Faith & Stupid

Recently, I had to make a decision. Not life-changing but significant enough to require some thought. It also involved money. Not that much, but still, it was money. Under normal circumstances, it would have taken me a few minutes. What gave me pause was that this decision had to do with a goal that I have been working toward for several years and have not quite achieved. I wondered whether it was time to throw in the towel. Actually, what I really wondered was what God thought about it. Was He saying, “John, keep it up. You’ll achieve your goal eventually.” Or was He shaking His head because I hadn’t figured out that it is a dead-end? How many disappointments does it take to realize that God wants us to move on? To put it another way, what’s the difference between faith and stupid? How does one tell the difference between persistence in faith and stubborn refusal to acknowledge that God is not behind your agenda?

After meditating on this question for several days, I did what any theologically reflective person would do. I posted the question on social media. What struck me was how certain many of those who responded seemed to be. They made it sound easy. The difference was a matter of humility, someone said. It was merely a question of discerning whether you were seeking to glorify God or yourself another proposed. Or it was a simple question of guidance. All you have to do is follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. Some seemed to point to circumstances as the deciding factor. You move forward until you have to stop. Others sounded as if the solution was more a matter of paying closer attention to an inner feeling of some kind.

Who Are You Calling Stupid?

Perhaps they are all right to some degree. But one thing is clear to me. The difference between faith and stupid is not as apparent as one might think. To the unbeliever, faith looks like stupid, and to the believer, stupid sometimes looks like faith. For this reason, the best place to begin is with a definition. Faith, on its most fundamental level, is simply taking God at His word. Faith is an exercise in trust, and the effectiveness of faith depends entirely on its object. Place your faith in an unreliable person or an undependable object, and it makes little difference how firmly you believe. You will still be disappointed in the end.

According to this definition, the primary difference between faith and stupid is a matter of presumption. Stupid is a conviction that goes beyond God. Likewise, stubbornness is what stupid looks like when we apply it to action. Stubbornness is perseverance that is misdirected. We keep moving but in the wrong direction. Yet, like Peter, when he attempted to dissuade Jesus from taking the path that would lead to the cross, we are convinced that we are acting in God’s interest (Matt. 16:21–23).

The difference between faith and stupid is a matter of presumption.

If stupid sounds harsh to modern ears, perhaps we would prefer the Bible’s term for this, which is “folly.” It sounds more elegant, but it’s really no better. Among other things, folly’s most fundamental characteristic is its lack of common sense. “Even as fools walk along the road, they lack sense and show everyone how stupid they are,” Ecclesiastes 10:3 complains. The fool ignores the obvious. The signposts are there, but the fool doesn’t bother to consider them. He prefers to go his own way. It can be hard to discern the difference between persistent faith and stubborn refusal because we are prone to folly. Like Peter, our natural bent is to be of the wrong mind. We often replace God’s concerns with our own.

The Cure for Folly

The good news is that there is an antidote for stupid. The cure for folly is wisdom, and the Bible tells us that wisdom is offered freely to any who will take it. James 1:5 promises, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” James goes on to qualify this wildly generous promise by warning that: “. . . when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do” (James 1:6–8).

I used to think that his point was that, to receive this wisdom, we must believe that God will give it to us before we ask. There are similar promises in Scripture (Matt. 21:22; Mark 11:24). But I suspect that there is more in view here. We have trouble accepting God’s wisdom not because we think that He will refuse to grant it to us. It is because we are not convinced that it is wisdom. The cure for folly is not only to take God at His word but to trust that He has a better idea of what is going on than we do. Where God’s directive is clear, we do not need to question. Nor do we necessarily need to understand why He has commanded it to be so. It is enough to know that it is God who has told us what to do.

But where there is no explicit directive, God calls for a different kind of faith. We might call this cooperative or even collaborative faith. The journey of the Christian life is more than a simple matter of command and response. As those who have been created in His image, God grants us the dignity of making plans and choosing options. We set goals and strive to reach them. We may move in one direction, then decide it is not the right one and change course. As Proverbs 25:2 says, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.”

What is more, neither our success nor our failure in what we attempt is necessarily a reliable measure of either God’s will or His approval. Solomon’s career was at its peak when his heart “turned away from the Lord” (1 Kings 11:9). Jesus’ moment of victory came at the point when His life and ministry appeared to be an abject failure (John 19:30).

Pillar & Cloud

We tend to envy ancient Israel because of the way God guided them during their wilderness journey. Exodus 13:21 says, “By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.” We would like a pillar and cloud of our own. Yet, the certainty that God was guiding Israel did not keep them from questioning their direction (Num. 21:5). Nor did it protect them from disobedience or rebellion. Knowing what God wants us to do doesn’t always mean that we want to do it.

 Even when God guides us, He does not always spell out the fine details in advance. According to Hebrews 11:8, “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” Likewise, the apostle Paul declared, “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there” (Acts 20:22). Actually, Paul knew a little of what awaited him. After saying this, he went on to add: “I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:23–24). Divine guidance does not come with a detailed map, but it does provide a trajectory.

Divine guidance does not come with a detailed map.

Those in Christ do not need a pillar of fire or a cloud of glory because the Holy Spirit indwells them. Yet even His indwelling presence is no guarantee that there will not be times when we feel uncertain about the direction we should take. Acts 16 describes how Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia because the Holy Spirit kept them from preaching the word in the province of Asia. It would be interesting to know exactly how the Holy Spirit closed the door, but Scripture doesn’t tell us. Luke says that when they tried to enter Bithynia, the Holy Spirit wouldn’t allow them to go there either. One almost gets the impression of Paul and his team bumbling around Asia, trying one direction and then another, until God finally sends him a vision in the night of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him to “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” In Acts 16:10, Luke writes, “After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”

If even Paul sometimes felt muddled about which direction to go in the age of miracles, we should not feel too badly if we also have moments when we lack clarity about whether or not to continue on a certain path. When it comes to what God has written, faith is a matter of taking God at His word. And when it comes to those things that God has not spelled out for us, faith is a matter of trusting that He will still guide us, using ordinary and sometimes even extraordinary means to take us where He wants us to go. Desire, circumstances, and the mysterious prompting of the Holy Spirit all work together to move us along the path that God has laid before us. And even if we happen to make a few missteps along the way, the destination is still sure because we are not traveling alone. “I am with you always,” Jesus says, “to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

Aging as Letting Go

Shortly before I retired, I asked a friend to describe what the experience was like. “It’s like death,” he said. “It goes on and on.” He was joking, but I was unnerved by his reply. Something in my bones told me that he was right. For obvious reasons, the primary metaphor of retirement is rest. But rest is also a euphemism for death. The truth is that we experience many kinds of death throughout our lives.

Every new stage of life lays to rest the one that preceded it until we reach the final stage and eventually lay aside physical life itself. Every major life event, especially the happy ones, is often attended by a measure of sadness or a sense of loss. The graduate realizes that the years of preparation and childhood are over, and it’s time to look for a job. The bliss of the newly wedded couple is unsettled when they feel the chafing tug of their lost freedom. New parents feel the awful weight of responsibility for the life that has suddenly been thrust into their hands. Then they must yield that burden up with tears when the time comes for the child to leave home as an adult. Knowing that this is part of the natural order does not make it any easier to accept.

Since I retired, I find myself saying no to things that I once would have been eager to take on. I am not doing the things I thought I would do. Some of those things are no longer of interest to me. Others have grown more difficult, and I am either unwilling or unable to expend the energy. It is unnerving. I find that I am disappointed with myself for the things I no longer want to do and disappointed with God for the things He has not permitted me to do.

Change is disorienting. Those stages associated with aging are also disquieting because they usually involve the laying aside of tasks and identities that we have carried with us for decades, perhaps for most of our lives. How are we to think about ourselves now that we are no longer what we once were? The answer, of course, is that we are not what we do. Or perhaps it would be better to say that we are more than what we do. This truth is hard to accept. One of the questions people ask when they meet for the first time is “What do you do?” We define ourselves by the tasks and jobs that occupy our time. But that is not what we are. It does not help matters that the church tends to do the same. In sacred spaces, as in secular ones, we assign significance based on role, task, and return on investment. Those who perform and produce have value. But what happens when our capacity to produce begins to diminish? What value do we have then? According to 1 Corinthians 12:22, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are “indispensable.”

“To grow old is to lose our acquaintances and lifelong friends to distance, illness, and death.”

Stanley Hauerwas & Laura Yordy

Part of the work of aging is letting go. We must let go of aspects of our former identities, familiar tasks that we once enjoyed, along with the friends and colleagues that go with them. There is relief, but it is a relief tempered with a measure of sorrow. “To grow old is to lose our acquaintances and lifelong friends to distance, illness, and death,” Stanley Hauerwas and Laura Yordy remind us. “As our friends move away or die we lose the confirmation of our own life stories and identities. We are not even sure, as we grow old, that we are still the same people we were.” Perhaps we are not. But the change does not necessarily mean that we are less than we once were. We may do less. But we have not lost value, at least to God, because of the difference.

A little over a decade ago, I sent a letter to Eugene Peterson asking if he would endorse a book that I had written. A short time later, I received a gentle refusal in the return mail. “I am honored that you would trust me in the task,” Peterson wrote. “But I cannot. I am fast becoming an old man; the strength diminishes; I’m unable to do what I used to take on effortlessly.” Then, in the style that made me love him as a writer, Peterson added a brief line of poetry from Wendell Berry: “I am an old man\ but I don’t think of myself as an old man \ but as a young man with disabilities . . .”

I have often heard Christians say that the Bible does not teach retirement. This assertion, usually expressed in a condescending tone by church leaders, is meant to shame those who have pulled back from activities to reenlistment. Or it is a form of virtue signaling by those who have reached retirement age meant to highlight the fact that they have not slowed down like others they know. Ironically, the Old Testament does more than describe something that might be called a form of retirement. It mandated it, at least for the Levites. According to Numbers 8:23–26, the Levites were required to retire from tabernacle service at fifty. They were permitted (though not required) to assist their younger brothers in their duties at the tent of meeting, but they were not allowed to do the work themselves. The wisdom in this should be self-evident. Levitical work included physical labor and heavy lifting. Where the tabernacle was concerned, they were something like the team that sets up and tears down the church that meets in the school auditorium.

A secular form of the non-retirement myth often appears in television commercials, usually for companies that trade in financial planning. We see a montage of scenes that involve a stylish and attractive smiling couple in their 60s that shows how fit and active they are. They gaze happily in each other’s eyes as a tropical sun sinks below the horizon just off their yacht or their hotel balcony or the dinner table, where they clink their wine glasses together in mutual self-congratulation. The message is clear. Age brings no diminishment of power for those who take charge of their life (and use the services of this financial company). We only get better looking, wealthier, and busier in the things we love to do.

“There is no point in imagining old age, especially in its last years, to be easy.”

Maxine Hancock

Perhaps this is true for some. But it is not the case for most. “There is no point in imagining old age, especially in its last years, to be easy; nor should we expect that many of us will have a lot of ‘golden years,’” warns Maxine Hancock in an essay that describes aging as a heroic stage in one’s pilgrimage of faith. “From what I have observed, what lies ahead is more like a rockclimbing expedition, straight up a rock face, and then a slipping and sliding down through the shale on the other side to the place of our ‘crossing over.’”

But if letting go is proof of our growing weakness, it is also an act of faith. We submit to the changes that come with aging because we have no other choice. We are unable to exercise the degree of control over our lives and our energies that the detractors of retirement or the marketers would like us to think. Yet even as things that were once precious slip from our grasp, we ourselves are held fast. “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die,” Jesus promised (John 11:26). For the Christian, what may feel like a swift descent into the Valley of Shadow, turns out only to be a momentary point of departure for a different location. One where we will find brighter fields and better service.

Why We Need the Church

I began to follow Jesus seriously in the 1970s. Back then, I thought of it as a decision. “I have decided to follow Jesus,” I sang. “No turning back, no turning back.” But over time, I came to realize that it was more a case of Jesus drawing me after Him. I worked the midnight shift at a fast-food restaurant and started reading the Gospels during my breaks. Their stories of Jesus calling the disciples to drop everything and follow Him caught my attention and eventually captured my heart.

In the early days of my new life, it didn’t dawn on me that church was also part of the package. Our family didn’t attend and now that I thought of myself as a Christian, it seemed unnecessary to me. I had Jesus and the Bible. I had made friends with others who shared my faith. Why ruin it all by adding church into the mix? I had visited a few churches in the past. With its unfamiliar people and odd music, the experience was more uncomfortable than anything else. We stood and sat. Stood and sat. And then a man got up and lectured us about things I didn’t really understand. But after I became a follower of Jesus, I started regularly attending because someone told me that it was what Christians do. The music was still strange to me, but the lectures made more sense now that I was reading the Bible. I have been going to church ever since, though not always with enthusiasm. The music and the people still seem odd to me at times. But I have come to see the church as an essential part of my Christian life.

What is the Church?

We often talk about the church as if it were a location. We say we are “going to church.” We point to a steepled building that we call “the church on the corner.” We think of church as a place we go to worship. But the Bible speaks differently. On the one hand, in 1 Corinthians 11:18, the apostle Paul describes how the Corinthian believers “come together as church.” According to this, church is something we do. It is the act of coming together as those who worship and follow Jesus Christ.  On the other hand, the apostle also speaks of church as an identity. Church is what we are. It is a community of those who belong to Christ. For example, later in his letter, Paul brings greetings from Aquilla and Priscilla, two of his friends and colleagues, and from “the church that meets at their house” (1 Cor. 16:19). This is the same letter that he addresses to “the church of God in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2).

So a church is not a building but an assembly of believers. A church is a community of faith. When you read Paul’s references to the church in the New Testament, you find that he sometimes refers to it in the singular and at other times in the plural. He speaks of “the Church” and also of “the churches.” These are the church’s two primary modes. One is broad, and the other is narrow. On its most expansive level, there is only one Church made up of all believers, at all times, and in all places. This church is not confined to what is seen. It spans heaven as well as earth and includes both the living and the dead. It is also evident from the way Paul writes that there are many churches. This is the other mode of the church. It is local and consists of individual congregations made up of those who profess faith in  Christ. These local assemblies each have their own distinctive make-up, personality, and style and may sometimes differ on points of doctrine or practice. As a result, the New Testament can speak both of the Church and the churches without contradiction.

Irenaeus, the second-century bishop of Lyons, characterized the church as “a paradise in the world.” The book of Acts provides a snapshot of what life was like in the early church. According to Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Luke describes what, on the surface, might sound like a utopian community. They shared their possessions, and their meetings were characterized by gladness and sincerity. Yet, the New Testament also paints a realistic portrait of church life. There we find people who are much like us, forgiven sinners who sometimes fight and complain but are still traveling the way of Christ together with the help of the Holy Spirit. In the book of Acts, we see some of the real-world flaws of this remarkable community. We discover that some of its members were hypocrites (5:1–2). We learn that the church’s first significant organizational change took place because some of its members were being neglected, possibly due to cultural prejudice (6:1). And we observe how reluctant the church initially was to accept the newly converted Paul because of his former life (9:26). Its members struggled with jealousy and ethnic prejudice. Some New Testament Christians were upset after they heard Peter had met and dined with Gentiles (11:2–3). Paul and Barnabas had so sharp a disagreement that they each went their separate ways (15:39). Some preachers taught with needed further doctrinal instruction (18:25–26). And Paul warned that others would become false teachers (20:30).

Why Church is Necessary

But do we really need the church? The Bible’s answer is an emphatic yes. One reason is that the assembled church provides a unique context for worship. When Christians come together as church, they do so to worship God through Jesus Christ. Ephesians 2:19-22 says that those who are in Christ are fellow citizens with God’s people and members of his household. They are a kind of temple, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. All who belong to Christ are being “built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” One of the primary reasons Christians come together is to experience the reality of God’s presence through worship. Another reason the church gathers is to hear the word of God taught. When Acts 2:43 gives a snapshot of the life of the early church, it says that the first disciples “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” Christians meet together to study God’s word to know how to be the church when they go their separate ways. A church is a community bound together by what Jesus Christ has done and what it has been taught. On the one hand, the word of God is the foundation that establishes the church. The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). Because of this, the church is also an agent of truth that proclaims God’s word to the world.  In 1 Timothy 3:15 the apostle Paul describes the church as the “the pillar and ground of the truth.”

Long before social media adopted the language of connection to refer to relationships enacted in the digital realm, the apostle Paul expressed the idea more concretely by calling the church a body made up of members who have been joined to one another through Christ. The church is a place where “we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Rom. 12:5). God’s Spirit has empowered every believer to contribute to the well-being of the other members. Instead of losing our individual identity and disappearing into the whole, each of us has a distinctive function in the church. Every member adds value to the church, even those who do not seem to add value. Christ has arranged the church this way, “so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor. 12:25). Therefore, Christians come together as church to worship God, hear the word of God proclaimed, and care for one another. Then they each go their way to represent God’s interests in the world around them.

Although there are many organizations that work for the betterment of the world, three things set the church apart from every other institution. First, the church is a community where God uniquely manifests His presence. It is the dwelling of God by the Spirit. Second, the church is a believing community that both hears and proclaims the word of God. It is through the church that God spreads the good news of forgiveness through Christ. Third, the church is a community of servants empowered by God to represent His interests in the world.

God’s Beautiful Imperfect Church

Anyone who has visited a church knows that it is still a work in progress. God has given Christ’s righteousness to the church as a gift, but our practice of that righteousness is not yet perfect. Those who claim that there are hypocrites in the church are right. No congregation is everything that it should be. But there is more to the church than our experience of it. An essential discipline of the Christian life is learning how to view the church through the eyes of faith. We learn to look beyond our disappointments and take God at His word. All that God says of the church is true. This faith-driven approach to church life does not deny or explain away its problems. Just the opposite. Most of the New Testament was written in an effort to apply the truth of God’s word to the failures and inconsistencies of the church.

So how does one find their place in the church? The starting point is to recognize that union with Christ also unites us to the church. The same faith that is the door to a relationship with God through Jesus Christ is also our entrance pass into the church. We must also recognize the importance of intentionality. Scripture urges Christians to study the art of being a church. Belonging to the church comes automatically, but behaving like the church takes learning and practice.  Hebrews 10:24-25 uses the vocabulary of thoughtful reflection when it tells us to: “. . . consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” The closer we get to Christ’s return, the more we need the church.

Keeping the Cross in View

According to Charles Dickens, after being visited by three spirits, Ebenezer Scrooge was a changed man. Terrified by the specter of his death, Scrooge made this solemn promise to the ghost of Christmas yet to come: “I will honor Christmas, and try to keep it all the year.” At the close of his tale, Dickens says that Ebenezer Scrooge “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man possessed the knowledge.”

For some reason, we never talk this way about Easter. When Christmas comes around, we remind ourselves of the need to observe it all year like old Scrooge. We celebrate the Christmas spirit, but we seem to know nothing about the Spirit of Easter. Christmas is magical. But Easter is just a memory and a somber one at that. Christmas, even though it comes in winter, is all warmth and firelight. Easter arrives with spring, and like spring comes with a different quality of light. It is colder somehow.

If you doubt this, look at how artists have depicted each event down through the centuries. Their portraits of the nativity have a coziness that Easter lacks. We are charmed by the sight of the mother and babe, surrounded by animals and rough shepherds who bend their knees in adoration. The artistic vision of Easter is more spare somehow. Our observance of the two holidays also reflects the difference. Christmas announces its approach for weeks with colored lights, a mountain of gifts, and endless parties. We are sad to see it go. Contrast this with Easter, who arrives suddenly with a sheepish grin bearing only a ham and a few jellied candies.

Part of our problem is that we tend to separate the Nativity and Easter in our thinking. We know they are both moves in the larger story of Christ’s life. But to us, each has its own distinct atmosphere. In the church’s message, however, they are inseparably linked. Each was necessary to accomplish Christ’s purpose. If we remove one of them, they both cease to have meaning. Galatians 4:4–5 tells us that: “. . . when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law. . . .” The birth of Christ sets the stage for Good Friday. Without the incarnation, the work of the cross would be impossible. To redeem, Christ must first die for our sins. And to die for our sins, He must first be made like us.

Christ’s true humanity was necessary to our salvation because Jesus came not merely as a role model but primarily as a replacement. He came to die on our behalf as the only sacrifice that God will accept for sin. As Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” But Christ’s birth and death were not enough. The nativity did indeed set the stage for Good Friday. Yet Good Friday without Easter is as meaningless as Christmas without the cross. Paul describes the blunt necessity for Christ’s resurrection this way in 1 Corinthians 15:17, “. . . if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” The resurrection is proof of Christ’s divinity. It is also evidence that God has accepted Christ’s payment on our behalf.

Still, the cross has a unique place in the church’s proclamation of the gospel and the believer’s life. Indeed, we might say that the key to living the Christian life is the secret of keeping the cross in view. Paul told the Corinthians that he had not come to them with eloquence or human wisdom as he proclaimed to them the testimony about God: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Even though Paul’s gospel included the birth of Christ and the resurrection, he labeled it “the message of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18).

The cross has a unique place in the believer’s life.

More than this, Paul assigned the cross of Christ a critical role in enabling believers to live the Christian life. He pointed to the cross as God’s solution for the guilt of sin and its practice. “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin,” he explains in Romans 6:6–7. The cross is a historical event that exerts a kind of power in the believer’s life. But the power of the cross does not work on its own. It is the Holy Spirit who brings the cross to bear on our sinful nature. We do not overcome the pull of sin by relying on willpower but something far more potent. Those who have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” also “live by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).

Through the cross and the Spirit’s enablement, we find a permanent solution to the problem of sin. It begins with forgiveness. The blood of Christ shed on the cross pays the penalty for all our sins. The word that we sometimes use to describe this is atonement. Atonement is a payment that satisfies God’s wrath, and the only price that God will accept for sin is the one He has made Himself. Christ “has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26). The result is a change in our relationship with God and a change in our nature. Instead of being God’s enemies, we become His friends and children. As 1 Peter 3:18 says, Christ “suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.” We also become different people, or as Scripture puts it, “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:16). The Holy Spirit empowers those who receive Christ’s righteousness, enabling them to put that righteousness into practice. The word that we use to describe this aspect of the Christian life is sanctification. It is God’s work of making us holy.

How, then, do we keep the cross in view? It starts with something that the apostle Paul calls “reckoning” ourselves to be dead to sin but alive to God (Rom. 6:11–12). This is an act of faith, where we take God at His word and accept as true all that He has said about our relationship to sin. Keeping the cross in view also calls for a response whenever we find ourselves drawn by the desire of sin. This response involves a conscious turning away from sin and a corresponding turn to Christ. Instead of allowing sin to rule over us as it once did, we offer every part of ourselves to God as an instrument of righteousness (Rom. 6:13). Paul describes this as a kind of death. He tells us to: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). This is simply the act of saying no to ourselves and our impulses where sin is concerned. It is an act that assumes that Christ’s death has made a difference in us. We really can say no.

The Dickensian world of Scrooge appeals to us because it suggests that all we need to deal with sin are good intentions and noble effort. This message appeals to our human vanity and spiritual pride. But painful experience has shown us otherwise. Such an approach only leads to the kind of seasonal change that Dickens envisions in his tale. It is not deliverance from sin, but at best, a brief holiday. The cross promises something more. Here is the great difference between Charles Dickens’ notion of “keeping Christmas” and the Bible’s message of new life in Christ. For Dickens, Jesus Christ was primarily a moral example. To “keep Christmas” was to remember His goodness and try to imitate it. The forces at work in Ebenezer Scrooge’s fictional transformation are mostly guilt and fear. But the change that comes through the gospel operates on a very different level. It is a real, not a fictional change, that works through faith and hope instead of guilt and fear.

Gospel transformation begins with faith in Christ’s death and resurrection as the basis for our hope that we can live a different kind of life. Nowhere in Scripture does Christ tell us to “keep Christmas.” He doesn’t tell us to “keep Easter” either. What He does tell us to do is to remember the cross. This is not something we only do on Good Friday. Nor is it limited to the church’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper. We keep the cross in view every time we say “yes” to God and “no” to sin.

A Piece of Work: Understanding the Human Condition

Usually, when someone calls you “a real piece of work,” it’s not a compliment. We say such things about those we think are odd or whose behavior is hard to understand. But in a famous soliloquy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet declares: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” Yet Hamlet’s opinion of humanity is mixed. He calls human beings “the beauty of the world” and “the paragon of animals.” But he also asks, “what is this quintessence of dust?”

These days it is common to treat human beings as if they were only high functioning animals. Humans are indeed creatures but the Bible teaches that we are much more. According to Genesis 1, human beings were the pinnacle of God’s creative work. Not only were they the last creatures made, but they were created in God’s image. Genesis 1:27 says, “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

Made in God’s Image

Humans were not the only sentient beings God created. He also created the angels who dwell with Him in heaven. Likewise, the book of Genesis says that animals and humans have “the breath of life” in them and that this life comes from God (Gen. 1:30; 6:17; 7:17). According to the Psalmist, God made humans “a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5). Yet of all God’s creatures, it is only human beings that Scripture says are made in God’s image.

What is this image? Not everyone has the same understanding of what this phrase means. Many early Christian theologians understood the divine image to be the power to reason. Others linked the idea of the divine image with various human faculties like spirituality or immortality. In the Genesis account, humanity’s creation in God’s image sets the stage for the divine mandate to increase in number, fill and subdue the earth, and to rule over the other creatures God has made “(Gen. 1:28). However we understand God’s image, it at least means that God made us in His likeness to represent His interests in the world. To do this, He created humanity to be male and female. Each complements the other as they share the same divine calling. Both reflect the divine image equally. The task of dominion is granted to both alike but the domain in which they exercise that dominion belongs to God

The Bible’s account of human origins takes a sharp turn in the third chapter of Genesis, which describes the fall of humanity into sin through disobedience. The primary agent in this tragic turn of events was Satan, a rebellious angel who took the form of a serpent and tempted Adam and Eve to eat from the forbidden tree (Gen. 3:1–6; cf. 2:15–17). The entrance of sin fundamentally changed humanity’s relation to God and to each other. The word the Bible uses to describe its primary consequence is death (Gen. 2:17). We think of death as the cessation of physical life. It is this, but it is also, first and foremost, a state of alienation from God. Those who are dead in sin are God’s enemies.

The Nature of Sin

Just as we tend to be limited in our thinking about death, we are also narrow in our view of sin. The popular measure used to determine what constitutes sin is movable. This incomplete view reduces many of the things we used to call sins to matters of bad taste or cultural insensitivity. Contemporary culture has removed many of the thoughts and practices that we used to call sins from the category of sin altogether. They are called “choices,” “alternative lifestyles,” or simply “mistakes.” The fatal flaw in these views is their exclusion of God. Where there is no God, there is no sin. That same flaw has corrupted our notion of virtue. Where there is no God, there can be no virtue or goodness, either. There are only privately or commonly held standards.

What renders an action a sin is that it is ultimately committed against God. David understood this. In Psalm 51:4, he declared, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” This is an astonishing statement, given the events that prompted it. David committed adultery with Bathsheba. He arranged the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, after he learned that she had become pregnant. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. explains, “All sin has first and finally a Godward force.”

What, then, are we to do about the human problem of sin? Some people treat sin the same way they do high cholesterol. They know that if they ignore it, things will go badly. But they hope that if they take certain basic measures, it can be kept under control. Others think the solution is a matter of discipline. Those who treat sin as if it were a disease think it can be cured through treatment. Those who see sin as a lack of discipline believe it can be eliminated with education and training. But the Bible views sin differently. Sin is more than a disease or a failure of discipline. It is a condition of guilt and a deeply ingrained moral bent.

Sin is more than a disease or a failure of discipline.

Ever since Adam, human beings have been wired for sin. In his letter to the Christians in Rome, the apostle Paul explains that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). God’s reason for binding the rest of humanity to Adam’s one act of disobedience was to open the door of forgiveness through the one man Jesus Christ. “For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man,” the apostle goes on to observe, “how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!” (Rom. 5:17).

Just as our union with Adam in his sin had a profound effect on the human condition, union with Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection also affects us. Adam introduced the dynamic of sin into human nature with its guilt and alienation. Jesus replaces this guilt with His own righteousness and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, enables those who are His to act out that righteousness in their daily lives. The word the Bible uses to describe this new relationship is justified. Romans 5:1–2 explains, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.”

Just as If

Some have tried to explain justification by saying that it makes us “just as if we had never sinned.” Although this is a good start, it does not go far enough. Christ’s death on the cross does indeed take away our sin, rendering us guiltless in the eyes of God. But the work of Christ does more than restore us to the state Adam was in before he sinned. Because Jesus obeyed God perfectly as our substitute, His righteousness is also credited to us. It is not only “just as if I had never sinned,” but also “just as if I had perfectly obeyed.

How should we think about the human condition? The Bible tells us who and what we are. Humans are more than complex animals. They are creatures made in God’s image with a physical and spiritual nature and were created to act as His representatives in the world. Humans are also deeply flawed by what the Bible calls sin. This is both a condition of guilt and a natural inclination that alienates us from God and one another. All the ills we see in the world today can ultimately be traced to the problem of sin.

The hope of the Christian where sin is concerned is Jesus Christ. He is God’s answer for sin. Christ’s death paid the price for all our sin. Christ’s obedience earned our righteousness. His resurrection has made us  “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). All those who are in Jesus Christ exchange death for life. It is only because Christ has given us new life that we can live a new life.

What is God Like?

The Bible teaches that God has revealed Himself to us through creation and by His word. But what does that revelation tell us about the nature of God? Theologians have traditionally divided God’s attributes into two main categories. Some are attributes that have no analogy in human experience. These attributes, often called God’s incommunicable attributes, display the uniqueness of the divine nature. Others, called communicable attributes, are characteristics that have some analogy in human experience. God’s incommunicable attributes show how the divine nature is unlike our own. They display God’s transcendence and reveal the great gulf that exists between the Creator and His creatures. God’s communicable attributes remind us that we have been created in the image of God and, in some small measure, were designed to be like Him.

When Jesus spoke of God to the woman of Samaria, He emphasized two fundamental characteristics of God. According to Jesus, God is both a Spirit and a personal being who seeks those who worship Him in spirit and truth (John 4:24). The title Jesus uses to describe this being is Father. This label implies that God is both intimately involved with His creation while being distinct from it. Creation depends on God for its origin and continued existence, but God is not dependent on anyone or anything (Acts 17:24-25). This independence is reflected in four attributes that flow from it and reflect God’s power: Infinity, Omnipresence, Eternity, and Immutability.

God Has No Bounds

When we say that God is infinite, we are not really talking about size or distance but the fulness of His perfection. God possesses all His attributes without measure or limitation. All that God is, He is to an infinite degree. This infinite God is omnipresent. He is always present everywhere. The Psalmist acknowledged this when he wrote, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (Ps. 139:7–8). There is no place or situation in which we will find ourselves that God is not already present. We cannot hide from God or escape His presence.

Where time is concerned, God is eternal. He does not experience the limitations of time the way we do. As Psalm 90:2 observes, He exists as God “from everlasting to everlasting.” God’s eternal nature has implications for God’s interaction with creation. The eternal God can act within time as we know it, but He is not bound by time. Because God exists apart from time, the Bible uses our experience as a point of reference when talking about His eternal nature. 2 Peter 3:8 urges us to remember that “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” What seems to us like a delay is not a delay to God. Our physical life has a beginning and an end. God has neither. Because we are time-bound creatures, we can only experience time as a succession of events. Unlike us, God is not subject to time or to cause and effect.

This means that God’s infinite nature is also immutable. God can’t be more or less than He already is. James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” God’s character and nature do not change. Nor does He mature, grow, or evolve. His plans and purposes are fixed (Ps. 33:11; 102:27). At the same time, there are passages in Scripture that seem to attribute change to God. For example, Genesis 6:6 says that God “regretted that he had made human beings on the earth.” Jonah 3:10 tells how, after the people of Nineveh repented, God relented from the destruction He had threatened to bring upon them. As with time, the Bible speaks of these instances using human experience as their primary reference point. In these instances, it is not God who changes but humanity’s relation to God.

Omniscient, Good, Holy, & Omnipotent

The other category of God’s attributes is called communicable because they have some analogy in human experience. They describe God in terms with which we are familiar. They speak of His knowledge, righteousness, and mercy. At the same time, these attributes reinforce the Bible’s message that we are not God, even though we have been created in His image.

God’s communicable attributes include omniscience. God knows things, and so do we. But God knows everything to an infinite degree. He knows all things comprehensively. He knows all that has happened, and all that will happen. “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me,” the Psalmist declares. “You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar” (Psalm 139:1–2). God knows all that we think before we think it and what we will say before we say it. He knows our secret thoughts, even those we have hidden from ourselves (Ps. 139:4, 24). By comparison, our knowledge is as infinitesimal as God’s is infinite.

Another communicable attribute is God’s goodness. This goodness is expressed first in God’s holiness and righteousness. God is Himself the ultimate standard of all that can be deemed good. For this reason, Jesus declared, “No one is good–except God alone” (Mark 10:18). Because God is perfectly holy, His moral standard is one that demands perfect holiness. He upholds this standard by acting justly and holding all those who fall short of it accountable. God has a moral nature and created us to be moral beings. But our nature is imperfect and is flawed by the presence of sin. Our unrighteousness separates us from God and makes us liable to His judgment. This problem of sin calls forth the other dimension of God’s goodness, the love that He has shown by offering us grace and mercy through Jesus Christ.

Of all God’s attributes, perhaps the most familiar is His omnipotence. God is all-powerful. This characteristic is expressed in Job 23:13, which says that God “does whatever he pleases.” Omnipotence does not mean that God can do anything. There are some things that Scripture says God cannot do. God cannot lie. He cannot sin. God cannot deny Himself. But God can do all that He purposes to do, and all that God purposes to do is consistent with His nature. Our God is mighty to save (Isa. 63:1; Zeph. 3:17).

Unity in Trinity

Although we tend to separate God’s attributes when we analyze them, they are not separate in God’s being. God is not divided, nor is He in conflict with Himself. God’s holiness does not battle with His grace and mercy. One of the dangers of focusing on the divine attributes is that it tends to reduce God to a list of philosophical abstractions so that we lose His personal nature. The Scriptures reveal that God is a personal being and that He exists as a unity of three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Both the Old and New Testaments agree in their assertion that “God is one” (Deut. 6:4; Mark 12:32; Gal. 3:20; James 2:19). This means that there is only one God. There are not many gods. But it also means that God is one by nature. The three Persons in the Trinity are distinct from one another as persons but not in essence. Scripture does not portray God as a single divine person who manifests Himself in three different modes, nor does it speak of the Godhead as three separate divine beings. The triune nature of God has no analogy in human experience. All attempts to explain it by comparison with nature or philosophy are bound to fail. We can affirm this truth by faith, but we cannot fully comprehend it.

“Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves,” the Reformation pastor and theologian John Calvin observed. He goes on to note that one leads to the other. When we look at ourselves, our thoughts turn to the God who made us and sustains us. When we contemplate God, we can’t help being aware of the ruin that sin has brought about in our lives. “To this extent we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God,” Calvin explains, “and we cannot seriously aspire to Him before we become displeased with ourselves.”

The Bible shows us what God is like so that we will see ourselves as we truly are. The main lesson of the attributes is twofold. First, God’s attributes show us that although we have been created in the divine image, we are not God. Second, they remind us that we need God’s mercy and grace shown to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ before that image can be fully restored in us. This is the hope of the Christian. It is the hope that “when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

The Recent History of God

Where does one begin when speaking of God? A biography usually starts at the beginning with its subject’s birth and ancestry. But the God of Scripture, unlike the gods of myth, is uncreated and eternal. He has no beginning or point of origin. He has no ancestors. For this reason, God’s account of Himself in Scripture begins not with His creation but with ours. If the Bible is the history of God, it is only a record of recent history.

Why this had to be the case should be obvious. God’s existence in what we call the past is infinite. It is not possible to grasp, let alone record. God’s eternal nature is also unlimited in its power and scope. He is not bound by time or space. He is not dependent on anyone or anything but sustains everything that exists (Acts 17:25; Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:17). The full scope of all that God is and has done is beyond our view. There is too much to know and too much to write. Even if it could be written, it is doubtful that we would be able to comprehend it.

The Bible only records what we might call God’s recent history because it begins with our history. It is a mistake to think of the Bible as the autobiography of God. It is just the opposite. The Bible is God’s biography of us. From the Bible we know something about what God is like. God has shown us this through what He has said and done in our world. The Bible also tells us about ourselves. In many respects, the Bible tells humanity’s story as much as it does God’s.

The theologians have a word for this. They call it revelation. Divine self-revelation is where all knowledge of God begins. We only know about God because God has chosen to reveal Himself to us. Moreover, what we know about God is dependent upon what God has chosen to reveal. We cannot put God on a slab to dissect Him to expose all His parts. We cannot watch Him through a microscope or find Him in the world’s most powerful telescope. If we are to know what God is like, He must show us Himself.

God has done this in two primary ways. God has revealed Himself by actions and in words. The Bible also shows that God has done this in two different modes. One is broad. The other is narrow. There are some things that God has revealed to everyone. They are plain for all who are willing to see. These truths are expressed in the universal language of creation. This is what the Psalmist means when He says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). The Psalmist goes on to describe creation as a kind of non-verbal communication that “goes out into all the earth” (v. 2).

This general revelation of God is also communicated to us internally. Because this internal message operates on the level of conscience, its function is primarily negative. The primary purpose of internal general revelation is to show us that we are not like God. The apostle Paul explains its negative function when he says: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. (Rom. 1:18–19).

Another important feature of this general revelation is its limited scope. Neither the external general revelation of creation nor the internal revelation of conscience can tell us everything that can be known about God. They do not even tell us the most important things that we should know about Him. This mode of revelation covers only a few basics. In a way, general revelation is God’s kindergarten, limiting its message to God’s eternal power and His divine nature. General revelation tells us that God exists, that He is the creator, and that we are not Him.

Fortunately, God has also chosen to reveal Himself on another band. This is a mode that the theologians call “special” revelation. Special revelation is more narrow than general revelation. While general revelation is available to everyone, special revelation was experienced by only a few. God revealed Himself to a few chosen messengers who passed what they had heard from God down to others. Special revelation is also narrow in its focus. The message of special revelation primarily has to do with God’s plan to redeem humanity from sin. Special revelation was personal and ultimately verbal. The things God said and did were written down and collected in the Scriptures. They describe His saving acts and interpret those actions for us. They tell us what God expects of us and give us a glimpse of what God will do in the future.

Divine self-revelation is where all knowledge of God begins.

When you read the Bible, you quickly discover that God did not make Himself known all at once. Instead, He revealed Himself in stages. This progressive revelation of God reaches its peak in the person and work of Jesus Christ. As the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews observeed, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe” (Heb. 1:1–2).

God, who dwells outside of history, entered history to make Himself known once and for all in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Not only does Jesus reveal God to us in human terms, but He also shows us what God had in mind when He created the world. If the Bible is a history of the human race described from God’s perspective, Jesus Christ is the key that unlocks that history for us. Jesus is the bridge that connects God’s story with human history. Jesus is the end toward which all God’s words and works in the world tend. Jesus is the sum of all that God has to say about Himself.

Revelation shows us what we can know about God. But the fact that God has shown us Himself in this way reveals something about us as well. It proves that there is something that stands in the way of our understanding God. The word the Bible uses for this is sin. Not surprisingly, this is where the Bible’s history of God begins. Not just with creation but with humanity’s departure from God through disobedience.

Therefore, if we want to describe God’s history with humanity in simple terms, we could probably articulate it in three sentences. God made us. We rejected Him. So God took on human nature and came to redeem us in person. The Bible’s revelation of God is not a collection of vague philosophies or abstract facts. Everything that revelation has to say about God has redemption at its center. Everything that can be said about divine revelation, the discipline that we call theology, can pretty much be divided into five categories: the nature of God, the nature of humanity, the person and work of Jesus Christ, the nature of redemption, and God’s plan for bringing this stage of His history to a close.

Where does one begin when speaking about God? We begin with God. The only way to begin with God is to begin with what God has said. Everything that we can say about God depends upon what God has said Himself. Scripture tells us that God has shown Himself both by word and action. But between these two, it is Scripture that must have the primary place. Scripture both describes and interprets God’s words and actions for us.

But why would God reveal Himself to us in the first place? It is not so that we would accumulate facts about Him. The goal of revelation is faith. We study Scripture so that we might know about God, and by knowing, that we might come to believe. For, as the writer of the book of Hebrews observed, “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

Christmas Traveler: Why the Nativity is About the Cross

In this year of COVID-19, the governor of my state has asked everyone to stay home for Christmas. To be honest, it feels strange. For many, Christmas is a time for traveling. The same was true of the first Christmas. The Gospel narratives of Christ’s birth are crowded with travelers. Zechariah, the priest, travels to Jerusalem to burn incense before the Lord and is struck with dumb surprise when the angel announces that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son in their old age. Mary travels too, heading for the hills to visit her relative, Elizabeth. Then to Bethlehem with Joseph to give birth to the miracle child conceived by the Holy Spirit. Shepherds hurry into the night, leaving their flock behind to find the babe wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Magi travel from the east by caravan to lay their gifts before the newborn king of the Jews, while Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt to escape King Herod’s wrath. Everybody in the Christmas story, it seems, is on the road.

Yet of all the travelers in the Christmas narrative, none comes as far as Jesus. His is a journey that is measured not in miles but position. “Out of the ivory palaces, into a world of woe,” an old hymn says. The opening of John’s Gospel clarifies that the change was even more profound than the hymn-writer imagines. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” John declares (John 1:14). The theologians describe this in literal terms as the incarnation, the enfleshing of the Word of God. At the incarnation, Jesus Christ took a human nature to Himself without ceasing to be divine.

If the theologians express the literal sense of John’s theology with this language, the 17th-century poet Richard Crashaw captures John’s lyrical warmth when he writes,

Welcome, all Wonders in one sight!

Eternity shut in a span.

Summer to winter, day in night,

Heaven in earth, and God in man.

The poet’s phrase “eternity shut in a span” measures the distance between heaven’s throne and Bethlehem’s manger. There was both an addition and a subtraction in the incarnation. Jesus took to Himself a human nature that He previously did not possess. The babe of Bethlehem was a real infant, as helpless and dependent as any other. At that moment, the creator of all things became both actor and the one acted upon. The eternal Word was conceived by God, born of a virgin, and laid in a manger. The Son of God became the child of Mary. By this act, Jesus laid aside something as well. In Philippians 2:7 the apostle Paul says that Jesus, who was God by nature, “made Himself nothing” at the incarnation. The Greek text says that Christ “emptied” Himself.

We should not see this as an abdication. Jesus did not cease to be divine when He took on flesh and blood. Instead, this was more of a refusal. He refused to cling to the rights and prerogatives that belonged to Him because of His divinity. As one translation of Philippians 2:6 puts it, Jesus did not consider equality with God “something to be used to his own advantage.” When He was made in human likeness, Jesus took up the nature of a servant. Paul’s language in these verses is deliberate. Confinement to human form was more than a symbolic statement for Jesus. True humanity was essential for the specific task that Jesus came to perform. When Jesus was “found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:8). Jesus took on flesh so that He could die.

That death is the linchpin of the theology of the incarnation. Remove it, and the story of Christ’s nativity becomes immeasurably reduced, as does the rest of His life and ministry. Without His death on the cross, Jesus is only another wagging finger urging us to attempt what we cannot attain. Such a Christ may be a moral example, but He is no savior. Likewise, the resurrection of Jesus is a necessary complement to His obedience to the point of death. Without the resurrection, Jesus is merely another martyr in a long line of martyrs, and the gospel is no longer the gospel. The apostle does indeed set Jesus before us as an example when he tells us to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). But this is only because he presents Jesus as our savior first, the one who died for our sins and rose again for our justification. Those who do not recognize Christ as their savior cannot take Him as their example. Jesus is always a gift before He is a model.

Jesus had to be born to die. Without that death, there would be no remedy for our sin. Jesus had to be raised from the dead to make us alive to God. It is only by that resurrection that we can follow Christ’s example. This means that the manger, the cross, and the empty tomb are inseparable. Remove one, and the rest must fall away as well. It also means that the trajectory of our spiritual journey mirrors that of Jesus Christ. We move from physical birth to the cross to the empty tomb and then to glory. Only those who have been united with Christ in His death and resurrection can follow His descent into humility. All of this rests on the fulcrum of the incarnation. Without it, none of the rest would be possible. By submitting to incarnation, Jesus Christ not only placed Himself at the Father’s disposal, but He also made Himself dependent upon the Father to complete His task.

These days it is common to hear people talk about the “magic” of Christmas. Those who speak this way are usually just talking about ambiance. Christmas movies and television commercials imply that celebrating Christmas will produce a transcendent experience. Broken relationships will suddenly mend. Prodigals will come home. The broken-hearted find love at last, and all the ills of the world will be mended, at least for one day. We are foolish enough to believe this false vision, failing to recognize that what they are really selling is an atmosphere, along with the products that create it. We have mistaken the rhetoric of marketing for mystery.

What is truly missing from our Christmas is not magic but memory. We do not need more atmosphere but an understanding of the incarnation. We have forgotten what the original story was all about. In many cases, we have removed the original story altogether. We have tried to improve it by garnishing it with tinsel and lights or have reduced the original narrative to such a degree that all we have left is a string of sentimental images.

If we wish to know the wonder of Christmas, we will need to recapture a vision of “eternity shut in a span.”  To do that, we must go beyond the manger. We need to travel the rest of the way with Jesus. From the manger to the cross to the tomb, and beyond. We will need to remember that Jesus did not enter the fairy tale world of soft snow and gossamer-winged angels that we sing about in carols and see on Christmas cards. He came to a  world of hard roads and even harsher realities. The path our Lord traveled was not one that went from glory to glory. It was primarily, as Paul reminds us, a path of downward mobility.

Jesus began His life as a fugitive and ended it as a political prisoner. Kings and priests sought His death. His followers frequently misunderstood Him and, in His last hours, finally abandoned Him. In other words, Jesus came into our world, a broken world filled with disappointments. He came like us, in flesh and blood, yet without sin. Jesus took on flesh, knowing full well all that it would entail. Confinement to the limits of human nature. Restraint in the exercise of His divine power. And ultimately, in the Garden of Gethsemane, a refusal from His Heavenly Father to let Him escape the cup of suffering. Jesus did not do these things out of necessity but voluntarily.  Nor did He do them to create a magical holiday season. Jesus did them, as the old Creed declares, for us, and for our salvation. Thanks be to God.

Awkward Conversations with God

Casey was an abandoned German shepherd pup that we found in a box in the parking lot of the local general store on the edge of town. He looked so tiny and cute that we couldn’t bear to leave him there. But he was a bad dog. He chewed the carpet and growled at babies. When Casey bit someone, we realized we had to get rid of him. It was a difficult decision but not nearly as hard as the task of telling my two little boys that their dog was gone. I choked out the sad news between gasps and tears, trying to explain why it was necessary.

Telling someone about the loss of a loved one. Talking to the kids about the facts of life. Informing an employee that their contract will not be renewed. Some conversations are just hard. But to be honest, nothing is quite as challenging for me as trying to talk with someone who has nothing to say. You know the kind conversartion I mean. This is the sort where you have to do all the heavy lifting while the other person responds with an inscrutable silence. In a way, a one-sided conversation is an oxymoron. We might call it a monologue, a soliloquy, or a sermon, but whatever it is, it is not a conversation.

Not everyone is a good conversationalist. Some of us are shy. We have thoughts, many of them good ones, but we have trouble expressing those thoughts to others. A few like to talk so much that they do not make room for the silence necessary for another to join in. They think they are having a conversation when they are really just “holding forth.” A conversation requires an exchange of thought between at least two people to be a conversation.

I say this to make a point about God. Or be more precise, to make a point about my experience with God in prayer. I have found that God is not much of a conversationalist. He is mostly silent when I talk to Him. Not that I am such a good conversationalist either. My prayers tend to be repetitive, made up of the same requests every time. My attention span is short. I suppose that if I were the one on the other side of the conversation, I would probably be too bored to respond too. But at least I say something. God, as far as I can tell, doesn’t say anything. I pray and all I get in return is an awkward silence.

I have found that God is not much of a conversationalist.

We know from Scripture that God is capable of speech. According to the book of Genesis, the first words ever spoken were God’s words. God said, “Let there be light, and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). God spoke to Moses “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exod. 33:11). He spoke to Abraham the same way. Yet, the Bible also demonstrates that ordinary conversation has never been God’s primary mode of communicating, at least not the kind of conversations we are used to having. Most of the time, He has spoken through others: prophets, preachers, and occasionally angels. Even then, God has never shown Himself to be what you could describe as voluble. Long gaps of years, decades, centuries, and even millennia separate the occasions where God spoke to His people.

Taken as a whole, there are enough of God’s words to fill the Old and New Testaments. But when they are considered individually, the instances where God has spoken exhibit two main characteristics. Most of the time, He has spoken through others. God used human agents who were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” to deliver His message (2 Pet. 1:21). God spoke but indirectly. The other characteristic of God’s verbal communication is restraint. Although God has spoken at many times and in various ways, He is not what you would call chatty. His words tend to be few and far between. When God does speak, He does not say everything that could be said. He does not answer all our questions. Even when God does answer our questions, He does not always tell us everything we want to know.

We are frustrated by this reserve. There is much we would like to know that we do not. Of course, there are probably good reasons for this. Would we understand God’s reasoning even if He told us? Sometimes we have a question, and Scripture bluntly tells us that the answer is none of our business (Acts 1:7; Rom. 9:19–20). Would knowing why God answered a particular prayer in a disappointing way make that answer easier to accept? We think the answer is yes. Yet any parent who has had to argue with a child will tell you that explanations, even reasonable explanations, do not always satisfy.

Whatever prayer is it is not an ordinary conversation, if only because prayer is a conversation where we seem to do most of the talking. In prayer, we approach God but do not see either face or form and cannot hear His voice. Therefore, as a conversation, prayer lacks all the normal cues we usually rely upon for meaning. When we talk to God, we cannot hear the way He inflects his voice. We do not see body language or read facial expression. Perhaps we should be grateful for this. Scripture says that God spoke to Israel “face to face out of the fire on the mountain” (Deut. 5:4). The people were so put off by His manner of delivery, coming as it did “out of darkness, while the mountain was ablaze with fire,” that they begged him to stop (Deut. 5:22–25). The prophet Elijah heard God speak in a gentle whisper, but it was a shout on Sinai. Even Moses, who was used to speaking to God “face to face, as one speaks to a friend,” found the experience terrifying (Ex. 33:11; Heb. 12:21). We assume that it would be a comfort to hear God speak to us. But Scripture suggests that we are more likely to be unnerved by the experience. Perhaps, like Job, we would want to put our hands over our ears in stunned silence (Job 40:3–5).

Prayer differs from ordinary conversation in another respect. Those who pray often talk to themselves at the same time as they are talking to God. Sometimes this takes the form of self-talk or self-encouragement. Martyn Lloyd Jones describes this as an effort to “take ourselves in hand” and proclaim the truth to ourselves. “Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?” Lloyd Jones observes.  The self-talk of prayer is not a pep talk or even positive thinking. Instead, we base what we say to ourselves on what God has said in Scripture and on our experience of His faithfulness. With these things in mind, we put our expectations into words and speak them aloud to ourselves. “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” the Psalmist prays in Psalm 42:5. “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (cf. Ps. 42:11; 43:5). The self-talk of prayer amounts to a confession of faith made in the presence of God.

Those who hope for response from God to their prayers are often looking for some kind of feeling or inner impression. It does not necessarily have to be an audible voice. But they seek a sense of assurance about what God will do or what He wants us to do.  There are so many accounts of this sort of thing that it cannot be denied that something like this happens when people pray. But experiences like this are not constant nor are they infallible. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that when we come to prayer it is not with a request so much as with a plan. Our prayers not only include an ask but directions about how the answers should come. In this way, what some have called “listening prayer” all too often becomes presumptuous prayer. We bring our desires and plans with us and place them on God’s lips.

If the temptation of the theologian is to reduce God to a topic, the temptation of the spiritual practicioner is to reduce God to an experience. When we objectify God this way, we go to Him not for a relationship but for an experience. Our interest in Him extends no further than the potential He offers to make us feel a certain way or give us what we want. “The essence of Christian prayer is to seek God,” John Stott has observed. “We seek him in order to acknowledge him as the person he is, God the Creator, God the Lord, God the Judge, God our heavenly Father through Jesus Christ our Savior.”

In the end it is not God who is disengaged in prayer but us. God has already spoken, but we fail take His words into account. We know only what we want. I am not saying that we have never read the Bible, or even that we have no interest in God. Just that we tend to be single minded in our interests. We have not bothered to consider God’s point of view. We are waiting for Him to respond to us when all the while He has been waiting for us. We expect Him to say something new without orienting our prayer to what He has already said. We complain that He is tight lipped and unresponsive. When the real problem is that He will not stick to the script we have already written for Him. What would we say differently, if we really believed that God was listening? It probably wouldn’t change our request. But it might change our prayer.

When God Says No

In the early days of my walk with Christ, I was taught to believe that miracles were an everyday occurrence. The Christians I knew were generous in their definition of what constituted a miracle, as likely to call a good parking spot an act of God as someone’s sudden recovery from cancer. Every situation was treated as an occasion for divine intervention. I confess that this was part of what attracted me to the Christian faith. I was not interested in a God who was merely an abstraction; I wanted to know that God was real. I was looking for a God who paid attention to me when I spoke to Him. It did not occur to me that I was the one who was supposed to do the listening.

I often prayed for God to intervene in my life. But I did not always get what I wanted. I asked Him to heal my mother when she was unexpectedly hospitalized for an illness that the doctors did not seem to be able to diagnose. She died. I asked God to deliver my father from alcoholism. He did not. I prayed to win the lottery (only once). You can guess how that turned out. I am not saying that God has never answered my prayers. Only that God refused my request often enough to know that an affirmative answer is not always a given.

 “Them that’s got shall get, and them that’s not shall lose,” Billie Holiday sang. The whole world seems to be divided into a few privileged people who get everything they want and the majority who do not. Why not Kingdom of God too? We often wonder why God grants to others the thing He denies to us. The effect this has on our prayers is often an attitude of ambivalence. We conclude our prayers with a resigned shrug and interpret delay as denial. We secretly think that God is playing favorites. But the truth is we are the ones who suffer from bias. Our memory is selective, more inclined to dwell on God’s refusals than to remember the many times He has granted our requests. Impatience distorts our sense of God’s timing in His answers so that we ignore the winding and unexpected path that leads from entreaty to answer that earlier generations called providence.

Praying Like a Child

Such thinking is childish, of course. Yet there is no spiritual act that is more childlike than the act of prayer. Jesus acknowledges as much when He encourages His disciples to be persistent in their praying and asks: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” (Matt. 7:9–10). When it comes to our most basic needs, God often grants them without our even having to ask. He “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). God “gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25).

God is generous by nature. But He is no pushover. Whatever our prayers are, they are not a means by which we may manipulate God. We cannot bully God or wheedle Him into granting us the answer that we prefer. The divine right to refuse our requests is necessary if prayer to be something more than a merely mechanical or transactional event. Anthony Bloom’s observation about the possibility that those who pray might still experience the absence of God’s presence also applies the answers we seek in prayer. “If we could mechanically draw Him into an encounter, force Him to meet us, simply because we have chosen this moment to meet Him, there would be no relationship and no encounter,” Bloom explains. “We can do that with an image, with the imagination, or with the various idols we can put in front of us instead of God; we can do nothing of the sort with the living God, any more than we can do it with a living person.”

Mechanical Praying

In His teaching about prayer, Jesus described this same mechanical style as the sort of approach the pagans use when they pray, “for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7). The one who piles up words in prayer has lost sight of God. When we cease to relate to God as we would a person, He might as well be a vending machine. At best, we treat God as if He were a mere functionary, the same way we might treat someone who gives us our order at the drive-through. We are hardly aware of them. We hand over our money, take our meal and drive off. We don’t know their name, and minutes after we have left the parking lot, we cannot recall their face.

unrecognizable men praying in old catholic church

Our failure to grasp this can turn prayer into an attempt at manipulation. We desperately try to gauge whether the amount of our faith is enough to trigger the desired response from God. This uncertainty, in turn, lends itself to spiritual posturing. We put on a show in the vain hope that we will somehow convince God that we have the kind of faith that warrants an answer. We fuss over our delivery, trying to sound confident and prove that we have enough faith to gain our request. Or we conclude that the weight God will give to our prayers is a function of the number of people we can persuade to take up our request. We approach prayer as if it were an oral petition drive, hoping that the sound of so many others will drown out the uncertainty of our own voice. We mount a lobbying campaign, inviting those we consider spiritual authorities to pray for us, convinced that their prayers have more influence with God than ours.

More than Answers

Miracles do not always lead to faith any more than answers to prayers do. John 6 tells how the crowd followed Jesus to the other side of the lake after He fed the multitude. “You are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill,” Jesus chided them (John 6:26). The Israelites ate bread that fell from heaven and still grumbled about the menu. The disciples saw Jesus raise people from the dead. But when the women came and told them that they had seen Jesus alive after His crucifixion, they thought they were talking nonsense (Luke 24:11).  As important as the answers to our prayers are, there is more to prayer than getting. Getting the answer is certainly no small thing, but it is not the only thing. “In Gethsemane, the holiest of all petitioners prays three times that a certain cup might pass from Him. It did not,” C. S. Lewis points out. “After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed.” That one denial, combined with Jesus’ resigned, “Yet not my will, but yours be done,” is evidence that prayer is an exercise in trusting God’s answer as much as it is the act of making our request (Luke 22:42).

When I was a boy, Superman was my favorite television show. I wanted to fly like him, so I did the natural thing. I asked my father to teach me. When he told me that he did not know how to fly, I didn’t believe him. It is in a child’s nature to assume not only the willingness of their parents to grant their requests but their ability to do so, no matter how unreasonable the request may be. One of the first lessons of maturity is that of learning to accept our parents’ limitations in such matters. But where our prayers are concerned, the limitation is with us rather than with God. We are not always the best judge of what we need. Like a child who demands a pony for Christmas, our requests are sometimes frivolous. Others are selfish. A few of the things we ask for may even be so bad for us that God dismisses them outright. Yet, many of our requests are reasonable and even beneficial.

If the Bible reveals anything about God’s power, it indicates that He is a God of miracles. All the miracles of Scripture ultimately point to the miracle of miracles, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection is the central miracle of the Bible, the one which makes our salvation possible. Yet it is a miracle that was possible only because the Father refused the Savior’s prayer in Gethsemane. We do not always understand why God withholds from us the thing we have asked of Him. But we do not need to know why to understand that His answer is good for us. The Father’s refusal of the prayer of His own Son is all the proof we need that sometimes God’s “no” is more loving than His “yes.”

John’s latest book, Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good is available from Moody Publishers. Check out the free small group resources by clicking on the Dangerous Virtues-Group Resources tab above.