zigzag journey

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… the un-assuming odyssey of a donkey learning to see…

Archive for the tag “legalism”

Journey Post 49: While You Were Away…

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants, Matthew 21:28-46

Jesus was challenged a number of times by the religious establishment about his authority for doing and saying the things he did.  Ordinary people simply recognized his authority.  Jesus was no threat to the “little people”; they were not at risk of losing their power, as the leaders were.  The “Sermon on the Mount,” for example, left people amazed because Jesus did not cite esteemed rabbis as other teachers did.  He said, “You have heard it said…but I tell you….”

To set us up for the parable, picture the scene:  Jesus has just entered Jerusalem on a donkey amid the shouts and praises of the people.  The city is abuzz with excitement because many wondered if he might be their long-awaited Messiah.   He drives the money-changers and dove sellers out of the Temple, then heals many blind and lame.  The angry leaders complain to Jesus about children shouting and praising “the Son of David” (a messianic title).

Then the priests and elders demand to know, “By whose authority do you do these things?”  Jesus answers: “If you will tell me by whose authority John baptized, I will tell you.”  At this, the leaders balk, whispering among themselves: “If we say, ‘from heaven,’ he will ask why we didn’t believe him.  But if we say it was merely human, we’ll be mobbed because the people believe John was a prophet.”  So they say, “We don’t know.”

Things are now coming to a head between Jesus and the religious leaders in Jerusalem: five days later, they will succeed in getting rid of their nemesis—or, so they think.

In Matthew 21, Jesus tells two parables.[1]  The point of the first one is not obvious to the leaders—until Jesus ties it to their rejection of John the Baptist.  The second one hits home right away.

Why is Jesus increasingly angry and condemnatory of these leaders?  After all, in America when some preacher or church is phony or false or just plain weird, we can go to a thousand others.  Not so in Israel.  It’s important to get this point, and to know God’s expectations.  Otherwise, we may read the story only as confirmation of how hypocritical, self-centered, and self-protective the religious leaders were.  Yes, they were false teachers: Could not people just ignore them and walk away?

No.  There were no others.  The religious leaders held positions invested with the authority of Moses himself.  They had been given a charge by God to be stewards of his people, to be “good shepherds” who would feed them spiritually and protect them from spiritual charlatans and wolves.  Instead, as Jesus told them, they loaded impossibly heavy burdens onto the people.

Think about the teachers you’ve had in school, church, military, in all of life—including parents, anyone who has held a certain amount of authority over you.  Some were good, some bad, most were a mix.  We consciously imitate the good ones—but they’ve all left their mark deep within our psyche.

Jesus came for many reasons: to die for our sins, to live a life in front of us that was pleasing to God, to teach us about his Father, and other things.  The apostle John, who was a teen when he became a disciple and an old man when he penned the Gospel that bears his name, left us some vivid imagery about who Jesus is and what he came to do.  One of the most vivid is that Jesus came as “the light of the world.”  Light is reflected and so we see.  In Jesus’s case, he reflected God.

His life was a picture of God far different from the one presented by those who occupied a position of stewardship in behalf of God.

The picture of God they reflected was a distortion, an insidious caricature of a God more interested in people’s external compliance with what they could do or not do, for example, on a Sabbath day, or how they could keep the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit.  Their God was a judge never satisfied, a punisher of imperfect rule keeping.

The God Jesus reflects is a loving wise Father who wants to be known intimately and who intends that his people share his same perspective and values in dependence upon him, a Father who loves self-sacrificially and delights in his children like an ideal earthly father.  His law is intended to instill his values, two above all else:  loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.  Everything else comes from these two.  Obedience to this God is a given, but the motive to obey gets tangled up with avoiding hell rather than wanting to please a father who delights in you unimaginably:

“We love him because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Jesus explained to the teachers and Pharisees in no uncertain terms what their hypocrisy was really about: “You have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).  They were saddling the people with heavy burdens while themselves living hypocritical lifestyles, seeking to maintain their own power and honor.  They were self-righteous, supposing they were keeping the law and deserved cred for that from God himself.  In reality, they despised those they thought beneath them.  They did not value people as God does.  Any value they acknowledged stemmed from compliance to rules, not the intrinsic value God gave the creatures he made in his own image.  Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah to them: “These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.”

Knowing this, you can see there is little mystery about the parable of the wicked tenants.  Even the leaders got the point real fast.  They somehow knew that Jesus was right about them.  And they would see him die for it.

Read the parable of the two sons and then the one about the tenants, Matthew 21:28-46.

Just a few notes are in order here.

If you were asked what made the teachers, the Pharisees, etc., so bad, you might think first of their hypocritical legalism and their rejection of Jesus as Messiah.  Jesus certainly excoriated them for those faults.  But the worst fault might be captured in the term “false teachers.”  They did not truly know the God whom they claimed to represent: If you’ve ever encountered a person who claimed to know someone personally and obviously didn’t—you can imagine the problem.  These men were charged with interpreting and teaching the Scriptures, all the more important because most people did not have direct access to the Bible and were dependent on these teachers to be the voice of God.

Jesus had this to say about them to the people: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.  But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.  They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them…” (Matthew 23:2-4).

By contrast, Jesus had this to say about himself: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

Jesus claimed to know the Father in a way that no one else could.  That might lead you to think he was some sort of cult leader.  (I hope, in some future series of essays, to write about the implications of what he taught about the Father, about who God is and what right Jesus had to claim such knowledge.)

A couple comments about the meaning of the figures Jesus uses are in order.  Why was the story set in a vineyard with the owner being away and sending his messengers, including his son, to collect?

The owner, of course, is God.  The tenants are the religious leaders, teachers and priests, allowed by the owner to work his vineyard.  “Vineyard” is an important figure in Scripture, representing God’s people (Israel, during that time).  When he sent representatives (prophets) to collect the “rent” (the portion of fruit the owner was entitled to receive), they beat some and killed some.  The tenants, of course, were refusing to be held accountable, rejecting the owner and keeping the fruit for themselves, for their own gain.  The “fruit” God was intending to see produced was the fruit of the two great commands.  Like the fig tree, the false teachers proudly displayed their “leaves,” but bore no real fruit.

The tenants’ actions showed they didn’t grasp that their stewardship of the vineyard was only at the pleasure of the owner: it was his, after all.  They did not value the owner, nor his servants, nor his son.  Nor did they value the vineyard—i.e., those they were supposed to shepherd and steward–except as it was a benefit to them.

When Jesus asked what the owner should do, they knew: kill the wicked tenants and rent the vineyard to others who would produce the proper fruit.

If you’re involved in a church, you hear about false teachers from time to time.  Unfortunately, such warnings are oftentimes couched in terms of doctrinal (teaching) differences that have little to do with the major teachings of the historic Christian faith.  I saw this firsthand at a Bible school in Quebec years ago: one faction believed that Jesus carried his literal blood to the altar of God.  So they split.  Denominations do occasionally split over significant issues, but the details are often esoteric.

I would submit that Christian churches need to let the main thing be the main thing.  The “main thing” is what I referred to above: the two great commandments, i.e., to love God with all that we are and to love others as ourselves.  “There is no greater commandment than these,” said Jesus.  It all starts from these.  Love—genuine, self-giving and, yes, sacrificial—is a one-word summary of all God’s law.

If these two are in place, the rest will sort itself out…whether God is present or away.

[1] Jesus cursed a fig tree, full of leaves but bearing no fruit (21:18-22).  This was likely a demonstration for the sake of the disciples, a parabolic reference to the hypocritical leaders, though Jesus seemed to turn it into a lesson on faith.

Journey Post 43: Judging, discerning the narrow road, and building a house: What Jesus actually taught

The Donkey Understanding of Christianity, Part 3c, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, chapter 7) 




Matthew 7:1-2  “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.…”  (NIV)

These are words to make the steadiest heart hiccup, Christian or non.  One can read them slowly, dreadfully, or pass speedily by, the mind only half-engaged.  Surely Jesus can’t possibly mean what those words seem to say … I’m doomed if they do….

One can maybe latch on to the first reasonable explanation that lets them off the hook.  Our initial Bible training, for example, left me with the impression that much in the Gospel accounts was not highly relevant for Christian life, so this probably didn’t apply to me, right?  Or, did it?

Chapter seven is the final one in the Sermon on the Mount.  (The chapter and verse divisions were added later to help us find stuff.)  By way of summary, here’s what Jesus said:  He warns those who judge someone by the “speck” in their eye of their need to remove their own “log.”  He speaks of “not casting your pearls before swine.”  Then he encourages people to ask their Father to meet their needs because he will give them good gifts, just like an earthly father gives his children.

Here he states the “Golden Rule,” and then warns people to follow the “narrow road” rather than the broad one that leads to destruction.  Only the narrow one leads to life and “few there be that find it.…”  Doing that requires discernment.  He teaches how to recognize false prophets: by their fruits.  He says only those who do the will of his Father will inherit the kingdom, and he will turn away even some who call him “Lord” saying, “I never knew you.”  The conclusion is similar to other messages Jesus has given:  if you hear, you’ll be like the wise one who builds his house on the rock, you will withstand the storms.

Reading this chapter used to leave me pondering:  Had I missed the true understanding of the gospel?  My donkey brain couldn’t reconcile the words here with my understanding of God’s grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness.  Especially troubling was the part about “the measure you use … will be measured to you,” a sort of Golden Rule in reverse:  You will be treated the way you treated others.  And the remainder of the chapter gives even less comfort.  Am I actually on the “broad way” instead of the “narrow way”?  Am I self-deceived?  What was Jesus actually teaching, anyway?

A caveat before going on:  I have studied the Scriptures most of my adult life.  This fact doesn’t mean that I understand them perfectly, but I have devoted a lot of mature reflection to what I’m about to say.

It’s important to bear in mind a few things as we look at Jesus’s statements.  First, remember that it’s part of a context.  I hear people quote the first verse (“judge not”) as a defense against disapproval: that may fit the politically correct context of America today, but it isn’t what Jesus had in mind.

The part about being judged with the same measure we use is related to other principles mentioned throughout Scripture, e.g.:  “You will reap what you sow”; the Golden Rule; and the statement that “God shows no favoritism….”  The common thread here is equality of treatment.  This reflects the justice of God.

Gold scales of justice on brown background

Equality (not of ability but of being and worth) is incorporated in American values, as when Jefferson wrote into the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal….”  I was alluding to this, as well, in my last blog essay, about my classmate David: no matter your conviction, all people are created in the image of God and thereby entitled to equal treatment and justice.

You may rightly ask: “If that’s true, then why does God let Christians off the hook by forgiving them?  Just because they say they ‘believe’….  Doesn’t the Bible also say, ‘the demons believe—and tremble’?”  Yes indeed it does.  You’ll say, “Aren’t Christians sinners like everyone else?”  Yes.  “Aren’t they even worse sinners when they’re hypocrites, trying to foist their rules on us?”  Valid point again.

We’ll touch on the answers to these questions only indirectly.  I hope that what I have to say here will provide insight on the answers.  But this is not a Q & A.

Scripture does say that all humans are judged equally before God.  That’s scary.  That we all reap what we sow should give us all pause.  (Note that Paul repeated this when writing to Christians.)  It sounds all very mechanical, like a vending machine: do bad, get bad, do good, get good rewards; garbage in, garbage out.  However, God is not a vending machine constructed by humans.  Jesus is not mechanical, neither is the Father he came to put on display in human history.

Jesus’s comments about the Law in Matthew 5 will help us better understand how God operates: “You have heard it said …, but I tell you…”  His statements might make your jaw drop—and some of your assumptions along with it:  Anger and contempt for other humans is the same as murder in the sight of God, and lust is the same as adultery.  Jesus also addressed the principle often referred to as the lex talionis (Latin: the law of retaliation), for example, “an eye for an eye.”  He said, rather, turn the other cheek to insults, go the second mile, give to those who ask, love your enemies.

It’s easy to apply what Jesus said to people like the Pharisees—I’m sure some got the point and were doing a slow burn by the time Jesus was done.  But don’t dismiss what he said as only for Pharisees or legalistic, hypocritical Christians.  The Sermon on the Mount sets forth general principles applicable to all people everywhere, and we do well to ponder that.

One lesson is that God knows our hearts and values honesty in the heart.  Because he knows the complex motivations of all, he can exercise love and grace and mercy and forgiveness where we would not.  But we need to be careful not to think that his love trumps his justice.  If that were the case, God would have no integrity, and there would be no basis for us to trust him.  He would be a capricious god.

His absolute justice is the very reason the cross is central to Christianity.  The cross demonstrates that God loves his creation enough to find a way to forgive even the worst sinners without compromising his justice or holiness.  The way was that he paid for our sins himself.  The cross reconciled love, justice, and holiness.  The cross enabled God to exercise his grace and to reveal his father-heart.


That being said, let’s think more specifically about what Jesus says in chapter seven:

“Judge not,” verses 1-5.  We humans judge continually.  Jesus was referring here to condemning, a self-exalting flawed judgement.  “Judgment” can also refer to clear-eyed discernment: that requires wisdom and an unhindered view.  All of history, our own lives, shows the results of flawed judgment.  Even if you don’t believe in the Fall, you’ll agree that there is evil in this world, closer to home than we like to admit.

Can any of us successfully remove the “log” from our own eye?  Perhaps.  But the awareness of the log in our own eye is essential.  That awareness enables us to see that other’s problems are only a “speck” compared to our own “log.”  The Pharisees, of course, weren’t even aware.  Ultimately, there really is only one who has a completely clear-eyed view that enables perfect judgment.


“Don’t throw your pearls to pigs” (“cast your pearls before swine”), verse 6.  I’m not sure of Jesus’s precise meaning, though it certainly includes needing proper judgment so as not to give what is valuable to those who can’t appreciate it.  Some say this refers to the gospel message.  Perhaps it’s a subtle swipe at the Pharisees and other religious leaders, those whose hard hearts and rejection of Jesus as Messiah pushed the early church to take their inclusive message of God’s love to the Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews).

“How much more will your Father give good gifts,” verses 7-12.  Many understand these verses to show the need for persistence in prayer.  The bottom line is not about driving God nuts to get results, but about depending on God as Father: like a good earthly father (though “evil”) he gives only good gifts to his children.  This significant statement about the nature of God tells how he relates to those who trust him.

Discerning the road, the prophets, and the apprentices of Jesus, verses 13-23.  The verses about the narrow and broad roads are just plain scary—if you take them on their own (out of context).  They are scary because Jesus doesn’t say here how to know which is which.  Many Bibles with explanatory notes generally say simply that those who follow Jesus are on the narrow road.

I think the key is likely in the verses (21-23) which speak of true and false disciples (apprentices).  There, Jesus says explicitly: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”  Faith (and trust) is shown not by what you say but what you do, and the ‘do’ is the will of God.

So, what is the will of God?  Many will say that it is “obeying God.”  But any good legalist is good at obedience to their own version of what God wants.  Legalistic prophets have destroyed the lives of countless people who followed such blind guides.  But those who do the will of God, whether prophet or peon, will be evident.  I spent my life on a performance treadmill, seeking approval and acceptance with God and let myself be led by some blind leaders.  My actions were good, but my heart was shrouded in a fog of fear, out of touch with God’s will.  The fear was that I might hear Jesus say, “I never knew you!”

I am now learning the will of my Father by following Jesus as his disciple (student, apprentice), watching and listening and doing because I know it’s safe to trust him.  I learned to step off my performance treadmill about ten years ago.  I’m learning to ask directions and humbly wait for them.

Last month, at David’s memorial service, I was asking directions (i.e., wisdom): How do I, who have certain convictions based on Scripture, display the heart of my Father and love a fellow human being who is gay?  I have much need of clear-eyed discernment.  I lost the opportunity once with my classmate: I reaped what I sowed by distancing myself from him most of our school years and did not seek to change even when I had the chance before he died.  Perhaps the Lord will yet give me another opportunity.

“The wise man built his house upon the rock,” verses 24-27.  I learned this song in a kindergarten Sunday school class.  All I ever needed to learn, I could have learned back then, but….  Jesus is the rock, of course.  To all the hearers of his messages, Jesus said, “Listen, if you have ears to hear.”  If you honestly listen (or read) these things, and seek to learn from him, you will discover that his “yoke” is a partnership–not a moralistic slave chain– in which he teaches you the will of God encapsulated in this simple summary of all God’s Law:  “Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.”


Journey Post 42, The Relevance of Jesus and the secret reward: what do you value, whom do you trust?

(The Donkey view of Christianity, part 3b, Matthew chapter 6)




Could you imagine a world in which the people think like God?

Depending on what you think God is like, that might be incredibly bad or incredibly good … or insane … or boring.

The closest I’ve come to imagining such a world is by observing and listening to Jesus.  No, I didn’t live 2,000 years ago, but repeated reading of the Gospels put me into a sort of time machine that took me back there to be with him and his disciples.

His closest followers spent two or three years in his company, and even they didn’t understand it all, at least until the resurrection revealed their little faith.  (One never did understand, of course.)  Their privilege was great.  They were apprenticed to a master from whom they learned not only to say and do what he did, but, like an apprentice in a trade today, they were learning to think like him and so to be like him.


We live out how we think.  That is such an obvious truth that we don’t give it much thought.

It was obvious to Jesus that the religious leaders of his day neither thought highly of God nor trusted him.  Their picture of the God they claimed to represent must have been something akin to an ogre, one whose judgment would fall on those who didn’t keep all the rules as they understood them.

Herein is a key to understanding much of Jesus’s teaching:  He came not only to die on a cross but to live as a son.  I’ve purposely written “son” in lower case.  I firmly believe in his divine nature, but I’ve taken a lesson from the fact that his ministry was not about proving that to people.  Jesus relied, instead, on his Father to open eyes to see him as he is.

I’ve written “son” to emphasize that Jesus lived out his life on earth to put God on display, to show and tell us what he is really like, to model the kind of life that the Creator intended for us human beings created in his image.  That is the reason his teaching here in the Sermon on the Mount (and everywhere else) contrasts sharply with the kinds of things the Pharisees were saying.


Those who had hearts ready to listen (as Jesus challenged those who heard his parable about the sower) were drawn to Jesus; those who understood him wanted to live as he did—because his very life drew people to God.

Whether or not you agree that Jesus is the Son of God, you should agree with the premise of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament that Jesus spent the years before the cross teaching his followers to see life and people from the perspective of his heavenly Father, the one he taught he followers to call “Abba.”

To recast that first line more concretely:  Could you imagine a world in which people think like Jesus?  That might look like people living out the values in the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus never promised that could be easy; it’s frankly impossible without an ongoing dependence upon God.  Even with the aid of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised his followers just before he went to the cross, there is nothing easy about living the Christian life, not if you’re honest.  Any “improvement” (i.e., living more like Jesus) does not come instantaneously.  It’s a process.  In my case, a long zigzag journey.

The Bible doesn’t hide the warts that remain in the people who follow God.  The disciples, for example, were close to understanding who Jesus is, yet they still fled when the soldiers came to the garden and Peter still denied even knowing him.  Most people who become Christians experience a long process of difficult change, filled with struggle and heartache.  I don’t know any genuine Christian who think that life is spent in a thorn-free rose garden.

As we get into what Jesus said, as recorded in Matthew 6, stay mindful of the religious leaders.  The Beatitudes may have seemed innocuous enough to the Pharisees, but when Jesus began to say, “you’ve heard it said … but I tell you…,” he was directly challenging their authority.  They may have missed what else Jesus was saying, but they got the challenge, and they began a long, slow burn that would lead them to demand the crucifixion.  Jesus taught with an authority they didn’t have: the Pharisees and other rabbis would cite learned rabbinical authorities to back up what they told people to do.


The part they missed was that Jesus was displaying to them what God is really like and how he thinks.  Chapter 6 is about two closely related topics:  what you treasure, or value, and whom you trust.

Jesus starts with a warning not to do good works (“righteousness”) in order to be seen by others—to get their kudos.  What religious legalists didn’t get was that any reward for what they did had already been received in those kudos.

You might find it hard to believe that anyone would actually use a trumpet to call attention to their giving, but rich people then commonly did such things.  We may be a bit more subtle today, but have you noticed the pervasiveness of donor plaques? They’re ubiquitous.  They aren’t wrong, necessarily. But God looks at the motive; he knows the heart (and doesn’t need the plaque).

What Jesus says in regard to this is one of the most important statements in the entire sermon:  “…and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.”  We want our kudos now: God has other ideas.

There are so many things we do to call attention to ourselves, to get credit and admiration.  And it’s not even necessary that others know exactly what we’ve done.  We just sometimes like to think that we’re better than others because we’ve done something they didn’t.  I’ve been there, done that, even envied a plaque or two.

We don’t hear much about fasting today, except perhaps when someone is dieting. However, there are churches that invite their people to fast for particular reasons.  Fasting in Scripture was generally done as an indication (to God) of earnestness and desire that he work in some way.  I fear that some commit to fasting simply because they want their name seen on the list (i.e., the plaque).

If you grew up in church, you’ve likely sat in a prayer meeting where some saint droned on and on, invoking a mini theological tome of titles and attributes of God while praying a laundry list of spiritual and physical needs for every imaginable person in the congregation.  It’s so easy to judge/condemn such people.  But we can’t know that person’s heart: God, who does know, may be listening in with the biggest smile ever … even taking notes!

I can’t tell you, however, how often I’ve prayed in public, making sure to sound very humble so you would know how spiritual I am (Michelle would have other ideas, of course).


What we call “The Lord’s Prayer” was an example prayer that Jesus gave his apprentices, one which I’m sure he never intended to be recited without thought as part of a weekly liturgy.   This is not to say that a memorized prayer cannot constitute communion with God.  He looks at the heart.

I grew up saying the prayer every Sunday, having no idea that “Father” was not just the mandatory way to start.  Jesus taught his disciples to approach God as “Father,” which went against generally accepted practice.  “Father” expresses intimate relationship—a rather radical idea.  “Father”—think of it in its ideal sense—expresses trust and value,  at least it’s supposed to.  Can you imagine little John-John calling out to JFK: “O, Mr. President, O Leader of the Free World, hear my prayer”?  No, a simple “daddy!” suffices.

I want to call your attention to the prayer’s content, to think about what each line is really expressing.  “Name” expresses nature and reputation.  “Kingdom come”?  “The kingdom is at hand!” said Jesus, and he will return one day.  The will of God:  What might it be like for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven?  And, “daily bread”:  Despite poverty, Americans are incredibly rich.  Maybe we could be the answer to that prayer.

“Forgive as we forgive”?  There is a close relationship between mercy and forgiveness.  That line in the prayer assumes that we do give mercy—and recognize that we are in great need of it ourselves—all the time.  Mercy comes before forgiveness.  The whole prayer is an acknowledgement of our dependence on God, like those who are “poor in spirit.”

“Deliver us from evil.”  You may or may not believe in a personal devil.  But there is enough temptation in this world designed to fit any particular character flaw.  The self that inhabits our psyche is not simply a “flaw”—it’s the very essence of what’s referred to as the “sin nature.”  One of the chief outlets for this nature is not forgiving those who have wronged us (an undoubted evil).  Jesus said that if we don’t forgive, neither will God forgive us.  I don’t have a neatly boxed answer to the question that raises, but if we are not forgiving, it’s likely we don’t know what it is to be forgiven in the first place.

What is “treasure in heaven”?  What we treasure is where our heart will be, a major theme of the sermon.  What we treasure can be “money”—or whatever we chase after in life—any personal idol.  An idol traces back to our own self (which we promote and protect).  If our treasure is in God, then we can afford to be generous. This is what’s behind Jesus’s use of the “eye” as the “lamp of the body.”  The eye, as with the heart, reveals the health of the inner life.  A good eye is pure and giving to others.

Dealing with anxiety generally comes down to a question of what or whom you trust.  Notice how Jesus answers the question of worry.  He isn’t saying that God will pour pennies from heaven or Amazon boxes full of stuff.  He never says we don’t need to work hard or provide for our families.  His answer is to make us think about how much we are valued by the Father—who made us in his own image.


Knowing that we are valued by him is knowing that we are loved by him.  Knowing his love, knowing how valued I am by him, changed the direction of my our heart, from chasing after my own need for love and value to chasing after him to know him more.  So, what does it mean to seek his kingdom?  God is interested in us, values us, and sees our hearts.  So the kingdom is not a matter of doing x-amount of good deeds, or not doing certain x-rated things, or being in constant attendance at church, or anything else that is often associated with what Christians do or not do.

If you were to sit down and write a summary or the main points of Jesus’s teaching in the sermon, you just might find yourself describing what it means to love in a way that is not centered on self.  When you know you are loved, you love in return; in this case, you love the Father and seek after what he wants.  And if your prayer is that God’s will be done on earth, you’ll begin to have some idea of what that looks like.  This is not being a religious freak or fanatic.  This is being what we were intended to be from the beginning.

journey post 27–Reality and the Resurrection … The starting point and why it matters

Evangelical Christianity has taken quite a beating in the past half-century, some of it self-inflicted.  Hypocritical, legalistic, self-righteous, judgmental, irrelevant.…  Such are the adjectives representative of common criticisms.

I’m not here to deny the criticisms: unfortunately, they are more valid than we Christians would like to think.  Yet, while Christians are drawing an abundance of flak, Jesus seems to be doing alright with the people.  Surveys indicate that Jesus remains one of the most popular people ever.  One recent querie among Americans placed him and Abraham Lincoln at the top.  (I don’t think it was the beard.)  One of the most telling censures on Christians is one I’ve quoted before, offered up by Mohandas Gandhi.  Gandhi was deeply interested in Jesus and studied him and his teachings closely, and that fact has much to do with the non-violent strategy he applied to the fight for the liberation of India.  He spent much time with Christians in England while studying to be a lawyer in the 1880s and 90s.  He observed them closely.  What he said captures the essence of any critique of those who claim to follow Jesus:  “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”  Things haven’t changed much….

Gandhi older

Whether you like or dislike Christians, the issue in Christianity is actually not the people. The issue is and always will be one thing, one person:  Jesus himself.  But, how do we know that he is who he said he is?

Looking at his followers doesn’t seem to give us much help on this.  True, Jesus told his followers to be salt and light.  True, he told them that others would know that they were his disciples (i.e., apprentices who actually learned from him and lived it out) if they loved one another as he loved.  And, true, they haven’t done this.  So then: do we walk away, saying, “A pox on both your houses”?  Many have walked away, bitter and frustrated at the legalistic and impossible demands of those they once looked up to.

There is a way to discover the truth.  When I returned from Vietnam in 1969 with more questions than answers, it didn’t take long to realize that there was only one question that really begged … SCREAMED … for an answer.  It was not the question of myth: whether Jesus actually lived or not.  I was surprised to learn that even most atheists or skeptics don’t deny that he was an actual person.  Nor do most deny his claim to be the Messiah (Christ), nor that he was a great teacher—nor that he was crucified.

The central question was and always is the resurrection.  Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

Resurrection--empty tomb

The resurrection was the message that the apostles preached, the validation of who Jesus is and what he died for.  The empty tomb is the sine qua non of Christianity.  Without it, Christianity is a deluded religion, foisted upon deluded people by a well-meaning but deluded leader—or a charlatan—people who are left with no forgiveness, left with no hope.  C. S. Lewis forced me to ponder whether he was a liar, or a lunatic, or just who he said he was—those are, pretty much, the available options.

donkey image

I began this blog, lo these many months ago, seeking to recount my zigzag journey.  I wanted to work up from those first questions, proceed through my search, and come up with the evidence for the resurrection, and go on from there.  Presto!  But as I reflected on my own journey, I remembered that one of my primary reasons for doing this gig was to help others avoid some of the same pitfalls and zigzags that this Donkey failed to see.  Much of what I did not see was because my own assumptions (read that: pride) left me thinking I could do this on my own—not a very healthy way of approaching God, after all.  It took some 35 years for me go from the empty tomb to recognizing a big problem in my life: that I lived on a performance treadmill.  I lived on that contraption because my functional theology was operating from a fundamentally wrong view of God, a God who seemed more interested in making me know my place than in enjoying my company.  This is the reason I zigzagged from my initial idea and spent time writing and thinking about the conscience God gave us, what it means that God is a father who delights in his children—and allows evil in this world.

If I could lead you to the door of the empty tomb itself, you might still question why it matters at all.  If you’re one of those (most people) who see God primarily as judge (or worse), waiting to highlight your every flaw for all the universe to see, why in the world would you want to get to know such a being and spend your life trying to live up to his impossible expectations—much less spend eternity in his presence?  But, just perhaps, the reality and your thinking don’t quite match up?  If you’d like to find out, the door of the tomb is a good place to start.  Ready?

resurrection--door of tomb

journey post 19: It’s complicated….

Simplicity.  Don’t we all long for it in some way or another?  Many pine for a “simpler time” in America when there wasn’t quite so much unrest or change.  Yet I cannot think of a decade in the last century when there hasn’t been unrest, disarray, fear, and social upheaval.

Life comes at us relentlessly, in all its variegated complexity, in ways that we cannot predict or control.  My younger son was once fond of saying, “Life sucks and then you die.”  We can occasionally escape through temporary periods of nostalgia or mental illness, a hobby or fun vacation or party.  The only hope we have in facing life is what goes on within, at the level of the soul.

Religion applies at this level.  You might call it spirituality.  Some call it an escape.  Karl Marx famously called it “the opiate of the people.”  I’ve not studied his early life, but I do know that he wrote a paper as a young man on spiritual union with Christ.  Perhaps he was disenchanted by the disconnect between what Christianity seemed to teach and how people were actually living; Gandhi certainly was. Gandhi’s commentary:  “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.  Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Gandhi young

Young Gandhi in Great Britain

What strikes me now, as I read again C.S. Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity, is his unflinching commitment to reality and complexity and practicality, and his ability to explain same with simplicity.  His is an almost deceptive simplicity—perhaps because he was intelligent and wise enough to know that, unless one wrote as an ordinary human being, ordinary human beings would not grasp the relevance of what he wrote and apply it to the painful realities of our universe in any satisfactory way.

CS Lewis in chair with book

C. S. Lewis

In 1970, when I first read this little book, I was looking for reality, i.e., whether Jesus and Christianity were real.   Lewis helped me understand that Jesus is indeed real, no matter how many Christians might turn out to be “so unlike your Christ.”   Having now been a Christian for forty plus years, I find his approach more real and relevant than ever: I am, frankly, tired of playing church.

I am an evangelical Christian.   That means that, not only am I a follower of Jesus, but I believe others need to know him as well.  Jesus taught his apprentices (disciples) the good news of his kingdom: that, as we receive him by faith, we become children of the Father and are forgiven.  His love would bear fruit in our lives, showing itself as we learn to love the Father and his will, to love others as we love ourselves, and to be light to this world and make disciples of Jesus (no one else).  Others would know that we had actually learned from Jesus by our being servants to others, especially within the church.

Far be it from me as an evangelical Christian to state the obvious and say that we have not done a very good job of it.  We have been “so unlike” our Christ.

Michelle and I went off to Bible school only a year after we came to faith.  We were so immature and unready to handle the expectations and pressures.  The school was evangelical and fundamentalist and very legalistic.  At 24, we were so young, but the rest of the student body was made up of mostly 17- and 18-year-olds, mostly single.  As a married couple, we were expected to be more “mature” and to set an example.  These young single people weren’t allowed to hold hands, much less kiss or date.  The teaching staff keenly felt the responsibility of protecting their charges from raging teen hormones.  There were kids (we were all kids, actually) from Christian, even missionary families, and many were new Christians with no Christian background.

We young men were expected to show a growing understanding of and ability to explain spiritual truth.  (I’ll leave the competition angle to your imagination—just keep in mind that it would be considered unspiritual and prideful to consciously compete with others to show how mature we were becoming…yeah, right.)  The girls, of course, were always smarter, and it showed, but were also mindful of being “submissive” and “modest.”   I think they were held to a higher standard than the boys.

We were also expected to witness to our faith on a regular basis.  We tried our best with such subtle approaches as, “Do you know where you will go when you die?”  We, after all, didn’t want people to go to hell, so we would press them to understand how sinful they were and deserving of hell, while God graciously provided a way to heaven (some might say “ticket”) when Jesus was crucified and rose again. I had left behind most of what I’d learned from Lewis except that I used his worldwide renown to validate my own short, scary version of the good news that I pressed upon my listeners.  If anyone became a Christian from what I said back then, it was certainly God’s doing and not mine.

In light of my less-than-stellar record of explaining Christianity in those early days, I was greatly interested on this read-through to consider how Lewis set about that task.  He did not do it in such a way as to play upon emotion. No fledgling believer he; it is noteworthy that he began discussing “right and wrong as a clue to the meaning of the universe,” as I pointed out before, with us and our very natural human wonderings.

The Thinker

Lewis began with the most important questions that human beings ask in life.  He did it in a way that showed respect for the intelligence and ordinary humanity of his readers.  And he did so in simple conversational style, albeit he was thorough and profound.  These are not simple questions, but he knew it was essential to answer them in an intellectually satisfying way if ordinary human beings were ever to know true peace. Questioning right and wrong would naturally lead people to wonder about a god and guilt and eternal accountability.  That in turn would lead one to ponder what God may be like, if he exists; and if he is good, why is there so much pain, and suffering, and evil in the world?  You may be surprised to learn that our free will plays an important part in his answer—an answer I believe correct.  Some theologies acknowledge “free will” while defining it in a way that makes it synonymous with fate—which only compounds the question about God’s goodness and leaves many sunk in despair.

Stay tuned….

journey post 18–C.S. Lewis meets Charles Dickens: Mankind was my business!

We all kick ourselves from time to time for missing things we later realize were important.  That kick has been an oft repeated thematic note in my life.  I hear that note now as I write….

Simsons--insert brain here

I learned a lot from reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity in 1970. This little volume played an important part in my becoming a Christian in 1971. Regrettably, there was much that I paid scant attention to, chiefly a statement I’ve quoted twice before on this blog.  The statement is his summary of the “Law of Human Nature”:  “First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it.  Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way.  They know the Law of Nature; they break it.  These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in,” (p. 8).  The “curious idea” is delivered via conscience, and generally concerns our relationships with others.


As I read in 1970, I was so focused on investigating Christianity that I assumed Lewis was using this law of human nature as a back way in to telling us about God’s law, e.g., the Ten Commandments; so I read into his words all the list of sins that young men think about.  While I accepted his statements about right and wrong as a given (this is no longer the case in our post-modern world), I was unable to distinguish basic right and wrong from my legalistic list of sins.  I see now that he was doing just what he said he was: using the familiar—conscience and guilt and our questions about who or what is behind it all—to help us get a clue to the unknown:  the meaning of the universe.  My long-established performance mindset blinded me so that I was mostly concerned with how not to get myself clobbered by God while not appearing to be a fanatic.  I missed his point about this law of human nature being the foundation of all clear thinking.  Had I done so, I might have saved myself much grief and many zigzags.

Let me pick up here where I left Scrooge and Marley in Journey Post 13.

When Scrooge inquires about the enormous chain that specter carries, Marley explains it is the chain he had made in life though selfish greed.  We get the point right away, of course, though Scrooge is left puzzling over how such a great man of business could be faulted for his acumen. 

Jacob Marley and Scrooge

“Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.  The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

These words are wonder-filled, carefully crafted by Dickens, whose Christian values were prominent subtexts in his works as he tried to awaken his fellow Englishmen to the plight of those around them.  Scrooge is left wondering at the words and terrified by his vision.  He climbs into his curtained bed that Christmas Eve with nary a vision of sugar plums dancing, only great dread and unease.

Dickens and C.S. Lewis share a sense of the dramatic, albeit Lewis works it out a bit more cerebrally.  They both recognize that a healthy sense of fear, of dread and unease, is good for us from time to time—as long as it concerns the right thing.

My fellow Evangelicals might wish that Dickens had made his Christianity a bit more explicit, with Scrooge coming to understand that Jesus had paid for his sin of self-centered greed, but Dickens was here more focused on how Christian values work out in life than on giving a formula for how to secure a ticket to heaven.  Lewis, by his exposition of the “law of human nature” with right and wrong being a clue to the meaning of the universe, was seeking to bring us to clearly think about just what is our business, and about who or what might also be concerned and what that means….

Scrooge’s life was in some ways a parable of my own.  I may not have been chasing every penny and farthing, but my life has been assuredly as self-centered as his.  His sense of dread was marvelously resolved in that single eve.  Mine took a more lengthy and zigzaggy route to resolution.

Here is why it was right for Lewis to begin his book with right and wrong:  I, like many, confused Lewis’ “law of human nature” with my own thinking then about religious do’s and don’ts.  Lewis’ concern (and God’s, in my understanding from Scripture) is much deeper.  The law of human nature is written on the conscience by God to help us understand how to live in a world of others.  It also intuitively teaches us something about our creator:  how he cares about people (his business) and how we are to do so as well.

We misinterpret God when our primary picture of him is the great, fierce King and Judge sitting on a throne, surrounded by a sea of adoring worshippers.  The Bible does paint such a picture—he is King and he is Judge—but that is only one aspect.  Were that the whole picture, then I would have to say that Mark Twain had it right when he said we should take a good book along to heaven so we don’t get bored….

Marley’s cry that mankind was his business, charity (i.e., sacrificial love that gives and serves others), mercy, forbearance, benevolence, and, I might add, justice, reflect the values that Jesus himself taught.  Such was not incidental but central in his teaching.  For example, when he spoke of the “golden rule” (a part of the law of human nature), he said that that “is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).   The religious teachers of his day taught conformity to tradition, to outward duty and action; Jesus was concerned with action emanating from a holy heart—a heart in line with his Father’s perspective.

golden rule words golden rule words latin

The law of human nature reflects what conscience tells us as members of the human community.  To abide by this law does more to show our love for God than much else: it reflects his chief concern and will as expressed by Jesus when he was asked what was the greatest commandment:  “’You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  A second is equally important:  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40, NLT).

This is God’s business.  Scrooge would learn that on that dreaded Christmas Eve.

a meta journey post: Outside the Box, Inside Common Sense

I like to think outside the box.  For example, I love stories about time travel, especially those involving actual historical events.  One of my favorite things to do as a kid was to imagine myself at the Battle of the Alamo and how I would have changed the outcome.  (I didn’t think about how winning that battle might have cost Texans their war for independence.)   I was 15 when John F. Kennedy was gunned down, and I’ve often mused on the what ifs of that tragedy and our subsequent history.

thinking outside--there IS a box

Thinking outside the box of historical events is generally a safe fantasy that can teach valuable lessons about choice and consequences and the complicated elements that make up every life event.

Thinking outside the box when it comes to Christianity and the Bible feels unsafe and dangerous—and it can be.  If you think that Republicans and Democrats have trouble agreeing on anything, think about the number of different protestant denominations and independent churches there are.  I spent the summer of 1977 studying French in Quebec at a small Bible institute, and there I began to understand why there are so many different kinds of churches:  When I arrived, the atmosphere was obviously strained.  The faculty had recently split because of a disagreement over whether Jesus had taken his literal blood to heaven to show the Father.  (Don’t ask.)  I’ll never forget the palpable hurt, the human detritus strewn about by those who valued their own opinions over love.   My take-away from this then was great puzzlement as to how on earth people who love Jesus can’t tolerate those who also love Jesus but disagree with them.  I found no real answer for this until I rediscovered adoption.

I was introduced to such distorted and unChristian thinking when we began our Bible school training in 1972.  We were among Christian fundamentalists for the first time.  Fundamentalists get a bad rap for their biblical literalism, legalism, and reputation for shooting their wounded.  Yet these people loved Jesus and were excited about Scripture—but I soon figured out that any variation of thought or teaching was looked on with suspicion.  I felt I had gone back to the McCarthy era, focused now on doctrinal loyalty, not political loyalty.  I was overwhelmed and too fearful of the consequences to question it then. 

thinking outside the box is scary

In the midst of this, a wise teacher told us that if we ever think we’ve discovered new truth, we need to carefully check out what the Church has taught over the centuries.  This was common sense.   He did leave us some wiggle room:  Luther, after all, rediscovered justification by faith, though few others thought that his thinking outside the box would get him any further than the executioner.

Luther posting the theses

Luther posting his “95 Theses”

Some six years ago, I made my rediscovery of spiritual adoption, and along with it, the father heart of God.  I was seeing red warning lights flashing, but Scripture does teach adoption—we’d been taught it in Bible school from Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians.  But the picture I was now forming from the Gospels of a father who wanted me to know how special I was to him, seemed like wishful thinking.  I couldn’t reconcile this with the sovereign, holy, righteous God angry with sin that I heard about week by week.  Yet Jesus likened God’s care to an earthly father’s and called him “Abba” (akin to “Papa”).  Paul (Eph 1:5) seemed to say that God anticipated adopting children with great pleasure and passion.

Among conservative churches, one hears warnings against teaching that emerged in the 19th century about the “fatherhood of God,” presenting God as a kindly, grandfatherly type, complete with long white beard, who loves everyone the same and overlooks sin.  As I studied adoption and God’s role as father, I realized that there was no serious theological writing about God in this role.  There was plenty on his role as creator and judge, but no one ever mentioned the “fatherhood of God,” perhaps out of fear.  It occurred to me that spiritual McCarthyism was still alive and well.

In my study I found theologians consciously focused on the aspects of God that promoted his “glory”—his majesty, sovereignty, holiness, and righteousness—in order to counter the other teaching and protect God’s reputation.  (Protect God?  As if!)  Their books are still used in seminaries to train pastors.

The unfortunate result of this was that the Church (that’s people, by the way) was left in the dark about what it means to call God “Father.”  Left to their own, people imagine a God like a bad parent—and God comes out as judge, as demonstrated in one survey that shows ¾ of Americans, including Christians, view God in a negative light.  The truth about God’s father heart got swallowed up in erudite discussions and tomes that give adoption little space.  In many churches, what is communicated about God is a picture that leaves congregants running on the performance treadmill.  I call this the “ministry of condemnation.”  It leads to the very legalism and lack of tolerance that left me so puzzled in Quebec.

As you might suspect, when I started looking into adoption, I went with fear and trembling—quietly at first—searching out anything that would indicate I was not chasing after something to bolster my self-esteem or find a friendly God.  But I was spurred on by a promise in the prophet Jeremiah (29:13):  “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”  Long story short, one day in the library (where else?) I came upon a tape which linked me to some books which linked to some respected theologians and teachers who were also rediscovering adoption.  These people were seeing and teaching his father heart without neglecting his great holiness and majesty and all that gives him glory.

I’ve been around long enough, and I’ve been in leadership enough, to know how easy it is to play church and give out “authoritative” pronouncements about God that scare rather than attract.  I’ve seen enough destructive thinking about God and the wrong teaching that promotes it.  I want to promote good—and accurate—thinking about God through these blog posts.  That is what drives them (I hope). What we think of when we think of God is the most important thing about us.  If we think of him only as a judge or worse, we run from him or run to keep him “happy.” If we know him as Father, we run to him and with him.

If you’d like to explore for yourself, here are some resources I treasure that aided my search and helped  turn me from fear (by knowing his love) to freedom in a relationship with God my Father in the way I believe he intended:

Children of the Living God: Delighting in the Father’s Love, by Sinclair Ferguson, especially his chapter “The Spirit of Adoption.”  Ferguson is a pastor and teacher whose perspective on God changed radically as he explored and realized what it meant to be a son of God.

ferguson head Ferguson, Children of the Living God

Sinclair Ferguson

Knowing God by J.I. Packer, a popular theologian and teacher now old as dirt, was first published in 1973.  Two chapters, “The Heart of the Gospel,” and “Sons of God,” are worth the price of the book.

Packer--Knowing God Packer head

J. I. Packer

A sermon series on adoption was given by Tim Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.  Keller’s sermons are engaging and thought provoking.  Sermons are available for download ($2.50 for mp3) at: http://www.redeemer.com.  Go to the “Sermon Store.”  Messages I have found particularly helpful are: “The Experience of Adoption.” February 8, 1998; “Witness of the Spirit,” April 6, 1997.

Keller head

Tim Keller

Now, (hopefully), back to C.S. Lewis in the next post.

journey post 17: Radical Freedom

(Part III-b, CONCLUSION: The grammar school of freedom)

radical tag

The word “radical” is an attention-getter.  It should be, for it includes the following ideas: ”far-reaching or thorough;  an inherent or fundamental part of the nature of someone or something; departure from tradition, innovative or progressive.”* All of these could describe true freedom.

“Freedom” implies freedom from restraint, obstacle, compulsion.  This was what my generation wanted so much in the 1960s, and we have now reaped its fruit:  a cultural buy-in to a more individualistic, ego centric, personal freedom.  If you doubt that, look at our governing elite: we used to call them “public servants”; look at a generation of young men who are still “adolescents” well into their twenties .

Christians speak of freedom with caveats attached.  We speak of being “free from sin,” (i.e., the penalty of hell and sin’s continuing hold in a life), “free from the law” (e.g., from the Mosaic law or a variety of legalistic expectations).  Thinking about some “radical” freedom seems dangerous, beyond the bounds of safety, so “freedom” generally comes with a “but…”: “I am free, but freedom has limits….”  The idea of being “free” feels good, and keeps us from seeing the performance treadmill where we try to make sure of our acceptance, never mind that we are becoming increasingly captive to fear.

At some point I recognized my own lip service to the idea of freedom.  If pressed, I could not have told you what it was.  That is so ironic, since Jesus’ statement about being set free by him was one of the first things that ever captivated me and drew me to him like nothing else.  It is ironic that I spent about 35 years on a “Christian” performance treadmill, never really sure of my acceptance.  I longed to be “free to…” and I knew from Scripture that there must be this “free to,” but it remained elusive.

apprenticeship yoke taking

That “free to” crystallized for me the day I wrote the essay about my relationship with my dad called, “The Missing Picture.”  Many things came together:  My growing understanding of what it meant to be an adopted son of Abba Father had nearly deleted the picture of “my old man in the sky”—and my trust was growing.  I was gaining a perspective on the nature of discipleship to Jesus (I call it “apprenticeship”) that seems to have largely disappeared from churches.  My earliest take on discipleship was that it meant learning the basic doctrines of salvation, the inspiration of the Bible, how to witness for Jesus, etc.  Once in a while as I read the Gospels, I pictured those first disciples traipsing around the country with Jesus—but to do what they did was certainly fantasy.  One day I was challenged to immerse myself in the Gospels, to apprentice myself to Jesus, the speaker explaining discipleship as “spending time with Jesus, learning from him to be like him.” The disciples did that.  I was now getting to know Jesus in a very personal way, watching him walk and talk and love people, hearing from his lips not simply Bible doctrine, but a way of seeing and thinking: it was his perspective I was gaining.  That was indeed radical.

apprenticeship--spending time with Jesus

In the passage (John 8) where Jesus says, “If the Son sets you free…” he had been speaking with some Jews (the physical descendants of Abraham) who believed him in some way, yet also wanted to kill him.  To these, he said: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31,32, NIV).  They were incensed, arguing that they had never been slaves.  But Jesus pointed out that, since they wanted to kill him, they were in fact slaves to sin, chasing after their own agenda.  “Now a slave has no place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever.  So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:35,36).  Jesus was modeling life as a son and apprenticing people to learn to live out their sonship to God in the community of a family.

Another thing came together for me that day.  While I would never find the missing picture of just me and my dad, I knew that I would in fact always be in the picture with my Father as a son in whom he delights.  I had been learning about spiritual adoption for a couple years, and it suddenly became reality:  My search for identity was over.  I knew who I was:  I am my Father’s son, and I am free.  That is radical.

All the dysfunctional reality of my relationship with my own dad (and my mom) suddenly fell away when I realized the ultimate father analogy was that of God as Father whose heart is with me.  To see the analogy, picture a fully functional family (which may be difficult), where the mother and father deeply love and are committed to each other.  They love and accept their children unconditionally.  They train them for life and responsibility in the world (and yes, that includes discipline).  They encourage the children in their individuality to develop their gifts and talents and potentiality—the things they like to do, not for some vicarious wish fulfillment of the parents.  They even allow them the freedom to fail…well, you get the idea: these are children who as adults will be free to exercise their individuality in the community, whether it’s the small family unit or the larger.  They will be free, not because they took their independence, but because they were raised in the environment of honest, loyal, giving and sacrificial, self-forgetful love and set free—given independence—to do the same.

Family is the ideal environment in which freedom is learned (and ultimately given), and love is the “environment” in which we were designed to live out that freedom in community, where it can flourish.  True freedom is a matter of the heart, and the heart can be free no matter the external circumstances.  Because the heart is designed to grow up loved within a community, that is where freedom will thrive.  That is where meaning and significance and satisfaction lie.  The contradictory desires of the heart I mentioned last post will be arbitrated in the environment of love.


As for defining freedom:  true freedom doesn’t yield to easy definition.  Basically, it is this:  I am truly free when I live out my identity in the environment for which I was designed, the environment I must have, in fact.  The apostle made this radical statement, that the only thing that truly counts in Christ is “faith expressing  itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).

It was this freedom I discovered on that day at the writer’s conference.  After 35+ years of running on the performance treadmill as a “legalist,” there is still a lot of baggage, but it is getting unpacked and sorted.  God my Father, the perfect parent (he invented the concept, after all), is teaching me how to live out the freedom that I have as a son.  I love because he first loved me, (see 1 John 4:13-19).  I am free, but some of this “free” still feels like untested theory, and residual fear is sometimes palpable.


An eternity ago—or was it yesterday?—I crouched behind a mud hootch in a rice field in South Vietnam, waiting for the mortar fire to stop so I could make a break to safety.  I didn’t make it.  Laying on my back and helpless, I saw the Chaplain break through the bush some 20 meters away coming for me like an angel of God.  And he was, quite literally, an angel, for the word “angel” means messenger.  The message at the time was a question:  Is God really there?  Today there’s no angel, and there’s no question.  My Father stands there at the edge of the field, beckoning.  “Come on, son.  I’m here.  Even if you don’t make it across the clearing, it will be okay.  I’m not going anywhere.”  He smiles.  I see his eyes, so I’m poised to run….

*New Oxford American Dictionary

journey post 16: A Son’s Heart Set Free

(Part III-a , on The grammar school of freedom)

“If the Son sets you free, then you will be really free”  (John 8:36).


The first time I remember reading those words was 1970 or ‘71.  I had this little paperback New Testament, a new, contemporary English version that I was reading so much it was falling apart.

But the verse puzzled me.  Free?  Close by was another verse that people quote a lot:  “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”  Jesus didn’t seem to be talking about being free from hell.

Freedom was on everyone’s lips in the 60s.  It was the time when our nation, free from the Nazi menace, was getting schooled in what we thought freedom meant, nationally, racially, personally.  Having “survived” Vietnam, I felt very alive and free.  But I would soon be stepping into a religious world beset by legalism, and would not recognize it because I did know how legalistic and performance-minded I already was.  The speed of the performance treadmill in my new world would be considerably faster.  It took 35 years for me to finally get off the treadmill and understand Jesus’ words, “really free.”

Pharisee (Quinn)

I had been confused by all the personal freedom that people were claiming for themselves in the 60s.  I thought there was something wrong with it, but I was unsure why.  Back then, it was likely due to my legalistic sense of self-righteousness:  I was okay, they were not.  They were just selfish and sinful.  I was to be reinforced in that condemnatory view by the new religious milieu into which I was about to enter.

But there was more to  that view than selfishness, which most would agree is wrong.  The 60s thinking went something like this:  “I am free when I am free from all hindrances and obstacles to do what I want.”  The idea wasn’t new by any means; what was new was its wide acceptance.  Within a few years, it would become the unconscious working assumption of the shapers and movers of our nation:  parents, teachers, lawyers, business people, politicians, et al.

So what could have been wrong with that?  Did we not experience a “new birth of freedom,” becoming more tolerant, more accepting and encouraging to people pursuing their individual dreams?  Yes, we did.  But the idea of individualistic freedom is not wrong just because it is selfish.  It is wrong, I now realize, because it does not take account of the complex nature and contradictory desires of the human heart.  (More on this in the next post.)

If there is one thing I have learned in forty-odd years as a Christian, it is that the important things of life come from the heart.  From the heart comes the “ask not what your country can do for you,” the sacrifices on Normandy Beach, the countless acts of charity and love, the routine kindness of friends; and from it also comes cheating on tests, fathers walking away from families, Auschwitz and My Lai.  We puzzle over evil in our world, but in our hearts, we know the answer because we sense what our own conscience says is our inability to consistently do the right.  History is a mirror that we ignore at our peril, a mirror which tells us not to trust in the “basic goodness” of mankind.  Individualistic freedom has become so important that we are unable to evaluate the larger society around us and understand just what is being sucked away from us.  It is being sucked away from our hearts, and we are blind to it.

I was as blind as anyone as long as I was on that treadmill.  Scripture says we cannot evaluate and help someone else as long as we have a log in our own eye (Matthew 7).  In my case, the log was a treadmill….

Here now is a foretaste of the freedom that was to come into my life at the end of the zigzag….

By 2006, I had not solved the underlying problem of what made me a people-pleaser or performance minded.  I was just becoming aware of my thinking, how wrong it was, how self-destructive.  Our church put a premium on pursuing personal holiness such that those who failed were suspect—which set some to running even faster on the treadmill without prospect of being acceptable.

I finally got honest with myself the same as I did on a hospital bed in Vietnam long ago.  I admitted that I did not know if God cared about me at all.  So I asked him:  “Lord, what do you really think of me?  I must know.  I can’t go on like this!”  Sitting in my despair, a verse from Proverbs came to mind, (3:12), that I’d only ever heard when our church disciplined errant members:  “…the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”  Delights?  “Lord,” I said, “you delight in me??”  It was one of those moments when the dawning light changes everything.  Delight?  How could it be?

I Googled my question, and was shocked but intrigued to see links referencing the teaching we had once received in Bible school about our spiritual adoption, that God the Father has adopted those who trust in Jesus as his children.  Back then, it had bounced off my emotional baggage.  I remembered something my friend Andy told me when they adopted a son.  I asked him (this was 1973), “Are you going to tell him he’s adopted?”  “Of course,” came the reply.  “I want him to know just how special he is.”

I began in earnest, exploring “adoption” in Scripture, reading everything I could get my hands on in theology books (not much there) and the personal experiences of various other Christians.  (My reflection and research eventually led to a thesis that I called, “God is out to get you.”)  What did it mean that God is my “Father.”  Wasn’t it merely a title used in prayer?

Long story short, my thinking was getting revised by what I was learning.  I began to focus my Bible reading on the Gospel accounts to find out if Jesus said anything about it.  I read the Gospels so much I began to feel as though I were one of those disciples walking around with Jesus, spending time with him, watching and listening, learning from him to think like him, to know his agenda and what was important to God.  What I was learning was all about what it meant to be an adopted son of the Father.  Jesus didn’t use the word “adoption,” but his teaching was all about a relationship with God and what the Father is like.  Jesus’ confrontations with the leaders were about their legalism  and their distorted view of God:  Christian writer A.W. Tozer once commented, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”*  I began to see how distorted my own picture of God truly was so I set out to get to know him as I had never before.  Jesus taught his disciples to call God their “Abba,” a familiar, intimate name like “Papa.”  He taught them that the Father (Abba) is like the perfect earthly father who always loves, always gives, always protects and provides, who loves unconditionally and never pulls away.  He showed them God by his life: “If you have seen me you have seen the Father.”  Much fell into place for me as I read Jesus, learned all over again to be his disciple, an “apprentice.”


On the day at that writer’s conference that I realized I would never be in the picture with my earthly dad, I also found something greater:  the identity and the key to the freedom I had searched for all my life.  I am my Father’s son.  I am adopted.  This is my identity.  I am loved and delighted in simply because I now belong to him.  Being a son was the key to my freedom.  And I still almost hear the quiet voice of my Father in heaven saying to me, “My son, you will always be in the picture with me.”

Free at last.


* The Knowledge of the Holy, The Attributes of God: Their Meaning in the Christian Life (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1961), 1.

journey post 15: My Old Man in the Sky (The grammar school of freedom, Part II)

Self-righteous, judgmental, legalistic, hypocritical, irrelevant jerk.

These are strong words, heard loudly and often, especially in speaking about evangelical Christians.  Some Christians simply dismiss such talk as “persecution for Jesus’ sake.”  But thoughtful Christians—and many non-Christians—recognize that those words are not without validity, that those broadly termed “evangelicals” do not quite fit the picture of salt and light that Jesus had in mind, that they are not known for reflecting him by love for one another in sacrificial servanthood.

A popular pastor in Manhattan, Tim Keller, has gone so far as to say that the “greatest hindrance to people becoming Christian is other Christians.”  He’s not alone: he cited G.K. Chesterton to the same effect.  I ran across a similar quote from Gandhi.  Gandhi spent years in Great Britain when younger in the company of Christians.  Gandhi got much of his inspiration for his nonviolent strategy from Jesus.  But he was not treated very well in “Christian” Britain.  Among his words are these stingers:  “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.  Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”*

Gandhi olderGandhi young

Gandhi…the way you might picture him, and as he was as a young man

I’m not here to bash Christians or defend them.  I am one.  I am here to explore why, not long ago, the words at the top could have referenced me….  Well, maybe not “jerk.”  I was “courteous and kind,” and other Boy Scout words, but inside the heart (the thing God sees), those words really did apply.

CS Lewis Mere Christianity

Previously, I mentioned that I set myself up to buy into a legalistic version of evangelical Christianity while reading C.S. Lewis on the “law of human nature,” the moral law in our conscience.  But I also made a point of saying that it was not the Church that made me a legalist.  I arrived at the Church door with my legalism already in place.  That’s why I’m writing about it now, before continuing with Lewis.

What made me a legalist?   I’d better define the word.  The term is thrown around a lot among Christians and by others to refer to them.  The word refers to a person who strictly adheres to some law or moral code, to the letter of the law rather than its spirit.  In a religious context, it generally is used in two ways:  First, it refers to a person whose reliance (faith) in attaining salvation is based on how well they keep the law.  Secondly, it refers to a person who judges conduct—their own or others—by the law.  The Pharisees, who clashed with Jesus so much, have given their very name to the idea behind legalism.  Their conflicts with Jesus were about man-made tradition and performance-oriented minutia used to make themselves (and their followers) acceptable.  They missed God’s intention entirely.

Pharisee (Quinn)

A Pharisee (portrayed by actor Anthony Quinn)

Talk with a legalist for long, and you’ll see that they strive to look good in their own eyes by comparing themselves with others.  (I was a “kind” legalist, but still l tried to justify myself.)  Legalists may feel smug about their ability to do what their law demands.  Yet, since even the legalist is human, there will be times when, as in Lewis’ explanation of the great “unease,” they know the imperfection within.

Another way to describe a legalist is as a person with a performance mindset—a person who is seeking acceptance with God, others, or even themselves by their behavior.  You may know an adult child who lives their life seeking to earn the approval of a parent.  No matter what, no matter how well, it’s never quite good enough.  That verdict may be only in the mind, may not be conscious—but it’s there.

That was me.  Only, I didn’t know it.  I could have debated you up and down how I was a Christian, saved by “grace” (a free gift from God), received by faith.  Yet, in the quiet moments, I too had this “great unease.”  In those moments I wondered whether, if I looked over my shoulder, would I see his smile or that critical eye?  Like anyone else, I wanted to hear a “well done!” but expected a “not good enough.”

So how did I get that way?  For some 35 years, I never once thought myself a legalist.  I did begin to see my performance mindset clearly about eight years ago.  I’d long known that I tended to be a “people pleaser,” i.e., I tried to please people by my behavior, but I figured that’s just the way I am.  Then I saw how much a cloud of uncertainty hung over my relationship with God:  it would never have occurred to me that God was pleased with me.  Oh, I knew that I would go to heaven because Jesus paid for my sin, but I assumed I would become a permanent  occupant of some back seat, some lower shelf, some divine dog house (no humor intended), while God enjoyed spending time with the others.  Why I thought this way remained a mystery to me until, a couple years ago, I had to write a story for a writer’s conference.

I wrote about my relationship with my dad, and how I had grown up believing he favored my older brother over me.  My dad died when I was 13, just a few weeks after my brother left to join the navy.

At the conference, the story was returned with this comment: “You’re flying over at 10,000 feet, looking down on someone else”—a detailed snapshot without feeling.  That night, I fell asleep praying and awoke remembering a discovery:  a drawer filled with family photos.  I was six or seven.  One photo stood out:  my brother, Fred, perhaps a year and a half old, sitting on my dad’s lap, pecking away on a typewriter, my dad’s obvious delight captured in time, inscribed in my mind.

I kept going back to the drawer looking for a picture I was sure must be there: the one with just me and my dad.  I never found it.

The hurt from that “missing picture” hit me like an unexpected wave.  I didn’t exist to my dad, it was obvious, evidenced by him dying shortly after my brother left.  That hurt was buried in the baggage I carried when I became a Christian.  I see clearly now how that perception (true or not) tied in with my performance mindset, my compulsion to please, to prove myself better than my brother, and I’ve spent much of my life trying to figure out who I am.  Little wonder that, when we learned how God the Father has adopted us as his children, it made no impression:  research confirms intuition that children gain their initial understanding of God from their parents’ model, especially the fathers.  My model was distant, seemingly uninvolved, not much caring, probably disapproving.

Lo and behold, this is the very picture that most Americans—even most evangelical Christians—have of God:  the old man in the sky, the judge who sits on his throne in heaven.  Jesus may be my friend, but God is my judge.  That is, indeed, great unease.

Jerry Bridges, respected Christian author and discipler now in his 80s, has pointed out that, in his experience, most evangelical Christians live on what he calls a “performance treadmill.”   They are sure of heaven but unsure of God’s acceptance.  The more committed Christians, he notes, run faster on the treadmill, feeling they are falling behind.  They are looking over their shoulders, looking for a smile but expecting that critical eye….

That was me.  And that was my old man in the sky.

*http://thinkexist.com/quotes/mahatma_gandhi/  (accessed 2/19/11)

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