May God raise up a generation that loves this story more than all others.
May God raise up a generation that loves this story more than all others.
At the suggestion of my friend, Blake Holmes, I’ve been rereading The Pilgrim’s Progress. Blake mentioned to me this Summer that the book is the most accurate depiction of the spiritual life available. It’s been decades since I read it, and like any good book, you see things differently with each reading. John Bunyan’s fantasy story about a man, named Christian, who goes on a journey is an allegory for the spiritual life. It begins with one of the greatest opening lines:
“As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept I dreamed a Dream.”
I love this passage from Christian’s journey that deals with differing approaches to the spiritual life–law and grace:
Then he took him by the hand, and led him into a very large Parlour that was full of dust, because never swept; the which after he reviewed a little while, the Interpreter called for a man to sweep. Now when he began to sweep, the dust began so abundantly to fly about, that Christian had almost therewith been choked. Then said the Interpreter to a Damsel that stood by, Bring hither the Water, and sprinkle the Room; the which when she had done, it was swept and cleansed with pleasure.
CHR. Then said Christian, What means this?
INTER: The interpreter answered, This parlour is the heart of man that was never sanctified by the sweet grace of the Gospel: the dust of his Original Sin and inward Corruptions, that have defiled the whole man. He that began to sweep at first is the Law; but she that brought water, and did sprinkle it, is the Gospel. Now, whereas thou sawest that so soon as the first began to sweep, the dust did so fly about the Room by him could not be cleansed, but that thou was almost choked therewith; that is to shew thee, that the Law, instead of cleansing the heart (by its working) from sin, doth revive, put strength into, and increase it in the soul, even as it doth discover and forbid it, for it doth not give power to subdue.
Again, as thou sawest the Damsel sprinkle the room with Water, upon which it was cleansed with pleasure; this is to shew thee, that when the Gospel comes in the sweet and precious influences thereof to the heart, then I say, even as thou sawest the Damsel lay the dust by sprinkling the floor with Water, so is sin vanquished and subdued, and the soul made clean, through the faith of it, and consequently fit for the King of Glory to inhabit.
Some of you grew up in churches or religious movements that were steeped in Law and external morality. You found them to be stifling and powerless to change your heart. You felt condemned and suffocated because Law only stirs up sin but cannot remove it.
There is another way called Grace. The Gospel of Grace brings freedom and pleasure. It does not wink at sin, but deals with it by a powerful and deep cleansing, extending even to the hard to reach corners and the tiny cracks of your heart. And, best of all, this cleansing was not just for your joy and your goodness (though these are certainly true), but it was also done that you might share it with the King of Glory, who comes to live with you.
Did you grow up in a church or movement that was centered on Law rather than Grace? What was it like when you discovered Grace? Is Grace still having it’s way in your heart? Have you read The Pilrgim’s Progress? Thoughts?
I wrap up this three part series (read Part 1 & Part 2 here) with a look at how one hero of the faith describes his own journey from chasing the fleeting shadows of self to resting in the stronger shadow of God.
It is an act of grace that God reveals himself and awakens us to his goodness and his glory. The following quote is from Augustine (354-430). He is clearly drawing on Psalm 36, which is the same psalm that we explored in Part 2, and he answers the question: what is it like to hide yourself in God?
“The soul of men shall hope under the shadow of Thy wings; they shall be made drunk with the fullness of Thy house, and of the torrents of Thy pleasures Thou wilt give them to drink; for in Thee is the fountain of Life, and in Thy Light shall we see the light? Give me a man in love: he knows what I mean. Give me one who yearns; give me one who is hungry; give me one far away in this desert, who is thirsty and sighs for the Spring of the Eternal country. Give me that sort of man: he knows what I mean. But if I speak to a cold man, he just does not know what I am talking about…” *
God’s grace is a magical, mysterious, hope-drenched wonder. When we limit it to mere doctrine or morality or religiosity or family heritage or common sense, we can never capture what Augustine describes here. Augustine is forced to use comparisons to make his point. He says that you will know what it is like if you know what it means to be in love; or know what means to thirst in the desert; or know what it is like to ache and groan for a better world. The cold or dispassionate or guarded man won’t get it; he will never comprehend what it means to be overwhelmingly satisfied by God. There is a delight with God that is greater than our proper demeanor. To speak of being drunk on the fullness of God’s house is a uncontainable joy. In our legal circles, people who are drunk on alcohol are said to be “under the influence.” When God’s grace enters our lives, it also exerts its influence on us but to a much better end.
(By the way, if you were hung up on word drunk, you have likely missed the point.)
The following verses tell us how we come to know this love:
The order is important–God loves us and leads us first. Reverse the order, and you are doomed. In both verses, God initiates, and we respond. Functionally, however, many of us live as though we are the cause of God’s love and kindness. Mistakenly, we think that our repentance leads to God’s kindness, and we act as though our love to God earns his love in return. If we think this way, we will find ourselves saying things like “if I get this decision right, then God will bless me” or “if I devote myself to this good cause, then God will give me peace.” Of course, such thinking will stress you out. How will you know when you have loved God enough to earn his love in return? How will you determine when you’ve achieved enough good in the world to merit his care and affection? But take it the other way round (the way the Bible teaches it), and your outlook will be much better.
Grace is about the good we receive from God. 1 Corinthians 4:7 was very significant in Augustine’s thinking on this issue. This single verse helped to change his entire paradigm of the spiritual life. It says, “What do you have that you have not received? If then you received it, why then do you boast as if you did not receive it?” The verse is saying that there is nothing naturally in you that makes you better than anyone else. It is all of grace. If you are more mature or more faithful or more missional or more passionate or more moral, it is only because you have received something good from God. The verse is a mighty ax swinging away at our pride. What good do you possess that you did not receive from God? Answer: nothing at all.
In his Confessions, Augustine describes his journey from rebellion to surrender. He insists that his rescue was not found in an act of his own will or wisdom. Instead, it was God’s work within Augustine that brought about the change.
“During all those years [of rebellion], where was my free will? What was the hidden, secret place from which it was summoned in a moment, so that I might bend my neck to your easy yoke?” **
The answer to these rhetorical questions is obvious: his will did not help him find Jesus. Yet, God burst into Augustine’s heart to change his life forever.
“How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose!…You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than pleasure, though not to flesh and blood, you who outshine all light, yet are hidden deeper than any secret in our hearts, you who surpass all honor, though not in the eyes of men who see all honor in themselves…O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation.” ***
When Ultimate Joy comes to us, our happy response is to enjoy this greater joy and to let our little joys go. That is why Christians so often speak of surrender. It is not that we, being smarter and better than others, have searched for and discovered something great. Instead, something great has come to us, and we surrendered ourselves to it.
This is what grace is all about. God comes to us, not because of our goodness but in spite of our badness. We see this in the cross of Christ, who became sin for us and died for us: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Jesus lovingly took the bad that we deserved, and we received the good that he deserved.
When you know grace like this, you want to shout like an Olympian who won a gold medal when he deserved to lose. The gospel is such good news that you never recover from it. It marks all of your life. It reorients all of your life. It fuels all of your life.
Whenever people have lost a sense of wonder and awe about the gospel, the church has lost it’s way. One of the times when the church especially seemed to drift away from the gospel of grace was in the centuries prior to the Reformation. People began to depend more on their own goodness and religiosity than on the grace of God, and the church suffered. This is why the Reformation caused such a stir. The issue wasn’t that a few theologians slightly tweaked some doctrinal stances or religious rituals. No, the Reformation was a recovery of the sense of worship and passion that overtakes a man when he knows the grace that comes through the cross of Jesus. The renewed exaltation of the true gospel was a shock and awe attack on the religion of the day. For those that experienced it, it was a joyous revolt against the tyranny of false religion, and such a revolution of God’s grace deserved a great celebration.
I love the way Robert Farrar Capon describes it: ****
In our day, I pray that we will be increasingly overcome by the gospel. This is the only way forward. May we drink deeply of God’s grace. Like the prodigal that returns home to his father’s hug and excessive celebration, may we always treasure the gospel party thrown by the one who is our Ultimate Joy.
Have you ever really tasted this grace? How does this understanding of grace shape your life? Are you living with a sense of awe and wonder at the gospel?
LINKS TO SERIES:
CHASING SHADOWS, PART 1: FLEETING SHADOWS
CHASING SHADOWS, PART 2: GOD’S SHADOW
CHASING SHADOWS, PART 3: OVERCOME BY GRACE
* Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, pp.374-375 (Tractatus in Joannis Evangelium, 26,4).
** Aurelius Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1961), p.181 (IX,1). NOTE: I think that originally saw this quote and the quote that follows in something that John Piper wrote, but my books are in boxes from our recent relocation so I’m unable to find the quote.
**** Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon & Three: Romance, Law & the Outrage of Grace (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996).
In part one, I shared a video of my daughter chasing her shadow and wrote about the fleeting shadows of earthly pursuits that never fully satisfy or delight us. We feel we are close to joy, but we can’t quite catch it. In part two, I will point you to the only antidote to our shadow problem.
Use your imagination for a moment. I was tempted to shoot another video of my daughter to introduce this post, but I would have changed things around this time. In the video from part one, she was chasing her shadow. This time, I imagined that she would run away from her shadow. As hard as she would try, it would always follow. Just as we cannot run after our shadows to catch them, neither can we run away from our shadows to escape them. They chase after us.
Of course, we can no more run away from our sinfulness than we can run away from our shadows. We seek to escape sin through greater determination. We try to identify our sin patterns and avoid situations in which we commonly sin. In spite of our greatest efforts, the reality is that we can’t do it, and our striving leaves us tired and frustrated. The only way to escape the shadow of sin is to hide yourself in a stronger shadow.
Have you ever had the experience of seeing a small shadow swallowed up by a larger shadow? In the plains of Oklahoma where I grew up, if you stand on a small rise in the fields, you can see forever. In the hot afternoon summer’s sun, even a scrub oak can cast a long shadow. When the wind blows clouds in overhead, you can see them coming for miles. They drop a dark shadow on the prairie that marches over everything beneath. When the line of clouds approaches, the long shadow of the trees vanish. The smaller shadows simply disappear into the larger shadow of the clouds.
When we run into the strong shadow of God’s presence, we forget about the fleeting shadows of our lives. Psalm 36 says, “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (italics mine).
This is good news. God is available to us and ready to be our joy and our comfort and our protector. What is astounding is that his care is motivated by genuine love for us. He’s not some distant relative begrudgingly mailing us checks from a giant trust fund in the sky. He engages us because he wants to. His comfort and protection are not earned by our goodness or performance or wisdom. Instead, they originate in God’s love. He’s the initiator who offers joy and care to us even as a bird cares for her young before they can leave the nest.
My fear, for some of us, is that we tend to sentimentalize this verse. We make it sugary and sweet. We imagine our moms cross-stitching this verse and putting it on the wall above the toilet in the guest bathroom. This is a Christian-bookstore-coffee-mug sort of verse. And it should be, but only if we truly comprehend the good it offers to us.
There are a couple of obstacles that may cause us to minimize the power of this verse. The first is the word “precious.” When I hear this word, I go in one of two directions and neither of them helps me grasp the magnitude of God’s love. In my mind, precious is either: (1) the creepy and hyper-possessive hiss from Gollum in Lord of the Rings (of course, this may be a personal problem resulting from the fact that my boys are reading LOTR and like to talk like Gollum), or (2) the most common term applied by 16 year old girls to describe pictures of kittens on Facebook. Nevertheless, God’s love is precious, and we need to discover why.
The second obstacle is the idea of “taking refuge.” In a society that exalts independence, strength, and success, we’d rather pretend that things are just fine. Strong dudes and dames don’t like to run and hide, but the gospel says to proud people: “you are desperately in need of rescue.” Sin is a tyrant bent on enslaving you. Underestimate the strength of your enemy, and you will not seek refuge.
THE STRONG SHADOW OF GOD
If you dismiss the refuge of God as mere sentimentality, you will miss the point. The preceding verses (Psalm 36:5-7) show us the strength of this hiding place:
Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;
your judgments are like the great deep;
man and beast you save, O Lord.
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
Our God is not weak, and this is not mere sentimental love. This is an enormous, expansive, explosive kind of love. Look again at the images used. God’s love “extends to the heavens”–that’s unsearchable. His righteousness is “like the mountains of God”–that’s unshakable. His judgments are “like the great deep”–that’s unfathomable. His protection is big enough for every “man and beast”–that’s immeasurable. God’s love and goodness and care are beyond description. Nothing in our experience can be compared to his majesty, and his majesty. *
Have you piled up sins higher and higher?
God’s mercy extends to the heavens!
Have storms clouds rolled into your life?
God’s faithfulness dwells amongst the clouds!
Have the consequences of sin blown you around?
God’s goodness is stronger than mountains!
Have the opinions of men beaten you down?
God’s thoughts are as deep as the ocean!
Have doubts about God’s care left you lonely?
God’s love reaches to the ends of the earth!
It is only in God that we find the perfect combination of vastness and intimacy. He is bigger than Mt. Everest and, at the same time, more personal than a bird in a nest with her young. God is both “out there” beyond us and “right here” with us. Theologically, we say that God is simultaneously transcendent (above his creation) and immanent (engaged in his creation). We hold on to both of these truths. If you are in Christ, you are personally, gently hidden under the wings of God who holds the entire universe together with his immense power.
C.H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) writes of God’s care:
“The Lord overshadows his people as a hen protects her brood, or as an eagle covers its young; and we as little ones run under the blessed shelter and feel at rest. To cower down under the wings of God is so sweet. Although the enemy be far too strong for us, we have no fear, for we nestle under the Lord’s wing. O that more of Adam’s race knew the excellency of the heavenly shelter! It made Jesus weep to see how they refused it: our tears may well lament the same evil.” **
It is a foolish evil to refuse the care of God. He wants to bring joy to us. Why would we turn away from him and search elsewhere? Simply stated, sin is our effort to find joy in something more than we find joy in God. Jesus knew this was futile, and he wept for those who attempted life without God.
To take refuge in our God is both humbling and reassuring.*** It is humbling because we must acknowledge that we are not self-sufficient, and, in fact, our attempts at self-sufficiency have put us in grave danger. It is reassuring because we are offered a place of refuge that is as strong as it is good.
If we will not humble ourselves and take refuge in God, then we will continue to deceive ourselves with the idea that we can manage sin on our own. While this path inevitably ends in defeat and despair, the refuge road leads to deliverance and delight in God. We overcome sin as we delight in God’s love, delight in God’s strength, delight in God’s protection, delight in God’s grace, delight in God’s provision, delight in God’s mission.
LEARNING TO DELIGHT IN OUR REFUGE
Psalm 36 goes on to say of those that take refuge in God (vs. 8-9):
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light do we see light.
I love that our place of refuge is not somber and fearful. No, it’s a place of overflowing goodness. When we take refuge in God, we celebrate a great feast as sons and daughters of the Most High King. He offers us unending drink from the best wine. What comfort that our God is not a tyrannical God! What joy that our God longs to share with us the river of his delights!
When we sin, the problem is not that our delights are too strong. In fact, they are wrong-headed and weak. We are tempted to settle for delights of our own making, when heavenly delights await us. To take refuge in God is to repent from little delights to embrace the enormous delight in God. It’s the greatest swap meet of all: trading the shallow, short-lived mini-joys of our lives for the deep, forever joy of God.
As Jesus’ work of redemption works itself out in our lives, may we hide the fleeting shadows of our sin under the trustworthy and eternal Shadow of the Almighty.
What about this post resonates with you? Do you find is difficult to set aside the fleeting pursuits you are drawn to seek? How committed are you to seek refuge in God? Do you find it difficult to believe that God is the greatest joy?
LINKS TO SERIES:
CHASING SHADOWS, PART 1: FLEETING SHADOWS
CHASING SHADOWS, PART 2: GOD’S SHADOW
CHASING SHADOWS, PART 3: OVERCOME BY GRACE
* Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72 (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975): Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Ed. D. J. Wiseman.
** Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Vol 1: Psalms 1-57 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974).
*** Kidner, Ibid.
On the road with the family, we stopped at a hotel. Not a great hotel, but a recently opened and reasonably priced chain joint just off the highway. We crowded into the room–Nan and me with our two nine year old boys, our six year old boy, and our two year old little gal. After ten hours in the car, the kids did the most logical thing they could, which was to jump on the beds. This game was followed by stacking every pillow, chair and sofa cushion in the room to create a tower high enough that they could reach the ceiling. It was sort of a miniature tower of Babel right there in our room. With all the fun going on, little Kate yells over her brothers’ laughs and asks, “This our new home? This our new home?”
Apparently, Kate thought this was where we would live. This was home, and she was as excited as she could be about it. It made us all laugh, but it also got me to thinking. In Kate’s young mind, the highest value was being together. To share a single room with mom and dad and her brothers was the best possible world. Jumping on beds and building pillow towers put it way beyond her greatest dreams.
After a full-day of driving and unloading all of our stuff, I had been a little on the grumpy side. The room was fine for our one night stay, but it definitely did not feel like “home.” Kate’s perspective reminded me that sometimes I need to rethink the way I am looking at things.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve been thinking deeply about what it means that we have a joyful God. It’s been a good reminder for me that is shifting my perspective. I’m not talking about the theological categorizing of God in my mind. If you would have asked me several weeks ago if God was a God of joy, I’m sure I would have thought about it and answered in the affirmative, but I wasn’t fully appreciating the joyfulness of God in my day-to-day outlook.
There are many verses about joy in the Bible. We are commanded to “rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice” (Phil 4:4). He says it twice just in case we are a little slow. We are even told to “Count it all joy…when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). The Psalms tell us to “make a joyful noise to the Lord” (Ps 95, 98). You will find joy throughout the Bible. I could list verse after verse here, but I decided instead that I wanted to point you immediately to the place where joy may be found and then share a few implications for us to consider.
When God Enters the Room, Joy Comes with Him
The Bible tells us that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5). These are the character qualities that are produced in us when the Spirit of God invades our lives. Just as a particular kind of seed will only yield fruit that is appropriate to that seed, we yield the fruit of the Spirit that has been planted in us. One aspect of the fruit is “joy.” Each aspect of the fruit of the spirit is important, but I’m going to focus only on joy.
What this means is that when God the Holy Spirit is present, joy will also be present. When God enters the room, joy comes with him. Think about that for a minute: wherever God is, joy is. When you let that truth take root in your heart and mind, it ought to shift your perspective.
People have all kinds of thoughts about God–some good and some bad. Part of maturing in the faith is casting off false thoughts about God and replacing them with true thoughts about God. However you tend to feel or think about God, you must now consider him to be a joyful God.
Faith in the Joyful God Makes Us Joyful
We also need to understand what this means for us. When we believe the joyful God, we are made joyful. Scripture says (1 Peter 1:8-9):
Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Are you overflowing with inexpressible joy? When you are convinced that the most beautiful and glorious and good and holy and joyful and eternal being in the universe has come to you in love and grace, you can’t help but laugh at the joyous comedy of your good fortune. To make it downright hysterical, our God of Joy will eventually shove sorrow out of the way and shower us with a forever kind of joy: “Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35).*
Though this joy is open to all, far too many people will not know this joy. We live in an often faithless, sarcastic and cynical time. The harsh reality is that those who snub, reject and deny the Joyful God will miss out on his forever joy. Rather, they fill their lives with temporary mini-joys that fade as quickly as they spring up. Giving testimony to the law of diminishing returns, they live in search of the next fix of mini-joy to bring a smile to their face. This is joy with a short shelf-life. But there is a stronger and deeper and better Joy.
For followers of Jesus, our spiritual development is in learning to exchange the mini-joys with the Ultimate Joy. Augustine described his journey from mini-joys to True Joy in his Confessions:
“How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose…! You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure…O Lord my God, my Wealth, and my Salvation.”**
This joy is a gift that God gives in his grace to us. Our God specializes in bringing the light of joy into dark places, and even when tough times come, our faith gives us hope for the ultimate vindication of joy (Psalm 30:5,11):
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
you have loosed my sackcloth
and clothed me with gladness.
When Joy Has Its Way
This brings to mind so many thoughts about the implications that faith in a joyful God might have for us. What would this mean for our churches? for our blogs? for our songs? for our testimonies? for our marriages? for our parenting? for our friendship? I’ve even wondered about how our embracing God’s joy might change the chemistry of our brains.
Ancient wisdom from Proverbs reminds us: “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Prov 17:22).
Would you stop for a minute and identify one arena where you need to let the God of joy disrupt your life? What is one thing that would change if your perspective shifted to faith in the Joyful God? Where should God-given joy begin to burst into your world?
Reminders of Joy
I recently came across a line in a book that stuck with me: the writer spoke of a man who received “another chance to face the sky.”*** I love the optimism and openness of this image. It is helping me to think differently about my days. A day is not something to be unwillingly trudged though or unwittingly trifled away. Today is a unique gift to be enjoyed, and there will never be another day just like it. When I wake, I remind myself that today is another chance to face the expanse of the sky. This helps divert my eyes from the troubles and details of the coming hours. It directs my attention to a universe that is bigger than I can comprehend, and more than that, it directs my attention to the God who made it all.
Each day is an opportunity to look with eyes of faith on the God who paints the sky blue and drops migratory puffs of white across its canvas. In case we are tempted to miss his glory in the sky, this Joyful God begins and ends each day with a warm soup of feathery yellows and blood reds and butterfly oranges and eggplant purples all blended together perfectly. The sky cries out to us morning and evening: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalms 118:24).
Of course, you could keep collecting mini-joys only to discard them as yesterdays toys; you could hold on to your hurt or bitterness or cynicism; and you could let your doubts rule the day.
Or, you might try a change in perspective.
As for me, I want to live for the Joyful God, squeezing joy into every minute I can. I want to enjoy every chance to face the sky that my Lord gives to me until the day I come face-to-face with Joy himself. My hope is fixed on that day, when the torrent of goodness and glory that washes me will overwhelm me with indescribable joy.
* For a wonderful look at the God who brings joy, read all of Isaiah 35.
** Aurelius Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1961). Quoted in John Piper, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000) 19.
*** Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time (New York: First Mariner Books, 2006).
I recently ran across two resources that I wanted to pass along to you as you prepare your heart to mourn on Good Friday and to celebrate on Easter Sunday. It is this combination of mourning and celebration together that gives our worship mystery and beauty and power. Like no other events in human history, Christ’s death and resurrection fuse suffering and rejoicing, rejection and glory, tragedy and comedy. If we are to celebrate fully, we need to enter into both sides of the Easter event–the death and the resurrection.
The Kind of Relationship God Wants with You
For me, the best way for me to reflect on all that the cross and resurrection mean is to place myself within the true story of the Bible. One way to do this is to consider the wedding imagery the Bible uses to describe our relationship with God.
The wedding is one of the most powerful and poignant images the Bible utilizes. Marriage is rightfully a relationship shared between a husband and wife who have devoted themselves exclusively to one another. When I perform a wedding ceremony, we speak of the importance of the covenant relationship, of two becoming one, of an inseparable union. Then, the bride and groom exchange rings as an announcement to the whole world that these two are committed to one another only.
God chose the most intimate human relationship, marriage, as the example of the type of relationship he wants to have with us. Like a groom, he initiates and pursues and woos. He declares his loyal love for his people, in spite of all their brokenness. And he calls us to respond to him in loyal love and faithfulness.
Unfortunately, God’s people have often had divided hearts which led to spiritual unfaithfulness. God’s jealousy burns strong for his beloved bride, even as she commits spiritual adultery. Where she is false, he remains true. His loyal-love is strong in spite of her weakness.
Nowhere in the Bible is this picture displayed more clearly than in the Old Testament prophet of Hosea. In this book, Hosea is commanded by God to marry a woman who would prostitute herself to others in spite of Hosea’s faithfulness.
My friends at Irving Bible Church, have captured a contemporary version of Hosea’s story in a powerful series of six short films. They total less than 20 minutes of viewing. These shorts stirred my mind and my heart, so I wanted to post them here. I’ve included some of my thoughts and questions to help you process as you watch. My hope is that the films will pull you into the story of love, betrayal, and redemption. This was the story of Hosea. This is our story too.
#1 – The Covenant Love of God (Hosea 1 – 2:1):
To think about: Have you ever entered into a personal relationship with God? What does it mean that God pursues you like a faithful groom pursues his bride? Have you ever considered that every beautiful love story the world has ever known pales in comparison to the great love of God? Can you imagine betraying a love like that?
#2 – The Tough Love of God (Hosea 2:1-13):
To think about: We all have divided hearts. In what specific ways have you allowed your heart to be divided and distracted from your love of God? God is a jealous God who wants your whole heart. The Bible says that God disciplines those he loves. Are you experiencing God’s tough love that wants you to come home?
#3 – The Tender Love of God (Hosea 2:14-23):
To think about: Do you see areas where you have betrayed the love of God? Have you become attached to lesser loves that will never satisfy you fully and forever? God is patient and slow to anger and abounding in loyal love for those that are his. Will you receive the mercy and forgiveness that he offers to you when you have strayed?
#4 – The Redeeming Love of God (Hosea 3):
To think about: Do you sense God calling you to let go of false loves and come home? What biblical truth can you depend on even when you don’t feel God’s presence? How do you know that he loves you (hint: the cross says he loves you no matter what)? God’s redemption is not based on our goodness, but on Jesus’ goodness. He knows all the bad we’ve done, and he comes to redeem us anyway. Will you accept that redemption?
#5 – The Love of God: Our Response (Hosea 6):
To think about: Have you decided? The choice is yours. His love is greater than your brokenness. Is it hard for you to trust a grace like this? Does your past or your hurt keep you from trusting God’s love? What would it take for you to have faith in God’s redeeming love?
#6 – The Relentless Love of God (Hosea 14):
To think about: Are you dealing with the consequences of your bad choices? Do your circumstances make it hard for you to believe in an unfailing love? What does it mean that God loves you in spite of your sinfulness? Can you–right now and in this moment–trust the relentless love of God that came for you?
What does Hosea have to do with Easter?
The true story of Easter is this: we were created by God who loved us deeply, but we did not love him in return. Instead of enjoying him as he intended, we betrayed him and gave ourselves to lesser lovers. Though we deserved to be cast out and abandoned, he came to rescue us. Putting himself in our place on the cross, Jesus took our punishment, our suffering, and our death. But the tragedy of his death turned into the comedy of new life. Everything turned upside down. Pain was really payment, loss was really gain, dying was really salvation. When Jesus rose from the dead and rolled away the stone, our entire world reversed course. Those who were guilty were righteous. Those who were doubters believed. Those who denied him began to proclaim him. Those who had run away returned home. Those who rebelled renewed their relationship. Love was now sure, and hope was now certain. Easter changed everything. And it still changes everything for those who believe.
Wherever you find yourself in the Easter story, Jesus’ death and resurrection are strong enough for you. May you trust and treasure Jesus more than ever.
If you would like to think more on this…
My friend, Jason Johnson, had an excellent post this week on Easter and the Great Wedding to Come. This gives a biblical / theological look at the marriage imagery and our connection with God. I’d encourage you to give it a read as you continue to reflect on this amazing relationship God offers to us. We have much to look forward to.
If we knew up front everything Jesus meant when he said “follow me,” we probably would have run away.
Imagine, for example, if Jesus had spelled everything out to Peter when he offered the “How to Become My Disciple” sales pitch: “Peter, here’s what I have in mind for you. You can follow me, and all of this will come true: I will accuse you of being Satan; I will announce your failures in advance to all your colleagues; I will ask you to stay awake with me during sleepless nights of blood-producing work; I will have a team member confront your ineptitude and record it for all to see as a part of your permanent public record; eventually I will ask you to give up your life in excruciating death to demonstrate your loyalty to our mission. So, Peter, how about it? Are you in?” If I’m Peter, I’m politely declining and throwing my nets into the water on the other side of the boat.
But Jesus doesn’t spell it all out for us. He just says, “Follow me.” If this were a job offer, it would feel more than a little vague. But Peter, and many more, followed Jesus anyway.
In theological terms, we speak of irresistible grace as God’s call on us and His influence in our hearts to make us something new. We choose to follow Jesus, but we would not do so unless God reached into our hearts and got to work. I think we need irresistible grace because irresistible trials do not exist. I can easily resist a trial or test. These are difficult struggles, and I avoid them whenever I can. Trials are to be endured when necessary, but never sought out. People that seek out trials are usually in need of medication.
When especially tough trials come my way, it can feel like Jesus didn’t adhere to industry standards or best practices for honesty in recruitment. In these moments, I think, “Jesus, this is not the plan that I thought we had worked out together.” But I’m growing to see it differently.
An Open-Ended Commitment
Jesus gives a simple “follow me” as both an invitation and a command. It’s a command, because he is our king who has come to lead. It’s an invitation, because he is our Rescuer who has come to save. This invitation-command is open-ended. He does not tell us where we are going. It’s not a follow me from Point A to Point B on the map. The invitation-command to “follow me” carries an implied meaning of follow me (wherever I go). When we respond positively to Jesus’ call, as Peter did, we stand ready to follow Jesus anywhere. So, our commitment to follow is also open-ended. We aren’t certain of where the path leads. We just know that we’ve committed to go.
In this sense, it’s like marriage. When people get married, they commit to be together. They stand up in front of friends and family and make vows to one another saying “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” These are open-ended commitments. We are promising to remain faithful no matter what. But let’s be honest. How many young couples have any idea what they are committing to when they make these promises? I love my wife and have a wonderful marriage. But the truth is that, when we married, Nan had no idea what the “worse” parts of my life would be. We said for richer or poorer, but we only imagined the richer. When she said “in sickness and in health,” she had no idea that one day we’d have three kids under the age of four when I had surgery and could not walk or drive for two months. We make bold statements of unconditional love on our wedding day, but the fullest understanding and deepest joy of those commitments comes only through many years of experiencing life together.
In the same way, we come to understand more deeply what following Jesus means through the experiences of life. Wisely, Jesus doesn’t detail every hardship up front. He simply bids us come, and then he gives us grace that carries us day-by-day. Our job is to follow him in what is right in front of us.
Open-ended commitments can be scary. Would you sign a contract to buy a house with an open blank on the line for sales price? Of course not. We have been taught to negotiate contracts to make sure there are no surprises. This is what makes open-ended commitments so frightening: you can’t negotiate the unknown.
A Relational Commitment
This is also what makes all open-ended commitments relational at their core. You can’t be sure of what lies ahead, but you can make sure you know who you are with. This is why the one who says, “Follow me,” also says, “I am with you always.” We have confidence for the road ahead because we know Jesus goes with us. When we begin to see this, our journey becomes less about the road ahead more about the companion at our side.
Growing up, we used to sing: “Wherever he leads, I’ll go.” Ultimately, that’s the commitment we make when we decide to follow Jesus. I copied below the page out of my grandmother’s old hymnal. The song still works.
Can you honestly sing (or say) the words to “Wherever He Leads I’ll Go”? Is there anything that causes you to hesitate or doubt?