Love and Labels

I’ve been on quite a beautiful journey lately, though it has had its frustrations. An ongoing conversation with God for the past few months is starting to reveal more of what he has been trying to show me. The simplest I can boil it down into one concept is: love trumps theology—every time.

I continue to start at the point of what I’ve come to know, and while what I know might work for drawing me deeper into Father’s love, it may not be the same for others. One of the things I’ve come to realize is it’s always harder to truly love someone that doesn’t see eye to eye with us. It doesn’t take much looking around to see the divisions—us vs them, reps vs dems, Christian vs atheist, straight vs gay, etc…For some reason, we always have to be the winner, even if it’s not us playing in the game itself. It would seem we’re more concerned with being right than being love. Of course, that’s easily stated, but what are the deeper implications of that approach?

If we place our need to be right above our love for others, then we can easily end up with a system of labels—sinner, saint, Christian, Catholic, Protestant, millennial, liberal, conservative, etc…These are all just labels that do more to divide us than to promote love. When we are satisfied with labeling an entire group in this manner, those individuals just become nameless, faceless…even soulless…personas that we can easily discard as they have no real human value beyond their assigned label—until they’re willing to, individually or collectively, affix our label to themselves. I’ve noticed that even within the circles of people I thought I related to most, there is a wide degree of variance. This is to say that each person is unique with their own nuances and experiences that have brought them to this exact moment in the here and now and made them who they are.

And God loves everyone for who they are, right now, in this moment—not for who we insist they should be.

As I continue this journey, God is whittling away my desire to be right with all the implications that comes with that. The more I ask the whys, the more he shows me over time that all the theology in the world can actually take us further away from him. Our theology becomes our god. I think Paul was on to something when he said:

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith,so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.1 Cor 13:2

I know we’ve all read or heard this and the surrounding verses before, but really consider for a moment what they mean. Wouldn’t having prophetic powers, understanding all mysteries and all knowledge, and being able to move mountains with our faith be more than sufficient evidence of our love? Isn’t that the world altering faith we should seek? It would seem not. Comparatively, if all we have is love, it seems to outweigh all of the above combined! Everything else will pass away, but love never ends (v8)!

So instead of striving for more knowledge or prophetic prowess or mystery comprehension or shrewd speech—or even telekinetic-like mountain moving powers, maybe our starting point, the one thing that will outlast all our divisive labels, is pure, unfiltered love. But this is also one of the hardest things to do; to lay aside our ego and pride and just love those we’ve upheld as sinner for so long—those whom our very religious platform is built upon preaching against; those we’ve assigned our labels to in order to feel more righteously right in our stances. All that right-knowing means nothing because it contains no love—it’s only a substitute to attempt to fill the gap.

But how then do we love like that? How do we will ourselves into love? What if we don’t even feel capable of that kind of love? Where do we even begin? It all starts with being open and honest with Father about ourselves and stumbling after Jesus. Not the Americanized, flag waving, eagle handling, gun slinging Jesus we’ve been polarized to believe in—but the simple 1st Century Rabbi who humbled himself to serve others; who set aside his divinity and fully trusted Father—and even died to prove just what love is. The one who stated that his way is the most beautiful of all:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.—Matt 11:28-30

Is that really what we’re experiencing in all our knowledge and campaigns and wars? Perhaps it really is just that simple and beautiful to follow Jesus one step at a time as he leads us into Father’s love in the peace of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Perhaps that’s the kind of love worth dying to live for.

Hope

For a few months now, I’ve been struggling to write, at least anything new that’s been on my heart. This isn’t because I don’t have the inspiration, but more because I’m finding it harder to express this overwhelming relationship with Father, with Abba, in human terms. Attempting to write these things in a coherent, understandable way seems quite the feat. When I’ve attempted to write lately, I quickly realize that I’m only scratching the surface of what I desire to express. To explain one concept would require expounding on a dozen others, and the more straightforward I attempt to write, the higher the risk of misunderstanding. I’ve attempted to write some recently in a way that would leave an opening for further consideration on one’s own terms, but this too seems to fall woefully short of my intent.

As I’ve been discussing this more with Father, he seems to keep asking me a question. As I tend to do, I’ve answered this question in a more prepackaged format, then continued on my way. Yet, every time I’ve fallen short in my pursuits, the question reoccurs and I begin to understand a little more what God is asking me.

The question – Why are you trying to explain these thoughts that may not be possible to put into words?

My answers have ranged from “others should know these things,” to “if they don’t understand, they may lose faith,” and even “isn’t it my responsibility to communicate these things?”

After allowing me to ponder my conclusions for awhile, it seems God expressed something along the lines of – Why are you trying to express spiritual things in written, or even spoken, words? Like always, I didn’t quite get this on first pass; it was only through much trial and error that I began to understand little by little.

So what does this have to do with hope, and am I making the same mistake by trying to explain it again? Hopefully not ;). This isn’t so much trying to explain the semantics as just discussing how I’ve come to know it through much difficulty and fumbling.

I’ve always been a fairly logical person, even before I understood that I was. Because of this, I’ve always felt out of place in most settings, especially religious ones. I struggled with doubt. I never understood the concept of hope because it always seemed more like wishful thinking to me. I struggled endlessly with questions that, even when I asked, I got more prepackaged, if not backhanded, responses. Questions became dangerous for me and often got me into more trouble than they seemed to be worth. That being, I never got answers and I was chastised for being doubtful, unfaithful, deceived, etc….even if it was in a “nice” way.

In other words, I never had any hope of becoming a real Christian, but this was more because I was instructed to place hope into faulty or fallible ideals. Standards of belief were mandated to me, and if I couldn’t uphold them, I was at fault. Part of the reason I state these things in such a manner here is that others I’ve come across have given up on God altogether because of being presented with this type of dichotomy. My hope is that some of these expressions will resonate with those that may have given up long ago, and they can begin to discover God who loves them more than they were ever taught was possible. No box that we construct by our human means can contain God’s love—including my own box of logic.

However, logic hasn’t been a completely bad thing for me, but it could only take me so far. After that, I had to rely more heavily on faith, hope, and love. For the most part, I got love, though God continues to expand on that concept daily. I even understood faith to an extent, at least as it pertains to confidence in things unseen. Until recently though, hope had still been a less solidified concept for me.

I’d placed hope, as wishful thinking, into many things in my life. I hoped that I would be successful, find a job, get married, have kids, etc…. Most of these were well within my control though, and it seemed most “successful” people didn’t rely on this type of wishful thinking to obtain their objectives—they did what was necessary to accomplish their goals.

I hoped also that I would get into Heaven, that I’d checked off enough boxes, that I’d confessed all my sins, that I was good enough, that God would understand my heart….that God was really good. These were more of a wishful thinking type of hope though—“hope” that I wasn’t caught at a bad moment and then lost for eternity.

So for a long time, I journeyed without real hope, at least as I’ve come to know it now. As stated before, logic took me to a certain point, but it seems where logic ended, hope began for me. As the Holy Spirit continued to widen the walls of the box I’d constructed, my concept of hope expanded. Hope in God was the assurance of his plan, his love, his promises—all this exceeded the limits of logic and knowledge though.

But how do I explain these things? I think the current answer for me is—I don’t. I live with the hope Father has shown me, and try to reach others where they’re at—not to convince them of my ways or that I’m right, but to show them through this hope how much Father also loves them.

I know this may fall woefully short of an explanation, but that is also the point. Where logic, knowledge, and understanding reach their limits, hope continues on to new depths. Now I would say, instead of hoping that Jesus doesn’t catch me at my worse moment, my hope is that Jesus always catches me at my worst. He understands my heart, he always lovingly picks me back up when I fall, and he never gives up on me. For me, that is hope worth holding on to!

Love’s Lost Light.

My first feeble attempt at poetry :P.

 

Seeing now what’s always been,

another sight too blind for sin.

How it goes we’ve always seen,

repeat it does in hand-built scheme.

 

Insisting now the bottom found,

of love that never has had bound.

Yet words found state works are right,

still hasten on that darker night.

 

Joy is now as pain will sing,

lonely solace, tortured king.

Outside the inner wall was built,

strong enough to hold the guilt.

 

Safe is not where questions dwell,

reversed, did judge, the Hades’ hell.

For in was out and out was in,

though still insisting hatred’s sin.

 

Words of spirit read by soul,

spoken loud from blinded hole.

Spirit sees what soul will hide,

deceptive curse of selfish pride.

 

Perceive the tale whose meaning hid,

of those who plot of others rid.

While bids are lain for hope to end,

lines in sand will proud defend.

 

And words hold true when all approve,

but tortured king has made the move.

Love’s pure light was found and lost,

repeat again forsaken’s cost.

Bow and Confess

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.—Philippians 2:10-11 

How we see God and how we show Jesus to others can very much be reflected in how we present passages such as this. In the past, this passage reminded me of popular movie scenes where a person was dragged before a ruler, then forced to their knees against their will. Usually, the person was gut-punched, hit in the head, or otherwise forced to bow though they had no desire to whatsoever. Generally, this seems to be the type of imagery conjured by such verses.

But is that how our God of Love works? If we look at the meaning behind these words, we can see a different viewpoint.

The Greek word used here for “should bow” is kampsē, a derivative of kamto. Note that the extended definition states “in honor.” This seems to imply a willing bending, as opposed to another Greek word used in the Bible—sugkuptó—which implies a forced bending such as in Luke 13:11.

But perhaps everyone will willingly (honorably) bend in the end when they see Jesus face to face and realize their fault. This would be likely except for the rest of the verse—“that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Okay, so if they realize they were wrong, and then they willingly bend, wouldn’t they also willingly confess Jesus? This might be considered, but this is “to the glory of the Father.” Is it really glorifying Father if we only bow and confess because we have no other choice? Could there be another meaning?

Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.—1 Corinthians 12:3 (emphasis mine).

Here it seems Paul is giving clarification as to how anyone is ever able or confess Jesus is Lord—it is only by the Holy Spirit! It seems God’s plan is that at some point, every single person will willingly, honorably bow and confess Jesus is Lord, to the glory of Father, by the Holy Spirit!

Do we really dare to hope in such a loving God? Is God’s plan really to save everyone? Is he really that powerful? Would God allow someone the indwelling of the Holy Spirit just to bow and confess, then rip it away so they are lost for all eternity? Is our hope in God that eternally loves all—or only some?

and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.—Colossians 1:20
to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment–to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.—Ephesians 1:10

Kitchen Table Conversation: Eternal Justice

What is Justice and how does it tie to God? This question can take many paths, but I hope to present part of my view here. The approach I take is to first understand how God presents justice. How we see Father and his justice is how we tend to enact it in the world. If we think of God as a vengeful consuming fire, we may lean more towards vengeance. If we see God as a merciful consuming fire, we may lean more towards mercy.

First, I would like to address possibly the most obvious issue—Are punishment and justice correlated? At this point, I would like to say yes to that question, but further explanation will come through the remainder of this post. I may refer to punishment going forward as, often, when justice is sought, it is for reasons of punishment. Therefore, I think it crucial to understand Father’s punishments to understand his justice. We look forward to a day when God will put things right—when justice will be served—but what type of justice are we looking for?

Old Testament Justice
In the Old Testament, we see very long lists of rules, and penalties for breaking them. It is important to mention, however, that all of these penalties were temporal – not punishments relating to the spiritual realm, but to the physical.

Note here that, once the penalty was paid, including if it cost someone their life, there was no more punishment—justice was served in that cultural context. It’s also important to consider here that God came to Israel where they were and was leading that culture forward, one step at a time, and that culture was to lead the entire world forward—to be the salt and light. In effect, the punishments under the Old Covenant were warnings of what that society would bring upon themselves, in the temporal, if the laws were applied in the wrong context (Deut 28).

Punishment and Jesus
It could be helpful to understand how Jesus saw the correlation of justice and punishment (emphasis mine):

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.—Matthew 23:23

Notice here that Jesus ties faith, mercy, and justice together—in other words compassionate justice that would prove faith. This sounds like an oxymoron if just punishment is for vengeance. Not only this, but Jesus states that these were part of the law. By not showing faithful, compassion filled justice, the Pharisees were actually breaking the law as God intended it.


For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.—Matthew 7:2

Here Jesus seems to state that whatever measure used to judge, and thus seek justice, will be used against us. For example, and most likely what Jesus was speaking to, if justice is enacted on others by the standards of the law we’ve defined, eventually it could come back around to bite us in the rear. Much like with Jerusalem in 70 AD, we end up bringing destruction on ourselves if we pursue self-righteous, vengeful “justice” in the name of God and the Law.


Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.—Matthew 10:15

Here is where things get a little more interesting during the inception of the New Covenant; the primary question being—How will this future day of judgment be “more” bearable? At this point, Sodom and Gomorrah had been destroyed long ago. However, there would be a future spiritual judgment as Jesus now begins alluding to. The interesting thing here is, Jesus states that their judgment would be “more bearable.” How is our common concept of eternal torment any more or less bearable? Will some be burning at 1000 degrees while others at 12oo? This doesn’t seem to make much sense—unless this justice/punishment/mercy conundrum has a different meaning altogether.

Eternal Punishment
Perhaps it would be helpful to look at what punishment is to better understand justice.

Probably one of the most (in)famous passages of eternal “justice” comes from Matthew 25:46. I won’t make this particular post about the societal context of that statement other than to say that I believe Jesus was speaking to Israel specifically here. This doesn’t mean it cannot apply to us at all, but unpacking that here goes a bit beyond the scope of this post.

So, more to the point, I would like to investigate what these words meant: eternal punishment.

Eternal – The Greek word here is aionios, meaning “age of” or “age like.” This is an adjective that modifies something else—in this case, punishment. It is important to note that this word doesn’t translate very well into English as “eternal.” Note also that the same word, aionios, is used by Paul referencing “of the ages” past (Romans 16:25). If the ages were eternal, then how did any of them pass? How did any of them ever make way for another age?

Punishment – So we can see that aionios would be more of an age of punishment, but the question still remains—what does punishment mean? There are two Greek words for punishment in the New Testament.

Kolasis is a corrective “chastisement” for the benefit of the one being corrected.

Timoria is a punishment not for correction, but for the benefit or appeasement of the one doing the punishing—what we might refer to today as vengeance.

It is interesting to note that the former (Kolasis) is used in the eternal punishment passage.

Of all the punishment passages, Timoria is only used once, when the author of Hebrews 10:29 is referencing the coming temporal destruction on “God’s people” (v30, Israel) under the Old Covenant system—those that wouldn’t accept the New Covenant grace Jesus was offering but instead clung to the Old, and the punishments that resulted from their inability to uphold those ways.

So simply stated, the view of final justice under the New Covenant is: Aionios Kolasis—an age of corrective punishment meant for the benefit of the person receiving it. The big questions now are—if hell is suffering that never ends, how does the person receiving it ever benefit? Additionally, if hell is just complete annihilation, how does the person receiving it ever benefit since they’re being annihilated? Likewise, if hell is permanent separation from God, how does the person separated ever benefit?

So why do I go to such great lengths to explain the original Greek here? Our “eternity” doctrines are probably the ones most critical to examine in the light of our God of Love and the purpose for his justice. Like with 1st Century Israel, the Messianic justice we expect may be completely different than God’s plan for all of creation.

The Cross
Ultimate justice for any crime we can consider was found in Jesus on the cross. In that Jesus was willing to lay down his life for us, we are called to lay down our lives for others. Not just our physical life though, but laying aside everything we hold so vehemently in order to reflect Jesus’ love in us. It’s easy to stake our life on our beliefs because that requires no real change, but it’s hard to live following Jesus in every moment, allowing him to transform us. This is something we learn by following the Holy Spirit within, day by day.

In other words—the depth of our relationship with God reflects in the love we are able to show others—even those we consider the most heinous aggressors—even if it costs us our comfortable way of life.

Conclusion
In the Old Testament, justice for those laws being broken was always related to the temporal. Often those so entangled in injustice were harmed or died when they met justice face to face. In the New, spiritual justice is specified as beneficial to the one receiving it—an age of corrective punishment, meant to change a person eternally.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. With respect to length, I will stop here with one final question: How would our enacting of justice change if pursued from the viewpoint of God’s eternal love—even for our most vehement enemies?

Listen Instead

Over the past few months, I’ve written several drafts. Some I’ve abandoned half way through and some I’ve written and edited until all I have to do is hit the publish button. Something has been holding me back though—or maybe I should say—Someone.

When I first started writing, it was more of an outlet to put the discombobulated thoughts in my head into a more solidified form. As I began to draft posts, I could see how skewed some of my ideas were, and so I researched and edited my writings. Eventually, the ideas I started with turned into something else entirely, and while others may have benefited from what was published, I learned a lot from what God was showing me personally, at that point in our journey, through those writing processes.

However, a few months back, that all came to a halt. While I had several posts that I thought were well articulated, and could benefit others, I wasn’t able to publish them. Now, I mean I could have hit the publish button, but God seemed to be asking me not to yet, if ever. And so, because of the relationship God has formed with me, I obeyed—not because I had to and God was making me; I wanted to because of this relationship of love and trust that he’s developed with me.

I’ve been wondering when or if I should write more while chatting with God (aka praying). Over time, I’ve come to understand more fully what God has been showing me along the way—to just listen instead.

Me: Why should I just listen though? Can’t I write and listen?
God: Just trust me.

Me: What if they’re “wrong” or abusing scripture or being offensive or hurting others or…
God: Just listen.

But what am I listening for?

We can spend so much time proclaiming our right views that we alienate the very people we’re trying to help, or think we are “further along than” and are helping by our “right” ways of thinking. We can often be right for the wrong reasons. However, much of the time, we can learn a great deal about someone, and possibly even help a lot more, when we just listen. It seems everyone wants to be heard, and the pleas are getting louder and more widespread, but very few are taking the time to truly listen.

I tend to learn something from everyone, even if it wasn’t something they intended, but what I’m starting to discover goes deeper still. I’m beginning to see more the motivation behind the words—whether fear, anger, hurt, disappointment, disillusionment, love, hate, power, control, security, etc…either for themselves or others. This causes me to want to listen more, to understand them more, to see why they have taken the stance they have—to see into their heart more…and to embrace them, in love, on their journey. And this is why I see the beauty in someone being openly honest with what’s in their heart, even if it ruffles feathers.

I think this is just a smidgen of how God sees us—how he loves us and just listens—

even on our worse days,
even when we beg and bargain with him,
even when we don’t believe in him,
even when we curse him….

He listens and sees the why. From the most bloodthirsty killer to the most holy saint, God sees our heart, he knows the whys, and he loves us eternally regardless. He sees the pain and struggle in our heart—even if we hate ourselves and everyone else, even if we have only known how to hate God because of who we think he is—he knows us deeply, behind our masks, and loves us just the same.

It’s his eternal love that I’ve come to believe in—that I’ve come to know in the depths of my spirit. It’s that relationship that Jesus offers for us to freely receive, no matter who we are. There’s no more price to pay or hurtles to jump, though we’ve been convinced there are. God has been with us our entire lives, even in our worst, most atrocious state. I can now see more clearly the journey he has taken with me every step of the way, even when I didn’t know him.

Let’s treat each other like God loves everyone fully. Let’s quit with the “love the sinner and hate the sin” mantra as it’s very hard, if not impossible, to separate a person from their experiences that have made them who they are at that point in their life. For many people, that phrase ends up sounding more like, “You have to change who you are and become who I think you should be in order for me to fully, unconditionally love you.” Often people will act just like they’re treated, especially if they’ve tried to walk our version of the “straight and narrow” and failed. Much of the time, people just need to know that they are being heard, that their heart is being seen, and that they are loved still—even at their worse. That’s the type of love that can change someone—that’s Father’s love—and it can be reflected through us.

How would that kind of love change the world and what atrocities would it prevent? Have we been failing our call to be love, yet blaming “those others?”

Perhaps, instead of the “love the sinner” approach, let’s love like Jesus has really paid, in full, for their sins—just like he paid for ours. Let’s love “them” like God loves them, and us—seeing through curses and insults and unrighteousness, or whatever label we may attach. Let’s open our eyes to see straight into those hurt and broken hearts desperate for a loving embrace.

….because if we, as Christians, don’t reflect Jesus’ love to the hurt and confused and broken and desperate and outcast and angry and hateful….who will?

Let’s love “them” like they’re not sinners—let’s love like we’ve been called to, like we are loved by Father. Let’s strive to love more and more like Jesus, so others can find that same relationship with him—

even if we don’t like it,
even if we have to complain to God,
even when we don’t feel like it,
even if it costs us our pride, position, or “right” stances,
even when it hurts,
even if it costs us everything…

….even if it means we follow Jesus all the way to the cross.