Preparing for the New Creation

About a year ago I was having a conversation with my housemate, Jérémie. He’s a very practically minded individual, wanting to serve the Lord by making the most of the time he’s been given. And make the most, he does. His ability to focus and get work done is incredible to me.

Of course, there are drawbacks to this mentality. When he was considering taking a break to read a novel (one of Lewis’s Narnia books), he struggled to justify why he should spend time reading such fiction.There were many reasons I could have offered—it’s good for your language, it can provide helpful cultural touchpoints, it shapes your understanding of “story,” and it’s simply fun. But I didn’t share any of those reasons. I told him that he should read the novel to practice for heaven.

Reading novels, engaging with art and storytelling, does something fundamental to our imagination. It expands it. As we read about talking animals, a world of possibilities opens to us. As we hear the echoes of the victory of good over evil, we’re given a glimpse of the final victory that is coming. Our capacity to imagine is expanded as we allow our minds to be filled with good stories.

Thomas Aquinas, the great Christian thinker of the 13th century, was also interested in the connection between this life and the next. He described the next life as an ongoing contemplation of God in which all of humanity’s desires are satisfied. However, Thomas also thought that not everyone would have the exact same experience of this vision of God. While all would be satisfied, some individuals would have a greater capacity to appreciate and enjoy it. The reason? They had greater capacity for love because of the way they lived their life on earth.

While Aquinas focused on love, I wonder if there isn’t something to the idea of expanding our imagination, as well.

I was talking with my friend Justin once about the new earth and what it would be like. We tried to stretch our imaginations to envision the possibilities. I think the images we offered were of Super Soakers filled with chocolate syrup and a massive library (not together). While definitely fun, they weren’t particularly awe-inspiring.

Maybe there won’t be Super Soakers filled with chocolate syrup, but the new heavens and new earth will be incredible. I wonder though if some of us who so rarely practice our imaginative capacities will struggle to appreciate the bright verdant colors, or hear the perfect harmonies. Perhaps some of us will have so stunted our imaginations because there are more “practical” things to do that our capacity to appreciate those things beyond our imagination (the literally fantastic) will be stunted.

The redemption of all things isn’t God pressing delete; it’s a restoration. What we do now matters. Fostering our imagination may be one way to prepare for that coming day. It’s just an idea, but it’s a good enough reason for me to pick up that novel I’ve been neglecting.

Less PR, More Jesus

Christianity is divided. This isn’t new. Division has marked Christianity in various reasons throughout its history. It’s what happens when broken people grapple and come face-to-face with the Truth.

Inevitably, division means that both sides think the other side has gotten some things (maybe even some really important things) wrong. When those differences come to light in a slightly more public way, both sides get up in arms. Some of this is justifiable; we ought to care deeply about the truth and hope that the Church does not deviate from it.

But there’s a sinister temptation for us when those things we are so invested in are challenged. It’s to either grow defensive or to attack our opponents. Different responses, but both manifest in similar ways. In either case, the Public Relations firms go into overdrive.

We begin to put words into Jesus’s mouth (for a helpful and cautionary piece on this, particularly in the context of satire, see Fred Sanders’s piece here).

We seek to  become Jesus’s Communications Director. You can tell this is happening when the discussion becomes more about who the other side is (or what they’ve done) than engaging with their perspective. We become more interested in making sure that others know what “our” Jesus would do, than in seeking the truth in the situation (particularly if it requires nuance).

But Jesus doesn’t need us to do his PR. I’m not sure who God would turn to if he was looking for someone to mold and shape his personal brand on earth but it probably wouldn’t be the Church. She doesn’t have the greatest track record. So God doesn’t ask her to do PR.

He just asks her to be Jesus, to show what the Kingdom lived out under Jesus looks like.

PR is marked by spin and words and, yes, blog posts. Kingdom living is marked by humility, thoughtfulness, gentleness, and yes, even forgiveness. One day, a day we hope and pray for, we know it will also be marked by unity.

When we grow more concerned about people misconceiving Jesus than people seeing Jesus, we cheat them out of the real thing. People don’t want our spin. We hate it when politicians do this to us; why would we think others would enjoy this kind of treatment from the Church?

The Church isn’t a PR firm. She’s the Body of Christ.

This means we have something the world does need: God’s presence. Let’s seek the truth, and do it rigorously, but let’s not forget who we are asked to be to the world.

The “Should” Question Still Matters

As we mature, more freedoms are granted us. As kids, we may stay up later or watch more mature media. As young adults, we navigate the world of substance use and political involvement. Eventually we are given the freedom to choose where we live, who we’re in relationship with and how we spend our lives.

In a parallel way, maturing in Christ-likeness brings with it more freedom. Paul’s words seem to echo this idea in 1 Corinthians 10:23:

“‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful.”

What probably jumps out to most of us is the phrase that Paul is apparently quoting (from various voices he has heard): “All things are lawful.” It’s an attractive idea, this first half of the statement; who doesn’t like to be told there are no limitations?

As good readers, we finish the sentence. “But not all things are helpful.” This may give us pause. But then the rationalization kicks in.

We have been formed to see the world in mechanical terms. Humanity is the user, producer, maker, and the world presents us with a series of tools for our benefit. The question we ask daily is less whether a tool is helpful, but how do we maximize its benefit? The way we use natural resources, the way companies are structured, and the way we are taught in school all reinforce this view of the world.

When told that not all things are helpful, this worldview may well incline us to think, “you’re just using/doing/watching it wrong.”

So we jump to the second tier of ethical questioning. We think of a certain television series and, treating it like a tool, ask “how can I watch this in such a way that it’s beneficial?” Or we think about alcohol and, viewing it as a tool, ask “how can I drink in a beneficial way?”

Those are valuable questions and certainly ones that are worth asking. However, they skip over a prior consideration: the “should” question.

This is actually the question at the heart of Paul’s words. Sure, you can do what you want, but should you? When we allow a mechanical view of the world(and its correlated goals of maximizing efficiency and using all available tools) to dictate our questions, we ask “how”, forgetting that we ought to ask “should.”

The Kingdom of God refuses to ignore the should question. It recognizes the freedom we have, but the freedom is one to follow Jesus’s sacrificial lifestyle, even abstaining from some goods if necessary. The should question is going to be answered differently for all of us. Some shouldn’t drink alcohol, others should avoid certain kinds of relationships, still others should avoid certain types of television.

We may feel less culturally relevant or suave, but in the Kingdom of God, the should question still matters. The life God invites us to live is one that is fully human under his reign, and there’s no room for unhelpful things there.

Jesus’s First Words

It’s always worth listening carefully to what someone says when you first meet them. Those words can tell you a lot about the sort of impression the other wants to make, the foot they’re putting forward and even what matters to them. When the world meets Jesus for the first time (in his public ministry), they hear these words: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew). Or “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark). Or “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me” (Luke).

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Jesus doesn’t show up and say, “First things first. Here are four spiritual laws. Believe them and gain salvation.” He proclaims something more fundamental, yet also more robust: the Kingdom of God.

For how much Jesus talks about the Kingdom, we sure don’t. For Jesus, it was not just “a big deal.” It was the deal. He told parable after parable explaining what the Kingdom was like, its worth, and the struggle to enter it.

Perhaps we don’t talk about it because we’ve failed to understand what it is. Dallas Willard is helpful here. While people may not have understood what it meant that the Kingdom was at hand, they did know something important:

“They knew Jesus meant that he was acting with God and God with him, that God’s rule was effectively present through him.” – The Divine Conspiracy, 19.

That’s the Kingdom. Put simply, it’s God’s rule. When Jesus brought it, he brought it in a new way. Where before it had been mediated through the Law and religious ritual, now it was present in a person.

This isn’t the most comfortable thing to realize. For us independent types (who’s with me?), discovering that we have to submit ourselves to someone else’s rule isn’t particularly appealing. But we aren’t mere subjects. We are participants. Willard again:

“This ‘governance’ is projected onward through those who receive him [Jesus]. When we receive God’s gift of life by relying on Christ, we find that God comes to act with us as we rely on him in our actions.” – The Divine Conspiracy, 20.

The Kingdom of God is strange. It’s not marked by treaties that establish its boundaries. It gets carried out by its emissaries, its boundaries constantly expanding.

In Jesus, the Kingdom has manifested and we’re invited to live under God’s rule. As we submit to this rule, the Father-in-Christ-by-the-Spirit acts in and with us. The Kingdom may not be fully arrived, and all things put to right, but that’s sure an impressive start.

If we listen to that first encounter with Jesus, we may find our mentality shifting. Our eyes move away from “salvation” to life in the Kingdom. From the far and away to the here and now. From what we assume is vital, to what Jesus told us is the most important thing. The mustard seed grows, the Kingdom expands, and we get to be a part of it.

Freedom in the Library

Yesterday, I spent the entire day in a library, basically in one spot, working on a number of projects. When you spend 9.5 hours in a library, you begin to notice the quirks and differences between it and others – and this one had some standouts (when it comes to libraries).

Around about 9:30 or so, as students trickled in, the noise level began to rise. Aren’t libraries normally quiet? Well, yes. But not this one. The director of the library believes that an emphasis on silence actually hampers group studying and so hasn’t imposed the normally mandatory hush across the building.

Then, around 10:00 I looked over to my left and saw a student eating a salad with impunity! A quick check of the library’s policies indicated that covered drinks and snacks are allowed.

In other words, this is a library filled with freedom. The students can act (within reason) in ways that others may only dream of. Yet in my sitting in my self-assigned seat, I noticed an extreme reluctance to enter this freedom. I felt hesitant to answer my phone and I only surreptitiously snuck a few pretzels out of my bag.

I wonder if this is not how many of us are when it comes to entering God’s grace. He grants us Spirit-freedom and welcomes us to explore, but we are so used to our self-imposed rules that we continue to live our confined, restricted lives.

Like me in the library, we may every now and then try to get a taste of this Spirit-freedom, only to shy away in fear that we may actually be breaking some unknown code. We’ve been taught to fear the “fine print” and often our relationship with God reflects it. We act as if our relationship with him is a contractual obligation and he’s just waiting to point to how we violated paragraph four, section A.

But that’s not how things are. God has not gone to the effort of inviting, facilitating and wooing us onto the path of redemption in order to continue our lives as if nothing has changed. The Spirit grants us freedom. Our lives ought to look different not because we are now lawless individuals whom nothing can contain, but because we have discovered our true selves in God’s grace.

We’re invited into a new land (or library, if you will). Walking in that land requires practice, but Spirit-freedom is worth it. In this Lenten season, as we practice giving up some of that freedom, may we be reminded of its preciousness anew.

The Sinner’s Prayer

Evangelicalism has been powerfully marked throughout its history by an emphasis on conversion. This has often manifested in an attempt to clearly delineate that moment of conversion which has, in turn, led to the prominence of the Sinner’s Prayer.

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The Sinner’s Prayer is the prayer that is supposed to indicate that a person has come to saving faith in Jesus. The typical formula involves confession (“I am a sinner”), repentance (“I choose to turn away from my sinful ways”), a statement of belief (“I believe in Jesus and that he is the Son of God who died for my sins”), and a plea for forgiveness.

It’s neat and clean. Probably a little too neat and clean which is why it’s received plenty of criticism. Fair enough. Conversion is not a one-time experience; conversion is a process.

But that’s not to say that the Sinner’s Prayer gets everything wrong. In fact, it gets two things quite right: the importance of surrender and the importance of the moment.

Whether explicitly or implicitly, surrender is an integral part of the Sinner’s Prayer because it is a confession of our inability to navigate life on our own. We can criticize it for miscommunicating the nature of conversion, but surely we ought not criticize it for reminding us of this core truth: following Jesus requires surrender.

Being overly critical of the Sinner’s Prayer can quickly backfire. That criticism can provide a smokescreen behind which we continue to hold onto the things we ought to give up. We forget the radical call of Jesus and commit to a gradualistic view of conversion and sanctification. Gradualism of this sort all too easily hides our unwillingness to give ourselves over completely to Jesus.

Pushing back on such a gradual understanding is the truth that Christianity is a faith of key moments. Jesus died in a moment. Jesus rose in a moment. These are definitive events that punctured history. We are invited to participate in those realities not merely in a gradual way, but also in a punctiliar one.

Regardless of how much we might critique the Sinner’s Prayer, it has carefully maintained this Christian commitment to the life-changing moment. Yes, we are misguided if we think they are moments in which everything gets solved, but moments of drastic change do happen. They happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. They happened to Jesus’s disciples as one by one they left what they were doing to follow Jesus.

Let’s not forget that conversion is a process. But let’s also not forget that the Lord works in powerful moments. The Sinner’s Prayer reminds us that lives are changed in moments, as the Spirit takes hold and draws us to surrender ourselves.

Don’t Do What Jesus Did

WWJD bracelets may not be all the rage anymore, but that doesn’t mean that the principle has not lived on. “What Would Jesus Do” remains a reflex for many evangelicals facing everything from daily decisions to ethical dilemmas.

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The question assumes one key thing: that whatever it is Jesus would do in our situation is what we ought to do as well. But is this actually true?

Probably not, because we aren’t, in fact, Jesus. To simply try to imitate Jesus’s actions doesn’t work that well.

Many (most) of us are not called to martyrdom. Many (most) of us are not called to wander a land on foot, proclaiming the kingdom to our band of followers. Even Jesus himself told his disciples that when they appeared before authorities, the Holy Spirit would give them the words to say (Luke 12:11-12), when he himself said little to nothing before his own tribunal.

Put simply, we are called to different things and different lives than Jesus was. We cannot, then, live our lives fully by simply using Jesus’s life as a blueprint. Yet, when we ask what Jesus would do, we sometimes smuggle in this idea – that all we have to do is work out exactly what he would do and the situation will resolve.

We need to shift the question. The question is not “what would Jesus do” but “how can I be Christ-like in this situation?” Those are two different questions. The former assumes a copycat Christianity, one that takes its founder and assumes that the only way to live out the Christian life is to duplicate his life as closely as possible.

The second question recognizes that we live in a different time and a different context. Our lives are different from Jesus’s (by God’s design). As such, we must do the hard work of contemplating and reflecting upon Jesus in order to understand how we can image him to the world around us.

In this way, the imitation of Christ finds its fullness. Imitating Christ is not about establishing straightforward one-to-one correlations between his life and ours. Rather, it’s a process of understanding his place and our own in salvation history, recognizing what Jesus’s life shows and teaches us. Sometimes that will manifest in very similar actions to Jesus. Often, however, putting on Christ’s character may well look quite different from Jesus’s life because of our unique and different vocation.

The way we think about these things matters. We want to imitate Christ’s character, not his actions. As such, we need to move away from a simplistic “what would Jesus do” to recognizing who God calls us to be in light of his Spirit’s work of making us more like Jesus.