Archive for the ‘Your God Journey’ Category

Caveats and Provisos

I have several friends who often reach out to me as a kind of “Bible Answer Man.” I enjoy answering their questions whenever possible. Something that happens rather frequently however, is that I’m not always so sure my friends realize that they are not necessarily asking simple questions, and therefore texting or messaging an answer isn’t really practical. This happened earlier today, when one such friend messaged me that he had finished reading a significant portion of the Old Testament and was struck by how violent and ungodly the history of the Jews was at times. The following is my reply—a highly condensed summary of Old Testament history and at least one lesson we can take away. I hope you enjoy it.

 

What Not to Do

One of the keys to understanding the Old Testament in general, and the Old Covenant in particular, is that it is often more an example of “What Not to Do,” rather than “What to Do.”

From the beginning (Garden of Eden), God instructed humanity that they were free to do what they wanted (free to eat of any tree in the garden; Gen. 2:16), as long they understood that He alone determines what is good and what is evil (prohibited to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; Gen. 2:17), and that the consequences of humanity setting its own standard for good and evil would result in calamity (surely die; Gen. 2:17).

Large portions of the Old Testament are stories that are examples of this paradigm working itself out in the material realm—humanity trying to direct and control their lives independent from God—and the result is exactly what is to be expected—confusion, frustration, and all manner of problems.

The Hebrews, despite being God’s “chosen people” were no exception.

God sent them a deliverer to free them from slavery in Egypt, and yet once free they complained to go back (Numbers 11). This lack of faith in God’s way of doing things caused them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.

Once the 40 years were over and a new generation came of age that had the faith to face the challenges of the Promised Land, the Hebrews crossed the Jordan River to enter the Land.

Under Joshua’s leadership the nation generally prospered, but also saw its fair share of problems (for doing things their own way), like the defeat at Ai (Joshua 7).

Next, the Hebrews entered the period of the Judges. A particular phrase that is found twice in the book of Judges characterizes this period—“Every man did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:6, 21:25). Independence from God–not a good idea.

The end of the Judges came because the Hebrews demanded a king (1 Sam. 8). A king was not God’s intention at this time, and the prophet Samuel, speaking to the people on God’s behalf, warned them what would happen if they had a king (1 Sam. 8:10–22).

The first king, Saul, was a mixed bag. He wasn’t necessarily a good king, but he was good at “being king.” He was a strong leader, and the nation of Israel generally prospered under his leadership. But in keeping with our theme, he sought to do things his own way, relied on his own abilities, and eventually paid the ultimate price for it.

The second king was David, who is the Hebrew king by which all others are judged. He was a valiant warrior, a strong leader, and quite the musician. And yet despite his glowing reputation, he was acutely human and committed grievous sins including adultery and murder. The key distinction about David, and the precise reason why he was a great king, was because his heart always (re)turned to God.

The third king was David’s son Solomon. Solomon was a strong leader, but again had equally strong human weaknesses. He had 700 wives and concubines (the Old Testament equivalent of a porn addiction), many of whom were foreign. His foreign wives brought along their foreign gods, which would prove to be Solomon’s demise. Despite building the renowned Jewish Temple and having extraordinary wisdom, Solomon was undone by his human weaknesses.

Under all three kings, the Hebrew nation was united. This unity was not artificial, it was genuine, but it also relied heavily upon the strength and leadership of the Hebrew kings, and Saul, David, and Solomon were all strong, capable, if not always exemplary, leaders.

By the end of Solomon’s reign, the Hebrew nation had defeated their enemies, built the Temple, developed a flourishing economy, become the center of the civilized world, and achieved peace and unity. Israel had reached the pinnacle of its strength and influence. The problem with reaching the top however is that the only way to go is down.

When Solomon died, his son Rehoboam assumed the throne. He was young, inexperienced, arrogant, and worst of all, prone to following bad advice.

Rehoboam’s nemesis was a young leader named Jeroboam ben Nebat. According to the Talmud, he was “an extraordinarily gifted, superior person with an abundance of charisma, as well as a great organizer and, above all, a magnificent scholar.”[1]

Had Rehoboam genuinely sought the best interests of the people, the people, and even Jeroboam himself, would have likely united behind him. But in one of the most colossal blunders of all time, Rehoboam ignored the sound advice of older wiser men, and listened only to the advice of younger less experienced men who told him to deal harshly with the people. Realizing that Rehoboam was not listening to them or even his own father’s advisors, ten of twelve tribes declared their independence and made Jeroboam their king. Only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to the House of David. Jeroboam ruled over the ten tribes of the “Northern Kingdom” called Israel, while Rehoboam ruled over the two tribes of the “Southern Kingdom” called Judah. Both men claimed to be God’s chosen king.

Judah’s capital remained Jerusalem, while Israel established their capital at Samaria. This fact is critical because the Torah commands all able-bodied males to engage in three pilgrimage festivals each year. Jeroboam knew and therefore feared allowing citizens of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) to travel to Jerusalem for the feasts. He knew that if he allowed it, the hearts of the people would “turn back” to Rehoboam. Consequently, he made the fateful decision to forbid his citizens from travelling to Jerusalem, and as an alternative established idolatrous worship practices in the Northern Kingdom. All subsequent monarchs of the Northern Kingdom of Israel followed Jeroboam’s lead.

In the Southern Kingdom, however, good and bad kings were cyclical. Every other generation or so a good king would step forward and strengthen the faith of the people. This never happened among the kings of the Northern Kingdom. They followed the mold of Jeroboam for the next 200 years.

In 721 B.C., the Assyrians invaded the Northern Kingdom (Israel), razed Samaria, and deported their leading citizens.

In 605 B.C., the Babylonians invaded the Southern Kingdom (Judah) and after three separate sieges, eventually destroyed the Temple and the city of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., and carried the bulk of the population into captivity.

Both the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities were the result of the Hebrews turning way from God and doing things “their way.”

God’s intention, as expressed in the Everlasting Covenant cut by the members of the Godhead before the foundation of the world, has always been to be a loving Father to His children—approachable, kind, compassionate, and most of all—intimate—directly and easily accessible to each individual child of God. It is humanity that has made things difficult by defaulting to the (wrong) idea that God is distant, separate, unapproachable, and judgmental. Humanity exacerbated this problem by always inserting “something” between themselves and God, whether a person (priest/mediator) or a system (code/religion), or both—when God’s intention has always been relationship—unmediated, dynamic, and organic.

The violence, unrest, idolatry, and all manner of chaos that is rife throughout the Old Testament can be traced to a single source—humanity attempting to go its own way independent from God. The result has been that we have always attempted to create God in our image—always wanting him to do things the way we want them done. Classic “What Not to Do.”

Jesus Christ came to set that right.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 102a.

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“C’mon in, take your shoes off, make yourself at home!”

Don’t you love to hear those words? I think it’s rare to hear those words from someone who doesn’t really mean it–it is almost always a sign of at least genuine hospitality, frequently friendship, and do I dare say it? Love.

This is in contrast to those friends who ask you to take your shoes off because they don’t want you tracking anything in on your shoes. No disrespect intended–I have many true friends who ask this of me. But the contrast in inflection remains nonetheless.

Why is it then, when we envision Moses and the episode at the burning bush, that we always imagine God’s booming voice demanding that Moses take his shoes off?

Frequently in the Old Testament, God is portrayed as a “holy,” terrifying presence. When God descended on Mount Sinai, the people responded by telling Moses, “you go talk to that, come back and tell us what He said, and then we’ll do it–but we’re not going anywhere near that mountain.”

But I have come to realize that this is primarily perception. Without our shame being dealt with by the accomplished work of Christ on the cross–we perceive God’s presence as terrifying.

But then that’s exactly the point isn’t it?

Religion requires a buffer between God and man–a system that keeps us comfortably insulated from direct contact.

But if our shame has indeed been dealt with once and for all by the cross, then God is an inviting, comforting, intimate presence. And His holiness, instead of inspiring “reverence,” (read: fear) invites us home?

What if our perception of the burning bush was off? And what God meant was…

“C’mon in, take your shoes off, make yourself at home!”

“I gave up two addictions—religion and cocaine—one destroyed my marriage, cost me every penny I had, and ruined my life—the other is a white powdery substance.”

Yes, this is a joke–I was never addicted to cocaine. (A good friend responded to a similar post once in shock and horror because he thought I was serious.) But good humor is rooted in truth. Religion is often an addiction that can be just as costly as others.

And no, this joke is not my own, I did not write it, the credit lies elsewhere. (I have forgotten where I heard it.)

On the road from religion to relationship there was one specific discovery that caught me particularly unaware. And when I make this statement, I have chosen the word unaware quite deliberately. I considered using the words off guard, or surprised, or unexpected, but I think the word unaware works best. This is because I wasn’t surprised or caught off guard by the content of this realization, but by the depth and tragedy of its effect. I was aware of the fact of the matter, but I was unaware of just how deeply we are affected by it. I was unaware of just how deeply affected the human race was, and is, by the Fall.

Without going into unnecessary detail concerning the machinations of the Fall, the realization I arrived at is that humanity was rendered dysfunctional by the Fall, and by this I mean deeply, deeply dysfunctional, not the run-of-the-mill dysfunction I was taught in Sunday School.

Furthermore, and what I mean by “run-of-the-mill” dysfunction, is that I believe much of mainstream Christianity is either unaware of this fact, and/or utterly unwilling to admit it. (After all it is very uncomfortable to admit that we aren’t guilty of minor deviations from normal behavior, but are in fact wholly wrong-headed). As a matter of fact, I believe this is one of the root causes behind religion, and therefore the necessity of the journey from religion to relationship. Much, if not most, of mainstream Christianity is Christianity practiced as religion (not what it’s supposed to be), and not as the relationship with God it is intended to be, because we do not really address our deeply dysfunctional nature. Once “saved,” we proclaim that we are new creations in Christ (which is true), but then we blithely continue on our way, living entrenched within our religious paradigms, swapping out New Testament terminology in place of secular psycho-babble, and declaring we are “living the abundant life,” when not much has really changed.

I also came to realize that one of the areas where this hits the hardest is that fallen/dysfunctional humanity is incapable of formulating a correct mindset concerning the true nature and character of God. And furthermore, we unknowingly carry our erroneous viewpoints about God into our new faith when we get saved. This is particularly tragic because there are hundreds of verses in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, that can be used to proof text and therefore “validate” our dysfunctional point of view, thereby camouflaging wrong ideas about God in biblical language.

One way that we incorrectly view God is that because he is transcendent (which he is by the way—don’t get me wrong), we “translate” that into distant, detached, and even unsympathetic. He is “out there” somewhere, watching, and ticking off merits and demerits on his divine scorecard. This comes from viewing God as a divine judge overseeing a judicial paradigm, dispensing divine justice. This is an Old Covenant/religious view of God, not a relational one. The relational viewpoint is of God as father. And while we all are more than aware of this label (father), do we really look at God as a father, our father? Or do we look at him as divine judge, but we just call him father? Likewise, we tend to overemphasize God’s omnipresence and are only casually aware of his indwelling presence. While both are true, the New Covenant/relational paradigm is father, and indwelling. Think about it—God can be omnipresent and a divine judge without the slightest hint of real relationship.

This is the crux, pun intended, of the revolutionary paradigm shift that happened at the incarnation.

Now, do you see what I did there? I used the word crux to get you to think that the focal point of the paradigm shift between the Old and New Covenants is the cross. And while the temporal cross in Judea is the source of the blood of the New Covenant, it is the blood shed on the eternal cross before the foundation of the world that provides the blood of the Everlasting Covenant. Additionally, we (again) tend to see the blood of the temporal cross as satisfying a judicial paradigm—that Jesus was the sacrifice required by God to forgive the sins of the world (a paradigm that is demonstrably incorrect, but that is a different topic for different day). But, it is the blood of the Everlasting Covenant that is relational in nature because the blood of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world set forth God’s deliberate intention to exit eternity, enter time and space, and dwell with his creation. In a word, the incarnation is the focal point of divine-human relationship.

Unfortunately the relational nature of the incarnation has been eclipsed by our judicial/religious mindset, reducing Jesus to little more than a distant on-looker as opposed to God with us. In our judicial paradigm the cross has replaced Jesus himself as the point of eternal significance.

Jesus is the place where the divine and human are united. Jesus is the place where God and humanity come together, connect, and relate (there’s that word again). The eternal purpose and ultimate intention of the Godhead is that the eternal son would become human so that he could mediate the divine life to us, with us, in us.

Another tragedy of the judicial paradigm is that justification has been over-emphasized almost to the exclusion of adoption—again, a systematic paradigm instead of a relational one. Our notion of “the Gospel” is all about humanity’s need for forgiveness. This is of course critically important because we all need forgiveness, but it falls short of the point—forgiveness paves the way for adoption. Forgiveness as a legal paradigm fulfills Jesus’ obligation and then conveniently sends him on his way—ascended to the right hand of the father, and no longer needed. Adoption however, is relational and speaks to our true identity as sons and daughters of God—continually connected to divine life.

Finally, and probably most alarming to many of us (if we are caught unaware) is our perception of God’s holiness. If we were to ask 100 Christians to name one characteristic about God’s nature, it is indubitable that the vast majority, if not all, would say, “God is ‘holy’.” But again, this reveals an alarming discrepancy in our understanding about God. This is yet another example of viewing God through a judicial paradigm common to religious thought. In our minds, holy means moral perfection (read: legal perfection). Because we have not been taught a relational paradigm about God to begin with, and we default to our fallen (old man) religious nature and espouse a religious/judicial mindset, we are completely unaware (there’s that word again), that the single most fundamental truth about God is not that he is holy, it is that he is relational. The true definition of holiness is the expression of beauty, joy, passion, and love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in their relationship, harmony, and intimacy together.

God’s eternal purpose and ultimate intention, as expressed in the Everlasting Covenant, cut by the members of the Godhead before creation, is that God desires to share himself with his creation. Nothing fulfills the purpose of God more than to receive a revelation of his love and then have that love transform us, and lead us through the rest of our lives as a visible expression and ezer kenegdo of the invisible God in the earth.

Have you ever heard a minister say…?

“Christianity is not a religion—it’s a relationship.”

If you have, did the minister who said this ever take the time to explain what this statement means in a substantive way? Did he or she “unpack” this statement so that it can be easily understood and then readily disseminated to others? Or, frankly, did the minister making this statement presume that the meaning is self-evident, and that the statement accurately represents the status quo—(that most Christians are presently experiencing relationship with Christ as opposed to religion)?

In my experience, the phrase “Christianity is not a religion—it’s a relationship,” has pretty much always been used as kind of punch line and was never followed with the kind of substantive explanation I would have expected, or at least hoped for—for example, “If Christianity truly is a relationship, and not a religion, maybe we should camp out here for a while and really explore what this means and what it looks like.” Instead, when asked to explain in more depth, the responses I received, while essentially accurate, tended to be superficial, such as, “Religion is the form—but not the power,” or “Religion is a set of rules—but relationship is intimacy with God.” Again, in my experience, no minister I have heard make this statement ever really made a significant attempt to explain it in a meaningful way, but instead appeared to be operating under the assumption previously mentioned—that the meaning of the statement is self-evident, and that current state of affairs reflects this obvious if under elucidated paradigm. In addition, every time I tried to press for a deeper explanation, I was met with even more “non-answers.” And when I pressed a little harder still, it was made quite clear to me that my questions were making people uncomfortable and were therefore becoming unwelcome.

Now I am not the kind of person who is deterred by a lack of answers—in fact I am essentially the opposite. If I don’t get an answer to a question, I don’t get discouraged, I get determined. So despite the lack of answers and cooperation, I set off to find the answers “myself”—so to speak.

Because this statement…

“Christianity is not a religion—it’s a relationship.”

… deserves to be explained.

This series of essays, in large part, is the record of my journey from religion to relationship.

So, if Christianity truly isn’t a religion, and truly is a relationship, what does this mean exactly?

The statement seems to imply that “relationship” is better than “religion”—so if this is true, why is it true? What are the distinctions between the two (Christianity as religion versus Christianity as relationship) and why does it matter?

And finally, and maybe most importantly—even at face value, this statement appears to imply that living in a relationship with Jesus Christ is not only possible but preferable to this thing called religion—and that the word religion, as used in this context, is pejorative (expressing contempt or disapproval). So if this is true—how do we “do” this? How do we live in relationship with Jesus Christ—and not in religion?

You see—life in Christ is not just about new or different ways to “do church,” or learning new “abundant life principles,” or learning to “exercise our spiritual authority.” Frankly, Christianity is not about us inviting Jesus into our lives as much as it is about the fact that Jesus has invited us into his life—the life he has shared with the Father and the Holy Spirit from all eternity. Jesus has invited us to share his relationship with the Father—in fact to live in his relationship with the Father.

This relationship (there’s that word), the eternal relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the origin and exemplar of all relationships. This is what sets Christianity apart from all “religions” and from Christianity practiced as a religion—God, the Godhead—is relational by definition, and the expression of this relationship—God’s original thought, eternal purpose, and ultimate intention—is the reason for creation itself.

Finally, nothing fulfills the eternal purpose, ultimate intention, and original thought of God more than to receive a revelation of His love, then to have His love overwhelm you, then transform you, and then lead you through the rest of your life as a visible expression and perfect counterpart (ezer kenegdo) of the invisible God in the earth.

Once upon a time, a well-intentioned ministerial friend, speaking within the context of Christian leaders who make mistakes and emotionally or psychologically hurt their congregants said: “You don’t have a right to be hurt–you have a right to be healed.” Such is the psycho-babble of religion. At the time I did not know how to respond, but I do now… horse-hockey (I’ll be moderately polite). What a load of cheese-whiz. This is nothing but arrogance camouflaged as wisdom. Of course everybody wants to be healed, which causes us to conveniently ignore the outrageous insult handed down in the first clause. Does someone with a broken leg not have the “right” to be injured? Does someone with cancer not have the “right” to be in pain? Would we ever say something so ridiculous to someone with a physical malady? The implication is, “You’re not ‘really’ in pain.” But emotional injuries are no less real–especially ones at the hands of those in positions of influence or authority in our lives–parents, employers, teachers, ministers, etc–that often take years to recover from. To unilaterally dismiss someone’s genuine emotional injury and the accompanying pain re-opens the wound, rubs salt in it, and then blames the one injured for not being compassionate enough to “forgive” their attacker of any responsibility or consequence for their actions–the implication is cover for the abuser because of the position. When Jesus encountered sin due to genuine human frailty he always demonstrated enormous compassion. But there was a certain group that garnered little to no compassion from Jesus, but stern warnings. Woe unto you religious leaders for you shall receive the greater condemnation. This does not mean that so-called Christian leaders are unforgiveable–God forbid. But statements such as the one quoted above are asking us to excuse the inexcusable–and there’s a huge difference.

I love the Bible–I really do. I enjoy hermeneutics as well–the science and art of interpreting the scriptures. This entry however is about “unscientific hermeneutics”–in other words, this is not about a rigid set of principles, it’s about an observation I have made between those who seem to interpret scripture from a religious mindset and those who interpret scripture from a relational mindset.

I recently saw a Facebook meme by a high profile minister. It read:

“Those who repent will be given the grace to change.”

Now this may be true if we are speaking of an unbeliever confessing Christ for the first time. I say “may” because one could argue that God gave them the grace to repent in the first place. And therein lies the rub.

If we are speaking about a person who is already in Christ, then this quote is inaccurate and reflects a religious mindset. Once a person is saved, then the default paradigm of being in Christ is…

The accomplished work of the cross supplies the grace we need that enables us to repent and change.

If we have already been saved and yet still have to repent in order to receive grace, the cross was in vain.

Religion teaches us that there is something we must do and then God can respond. Relationship teaches us that God has already done everything that needs to be done in Christ and therefore supplies us with the resources necessary to fulfill what He has called us to do. In other words, religion essentially gets it backwards.

As I have said in previous entries, that if there could be such a thing, the Old Covenant would be the perfect religion–it was written by God, but is kept by human effort. And furthermore, that much of Christianity is merely Old Covenant paradigms veiled in New Covenant terminology. Jesus did not come to start a new religion, or perfect an existing one–He came to put an end to religion in favor of relationship.

So here are a couple more doctrines that got flipped at the cross.

Old Covenant: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, all they soul, and all thy strength.
New Covenant: Behold, I give you a new commandment–to love others as I have loved you.

Old Covenant: Give and it will be given to you, pressed down, shaken together and running over.
New Covenant: Freely you have received freely give.

So here is my unscientific hermeneutical principle: If you suspect that something you hear smacks of religion, try flipping it over and see what you get.