Peace Theology

Why Peace Means War

In our last post we considered how conflict is intrinsic to stories. Nevertheless, I maintained that there is a place for reading such stories to our children as we can interpret the violence as a picture of the spiritual war waged against us. Depending upon the age of the child, we will be able to say more or less on this subject.

In this post, I would like to further consider this great irony–Jesus’ calling to a life of peace, meekness and nonviolence means war. I alluded to this previously when I spoke of leading peace advocates such as Martin Luther King, Ghandi and Jesus, all of whom were murdered. Of course, we also have countless individuals from the early days of Christianity who were committed to living and proclaiming a life of peace, to doing good to everyone, to taking care of the poor and sick (even of their Roman oppressors), who were nevertheless slaughtered because of their convictions.

Hence, the seeming contradiction that peace means war was obvious to the early church. They saw their martyrdom as part of a great cosmic conflict with Satan. Well-known, for example, is the story of a young noblewoman named Perpetua who chronicled her story while waiting to be thrown to wild beasts in the arena. She tells of her passionate love for Jesus that made her refuse to recant her faith even though she had a nursing baby. Her heartbroken father begged her to recant and at one point he rolls on the ground and plucks out his beard with grief. Yet Perpetua remains strong as we see from her diary:

“Father,” said I, “do you see this vase here, for example?”
“Yes, I do,” said he.
And I told him: “Could it be called by any other name than what it is?”
And he said: “No.”
“Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.”

With Perpetua is her slave, Felicity, who is pregnant and gives birth while in prison. Felicity too refuses to deny her Lord and they are both martyred for their faith in A.D. 203 in Carthage, North Africa.

The night before she was to be executed Perpetua has a vision of herself fighting with a terrifying Egyptian warrior. The vision teaches her that she is embroiled in a spiritual war and that the real enemy she fights with is Satan. In her vision the warrior strikes at her heal, but she treads on his head and is victorious. The editor who continued Perpetua’s diary after she was taken by the guards describes her and Felicity’s end:

The day of their victory dawned, and they marched from the prison to the amphitheater joyfully as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear. Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone’s stare by her own intense gaze.

That Christians are in a war with a vicious, invisible enemy has always been the church’s understanding. As Greg Boyd writes in God at War, much of the New Testament does not make sense without understanding the reality of the dark forces coming against us.

“Jesus’ teaching, His exorcisms, His healings and other miracles, as well as His work on the cross, all remain, to some extent, incoherent and unrelated to one another until we interpret them within this apocalyptic context—until we interpret them as acts of war. . . . Jesus never once appeals to a mysterious divine will to explain why a person is sick, maimed or deceased.

In every instance, He comes against such things as the by-products of a creation that has gone berserk through the evil influence of a satanic army. Many times, he attributes sicknesses to direct demonic involvement.”

Jesus leaves us in no doubt concerning the reality of this war, but also the kind of weapons he uses to defeat the powers. Whereas the devil and his forces fight by stealing, killing and destroying, Jesus overwhelms with life and that abundantly (John 10:10. He destroys the work of the devil (1 John 3:8) by healing and doing good (Acts 10:38). Similarly, Paul informs us that we do battle with darkness by being kind to our enemies, giving them food and drink if necessary. In so doing we “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17-21).

Early Christians knew Jesus’ battle strategy and they eagerly enlisted for this war. Ignatius of Antioch, whom tradition says was a disciple of the Apostle John, speaks of the battle with Satan. Despite the cruelty of the enemy, Ignatius fights with “meekness, by which the devil, the prince of this world, is brought to nought.” Ignatius saw himself in a spiritual war right up until the end when he was torn apart by wild beasts for the entertainment of the crowds in a Roman colosseum.

The Bible writers link peace with warfare. Paul tells his Roman readers, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet (Rom. 16:20). Part of the believer’s clothing for spiritual war will be “shoes” that make us “ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15). And the greatest peace offering– Jesus giving his life for our salvation–is described as an act of war by which he destroys the devil (Col. 1:20; Col. 2:13-15;Heb. 2:14-15; 1 Cor. 2:6-8).

Perhaps there is no better chapter in the Bible than Luke 10 to see how the gospel of peace is God’s plan to vanquish the forces of evil. Jesus prepares his disciples for an evangelistic mission by making it clear that they are headed into war. He tells them, “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (v3) and giving you “authority to tread on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy”(v19). At the same time, he gives them assurance of absolute victory by explaining that Satan has already been defeated. Jesus, in fact, witnessed him being thrown out of heaven (v18). Therefore, Jesus can guarantee his followers that “nothing will hurt you.”

He explains they will not fight by earthly weapons nor in a spirit of anger. Rather, they are to come against the evil one by bringing a spirit of peace to everyone they meet, by graciously eating whatever they are offered, by healing the sick and announcing the great, comforting news that, “the kingdom of God has come near you.”

So how do we apply this to our current context, a world increasing in hostility daily it seems? How do we deal with angry people filled with a determination to fight for their rights and mercilessly punish anyone who disagrees with them? Like those first disciples, Jesus calls us to “let our peace” come into our environment. He asks us to listen to those we disagree with, to put ourselves in their place and not judge them. God tells us to not let their bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander or malice infect us (Eph. 4:31).

Of course, this is completely different than the spirit of the world. Even some Christians bristle at the thought of not responding with anger to those who oppose them. But that’s precisely what God calls us to do. In fact, according to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, if we are not making peace, we’re not children of God (Mat. 5:9). He reiterates this point later in the sermon when he tells his followers to turn the other cheek when someone strikes them, to practice the servant life if someone takes advantage of them and even to love their enemies. Only then, Jesus says, will we be God’s children (Mat. 5:38-45). As we see from Perpetua, Felicity and a host of other martyrs, truly this war takes courage!

In our next post, we will consider the natural state of rivalry into which we are born and why “letting our peace” come into the lives of those around us including our closest friends and family is so critical.


Peace Theology

Should We Read Stories that Contain Violence to Our Children?

My last post leads to a big problem. In it I talked about “the myth of redemptive violence,” the belief that violence is the way to bring about peace. WWI, naively labeled “the war to end all wars,” stands as the protoypical example. We saw how this myth is embedded in stories, including children’s stories where the good guy vanquishes an enemy in order to bring about peace i.e., everyone “lives happily ever after.” And here the problem arises. Would a serious Christ-follower then have to throw out all stories to follow Christ’s way of nonviolence? I say “all stories” because some level of violence or conflict is an essential element of a story. Have you ever read a decent story where there was no conflict? They don’t exist.

Embedded in the very fabric of story is the nature of the world we were born into– a world of conflict, violence and struggle. The Bible makes it clear that we are, in fact, in a war; it’s just not against physical enemies. “Our struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). We know we’re in a war and, more importantly, we want to fight. We want to see the good triumph and evil be overcome. Ironically, stories involving conflict will always attract us because we want to see conflict vanquished. We long for the kingdom that is not of this world with its true, lasting peace.

Notice in the verse quoted above the enemies we fight against, “rulers,” “authorities,” “cosmic powers.” Most astonishly, it says they’re “in the heavenly places.” Clearly, much of the theatre of this war lies far above our comprehension. We can’t see our enemies, but our minds only understand through what they can picture. How then can we have any understanding of the conflict we are involved in? We need concrete images to understand spiritual realities. Stories provide a means of making this spiritual war somehow more real and understandable. 

The story that shapes my picture of this invisible war more than any other is The Lord of the Rings. Like hobbits we are caught up in a battle being waged against us by gigantic forces much stronger than we are and which we know very little about. Indeed, we see through a glass darkly. However, despite our ignorance of what’s going on, God calls us to play a significant part in this monumental struggle of good and evil. When I feel an internal battle going on, I remember Frodo and Sam on their way to Mordor and I remember their success against all odds. And I know I’m involved in a bigger struggle, and yes, there are dark forces that threaten, but I’m not alone. There are also gigantic forces for good that have given me a mission to carry out. I feel strengthened for the fight.

Therefore, we can read some stories that contain violence even to our children. Discernment, of course, is required. Firstly, they should be stories that exemplify virtues such as courage, self-sacrifice, longsuffering etc., stories that glorify the good. Secondly, they should not sensationalize violence or indulge in it gratuitously. And thirdly, we must continually remind ourselves that such stories are only physical pictures of a spiritual reality. 

In the case of children, we may have to tell them that we can’t say much about this invisible war right now, but that we’ll explain more later when they can understand. We can ask God for wisdom on this, wisdom such as Corrie ten Boom’s father had when she asked him about sex as a young girl. They were about to disembark from a train and Corrie’s father put his suitcase on the floor in front of her.

“Will you carry it off the train, Corrie?” he said. I stood up and tugged at it. It was crammed with the watches and spare parts he had purchased that morning.

“It’s too heavy,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “And it would be a pretty poor father who would ask his little daughter to carry such a load.  It’s the same way, Corrie, with knowledge. Some knowledge is too heavy for children. When you are older and stronger you can bear it. For now you must trust me to carry it for you.”

And I was satisfied.  More than satisfied, wonderfully at peace. There were answers to this and all my hard questions, for now I was content to leave them in my father’s keeping.

As with sexuality, how much we say to children about the forces of darkness requires wisdom. In addition to praying for wisdom, I suggest this is something small groups of parents should discuss together.

In our next post, we will consider the irony that the gospel of peace necessitates war.

Spiritual Formation

Why Have Even Christians Had Faith in Violence?

As we close out 2021 let us reflect on the contrast of the angels’ Christmas greeting, “peace on earth, good will to all,” with how the year began i.e. even professing Christians violently storming the capitol building of the United States.

In my last post we saw that Jesus perfectly reveals God’s nature. He did so most clearly on the cross where we see perfect love enduring the greatest  pain and humiliation in order to bring salvation and show humanity his new nonviolent way of living. Many Christians are OK with Jesus bringing us salvation, but not sure about the idea that his death demonstrates a nonviolent lifestyle for us to follow. 

The church has tended to focus on sexual sin as the great evil while downplaying the role violence plays in human affairs. Yes, sexual immorality is to be avoided at all costs, but so is our innate tendency to violence. Why, then, has there been a neglect of this essential biblical teaching? One reason is our great faith in violence as the means to get what we want. A glance at world history establishes this as an indisputable fact. Corpses and maimed bodies litter the millenia as powerful tribes and nations subdue their less powerful neighbours and plunder their resources. The strong dominate the weak. The rich spoil the poor. In 2021 we saw human faith in violence continuing unabated as Putin invaded Ukraine. 

That nations use violence to get what they want surprises no one. What is much more difficult to understand is how those who claim to have accepted Jesus’ gospel of peace participate in it. The blunt truth is that professing Christians did take part in the Jan. 6th violence protesting the supposed election steal of Joe Biden from Donald Trump.(see here)
“Indeed, antagonistic religious imagery was easy to spot at the Capitol raid the next day. One insurrectionist photographed in the building’s rotunda wore military fatigues with a patch on the shoulder that showcased a cross and the words “Armor of God.” Just below was another patch featuring a slogan wrapped around a stylized skull used by the comic book character The Punisher: ‘God will judge our enemies. We’ll arrange the meeting.’”(source)

One factor that has facilitated this willingness to engage in violence is “Christian nationalism” ideology. This set of beliefs includes the idea that God was behind the founding of the U.S. as a kind of promised land and that it is one’s God-given duty to keep it that way by routing out enemies. For some this even includes doing so violently if need be. “Christian nationalism really tends to draw on a kind of an Old Testament narrative, a kind of blood purity and violence where the Christian nation needs to be defended against the outsiders,”. . .(source)

Thankfully, many Christians are calling out the idolatry which equates the state with God’s kingdom. Several hundred prominent evangelical clergy members launched the “Say ‘No’ to Christian Nationalism” campaign to “recognize and condemn the role Christian nationalism played in the violent, racist, anti-American insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6.(source) Christianity Today adopted a similar posture in “offer[ing] advice to church leaders trying to deradicalize members of their own community.”(source)

One need not take a pacifist position to condemn such violence. There may be occasions when violence must be reluctantly engaged in, for example, when confronting someone raping a woman or the invasion of Ukraine spoken of above. The difficulty lies in our sinful human nature combined with the effectiveness of violence to get our way. That is, once we allow that there are some circumstances where violence is necessary, history has shown that it is easy to expand the number of such occasions to the point where violence can be justified pretty much for whatever we want.

For example, scripture was used to support the violent European conquest of North America. One American colonist who, after his group had completely annihilated an entire tribe of Native Americans, testified, “Sometimes Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents…We had sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.”(source)

A 1493 papal Bull justified declaring war on any natives in South America who refused to adhere to Christianity. The jurist Encisco claimed in 1509: “The king has every right to send his men to the Indies to demand their territory from these idolaters because he had received it from the pope. If the Indians refuse, he may quite legally fight them, kill them, and enslave them, just as Joshua enslaved the inhabitants of the country of Canaan. (source)

The same logic was used in the American Revolutionary War, the Civil War and countless others. 

Another reason for our faith in violence besides its ability to help us get what we want is what Walter Wink has described as “the myth of redemptive violence.” 

“[The myth of redemptive violence] enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world. … The belief that violence ”saves” is so successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience unto-death.” (source)

 World War I stands out as the prototypical example, being labeled “the war to end all wars.” In 1928, just to try to make that phrase a reality the nations of the world, including Germany, signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact where they agreed not to use war as a means of settling a dispute. Of course, we know how long that lasted. The hope that WWI was the “war to end all wars” evaporated like the end of the rainbow.

While violence in the short term may help us get what we want, its ability to bring lasting peace has been a spectacular failure. Nevertheless, the myth that violence will defeat violence continues as seemingly the number one strategy humans rely on. We’re indoctrinated with this propaganda from our earliest days in the form of fairy stories. The hero battles a monster, dragon or wicked king and brings about eternal peace i.e. they all “live happily ever after.” 

The indoctrination doesn’t stop with children’s stories. Hart Wiens, the Director of Scripture Translation at the Canadian Bible Society, writes about how the myth of redemptive violence is perpetuated in adult books and movies. “The plot is depicted graphically in movies like Jaws, Rambo, and Air Force One. Likewise, the classic gunfighters of the “Western” settle old scores and restore order by shootouts, never by due process of law. The law in fact, is suspect, too weak to prevail in the conditions of near-anarchy that fiction has misrepresented as the Wild West. The gunfighter must take matters into his own hands. Similarly in the big city, in movies such as Dirty Harry, a beleaguered citizen finally rises up against the crooks … and creates justice out of the barrel of a gun. This is the environment in which we are catechized – more effectively than in any Sunday school.” (source)

Martin Luther King unmasked the lie behind this myth in December 1964: “Violence as a way of achieving justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible.”

Our belief in violence can be seen in one more disturbing fact: the vehement hatred of those who refuse to believe in violence. It can’t be a coincidence that arguably the three strongest voices lifted up against violence have all been killed, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and, worst of all, the One whose life was perfect peace.

The myth of redemptive violence is universal– almost, but not quite. Jesus shows us a different path. He inaugurates a realm of peace by completely contradiciting and confounding human wisdom. Instead, of killing others, he allows himself to be killed in their place. He says in effect. “Can’t you see that the way of violence is not working. It’s been going on incessantly for millenia and nothing has changed. I have a different plan–loving your enemy, turning the other cheek, living in peace with everyone.”

In the next post I will argue, perhaps surprisingly, that the war motif in stories (and in the Bible) still has a place. We are, in fact, very much caught up in a war. It’s just not a physical one.

Peace Theology · Spiritual Formation

A New Revelation of God!

As a Carribean hurricane wipes out every shanty in its path, so the New Testament destroys all previous conceptions of God. That is not to say that there was never any understanding of God before Christ came. Confucius, the Stoics and indeed all religions everywhere no doubt have some revelation of God’s glory and beauty. All humans can understand something of God through creation (Rom. 1:20). However, before Jesus, God had never been known in his essence. 

A bold claim indeed, but one that is clearly made in the New Testament. Paul says it was impossible for human beings to figure out God with their own wisdom (1 Cor. 1:18-25). God ordained that the only way to truly know him was through his foolishness, that is, through the death of a crucified messiah. Commenting on this passage, one scholar reminds us that, 

“Death on a cross was regarded in Roman society … as brutal, disgusting, and abhorrent. It was reserved for convicted slaves and convicted terrorists, and could never be imposed upon a Roman citizen or more “respectable” criminals.  It was so offensive to good taste that crucifixion was never mentioned in polite society, except through the use of euphemisms.  For Gentiles who might imagine a “divine” savior figure, and for Jews who expected a Messiah anointed with power and majesty, the notion of a crucified Christ, a Messiah on the cross, was an affront and an outrage.” 

No human being could have ever guessed that such a mangled spectacle has anything to do with a revelation of the power and glory of God. 

When we consider that Jesus shows us precisely what God is like (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3), the significance of the cross goes way beyond simply an understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection as the means of our salvation. Equally important is that Jesus’ Passion gives us an understanding of the nature of God. Indeed, the cross gives us a glimpse of the essence of God–love willing to suffer to the max for others. 

As the exact image of God, Jesus shows us that God  would choose to establish “justice and peace through his own death, rather than through the death of those who stood in his way.” God would ask for his executioners’ forgiveness even as he expired at their hands (Luke 23:34). 

What happened through the cross was so inconceivable, no one could have imagined the “the length and breadth and height and depth” of the love of God that would go to such extremes for our sake. I titled this post, “A New Revelation of God.” Perhaps some are thinking, “That’s not very new. The church has believed Jesus fully reveals the nature of God for almost 2,000 years.” But have we come to grips with the idea that, if Jesus is God, then God is nonviolent love?

I find that making such a claim gets push back even from Christians. I will suggest in the next post one of the reasons for this is our love for and great faith in violence.

Healing

Jesus Gets Up Close and Personal with a Prostitute

A close reading of the gospels gives one the distinct impression that Jesus enjoyed rattling people’s cages. He had a habit of eating with losers, outcasts, and traitors to the dismay of the religious leaders. He seemed to go out of his way to heal on the Sabbath because he knew they didn’t like it. He brought women into his inner circle as disciples and praised hated foreigners. He broke the law and touched lepers. But of all his radical behaviour, what Jesus did the night a prostitute disrupted a dinner party may be the most disturbing. Indeed, had you or I been there, we would no doubt  be shaking our heads and murmuring that this time, Jesus has just gone too far.

The community was abuzz with the news that the rabbi who’s turning Israel upside down is in town and will be dining at the home of Simon the Pharisee tonight . A Pharisee in first century Judaism is a big deal. He’s a leader of the community. To be a guest at his house would be like being invited to the home of a CEO of a large corporation, an important government official or perhaps the home of a megachurch pastor.

The meal goes along fine. Pleasantries are exchanged. The roasted lamb is succulent; everyone smiles after tasting the wine. Then, all of a sudden she barges in unannounced, a woman well-known all over town as promiscuous, quite possibly a prostitute. She’s entered the room because she knows that when a rabbi like Jesus eats at a leader’s home, other people can watch and listen. But for a woman of her standing to do so is a big risk.

As she approaches the entrance of the room she’s confronted by an onslaught of inner voices. “You’re a shameful slut. What are you doing here? This man is holy. You don’t belong. Don’t go through that door. You’re going to make a fool of yourself. You will be a laughing stock in this town for the rest of your life. You’re a loser. Get out of here.” She doesn’t listen, but rather, tiptoes up behind Jesus as he reclines on a pillow, a mat spread out with the meal in front of him. His body trails away from the feast and she sees his sandals have been removed as is the custom. At the sight of her, Simon’s eyebrows raise and his nostrils flare with indignity. The guests’ faces show undisguised disgust as well. One woman draws back as though from vermin. Jesus’ face, however, radiates a captivating acceptance encouraging her to come forward. She takes no notice of the hostile stares and the sneering lips. Now, more than ever, she just wants to do something extraordinary for Jesus.

As she gets closer to his inviting presence, her heart begins to melt.  Thoughts of her past and all that she has become fill her heart. Even before she kneels down to anoint Jesus’ feet a dam bursts within her. The pain mingles with the warmth of Christ’s love and her past washes away in a flood of tears. But as she looks down she sees her tears splashing on Jesus’ feet. “The Master’s feet are getting soaked by my tears! What do I do now?” She has nothing to dry them with. Jesus’ feet are getting wetter and wetter. The woman is now desperate and comes up with a plan that will only dig her deeper into the hole of public shame. She throws caution to the wind not caring what others think. 

She is only focused on Jesus and so she does something that is totally culturally indecent–she lets her hair down in front of them all, and begins to dry his feet with her hair. Her anxiety now abating, she enacts the next part of her plan. She pours out the  precious anointing oil she’s brought on Jesus’ feet.  As she does so a  torrent of love erupts from somewhere deep inside and  she pours that out too– now  doing  the completely unthinkable! Overwhelmed by  a sense of grace and mercy , she starts kissing Jesus’ feet, not once or twice, but continuously, for a long time. 

Can we grasp the sensuality of what’s happening?  Jesus, fully human, fully male has  a woman let down her hair, rub his feet with it, anoint and possibly massage them with oil and then start kissing them repeatedly. In first century Judaism a woman letting her hair down in public  had sexual overtones and was considered immodest. Furthermore, this particular woman is known by the whole community as promiscuous, quite likely a prostitute. The same lips that had kissed so many other lusting lips go on kissing his feet in full view of all the guests. And Jesus let it all happen! Later, he will even draw Simon’s attention to how long her kissing went on!

“Did Jesus go too far this time?” Simon thinks so.  This is all the evidence he needs. Jesus is  a false prophet. “If he were a real prophet,” Simon says to himself, “he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is.” His thoughts perfectly reflect the Pharisees’ attitude. Their life’s work was to make and enforce rules that excluded others from their “holy” inner circle. How much pain they inflicted by this judgment of others was irrelevant.

Jesus, however, yanks Simon off his judgement seat and puts him in the defendant’s box. Simon had scoffed to himself about Jesus’ lack of discernment concerning the woman. As one scholar notes, the irony is that Jesus not only knows what kind of a woman is touching him, he also knows what kind of a man Simon is. He even knows what he is thinking!

In not recoiling from the woman but instead receiving her washing and anointing of his feet with prolonged kisses, Jesus’ passivity is remarkable.  As we study the life of  Christ in the gospels, it becomes obvious that most of us need to do what Jesus makes explicit in Matthew 11:28-30, learn of his gentleness and meekness. We tend to equate those qualities with weakness  or laziness, but that shows a misunderstanding of Jesus’ nature. Furthermore, gentleness and meekness may mean we are passive at times, but they may mean the  opposite  at other times. Jesus lives in the exhilaration of a Spirit-led life, now passive, now taking action. When he turns to Simon, we see his assertiveness in full display. Although Jesus lets all of the woman’s actions go, he doesn’t even let Simon get away with what he’s thinking. Jesus wants to give him a chance to repent and so is proactive even to the point of apparent rudeness in order to do so.  Simon’s hardening of his heart is serious indeed. Changing it requires strong medicine which Jesus is not afraid to  administer. God’s mercy does not mean he’s a benevolent grandfather “who just wants to see the young people have a good time” as C.S. Lewis characterized  this false view of God.

In allowing this scene to develop, Jesus has  initiated a drama. Now he invites the Pharisee into it with an interactive parable. He says in effect, “Simon, you like judging people. You’ve judged this woman; you’ve judged me. I want you to make one more judgment. One guy owed $50,000 to a rich man and another owed $5,000. When they couldn’t pay, he completely forgave both their debts. Which one of these guys will love the moneylender more?” Simon realizes he’s being sucked into something that may not go well for him and so grudgingly answers, “I suppose the guy who owed the bigger debt.”

Jesus says he has indeed given the right answer. He then turns toward the woman and asks Simon a profound question, “Do you see this woman?” The story makes it clear that he didn’t see her. Trapped in his own mind with his self-righteous fantasies, he only sees the category into which he ’s  put her, sinner. Simon sees only the surface. He lives a shallow, imprisoned life, his religious system a boa constrictor that squeezes all love out of him. Furthermore, Simon can’t see the big heart of the One who is his guest. He only sees the label he ’s put on Jesus, “false prophet.”   His self-confident knowledge blinds him to love incarnate eating dinner with him.

On the other hand, Jesus sees not merely a category, but the woman in her God-created beauty. Even though  he  acknowledges  that, indeed, she had sinned much, he didn’t see a “sinful woman.”   In light of her past, the high view Jesus articulates concerning her is extraordinary. He will commend her as someone with great faith, a faith that “saves” her, he says. Not only that,  he says she’s a person of great love. Jesus saw her true self, a woman who “loved much.”And now we know why Jesus let  this scene  unfold the way it did. The drama  highlighted for all to see the response of lavish love from one who had encountered heaven’s mercy. From a human point of view it was an overly sensual, questionable scene for the Son of God to be involved in . From a divine perspective the fragrance of angels filled the room because one sinner had repented. It was not about romance but forgiveness and redemption of a messed-up sexuality . It was about a woman finally finding the love she’d been looking for in all her illicit relationships with men.

Spiritual Formation

Was Cruella Doomed to be Evil?

The recent Disney movie Cruella highlights questions which any thinking person has wrestled with, “How much do circumstances beyond our control determine our fate?” “How much can we change our lives through the choices we make?” The movie tells the story of how Cruella, the villain in the earlier 101 Dalmatians Disney film, became evil . In the new movie we learn that it was because of her biological mother’s villainy. Cruella was apparently not able to overcome her inherited genetic makeup or maternal deprivation or whatever other evil was thrust upon her in early childhood. Eventually, she becomes her mother, renaming the estate she’s inherited to Hell Hall. 

The storyline of Cruella echoes our culture’s message that we are helpless in the face of interior forces. To be sure, the movie has some truth in it. The effects of both our DNA and our early years’ experiences are significant and sometimes daunting. In my work I regularly encounter people severely damaged by childhood trauma and/or genetically-inherited mental illness. Is our fate sealed by the cards we’re dealt? Are we really in the end just helpless victims? In a similar vein, our culture tells us our passions are too strong for us and the answer is to give expression to any sexual desire you may have. Only repressed prudes don’t surrender to them. But is this really true? Are we just, after all, weak, pathetic slaves? 

Despite the strength of these forces, none of us really believes this cultural narrative. No matter what we might say, we all act like we do have a choice. That is, in our practical lives we believe we are exercising free will and that others are also. If I were to punch you in the head, you don’t blame my DNA or my upbringing or the fixed laws of the universe. You blame me. You instinctively feel I had a choice and I made a bad moral decision.

So while these circumstances can shape us, they don’t have to be the last word. When we turn our attention toward Jesus, he can enable us to have a better life. We may never have the success we would have had without the bad DNA or childhood abuse, but we can have a much better life. We still have choices to make and they will determine a better or worse future for us. To put it negatively, as Jordan Peterson does, no matter how screwed up your life is, you can screw it up more!

Yes, these forces are formidable. Yes, we can’t stand against them by our own willpower. However, our will can be used in another way besides direct combat with the dark powers that assault us. The gospel says our will does have a small part to play. That part is described as simply “opening the door” as we hear Jesus’ knocking at it, wanting to come in (Rev. 3:20). 

Another way our minimal part is described is as a mere “looking”–looking to Jesus and his death and resurrection. Before the most famous verse in the Bible, Jesus explains he will be lifted up on the cross as Moses lifted up a bronze serpent on a pole  (Jn. 3:14-16). In that story, those who had been bitten by a plague of poisonous snakes were healed by just looking at the bronze serpent. Charles Spurgeon tells us to make sure we stay focused on our part which is “looking,” not “seeing.” The two are different. In a dark room, we can look, but we cannot see. Reminding us of the all-sufficiency of Christ, he plays the Christian’s trump card, “Jesus in the dark is just as good as Jesus in the light!” And he is the one who ultimately delivers us from all powers that seek to enslave us!

Spiritual Formation

Beauty: a Better Way to Believe

Recently I was speaking with a young man about the Christian faith and he said something like the following, “I’ve tried to believe. I’ve given it everything I’ve got, but it just doesn’t work for me. I can’t make myself believe.” The requirement of “faith alone” is one of the most difficult hurdles concerning the Christian message. How can I “just believe” if I just don’t? As I sensed with this young man, people sometimes experience anguish in their attempts to be a Christian. Surely God does not expect us to close our eyes and leap into the dark? How then can I go from nonbelief to faith without it being merely “blind faith”?

The Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, sheds great light on this question by giving us what we might call  the mechanics of faith. His insight has to do with what theology calls the  transcendentals,  Beauty, Goodness and Truth. The key, says Balthasar, is the logical progression from one to the other and in the above order. 

When zealous Christians tell us, “Just believe,” they are, of course, saying just believe that the gospel is true. But to begin by focusing on Truth is to start at the wrong end of the three-fold progression. While doctrine certainly has its place, propositional truth statements have no spark. Just hearing that “God forgives sins“ or “Jesus saves,” are positive declarations, but by themselves they don’t have the firepower necessary to bring us to faith. Truth is the last step; we begin with the beautiful. We must be internally moved to believe. A fire must be lit in our belly and it’s Beauty that kindles it. 

Anything truly beautiful (as opposed to the merely glamorous) sparks joy and evokes wonder. It ushers us into a realm of grace as when we watch a ballerina or hear the music of Mozart. We’re touched by gentle beauty when we behold a robin feeding her newly hatched chicks  securely snuggled in the nest she’s provided. Even more so, when we gaze at a newborn human baby cooing and smiling at us our thoughts and feelings elevate to a higher plane.  Beauty causes our eyes to lift up and look for something more, something beyond the here and now.

When we resist hardening our hearts, beauty awakens sensitivity and feeling for others. Somehow we become more aware of the good and are more apt to participate in it. Thus we are led on to the second transcendental, Goodness. True beauty in any form tends to make us want to be good. However, we are especially moved toward the Good when we consider the beauty of those who give their lives freely to individuals who can’t pay them back. Hearing about Mother Teresa makes us want to do something for the poor.  

Balthasar reminds us that ultimate beauty resides in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. When we encounter his beauty in action as he heals an outcast leper or forgives the woman caught in adultery our attention is caught. The highest beauty can be seen in the climax of Jesus’ life, that is,  when the Son of God gives his life on the cross for the salvation of all, even those who betrayed him– people like you and me. As we continue to consider this heavenly person, light and heat are generated. We begin to thaw out spiritually, to open up more fully to the Good. We may not necessarily believe at this point, but the stories of Jesus have drawn us in and we want to hear more. 

Having been inspired by the beautiful and now wanting to do good and perhaps beginning to do so, we arrive at the last transcendental, Truth. And Jesus said we will only know the truth as we purpose to put it into practice.(John 7:17) As James says, without an act of faith, there is no faith.”(James 2:17

So don’t worry if you believe the gospel’s truth or not. And by all means, don’t try to make  yourself believe. Rather, devote yourself to studying Jesus. Let yourself be immersed in all aspects of his life so that you see the Beauty whether you think it’s true or not. As the title of a well-known book said, the gospel (good news) is “the greatest story ever told.” Jordan Peterson said on his podcast that there could never be a greater story. You can’t get any better than God himself becoming a human being to save us from pain, evil, sin and death. Then to take us ultimately to a literal heaven upon earth! Give yourself time to consider Jesus and see what happens!

Image:Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Johannes Vermeer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Spiritual Formation

When Mainline Christians Spoke in Tongues

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I became a Christian during the Charismatic Renewal in the early ‘70s when God poured out his Spirit in a way that we haven’t seen since in the ensuing four plus decades. People from every denomination experienced this outpouring along with manifestations such as prophecy, healing and speaking in tongues. Old Testament prophetic scriptures burst into our consciousness and thrilled us with “the” promise:

“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
Joel 2:28-29

And it happened! When I walked into Catacombs, a mid-week meeting at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Toronto, a blast of heaven enveloped me as though I had entered a furnace of glory. God had descended. His presence filled the temple. Many hundreds of people all felt it together. During Full Gospel Businessmen’s meetings at the Royal Connaught Hotel in Hamilton two or three thousand people would gently begin to sing spontaneous praises unto God. The volume gradually increased as individual voices blended into one heavenly sound lifting our attention higher and higher–to Jesus, the baptizer with the Holy Spirit. No one wanted to leave. Lives changed forever. 

Gradually, however, darkness began to cloud the light. We seemed to forget the nature of the Spirit we were receiving. People began to focus on power rather than love. External manifestations such as tongues or being “slain in the Spirit” took center stage. Some took delight in the feeling of self-importance gained by prophesying over another. Authoritarian leadership reared its ugly head in many charismatic ministries. Leaders domineered, sometimes going so far as telling people whom they should marry. Somehow we forgot the Spirit’s essence–love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, faithfulness, goodness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). The plight of the poor and vulnerable didn’t get much press.  The glory departed.

The confusing thing about such a time is that what you see is sometimes of God and sometimes merely human. Some people genuinely did fall down under the Spirit’s power and some were pushed by over-zealous pray-ers presumably wanting to be seen as mighty, Spirit-filled men or women. And what about the one who prophesies or speaks in tongues? How does she know if what she’s about to say is of God, self or even the evil one? How do we discern God’s Spirit at all?

Ignatius of Loyola, a great spiritual leader of the past, gives us valuable advice. He suggests a delicate but profound image for what he calls “the discerning of spirits.” God’s Spirit, says Ignatius, comes to us like water dripping on a sponge. He enters quietly and easily through an open door–if our heart’s orientation is toward God. Our experience is exactly the opposite if our heart’s disposition is to self. The evil one comes as water dripping on a stone.  Darkness enters only with clamour and noise because the door is closed to it. The dark power tries to break it down through fear, hurry and intimidation. That is, we experience the darkness as silently entering because the door is open to it. In such a state, God’s presence is noisy and clattering because we have not aligned ourselves to him and hence we are not receptive to what he gives. Like welcomes like. 

The first step in aligning ourselves to God is having a right understanding of God’s nature i.e. good theology. That means coming to Jesus and learning that he is “gentle and humble in heart” and that he produces deep rest in our souls. The teaching he asks us to accept is easy; his burden is light (Mat. 11:28-30)–water gently falling on a sponge. If our God is harsh, we ourselves will tend to be harsh. 

As soon as we talk about the peace and nonviolence of Jesus, someone inevitably rushes to tell us about the injustices of the world. We need to be angry, to rise up and do something about them. But again, let’s look to Jesus and specifically what the coming of the Spirit did in his life. 

“Here is my chosen servant! I love him, and he pleases me.
I will give him my Spirit, and he will bring justice to the nations.
He won’t shout or yell or call out in the streets.
He won’t break off a bent reed or put out a dying flame,
but he will make sure that justice is done.
All nations will place their hope in him.”
Mat. 12:18:21

Jesus acted decisively to bring about justice, but he did it without clamouring to get attention, demanding his way or trampling on others, especially the weakest and most bruised souls. He tenderly cared for marginalized people whether the leper cast out of Jewish society or the woman considered unclean because of her bleeding. In fact, Jesus didn’t even trample on his enemies.  The term nations, used twice in the passage above, refers to Gentiles, Israel’s enemies, those who are on the outside and are despised by the “good people.” Jesus would rather die for his enemies than show any callousness to even the worst. He is the “social justice warrior” extraordinaire who triumphs absolutely, but he does it God’s way and in God’s Spirit. 

We cannot go through something like the Charismatic Renewal  without longing for more of God’s Spirit. Could it be that we don’t experience him as we would like because we’re opening our heart’s door to a false image of God? Have we created an idol of power or success or pleasure that we’re bowing down to? The Holy Spirit does bring power, but it’s not that we might be mesmerized by supernatural manifestations or exert dominance over others. As scripture tells us the power of the Spirit enabled Jesus to do good and to help those oppressed by the darkness (Acts 10:38). I am persuaded that it will be so for us.

Spiritual Formation

The Coronavirus and the Christian’s Vulnerability

Along with incalculable health and economic suffering, the coronavirus has also brought a reality check. We are not as secure as we imagined. Being well-fed and gadgeted to the max has lulled us into a dream-like state that hides an unpleasant truth–we will eventually lose everything. Beauty will fade, strength will diminish, our senses will grow dim, friends and family members will depart and finally life itself will slip away. Covid-19 slapped us in the face with our own mortality. This should especially sober the individual who has not thought much about what comes next. In this post, however, I want to talk to those of us who look forward to an eternity with Jesus. Have we considered that even after we become Christians the sense of vulnerability the coronavirus has reawakened is vital? Are we aware that without knowing our own weakness, we will not do well in God’s kingdom?

I don’t know about you, but everything in me recoils at the thought of being weak, poor in spirit or helpless. Furthermore, I feel that my Christian life is not going too badly. Oh I know I could do better, but, hey, “I’m only human.” All in all I’m doing the best I can and should be OK. But this laissez-faire attitude contrasts vividly with that of the apostle Paul as we see from his anguished cry in Rom. 7:14-25. “I do what I shouldn’t do and I don’t do what I should do. I’m helpless in the face of what’s going on inside. My body holds me a prisoner to its desires. Who will deliver me from the fate of this death?” Paul’s status quo disturbed him big time.ConversionStPaul

How can it be that I think I’m doing better than the man who established Christianity all over the ancient world and wrote about half the NT? The answer to that question is actually quite simple. I don’t fix my eyes on Jesus.  I do think of him quite often actually, but not enough to keep the essence of his kingdom–grace, nonviolence, peace, love–firmly set in my mind. From others I know, I take it I’m not alone.

We live with our own version of Christianity and if we set our standards low enough, the Christian life is a breeze. It’s like the story of the man driving in the country who noticed a barn with arrows stuck all over its side with each arrow dead center in the middle of its target. So impressed with what he saw, the man pulled into the driveway to meet such a talented archer. The farmer told him it was really nothing. The secret was to paint the target around the arrow after he’d shot it. In a similar fashion, we construe the goal of the Christian life as being roughly where we already are. O we know in the next life things will be different, but we’re getting through OK until that glorious time. However, that’s not aiming for the target. It’s not earnestly pursuing the kingdom where the Father’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Nowhere is the high nature of the Christian’s calling better displayed than in Jesus’  Sermon on the Mount. Take just a couple of examples: “Rather than hate your enemy like others have said, I say to you, love your enemies” (Mat. 5:43-48). So who is your enemy? a boss who belittles you? a spouse who betrayed you?  a supposed friend who gossips about you? Maybe the terrorists who blow innocent people up in an attempt to destroy our society? The latter would definitely qualify as enemies, but surely God doesn’t expect us to love suicide bombers? That seems to be exactly what Jesus meant. When he spoke about loving one’s enemies, every one of his hearers knew precisely who he was talking about, the Romans. They occupied their Jewish homeland. An enemy every bit as terrorizing as today’s suicide bombers, the Romans often sought to inflict as much pain as possible while executing a condemned individual. They sawed their victims in half, burned them alive and crucified them in a particularly slow, agonizing death. Love your enemies? I feel violated if I don’t immediately get my money back for an internet subscription I’ve cancelled! The kind of love Jesus requires is simply not humanly possible.

He doesn’t stop with talk of enemies, however. What he says about those much closer to us startles us just as much. Being angry with a brother or sister is akin to . . . murder (Mat. 5:21-22)! When we let Jesus’ words sink in, they become a sharp sword that pierces to our core (Heb. 4:12). They illuminate every trace of human anger, the source of so much evil including murder. The motions of my heart stand out in stark contrast to Jesus’ nonviolent kingdom. I get angry when “politically correct” people don’t believe what I believe. I get irritated when I’m interrupted. Anger manifests itself in countless human interactions–sarcastic humour at someone’s expense, gossip, competitiveness to the point of anger if we don’t win, envying such that we wish for another’s loss, excluding someone from our circle, blaming scapegoats for our own problems, trampling others because we’re not getting our way etc. 

We put up with hatred and anger because we’re used to them, but not so Paul. Rather than allowing such emotions to blend into the background of a spiritually sleepy life, he was wide awake and alert to their danger. So strong is their influence, Paul called it a law, that of  of sin in his members (Rom. 7:23).  “When I want to do good,” he laments, “evil is present with me” (Rom. 7:21). So why was Paul so aware of his shortcomings? Did he just have an oversensitive conscience, a melancholic personality? Was Paul a particularly bad person? Maybe he just needed to lighten up a bit? 

No, the reason he had such a crystal clear vision of his own shortcomings is that he also had a crystal clear vision of the love of Jesus. In fact, it had been poured into his heart through the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). Here’s the great paradox, the closer we get to the Light, the more our darkness shows up and the more potential there is to be bothered by it. Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, cries out in anguish because his defects and weakness stand out so starkly in Jesus’ presence.

That’s Romans 7. The scene changes dramatically in the next chapter where everything is turned upside down. Despite how wrong things may be in our inner world, Jesus’ goodness is greater than our badness! God lavishes this goodness upon us in the gift of the Spirit of Jesus–that same Spirit we encountered in the Sermon on the Mount which enables us to love even our enemies. The secret Paul tells us repeatedly is to rigorously keep focused on it–to walk after the Spirit (Rom. 8:4), to set our minds on the Spirit (Rom. 8:5-6), to put to death sinful acts by the Spirit (Rom. 8:13) and to be led by the Spirit (Rom. 8:14).

In conclusion, if we don’t fix our eyes on Jesus and what he has to say, we won’t feel any great shortfall in our walk with God. We will be like the man James talks about who looks into “the perfect law of liberty” and by doing so understands his true nature and calling. However, like a man walking away from a mirror, he goes his way and immediately forgets his higher self (James 1:23-25).

As I’ve mentioned, seeing the higher means seeing the lower as well. There is of necessity anguish as we come close to God and his light shows up what’s inside, but we can take courage. We can admit our weakness, our sins, our vulnerability. This same love, kindness and goodness that we fall so short of is embodied in the Person with whom we have to do and he extends all this grace fully to us. Not only that, he promises to put it right inside!

Spiritual Formation

God Shows Up in Old Age: The Story of Simeon

Luke 2:25-35 

It had been revealed to him that before he died, he would see the Messiah. But as he grew older, he began to doubt. “Time is running out. Have I deceived myself?” In his weaker moments a sneering thought would whisper, “What makes you think some big thing is going to happen to you? Do you think you’re better than everyone else?” 

But then there were many times of being nourished by a sense of divine love. Something positive was going to happen. Something positive was happening–inside. And it kept leading him on and on, hoping and waiting and praying.

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When he first laid eyes on them, they seemed like any other young couple Simeon had seen dedicating a male child in the temple.  He’d been there day after day for years. But then he took a second look at them. Something about this family was different. They moved with quietness. They had a peace that drew him.

Simeon gazed at the newborn, then again. He looked a third time. Yes, it was true. The feeling got stronger every time. He looked again and this time savoured what he felt, a blending of pure goodness and sheer power. It smelled like the overwhelming love he’d come to know in the best of his prayer times. He was now transfixed on the baby and all the time the feeling was getting stronger and stronger. His gut was moved and his eyes watered. Not thinking about what he was doing he walked deliberately toward the couple and with authority took the baby from the mother’s arms and prophesied, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, dismiss your servant in peace!” Then he lifted Jesus up in the air and with a sweet, delicious smile proclaimed, “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

The voice was true–the voice he’d associated all these years with goodness and love . His doubts vanished. He had seen the Messiah.