Category Archives: Questions
“A truth’s initial commotion is directly proportional to how deeply the lie was believed. It wasn’t the world being round that agitated people, but that the world wasn’t flat. When a well-packaged web of lies has been sold gradually to the masses over generations, the truth will seem utterly preposterous and its speaker a raving lunatic.” ~ Dresden James
Throughout the history of the Christian tradition, and even before it began with the life of Jesus, there have been pivotal moments of change when someone dared to question longstanding traditions and beliefs. Today we regard such people as Martin Luther and Thomas Aquinas as forefathers of our faith, strong and brave heroes to whom we owe the beautiful, rich, diverse religious tradition we know today as Christianity.
Yet, in their days, these men were denounced as heretics and feared for the ways they were rattling the foundations of everything the religious majority of the day believed. They were feared and opposed by Christians who fought tooth and nail to maintain a tight grip on the beliefs and practices they had always embraced as the only plausible way of living out the Christian faith.
For example, a short excerpt from the same book I talked about in my last post (which I have now finished, and highly recommend!):
“Aquinas is called ‘Doctor of the Church’ today, but he was called many, many much worse things during his years of teaching at the University of Paris. He was labeled a heretic on several occasions, and as a man who was sullying the pure gospel with corrupt ideas. Aquinas’s ideas were hotly contested, and the real churchmen of his day thought the professor incendiary and dangerous to the minds of the youth.” (Inventing Hell, p. 155)
This zealous opposition to new ideas within the Christian faith is as old as the origination of the Christian religion itself. Even Jesus and his teachings about the Kingdom of God were staunchly resisted by the dominant religious leaders of Jerusalem. In Mark 3:6, Matthew 12:14, and John 10:45-57, we read about the pharisees plotting to kill Jesus because of his “heretical” teaching and because they were threatened by his popularity.
It seems to be quite a pattern throughout the history of the Christian religion that we have a terrible track record with accepting and integrating big theological shifts. Part of it is human nature, I think. Changing the broadly accepted pattern of how things are supposed to be is frightening to think about. We like our traditions to be familiar, well-worn by time, and when someone comes along and speaks out against the oppression and legalism and general ungodliness of our traditions, our visceral reaction is to denounce that person as a heretic.
Yet these “heretics” are now venerated as the founding fathers of our faith. And it begs the question: who are the pioneers of the Christian faith today, who will lead us into a new way of understanding the Christian religion? Who are the people today that the Christian majority—which, let’s face it, largely consists of conservative evangelicals—has cast out because their beliefs are dangerous? And perhaps a more important question: are we casting them out because we truly believe that what they teach is contrary to scripture? Or are we casting them out because we are afraid of what challenges the status quo, just as the Pharisees were in Jesus’ day?
All these questions are hard to answer, hard to even consider. But we must consider them because maybe, just maybe, God’s Kingdom is bigger than the four walls of conservative theology. Maybe God’s Kingdom is big enough to include truths that will once again reinvent our long-established religious tradition. Just as he did in the life of Jesus, in the life of Martin Luther and Thomas Aquinas, maybe God is working today in ways we never imagined He would, and through people we would never expect.
They say that all human beings have a God-shaped hole in their lives. That we all are born with this innate sense that there is more to this life than the mundane routine of everyday life, that there is something bigger outside ourselves.
They say we starve for it. We desire it, even though we don’t really know what it is we’re longing for or waiting for. There is this elusive restlessness that sits in the underbelly of our being that is never satisfied, never allows us to feel at peace.
They say that there is only one Way that will fulfill that longing and satisfy that deep desire. They say that Way is found in the personhood of Jesus, in saying a prayer of repentance and submitting your life to the Lord.
That’s what they say.
I prayed that prayer when I was five years old. I don’t remember it, but I remember that my father walked me through it. I grew up raised in a Christian home, attending church nearly every single Sunday of my life, and doing all the kids’ programs when I was a child and all the youth programs when I was a teenager.
But that’s not all. I grew up with parents who valued authentic relationship with Jesus, who taught me and my siblings that this Christian life consists of so much more than what goes on beneath a steeple. We prayed as a family often, and we had Bible studies together. I would talk about God with my mom all the time, and I would argue about (okay, sometimes fruitfully discuss) God with my dad less than all the time. My parents are conservative, but not tight-fisted; they let us grow and mature on our own, teaching us but not holding it against us when we ventured outside the umbrella of what they believe is right.
Despite that upbringing, despite being raised to seek after God in every part of my life, I’ve never felt that fulfillment that Christians say only Christ can bring. When I am unflinchingly honest, I imagine that I feel as much doubt and angst and general yearning for more in life that the most die-hard atheist might feel.
Yet I believe in the miracle of the incarnation with all my heart. I claim Jesus as Lord, I claim the Bible as the Word God gave us to reveal Himself to us (even if I view scripture in a different way than most most conservative Christians). Shouldn’t that mean the God-shaped hole in my heart has been infused with the Holy Spirit?
I no longer think so. I don’t think that “hole” ever really goes away. I have moments of joy and peace, but they are always fleeting, always temporary. I think this Christian life is more like a series of hills and valleys, ebbs and flows, moments when God’s presence feels as near as your own breath, and other times when the most honest thought you can conjure is one of doubt and wondering, “Is there anything at all beyond this tangible life I can see?”
But I think that longing exists so we are drawn outside ourselves, driven to seek more, strive more, reach beyond our mundane existence for the hand of the Father, the hand of the One who is always waiting to embrace us with open arms.
I’m a naturally contentious person. I always have been. Whenever I listen to someone express their beliefs and ideas, I comb their words for flawed premises or close-mindedness or ways in which I disagree with them. I’m very critical, and I am rarely satisfied with an expression of belief, especially if it’s a controversial one. Bowing to the status quo rarely satisfies me, and I’m much more comfortable challenging it, and thinking outside its borders than maintaining it—especially when I’m in a church setting (which really is quite unfortunate).
I think this is both a blessing and a curse (and more often than not, it is very exhausting!), because I often turn this personality trait on myself. I constantly analyze my own beliefs and the ways in which I see the world, wondering if I’m seeing something wrong, if I need to be more vocal and publicly affirming about certain beliefs, and more skeptical and curious about others. I never want to be so convicted of something that my heart and mind are closed when God is probing them and trying to transform them, but I also want to be able to rest in that assurance and comfort of the Father that always seems to elude me. It’s a double-edged sword, it really is.
The way I see things, there are two alternatives: either subdue my critical spirit in an attempt to achieve solidarity with my Christian brothers and sisters, or let my critical spirit do what it wishes and step on a lot of toes in the process. I’m ashamed to admit it, but ever since I started growing beyond the conservative bubble I used to live in, I’ve found that the second alternative characterizes my interactions with other Christians much more often than the first. I think this is because I’ve found so much more to be critical of within conservative Christianity than I ever have before, and so there is more “fodder”, for lack of a better word, for my contentious spirit to indulge in, and so indulge I do, and quite rampantly at that.
But this Christian life doesn’t have to come down to these two alternatives, this choice between suppressing honesty so the status quo remains intact, and vocalizing my disagreement with every issue or doctrine or outlook that rubs me the wrong way. There is a third alternative, a wiser and more compassionate way of living in community with my fellow believers in the midst of widely varying perspectives. This third way requires me to speak honestly, yes, but also remember to put myself into the shoes of the person I’m speaking with, and think about why they believe what they do, why they hold opinions I might find abhorrent or flawed, why they believe it is in my best interests make sure I know how wrong I am.
When I do that, I find that I am able to tone down my contentious spirit. I am able to inflect grace and compassion into my words instead of getting so fired up and passionate that it becomes impossible to construct any sort of positive dialogue. And of course, I know full well how hard that is when you’re so sure they’re wrong, when it’s so clear to you what the right way of thinking is. But it’s still so important to develop that skill of seeing through the eyes of others. Until you can do that, you’ll never be able to convince them they’re wrong, no matter how obvious it may seem to you.
And, simultaneously, I think you acquire the wonderful gift of learning from that person too. Because sometimes, it is you who are wrong and in need of a change of perspective. And that won’t happen either, until you’re willing to open yourself up to the possibility.
About a week ago I shared a pretty vulnerable yet also self-absorbed post about my insecurities and my need for validation. Well, this is going to be another one of those sorts of posts. I’m frustrated, and I need to know I’m not the only one. I need to know there are others out there who are like me who are shamelessly committed to Jesus and this Christian faith, yet who also find some stories in the Bible to be terribly unsettling.
This morning in Sunday school we talked about the story of Joshua and the wall of Jericho. You know, the one in which the Israelites are finally on the brink of claiming their promised land, and the Canaanites are all terribly vile sinners who all deserve death. So God kills two birds with one stone, sends the Israelites on a hike around the walls of Jericho seven times, and there you have it. The walls fall, and the Israelites swarm in and slaughter every man, woman, and child within the walls of Jericho—all in the name of God. Such a fanstastic story.
I kept my lips pursed, fighting to stay quiet during the discussion because I knew the minute I opened my mouth I’d voice my dissent and my conscience’s rebellion against the image of God that we see in the story of Jericho. I feel as though I’ve become so hostile and argumentative in church every week, and this week I just wanted to stay quiet and not stir up the pot.
Eh. Who am I kidding. I’ve never been one to stay quiet and not stir up the pot.
So I blurted out my question: “What does our lesson’s curriculum have to say about God? Why would He ordain mass murder—isn’t that inconsistent with the character of God that we see in the New Testament?”
And of course everyone patiently and courteously explained to me in very rational terms that God is a God of love, yes, but He is also holy, and He must judge the sinful. And the Canaanites were terrible, dreadful, awful evildoers just like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. And so God, being the omniscient deity that He is, knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that every single man, woman, and child within the walls of Jericho was a hell-bound fiend, so it was no big deal to fulfill His promise to the Israelites at the expense of their lives.
This was all explained to me so calmly, so rationally, as if it made perfect sense. And of course they didn’t stop there…people used this same argument to explain the decimation of Sodom and Gomorrah. And deaths of the firstborn of Egypt. And hell, why not throw in the entire population of the world drowning in the sea of God’s wrath, save one man and his family?
After all…during the time period of the flood, it’s downright indisputable that EVERY SINGLE HUMAN BEING ON THE EARTH WAS WRATHFUL AND DEPRAVED AND COMPLETELY HARDENED AGAINST SALVATION!
And in my head I wanted to scream. Because really, let’s think about this. It doesn’t make sense—at all. This world is a world full of shades of gray, full of people with good hearts and bad hearts, those who behave selflessly some days and selfishly another. Hearts that are full of compassion and depravity, good and evil. You’ll never be able to convince me that the human heart is black and white—that some human beings are damned from birth and some are predestined for salvation. To claim that is to deny our free will, and to deny the very nature of humanity. You will never be able to convince me that there was ever a time in our history when ALL of humanity was utterly depraved and irredeemable. A time when ALL the Canaanites were utterly depraved and irredeemable.
And what’s more, I don’t care how justified it is theologically; I don’t think I will ever be able reconcile a God who would ordain and even commit mass murder with the God of the Gospels who commanded us to turn the other cheek and love our enemies. A God who would say that all who live by the sword die by the sword. A God who healed and restored and convicted the hearts of men. A God who came down blazing in all His glory to a man on the side of the road, a man who was a mass murderer, who was surely depraved beyond redemption and as deserving of death as any Canaanite.
And God redeemed that man, and that man became Paul, one of the most influential early Christians and the writer of over half of the New Testament.
I brought up Paul this morning, and of course everyone chimed in with the obvious: God knew Saul’s heart. God knew Saul would repent and become Paul and change the world. And God knew the Canaanites…and every firstborn son in Egypt…and every single living human being except seven at one time…were utterly vile and wicked and depraved beyond redemption. They were beyond God’s grasp, and had rejected Him outright.
And apparently, mass murder is the only way God can deal with hearts that are so far gone.
Well, I choose not to believe in that God. I can’t explain Jericho or the Flood or the tenth plague in Egypt. When it gets right down to it, I don’t think I have to, because I’m no longer convinced that these are accurate historical accounts any more than I am convinced that Genesis 1-3 is a historical account.
But I can listen to Jesus, the incarnation of the living God, the most tangible glimpse we will ever have of our Creator. And I can’t explain how or why or any of it, but I can say…that God is irreconcilable with the murderous, cruel, vile god that Christians try so hard to justify.
‘Kay. Stepping down off my soapbox now. Is there anyone out there who understands? Who reads these stories and feels as though they could never accept that God would ordain mass murder? (Marlia, if you read this, I know you get it…and thank you!)
Suffering. It’s one of the most difficult aspects of life to reconcile with a loving God. It’s often the reason some people toss religion out the window, because they can’t explain why it exists in a world created by God and they can’t understand why it happens to people who don’t deserve it. It’s a hard question, one that is raw and deep and personal, and absolutely not easily answered. I had a discussion about suffering with someone the other day, and since then I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and what I believe about why it exists and how it exists alongside God.
So here are my three answers to the age-old question. I’m not sure any one of them is entirely adequate, but I also don’t think I have to have an adequate answer to the question to believe in the goodness of my God. That, after all, is where faith comes in—trusting in the loving nature of my Father even when things don’t make any sense. And of course, I get that it’s easy to say things like that because I’ve never yet endured major tragedy in my life, so I’m going to hold to the simplicity of that belief until the boat of my life does get rocked, and I do have a reason to blame God for a terrible situation. And then, I guess I’ll just deal with that when it comes.
* * * * *
1. Suffering exists because God loves us enough to grant us free will, and having a free will means that sometimes we will choose to hurt people.
This is the simplest answer, and it’s the one I think most Christians turn to when confronted with the enigma of suffering. After all, it dovetails so neatly with the doctrine of human depravity and our innate tendency to sin. It’s the explanation that makes most sense when the agent of tragedy is another human being who has chosen bad rather than good, and sin rather than God. This explanation can account for murder, rape, war, and a multitude of other evils that generate suffering in this world. But what it cannot account for is suffering that exists for a reason other than because a human being acted in a way that is evil. It can’t account for cancer, for example. And it can’t account for natural disasters, or accidents, or suicide, or a thousand other terrible occurrences that have nothing to with the sinfulness of man (at least not directly. I know what you’re thinking).
2. Suffering exists because without it, peace and love and joy and all that is good in this world would lose its meaning.
Of the three, I think this answer is the one that gives me most comfort. It turns that terrible word—suffering—on its head and draws you back to the beauty. You don’t know you’re standing in light unless you know what darkness looks like. You don’t appreciate times of joy nearly so much if you haven’t also been through times of sorrow. You don’t know quite as desperately how much love is needed in this world unless you’ve been subjected to hate or you’ve lost someone you love. And the times of peace and love and joy don’t make the hard times any less hard, but they do remind you that the good things in this life are worth fighting and living for. This world isn’t fair. It never has been. But even through the unfairness of it all, there is always, always a light that drives away the dark.
3. Suffering exists to reveal how deeply Jesus loves us.
Some people go through absolute shit in this world. I’m talking like, the worst kind of shit imaginable, the kind that leaves you hopelessly miserable and huddled in the bottom of a pit, unable to lift your eyes, let alone drag yourself out of it. I’m talking like, starvation and unimaginably painful disease and the kind of betrayal that slices into your heart. The kind that seems downright impossible to come back from. For those people, the only kind of answer that I can give for suffering is the cross. The cross doesn’t explain suffering, but it does offer something far, far more profound. When Jesus stepped down to this world and came to life in abject circumstances and taught us to love then died to show us what love looks like, he crossed the boundary between man and God. He came down into the stink and sweat and messy pain of this world and suffered a death worse than it is possible to imagine. He endured the abandonment of the men he had spent his entire ministry teaching. He endured terrible physical pain and torture—whipping, having thorns thrust into his scalp, and being nailed on a cross. And even as he hung dying, crying out for his Father, that same Father turned his back on His Son. Jesus endured not just physical pain, but the spiritual trauma of being separated from holiness.
Jesus went through all of that. He knows. He’s experienced heartache and betrayal and physical pain too great to bear. So when we suffer, we know that Jesus is there, that He has gone through worse for the sake of love. Yahweh, the God of the Bible, the God of the Christian faith and the God I serve is not a distant and sadistic deity who metes out arbitrary punishment on the innocent, as we tend to believe when confronted with tragedy. Instead He is a God who suffered for our sake. He knows how real our pain is because He has gone through it Himself.
* * * * *
This was the best shot I’ve got at tackling the terribly difficult question of suffering. I know my answers may fall short when confronted with such suffering. But that doesn’t make Jesus’ ability to identify with our pain any less real. God is here. He is here in the tears of a mother whose child has died. He is here cradling the heart of the one betrayed by her best friend. He is here, even when He feels a thousand miles away. He is here.
He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.
He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.
By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
And as for His generation, who considered
That He was cut off out of the land of the living
For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?
His grave was assigned with wicked men,
Yet He was with a rich man in His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.
It’s so hard to find the balance between speaking up for what you believe in, and letting things go in favor of promoting unity within the body of Christ. All last night and into today, the Phil Robertson/Duck Dynasty controversy riddled its way through my Facebook news feed. I read up on the controversy, listening to voices on both extremes of the liberal/conservative spectrum. I listened to one video that raged against the fakeness and homophobic hatred of the Duck Dynasty clan, and I read another article that called conservatives to rally around Robertson and fight against the wrongfulness of his suspension.
A couple of articles, such as this one, and this one, rose above the noise for me as honest and convicting responses to Robertson’s statements and A&E’s decision to suspend him. What struck me as particularly honest about these articles is that they don’t try to justify what Robertson said. Because seriously, what he said was vitriolic and dehumanizing, even if that wasn’t his intent. And I don’t care what your beliefs about homosexuality are—if you believe that Phil’s statements reflect the heart of Jesus, I think you’d be dead wrong. Jesus was very much in the business of instilling worth into his listeners and affirming their humanity. On the contrary, what Phil said reduced gay and lesbian human beings to sex acts. And that is wrong.
Anyway…everything I said in the preceding paragraph was my initial response to the controversy. I’ll admit that I then proceeded to offer my input all over Facebook about how wrong Robertson was and how there are consequences when you abuse your right to free speech in such a manner.
I’m not sure yet if that was a good idea, because I don’t know where the balance is. As an LGBT ally and as a Christian, I want to stand against remarks such as Robertson’s, but I also feel that at some point, I’m doing more harm than good by adding fuel to the fire, so to speak. But on the other hand, standing back and saying, “Come on now, let’s just love everybody,” isn’t really an effective response either. I don’t want to stay out of it when someone who is a public face for Christianity in this country compares homosexuality to bestiality and worse, but I also don’t want to contribute to widening the rift between the gay and Christian communities—or the liberal and conservative groups either, for that matter.
I suppose the answer is to approach the issue with love as the focus. Problem is, I’m pretty sure everyone—ranging from those lobbying to support Phil to those decrying him as homophobic—thinks they’re approaching this issue with love as the focus. It’s all quite disheartening, if you ask me. But the way I see it, the real demonstration of love is the one that can see both sides of the coin. The one that can look at what Phil said and ask, “How would a gay person feel if he read this?” I’d imagine he’d feel pretty terrible. And the other question we should ask is, “What was the condition of Phil’s heart when he said what he said?” What he said may have been crass and vulgar, but the capstone of his comments was a call to love. And we can’t ignore that and paint him as an evil person representing evil things, as much as we might think he deserves it.
In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting here lately. I think it’s because the year is drawing to a close, so it feels like an appropriate time for reflection. And looking back, it boggles my mind to think how about the huge, terrifying twists and turns my faith has traveled through over the last year. The person I am now, the perspective I have now about God and faith and what it means to be a committed follower of Christ—it’s all virtually unrecognizable compared to the faith I had a little more than a year ago.
I’ve been told by some whom I love that this is a bad thing. That I’ve fallen off the wagon, I’ve strayed from the path, I’ve let the world taint the rightness of my walk with God.
At first I was tormented by the thought that they might be right. Now I’m not anymore. Instead, I feel like my spiritual growth has been positively exponential during this past year. A desire has awakened in me. It’s something inexplicable and exhilarating all at once. Every day now I’m thinking about God and what he means to me, or I’m writing about my faith here, or I’m cracking open my Bible and letting its words bore into my heart and mind in a way they never have before. I’m learning to invest myself deeply into this Christian walk, and I’m learning, little by little, to let go of my preconceived notions about who God is.
It’s so interesting to me how the hills and valleys of Christian spirituality work. If you look through my archives, you’ll see posts like this one where I was weary to death of all the searching. I was ready to toss the books and podcasts and blogs aside and quit learning from them. Today, though, I’m more grateful than ever for these resources. I’m grateful for these men and women of God who have so fearlessly shared their thoughts and experiences with the world. I’m grateful because their journeys have played a role in shaping mine. And that is exactly what the Body of Christ is supposed to do.
Today I’m not weary. I’m eager, and I’m hopeful. And my heart is bursting with the gladness of knowing that my God is good. All the time. And I think I’ve tapped into that joy because I’ve been facing my doubts head-on. I’ve been honest with myself and I’ve asked the hard questions and right now, where I am…there’s no way I could ever not believe in God. And I know that belief is mine, because I’ve given myself the freedom to wonder if the alternative might be true. And in my head, a world without God, a world without my savior…is downright inconceivable.
So I’m going to keep plugging on. I’m going to keep developing, learning, growing. I’m going to keep anticipating what new lessons in boldness, love, humility, faith, gentleness, etc., etc., God has planned to teach me. Because I love Him, and He is, and always will be, my Lord and Savior.
In this life, in this world around me, I don’t see things the way I used to anymore. I process church sermons differently. I react to pithy Facebook memes about God differently. I find commonality and comfort in different kinds of literature than I used to. I wrinkle my nose when someone tries to tell me specifics about how to obey my Bible, and I’m discovering new ways of understanding grace that were totally cut off to me before.
I’ve blown Pandora’s box wide open, and I’ve asked questions I never thought I’d ask.
And my goodness gracious, I’m so much better off for it. I read a quote somewhere that says once you’ve opened the gate and ventured out into the big wide world, once you’ve reached your mind out into places it’s never gone before, there is no going back. Your life will never be the same. Boy has that been true of my life! I don’t think I could ever again be comfortable with the idea that the Bible is one, perfectly consistent, perfectly coherent, perfectly perfect work of literature anymore. I’ll never again be comfortable with the idea that one Moral Code can be applied universally, across the board, to every single human being who has ever lived. I’ll never be comfortable with drawing battle lines between science and religion, or letting devotion to doctrine trump compassion. I’ll never be comfortable with a lot of things, and I think that’s really good.
Another viewpoint that has transformed slowly for me is how to be the right sort of witness for Jesus. I used to think the best way to witness is to have all the right answers, and to be opinionated about those answers. And then, when I realized all my answers weren’t as simple as I thought, and I started asking questions, I developed into a different but equally ineffective way of being a witness. I began to rag on others to think more critically, to push the boundaries and change their way of living out Christianity in all the same ways that I have been doing. But I’m learning (again, oh so slowly) that this isn’t the best way to be a witness either. Do I think a lot of Christians need to change the way they look at faith and truth and love and Christianity and all of it? Sure I do. But talking incessantly about all the things they need to change isn’t really going to help change happen—all it will do is turn people off.
So I’m trying to be the sort of witness who practices cognitive empathy. I’m trying to see the world through the eyes of the people around me and meet them where they are instead of trying to press my mold of what Christianity looks like onto them. And I’m trying to practice love—the kind of love that is diligent and selfless and relentless. The kind of love that can only be demonstrated by someone who is lost in the love of the Father themselves.
I can’t be the sort of person who tells people how to be a Christian, because I’ve been told that my whole life, and it never really did much good for me. And I’m so, so very glad that I see things differently now, and I’m going to focus on living that difference.
It’s been about a year since I let go of religious doctrines that I had never truly claimed in my heart. The journey has been a rocky one, full of tears and anguish, full of joy and eagerness. There have been ebbs and flows. Times when I felt I was drowning in an immeasurably good God, times when I genuinely doubted that God is good at all, and times when I felt overwhelmed with pressure to figure out what God wants me to believe about Him. For the first time, I’ve realized that my perception of God is not ironclad because I draw it from the Bible, and that my perceptions color my reading of God’s Word just as surely as they color everything else.
I’ve had moments where I believe what I want to believe, because I’m tired of denying what my heart tells me is truth. I’ve had moments when I wonder if I ought to believe anything at all, unless it’s something that God actually comes down and tells me explicitly is true. I think sometimes that this is the only way I could ever know truth. In all, my search for truth has often felt like a never-ending maze. A maze which, when I turn a corner, I find about a dozen more options, a dozen more paths to choose from.
In the midst of all this, though, I’ve also discovered in a very profound way what it means to put my faith in God. When I don’t know the answers to all of the hard questions, it suddenly becomes a lot more important to trust in the goodness of God. When my own eyes see dark and blurry and confusing images, the light of God’s love feels so much brighter and clearer. When I refuse to pin my idea of God down with a particular theological belief, my mind is freed to imagine the immeasurable, immutable, mystifying nature of my Father in heaven.
Today I’m going to do something a little different. Instead of writing about church, which I’ve done a lot of lately, I’m going to offer my thoughts on a sermon series I’ve been listening to about the book of Revelation. You can find the series here, if you’re interested. Just scroll down to the “It’s the End of the World” sermon series. It’s really worth a listen, whether Revelation fascinates you or terrifies you (I’d say both are true for me!).
What I love most about Jonathan Martin’s sermons is that he places Revelation within the context of the cross, and reminds us that this enigmatic book is ultimately about the restoration of the earth and of God’s people, rather than about the spilling of blood and apocalyptic terror, which is what we ordinarily associate Revelation with. For example, he mentions time and again that when Jesus returns as the Lion, he is still comes wearing a robe dipped in blood (Revelation 19:13), signifying that he has not shed his identity in the Gospels: his identity as the Lamb. Even when he comes as a conqueror, he comes bearing a sign of the cross, reminding us that the true victory happened at Calvary.
I also think it’s absolutely fascinating how Jonathan uses first century Middle Eastern culture/history to exegete Revelation, especially Revelation’s use of numbers. He talked about how it was very common in that time to write Greek letters in numeric codes, and how the numbers “666” can be translated to mean the name “Nero.” Another number that we see constantly throughout the book of Revelation is the number seven. Seven trumpets, seven bowls of wrath, seven churches, seven spirits of God. I could go on and on. But what is significant about these references is that the number seven represents fullness, or wholeness. So when Revelation 4:5, for example, talks about the seven spirits of God, it is not a literal figure but rather a way of saying, here, at the throne of God, we see His fullness.
Another sermon of Jonathan’s that I found fascinating had to do with the two witnesses. In Revelation 11, we read about two witnesses who will prophesy, strike the earth with plagues, and spew fire from their mouths. Whenever I think of this passage, I think of the literal interpretation—two witnesses, literally clothed in sackcloth, roaming around the earth burning people up and turning water into blood and testifying about God.
However, Jonathan’s treatment of the passage makes so much more sense. He contends that this passage is metaphorical. For example, in Revelation 11:4, we are told that the two witnesses “are the two olive trees and the two lamp stands that stand before the Lord of the earth.” Earlier, in Revelation 1-2, John describes an image of seven lamp stands. He explains to us that these lamp stands represent the seven churches to whom the letter of Revelation is addressed. If the lamp stands in Revelation 1-2 represent churches, would it not make sense that the witnesses in Revelation 11, also called lamp stands, are also a metaphor for the Church?
These are only a few examples of many in which Jonathan talks through the book of Revelation in a way that is logically sound and practically applicable—which I think is quite a feat for a book as weird and complicated as Revelation! I never would have imagined that Revelation could have much to do with the current Church, or my current individual walk with God. But in the light of Jonathan’s talks about the book, I’ve discovered that it really does, and I can learn so much about the nature of God, and God’s love for us, from even this book.