Friday, August 28, 2015

Charity Starts (And Often Ends) At Home

I have not been reading Galatians in my current studies, and to be quite honest I have not read Galatians in some time. But, I have had one particular verse in Galatians ringing in my mind lately. I thought at first that my involuntary mental recitation of this verse was something akin to not being able to shake a catchy tune that repeats over and over in the halls of the mind like a broken record, nothing more than a mental glitch.

Yet, it persisted beyond the normal mere annoyance should:

“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith” (Galatians 6:10).

It was really the last bit that was the loudest: “especially those of the family of faith.”

After about three days of waking up with this verse on my mind, I finally asked God if He was trying to teach me something. Yes, I am stubborn that way. It took me three days. As soon as I asked that question, I was struck with another question: “What do you think about this verse?”

I paused, what do I think?

To be honest, once I thought about it, I realized the verse did not sit well for me. I was a little perplexed. Perhaps this is why I could not let it go.

According to Jesus, His gospel is “good news to the poor.” His gospel is “release to the captives.” His gospel is “sight to the blind.” His gospel is “freedom to the oppressed.” Full stop (see Luke 4:18-19).

If Christ’s target audience is the poor, the captive, the spiritually blind, and the oppressed, and it is His injunctive to us to spread His good news, it seems to me that the ripest harvest would not be in the church were everyone is already, as we in the church would put it, saved.  Sure, we should, when we have time, check in on each other, but shouldn’t we especially, to use Paul’s word, focus on the lost, the needy, and the dying. The saints already have eternal life don’t they?

Paul has it all backwards. He says help all, but especially those “in the household of faith.” I fretted over the question for a few more days, and prayed about for even more, and I finally began to feel a sense of clarity. I thought about my hypothesis a bit more, and grew more and more encouraged by what I found to be a prayerful, biblically consistent conclusion.

As my thoughts were beginning to set in my mind, I wanted to make sure I was not chasing a white rabbit; so, I ran to five of my favorite commentaries to see if those theologians I so admire had come to the same conclusion I had. If so, I would know I was in good company.

To my frustration, it seems that there has been some small debate upon what Paul means by “the family of faith.” Some notable Christians, namely a few of the Magisterial Reformers like Luther and Calvin, claim that Paul is referring back to an earlier comment he made about support for the ministers of the church (see 6:6). Others suggest that this phrase might have been an early church expression for one particular church, the church in Jerusalem. So, Paul is somehow talking about smaller churches paying apportionments to their leaders or their home base in Jerusalem.

Both of these arguments are unsatisfying. It is much more plausible to think that “the family of faith” means the whole family, all the believers, the universal church. While there are some theologians who think otherwise, it seems that the majority of theologians lean in on this more universal interpretation. So, the straightforward interpretation I have been working with seems to also be, according to majority consensus, the right interpretation. But, this direct interpretation does not answer the deeper question, “Why?”

If Paul had, in fact, a more particular group in mind, we could more easily extrapolate the why. For example, if he was speaking of ministers, we might say, he says take care of all, but especially your minister, because Paul believes the minister’s job is of utmost importance to the mission of God. Paul could be making a subtle argument here, one that a lot of ministers might like if it were true, that ministers are the linchpins for success in a church’s mission.

Likewise, if Paul would have been speaking of the Jerusalem church, we could have assumed that Paul had a more centralized and institutionalized view of the church than we might have assumed, and he would be explicitly arguing their import. While we might have a satisfactory answer to the why, if Paul were here being more specific, it seems he was not.

However, if he were being universal, as I am presently arguing he was, why would he tell us to care for all people, but especially the already saved? Again, shouldn’t our largest efforts go to “saving souls”? That seems to be the suggestion of the evangelical church today, but my question here exposes my prejudiced notions that I am importing into the text, prejudices I have developed as a product of the evangelical movement (a movement, mind you, of which I am proud to be a part, and that is why I offer critique).

I had been assuming a dichotomy between the primacy of taking care of the family of faith and evangelism to the lost. But, is that a necessary assumption? Are they really two separate things, having little to do with one another? Paul does not say, “When God gives you the opportunity to help whoever needs help, do so, but before all else, help those who are saved.” Instead, he says, “Help all, and especially tend to the needs within your own community. The conjunction shows that Paul does not see these two in conflict, but in direct relation.

What might that relation be? Let’s explore:

In my last blog, I went into detail about the cultural nature of the church; so, I won’t go into as great a detail here. Suffice it to say that I find in Christ’s vision for the church a culture making community. According to Jesus vision in Matthew 5: 14-16 and elsewhere, Jesus sees the church as a community who lives together in such a way that people leave the culture of the world for the culture of the Kingdom (see this practically expressed by the early church in Acts 2:42-47). Blessing comes to the many who are lost when they see a new alternative embodied by the church and they repent from their worldly ways in order to become a part of the family of faith, an alternative community.

Although this is Christ’s model for effective evangelism, I grew up learning and witnessing a somewhat different paradigm, one that made a clear distinction between the gathering together of the saints (going to church) and the proclaiming of the good news to the lost, (evangelism), perhaps, for example, telling a coworker about God. Our mission to save souls was something we were merely preparing for and learning about in church. Real change happened when individuals found themselves applying what they learned out in the “real” world.

The modern church that I grew up in had, at least to a large degree, lost it cultural calling, and moved to a new model of church, one in which congregants attended programs to learn how to evangelize. However, for Jesus, it is precisely by being the church that people come to know the Father. In the modern model, the church’s job is merely to critique the world, to tell them where they are going wrong, but in Jesus model, not only is the world challenged to face their own sin by the church, they are then provided a cultural alternative to leave the world and join a new movement, the church.

(I must brag that my home church, where I first saw this as a real issue, is now becoming the church Christ envisioned. They have a robust understanding of outreach, which invites people to the community to hear the good news, while taking care of their physical needs, which is not in addition to, but is the physical manifestation of the good news.)

As it stands now, the churches in America are often not a culture themselves, an opportunity for others to leave the world for a completely new way of living. Instead, the church is just one cultural product of many within the larger American culture. We do not see ourselves as set apart. If we only tell people where they are going wrong, but leave them to figure out how to change in their current context, never giving them a chance to join a whole new community that is going in the right direction together, we leave them in their guilt with little knowledge of where they might find hope. The world sure won’t help them out. They will try to live holy all on their own if church is nothing more than a set of programs. So, what is the church supposed to look like? I think it is to look something like China Town.

The Bible tells us that Christians are to be a community in, but not of, the world. We are told that we are citizens of a Kingdom in which we are not yet fully living as we find ourselves in this present world. In the meantime, we are to represent our Kingdom to the nations we find ourselves in. Like China Town, the church cannot but help finding herself in a larger context, a larger community, that in some ways, she must live and cooperate with. China Town is physically a part of New York City, but it is very much not culturally synonymous with the American town.

The residents of China town have a deep sense of belonging to a place that they no longer find themselves in, a homeland. They have a deep longing to provide for themselves and represent for any visitors the culture of home. The “city upon the hill,” the “holy nation,” known as the church likewise finds itself longing, driven even, to provide a sense of home, a sense of the place of our citizenry, the Kingdom of God.

Through providing our unique culture, we challenge the ways of the culture around us, the ways of the world, and our critique is not in what we say, but simply in how we live our lives. We are a people called to provide new hope, Kingdom hope, to the most marginalized of the world. If this is so, we must embody such a reality within our boarders, so to speak, as to provide real tangible hope.

James asks what good is it if we tell people that they can have peace, but we do not then provide that peace. How many times have people been promised a better life if they would simply accept the invitation to come to church. They walk in the door and are greeted with countless smiles, handshakes, and hugs, but no real practical day-to-day help. Sure, people ask about their eternal security, and when the person says they are willing to follow Jesus, we make sure they receive baptism, and we pat ourselves on the back with a job well done. Mission complete.  They go home to face the same miseries they had before coming to church. The promise of hope largely echoes empty in their mind.

This should not be so. If we are going to call people out of the world and promise them a better life, a life where your neighbor will look out for you, we must be in line with James. We cannot say, “Now have it.” We have to provide it.

Could this be why Paul implores us to take care of everyone as the opportunity arises, but especially those within our own community? Could it, instead of preferential treatment, which is what was disturbing me when I first explored this verse, be about practicing what we preach? If we were demonstrating that within our own culture, those in need find true, practical help, both physically and spiritually, could it be that more of the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed would believe us when we say we care, that God cares, and come running to the body of Christ to find themselves wrapped in the arms of Christ?

(Note: I do not want to prolong this blog any more than I already have, but I do anticipate a complaint I want to address. If you are thinking, “Your model of the church seems to deny the need to “go and tell” the good news, I want to speak to this, if not, skip this parenthetical. When I analogize the church to China Town, I might mislead one to think I see the church as stationary, a place people pass through or by to see the truth embodied. The analogy does fail me there. When I say the church is itself the central testimony of Christ, what betrays us here is the modern model of the “come and see” church, instead of the “go and tell” church. As it stands, for people to see the church as a cultural community, they often have to walk into a building. But, the directive from Christ is “go and tell.” This is not for individuals alone, as if they are to receive training in the walls of “church” to evangelize, and then they are to leave the “church” in order to do so. This was a directive to the group of disciples. The church is not stationary. It is the community itself, wherever the community finds itself. We have a means to collect together in very public ways, and we are not confined always to our building. If we switch from a “come and see” model to a “go and tell” model, living as a community very much in the public sphere, this rebuttal becomes irrelevant.)

The charity we express at home often gives people on the outside a reason to finally come home too. We are to help all we can. Inviting them to taste and see the Lord is good, inviting them to be a part of our family, but we must be sure we are actually practicing being a family so that they can see value in accepting our invitation.

Hope is a wonderfully amazing thing, and it can change lives.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Church Responsibility and Social Decline

             A Fuller Picture

It is interesting to note that Jesus’s story, just like all stories, has many angles by which it can be viewed, and in searching all the available angles, the student can develop a more robust understanding of the gospels, that will not only help us live like Jesus in regards to our main work of evangelism, but in all areas of life, which helps round us out as mindful Christians in whatever area of decision making we find ourselves in. If we cannot live like Christians in any one area of life, we cannot live like Christians in any, for Christianity is not a limited set of principles, but a way of living.

As an example of the diversity of these angles, take a look at the circumstances that dictate the beginning and end of Jesus’s “natural” life, that is His birth and death.

If we want to highlight the supernatural nature of the Christ, we could take a divine view, and examine the revelation that Christ both entered the world and existed in the world in dependence upon the Spirit of God. He was conceived by the Spirit (Matthew 1:18) and went to the grave with faithful confidence upon the fact that the Spirit would raise Him from the dead (Romans 8:11). This certainly sets Christ apart as special and more than a mere human.

On the other hand, if we want to highlight the fact that Jesus came into real human history and His life was subject to real human realities, because, although He was not merely human, He was fully human, we can note that the circumstances of His birth, such as its happening in Bethlehem, were, at least in part, dictated by an Empire under which His people, the people of God, were subject (Luke 2:1-7). We may also note that His death was administered at the hands of the same Roman government, as well as His own local government (Luke 23:13-25).

So, while He lived under the direct influence of the Spirit, He also lived and moved with the culture around Him, including the government.

In looking at these two events out of many others just like it, we come to see a fuller view of Christ’s experience in which Divine and human will shape His experience, so that He may empathize with our own human experiences as they are pushed and pulled by the natural and supernatural. Just as was the case in the life of Joseph, God shows His sovereign rule in that, while the push and pull upon Jesus life by human authorities might have had an effect, their nefarious purposes were thwarted, because what they intended for evil, the Father used for good.

            Contextualizing Messiah

We have presently considered what good can come out of continuing to search the provided angles of a biblical story until we have a robust view, but what happens when we do not, and instead focus too heavily on one aspect of a story? We end up with a warped theology.

For example, what if we stopped short of looking deeply into Jesus’s nature and circumstances, His being divine and living day-to-day by full submission to the Spirit of God and His being fully human, genuinely interacting with the culture around Him. When discussing which of these facets we most often over emphasize at the expense of the other, N.T. Wright states:

We have been so concerned to let the gospels tell us that the story of Jesus as the story of God incarnate that we have been unable to listen more carefully to the evangelists telling us which God they are talking about and what exactly it is that this God is now doing… For far too long now Christians have told the story of Jesus as if it hooked up not with the story of Israel, but simply with the story of human sin as in Genesis 3. (1)

In other words, we do not take serious enough the fact that Jesus in fact belonged to Israel, and all that came with her, including government and politics. When we blow the nature of Christ so far outside the realm of humanity, we lose the ability to relate to Him. His injunctions seem ideal, unreachable goals to give us a sense that the world should be better, even though it is decidedly not. We give up on the call to live holy and perfect lives as our Father is perfect, and we make the seeking first of the Kingdom about keeping our theologies in the clouds instead of about practical, ethical ways of living that are in direct and stark contrast to the norms of the world and culture around us so as to witness to the nature of our Kingdom yet to come, as we live as resident aliens in a foreign land. It is as if, instead of a providing us a way to live now and on into eternity as His people, Christ came to provide a fire escape that we will only follow when our lives are over.

It is certain that if we had to err in our understanding, we would rather devalue His humanness for the sake of His divinity than the other way around, (although we should not think this is without a very high level of theological danger). In the end, however, it is best not to be confused at all. Jesus is the very real Messiah of Israel, and His cultural belonging to that nation, and not just to humanity in general, helps us better understand God, since Israel has always been the people through which God works to bring about His blessings. Israel’s experiences open the doors to all sorts of theological quandaries that are only answered in Christ, from the most important of issues to the most seemingly mundane. Therefore, how Jesus chooses to fulfill this long expected goal of Israel’s Messiah, with all its very specific objectives, should teach us something of His nature and, therefore, more about our own as His people seeking to follow His leadership.

            Mediating change through example and not force

Jesus enters an Israel, not at the peak of her existence, as in the times of David, but perhaps at her lowest. Even while there were many setbacks due to various disobediences, from the time Moses marched the nation out of Egypt to the time of David, the nation was on a general trajectory upwards, from a slave group, to a nomadic tribe, to a settlement of tribes, to a monarchy. But, after David, the trajectory of Israel spiraled downward, beginning with civil war under Rehoboam, to divided monarchy and on to exile first for the northern tribes then for the southern, and even though the Persian ruler, Cyrus, allowed Israel to return to their land, they were constantly under the administration of various super powers, never again being their own sovereign nation. At the time of Christ, Israel was ruled by Rome.

It is not without warrant that Israel’s religious leaders believe Messiah would come and deliver Israel from the political bonds of their oppressors, in this case Rome, and any future oppressive nation for that matter, forever and ever. In fact, this was promised time and again to the people: A Messiah would come whose rule would be from everlasting and He would rule over Israel with complete authority (See Daniel 7). Where Israel was mistaken was not in what He would do, but in their understanding of how the Messiah would overthrow the powers of the world. They thought it would be a political upheaval, most assuredly leading to military action. Jesus, though, never raised an army, and they hated Him for it. Instead of imposing violence on man, the Son of Man allowed violence to be imposed on Him. To those who believe, this is the wisdom of God, and to the disbelieving world, it is foolishness.

At this point, we might find even more reason to dismiss the human Jesus living within a particular cultural milieu, because, on the surface, and as far as Israel’s leaders were concerned, Jesus was unconcerned with mundane politics and the cultural goings on of Israel, because He does not fulfill the expectation of Messiah as a rebellion leader. We might mistakenly follow their lead here. We might assume that, because He did not use force, Jesus was unconcerned with politics of His day. Is that not how politics are won, through the imposition of will through law or war? Was not Jesus merely concerned with the preserving of souls for the afterlife, and not the everyday life of His people (as if the two are very unrelated)? If so, we might conclude we need not consult Him in our decisions involving our own cultural interactions, especially in our modern context that He could not possibly understand.

It is not that Jesus does not care; instead, He simply wishes to address such issues with a different approach than the normative human response of resorting to force. For Jesus, social change cannot be imposed to any lasting effect, but must be imparted. Instead of actual soldiers, He calls for priests, mediators of grace to the needy. And so all of the Christian community is called out to be a priestly nation, we are all mediators, and a sign of God’s grace. If we are the mediators of God’s grace, we must ask, “To whom?” We look to the first revelation of the purpose of God’s choosing to have a people, when He reveals His plan to Abraham. Through the children of Abraham, in particular the spiritual children of the promise, which now includes the grafted in branch of the church, God will bring blessing to the nations (see Genesis 12:1-3).

            A social mission of exemplary evangelism 

So, how does Jesus envision His people will continue this mission? As I have mentioned elsewhere, Jesus gives us a vision for His community in Matthew 5:14-16 that is social in scope and political in nature. Reliable and realizable change happens, not just as individuals go and tell the good news (although this is necessary), but also when the church collectively lives as an alternative to the way of the world. When we live as other, we give those whose imaginations have been captured by the things of this world, an alternative way of life, through the example of Christ. This is a threat to the world and even the worldly nations. When Christians proclaim their allegiance first to Christ and His way, this indicates to the worldly powers that we might not always comply with their wishes. Our Lord compares us to a city upon a hill, a polis. Christ envisions us as a community that performs good works, divine directives, that in turn mediate grace to the world, and, as those with eyes to see begin to recognize the radical nature of the church, they turn to God.

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

This is His great plan. When the church lives together and lives in harmony with God’s will, the church will thrive and God will add to their number daily those who are being saved, as we see with the church in Acts 2, a perfect example of Christ vision. When we lose that collective vision, when it no longer captures our imagination, but we seek alternative ways of “changing the world,” we forget the vision of Christ.

He sets standard for how this community is to think about change. It is to be in the heart and not just on the surface. Legislation can only go so far, according to Jesus; it cannot get to the heart of the issue. For example, Christ speaks of murder and states that the law fails to prevent the heart issue of hate. Seeking a life of honoring our Father and King, means a life in which we reset our horizons of possibility.

The law’s prohibition against murder, and the social structures that had been put in place to enforce that prohibition—to move murder as far as possible to the edge of possibility—had not addressed the deeper issue of anger and insults, which remained all too possible. Jesus’ response is not just to offer a different set of horizons—one in which judgment will eventually be meted out to the angry as well as the violent—but to offer a cultural solution, a new set of practices embedded in the life of worship and the courts…his prescription for changing the heart involves changes in culture…The followers will begin to demonstrate a new set of horizons for human life to their neighbors and even to their enemies—the horizons of shalom, the horizons of true humanity living in dependence on God.

In other words, the good works Christ mentions in His description for how the church will mediate blessing outward, as seen in Matthew 5:14-16, are not ethereal ideals, but described in what follows as Christ challenges the culture through the repeated refrain: “You have heard it said…but I say…” These were not simply instructions for individual lives, but for collective lives. Remember the primary audience here is Jesus disciples, a group Christ purposefully called to live together so as to carry His ministry forward.

 His resurrection would launch a political movement like no other. The miracle of Christ’s victory over death drove countless people to the church. The church continues to influence the movement of history. As a movement, the church has power. Sometimes we have failed by abusing our power, but more often, without the notice we gain when we abuse our power, we have made differences in whole communities, and we have changed countless lives here and now, as well as for the eternal future.

            Not world changers, but Church growers

It seems today that we have forgotten Jesus description and prescription for social change. While He clearly demonstrated the failure of legislation as a means of change, Christians on both the right and left, but especially on the right (at least our voice is the loudest) continue to feel defeated each time our leaders fail to enforce a code that would hold people outwardly accountable for immoral action.

Over the years as various legislative decisions have failed to go our way, I have heard lament from my fellow Christians. If we are disappointed that our nation is not as collectively unanimous on holding to traditional morality, this would be okay, but when we proclaim we have lost hope, because the church has lost legislative control, I wonder where our hope is located in the first place. The church is not here to serve the world, but to serve as an answer to the world’s failings. We are not here to continually patch up the mortal wounds of the world, but to call people out of the sinking ship, but not so that they merely have a fire escape, but so that even today they can begin to seek the Kingdom in their everyday lives.

The grace of God that helps people find their way in following the will of God, according to Christ, is not to be mediated through the government, but through a cultural alternative, the church. While this is certainly a political challenge, Christ calling us to live as an alternative to the ways of the world, it is not by force (through legislation or war).

In the end, when people ask for my reaction to various failures of our governmental leaders to uphold morality, I often respond that I am hopeful that this will lead the Christians who still put hope in national causes to turn back to the church as a means to initiate change. The world will always be the world, and as soon as we patch up one wound the stitches of another will pull open. Trying to strong-arm the world to act right will fail. However, a real victory can be won when we live as a social alternative to the ways of the world, and because of this testimony, people leave the world in exchange for the church, at least this is what our Lord thought would happen. This is a threat to the world indeed. This is political indeed. This is exciting indeed.

(This is not to say we are to give up on participating in the political process. We should vote. We should fight for what is right. The church should provide a voice, especially as it relates to righteous causes that combat horrid injustices such as abortion, but the point to see here is that if we lose the vote, we do not lose the war. We still can provide moral solutions, social alternatives such as adoption, to those looking for hope. If we again get to a place in which laws can help remind us what is moral, that is well and good, but as long as people see them as limitations to what they truly desire to do, we have a bigger issue to fight.)

            Moral decline as a church problem, not a political problem

In the end, I do not think a moral decline should be an indication of the failure of the nation and its leaders alone, but should be an indication that the church might not be living up to its calling either. If Jesus is correct in His assumption that, as we live as the light, our city on a hill will grow, because it is changing hearts, then the decline of Christianity (and the morality associated with it) in America should not cause us to blame the immoral world for seducing people away from the church (the world has always been fighting this fight as it always has, and we cannot pretend it is just now savvy enough to beat us).

Instead, we should ask ourselves if we still believe in Christ’s vision. We need to examine whether or not we as the church are living so radically different as a community that the people around us have no other option but to recognize the grace by which we thrive. When we forget Christ came to show us, not only the priceless path to eternal life with Him, but also how to live and navigate in the world we now find ourselves in so as to demonstrate the glory of God through our collective lives together, we forget that He is not just the hope for the future, but is a present hope. Every time we outsource our cause to the government and do nothing within the church to bring social alternatives to the issues we see, we show we have lost the imagination to envision Christ’s call. When we lose the vote, we still have a body that can work to solve problems.

There are many Christian who are holding out hope for a rebound in the social conscience of America. I will stake my reputation on this: If a true renewal in the social conscience ever happens, it will not happen because a small majority elects an individual or group of individuals who can sway our nations outward actions through policy. It will happen when and if we experience another great revival of faith. Yes, this could even be such a great revival that it impacts our national policies, but it will be revival that will impact policy, not policy that will impact revival.

1. Wright, NT, How God Became King (New York: Harper One, 2012) p23
2.Crouch, Andy, Culture Making (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2008) pp138,139

Monday, August 10, 2015

Blessed Assurance: Perhaps More Practical Than Magical

Observing the problem

I assume that all Christians want to have that “blessed assurance, Jesus is mine,” that we are promised that we can have if we simply “trust and obey.” However, for many, what it means to trust and obey as to obtain that assurance seems mystical. We imagine we have to commit spiritual gymnastics or discover some gnostic secret to tap into that peace that is beyond the human capacity to grasp. Many have tormented themselves over not having the same sort of peace that they see in their confident neighbors, and they wonder why this great gift seems reserved for everyone except for them.

Somewhere along the way, they come to understand, perhaps after hearing a sermon on the radical nature of grace, that our blessings cannot be earned, and so they are burdened with the guilt that the reason they have no peace is because they have strived so hard to have it. So, what then do they do? They try and become complacent; to sit back and just let the blessings flow. What happens? Nothing. So, striving does not work, and not striving does not work. How can there be any hope? What magical answer is eluding them?

Perhaps the answer is more practical and a bit duller than we often think. Perhaps grace is not simply this magical power that God sprinkles over us like invisible pixy dust. Perhaps grace comes in many ways: sometimes through the Spirit that resides in our hearts, sometimes through the witness of a miracle, and sometimes, perhaps from the more mundane—a conversation, a Scripture reading, a Sunday of rest.

When it comes to feeling secure in my walk with the Lord, it has occurred to me that I feel secure in the walk when I am actually walking. In other words, I feel I have a deep and meaningful relationship with God when I am intentionally being relational. When I am not praying, when I am not reading the word, when I am not speaking with my community about God, I do not really feel very close. Such is the nature of relationship. If I do not talk to my wife, if I do not spend time with her, if I am always ignoring her, I cannot expect to feel connected with her.

We could talk a lot about the various ways we can connect with God in order to find inner peace, but let’s simply focus on one, one that is practical, yet, for many tedious: reading the Bible. Reading the Bible is one sure way, perhaps the surest, to hear from God, but instead, we feel it a chore, and wish, no matter how many times before we have been disappointed, that the grace of peace would just fall from the sky and deep spirituality would simply form from thin air. That is not how it works. It comes from sitting at the Father’s feet and hearing His story. Can it be that simple? Can the peace that surpasses understanding come from such a common practice of sitting down with a Bible?

The Bible as a Story, not simply detached advice

In order to get a handle on just what the Scripture can provide, let us consider what it is.

When many students think about the Bible, they may think of stories, but seldom would they say the Bible is largely one big story. When many children are first exposed to the Bible, they encounter a story Bible in which many different events of the Scripture are condensed into one tale after the next with a tight moral application at the end of each. For children, this exposure is great, but if the thought that this is how the Bible is really presented to us continues on as the child matures into adulthood, his or her attitude of Scripture will be misplaced. If it is a collection of various ideas, it breaks down to being much like other religious texts: mere advice, perhaps couched in moral tales.

Certainly, the Bible does have a thorough collection of stories contained in sixty-six distinct books that can, in large part, stand each on its own as a complete work. However, this is not to deny that each book assumes the existence of others, and that together they are much greater in sum than in part. While the Bible is not always presented in a way that modern readers would like, it not being tightly knit chronologically, it still tells a very cogent story that runs the length and breadth of human history, from Creation to New Creation, from Eden to New Jerusalem. That the Scripture from time to time jumps back and forth in its story telling, sometimes retelling a history from a new angle, much like we see in the various gospels, should not lead us to the conclusion that it does not largely hold to a historical thread. To be clear, I am not speaking of some allegorical “scarlet thread” in which Christ can be found represented in various tales (not denying such references either). Instead, I am saying the Bible tells a historical account that is held in various smaller accounts, and this story gives us a clear and large vision that helps us navigate human identity and purpose.

As mature Christians, it is imperative that we learn to tell this story as a whole. This at first might seem more daunting than I intend. We do not have to recall every single event recorded in Scripture in order to give a broad overview of what has happened as God has continually worked for our redemption, but we should have a general idea from the exile of Adam, to the preservation of Noah and his race, to the election of Abraham, to the giving of the law to Moses, to the establishment of the line of David, to the coming, death, and resurrection of Christ, to the birth of the church through the outpouring of the Spirit, and on to the eventual return of Christ to establish in full His Kingdom of Earth as it is in Heaven.

It should not come as much of a surprise that we often study the Bible, not in whole, but in part. It is inevitable with a volume so large that our study be fragmented. Yet, this should not excuse us from taking time to reflect on how each of our studies relate to the whole. With all the topical study series in existence today, all the character studies, all the self-help studies as it relates to family, finance, and marriage, we have often assumed the Bible, not to be a whole, but a reference work. Not to throw the baby out with the bath water, I would encourage us to continue our various studies, but never at the expense of knowing the whole. Knowing the whole is to know our own story, the story we find ourselves in. With that story, we better locate where we are, who we are, whose we are, and a sense of peace in belonging, a grace that comes through simply hearing what is being said.

It is tempting to simply jump right in with walking through the story at this very moment, tracking the path from Adam to Noah, Noah to Abraham, Abraham to Moses, Moses to David, David to Christ, and Christ to the outpouring of the Spirit upon the church as we move on towards the Eschaton, where Christ will be all-in-all, but, before we do so, let us inquire of Scripture what it is that we will gain if we do make the effort to listen to the Father as He tells His story. We will explore the story in posts to come.

A faith with a mission

Going back for a moment to the idea of topical study, I must add a word of warning that will help us better understand our first point concerning why knowing the story matters. If we spend our time learning morally tight lessons from topical study, we might think Christianity merely a practice. We certainly practice religion as Christians, but for a greater end, as James tells us in his epistle (see 1:27), the application of religion is mission. This mission is deeply rooted in what God is doing in establishing us as a people. To not know this is to miss out on a proper vision of Christianity, which is the key to our peace. To know our mission, we need to know our trajectory, and this is only supplied by our story. How can we know where we are going if we do not know where we have been. Being able to see the path behind us helps us decide where the path lies ahead.

Story is important because it gives identity and purpose. We live in a world today where we are more and more inclined to feel as if we have no real center of being. I have not seen this for myself, or, if I have, it is only a vestige of a former world, but, I have been told by persons older than myself, and I have read in history books that, whether they were Christian or not, many in leadership over the Western world and in the early ages of America thought through a lens that was very much shaped, not perfectly so mind you, by a Judeo-Christian lens.  Today, we no longer assume such identity so easily. We wrestle with who we are. We are no longer Christian because of the culture around us. Belonging to a belief group comes more honestly today.

Without such center in thought, many people, especially young people, struggle with identity issues.

Who am I?

Why am I here?

Where does my help come from?

From a biblical perspective, not knowing our identity and purpose is dangerous. Proverbs 29:18 tells us, “Without vision, the people perish.” If we do not know where we are going, why we are going, or what it will be like when we get there, we will become swiftly discouraged in our mission, whatever that mission might be, perhaps giving up completely. Many religions are simply a practice, with little to no vision of what life means and where it is taking us.

God does not leave us without hope, hope in a future, hope rooted in where we have been, where we are, and where we are going.

But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. (II Peter 3:13)

Peter tells us that our future is clear, because of the manner in which it flows from God’s promises, many of which, at the time of his writing, had just come true in Christ. Peter is telling his reader that they can have assurance in God and a future in glory, because God has been faithful in His promises.

I consider that the suffering of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18)

Likewise, Paul says that our present is unlike our future, and, when looking to Romans 8 as a whole, we see that this hope is rooted in what Jesus has done in the past. Elsewhere Paul tells us that this hope runs deep, because hearing from God leads to receiving the Spirit:

In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:13,14)

We must note here that there is a direct correlation between hearing and receiving the world of truth and the gospel of salvation that allows the Spirit to witness to our Spirit that we belong to God.


So, the question before us is this: Have I really allowed God to share with me His word of truth and the gospel of my salvation? Have I really come to grips with the fact that God’s grace appears in many ways, and one way it appears to us is in His giving the Scriptures to us? Have you really “heard,” the Word, which means, do you really know what it says? Have you allowed the story to penetrate your heart? Is it a vague, disjointed set of ideas and stories collected over time as we have listened to bits and pieces of sermons, or have we applied ourselves in the study of the Word, being aware of it promises and what they mean, how they unfold, and how they direct our lives?

If you are not an active student in hearing from God, you might be one of those person's struggling with peace, and the Christian answer found in Scripture is clear: Hear the Word and find peace. 

Yes, it is the Spirit that witnesses with our Spirit that we are children, but if we do not know the story of God’s redeeming us as His children, which is the story of Scripture, we are not giving the Spirit a lot to work with. But, if we read our story under His guidance, our story comes to life. As we sit at the feet of the Father, intentional in our relationship with Him, allowing Him to do as He wishes, which is to tell us His story, we find ourselves forgetting about our lack of peace, our lack of feeling disconnected, because, in reading His word in sincerity, we are already in relationship, not trying to discover such relationship, but finding ourselves already there.

Hope then is the assurance that our future in glory will be unlike our present life of suffering, because of what Christ has accomplished for us in the past through His death and resurrection, and this hope comes in knowing this past, present, and future as revealed through the story God is telling us in Scripture.

If we did not know the story, the story of God’s promised future of hope and the story of how He has assured this hope, this present suffering would be too much to bear and we would not have the hope to continue to live as His people. Without vision, the people perish, but, when we know that an unimaginable future in the presence of God awaits, we, like Paul, can declare that our present suffering cannot compare with our great hope.

It is really that practical. There is no magic. God just wants us to hear, and, in hearing, He will mold our hearts by the power of His Spirit, as the Spirit brings God’s words to life in us, just as the Spirit has always carried the Word of God to create and bring life. We should never then try to have the Spirit work without the Word. We should never divorce the two, because their is no division in God's way. He brings life by the power of the Holy Spirit through the work of the Word. We cannot just wait for the Spirit to magically bring peace. We must submit to His Spirit and His Word, and together, we will have peace.