List Makers

Americans are obsessed with observable, trackable progress. I’ve noted this for many years in martial arts. For any of you familiar with martial arts you probably know that the system of ranking by colored belts is an American invention. In fact, since I started practicing twenty years ago, the number of belts has increased while the time required between them has decreased. When I started most schools recognized white, yellow, green, blue, brown, and black belts, and there was generally anywhere from three to six months between tests. This time increased the higher you went, so you might wait three months to test from white to yellow, but a year to test from brown to black.  Today I know of many schools that recognize white, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, red, brown, and black belts, and some schools require less than a month to test from one belt to the next.

This is not what martial arts used to be. I briefly attended one school in Virginia Beach that used an archaic Japanese ranking system. When I started the first thing the instructor told me was that I had to understand that there were no belts in his class. I was a student until he told me to go start a school, at which point I would be an instructor. I had senior students (everyone else in the class), and I was the most junior student. Outside of this there were no ranks, tests, or obvious format of progression. I loved this system, and if I hadn’t moved away, I’d probably still be studying there.

I mention this because it is symptomatic of a much deeper problem in American culture: we want to be in control. Whether it is making a bucket list for the week/month/year, making a detailed list of short/long term goals, or making a list of qualities that we want to see in a spouse, we like to try to control our lives and the world around us. I’m not saying that having a list of goals or desires is a bad thing. It can help keep you on track, help you focus, and help you say no when you need to say no. I have a short list of long term goals that I’m working towards (I’ve posted this before). I have a short list of things that I’m looking for in a future spouse:

1) I want a wife who is a committed Christian with a visible desire to grow closer to Christ.

2) I want a wife who is intelligent and capable of carrying on an interesting conversation.

3) I want a wife who is kind-hearted and compassionate: who consistently puts others before herself.

4) I want a wife who is beautiful to me and to whom I am physically attracted.

5) I want a wife who is between 5 and 11 years younger than me (6-10 ideally, with 8-10 being the real ‘sweet spot’). Right now I’m actively against dating anyone who is more than 11 years younger than I am, simply because it’s been a habit that lead to very painful results in the past.

6) I want a wife who desires me and is willing to pursue me as hard as I pursue her.

7) I want a wife who is a virgin.

I know that I want these things, and I ask God to bring this woman into my life on a regular basis. However, in all of our planning and list-making we often forget one very important detail: we aren’t in control. My life is not my own, it belong to Christ and he can do with this life whatever he desires. God does give us the desires of our heart, but sometimes they don’t look the way we want them to, sometimes he asks us to do insane things, and sometimes he puts us through the ringer before granting those desires. If you don’t believe me, then read Isaiah 19-20, where God makes the prophet walk around naked for three years. Or read Ezekiel, where God makes the prophet lie on his side for a year and a half eating only bread cooked over dung. Or read Jonah, where God makes the prophet go and preach to the people who have oppressed, terrorized, and slaughtered his people for years. Or read Hoshea, where God makes the prophet marry a prostitute and accept children that are most likely not his own. Or read the gospels, where the father commands the son to suffer, die, and pay for sins that are not his own.

We don’t get to control our lives. This is true of everyone, the control that we are looking for is an illusion we create in the hopes of protecting ourselves from fear. However, in the Christian it should be especially true because we actively give up control over our own lives when we choose to follow Christ. Our purpose and highest goal is to glorify him in everything, and that should trump every other desire or goal that we have. Because of this all of my life-goals, all of my desires for a wife, everything that I could list out and say ‘this is what I want’ is negotiable. My will is to be subsumed in Christ, and anyone who thinks that Ezekiel wanted to lie on his side for a year and a half eating dung-bread hasn’t actually read the book. Ezekiel talked God down from making him eat bread cooked over human dung (bargaining with God anyone?), Christ begged God to ‘let this cup pass’ from him. We don’t see these kinds of objections recorded in Isaiah or Hoshea, but it isn’t difficult to imagine the difficulty the prophets had obeying the commands of God.

We must relinquish our need for control in our own lives and in the lives of others and learn to accept the things that God chooses for us. This is the path to true happiness, and this is the path to greater, truer, and more meaningful relationship with God.

Isaiah 6:6-7: An Example of God’s Temporal Authority

Someday I think I might actually write a paper around this issue. At the moment, however, it’s just a thought… a thought that I want to consider and hold on to. C.S. Lewis argued that God stands outside of time, that he is beyond time and thus that he is capable of experiencing all times simultaneously. It’s a difficult concept to wrap your head around, but this idea has a lot of implications. For one, it explains how God could have knowledge of the future. I was going to say that it explains how God could be all-knowing, but it really doesn’t. I’m not actually sure that is explainable. However, if God experiences all times simultaneously, then to him the future is the same as the present and the past. This also explains the concept that for God a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years is as a day. God is not bound by time in the way that we understand it.

That being said, Isaiah 6 is the record of Isaiah’s vision calling him to speak for God to the people of Judah and Israel. In this vision, Isaiah is brought before the throne of heaven and he realizes his utter impurity (a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips), and that because of this he is not only unworthy to stand in the presence of God, but also unworthy to speak for God. In Isaiah 6:6-7 one of the Seraphim that worship in God’s presence takes a coal (Gary Smith argues that this is best understood as one of the coals from under the throne of heaven from Ezekiel 10) and presses it to Isaiah’s lips. The Seraph then announces that this action has ‘removed’ Isaiah’s guilt and that his sin ‘has been atoned for’.

This, of course, begs the question of who atoned for Isaiah’s guilt. Obviously this happened long before the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ, and so from a purely human perspective God seems to simply be casting away Isaiah’s sin and guilt into some void of nothingness. This then leads to the question of why he can’t do the same for all believers. If God can simply cast sin aside without sacrifice, then why did Christ die? Why does Hebrews tell us that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins? The most direct answer is that God cannot simply cast sin aside, a concept that the use of the word ‘te-kuppar’, which carries with it the meaning of forgiveness or atonement, reinforces. Isaiah’s sin was not simply cast aside, it was ‘we-sar’ (taken away from him) and ‘te-kuppar’ (atoned for).

The most obvious solution to this conundrum is, it seems to me, to remember that (as Lewis posited) God is the lord over time, not simply space. While the death of Christ would not happen for several hundred years from Isaiah’s perspective, it was happening and had already happened from God’s perspective. The atonement of Christ had already been completed when God cleansed Isaiah of his sin, and this helps our understanding of how he could simply take the sins of Isaiah and cleanse them. Of course, this then raises anew the question of who Christ preached to when he traversed the spiritual cosmos and entered hell (1 Peter 3:18-20). Traditionally this has been seen as Christ bringing the believing Jews from ages past out of prison and into atonement. However, if God has temporal authority and can apply the atonement of Christ backwards through time (at least from a human perspective) then why wouldn’t he have done this for other believing Jews? Was Isaiah a special case or is there perhaps another answer to the question of who Christ preached to in hell? These are questions to which I do not yet have an answer. Maybe someday I’ll figure it out.