Words are awesome, aren’t they? What a great idea God had, and how I long to do justice to the linguistic ability He gave us humans by becoming more articulate and more precise in my communication. Of course, the world is designed to distort our usage of words. People are often too vague, like the sign I saw that said, “LOTS FOR SALE.” I saw another that said “HUGE TRUCK SALE,” but I didn’t stop because I was looking for a small pickup. At dinner someone said, “I’m not a big tomato fan,” so I said, “Do you like little ones?” And what about when people say, “That’s the least I can do for you.” Excuse me, but nothing is the least you can do for someone.
Speaking of maturity, which the last paragraph may not have been, I cringe to think that when I next write this column, I will be a sexagenarian. No, that’s not a highly reproductive alien life form, nor is it a new political party. The term means “a person between 60 and 69 years old.” I don’t cringe because I am becoming decrepit (I’m not, although I do now celebrate touching the basketball net instead of the rim), but because of how far I have to go in becoming like Jesus. So I guess I have two choices: (1) give up and regress, or (2) keep putting one spiritual foot in front of the other, and keep getting up when I fall. I’ll take Door Number Two. I’d like to think that my life is only half over, and that I’ll get the 120 years Moses had, with “his eyes not weak, nor his strength gone,” but suffice it to say that I’m hoping for many more productive years of serving the Lord—with you.
Speaking of hoping, I’ve realized that my perspective of The Hope is not like the Apostle Paul’s. He almost rabidly longed for it, whereas, although I intellectually recognize that I should feel that way, I’m not there in my heart. In fact, when I take time to ponder the idea of eternity—something that will never end, I get a little concerned. What’s the solution to my, or anyone’s apprehension of what will be—forever? What is the key to having an attitude like that described in Romans 8:23, where the NIV renders Paul’s words regarding what our anticipation of our new bodies should be as, “we wait eagerly”? I think the key is getting to know the Lord Jesus better and better—now. The more I know him, the more I will love him, and the more I love him, the more I will long to see him and be with him forever.
The Greek word translated “wait eagerly” in Romans 8:23 more literally means “anxious looking with outstretched head.” Think about that phrase, and picture yourself on a crowded big city sidewalk at the lunchtime pedestrian rush hour, standing in front of a restaurant waiting for the love of your life to meet you for a culinary mid-day tryst. You are on your tiptoes, craning your neck to see over the oncoming people, energized by your anticipation of being with the one you love. Question: if someone jostled you as he passed by, or even stepped on your toes, would you engage him in conversation and make a big deal out of it? I doubt it, because you’d be so focused on getting a glimpse of your beloved. Maybe if I can get to the place that I’m looking for Jesus with that intensity, I’ll spend less time worrying about comparatively insignificant “stuff.”
The analogy I love to use regarding waiting for someone you love is inspired by the many hours I’ve spent in airports around the world. As you may know, “shortly” is a terrifying word when used by airline personnel—as in, “Flight 123 will be taking off shortly.” A passengers attitude would be much better if they just said, “We’re never taking off. Plan to expire here in the lounge,” and then said, “Correction, we’re taking off in eleven hours.” After landing I’ve noticed many chauffeurs waiting to pick up their passengers. And I’ve noticed the difference between them and the man holding the roses waiting for his sweetheart.
The chauffeur is often somewhat disheveled, and unconcerned about it. He is slouching against a post holding a sign with the name of his passenger scrawled on it. Is he radiant with anticipation? Not usually. When the passenger sees the sign and starts toward him, does the chauffeur begin one of those slow-motion movie sprints toward the guy and sweep him up in a hug? No. But what about the man with the roses? He slicks back his hair, straightens his tie, and is riveted on the jetway exit door. When he sees his darling, his face beams, and he does do the slow-mo thing!
I think that Paul’s anticipation of Christ’s appearing was amplified by the horrendous circumstances that surrounded him, e.g., “I have been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea, and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles, in dangerfood; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:23-28). That’s a lot of danger.
Jesus had the same kind of opposition, and worse, because all of the Devil’s arsenal was aimed at him. As the Man, man’s Redeemer, he had to entrust his heart to his Father second by second, and that truth monumentally magnifies his accomplishments on our behalf. It also encourages us to believe what he said—that we can be and do likewise.
Lately I seem to be increasingly in touch with the indescribable suffering and anguish of humanity. The forces of evil continually wreak havoc upon mankind, the numeric majority of whom are helpless to resist them due to their lack of spiritual understanding. Why, even within the houses on one square block in the USA, the tattered hearts of men, women, and children bleed before the Lord. And we’re talking about an economically prosperous country where many Christians live. What about the rest of the world? Of course, in God’s sight, one human heart tainted by its internal sin nature is a tragedy, let alone that person’s circumstances. I don’t know how Jesus can get anything done when he must be sobbing constantly. Surely our hope of his appearing is his hope too.
Although in this column I am focusing on externally-imposed suffering rather than dealing with “the sin that dwells within us,” some excerpts from Larry Crabb’s book, Inside Out (which I highly recommend), are pertinent:
“An aching soul is evidence not of neurosis or spiritual immaturity, but of realism…There is no escape from an aching soul, only denial of it. The promise of one day being with Jesus in a perfect world is the Christian’s only hope for complete relief. Until then we either groan or pretend we don’t…Perhaps the anchor that enables people to weather life’s storms and grow through them is gratitude for what happened at the cross of Christ and passionate confidence in what will yet take place at His coming…[We must] resolutely bank everything on the coming of a nail-scarred Christ for His groaning but faithfully waiting people.”
Some suffering in my own life has helped to increase my awareness of not only the battle raging between good and evil, but how totally antithetical (that means “standing against one another”) they are. The stark contrast between good and evil, life and death, is blatantly apparent throughout life. Take the weather, for example. Think how fabulously rejuvenating is a gorgeous 75 degree day at a lake, with a light breeze, blue sky and a few fleecy clouds, and then compare that to a killer tornado that throws you, a herd of cows, and a gasoline tanker into the next county. Good and evil are so diametrically opposed that their everlasting coexistence is, by definition, impossible. One must prevail over the other.
And that is partly why three conversations I’ve had in the past few months about the same subject have stirred me deeply. The subject is theologically called “Universalism,” that is, that all human beings who have ever lived will eventually be redeemed by God and live forever. Yep, Saddam will be shooting pool with Moses. If your initial response is “Say what? What about [pick one of many verses],” I understand. But let’s briefly examine some of the arguments and ramifications of this teaching that definitely blurs the distinction between good and evil.
Among the basic verses used to “prove” this idea are 1 Timothy 2:4 (“God wants all men to be saved…”) and 2 Peter 3:9 (“He does not want anyone to perish…”), along with Romans 5:18 (“Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men”). Interestingly, 2 Peter 3:9 concludes with the words, “…but everyone to come to repentance,” and Romans 5:17 qualifies the “all men” of verse 18 as “those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness….” As in many verses, the “all” in verse 18 means all with distinction rather than all without exception. Clearly, “coming to repentance” and “receiving God’s provision” are choices that men make, and those choices determine their destiny.
That brings to my mind the fact that there are umpteen imperative verbs in the Bible, that is, a verb calling for a decision or action on the part of the one to whom it is spoken. Like: “Wake up,” “Get saved,” “Stop being a knucklehead,” “Learn the Word,” “Tell somebody about it,” etc. Maybe they are called “imperative” verbs because the one who uses them thinks it is imperative, i.e., urgent, that they be obeyed. Scripture makes it plain that the hearer could choose to “Just say no,” as countless biblical characters did.
In that light, let’s think about the relationship among the following terms: love, freedom, responsibility, accountability, justice, and judgment. True love requires freedom of will, and that is how God sovereignly chose to enter into relationship with mankind. He did not make us robots, programmed to do His will, but gave us genuine free will, that is, the ability to choose for ourselves whether to obey or disobey Him. He wanted our love for Him to be real, and to come from our hearts in response to His love for us.
Freedom requires responsibility, that is, the ability to act independently and make decisions. To be “responsible” means that you are “liable to be called to account.” So responsibility goes hand-in-hand with accountability, which is to take responsibility for either the benefits or the consequences of your choices. Justice means “fair or appropriate treatment” for one’s choices and actions, and, almost by definition, that requires judgment, that is, an appraisal based upon a standard.
If God were in control of everything, as many Christians believe, how could He genuinely reward people for obeying Him? If their choices were actually already determined according to some pre-existing master plan, how could God hold anyone responsible for their actions and either reward or punish them?
Scripture is very clear that a man’s choice of good brings him rewards and his choice of evil brings him consequences. “The wages of sin is death,” and “death” means the absence of life. As Jesus’ example shows us, the only “cure” for death is resurrection. Although Revelation 21:8 calls the Lake of Fire “the second death,” and although no verse says anything about a resurrection from that death, and although Malachi 4:1 says that the wicked will be burned up and be no more, Universalism teaches that the Lake of Fire is actually a place of purging and cleansing, and that those who are thrown in it will one day crawl out of this pyrotechnic bath righteous, and probably really tan.
Whoa! That doesn’t sound like them “receiving” righteousness, as per Romans 5:17, does it? It sounds like they have no choice, and, furthermore, that the choices they did make during their lifetimes to be evil and oppose God have no real consequences. Isn’t that a slap in the face of Jesus Christ, whose agonizing torture and death—the only way to make available righteousness as a free gift for those who choose it—is thereby rendered meaningless? Why did he go through all that if those who reject him and work for the Devil end up with the same benefits as those who stand for him and even give their lives in the process? It makes no sense, but worse, it flies in the face of the Word of God. Evil is very real, and those who exercise their free will to choose it will pay the ultimate price. God cannot lie, nor will He be mocked.
Obviously, we are now on the brink of a major discussion encompassing deep issues like: If God is good, how can there be a Devil? Is God sovereign? Does God have absolute foreknowledge? Why doesn’t God stop all bad things from happening? Why do bad things happen to good people? Is God in any way responsible for evil or suffering? Is everything that happens God’s will? Maybe someone should write a book about this stuff. Oh yeah, we did. And if you do not have (or have not recently read) Don’t Blame God!, I sure hope you will get it and dig into it. We do not claim that it will answer all your questions, but, for us, it leaves the fewest questions unanswered. Or you can get your answers from the jogger who passed me from behind this morning while I was briskly walking.
He: “Looks like you’re doing the right exercise.”
I: “I’d rather be running like you, but my body somehow got torqued, and I can’t right now.”
He: “Well, that happens with age. God is trying to tell us something.”
My reply of “Oh, it’s not God doing it” may have been Dopplered into the atmosphere as he pulled away from me. What’s he know, anyway—I’m the sexagenarian (almost).
Now where do you think that guy came up with the idea that God, who is love, who created everything perfect, and who sent His Son to heal everyone he could, has nothing better to do than afflict one of His kids? And what would it be that God is trying to tell me — “Hey, take it easy or I’ll remove a limb”?
If my heart burns with desire for people to let God tell them about Himself, that is, that they hear His Word, how do you think God feels? But how many places can people go today and not hear things like what the theological jogger said to me? The sad truth is—not many. So it is no wonder that people view Christianity with a jaundiced eye, as per the following quote from a book (pretty much a feminist diatribe) called The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom, and Power, by Barbara Walker:
“Today the new morality is offended by a God who condemned all humanity to eternal torture for the sin of seeking enlightenment, then changed His mind and decided to forgive some of the sinners, provided they ate the flesh and blood of His Son, who was also the divine Father in human form, sent to earth for the express purpose of being sacrificed to Himself, an allegedly loving Father who decreed His Son’s painful slaying, then punished those who carried out His order.
This bloodthirsty, Son-killing Father, who was one but also three; who professed to want good, but created evil; who pretended to love His mortal children while preparing for them a hell sadistic beyond belief; who ordained all things in advance, yet held humans responsible for the errors He knew they would make; who talked of love and ruled by fear—this deity was hardly a product of rational minds.”
Whew! And how could God say that she is wrong to reject that? How many titles of our books and audio teaching went through your mind as you read her quote? Could we help her see the light? Absolutely! If you don’t know Barbara Walker, what about the people you do know who might be thinking something similar? Why not share with them the Good News you have heard?
In closing, James 1:17-25 comes to mind. It is a fabulous section of Scripture, and I wish I had the space to put it here. Please take a look at it. God is a good Father who gives us only good gifts, including sonship (vv.17 and 18). I need to be “quick to listen [both to Him, and to people], slow to speak” (v. 19). Do I ever! I need to “receive with meekness the implanted word” that will make me whole (v. 21). That means I must not only listen to the Word, but must also be “a doer of the Word” (v. 22). And I must continue to “look into the perfect law of liberty” and not forget it (v. 25). [For further study please see the articles we have posted under our two Don’t Blame God topics. 1st list and 2nd list.]
Question: How would you live tomorrow if you woke up and somehow got a hot tip from a loose-tongued angel that the Lord Jesus is coming for the Church at midnight? Would your priorities be based upon a spiritual perspective? Would you worry a lot, especially about things over which you have no control? Would life’s problems get you down? Would you be gracious to those who offend you? Would you try to set straight any of your relationships that are hurting? Would you give what you don’t really need to someone who does? Would you tell anyone about Jesus?
And what would you do from 11 PM on—your last hour in this life? Right, watch the news. I bet you’d be telling the News!
Question: How do we know that the Lord Jesus is not coming at midnight tomorrow? Maybe we had best go ahead and live tomorrow on the edge of faith.