At the beginning of November 2013 blogger Seth Adam Smith wrote a post entitled “Marriage Isn’t for You”. The post went viral and attracted over 24 million views within four days after its publication. No one was more surprised than Smith. He described the experience as “staggering, inspiring, overwhelming, and more than a little intimidating.”
Smith’s clever choice of a heading certainly had something to do with it. I spotted the sentence amongst a myriad of Huff Post headlines, and immediately followed the link to the article, wondering what on earth this was all about.
But the post surprised me. Contrary to expectation, and quite opposite to first impressions, it argued that marriage was never intended for self-gratification, but for the sake of one’s partner. In Smith’s own words: “A true marriage (and true love) is never about you. It’s about the person you love — their wants, their needs, their hopes, and their dreams. Selfishness demands, ‘What’s in it for me?’, while Love asks, ‘What can I give?’”
This, I would suggest, provides the real reason why the post caused such a media sensation. Not only had Smith inadvertently touched on one of the greatest mysteries of the universe, but also allowed his readers to hold the key that unlocks it.
A Profound Mystery…
Remember that rather strange sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians – the one that reads: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church”? Remember that Paul was writing about marriage, and how marriage is an earthly reflection of a heavenly relationship?
If you do, then you may know where I am heading with this. According to Paul, the relationship between marriage and faith is a hidden one. It is a “profound mystery”, meaning that humans in general are unaware of the correlation between the two, or, if they are aware of it, they generally do not understand it too well.
It is this very ignorance that Paul addresses in the passage that contains the sentence mentioned above (Ephesians 5:21-32). In the human relationship between a husband and wife, the husband depicts Christ and the wife depicts the church, Paul says. Understand the correlation, and you can unlock the mystery of marriage.
Beginning with the wife, Paul explains that the way for a wife to understand her role in marriage is to turn to her knowledge of Christ. There she will be confronted with a story of a lover and his beloved, and her experiential knowledge of what it means to be the beloved, that is, the one at the receiving end of the lover’s favour. She will be reminded that to be loved is a gracious and wonderful thing, a thing of acceptance and not initiation. She will be reminded that her calling is to yield, to surrender, to succumb, to be filled with the fullness of her lover’s life. Herein is ultimate satisfaction and safety, and the word that Paul chooses to embody this act of blissful concession is the word translated “submission” in most of our English Bibles.
It is this very holy and indescribable thing that the wife is to take from her walk with Christ, and bring into her marriage. This is not intended to be something mysterious or complicated. If a woman walks with God, it is as easy as taking the trusted old family recipe into a new kitchen and having exactly the same results as everyone has always had in the old one.
Having made this point, Paul turns his attention to the husbands. Their advice is exactly the same as their wives’, with one important distinction. What they are to bring into their marriage is not the role of the beloved, but of the lover.
This may sound daunting, but it is not supposed to be any more difficult than the preceding advice.
The man who walks with God understands that he was first loved before he could love in return. He understands that the love that saved him was the love of God, that is, a love that cannot be evoked, stirred up or earned by some ongoing performance on his part. It is something sovereign, eternal and unconditional, and it is so in all of its aspects.
To drive the point home, Paul uses the metaphor of the love that a “head” has for its very own “body”. It is a love that is birthed from an indescribable unity, and its very nature is to nurture, protect, nourish and cherish. “No one has ever hated his own body”, Paul says, and so the husband is informed in no uncertain terms what it means to be the “head” in this equation.
But there is something else that we need to notice. This act of loving “headship” on the husband’s part is not in contrast to the one of “submission” prescribed to the wife. In fact, the husband is also called to submit to the wife (see verse 21). What this means is that we are not talking about a role of submission versus one of non-submission, but of two roles of submission, albeit in two totally different ways.*
Of course the body is “submitted” to the head, but the head is in fact very much submitted to the body. Even though it initiates the animation of the body, its entire function can rightly be described as one of “service” to the body.
Is it any wonder that Christ, who is the head of the body, first introduced himself as its servant?
It is in submission that the two roles of husband and wife meet and are united. Diverse as these callings may be, they are introduced by a singular overriding and collective call: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
What the Copy Tells Us About the Original…
This is where our friend Seth Adam’s Smith’s insight comes in. Marriage is not for me or for you, Seth points out. It is for the other. He hit the nail on the head, if you would excuse the pun. “I am there for you”, the body says to its head. “I am there for you”, the head replies to the body.
But it goes even further than this. Whilst the insight may be a novel one for some (and undoubtedly fiercely disputed by others), it underlines something else, namely the nature of what it means to be a part of that other marriage, that is, the heavenly one.
If the nature of earthly marriage is derived from heavenly marriage, and if that nature is selflessness, submission and service, then what does it in fact tell us about heavenly marriage?
Put differently, if “marriage is not for me”, then how much more is “Christianity not for me”?
As It Is In Heaven…
I realise that I’m putting the cart before the horse here. We are supposed to get our understanding of marriage from our understanding of Christianity, not the other way round.
But sometimes one sees the cart before you see the horse, and this is what has happened with Seth’s post. Whilst it does a wonderful job of telling us how to behave in marriage, it does not provide the source of that wisdom. And so we shall do well to remind ourselves that marriage is selfless for one reason only: The model that it is based upon is thoroughly selfless, from beginning to end.
Let’s start with the head of this body, Christ: Christ loved his bride selflessly. What this means is that Christ’s attraction to his bride did not spring from his own needs or desires, stirred up by the prospect of having those needs met in a union with her. Rather, it sprang from the needs of the bride, and the prospect of him fulfilling that need in her. Christ’s love was a giving love, not a taking love.
To be drawn to a person to the extent that that person needs you, rather than the extent to which you need him or her, is a strange and foreign concept in the world we live in. It turns the direction of what we understand as “love” around. Yet this is the way in which Christ loved us.
The Bible is clear about the correlation between people hungering and thirsting after God, and God’s love for them. Passages in this regard are numerous. Our need for him is what draws him to us, as upside-down as that may sound. The blessedness of the poor in spirit and those who mourn and hunger and thirst after righteousness are contrasted with the woes of those who are full and need nothing. He came for the sick, not the healthy. He is close to the brokenhearted. He resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. He sides with the returning prodigal of Luke 15, the sinful tax collector of Luke 18 and the adulterous woman of John 8. To drive the point of his strange love home, each time he does so in the presence of those who are religiously smug and unaware of their need for him.
But the passage that sketches the contrast most strikingly comes from Luke 7. Here we find the principle repeated in a narrative of another sinful woman and another Pharisee, but we also find something else. Note the following words:
One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wwiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Yet again it is the needy one who attracts Christ to her, and who receives his mercy. But the story goes one step further than the ones mentioned above, and explains how this very fulfillment of her need is transformed into a miraculous and wonderful thing, namely her love for Christ.
What we learn from this passage is that the selfless love that Christ has for those who are desperately aware of their need for him, fills them in such a way that it evokes deep gratitude and a reciprocation of that very love. Indeed, they love God because he first loved them.
At first glance this reciprocated love may seem selfish, in the sense of “I am attracted to you because of what you can do for me.” But in fact it is not. The reason why Christ can love without the anticipation of some sort of “filling” is that he is already filled by the love of the Father. And so he loves freely and without condition or ulterior motive.
Once a human being becomes the recipient of this divine love, the same miracle occurs inside of her. She is filled with the fullness of God in such a way that she no longer needs anything else, and this divine contentment manifests itself in a love that bubbles forth from a position of fullness exactly as Christ loves from a position of utter fulfillment and joy in the fullness of the Father.
Note the words of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
This fullness enables us to be attracted to others based on their needs, not ours. This fullness enables us to love one another as Christ has loved us, demanding nothing from them and anticipating no reward for our love, but desiring only to share the richness of the fullness within us.
The Insight that Transformed Karl Barth
Few people are aware that much of the theological genius of the legendary Swiss theologian Karl Barth can be traced back to a book that dramatically altered his understanding in this regard. It expounded the two different types of love described above, namely the love of God as opposed to the love of fallen man. This monumental work was written by Anders Nygren and the title says it all: Agape and Eros.
In Barth’s classic work Evangelical Theology, he relies heavily on Nygren and says the following about these two types of love:
Love, as Eros, is, in general terms, the primordially powerful desire, urge, impulse, and endeavor by which a created being seeks his own self-assertion, satisfaction, realization, and fulfillment in his relation to something else. He strives to draw near to this other person or thing, to win it for himself, to take it to himself, and to make it his own as clearly and definitively as possible. In Agape, however, the one who loves never understands the origin of his search as a demand inherent within himself, but always as an entirely new freedom for the other one… And because he is free for him, he does not seek him as though he needed him for himself as a means to his self-assertion and self-fulfillment…. He loves him gratis. That is to say, he desires nothing from him, and he does not wish to be rewarded by him.
The conclusion of this whole matter is astoundingly simple. If Christ has filled me with all the fullness of God, then I no longer need Christianity to do so. Then Christianity need not feed or satisfy me in any way to retain its appeal. Then my Christianity is no longer for me, but for others. Then the fellowship of the brothers and sisters need not meet the requirements of my personal checklist to qualify for my inclusion. Then I become a giver of the life that is within, wherever I am and whatever I do.
And as I do so, the words of Christ constantly prove to be true: It is more blessed to give than to receive. This type of giving does not deplete my resources, but expands and increases them. This type of love does not drain me, but reinvigorates me. As I give, God replenishes, and what could possibly be more blessed than that?
* Not everyone agrees that Ephesians 5:21 teaches mutual submission. See, for instance, Wayne Grudem’s “The Myth of “Mutual Submission”. It should be noted that most scholars who share Grudem’s views do so because they believe that the idea of “mutual submission” promotes “egalitarianism” by seriously undermining the Biblical teaching of the unique authority and leadership role of the husband in marriage. However, if we understand the term “submission” as a general category of selflessness and service, and one that underlies all the distinct callings of the members of the body, including that of husband and wife, the dilemma is solved.
(The Meditation section of this blog is intended for exactly that: Meditation. A cursive reading of these posts will frustrate most readers, so it may be a good idea to skip them if you are not in the mood to think too deeply!)
Here is something to chew on for all fellow philosophical souls out there. It offers, hopefully, more than the ivory-towered entertainment that theologians and philosophers tend to indulge in, oftentimes at the expense of a real engagement with people and their problems. The reading below (right at the end of this introduction) is intended to convey something that, when correctly understood, may quite literally change the course of a person’s life. And so it is (potentially) extremely practical and applicable for our walk with Christ.
Simply put, the meditation has to do with the nature of eternity that enters the life of the regenerate, not at the moment of their physical death, but at the moment of their spiritual death and regeneration. To live in eternity is to have time and space suspended in the way that most of us experience it. We oftentimes try and interpret the idea of “eternity” from our own finite perspective of time, and we end up with time “extended” (remember the illustration of the little bird sharpening its beak on the diamond mountain?) rather than time “suspended”.
Eternity is not a “lo-o-o-ng” time, but an eternal now, which is what the meditation aims to illustrate.
The point is that a real encounter with perfection suspends the need to dwell on the past (Solomon’s prohibited question in Ecc.7:10: “Why were the old days better than these?”) or the future (The refrain of discontent: “If only…”). Of course a dwelling on the past can be negative (regret or shame rather than nostalgia, i.e. the “if only…” sentiment in reverse gear – What Martyn Lloyd Jones dubbed “Vain Regrets” in his classic Spiritual Depression) and so can be an imagined future (fear in the place of lust: “What if…”).
But even negative manifestations of retrospection and visioneering are suspended in the presence of perfection. And so the problem of sin, which is the problem of discontent and its perceived antidote “desire” (See post here), dissipates in the atmosphere of perfection. The idea that something greater lurks in the future than in the present was, of course, introduced by the serpent. I elaborated on this in two posts here and here and will refrain from doing so in this post.
A final word: The normal Christian life is clearly designed by God to frustrate our projections of an idealised future inhabited by an idealised self, for this is the essence of what it means to fall into the power of the evil one, as the Eden tragedy reminds us. It is also, I believe, this idea that will contribute to Scripture’s “great apostasy” more than any thing else, and I suspect it has already begun. An “imagined self” lies at the heart of all idolatry. It deceived the first Eve, who typified the bride of Christ, and it will deceive the second Eve, the church herself. Satan’s strategy has not changed, and neither has our gullibility.
And so God has been busy since the fall to frustrate our most pronounced idolatrous tendency, namely the tendency to compensate for the curse by constructing curse-free images in our imagination – dreaming of perfect tomorrows to compensate for painful yesterdays and frustrating todays:
- Note that God’s manna, the bread from heaven who is Christ, lasts for one day only.
- Note that the exodus was designed to frustrate the very idolatrous excitement that made the people sing the song of Moses (Ex.15) whilst anticipating milk and honey instead of daily bread. Note that the way in which God “tested” them, to see “what was in their heart, whether they would serve him or not”, was by frustrating their future expectations.
- Note that the lesson following the test (See Deut.8:3 and on) did not only have to do with substance (every word of God instead of bread alone), but with timing (a daily partaking in the place of an anticipated future).
- Note that the stubborn refusal of the “imagined future” to come to realisation inspired the act of forcing it into existence through a golden calf.
- Note the correlation between the golden calf event and Nebuchadnezzar’s “golden image” which he constructed in response to God’s revelation that his rule was but a temporary and ultimately futureless one.
- Note Jesus’ reference in Matthew 6 to the gentiles “running after these things”, namely the concern about tomorrow and how to prepare for it.
- Note Jesus’ response in Luke 12 to a man who was worried that he would not receive his anticipated inheritance from his brother. This response included a story in which Jesus contrasts the birds and flowers, who receives daily from the hand of God, with the rich man who spend his entire life storing up for a perfect future – one that was taken from him as it arrived.
- Note the fact that the benefits of the most famous “Lord’s Prayer” lasts only for one day only, and that it has to be repeated every day – in the day for the day.
- Note that the great revelation of what it means to be a disciple hinges on a single statement, namely to “take up your cross daily”.
- Note James’ condemnation of the rich who say “tomorrow we will…”
- Note those verses in the middle of the saddest book in the Bible, Lamentations, that beam forth like a light out of darkness: “His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning…”
- And note that the only legitimate “hope” in Scripture is the hope of the resurrection, and herein is our visionary instincts satisfied. “It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future, and this becomes his salvation in the most difficult times of his existence”, wrote Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning. He was right, and the observation made him famous. But of course he never pointed out that this peculiarity of man was intended to draw his gaze from the present age to the age to come, and not to some imagined future within the present age.
There is more, but I think the point has been made. With the above in mind, the promised reading:
The Presence of God as the Suspension of Time and Space, namely Eternity
The “here” of space and the “now” of time intersect in an eternal concept called “presence”, signifying both locality (you are “with” us, that is, you are “present” as opposed to “absent”) and interval or moment (you are so at the “present”, as opposed to the “past” or “future”). We therefore see that the presence of a person cannot be due to recollection or projection. Both the past and the future make existence impossible as it obliterates presence.
Thus, for the self to be alienated from the self, resulting in the tragic and inevitable annihilation of the self, what we term “death”, the self must be removed from the present into the past or the future. This removal we see expressed in the shift from the divine “I am” (Ex.3:14) to the demonic “I will” (Is.14:13-14). The latter we can refer to as the appearance of “becoming” in the place of “being”.
Existence stands opposed to imagination. Presence is immune to imagination, for the reality of presence overrides imagery, but the past and the future is bound to imagination. This means that the self of the past or the future is of necessity an image, and that it is dead. It has departed from the intersection of the present. “I will” is death, “I am” is life.
“I will” is the confession that removes one from the eternal moment of the present. This experience of death is felt in the sentiment of desire, and it is kept alive by the sentiment of anticipation. To desire is death. To anticipate is death. The image is always desired and anticipated, and it always destroys presence.
Needless to say, the death resulting from “I will” (The devil in Is.14) is transferred through the code “you will” (the serpent to Eve in Gen.3) and collectively expressed in the confession “we will” or “let us” (the builders of the tower of Babel in Gen.11). The seed of death is transmitted in this manner.
For the destruction of the unity between two selves, i.e. between two or more individuals, the same annihilation is called for, namely the exchange of “we are” (“I am” in the collective sense, the confession of identity found and celebrated) for “let us” (identity as a wish dream, the anticipation of “a name for ourselves”). Babel does not only provide the historical narrative of disunity, but also the cause thereof, namely the act of collective visioneering. Images relate no more than phantoms, this story teaches us.
The incarnation of Christ was the intersection of time and space, and it restored the possibility of fellowship as a reality and not a dream. Naturally, for when time and space collide, they do so in a third reality namely “presence” or “eternity”. Note that “presence” does not exist alongside time and space, but in the place thereof, as illustrated by the following graphic:
Of course we can expand on it by filling in the blank spaces:
And here is the conclusion of the matter: To walk in an exceptional manner with Christ is to apprehend him in the moment, not to anticipate him sometime in the future of this age (The second coming excluded, as that is the beginning of the age to come). A projection of his presence to an imaginary idealised setting (next week’s church service, next month’s healing revival, my spirituality if I can only…, etc.) is to be left without that presence in the now, for how can we throw something towards the future and still cling to it?
To abide in Christ, and to fellowship with the body, can only happen in the now. Presence and present is inseparable. Herein is the antidote to the curse of good intentions never carried out. Herein is true contentment and the annihilation of desire. Herein is the experience of the fullness of God. Herein is the eternal Sabbath. Herein is the fulfilment of the law. Herein is the love of God.
He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. (Paul, writing to Timothy)
Have you ever heard a fellow believer say that he or she is interested in the “deep things” of God?
Perhaps the words were stated differently, but with the same basic meaning: “I believe the Lord has called me to a higher Christian life.” Or something similar.
Have you ever witnessed the excitement when such a person discovers a group of believers with similar noble intentions, especially if the group appears to have already made some progress into these “deeper” or “higher” things of God?
Have you ever noticed how often such liaisons fall apart? And how often somebody (or a few bodies) ends up disappointed, offended or hurt? Or, if they manage to stick it out, how often the group tends to become so insular and elitist that you end up feeling more comfortable around the shallow folks from the little traditional church around the corner?
Paul’s words to the Romans come to mind: The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.
1. Romans 7: The Efforts of the Flesh
Firstly, Paul’s apt words above come from Romans 7 – the chapter that is famous for teaching us that any religious intentions are doomed if they depend on the abilities of the flesh. Whilst the law does a great job of formulating the spiritual “ideal”, it does not impart the life necessary to live up to that ideal.
Of course we regularly forget this, and so we take God’s “thou shalt” to mean “thou can”. But we are mistaken. As Paul concludes in Romans 7, the desire to do good does not imply any ability to do so.
Similarly, a group’s desire to be the “true church” says absolutely nothing about their ecclesiastical aptitude. Passion is not necessarily an indicator of talent, as television music reality shows regularly reveal. Spiritual passion is even less so, according to Paul. When acted upon, it will only succeed in revealing spiritual incapacity, the aim being to force us to look away from ourselves and to God who is the builder of his own church, thank you.
2. John 4: The Religious Wish Dream
Secondly, human liaisons that aim to fulfill personal needs are doomed to fail. The alarming divorce rate testifies quite clearly to this. When we are attracted to people because they make us happy, we will end up feeling contempt for them when they make us unhappy. That is, unfortunately, the tail end of the deal.
Of course the same goes for people who make us feel spiritual…
No chapter in the Bible illustrates this quite like John 4. Jesus uses the water at the bottom of the well as a metaphor for the serial marriages of the Samaritan woman. “Drink of this, and you will thirst again”, he says. In essence: “You keep on drawing from a well, but it does not satisfy. You are looking for me, but you are looking in the wrong places. No husband can fill the emptiness within you or make you whole. You are, in fact, attributing God-like characteristics to fallen human beings when you expect them to do so.”
The answer? “Come and drink from me. That is the only place where you will find life and satisfaction.”
The same goes for church life. When our personal needs manifest as an ecclesiastical “wish dream”, as Bonhoeffer called it, we are heading for disaster.
Wayne Jacobsen has done a wonderful job of addressing this very thing in his article Why House Church isn’t the Answer (you have to read it) so I will not elaborate any further.
3. 1 Timothy 3: Conceit
Finally, and most importantly, the single thing that is most deadening to a group of believers is the sincere conviction that they have discovered something that others are still looking for. The problem with this type of thinking is more than the sheer arrogance that underlies it. It is the insinuation that God reserves his fullness, and the glory thereof, for a select group of believers who have discovered the secrets to access it.
Here too, Bonhoeffer, is worth quoting. (keep in mind that monasticism is a mindset rather than a movement.)
Monasticism was represented as an individual achievement which the mass of the laity could not be expected to emulate. By thus limiting the application of the commandments of Jesus to a restricted group of specialists, the Church evolved the fatal conception of the double standard—a maximum and a minimum standard of Christian obedience. Whenever the Church was accused of being too secularized, it could always point to monasticism as an opportunity of living a higher life within the fold, and thus justify the other possibility of a lower standard of life for others. …By and large, the fatal error of monasticism lay not so much in its rigorism as in the extent to which it departed from genuine Christianity by setting up itself as the individual achievement of a select few, and so claiming a special merit of its own.
And then, of course, there are the wise words of T. Austin Sparks:
We must beware of thinking in terms of advanced or special doctrines. Scriptural teaching is not departmental or sectional. We may hear of ‘higher truth’ or ‘advanced teaching’, as though there were something special reserved for the few. So there arises the idea of ‘higher life’ with ‘higher teaching’, as opposed to being a simple believer, content with ‘the simple gospel’. I want very emphatically to contradict any such notion. Wherever you look in the New Testament you will never find any support for this idea… Nobody should make a special kind of ‘Overcomer’ teaching, for this is what God intended Calvary to mean for every believer. God had spiritual victory as His thought when He first forgave us our sins, and in His mind this is to be the normal development of every Christian’s life.
Years ago I posted a cartoon that generated more interest on this blog than anything else I’d ever posted, probably because it was truer than anything else here. It was drawn by Saji George and beautifully captures the mindset referred to above.
The Way of Deliverance
There is a remarkably simple way out of this trap, and it is to be found in the realization that less is always more in God’s kingdom.
Paul solves the riddle of Romans 7 by stating that the Spirit does what the law cannot do. Similarly, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that there are no longer earthly pockets of God’s presence, and that worship will now be in “spirit and truth”.
True worship is now accessible without a pilgrimage, without ever having to ask “where”? We no longer need to look for the house of God. The house of God has come to us. Jacob’s ladder has replaced Babel’s tower. Knowledge is no longer the enlightenment of an elite inner circle, but an awakening to love which is accessible to all. The Holy of Holies is no longer an elusive and mystical destiny, but a continuous reality in the heart of the believer. The fire is no longer on the mountain. It has come down to rest on each one of us.
Where can I find a true church? The question is fundamentally flawed. You cannot find what you already are. To leave a group of regenerate believers to find the true church is like leaving your wife and kids to find true humanity. Unless the situation has become so dysfunctional that your personal spiritual health depends on it, or unless you have a sense that the Lord is sending you to become part of a group of believers for the sake of fulfilling your call to service amongst them, you should think twice before packing up.
“I, the one speaking to you — I am he”, said Jesus to the woman at the well. What we are yearning for has been under our noses all along.
The Lord has designed his body to function optimally in its simplest form. Two or three are needed, and there He is. Surely we do not believe that we need more than Him? So then what is all the fuss about? In Him is the fullness of the Godhead, and through Him that fullness dwells in us. His presence is continuously there, and it will not leave or forsake us. When two or three gather, his indwelling presence manifests as an objective bodily presence, and church happens in its most optimal form.
This, and this alone, is what matters.
(PS: Joshua Lawson has recently written an excellent article along these lines, Beware the homogenization of church life, which I highly recommend.)
I am a cartoonist, and I am all for freedom of speech. I can even enjoy satire, as my stockpile of MAD magazines would testify. But first and foremost I am a follower of Jesus Christ, and this comes with a huge implication. My fascination with crazy cartoons and sharp humour is subject to a higher law: The law of love.
“Love” means different things to different people, so the Lord Jesus made it really easy for us not to get confused. He summed it up neatly by saying “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
It is pretty clear: Jesus’ definition of love excludes any form of nastiness or deliberate provocation. This, in my mind, would exclude the type of journalism that has led to this week’s tragic massacre, as well as the type of Hollywood movie that infuriated the North Koreans a few weeks ago.
“But what if I am provoked first?”, you may ask. “Do I not have a responsibility to respond in kind?”
Sorry, Jesus closed this door as well:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
As I am writing, cartoon responses to the Charlie Hebdo massacre are flooding cyberspace. Every single one that I have seen vigorously defends the murdered cartoonists and the rights of satirists to do what these men had been doing for years. I get it. I truly get it. But I get the words of Jesus Christ and Solomon (quoted in the cartoon above) in a much greater way, which is why I have decided to draw a different kind of cartoon depicting a different kind of solidarity.
If you are not a Christian, feel free to ignore this. But if you are one, ask yourself two simple questions:
1. Am I praying for the men who are at the moment the most hated people on the planet? (They may be dead by the time you read this, but there are enough of them to keep you praying for the rest of your life.)
2. Do I love them in the very way that God the Father loves me?
I am indebted to Nassim Nicholas Taleb for the turkey analogy. Taleb borrowed it from the philosopher Bertrand Russel and used it in his provocative book The Black Swan to illustrate the folly of predicting the future by using the past as a point of reference. Along with scholars such as Daniel Kahneman (Fast and Slow Thinking) and Daniel Gilbert (Stumbling on Happiness) Taleb points out that humans are outrageously irrational when they try their hand at forecasting the future.
The topic intrigues me. As you may know, humans are most egotistical and idolatrous when they imagine what their own futures are going to look like. It is not our photo albums or mirrors that inspire self-worship, but our projections of an idealised future self. Our past and present selves are simply too real to be worthy of deification, and so we use the future to shape and mould the image of I.
All of this becomes rather interesting if we consider that the first motivational speaker in the history of the universe was a serpent. He convinced Eve that she could be more than what she was. He managed to divert her gaze from what she was and had in God to what she could have and be in herself, and thus from the present to the future. “Eve, you can maximise your potential. Eve, you can fulfil your destiny.”
Ever noticed that God identifies himself as “I am”, even in His self-declaration in Christ, but that Satan identifies himself as “I will”? Note the contrast:
I am who I am. Exodus 3:14
I am the bread of life John 6: 35, 48
I am the light of the world John 8: 12, 9:5
Before Abraham was, I am John 8: 58
I am the door John 10:9
I am the good shepherd John 10:11
I am the resurrection and the life John 11:25
I am the way, the truth, and the life John 14:6
I am the true vine John 15:1
“How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!
You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the far reaches of the pit. Isaiah 14:12-15
Reading Isaiah 14, it is clear why John tells us that “the devil has been sinning from the beginning” (1 John 3:8). The seed of the serpent was forged in eternity before time, when the contentment and perfection of “I am” was replaced with the desire of “I will”. And so “being” was replaced with “becoming”, beholding with visioneering, the Creator with the creature, rest with striving, contentment with anticipation, the now with the then, the “thank you” with “if only”, the treasure of having with the emptiness of wanting.
Of course there was only one way in which the toxic seed of the serpent could be injected into God’s creatures, made in his image and likeness, birthed into his rest, partaking of his identity of life, enjoying the abundance of his provision. They too were to utter the venomous “I will…”
And so the serpent whispered to them: “You will… be as God.”
The moment they believed the promise, and acted on their newfound faith, they too were brought down to Sheol. Note that the first sin was in fact the second sin, but that it was like the first sin.
The enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent began here. The “I will” became a collective in Genesis 11, when an entire nation aspired to penetrate the heavens and found a name and identity for themselves. “I will” became “we will”, and so the seed of the serpent that had become the seed of humanity became the seed of the kingdoms of this world.
Two Seeds, Two Births, Two Confessions
The enmity continues throughout Scripture and finds its ultimate manifestation in two births. The first came into the world and restored our understanding of the “I am” identity, the partaking in that which is and cannot become, for how can perfection be more than what it is?
This was the one who defied the arrogance of the serpent and his offspring, by saying “not my will, but yours be done.” This was the one who defined divinity in his “I am” statements, quoted above. This was the one of whom was said that he, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” In each and every way he contradicted the aspirations of the serpent and his offspring.
Of course the serpent tempted him in the traditional, tried and tested way that had successfully led the whole word astray: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Note the underlying transactional and graceless philosophy that has governed all human relationships and marriages since the fall: “I will, if you will.”
But Christ resisted. As he would later say: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” In the same manner, he taught us to pray “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The first birth manifested the seed from heaven, and revealed its nature as that which is and cannot become, which has and cannot want, which beholds and does not imagine.
If the first birth was God’s Messiah and a revelation of his perfection, then the second birth is Satan’s messiah and a revelation of his imperfection and subsequent striving to “become”. As the seed of the woman brought Christ into the world, the seed of the serpent brought forth the exact opposite and antithesis of Christ, aptly referred to as “Antichrist”.
Naturally, the Antichrist is the incarnation of the human will and its striving, and so, in accordance with the first and second sin, and all the sins since then, he is made manifest in one way only: “He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessaloninas 2:4). Naturally, for his coming “will be in accordance with how Satan works” (verse 9).
These insights reveal why it is futile and sinful to obsess about “tomorrow”, and why God has a habit of only providing enough manna for “today”. A focus on tomorrow is an inevitable invitation to idolatry, and so we are warned:
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-16
Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. Proverbs 27:1
So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:31-34
Give us today our daily bread. Matthew 6:11
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions… The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed. Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.” However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them. Exodus 16:4, 17-20
Needless to say, the above insights have made me not only highly suspicious of the motivational revolution of the last few decades, but especially of its recent infiltration into the church world. A quick visit to the Google Ngram Viewer (an online phrase-usage graphing tool indicating usage of words and phrases in more than 5 million prominent publications) reveals the following disturbing trend:
All of this has prompted me to rethink the contemporary hallowed usage of the word “destiny” amongst Christians. Wondering if the word is actually used in the Bible as it is currently being used on the covers of Christian bestsellers, I went to my concordance. This is what I found:
But as for you who forsake the Lord and forget my holy mountain, who spread a table for Fortune and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny, I will destine you for the sword… Isaiah 65:11-12
Correct me if I am wrong, but it would appear that even the great apostasy is no longer in the future, but in the present.
I dedicate this to Winston Ruiters, a carpenter I met yesterday. We spoke about God, cave paintings, my African ancestors and some other things.
Whilst thinking of Winston early this morning, I was reminded of another carpenter.
This man loved God more than any other human ever had. Yet he chose a carpentry shop instead of a religious seminary to prepare himself for God’s work.
This man had greater abilities to build a religious empire than all the world’s televangelists put together, yet he never took up an offering.
This man had greater stature than the Pope, yet he hated organised religion.
This man could assemble a crowd in seconds, yet he avoided them.
This man had more wisdom and knowledge than one can find in all the world’s libraries, yet he had no title or credentials.
This man could actually do the miracles that faith healers can only dream of, yet he rebuked those who wanted him to hold a miracle crusade.
This man had the ability to bring God into politics, yet he took Him out of it.
This man managed to attract the attention of the rich and famous, yet he chose to befriend the poor.
This man had the ability to save his life, yet he gave it as a ransom for many.
So I ask you, how can any human being not love this man?
5:12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. 6:1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits. 4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. Hebrews 5:12-6:6
I recently contributed to a discussion on verses 4 to 6 above, and thought it would be helpful to share some of my thoughts here for those who are interested.
As you may know, these verses have proven to be a major stumbling block for many believers. They seem to suggest that it is impossible to repent and come back to the Lord after having “fallen away”. This is an obvious problem for those who have “backslidden” at some or other stage of their Christian walk, and who are trying to come back to the Lord.
It is also, and especially, a problem for those who have come back to the Lord after a period of backsliding, and who are haunted by the possibility that the Lord has not accepted them back or fully forgiven them.
Theologians generally try and escape the severity of these verses by going one of two routes:
1. They argue that the term “fall away” implies a total apostasy and denial of the faith, and not just a falling into sin.
2. They argue that the people referred to by the author were not really saved to begin with, and that they rejected the fullness of the revelation or enlightenment intended to bring them to salvation. If you reject the conviction of the Holy Spirit at such a level, then there remains nothing else that will convince you, hence the “impossibility”.
A Third Approach
However, there is a third way to approach these verses, and that is to look at the “big picture” of Hebrews. When we interpret the passage against the backdrop of the entire letter, especially with due consideration to the immediate context of verses 4 to 6 (beginning in 5:12), we find a message that is immensely positive and encouraging, and actually means the exact opposite of the above interpretations.
Let me start by pointing out that the error of both interpretations is the failure to interpret verses 4 to 6 in the light of verse 1. Does it not strike us as odd that the re-repentance that is prohibited in verse 1 is suddenly portrayed as a desirable but unattainable ideal in verse 6? In verse 1 we are told that repentance should not be repeated. In verses 4 to 6 we are told that repentance cannot be repeated. The author seems to be telling his readers that they are trying to do something that cannot be done, and that it cannot be done because it should not be done. Herein is the solution to the dilemma, as we will see in a moment.
“Once” and “Again”
To understand this, we need to understand the way in which the author juxtaposes the words “once” and “again” throughout the letter (e.g. 9:25-10:14). “Again” signifies the imperfection of the Old Covenant sacrifice, and “once” the perfection of Christ’s.
Keep in mind that the recipients of this letter were Hebrews, i.e. Jewish Christians. Also keep in mind that the Jewish nation as a whole rejected Christ due to the fact that they could not make sense of Christ’s Messiahship against the backdrop of their own religious traditions. The very shadows and types of the Old Testament that were intended to prepare the way for the Messiah actually blinded them to the Messiah. Jewishness, if not correctly understood, can prove to be a handicap in one’s grasp of New Covenant truths. It would appear that this was the problem addressed in the letter to the Hebrews.
To view the cross through an Old Covenant “lens” is to underestimate the finality of it. It is to see it as a sacrifice that should ideally be repeated regularly, in line with all the other sacrifices of that dispensation. This view would, quite obviously, manifest as an understanding of repentance as an associated act that also needs to be repeated again and again (repentance being the subjective response to the objective act of sacrifice).
And so the Hebrew Christians were not advancing towards maturity as they were laying again and again a “foundation of repentance from dead works” (verse 1, boldfaced in the text), in line with their understanding of a sacrifice as something that needed to be repeated again and again. This manifested itself as a need to have the “basic principles” taught to them “again” (5:12) which is, according to the Hebrews author, tantamount to feeding on milk, i.e. the first step associated with growth.
The impossibility of “repenting again” (6:4-6) is stated to emphasise the doctrinal absurdity of the idea, as unthinkable and impractical as “crucifying once again the Son of God” (6:6; 9:25-26). It is NOT stated as something that needs to happen but is now prohibited by an angry God who has run out of grace. In the New Covenant the repentance of regeneration happens once, because it is not the effortful turning of a human being, but rather the “perfecting for all time those who are being sanctified” 10:14. (This type of foundational repentance should not be confused with daily and ongoing “repentance”, which is legitimate and necessary, and not referred to in these verses.)
This is confirmed by the words in verse 1 “let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works”. Thus the entire passage speaks against re-repentance, and identifies it as the cause of the Hebrews’ spiritual immaturity. The “impossibility” of verse 4 is intended to reinforce this truth, revealing that the New Covenant was never intended to provide an opportunity for re-repentance (Also see 10:26). In fact, this is not merely undesirable but impossible as we are no longer the ones overseeing the act of sacrifice. This Lamb was provided by God, and he only provided one.
The reason for a single sacrifice, resulting in a single repentance, is simple, and clearly stated in other passages in Hebrews:
Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own,for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (10:25-26)
He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. (9:12)
And the clincher:
Since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins. But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins… And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (10:1-4, 10)
Note that Christ came to not only forgive our sins, but to “put away sin”, to secure an “eternal redemption”, and to sanctify us “once for all”. Also note that the Old Covenant sacrifices could not provide any of this. If they did, two things would have happened:
1. They would have stopped being offered. In other words, the “repetitious” cycle would have ceased.
2. The worshipers would no longer have any “consciousness of sin”.
Clearly the Hebrews never understood this. The absence of both these elements in their (Old Covenantal) understanding of the cross manifested itself in a constant need to re-repent. Indeed, the need for repentance flows from a consciousness of sin. If the sin is not “put away”, the effects of the repentance would be short-lived.
The superiority of Christ’s sacrifice is thus best expressed in a new type of repentance that mirrors the completion and perfection of Christ’s sacrifice. The repentance on earth is what the sacrifice is in heaven. It reflects the perfection thereof, and thus it cannot be repeated.
The point is that these “problematic” verses of chapter 6 are intended to liberate, not condemn. They have nothing to do with the unpardonable sin, and everything with the glorious reality that to fall into sin is not to entirely undo the benefits of the cross, calling for a ritualistic repetition thereof. All that is needed is to get up and carry on, mindful of a secure salvation that has perfected us, even though we stumble and fall regularly.
Much of my early Christian life was spent around believers who regularly ended up on the carpet between the front pew and the pulpit of the church, crying and begging for forgiveness. Sundays were mostly “repentance day”. We were evangelized. And then we were evangelized again, and again, and again. I think part of it had to do with the revival culture of the denomination, and the romance of tent evangelism, and the sovereignty of the altar call, and the centrality and supremacy of the sinner’s prayer, and so on.
As a kid I was given a little red Gideon’s New Testament containing a neat blue line on the back page where you were supposed to enter your “salvation date”. I changed that date so many times that I eventually lost track.
Strangely, in the midst of all the feverish activity there was a severe lack of spiritual maturity, both in my life and the lives of many others.
I could never understand this strange dichotomy, until I discovered the letter to the Hebrews. And then it became clear. We were like a man who got stuck in a revolving door. We were running, yes, but we were running in circles. We kept on repeating our entrance, and we never got anywhere. The very thing that was intended to make our spirituality “take off”, anchored it to the ground in a devastating way.
And oh boy, were we ever “conscious of sin”!
The letter to the Hebrews blew my mind. It provided a blue print for spiritual growth, and taught me that faith is to grasp the reality and finality of my own salvation. It showed me that humans once were the active agents in the ritual of sacrifice, but that God took over from us with one final, perfect sacrifice. We were now at rest, for God had finished his work. And it was so perfect that even the very thought of trying to repeat it bordered on blasphemy.
In fact, I began studying the book of Hebrews so much that I believe I have found a most likely candidate for authorship, but that is another story for another day…
(Please note that this short explanation merely scratches the surface and obviously does not deal with any of the questions that will/may arise from it. Yet it provides a basis from where one can do your own study. But feel free to ask questions. I’ll gladly respond.)