(Editor’s note: I began working on this post while vacationing at Antioch Ranch the 2nd week of October, 2014.
I was editing it during down time at work the morning of October 24th, 2014, when I fielded a radio call for “shots fired” and an “officer down” at the Motel 6 on Arden way in Sacramento. That incident continued into what became one of the most intense day’s I’ve worked during my career at the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department.
The massive law enforcement response culminated with a manhunt and ultimate capture of the individuals that shot (at this date allegedly) and killed one Sacramento County deputy, shot two Placer County deputies killing one and injuring the other, shot and gravely injured a civilian during an attempted carjacking, and carjacked two other cars by force.
The irony, or perhaps coincidence, that a great deal of this post deals with the concept of “forgiveness” is not lost on me.
It’s into this headspace that I go back and read, contemplate, and edit the post I was preparing. After all, if I believe anything about God, then that belief has to work not only during good times, but during bad times, too. To that end, read with me……)
One of the things I wanted to accomplish while vacationing at Antioch Ranch this year, was to take time to think about my faith, and try to quantify and make some sense of what it is I believe about Jesus, God, redemption, the Cross, sin and all that those things entail.
No small task, to be sure. I’ve failed utterly to “define” things, so far, but I’ve done well in pondering some of the things I’ve wanted to ponder.
Sometimes, I’m pretty sure, I ponder too much.
But, to the point, I have been pondering many things about theology, which I think is important, because, as A.W. Tozer (a man whose writings I am familiar with only insofar as I’ve read several other authors that reference his work) wrote,
“The thoughts we think about God are the most important things about us”.
There are other things Tozer said with which I don’t so much agree, but I think this is a good saying.
You see, the things we think about God - whether we are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Atheist, Pantheist, Pagan, Satanist, Decline to State, Any Combination of All Of the Above, None Of the Above, or Really Don’t Care – these thoughts define us and form our lives, whether we think they do or not.
They just do.
If god exists (admittedly, an unprovable “if”, and even that thought is formative in and of itself), then some sort of relationship is implied and inferred, be it distant, or close, or even non-existent. The thoughts that this god might be happy with us, disappointed in us, loving toward us, uncaring about us, or even that god might not exist at all – all of these thoughts influence how we relate to god in return.
Whatever WE think about how God relates to US influences how WE relate about OTHER PEOPLE.
Muslims think of God as being a certain way, and their system of religion and way of life reflects that belief.
Jews think of God as being a certain way, and their system of religion and way of life reflects that belief.
Hindus think of God (or the gods) as being a certain way, and their system of religion and way of life reflects that belief.
Buddhist think of God (or the non-existence of a specific god, or the reincarnation of one’s spirit) as being a certain way (or not being), and their system of religion and way of life reflects that belief.
Atheists think that God doesn’t exist, and their system of religion (yes, “not believing in god” is a belief in and of itself) and their way of life reflects that belief.
All of us - Pantheists, Pagans, Decline to State, None of the Above, and all various combinations possible - all of us have some ideas and inklings on “what God is like (or not like)”, whether or not it’s a well-developed notion, or whether or not we’ve ever actively thought about it.
When the answer to the question “what do you think about God?” is a shrug of the shoulders and a non-committal….. “Meh,”…. even that is a notion on God. The disinterest in God is in fact a notion about God – God is deemed not worthy of reflection. Even that noncommittal notion about God affects our life and how we relate to others. Our lives will reflect that through how we live.
So, with that in mind, I have been pondering and evaluating my own thoughts on God, faith, salvation, redemption, and the Cross, and have been actively seeking what others think on the matter. Turns out there is NO shortage of opinions.
So, to that end, I took a little light reading along to help me. I didn’t get through all of it yet, but what I have gotten through has been helpful….
"Unconditional? The Call Of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness” by Brian Zahnd.
“A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace” by Brian Zahnd.
…..and I was (so fortuitously) given to read by our hosts, Pat and Jerry Westfall,
“Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense” by N.T. Wright.
I started out with “Unconditional” because I have been drawn lately to ponder the phenomenon of forgiveness, and what the Bible has to say about. More specifically, what Jesus says on the matter.
Some notable quotes from what I've read that are helping me to formulate my thoughts lately:
“It should be obvious from an honest reading of the Gospels that Jesus expected his disciples to master the lessons he taught and actually live a life centered on love and forgiveness.”
“Do we see the practice of forgiveness as synonymous with being a Christian? When grappling with the question of forgiveness, we eventually have to grapple with the question of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. It’s all too easy to reduce being a Christian to a conferred status – the result of having “accepted Jesus as your personal Savior”. But that kind of minimalist approach is a gross distortion of what the earliest followers of Jesus understood being a Christian to mean. The original Christians didn't merely (or even primarily) see themselves as those who had received a “get out of hell free” card from Jesus, but as followers, students, learners, and disciples of the one whom they called Master and Teacher. Jesus was the master, they were the disciples.”
Zahnd touches on the concept that the way of the world, recycled revenge and a tit-for-tat mentality as the way to achieve justice, is what Jesus came to put to an end. The endless wars in the Middle East, for example, are a perfect image of the endless seeking for justice through the tit-for-tat cycle of recycled violence, trying to gain an advantage through force and power. So is American politics – an endless cycle of tit-for-tat posturing and positioning.
All of us have learned to live life after this fashion.
From the playground to the work place, to our homes and our streets, the endless cycle of tit-for-tat vengeance and the use of force or violence (be it actually assaulting someone, or a snide insult meant to cut without leaving a mark) as a means to achieve “justice” (which is always defined as in our favor) is endless.
Look at Ferguson, MO. Without passing judgment on any one side, it works like this: one tribe of people feels an injustice has been done, and the crowd demands, essentially, “an eye for an eye” justice – a scapegoat, upon which they can expend their need for vengeance. This, of course, spurs those of whom this justice is demanded – the “them”, those on the “other” side, those on the side of the scapegoat - to prepare for battle and defend their view of justice, and their tribe. The tribe originally offended then up the ante of rhetoric and violence, which initiates an even stronger response in return. Left to its own, this cycle will never end. It will continue to escalate until more people die in an effort to achieve “justice “for one tribe or the other. Someone, some side in the conflict, must absorb the pain and extend grace and forgive, ending the endless cycle, or it will never end.
Which tribe extends grace and, absorbs the pain and offers forgiveness?
According to Jesus, your tribe. You extend the forgiveness.
Forgiveness is often (in fact almost always) painful, but it is necessary for peace in the world, and is essential to the Kingdom of God. Most importantly, though, this is what Jesus did for the world – his forgiveness is free to us (grace), but was very costly to him (mercy).
In Matthew 18, we read the parable of the man who owed his master an obscenely large amount of money. Being unable to pay, he begged his master for mercy, who granted it and forgave the debt. Upon leaving, the man whose obscenely large debt was forgiven found a man who owed him a small amount of money, and brutally demanded it be paid. Unable to pay, the forgiven servant had the debtor arrested and thrown in prison. The Master, hearing about this, had the servant brought before him and said to him, “You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?” To which Jesus tied it all up by saying “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”
“….let’s understand the cross of Christ correctly. The cross of Christ is less the payment of a debt than it is the absorption of injustice. In the parable (Matt 18:21-35), the Master is not repaid; he simply absorbs the loss. It is only in absorbing the pain of his loss that he is able to offer pardon to the debtor. Indeed, the forgiveness of great wrongs is never cheap but is always painful, because someone must bear the loss.’
This concept is just as valid for the world stage as it is in our homes, our schools, our cities, our workplaces, and yes, even our churches and our families. .
“Through adopting the call of Jesus to employ radical forgiveness, we find a way out of the cycle of recycled revenge. We find a way out of a futile life that is nothing more than a battle from beginning to end.
“This is the Jesus way. And we need to see that the Jesus way is far more than “how to go to heaven when you die”. When Jesus said he was the way, the truth, and the life, he wasn't just saying he was the way to salvation in a postmortem afterlife; rather, he was claiming that his way of living is the true way that leads to life! The Jesus way is always the way of forgiveness. Seventy times seven! This is the way that ends the endless battle, that breaks the cycle of recycled revenge, and that refuses to follow death and all his friends. This is the way that gives the future a hope.”
“I’m convinced that one of the reasons we are so deeply tempted to reduce the salvation found in Jesus Christ to a largely private and primarily postmortem event is that, whereas we believe in Jesus as our “personal savior”, we are still not convinced of his ideas. At times we remain as cynical as Pilate. Sure, we believe that Jesus can save us for the next life, but in this life it is not the cross that saves, but the sword. Or so we think. But the sword of vengeance (and that’s what we always claim the sword for – the vengeance of justice) is the perfect symbol of a world stuck in the bitter cycle of revenge.”
Now, in reading Brian Zhand, I've been enjoying his holistic view of Christianity as so much more than just personal salvation and piety so I can go to heaven when I die. His view, a view often lost in the West, but still alive and vital in much of Eastern Christianity (Eastern Orthodox, etc.) is the idea that God is not only offering people salvation, but is engaged in a great rescue mission to not only redeem people, but to enlist redeemed people in God’s rescue and restoration project for the entire world.
A theme I've found very prevalent in N.T. Wright’s “Simply Christian”.
Indeed, I’m certain that Zhand is a fan, and has read quite a bit, of N.T. Wright.
In “Simply Christian”, Wright begins with the longings and desires of mankind in general, things that we all share a taste or desire for: a desire for justice, an innate spirituality, the need for relationship, and a deep longing for the beauty in life. All of these he calls “echoes of a Voice” that all humans seems to hear.
Wright then expounds on why he finds Christianity as the most satisfying explanation for these desires, and indeed, the most satisfying answer to how to achieve these desires.
“Finally, Christianity isn't about giving the world fresh teaching about God himself – though, clearly, if the Christian claim is true, we do indeed learn a great deal about who God is by looking at Jesus. The “need” which the Christian faith answers is not so much that we are ignorant and need better information, but that we are lost and need someone to come and find us, stuck in the quicksand waiting to be rescued, dying and in need of new life.
“So what is Christianity about, then?
“Christianity is about the belief that the living God, in fulfillment of his promises and as the climax of the story of Israel, has accomplished all this – the finding, the saving, (and) the giving of new life – in Jesus. He has done it. With Jesus, God’s rescue operation has been put into effect once and for all. A great door has been swung open in the cosmos which can never again be shut. It’s the door to the prison where we've been kept chained up. We are offered freedom: freedom to experience God’s rescue for ourselves……. We are all invited – summoned actually- to discover, through following Jesus, that this new world is indeed a place of justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty, and that we are not only to enjoy is as such but to work to bring it to birth on earth as in heaven. In Jesus, we discover whose voice it is that has echoed around the hearts and minds of the human race all along. “
Wright’s writing is so rich that it difficult to summarize it, but the paragraphs above, I think, hit the highlights.
Which brings me to some things I’ve been pondering about God. After all, what I think about God is the most important thing about me, right?
I think God is so much more loving and forgiving and graceful and merciful than I've ever thought before. Everything I read in the Bible lately, I read through new eyes, and the lens of the Cross, where Jesus said “It is finished,” and “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
I believe the atoning work, the reconciling of creation to God, through Jesus at the cross, was completely, utterly, and fully accomplished for all of creation and everything in creation at that moment. I think the purpose of all human life is to learn to see, to join in with, to live in, and to celebrate this great work that been done for us, and to worship and follow our risen and rightful King of Kings, Jesus.
I see the “Great Commission” not as a dictate to go and save souls from hell by garnering a confession of faith, but an invitation to join Jesus on a journey He has laid out for us;
To teach people the new reality of what God has done for us and all creation, reconciling us and beginning the process of healing and restoral, through Jesus!
To tell people of the new and existent Kingdom of which Jesus is King has arrived and is in place now!
To help people see that they have been set free from death by Jesus at the cross!
To help people see the new reality that exists because of what Jesus did at the cross!
To baptize people into this new life, and help them to see the true nature of the life that Jesus brings!
So, here’s a few of my own thoughts, of the top of my head, and in no particular order. I encourage you, as you read them, to place yourself in the first person with me, and read them from your own point of view. Take the good, throw out the bad.
1. God’s only disposition toward me is, has always been and eternally shall ever be, love.
2. God has never been angry with me, and never will be. See point 1.
3. God grieves with me when I am sad, and is joyful with me when I am happy.
4. God always wants what is best for me, and, like a good parent, will allow me to learn my lessons when needed.
5. God does not control everything in my life. This is not so say God is not sovereign, but that God has granted me free will, and because God is love, God has taken on the risk of his beloved not always returning the love God freely gives. God has given mankind a staggering amount of freedom, and we often use it to create chaos and pain instead of beauty and joy.
6. I can grieve God, and God actually experiences sadness by some of the things I do. I can please God, and God actually experiences gladness by some of the things I do. See point 5.
7. Because of point 1, point 4, and point 5, God put into plan a way to redeem those whom God loves (which I believe is, of course, everyone who has ever lived), which involved God becoming incarnate on earth as Jesus, and as Jesus taking upon himself all the injustice and “sin” in the world, in order to rescue mankind (all of us, everyone who has ever lived) from the futility of death, and usher into this present world the beginning of the renewal which will culminate with Jesus’ return to reign in a very real, physical sense, over a world of which he is already “King of Kings, and Lord of Lords”.
8. Salvation is available and is effective to all people, from all times, by and through the grace of God alone, as demonstrated by the incredible love and forgiveness offered by Jesus on the cross to those who knew no better. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”. Not, “Father forgive them when they come to their senses and ask for forgiveness” or when they accept that they are sinners, believe in Jesus, and confess Jesus as Lord…. no, Jesus asked God to forgive them in the midst of their evil plans to kill….well….. to kill God.
9. The “Great Commission” is not Jesus command to go and make converts to Christianity. The evangelical urge to get people converted, and to wring out a ‘confession of faith” makes people into projects – things to get saved – instead of people to love, get to know, and have relationships with.
It is through relationship that people get “saved”.
Jesus commanded his disciples to go and teach people about him, about his offer of life, to be baptized into and as a reflection of faith, and to obey his commands – not because obedience is a way to be saved, but because obedience to Jesus’ commands will begin to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven, to which we have been so gracefully invited and asked to participate in!
It is because of the graciousness of the invitation that we see how much the giver of the invitation loves us, and in return we learn to love the giver of the invitation.
10. The grace of salvation is already extended to all – what needs to be done is to lift the veil of spiritual blindness and allow people to see the truth of the already existent salvation and rescue affected by Jesus on the cross. When I see the truth that already exists – that Jesus death, burial, and resurrection validates and proves the supposition that Jesus has defeated death, that Jesus is the author of Life, and that God offers this life to all, even me – it is with a simple ease and assurance that I can confess Jesus is Lord, and believe in my heart that God raised him from the dead.
It is not confession that brings salvation – the realization of salvation brings the confession!
11. The “Good News” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ must actually be “good news”, or it’s not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When I am told that the vast majority of people that have ever lived will be condemned to hell by God to suffer for eternity for their rebellion and sin (when the vast majority of them “know not what they do”), this is not “good news” to me, or anyone with a shred of compassion, especially in light of point 8.
Jesus asked his Father to forgive those who don’t know what they are doing. Because Jesus shouldered the “sins of the world”, those who “know not what they do “would be just about every human being who has ever lived.
I think the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is more like this:
Jesus Christ is Lord, demonstrated by his love for us through his death on the cross, and his coronation as King at his resurrection.
The Kingdom of God is here, now, existing in real time and space right here on earth, and Jesus is the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, who has saved us, redeemed us, rescued us and has renewed us by his own authority and his own might, which is the might of God’s love.
God has unilaterally made peace with his creation, through King Jesus and his death and resurrection, and it is because of this great act of compassion, grace, and mercy that we owe all allegiance and loyalty to him, because this King of all Kings has invited us to be a part of his family, and join his work in making all things right again.
12. Jesus has his own politics. I heard this recently in a sermon, and have read it a few more times elsewhere, and it makes sense. He is not American, British, German, Russian, or any other nationality or ethnicity found on earth.
Jesus does not endorse any government project or way of life other than his own.
Jesus told Pilate his Kingdom is not of this world, or else they would be fighting for him. At that moment, he was correct.
But, upon his resurrection, everything changed.
The resurrection was the coronation of King Jesus, and the inauguration of a new way of life, the Kingdom of God, that King Jesus leads. The Kingdom of God is not akin to, is not beholden to, nor can it be subverted to justify, any kingdom, empire, or nation on earth.
The way Jesus’ followers “fight” for him, in his Kingdom that is here, now, and to which we pledge our true allegiance, is to lay down their lives just as the King did, radically loving and forgiving as the King did, and to work in every way to bring restoration, healing, and to show to the world the love, healing, and salvation that the King offers to all.
The politics of Jesus can be found mainly in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Jesus’ way is radical, revolutionary, and in direct opposition to the way the world is organized. This is the kernel of the Kingdom of God, and, when looking to point 9, The Great Commission, these are the things Jesus asked his disciples to teach to the nations of the earth.
I think 12 points is a good place to pause. Mind you, these are my ponderings, my thoughts, and what I’ve learned from reading and digesting the thoughts of many others. They motivate me to love God with all my heart, and love my neighbor as myself. If they help you, I’m glad. If they don’t, I encourage you to find a way to think about God that does.
Here is a truth: There is no one way to think about God.
God is not really definable, but Jesus is the best, most perfect revelation we have of God. All we can do is extrapolate the best we can from what we see, read, and experience. If we do that to the best of our ability, listening to the Holy Spirit and our conscience, with an honest heart and open mind, I think that pleases God (see point 6).
“God is like Jesus.
God has always been like Jesus.
There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.
We haven’t always known this, but now we do.” Brian Zahnd
Grace and Peace