We humans have a deep and awesome need to become more human, to become fully human. It is not possible to become fully human under the pressure to become more human. Grace is the foundation of all genuine humanity.
I was created to be a unique home for God, a home in which He expresses Himself in a unique way. I matter because I am a unique creation, but the completion of my significance is found only in that I should be a dwelling place for God. This means that my significance is a mystery to be discovered in my relationship with God, that I cannot look directly at myself, for my essence is found in depths beyond my comprehension, in depths of soul known only to Him. This also means that I am not a blank conduit to God’s Spirit, as I am unique habitation for God, a unique and living manifestation of his glory and thus the creation that I am if unredeemed can be a loss avenue of his glory, even though my loss would not ultimately detract from his glory. The creation that I am is an irreplaceable, God-willed existence, and thus I have particular significance in God’s orchestration of creation. In short, I matter, but my unique matter-ing is only complete in God.
In reading commentary about the passages where Jesus states that no prophet dies outside Jerusalem, and that the religious leaders of his day are of the same ilk as those who killed the prophets in previous days, it struck me how dire is the problem of sin. Israel had every advantage, as they were called of God, were formed by his call, and by his saving actions on their behalf. Israel was the recipient of God’s covenant, wherein they received his instruction in righteousness, and they were the ones from whom the prophets arose, and the ones to whom the prophets were sent. They received prophetic words to remind them of God’s goodness, words about his saving actions, unlimited mercy, and the hope they have in God’s covenant love, and yet for all this, Israel strayed. They did not really know their own God. The problem this reveals is that if Israel with all its advantages did not really know the Lord, how much more so all the Gentile nations who had no such advantage. As Paul would say, if those who are near did not understand, how much more so those who are far away.
The thing about sin is that it is a reality present in all of creation, Jew and Gentile alike, and it is a reality that perverts every good thing, and actually takes goodness and works it against God. So, though the Jews had every advantage, their advantage in many ways actually worked against them because of the reality of sin, for no law, no teaching in righteousness, no prophetic utterance could ever get at the root of sin. Thus, through Jesus’ death in Jerusalem, God expressed a great judgment against all religious hopes born in this world. Through Jesus’ death God said “No!” to the very religion he created, and all the more so those religions created without the benefit of his direct action. But, and this is a blessed but, through the death of Jesus God also gave a resounding “Yes!” for through Jesus’ death God put an end to sin by condemning it in the body of Jesus. Moreover, by bodily resurrecting Jesus from the dead, God offers life beyond the reach of sin. In this light, as Paul would also say, there is an advantage to being a Jew, for theirs is the heritage that was designed by God to ultimately bear witness to the work that God would do to renew creation and redeem humankind. As Jesus said to the religious leaders of his day, “You search the Scriptures for in them you think you find eternal life, but they are those which testify to me.” This is Israel’s true heritage, and this is our heritage as well when we come to faith in him who always was the true heart of Israel.
I am a transcendent sexual essentialist! Yes, this sounds like I am making a confession, perhaps a confession that requires the custom category for gender on Facebook, or that I’m coming out of the closet for some kind of gender related issue. Actually, in a way I am, but I am not making a statement of personal identity, but rather metaphysical conviction. By saying I am a transcendent sexual essentialist, I am saying that I believe gender is an objective reality that exists beyond mere social construction. I am saying that because gender is transcendent it exists in a dynamic relationship to cultures such that it can be encoded in a myriad of ways, and thus lend itself to the appearance of merely being socially constructed. The thing to be mindful of is that gender, being a reality in God, is an abundant reality that exceeds our cognitive and linguistic capacities to fully comprehend and express, and yet it is a reality present in the structure of creation, and more importantly, in the very constitution of our existence as humans made in God’s image. For this reason gender is a reality that cannot be ignored, as its presence in creation calls out for engagement, for inquiry, for “faith seeking understanding.” And yet, though gender is a reality present in creation, because its essence is beyond creation it is not something easily reduced to a set of readily identified characteristics. As I see it, since we are creatures made in God’s image, we are limited creators, and thus I speculate that it was God’s plan that we use our creative faculties to construct our understanding of gender as we engage the transcendent real ground of gender, a reality that will always exceed our constructions, and thereby invite further engagement. In an unfallen world this would have led to a plethora of beautiful ways in which masculinity and femininity could be incarnated and expressed, like many facets on a brilliant diamond. The issue to keep in mind in this engagement is that though there are a myriad of ways to express and encode masculine and feminine in culture, there is also wrong ways they can be encoded, and I would say that one of the wrong ways is to deny that there is any kind of objective foundation to the reality of gender. Yes, this reality is not always easy to identify and delineate, but again, this is not because there is no there there, but because it exceeds the frailty of our understanding.
A common definition of sin is “missing the mark.” Generally speaking when us religious types talk about sin what we have in mind is falling short (“missing the mark”) regarding a moral standard. In essence, sin is viewed as a moral transgression. Though I acknowledge the validity of all this regarding the nature of sin, I’ve often found such a perspective to be too moralistic, a tad shallow, and perhaps ironically, it misses the mark regarding the full reality of sin, a reality which goes down to our existential roots, and which obtains its content in the light the of grace.
Ultimately, sin is not just turning away from God as lawgiver, it is turning away from God as self-giver, a self-giving most concretely seen in the giving of Jesus, who is Immanuel, God with us. In essence, sin is a turning away from having our being in and through God’s self giving, and instead living our lives as if we are from ourselves and are complete unto ourselves. In short, sin is anti-Immanuel, anti-God-with-us, and is instead God-at-a-distance, or God-not-at-all. The shocking thing about sin is that it functions, even thrives, in religious contexts, but what sin won’t tolerate in such a context is a God who comes so close and gives so completely that all sense of self-sufficiency is undermined, leaving only a naked, dependent, and vulnerable self. Sin will not tolerate this self.
The trespass of law by which people typically define sin is merely a symptom of this deeper alienation from and rejection of God. This is why faith is essential to Christian living and why, as the Scriptures say, it is impossible to please God apart from faith. Faith is the posture that aligns with how God made our being to function. We were made to have our becoming (our living development) and completion in the constant self-giving of God. Faith is that nakedness, that dependence, that vulnerability to God that seeks to have its all in him. It is the appropriate giving of one’s self to the self-giving of God.
In the Garden of Eden, when humanity, through its primordial parents, stretched forth its hand to eat the forbidden fruit, beneath the trespass of “thou shalt not eat,” was a belief that God was holding out, and a corresponding yearning to live a life on the basis of what we could secure for ourselves through that outstretched hand. In modern words, that out stretched hand declares, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” For this reason, it is very fitting that salvation happens when we cease to stretch out our hands to secure our lives, and allow the outstretched hand of God, pierced for our transgressions, to reach down and secure us in the stream of his everlasting self-giving.
I am a legalist of sorts. In making this confession I am not saying that I can point to a specific set of laws or moral standards I ascribe to, and live by, and believe that upon this basis I have a good standing with God. I know what the Scriptures say about the false hopes of self-justification, and the sharp contrast between life under the Law and the righteousness that comes by faith. Moreover, I know full well that any good I do is infected with egoism, pride, and fear. So, this confession is really about how little I get grace, I mean really get grace, so that it digs into the marrow of my bones and releases me into the glory of God.
Earlier this morning, as I was reading Crisis in Masculinity by Leanne Payne (worth several posts unto itself) and was processing the relationship between righteousness and grace, I wrote the following words:
The righteousness of faith is the righteousness that comes when one leans upon the right-making, restoring action of God wrought in human hearts at Jesus’ expense when he poured himself out on the Cross.
I wrote this because I was trying to work out what I hope the Spirit was working into me as I was processing grace and righteousness. Honestly, I know so little of this right-making action in the heart, and for my entire adult life I have been morosely puzzled by this fact. I have read quite a bit about grace, holiness, and the process of sanctification, but mostly my efforts resulted in amassing information, and not in the transformation I was seeking. Regarding what I wrote, I think what the Spirit was speaking is that we can only experience this right-making action at that place where we are sinners. About this Saint Paul says, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” I have long taken heed of this verse, but being a Christian of the Protestant persuasion, I primarily understood this verse to be describing a new status I have before God on the basis of trusting that Jesus bore the judgment I deserve for being a sinner. What I didn’t see in this verse is an implication for how one spiritually grows through God’s action of justifying the ungodly through the work of the Cross.
Instead of merely receiving a new status, I am starting to think that this verse is also talking about discovering again and again that God meets people where they continue to be broken, fearful, resistant, rebellious, selfish, and unlovely, and rights them at that very place by administering the reality of Jesus being poured out on the Cross. In this way, when the Scriptures declare that “the just shall live by faith” it is saying that the just are the ones who live in the awareness that God is constantly covering them by pouring himself out through Jesus on the Cross, particularly as they find in new and deeper ways that they are indeed sinners. This means that the Gospel is not just a reality that we the “converted” preach to the lost out there, but is a reality by which we Christians continue to be converted. I imagine that this again-and-again discovery of the Gospel is what enables us to go from glory to glory, and to truly be transformed in to the likeness of the one who loves us, and in a manner of speaking, continues to give himself up for us. I think this is more akin to what Luther meant when he referred to Christians as simultaneously just and a sinner, for the Christian is the focal point where the ongoing justifying (right-making) action of God is happening.
I will conclude by saying that I hope what I shared above is near the truth, as I imagine this is the only way that I can stop being the legalist that I am.
True joy makes suffering its friend.
Dear Father, I don’t want to want what I want; rather, I want to want what you want me to want. Amen
Yes, the repetitiveness of this prayer is somewhat humorous, but along with this humor I offer it with sincerity. As far as the use of the word “wanting” as a modifier for this prayer, I primarily intend that it refer to the amount of want expressed. However, I like double entendres, and so I also want to cash in on the definition of wanting as “something essential that is lacking,” but I intend that the essential thing that is lacking refer to a heart that only wants what God wants, and not some quality of the prayer itself.
I have developed a sick religious consciousness. This is not to say that this consciousness is the sum of who I am, or that it is dominant in my personality, but it certainly is prevalent. It occurred to me moments ago (and so, I of course have to blog about it) that this consciousness is like a person who receives a diagnosis of cancer and then becomes obsessed with cancer, and in his obsessive analysis of his cancer is surprised that cancer is so cancerous. In this analogy cancer is a good analog for sin because it is a destructive reality, and it seeks to dominate its host. Moreover, when one is in the process of being healed of cancer what happens is that the presence of cancer diminishes in the host. In other words cancer is always cancerous and healing is not about converting cancer into something healthy, but about its shrinking to the point that it vanishes. In the meantime, while one is in the process of healing, whatever remains of cancer is still cancerous, is still a destructive and ugly reality.
Continuing with this analogy, just as chemotherapy can provide healing for cancer, grace does provide healing for, and deliverance from, sin. With respect to religious consciousness, and this is where the analogy breaks down, it seems to me that when one enters into grace one can either focus on the reality of grace, or the continuing reality of sin, and what I am starting to see is that what you focus on dominates your vision, which in turn powerfully affects how you live in the world. For whatever reason, I have developed the depressing habit of constantly analyzing myself to see if I am in grace (my consciousness is a weird hybrid of a cloistered, medieval monk and a dour Puritan. Keep in mind, not all Puritans are dour, but the Puritan in me is), and in this analysis I end up discovering all sorts of sin, and I run to the conclusion that grace must be absent or not working because sin is still so sinful. Going back to the analogy, it’s like I am in the midst of the healing process, and yet I run to the doctor and say, “The chemo must not be working because the cancer is still so cancerous, it’s still such a diseased and destructive reality”
To take all that I am saying and make it more specific, I currently struggle with anger, at times a dark anger, and when these feelings of anger well up and crash upon my consciousness I am very tempted to despair in the belief that grace cannot be present where such anger exists, yet what I am also experiencing is a still small voice saying, “You can either focus on the anger or you can focus on the grace.” In this instance I assume the grace of which the voice speaks is not a transforming reality, but an embracing reality, a reality that embraces me while I am angry, and what I sense is that this embrace is the foundation for any transformation that is to come. In this way grace is utterly gracious, and what I must learn to do in those darkest moments is embrace the grace that is embracing me, embrace the grace when its most clear that I don’t deserve it, which of course is the very nature of grace.
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me a sinner.”
Perhaps the above breath prayer is a bit odd to tack on at the end of this post, but somehow it seems fitting.
True repentance happens at the cross where our inability meets the ability of God.
True repentance happens at the cross for repentance is not essentially deciding to do better; it is not committing yourself to live by a righteous standard that you have previously denied or neglected. Repentance is most essentially turning to God to receive from God, for it is through his self-giving that you are able to change, be transformed, and recover the lost humanity to which all genuine standards of righteousness bear witness.
True repentance happens at the cross for the cross is a threefold revelation. At the cross the false humanity we have become is revealed through the brutally broken body of the Son. At the cross the holy love of God is revealed in that he judges our false humanity, and offers himself to bear our judgment. At the cross our true humanity is revealed for there we receive the self-offering of God, and this is true humanity because God designed us to have our very being in his self-offering.
The cross is the end of sin because the cross is the end of the self-life (self-reliance and self-determination) and the beginning of life in God (life leaning upon God’s grace and goodness).