Wednesday, December 27, 2006

On people lost in forests...

Picture this. A man is lost in a dense forest. He's been lost for a few days. Hungry. Cold. Tired and wet. He's in trouble.

Fortunately, one of his best friends realises he hasn't returned as expected and goes looking for him, calling out every few seconds. Just after midday on the second day he's been searching for him, he hears his friend.

"Geoff, is that you?!"

"Sure is mate!" Geoff says as he catches a glimpse of his lost friend, Jamie, through the trees.

"Thank God you found me!" The two exhange a warm brotherly hug and sit down, and Geoff gives his friend some warm dry clothes, a few energy bars and a drink.

After a few minutes, Geoff sees that Jamie's got plenty of energy left to walk back out. He gets up and motions Jamie to follow him. "Let's get going. I've got a GPS and a map, so I can lead you out. We're having a party at my place - they'll be a spit roast, BBQ, plenty of drinks - it'll be great. We'll be able to make it there before dinner if we leave now."

But instead, Jamie makes himself comfortable where he's seated. "No, it's hard walking through the forest and it's so great to have you with me here, so I'd rather just stay and talk with you. All I need is to have you here with me."

Of course, you'll probably think that Jamie is being a bit silly, and this response seems very unlikely. Yet I think it reflects a little of what Christians sometimes do. They sometimes make having a "personal relationship with God" so all-important that forget about following Jesus. The forest represents behaviour and character attributes that are harmful to us - "sin", to use some Christian jargon. The party outside the forest represents the righteous way of life that Jesus showed people to live. The point of the story is that Jesus wanted to free us from sin into righteousness in a real, tangible way. God loves us too much to not mind if we continue to hurt ourselves and others with wrong thoughts, words and behaviour.

Perhaps it doesn't occur to some Christians that there is in fact a righteous way of life that is (at least comparatively) free of sin. They can't see the proverbial wood from the trees and think "it's all forest" out there, so there's no use in trying to escape sin because we can't. But Jesus' message was good news precisely because he showed them a way to be free from the hurt of sin - his message is that there really is a place outside of the forest and he can show us the way.

But being freed means we need to actually follow him, just like in the story above. Jesus wanted to help us learn the art of living so that we could truly enjoy a fulfilling life and help others do the same. That means we have to take some responsibility to take some action. Yes, Jesus said it comes at a price. He said it would be difficult sometimes. But he also said it would be worth it, and I am finding that it is.

So, the moral of the story is that Jesus came to show us "The Way" to live, not to just give us "The Personal Relationship" to have. When he said "follow me", I think he meant it.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

People are a mixture of good and bad

A quick thought... Christians often take a very black and white view of people - completely perfect OR "sinner". I think this often leads to people not noticing all the good in people, even those who don't call themselves "Christians". I see people as not all bad, but a mixture of good and bad.

It's tempting for Christians to think that the good in people is "tainted" by their bad. And this is true in one sense, but adding mud to pure water. But also think we can see true goodness in people despite their other bad character traits. I like to think of the good parts of people's characters as being like nuggets of gold, treasure in the midst of more mundane clay and hard stone. Stones represent bad aspects of character. Clay, though, has potential to be shaped, and I think it can eventually turn into either stone or gold (just go with the analogy here, don't think too hard about the chemistry of that). In other words, as people grow older they create more stone or gold in their hearts - more self-centredness or kindness, more bitterness or joyfulness, more short-temperedness or graciousness...

And the scary and beautiful thing is that I think other people can have a huge affect on what sort of character traits develop in people. Scary because people often promote bad character traits in people, but beautiful when we encourage each other on toward goodness.

So, my thought was simple - see the good in other people and encourage that good in them. Praise them for it, rather than picking on their flaws. Because I think that's a great way to actually help the good in other people grow and at the same time make them feel less gloomy.

PS: If you read this, how about leaving a comment? I like comments =)

The challenge of what my life is about

My life has typically been about me. It's so easy to put myself first. Not only first, but way before other people in terms of priority, focus, and energy. I think I tend to do this because I think I need to put priority on me for my life to be the wonderful personal utopia that our Western culture tells me I should have. But lately I've started seeing that this selfish focus is not what makes our lives full, but what strips them of the very things we want.

It's the sort of silly-sounding idea that Jesus spoke of, that those who "find their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for his sake will find them." (Although I suspect this verse is based more in a martyrdom theology than in social psychological theory, and more about being willing to die to Jesus' and his cause than what I'm using it for, but I'll say it anyway.) My point is this, that by giving some other people equal (or greater) priority as ourselves our own lives become far richer, "bigger" and more complete than if we are selfish. Our world isn't a one-person world that revolves around ourselves, but instead is filled with other people we love.

It has been an ongoing challenge for me to actually be less self-centred. I often speak warmly of the concept and idealise it, but my life doesn't change. And I think I've worked out why: I'm too afraid I'll somehow come out worse off, I am not sure I'm willing to take the risk of really loving other people like this. I mean, if I let go of myself - maybe I really will lose myself. It's hard enough having my own life to worry about, let alone expanding my heart to include more people.

And I'm still figuring out how to really put this idea into practice. But I think I've stumbled on a helpful concept. I've realised that I have been trying to my my life special. My hopes, dreams, and aspirations have all been centred around trying to make my experience of life good. But what if I instead made my aspirations, dreams, and goals about making the lives of those I love good and special? What if my life's work was not about me, but about giving joy, friendship, love and life to others? What if my life was not so much about me, but instead about other people?

This idea sounds both appealing and frightening to me. It sounds noble and wonderful and honourable and good; and scary and risky and difficult and difficult and difficult... I know it's easier said than done. I know I need people who have mastered some of this art of real love more than I have to show me how it's done. And I'm excited and a little afraid of the prospect of slowly, painfully slowly, learning this art myself - but I think I'll be glad I did, so I hope I'm bold enough to try.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Becoming gods

I chose that title purely to get your attention, but it is relevant... as you'll see. Irenaeus wrote:
"we have not been made gods from the beginning, but at first merely men, then at length gods...." [Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:38:4, in ANF 1:522.]
What I'm about to say might not have been Irenaeus' point, but I'll say it because I think it's true anyway...

These days, I think we don't appreciate spiritual growth nearly as much as we could, or perhaps should. There are many ways in which Christianity is significant for people.

It can be something that meets my needs. It becomes for me. I am hurt, I am fearful, I feel sinful and bad and I find acceptance and love from God. This can be true and important and good.

It can be about what I do for others. Something from me. I help others, I show compassion, I give my time and energy and friendship and love for the sake of those around me. This also can be true and important and good.

But I have recently been thinking that Christianity is also about who I am. Something in me. It's about my very person, my thoughts, my emotions, my heart - and all those things about who I am that I just can't express.

I think this because I see many people (Christians and others, and myself at times) whose hearts are small, timid, and weak. We live in a generation of lonely people. People who are not satesfied and not able to understand why. People who can hardly handle being alive and scarcely manage being in love. People think it's acceptable that they can be this way, because they have love and acceptance and care from God, and with luck other people. And it is acceptable...

But we could be so much more than small, timid, weak spiritual infants. And I think God wants us to be more, to be more mature, because it's better. I think he wants us to help us become people with hearts that are big, bold and strong. Not always remaining as children - with childish minds and feelings and problems - but becoming fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers... The wise old men and women we look up to because they are people who have learned to be people well.

This ties in with my previous post about salvation. I don't think God wants to save us so that we can merely be forgiven of our shortcomings and not feel so bad about our faults. He surely doesn't want to leave us as we are - children. He wants us to grow. You could even say he's saved us from the death of not growing into life... because to live is to grow. He wants us to transform us, to teach us the art of living. The skill, the discipline, the art, and the beauty of being people who are people well, people who are truly alive. He wants to give us the wonderful pleasure of becoming persons with hearts that aren't immature, but have become and continue to become like God's heart. Because I think it is wonderful that in this way we should become, so to speak, little "gods".

I want to be one.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Salvation and grace

Someone recently told me that "salvation is not by works but that 'it is by grace we are saved'", and they couldn't see how I can reconcile Final Judment based on our character and behaviour (which I believe) and salvation by grace (which I also believe). Let me have a go at explaining this now...

There are two ideas here: 1) Salvation 2) Grace.

1) Salvation

Evangelicals have made this word refer to "being saved from hell". In biblical usage "saved" had a more general, this-worldly meaning. Israel was saved from captivity, for example. When the NT talks about salvation, it is a really big assumption to say it's talking about salvation from hell (especially seeing as I doubt they even had the modern concept of hell, which I think was a Persian/Greek idea).

It seems clear that in the context of many verses, the NT writers mean that God has saved us not from hell, but from the harm of sin: sickness, oppression, immorality, and even death (think of some people Jesus healed, for example).

Furthermore, the early Christians kept the Jewish tradition that final judgment was in fact based on our character and behavior (I'm not going to prove this here). In Jesus, they saw that God had shown them how to be and live in such a way that was favourable to God. In other words, they believed that Jesus had shown them that if they follow his way of life, they would receive a favourable final judgment.

2) Grace

And here is where grace comes in. You see, they had a problem. Not only did they not know how to live in a way that pleased God, but they needed help to change. In Jesus, they saw God as graciously coming and helping them while they were still sinners - to help them become righteous, to free them from sin and show them give them a new way of life. He didn't have to help them. They didn't deserve his help, but he helped them anyway. Because of all this and their new way of life, they could be sure that he had indeed forgiven their sins. God not only forgave them, but he freed them from sin. God was graceful in an active, helpful way... not simply a passive "I've not send you to hell" way.

This concept of grace becomes even more powerful when we realize that it is exactly this kind of grace that Jesus taught us to display to others. Just as Jesus showed grace to free sinners from sin, we are to show grace to free more sinners. We are to carry on his work, his mission and ministry to further his vision - the Kingdom of God. So it is not merely God who shows grace, but it should be followers of Jesus also. The kind of grace is exactly the same.

The conclusion...

In these ways, I can affirm the biblical concept of judgment based on our character and behaviour (not mental belief that Jesus took away our sin on the cross) and I can also affirm the passages that speak of being saved by grace. We are saved the grace of both God and his human agents in the world from sin (ours and others') into a righteous way of life, and this is here, now, in the present. As a result, we become righteous. God wants heaven to be for righteous people - and that’s what we become because God has graciously led us to that way of life. We can now stand in God's GRACE (i.e. favour) because he has helped us to be people who do actually please him (the NT authors used grace both in the sense of "a favour" and also in the sense of being "in someone's favour").

Let me mention that we don't "earn salvation" by being righteous. Rather, God saves from our unrighteousness so that we may be righteous. Nor do we "earn access into heaven" by being righteous, because God helped us to be righteous in the first place. And being righteous doesn't even make us deserve to go to heaven, or force God to let us in - it still depends on his grace.

Let me give an analogy (which, like all analogies, shouldn't be taken too far):

Imagine only surfers will get into heaven. God's decided that heaven is just for surfers. You don't know how to surf. Tragic, you're doomed. But God is graceful toward you - he comes and shows you how to surf. Then, having then been taught how to surf and saved from not being able to surf, you can get into heaven. But you also can also surf before you die, and teach others how to have fun by surfing. And what if this was the whole point? That surfing is the ultimate thing to spend you time doing, that it was what God made us for.

Here's the parallel. Surfing is analogous to living in a righteous way, the way that is ultimately best for us, and for this reason it is the same way of living that God is pleased with.

So we are still "saved from hell" by grace, if you want to say that... it just works in a different way to the evangelical gospel. In my opinion, this is how the NT writers understood things and is a far more consistent view. It is also consistent with modern scholarship and historio-social investigations of recent years.