Many religious and non-religious observers have said that one remarkable trait that separates us moderns from ancient peoples is our belief that we are basically good. We’ll readily agree that “no one’s perfect,” but other than that, most of us have a fundamentally good orientation and are of a wholly different moral and psychological make-up from a Hitler, or a serial killer, or a rapist. From a religious and specifically Christian perspective, then, we have no need to be forgiven, much less “saved” from anything, since we haven’t done anything terribly bad. I would argue that this view is dangerously mistaken, however, and the excerpt below from Mike McKinley’s Passion shows this error in stark contrast to what is true.
There is a place in this (so far) excellent and short book McKinley argues that because God is perfect and holy, his anger at human oppression and injustice is completely justified and righteous; indeed, God’s wrath is “actually part of His perfection – not a suspension of it.” He then argues that if people are made in God’s image, then we would expect this righteous anger to be expressed at times by people. To illustrate this, he tells:
“A friend of mine recently told me about a time in an east Asian nation where his hosts drove him into the capital city. As they entered the city, they were confronted by a long line of young girls, lined up by the side of the road. These girls had been sold into slavery as prostitutes (often by their parents), and they would spend their lives being used and abused until they were finally cast aside when they were no longer desirable. My friend described his feelings as he saw these girls: an anger, a rage in his heart that made him feel as if his chest was going to rip in two.
“…If that goes for humans, it goes for the God who made humans, too… [And here is the key part for us] But where we really run into a problem, where we really object to God’s wrath and justice, is when it comes to us. We may be happy with a God who punishes the rapists and the murderers, but we aren’t happy with a God who punishes us. But where would you draw the line? How much should He tolerate from you? How much of your pride, anger, deceit, manipulation and selfishness do you think God should overlook?… The Bible tells us where God draws the line: He demands perfection” (18-19).
Athanasius (296-373) was an early Church Father known for his effective defense of orthodox doctrine against Arianism, a heresy that claimed Jesus was literally created by God the Father and therefore not divine. On this day before Christmas Eve, I thought it appropriate to share two brief excerpts from Athanasius’s classic On the Incarnation, a brilliant (and at only 60 pages, short!) treatise of the greatest miracle of all: The Almighty God’s taking on a human body, even a helpless infant, to obtain salvation for those who put their trust in him. On Christmas Day many of us will get gifts that, enjoyable and even useful as they may be, are nonetheless perishable and of little value to our souls. Before this time comes, let’s reflect on and give thanks to God for the one gift that surpasses them all: That of his Son, in whom there is not just life, but life everlasting and abundant.
“You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men” (4).
“The Word perceived that corruption [resulting from our transgression of God’s law] could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, he assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all…for naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required…for the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all” (12-13).
From J.D. Greear’s Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (B&H, 2011), this is a four-part prayer aimed at saturating oneself in the truths of the gospel. As he says, “There’s nothing magical about this prayer. It’s not an incantation to get God to do good things for you,” but “simply a tool to help you train your mind in the patterns of the gospel. The point is not the prayer; the point is thinking in line with the gospel” (40).
Pray this consistently, and watch how God transforms you:
“In Christ, there is nothing I can do that would make You love me more, and nothing I have done that makes You love me less.”
“Your presence and approval are all I need for everlasting joy.”
“As you have been to me, so I will be to others.”
“As I pray, I’ll measure Your compassion by the cross and Your power by the resurrection.”
One of the qualities of Christ that made him the most celebrated and universally admired, if not worshipped, persons in history was his example of personal humility and love, even toward those who hated and rejected him. Apart from questions about his divinity, through his life and death Christ changed the course of history, and others who’ve sought to imitate him – Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, and Pope Francis today, for example – are also impacting their worlds and the course of history. Much of what they imitate are Christ’s “passive graces.”
When’s the last time you thought about the “passive graces”? If you’re anything like me, never, because you’ve never heard of the passive graces, and probably wouldn’t have, if you didn’t read someone like J.C. Ryle, the famous nineteenth-century bishop of Liverpool in the Church of England. In his classic 1877 book, Holiness (Charles Nolan, 2001), in the chapter on sanctification – the life-long process of becoming more like Christ – he writes about the need to give our attention to growing in the passive graces.
The passive graces are “those graces which are especially shown in submission to the will of God, and in bearing and forbearing towards one another.” For example, as opposed to actively doing something unto another, being patient and loving toward them even as they hurt you, or speak ill of you and inflict injustice upon you. The model, of course, is Christ – who submitted himself to the power of those who beat him and killed him, and even forgave them, for they “knew not what they did.”
Ryle further comments: “The passive graces are no doubt harder to attain than the active ones, but they are precisely the graces which have the greatest influence on the world. Of one thing I feel very sure – it is nonsense to pretend to sanctification unless we follow after the meekness, gentleness, long-suffering, and forgivingness of which the Bible makes so much” (35).
And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)
I’ve read many good books this year, but none as powerful and challenging as Gary Haugen’s Just Courage (InterVarsity, 2008). Haugen is the president and CEO of International Justice Mission (IJM), a Christian human rights organization doing excellent work in the fight against human trafficking, sex slavery, and other forms of injustice. Through this inspirational and highly personal book, Haugen sounds an impassioned call for Christians to enter the fray in the struggle for justice. His argument is thoroughly grounded in Scripture, as well as on years of experience watching God work through rescue missions that pull the weak and vulnerable from the darkness. Below are some choice passages worth pondering:
“Deep within all of us there is a yearning to be brave. And like all of our deepest, truest and best yearnings, it comes from how we were made. Courage – the power to do the right thing even when it is scary and hard – resonates deeply with the original shape of the soul… When it comes to being brave, we should picture the courage of Jesus – the power to fearlessly speak the truth, the freedom to selflessly love, the strength to unflinchingly stretch oneself on a cross. And the truth is, in our deepest core we were actually made to be like that… Who we truly are and were meant to be is evidenced more by our yearnings than by our history” (104).
Haugen asks, how do we receive the grace of courage?
“For many of us the first step is…to acknowledge and receive our rescue by God… Will you really be significant if you own that? If you live there? If you get that position? If you are included in that group? Or is your significance established because the Creator of the universe made and redeemed you?” (105-106)
“Search the promises of Scripture and take a risk… Cling to the promises of Scripture. Take a risk and live as if they were true, for they are. Courage comes in doing a brave thing” (106-108).
“In presenting before us the struggle for justice, our Maker asks: Do you want to be brave, or do you want to be safe? Jesus wants us to realize that it’s a choice, and he wants to help us make the joyful choice. Most importantly, Jesus wants us to know that he takes care of us so well that it is actually safe to be brave” (109).
Will we settle for a comfortable and safe existence that demands little of us, or are we going to heed the call to be brave and play our part in the struggle for justice?