It Depends

then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.Genesis 2:7, RSV

Taken literally, Genesis 2 is about how the original human was hand-crafted from clay by the Guy in the Sky. In light of historical criticism, one may say this is a perfectly dismissable near eastern myth about the origins of people. Luckily, there is a middle ground.

For me, “truth” goes beyond the coldly factual approach taken by the extremes of interpretation. Even if a story doesn’t appear to be recounting a historical event as we define it, I believe it can still be used by Spirit to impart some truth to us about ourselves and our place in this life. With that in mind, what does Genesis 2 teach me?

Well, a lot.

Today, though, I am struck by the reminder of our (humanity’s) natural connection and dependence. Further, I’m disturbed to look up from the story and see what our world has become.

We exploit, pollute, and devalue all of nature, including other people. All forms of life are viewed in terms of their usefulness. Our planet has been trampled underfoot and bled dry by our constant self-centeredness as a species.

It needs to stop.

The story of Genesis paints humanity as one with the “created world.” We are formed from the same earth as other animals and vegetation. The same “breath of life” fills all lungs, yet we act as though we operate independently of the rest of the planet. Particularly in “the West,” we value our autonomy.

The problem is there really is no such thing.

We were designed with dependence in mind. We depend on earth, air, fire, and water for our sustenance, our very existence. We depend on each other to be born, taught, supported, loved, and remembered. No person is self-made, for we all owe a debt to someone. When we forget that, we end with the society we have now.

So what does this truth of dependence do for us?

Hopefully, we are reminded to care for our earth. We can reduce, reuse. recycle, and be grateful for what this earth provides for us. We can give to wildlife conservation efforts, and spread awareness about this miraculous planet. We can eat meat and animal products from creatures who are properly cared for, and remember to honor the life that fed ours. We can purchase products that won’t take away more of our precious forests.

We can remember that no matter how different someone is from us, no matter what they choose to do with their life, we are of the same “dust.” Every person is sacred by virtue of existing, and so they should be treated even if they aren’t choosing to reciprocate. When our religion, doctrine, politics, or preconceived notions would have us do differently. we ought to set those aside rather than the person in front of us.

So there you have it. Remember that we are all each other has. This earth, this life, and each other are all we can sure of, and we are all interconnected and interdependent. With that in mind, I hope we can start acting like it.

Peace be with you!

What is This “Grace” of Which You Speak?

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. — John 1:16-17, NRSV

If you’ve read much of my work, you’ve noticed my tendency to mention God’s grace and the fact that we are supposed to reflect that grace in how we live. I have been out of the writing game for a bit, and so I thought the best way I could come back would be a post that clarifies this idea of “grace.” I have good friends who aren’t steeped in the Christian tradition who have asked me about it, and even many of my brothers and sisters in Christ seem to misunderstand the concept (including me)!

In today’s world, the concept of “grace” is a foreign one. In one sense, we do not live in a time of forgiveness and the full embrace of one another, so it isn’t surprising that we don’t know what to do with a God for whom this is standard practice. Another common issue is actually a cheapened understanding of forgiveness and embrace that leaves us with the impression that we are free to do and be whatever we wish without any repercussions.

So what are we talking about, then? What is the grace of God, and what does it mean for us in our lives today? Grace is defined as “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification,” according to this rather formal source. In short, grace is the unearned favor of God. It’s an expression of love that transforms our lives while not depending on us at all.

Paul sums up the idea of grace quite nicely in Romans 5, saying “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” In Christ, we see the fullness of God revealed in a human being, and this God decides to take on the cross so that we may know the extent of God’s love, as well as the cost of our indifference to it (sin). But God doesn’t wait until we have achieved a sufficient amount of perfection before making His love known and offering us the way to a transformed life. Instead, God meets us where we are, as we are. We didn’t earn it, but it is given anyway, and that is grace.

With that said, just because grace is unmerited doesn’t mean we aren’t expected to honor it with how we treat each other. It’s not that there are strings attached, but for this grace to mean anything, it should have an impact on us! So what impact does God expect?

In Matthew 18, Jesus presents us with a powerful parable that makes grace practical. A slave owes his master lots of money, but cannot pay (verses 24-25). He begs his master for mercy, and the master obliges, forgiving the debt (verse 27). This slave, having just experienced mercy, meets another slave that owes him money, and has said slave thrown into prison when he could not pay him (verses 28-30). Now, does that sound right to you?

Of course not. Logically, one would assume that because the first slave knew what it was like to owe a debt, face punishment, and receive grace for no reason other than compassion, he would understand and extend that same grace to his fellow slave. Instead, the master gets word of his slave’s irresponsibility and now both slaves are trapped in prison (verse 34). Jesus ends with a warning that God will certainly be keeping an eye on whether or not those who receive his grace embrace the responsibility to share it (verse 35).

There are two big points to take away, here. First, grace comes with the responsibility to share it with everybody else. Just as the second slave owed the first money, so we will have people in our lives we feel don’t deserve our love. We will have enemies. It is important to note, then, that we don’t deserve the love of God. Sin is a part of being human, and we all have it. As the First Epistle of John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8). God loves and forgives us anyway, however, and so our response should be the same. As Jesus teaches in Matthew 5, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We know what it is to be a pain in the heart of others. We also know what it is to be forgiven by God. Therefore, our lives should reflect compassion, even in the face of those that we don’t feel deserve it. That’s grace.

Secondly, when we refuse to show that compassion, and when we turn our back on others, we spit on the grace God has shown to us, and things actually get worse. Look at the parable. Had the slave forgiven his fellow slave, neither would owe a debt and neither would be in prison. Instead, both end up trapped and in debt. The same holds true for you and I when we irresponsibly handle the gift of God’s love. We grieve God with our lack of compassion and forgiveness, and we also contribute to the world’s suffering.

Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life,” and “For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:24, 26). Jesus brings God’s grace into the world that we may experience life in the way God always intended, but the story doesn’t stop there.

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). Those who receive the grace of God are expected and empowered to reflect it. By doing so, we truly become disciples of Jesus who follow his example and are known by their love for one another (John 13:34-35). This love sets us and others free to follow a new path that heals the wounds of the world.

I know this was a longer and more involved post, but grace is such a huge theme for Christians that anything less would feel… over-simplified. I hope that my explanation of God’s grace connects with, empowers, and inspires you to understand and accept how loved you truly are. I also hope that such love motivates you to reflect the same compassion toward others that you would want for yourself.

Accepting and reflecting the grace of God are not easy tasks, but they are vital means by which we experience the fullness of life. The life of a disciple is one of constant refinement, a lifelong endeavor to grow into the love we have received. We won’t always get it right, but the transformation that results from the effort is truly spectacular, and I pray that you will join me on this journey.

Peace be with you!

Righteousness ≠ Perfection

The light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked goes out. — Proverbs 13:9, NRSV

Reading Proverbs is both a delight and a challenge. Wonderful wisdom abounds in this small, fast-paced book of sayings, but the challenge comes from historical and cultural values that differ from our own, plus one other thing: vocabulary. The word “righteous” is used quite a bit in the Bible (around 567 times, give or take, depending on the translation), and I’d wager a hefty portion of that usage comes from Proverbs.

The reason I bring this up is that in my own life, the word “righteous” has been largely misunderstood, making Scripture study rather unpleasant. If you’re anything like me, you tend to beat yourself up. Your mind plays your failures over and over again, and reading a collection of texts geared toward making us more righteous certainly doesn’t help. I have found, though, that this is because I have come to confuse righteousness with perfection.

Righteousness is a life defined by virtue and justification, but even the most righteous person in the Bible would by no means be considered perfect. In fact, God seems to go out of His way to choose wildly imperfect people for the purposes of establishing His covenant. Noah, Abram (later Abraham), Sarai (later Sarah), Isaac, Rachel, Leah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Samuel, Saul, David, Bathsheba, Jonah, Peter, Judas, the Twelve, Saul (later Paul), and the list goes on and on. All of them are in some sense chosen and involved in the continuation of God’s covenant and story, yet none of them are even close to being perfect.

My point? The Bible has a distinction between perfection (a quality of God) and righteousness (something God imparts to humans). For us to understand the Book of Proverbs, or any other Biblical literature, we must first understand that for the writers of Scripture, sin is a fact of life. It is an ever-present part of being human. Therefore, when we read about righteousness, we cannot assume that we are supposed to be free of sin always and forever. As John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

Rather, all this talk of righteousness and sinfulness is about the trend of our lives. You and I will inevitably mess up. Sin is a part of who we are. However, it doesn’t have to be our defining characteristic, and it won’t be if we are honest about our faults, do our best to positively affect our surroundings, and rely on the grace of God to fill in the gaps. While sinners, we can still lead a humble life that tends toward the kingdom of God rather than our own selfish pursuits. We only become truly wicked when we decide that we are our gods, having no sin because we can do whatever we wish. In short, we become defined by our sin when we give up.

We must remember the central Christian teaching that salvation and righteousness are gifts of God granted by His sacrifice in Jesus Christ. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). The love of God is given freely, and relationship with God is opened to us free of charge. This does not mean that we do not have a response to make, but it does mean that our response should come from gratitude, and not the desire to earn our way to heaven.

God’s grace is not intended to inspire guilt or a brow-beating approach to our lives. If we spend every day trying to check off items on “The Chart of Perfection,” we will soon grow resentful of that which is meant to give us everlasting joy. Instead, we are charged with living lives of gratitude, humility, and mercy, with the love of God and neighbor at the front of our minds. We will still have sin, but instead of crippling guilt and regret, we can humbly approach the God who will remind us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

So when we hear the words of the Gospel, extolling the value of righteous living, we shouldn’t engage in self-punishment because we lack perfection. God has plenty of perfection already. What the Lord seeks is that our perfectly imperfect hearts would seek after Him and trust Him to take care of the rest. If we remember our faults (and that God has forgiven them out of His limitless love), we are able to look graciously and lovingly upon the faults of others, and in doing so we fulfill the Commandment. But that is a subject for the next post. 😉

Peace be with you!