By Linda Rex
December 15, 2019, 3rd Sunday of Advent—In spite of the overflow of Christmas decorations, holiday events and carols on the radio, I find an undercurrent of sadness and despair rearing its head here and there. There are memories of the past which bring sorrow and pleasure and there’s news of the present, both personal and community, which bring pain, anger, and compassion. How do I reconcile this season of Advent with the real struggles of the human heart and mind?
Whether we like it or not, we need to be able to come to terms with the contradiction or conflict between what we want to believe is true or do believe is true and what we experience in our day to day lives. There are times when we can’t help but ask, “What kind of God would …. ?”—and insert those questions which immediately come to our mind. They are all summed up in this—what kind of God would leave us in our hell and not come to deliver us?
We’re not the only ones who wrestle with the disconnect between reality and belief. Imagine believing that God has given you the responsibility and inspiration to prepare the way for the coming Messiah, so you go out and courageously begin to tell everyone to repent and believe, and the next thing you know you are rotting away in prison waiting for the day you will quite literally lose your head. And the Messiah who you were preparing the way for is doing nothing to deliver you. He’s your first cousin, after all, shouldn’t he be doing something about it? If he was really the Messiah, wouldn’t he intervene in a dramatic way to save the day?
Whether we like it or not, God seems to be a God of contradictions, of two seemingly polar opposites held together in the tension of love and grace we find in Jesus Christ. Here he is, a fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of his people, of the promises for deliverance, renewal, gladness and joy, and yet he comes as an infant, born of a virgin yet the cause of many other babies being slaughtered, growing up as a human boy ridiculed by his peers for being illegitimate, eventually rejected by his people, and executed on a shameful cross. The profound contradictions are an essential means of expressing the reality of Christ’s identity as being both fully God and fully man.
And this is where Advent finds its joy and gladness in the midst of sorrow, suffering, abuse, evil, and horror. What we must understand more than anything else is that we were never meant to be left alone in the midst of all we are going through. Even though these consequences are most certainly a result of our choices as human beings and the brokenness and imperfections of our cosmos and our humanity, we were never intended to have to resolve any of this on our own. We were always meant to be partners in our existence with the One who made it all.
A better question would be to ask, “What kind of God would so ache for his lost and suffering creation that he would set aside the privileges and community of his divinity to enter into his creation and begin to heal it from the inside out?” And what would it take for God to heal what he has made? It would require assuming upon himself what was broken and sinful, and step by step, moment by moment, hour by hour, within our humanity, forging a new existence for us even when it meant dying an excruciating death at the hands of those he came to save.
This seems all pie in the sky. Why even believe there is such a God? He doesn’t seem to care about the fact that I can’t come up with enough money to pay for Christmas presents this year. He doesn’t seem to care that my child is laying in a hospital bed, dying of incurable cancer. He seems indifferent to the reality that I cannot solve this problem with my family member who is shackled by a habit that won’t let him go. What kind of God would let these things go on and on and not solve them?
Jesus’ answer to John the Baptizer was much different that the one he was probably expecting. John wanted to know whether or not Jesus was the fulfillment of all the expectations of his people. By what was happening in his life at that moment, it really didn’t seem like he was. But Jesus sent his disciples back to John, saying “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” (Matthew 11:2-6 NASB) I am doing the work of the Messiah, he said, so don’t be offended if it doesn’t look the way you expect it to look or that I don’t release you immediately from your personal dilemma.
Did you notice what Jesus was doing for the poor people? He wasn’t giving them money. He wasn’t making them rich—he was preaching the gospel to them. People who needed to be healed were being healed, some people were even being raised from the dead, and others who were struggling were being given the message of hope, a call to turn away from themselves and to turn to Christ. In all these things, Jesus was fulfilling his role as Messiah, but there were many people who were present on earth at this time who did not experience what these people Jesus helped experienced. And John, as a witness to the Messiah’s ministry, was for a time one of these seemingly overlooked ones.
Perhaps John needed to be reminded of the story from his people’s history of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, three men who served with the prophet Daniel as leaders in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom of Babylon. The king built a great golden image in Dura and then told everyone they had to worship it or be thrown into a furnace. The day came when the three men were challenged by some Chaldeans with not obeying this decree. The king asked them why they would not obey him.
Their reply is instructive. They told the king that they would only worship Israel’s God and that their God would save them. But even if he didn’t save them, they would still not bow the knee to the king’s idol. They had the opportunity to face the possibility that God might not intervene for them in the way they expected and they determined beforehand that even if God didn’t come through in the way they expected, they would still believe and trust in the goodness and love of God. How many of us can say we would respond with the same fortitude, faith, and humility?
So, the story continues: They are thrown into the furnace which had been heated seven times hotter than before. In fact, it was so hot, that the men who threw them in died from the heat and fire. At this, the king’s anger began to subside. But after a while, the king saw four men walking around in the fire, one of which they described as being like “a son of the gods”. At this point the king called them out of the fire, and the three men came out, untouched by the flames.
Even though these three men bore witness to God, refusing to compromise their belief in him, they still were faced with death and destruction, the loss of life and liberty. God did not come through for them in the way they wanted him to. But they had already decided beforehand not to be offended by God’s lack of intervention in their circumstances. Are we as equally willing to allow God to be the God he is? Are we willing to, rather than asking God to repent and to change his mind, allow him to work things out his own way on his own time schedule, trusting in his perfect love?
This is a real struggle for us as human beings. If Jesus really is God in human flesh, where is he right now while my life is falling apart before my eyes? If God really does care about me and love me, then why doesn’t he intervene and remove my suffering and struggle? How can he be a loving God and expect me to deal with this pain, this personal struggle, day after day after day?
It is important to grab hold of the beautiful mystery of Christmas—of God coming into our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and rising again. This means there is no part of our broken human existence that he does not, in this moment, share in. Perhaps we must linger in the fire a little longer, but we were never meant to bear these flames alone. Maybe we must cry again for the loss of someone dear, but here is Jesus weeping with us, present in this moment by the comforting Spirit in our pain. Awaken to the spiritual reality that Jesus is in us, with us, for us. This isn’t just wishful thinking, but a true reality.
May the Holy Spirit awaken in you an awareness of the real, present Lord. May you begin to experience God’s comfort and infinite peace in the midst of your struggles and pain. May you not be offended that God does not meet your expectations of deliverance. And may you know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that you are deeply loved and cherished, in spite of what your circumstances and feelings may be telling you in this moment. May you find and experience the inner gladness and joy which is solely a gift of the blessed Spirit of God straight from the heart of the Father through the indwelling Christ.
Dearest Abba, come to us. Meet us here in the flames of our suffering, grief, loneliness, and pain. Holy Spirit, make real to us the endless deep love of God. Remove our doubts and fear. Free us from the shackles of our resentment, bitterness, and feelings of offense. Forgive us for refusing to believe. Grant us instead the grace to rest, to trust in your perfect love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The wilderness and the desert will be glad, | And the Arabah will rejoice and blossom; | Like the crocus | It will blossom profusely | And rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy. | The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, | The majesty of Carmel and Sharon. | They will see the glory of the Lord, | The majesty of our God. … And the ransomed of the LORD will return | And come with joyful shouting to Zion, | With everlasting joy upon their heads. | They will find gladness and joy, | And sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Isaiah 35:1–2, 10 NASB
“My soul exalts the Lord, | And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. | For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; | For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. | For the Mighty One has done great things for me; | And holy is His name.” Luke 1:46b-49 NASB
By Linda Rex
It’s been an interesting journey as I have participated with Good News Fellowship in caring for the community in which we located here in Nashville. I’ve experienced a wide spectrum of responses to sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed. Some were expected, while others were very unexpected.
As a Christian in today’s culture, I have found that people have unspoken expectations of me. Because I am a Christian, they seem to believe I will be, or should always be, nice, friendly, and well-behaved—and I inevitably disappoint them. Many people assume because I am a Christian that I am examining them and their lives in detail so I can have something to criticize or put down—and I’m not.
As a Christian, many people say, I must never make anyone feel bad or tell them that they are wrong and must change—after all, they are free to do whatever they want—it’s a free country, right? But sometimes the most loving thing I can do is to bring to their attention something hurtful or dangerous they are doing to harm themselves or others.
Some people seem to believe that since I am a Christian, I’m obligated to help anyone who comes to me and asks for help, no matter what the circumstance or situation. If someone is in need or struggling, it is my responsibility to help them and give them whatever it is they ask for, no matter the cost to myself or the inconvenience it may be for me to help them, or that it might not be in their best interests for me to help them in that way.
Yet God calls us to be, as followers of Christ, generous and giving. We are to share all the gifts God has given us with others. We are to be compassionate, understanding and loving. We should be positive examples of “giving living”—by nature being generous with all God has given us as our participation in Christ’s own generosity.
The fundamental thing is, we are not created as human beings to have a life centered around our own selves. Self-centered living destroys relationships. A self-centered person expects people to orbit around them as they slowly drain people’s energy and heart out like a black hole consumes the stars around it. When we center our lives and other people’s lives about our own needs, desires, and plans, we become more and more selfish, cold, and calculating.
Now, speaking for myself, I recognize there are times when I am self-centered and do not even realize this is what is going on. How disconcerting to walk away from a situation or conversation and realize I have made myself the center instead of keeping Christ and others at the center! These types of realizations keep each of us humble and dependent upon God’s grace and the patience of those near and dear to us.
If we want to be followers of Christ, though, we need to be attentive to these nudges of the Spirit and realign our center to where it should be—in Christ. It is important to be attentive to what the Spirit is saying in each moment and to follow Christ’s lead in our generosity because if we focus on ourselves, we will come up empty. God is the source of all things, including the capacity to be generous and giving, especially when we do not have the energy, resources, or heart to give.
A life centered in Christ is a life which draws its sustenance and well-being from the Source of all things, our Abba. When we are drawing our life from the Life-giver, we will find that our life and our being will be enriched and grow. If we are drawing our life from within ourselves or from the other people in our lives, we will eventually find ourselves frayed, worn-out, and exhausted, and our relationships in shambles.
This is also the case when it comes to our giving. Our generosity must have its roots in Jesus Christ himself. He is the one who came into our humanity, laid down his life, died our death, and rose again on our behalf and for our sake. He set aside the benefits and privileges of his divinity to live within our humanity, even though it cost him his human life. There is a fundamental generosity in the being of God which is rooted in God’s very nature as love.
First, and foremost, God in Christ is the center around which everything in this cosmos orbits and from which everything draws its life. Giving to others and being a giving person must begin with this center. Our center, the center of every part of our being and our life, is in Christ. It is not in ourselves or anyone else. What we do in our lives comes out of who we are, and who we are must be and is based in Christ as the perfect image-bearer of God himself, and the Source of all things.
So fundamentally at the core of our being, because we are made in our Generous and Giving God’s image to reflect his likeness, we are generous and giving people. Our lives, then, are centered around generosity because we are, in Christ by the Spirit, full of a heart of generosity. We recognize all we are and all we have has their source in God himself, and everything in this cosmos, including us and all we think we own, belongs to him.
This true humility with regards to our existence enables us to be open-handed and free with all we have been given since we realize it all came to us as a gift. Even if we worked hard to earn our resources, we recognize and admit that even the ability to earn a living came from the One who gave us the opportunity and capacity to do the work we are doing. There is no holding back what we have been given when we are in the position to help another who is in need or to further the work God is doing in this world to share the good news of Jesus Christ.
But this doesn’t automatically mean we give to every person in every situation without attention to the wisdom of doing so. Yes, we need to be putting our resources to work to further God’s agenda in the world and to spread his gospel. Yes, we should always be generous and giving to those in need. But sometimes the better gift is not to give at all, but to enable that person to trust God to meet their needs in another way.
Maybe we are hindering God’s work in their lives by just giving them cash when we need to be giving them our time and attention instead. Perhaps rather than just giving them our resources, we should be helping them learn what is needed so they can provide them for themselves. These are complicated issues which must be guided by the Word of God and the Spirit, and wisdom.
There is plenty in this world but too often we do not see our plenty as a resource to accomplish Jesus’ mission in this world or to provide for others so they might have what we have. Granted, we’re not all able to share—some of us are the needy as well. But even the needy have something to offer others. We all can share and give, when we draw upon the infinite resources of our generous and giving God, recognizing whatever we have has been given to us as a gift from him to share with others. This is the perichoretic life.
Dear Abba, thank you for being so generous with us, giving us all we need for life and godliness, and for giving us your very best in your Son and in your Spirit. Grant us the grace as you give us the resources to always be generous with others and share diligently in your ministry to this broken and hurting world. In your Name, amen.
“But just as you abound in everything, in faith and utterance and knowledge and in all earnestness and in the love we inspired in you, see that you abound in this gracious work also…. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich…. For this is not for the ease of others and for your affliction, but by way of equality—at this present time your abundance being a supply for their need, so that their abundance also may become a supply for your need, that there may be equality;…” 2 Corinthians 8:7, 9, 13-14 NASB
By Linda Rex
This month at Good News Fellowship we are celebrating all the hands which join together to minister to the people in our community and to the body of Christ. We have so many people in our little congregation who are integral in some way to the ministry of Community Café and to the church itself. I am grateful to each person who contributes their gifts, prayers, and financial support.
I realize there are times when we wonder whether or not all the effort is worth it. We sacrifice and struggle to serve, and it may seem like it doesn’t make a difference or we can’t seem to do enough to satisfy the needs or expectations of those we are serving.
Needs seem to multiply the more we try to meet them. We cannot control the weather, or the destructiveness of fire and wind. Jesus said we would always have the poor among us, for there will always be someone who can’t or won’t live within their means. It seems there will always be needs for us to meet as a participation in God’s care for his creation.
Expectations, however, are a different thing entirely. The longer I am in pastoral ministry, the more I realize the power of expectations to cause disappointment, discouragement, resentment, and disunity.
Some people do not realize the unreasonable expectations they put on pastors and others in pastoral ministry. I know of pastors’ wives who dread the phone ringing just when the family is setting down to dinner because it seems to always be the same person demanding instant attention about something which is not urgent nor life-threatening.
Pastors and those in pastoral ministry have to have really strong personal boundaries otherwise it is very easy for them to allow people to invade every part of their lives to the extent there is nothing left for their own family. They often find themselves saying yes to too many things. There are a lot of good things to do—people to care for and needs to be met. And the list of things to do seems to grow all the time.
It is because we have a heart to care for others and to show them God’s love that it is easy to say yes to too many things. It is easy to burn ourselves out working for Christ, when Christ never once asked us to do any of the things we are doing. This is why it is so important we be able to discern God’s real calling to each of us individually and collectively, and to only participate fully in those particular things God is calling us to do with him.
But in saying no to certain things, we need to be willing to accept the reality we are going to disappoint someone. We are going to fail to meet someone’s expectations of us, and that is going to feel uncomfortable for a while for both us and for them.
I have a hard time saying no to opportunities to serve in my community group. I would really like to be doing everything they ask me to do. But I have learned I cannot say yes unless I am certain it is what God wants me to be doing and I genuinely have the time, the ability, and the calling to do it. I realize saying no is going to make them unhappy just as it makes me unhappy, and it very well may cause them to draw away from me and not include me in future opportunities. But no is what I need to say.
I am grateful I minister to a congregation which is so respectful of my time and home life, I have to remind them to call me when they are going through a difficult time. I am grateful they remind me to take care of myself and my family, and they often step up when I have more going on than I can do on my own.
I don’t have a spouse to share my load, and I am deeply grateful when my brothers and sisters are willing to help me and serve me in so many ways. But realize I also have to be respectful of their time, energy, and capacity to serve as well. I need to not have expectations of people in my congregation which are unreasonable or insensitive.
Sometimes I forget to be thoughtful and considerate to my spiritual community, and I regret it when I do. My brothers and sisters in Christ pour themselves out generously and freely, so I pray Abba will pour generously and freely back into them in every way possible so they will be renewed and encouraged rather than drained and exhausted.
Sometimes we can have and do express unreasonable and unrealistic expectations of people and do not realize we are doing it. Unhealthy expectations of others can cause pain and disrupt relationships. When we know someone has a caregiving, generous personality, we need to protect them from their tendency to over give rather than taking advantage of it all the time.
We also need to respect the humanity of those who serve or lead others in the body of Christ. I cannot enumerate the veiled criticisms I have received about decisions which cost me hours of prayer, fasting, and tears to make. It seems sometimes people expect me as a pastor to not have anything in my life which I regret or which I did not have control over. Their expectation is I will always have lived my life in a way which meets their idea of perfection. Such expectations are unreasonable and unhealthy. The truth is, any pastor I know who is worth their salt is an ongoing creation of redemption in Christ and has places in his or her life where God is at work right now healing, transforming, and renewing.
There are times when in conversation with someone, I perceive sly innuendo and subtle hints of how I need to improve my ministry or home life. This seems to be an unpleasant but natural part of the journey of pastoral ministry. I have always been open and transparent, and it tends to open me up to criticism. But I would rather live this way than to feel like I need to hide myself away from the people I love and serve all the time. Real relationship requires authenticity, even though such transparency opens us up to criticism and unrealized expectations. Real relationship requires a lot of grace—grace which pastors and those in pastoral ministry need a lot of.
Perhaps as we celebrate this month, it is good time to be reminded of the generosity and kindness of the God who laid everything down for us. This is the God who in Christ willingly joined himself to our humanity and sent his Spirit so he could share in every part of our life and our service to others. This is the God who replenishes, renews, and restores us, and who inspires us to care for and love others. We draw our life and our being from him. May we be filled anew with his love and grace, and find renewal in him as we serve him and those he brings into our lives.
Thank you, Abba, for each and every person in our lives who serves you and each one of us. Thank you for those who give of their time, prayers, and resources so that others may be blessed, cared for, and comforted. Free us from our unhealthy and insensitive expectations of others, and enable us to be gracious and compassionate in every circumstance, and sensitive to the limitations of those who serve us. Replenish and renew all those in pastoral ministry, and remind them what they do to share in your ministry is valuable and worthwhile, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. You too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me.” Philippians 2:17-18 NASB
“Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians
By Linda Rex
I’m sure by now that many of you have fallen off your January resolutions for self-improvement and life improvement. And I’m sure many of you are currently in the process of self-flagellation, beating yourself up because you didn’t meet your own expectations, whatever they were.
It is a given that we are broken human beings and we struggle with habits and behaviors that often are not healthy and life-giving. And most all of us want to improve ourselves, have better relationships, and grow as individuals. Now I’m all for New Year’s resolutions, but too often they are our own attempt at self-discipline, rather than a lifestyle change rising out of the deep inner power and conviction of the Holy Spirit, which is the spiritual gift of self-control.
When we look at the Scriptures which talk about being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2), and we are reminded at this time of year when we celebrate Christ’s transfiguration that we are being transformed from our human glory to the glory that is Christ’s, I think it is real easy to look at transformation as being something solely behavioral. What I mean is we often think that our transformation means that we will be better people who will act in better ways.
Indeed, God wants to transform our behavior, but I believe that he wants to go much deeper than that. I believe God wants to transform our inner being. And he wants to transform our relationship with himself—so that in relationship with him we become the people he created us to be—his adopted children who live eternally in intimate relationship with him and one another for all eternity.
It occurred to me this morning as I contemplated the transfiguration that what Jesus said about this process was significant. When he prayed to the Father the night before his crucifixion, it is recorded that he asked that the glory he was given by the Father would be given to those who were his so “that they may be one, just as we are one”. In other worlds, the purpose for sharing in Christ’s glory, in Jesus’ mind, was not so much that we become good people, but that we could and would share in the unity, the intimacy, the oneness of the Father and the Son in the Spirit.
Jesus’ prayer was a request with regards to unity and oneness. Going on, he said, “I in them and you in me, that they may be perfected in unity.” This has to do with our sharing in the divine perichoresis or mutual indwelling of the Father, Son and Spirit. This is a relational oneness that we struggle to have with almost everyone in our lives.
Apart from the grace of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, it is difficult or next to impossible for us to have the relationships in our lives the way we should have. We don’t realize how often the Spirit is at work interceding between us with one another and in our relationship with God so that we can have unity, peace and harmony. I think if we did, we would be a whole lot bolder and consistent about asking the Spirit through Jesus to intercede in every relationship in our lives, whether individually, as communities, or as nations.
Indeed, it is our rejection of our Father, Jesus and the Spirit who indwell human hearts that creates such havoc in our lives. When we are fully in control of all that happens in a relationship and insist that others behave in the ways we think they should behave—we create havoc and destruction in those relationships. When we suffocate the people in our lives because we expect them to take the place only God should take in our lives, we reap the consequences that go with such behavior. When we demand things from others that only God can do for us, we create relational holes that are impossible to fill.
God created us for relationships. They are important and essential to our human existence. Introvert or extrovert, we all need people in our lives to love us, to affirm us, and for us to share life with. Some of the saddest people I know are those who have shut out everyone and have holed up in a place all by themselves. The twisting of the human soul often comes with the significant relationships in our lives harming or attempting to destroy us. And it is only through loving, healthy relationships with God and one another that we find true healing.
Our behavior is often a reflection of what is going on inside of us. It rises out of the depths of our being—the being that we really are inside, not what we project to everyone around us. There are times when we find ourselves doing things we don’t want to do and we can’t figure out why.
This is because there are depths to our being we push down or hide away, or reject because either we don’t want to face them, or we are afraid to let them surface because we may not be able to control what happens when we do allow them to come to light. Indeed, there are times when it would be good to see a counselor or therapist to get help with these deep issues of the heart. And in other cases, to be in a spiritual community where we can be authentic, transparent and accepted is essential.
But other times it’s more a matter of inviting the divine Counselor, the Holy Spirit, to go with us into the dark places and inviting him to bring the healing light of our divine Physician Jesus Christ there. And God will heal us as we ask and cooperate with him in our healing.
Transformation of our lives begins first by the transformation God gives us through Jesus and in the Spirit in our relationship with himself. God draws us near so that we can draw near to others.
When we have a strong foundation in our lives of a deep, intimate relationship with God through Jesus and in the Spirit, we will find that our relationships will begin to reflect that change. Sure, some of them will fall away because there is no room for God or the divine realities in them. But others will begin to heal and blossom and grow. And as we choose to respond to God’s guidance in making healthy choices in our relationships, we will find ourselves in the midst of a healthy spiritual community, and we will find ourselves beginning to heal.
It is in our healthy relationships with God and one another that our true being is reflected back to us in such a way that we begin to change. This change comes not by following a list of rules, mind you, but by God’s work of transforming us by his Holy Spirit.
Our relationships, when they are filled with God’s love and grace, begin to influence us and change begins in our hearts and our minds. True, it is good to study the living and written Word of God so that our minds are renewed in the true realities, but it is God through the Spirit who brings about our true transformation. We are merely participants in the work God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ and in the Spirit. May it be our new resolution to receive this gift of transformation God has given us and to actively participate in what God is doing in our hearts and lives.
Dear loving Father, thank you for the gift of yourself through Jesus and in your Spirit through which we may experience loving relationship with you and one another. Please finish the work of transformation you have begun in us, and grant us the grace to fully participate with you both in listening to the living Word and obediently following the Spirit as he leads us, so that we might ever walk in step with Jesus. May we be fully transformed by grace through faith. In your Name we pray, amen.
“The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” John 17:22–23 NASB
by Linda Rex
One of the most difficult aspects of living in covenant relationship with another human being is coming to grips with the need for unconditional love and grace. Since most of our lives we work and live within the idea of making and keeping contracts, much of our culture is based upon this type of economic and social structure. So when we come to our relationship with God, as well as the covenant of marriage, it is easy to fall back upon this type of thinking and being.
This morning I was listening to Dr. James Torrance ask the question, “Is our God the Triune God of grace or is he a contract God?” His purpose for asking that question was to help his listeners consider the difference between a covenant and a contract. Most of us clearly understand what a contract is—an agreement between two people which can be broken if one or the other does not perform completely the requirements of the contract.
When we mistakenly assume that the covenant God made with Israel and humanity is actually a contract, then what happens is that we put the terms of the agreement in the wrong order: law, consequences, grace. But if we understand that God’s covenant is one of love and grace, and is unconditional, then we understand that the proper order is: grace, law, consequences.
In other words, a covenant looks entirely different from a contract. Torrance uses the example of a marriage covenant to describe the difference. If we think a marriage agreement is a contract (if you do this, then I will do that), then whenever one or the other members of the relationship fail to meet the other’s expectations, then the relationship is broken, and each person can walk away from the relationship at any time. There isn’t really anything to bind two people together if marriage is treated like a contract. You and I both know that at some point in any relationship, someone is going to fail to meet the other person’s expectations. It’s a given, because we’re human.
But in a covenant, unconditional love and grace come first. The commitment to the other supersedes all other considerations in the relationship. Two people agree to love one another no matter what may happen in life, no matter what they each might do. Then there is an understanding that whatever they may do or say to one another will have consequences for the relationship. But the binding of the two people together by unconditional love and grace keeps the relationship intact even when there is a failure at some point to meet the other person’s expectations.
This is what God did with Israel and what he did, in fact, with all humanity. God determined that he was going to draw human beings into relationship with himself. We as human beings have so often broken our part of that covenant just as Israel broke their part of their covenant with God over and over. But God has always been faithful to what he promised. He loved us prior to us loving him. He forgave us prior to us even knowing we needed forgiven. His love and grace are unconditional. This is true covenant.
This is where relationships get tough. Are we willing to forgive the unforgiveable? Are we willing to go the extra mile? Are we willing to keep loving someone who is all prickles and thorns?
You see, God loved Israel unconditionally. Over and over, he forgave his people all of their unfaithfulness to him. Were there consequences to Israel’s breaking of the covenant relationship? Yes—they experienced slavery, oppression and devastation. Even though God allowed them to experience the full consequences of their unfaithfulness to him, he, in time, laid down his life for his people, as well as for all humanity.
God’s love and grace were and are prior to any law. Law describes what a healthy happy relationship looks like and what the consequences are when people don’t live in ways that coincide with a healthy happy relationship. God’s love and grace were present and available even when Israel failed to keep their side of the covenant and experienced the consequences of it. God’s love and grace are also present and available to each of us, in spite of our failures to live faithfully and lovingly in relationship with our God.
Yes, God often allows human beings to experience the pain and devastation that comes with living in ways that break that relationship. And that is where we need to rethink how we handle our covenant relationships. It is easy to believe that in a marriage, if one person loves the other no matter what, then they have to accept whatever behavior the other person does even if it is harmful or involves infidelity or substance abuse. But we need to rethink that.
We are called to love one another unconditionally within the marriage covenant. If a person within the relationship is an addict and is causing destruction to the relationship and to themselves, is it truly loving to allow them to continue in that destructive behavior? No. So they need to experience the consequences of their behavior, but in such a way that the covenant relationship remains intact if at all possible. Love calls the broken person to healing and wholeness and provides a safe place for them to begin to get help. Love does not leave them in their brokenness and enable them to continue their self-destruction. This is when love has to be tough.
When a person is unfaithful in a relationship, there is so much pain involved. The gut level response is to bail out of the relationship. But if indeed unconditional love and grace come first in the covenant—then there must be room, if both parties are willing, to forgive and to rebuild the relationship on a new foundation of grace. When Israel was unfaithful to God, we see the language of divorce in Hosea—yet God did not divorce Israel. Instead, he came in the person of Jesus, laid down his life, and died in her place. Wow! Most of us never get to that place of self-sacrifice and forgiveness in our relationships!
To truly love and forgive is to lay down one’s life for the other so that they can be and become all they were created to be as image-bearers of God. The Triune God of grace teaches us what covenant love looks like—and calls us to live in that relationship with him and with one another. Consequences have their place in covenant relationships. Pain and sin will happen. But unconditional love and grace trumps it all.
God of grace and love, thank you for your faithfulness and compassion. Grow in us the capacity to love and forgive as you do. Teach us what it means to live in covenant love as you do with us. Through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“I will establish My covenant between Me and you [Abraham] and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.” Genesis 17:7 NASB
Wednesday night at our Hermitage small group we were discussing “Killing Expectations”. Judy, who leads discipleship class at Good News Fellowship, brought up an excellent question. As a former school teacher, she was familiar with the use of positive expectations in helping children to achieve their personal best in school. So, what about positive expectations—aren’t they a good thing?
What I gathered from the ensuing discussion was that we need to clarify the difference between expectations of performance based on subjective standards with the more objective standards of being which have their basis in the Being of God. Expectations of being involve our character, personality, temperament, and aptitudes—in other words, our capacity as human beings—something that is unique to each person.
These expectations of being have their basis in God, and like the nature of God’s Being, they reflect the Persons who exist in loving communion, in unity, diversity and equality. Jesus Christ, who is the perfect reflection of the Father, is the supreme standard from which all humans draw their being. And Jesus performed perfectly all that is expected of each of us during his life here on earth, and died and rose in our place. He took up into himself our humanity with all its missing of the mark and failure to meet expectations, and he stands in our place.
God calls us to put on Christ—to put on his perfected humanity—so that we can and will become all that God intended each of us to be as humans. God’s expectations, whatever they are, are fulfilled in Christ, and now he calls us to participate in Christ’s perfected humanity, to grow up into Christlikeness.
The thing is, we tend to read the scriptures, with its lists of commandments, from the viewpoint of expectations that God has for us. We read the scriptures backwards, putting performance first, and then grace and love. But God always puts grace and love first.
For example, we say we have to keep the Ten Commandments or we are worthy of death and God will punish us. Then we say, if we repent and confess our breaking of these commandments, then God will forgive us and we will be saved. This puts grace after law instead of prior to it.
We can forget that before God ever gave any commandments, he made a covenant agreement—something which was not based on performance, but on the love, grace and character of God. God rescued his people from slavery, not because they were good, obedient people, but because he loved them, had made a commitment to them, and they needed saving. He was the one who over the centuries, not only guaranteed the keeping of the covenant, but also renewed it over and over whenever it was broken.
Jesus in his life, ministry and teaching, put grace first. For example, in Mark 2, we read the story of a man who was paralyzed, whose friends brought him to Jesus to be healed. What’s interesting is that Jesus saw the faith of his friends, not the paralyzed man’s faith. And the first thing he said to him was not “Repent and believe”, nor was it “Be healed!” No, it was “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The first thing Jesus addressed in this situation was forgiveness—something only God could give, and he gave it without any expectations in advance.
Later, after dealing with the unbelieving scribes, Jesus gave the man a command—to pick up his bed and walk, to act upon the forgiveness he had given him. Obedience to Jesus followed receiving forgiveness for sins the man hadn’t even confessed. Grace before law. How counterintuitive is that?
That beautiful phrase Jesus spoke on the cross, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing,” shows us again that God’s heart of grace precedes any command God may give us. W. Paul Young in “The Shack”, points out that it isn’t God’s nature to put expectations on us, so much as it is to wait with expectancy to see what we will do and how we will do it. God already knows the extent of our inability to reflect his perfection. And it does not keep him from loving us and encountering us in grace. His focus is on his relationship with us, not on our performance.
Whatever lists of things we find in the Bible that tell us what we should do and how we should live are not prescriptive—as in a doctor’s order for medicine. But rather they are descriptive. They describe what it looks like when we live in union and communion with the Father, Son and Spirit and are fully sharing in their Triune love and life. Not doing these things means we are not living in agreement with who we are as God’s beloved children, and so we will experience painful consequences as a result. And God doesn’t want that for us.
So, going back to the question of positive expectations. We need to keep in mind what we are talking about isn’t necessarily expectations of being, but mostly probably expectations of doing. We are expecting a person to perform in a certain way or to achieve a certain standard. These standards may be established by institutions, society, businesses, or even by people. Often these standards do not take into account the reality that people are unique and don’t all perform or achieve in the same way or to the same level.
Benchmarks, such as those used by schools to monitor their students’ scholastic performance, are useful tools. They encourage achievement and improvement, and help prevent failures in learning or service. They can be quite subjective, depending on how they are defined and assessed. They most likely do not take into account differences in being or circumstance, or relational factors such as grace and love.
We would like people to achieve their personal best and be effective contributors to the overall goals of the group. But unless we remember that we are all persons, with limitations and brokenness that inhibit our perfect performance in every situation, we will hold others to expectations that may be destructive rather than life-giving. The key, I believe is relationship—grace and love first. Then expectations or rules. In that order.
Thank you, Father, that you were the first One to move in our relationship with you. You forgave us long before we even realized we needed forgiveness. Thank you that you did not wait for us to say or do the right thing first, but you went ahead and offered us grace anyway. Grant us the heart and will to offer forgiveness freely to others as you have offered it to us. And may we always live in a way that shows our gratitude through love and obedience. Through Jesus and by your Spirit, amen.
“And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Mark 2:5
By Linda Rex
I was reflecting back on some of my life events recently, when it occurred to me that we don’t take seriously enough our participation with Christ when it comes to our relationships. It seems as though we go through life interacting with others and building relationships without taking into consideration all of our life is bound together in union with Christ in the Spirit.
For example, we bounce or in my case, crawl out of bed in the morning, go through our routine, and find ourselves in the middle of the day, wondering why our spouse is cranky, our boss is rude, or our friend is ignoring us. We may decide then that we need to follow some Biblical principles in order to try to fix the relationship. Following them may or may not help, but sometimes even our best efforts don’t change anything—in fact, at times, they seem to only make things worse.
I think the error is in believing that somehow by doing and saying the right things we cause the right things to happen in a relationship. We turn people into objects we act upon, which automatically respond in preset ways to certain words and actions. How many books have you and I read which teach us this very thing: In order to have a good marriage, you have to do x, y and z, in that order?
We approach our marriages, our child-raising, and our friend and work relationships in this way. And we approach our relationship with God in this way too.
But the thing is, relationships involve persons. And persons derive their identity from the three Persons of the One God who are united, diverse and equal. In the oneness of the Trinity, there is always freedom based in love. That freedom means that no one causes the Persons of the Trinity to do anything. God acts out of his own nature as Father, Son and Spirit in love, in whatever way he chooses to. The Persons of the Trinity may respond to our efforts, but they are not obligated in any way by anything we say or do to act in certain ways.
Some of the greatest hurts in our relationships occur because of these types of expectations we place upon God and upon one another. Expectations in a relationship are helpful only if they are held within a framework of grace, because no human being can perfectly and fully meet another human being’s expectations. Rigid expectations, when they are unmet, create resentment, bitterness, hate, and anger. They create a separation within a relationship—they do not build unity. Nor do they facilitate love.
Holding God to our human expectations is actually arrogant. After all, God is free to do whatever he wishes in any and every situation. Whatever we may expect of him, he is going to do the good and right thing. He’s going to be loving and gracious, faithful—he is and will be true to his nature as God. Our expectations do not change who God is and what he does. They only hurt us, because when God doesn’t perform to our expectations, we end up hurt, angry, and frustrated.
Holding our loved ones to rigid expectations can be very abusive. To expect a child to do something beyond their age and capacity and to punish them when they fail to meet our expectations is destructive to their mental and emotional health. To expect a spouse or loved one to perform something exactly how we think it should be done, with no room for individuality, personality or preference is selfish and controlling, and destroys trust and love, and stifles affection.
The sad thing is, not only do our rigid expectations ruin our relationships, but they also blind us to our own shortcomings. We become so focused on the other person’s failures that we cannot and do not see the many ways in which we ourselves have not kept our word or have been unfaithful. We are so “right” that we don’t realize how very wrong we are.
The truth is that there is only one Being, our Father, Son and Spirit God, who is able to fully keep his side of a covenant. It is his covenant with us as humanity that is the basis of our relationships with others. Because we could not fulfill our part of the covenant agreement, the Word came into our human flesh and lived out our part perfectly and completely. It is Jesus Christ who is the One who is the perfect human, who never fails to keep his promises and perfectly fulfills his Father’s will.
Jesus is the risen High Priest who stands in our stead, bearing us in the presence of the Father. He also, as the Mediator, intercedes between each of us, being the One who perfectly relates to us and to his Father in the Spirit. God sends his Spirit into human hearts so that we are bound together, not only by our common breath in the Spirit, but also by our common sharing in the humanity of Christ. At the basis of all our relationships is Jesus Christ in us by the Holy Spirit.
This means that all our relationships with God and each other are set upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, our Intercessor and our Lord. They are mediated by Christ in the Spirit, who works to bring about love, joy, peace and unity in our relationships. Whatever efforts we may make to heal, bless and grow our relationships need to have their center in Christ by the Spirit, because it is his relationship with his Father in the Spirit which defines what true relationship is.
Christ’s relationship with the Father does not require or use expectations. Christ does the will of the Father because his own will is in perfect unity with the Father’s will. Christ’s will and the Father’s will are one in the Spirit. Their relationship is based on love and mutual submission, not on fulfillment of expectations or obligations.
If in our human relationships we were to release everyone from any and all expectations, and instead focus on the relationship Christ has brought us into with the Father in the Spirit, we would experience a huge shift in our dynamics. When we begin to treat one another as persons who equally yet diversely share in our common union with Christ in the Spirit, we open the door for love, unity and peace. Accepting that we are all broken people sharing in the grace of God in Christ will begin to create in us a spirit of humility, mutual submission and service.
When Christ admonished his followers to be people of their word, he was well aware of their inability to always be faithful and truthful. Jesus himself is the only human capable of actually keeping his word and fulfilling the will of God. Thankfully, God’s relationship with each of us as faulty, frail and at times untruthful people is not based upon our ability to perform, but upon the inner relations of the Father, Son and Spirit in their perichoretic union and communion, and upon the grace and love showered upon us through Jesus Christ.
Our relationships with one another, especially in marriage and family, need to be built upon this same foundation. It is in looking to Christ and participating in his perfect relationship with the Father in the Spirit that we find the grace to love and respect one another, and to be faithful and truthful in every circumstance of life. Whether we bound out of bed or crawl out in the morning, we all share in Christ, and can by God’s Word and through the Spirit find the wisdom, strength and whatever we may need to truly love and care for one another like we should. May God find us so doing!
Father, thank you that by your Son and in your Spirit we have been given a relationship with you and each other we could not have otherwise. Grant us the grace to throw away all our expectations of you and others which create division and hurt in our relationships. Instead, may we live together in love and grace, awake to the life you have given us through Christ and in the Spirit, expectantly looking forward to all you will do to heal, restore and renew. Through Jesus, our Lord, amen.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” Matthew 5:33–37 NIV