The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 2

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Identities.

“Good teacher,” asked a young man one day, running up to Jesus and falling on his knees before him, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

At first glance, we seem to be observing an individual who is a genuine seeker. His posture has communicated keen interest and even submission; his face has likely transmitted eagerness and enthusiasm; his words have articulated respect and resolve. What more could Jesus want in a seeker? Yet Jesus begins His response with a challenge.

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.”

Strange. The man has merely used a respectful form of address, and yet Jesus confronts the very first word that has come out of the man’s mouth. Why?

From our records of Jesus’ three years of ministry, His death and resurrection, Jesus does not routinely correct people’s usage of language, so why now? Why this word? The answer lies in Jesus’ correction of the mindset behind the man’s use of the word ‘good’.

Jesus already knows something about this young man that the young man himself does not know—that he is motivated by false identities and false loyalties. He sees Jesus as a teacher—a good one, yes, but just a teacher. This is one of the easiest identities for us to apply to Jesus. It allows us to show him respect as one who authentically tried to add his voice to help a hurting humanity; it allows us to learn from his compassionate disposition; it allows us to appear to be reasonable, inclusive and tolerant of him, as one of many good moral teachers this world has produced. But it also allows us to distance ourselves from real core life change—from a relationship with the Son of God. Teachers are significant and memorable, but they’re neither perfect nor eternal. They’re not God. But Jesus claims to be God.

Secondly, the young man sees himself as good—a good obedient son and a good obedient member of the Jewish religion. He hears the list of commandments Jesus recites, and checks them all off as done.

“You know the commandments:” reminds Jesus, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”

“Teacher,” he declared (notice the young man has withdrawn the word good as he addresses Jesus this time), “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Wait. Has he really kept all the commands? Flawlessly? This young man has a self-identity issue happening here. He has defined goodness as something he has attained. He has already forgotten Jesus’ intelligence that “no one is good—except God alone.” Not only that, but he has failed to notice that within the list of the commandments to be followed Jesus has deliberately omitted the prime commandment contained in the Mosaic Law: “I am the LORD your God…You shall have no other gods before me”(Deut.5:7).

This is no coincidence. Jesus has been testing the young man. He has been trying to help the young man discern the state of his inner being, of his soul, of his relationship with the LORD his God. But the young man comes up empty. He completely forgets why the commandments exist. And the reason the young man has become distracted from the prime calling and purpose of human life is because he has found a replacement for God. He has found wealth.

Money, material possessions, and the power and social status that accompany the acquisition of wealth have bumped God into second place in the rich young man’s life. Perhaps it has happened so gradually he has not even been aware of it. He has conferred a false identity upon both wealth and God that inverses their true value and sovereignty.

Jesus has diagnosed the foolish rich young man’s heart condition from the moment the young man had come to Him. And now, Jesus offers the one prescription that will reverse the prognosis of spiritual decline into which the young man has fallen: dispose of the intruding god; jettison the cargo that is causing his ship to sink; eradicate the disease that is killing him. Give away his wealth.

Ah, say we. I’m not that wealthy. This doesn’t apply to me. But take a good hard look at how we identify ourselves. What two or three things are we most likely to want to communicate to others about ourselves overtly or covertly? Is it about our social position, our trendiness, our gender, our education or career, maybe even our identity as a victim of something? Anything with which we identify ourselves above our identity as worshipers of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a false identity, and Jesus says ‘Get rid of it! It’s destroying you and it’s destroying your relationship with God.

If this stirs our hearts, if it shakes anything within the core of our souls let’s do the impossible; let’s put God back into first position in our lives. It might hurt. It will mean a change of identities. But there is one thing we can know for absolute certain: it is good.

(Photo Credit: By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], File: False Identity Cards; via Wikimedia Commons)

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What’s to be Thankful for? Part 2

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Good Lord!

The turkey has been consumed, the guests have gone home and the routines have returned. Is that all there is to thanksgiving? Thankfully not. Gratitude is something that can be an integral part of our lives—we just need a reminder every now and then. There are those studies done by psychologists that reveal how thoughts and acts of gratitude have more positive impact on our overall sense of wellness than any other medical intervention. That’s impressive. But the writer of Psalm 16 takes us even deeper than that. He’s saying that the attitude of gratitude (pardon the rhyme) is the surface of something much more foundational to the infrastructure of our being. When the object of our thankfulness is our Creator, we secure for ourselves a wellness that goes beyond mental and physical health.

“I said to the LORD,” continues the psalmist in verse two, “‘You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing’.” David is showing us how to thank God for the goodness of His lordship in our lives.

Is it good to be under the lordship of God? What about the freedom and autonomy our western culture tells us is our right and entitlement? David, the author of this psalm, was king of the Hebrew nation. He led the realm and had all its resources at his disposal. Yet he was able to confirm that there is no thing in this life remotely good compared with the lordship of God. And he does not speak alone. If there is one theme that runs riotously throughout Scripture, it is that eyewitness experiential accounts of the lordship of God show Him to be delightfully, utterly, one-hundred-percent good for people.

God’s incarnation as a man in the person of Jesus Christ gives us a more focused view of both His lordship and His goodness. No one who has read the historical details of the life of Christ denies that His life was lived with utter goodness. He was a good son, a good brother, a good friend, teacher, healer, and miracle-worker. His death brings us unending life and relationship with the triune God and opens up to us a world and eternity of good.

But there is one catch to the goodness Christ offers us. It is tied to our response to His requirement that He be lord and master of us. He lets us mull over that decision. He gives each of us the freedom to try out the options the world offers: we can try to be lord of our own lives—making our own decisions, living by our own wits, ruling ourselves by our own version of ethical behaviours. We can let someone or something else lord over us—materialism, education, sexual/gender/family re-inventions, fame, popularity, etcetera. It’s a long list. But if we could imagine and extrapolate any of those lifestyles through to the end of our lives, would we actually say with a grateful sigh, “I’m so glad I gave everything I had for those! They were truly good for me!” Not likely.

Yet over and over again, followers of Christ who have spent their lives learning to submit to the lordship of Christ say something like this: The leadership of Christ is so good, there is no experience like it. He is good to us, He is good for us, and He is good in us and through us. His goodness creates an entirely new environment in which we live.

So the psalmist is right when he proclaims, “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.” Life won’t necessarily be easy. Difficulties do not disappear from the lives of those who submit to Christ’s lordship. But He promises to transform us through every situation to make us like Himself, true and good to the core. That is truly something to be thankful for: we have a good Lord!

(Photo Credit: “Red autumn leaves” by Jim – http://www.flickr.com/photos/alphageek/57100167. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Red_autumn_leaves.jpg#/media/File:Red_autumn_leaves.jpg

ROMANS 13

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What’s Natural

Ever played the game Tribond? Given three words one must guess the bond between those seemingly unconnected words, like: What do a car, an elephant, and a tree have in common? Pause and think. They all have trunks. That was easy. Now here’s a harder one: What do beauty, disasters and resources have in common?

Natural. All three can be described by the adjective ‘natural’. Natural is a catchword that invokes something primeval; it describes what occurs without human intention or interference. The environment is natural when we have neither removed anything from it (like old growth forests) nor added to it (like fish ladders or high-rises).

We find the concept discussed in the thirteenth chapter of Romans, an epistle in which the Apostle Paul exposes the central truths of Christianity. But here, ‘natural’ refers to human nature.

“The hour has come,” alerts Paul, “for you to wake up from your slumber, because we are nearer now than when we first believed.”

He’s speaking to Christians, the early believers who were still trying to discover how their faith would affect their lives, and how a right view of God would transform their minds. But anyone who is willing to learn can glean from what he says.

“The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Romans 13:11-14).

Paul is bringing us to a crossroads of the natural. He’s exposing the false assumption that whatever is natural must be good for us. Remember the poison dart frogs of South America? The Golden Poison Frog (P. terribilis) contains enough toxin to kill ten to twenty people. That’s natural.

He shows us that we, in fact, have access to two streams or paths of human nature. One, described by darkness, is the natural bent we were born with, and bent truly describes this nature. It’s a contortion or deformation of what we were designed to be by nature. It consists of a destructive tendency to abuse our consciousness – the ability to be aware of truth; to abuse our reproductivity – a gift given us by God, the sustainability of our species; and to abuse interpersonal relationships – healthy social interactions. It is characterized by self-absorption and oblivion to the above abuses.

The other nature is … well … supernatural; it is the truly human nature modeled by Jesus Christ and made available only when we invite His Spirit into our lives. This nature is described by light, decency and daytime. It is clothed and in its right mind. This nature is available by the superhuman determination of God to rescue us from our self-destructive tendencies.

Yes, both paths are natural. The desires of the sinful nature are most easily accessible, but they are gratified at the expense of our true humanity. Ask anyone who has helplessly observed a family member self-destruct under the influence of drugs, alcohol, the sexual revolution, the gender revolution, eating disorders, materialism or other natural choices. It’s staggering.

The work of the Spirit of God in our lives, on the other hand, means that God takes His own nature and makes it second-nature to us. It happens by degrees, don’t get Paul wrong. Those who open themselves to this path of the crossroad don’t become perfect immediately. We obey and grow, and then we stumble and fall back into the old ways. But Jesus helps us up. He forgives us and gives us the strength to try again. It’s sometimes two steps forward and one step back, but the trend is forward.

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect,” says Paul in his letter to the Philippians, “but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers (and sisters), I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

That is how we change from being controlled by our flesh-nature, to being natural-born children of God. Which path does it move you toward?

(Photo Credit: “DendrobatidFrog,Peru,02-02” by Tim Ross – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DendrobatidFrog,Peru,02-02.jpg#/media/File:DendrobatidFrog,Peru,02-02.jpg)