the idea intended by the term, but I have chosen the following phrase to try to capture it: We live in relationship with Jesus. What does it mean, though?

I would say that there are two underlying concepts that help us to understand this, and  then a few practices that can help us live it out. But at the end, I want to add a personal testimony of what this really looks like.

The first underlying concept is this: Since Jesus rose from the dead and went to heaven to be with God, he is alive to guide us and interact with us. We will get to the practical details of this shortly, but when we try to make Christianity all about just rules and regulations instead of relationship, we begin to lose the interactive aspect that is at the heart of Christianity. Christianity, we believe, is about a relationship.

The second concept is that we have been united to God (and Jesus) through the Holy Spirit. The Bible tells us that each person who enters into a covenant with God receives the Holy Spirit. This Spirit, alternately called the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ, is who allows us  to connect with Jesus and interact with him. 

So what does this look like on a practical level? I would argue that there are a few simple practices that have been foundational to Christians throughout the entirety of history. The forms of these might look different in many different traditions, but someone wanting to live in relationship with Christ will return to these simple practices over and over. They are so simple that they can almost seem boring or too easy, but the ability they have to impact one’s life are so significant that they should never be looked down on. They are:

  1. Read the Bible – Christians have always held that God can speak to us, and that the primary method of Him doing so is through the Bible. We believe that the Holy Spirit guided the authors of Scripture to record what we need to know God and to live out our faith. We also believe that the same Holy Spirit can speak to us through the words. While the Holy Spirit may speak to us in many different ways (“nudges”, the words of others, life’s circumstances, dreams, visions, and even an audible voice at times), the Bible was given to us as the steady guidebook that allows us to evaluate all of these other methods of hearing the Holy Spirit. And I have found the more that someone accepts the Bible as God’s Word and takes it seriously (when it says to forgive your neighbour, you forgive them!), the more their lives reflect Jesus.
  2. Pray – Prayer is a method given to us to both listen to and speak to God. If we believe in a relationship, then interaction is important. Obviously God knows everything about our lives, but as we pray we both pursue that relationship with God and take deliberate time and energy to listen to Him. Again, there are many different forms to do this, but the heart of it is interacting with God.
  3. Gathering – Christians have always met together to praise God and grow in their faith. There are two principal ways that Christians meet. The first is in a large group, almost always on Sundays, to praise God together, learn and visit. The style of these larger gatherings can vary wildly, but the purpose is more or less the same. The second way that Christians gather is in smaller groups, often during the week. This format works very well to “personalize” the teachings of Jesus, applying them to to the particular situation of the individual. It’s an excellent way to hear the voice of Gd through the counsel of others, as well as to encourage one another, challenge one another to growth, and seek the will of God together.
  4. Obedience – Of course, the ultimate purpose of all of these practices is to live the way that God wants us to live – both in a general sense and also in specific instances where he wants us to do particular things to bless and help others. We read the Bible, pray, and gather together so that we can learn to live as the people of God and to be His representatives here on earth. This ought to touch every aspect of our life – work, leisure, family, friends, hobbies, etc. We seek to honour God by obeying Him.

But let’s be honest – this all sounds very boring in some ways. You go to church, pray, and read the Bible. Where’s the adventure? The adventure comes when we really begin to implement the “obedience” part. For us, that has meant leaving our comfortable life in Canada and heading off to Costa Rica, and then Mexico, to serve in churches there. The picture at the top is our family on vacation in a small mining town in Mexico. The entire process of obeying God has been an adventure, to say the least! 

Of course, most people won’t leave their home to serve God in another country. But we are still called to be obedient to God. This means we don’t just pray, read the Bible and go to church – it means we act. It means we step out of our comfort zone and love people as Jesus called us to. It means we go to work, but also that we pray for the people at work, and show them love. It means we fill our spare time not just with our own hobbies and interests, but with some activities that will be a blessing to others. It means volunteering at the Food Bank, visiting sick neighbours, praying with people going through difficult circumstances, making immigrants feel welcome, contributing financially not just to the church, but to other organizations that need help. It also means choosing discipline and service over freedom and rights in our own life. It means sacrificing to follow God – whether that’s building a strong marriage rather than running around in multiple relationships, investing more time and energy into your kids’ lives, working less hours so you can invest in other activities, or undergoing significant counselling and changes to become the person God wants you to become. That’s why I focused on living in relationship with Jesus. It’s more than just going to church and praying and reading the Bible. It’s living a life in response to what Jesus says. And therein lies the adventure.

So there you have it. While it is very challenging to live as a Christian, at its heart, it’s very simple. We live in relationship with Christ, listening to his voice and trying to obey what he is saying and follow where he is leading. We are Christians – followers of Christ living in relationship with him.

Jesus

Jesus

Versión Español

This is the fifth part in a series called “Simple Faith”, examining the simple concepts of the Christian faith. You can read the previous posts by following these links: Simple FaithGodThe Bible, and Sin and Death.

Note: I chose the picture above because it both shows the traditional view of Jesus and a model of what Jesus may actually have looked like based on the standard features of Jewish people of that time. I struggle sometimes with the “perfect” (and very caucasian) images of Jesus that we sometimes have. This is not at all the focus of my post, but I find it interesting. For a brief description of what Jesus may have looked like, wore, etc., check out this short BBC article.

In this part of our simple faith series, we enter into the heart of Christianity – the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The views on Jesus are many and varied. Christians claim that he is the divine Son of God. Others believe he was just a historical person, but who exactly he was is all over the map – a spiritual mystic? A wisdom teacher? A miracle worker? A simple prophet or teacher who was misunderstood by his followers, who later “upgraded” him to the Son of God? The ideas are legion. There are even a few (very few) who would argue that he never existed.

With all of these different views, understanding Jesus can feel incredibly complex. There have been countless volumes about him and an indescribable amount of ink spilled to try to explain him. But it can also be quite simple to understand Jesus. I have stated it as such: God became human in the person of Jesus to pay the price for our sin and to restore our relationship with God. Let’s break that down briefly.

Have you ever looked at an animal, like a dog, and wished you could understand and communicate with it? That would be awesome. By far the easiest way to do it would be to become that animal. By doing so, you would be able to communicate and understand it, and it, you. While this isn’t a perfect analogy, this is basically what Christianity says happened. God became human. Jesus was fully human – he was born, grew, ate, slept, walked around, and eventually died like every other human. 

But at the same time, he was God, demonstrated by the what he did and said. This is seen in a variety of ways – one thinks automatically of the healings he performed, driving out demons, and control over nature. But aside from those, we also see Jesus doing other very God-like things – forgiving sins, accepting worship, claiming to be Lord of the Sabbath, speaking as though his words were more definitive and authoritative than the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament), calling God his Father (instead of “our father” as the Jews apparently did), and so on. Plus his statements in the gospel of John that are even more definitive – I am the way, the truth and the life…, I am the resurrection and the life…, I am the bread of life…, I and the Father are one…, before Abraham was, I am [the Jewish name for God]….

Then there’s the whole rising from the dead thing. This is the linchpin of Christianity – the moment when Jesus showed that he was more than just a simple prophet or wisdom teacher. Of course, there’s no getting around the fact that it takes faith to believe that he actually rose from the dead, but it is definitely the simplest explanation for the rise of Christianity. All other explanations require ignoring or rewriting the gospels (to make Jesus not divine), and the complicated creation of other theories to explain the rise of Christianity. And while someone rising from the dead is definitely hard to believe, it is no harder to believe than God existing in the first place or becoming human. It’s at least consistent.

But it’s not just his existence and nature that are important. We looked last time at the fact that our sins have consequences. While we mostly discussed the external and internal destructive consequences of sin, it is also worth noting that our sins will often (always, if life was actually fair) bring some form of punishment. A child who lies and is caught will be punished by their parent. An employee caught stealing will be punished in some form (probably fired!), and someone who breaks the law will go to prison. While initially that punishment is designed to be corrective in nature, eventually, if the problem is not fixed, the punishment becomes permanent – whether that is permanent loss of relationship or employment, lifelong imprisonment or even (in some places) execution. I am not arguing for or against any particular form of punishment, I am simply acknowledging what we all know: wrong behaviour has consequences – punishment. One cannot simply allow a person to continue without correction. And if they refuse to change, eventually either removal from your presence or from society as a whole becomes necessary. Christianity argues that our sins deserve punishment, which is entirely consistent with our sense of justice. We would expect no different from our earthly parents or leaders, so why would we expect different of God? But it also says that Jesus, deserving no punishment himself, took that punishment for all of us.

In some ways this sounds hard to grasp, but we are very familiar with the concept if we think of movies. Who hasn’t seen a movie where one person sacrifices themselves for the benefit of others? At the same time, we are familiar with the concept of one person taking the punishment for another. While the general rule is that each person should pay for their own sins, we recognize that, especially when the punishment is too great, both the punisher and the sense of justice can be satisfied by another offering themselves to take the punishment or pay the fine.

This is what we find in the story of Jesus. Out of love, he offered to take our punishment. And God poured out His wrath and our punishment on him. In doing so, justice was served. But in taking that punishment on Himself in Jesus, God was both the punisher and the punished. We have seen and understand the love of God, and also the wrath of God toward sin. 

(As a side note, but an important one, wrath is appropriate. Just think of how we react as parents when one of our children disobeys, especially if they hurt another one of our kids. Sin destroys us, others, and relationships, and we are correct as parents to be angry about it and to punish appropriately. So, too, God expressed His displeasure toward sin and poured out His wrath on Jesus, as well as promised wrath at the final judgment in the future. We hate the idea of wrath when we look at God, but we are very quick to experience (and justify!) wrath when others offend us, and to demand justice. I think we are pretty hypocritical to expect otherwise from God.)

So because justice has been served, we are able to enter into a new relationship with God. God has always wanted to live in relationship with us, but our own sin has got in the way – it has stood as a barrier of guilt from our perspective, and as a barrier of justice from God’s perspective. Jesus took away both of those barriers. Justice has been served, and we can enter freely into God’s presence knowing that someone has paid for our sin.

That may have got complicated again, so let’s move it back to simple. God. Became human in Jesus. Jesus restored our relationship with God by getting rid of the barriers of justice and guilt, rising from the dead to show that he has power even over death. So now we can live in the proper relationship with God without fear of punishment, but rather with hope for eternal life. In my last post I ended by pointing out that I need help with this sin problem. In this post, we see that God provided that help.

And that is the simple story of hope that we hold onto in the midst of a complex and sinful world.

Sin and Death

Sin and Death

Versión Español

This is the fourth part in a series called “Simple Faith”, examining the simple concepts of the Christian faith. You can read the previous posts herehere, and here.

As we continue our journey of the simple truths of Christianity, we come to the second concept: We disobeyed God (sinned) and all sorts of problems arose – in particular death.

To say that there is debate about every aspect of this concept would be accurate. There is the debate about whether God exists and whether there is actually someone to whom we are accountable. Then there is endless debate about the nature of humanity – are we a mix of both good and bad (like the famous yin and yang symbol)? Or re we good at heart, or evil? There is an outright denial by some that sin even exists, and even when people acknowledge that humans often do what is wrong, it is often quickly downplayed or blamed on other causes, such as society, our childhood, hurts inflicted by others, etc. And of course, there is debate about whether death is something natural – a simple biological reality to be embraced – or an enemy to be fought against with everything in us.

Christianity addresses each of these topics in depth, with complex discussions about God, the nature of humanity, morals and ethics, and the nature of death in our world. But the concept as I laid it out above is quite simple: We sinned, the world is broken, and death is the result. A few words about each of these will suffice for the purpose of this project.

If we accept as our starting point that God exists, then it is the most natural thing in the world that He would have guidelines and expectations for us. Every parent in the world has expectations of how their children will behave. Every boss of a company has expectations of his employees. Every person in charge of something has guidelines for those under them. If God created us, then of course there are guidelines for what is right and wrong.

And despite all the debate about what is right and wrong, I dare say most people are actually pretty closely aligned in identifying the things that will cause hurt and damage. While we can argue about things on a theoretical level, we can usually identify them pretty quickly if we experience them. Someone steals from us? That’s wrong. Someone mistreats us? Wrong. Cheats on us? Wrong. Is arrogant and looks down on us? Wrong. Is greedy? Wrong. In fact, if we were to look at classic Christian descriptions of right and wrong, such as the 10 commandments, the 7 deadly sins, lists in Paul’s letters (such as Galatians 5:19-21), or other comments in the Bible, we will discover that most people will look at them and recognize how those sins are hurtful, especially if we put ourselves in the position of the offended party. (This is the best viewpoint, I believe, because we are more likely to justify our own actions if we consider doing these things, but we recognize their destructive and hurtful nature if we consider someone committing them against us).

As well, we all know that breaking the rules leads to negative consequences, especially in relation to other people. The child who lies will, sooner or later, discover the destruction of trust and relationships that that causes. And if they refuse to change their ways, that destruction will grow. In fact, if they continue to disobey, they will discover (or reveal) not just external consequences such as broken relationships, but internal consequences such as a character that is misshapen and unworthy of trust. So it is with all sin – it causes not just external damage, but internal damage. This is why the world is broken – we are all sinful people who constantly hurt ourselves and others. Sometimes unintentionally, but at other times quite deliberately.

Which leads us to our final point, death. Sin is destructive, and its end point is death (both physically and especially spiritually, which is what physical death seems to warn us about). This is what we find in the book of James 1:14-15: “Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.” In the Christian view, death is not part of God’s creation – it is something foreign, the result of the destructive power of sin. Life is what God created us for, and death is the enemy.

I think most people agree that we were created for life, even if they express it differently. Nearly every person has some idea of what they think will come after death, whether reincarnation, going to a better place, becoming one with everything, etc. We all agree that we want to live or continue in some way, shape or form. Even those who truly deny life after death, such as certain atheists, will often express discomfort with the idea of ceasing to exist. Death is “normal”, but not natural or welcome.

And so we see that each concept is both simple and logical. If God exists, He has guidelines. We are generally aware of those guidelines, and if we break them, there are both external and internal consequences of a destructive nature. Because we all disobey these guidelines, the world is broken. We are broken – and not just broken, deliberately rebellious at times. And since sin is destructive, it inevitably leads to death – both physical death and spiritual death.

It is certainly true that this particular concept is not exactly comforting, but it is simple and makes perfect sense. And it fits in with our own experience – sin exists and it is destructive.

But I think it’s also important to make it personal: 
I generally know what is right and wrong
I choose to do what is wrong far too often (I’m broken and/or rebellious)
I know that it has a negative, destructive effect on my life, and
I know that death approaches, and that this sin is a problem – both because of how it destroys me, and also because of the potential of standing before God, the One who set the guidelines that I so often ignore.

And I think it leads to one other conclusion:

I need some help to get rid of this sin in my life.

Once again, keeping it simple can bring a lot of clarity – even if what it reveals is less than exciting.

The Bible

The Bible

Versión Español

This is the third part in a series called “Simple Faith”, examining the simple concepts of the Christian faith. You can read the previous posts here and here.

Before we get any further into this series, it’s worth taking a moment to discuss the Bible, considering that the Bible is the foundation of the Christian story. Since it’s so important, this will probably be the longest post of this series.

The Bible has been the “victim” of endless attacks over the past two centuries. It has been labelled as myth, derided as historically inaccurate, viewed as just another spiritual book, or seen as nothing more than a product of its times. To say that the issue is complex would be both accurate and severely understating the issue. So, without going into detail, what can I say about the Bible?

  1. It’s historically pretty solid. I say “pretty solid” because there are a lot of questions, and those questions get a lot of attention – the creation story, the flood, the exodus from Egypt, the birth of Jesus. Those things are understandable. But despite that, a few details are worth noting:
    a) There is a ton of evidence to support the history of the Bible. Archaeology has benefited tremendously from what the Bible says. There is tons of support for the historical figures and places named, events, etc. The questions exist, but they pale compared to what is supported.
    b) Many of the questions deal with ancient history. Understandably, the further back you go, the more questions arise. And there is lots that is disputed – but there is very little or nothing (despite claims otherwise) that shows that it is wrong. But boy, are there a lot of questions, both historically and literarily (were some stories history, or just allegory to make a point, or some other literary form?)
    c) It’s constantly proving skeptics wrong. Time and time again, when doing historical research, you will find the comment, “historians didn’t believe that such and such a person, [or place, or title, or people group] actually existed as the Bible claims, but recent discoveries show that they did.” It actually makes it harder to believe skeptics when they say something doesn’t exist or didn’t happen. I prefer to wait for more evidence and analysis. Archaeology is actually still a fairly young science, and the art of interpretation can be, at times, somewhat subjective.
  2. Most skeptics (and most people) begin with an anti-supernatural bias. This is totally understandable, but the Bible is a pretty supernatural book. The result is that much is “written off” for the sole reason that it is supernatural – especially in the life of Jesus. I don’t find that to be a good place to start an honest and open investigation, even if I can understand why people have that bias.
  3. The Bible requires faith. There is no way to prove all (or even any) of the God parts. The historical parts being reliable can give us some confidence, but ultimately, it requires faith. Those of us who are Christians would argue that it is reasonable faith, not just because of the historical reliability, but because of other factors like the overwhelming evidence of spirituality and morality in human beings, the cohesiveness of the story it tells, and the explanations it gives to life. But at the end of the day, it’s still a matter of faith.
  4. The Character of God, as revealed, is good. God gets a lot of flack for some of his “judgmental” actions, but there are three factors that stand out as part of his character:
    1. His love – From the creation of a good world for humanity, to His patience with our sinfulness, to His faithfulness despite humanity’s unfaithfulness, to the full forgiveness and offer of life that He gives us through Jesus, God’s love shines through.
    2. His justice – God hates sin. When He gets angry, it is due to the sinfulness of people and the destruction that sin brings. And He doesn’t just ignore it – He actually does something about it. We see this in many stories of God bringing about justice, and many words saying that He will one day bring about perfect justice. I must also note that we have no problems clamouring for justice when people offend and hurt us or others, so it’s a bit unfair to get angry at God when He actually punishes people for their misdeeds, or threatens them if they don’t obey. 
    3. His fairness – At times, God’s justice makes Him appear “evil” according to some, but when we combine His justice with His constant warnings, extreme patience (decades or centuries of waiting and warning), pleadings to repent, and relenting from judgment very quickly when someone actually does so, we see a different picture. There is justice, but only when there seems to be no other option and no repentance from those He is trying to get to obey. As well, the Bible constantly talks about how God sees and judges our heart, as well as our actions (which usually flow from our heart), so there is every evidence that He will judge fairly and appropriately.
  5. Jesus. The central story of Christianity is Jesus. There is a lot to back up both his life and also his death. There are a lot of reasons to believe in his resurrection as well, but that would be a whole complicated post. There are arguments against the resurrection, but I find they include a lot of speculation and the assumption that the Bible is wrong (instead of showing that it’s wrong). The simplest explanation for the rise of Christianity, the radical change in Jewish theology to Christian theology, and the willingness of the first disciples to give up everything for this new faith is that Jesus actually rose from the dead, which radically changed them and their approach to life. 
  6. It is different from other religious books. Again, this would take a long time to get into, but for me, there are two key points. The first is the strength of its history and cohesion through two millennia or more of stories. The second is the person of Jesus and his claims. Again, this does not prove anything, but I do believe that the message and the worldview it presents are distinct from all other holy books (while acknowledging that there are similarities at times, especially when it comes to ethical teaching).
  7. Its ethical teaching is pretty solid. Of course there are ideas that people disagree with, and some that are hard to understand, but for the most part, when I read the list of things that we are to do and not do, it’s pretty clear to see why, and following its teachings sure leads to the avoidance of a lot of heartache and trouble.

There is much more that could be said, but I want to keep this as simple as possible, so I’ll wrap it up there.

So, are there questions surrounding the Bible? Of course. There are tons of questions from all angles. But at the end of the day, it gives me a story for humanity that makes sense, and allows me to find my place in it. It shows me a God that I can both love and yet also respect and even fear (appropriate fear of One much greater than myself) – Someone who is worthy of worship, especially as He is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

It’s simple, really. Despite the questions that remain, I believe the Bible is a trustworthy guide to know God and to live a godly (and good) life.

God and Us

God and Us

Versión Español

God made us in His image for relationship with Him.

As I mentioned in my last post, there are two ways to fish. One way is complicated – all the gear, lots of practice, special trips, study of both the art of fishing and the habits of the fish, and usually the inversion of copious amounts of time and money. The other way is simple – grab a pole, grab some line and a hook, and go stand at the river. Both methods are good and valuable, but they each look and feel different.

Christianity in our society is often overwhelmed with the complicated approach. Explain, explain, explain. Answer the criticisms, show the proof, argue the details. We live in the information society, so we need to prove everything. This can lead to many fantastic conversations and provide some very fulfilling answers. But it can also rob us of the joy of the simple story of our faith.

So how do we get this simplicity back with Christianity?

I think the answer is just as simple: We focus on the big ideas of our faith, and let go of the incessant need to explain every detail. Again, I’m not suggesting that those details don’t matter or aren’t interesting, just that they can rob us of the simple truths that can bring both joy and peace. Today I want to focus on two big ideas that can get bogged down in details.

The first is this: That God exists.

Our society has made this idea seem foolish, when it’s really quite logical. Complexity by its very nature indicates the presence of an intelligence behind it, so to see a complex world implies a significant intelligence. Morals are intrinsically relational, so it isn’t illogical to think that they indicate a person – God – behind them. Human children look like their parents, so it isn’t ridiculous to think that humanity resembles Someone greater than us. Nothing can create itself, so when confronted with a universe that had a beginning, it makes sense to think something – or more accurately, Someone (since “things” also don’t have intelligent creative power) – began it. Humanity seems to have an intrinsic inclination towards worship, and if not to worship, at least to look for meaning beyond ourselves, all of which points to a source and fulfillment beyond ourselves.

Of course, none of these arguments are “proof”, but that’s not my point here. My point is simply that the existence of God makes sense. It is more our society that has declared it illogical than the actual facts themselves. There is no compelling reason why we shouldn’t believe in God.

But the implications are also significant and simple. Someone is in control. Someone is in charge. Like a child is able rest easy because they know that their parents are present and in charge, so can we “rest easy” because we know that there is a God who is overseeing all of the goings on of humanity and this world, even while giving us freedom to make our own choices. When everything seems out of control, when we have no idea what’s going on, when tragedy hits or when life is going well, we can rest in the simple knowledge that there is One who knows and oversees all. This is peace.

The second big detail is this: that we were created in His image and have intrinsic value.

Humanity is complicated and messy. But we are valuable and special as well. Scripture paints us as made in His image – like God. In some ways, this has been captured in our western society, where we proclaim (but don’t always live) the value of all people, regardless of age, race, nationality, economic status, and yes, even sexuality. Unfortunately, this message of the value of humanity is contradicted by the teaching that humans are nothing special, just advanced primates, and that there is no actual cosmic significance to our lives. What is affirmed in one breath is taken away in the next.

By contrast, Christianity teaches that we are valuable because we reflect God Himself. We are not just extra smart animals. It also teaches that our lives have significance, and that we are created both for purpose (to work and govern this world) and, ultimately, for relationship (eternally with others and with God). From the unborn to the elderly, from the sick to the healthy, from the rich to the poor, and every variation in between, humans are intrinsically valuable. And the heart of the gospel is the story of Jesus – that God Himself actually came as a human to identify with us, to experience our world as one of us, and to resolve the death situation that faces us all (this is a topic for a future post). When reading the Bible, it’s pretty clear that God wants to have a relationship with us – that’s why He created us in the first place.

And so we affirm two simple ideas, both of which can bring tremendous peace and joy:

God exists and is in control.

You are special and loved – created in His image to have a relationship with Him.

Let those simple truths sink in.

Simple Faith

Simple Faith

Versión Español

There is a place and a time for complexity, but sometimes it just gets in the way.

Let’s say you want to take up fishing, for example. There are essentially two ways to go about it. The first is to grab a sturdy, but flexible stick, tie a string or some sort of line to it, and attach a simple hook to the line (and maybe a worm or something, too). Then head out to the river or lake nearby and throw it in the water and see what happens. 

The second is to do your homework and prepare. What kind of fish do you want to catch? Where is the best place and time to catch it? What is the best equipment to buy? And then, of course, you need to buy all the equipment – the best rod (or a variety of rods), different lures, different bait, the right kind of line for the size of fish, leaders, nets, hooks and so on. Plus all the ancillary equipment – fishing clothes, perhaps a boat plus a truck to haul it, life jackets, buckets for storing the fish, etc. Time is carved out to go on the trip (or multiple trips), and a good time is had by all.

Now there is no doubt that the second method makes the first look absolutely primitive and, dare I say, simplistic. And no doubt the second method will bring tremendous joy to those who pursue it that way, as well as increased success (at least in the long run). Complexity is not bad.

But sometimes, complexity gets in the way. Instead of bringing joy, it can bring frustration. The money isn’t there to buy the proper equipment. There isn’t enough time to go on the perfect fishing trip. Or everything is planned just right, but the weather foils it. Or it’s just too much work for the reward. The joy of fishing can get lost in the complexity of the endeavour.

This came home to me last summer when we went to visit some relatives at their lot on a lake. We showed up to find some of our boys’ cousins fishing off the dock. And in a flash, our boys were out there with them. Nothing but a rod, a line, and a hook. They stood on that dock and fished for hours over the next few days – sometimes catching, sometimes not, but always having fun. We could have found a boat and taken them to the middle of the lake. Or bought some expensive lures, or their own fishing rods, or a ton of other things. But for them, that would have been nothing more than a distraction. They just wanted a rod, a line, and a hook, and they were perfectly happy.

I think this can apply very often to our spiritual life, especially in our current culture and environment. We live in a complex era – the information age. We have way more knowledge than we could ever hope to use at our fingertips. And that knowledge creates in us a certain expectation – that we will always be able to know everything perfectly, explain everything, answer everything. Mystery or ignorance is frowned upon.

And so we approach Christianity with high expectations. We demand answers to everything. We expect to explain every detail. Gaps in information are incredibly suspect. We demand that our Christianity – as everything – be complex, with a solution for every problem. 

Of course, Christianity is very open to complexity. Let it never be said that Christians shy away from tough conversations or problems (well, obviously some do, but Christianity as a whole does not). There are incredibly complex, enjoyable and beautiful discussions about every aspect of Christianity. Complexity is not bad.

But sometimes (often, I feel), that complexity gets in the way of the beauty of the simple story of Christianity. I have recently been aware of this in my own life, and have seen it to be true in the lives of many others. In a quest for complex, comprehensive answers to every question imaginable, it becomes very easy to lose sight of the simple core of Christianity. And Christians suffer for it.

The central message of Christianity is not difficult:

  • God made us in His image, for relationship with Him
  • We disobeyed (sinned) and all sorts of problems arose – in particular death
  • God became human in the person of Jesus to pay the price for our sin and to restore our relationship with God
  • We live in relationship with Jesus
  • We have hope of eternal life instead of punishment and separation

I’ll admit, in a scientific age, that simple message can sound not just simplistic, but antiquated. Questions arise, demanding complex answers, screaming for attention and resolution. I have them all the time. In fact, more often than not as I contemplate God and speak with others who struggle, these questions dominate and drive the conversation about faith.

And yet, my mind wanders back to my own experience growing up and to the lives and examples of my parents and grandparents. There were questions back then, no doubt, but they were not in the driver’s seat. The simple story was – God made us, God loves us, God wants to forgive us and have a relationship with us, and to show us how to live and offer us eternal life. And that simple story brought tremendous life and joy.

So I want to take my next posts not to answer all the questions or debate the complex issues, but to remember the simple story and reflect on how much joy it can bring. Because complexity isn’t bad, but sometimes it just gets in the way.

So let’s grab a pole, a line and a hook. Let’s go fishing.

Do We Still Need God?

Do We Still Need God?

Spanish version

Something’s been bothering me for a while. Quite a while, actually. I’m not sure exactly how to describe it, but I’ll do my best.

I grew up in a household that was very Christian. And I mean that in the best sort of way. I know it kind of seems fashionable to tear apart “traditional” Christianity, but that wasn’t my experience. My family and church life, while not perfect of course, were pretty outstanding. My grandparents and parents are the type of role models I wish everyone had. There were problems in our church, like most, but there were also a lot of godly people and outstanding teaching that didn’t hide from difficult topics. It was thoroughly evangelical and in many cases leaned heavily toward the fundamental branch of Christianity. But it was good. I grew up with a lot of love, lots of opportunity to ask questions, seek answers and grow, and a clear sense of right and wrong and how to live for God.

As part of that upbringing, I have always been taught, and it is the orthodox Christian belief, that people are sinful by nature and therefore separated from God. That they are, in a word, “bad” (sinful). That includes me and every other Christian, of course, lest Christianity sound too condemning of others. The teaching is that we are all sinful and that only with Christ can we actually change and grow and become good people1. That is, it is God living in us and us following his commands that makes us good. But as I have lived longer and observed many people, it has become harder and harder to hold this simplistic view. (I should point out that my view has never been as simplistic as I present it to be here, but putting it in its most basic form helps bring out the struggle I’m feeling.) In short, there are a lot of people who seem to be pretty good people and live pretty good lives, but they do it all without God. Many of them don’t care a bit about God. And when you add this to the scientific advances which seem to be able to explain most of the world without any reference to God, I’ve been left with one startling question that has been bothering me:

Do we even need God anymore?

At a surface level, it seems like humanity and the western world (because I can’t really speak for the rest of the world) are advancing rapidly. We are surrounded by messages affirming that we need to love and accept one another, be supportive, get rid of racism, sexism, and countless other things that are bad. The world is progressing in many respects, with all sorts of cures, problems being resolved, and so on. It is almost impossible to read any sort of social media without finding countless feel-good stories and demonstrations of the goodness of human nature and the progress of humanity. And most of this in a culture that has increasingly turned away from God in general, and Jesus in particular. So again, do we even need God anymore?

Perhaps it’s more helpful to step back from “everyone else” and just look at myself. I think part of the challenge of this question is that we are trying to “judge” (evaluate) others without being able to see what is happening inside of them. Appearances can be deceiving. It’s hard to know what is happening in a person’s heart or what they’re truly like when we only see snippets or hear selected stories. But when I look at me, I am not fooled by the deception of appearances. 

So what do I see in myself? Well, by most standards, I would probably qualify as one of those “good people” I talk about. My work involves helping people. I’m happily married, staying out of trouble, trying to be a good father to my kids. I’m holding down a job and contributing to society – you know, all the stuff we’re supposed to do. And yet, when I look at my own life, I can’t help but identify four key areas where I feel that God is both relevant and completely necessary.

  1. Life. I have spent the past few months absolutely mesmerized by the mystery of life and the question of what comes next. The fact that life exists at all is ridiculous – why should it? The fact that I exist and live is amazing. Why are we here? Why am I here? And where am I going? It is easy to live life without thinking about this, but at some point, most of us are struck by the wonder and absurdity of life. In my case, perhaps it’s because I’ve turned 40 and hit middle age. But regardless of my reason for obsessing over this topic, I’m certainly not alone. The meaning of life has always been one of the basic questions of humanity. Why do we exist?
    My reflections keep bringing me back to God. I cannot buy the concept that “nothing” created everything – especially an everything that is so incredibly complex. Nor can I buy the concept that we are just a continually recycled spirit that goes round and round until it can someday escape this rat race of life. Both concepts strip life of meaning, purpose and value. We don’t matter as individuals – we’re just parts in an uncaring machine. While those who hold to these beliefs might not live this way, I believe that is only because they are not acting consistent with their beliefs. The concepts themselves lead to no other conclusion. Yet everything in me believes and desires to be more than that. And only a God (a personal, supernatural being) seems to offer both an explanation for life and the possibility of life continuing after death. Without God, we will always live with an undercurrent of desperation and meaninglessness, no matter how we try to window-dress it.
  2. Guidance. When we look around us, there is tremendous uncertainty and even conflict about how we ought to live. While science and studies proclaim certain ideas and trends about what is best, they are often just as quickly disputed by other studies. The end result is a bunch of people making up their own rules and guidelines based on whatever foundation they choose. What’s really interesting is the stark contradictions that we see espoused, especially on social media: We ought to love everyone – except all of the people that we shame for various reasons; this is how you ought to live – just ignore my confession that I have no idea what I’m doing in life; #metoo – oh, and don’t forget to support the porn industry, which totally empowers women. It is a truly stunning world of contradiction and self-righteousness. But with God directing us (again, as revealed in the person of Jesus and in the Bible), we have some pretty clear guidelines about what is good and bad, appropriate or not. Now, you can make all sorts of arguments about whether Christians actually do these things or not, and there are some topics that can cause uncertainty still (such as trying to redefine male/female roles in a modern society or how to understand and apply the Biblical teachings on homosexuality), but on the whole, the guidance that the Bible gives for how to relate to God, this world, and each other gives some strong, clear guidelines for how to live. God reveals how things were meant to be and how we are to live. I would argue that the vast majority of people who live “good” lives without God do so based on Scriptural teachings, whether they embrace the God who gave them or not.
  3. Help. No matter how much we may claim to understand about the universe and how competent we are at handling life by ourselves, it is rare to find someone who does not cry out for some sort of help beyond themselves at times. Many in the world still live with regular, daily need for help. And this help isn’t just about physical needs. Many people struggle with deeper issues, such as fear, guilt and shame and need to know that there is someone beyond them who can help free them from these burdens. This is what God promises – forgiveness for our guilt, love and honour for our shame, and ultimate power and strength (though it is not fully revealed in the present) for our fear and weakness. I think we are overplaying our hand when we declare that we can understand everything in the universe and live all by ourselves without any help from God. For many situations, of course, we do just fine. But then those situations arise where we realise that we cannot solve all our problems, we cannot live the way we should all the time, we cannot extend our life, we cannot solve the problems of the world, we cannot escape from the guilt, shame and fear we face… and suddenly, maybe believing that there is someone outside of us who can help and who ultimately has everything under control is not such a crazy idea.
  4. Being Good. This point was not originally part of the plan, but since I mention human nature above, I feel I should at least touch on it here. I have already stated that we don’t seem to need God to be good. But I feel that I should clarify – this goodness is far from perfect. There are many people who are “good” in comparison to others. We identify them as loving, caring, wonderful people. And they are. But all of them, if they are honest and we actually ask, would recognise that they are not as good as they appear. Any person who has truly sought to “be good” quickly becomes aware of the deep selfishness, pride, critical spirit, anger, etc. that reside deep within. While others might not see it, we each see it in ourselves. The more we strive to be good, the more we become aware of how far from good we truly are – we are, as the Bible describes it, sinful. Anyone who does not acknowledge their own sinfulness, I would suggest, is either too arrogant or too ignorant to see how far from perfect they are. I would argue that here, as well, we need God. It is God who reveals our sinfulness, and creates in us a desire to be rid of it. It is God who offers us forgiveness and love despite our sinfulness. It is God who grants us His Spirit to begin to conquer that evil in our lives. And it is only God who one day can cleanse that sinfulness from us when we come face to face with his glory and presence. We believe that it is He alone who can complete the transformation to goodness that we desire.

So there you have it. Do we need God? In some ways, no. But at the end of the day, I find I do need God. I need Him to explain and provide life. I need Him to show me how to live and to change me so I can actually live that way. I need Him to help me in all those situations that are too big for me (actually, I need Him in every situation, but it’s the big ones where I really notice it). And I can’t help but believe that if we can look past the outward facade that we present to the world, we all need God, far more than most people care to admit.

[1] It is worth noting that Christianity is not actually seeking to make “good people”, but to save us from our sins and the resulting death, as well as restoring our relationship with God. The result of accepting Christ, though, is a changed heart which seeks to obey God. And obeying God should result in a change that makes us “good people”.

The Centre of the Universe

The Centre of the Universe

Versión español

The other day, out of curiosity, I decided to look up where the centre of the universe is. We’ve all seen or heard about the various landmarks in different places – the centre of North America, the Centre of Canada or the U.S. or Mexico (or any other country), etc. There’s something at least mildly interesting about finding the centre of a place. So imagine my surprise when various sources reported that despite there being mass consensus about the universe beginning with a Big Bang, and expanding continuously, there is no centre to the universe! Apparently it has to do with space being curved and space and time coming into existence simultaneously, and other crazy concepts. Whatever the reason, we’re not going to be able to take a spaceship some day and find a floating sign declaring that we have arrived at the centre of the universe. Sorry all you selfie junkies!

But that’s okay. The question behind the search wasn’t really the geographical centre of the universe. The real question is what is the centre of our existence. I have come to realize how significant of a difference this makes in our view of life and how we live.

This question arose in my mind as I have struggled to work through and understand the concept of hell and the judgment of God upon humanity. To be blunt, this seems deeply unfair at times and almost cruel of God. I have struggled how to understand God as a loving God when faced with multiple passages talking about God’s wrath and judgment. I’ll freely admit, God seems pretty angry at times. So what gives?

Two Worldviews

As a Christian, I believe that the centre of our existence is God. Without going into details about the reason for this belief, in short it seems that a personal, intelligent God is the most logical explanation for a complex, conscious, and moral world. I believe anything other than that (an impersonal force or nothing) is inadequate to explain the reality that we see before us. Most Christians would at least claim to hold this belief, but I think a closer examination reveals a different picture.

We presently live in a society which places humanity or individuals as the centre of our existence, and I think that many Christians in North America (and even here in Mexico) have incorporated this view into their life. We still believe that God is “sovereign” over all, but there has been a subtle, but significant, shift. Whereas in prior times the teaching of the church was that God was over all and people existed to serve God, this is no longer what I hear or see. What I see is the following: People are the highest creation of God and God exists to serve us.

People in the Centre

I can anticipate many Christians objecting to this idea. We are not God, after all, and most people are well aware of their shortcomings. Nor is this idea without aspects of truth. But the proof is in the pudding, as they say. Reality in church life shows a tremendous amount of people-centred ideas:

  • how could God do this to me? Why is this happening?
  • it’s not fair for God to condemn people
  • how can God say this is wrong?
  • Jesus just loved people no matter what, and so should we
  • people are so amazing and wonderful
  • God just wants us to be happy and fulfilled

As I said, there is some truth in the concept I mentioned above (and the comments I listed), but there is also deception. To see it, we must look carefully at the full biblical picture.

God in the Centre

Few Christians would argue that God created the world and humanity (despite many disagreements about how He did it). And the truth in the above statement is that people are the highest creation of God. He created us in His image. This is huge and confers tremendous value on each person, whether Christian or not. BUT… this does not mean that we are the centre of the universe. While God created this universe and world for us, this does not mean that He created us to be the main point of the world. HE is still the main point, not us.

If we think about it, this is pretty obvious. Individual humans are certainly not significant enough to be the point of everyone’s existence. We are each rather frail and full of problems. But neither is humanity as a whole significant enough to be the centre of the universe. As a race, we are also extremely frail. Aside from faith, we don’t know where we came from or why we exist. We certainly didn’t bring ourselves into being, nor are we capable of ensuring our existence (just think of the disaster movies that show how susceptible we are to mass extinction from asteroids, etc.). Humanity, both individually and as a whole, is very transitory.

Scripturally, we see that we are representatives of God, not divine beings in and of ourselves. God created us in His image, then turned this world over to us to dominate and rule over. But there’s no evidence that He relinquished his role as king over the world – quite the opposite, in fact. The Bible is pretty consistent in declaring that God is the King. We, frail creatures that we are, are given the distinguished position of his representatives, participating with Him in ruling this world, but never intended to be the centre of it all.

Yet with the growth of humanism, this is the error that we have fallen into. We have embraced the value of human life (true), but forgotten that we are still subservient to the King. We have called God our Father and embraced His love, but set aside His equally valid role as creator and judge who still has a plan for this earth and fairly clear guidelines for what is right and wrong. We have forgotten that God is not focused on our happiness alone, but rather in shaping us and forming us into His image (He is the potter, we are the clay, as Isaiah says).

A Closer Look

This people-centred perspective affects a number of different spheres, mentioned above but amplified here.

  • The nature of people – This is a challenging one, because the value of individuals is one of the greatest things that western society has taken hold of from Christianity (except for the unborn and, increasingly, the old and infirm). People are special and people are valuable. Where the people-centred and God-centred views diverge, however, is in the source of that value and the destiny of humanity. In the people-centred view, humans are seen as the pinnacle of evolution, but it is a bit confusing why we are valuable and special. As near as I can figure out, it is because we are unique, diverse and superior to “other” animals. But there is nothing in either our origin or our destiny that implies any particular value or specialness. Yet somehow this is the view of our society. And what’s more, there has somehow been a leap from the beauty and value of humanity to a belief that humanity is good at heart and getting better, despite a lack of evidence for that (yes, in some regards the situations of many are getting better, but it’s hard to argue that the actual nature of humanity has gotten much better). In the God-centred view, humanity finds its source and potential destiny in God. We are valuable and special because we have been made like God, but we are deeply aware of how far we have fallen (and continually fall) from that potential.There is tension in either of these views, without doubt. The first struggles to show why there is so much evil if humans are so intrinsically good, or why we have value if we are nothing more than intelligent animals. The second requires us to acknowledge our imperfection and guilt, but this is only negative if we fail to understand that God freely holds out forgiving and welcoming arms.Key Question: What is the source and destiny of humanity? Does this actually confer on us individual and corporate value? Our answer to this question will guide most of our beliefs about us as a race.
  • God’s Judgment – one of the biggest problem areas, as I mentioned above, is our reaction to God’s role as judge. When we view humans as the centre of the universe, we begin to see God as angry and judgmental, even evil. We are poor, innocent humans, trying our hardest to be good and do right (although this seems to me to be a rose-coloured glasses view of humanity). In this view, even those who want nothing to do with God are “good people” who deserve God’s love and grace. God exists to serve us and bring us happiness, after all.But if we remember that God is the centre of the universe, and view things from His perspective, the story is a bit different. These same people are not seeking to be faithful stewards of God and to do what is right – many have completely abandoned God, and most are certainly not seeking Him, and most are not seeking to do what is right, rather what is desirable, self-fulfilling and comfortable. He calls them to a certain way of life, and they just choose what they want to obey and what they don’t. The focus of most is their own happiness, ease and comfort, not the development of this world in accordance with God’s laws that bring life. It is true that in our present society, many of those values are in line with God’s teachings (after all, our culture is largely shaped by Judeo-Christian teachings), but that does not mean that people’s hearts desire God or His ways. Nor can we say that these values are intrinsic to humanity, as many of them have not arisen in other contexts (or are only entering other cultures as those cultures are influenced by our Judeo-Christian values).When we understand God as the giver of life who is seeking to guide and lead people, to help us as we seek to navigate this life and develop this world, then the utter rejection by humanity of God looks a lot different, and His eventual judgment makes far more sense. But even though God consistently threatens judgement (and sometimes follows through with it), it is always with a desire to see people change their ways and do what’s right. It’s like he says, “This is what could happen, but please don’t make me do it!” God is consistently presented as seeking out, calling us and desiring restoration. It is humans who are presented as stubborn and obstinate.

    Key Question: How many, when pointed to God or Jesus, will actually respond, and how many will shrug it off and keep doing things their way? If they want nothing to do with God, why do we try to declare that God is unfair to judge them some day? While I have particular sympathy for those who are trying to find God and seek what is right (and I pray God has mercy on them), many do not fall even into this category.

  • Our life – it is very common to see, feel and hear despair over the difficulties of life. Yet this is only a problem if we believe that God is here to serve us. If we understand that God’s desire is our salvation from a broken and rebellious world (first and foremost) and to make us into His image (secondly), then it is neither surprising nor crippling to encounter difficulties. While this world can be fantastic and fun, it is temporary. While we are made in God’s image, we are far from what God created us to be. So it should not be a surprise that we go through difficulties. While not enjoyable, when we have God and His purposes at the centre of our life, we face them with a totally different attitude. We might not understand the specifics of why we are passing through difficulties or how God is going to use it, but we recognize that God can and will use it. The Bible reveals that God is completely for us – He desires what is good for us individually and as a race. But that means He wants us to grow and be transformed, not stagnant, a fact which automatically implies difficulties and challenges. It also means He is willing to give us our freedom, which includes making poor decisions that affect us or others, and facing the resultant consequences. God being “for us” does not mean a life free from problems by any stretch!Key Questions: If many have no desire to do what is right, and even those of us who do desire to do good struggle, why are we surprised by suffering? When Jesus and all the disciples took on suffering as part of the will of God for their good and to advance His kingdom, is it fair of us to expect any less?
  • right and wrong – with us at the centre, we pick and choose what we want to do and what feels or seems good and right. But I believe a fair appraisal will show that our choices are most often dictated by the culture around us or what feels convenient or comfortable. When we put God at the centre, however, there is a fairly consistent analysis of right and wrong. I freely admit there are some passages that are difficult, but on the whole it’s pretty clear. And all people are held to that standard.But aren’t we to love all people, no matter what? Yes, but that’s not the whole story. Jesus loved people, it’s true, but since Mark declares that his primary message was repentance (Mark 1:15), and the message Jesus gave his disciples to preach centred around the same call to repentance and the promise of forgiveness (Luke 24:47), I suspect many of Jesus conversations with sinners – whom he gladly ate with – centred around this concept of repentance. This would certainly explain the reaction of Zacchaeus after talking with Jesus (Luke 19). With God at the centre, we are constantly challenged to repent of the wrong and seize the right, with clear instructions on what falls in each category.Key Questions: Are our individual and shifting standards of right and wrong really adequate for developing and maintaining a healthy life and society? What does it look like to blend Christ’s obvious love for people with his declared message of repentance?

Conclusion

I’ll be the first to admit that making God the centre of our world is tough. I want to be comfortable. I want to have good things. I want God to solve my problems and I want Him to bless me. I want God to serve me. The good news is that God is for us. He loves us and treats us as His children. The “bad” news (which isn’t bad, just difficult) is that He wants us to be for Him as He is for us. He wants us to love Him and centre our lives on Him, not on ourselves. He wants us to take up our divine role as His stewards, building, governing and restoring this world. And that means putting Him in the centre, not us, and accepting all that comes with that.

For the non-Christian or one who doesn’t believe in God, this idea is foolish. Humanity is at the top of the food chain and we make our own destiny. But for the Christian, it is entirely different. If God (Christ) is the centre of the universe, then everything revolves around Him. We live this life not for our own happiness or satisfaction, but to participate in the mandate to create and uphold life. We awake in the morning seeking to know how to govern and live in this world in a way that glorifies God. We face adversity knowing that God is using it to shape us. We view our own sinfulness and the sinfulness of the world as a deviation from what God intended and fight against it with His help.

In short, we live to serve Him, instead of demanding that He serve us.

Is Love Really Enough?

Is Love Really Enough?

Versión español

“All you need is love!”

So declare Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison and John Lennon, otherwise known as the Beatles. It’s a catchy little song that sticks in your head – sometimes for way too long. And it seems like it is the slogan of our age.

It takes very little time or energy to discover this message. Wonder Woman highlighted it. At the end, (spoiler alert for the few of you who haven’t seen it…) despite very accurately summarizing the evil present in humanity, she declares that she believes in humanity. Why? Because of love. I could come up with an entire list of movies, songs and books that espouse our need to love, and that we should be people of love. It is all over the popular culture – if only we would love each other more, accept them for who they are, work together, then life would be great. We are all one people, and should love one another.

Now of course, I totally agree with this. We should love each other more. We are all equal. We ought to accept people (although accept and agree with are not necessarily the same). Love is the most powerful force in the universe and it could totally change the world. In some sense, it is all we need.

Unfortunately, we are terrible at love.

Now, I don’t want to paint too unfair of a picture or deny reality. Of course people are capable of love. And there are tons of different examples of love. We are (generally) good at loving our families. We are (generally) good at loving our kids. We are (generally) good at being polite and respectful in everyday interactions with people. We are (generally) good at loving people from a distance, people who agree with us, people who treat us well and people who align with our own beliefs and causes. And we can be especially good at dramatic gestures of love for our loved ones or in moments of crisis. So we are definitely capable of love and even of deep, passionate love.

Unfortunately, life is not made up of moments of crisis, dramatic gestures, and people that are easy to love. Life is made up of all of us. And once we extend beyond our small world of ease, the degree of love that we show decreases dramatically. We love our kids, but not the teacher who treats them unfairly, the bully who is harassing them, or the employer who won’t give them the hours they need to survive. We love our neighbours and the people on the street – until they are an inconvenience to us or interfere with our peace and comfort. We love the poor, as long as we only have to sacrifice minimally to help them. We love other people, unless they disagree with us politically or philosophically. We love our spouses or significant others passionately, but not always practically. Dinner? Movie? Romantic getaway? Great! Pick up the clothes? Help with the cleaning? Forgive a minor offence? Not so easy. We love deeply in a moment of crisis (earthquake, death, shootings, etc.), then forget and carry on with our life as soon as possible.

As I said, I don’t want to paint too dramatic of a picture, but I also want to point out the obvious – we are not as good at love as we think we are. Consider the following questions:

  1. How well do you love people when you are tired, stressed or unmotivated to do so?
  2. How well do you love those who disagree with you?
  3. How quickly can you forgive and love those who offend you? Or who hurt you deeply?
  4. How often do you really know what is best for someone else and how often do you just follow the trends of society or guess at what is best? In other words, is your love for them actually love, or does it accidentally end up harming them?
  5. How willing are you to sacrifice for others to show love? I mean really sacrifice – give up eating out to help feed the homeless in your community, set aside your agenda for the evening to let your spouse/partner do what they want, etc.?

My point (especially with that last one) is not to make you feel overwhelmingly guilty, or to argue that you should never think of yourself. There is a balance to find between taking care of yourself (being healthy) and sacrificing for others. Nor is it my desire to belittle the idea of love. I do think that the Beatles were onto something when they sang that all we need is love. It’s just that I think we need some help to love, and to love well. And I’m pretty confident that I know where to look.

In the Bible we find an interesting little comment: “God is love” (1 John 4:8). We also find one of the most beautiful descriptions of love (1 Corinthians 13:1-8, 13), a description of the power of love (Song of Songs 8:6-7), and the best example of love in Jesus, who lived a life of love and then was willing to die for us to restore our connection with God.

What has happened, though, is that we have disconnected love from God. We have made love our goal, not recognizing that we’re not very good at identifying what is loving behaviour and only sporadically successful at showing love to others – especially those who are difficult to love. What’s more, love, being alternately a concept, a feeling or a verb, is not something that we can easily capture or hold onto. It is elusive, easily misguided and often misinformed. It is a fickle mistress. Especially when guided by our heart, which Jeremiah accurately describes as “deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jer. 17:9). Just as we tend to think love by itself is the answer, so we think that we are good enough to understand and guide it in the way it should go. There is a good reason that Jesus himself said, “No one is good – except God alone” (Mark 10:18). Although we do get love right at times, we very often do not. We need help.

So where do we turn? I think there is no better source than God himself, who is love and the source of love. There is no better example than Jesus Christ, who modelled love (even for the difficult and even when it cost him tremendously) and offers to us that unconditional love that we long for. There is no better guide than the Bible, which shows us what God loves and what love should look like, rather than what the shifting sands of culture try to tell us. There is no better power than the Holy Spirit, Christ himself living in us, to help us to love when we find it impossible to do so ourselves.

Christianity has always been defined by its love. In different times and places, followers of Christ have forgotten that, got sidetracked by culture, failed and modelled anything but love. And at times, even with God’s guidance, it is difficult to know how to love well. But in God (more specifically, in Christ), we have the source, the example, the guide and the power to live lives of love. If we pursue Him, we get love. If we pursue love, we end up all over the place.

So if you, like so many, long for our world to be a place of love, I encourage you to establish that connection with Jesus or (if you are already a Christian) to look closely at your life in light of his example and guidance.

Love truly is all we need. As long as we understand “love” to be “God”.

Wallpaper courtesy of Analaurasam.
https://analaurasam.deviantart.com/art/wallpaper-all-you-need-is-love-388228814