The Only Reason I Put Up With Gardening

 

My dad was a gardener. But his ability to care for plants did not trickle down to me. When I try to care for our gardens I usually just end up all itchy with a sunburn. I do not like gardening.

But I do I like gardens.

I like the end product. I like the beauty that radiates from a well-cared for garden. I like the invitation to serenity that a garden offers. But most of all, I like the grace that is displayed in a garden.

Every time I look at a manicured lawn, a well-watered flower, a perfectly trimmed rose bush, a sprouting tulip, a tree in full bloom, I am struck by one simple thought:

“It didn’t have to be this way…”

It is very easy to conceive of a world in which trees have no color. Or a world where every tree is poisonous. It is very easy to conceive of a world where flowers have no fragrance. Or a world where there are no such things as flowers, but instead only weeds. It is very easy to conceive of a world where grassy lawns never turn green (a strange place called California :). Or a world where all grass feels like shards of glass. We could have lived in a world where every plant was bred to kill us.

Our world could have been a very different place.

And yet, we live in a world soaked with beauty. We live in a world where elements of nature provide us peace. We live in a world where something as small and insignificant as plants can offer us transcendent pleasure.

This, by definition, is grace. For we are getting something we did not earn nor even necessarily deserve. We are given the gift of experiencing colors, wondering at beauty, enjoying nature. Why?

What did we do to make it happen?

We had no control over how the universe was formed. We had no control over what plants came into being. We had no control over what world we would be born into.

It is all grace. And it is grace that’s not just available to some people. It is grace that is available to all people, in all places.

It is what theologians call Common Grace. Grace, given freely by God, to all people.

“It didn’t have to be this way…”

For some reason gardens always remind me of this fact. The fact that I live in a world saturated with God’s common grace.

Sure it is true that our grace-filled environment has also been marred by sin.  So now, for a season, it may take some work (on most weekends, a lot of work) to maintain the beauty which God has made available. But it is worth it.

Because few things are better than interacting with, seeing, and sharing God’s common grace.

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Grace In The Midst of Genocide

Mass killings in the Bible are always hard to deal with. This morning I read the uncomfortable story of Joshua chapter 8. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s the story of God giving the city of Ai to Joshua and the people of Israel. The only problem was that, in order to take the city, Joshua and his army of 30, 000 men had to burn the city and slaughter its 12,000 residents. The text even makes a point to tell us that the 12,000 included men and women (Josh. 8:25). It sounds like an act of genocide.

When I was younger, stories like this made me cheer for God. God’s army is the best. No one can stand in his way.

But now stories like this make me squirm. Killing 12,000 people…. really?

The story is brutal in its matter of fact description of the events. No emotion from God, no giving the people of Ai a way out, no love for the lost.

Instead it is just the story of God (through Joshua and his army) setting an ambush, burning the city, killing its inhabitants, and taking its plunder.

And yet, when seen in the greater narrative of the whole Bible, the story is also about grace. Not the grace given to the people of Ai, but the grace given to us.

The story reminds us that:

  1. All those who live in opposition to God’s kingdom and laws are subject to his wrath and face certain death (Rom. 6:23). And that God’s wrath is thorough.
  2. In a way we all, at one time, were citizens of the city of Ai (a kingdom opposed to God). Therefore we all were objects deserving of God’s wrath (Eph. 2:1-3).
  3. But God in his mercy called us out of the “condemned city” and he gave us the opportunity to repent, and to enter into “his city”. He gave us (the rebels) the opportunity to live under his sovereign protection and care (Eph. 2:4-9), able to live not just as aliens among his people, but as full citizens (Eph. 2:19), even as adopted sons and daughters of the King (Eph. 1:5).

But even in the midst of the grace, the story still has an edge. Because it points us to the future. A future which still includes wrath. Wrath not for us, but for all those who are still living in their own city of Ai (kingdoms opposed to God’s kingdom). For a time has been appointed by God, for Jesus (the better and more perfect Joshua) to judge, to conquer, and to lay waste to all those who oppose his kingdom.

Therefore those of us who are citizens of God’s city, recipients of God grace, should still pray for God’s mercy on all those we know. That they too, while they still can, will respond to the grace offered to them through Jesus, and turn from their opposition to his kingdom.

The idea of God ordering the slaughter of 12,000 people still doesn’t sit well with me. It is a dark story. But it is against the darkness where we find gratitude for the light. The story of Ai reminds us that God’s wrath and judgment are real. Yet through his son Jesus Christ he has made a way for us to escape that wrath and enter into his love. And knowing what could have been makes his grace, his forgiveness, and his protection that much sweeter.

 

Today, may we appreciate the grace given to us. And may we pray for those we know to receive and respond to that same grace.

Reader Question: How is it that God has predestined me, and yet, I have free will?

kayak_in_the_river-wide

Imagine you’re kayaking down a river. What choices are available to you?

First, there are choices concerning what you’d like to do in the kayak. How you would like to sit. What you would like to think about. If you’d like to sing like a rock star.

Then there are the choices concerning what you’d like to do with the kayak as you paddle down the river.  You can choose to turn right or left. You can choose to go with the current or against it. Or you can choose simply to spin in circles for a while.

But of course there is also a river.  And ultimately that river determines where you end up.  You clearly have some say in your experience of the ride, but, in the end, there is a destination waiting for you.

If free will is the actions of a man kayaking down a river, predestination is the river.

Predestination says your destiny is determined and free will says you are able to make many choices before you get there.

So the answer to the question “how is it that God has predestined me, and yet, I have free will?” is that God, by His mercy and grace, according to His good pleasure, called you out of a “river” leading to death, and set you in a “river”  leading to life, by which you would be led to Him (John 6:44), see your need for Him, desire to know Him, follow Him, and ultimately do the good works prepared for you by Him (Ephesians 2:10).

This does not impede your free will because you, like the man in the kayak, have, at every point, choices available to you.  You have choices over what you’d like to do with yourself (thoughts, physical actions, etc.), and you have choices concerning how you would like to steer your life (how you interact with and react to people and situations which come into your life).

Yes, there is a destination, and yes, God assures that you will get there because, at the end of the day, God has chosen you.  And salvation (every part of it) is chiefly about God and not you (Ephesians 1:3-14).

Actually, your whole life is not about you, but about God’s work through you.  This is why, as we journey down the river of life, God the Father has given His children a Guide, called the Holy Spirit, whose job it is to point us and conform us to the Master, God’s Son, Jesus Christ.  And it is why the chief end of man is to glorify God (make Him known) and enjoy Him forever.  For it is God’s joy to see His children participate in the revealing of Himself to all people.

Thus, the doctrine of predestination is not so much a doctrine about limited choices as it is a doctrine about God’s grace.

 

What are your thoughts about free will and predestination?

Evil and Grace

Jesus on cross black and white

Why did God let a madman shoot up a school? Better yet, why did He let Adam sin? Better yet, why did He let Satan into the garden? Better yet, why did He let evil into Satan’s heart?

Why is there evil at all?

Sure it’s true that God Himself through Jesus Christ came to rescue sinners from evil and to redeem the world. But why should the world and the people in it need rescuing in the first place? Is God like a man who built a house, rented it out to tenants and then set it on fire so that He could later rescue them? And even if we say that, in God’s case, He did not actively set the house on fire, He just allowed it to happen, He is still the one that had the power to stop it and chose not to. Why?

Some say God did not stop evil because He could not; others say He did not stop evil because He chose not to. Among those who say He chose not to stop evil, there are those who say it is because God is evil, and then there are others who say it is because God wants to work good from the evil.  In either case, God still appears evil. Because even a God who allows the ends to justify the means appears to be a God who is simply a manipulator of creation, like someone just doing the best He can with what He has to work with.

But the God of the Bible is none of these things. So why then did YHWH allow evil into the world?

Imagine evil never existed. Imagine Adam and Eve never sinned. And not only did they never sin they never had the option to sin, because evil was nowhere in existence. What then could we know of God? We could know His power.  We could know His intelligence. But we could never know His Grace.

Grace–unmerited favor–cannot be known in a world without evil.  Grace does not exist in a perfect world because in a perfect world everything is merited.  Every reward is the natural consequence of the perfect action that preceded it. But in a world where there is evil, there are many actions that merit condemnation, judgment, and even wrath. And in that world there is now space for Grace.

In an evil world there is now an open place for favor to be poured out where it should not be. In an evil world Grace shines brightly against the just consequence of condemnation.

Grace…an unknowable quality of God in a world without evil. Could it be that the great I AM is interested in displaying all of who He IS?

In Grace we see a characteristic of God that is wholly unlike any other conceived divine being. In Grace we see the holiness of God (His otherness). In Grace we see the beauty of God. In Grace we see the love of God in a way that otherwise would not be possible.

The Cross, the great symbol of Grace, is not just about salvation from evil, nor is it just about Jesus conquering evil. It is even more: it is a glorious beacon brightly shining in the darkness of night, displaying who God IS.

Evil is necessary for Grace. Grace is an essential attribute of God. God desires to fully display His attributes. Therefore evil exists.

What are your thoughts?

God is Reality

Image

Think about the last time you sinned. Why did you do it?

When I sin it is because in that moment my experience seems to run contrary to God’s truth. Or to put it another way, the reality I am experiencing is running contrary to the truth I have been told to accept.  Sometimes, in that moment of temptation, I don’t believe that my soon-to-be experience of sin will in reality actually be sin. Other times, I don’t believe that the “sinful” experience will in fact lead to any “real” death, “real” destruction or “real” consequence.  Because in that moment of temptation,  I don’t accept that God’s truth will in fact correspond to my reality.

Recently in a time of confession I told God this. I told Him that there are times when I don’t believe Him, I told Him there are times I do not accept that His truth corresponded to my reality. And do you know what His first words of response were to me:

“I Am Reality”

Then the Bible verses came to my mind…God’s revealed name to Moses, of “I AM” …Jesus’ use of “I AM”

Is not this identity statement of “I AM” the most succinct and profound way to communicate, “I am existence”, “I am the essence of being”, and “I am Reality “

Why does this matter?

If God is Reality, and if Jesus is God in human flesh, then to know God through Jesus is to know Reality.  Reality therefore cannot be based on your’s or mine’s experiences. Because our experience is at best only our perception of reality. Thus when our experiences of God’s truth do not correspond to what we perceived to be reality we should not look to condemn God’s truth but rather to condemn our perceived reality. God truth could no more be separated from reality then light could be separated from the sun. Because just as the sun is the source of light, so too God as Reality is the source of Truth.

Thus the next time you or I are having the experience of temptation, we can cling to the truth that God is Reality, which will in turn serve as good reason to distrust our distrust of God.  And  then in that moment of distrust of our distrust of God, we will be able to run to God, trusting that as “I AM”, He will shine his Truth upon us.

How to Let Jesus Fight Your Battles

ImageWhen I was growing up I thought if I was struggling with some sin or weakness, that it was my job to do more to fix it.  I thought if I just read my bible more, prayed more, or tried harder to be like Jesus, everything would get better— it never worked.  I have since learned that when it comes to spiritual battles, Jesus doesn’t want me to do more, He wants to do more for me.  But that can only happen if I’m willing to let Jesus fight my battles.

Maybe you’d like Jesus to fight your battles but you’re unsure of how that actually happens (I was for a long time). So here are three ways to start:

  1. Tell Jesus exactly what’s on your heart and mind-Jesus is one person you can be so honest with, that in his presence you can feel emotionally naked. (It’s like the Garden all over again). Without fear or shame, you can tell Jesus exactly what you’re feeling, and exactly what you want in any moment. No matter how bad it is. Often I will literally say things like “Jesus right now I’m feeling _____________” or “Jesus right now I really want to ____________________”.  Whether it’s cheating, sharing gossip, lying, cutting, stealing, watching porn, lashing out in anger or wanting to kill someone, we let Jesus fight our battles when we confess all our temptations to him. Remembering all the while, that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1)
  2. Ask Jesus for healing and removal- Your heart and mind are full of wounds and idols (welcome to the club). Some put there by you, some put there by the actions of others. But no matter how they came about each of us needs our wounds healed and our idols removed.  So I will say things like, “Jesus would you heal my heart, Jesus would you heal my mind”, or “Jesus would you show me the idols of my heart…would you remove the idols of my heart”.   Until my wounds are healed and my idols destroyed I will continue to be overpowered by temptation and a slave to sin. Thankfully Jesus can heal and remove, as 1 Peter 2:24 says,   Christ carried our sins in his body on the cross so that freed from our sins, we could live a life that has God’s approval. His wounds have healed you. Jesus has done all the necessary work on the Cross and so that now you can receive all the benefits.
  3. Speak God’s Truth over you- Finally speak God’s Truth over your life. This is where all the real power is. As you proclaim God’s Word over your life, you will feel Jesus giving strength to your body and soul.  It is like letting Jesus breath life in places where there was death. Do it out loud, because there is much more power in God’s Truth spoken out loud.  I will say  things like:“God says, I am His adopted child” (Galatians 4:6),“God says, I am valuable” (Matthew 6:26),“God says, He has good things planned for me” (Ephesians 2:10),“God says, nothing can separate me from His love” (Romans 8:38-39).

In Jesus there really is victory! I pray these practices help you, as they have helped me. And I pray you would know the joy of watching Jesus fight and win all your battles.