Lamb of God, Who Takes Away the Sins of the World …

The early history of icons in the Christian church is a bit sketchy because, in the 8th century, an iconoclastic Byzantine emperor (Leo III) ascended the throne. He believed his task was to destroy, and when that wasn’t possible, to deface all the holy icons that were in existence. Today there are only a couple dozen pre-iconcolastic icons that remain, along with a few frescoes, etc. In spite of this unspeakable loss, archaeologists and scholars have pieced together a basic understanding of early iconography. Most notable, for the purpose of this essay, is that Jesus Christ was predominantly portrayed as a sacrificial lamb (The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, Rev. 13:8.) up until the 6th century.

The 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries were a time a great turmoil in the church. The hegemony of Greek ideas and the Christian worldview that grew out of those Greek ideas was coming to an end. Islam would soon be a threat from the south and east. Many of the same world-shaping ideas that led Mohamed to re-frame Jewish and Christian theology into a highly rationalistic and deterministic theology were affecting the Christian church.

Rationalism and Christian faith don’t dwell together in peace. Christian theology expresses the lived experience of God, the nature of whose existence is beyond the ability of human mind to grasp. As a result, authentic theology is a mix of negative statements (“God is not this.”), subtle paradoxes, and even seeming contradictions that Christian theology simply lets stand, because the contradictions express an aspect of our experience of God. This sort of approach drove the rationalists crazy, and they sought to “clarify” theology so that it could be understood by the rational mind and the common people.

Arianism (a heresy with many parallels to Islam) was by far the most successful of these alternative Christian philosophies during this period. Bishop Arius rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, proposing that the Son of God was the first and greatest of the created beings. Why? Because that makes more rational sense than the doctrine of the Trinity.

This quarter of a millennium period marked by the rise of rationalism (and the consequent rise in the assumption that everything was absolutely predestined…yep, the cycle happened again about a thousand years later…was the context of the great Ecumenical Councils where specific language and formulas that pointed accurately in the direction of the lived experience of God was put into place.

One of the many canons (church rules, of a sort) that grew out of this period was that Jesus Christ should be primarily depicted in human form. Pictures of sacrificial lambs and and lambs bleeding and yet healthy and alive were not wrong, but being pictorial metaphors, they tended to downplay the sublime truth that the incarnate Christ was truly human, born of Mary, and not just a metaphor that God loved us so much that he came to us in mercy to offer salvation.

It turns out that there is a whole lot more to this story. Former Harvard professor and Eastern Orthodox monk (and renowned authority on the history and theology of icons), Maximos Constas, offers this aside in his most excellent book, The Art of Seeing:

It seems, then, that in an age of political catastrophe, social decline, and religious anxiety, the sacrificial lamb was no longer deemed an appropriate symbol for imperial self-expression. What was needed was a powerful, adult Christ, whom later ages would call the “Pantokrator,” that is, “All-Sovereign.” No longer subject to time, still less a victim of the times, this Christ promised to appear at the end of time to judge the world (cf. Rev 19:15). [Loc 675 in the Kindle edition]

The Byzantine empire was still a powerful force in the world, but Emperor Theodosius (a theologian in his own right and the driving force behind the move away from the Lamb of God imagery and toward the “powerful, adult Christ” imagery), had an ulterior motive. (At least this is so if Fr. Maximos is correct, and I have no reason to think he’s not.) Theodosius, to borrow an idea from contemporary society, saw an opportunity to advance the rhetoric of making the Empire great again.

But here’s the key take-away: Just because Theodosius had ulterior motive, this doesn’t deny the proper theo-logic of emphasizing Jesus Christ’s human form in iconography. It’s not that Theodosius made up a doctrine out of thin air in an attempt to make the Empire great again. Given that this was a rationalistic age and given that this reductive rationalism needed to be counteracted, the canons specifying that Jesus Christ should be shown in actual human form rather than metaphorical caprine form, was a theologically solid move that the bishops wholeheartedly supported. The best political manipulation is not arbitrary, but is rooted in principles that are already widely accepted. Political manipulation isn’t just pulling the wool over the eyes of the common folk (or in this case, removing the wool, so to speak), it is more typically an attempt to promote something that has been under-emphasized or even forgotten.

The period of the great Ecumenical councils, that is, the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries (bleeding back into the 3rd and up into the 7th) is often decried as…well, to quote Fr. Maximos, “an age of political catastrophe, social decline, and religious anxiety.” The increasingly abstruse and even esoteric distinctions give the appearance of theology used primarily as a tool to exclude one’s enemies, or, at the very least, to try to make the Christian empire great again.

Fr. Maximos’s aside about the move away from the Lamb metaphor and toward the reality of the incarnate Son of God shown as a real man, might seem like an unfortunate slip, giving ammunition to those who want to dismiss fundamental theological principles as mere political maneuvering. But this misses the real point. Again, we need to be careful of a too-easy rationalism that too easily explains away the mysteries of real life.

Let’s start with the politics and embrace the likelihood that Theodosius used the change in iconography as a political tool. Let’s admit that the Emperor was trying to prop up his empire in the face of the massive threat that eventually became the Ottoman Empire. That was precisely what Theodosius was fighting against. He was a politically astute leader who understood how to manipulate both ideas and people to further his ends.

But there’s a glorious paradox in this political history. Theodosius used truth to manipulate the system. One might be dismayed that the move to de-emphasize the metaphorical Lamb and emphasize the real human body of Jesus Christ was probably a cynical attempt to prop up the Empire. One might even want to promote the use of the Lamb of God metaphor, given this history. But the paradox is that this new emphasis on the reality of the incarnation was not only important, but utterly foundational to the life of the church. True truth, even when it is used in a cynical manner to promote a political agenda, remains true truth.

And this should be of great comfort to us. Who among us can say that our Christian lives are controlled by pure motives and absent ulterior, and even cynical motives? But the story of how the rules of how Christ should be portrayed in icons gives all us hypocrites hope. Truth remains truth. Even if my motives are self-serving, God can and will use the truth that we know to further his Kingdom and even transform our lives. The fact is that our every action is unworthy of God. But God uses those very actions to transform us into the people he wants us to be. That’s why the real person Jesus Christ was willing to become the sacrificial Lamb of God. I find great comfort in this paradox.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

 

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There’s Something About Mary

Today (Aug. 15) is the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, as the Orthodox name it, or the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, as the Roman Catholics describe it. It is a celebration of Mary’s death and resurrection. It is the last of the twelve major feasts and marks the end of the year in the Orthodox world. The annual cycle begins again on Sept. 8, when the Nativity of the Theotokos is celebrated.

Since my audience is predominantly Protestant, a few words about the church year are in order at this point. Just as we don’t actually know when Jesus was born (the best scholarly guess is early fall), so we don’t know when Mary was born nor when she died. These feasts (Christmas, Mary’s Nativity, and Mary’s Dormition (which is another word for death) are scheduled for theological reasons. Christmas comes near the shortest day of the year. When things were darkest, God entered into the world to bring the Light of Life to a world shrouded in the darkness of sin and death.

The order of feasts follows the plan of salvation. There is an inner and an outer layer. The inner layer (we might think of them as the Christological feasts) starts with the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary, followed by his Nativity, the Presentation at the Temple, the Baptism of the Lord, the Transfiguration, the Holy Week cycle, Christ’s Ascension into heaven, and Pentecost, or the coming of the Holy Spirit.

But the plan of salvation is not something that was imposed upon creation. Salvation requires the action of God (the inner cycle) and the corresponding human agreement (the outer cycle). It is the Annunciation that illustrates this best. The Holy Spirit came upon Mary and she was with child; not the child of Joseph, her husband, but of God. So what the church celebrates is not so much the conception of Jesus, but the human acceptance to this divine activity that immediately preceded the conception. “The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Lk. 1:25). This announcement didn’t make immediate sense to Mary, so the angel explained what was going on (vv. 36-37), and once Mary understood, she said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (v. 38).

The incarnation requires a divine component and a human component. This human component is the outer cycle that wraps its arms around and nurtures the mysterious inner cycle. Mary was the person whom God chose to be the bearer of God (the meaning of the Greek word “Theotokos”) and to give him human flesh. So it is that this outer cycle of the church year begins with the birth of Mary and ends with her death.

So Dormition is a very big deal because it completes the cycle of salvation. It is a big deal because the year draws to a close, and now we await in quiet expectation for when it starts all over again in September.

For the Orthodox in America, it is also a time of much hand wringing. Why don’t Christians honor Mary as they ought? is a continuous quiet refrain that seeps into so many conversations about the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. And indeed, Mary is, for the most part, not given her due in predominantly Protestant America. So it is that the Orthodox are always asking, “Why?”

Today I was reminded of the answer. Or, more accurately, I was slapped in the face with answer today. I prefer using the Roman Catholic breviary for daily prayer because of its inclusion of the Psalms. Orthodox prayer books tend not to include the Psalms as an integral part of the individual prayer cycle. One is certainly encouraged to pray the Psalms, and for convenience, I like the breviary because the Psalms are already integrated into the daily pattern, along with prayers, scripture, and hymns. And today, on the Feast of Annunciation, the breviary is Mariological to a fault.

Even for a guy like me, who has been Orthodox for nearly two decades, I find the Roman Catholic approach to Mary quite uncomfortable. (The theology of Mary is one of the great divides between Catholic and Orthodox that make the possibility of reunion to be very challenging.) The Catholic veneration of Mary appears to cross an uncomfortable line in the direction of worship. While I affirm Roman Catholic claims that they do not worship Mary, the language they use still makes me uncomfortable. I understand completely why so many Protestants (and more than a few Orthodox) believe that outright worship is precisely what is going on in Catholic spiritual practice.

This is the great stumbling block when it comes to Protestants (and former Protestants) giving Mary her due. Proper honor of the Theotokos is always suspect because of the excesses of a few. This is an unfortunate reality.

Salvation cannot be understood apart from Mary. Her life envelopes the life of Jesus Christ. Mary is the one who gave Jesus his human body. Mary and Joseph provided the family structure which allowed Jesus to thrive, and thus be able to grow into his own acceptance of his mission in the world (as is celebrated in the baptism). Mary is each and every one of us. And unless each and every one of us assent as Mary did, and say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” then God’s work in the world would come to nothing. Salvation would then become something forced upon us.

God is a gentle God, never coercing and always inviting. When we forget about Mary, we tend to lose sight of the gentleness of God. Indeed, there is something about Mary.

 

Compassion Reframed

Discussing my previous essay at lunch yesterday, I was reminded that the Christian understanding of compassion is not obvious in modern culture. Compassion, according to my meal companion, is a bottomless pit, or “black hole” as he described it. Because the “quagmire of needs and excess of misery” is so extensive on earth, those very miseries act as a black hole sucking compassion beyond what our beings are able to give. The result is that we are stretched to the point of despair.

That description begs a question: What is compassion? Or possibly more to the point: What is false compassion?

Compassion is not a felt need to fix the world. That felt need, common in modern western democracies, where we believe the lie that we can change the world, is not compassion. It is actually a form of triumphalism, a side effect of the Enlightenment and its wondrous discoveries. Politico-economic theories such as Marxism, National Socialism, and Austrian economics (ie, Friedrich Hayek) all include the assumption that the world ought to be improved. Although they go about it in different ways, they all present theories of world improvement on a grand scale.

Of course governments (in National Socialist theory) and large businesses (in Austrian theory) can do a great deal of good, leading to an improved life (the remarkable standard of living in the Western world being the obvious evidence for such a claim). When these economic theories are combined with the modern democratic tendency, these amazing strides are applied to individuals. We begin to think that we (that is, individuals) can and should do the same thing as governments. This is the fatal flaw of much of the world improving that goes on today.

Compassion, like all the virtues, is neither corporate, governmental, nor societal (although we often misapply the word “compassion” to these institutions. As a virtue, compassion is individual, and must grow from the heart. Rather than “compassion,” we would be better served to think in terms of “justice” when we think of government or corporate policies.

Rather than “fixing” we need to think of our lives in terms of “being.” As a result, authentic compassion cannot be separated from mourning, which is the more fundamental virtue out of which compassion grows. When a whole community is destroyed by a tornado (I live in tornado country, so it is an example that readily comes to mind) such as nearby Whiting or Wayne in recent years, there is, in fact, little that individuals can do to fix the problem. Recovery teams that went into Whiting, for instance, ended up doing as much harm as good because of untrained, overzealous volunteers who were simply beyond their depth.

In situations of disaster, high murder rates, the opioid epidemic, etc., the first and most important thing we can do is mourn. Suffering is a given in this life, and when I mourn, I take other people’s suffering into my own being and thus share their burden. This, by the way, is the etymological meaning of compassion (suffering—”pathos” – with—the prefix “com”).

Once we enter into this state of mourning and are suffering with those who are suffering, we are given insight into what I ought to do (in contrast to what I theoretically can do. Maybe I ought to invite a disaster stricken family to live with me for a few weeks until they get things sorted out. Maybe encourage and participate in an intervention to get an addict the help he or she needs, maybe I make a formal and personal complaint to the police department about how they treat the Hispanics or Native Americans in the community. Maybe I give someone a hundred or ten-thousand dollars so that they can get back on their feet.

So suffering with another person leads to concrete actions. We might call that step one and step two. Step three is learning to accept the accusations and condemnations that will inevitably come because I am not doing more. “You helped, Jane, but you refuse to help Jill. You are so selfish!” Being swayed by such pressure is not compassion; it is actually a form of cowardice.

In short, authentic compassion nearly always appears to fall short of the need. And when our actions fall short of the need, we will be accused of not doing enough. If I am a compassionate person, that will feel like a moral failing. And so I do more; I do things that I am actually not equipped to do. I over-extend. And it is at this point (the point where it is not about the suffering of others, but rather what others think of me) that the despair of helping others sets in.

So the final piece of compassion that is an absolutely necessary part of of authentic, divinely given compassion, is learning to bear the shame of never doing enough. That shame is the shame of recognizing that we are not God. That shame is the shame of recognizing that our resources, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual resources, are not infinite. The shame is the recognition that we live in a broken world, and that we can’t un-break it. That is for God alone to do.

True compassion is a gray and sorrowful nether world. True compassion reveals that we are inadequate and incomplete. True compassion leads full circle to even deeper mourning.

In a world where we think of happiness, comfort, a cell phone, and a free internet connection as rights, this sounds terrible. But if we are willing to take that gigantic and frightful step into the world more properly understood, we will discover something remarkable. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” When we dwell in that state of mourning that completely undoes us, we discover that we were undone all along (while just fooling ourselves with our veneer of happiness and a good internet connection). It is in this state of nether grayness that the true joy of God can begin to spread its light through our whole being. We not only discover who we are (undone and incapable), we discover who we are in Christ.

We, who live in the modern Western world, must always keep in mind that we cannot fix the world. We must also remember that fixing things is fraught with danger. Even when governments or corporations fix things, something else seems to go horribly wrong. Suffering is here to stay. Compassion is not fixing all the suffering around us; it is entering into that suffering, and helping where we can. In our triumphalistic world, that sounds inadequate and even escapist. Why? Because at the root of triumphalism is the assumption that we can fix it better than God can, or we have to fix it because God refuses to. Authentic compassion is the mirror opposite of that sort of triumphalism.

On Being wearied of an Excess of Misery

Reading a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel, Eternity, by Greg Bear. It’s a bit tiresome, and at this point even the protagonists are getting tired. One character “had finally wearied of Earth, with its quagmire of needs and excess of misery.”

I am reminded of Paul’s words in Gal. 6. “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

Just as their is only one sacrament (the sacrament of incarnated love) of which the other sacraments and sacramentals are expressions (at least according to Hopko), so there is only one virtue (out-reaching love), of which compassion is one of the most challenging expressions.

Compassion, as with all the virtues, is a pass-through energy. I can only be authentically compassionate when it is Christ’s compassion passing through me. I am not the source of compassion, only the conduit. When I weary “of earth, with its quagmire of needs and excess misery,” it is a sure sign that I’m trying to generate compassion from my own inner self, which being finite, quickly runs dry.

Weariness is a warning sign that I’ve disconnected from divine love. It is an indication that I think I can do this on my own. It is warning that I’m dangerously close to idolatry, replacing God’s love with my own self in its supposed sufficiency.

Rising Up and Going Down

In modern Western culture we associate praying in a prostrate position (that is, on our knees, face on the floor, with hands outstretched in front) with Muslims because the Muslim call to prayer is a relatively common image on our media screens. But this is how Middle Easterners prayed (Jews, Christians, and later, when Islam came about, Muslims), and it is part of Orthodox prayer to this day.

There are certain seasons that the Orthodox neither prostrate themselves nor kneel (the fifty days from Pascha to Pentecost), and there are seasons (all the fasts) and particular feasts (Exaltation of the Cross, etc.) where full prostrations are the normal posture of prayer. Humans cannot easily separate mind, body, and will; we cannot easily humble our heart without humbling our body. The humility of full prostrations and conversely the confidence that comes from divine grace associated with standing while praying are both a normal part of the Orthodox posture of prayer.

I don’t think Archimandrite Zacharias ever talks about the posture of praying (whether standing, kneeling, or prostrate) in his book The Enlargement of the Heart, but I was reminded of prayer’s posture while reading the book. Zacharias is fond of the phrase “go down,” referring to the journey we are called to make, going down to hell with Christ where he announced his victory over sin and death. Going down to hell sounds harsh, but we Christians have become so accustomed to the traditional language of death leading to life that this turn of phrase helps us think about what the New Testament describes.

Zacharias, following and extending the thinking of both his teacher, Elder Sophrony (d. 1995), and Sophrony’s teacher, St. Silouan (d. 1938), says that one of the prominent features of the Christian church today is despondency. What is despondency or despond? If you’re like me, you might associate it with Pilgrim’s Progress and the “Slough of Despond.” If you are even more like me, you have never read Pilgrim’s Progress but guess that it means that Pilgrim was having a tough time of it. But despond has a more proper meaning than just that. Despond is a lack of concern about one’s salvation.

There is a doctrine widely held in America—the full assurance of salvation—that was originally taught by the Reformers to free Christians from debilitating fear so that they could confidently grow in Christ and be transformed. Ironically, given the modern zeitgeist in contrast to the zeitgeist of 16th century Europe, this very doctrine promotes despond. Once the cycle of despond begins, a blind trust in divine grace and assurance that everything will turn out okay tends toward a lax attitude toward growth and transformation—the very essence of despond.

It’s cliché to say that this is an age of unbelief. Talk to any honest pastor and you will hear stories of rampant unbelief among laity and clergy alike. These are people who like the idea of God and would like to believe, but just can’t do it. The heavens, having become brass, the spiritual world seems utterly cut off from them.

Zacharias argues that this is a symptom and not a root problem. Unbelief such as this, within the church, is a symptom of despond. When we aren’t faithful with a few things, we lose control over the large things, to paraphrase Mt. 25:23. The solution isn’t to try harder to believe, nor is it to just go through the motions hoping belief will come, it is to go through specific motions. Zacharias says the only path forward is to humble ourselves. This is why he is so fond of that phrase “go down.” Humility is going down below others and going down before God in prayer. Extreme humility is going down to hell with Christ.

The Apostle Paul proclaims, “I have been crucified with Christ!” (Gal. 2:20). What happened after the crucifixion? 1 Peter says that after his crucifixion, Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison …” This obscure and otherwise incomprehensible phrase has been linked to Eph. 4:8 (Christ “made captivity itself captive”). What then becomes clear is that Christ didn’t just die, in death he went and entered into solidarity with the very lowest low that humans captive by sin and death could possibly go: hell. It is here, in this lowest of low places and most hopeless of hopeless states that Jesus announced his victory over death.

Zacharias’ argument is that it is not enough to confess that we have been crucified with Christ, we need to actually do something. We need to travel with the crucified Christ and embrace our lowest and most humiliating low: the ignominy of sin that has captivated us. And only when we humble ourselves to that level can we truly hear and embrace the proclamation of Christ’s victory.

But “humbling ourselves” has become a hackneyed commonplace. (“I am so humbled to receive this honor.”) It begs the question of just what humility is. As Zacharias says, it is to “go down.” Zacharias reiterates the teaching of the fathers that the demons want to go up, not down. They want to rise to heaven and be like God and even above God[1]. In order to free ourselves of demonic despond, we need to start by “going down.” If we are all about improving ourselves, fixing ourselves, making ourselves better, we become easy targets because we are rising up into the sphere of all that stands against God. But if we go down … go down as far as hell, we then go to where Christ is, and then are ready to be lead out of captivity and the bondage of despond.

In modern Western culture we associate praying in a prostrate position (that is, on our knees, face on the floor, with hands outstretched in front) with Muslims because that is what we see in the media. Few of us ever see it in church. Maybe this is a place to start as we seek a way out of our despond. Praying in confidence while standing upright with hands outstretched to God certainly has its place. But there’s another side to this coin. Before we can rise up with such confidence, we must learn to go down.


[1] Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart, 2nd American Edition, Mount Thabor Publishing, 2012, p. 28.

God Who Is Grace

The Sermon on the Mount is often described in terms of a new law, a Christian law that supersedes the Mosaic Law. Indeed Matthew structures his Gospel to parallel the events of Moses receiving the Law from God on Mt. Sinai. There is also a sense that Jesus interiorizes and radicalizes the Law, making God’s demands on us absolute. But if this is all we see, we will miss the point in much the same way that Luther’s half measures in relation to divine grace (described in the previous essay) miss the point. Child rearing offers an apt example of what I am getting at.

Children first and foremost need to know that they are loved and accepted as they are, no matter what. (This is analogous to our new understanding of God as pure Grace in contrast to God simply offering grace where it is needed. It is described with some depth in the first essay in this series.) Once this basic reality of love and acceptance is established, children need to be encourage (and often pushed a bit) to do things beyond what they think is possible. Kids, in fact, don’t know what is possible; their natural sights are set far too low.

Tell a child to build an outdoor shelter that will be adequate to spend the night in. On her first try the kid does an abominable job. Mom knows it’s an abominable job. But she tells her daughter that the two of them are going to spend the night. Mom doesn’t tell the kid that it’s going to be a miserable night; instead, she suffers the night with her. In the morning the miserable child gives up and declares that she is incapable of building a shelter. But Mom, in a tender motherly wisdom that is likely experienced as punishment by the child, tells her to try again. Mom never builds the shelter, but gives pointers along the way. After much “punishment” meted out by mother, the child finally figures out how to build an excellent and comfortable shelter in which she and her mother spend a glorious night.

The Sermon on the Mount might be considered the shelter we are to build. The “demands” of the Sermon on the Mount are absolute and simply cannot be fulfilled. But after trial and error, and with the urging of the church and the nudging of the Spirit, we begin to get the hang of certain bits and pieces. Eventually our life is transformed in some small way and we spend a glorious season with God basking in the new person we have become.

Of course, while God accepts us, God also believes we are capable of things that we quite literally can’t imagine. While the Sermon on the Mount is an unattainable goal in its absolute sense, it and other similar teachings by Jesus lay out path which we will travel. We can (and will) spend a lifetime tinkering, asking for help, getting nudged and empowered by the Spirit, and always, bit by bit, making a better shelter and being utterly transformed by God in the process.

In his book On Being a Christian, Hans Küng describes our various efforts at social justice in light of the above process.

Jesus, as we shall see later, did not prescribe for everybody either renunciation of possessions or common ownership. One will sacrifice everything to the poor, another will give away half his possessions, a third will help with a loan. One gives all he has for god’s [sic] cause, others are active in servicing and caring for the needy, someone else practices apparently foolish prodigality. Nothing here is legally regulated. Hence there is no need for exceptions, excuses, privileges or dispensations from the law. [p. 248]

One could argue that all of us should do all these things. And indeed, all of these things are part of the absolute demands of Jesus Christ. But when we understand the dynamic—God pushing us beyond what we think possible, yet always joying in our lives and growth, even when our efforts fall short—it makes sense that both the church and us as individuals fail so miserably in our efforts. God knows what we are capable of, and because of that he has set out description of life that is limitless in possibilities.

If one one insists on the “traditional” perspective, we are guaranteed to fail. In contrast, what is actually happening is that we are provided literally unlimited possibilities for growth—more than we can ever accomplish in this life. And as we grow bit by bit, God enjoys us as his children toddling and goofing our way to transformation and holiness. This is the Gospel of God-as-pure-Grace.

Natural Consequences

One thing we can learn from Jesus is that grace is not a buffer protecting us from God’s wrath, instead grace is simply the character of God. Furthermore, God has told us this, but words are not enough. It must be experienced within relationship to be fully grasped. We explored this in some depth in the previous essay. That essay might be summed up by saying Divine Grace must start as a lived experience before it makes sense as a theological doctrine.

The angry God motif is common enough in the Old Testament, and it ought not surprise us that it is there. We have been separated from God and separate ourselves from God. As a result when we experience Nature as uncaring and impersonal (Nature that seemingly arbitrarily creates havoc in our lives and society), we assume God has turned his back on us. The actual fact is we have turned our back on God because of our preference for sin. From this mistaken starting place, it is easy to assume that God is angry and judging. (More about this below.) But Jesus offers us a glimpse into reality that is quite different from our perceptions.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Father is neither angry nor does he have a need to punish the prodigal. Instead he waits attentively for his son’s return. Thus Jesus speaks to the way we perceive divine reality: The prodigal assumes (as we do) that if he returns he will face severe consequences (ie, wrath) and prepares accordingly. He is completely wrong. The Father welcomes him with open arms and doesn’t even allow him to finish his confession! This is but one story of God-as-Grace (in contrast to God offering grace as a cover or shield for underlying divine wrath.)

Martin Luther interpreted medieval Roman Catholic doctrine in line with the Prodigal Son. Starting with divine wrath, he recognized that the balance sheet could never be balanced. This led him to proclaim a gospel of grace in sharp contrast to works. This is the source of the well-known Lutheran “alone” statements. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Upon this teaching (Lutherans call it the “material principle”) all other teachings emerge. While Luther’s insight fell like a bombshell on medieval Europe, he only got half way to the whole truth. Luther believed that the fundamental attitude of God toward sinners was not grace but wrath. For instance, while hidden away in the Wittenberg Castle, he wrote,

I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” [Quote from Steve Lawson, “Fortress of Truth: Martin Luther,” First Things, 9/11/2017.

Luther missed the necessary starting point. God isn’t in the business of punishing sinners. Just as the Prodigal Son’s eating of corn husks meant for the pigs was not his Father’s punishment for leaving the household. So, the calamities and judgments that befall us aren’t God’s doing but the natural effect of our leaving God’s household. The necessary starting point is not the Prodigal Son’s tragic condition, it is the Father, sitting on the porch, waiting for him to return so the Father can welcome him home.

This is how we should understood law (including the Mosaic Law). “Natural law” is not so much God’s demands upon us to live up to divine holiness, it is a divinely revealed description of how the natural world works. We humans turned our back on God. In mercy, God told what we would need to do in order to make our way in the world without the living presence of God within us. Breaking the Law doesn’t make God angry, it brings about effects that are simply part of the created order.

Alongside explaining the negative effects of abandoning the presence of God, Jesus offers a description of what living in the presence of God would look like. The Sermon on the Mount is his most concise summary, and given our experience, Jesus’ description sounds harsh. If we can move beyond our perception of the angry God, we can then recognize how gracious Jesus’ description of live with God (and God within us) truly is. We will explore this in more depth in the next essay.

If God Is For Us

The place we must begin as Christians is that God is on our side. As Paul says, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32) This is what Jesus lived out in his earthly life. He embodied the reality that God is for people. He certainly opposed religious leaders who tried to misconstrue religion to make it burdensome. But his opposition was never against people in principle but always against those who stood in the way of the people coming to God.

The history of religions is rather different. Broadly speaking, religion (that which was thought up by us, not that which was revealed by God) grows out of the sense that we have displeased the gods. Religious practices were put in place to overcome that displeasure. Erich Neumann, in The Origins and History of Consciousness (a summary of Carl Jung) argues that this trope is beyond ancient, it is part of our primordial mindset.

Because the belief that the gods are against us, or at the very least, displeased, runs so deep in our consciousness, it is not surprising that it is a theme that weaves its way throughout the Old Testament. Since it is clearly present in the Old Testament, there is a tendency to say that this is how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob truly is. It is a sentiment that is expressed in the extreme in Jonathan Edwards’ infamous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It is a sentiment that the Apostle Paul wrestles with in his epistles. The theme has also shaped our interpretation of hell, wrath, and judgment.

But if God isn’t like this, why has God allowed the idea that he is angry with us to persist and even creep into scripture? The answer comes when we consider what was important to Jesus. His interaction with the woman at the well was typical. She was concerned with right theology. Being a Samaritan, questions about the correct place to worship—the Jewish Mt. Zion or the Samaritan Mt. Gerizim—were foremost. But Jesus essentially brushed correct theology off by saying, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him” (Jn 4:23). Instead he was far more interested in her life struggles than her theology. When he probed her mind, it had nothing to do with theology. “Go call your husband and come here” (v 16). Her life, it turns out, was a wreck, and Jesus was far more interested in getting her human relationships sorted out than sorting her theology.

“Who is my neighbor?” turns out to be a question that must be answered, not by the Rabbis in the synagogue (or the priests and theologians in the seminary) but by you and I as we walk or drive to work. As we read the Old Testament with this sensibility revealed by Jesus, we realize that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was as Jesus said and not like the old gods who were easily piqued and demanded that everything be just right. The living God demonstrated that he wanted those ancient wanderers to come along side God and wander with him. God is profoundly relational, and that’s what took center stage, not the need to get all our ideas about God exactly right.

I’ve never had foster kids, but as a pastor I’ve seen a number of them placed in the homes of congregation members. When the foster parent says, “I won’t beat you; you’re safe here,” it’s largely an empty statement, because it’s not the child’s experience. That is a message that can only be expressed through presence and action, not words. After several times when the kid messes up and is not beat, after several months of living in an environment that is actually safe, then the kid himself or herself will begin to say, “You won’t beat me; I’m safe here.” It does little good to tell the child, don’t cringe in fear. The good foster parent ignores that while working hard to create an authentically safe place. It is a truth that is revealed, not by words, but only in action and relationship.

We have come to believe in a wordy revelation. We hold the Bible in our hand and think that this is the divine revelation. But in a profound sense, it is not. The revelation is God who didn’t bother correcting all of the ancients’ misconceptions with mere words, but rather busied himself by creating a safe home (to carry on our analogy) so that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could figure out on their own that, “You won’t beat me; I’m safe here.” The revelation isn’t what Matthew, and John, and Peter, and Paul wrote about Jesus, in a far more fundamental sense, Jesus himself was and is the revelation. To return to the woman at the well, Jesus didn’t start out by saying he was the Messiah, he let her figure it out on her own. And then when she finally put into words the outrageous idea that the Messiah might actually be present, he affirmed her insight. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you'” (Jn 4:26).

Like the foster child, it does little good for God to tell us how to think and act. There is a primordial sensibility seemingly structured into our genetic makeup, if the neuroscientists are to be believed, that the gods are against us and probably enjoy messing with us. (Consider the story of Job.) The only way past that sensibility is to live through it and ultimately beyond it.

And so we end, full circle, where we began. “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32) This is what Jesus lived out in his earthly life. He embodied the reality that God is for people.

The Daughter of a Voice

In John 12:28f, Jesus says, “‘Father, glorify thy name.’ Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, ‘I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him.” A.T. Robertson (in Word Pictures) observed the Rabbis called the audible voice of God bath-qol, or “the daughter of a voice.” Now that’s a weird bit of trivia to throw into the commentary that I want to explore.

Consider the question of talking. When I talk to another person there is physical distance between us and that physical distance can be considered a metaphor for the distance between what I mean and what you think I mean. I can never fully say precisely what I mean. As a result, the person hearing my words may hear something rather different than what I mean. There is no direct connection between what I intend to say and what the other person hears. My meaning gets interpreted into words which go from me to you. Those words then get interpreted back into your meaning (or understanding). Hopefully my meaning and your understanding are pretty much the same thing.

We can describe this as a mediated process. Between my meaning and your understanding are several steps that mediate the two. My meaning can never directly touch your understanding; it must be mediated by something. Now this sounds very similar to something else. Moses wanted a direct apprehension of God, but God said, nope, won’t happen. “No one can see my face and live” (Ex. 33:20). God’s presence (that is, his face) had to be mediated by something else in order for us to apprehend God. Thus the Rabbis tended to view the shining glory of God (expressed in Moses’ burning bush, the cloud of the Exodus and the glory that dwelt in the temple), not as God in and of himself but rather as a created container that veiled the true presence. These were all mediated and not direct experiences.

Evidently (if I’m reading Robertson’s quotation of the Rabbis correctly) the Rabbis considered the voice of God a mediated experience also. It wasn’t actually God’s voice, it was “the daughter of a voice.” (That sounds a lot like the distance between my meaning and your understanding that I tried to describe above.) With all of this context in mind, something quite ironic happens in John 12. We have Jesus Christ, the one John calls both “the Word of God” and “the Son of God,” physically present with the people. In the midst of this scene the disembodied “daughter of the voice” of God comes booming out of heaven (v. 28). The irony is while they were curious about Jesus and wanted to see him, they thought the voice from heaven sounded down right angelic! God was right there but what caught their attention was the thing that pointed toward the sky, where they assumed God was supposed to be.

We take for granted that we have a sense of where God is and what God is supposed to do. The longer we’re Christians and part of a congregation, the more comfortable we become with how it all works, and by extension, where God is and what God is supposed to do. As a result, the longer we’ve been doing this, the greater the danger that we will settle for the daughter of the voice of God rather than the living God.

We need to learn to seek for God without mediation. The living God … and by definition, if God is living, God will exist beyond our expectations and even beyond our desires … The living God is a bit tricky to commune with. Compare this relationship with that of a close friend or spouse. Just about the time you have the relationship figured out and start taking it for granted, the other does something unexpected and you end up responding all wrong. It is the same with God but even more so. If we are truly communing with God that relationship is growing and changing day by day. If we get too comfortable, we end up “communing” with a mediated God, the God of last year, God, but mediated by our expectations from an experience in the past. The result is we are attracted to the booming sound, the mere daughter of a voice, when we could be communing with the Son of God himself.

At the end of this passage Jesus says he will draw all people to himself (v. 32). And indeed, at the beginning of this passage we find foreigners asking to see Jesus (v. 21) no doubt because they are drawn to him. That might seem straightforward, but it turns out to be more slippery than we imagine. On our way to see the Son of God we get distracted by the daughter of a voice. It’s beautiful and awesome; the text even tells us it’s angelic (v.29). But it’s not Jesus. And that’s the trick. We have to be discerning enough to recognize the difference and we have to be picky enough not to settle for the mediated experience.

 

Lent, Knowing God, and Holiness

With Lent just around the corner I am once again pondering the difference between knowing God and knowing about God. In the circles in which I grew up and was educated, this was a distinction that was not carefully made. I think especially of the books that were particularly celebrated on this subject such as the classic The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer, the newer and destined to become classic Knowing God by J.I. Packer, and the even more recent (and better imho), but lesser known The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges. I read Packer in high school, Tozer in college and Bridges after I was married. (I also knew Bridges, so that relationship may have shaped my opinions about the books.)

All of these books left me with far more questions than answers. All three put a lot of emphasis on the attributes of God (or what might better be called the philosophical attributes), such as holiness, omnipotence, aseity, etc. I call them “philosophical attributes” because these are the things that make God God by definition. These descriptions say less about how God revealed himself and more about what we believe a proper god should look like. Many years ago I had this very conversation with Jerry Bridges, and his argument was that you can’t put much about knowing God in a book because that requires personal relationship (which is very true—point to Jerry, if you’re keeping score) and furthermore, knowing God requires that we first know about God. This is where, over the years, as I have begun to sort this out for myself, he and I begin to diverge…but not that far, as you will see when we circle back to the topic of holiness.

There is a gulf—we might even call it an ugly ditch in honor of Herr Lessing—between “knowledge of” and “knowing.” Knowing about Jerry Bridges, for instance, might lead one to think he’s great man. When you actually get to know him, he’s more like the guy the next door. These two things (Mr. Bridges as a great man and Jerry the guy next door) are not mutually exclusive, but they are very different. What I discovered is that much of what I thought I knew about Jerry Bridges was actually false (although the facts were accurate). It turns out that I need to know him before I could authentically know much about him. And this is the nub of my disagreement with him about knowing God. Knowledge of God does not precede knowing God, it follows it.

To complicate the matter further, the possibility of knowing God includes a moral component that is not always taken seriously enough, at least in the circles in which I grew up and was trained. Tozer puts some emphasis on the idea of fear and trembling; that is, knowledge of God will lead to fear and trembling because God is high and lifted up. As Peter says, “Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet. 2:17). But to frame it in the manner of Tozer is to make it a volitional requirement. In other words, I have to have a certain attitude about God, based on the knowledge of who God is, before I can hope to begin to know him.

But this volitional component is very different than the moral component required to know God. “Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see th Lord” (Heb. 12:14). From my vantage point Tozer, Packer, and Bridges are all weak on this point for the same reason that they are so strong on the subject in general. All three are traditionally Reformed in their theology. That sort of Reformed theology that springs primarily from the English Reformation puts a strong emphasis on God’s holiness. But it also puts a strong emphasis on human inability to pursue holiness. Given that humans are totally depraved (a foundational doctrine of English Reformed theology), holiness is a gift rather than something we pursue ourselves.

This sensibility can tend toward a passivity about holiness (what Bonhoeffer railed against as “cheap grace”), and certainly tends toward a lack of attention to the topic of human holiness and how it is achieved. It is no accident that the traditional Reformed communions have never put any emphasis on Lent and most reject it outright as a form of works righteousness.

And indeed in the popular imagination that may be what it is. “What are you giving up for Lent?” and “Oh, I’m not allowed to eat meat on Fridays,” are a statements that belie the underlying punitive sense of the contemporary Lenten experience. In contrast to the punitive sense, the heart of Lent in the classical tradition is cleansing. I recently read a blog post railing against Lent and what the author called the doctrine of purgation and punitive sensibility he mistaken thought it implied. But purgation does not mean punishment; it means cleansing. “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,” says the Psalmist (51:7).

The punishment model (which is not biblical, except in a narrow, proof-texting manner) is that God is mad at us and we must either take our punishment (judgment), or pass it off to Jesus (grace), before we can know God. The broader biblical model is that God is holy and that holiness can destroy the unsuspecting and unprepared (thus the appearance of punishment). One must be clean before approaching God in order to know him or the destructive burning of the impurities will also catch you up in the conflagration. The blogger (and I suspect quite a number of people) don’t understand the meaning of that word purgation and confuse it with punishment because they sort of look alike.

But back to cleansing. I need to be clean before I can know God. God saves us (or more technically, gives us new life and the Holy Spirit) and then I can begin that process of setting aside sin (even as the Holy Spirit transforms us—it’s both) and then getting to know God a bit as God is now free to reveal more of himself, which allows me to set aside more sin, which allows me to know God a bit more, and the spiral upward continues. But setting aside sin is hard. Furthermore, it is no fun in the sense that sin is a whole lot more fun than the work of setting it aside. This is first the temptation of settling for knowing about God; it’s a lot easier than the process required to actually know God. The second temptation to settle for knowing about God is that philosophy and the philosophical speculation that accompanies it are just plain fun for a lot of us. If we are not truly in love with God, the temptation toward intellectual speculation is strong.

And this brings full circle to the upcoming Lenten season and its surpassing value in the Christian life. It’s a season that reminds me that intellectual pursuit—knowing about God—is not salvific. It’s a season that pushes me in the direction of cleansing rather than knowledge and toward the humility of facing up to my own sin rather than the hubris of reveling in my intellectual prowess. As the Jesus Prayer describes it, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on my a sinner.”