By Linda Rex
On Wednesday evenings at our discussion group we have been addressing the topic of hell. One of the concerns which was raised this week was how we determine whether or not we are getting off track in our reading and studying. This is a really good question.
Sometimes we can be so afraid of being deceived or getting off track we become afraid of reading anything other than the Bible. We can take this fear even to the place where we restrict our reading of the Bible to only one translation, or we only use a Bible put out by our particular denomination, rejecting all others as heretical.
At other times we may believe only one particular Bible teacher has the truth about God’s Word. We read everything this person writes, listen only to this person speaking, and we believe they are the only ones who really know the truth about God’s Word. We refuse to listen to what anyone else may have to say about the Bible or what to believe because we do not trust them to be telling the truth.
Unfortunately, our approach to learning about God and about the Bible may end up being governed by fear and mistrust rather than by the faith, hope, and love God gives to us in Christ by the Spirit. Instead of resting in Jesus Christ and trusting he will keep us in the center of his will, we anxiously work to make sure we don’t accidentally wander off the path of holiness.
The Scriptures say God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and sound mind. The Holy Spirit leads us into all truth as we trust in Christ and allow him to lead us. Yes, it is important to ground ourselves in the Word of God, but only as we allow the living Word of God to take precedence in all things, and allow the Holy Spirit to convict us of where we may be getting off track.
This whole process of studying the written Word of God and seeking to know the truth which will set us free is a relational effort—a participation with Christ by the Spirit in listening to, hearing, and acting upon what the Father is saying to us in the Scriptures. The question is, do we trust God to keep us on the right track, and if we wander off somewhere, to bring us back to the Truth who is Jesus Christ?
How do we gauge if a teaching or a translation is off track? How do we know if what someone is teaching doesn’t agree with the truth presented to us in Christ? And this is the key: Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. He is our living relationship with our Abba, and he gives his Spirit to us to lead us into all truth. He is the center.
When we begin to look at difficult topics such as hell, we begin with the appropriate lens. That lens is the Lord Jesus Christ and who he is as God in human flesh, and what he teaches us about the Father, himself, and the Spirit, and what he teaches us about ourselves. This grounds us and enables us to see more clearly the difference between truth and error. Looking through this lens also involves comprehending, believing, and receiving the reality of God’s love expressed to us in the giving of his Son and his Spirit for salvation and redemption.
We need to stay centered in the incomprehensible reality God willed not to be God without us: he chose before time began to include us in his life and love, and so he ordained before time began to send his Son in human flesh to draw us up into life in himself. Understanding and believing in the truth of this reality enables us to begin to read the Scriptures with greater clarity and less confusion. We are less likely to be swept aside by false concepts of God and eschatology (any system of doctrines concerning last, or final, matters, as death, the Judgment, the future state, etc.).
What God did for us in Jesus wasn’t an afterthought or a reaction to what humanity did, but rather what he intended all along. It was not an outflow of his anger against humanity or the rejection of his Son, but rather an embracing of all of us as lost, broken, rebellious children in need of redemption. That God, in his freedom to be the God he is, would do something new—not only creating creatures to share life with, but also joining them to himself forever—is an amazing and wonderful thing.
It is equally amazing that he who lived ever and always in love, joy, and peace, was willing to reconcile suffering, sorrow, and evil with himself in such a way it would be forever nullified and transformed into the very thing which binds us to himself in love.
Jesus is God’s judgment on sin, evil, and death. This judgment (or krisis) each of us encounters is not something or Someone which we should fear, but the Person which we should embrace in faith, trusting Christ is for us all we need in the face of our sin, brokenness, and depravity. Jesus Christ, who is God in human flesh, is the perfect answer or response to God for each one of us, no matter our situation or history or failure.
For this reason, we have nothing to fear when it comes to seeking to know God more fully and completely. Christ has gone ahead of us and has sent his Spirit so we might know which direction to go.
Yes, we have the responsibility to choose our teachers wisely. They need to coincide in their teaching and life with what we know about who Jesus Christ is as the God/man, and who he reveals God to be in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and in the sending of the Spirit. Our teachers need to be willing to submit to being taught and to sit humbly under the mentorship of those with greater spiritual depth, maturity, and knowledge. The Spirit in them will resonate with the Spirit in us, and we will begin to see with greater clarity the magnitude and depth of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ in their teaching.
One of the healthiest things we can do to keep ourselves on the right track is to find other believers who are well-grounded in Christ and to study the Word of God with them. As we pray together, listen to the written Word of God together, and wrestle with our questions and thoughts about what we are learning, the Holy Spirit brings us into a deeper knowledge and understanding of the truth. As we are open to it, we have brothers and sisters who can point out when we are drifting away from our center in Christ. And at the same time, we by the Spirit are growing into a deeper fellowship with God and one another.
Are there times when we may wander off the path? No doubt. But this is why it is essential to walk by faith, not by sight. We trust in the perfect work of Christ and in the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We hold all we read, hear, and see up against the mirror of the living Word of God as revealed in the written Word of God, and we ask ourselves, does this agree with the truth revealed to us in Jesus Christ? Does this diminish Christ or magnify him? And we go from there—it’s a walk of faith.
Thank you, Abba, for the gift of your Son the living Word, and for the gift of your precious Spirit. Keep us on the narrow path of faith, and free us from fear and anxiety about missing the mark. When we wander here and there, please bring us back to our center in Christ. We thank you that you are faithful and dependable, and that you will not leave us as orphans, lost or without direction. Open your written Word to our understanding, and transform our hearts by faith, we pray, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” 1 John 4:1-6 NASB
by Linda Rex
At our group discussion last Wednesday night we were talking about how misdirected anger can ruin relationships. On the one hand, we dump our anger in violent and hurtful ways, and on the other, we stuff and deny our anger in many ways which are ultimately self-destructive. Neither use of our anger is healthy, nor do they serve the real purpose for us experiencing anger in the first place.
We misdirect our anger. We may be angry at one person, and tell others all about it, but never deal directly with the person who is the cause of our anger. Some of us deny our anger and bury it, but the anger which demands expression manifests itself in psychosomatic illnesses, passive-aggressive behavior, and/or depression. Sometimes we are angry about something someone has done to us or said to us, and we begin to behave in ways which are painful and destructive toward people we love and value.
I’ve heard so many stories in recent times about people expressing a deep-seated anger through violence. For example, when some people are frustrated about their inter-racial issues, they express that anger by destroying and looting businesses. I’m always nervous about having ticked someone off in traffic, because I don’t know if they will pull out a gun and shoot me! These expressions of anger are nonproductive and destructive—they don’t solve anything. They only create more problems and more misery.
So much of our anger is retributive. In other words, our anger is a response to a violation of some kind in which we judge that person worthy of punishment or destruction. We seek vengeance—to give them what we believe they deserve. We condemn them and pour out our anger on them in destructive ways.
Some of us realize this is a wrong response, but we still feel in our heart of hearts we want them to “get what they deserve”—to reap what they have sown. We might even be angry with God when he doesn’t bring down the wrath of heaven on this person who so deserves to be punished with eternal fire.
Whether we realize it or not, it is this way of thinking and this belief system which influences how we read what is written in God’s word. We assume God is just like us—that he’s just hanging out in heaven looking for opportunities to crush anyone who misbehaves. When we read “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), we think we are being told this very thing—that God’s anger is going to consume anyone who violates God’s holy standards.
But the reality is, if God’s anger were going to consume any and every person who violates God’s holy standards, we would all have been wiped off the face of the earth millennia ago. This isn’t who God is. He’s not that type of Being. God’s anger doesn’t annihilate and destroy—it refines, renews, and restores. The truest expression of God’s wrath is not against human beings, but against the evil which infests their souls and twists their lives, and expresses itself in so many hurtful ways in our world.
The truest expression God’s wrath against sin and evil was in the Person and Presence of his Son Jesus Christ. First of all, the Son of God the Word took on our human flesh—he entered our darkness. Jesus encountered evil face-to-face within himself and forged for us a humanity unbound by sin and evil. He willingly limited himself to living as a human being, dependent fully upon his Father and the Spirit, and allowed himself to be rejected, tormented, and crucified.
Secondly, he permitted us as human beings to pour out on him all of our fear of a Punishing God, and all of our anger against this God, and all of our refusal to repent of our determination to be God in God’s place. Humanity’s response to whatever God they have worshipped so often has been a fearful “expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire.” We realize even turning our back on Jesus and what he has done for us means we deserve an even greater punishment and destruction. But no matter what we may believe about God and his feelings about our sin and sinful rejection of him, the truth is manifest in our Lord Jesus Christ: we are forgiven, accepted, and beloved. And we can’t seem to get our minds around that.
God’s wrath, his anger, is not so much aroused against each of us as it is against the evil and sin which consume us. His judgment of you and me and every other person who lives is that we are worthy of love, and we need to be rescued from sin, evil, and death. He has done a major part of the work by coming himself in Jesus, taking on our humanity, and allowing himself to be crucifed, and by wonderfully rising from the dead after sharing our death. He is busily working out the other part by his Holy Spirit as we embrace his presence in our world and in our hearts and lives.
Quite honestly, falling into the hands of the living God may be a terrifying thing to us, but it is the best possible thing which could happen. Being judged by the Lord means he goes to work to remove anything which is holding us captive, or causing us and others pain. It means we allow God to begin to transform our hearts and lives as we surrender to his will and his ways. We begin to acknowledge and live within the truth of the reality we have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness into his kingdom of light.
But this is so hard for us. When God goes to work, we abdicate our insistence we are the lord of the universe. We surrender to his lordship and begin to do things his way rather than our way. He becomes the purpose for our lives rather than our selfish desires or opinions. And this is why we resist the Spirit and his work in our hearts and lives. Submitting to the living Lord who submitted himself to us and our rejection of him over two thousand years ago doesn’t come naturally.
Considering the reality of how God deals with our sin and our anger against him, it is worth reflecting on how we respond to evil and how we deal with the anger we feel when we are violated in some way. Jesus took all evil and anger upon himself centuries ago, and what is left is our need to forgive, accept and love. Jesus is the truest expression of grace and truth—and this is what we need in our relationships with one another: grace and truth.
If and when we feel angry, we look with the eyes of Jesus. We start with, in what way have I or others been violated? This is a place of truth and truth-telling. We need to face ourselves and others with integrity—who am I angry with? And why?
If we are angry with God, that’s okay. He can take it. We just need to be honest about it and engage him in face-to-face ongoing conversation about our anger against him. It is not a sin to be angry with God—sin arises when we try to deny or suppress or misdirect our anger.
Another question we need to ask ourselves is, what about this situation am I able to change? And how to I go about changing it? Once we have our answer, we need to go do it, or get help doing it. We need to go have that difficult conversation with that difficult person and quit putting it off or triangulating to others. We need to place and enforce those healthy boundaries which have been missing in our relationship with someone, or we need to end an unhealthy, destructive relationship which is causing us harm. We need to use our anger as a springboard to change, healing and wholeness.
And we also ask ourselves, what about this situation must be surrendered to the grace of God in Christ? And how to I go about forgiving and accepting this wrong which has been done? And we begin to do the hard work of forgiveness and acceptance. This doesn’t let the person who has hurt us off the hook so much as it releases them to God’s work of transformation in their lives, and relieves us of the twisting of our soul which comes through resentment and bitterness.
These are all positive, healing ways of dealing with our anger which reflect the inner life and love of the Father, Son and Spirit. Living in this way better reflects the truth of Who God is and who we are in him. It creates a healthier, more joyful society in which to live. This is what God is, in his wrath against sin and in his judgment, preparing us for. This is God’s heart for us as his beloved children, and it is what we were destined to enjoy forever in God’s presence through his Son Jesus and by his Spirit.
Abba, thank you for loving and forgiving us. Thank you for judging us worthy of love and grace rather than destruction and rejection. Finish what you have begun in us through Jesus by your Holy Spirit. You are an awesome, amazing God, and we love you. Amen.
“For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Heb 10:26–31 NASB
By Linda Rex
This morning as I was getting ready for the day, I paused to watch a news story with my mom. It was showing the many refugees from Iraq and Syria who were crossing into Europe in a desperate effort to find peace and safety. Later I came across a news story on the Web about how the German government in one area had to ask the people to stop being so generous to the refugees—they were being overwhelmed with provisions.
It seems on the one hand we have a horrible situation occurring in which people are being murdered, assaulted, and driven out of their homeland, while on the other we have gracious and compassionate people offering help in an impossible situation. Good and evil juxtaposed in the midst of tragedy and despair.
But isn’t this the human condition? Haven’t we come to this same place over and over?
I was talking with a person a while back who believed that Jesus is coming back on the day after the Jewish holy day of Atonement. He had his reasons for this belief all figured out and in his mind they made sense. It made me think back to all the times when I was growing up and heard different preachers telling me similar predictions which never came true.
When we look around at the horrors and tragedies going on in the world today, our hearts as Christians cry out, “Even so come, Lord Jesus!” We want to be free from our human messiness and finally have justice done to those who are evil, and receive our reward for our faithful obedience to Christ.
It is easy to see God’s judgment as the final revelation of God’s wrath against evil human beings and governments. The events described in the Revelation of St. John are understood by some as a forecast of what’s going to happen when Jesus finally returns and makes everything right.
In the midst of our broken humanity, which we face day by day, we can’t help but admit that we are unable to fix our problems. We cannot get people to stop shooting one another, no matter how many gun laws we enact or guns we take away. We cannot get people to stop divorcing each other, no matter how many counseling sessions we offer or warnings we give about how it’s going to hurt the children.
Little toddlers still go to bed hungry and teens are still sold as slaves. Large companies still misuse resources and foul the earth. People still use people and crimes are still committed. Wherever I turn, I’m hearing Christians declare we’re at the very end now because our American social system is allowing gay marriage. Our human brokenness meets us at every corner—we cannot escape it.
When I think about all this, I can come to the conclusion that the only thing we deserve as humans is to have God come in judgment and destroy us. And quite honestly, I’m not so sure that Christians are that much different than the general population, especially considering how far short we fall from the ideal. So even though we think we’ve got a good thing coming, we’re not necessarily deserving of any different treatment from anyone else if we are to get what we deserve.
It seems to me that we, humanity as a whole, are all in the same boat. The only difference is that some of us believe that Jesus Christ is God in human flesh, and that he came to save sinners. If Jesus came to save sinners, then all of humanity is in the category of people who are saved by Jesus Christ, his life, death, resurrection and ascension.
For believers, our faith in Christ is a gift from God and it is undeserved. It does not make us superior to or more perfect than anyone else—if anything, it is a participation in the judgment Jesus took upon himself—he became sin for every human being and offered himself in our place when we deserved total destruction. In many ways, our participation in Christ is also our willingness to be offered on behalf of others so they might be saved as well.
So all this nastiness going on in the world, this evil which preys upon the good God created all things to be, is not something God intended for us. We allow and participate in evil because we are human and it is our proclivity to do so. But God works in the midst of it to bring light into the darkness. He brings his love into the hate we much too often give ourselves over to. He brings mercy in the midst of judgment.
Indeed we need Jesus to come again and set everything right. But Jesus has come and put everything on the right basis already—founded upon his very being as God in human flesh. He has established perfected humanity and invited each of us to live it out in relationship with him in the Spirit. He has offered each of us the power to live beyond our human brokenness in a new way of living and being that is predicated upon his power and love. He has sent his Spirit to indwell human hearts—so that we can have a new being and a new creation.
And yet he says to us, “Believe.” What we believe about him, about our world and about ourselves is a good indicator of how well we will live out the truth of our being. This world with all of its tragedies, devastations and evils is a good description of what happens when we refuse to believe that Jesus Christ stands in our place and is for us our perfected humanity. The ravaged, abused earth is a good reflection of what happens when we refused to acknowledge any Lord other than ourselves. We are, sadly, reaping what we have sown.
But isn’t that what judgment is? And God’s purpose in judgment is not to cause us pain but to bring us to the place where we choose light over darkness, where we choose to believe he is the only one who can save us. God’s judgment brings us to the realization that our way isn’t the way things really are. Our true reality as human beings exists in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. It is when we start living in agreement with this truth that we find true freedom and real eternal life.
What so many of us want today is the cosmic destruction of all that is evil and the triumph of all that is good. But if we were to be honest with ourselves, none of us are ready yet to fully give up our autonomy. We still want to be able to call our own shots about things, even if we are Christians. Too often our beliefs are external to us rather than internal and a part of what drives us in every area of our lives. We are way too good at keeping God and Jesus at the fringes of our existence.
If Jesus told us today to stop doing something he believes is not what is best for us, would we do it? Even if it meant breaking off a relationship, becoming the laughingstock of social media, or ending up in jail? Or being singled out for genocide? Is God’s judgment on evil and his gracious love at work in you and me today to transform and cleanse us in such a way that we become all that we are meant to be in Jesus right now? Do we truly believe and trust in Jesus Christ? Is he our loving Lord? It’s worth considering.
Thank you, Father God, that your heart toward us is loving and good. Thank you for giving us yourself in your Son and in your Spirit so that we might be healed and transformed. Thank you for not leaving us as we are in our brokenness and darkness, but working endlessly to transform and heal us, and to bring us into your eternal light, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.” John 3:17–19 NASB