- 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!
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).
Jesus came to me first through religious fervour and fanaticism. Christianity was almost a swear word, a kind of “you know who” or a “he who must not be named” sort of thing that, if you had to bring it up, an unsavoury taste lingered upon the tongue in conversation. Far too many stories were heard of priests molesting children and preachers zealously proclaiming “turn or burn” on street corners, causing most people who heard them to ignore their existence, if not shy away in embarrassment for them entirely.
My parents, and their parents, grew up in an age believing religion and politics weren’t things one talked about at the dinner table if one were to have a civil conversation. This is ludicrous because spirituality and politics are some of the most important topics of discussion when getting to a person’s heart. Never have I known a person more than when they painted for me a picture of the world and how they believe it can be fixed. If this kind of conversation were fostered more, maybe we’d be having very different conversations now about identity and the sorts.
It wasn’t until much later that I started to see Jesus as more than a “car salesman.” I had always been interested in mythology and spirituality, and as I started reading about new-age teachers, historians and storytellers, I learned that Jesus was a serious spiritual person. It just took hearing it from someone who wasn’t a Christian first for me to realise it. It still took me longer to trust in Jesus – whatever that means – or at least to give the Christian thing a red hot crack… here I am, still giving it a go more than ten years later.
I can’t tell you exactly what got me into trusting Jesus. Some would say it is the sovereignty of God, and others would say he filled the hole in my life or whatever (in some ways, I have more “holes” and “cracks” now than I ever did). As I got to know it more and more, the biblical story made the most sense of my humanity (or lack thereof), the world around me, and my place in it. I used to believe that the Bible was something you could sit down, read, understand, and walk away with. However, the Bible takes more than a lifetime to master. The Bible is the sort of literature you have to sit with over coffee or tea every day for the rest of your life. It is supposed to be read in a community, and It is the kind of story that moves from only the intellect to the centre of your being.
As I read the Bible more, Jesus started moving from being a spiritual guy who told us to love people (erg!) to him representing me. I can imagine the surfer Jesus that puts flowers in people’s hair and sings kumbaya coming out of the surf, pushing a craft beer in front of me and staring at me in the eye with a look of intense affection and saying, “Camaron, look at me. There’s more to life than what you lack. I can show you how to be more.” I think he would have an Aslan kind of effect on me. When he speaks, he shakes off the salt water from his long curls, but you shudder in fear and awe, and the space he commands has a certain gravitas. But instead of running away, you want more of him. You can’t help but be drawn to His presence. You hang off every word, even if they’re hard to hear.
“When we learn to read the story of Jesus and see it as the story of the love of God, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves–that insight produces, again and again, a sense of astonished gratitude which is very near the heart of authentic Christian experience.”― N.T. Wright
I pray that we will all have that sense of astonished gratitude.
The thing about the Christian life is that no one really knows what they’re doing (this is true for most of life). There’s a reason why we have so many different denominations and sects. I’ve met pastors, scholars, and believers from all sorts of churches and traditions, and, apart from Jesus, the one thing we all have in common is that none of us really know what to do with it.
Once I met a guy who had a family, and he was an avid street evangelist. He would stand on street corners and loudly preach repentance. He was even arrested for it once. It wasn’t long after that, however, that he did a complete 180 and became aggressively antichristian in everything he did. He told me that he changed his mind on everything because we don’t even have the original copies of the bible. This surprised me because I wasn’t aware that we believed there were.
I used to meet regularly with a friend for coffee at a local cafe near the beach when I was a pastor. He was and still is one of the most passionate people about Jesus I’ve ever met. We used to talk about everything “bible.” From miracles to church to science and faith. One morning, as we were discussing science and biblical interpretation, he said that if evolution was true, he could never be a Christian. I was shocked. Here was one of the most lovely, passionate people I’ve met who never backs down from talking about Jesus to people and yet a single potential change in his worldview could lead to his entire faith being undermined.
I meet people like this day in and day out. I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate reasons why one would walk away from their faith. There is. The reasons above are justifiable. I completely get it. What surprises me is how easy it is for these reasons to cause us to walk away from something we’ve placed our entire identity on. Though I doubt and wrestle with God, and I sometimes wonder what life would be like if I didn’t follow Jesus, I’ll never not believe until I’m dead and come face to face with endless nothing. Until then, I’m winging it. I try to attend church, knowing it’s good for me, even if it’s boring. I read my bible, knowing that I am getting to know Jesus more and more, even if most of what it says is either lost on me or it just drags on. I try to pray even if no one talks back. I do good even if there’s not always sense in doing so. My life is based on risk. My life is a gamble. I believe my choices in the here and now will pay off in a potential eternity.
The irony is that if I gave it all up now, I’d be trading one sense of freedom for another and one doubt for the next. If I walked away from Jesus, I’d spend the rest of my life wondering if I made the right choice. What if He is real? What if Hell does exist? I would be wrestling with the God of Nothing, wondering if worshipping at his altar is any better than the last. Would I miss how the biblical story makes the most sense of my existence, or would I ignore the voice at the back of my mind and embrace the meaninglessness that my new God offers?
All this diatribe makes me wonder if Jesus struggled with the same levels of doubt. We’re told that he was tempted in every way we were, yet he was without sin… But did Jesus doubt that God was real (a strange thought given Jesus is God) or that he was imminent or in his corner? When offered the riches of the world from Satan, did he – even for a fleeting moment consider bending the knee? There’s debate within theological circles as to whether or not Jesus could really sin.
On the one hand, some say he can’t because God can’t sin. Others say his temptations couldn’t have been genuine if he couldn’t sin. The answer may depend on how you see the person of Jesus. There’s something comforting in the idea that the humanity of Christ genuinely struggled with doubt, questions and temptations on the same level that we are tempted. He overcame sin not because he was divine but because he was truly human. Which means most of us aren’t truly human. Which begs the question, what does it mean to be human?
I’ve been watching and listening to many of J. R. R. Tolkien’s works lately. The more I get into it, the more I identify with the Hobbits of all people, or I may want to identify with them. Living in the rolling lush green hills of the Shire with its winding creeks and rivers, the Hobbits are reclusive but communal. They’re simple and well-fed, not wanting to stick their noses where it doesn’t belong. Bilbo Baggins cooks, cleans and smokes his pipe. Frodo runs around the Shire and plays as they anticipate festivals and parties. They are living the human dream.
Furthermore, the one ring, perhaps one of if not the most corrupting power in Middle Earth, has a hard time genuinely turning them to darkness. Humans, on the other hand, wage war and consume and destroy anything they get their hands on. They build up their kingdoms, and the ring corrupts them very quickly.
I see the good life in the Shire, but I know it’s currently in the power-hungry cities and wartorn lands of men. I desire the carefree life of Bilbo (before he goes on his adventure), but I try to take it according to my own power rather than wait for the good life to be given to me. I maybe have 50 years-ish left on earth, and as I look back on the last 30 and the world around me, I realise that the thing that defines humans the most is having an idea of the good, striving for it, but in all the wrong ways.
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:
When Doing Normal Christianity Just Doesn’t Work
BoJack Horseman: Nihilism and How the Gospel Heals Our Deepest Despair Part I
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.