- Scribbling Journal: Entry 2
- Jesus Wept: A Short Theological Reflection on Grief
- Being Human
- Short Reflections on Christian Politics
- Scribbling Journal: Entry 1
Happy New Year!
To some people, the desire to be known might not come as a shock. However, God used this book powerfully to expose my innermost desire: to be known by Him and the people around me. Curt Thompson writes poetically, eloquently, with sophistication and depth that only the most artistic neurobiologists could write. Thompson masterfully weaves faith, psychology, and the world’s beauty into a rich and profoundly moving tapestry of transformative meaning for the indigent and broken Christian.
If my Christian journey can be defined by one word for the last few years, that would be deconstruction (and reconstruction). Deconstruction has become increasingly popular lately, and Brian Zahnd is a clear voice through the flames when your faith seems to be burning down around you. Zahnd writes with intelligence, wisdom, and prophetic vigour as he reflects on his journey through the fire while bringing together some of the most critical voices of the past and present. Zahnd encourages the deconstructing Christian to commit to reconstruction and that Jesus is worth clinging to.
Climate change is arguably the biggest threat to humanity; as Christians, we are obligated to play our part. Katharine Hayhoe is a passionate climate change scientist who loves Jesus just as much as she loves the world he created. It is a part of her mission to help churches see the importance of living out our Genesis 1-2 mandate and care for the world as intended. This book helps the already converted and the sceptic bring together seemingly opposing worldviews so that they may live faithfully and with urgency.
In this book, James K. A. Smith writes to help us (as the blurb describes) develop a sense of temporal awareness. Many Christians, even just people in the west, lack the ability to live wisely in our cultural and historical moment. I’m still working my way through this book. Still, Smith writes with philosophical sophistication, historical awareness and sharp cultural discernment as he moves the reader away from their own individualistic perception of history and into how to be influential kingdom-minded people in their moments of history.
I was reluctant to put this book on my list, not because I don’t think it deserves to be in my top five, but because when I finished the book, I wasn’t entirely sure what I had just read. Sabbath is a classic Jewish work on the “architecture of time.” For Heschel, the sabbath day was the day in which every other day led to. It was this sacred temple in time that allowed God and his creation to come together in a kairo-protest of the worldly powers that be.
Tis the season…
A book in the bible I often return to is Ecclesiastes. A particular passage that comes to mind is:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
The funny thing about this time of year is that Christmas confuses the seasons and the times. It is far flung from the sacred holy day it once was. Christmas has become a bubbling cauldron of consumerism, suicide, crippling debt, and anxiety with a pinch of hope, a sprinkle of love, and a snifter of joy.
For me, Christmas has always been about presents. As a child, I would often wake up when it was still dark to find gifts at the end of the bed or under the tree. I’d be excited as I desperately hoped for pokemon cards or a new N64 game (The Legend of Zelda was my favourite). My parents spoiled me. My mum was a crafty character. She’d often hide or pretend that I wouldn’t get so much, and then when I least expected it, bam! There’d be a new bike or a new gaming console. Thanks, mum. As I got older and my parents separated, I started paying close attention to those around me. Especially in my young adult years, I saw that Christmas became less enjoyable for most people because putting together the perfect day was more important than people “just being.” But who can blame them? The perfect Christmas day is every other day of our lives turned up to eleven.
I love Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 because life is ordered, simple, and easy to understand. Life is hardly that easy, unfortunately. For many of us, every day is an anxiety-riddled, depressed-filled, hope-flickering Christmas day that we all try to manage. Like Christmas, Jesus fights for the spotlight in life. We often shove Him off into a dark corner after a quick chat as we eagerly unwrap our other presents.
I often feel at odds with myself because I know I should be enjoying the gift of Grace more than anything else. Still, the new God of War PS5 game seems so much more fulfilling in the moment. I mean, it’s not like Jesus carries around an axe and slays pagan gods with a broody demeanour. It’s not like Jesus shamed the other gods of the world, had victory over them, and now rules over them from Heaven. Sarcasm, by the way, because he is (weird side thought, who’d win in a fight between Kratos and Jesus…?). It doesn’t always feel like it when every other power inundates me daily. Like at Christmas, it is easy to lose sight of the One in whom love and life are found.
Recently, I had an argument with one of my bosses about the Christmas season. Knowing I’m a Christian, he asked, “what do you think of carols, Cam?” I don’t really like them, I replied, already exhausted with where this was going. Surprised, he said, why now? I rattled off a few reasons I don’t like carols or Christmas in general. I gave statistics on how suicide rates increase over the season, how much waste is used over the holiday, how much food we throw out, and how much crippling debt people go into. After my two-minute rant, he told me, “it’s not Christmas’s fault that people go into debt. They don’t have to spend that much money.” Of course, he was right. What shocked me, however, was not the answer he gave me. Instead, it was the gross oversimplification of the statement. Of course, people can decide not to go into debt, kill themselves, or waste food and rubbish. However, the question we should be asking ourselves is, “why are they?” Why do people need to spend money and ruin Christmas with petty fights that expose the ego? In reality, why do we do anything?
Why do we do anything? For the longest time, I believed that our motivations and intentions were driven by evil hearts that always wanted to do wicked and sinful things. I no longer believe this to be the case. Most of us do what we believe is right in seriously broken ways. There are expectations to this, I’m sure. However, I think most people don’t wake up and decide to murder, steal, cheat, or lie. Instead, our actions result from a lifetime (generations even) of decisions to good that often cause more harm than good. People are trapped in debt because they believe that spending so much money is the right thing to do. They’re afraid of the social consequences of not buying the latest Ipad for their partner or a family member. People kill themselves over the Christmas season because they’ve bought into the lie that what they lack is more important than who they are and the world would be better without them. There are narratives and systems, and ideas being told that cause people to do the things they’re doing. The human heart, of course, would find another way – no doubt. My point is that we can’t simply chalk actions up to the doctrine of original sin and total depravity (for the black and white Christian), or (for the more secular), we can’t just assume people make choices in a historical vacuum void of influence or trauma.
A closing thought. Perhaps we just need a reformation around Christmas, actually in life. As Christmas day was intended, every day should be participated in and meditated on in light of the Incarnation and what that means for humanity. What is that meaning? In the words of Jesus himself, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18-19).
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.– Jeremiah 29:11
The prosperity Gospel has wormed its way into the folds of the church for decades. Where I live, on the Sunshine Coast, versions of it prevail among our many churches. Most churches I’ve been to wouldn’t say “trust in God, and you’ll be financially blessed” (though I have heard this on a few occasions). Instead, most churches default to preaching a prosperity, self-help, positive thinking hybrid message all tied up in the love of God and a love of self. I’m harsh, I know. It’s easy to sit here behind my laptop and bash on churches. Trust me, I know how I can come off. I just get frustrated with the shallow promises made by those in positions of influence over those desperately seeking substance and meaning. The Good News and good biblical preaching were never meant to offer cheap and easy answers to our challenging and complex lives. When I read the Bible, it meets us right at the crossroads of suffering and hardship. It never gives us one-liners to “speak into existence” or “manifest.” God never gives us meretricious promises to grasp on to. However, there is some truth to the hopeful expectation of prosperity and blessing. We find many such ideas in the Scriptures:
The first case of prosperity and human flourishing appears in Genesis 1, where God blesses humanity and tells them to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28). Though it is important to note that the blessing is one of posterity, not material gain per se. In Genesis 2, God gives humanity a garden with every kind of tree that is pleasing to the eye and good for food (Genesis 1:29-30; 2:8-9) as well as gold, resin and onyx in abundance and rivers giving life to the land around them (Genesis 2:10-14). Animals dwell in peace with Adam (Genesis 1:30-31; 2:19-20) as humans (Genesis 2:21-25), and creation and God are in harmony with one another (Genesis 2:1-2). All is well. However, in Genesis 3, we have humanity taking more than they’re supposed to (Genesis 3:6). Greed, selfishness, and the desire to be like God takes over (Genesis 3:5, 22). Humanity’s connection to one another (Genesis 3:7) and the Garden are severed as they’re exiled from the presence of God (Genesis 3:24).
From here, God sets up an entire story where He chooses a people to flourish and be blessed in Eden-like spaces so that God may freely dwell with His creation. Yet time and time again, these people fail at creating these spaces even as God promises them blessings, prosperity and abundance (Genesis 12:2; Deuteronomy 8:18; Jeremiah 29:11; Philippians 4:19). It’s important to understand that the promises of God, particularly when relating to the idea of wealth and prosperity, isn’t something New Testament Christians can necessarily expect to come true in the present age. God’s promises are yes and amen in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). God does bless people beyond what they deserve. God does want good things for His people. Yet the very essence of the mission of God was to come in the likeness of sinful flesh (Philippians 2), in the brokenness of humanity as one who was with the poor and outcast, without splendour (Isaiah 53) so that we might lay our burdens onto Him as we meet head on the suffering of life (Psalm 55:22; Matthew 11:29; 1 Peter 5:7). Indeed, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13), yet what Paul means is that we are to learn to be content in every situation where we lack (Philippians 4:10-12). No matter the problem, Christ is enough.
Finally, the abundant life God wanted for us in the Garden will be again experienced in the coming age, in the new heavens and earth. Humanity will once again flourish where death and sickness will be no more (Revelation 21:4). There will be no more thirst or hunger (Revelation 21:6), no more division between humanity (Galatians 3:8; Revelation 7:9-17), and rivers of life flow freely once more to give life to the land with the tree of life, providing fruit to heal all the people (Revelation 22:1-5). Once again, God can dwell with His people, and all is in harmony (Revelation 21:3).
This blog is by no means an exhaustive theological reflection on this issue. However, even a small and concise overview like this quickly demonstrates that prosperity and human flourishing happen in a way the widespread prosperity, self-help gospel has come to fail so many people. You do not give $77.77 to a televangelist to get doubly blessed. You do not sow a financial seed into a project hoping to get that house or car you’ve been wanting. The real prosperity Gospel is God promising that the sufferings in this life are nothing compared to the glory we should anticipate experiencing in the next. Those in positions of influence who take advantage of those who can barely afford to feed their own families, who take advantage of those who are sick, depressed and broken – these prosperity self-help preachers are the most reprehensible of people and deserve nothing more than to meet God face to face.
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits, the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.
~ Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 ~
John Piper has famously coined the term “Christian Hedonism.” Piper defines Christian Hedonism as, “the conviction that God’s ultimate goal in the world (his glory) and our deepest desire (to be happy) are one and the same because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Not only is God the supreme source of satisfaction for the human soul, but God himself is glorified by our being satisfied in him. Therefore, our pursuit of joy in him is essential.”
Piper’s definition here has two key phrases I would like the highlight. 1. “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. 2. “Our pursuit of joy in him is essential.” These two ideas are the essence of Christian hedonism, feasting on God and indulging in Him. What Piper espouses is a wonderful idea, and I thank God that Piper has been teaching this throughout his life and ministry. However, (and I’m sure that Piper addresses all this within Christian Hedonism), what if Christians find it impossible to find contentment and joy in God? While I believe our pursuit of joy and contentment in God is essential so that we glorify Him, there are seasons, if not entire lifetimes, where some of us experience the never-ending onslaught of suffering and angst the world has in store for us. God becomes distant and impossible to relate to at times. You feel like you could never glorify God, not even in your best moments. Jesus becomes an idea rather than the person you used to be swooning over. Where there was purpose and meaning, now is chaos and the unfamiliar. You begin to think like the Preacher, “vanity of vanities” – this all becomes meaningless suffering and grief. The cloud of uncertainty settles upon the heart as you wander through life like a lost bedouin. “Exiles”, the Bible calls us (1 Peter 1:1-2), and you certainly begin to feel like one. How do we make sense of all of this “vanity?” I propose Christian Existentialism Nihilism.
Christian Nihilism is an oxymoron if ever there was one. On the one hand, you have Christianity that teaches us to be joyful, happy, and content in all things. Christianity teaches us that there’s a purpose, a plan, and meaning in the darkest places (true, by the way). On the other hand, Nihilism teaches us that life and suffering are ultimately random, meaningless, and chaotic. For proponents of Nihilism like Friedrich Nietzsche, the belief in God and the practice of religion is a crutch that humanity uses to make sense of a senseless existence. Christian Nihilism is an almost paradoxical embracement of both realities. As one walks through life through the seemingly purposeless and brutal sufferings that life brings us, we are to embrace the pain and grief it throws at us (allow the barbs of suffering to settle in your heart). Christian Nihilism is the idea that while joy and contentment in God might be ideal, they might never be experienced on this side of eternity. It is embracing the chaos while trusting that God will make all things work together for our good, even if the good isn’t always seen.
In reality, this isn’t anything new. The Bible often speaks of the suffering and pain Christians are to go through. I suppose what I aim to do with this idea is to alleviate the burden of joy for those who are constantly pursuing it and only ever experiencing more pain and sorrow. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Christian Hedonism is wrong. I’m just putting a new card on the table as I wrestle with a reality that I’ve experienced, and I’m sure many others do. Pursuing joy and contentment in God has been an extremely tiring journey that has yielded little fruit for me. However, I believe God is doing something in me apart from my effort and typical expectations. As I walk, I painfully groan with creation as I patiently await the new world.
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 ~
The darker the night, the brighter the star. The deeper the grief, the closer is God!Apollon Maykov
Jesus wept. John 11:35 is the shortest verse in the Bible and perhaps the most human. I love this verse because, as I’ve argued elsewhere, if you want to know what it means to be a human, look no further than Jesus. Here, we have permission to weep and lament over the brokenness around us. For Jesus, this was the death of Lazarus and the pain and anguish it caused those closest to him. Jesus didn’t stoically trust in God’s plan (despite knowing He would resurrect Lazarus shortly after). Still, neither did He lose all hope under the crushing weight of grief. Jesus responded as the perfect human should; He lamented with genuine tears without losing sight of the future hope. Like the Psalmist, Jesus cries out in distress as He trusts in God’s deliverance (Psalm 55:16-18).
John 11:35 doesn’t just permit humans to grieve; it also shows us who God is. He is the kind of God who steps into our darkest moments. Yahweh weeps when we weep and feels just as burdened with the brokenness as we are (even more so). Despite some people’s tendency to pit the New Testament God against the Old Testament God, we shouldn’t be surprised to find the grieving God revealed in Christ in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Perhaps the first time God explicitly grieves is during the flood account, where “the LORD regretted that he had made humanity on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:6). Interestingly when I read this story earlier in my Christian journey, I always thought God was mad with everyone for being evil (which they were). So, he sends a flood to destroy the earth in a fit of rage. However, the passage suggests that the flood is in response to human sinfulness and God’s grief. Anger and grief aren’t mutually exclusive emotions. We can be highly irrational when we’re emotional, even when being emotional is the most rational response.
Nevertheless, it is essential to note here that the passage highlights God’s grief as the emotional response, not anger. One can only speculate why. Some of my most grief-filled times have been because people I deeply loved not just broke my heart but went down a path I knew wasn’t good for them, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Here I can imagine God breaking down over the choices of the world as they were dominated by sin and, in turn, perpetuated sin into the world. Now, there are a lot of ideas and interpretations of the flood account (Genesis 6-9). However, there is one place I can land on here, and that’s this story is a commentary on all of our lives. All of us have participated in the brokenness and evil that has dominated this world since Genesis 3. God grieves for each, and every one of us as the renewal of the world edges closer and closer.
God’s grief in the flood account may come as a shock to some. The destruction of the world and everyone in it doesn’t seem like an appropriate response to grief. This is difficult to reconcile with God’s character elsewhere in the Bible. I have no easy answers. I know that the Bible portrays God as one who is intimately involved with His creation (Genesis 1-3), that He is merciful, kind, and slow to anger (Exodus 34:6-7), and that He loves the world so much that He sent Jesus to rescue it (John 3:16). Yet, God deals justly with the problem of sin, and I believe that Genesis 6-9 is a window into what will happen when Jesus returns and ushers in the New Heavens and Earth. As I’ve argued here, the flood isn’t just about removing sin and the destruction of the world; it is about renewal and God rescuing humanity.
Another notable passage where grief is mentioned in the Bible is in Isaiah 53:3, where “the arm of the LORD” is said to be “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” In the New Testament, this mystery person is revealed to be Jesus the Messiah (Matthew 8:14-17; John 12:37-41; Luke 22:35-38; 1 Peter 2:19-25; Acts 8:26-35; Romans 10:11-21). Even a cursory reading of the Gospels will demonstrate how Jesus was acquainted with grief. Perhaps we see this clearly in the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus says, “my soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” The author of Hebrews fleshes this out when he says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Finally, we see in Revelation that the suffering servant is the one who wipes every tear from our eyes in the new creation (Revelation 21:4).
There is much to grieve about in one’s life—the death of a loved one, the state of the world, divorce. I have heard that life is just a series of traumatic events we learn to manage and grieve. You could have everything and still be “a man of sorrows.” As I survey the Bible, I see how God justly deals with sin but is genuinely grieved over the state of the world. In particular, I see Jesus in the Gospels, where God is most human, and humanity is most in touch with God – I am comforted to know that the grief I experience, the depression, and the sorrow, is not overlooked. It is shared in by a God who could easily transcend the sufferings of this life. Those who mourn are blessed, for God is near them (Psalm 34; Matthew 5:4).
Other related blogs:
Voting as a Christian is hard. Why? Because (as I’ve argued in a previous post) how you engage in politics is a part of your worship. This means four things. First, it means that who you vote for is an expression of your faith, your place in, and your vision of God’s Kingdom. Second, who you vote for expresses your love towards your neighbour and the world around you. Third, who you vote for expresses your love towards God. Fourth, not only does voting impact the world around you, but it also forms and transforms you inwardly. For some Christians, this makes voting easy (whoever is pro-life, right?). For me, it complicates it. Gone are the days when I could pick a single issue and vote with it in mind. Gone are the days when I could make fun of politics (though I still do that) and not care about who influences our nation. Voting matters because, as James K. A. Smith says:
The call to follow Christ, the call to desire his kingdom, does not simplify our lives by segregating us in some “pure” space; to the contrary, the call to bear Christ’s image complicates our lives because it comes to us in the midst of our environments without releasing us from them.– James K. A. Smith in Awaiting the King
As my faith and theology mature, voting becomes increasingly tricky. If voting profoundly impacts the world around me (including myself), then my vote can’t be taken lightly. Add to that the lack of reasonable candidates to vote for is the perfect recipe for a Lamentations part II. No matter who I vote for, I compromise on something. Do I care for the unborn? Of course. Outstanding, but voting for a party with anti-abortion policies means I have to compromise on climate change policies (and the lives climate change affects around the world) and vice versa. There’s always a trade-off, and I hate that this is the reality in which we live. Trying to love one group of neighbours means I have to neglect the other groups. I understand why some people avoid politics altogether (not a luxury we have in Australia). So what do we do? Do we abstain from voting (illegal in most cases in our country)? Do I donkey vote (that feels like a waste of a vote)? Do I vote for independents and hope for the best (does that ever make a difference)? What is the appropriate Christian response here? There’s no clear answer, to be honest. However, there are perhaps a few things to consider before giving up on the system altogether. Nationwide change, where God’s kingdom comes and His will is done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:9-13), begins within the Christian, then in the church, and then extends into the world.
Whatever you do during this election, just remember to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:27).
I have been a Christian for over ten years now. One of the most significant theological developments I’ve undergone is my shedding of the oppressive, sexist theological system known as complementarianism and embracing egalitarianism as the biblical, liberating, beautiful truth that one only denies because they hate women. For many years I read 1 Timothy 2:12, printed it out and slapped women in the face with it whenever they wanted to tell me anything, let alone give me any reasonable thoughts on the Bible. That’s all changed now as I’ve realised how ridiculous I was, how much I hated women, and how Jesus was a feminist. Now I hate my gender (all men are pigs, especially myself…), and I’ve thrown out 2000 years of church history and biblical interpretation to fit my woke agenda. I plead with everyone reading this, particularly the egalitarians, to realise that it’s April Fools Day and complementarianism is still, in my opinion, the most beautiful portrayal of gender roles and relationships. Have a great day 🙂
In case you didn’t realise, Jesus has not come back. We still live in a broken world. Suicide and mental health are significant issues. Rape, murder, broken families, discrimination, inequality are pervasive in 2022. The world is not what anyone wants it to be. Christians flip through the pages of their bibles as they desperately cling on to promises and vague out-of-context passages to make it through another day. Prayer feels like we’re screaming into the wind, and the rest of us just lay staring, wondering if any of it matters. Why talk to a God that doesn’t seem to talk back? Why read a book that seems so abused, out of place, and irrelevant? Why gather with people I don’t like and are just plain annoying? Recently, I wrote, “to be human means to be so caught up in the person of God that you bring God’s presence into the world around us.” Yet, how can we get so caught up in who God is when it feels like years since I’ve experienced Him? How can we represent and mediate God’s presence when we often don’t even feel it ourselves?
In this present age, the Christian wonders about the Earth as an exile (1 Peter 2:11) as they painfully await the return of their King. Not all of us make it. Some of us lose faith. Everything that we are told feels like a lie. Life didn’t get better. The grass wasn’t greener. Why were we told this? We lived every day believing the depression would get better, that the bank account would get bigger, that we would get that job, that partner, that life. Jesus wants to bless us; he has a wonderful plan for our lives, right? Maybe. Define wonderful. Almost every character used by God in the Scriptures were alone, suffered, and were killed by other people. Not much of a life. Yet here we are throwing around the Gospel like it’s a cheap trick or pyramid scheme. What we need is a proper perspective on what theologians call the “now and not yet.”
Now and Not Yet
The “now and not yet” is the present tension, age, and context that we live in that theologians refer to when trying to apply the Bible. For example, the atoning work of Christ achieved many things, one of which was freedom from sin. However, as Christians, we might be free from sin’s power over us, but we aren’t free from the presence of sin and temptation. The removal of sin will happen in the future, and when we have present victory over sin, that is a foretaste of the new heavens and earth.
Considering we’ve already alluded to it, let’s look at the famous verse Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” This verse has been taken out of context more times than I can count and is applied often to the Christian life in unhelpful and toxic ways. I have seen this verse used as a way for Christians to believe that God would prosper them financially, and I have seen this verse used to give a grand destiny to a Christian who is a little lost in life. These are wrong ways to interpret and apply the Bible. First, we must start with the meaning the author intended for their original audience before extrapolating any modern implications.
Furthermore, when we do get around to any modern implications, we must have interpreted the text through the work and person of Christ and then to us. Jeremiah 29:11 is a great verse, but it was written to the Israelites who had been conquered by Babylon, oppressed, and led off into exile from their home. For the original audience, Jeremiah is giving the people who have lost their national identity, home, and culture hope that Yahweh has not abandoned them. Despite their circumstances, Jeremiah promises that Yahweh plans to make them a great people once again. The problem is, this restoration never really happened in Israel’s history. Even when they returned to rebuild their home, they were still conquered and annexed by the Roman Empire as they still felt exiled in their land under foreign power. Israel was waiting for the messiah that would then free them from the shackles of Rome and bring in the utopian age that they had under David and Solomons reign. When Jesus finally comes on to the scene, Israel gets a saviour they weren’t expecting (hence the hate from the religious leaders of His time). Instead of military might, they got the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9). Instead of slaying their enemies, He dies for them (John 3:16 Romans 5:10). Instead of raising the religious leaders to higher places of authority, he raises the weak and marginalised. Jesus tried to correct their interpretation by explaining how what He was doing fulfilled the Old Testament and how everything in the Law and the Prophets were about Him (Luke 24:27; John 5:39).
So when I read Jeremiah 29:11 as being fulfilled in Christ, I believe that Jesus and, in turn, His people, the Church, the true Israel (see: Matthew 3:9; Romans 4:13-14; Galatians 3:18, 29) see this played out in new ways. Does Jesus have plans to prosper His people? Yes. When will we see this prospering? We taste it now when we’re blessed with financial provision, food, clothes, that promotion, but the promise sees its complete fulfilment in the New Heavens and Earth. This interpretive move is what we call the now and not yet. We taste the prosperous age now, at times. Yet we inherit it fully when King Jesus makes all things new.
Jeremiah 29:11 is one of many examples I could give to highlight the importance of understanding the now and not yet reality of the time we live. We cannot over-realise our expectations of the promises of God, and yet we cannot under-realise them. God genuinely wants His people to prosper, yet life isn’t without its brokenness and sin. Jeremiah promises that God will prosper His people in the next age, which will come to pass. Yet, for now, we groan with creation as we anticipate His return and taste the bittersweetness of life.
The glory of God is man fully alive, but the life of a man is the vision of God.
The French theologian John Calvin once wrote, “Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God.” It seems that even the great Protestant reformers who were famous for their emphasis on God’s sovereignty in history and salvation never intended for us to lose understanding of what it meant to be human. John Calvin seems to go even a step further as he stressed the importance of understanding ourselves to understand the Grand Creator of the universe. To me, this is a fascinating notion. All the theology and doctrine about God only make sense if we first understand who we are. This means, for the Christian, that we need to be deliberate in 1. knowing what it means to be human and 2. what it means to be “you” specifically. In this post, my goal is to reflect on these ideas and perhaps together, we can come to understand what it means to “John Doe the Human” and, in turn, catch a glimpse of the Creator Himself.
To Be Human
I already feel like I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. The doctrine of man, understanding and defining humanity is an enormous endeavour that philosophers, theologians, anthropologists, psychologists, and biologists have sailed for many years. Unfortunately, these disciplines rarely get along. Notably, within conservative evangelical circles, there is a distrust of the sciences in a bid to uphold and champion sola Scriptura. However, hermeneutics and the doctrine of scripture is not the topic of the blog. We will not get into age-old debates on science vs religion (many of you by now should know where I sit on these issues). We are here to reflect on what it means to be human, and as someone who has studied theology, that’s where my mind goes to when I begin to make sense of who we are (and I think it’s a pretty safe bet).
Over the last century or two, science, particularly in human biology, has made a lot of progress in what makes up a human materially. However, what makes up a human (cells, bones, tissue etc.), and what it means to be human are related but separate issues.
In Genesis 1, we have God creating the cosmos, and on day 6, He creates humanity “in His image and likeness (Gen 1:26).” There’s much to be said about the image of God. However, one doesn’t need to be a high theologian to know that something about humanity is tied up in the person of God. Human’s were “very good.” I can imagine God sitting back as He looks upon the male and female completely wrapped up in His very good creation as He eagerly awaits their flourishing. In turn, I can imagine humans walking with God in the cool of the day and then going out into the world to extend God’s loving, transformative presence into the natural world. One scholar understands the image of God as humans having been “put in the world to mediate God’s presence.” This, I believe, get us to the meaning of what it means to be human. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we are to bring God’s presence into our spaces, transforming the world around us. Therefore, to be human means to be so caught up in the person of God that you bring God’s presence into the world around us. Being human is functional, not just an ontological thing.
Jesus, The Human
If bringing God’s presence into the world is at the heart of what it means to be human, then we need to look no further than Christ Himself to find a man fully alive. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus was the cornerstone of the new living temple (John 1:14, 1:51, 2:18–22 and 4:20–24), a place in the ancient world where heaven and earth come together. Instead of a temple made of stone, this would be made of flesh and spirit. Jesus would be the First Stone, and His Church would be the living stones built upon the First (1 Corinthians 6:19-20; Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:4-7). Jesus acted. Jesus was about bringing the Kingdom of God to earth. Jesus did this by telling people to turn from their idols and sin (Matthew 4:17, 6:19-24), forgiving sin (Matthew 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12), healing the sick (Mark 1:41-42), ministering to the marginalised (Matthew 19:14; Luke 4:14-30, 10:27-37), and dying so that we can be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:18-21; Romans 5:8-11). This is a hard act to follow, perhaps. Jesus is a pretty amazing human (I have anxiety just thinking I could match up to this). However, here’s the point. Jesus, through His Spirit, is creating a new kind of humanity free from the burden of sin (Romans 6), but He hasn’t finished (we live in what’s called “the now and not yet”). The brokenness, sinfulness, and failure that still corrupt us is something God anticipates as He, over time, conforms us to the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29). The fully alive human is Jesus, and we become fully alive in Christ when we’re in step with His Spirit (Galatians 5:16), and while this is something we strive for, it isn’t a perpetual state of being on this side of eternity. Sanctification is a process, and becoming like Jesus takes time, and so does bringing God’s presence into the world. Remember, the Kingdom of God is a mustard seed that slowly grows and blooms. You play a significant part in nurturing that growth and inviting others to rest upon its branches, just don’t expect it to reach maturity today or perhaps even tomorrow.
G. K. Chesterton once wrote that “every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star.” A significant theme in the Scriptures is how humanity has forgotten themselves and who they’re supposed to be. We have forgotten our God, we’re separated from Him, and therefore, we’re subhuman. However, Jesus invites us to be united to Him once more. I can think of no better definition for the Christian journey than to, as the ancient Greek maxim says, “know thy self” as we look at the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).