Over the last few years, my beliefs about God, Jesus, Christianity etc have changed a huge amount, so much so that it sometimes feels like a complete re-conversion. The experience has made me wonder what other important perspectives and wisdom I am currently oblivious to but might one day ‘see’. It’s really hard having all your ideas thrown in the air and then trying to put them together again somehow. What you based your life on gets pulled out from under your feet and things become very insecure. But a lot of good has come from it so far.
It all started with a niggle. That niggle had probably been there all my life but a few years ago it suddenly erupted into my consciousness. I couldn’t hide it anymore. I think what it all boiled down to was my anger at God for being boss. For being the one not only who gets to call the shots and demand all the honour, but who also enjoys the fact that he is supreme and dislikes anyone who tries to muscle in on that. Obviously, deep down I knew it wasn’t this crude (and the God I knew more personally wasn’t like that really), but basically that was the nub of my frustration taken to its extreme. You might think my thoughts were immature and dumb but I think that the underlying sentiment is what gets taught/implied in church a lot of the time, even if not in so many words. I was sick of it.
But, I had this strong sense that Jesus kind of knew what he was talking about and had the key to life the way it was designed to be lived, as if he was in on a secret. I felt compelled to read the story of Jesus from start to finish without stopping to try and understand him better. So often bits of passages in the bible get picked out and read totally out of any context and if this doesn’t lead to outright errors, it often just isn’t helpful for understanding what was really going on. So I picked Luke (seeing as he was a Dr and therefore somehow I trusted him more!), sat cross-legged on my bed after work and started plowing through.
What struck me undeniably was that Jesus constantly talked about his ‘Kingdom’ coming. That seemed to be his message, which is quite different to the one that tends to get pushed in Christian circles, ie, that you are bad/do bad things and thus need to receive forgiveness from God, which you thankfully now can because Jesus has taken the punishment on the cross for you – eek!) To be honest, that second message never made much sense to me. When I was 14 I helped at a Christian holiday kids club at easter and we watched a cartoon of the easter story-Jesus’ crucifixion. Afterwards the leader said to me that he could tell I was deeply moved by what God had done for me because of the look on my face during the cartoon. Inside I was thinking ‘heck, I was distraught for poor Jesus but pretty mad at God for doing it to him. And for thinking it should have been me. But I’m glad you don’t know that!’
Anyway, back to Jesus constantly talking about his kingdom arriving…. I began to realise so many things more clearly and hope to explore these more in future blogs:
1, When Jesus talked about a ‘kingdom’ coming, what he meant was that God’s rule was for once actually becoming established. Where Jesus was speaking and acting things were getting done the way God always wanted them to, such as in healings and caring for the poor.
2, This kingdom was not a ‘pie in the sky when you die’ one but a real physical one on this earth. Therefore what you do here on earth is not just getting you ready to ‘go to heaven’ but is actually helping (or hindering) heaven (ie, God’s rule) coming to earth. In a very real sense, God isn’t concerned about whether you have prayed a prayer to ask forgiveness and then gone on your merry way, but whether you are ‘giving a drink to the thirsty, visiting those in prison, caring for the sick’ as Jesus himself says. What you do here really matters and will last on to eternity if it is in keeping with Jesus’ Kingdom. NT Wright has written some fantastic stuff about this, a good starting point being his book, ‘Surprised by Hope’.
3, The essence or ‘rule’ of this new kingdom all comes down to love. However basic (and dull?) it sounds, I really started to have scales fall from my eyes on this and it excited me! I mean, Jesus even says (later repeated much by Paul) that all the law and the prophets boil down to love. In other words, you can read the entire Old Testament inside out and keep to all the big and little laws but it’s all only there in the first place to help us to love. If you love, you have fulfilled the whole law – that’s mind blowing and totally liberating! It also started to release me slowly from the fear that God is self-centred and interested in his own glory.
4, To carry this point on a bit further, while Jesus is teaching people up on a mountainside, he says ‘you have heard it said “love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your father in heaven. He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax-collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect then as your heavenly father is perfect.’ Again, is this not mind-blowing? I mean, firstly, the whole ‘eye for an eye’ thing and ‘love your neighbour, hate your enemy’ mentality comes from the Old Testament, from God. So how come Jesus is suddenly overriding that? More than that, he is actually saying that God loves and blesses unconditionally, regardless of whether someone deserves it or not, and if you don’t do that then you can not call yourself a child of God. There is no family likeness! But aren’t we used to assuming that God is ‘fair’ and ‘just’ so he repays according to how we act and what we deserve? That if we do evil he will repay us with some kind of negativity? Isn’t that what we think should happen? Tit for tat. It seems Jesus is equating God the Father’s perfection not with moral perfection and lack of any moral blemish, but with loving perfectly, unconditionally.
And don’t forget, Jesus knew full well about enemies, he wasn’t being naive and unrealistic. He was talking to Jews who were at the time being ruled over (often barbarically) by the Romans, who were an occupying force. Imagine Hitler winning WW2 and occupying Britain, it’s the same sort of scenario. Jesus knew about real life enemies and was still saying ‘love them’.
5, The reason I think God is able to act this way is because he realises firstly that trying to overcome darkness with darkness is just ridiculous and counter-productive. But secondly, that fear and coersion may be able to curb and improve someone’s behaviour but they can not change someone on the inside. Only love can do that. Laws, coersion and punishment can stop you beating someone up but can’t stop you hating them and wanting to hurt them. Fear of what others might think could stop you having an affair but wouldn’t stop you wanting to or day dreaming about it. Jesus’ words focus so much on the importance of inner motivation and the type of character you have as opposed to how you’re seen to be behaving. The unconditional love of God is the only thing that can affect inner change and free us to be able to love unconditionally as well.
6, Therefore, laws become virtually obsolete. If you really are filled up and perfused with love, you won’t need the law to tell you how to act because it will come much more naturally. Laws are good in so far as they point you to how you should be acting, but they have no power to help you act this way. This is a great example of this idea I heard from Greg Boyd (www.whchurch.org). Imagine a man who is told that if he can convince a woman that he is a fantastic husband and to stay married to him for 5 years then he wins a million pounds. This man then sets about finding out all about ways to act romantically, behave lovingly and generally convince a woman he is a great husband. She marries him. But eventually this woman of course begins to realise that this relationship is not real. It’s too scripted and perfect. There is no real love. In actual fact, although her husband looks like a perfect husband, he really is only acting this way to gain money for himself. He doesn’t really love her at all, it’s all about him. This is sort of what it’s like when we behave morally but only so we can gain good things for ourselves such as a place in heaven or escape from punishment. There is no real love or concern either for God or for others and it’s selfishly motivated.
7, This difference between law and love is the difference between having a contract with someone and having a covenant with them. God always makes covenants with us, not contracts. But more on that later…………
These are some of the things that started to jump out at me as I read Luke and they’ve become almost like precious stones to me. But they were only the beginning – man, it took me long enough to get there! There’s lots more to talk about, some things that have brought clarity and others that have made things muddier again. As my blogging goes on I want to explore these things, if only for my own sake, but I hope you find it helpful too!