Feeling others’ suffering

It isn’t just global warming that’s raising sea levels it’s the tears of those suffering from senseless acts of terrorism. And the terrorist acts keep piling up, to the point they become mind-numbing. “Not more utter stupidity,” I hear myself say at the latest act of insanity, and I simply want to turn it off in my head and not think about it.

And in one way I suppose my tuning out can be justified, because I can’t carry the world’s suffering on my shoulders; it will kill me too. I can’t do anything about what’s happening, either. I can’t step inside the heads of terrorists to understand why they do what they do, nor can I stop them doing what they do. I am utterly powerless to either change a terrorist’s mind or stop him before he acts. And up to this point it seems nobody can figure out what makes ordinary people do terrible things, nor can we come up with any way of protecting the innocent from people who just decide to crash their vehicles into pedestrians.

I can understand people saying, “My God, why is he letting this happen?” Does God have no feeling for those suffering as well? Could he not stop a terrorist act from happening? Well, yes, he could, but he chose another route. He let us make our own choices, and he allowed us to shape the world the way we wanted, knowing it wouldn’t work. It’s like parents letting their kids do what they must, knowing it’s going to end up in tears, but for humans it seems this is the only way we learn.

But like parents, God suffers when his children jump the rails. We know he does, because he showed us. It was all there in Jesus on the cross, who was up there to feel every bit of what it’s like as an innocent man to suffer. A terrorist act was done on him by uncaring, brutal people who cared for nothing but themselves. And he allowed them to do it to him, so he’d know what it was like to be human and suffer from senseless acts by insane people.

He cried the same cry we cry when awful things happen: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why are you letting this happen to me? Why? I’m innocent. Why are you letting evil people destroy good people?

But that was the moment God’s Kingdom began. It only began when God felt our suffering to the core. It’s on that cross, therefore, that we have our guarantee that God feels for our suffering and he will end it.

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What if the cross never happened?

If the cross never happened we’d know nothing of the power of God or the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). We’d be stuck instead with Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and all the other religious ‘isms’, with their imaginary concepts of what God, or the gods, are like, and their human ideas of wisdom, which offer no permanent solutions to evil or death, nor do they explain why this universe and humans exist, and nor do they provide any concrete proof that death is not the end of us.

But the cross brings God out of hiding, and what we see is his power – the power, that is, to solve evil and death, the power to make his purpose for the universe and humanity work, and the power to die in a human body that doesn’t decay in death, as concrete proof that death is not the end of us.

The cross brings the wisdom of God out of hiding too, because we can see in the cross how he solves evil and death, how he makes his purpose for humanity work, and how he provides proof that death is not the end of us. He does it all through a human being just like us.

And thats where we see God’s genius, because he makes it obvious first just how handicapped we are. No human throughout our checkered history came up with a solution to evil and death. From the time of Adam and Eve we have never fully grasped God’s reason for creating us either, so we constantly drift away from his purpose, and archaeology has shown us in all the graves unearthed that we cannot stop ourselves decaying into dust after we die.

The cross, however, wasn’t hampered by any of these handicaps, because the person who died on it was able to resist evil, he was able to fulfill God’s plan, and he was able to die without his body decaying like our bodies do (Acts 2:31).

So there’s our evidence that all those things ARE possible in a human being. If, on the other hand, the cross hadn’t happened we would never have known it was possible for a human to overcome our worst human handicaps. And even suffering a horribly undeserved death didn’t hamper him, either.

So now we see the power and wisdom of God, in providing us with proof, in a human dying horribly on a cross who never failed like we do, that humanity can rise above its handicaps. And what a relief that is, knowing that we’re not stuck forever depending on the imaginary gods of religion and human wisdom for solving our worst fears and failings.

Victory on Earth Day – part 4

The effect of the cross on “Who am I?” 

I don’t suppose too many people ask outright, “Who am I?” but what Jesus won for us on the cross makes it a question worth asking, because he died to restore us to who we are.

The Bible very quickly describes who we are, or who we were meant to be, in Genesis 1:26, when God said, “let us make man in our image, in our likeness,” meaning that God made humans the primary means of revealing himself. We humans, not elephants or snow leopards, are his image-bearers. We exist to show what God is like. And this was his purpose in first of all creating a fully functioning physical world, and then making humans capable of running it.

So in asking the question, “Who am I?” God answers that question for us very personally in verse 27: “I created you in my own image.” Or “I created you to reveal me.” In who I am, therefore, I reveal who he is.

The obvious question then has to be: “But how does who I am reveal God?” Well, in God making us physical, for a start, it reveals how much he loves how he made us and what he made us of. The human eye is just one fascinating example. I quote:

“When a photon of light strikes the retina, the light-sensitive membrane of the eye, it is actually hitting a part of the brain that contains over 126 million photoreceptor cells, at which point 15 chemical reactions occur, each one of which has to work for us to be able to have sight. There are also three tiny eye movements called tremors, drifts, and jerks, made by six tiny muscles outside each eyeball to reset the original signal down the optic nerve; otherwise a fixed image would fade from our sight. Tremors reset the image about 50 times a second by rotating the eye by just one thousandth of a millimetre. Drift moves the eye slowly off target, then jerk takes it back several times a second to the original target. The brain has to compute and control all this in nanoseconds. And we’ve yet to talk about the eye’s windshield washers and wipers, auto focus and auto aperture, emergency shutter mechanism, binocular distance measurement facility, tracking, and, of course, colour.”

And in another quote I read: “In an experiment, when people put on glasses that made the world seem upside down, their brains quickly reinterpreted the information they were being given to perceive the world as ‘right-side-up’. When others were blindfolded for long periods of time, the vision centre of the brain soon began to be used for other functions.”

It’s almost scary how much attention to detail God placed in the human body. It certainly hit David that way when he wrote about himself as being “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). So, we’ve already learnt something about God by us simply being physical. He loves the physical.

For some people that alone must be an eye-opener, because the prevailing belief in large sections of Christianity, and in other religions too, is that God, or the gods, don’t like the physical at all. There are many people, therefore, who think the answer to the question, “Who am I?” is: “I am an immortal soul locked in a horrible body that one day I will escape from and no longer be bothered by.” But if what they believe is true, why would God do that to us? Why would he put us in physical bodies that are nothing but a nuisance to us? And what kind of picture is God giving us of himself by deliberately making us out of stuff he doesn’t like, the result of which would be his Son having to die, as well?

According to God, however, he says he was rather impressed with his handiwork, because he looked out on his physical creation, including humans, and in his own words he said “it was very good,” Genesis 1:31. So in asking myself, “Who am I?” I’m off to a flying start, because everything about me as a human started off as “very good.” It reveals a God who loves what we’re made of, and clearly he took great pleasure in designing every tiny, exquisite detail.

God then revealed more about himself by what he made us for. And that too becomes clear in Genesis, that he equipped us perfectly in our physical bodies to take care of the rest of what he’d put on the Earth. So God must have loved this planet too, to come up with a creature with all the right stuff to make it flourish, so that in the hands of humans the Earth would become wonderfully productive and very beautiful. “Who am I?” therefore, would include seeing ourselves as the best thing that ever happened to this planet, because we’re the only creatures who can make this Earth do what God designed it to do. Gorillas can’t do that, nor can dolphins or flamingos, but here we are with brains and bodies perfectly designed to make the most of what this Earth has got. God, therefore, clearly loves our physical planet as well.

Well, this too must be an eye-opener to those who believe God doesn’t think much of the Earth either, like those who quote 2 Peter 3:10 to prove that God’s getting rid of this planet forever. That verse does say, though, that on “the day of the Lord the heavens will disappear with a roar, the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare,” and in verse 12 that “the heavens will be destroyed by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.” It sounds like God hates this planet and can’t wait for the chance to get rid of it.

That isn’t the context of those verses, however. The context is “the destruction of ungodly men,” verse 7, not the destruction of the planet, as Peter himself explains in verse 6, when God destroyed the world by the Flood. The purpose of the Flood wasn’t to wipe out the world; it was to wipe out the people wrecking the world. And by the same token, verse 7, “the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for ‘the day of judgment’ and destruction of ungodly men.” There’s a time coming when fire, like the Flood, will put an end to the ungodly influences wrecking our world too.

So rather than these verses proving that God will be glad one day to close the book on Planet Earth, they actually mean quite the opposite, that God is cleansing our planet for its next chapter. Fire sounds drastic, true, but fire used in cauterizing is very effective in sealing a wound from infection. And Peter hints at that same cauterizing use of fire in 1 Peter 1:7, when he talks of our faith being “refined by fire.” Peter sees fire in its positive sense; it gets rid of impurities and seals out infection. So God isn’t destroying our physical world because he hates it, he’s doing his very best to save it, by doing whatever it takes, 2 Peter 3:9, to bring “everyone to repentance.”

So again, God reveals himself as loving who we are, and loving this planet. Is there anything else, then, that God reveals about himself in Genesis? Yes – he loves gardens, because he planted an actual garden himself in Genesis 2:8. If the fabulous palace and temple gardens at the time Genesis was written are anything to go by, then “garden” must have meant something exquisitely beautiful and functional, which it was, verse 9. And if anyone knew how to plant a garden to rival anything we humans come up with, it was certain that God knew, because he designed and created every plant, tree and animal that filled it. Imagine what a botanical and zoological garden of God’s design must have looked like.

But what exactly was this garden for? In some way or other it revealed something about God, but what?

We find out in Genesis 2:15, because the first thing God does after creating this beautiful garden was “take the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”

It was an incredibly privileged position for any human to be appointed to, because this was GOD’S garden for a start, the place he’d created for himself, just like kings – at the time Genesis was written – created gardens full of exotic plants, trees and animals for themselves. This is what kings looked out on from their palace windows. This is where kings lived and ruled from. It was their home as well as their centre of operations, the engine-room from which the king’s will and purpose would be communicated and spread to his kingdom, much like the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 and 22.

But the first thing GOD does in this marvelous home of his is take a man of his own choosing by the arm, invites him into this oasis and control centre on Earth, and tells the man it’s all his to take care of.

Adam, therefore, was the first human ever to be God’s executive personal assistant, a member of the royal household, with free access to the palace and the king’s ear. This wasn’t trundling around on a tractor with a large cloth cap planting crops for general consumption, or lazily plucking off juicy fruits while stroking a lion’s mane and dipping a toe in a tinkling stream. This was a personal calling by God himself to Adam to be his right hand man in running his temple palace precinct, much like Joseph in Egypt was entrusted by the Pharaoh to run the affairs of state, with full access to Pharaoh, and full authority to exercise the Pharaoh’s will, supervise his great building projects, and communicate to others exactly what was on Pharaoh’s mind.

And Adam would be so close to God that HE would know GOD’S mind too. But that’s what being made in God’s image meant, that a man is capable of being God’s representative, a perfect reflection of God’s mind, heart and even thought, much like Jesus would be later on when HE, as a human being, was “the image of God” too (2 Corinthians 4:4).

This man whom God had chosen, then, could have held many, if not all, of the positions that Jesus presently holds, like being seated at the right hand of God, being the communicator of God’s will, and overseeing God’s projects to completion, etc. This is what God created Adam for, which we see in Jesus – who is also called Adam – being given those positions later.

All this reveals that God loved giving Adam a highly privileged position, and loved trusting him with it too, just like Pharaoh trusted Joseph. There was a risk involved, but God took care of that too, by warning Adam right away not to get any ideas above his station. God did it by planting two trees “in the middle of the garden,” Genesis 2:9. God loved trees, and in particular fruit bearing trees, so these two trees must have been stunning in their beauty and extremely “pleasing to the eye” (9).

The two trees carried a clear message for Adam, though, that Adam wasn’t God. He was about as close to being a god as a human could be, because here he was at God’s right hand in God’s earthly palace, in much the same position as Joseph being Pharaoh’s right hand man ruling over all Egypt. Joseph had the authority to stamp a decree with the royal seal, or sign a document in the Pharaoh’s name. How easy it would be for Adam in such a position too, then, to think he was God, or that he was just as capable as God at doing his job.

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was a constant reminder to Adam, therefore, that if he ever got to thinking he could do God’s job, pictured by eating the fruit off that Tree, he would lose everything, including his life. It would be Adam’s one big mistake, then, to think that he was God. Only God was God, and that position was God’s alone, just like Joseph could never be the Pharaoh, as Joseph found out later when Pharaoh took away every privilege from him too.

The Tree of Life, meanwhile, contained the same reminder, that Adam wasn’t God, because for Adam to live forever into the future he would need to eat the fruit off the Tree of Life. He wasn’t immortal, therefore, like God was immortal. God had never needed a Tree of Life, because he’d always lived without it, but Adam had been made from the dust of the ground, meaning he was physical and mortal and he could die. If he ate off the Tree of Life, however, he would never have to die. It gave Adam what he dearly wanted, the chance to live as long as he wished, but it would also remind him that he wasn’t immortal like God was immortal.

What an eye-opener that must be for those who believe in the immortality of the soul, to find out that such a belief is actually an impertinence and living above one’s pay grade. But surely it’s a huge relief to know we’re not immortal, because what happens to BAD immortal souls? They can’t die. So what happens to them? The prevailing belief in Christianity is that they go to a living hell forever. But is that the picture God wanted to give of himself in Genesis?

No, it isn’t, as we see in God’s intentions in those two trees, that they acted as protection for Adam, to remind him of his place and his limitations, because what Adam needed more than anything else to keep on living in his incredibly privileged position as God’s right hand man, and not get big ideas about himself that would blow him out of the water, was humility.

There is no humility in the idea that we humans have an immortal soul, because God made it clear in Genesis there is nothing immortal whatsoever in a human being. We aren’t God; we’re physical. God made us in his image, yes, but he doesn’t reveal who he is by making us into who he is – he reveals himself in us as we are, which is amazing, because we’re physical, mortal, and highly limited compared to God. But that’s the way God designed things to work, and Adam would have succeeded wonderfully if he’d humbly accepted what God had made him as, and he hadn’t wanted more.

We see that demonstrated in the life of Jesus, as Paul points out in Philippians 2:5, when he says our “attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” And here’s where we see the one vital difference between Jesus and Adam. Jesus was “in very nature God,” meaning he too was God’s image-bearer, in that he too reflected and revealed God perfectly, just as Adam could have done.

But – and here’s the difference – verses 6-7, Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being in human likeness.” Jesus was willing to start at the bottom. He wasn’t after being fast-tracked into management right away. He was quite willing to be nothing higher than a servant.

And isn’t that where God started the first Adam as well? God didn’t give Adam every privilege right off the bat. Instead, he started Adam off as the gardener. It was still an incredibly privileged position, being God’s own personal gardener in his royal Temple precinct, but to begin with it really only involved watering the plants and feeding the animals. The first golden keys God gave to Adam, therefore, were the keys to the garden shed.

But being a servant at that level was all Adam needed to do to maintain his privileged position, because in so doing it would reveal in time what God really had in mind for him. At this point in his life, then, it was vital that Adam do what he was told. Stay on the first rung of the ladder as instructed, and as Adam proved himself to be trustworthy God could lift him to the next rung.

This was exactly the route that Jesus willingly took too. God started him off at the very bottom, but unlike Adam, Jesus accepted it, or as Paul phrases it in Philippians 2:8, Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to death on a cross.” But this is where a human made in God’s image begins, at the bottom, proving himself faithful to God’s instructions, no matter how humbling or even how fatal they may be – as they were in Jesus’ case, and in the lives of so many Christians today too, who are killed for nothing more than calling themselves ‘Christian’. But if that’s all God has given them to do, they accept it.

In Jesus accepting what God had given him to do, though, look at God’s reaction in verse 9. Now we begin to see what God had in mind for Adam: “Therefore God exalted Jesus to the highest place and gave him the name above every name.” And if Adam had done what God instructed, God would have done the same for him. He would have made Adam ‘King of the World’ too, not only because that’s what he’d designed Adam for in the first place, but because it would put Adam in a position of enormous influence in revealing God to the rest of the world. That’s what kings were for in the Ancient World of Genesis: They were perfect reflections of the gods to make the gods visible to others.

A revelation of God emerges, then, when putting the two Adams together, of a God who mightily honours those who tune into his purpose for them, who stick faithfully to his instructions, and put aside all personal preferences and ambitions. Perhaps at this point, then, it begins to dawn on us just how personal it is between God and his image-bearers. It sounds like it’s a whole lot more than just a job he’s called us to do.

And we get an intriguing indication of that in Luke 3:38 where Adam is called a “son of God.” When God made Adam in his image, then, he included making Adam his son. Like any proud Father, I imagine God looking at Adam and saying with deep affection, “This is my son,” and if Adam had then stuck to what God had planned for him we could add the words, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased,” which God would later say of Jesus.

It’s as sons as well, then, that we are launched into this world as God’s image-bearers. And that we see in Jesus as well, in Hebrews 1:3, which states: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” Jesus is called a “Son” as well, and it too is attached directly to him being God’s image-bearer. So, yes, we reflect God and radiate his glory, but we’re more than just reflectors. We’re much more personal to God than that: We are his sons.

To recap at this point, then, we’re asking the question, “Who am I?” and the answer that echoes back to us from Genesis is that God created us to be his image-bearers to reveal himself in us. And what he’s revealed in us humans is that he loves us being physical, he loves this physical planet he’s given us stewardship over, he loves working with us, he loves entrusting us with immense privileges, he loves making sure we know what to do to be successful, and he loves giving us simple tasks to begin with that lead us further and further into what he really has in mind for us, so that one day we can have huge influence on other people in revealing God to them. And last, but not least, God loves being able to say of us, “This is my son.”

And we know all this not only from the hints given in Genesis, but from the real live example of Jesus Christ, who became the image-bearer that Adam never was. Adam was given the opportunity to do what Jesus did, but he blew it, which set the entire creation back. The whole thing stopped. God’s Garden was out of bounds to humans, the Tree of Life was cordoned off, the world outside Eden would never be developed as God intended through Adam and his descendants, and everything that humans came up with from then on would be an exercise in futility (as Paul calls it in Romans 8:20), because nothing could recapture all that Adam lost when he blew his job as God’s son and image-bearer.

But the second Adam comes along and changes that. He came for the same reason as the first Adam, though, to be God’s image-bearer, or as Paul phrases it in 2 Corinthians 4:6, we see “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Christ came as the perfect revelation of the glory of God, which he could because he too was “the image of God,” verse 4.

Everything about Jesus revealed God. So when Jesus asked his disciples in Matthew 16:15, “Who am I?’ – the same question we’re asking about ourselves – and Peter answered in verse 16, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus was delighted that Peter understood that he, Jesus, was the “Son” and perfect image-bearer of God.

What Peter didn’t understand yet, however, was that Jesus had come to die to lift the curse that had held creation back since the first Adam. Peter understood it later, though, in Acts 3:18-19, when he announced that Christ had suffered “so that your sins may be wiped out, and the times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” Christ’s death, in other words, gave us humans the chance to recover what Adam lost, so we could start again and be who God always meant us to be.

And what an eye opener that must be for people who believe God would never want us to go back to being like Adam, because in their minds Adam brought out all that’s wrong and ugly in us humans, proving the need for us to get rid of our physical bodies and get us off this sorry planet.

But that’s an insult to God, because God didn’t make Adam evil and ugly, he made Adam into something “very good” – SO good, in fact, that it’s not surprising Adam got big ideas about himself. If you were Adam and God told you that he’d made you “in very nature” like himself, what would you think? And if you overheard God saying that you – and he said your name too – were the perfect person for fulfilling his great plan on Earth, and he loved you to pieces from the top of your head to your toenails, what ideas would that give you about yourself?

Well, hopefully it would be BIG ideas about yourself, because those would be God’s thoughts too. That’s what he wanted Adam to think about himself as well, so it was seared into Adam’s head what God had made him to be. In Adam the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God” could just as easily have been seen in his face as it was in Christ’s face. Adam was as much a beloved son and perfectly equipped image-bearer of God as Christ was. He could have ruled the world as God’s right hand man, and been given ever greater glory and influence that would have drawn people to God, so that the entire creation would have flourished like God’s beautiful Temple precinct in the Garden of Eden.

That was Adam’s potential, designed into him by God himself, and it’s the same potential he’s built into you and me. It’s who we are. It’s not surprising, then, that God would like to put us through a little test first, just like he did Adam, to see if we’re willing to start off at the bottom as well. That’s all God needs to know. Can we be faithful in little? Can we accept being humble, obedient servants in rather lowly duties for now? Can we happily stand on the first rung of the ladder with just the keys to the garden shed? Can we, in other words, be like Christ, who humbled himself in obedience to death on a cross?

But that’s exactly what Christ died for, so that he could live his humility in us, because humility was the one thing he knew we’d have most trouble with. He knows that if we can just hold off for now having big ideas about ruling the world, and we accept our lot in life without wishing for more, that God will exalt us, or as Colossians 3:4 says, “When Christ, who is your life, appears, THEN you will also appear with him in glory.” It’s then that the world will know who we are. And it’s then that we can be all that God made us to be, that is and always has been, so very, very good.

Restoring shattered faith “The Shack” way…

The book (and movie) The Shack is a fictional tale about a Dad whose daughter has been kidnapped and killed, and how God answers the Dad’s question, “Why didn’t you (God) stop my child being killed?”

God answers by arranging a meeting with the Dad in the shack where the girl was killed. Dad gets to watch God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit in action and communication together, and he’s able to interact with them personally. As the story progresses, Dad shares happy meals with the Trinity, he walks on water with Jesus, shares mystical experiences with the Holy Spirit, meets his dead father, sees his dead daughter at peace, and later on he’s taken by God to the cave where his daughter is buried. And finally, after all this has been done, Dad’s shattered faith is restored.

It sounds very much like restoring faith by sight, because it’s only after the Dad has had visions, seen his dead relatives and talked with God that his faith is restored. And that made me wonder what a child or a new Christian might think when there’s a tragic death in the family and their faith is severely tested too: Will they now think that God will do for them what he did for the Dad in The Shack? Will God also provide them with mystical experiences, one-on-one conversations with him, and arranging a meeting with the person who died?

Think of the child who asks, “Why didn’t God stop my Dad being killed in a car accident?”, and that same child then reading The Shack. Will he think, “Oh, so that’s how God works, is it?” But what if God doesn’t answer that child The Shack way? What if there are no touchy-feely experiences with God in answer to Dad’s tragic death? And what if God doesn’t allow the child to meet Dad and see that he’s at peace?

I can see why Jesus told Thomas in John 20:29, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” It’s a greater blessing being able to trust God without the need for anything visual, real or imaginary. But where on earth does that kind of trust come from?

Fortunately, The Shack answers. It comes from the Spirit. It’s after many conversations with the Spirit that the Dad’s shattered faith is restored. The book may start with faith by sight, then, but eventually it zeroes in on where trust in God really comes from. As Paul wrote in Galatians 4:6, it’s the Spirit who brings us to love for and trust in God. So The Shack is really about restoring shattered faith “The Spirit” way.

No prayer goes unanswered

We take it for granted that God listens to us when we pray, right? Of course he listens. But John takes us one step further, because in 1 John 5:15 do we take it for granted just as much that “whatever we ask, we know that we have what we asked of him”? Or as other Bible translations phrase it, “what we asked for is as good as ours,” or “is already ours.”

John is saying that God has set things up so that whatever we ask for he’ll answer us every time. God’s even put himself on the spot where he HAS to answer too, because it was he who gave us the Spirit and the Spirit is now stirring us to pray to him, so how can God resist himself?!

And what if the Spirit is stirring us to pray about things that God just loves hearing his children pray about, like helping a friend (or an enemy) in need? Thanks to the Spirit we’re constantly thinking of others and what’s best for them. The Spirit has created that love in us, love which then stirs us to pray for others, asking God to do for them what we cannot do but deeply wish we could. But that was exactly what God sent the Spirit to create in us, so that when we pray we’re asking in love for the right and good things for others.

And that puts God on the spot, because it was he who gave us that love in the first place, and now he’s faced with us praying in love, love that HE created, which he knew would make us pray to him for help. Is he now going to stop there and not complete the circle? We’re praying, and we’re praying with the mind of the Spirit, so for God not to answer now would be going against what he himself put in place. It’s like a Dad telling his child, “If you have anything you need, son, just ask,” so that’s what the child does, he asks, but all he gets back from Dad is, “Well done, son, you asked” – and he leaves it at that!

What Dad has got on his hands now is one frustrated son, because what’s the point of asking Dad for anything if Dad doesn’t answer? And God faces the same frustration from us too if he doesn’t answer us. So he assures us that not only does he hear every word we pray, he ALSO goes to work on it to make it happen. It may take time, but never will God frustrate HIS children with no answer at all.

Victory on Earth Day – part 3

The effect of the cross on ‘The Undefeatable Sin’

In a continuing attempt to understand what Christ won for us on the cross it has to include his victory over ‘The Undefeatable Sin’ – the one thing we humans have had more trouble with than anything else.

The Bible quickly identifies what The Undefeatable Sin is too: It’s trying to be wise without God. And our history is full of it. As humans we can’t seem to STOP trying to be wise without God. Right now at this very moment there are probably billions of people all over the globe trying to be wise without God, and billions more before us too, who spent their entire lives trying to be wise without God. I imagine I spend much of my time every day trying to be wise without God as well, because I can’t help it either.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to be wise, of course, but God made it clear from the beginning that seeking wisdom without him is suicidal. It’s like pushing a self-destruct button, or tying explosives to one’s body and setting them off. And to get that point across God created an alternative source of wisdom called the ‘Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil’, and Adam could get his wisdom off that tree instead if he wished – but be warned, Adam, it will be the death of you.

But why did Adam need wisdom in the first place? Because in Genesis 1:26 God announced that he’d created humans to govern his creation: “Let’s make human beings in our image, in our likeness,” God said, “so they can rule over the fish, the birds and the animals, and over the Earth itself.”

So how would you react if the prime minister came to you and said, “I want you to run this country with me”? Where would you start? Well, you’d want to spend every waking moment hanging round the prime minister, right? You’d be camped in his office with four thousand notebooks and an equal number of pens picking up every tidbit of wisdom that dropped from his lips.

So why on earth didn’t Adam think of that when he heard God say, “Come and run the world with me”? Adam had no experience in running worlds, so why wasn’t he banging on God’s door every morning seeking help and advice?

The answer given in Genesis is quite startling: Adam was distracted by a serpent, another strange creation God made, that “was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made,” Genesis 3:1. It seems a bit odd that God would create a suicidal tree and a crafty serpent to trick Adam and Eve into eating off it, but I have to admit it’s not such a bad idea, because I’ve learnt from crafty people in my own life how stupid I can be.

I remember well the first car I bought because of a crafty salesman who knew I’d fall for a car that had some zip to it. He wasn’t lying either; the car did have some zip. I flung it down the back alleys of suburban Winnipeg and it held the road like glue. I’d never driven anything like it. I just knew in my wisdom, therefore, that this was the right car for me. And what a sight I would make, cutting through city traffic like a knife through butter, and people thinking how clever and wise I must be for choosing such a remarkable car.

Did I, however, at any point during the proceedings, think to check the car out with anybody else, other than the crafty salesman? No. I didn’t. Did I look up any reviews on that type of car? Not one. Did I feel any need to talk to an experienced mechanic about it? Not for a second. I bought the car on the spot because I thought I knew what I was doing.

It was an awful shock a couple of days later when I found out that this nippy little car I’d been so wise in buying had such a bad reputation that one of them had been set alight by its owner and burnt in front of the factory where they were made. And other people looked so sad when they heard I’d bought this wreck that I shot back to the salesman and told him I wanted my money back. “Too bad,” he said, “the car’s yours.” Oh, he knew what he’d sold me all right, and there I was with egg on my face and feeling like an idiot.

But what I did was really no different to what Adam and Eve did in response to the slick-talking serpent. It could read a human mind like an open book, just like my car salesman. It knew that Eve, and then Adam, would fall for the chance to feel wise and clever. So it sold them on this picture of themselves zipping through life like gods, without having to depend on anyone for help. They could manage on their own, thank you very much, and how clever that would make them feel.

So did Adam and Eve at any point in the serpent’s sales pitch ask for a time-out to consult with God about it? No. Did they at any point in the proceedings think to seek advice? No, they didn’t – because that’s not what we humans do, is it?

And God created a serpent that could read that weakness in us like a book. The serpent knew, just like my car salesman knew, that humans like to think we’re really smart, so all we need is a reason to think we’re really smart and we’re hooked. My car salesman was brilliant at it. I was young and it was all too obvious that I thought I knew a zippy car when I saw one. So he just gave me a reason to think I was smart with a simple statement like, “Well, I bet not too many people know about these babies and the zip they’ve got,” which I’d interpret as the salesman giving me inside information, because he recognized I wasn’t just an ordinary customer dropping by; I was a ‘man-in-the-know’.

The serpent did exactly the same thing with Eve too; he made her think she was smart by giving her inside information on the tree of death. All he said was, “You know as well as God does that it won’t kill you,” which Eve would interpret as, “Hey, that’s right, I am that smart,” and she was hooked.

And do you think God didn’t know this would happen? Of course he did, because he made the serpent crafty to reveal the one fly in the ointment, the one snag, in humans becoming partners with him in his plan: It was this pressing desire in us humans for “gaining wisdom” (Genesis 3:6), the kind of wisdom, that is, that makes us think we’re smart enough to rule this world without him.

And God still allows a crafty serpent to make us think that, because there’s nothing like a crafty creature to point out the one thing in our human experience that we’ve never been able to defeat, and that’s thinking we can be wise without God. Falling in love with our own cleverness has become The Undefeatable Sin for us.

God warned us about it right off the bat too – and he pointed out the deadly results. Adam and Eve’s son Cain, for instance, thinks he’s smart too, in how he got rid of Abel, but in doing so he created a bloodline of violent killers so evil that God destroyed the lot of them in the Flood.

There were deep, lasting and deadly consequences to Cain’s sin. But did that stop people building a massive tower “reaching up the heavens” (Genesis 11:4), so that they could “make a name for themselves”? No. And did what happened at the Tower of Babel make the people of Sodom and Gomorrah stop to think what God might do to them too? No. And does what happened to those two cities make people today even pause for a moment to think what the consequences of their actions might be? No. We still think we are gods and masters of our destiny.

And we’ve never been able to defeat that idea in our heads. It’s been an Undefeatable Sin ever since the Garden of Eden for us, and with the same deadly results. It not only wrecked our human role in God’s plan before we even got started in it, it has also – according to Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:4 – “blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

The serpent has been so successful at pulling the wool over people’s eyes – like thugs and thieves of old pulled a man’s woolly wig over his eyes to blind and confuse him – that there are tons of people who have no idea what the purpose of human life is, or what their role in God’s plan was in the first place, or that because of Christ’s death they’ve actually got their purpose in life and their role in God’s plan restored back to them.

The serpent has focused our attention for so long on our own cleverness that we can’t see what Christ has done for us. How many people do you know, for instance, who understand, or even care about, what God created us for, what botched up his purpose for us, and how Christ restored everything back to us so we can start again, and this time get it right? But give us the chance to give our opinions on politicians, sports teams, neighbours, and whoever else is making the news, and suddenly we’re animated and all knowing, and full of expert analysis and judgment. We love hearing our own voice, and the feeling it gives us that we are gods who can detect with absolute accuracy the good and evil in everything. Who needs God, then? We are clever and strong enough to figure everything out for ourselves.

So God just keeps on allowing the serpent to make fools of us. And there’s no one but Jesus in the entire history of the world that’s been able to prevent the serpent doing that, including King David. God allowed Satan to test him too (in 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1), to show David that he too was susceptible to taking things into his own hands, and being sold on how strong he was.

And just because we’re Christians doesn’t make US immune either. We see that in 2 Corinthians 11:3 when Paul expressed his deep concern “that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds (too) may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” So the serpent is still being allowed by God to be crafty, and crafty enough to distract Christians too, through “false and deceitful workmen masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light,” verses 13-14.

It amazed Paul how easily Christians could be deceived. A crafty chap could stand up in Corinth in Paul’s day and “preach quite another Jesus than we preached – different spirit, different message,” 2 Corinthians 11:4 (The Message), and the congregation would “put up with him quite nicely,” just like Adam and Eve put up with the serpent quite nicely too. So are we Christians any different to them? No, we’re not. Even as Christians we’re still susceptible to crafty people who can make black seem white.

It’s interesting, then, that the first thing the Holy Spirit did with Jesus at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry – before Jesus got down to any of his Father’s business – was take him out into the wilderness for a face off with the devil. Adam and Eve went through the same process too. Before they got down to any business they too needed to face the serpent first of all. It’s obviously important to God that this happens, but that’s surely not surprising when the whole plan of him and humans setting up the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth together falls apart if humans can’t be trusted to stick to the plot.

 

Jesus does something rather startling at this point, though, because in preparing himself for his personal face off with the champion of craftiness he strips himself of all human strength by fasting for forty days and nights, by which time he’s close to death and powerless. So this wasn’t a battle of wits, or a chess match to see who was the superior player. Jesus wasn’t in this to “make a name for himself” like the builders of the Tower of Babel. He wasn’t testing out his strength like David checking out his military might, either. Nor was he striding up and down, huffing and puffing and doing push-ups to get all worked up for battle. He was as weak as a human could be, without dying.

So, when “The tempter came to Jesus and said” in Matthew 4:3, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread,” the temptation was brutally clever, because here was the chance for Jesus to feel some power and energy flowing through his body again. And as humans that’s what we’re built for. In body and mind we want to be active and productive, and we hate being held up by sickness, or an accident, or having nothing exciting going on. We need action and projects to tackle – and turning stones into bread would have done that for Jesus. He could get going right away, full of energy and ready for action.

But Jesus wasn’t tempted, because it was God, not bread, he depended on, and he was waiting on God to give him the go ahead, not human energy.

But Adam and Eve weren’t willing to wait. The chance offered by the serpent to get instant wisdom so they could get going right away on their own steam was too tempting to resist. On the other hand, we can probably relate to that as Christians, because the western Christian culture is all about action, about churches growing, new and exciting ways of getting people to come to church, and eloquent evangelists bringing in the crowds, which is so much more appealing to action-oriented humans than sitting week after week in a small church with no one new attending, and being stuck in the same old routine.

It’s tempting, then, to have a peek when a new book hits the bookstores promising new and exciting ways of injecting life into the church. It’s like the smell of fresh-baked bread. It certainly smelt like fresh-baked bread in 2 Corinthians 11:5 when a “super apostle” or a “trained speaker” (verse 6) turned up, who could fire up the crowd and create a real buzz.

Paul, meanwhile, seemed so dry by comparison. He was always banging away at basics to keep the church locked on Jesus (verse 2), but here was this “super” apostle, just like the super apostles we get today, offering Christians much more exciting stuff, like setting up the Kingdom now and taking over the world, and all very cleverly packaged to make to seem like it’s the Holy Spirit’s doing too, with strange signs and manifestations often thrown in as proof of it.

Well, Paul was having none of it, verse 20, because he could see that all this stuff was just crafty people exploiting Christians with their own personal dreams of grandeur. And Christian history is littered with such people, who have caught up millions of Christians in their crusades, revivals, and other human-driven fantasies, all of which have confused and divided the Christian Church, just as super apostles were messing up the church members in Corinth.

Paul’s life in the Church, meanwhile, had never been the smell of fresh bread. He really was an apostle too, but he’d been in prison, beaten up, shipwrecked and in constant danger from bandits, storms at sea, and false gospels being preached in his churches. Sleepless nights, freezing cold, and hunger left him feeling utterly weak and powerless (verses 23-27). But he accepted the mandate Jesus had given him in Acts 26:16-18, and he stuck to it regardless.

Like Jesus, Paul was not tempted to veer from the plot God had given him. It was a tough cross for both Jesus and Paul to bear, but both men trusted that God knew what he was doing, and that HIS was the way that worked best.

So the tempter tried another tack in Matthew 4:6, along the lines of, “Come on, Jesus, you’ve got all this power behind you, surely God wants you to use it.” And isn’t that the same appeal being made by super apostles in the church today, that we’ve got the Holy Spirit and if we all get praying the Spirit will descend on our city and on our nation and great transformation and healing will happen? Humble ourselves and pray and the Holy Spirit is bound to answer.

But that’s exactly like the tempter telling Jesus to jump off the highest corner of the Temple Mount and God was bound to answer him too, by sending an angel to catch him. And verse 7 tells us what Jesus thought of that idea: He totally dismisses it. He would never put God in that position, of having to answer him. And yet we have super apostles today marketing all sorts of stuff as Holy Spirit inspired – that Paul would dismiss in an instant – because, they say, they pray, and therefore God supports what they’re doing because they’re so dedicated and humble. The force of their prayers and humility guarantees the Holy Spirit’s response. The Holy Spirit HAS to answer such noble motives. We have the power, in other words, to make God support what we come up with.

Well, super apostles may think they have the right to do that, but Jesus makes it clear to the serpent that he would never dabble in such impertinence. So the devil, in his last throw of the dice, offers Jesus the most tantalizing offer any Christian would love to hear: “You can have it all right now,” the serpent says in verses 8 and 9a. And super apostles today relish that idea. They love quoting Genesis, that God gave us dominion over this world, so this is what God wants us to do, take over the kingdoms of this world and make them all Christian – now – before Christ comes. Meaning, of course, that God must be giving us Christians the power and authority to make it happen now. We don’t have to wait for Christ to come to change the world; we can do it now.

To super apostles with dreams of grandeur, this is hugely appealing, which is strange, because the devil actually told Jesus what this third temptation was really all about. It was all about getting Jesus to “bow down and worship me,” the devil, verse 9. So that was his game, the same game he played on Adam and Eve, that if they did what he said (bowed to his way, not God’s way) they could have it all right away. They could rule the world on their own terms, without having to consult God or wait.

So when Christians get the idea that God is giving us the go ahead to make this world into God’s Kingdom now, it’s actually the devil’s idea, not theirs.

It’s so easy for the devil to tempt us on this point, though, because he knows how dearly we Christians would love to change the world and sort this mess out. And it seems so right to us too, that God would WANT us to set this world alight and shake it up and get rid of crime and abortion clinics and sexual exploitation of children, etc.

The question is, though: “By whose methods?” And not surprisingly, God wouldn’t mind an answer to that before he lets us humans loose trying to change anything, because as partners in his plan he has every right to know if we’ll stay true to HIS methods and his wisdom, or will we veer off at some point into our own wishes and desires instead, like Adam and Eve did?

So he lets the serpent test us. And he allows the serpent to be crafty too. The serpent is allowed his own set of “apostles” to stir things up, “masquerading as servants of righteousness,” with their promises of new reformations and new moves of the Holy Spirit. And it sounds fantastic: The Church has been asleep at the switch, they say, but here’s this exciting new chap, brimming with confidence, who’s had a vision, or a sign, and he’s claiming special insight, and to Christians starving for action, whose lives and churches feel more like dead stones than freshly baked bread, it’s like manna from heaven.

But Jesus wasn’t having any of it, because he yells out in Matthew 4:10, “Away from me, Satan, for it is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”

“We do things GOD’S way round here, serpent, so get lost.” It wasn’t an easy thing for Jesus to say, though, because God’s way was a whole lot tougher. It wasn’t the tasty, freshly baked bread way, nor was it manipulating the Holy Spirit into supporting one’s own dreams of grandeur, nor was it changing the world with power and authority now. God’s way by comparison was a life of opposition, suffering, and obedience to death on a cross.

God chose a similar life for Paul too, of suffering, loneliness, opposition, stress and feeling like death. But maybe that’s how we feel about our lives too, because here we are in the Church, supposed to be governors of God’s growing Kingdom and priests in his beautiful Temple, but life for most of us is uneventful and certainly not impressive, and we might as well be invisible for all the impact we’re having on other people. Life is pretty dead really; like cold stones.

So how can we possibly do what God’s called us to do in that condition?

Well, according to Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:10, what we do is “always carry around in our body the death of Jesus.” That doesn’t sound nearly as exciting, though, as shaking this world up with signs and wonders, and having super apostles drawing in huge crowds and having major influence on government leaders. But clearly what Paul says works as far as GOD’S wisdom for our lives is concerned; otherwise Paul wouldn’t have written that, right?

So what does carrying around the death of Christ in our bodies mean? It means our lot in life is the same as his. Jesus even said we take up our cross and follow him, so we’re following in his footsteps. But the road he trod was tough. It meant resisting the serpent’s temptations to seek an easier and more exciting way of doing God’s work. It meant trusting that God knew best, when it seemed like his way made no sense at all.

And since we now carry that around in our bodies, then it must apply to us too. But it’s tough. It doesn’t make sense. What is the point of our existence as a small, insignificant congregation that hardly anyone knows exists, for instance? We don’t seem to be doing anything for anybody. Ah, but we are, according to Paul, because the reason we tread the same road Jesus trod, is “so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body,” verse 10.

It’s in OUR lives now that Jesus reveals what he accomplished in his obedience to death on a cross. And what he did was defeat The Undefeatable Sin. He dealt with the one snag – our constant weakness for wanting to do things our way – that prevented us humans becoming partners with God in his plan. And he did it by resisting the serpent, by choosing God’s wisdom for his life, not his own, and accepting the way of the cross over his own ambitions and preferences.

And that is the victory we now carry round and display in our bodies too, by us now “being given over to death” as well, verse 11, meaning it’s our turn now to accept the lot in life God has given us, despite how pointless and powerless it may seem to be. It’s our turn now to resist the serpent’s temptations to want something better and more exciting, and our turn now to trust that God knows best, even if our lives seem to have no purpose or use at all. And we do it “for Jesus’ sake,” verse 11. We do it to make Jesus’ victory over The Undefeatable Sin real, so that what he made possible in his obedience to death on the cross now becomes real in our lives too.

And that’s the effect of the cross on The Undefeatable Sin. It’s been defeated, first by Jesus and now by us.