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A Little Lower than God! Part 4: The Door to Your True Self

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In this series we have been examining one of the most fundamental things that makes us human, the ability to step back into our own inner world and make decisions free from external pressures. This amazing power remains intact despite the most extreme circumstances as we see in the life of the Anabaptist, Mattheus Mair, who was martyred in Baden, Germany on July 27, 1592. After six days of imprisonment, during which the priests tried in vain to convert him, he was drowned. Three or four times the executioner pulled him out of the water to ask him whether he would recant, but he refused as long as he could speak.

Mattheus Mair’ ability to make his own choices in the face of unimaginable fear and suffering illustrates how no one can take this freedom from us. On the other hand we sometimes find ourselves feeling like we’re not free to make even very small decisions (Rom. 7:15-25). We decide not to gossip or eat another chocolate bar and then go right ahead and do it anyway. How can this be?

No one can take our God-given freedom from us, but we can give it away as we saw last time in the life of Samson. There must be some secret whereby we go from being a spiritual weakling to a Mattheus Mair superhero of faith. Scripture pictures the strong human self as an ancient city protected from enemies by impregnable walls. It says that if we relinquish control over ourselves, we become weak and vulnerable like a city without walls. It is God who gives spiritual strength, but clearly, we have a role to play. We must build the walls and we too decide to whom we open the gates.

God designs this inner city to have the kind of power we see in the life of Mattheus Mair if, and only if, there are two residents in it–ourselves and God. We see this throughout the New Testament, for example, in the concept of the indwelling Spirit, the One who lives inside us. And here too, we retain control. Jesus graciously waits for us to open the door and invite him in. William Holman Hunt made a famous painting to illustrate Jesus’ statement that he was standing at the door of our hearts knocking. Hunt was asked if he hadn’t made a mistake because there is no handle on the outside of the door. Hunt said, no, that was deliberate. Jesus waits for us to open to him from the inside.

And just as Jesus doesn’t break down the door to get in, neither does he dominate us once inside. He doesn’t drive. His voice is not harsh and insistent like that of the enemy. When we make room for God in this sacred space, there is room. There is time–to think, to reflect, to decide what we really want.

Furthermore, contrary to the view of some, God is NOT always there to tell us what to do. Some Christians instinctively resist opening up their inner real estate to God because they seem to have a master-puppet conception of our relationship with God. If we were ever to be truly in tune with God, they imagine, we would just be obeying one command after another. His unceasing demands would crowd out our inner space completely. There would be no room to reflect and make decisions. Life would be one long oppressive succession of duties. In other words, we somehow believe that if we make room for God, there will be no room at all!

Some Christian teaching has perpetuated this unappealing view of the human being with what has been dubbed worm theology– “I’m so bad God must just want me for a boot-licking lackey. I’m so useless all I can do is take orders.” You remember that was exactly what the Prodigal Son thought after he’d taken his father’s money and blown it living a wild life with prostitutes and other disreputable people. All he could conceive was that the father might want him back as a slave. However, his father would hear none of it and immediately restored him to sonship. The love of his father heart overwhelmed any feelings of disappointment. He “had to celebrate and rejoice” because his lost son was found.

It is this image of God as father that really allows things to become clear. No matter how good he may be, no one is drawn to an overbearing father who smothers them at every turn with his demands. God has created in us the powerful desire to make up our own minds, to be able to create, not just take orders. When God created the animals, he didn’t tell Adam what to name them. Rather God brought them to Adam to see what he would name them. When we invite Jesus in, rather than simply tell us what to do all the time, he comes alongside us and makes suggestions, “Wouldn’t the relationship with your wife go a lot better if you held your tongue in situations like this?” When we ask him what he thinks we should do, he might throw it back on us, “What do you think you should do?” He appeals to our higher self. He trusts us more than we trust ourselves.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.Gal. 5:1

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Decision · Prayer

A Little Lower than God! Part 3: How Could Samson be So Stupid?

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Many of you will know the story of the tragic figure, Samson, the biblical character whose prodigious strength could defeat whole armies. Samson, however, also had a prodigious weakness–an attraction to foxy Philistine women. One of them, Delilah, asks him three times for the secret of his strength and three times he gives her a false answer. Each time she tells the Philistines, but when they try out what Samson has said, he breaks free.

The fourth time Delilah asks, Samson tells her the truth that lies behind his great strength–he has never cut his hair. Sure enough, while he’s asleep, Delilah lops off his hair, the Philistines attack, blind him and put him in prison. How, when Delilah has told the Philistines the other three answers, could Samson be so stupid as to tell her the real secret the fourth time?

I believe the answer has to do with what I wrote about in my last post–the human ability to step back and reflect before taking action. As we delve deeper into the story, it appears that Samson lost this inner space which in turn led to his tragic downfall.

First, let’s look at a Hebrew word, mezimmah, that is sometimes used for this planning or decision-making faculty. One commentator describes it as “the capacity for private, hidden thought”–space for freedom and creativity. We all have it and we can use it either positively or negatively. In the latter case, mezimmah is translated evil devices or wicked schemes (e.g. Psa.37:7). The manipulative individual steps back into his own thoughts and schemes how he might get his way. On the other hand, mezimmah can be positive at which times biblical translators use words such as discretion or prudence (e.g. Prov. 2:11). Wise people step back and choose paths that are good, peaceable, loving and healthy.

In the Bible spaciousness is seen as a blessing from God and when we invite God into our inner world, he increases the space inside for free, uninhibited thought. Conversely, shutting God out reduces it. The NIV’s usage of mezimmah in Psalm 10:4 illustrates the power we have to decrease this space. “In his pride the wicked man does not seek him; in all his thoughts there is no room for God.” Only when we make room for God in our thoughts will we ultimately have this wonderful sense of freedom. He is the One who created us with the precious ability to choose and he wants us to have it. He doesn’t want this capacity minimized by unruly passions or desires, fears, stress, anxiety, pressures from other people or anything else.

This brings us back to Samson who stands out in the Bible as someone whose lust for illicit sexual relationships crowded out his capacity for rational thought. As he gave himself over to Delilah, his thought-life became breached. Here’s the description of the beginning of Samson’s end when he tells Delilah his secret. “It came about when she pressed him daily with her words and urged him, that his soul was annoyed to death. So he told her all that was in his heart. . .” (Judges 16:16,17a).

The Hebrew word translated pressed is often used for what an enemy does to a city as it lays siege to it. It is also translated constrain, bring distress, oppress. Delilah besieged Samson. She bombarded him with her words and she did it relentlessly until he was hemmed in, “annoyed to death.” The word translated annoyed means to be inadequate or to not have enough of. The literal meaning is to be short as when a bed is not long enough to be comfortable. Delilah pressed in upon Samson until he ran out of inner room.

Samson had a history of involvement with prostitutes and other inappropriate relationships. As he continued to give himself over to illicit sexual pleasure, he opened himself up to a relentless spiritual onslaught. The turmoil thus experienced robbed him of space for reflective thinking. He lost the ability to make a rational decision.

Samson vividly illustrates Prov. 25:28, “Like a city that is broken into and without walls Is a man who has no control over his spirit. In our next post we’ll take a look at the “door” of the city and to whom we’re to open it.

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Prayer

“A Little Lower than God” Part 2: The Crossroads, a Divine Place!

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In the previous post, I spoke of the Bible’s audacious claim that human beings are created in the image of God. Whatever progress I make in understanding that statement comes to a screeching halt the moment I take a good look at myself. When I consider God’s others-centered love, the contrast with my deep-rooted self-centeredness hits me like a brick wall. At the suggestion I be like Jesus, I become a small boy on a hike whose path leads straight to the foot of a 300 foot vertical cliff that somehow I must scale.

The first step in beginning the climb is understanding that this sense of utter helplessness comes about precisely because I am created in God’s image! I’m speaking of our ability to step back and think about our circumstances, in this instance to reflect on how far I am from God’s nature. Animals, whose instincts drive them on, can’t do this. We humans, on the other hand, have an amazing power to stop, consider our situation and decide on our course of action. Many men on the Titanic, for example, chose to reject the powerful instinct of self-preservation and allowed women and children to get into the lifeboats while they faced certain death.

The principle of being able to step back from reality and choose our destiny under-girds the entire Bible. Old Testament leaders such as Elijah and Joshua exhort the Israelites to “choose this day” whether they will serve God or not (1Kings 18:21;Jos. 24:15). The prophet, Joel, saw, “multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision” (Joel 3:14). Billy Graham understood this truth with crystal clarity. Decision became the watchword of his ministry. He had a radio program called Hour of Decision, his magazine was simply called Decision Magazine and, of course, virtually every message he preached climaxed with a call for men and women to decide for Christ.

This incredible power of reflection, however, only reaches its full potential when we combine it with the reality of God’s presence. That is, we can step back from the current situation and reflect, but we can do it in two ways. We can think by ourselves or we can invite God to join us in our deliberations. We can go into abstraction or we can come into relationship. The difference is monumental. Alone, in the hollow halls of my own head, I eventually suffer an anguished emptiness. Reflecting with an upward glance to Jesus, I have better, higher quality ideas which lead to a sense of contented fullness.

The Bible specifically teaches us this principle when, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, God says, “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. (Jer 6:16). The crossroads, of course, is the place where we step back and choose which way we will go. The verse gives us two profound insights. Firstly, when we are faced with a decision, rather than merely think about it by ourselves, stop and pray. Ask God what we should do. Think about what he might want us do.

Secondly, ask for the good way. This is the secret for so many who feel they never hear from God.  “The Lord’s goodness and mercy endure forever.” To hear God speak, we must understand his language and, simply put, it is love. “God is love.” So ask God, ask yourself, “Where do I see God’s goodness most clearly? What’s the most loving thing I can do in this terrible work situation? How can I show graciousness to this troublesome individual? What career will give me the best opportunity to do good?” It’s surprising then how often we’re inspired by better thoughts than our own.

Child Direction Kid Crossroad Choice What Way

 

So every time you’re discouraged by the wall of your own self-centeredness, realize that you’re at a divine place–the crossroads. You have the power to choose! Because you’re like God, you have an opportunity to mold your own destiny. It doesn’t matter how often you seemed to have come up short, “it’s never too late to make a right decision!” You can step back; you can give an upward glance; you can look for the good way and see what God will do!

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Prayer

“A Little Lower than God” Part 1: Who Was I? Who Am I?

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Back in the late 60s you would often hear people speaking about the need to “find yourself.” An incident involving a friend of mine and a university professor highlighted my desperate need to do just exactly that. We were in the office of my friend’s former professor visiting. After they chatted for a few minutes, the professor turned to me and said, “And so Andrew, who are you?” The question threw me off. In a flippant manner I started to recount my biography, “I attended Riverside Public School in London. . . ,” but after only a few seconds I found a lump of fear in my stomach and I couldn’t speak. My friend and the professor stared at me wondering what was going on. The professor asked, “Do you not like me?” He was befuddled. We all were. “Who are you?” a simple question, but an obvious and painful revelation that I didn’t know.

You may not have an experience as dramatic (or fearful) as me, but have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and wondered who am I? “Where did I come from?” is a natural question for the simple reason that we didn’t make ourselves. More to the point, as a Christian, who do you conceive yourself to be? What do you feel yourself to be? Are you a glorious being created in the image of God or a sinner saved by grace?

The question is of the utmost practical importance for we will never grow beyond the vision we have of ourselves. Let me illustrate with a story. A Wisconsin farmer walking early in the season in his pumpkin patch sees a bottle lying on the ground. He carefully inserts one of the tiny, young pumpkins into the bottle so as to not damage the vine and puts it back on the ground. In the fall when he returns he finds the pumpkin is no bigger than the bottle which it has perfectly filled.

If all we conceive ourselves to be is a “sinner saved by grace,” that’s all we’ll ever be. Too often we focus on the negative side of our beings because we’re all too aware of our shortcomings, “the carnal self.” However, there is an older, original self that pulsates with the heartbeat of God. We were born in sin, that is, in some mysterious sense we were “in Adam” when he sinned. However, the whole truth is that we were also “in him” when he was created a glorious being! Your true self, at the core, is full of wonder, the very reflection of the divine!

The Gospel message proclaims that because of what Jesus has done, we can now consider the old self yesterday’s news (Rom. 6:11). The only thing that matters anymore is the new glorious self (Gal. 6:15) which is in fact God’s original!

May we keep in mind these powerful and beautiful words from Max Lucado, “Your life emerged from the greatest mind and kindest heart in the history of the universe.”

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christian · Prayer

Responding to the Spirit (excerpt from “Whispers that Delight”)

The Spirit of Our Actions is What Counts

When we speak of responding to God in prayer, therefore, we do not mean an intellectual exercise of trying to discern our marching orders for the day (though he could direct us to specific actions, as we shall see). Our Father’s first order of business is not to assign tasks, but to transform hearts. He seeks a profound response, something we cannot manufacture by human ability. God is a Spirit and his kingdom a spiritual one. His interest lies in the attitude or spirit with which we carry out even the smallest task. Not what we do, but how we do it matters most. Jesus highlights this truth when he draws the disciples’ attention to a widow putting two small copper coins in the offering box (Luke 21:1-4). Her offering, though appearing paltry, dwarfed all the others because she gave with great love and self-sacrifice. The amount of money given was irrelevant. The only measurement that mattered was the size of her heart. On another occasion, Jesus conveys this principle to his disciples by telling them that something as inconsequential as the giving of a cup of cold water, when done with the right attitude, has eternal benefits (Mark 9:41).

God concerns himself with our spirit, something we cannot change on our own. He must work his grace into our lives through prayer. By looking to Jesus, not only do we understand that our response to God should be one of love, we are also empowered to carry it out. Just spending time listening to him automatically makes us more loving people in the same way one coal irradiates another. Frank Bartleman describes a prayer meeting during the great Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit in the early 1900s when Jesus manifested himself for several hours to Bartleman and a friend. He said, “my whole being seemed to flow down before him, like wax before the fire,” and, Jesus “ravished our spirits with his presence.” The story fascinates me primarily because of the effect Bartleman says the encounter had upon him. “For days that marvellous presence seemed to walk by my side. The Lord Jesus was so real. I could scarcely take up with human conversation again. It seemed so crude and empty. Human spirits seemed so harsh, earthly fellowship a torment. How far we are naturally from the gentle spirit of Christ!” When we spend time with Jesus we conduct ourselves with a kinder, gentler disposition. He sweetens our spirit and softens the hard edges of our personality.

Without a revelation of Christ’s love, we cannot respond adequately. God demands our all and we will not give it unless we know his love by experience. We cannot give ourselves to someone we do not fully trust and we can only trust if we believe the person has our best interest at heart. The revelation of divine love loosens our grip on self-will and allows us to surrender to God’s will.

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The Magnificent Mystery of Us

A couple of years ago I awoke in the middle of the  night and, for some inexplicable reason, found myself pondering the story of Cinderella. As I did, I felt a distinct impression, “That’s you.”

As when God speaks, it created delight in me.

The glass slipper speaks of a beautiful realm that Cinderella  was made for, a world that contrasted vividly with the shabby one of forced servitude that she had to inhabit . Each one of us is a prince or princess created to fit perfectly–fit into a world of royalty much more magnificent and mystical than what we have imagined.

 

In short, we are God-like–the wonderful mystery that Christians almost never take seriously. The church has been very efficient at pointing out how fallen we are, but tends to never get much past that. We have sinned, no question, but we are being made good again, “redeemed!” When we actually see what the Bible means by that term, we  thrill with the mystery of it!

Think about it, what does it mean to be “one spirit with” God (1Co 6:17) or to “partake of the divine nature (2Pe 1:4)? What does it mean to be created in the very image of God (Gen 1:27)?  Jesus didn’t shy away from this truth. Indeed, he astounded his hearers when he referenced a verse in the Psalms  which calls human beings ‘gods.’ Just to make sure they got the point, he reminded them that the scripture cannot be made void (Joh 10:35). Thus he expected his followers to live up to this high calling by being perfect–just like their Heavenly Father (Mat 5:44).

Can this really be true? How, in any meaningful sense, are we actually like God? It’s not in our intellect. As someone has noted, compared to God, we’re all developmentally delayed. It’s not in our power. We live in a frail body destined for the grave. The one area where we can enter into the divine is that of goodness. It’s by love, even for our enemies, that we show ourselves to be children of God. The littlest kindnesses, even simply greeting people we don’t know, demonstrate perfection like that of our Father in heaven. (Mat. 5:43-48).

It’s time we throw off the cloak of negativity and self-condemnation in order to embrace the whole truth. The good news is NOT that we’re selfish and sinful. Rather it is that we were created to be like God and that he has come down to restore his image in us once again through the Gospel. So great was God’s desire for us to fit into his royal kingdom, he didn’t just put outward garments on us like the fairy godmother did for Cinderella. No, he placed his very essence in our innermost being, the promised Holy Spirit, the Christ of God!  Now you can go out and do something good!

christian · Uncategorized

Molly’s Mystical Smile

Molly's Mystical Smile

Henri Nouwen writes, “For Christian leadership to be truly fruitful in the future, a movement from the moral to the mystical is required.” This is true of everyone, not just leaders. By moral he means the human attempt to do the right thing on one’s own. While such an effort may evoke our admiration, eventually it saps the joy of the one who trudges on in this solitary way.

On the other hand, by mystical Nouwen means the experience of intimacy with God such that  we make our choices together in conversation with Him. Rather than the drudgery of mere moralism, we derive an energy from being connected to something larger and wiser than ourselves. When we touch the mystical, however, we find that, low and behold, it is moral. Goodness is divine. When the light penetrates, we may revel in love.

And the moral-mystical is all around us. For example, I often saw it when my five month old granddaughter, Molly, smiled at me. The pure goodness and innocence of her smile captivated me. There was something ancient about it. As I gazed at her, suddenly she would beam at me–as though she recognized me from long ago. As though we had some long lost primordial connection. An eternal flame gently burned in her smile or rather, her smile released its warmth from some inner depth–and it kindled the light of a smile in me.