One of the amazing things about the Christian faith is that it presents a God who is almost embarrassingly extravagant in his love for his people. This, despite the far-from-lovely character of his people, who’ve exchanged his glory for lesser things, including ourselves, and scorned his patient mercies and entreaties to repentance. Yet this – the gospel – is at the heart of the Christian faith: that God gave up his only Son, Jesus Christ, to not only forgive his enemies, but to adopt them as his own sons and lavish his riches upon them. And in all this, God is joyful and exultant. This is the wonderful truth that John Piper brings out in this passage from The Pleasures of God (Multnomah, 1991):
“Jesus uses [the story of the Prodigal Son] to help us feel the force of what it means to have the Father rejoice over us with all his heart… He illustrates what happens in heaven by telling a story about a father who had a wayward son who left home and squandered all his inheritance. The son comes to his senses while feeding pigs in a far country, and decides to go home and seek mercy from his father. He heads home and, as he goes, prepares a speech something to this effect: ‘Father, I’m not worthy to be called your son; so maybe you would let me live in the servants’ quarters and work and eat with them?’
“As Jesus tells this story you can feel the energy of love building as he shows how the father rejoices ‘with all his heart’ over the boy’s arrival. While the boy is still a long way off the father sees him and his heart warms with compassion (v. 20). He doesn’t hold back and watch to see what the boy looks like; he bursts out the front door and starts running down the road. Now don’t miss the force of this scene. Well-to-do, dignified, aristocratic, aging men don’t run, they walk. They keep their composure. They show that they are on top of their emotions. But not in Jesus’ story about God’s joy over his people.
The father runs. Can you see them both running? Or maybe the boy was too stunned to run. Perhaps he couldn’t believe his eyes. Maybe the smell of pigs was still on him. Maybe the thought flashed through his mind to turn and escape this utterly unexpected demonstration of affection. But he does not turn. Jesus say the father embraced him and kissed him – pig smell and all. Can you see that embrace without feeling the emotion? I can’t. Maybe that’s because I have four sons…
…But I think the emotion goes deeper than that. I know I am that son in Jesus’ story. And I cannot comprehend that the Father in heaven – the great and glorious Creator of all the universe and Sovereign over all things – throws to the wind all dignified self-consciousness and runs to me and embraces me and kisses me, as though – no! it is no fiction – rather, because he is happy with me. He is glad with all his heart that I am part of the family. This is why I cannot see that embrace without pausing to let my eyes and throat recover.”
The late Christopher Hitchens was a devastatingly brilliant man of letters who wrote widely, and fiercely, on myriad topics, becoming more widely known in recent years as one of the “New Atheists,” along with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, for his no-holds-barred attacks on religion, even claiming that religion “poisons everything.”
I recently picked up his last book, Mortality (Twelve, 2012), which was published posthumously after his death in 2011. I did this not because I wanted to read his thoughts on death – there aren’t many for a virulent atheist like him – but because he was a great writer. Hitchens was also a gifted speaker and debater, always ready to employ his voice in debate and lively conversation. This writing advice he offers combines these two things, voice and writing, as he so impressively did throughout his life:
“To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: ‘How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?’ That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition out loud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better into. If something is worth hearing or listening to it’s very probably worth reading. So, above all: Find your own voice” (50).
So whether you want to become a professional writer or simply write better and more effective e-mails, have you ever thought much about developing your “voice”? And how often do you have others read your work, not to mention reading it yourself?
Those things may be important, and even defining, aspects about who you are. But as Dave Harvey writes in the book When Sinners Say I Do (Shepherd Press, 2007), the most important thing about you is what you believe about God. He explains this in the context of the marriage relationship, arguing that our theology is the most important part of the marriage equation (a clear example of this relationship is having a greater capacity to forgive because one believes that God has forgiven one’s sins, even the ugliest ones), but this applies to all of our lives, not only marriage. Here’s how he puts it:
“The most profound thing that shapes anybody’s worldview is their understanding of God. What a person believes about God determines what he or she thinks about how we got here, what our ultimate meaning is, and what happens after we die. So essentially our worldview, our perspective on life, is determined by our perspective on God.
“… Whether we realize it or not, our ideas about life, needs, marriage, romance, conflict, and everything else reveal themselves all the time in our words and deeds, inevitably reflecting our view of God. If you listen closely, theology spills from our lips every day” (20-21).
This is why in this book about marriage, Dave Harvey can make the fundamental claim, “What we believe about God determines the quality of our marriage.” But as we’ve seen above, this same claim can be applied to every major area of our lives. So, what do you believe about God? And how does it show in your everyday life, at work and at home?
We’ve all heard the well-intentioned exhortation: “Just listen to your heart.” In one sense, we should listen to our heart, by which I mean, pay attention to your mind and soul. It’s helpful to regularly take stock of the movements of your soul in response to the events and people you interact with. This is what Socrates meant when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” However, Scripture teaches that the heart is “deceitful above all things,” so it’s foolish to simply follow your heart and live according to what you feel it tells you without regard for wisdom, love, and duty to guide you to what is good for yourself and others.
The passage below, from Tim Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (Dutton, 2013), shows us that we should not only listen to our hearts, but turn this listening into prayer – honest, real conversation with God – by pouring them out before him. This is encouraging, for it means that we’re not left to ourselves to plumb the depths of our heart and then wonder what to do with the mess that we find, but we can offer our naked soul before the God who hears our every cry, notices our every tear, and promises to be with us through it all.
“Psalm 42 is an intense, sustained, and eloquent prayer. He is ‘pouring out his soul’ to God. What does that mean? First, to ‘pour out your soul’ means to get into one’s own heart. It is an ancient and healthier version of what is sometimes now called getting in touch with your feelings. It means to look honestly at your doubts, desires, fears, and hopes. But notice that this is not abstract self-examination but, rather, something he does before God. This man is not over in a corner looking at himself, he is exposing his inner being to God. This is crying, longing, reflecting, remembering – all before God.”
In Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (Dutton, 2013), Tim Keller says that one reason we can trust God when we suffer, and don’t understand how he’s in control in that suffering or how it fits into a bigger and better plan, is that there really are no coincidences. Sometimes we are able to look back on discrete life events and make sense of how they fit into a bigger scheme, but sometimes we can’t. He offers a fascinating and compelling personal example of how a series of events led to the founding of his church, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan:
“Redeemer exists to a great degree because my wife, Kathy, and I were sent to New York City to start this as a new church. Why were we sent? It was because we joined a Presbyterian denomination that encouraged church church planting and that sent us out. But why did we join a Presbyterian denomination? We joined it because in the very last semester of my last year at seminary, I had two courses under a particular professor who convinced me to adopt the doctrines and beliefs of Presbyterianism. But why was that professor at the seminary at that time? He was there only because after a long period of waiting, he was finally able to get his visa as a citizen of Great Britain to come and teach in the United States.
“This professor had been hired by my U.S. seminary but had been having a great deal of trouble getting a visa. For various reasons at the time the process was very clogged and there was an enormous backlog of applications. What was it that broke through all the red tape so he could get his visa and come in time to teach me that last semester? I was told that his visa process was facilitated because one of the students at our seminary at the time was able to give the school administration an unusually high-level form of help. The student was the son of the sitting president of the United States at the time. Why was his father president? It was because the former president, Richard Nixon, had to resign as a result of the Watergate scandal. But why did the Watergate scandal even occur? I understand that it was because a night watchman noticed an unlatched door.
“What if the security guard had not noticed that door? What if he had simply looked in a different direction? In that case – nothing else in that long string of ‘coincidence’ would have ever occurred. And there would be no Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the city. Do you think all that happened by accident? I don’t. If that did not all happen by accident, nothing happens by accident.
“Very seldom do we glimpse even a millionth of the ways that God is working all things together for good for those who love God. But he is, and therefore you can be assured he will not abandon you” (265-266).
Yesterday, on Christmas, my wife gave me more evidence for why marrying her was the best decision of my life: she gave me the book Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness (Thomas Nelson, 2013), written by Eric Metaxas, the same man who gave us the excellent Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery and Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. I’ve already thrown myself into this delightful book, meaning there are more posts about it to come, but I wanted to waste no time in sharing this wonderful insight about fatherhood and the calling of true manhood. As someone whose biological father went missing in action early on in my life but who has received a hundred-fold and more in my heavenly Father and good men who have modeled true, servant manliness to me, this passage resonated with particular force:
“There is something vital in the idea of fatherhood and it gives us a clue to the secret of a great man. But we have to point out that a man needn’t be an actual father to bear the traits of every good father. Two of the men in this book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Paul II, never married or had children. Even George Washington, who married, never had children of his own. And yet we Americans call him the father of our country. And in the case of Pope John Paul II, the root word from which we get ‘pope’ is papa – father. Being a father is not a biological thing. If we think of the fatherhood of God, we get a picture of someone who is strong and loving and who sacrifices himself for those he loves. That’s a picture of real fatherhood and real manhood” (from the introduction, xviii).
My most recent personal tussle with questions about the Christian faith thankfully led me to Michael Novak’s unusually thoughtful No One Sees God (Doubleday, 2008). In this book Novak, a Catholic scholar, posits that Atheists and Christians have more in common than they think, namely that both are in important respects “in the dark” about God. Here he tackles – with a thoughtfulness that is hard to find in most popular books about faith – some of the most formidable objections to faith in God, including the question of whether God is truly a God of “ultimate kindness” given the reality of suffering we see every day. He responds simply but profoundly, pointing to the universal phenomenon of gratefulness, and with it, mere existence, as a large sign pointing to the goodness of God:
“During my seventy-four years, I have met extremely few people who are not grateful for the very fact of life, fresh air, the taste of water on a dry day, the stars and moon at night. It may be surprising how often even people who are very poor, or who suffer mightily from cancer or other illness, give thanks for the good things they have received from the Almighty. There are not many people who think everything is bleak, that death is better than life, that nothingness is better than being. Just existing has a sweet taste to it, even in extremities” (115).
Wouldn’t it be much easier if God simply showed himself to us? Wouldn’t that make it easier for us to believe in him and trust him and maybe even love him?
Writing from the perspective of Screwtape, the senior demon instructing his nephew on how to tempt a man, C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters (Time Life, 1942) offers a very helpful explanation for why God (called the “Enemy” below) does not simply show himself to human beings:
“You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo” (24-25).
The question is often sincere: if God is real, why doesn’t he simply show himself to us? It’s a good question that deserves a good answer. None of us can know God’s mind and pretend to adequately answer for him, but we have clues, and I believe part of the answer lies in the fact of God having created us as free beings. This faculty of freedom is closely related to the faculty of love, in that only a free person is capable of exercising genuine love. Such love cannot be coerced, but is rather a very real choice that a person makes with full (or sufficient) knowledge of the object of his love – both the good and the bad (it was Plato who said that to truly love something is to love not just a part, but all of it). Moreover, the true lover understands that he cannot force the love of the other; nor would he want this, for it would be a cheap and shallow submission having nothing of the glad and trusting self-giving that is the mark of true love. For this reason the true lover works for the love of the other: he thinks and plans and knows and does, and through these happy efforts earns the affection and love of the other. And how amazing to think that the best lovers are only small shadows of the Ultimate Lover – the One who stepped down from His throne and served and loved and gave His life that we who are undeserving might have life and have it abundantly!