Tag Archives: love

Does God Need You?

I remember the moment. The painful moment.

The pastor hadn’t been expecting the VBS coordinator to be giving a special announcement, but he looked up and saw her standing at the back of the sanctuary, waving her recruitment sign.

Vacation Bible Study was right around the corner, and she needed help.

So the pastor invited her up to make her announcement. After enumerating the myriad tasks that needed to be done, the VBS coordinator concluded: “We need you. The kids need you. And God needs you.”

The pastor was in a bind. He rightly hated manipulative appeals for help, and he was afraid we’d just been given one. And so, the theological reinterpretation commenced:

“God doesn’t need you. The kids might need you….” probably followed by a reframing of the plea to consider serving our kids.

It was a Presbyterian church, with strong Reformed theology. And at the heart of it lay this deep conviction about the sovereignty of God.

“God doesn’t need you.”

There is a sense in which I have to agree with the idea that God doesn’t need us. The crucifixion-resurrection complex stands as an eternal judgment upon the self-righteous religious who become so convinced that we are at the center of things that we rise up against God’s plans and inadvertently destroy them.

In that sense, then, God doesn’t need us, because God can raise the dead. God can call the things that are not so that they are.

“Don’t think to say to yourself, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones!”

The Radical Vulnerability of God. Image courtesy of Artur84 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Artur84 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Ah… there’s the rub. God might not need me to be a child of Abraham, but God still needs children of Abraham–or else God and God’s story are a failure.

God might not need the first century law-keeping religious leaders to bring about God’s promised salvation, but God still needs a faithful human king–and that risen king’s only remaining item of business before leaving the place was to send out a handful of folks on mission.

When I started writing this blog, I called it “Storied Theology: Telling the Story of the Story-Bound God.” The sub-title was a nod in the direction of deconstructing the idea that God’s “otherness” leaves God completely free to act as God will.

God has chosen a different path.

God has chosen humanity, Israel, David, and Christ. God has chosen the apostles, prophets, preachers, and servants.

Recently, Andy Crouch gave a talk in which he outlined the main thesis of his new book; namely, that right use of power only comes when we properly embrace both the gift of power and of vulnerability.

God, of course, embraced the vulnerability of power in not only becoming human but even in the death of the Beloved Son.

But I don’t think it ends there.

God continues to depend on people, to subject Godself to the vulnerability of the fact that people must recognize God’s work in the world, enact God’s work on the world’s behalf, and be the enactment of the saving story God is writing.

God can do whatever God wants.

What God has chosen to do is to enter into a gifting relationship with the world and the church that leaves open the real possibility of being ignored, even of (on the small scale) failure.

This is the vulnerability that is true expression of power in a relationship of love. This is why, I think the VBS coordinator was right.

God needs you. And so do the kids. And so do we.

Children of the Father: Cruciform Love

There are lots of options available to us when we start to ask the question, “What does it look like to faithfully live a life of following Jesus?”

I keep coming back to the cross.

Love is a huge category, and a good claim can be made for “love” as the defining marker of the Christian person or community.

But love is also a category amenable to all sorts of content. And in the Christian story, love is made known when the Father does not spare his own son but delivers him up for us all.

And, love is made known when the son so loves the world that he gives himself to the humbling of incarnation and the ultimate humiliation of death–so that we might live.

In biblical parlance, to be a son of someone is to be like that person. The son of righteousness is a righteous person. The son of man is a human being.

What does it mean to be a child of God? It is to live a life of sacrificial love that is most concretely displayed on the cross:

Therefore, imitate God like dearly loved children. Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. (Ephesians 5:1, CEB)

Imitation of God entails imitation of the Christ who, in love, gave himself so that we might live.

I see an overtone of this even in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. What does it look like to love as God loves? It’s to love even in the face of persecution–to love the enemy and pray for him or her:

I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. (Matthew 5:44-48)

The love of God is shown in an indiscriminate showering of blessing. But, importantly, that means as well that the love of God overcomes resistance and persecution.

It is a love that turns the other cheek–exposing us to more shame.

It is a love that goes two miles rather than one–giving ourselves over to the enemy who would impress us for his own good.

This is the way of the cross. This is cruciform love.

Free to Say No

If we think we’re free to say no to God, should this influence how we navigate the choppy waters of engaging culturally and politically as Christians?

Most people I know think that we are free to say no to God. Was it C. S. Lewis who spoke of eternal perdition of God’s final, “Thy will be done” spoken to the creature?

Indeed, human freedom of the will (an idea that never gets any airtime in the entire Bible) is a much firmer part of most of my students’ theology than their tentative affirmations of “predestination” (which is affirmed in several places in scripture).

We experience ourselves as free, and that freedom is one that, in our experience, extends to our receptivity to the call of God. And gifted theologians do find helpful ways of marrying freedom and Providence.

While I was reading Barth last week, I was struck by something that, I confess, I cannot find at the moment! (So I may be making this up.)

Barth was talking about God being glorious in God’s freedom. The discussion of God’s glory in freedom shifted for a moment, to claim not only that God is glorious as God acts freely, but that God is glorious as God gives humanity the ability to act freely as well.

God is glorified in his willingness to allow the creature to say no to God.

It made me wonder if we truly believe in the freedom that we say we value so highly. If we believe that God does not want to force compliance or love (for then it would not be love!) then why do we so often see ourselves charged with enforcing compliance to the will, law, or theology of God as we understand it?

It struck me that a people who would not have ourselves compelled should not compel others, but should summon them with love.

All of us are willing to affirm the greatness of Jesus’ words of love:

Do unto others as you would have done unto you.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

But are we able to own up to what we would have done unto ourselves? Will we genuinely acknowledge our desires, our freedoms, our refusal to be compelled, when we are face-to-face with a neighbor who has different desires, yearns to exercise her freedom in a manner differently than we have exercised ours, resists the compulsions of the Jesus story we participate in?

If we insist on our right to say no (or to have said no) to our God, what might that mean for our neighbor who may want that right as well?

Patience and Wisdom

As we think about who God is, we often struggle to hold down ideas that appear contradictory to us. How can God be both holy and gracious? How can a just God also be merciful? How can the God whose wisdom calls us to a definite way of life exercise patience with those who refuse?

These are the three pairs of seemingly incompatible attributes that Barth unpacks in his chapter on the God who loves (Church Dogmatics §30, “The Perfections of the Divine Loving”).

While I resonated with the tensions of the first two pairs, I found the Patience and Wisdom section to be a bit more strained.

The strength of this section, as usual, came in the insistence that we don’t know from any sort of ideals or preconceptions of what a God is or might be that God is wise and patient. We only know that this is who God is because it is who God has revealed Godself to be in Jesus Christ.

What is the true God’s patience?

Patience exists where space and time are given with a definite intention, where freedom is allowed in expectation of a response.

God is patient in eager expectation that those reconciled to God in Christ will enter the relationship God has created in him.

This section of the Dogmatics contained a couple of beautiful, revisionist readings of biblical passages, including here God’s marking of Cain. The preservation and defense of the murderer is the triumph of God’s mercy and patience.

When Barth moved into the discussion of wisdom, I felt that Jesus Christ as the wisdom of God was too much confined to the small print, and not given enough of a defining place in the major theological structure. The desire to juxtapose wisdom with patience felt strained at this point.

Nonetheless, there was another beautiful revisionist reading of the OT, as Barth discussed the story of Solomon suggesting that a contested baby be split in half and given to the parents. There is a people who profess to come to God in search of wisdom, but would take death to be proven right. And there is a people who come to God in search of wisdom, and would rather suffer the personal loss in order to give life to the other.

The two women end up representing a people standing before God, whose wisdom is made known in the cross of Christ–and is, therefore, not a wisdom that can be known from below, but only by God’s own revelation.

The patient God is wise–patiently awaiting a people who will see God’s own wisdom made manifest in the cross.

From here, Barth will move into the God who is perfect in freedom. Apparently, this is either more important or much more difficult to talk about than God as love. §31 extends over the next 240ish pages of the book. Steel yourself…

The Command of the Foot Washer

The debate about the place of the Law (or not) rages on in the comments of yesterday’s post, whilst my life is flooded with non-cyber-life that has me engaged elsewhere.

But perhaps we might allow Maundy Thursday to direct a contribution to the discussion.

Depending on whom you ask, “maundy” may be derivative of the Latin form of Jesus’ statement, “A new command I give to you…” (mandatum novum do vobis). And that brings us to the heart of things–and the possible meanings we might affix to the later Johannine literature as well. What is the command of Jesus?

Full understanding of the command is unfolded over the course of the narrative.

John has made the footwashing itself an anticipation of Jesus’ coming death on the cross. It is the time when he “lays aside” his mastery and girds himself as a servant, the time when he “takes up again” his garments, laying his self-humility aside. In this, he illustrates the part of the Good Shepherd who lays aside his life for the sheep and then takes it up again.

The footwashing is a cleansing that enables the disciples to have a share in himself–and it is an illustration of the full extent of Jesus’ love.

The footwashing is what Jesus does when he knows that his time has come to depart from the world and return to the Father.

The footwashing opens up the Book of Glory with an enactment of the coming crucifixion.

Returning to his place, Jesus says, “Do you know what I have done for you? You call me master and teacher–and you’re right! For I am! So… If I, the master and teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example, so that you would do as I have done.”

Footwashing. Or, perhaps, laying down our lives for one another?

Keep reading in the passage, and Jesus predicts his departure, after which he gives his new command:

“I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:34-35, CEB)

John had told us that the footwashing was picturing the full extent of Jesus’ love. Might this, “love one another as I have loved you” be a command to love each other with the self-giving love of Christ?

Jesus closes the loop in John 15:

This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:12-14, CEB)

There is, of course, continuity with what came before: love of neighbor is nothing new.

But what is love? What does love look like? How do we know love when we see it?

On Maundy Thursday Jesus enacts the love that should define his people: a self-giving love, a laying down one’s life so that others might live.

The defining story of our salvation (Jesus died for us) becomes the defining story of Christian community (so ought we to die for one another).

This is why Christian love can be a testimony to all that we are Jesus’ disciples–not because only Christians can love, but because Christian love has a particular definition. And that definition is the cross.

On Loving in Freedom

How are we to think of God?

When folks start getting all technical about it, they sometimes talk about God’s attributes as “communicable” and “incommunicable”: who God is for us, the God we can share in (on the one hand), and who God is in Godself, the God we cannot participate in (on the other).

Karl Barth calls us to caution here.

God is the God of love. But this is not merely about the God how is for us and with us, this is the Triune God from all eternity.

And God is the God of freedom. But this is not merely about the God who is Other. God is perfectly free in his entering into his various relationships with the created order.

Barth Experiences God Via His Pipe

Throughout §28-29 of Church Dogmatics, Barth has been developing this groundwork for the reality of the identity of God: God as God is revealed is the God who is; and the God who is is none other than the God we meet as revealed (and concealed) in revelation by Christ, Scripture, and preaching.

In the next two sections we’re going to hear about the attributes of God that express God’s love (§30) and those that express the perfection of God’s freedom (§31)–but all in such a way as to keep both love and freedom on the table at all times.

Overall, I like what Barth is going for here: he does not want us to think that we have some idea of Godness that we’re striving for, some ideal form that indicates God who is “other” and “out there.”

Moreover, Barth wants to ensure that when we turn to ask, “What is God?” we do not attempt to separate that answer from the all-important “Who is God?” that he has been answering in his development of the doctrine of God who is known in Christ.

I like that.

I wish, though, for a couple of things.

One, I feel that we have spent so much time in the Trinity lately that the revelation of God in the story of Jesus has grown dim. The closer we stick to Christology, the happier I am. I know that Barth himself intends all of this to be such an exposition. I wish to see it clearer at time.

Also, the appeal to the narrative as a true revelation of God is a double-edged sword. While it does, as Barth acknowledges, mean that the God we see here is the God who is, I wonder if Barth has left open enough space for how the story might impact and influence God?

Might the God who loves in freedom eternally surrender some aspect of his freedom to bind himself to the story of Israel? Some change in God’s freedom and even love must be apparent when God becomes eternally incarnate.

But more importantly, what about the ways that God deals differently with people over time. Without going for “God figuring out how to be God,” if the relationship between God and Israel, God and the church, is a true relationship, might that binding and the self-giving of God to the people and the people responding in faithfulness or rebellion, not influence God (cf. incarnation above, for one) in some meaningful sense? Might God not respond to the created order and thus not act merely in sovereign freedom?

Here we have the set-up: we can’t find love only in God for us, but it is part of God as God is in eternal Triunity. We can’t find God’s freedom only in God who is Other, but it is part of God as God is for us. Next we’ll move on to see how this plays out in grace and holiness, mercy and righteous.

Note for new readers: I’m on a 7ish year plan to blog through the Church Dogmatics. Full reading schedule and earlier posts can be found by clicking the Karl Barth Reading tab above.

God is Love?

“God is love.”

This is one of the most important things Christians say about God. And, it is one of the most abused.

The problem with saying “God is love” is twofold. First, we assume that we know what love means already, so the phrase becomes a bit of a mirror rather than an insight into the divine. Secondly, we make the mistake of thinking that because we can say “God is love,” we can flip the subject and the predicate and faithfully say, “Love is God.”

But Barth gets it right on both counts.

As his discussion of the identity of God unfolds in CD 28.2, the “Being of God as the one who Loves” is continually drawn back to the love of God as it is made known in the Father’s giving of the Son for us.

This is the best of Trinitarian theology: cultivating an understanding of what it means to say “God is” that is relentlessly tied to how God is made known in the story. It is a theology from below, a theology that trusts that the way God has revealed Godself in the stories of Israel and Christ is not mere condescension and analogy, but truthfully revelatory of who this God is.

I confess: the sorts of claims Barth makes in this chapter, while I agree, take increasing amounts of faith the more I compare and contrast other people’s ways of talking about God. The idea that we are not projecting into heaven but receiving what heaven has brought down to us requires an assent to this story, and its claims to be the playground of God.

Throughout the section, Barth reminds us not to think that our abstractions are the ideals to which God conforms: not “personhood,” not “the absolute,” not “the infinite,” not “the power,” and not even love–until love is shaped by the story of the self-giving Son, given of the Father.

This is the triune God–the one who is known as the one who gives in love.

Believable

Communities make things believable.

They are the “plausibility structures” that provide us with the scaffolding we need to integrate what we experience with what we believe.

Given the right plausibility structure, the belief that the earth is under 10,000 years old becomes largely self-evident, the clear grid for assessing every piece of scientific data. Given the right plausibility structure, and the belief that the earth is 4.5 billion years old plays this same role.

Once we become aware of this, we are confronted by the question: what do the communities I am a part of make believable?

I return regularly here to the Story of Jesus as the defining marker of Christian faith and Christian community. The story of Christ crucified and raised is what makes Christians Christian. It is the unbelievable claim that God so loved the world that He gave His Son; that the Son so loved the world that he gave himself; that the self-giving Son was the self-raising son; that the son-giving Father is the Son-Raising God.

My concern is this: it is all too rare that we as Christian communities sustain this narrative as credible by our lives together.

We create communities that grow under the guidance of dynamic leadership and sharp speakers. I did not need the death of Jesus to make plausible that good leadership will grow an organization.

We create communities that thrive under the rubric of a common theological system. I did not need the resurrection of Jesus to make plausible that shared belief, differentiating one political party… er… system of doctrine from another creates cohesion and attracts adherents.

Christian community is supposed to create a plausibility structure, one that makes credible the self-giving love of Christ: “By this all people will know you are my disciples–if you love one another.”

This love is the storied love of our gospel narrative: “Love one another as I have loved you–greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”

We are called to renarrate the story in our life together, so that our story will be believable.

And, of course, the converse side of this call is that we are just as capable of making our story unbelievable when our communities thrive on something other than our story or become playgrounds for dissension and arguments, self-serving protection and consumption of our neighbor.

Gaining Assurance

Ever wished you had a little more certainty about the whole Christian story? How do you respond to your moments of doubt, or those episodes when things feel tenuous? Is there a biblical “program” for attaining to full assurance of the faith we confess in Christ?

The Christian faith has numerous several heroes of uncertainty replaced by faith. There are the stories of Augustine and Luther, overcoming lust and guilt, respectively. There are the more modern stories of the likes of Josh McDowell examining the biblical “evidence” for its truthfulness.

Image: xedos4 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

So there are, apparently, lots of ways forward toward assurance, depending on your issues, your personality, and the like.

But there’s one that we don’t hear about so much. It’s the way that Colossians offers as the road to assurance. It’s the way of love:

My goal is that their hearts would be encouraged and united together in love so that they might have all the riches of assurance that come with understanding, so that they might have the knowledge of the secret plan of God, namely Christ. (Col 2:2, CEB)

While we so often put a premium on the knowledge we can gain, the understanding of complex matters for which we can muster an argument, as the means to assurance, we find a different route laid out by Paul here.

It is the hearts united in love that attain to assurance and understanding. Hearts united in love pave the road to full knowledge of Christ.

In John, Jesus tells his disciples, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples–if you love one another.”

Apparently, that love is not only a signpost for the outsiders, but for the insiders as well.

A community of heart-knit love is the way to full assurance.

Integration

Blogsphere confessional: I hate New Year’s Resolutions. Mostly, this is because I’m full of myself. I tell myself that when I see something that needs to change, I just do it. Why wait for a new year to begin what I should have already started doing?

But I now repent in sackcloth and ashes.

Basically, what this tells you about me is that I don’t like something until I own it. Then it becomes the greatest thing ever. At least, until I leave it behind again.

(Note to self: talk to therapist about God complex: things become good by my involvement with and blessing of them, as I see the world.)

So to what do I now find myself needing to commit as the new year approaches? A more integrated life. By this I mean that I can no longer sideline everything else other than working and taking care of the kids.

A few weeks ago I had a flare up of a sometimes-recurring lower back pain. Put simply, this is “sitting on my butt” disease. Sit too long in the car. Sit too long in front of the computer. Your back ends up doing too much of the work, your other muscles don’t support you as they should. The lower back spasms. And you end up wasting a day of your life at the doctor and shuffling around at about the speed of a three-toed sloth.

This was a wake-up call to me: the life that I am given to live on this earth is not just a life of work and family–as important as those things are; it’s not just about mind and community. It is also an embodied life. And more…

So I return to the great command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and am reminded that applying this in my little world means adding some things that I have allowed to fall to the side.

I cannot love God with my mind if I have so neglected my body that it will not allow me the solace to sit and read and write.

Of course, once I start thinking about the holistic calling to love God, other areas of neglect surface soon enough as well.

And so, back to my original confession: I have a few days of vacation here before the New Year. Days in which to not only fret about the syllabus that has yet to be written for next Wednesday’s class, but also to take inventory of a life that does not fully lean God-ward as I would have it.

With a new year, a new quarter, and a newly awakened awareness, I think of restructuring my days and my week so that the care I take of my life might show in action the fullness of integration that I confess to need in theory.

So bring on the new year’s resolutions. And maybe even the actions that make good on them.