Faith

Vulnerable Beauty

What do we make of the person in our midst who, according to this world’s measure of value, has little or nothing to “bring to the table”?

The boy with cerebral palsy, dependent on his caregiver for the most basic of tasks. The woman made homeless by circumstances outside of her control. The lady next door with Alzheimer’s. The man with Down Syndrome. The young person who, through no fault of her own, never had the opportunity to receive education and is unable to find paid work.

In a society where human value is commodity-value, the ability to enter into relations of exchange and reciprocity, what makes these people valuable in and of themselves? Where is their worth to be found?

Where is their place in a worldview that measures human value on the sliding scale of autonomy, freedom, self-expression, productivity, exchange?

And where will our value be when our security, health and wealth falls like a tower of cards, subjected to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”?

Whatever grounds the value of human life, it cannot be what Western society says it is.

It cannot be economic or exchange value, for that would exclude the unemployed and homeless.

It cannot be reason or intellectual ability, for that would exclude those with intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses.

It cannot be autonomy or freedom of expression, for that would exclude the voiceless, the forgotten-about, the oppressed, those on the fringes.

It cannot be strength, beauty, or riches, for that would exclude the weak, the vulnerable, the poor, the powerless, those who do not live up to the standards of beauty provided by fickle culture.

There must be something deeper, something more foundational, that gives worth to life. The image of God cannot be found in the functions and activities accorded value by our economically driven society.

The truth of what the human is is simply this: to be loved into existence by the God who is Love. 

Our existence is entirely gratuitous. We exist by nothing but the overflow of divine love, lovingly willed into being by the God who loves to create. The image of God dwells in us simply because we are. That which makes us valuable before God is not our ability, autonomy, economic worth, but simply that we are made by Him and stand in relation with Him.

In Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it (1 Timothy 6:7). We are dust breathed into life by the Spirit of God (Genesis 2:7). We are not responsible for our being. We did not even create ourselves; much less are we able to exercise creative autonomy over the world. We are subject to it, dependent on it.  Our existence comes from outside of us.

We are the products of sheer grace, sheer mercy, and therefore truly vulnerable before God. God has opened Himself up to us in creating us, and our lives are open before Him, truly dependent, finite, contingent on Him for our every breath and our very existence.

In the bodies and lives of those who appear in our midst as helpless and vulnerable, we are confronted most starkly with the true nature common to all of us. In this fragile, interdependent world, all of us are vulnerable, finite, limited.

If we have been blessed with “able” bodies, these will perish. If we have been blessed with wealth, this will fade away. Our minds will deteriorate, our beauty will fade. What is true of Peter is true of us all; “when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18).

Whatever makes human life truly beautiful, truly valuable, it is not our perfect bodies and perfect minds. It cannot be our quality of life. It is not our supposed “rights” and freedoms which could, for whatever reason, be taken from us at any moment.

It is simply that we are beloved by the God who lovingly created us, lovingly sustains us, and lovingly entered into relationship with us, by entering into the vulnerable, weak body of a human being in Jesus Christ. 

The acceptance of our mutual vulnerability and finitude radically alters the way we do church. The church cannot – must not – mirror society’s measure of value, based on autonomy, exchange-value and success. The Church, as the Body of Christ, is a place for all, not just the beautiful, the well-off, the able-bodied. Our communion must not be a gallery of the middle- or upper-classes, but a place of welcome for all and sundry.

Because when we come together, we acknowledge that before God, we are all like grass. All is from Him, for Him, to Him. We have nothing that did not first come from Him. Beauty fades, our bodies weaken, our wealth perishes, but His eternal love for us remains, in spite of it all. 

All that matters, the only thing that defines us and grounds the value of our being, is that we are beloved by God. The image of God dwells in us simply because He is, and we are. We are loved into existence by Him, out of the gratuity and overflow of His love, by His Spirit.

The God who is Love dwells in our midst. His beckoning voice shatters our value-systems and worldview. In the Kingdom, there is no hierarchy based on productivity or use-value.

In this kingdom, the first will be last and the last will be first. Let our communion acknowledge this, showing prejudice to no-one, standing in solidarity with all, for we are all one, for we share one nature.

The Lord is like a father to his children,
    tender and compassionate to those who fear him.
For he knows how weak we are;
    he remembers we are only dust.
Our days on earth are like grass;
    like wildflowers, we bloom and die.
The wind blows, and we are gone—
    as though we had never been here.
But the love of the Lord remains forever
    with those who fear him.
His salvation extends to the children’s children
of those who are faithful to his covenant,
    of those who obey his commandments!”

Psalm 103:13-18

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Faith

The Art of Receiving

“This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins” (1 John 4:10).

The most important spiritual discipline we can practice is receiving the Father’s love for us.

Every other discipline and habit and spiritual exercise we could possibly conceive of will quickly disintegrate under the weight of crushing legalism until we have practised dwelling in the abundant love that God has for us.

And yet, when we find ourselves in a spiritual dry season, we are quick to forget the unchanging, steadfast love that the Father has for us, and turn instead to striving and doing in order to somehow place ourselves back under His favour. I think that if only I knew more about God or repented more or read more of my Bible or was more disciplined, God would break my spiritual rut and manifest more of His love to me.

The Father is not like that.

The spiritual life is not some slot machine that we put our little coins of righteous deeds into in exchange for more of His favour. The Father’s favour and love is freely received, not bought.

This does not come naturally to us. Every instinct in us tells us that God is big, distant, removed from our worries and anxieties. Our minds are quick to conceive of a detached deity in whose direction we send our doubting prayers and intercessions. Our spiritual lives become a mathematical equation in which more obedience equals more favour; if only I did more, if only I did something differently, God would manifest more of himself in my life.

Of course, repentance is crucial in our relationship with God for we are so frequently prone to wander, and good works are the vital outworking of His Spirit’s transforming power in us. However, in our spiritually dry seasons, we are often quick to put the cart before the horse. We are quick to seek solutions rather than savour and rest in the Father’s love for us.

Perhaps your spiritual rut is not a call to do more, but a call simply to be still in the Father’s presence.

“Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. We love each other because he loved us first” (1 John 4:18-19).

It is the unwavering, steadfast love of the Father alone that survives our seasons of spiritual fatigue and our darkest doubts. The truth of the Father’s love for us does not change based on our experiences or circumstances. When we are past the point of pressing on, it is His unchanging love that meets us at the end of the road.

Our relationship with God is not a theological problem to be solved but a relationship with a loving Father. His love for us is unconditional. He bestows it freely, without qualification. True rest does not come from restless striving, but simply receiving the Father’s abundant love for us. Every other habit and spiritual discipline we could practice is simply to cultivate the ground in order to receive the rain of God’s grace.

When we received the spirit of adoption, the Father did not transfer us from one economy of striving into another. The slave strives for the Father’s approval and acceptance out of fear of condemnation; the son dwells in peace and rest because he knows nothing can shake him from the Father’s embrace.

We will not experience true peace until we have dwelt in the truth that we that we have peace with God. Peace will not rule in our hearts until the truth of the Gospel reigns in our lives.

“And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts…and always be thankful” (Colossians 3:15).

The answer to your spiritual rut may not be to do more, but simply to receive.Sit with the Father. Switch off your phone, come away, be still. Dwell in His boundless love for you, that sweet, unchanging love that shed blood to ransom your soul and reconcile you to Himself.

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Faith

To Live Like it’s Your Birthday

Your birthday is perhaps the only day in your life when people celebrate you for your sheer existence.

You did nothing to bring yourself into the world; just about all the effort on that front was on the part of your mother. You had pretty much no part to play in your own birth. Your birthday, therefore, is a time of celebration and rejoicing simply because you are here; simply because you exist. 

It’s no accident, then that the language of God’s grace in the Bible is the language of birth, of new life, of new existence in the world. The apostle Paul puts the grace-wrought life of the believer like this: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself…” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18a, ESV)

Our reception of God’s grace, then, might be likened to the celebration of our birthday. Just as, on our birthday, we are made the recipient of rejoicing and celebration and gifts not because of any effort of our own, but simply because we exist, so it is with God’s grace. The Father has lavished His grace upon us, has given us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, has predestined to adopt us as His sons and daughters (Ephesians 1:3-14), not because of any merit or effort of our own, but simply because He loved us even in spite of anything we have or haven’t done. Even before we were born, He knew us, He called us and set us apart by this grace (Galatians 1:15).

This Gospel of Grace changes everything. We are truly accepted and celebrated just as we. Our Father in Heaven rejoices over us, His new creations, not because we have done anything to deserve it, but because He delighted to bestow His grace upon us and adopt us as His own.

We didn’t bring ourselves into this new life, nor did we cause ourselves to be born into His grace. But, like an eternally recurring birthday, we are constantly the recipients of spiritual blessing upon spiritual blessing, grace upon grace, life in abundance, simply because the Father’s nature is to give.

We are grace-born children. We could never earn the Father’s blessing, yet He simply pours His love upon us without measure. Our identity is secure. He delights in you simply because you are you, and you are His. 

Abundant life begins with this scandalous truth. Our identity is secured by the work of Another, and His work cannot be undone. To be great by this world’s standard is to be constantly striving, constantly seeking approval from others, constantly working and toiling for a sense of value before the watching world. It is a wearying work, and it will never satisfy, for, in the world’s economy, you can always be better, stronger, richer, more popular, more successful, more beautiful, have more friends, have a bigger house, and so on.

In the economy of heaven, however, our identity is secure in the Father’s love, by His grace that demands no merit or achievement on our part.  Like a new-born baby, we are celebrated and loved simply because the Father is Love, without qualification. And this makes us truly free, because, when we know our identity to be eternally secure, we can forget ourselves altogether.

So much worry and anxiety and trouble comes from building our identity upon the approval of another. True freedom comes from the self-forgetfulness of grace, because our identity is rooted in the Father’s grace bestowed upon us like a birthday present we didn’t do anything to earn.

It was for this life of freedom that the Father set us free. Receive the gift.

 

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Faith

Kept

Doubt can hit us in many forms.

It can creep in subtly, nagging us with undermining, subversive questions. Intellectual objections and personal experiences erode our sure foundation, undercutting the rock we stand on, until we suddenly find ourselves falling as the ground beneath our feet caves in. Such doubts conspire to throw us into a violent sea where we suddenly find ourselves cut from anchor, tossed and turned every which way in the anxiety of losing sight of God.

Sometimes doubt attacks us more suddenly, triggered by an experience that makes us ask, “God, are you there? God, are you really good?” The loss of a family member. Personal sickness and pain. The turning of circumstances for the worst. The times where you look up to the heavens and wonder who, if anyone, is looking back down on you.

Experiencing Doubt

Doubt is an incredibly isolating experience. Especially if you’re in a community of faithful people, you can feel cut off because you find yourself questioning the beliefs that you, and those closest to you, held for granted. You think, “I’m alone in this. Other people won’t understand what I’m going through.”

Then there’s the feeling of isolation from God. You feel disqualified and distant from God, because you feel that doubt is not the mark of a true Christian. “If I was truly faithful,” you might think, “I wouldn’t doubt. I would stand firm in faith even though everything conspired to make me doubt.” Yet, that hasn’t been your experience. And, in the midst of that, you wander why God would continue to love you.

Doubt is a harrowing experience.

Kept by God

I’ve always seen doubt as the loosening of my grip on God, like a climber losing grip on a rock face. In other words, I’ve tended to picture the surety of my faith in terms of how well I can hold on to God. And, when I’ve no longer been able to do that, I’ve felt like a failure, like I haven’t been a good enough Christian.

Throughout the Bible, faith is talked about in much different terms from my vision of the self-dependent climber trying to grasp on to God by his own intellectual or spiritual exertions. Rather, the Bible pictures the believer as “kept safe for Jesus Christ” (Jude 2, NRSV). It is God “who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing” (Jude 24). Here the emphasis is not on the effort of the believer to hold on, but by the faithful, steady love of God, holding on to us.

At the end of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, he prays that the believers there may be “kept sound and blameless (5:23), but that because the one who calls us is faithful, he will accomplish this (5:24).

You see, faith is not the act of grasping on to God by our own strength, lest we fall. Rather, our faithful God holds us, keeps us, protects us and clings to us as his own children.

The Faithfulness of the Father

Think about a baby held in the arms of their mother. They try to cling to her for safety and comfort and security, but by their own little strength, they cannot hold themselves up. Rather, their mother lifts them up, draws them close, quiets them, holds them close to her. They are secure in their mother’s arms – not because they are holding on to her, but because she is holding on to them.

It’s like that with us and God.

Time and time again I’ve felt distant and disqualified in seasons of doubt, thinking of my doubts as undermining the authenticity of my faith. Recently I’ve come to the conclusion that actually, doubt can, and indeed must, lead us to greater dependence on God. When we shift our mindset from “I’m lost because I can no longer hold on to God” to “I can’t hold on to you, God, but I need you to hold on to me,” doubt can become the means by which we’re led to greater dependence, trust, and obedience.

Doubt, then, is a humbling experience. But, I need humbling, that I might be flung back into the arms of my Saviour, away from the path of self-dependence into utter surrender in the arms of the Father.

Let’s say, with Spurgeon, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.”

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Faith

A Great and Terrifying Wilderness

There are seasons where God feels closer than your breath, and seasons where He seems further away than the darkest reaches of the universe, obscured by the night sky as you gaze up, wondering to yourself, “Where are You?”

We’re experience-people. We live on touch, sight, smell, hearing, emotions. We often seek confirmation about the world and the reality we perceive by using one of these senses. “How do you know Everest exists?”, you might say. “Of course it does,” I’d respond. “You can go to Nepal and see it for yourself, climb its ridges, touch it.” You can confirm your suspicion by travelling there, or you can rely on the testimony of others.

A more difficult question might be, “How do you know she loves you?” Now, that’s harder. Yet, in many ways, the question of someone’s love is still confirmed by our experience and feeling of love. The way she treats you, the sacrifices she makes for you, your joint experiences – these would go toward confirming her love for you. Our perception of love is tied up, not exclusively but extensively, in our emotions and feelings.

Our experience of God, however, is often not like this. Sometimes our experience of Him is as tangible as Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai; we hear the sound of His voice, we smell His fire or His fragrance, we perceive, somehow, His glory about us. Yet, more often (for me at least) its more like the believers that Peter’s Epistle is addressed to:

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory. 1 Peter 1:8, ESV

“You have not seen Him,” says the writer of that letter. “Yet you love Him, you believe in Him, you rejoice.” How can that be? When our perception of love is so tied in to our nature as physical beings, based on touch and sight and feeling, how can we who do not see Him love Him and rejoice in Him?

It totally reevaluates our perception of faith. So often I have fallen into the trap of thinking of the outcome of faith as a succession of mountain-top experiences, tangible meetings and encounters. If only I pray right, I’ll have these transcendent feelings of awe and devotion. If only I sing this song, or go to that place, then I’ll meet God, I’ll experience His presence. My idea of faith-experienced is tied up with nice feelings and giddy emotions.

Which is why time and time again I’ve been discouraged and hopeless when it isn’t like that. As if there’s something wrong with my process and method. Like a true relationship with God is like a constant “feeling-stream,” where I receive all these spiritually-charged emotions and experiences. And, when I don’t get that, I doubt, I wonder, I lose heart, because my faith is based on a series of transient experiences rather than a constant bedrock of truth, a truth that surpasses my fleeting human perceptions.

In short, we import society’s longing for instant gratification into our spiritual life, that a relationship with God is about constantly “feeling something,” pious emotions and ecstatic thoughts.

Let’s go back to Moses on his mountain. In Deuteronomy, the story of Moses recounting to the Israelites how God led them through the Sinai wilderness, he says of God, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and take your journey, and go to the hill country of the Amorites…the great and terrifying wilderness you saw” (Deuteronomy 1:6,7,19, ESV).

The authentic expression of faith is not just the amazing, extra-ordinary encounter with God on the mountain top. No. Its the lived obedience and trust in God when He doesn’t feel so present, the mornings you get up and are in terror at the “great and terrifying wilderness” you are about to enter. Its about what happens in the periods of boredom and anxiety in the wilderness. In short, faith is more than feelings. 

And there’s something beautiful about that. Because, our God is not transient and fleeting like our human experience. He is trustworthy, He is faithful, He is steadfast in His boundless love to us from age to age, a constant cornerstone and bedrock. He is the God with whom our feet shall not be moved, in whom we shall not be shaken, and whose Kingdom has no end.

And this is truth that doesn’t change based on our experiences. Truth is constant, when our feelings are not. Take heart, friend. He is with you, holding, leading, loving, even when we don’t feel it.

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