Journey Post 40: The Donkey Understanding of Christianity and the Christian Life, Part 2. Where the red dot grows. Or, everything I ever needed to know, I should have learned in Kindergarten.
“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” —A.W. Tozer
To a kid in the early 1950s, it seemed that everyone went to church on Sunday. It was an important part of the culture. “We live in a Christian nation,” people said. We didn’t go to church, but some friends of my mom and dad took me and my brother. Eventually, my parents followed. I was five or six.
In Sunday school, we sang songs, heard Bible stories. A very kind woman named Janet led my class. She told us stories about Jesus from the New Testament. Since every reference in my world back then revolved around “The War” (WW2), I remember thinking that this “new” testament must’ve been written since the war. An early assumption. I knew nothing. Janet’s legacy was inscribed to me inside a small New Testament she gave me, a legacy of love and the importance she placed in this little book.
A favorite song: “The wise man built his house upon the rock.” I didn’t know it was the analogy Jesus used to conclude the Sermon on the Mount. It was a happy song, filled with motions, repetitions, and loud noise. “The rains came down and the floods came up” (three times), “but the house on the rock stood firm.” We’d stand straight, planted stern and firm like Superman. Then: “The foolish man built his house upon the sand.” When the rains and floods came, his house went SPLAT! and we’d all fall down.
The point of the song was to “build your house on the Lord Jesus Christ.” I didn’t have a clue what it meant: I was puzzled, but I never asked. I didn’t want to let on that I didn’t know. I grew up thinking I’m supposed to know the answers, or figure them out. I don’t remember my parents telling me different.
That song is still popular with kids. It has played in the background of my life like a haunting melodic theme: be wise, build your life on Jesus, and your life will stand strong in the storm. It seemed simple enough, but I was unaware I was missing something. Whenever I’d fail or felt unsure, I’d run faster and harder, read the Bible more, serve more, love more, be like Jesus more … right?
When I recognized my friend’s view of God, I realized it was a reflection of my own underlying assumption about the way God is: not what I would say I believed, but what was there, deep inside. It was a bolt from the blue. God to me was that same dark, ugly, never-satisfied father who would one day tell me what a disappointment I’d been. No! He just couldn’t be like that, else this whole Christian thing was a crock. I was suddenly determined to find the truth, like that day on a hospital bed in Vietnam. I had to know: no more BS!
Proverbs 3:12 spotlighted the word “delight.” God delights—delights—in me … a glimpse into the father heart of God. I googled my question about how God sees believers. The word “adoption” popped up. I knew adoption: it was like “saved” or “forgiven”… or so I assumed. God had obligated himself to it. He promised. It was like a contract: you believe, God takes you to heaven—whether he wants to or not.
Trusting the father heart of God?
But Paul’s writings presented a different picture: adoption was a personal, intimate relationship with God as a father who showers an inheritance on his children. He gives his Spirit to make it real by helping us recognize we belong to him, not in a “shut up and do as I say” way. Rather, it was “live as my son.”
Paul said God planned our adoption. It gave him great pleasure: he was passionate about bringing people into his family to be with them forever.
I would shortly discover that Jesus taught this same thing—and modeled it—with his disciples.
One day, I listened to a talk on discipleship. The speaker asked: If you claim to be Jesus’s follower, do you know what he actually taught? My “knowledge” had been filtered through conflicting systems of theological thinking. So I began to read the Gospels over and over, praying to hear Jesus unfiltered!
I’ve never regretted that investment of time, thought, study and prayer. I read in large chunks, chapters at a time, looking at context and patterns and concepts. I read different Bible versions. I began to lose my interpretive straightjacket and felt as though I were right there with Peter and the others, listening for the first time, watching him: entranced, curious, sometimes confused, praying for clarity.
This was no “Jesus lite.” I began to understand why my high school pastor called him “the man’s man.” Calling God “Father” scandalized the religious authorities. Do you know the prayer? “Our Father who art in heaven…” Jesus taught the disciples to call God “Abba,” (like papa or daddy), an intimate term. The greatest privilege the Christian has is to know God as father. It’s not a title. It’s a relationship.
I’ve now come full circle back to Janet’s Kindergarten Sunday school. I know, now, I am building my house upon the rock, knowing I’m a “donkey” freed from donkeyness by the patient love of a Father.
My Red Dot
The red dot is that place on a locator map which says, “You are here.” Here’s where I’m at:
My core beliefs are no different from Christians in most any evangelical church. What has changed since 2007 is the way I understand God as my Father and myself as a son and follower of Jesus. I’m still getting to know my adoptive dad intimately. It is a personal relationship, with room for growth. I know Jesus better. Jesus’s agenda was not just the cross, to die as a sacrifice for our sin. It included showing us what God is truly like, how he thinks, and what he wants. Jesus summed it up in the word “love.”
Is Jesus really deity? Many don’t believe that, but I do. He didn’t deny it, but he didn’t campaign to convince people. He let his Father open the eyes. Besides the cross, his main agenda was focused on showing people who the Father is, living life as the son, loving people, how to worship him in truth. His name is “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us”. The resurrection declared him to be “the Son of God.”
There are strange beliefs about the Holy Spirit; many hesitate to talk of him as though they were afraid. But Jesus called him “the helper” whom he promised to send so we’d recognize God as Father and ourselves as his children and to teach us wisdom—i.e., to know his will in our hearts. He brings new birth to believers, and he make believers more like Jesus: to think and live like him, to flourish as part of his family.
My core identity: I am my Father’s son. Adoption changed my status to that of a son (non-gender specific). I am “holy” in God’s sight, a word which means much more than moral purity. It means that I belong to him; I am his, he is mine. This is true of all his people. I am also a follower, a disciple, an apprentice of Jesus. “Apprentice” still communicates what it was a rabbi did with disciples in Jesus’s day. An apprentice observes, listens, follows instructions, seeks to imitate, and, so the theory goes, becomes more and more like the master. There are no journeymen and only one master.
Here’s a clue how to recognize genuine disciples: Jesus told his disciples, “People will know you are my disciples if you ….” Or, “If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow …,” i.e., learning from me means: be ready to die to your own agenda.
I keep saying that God is like the perfect or good father. A theological list doesn’t communicate how the originator of mothers and fathers is himself the perfect parent. We understand (even if uncomfortable with) that humans are relational beings, creative and imaginative and loving—as God is. “Knowing God” is not about knowing a list of attributes: it’s about knowing him. That’s what Jesus said eternal life is. Understanding God as a relational, loving, and trustworthy father makes the Scriptures come alive and helps eliminate the temptation to “proof-text” verses about this or that attribute.
Humans have a great capacity to trust—it’s built in by God, but it gets crapped on in our society, shattered by abuse, apathy, and self-centeredness. We do respond to someone we trust, and if that person is God, we begin to understand that faith is not some mysterious force that he zaps into people. It’s the very normal response to recognizing his trustworthiness. God is continually shining a light on himself for the very reason of drawing out faith: in creation, in Jesus, other believers, the Scriptures, in the message we refer to as the “gospel.” Even when our faith is small, it can grow to be great, just as Jesus said when he spoke of a mustard seed.
My early faith was largely cognitive: Jesus rose, therefore I knew the rest was true. But it was love that got me off the performance treadmill. It was love (delight) that made me see I’m no longer afraid of him. I fear him, but I trust him. His love is changing me, and in response, I love him and aim to do what Jesus did—display God in my life.
To think of God as a perfect and good father makes a lot of sense: he invented the concept of parenthood, after all. Doing so does not eliminate the majestic or sovereign aspects of who he is. Rather it enhances them. Have you ever thought what it would be like to the son or daughter of the President of the United States?
Here’s some quick statements about other stuff:
The “s” word (sin) makes people uncomfortable, makes them think they’re being judged. Let me use another analogy to give some clarity on what I believe God thinks: What things would be harmful to your child? What would keep their lives from thriving, from living out their potential, from knowing they are loved or from loving others? We invest a lot in them because we love them. We train, encourage, and seek to guide a positive strong will—vs. training out a destructive self-will. We teach them love and respect and some humility by loving and respecting them. God does the same.
God will judge one day, and it won’t be pleasant for those who don’t want anything to do with him. Judgment is another part of parenthood. God is the only one who judges with absolute accuracy and fairness. He is just: that is the baseline reason that Jesus had to go to the cross. The cross was part of God’s plan to adopt children into his family. Since he is absolute holiness, he had to find a way to bring us into his presence for time and eternity without compromising. So Jesus redeemed us by being the “lamb of God,” a sacrifice to pay our penalty of separation from God. We accept that by faith.
I love the Bible. It’s the only authority for what I believe and how I live. It reflects God’s desire to communicate, and reflects him and his character. It contains everything he wanted us to know—for now. His Spirit helps us understand it, yet anyone can read it and get the main idea. The Spirit guided those who wrote it down, but it wasn’t dictated. I don’t believe there’s any contradiction with true science. The creation account? The point is that God did it. Nothing comes from nothing on its own.
The Father sent Jesus as Christ (Israel’s Messiah) to reconcile people and offer forgiveness so that we might live as free sons. Jesus announced this good news and initiated his Father’s kingdom. Then he took upon himself the consequences of our rejection. Who doesn’t want to know they are truly loved?