It must be love…

For a long time I have been pondering what it means to love God.  Contrary to some obscure what kind of “defective personality test are you” test I took randomly on Facebook (why take such things you may well ask? At least I didn’t publish it!), I am not wooden, but nor am I given to gushing emotion.  I am not one to splash the “I love you”  words around liberally.  And so I have come to wonder about God and love.  What and how do I love him?  We often sing songs at church about loving God.  “Jesus I am so in love with you” one song-writer croons.  But are we?   For me the “in love” phrase conjours up the domain of romantic lovers, exciting and passionate for sure.  But this love, for all its fire and energy, lacks depth, commitment, the burnished resilience that only the gritty journey of life together can forge.  It passes, is readily kindled and extinguished.  I don’t love Jesus in this romantic way.  However, I am not decrying intimacy with God.

I am reading Michael Frost’s book “Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post Christian Culture” at the moment.  He takes an interesting meander through the old testament’s language of God and love, and while the analogy is often used of the relationship between a man and a woman, it is always unflattering.  A relentlessly tragic story of unfaithfulness, the language often sordid and emotive.  A sad story of God remaining faithful to a people who continue to betray.  (Song of Solomon is a notable exception and probably an unecessary digression for the discussion here).

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  And the second is like it.  Love your neighbour as yourself.”

Frost asserts that this passage “underscores the fact that for Jesus, it is impossible to love God apart from expressing that love physically and practically into the lives of our neighbours.”(p308).

Now this is something that resonates more for me, it is loving as a verb rather than some feel good sensation in my heart, stomach or whatever is the culturally acceptable seat of emotions.

Frost goes on to list nine different ways we can “love God”, beginning with a piercing quote from Rowland Croucher – “You love God just as much, and no more, than the person you love least.”  Here are the nine headings:

Love God by loving others

Love God by obeying Jesus

Love God by lingering in God’s company

Love God by speaking about the things of God

Love God by longing for the return of Christ

Love God by forsaking all other gods and idols

Love God by laying down our life

Love God by loving what he has created.

Love God by forgiving others.

I think Frost is onto something here.  There is much to unpack in nine sentences that holds a light to  the ways in which I love God, and the ways in which I fail to.

So then, of what shall we sing?

loosing and binding

I have been a Christian for a long time.  I couldn’t count how many sermons or seminars I have sat through, some with eagerness and many with barely disguisable boredom.  I am sure I have heard more than one deal with the subject of “loosing and binding”.  Usually to do with spiritual warfare.  For those of you who read my blog who may be unfamiliar with these terms (and a few more that follow), a quick play on Google or visit to the wiki will catch you up.  I have always been taught that loosing and binding was to do with managing supernatural nasties.  Enter Velvet Elvis.  I am part way through this thoroughly enjoyable book by Rob Bell, who has managed in a few short pages to challenge more than a few assumptions.   Loosing and binding has precious little to do with demons and such like, according to Rob.  Rabbis used to (and probably still do) sit around and rip through the Torah, arguing the finer points, challenging traditional interpretations, and master rabbis would make their mark by defining how something was to be understood and applied.  This may mean that some past understandings were discarded, and new applications put into force.  This process was referred to as “loosing” and “binding”.  A rule that no longer applied was “loosed”, and the fresh interpretation was considered “bound”.  This is the process that Jesus was referring to.  Jesus certainly did his share of “loosing” and “binding”.

Probably not as exciting for sermon material as loosing and binding spiritual powers,  but I for one am rather glad to be set straight on the matter.  Or rather my old understanding has been “loosed”.  And there is something rather exciting about the process.  The Scriptures are to be engaged in, tossed around, teased out, debated hotly, always searching for life-giving meaning, with a bit of “loosing” and “binding” thrown in there – a dynamic process that is continually revisited.  The bible is never “done and dusted”.  When I get time, I plan to do a bit of research of my own into the phenomenon of “loosing” and “binding”, to see if I reckon Rob has “loosed” and “bound” rightly.

Hmmm.  This has to be the most times I have used quotation marks in a post in all my  blogging years.

Dipping into Barth

“In Jesus Christ we are ready to learn to be told what Godhead or the Divine nature is. We are confronted with the revelation of what is and always will be to all other ways of looking and thinking, a mystery, and indeed a mystery which offends. The mystery reveals to us that for God it is just as natural to be lowly as it is to be high. To be near, as it is to be far. To be as little as it is to be great. To be abroad as it is to be at home. Thus when in the action and presence of Jesus Christ…. He chooses to go into the far country to conceal his form of Lordship in the form of this world, and therefore in the form of a servant he is not untrue to himself, but genuinely true to himself, to the freedom which is that of his love”. Vol 4:1, p 192 (for those of you who like to look things up).

Time for a confession. I have not directly read Barth, not even held one of his 12 (or is it more?) volumes of Church Dogmatics. I haven’t even read much written by people who have read his weighty tomes. But I think I might. This quote comes from a lecture I listened to this morning. The “…” bit had too many big foreign Latin words for me to guess at for the purpose of this post. All that (not so helpful information aside), this little quote blew me away. We sing about the grandeur, majesty, greatness of God (and rightly so). But here Barth declares that it is as natural for God to be lowly as it is for God to be high. To be near as it is to be far. We know Jesus made himself lowly to come to the “far country” as Barth aptly puts it, but somehow we seem to separate this “lowliness” from God. It is as though while we believe Jesus is God, we don’t follow that thought to its fullness in how we see God, and how we think about how God is. These pictures apply to Jesus while here on earth, but don’t reflect on God himself. We are told that if we have seen Jesus we have seen the Father. What is true of Jesus is true of the Father. This is not to say that they are identical in every respect (a huge topic of discussion for another day). I wonder how our Christian living would be impacted if that was the grid through which all of our journey was experienced. Do we relate primarily to God who is far or near, lowly or high, abroad or at home? Can our faith and everyday living cope with the tension of these apparent “opposites”?

The problem of bad things and good people

A major cognitive stumbling block for those who are unconvinced about God is the problem of bad things and good people. In particular, they find it extremely difficult to accept that God allows unfair and tragic things to happen to others – eg a child who dies of cancer, a fatal car crash. I want to distinguish these kinds of tragedies from those that occur as a result of inhumanity – holocausts, war, torture, as the notion of evil of this ilk adds even further to the complexity of this issue. I have been asked – why does God allow these things to happen to good people? Or to anyone for that matter. These questions elicit a mumbling response from many of us as Christians as we recite learned responses that sound somewhat unconvincing as the words are spoken. It’s to do with the fall. God works all things for the good. Or perhaps more honestly, “I don’t understand either”. While I haven’t blogged on it for a while, I am still making my way through books and mp3s on open theism. I think that the problem of bad things happening to us is related to our disconnectedness from God and the existence intended for us as a result of “the fall”, and I do believe that God is able to bring about good things in the midst of tragedy. But does that mean that God chooses for bad things to happen? I have been listening to an mp3 by Piper, a man who vehemently opposes open theism. He argues strongly that while terrible for us, events such as a tragic car crash are fully intended by God. John Sanders (in The Openness of God) sums up this perspective thus:

“From God’s perspective there is no gratuitous or pointmess evil; each individual “evil” – say, liver cancer or the death of your child – is actually for a good purpose when it is considered as part of God’s overall plan. If a tragic event happens to you, you should not necessarily consider it a “good” for you individually, but it is certainly good for the universe as a whole.”

So where does praying for God to intervene in a situation fit into this understanding? If God does intervene (in a way that seems favorable to us) does it mean

1. God changed His mind about something He was going to bring about and thus overridden His own plan (therefore God is “changeable” – an open theism proposition)

2. God always planned for the event and outcome. Our supplication is part of that plan.

3. God did not plan the bad thing (open theism would pose that God did not know it was going to happen), and intervenes as a result of our supplication.

I don’t think I can fully accept that God rules a universe where he watches over everything and muses to himself, “My oh my, look what’s going on down there. I had no idea that was going to happen.” Somehow, that is no more reassuring than God who intentionally brings about something horrible. This is more than a single post issue. I don’t know the answer, and probably never will.   For now, I will keep on reading.

Interventionist God

Free will. This has got to be one of the most readily used “escape out of a difficult conversation for free” cards by Christians. It is my argument of choice (at least currently anyway!) in addressing the ugly problem of evil.  Especially the evil committed by human kind to itself.  The existence of evildoers etc is not so much the issue, but the fact that we believe in a God who does not appear to intervene.  God did not stop Hitler’s plans, even though one may believe that God knew Hitler’s destiny from even before the womb.  So why not?  How could a merciful loving God who desires to be reconciled with his creation allow these things to occur?  Surely this is inconsistent?  Either that, or God can’t intervene.  Ta Da!  Out comes the free will card.  God does not intervene with our capacity to exercise our free will, whether we use it for the betterment or the detriment of ourselves and others.  If He did intervene and override our will, we would be reduced to puppets, robots.  So the argument goes.  Now my tone is a tad sarcastic here, but I have faithfully reproduced this argument when confronted by  spiritual seekers who struggle to climb over this mountain.  To be honest, I don’t think my argument helps them. I don’t think debates full stop are terribly effective in drawing people to Jesus, but that is not the point of this post.

God does not need to be defended.  A brief perusal of my fave book of Job makes this point loud and clear.  However,  on this topic Christians are often called to explain their beliefs and God’s seeming inaction.

The book “The Openness of God” has an interesting comment to make on this topic in the preface, highlighting a logical inconsistency in the use of the “free will perspective”.  How many of us pray for a job?  A spouse?  A relationship that seems to be struggling?  Someone who needs protection from something, or even themselves?  When we ask God to intervene in these situations, what exactly are we asking Him to do?  Er… override the free will of the desired recipient of God’s intervention.

So God does not intervene in stopping evil, but will make the “gorgeous brunette over there notice me”, because I ask Him to?  Please note this comment is to make the point only, not to suggest that I am seeking a love interest!  Nick Cave has an interesting lyric on this idea:

“I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know darling that you do
But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you
Not to touch a hair on your head
To leave you as you are
And if He felt He had to direct you
Then direct you into my arms
Into my arms O Lord                (from The Boatman’s Call, Into My Arms)

I think the problem is clear, although I wish the solution was also.  The bible speaks of praying for each other, praying for our needs, intercession etc, suggesting that God does intervene in the lives of His people.  And, I believe this has been borne out in my own personal experiences. However, I am now less certain how the “free will” card really works, if indeed it does.  Maybe getting out of the preface of the book will help…

Can God change His mind? Exploring Open Theology Part 1.

In my last post I rather triumphantly announced my discovery of an alternative perspective to Calvinism and Arminianism – open theism, or open theology. I am still coming to grips with what that is about, and have not reached any personal conclusions yet, other than that I am excited about the possibility of unpacking another way of understanding how God relates to his creation. So please consider this post and others that follow on the subject as a work in progress. This website seems to have some good thoughts to kick off this process, and until I can get my hands on a theological book or two, I will just work my way through some of the thoughts presented on the site.
The first premise is God’s sovereignty over all – no problems with this one.  Love is defined the primary attribute of God – present before creation.  Holiness and justice of God are expressed in relation to his creation – very similar to some of the stuff John Franke spoke about at Forge, and the subject of a  previous post on this blog.  Again, I am feeling on comfortable territory here.
The second point refers to “sovereign freedom”  – where God decided that our requests and actions can impact on His actions.  This means God can be influenced by what we do. To some extent, most practising Christians must believe this – or why would we seek God’s interventions and pray for healing etc?  I think there is a biblical precedent for this, rather poignantly reflected in the discourse between Abraham and God.  Abraham pleads for God to spare the city of Sodom, initially if fifty innocent people were found.  By the end of the discussion, God agrees to spare the city if only 10 innocent people were found.  Is God in his justice able to be bargained with?  You can read the story for yourself in Genesis 18:23-33.  The Biblegateway topical reference to this story calls it the condescension of God. This would suggest that God patronises Abraham.  I don’t think that this is the case.  It seems to me that God is genuinely listening to Abraham.  Just before God has this discussion with Abraham, God tells him that he is going to pop down to Sodom to see if the people were as wicked as he heard them to be.  After the discussion the Angels of the Lord meet Lot, and God is merciful to him.  I think that it is possible to interpret this story to say that our intercession before God has impact – in this case it saved lives.  In God’s justice, he could have wiped out Sodom.  The appeal to his mercy appeared to alter God’s course of action.

possibilities vs certainties – another salvation spin

Have you ever wondered why some people respond to Jesus and the gospel narrative, while others are either disinterested or even actively hostile? There are some clever theories out there to explain this – ranging from “everyone has the free will to accept Jesus, or not” aka Armenianism, or “some are chosen to be saved, and some are not” aka Calvinism. (Please note that while I have linked to the wikipedia for each of these terms, I am not espousing the wikipedia as my theological guide for life, but it seems as good a place as any to begin reading about these terms if you are not familiar with them!). I have posted about this issue before, and if you have poked around my blog you will see that I am somewhat bothered by both of these positions. I have always wondered if maybe there was another view, a third position, floating out there in theology land. Today I had lunch with a few people as part of our Forge internship. In the midst of our discussions the issue of universalism (the view that ultimately everyone will be saved) came up, particularly in relationship to mission. Calvinism of course stands in stark opposition to this perspective. Today I learned the name of another position to explore on this whole matter – open theism. Here is a snippet from the Wikipedia concerning this perspective:

“Open theism asserts that the future exists partly in terms of possibilities rather than certainties. That is, there are aspects of the future that are indeterminate. This means that God’s knowledge of the future, being perfect, would also consist largely of possibilities and not certainties. God has knowledge of some future certainties such as those things that He ordains, and He knows all future possibilities such as the possible free will choices of His created beings.”

This idea is going to take some time for me to sift through, and will probably require slightly heavier reading than the wikipedia!

Enough for now…. but expect more on this to come.


Thoughts from Forge (John Franke) no 2…check out Tim’s blog for some detailed notes on this session. When I think of God, a significant divine attribute that comes to mind is holiness. Last week John Franke added a new dimension to my thoughts about holiness . I have always thought of the word “holiness” in relation to humanity as being set apart for God, and a way of conveying sinlessness or purity when used in reference to God. John asked the question – “How is holiness reflected if there is only God?” – what did it look like before creation? This is is a question that I have never thought to ask. Franke suggests that holiness is a relational concept – a category of difference. I guess he means that for something to be defined as holy, that which is not holy must also exist, as a comparison point. He said that holiness is therefore in relationship to created order. One may reasonably query why this is even worth pondering. The holiness of God is immeasurably difficult to comprehend, and our contrasting lack of holiness in human terms can easily lead to a concept of God where he is inaccessible. Now on one level God is inaccessible – He is like nothing we could ever know. We use images and metaphors to help us grasp at the edges of Him, but that is all they do. Yet God desires a relationship with us, and made himself incredibly accessible in a bodily and spiritual sense through Jesus. Franke suggests that while God is holy (and therefore set apart from the created order), this attribute is not as central as love. Franke sees “love” as a reality in the divine life – a dynamic interplay between giving, receiving, and sharing love (as I described in an earlier post). I guess an interesting question to consider is whether it was love or holiness that necessitated the incarnation of God through Jesus. Our fallen state (or lack of holiness) meant that for God to restore us something drastic had to happen. However, he could just as easily have pressed some kind of cosmic reset button and started again, thus satisfying His holiness. But God’s love for creation, and desire to draw us into His divine love formed the impetus to come up with another way. And what could be more appropriate than for our relational God to choose a relational path for drawing us in?

I think this has ramifications for how we think about mission. Traditional approaches often feature a good measure of fire and brimstone against a dirty backdrop of sin. This makes sense from a holiness perspective – for indeed our sin does get in the way. And, God is holy. But if love was the driving force for the nails in the cross, then surely love, as the central dynamic in God himself, should be our starting point in relating to those around us who have not entered into a relationship with Jesus. If as Franke pointed out, holiness is relational, we only become aware of our lack of holiness (or sin) as we are drawn into relationship with God. Hmm… to much to think about at this time of night.

Whatever did God get up to before Creation?

I must confess that I have not really pondered this terribly much before the recent Forge intensive. This question was neatly posed by John Franke,an American theologian. The answer (and how significant it is or isn’t) is wrapped up in your concept of God. A basic understanding (albeit source of incredible mystery) of God is that he is triune. As in, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. There is enough in the bible for us to safely assume that God is both triune, and always has been – even before we enter the story of the universe through creation. Miraculously, ‘the beloved disciple’ John seemed to have figured this out (see John 1). Ok, so what did the Triune God pass the time, however long that was, before deciding to create life as we know it? We can assume some kind of interplay between each person within the Godhead. John Franke put it this way – life within the trinity is characterised by the “giving, receiving and sharing of love”. The ontology of God is relational. He is social, not solitary. Sociality within God can be referred to as “perichoresis” – close fellowship, interdependence”. John went on to say that God desired to extend this relationship to that which is not God (a missional activity), thus providing the impetus for creation. Just as God is in essence social, we too are created as social beings – it was not good enough for Adam to be alone (and most of us would agree with this sentiment). Here comes the main reason I have chosen to write about this here – John suggests that this is how we image God. We reflect the image of God in our “interdependent relationality, in the giving, receiving and sharing of love”. In this way we reflect the essence of the triune God, not individually, but relationally. I had figured out that God is probably not 5″3 with brown hair like me, but aside from some vague concept of a spiritual likeness, I have generally struggled to understand what it means to be made in the image of God. This definition means that my reflecting of God’s image may not really be about me individually after all. Dominion, creativity, conscience, will – the usual list of attributes said to reflect the image of God are individual attributes. All about me. There are many Christians out there with little opportunity to express some of these things – attributes like dominion and creativity are so readily mitigated by socio-economic and other cultural determinants. But together, we can give, receive, and share love”. As we do so, we move away from an western individualist imaging of God, to a reflection of the incredible relationality within the triune God.

The growing of goodness

I am doing some reading at the moment on Jesus as the Healer,and decided to give Google Scholar and Google book search a go. Go Google! Great stuff available at my fingertips without leaving my lounge. I came across an interesting excerpt from Phillip Yancey's "The Jesus I never knew". It has very little to do with my topic of interest, but got me thinking anyway. Reflecting on a trip to Russia (and a brief overview of some of its colourful political history), Yancey writes that goodness "can not be imposed externally, from the top down, it must grow internally from the bottom up" (page 76). If this statement was not true, communism would be a beautiful thing, and Russia would have been the socio-political envy of the world. So we can't legislate goodness and its various relatives such as kindness, mercy, generosity, integrity and so on. Maybe that means that we actually don't depend on Howard and other world leaders to cement these traits in our culture? We can't ignore the impact of politics on our everyday lives, rights and access to justice, but perhaps we give away too much of our own personal power when we leave the betterment of society to our leaders. These things need to bubble up in our own lives and spill out to affect those around us – in a similar vein to the movie "Pay it Forward". Maybe this is not so far removed from my original topic after all. The way in which Jesus lived in his society permanently changed those closest to him, and countless subsequent generations. Jesus impacted the world "from the bottom up" even though you could argue he came from the "top down".