I’ve recently been invited to share my perspective on sexual ethics through the patheos.com channel of The Marin Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on building bridges between the LGBTQ community and conservative religious communities. I’ve known about and shared some connections with these folks for the past few years since I returned to Chicago, where their offices are based. The vision of The Marin Foundation is “to theologically, socially and politically see divided communities reconciled with each other through a faith in God and each other,” and that is definitely a cause that matters to me.
My first offering is a series on the dignity of sexual identity from an explicitly evangelical, Christian perspective. I’ve noticed that a lot of discussion about sexual ethics skirts this matter, and I don’t really see a way forward in the absence of better treatment. The first post in this series was distributed yesterday; it looks at the critical difference between sexual identity and lifestyle choice. Here’s an excerpt:
I have spent most of my adult life as a member of an evangelical church in the United States. For the past four years, I have served as the associate pastor of First Free Church in Chicago, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of America. I’m so grateful that God blessed me with the chance to share close relationships with numerous people of varying sexual orientations who spoke honestly about their lives for as long as I can remember. Still, I cannot recall a single, intentional, public engagement by evangelical church leadership on the topic of sexual identity as such until I personally engaged in conversation with others a month or so ago during National Coming Out Day.
I won’t rehearse the details since the territory will be pretty familiar to anyone who has observed the event in the past. My LGBT buddies shared personal vignettes about their respective journeys. A few friends both queer and straight came out for the first time to several of their friends. And while the majority of conversation was enlightening and civil, barbed discussion arose on occasion when people maintaining a mainstream evangelical sexual ethic joined the dialog. As a result, I was reminded of a subtle yet severely detrimental feature of mainstream, evangelical Christianity when it comes to the way we understand and talk about the phenomenon of sexual identity. Namely, we don’t want to think about its existence at all.
As a result, many evangelical Christians are woefully inept at loving gay folks well. Predictably, we don’t love ourselves much better—even when our sexual orientation and behavior lines up perfectly with the best-case scenario recommendation of our sexual ethic since we developed that ethic in the absence of a robust concept of sexual identity. Why do we do keep doing this and what’s at stake? What might change for the better if evangelical Christians took a solid crack at exploring sexual identity directly rather than avoiding the matter or reverting to clichés and subcritical, scriptural misapplications? Here’s the first of a series of posts on this topic and why it makes such a huge difference for our lives and those we have been guided by God to love.
I’ve discovered that one of the things that motivates me to write swiftly and, evidently, pretty decently is when I encounter pointed questions from people about whom I deeply care. (Also, when topics arise that just happen to weirdly pique my interest.) So, I’ve decided to launch a new Q&A series addressing stuff like this as it organically arises in my conversation with folks. For this first installment, we’ll take a look at an example of one whole category of questions that I hear with greater frequency than anything else from people who are earnestly trying to follow Jesus. Enjoy!
Q. How does one truly, totally trust God? What part do my desires and sense of “need” play in the process? For years, I’ve heard that the Creator of the universe doesn’t need my help–God already knows how every series of events is going to play out in the end, including all my decisions. So, do I restrain my own wishes and just go with the flow as life progresses? Or do I take action when some particular set of conditions come into play? In either case, what does it mean to trust God amidst all this?
Trying to resolve this question has always been really tough for me. I have repeatedly tried to “be in God’s will” with all that I am and all that I do. And I have also been told that being “in God’s will” means that I would be happy and at peace. When I was younger, I was also told by a lot of people possessing some sort of spiritual authority precisely what God’s will was–basically, I was told that my own wishes and desires didn’t matter. As I look back on everything I’ve been through over the years, I can honestly say that I have experienced a lot of happy times in my life; however, I cannot say that I am happy and “at peace.” And so now, I have a really hard time believing that I will ever get what I really want–leaving it to God alone to work out supernaturally or something–and so I am compelled to try and help Him get the ball rolling!
What part do my desires play in living in a God-honoring way? This conflict of desires and disconnect between what I have been told about how my life in God should look for feel can cause a lot of stress.
What a great question! The standard, from-the-hip Bible verse people often bust out on this topic of Proverbs 3:5-6 is actually pretty instructive: Trusting in God with all your heart means NOT merely taking your own counsel alone, acknowledging God in every dimension of your life, and walking the path towards which God directs you when that actually happens. Conflicting desires are just a process challenge, meaning they present no fundamental barrier to moving towards some goal that God finds satisfying while you trust God.
Sure, there are times where we want something that is not in our best interests to pursue, in which case you could say that our desires truly conflict with God’s will–I find that cases like these are usually the really obvious ones where we are morally obligated to do or not do something, e.g. steal, lie, cheat, dodge legitimate responsibility, appropriately love our neighbor, etc. On the other hand, it’s possible for God to be totally okay with multiple different outcomes in the case of morally permissible activity, e.g. which godly spouse do I marry, which pair of shoes do I wear today, which healthy faith community do I join, which decent job do I work / carrier path do I embark upon, etc. In cases like these, it’s possible to encounter conflicting desires where no particular course of action once chosen would conflict with God’s will because all courses of action under consideration are morally permissible. In my experience, this is the majority of life; in fact, we can actually expect to encounter more situations like this as we grow in strength and encounter more possible options.
In the event that we don’t know how to reconcile conflicting desires where all of those desires are basically ethical, trusting God at least in part means picking an option (even if that option is rejecting all courses of immediate action to gain more clarity, wisdom, etc. before making a move) while believing that God will remain with us and continue to love us moment by moment even in that place of ambiguity of future outcome. This is one reason why an oppositional state of affairs to trusting God is worrying, and that’s why Jesus instructs his followers to eschew worrying specifically by trusting God, e.g. Matthew 6:24-34:
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
That said, the sort of peace that scripture promises us when we rightly pursue God, eschew worry, and embrace a posture of trust does not refer to a total cessation of all tension in our lives. Rather, it refers to a state of harmony or complementarity between the trajectory of our lives and God’s purposes. Think of it like this: Right now, I am “at peace” with the President of the United States because my activity as a citizen of the United States harmonizes with the overall trajectory of that President and our humanly instituted government. Nevertheless, I still encounter points of tension in my life–and this would be true even if the President were perfect like God and the United States government was absolutely just and loving, like the Kingdom of God as it breaks into our world. Why is that? Because life! On this side of history before Christ’s triumphal return, we may find wholeness and strength and unity with God and with each other, but we will not find a total cessation of all tension–a wiping away of every tear with “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” described by passages of scripture like Revelation 21:4–because these are all aspects of a future state of affairs depending on God’s institution of total justice on the far side of Jesus’s second coming.
As a result, we can certainly expect happiness and joy as we seek after the Lord while making all sorts of decisions in the day to day, but we should absolutely not expect to find an unbroken chain of bliss while the world remains a broken place that God is in the process of redeeming. This calls for courage. That’s why in trying to encourage the relatively young and inexperienced leader, Timothy, we find the older and more experienced leader, Paul, saying that “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). Courage only bears content in the face of something that is scary; we need power and love and self-discipline specifically in the face of things that are difficult, that tend to provoke hateful wrath, that threaten to erode our perseverance. Yes, we can expect times of joy and happiness as we seek after Jesus, but we can also expect times of difficulty–even and perhaps especially when we are on the right track. As Christ himself said to his followers according to Mark 10:29 and following, “Truly I tell you…no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”
So to cap off this caveat, really trusting in God while making decisions about conflicting desires as we follow after Jesus means dealing squarely with the fact that we will encounter a mixture of good times and bad, happy times and sad. Moreover, we should remember that this is a normal thing, an outcome we should expect versus an indication that something has gone wildly off kilter. I’ve found that when I approach things this way, any anxiety about whether I am on the right track or how I should approach resolving this or that conflicting sets of desires tends to diminish.
Basically, we’re talking about a posture that is active in the face of dynamic, real world conditions rather than passively waiting around for God to magically work out everything with no effort on our part. At the same time, we’re talking about a posture that drinks deeply and thankfully of those times of happiness and joy without being thrown to terror in the face of sadness or difficulty, a posture that bases its ultimate hope and ultimate confidence in the supernaturally durable love of God transcending all things and bringing all things to ultimate reconciliation beyond anything we can do or even conceptualize. To see an example of all these different points pulled together in one statement, consider one of the last things Jesus communicated to his followers before he was crucified according to John 16:33, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Note: For a pretty decent, longer read on how to make God-honoring decisions in general, check out Gary Friesen’s Decision Making and the Will of God. Love you lots–you rock! (P.s. For pure fun, maybe also listen to this song “Call My Name” by Tove Stryke, about which I am currently obsessed.)
Unless you’re not an American or have been living under a rock, you’re probably flush with exposure to pointed discussion about George Zimmerman being found not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. I have strong and yet also mixed feelings on this matter, and I’ve perused a good portion of others’ perspectives over the past couple days. On the one hand, I cannot argue that the jury exercised a lapse in judgment given the specific charges Zimmerman faced and the relative strength of the prosecution and defense. On the other hand, I cannot say that justice has been served with any definitive sense of closure based on the simple fact that a grown man wielding a handgun whist serving as a volunteer neighborhood watch shot to death a teenager wielding a bag of skittles with no legal repercussion to date–even after that man was instructed by a 911 dispatcher to avoid engaging that teenager in the first place with subsequent state investigation concluding that Zimmerman had racially profiled Martin despite Martin “not being involved in any criminal activity at the time of the encounter.”
To share some personal context, I do not ascribe to the overt, anti-gun camp’s philosophy. And while I earnestly try to embrace a life of peacemaking and non-violence, I cannot ascribe to all out pacifism. If it truly was the case that Martin attacked Zimmerman, then Zimmerman had the right to defend himself. But did Zimmerman provoke Martin first? Did Zimmerman exercise asymmetric force in responding to Martin even if it is true that Martin attacked him? Questions like these remain frustratingly outstanding. At the very least, Zimmerman’s case does bring to light problems with the invoked “stand your ground” legislation that became so critical to his criminal defense. While I don’t pretend to have completely analyzed the ways that race and class played a key, deleterious role in the events that took place in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012, I sure am glad that I do not live in a state that will acquit a man like George Zimmerman while finding guilty a woman like Marissa Alexander. In case her name sounds unfamiliar, Alexander is a young, African American woman sentenced to a twenty year prison term for firing warning shots against her allegedly abusive husband, i.e. without actually shooting him. Why a black mother cannot successful cite “stand your ground” legislation in her legal defense after firing warning shots at a fully grown assailant in her own home while a Hispanic, volunteer security guard can successfully cite that same legislation after shooting to death a teenager on the street in the rain is utterly beyond me. I don’t know exactly what is going on here, but it’s not justice.
On that point, while I expected a divergence of opinion about whether justice had been ultimately served in Zimmerman’s trial regardless of my views on the matter, I have been surprised at the complete apathy many people have espoused about the story in general. For a lot of folks, Florida v. Zimmerman was evidently little more than a ponderous cloud of datum clogging their evening news and afternoon twitter feed, a grand distraction hyped to the heights of public opinion by media cashing in on the story–no matter what the actual ramifications of that story might be for America in general or the families of Martin and Zimmerman in particular. Given this, I thought I’d share some reflection communicated by my friend and former Princeton Theological Seminary colleague, Trajan McGill. Since this is some of the best, most concise analysis I’ve seen so far, I’ll let Trajan’s words and a parting note from the biblical book of Amos speak for themselves in conclusion:
So I don’t think the jury here had much choice. It isn’t about whether they think he’s almost certainly guilty. If it is possible to hold a reasonable doubt, then they have to go with not guilty. And if you think our court system is unfair toward blacks today, just imagine where it would be if you started lowering the standard of proof below “beyond a reasonable doubt” down to “we think he did it.” But here’s the thing: if you are feeling actually celebratory about this outcome, you need to just be quiet and meditate on that for a while. Because what is proven beyond a reasonable doubt is that some damn fool with a wannabe hero complex, carrying a holster full of bullets and prejudice decided some black kid walking to his dad’s house was not only automatically worth calling 911 about, but needed to be followed and harassed. He then created a totally unnecessary confrontation that resulted in the death of a teenager. That much is proven even if George Zimmerman’s version of the story is true. So don’t call him a hero, and don’t call this justice. This is, at best, a case where there is no way to carry out actual justice but where nevertheless somebody out of his own idiocy triggered a tragedy that cost a life.
Another thing that I think needs to be said here: there is a certain kind of man who becomes a bigger man when he’s carrying a gun. That kind of man should never carry a gun. If being armed affects the size of your sense of self and the degree of confidence you have in your manhood…if you walk differently when you have a gun on you–and I mean more self-assuredly rather than more carefully…if it makes you more likely to casually walk right into a confrontation rather than more cautious about bringing something that can kill into the midst of a situation…if you are a bigger man when you are carrying a gun, then you need to put it away and lock it up, go take some time and find yourself, and wait until you’ve grown into a full man in your own right. Only once it doesn’t change who you are to hold a tool like that will you be ready to do so.
“This is what the Lord says to Israel: ‘Seek me and live…There are those who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground… Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts… Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!'” ~ Amos 5:4, 7, 15, 24.
While sharing discussion on various online media about the recent news of Exodus International’s closure, I was asked to share my “stance on same-sex marriage.” I’m actually in the middle of a longer-form writing project focused on this; however, I figured that I might as well share the gist of my thoughts on the matter here in the mean time.
So, I’ve compiled my contributions to today’s discussion to respond still somewhat on-the-fly about my approach to the topic of same-sex marriage. This is partly observational with some forecasting as well as partly prescriptive with an explicit focus on conditions in America and an attempt to root my response in a close reading of scripture. Here are a few of the main points in the observation and forecasting category:
- Same-sex marriage will be legalized across America.
- Most Americans regardless of faith background tacitly accept a naive distinction between politics, sociology, and ethics that critically complicates how we make decisions about marriage since that state of affairs possesses a public, community-located, and private dimension to its existence.
- American Christians are ill-equipped to make good, assertive decisions about the rise of political, sociological, and ethical support for same-sex marriage in the broader culture due to the above taken together with the fact that American Christians possess a weak sexual ethic in general–this is true for both conservative / evangelical as well as progressive / liberal Christians as thoroughly evidenced by the statistical insignificance of faith background on sexual activity.
- In an attempt to prevent the acceptance of same-sex marriage in the broader culture, American evangelical Christians have made an ineffective decision to focus on the political and sociological arenas of activity rather than strengthen their sexual ethic and work outwards by way of influencing individual people. This is failing as everyone in the broader culture–including heterosexually oriented Christians–are adopting an ethic that is progressively less robustly informed by scripture.
- Even if American evangelical Christians succeeded against all odds to prevent the political acceptance of same-sex marriage, this would not affect people in a substantial way with regard to their behavior; both same-sex and opposite-sex attracted people will continue to behave in conflict with the sexual ethic that American evangelical Christians have espoused regardless of the political climate due to the entrenched, social acceptance of a sexual ethic based on things like freedom of personal choice, consent, and so forth with virtually no reference to scripture as a source of substantive, ethical information.
Here are some prescriptions based on the above. For the sake of being concise, I’ve included myself in the use of the term “evangelical Christians,” although I have some reservations about this phrase given its loaded connotations. When I’m not as concerned about being so concise, I often describe myself as a Jewish follower of Jesus with an orthodox, constructive framework. Right then:
- American Christians should abandon the attempt to prevent same-sex acceptance through political and sociological means, refocusing their efforts on developing a more robust sexual ethic that is actually compellingly for everyone regardless of what the political or sociological climate may be. Christians have done this in the past and can do it again; when we don’t do this, we functionally illustrate our lack of belief in the power of the gospel.
- American Christians should recognize the difference between marriage as a state of affairs created, defined, and protected by a given nation-state versus marriage as a state of affairs created, defined, and protected by the God of scripture; we already do this to a certain extent by expecting people who want to get married to both a) get a marriage license from the nation-state to effect a political union and b) partake in a wedding ceremony with the church as God’s agent for effecting a spiritual union.
- American evangelical Christians like myself should advocate for sexual activity limited to chastity in singleness or else heterosexual marriage from an ethical perspective regardless of the political or sociological climate.
- Evangelical Christians in representative democracies like me should advocate for what is in the best interest of the nation-state from a political perspective; based on all the data I’ve analyzed up to this point, this concretely means either a) advocating for the legalization of same-sex marriage, b) advocating for identical rights for civil unions that are equally open to same-sex couples as opposite-sex couples, c) advocating for the dissolution of all legally conferred benefits for anyone that the nation-state recognizes as being married while giving up those benefits in the mean time, e.g. through financial support to the same-sex community.
- American evangelical Christians like me should basically ignore a direct attempt to accomplish sociological change in the broader culture through any route other than the persuasive expansion of our own sexual ethic provided that we succeed in fixing it; of course, this will likely be a recursive process since people change over time and effectively communicating the gospel requires fresh articulation and demonstration with those changes.
- Evangelical Christians like me should deal squarely with the litany of hurt suffered by the same-sex attracted community specifically by Christians and take protracted, embracing, patient, humble, and courageous action to repair that damage indefinitely into the future with real people.
Somewhere between now and January 31st, roughly 35% of us who have established a list of New Year’s resolutions will break at least one of them. By the end of the year, over 75% of us will have probably abandoned these goals altogether. Trends like this exacerbated by the constitution-decimating grind of a Chicago winter make most people in my home town already a bit less hopeful about 2012. What a difference a couple weeks can make! Remember the way things seemed back on January 1?
Twee hearts were still aflutter from Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” More macabre Batman fan-girls and boys alike were just getting excited about the promoted conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Night series this July. Alarmist cabals remained consternated by the conclusion of a 5,125-year cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar heralding the supposedly immanent end of the world–perhaps through the Nibiru collision. On the soberly optimistic side, the payoff of 2011’s Arab Spring and Occupy Pretty-Much-Everywhere suggested that my generation was finally getting a bit more politically proactive, albeit haltingly and not always productively. On the deeply foreboding side, the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 evidently suspended the Bill of Right’s protection of due process in its now infamous provision for the “indefinite detention” without trial of any American citizen suspected of terrorism.
And while grassroots politically fascinated Americans like yours truly found a legislative silver lining in the shelving of SOPA and PIPA week, most people I know didn’t have a clue what was even at stake (to hilarious albeit profane effect in the case of these Twitter users baffled by the blacking out of Wikipedia). Most of us have simply moved on from the alternatively cute, exciting, menacing, promising, and disconcerting tropes attending the birth of 2012 to the more stressful but not quite as game-changingly eventful toldderdom of 2012. Already, this New Year doesn’t feel quite so “brand” and “spanking” as was so recently the case. The best winter holidays are over. Our old habits and fears and comforts and conditions haven’t changed all that much after we’ve rubbed the party glitter from our eyes.
Where can we find a more substantial, focused source of motivation and follow-through? What can serve as our anchor? How can we pick out that north star amidst the clouds obscuring our vision to chart a course forward? I don’t know what the rest of this year will bring, but I’m convinced that one of the best shots we have at accomplishing the work legitimately requested by all those interrogatives above is the following truth:
God is making all things new.
Nothing else laying either predicative of descriptive claim upon this year means m0re than this single, deceptively simple sentence. You and I already know that 2012 will be filled with its share turmoil and fortune, but nothing amounts to a hill of beans compared to the overarching truth that the Supreme Lord of all Creation is guiding every single thing towards a purposed conclusion marked by cataclysmic, divine renewal: God is making all things–all things–new. The second to last chapter of the Bible puts it this way when we follow the New Living Translation of Revelation 21:1-8:
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
3 I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
5 And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” 6 And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. 7 All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.
8 “But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
It’s been a while since I’ve attempted some roughly hewn theology on this blog, and the book of Revelation is one of the most psychedelic ones out there, stiffly challenging sound interpretation. Nevertheless, here are five things I drew from this portion of scripture with key concepts bold-faced for emphasis. (And if none of the following makes a lick of sense or you’re just a more auditory processor, check out this message I delivered a couple weeks ago based on this text instead.)
From vs.1 – God’s very self will create “a new heaven and a new earth.” You and I can probably think of a lot of great reasons to fix up this planet given all of its problems, but why a new heaven? Because there will no longer be the same sort of qualitative separation between heaven and earth as is presently the case. A clue towards this reading is the absence of the sea. From the Ancient Near Eastern context in which the Old Testament was written through the Hellenic context of the New Testament, the sea is most typically representative of chaos (cf. Daniel 7:2-8 and also this). For any biblically scholarly fact-checkers out there, this is probably one reason why Revelation 13 describes a “beast rising up out of the sea” that wars against the forces of good. But this beast is conquered along with everything else that opposes God in Revelation 19. That there is no sea in this vision indicates that our story ends with absolute harmony between earth and heaven, the dwelling place of humanity and the dwelling place of God.
From vs.2 – God will achieve this harmony between heaven and earth by overtly bridging the gap that presently exists between them. And we’re not talking about a miracle here or a vision there, nor are we discussing a sort of rollback to some idyllic, Eden-like state of nature alone. Rather, there will be a “holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” Among other things, this means there is a God-given dignity to life in the city now. Medieval Christian hermits and romantic transcendentalists made the same mistake; when we attempt to flee the corruption of society, we abandon the opportunity to function as its salt and light as God has called us to live and do (cf. Matt. 5:13-16). By departing from this mission of redemption between God and the world, we step out of the very stream of divine life that renews and sanctifies us, too. Ironically, it is a type of corruption to merely flee corruption without doing anything about it; it is stereotypically “worldly” in the pejorative sense of that term to merely abandon the world–we are called to engage it with God’s love. And while there is certainly a God-given dignity that obtains to other physical stations, there are fewer places on earth where one can as readily commit oneself to such loving engagement of others as robustly as in the city. As the seat of humanity’s political, commercial, and cultural vitality, its idolatry is particularly deprave, and its violence particularly dark (cf. Ez. 7:23 & 22:3). The city is but a shadow of what will ultimately come, but there is meaning and hope in that shadow, too. Indeed, while Genesis locates the Tree of Life in a garden predating any city, Revelation locates this Tree whose “leaves are for the healing of the nations” right in the center of the city God’s very self will establish in the end of days (cf. Gen. 2:9 & Rev. 22:1-2).
From vs. 3-4 – This unified harmony between heaven and earth is not depicted by a bunch of people lazing around the clouds, plucking harps whilst bored to tranquilized oblivion. Rather, the upshot of God making everything new is this: “God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” This makes protracted just and compassionate action possible. If we commit ourselves to declaring and living our lives according to this truth, we can do so optimistically but also soberly. We do not retreat to mere mysticism; we are not drunk on delusions but wide awake, gazing upon the shattered, filthy parts of our world as they truly exist right now with an unwavering eye, a kindled heart, and a readied hand. Until God’s very self effects that future state of harmony, suffering persists–and not just among people but throughout all nature. As Paul puts it in the New International Version’s treatment of Romans 8:20-21, “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” It is ultimately the activity of God’s very self that will remove all injustice, yet we are called to participate in this process now. We comfort the heartbroken courageously, and we do battle directly with death, neither purgatively aggrandizing pain nor timidly fleeing its grizzled visage. We are protected from disillusionment when we encounter severe difficulty because we have abandoned the merely illusory as a first principle predicated on the substantive reality of God’s ultimate home being with us, of God’s wiping our tears from our eyes to obliterate sorrow and crying and pain in the end.
From vs. 5 – The source of definitive commentary on all of this comes from God; it is God who commands the author of Revelation to “write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” When we embrace or communicate such a message to others, we do so confidently yet humbly; neither this event nor its proper description have come from us. We are scribes, we are messengers of the One who has spoken. We are not the Author of this story; it is news to us just as much as to anyone else.
From vs. 5-8 – God possesses generative and rectifying sovereignty over everything. The divinity of God envelops what is limited by time and space within externally unlimited eternity; as Acts 17:28 puts it, it is in God that we “live and move and have our being.” God’s commentary on new creation promises supreme restoration and justice from the basis of all-encompassing sovereignty. (“It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End.”) God freely welcomes and will slake the thirsts of any who so desire. (“To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life.”) God will surely reward those who have righteously persevered–chiefly, through blessing wrought by dwelling in unity with God. (“All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.”) God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, imploring those bent by their evil ways to turn and live (cf. Ez. 18:23). God wants everyone to be saved from corruption, coming to a knowledge of such truth (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4); in fact, our present circumstances lacking perfected justice are a part of God’s plan to save as many as possible from perishing due to their wickedness (cf. 2 Peter 3:9). Nevertheless, there are those whose unrighteousness will staunchly remain despite God’s appeals, those who will persist in rejecting God’s ways to embrace corruption in its various forms. And by rejecting the source of all life, they will embrace their inevitable fate. (“But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”)
To shift from a more devotional reading of this text to an applied reading, one that directs us towards specific action on the individual and collective levels, I learned the following by comparing this passage of scripture with other texts:
1. We should base our individual identity on God’s creative renewal – What is most fundamental about our identity is not our collection of individual achievement, our ethnicity, our preferred forms of media consumption, our political affiliation, our right versus left brained-ness, our socioeconomic status, our relative level of physical beauty, all the stuff we accumulate, or anything else. As the Egyptian church leader, Clement of Alexandria, wrote circa 195 C.E., “We have no country on earth; therefore, we can disdain earthly possessions.” As the Assyrian writer, Tatian, put it around that same time, “Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it; live to God.” Nothing else matters compared to the fact that God is still making all things new, including the very being and identity of we who are pursuing a relationship with this God by the salvation extended through Messiah Jesus. As Paul puts it in his letter to the early believers in Jesus living in the central Anatolian highlands of modern-day Turkey, nothing about us counts for anything when compared to the fact of our “new creation” (cf. Gal. 6:11-15). No matter what people think about us or what happens to us externally, “our inner self is being renewed day by day” as we pursue life predicated on God’s transforming, revitalizing activity through Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16).
2. As a corollary to the above principle, detrimental activity clashes with our truest self, and that’s exactly why we should avoid it – We do not eschew unethical patterns of behavior merely because society might otherwise punish us, and we don’t fixate on our failures either. As that quote from Tatian implies above, we literally die to our old self while embracing the newness of our creation wrought by God. Romans 6:6 puts it this way, “For we know that our old self was crucified with Messiah so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.” Ephesians 4:22 underscores this same point, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires.” All this means that immoral activity is the same thing as entanglement with an old self that is fading away; the righteous life pursuing Jesus is liberation to the new creation we most truly are. Hebrews 12:1-2 puts it even more forcefully, “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
3. Living a life predicated on God making all things new includes sharing this truth with others as a fundamental operating principle – New creation makes an appeal to others on the basis of its own being, a being that is itself directed back towards its source in God. The key scriptural metaphor describing this phenomenon is that of ambassadorship. Ambassadors do all sorts of things that are exactly like the people with whom they dwell; ambassadors pay rent, forge relationships, eat meals, bear children, follow sports teams, weep at opera houses, and spill coffee on the postal mail. But there is one gigantic difference; the entire purpose of ambassadors is to represent the party who has sent them above and beyond all the incidental stuff. 2 Cor. 5:17-20 puts it this way: “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.” Not only does God literally effect new creation in those who pursue life “in Christ,” God draws those newly created people into the process of extending this grace of worldwide reconciliation. It is impossible to forego sharing this message of God making all things new with others yet still live according to that message. Failing to communicate God’s desired reconciliation is abdication of one’s ambassadorship by definition.
4. Our collective lives should leverage the communication of God making us new– We should celebrate that the dwelling of God already exists in a real but muted way among those of us who have been transformed by Jesus, even as it will one day exist in technicolor, high definition brilliance across the entire earth when God completes this activity of making all things new. Paul emphasizes this point by rebuking wayward followers of Jesus in the city of Corinth with the words, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). Now, the Greek for the term here translated as “you” is ἐστε, which is a second person plural form of “to be”–in other words, Paul is saying something specifically about a group of believers and not just about one or two of them individually considered. In fact, Paul argues that this lived experience of the Spirit of God should be so powerfully present in this group of believers that even somebody who does not believe should be able to notice it; according to 1 Cor. 14:24-25, “unbelievers” encountering a gathering of people truly following Jesus should be so thoroughly convinced of their need for salvation from the encounter that they will “fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!'” Our primary text under consideration from the book of Revelation encourages us that one day, for certain and with totality everyone will witness God’s new creation. Yet, we have the opportunity to experience a dose of that reality together right now, and we should purposefully foster this to the end of amplifying our collective ambassadorship.
5. We accomplish the most powerful form of collective ambassadorship by living according to higher law, a pattern of behavior that is utterly foreign to this world right now – We are not just talking about rounding up a bunch of people who have experienced God’s new creation and then deploying them all over the place to verbally articulate a message. We are talking about the implicit witness of a concretely lived experience, one predicated on social norms that only make sense from the perspective of God making all things new at the end of days. This makes us nothing less than strangers and aliens here and now; as Tertullian of Carthage wrote to his fellow Christians in the volume, De Corona, “As for you, you are a foreigner in this world, a citizen of Jerusalem, the city above. Our citizenship, the apostle says, is in heaven.” He was unpacking Paul’s point from Philippians 3:20, “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” Consequently, we exercise fidelity to one another, pursuing life in Messiah together at all costs in a way that fortifies our message of reconciliation. We exercise faith in God’s supremacy as Alpha and Omega rather than fear whatever lies behind that next bend in the road–we know that our collective origin and our global destination are anchored to the being and activity of the supreme Lord of all Creation. We are strategic, motivated, at peace, and thereby always proclaiming by our life together Whom we serve and why everyone else should, too. We frame everything from that posture of sober hope in God’s supreme, creative work, committing ourselves to living according to and actually speeding the coming of the very kingdom of God on earth (cf. 2 Peter 3:10-13). It is this concretely lived experience that constitutes a fundamental part of the most powerful form of our collective ambassadorship.
I’ve recently received some criticism about the length of the articles I post on this blog, and I plan on including a greater quantity of briefer posts in the future for those short on time or attention span. But the topic of this article is worth burning ten times as many words as the 4400+ that I will have spent by the time I wrap this thing up. And that is because there is literally nothing more important than meditating upon and responding to and celebrating this simple, profound truth developed within these various portions of scripture upon which I’ve reflected to unpack just what it means that God is making all things new.
My life swiftly drifts off-course when I lose sight of this, and I’m alternatively too hard on myself or too flippant. On the one hand, I can become discouraged when I fail to achieve the things that I want, and I repeat the same, stupid mistakes that I already know won’t deliver specifically because of my fatigue and irritation. On the other hand, I can fling my weight around boorishly, inadvertently hurting other people as I traipse along my merry way without reference to who God is and what God is doing in me and throughout the world. Maybe I struggle with this sort of thing more than most; I lack a trustworthy means of discerning that. But even if you are reading this post right now without any of the tension I’ve shared such that there is subjectively less at stake for you in considering the points I’ve mentioned, I hope that you will still take a chance on experiencing and celebrating and committing yourself to the reality I’ll never have enough words to fully describe.
God wants to reconcile you and me to God’s self, every day more deeply and yet always afresh. God doesn’t want to merely forgive you for that one time you stole the candy from the drugstore or that other time you cheated on your taxes or screwed your buddy’s crush or talked crap behind that one girl’s back. God wants to redeem you from a death of which you aren’t even fully cognizant towards a life categorically different and more substantial than anything you or I have ever encountered–repetitively, day after day, moment by moment. And God doesn’t want to just stop there; God wants to draw us into this very process of expanding wholeness and well being throughout the world, of sharing this message even as we live it with other people moving from shadow to substance, from decrepit adolescence to youthful maturity. God wants to knit you together in relationship with others resisting a world marked by decay and rebellion that will one day be overturned and yet somehow redeemed by an apocalyptic, divine fiat of compassion and justice perfectly balanced. Nothing you or I have done or seen or known up until now is like this or more important than it.
So, what does this mean for you today? How does this affect your work, your family, the friendships you’re forging, and the goals you’re setting? What does this mean for the way you manage your finances, for the use of your time, or for the sorts of things you talk about and meditate on? What parts of your life already reflect these truths pretty clearly, and what parts sharply clash with them? Moreover, what would it look like for you and me to take these truth more seriously but also more joyfully, as leap-off points for action rather than mere nodes of reflection? What aspirations may emerge and what habits or attitudes will need to be put to rest? What might it mean for you, just this day or even just for the next couple hours to explore this way of life more fundamentally? In what intentionally embraced manner can this be, right now for you, more “trustworthy and true”?
God is making all things new.
- I utilized David Bercot’s summary of multiple points from The Kingdom that Turned the World Upside Down for quick reference to the thought of various Ante-Nicene fathers in this article on scrollpublishing.com while writing this post.
- Many thanks also to the hosts of the five best parties I ever attended on a New Year’s Eve in a row: Micah and Lauren McLellan, Michael and Christine Evans, Dana Chen, Lauren Parton, Jake VanKersen, Lizzy Hill, Katie Nelson, Sarah Joy Mikolajczyk, Kevin Harris, and Jenifer Dodsworth–you people are amazing.
- I would not have written this article if I had I not been blessed with the opportunity to preach about its subject matter on New Year’s Day at the congregation where I was raised and came to faith in Messiah, namely, Jesus People Covenant Church of Uptown, Chicago, and this would not have been possible apart from the invitation of Rev. Neil Taylor and Rev. Thomas Cameron, to whom I am more deeply indebted than just about anyone else on earth for literally years of wise counsel. My bosom buddy, Nathan Cameron, ran the PowerPoint making the message optimally comprehensible given how pooped most people are the morning of New Year’s Day.
- These songs by Skrillex, Broken Social Scene, The Who, and Monchy Y Alexandra helped motivate me to finish this post. Check ’em out if you have flash.