Three days into 2017, are your New Years resolutions still intact? I’m not one for making such resolutions, but I do strive (however feebly) to live by the Scriptures every day of my life. The very end of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians gives us some good things to shoot for as believers in Jesus in 2017 (and beyond, should the Lord tarry). His last three statements (prior to the “amen”) are powerful:
- “Our Lord, come!”
- “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.”
- “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus.”
If we could wrap all of that into one resolution for the new year, it would look something like this: Long for the Lord’s return while living in the light of His grace and loving one another.
Can you imagine how transformed the Church of Jesus Christ would be if our lives were so defined? Can you imagine the focus we would have? Can you imagine the trivial things that might fall by the wayside in our lives as the things that really matter rise to the forefront? Can you imagine the impact we might make for Christ?
These days, there seem to be a lot of people renouncing the Christian faith they formerly claimed. It’s happening a lot with young celebrities who, as they were coming to fame in their teens, might have been vocal about their faith but now are saying they have left it behind. It’s happening a lot with young adults who, rather than making the transition from youth group to so-called “big church” are leaving church and the faith altogether. It’s happening as people read and hear the so-called new atheists who, because of the Internet, are able to have a more vast visibility and influence than atheists of the past.
I watch this going on – and I’ve seen it with people I know, people I’ve formerly pastored, and even blood relatives – and I go back and forth between weeping and scratching my head. I weep because of the eternal destiny that lies ahead for those who deny Jesus and will one day stand before him. I scratch my head because, while I have wrestled with doubts as much as anybody, I don’t get how someone can just walk away from Jesus. Having known him all these years, I can only surmise that people who walk away from him never really knew him in the first place. Perhaps they grew up in a Christian home or joined a church because of the nice people there, all while never really having a true, spiritual encounter with Jesus. They knew the lingo; they could recite the gospel message; they even learned the various arguments for the faith; but they never really knew him. That’s the only thing that makes sense to me.
Why would I walk away from Jesus because of the influence of small-minded, straw-man arguments put forth by so many of the “new atheists?” I once saw Sam Harris speak on TV, and I’ve skimmed a couple of Bart Ehrman’s books while sitting in bookstores. They don’t move me. In fact, I thought there were so many holes in their arguments that I might use them to drain spaghetti.
Why would I walk away from Jesus because of how Christians have sometimes treated me (and folks, it has sometimes been bad). It wasn’t Jesus who mistreated me; it was people. Christian people sometimes, yes, but still people. What does the failure of people who follow Jesus have to do with his death on the cross for my sins, his resurrection from the dead, and his promise of eternal life through believing in him? Nothing, that’s what.
Why would I walk away from Jesus because of disappointments and struggles I’ve had in life? Have I sometimes been mad at God because of life’s disappointments? Yes, I have. And I’ve told Him so. But His Spirit has always worked on my heart in those moments, and hindsight has inevitably revealed life’s difficulties and disappointments to have been good training exercises for things that have lain ahead, as well as protections from situations I might have encountered had I had my way. Additionally, I’ve seen God use disappointments in my life to enable me later to counsel others with comfort I would not have had to share had I not known myself the disappointment they were facing. I love the words attributed to the second-century bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, as he was about to be put to death for his faith and was given one last chance to deny Christ and live: “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he has never done me injury. How then can I now blaspheme my King and Savior?” I concur.
Why would I walk away from Jesus because of questions about the eternal, infinite God that my puny, finite brain might not be able to answer? For instance, I don’t understand the concept of the Trinity. I can define it, but I don’t understand it. So should I deny its reality? A better question would be, why should I expect that I would be able to understand it? After all, the Trinity is entirely unique, in the truest sense of that word. Is there anything in the experience of mankind that is three, distinct things and yet, at the same time, one thing? Not one thing with three parts; we have lots of things in the world like that. But there is nothing where the three are one, and the one is three. This is why Muslims accuse Christians of being polytheists; they say we worship three gods. But we worship one God who is three distinct persons. In human terms, that sounds like a committee of three or a Federal court with three justices, but it’s not like those things at all. In those scenarios, the individual members are entirely distinct; it is only the framework in which they serve that is one. They can hide things from each other and play politics with one another. They can disagree with each other and manipulate one another. None of those things is done by the Trinity because, in God, the three are truly one, and the one is truly three. The fact that it can’t be perfectly compared to anything means that it cannot be fully understood, but that doesn’t make it not worth believing. After all, does outer space have an ending? If so, how? If somewhere out in space, one were to come to a wall – a dead end – that wall would have to have thickness, so it would go on beyond the limits of space. And beyond that wall’s thickness, there would have to be something; how could there not be? And yet, we have nothing in our human experience with which to compare a never-ending thing, but that does not mean it’s not true. If such a conundrum exists in thinking about a created thing, how much more so in thinking about the Creator? No, it would be arrogant for the limits of my puny mind to walk away from Jesus simply because I can’t answer all the questions I might have. In fact, I’m not sure any god whom I could fully comprehend would be worthy of my worship.
Why would I walk away from Jesus? To paraphrase the Apostle Peter, where would I go? Jesus has the words of life.
This world sometimes seems like it’s spinning out of control. From those times when we access our bank accounts and discover there is so much less in them than we had thought, to those times when we turn on the news and hear reports of unspeakable violence, to everything in between, I find myself sighing and massaging my own forehead, eyes closed and feeling the weight of it all. And then comes a thought brought on by the beauty of a song: faithful still. “You are faithful still,” the singer sings. Indeed, He is.
Scriptural truths come to mind. “If we are faithless, He remains faithful,” Paul wrote to Timothy (2 Tim. 2:13). To the young disciple, Paul also wrote, “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that He is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me” (2 Tim. 1:12). God is neither surprised by nor worried about the events of this world. He is on the throne, and my life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3).
“You are faithful still,” the singer continues. And anxiety melts into peace.
One of the things about God that blesses me so much is his capacity for forgiveness. Those who come to know God’s forgiveness do so initially when they place their faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. Doing so makes one a child of God. But while our experience of God’s forgiveness may begin at the cross, it doesn’t end there, for once we become children of God, we proceed to demonstrate what wayward children we are.
There are different levels of waywardness. Some stumble here and there in the details while maintaining an overall walk with God, but others can seemingly tend to wander away from God altogether. Either way, God’s forgiveness is always on the table.
In the Scriptures, Israel and Judah, the two nations that comprised the one people of God (i.e., the Jews) showed a great propensity for wandering away from God. And yet, again and again we see God offering them a way back and receiving them when they would turn back to him. Hosea chapter 6 gives us some good insight into God’s forgiveness of his wayward people. We read in verses 1 and 2: Come, let us return to the LORD, for he has torn us that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days, he will revive us; on the third day, he will raise us up that we may live before him.
A child of God who wanders away will inevitably face difficulties in being away from God. Our Father just won’t let us walk away comfortably. And we see in this passage that at least some of the difficulties we face when we walk away from God come directly from him. The way most people view God would suggest that such difficulties are because he wants us to know just how mad he is about our wandering away. But this passage gives a different view of God: namely, that he hurts us to help us. God wants his wayward children back where they belong (i.e., with him), and the difficulties we face in walking away from God are for the purpose of driving us back to the place that is best for us – the place of refuge and safety. They are for the purpose of directing us back to the God who loves us.
But notice that God’s intention in doing this is not just so we can live happy, self-directed lives doing whatever we want to do. He does it so that “we may live before him.” The self-directed life of doing whatever we want in the belief that God is the ultimate tolerant Being is actually the life of wandering away from God. Living “before him” rather than away from him means that we have a conscious awareness that we are in the presence of the holy and righteous Creator and Judge of the universe. It means taking God seriously in how we live our lives. Will we fail? Absolutely. All the time. That is why we require his forgiveness, which, from a New Testament perspective that Hosea didn’t have, comes through faith in Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, who came to earth to bear our sins on a cross, paying the penalty our sins have earned for us, and offering us forgiveness free and clear through faith in him, a forgiveness which results in a life of fellowship with God and, ultimately, eternal life.
And yet, even when we have this eternal life, we can have times when we wander away from our Lord. When we do, we can be certain that he will (as Hosea says) tear us so that he may heal us, strike us down so that he may bind us up, all in an effort to draw us back to the place of refuge and safety – the place of living before him.