It’s Not About Us

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

My second post after the hiatus.

Might as well get controversial.

This article is making the rounds. I’ve read it. More than once. Pondered the words. Considered the meaning behind and in the words. I’m doing that stereotypical INTJ thing of staring off into space, a blank expression (or an intense one, depending on your interpretation) on my face. Seeking to fit the piece into the larger, often confounding pattern that is Western Christianity.

Jen Hatmaker and I parted ways a long time ago. (You can read all about it in my review of her book For the Love, here and here). When she announced her affirmation of homosexual relationships as holy, I shrugged. Saw that one coming a mile away.

This here post today isn’t even about that, though, and that’s not even the primary or only reason why I generally choose to avoid partaking of her work. More important for me is her view and usage of Scripture and all that means in terms of theology and doctrine. For the record, I agree with Hatmaker when she points out that the Church has done an incredibly poor job of reaching out to LGBTQIA people. I am weary of the vilification and done with the idea that “their” sins are somehow “worse” than “ours.” I have friends within the LGBTQIA community (I know, people often say that, but it’s true) and I know how deeply alienating the nastiness is for them.

But, again, this post isn’t about that issue at all. (Nor is this post about the insanity that was the 2016 election and the part that Christians played in the circus, which she references and about which we are also in agreement).

This is about Good Friday. Holy Saturday. Easter.

Jesus. The Cross.

What it all means.

Hatmaker writes (emphasis hers),

I get the death part this year, the Good Friday part. All the memes and quips and quotes floating around the internet are falling on a numb heart. This year, I deeply experienced being on the wrong side of religion, and it was soul-crushing. I suffered the rejection, the fury, the distancing, the punishment, and sometimes worst of all, the silence. …

…this year, it all makes sense: the death, the anger, the man who never took his place in the machine. This day was lonely for Jesus. It was excruciating, physically and emotionally and spiritually. His people left him, even turned on him. God Himself hid his eyes. The sky went dark and life was extinguished. It was all so sad, so dead, so not yet resurrected. This was a day of tears and shock and loss and fear. …

…for those of you hunkered down on Good Friday, identifying with the loss of this day in agonizing ways, ways that you did not want to understand the cross, I am your sister this year. When too many things still feel dead and resurrection feels as unlikely and impossible as it must have on this day all those years ago, I can’t help but believe Jesus has his eye on us specifically. Who can better understand the cross than the man who chose it? Who better to hold us close in our loneliness than the man who was left to suffer all alone? Nobody, not one human being on this earth understands a dark Friday more than Jesus, well before anyone thought to put a “Good” in front of it.

Do you see what’s wrong with this picture?

I won’t deny Hatmaker or anyone else her pain and struggles. I don’t know what, exactly, life has been like for her since coming out on the “wrong side of religion.” I’m sure there have been very hard days. I’m sure that people have been incredibly mean, which is never right, no matter how strong the disagreement. I don’t doubt that she’s experienced confusion and heartbreak. (At the same time – and again this is where my INTJness reveals itself – I do wonder at the strength of a person’s convictions if they can be so shaken by negative responses. But that’s me; I don’t operate out of the heart).

But to identify with Jesus on the Cross?

That’s a step too far.

See, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter – it’s not about is.

Obviously our salvation is completely and utterly wrapped up in Jesus Christ and all that He accomplished. His death and resurrection was the plan – is the plan – the only way for us to be reconciled to and with God. Yet the story of those three days, indeed the entire narrative arc of Scripture, isn’t about us. We aren’t the central characters. It’s not a tale of humanity reaching out to God, but rather God reaching out to humanity. He is the mover, the shaker, the narrator, the director, the star. (This coming from an avowed Arminian. May my Calvinist brethren rejoice).

That crown of thorns, that flesh whipped to ribbons, those nails, that cross, the agonizing breaths and sputtered words, the blood-soaked linen perfumed with spices, that still and silent and dark tomb – we can’t identify with that. We cannot say, “Yes, I have experienced something akin to this. I understand.” Whatever pain or sorrow we experience is nothing compared to Christ, the God-Man, choosing to set aside His rightful glory. It is nothing compared to the suffering He experienced. Certainly we cannot even begin to imagine what it meant, how it felt, for Him to literally become sin.

Sin. Not loneliness, not abandonment, not suffering, not being rejected by the cool kids. Loneliness, abandonment and rejection are all results of sin, sure, but they aren’t the reason Jesus hung, suspended by hot, sticky metal pounded through His muscle and out the other side onto rough wood.

In no way am I accusing Hatmaker of equating herself with Jesus, nor am I commenting on her status before God. Not at all. Rather I am stating that Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter – it’s about Jesus. MaryMary sings in Something Big, “Jesus bled, Jesus died, Jesus took the fall – for all your wrong and all my wrong, Jesus paid it all.” As we reflect upon these events, let’s not make the mistake of thinking that they are meant to comfort us in sorrow.

They are meant to confront us with the heinous nature of our sin and drive us to our knees in reverence.

Let’s not cheapen the Atonement.

Signature

Addendum: I realize that many, perhaps even most, will believe that I have read something into the words that aren’t there. I admit that the twist in perspective I find here is subtle, but it is nevertheless present. As always, you, dear reader, are quite free to disagree.

Photo credit: IV Horton

The LORD Your God in Your Midst: Conclusion

The LORD, the Mighty One

Gentle Reader,

I almost quit.

It’s true.

I never expected to spend half the year blogging through Zephaniah. It’s three chapters! Around week 18, I realized that what began as a project for my own edification had turned into a chore. I’m not sure exactly when or how or why it happened. I began to dread Monday mornings and the stack of books and the research. The joy leaked out bit by bit until none was left.

That is where the discipline part of writing comes in. Having published one book and gearing up to begin the process of publication for a second, I know there are days when it’s all about gritting your teeth and slamming the keys. Writing can be so fulfilling, so fun. It can also be the longest, slowest slog.

I am glad I stuck with it, because God, as usual, is fascinating in His timing. We have lived in the hopeful passages for the entirety of the Advent season. I didn’t plan that. I had no plan when I began this, no set end date (though I never imagined I’d be closing this out six months and two weeks after starting). In His mystery, He moved me, the writer, and you, the reader, to see the grace and light in a book that many ignore. He opened our eyes to the real and deep consequences of sin, but didn’t leave us drowning there in the muck. He took us through the whole process of punishment and forgiveness and restoration, ending on the distant strains of kingdom music just as our mouths began to fill with Christmas songs.

How like Him.

How very like Him.

Every book of the Bible tells the whole story, but cannot be fully understood apart from the others. We’ll never make sense of that. All we can do is strive to live in the middle, resisting the urge to pick out the things we like and toss the rest. Every narrative, poem, allegory, oracle and letter contains the arc of sin and salvation, fall and uplift. Every line is rich, yet not fully grasped as a treasure without the others.

It is my earnest desire that you step away from this series with a solid foundation in how to study the Bible. Your interpretations may be different from mine. That’s okay. What matters is that you now know how to approach that big book. You’ve been exposed to commentaries, word searches and songs. You’ve read articles and answered questions. You know now that there is no “just Jesus and me” Christianity; that you need the input of other believers, both in your “real life” and from within the long tradition of the faith, to help you learn and live. Most importantly, you know now that you are, in fact, smart enough to study the Bible and that you do, in fact, have time to do so.

Yet my heart beats with a desire greater still than this. I hope that you come away with love. Love for the Bible, yes, but love for the God of the Bible. Maybe you didn’t know a thing about Him before reading this. Maybe you’ve known Him for years but have drifted away. Or maybe everything is perfectly fine. Wherever you are in relation to the Lord, I hope that your soul reverberates with, “I love You, too.”

God loved us long before we ever loved Him. He has said over and over, through every splash of ink in sacred writ and down through the ages. “I love you, child. I love you.”

May we love Him, too.

Signature

For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.

The LORD Your God in Your Midst: I Will Save (3:18-20)

The LORD, the Mighty One

Gentle Reader,

“I will gather those who sorrow over the appointed assembly,
Who are among you,
To whom its reproach is a burden.
Behold, at that time
I will deal with all who afflict you;
I will save the lame,
And gather those who were driven out;
I will appoint them for praise and fame
In every land where they were put to shame.
At that time I will bring you back,
Even at the time I gather you;
For I will give you fame and praise
Among all the peoples of the earth,
When I return your captives before your eyes,”
Says the LORD.

– Zephaniah 3:18-20 (NKJV)

The God of Hope

I can think of no better way to dig into these last verses than to quote Warren Wiersbe:

God’s promise is that His scattered people will be gathered, His lame people will be rescued, and His sinful people will be forgiven and no longer bear the shame of their wicked deeds. “I will bring you home” (vs. 20) is God’s gracious promise, and He will keep it. Where once the Jewish nation brought shame and disgrace to God’s name and were poor witnesses to the Gentiles, now Israel will bring honor and praise to the Lord their God and reveal to the Gentile nations to glory of His name. Israel will receive honor from the Gentiles and give the glory to the Lord. …

…there is a present-day practical lesson here for any of God’s people who have strayed from His will and experienced His chastening. When you come to Him with a broken heart, confessing your sins, He will receive you the way a loving mother receives a disobedient child. He will love you and even sing to you! He will bring peace to your heart and “quiet you with His love.” Yes, we suffer for our disobedience; and sometimes we carry the scars of that disobedience for the rest of our lives. But the Lord will forgive us (1 John 1:9), forget our sins, and restore us to loving fellowship.

Dr. William Culbertson, late president of Moody Bible Institute, sometimes ended his public prayers with, “And Lord, help us bear the consequence of forgiven sin and to end well.” There are consequences to forgiven sin; for though God in His grace cleanses us, God is His government says, “You will reap what you have sown.” After King David confessed his son, the prophet Nathan assured him that the Lord had put away his sin, but the rest of his days David suffered the tragic consequences of what he had done (2 Samuel 12:1-15).

But when God establishes His kingdom on earth, He will restore His people, renew the land, and give His people a new beginning that will cause them to forget their past disobedience and focus on praising the Lord and glorifying His name.

Jehovah is “the God of hope.” (1)

Darkness Passes

Zephaniah knew that his people weren’t going to escape the judgment that they had brought upon themselves. He understood that the would have to crawl through the valley before they would reach the heights his book ends on. Yet he also relished in the fact that the judgment would not last forever. His people were not a lost cause.

The final verses of the book (vv. 18-20) are spoken by Yahweh himself as he promises to reverse the fortunes of his people who must go through the destruction measured out to the nations in the Day of Yahweh. For them judgment becomes remedial, not final.(2)

Sometimes it seems that sin and darkness will win. The assumption is that grace is the lesser force. Forgiveness and the presence of God are surely far beyond the reach of mere mortals. Try as we might, there comes a point when we recognize that the mess is of our own making and we deserve to live in it. It is tempting, so tempting, to hang our heads and give up. We have offended God.

Whether this recognition comes for the first time or the thousandth, how breathtaking it is when God bends low and pulls us toward Him. He uses the mess. He uses the consequences. He takes the very chains that bind us and turns them into cords of love (Hosea 11:4). As we comprehend the full horror of our sins, He allows us to catch a glimpse of stunning, merciful light.

There is a decision to be made in that moment. He never forces it. We can go back to the darkness and the weight. Or we can learn, as Judah did. We can cry out for forgiveness. We, to whom God owes nothing, can be saved. By His will. By His hand.

All Him 

Strong emphasis lies in the repeated “I will.” All that they will gain—relief from burdens, salvation from oppression, return from exile, honor and praise—will be due to the direct action of Yahweh. Salvation belongs to him alone. (3)

Calvinists like to accuse anyone who isn’t Calvinist (i.e., me) of holding to a man-centered salvation. Nothing could be further from the truth. We can quibble over the ordo salutis all day long, but the glaring fact is that all the work necessary for life and salvation was initiated, carried out and completed by God. Anyone who reads the Bible honestly must come to this conclusion.

The Jewish people won’t live in peace and harmony because they are more deserving than others. God did not choose them because they were special. They became special because they were chosen, just as with Gentile believers. He will lift their burdens (and ours) because He wants to. He will deal with their enemies (and ours) because He wants to. He declares them (and us) His children because we have done the only thing that is left to do – accept His free gift of grace.

Whether you fall on the side of predestination and the irresistible nature of grace or see salvation as genuinely offered to all and believe free will is real doesn’t matter. A lot of people think it does. A lot of people think a Christian lives or dies on being able to recite the Doctrines of Grace or the Remonstrance from memory. This is not the case. Salvation is the work of God. You can think it flows via this avenue or that. It doesn’t matter. In fact, we’re probably all a little bit right and a little bit wrong and will be surprised when we see the whole picture.

What matters is that you stake your life on His. That you cast yourself entirely on the mercy of God. That you confess, out loud, that Jesus is Lord and believe with purity (Romans 10:9). That you live this thing out as He enables you to do so (Ephesians 2:10, James 2:14-26).

Per gratiam. Per fidem. Quae in operibus.

By grace. Through faith. Expressed in works.

Amen.

Reflection

  1. Read the whole book of Zephaniah. What stands out to you? What words and phrases have a deeper meaning for you now?
  2. Sum up what you have learned in a few simple sentences.
  3. Obviously we did not explore every nook and cranny of this fabulous book. That is the nature of Scripture; it is bottomless. What concepts or people do you want to learn more about now?
  4. The goal of Bible study is threefold: to know God, to love God and to obey God. After this study, do you know Him better? Love Him more deeply? Want to obey Him?
  5. How can you take the lessons of Zephaniah and apply them to your daily life?

Signature

Sources

(1) Warren Weirsbe. Be Concerned: Minor Prophets. (David C. Cook: Colorado Springs, 1996), 161, 162.

(2) Asbury Bible Commentary (under the “study this” tab)

(3) Ibid.

For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.