Easter Fools

It is a two weeks until Easter. This year Easter falls on April Fools’ Day, and all of the atheists and skeptics fall on the ground laughing. Rightly they should. Indeed, more Christians ought to do the same. There is something supremely absurd about Easter. It is the absurdity of saying that the world was created twice, exactly what Christians say that Easter is about. We are fools to believe it. And yet, God’s absurdity beats all of our reasonableness, and “the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom.”

In a real sense, Easter is God’s greatest joke. The resurrection of Jesus is the uproarious laughter of God that rolls away stones and knocks guards to the ground. In folk religions devils are tricksters, but in Christianity God one-upped them all. For there is something incredibly amusing about the way the resurrection played out. It was a joke at Satan’s expense, for one. The hosts of hell were undoubtedly thrilled at their major victory. The Messiah, God’s Son, was dead. Israel was doomed to curse and and endless spiritual exile. The Gentiles would never even hear of hope. No doubt that, as dawn approached that Sunday morning, demons danced and leprechauns laughed.

It was also a joke at the Jewish leaders’ expense. The smug compromisers were undoubtedly relieved when they awoke. The rabble-rousing Rabbi was defeated. They no longer had anything to fear from a heretical, imposter Messiah. Things could go back to the way they were, the same people in charge with the same old dreams for Israel’s future.

Even the disciples were ready to become a joke. Their situation is more ironic than anyone else’s because they had been told that Jesus was to return. Yet instead they were in shock, thinking about how to return to a previous life, dealing with the collective disappointment that either God had abandoned His Chosen or that they had been wrong all along.

Meanwhile, God was snickering from His throne. The time had come to raise Jesus from the dead. So He did. Satan’s hordes were in a nightmare as dark as their souls, the Jewish leaders found their wrongful victory righted, and the disciples all became fools for their obtuseness. But out of them all, only the disciples could laugh at the joke. They were fools, but they were happy fools, fooled by God with the miracle of a new creation and a new covenant. The most impossible absurdity had happened—the great resurrection began early with a crucified Messiah!—but it was the absurdity of God. So they spent the rest of their lives retelling the divine joke, sharing it with everyone who would listen. They didn’t expect everyone to believe it, foolishness as it is, but they loved it.

Even today, with Jesus’ resurrection being 2000 years old, the Good News still sounds foolish. In our scientific age, we are supposed to know that people don’t come back from the dead (the joke’s on us: the ancients knew that, too, probably better than we do). In our postmodern pessimism, no one really believes that there can be a new creation which actually rescues everything good from the old. In our modern optimism, it seems ridiculous that we even need a new creation to save us when progress is always on the march. For both the alt-right and the social justice left, the idea that all kinds of people could find new life in the resurrection of one particular man of one particular gender from one particular race and be formed into His one body is a fool’s fantasy.

But if the Gospel is foolishness, it is foolishness to those who are perishing. For we fools who believe, it is true wisdom. If the world laughs at us, God laughs first and last. So we revel in the life-giving laughter of God. And this means that we, too, can laugh this Easter.

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God actually does want you to be happy

The only worse teaching than “God just wants you to be happy” is “God doesn’t want you to be happy.” Of course, not that many people teach this specifically, but a number of people come close. Some of them do this by hammering in a more spiritual sounding point, something along the lines of “God is more interested in you being holy than being happy.” And, technically speaking, they’re right. If God had to pick between giving you a holiness boost and a happiness boost, I’m sure He’d pick holiness.

But the problem lies in the question itself, not so much in the answer. Or, to be clearer, asking whether God prefers your happiness or holiness more is already a bad way of putting things. It’s kind of like asking if my I would rather my son be happy or healthy. If I love him, I want both very much and would not wish to choose between them. But at the same time, a large part of the reason I want him healthy is because it will make him happy. A basic problem with unhealthiness is that is leads to unhappiness, or at least makes happiness all the more difficult. While I definitely wouldn’t mind making Nathan temporarily unhappy to make him healthy (I’ll get him his shots and medicine as needed), the point of that temporary unhappiness is so he can play happily later instead of being miserably ill. If the cure were worse than the disease in the long run, I’d probably pass it up.

What we tend to miss, then, is that holiness is a lot like health. In fact, holiness could be considered spiritual health. Health, after all, is when the various parts of our body work together in the right order and harmony. Holiness is when the various parts of our lives—thoughts, feelings, and actions—work together in the right order and harmony as defined by how God has made us to live.

This is why, for all our disagreements, I think John Piper is really getting at something important with his so-called “Christian Hedonism.” Piper is very right to say that there is nothing wrong with wanting or trying to be happy. Instead, what makes trying to be happy right or wrong is the way in which we do it. Sin may make us happy in the short term, but it causes misery in the end. Living by faith in Christ, on the other hand, may make us unhappy today as we take up our crosses, but it will turn out far for the best. And while Piper usually focuses on the eternal payoff, holy living pays off in the “short-long term” as well. Sexual restraint protects us from broken homes, broken hearts, and often broken bodies. Generosity and mercy build meaningful relationships and improve mental health. Getting wasted every weekend may be fun, but all too often leads to regrettable choices and mistakes that can never be undone. And this list can go on. Virtue is hard work and can involve suffering, but it makes a brighter life. Vice can be thrilling, but it quickly drags us into the lonely dark.

All of this comes back around to creation, to the subject of my last post. God made life to be lived and enjoyed. He smiles to see His children playing on the playground of the world. But He won’t—He can’t—tolerate sinful play. However much fun it may seem in the moment, it will ruin everyone’s day. This is the great sin. What God wants is to call His children in as the night falls to feast on bread and wine, with joy and laughter bought at the steep price of His true Son’s blood.

So, why make this point? Am I picking on words and phrases to be a pain or know-it-all? By no means! This is something that I believe causes serious trouble when forgotten. This is because everyone wants to be happy, and they feel that, in some way, it is right for them to look for happiness. And it is God who crafted their hearts with this desire. So when they hear it preached that God’s not concerned with their happiness, or if they only hear rules and “don’t’s” without a clear explanation of how God gives these commands because He truly does want their smile, it is far too easy to conclude that God is simply against joy and fun. They start to view God as a grumpy old man aggravated by seeing young people enjoy themselves. And I’m not talking hypothetically. This is something I have seen and heard myself.

Once this mistake is made, their God-given desire for happiness leads them away from the very unhappy picture of God they have developed. And while sinful pleasures aren’t as good for joy long-term as God is, they’re way better on any time scale than the Curmudgeon God who they have come to believe gave us Christianity. This becomes their excuse for sin. And sin will ruin their happiness, which God will not take lightly. God will not, of course, let them get away with their excuses, but we should be taking those away first with good theology. If we don’t, they won’t be the only ones having to give an account.

What we should be teaching, then, is not the technically correct answer to the misguided question of whether God prefers happiness or holiness. Instead, we ought to say, “Of course God wants you to be happy. But He knows better than you do what makes us happy. After all, He designed up. So let’s crack open the Bible and see what God has to say about what makes a happy life. You ask if partying will be involved? Let’s turn to Revelation 19:6-9…”

God wants you filled with jam

G. K. Chesterton had a way with words, a way with humor, and a way with Christian thinking. These qualities are what make the inspiration for the title of this post. It comes from his book, What’s Wrong with the World (a book which, according to Chesterton, is what’s wrong with literature). It opens with a partial answer: what is wrong is that we don’t know, care, or agree about what it would look like for things to be right. This leads to brief discussion about how efficiency, so prized in his day, for its own sake is meaningless. Doing things efficiently is only valuable inasmuch as what you are doing itself is valuable. Almost everything you can do will be efficient toward one goal but inefficient toward another. This brings him to the following:

Maeterlinck is as efficient in filling a man with strange spiritual tremors as Messrs. Crosse and Blackwell are in filling a man with jam. But it all depends on what you want to be filled with. Lord Rosebery, being a modern skeptic, probably prefers the spiritual tremors. I, being an orthodox Christian, prefer the jam.

If this doesn’t crack you up, my condolences. But while it’s obvious what makes the quote funny, it’s less obvious what he means. Why exactly would a Christian prefer jam to spiritual tremors? To put the question a different way, what’s so Christan about being filled with jam?

The connection between Jesus and jam may not be obvious, but it’s important. It goes all the way back to creation. It goes back to God’s choice to make our world, not just a world of ghostly spirit beings, but a world of real, tangible, images of God in fatty, bloody flesh.

When we think about creation, there are a lot of ways to talk about its point. What is the point of created life? We could say that it is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, but that’s not very specific. What does glorifying God mean and look like, anyway? Does that mean the point of life is an endless church service, praying and singing and doing sacraments? I’m sure that sounds right to someone, but why did God make such a big world if that was all that mattered? Some people accuse God of being boring because of church, but they forget that it was His idea to send us there only once a week. So what are the other six days for?

Maybe the other six days are for glorifying God, too. But again, what does that look like, if not church? It can’t simply mean reading our Bibles and praying, otherwise even (or especially?) the most spiritual people will struggle not to have a life of mostly filler.

So maybe the point of life means giving God thanks and praise in everything we do. This seems more likely, but more questions arise. Does this mean we’re missing the point whenever we do, well, anything without before and after offering a special prayer of thanksgiving and praise? I realize we’re all sinners, but… Is living life how God intended actually quite that, dare I say, tedious?

Chesterton recognized that it is not. He saw the secret to created life: God made it for living. He understood the old quote from Irenaeus, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” God is happy and glorified in all of our enjoyment of His creation, including the whole of our lives. God made this world and every part of our existence, and just like a father who builds a playground, He laughs to see His children playing. This doesn’t mean, of course, that He tolerates misbehavior or ingratitude, which unfortunately color so much of our lives. But even when we enjoy creation without gratitude, or when we live a happy life riddled with sin, the living and the enjoying are still good in themselves, just compromised and corrupted.

Right at the heart of Chesterton’s philosophy was this simple truth. God made life to be lived, lived in joy and gratitude rather than endless dour introspection or sanctimonious blessings on every last thing. We should always remember the Source of life, but the best way to honor Him to precisely to live the life He provides. So be filled with jam, do the work God has set out for you, love the people He has put in your life, and trust in Christ to sanctify the whole thing. We don’t go wrong by enjoying life too much, but by cutting our enjoyment short by poisoning pleasures with sin or ingratitude. So kill the sin, thank God, and live.

The God who retcons

If you’re a Millennial, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard the term “retcon” before. If you’re not a Millennial, or if you are for any other reason unacquainted with the word, it is short for “retroactive continuity.” What’s that? I could give a definition, but examples are easier. Probably one of the craziest examples is from last year. Captain America (in the comics) was revealed to be secretly on the side of the evil organization HYDRA which he had ostensibly spent years fighting. Obviously, for the first several decades of Cap’s existence, no one thought of him like that. The character wasn’t invented to be that. But suddenly, his backstory was drastically rewritten with a single comic. The old, settled meaning of hundreds of comics was transformed by this new declaration. They changed the past. Thus “retroactive continuity,” or “retcon.”

The cool thing about God is that He invented retconning, at least if you believe the Bible. This probably sounds strange, so you may want proof. Very well; I can provide it. I think we all remember Hagar, but if not, try reading this passage from ye Old Testament:

Abram’s wife Sarai had not borne any children for him, but she owned an Egyptian slave named Hagar. Sarai said to Abram, “Since the Lord has prevented me from bearing children, go to my slave; perhaps through her I can build a family.” And Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar, her Egyptian slave, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife for him. This happened after Abram had lived in the land of Canaan 10 years. He slept with Hagar, and she became pregnant. When she realized that she was pregnant, she treated her mistress with contempt.

Genesis 16:1-4

Pretty good move on Abraham’s part, right? He’s waiting for God to give him a son, as promised, and so when his wife (for whatever reason) suggests he use her slave for that purpose, he jumps on it. As we find later, the son he has through Hagar, Ishmael, ridicules Sarai’s son, Isaac, who was the true promised child, and Hagar’s life is ruined, and in the end Ishmael’s descendants hate Israel. The story reaches into the present day as the source of modern Israeli/Arab conflict. So, this little debacle is pretty much responsible for 9/11 and modern Middle Eastern terrorism more generally. Thanks, Father Abraham!

From our perspective, this looks like a catastrophic failure. Abraham was given a promise and told to wait, but he ran out of patience and faith. So he created chaos for everyone. Not quite the most honorable legacy.

Except that’s not how God remembers it. Let us turn to Romans 4, where Paul recalls Abraham’s story as the background for his teaching about justification by faith. Here’s how he describes Abraham’s faith:

He is the father of us all in God’s sight. As it is written: I have made you the father of many nations. He believed in God, who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist. He believed, hoping against hope, so that he became the father of many nations according to what had been spoken: So will your descendants be. He considered his own body to be already dead (since he was about 100 years old) and also considered the deadness of Sarah’s womb, without weakening in the faith. He did not waver in unbelief at God’s promise but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, because he was fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. Therefore, it was credited to him for righteousness.

Romans 4:16b-22 (emphasis mine)

See, when Abraham is remembered in the New Testament, nothing is said about him letting his faith or his patience slip up with Hagar. Instead, Paul says under inspiration that Abraham did not waver but was strengthened in faith. He was fully convinced of God’s promise. That seems strange to us, but it’s how the Bible sees it.

How do we understand this? Is there some kind of contradiction? Does Romans 4 pretend that Genesis 16 never happened? To steal a phrase from Paul, by no means! See, we don’t know Abraham’s psychology. We don’t know what made him think it was actually a good idea to impregnate his wife’s slave instead of waiting for Sarai to conceive. But we do know one thing: God remembered him as righteous, not unfaithful. Whatever this little episode was, it somehow fell into a story of Abraham as a hero of faith.

The same goes for other Bible characters with massive flaws and failures. David had Bathsheba, but he was gladly upheld as the ideal king who points to the Messiah. Moses was, for sin’s sake, barred from the Promised Land, but good luck finding a negative word about him in the New Testament. He’s called instead “faithful as a servant in all God’s household” (Heb. 3:5).

This isn’t just exaggerated hagiography, as though the later Bible writers felt embarrassed and wanted to brush over the flaws of their favorite forefathers. This is the divine retcon: when God takes the mixed and cracked lives of His saints and reworks them into something beautiful, something, well, righteous. God justifies us, declares us righteous, by faith, and in declaring us righteous, He makes our whole story a story of righteousness, even the gross parts. It is just another aspect of how God works all things for good.

So for us, even in our worst moments, we can know this: if we continue in faith, our story ends with “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” We may not feel good or faithful now, but God is writing the story, and He has given us a glorious sneak peek into the ending. Whatever happens in the meantime, He will fit it all into that ending. For the God who justifies the ungodly is the God who retcons.

Some say the eclipse means the apocalypse. Does it?

Jesus is nearly here! Or something. Whenever something like an eclipse (solar or lunar) happens, there are people who insist that it is connected to the book of Revelation, or to Jesus’ prophecies about the coming of the Son of Man. Divine judgment is imminent! Next thing you know the Church will be Raptured, and Jesus will split the eastern sky. Might they be right? Is the eclipse a sign that Jesus right around the corner?

No.

There is no particular biblical reason to believe that a random total solar eclipse (which happen in different places really every few years) is connected to the apocalypse. Some of the prophecies do mention the sun going dark, but this has happened thousands of times since Jesus left. The only way to make this eclipse special is to root through all sorts of obscure astronomical minutia to create patterns out of nowhere. It’s just an exercise in fantasy.

But!

That’s really not all there is to be said. While we have no reason to associate this eclipse with Jesus’ return, we do need to remember that creation is by nature always symbolic. The heavens never stop witnessing to God’s glory and work. There is biblical symbolism connected with the sun and with its darkening, and it applies as much today as it did in the days of the prophets.

Biblically, the sun symbolizes two related things. First, it symbolizes God, particularly His face. Here’s how I put it on Facebook the other day:

The sun represents the face of God. It is too glorious for us to behold directly, but it gives light to everything else. It warms the earth and is the source of all life on its surface. It sits in heaven, gazing down upon all people. It shines upon the just and the unjust, blessing both. Yet it also can scorch and burn, and we need some degree of protection and distance lest we be consumed. We can see it, and truly receive its light and heat, but it is removed from us by a great distance and is completely incomparable to us.

Second, the sun symbolizes the highest rulers and authorities, both in the spiritual and the physical realms. The sun represents kings, councils, emperors, and heavenly powers (think angels and demonic gods). This theme shows up all the time in the Psalms and the prophets. This is connected to the sun’s symbolism of God. Since God is the highest authority of all, He is represented by other high authorities. So the same sun which represents God also represents other rulers.

We see, then, eclipses in the Bible do symbolize divine judgment on a double level. On the divine level, when the sun goes dark, this symbolizes God hiding His face. God turns away, and instead of shining the earth in blessing, He puts the world in darkness. On the lesser level, when the sun goes dark, it symbolizes turmoil among the powers of the world. Rulers and authorities are put in chaos, and in the prophets this often resulted in a king, emperor, or dynasty being overthrown.

So what does this mean? Does an eclipse visible over the United States today prove that America is about to be judged in some way? It may not; biblical symbols are not always directly connected in time and space to what they represent. Natural symbols are often general reminders which do not point to specific events. That said, it’s not hard to imagine that the eclipse does represent a coming judgment on America, simply because we are obviously ripe for catastrophe. There is already loads of political, social, and military turmoil in our country. Trump, trans, racists, radicals, inequality, ISIS, Korea, killings, etc. have filled up the news with more tension than we’ve seen in several years. People on all sides of all issues have been at fault in all sorts of ways. Rare are the poor in spirit, the meek, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers, especially in the places where are most needed.

I’m not saying this proves that the eclipse foretells an impending catastrophic judgment on us. Symbolism is complex, and not all signs point to something nearby.

But let’s just say nothing which could appear in the news over the next year or two would surprise me. America is ready to fall apart, and none of us need to see an eclipse to know that.

Step outside and see the world biblically

A few weeks ago I read James B. Jordan’s book Through New Eyes, and it did indeed leave me with new eyes to see. The book is essentially a primer of biblical worldview. This is not, Jordan explains, the same as Christian worldview in a philosophical sense. Rather, it is about how the Bible portrays the world we live in, all on its own terms. This involved two main categories: symbolism and history.

As Jordan explains, the world is designed to reveal God and His glory. This isn’t a secondary function, or frosting on the cake of creation. It’s what the world is at its heart: a symbol of God. And every part of the world symbolizes God in its own way. Through New Eyes uses the Bible to show demonstrate how certain different parts of creation symbolize God, so that you can go outside and see, instead of just matter, a world on fire with the glory of God.

While Through New Eyes looks at lots of different symbolism, I just want to highlight here some of the stuff that stuck out to me the most and has had the largest impact on my own vision. So here are a few natural symbols in biblical perspective:

Sky
The sky is called “heaven/the heavens” in Scripture, and it’s not a coincidence that this word is also used for the realm of God and the angels. The two are not the same place, but the sky is the image of heaven. It is above us no matter where we are, symbolizing that God and His host are watching over everything. Being higher also symbolizes God’s authority. The sun symbolizes the face of God, which shines on the righteous and the unrighteous, giving light, heat, and glory to the world, yet also scorching and burning. The sun, the moon, and the stars together also symbolize the rulers and authorities in the world, both earthly and heavenly. The clouds also represent the weight and glory of God, along with His double-edged comings of blessing and judgment.
Trees
Trees represent people, as can be seen throughout the Bible, such as in Psalm 1. Trees and men both come from the earth, and both grow up toward the sky which represents heaven. Those which are healthy and well-watered flourish, creating shade and fruit as a blessing, just as the Christian is given new life when baptized by the Spirit, which leads him to a life of love and fruit which blesses others. Unhealthy trees represent the wicked, who are dry and lifeless and good for nothing but to be cut down and thrown into the fire. People tend to surround homes, apartments, schools, and other such places with trees, and these trees represent the intended flourishing of the people who populate those places. Trees also represent a ladder to heaven, reaching from the earth to the sky, something which men are meant to become by the Spirit.
Animals
All animals are designed to represent God in various ways. They variously represent strength, power, beauty, sight, or other things which God has in abundance. Most interestingly, the animals which were unclean represented death. This is because the curse of human death was bound up with the cursing of the ground and its dust.
Rocks and stones
The Bible calls God a “rock.” He is strong and hard and massive, and this has two edges. On the one hand, rocks represent the safety God gives to His people. In the cleft of a rock a man can find shelter and shade. On the other hand, rocks represent the danger God poses to unbelievers. Whoever falls upon the rock will be broken, and if the rock comes falling down, whoever is beneath it will be crushed. The rock of the kingdom of God grows into a mountain, which elevates God and His people, Christ and His Church, above the whole world. It will stand and never be shaken. Smaller stones, like rubies and diamonds and the like, represent by their inner glint God’s fire of purity and holiness, and His Holy Spirit. By their brilliance they represent the glory of God, the shining and luminescent aspect which beautifies Him and His world.

So go out, look at the world, and see God. He is behind it all, and it all is meant to be a picture of Him.

The rape of the princess

Just a thought for all of you guys out there.

Every woman is a miracle. She is handwoven of God, His walking and breathing image before you. She is His daughter, His bride, and His sculpture as He is her Father, her Groom, and her Moulder. Even is she doesn’t now know or want Him, He made her, He died for her, and He is striving with her to bring her to glory. There is no woman on the planet for whom this is not true, and if there were, she would not be a woman but a succubus.

The point of this is to say that God has destined femininity for the glory of queenhood. A woman is the raw material from which a queen is formed, and for God, this is the point of the matter. In Christ, the human race is exalted to the highest place of royalty and honor under God, in which we will all participate if we are in Him. This makes men into kings and women into queens on the last day, and in the meantime, we are thereby princes and princesses, whether we want it and know it or not, and even if we never, in fact, reach out destiny because we despise the God through whom it must be realized. Every woman you will ever see is a princess, and the queenly glory for which she is being prepared is as close to the glory of a goddess as you can imagine.

More important than the woman’s status and destiny considered in itself, however, is the context in relation to God. She is God’s princess, the daughter of the One True King. She is the bride-to-be of the Lord of Lords. She is the masterpiece of the great Potter. He is the ultimate, the only real source of her glory. Everything good that she is or ever will be comes from Him. Her beauty, her honor, and her royalty are first and foremost His own, given as a gift.

But just as God gives to the woman all of her excellence as a gift, so He gives her entirely as a gift to whomever He chooses. Some women He reserves for Himself alone, and to give them a peculiar kind of glory He will share them with no man. But for many, even most, He gives them to a prince so that they can together learn how to become king and queen. He unites the two as one flesh, and He gives each to the other as an exclusive investment to be redeemed at the end of the world.

So what am I actually on about? It’s just something that occurred to me the other day. If a woman is a prince, and she is on sacred reserve for the King himself or one of His princes, that must determine how we treat her. This goes deep. It must affect how we see, think, feel, and act about and to her. We must recognize her dignity, her beauty, and her splendor as a queen-to-be. We must recognize as well that all of these are from God. Any offense against her is therefore against Him.

To get to the point, this is a lesson about lust (though of course there are many other possible applications). As Christ said, to look at a woman to lust upon her is wickedness, and it is easy to see why. She belongs to God. She is a princess for Him, perhaps with a prince waiting for her, or already with her. She is destined for the glory of the bride of the Lamb. To look at her and claim her in the mind, to reach out with your heart to grasp the one who is not yours, is to violate something sacred. It is to profane the goddess, to desecrate the image in the sanctuary, to rape the princess. She may not ever know, and she may not ever see, but God who exalted her, who adopted her, and who prepares her glory does. He sees the thought and knows your claim. He recognizes your depraved fantasy of grasping His princess and taking her for your own use. He will not ignore such a blasphemy. His royal household will not be desecrated. If the sons of Jacob slaughtered a village for defiling their sister, what will their God do to you? He is more merciful than they, so that He will forgive whoever repents. But He is also more just and furious than they, so that you would be better to fall into their hands than His if you do not repent.

Therefore look for your own princess. Receive her by grace. Do not touch her before the King gives her. Never look for or to another one. The wrath of royalty must not be taken lightly.