Thursday, May 12, 2011

What an Exciting, Crazy Command: Be Imitators of God

     In the last blog, we discussed how to arrive at true personality, namely by not defining oneself prematurely and by allowing all qualities to go through refinement through interaction with Jesus over a longer period of time. The desire to find “true personality” and not be stifled by premature definitions is a great and good enough reason to not define yourself or those around you prematurely by certain qualities or traits.  It is a great reason to sign up for a journey of transformation instead of a premature self definition. However, there is in my estimation, a still more glorious reason why we are to aim to not box ourselves or others in with, “I am this or I am not that” but are instead to seek a long process of near limitless expansion.  That reason is simple but breathtaking: we are to be imitators of God.

     A theme throughout the Scriptures is the calling to be like God.  Most people will, on some level, admit this, or at least will admit to the calling to imitate Jesus.  To simply look at the New Testament, Jesus, Paul, and Peter all agree as usual: “Therefore you shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love as Christ loved.” “As He who called you is holy, so you shall be holy in all your ways, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (Matthew 5:48, Ephesians 5:1-2, 1 Peter 1:15-16).  Though the context of all of these verses is well worth analyzing, the basic meaning in all three is the same.  The believers are being told to be as God is. 

     So what does this have to do with personality?  Well, I must ask you, “Who is God?”  What is his personality like?  It is, at the least, quite multi-faceted.  It is difficult for me to think of a paradigm that has more mapped my intentions than a belief that God is many things and I am to aim to be all of them, that His personality is crazy and I am to imitate it.  Now, as a caveat, there are certain qualities of God we cannot possess: we cannot be the Lord of the cosmos, no matter how hard we may strive to be in all our fears.  No matter how much we love, we will never be Love, the source of love, or the author of love. No matter how hard we think, we will never be able to know the universe the way God does.  It is also almost certainly (but not necessarily) true that we will not be able to feel or think as complexly as God does, though I am willing to surrender this one. 

     However, there are a myriad of ways that we can certainly be like God, and it is for this reason primarily that I aim my life and those around me to not be narrowed by definitions, but to be like God! One of the ways we can be like God, I am determined to believe, is in His pathos, His feelings.  Now don’t get me wrong, this takes years, decades, maybe even eons, but oh what a wondrous adventure.  Oh do we know the world that opens up to us when we determine to feel as God feels!  It is near endless!  Because God is not an INFP or an ESTJ.  God is not one color or representative by an animal or two.  God feels SO many different things, desires in so many different ways.  Look at Jesus, God in the flesh: Jesus weeps in compassion (Jn 11:35), rages in anger (Jn 2:14-16, Isa. 63:1-6), longs like a mother (Mat 23:37), is consumed with zeal (Jn 2:17), leaps with joy (Luke 10:21), fears God (Isa. 11:3), overflows with love (Mark 10:21, Luke 23:33), and perseveres determinedly (Luke 22:42).  And these are just feelings!  Beyond the pathos (though not quite as exciting to me), He has a brilliant mind! He answers wisely (Jn 8:1-11), has a good memory, argues well, knew the Scriptures, and was clever (Luke 20:34-44, among many).  The point is Jesus’ personality is in no way narrowly defined: He enjoys being alone (Mat 14:23, Mk 6:47, Luke 9:18) and being with people (Mat. 17:1, Mat. 26:37, Luke 15:2).  He could be so quiet and even when it wouldn’t make sense to be (Mat. 27:13) or He could be the loudest person, centered on by all around Him (Mat. 4:25, Lk 9:11).  He is strong and valiant (Rev. 19:11-16) but so gentle and so lowly (Mat 11:29).  He could rebuke fiercely (Mat. 23, Mark 8:33) and have mercy on someone with the utmost tenderness (Mat. 9:36, Jn 8:10-11).  He weeps (Jn 11:35) and shouts (Mat. 27:46), leaps (Luke 10:21) and sits (Mat 5:1). And it is Him that we are to imitate!

     God throughout the whole of Scripture is portrayed no differently.  He is full of delight (Deu. 7:7, Zeph 3:17, Psa 18:19), He pains over situations of pain (Isa 58:5-10), is like a father to his people (Deu 33:12), He fights for them protectively (Psa 18), He is terrifyingly angry over sin (Deu. 32:22), and he knits his children in the womb, thinking thousands of thoughts of them (Psa 139:14-18).  He rebukes fiercely (2 Sam. 12:11, Eze. 13:3) and loves with indescribable tenderness (Hosea 11:8, Isa. 54:1-11, Ezekiel 16:4-14).  God has the vastest range of emotions one could begin to imagine, and we are to be imitators of Him!  

     Oh let us wake up people!  Let us wake up to this overwhelming reality and let it find entrance into us.  Am I person who feels greatly?!  Yes!  Do I want to be limited in what those feelings look like by unbiblical limitations?   No!  So don’t permit yourself to be limited.  The world is going to tell you that you are a feeler or thinker, that you are an extrovert or an introvert, that you are a judger or a perceiver, that you are a melancholy person or a sanguine person, etc.  Grant yourself to be as God is!  Be holy as He is holy!  Cry! Leap! Laugh! Shout! Tremble! Dance! Long! Pant! Be silent! Be sober!  Be strong!  Be gentle!  Be calm! Be tender!  Be meek!  Be filled!  Be weak!  Be as God is!

     So what does this look like, since obviously we cannot feel all of these emotions at one time (probably) and many in fact are seemingly in contradiction experientially?  Allow yourself to contain all of them so that the Holy Spirit can highlight whatever He wants whenever He wants.  Become a student of God’s emotions, of Jesus’ emotions, of God’s fuller personality, of Jesus’ fuller personality. And make one of the primary aims of Your life (if not the aim) to be like Him in all His wonder.  In my life, the Holy Spirit highlights quality after quality after quality and adds it to me.  He does this with those around me as well.  Aim to be constantly learning from Him about Him in a way that transfers His life into your own.  Allow him to bring up tenderness in you, to bring up quietness in you, to bring up power in you, to bring up loud joy in you, to bring up giggly gooeyness in you, to bring up terrifying passion in you, to bring up heart-rending longing in you, to bring up righteous anger in you, to bring up shattering fear of God in you, to bring up lovesick wonder in you and all the emotions along the way you must feel to get to them.  Allow Him to show you who He is and then to show you who you truly are to be, like Him.  Allow Him to brighten and employ your mind like you never thought possible, to change your perspective and “personality” in ways you never dreamed, to cause you to be silent and hidden or loud and visible.  Let go of self-protecting, narrowing definitions, and line up with the Holy Spirit’s decree through Paul to be imitators of the Beautiful One!  Most practically, let Him highlight what he wants, one after another, and walk you through it. It is your job to position yourself, be open and to say yes.

     If you will allow Him to take you on a journey, of seeing who He is and of letting Him do to You whatever He wants, over time, your inner life will be full of jewels, jewels of a thousand different colors, jewels of tenderness and quietness and jewels of trembling and shaking, jewels of vibrancy and loudness and jewels of weeping and compassion.  They will each take months to develop even initially and years overall but overtime they will all glisten inside of you.  And then, the beautiful part, the reason for it all: the Holy Spirit breathes on whichever one he wants to and it comes to life shining at just the right moments.  Whether it is in ministry or in personal relating to God or in corporate musical worship, as you surrender your life to God like this and He takes control and makes You as He sees fit, He will start to come out automatically, or better put, the you that is like Him will start to come out automatically.  And that’s right I said it, automatically.

     This is the goal, to be like God, naturally by the power of the Holy Spirit and the life of God cultivated in you.  My goal is not to have to constantly self-analyze and will myself through gritted teeth into the proper response to any situation; my goal is most certainly not incessant calculation and striving.  My goal is to give my life to being crafted in the likeness of God so that in any given moment the Holy Spirit can breathe on whatever dimension of God is necessary and it will shine forth. 

     I can tell you truthfully, after living this way for six years, that I already get to see fruit from it that still blows my mind.  I will be simply talking to someone in a casual setting and will suddenly begin to feel and that feeling will be exactly what that individual needed to hear, far clearer, detailed, and more specific than I could have ever thought up (let it be known that as far as I am aware my natural sinful propensity has been to worship my mind and think, not to feel).  Sometimes it is still stunning to me when it happens even though I labor for this to be possible.  There was a time recently I was talking to someone, and I found myself suddenly crying and speaking things to him I felt, which the Holy Spirit used to move him to tears.  On the other hand, I can think of twice right now when I have begun shaking with zeal against someone’s sin, and I truly do believe it was the Lord’s heart; in both settings, the Holy Spirit used it to bear repentance in the individual’s life. Just recently, actually on a day when the atmosphere was happy and we were celebrating someone’s birthday, I suddenly found myself feeling this sobering, weighty eschatological sense that applied to circumstances I did not yet mentally know were occurring. Even in difficult circumstances, the natural response has happened often (though I still need mountains of work): there have been several times when someone has been extremely angry in front of me or even at me, and I find myself with this gleeful joy, honestly confusing sometimes and making me wonder if it was good or not, but then the response it has on the person assures me that the Lord is smiling too. The list could go on, but I think you get the picture.  The multi-faceted response of God to humanity in the Scriptures has, after only six years, begun to flow naturally out of me to my fellow humanity.  (So I don’t have to wonder if I should respond the way God did to Job or the way He did to Gomer.) 

     This is not because I “just have a prophetic gift” for those of you who might think that way.  I truly believe it is because God has, over time, begun to carve out spaces for different jewels of His personality/character that are now “naturally” manifesting in a variety of circumstances.  But one of the biggest deterrents to letting God do this is a narrowed definition of self (or of God), as though you are to be something less than God’s character, as though you can get through life only manifesting parts of His resplendent glory. If you want to be a minister of God then you have to permit yourself to express any part of Him, which means you have to experientially know all parts of Him. So, my exhortation to us all is to believe that the Scriptures exhortation is true that we can be like God.  Fling off that limitation that you only think or feel or behave in certain ways and sign up to think, feel, and behave like God!  Sign up to have Him turn your world upside down with the wonder of what is actually possible of who He really is and who you can be.  And at the same time, sign up for a process that takes years and is hard.  You can do it with a solid yes and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Oh what a wonder, let’s be imitators of God!

Monday, April 4, 2011

“Personality”: Whoever Loses His life Will Find It

Personality is Real
     There is without question in American sentiment the search for “who we are”.  I do not intend in this blog to combat the fundamental desire to understand the specifics of one’s propensities, affinities, and gifts, nor the existence of such fundamental distinctions between individuals.  Though it is not the purpose of this blog post, I sincerely believe that people are unique, that there are certain qualities of a person that define them in a deep and even eternal way.  I would argue, again though it is not the point of this blog, to say that the new creation each Christian becomes is itself unique, not simply a perfect copy of Jesus, annihilating the existence of a distinct self.  Discovering this self-awareness through interaction with Jesus/God and their biblically-given understanding is of substantial importance, yet what I wish to present here is a reasoned antipathy against the usual process of discovering who one is uniquely and the way such discovered definitions then operate in a person’s life.

People are Naturally Evil
     To do so, we must understand a basic biblical reality that in and of itself could take books to disclose: Human beings are by nature relationally against God in fundamental ways.  They begin in the place to which Adam and Eve fled: hiding from God, not knowing His true character, blaming one another, self-protective, self-justifying, self-focused, and selfish. This does not mean that I am saying there is nothing good inside human beings when they are born, for this too is not biblical, though some would surely say otherwise.  Regardless of where one is on the spectrum of whether human beings are entirely evil or simply naturally evil though with good inside them trying to lead them to God, there are no biblical scholars or theological thinkers worth truly considering who do not believe that evil motivation plagues human behavior, emotions, thoughts, and desires from the moment they are conceived.  In fact, this is one of the few points where most modern sociology/science agrees with Christianity. 

     I could attempt to quote fifty verses at this point to attempt to further illustrate for us all the Biblicity of human beings being fundamentally motivated by opposition to God and others, but that is not the primary role of this blog.  If you struggle with understanding this, send me an email and we can talk about those 50 passages.  But for now, let’s simply stay with the understanding without taking lots of time to prove it.  So, given that human beings are prone to sin naturally—even though they, at least in my opinion, have good inside them and are not initially fully hardened—the question must be asked: why would we ever believe that definitional dimensions of our character are motivated naturally and initially by righteousness?  When I know that my natural propensity is against God, other human beings, and even truthfully, against myself, why would I believe that any desire is truly good until it has been granted to me in interaction with the Holy Spirit and truth of God? 

So Why Believe that Natural Personality Stems from Wholeness?
     Why is it that when a 20-year-old has a strong propensity to analyze every situation, that we assume her personality is analytical and relegate her to a certain position in group function and relationships?   What if she is so analytical because her emotions terrified her earlier in her life and she ran from them self-protectively, sinfully (though understandably), instead of running to God in freeing trust to experience their healthy catharsis and flow?  What if her analytical propensities are actually harmful to her interaction with herself, with God, and with others because they are actually an expression of a terrified person trying to exert control desperately over her situation, in a way so fragile that she is snappy and cold, closed off, and anti-social?  Why do we codify her into such a ‘personality-group’ just because we see it on her? 

     Now it may be that in her true personality (which is however God defines her), she actually has a particularly brilliant and wonderful mind.  But if this is the truth about her, it should be arrived at after that mental propensity in her has been profoundly tested and refined to show that it can stand and exist motivated and held up by righteous things (by right relationship with God and others).  This is the assumption I have for everything in my life and this is a biblical standard I encourage anyone to take: any defining quality you have is probably motivated by sin until it has been refined by God in an obvious way.  Therefore, don’t justify it by calling it your personality until it has gone through such refinement.  Then, you can see if it can even mildly stand without sinful motivations.  If it does, if it can stand motivated by love of God, fear of God, love of people, and love of self, then you can begin to see personality unveiled. 

The Pattern of Scripture: Death to Life
     A primary theme of the Scriptures is that nothing is glorified until it suffers and dies, portrayed even in the life of Jesus or in the story of the people of Israel.  Gold and silver increases in quality as it is refined by fire and this is one of the ways our development is defined (1 Pet. 1:7).  Jesus, concerning both His own death and resurrection and concerning the general path of His disciples to lose their lives in order to find them, says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). The reality of this verse follows in general with the process of death that leads to resurrection and glorification throughout the whole of Scripture.  I believe personality or true self functions in the same manner.  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless that personality falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (when it is resurrected). 

     So, what am I referring to specifically?  If that propensity to love being around people doesn’t fall into the ground and die, it will not bear much fruit.  If that intuitive ability to understand people doesn’t fall into the ground and die, it will not bear much fruit.  If that organizational ability to manage your life doesn’t fall into the ground and die, it will not bear much fruit.  If that affinity for being alone doesn’t fall into the ground and die, it will not bear much fruit.  If that love of really ‘macho things’ doesn’t fall into the ground and die, it will not bear much fruit.  If that system of values does not fall into the ground and die, it will not bear much fruit.  If that analytical mind doesn’t fall into the ground and die, it will not bear much fruit.  If those sappy emotions don’t fall into the ground and die, they will not bear much fruit.  If that tendency to be nice to people all the time doesn’t fall into the ground and die, it will not bear much fruit.  If that day-dreaming of your future family doesn’t fall into the ground and die, it will not bear much fruit.  If that vision of great impact doesn’t fall into the ground and die, it will not bear much fruit.  If that tendency to boldly speak the truth doesn’t fall into the ground and die, it will not bear much fruit.  If that propensity to take care of yourself doesn’t fall into the ground and die, it will not bear much fruit. This paragraph could go on for a long time, but you understand what kinds of things I am talking about. 

Don’t Prematurely Define
     So what am I particularly encouraging you to do?  What does it look like to let these things fall into the ground and die that they may sprout up bearing fruit (or sometimes never sprout up again, though usually this is not true)?  Well, the first thing it looks like is not defining yourself or others by them in a way that prevents them from ever “falling into the ground and dying”.  If you want to give yourself “a personality”, let it be your current personality or your behavioral definitions.  Don’t say, “Well, I AM an INTJ ” as though this defines your eternal nature.  Say, “Currently, I am an INTJ or I’m acting like an INTJ or my behavior lines up with INTJ”.  Save the “I am…” statements or the “you are…” statements for times when God has spoken and qualities have gone through fire.  In order to see personality traits “fall into the ground and die”, we must let them fall.  We must release the self-protective controls of our premature definitions of ourselves and others, the boxing that narrows and limits the movement of God in our lives and theirs.

     But this is difficult to do because of how greatly we vest false security into the premature personality distinctions.  But oh, how destructive this is. For instance, when a person has a propensity to be very social but becomes very uncomfortable with being alone, instead of dealing with what is wrong between them and God that makes them sinfully anxious, fearful, or bored when alone, that person will just call it a personality trait.  Instead of facing difficult sin in their heart, mind, and desires, they “personality”-it.  So let’s talk about the ways we do this.

     One usual mechanism is when a person hates that they lack certain qualities, they deal with this insecurity by saying that their personality does not possess that quality instead of through interaction with God. This involves one of two things.  If the lacking of the personality trait has nothing to do with sin in their lives, then they should find security through how God views them, that He loves them as they are with that personality or even further, that He love them no matter how they act. But instead of experiencing this interaction with God, they employ the false security of personality distinctions (and often then become quite protective of them).  This robs them of true affirmation from God.  On the other side, if the lack of the quality is related to sin, then the person should never put it in personality at all.  They should explore with God why they lack that quality.  Saying it is “just their personality” robs them from fullness.
     Let me give some examples.  Let’s say a person truly is a more sanguine individual, but others criticize them for their loudness and funness.  They should find their security of their personality in seeing God look at that quality and say, “I love this about you!”, not in some personality test that justifies their existence in the spectrum of humanity.  In the second category, let’s say a person acts very sanguine and is afraid of being alone; much of their overly-social, talkative behavior actually stems from an evasion of the pain they feel inside and is actually seeking pointedly to avoid interaction with God, which is a part of why they feel so scared being alone.  This individual should not cover their sin propensity by defining themselves as a “talkative person”; rather they should allow the Holy Spirit to take them through transformation of their talkativeness.  Remember again, that our leaning is to believe that all behavior is motivated by evil until it has fallen into the ground and died.

     Another function of false security through personality distinction that is actually quite destructive to relationships is when someone defines their personality as lacking a quality they actually desire and are made to possess.  Someone who struggles with being analytical decides they are not a thinker but just a feeler.  Someone who struggles with being social decides that they are the quiet type that doesn’t really interact with others.  They then decide that others are the ones who have these qualities.  Others are the ones with the analytical minds and others are the ones with good social skills.  Oh, the amount of hatred that flows towards self and others (and God) when these kinds of things are established!  Often people are torn inside over “lacking this quality”.  They hate that they can’t relate to others as well or that they can’t think as clearly or observationally.  There are so many emotions of self-hate concealed in the “personality distinction” and there then flows so much envious hatred of others who “are that personality” and then at God for making it all so. Oh, this is not to be dealt with via surrender to premature personality distinction discovered through angry observation or personality exams.  This is to be dealt with through prayer and the Word of God.  This is to be dealt with by talking to Jesus about the quality you lack and seeing what He says about it.  Does He say that it’s okay that it isn’t there and why does He say that?  Or does He say that He actually has that trait for you but it is not there for such and such reasons?  So much relational hate is actually locked into people by these personality distinctions that are “meant to help people.”

     Lastly, it is common for people to deal with problems they have with other people through personality distinctions. This makes life easier in a false way.  Instead of receiving the call to actually love and like everybody (as God does), instead of receiving the call to live in deep harmony with those around us, instead of acknowledging that disunity and discord stems from breaks in individual’s relationships with God (often our own), we justify difficult interaction or problems with personality distinction. This robs everyone involved of growth in God through a false oversimplification. The reason I don’t like a person with a playful spirit is not “just because I am a serious person”.  It is because of something wrong with me, something God and I need to talk about.  The reason I find myself in conflict with a person who is detail-oriented is not “just because he is choleric and I’m sanguine”, but because of issues with my heart that God wants to touch and bring freedom in.  Often, it works the other way too, where God wants to bring transformation to the other person.  But we don’t want to deal with the pain of true conflict, so we oversimplify it through personality distinctions, which then suspends the conflict within a system that justifies it, conveniently leaving us with a situation that doesn’t require anyone to change. 

What It Falling into the Ground Looks Like
     So, this is what we are not supposed to do with observations of our own character, propensities, or gifts.  We are not to prematurely define ourselves.  But what does it look like after we sign up to not prematurely define ourselves and others.  What does it look like once we are determined to let ourselves and others “personalities” go through testing and the speaking of God?  When and how can we actually define our own personality?   I will say one thing about definition first.  It is far safer to define yourself as something you are than as something you are not.  I would almost never encourage someone to do the latter.  As for the transformation itself, it is hard, but God-led.  View yourself as changeable, often motivated by sin, and beautifully in need of transformation, and then let God do it. What this looks like is very relational with God, is a beautiful process of interaction with Him and His Veracities. I am not encouraging you to suddenly become self-destructively introspective and analyze every quality you can think of, to see if it is motivated well or not.  Do not finish reading this and then question every move you ever make, assuming that it is motivated by horrific sin and then determined to change it by  your own zeal-powered temporary desperation. No, give yourself to a paradigm that does not pre-define yourself or others and be extremely open to God pointing out very regular behaviors and propensities.  Listen to His voice and take the counsel of others.  Be prepared to change in large ways.  This will involve God talking to you and you talking to Him.  It will involve sin being made evident in your heart in uncomfortable ways.  It will involve you actually changing, regularly. Let me give you some examples of what this might look like.

     In my own life, what this looks like is, very regularly, God reveals a way that I do not truly know Him, often through interaction with others.  Maybe I kind of understood the truth about Him mentally or maybe not.  But He shows me that I don’t really know Him in that way, and I see how this lacking pans out in my regular human interaction (personality).  Again, it might be a trait that is good but is motivated poorly or it might be something that is completely not supposed to be there.  For instance, I am a person who is very prone to exhorting others.  I will chase people down. I won’t let them just run off and hurt themselves, sitting in a room in self-debasing sorrow.  This is something in my life that has gone through much refinement already, and yet about a year ago, there was an interaction with some of my close friends who were sinning (meaning manifesting emotions, thoughts, and behaviors contrary to right relationship with God and others) and I felt all this fear come up in myself.  I could feel myself wanting to exhort them out of this fear, to make the sin I was afraid of go away.  God showed me ways that my strong propensity to exhort people was being motivated by negative things.  This began a process of Him refining this behavior in me that truthfully has been going since then, with focal point after focal point being highlighted.  Another example was my propensity to “forgive” people really quickly without anger, something I had worked on for years.  This was well-known by my friends, and yet one week, God showed me so clearly that this was largely related to self-abusive propensities that were actually quite unloving to everyone involved.  I had to get an entire overhaul on what it meant to forgive people, which involved a period of two months of great difficulty in relating to people when they sinned against me.  These kinds of things should happen regularly in our lives, where God reveals to us elements of our heart and mind that are actually contrary to Him but are operating quite regularly in our interaction with ours.  And then we go on a journey with Him in letting Him change our insides.  Often it involves temporary behavioral modifications.

     As shown by these examples, this isn’t necessarily a matter of years of refinement. When something is refined several times and begins to stand with healthy motivation, we can begin to identify it as a part of who we are.  However, even those things can still have more refinement in the future.  But I am rather certain, after six years of doing this, that over time, enough seeds will fall into the ground, die, and come up bearing fruit.  And over time, a true shape will form that is good.  Yet even still, may it change still more and more well into the end of my life!

     So that is with respect to interaction with self.  With respect to interaction with others, I have these final encouragements.  Don’t use personality as an excuse for why you are having issues with other people.  Let your assumption be that there is something going on between you and God or between them and God.  This is the biblical understanding of conflict, not personality. If you disagree, then I challenge you to find one place in the Scriptures where people disagree on something and someone says anything like, “Well, it’s just because I am an INFP an you are an INTJ” or “I’m the prophetic type and you’re the teacher type”.  In contrast, you see over and over again that conflict is dealt with relationally, focused on God.

     Also, when we are around someone, temporarily or as a close friend, don’t only be very slow to label them, but seek the Holy Spirit in giving them definition in the right direction.  For instance, instead of dealing with the very analytical person by saying, “Well, he is very analytical and I will just deal with him around that”, ask the Lord, “Holy Spirit, who is this person?  What do You say about them?”  Maybe God will shock you.  There is an incredible experience I recently had at a church service.  There were people on stage who were giving testimonies about how God had moved in their lives recently ; in this instance, I believe it involved physical healing.  There was a line of about three of them on stage, and one of those was this girl wearing a grey skirt and glasses, with kind of raggedy brown hair, looking mildly nervous but kind of excited.  Sitting  next to me on one side was a man in his 50s or 60s, the kind of man that radiates the joy of God from long life in Him and a younger group next to me on the other side.  On the other side was a younger group making comments about the girl as her turn came up, nothing profoundly mean but definitely defining of her as the “Straight-A, narrow-focused, type girl”; they might have even known her.  But then, the man sitting next to me leans over and says, “That girl is actually extremely creative and full of spontaneity.  She’s kind of crazy and the Lord loves it. She doesn’t even really know it very much yet, but it is there.”  I was wowed by what he was saying, so different.  He went on, “When we were praying for people earlier, I walked by her and the Lord told me about her and to look at her socks.  They were these multi-colored, crazy looking socks.  ‘That’s who she really is’, He said, and it’s coming out.”

     This is the way I want to be and I want to encourage us all to be.  I want to be one who says what births others into greater relationship with God, with themselves, and with those around them.  I don’t want to label someone as something that actually harms them at that point in their life!  I want to be someone who listens to the Lord and tells the really analytical person, “God loves your emotions and thinks they are so vivifying” in a way that frees them to be more emotional.  I want to be one who tells the person who is constantly trying to impress people by their social prowess, “I think you are such a gentle person, and I think the Lord really delights in your gentleness.”  Do we know what this does to people when we let them be who they are instead of prematurely defining them according to our own self-protecting observations instead of by what the Holy Spirit says?

     If this is really new for you, don’t beat yourself up when you use the word personality wrongly or make statements that prematurely define others.  Let it be a process with God of coming to see people the way He does, instead of by our own definitions, of placing our security and worth in Him instead of systems of the world.
     May we be ones who assume first that personality traits are related to relationship with God.  May we wisely assume that they have issue until they are refined.  And with such knowledge may we be slow to define both ourselves and others, listening to the Lord and being open to God changing us and any around us.  

Friday, February 11, 2011

Let Them Be One! Three Reasons for Community and Deep Fellowship

“Let them be one!” (Jn 17:21) This fervent prayer prayed by Jesus before he went to the cross for us all still resonates throughout the heavens.  Why?  Why did Jesus pray for us to live together, to be together intimately and closely?  Why is this such a constant theme in the epistles (Phil 2:2, Col. 3:14, Eph 4:16)?  The call to community and regularly-interacting deep relationships is not a hippie notion built on warm feelings of togetherness and false love.  There is nothing wrong with warm feelings of togetherness, but the reason Jesus desired for us to be One and the apostles insisted on it is far greater.  Jesus prayed that we would be one, so “that the world may know that you have sent me.” 

This was the reason He gave.  And this relates largely to my last blog entry, in which I presented that you must live in close fellowship with others if you are to minister effectively, both to yourself, to Christians, and to the world.  The New Testament paradigm of ministry is corporate, and is only discovered and accomplished through the New Testament style of living: together deeply. 

In this blog, I wish to give three other quick but poignant reasons why community is essential. 

First, for clarity’s sake, what I mean by “living in community” is living in close relationships with multiple people centered around loving God and one another, centered around knowing Him more. These are relationships where real things being talked about is the norm, where eating together is the norm, where worship and prayer together is the norm.  This may or may not include living together, though in my case it does.  Now, onto the first reason.

The Death of Selfishness
The first reason living in close community is crucial is because it produces the death of selfishness, of needy self-obsession.  I know of no more strangling a noose than the ever-tightening one of selfishness.  I think most people actually know this without really having to be told.  Most people have felt the draining, ever-defeating feeling of self-seeking, self-obsessed selfishness.  We all know the feeling. Selfishness is profoundly dissatisfying.  But I will tell you something even stronger.  Selfishness is a slow but invariable death.  Selfishness produces anger that gets so strong that the soul numbs.  Selfishness produces insatiable chasms of hurt so deep that the soul refuses touch.  Selfishness produces wrath so fierce that it is nearly impossible to talk to.  Selfishness kills a person.  Jesus wasn’t joking when he said these words, “Whoever wants to come after me, let him take up his cross, deny himself, and come after me. For whoever wants to save his life, will lose it, but however loses his life for my sake will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).   

Jesus knew that self-seeking and obsession with your own needs and desires would kill you, would cause you to lose your life.  So sign up for something that causes you to have to deny yourself.  Sign up for something that causes you to have to live for God and others in a radical way, constantly.  Take no chances.  Save yourself form the strangling misery of selfishness by giving up your life!  There was a time when I was strongly questioning the direction of my life.  I was questioning the extent of community in which I am choosing to live and the path my life is on.  I was in the car really crying out to God to tell me what to do.  Did I really have to do this?  Did I really have to talk to people this much?  Be this close to people?  Was it really necessary?  Did I really want to raise a family in this context?  And then the lines to a Josh Wilson song came into my head, the CD of which was conveniently right in front of me in the compartment in the car.  I put on the CD and heard these words. 

I'm thirsty, God I'm thirsty from drinking what destroys me
I'm pouring poison in my cup
I'm hungry, God I'm hungry consuming what controls me
Somehow it never fills me up

We all want to find something to pass the time
But that could never be enough

Everybody says we're all so different
But everybody knows we're all the same
We're all trying to find a pill to numb the pain
Something's got to change

Do you remember when you had so much hope within you?
It lingers deep inside you still
The more of us we swallow, the more we become hollow
Until we don't know how to feel

We all want to find something to satisfy
But we could never be enough

When everything we say and take just leads to war and hate
We only pass the blame, sedate the pain and move along
But something feels so wrong, so deep inside, so hard to hide
So desperately we try and try and come to find
That we are not what we've been looking for

I can't believe I'm hearing people say that all is well
I think it's time we all admit we have no good within ourselves
'Cause we are not okay, we're not alright and we need to pray for help
Forgive us for our pride, oh God, oh God please save us from ourselves

'Cause everybody says we're all so different
But everybody knows we're all the same
We're all trying to find a pill to numb the pain
Something's got to change

So God help us
Something's got to change

After I listened to this song, I signed back up whole-heartedly for living in deep fellowship with multiple people.  I haven’t looked back since then.  Realizing so deeply that my own selfishness will destroy me.  Realizing so deeply that my own self will eradicate me.  I made the decision that I had to do something, be constantly around and engaged in something that pulled me out of myself towards others.  And community does this more than anything else.  We are urged to be one, to be together in true love, because this will cause us to be free.  The way you live for others in community liberates you from the noose of selfishness and frees you into beautiful living for God and others.  What a great way to live.

So I put myself between a rock and a hard place.  You cannot survive in a community if you remain selfish.  It or you will be ruined and ended.  In fact, this is why most friendships end.  To stay in relationships with people, and especially to have deep relationships with more than just one person,  you must have the constant flow of death-of-self that is the only way to true life. If you stay in community, your selfishness will ebb or you will drown under it.  That’s the only option you’ve got. Community ensures that you will change or die. This is the kind of place I want to put myself in.  I want to live in a way that forces me to deal with the sins that destroy me, or die.  I know it’s radical, people.  But it’s the way to go when Jesus is saying things like, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off, for it is better for you to enter heaven maimed than be thrown into hell whole” (Mat. 5:29).

Revelation of Where You Don’t Know God
The second reason for community is that it causes you to see ways you don’t know God, which are ways you can still know Him more.  It brings these gaps in knowledge near to you, making them very accessible and changeable. There are many people, especially here at the house of prayer, who think that the way you access your relationship with God is by sitting in the prayer room. There is a whole bowl of truth in the essential reality of focused times of prayer and communion with God.  But I will tell you quite truthfully, that the times when your relationship with God is most evident are not in the prayer room.  It is when the person you are trying to talk to says something cutting because he is suddenly connected with how worthless he feels.

The knowledge of God is a glorious endless abyss.  The treasure trove of heaven is all the different facets of Who God is and experiencing each one.  His power.  His meekness.  His mercy.  His aptitude.  His gentleness.  Oh, He has so many beautiful faces.  He is Bridegroom.  He is Friend.  He is Judge. He is Lord.  He is King.  He is Servant.  There is so much to know, to relate to, to be with, to feel. And each face, each facet of God is required to respond righteously in different situations.  Therefore, each of the ways you know or do not know each facet of God are revealed by how you relate to people around you, especially those to whom you are closest.  Therefore, living in community is direct access to the diversity of God’s attributes. 

Granted, you must have the right paradigm for this to really be successful.  If you believe that the reason you get wrathfully angry when someone backstabs you is simply because you were backstabbed, if you make all of your emotional reactions circumstantial, then you will not realize anything at all.  However, if you realize that the reason you became wrathfully angry when someone backstabbed you is because you don’t know some part of God, then you just collided with a place you are about to know God more. 

Jesus, when betrayed by someone close to Him, did not become wrathfully angry.  This is because Jesus knows that God would never betray Him.  Jesus knows that God avenges Him.  Jesus looks at every situation and feels every situation with the emotions given to Him by His relationship with God.  We on the other hand, lack understanding of Who God is, how He feels about us, what He thinks about us, how powerful He is, how merciful He is.  So, when someone stabs us in the back, the cavity of feeling unloved, of being worthy of being backstabbed, swells to the surface and we suddenly feel its painful presence, whether that means a feeling of debilitating worthlessness or quick, self-protective anger.  This sin then manifests towards our brother or sister, but its source is that cavity of not knowing fully that God would never backstab us.  In contrast, when you know that God would never backstab you and someone does, you are liberated to continue to feel positive affections of mercy and love towards that person. 

If you live in community with this paradigm, regular interaction with people becomes incessant opportunity to know God more, to love God more, and to be loved by God more.  Every occurrence of horizontal relational sin (meaning between humans) becomes an opportunity to know God more.  The horizontal reveals the vertical.  As John put it.  “Anyone who says he is loving God while he is hating his brother, is a liar” (1 Jn 4:20).  Very practically, when you constantly bump against other people in close daily interaction, you are given regular emotional access to the places in you that don’t know God. And then you can go with those places to God and have Him change them!  It’s great!

On the other side of this coin is this reality: when you hide away from everyone, choosing to not live in community, you will not collide with these absences of knowing God nearly as sharply.  When your response to being stabbed in the back is to run away, instead of persisting in that relationship, you cover up the place where you don’t know God, for it to flare and fester numbly beneath the surface.  Being in relationships, however, keeps you constantly engaged and aware of the places you don’t know God.  There’s no way to hide from them.  You are essentially cornered into knowing Him more whereas running from community leaves those places to rot and be discussed when you stand before Jesus’ throne.

People Keep You in Check and See What You Can’t See
                Though this last point is very obvious, I don’t think most people understand how crucial it is.  It’s not just that people keep you in check and that’s nice or that people see things about you that you can’t see and that’s helpful .  It is helpful but the truth is that people keep you in check in ways that if they did not, you would fall, and people see things you can’t see in ways that, if they didn’t tell you them, you would be stuck. 
I cannot count the number of times that I have been in a mess of confusion in my own life, feeling all sorts of emotions, disoriented and downcast.  And then, one of the people I am around a lot will have insight into my situation that turns everything around, or at the very least, orients me so that I can go forward well.  I have wondered many a time what would have happened if someone didn’t come and say something, and I truly think the answer often is that I would have gradually sunk in that place, paralyzed, maybe eventually numbing to it and moving on. 
In same suit, I can’t count the number of times when someone in the group will be going a wrong direction, and someone tells them.  Who knows how long that person would have gone that direction if no one had said anything?  The scary thing is this: they really didn’t know they were going the wrong way.  They really thought that feeling that way in that situation, or making that decision with respect to that job, or treating that friend with a certain paradigm, was actually good!  But it wasn’t!  It was formed in sinful, subtle self-protection, hopelessness, or anger.  We need people around us who will see these things that we don’t see, and call us on it! 
As a flawed human being, I can make you this promise: there will be things you don’t see.  There will be times that you think you know what’s going on and you don’t, when you think you’ve heard God rightly and you haven’t.  It will happen.  And without people around you who operate in love and the Holy Spirit and who live close enough in your life to see what’s going on, you will make mistakes that truly are deleterious.  I’m not saying you will necessarily fall into apostasy.  But I am saying that you will make a major mistake or two that you did not have to make that will have real consequences both in this age and in the reward system of the next. 

                So put yourself around people who can see you, who are near to you, who are actually talking to you about real, deep things in your heart and life.  You need those people, and they need you.  Again, God knows that this is the way we are meant to operate and live.  That’s one of the reasons He is crying out, “Let them be one!”

All of these reasons, the death of selfishness, the ability to see where you don’t know God but can, and the need to be seen and checked by others, are reasons why I believe living in real community is essential.  What do you think? 

Friday, February 4, 2011

Everybody Wants to Know Their Calling

But Nobody Wants to Die
       Everybody wants to know their life calling.  The desire for understanding and feeling purpose and placement, to know the will of God for your life, is something that every Christian aspires to.  The answer to this is primarily in understanding that your purpose is to be in relationship with Jesus, no matter where you are or what you are doing.  Before I talk about calling in a way that is very important, you must first know even more importantly that the truest satiation of this longing in your heart for calling and purpose is not found in figuring out what job you are to have, what ministry you are to be a part of, or who you are to marry; understanding that role will only bring you so far.  In contrast, you must realize that the primary purpose of your life is the eternal purpose of your life, relationship with Jesus.  Realize right now that the primary purpose of your life is to know, love, and fear God in relationship with Him.  Only in incessant relating with God will you find a sense of purpose, value, and meaning.  This is your primary calling.  This is the only satisfying ambition.

       However, your secondary calling, though temporary, is also important and understanding it is of great value too. What I mean by secondary calling is what job/assignment you are to do on earth during the period of your life before physical death or Christ’s return.  Are you to be a mom, a dad, a teacher, a lawyer, a missionary, a husband, a wife, a preacher, a priest, an evangelist, a politician, nurse or some combination? So many people are obsessed with this calling, with understanding it, and as I said, much of why they are obsessed with it has to do with their lack of understanding of their primary calling, which indelibly subsumes and trumps all other callings.  However, it is my belief that many are failing to discover or know their secondary calling (their ministerial role) because they do not have biblical paradigms of ministry or living. 

       It sounds something like this.  We ask “what does God want me to do?  What business am I called to?  What are my gifts?  How am I made to benefit others?  What’s my assignment from God?  Yet all the while living in a way that prohibits the answering to such questions. I can’t iterate enough how much of this problem stems from simply not realizing in a real way that your purpose is to grow in knowing and therefore loving and fearing God.  However, another problem is that people are not willing to live in a certain biblical way that would produce a biblical ministerial style. How did Christians live in the New Testament and how did they minister in the New Testament?  The answer to both of these is: together.  New Testament Christianity did not in the least have the overly-individualized, nuclear-family obsessed, self-preserving, isolated lifestyles that 90% of Western Christianity endorses and lives in. 

       Our culture is wrapped in and consumed with the incessant production and reproduction of smaller worlds that self-protect.  In high school or college, maybe your world was bigger, maybe you had a group of friends, but then you experience pain and loss of relationship, and it shrinks.  You choose a smaller number of people to be friends with, but then people in that group break relationship with you or ‘fade away’. You lose and abandon person after person, filled with greater and greater hopelessness.  Eventually, you develop a survivor-like mentality and an emotional set to match, determined to find just that little group or, in most cases, that one other person that you will devote yourself to.  You cling to them, and build your world around your little relationship with just them.  You are now so scared and so fragile that you even try to create a base of security through financial survival.  The world may expand to include children and it sometimes permits entrance from extended family members.  Maybe even you have a couple or two that you sometimes talk to, once or twice a week at most.  And then, the final blow: even your spouse or your children’s relationship fails and your self-protective world includes only you.  Your world has shrunk and its walls are not open.  They are solid, made of iron and steel, enforced and constructed by the fear, anger, and agony from all past relationships. 
       It is from this place or on the road to this place that most people are asking what they are to do with their lives. They ask from a world of or a path leading to overly individualized, isolated, self-protective worlds, built on an idolatrous marriage, ‘trusting’ and ‘loving’ a spouse more than God, and idolatrous parenting, finding ‘worth’ and ‘purpose’ primarily in their children.  And yet, those living this way are surprised when they get no answers as to their callings or when their answers they seem to get never really develop biblical-scale fruit.  Most people live in this overly-isolated way, so how is it that you think they will minister or expect to minister?  That’s right.  In a self-protective, overly-isolated way.  They ask for what their individual calling is without other members of the Body because they live essentially alone or almost so. 

       But how did the people of true apostolic, New Testament Christianity live and how did they minister?  The answer to both is again the same: together, and the second flowed out of the first.  The way New Testament, apostolic Christians lived is the way to live and the corollary way to minister is the way to minister.  You cannot expect to minister one way and live another.  So how did they live? They met together daily, they had everything in common, they ate in one another’s homes, they ministered together all the time.  Just read it yourself.  Acts 2:41-47.  [If you want to see how wide-spread Christians were known for deep communities of love and togetherness, I’d encourage you to study historical records of the 1st century, many of which indicate such.]
       And how did they minister? Together.  All through Acts you can see that Paul traveled not just with one person but with a group of people; even when he is on his way to or in prison, there are others with him. At the end of Paul’s letters, you will see descriptions of the company that he is ministering with, including both those who are couples and those who are not married, those his age and those who are not (1 Cor 16:17,18, Col 4:7-17, 2 Tim 4:9-22, Titus 3:12-13, Philemon 1:23-24). The entire basis of ministering with differing gifts and skills is presented in 1 Corinthians 12-14 in a way that assumed that people are ministering together.  There are other verses spread throughout the NT that have such assumption also (i.e. Mat. 18:20, 2 Cor. 13:1).  Even Jesus Himself ministered on a team.  Someone may point to John the Baptist as ministering alone, but many scholars believe that John the Baptist was a part of the Essenes, a group of people who lived together outside of Jerusalem for the purpose of cultivating more holy lives apart from the corruption of the contemporary Jewish order.  Without question, John at the least had disciples (Mat 9:14, Lk 5:33). New Testament Christians ministered together.
       The life of the Christian in the New Testament was incredibly communal and involved daily deep fellowship and communion with other believers.  It was from this lifestyle and identity that the ministry of the New Testament flowed.  Christians today think of their callings from a westernized, isolated, and selfish version of Christianity.  This is dysfunctional and will inherently fail both in that the average Western Christian will often not even realize their calling or, if they do realize it, they will fail in carrying it out.  Because one person’s calling is not complete by itself, a lack of interconnection with others maims both the person’s ability to be ministered to and the person’s ability to minister to outside individuals. Allow me to give you some examples.
       Say a person is called to help others with interpersonal problems they experience with those they live around.  He or she won’t truly be able to fulfill this task if they live isolated away from all of these people.  In fact, that called person will probably not even be able to understand his or her calling because the church to which they’re called to minister mostly just hides from those they live around, instead of actually dealing with all of the myriad of issues between hearts (all of course rooted in relational issues with God).  Say someone else is called to serve a group of people with tangible acts of serving like cooking, cleaning, and simple love.  How will they ever even think of this being a valid job without seeing communities that exist where people are eating together every day?  Sometimes the lack of the right paradigm, which stems out of a wrong life, actually prevents the calling from even being realized. 

       On the other side of it, though, you may have someone who accurately discerns that he or she is supposed to teach others about the Word of God.  They may do this quite well, but without the other members of the Body, say someone who can feel the emotions of God for the poor very well, that person’s ministry will be narrow and ineffective.  It is likely that that individuals will themselves gradually deteriorate without receiving the right ministry.  But even if someone manages to stay alive in that way, his or her ministry to the outside world will be incomplete.  As the Scriptures themselves put it, the eye cannot be a foot and the foot cannot do the work of the eye.  The ministry happens when they are together! And yet we expect to be successful as ministers when we think of our callings in individual, isolated ways! 
       Everyone must think of their calling with respect to their roles within a team or group and the group’s calling.  And yet, any time I have talked to people about this, their response is always, “Well, where do I get the team?”  The answer is simple but extremely difficult.  The team/group is arrived at by you being a friend to those around you in a way that is not self-obsessed and self-preservative.  When you aim your heart to actually serve, love, and be intimate with those around you to the glory of God and for relationship with Him, and when you do this well through a biblical lens of understanding that relational disunity between people stems from relational disunity with God, you will arrive at the production of a group of people who can minister in ways you have never dreamed.  You will arrive at an awareness of your roles in that group.   And that group will receive the calling of God as a team with greater power and efficacy than you have seen yet. 
       Let’s say you agree with me at this point.  What is the root problem?  Of course it has to do with you and your relationship with God.  Look to God and say, “God, I am sorry for trying to protect myself from other people.  I turn to You and trust You.  I’m sorry for being selfish.  I don’t want to ever find security in my spouse or family or the small, controllable size of my created world.  I am sorry for living for money out of fear.  I want security in what You think and say, in what You do, in who You are, in how You feel.  God, cause me to live in a way that brings together deep communities of Your people.  Take away my isolating fear.  Give me actual love for people around me.  Holy Spirit, come be mine, and let me be Yours.” 
This is radical, people, but it is doable. 

Note:  I am not arguing that everyone must live together in a commune with corporate finances.  I am not trying to be legalistic about this. The problem is in the heart, but as your heart changes, so will the way you live.  I am asserting that a substantive self-protection exists and that it has stronghold-like manifestations in the way you live, almost never communicating with other people, relative to your own household idolatrously. Change outward manifestations by actually having other relationships, but I urge you most absolutely to turn to the Lord in a new level of trust and worship.  Out of this so many things that are meant to be understood will come, including understanding calling biblically and understanding your own calling effectively and fully.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Biblical Husband: Pretty Desirable, Eh?

It seems that sometimes, at least in the secular world, though even in the confused Christian world, there is the notion that a biblical husband is not really someone you would want.  It’s something maybe you should have, but not really someone you would want.  There’s the notion that he would be domineering and lordly, insensitive but providing, etc. Maybe you’ve felt this way, maybe you haven’t, but regardless, check out this list of attributes of a biblical husband and see what you think.  It is a brief, non-comprehensive, New Testament study of overt husband-oriented passages.  You could do SO much more in studying what it means to be a husband.  But this is a good start. =) (By the way, men, we can do this.)

The Biblical Husband:
-He Loves (agape) His wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her (Eph 5:25). (If you only understood the word agape this would in and of itself overwhelm any woman (or man).)
-He loves her to sanctify her.  His aim is for her to know Jesus perfectly and more, to be like the One they both love.  He gives himself up for her that she might be sanctified; he has great passion and self-sacrificing willingness behind his desire and acts to sanctify her and yet he loves her unconditionally, taking great delight in her regardless of anything in constant openness, hope, trust, and self-giving [agape] (Eph. 5:26a).(The extent of passion, intention, and desire behind the desire to sanctify is suggested by the fact that it says 'he loved her and gave himself for her, that she might be sanctified'.)  (The fact that he loves her να (in order that) she might be sanctified, shows that the aim of this love, at least in part, is not only just to exist, but in order to bring her closer to Jesus. With Christ and with a human husband, it is important to know that sanctification leads to greater intimacy, so that love can flow more fully and beautifully.)
-He washes her with the water of the word.  He pours the life of the Holy Spirit onto her, the essence of the Word. He aims to fill her with the truth of the Word of God.  He seeks to bring even greater beauty to her frame by washing her with truth regularly. (When you read this verse it is important to know that 'the word' did not mean to them what it means to us now.  It meant more profoundly the truth of God, the essence of Who He is.  Jesus was called the Word, which was an already established reality of the OT that involved the wisdom/truth/character/ways of God.)  (Eph. 5:26b)
-His aim is to present her to Christ in splendor, holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:27)
-(Potential) He also aims to present her to himself in splendor, without spot or blemish (Eph. 5:27).
-He loves his wife as himself, as his own body (Jesus does this!) (Eph 5:33, 28).
-He nourishes her and cherishes her (Eph. 5:29).
-He is not harsh with her. (Col 3:19).
-The best husband has only one wife (1 Ti. 3:2, 3:12, Titus 1:6)
-He dwells with His wife in understanding.  He understands her and lives with her in this understanding (1 Pet 3:7).
-He honors her (1 Pet 3:7).
-His understanding of her and his honoring of her, at least in part, come from an understanding that she is an heir of the grace of life with him (1 Pet 3:7).
-He is able to talk to His wife about theological issues and would do so willingly if she had any questions (1 Cor. 14:35).
-He knows he does not have authority over his own body, but that his body belongs to his wife.  He does not treat his body as his own and therefore does not deny his wife access to it, except by agreement for  a limited time for the purpose of relationship with God (1 Cor 7:3-5).
-His 'justness' causes him to be unwilling to put her to shame (Mat 1:19, about Joseph).

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

God’s Constant Wooing: A Perspective on Everything that You Feel.

       It’s Wednesday morning.  You wake up.  You feel kind of horrible, a tinge of worthlessness creeping around the corners of your consciousness.  Later in the day you are talking with a group of people, someone makes an off-handed comment that causes you to become suddenly angry.  What do you do?  What is your perspective on the way you felt when you woke up or on why you became angry? Do you just chalk it up to “waking up on the wrong side of the bed” or do you get mad “just because of what that person said”? What paradigm do you see the events of life through in order to interpret each day, week, month, or year?  Is it a paradigm that leads you into greater intimacy with God?
       I would like to put forth a rather bold idea that affects my life every day, almost insanely so: that everything that you feel or experience actually involves God’s attempts to draw you to Himself. It is not simply random situational events that you should try and respond well to.  Now maybe this sounds obvious to you at first or maybe it doesn’t, but when you examine it practically, it is normally quite different from one’s usual perspective, even controversial. 
       When you are suddenly angry at your friend who said whatever, do you actually think, “What is God trying to bring me into for relationship with Him?”  Normally not.  When you wake up feeling low, do you normally think excitedly, “How is God trying to woo me?”  Probably not. Human beings are normally very situational, reactionary, and self-protective.  At best, we tend to think of the events in our day as events to which we must try and respond righteously.  Now, this isn’t wrong but it is burdening and is a less-helpful way to live.  What if you dared to believe that God was in control of your life, so that when that person says some comment to you that causes anger to come up in you, you believed that God was trying to show you some place where you could know Him more.  What if your perspective turned the ordinary events of life (and often the difficult ones like getting angry) into entry ways to more greatly know God?
       At this point, you might be wondering, how does my anger at someone have to do with me knowing God more?  Everything about you is actually about how you relate to God.  If you are getting suddenly and sinfully angry at someone, it is not “just because they said something mean and you got mad.”  No, if you are getting suddenly and sinfully angry, it is because you do not know something about God.  Let me give you a personal example. 
       Just the week before last I was at home for Christmas.  My mom made an off-handed comment about one of my old friend’s mom.  She said, “She’ll never be a Christian.”  I found myself suddenly infuriated by what my mother had said.  Now, in honesty, my mom said something wrong and sinful, condemning a person to never be a Christian.  And yet, I could feel in my anger towards my mom something sinful.  I was hurt by what my mom said.  And even if she told me she was wrong, I did not want to forgive her.  These were my cues that my anger was sinful, that I was believing a lie about God. 
       I knew that this anger therefore wasn’t mostly about what had just happened.  It was about something between God and me.  I took some time to feel and see what I actually felt my mom had said.  Sitting there asking the Holy Spirit to help me, I discovered that I felt that my mom was condemning people, saying that they could reach some certain place where they became unworthy of hope or attention.  From there, I moved to realizing how the stuff that God had been revealing to me in general for the past week or two was related to this particular emotion, and that I actually felt that God felt this way towards others and me.  So, I looked at God and said, “God, you would never speak this way, you would never feel this way about people.  You constantly have hope and belief that people can be more, can change. You are so full of love.”  It is not always this fast, but right at that moment when I said those words, my emotions towards my mom changed.  I suddenly felt joy towards her and love and compassion. 
       The point of that story is to give you an example of how often the emotions we feel towards people are actually about ways we feel or believe God is. The point of this blog entry, however, is to use this true perspective coupled with the knowledge of God’s seeking of your heart to define your whole life.  Are the events in your life random?  Could you dare to believe that when you wake up in the morning feeling bad, that God is graciously trying to show you something you feel so that you can have the Holy Spirit change it, so that He can be with you more in truth?  Could you dare to believe that when your anger is suddenly flaring at a friend, that God is trying to show you a way that you do not know Him, so that you can then know Him more?  Can you dare to believe that God is more in control of your life than demons? Or even than your own weaknesses?
       Even concerning those things that are flagrantly from the kingdom of darkness or from the sin of human hearts, I think we should view our lives this way.  Whose agenda do you want to see as superior in your life?  Satan's agenda?  Your own weaknesses' agenda?  Or God's agenda?  Even when something clearly of Satan or clearly from human wickedness is occurring, you can still choose to view superiorly that which God is doing.  This is not to make the sins or acts of darkness okay.  For instance, when I felt anger at my mom, I was sinning, and the idea of simply permitting that sin to continue is wrong.  However, only looking at that sin at my mom as something that I should just try and not do or be is shallow and sad.  What if I not only looked at it as wrong but also looked at it as God saying, “Look!  Look at this way that you can know me more?!” 
       How different would your life feel if everything that you ever felt, good or bad, difficult or easy, was actually a window through which God was trying to show you ways you can know Him more?  How different would you feel if everything that happened to you was actually being employed by God to help you know Him more? 
       I recently spoke to a friend who was having a really hard time with her family.  Quite frankly, it is a very difficult situation that tears most families apart.  She has been so burdened down by it and God has such compassion towards her pain and her constant attempts to try and make the best out of the situation.  But in all her attempts, I asked her if she ever looked at it as anything other than a series of negative events to just try and get through, to just try and respond to as best as she could and then get by?  Even if she is still struggling, it was incredible to watch her face as hope came onto it, as love came onto it, as a lightness came onto it, when she thought of that whole series of events as actually involving God’s attempts to cause her to get to know Him more. 

       So, the next time you feel a negative feeling in your own self or the next time you are suddenly in a difficult situation, instead of just thinking that it is a random negative burst, try viewing it as God’s pursuit of your heart.  Try viewing it as God trying to highlight something for you to see, that you may know Him more.  At least in my life, as I have done this day in and day out, I have discovered how incredibly in control God actually is.  Events that might seem random to someone are actually all God’s handiwork.  For instance, that wrong view of God that was highlighted by my anger at my mom was actually another piece of the puzzle of what God had been trying to show me more generally for the previous two weeks. 

       God knows how to weave events and emotional bursts in a way that will cause you to learn certain things at certain times.  He is so good at leading, so good at teaching, so good at saving.  If you will simply look at the events of your life, as small as what you feel each day, you will see God’s  hand all over your life trying to pull you into certain revelations, certain pieces of Him you still do not know. 

Note: I do not believe God ordains sin.  I believe He ordains awareness of sin that has always been present.

Profound Self-Denial: the Permission of Love’s Entrance

       Stephen Venable, one of my favorite teachers at IHOP, recently gave a brief sermon at the 2010 OneThing Conference that the International House of Prayer-KC puts on every year.  His sermon was on a passage of Scripture that we all know of, found in Luke 9 (and Mark 8 and Mat 16).  In this passage Jesus calls the one who would come after Him to deny Himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Him.  It is followed by “for whoever would save his life will lose it but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (9:24). 

       Stephen’s message was a hammer blow.  It was profoundly challenging and offensive to anyone with a heartbeat.  He essentially asserted that western Christianity is fundamentally flawed in that it is built around what God can do for us instead of about what we can do for God.  As Stephen put it, “We are concerned with how Jesus can die for us so that we can have what we want instead of how we can die for Him so that He can have what He wants.  Jesus is not your butler! Jesus is not your vending machine!  Jesus is the King of glory to be glorified!” 

       There is profound truth in Stephen’s assessment of this unbiblical atrocity that underlies much of Christianity today, and he is devastatingly accurate in his assertion that much of that church will fall into apostasy and burn in a lake of fire forever through it.  As I said, it was an offensive message, one that I am sure many need to hear, myself included. 

       However, there was, at the least, a very important angle lacking in Stephen’s message.  Part of Stephen’s sermon entailed the seeming condemnation of sermon’s that are about “how much God loves us”, that are about “who we are” or “how great we are” or “how great we can be.”  Here, I feel that Stephen made an unbiblical detour, though I still applaud the spirit behind his sermon and the overarching punch of it.  The Bible is full of verses that define the believer as great or in God’s love (Eph. 2:19, 1 Jn 3:1, Luke 15, Jn 3:16).  Speaking the love of God over someone is not agreement with their self-obsession inherently and all the verses listed are in fact in line with Luke 9:23. 

       There are also verses that clearly call believers to seek rewards and greatness.  “But to him who by patiently doing good seeks for glory, honor, and immortality, there will be eternal life”, which is then contrasted in the next verse with “but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (Rom 2:7-8). Whatever it is that is this disobedient self-seeking and unrighteousness it is not seeking for glory, honor, and immortality unto eternal life.  Even Jesus Himself, our example, says that He laid down His life that He might take it up again, followed by the declaration that this makes the Father love Him (Jn 10:17).  We are commanded to look to the founder of our faith who endured the cross for the joy set before Him (Heb. 12:2). 

       My point is that self-denial and taking up your cross cannot and does not mean biblically that you are to try and give your life to Jesus without an awareness of His love for you or without an awareness of the glory and joy set before you.  In fact, I will go as far as to say that any time you choose to suffer without a knowledge of His love and what you gain by it, you are operating in self-abuse.  My primary point in this blog, however, is not even this.  It is to go even further. 

       I believe that one of the greatest forms of self-denial, of taking up your cross daily, of losing your life, is actually permitting God to love you, to speak worth over you.  Oh, it slays the selfish.  It slays the prideful.  It consecrates the heart into meekness. There is, in my experience, nothing more humbling than the joyful reception of unconditional love.  It’s so hard! There is nothing more slaying of sinful self than the permission of the entrance of great mercy, of free gifts of affection and blessing.  Oh we hate it!  We rail against it! It is against the natural man to permit unconditional love. Can you feel how much easier it is to simply beat yourself and do everything for Jesus without ever thinking about yourself?  It feels better actually because it is in favor of the prideful self.

       I find in my own life and in my experience with the paradigm Stephen preached on that we can be very prone to believe that righteousness is to try and “live only for God with no benefit to self”, never letting ourselves for a second sit and receive love from God, to let God say to us, “You are beautiful to me.”  This phrase specifically is one that Stephen spoke of with a sardonic condemning tone, but I tell you truthfully, nothing will grant you poverty of spirit, so greatly glorifying to Christ, like letting Him tell you that you are beautiful.  Oh, it will knock you off every false throne you’ve ever imagined. 

       Have you felt it?  Can you feel the tension?  Can you feel how self-preserving and self-advancing it is actually to try and “just glorify Christ by only doing everything for His sake and never doing anything for yourself?”  Obviously, these quoted words could communicate truth, but I have found that in many individuals, myself included, they actually harbor pride and sinful self advancement, the antithesis of Luke 9:23.  The religious self-denial actually promotes pride and is the opposite of self-denial.  In contrast, permitting God to love you, permitting Him to be focused on you is a cross like no other.  It will slay your sinful self in a second.