• Love and Balance

     

    One of the habits of Christians which has always been baffling to me is the tendency to seek balance. So, they might try to find the balance between God’s love and his holiness. Or mercy and judgment. Forgiveness and wrath. Sin and freedom.

    This approach shares a good deal in common with the Eastern religious concept of yin and yang. The idea is that there are two opposing forces which when brought together in the right balance create a whole.

    However, the idea of balance is completely missing from scripture. Which is remarkable when you consider just how widespread the concept of balance has been in religious thought. Many religion’s creation stories were built around the idea of balance between competing forces. Some religions such as the Aztec religion saw their religious rituals and practices as essential to maintaining the balance of the universe. And of course, the concept of yin and yang in Eastern religions.

    In contrast, the only time balance is mentioned in the bible is in the context of using a balance to weigh things. Instead of balance, the holy grail in scriptures could be said to be wholeness. The goal isn’t to bring all things into balance. Rather, the vision of scriptures is oneness. Continue reading

  • The Hardest, Best Spiritual Practice I’ve Ever Tried

    Learning how not to judge has been the most demanding, arduous and painful spiritual discipline I have ever undertaken. It’s also been the most fruitful. I could probably write books and books filled with stories and lessons I would never have encountered if I had not made a commitment to practicing this discipline.

    While most people probably don’t think of not judging as a spiritual discipline, this is exactly how I’ve practiced it. It’s something I do out of obedience and discipline, even when I don’t feel like it or it seems pointless. It’s a conscious practice I have chosen to engage in and must make an effort to do.

    Not judging is like loving unconditionally in that people who have never really tried doing it assume it’s an easy, comfortable and safe thing to do. The truth is it’s unbelievably challenging. Most people can’t even manage it when someone cuts them off in traffic. Continue reading

  • Men, Sex and Love

    I would really, really like to quote the entirity of Micah Murray’s post on the idea that men give love to get sex and women give sex to get love. But doing that is frowned upon here on the internets, so I’m just going to quote a couple juicy bits. But these are no better than the rest of the post.

    It seemed reasonable enough. And it fit neatly with the gender stereotypes I’d heard all my life: Men think about sex every seven seconds. Women aren’t visual. Men are like microwaves; women are like crockpots.

    But, as a newly married man, I soon discovered that these ideas were both inaccurate and damaging in our relationship. Beneath the glib cliché was an economic model of sex-bartering that undermines the very essence of love.

    If it’s true that men give love to get sex, then our shared sexuality is simply a business arrangement, a deal brokered in flowers and kisses. My wife is a deluxe call girl with a long-term contract, marriage is sheer capitalism, and love is a filthy currency.

    I have to be perfectly honest and say that this view of men as base creature who want sex more than they want anything was a real problem for me. I suspect it’s been a problem for a lot of people and the church isn’t doing any favors peddling this sort of outdated stereotyping of men and women.

    I like sex. My husband says I’m good at it. But I don’t like sex so much that I’d put it above love. Frankly, I can’t imagine what sort of person “gives love” in order to get sex. At the worst, such a person is someone who uses me for his own enjoyment. At best, such a person is not someone I can really trust. What if the sex is bad? What if I’m sick or injured and can’t have sex? What if I’m upset or angry or busy? I can’t trust in a person’s love for me if it’s dependant on the quality of our sex life. How can I even understand such a person? They’re like some weird, alien being to me.

    And really, that was long how I viewed men. How I viewed my husband. I thought of them as untrustworthy, alien beings who I would never be able to really understand. Which is a horrendous perspective to bring into a situation where two people are expected to “become one”! How can I become one with someone whose love resides in their genitals and not in their heart? How could I trust their heart? Did they really have one or did everything run through their little head instead? How could I raise my boys if this were an immutable part of their mental make up?

    Of course, as Micah points out, and I’ve been learning, this isn’t actually the reality of men, love and sex. Or at least it shouldn’t be true. Any ways. You should go read the article. And pass it on!

  • Christians and Interracial Marriage

    Guys, what is this world coming to? Aljezeera America recently used the parable of the talents to explain current events. Christianity Today, the flagship publication of conservative, Evangelical Christianity, is promoting interracial marriage. And discussing racism. And even relying on the voice of a black women to explain the theology of the whole thing. The world’s going all off kilter here. 

    I know the rest of the world (and many of us) find it ridiculous that the church still struggles with these things. But we are a people whose founder said he’d go back for the one sheep dumb enough to get left behind. So perhaps it’s part of being church in the world to be a sanctuary for those who just can’t keep up with the pace of change in the world. That doesn’t mean they need to become the sanctuary’s leaders and spokespeople, of course. It’s still a work in progress.

    But look at this fruit. Doesn’t it make your heart sing?

    God abhors racism. Miriam’s skin was turned “leprous, like snow.” Her punishment was directly related to her sinful prejudice against the dark skin of the Cushite people. I did a quick search to examine the effects of leprosy. (Not recommended.) Her punishment would change the way peopleviewed her. It would not affect the way they thought of her per se, but the way they looked at her. As Miriam once looked at the Cushite woman with distain, she would now know exactly what that was like.

    What Miriam forgot, and what so many others still forget, is that all people are made in the image of God, we are all from the same Adam, and now we are all redeemed equally through Christ. Interracial marriage isn’t merely acceptable; it reflects the beauty and glory of the gospel.

    Through the gospel, we are reconciled first to God, then to one another. We are made brothers and sisters in Christ. We are counted as righteous. The gospel breaks the barriers that once divided us.

    You can read the whole post by Trillia Newbell here. Her book Union can be purchased here.

    For the last several decades we’ve heard that we ought to accept interracial relationships for two reasons. One is that we can’t tell other people what to do or who to love. The other is that all races are equal. And those are fine things. Except “everyone should be able to do what they want to do” is something a 7 year old would say. And equal does not mean the same. We still have to figure out how to deal with those differences.

    On the other hand, Newbell’s vision of interracial marriage is built around reconciliation and our true identity. She challenges us to see interracial marriage not only as an acceptable thing, but a good thing. A reflection of God’s Kingdom, in fact.

    Perhaps this is why research has found that among people who attend highly segregated churches (read: among people who attend church), those who report praying and reading their bible frequently are more likely to date outside their race. Wouldn’t it be funny if being in an interracial relationship started being on of those easily recognized markers for being Christian? I mean, we can be induced to wear cheesy and often offensive T-shirts as a way to show what super, duper, committed Christians we are. Picking a dating/marriage partner from another race in order to look like a good Christian could become a thing in our hypercompetitive church culture.

    Of course, wearing a t-shirt doesn’t grow or change you. Interracial marriage most certainly will. So maybe we should start spreading the word that interracial marriage is a thing that super committed Christians do. It’s got to be a better plan/witness than a “God’s Gym” t-shirt!

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    Angry Men and Crying Women

    In the last few months, I’ve realized something about men and women and why we often struggle with each other. It might not be THE problem, but I would venture to say that it’s certainly been A problem. And figuring this out has been really helpful to me, so I thought I’d pass it on to y’all. It all has to do with the way we express our pain.

    Generally speaking, there are two ways we experience the emotion of being hurt – through anger or sorrow. They look very different, but they are basically the same thing. So a person who is raging and lashing out at the world is essentially the equivalent of someone who is wailing with grief. This is really obvious for some of you, but I suspect that I am not the only person for whom this is a bit of an eye opener.

    Most of us are trained – usually unwittingly – to express our hurt in a gender acceptable way. If you are man, you are allowed to get angry. If you are a woman, you are allowed to cry. It’s not universal, of course. But it’s common enough that it’s true more often than not.

    We’re all familiar with people telling little boys not to cry. It’s a bad habit. It cuts them off from a legitimate and necessary means of experiencing and expressing his pain. On the other hand, some room is made to allow the boy to be angry. He can kick the dirt and throw down his helmet after losing a game, but can not sit down and sob.

    It’s not talked about nearly as much, but little girls are often punished and disciplined when they get angry. Anger from a girl tends not to be seen as an expression of pain, but as a sign that she is out of control. And that’s not allowed. A good little girl is always in control of herself, willing to submit to what is expected of her. If she is hurting, she can cry in her room or to mom until she gets over it. But if she complains, throws something or has a temper tantrum, she is swiftly punished. Refusing to allow a girl to get angry cuts her off from a legitimate and necessary means of experiencing and expressing her pain.

    So. men tend to get angry and women tend to cry. Again, it’s hardly universal, but it’s common enough. Now let’s go back to how many of us see anger and sorrow working in the real world. Many parents rely on anger to discipline and control their kids. And, of course, angry people frequently say and do things that cause harm to those around them.

    Both men and women grow up with this model of anger, but we experience it very differently.Men often find anger empowering. Women find it frightening. Women find crying emotionally cathartic – a way to move through negative emotions. Men may feel helpless, irritated and embarrassed when someone is crying.

    For a woman, anger is often very frightening.  This makes sense because for women anger is associated with being controlled by someone who may be willing to hurt you. We may even go out of our way to avoid situations in which anger is expressed. For example, research has found that women are much less comfortable with disagreement in regular conversations than men. We prefer to sit around and talk about what we agree on and may keep our disagreements to ourselves, even when it would be helpful and appropriate for us to voice them.

    Boys don’t appreciate being controlled and hurt by an angry person any more than girls, I’m sure. But since boys are allowed some experience with anger, he will often learn to see it as a legitimate tool for exerting control. The fact that in anger he may hurt someone he loves may be a source of shame and guilt. But without the ability to express hurt through sorrow, the best many men can do is suppress hurt so as to reduce the likelihood of hurting someone in anger.

    On the other hand, sorrow tends to be a pretty private emotion. Even small girls will go off by themselves to cry. Many kids can go their whole childhood hardly ever seeing an adult cry. When a woman cries in front of a man, it’s because she’s in pain and she trusts him enough allow him to see that. Her expectation is that he will do what other women do and offer expressions of concern and comfort to her while she is obviously in pain. However, a lot of men have little or no experience with crying people who aren’t children. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do, but he knows the woman is going to get angry with him if he doesn’t respond well. Often he feels that a woman who is crying in front of him is trying to manipulate or control him. (Interestingly, researchers have found that in the presence of a woman’s tears, men’s testosterone levels drop. A crying women literally makes a man feel less “manly”.)

    Odds are good that I’m describing things that most of you have experienced and observed yourselves. And no doubt some of you figured out long ago how to navigate this difference between men and women. But I do tend to be a bit slow to catch on, so realizing that anger is essentially the same thing as sorrow has been eye opening for me.

    Although I’m pretty dang tough (for a girl ;) ), anger has always made me uncomfortable. Being able to tell myself that anger is no different than sorrow, from an emotional perspective, has helped enormously. It has allowed me to make wiser choices about how to deal with and respond to anger. I’m less likely to get emotional or defensive. If someone’s really angry, I see them as someone who is really hurting rather than just as someone who is really scary. I don’t know what to do about anger except try to protect myself. But hurt? I know how to deal with someone who is hurting.

    If my husband listened to anything I said, he might be able to tell me what this looks like from the male perspective. But I would imagine that it might be helpful for a man to see a crying woman as kind of the female equivalent of a buddy who’s letting off steam. Which might make it easier to realize when she just needs someone to be present, listen and maybe offer some encouragement.

    Undoing this whole knot is a bigger task than I can take on here, obviously. But I do think it’s an important issue. Problems between the genders go back to the Garden of Eden. But we were made to live together as a whole, not in conflict with each other as warring factions.

    A friend of mine recently told me that she had a revelation that there is a serious imbalance between male and female which is causing serious problems for humanity. I think that this area is a great example of that imbalance. When men can only get angry and women can only be sad, that’s an imbalance. It affects individuals, couples, families and even communities and cultures. Heck, world history and current events probably make more sense when you consider that everything has basically been run by people whose only tool for dealing with harm done is anger.

    Clearly, world events are well beyond most of our control. But perhaps finding more balance, understanding and empathy within the context of our intimate relationships is as good a place as any for change to start.

  • Loving People, Loving God

    good_samaritan_photoOne of the readings that day was from 1 John 4:20 which says in part, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” . . . While I can’t say that I hated anyone particularly, this reading challenged me. I knew that I loved God with all my heart, but people? Well, people were mean and obnoxious. They rejected you and treated each other terribly. Loving God was a lot easier than loving people. God is love. People are annoying. How could it be possible that I couldn’t truly love God unless I also loved people?

    R. Trotter, The Upside Down World ~ A Book of Wisdom in Progress

    For a long time, I believed that loving others was an act of love towards God. A way of serving him and living out the love you had for him. If you really love God, then you would love other people as well. If out of obedience if nothing else.

    There is truth in that perspective. However, I’m coming to understand that the reality is much more profound. Notice that the scriptures say that if you do not love others, then you CANNOT love God. Not do not – cannot. It’s saying that you are not even capable of loving God if you do not love other people. Considered this way, a lot of what we think we know about God, love and our relationship with him gets turned right on its head.

    The bible says that we love because God first loved us. That is, God’s love for us is the source of our ability to love. But it is only through loving other people that we gain the ability to love him in return.

    The issue, it seems to me, is that we humans don’t really understand love. We think we do. But a quick glance around the world shows that we’re actually very bad at it. What we’re very good at, though, is self-justification. It doesn’t matter how wrong or how outlandish our treatment of others is, we can quite easily find a way to explain how our actions are actually loving. (Exhibit A: Westboro Baptist Church.)

    As long as we allow our ideas about love to remain in the spiritual realm, we can continue being oblivious to just how bad and unloving they actually are. Our ability to receive feedback from or see results in spiritual realms is very limited, at best. So if I have the idea that it is loving to offer blood sacrifices to the gods, I can continue doing so indefinitely without ever learning that this isn’t actually a very good way to love God. 

    In order to discern whether our ideas about love are accurate or not, we must test them here in the physical world. And this is why I think the bible says that we are not capable of loving God if we do not love other people. By applying our ideas about love to how we treat other people, we are able to see how well they actually work. If they don’t work so well here in the physical world, then that means we’re doing it wrong.

    Learning to love other people becomes a way to test and correct our ideas about what love actually is, how it behaves and what it looks like in action. At least if we are open and humble enough to receive correction when we fail. Thus, as we love other people, our love gets purified. Which means that the love we direct back to God is also purified. We gain the ability to actually love God rather than direct our erroneous ideas about love back at him, calling that love.

    Often, it is through learning to love others that our ideas about God, who is Love, get corrected as well. Let’s say that I see God as loving, but wrathful and angry. And then I have children. In the course of raising them and loving them, I discover that I am quick to forgive them, unwilling to allow any error or slight on their part to destroy our relationship and that I see them through eyes of understanding and mercy. At some point it may occur to me that God’s love must look more like my love for my child than like the stern, disappointed version of him I had in my head. Once I realize this, my love for God is able to be directed to God more as he actually is and less as I presume him to be.

    And it’s not just about getting rid of our bad ideas about love. When we learn to love other people, it changes and shapes us. It drives out our pride. It teaches us patience, understanding and grace. Through loving other people, we take on more and more of the shape of that Love in whose image we are made. Unless that happens, what we consider love of God will be filled with pride, demands, conceit and judgment. It and we won’t look anything like Love.

    Jesus famously says that on judgment day, he will welcome those who had cared for those in need. A lot of Christians, for all practical purposes, reject this. They see this as a demand for works and we can’t be saved by our works, of course. But once we understand that it is only through loving people that we gain the capacity to love God, Jesus’ words make more sense. He’s not saying that if you didn’t feed, cloth, visit and otherwise care for others, you haven’t done what is required to get into the Kingdom. He’s saying that if you haven’t done those things, then there’s no way you have the capacity to enter into the Kingdom. Because unless you know how to love people who you do see, you aren’t capable of loving God whose face you have yet to encounter.

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    I Would Rather You Be an Atheist . . .

    Some use the text to figure out what love means. Others use love to figure out what the text means. Totally different outcomes. ~ David Hayward aka nakedpastor

    Last week, someone left a very long, very angry comment on one of my posts railing at what they saw as God’s cruelty, complete with many scripture quotes. I’m not entirely sure if he was an atheist or an angry believer. He probably thought I was going to argue with him. And I could have – the things he was pointing out are all issues I’ve dealt with and have my own understanding of. But instead, I told him that despite his clear fury at and disdain for the God he saw in those verses, I recognized him as a fellow traveler.

    This was someone who refuses to accept cruelty and unforgiveness just because it’s been labeled “godly” and instead raises the cry, “not good enough!” Someone who wasn’t willing to sit in the squalor of the world as it is, waiting for some Santa Clause god to swoop down and make it all OK . . . one day. This was someone who recognized that any god who is cruel and heartless is not worthy of devotion.

    I saw a fellow traveler because at different points in my life, I too rejected those aspects of Christianity as it is commonly taught as unworthy, unhelpful and generally “not good enough”. Because of my intense, personal experiences with God, I didn’t lose my faith on the way. But I certainly can’t and won’t condemn someone like my commenter for not doing likewise. If a person sees their choice as being either believing in cruel and heartless God who demands fielty and being an atheist, I’d rather they be an atheist.

    No one who reads my blog could possibly accuse me of not being full-on, 100% committed to God and Christianity, so perhaps it is surprising to hear me say that I’d rather someone be an atheist. But the truth is that in the face of what many people are taught about God, inhumane theology and damaging, harmful churches, it can be the height of Godly faithfulness to reject the whole thing and walk away.

    Of course, I would rather that people sought out a different understanding of God, theology that gives life and churches oriented around love. Yet, for some people escaping from the wreck that Christianity is for them is necessary for their survival and well being. I hope that people who take this path will one day heal and come to a place of being able to claim the name of Jesus. In their meantime, it may well be better for both them and the Kingdom that they do not.

    The problem is that too often, religion has been the reason that people embrace things which are manifestly evil, cruel, harmful and damaging – to themselves and others. Those old pagans who burned their infant children to Molec? They were doing good according to their religion. The people who burnt women at the stake as witches? They thought they were doing good according to their religion. People who bring their mentally ill children to exorcists instead of doctors? They think they are doing good according to their religion. And they all called it love.

    It can be very hard, once religion has labeled something as good and/or necessary, for people to see it for what it is. People who recognize cruelty and evil for what it is – even when it bears the label of “godly” and the promise of heaven – are to be commended. Even when they can’t find their own way to disentangling that cruelty and evil from the name of God. If only more religious people had such clarity of sight, the church and the world would be a much better place.

    Many people have been taught that a good Christian is one who shows enormous devotion to their beliefs. But that’s just idolotry. A good Christian is one who shows enormous devotion to God. In fact, since God is love, a good human – which good Christians ought to be living, breathing models of – is one who is devoted to love. While many in the church are fixated on beliefs, others who are leaving the church – sometimes angrily – are doing so because they realize that beliefs are no substitute for love.

    Now, certainly, I’m not saying that all atheists are loving. Nor am I saying that everyone who leaves the church does so because their devotion to love becomes stronger than their devotion to the beliefs they’ve been taught.

    But my experience has been that some of the kindess, most gentle, generous, loving people I’ve encountered have been atheists. And if you listen to those who are leaving the church, their reasons can often be summed up in the cry of “not good enough!” The church, the God they’ve been presented and the theology they’ve been taught have all fallen short of being worthy of devotion. And they are right. Only love is worthy of any of our devotion.

    Many of Christianity’s most ardent critics unwittingly understand God better and are more devoted to him than a lot of Christians. And they are willing to stand for their better vision against rejection, threats of hell and condemnation. That’s devotion.

    The reality is that on the day they die, there will be atheists who meet Love face-to-face and say, “that was you? Please forgive me, I didn’t recognize you when I saw you before.” And there will be believers who meet Love for the first time and say, “who are you? What do you want with me?”

    So yeah, I don’t have a problem saying to some people, “I’d rather you be an atheist.”

    Love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. ~ 1 John 4:7-8

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    Illuminating the Dark

    I was in the midst of a fit of enraged blasphemy when I had my first real encounter with God. And do you know what happened? Well, I wasn’t rebuked. I wasn’t chastised or condemned. I wasn’t told to get my act together and fly right. All that happened was that God made his love known. Right there in the middle of my hateful ranting. The Light shone into the darkness and the darkness was overcome. I’ve been following God where ever he wanted to lead me ever since.*

    My dark side didn’t go away after that encounter. Far from it. As I told a friend recently, I think I’ve been angry with God nearly every day that I’ve walked with him. I have been known to complain almost as frequently and melodramatically as the psalmists and prophets. My first step in forgiving is usually asking God to help me to even want to begin to want to forgive. For many years, I was a proficient liar. I have asked God to do unholy, destructive things to people for my benefit.

    And that’s just the heavily edited list of the things I do and think from my dark side. There’s a whole other realm of things which I know I am capable of which I have chosen not to do. I know for a fact that I have it in me to kill a person. And not feel bad about it. I don’t doubt that I could become a sexual deviant and engage in all sorts of scandalous activities with all sorts of people. I don’t think I have it in me to be a criminal for financial gain. But that’s mostly because I’m kind of lazy and it’s too much work. But I do have it in me to be a horrendous mother who lashes out at her kids physically and emotionally – when not ignoring them – and tells them it’s all their own fault.

    Are you scandalized? You shouldn’t be. I’m quite certain you have it in you to do some pretty awful things as well. We all do.

    The way I see it, there are three basic options for dealing with our dark side. You can deny, suppress and ignore it. Which as we’ve been talking about the last few days, is what Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his day for doing – play acting at being good when really they were white-washed tombs with all that dark stuff rotting away inside.

    Or you can justify the dark side that shows through. Pretend it’s not really the dark. You can explain how greed is good, your white hot temper is justified by the stupidity around you, your inflexibility is just standing up for what you believe in, everyone does it. But then you’re just an asshole.

    Or you can own it and bring your dark side into the light. Which would be the path Jesus recommends.

    Many people are afraid to bring their dark side to God because they are sure they will be condemned for it. They are afraid that they will be expected to fix it or get rid of it. Which just sets us up for failure and more condemnation. And, secretly we’re kind of attached to it. We’re not so sure we want God removing this part of ourselves. As anyone who has watched Star Wars knows, there’s power in the dark side.

    But bringing your dark side into the light isn’t about condemnation or striving to be good or giving up part of yourself. It’s about becoming who God created you to be. Which is another way of saying redemption. God doesn’t want to get rid of your dark side. He wants to redeem it. Transform it from something dark and scary into something powerful and life-giving. Imagine that.

    Consider what light does – it illuminates what it shines on. So it allows us to see things clearly. When Jesus talks about what is done in the dark being brought into the light, it is usually in the context of judgement. We often think of judgment as a frightful thing we dread as much as we dread our dark side. But judgment is simply revealing the truth of what is being judged.

    In other words, it is what happens when we can see things clearly. It’s more like putting in a light bulb and discovering that there are cobwebs all around the ceiling you hadn’t seen before than being sentenced for a crime. Judgment is for illumination, not condemnation.

    So, we bring our dark side into the light and it gets illuminated. We can see what we’re looking at more clearly. And we’ll see it in the light of Love. Things look very different in the light of love than in the darkness of condemnation.

    For example, in the darkness of condemnation, we look at our raging anger and see failure, a lack of self-control, patience and kindness. Bad, bad and more bad. In the light of love we look at anger and see fear which God wants to free us from, hurt which God wants to heal us of and fierceness which God has equipped us with.

    In fact, pretty well every time you bring our dark side into God’s holy light, you will discover those three things at work: fear to be freed from, hurt to be healed of and power God has given you to live from. Which is why the enemy has worked so hard to keep us convinced that we must hide our darkness. It’s where our power hides. If we start working out of that power instead of out of our fear and hurt, all heaven might break loose.

    Next, we’ll look at our role as light in the world. . . .stay tuned!

    *I tell the full story of how I met God while engaged in an enraged fit of blasphemy in my first book The Upside Down World ~ A Book of Wisdom in Progress. Which you should go buy. Right now. Please and thank you. :)

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    Warning: God Can Be Ruthless

    Some years ago my husband was driving through our small town’s business district early in the morning and happened to observe a hawk catch a rabbit. After nabbing the cute little bunny, the hawk alighted on a nearby light post and began ripping into the little thing’s soft belly. What struck my husband was that the rabbit was still alive and struggling when the hawk ripped into its flesh. Yet the hawk was completely unperturbed by the fact that its prey was still alive and struggling. He just sat there nonchalantly looking around, enjoying his breakfast.

    When my husband shared this story with me, I wondered for the umpteenth time what exactly it says about God that we live in a world of predator and prey. Because scripture says that the creation is a reflection of God. In the Book of Acts, Paul says that creation testifies so strongly to the reality of God and his character that even those who have never heard of God know enough about him to be judged.

    So for many years, I would occasionally meditate on the relationship between God’s character and the fact that we live in a world which actually depends on the relationship between predator and prey to function properly. What I came to is that there’s a certain ruthlessness about God.

    Ruthless isn’t a word which we usually associate with God. It seems awfully negative. It’s hardly something we go out and proclaim to the world; “praise God all you people for he is ruthless!” Sure there are those people who are really excited about God’s wrath who might do it, but mostly we tell people that God is loving, powerful, merciful, etc.

    Perhaps ruthless isn’t quite the right word. The dictionary definition of ruthless is “pitiless, without mercy, cruel”. And certainly God is not any of those things. When I say there’s a ruthlessness to God, I mean to describe a lack of sentimentality combined with unwavering determination.

    God is ruthless in the same way a surgeon who cuts into flesh to operate is ruthless. He’s ruthless like a demanding coach who won’t settle for anything less than near perfection from his team is ruthless. He’s ruthless the way chemotherapy is ruthless.

    What I mean to say is that God most certainly has pity on us, is merciful and abounding in love. And yet he will not allow any of those things keep him from doing what needs to be done in order to bring us to salvation. He would rather walk us through the suffering of redemption than allow us to remain broken and enslaved to sin in blissful comfort.

    Consider Jesus; despite being King and God incarnate, he wasn’t spared the suffering of mankind. Everything we suffer, he suffered. There was no point at which God said, “it’s too much.” Instead, he walked with grim determination to his bloody death so that the work he set out to do could be completed. He would rather suffer the worst that life had to offer than leave our redemption for another day when it would be easier and less painful.

    I’ve written a few times about the work of John of the Cross. His writing on the dark night of the soul has been a comfort and companion to me for the last few years. And yet when I read his story, it terrifies me. He suffered awfully. Same thing with many biblical characters. Abraham, Joseph, Hosea, Jeremiah and others all suffered through terrible trials and anguish which went on for far longer than seems reasonable.

    When I first heard of Mother Theresa’s long night of spiritual darkness, it made me wonder what sort of God this is we follow who would hide his face from a faithful servant for so long and inflict so much suffering on her. Truly, there is a reason scripture says, “it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.”

    This is something we Christians don’t talk about much. We flock to teachers who explain how if we are faithful, God will bless us with prosperity, ease and a good name. For many people a good life is evidence of Godly character.

    Apparently it works for some people. I have heard many stories of people who practically had wealth and good fortune fall from the sky when they put their trust in God. He got them good parking spots even! And yet, I know many more people who have done their best to follow God whose lives are a mess. They keep waiting for him to show up and set everything right for them. (Sometimes to the point of not doing for themselves what they need to do!)

    So many people suffer and wonder if perhaps God is angry with them. Maybe they don’t have enough faith or haven’t submitted enough. The suffering which comes when we expect God to bless us and he doesn’t is sometimes far worse than the circumstances we are struggling with to begin with.

    The truth which isn’t spoken of nearly enough is that the Christian life is practically by definition a suffering life. It’s not that God doesn’t love us and doesn’t want good things for us – far from it! It’s just that he loves us too much to settle for less than the best for us. And, unfortunately, the process by which humanity finds redemption is a painful one.

    Jesus didn’t tell his followers that if they followed him, they would live in comfort and ease like some prosperity gospel preacher. Rather, he told them that to follow him, they’d have to carry a cross. At the time, the word cross was actually a common Roman curse word. People would tell someone, “go to the cross” the same way we say, “go to hell.” When was the last time you heard a Christian teacher tell you that to join their church, you’d have to agree to “go to hell”? (If they were following truth in advertising rules, a lot of them would have to. But that’s another topic for another day!)

    Some time ago, I said what has got to be the dumbest, most idiotic prayer I’ve ever said. (And I’ve prayed some dumb prayers before!) I asked God to do what he needs to do in order to redeem me. I asked him to be ruthless. That I wanted as much of him as I was capable of receiving. That he knows my limits and abilities better than I do, so to do as he saw fit – even if I begged him to make it stop. I’ve talked with other Christians who have said similar things and we all agree that it was an idiotic thing to have done.

    And yet, even on my worst day, I wouldn’t really take it back. You see, Jesus said that he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. We tend to think this means we will enjoy the good things of life abundantly. But he’s really promising that we will experience all of life abundantly – including the hard things. How hard life is and how much I suffer on the way is simply a measure of how good the life God has waiting for me is and how much joy I will have in him.

    The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? –Kahlil Gibran

    It’s hard not to look at people whose lives are comfortable and relatively easy and be jealous and bitter. But don’t be fooled. This process of redemption is something God is determined to bring ALL of us through. “As in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive.” God’s ruthlessness is that he will not spare his children the suffering of correction and leave them dead in their sins.

    Those people who have refused the way of the cross and enjoyed the easy path will one day experience the consuming fire of God which purges all that is not of him – only with great regret at having invested their lives in things that didn’t last or matter. A wailing and gnashing of teeth, as scriptures say.

    Those of us who walk through the process of redemption willingly – who have said idiotic prayers and picked up our cross of our own free will – will be spared that bitter regret. As we grow and are refined into the likeness of God, we will see God’s Kingdom emerging within and among us. We will surely see the Lord in the land of the living and when the times comes, walk right into the house of the Lord to join in the feast which is being prepared for us.

    The way of the cross is hard and full of suffering. And yet, it is for good reason that the bible tells us over and over to endure to the end. Father John Hardon said, “we love only to the degree that we are willing to suffer.” We know that this is true. When we love someone, we stay with them through sickness and death – even though this means we will suffer alongside them. Parents go without food and suffer hunger pangs so their kids can eat if that’s what it takes. If we are not willing to suffer, we are also not willing to love.

    In the end that’s what this is all about. Suffering isn’t the point any more than the point of surgery is the cutting. It’s about Love. It’s about becoming an image of Love. And when we reach the point that there is nothing in us which is not love, we will be grateful that God is so ruthless.

  • your-enemis-are-your-greatest-strength

    Making the Most of an Enemy

    your-enemis-are-your-greatest-strengthBack when I was a kid, I would hear the words of Jesus telling us to love our enemies and pray for those who hurt us and wonder . . . do I have enemies? Did the popular girls at school who seemed to be snearing at me all the time count as enemies? How about the teachers who kept insisting that I do my homework rather than just ace the test – were they my enemies? Was the dog who scared the ever-loving-crap out of me on my paper route an enemy? Enemy’s such a harsh word. Labeling those involved in low-level conflicts with me as enemies seemed awfully melodramatic – even for me.

    Growing up in peacetime and as the child of parents who got along with the neighbors rather than starting Hatfield and MaCoy style fueds with them, enemies seemed in short supply. But I’ve always been a tad bit overly earnest, so I figured that in the absence of actual enemies, I would just try to do my best to love the assorted people who managed to hurt my feelings or otherwise bothered or irritated me.

    Of course, life doesn’t often remain so simple and as I got older, I got the opportunity to try my hand at harder cases. The young women who called me racist in front of our dorm and the hall director who tried to get me fired for it, for example. (Unfortunately for their nefarious schemes against me, I began dating my African American husband right around that time. The righteous shall prevail – bwahahaha! . . . . Ahem.)

    At that point loving my enemies mostly involved taking a sympathetic and empathetic view of them. Not holding a grudge. Not playing tit for tat and just taking the high road. Smiling rather than scowling at them and extending a helping hand when there was a need. That sort of thing. Which is all well and fine and the world would be a better, more enjoyable place if everyone did the same.

    Then I encountered real enemies. And I realized that my previous loving enemies was child’s play. The people who I at some level considered enemies before didn’t have anything on this new breed of enemy. This sort of enemy was much more up-close and personal and much more vicious than anything I had ever encountered before. Because this sort of enemy didn’t come from the ranks of the other. This kind was found among those I already loved. When someone you love turns on you and becomes an enemy – that’s when you have a real enemy.

    There’s a danger in talking about loving our enemies – particularly those enemies who are part of your intimate circle. Loving enemies can be used as an excuse for tolerating abuse. It can put the responsibility for maintaining peace or stability on someone who is being mistreated. People sometimes develop an unhealthy disregard for their own wellbeing in the name of loving an enemy. It can also become a cover for ignoring our own part in creating and perpetrating conflict; if I am loving and maybe even forgiving, I can ignore my own culpability in the conflict.

    So allow me to say up front that loving your enemy should not involve allowing yourself to abused, harmed or co-dependant. Nor is it a substitute for dealing with your own part in a conflict. If you are in danger or being abused, get out. Remove yourself from the situation, even if it’s only temporarily. (For example, I began keeping my car keys on me so I could stand up and immediately leave when dealing with someone who had a habit of suddenly getting angry and yelling abusively at me. After a couple of times this person miraculously developed some self control.) Loving your enemies is not a call to submit to abuse.

    But I also know that realistically we sometimes find ourselves in a situation where we don’t have much choice other than to deal with someone who is awful to us. Perhaps you get a boss who is out of control. Or it could be a parent, a child or spouse who has turned on you or is struggling with an addiction. Maybe you went and got thrown in prison and you’re surrounded by people who hate you. Whatever the reason, many of us will eventually find ourselves having to deal regularly with someone who is awful to us – our own real-life enemy. Who Jesus says we need to go love.

    Now, there are all sorts of things you can and should do when dealing with this sort of situation. You may have to remove yourself from the situation. Get counseling for yourself or the person acting out, stage an intervention, find a new job, make a secret video recording and send it to the local media. (Kidding on that last one. Mostly.) Contrary to popular opinion, turning the other cheek isn’t necessarily a passive, shut-up and take it thing to do.

    However, let’s say that you’ve done all that you can do and for whatever reason there’s no way for you to escape the person who has become your enemy. You find yourself in a situation where you are continually being bombarded with hostility, lies, condemnation criticism, blame and other sorts of nasty mind games. If that’s you, I have a secret to share: having an enemy like this is a special blessing. Of the upside down sort.

    If you read through the spiritual biographies of Godly men and women, you will find that this sort of up-close, in your face enemy is a common experience among them. An abusive superior is shockingly common for those who were priests, monks or nuns. And repeatedly what they report is that in the end, that enemy was precious to them. Because it is through struggling to love someone who is absolutely impossible to love that the Christian soul is often refined and polished.

    As I’ve mentioned before, the human version of love is more properly understood as affection. We love other people because of who they are. When someone is good, kind, giving, gentle, attractive, useful, then our affection for them grows and we call that love. When someone is bad, mean, selfish, harsh, ugly, useless, then we struggle to call up any affection for them and loving them can become impossible.

    That sort of love/affection is fine, but it’s not the love we are called to as Christians. It’s not the kind which, as scriptures put it, never fails. The love that never fails – the sort of love which God has – works differently. Because real love doesn’t have anything to do with the person who is being loved. Real love is all about the person who is doing the loving. God loves because of who he is. And, being made in his image, that is how we are to love as well – out of who we are.

    As awful as it is to find yourself facing an intimate, inescapable enemy, the reality is that there is no better tool available for learning to love as God loves.

    Obviously, how to love this sort of enemy is a subject which could take up a book and there’s no way for me to cover it properly here. However, I’d like to offer a few general guidelines for making the most of this sort of, um, special blessing.

    1. Depersonalize. This is both the hardest and the most important thing you can do when faced with an enemy like this. Those young women who were shouting for the world to hear that I was a racist didn’t actually know me. We had never been friends. What they were saying was a threat to me, but it wasn’t true, so it wasn’t too hard not to take it personally. But when someone who has been a friend or loved one turns on you, they know you. They will say things to you which have just enough truth in them to sting, get you on the defense and even make you doubt yourself. They will dredge up your past and re-write your history to call everything you’ve ever done into question. These sorts of enemies play dirty.

    Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements in their own minds. ~ Miguel Ruiz

    This is a very hard reality to accept. Especially if you are the sort of person who wants to take responsibility for yourself and be honest about your failings. It can feel very unnatural and even wrong to simply let very personal criticism and insults bounce off rather than taking them to heart so you can address them. What I have found is useful is to figure out why what the other person says is so upsetting to you. Why are you taking it personally? Because no one like to be insulted or lied about, yes. But like I said before, I didn’t take the accusations of racism personally because I knew that they were unfounded. More often than not, when you figure out why what the other person is saying or doing causes you so much pain, you will discover something in you which is wounded and needs healing, a false belief or fear which needs to be exorcised. Which, painful though it is, is to your benefit.

    When an enemy’s words are like gas to the fire, one of the best ways to deal with it is to find the fire and put it out.

    2. Let everything go. You cannot change another person. That’s a simple reality of life. Under normal circumstances you may be able to influence another person. But when someone close has turned against you, they will often refuse to be influenced. Nor will they accept any accountability or responsibility for what they do. When you try to get them to, they will simply find a way to make it all about you. (Remember – human beings have an almost infinite capacity for self-justification!)

    It could be that in the past you had some influence over the person you are dealing with. Once they’ve decided to shut themselves off from that, the only thing to do is to accept that you cannot change or influence them.

    You have to let them go and accept that the way they are behaving is the way they are behaving. It’s not going to change unless they decide to change of their own free will.

    3. Pray. The ability to love without conditions comes from God. You cannot do it seperate from God. If you are going to have any chance of loving your enemy and not being destroyed by your enemy, you will have to lean on and turn to God. Over and over and over. Develop the habit of asking God for help. (I have known many people who have begged God repeatedly to change or fix their enemy. But this rarely seems to work, ends up sowing emnity towards God and can destroy your faith. Perhaps the time will come when God will change your enemy, but for the time being, ask God to change you – not them.)

    When you need to forgive, ask God for help. When you’ve been wounded, ask God for healing. When you need more patience, ask for patience. When you have been pushed to the point of hatred, ask God to help you love again.

    A few times I’ve asked God for a break and circumstances appeared which did allow for a break. They weren’t often circumstances I liked, but they did give me a reprieve. God will give you what you need to endure and grow. But you will have to accept that it’s rarely going to look anything like how you’d like it to look. Part of dealing with an enemy and growing through it is not having much control.

    You have to pray and maintain constant contact with God as you go through this process.

    5. Confess. Confession isn’t so much about owning sin as it is about being honest. One of the best ways to end up damaged by your encounter with an enemy is to refuse to be honest. To refuse to acknowledge when you’ve been hurt. When you’re angry. When you feel that what is being asked of you is unfair. When you hate the other person.

    We have this tendency to know what we’re supposed to do, think and feel and then try to conform to that. So we know that we ought to forgive and we try to will our way into forgiving. We’ll even lie to ourselves about having forgiven when the other person’s act still has a hold on us.

    The real solution is to take our struggles to God and confess them – be honest about them. God knows how hard these things are and doesn’t hold our inability to do the things he asks us to do against us. He just wants us to be honest about our struggle and bring it to him to be dealt with.

    I can tell you with absolute certainty that nothing will please God more than for you come to him in prayer and say, “this person has hurt me and just keeps hurting me. Would you please hit him with a bus for me? Or if you won’t could you please comfort me and take this anger from me?” That, God can work with.

    Trying to force yourself to feel things you don’t really feel or pretend things aren’t as bad as they really are doesn’t work and is actually harmful. Just be honest.

    A final note: so often I have heard people argue that we can change our enemies by loving them. Maybe. Sometimes. But don’t count on it. It could be that the person who has become your enemy will see the light and have a change of heart. But it could take much, much longer than is reasonable. If you’re waiting on that, you will lose heart. Remember: loving your enemy isn’t about your enemy at all. It’s about you. It’s about you being refined. It’s about you learning to live out of love and nothing else. It’s about you learning to rely on God’s love and nothing else. It’s a refiner’s fire, to be sure. But if you allow God to use your enemy for his own good purposes, the day will come when you will called your enemy your beloved whom you would not trade for anything but God himself.