Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Battle of The Wills

1 Corinthians 15:50-58

As we struggle through a friend dying of terminal cancer there is something that happens that we don’t completely understand. There is a battle going on between life and death. The will to live is inherent in the nature of man. It is not necessarily a conscious willfulness choice. Sometimes a person slips into a coma and the will to live is still there. The body hangs on to life as long as it possibly can.

But there is one thing that is certain in this battle of the wills. Death will defeat the will to live at some point. It will happen to us all. Yet, it is a necessity for the follower of Christ to experience the ultimate victory of the life of Christ.

Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
51 Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed,
52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
53 For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality.
54 But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory.
55  “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law;
57 but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.

In this passage the author uses a literary style called anthropomorphism or personification. He presents death as having characteristics, qualities, or behavior of something alive. He speaks to death as if it is a being with its own will. “O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?”

In this passage God presents the ultimate bait-and-switch scenario. There is a battle personified between physical life and physical death. The battle of the wills is between the will of life and the will of death. In Genesis 2:16-17 God pronounced the result of the Fall of Man:

The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely;
17 but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”

Death is the result of man’s choice to disregard the life God gave. On the day that man ate of the forbidden fruit death was given reign over man. Man will surely die. Death is a reality. In its personification death believes it is the victor over man. Death believes itself to be the victor in the war of life and death.

In Christ, God uses death to benefit man but death doesn’t know this. Death is baited with what it perceives to be the victory. Yet, at the very moment of defeat God switches the results on death and defeats it with eternal life.

Our passage in 1 Corinthians tells us that death must win the physical battle of the wills in order for the “brethren” to “inherit the kingdom of God.” Flesh and blood cannot inherit it. The perishable must put n the imperishable. The mortal must put on immortality. At the very moment that death wins the battle of the wills the victory mocking of the ancient rings out on the other side:

Death is swallowed up in victory.
“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

For the believer the battle is fought until the bitter end. But death is nothing more than a doorway into the ultimate dimension of the kingdom of God. Death opens the door for us to receive our inheritance. For the believer there is no fear in death. In the book of Revelation 1:18 Jesus tells us that he alone holds the keys of death. The door of death cannot be opened without Jesus unlocking that door.

“Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.

The Kingdom of God has many dimensions. The unbeliever stands outside and cannot see or understand the things of God. Only with the influence of God can man enter into the kingdom. By grace through faith man is influenced and becomes a believer and, as a believer, man enters into a dimension of the kingdom where he sees and understands as God’s Spirit gives him illumination. On this side of death “we know in part and we prophesy in part…we see in a mirror dimly.” 1 Cor. 13:9&12

For the believer, death, in thinking it is winning the battle of the wills by defeating the will to live, is the door to eternity. When Jesus unlocks that door, the victory death thought it would experience is defeated. Death is swallowed up in victory.” The sting death thought it was inflicting is not felt.

Verse 56 says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” The battle of the wills begins at a very early age. Sin is inherent in our nature and the battle begins when we see and understand that we are sinners. That is, we start choosing death over life. That is what sin is. God says, “Here is life, my life. I want to give it to you, for you to experience its fullness. I want you to have life with me, to exist with me, to interact with me, to know me. This is life and I want you to chose it over the alternative, death.” Then the serpent, Satan, comes along and says, “Are you kidding me? That doesn’t look like life at all. It looks restrictive. It looks like going without something that is pleasing to the eyes and sweet to the taste. It looks like a don’t. Doesn’t it seem reasonable that life would be do’s?”

Thus begins the battle of the wills. The word ‘sin’ doesn’t mean “doing something wrong.” It literally means, “missing the mark.” When we chose sin we are choosing death over life. We are choosing:

Flesh and blood over the Spirit.
The perishable over the imperishable.
Our mortality over our immortality.

Sin is not so much doing wrong as it is missing out on the life God has for us and wants us to experience in Him. Sin is when we don’t believe that what He has for us is life and we miss the mark by choosing to believe the lie. Death is disguised in a costume of life.

Though we fight this battle between life and death all our lives, because of sin, death will win the battle of the wills. That is, at least physically. Yet, we are promised there is no sting in death and death will have no victory. Death is deceived by its own doing in thinking that he will be victorious in defeating physical life. When in reality all it does is open the door into eternal glory. It opens the door to our inheritance. It ushers us into the ultimate dimension of the kingdom of God.

The scripture says God gives the believer the victory over death through our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus blazed the trail for us in defeating death. He died on the Cross and was buried in the tomb. Death thought it had won the victory and celebrated for 3 days. Then came the resurrection and death was defeated. We, as believers, have our identity in Christ and are included in His victory. God ‘gives’ it to us. It is a work of grace. A gift given and not earned.

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.

When in scripture we see a “therefore” we know that it is ‘there for’ the reason just stated. Therefore, based on the fact and gratitude of the victory over death that God has given to us through Our Lord Jesus Christ, we are to “be” the following. Notice that it doesn’t say ‘do’ the following as if He is concerned with our behavior or performance. No, He says “be” because His desire is for our being. The Law is all about doing. Sin is all about doing. Life is all about being and being is all about life.

Knowing the reality and certainty of death and that its sting and victory has already been conquered for us, we chose life in Jesus. What does that choice look like? It is a “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.”

To “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding” is fairly easy to define. Stay with it, don’t get distracted, stay focused, constantly be engaged, be an overachiever, actively pursue, in all circumstances be proactive followers of Christ.

“In the work of the Lord” is a little more difficult to define. Starting out, notice that it does not say ‘work for the Lord.” To work ‘for’ someone is to spend our energy so as to accomplish something that is not already completed. When Jesus died on the cross He said, “It is finished.” The work for which He came to do was completed and needs no further accomplishment. To work ‘for’ Christ is to labor with an expectation of being recompensed. The idea of working ‘for’ Christ is saying I earned something from Christ. Yet, the scripture says,

by grace you have been [are being and shall be] saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. Eph. 2:8-9

No, we do not work ‘for’ the Lord since there is nothing of the Lord that we need to accomplish nor is there anything of the Lord that we can earn. To ‘be’ in the work of the Lord is to rest in what He has already done and to be a servant to Him in what He is doing.

we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. Eph. 2:10

When the disciples came to Jesus in John 6:28-29 and asked, “what shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered them and said to them, “this is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” To be in the work of the Lord is to believe in Jesus Christ. Salvation is the work of the Lord. Sanctification is the work of the Lord. Glorification is the work of the Lord. “Being transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:1) is the work of the Lord. “To be conformed to the image of His Son,” is the work of the Lord.

For each of us the work of the Lord is to be engaged in what He is doing in and through us as individuals. Do not let anything in life or death move you from this objective. As we go about living our lives remain steadfast, immovable in what God is doing. Always be abounding in this work. As we go about living our lives be in the work of the Lord.

He never ask us to be something or do something that He first does not cause us to become and empower us to do.

That which motivates us to “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” is a knowledge that comes from experience.  “Knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.” If there is no knowledge of the victory given to us there can be no steadfast, immovable, always abounding. The knowledge is not only in the victory won by Christ but is also in the timing of experiencing that victory in its completeness. Until Jesus takes the keys and unlocks the door of death we toil in the Lord.

The fact that we work from a position of victory does not negate the hardness of the work. It is a ‘toiling’: hard labor, strenuous exertion, exhausting effort. The battle of the wills is a ‘battle’. To continuously chose life over death is not always easy. Especially when we are watching a loved one who is fighting the final battle against death. Our emotions are on high alert. We want them to continue in physical life and it is easy to lose sight of the victory in death. We grieve the loss of our personal present face-to-face relationship. We grieve for the now and in the midst of it we don’t understand the suffering, the pain, and the heartache. It is at this point that we hold onto the truth that our “toil is not in vain in the Lord.” It is times like this that the forging of our faith is processed.

I can explain this scripturally and theologically but emotionally and in this present reality I have no answers. What I know to be truth is comforting and gives hope for eternity. But for right now all I know is that this friend is suffering. His precious wife with their 2-month-old baby girl is in indescribable pain. His dad, mom, and brother are in the depths of grief that is deeper than the deepest ocean. As his friends, we are in deep sorrow. And my heart breaks for us all.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

God's Role in Tragedies

There are tragedies in the news every day. All around the world there are children who suffer and die. A little boy drowns in his family’s swimming pool. An elderly lady is raped and robbed. A wife murders her husband. A drunk driver or a texting driver causes a wreck that kills a family. A doctor has to tell a patient that he has terminal cancer and there is no medical treatment that will help. A middle-aged man dies of a sudden massive heart attack or he lives on in disability.

I struggle with it myself. Maybe it’s how we have been taught. Maybe it’s our own natural preservation. Maybe it’s just human nature. I don’t know what it is but it seems to be prevalent in the Christian culture of America. Why is it that Christians think God is more unnaturally concerned about our health and heartaches than He is an unbeliever? Why do we get mad at God when bad things happen to our loved ones or us? Why do we blame God when our loved ones or we suffer? Why is it that when tragedy strikes it is always God’s fault? There seems to be this idea in America that as a Christ follower God owes us good health. I know it is prevalent in what is called the health, wealth, and prosperity preaching but it appears as an undercurrent in most every Christian group I’ve ever been around or heard of in America. Also, there seems to be a belief that in being a Christ follower God is suppose to build a force field around us that will protect us from tragedies and heartaches.

Understand, I’m not questioning a belief in God or about God. What I’m questioning is our belief system in a God who is supposed to protect us from tragedies. Or maybe it is our expectation of God in this belief system. In this belief system we portray God as master of the universe and, especially, master of our universe, which is totally true. Yet in this belief system He is either the cause of our problems or He is the passive spectator over our problems. So, we question why God would do this thing that has brought sorrow or we are confused as to how He could allow this thing to happen. Either way, how can we reconcile a God who would cause tragedy or passively allow it to happen with a God who loves us and wants what’s best for us?

I don’t think it is intrinsically wrong or bad to question God with why or how. The Bible is full of great people of faith who ask God why and how. The issue is, it seems to me, to be the preconceived ideas behind the whys and hows that predetermine our response unless God does what we ask Him to do i.e. heals or reverses tragedy.

For example, someone has been in a horrible automobile accident and was not killed. In fact they make a full recovery and you may hear something like, “It was only by God’s grace.” A little girl wanders from her home onto a busy highway and is hit by a car and killed. No one ever says, “It was only by God’s grace.” Is not all of life somehow an extension of God’s grace? When Paul said, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain” (1 Co 15:10) was he only speaking of the good things in his life? Wasn’t he also the guy who would later say that he suffered “a thorn in the flesh” and rather than removing it, healing it, or doing something miraculous that took the suffering away, God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Co 12:9)?

Is God’s grace only something that we measure when something good happens (at least something we judge as good)? When something good happens it is by God’s grace. When something bad happens it is God’s fault. I’m just struggling with those two paradigms. Someone may say that God uses bad things happening to get our attention, wake us up, discipline us, or even punish us. Does our God cause the pain, suffering, and death of our loved ones as a means to get our attention? If He does, wouldn’t that make Him some kind of sadistic masochist?

When Paul spoke of his “thorn in the flesh” he did not say it was God’s fault. He said “there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself!” (2 Co 12:7). Here are some mixed concepts that are hard to reconcile. First, the idea of something “given” carries with it the idea of being for ones benefit, something received through favor, and implies a giver. It is the same word as is used in what is commonly called The Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” (Matt 6:11) Second, he describes the thorn as “a messenger of Satan.” A “messenger” is an angel sent with a message. Third, he tells us the mission of this “messenger” is to “torment” him. The word used is one that describes to be beat up. It literally means to “strike with the fist.” Figuratively it means “to cause injury or weakness or possibly a circumstantial difficulty.”[1] Lastly, he gives us a known purpose of this thorn: “to keep me from exalting myself!” Whatever the thorn is its purpose is to produce humility.

So, there are several different interpretations as to what the thorn is that Paul was writing about. Yet, even if figurative language was used with metaphorical meanings the concepts of 2 Co 12:7 are just not easy to reconcile with our American Christian culture. Literal or metaphorical, how do we reconcile a God of love and goodness with a God who reveals something magnificently great to Paul, and then in order to keep him from getting the big head God sends an angel of Satan to beat him up.

When we struggle with the idea of health, tragedies, and heartaches and God’s role in these we need to have as our foundational understanding the fact that God is never at fault. He is not faulty. We are. So, if we don’t get the answer we want, God is not at fault. When tragedies happen (and they will) they are not God’s fault. We live in a fallen universe where sin has corrupted every degree of its existence. God is no more to blame when tragedy strikes than He was when the first sin infected the entire universe. Jesus taught in the New Covenant that the reason we should not despise or curse our enemies is because “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Mt 5:45) That is, there is a sense of equality in this life where God is not prejudice in His provision or protection. Also, there are things in this life that are experienced by Christ followers and those who are in opposition to Christ alike. His sun rising can be a good thing but in a land that is parched it can be another day of devastation. Rain can be a good thing, too, but in a land that is flooding it is a thing of more destruction. Beneficial or bad it comes to the evil and good, to the righteous and unrighteous.

It seems to me that with just a cursory reading of the Bible, even the New Testament, we find all kinds of people experiencing tragedies and heartaches. John the Baptist was beheaded. I wonder how that affected his loved ones? Jesus suffered more than we can imagine. He died with the question “why” on His lips but I wonder if in the cry were there blame, anger, and disappointment toward the Father? Stephen was stoned to death, Paul was beaten, John was exiled to an island, and these are only some of the ones we know. What about the countless other followers of Christ who remain nameless with a few simple sentences in Acts 8:1-3 that describe a mega attack on Christ followers in Jerusalem with massive destruction of lives? Men and women being thrown in prison separated from their families, children who lost their parents, parents who had to watch their children murdered, siblings who saw their brothers and sisters being tortured, families being scattered throughout the world losing everything they owned and being cutoff from their loved ones. How many stories of tragedies and heartache are written between the lines of Scriptures? Fox’s Book of Martyrs is a history of tragedies and heartaches of those who were followers of Christ. There were husbands having to watch their wives raped, children being sold into prostitution, wives and mothers watching their husbands and sons burned at the stake.

My struggle listing these who suffered tragedies and heartaches is that they did so because they were followers of Christ. Then it hit me. EXACTLY!!! If these suffered because they were believers then why would we who are believers think that we would be exempt from sufferings of any kind? They suffered and/or died for their faith. Their faith didn’t exempt them and our faith doesn’t exempt us. In the American culture when we experience tragedies and heartaches it is probably not because of our faith. (At least not yet are we being martyred for being a follower of Christ.) It is most likely in-spite of our faith. That is, these tragedies and heartaches are just a part of life. They are like the sun that rises on the evil and good or the rain that falls on the just and unjust.

If this were our understanding and built into our belief system as followers of Christ, when tragedies and heartaches come upon us our faith would not falter because we wouldn’t have an expectation of God to protect us from such things. Would we still ask God why and how? I assume so. After all, He is the all knowing and our faith would have us turn to Him for understanding, comfort, hope, peace, etc. We may even express anger but it probably wouldn’t be toward God as the cause or the passive spectator. Maybe this was the scenario of Paul’s account in 2 Co 12. Maybe he suffered some kind of physical ailment and in the midst of the third time of asking God to remove it God let him in on the mystery of the ailment. Maybe it was because he wasn’t blaming God or so angry with God for doing this or allowing this that he was prone to hear God’s mystery.

In our American Christian culture we don’t really grasp the mystery of God nor God’s mysteries. We spend our energy crying out to God because life isn’t fair. For instance, one-person cries to God that it’s unfair because his father dies at 70 years of age just when he was starting to really enjoy retirement. Another person says, “Well, at least you had your dad until he was 70. Mine died when he was 52.” Still someone else says, “My dad died when he was 36. I was 13.” Yet another says, “I was conceived just before my dad went off to war. He was killed in battle before I was born. I never met my dad.” Then a mother chimes in saying, “My son was murdered in a high school shooting. He never was able to have children.” In sadness a dad says, “At least you had your son until high school. My daughter died of cancer at the age of 2.” Then a woman says, “My first child was a girl, carried full term, but still born.” Expressing deep grief another couple expresses, “At least you had children. We were never even able to conceive.”

As we focus on how unfair life is with our blame and anger toward God we miss the mystery of God in His sovereignty working in and through the frailties of life. I don’t mean to imply fatalism at all. God is in control. He is sovereign. He even sometimes miraculously delivers some from the heartache of tragedy. He sometimes heals the body and extends the life. In fact, maybe life itself is the miracle. Do we still ask for healing, deliverance, and to escape tragedies? Absolutely. The Scriptures implore us to. Yet, in all of this there is still a mystery that remains known only to God Himself. Even after revealing all that He did to the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness and preparing to go into the promise land Moses declared, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever.” (Dt 29:29).

Someone once said, “prayer is not man trying to bend the will of God to our wishes but to align our wishes to His will.” That is where the mystery is. In crying out to God we find the mystery of God and the mystery of faith. So, in sickness, if healing happens we rejoice in and praise God for what He has done. If death happens, in grief we praise God that the life He graced us with is now in heaven. When we approach tragedies and heartaches with this mindset we are released to grieve in a healthy way. Grief is not a place we are to live but a process we are to go through. Sadness is a necessary part of life, for without it we would never realize the joys. Rather than life being unfair, maybe it is more inline with scripture to say, life is unpredictable. Without life’s unpredictability we would never find the mystery of God. Without the tragedies and heartaches we would never find the faith, understanding, strength, courage, hope, peace, ect. that we so desperately seek when we are in the midst of those tragedies and heartaches.

Life happens! Every experience of life is an expression of God’s grace. The experience may be wrapped in mystery but we can trust that He will give us His grace and He will be with us in the midst of the experience. Birth, death, and everything in-between is just life. Live it to its fullest. Experience the highest highs and the lowest lows. Experience the joy and the grief to the fullness. Worship Christ in all of life. When death comes it has no sting and it has no victory. When tragedies and heartaches happen, cry out to God with all the emotions and questions deserved. Grieve in the depth of your being. Shed tears of misery.  Yet, reserve your anger toward the true culprit: sin. When I say sin I’m not talking about particular sins that someone may have done to bring about the tragedies and heartaches, although, those sins may have been directly a cause of sorrow i.e. someone takes an overdose of drugs and dies. I’m talking about the being of sin that is set loose on all humanity and the universe and is actively reaping havoc and destruction. Pray with all your might for God to preform a miracle to stop or, at least, reduce suffering. If the miracle doesn’t come then we must trust God and His mystery. Draw close to Him in humility and know that God cares for you. He inspired Peter when he wrote,
God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
6               Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time,
7               casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.
8               Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
9               But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world.
10            After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. (1 Pe 5:5–10)

This is not to be construed as an answer to those suffering. Nor is it a ‘should’ that implies I’m right and if you disagree you are wrong. I have written this over several weeks and months as I have been working through some of my own tragedies and heartaches over the past few months. I have had dear friends, a husband and wife, killed in a car accident. I have had friends, who are followers of Christ; see their marriages crumble in divorce after up to 49 years of marriage. I have watched dear friends, a young couple and their families, rejoice in cancer being in remission and chose to get pregnant, only to be devastated to have the cancer return 2 days before the birth of their first child and the families first grandchild. I myself have suffered severe declination of health. Working through this writing has helped me deal with my emotions and grief. I hope it helps you, as well.

My faith will not falter.
My hope will not be diminished.
I will trust in my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, until my last breath.
My Love for Him and people will not shrink.

[1] Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (230). New York: United Bible Societies.