Let’s Go to Theology Class: Apologetics Interview

After some delay, I am able to share my final paper in “Apologetics” as part of my master’s in theological studies at Colorado Christian University. Instructions were to interview someone who was an atheist or skeptic regarding Christianity. I hope you will find this paper beneficial. I really enjoyed doing this assignment.

Introduction

The primary reason for Christians to engage in apologetics is to better prepare them for giving a defense for their faith, and to do so with gentleness and reverence (1 Pet. 3:15, NRSV). Koukl, author of Tactics, believes proper defense of the gospel begins with a game plan. Apologetics consists of three primary elements: defending the truth; defeating false ideas; and destroying speculation raised against God. And yet, this is not done through a frontal attack. Rather, the prudent plan is to proceed as God’s ambassador.[1]

Groothuis believes Christian apologists should offer answers for skeptics and non-believers based on rational arguments. The apologist’s method of arguing for Christianity will unavoidably be rooted—at least to some degree—in his or her personality and style of argument. Groothuis advised that apologists are often met with belligerent response. Such vehemence stems from atheists’ and skeptics’ belief that Christianity is indefensible. In addition, non-believers build their objections on a mantra that simply says, “…religion rests on blind faith and not reason for so long that many even within the church have actually come to believe it.”[2]

R. C. Sproul states that believers are to answer all inquiries—even the abusive ones—with gentleness and meakness. Indeed, this describes the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ. It is remarkable that many Christians today believe they should not participate in trying to “prove” the veracity of the gospel. Sadly, they base this assumption on their conclusion that faith and proof are incompatible. Additionally, as Sproul notes, an apologist may present a response to a non-believer that proves the argument for Christianity, but “[I]n their bias they refuse to be persuaded.”[3]

The Interview

This writer was able to secure an interview with Dale, a skeptic at best. When he agreed, he remarked, “You’re not going to like what I have to say, but sure, why not?” At times he shared rather determined and caustic comments about God and Christianity.

Regarding belief about God or an ultimate reality, Dale said,

God is a crutch. He doesn’t exist. I can’t see him and he hasn’t answered my prayers. I cried out to him hundreds of times while I bounced from house to house in the system.[4] He didn’t answer my prayers to stop my mom from abusing heroin. She died of a heroin overdose. What kind of God is that?

Dale was asked how he views humanity in general. He did not mince words: “People suck! I hate people. I’d rather live deep in the woods somewhere.” Dale added, “I can’t relate to the “essence” of people you asked me about.” This writer explained, stating, “Essence is basically the core nature of a person.” Dale does not believe humans are made in God’s image. He believes the basic problem concerning mankind is rampant evil. He noted recent violence in America over racism, and said, “There have been lots of wars, and people taking what others have… there is way too much selfishness and me first.”

When asked about Jesus Christ, Dale responded,

You believe in Jesus, so that’s your higher power, like it says in the 12 Steps. My higher power is not a specific god. I get my power from the universe. I don’t believe God is looking down on me and judging me. If he is, well then it sucks to be me, I guess. I see no evidence of God or Jesus. In fact, the opposite. Guys in jail, or people struggling with addiction, buy into Christianity and go to Bible study in the prison to look good. They “find Jesus” while in jail.” Christians are a bunch of hypocrites.

Given Dale’s harsh remark about hypocrisy in the Christian church, it was important to address duplicity. Decidedly, hypocrisy is partially responsible for keeping people from attending church services. This writer shared with Dale his struggle with hypocrisy over the years. One’s personal life and character have a direct effect on efforts to share the gospel. He addressed Dale’s concern about evil in the world, quoting Grudem: “We must never blame God for the evil men do. Secondary causes, such as the actions of human beings, bring evil upon others.”[5] He told Dale it is impossible for mankind to have free will to literally choose anything at any given moment and not expect wrong or evil choices to be made.

Dale’s hope for eternity, salvation, or redemption is vapid. He said there is nothing for him to “hope about.” He denied the existence of heaven and hell. When pressed, he said his spirit will leave his body when he dies and become (or return to) the ultimate spirit in the universe. He stated, “To me, that’s god or a higher power.” He believes in an unnamed higher power, as demonstrated by the beauty and magnitude of the universe.

Dale’s concluding remarks:

I don’t think our morals came from “up there somewhere.” Maybe Heaven and Hell are right here. I always thought American Indians had a clear idea of the grand spirit. Other religions too. If God exists, then he must be in everything. But thinking about evil, how can we work that in with God? I told you flat out when we started, belief in God is a crutch. And God has an evil side. It bugs the crap out of me that he punishes everyone for the sake of a few. You can’t tell me all those who drowned in the flood were bad people. So why be God if you’re doing evil. A loving God? Come on man.

In closing, this writer said,

I lived a life of complete disobedience. My own motives and desires fueled me. I had to come first, even at the other person’s expense. I got into booze and drugs, ending up in prison. I kept struggling for four decades with no concept of compassion or trustworthiness. Yet, inside I believed in ultimate truth and salvation. I decided to hit my knees and ask Jesus to renew my relationship with him and to forgive my rebellion.

Dale’s final rebuttal:

When I think about religion, I think of 9/11 right away. Religious fanatics. So, I’m on the fence. One thing the Bible got right about man is his deceitfulness.

Analysis

As is often seen in 12-step programs, Dale has a rather vague idea of spirituality. He reiterated his belief in an ultimate power somewhere in the universe but cannot provide a concrete description or identity of that power. He believes this power has “always been.” He said mankind would “…not need Jesus to die for sin if God just outlawed evil. I can’t believe in a benevolent God in the face of terrorism, murder, cancer, wars, rape. Why can’t God stop evil?”

A key criterion underlining this writer’s approach to evangelism and apologetics can be summed up by Colson and Pearcey: “As agents of God’s common grace, we are called to help sustain and renew his creation, to uphold the created institutions of family and society, to pursue science and scholarship, to create works of art and beauty, and to heal and help those suffering from the results of the Fall.”[6] There is a bit of Christianity’s social mandate.

Chandler believes the purpose of Jesus’ ministry was “…to bring the kingdom of God to bear on the earth.”[7] He believes salvation includes a real world reconciliation. He says, “For the reconciliation enacted by the cross to be cosmic, then, it must encompass more than just our individual relationship with God.”[8] In other words, Christians are reconciled “to reconcile.”

Christians are not simply “the recruited,” nor are they to merely be recruiting others. Certainly, the entirety of creation is out of sorts with the effects of sin. God expects Christians to participate individually and corporately in reversing the curse by setting things right. Christians are the eyes, ears, feet, and hands of the Body of Christ, and are commissioned to help bring about redemption and reconciliation.

Conclusion

Apologetics and personal evangelism are certainly intertwined, with personal testimony about faith in Jesus Christ being narrower than the broader discipline of apologetics. Regardless, it is not possible to genuinely engage in evangelism or apologetics while harboring an anti-Christian or hypocritical worldview. It is critical to ask one’s self, “How would I behave in the world if my outward actions matched what I claim to believe in my heart?” This question was a substantial factor in this writer’s change of orientation toward God and others. Once this has been established, the real work of evangelism and apologetics can begin. 

Footnotes

[1] Gregory Koukl, Tactics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 19-20.

[2] R.C. Sproul, Defending Your Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), 8.

[3] Ibid., 18.

[4] Dale was a ward of local child services for 7 years.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, IL: Zondervan, 1994), 328.

[6] Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live? (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1999), xii.

[7] Matthew Chandler, The Explicit Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 136.

[8] Ibid., 143.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Basic Tools of Doing Systematic Theology

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my Master’s in Theology at Colorado Christian University.

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy.

IT’S ONE THING TO pick up a book and read about theology. And that’s okay. It’s how I got interested in taking the subject on as a graduate student. It all starts with contemplation. We “think” about what it means to be alive, to have purpose. We wonder how we might make a difference in society. We question the “logic” of believing in God. Armed with such a burning desire to know, I enrolled in a master’s program in theology and started out on what so far has proved to be an amazing, breathtaking journey.

In week four of my theology class we considered the proper relationship between theological study, sanctification, contemplation, prayer, and action. Further, we discussed the type of character most conducive to theological insight, and how the systematic study of theology should impact one’s character. Generic “theological” study does not necessarily require any degree of sanctification. Many people choose to study theology or philosophy without any sense of what is meant by redemption or sanctification. These concepts are, however, imperative in Christian theology.

What is the proper relationship between theological study, sanctification, contemplation, prayer, and action?

I was amazed how little I understood about sanctification over the years. I thought it “just happened” when I “got saved.” Considering the decades of sinful behavior and active addiction I went through after accepting Christ (at age 13), I was far from sanctified. Of course, it does start with salvation. When we become redeemed, we are expected to “repent” of our old life. Then sanctification can begin. According to R.E.O. White, sanctification means “to make holy.” [1] It’s not uncommon for a new Christian to think this means he or she is made holy (shazam!) all at once. White further explains that to be sanctified is to be “set apart” from common or secular use.

First Corinthians 1:2 says we are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints. R.E.O. White writes that sanctification is not merely justification’s endgame; rather, it is justifying faith at work. The new believer is declared to be acquitted and clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Through sanctification, God begins to accomplish His will in us. This is often called becoming spiritually mature. We are not saved by good works, but there is little hope of sanctification without submitting to the will of God.

Thomas Aquinas says in the Summa Theologiae [2] that four of the gifts of the Spirit of the Lord are wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and counsel, and that these gifts have a direct impact on the intellect. Isaiah 11:2 says. “And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (RSV). David Jeremiah explains that the coming king “will be endowed with the Spirit of the Lord, who provides the wisdom, ability, and allegiance to God that are necessary to accomplish a challenging task.” [3] Proverbs 2:6 says, “For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” James reminds us that if we lack wisdom in any circumstance, we are to ask God and He will give it (James 1:5). Thomas Aquinas said any discourse of reason always begins from an understanding. It is critical, therefore, that we never attempt theology while lacking understanding. Although the work of the Spirit is already completed relative to the compiling of Scripture, His work regarding “illumination” is ongoing.

Prayer is the means by which we gain access to God. Just as we speak to the Father, and call upon Jesus, we must request from the Holy Spirit the guidance, understanding, knowledge, illumination, and discernment needed to effectively and accurately undertake systematic theology. It is equally important to pray for guidance regarding God’s call on our lives. When I decided to change my major from the master’s in counseling program to the master’s in theology, I spent weeks in prayer. I consulted with my pastor, several lay ministry friends, family members, my CCU student advisor, two professors, and several elders at my church. I cannot fathom undertaking a systematic study of Christian theology without prayer.

What type of character is most conducive to theological insight, and how should it change as the result of undertaking theological study?

In any theological undertaking, one would expect there to be a change of character. I think of Nabeel Qureshi (1983-2017), author, speaker, lecturer, and apologist, who converted to Christianity from Islam after spending nearly two years conducting an exegetical study of the Holy Bible. His character, if you will, was that of a loving, dedicated, well-behaved young man who had been raised in a religious home. In fact, no one in his immediate or extended family were extremists or jihadists. He loved the Qur’an, Allah, and his messenger Muhammad. This “character” coupled with a sharp intellect likely contributed to his willingness to examine the theology of Islam, and, ultimately, compare it to Christianity.

Tradition injects a lot into character, and, when that character matures, one becomes curious about tradition, religion, politics, culture, the meaning of life, and so on. Qureshi said one of the greatest hardships he faced was having to inform his parents he had become a Christian. He was, after all, part of a “community of believers” that were bonded together by solid theological principles and deep-seated tradition. He believed in Islam. He revered Muhammad. Regardless, once he met Jesus Christ, he could no longer reject Him than he could make himself stop breathing. This is precisely the type of character it requires to begin a theological study.

Insight comes from honest, rigorous, open-minded, and thorough study. We’ve been told that theology is in its simplest form “the study of God.” For me, the desire to know God stems from my burning desire to know why my earthly father seemed to hate me so much and, more frighteningly, whether my Heavenly Father was as mean-spirited, vindictive, nasty, judging, and punishing. (Incidentally, I eventually learned that my dad did not hate me, and he did the best he could to keep me from running off the rails and into the gutter.)

If God were to be “the same as” my dad, I would have no time for Him. Regardless, somewhere deep inside, I wanted to know several things. First, exactly who or what was this Christian God I’d heard of at church? Second, was He authoritative—leading from a position of authority and strength, love and longsuffering—or authoritarian—ruling over everyone with a heavenly despotic fist, ready to accuse and condemn? Third, was it true, as my father said many times, that I was worthless, or was there hope that my life had some greater meaning?

As to what type of character should result from theological study, Trevor Hart said, “Faith is not a natural progression from knowledge or experiences available to all, but results from a special dispensation which sets us in the perspective from which the truth may be seen, and demands a response” [4] [italics mine]. In other words, deciding to systematically study Christian theology is both a soulful drive or ambition and a rigorous discipline. I have gone through numerous personal changes as an undergraduate student of psychology at Colorado Christian University. I believe those changes set the stage for my choosing to take on a master’s level study of theology. There is a progression at play. Had I not first chosen to return to college, I would not have discovered CCU; had I not enrolled at CCU, I would not be the Christian I am today; and, had I not grown more mature in Christ as an undergraduate, I would not have undergone the requisite changes conducive to undertaking a master’s degree in theology.

This is the fourth week of my first theology class, and already I feel tectonic shifts within me. My personality has brightened, and my mind has cleared. I am ravenous for information about theology, Christology, eschatology, and apologetics. I see people as God sees them, and I’ve begun to feel a heartache for those who will never see the truth about the life, love, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I have started to keep my promises more consistently than I used to, and I exercise greater control over my tongue (which was no easy task!). I even noticed a major change in the amount of television I watch. All of that notwithstanding, I find myself asking God every morning to put a task before me; to lead me where He needs me to go; to break my heart for what breaks His.

Footnotes

[1] R.E.O. White. “Sanctification.” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 770

[2] Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae, I.II, q. 68, a1

[3] David Jeremiah. The Jeremiah Study Bible. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2013), 893-94.

[4] Trevor Hart. Faith Thinking. (Eugene:Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1995), 75.

 

 

There’s A Kind of Love

Bible Pages in Shape of Heart Love.jpg

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

LOVE. IT’S MORE THAN A four-letter word. At its basic, love is a noun meaning “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties,” such as a mother’s love for her child. Of course, it also means “attraction based on sexual desire: affection and tenderness felt by lovers.” It can mean admiration, benevolence, warm attachment, devotion, a term of endearment. However, love is not merely a noun.

Love is also an action verb. In other words, it’s not about something, it’s about doing something. Something selfless at the very least. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary indicates it is a transitive verb that means “to hold dear: cherish.” It can also implicate a lover’s passion, tenderness, amorous caress, copulation. Its etymology is from the Old English word lufu, which includes, “feeling of love; romantic sexual attraction; affection; friendliness; the love of God.” The Germanic word is from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root leubh, meaning “to care, desire, love.” It is “the love of God” I wish to talk about here.

There are seven types of love in Greek:

  • Eros—sexual or passionate love; the type most akin to our modern construct of romantic love.
  • Phileo—brotherly love; friendship; shared good will.
  • Storge—familial love; natural or instinctual affection, such as the love of a parent for his or her child.
  • Agape—a Greco-Christian term referring to “the highest form of love; charity; the unconditional love of God for man.”
  • Ludus—this form of love includes game-playing, manipulation, lying; the purveyor of ludic love has “conquests” but no commitments.
  • Pragmaalso known as “pragmatic” love, it is the most practical type; convenient love that involves “being of service” to another out a sense of duty.
  • Philautia—this type of love is within oneself; essential for any relationship because we can only love others if we truly love ourselves. One of the key lessons on a spiritual journey is learning to love unconditionally. In many ways, this type of love is a stepping stone to grasping agape love.

WHAT OF THIS THING CALLED “UNCONDITIONAL LOVE?”

I’ve heard it said that unconditional love is easy. You probably find that hard to believe. I did. There would be no boundaries to loving someone unconditionally. No matter what they’ve done or not done. One blogger posted an article titled “Unconditional Love: Is it Real or Just a Romantic Illusion?” The post analyzes relationship love. It notes that when love is unconditional nothing can tear it asunder. This is the “we are one in our new relationship” love that is ageless, timeless, and infallible. The writer states, “But here’s what you have to know: unconditional love is a romantic illusion, and one that reflects love that is immature.”

In the introduction to his book, Real Love, Greg Baer, M.D. describes his struggle with emotional problems and addiction to tranquilizers and other narcotics. One evening he took a handgun and went into the woods intending to end his life. He put the barrel against his head, ready to die. Instead, he realized something had to change. He sought treatment at a rehab, but said when he returned home clean and sober he was still at the same place that took him down the dark path of addiction: alone and empty. He was missing the profound happiness he’d been longing for his entire life. Reading Baer’s introduction, I saw myself on the pages.

Life for me has always been an emotional roller coaster. I was a little hellion who could not behave no matter what my father tried. His go-to answer seemed to be corporal punishment. This made me hate him and despise myself. I came to fear his very presence; to feel unloved and unlovable. In my heart, I wanted to please him and make him proud. But in my flesh, I wanted nothing but numbness and escape. As each year passed, I became increasingly sullen and doubted I’d ever amount to anything. Why couldn’t I stop lying, stealing, cursing, trashing my room, getting sent to the principal’s office? As my anger grew, I started hating everything and everyone. I got good at deception. After all, who wants to be in trouble all the time? This was the perfect breeding-ground for alcohol and drug abuse. Finally, I could feel euphoric, happy, invincible. I could escape.

As you can imagine, this was not a very sound solution. I ended up right back at the same place every time. Clean and sober for a short time, but lost and alone. Empty. Without friends. Estranged from my family. So I went back out there, drinking and drugging. Numbing the pain and hiding from the world. Withdrawing behind drawn curtains. I was convinced that I was one of those that Jesus couldn’t save. I drifted further from my Christian roots. My high school friends all left for college. I stayed home and hung out with the party crowd. Out until three, sleeping until noon. Just like the shampoo bottle says, “lather, rinse repeat.” I no longer believed God cared about me. It wasn’t long before I doubted the existence of God.

After four decades of active addiction and numerous relapses in my forties and fifties, I found my way back to the church. I started teaching Bible study at two local prisons and did a lot of studying and writing. You’d think my life improved, right? That I finally reached my happy ending. That there was nothing left but to love and be loved; to be clean and sober and help others find their path to sobriety. Sadly, that was not the case. Chronic and ever-increasing pain from a back injury, degenerative disc disease, severe arthritis, and fibromyalgia taunted me and drove me to opiate addiction. I knew better. I just couldn’t decide better. I was letting my physical pain dictate my behavior.

Even after returning to the church of my youth where I accepted Jesus as my savior; despite attending a Christian university and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology; regardless of years of research, writing, and blogging about addiction and spirituality, I continued to mess up and kept helping myself to narcotic painkillers of family members. Again, I was shunned. They were back to believing I will never change. I’d work my way back into their lives to only repeat my selfish and deceptive behavior.

So what is this all about?

It might sound too simple, but I’m wrestling not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6:12). But it’s true. This is exactly what Paul means in Romans 7 when he says, “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it” (verses 18-20, NIV). Although this is instrumental in helping me learn to crucify my flesh and walk instead in the Spirit, it does not alleviate the hurt, disappointment, and anger my family feels toward me. Their utter disgust and inability to trust me.

THE KIND OF LOVE ONLY GOD KNOWS

I recently discovered an incredible song by the Christian group For King and Country, called “God Only Knows.” Although the entire song cuts me to the core, several lines really stand out. Wide awake while the world is sound asleepin’, too afraid of what might show up while you’re dreamin’… Every day you try to pick up all the pieces, all the memories, they somehow never leave you. God only knows what you’ve been through, God only knows what they say about you… You keep a cover over every single secret, So afraid if someone saw them they would leave. God only knows where to find you, God only knows how to break through, God only knows the real you…

LOVE FROM GOD’S PERSPECTIVE

What happens when we look at love from God’s perspective?

The love of God is central to His relationship to the world. We cannot grasp His kind of love through our own intellect. Certainly, there are many paradigms, worldviews, and theological interpretations for God’s kind of love. Theologians consider divine love to be an overriding component of God’s character, if not the very essence of God. Conceptions of divine love vary widely. This is due, in part, because man has a tendency to split hairs over metaphysical matters. The result is theories and definitions which are often cemented in denominational, doctrinal, or other theological differences.

But here are some basic features of God’s love:

  • We can trust in God’s love. First Corinthians 13:4-8 provides an excellent description of God’s (agape) love. It is patient, kind, does not envy, does not boast, is not proud, does not dishonor others, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, does not delight in evil (but rejoices with the truth), always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. Clearly, there is a powerful and unrelenting component to God’s love. We see evidence of this in His covenant relationship with His people. Even in our sinfulness, He demonstrates patience, showering us with unmerited grace and mercy.
  • Our salvation is an expression of God’s love. God loves us enough to have established a plan for our redemption before the foundation of the world; before man’s first sin of disobedience. He provides access to that redemption through His Son, Jesus Christ, who died in our place (see John 3:16). God did not send Christ as a reward for those of us who can keep the Law; rather, He provided Jesus as a solution to the sin problem by making Jesus a ransom for our disobedience. Although we were bought (redeemed) with a price, redemption is much more than being set free from the wages of sin. The crucifixion of Christ restores our fallen status by making peace between us and God. It takes away our shame. It provides for our physical healing. It provides for our spiritual rebirth and restoration.
  • God’s love serves as an exemplar for us. Truly, God has restored us to Him through Jesus Christ. It is up to us to work at restoring our relationships with others. We can only do this by being rooted in God’s love—striving to understand its depth and implications. God asks us to emulate this behavior.
  • The Holy Spirit produces love in us for others. The link between Christ’s love for us and our love for each other is found through the Holy Spirit. We see Christ’s love for us to the point of obedience unto death.

Paul writes, “…that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19, NKJV). By accepting the full measure of God’s love, we are able to begin practicing unconditional love toward others. We will by no means measure up to this divine attribute. This “no limits” love cannot be achieved through human endeavor. We become able to love this way only through yielding to the Holy Spirit. We can only accomplish it because God first loved us. What connects us with Jesus is faith—trusting His forgiveness; banking on His promises; cherishing His fellowship; desiring to fulfill His Greatest Commandment: to  love the Lord God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind; and to love our neighbor as ourselves (see Matthew 22:36-40).

LOVE—PART OF THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT

Galatians 5:22-23 reminds us of what is achieved in us through the Fruit of the Spirit. Eugene Peterson translates it like this: “But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely” (MSG).

The late Billy Graham said, “This cluster of fruit should characterize the life of every Christ-born child of God. We’re to be filled with love, we’re to have joy, we’re to have peace, we’re to have patience, we’re to be gentle and kind, we’re to be filled with goodness, we’re to have faith, we’re to have meekness, and we’re to have temperance. But what do we find? In the average so-called Christian today we find the opposite.”

True love—the unconditional agape love of God—always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:7). Jesus tells us in John 15:12, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (NIV). Paul reminds us in Romans 12:9-10, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (NIV). When we expect this kind of undying love from our friends or family, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Further, as in my case, we’re at risk of living in the sin of offense because we become unforgiving of their unforgiveness. Rather, we must look to God for this kind of love. A love that culminated in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Each of us, before coming to Christ, is dominated by one nature—the “old man.” We’re controlled by our ego, our self. We are selfish at best; deceitful at worst. No one likes to be wrong. That’s human nature. Repeated mistakes—especially the ones that continue to break the hearts and spirits of those we love—are the hardest for us to let go. I loath myself when I cannot seem to do that which I want to do, and keep doing that which I wish not to do. I have to remember I am in good company, as the apostle Paul wrote of this very struggle in his life. 

The moment we receive Christ as our Savior, self is put down. We identify with His death, burial, and resurrection through backward-looking faith. Accordingly, we are to crucify our flesh daily. No amount of human power can relieve us of our habits, hangups, or addictions. But when we walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh, we put Christ on the throne in our lives. We dethrone ourselves. The Spirit of God is in control. It is only through realizing this and living it every day that we can ever hope to love unconditionally.

References

Baer, G., M.D. (2003). Real Love: The Truth About Finding Unconditional Love in Fulfilling Relationships. New York, NY: Avery.

Peterson, E. (2003). The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Skinner, K. (December 16, 2013). “Unconditional Love: Is It Real or Just a Romantic Illusion?” Retrieved from: https://www.yourtango.com/experts/kathe-skinner/unconditional-love-it-real-or-just-romantic-illusion

 

 

The Twenty-Third Psalm

Psalm 23.jpg

1-3 God, my shepherd!
    I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
    you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
    you let me catch my breath
    and send me in the right direction.

Even when the way goes through
    Death Valley,
I’m not afraid
    when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
    makes me feel secure.

You serve me a six-course dinner
    right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
    my cup brims with blessing.

Your beauty and love chase after me
    every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
    for the rest of my life.

©2006 Eugene Peterson (from The Message)

I am certain many of you are familiar with Psalm 23. It is one of the most read and most quoted Bible passages. It is perhaps the best-loved psalm. It has delighted the child, rejoiced the faithful, emboldened the dying, and comforted the grieving. It has been read at countless funerals, most likely due to its reference to the Valley of Death. Depth and strength underlie the simplicity of this psalm. Its peace is not by way of escape; its contentment is not complacency: there is readiness to face deep darkness and imminent attack. And who can’t relate to that? The climax of this passage reveals a love which does not lead to material gain, but to a relationship with the LORD Himself.

This psalm is built on the metaphor of the shepherd, a common figure in Israel. Indispensable to the flock, he is its constant companion, its guide and source of provision, its physician, and its defender. Although the term “shepherd” was commonly applied to rulers in the ancient Near East, God is not often called Shepherd (see Genesis 48:15; 49:24). Psalm 23:1a is therefore especially striking in its claim: The LORD is my Shepherd. David has claimed an intimate relationship (He is my shepherd).

Shepherd and His Flock

The rest of 23:1 seems to flow naturally from the assertion that the LORD is our shepherd. God is, after all, the possessor of all things, and Himself has all things. Everything belongs to God. And with such a provider, we cannot lack materially. Whether feeding on fresh and tender grass (v. 2), drinking at quiet waters (v. 2), or feasting at the table of his host (v. 5), every material need is abundantly met. Matthew 6:26 says, “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more valuable than they?” Of course, Psalm 23 also speaks of God’s ability to provide just what is needed. Sheep, who cannot drink from rushing waters, need to be led to those which are still. Perfect provision will continue, since it is given for His name’s sake (Psalm 23:3). God’s giving is consistent with His character; since this does not change, neither will His habits of provision for His flock.

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With God as his shepherd, David can rest. He restores my soul (Psalm 23:3a) does not refer to God’s restoration of wayward sheep but to how He imparts new life to the sheep. It can rest in the shepherd’s protection, comforted by the rod (v. 4), a weapon used for defense of the flock. Restoration is also found at quiet waters (v. 2), literally translated as “waters of restfulness.” Although the metaphor changes from the pasture to God’s table, the emphasis on rest continues. There is no further need to fear enemies, for as God’s guest (v. 5), David’s protection is the concern of the LORD, his host. The foes, unable to harass, must look on as David feasts at God’s table.

Now, instead of being pursued by enemies, David is pursued by goodness and love (Psalm 23:6). Goodness is the steady and faithful kindness which is unending and undeserved. Follow is too mild; these things chase David. What is more, he has nothing else to fear, since surely could be rendered “only.” David knows the rest which comes from joy. His head is anointed with perfumed oils (v. 5b), an action that symbolizes festivity, honor, health, and blessing. His cup overflows, symbolizing a life “overblessed” in every way by God.

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With God as his shepherd, David knows he will always be led in the “right paths,” as paths of righteousness (Psalm 23:3) should be translated. He need not find his own paths but only follow the staff of the Shepherd, taking direction from its gentle guidance (v. 4). The Shepherd may lead into the valley of the shadow of death, but this too is one of His right paths. In 23:1-3, David speaks about God; when he moves into this dark valley, he speaks to God (v. 4). When he needed God the most, God was there.

Of all that comes from having God as his Shepherd, David is most delighted with God’s presence. It seems that is what he lives for! The center of the psalm (23:4) resounds with this affirmation without which none of the good gifts would be possible. Without the shepherd, there is only a harassed and helpless flock (see Matthew 9:36). Without the host, there is no banquet. Of all the places where the psalmist might choose to be, he longs to stay in God’s presence all his days. From the first verse of this psalm to the last, the focus has been on God. The search which has occupied humanity—for provision, rest, guidance, and fellowship with the divine—ends in God.

Communion With God

Perfection and liberation come from aligning one’s self with the “highest intelligence.” The powers of contemplation are attained through one’s relationship and devotion to God.

When we have an emotional crisis, it’s natural to want to call out to someone for help. Thoughts and prayers flow automatically. In any difficult time, there is a longing to find comfort and to search for a higher reason or power. We look to God, the Creator, for guidance. We long for His voice. We thirst for communion with Him. We should never let the how of conversation stop us from simply talking to Him. We need only to begin. Say to Him, “God, for the next few minutes, I just want to be alone with You” Relax. Breathe. Become aware of His presence. You will eventually find something to say. Once the conversation begins, it’s easy to continue. Trust yourself. You’ll know what to say. The effects you get will be linked to your focus.

Ask God to help you be closer to Him. And tell Him how much closer you’d like to be. Tell Him how you feel. You can’t bore God, so have the same conversation again and again if you wish. You can’t offend God either, so rant and rave. Cry. Sob. Tell God exactly how you feel. The more relaxed and honest your conversation, the easier it gets and the deeper your experience becomes. Do your best, and then surrender. Leave the rest to God. If this process seems difficult, remind yourself that with God there is no such thing as failure. The only failure here is when you abandon the effort. Then, you only fail yourself by affirming your obstacles.

The Problem With Being Offended

Pride keeps you from dealing with the truth. It distorts your vision. You never change when you think everything is fine. Pride hardens your heart and dims the eyes of your understanding. The problem with being offended is you focus on the other person and not yourself. This keeps you from the change of heart that will set you free. Pride causes you to see yourself as a victim. Your attitude becomes, “I was mistreated and misjudged; therefore, I am justified in my behavior.” Because you believe you are innocent and falsely accused, you hold back forgiveness. Though your true heart condition is hidden from you, it is not hidden from God. Just because you were mistreated, you do not have permission to hold on to an offense. Two wrongs don’t make a right!

Jesus said our ability to see correctly is another key to being freed from deception. Often when we are offended we see ourselves as victims and blame those who have hurt us. We justify our bitterness, our unwillingness to forgive, our anger, envy and resentment as they surface. Sometimes we even resent those who remind us of others who have hurt us. When we blame others and defend our own position, we are blind. We struggle to remove the speck from our brother’s eye when there is a plank in ours. It is the revelation of truth that brings freedom to us. When the Spirit of God shows us our sin, He always does it in such a way that it seems separate from us. This brings conviction, but does not bring condemnation.

The Bible speaks a lot about love. There are two main types of love. There is agape love, which is the love of God. The other is phileo, which is defined as the love between friends. Agape love is defined in 1 Corinthians 13. Agape love does not put itself first, as we do when we are offended and refuse to forgive the offender. Agape love is the love God sheds abroad in the hearts of His children. It is the same love Jesus gives freely to us. It is unconditional. It is not based on how the other person behaves, or even if it is returned in kind. It is a love that gives even when it is rejected. Do you realize that without God’s help and His example, we can only love with a selfish love — one that cannot be given if it is not received and returned? Agape love, however, loves regardless of the response. This is the love that Jesus shed when He forgave from the cross. How could you or I possibly forgive our tormenters as Jesus did?

We have to realize that when we sow the love of God we reap the love of God. We need to develop faith in this spiritual law — even though we may not harvest it from the field in which we sowed, or as quickly as we would like. I came to realize that the love I express unconditionally (which is not a frequent occurrence) is made possible by the Holy Spirit. Eventually, I would reap those seeds of love. I don’t know from where, but I knew the harvest would happen. No longer do I see it as a failure when love isn’t returned from the person I am giving it to. This freed me to love the person even more! If more Christians recognized this, they wouldn’t give up and become offended. Usually this is not the type of love we walk in. Our love is a selfish love that is easily disappointed when our expectations are not met. We need to lower our expectations and increase our acceptance. We will be much happier.

If I have expectations about certain people, those people can let me down. They will disappoint me to the degree that they fall short of my expectations. But if I have no expectations about someone, anything given is a blessing and not a debt owed. We set ourselves up for offense when we require certain behaviors. The more we expect, the greater the potential offense. We construct walls when we are hurt to safeguard our hearts and prevent any future wounds. I offended someone recently and they all but cut me off to avoid being hurt again. We become selective, denying entry to all we fear will hurt us. We filter out anyone we think owes us something. Here’s the thing. Without us knowing it, these walls we build eventually imprison us.

The focus of offended Christians is inward and introspective. We guard our rights and personal relationships very carefully. Our energy is consumed with making sure no future injuries will occur. If we don’t risk being hurt, we cannot give unconditional love. Unconditional love actually gives others the right to hurt us. Love does not seek its own, but hurt people become more and more self-seeking and self-contained. The love of God cannot express itself in this type of environment. An offended Christian is one who takes in life but because of fear can’t release life. As a result, even the life that comes in becomes stagnant.

Get this. When we filter everything through past hurts, rejections and offenses, we find it impossible to believe God about the abundant life we can have through Christ. I read something in a book about Hinduism that if we remain offended by someone in the past and don’t deal with it, our present actions are more driven than they are undertaken. In other words, we lack the freedom to chose how to behave or how to react. Our past chooses for us. If we are offended and in unforgiveness, and refuse to repent of this sin, we have not come to the knowledge of the truth. We are deceived, and we confuse others with our hypocritical lifestyle.

We must come to the place where we trust God and not our flesh or our emotions. Many give lip service to God as their source, yet they live as if they were orphans. They take their own lives in their hands while they confess with their mouth, “He is my Lord and my God.”  I hope by now you see how serious the sin of offense is. If it is not dealt with, offense will lead to death. But when you resist the temptation to be offended, God brings great victory. Of course, we have to adopt a God-like love, the agape love, in order to walk this most difficult walk. The good thing is, we can choose this path anew every day, always coming back to unconditional love, by the grace of God.

God

The work of God in the cross of Christ strikes us as awe-inspiring only after we have first been awed by the glory of God. Therefore, if we are going to talk about the scope of the cross, we need to first talk about who God is. What is he like? How big is he? How deep and wide is his power? The cross provides our access to relate to God, but we must always relate to him in light of who he is, not merely who we think or hope him to be. If this is true, the deeper we go into God’s glory, the deeper we find ourselves in the precious work of Christ on the cross, and vice versa.

We find a great explanation of the glory of God in Romans 11, verses 33-36. This scripture says, “Oh, the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen”

You and I are stymied in our own creativity. We can only create as sub-creators, and even then our best work is merely sub-creation. If you’re a writer, you can write only as well as you understand language, diction, grammar, and the general art of writing. If you want to paint a picture, you can paint only as well as you have developed your skill, using whatever paints are available to you, in only the colors and combinations that already exist. If you want to build a house, you will be limited by whatever your mortgage approval is, whatever equipment you can afford, and whatever raw material is already out there. We are great at creating, but our creation is always dependent. Not so with God.

God creates anything he wants and as much of it as he wants, and he does it all out of nothing! He doesn’t need raw material. He makes raw material. God is not limited like you and I are. We are always limited by what’s available, and always dependent on outside considerations and constraints. Now we’re getting nearer to the impulse that caused Paul to sing, “Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!”

God’s creativity is so rich, so expansive, and so far above us that he simply says, “I want this,” and there it is. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the things of God that are beyond us. You and I are caged in by what we can afford, what we can gather, and what’s already been created. Maybe you’ve heard of scientists creating life in a laboratory, but that will never happen. No scientist has ever been able or will ever be able to stare into an empty petri dish and wish the nothing it holds into something. Whatever it is scientists do, they do with raw materials already in existence.

Roll this around in your brain a while: God knows everything and God is everything. He knows everything at the macro level. He knows the temperatures at which certain stars burn. He knows the orbital lines of planets. He knows every mountain in every mountain range on this planet and others. He knows the depths of every ocean. But he also knows everything at the micro level. He knows every molecule and every atom. He knows their positions, their locations, their functions. He sees and governs every instance of mitosis. Not only does God know everything that is happening at every level, he also has a never-ending breadth of knowledge. He is aware of every event that has ever occurred and will ever occur. He knows it all without the need of post-it notes or strings wrapped around his fingers.

God is holding all things together, seeing all things and knowing all things, all purely from the reality of his wanting it to be so. This is, at the very least, what it means to be God. Nobody gets to counsel God. Nobody gets to give God advice. No one gets to straighten God’s path. No one. And we have nothing to give him that he doesn’t already own outright. This speaks of God’s grace, because it shows that he doesn’t need us; rather he wants us. When we who call ourselves Christians realize how utterly self-sufficient God is all within himself, the gift of Christ to us and for us becomes all the more astonishing. And we will want it this way. Because God who is ultimately focused on his own glory will be about the business of restoring us, who are all broken images of him. His glory demands it. So we should be thankful for a self-sufficient God whose self-regard is glorious.