Thursday, April 30, 2015

More Christlike God Q & A: "Doesn't Isaiah 59:2 clearly state that our sins separate us from God?" - Brad Jersak


Dear Brad,

I have had the privilege of hearing your teaching both at the WTC residential and at my own church. I also love your book, Stricken by God?  In it you dispel the idea that God cannot look on sin and I totally agree with your reasoning.  But although you mention Habakkuk 1:13, you do not comment on Isaiah 59:2. It seems to be clearly stating that the people's sin had separated them from God and hidden his face from them. I would be most interested in your interpretation of this verse, if you have the time to answer.
Thank you.

May God bless you, 
Sarah S.


What a great question, Sarah!

Yes, Isaiah 59 is a key text in the discussion, and our Old Testament scholar, Dr. Matt Lynch, has been fantastic in walking me through the chapter details. I cover it briefly in my new book, A More Christlike God. Before I get to that, it's helpful to read the verse in question super-carefully. 

“But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Isa. 59:2).

What separates us from God? God? No. Our iniquities. 
What hides his face from us? God? No. Our sins. 
This is the all-essential distinction: in our rebellion and shame, like Adam and Eve, two things are at play in obscuring his face: 1. "Our" [we do it] and 2. "Sins" [what we do]. 

This is reminiscent of Adam and Eve, trying to hide their nakedness in the Garden. In fact, they were hiding God from themselves but they were not hidden from God at all ... unless we think God literally didn't know where they were. It's a bit like covering our eyes and believing the sun is no longer shining.    

Back to Isaiah: In turning from God's loving care, we reject his blessings, so that 'he does not hear us' ... Of course, we know God actually hears everything, because he is God, so this last phrase is poetic (indeed, the whole chapter is a Hebrew poem) ... To say God "doesn't hear us" is a metaphor for the real experience of not perceiving or receiving God's promised blessings. And why don't we? Because God is angry and has turned away? Not at all! Rather, because in our sin, we have turned away from God and rebuffed the blessings that come with knowing him. 

At the same time, while we have turned from God, God has not turned from us. While our sins hide his face from us we are not hidden from him at all. That is, our sin obscures the joy of his presence, even though God may still feel very 'in our face' ... as he is in Isaiah 59! 

And what does God do? 

God sees, and in Isaiah 59, Isaiah says that God is displeased with the whole situation ... the injustice, the alienation, and the interrupted flow of blessings to God's children. But far from concluding that God rejects or abandons us, we must keep reading ... God springs into action. God initiates a saving act whereby he rolls up his sleeves and comes to us himself through his Messianic Redeemer. Those who turn to God will find that he was already for them and toward them. In other words, our repentance does not cause God to come, but rather, God's grace precedes and even generates our repentance. This is how the New Covenant (announced in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and elsewhere) works. Unilateral grace to self-alienated children. And his New Covenant, according to Isaiah, also assures us that God's Spirit will not depart ... ever. 

Here's how I address it in A More Christlike God:

Some may have been thrown off by a passage in Isaiah, which says, “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Isa. 59:2). 

Well, that’s quite damning, isn’t it! Pretty clear, right? The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it, right? If only we would keep reading! The chapter as a whole goes like this—God sees the injustice in the land and how that injustice has broken the flow of blessing and favor he intends. He grieves the situation. So what does God do? 

15 The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice.  
16 He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm achieved salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. 
Who or what is this arm of the Lord? Keep reading: 
20 “The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the Lord. 
21 “As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit, who is on you, will not depart from you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will always be on your lips, on the lips of your children and on the lips of their descendants—from this time on and forever,” says the Lord.
In other words, when God sees individuals or nations wallowing in sin—personal or social, far from turning his back on us and alienating us, he rolls up his sleeves and stretches out his hand to save. In this case the ‘hand’ is a metaphor for the Messiah, a prophetic pronouncement of God’s remedy, and a promise that he will not abandon us. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

What Not to Say to Someone Who Has Been Hurt by Church: 6 Misguided Responses to Spiritual Abuse - Jonathan Hollingsworth

A few years ago, I had my first experience with spiritual abuse.
Compelled to serve God in a radical way, I dropped out of college, gave away all my possessions and moved to Africa, only to be manipulated, controlled and taken advantage of by the leaders in the mission organization.
When I got home, my pastor gave me two options: I could either lie and make up a nicer-sounding story, or I could just keep my mouth shut. Either way, I was forbidden from telling the real story, inside or outside the church.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It’s one thing to be abused by people you barely know, but it’s another thing to be betrayed by someone you trusted and looked up to. I was angry and depressed, and I fell away from church for the first time in my life.
Thankfully, some of my friends understood what I was going through. Others, not so much. But what I’ve come to realize is that Christians can be pretty bad at handling spiritual abuse.
Many of the responses below I’ve witnessed firsthand. In the past, I’ve even been guilty of saying a few of these myself.
Here are a few things not to say to someone who has been hurt by their church:
If you’re more concerned about the church’s reputation than you are about the abuse itself, you might have your priorities mixed up.

1. “No Church Is Perfect”

Instead of empathizing with those who have been hurt by a church, some Christians go right into defense mode.
They might argue that the victim just had a “bad experience.” Or, they’ll say the Church is full of imperfect people who are “only human” and make mistakes just like the rest of us.
But can we agree that these excuses only distract from the problem? No one wants to be told to “focus on all the good things the Church does” when they’ve been hurt by one. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of people have been positively affected by a church or ministry. The good experiences don’t cancel out the bad ones.

2. “Are You Working Toward Reconciliation?”

The last thing a victim of spiritual abuse needs to do is go right back into the environment that hurt them in the first place.
If someone has been attacked by a dog, would you tell them to go back and risk getting bitten again? Christians who insist on reconciliation in the face of spiritual abuse are forgetting one important thing: Abusive people can’t always be reasoned with.
Not only is it dangerous to ask a victim to make amends with their abusers, it also puts an undue burden of responsibility on the victim to come up with a solution. It’s like saying, “They’re the ones who hurt you, but now it’s your job to make it right.”
CLICK HERE to keep reading

Monday, April 27, 2015

Unsnatchable! - Greg Albrecht

Hostage-taking and kidnapping have become international concerns over the past few decades. In some cases, people are taken—they are snatched—for monetary reasons. They are held for ransom. Terrorists often kidnap their political and religious enemies and offer to release them if their political or religious demands are met.

Hostage-taking and kidnapping are not only done for financial, political or religious reasons. People are kidnapped so that they can be used as slaves and property. Sometimes they are brainwashed so that they will come to embrace the beliefs of their captors. Sometimes, as we have seen recently, hostages are beheaded.

You may be familiar with the series of three Taken films in which Liam Neeson has played the lead role. The basic plot, particularly in the first two movies, is that Neeson is a former CIA operative who tracks down and rescues members of his family who are “taken.” In order to rescue his loved ones, Liam Neeson has to be more brutal and animalistic than the barbarians who have taken them. For example, in the first Taken (released in 2008), Liam Neeson’s character is named Bryan. Bryan receives a phone call from the human traffickers who have taken his daughter, demanding money for her release.

He replies: “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have any money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills that I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”

It has been said that “an eye for an eye leaves both parties blind.” Violence is not the way Jesus rescues us. In a counter-intuitive, upside-down way, Jesus rescues us by accepting and receiving all human hatred and violence on his cross.

Jesus rescues us not by living by the sword, but by letting the anger and hostility of the sword burn itself out in him. His cross is the singular symbol of Jesus’ willingness to accept and receive all human hatred and violence, so that it’s all consumed in him.

CLICK HERE to continue (and to see the entire current issue of the May/June Plain Truth)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Review of Brad Jersak's 'A More Christlike God' by Rob Grayson

Today I have the honour of reviewing Brad Jersak’s soon-to-be-released new book A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel.
“God is like Jesus.”
There has been an increasing chorus of voices making this proclamation in recent times. In my opinion, it’s been a very welcome chorus, because it’s a most necessary message.
But… for all its increasing popularity, if this message is not to become a mere soundbite, it needs to be explained, nuanced, understood in all its myriad implications, and generally shown to be the premier way of understanding what God is like.
Enter Brad Jersak.
I hold Brad in high esteem for two reasons. First, it was listening to him speak about the atonement that spurred me on to the earth-shattering realisation that God did not in any way, shape or form kill Jesus – a seminal moment in my theological journey. And second, I had the privilege of meeting him last year. The opportunity to put a name and a story to a face is worth more than many printed words on pages.
Brad is a Canadian author and teacher based in Abbotsford, British Columbia. His active, ongoing experience in the evangelical and charismatic streams and his interest in the Orthodox Church, in which he is a confirmed Reader, give him a unique perspective on what it means to live out an ancient faith in a modern, fast-changing world. Brad has solid theological credentials and is currently part of the core faculty of Westminster Theological Centre (UK).
One of Brad’s gifts, then, is to take profound and complex theological truths and translate them into language that the rest of us can understand.
So… what are the implications of the statement “God is like Jesus”? Brad basically spends three hundred pages answering this question.
The book is divided into three parts. In the first part, “What is God? Competing Images of Will and Love”, Brad surveys predominant images of God that have held sway through the ages, drawing a distinction between those understandings of God based on sheer, omnipotent will and those earthed in pure love. He concludes this part by pointing to the fullest revelation of God we have: “Word Made Flesh: The Christlike God”.
The second part is titled “The Cruciform God”. Such terminology may be nothing new to readers of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, J├╝rgen Moltmann or assorted other recent theologians. But Brad goes a long way in exploring what it means in practical, twenty-first terms to say that God is most perfectly revealed in Christ upon the cross. For me, the real heart of his book is here, in chapters 7 and 8, “The Cross as Divine Consent” and “The Cross as Divine Participation”. Drawing on sources old and new, he dares to reconcile the idea of the God who is Love with the reality of pain and suffering that we observe all around us day to day. In my experience, such honesty is rare in a Christian book written for a “popular” audience. Yet, even as he confronts head on the brutal reality in which we live, Brad refuses to let go of his core thesis that God really is like Jesus – that is, he is not only sympathetic to our plight, but is deeply and personally involved in it alongside us.
In the title of third and final part of the book, Brad coins a new and delightful word that I hadn’t previously come across: “Unwrathing God”. The prevalence of the notion of God’s wrath throughout both testaments of scripture is deeply problematic to many Christians who would sincerely like to believe that God is as compassionate and forgiving as Jesus on the cross, but who can’t ignore the frequency with which this word is mentioned. Well, there’s no need to ignore it: the author sets himself the seemingly impossible task of keeping hold of the perceptible fact of wrath as referenced throughout scripture, while at the same time remaining utterly committed to the truth of the Christlike God who chose to submit to humanity’s wrath, at the cost of his own lifeblood, rather than exercise any proactive wrath of his own.
A More Christlike God is that rarest of things: a deeply theological book that an average reader can comfortably absorb without feeling at all intimated. The combination of theological sources old and new and Brad’s own exegesis and pastoral experience makes this a book that is easy to relate to, wherever you happen to be on the theological spectrum. The use of in-page callouts to define important and potentially problematic terms is a particularly nice touch. And, as I said in my review of Brad’s book Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, Brad has a gift for making compelling, hard-to-ignore points without once slipping into dogmatism. You will come away from this book with the feeling not that you have been lectured, but rather that you have just finished a richly engaging and personal conversation.
A More Christlike God is due to be released in early May. It is available to order here, and will be available via Amazon on or around 7 May.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Every Single Thing Anne Lamott Knows by David Zahl

Perhaps you’ve seen Anne Lamott’s Facebook post that went viral over the weekend, in which she lists “every single thing she knows” (which turns out to be fifteen things)? If not, do yourself a favor. Filled with characteristic wit and wisdom, not to mention memorable turns of phrase, it’s a crash course in effective communication, especially in regards to Christianity. It’s enough to make a person wonder: why is it that so many of the most compelling religious voices these days belong to women in recovery? It’s almost uncanny. Whatever the reason, I say bring it on. A few highlights being:
There is almost nothing outside of you that will help in any kind of lasting way, unless you are waiting for an organ. You can’t buy, achieve or date it. This is the most horrible truth… Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared, even the people who seem to have it more or less together. They are much more like you than you would believe. So try not to compare your insides to their outsides. Also, you can’t save, fix or rescue any of them, or get any of them sober…

CLICK HERE to continue reading 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Are We Actually Alienated from God ... or Is It All in Your Head? Brad Jersak

For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight (Col. 1:19-22).
The following rather brilliant question arrived today from a friend of mine, and after giving it some thought, felt it was worth sharing with our CWRblog readers.

Alienated from God? Col. 1:21

Q: Does this statement hold theological weight?  "The greatest lie ever disseminated is that we are alienated from God." As in, we think are alienated from God (“in our minds” – Col. 1:21), but we really are not and have never been. 

A: Let me preface it by saying that one's theology determines the translation of the passage. So, for example, the NLT translation of Col. 1:21 see it this way: your sinful thoughts and actions have in fact alienated you from God. But the King James Version (surprise!) of Col. 1:21 reads much more like what you suggest. The alienation is in your head. I think that's how my friend Steve McVey might preach it and in some ways, that's what I'm suggesting in The Gospel in Chairs (and in A More Christlike God).

However, I think the answer must be yes and no, because alienation can be unilateral ... that is, even if God does not alienate himself from me, I can somehow alienate myself from him. Or in the language of 2 Cor. 5:19, although God did not need to be reconciled from me, I needed to be reconciled to him.

This is the story of the prodigal son. In his mind and in his actions, you see him alienating himself from the Father's house, but you never see the Father alienating him. The problem is that even an imagined alienation somehow becomes our reality in his life. He's really living in the pigpen; he's really cut off communication with the Father. And it gets worse.

We might say that 'the wrath of God' is a metaphor for God giving us over to our willful alienation from him. He doesn't lock the son in the house or strap him to a gurney. He lets him go experience the alienation. But he doesn't actively alienate him. He doesn't kick him out of the house. He waits and welcomes the son out of the self-imposed alienation.

But you can imagine this alienation in the son's head and how he might even tell the story as he's whining to others. How the Father somehow screwed him over. Or perhaps how the Father must now really hate him. How 'I could never go back there.' And when he musters up the courage to return, he assumes the father-son relationship has been broken. And that's the lie.

The older brother, too, experiences the alienation in his mind in that he self-imposes a slave-relationship to the Father. Another huge lie that leads him to drivenness, self-righteousness and a need to convince others (even God) that they are alienated too. How very ‘Evangelical’ of him. What a horrendous lie!

But while we are acting out this alienation (as powerless, as sinners, as enemies – Rom. 5:6, 8, 10), Christ demonstrated clearly that God has not alienated us. At the Cross (before we repent, before we believe) he has already reconciled us (‘brought us back’). He forgives and welcomes us home. So, part of repentance is coming to our senses about the imagined alienation so that we will stop living it as real.

Finally, we might need to reimagine the Adam and Eve story. Their imagined alienation sent them hiding in shame and clothing themselves with fig leaves. But there also seems to be a real alienation when they are sent from Paradise. And yet ... it appears this is alienation from Eden, not from God, since God apparently goes with them, continues to interact with them and care for them – even murderous Cain, before and after killing his brother.

In other words, our imagined alienation from God (Adam’s, Eve’s and mine) leads us to a fallen mode of being (in fact), while at the same time, God himself accompanies us beyond the Garden and lives among us in our brokenness. This is good news and becomes the best news, when the New Adam, Jesus Christ, comes to live with us in the flesh and provides the way back to Paradise and the Tree of Life (i.e. the Cross).

Monday, April 6, 2015

Easter Monday - Brian Zahnd

The risen Christ did not merely come back from the dead

The risen Christ is not one who has come back from the dead. The risen Christ is the One who has gone through death and opened the door to the new world beyond death.
The risen Christ is not one who has wrestled free from the clutches of death to return to the land over which death still holds sway. The risen Christ is the One who has passed all the way through the black hole of Hades into the world of light and life where death cannot go.
Lazarus is a man who came back from the dead…only to die again. Christ is not a mere survivor of Sheol. Christ is the Conqueror of Sheol who has trampled down death by death.
Christ was raised on the third day. Lazarus on the fourth. But that doesn’t mean Lazarus is one up on Christ. Oh, no! Lazarus merely came back from the grave…but still a subject to the tyranny of death. Christ went all the way through the grave…and emerged as the Vanquisher of death.

To be baptized into Christ is to follow Christ into New Creation.
To feed upon the bread and wine of the Eucharist is to ingest Eternal Life.
To belong to Christ is to belong to the Age to Come.
Our task now is to seek to embody and enact that which belongs to the Age to Come.

CLICK to see how!

The Ministry of Death OR the Ministry of Life - Greg Albrecht

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? 
—2 Corinthians 3:6-8

Waking Up in Church to Religious Striving

He looked at me and said, "It happened while I was in church. It was the end of the service, everyone was standing, and so was I. I was doing the same religious thing that everybody else was doing, the same religious thing I had done for over 25 years. My family was there. My mother was there. It was the same place we always went. We did the things they told us we should. The sermons usually either scolded us or berated us. 

"That week the sermon had been another 'you're not good enough' sermon. After the sermon, during the final prayer, the thought hit me, 'You know. This is ludicrous. I am never going to be good enough. I've been trying to do all this stuff for 25 years. I have been trying to get better. I've been trying to do more and more and more, but something is just not working.' 

"I realized that I had sat there in church hundreds of times, filled with guilt and shame as a result of the sermon, and every time I resolved that I would do better. Each time I determined to do a bunch of stuff that I really believed would make God happier. For all those years I really thought I could influence how God thought about me. All those years I thought it was all about me and what I did or did not do."

CLICK HERE if this feels familiar!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Gospel According to John Wayne - Jim Forest

One of the unique aspects of being human is the role stories play in our lives and have played as far back as the human story is told. Stories inspire, enlighten, connect, delight, warn, admonish and surprise. We need them with an urgency that resembles hunger. Not merely entertainment, stories can save lives or turn us into killers.

In 1955, when I was thirteen, I went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to see a photo exhibition that has haunted me ever since. Its theme was “The Family of Man.” The curator, Edward Steichen, brought together a vast sequence of photos that not only asserted but demonstrated that, for all the diversity of culture, skin color, local economy and development, varieties of religion and differences of clothing, we are indeed one human family bound together in love, pain, labor, awe, anger, gratitude and death. I bought the exhibition book and have hung onto it through many moves, returning to it ever since as if it were a Bible without words. Taken as a whole, the collection has as its golden thread the radical us-ness of being. It helped me understand that beneath our separateness is our unity. It’s about the “our” in the Our Father.

Among the images that I especially love is one of an old African storyteller in a fire-illuminated hut. We see him at the top of a circle of young people, boy and girls who are listening to the old man with absolute attention and wonder. The storyteller’s eyes are wide open, his mouth a perfect O, his eyebrows arched high into his forehead, his hands raised above his head, all ten fingers outstretched. If he were telling the story of Jesus’s life, this might be the moment when the disciples discover the empty tomb.

And Death Was Embittered - Caleb Miller

Imagine the devastation the followers of Jesus must've felt the day after they laid his body in the grave. No hope that tomorrow would bring anything to calm their grief. No hope that they would see Jesus again. No hope that Rome would ever be defeated. No hope that love would win the day. Jesus' mother was likely unconsolable, no parent wants to bury their own child. 
The miracles? Memories. 
The sermons? Silent.

I'm sure their minds traced back and forth, I doubt anyone got any sleep, and I'm sure nobody was smiling. 
Except Jesus.
In the midst of the sadness and pain of loss, Jesus was laying waste to the gates of hades. His descent into hades signifies to us that there is nowhere he won't go to be with us, to reach us, to save us. 
The text really doesn't tell us that Jesus descended "into flames" or "into fire", because hades isn't a place of burning in mythology. It was a place of darkness, where all souls go post mortem. It was a place of fear and trembling, where the souls of the ages eagerly awaited the King of Glory. 
"The light shines in the darkness".
The light of the world sent to the darkest place the world "knew" existed? What darkness can stand in that presence? "Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess" just might be historical commentary as well as eschatological prophecy, as Jesus was preaching to the souls gone before. In the darkness of humanity's rage and self deceit, the man of sorrows, the lover of our souls began to preach.
And what do we think he preached?

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Jesus Died for Us ... Not for God - Brian Zahnd

“You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” –The Apostle Peter, Acts 3:15

Golgotha is where the great crimes of humanity — pride, rivalry, blame, violence, domination, war, and empire — are dragged into the searing light of divine judgment. At Golgotha we see the system of human organization that we blithely call “civilization” for what it is: an axis of power enforced by violence so corrupt that it is capable of murdering God in the name of what we call truth, justice, and liberty.

Golgotha is also the place where the love of God achieves its greatest expression. As Jesus is lynched in the name of religious truth and imperial justice he expresses the heart of God as he pleads for the pardon of his executioners. At the cross we discover that the God revealed in Christ would rather die in the name of love than kill in the name of freedom. Our savior is Jesus Christ, not William Wallace.

The cross is both hideous and glorious, simultaneously ugly and beautiful. It’s as hideous as human sin and as glorious as divine love. It is a collision of sin and grace. But it is not a contest of equals. In the end love and beauty win. We call it Easter.

What the cross is not is a quid pro quo where God agrees to forgive upon receipt of his Son’s murder. What the cross is not is an economic transaction whereby God gains the capital to forgive. These legal and fiscal models for understanding the cross simply will not do.

Jesus does not save us from God, Jesus reveals God as savior. What is revealed on Good Friday is not a monstrous deity requiring a virgin to be thrown into a volcano or a firstborn son to be nailed to a tree. What is revealed on Good Friday is the depths of human depravity and the greater depths of God’s love.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What dooe the Cross reveal? - Caleb Miller

The cross of Christ is much more than just a horrendous method of torturing someone. The cross reveals to us the heart of humanity, rather than the heart of the Father. The cross gives us a picture each and every year of the depths of human depravity and violence. 
For the life of me, I cannot make sense of any atonement theory that says the Father punished Jesus, emptied his wrath upon Jesus, used Jesus as a cosmic go-between to save people from the fury and anger of the divine dungeon master or any variation thereof. That is extremely basic faith. The church fathers didn’t propose PSA1 as a view on the atonement because it laid waste to the Trinity. We’re so inundated with modernity though, we have no idea why. 
To propose that the Father turned his back on the son, poured out his wrath on the son, or otherwise judged him for our various actions (except other religions and gayness, Jesus didn’t include those in his death) we say that there was a moment when Father and Son were not “of the same being, of the same substance”. They become a cosmic good cop, bad cop with Jesus becoming the happy hippy arm of the furious old man in the sky. 
Never mind that Paul said “God was IN CHRIST reconciling the world unto himself”. Sort of hard to forsake or “turn on” someone you’re in.