The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 7

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Inversity.

“But many who are first,” concludes Jesus, “will be last, and the last first.” His disciples have just finished walking through a morning of following Jesus. He is not an easy man to follow. Anticipating His next move is about as easy as understanding quantum theory—and “I think I can safely say,” explains Nobel Peace Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, “that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

This ‘first-last, last-first’ paradox is Jesus’ summary of all that his disciples have experienced that morning. He’s trying to explain, ‘Every interaction we’ve had with people has displayed the disparity between what God esteems and what people prize. It has illustrated the reality that God’s value-system is fundamentally inverse—upside down and opposite—to what humankind naturally values.’ People live by maxims that Jesus says reveal their beliefs regarding how to get ahead, how to come out first in life. But these maxims, rather than moving toward God’s kingdom, glory, and true human fulfillment, move them step by inevitable step away from Him. First in earth’s economy is last in God’s. God puts stock in what has true and lasting significance. Take a look at how God’s stock is inverse to human maxims:

Human Maxim #1: ‘Reinforce the Survival of the Fittest motto.’ Human pride is given virtue status, while the weak, the unwanted, and those who are an inconvenience to society are sacrificed for the sake of others’ personal rights.

God Stock #1: ‘Man looks at outer appearances, but God looks at the heart.’ In contrast, God looks deep into our hearts to see what we really think and believe about Him. This criterion is what will ultimately determine fitness for eternity. He knows that pride is the surest means to self-destruction ever invented by mankind. God wants people to reach their true and glorious potential as creatures made in His image, but it can only be accomplished by heart-deep humility.

Human Maxim #2: ‘Use whatever power you have to be above as many other people as possible.’ This maxim says you must get the best education, snag the best jobs, take the best vacations, invest your money in the vehicles that have the best monetary returns, ensure your children rise above other people’s children in opportunities and life experiences, and then use social media to communicate to as many people as possible that you have done the above.

God Stock #2: ‘Invest in the human spirit, the organ that is capable of responding to relationship with God.’ In contrast, God says, use whatever power or resources you have to enable yourself and others to connect with your and their Maker and Redeemer. This glorifies God and is the only vehicle for true human joy and flourishing. Then, keep quiet about the part you’ve played in God’s tremendous project. God knows, and that is enough.

We could go on. The list of human maxims—the best-laid plans o’ mice and men—without fail falls short of the glorious plans God puts stock in. This is what Jesus means when He says, “many who are first will be last, and the last first”. And yet, there is hope for us. He says many as if to leave a gap open for us to slide our fingers into before the inevitable happens. He wants to offer us an opportunity to escape the mad maze of human maxims we so easily slip into. He is constantly doing this, inviting us to be last in the eyes of the world, to come to Him for rest from the maxims, and to trust Him that He will ultimately work all things out for our good. And today is where we start.

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Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 24 (Conclusion)

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‘Taw’

“How Should We Then Live?’ asks the provoking title of Francis Schaeffer’s documentary which bears the sub-title ‘The Rise and Fall of Western Thought and Culture.’ The documentary is an expression of Schaeffer’s defense of Presuppositional Apologetics—the view that Christian faith is the only basis for rational thought. Remove that basis and rational thought decays. It’s a bold presupposition, isn’t it?

We all make sense of our experiences from presuppositions we hold. That is why two observers seeing the same thing can come away with two very different impressions. These suppositions, inferences, even hunches create the worldviews through which we make sense of everything we observe. Christian faith, explains Presuppositional Apologetics, presupposes the universe, the Bible, and Jesus, the Son of God are divine revelations without which every other worldview is lacking essential information for rational human life. There are no neutral assumptions from which reason can arise. Only the assumptions that arise from God’s revelation provide us with full rational thought that leads to full flourishing life.

As the psalmist brings us to his concluding stanza of Psalm 119, he summarizes Scripture’s teaching on the personal nature of God. He connects his experience of God with the rational basis of human thought: the Scriptural revelation that God alone is worthy of worship, that God’s precepts alone are faithful guideposts for life, and that God has created one salvation, the ultimate solution to every human problem.

“May my cry come before you, O LORD; give me understanding according to your word. / May my supplication come before you; deliver me according to your promise. / May my lips overflow with praise, for you teach me your decrees. / May my tongue sing of your word, for all your commands are righteous. / May your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts. / I long for your salvation, O LORD, and your law is my delight. / Let me live that I may praise you, and may your laws sustain me. / I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands” (Psalm 19:169-176).

“Give me understanding according to your word,” pleads the psalmist. He is convinced that the wealth of wisdom (rational thought and the behaviours that arise from it) for the present, and hope for the future come from God. As modern thinkers, we may be tempted to think social consensus or political charters make Scriptural revelation obsolete. But can charters of rights and freedoms really trump the noble virtue God’s character and principles express? What about when society or nature and their current cohort of ‘freedoms’ and restrictions fail us?

The psalmist’s hope is in the Lord. “May your hand be ready to help me,” he prays, and “I long for your salvation…” So the psalmist guides us to look to the Hope of the Nations, the Lord’s salvation—Jesus—who alone offers a rational basis for believing that there is hope for us.

How ought we live each day in order to reflect the rational foundation of our faith? By coming to the Shepherd of our souls admitting we are “strayed…lost sheep” and “servant(s)”, and asking for His help to live lives of integrity, lives aligned with the truth of His revealed will. That is the message the psalmist has painstakingly taken 176 verses in twenty-two stanzas to communicate. Without God we are nothing. With His salvation we become everything He imagined. That’s more than epic. That’s rational.

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 23

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‘Sin and Shin’

The Vulcan hand salute is well known by Star Trek lovers. What few might know, though, is that Leonard Nimoy (a.k.a. Mr. Spock) borrowed the hand gesture from a Jewish priestly blessing, a blessing he had seen as a child performed in an orthodox synagogue. The blessing shapes both hands to represent the Hebrew letter Sin/Shin representing the initiating letter of God’s name, El Shaddai—Almighty God. It recognizes God’s omnipresence and His genius for affecting the lives of people.

“Always, everywhere, God is present,” observes A.W. Tozer, “and always He seeks to discover Himself to each one.” How does El Shaddai, the Almighty God, affect people’s lives—your life and mine? How does He discover Himself to each one? These are the questions the psalmist explores as he pens the stanza he entitles with the Hebrew letter ‘Sin and Shin’,

“Rulers persecute me without cause, but my heart trembles at your word. / I rejoice in your promise like one who finds great spoil. / I hate and abhor falsehood but I love your law. / Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws. / Great peace have they who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble. / I wait for your salvation, O LORD, and I follow your commands. / I obey your statutes, for I love them greatly. / I obey your precepts and your statutes, for all my ways are known to you”(Psalm 119:161-168).

Worldly regimes, observes the psalmist, tend to be fundamentally opposed to faith. Eventually, all ideologies—even those founded on rights and freedoms—degenerate into special, privileged interest groups using government power for opportunistic reasons. The God-centred worldview and practice of believers becomes abhorrent to worldly regimes, whose laws, bemoans the psalmist, “persecute me without cause.”

Yet something unexpected occurs within the man or woman of faith, something that has happened throughout history, regardless of the believer’s age, race, sex, or socioeconomic status when faced with persecution for their faith. They stand and rejoice in the Promise of God.

For one thing, God’s intentions for people are not to persecute them but to bring them good. God doesn’t rule by external pressure but by internally transforming people who joyfully submit to Him. His plans are to give us hope and an eternal future. This, says the psalmist, is the source of the believer’s joy. Persecution takes on as much importance as a tiresome insect.

For another thing, a relationship with God is based on reality, on deep, enduring truths, rather than on the falsehood, corruption, folly and situational ethics to which earthly rulers fall prey. God is the author of truly righteous laws because He made us and understands the core of our being.

More than that, God’s law is a law that produces in its adherents a deep, penetrating peace because it brings people into alignment with God’s ways—that which C.S. Lewis terms, ‘the grain of the universe.’ “Nothing,” insists the psalmist, “can make th(ose who love God’s law) stumble.” “Nothing,” concurs the Apostle Paul, “shall separate us from the love of God.”

How does a person access this uncommon relationship with God? By pursuing human law, by depending on personal rights, freedoms and identity? No. The psalmist says he waits; he follows, he obeys, and he loves everything about God. His confidence is not in his own devotion; it is in God’s devotion to him. God creates, God initiates the human-divine relationship, God loves, and God provides the salvation believers all come to recognize we need.

Which brings us always back to Jesus Christ, God-fully-contained-in-a-man, the One who personifies the “law” about which the psalmist cannot stop praising. Hearts that tremble before Jesus, who rejoice in Him, who love the core truth of Him and take Him as their sure salvation are hearts fully at peace. Come to Him and find the peace that breathes, “…all my ways are known to you.”

 

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 19

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‘Pe’

There is a mantra, a cliché, a rumbling reaction whenever an ideological conflict arises between members of society. The most vocal insist their rivals are motivated by nothing less than ignorance and hatred along with a good dose of hypocrisy. Any expression in opposition to their voice is routinely termed harassment and is dealt with sternly. These are the current buzzwords. They are emotionally charged words intended to hijack and shut down all dialogue through the shaming of any dissenters. This is twenty-first century western society, and if you don’t agree, you must be one of the ignorant, hateful bullies out there.

It was not much different three millennia ago. The psalmist who wrote ‘Pe’, the seventeenth stanza of the longest Psalm, felt it. He understood that following the precepts of the eternal God—principles and standards for human flourishing—was not politically correct. He felt the oppression both from external sources and from his own internal bent toward selfish autonomy. But was he a perpetrator of ignorance, hatred, and harassment?

“Your statues are wonderful;” the psalmist begins, “therefore I obey them. / The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. / I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. / Turn to me and have mercy on me, as you always do to those who love your name. / Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me. / Redeem me from the oppression of men, that I may obey your precepts. / Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees. / Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed.”

Firstly, the psalmist recognizes that his faith is based on understanding—on reasoning and on thinking rightly about God, himself and the world around him. “The Bible,” explains theologian Timothy Keller, “teaches that faith is not only compatible with reason, but that it consists of, requires, and even stimulates profound thinking, reasoning, and rationality.” Christians are deeply committed to truth. So while Christians may need to discern the nuances and applications of truth in difficult areas, they are more likely to be committed to embracing truth than to hide in ignorance. All truth is God’s truth, and “exists,” explains John Piper, “to display more of God and awaken more love for God.”

This brings us to the second challenge. Are Christians defined by hatred? The psalmist describes people of faith as “those who love (Yahweh’s) name.” Jesus expands on that by summarizing God’s Law as “Love the LORD your God…and love your neighbour as yourself.” And the evening before His death Jesus reiterated His foundational command to His followers to “Love each other.” So, just as with ignorance, the accusation of hatred is neither founded nor representative of people who live by faith. A Christ-follower’s life and beliefs may be different from and unpopular with that of the culture around her, but it is not a result of hatred.

And thirdly, how does the psalmist address the accusation of hypocrisy? “Direct my footsteps,” submits the psalmist, “according to your word; let no sin rule over me.” The psalmist recognizes that integrity occurs when understanding and love inform action. Authentic living is the result of ceding God’s authority over our lives and then making choices that are in alignment with His sovereignty over us. Hypocrisy is either the result of saying ‘God is in charge’—but then living as if we are, or else of saying ‘There is no God and no basis for morality’—but then expecting others to abide by our subjective beliefs about ‘rights’. Both worldviews are foreign to Christianity.

The psalmist verbalizes for us that faith is the kingpin for right living. By faith we are given understanding, by faith we are enabled to truly love, and by faith we walk according to the light. These are not in, or by, or of ourselves, but as a result of the indwelling Spirit of Jesus who epitomizes truth, love, and authenticity. The more seriously we embrace faith, the less prone we will be to engage in ignorance or hatred or hypocrisy.

Photo Credit: MeghanBustardphotography

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 14

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‘Lamedh’

At 117, Violet Mosse Brown holds the honour of being earth’s oldest living person. She saw the advent of flight, the early development of the automobile, the overthrow of Czarist Russia, the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, the rum-runners of the Prohibition, and the decolonization of the British Empire. She has outlived everyone in her generation, and most of those in her children’s generation. She predates virtually every household appliance including every digital device upon which our lives are now so dependent. To her, insulin, anaesthesia, and antibiotics are new inventions. If there is one thing we can say about this supracentenarian, it is that she is enduring. But compared to Someone Else, Violet Mosse Brown’s life is but a breath, here today and gone tomorrow—a speck on the horizon of earth’s history. Listen to how the psalmist puts it.

“Your word, O LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. / Your faithfulness continues through all generations; you established the earth, and it endures. / Your laws endure to this day, for all things serve you. / If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction. / I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have preserved my life. / Save me, for I am yours; I have sought out your precepts. / The wicked are waiting to destroy me, but I will ponder your statutes. / To all perfection I see a limit; but your commands are boundless”(Psalm 119:89-96).

That is ‘Lamedh’, twelfth letter of the Hebrew alphabet and twelfth stanza of Psalm 119. In Lamedh, the psalmist uses words and phrases like “eternal”, “continues through all generations”, “endures”, “preserved” and “boundless” to express the lofty theme of God’s great timelessness. There is something secure and restful in the contemplation of God’s boundless, enduring existence. He is the epitome of one who keeps His word, both because He is unerringly faithful in His promises, and because He is unlimited in His enduring perseverance loving humans.

While the psalmist admits he experiences the affliction and conflict common to humans, he sees himself as brought into an uncommon circle of friendship with God that allows him to request help from God. He says, “For I am yours.” He is claiming God’s ownership of him. He is acknowledging he relinquishes his autonomy and self-made rights, accepting God’s purpose for his life. Not as a mercenary contract but as a natural corollary, the psalmist anticipates being the recipient of God’s great salvation through His word—the living Word we know as Jesus.

Where the psalmist ends, limited by his place in history, other servants of the ever-enduring God continue expanding on the concept of the boundless nature and gift of God. The Apostle Paul records in a letter to early Christians on the coast of present day Turkey a prayer he prays for all who will ever say, “I am yours” to God.

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:16-19).

This passage is rich with descriptions of the boundless love with which our enduring, persevering God wants to transform our lives. His love, rooting and establishing us, fills us with His fullness. It is wider, longer, higher and deeper than we could ever imagine.

Timothy Keller suggests “wide” refers to the scope of God’s love, available to every human being—no exceptions; “long” refers to the eternal nature of His love—His never-ending faithfulness to bring good into our lives; “high” suggests the heavenly realm to which His love will ultimately bring us, where body, soul and spirit will enjoy the fullness of God’s design for humanity; and “deep” reminds us of the depth of horror to which Jesus submitted Himself, dying on the cross to pay the penalty for my sin and yours.

Which brings us back to the psalmist’s request to be saved. God’s love, fully expressed through His Son Jesus, is the culmination of the answer to that prayer. The Father’s love and the Son’s ransom-paying act ultimately save us from ultimate harm, preserving us even through death for a boundless, delightful eternity with Him. Now that’s enduring.