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Rethinking Sin

June 9, 2014 — Leave a comment


It’s easy to imagine holiness as a stoic staving off of temptation, a perpetual washing of the hands to keep from being defiled from the world. But holiness is so much more than that. It’s full engagement with humanity. It means getting dirty up to your armpits. Holiness is about what you’re willing to risk to love others and to see God glorified.

I’m also realizing that holiness isn’t merely about refraining from certain activities; it’s about redirecting and redeeming our desires for holy pursuits.

The nineteenth-century Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers spoke of the “expulsive power of a new affection.” For him, conquering sin wasn’t just a matter of steely resolve; it was best accomplished by replacing sinful affections with holy ones. “A moralist will be unsuccessful in trying to displace his love of the world by reviewing the ills of the world,” he preached. “Misplaced affections need to be replaced by the far greater power of the affection of the gospel.”

This principle gives us insight into why people indulge in destructive behaviors in the first place.

Take, for instance, a middle-aged man who cheats on his wife. Why does he do it? It’s not simply because of raging hormones. He had more testosterone in his twenties. It’s rarely because he’s dissatisfied with his spouse’s appearance. In fact one study found that only 12 percent of cheating men said their mistresses were more physically attractive than their wives.

So why would he cheat?

Often it’s because he’s thirsty for transcendence, for adventure. He wants an experience that will lift him, if only temporarily, above the boredom of his mundane, workaday existence.

Of course sexual desire plays a role, as does selfishness and lack of self-control. There’s no excusing his actions. But at the heart of the act is a legitimate desire that has been twisted into sinful expression. As someone once said, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is really looking for God.”

Misguided attempts to grasp for transcendence affect many areas of our lives. Connie Jakab, a Christian writer and activist, lamented the ways women have been reduced to their appearances through messages sent through shows like Desperate Housewives. Playing off the word desperate, she challenged other women to reimagine their role:

You weren’t created to be desperate, you were created to be dangerous. You have life-changing impact living inside of you. That’s what is going to make you beautiful and vibrant, not another Botox treatment. Dangerous will look good on you. Go try that on for size.

It isn’t just sexual sin or self-image problems that are fueled by an undercurrent of misdirected desire. We warn against drug and alcohol abuse, and rightfully so. But it’s easy to miss the bigger picture. I believe the primary reason it’s wrong to get drunk or high is because of what such experiences replace. They are synthetic forms of transcendence, cheap replacements for encounters with the living God. When the Bible warns against drunkenness, it includes a corresponding command: “Do not get drunk on wine. . . . Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18).

Why is drunkenness wrong? Because there’s a better experience awaiting us—being filled with the Spirit!

Our desire for transcendence isn’t the problem; satisfying it in destructive ways is. Sin is the result of desires that have been sublimated and sent sideways.

Sin hurts people and ruins relationships. But perhaps the greatest tragedy is what sin keeps us from—the grand adventure of a life lived with and for God.

* This post was excerpted from Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying
photo credit: Christos Tsoumplekas (Back again!) via photopin cc

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I was watching a TV show recently in which one of the characters was struggling with whether to go through with an arranged marriage.

In his home country arranged marriages were the norm. But after living in America, he was having second thoughts about adhering to this ancient custom, especially since he’d never met his wife-to-be.

Still, when she flew into the airport, he dutifully waited for her, flowers in hand, and a gloomy expression on his face. But when she stepped through the terminal, everything changed. She was beautiful! Suddenly his glum demeanor disappeared. The thought of marrying this woman was no longer a dreaded duty; it was a delight. What had changed?

He’d seen her.

Often we serve God out of obligation. We drag ourselves to church, force ourselves to serve others—but our hearts aren’t in it. We’re like that guy at the airport, grudgingly holding flowers for God.

We’re trying to live holy lives because we know we should, but it’s burdensome, joyless.

What can change this?

Seeing God.

When we get a vision of who God truly is, suddenly we’re energized to do his mission.

Once we gaze upon his grandeur and glory, obedience ceases to be arduous. Once we grasp his great love, serving is no longer a duty—it’s a joy!

* This post was excerpted from Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying
photo credit: Βethan via photopin cc

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Tiger Sighting

June 2, 2014 — Leave a comment


We’re always reduced to using metaphors when we talk about God, and I based my new book on a strange one.

I compared God to a tiger.

I hope that doesn’t offend people. My goal was to illustrate how dangerous and different from us God truly is.

Tigers are some of the most striking creatures on the planet. The sight of their vivid orange and black striping and lithe, muscular bodies produces a mixture of fascination and fear. Perhaps no one captured the essence of a tiger better than William Blake in his classic poem, “The Tyger.” The first lines read:

Tyger, tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night

When we think of tigers, that’s where we envision them—“in the forests of the night,” or maybe stalking prey through the jungles of India.

We imagine them wild.

The reality, unfortunately, is not so idyllic. Tigers are in trouble. Over the past century the global tiger population has dropped by 97 percent. An estimated thirty-two hundred tigers remain in the wild, fewer than the number of captive tigers in the United States alone.

Today most tigers know nothing of dark forests and dense jungles. They live out their lives in cramped cement enclosures or chain-link cages. Most don’t even know how to hunt. This apex predator, which for eons hunted vast territories and feared no natural enemy, no longer roams free. One of the most formidable animals in the world now slumbers behind safety glass while tourists file by to snap pictures.

The tiger has been tamed.

It’s a tragedy that reminds me of another one: our attempts to tame a holy God.

God should command our highest loyalty and deepest reverence, yet often we try to domesticate him. Whether out of fear or pride or ignorance, we no longer appreciate his strangeness and splendor. We’re not moved by his greatness and grandeur.

We fail to tremble at his holiness. We avert our eyes from his brilliance. We spend our lives yawning at tigers.

Of course God will never suffer the fate of the tiger. We can do nothing to confine his power or reduce his majesty. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”

No, in our attempts to tame the Almighty, we succeed only in confining ourselves.

My hope is that we will break free. My prayer is that we will awaken to the awe of God, that we will open our lives to his holiness and love. May he forever stalk our hearts. May we learn to see his burning eyes amid the forests of our lives.

* This post was excerpted from Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying
photo credit: Steve Wilson – over 3 million views Thanks !! via photopin cc

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A Person, Not Answers

May 29, 2014 — 6 Comments

The Bible offers no escape from the problem of suffering. And no easy answers for the pain we experience in this world.

Don’t get me wrong—it has plenty to say on the subject. It tells us that suffering builds character, turns us to God, and even brings redemption. But ultimately Scripture presents no philosophical formula explaining why we suffer.

Even the book of Job, a veritable suffering saga, is silent on the topic. Job’s friends offer their beleaguered buddy various explanations, but they’re all wrong. And when God finally shows up, it’s not to answer questions.

This can be frustrating, especially for those of us drawn to life’s big questions. We want to know why. Yet for people in the throes of suffering, the Bible offers something much different than an answer—it offers a Person.

The Bible tells us we’re not alone, no matter how deep our suffering. The writer of Hebrews describes Jesus as our High Priest who can “empathize with our weaknesses” (4:15). This is crucial. Identifying with someone’s pain requires that you have at least some experience of their suffering. The very word compassion comes from the Latin compassio, which literally means “to suffer with.” Only one willing to suffer truly has compassion.

On his 39th birthday, poet Christian Wiman was diagnosed with an incurable form of blood cancer. He wrote frankly about the agonizing effects of his illness and the treatments.

I have had bones die and bowels fail; joints lock in my face and arms and legs, so that I could not eat, could not walk . . . I have passed through pain I could never have imagined, pain that seemed to incinerate all my thoughts of God and to leave me sitting there in the ashes, alone.

When the diagnosis came, Wiman was a rising star in the literary world and editor of Poetry, the world’s most prestigious poetry publication. Though Wiman confessed his Christian faith had “evaporated in the blast of modernism and secularism to which I was exposed in college,” the diagnosis started a journey that ultimately led him back to God. It wasn’t a particular doctrine that drew him back to the faith. Even the resurrection, he admits, is a struggle for him to accept. But Wiman found a friend in the suffering Messiah.

I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me. . . . The point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering. I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolute solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion. I’m not suggesting that ministering angels are going to come down and comfort you as you die. I’m suggesting that Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering.

In the face of brutal, isolating pain we don’t really want answers. We want a person. At such times there is simply no substitute for the presence of Christ.

* This post was excerpted from Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying
photo credit: unpolarized via photopin cc

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