Why did God put that tree in the garden?

Posted November 7, 2009 by Collin
Categories: God's Presence, Responsibilities

…where “that tree” is the Tree-of-Knowledge-of-Good-and-Evil — Genesis 2:16-17, The Message.

What a great question! I wasn’t sure what I thought about it. My assumption was that this incident wasn’t historical, that this story was in Genesis to say we’re a race of a moral agents rather than a race of mindless slaves (the predominant creation myth of the day implied the latter). But looking at Romans 5:14, as well as other passages, it became clear that Paul considered Genesis 2-3 historical.

So the tree was historical — why did God put it there? I looked at an Old Testament commentary (Keil and Delitzsch), which said the tree was put there “to train his (Adam’s) spirit through the exercise of obedience to the word of God” (p. 84–parenthesis mine). This reminded me of what Lewis wrote in Perelandra, book #2 of his space trilogy: that some commands are given just so we’ll have an opportunity to obey.

I think He made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your own eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are His will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless he bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason? When we spoke last you said that if you told the beasts to walk on their heads, they would delight to do so. So I know that you understand well what I am saying.

C.S. Lewis, Perelandra
(MacMillan Paperbacks Edition 1965) p.118

In other words, we can’t exercise obedience by doing what we were going to do anyway; it’s when we do what we wouldn’t otherwise do, and we do it because God commands it — that’s exercising obedience.

Keil and Delitzsch have more to say about the tree, and the effects of this kind of voluntary and joyful obedience:

The tree of knowledge was to lead man to the knowledge of good and evil; and, according to the divine intention, this was to be attained through his not eating of its fruit. This end was to be accomplished, not only by his discerning in the limit imposed by the prohibition the difference between that which accorded with the will of God and that which opposed it, but also by his coming eventually, through obedience to the prohibition, to recognise the fact that all that is opposed to the will of God is an evil to be avoided, and, through voluntary resistance to such evil, to the full development of the freedom of choice originally imparted to him into the actual freedom of a deliberate and self-conscious choice of good. By obedience to the divine will he would have attained to a godlike knowledge of good and evil, i.e. to one in accordance with his own likeness to God.

That is, Adam was supposed to learn about good and evil by abstaining from that fruit. As he continued in abstinence, he would

  • come to see that [against-God’s-will ⇒ evil ⇒ to be avoided];
  • develop real freedom (become better at resisting evil); and
  • come to a true knowledge of good and evil.

This knowledge would have been of a “godlike” nature, i.e., corresponding to the fact that we were created in God’s image. That sounds really good, actually! If only he had listened….

This idea, that obedience brings strength and knowledge, reminded me of a theory that if we obey God in little things, we become better able to obey him in the big things. Oh, right, that theory came from Jesus, in Luke 16:

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?

I’ve usually taken this to mean that if we esteem material things correctly (i.e., not taking them to be more important than they actually are), that’s a kind of prerequisite for being trusted with really important things — the care of men’s souls for example. So that’s why it’s important for me to tell the truth on expense reports and tax returns, even if I were certain I wouldn’t ever be caught. And why it’s also important to be kind to all, patient when wronged, etc. (from 2 Timothy 2:24).

One more thing this reminded me of:

[Y]ou need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

This passage, too, points to the way things work: by obedience, we gain strength and discernment and maturity. I’m not saying we should go looking for more things to obey (e.g., giving up bacon and shrimp), but that by doing what we already know we should do and avoiding what we know we should avoid, the Lord will help us to grow up in every way (Ephesians 4:15 NCV). That sounds pretty good.


How much is enough?

Posted October 25, 2009 by Collin
Categories: confession, contrasts, Jesus' Teaching, Wonder

Talking with a friend about the greatest commandments from Mark 12:28-31 and what it means to follow them, the question arose: how much is enough? How much volunteering, giving, serving, prayer, fellowship, solitude is enough?

Let’s think about that for a minute. “Enough” for what? Enough to get into heaven? No! We really don’t believe in the “minimum requirements” model (see “What is the Gospel?“, or “True (and False) Transformation” or this sermon [transcript here; see p.5]).

But simply by using the word “enough,” we’re showing that we still have a little of this “minimum requirement” mentality. We’ve really got to get rid of it somehow, because it’s poison for any relationship. I mean, imagine it:

He: Dearest?
She: (turning toward him) Yes?
He: I have a question, but I’m not sure how to ask it.
She: (looking into his eyes) Yes?
He: How much do I have to kiss you? I mean, how much is enough?
She: (turning away) (to herself: What kind of idiot am I involved with, and why?)

She is right, isn’t she, to think she’s involved with some kind of whack job? Here’s the thing: really the gospel is about a treasure — something so great that anyone would sell everything in order to get that treasure. Josh Hunt gives a great summary in the aforementioned article.

What we need here is real transformation. We need something inside us to change. Think about what the psalmist says in Psalm 40:8 (or see the King James), or look at Psalm 119 and see how many times the words “rejoice” and “delight” come up. He delights to do God’s will; he rejoices (Psalm 119:14, NIV) in following his law. That’s not just Old Testament times, either; think of Anna from Luke 1, who was worshiping at the temple all the time. I don’t think this was a poetic exaggeration. And it’s not just Biblical times either; Luther prayed two or three hours a day. Mother Theresa said, “The miracle is not that we do this work, but that we are happy to do it.”

How did these people get to be that way? You know they had to be transformed; they started out just like the rest of us — self-centered and full of all kinds of other folly. Well, I have a few ideas on how that transformation happened, and how it can happen for us:

  • over a long period of time (as with overcoming anger or anxiety)
  • totally under God’s power; we can’t do it ourselves. I read (or maybe wrote) somewhere that the command in Romans 12:2 is to “be transformed”; it’s passive–that is, it’s something that happens to us–and yet it’s a command.
  • generally, the means of grace have something to do with it. The sun’s rays have a beneficial effect, but if we want to get that effect we’ve got to get out of the cave. So: solitude, Scripture, prayer, celebration, fellowship, service — this sort of thing.

When it works, then like Eric Liddell, we feel His pleasure in doing what he made us to do. Liddell was talking about running in particular as an act of worship, but I think it applies to everything we do that’s in our Father’s will.

Occasionally I get glimpses of this, when I find joy in serving or in giving. And I’ll tell you, when I think of “Good News for 12th Century [BC] Man” — i.e., Genesis 1 — of how much God loves us, to tell us this incredibly great news. I mean, have you ever heard that the Bible is “God’s love letter to us”? I used to think, “yeah, whatever” but what Genesis 1 meant to its hearers — it was revolutionary! It was paradigm-shattering! And even today I get a little choked up whenever I think about it.

Does this mean I have it all figured out? Nope! All I’ve got are occasional glimpses. Hopefully I’ll get a few more in the next 20-30 years. And maybe after another 20-30 years I’ll have a little less of the “minimum requirements” mentality.

What’s my real mission statement?

Posted October 18, 2009 by Collin
Categories: contrasts, Jesus' Teaching, Responsibilities

The past few sermons have knocked me rather off-balance. I think this is a good thing, if not entirely a comfortable one. Let me tell you about them.

On October 4, we looked at Mark 12:28-31, where the legal professional asks Jesus which command is the most important. Jesus answers with two of them: Love God; love your neighbor. Matthew 22:38-39 has: “This (i.e., love the Lord your God) is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (parenthesis added) Our preacher pointed out that before Jesus, no one juxtaposed those two commandments like that.

But more importantly, he challenged us to consider what it means to love your neighbor. What should someone do, how much should they be involved if their teenaged nephew, say, has been making some really bad decisions? He’s not their kid, after all. The challenge is this: “If I were this boy’s mother or father, how would I want my relative to be involved with us?”

This is a challenge! If I had lost my home due to flooding or earthquake or landslide, how would I want someone to come alongside me?

Closer to home, here’s a challenge to me: odd fellow on the train. Rather than being annoyed with him, the easy thing for me to do is just walk on by and sit in another car. Why would it be so hard to just sit nearby and be friendly toward him? He gets off at the 3rd stop, so it’s not like my train ride would be taken over or anything.

I don’t always get to the station the same time he does, but when I do, I could be kinder to him; I could treat him more like the neighbor that he actually is.

Then on October 11, the question arose: what’s my real mission statement? Is it “Love God, love people, serve the world”? Or is it something more like “Take care of your kids, get ahead, build your 401(k)”?

Note that the challenge isn’t necessarily an exhortation to neglect your kids or career, but rather a question about the primary factors, the driving force. What do my checkbook and my calendar say? What would my wife, my colleagues, my boss, my children, my neighbors say?

I think their answers would be mixed. What should you or I do? I don’t think that the answer is “well, quit your job and divest your 401(k)” — at least, not for most of us. But speaking for myself (i.e., not for you) I need to make a conscious effort and take concrete steps to serve others. Some comments about this are in the October 4 study guide, on page 2. I hope you’ll have a look at it.

Meanwhile, several of us had a good time serving at CityTeam last night. Not that I have this wired, or that we’re done with regard to balancing our lives, but I need to figure out my next steps around this. Should I make this a more regular part of my life? Or something else?

May the Lord guide us as we consider our next steps.

Sometimes, grace just happens

Posted October 17, 2009 by Collin
Categories: God's Presence, Wonder

I love it when I have the chance to talk with young people about their faith. The other day I had breakfast with a college student I’ll call “Jill,” who had come to a new appreciation of God’s grace and mercy during the preceding months.

As Jill tells it, she was busy with classes and work and recreation, and didn’t seem to have much time for meditation or quiet reflection. Then she made some not-quite-optimal decisions related to, uh, boys — in particular, boys who don’t share her faith; this shrank the time available for sleep and studying. If I have this right, she turned a paper in late and went into an exam with insufficient preparation. She ended the term exhausted and discouraged, and headed off for a short-term mission trip, where she fell ill and spent some days in bed.

So what happened on the paper, the exam, the short-term mission?

Before I tell you, I’ll trot out the old saying that sometimes the people who benefit most from short-term trips are the people who go to serve. What I mean is, if a few dozen (or a half-dozen) people from the US go overseas to build a house or paint an orphanage or teach a few Bible lessons, the family or orphans or students get some benefit. But whose life is changed? Whose view of God has grown? In many cases, the kids have seen other short-term workers come and go, and the new homeowners have seen another family in the community get a house built by “rich” Americans. Sure, it was somebody else who got the house last time, or maybe a church building was erected before and this time they added an extension. But very often what they see is incremental.

Now consider the experience of a hypothetical first-time team member. Maybe they’ve read appeal letters from World Vision; perhaps they’ve seen flood victims on the news. But on a short-term mission they build a house and talk to the people who move in; they erect or paint a church building and go to the church members’ homes and eat a meal there.

Thus a middle-class American encounters the developing world directly — in person, not on the screen or printed page, but face to face. And they’re changed. It’s not just that they get a heightened sense of gratitude; they see with their own eyes how God is at work in some faraway place, and they experience being an answer to someone’s prayer — in a way they typically don’t when they’re at home in the US. God gets larger for them.

You probably guessed it: Jill wasn’t docked for turning her paper in late, and she did fine on the exam (the questions were on things she had down cold). And on the short-term mission (not her first trip by the way), her teammates accepted her and cared for her lovingly; she recovered quickly. Jill loved the kids she went to serve, and came away with a renewed sense that children’s ministry is in her future.

The Bible says that the Lord

… does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

Psalm 103:10-12 NIV

For those who have spent a lot of time around churches, this is not particularly new. We’ve heard many times that Jesus died for our sins, that we’re forgiven for our envy, selfishness, lust, greed, or whatever. But we also “know” that actions have consequences. And sometimes they do; sometimes bad things happen when we miss a deadline, and exams sometimes don’t go well if we’re unprepared.

But sometimes the Lord has something special in mind for us — he wants to express his love and mercy in an unusual way. And how nice it is when he does!

I hope that when this happens, we keep in mind the great mercy of our Lord, as it’s written in Psalm 107, and also here:

Who is a God like you,
who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever
but delight to show mercy.

Micah 7:18

What is the power of prayer, anyway?

Posted October 4, 2009 by Collin
Categories: God's Presence, Jesus

A recent sermon study guide (click to watch) referred to unchangeable things, and asked which was most important to us personally: God’s character, the human condition, the mission of the church, the power of prayer….

Perhaps you’ve heard someone say, “If God lets me down this time, it’ll be the first time.” Perhaps you’ve agreed with them, or even said it yourself. But maybe that remark makes you feel like shaking your head. I met a man whose adult son has been beset by physical and mental health problems for decades; he doesn’t have much tolerance for this sort of happy talk. He believes that God is there, but sunny Sunday School phrases aren’t part of his vocabulary.

Another friend isn’t sure about the power of prayer. By his own account, he has nothing to complain about; he considers himself very fortunate. But how much does prayer have to do with his happy circumstances? Not much that he knows of. You can pray or not, and good things can happen or not; he doesn’t see much correlation.

I’ll be honest with you: I don’t completely disagree. Sometimes it seems like God acts in response to prayer, and sometimes it doesn’t. Yes, I know, sometimes God’s answer is “No” or “Wait” or even “Wrong question.” And as Lewis says, God isn’t obligated to do what we tell him; “He’s the King I tell you!” (from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)

What can we say about the power of prayer? It’s not reliable — we can pray for something, and it won’t necessarily happen. A few comments, in no particular order.

First, does this mean that somehow we weren’t doing it right? Was there some specific prayer that we missed? Did we not have enough faith? Ah, no. Consider the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12; surely he had enough faith! And how about Moses in Deuteronomy 3:23-27? And Daniel heard about how an answer could be delayed (Daniel 10:12-13). It is completely inappropriate to say, “you weren’t healed (or whatever) because you didn’t have enough faith.” How much faith did Eutychus have when he was already dead? Or Jairus’s daughter in Mark 5 for that matter?

It’s tempting to say, “well, that wasn’t God’s will,” but I’m not willing to say that to anyone. Daniel’s answer was delayed, as we saw above. And some things certainly are God’s will — for example that everyone be saved (2 Peter 3:9). I have to believe that a prayer for salvation is always heard.

But for a particular person to be protected from physical harm, for an election to go a certain way… I don’t think we can know God’s mind on those things.

Finally, does this make anyone think that maybe God doesn’t care, or that maybe he just isn’t really out there? As my friend said the other night, Jesus Christ certainly came to earth; he predicted his death and resurrection—which actually did happen. And that proves that God cares, that he loves us, that he’s powerful to act on our behalf. Why he does sometimes (miracles do still happen!) and not others… well, we can’t really know all that.

But because Jesus Christ has died, and is risen indeed, we can be certain of his love and his power.


Posted September 16, 2009 by Collin
Categories: contrasts, God's Presence

A “professional Christian” in youth ministry confessed in a recent seminar that

I can go a “long time” without thinking about God.

(K. Powell, May 2009)

She meant as much as several minutes, but in my case it could even be hours.

Have you ever had that experience? Sitting there, with your Bible open, it hits you: “I haven’t thought about God for some minutes now.” You’ve been thinking about a problem, maybe, or a regret. Or something you’re longing for — or dreading.

What comes next? A rush of guilt, or discouragement about being a “bad Christian” maybe? Now instead of thinking about what a bad Christian you are, here’s another idea: “Thank you Lord for reminding me that I belong to you. I’m glad you’re here and always want to listen to me.” Does that seem like a good idea? (No, I didn’t think of it; I probably read it in John White’s The Fight or some book like that a long time ago.)

A young friend pointed out a benefit of this approach: that whereas guilt is focused on myself (“Why am I such a bad Christian? Why can’t I keep the Lord in my mind for more than a few minutes at a time?” etc.) thanking God puts the emphasis on him (“Thank you, Lord for reminding me… you’re here and always want to listen”).

Who does this well? Dogs are pretty good at it! My old dog, Duke, would sometimes get sidetracked (literally) and forget what he was supposed to be doing. But when we called, he’d respond with enthusiasm and joy. No guilt, no angst — not even when it was warranted!

Where am I going with this? “Everything I needed to know I learned from my dog”? Not quite. But Duke’s joy and enthusiasm, his un-self-conscious attitude of worship, his focus on the present — he was a pretty good model of those. He was supremely confident in our affection for him, and in our ability to provide for his needs.

So if you’ve been woolgathering — and even if you haven’t — let us keep the Lord in view; Let us fix our eyes on Jesus. In the words of the song,

Let’s forget about ourselves
    and magnify the Lord
    and worship his holy name
O worship him
    Jesus Christ our Lord.

Bruce Ballinger

Easier said than done, but he will be our help.

Why “the passing things of earth” doesn’t (just) mean jewelry or luxury automobiles

Posted September 12, 2009 by Collin
Categories: contrasts, Jesus

Paul tells the Colossians, “Give your heart to the heavenly things, not to the passing things of earth” (Colossians 3:2, Phillips; NIV) and for a long time I thought he meant not to focus on the latest gadget, clothes, cars, jewelry and the like.

But recently I happened to read it in context; the flow of Paul’s argument makes me think it’s much bigger than that.

  • He reminds us in 2:8-12 about Christ’s identity and our connection to him; he urges us to not to be distracted from Christ by fine-sounding arguments;
  • He follows that up by reminding us in 2:13-15 that we’re forgiven and made alive with Christ.
  • As a consequence, we need not bother with a lot of religious regulations (2:16-23)
  • It’s at this point that he tells us to set our hearts on things above in 3:1-4.
  • Therefore, Paul says, put aside “whatever belongs to your earthly nature” (3:5-11) and he lists some of them out: sexual immorality, lust, greed, anger, gossip, abusive speech, racism/elitism.
  • Instead, he urges us to compassion, kindness and the like (3:12-14)

Yes, greed is mentioned in 3:5, but it’s just one item in Paul’s list of silly things we do. It’s also interesting to me that Paul sets Christ (who is our life, 3:4) in contrast to all these other things:

  • deceptive philosophy, human tradition and the basic principles of this world (2:8)
  • physical circumcision (2:11)
  • death through sin (2:13)
  • the written legal code (2:14) and regulations about food and drink (2:21)
  • powers and authorities (2:15)
  • religious festivals, including the religious calendar: sabbath and holy days (2:16)
  • false humility and the worship of angels (2:18)
  • sensual indulgence (2:23)
  • sexual immorality, impurity, lust, greed (3:5)
  • anger, cursing, grudges and gossip (3:8)
  • lying (3:9)
  • distinctions based on ethnicity or politico-economic situations (3:11)

Whereas I tend to think of these things separately — anger-related issues, sex-related stuff, obsession with rituals, etc. — Paul puts them all into the same bucket, and calls them “the passing things of earth.” Which they are — they’re all dumb, and they’ll all pass. So if I say, “I won’t do this but I’ll wink at that” — well, that’s folly.

May the Lord help us set our hearts more on Christ. May he strengthen us to do the right thing:

[A]s God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

from Colossians 3:12-14