understanding

The Subtlety of Unbelief

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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

Running from Relationship

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by Linda Rex

Do you ever get the feeling you would like to leave everything and everyone behind and go hide in a forest somewhere where no one can find you? Sometimes we can get so sick of all the human drama in our lives, we would prefer to live the rest of our lives alone on some island out in the Pacific. Indeed, especially for us introverts, being left all alone with just our thoughts and our personal pursuits may sound a lot like heaven.

However well-intentioned our escape from humanity may be, we cannot escape the reality we were created for loving relationship with God and each other. Often the struggle is not with the relationship part of this, but in that we have to do relationship with other people who may be difficult and hard to understand. We may struggle with knowing how to communicate well, or with understanding what to do in certain social situations. These things don’t come naturally to everyone. Some of us really wrestle with the daily necessity to interact with other human beings.

On top of that, we often experience relational hurts, both as children and as adults. Those hurts we receive as children directly affect our ability to form and retain healthy attachments with others as adults. Extremely unhealthy relationships affect our response to healthy ones, whether we realize it or not. What we do to one another as human beings has consequences in our ability to live in loving relationship with one another the way God created us to.

I remember years ago talking with my pastor after services and telling him he scared me. He would really get into proving his point in his sermon and half scare me to death because he would raise his voice while doing it. In the environment of a tiny congregation, it felt as though he was yelling right at me.

I realized after a while the problem wasn’t with him raising his voice to emphasize a point—that can be a necessary part of preaching. The problem was with me—it created a flashback to the times in my marriage when I was yelled at and things were thrown when I didn’t measure up to a certain someone’s expectations. I could not cope with the raised voice in church because I related it to the intense emotional dumping I had experienced in the past in my significant relationship.

Now, I suppose if I had been raised in a family where emotional dumping was the natural course of human interaction, I might have known how to deal with it, or at least how to cope with it. But in my experience, family members kept things to themselves and did not have emotional outbursts. We were a family of introverted nerds, so communicating with others was always a challenge for all of us, with the possible exception of my mother.

In my family’s way of looking at life, we would have all been healthier and happier if we could each have had an acreage in the country where we didn’t have to interact with our neighbors, or worry about property lines or stray pets, or all the other annoying factors involved in human interactions. In fact, in many ways, in our effort to have any relationships with others at all, we avoided any real interaction with anyone.

What I’m trying to say is, we can live in relationship with others while at the same time not really having any real heart-to-heart, authentic, transparent interactions with them. We can have such effective walls in our hearts and minds we don’t allow anyone to really get close to us and find out the truth of who we really are inside. These protective walls are what we create in our effort to survive in a world where people hurt people, and they are magnified by an understanding and belief in a God who is critical and condemning rather than loving and forgiving.

Healing from these kinds of wounds takes time, and can require a wealth of healthy experiences with people who build us up rather than tear us down. Sometimes we need to spend time with a qualified counselor who can walk with us through our wounds and enable us to find the healing which is available for us in Jesus Christ. In other words, the best way to heal from relational wounds is within the context of healthy relationships—with our kind, loving, and forgiving God and with other kind, loving, and forgiving human beings.

I have found over the years God grows us up as his children by placing us in situations where we are forced to learn how to deal with difficult people. And he does this, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the one who is being difficult. It is in our relationships with one another that we come to see ourselves more clearly.

God’s design in creating us in his image was for us to reflect the image of God to one another. When I’m interacting with another human being, it is an opportunity for each of us to experience in a real and personal way what it looks like and feels like to live in the relationship of love and grace which exists within the Father, Son, Spirit relations in the Godhead. When we fail to live in outgoing concern, compassion, understanding and grace with one another, we fail to reflect the nature of the God who created us in his image. The Light we are to reflect is diminished, and we walk in darkness instead of in the light.

There is no room for hatred of another human being in God’s economy. That irritating ungodly person who is so annoying is our brother or sister who was also made in God’s image to reflect God’s likeness. That person is also a beloved child of God for whom Christ lived, died, rose again and sent his Spirit. That person we wish would go away and just jump off a cliff in the process, is someone God loves just as much as he loves you and me.

Part of the problem with isolationist Christianity is the neglect of the reality we were intended to love one another by rubbing up against one another relationally in such a way Christ is formed more perfectly in each of us and we experience the reality of God’s infinite love and grace in the process. If the divine Word was willing to set aside the privileges of divinity to enter into our human darkness as Jesus Christ to take on our humanity and experience all the negative consequences of such an act, how can we deny this to our brother and sister human beings?

Indeed, we can forget in the midst of all the struggles we are going through today in our world the example forged for us by Jesus Christ. The path through relational healing is often through the crucifixion—it will be painful and difficult and will include dying in some way. Dealing with unpleasant and difficult, and even toxic people requires being willing to die to our preferences, and being willing to suffer uncomfortable conversations and situations. We may need to stand to and oppose those who are doing evil. We may need to tell someone the truth about their abuse or addiction and force them to get help with it. We may need to draw some boundary lines in our relationships and enforce them, lovingly and graciously.

But this is what it means to love, to truly love one another. Exposing the love and grace of God at the heart of all true relationship is a challenge. It is also a process—a journey we take in relationship with the God who created us, and who loves us and who has, in advance, forgiven us for all our failures and shortcomings. Instead of running from relationship, may we take a bold step today and begin looking for safe, caring, respectful people to begin the process of relational healing with. And may we turn to Christ for the grace and power to learn to love and be loved as God intended.

Thank you, Father, for creating us in such a way we are meant for relationship with you and one another. Grant us the grace to open ourselves up to new relationships and to heal our brokenness within the context of healthy relationships. Teach us how to love the unlovely, and to forgive the unforgiveable, while at the same time calling others deeper into loving relationship with ourselves and with you. We know all of this is possible only in through our Lord Jesus Christ in whose Name by whose Spirit we pray. Amen.

“On the other hand, I am writing a new commandment to you, which is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true Light is already shining. The one who says he is in the Light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now. The one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him.” 1 John 2:8–10 NASB

Growing in Neighborliness

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by Linda Rex

I grew up in the suburbs of metropolitan Los Angeles and know what it’s like to live in a big city. Today I live and work in and near metropolitan Nashville.

I find living in a large city such as Nashville or L.A. has its strong points, and I can see why people would want to live and work in these hubs of humanity. There are many opportunities to be found in close proximity, especially with regards to cultural and recreational attractions, employment opportunities, and educational institutions.

Living in a big city is not what I would prefer, but I can appreciate the benefits of this lifestyle. I personally prefer small town living, but have learned to adapt to the higher stress, less privacy and less relaxed environment of this area. This is because I have learned over the years that whether urban or rural, the people who live in this world are at their heart, the same as you and me—we all are made in God’s image to live together in loving community.

Between these two adventures in big city living, I also lived in rural southeast Iowa, where the closest city of any real size was at least forty-five minutes from home. In that part of the United States of America, it was not uncommon for people to leave their homes and cars unlocked, and for neighbors to enter by the back door.

When I was eight months pregnant and going to town on a hot summer day, my car ran out of gas two miles from the closest town. I was a lot less nervous then about having someone help me than I am today because that’s what people did there when someone was in trouble. Neighbors were neighbors and looked out for one another.

As I’ve gotten to know more of the people who live next door to Good News Fellowship in Nashville, I’ve come to see that same heart of true neighborliness also exists here and there in the community around our church. Many of our neighbors are kind, helpful people who want their neighborhood to be a safe, upbeat, and warm community where old and young people alike can live free from abuse or neglect.

Our neighbors want to be able to walk or run down their streets during the day and the night, and not fear they will get mugged, or simply shot because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. They would like to be able to trust that someone will not steal their belongings, or damage their cars, or invade their homes. They would like to live without fear, and to be able to trust others with their lives, their homes and their belongings.

Our neighbors simply want to be good neighbors who live in loving community. They want to help people who need to be watched out for, such as elderly or sick neighbors who can’t get out or who are easily taken advantage of. They want to get together to share a meal or to clean the trash off the streets. Whether or not they realize it, in doing these things in community, they are sharing in the unmistakeable heart of love and compassion which exists within the inner relationship of the Father and the Son in the Spirit.

In our common humanity, whether urban or rural dwellers, we were created to live with one another in this kind of loving community. We were not created to prey on one another or to take advantage of one another. We were created to love one another and to look out for one another. When we don’t live together with love and respect and understanding, all kinds of misery is the result. This is because we are not being who we really are—who we were created by God to be.

True neighborliness which is loving and respectful cannot be legislated. It is not really possible to tell people to be good to one another and expect them to do it just because there are laws which say they should and penalties for when they don’t. External efforts to create loving community are no guarantee such community will come into existence and then stay.

The heart of love and compassion which is at the root of true neighborliness has its source in our God of love—the One who pours his love into us by his Holy Spirit. We find God at work in many places and in many people who we, because of our prejudices and presuppositions, believe are not good people. We need to open our hearts and minds to the reality God is at work in each person’s life and heart—we are all made in God’s image and redeemed by his Son and given the gift of the Spirit who is at work in this world.

Our participation in the work the Spirit is doing in this world to bring the love of the Father and the Son to full fruition is to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to pray for, love and respect each person God places in front of us. Those who are so broken as to prey upon us, violate us and steal from us need this love just as much as we need it. So we follow Jesus’ instruction to pray for them, to love and bless them, while guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Sometimes in order to do God’s work of loving others, we need to have and use healthy boundaries.

As members of the body of Christ, we as members of Christian churches have a responsibility to lead others in loving the unlovely, and caring for the broken and downtrodden. We are called to demonstrate through loving actions the real caring and compassion which exists within the Trinity and should exist within the body of Christ. We should all work together, no matter our creed, in the unity of the Spirit and the oneness of Christ, to show the neighborly love of God to others in our church neighborhood.

When we do this, we are entering into a battle for our community. The kingdom of darkness does not appreciate any light we may bring into our neighborhood, and so there is a struggle. But we walk in the assurance that Christ has done what was needed to defeat the darkness. We walk by faith, not by sight. In other words, we keep loving, praying for and showing compassion to those Christ places in front of us, and bear up, by God’s grace, under whatever opposition may come our way. We walk the difficult road of building up community when efforts are being made to tear it down.

Holy Father, by your Son and in the Spirit, empower us to love one another as you created us to. Give us hearts of compassion and respect. Make us “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” as we interact with our neighbors, whoever they may be. God, by your great love, create loving community within our neighborhood so we can experience the same love which exists in your very Being as Father, Son and Spirit. In your Name, we pray. Amen.

“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8 NASB