Some years ago at a pastor’s retreat I won flights for two to Barbados. Wendy and I were able to spend about three weeks down there. Yes I know; rough life as a pastor. What a wonderful place, but the best part of the trip for me was snorkeling. For at least three hours most days I was diving in that crystal clear water.
The spot I went most often was an old reef of about 10 acres in size. The coral was a maze of channels and small underwater ravines ranging in depth from six or seven feet to well over twenty feet. Discovering all manner of fish and sea creatures, while exploring the nooks and crannies and crevasses held almost endless fascination for me.
Wendy doesn’t really share my passion for exploration. For her the best thing about the trip was sitting on the beach, reading a good book, and going into the ocean from time to time to float for a while and cool off; a wonderfully relaxing time.
She did put the mask on one day so she could see what I was so fascinated with. What she saw almost took her breath away, which isn’t necessarily a good thing if your face is under water. There all around her, right where she was standing were dozens and dozens of small fish with flashing, brilliant colors and a spectacular variation in shapes and sizes. She was astounded that that she had been completely unaware of the richness of beauty and diversity that was right there around her.
For many of us, our relationship with God is much like that. We’re in the water, maybe even fully wet. We know and have experienced the ocean that is God’s nature and character, but we’re largely unaware of the richness and wonder that is available for us to experience with God.
May I suggest an exercise to help explore these depths? Go to 1 John 4:16 and find the part of that verse that says God is love. Now stop and, to begin with, spend at least five minutes just focusing on that phrase (likely you will discover much more eventually becomes necessary). Roll it over in your mind, think about how you have experienced that, and then listen for God to communicate the depths and richness of that truth to your heart and soul and mind. If it helps, broaden your focus to verse 15 and the rest of verse 16 but no more.
This is what the Psalmist called meditation.
My Grandpa Walde was somewhat of an arborist. One of the many reasons we kids loved to visit in the fall was the row of crab apple trees he had. My favorite was one that, as a sapling, Grandpa had grafted a yellow jelly crab onto a red jelly crab. So in maturity he had a great tree full of half yellow and half red tart crab apples.
More than once he mended broken branches, maybe broken due to grandkids playing. He lifted the branch back in place and had placed a binding around it to hold it securely to the place where it had broken off. Given time, the limb came back to full health and even bore fruit.
In John 15:1, 2 Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit.”(NIV) Now I know that says “cuts off,” but the word literally means bears up, carry or lift. It is the same term used of Jesus in John 1:29 where it says that Jesus is the Lamb of God who TAKES AWAY the sin of the world. In certain contexts it includes the implication of carrying away, which is why some translators have understood it as “cut off”. But in the John 15 context there is no such implication. It is rather the picture of a gardener who bears up and even binds up a broken branch in order to bring healing.
The picture is of God caring for those who are broken and hurting and because of this are unable to bear fruit. God bears them up and “in Christ” brings healing. This is consistent with the words of Isaiah 61:1 which is the same passage Jesus quoted when he announced that he was the messiah and what his ministry was. In part it says, “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted . . . (NIV)
Are you feeling broken or damaged these days? Maybe because of a loss you have suffered recently. Maybe from the way someone has treated you, or simply the stresses and circumstances of life seem to have conspired against you. Whatever the cause may be, in God there is hope. This is not to say that your circumstances will miraculously be fixed, usually it is a lifelong journey. But you will find support that will lead to healing.
I have been reading a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. It is a very engaging book that I have had a hard time to put down. For those who don’t know, Bonhoeffer was a German pastor/theologian who was involved in an assassination plot against Hitler. He was imprisoned and finally hung as a traitor just days before the end of the war.
I have been amazed to discover that some of the issues that most troubled him in Germany at that time are so prevalent in our society today. The expression of these issues is obviously very different, but the root is the same. For example, then as now there’s a great deal of value placed on spirituality, but relatively little on actually knowing God. Prior to WWII if you were German you considered yourself a Christian regardless of your relationship to Jesus. It was simply part of the culture of Germany. Much theology was taught, but very little of worship or even that God could, and wanted to be known personally.
Bonhoeffer’s seminary training was only in how to read the Bible critically, to be able to break it down into form and structure and analyze it. What he discovered is that, though there may be value in reading the Bible critically, it is much more. God literally speaks to us through it. He said that we must not simply read the Bible; we must ask God our questions and expect to receive the ultimate answers in the Bible. This is more than thinking about God, it is actually encountering and meeting with God.
In our time and culture spirituality is again becoming more prevalent but much of it is self-driven. Some of this spirituality is even labelled “Christian” but within it Christ is not really known. Many look to the Bible as a guidebook, containing instructions for life, and certainly that is true and valuable. But if that’s the extent to which we use it we will miss the true power of it and in fact it will become more a burden to us; an unrelenting task master that we can never live up to and that we finally in desperation just avoid. Bonhoeffer came to the point where he said every day the Bible was more wonderful to him, as it brought him into personal contact with God himself.
This was God’s intent in giving us the Bible. And this is available, not just to pastors and theologians, but to each one who will truly seek God there.
In 1John 3 we are told that for the children of God it is an impossibility to sin. The original recipients of John’s letter would have understood by the grammatical structure that he was saying is that it’s impossible to practice sin, or to be comfortable with sin. There is an internal battle against it.
Still unclear on what he means? Let me tell you this story and maybe it will help.
Late October every year for a period of about fifteen years my older brother Eric and I had the chance to go ride the fall round-up in a spectacularly beautiful and rugged 27 square mile community pasture in West Central Saskatchewan right on the Alberta border. This pasture had it all; great rolling sandy hills, aspen forests, deep draws filled with scrub brush, sloughs, willowy marshes and even a small lake.
The first year Eric rode this pasture he got sent towards the Alberta border to sweep through that section of the pasture. He came across a small bunch of about 15 pair and, after gathering them together, got them headed NE towards the sorting corrals. But these critters were a handful. They kept splitting off and trying to circle back. The others riders he had been sent with had spread out and were nowhere to be seen so Eric just kept fighting and pushing the cattle along.
I came across him when we were about a mile from the corrals and I joined my few pairs with his and we worked together to get them all in. His horse was foamed up, and Eric’s eye had that look of fiery determination I had come to know from when we were kids that said “there is no way I’m going to be beat.” By that point he had lost four or five pair but he had managed to get most of them in. But when we finally pushed them into the corrals the laughter of the guys there told us there was something wrong. Not knowing the brands, Eric had picked up cattle that belonged on the Alberta side and had been pushing them away from home.
That’s kind of the picture of sinning in the life of a Jesus follower. We may at times get pushed towards committing a sin, but there is something inside us that battles against it and won’t leave us comfortable in continuing to practice sin. That something is similar to our conscience but much greater. It is, in fact, the very nature of Jesus himself.
So whose pasture are you being drawn to?
A while back I was talking with a friend about sin. He told me that he attended a Christian high school that had a very strict set of rules. The need for this strict code of conduct, the school reasoned, was so that through discipline and habit the students would form a Godly character. From a logical and human perspective this seems to make sense. The problem is it isn’t Biblical.
Now don’t get me wrong, I believe we need rules and discipline, just ask my boys! But the problem is that rules have never made anyone righteous. In fact the Bible is very clear that the law (the 10 commandments etc.) only succeeded in proving that we weren’t righteous and weren’t capable of righteousness through our own efforts. Check out Romans 3:20. In fact while you’re at it you should read the whole of chapter 3.
The school, and many of us, had it backwards. Godly character produces righteous acts not the other way around. This brings us to a crucial question: if by faith in Jesus I have a new nature – his nature, why do I still sin at times? I used to read Romans 6:11-14 and get very frustrated. It says that I should not let sin reign in my life and to not offer body as a tool to sin. So I would get determined that I would follow the rules and inevitably, usually sooner rather than later I failed.
The problem is that I neglected to read the rest of verse 13 and 14. It says to instead offer yourself to God as a tool of righteousness, and in doing so sin shall not master me. The point is that if I try to shape my nature by my actions I will fail at both. But if I focus on allowing God to form in me the nature of Christ, which by grace through faith already dwells within me, that nature will naturally and progressively be expressed through me in righteous acts.
It’s that simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. To do that requires that I submit my will to God. Not just in general, but my dreams, and goals, my passions and interests, my career, my finances, my leisure, my family. Everything! But don’t panic. God takes us a step at a time. Just start by asking God to make you aware of Jesus’ passions within you. I think you will find the first passion will be to know him better.
Our youngest son is about to turn 21. That means all three of our boys are officially adults in every jurisdiction. I am very proud of the men they have become, but that also means they doesn’t need us as much. This is, actually, a good thing. In fact as parents it ought to be our goal. As they mature our kids should become less and less dependent upon us as they develop into competent, functioning members of society in their own right.
I think, though, that we have mistakenly assumed that our heavenly Father has the same goal for each of us . In reality becoming mature spiritually means recognizing more and more how completely dependent I am upon God. So to be more accurate about my goal in raising our boys I would say it’s that they would become less dependent on me and learn to be more dependent on God.
We talk in our church circles about how Jesus will take a broken life and make it whole. What we miss in teaching that truth is that wholeness is not intended to make us self-sufficient. In fact to maintain our wholeness we must continue to accept our brokenness. Even in heaven, though we will be made perfect, perfection will be in that we will recognize and embrace our perpetual, complete, and total neediness and exist in perfect dependence on God to meet that neediness and thereby be perpetually, completely, and totally whole.
It’s sort of like a person who has been diagnosed as bipolar. Bipolar disorder causes a person to have extreme and uncontrollable mood swing, sometimes resulting in dangerous behavior towards themselves and others. This disorder is controllable through drug treatment, but is incurable. If a person quits taking the drugs because that person feels like he or she is fine, the symptoms slowly return. Unfortunately the person often doesn’t believe they still need the drugs and end up fully consumed by the disorder again.
I expect that some of you reading this may resent that God would demand our dependence. But the way God created us is that in dependant relationship with him all our needs would be satisfied. The resentment goes back to Satan’s challenge. He didn’t claim to be stronger than God, just that he didn’t need God; that he could be his own God. Trying to live out that claim, in him and in us, always leads to chaos and destruction. As long as you pursue Satan’s lie you will remain broken. As long as you acknowledge your brokenness Jesus will keep you whole.
I can find amusement in some of the oddest places. One of the fun things about being in front of a congregation is watching them during the service. I get to see all kinds of things from you all that make me laugh, almost right out loud at times. Like at weddings when I speak from Ephesians chapter five. You know the “wives submit to your husbands . . .” thing. Some of the looks you ladies give, and the elbow jabbing from the men, too funny. But that’s because we don’t know what submission to God looks like in everyday life.
Paul starts with the wives (personally I think he started with the women because he knew they would listen better than the men) but then tells the husbands to love their wives in the same way that Christ loved the church. How was that? He submitted himself to serve our needs ahead of his own. One author put it this way; in following Christ’s example, husbands and wives, we are to spend our lives for the wellbeing of our spouse at any cost to ourselves.
This truth actually goes even farther; this passage begins by telling us all to submit to one another as a way of honouring God (vs. 21). Husbands and wives are the illustration that Paul uses to make his point. What he is telling us is that submission to God is expressed by submission to others. We like to think that if we go to church, and give our offering, and don’t lie or cheat or steal etc. we are submitting to God. Reality is that our level of submission to God is measured by how we submit to the people around us.
Now I can hear all sorts of resistance this; “But you don’t know what this person in my life is like,” and “if I don’t stand up for my rights I will get walked all over.” If you study the life of Jesus, I don’t think you can ever say that of him. Even about his death he said that no one can take his life from him, but that he chose to lay it down, again, in submission to the Father, expressed as service to us. As a result the Son brought honour to the Father and the Father honoured the Son. We have the same opportunity, if we will choose to serve others in submission to God.