I'm in the middle of a four-week preaching series on compassion, mercy and justice in the suburbs and figured I'd use that as the reason for this month's article in The Oconee Leader. The print version won't be out for a week or two, but I'll go ahead and end the suspense by posting the article here:
I wonder sometimes if I actually believe the Bible. Not because I don’t think it’s true but because the true stuff in there really bothers me sometimes. I don’t mind hearing that God loves me (on my terms, of course) but I have to admit that I really don’t like all this talk about doing justice that you find in the Scriptures.
Maybe you’re not much for reading the Bible or maybe this one slipped by you, but God regularly and routinely tells us that life as a follower of Jesus includes a display of justice. When I think of justice, I think Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the rest of the Justice League. I think of legal justice. I think of Buford T. Justice from the Smokey and the Bandit movies. And because life in our quiet hamlet of Watkinsville doesn’t really require superheroes or Jackie Gleason, justice isn’t much on my radar.
But God keeps talking about it. A lot. So much that you have to quit listening in order to avoid it. I’ve thought about it – not listening – but have opted instead to just ignore God and worry about the really important stuff like if selling beer in the County will lead to strip clubs and whether getting a tattoo means I have the mark of Satan on me. But I have a hard time finding anything in the Bible that puts the kibosh on drinking and body art unless you completely ignore stuff like context, so I’m back to this whole issue of justice.
In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a
man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he
and his wife and his two sons. The
name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the
names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites
from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and
remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. (1:1-5)
You can tally up the mathematics of trouble: one famine, three deaths, three widows, ten years, five verses. That is the opening block of the Book of Ruth. It is sudden and sobering and instructive. Is it not telling us that one's whole life can fall apart in five verses? That such stuff can actually happen to the people of God? Five tightly-packed verses ought to cure us of falling for the 'Prosperity Gospel.'
By this you may examine the state of your own soul and the quality of your love to God and Jesus and his Word, as well as your love for God's people and your desire for heaven: do you love them all 'from a supreme delight in this sort of beauty, without being primarily moved from your imagined interest in them, or expectations from 'em.'
A person can be greatly moved by the natural perfections of God and not be saved. A person can be stirred with admiration for God's power and greatness 'and yet be entirely blind to the beauty of his moral perfection, and have nothing of that spiritual taste which relishes this divine sweetness.' Even Satan and his demons know God in this way, yet they are utterly destitute of any sense or relish of that kind of divine beauty which consists in his moral perfections or holiness.
When God finally brings all into judgment, those who are cast into hell will see everything of God except the beauty of his holiness. They will see and know his power and wisdom and knowledge and strength and greatness and majesty and eternity and immutability and justice and righteousness, but they will find or sense or see or relish no beauty in them.
But the regenerate see the beauty and glory and relish the sweetness of all such divine perfections. Indeed, this is what 'will melt and humble the hearts of men, and wean them from the world, and draw them to God, and effectually change them. A sight of the awful greatness of God may overpower men's strength, and be more than they can endure. But if the moral beauty of God be hid, the enmity of the heart will remain in its full strength, no love will be enkindled, all will not be effectual to gain the will, but that will remain inflexible, whereas the first glimpse of the moral and spiritual glory of god shining into the heart, produces all these effects, as it were with omnipotent power, which nothing can withstand.
It really matters little, therefore, if people speak of what they perceive as great revelations of divine power and greatness, but never taste or sense or relish the sweetness and loveliness and glory of God.
Because we believe that the Gospel is God's power to redeem and renew everything broken about us and our world, it shouldn't surprise us that Gospel-centered environments can get messy. The normal process of healing, renewal, change and transformation is slow and not always pretty.
No environment will display this messiness more clearly than smaller groups of people that gather for the express purpose of engaging in gospel transformation. Because sin is wrapped around our hearts and our souls, extricating ourselves from its grasp creates very real trauma. Our tendency to think that our value to others is based on perfect performance is perhaps the greatest threat to the change that only the gospel can bring - how could it not be if the biggest reason I need the gospel is because I am ridiculously imperfect.
There will be times when the process of change is very evident and results in someone holding a box of Kleenex. Other times the process will take place internally and all that might bubble to the surface is a look or words largely devoid of apparent emotion.
I was thinking and praying this morning about what it looks like to practically take care of other people in groups such as this. Here are a few things I wrote down:
Pursue a heart and mind that honestly sees yourself as someone desperately in need of the gospel.
Show up with the gospel as your agenda. The intent is the slow process of transformation.
Show up to take care of other people in the group. This is not just the leader's responsibility. If everyone shows up to take care of each other, then no one gets left out.
Learn to listen well. This includes interacting with a person's story with empathetic and clarifying questions.
Follow-up with people. One-on-one communication through e-mails, phone calls or face-to-face meetings is critical to helping people work through the implications of the gospel.
Continue the story. Pursue opportunities in future group meetings to ask how the process of change is progressing.
In Psalm 35:27 we read, 'Great is the LORD, who delights in the welfare of his servant!' I was sitting here thinking about the tendency among people who look at life through a Calvinistic lens to struggle to make sense of language that has God delighting in his people because of theological convictions about our natural condition and God's involvement in our lives.
Because we see the scriptures portray people as 'weak, ungodly and sinners' (Romans 5:6,8) and because we describe God as One who is holy and cannot bear to be in the presence of sin, we seem to be left with the conclusion that God is always out to get us, barely tolerating our existence and possibly guilty of passive aggression by using us as bowling pins in his own little cosmic game.
It's also possible to conclude that God can't be too particularly concerned for our good, given that life seems to be filled with pain, heartache, disappointment and frustration more often than we'd care to remember. If God delights in my welfare and if he is all-powerful and if he is intimately involved in the particulars of my life (the historic, biblical teaching of God's providence), then why does life keep knocking me around?
Perhaps this helps. I'm also reading through the Old Testament book of Lamentations, which paints a rather dark and disturbing picture of life in Jerusalem in the days leading up to their exile. It is ugly and brutal and void of hope. The city is destroyed, the economy and infrastructure is decimated, people have lost all civility - to the point where mothers boil their own children just to keep themselves alive.
Yet in the midst of that darkness, the smallest beam of light appears as the writer can't shake this hope-filled reality (Lamentations 3:22-23):
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases/his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
Some of us have found ourselves singing Thomas Chisholm's hymn, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, which includes the line, 'all I have needed, thy hand hath provided.' More than once, I've found myself struggling to believe that, particularly when I watch friends walk through hell. I often thank God for the fact that his mercies are new every morning but some mornings provide a lot of cloud cover that keeps me from seeing the light of those mercies.
Because life is hard and cruel at times, words like this ring hollow until we understand that what lies at the center of God's mercies and what we experience as the essence of God's delight in us is not a safe, secure, and comfortable life free from anything that threatens the serenity of that life. If God's care and concern for us is limited to life going smoothly, then disappointment and disillusionment will reign.
As is the case so often, if we would simply keep reading and listening, the apparent incongruity between God's promises and our reality gets shored up. Instead of defining the content of God's mercies ourselves, God provides a picture of what he gives us time and time again in never-ending supply in the very next verse (Lamentations 3:24):
'The LORD is my portion,' says my soul, 'therefore I will hope in him.'
Our hope is not found (ultimately) in the details of life - what God provides us in even the most hopeless of circumstances is both the knowledge and experience of himself. Our experience of delight in this life is far more stable than anything or anyone found in this world - what God intends to thrill us with are the contours of his character, seen in the pages of the scriptures and experienced in strangely powerful ways on even the darkest of days.
Thou lovely source of true delight
Whom I unseen adore
Unveil Thy beauties to my sight
That I might love Thee more,
Oh that I might love Thee more.