I never know what’s going to connect during the Sunday morning message, but I’m told a certain illustration resonated today, so I’ll share it here. I was making the point that Mary likely composed the Magnificat in her head on the 90-mile journey from Nazareth to Judea, singing it to Elizabeth upon her arrival. She had several days to think about it, and now she cuts loose.
I then offered my supposition that these tremendous words (Luke 1:46-55) likely became a lullaby sung to Jesus in utero and postpartum. If so, Jesus had sacred words ingrained in him from the very beginning of his earthly life. It’s no wonder, then, that he quotes the Psalms more than once from his cross. It’s even possible he sang those words to the extent he was able—almost like a duet across the years with his mother, who’s standing there at the horrific spectacle that is Calvary.
I then reminded the folks of the song “Unforgettable,” which Natalie Cole sang with her father, long since deceased, by way of integrated video technology. The connection between father and daughter is touching (see below), and the effect is heartwarming. But even more poignant are the six hours between Mary and her Son at the cross—with the truth of the Psalms their only comfort. Jesus sings back to her now the words she sang to him from infancy. Both their lives are bookended by the Word of God.
Anyway, my mom loved “Unforgettable,” and it made me think about her, along with a lot of other unforgettable people I’ve known throughout my life—some I still get to see and others who, sadly, are no longer part of the story. That can do interesting things to one’s emotions, so it’s kind of a mellow night here as the weekend winds down.
I’m curling up with a tall mug of hot chocolate and whipped cream, watching Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in their classic White Christmas. “If only in my dreams” is the operative phrase in the tear-jerking song that took the world by storm nearly eight decades ago. Thankfully, because of the real Christmas, all great dreams come true in the end. My emotions will catch up to this good news in time. Joy comes in the morning.
It’s not uncommon to have a blue Christmas in a fallen world. We’ve all been there. The empty chair at Chritmas dinner because of sickness or death. The sparse gifts under the tree because of unemployment. The stab of holiday depression because of failure, setback, shame, or some kind of chemical imbalance. It’s hard to have a “holly jolly” when you’re sitting in the sad seat. Or the sick seat. It’s even worse when everyone else around you doesn’t seem to have a care in the world.
But this year seems different. Harder. Stranger. Almost apocalyptic. Farmers tell us manure is great when it’s spread around, but we all know it just stinks to high heaven when it’s all piled up in one place. For many people, 2020 has been that kind of a year, and it’s taken its toll. We’re physically drained and emotionally fatigued. With 20 days left in 2020, we wonder what else can go wrong. Hitherto we’ve lived through:
The Australian bushfires
Prince Harry and Megan quitting the royal family
The COVID-19 pandemic and its many lockdowns
Kobe Bryant and his daughter killed in a helicopter crash
The impeachment trial of the President of the United States
The stock market crash and record unemployment
The George Floyd tragedy and the resulting protests
Rumors that Kim Jun Un, the leader of North Korea, had died
Widesperad censorship and hostility on social media
Manipulation of the masses by Big Tech and a corrupt media
A bitter and still unresolved U.S. Presidential election
Outrage at politicians ignoring their own pandemic restrictions
The arrival of murder hornets to the United States
A massive explosion in the capital of Lebanon
Severe wildfires on the West Coast of the United States
The death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg
U.S. President Donald Trump testing positive for COVID-19
The death of Sean Connery, Eddie Van Halen, Alex Trebek, and many others
And those are just the big things we know about. Your family can probably add to the list. Maybe you’ve had your own disappointments, tears, and heartbreaks this year. Maybe you’ve been bedridden, hospitalized, quarantined, or out of work because of the virus. Maybe you’ve felt the sting of your own unmet expectations. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (Prov 13:12). Some of us are still waiting for that tree of life, aren’t we?
That’s why he came to us on that first Christmas. God in Christ didn’t avoid the miseries of this world. Rather, he entered into them, experienced them firsthand, and then swallowed them up. He’s coming again someday to make all things new. In the meantime, we can count on his lavishing love to carry us through the hard times.
Have a good cry if you need to. “Blessed are those who mourn,” said Jesus. He should know. Christ had tears streaming down his own cheeks on more than one occasion. He was “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” So, you’re in good company if you “lose it” once in a while. It’s o.k. to not be o.k. for a season. After all, it’s only a season. “Joy comes in the morning.” So, dare to cling to hope, too. And let Hope himself cling to you. The Christmas manger leads to an empty tomb.
Here are three songs for when you’re singing Christmas in a minor key—two by Casting Crowns and one by Francesca Battistelli. Let them flow like liquid love over your aching heart. And feel free to contact This New Life if you have a special prayer request this time of year. You are loved. And you are not alone.
“Somewhere in Your Silent Night” by Casting Crowns
Somewhere in your silent night Heaven hears the song your broken heart has cried Hope is here, just lift your head For love has come to find you Somewhere in your silent night
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Casting Crowns
Then rang the bells more loud and deep God is not dead, nor does he sleep The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men
“Behold Him” by Francesca Battistelli
In your silent night When you’re not all right Lift your eyes and behold him Feel the thrill of hope You are not alone In this moment, behold him
A light snow has dusted southcentral Pennsylvania today, and it looks like shoveling will not be necessary. (I’m o.k. with that!) Is there anything more beautiful than nature’s white blanket covering our dead and dying trees and foliage? Isaiah’s image comes to mind whenever the white stuff falls from the sky:
“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” Isaiah 1:18b
Seven hundred years later, it all came to pass. “Call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Christmas, then, deals a death blow to both moralism and relativism.
Moralism says we can save ourselves through our own good works. That makes Christmas unnecessary. Why would God the Son go to all the trouble of becoming a human being to live and die in our place if we could fulfill the requirements of divine righteousness ourselves? His sacrifical death on our behalf would have been totally wasted and therefore totally ridiculous.
Relativism, on the other hand, says no one is really “lost,” so we can all live by our own light and determine for ourselves what is right and wrong. Sins are self-defined, so salvation can be self-achieved. Consequently, any higher power that might exist out there never would have bothered to be incarnated. Christmas is totally unnecessary in this scenario, too.
But Christmas is a thing because we need it to be a thing. God the Son did put skin on two thousand years ago. Indeed, God ignored our silly notions of moralism and relativism and came anyway. Thank God for that! I’m looking forward to the kind of weather that allows for sleigh rides—not because I have the equipment to go dashing though the snow in such a manner. I just like to contemplate Isaiah’s image when the snow extends as far as the eye can see.
Speaking of sleigh rides, the first Christian album I ever bought after coming to faith in Christ back in college was Amy Grant’s Age to Age. Many of us went on to collect the rest of her albums, too, including her Christmas albums. Here’s a little gem of hers that gets me thinking about the joy of Christmas snow.
“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Philippians 3:7-9).
The dictionary definition of self-righteousness usually goes something like this: “Confidence in one’s own goodness or virtue, especially while being smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others.” That’s not a bad place to start, but it’s more descriptive of the symptoms of self-righteousness than the underlying disease. The deeper problem is legalism—the notion that we could somehow generate enough righteousness on our own to make ourselves acceptable to God for salvation. The idea is ridiculous on its face because it makes us partially our own saviors.
Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector specifically to “those who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else” (Luke 18:9). The pious leader in Jesus’ story assumed his acceptance with God was based on his own actions, while the tax collector recognized there was nothing in him by which he could commend himself to God; he was totally dependent on divine grace for his salvation. Quite significantly, it was the despised tax collectorwho “went home justified before God,” according to Jesus, not the religious leader (Luke 18:14). Repeatedly in the Gospels, Jesus warns his followers about the dangers of self-righteousness, emphasizing that without him, they could do nothing (cf. John 15:5).
The problem with self-righteousness is that it doesn’t feel like sin. Most of the time it feels like holiness. Most of the time it feels like something God should be pleased with—something that should make him smile. To do our good works, and catalog our achievements, and then present them all to God—that feels like something the Almighty should appreciate. After all, God is holy, and he demands holiness from his people, right?
Yet everywhere in Scripture, that kind of a self-righteous approach to God is sharply condemned. It’s sharply condemned not only in Luke 18, but also in Philippians 3. In fact, not only is it condemned in that chapter, it’s severely ridiculed. Paul calls it “garbage” in verse 9. Other versions say “rubbish.” Those are awfully polite translations.
The problem with self-righteousness is that it doesn’t feel like sin. Most of the time it feels like holiness.
The original word is skubalon, which means “dung,” “manure,” “excrement,” and a few other words that preachers aren’t supposed to say. Why such colorful language? Why such a linguistic jolt in holy writ? Because there’s an important distinction to be made between presenting our good works to God as a gift and presenting our good works to God as currency. The gift says, “Thank you, God. I obey you because I love you.” The currency says, “Pay up, God. I’ve been good; you owe me.” The two approaches are light years apart.
But what’s so terribly wrong with that second view? It sounds logical, doesn’t it? I do this, and God gives me that. Quid pro quo. Makes sense. But here’s the problem: Self-righteousness is offensive to God because it fails to take into account that—as fallen human beings tainted by sin—there’s something inherently deficient with even the good things we do. Just take an honest look at your motives and attitudes some time. Have you ever done anything with completely perfect attitudes or motives? Chances are slim. No one bats a thousand all the time, so without God’s mercy, we’re toast.
When one of my swim coaches was in college, he used to walk past the President’s house every day on the way home from practice. The university President had a horse, and my coach would stop by and pet it every day, feeding it apples and other treats. After doing this for several years, my coach developed a good relationship with the horse, so one day he just took it home with him. He stole the President’s horse!
Word went out over campus radio that someone had stolen the President’s prize possession. It was a major scandal since the man loved his horse. After several hours of not being able to locate the animal, the college began offering a sizeable cash reward for its safe return. When my coach heard about the monetary reward, he returned the horse…and collected the cash!
Now, we can probably all agree that it was a good thing that my coach returned the President’s horse. It was a good work. But I’m sure we can also agree that there was something very wrong with that good work. Here was the thief now cashing in on his own criminality! And so it is with fallen people before a holy God. Even the good things we do are tainted to a certain extent.
Self-righteousness is offensive to God because it fails to take into account that—as fallen human beings tainted by sin—there’s something inherently deficient with even the good things we do.
So, when we do our good works and present them to God, it must always be with the understanding that we’ve already stolen something from him. We already have a criminal record against him. And trusting Christ alone is the only way to get rid of our rap sheet against heaven. That’s what Paul argues in Philippians 3. Consider the “good things” he could point to in his own life that contribute nothing to our standing with God:
Religious ceremony cannot make us right with God. “…circumcised on the eighth day” (5a)
Ethnic identity cannot make us right with God. “…of the people of Israel” (5b)
Social status cannot make us right with God. “…of the tribe of Benjamin” (5c)
Orthodox tradition cannot make us right with God. “…a Hebrew of Hebrews” (5d)
Theological conservatism cannot make us right with God. “…in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (5e)
Spiritual enthusiasm cannot make us right with God. “…as for zeal, persecuting the church” (6a)
Impeccable morality cannot make us right with God. “…as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (6b)
It’s all skubalon, says Paul. Having seen Jesus for who he is and what he’s done for the entire human race on the cross, Paul abandons all reliance on a good resume to make himself right with God. Indeed, he fires a silver bullet into the heart of self-righteousness by telling us to reject all sources of self-righteousness, and trust in Christ alone for salvation. Or, to put it simply, Paul tells us to take out the garbage of self-righteousness. It stinks to high heaven, and it needs to be removed.
Why? As human beings created in the image of a good God, we were made to do good works—but there’s nothing meritorious about those good works. We don’t congratulate water for being wet. It’s supposed to be wet. Nor do we congratulate human beings for doing good things. We’re supposed to do good things. It’s how we’re made. As a result, we can never put God in our debt by doing good works. As Edward Mote put it:
My hope is built on nothing less Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness I dare not trust the sweetest frame But wholly lean on Jesus’ name
Paul’s desire was to be found in Christ, not having a righteousness of his own that comes from keeping the law, but that which comes from trusting in Christ alone for salvation—“the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Phil 3:9). He took out the garbage of self-righteousness. We must do the same.
The overarching theme of Advent is the coming of Christ, both in the manger at Bethlehem and in the clouds of glory at the end of the age. As such, Charles Wesley’s adaptation of John Cennick’s “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending” has become a standard Advent hymn in our day, though I think it is largely underutilized.
The piece is both pensive and soaring, especially those arrangements that feature a descant on the final stanza. Evangelical congregations typically use the Regent Square tune (“Angels from the Realms of Glory”), while high churches often use the Helmsley tune, which is the one featured in the video below.
The benefit of having an eclectic musical taste is that I get to experience and appreciate a wide range of musical expressions—sacred or otherwise. When I was in Oxford last year, I “got my inner Anglican on” by participating in two Evensong services, both of which were astoundingly beautiful, not to mention food for the soul. So, yes, I can swing from Hillsong to Evensong with no heartburn at all. In fact, I rather enjoy the adventure.
Moreover, variety is a great “rut buster,” so tomorrow I’ll share some Christmas jazz tunes I’ve been listening to lately. On this Second Sunday of Advent, however, we’ll stick with the sacred. Enjoy the choir of Lichfield Cathedral singing this lovely Advent meditation. All pictures are from their cathedral in Staffordshire, England.
Lo, He comes with clouds descending, Once for favoured sinners slain; Thousand thousand saints attending Swell the triumph of His train: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! God appears on earth to reign.
Every eye shall now behold Him Robed in dreadful majesty; Those who set at naught and sold Him, Pierced and nailed Him to the tree, Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing, Shall the true Messiah see.
Those dear tokens of His passion Still his dazzling body bears, Cause of endless exultation To His ransomed worshippers: With what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture, Gaze we on those glorious scars!
Yea, Amen, let all adore thee, High on Thine eternal throne; Saviour, take the power and glory, Claim the kingdom for Thine own: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! Thou shalt reign and Thou alone.
Here’s another Advent gem that we sang this morning—Michael Card’s “Immanuel.” I never make it through this one, either, without breaking down at some point. It’s simple, tender, and true. Above all, it’s filled with hope for those of us who know we’re broken deep down and stand in need of a Savior.
Below is a rendition by a collection of school choirs from Cheshire and the Wirral (a peninsula in North West England) joining their voices in Chester Cathedral to celebrate the Incarnation and the Epiphany. A wonderful song is made even more special by the young voices who sing it. The opening line is from Isaiah 7:14, the famous prophecy about a virginal conception and the surprising name given to the resulting child.
im = the Hebrew word for “with” anu = the Hebrew word for “us” El = a shortened form of the Hebrew word Elohim, “God”
Jesus is the “with-us God.” And if God is with us, who can stand against us? Be blessed by this choral arrangement of Michael Card’s modern classic—especially if you’ve stumbled in the darkness. We’re the reason he came.
A sign shall be given A virgin will conceive A human baby bearing Undiminished deity The Glory of the nations A Light for all to see And Hope for all who will embrace His warm reality
Immanuel, our God is with us And if God is with us Who could stand against us? Our God is with us, Immanuel
For all those who live in the shadow of death A glorious Light has dawned For all those who stumble in the darkness Behold your Light has come
So, what will be your answer; O will you hear the call? Of Him who did not spare His Son, But gave Him for us all On earth there is no power, There is no depth or height That could ever separate us from The love of God in Christ
Time to go set up some more Christmas trees. They’re beautiful reminders that “a glorious Light has dawned.”
The Incarnation sends my heart and mind into orbit every year. That’s why I’m glad we have an entire season of the church calendar to reflect on it. There’s no way to fully plumb its depths with these finite minds of ours. I started writing some Christmas devotional pieces for later this month, and the waterworks have already begun. Good music only makes it worse. Often I can do little more than just put my pen down and throw my hands up in gratitude and awe. That God should become one of us in the person of Christ is sheer mystery wrapped in divine love. The same is true for the second coming of Christ, to which the season of Advent also points.
As we do every year, we’re singing Charles Wesley’s classic, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” to kick off the new church year. It would be difficult to find a better selection. Wesley wrote this Advent hymn and had it printed in his Hymns for the Nativity of our Lord in 1744. Like so many of his texts, this piece alludes to one or more Scripture passages in nearly every phrase. Moreover, the double nature of Advent is reflected in these lyrics, remembering Christ’s first coming even while anticipating his return.
Stanzas 1 and 2 (which form verse 1 in most of today’s hymnals) recall messianic prophecies from the Old Testament. Stanza 3 speaks of Christ’s birth and kingdom, and stanza 4 functions as a plea for Christ to rule in our hearts.
Come, thou long expected Jesus, Born to set thy people free; From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in thee. Israel’s strength and consolation, Hope of all the earth thou art; Dear desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.
Born thy people to deliver, Born a child and yet a King, Born to reign in us forever, Now thy gracious kingdom bring. By thine own eternal spirit Rule in all our hearts alone; By thine all sufficient merit, Raise us to thy glorious throne.
Wesley was the eighteenth child (and youngest son) of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. He was born at Epworth Rectory on December 18, 1707. In 1716 he went to Westminster School, being provided with room and board by his brother Samuel. He was an usher at the school until 1721, when he was elected King’s Scholar, resulting in free tuition and board. In 1726 he was elected to a Westminster studentship at Christ Church, Oxford, where he took his M.A. degree in 1729.
Charles wrote hundreds of poetic works with his brother John, the famous revivalist and founder of Methodism. His individual hymns number well over 5,000. Among his more famous today are:
1738 And Can It Be? 1739 Jesus, Lover of My Soul 1739 Christ the Lord Is Risen Today 1739 Hark! the Herald Angels Sing 1749 O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing
Which is your favorite? I for one could sing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” every other Sunday and not get tired of it! Jesus was not only the child born to die, he was the child born to rise again! Charles Wesley himself was “raised” to Christ’s “glorious throne” on March 29, 1788. The Spirit of God left his mark on this servant, and he in turn left his mark on us.
We’ve been talking this week at This New Life about God’s abundance. The Lord has revealed himself to be generous and openhanded, not stingy and tightfisted. His provisions are bounteous and plentiful, not paltry and miserly. He overflows with love and compassion for his people, not reticence and standoffishness. In short, God is for us not against us.
Unfortunately, many people believe that God couldn’t possibly love them like that. He can love other people, perhaps, but not them. Maybe it’s because of their wretched past. Maybe it’s because of some traumatic family-of-origin issue. Maybe it’s because of a deep existential crisis at some point in their lives. Maybe it’s their struggle to be on the receiving end of things rather than on the giving end all the time.
Where do we even begin to help them overcome their reluctance to accepting their acceptance in the grace of God? We commit to being as patient with them as God has been with us. We keep loving and serving them as best we can. And we keep telling the Story that has transformed our own lives—as winsomely as possible.
One story within the larger Story that has always fascinated me is the outlandish request Moses made of God nearly 3,500 years ago. In Exodus 33:18, Moses said to the Lord, “Now show me your glory.” It’s difficult to imagine a greater request that one could make of God. It’s even more difficult to comprehend how God could ever answer such a request.
In the context of Exodus 33, God’s humble sanctuary was not enough to satisfy Moses’s spiritual longings, but his divine glory would have been far too much for him to endure (cf. Exod 33:20). As a result, God responds to Moses’ request in a mediatorial way, showing him an unparalleled revelation of himself while hiding him in the cleft of the rock:
“And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin’” (Exod 34:6-7a; emphasis mine). In many ways, the rest of Scripture is a commentary on that one verse, as the statement is repeated in various forms at least twelve more times throughout the Old Testament (cf. Num 14:18; 2 Chron 30:9; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:15, 103:8, 111:4, 112:4, 116:5, 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; and Nah 1:3). Allusions to it are also scattered throughout the Hebrew Bible. It’s no stretch, then, to consider this passage the John 3:16 of the Old Testament.
To be sure, the mediatorial nature of God’s self-revelation implies a certain moral inability on Moses’ part to survive a full-throated theophany, but it is important to remember that the story of Scripture speaks of Original Blessing (Gen 1:22, 28) before it speaks of Original Sin (Gen 3:6-7). It is truly glorious, then, to be a human being, even a fallen one.
Indeed, Scripture indicates that all persons are made in the “image” and “likeness” of God (Gen 1:26). Consequently, they possess an intrinsic value, unique significance, and lofty status in creation. Nona Harrison notes that the word “dominion” in Genesis 1:26 “involves (1) dignity and splendor, and (2) a legitimate sovereignty rooted in one’s very being.” This “being” is truly sacred. That’s why Walter Kaiser, reflecting on the sixth commandment, notes that to kill a human being with malice aforethought is “tantamount to killing God in effigy.”
Kaiser’s memorable phrase captures the dignity and splendor of what it means to be human. In fact, five times in the Gospels (Matt 6:26, 10:31, 12;12; Luke 12:7, 24), Jesus declares human beings to be “valuable” (diapherō). In Ephesians 2:10, the Apostle Paul calls human beings “God’s workmanship” (poiēma). Members of the human race are God’s “poetry,” says Paul—a significant affirmation in light of his observation earlier in the chapter that human beings are “dead in sin” (Eph 2:1).
A thousand years earlier, King David asked God with great wonder, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than God (ʾělōhîm), and crowned them with glory (kāḇôḏ) and honor (hāḏār)” (Ps 8:4-5). God in his wisdom has conferred upon the human race a certain majesty, dignity, and splendor. Finally, David saw himself as “knit together” by God himself in his mother’s womb, and “fearfully [yārēʾ] and wonderfully [pālāh] made” (Ps 139:13-14).
All told, it is “very good [ṭôb]” to be human (Gen 1:31). In fact, it is beautiful to be an image bearer of the beautiful God (cf. Ps 27:4). So, it is never helpful to start talking about Genesis 3 before talking about Genesis 1-2. Not only does the concept of Original Blessing precede the concept of Original Sin, there is copious grace flowing like a mighty river even in Genesis 3 where the fall of humanity takes place:
the gentle pursuit of the fallen pair by the one dishonored and spurned;
the provision of suitable garments for the covering of their nakedness;
the proto-euangelion (pre-gospel) promise of the Seed of the Woman;
the fiery sword placed at the gate to prevent humanity’s irreversible damnation.
At the epicenter of the great spiritual kaboom, then, is a spiritual bunker or “fallout shelter” provided by heaven. “Behold the kindness and severity of God” (Rom 11:22). And the kindness keeps trying to win (Jas 2:13).
As such, be assured that God knows how to bring people to himself. He knows what it will take to open their eyes to his incomprehensible love. So, watch and wait. Pray and trust. Hope and rest—in “the compassionate and gracious God” who is “slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” Amen.
 John 3:16 in the New Testament says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” This verse is reportedly the most translated sentence in human language, ostensibly because it encapsulates the gospel (“good news”) of Jesus Christ and the only appropriate human response to it—faith.
 Nonna Verna Harrison, God’s Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 90.
 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 91.
What are some of your highest and best thoughts about God? How incredible is he in your mind? How awesome do you conceive him to be? Now multiply those thoughts by a billion, and what kind of picture emerges? Raise them to the millionth power, and what do you find? No matter how lofty our thoughts about God may be, they will always fall short of his infinite greatness.
And to that I say, “Thank God!” His ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts (cf. Isaiah 55:9). Clearly, our finite minds run out of steam while the infinite mind keeps going and going. We’re a tiny drop of water in the vastness of God’s unending ocean. I used to be frustrated by that, but I’ve come to see it’s a genuine comfort to worship a God whose greatness cannot be exaggerated. As Corrie Ten Boom once said, “A religion that is small enough for our understanding would not be big enough for our needs.” The challenge is trying to express God’s greatness in human language with all our inherent limitations. How can we even come close to doing it justice?
In the soaring conclusion to his lofty prayer in Ephesians 3, the Apostle Paul strings together a series of “loaded” Greek words to say what cannot fully be said. First he uses the word hyper, which means “above” or “beyond.” Then he uses the word panta, which means, “all,” “every,” or “any.” Then he uses the word hyper again, this time connecting it (without precedent) to the word ekperissou, which means “excessively” or “all the more.” How would you translate this stack of superlatives?
“far more abundantly”?
“exceedingly abundantly above”?
“beyond all measure more”?
That’s the best our translators can do, and you might recognize some of these expressions from your own Bible reading. Perhaps Eugene Peterson captures it well in The Message,where he paraphrases the sentence like this: “God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams!”
All told, these words allow Paul—and us—to burst into jubilant praise about God’s majestic abilities, all of which come to fullest expression in the love of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 3:18, NIV).
Paul also indicates here that God is not limited by our asking but can go way beyond our hopes, dreams, and expectations. He’s like a cascading fountain that not only flows but overflows. As many of us used to sing in Sunday school when we were children, “My cup is full and running over.” That’s because God delights in pouring 24 ounces of iced tea into a 12-ounce glass. The resulting mess is part of his message: “I am the God not only of abundance but of superabundance.”
This mindset runs in the family, too. Whenever Jesus, the Son of God, multiplies food for the masses, there are always multiple basketfuls left over. He, too, is a God of superabundance. And his love overflows to the ends of the earth. To borrow a phrase from the pidjin English used on mission fields around the world, God loves us “plenty too much.” This love sustains us as we walk the (sometimes painful) road of sanctification to which we’ve been called, “grow[ing] in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
I hope that God has done “plenty too much” for you this year, difficult though it may have been amidst a global pandemic and a widespread sense of national angst and polarization. If not, may his blessings cascade beyond your wildest dreams in the coming year. Do not give up! He has not abandoned you. It’s not in his character to do so.
Across the street from where I grew up in East Reading, Pennsylvania, there was a vacant lot where we used to play stickball every chance we could get. We lived in a middle-class section of rowhomes, and about eight of those homes featured backyards that lined up perfectly to serve as the outfield “bleachers.” Our goal, of course, was to hit the ball into one of those yards for a home run. (We always used soft rubber balls, so cracking a window was unlikely. It only happened once.)
Most neighbors would sit out on their porches and cheer us on as the game unfolded. If ever we hit a ball into one of their yards, they would simply get up, retrieve the ball, and throw it back to us, and the game would continue. Unfortunately, there was also a grizzled old dame in the bleachers—enshrouded in a bright babushka, and far too rickety to stand up straight—who would always pick up the ball, cuss at us in Pennsylvania Dutch, and then harumph her way back into the house, taking our ball with her. End of game. (It wasn’t even her window we broke that one time.)
Sadly, many people today picture God more like the crabby old lady with a foul mouth than the kindhearted neighbors who served as our cheering section. He’s in the heavenly stands with his arms folded and his hands fisted, always perturbed and glaring at us, eager to convey his divine contempt whenever we send one into his upper deck. We’re major league sinners in his book, and we always will be. If we strike out too much, he’ll send us down to the minors. Or worse. End of game.
Theologian Kosuke Koyama once said that Christians need to make a basic decision in our approach to theological questions: “[We] need to decide whether the God of Scripture is a generous God or a stingy one.” The context of his statement was soteriology, but we can broaden it to include the entire sweep of Christian theology.
When I first made that shift in my own thinking, it helped me realize how important it is that Genesis 1 and 2 precede Genesis 3. That’s a simple observation, yet it’s vital in the grand scheme of things. Life on planet earth was good—“very good” (Gen 1:31)—before it was ever bad. As such, my theology cannot start in Genesis 3; it has to start where the Bible starts. It has to start “in the beginning” (Gen 1:1).
Specifically, to help us answer Koyama’s challenge, we can notice that God’s openhandedness is seen on the very first page of Scripture: “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food’” (Gen 1:29; emphasis mine). Right out of the gate, God is a giving God. We can safely conclude, then, that generosity is a prevailing attribute of his.
It’s not specified in the text how many edible plants and trees were available for the taking. Were there a hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? A million? We don’t know, but the scene is marked by lush and lavish provisions from the hand of the benevolent God who gave them. Indeed, Yahweh is portrayed as a God of abundance. He says to the first human, “Eat!” and only one tree was said to be off limits—“the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:17).
Trust the story. It tells us that God gave about ten thousand “yeses” to one solitary “no.” Read that sentence again. Don’t pass over it too quickly. God gave ten thousand “yeses” to one solitary “no.” Consequently, he’s not a stingy, crotcehtey God at all; he’s a God who overflows with blessings, provisions, kindness, and grace. And even the one “no” he gave was for our benefit, not our misery. Indeed, it was meant to prevent our misery.
God gave ten thousand “yeses” to one solitary “no.”
In the end, Jesus Christ is God’s full and final “yes” to every good promise he ever made (2 Cor 1:20). As Paul put it, Jesus is God’s “yes” and “amen.” That means he really is for us (Rom 8:31), not against us.
Is this the God you know—the one who cheers you on as you’re trying to find your swing? Or is he the god who cusses you out whenever you strike out? Is he the god who benches you after making an error in the field? Is he the god who tells you to hit the showers early when you’ve had a bad inning? If so, maybe you’re on the wrong team. In fact, maybe you’re playing for Baal instead of Yahweh. Ask to be traded.
Francis Schaeffer famously said of God, “He is there and he is not silent.” To that we can add, “He is there and he is not stingy.”
The Sunday before Thanksgiving is typically a precious time of worship for many believers—on at least two counts. First, according to the liturgical calendar, it’s the last Sunday after Pentecost, known in many traditions as Christ the King Sunday. Worshipers take the opportunity to ascribe glory and honor to King Jesus, who is Lord of chronos (or “unfolding”) time as well as kairos (or “epochal”) time. It’s a way of putting an exclamation mark on the longest season of the church year before the calendar starts all over again next week with the season of Advent. King Jesus “was, and is, and is to come.” He is Lord of all time.
Second, on the civil calendar in the United States, it’s the Sunday leading into Thanksgiving Day. Many North American worshipers therefore take the opportunity to thank the Lord for his many blessings and providential care throughout the year. “We Gather Together” is a meaningful hymn that we often sing on this day, but we skipped it this year because so many parishioners aren’t able to gather in person. Instead, they livestream the service to avoid exposure to the virus. Equally poignant to me, however, is Martin Rinkart’s evocative and stately hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.” This piece, too, puts a lump in my throat, and we’re singing it today.
Rinkart was a German clergyman who served in the town of Eilenburg during the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Overrun with refugees during the Great Epidemic of 1637, he conducted between 40 to 50 funerals a day. I can hardly imagine such a calling. Nevertheless, he found a way to be thankful under the most trying of circumstances, penning these memorable words:
Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices, Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices; Whofrom our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us, With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us; And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed; And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given; The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven; The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore; For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.
I’m especially struck this year by the line, “And guide us when perplexed.” No doubt the presence of all that plague and war death around him took its toll personally and emotionally. How could it not? Rinkart, however, turned his mystification into a prayer request. “Guide us now, Lord, in these perplexing times. And as you keep us in your grace, free us from all ills, in this world and the next.” Such a request is appropriate in any age.
We’re not always sure why life unfolds the way it does. Chronos can be confusing sometimes, but believers know the ultimate kairos is on its way. Christ is coming back for his people, and all will recognize him then as the true King. Every knee will finally bow to him (Phil 2:10). “For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.”
We all have our limits, and I just reached mine. Draconian mask mandates and quarantine requirements have scuttled our Thanksgiving plans. The out-of-towners who were going to come to our place next week cannot come now because of “the rules.” Thank you, governors. It’s hard to believe this is still the United States of America.
I get it. The virus is serious to certain segments of the population. Those in the vulnerable categories need to do what they must in order to keep themselves safe. And no one is advocating reckless behavior on the part of anyone. But has there ever been a pandemic in history where the healthy were required to isolate themselves? Moreover, if the last lockdown worked, why are we having to lock down again? And if the last lockdown didn’t work, why are we, uhm, having to lock down again? They keep playing us, and we keep letting them.
Some state regulators across the country are even telling us we have to mask up in our own homes. No. That’s not going to happen in this household just because the state says so. If you want to wear a mask in my house, you’re free to do so. I might even wear one, too, if you happen to be edgy about my not having one. Basic kindness is willing to do such things.
Additionally, I’ll mask up when I come into your store because it’s your store. Same thing at church if that’s what it takes to prevent others from thinking I’m a hazard to their health. But the state will not tell me that I have to wear a mask in my own home. Nor will I let them peer through my windows to enforce their squidgy little mandates. There’s a Fourth Amendment in this country for a reason.
Besides, this is Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. Don’t tread on us. We rightly snubbed our nose at the edicts of our [adjective deleted] governor when all this lunacy began, and we paid the price for it. In a rank display of petty party petulance a few months ago, he re-opened every county in the state but ours, delaying us by a week, just for retribution. How courageous of him. After marching in a protest without social distancing, he now wants to tell everybody else how to live. “Rules for thee but not for me.”
Likewise, the U.S. Speaker of the House got her hair blown out a couple months back contrary to her own rules. Ditto the mayor of Chicago, a senator from California, and the governor of the same state, who recently yucked it up unmasked at a posh restaurant, contrary to his own mandates. One can be forgiven for believing these requirements are all just political posturing; otherwise, our overlords would happily and consistently comply with their own rules. But they don’t. So, here’s an idea. Now that so many statues have been torn down in this country, there’s plenty of room for new sculptures of these folks to take their place. I have a feeling more than just the pigeons would use them.
A therapist once told me that a discernible pattern in my life has been that I tend to over-submit to authority. He was right. (It’s a malady rooted no doubt in being the middle child growing up, along with a variety of other family of origin issues.) But no mas. Somebody’s got to push back on this ridiculousness.
I’ve never been a revolutionary, but tyranny tends to kindle a spirit of resistance inside those who’ve had enough. Holding a posture of defiance and insurrection is certainly no way to live life over the long haul, but on occasion, it’s warranted. This is one of those occasions, especially as we hear politicians prepping us now for “The Great Reset” to come, another globalist dream that will end in a nightmare.
Now, before any super-spiritual types try to insist that believers are just supposed to shut up and “surrender our rights” all over the place in order to be Christlike, keep in mind that Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship more than once in Acts 22-23. Was he wrong to do so? No, he was just standing on his own history, not to mention the prerogatives that come with being a free moral agent made imago Dei. In our day, being a good citizen in a constitutional republic means participating in it, not mindlessly clicking our heels and saluting whenever bogus state decrees are issued.
There are, in fact, numerous accounts of civil disobedience in Scripture—a practice that resurfaces whenever the state exceeds its authority. Until then, believers comply, and happily so. We’re not the kind of people who go looking for fights. We want to be good citizens in the countries where we find ourselves across the world. But when the line is crossed, believers push back, willing to face whatever consequences a feckless state might try to throw at us.
In Exodus 1, for example, the Egyptian Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all the male Jewish babies who were recently born. An extreme patriot would have carried out the government’s order, yet the story tells us the midwives disobeyed Pharaoh and “feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live” (Exod 1:17). The account goes on to say the midwives lied to Pharaoh about why they were letting the children live; yet even though they lied and disobeyed their government, “God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied, and became very mighty. Because the midwives feared God, he established households for them” (Exod 1:2021). Quite significantly, we know the names of these two midwives (Shiphrah and Puah), but we’re never told the name of the Pharaoh who issued the evil edict.
In Joshua 2, Rahab disobeyed a direct command from the king of Jericho to produce the Israelite spies who had entered the city to gain intelligence for battle. Instead, she let them down by a rope so they could escape. Even though Rahab had received a clear order from the top government official, she resisted the command and was spared from the city’s destruction when Joshua and the Israeli army destroyed it.
The book of 1 Samuel records a command given by King Saul during a military campaign that no one could eat until Saul had won his battle with the Philistines. However, Saul’s son Jonathan, who had not heard the order, ate honey to refresh himself from the hard battle the army had waged. When Saul found out about it, he ordered his son to die. However, the people resisted Saul and his command, and they saved Jonathan from being put to death (1 Sam 14:45).
Another example of civil disobedience, which poses no threat to the general practice of biblical submission, is found in 1 Kings 18. That chapter briefly introduces a man named Obadiah who “feared the Lord greatly.” When Queen Jezebel was killing God’s prophets, Obadiah took a hundred of them and hid them from her so they could live. Such an act was in clear defiance of the ruling authority’s wishes.
In 2 Kings, we read of an apparently approved revolt against a reigning government official. Athaliah, the mother of Ahaziah, began to destroy the royal offspring of the house of Judah. However, Joash the son of Ahaziah was taken by the king’s daughter and hidden from Athaliah so that the bloodline would be preserved. Six years later, Jehoiada gathered men around him, declared Joash to be king, and put Athaliah to death.
The book of Daniel records a number of examples of civil disobedience. The first is found in chapter 3 where Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down to the golden idol in disobedience to King Nebuchadnezzar’s command. The second is in chapter 6 where Daniel defies King Darius’ decree to not pray to anyone other than the king. In both cases, God rescued his people from the death penalty that was imposed, indicating his approval of their actions. Likewise, Esther showed great courage in exile by confronting the king directly, declaring, “If I perish, I perish.”
In the New Testament, the book of Acts records the civil disobedience of Peter and John toward the authorities that were in power at the time. After Peter healed a man born lame, Peter and John were arrested and put in jail for preaching about Jesus. The religious authorities were determined to shut them up, but Peter said, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). Later, the rulers confronted the apostles again and reminded them of their command to not teach about Jesus, but Peter responded, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
In the book of Revelation, we read of “the beast,” who commands everyone to worship an image of himself. But the apostle John, who wrote the Apocalypse, states that all who become believes during that period will disobey the beast and his government, refusing to worship the image (Rev 13:15), just as Daniel’s companions violated Nebuchadnezzar’s decree to worship his idol.
I need to study the biblical theme of civil disobedience more in depth, but this is a start. As noted above, we’re told that “The Great Reset” is coming. That may be so, but it will not come with my acquiescence. I’ve been overly compliant for too long. Will anyone come see me in jail if that’s where I land? Or write me a letter? If my next assignment in this life is to have a prison ministry, so be it. I don’t think I’ll look too good in an orange jumpsuit, but Paul’s life shows us how much good can be done for the gospel in prison.
Several years ago, the mayor of Houston floated the idea of pastors being required to submit the text of their sermons to the government for review—to see if any preachers were speaking against their latest deranged pet policies. Talk about government overreach. I remember thinking at the time, “No. That’s not going to happen here. Ever. I will never reduce myself to preaching only state-approved sermons.”
The fact that politicians would even think about doing such a thing unmasks them as part of the beast. They shouldn’t be surprised, then, when some people develop a 2A affection because their 4A was violated.
Rachel Lynde: The murder trials in this Boston paper my niece sent me are real interesting, Marilla. Full of heathen, that place. I hope Anne will never go there again. Can you imagine that new minister going on about how he doesn’t believe that all the heathen will be eternally lost? The idea! If they won’t be, all the money we’ve been sending to the foreign missions will be completely wasted. That’s what.
Marilla Cuthbert: I wouldn’t fret if I were you, Rachel. Goodness knows, the world is full of beggars, and it’s a pretty pass if we can’t help out a fellow being in need, Christian or not.
Anne of Green Gables, The Sequel
John Murray once raised the question, “How is it that this sin-cursed world enjoys so much favour and kindness at the hand of its holy and ever-blessed Creator?” The answer to Murray’s question is found in a distinction made by theologians between God’s “special” or “saving” grace on the one hand, and his “common” or “non-saving” grace, on the other. By God’s design, this common grace is always at work in the broader reaches of human society.
Common grace is hard to miss once we’ve thought about it for any length of time. God clearly bestows blessings on all human beings—believers and un-believers alike. For example, Jesus said his Father “causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45). That is, God doesn’t just water the crops of believers; he waters the crops of the unbelievers, too. He gives good gifts to all of humanity—whether they know him or not, believe in him or not, or thank him or not. God’s goodness extends to all his creation.
While God’s general goodness and gifts might not always result in the final redemption of every human being on whom it is showered (after all, at some level, salvation encompasses an individual’s personal belief), common grace is still a magnanimous display of his kindness and generosity to persons made in his image. Indeed, all that is good ultimately comes from God, regardless of whose lap it falls into here on planet earth. Maltbie Babcock’s hymn captures an aspect of common grace with these lines:
This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise, The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise. This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair; In the rustling grass I hear Him pass; He speaks to me everywhere.
“He shines in all that’s fair.” That’s common grace. Both saint and sinner alike can appreciate a good sunset. Both can enjoy a breathtaking opera. Both can get a lump in their throats when their children get married. Both can enjoy a slice of hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream on top and a dollop of whipped cream dusted with cinnamon and sugar and a cup of piping hot coffee next to it right after dinner. (Yes, taste buds are a form of common grace!) Specifically, God demonstrates his common grace by:
Giving all humans a conscience, by which right and wrong can be known (Rom 2:15)
Sovereignly maintaining order in human society through government (Rom 13:1-5)
Enabling all people to admire beauty and goodness (Ps 50:2; Dan 2:21)
Setting up governments and putting leaders in power to maintain peace (1 Tim 2:2)
Allowing everyone (in or out of Christ) to do good (Luke 6:33)
Allowing all people to experience a vast array of emotions (Eccl 3:4)
Giving people the ability to truly love each other (1 John 4:7)
Allowing people to turn from evil (Job 1:1)
Protecting people from constant evil and torment (Job 1:8)
Keeping the ocean within its borders (Job 38:11)
Allowing everyone to rest (Deut 5:12)
Providing people with the necessities to live (Ps 104:14; Matt 6:30)
Tim Keller has said, “This gift of God’s grace to humanity in general demonstrates a desire on God’s part to bestow certain blessings on all human beings, believer and non-believer alike. Understanding common grace provides the basis for Christians to cooperate with and learn from non-Christians.” Really? Learn from and be blessed by people outside the formal covenants enumerated in Scripture? Oh yes. God often works that way. Some biblical examples include:
Melchizedek blessing Abraham
Rahab serving the Israelites
Ruth accepting Yahweh and serving an Israelite family
The pagan sailors acting more ethically than Jonah
The pagan kings promoting Daniel in their realms
Cyrus the Persian funding the rebuilding of the temple
The magi worshiping Christ shortly after his birth
The Roman centurion acknowledging Jesus’ lordship while the disciples are hiding
Accurate statements made by unbelievers and cited in the Scriptures to serve the cause of truth
Without an understanding of common grace, believers wind up committing the genetic fallacy on a regular basis. (e.g., “The MBTI is untrustworthy because it’s based on Jungian psychology.” No, it’s validity and reliability must be determined independently of the original proponent.) We also marginalize people who don’t share our faith, preventing them from being a blessing to us as God may intend. But if God can use Cyrus the Persian to bless the Israelites’ journey home from exile, can I not likewise let my dentist bless me even if he’s an unbeliever, or my brain surgeon even if she’s a Muslim? Just get the job done right, thank you very much. On a related note, much of the world’s music can be raunchy, but some of it is rather pleasant or insightful. Common grace allows it to be so.
If common grace is so common—both in Scripture and in the heart of God—should it not be more common in the lives of believers? Indeed, should we not make loving our neighbor more common than it probably is? Salvation belongs to the Lord (Rev 7:10), not me. I cannot make it happen it my own life let alone anybody else’s. Moreover, Jesus said we can trust him to sort out the wheat from the weeds at the end of the age (Matt 13:24-30). That’s not our job right now. Nor is it Rachel Lynde’s.
Image Credits: pexels.com; gettyimages.com.
 John Murray, “Common Grace,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, II:93.
Authentic Christian community is hard to find. It’s even harder to create. The biggest challenge, perhaps, is to sustain it once we’ve found it. But the search is well worth the effort. Having made the rounds in all kinds of churches, fellowships, small groups, and denominations, I can assure you, it’s out there. Where and with whom might surprise you, but it’s out there—a place where the “one anothers” of Scripture are practiced, and edification takes place on a regular basis. Even when it’s hard. Even when it’s electronic or digital. True connection can transcend physical proximity. Where it often struggles to succeed is in transcending human nature.
Arthur Schopenhauer’s well-known fable comes to mind—the one where two porcupines find themselves in a serious dilemma. On the one hand, the creatures need each other, so they huddle up to keep warm in the winter. On the other hand, they needle each other while they’re together, so they have to separate to avoid the pain of getting poked by each other’s quills. The cycle repeats and never ends.
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? I’ve been punctured by plenty of needles over the years, and I’m sure I’ve done my own share of puncturing. I forgive the former and lament the latter. In fact, the latter is sometimes harder for those who have a tender conscience. It’s easy to feel pain when you know you’ve caused pain. (Guilt is a worthwhile subject for another post, as is the common human ailment of hurting other people because we ourselves have been hurt somewhere back on the timeline of life.)
Here’s the perennial problem of human intimacy and fellowship: Can the individuality we display permit the closeness that our interdependence demands? Said another way, can we truly master the delicate balance of the guardedness we need for self-protection and the vulnerability we need for deep connection?
And the answer is not without grace.
Only grace can mitigate the endless cycle of needing and needling each other. Love covers a multitude of pokes. And grace says, “Let’s try this again” after a relational collapse. But grace can be its own thorn, too. According to Jesus, divine grace especially pierces the self-righteous.
Can the individuality we display permit the closeness that our interdependence demands? Not without grace.
Just ask the older brother in Luke 15. Or the religious bureaucrat in Luke 18. Or Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7, whose spiritual debt was a whopping 450 denarii less than the sinful woman’s debt—yet Jesus said he couldn’t pay his bill, either, so he forgave them both. (How humbling it must be to find yourself in bankruptcy court needing the protections of Chapter 11 when you thought you were so rich!)
Jesus’ grace toward the sinful woman was a thorn to Simon. But the forgiven woman now had more to offer her community. She had more love (cf. Luke 7:47), without which community cannot survive. It’s not the broken who destroy community. It’s the self-righteous, high-minded religious police who do that. That’s why bars often feature a better community feel than churches. Folks get real and raw with one another in an atmosphere of authenticity, even if they have to communicate between hiccups.
It’s not the broken who destroy community. It’s the self-righteous, high-minded religious police who do that.
Few people have done more reflective work on the subject of Christian community than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Here are some gems from his book, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community.
Wherever you are in the needing-needling cycle, may these words help you find, create, and sustain authentic Christian community.
• “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”
• “God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly.”
• “Because God has united us in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that life together with other Christians, not as those who make demands, but as those who thankfully receive. . . . We do not complain about what God does not give us; rather we are thankful for what God does give us daily.”
• “Will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches us that both of us can never live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ? The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting.”
• “The Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be continually taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more assuredly and consistently will community increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.”
• “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. . . . Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. . . . Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”
• “There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here too our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God.”
• “I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.”
• “Self-centered love loves the other for the sake of itself; spiritual love loves the other for the sake of Christ.”
When it comes to community, are we better at the “needing” or the “needling”? Will we choose the coldness that comes with isolation or the puncture that comes with interaction? Or might there be a third way—the way of Christ? The way of grace?