Portals of Darkness

CC BY-NC, Matt X, Flickr
CC BY-NC, Matt X, Flickr

Question: What is anything that indulges our passions and leads us away from God? What is something that claims a greater priority than the holiness and love of God in our lives?Answer: an idol.

God hates idols and abhors them in the lives of his people. They are the start of all kinds of trouble. Morally, an idol represents perversion, and God often refers to it as an abomination, something vile and shameful. I think I know why.

God created humankind in his image (imago dei) and for himself. The problem with venerating a false god is not merely that we bow to it or laud it but that we give it our allegiance and service, which should be reserved for God alone. This is implicit in the first two commandments of the Decalogue.

So when we honor the idol, even if we don’t realize that we’ve provided it a ranking place in our hearts, we symbolically remove the stamp of our Creator (his entitlement of us) from our hearts, or a part of it, and spiritually choose a rival that, although not real by human standards, opens the door to darkness dedicated to our defeat in some way.

Looking even deeper is what we understand about spiritual worship: its nature to transform. I diverge for a moment. Here the worship controversy arises in which some argue that the word worship in the English Bible with today’s connotations incorrectly describes the practice and sentiment of Hebrew culture. In the original languages some of these instances might be more correctly termed ‘made obeisance’, ‘bowed down’, or simply ‘served’.

I hate taking up space about this because I feel that the issue is mostly a defense of the original languages. I think we all can agree that worship is not merely our present-day church experiences of singing songs and lifting hands. Nevertheless, I do believe that the intent of the scripture and ancient worshipers align with our contemporary understanding of what real worship of God is.

Real spiritual worship is done with the heart and should occur with every facet of one’s life, more outside of the church and synagogue than in it. Spiritual worship esteems God and responds to his holiness and love with personal godliness and conscientious righteousness. By it we are transformed into better people, a people of God.

But to open the heart this way to the idol is a grave mistake. It is to ascribe the true God’s spiritual honor to a false god. This is considerably more than merely praising and praying to it, something God mocks in the Prophets. What begins to occur in the heart is the transformation of the soul into the image of the idol. The longer this occurs, the more one will take on its character.

I met a man once with a bizarre attraction behavior that I came to understand only when I learned of the things in which he indulged. After mocking the deficiencies of human-made idols, the writer of Psalm 115 makes a sobering statement: “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (v. 8, ESV). Humankind was created to be mastered by one, God himself, and then only by our willing choice of him. To yield ourselves to any other thing means domination by evil influence and that signals torment.

Paul and Peter occasionally use the expression “slave of Christ.” The analogy is a good one. For if we are not the slaves of Christ, then in our hearts we serve our carnal nature and achieve Satan’s purposes. Simply put, we war with God.

Idols might have been wood and stone and gold once, but their true dark powers are still evident today when they are sex, money, and vanity. In Modern America we don’t erect sacred monuments in the traditional sense to personify the intents of our hearts. Instead, we simply yield to our impulses and impose upon ourselves willful blindness toward any dark motivating force. We indulge our lusts and vindicate our right to have them satisfied.

We possibly have more idolatrous dealings to contend with simply because of the age in which we live. Yet the fight for the human soul is as much the same as it was when Adam and Eve fell in the Garden. Jobs, television, ambition, power, drugs, people, fame, technology, carousing, fashion, time, even our own families—anything—can become one’s idol. We would do well to understand God’s testing Abraham with sacrificing Isaac.

God wants all of us. Yet we must solemnly acknowledge that at any moment we have as much of him as we desire.

One of the best ways to repent is to rely on those classic spiritual disciplines that lift us into God’s light, the light that exposes and restores. Then, and only then, can we be sure that we are centered in Christ and out of the shadows of sin.

How Bad Can Heaven Be?

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Jesus told us, “If I’m leaving to make room for you, then I will surely come back for you” (John 14:3). Who doesn’t want to be with Jesus? My problem is the blockheads around me who tell him, “Don’t bother.”

Okay, this is one of my spiritual peeves—Christians who understand nothing about the words “blessed hope.” It happens during conversations and in church when people, grateful to be alive, remark, “We could’ve been dead, sleeping in our graves” or something like it. Truthfully, we’ve all probably had several close calls, some we knew about and some we didn’t. So, for everybody, Thank you, Lord, for sustaining our lives!

He Shall Never Die

What bugs me, however, is the notion that death is so bad, which urges me to question if life is really that good. When people pipe up with ‘happy to be alive’ comments (and I love life), I sense that somehow this world is all the reality there might be in their minds. I don’t wish to be unfair, but I never encounter those who, like me, cannot wait to be with Jesus in the joys of the life to come.

Before you think me unnecessarily critical, the apostle Paul had to deal with the same kind of people. The Thessalonians must have recently lost some beloved person because it prompted Paul to correct their undue mourning.  “We want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13, NLT). He referred to those without Christ who have either no hope or false hopes about their eternal security.

Our bodies will expire; I think we get concerned about sickness, suffering, and pain. I don’t enjoy thoughts about what I might have to endure before I pass on. But though we believers experience physical death, like all humanity, we never die. Our lives before Christ and present clash with sin is the only spiritual death we will ever know. Jesus’s own death usurped sin’s authority, so death, the fullest extent of sin, becomes a grace that makes an end of our dealing with sin—forever.

The Joy of What Awaits

Our future is alive. We immediately go to God, who welcomes us into Heaven—and what that must be like! I’ve heard theology about it, and I’ve heard people who say they’ve visited. It’s all exciting. Is Heaven anything like Earth with vast regions and social systems? And the physics must be mind-boggling! Just think of Christ after his resurrection. Then, there is the New Earth to come.

We will breathe our last here, but we will not die. And Christ’s return will ‘seal the deal’, and these very bodies of ours will be refashioned and made perfect. (The sinner doesn’t get that.) So I don’t dread death or live life ducking. Now I enjoy my humanity and the world around me until it’s time to leave. In fact, that’s my prayer to God: Grant me to live out all of my appointed days. I ask not to die prematurely.

The blind monk in the wonderful documentary Into Great Silence says, “The closer one brings oneself to God the happier one is…the faster one hurries to meet him. One should have no fear of death…it is a great joy to find a Father once again.”

I cannot wait to see God, and I often tell him this. You’re also wrong if you think I have a death wish. So until the angels finish my mansion there…on a splendid mountain overlooking God’s throne…I’ll keep at his will here and send my treasure ahead.

My Worship

The more I know God the more remarkable to me is his worth. It demands my response. But “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits toward me?” Who can give him what he already owns? Glory? He dwells in light inapproachable. Honor? We call him God. Dominion? The universe is his. […]

Explaining God’s Mystery

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Christian leaders who have the opportunity to address issues publicly should be careful to give accurate explanations for God. Common inquiries range from why evil exists to cultural changes to how God judges matters. Sometimes, however, many in our faith community offer responses that only engender more questions or those to which we default with basic salvation answers—“The scriptures say that if you do not confess Jesus as your Savior, then hell will be your eternal home.” But these responses are wooden and difficult for the un-churched.

I don’t dispute anything the scriptures explain. I do believe, however, that formulated answers to really tough questions may create unnecessary problems for Christians rather than solve them. Besides, being formulaic doesn’t truly represent a deep, coherent theology or the heart of a loving and wise God.

As a seminary student I always felt that theology is rooted in 1) the truth about God as he has revealed to us, 2) faith in God and his character, and 3) a healthy acknowledgement of mystery. Most believers score well on the first two. But our faith in God rests at a deeper level when we can confess that many times we simply don’t understand him and all the things he says and does.

I believe the Bible is God’s revealed Word to humankind, true in its message and perfect in its intent. Yet I also believe that some of that record can be difficult to understand. I acknowledge that God and his ways, other than what has been explained in Christian theology, are incredibly shrouded in mystery.

Mystery fills in all the space surrounding the hard questions of life that century after century have stood as stalwart as when they first troubled the minds of humans. But we allow ourselves to get in trouble when we let our theology nail God down to an exact science.

I must learn to answer many questions outsiders ask with God’s heart. I know what the Bible says and often they do, too. But God is more than dogma and easy answers. He is feeling and caring and loving; sometimes we fail at presenting this side of God. I feel that if the world wants real answers from the Church, we would do well to risk explaining truth along with God’s heart.

For instance, I don’t fully know how God deals with people for whom it isn’t apparent they believed on him before dying, especially people who never knew of Jesus. These are things none of us understand. And, yes, I know that not believing on Jesus as Lord is unforgivable. But what about those who walked uprightly by the light of their conscience and those implications Paul alludes to in Romans 2:11-16? I just don’t know, but I can be honest about the mystery of it all.

So we all struggle with God’s revelation and to interpret scripture in order to know how God thinks about a matter—and I must say that for most things the truth is not hard to figure out. But I deplore those who have all the answers. They often do more damage than good.

What our theology has given us, let us learn well. Let us also do well to communicate it with grace, tact, and the honesty to say “I don’t know.”

When You Wish Upon a Star

Flickr Stars
CC BY-NC, John_H_Moore, Flickr

I still needed to make my birthday wish. It was five days late, but what could it hurt? So I grabbed the white star-shaped, helium-filled balloon and went outside. There I whispered a prayer to the God of all hopes for three things I desired and really needed to see happen for me in the coming year. Having wished upon a star, I released it into the oncoming night and let it fly to God.

It is the irony of that moment that lingers and strangely satisfies me like a finely textured dish: a wish and a prayer, the star and God, hope and faith, chance and certainty, eagerness and waiting, ease and agony.

The God Who Realigns the Stars

The stars have always kept humans wondering. What were they? Who were they? What power did they possess? They were close enough for marvel but distant enough to perplex. Certainly they were greater than us. Mythologies abounded and still do. Although most of us today don’t give credence to astrology or the power of the stars, we still wish on them, shooting or not, to chance the possibility of favorable outcomes. It’s our human nature.

I find nothing wrong it.

Many approach God, however, in the same frame of mind. If some of us would honestly explain ourselves, we would disclose a faith not unlike the talisman or amulet. We’d describe a magic akin to the shaman and traditionalists that “works” and retards and keeps us in luck. We’d tell of a God who beckons with haste to our every call and never disappoints.

God took Abram out one night and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars…so shall your offspring be” (Gen. 15:5). Being a Mesopotamian, Abram would have at some time in his life relied on the stars for their religious symbolism and premonition. The skies explained everything.

But this was a new context for the stars, offered by the star-maker himself. And it involved the dearest wish of Abram’s heart, a child. This wasn’t just a natural illustration God was making; it was a spiritual one, too. Power was shifting from the stars to this personal One who had already commandeered Abram’s life when he ordered, “Just go until I tell you to stop!” Oddity had become the new normal for Abram.

You see, the things that matter most to us take faith. Faith is co-oped and faith is difficult. I wish I could offer you an easier approach to God, but it wouldn’t be realistic or acceptable. Moreover, life can be tough and we don’t get through it by chancing good results. And so stands God, turning our eyes away from the stars to himself, advising, “Trust me.”

With Him All is Possible

God began a process of conversion in Abram’s life, converting…his wishes to prayers, his hope to faith, his chance to certainty, his eagerness to waiting, his ease to agony. Although it was far from pleasurable, it radically altered the core of his spiritual existence.

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised (Rom. 4:18-21).

Abram stopped reaching for…believing in the stars and learned to trust the God who could bring the stars down to him. It was the only way. They were his God-given possession that God always wanted for him, not haphazard good coming his way.

Augustine said, “Faith is to believe in what you do not yet see; the reward for faith is to see what you have believed.” Maybe the reward is even better than what we’ve hoped for; it is to see God himself. Have you ever gotten your desire from the Lord, but it was his reality and love that crashed in on you more than anything?

Perhaps Abram shows us what true piety is all about. It is not simply a life of faith, but a life disciplined enough to believe God until it becomes a natural response. The pious one is he or she with conviction lodged in the bones. It is not about the star but about the one who guides it.

I Have Ownership

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The joy of life in Christ is the assurance of ownership. We are God’s property, those of us whose lives are dedicated to Jesus. It is a revealing distinction between those who walk with God and those who do not. The mark of God doesn’t make one anything more than human, our gift, now flawed and frail. Yet that distinction lends us the necessary grace to push through and above the wretchedness of life and sin into fellowship with God.

It is a deep consolation to me to know that God controls my life, that I am held in his gravity and illumined by his light. I need not rely on my own headiness or caprice or draw cues from a dust cloud of wrong messages. I don’t have to be moved when trouble comes or left confused in life, lost between euphoria and depression in a tug-o-war of happiness. Instead, rest becomes my only chore—and strangely what a chore it can be but to trust that God’s sovereignty and goodness work for my good, that I can always retreat to the silent center where he dwells for instruction.

This ownership is available to all. God may not be everyone’s spiritual father, but he is nonetheless the Father of all creation. Everything and everyone already belongs to him. Life happens by his rules and according to his will, as mysterious as they can be. The difference, however, lies in our approach. I have resigned myself to need him. God ownership begins there, where we acknowledge our dependence on him and devote ourselves to him. This posture is difficult for the person who is the center of everything.

When I Forgive

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“For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matt. 6:14-15)

This verse always struck a chord of fear in me: Can I really cause God to not forgive me? God is full of love and mercy—how could he not forgive me, his child? These questions led me to new understanding about God and his forgiveness, but I had to take an honest look at myself first.

When a person wrongs us, we have a decision to make about the offensive action. We can forgive or withhold forgiveness. To forgive is to set aside offense that it might not impede relationship or cause one to ungraciously judge another. This is significant for a reason you may already understand.

Jesus’s teaching abounds with one major theme, the love of God and neighbor and the interrelationship between the two. One can love man and hate God, but one cannot love God without genuine love for his neighbor. “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart…your soul…your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:34-40).

What weighs in the balance with our decision to forgive is what Christ claims is the core of all life and faith: our love for God. We risk the damage of diminished love for God when we hold offense against our neighbor (cf. 1 John 4:20), especially when unforgiveness becomes a pattern. This is contrary to the portrait the apostle Paul paints in Ephesians of the divine plan to transform a world of cultural diversity and complexity into one spiritual tribe having all its new diversity dominated by one operative principle, love. It is a monumental lesson with many implications.

God will not forgive me when I do not forgive others. Said differently: God will not remove the hindrance between him and me when I do not remove the hindrance between neighbor and myself. It is to offend God that I should hold the knife to my equal’s neck when God, far more my superior, chooses mercy when he has every right to destroy me (cf. Matt. 18:23-35). Thus, God will not forgive me because he cannot—I have become the offense stranding the relationship with him. The real disappointment is that I have failed to understand his good nature.

God is not like us. He does not hold grudges or seek injury as we do in our hearts. He is not vengeful. Hear the scripture: “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). So it is not his nature to withhold mercy, but he is constrained by our actions and hopes for our spiritual maturity.

We often hear that God forgives our sins and tosses them into a “sea of forgetfulness.” Perhaps the closest thing in the Bible to this sea is Micah 7:19: “You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.” Marvelous, yet no sea of forgetfulness. Can God forget? He’s God, so no he cannot. The moment we maintain such a position, we create a critical limitation in God’s sovereignty; then his perfections can be challenged. Deep theology it is, but now let me show you amazing grace.

When I sin, humble myself, and ask God for his mercy, that offense—the scandal of immorality it is—God chooses to remember no more. Now he tells you and me to go do likewise.

I Choose

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I remember when I first took a personality test, a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and read the results. I was shocked that my temperament, choices, enjoyments, and flaws, were completely categorized and understood. In time, however, I found myself relying on what those spot-on results told about me. Sometimes I would even contrive my behavior to be what the profile stated. If others commented on my actions, mine was a handy reply: “My personality profile says…”

I had a problem and I was it. The profile merely presented a biopic of my personality type. I was very much the person it described, and some of it I wasn’t, at least then because personalities evolve. The real problem for me was my attempt to live up to what the profile revealed. The Holy Spirit convicted me because the personality profile, although a worthy psychology tool, held too great a priority with me. My interest in my self-development was a good thing, but unchecked it could put my life out of balance.

Psychology is good and proper in its place, but, like all things, it must take the backseat to the word of God, or what God says about me and my potential. The Word tells me that I’m created in God’s image and that my attitudes and actions are to resemble his. I saw then that everything about me, even my personality, must be submitted to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

The Landscape of Choice

I wish to approach the subject from a different vantage now. I believe that untended character traits eventually spoil. I mean that they will begin to qualitatively detract from us should we do nothing to develop and mature them or, in some cases, rid ourselves of them. I take comfort in the fact, however, that this is not often the case with people. We usually self-correct amidst the pressures of parents and friends, reward and punishment, gratification and pain. Furthermore, we possess decent enough morals to know when something is wrong in our lives and needs to be changed.

Unfortunately, some people do fall through the cracks, maybe because there was no proper rearing or they were subject to extreme dysfunction. The saddest thing, however, might be said of the one who perceives a flaw but makes no effort to change. It is a possibility to allow flaws from our earliest childhood to manage our lives without a real attempt to replace them with new and better behavior. In my opinion, that is an unhealthy choice for dysfunction.

It gets more interesting with my next few sentences. I believe that people can be genetically predisposed to certain behavior patterns. We know this to be true about depression, just as we know the same is true about diseases, like cancer. Such is a fact that has to be overlooked. For instance, humans have successfully engineered most of the dog breeds we know today for our own very specific purposes and continue to do so, the benefits of which are helping us understand more about ourselves. And consider a hot topic in the world today, homosexuality. Might there really be a genetic predisposition toward same-gender attraction? If it is true, what would it mean to choose or not choose the lifestyle? What would any of this mean to our ability to choose?

What Choosing Really Means

My point is to understand what our choices really look like. I could choose to read my ISTJ temperament profile, accept the good and the bad about it, and declare to the world, “This is who I am—deal with it!” I have met people like this and so have you. They are not pleasant to be around, and, honestly, their way of life is nothing more than a cop-out. I’ll get to that. Still, there is a real reason why I cannot accept that who I am is merely written in black and white and that I’m doomed to be what it tells of me. That goes for a profile and anything else. Let me explain what I’m saying.

I have no choice but to accept the hand that I’ve received in life. A college professor of mine used to refer to it as ‘getting to the table,’ meaning on a level plane where life situations internally and externally (to an extent) coalesce and allow for actualization.

Some people are privileged enough to start somewhere close to the top because they lack no comforts and are blessed with great families and support systems. Others are essentially “scaling a chair”—probably where most of us are found—with varying degrees of home but also with real struggles to consider. The remaining few of us are clinging to sanity somewhere in the thick of the carpet, looking out for big feet and vacuums!

But the one truth is that none of us had a choice in our arrival. Let’s deal with that and get over the rest. To be fair, sometimes what we’ve been allotted just isn’t fair, and it helps our perspective to know that someone in the world is in a far worse situation than we are.

I don’t think we can blame God either. We live in a fallen world, and I believe the Bible about how it has gotten to be this way and why it remains this way. (So we have to point all ten fingers at ourselves.) God permitted it, too, and you’ll just have to ask him why when you see him. But I celebrate the human spirit because God has made it an indomitable thing. We all have been made emotional at the stories of people who have proven that the ravages of a fallen world or an incredible challenge are not enough to give up on life.

No, I don’t curse the hand I have been dealt. I don’t accept that the black-and-white is everything about me because what flaws may characterize me are not indelible and do not have to remain the truth about me. I have a lifetime to perfect myself. What matters is whether I choose to remain as I am or to improve myself, even if this means a fight to change.

As has already been mentioned, this means everything, from attitudes to health and even homosexuality. (I single out homosexuality because it is ripe for this topic and so many people tend to view it as an arch sin and, with such attitude, castigate people but never heal them. Further, I differentiate between homosexuality, a sexual orientation or behavior, and gay, a subculture lifestyle that accepts and readily indulges in homosexual behavior. Homosexual orientation I don’t believe is a choice but homosexual behavior is.)

Ultimately, we choose to resist or give way to the decisions that determine personality, for nothing prevents us from scrutinizing anything we notice about ourselves. People with anger issues generally know it and can find ways to mitigate their feelings or will choose to let those feelings grow into tantrums, rage, or even violence. The same for those with homosexual urges: although they may not choose the urges, they do in fact choose whether to follow through with those urges and so partake of that lifestyle or resist it.

So consider this: it wouldn’t matter if a genetic link to homosexuality were discovered—do you see? If the heart morally resists a path, that path is the wrong one to take. There would need not be the argument of a denial of one’s authentic self or the banishment to lifelong struggle. The woman who is overwhelmingly predisposed to breast cancer and who acquires it like the many women in her family did—does she simply accept the cancer as her lot and let it kill her? Indeed she does not. Instead, she fights it and so chooses to live.

To live authentically and to draw on the power of our human spirits is first to say, “Here I stand.” It is where we arrived and where we have the privilege to build. What a landscape it chances to become!

To Ask In Earnest

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The best prayer and the greatest, the noblest and right, herein is the focus. No purer petition shall be found than that one for which we have pleaded our case to be its answer. The spring of service can never fail when it draws deeply from the wells of spirituality. For our neighbor and our enemy, the gift will be no finer than its giver. Offer thyself to God.