Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Surrender (Page 3 of 3)

The plank in my eye

Plank in your own eyeI just finished watching the movie Tsotsi with my wife. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t give away too much except to say that it’s a story of redemption. It’s the story of a young man who lives in a shanty town in South Africa whose life is changed after he carjacks someone and takes off in the car only to find a baby in the back seat.

This movie got me thinking about the reasons people do what they do to survive when they are living tough. It is always the poor who get a rough deal, who are blamed for being lazy or good-for-nothing. But it is also those same people who are going through the most incredible hardships. That is not to condone their destructive behaviour, but it definitely is to understand it. There is a huge difference. The ones who really should be criticised are those with a comfortable lifestyle who commit white-collar crime. But they can always afford the best lawyers and so get off more easily.

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What if there were no consequences?

If there were no consequences whatsoever for any destructive behaviour you engaged in, would you want to engage in it? Someone asked me that question once, and its profundity has caused me to think long and hard. If there were no consequences for cheating on my wife, for stealing what wasn’t mine, for taking credit when I didn’t deserve it, would I do it?

The issue here is, where is my heart at? How captive am I to that which enslaves me? Many years ago Gil Cann said in a sermon that when we think of our inner life, the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. At the end of the day, what we all need is a heart transformation. As U2 sang even more years ago, “a new heart is what I need. Oh God, make it bleed!”

Where is my heart at? Do I want what is right simply because it is right? With God’s help, yes I do. But as Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, there is a line that divides the good and evil in every human heart. In our heart of hearts there is a desire to do good which sits alongside a desire to get whatever we can for ourselves. A heart that is being redeemed by grace is one which wants to become more like Christ, that just wants to do the right thing. It is a heart that is sick of its own selfishness and deception, a heart that confesses it is in need of grace, a heart that cries out for renewal.

The human heart needs transformation, and it can only be done by the Holy Spirit. Social justice can’t do it, simply reading the Bible can’t do it, and listening to your favourite preacher or reading your favourite Christian books won’t do it. Only a heart open to the conviction of the Holy Spirit of God is one that will change.

Part of the way the world is set up is that there are consequences for our actions. There are good consequences or there are destructive consequences. We reap what we sow. It cannot be any other way. There are some things we just need to accept in life, and this is one of them.

But not only is this the way life works, it is the wonderful truth of the Christian message. There are consequences that go beyond what we experience in this life, but at the same time those consequences are utterly dependent on our actions in this life. The kingdom of God has broken into history and will one day be fully consummated. Things will one day be finally put to rights. There will be a day when the first will be last and the last will be first, when those who constantly suffer now because of injustice will at last get to see justice, when those who are downtrodden will be downtrodden no more. All the suffering that goes on in the world today is not meaningless; it is in fact redemptive. It will be used for good and it drives us toward hope, the sure hope that one day everything will be put to rights and suffering will be no more.

So, in one sense, the question of whether or not my behaviour would change if there were no consequences is a moot one. The fact is there are consequences and we can’t do anything to avoid the fact. It is a bit like asking what life would be like if there were no gravity on the earth. Our existence just isn’t like that.

Yet on the other hand the question is highly relevant, because it is a question that quite literally speaks to our ultimate motivations for doing the things we do in life. It is a question that asks where our hearts are at. Are we altruistic because it makes us look good and holy in front of our Christian brothers and sisters? Or are we altruistic because we really want to glorify God and see his kingdom of love and transformation come on earth as it is in heaven? Truth be told, we spend most of our lives hovering between both. I know I do. As I continue on this journey of life though, I am also more convinced that living a life daily surrendered to the God of Jesus Christ is the only way to find the sense of home that our restless hearts yearn for.

When we think of the secret thoughts that we have, or even the secret actions that we might engage in, what do we think of the consequences? What do you do with those secret thoughts you have that you are too ashamed to admit? For us men it is said that all of us are faced with the temptation at some point in our lives to run away from everything. Women may have similar dark thoughts. The problem is not so much that we have them, but how we deal with them. This is where it is crucial to have a person or people in our lives with whom we can share our darkest thoughts without shame, with the knowledge that we will still be accepted for who we are, and to know that such thoughts and desires can be redeemed.

My heart needs redeeming every day. It needs desperately to be brought in line with the heart of God. I am sometimes tempted to live like there are no consequences to my actions. But when I am deceived by such thoughts, it is then that I need to be reminded of the transforming love of God in Jesus to change me from the inside out, to create in me a clean heart and renew within me a right spirit. God help me to live such a surrendered life.

The line that runs through us all

Not long ago I believed that the root of our problems in life stem partly from the fact that we don’t really believe we’re loved, that if we had a sense of who we are as people loved by the Creator of the universe, it would revolutionise our hearts. And I still believe that. Love does indeed revolutionise our hearts. Martin Luther King was right. Love is the most powerful force in the universe, and only love can drive out the self-loathing in our hearts.

When you know you are loved you want to do good – most of the time. But having said the above, I also see now the reality of human sinfulness. Listening to U2’s The First Time recently, I realised (for the first time!) how much I can relate to it. Years ago, having tasted that the Lord is good, I then went off and did things my own way again. I “left by the back door and threw away the key” as the song goes. I used to struggle with how anyone could know the love of God so deeply and then reject it. But of course it’s possible. How could I be so naive to be so surprised that it happens?

There are deep reasons in the human psyche as to why we make certain decisions in life. There are reasons of hurt and deep abuse in many people that cause them to be unable to trust at depth, even when shown the greatest love. When shown such great love, they believe it is too good to be true. Like St Peter of old when Jesus gave him and his mates a bountiful catch of fish, the great apostle – confronted by the unbelievable generosity of a God who gives without conditions – cannot face the good news that God would choose even him. Doesn’t he know how sinful I am? In Peter’s broken mind it is too good to be true. At that moment he coudn’t believe that He was loved that much, that he was thought of that highly.

But as much as we are victims we are also agents. Having made the courageous decision to follow Jesus and come to know a life and love beyond his wildest comprehension, he then deserts his Master at the hour of his greatest need. Peter is a man I can relate to. He showed the potential for the greatest devotion and yet also showed the greatest act of cowardice. How could this be so in one man? I think Alexander Solzhenitsyn nails it better than anyone I know of:

“the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhlemed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.”

How I can relate to that. Deep in my heart there is the propensity for both the greatest evil and the greatest good. For me, this highlights even more the importance of maintaining a spiritual life of closeness to Jesus, of passion to be Christlike. I have seen the consequences of destructive choices I have made and I don’t want to go there again. Yet at the same time, those same things still tempt me.

I have found that the more I surrender my will to God, the more I become the person I really want to be. If I don’t surrender, I will hover between the good and the evil, and I will find myself tormented by that eternal question, ‘who am I?’ Am I the person who is friendly and genuinely wants to do good, or am I the person who secretly wants to use people and take what I can get regardless of the consequences? The closer I stay to God, the more I am spared the torture of that hellish question. Thankfully, the lyrics of The First Time hold true:

I have a brother
When I’m a brother in need
I spend my whole time running
He spends his running after me

This is the prodigal God. We spend our lives running from Him, and he pursues us, the Hound of Heaven in hot pursuit. And little by little we can surrender and say we’ve had enough. We run up the white flag and submit to the One who gives us life. Little by little, if we are willing, He reveals our defects to us, and little by precious little we hand it over for Him to do with it as He wills. Jesus said “come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28). God how I need that. God how I want that today. I pray that tomorrow I will as well.

Plugging into life

In a day when everyone is connected, there is more evidence that we are actually more disconnected than ever. Our greatest human need is for a different kind of connection – connection with the other, but most importantly, connection with the Other. Star-struck lovers gaze into each other’s eyes, longing to be one with each other; in our Western culture, when we engage in conversation, we know when someone is listening when they are looking into our eyes; and when you want someone’s attention, you try to find eye contact. Richard Rohr also talks about a connection with animals. It is not for nothing that we call a dog our best friend. Many elderly people live much healthier lives for having a dog as a companion in their lives. Rohr talks about looking into the eyes of an animal like a dog and sensing a connection with another creature of the universe.

Much of our behaviour, in fact I would probably argue all of it, is a symptom of our desire for connection. Whether our behaviour be good or evil, it is all about our desire to find life, to transcend the purely physical part of our existence. Years ago, John Smith emphasised that the Rolling Stones song Satisfaction was not about sex and trying to ‘get some girly action’ at all, but about a frustration at not finding something deeper. U2 sang about not having found what they were looking for – in their own lives and in the injustice in the world – despite ‘believing in the kingdom come’. Believers in God or not, we long for something more. Our lives are about trying to find a connection with something higher, something greater than ourselves. And the fact is we will never find it fully until that day when all things are renewed and there will be no more striving after futile things. We look through a glass darkly; now we know in part; then we shall know fully, even as we are fully known (1 Cor 13:12).

Our problem with our desire for connection though is that we often do it by trying to find our self in someone else. We get married believing that our spouse is there to fulfill all our emotional needs, and when he or she doesn’t, we get disillusioned and look elsewhere. The next relationship is sure to fail as well until we come to realise that it is not about finding the right person but being the right person. I am so thankful for an older male pointing this out to me back in my 20s. In our desire for love and connection, we go too far and use other people. Jonathan Burnside says ‘the essence of a perverted relationship is getting information about someone else, and then working out what I want to do, so I get what I want’. I am getting better at not doing this but I still do it way too often.

We are inherently selfish people. We live as if it is my way or the highway. We actually believe at times that if everyone would just do things my way the world would be a much better place. But this only leads to more disillusionment. It has been said that you only get disillusioned if you have illusions to begin with. How true is that? What disillusionment then gives birth to is resentment. Someone else has said that ‘expectation is the mother of resentment’. We expect someone else to behave in a certain way, and when they inevitably don’t, we get resentful at them. Who do we think we are? I have found that to be true time and time again in my life. You would think I would have learnt it enough by now that it would have sunk in. But no, when I have my own expectations of what I want to do on a particular weekend at home and my wife tells me her thoughts, that old feeling of resentment kicks in yet again.

The word ‘resent’ actually means to re-experience pain. A friend of mine has said that resentment is the poison I drink to kill someone else. When you think of what is going on when we are feeling resentment towards someone, it’s maddening isn’t it? We are actually choosing to go back and feel the pain of the anger again and again. Often the person we are feeling the resentment towards doesn’t even know about it. Yet we still have the attitude of ‘I’ll show them!’. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

The human desire for connection is a curious thing. We desire more than anything to be close to someone but at the same time we so often choose to lock ourselves away in isolation and separateness from the ones closest to us. Resentment is a classic way of doing this. The old saying that it is the ones we love the most who we hurt the most is as true as anything that has ever been uttered. The irony is that in trying to connect, we actually willingly disconnect, depriving the other person of ourselves. It is then that we are often tempted to misconnect with another in an inappropriate and destructive way. I talked about this in my previous post on affairs.

Our desire to connect is often masked as a desire to find happiness. Our society is built around the individual’s desire or even demand to be happy. Our advertising is specifically designed to create artificial desires in us to make us consume products we believe we actually need. How often do we wonder how we ever got by without mobile phones or without email. But the fact is we did, and quite nicely (don’t get me wrong; I am not knocking mobile phones or email. They are wonderful inventions, but, like anything, if relied upon inappropriately, they will inevitably disappoint). In trying to find happiness in life, we often seek connection in a misconnection. That which we think will solve all our problems actually turns out to make us feel more apart from and more isolated.

I wonder what all this says about what we really believe about life? When we choose a direction that is so clearly not constructive for our relationships, I wonder if the truth has ever made that longest of journeys from our head to our heart. It is possible to believe something intellectually, to ‘know’ it in your head, but not have a deep conviction about it. It is only when a truth is lodged deeply in our heart that we really know it. Deep down we all have a longing for relationship, ultimately a relationship with God. It is the essence of who we are. We are made by a God who is in his very being, relationship. That’s why coming to faith in Christ often feels like a coming home. When I had an experience of this in my late teens, my overriding sense was that this is what I’ve been looking for all my life. Not that I had often even been consciously aware of it. But when I found it, it was like one of those ‘a-ha’ moments when I had a realisation of something I had always known. It was a bit like the scene in Return of the Jedi when Luke Skywalker tells Leia that she is his sister, and she looks into the distance and quietly exclaims “I know. Somehow…I’ve always known.”

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does our soul. We simply cannot survive with our souls unplugged, just hanging out in the nothingness of a seemingly empty universe. Our human desire is to be plugged into life and love. When we love we have a clearer sense of what life is all about. It is then that we find what our souls have been looking for all our lives. It is then that we know joy, in humility and submission. It is about surrendering our ego, our arrogance, and our self-sufficiency. Augustine said that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Jesus bid those who are weary and heavy-laden to come to him and find rest for their souls. This is where we find life, in resting in him and finding out how to live right. When Martin Luther King asked a colleague on one of their freedom marches if she was tired, this old lady said calmly, “my feets is tired but my soul is rested.” She was plugged into life. She had found her true connection, and she was living the dream. God help me to do the same each day.

Running up the white flag

‘Surrender’ has been a dirty word since time immemorial. Ever since Adam defied God by refusing to continue to submit his life to the One who created him, we have a natural tendency to baulk at the idea of giving up control. The irony is though that giving up means gaining. We surrender to live.

Surrender is about pleasing God above all else. It is about having an attitude of not being rebellious at all, of not running life our own way, for that is defiance. Surrender comes out of a deep realisation that our own way of doing things has not been working. Countries surrender in war when they are forced to, and they realise the game is up. While God never forces us into surrender, we only do so when we realise the game is up with our lives and we choose to give up control and surrender our will to the Higher will.

The way of surrender is completely counter-cultural. In our individualistic society where we are told that we are the most important person in the world and we have to be in control of our lives, submission is weak; control means power. This is just the way it was 2,000 years ago when Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers. When they had all sorts of problems in their church community because of people coming in and questioning Paul’s authority, Paul reminded them that God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the strong, and the foolish things to confound the wise. He had to remind them that it was not about knowledge and power; it was about the ultimate paradox in their thinking – a crucified messiah. This was how God has overcome evil and death, and this is why it looks so ridiculous to everyone else. In fact it is ridiculous, when you look at it from the point of view of the prevailing culture. We even find it difficult in the church when we have constant talk of success, growth and slick worship – the main concerns for most pastors.

I wonder what Paul would say to the church of the 21st century. I reckon it would not be all that dissimilar to his first letter to the Corinthians. Life in Christ is about victory in defeat, submission and surrender to a God who dies, and a God who calls us to die as well. In our Western lives we will rarely, if ever, be called upon to literally put our lives on the line for our faith, but would we be willing to if it came to that? I shudder at the thought in my own life. I’m not sure I could do it. After all, Jesus said that greater love has no one than to lay down their life for their friends (Jn 15:13).

There is a sense in which I wonder if it is actually harder to be a Christian in the West than it is in places where life is a daily struggle. In the West we have so many distractions, so many enticements to live the easy life, whereas in other places, God is all they have. I have mentioned before, Tim Costello’s observation that when the tsunami ravaged parts of Asia in 2004, it was the people in the West who asked that great theological question of how you could believe in a God who would allow this to happen. The people who experienced the disaster firsthand though were asking a different question. They were asking how they could not believe in God for He was all they had left.

Surrender and submission are totally ludicrous concepts in a world of power and control. But take a look at what it has produced. Are not our conflicts primarily about power? Are they not about control of resources? Are not our relationship problems primarily about feeling like our needs are not being met or about losing control over our lives, be it financially or emotionally?

Please understand though that this is not about pleasing people necessarily. If you are like me and are a people-pleaser by nature, you will likely believe that submission and surrender to God is all about being nice to people. It is not. Loving someone does of course involve being nice, but it also might mean pressing charges against a husband who is physically abusing you. Christian psychologist Dan Allender reminds us that Jesus said we would be known by our love, not by our manners.

Surrender to God doesn’t always feel like surrender. Living the Way of Jesus, having your heart submitted totally to Him, having your will surrendered to Him, is swimming against the tide. It is swimming against the tide of popular opinion in our culture, and it is swimming against the tide of our own prevailing mindset (which of course is constantly being shaped by our culture). That’s why Paul’s advice in his letter to the Romans is so crucial: ‘do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but let yourselves be transformed by the renewing of your minds. And then you will understand His will – His good, pleasing and perfect will’ (Rom 12:2). Notice how Paul doesn’t say ‘transform yourselves’, but ‘let yourselves be transformed’, or simply, ‘be transformed’. It is about allowing God to work in your life. And God will not work in your life unless you let Him (some would say here that God is a gentleman in that sense. I’m not comfortable with that idea. For me it conjures up all sorts of images of God in a top hat and suit who is all about opening doors for ladies and helping old people across the road. Not that those things are not godly; they most definitely are, but God is much much bigger than that).

Becoming a ‘transformed non-conformist’, as Martin Luther King put it in his book Strength to Love, might not feel like you are surrendered to God. On starting out on this journey, you may be confused by your emotions. I experienced this when I was nineteen. I was going through a time when I was faced with the fact that my timidity and self-pity were not the way of the Jesus I wanted to follow. I was more of a boy than a young man. So over some months as I gradually opened myself more to God, I became more Christlike. But at the same time I felt like I was becoming less loving, and I couldn’t reconcile the two. I was being more assertive and learning to stand up more for what I believed in, because I was inspired by these aspects of Jesus’ character in the gospels. Passages where he told off the Pharisees and where he went through the temple and drove out the money-changers (Lk 19:45-46) moved me deeply. God became more real to me than He ever had been before or since. Passages like where Jesus says that ‘ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you’ (Matt 7:7), and ‘you will know the truth and the truth will set you free’ (Jn 8:32), and ‘if the Son will set you free you will be free indeed’ (Jn 8:36) all spoke to my experience of God at that time. It was truly something of a conversion experience. I had a knowing that this is what I had been looking for all my life. Suddenly I knew what Jesus meant in the above-mentioned passages about being free. But at the same time I felt like I was losing my love, and so I was confused. In my thinking I was becoming more Christlike but less loving. It didn’t make sense.

Pleasing people is about timidity and fear, but pleasing God is about joy. And interestingly it is about love and trust. Perfect love drives out all fear, and if we are confused about our emotions we need to trust the character of God and know that being more Christlike is being more loving, even though it might feel like the opposite to a people pleaser. It took me years to grasp that. I had to learn to trust God at a deeper level. And the more you trust God, the more you come to know that there is nothing that surpasses the joy of doing what is right and wanting to please God. That is where life lies.

All this is difficult, and it involves brokenness. It is only when we surrender ourselves in absolute brokenness to the Lover of our souls that He enters in and transforms us into something beautiful. It is said that God can only enter a heart that is broken. If our hearts are closed and there are no cracks, there is no opening for God to enter in. It is in running up the white flag in surrender, coming to the end of ourselves, that we are able to allow the amazing grace and love of God into our lives. Day by day, hour by hour, God can expel the selfishness that has us trapped on the purposeless treadmill of life, going ’round and ’round but going nowhere. Then can he transform us into people of the Way, living for love, living for the ways of the kingdom and its King. Truly living. Life in all its fullness.

Surrender and paradox

white flagRecently I’ve been thinking about how attractive the idea of surrender is to me. I wrote in a previous post how I seem to spend most of our lives clinging on to control when the fact is that I cannot do life on my own. Surrender is the way to freedom. The way to life is in giving up – giving up control and the idea that I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul, to quote William E. Henley.

I have no power to live life the way I want to live it, and so I submit to Christ in full surrender. But the more I realise that this is the way to life, the more I find myself resisting. For me, it is a matter of trust; trust that God really is good and that the life God wants for me is not too good to be true. Just like Peter who, when Jesus had just demonstrated the outrageous grace of God, could only say “go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8), I don’t believe I deserve the grace that God gives. And truth be told I don’t deserve it. No one does. But give it he does, and when I accept it, I enter into that life that is truly life, where I am free from having to perform, free from having to strive, where I am free.

Paul said “when I am weak then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). True Christianity never aligns itself with power. It always aligns itself with weakness, with failure, and with powerlessness. Richard Rohr, as usual, sums it up brilliantly:

When Christianity aligns itself with power (and the mindset of power) there’s simply very little room for the darkness of faith; that spacious place where God is actually able to form us.

So when we speak of paradox, I’m trying to open up that space where you can “fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31), because YOU are not in control. That is always the space of powerlessness, vulnerability, and letting go. Faith happens in that wonderful place, and hardly ever when we have all the power and can hold no paradoxes. Thus you see why faith will invariably be a minority and suspect position.

Surrender, faith, and paradox. The combination that gives the life that transforms our hearts, and then transforms the world.

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