Closing the Bible

N.T. Wright once spoke of Scripture as the four written parts of a five-act play. They are the recorded lines, themes, plots and subplots of God’s great story and we, in our present age, are living out the fifth act based on what has already been revealed. Do our lives connect with the characters of the first four? Are we interacting with God and giving him due reverence and worship based on the previous acts? How do we fit into the grand narrative of God’s Son who is the savior of the world?

There is something that happens to us when we watch a film that captures our imagination, or put down a novel that immerses us in a fantastic and bright new world – we find ourselves longing, not merely for the story to continue, but for us to somehow be a part of it. Perhaps that is why thousands of people flock to Harry Potter World to immerse themselves, if only for a few hours, in a reality where wizards are real, giants are kind, and friendship overcomes the greatest of evils. That a whole world of wonder, truth and beauty exists long after the credits roll and the book is placed back on the shelf.

What happens when we close our Bibles after reading them? Something astonishing – we find that the world we just shut is still all around us.

We find that the sun Joshua prayed to stand still is the same sun that peeks through our curtains in the morning. That the courage and friendship between Ruth and Naomi are still alive and well in the homes and churches of the body of Christ. And that the Jesus of the New Testament; the tender, forthright, abounding in steadfast love, forgiving, merciful, rebuking, sovereign Lord, is the same one who lives and reigns today.

The Bible refuses to be merely a story about the world – it is the story of the world. And when we close our Bibles and gaze out into the world, we discover that the story continues.

Rubber Bullets

“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

In a recent interview on Desiring God, author Nancy Guthrie quipped that the phrase “my grace is sufficient for you” sounded more like a condescending “there, there” with a pat on the head than anything resembling comfort.

It is easy to fall into the trap of believing Christianity to be nothing more than some pious form of stiff-lipped stoicism. We should be so content in God that suffering and pain should bounce off of us like rubber bullets, right?

But in this passage, Paul is not advocating Zen Buddhism. He’s earnestly pleading to God for his thorn to be removed. He wants it gone. And God, instead of granting what he wants, tells him that his grace will be enough. There’s something deep going on here. God is not looking at Paul’s gaping wound and offering a band-aid. He is a surgeon committed to removing a malignant tumor of pride.

What Paul wants is relief, but what Paul needs is humility. And when Paul does humble himself, something striking happens – he finds relief. He discovers the one of the gems of the Christian faith: weakness is strength. This is how God’s economy works. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

God’s grace is not only sufficient, but it is better. It is better for Paul to have this thorn in the flesh and learn humility, than to be healthy and full of conceit. It is better to be in the house of mourning. It is better to cut off your right hand than have your whole body cast into hell.

The Gospel is absolutely counter-intuitive in nature. You want the seat of honor? Take the lowest seat. You want to be exalted? Humble yourself. You want life? Give your life away.

This is not an example of God being unfaithful. This is not God backing out of his promise to give a snake when his son asks for a fish. This is God acting swiftly in deliverance. This is God showing mercy and compassion. This is God providing for Paul’s needs.

This is God doing more than Paul could think or ask.

“That’s how God works. He gets at our most fundamental idolatry and He ruthlessly crushes it in His unfathomable love and fatherly kindness and inscrutable wisdom and He goes after our greatest treasures and He leaves us with nothing but himself so that we go limping on our way for the rest of our lives having learned: ‘My grace is sufficient for you for my power is perfected in weakness.’ Don’t underestimate God. Don’t underestimate His ruthless compassionate gracious commitment to His glory or His commitment to your everlasting joy and good. He will pursue you graciously and ruthlessly and rip out the idols of your soul that would otherwise consume you. He is working for your joy and your good even when you cannot perceive it and have ceased to be able to feel anything anymore.” – Ligon Duncan

Daughter

Luke 8:42-48

“As Jesus went, the people pressed around him. And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and though she had spent all her living on physicians, she could not be healed by anyone. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, and immediately her discharge of blood ceased. And Jesus said, “Who was it that touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and are pressing in on you!” But Jesus said,“Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me.”And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

If the crowd saw her as a wretch of a woman, she would likely agree. She does not have the privilege of self-delusion – this is a woman at the end of her rope, caked in blood and drenched in shame. Perhaps she could feel the hot breath of the crowd whispering:

Who is this woman?

Moments before, she felt the sting of condemnation as she heard Jesus call out for whoever touched his garment. Peter tries to do crowd control and warns Jesus that there is no time to quibble with this small matter. Jesus will not relent. Someone touched him and he wants to see her, or rather, he wants her to be seen.

What does the crowd think of her? What does she think of herself? All of these worries are cast aside as Jesus looks upon her and says:

“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

The crowd is stunned. All they see is a pitiful creature; a blood-stained, poverty-stricken, sobbing mess of contrition, yet Christ sees infinitely more. He sees a sinner coming to repentance and all of heaven rejoices. He sees amidst her tears and brokenness a woman of great faith.  

And here on the dusty floor of 1st century Palestine, this woman finds herself welcome into the most peculiar of kingdoms: one where the poor inherit a kingdom, the mourning find comfort, and weakness leads to strength. 

Who is this woman?

She is a daughter.

Prayer and Persistence

The main character, the widow, knows where to take her petition for justice – to the judge. She’s not presenting her plea to the merchant down the street. She understands that judge is the only one with the necessary authority and power to help her. It’s interesting that Jesus tells his parable to encourage his disciples to pray, not by using a benevolent figure to play the authority role, as in the parable of the Prodigal Son, but rather a wicked judge. He is trying to prove a point: if an unrighteous judge will give a woman he does not know justice just to shut her up, how much more will a righteous judge want to grant justice to his own children?

Of course, this sets off our “but that does not mean God will do anything you ask him” disclaimer. James warns us not to ask for things based on lustful and fleshly desires. So there go all our requests for a new BMW to drop in our garage, or any hope for single dude hipsters marrying Zooey Deschanel. We get that. God will not answer our “bad prayers”, but that does not mean that God not answering (or not yet answering) our prayers means that our requests are bad. If we pray for good things, we ought to expect results, right? Yes, the answer to our prayers can sometimes be that we change and not our circumstances, but come on. We pray for cancer to be healed, for people to be saved, for things to happen in real time and space, not just in some floaty “spiritual” way. The widow is praying for her circumstances. She’s praying for an answer. Give me justice.

Will he delay long over them? No. Jesus is not the same as saying he will give you exactly what you want when you want, but he is saying he wants you to bother him about it. The parable is not about shooting out haphazard shotgun prayers in the hopes that one sticks. Is your request a righteous one? Good. Be like the widow. Don’t quit. God is not a peeved parent in a supermarket with his annoying kid nagging for Pop-tarts. 

And know this, that if God, who is all-knowing and all-wise, does not immediately grant your request, that is not a sign of his refusal to listen. The unrighteous judge made the widow wait for wicked reasons. Our righteous judge makes us wait for glorious ones.

 

“The only person that dares to wake a king up at 3 AM for a glass of water is a child.” – Tim Keller

One Degree to the Next

God’s faithfulness is not, as I often assume, the same thing as waiting on a butler to cater to my whims. It’s a ditch I fall into frequently, doubting God’s care as I wait on prayers to be answered and fruit to be shown. I pray for maturity. I ask for change in my heart. And yet, the days tick on and I’m seemingly still the same person I was last Tuesday.

But God’s faithfulness is not a morphine drip – something you squeeze to provide the illusion of healing, but rather the painful re-setting of a bone so that the leg may be straightened. It is the long and arduous process of redemption that occurs over days, months and seasons. It’s tiny flickers of change that chip away at a hardened heart from one degree to the next. But God is always at work. You and I are never waiting for God to work in our lives – he always is. He has promised to bring to completion the good work he has started.

Though Jacob walked the rest of his life with a limp, it was not a sign that God had forsaken him, but rather a reminder that he had wrestled with God and experienced his mercy.

 

 

“The sanctifying work of the Spirit on His Temple advances, but the sound of the chisel is not heard.” – Doug Wilson

God’s Undoing

“Whenever God starts to work, whenever God starts to move, it always looks to us like undoing, rather than doing.” – Charles Spurgeon

I remember going to school and being bombarded in every classroom with motivational posters. They all followed the same pattern: gorgeous picture of a person running, or standing on the peak of a mountain, and then white text with some positive encouragement. As I grew older, I could not shake the feeling that all the calls to “get better everyday”, or that “anything is possible”, or how “special I am” were nothing more than desperate cries to a society of people who are stuck.

When I became a Christian, that motivation rhetoric became finding “God’s plan for your life”, or “seeing God work”, or watching “God move.” I remember nodding solemnly to these exclamations all the while wondering to myself what does that mean? Is God moving in my life? How do I know? Is it a feeling? Is it a magical moment where my life suddenly clicks and makes sense?

Is Christianity just a motivational poster? A life filled with step-by-step self-improvement? 

It was dealing with a congregation of whining and ungrateful people in the desert for forty years and not the parting of the Red Sea that molded Moses’ character the most. I was not a birthright or riches that brought Jacob near to God, but an all-night wrestling match that resulted in a dislocated hip. It was not getting everything he wanted, but losing everything that he had that showed Job the deep love and sovereignty of God. And it was not ministry success, but a thorn in Paul’s side that drove him into deeper joy and intimacy with God.

And of course, there is Jesus. His life was one long undoing. Rejected, betrayed, abandoned, and ultimately, on the Cross, completely undone. And God was working. And God was moving. And on the Cross, God said that it was finished.

Words Like Rain

It is easy for me to get lost in lofty and heady abstract concepts about God while my heart sits locked up in a freezer somewhere completely unaffected. God is not a machine. He is an artist. A master storyteller. He did not, after all, snap his fingers and poof the Earth into existence. Instead, he painted it layer by layer, carefully separating the earth from the heavens, and adding contrast by dividing light and darkness.

In Isaiah 55, God speaks of how rain and snow descend from heaven, every drop brimming with purpose and life. It nourishes everything it touches and never fails to accomplish its task. And God gives us this vivid imagery to show us how his Word works. I love that.

It’s heaven-sent with a purpose. A gift of life that can turn the even the most arid of deserts into an oasis. No drop is wasted. There is a time to dig deep and wrestle with the sufficiency of Scripture. There is a time to pour over old books and that connect the threads of how the Bible works. There is a time to form creeds and confessions to articulate core doctrines.

And there is a time to sit in wonder like a child at the fact that somehow, someway, his words are like rain.

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven

and do not return there but water the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

– Isaiah 55:10-11

Mega Off-the-Charts Love

It’s always been hard for me to grasp the fact that I am a child of God. Oftentimes my reaction to this incredible Christian doctrine is a half-hearted smile undergirded with an apathetic “So what?” It’s not that I do not believe God is my Father, it’s just that the proclamation “You’re a child of God” seems to carry with it an air of superficiality, as if it were nothing more than wishful thinking. Why does this concept of such great weight feel so oddly weightless? What does it mean to be a son of God? Do I imagine myself as a little child who looks up at my heavenly father (some benevolent old guy on a cloud in the sky) with goo goo eyes while he pats my head and reassures me that “everything’s going to be ok”? Or is God a distant, stoic Father who folds his arms and tells me to “suck it up” whenever I am weak?

It’s a bit underwhelming. And thankfully, unbiblical.

I recently stumbled upon this little gem in J.I. Packer’s book Knowing God:

God was happy without humans before they were made; he would have continued happy had he simply destroyed them after they had sinned; but as it is he has set his love upon particular sinners, and this means that, by his own free voluntary choice, he will not know perfect and unmixed happiness again till he has brought every one of them to heaven.  He has in effect resolved that henceforth for all eternity his happiness shall be conditional upon ours. 

I don’t know about you, but my relationship with God carries with it a sinful sense of entitlement. I truly believe I deserve God’s love. Why? Because I see my sonship a biological instead of adoptive.  

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4-5)

Paul makes it clear that we are brought into God’s family through adoption. The Gospel of John asserts that we are not born of God through the flesh, but through the Spirit. Why does this matter? In general, parents have an obligation to their biological children to care for and love them. The child, in a sense, forces his or her way into the lives of two people who now know their are expected to sacrifice and make plans around this new life. If we have this view of God, then God’s love for us is the norm. We are born into privilege and take for granted the stability and warmth of a healthy home.

Parents of adopted kids have a different story. They do not have an obligation to love a child in a foster home or an orphanage. They can very live their lives unimpeded by the struggles and sufferings that accompany taking a troubled child into their home. If they decide not to adopt a child because dealing with his or her’s fits of anger, skin color, or psychological baggage is too much, who will fault them? Every adoptive parent has the right to look at an orphan and say, “No. I don’t want you.”

But the beauty of adoption is that two parents decide to set their happiness and joy upon someone who is not entitled to it. The parents decide that out of sheer joy and compassion, they will cast aside their comfort to love someone that will make their life more difficult and complicated. It will require great sacrifice on their part to adopt this child. Hours of paperwork. Vast sums of money. Agonizing months of waiting. But they do it. They do it because they know that an orphan can do nothing to force himself into a loving family. He has to be chosen.

This is how God saves us. He leaves his perfect life and enters into an imperfect and bloody world. He peers into our filthy crib, covered in the mire of our sin, guilt, and rebellion, and reaches in to pick us up. He all of our unbelief, doubt and imperfection to bring us home. He did not fill out paperwork, nor did he pay any sum of money, silver, or gold, but with his own precious blood (1 Peter 1:18). That’s the Gospel. The absolute truth that the God who deserved everything became nothing to give those who were nothing, everything.

“That God, in eternity, looked upon me foreseeing my fallenness, my pride, my sin and said “I want that man in My family, I will pay for him to be in My family with My Son’s life. That’s Love folks. That is mega, off the charts, love!” – John Piper

Follow the Thread

The blog name Follow the Threads draws its inspiration from a short story entitled The Princess and the Goblin by author George MacDonald. I stumbled upon the story through a sermon by Tim Keller called “Praying Your Fears”. And yes, I realize the blog title is plural. Somebody took the domain ‘Follow the Thread’ already.

The Princess and the Goblin follows a Princess who encounters an ancient, powerful fairy grandmother who promises safety and security. The grandmother gives the Princess a ring attached to a thread that leads to a ball hidden in a drawer. The Princess is promised that this thread, as long as it is followed, will lead her to right back to her godmother in times of danger. Of course, danger rears its ugly head in the form of snarling creatures that threaten to devour her. She follows her godmother’s commands and tightly grips her thread and follows it, but to her surprise, the thread does not lead her to where she knows her grandmother is. In fact, it leads her in the opposite direction – out the door and into the night. She continues to follow the thread, but the path gets darker and steeper as she is led right into the heart of a dark mountain where a horde of goblins await.

She tries to remember the light of her grandmother, her kindness, her security, but her heart begins to tremble as the path gets more and more confusing. She continues, steadfast in her commitment to follow the thread, until the thread disappears into a pile of rocks covering a vast cavern wall. She panics and looks behind her only to find that the thread  has disappeared. It only goes forward. There is no going back. In a fit of despair, she cries aloud and throws herself upon the stones. And then the doubt creeps into her mind. Has my grandmother forsaken me? Was this all some cruel joke?

Keller observes that this is a picture of what it means to follow and obey Christ. And I think he’s right. There have been many mind-numbing times when I know I have to trust God even when, especially when, everything is a torrent of uncertainty. And when the hard stuff hits, I never question whether God exists, but whether He’s trustworthy. C.S. Lewis puts it this way: “The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'”

But thankfully, the story does not end there for the Princess. She gets her bearings and then realizes something profound: the only way through, is through. So she starts clawing her way through the rocks, hands bleeding, following the thread until she ends up saving a young miner who has been captured by a group of evil goblins. In the end, the Princess ends up saving her entire kingdom from evil.

And that was the plan all along. And the Princess never would have followed had she known how hard the path was going to be beforehand. And then where would she be? Holed up in her castle, completely static and unchanged while the young miner perishes and evil flourishes. Perhaps that’s why God’s plan for our lives can be so confusing. If we saw the whole thing, we’d be crushed by its complexity. And we’d never move. We’d never change. We’d never love or sacrifice.

I have to wonder if Mary, staring up at her bloodied and crucified Son, felt the same way the Princess did at the pile of rocks. Utterly crushed. Completely dejected. Wondering why she ever allowed herself to be fooled into hope.

But, as Keller beautifully puts its, on the other side of every grave is a resurrection. And maybe this is why we can trust God. Not because it’s easy. Not because we’re strong-willed, but because there is a greater story. A true story. The story of the Son of God who followed his Father’s thread through betrayal, slander, persecution, false trials, utter abandonment and ultimately, crucifixion. All the way to the grave. And in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus wept at his dead-end pile of rocks, pleading the Father for any other way. And God said, “No.”

The only way through is through.

And yet, the greatest curse ever inflicted upon a human being became the most profound, soul-melting, and captivating display of love this world has ever seen. Jesus dug through the rocks to save us. To bring forth a kingdom. To reunite heaven and earth.

Now that’s a story worth telling.

“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?… Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief.” – C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed