Why am I here?

Why do I exist? What is my purpose in life? Why did God put me here? Most of us grapple with these questions from time to time. Even Socrates knew that the unexamined life is not worth living. Does the Bible contain answers to these questions, or are we doomed to ask them again and again until the day we die?

The Bible says that the first man and the first woman were made in the image of God. This can refer to many things—intelligence, moral sense, and creativity, for example—but the most important quality of God, according to God, is love. “God is love.” Outside of creation, the Persons of God have pure and perfect love for one another. Creation itself can be viewed as a gift of love from the Father to the Son. God created many more beings that he could love, beings that could return his love. We are created to love God whole-heartedly and also to love one another. God needs nothing from us, but we glorify God and serve God when we love and help each other.

How do we love God? We place no other gods ahead of him: not Baal or Zeus or Thor, and not money or power or fame or entertainment or any person or animal or cause or job or hobby. We love God when we use his name properly, rather than using it to trick other people (or using it carelessly to punctuate our conversations). We love God when we give him the time he deserves—not merely an hour on Sunday morning, but time each day to speak to him in prayer and to learn from His Word about his commands and his promises. We love God when we honor, respect, and obey human authority in the home, the workplace, and the government. The way we treat those in authority over us shows how we truly feel about God’s authority.

We love and serve God by loving and helping our neighbors. We respect their lives, their marriages, their property, and their reputations. Not only are we careful not to harm them in these matters; we look for ways to help them in these matters. We love God and our neighbors when we are content with what God has given us and made available to us. When we are not content, we do not love God, for we accuse him of failing to give us what we should have. When we are not content, we do not love our neighbors, for we become angry seeing them enjoy things we do not have.

This is why we were made: to love in all these ways. Different people in different situations will have different opportunities to love. Marriage is one kind of love; friendship is another. Children love their parents by honoring, respecting, and obeying them. Parents love their children by instructing them and by modeling God’s love and forgiveness. Workers and managers do their jobs with mutual respect. Citizens honor and obey their governments, while those with authority do not abuse their authority but use it for the good of the people they serve.

Each of us has a different blend of resources, abilities, opportunities, and interests. Each of us can spend a lifetime serving and glorifying God while helping his or her neighbors in a different way. To find your niche in God’s creation, if you have not already found it, I recommend answering three questions: “What do I enjoy doing? What do other people tell me I do well? What tasks do I most notice need to be done?” When the answers to these three questions converge, you may have found the unique purpose for which God put you into his creation.

We were created to love, to do good works motivated by love. When we fall short—when our love is incomplete—we cannot restore ourselves to perfection or reconcile ourselves to the God who made us. No matter how hard we strive to love properly and to do those things that love requires, the more we will see ourselves falling short of the glory of God. The better we know the commandments of God, the more clearly we see how we have failed to accomplish them. Each of us was created to love. None of us can rescue ourselves when our love has failed to meet God’s standards.

God’s plan for salvation is entirely separated from his plan for creation. When we do not do the things God created us to do, we cannot change matters by trying harder to do them. God does not redeem us or reconcile us because of anything we did in the past, or because of anything we are doing now, or because of anything we will do in the future. God redeems us and reconciles us because he loves us. He rescues us without any merit or worthiness in us. We cannot earn his redemption, and we cannot repay his redemption. If we try to do so, we only insult God and his gift.

Yet the forgiveness of God, his redemption, and his reconciliation, change us. They erase all sins from our record. They restore to us the image of God. They made us able to love as we should love. It does not happen instantly; our transformation will not be completed until the Day of the Lord, the Day of Resurrection. Along the way, though, with no stain of sin to restrain us, we are able to love more and more in the way God intended. The good things we do are not proof of our redemption. We have all the proof we need in the promises of the Bible and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As we deny ourselves and follow him, we stop measuring ourselves and our worthiness (which are insufficient for our redemption) and we instead measure Jesus Christ, his perfect life, his sacrifice on the cross, and his resurrection (which are fully sufficient for our redemption).

Why am I here? To love God and to love my neighbors. Why am I saved and a citizen of heaven? Because of what Jesus has done for me. It is as simple as that. J.

Christ in Genesis: In the Beginning

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Traditionally, Christians think of God the Father as the Creator—“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” (The Apostles’ Creed). Yet Genesis 1:2 tells us that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

The LORD was present. The Spirit of the LORD was present. What of the Angel of the LORD? We know from the New Testament that he was also present. “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3); “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17). He is called the firstborn, not because he came into being in time—for the Son of God is eternal, without beginning or ending, and unchanging—but because the Father has granted him all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:19). Because “all things were created through him and for him,” we can regard creation as a gift of love which God the Father made for his Son.

John’s Gospel refers to Jesus as the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). John chose the Greek word “logos,” which had a special meaning to some Roman philosophers. They thought of the “logos” as an all-pervading principle of the universe—not a god, but in some ways greater than all the Roman gods. Chinese philosophers describe the Dao in similar terms: “There was something undefined and yet complete in itself; born before heaven and earth. Silent and boundless, standing alone without change, yet pervading all without fail. It can be regarded as the Mother of the world. I do not know its name; I style it the Dao, and, in the absence of a better word, call it The Great” (Daodejing  25).

But “logos,” meaning Word, reminds us also how God created. He spoke things into being. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God is all-powerful. He cannot lie, not simply because he is too good to lie, but because everything he says happens. (Therefore, when God says, “you are forgiven,” you can be certain that you are truly forgiven.) Jesus is the Word of God, the agent through whom all things were created. Yet he is not an impersonal logos or Dao: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

Creation was formless and empty when God first created it. In three days, the formless became formed. First, God said, “Let there be light,” creating both energy and matter (for, as we know, matter can be converted into energy and vice versa, as Albert Einstein first described) as well as time and space (for those cannot exist apart from energy and matter). Then he separated the waters above from the waters below, and afterward he caused dry land to rise out of the water and covered it with vegetation.

After three days creation was formed, but it was still empty. God filled the light he had created, making the sun and all the other stars, the moon, and everything else in the vastness of the universe that emits light or reflects light. Next he filled the sky with flying creatures and the waters below with swimming creatures. Finally, he filled the land with walking and crawling creatures. As a culmination of all this creation, God made the first man and the first women. Six times, while he was creating, God described his creation as “good.” When he had made the first man and the first woman, he changed his description to “very good.”

Douglas Adams wrote, “In the beginning, the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move” (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, chapter 1).  Some religious movements, such as the Gnostics, agree that the physical world is bad. Genesis says that creation is good—and that, with human beings living in it, creation is very good. Evil was not created by god, although it entered creation by distorting what is good. At its core, creation is good. Therefore, on the Day of the Lord, his creation will be restored, complete with everything that was good when God first made it. Lions and wolves and lambs and oxen are described in the new creation, and even cobras (Isaiah 11:6-9); I am sure that dogs and cats and goldfish will be there as well.

The first man and the first woman were both made in the image of God. Some people imagine this phrase to imply a recursion in which the body of Jesus was the model for Adam’s body, but then Jesus was born with such a body because he inherited it from Adam’s lineage. However, God said “let us make,” suggesting that the image of God is held by all three Persons, not just by the Son of God, the Word who became flesh. What then is the image of God? Several suggestions can be made. God is creative, and human beings also create. God is good, and human beings were created to be good. God is wise and all-knowing, and human beings are created to seek wisdom and knowledge. God is holy, and human beings also are meant to be holy.

Many adjectives describe God, including creative, good, wise, all-knowing, and holy. However, the Bible says that “God is love” (I John 4:8). God is not creation, or goodness, or knowledge, or holiness. Nor is God power or glory. He possesses all these things, but “God is love.” Love is at the very nature of God. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit. The Son loves the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit loves the Father and the Son. Had God created nothing, love would still be at the very nature of God. Therefore, human beings were created for love. We were created to love God and to love each other. We were created to do good things for the glory of God and for the good of one another (Ephesians 2:10). When Jesus became flesh and lived among us, he showed us the image of God by loving his Father perfectly and bringing glory to him. He showed us the image of God by loving the people around them and serving them for their benefit.

When God said, “Let there be light,” he knew each of us by name. He knew how we could glorify him and help each other, each with a unique set of abilities and resources and opportunities. He knew how we would fail to love, fail to glorify, and fail to help. He knew the price he would have to pay to redeem us. When God rested, while creation was still very good, he knew that his rest prefigured the Sabbath when Jesus would rest—his body in a tomb, his spirit in the hands of his Father.

Yet, knowing all these things, God decided that creation was worthwhile. He loved us enough—in spite of everything he knew about us—to create the heavens and the earth, to begin the process that would bring the Son of God into the world to suffer and die for sinners, and to move toward the new creation where once again everything will be very good. God knew about you, and he said you were worth the trouble of creation and of redemption. Therefore, God spoke the Word by whom all things were made.

My best friend’s rotten wife

I have a very good friend, the best friend I could ever have. I like him very much; in fact, I owe everything I have to him. I want to spend more time with him, but I’ve got a problem. I don’t get along with his wife.

My friend is great, but sometimes I cannot stand his wife. My friend tells me, though, that I have to take them as a team. If I want to be with him, I also have to be with her. I know that my friend likes me, but I’m not sure about his wife. Sometimes she ignores me, and sometimes she is even mean to me. She has many moods—she can be angry and accusing, she can be dry and boring, and she can be sappy and sentimental. Sometimes she tries to dress up and look awesomely beautiful and impressive, but other times it does not seem as though she cares how she appears.

If I give a gift to my friend, I know he is going to share it with his wife. He cannot seem to stop himself. His wife is the one who reminds me how much I owe my friend. She is always prepared to take the money I give to my friend and spend it on herself. In fact, I think she’s using him. He does not go a moment of any day without loving her, but sometimes she seems to forget that he even exists.

I’d like to spend time with my friend when his wife is not around, but he won’t let that happen. Whenever the two of us are together, she has to be there too. My friend expects me to accept her, even with all her faults, if I want to be with him.

My friend is Jesus of Nazareth, and his bride is the Holy Christian Church. I love Jesus, but I don’t always love the Church. Jesus is sinless and perfect, but the Church is filled with sinners. Jesus loves me and gave himself for me, but I don’t always feel loved when I am with the Church. If I could have Jesus as my friend without the Church, I think that would make me happy, but Jesus does not give me that option. He loves the Church, and he expects me to be with her if I want to be with him.

Jesus is not blind to the faults of his Church. Yet he loves the Church and willingly serves the Church. More than that, he forgives the Church and forgives every sinner in the Church. Sometimes I struggle to understand his love and his forgiveness, but they should make me happy. After all, if Jesus can love the Church and forgive it, in spite of all its flaws and imperfections, then I know that he loves me and forgives me too.

J.  (first published May 10, 2015)

The image of God

What makes people different from animals? The first chapter of the Bible reports that the first man and the first woman were both created in the image and likeness of God. “Image” and “likeness” are synonyms in this verse–Biblical Hebrew frequently uses two words to convey the same idea. But what does it mean to be created in the image of God?

Some people believe that the image of God is an immortal soul. They go on to say that animals do not have an immortal soul, since they were not created in the image of God. However, the new creation is described as including animals, such as lions, wolves, lambs, and even snakes. If God can have these creatures in his new creation, surely he can also restore our favorite cats and dogs and horses. Whether or not he will do so remains to be seen, but there is a passing reference to the spirits of animals in the book of Ecclesiastes.

God’s attributes include omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. In other words, there is nothing God cannot do, no place exists where he is not present, and there is nothing God does not know. Men and women do not have these qualities; there are limits to our power, we exist in only one location at a time, and we do not know everything. Like God, though, we have intelligence and wisdom that surpasses that of animals. Perhaps our thinking ability is part of the image of God that exists in us.

God created, and people create. Beings that create have a sense of beauty which is shown by their creations. Beings that create also express a sense of humor in their creations. Beings that create are able to use objects as tools to accomplish their goals. In all of these ways, men and women are more like God than like the animals made by God.

When God created, he spoke things into existence. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God works through words, and men and women also communicate with words. We do not have the power to cause things to happen merely by speaking, but words remain useful, even essential, to our existence.

God is holy, righteous, and just. Men and women also know the difference between right and wrong. We might not always do what is right, but generally we know what is right. Our moral sense may also be part of the image of God that exists in us.

God has power, but God is not power. God has knowledge, but God is not knowledge. God has righteousness, but God is not righteousness. Only one quality of God is described as God, and that quality is love. Twice the apostle John wrote, “God is love.” Love flows among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Even if God had created nothing, God would still be love because of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity.

To be created in the image and likeness of God, then, means to be created so we can love. We were created to love God whole-heartedly. We were created to love our neighbors as ourselves. All the rest of the commands of God tell us how to love, but the basic command to love teaches us our purpose. When we love, we are God-like. When we fail to love, we fall short of displaying God’s image. When we fail to love, we fall short of our Creator’s purpose for our existence.

The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is selfishness. The more we love ourselves, the less we can love God and our neighbors. True love is sacrificial love. It gives to others and does not demand repayment. True love allows others to be important rather than insisting upon being at the center of attention.

Animals have intelligence to varying degrees. They can solve problems, they can reason, and they can learn. Some animals are creative. Elephants doodle, birds sing, and some fish redesign their environments for purposes of beauty. Many animals create tools out of materials at hand. Animals use language and communicate. Chimpanzees have been taught sign language. Cats and dogs understand dozens of words that they hear men and women speak. Even some insects are capable of passing messages to one another.

Some animals even have a sense of right and wrong. Dogs know when they have done something their owners did not want them to do, and they can express guilt for their wrongdoing. Cats also know when they have broken the rules, although they do not express guilt as frequently as dogs do. Other animals can be trained to do various things, and they know when they have met expectations or failed to please their trainers.

I find it hard to believe that my cats don’t love me. Our relationship is defined by more than food and fresh water. My cats like their people. They like to hear the sound of our voices, even if we are talking to each other and not to them. They like to be pet and scratched, and they have their own gestures to show the love that they feel for their people. If I have been away all day or asleep all night, they greet me when they see me again. We have a genuine relationship based on love, even if I bear the image of God and they do not.

It seems that animals that spend time around people pick up some human characteristics. We teach them to have a moral sense because the distinction between right and wrong is important to us. We teach them to love because love is essential to what we are. When our ancestors were told to rule over the animals of God’s creation, God’s intention was that we be caretakers and not abusers. When we take good care of the creatures entrusted to us, they become a little more like us. That reflects the wisdom of the Creator who put us in charge of his world. J.

God’s Commands

What is the first command from God in the Bible? I don’t mean the commandment to have no other gods; that is the first of the Ten Commandments given on Mount Sinai. I don’t mean the commandment to love God whole-heartedly; that is the greatest commandment of God, but not the earliest.

Some people will guess that God’s first command was not to eat the fruit of a certain tree. That is the first command from God that was broken, but it was not his first command. Others will remember God’s instruction to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. That was the first command God delivered to Adam and Eve, but it was not his earliest command.

God’s first command was, “Let there be light.” Because God gave that command, light occurred. Don’t let anyone tell you that words have no power. When God speaks, things happen. The universe is unable to resist the will of God when he expresses it with words. As God spoke, the universe came into being, and it still follows the same rules established by God in the beginning. The behavior of the sun, earth, and moon remains consistent with God’s will, so consistent that the shadow of the moon across the earth can be predicted many years in advance or extrapolated far into the past. Plants grow and reproduce according to God’s command, each according to their kind. Animals exist and thrive on the earth and in the water and even flying through the air, each according to their kind. Physics and chemistry and biology are reliable sciences because everything God made continues to work according to his original design.

Everything except people. Unlike everything else in creation, people are free to obey the commands of God or to disobey them. People are free to love God or to reject him. People were created in the image of God, and part of that image is freedom. God is perfectly free, and the people he made have a certain amount of freedom.

Once a person has rebelled against God, though, that person is no longer free. That person has become a slave to sin and is subject to all the consequences of evil, even death. Every day people choose rebellion and sin and death rather than God and life and love. We are no longer in the image of God, because we have exchanged our freedom for sin and death.

In other ways, we maintain part of the image of God, even though much of it has been lost. God creates, and we are able to create. God is perfectly wise, and we are able to exercise wisdom, to gain in knowledge and understanding. God enjoys beauty and has a sense of humor, and we also appreciate beauty and humor. Most of all, God is love, and we show the image of God when we love him and when we love one another.

God commands us to love, and the rest of his commands tell us how to love. God does not command us because he enjoys his authority over us. The commands of God are like an owner’s manual for our lives. If we all followed God’s commands perfectly, none of us would have any problems. We have problems because we, along with the people around us, keep on breaking God’s commands.

The commands of God are useful, even in a sin-stained world. Parents, teachers, managers, legislators, police officers, and judges all have authority to make and enforce rules because of God’s commands. Even our efforts at self-control and courtesy are based upon God’s commands. Although those commands do not make us or the world perfect, God’s commands make the world and us better than we would be left to ourselves.

The commands of God also warn us that we have a problem, namely, sin. They show the difference between the people God intended us to be and the people we, in fact, are. They show how badly we need to be rescued from our own sins and from the evil in the world around us.

Although they show us that we need to be rescued, God’s commands cannot rescue us. They are good, but they still are no help to people seeking to escape sin and evil. Like the priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable, they walk past us without helping while we are victims of sin and evil. Jesus can and does help us. He heals and restores us, paying any price necessary to bring us back to the people we were meant to be. He restores to us the image of God which we had lost through sin, although we will not fully possess that image until we rise to life in God’s new creation.

Meanwhile, God is transforming us into the image of his Son. As forgiveness is passive, received by us but not earned by us, so the transformation also is passive. Yet we can reject the transformation or we can cooperate with the transformation. When we love God and try to obey his commands, we are cooperating. When we love the people near us and try to serve God by helping those people, we are cooperating.

The commands of God describe the results of the transformation Jesus works in us. The same commands that diagnosed our sin and prescribed a Savior (because the commands themselves cannot heal us) also assist us to cooperate with God’s transformation of our lives. They tell us why God made us, and they tell us what we are like as the children of God.

All this is preamble to what I really wanted to write. I wanted to address the reason that all the commands of God to Israel do not apply to Christians today. This subject I will address in my next post: The difference between ham and premarital sex. J.

 

Love her. Submit unto him.

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul uses these words to introduce his instructions to husbands and wives, to children and parents, and to workers and supervisors. Like Confucius, Paul taught that one must know who one is in relation to others to be sure of what one ought to be doing. Ever since Paul wrote these words, people have been pulling bits of them out of the larger context and using them to try to control each other.

Men and women are different. The difference can be seen microscopically (the difference between X and Y chromosomes) or by studying the entire package. Some differences may be culturally induced (nurture rather than nature), but that does not make them wrong. Whether one attributes the differences between men and women to a wise Creator (as I do) or explains them as “survival of the fittest,” the differences between men and women help to form stronger families, stronger communities, stronger nations, and a better world.

Paul tells men to love their wives with a sacrificial, Christ-like love. This theme diverts Paul into the mystery of Christ and the Church, in which every marriage of a man and a woman becomes a picture or analogy of Christ and the Church. Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands “as to the Lord.” Since he has already told all Christians to submit to one another, it seems odd that he would reiterate that instruction to the wives.

To submit is not to be inferior. Jesus Christ submits to God the Father even though they are equal in power, in wisdom, in glory, and in every other way. To submit is not to be a willing victim to sinful behavior. Christians are told to exhort one another to good works. We are told to remove the logs from our eyes so we can see clearly to remove the specks from our brothers’ eyes. When Eve was created, she was to be a teammate of Adam. (Four hundred years ago the translators working for King James I of England chose the term “helpmate.” More recent translations have shortened the word to “helper,” but “teammate” is more accurate.) They were to work together in their assigned jobs: to care for the Garden, to rule over the land animals and flying animals, and to be fruitful and multiply.

All Christians should love each other and submit to one another. I speculate that Paul told husbands to love their wives because the masculine gender is more likely to stray from their proper mates. Men are more easily tempted to be unfaithful; women are more likely to stay and nurture their families. (These are generalities—of course many exceptions can be found.) Paul stresses that husbands should love their wives because strong love will keep a husband faithful to his wife.

In the same way, I speculate that Paul told wives to submit to their husbands because, as love seems more natural to women than to men, their desire to nurture can be changed into a desire to control. Sometimes men find it easier to let the women in their lives control them than to claim leadership in their families. Men joke about being tied to apron strings and about the old ball and chain. Men notice that the love of their wives can be expressed as controlling rather than as submitting.

Husbands are to focus their effort on loving their wives. Wives are to focus their effort on submitting to their husbands. Husbands and wives both should love each other and submit to one another. Paul does not address the matter of who goes first. A husband is not permitted to say, “I’ll start loving her when she shows she has submitted to me,” and a wife is not permitted to say, “I’ll begin to submit when he shows that he loves me.” Marriages flounder over such arguments, because marriages consist of two sinful people trying to share their lives with one another. The only remedy is that greater love of which marriage is a picture. Christ’s sacrificial love removes the stain of sin, making the Church and each of its members pure and holy in the sight of God. Without that guarantee, marriage would be a burden. With the forgiveness of God generating forgiveness between wife and husband, the teamwork can be joyful. J.

 

Maundy Thursday

On Thursday of Holy Week, Jesus sent Peter and John into Jerusalem to make preparations for their Passover Seder. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there had been no room for him and his family in the inn. Now a borrowed room was available for Jesus and his followers. (The same Greek word is used in the Bible for the Bethlehem inn and the borrowed room in Jerusalem.)

That night Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and told them that they were to be humble servants to one another. He gave them a new commandment, telling them to love one another. (Of course that commandment had been given before. It is new in the sense that his people are new every day through the work of their Savior. Therefore, every day this commandment is new to his people.) Jesus prayed for his disciples and for all who would believe in Jesus because of their testimony. That same night Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him, that Judas would betray him, and that all the disciples would abandon him.

Jesus took the bread of the Passover meal—bread made without yeast—gave thanks, broke it, and distributed it to his disciples. “Take, eat,” he said, “this is my body, given for you.” He took the cup of thanksgiving—the third cup of wine in the Seder meal—and said, “Drink of it, all of you. This is the cup of the New Testament, shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.” He also said, “Do this often, remembering me.” Christians continue to obey this command of grace, remembering Jesus and rejoicing in his gift of forgiveness and eternal life, promised through his sacrifice and through this act of remembrance.

After the Seder, Jesus took his disciples and went to a garden called Gethsemane (which means “olive press”) to pray. While he prayed, they fell asleep. Jesus prayed that a cup would be taken away from him—the cup of God’s wrath, the anger deserved by sinners. Jesus had already given his followers a cup, the cup of the New Testament. Now he was taking the poisonous cup deserved by sinners and drinking it dry for the rescue of sinners. While Jesus prayed, his disciples slept. It was late at night. They had eaten a large meal with a lengthy ceremony of prayers and Bible readings. Jesus had added many new thoughts to the ancient ceremony. Each of them had drunk four cups of wine during the meal. Now they were tired. Already, as Jesus prayed, they were abandoning him.

Judas Iscariot brought guards from the Temple to arrest Jesus secretly in Gethsemane. Trying to defend his Lord, Peter swung a sword wildly, slicing off a man’s ear. Jesus healed the man, his last show of divine power before being led to the cross. The disciples fled. Jesus was taken to a series of hearings in Jerusalem. During those hearings, outside the building, Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus.

Jesus was put on trial for blasphemy. The Law of God required that no one be condemned to death without identical testimony of a crime by two witnesses. The prosecution failed to find two witnesses who agreed about Jesus, even as they tried to recall what he had said about destroying the Temple. In frustration, the chief priest put Jesus under oath and asked him if he was the Christ, the Son of God. If Jesus did not claim to be the Son of God, he could have escaped condemnation and punishment. Instead, he affirmed under oath that he is the Son of God, and the authorities condemned him for blasphemy, saying that he insulted God by claiming to be his Son. They began to beat him and insult him.

According to God’s Law, because he was convicted of blasphemy, Jesus should have been taken to the gate of Jerusalem and stoned to death. Stoning was the “firing squad” of ancient times. When a criminal was stoned, the entire community participated, rejecting his crime and cooperating in his death; yet no one person could be said to have thrown the one fatal stone.

According to Roman law, though, no criminal could be executed in the provinces until a Roman official had reviewed the case and the evidence. Evidently, this law prevented a community from rising against the Romans by first convicting and executing supporters of Rome. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, happened to be in Jerusalem because of the Passover celebration. (His presence gave him an excuse to bring extra Roman soldiers into the city while it was crowded with Jewish believers from all over the known world because of the holiday.) When the sun rose on Friday, the authorities intended to bring Jesus to the governor and to seek permission to stone him to death according to God’s law. J.

Seven Mysteries of the Christian faith–Chapter six: the mystery of Christian living

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).

God created people to do good things. We are to love God and to love our neighbors, and our love is intended to be active, making the world a better place. God does not need anything from us, but he wants us to take care of each other. When we help someone else, we are helping someone God loves. We serve God by helping each other. In this way, we accomplish the plan of our Maker. We do what we were created to do.

We do not always love God as he deserves to be loved. We do not always help our neighbors as they need to be helped. We have fallen short of our Maker’s plan for our lives. Because we have failed, God could reject us. Instead, he redeems us. He pays to fix what we have broken. We ran away from him, but he brings us back to himself. We were buried in our wrongdoing and in a world filled with sin and evil and death, but our Redeemer entered this world and got himself dirty, enduring even death itself, so we could have eternal life in his new perfect creation.

We contribute nothing to our redemption. Jesus has done all the work to redeem us. Even the means of grace that create and strengthen faith are God’s work in our lives, not our work for God. Being redeemed, though, we do not sit on our hands and wait for Jesus to appear in glory. We are his Body doing his work in the world. The plan of our Maker, that we should do good works in love, remains his plan for us. He did not redeem us so we can do good things; he redeemed us because he loves us. One result of being redeemed, though, is that we now have the power to do good things, showing our love for God and our love for the people he loves.

Jesus lived a perfect life. He always did the right thing and never did the wrong thing. Now, redeemed by Jesus, we imitate Jesus. We obey God’s commands. We help the people around us. We strive to make the world a better place. Our ability to do these things does not come from the commands of God; our ability to obey his commands comes from his work of redemption. We do not transform ourselves; we are transformed by God’s forgiveness, changed back into the people that God wants us to be.

One of the paradoxes of Christian living is that every Christian is both a saint and a sinner. We do not go back and forth between one and the other—at every minute each of us is a sinner who needs a Savior and a saint who knows the Savior. In Romans 7, Paul describes the paradox of being both a sinner and a saint. Like Paul, we do not understand ourselves. We cannot explain why we break God’s commands. With Paul, we say, “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-25). Every day we repent, and every day we believe the promises of redemption. Every day we are made new, transformed by the forgiveness of God.

Some Christians think they can stop sinning and can become perfect in this lifetime by the power of God’s redemption. To convince themselves that this has happened to them, they have to ignore their sins, redefine them as mere mistakes, or blame other people for any time they do not act like Jesus. Our Lord would not have taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses” if he did not know that every day we would trespass, and every day we would need his forgiveness. Even more than we need daily bread, we require daily forgiveness. We are sinners while also being saints. We strive to be like Jesus, but the harder we try to imitate him, the more we realize that we are falling short of the glory of God.

Christian living is a challenge. We contribute nothing to our redemption, but our imitation of Jesus does require effort on our part. Some people call Christian living sanctification, while others call it discipleship. Jesus told the Church to “make disciples.” No one can be a disciple of Jesus without first believing his promises of redemption; but no one can believe those promises without beginning to be transformed by those promises. As James wrote, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).

A living faith produces good works, as a living apple tree produces apples. Apples do not cause the tree to live, and good works do not cause redemption or faith. We cannot judge our redemption by what we do—when we make that mistake, we have room to doubt the truth of God’s promises. Our good works are never enough to balance our mistakes. If we judge ourselves by God’s standards, we are failures. Only when we see ourselves through the promises of God do we see that we are saints, citizens of the kingdom of heaven. God sees us through those promises; he sees us through the good works of his Son. Our sins were removed when Jesus suffered and died on the cross. Now all that remains on our record in God’s book is the perfect righteousness of Christ, accompanied by those times that we succeeded in imitating Christ.

Jesus compares our good works, not to apples, but to grapes. He says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). These words describe a second paradox: nothing we do is counted as good apart from the presence of Jesus. Many unbelievers have done great things in the world, showing deep love for their neighbors and making the world a better place. None of those good things, done without faith in Jesus, counts in God’s book, because even the greatest of good works is still tainted by sin. On the other hand, the smallest good deed of a believer—even giving a child a glass of water—is a good deed recognized by God. Apart from Jesus we can do nothing, but with and through Jesus we do many things that are recorded as good.

God does not need our help. He made the world and it continues to run according to his rules. Every day God is active keeping his creation running according to his plan. Now God allows his people to cooperate with him. He tells us to pray for daily bread. When we gather for a meal, we thank God for the blessings we have received from his generous hand. Yet the food we eat, a gift from God, also involves the labor of many people. Farmers planted the seeds and tended the fields and harvested the crops. Millers ground the grain into flour. Bakers added other ingredients to the flour and put the loaves in the oven. Truck drivers moved the grain to the mill, moved the flour to the bakery, and moved the bread to the store. We then went into the store and took some of that bread, exchanging money we earned by doing some other kind of work so we can have the bread on our tables. God created the seeds and the fields where they grew. God gave the farmers and millers and bakers and drivers the ability to do their jobs. He gave us the ability to do our jobs. He will not send us manna every morning as he did for the Israelites between Egypt and Canaan. He expects us to work, as he expects the farmer and miller and baker to work. We cooperate with God, and we receive the good things he wants us to have.

Every good thing done by a Christian is done by the power of Jesus, who reminds us, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” In doing good things, though, a Christian cooperates with Jesus. We cannot make anyone a believer in Jesus; we cannot even make ourselves believers. God makes us his partners in redemption, though, by giving us the keys to the kingdom of heaven. When we tell other people about Jesus and what he has done, we use the keys that Jesus gave to his Church. We are cooperating with God to bring redemption to other people, even though no effort on our part can cause the redemption of any person.

Christians pray to God. God does not need our advice. When we mention problems to him, whether our problems or the problems of other people, God is never surprised. He knows everything; he knows all about those problems. God wants us to pray. He wants to hear from us every day. He wants us to praise him and thank him, not because he needs our thanks and praise to feel good about himself, but because we need those reminders of the goodness of God. He wants us to confess our sins. Our prayers do not earn his forgiveness, and a sin will not be unforgiven if we forget to confess it to the Lord. God wants us to pray to him about the things we want and need. God already knows what we want and what we need. He will not refuse to give us something that we need if we forget to pray and ask him for it. God wants us to love our neighbors and pray for their needs. He knows what they need and will not refuse to give them what they need if we forget to pray and ask him for it.

God does not need our advice, but he loves us as a Father and wants to hear from us. Imagine spending an entire day with someone you love and never hearing that loved one speak one word to you. Some days we treat God that way. To keep that from happening, God commands us to pray. He promises to hear our prayers and to answer our prayers. As we pray for daily bread and receive it from God with the cooperation of the farmer and the miller and the baker, so in our prayers we cooperate with God. We become his partners, making the world a better place through our prayers as well as through our other good deeds. A Christian who is so ill that he or she cannot leave the bed can still do good things by praying for other people.

Sometimes a Christian is aware of the good deeds he or she is doing. Often that Christian is not aware that he or she has done a good deed. Imitating Jesus becomes easier over time, just like any other activity. When you learned to walk, when you learned to ride a bicycle, and when you learned to drive a car, at first what you were doing took effort and concentration. After a while, the task became easier, and eventually you could do these things without thinking hard about the details of what you were doing. The good deeds of a Christian are selfless, done without awareness. They are not done to earn rewards. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). In the same sermon, Jesus spoke about helping other people, about praying, and about fasting, each time saying that such things should be done secretly. The good things done by Christians are part of their relationship with the Lord; they are not done to impress anyone. When we help others, Jesus says, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3).

Jesus promises that God will reward our good works. But Jesus does not want us to keep score of our good works. In his parable about Judgment Day (Matthew 25:31-46), those entering God’s kingdom are surprised to be rewarded for doing good things. “When did we do all that?” they asked. They had done those things without keeping score, but Jesus remembered every good deed and treated it as service to him. Likewise, those barred from the new creation asked, “When did we fail?” They thought they had done enough good deeds to win God’s approval. Because what they did had been done without faith, every failure was remembered and they were treated accordingly.

Christians do good things without keeping score. Often the best things Christians do are not noticed as good deeds. They are simply the result of love. No one enjoys changing a baby’s diaper. Some people consider changing a diaper to be about the most revolting thing they ever had to do. Yet people change diapers. They do these good deeds because they love the baby and want the baby to be healthy and comfortable. When a Christian changes a baby’s diaper, God sees that good deed and remembers it.

Most Christians recognize the saintliness of others more than they recognize their own saintliness. Acting selflessly out of love, a Christian is serving God by helping others without keeping score. For that matter, every Christian knows his or her own secret sins. Being aware that we are sinners, we continue to repent and continue to be active doing works of love. Other Christians inspire us to do more, because we are all working to imitate Jesus and do things as he would do them.

Some good deeds are done in the church building or as church activities. Many more good deeds are done in other settings. Members of a family do good deeds for each other. Friends and neighbors serve God by helping each other. Even someone working for a salary is still doing good deeds that bring glory to God (unless, of course, their chosen career is sinful or they are doing corrupt things on the job). Paul’s letters follow a similar pattern: he addresses problems, shows the answer to those problems in Christ’s redemption, and then urges his readers to do good things. Many of those good things involve husbands and wives, parents and children, and workers and employers. “Whatever you do,” Paul wrote, “in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

As members of the body of Christ, each Christian has unique ways to serve God by helping others. In the congregation, different Christians do different things to serve the entire body of Christ. Every day of the week, in homes and workplaces and schools and neighborhoods, Christians are doing good things that help others. Because they have different resources, different abilities, and different opportunities, Christians do different good works. If we were all the same, many good things would never get done. Because of the diversity God created, his Church is filled with many different people doing many different things, all for his glory.

God’s commands tell Christians how to live, but God’s commands do not address every situation a Christian will face. The attitude of a Christian is not slavish obedience to rules, but freedom to be like Jesus. Different Christians make different decisions about their personal lives. Some drink no alcohol, and others drink in moderation. Some Christians are vegetarian, and others eat meat. Some listen only to certain kinds of music, while others enjoy many kinds of music. Where no command has been given by God, Christians are free to serve him in various ways. God has forbidden his people to judge each other for their personal decisions. To the Romans and the Corinthians, Paul stressed this diversity. He warned Christians not to offend each other by openly doing things that trouble others. The Christian who eats meat willingly forgoes meat in the presence of the Christian who eats no meat. However, when the vegetarian is not around, the other Christian is free to eat meat. Neither one judges the other, but both act in a way that shows love for God and love for each other.

The good things done by Christians do not earn for them a place in heaven. Redemption is accomplished only by the work of Jesus Christ. His redemption which opens heaven to Christians changes the lives they live on earth. As an additional mystery, one could say that Christians live backwards. Everyone else in the world assumes that the present is shaped by the past and that the future is shaped by the present. For the Christian, though, past sins are erased and do not shape the present or the future. Eternal life in the new creation is guaranteed and is not shaped by what we do today or by what we did yesterday. Instead, what we do today is shaped by our future. Because we are citizens of the new creation, we are transformed today. The forgiveness of Jesus changes us, making us able to do good things today.

We do not know when that Last Day will come, the Day Jesus will appear in glory and we will enter his new creation. Only God knows that mystery; he has not revealed it to anyone. This creates a paradox for each Christian. We live each day as if it were the Last Day. We spend our time doing the things we want to be doing when we see Jesus face to face. Yet we also plan for the future. We do not waste our resources, because we want them to be available for future generations. Even if a Christian was firmly convinced that the world was going to end tomorrow, that Christian would still plant a tree today.

We are not yet perfect. We still sin and fall short of God’s glory every day. In the new creation we will be perfect. Today we practice for that perfection. Loving God and loving our neighbors, serving God by helping our neighbors, we remind ourselves of the redemption that is ours through Jesus Christ. We remind ourselves of the home Jesus has prepared for us in his new creation. And we teach others about Jesus, not only by our words, but also by our loving examples.

What is this thing called love?

“Love” is a simple word, yet the idea of love is among the most complicated and confusing ideas known to men and women. What is this thing called love? What good is it? And who really needs it, anyhow? I do not pretend to be an expert on the topic of love (or on much of anything else, for that matter), but in my years of living and learning, I have discovered certain truths about love.

First: love is central to the Maker of the universe, which means it is a central power of the universe as well. The Bible never says that God is power or that God is knowledge, although it does say that God possesses all power and all knowledge. Yet in I John 4 the Bible says twice that God is love. Love is at the very center of the reality that is God. God does not merely love the things that he created; outside of space and time, God still is love. No Unitarian believer in God could comprehend this truth, but the eternal and unchanging love among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are essential to the true nature of God. The universe could be regarded, in a way, as a gift of love from the Father and to the Son.

One consequence of that reality is that, since men and women are created in the image of God, men and women are created for love. We already know that we are commanded to love God more than anything else and to love our neighbors as ourselves; but this understanding makes those two commandments more than just requirements. The entire reason and purpose for the existence of each and every one of us is love.

Second: love is defined by the fact that the Lover cares more about the Beloved than about its self. True love always puts the Beloved first. Poets and songwriters and movie makers have largely missed the boat on this fact. The culture around us trains us to think of love as the good feeling we have that is caused by another person. He makes me feel good, so I must be in love. I no longer feel good around her; we must have lost that loving feeling. The opposite of love is not hatred, as many people assume; nor is it apathy, as some have suggested. The opposite of love is selfishness. Whenever I use a person and my relationship with that person to make myself feel good, I am selfish; I am not in love. When I care about that person and want that person to be happy, even at some cost to myself, then I truly love that person.

Here is an example: parents do not change the diapers of their babies because they like changing diapers. No one likes changing diapers; changing diapers is a disgusting experience. Parents change the diapers of their babies because they love their babies. The comfort and well-being of their babies matter more to the parents than does their own happiness.

Third: love makes the Lover vulnerable. Once one cares more about the Beloved than about the self, the Beloved is able to hurt the Lover. That hurt may come through total rejection, through thoughtlessness, or through various other shortcomings. The Lover does not stop caring about the Beloved, even when the Beloved hurts the Lover. The Lover is willing to forgive, because the Lover cares deeply about the Beloved. The Lover is willing to make sacrifices on behalf of the Beloved, whether or not the Beloved deserves the love and the sacrifice of the Lover.

I suspect that the devil rebelled against God because he did not understand love. He understood power, and he understood justice, but he saw love and mercy as weaknesses of the Creator. The devil thought he could run the universe better than its Creator was running it precisely because the devil planned to stick to power as the guiding force of the universe. The devil never realized that power and even justice could be overcome by love and by sacrifice.

I know that when one of us hurts because of a rejected love, we share the pain God feels when the people he loves rebel against him. God could spare us that pain, but he chooses to let us experience that pain so we will sense the love he has for each of us. Whether one grieves over a broken relationship on the first day or the one-thousandth day, one is in tune with the heart of God.

Fourth: love is the focus of an appetite that all people have, but love is not the appetite. Children need the love of their parents, and husbands and wives crave the love of their spouses. God created us with an appetite for love, just as he created us to hunger and thirst for nourishment of our bodies. These appetites can become twisted and can be used to lead us into sin. Hunger can be twisted into a craving for unhealthy food, or it can motivate a person to steal food that person cannot afford. So the appetite to be loved can drive people into many thoughts and actions that are not healthy.

The arts in our civilization cannot discern the difference between true love and the appetite for love. Often the poems and songs and novels and movies of our culture picture only the craving for love and its satisfaction without ever showing true love. It is not wrong to want to be loved. This desire is healthy; it is part of the good plan of our Creator.

Fifth: love comes in many forms. Parents love their children and children love their parents, but that love is not the same. Romantic love draws two people together, perhaps producing a marriage and a family. The love of two friends for one another can be even stronger and more meaningful than romantic love. People love their pet cats or dogs, they love pizza or chocolate, they love their hometown and their country, and they love God. All of these loves are good, but they are not all the same.

Even the President of the United States and the Supreme Court have become confused about the different kinds of love. Love is good; nothing is better than love. I never want to love my cat the way I love a pepperoni and onion pizza. Many teens and young adults cannot distinguish the difference between a close friendship and a romantic attachment. They are still learning who they are, and they are easily confused. The answer to their confusion does not come from hate, nor does it come from repeating God’s commandments over and over. The answer to their confusion comes from love: loving them, and modeling for them in appropriate ways the beauty of love in all its forms.

Truly, love makes the world go ‘round. What the world needs now is love, sweet love; all you need is love. May each of us find it where and when God pleases to grant it to us.

J.