The Nature of God – Part 13
[If you are just now stumbling onto this post without having read the various parts in this series from the beginning, I strongly urge you to go back to the start and continue on from there through each successive post. None of these individual entries stand on their own, and you may wind up with little but confusion and unanswered questions by starting here. That is easily done by entering “The Nature of God” in the search box on the home page, which will list links to all available parts.]
This is the last post that deals with my personal experiences, and the last post of this series. Here, I have to skip ahead to somewhat more current times in order to relate what I think of as the most recent great communication of God with me, information-wise. For me, it was a great truth, unanticipated, that tied together and answered a number of questions I had. It dispelled a lot of bad assumptions I’d carried. And, it revealed more of God’s nature, but in a way that made Him even more distinctly unlike us, and me.
For many years, what began to weigh on me more and more was, “Why me?” I was the guy who, when healed of a recurring ailment at a young age, accepted it and then ignored Him. I was the guy who did not hesitate to say no when approached by the Spirit of the Living God for relationship! I refused, and that should have rightly been the end of it. I only came around much later because I had no other viable choices left to me. I was out of feasible alternatives. Even then, I was (and am) a tepid, hesitant follower. The only way He could get my attention all the while was with the spiritual equivalent of a bat to the head. I’m often considered a “nice guy” by others, but I came to know my core a little better, and then a lot better than I cared to. I found that my good intentions could still screw things up royally, and I often was at a complete loss for being able to discern what the right thing to do was, because the right thing to do varies so much with the person and the situation. I’m unable to discern those, since the full consequences are often beyond our ability to anticipate. It’s so easy to “help” and make things even worse. With my past wreckage still plainly in sight, I became afraid to take any direction at all. What kind of “from victory to victory” Christian was that? What earthly good was I doing, and what possible purpose did I serve for Him? Why did He persist with me? I had no obvious guidance by His Spirit, no “Me and God are tight” assurance that some others seemed to have. In my own view, I was a washout, an unfortunate choice that apparently never really worked out well for Him. I could see no payback on His end. Yet the indelible impression left by His deep affection still remained, completely intact. So, what was up with that?
I began to ask Him, “Why me? Why did You choose me? Look at how I was, and look at me now. It’s not like I was better than someone else, or kind of earned it more. I didn’t deserve it, still don’t, and I’m doing You no good at all even after all these years. You knew all this ahead of time, so what possible reason would You have to choose me?” He had gotten me through some very punishing times relatively intact, and I felt like I had been able to do Him no good at all in return over the years.
Over time, it simply boiled down to “Why me? Why did You choose me?” That must have been fun to listen to over months and then years, but all I could see was the decades of trying to salvage the wreckage behind, and I was honestly mystified. It made no sense. I may have not been a Hitler, but I was just as far away from being a Billy Graham or a Mother Teresa.
This went on for what I recall as three years. I was slowly and finally emerging free from the train wreck I had created three decades before, and the hindsight made the question stand out even more to me. I did not expect an answer, because I had never received a direct answer in response to a question. My mind was always ruminating over unresolved problems, and He’d always intruded with something pithy, but it was an answer to a different question, an unasked one. It was closer to a verbal way to stop me from spinning helplessly around in circles. My direct questions had mainly been more like a desperate, “what do I do now?” or “should I do this, or that here?” No answer, ever. I’m sure that many people can relate to that silence, that lack of response, that seeming absence of God.
So that’s why it was a surprise to me when He broke in unceremoniously while I was about to turn my car back into my driveway after a few errands. Left turn signal on, my mind was once again ruminating on this conundrum of why, while it surveyed the past and my place in it. What a train wreck, and I had been the shiny-faced engineer! Why, of all people, would you choose me?
I hadn’t quite completely finished the same old question when that same strong, sure voice interrupted, “It pleases Me.” There was no visual paragraph of context with it this time, simply the wallop of a firm, full understanding of what He meant by those three words. It had absolutely nothing to do with my earning, deserving a break, showing a promising future, being just a little better than, or trying never to say anything hurtful. And it was not past tense. It had everything to do with who He is – His very nature. He chose me because He wanted to. Because He loves so deeply that He will go to extraordinary lengths to express it, or to accomplish it. Because it would please Him to pull me through the results of what I had set in motion. It gave Him pleasure to persist past my objections and refusals, my internal distractions, discord and failings. While I unwittingly but willfully burned my house of life to the ground, He didn’t just stand by, watching it burn and flair, but stood by me to get me through the experience. He chose me in spite of me, because it gave Him pleasure to do so. He wanted me more than I wanted Him, all along. And it had to do with that all-encompassing blanket of love that is His nature, an unreasoning and unreasonable love that is not unique to me, but includes me. The true answer to “why me” was not about me or what I am like. It was about Him and what He is like.
One might reasonably ask on hearing this, “But wouldn’t a loving God have interceded and extinguished that fire in your life, whatever it was?” No, and for a reason that I will cover in the next paragraph. God is omnipotent, but does not and in fact will not act contrary to His own nature. The magic trick of everything suddenly stopping and being nice-nice would have been okay for me, but also would have blatantly violated something that God honors and respects: our free will. He has no desire to conduct a real-time 3-D puppet show. He deals in miracles, not magic shows. He wants real relationships, and He respects free will, whether it pleases or hurts Him deeply. Faith in Him is a gift from Him, and much like love, we can do with it as we choose: accept it, reject it, cling to it, let it be crowded out by other concerns, act upon it, or return to it.
There’s an account in Scripture of a situation that we typically gloss over, but shouldn’t. In it, Jesus was walking past a pool of water locally reputed to heal the infirmity or illness of the first one in, after the water began to be periodically roiled. An invalid there complained to Him that he was too disabled by his affliction to ever make it into the water first. The man had recognized Jesus, knew of the street talk concerning Him, and asked for His help. Jesus kneeled and asked the invalid, “Do you want to be healed?” We think of this question variously as either a slam-dunk formality or a silly question, given the man’s condition. Who wouldn’t want to be healed – and instantly, no less? The answer is: not everyone. Some refashion their affliction into their identity, and do not want to be separated from it, so it comes to rule them. Others involve a power to manipulate others in some way for their own benefit, and these, given an open and clear choice, typically refuse healing. One example would be compulsive lying, which in many people leads to believing their own lies to the extent that they lose their basic grip on truth and fact. So the question “Do you want to be healed?” is hardly as unnecessary as we may assume. God will not separate us from what we are unwilling to give to Him or be parted from. For better or worse, we get what we want, and God honors that in spite of the eventual consequences.
This is not a very satisfying answer when we make key assumptions about what a loving God should do in such a profoundly troubled world. We assume that if He created it and sustains it, then He is or should be running it, much like an improvised play where the audience participates in the presentation. When we picture Him running it, that is usually with the idea that He may be like a President, but we are the voters who can veto or influence laws and policies that affect us. We can say no. We can pick and choose, because we feel that we know what is best for us. And so, that’s what we do. We make mental constructs of what such a God should do if He were good and loving. That typically includes assuming our right to live in some variation of a consequence-free environment, and we feel betrayed when the misery seems to just roll on unchecked. “I will not believe in a God who allows children to be starved and abused,” is a common if disingenuous theme of disappointment that I hear expressed. Its careful wording neatly removes us as people from the equation, leaving God as the perpetrator. “I will not believe in a God who kills people”, is a dismissive surface perception more often derived from watching movies than by carefully reading through the Old and New Testaments with an inquiring mind. Both statements are more self-perceived justifications for a hasty rejection than they are puzzlers along a serious path of searching for God. Just as Political Correctness pretends to be a morally superior platform of acceptance and tolerance from which we can deride and judge others – often under a tissue-thin guise of compassion, education or enlightenment – then fabricating a position of moral superiority from which to make snap dismissals about the Creator of the Commandments is not sincerity at its best, since the Ten Commandments are a description of God’s character. When apparent contradictions surface in our minds, we either rush to judge or, dissatisfied, inquire further in order to resolve them. Which is easiest?
If only we had a god’s power to change the world, we think, it would be a very different place. Yet we as individuals have had the power to change the spheres of our world for thousands of years, and look at the result. Very few are those who have selflessly acted to better it in concrete terms rather than simply adding to the misery, unwittingly or otherwise. Meaning well is an excuse, but it is not an outcome.
Today, loved ones suffer and/or die despite desperate prayers and offered bargains. Both man-made and natural calamities sweep over us seemingly unchecked. What good is a God who will not conform to our expectations, and who allows what is not good to be so pervasive? Whose fault is that? Clearly, there is a disjoint in expectations here, and a disjoint in our perceptions about which occurrences are of Him, or are of us. Either we are right in perceiving a distant, uninvolved and uncaring God passively watching things go awry, or our perceptions of the realities of our situation here are horribly askew. I have leaned toward the former with its attendant confusion, but time has brought me to reluctantly face the latter. Our penchant for gravitating toward the easy answers does not serve us well.
We assume that a good God would cut multiple, vague paths to Himself for us, with billboard signage, making it easy to get to Him. Thus the saying, “There are many paths to God.” Would that not be the right thing to do? So we disapprove when there is provided but one path, with Jesus saying such things as, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” and “I am the gate. If anyone enters through Me, he will be saved. He will come in and go out and find pasture,” and “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies.” We prefer to think that’s too restrictive, and that there should be many paths to God, a preference that we approve of because it sounds so much more inclusive and collaborative and democratic. It allows us room for what we would call “personal style”, enough room to carry our preferences, self-deceptions and set of filters in with us. We could then approach God on our own terms, our self-respect, pride and sense of honor intact. But Jesus painted a different reality: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
Our reaction tends to be that this is too narrow, too exclusive, or too regimented. An appreciation for diversity and nonconformity is our style now. We associate “destruction” with arbitrary and unfair punishment in some afterlife by some Old Testament God of Vengeance that definitely does not appeal, and so we think it safest to keep this understanding, kind, healing, wise, rebellious and appealing Jesus guy at arm’s length, thanks. Nice guy and all, and said some inspirational things, but we filter out the guts of what He said because they don’t fit our preferences. The whole picture we draw is some variation on appeasing an ancient, angry god who is only satisfied by blood sacrifice, and whoever does not toe some arbitrary line gets it in the neck. Besides, we like to think that everything that’s enjoyable seems to be prohibited! Since our priorities focus on “the way that leads to destruction” rather than “the way that leads to life”, we see an unfair hand waiting to punish rather than a loving hand extended to preserve or rescue. In our minds, we separate the cruel and murderous God of the Old Testament from the wise prophet Jesus, missing entirely that Jesus is the Creator, Sustainer, and God of the Old Testament, come to dwell among us for a time, reveal the character of His Father to us, and provide a way to be with Him now and forever – if that is what we yearn for. We figure that whatever happens after we finally die, we’ll deal with it once we get there. Again, our penchant for gravitating toward the easy answers does not serve us well.
One might reasonably expect that since my last exceptional interaction with God, that such things would continue on. They have not. I view this not as a loss, but as a step up to where most other Christian believers are. He gives and equips us with what we each need and, having made truly extraordinary efforts to give me a firm footing of faith, my nature is such that more might make me think too much of myself and make me veer off course. So I don’t have an extraordinary faith. What I have is an extraordinary God who will continue to see me through whatever lies ahead here.
My own personal experiences are what they are. Of necessity, I’ve related only a portion. You are entirely free to believe them skeptically as actual events, or to reject them outright as self-inflicted mind games or delusions. My strong tendency to be a cynic had not made it easy for me to resolve, because I pictured the rare followers of Christ who have such experiences as more than a few rungs up from where I am. As anyone who knows me can attest, I’m as fully human as the next person, not a saint. Having lived these experiences, however, makes my acceptance of them concrete. My various ways of deluding myself are subtle and unspectacular, fueled by a naive perception of the world that has many holes and exceptions in it. These events I’ve described are simply not my style, and not of my nature. They were each intrusive, not flowing out of who I am, or hope to be. I have never sat around, secretly hoping for the next miracle or the next vision, like some sort of metaphysical junkie. I groove, not. I have more immediate things to preoccupy me, for better or for worse.
And so do you, so let us step on to the present, and begin the future with a clearer understanding of just what God is really like outside of my own personal experiences. Where is there any confirmation of them? Why bother finding out? Because our beliefs concerning God are the single most important influence that molds who we are. Our thoughts and conduct are shaped by what we consider God to be like, good or bad. This impression of God covers the span, from the pacifist who refuses military combat, to the humanist, pantheist, agnostic or atheist who conducts his or her own life without any greater vision of what may exist beyond our senses or instruments. From the “good person” who does good simply because it seems to beget more good, to the zealot who thinks he does his god a favor by assaulting whomever he considers to be an enemy of the ideology he believes in. Believer or atheist, we are all shaped by our concept, our understanding, of God.
For that understanding to be an accurate one is thus crucial to our existence – not merely for a pie-in-the-sky someday future, but more importantly as we engage the world right here and now. Misunderstandings and uncertainties about God’s nature and character can lead us to make very ill-informed decisions about what we want our lives to be about, and how we want to live. So it was long ago for me. I thought I knew just what I wanted, but my assumptions and conclusions sabotaged my approach to attain it. I thought I knew what God was like, and wanted no part of that God in my life. My earnest desire for “freedom” was good, but my perceptions of what true freedom is were hopelessly contrary to it. As my life progressed, I found that it served me well to trade assumptions, guesses and misinformation for a more accurate knowledge, since the results are so profoundly influential.
This series of posts has, to this point, served my responsibility to relate a portion of what God has done for me in my life. That is all that I am supposed to be willing to do, and I have done so. For a few, that is enough, since it reveals the core of God’s nature to those who yearn to seek Him out. After all, faith is a gift to be exercised, not an intellectual pursuit. Faith is an admission that we do not see it all and know it all. We have only to set ourselves aside and ask in earnest. That second part is easy, while the first is decidedly not.
Yet, at the same time, I consider that something might be helpful for those who are stuck with an honest “but what about…?” internal debate. I can to point toward a very helpful resource which can resolve many of them. There is a vast gulf between the “God of Western Religions” and the God who is “I AM”. Mankind has long since subverted God’s ways and purposes for his own, seeking to redefine, control and administrate His True Church to better reflect his own fallen nature in place of God’s nature. One understanding of God led to a profoundly moving submission to gruesome forms of exterminations originally intended as entertainment, while another understanding has led to crusades to wrest control of “holy lands” and “holy relics” from the violent encroachments of a vast Muslim empire, as well as to wholesale slaughter in the New World by Conquistadors. The first transformed a hostile culture from within, person by person. The second redirected the restlessness created by continual warfare in order to ensure political stability at home, providing “a just cause” to aim that energy elsewhere. The third destroyed cultures and peoples in the quest for power and riches. Oh, and for God’s glory too, of course. That was the mechanism by which the natives, sometimes previously conquerers in their own right and sometimes not, were either enslaved or exterminated (or both) for centuries. In our minds, all are lumped together. Who wants a God who inspires the latter two, and maybe all three?
I hold that the solution is not to reject or promote “religion”, but to better understand God. So much evil has been and currently is being accomplished underneath the vigorous waving of God’s banner that it would be of benefit for me to point to a work that more fully reveals Him as He really is, by using the same Scripture that is so commonly used to condemn Him. He is there, and it testifies to His nature. Even what we call Nature testifies to His nature. We praise its beauty and wonder, as if it is an intelligent demigod in itself, yet at the same time blame God for its harsh realities toward us. We do not sense the intents behind how the world is, nor our responsibilities within it.
Even many Christians today have warped Christianity to better conform to their own natures rather than admit God’s supremacy into their lives, as if faith in and obedience to the Living God is a spice to be lightly sprinkled over current and more valuable cultural values, when convenient. While God has worked in context to prevailing cultures, such people – many in leadership – bend God’s plainly definitive viewpoints toward their own, claiming that those “ancient” viewpoints need modernizing to better reflect today’s ever-shifting mainstream thoughts. In other words, we know better, and to adjust toward conformity in modern thought makes the Christian faith “more relevant”. This is hardly a new phenomenon, as the Christian tradition itself has long pushed the concept that the human soul is inherently immortal, a comforting belief that is not supported in Scripture and works to cancel out the very basis of what it is that Christ saves us from: the Second Death. We instead picture something that fits in better with our assumption of an immortal soul, which is a comforting hand-me-down concept from ancient Greek philosophies.
Modifying or twisting Scripture to better conform to the world’s ways is a risky proposition, because it dims the illuminating and guiding light that Christ is to those who seek to follow Him. John 8:12 quotes Jesus as saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will never walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.” Again, He says in Matthew 5:14 to His disciples, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they set it on a lampstand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” Those light beams only stand out when they do not conform to the darkness around them, so the lamp itself does no good when it is covered over by something that blocks off its difference in illumination level. Contrast is everything when it comes down to what matters.
This is not to say that we should reinstitute the traditions and outlooks of ancient cultures, and stand out in that way. God worked in context then, and does so now with what we consider to be our modern and vastly superior culture. Yet His core values stand just as distinctly from our enlightened values today as they did from that of the early Hebrews and their surrounding enemies, but in different ways. I believe that the best solution is not to parse commandments and rules in order to glean which might be readjusted to culture and which might carry over intact. It would be better to take a large step back, a very large one, and seek out God’s nature. Even just considering what He says about Himself in Scripture and what He desires for us, it becomes much easier to discern His basic values and apply them directly instead of filtering them through the ever changing complexities of “unlike” cultures. We as a people are remarkably intolerant of other cultures anyway, so it does little good to try to impose their tenets on ourselves. It also does little good to assume that God speaks in Olde English, that angels are humans who have earned feathered wings, that God is an obsolete old fud who is stuck in the past, or that the world will keep going just fine because it’s leaving Him in the dust back there somewhere anyway.
Homogenizing Christianity to make it less culturally objectionable and thus more appealing is hardly a solution, but instead works against both the true problem and Christ’s solution for it. In Matthew 5:13, He declares, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” Again, He says beginning in Luke 14:34, “In the same way, any one of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be My disciple. Salt is good, but if the salt loses its savor, with what will it be seasoned? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile, and it is thrown out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” In other words, following Christ is about starting over, not readjusting course or blending. 2 Timothy 4:2 begins with Christ’s caution, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and encourage with every form of patient instruction. For the time will come when men will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears they will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires. So they will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” I think that it is significant to note that the early Christian believers were not sacrificed to lions, crucified, eviscerated and burned at the stake because their beliefs blended in with acceptable mainstream thought. They didn’t stand out by organizing political strength in order to impose their values on the cultures they were immersed in, but by quietly acting out their faith in personal obedience to Christ. Had they instead acquiesced to the world’s ways, its ways of thinking, moral values and behaviors, they would have survived – in one sense, anyway.
The problem I have with both a Christian faith based on traditions and a modern, seemingly “updated” Christianity is that both have to varying degrees lost their savor and their Savior. This side of Eternity, we have the freedom to think and do precisely as we like, whether we ascribe to Christian traditions, avoid them like the plague, or follow Christ. There’s a line which, when crossed, may not become apparent to us until it is too late. Matthew 7:21 describes the outcome as Jesus states, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness.” This is both stark and comprehensive, underscoring relationship. John 12: 16 begins, “If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.” No one can follow Him without an abiding relationship with Him, acting in unity with His will. Readjusting God’s will to seemingly advocate and endorse what God finds harmful, and thus supposedly easing the cost of entry into Christ’s Kingdom, acts to contradict “any one of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be My disciple.” To be sure, we all start from where we are, baggage and all. It is our willingness to chuck our baggage overboard that will ultimately separate freedom from continued enslavement.
Wherever we are, His Spirit takes it from there, and so it is not wise to teach each other that we can ignore select behavioral issues whenever His Word does not blend into the prevailing culture. God transcends cultural imperatives, and the goal is not to make the Christian worldview more acceptable to the prevailing winds. For any Christian to discount or bend the imperatives of Scripture with the purpose of conforming it to the surrounding culture is a dangerous game. At the same time, the United States of America is not a Christian nation and has not conducted itself as such, nor is it God’s chosen nation along the lines of ancient Israel. With the past brief and disastrous exception of Massachusetts, it is not a theocracy. To try to manipulate the country to be so is a pointless and counterproductive error.
It’s oft said that “you can’t legislate morality”, the wording of which is confusing to me since that is the core purpose of nearly all law, good, bad, and practical necessity. The actual case is of course that you cannot legislate behavior based on a belief system that the majority of people consider to be personally unacceptable. When the natural and inherent friction between the Christian worldview and any secular or religious culture are “solved” by moving the former closer to the latter, then the Christian faith is made to be methodically abandoned, becoming indistinguishable from that which it is intended to stand distinctly apart. More than ever so in the past, God and His Way are relevant to today, as-is. God is not locked in time. He does not expect us to pray to Him in the archaic English of 1535 or 1611, nor to limit our praise within 18th and 19th century hymns derived from tavern songs. And yet He doesn’t need our “help” to modernize who He is, in order to boost popularity and acceptability. He works in context, but who He is and what He wants of us does not change. Just as Isaiah 55:8 says, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord,” then Ezekiel 18:29 says “Yet the Israelites say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Are my ways unjust, people of Israel? Is it not your ways that are unjust?” Altering God to make His precepts more popularly acceptable is to say that His ways are unjust and are in need of correction toward our own ways of thinking, as if His authority is subject to modification by democratic principles. The world has become as it is through disobedience to His instruction, so legitimizing more disobedience may be popular, but is effectively telling Christ to keep up in following us.
For any follower of Christ, the point is not to erect a comforting banner for cultural heritage, or for New Age Christians to flock to, but to personally live out one’s life in obedience and discernment in thankfulness, where personal integrity and the individuals we interact with matter more than pamphlets or legislative rallying points. There is no need for Christians to endorse or embrace the cultures that they find themselves in. There is a need to live true to that relationship with Jesus, that giving over of one’s life, and by simply doing that, be a living witness to those few who have become disillusioned with the wide road. Not a one of us comes sinless to accept Christ, having cleaned up our act first. If someone has not yet recognized and let go of that which is destroying them, it does not help to act as God’s Little Helper and make the narrow road narrower while the Spirit is calling them, just as it does not help to widen their road even further and teach them in contradiction to God’s clear will for them.
The Living God is not an add-on to round out one’s life as a basically good person, or to make us feel better about ourselves. Accepting Christ is much more akin to giving up on your life as you have been living it, heaving it over the transom, kit and caboodle, and by asking Christ to provide something better no matter what it takes on your part – or His. By “kit and caboodle” I mean the thought expressed in Psalm 139: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way.” This acknowledges three essentials: we’re pervasively blind to our faults, require His guidance to avoid expressing those faults, and need the power of His change from within.
We are born spiritually separated from God, and this separation only widens as we live our lives according to our own values and behaviors. Well-intentioned as our efforts may be, this separation cannot be narrowed by us. His Spirit’s fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control are like a signpost leading away from human nature and toward God’s. Our human nature predisposes us to thoughts, words and actions which, as the Psalm above relates, displeases God, can be offensive, and can be injurious to both others and ourselves. It contributes to how the world got to be the way it is today. When we cannot admit this, then we carry on as we always have, and get the same results.
In Psalm 51, Kind David wrote after his adultery and conspiracy to murder:
“Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness;
According to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight,
So that You are justified when You speak and blameless when You judge…
Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom.
Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow…
Hide Your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Your presence and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and sustain me with a willing spirit…
For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; you are not pleased with burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”
This prayer is a display of a worldview that is as foreign to us today as it ever has been, the only difference being that an additional percentage of us brag of our exploits instead of reconsidering the true effects of what we do. In this Psalm, David prays for spiritual life: a restoration of his prior close relationship with God which has been shattered by his sins. His separation feels to him like suffocation, and it wants to lead him where he does not want to go, even further away from God. But, he knows that he cannot cleanse and renew himself in the slightest, and pleads for God to do what only He can do. That idea can be a very difficult thing to accept, because we like to think that we in some way will or have already earned faith, and thus that we will or have earned our rescue from separation because we weren’t separated all that far to begin with. In some way, we deserve faith as a reward for being basically pretty nice people, and have never really required a full-on spiritual rebirth from scratch. We are close, we just need an attitude tune-up, and we can keep our baggage with us.
At the time Jesus lived on earth, tax collectors were viewed as collaborators with the occupying Roman army. Luke 18:9 begins: “To some who trusted in their own righteousness and viewed others with contempt, He also told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed, “God, I thank You that I am not like the other men—swindlers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and pay tithes of all that I receive.” But the tax collector stood at a distance, unwilling even to lift up his eyes to heaven. Instead, he beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man, rather than the Pharisee, went home justified. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.’ ”
The closer you get to the idea of Christianity being a modest tune-up for deserving people to earn a someday future reward, the closer you get to people congregating under a banner, with a suffocating religious ideology and an axe to grind. Some call that Christianity, but the real question is: does Christ? It is worth noting that while He lived among us, Jesus reserved His anger not for those sinners who sought for Him, not for those who ignored Him or even took up stones against Him, but for those who claimed their own righteousness and piety, and yet were worse than the other sinners because of their duplicity. The religious hierarchy had expanded His laws to exaggerate God’s will for us to an impossibly lofty and complex level, inserting themselves as essential go-betweens to boost their own personal power and prestige, and so making faith impossible wherever they went. Jesus specifically avoided the militaristic solution that had been expected of the coming Messiah, the Deliverer.
And that was the core of the problem. The Hebrews had long before denied God’s stated will to protect them from hostile armies solely by His power – without even their involvement – and had instead waged battle after battle in the same manner that nations today do, as “God’s instrument of justice”. There was to be no conventional king among them but God, yet they wanted to be like other nations, to the point of absorbing other nations’ beliefs and practices as well, thanks to their having conducted their own warfare. So by the time the Messiah, the Deliverer, was expected, what was expected was a warlike God of Vengeance who would lead them into battle, just like the Old Testament had recorded. But the Old Testament was largely a record of what happens when you rely on God to back you up, rather than relying on God to lead you forward in faith.
To them, the apparent disjoint in character and intent between this guy who claimed to be the Messiah and the “real” Messiah promised in the Old Testament was, well, it was like night and day. As far as the Hebrews were concerned, this person wasn’t going to be leading any drawn-sword charges anytime soon, and between His accusing the religious hierarchy of gross misconduct and the growing notoriety He was achieving by His authoritative teaching and miracles, He became a threat that needed to be disposed of, and more quickly than all of the other prior claimants. When He claimed to reflect God’s character and wishes for their conduct and thought in God’s will, the disjoint made them incensed. Of the two possibilities before them, the second possibility never occurred to them: that they had, since the beginning, never understood God, had had no real faith or trust in Him, and had lived in near-constant disobedience. What they put stock in was what human hands had recorded about past events, not in what God had instructed them with, or told them about Himself. If those who lived out the Old Testament had understood God, why did He need to keep urging them to? Jesus was there to correct the record, so to speak, and clear up the misunderstandings they had held all along, and provide a chance to get back on board the covenant.
Like them, we look at the Old Testament and see a brutal God, but since Christians accept the validity of Christ the Savior as God incarnate, we’re left with a God having two opposing personalities. It never occurs to us that Jesus might have also come to demonstrate (and declare) that we have not understood God. Like the Hebrews, we still do not understand Him even to this day. Unlike the Hebrews, we apologetically profess Jesus as the kindly side of a Jekyll/Hyde whole, even while He assures us that He accurately reflects the whole. We preach a very confusing God – one who does not Himself practice what He teaches us to do and to be like, yet says He is otherwise.
I believe that Jesus accurately represents the character of the Father and the Holy Spirit. That sounds good and kindly, but what about that Judgement thing, with fire and sulphur, and eternal burning? Jesus, as He said, will preside over a Judgement, the harsh end of which will be neither a hand-slap nor a burning that never ends. We all want an end to the miseries, suffering and destruction on Earth, but in order to cling to sin, refuse to acknowledge sin’s part in it or our part in it. The only real way to end this cause is to purge every single vestige of it, and this it will do by itself, if God ceases to restrain it. So the misery and suffering of this earth will end – but it will end completely. To those who irrevocably preferred the wide gate, He will do just as He did on Earth when He withdrew from those who refused His presence and instruction. He will withdraw, but this time withdraw completely, and allow sin to secure its natural state: to consume and destroy itself. Within that process will be the Second Death, which Jesus pleaded with us not to destine ourselves toward, but instead to follow Him in an individual life lived in faithful obedience to His Father, come what may. His example was a life of purpose and priority in fulfilling God’s will: a rescue from our spiritual separation from our Creator. He will welcome to Himself those who sought Him out and were obedient to His express will.
I doubt that I will retain the time, resources and faculties to make an effort to write further on what I have found, exampled in the above. As Proverbs 16:9 rightly declares, “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.” In His own good time, He will call me to Himself and bring to life all that He has shown to me.
So with that in mind, I complete this series with a recommendation for you continue on for much greater reward by reading a PDF e-book called Light Through the Darkness: a Vindication of God by Marilyn M. Campbell, a work which deftly uses Scripture itself to reveal a God very different than resides in the more traditional interpretations. It is entirely consistent with the personal experiences I’ve outlined in this series, and uses Scripture to be so. At the very least, it offers key, foundational things to consider. If you are one who has waded though all I’ve written and are still open to understanding the true nature of “I AM” with much, much greater clarity, you will find that work much more illuminating, understandable and gratifying than this series of posts. In that work, the more objections, confusion and unanswered questions you have about who God is and what He is like, the more gratifying will be your reading of it. In it, you may well discover that the God you have wished existed, in fact does.
Light Through the Darkness: a Vindication of God, is available from the author’s website. Links have been posted by the author and she states there that the book is available free for Kindle readers or inexpensively in paperback (less than $9) from Amazon. She appears to believe that Amazon is offering a free Kindle download version for her, as well as their own monthly fee Kindle program to access it online. Predictably, Amazon has since decided to jettison the free download version entirely, and to charge for access. You stop paying, and you lose access. Fortunately, a newer, updated PDF e-book version is available online for both reading and downloading to your digital device at no cost. Any PDF reader can display it. Whatever e-book program or app you have onboard, you can import it into your library, if you like. Theological works are traditionally, well, tedious at best. They’re arduous to saw through. You’ll find Light Through the Darkness to be compelling, challenging and rewarding, while free of dreamy vagaries and inspirational fluff. Hardly dry, its brand of inspiration comes from Scriptural references that traditional dogma has ignored or overlooked, distorting our most basic perceptions of God’s nature and character. It’s actually most interesting for the doubter, the skeptic, and the one who sees Christianity as presenting one rather unlikable if not monstrous God. Yet it’s hardly less so to the sincere believer with questions. It speaks to both the heart and the mind. Enjoy.