When your heart grows faint


“These are the words of him who is holy and true,” Jesus’ message to the church at Philadelphia begins (Rev 3:7). The words that follow offer reassurance for the moments we realize even more acutely than usual that we are not in control.

“These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens, no one can shut, and what he shuts, no one can open.”

As much as I love that following promise that there is Someone who holds the key to everything and is not afraid to use it, I find myself being drawn back again and again to those first few foundational words, because what comfort is it to know that someone holds the key unless we also know that that someone is good?

“These are the words of him who is holy and true.”

As Old Testament scholar Iain Provan says,

“What is this holiness? Quite simply, it is goodness by another name” (Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion, p. 65).
“In biblical thinking, then, God is good, and he intends good. He is, to quote the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, ‘for us’ (Romans 8:31)—intent on blessing his creation, on loving it faithfully, and on rescuing it where necessary” (Ibid, p. 64).

Holy and true. This combination of words is only used in one other verse in the Bible—three chapters later where the martyrs are crying out for justice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Rev 6:10). Here, those who stared into the hate-filled eyes of death, who felt its claws and its teeth and its breath hot on their necks, now address God from the other side of the grave. In doing so, they testify that this is true: in the presence of the most terrifying injustice, violence, and  violation, when the universe seems out of control and evil seems to have won, Someone—a good Someone—is still on the throne.
The martyrs crying out don’t have the answers to why or when or how. And they don’t ask why these things happened to them. Perhaps in those moments of torture and death they saw the burning hatred of evil and felt its ravenous viciousness too deeply to need to ask that question. The searing pain of flames or blade or slow suffocation left no doubt that evil exists. Instead of dwelling there, they look back to the One who is stronger than evil and ask when he will bring justice and freedom and life. That he will is not a question. It can’t be otherwise, because that sovereign Someone is holy and true.
He is holy—perfectly, brilliantly good. He will, therefore, in the end, put to right everything in this universe that he he loves.
And he is true—he doesn’t mess around with half-truths and promises that turn to mist the moment we put our weight on them. He is solid, authentic, and trustworthy. A Rock we can put our whole weight on.

“Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer.
From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint;
lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe.
I long to dwell in your tent forever
and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.” (Psalm 61:1-4)

 

Healing in his wings


On Friday morning, I sat at the breakfast table with my blue pottery mug of lemon-ginger tea. I’d sat there first with my bowl of cereal, but I had a little extra time before the Good Friday service, and the sun pouring through the windows, warming and soothing me, summoned me to sit longer and savor its gentle, healing welcome.

Most often in this temperate rain forest where I live, I experience the sun as a gentle force, a longed-for and welcome presence. But as I sat at the table on Good Friday, I was reminded that the sun that welcomes me with its warmth is an unthinkably immense, brilliant force with the power to nourish life or take it, to turn darkness to light, ice to steam, and clouds to clear skies. It summons leaves to bend toward it, holds planets in their orbits, and turns winter to spring with its coming.

If someone asked me what I most love about Jesus, I’d probably name his gentleness. That’s what has made me feel safe enough with him to love him. He always summons me back again, welcoming me to come and find myself loved no matter my condition.
But on this devastating, triumphant weekend, I saw again the strength that lies behind the gentleness. A strength to bring unending life into the darkest and most hopeless of dark places, the blackness of death itself. A strength that announces victory with his last breath, shatters the grave, and restores hope to the hopeless. That brings long-forgotten prisoners out of their tombs, and sets the captives free. A strength with the authority to judge, but the will  instead to heal both captives and captors who are willing to be healed.

“Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23; c.f. Jonah 3:10-4:2; 4:11; 2 Peter 3:9; John 3:17)

This is blinding light, all-powerful holiness, but a holiness that is for us, intent on healing and setting right all that is wrong, on freeing and making whole and bringing to life again all the good that has been crushed and crucified. Easter weekend is where we see most clearly that God’s holiness is another name for his goodness, that his holiness and his love are two entwined sides of his same brilliant and overflowing life that he is always pouring out for our hope and healing.

“The Lord of Heaven’s Armies says, “The day of judgment is coming, burning like a furnace. On that day the arrogant and the wicked will be burned up like straw. They will be consumed—roots, branches, and all.
But for you who fear my name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings. And you will go free, leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture.” 
(Malachi 4:1-2 NLT)
 

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Photos (in order) by Julia Caesar, Kent Pilcher, Johannes Plenio, Lukas Budimaier, and Nick Scheerbart on Unsplash.

Where God is when you struggle with sin

If you’re at all like me, you’ll know how easy it is to slip into the same old thought patterns, and then to quickly slide into judging ourselves. It’s a downward cycle, isn’t it, making us try harder and harder until we’re exhausted and discouraged and tempted to quit?

We know that God hates sin. We remember Habakkuk’s statement that God is too pure to look on sin. So we hate and fear the sin that we see in our lives because we long to be close to God.

But the God who is too pure too look at sin not only looked at it, not only touched it, but took it into himself so completely that the Bible says Jesus became sin. He carried it so completely that it took Him all the way to hell. So when we believe the picture that has God at the top repulsed by our sin as we struggle alone down at the bottom we are believing the devil’s version – the version that has the center cut right out of it. The true picture has Jesus in the center, God and humanity united in this one Person, loving us and hating sin enough to take sin into Himself to destroy its power.

God’s hatred of sin is not (and never was) against us but for us. (Remember Romans 5:8?) Since God took our sin right into Himself, we do not need to fear being alone in our struggle with sin. God does not turn away from us when we sin. We turn away from Him. (That’s what sin is: turning from God to something else.) When we mess up, God does not shudder with horror and turn His back to us, waiting for us to put it right. He holds us tight, keeps pursuing our hearts, gently and lovingly helping us turn around until we are face to face with Him again. When we resist the turning, the love can hurt, but all of His help is given with this one purpose: to turn us back, face to face with Him again.

The whole of our life with God is meant to be a tuning of our hearts to beat more closely in time with His. So when we sin, we also don’t need to shudder with horror and turn our back on ourselves in despair. If sin is the turning away from God, repentance is the turning back, and we turn back not by condemning ourselves (that is the devil’s territory – Rev 12:10; John 3:17-18; Rom 8:1) but by quietly acknowledging our inability to keep our hearts turned to Him, and asking for our Father’s help. We’re half-turned already in the asking, and He turns us the rest of the way, cupping our face in His hands and lifting it to His own where, through our tears, we again see His smile.

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Know anyone who might be encourage by this today? Feel free to pass it along.

God is light: the good news you won’t want to miss

What happens when you step into the spotlight? Do your palms sweat and your mouth dry at the thought of exposure?

What about when you step into the sunlight after a week of grey rain?

We love light. And we hate it. We need it, want it, and yet fear it.

The puzzle

For several months I’ve puzzled over the statement: “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5) It has felt like such great news, a statement overflowing with joy, a place I could settle and make my home. But why?

Light means so many things:

  • In Afghanistan, where tuberculosis raged, light meant purification; the tuberculosis bacilli lived only a few minutes in direct sunlight vs. days in the dark. Is John talking about the light of God’s righteousness? (see Isaiah 5:20 where good/evil is equated with light/darkness.)
  • In Vancouver, where the cloud hangs low for the months of winter, the return of the springtime sun brings hope and happiness and health to many. I recently moved, and my plants are growing wildly in the new bright window. Is John speaking of the power of light to heal and renew, to give strength and cause growth and bring life?
  • I turn on the light in my windowless bathroom to find something in the drawer. Light reveals. Is John referring to understanding vs. confusion? Honesty and openness vs. hiddenness? (Isaiah 42:16; 50:10)

What does he mean? And why is this a good thing?

God is. . . ?

Three times in John’s letter I hear the refrain, “God is. . .” Once at the beginning, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5) Twice near the end, “God is love.” (4:8,16) All three, and what lies between, speak the same great news: God is holy love.

Repeatedly in Scripture, God’s holiness is imaged by light. “Holy, holy, holy” the creatures cry, and John and Isaiah and Ezekiel and the twenty-four elders all fall down before the One who is overwhelming light (Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1, Revelation 1 and 4). We fear such brilliant perfection. God’s holiness is his perfection: we get that much right. But we often conceive perfection in too-small, purely negative terms: absence of sin. In fact, holiness is much more about who and what God is than who and what He isn’t. “God is holy,” or, in image form, “God is light,” means that God is perfect in every way: perfect goodness, perfect love, perfect truth.

 “Holiness implies that every excellence fitting to the Supreme Being is found in God without blemish or limit. It also implies that all other divine moral excellences (goodness, justice, mercy, truth and grace) are unified and made mutually harmonious in infinite degree in God.” (Oden, Systematic Theology, Vol 1, p. 99)

God’s holiness and His love are not in opposition. “God is light” includes “God is love.” It clarifies the kind of love that God is, a love whole and complete, perfect in every way. God is powerful love that sets the beloved free, purifying her from the sin which holds her hostage and making her great, growing her into her full height as His heir and His bride.

Why this matters to you right now

I used to think that the dark was the best place to rest. I closed the blinds to nap. I avoided the spotlight, preferring to hide in the shadows. When I started this blog, I chose a black background to provide a sense of restfulness, a retreat from the busyness of the day. (But where is the rest if you’re straining your eyes to read?)

I still close the blinds when I nap. I still don’t love the spotlight. But I’m learning this: though it can feel scary to step into the light, the light is a much more restful place to live than the darkness; in the light the fear fades. From our spot in the darkness, we fear to step into the light because we cannot see that God’s light and his love are inseparable, that the perfection of God’s character, including his love, is his holiness. When we finally step out of the darkness into the light we discover that the exposure of our failings is enveloped by the revealing of God’s grace. The light reveals our brokenness not to condemn but to set free (John 3:17-21). It’s a bit like an object in the direct path of the sun’s light: the details fade in the brightness of the glory. The bumps and cracks and blemishes, where they’re seen at all, become places of special beauty, places that refract the light of grace with particular brilliance.

God is light: it means that when the fog of confusion clouds my own vision, God still looks in love. He will guide me into all truth. I can rest.

God is light: when all around me is changing, God’s perfect love does not change. I can count on this. And I can rest.

God is light: each time I am unable to live the way I want to, instead of hiding in the shadows and trying to fix it myself, I can bring my hurting heart into the light where I discover again (oh, how wonderful!) that God’s perfect love is still shining on me. And I can rest.

And the last word on God’s love embodied in human flesh? “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

What does it mean for you in this moment that God is light? 

Of dandelions and holiness and a great reason to celebrate

I don’t have a lawn now, but I remember the crazy length of those dandelion roots needing radical removal to set the lawn free. Those were no wimpy weeds, and that was no easy task.

 

This is why God’s hostility to evil is such good news. He will not settle for leaving traces of evil within me to grow again. He circles back again and again to the persistent roots, sending gentle rain to loosen the soil around them, digging a little deeper still. He has promised to complete the work He has started in me, to finish this business of making me holy.

 

Here’s the gift. Because of his holiness, I can trust Him with this. I don’t have to agonize over self examination: “Are there weeds left? Am I missing one, even a little one?” I can’t see clearly enough to judge unless He points out the weeds anyway.

 

I don’t have to stand over Him, checking to make sure He has the last rootlet. He doesn’t. Not yet. He knows that. But I can trust Him with the work. I can lean into His love, ask Him to show me what I need to see, do what He asks, and rejoice, knowing that He will do what He has promised.