Friday, May 13, 2011

Finishing the Job

The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands. (Psalm 138.8)

Always More

A favorite family legend features my late Great-Uncle Grady, who was one of those all-around good guys always eager to help. A drunken driver had just murdered my Uncle Cyrus—a young father and aspiring physician in his mid-20s—and, in typical Southern fashion, our entire clan converged on my grandparents’ home. With the immediate family too devastated to attend to the arrangements, those once- and twice-removed valiantly stepped in. After finishing a long list of errands, Grady walked through the door and before he caught his breath, three or four aunts met him with a fresh list of things to do. Grady sighed, “I can’t get anywhere for going someplace!”

Our faith often feels like that, doesn’t it? Following Christ presents us with a daunting To-Do list: lessons to learn, principles to live by, behaviors to modify, promises to trust, people to love, and so on. Just when we think we’ve got somewhere, we discover there’s more to do. We need to discipline our emotions better, become more attentive in our prayer lives, grow in our knowledge of the faith, etc. There’s always more. We can expect frustration and fatigue—days when, like Grady, we sigh, “I can’t get anywhere for going someplace!” But before we make the mistake of thinking we’ve fallen short, we should remember this reaction is common to all believers.

The epistles are peppered with encouragement to remain patient, committed, and tireless. Galatians 6.9 says, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” In Hebrews 12.1-2 we read, “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Paul prefaces his letter to the Colossians by praying they will grow “in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience.” (Colossians 1.10-11) So while we sigh, we can’t allow weariness and impatience to overtake us. We are getting there. We are growing. And here’s a little secret we should always bear in mind. (Did I say “little”? It’s huge!) If we stick with it, we will achieve spiritual maturity because responsibility for our growth is not ours alone. Simply put, when we do our share, God finishes the job.

The Miracle of Our Making

By definition, faith in our Creator necessitates rejecting randomness. Everything about us—our making, movements, and moments—results from divine design. I am a gay male living in Chicago in 2011 because God willed it so. All that implies in terms of my beliefs, aspirations, relationships, and responsibilities is imbedded in God’s plan for my life. The same is true for you. Every aspect of your life—who you are, where you are, and when you are—is by divine intention. The miracle of our making is that God subverts ridiculously random biological and biographical odds to shape each of us specifically as God desires, for reasons only God can fully comprehend. Faith in God’s infinite wisdom and power precludes attributing anything to coincidence, accident, fate, or luck (good and bad).

Psalm 139.16 captures this splendidly: “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” This truth puts to rest all questions about who we are, how we’re made, and why we’re made as we are. The shape and existence of every human is ordered by God’s sovereign decision. It’s that basic. As we fret over whether or not God creates gay people, if God means for some to be rich and others poor, and how can a loving God allow suffering, we delay asking the one question within reach: can we embrace divine purpose in our lives and trust God to fulfill it?

Psalm 139, cited above, is David’s masterpiece on the miracle of our making. It’s impossible to overstress its value to every believer—especially those subjected to attacks against the sanctity of their creation. We should know 139 inside and out, internalizing its conviction that God makes us with purpose. Yet the prayer that accompanies its soaring confidence appears at the end of the previous psalm: “The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.” (Psalm 138.8) In addition to shaking all doubt that God created us with purpose, we must also place uncompromised trust in God to fulfill it. When our stamina falters and endurance runs low, we turn to God’s steadfast, eternal love. It becomes our sole source of certainty. Because God loves us, God is actively engaged in our lives.

As we submit to divine purpose—whether or not we recognize what it is—God faithfully, diligently works with us to ensure it will be fully accomplished. This principle is constantly reinforced in Scripture. Philippians 2.13: “It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Ephesians 1.11: “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with purpose of his will.” Romans 8.28: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The discipleship to-do list is much more than a set of high-flown ideals. We approach our tasks as pragmatic techniques enabling God’s purpose. “Do not forsake the work of your hands,” we pray. We do our part and leave finishing the job to God.

Hope and a Future

Finally, we cannot sacrifice confidence in God’s purpose, nor our trust it will be fulfilled, to doubters and third-party opinions. What anyone else believes or thinks has no bearing on what we know. In Jeremiah 29, God instructs the prophet to write a letter to Jews living in Babylonian exile, urging them to build houses, plant gardens, and start families—to keep growing, living with purpose despite their status as outsiders. Such unorthodox behavior undoubtedly will raise objections among traditionalists, which is why the letter cautions, “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you,” dismissing their opinions as reactionary dreams. “They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them.” (v8-9) The real deal becomes clear in verse 11: “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

God created us to have hope and a future. With that truth secure in our hearts, we echo Paul’s certainty in Philippians 1.6: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion.” When we’re faithful to God’s purpose, God honors our trust and finishes the job.

We start by following Christ and doing the work of discipleship. God finishes the job and fulfills the purpose for our creation.

Monday, May 9, 2011

No Comparison

Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. (1 Peter 1.17)

Restoring Balance

Sunday’s readings presented such a bounty of riches it was hard to choose the Emmaus Road story over the other texts. The straightforward counsel in 1 Peter 1.17-25 sparked particular interest in light of its relevance to topics frequently discussed here. Reluctant to choose one at the other’s expense, it seemed best not to choose at all. Yet trying to cover both in one post was a recipe for disaster (tempting though that was). At a glance, the thread connecting the Emmaus narrative with Peter’s teaching isn’t readily apparent. But it’s implicitly there.

The Emmaus Road disciples are in the not-so-enviable position of witnessing Christianity’s dawn. Nothing is guaranteed—including their safety in Jerusalem, where being a known follower of Jesus may lead to reprisals, even execution. It seems wisest to put the whole discipleship adventure behind them, avoid the dangers of hanging around where they clearly aren’t wanted, and head for home. In contrast, Peter (or, more probably, someone writing in the recently martyred Apostle’s name) addresses second- and third-generation believers. The Church’s fundamental doctrines and structure are worked out by now. Much of what the disciples first struggled to understand is standard knowledge. As revolutionary faith steadily morphs into conventional belief, a new set of issues expose Peter’s readers to dangers very similar to those the Emmaus Road disciples dreaded.

Intended for circulation among several congregations in Asia Minor—a volatile melting pot of ethnic and religious animosity—the letter’s first task centers on steeling believers’ ability to outlast persecution. There is every cause for concern, as conventionalism has damped faith’s fires. Burning hearts the Emmaus travelers experienced when Christ rekindled their belief have cooled down. Worthy passions have been diverted in pursuit of strife. Pretenses of advantage rooted in spiritual one-upmanship weaken the churches from within. Restoring balance will strengthen internal resolve to overcome external threats.


By no means is this severely crippling holier-than-you posture a uniquely Asian deficiency. (Nor, as we know all too well, is it a uniquely ancient one.) John’s first letter castigates Jewish believers for the same offense: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us,” he says. (1 John 1.8) Big chunks of Paul’s European epistles—especially to the high-minded, high-handed Corinthians—rampage against ego-driven dysfunction. Braggadocio in Corinth is so bad Paul stoops to boast of his maturity and wisdom, simply to shut the braggarts down. “Let no one take me for a fool,” he writes in 2 Corinthians 11.16-18. “But if you do, then tolerate me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting. In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast.” Lest his mockery be misread as approval of striving for competitive advantage, however, Paul soberly interjects, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” (v30)

Paul and John’s messages are identical: if we can’t bridle the urge to brag, we brag about what we’re not rather than all we imagine we are. “Therefore,” Paul says, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12.9) This is classic Christian psychology—countermanding a harmful impulse (pride) by inverting its objective from vaunting superiority to embracing humility.

Although Peter diagnoses the same syndrome, he treats it pastorally rather than psychologically. Instead of focusing on dysfunction, he readjusts the Asian churches’ mindset by mimicking the technique Christ uses to reinvigorate the Emmaus disciples’ belief. Peter takes his readers back to their faith’s roots, walking them through its evolution from prophetic times to present. Of the prophets, he writes, “It was revealed to them that were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.” (1 Peter 1.12)

Divorcing Faith from Myth

Between the lines we read “these things” are bigger and more enduring than religious convention—bigger and more enduring than we are or ever will be. They’re not to be trivialized and abused as fodder for bragging rights. What’s more, the audacity to exploit timeless truth as a launching pad for one’s spiritual superiority ultimately reveals one’s ignorance of the truth. How dare we compare ourselves favorably to others when no comparison enters into God’s love and regard for each of us! In verses 17-19 Peter says, “Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” Since he writes to diverse faith communities comprised of Jewish and pagan converts, “the empty way of life” indicts all types of religious pride, whether seen when adherents to the same belief compete or one belief claims it’s “right” to the exclusion of others. Peter gives us a lot to chew on here.

Divine impartiality debunks the myth of comparative advantage. Yet divorcing faith from myth is something we can’t seem to do. When we observe extreme displays of religious pride—Christians torching Qurans, Jews and Muslims blowing each other to smithereens, the Hindu caste system, and so on—we’re appalled. But religious extremism isn’t born intact. It grows from seeds we carelessly nurture with unchecked boastfulness. While reading this, chances are your thoughts ran to persons or groups who boast of righteousness superior to your own; I did the same. It’s extremely difficult to recognize taking offense at others’ failings constitutes failure on our part. Condemnation of any kind belies false sense of superiority. It’s a weakness that weakens our world and blinds us from seeing it through God’s eyes. It resists confessing faith is bigger and more enduring than we are or ever will be. In God’s eyes, no comparison between us exists. By loving and judging us impartially, God looks at our differences and sees all of us as equally—uniquely—alike. Rather than striving against one another, we should strive to do the same.

Governing ourselves to view others as God sees us—with divine impartiality—humbles us to realize there’s no comparison between them and us.

Postscript: "Father’s Eyes"

This little Amy Grant tune packs quite a wallop by inspiring us to see one another as God sees us. It’s one of those songs that sticks with you—and becomes a tremendous help in moments when we’re tempted to look down on others, including those who look down at us.