|“A Harsh Gift”
An Open Letter to the Church
I, Eutychus, called out of sleep by our Lord, a servant and teacher, address this letter to all those who have “fallen asleep” and “are heavy laden”. The Grace and Life abundant, which are promised of our Lord, be to you all.
Our brother Paul has written to the believers at Ephesus, I wish to extend the same greeting to all of you:
I learned to be a teacher while in the US Army. There we were instructed to: “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna teach ‘em. Teach ‘em. Then tell ‘em what you taught ‘em.” So here it is:
Jesus has freed us from captivity and saved us from the ravening enemy. But now we must move forward through the wilderness; taking continuing steps. The problem with the Exodus Israelites was that they were never convinced that God's intentions were always and only for their best good. They second-guessed, underestimated, and misinterpreted nearly everything He did with and for them. Another way of looking at their unbelief is that they believed YHWH was no better than the Pharaoh/god they'd just escaped. They were convinced that “I Am” was capricious at best and probably malevolent. Since we have their example of believing God's goodness to be evil, we need to resolve this issue for ourselves. Like Pilot asked of truth, we must ask, “What is Good?”
Let's look first at the examples of three of the best known, successful New Testament transformations, Peter, Paul and Jesus. Yes, Jesus. In these three we see men of God who came to full reliance on the goodness of a loving Father and displayed a contentment and stability this affords.
Simon's reactions, while he walked with Jesus, were all over the map. If anyone needed discipline it was he.
yet Simon became Peter who lived out and then wrote:
Paul, whose conversion was so complete that his name changed immediately, tells us that:
Then there’s that disturbing assertion in Hebrews, concerning Jesus:
For my part I could stop right here and declare, “Selah!” I mean it’s all right here in these three sets of verses. These verses depict:
In this section of the Sermon on the Mount (found in both Matthew and Luke) Jesus breaks into the overall thought with a parable. I wonder if perhaps he noticed some adult taunting one of the children in the manner described. Perhaps teasing with a bait and switch tactic. Well He often used present events as fodder for discussion and correction. Look at His comments regarding good and evil.
The verb tense for ask, seek, knock, indicates that once begun we should keep on doing it. Kinda sounds like a Christmas list doesn’t it? Put it on your list and if you’ve been good and you're persis-tent you’ll get what ever it is. Certainly like Father Christmas, our Heavenly Father is looking for the opportunity to lavish good stuff on us, isn’t He? Is this how we are to envision God-our-supply, Jehovah Jireh? Well, whatever, Jesus drew the conclusion: if we being evil may still give good, it follows that He, being pure and holy, will give only good.
Let’s think on good and evil. After all it was the experience of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the first and only command in the Garden, which caused the confrontation and ultimate es-trangement between God and our original parents. God came to the garden for a daily visit; Man hid from and blamed God who'd given him the woman who, in her turn, blamed the serpent God had created.
Likewise, Jesus' parable deals with good and evil as relates to the nature of gifts requested and giv-en. The analogy indicates at least three perspectives from which the gift may be evaluated, giver, supplicant and observer. We recognize that, “how much more” describes the Father’s intentions. As I am responsible only for myself, the observer’s viewpoint is irrelevant. Being myopic I will observe through the lenses of need, desire and/or comfort-level. While sometimes our interpretations match God’s, more often they do not. I see what God gives me, and if it’s not exactly what I expect I react pronouncing it, “No Good!” Being subjective, I lay an interpretation on the gift based simply on how I react to it and name it evil. I fail to evaluate the gift’s actual nature or God’s intentions. I simply react. For example, God speaks to Jonah giving him a mission and a message and yet, his reaction is to run the opposite direction spawning tremendous harm vs. God’s message being delivered.
Our fore-sires while in the Garden of Eden, acted in full partnership with Father God in the accomplishment of His goals. Even Jesus set aside his wishes, “not my will”, so that the partnership goals, our reconciliation to the Father/Judge, might be accomplished. It is likely that my limited vision will cause me to see God’s gift as something other than, perhaps entirely opposite from, that which He may intend. Instead of God’s fish and loaf I’ll see a serpent and stone. Perhaps what I perceive as evil or bad may have been meant, designed, and provided by a loving God as good...in fact the best of all conceivable goods. Being a full partner, my reactions to God’s gifts fundamentally impact them. I may cause what God intends for good to become evil.
This was certainly true of my own mother and me. I interpreted her bossiness and need to control as unwillingness to recognize that I was no longer a child. It was the making of many an argument and hurt feelings...until I married. It took my new wife to point out that my mother, whose own mother had neglected and abused her, knew only the language of control. My wife caused me to see that my mother, in her language, was shouting her love as loudly as she could. Like learning a new language, I schooled myself to willfully reinterpret as love that which I continued to perceive as shrewish. My mother’s love no longer rejected, she learned new 'vocabulary' and it healed hurt feelings.
As we encounter persons and events we react and our feelings are revealed. All too often we are motivated by, and usually allow, our feelings to lead. Only rarely do we choose how we’ll respond. Yet, time and time again scripture commands us: “Choose this day … “ and “Reckon yourselves to be dead”.10 David goes so far as to instruct his soul, “Bless the LORD, O my soul. Praise the LORD!” 11
I have a friend who, when asked, “How are you doing?” often replied:
For Him, I know it was a choice. He was reporting how he was choosing to face his world as well as messing a little with the questioner's mind.
So, in honor of my friend and on the authority of scripture, I proclaim this message to you: “It’s all good!!” No matter how it may appear.
As Christians, scripture enjoins us:
So what is good? You may think, “Such a simplistic view can not be all the truth.” or “No person can be expected to do be thankful all the time!” After all “Everything can’t possibly mean every thing.” “Certainly these four verses can’t represent the entire council of God on the subject.” I mean ‘good’ can’t possibly include those tragedies which take the life of a young child or a beloved spouse or leave one maimed by an Iraqi I.E.D., can it? Are there actually different goods? Maybe it's that good has more than one meaning. Perhaps there’s an Old Testament and a New Testament good? May-be there's a when-I-feel-like-it good? We must live so how do we choose which to live by? Do we choose how to respond or merely react like a pool ball caroming off random bumpers?
How about from God’s perspective? Why does God act, what is His motivation? What is God after? What is His greatest concern for us? … Our comfort? … Our pleasure? … Our interests? … Our hopes? … Our fears? … Our health? … Our ministries? Well, what does scripture tell us?
Concerning the end of a God-initiated captivity in Babylon, Jeremiah prophetically proclaims: “I know the plans I have for you"--this is the LORD's declaration--"plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”16 Just what are these plans? Peter told us. We are to be, “partakers of the divine nature”17. Continuing from before creation this is God’s most passionate hope, His persistent and all-consuming goal, and that to which He has predestined18 each of His children. Even Satan knows this and persuaded Eve and Adam to sin, citing God’s goal for them (“your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as God, knowing good and evil” 19). What the Father desired for the first Adam He accomplished in the second, Jesus, and extends via reconciliation and adoption to you and me. And it’s for sure that God, “the Author & Finisher of our faith20” , has a plan to see it happen.
Should we expect a life of pure bliss and free of distress? We all get flat tires at the worst possible times. Like Job, we may suffer tremendous loss. We may enjoy Abraham’s success or find our-selves wandering a wilderness, perhaps even for years. We may know tremendous, abiding love like Isaac and Rebekah. Some will even experience death of ministries or separation from those valued most. We may even experience, like Jesus in Gethsemane, the deepest of agonies. But look up. Hope abounds! “God, He is good!”
When we take a peek into God's thinking; we glimpse God’s three-fold plan of action showing that we are to:
God is never passive. In Romans 8:28-29, Paul tells us “God causes all things to work together for good” (NASB). This verse shows that God considers every joy, heartache, spiritual insight, fleshly reaction, rock cast and each betrayal we experience as threads in the tapestry of our life depicting the image of His Son. The concept of God’s permissive will is, I believe, a misunderstanding. I fail to see any interaction with God in which He is not in charge or control. In fact, Paul goes on to say that God “predestined” us “decided from the outset to shape [our] lives” (MSG). Hence, we are never on our own, purposeless, or adrift. Nothing happens by accident and no event is outside His plan or thwarts His intentions for us, not even our own choices. I must also comment on consequences. All choices have them and God doesn’t always unscramble our broken eggs. This is not to say that our choices define God’s will. Rather, His foreknowledge and skill as The Master Chessman allow Him to build a plan that accounts for all possible choices and He’s realist enough to not pine over spilt milk. The moment we freely take a choice God adopts that choice as Plan A and He weaves it into His pattern for our good – our conformation to Jesus’ image.
God’s methodology: Later, in Romans 12:1-2, Paul reminds us that, as soon as we are reborn and adopted into the family of God, He sets about transforming what we value, converting the way we choose, washing out our minds, and releasing our very thoughts from bondage to this world’s system. This is the means by which we become the living proof of God’s “perfect” will, we become “a living and holy sacrifice”.
God’s ultimate goal: 2 Corinthians 3:18 shows us that through His fellowship, influence, teaching and discipline my life is: “being changed into his image with ever-increasing glory”. Or it could be said that my life, my Christian witness, like a mirror, reflects more and more perfectly His celestial image as He polishes the surface. Toward the accomplishment of this end everything He brings into my life and each decision I take is used as steel wool, gritted compounds, or jeweler’s polishing rouge. And, with each stroke, He removes imperfections and smoothes the reflective surface of my life so that others may clearly see Him. We possess no light of our own. He is the source of Light24 and Truth25 -- we reflect His light and image in a dark world.
God actively weaves every life experience, transforming each of our values to align with His, with the ultimate aim that we both resemble and reflect Him with increasing accuracy and brilliance.
Goodness and evil are theological terms and much debated. But as I see it theology must also be practical and applicable. Further, all genuine theology must find its roots in the nature of God. He is the standard against which all theology must be measured. If what you believe isn’t revealed in scripture as part of His nature, it’s dogma. Therefore, Good must be defined by His nature as revealed in His word, for “faith comes from listening, and listening comes through the word of Christ.” 26
Let's look at a color unique to God--Good. It’s the product of four pigments blended together on the Artist’s palette. These are: God's Nature, God's Intentions, Sources of Good/Evil, and Our On-going Salvation. We'll begin by examining three key elements of God’s nature which play into an under-standing of Good: Love, Faithfulness, and Wisdom.
1. Good is based in God’s nature: Love, Faithfulness, and Wisdom
We all know exactly what “God is love” means don’t we? After all it’s perfectly clear...God = love. Have we any doubt or uncertainty regarding the definition of love? OK shout it out! How do we, how does scripture define love?
Definition of Love: To choose to do what is best for all concerned, to actively seek the highest good, to value the needs and welfare of others equally with my or your own.
What does this mean with regards to God actions toward us? It means that His every thought, ac-tion, choice and gift can only be for our best: God who IS LOVE can do no other. He can’t play pranks on us. He won’t act out of vengeance. In fact, He extends mercy because it is the best of all possible choices. His challenge He is also moral judge and cannot capriciously ignore justice, it must be satisfied.
That God’s mercies are renewed every morning is one of the most hopeful thoughts of which I can conceive. But how can a loving Father practice mercy and also impartially administer justice. Perhaps the following parable will help us understand how our Abba pulled it off.
God demonstrates His love by daily renewing his outstretched, endless mercy. “…God commends His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” 38Jesus’ death and resurrection provided the means by which God might satisfy the requirements of both justice and mercy. God’s consuming passion is that our relationship with Him be vital and intimate producing trees of life that feed and restore others. It would be counterproductive were our Father to introduce poison into our experience for it would produce death rather than life. Here the “how much more” principle comes into play.
But, will His love prompt Him to prune our life’s branches? “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away. And every one that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bring forth more fruit.” 39 “In this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, so you shall be My disciples.” 40 But note: He removes those branches that are either unfruitful or already dead. Then, at the proper time, the remaining fruit must be thinned. Some fruit is removed and some allowed to become even more richly flavorful. In this instance love must make the hard choices to seek the highest good.
God’s commitment to our best good will energize Him to accomplish that which causes us to most resemble His Son. His Love motivates Him to keep at it until we master the lesson.
The verse in Exodus introduces God as “I Am”. The intention of this naming is that “I am already that which I ever shall be”. One of my teachers used to say that she was “leaning so heavily on God that should He ever move, she would fall on her face.” I was asked to pick which aspect of God’s nature is most important to me … faithfulness was my answer. I reasoned that if God, “I AM”, ever changed, even once in the slightest, it would mean that I could never again have reason to trust Him. Yes, faith always includes an element of leaping. Yet, that leap is never into the dark. He is the “Father of Lights” and we have reason to trust Him.
On the one hand, Faith is a gift from God that is expressed through us to a specific goal. This type activity of Faith is often characterized as miraculous. It is a specific gift aimed at a specific need. On the other hand, we walk in Faith daily as we walk with our hand in His. “Walking in the Spirit is no more than doing the next small thing God asks of you.”
In both cases a leap will be experienced. But a faith leap isn’t into the abyss. It is into the arms of our faithful Savior who “will not fail” “to a thousandth generation”. He is the reason behind faith. Obedience to His commands is the impetus for all faith. Faith can only be faith IF and WHEN it is in response to His commands. “Faith” that is not an act of obedience is presumption.
God's faithfulness informs us of several facts. Firstly, once He determines the course that is to be pursued, He will exert every force and use any tool in its accomplishment. He may unscramble our bad choices or allow us to experience their consequences. He may protect us from, or choose to lead us through, the results of choices made by others intent on our harm. No cost to whomever will be considered too dear. No matter how many times we must repeat a lesson He will never tire until we master it. Time has no meaning to our Father in His efforts to bring about our best good.
Henry, commenting on Romans 16:27, wrote, “He only is perfectly and infallibly wise; he only is originally wise, in and of himself”.
Of the three aspects of God’s nature we're discussing Wisdom is perhaps the most difficult component to understand and digest well enough to make it useful. In the Old Testament wisdom is often seen as evidence of one who is breathed upon by the Holy Spirit. Paul prays that, “the Father of the glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom.” 50 Webster’s defines wisdom as: discriminating between what is true and what is false; between what is fit and proper, and what is improper … Discrete and judicious in the use or applications of knowledge.
In short, Wisdom assesses the choices available and balances out the needs represented, determining the best good. Father God, through Jesus’ sacrificial accomplishments, is shown to be Wisdom’s fount. He alone was able to balance fully the needs of Justice and Mercy returning us to pre-fall intimacy.
If you care to, it would be worth your while to read and compare two sets of wisdom’s self-portraits: Proverbs. 8:12-36 and James 3:17.
The theology of Good, as God’s nature reveals it, is clear. Out-loving Father is deeply motivated to assure that the very best of all possible eventualities occur. His all-encompassing Wisdom informs Him of all the options available, then winnows them all determining the very best and loving course for me balanced against all the needs of all concerned. Every choice God makes concerning me is based on the outcome of this winnowing process. His Love then brings to bear a consistent and persistent God-sized force aimed at this one goal. And once thus engaged, His Faithfulness will not allow Him to relent or alter His course regardless of the time, cost, or pain required to bring it to fruition. Consider that JHWH prepared, plowed, planted and weeded the soil of Moses' life for eighty years prior to realizing forty fruitful harvest years, a two-for-one investment. How long has He invested in you?
Has God made an explicit commitment to any particular course of action? If so, how might His inten-tions affect our concept of what’s good and not? If it is true that Good is based in a loving, faithful, all-wise God's nature, then how may it be implemented if not by the plans and intentions this Good God has for us?
2. Good is defined and implemented by the intentions of our Good God and Him alone
Jeremiah, considered by many to be the Prophet of Captivity, makes it clear that God had ordained subjugation, dispossession, and captivity. Delightful imagery? But, Jeremiah also reveals God’s ultimate aim: seek, find, restore, and return. Each of God’s actions is always a considered element of an overall plan: A plan having “a future and a hope”, a plan centering on being “gathered” into His presence even when He may have seemed very distant, and a plan that takes the long view.
God’s long view may span generations or even millennia and cross national frontiers. Examine Ruth. Elimelech together with his wife, Naomi and two sons immigrate to Moab to avoid famine. There both sons find wives from local women. All three males die after 10 years, leaving three childless widows. Naomi expresses her brokenness, “No, my daughters, my life is much too bitter for you to share, because the LORD's hand has turned against me."52 Ruth alone determines to remain with Naomi and responds, “Do not persuade me to leave you or go back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you live, I will live; your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”53 These grieving widows return to Bethlehem, at the beginning of the harvest, where Naomi renames herself Mara, "Bitterness".54
Long story short, Ruth attracts the attention of a local farm owner, Boaz, who edges out a closer relative and redeems the plot of land owned by his deceased relative, Naomi’s husband. In so doing, he accepts the God-ordered responsibility to marry Ruth, continuing Elimelech’s line. Already we see a significant investment on God’s part. But this is only the beginning. To Boaz and Ruth is born Obed, who sired Jesse, who sired David, who became King. From David, through many generations, came both Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ earthly parents.55 The famine drove Naomi to Moab where she was to experience bitter grief. Was it a gift or a judgment? Was God justified in its presentation? Did He intend ill or good? If a gift, it certainly was a harsh gift.
From the nanosecond that God foreknew, He predestined – God's knowledge is perfect, without fault, error or lapse, and by its very nature, predetermines. The intervening millennia haven’t changed or altered His determination in any fashion. And more than simply allowing, He set about to cause, mold, force, and/or weave every element of our lives into a pattern that resembles Jesus’ image. The Father is enabled by our love for and trust in Him. He weaves the elements of our lives into a tapestry depicting the life of His Son. Any aspect of my life that I freely place in His hand, he is able to weave into the tapestry of His design. Those I hang onto He works around, but the flaw is apparent.
Imagine this picture: God sitting in front of a frame on which He’s weaving a tapestry. He’s in hea-ven while we observe from here. What does the Weaver see? God actively weaves each choice/event into a wholesome, beautiful pattern of His choosing. Which side of the work do we see? How might that appear to us? Coherent or random? Finished or dangling threads? Discernible, total mystery or even an image antithetical to God's intention? We have to trust in the Weaver’s skill and vantage point because, from our perspective, the pattern is, well … sketchy.
These verses may be properly interpreted in either or both of the following ways:
rejoicing + incessant prayer + thankfulness = Will of God
“this” (whatever you face) is the will of God. Therefore rejoice, pray, and give thanks.
Whichever interpretation is adopted, its fulfillment encourages the activities of the Holy Spirit, ulti-mately rendering one blameless, even until Jesus returns. Good = our becoming conformed to Je-sus image. But interpretation seems to be critical. Any two witnesses will make different reports of the same events. Consider Job and his wife:
Job’s wife saw God turning away from Job and the removal of His blessing, if not His outright cursing/judgment. And then she counseled him to give up, to “curse God and die.”
Job saw God being Sovereign and whatever He chooses to give as consistent with His nature and fully in concert with their relationship. And the end of the story God displays that his plans always include restoration and open acknowledgment.
Perhaps this is the proper time for an aside. Please note that even according to the Father’s testi-mony Job was a righteous man. Therefore the troubles he endured were in no way related to any sin, shortcoming, or wrongdoing. Obviously his faith was not the door through which Satan was able to attack him. Job’s troubles were God’s choosing and instigation. Therefore, when difficult times come our way, our first question must be, “What are you teaching or trying to accomplish through me, Lord?”
3. God is not the only actor on the world’s scene. What of the other sources of bad intentions?
Joseph is possibly the most striking example of God wrenching control of the evil others intend and using it for His ends. Joseph explicitly confirms that, “God knew your plans, brothers, and wove your evil intentions into His plans for the salvation and well being for many.” Not even the harm others intend is outside the good that God will always bring to fruition.
These verses reveal a clear pattern in both the Old and the New Testament:
4. Good is demonstrated through our on-going conversion
Perfect love is that love which is fully equipped and prepared, enabling the beloved to know that he/she is always accepted, in all conditions sought, and never forsaken under any condition. Love breeds trust as surely as expectation of punishment breeds fear.
But what do we do with Peter or Paul? They seem to indicate that fear, effort, and suffering are re-quired for love’s perfection.
We have been endowed with “all things that pertain to life and godliness”. We may liken this to having been endowed with the Father’s Spiritual DNA (SDNA). Like a newborn baby, we possess all God’s SDNA. He chooses which elements, when, and by which triggers they become activated. Then the Holy Spirit establishes a training program that educates us in the use of these newly activated abilities, disciplining and strengthening us in their use.
Peter continues, describing a ladder of sorts. One climbs from Faith Virtue (moral excellence) Knowledge Self Control (temperance, alert discipline) Steadfastness (perseverance, endurance, passionate patience) Godliness Brotherly Affection Love which process prevents one from being ineffective or unfruitful.
Then Paul forces us to deal with the degree to which Jesus’ humanity made him dependant upon the activity of the Holy Spirit.
And the writer of Hebrews disturbs us with the assertion that Jesus’ suffering was the Master’s teaching tool, instructing Jesus in obedience.
Jesus, while here on earth, learned. These verses clearly confirm that He did learn and that this training was occasioned through that which He suffered. Suffering is never quick and usually in-volves multiple occurrences. In fact Paul lists longsuffering as a fruit of the Spirit.75 Once again a process is required to accomplish God’s intentions for us as testified to by His own son’s willing-ness to undergo suffering even though He asked to be released.
Ultimately we see: God’s Faithfulness won’t allow Him to rest until He has accomplished what His Love and Wisdom have determined is best for us. Moreover, the Father shows Himself re-morseless and relentless with regards to its accomplishment. In His economy there is no price too high for Him or us to pay. In fact He instructs us to “count it all joy”. 76
Romantically, we may cling to the notion that good is only and always warm, fuzzy and comfortable and that certainly a loving Father would only want such for His kids. Conversely, evil must be the opposite, cold, prickly and painful, and so we reject the notion that God would choose any of them as gifts for us. But He is sovereign (He answers to no one) and He declares, “your ways are not My ways” 77, so how He defines a thing is likely not to coincide with how we might describe it.
Then there’s the fact that we sought for and accepted His gift of salvation. In doing so, we willingly acknowledged His Lordship over our individual lives. So His definition is the one that matters! It is the one we must live by. In fact, He, Himself, is what matters. It is in his very person and character that we find Good. God testifies that, “He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the sons of Israel.” 78 The children of Israel refused to get beyond the surface of God's character and as a result they were always “tossed about by every wind of doctrine”.79 They never learned to love Him, their devotion was always prefaced and determined by what He could do or had done for them, as they perceived it.
We have taken the concept of Good and searched across scripture to find what God might tell us about it. It is said that scripture is its own best interpreter. I have attempted to cast a wide net across scripture so that we might rest comfortably in the broadest of possible interpretations. What do I ex-pect you to have learned here?