Running Away

Jonah and Me

One of my favorite stories from the Bible is the one about Jonah, not because it has a dramatic scene of Jonah being swallowed by a marine animal but because I can relate to running away from God. (If you need to refresh your memory, read the book of Jonah.) You may also have times when you have tried to runaway from God. Spoiler alert—God always wins.

Jonah did not want to do what God had asked him to do. He did not like the people of Nineveh, so he did not want to see them receive a chance to be redeemed. Jonah had become judge and juror, already giving sentence on the stubborn people of Nineveh. When God clearly was going to offer a way for the people to reverse direction and had chosen Jonah to be the herald of this good news, Jonah refused. Jonah knew that God is loving and forgiving. He knew that when the people were offered another chance, they probably would take it and God would forgive their mistakes. This is not the outcome which Jonah wanted, so he chose to run in the other direction to avoid Nineveh.

Maybe some of Jonah’s story resonates with you. I know that it does for me. There have been times when I have chosen to be judge, juror, and sentencer for individuals. Multiple times I have not wanted to do what the Spirit was encouraging and guiding me to do. I have tried to run and hide from God because I resisted what I knew was God’s intention in a specific situation. God has seemed unfair and unreasonable to me. I have my own plans and my own desires which apparently God was not taking into account. There were justified reasons for me saying no to God and I could back those up with reason and good judgment.

The Outcome

Jonah’s story concludes with Jonah eventually going to Nineveh, sharing God’s opportunity for a second chance with the people, and the people reversing their direction which results in God’s forgiveness. Now there is a lot in the story between Jonah’s escape and this conclusion but as I mentioned above, God always wins. The reason for God winning is that God is love and always works for the good of all God’s people (Romans 8:28). God chooses humans to carry out this work. Since God operates differently than us (Isaiah 55:8-9), we often see them in conflict with our personal desires. This is what tripped Jonah up, and what has tripped me up each time.

A variety of reasons are behind my attempts to not go in God’s direction. The one which we see in Jonah’s story is that Jonah did not like the people of Nineveh and did not see them as worthy to receive God’s grace. I hate to admit that I have felt this way about certain individuals at various times in my life. I want to justify these feelings based on how they have acted towards me or others. Other times I have resisted because I am concerned about the perceptions people may have about me. Then exist times when the direction God may be leading does not coincide with my hopes and dreams for my personal outcomes. I have become quite good at justifying all these reasons to head a different direction.

Whenever I embark in a direction different from what God may intend, I find that God will let me set off on my own journey. Times have existed when I even fool myself into believing that I have actually beaten God. I can also convince myself that apparently God has seen the wisdom in the direction I have chosen and is actually blessing my efforts. But, even in the midst of my celebrating, I know the effort is a misguided attempt at exerting my power and control.

Like Jonah, the end result is always the same for me. After taking time to try it “my way,” I end up exactly where God intended me to be from the start and doing the work which God had desired. Again, as the story of Jonah shows, my journey is usually filled with storms, havoc, and panic. I make a mess of the situation. I create more hardship for myself and others then is necessary. Yet God is patient. God waits for me to go through all my attempts and welcomes me back with love when I return (Luke 15:11-32). My running away has ended once again (for now).

What might you be running from? Why are you running? Do not worry, God will let you get your exercise and will be waiting for your return as God sets you back on the right path. There may even be a day when you trust that God has the right idea (Proverbs 3:5).

Like a Child

Santa Clause

Easter Bunny

Tooth Fairy

These are all characters from our childhood which most of us understand in a much different light now that we are adults. However, when we were children these characters were as real to us as the people living in our house. We heard stories about them. On specific dates or times, we expected them to arrive at our home. We planned for them. We may even have written notes or set out special treats for them. Each of us tried to sneak a glance at them. But then we became adults and realized that our understanding of them had changed and most of us stopped believing in them.

My husband and I were having a conversation last week about the difficulty of believing. We were looking at the events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus. The passage we were discussing was John 21:19-30. In this passage Jesus appears to the apostles who are locked in a room in fear. One of the apostles, Thomas, was not present and when he was told about the appearance of the resurrected Jesus, Thomas struggles to believe. My husband pointed out that the difficulty most of us have, like Thomas, is that we no longer accept aspects of life as we did when we were children. We want some type of evidence if we are going to believe something is real.

I agreed with that but was reminded of something recorded in Scripture and attributed to Jesus, “And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.'” (Matthew 18:3, NIV) I had always viewed this statement completely concerning access into the kingdom. But my discussion with my husband brought about an “aha” moment. Being part of the kingdom means believing in the improvable. Like a child, we accept something not based on evidence but on the feeling that it is real. Thomas was acting as an adult and needed evidence that Jesus was truly resurrected. Thomas did not have that child wonderment and acceptance of something that could not be totally explained.

A number of us struggle with not just the concept of the resurrection but with the reality of God. We search for evidence. We want someone to prove to us that what we have been instructed to believe is real. The stories which we heard growing up, the words we sing in worship, the variety of celebrations related to events recorded in the Bible, are all nice concepts but at times we struggle because there does not seem to be any proof. When life throws a curve at us, we ask ourselves are any of these ideas which I claim to believe real?

Yet I go back to the words of Jesus mentioned above. Each of us have to become like children. Not that we are to return to temper tantrums but that we believe without all the evidence. This does not require us to abandon all the education and knowledge we have accumulated. Instead, this requires us to accept the reality that no one knows everything. We have to acknowledge that there remains items which are without explanation. We believe in what we have not seen as a child is able to do with Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy.

If you are struggling with this type of belief, I recommend you sit down and watch The Polar Express or Rise of the Guardians. These movies will help you understand the importance of believing as a child. When we stop believing in what we do not have evidence for, we lose out on the chance of discovery what is truly possible.

Defining God

First of all, let me be clear that this post will not give an all-encompassing definition of the one who has been referred to by different names. Volumes of books have been published trying to offer that definition. Thousands of theologians, scholars, and religious leaders have spent centuries trying to verbalize a definition. All attempts have fallen short of defining God. Part of the reason is that God does not fit into our human words or images which I addressed in an earlier post (go here to read it if you have not). This being the case, I would like to present to you my current working definition of God.

GOD IS LOVE

I realize that this may be oversimplifying a definition of the creator, redeemer, and sustainer of all life. As simple as this definition is on the surface, it is much more complex than it seems. The complexity comes from the challenge of defining the word “love.” Let me take a bit of your time explaining how I came to this definition and then adding an attempt at defining love.

My starting point is located in 1 John 4:8… “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (NIV translation). The author of this letter states two important realities for me. First, the author connects knowing God with the act of loving. In order to define God, one must know God. Here we see that this ability is centered in love. It reminds me of the scene in the movie, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” During the scene, Indy is trying to make his way into the inner chamber of a temple where the Holy Grail is thought to be located. To get into the inner chamber, Indy must successfully maneuver through three booby traps intended to guard the Grail. Each trap required the person to be able to know something regarding God and/or Jesus. I will not give away the plot if you do not know it already. The key here is that senseof knowing. Instead of having three different pieces of knowledge, the author of 1 John states that the ability to love is the requirement to know God.

The writer goes on to explain to us why we must love if we wish to know God. In the second clause of the sentence, the reason given is “because God is love.” Here is my second reality which feeds my working definition. I challenged a group of teenagers who I was leading in a discussion to take a part of Scripture and every time they found the word love, replace it with God. If you want to try this exercise, go to 1 Corinthians 13 and read that chapter following the instructions which I gave the teens.

As I have read and studied the Bible, it becomes clear to me that over and over, God acts out of love. This love is for humans and for all creation. Even when it seems that God is disciplining people, God clearly is doing so as a loving parent would do with a child. God’s love is most evident in the teachings and actions of Jesus. The author of the Gospel of John gives us those well-known words:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

John 3:16-17, NIV

If it is in love that we know God, and if God is love, then how do we define love. As difficult as defining God is, it is almost as difficult to define love. The number of individuals who have made an effort at this definition is close in comparison to the number who have attempted the definition of God. I offer to you my working definition, love is the giving of one’s self for the benefit of others and finding pleasure and joy in the act of doing so.

As a believer in God, I turn once again to recorded words of Jesus as my basis for my definition. Jesus is preparing his disciples for his death and resurrection when he tells them, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13, NIV). I do not think that Jesus is stating we must die to show love. Instead, I view Jesus’ statement “to lay down one’s life” to refer to the giving of self. This giving may be manifested in offering of time, a listening ear, a helping hand. Giving can also include placing another’s need ahead of our own wants. The placing of ourselves in another person’s shoes may be an act of giving. This list can be added to by each of you. The point is that in this giving, is love.

God is love because…

  • God chose to become human so that we could understand our relationship with God since in Jesus, God walks in our shoes
  • God offers all that God has created to us instead of keeping it all to God’s self
  • God accepts ALL without limit or requirement
  • God never abandons us
  • God forgives EVERYONE without exception

What is your definition of God? What is your definition of love?


The Fit

Have you ever had to pack for an extended trip? The challenge always seems to be having enough room in the suitcase for everything you think you need to take along. Most of us have seen the cartoons or sitcom episodes which make us laugh as we watch a character sit on their suitcase to try to close it. The challenge of trying to get everything in while remaining under the weight limitations is real.

This probably arises differently for many Christians regarding God. Often we have an image of God that has been created from our reading of Scripture, our Christian education experiences, listening to sermons, and being guided by other believers. All these sources are excellent in their own way but all lend themselves to the potential of creating inaccurate images. Whether we start with a correct image or not, there also is the problem of trying to make God fit the image created in our minds.

The issue at hand is one of reversal. In the creation story found in Genesis, we hear of how God created humanity…

So God created mankind in his own image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:27

Clearly we are to understand that humanity was created in the image of God. Unfortunately, people often want God to be created in their image. We often attribute to God characteristics which we experience in ourselves and others. Characteristics such as anger, hatred, discrimination, favoritism and vengeance. To be fair, Scripture allows God to be viewed with these characteristics at times. However, I would remind you of two important truths: Humans wrote Scripture, and humans interpret Scripture. Another challenging aspect is that in Jesus we do see God as a human, the whole incarnation thing. Jesus did display some of these human characteristics. Some human characteristics Jesus did not display.

Another challenge which confronts us when we try to have God fit into the image we have created is that if God does fit that image then we have a God with limitations. Why this is a problem is that if God is limited, then can God truly be considered a god? The image that I may be able to create in my mind is generated by my own experiences. As a person, I have limited experiences and capabilities. Yet I confess a belief in God who transcends the limits of time, space, cultures, and religions. This means that my image of God, no matter how informed, could never accurately incorporate the scope of God who I confess.

My final concern with the idea that any human, or group of humans, could ever fully say what God looks like or how God would act in a given situation is that this would remove power from God. If God fits the predicted expectations of humans, then God is not all powerful. Removing any power of God lessens God, and yet I declare that God is the source of all power.

As a Christian, I confess God to be the creator, giver, and sustainer of all. I confess God to be beyond human understanding and limitations. My confession includes my understanding that God loves all which God has created and that love extends to every person, animal, and aspect of the universe, known and unknown. You see, God is too big for me or anyone else to fit in a human-made image. My challenge is trying to live into the image in which God has created me.

Word By Word

A variety of writing types are available for one to read. Each writing and book has its own purpose. Textbooks are intended to communicate knowledge to those seeking to gain insights into a particular field, skill, or set of facts. Volumes from throughout the ages contain poetry which are intended to inspire, comfort, encourage, or unleash creative thought. Other books are fictional in nature which paint stories for a reader to follow. Fictional books are intended to be for entertainment or relaxation. Some books actually contain elements of more than one of these genres. A book which contains more than one of these genres listed above is the Bible.

Within the Bible are historical facts and events. Some portions which give insights. Poetry and imagery is scattered throughout this book. Words of encouragement, comfort and inspiration are shared at various locations. You will discover stories that entertain, teach, and inspire. These wonderful elements written by different individuals over thousands of years are assembled in a book which we now call the Bible. The question is, what do you do with this book?

Some individuals have made an attempt to use the Bible as a history book. Others have chosen to look at this book as a rule book. Still other people see the Bible as just a group of fictional stories written by ancient people who were trying to explain the world which they experienced without any factual or scientific understanding. I would argue that the Bible was intended to tell the story of God, God’s people, and the world God created.

Here are some important realities which must impact our approach to the Bible:

  • Most of the writings included in the Bible began as oral stories passed from one generation to the next.
  • Writings are by multiple authors who lived in a variety of times and locations.
  • The cultures from which the stories and authors originated are in most cases not the same as your own but shape the way the stories, events and thoughts are communicated.
  • The original languages of the writings which we inherit are Greek and Hebrew, not English.
  • A fair number of Hebrew and Greek words do not have English equivalents.
  • Symbolism is frequent throughout the Bible.
  • Interpretation of meaning depends upon the interpreter.
  • Duplication of the writings before the printing press depended on a reader and a gathering of scribes who tried to write down what they heard read.
  • Edits of the texts have occurred from the beginning of sharing these stories.
  • The decision of which writings would be included in the canonized Bible was constituted by a group of humans.
  • While the writings were inspired by God, humans wrote them.

If you combine the different forms of writing along with the realities which I have listed, a great disservice is done to the Bible by anyone who would choose a literal interpretation approach when engaging with this book. Instead, the best approach is to look at a passage and seek the major meaning within that passage. Asking questions like,

“What are the key concepts presented here?”

“How might the people of that time understand this passage?”

“What is the overarching message here?”

are helpful. Doing a little research into the historical setting and the cultural background of the ideas will aid a person who wishes to place the passage in the correct context. Then you are able to find the connections with your own context.

The Bible was intended to give insight, not to be the sole source of understanding our relationship with God and each other. When you interact with all the elements of the Bible, you find it to be an enriching and a wonderful guide to deeper relationships. Do not take each word at face value or you will lose the true beauty of this book.

Amazing Grace

Grace is a word that is thrown around in Christian circles all the time. The explanation of this word often seems to elude individuals. Most Christians understand that this has to do with God’s gift and usually they associate it with God’s salvific act. To complicate matters, the word is used to refer to a prayer which is said at meal times. Yet this is one of the most important concepts for Christians to understand because it is the very heart of God’s relationship with humanity.

In Western Christian theology, grace has been defined, not as a created substance of any kind, but as “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not necessarily because of anything we have done to earn it”, “Grace is favour, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” It is understood by Christians to be a spontaneous gift from God to people “generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved” – that takes the form of divine favor, love, clemency, and a share in the divine life of God.

Wikipedia article

Grace is the gift given to all humanity because of God’s great love for everyone. As mentioned in the above quote, grace is not earned. We are only receivers of grace. Grace is given to us by God before we are even aware of our need for grace. This is an action of God, not humanity. The reason we struggle to understand grace is the very fact that it is not an act by humans. Grace runs contrary to our human behaviors. It is unexpected because of the sense that it is so foreign to our experiences in life.

God’s creation of humans came from the very nature of God. In 1 John 4:7, the writer states at the end of the verse, “because God is love.” This statement is the ultimate definition of God (I will cover this in another post). Since God is love, we were created from and in love. This love manifests itself in a variety of ways throughout creation and the human experience. Stories found throughout the Bible give evidence to this love. Grace is a manifestation of the love of God.

Since grace is God-initiated, God-given, and God-centered, humans have no control over it. Humans have no right to state who the receivers of grace might be. We have no power to prevent it from being given. There is no controlling grace. Anyone who attempts to stand in the way of God’s grace is doomed to failure.

This is what makes grace so amazing… God gives God’s grace to EVERYONE not because of who they are or what they have done but often in spite of both those realities. Talk about leveling the playing field, God’s grace clearly makes all of us equal because all of us need it and no one owns it.

What Must I Do

What must I do?

This question is often asked by someone who is trying to earn something or be allowed something. In the context of a classroom setting, the question is usually asked by a student when speaking with the teacher of a course in an attempt to determine how to achieve a certain grade. If the question is asked in a work setting, the employee may be wanting a pay raise or a promotion. When the question is raised in a faith setting, the one asking is usually seeking favor or a reward from a deity. An example of this is found in the Gospel of Mark.

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Mark 10:17

This approach is based on the understanding that works earn favor with God and thus rewards. Humans have come to believe that rewards and punishments meted out by a deity or deities is the way to understand how life is experienced. If you have done something pleasing for (fill in here the name of a god or gods of your choice) then you will be rewarded in such ways as a bountiful crop, wealth, fame, good health, a supportive spouse, a wonderful house, and the list can go on based on desires. Naturally, the opposite is true. If you cause displeasure then you will be punished with natural disasters, poverty, hunger, illness, hatred, abandonment, and again the list can grow. This provides answers to two questions, “How did that person acquire that?” and “Why did this happen to me?” The viewpoint is reinforced by our encounters with other humans and their responses to us.

In theology this viewpoint is often summarized in the phrase, works-based faith. Throughout the Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures this was the guiding force which led to rules being implemented to aid individuals in navigating away from displeasing the gods and toward bringing pleasure to the gods.

Faith alone

Jesus in his teachings gave us a new understanding which the Apostle Paul would spend most of his life trying to help people understand. This new understanding is that finding favor with God has NOTHING to do with our works but instead with our belief in the relationship we have with God.

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Mark 10:27

Jesus was responding to the question quoted above. After Jesus gave the man a task which he was unwilling to complete, the man went away feeling defeated and unable to gain the reward which he sought. Seeing and hearing the interaction between the man and Jesus, the disciples also felt it would be impossible for them to receive salvation. Jesus’ response basically says that they are correct in their observation yet adds the “but” which changes the perspective and upends a whole way of thinking.

The first thing to note here is that the “doer” has changed here. Instead of the person doing what it takes to make something possible, God is the one who makes something possible. In this particular situation it is salvation. Now the focus is on God and not on the person.

The truth is that no one has to earn God’s favor. Every person already has God’s favor. Both in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Testament of the New Covenant, the reader/hearer is told of the love which God has for each creature that God created. This love was present even before the person came into existence. Our works, positive or negative, cannot take this love, this favor away from us.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39

Works are not the way we receive God’s love and favor because they have already been freely given to us. (This is the concept of grace which I will discuss in a future post.) We need to change the way in which we think. Instead of thinking about how I can achieve the reward of God, I need to realize that I already have it because God has already given to it to me. I need to believe this is true. As Paul states the idea:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.

Ephesians 2:8-9

A different way to live

Living by faith changes what we do and why we do it. We are no longer living a performance-based life. Our worth, our success, our purpose is not based on the work that we do. (Sorry to those with a true Puritan background.) Instead, all these items find their basis in the fact that we are favored, loved, by God. We live in a manner which shows we believe this fact.

Our belief in this fact leads us to respond, a response of gratitude. Living a life of gratitude obtained by our faith directs our actions. We care for the well-being of other individuals not because it will earn us anything from God but a way is available for us to express our gratitude to God. We give of our time, money, and skills not because it earns us anything but because the giving is an act of gratitude. We strive to follow Jesus’ teachings and to learn more about them as an expression of gratitude not to gain some reward.

The answer

I hope that by now you have gained understanding into the first question which started this post. The answer is NOTHING. There is nothing you must do. You already have the favor of God and all the rewards which God’s love provides. Anything which you do you are doing as a response to living in God’s favor.