Category Archives: Making Sense of God

Is Jesus Like God? Or is God Like Jesus?

How would you describe God? Perhaps as holy, transcendent, loving or good.

What about Jesus-like?

Recently I was reading J.I. Packer’s Praying the Lord’s Prayer and in the opening pages, Packer writes an illuminating sentence. He begins by stating that people who find it hard to believe that God exists and that God is personal will find it difficult to pray. He continues: “But if you believe, as Christians do , that Jesus is the image of God- in other words, that God is Jesus-like in character- then you will have no such doubts, and you will recognize that for us to speak to the Father and the Son in prayer is as natural as it was for Jesus to talk to his Father in heaven, or for the disciples to talk to their Master during the days of his earthly ministry” (13-14).

God is Jesus-like in character. To be honest, I’ve always thought about it the other way around. Scriptures like Hebrew 1:3 which says Jesus is the exact representation of God’s nature. In other words, Jesus is God-like in character. It’s as if Jesus is the mirror that reflects God. The mirror show us the nature of the image it’s reflecting but we would’t say that the mirror and the image being reflected have the same character- they aren’t the same thing.

To put it another way, it’s easier for us to say that Jesus is like God than to say that God is like Jesus.

Packer, however, is asking us to think about the latter. Just as easily as we say that Jesus is like God, we should be able to say that God is like Jesus.

It may seem like splitting hairs and it may not seem like a big deal to anyone but me but it might just reframe how we think about God and God’s character. Too often God is seen as the great unknowable, the great Other and to ascribe any attribute to God is simply a guess to know what is ultimately unknowable. Philosophers can spend their time debating if a person within time and space can truly know a being that exists outside of time and space but for this discussion but if Jesus is the incarnate God, if they are the same substance and if they are, in fact, equal they why can’t we say that God stands as Jesus-like in character?

What does this mean practically? It means that the character we see in Jesus, as displayed in the Gospels, is the character of God. Jesus is not the mirror that reflects God but ultimately isn’t God or has a different nature than God. It also means that if we want to know how God acts, reacts, thinks, behaves, speaks (if we use human language to describe God) we can apply what we see Jesus doing, thinking and saying to God.

What’s God like? Jesus-like.

 

 

Power, Faith and Doubting God

Throughout this blog, I have tried to be honest about my struggle with doubt. In fact I have called 2015 the Year of Doubts. During the year I have “doubted” Easter, church music and good works. I have also looked at the stages of doubt and Jesus’ disciple Thomas, who has ever been labeled as “Doubting Thomas.” When I have used the word doubt in these contexts what I have really been trying to do is take an honest and fresh look at some of the aspects of my faith. As I wrote in my opening Year of Doubts post: “I haven’t lost my faith. I’m not leaving Christianity or the Church/ church. I’m not even somehow testing the claims of God, Jesus and the Bible. What I am doing is being open about my doubt- what I don’t know, what I don’t understand, what I cannot explain and what question I have.”

My posts haven’t been about doubting God but rather the ways that we have made God work (or limited God to work) through our religious systems.

That’s until I realized that I am in the midst of doubting God right now.

I’ve been working through a process for a couple of years now of trying to discern if God is calling me in a particular direction. I still don’t know what God might be leading me to do but I know that I didn’t really believe that God could do it. I didn’t believe that God could make the vision work. God could issue the call and give the vision but God couldn’t actually make it work. My thoughts, fears and prayers have been focused on whether or not God has the power to do the things God calls us to do.

I know I’m not the only one who has ever experienced this kind of doubt. God has an inconvenient habit of asking those who believe in him to do the things that seem, at first glance, to be too crazy, too grand or too consequential. Perhaps it is fair to say that when God calls us to a specific task it’s one that seems either too big for us or too small for us. Either way, I think God calls us to tasks for the purpose of seeing if we trust God; to see if we believe God is powerful enough to do the task God has assigned.

It’s God’s power, however, that I have a hard time believing.

Paul the Apostle by Rembrandt, 1633

Paul the Apostle by Rembrandt, 1633

A couple of days ago, I was reading in Ephesians and I began to see the way I have been doubting God and God’s power. At the end of chapter one, the Apostle Paul prays several things for the Ephesian church and the Ephesian Christians, one of which is that they will know the “surpassing greatness of [God’s] power toward us who believe.” Then, in typical Pauline fashion, he elaborates on God’s power so extensively that it appears he has moved on to another topic. However, Paul wants his reader to fully understand what kind of power it is that God has toward the believer. Paul first says that the power at God’s disposal is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, seated Jesus at God’s right hand, gave Jesus all authority and placed everything under Jesus’ rule. That would be enough, but Paul doesn’t stop there. He continues by describing God’s power as the same power that took you and I, people dead in sin, and made us alive (just as Jesus is alive), raised us up and seated us with Jesus where Jesus is seated in the place of supreme rule and authority. Paul also goes through great lengths to show that this power comes completely from God- there’s no power you and I bring to the table.

Paul is clear in his message: God possesses great power. God has the power to raise Jesus from the dead and give him all power and authority and God has to power to take people dead in sin, make them alive and place them where Jesus, himself, sits. If God has the power to do that, then God has to power to make what seems too crazy, too big or too small, not only possible, but a proven certainty.

imagesPaul also says that this is the power that God has “toward” us. It’s the power the pushes us, like wind in the sails of a ship. A ship cannot make wind but if the wind is blowing toward the ship, the ship can use its sails to be pushed by the wind. It is similar with you and I. It wasn’t our power that raised Jesus from the dead and it wasn’t our power that moved us from death into life- it was God’s power. We do not have God’s power stored inside us somewhere, waiting to be released; God alone controls God’s power and we simply want to have our proverbial sails ready if and when God blows that power in our direction.

When you and I doubt God’s power to accomplish the task God has given us, what we are really saying is that God may have the power to raise Christ from the dead and give Christ all power and authority and God may have the power to give us life and seat us with Christ in the place of power and authority but God doesn’t have the power to meet a financial need, to bring the right people to a team, to find the right location, to help us communicate God’s vision, to take a step away from the spotlight, to serve- or whatever our fears and anxieties may be when we think about the task God has before us. To say it another way, we are saying God has the power to save me for eternity but God doesn’t have the power to help me accomplish God’s calling on earth.

When we look at it in those words, our doubts seem awfully silly. It becomes one of those times where our emotions and fears don’t line up with our knowledge and logic. When this happens, our only response is to rest in faith that God does indeed have the power to accomplish all that God wants to accomplish. And that is true even when God decides to use imperfect human beings like you and like me.

Exploring God: Part 3

 

There are times when I sit down to a post and I know exactly what I want to say. And there are times when I have no idea what direction a post will go and this is one of those times. I know where I want this discussion to begin but I don’t know exactly where it will end up. I want to begin with two of the major news headlines: Ferguson, MO and Mark Driscoll. If you don’t know about these news stories, you can do a quick Google search and catch up on all the facts, updates and opinions. While these are two very different news stories there is a similarity that deserves a mention. Both of these stories have to do with authority and the way that authority is exercised within a community. In the case of Ferguson, MO, the authority is the police and the community is the city and the people within the city they have taken an oath to serve and protect. In the case of Mark Driscoll, the authority is the church pastor and the community is the church.

In both cases, there are questions of whether each overstepped it’s authority- Ferguson, MO in the shooting of Michael Brown and the handling of the subsequent protests and Driscoll in the manner, method and approach in the way he pastors, leads a church and staff and replies to critics and those who see Christianity in a different way.

There is an old saying, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” and I think we can safely say (no matter where you land on the two issues mentioned above) that pastors and police officers are among the few groups of people that have a kind of authority that could easily become corrupt. When a pastor teaches the Word of God to a congregation, there is an inherent danger in a pastor preaching his (or her, depending on your tradition) own ideas, beliefs or prejudices as God’s. A police officer could come to love the badge and the gun and the power that comes with them over protecting and serving people.


One of God’s attributes that we often neglect is God’s authority.


What does all this have to do with exploring God? Well a lot actually. When we explore God or discover God, there are a seemingly endless number of places to begin: God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s righteousness, God’s holiness, God’s presence, God’s forgiveness- and we could go on and on. One of God’s attributes that we often neglect is God’s authority.

Since the time of the Fall, we all have issues with authority. We naturally mistrust authority figures. We either believe that authority figures do not have our best interest at heart or that they simply have a plan to destroy us entirely in order to exercise or expand their authority. I wonder if we bring those same mistrusting feelings with us when we think about or explore God. When we explore God are we hoping to find a beautiful lover or are we fearful we will stumble upon an angry and destructive demigod? To be honest, plenty of people have searched for God and come to both of those conclusions.


When we explore God are we hoping to find a beautiful lover or are we fearful we will stumble upon an angry and destructive demigod?


If God maintains absolute authority, how can we trust God and Jesus, as God’s Son and recipient of all authority (Matthew 28:18, Ephesians 1:20-21), not to become corrupted by that authority? We could easily shrug off the question and reply that God is also absolutely good and therefore cannot become corrupt. That response would be correct, however, why don’t we look a little deeper.

Authority corrupts for two reasons: ego and fear. Ego says that I can use my authority to take advantage of you because I am stronger, smarter or richer than you- and I want to become even stronger, smarter or richer than you. Fear says that I have to overpower you because I am afraid my authority is in danger of being taken away.

Jesus defeats the corrupting influence of ego and fear with humility. We see this explicitly in Philippians 2:5-11. In fact, Philippians tells us that Jesus’ humility allowed authority to be given to him. It makes sense that humility is the attitude that defeats the corrupting forces of authority. Imagine the difference in Ferguson, MO if those in authority sought humility. Or imagine pastors or other leaders who place humility before ego.

How do you think our world would look if humility overshadowed our desires and potential abuses of authority?

Would Solomon Call Bloggers Wise?

imagesI ran across a quote recently that was made by fellow Christian blogger, Micah J. Murray. He commented, “I don’t want to be a Christian writer, if it means writing from the heart and then hitting backspace until it feels safe again.” Initially, when I read that quote, it struck me as incredibly beautiful and it seemed like a goal that I wanted to achieve within my own writing.

However, as so often happens, things fail to stay that simple.

Enter Proverbs. In my church small group, we have been studying the book Unknownof Proverbs and last week, specifically, focused on the use of our speech and how it relates to being a wise person. There are several themes that permeate Proverbs on this topic. One of these themes is that wise people are careful before they speak. Another is that wise people don’t make hasty judgments but consider all the information. Another is that a wise person doesn’t enter into conflicts easily or answer a fool on the level of the fool.

Those are great pieces of wisdom, unless you are a writer, blogger or columnist.

As a writer, what topics are off limits? Or is everything fair game? How does one decide? When can a writer pen a piece knowing that he or she doesn’t have all the facts? Does being first trump being right? Naturally each writer writes to his or her unique audience but how much should that influence what is written? Do we write just for hits on the website, more book sales or a wider carried column?

We know what people like to read about; people like to read about controversy (meaning they like reading about when the side or opinion they don’t like get’s slammed). How much controversy have writers and bloggers created just to grow their webpage and platform?

Is it ok to be provocative for provocative’s sake?

When does being provocative cross the line to being a parasite? What’s the line between being comfortable in writing what is controversial or challenging (to shape, form, correct, and move forward your belief, group or cause) and becoming a cannibal to the very cause you are trying to promote?

I posed this question to blogger and author Tony Jones via Twitter. He responded by simply saying, “game time decision.”

Maybe that’s how it works. Writers write and hope for the best because it’s only hindsight that will determine whether a written piece was taken too far or not far enough. In the case that it was taken too far we need the humility to apologize. On the other hand, in the case that it was not taken far enough we need the guts to continue to push the issue- even if it’s to a place that isn’t safe.

In the end, maybe Murray’s quote is the best way to approach writing. I don’t know if Solomon would call it wise but I think it’s the best we have.

© Ryan Vanderland 2014