As Christians we understand that “good works”, behaviors that are characterized as loving toward our neighbors, are not the criteria for sanctification (i.e. holiness).  We also understand that our behavior must consist of “good works”, like – being loving toward our neighbors.

This may seem contradictory or confusing. We have all spoken to people who say, “I try to live right”, or “I keep God’s law”, and you just know they don’t “get it”. After all it seems pretty simple, God tells me not to behave certain ways, I don’t behave like that, where’s the problem?

The problem is we have a wrong headed understanding of sin.

I think many people see sin in terms of the sins enumerated in Romans 1 starting at verse 29. So when they think of being good they think of not doing those things. To be clear these behaviors are clearly sin. What is missing in that view are the verses before the lists, like “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him…

Sin or sinfulness is lawlessness in the sense of ignoring God’s law, lawlessness is sin.

What is God’s law? Well it rests on the two rules Christ identified in the Gospels.

Rule #1 – Love God.

Rule #2 – Love your neighbor as yourself.

Rule #1 is the most important rule because without Rule #1 we end up putting ourselves in the place of God, judging good and evil. Of course you will rightly say that we must judge good and evil to be able to execute on Rule #2, but if our execution of Rule #2 is not dependent on Rule#1, loving, and therefore trusting God, we are left with only ourselves as the motivation for the righteousness of Rule #2. This is why our righteousness is “filthy rags”, it is lawless, ignoring God’s law. It is sin.

God is and must be our judge, not we ourselves. That is also pretty obvious and simple to understand. Isn’t that what we are all hoping for anyway, trusting Him to be merciful?

This is not new or a different way from God’s Law as given in the Ten Commandments. As a friend of mine says, “there are 10, not 6”. The first 4 commandments are Rule #1, the rest are Rule #2. Christ fulfilled the Law He did not abolish it. How can we Love God, how can we Trust Him? It is Christ’s work on the cross that gives us a reason to trust in God’s mercy, it is not a “pie in the sky” hope, but the real hope of a real provision in time and space for our sanctification. He really lived, He really died, He really rose.

C.S. Lewis in his book The Four Loves paraphrases another writer by saying “[love] begins to be a demon the moment he begins to be a god.” If we make Rule #2, what is commonly know as “living a good life”, preeminent it becomes a demon in our lives and we end up serving what is not God.  It is only when we have the Rules in their proper order that our “good works” are actually good because they rest on Him not us. We can’t get the rules in their proper order unless we understand He first Loves us as He demonstrated on Calvary.

God didn’t change, the message continues to be the same. “…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life,…

I just Love that about Him.

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A God of Love

I few weeks ago I was riding my stationary bike and mulling over things, when an exchange with a co-worker the previous day came to mind.

We all know people who see the missing half of the glass, but in some cases these may not be negative people, they may just be more sensitive to the inefficiency caused by the difference between what should be and what is. Some people have more difficulty with this inefficiency than others and engineers are naturally sensitive to it. That’s why we make things.

As I thought about this it occurred to me that the tension between the “what should be” we understand and the “what is” we see is a core problem of existence. The ideal and the particular, the individual and the universe. As I thought about this in the context of interpersonal relations I considered how much the friction between people contributes to this problem of existence and it seems to me this is a major source of pain.

As I thought about it it also occurred to me that most if not all of that friction goes away if we would only Love one another.

No this is not a new idea and yes I am aware that this is appears to be a gross oversimplification. That isn’t my point.

What occurred to me as I thought about it was how this solution to the problem of humanity, which we almost universally agree on but seem universally unable to implement points to a God of Love.

I’ve been a Christian for awhile and the notion of an all powerful God responsible for the universe is one I am intellectually comfortable with. This is the Creator God many people believe in. What has always been a step of faith for me was the idea that this Creator God was in fact a God of Love and more importantly that He actually loved me in particular. Why should He? What rational justification is there to believe in a loving God, the Hebrew God of Love?

Seeing love as the answer to the problem of the individual in the universal (at least in interpersonal terms) struck me as a plan for existence. The vast majority of humans throughout history agree on this solution even in the face of our consistent failure to apply it. The evidence of this common understanding of the solution to the problem of the individual and the universal argues strongly that the Creator God must also be the God of Love. If this is how we are made, it is illogical to assume the attribute we recognize as “the right way”, that we understand as the ideal solution would not be an attribute of the Creator Himself.

Simply stated the universality of the idea that we should love our neighbor as ourselves reveals God’s nature as surely as the heavens reveal His majesty.  It is not a leap of faith to believe in the God of Love, it is a rational conclusion based on the evidence.

Where is faith then?

Faith is required to ACT on the rational conclusion, and that is why it is impossible to please Him without it.

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Fear of God

I fear God.

There is healthy fear of God and there is unhealthy fear of God. I tend to think of this as the Psalm 19:9 “clean” fear of the Lord as opposed to a Proverbs 28:1 fear, which I think of as craven fear. There is also a fear that isn’t craven because the terror is real. This is the Hebrews 10:31 “fall into the hands of the living God” fear.

Mostly I fear God in the Psalm 19:9 way, but I have to admit I do feel a cowardly fear of God. I say cowardly because I’m afraid of what He will ask me to do, or how he will use suffering to mold me in His image.

When I was a much younger child of God I would pray to be His instrument, to be made like Him, to be used by Him for His purpose.

Now I pray that it won’t hurt.

So I was thinking about this the other day because He really has been good to me, and all the things that have happened in retrospect really were in my best interest even when they seemed unreasonably painful at the time. Yes, I know it says that very thing in the Bible (it’s spooky how that works).

I wish it were not so, but it seems we must really hurt to really learn.

Someone said to me that God never gives us more than we can handle, then he told me a story about something really horrible that happened and how he had to trust God, and then how it all worked out.

Let me be perfectly clear, the event was HORRIBLE, devastating, insurmountable, catastrophic…

So I asked him, did he, “in the moment”, feel as though God had actually given him MORE than he could handle. His obvious answer was yes, but that he had to choose to give it to God and then it worked out.

So my response to him was that in fact God DOES give us more than we can handle. When we can’t handle it then the only options are to rely on Him or not. Its when we choose to rely on Him the blessing comes.

So yeah, I fear (as in respect) God, and know in my spirit He loves me, but my flesh wants to run and hide because dealing with my sin hurts like death. As my Heavenly Father He actually cares about me and puts in the effort to make me more like Him.

And it really did hurt Him more than it hurts me.

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The Gift

Salvation is the free gift of God.

Salvation is not something we earn, that is to say it is not by works (of goodness or righteous behavior).

Anyone who has heard the Gospel of Christ has heard this message, and yet…

We inherently know that God isn’t a fool, and that we can’t “put one over on Him”, as it were. We also understand that if He is who He claims to be (Righteous, Good, Just, Loving, etc.) He will expect us to modify our behavior because most (if not all) of what we call “bad” behavior is destructive of self and others. Salvation is by faith, not works, but faith without works is dead.

So which is it? Is it free, or is there work involved?

Here’s the skinny(as I see it) …

Anything of value requires care, maintenance, attention. If I give you a car or a house, you need to take responsibility for it, to care for it, to “keep” it. If you don’t, if you neglect the gift it looses its value even to the point of uselessness. If I give you a garden, it won’t nourish you unless you tend it. If I give you my Love and you don’t spend time with me what good comes of it? How will you even know you are loved?

Christ gave His life to give that life to us. His life was freely given, and in fact was not anything we could earn. This is obvious when we understand that His life was a gift of love, and love that is earned is not love at all. His life is salvation for us (for me!) and it is a gift, a free gift. That gift is the most valuable possession you will ever have. As it is written,”what will a man give in exchange for his soul“?

Everything we have learned in life about owning something of value teaches us that the thing we own also owns us. If we posses something we need to “keep” it. The gift of God is no different. His gift is our most valuable possession. A gift so valuable requires our attention to “keep” it.  How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?

So the gift is free, as it has to be. Keeping the free gift is a full time job, as it has to be.

Note: I was intentionally obscure about my use of the word “keep”, which I used in the sense of tend, as one “keeps” a garden. This is in contrast to the idea of keeping or loosing salvation. My personal opinion is that we cannot “loose” our salvation, in the sense that we did not work hard enough to keep it, but the idea of “keeping” the faith or the possibility of neglecting our salvation is clearly present in the Bible. Your mileage may vary.

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A Personal God

I was thinking the other day about how we relate to God. What struck me was how personal our God is. Now when I say “our God” I mean Jesus the Christ.

This train of thought actually began with something I read in A Pilgrim’s Regress, by C.S. Lewis. In the book Lewis talks about how, when we are confronted by the Living God of the Universe, an omnipresent God of true omnipotence we are forced to acknowledge we no longer have a secret, personal space where we can hide that deepest part of ourselves that we do not and would not share with anyone. Lewis hits the nail on the head when he writes about how hard it is to give up that “me” space. When we acknowledge the Lord Jesus Christ, we are no longer alone in ourselves. This is comforting yes, but it is also terrifying, as Lewis points out.

The point is the Christian God is a personal God. He stands at the door of our heart and knocks. The divine ruler of the universe asks, rather than commands that we give Him access to our most inner being even when they is no way we could keep Him out.

Which makes perfect sense for a God of Love.

But the really interesting thing is how much sense this idea makes when considered in the context of the Cristian doctrine.

Once we open our hearts to the living God, we are no longer trying to measure up to the standard of behavior we understand as good. The Good lives inside us and the more we get to know the Good the more we want to make our lives a fitting habitation for Him. I think this is really important. There is a fundamental difference between trying to be good enough to obtain and letting what we have been granted flow out of our lives. And this only works when our God is a personal God.

I’m probably not being all that clear here, but the coherence of a personal Savior with the Christian life seems to be one of those things where it is obvious nobody figured it out and then came up with a system to utilize it (i.e. the great deception). Its more like one of those “self evident” truths. We didn’t invent it but we recognize it, kind of like mathematics or social science.

And I find that personally comforting.

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When I was young my mother remarried and shortly thereafter I met my stepfather’s mother, my new grandmother. She was the first “real” Christian I ever met. She told me about salvation and redemption and introduced me to Jesus Christ. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I really gave my life to Christ, but my grandmother made the introductions 🙂

My stepfather’s parents were different from anyone else I knew.  For them Christianity was more than just religion, and they made Christ real to me.

The thing is, I remember one aspect of their faith that made a real impression on me – Giving.

They were not wealthy people, though in retrospect I realize now they were comfortable (my grandfather was a country doctor). One day my grandmother put an envelope on the window sill and I asked her what it was. She explained that it was their “gift” to the Lord.

Before my mother remarried we were pretty poor. I remember not having a lot to eat back then. So when my grandmother explained that they were just giving money away I could hardly believe it. I remember thinking that their faith was real if they believed in it enough to actually but money into it!

That experience shaped my attitude toward giving.

Giving (for me) is a way to “keep it real”.  I don’t give because God needs the money (obviously He does not). I also try not to think of it as a “good work” because that leads to comparison, judgement and sin. The way I think of giving is as a confirmation that I believe in Christ enough to put my money where my mouth is. Like an investment (which is a bad analogy because I’m not foolish enough to think I’m buying my way to heaven, or stupid enough to think God wouldn’t notice).

When you are presented with an investment opportunity you need to ask yourself whether you can afford the risk and you need to judge the soundness of the investment. If you believe in the investment you commit resources to it. If you don’t believe in it you won’t.

When I give it has to be enough to matter, so that there is commitment to the investment, but not so much that I’m being irresponsible or foolish.  I also try to be consistent so that it is a practice (like what I preach 😉 ), a habit like exercise.

The other thing is that if you are part of a family your giving has to be something you both agree on. Money is a big cause for stress in marriages, and making that “investment” has to be something both parties are comfortable with and committed to. Otherwise it is just religion.

And that’s a waste of money.

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I was having a discussion with someone through a comment exchange on another blog about a week ago. The subject was about knowing, understanding and reason. I can’t seem to find the comments now so I have to go from memory, but the gist of it (from my perspective of course) was that how we know God is not by figuring Him out as it were. In particular there is a subtlety to the word “comprehend” that implies control, i.e to “grasp” a thing. “Understand” in contrast (though used as a synonym) comes from words meaning to “stand under”.  One definition of which is, “to be thoroughly familiar with the character and propensities of…”.

In my comment I observed the difference between the two approaches to “knowing” was in the “position” (or attitude) of the knowledge seeker.

I used music as an example of a form of knowing that is not based in reason because the artist conveys information to the hearer which bypasses language and evokes an emotion in the hearer. The fact that many hearers respond in the same way implies that there is a transfer of information (i.e. many hearers get the “same message”).

The person on the other side of the discussion could not see that (as I remember, their view was that a set of tones and tempo evoke an emotion, there is nothing to know). So I thought about it a bit more and this is what I came up with…


Different people learn mathematics differently. Some can “grasp” the concepts directly while others have to “take it on faith” as it were, and apply the rules of the specific mathematics being learned until they understand (i.e. become familiar with …) it. For me, learning calculus was very much the latter experience. Part of the problem is the need to suspend your belief in some things you already know to understand the new concept. What you already know limits your ability to understand the new thing.

One aspect of calculus is the concept of “instantaneous rate of change”. This is explained by Morris Kline in his textbook on the subject. For the purpose of this discussion it is enough to see that the “rate of change” of anything is the amount of change divided by the change in time. Since the instantaneous change and the the instantaneous amount of time are both zero at an instant (a single point in time), it should be clear that the concept is nonsense. Everyone knows that division by zero is undefined. Yet it works!

Once you understand the principle it becomes blindingly obvious that the physical representation of this concept is simply the slope of the tangent of a function describing the behavior of the thing in question over time (if you don’t see that intuitively don’t feel bad nobody seemed to until some point in the 1700’s).

The point is I could not “figure out” calculus when I had to learn it. What I already knew about rates (change over time) prevented me from seeing the possibility (it was nonsense to me).

Knowing God can be like that.

The English Standard version says: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

If our attitude toward knowing God is to “grasp” Him using our reason, our natural intellect, we will be unable. Even if we think we can, we cannot because He is greater than we can comprehend. On the other hand if we humble ourselves and admit we cannot know God by “figuring Him out” but instead give up our preconceptions and accept Him, applying His truth to our lives, then we begin to understand Him by becoming familiar with His character and behavior.  Only after the Spirit has changed our hearts and we begin to see how the Lord works in our lives does it become clear to us.

Then we wonder how we could have missed it before and why it isn’t obvious to everyone.

But that is a different problem.

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Quick little memory.

Before I went to school for engineering I spent a year in an unaccredited Bible College. They had this library full of old books (duh!). I picked up one of them and while I have to admit I did not finish the book it has stayed with me. I picked up The Humor of Christ, which having just looked up on Amazon I realize was not so old at the time (less than 10 years).

The arguments of the book itself I cannot comment on, what has stayed with me was the moment I had sitting in the library reading the book.

It was dry. No, it was a scholarly work, technical, reasoned, it was, in a word, humorless.

And it struck me. That’s funny! Even today 30+ years later the image flits back to my brain and I chuckle. I laughed out loud in the library.

I’m sure there is a deeper meaning here, but you’ll have to work it out. It just makes me laugh.

And I enjoy that.

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A tree of Life

I’m going back to work on Monday. It will be good to go back to having an income 😉

More than that, I know the guy I’m going to work for having worked for him and with him in two previous lives (jobs for the uninitiated). He is a good leader, ’cause he “gets it” and his group (or the part I met during the interview process) seems like a cohesive team (always a +). The company is (I think) a pretty neat technology outfit, and they are (I know) well positioned for growth during the next round of technology push out of this downturn. All in all I could not be happier with the outcome. So thank you Jesus, this is a tree of life.

I am a fortunate man. I love my wife, I’m proud of my children, I’ve been able to make a pretty good living doing something I really enjoy. I’m a pretty happy guy, and why shouldn’t I be.

But happiness isn’t really so much situational. There are plenty of other people in my approximate situation who are not happy, not satisfied. Why is that?

Attitude has a lot to do with it I think. I’m a sappy Christian, a Pollyanna. I have this naive notion that God is in charge and it will eventually all work out. Don’t get me wrong, I wept tears of anguish and sorrow in my bed over these last few months. I’m an older guy (59) in a young man’s game (technology) and I was let go from my last two jobs after relatively short stays. Before this downturn I had never been out of work. During the downturn in the early 90’s I started a new job on the Monday after the start-up I was working in closed its doors on Friday. During the dot-com bust my boss called me into his office on layoff day and told me he was laid off but I was staying!

That changed a couple of years ago when I was fired from a position of responsibility “without cause” (official reason given to unemployment) at the beginning of this downturn. I tend to minimize my contribution to that event since they also fired the guy they hired to replace me after just 8 months (I was there for 12 and left him a working organization that hadn’t been there when I arrived). After a 3 month hiatus (in the pits of the economic doldrums) I was able to get a job at another start-up (30% pay cut & much less responsibility). At first I didn’t want the job because it wasn’t a good fit and what you are making for a wage (generally) defines what you can make for a wage. However I prayed about it and was convinced the right course of action was to swallow my pride and take the job. I pretty much started looking for another after just a few months. I just didn’t fit with the people or the technology. I had some interviews but even when they looked like sure things (“you are the top candidate out of 3 and we have 2 openings”) they just didn’t work out. Finally after 15 months the start-up did some housecleaning and I was one of the folks swept away 😉 That was seven months ago.

In this situation my work history and salary are shot and I’m (well) over the hill. Studies are showing that older workers are suffering disproportionately in this economic climate. My prospects looked pretty poor, and that was the optimistic take (as one placement consultant actually told me). I had reason to “weep on my bed”.

Then I got sick.

Diabetes came on very quickly over the holidays and because we were changing health coverage I didn’t have a doctor and couldn’t get an appointment. I lost 10% of my body weight in a few weeks and ended up in the hospital for a couple of days. When I came home I looked frail and felt even older.

Now the thing is I had a “moment” back at the beginning of this process when I was praying, specifically about the prospect of becoming a sidelined and possibly bitter old man. The “moment” was an understanding that my pride was a big part of why I didn’t look forward to that eventuality, and that God was willing to bless me even though it was my pride that was part of what sent Him to Calvary. See, I wasn’t really “bad”, but I counted on myself. I was proud of my abilities and thought that I had earned my success such as it was. Oh, I was a Christian and understood that He gives us what we have, but I didn’t really “see” it. What got me, what broke my heart, what made me weep like a baby was the conviction that even though I was proud, even while I was still proud, even though it would satisfy my pride He loved me so much He was willing to give me what I longed for, the opportunity to still contribute in a profession that I loved.

It was so real I couldn’t even tell anyone at first without scaring them because I would just bawl about it. Finally my wife told me I had to keep it to myself, and I did.

But I’m telling you now (and it still makes me weep).

I went into the hospital January 8th. I started exercising after a few weeks and gradually stopped the insulin and other medications. I had my three month checkup on Monday and my numbers are well into the normal range. In March my “boss-to-be” came looking for me. I was of course doing what I could to find a job, sending out resumes and trying to start a business (or businesses) with another associate. But I didn’t find this job, it found me. I’m excited by the possibilities of the work, I’m confident in the team of people I will be working with and the salary is back in the range I had before the downturn.

This story does bear a slight resemblance to the book of Job, but I’m not THAT successful (or proud).  However, I will share two things that recently jumped out at me from that book.

The first is Job 36:15 (Bible in Basic English version) “He makes the wrong done to the poor the way of their salvation, opening their ears by their trouble.”

What this says to me is that God sometimes lets “bad things” happen so that we will turn to Him with open ears and open hearts.

The other is Job 42:5 (Bible in Basic English version) “Word of you had come to my ears, but now my eye has seen you.”

What this says to me is that once we have turned to Him and listened to what He is trying to tell us we understand who He is in our personal experience, and that makes all the difference.

I’m a happy guy, and why shouldn’t I be, “longing fulfilled is a tree of life”.

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God’s strawman

I am part Native American, through my mother so it counts. For those who might not know many Native American tribes have matrilineal decent, similar to Jewish tradition. My mother was a half-breed and her mother was a full-blood member of the St. Francis Abenaki band. What that means is I can claim to be Native American though I was raised as a white man.

In my early years I was aware of this heritage. Once as a child I was enamored of some frontiersmen on a television show I was watching. When I started pretending to be one of “Roger’s Rangers” my grandmother told me in no uncertain terms that they were murderers and butchers. After that I was always the “Indian” when playing war.

When I got older and started wondering about why we were here, Native American culture was a natural part of the journey. I had heard about Christ from my stepfather’s side of the family (being introduced to Christ as an early teen) but now I was reading “Black Elk Speaks” and “Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions”. One of my favorites was Vine Deloria Jr., the author of “Custer Died For Your Sins” and “God Is Red”. So when I heard he was going to speak at Harvard back in the early ’70s I naturally went to see him.

He was something of a hero to me so it was great to be there and listen to him lecture (I even managed to get a handshake by waylaying him on his way from the Dean’s residence). After the lecture there was a question and answer session, and this man stood up and asked my hero a question. The guy was a minister from some denomination or other, I can’t even remember which. What I remember is how completely Mr. Deloria creamed him by the answer and in the brief exchange that followed. Did I say creamed, it was worse than that. It was like watching someone beat up a dummy, or hit a punching bag. There was absolutely no effective resistance.

When it was over I remember thinking to myself there has to be more to Christianity than what that guy was trying to sell. I mean the white people were running the country! One of the legends I had read was how the Great Spirit met the white man on the shores of the new world and said he (the white man) was welcome if he (the white man) would respect the land and treat his (the Great Spirit’s) red children as brothers. They said they would, but obviously they lied! Did the Great Spirit not know this? Was he powerless to stop it? Was this “man of straw” any kind of representative of this foreign God, who did to my ancestor’s god what Vine Deloria just did to him?

So I started looking.

I realized there had to be only one God, One True God, so to the degree the Great Spirit was a god at all he had to be a manifestation of the One True God. To shorten the story a bit through this and other events I came at last to give my life to Christ, as my Lord and my Savior.

Still, I have never forgotten how foolish that minister looked trying to argue with Mr. Deloria, but the thing I remember most about it is how it made me realize I had to look for myself.

The point is, for this heart and mind at least, Mr. Deloria was ultimately beaten by that straw man. It was the utter lack of effective resistance that raised the question in my mind.

Isn’t the universe a wonderful place. The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

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