Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Vengeance of God

The primary objective of this blog is to present the beauty of the Gospel of Christ in as many different ways and perspectives I can.  In most installments I have held to a positive path, although a few times I have ventured off into darker territories.  Recently, in so many words I was gently accused of being too saccharine regarding God’s holiness.  Specifically the person didn’t agree with my non-face value definition of the vengeance of God.  In the person's opinion, I was downgrading its clear meaning in order to pander the modern sensibilities.

If anyone thinks I believe there will be no final judgment by God by which He will bring His full vengeance to bear on all unbelievers, let me state as clearly as I can: this is not my position, at all.  All those who resolutely choose to remain outside of Christ’s kingdom will suffer the full brunt of God’s wrath, just as John succinctly states in his gospel,

The one believing into the Son has eternal life; the one disobeying (disbelieving) the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains upon him/her.” (John 3:36)

Allow me to digress for a moment to make a Greek comment. The Greek reader of the above passage would understand that implicit to the Greek word, απειθεω, which means “I disobey” or “I rebel,” is the meaning, “I disbelieve”.  Hence, I put both disobeying and disbelieving in the translation to help us English readers fully grasp what John is trying to communicate. We all rebel against or disobey God because we don’t believe Him—we don’t trust Him.
When we look afresh at those New Testament passages referring to God’s judgment variously translated, vengeance, punishment, repayment, and judgment, except for Romans 13 that describes God authorizing human governments to execute retributive judgment as a means of preventing chaos in human societies, all the other passages in one way or another focus on three truths,

1) Vengeance/retribution/judgment is God’s to do, not for us to do. 

2) God’s retribution will occur at final judgment, and

3) The basis of this final judgment will be whether the person stands by faith in Christ or not—that is, obeys the Gospel or not, which is tantamount to standing or not standing in the kingdom of God by faith.  John clearly teaches us this basis for God’s judgment:

For in this way God loved the world, so that He gave His one and only unique Son, in order that everyone who is believing into Him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God didn’t send the Son away into the world in order to judge the world, but so that the world is saved through Him.  The one who is believing into Him is not judged.  But the one not believing has been judged already, because he/she has not believed into the name of the one, only, and unique Son of God.” (John 3:16-18)

It is true the Bible and these New Testament passages concerning God’s judgment often speak about how God will ultimately judge us according to our deeds (works).  But we must understand this from a kingdom perspective; otherwise we will be in danger of lapsing into a works based justification.  To put it simply, if we are truly standing in God’s kingdom by standing in Christ it will be evidenced by our good works; if we stubbornly stand outside God’s kingdom, it will be evidenced by our evil works.  For this reason John completes in this way the passage we just read:

This is The Judgment, that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness more than the light; for their deeds were evil.  For everyone who is practicing evil hates the light and does not come toward the light so that his/her deeds are not exposed. But the one doing the truth comes toward the light, so that it is revealed that his/her deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:19-21)

God will base His judgment on whether or not we are standing in Christ by faith, and therefore God will judge us according to our works.  In other words, our works validate where we have placed out faith.  But it is our faith in Christ alone that saves us, not our works.

The reason the kingdom of God has become the basis of judgment is because God had entered into the middle of human history in order to deal with the problem of Sin and Death by placing His full wrath for the Sin of the world upon His one, only, and unique Son, Jesus the Christ.  And because Jesus overcame death by being raised to eternal life and ascended to the right hand of the Father, Jesus is King, the source of all life, so that in Him and Him alone is salvation.

Now, I see at least three essential responses to the good news of the Gospel of the Christ:

1) We are to be God’s agents of mercy in the world, not agents of His wrath , because

2) By bringing mercy to the lost souls we necessarily bring kingdom justice, which is right order from wrong order, not tit for tat.

3) Because God dealt with the Sin of the world once and for all in Jesus the Christ, it is through Christ God’s justice can enter the world; it is through Christ God is reconciling the world to Himself.  And we as Christ followers are joint ministers in this reconciliation (II Cor. 5).

We must not import our notions of vengeance into God.  God is not vengeful in the way we are anymore than He is jealous or angry as we are prone to be.  God exhibits all such emotions entirely for our benefit and indeed the benefit of the entire cosmos.  Yes, God’s wrath, jealousy, and anger flow out of His deep love for us and His creation. It is through these emotions God hopes to wake us up to our folly and turn back to Him, who is the sole source of life and the wisdom to live it, by warning us of the horrors that are the certain alternative because God is holy--indeed, horrors so terrible there are no words to express them; for this reason, God uses the imagery of emotions and their manifestations we can all understand.

On the other hand, our jealousy and our anger and the vengeance they precipitate within us is 99.99% self-serving (there are rare exceptions to this, but even in those cases right motives usually degrade into self-interest); therefore our jealousy, anger, and vengeance are Sin; they flow from our hate, not love.    
When God metes out retribution on the Day of Judgment, He will not do so to get even with anyone or anything; no, His judgment will finalize perfect justice, which is right order, peace—Shalom.  We see what I mean described in the book of Hebrews as God once again shaking the heavens and the earth:

Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness, for without it no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God, that no one be like a bitter root springing up and causing trouble, and through him many become defiled. And see to it that no one becomes an immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. For you know that later when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no opportunity for repentance, although he sought the blessing with tears. For you have not come to something that can be touched, to a burning fire and darkness and gloom and a whirlwind and the blast of a trumpet and a voice uttering words such that those who heard begged to hear no more. For they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” In fact, the scene was so terrifying that Moses said, “I shudder with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the assembly and congregation of the firstborn, who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks of something better than Abel’s does.

Take care not to refuse the one who is speaking! For if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less shall we, if we reject the one who warns from heaven? Then his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “I will once more shake not only the earth but heaven too.” Now this phrase “once more” indicates the removal of what is shaken, that is, of created things, so that what is unshaken may remain. So since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us give thanks, and through this let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe. For our God is indeed a devouring fire. (Heb. 12:14-28) [NET]

There is, of course, much to unpack here.  But for now, listen to the Holy Spirit admonishing us to be like Christ and promote mercy and justice, not bitterness and revenge.  Abel’s blood cried out from the ground for justice and retribution.  But the blood of Christ is far better, because it has brought true justice through love and forgiveness.  In the end, God will shake out everything not conforming to the blood of Christ—that is, God will shake out everything seeking redemption through creation instead of God.  The world wants its pound of flesh; God wants a humble, sacrificial, and faithful life.

Now, I do concede many of the passages I found in my search speak of how people who wrong us will be paid back by God for their persecutions.  Note again though, this is something God will do, not something we are to do.  Instead, we are to be like our Lord and not retaliate against evil done to us, just as Peter teaches us in his first epistle:

Be subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake, whether to a king as supreme or to governors as those he commissions to punish wrongdoers and praise those who do good. For God wants you to silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. Live as free people, not using your freedom as a pretext for evil, but as God’s slaves. Honor all people, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the king.

Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are perverse. For this finds God’s favor, if because of conscience toward God someone endures hardships in suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endure, this finds favor with God. For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may cease from sinning and live for righteousness. By his wounds you were healed. For you were going astray like sheep but now you have turned back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. (I Peter 2:13-15) [NET]

Peter is telling us to silence the world by doing good, which is to be merciful and promote kingdom justice through love and forgiveness—to be such, in Peter’s words , “because of conscience towards God”-- instead of perpetuating the world’s methods of retaliation and vengeance.  And he explains we can do this because we are a free people in Christ.  We don’t need to be justified by anyone, because we have been justified in Christ; we don’t need to vindicate our reputations, because our good reputations are established and made secure in Christ; and we don’t need retribution, because God from His vantage point of perfect holy love will repay on the Day of Judgment.

From the book of Romans we can learn why only the stance of forgiveness and love we are called to in Christ will make possible kingdom justice.  Paul teaches us,

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:18-21) [NET]

By not retaliating against someone for the evil he/she has done, he/she can see something quite different has come into the world; he/she might then begin to recognize the Sin in his/her life, and perhaps turn and be saved.  Our stance of love and forgiveness not only restores to order the material things of life (e.g., alleviating hunger and quenching thirst), but makes possible the restoration of relationships in holy love.  And all of this constitutes kingdom justice.

On the other hand, retaliation breeds contempt and further retaliations.  By following the world’s concept of justice, we fail to bring order out of disorder--far from it!  Our retaliations only cause more disorder, which is injustice.  By failing to leave judgment in God’s hands, we actually undermine His work of reconciling the world to Himself.

Therefore, we need to view this “payback language” we read in the many New Testament passages discussing the vengeance of God by what it is meant to communicate to us—mainly this: that God clearly sees our suffering for His righteousness sake; that our suffering totally matters to God; and that we can and must endure our suffering in the real hope that in the end all we are suffering for—namely, the Kingdom of God-- will come to completion, as God has promised, and will last forever and forever, because everything opposing it —that is, everything unjust-- will be permanently destroyed by the certain vengeance of God.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Live Boldly!

My pastor, Dr. Leavins, made the title proclamation during his sermon yesterday morning as one response to the beautiful truth of the Gospel of the Christ.  "Live boldly!"  I like that; although those who know me well would likely be surprised to hear me say this.  My life has hardly been one of someone who likes to take risks. Indeed, in my earlier days the few times I stuck my neck out always resulted in nearly losing my head.  Consequently, I have developed the oft times annoying habit of over analyzing things in the hopes of making sure the landing from any possible outcome would be a smooth one; as you might predict, my plane rarely left the hanger.

In more recent times, because God has given me a deeper and richer understanding of His love, and because I see His love so evident in my beautiful wife, Sara, I have felt more at ease to live boldly--not necessarily by taking more risks in the traditional sense of the word, but opening myself up to experiences that in the past would have certainly caused despair or embarrassment. An example is musical performance.

When Dr. Leavins spoke about living boldly I immediately thought of a conversation I had had with a colleague about a recent concert he had performed.  He and another colleague performed the first movement of the Bach double violin concerto.  It is a difficult piece, and they did a wonderful job.  However, my friend told me he has played it much better before and since.  "It's just that when you get in front of all those people...."  Boy, could I relate.  It dawned on me this morning that performance anxiety is a perfect metaphor for the kinds of things keeping us from living boldly; and the solution to performance anxiety is a great picture of what it is like walking in Christ, which is the beauty of His Gospel.

The best remedy to performance anxiety is to play out.  When we don't play out, usually out of the fear of making a mistake (and I'm assuming we have prepared well prior to the performance) we actually will make many mistakes.  But the worst mistake we will make is not wrong notes, or losing our place, or even missed notes, the worst mistake we make when holding back is sounding unmusical.  The audience will forgive a few glitches here and there if the playing is musical; it is the musicality that carries the listener into rapture, not technical perfection.  The only way to play musically is to let the music play itself--let it sing, mistakes and all—to play out.

Now, obviously the best performance is one that is both technically spot on and beautifully musical.  Even though this is true, it doesn't negate the necessity of playing out.  The more times we play out, the more times are performances will be musical, and therefore the less often we will make technical errors.  Musicality not only moves the audience, it inspires the performer, also.  And this inspiration relaxes the player, which in turn frees her to remain in full control of both her micro and macro motor responses, and listen better to intonation in order to make adjustments practically transparent to the audience.  By playing boldly, the performer does the best justice to the music she is trying to communicate.

God has made it very clear that there is only one way we must live in order to experience full, meaningful, purposeful, peaceful, and eternal life.  He has also made it clear we will only find such life in Him. We must surrender ourselves to Him completely if we want to perfectly play the music He created us to play.  The trouble is we believe we can do it on our own--that we can find this wisdom in ourselves or in creation.  We really cannot do this, so we don't play out; we don't live boldly.  And consequently, we sin and the music we make is discordant and ugly.

You might argue at this point that most sinful behavior happens with people who live boldly.  It only appears this way.  The reason we don't live boldly for God is because we either are afraid of His punishment or because we don't care, at all.  The former case is like the player who holds back in fear the audience's wrath; because she believes the audience expects perfection--especially if they paid for the ticket.  And they do.  So, as I said before, she holds back, because she is more concerned with how she will be received than the music, and therefore almost always disappoints the listeners.

The other response is to play the way we want and not care, at all.  Yes, we play out; but in order to be outrageous.  We may claim it as art and free expression, but it is really just as self-serving as the person who holds back.  We titillate and sensationalize as a cover to our own ineptness, or our own poor self-concept.  In short, we act out in fear.

I speak in broad terms here, fully aware of the complexities of human nature.  Nevertheless, people don’t live boldly, in the sense Dr. Leavins means, out of fear of being exposed as the charlatans they know themselves deep down to be.  This is the tragedy of the fall of humankind.  We all insist we can be our own gods, and then run in terror at the prospect.

Okay, so what exactly does Dr. Leavins mean by living boldly.  To live boldly is to live in freedom.  Not freedom as in reckless abandonment; I have already covered that.  No, by freedom, he means freedom from fear.  This happens when we let ourselves go in Christ—to live boldly so the true life God has created for our place in the cosmos will bloom and multiply.  We live boldly even though well aware of the perfection God demands, because we know such life is only found in Christ, and He has proved Himself faithful to fulfill this life in and through us, and has forgiven our mistakes.  It is exactly like a musician who plays out confidently because she realizes by playing for the music’s sake, the music ultimately plays itself.  And in the same way that when we let the music play, we actually make less and less technical errors, when we surrender ourselves to Christ, we find we conform more and more to God’s standard of holy love. 

God’s standards haven’t changed, any more than standards of good music have.  It’s just that when we focus on the expectations of good music we invariably focus on our own capabilities and quickly impair ourselves by fear.  And when we focus on the standards of God instead of Christ, we look to our own resources and fail to meet those standards, every time.

There is a great irony in this we must not miss.  When we surrender ourselves completely over to living in Christ, we don’t lose ourselves.  Quite the contrary, as with music allowed to sing freely, both the listener and the performer are edified and inspired, when we look to God alone for life, He gives it back to us, making us participants together with Him, which is what true life actually is.  We are not lost in Christ, but perfected in Him.  This is what it means to be free in Christ, just as Saint Paul taught us,

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand (in this freedom), then, and don’t again be entangled by the yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1)

This is the beauty of the Gospel of the Christ.  God, because of His unfathomable love for us, even though we rejected Him, has made it possible for us to be free from our self-imposed shackles of fear and to finally and truly live boldly.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Eeternal Life- A Picture Part 2

[Here is the conlcusion of last week's story.....]

I reassessed my reactions to my friend’s experiences, and came to the conclusion I had overreacted.  No doubt, I had allowed myself to be caught up in the success of my experiment, which clouded my objectivity.  I felt confident I would be able to explain his observations without having to invoke the supernatural.  By the time we met again, I would have reasonable hypotheses to discuss; I couldn’t be sure, but I suspected that my friend would have reevaluated his own impressions by then and would be ready to hear my theories.


When we met again a few weeks later, my friend was a different person.  He appeared settled.  The nervous agitation that characterized the great scientist I knew before had been displaced by a kind of confident resolve.  He remained a man on a mission, but the desperation was gone.  My friend affected an enthusiasm neither fanatical nor careless, but what I can only describe as a sober joyfulness.  I have never encountered such a disposition before, which isn’t saying much because I don’t get out that often.  I was happy for my friend; the change suited him.  But I started to feel uncomfortable, because I began to desire what he had.

“So,” I said brusquely, handing my friend a mug of coffee and sitting across from him.  “Will you now tell me the third meaning?”

“Of course, dear friend.”  He took what I perceived to be an interminably long drink of his coffee.  “It is love.”

“Oh, love,” I said.

“Yes, exactly.  And your reaction is why I never considered it while the woman was showing me around heaven, even though love was clearly evident in everything I had seen.  It should have been obvious, but I was blinded by my own skepticism of love.”

“Heaven?”  I asked.

“Yes, heaven.  Although I should have called it what it really is.  The kingdom of heaven.  By itself, the term heaven has acquired silly connotations over the centuries.  Any thinking person should rightly dismiss the idea as meaningless fluff.  As usual, though, the reality tears through all of our preconceived and childish notions, and first surprises us, next inspires us, and finally satisfies us.”

“So it would appear.  And I suppose you are proposing this love you speak of to be of the same fiber, in that it must transcend all the inane school girl renditions of the term.”

“People throw love around as they would a fifty cent baseball.  Yet they have no clue as to what it really means.”  My friend paused for another sip from his mug.  “And why should they?”

“Perfectly reasonable.  Love is an illusion.  The world is a tormented place of pain and death.  It wouldn’t be this way if love were governing the universe,” I pursued.

“You just proved yourself wrong.”

“I don’t think so.  Love would never produce the world we live in.”

“You could never make such an argument without love as a reference.  In fact, it would never cross your mind.  You are making arguments about justice that can only exist in a world actually fashioned by love.”

“It is in the genes.  Altruism is a natural instinct for survival of the species.  It’s known that ants will sacrifice their lives for the sake of the colony.”

“It is one thing to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of one’s clan, it is quite another to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of another’s clan—especially if doing so potentially enables the other’s clan to conquer your clan.  But that is just the kind of love I am talking about.  It cannot be explained by nature.  The kind of instinct you are talking about has no concept of such love.  A lion will eat another animal, even its own young; it is what lions do.  For the time being, anyway.”

“Yet no one recognizes this love,” I quipped.

“Ironically, no.  The world we bequeathed to ourselves we predicated on the single inalienable principle of self-interest.  In insisting on loving ourselves first, we ended up hating everyone, including ourselves.  For us, I’m afraid, love has become at best a parody of what it truly is, and at worst a weapon of our hatred.  It is our hate that is behind the pain and death you rightly characterize our world, not love.”

How could I argue with him?  I had long ago happily abandoned any pursuit of love for the safety of the ordered and predictable world of science.  People never much liked me, and I didn’t much like them.  I was beginning to wonder if I had made a horrible error--not so much by what he argued but by what I witnessed in him.  The weight of those new observations weakened my carefully prepared hypotheses.  As his encounters with the future were irrefutable fact, so too were the changes I saw in my friend.  I knew him well as he was, and he had clearly changed.  One can debate ideas all day long, but one cannot easily refute objective data.

“Okay, tell me about this love,” I said.

“By and for love, God created us in the first place.  And it is by and for that same love He has restored us to His original purpose, which is the kingdom of heaven, where all is as it should be because it must be so because God is God.  God does not change.  There is only one right order of things because there can only be one right order of things.”

“The place you visited,” I interjected.

“Yes, but not just the physical entities, the spiritual also—the collective state of being.  And what empowers and supports and drives that state is love.  God’s love.

“The critically important point for us to grasp, and probably the element we have all been most blind to is the fact that love only exists—I mean, is only complete--in the right order of things, and the right order is only maintained by love.  Everyone wants to create their own order, and love and be loved according to that order—to be accepted on their own terms.  But this cannot be.  God created the universe to operate by only one right order, and we only truly love when we love in complete compliance with that right order.  And it is no more unloving for me to say this than when a father tells his child not to jump off a five hundred foot cliff.  Unless we rigorously hold in tension love and order—God’s love, God’s order—we lose them both.  And when that happens there is certain death and the pain and suffering it brings.”

“How can you be certain?”

“Because as an extreme act of love, God became flesh and dwelled among us, even though we despised Him and actively worked against His love.  His Son Jesus, both perfect man and perfect God became a servant to us by overcoming death for us, because the death we brought on ourselves has blinded us to the right order of things and, therefore, kept us from the full power of God’s love, so we couldn’t overcome death on our own.  God’s son, even though perfect and innocent, died for us, and by the inscrutable power of His love, God raised him to life.  It is because Jesus lives that we can be certain, dear friend.

“I know now this is why I shouted ‘Christ’s alive!’ as I came back through the time portal.  And it is by living in the living Christ that we can live again forever in the kingdom of heaven intended all along as the ineffable expression and purpose of God’s love.  We live because we love God and each other completely and purely.  This is His glory.  And for this reason He is to be praised and worshipped forever—just as the multitudes were singing all around me.  Oh, how I long to be with them again, knowing what I know now.”

“It seems that you have somehow found your way to peace.  How did you do that?  What did you do?” I asked.

“It’s God who has done it.  I simply believe that God will not forsake His love and only in Him will I find it, not in me or others or the world we have created for ourselves.  I trust He will be faithful to His promise to hold me secure in His love and fulfill the purpose for which he had created me.  And I live my life in accordance with this trust.  In short, I love God the Father of all by trusting Jesus Christ His son, and this by doing all, by the power of his love given to me through His Spirit, which His love demands and necessarily demands because this is how He has loved me.”

“I must think about this.  We will talk about this again, my friend.  I assure you, we will talk again.”


I haven’t fulfilled that promise, and it is doubtful I ever will because I believe him.  I have been given a short-cut to paradise, and I am determined to take it.  And why shouldn’t I?  If you are reading this diary, you will know that I never found a convincing answer to that question.

I have returned my time portal to the original settings used for my friend’s trip, and programmed in a killer virus.  Five minutes after I pass through the portal, it will permanently and irretrievably dismantle itself.  I have also shredded and burned my notebooks.  All that will remain of my experiments is the book you have in your hands and the memories my friend carries with him.  Perhaps you will find it too fantastic to believe.  I understand.  But I hope you will find the faith to believe so that some day we can meet together over coffee to discuss it in the kingdom of the living God.