What’s the combination that opens God’s safe?

There’s that moment of hesitation and then triumph when a safecracker gets the combination right and the safe door swings open to reveal the contents. When it comes to cracking God’s safe, however, there is so much disappointment. People try all kinds of combinations, think they’ve got the right one and give a tug on the handle – but the door doesn’t open.

The prize inside the safe is peace with God, peace that comes from knowing we’re just fine in his book and eternal life is ours. What greater prize could there be? But what’s the right sequence of numbers that clicks the lock open? And who knows the combination for certain, too? Religion, of course, jumps in at this point yelling, “We know, we know, we’ve got the combination,” but the numbers offered by each religion are different. No two religions offer the same combination.

None of their numbers would work anyway, because they all involve something that we must do. God, meanwhile, gave us the combination of numbers years ago to a man called Abraham, and it doesn’t involve anything that we must do: “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about – but not before God,” Romans 4:2. If Abraham thought he could open the safe by doing all kinds of good works, or good deeds, he too would have been sadly disappointed when he pulled on the safe door. It wouldn’t have opened, because it wasn’t his righteousness that hit the right combination, it was faith (verse 3).

It had to be faith, though, because God made absolutely sure Abraham couldn’t produce the works necessary to open the door. Look what God did to the man. He promises Abraham he’s going to make him and his offspring heirs of the world, when Abraham has no heirs – and no way of producing one, either. There is nothing Abraham can do, therefore, to get the prize God is offering him. But that’s exactly how God wanted it to be, “so that it may be by grace,” verse 16that the door to his safe swings open.  

It isn’t by our works that the safe door swings open, it’s by faith in his grace, Romans 5:1. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God.” Cracking God’s safe isn’t complicated. Peace with him doesn’t involve a difficult combination lock full of rules, rituals and religious duties. All it needs is faith in God’s grace. That’s when the doors to God swing open. But the shocking thing about this grace is that we already had it before we even tried the lock….    

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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.

But how do we get faith in the first place?

So many verses talk about us having belief and faith. For example: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life,” John 3:36; Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” Galatians 3:6, and in Romans 4:3, “to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.”

Faith is hugely important, then, but in all these verses it sounds like the faith we need has to come from us, and it’s OUR belief that saves us. Or that we have to believe before justification, eternal life and righteousness kick in for us personally.

But if that’s true, then we’re saying faith is a work we must perform from within ourselves. So is that possible? Can we produce the faith we need? Is it something we can do?

No it isn’t, says Paul, and he uses his own life as an example. He never became a Christian because of his faith. Instead, as he himself admits, “I acted in ignorance and unbelief,” 1 Timothy 1:13. No faith, just dumb. So how did he end up with faith, then? Verse 14: “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, ALONG WITH the faith and love that are IN CHRIST JESUS.” Where did his faith come from? From Christ.

So Paul wasn’t about to preach that it’s our faith that saves us. And he didn’t, either. Instead, in Ephesians 2:1, he laid out the facts for us: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,” and in verses 2 and 3 we were puppets of the devil, controlled entirely by our sinful desires and thoughts. We were completely incapable of faith, in other words. But, verse 5, it was IN our state of total ignorance, unbelief and incapability of trusting God, that “GOD who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions.” And why did he do that? Because “it is by grace you have been saved.”

Ah but, isn’t it through faith in his grace that we’re saved? Oh yes, and Paul admits that too in verse 8: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith,” so faith is still required, isn’t it? Yes. But where does this faith come from? “Not from yourselves,” Paul continues in verse 8, “IT IS THE GIFT OF GOD.” God gives us the faith to believe in his grace, because we would never have believed in it ourselves.

Like Paul we are given faith, so that we get the point that salvation is ALL God’s doing, because even the faith that enables us to believe is a gift too.

“You’ve restored my faith in God”

In one of my favourite TV detective series, a lady who’s been badly hurt by men in the past is deeply impressed by the genuine kindness and respect shown to her by the Detective Chief Inspector. After watching him in action she begins to realize there really are men out there who have huge regard for women and would never do anything to exploit or hurt them. It was an eye-opener for her. She could no longer justify her hatred of men.

Toward the end of the program she writes him a letter in which she says in effect, “You’ve restored my faith in men.” It’s very touching, because the actions of this one man had begun a healing process in her mind that hopefully will free her to love a man in the future.

And isn’t that our great wish in preaching the gospel, that people tell us, “You’ve restored my faith in God,” because they discover in the gospel that God is exactly what they hoped him to be, that he truly is merciful and kind, and nothing like the God they grew up with, who threatens people with hell and watches our every move in readiness for Judgment Day. To free a person of such awful images of God is what the gospel is for, so that people come to know God as he really is, and it frees them up to love him.

That’s because the gospel is GOOD news about God. It’s not the typical view that religion has of him, that he’s only pleased by perfect behaviour and endless boring rituals, or by building impressive places of worship at great cost to the worshippers. When Paul met people who believed in gods like that in Acts 17, he told them a story. He told them that when God made people and placed them on the planet where he wanted them, that was all they needed to have a relationship with him, verses 26-27. He doesn’t need us to build temples and religions to find him, verses 24-25, because he’s already built it right into our own heads to seek him, reach out for him and find him, verse 27. It’s part of our very make-up to live and move and have our being in him, because we’re his children, and deep down we know it, verse 28.

But how does that become real to people? By the relentless preaching of God’s enormous kindness and high regard for us humans in the gospel. It starts a healing process in people’s minds, that hopefully, one day, frees up every human being to say with feeling, “You’ve restored my faith in God.”

I can’t believe in God because…

The last time someone said to me, “I can’t believe in God because,” it sounded plausible. Her Dad had died in his 20’s, and she never got to know him. Why had God let him die so young, she asked? Why hadn’t God intervened and helped him?

Just a brief look into her Dad’s history, though, revealed a host of problems that weren’t God’s fault. Her Dad grew up in a broken family, where bad choices were made by his parents. It was their actions, not God’s, that created the boy’s desperate need for an accepting group of friends, a need so great he’d do anything to keep them, which unfortunately included drugs in a big way. Eventually he became a drug dealer, but not a very good one because there were nasty people hunting for him who wanted him dead. It was probably one of them who killed him.

So what did God do so wrong in any of these circumstances that justifies not believing in him? How was he to blame for all those crying needs created in a young man’s head by the bad choices of others? Should God have prevented all those people in his life from making bad choices?

But people don’t want God poking around and intervening in their lives, so what’s God supposed to do now? Should he do nothing and get the blame, or intervene on demand to avoid getting the blame, or quietly manipulate circumstances to make everything work out perfectly like a Disney movie?

If you were God what would you do to get people to believe in you, when anything that goes wrong in their lives they’ll blame you for it? Would you take the blame anyway? But what good would that do? Because even if you do take the blame people will still complain that you didn’t stop things going wrong in the first place.

Taking a leaf out of God’s book, what HE did was this: First of all, he “made Jesus who had no sin to be sin for us,” 2 Corinthians 5:21, so, yes, he did take all the blame on himself. But, secondly, by “sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man” to “condemn sin,” Romans 8:3, he also gave us the chance to stop things going wrong from now on.

That’s God’s way of helping people believe in him. He takes the blame for things that weren’t his fault, and he deals with what caused all our problems in the first place. We’re now in a position to make right choices. So why wouldn’t a person believe in a God like that?

“I believe; help my unbelief”

The boy was in a terrible state. He was “possessed by a spirit that robbed him of speech,” Mark 9:17, and “Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground (and into water and fire to kill him, verse 22). He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid” (verse 18). If I was that boy’s Dad I’d be heart-broken watching my boy being played with like that by a vicious demonic spirit.

But Dad knew about this phenomenal Rabbi who actually drove demonic spirits out of people and the people fully recovered. The Rabbi’s disciples had the same power too (Mark 6:13), so when a group of Jesus’ disciples arrived in their village, Dad took his son and joined the crowd that gathered to meet them. But when he asked the disciples to heal his son, they couldn’t do it.

But why couldn’t they? Up to this point Jesus and his disciples had never failed anyone who’d asked for healing. This man, then, had every right to believe his son would be healed, and he did believe too – until, that is, the healing didn’t happen.

That’s when the Dad’s mood changed. He was quick to tell Jesus that his disciples hadn’t healed his son, and his tone became doubtful and desperate in verse 22: “Please, please help us – IF you can,” he says to Jesus. Well, of course Jesus could help them, and Jesus quickly reminded the boy’s Dad of that in verse 23, that “Everything is possible for him who believes.”

Believes what, though? Believes what God sent Jesus to the Jews for, to deliver them, forgive them, heal them and restore them. Believes that Jesus really was the Messiah predicted in their Scriptures who would come to save them. Believes that everything the Jews had been hoping for and dreaming of through all the years of their misery under pagan rulers was now possible. Their Messiah had arrived. Therefore, everything was now possible – the salvation of their nation, the forgiveness of their sins, their chance to repent and be the nation God had called them to be. And what more proof did they need that Jesus was that Messiah than all the healingx and driving out demons he and his disciples were doing?

At which point the Dad’s desperation switches from wanting his boy healed to wanting his belief healed. He went about it the right way too, by asking Jesus directly for help with “my unbelief” (verse 24), because as Jesus said in verse 29, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” To really cotton on to what God sent Jesus for needs direct help from Jesus himself.

“Would you please leave your problem with me?”

Paul realized that when he was up against a problem he couldn’t fix, Christ was saying to him, “Would you please leave it with me?” Why get all stressed out trying to fix the problem himself when Christ was intimately involved in all his problems with him?

It was a remarkable discovery for Paul, to the point he could say, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength,” Philippians 4:13. He found to his delight that no problem knocked him out: “We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized,” and “we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken,” 2 Corinthians 4:8-9. Paul’s troubles never ended, but the weight of them never crushed him.

What it took to GET Paul to that point, though, was problems he couldn’t fix, which must have been hard for him to handle because he’d come from a self-fixing culture that said, “Just knuckle down and obey God’s Law, because obedience to the Law is the solution to everything.”

But suddenly for Paul the Law wasn’t enough. It couldn’t fix the mess inside his head (Romans 7), nor was it enough to remove a tormenting “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthian 12:7). And even when Paul pleaded for relief, he didn’t get it. Instead, all Christ said was, “My grace is all you need,” meaning, in context, “”I’m the ‘Mr. Fix-it’ in your life now, Paul, not you, so would you please leave your problem with me?”

And when Paul actually DID that, remarkable things happened. In 2 Corinthians 1:8, for instance, when Paul and his companions were “under great pressure, far beyond our ability endure, so that we despaired even of life” – even to the point that “in our hearts we felt the sentence of death,” verse 9 – Christ delivered them.

But why did Christ let them get into such deep water in the first place? Well, Paul learnt the answer to that too, verse 9: “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God.” It was to help them realize that when they were in over their heads and drowning that’s when Christ was saying to them, “Would you please leave this with me?” – because the unfixable problems in life were HIS burden, not theirs. They learnt that Christ willingly took the weight of responsibility off their shoulders and onto his.

And when it actually happened to Paul it gave him enormous confidence, to the point he could say, “On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us,” verse 10. There was no doubt in Paul’s mind that in all his future problems too, Christ would always come up with something great.