Meaningless Thoughts

The last few days have been pretty awesome. Not because of anything particular that has happened, but because of where my focus has been. I’ve been thinking a lot over the past couple of days about the grace that God has given to me. Not just forgiveness for things in my past, though there is certainly a lot of that, but the opportunities that he’s given me to become a better person, to live well and joyfully, and to pursue him with everything that I am. Honestly, I don’t really have a whole lot to say right now. I have spent the last two days exceptionally thankful, and I think that being thankful is an important part of the Christian walk that we often allow to drift to the wayside in the pursuit of more important things.

It’s easy to go to God when things are bad, and it’s often hard to find things to be thankful for when times are hard. When times are good it’s easy to forget about God. I’m constantly amazed at the number of unsuccessful people I meet who excuse themselves with comments about bad luck, and never getting opportunities, and to some degree these are true. Opportunity is certainly not equal in our country, and we really shouldn’t pretend that it is. However, I am also amazed at the number of successful people who credit their success to their own abilities, insight, and perseverance. Rarely have I met an unsuccessful person who credited their own choices for their current problems, and rarely have I met a successful person who credited luck, chance, or God’s providence for their situation. It seems that unsuccessful people all have bad luck, and successful people are all insanely talented.

This isn’t true, of course. There are plenty of successful people who owe their success entirely to luck (or God), and there are plenty of unsuccessful people who made bad choices in life. Of course, there are also incredibly talented people who’ve never been given a chance, and people who built their success thorough trial, sweat, and tears. That being said, we like to take credit for success, and avoid credit for failure. Some of this, I think, is inherent in humanity. Some of it is due to a culture that judges us on what we have instead of who we are. However, regardless of the reason, we desperately need to take responsibility for our failures, and thank God for our successes. We also need to trust his providence in everything. If God truly is sovereign, then he does have a plan for this world, and for us.

Of course, we could argue for a deistic God who is sovereign, but just doesn’t care what happens to us, but this (in my opinion) would not be the God of the scriptures. We could also argue for an intellectually acceptable God who operates within, and is governed by, natural law (i.e. the laws of physics, chemistry, etc), but again, I don’t think this is the God of the scriptures. The God of the scriptures is both sovereign and caring. He is both transcendent and immanent. He stands above natural law, apparently outside of time, and his word serves as the fulcrum upon which all things turn. This God is not governed by the rules, he is the creator of the rules. He cares deeply for his creation, and especially for mankind, but he is also coldly willing to sacrifice millions to make a point (just look at the conquests of Israel and Judah). He is both loving and just, caring and wrathful, merciful and jealous. That is to say that, ultimately, God is an enigma.

However, this doesn’t mean that we should give up, throw up our hands, and simply say, “well, we’ll never figure it out, so why try?” There are many questions in the Christian faith that can’t be answered, and many men have gone astray in their instance that there must be an answer. However, this doesn’t mean that we stop asking those questions, that we stop considering them, discussing them, mulling over them, or attempting to understand the complexity that is God and his relationship with man. This is something that is worth doing. It always has been, and it always will be, and the greatest men of the faith wrestled with these questions. Certainly they are worth our time.

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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.

But then God

It’s easy to focus on the things that suck. Rejection is… memorable, and pain rather demands attention. The empty places in our lives stand out like gaping potholes in the middle of the road. The street might be 90% fine, but that one pothole is still hard to miss. Even if you don’t see it, you’ll definitely notice when you drive over it. It’s easy to notice the potholes, and it’s easy to notice only the potholes. The fact that the rest of the street is in pristine condition is relatively unimportant as the car bounces through that frustrating little pit. Life is often the same way. Most of life can be going quite well, but it’s still the potholes that we notice. The things that we don’t have, the things that aren’t going the way we want, aren’t things that we have to look for. They stand out and demand our attention, often with jabbing blades of intractable pain and frustration. Repeatedly I come back to the unwavering truth of Proverbs 13:12 “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire granted is a tree of life.”

I am quite sure that anyone who has spent much time reading this journal can guess what my deferred hope is. Well, there are a few, honestly, but one that seems to always rise to the surface. It’s also easy to say that I trust God. It’s easy to mouth the words, to play the game, to say that I’m alright with it, or that I’m getting used to it, or that it doesn’t matter that much. Unless you are utterly and completely broken it’s pretty easy to fake comfort and spiritual wholeness. To fake a relationship with God.

Do hard things. I really love that maxim. We have to do the hard things because those are the things that really make life worthwhile, and confronting our own dissatisfaction, our pain, our despair, our foolish pride and hopeless frustration is hard. It’s hard to let those things go and actually trust God. It’s hard to live day to day and honestly believe that God will fill in the potholes, even though he hasn’t yet. It’s hard to have hope, and it’s hard to trust him, and it’s hard to wait.

Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem titled IF. The poem as a whole is about what it means to be a man, but first stanza points out the difficulty of waiting:

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

It is hard to wait. Hard to maintain that hope and trust in the absence of desire-specific evidence. It’s hard not to give up, but it’s equally as hard to give up. I’ve tried and failed multiple times, and this is the crux of the problem. If I could just give up and move on with my life, viewing my singleness as a blessing in my life (which I’m sure it often has been), or if I could find a woman to love and who would love me in return, then this particular hole could be filled. That isn’t where God has brought me though. He has put me in a place of waiting, of hope deferred, and that is very hard.

That being said, being in this place of waiting has also taught me a lot about God, and his relationship with me. In the Old Testament God repeatedly presents himself as the jilted bridegroom, waiting for his bride to be a loyal, loving wife. Waiting for her to come around, to stop running to other men for comfort and satiation. Hosea probably presents the best picture of this, but it is a theme that runs throughout the Old Testament.

My life of hope deferred gives me some little microcosm of understanding. I can’t imagine the pain, the grief, the sorrow that fills God every time I run to something other than him, or every time the Israelites ran to something other than him, or every time any believer chooses something else over him (and we all do). However, I can understand that pain of waiting, of hope deferred, of repeated rejection, and that understanding lets me see just a little bit of the character of God. A character that led him to pursue the nation of Israel for over almost four thousand years. A character that led him to pursue the church for two thousand years. A character that led him to work in the lives of generations of believers and unbelievers, drawing them to him, loving them, forgiving them, despite the repeated wanderings and rejections this love incurred.

It is a love of which I stand in awe. A love that I cannot reflect, much as I wish I could. The forgiveness that God has shown me is immense. The forgiveness that he has shown the church Catholic is inconceivable. It is simply and entirely beyond me, and I don’t think that we can begin to understand the kind of thanks that we should have for that forgiveness. I mean that literally. I honestly believe that the kind of gratitude that love deserves is beyond the collective comprehension of the human race. It is something so incredible that it defies any and all attempts to imagine or explain it.

We live in a world that is full of problems, and we live lives that are full of potholes that constantly demand our attention. Our pains, unfulfilled desires, derailed ambitions, and forgotten dreams fill our minds with regret, and this is something from which we can’t escape. There is a reason that those things demand our attention, and honestly they deserve attention. However, when those things obscure the incredible blessings that God has showered upon us on a daily basis, then we lose the best part of life. We lose that unending gratitude that he deserves. Instead of letting pain defeat us and lead us to misery, we must let pain remind us of how much more he has suffered, and lead us back to that place of thanksgiving. Back to an unending gratitude for love.

Down Days

Sometimes I just feel down. I have no actual reason for feeling down, nothing is going wrong, and I have plenty of things to be thankful for, but I still feel down. I have to admit that I don’t particularly like these days. They tend to come and go in clumps, and I seem to be in the middle of a clump of them right now. Here’s the other thing though: there’s nothing wrong with feeling down. It’s natural. More natural for some than it is for others, but it’s still natural.

There is a significant movement within American Christianity that would have you believe that depression, in any form and to any degree, is a spiritual malady brought on by demonic possession or sin, and sometimes this is true. There are certainly spiritual reasons for depression, and I’ve had times when a vast depression came upon me that was clearly a spiritual attack. I can remember one night, I was supposed to have a spiritual meeting the next day, when I was suddenly overcome by the absolute certainty that my life was meaningless and no-one would ever love me. I remember spending about two hours curled up in a ball on my bed, wracked with depression, doubt, and thoughts of self-loathing, desperately calling out to God to help me, because I was certain that this was a spiritual attack. After a time, and just as suddenly as the fit of depression came on me, it disappeared, leaving me calm, confident, and at peace. …My current depression is nothing like that.

There are other people who would have you believe that depression is never acceptable, even when there are good reasons for that depression. Consider the story of Elijah’s depression in 1st Kings 19, or the story of Job… the entire book really. Both Elijah and Job have very good reason to be depressed. Elijah had just watched the entire nation of Israel see the clearly expressed power and authority of God, and still decide to reject him. Oh… and he also had the queen of Israel and, you know… her army trying to kill him. Job only had everything he owned destroyed, all of his children killed, and his wife decide that she hated his guts. I mean, really, I can see why Christians would use them as examples of the horrible sinfulness of depression and how no one should ever feel that way…

I really hope the sarcasm came through in that paragraph. Elijah and Job both had good reasons to be depressed, and yet so often we use them as examples of people who ‘weren’t focused on God’ or who ‘abandoned the blessings of God’. This is complete crap, as God’s response to both of them shows us clearly. God does not berate them for their depression, although he does lay into Job for challenging his justice. God does not tell them to get up and be happy. Nor does he tell them that by being depressed they have lost their focus on him, or that they are horrible. He doesn’t tell them to be joyful, or to ‘get over it’. Instead, he simply reminds them who he is, and gives them something to do. He gives Elijah a series of simple tasks to do before finding his successor, and he commends Job and commands him to pray for his friends.

There are good reasons to be depressed, and there are bad reasons to be depressed, but either way depression is still natural, and moving through it is the only way out of it. Speaking of which… I’m actually feeling pretty good now.