Creative Redemption

This blog seeks to explore themes from the Bible, theology, spiritual formation, creativity, and responses to change and conflict to discover how to promote God's redemptive work in his creation.

Archive for the month “March, 2013”

Resurrection, New Life, and the Need for Wisdom

At Easter, Christians’ thoughts naturally turn to the resurrection of Jesus. When we consider the implications of Jesus’ resurrection, we tend to think first of our victory over death in the resurrection of our bodies after this life ends (1 Corinthians 15).

In Romans 6, however, Paul stresses the resurrection life we experience in the present as we are united with him in baptism – “just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may walk in newness of life” (verse 4). The fact that Paul even has to make this argument demonstrates that new life does not happen merely because a person is baptized. Christ’s death and resurrection make our new life possible, but a variety of factors can inhibit it.

The problem Paul addresses in Romans 6 is a misunderstanding of the purpose of grace – “Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase?” (verse 1). Another obstacle to the experience of resurrection life emerges from a failure to recognize the link between baptism and wisdom.

From a human perspective, baptism corresponds to the “foolishness” of the message of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18). God intentionally avoids any path that reflects the worldly power and wisdom underlying all evil in the world. To accept God’s victory over sin and death in Christ and receive his grace in baptism requires trust in divine rather than human wisdom. Baptism confesses our need, our inability to save ourselves, and our acceptance of God’s provision, even though doing so runs counter to our normal instincts.

The same fundamental message characterizes the Old Testament view of wisdom. Proverbs claims the path that seems right to us leads to death instead (14:12). It calls us to trust in God completely rather than our own understanding (3:5). If we accept this humbling perspective, we will also follow the call to search diligently for wisdom (2:4-5), and to make this search a lifelong pursuit:

Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still;

  teach the righteous and they will add to their learning. (9:9)

We should not take lightly the magnitude of a decision to place our trust in “the foolishness of the cross” and resurrection from the dead. Many Christians, however, who have confessed their belief in this dimension of God’s wisdom, fail to recognize the need to pursue his wisdom for the new life in Christ.

It should not surprise us that baptism, so closely linked with Jesus’ death and resurrection, ushers us into a new life characterized by the counter-cultural way he lived. Yet the way of worldly wisdom continues to appeal to us, both in the sense that we are bombarded with its sales pitches, and also in the sense that it continues to “seem right” to us in our not-yet-fully-redeemed state. That reality explains why, as in Proverbs 9:9, it is not the wicked but the wise and the righteous who recognize their need for growth and continue to pursue it.

To accept the newness of life God offers us in Christ is wise, but to experience that newness of life in the present requires continual growth in the counter-intuitive wisdom of God.

Three Wisdoms (Part 3)

James divides wisdom into two categories for his particular purpose, but Scripture allows for at least one more possibility. By suggesting that the “third wisdom” might more accurately be labeled Wisdom 2a, I mean that it also “comes from heaven,” but in a different way than the direct revelation of Scripture.

Students of biblical wisdom have recognized that aspects of wisdom are embedded in the creation itself and are accessible to all. Psalm 19, for example, proclaims that the creation continually proclaims God’s glorious works throughout the earth without words. Proverbs 6 calls the lazy to learn from the ant, and Isaiah 28 compares the lessons the farmer learns about cultivation to the way God develops his fruit in us.

Bible believers have referred to this third wisdom as “general revelation” or “common grace.” The universality of this wisdom derives not only from the creation, but also from the fact that all human beings are created in God’s image. In other words, God has endowed all of us with the capacity and instinct to reflect the nature of God.

As we noted in the previous section, those who believe in God as revealed in the Bible still manifest to varying degrees the ongoing effects of sin and thus fail to live up to the highest ideals of biblical wisdom. When we combine that reality with the reflection of God’s common grace in those who do not believe in God as revealed in the Bible, an interesting situation emerges. Unbelievers may very well outshine many Christians in areas such as creativity, humility, kindness, and generosity.

This possibility carries enormous implications for the way Christians view and relate to unbelievers. Worldly wisdom plagues the entire creation, but what we might call “creation wisdom” provides humanity with common ground and a shared resource that can benefit the entire creation.

The potential of our shared creation wisdom will play a major role in the areas I hope to explore. As we look at the biblical call for believers to bless all humanity, we must not approach this calling with an arrogant condescension that suggests we have all the answers. Some of God’s greatest servants received their training, at least in part, in challenging settings such as Egypt (Joseph and Moses), Babylon (Daniel), and Persia (Esther).

I have gained valuable insights from people with whom I differ in significant ways. Areas of agreement in such situations provide the opportunity for mutual benefit and building bridges. Like the servants of old, however, Christians in every age must exercise critical discernment to avoid syncretism, the improper blending of God’s ways with incompatible perspectives or practices. 

Three Wisdoms (Part 2)

If James can describe fallen, worldly wisdom as “demonic” (3:15), it should not surprise us when he says that the alternative wisdom “comes down from heaven.” This wisdom, according to James, “is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” Those who possess such wisdom “show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” They are “peacemakers who sow in peace” and in the end “reap a harvest of righteousness.”

Note the contrasts between the two wisdoms in James 3. The first contrast has to do with their sources. One originates with flawed and finite human beings, whereas the other originates with and comes down from God. We tend to equate this wisdom that comes down from above with God’s revelation in Scripture, but as we will see in Part 3, there is more to the story.

(It might be helpful to point out here that even though knowledge and wisdom are closely related, wisdom transcends knowledge by its ability to place that knowledge in proper context and direct it to its intended goal. The claim of heavenly origin for James’s second wisdom highlights this distinction.)

The second contrast relates to the fundamentally different character of the two wisdoms. We do not have to look far to find evidence of the selfishness and resulting disorder in even the best of human ideologies and institutions. The democratic principles of American government, for example, have provided many freedoms and opportunities, but democracy’s potential has also been undermined by lust for money and power, corruption, and partisanship.

Heavenly wisdom, on the other hand, is characterized by humility, compassion, and sincerity, yielding the good fruit of righteousness and reconciliation (peacemaking).

Before leaving heavenly wisdom, we should address the fair critique that an unbeliever might level against the brief contrast above. “Oh yeah, most of the Christians I know just reek of humility, peace, mercy, and righteousness (self-righteousness, maybe)!”

For the wisdom that comes from above to manifest the qualities James describes in its adherents, more is required than a mere claim of belief in the Bible. In all fairness, James describes two types of wisdom, not two groups of people.

In fact, it should be noted that, as with Old Testament reflections on wisdom such as those found in Proverbs, James is warning “insiders” about false wisdom. In other words, the proper application of wisdom is not a given for those who believe in God and Scripture. Believers continue to struggle with sin, accounting for this incongruity.

Next: Good news for unbelievers – and believers – in Wisdom #3 (or is that 2a?)

Three Wisdoms (Part 1)

Any attempt to contribute to positive change in the complex challenges facing the world today requires wisdom. Where, however, does one find this wisdom? The Bible describes three sources of wisdom, two of which James 3:13-18 elaborates.

1)Worldly Wisdom

James says this first wisdom is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” It is characterized by “bitter envy and selfish ambition,” and results in “disorder and every evil practice.”

Such wisdom surrounds us and finds some place in the heart of each of us. It can be disguised as healthy competition. In the end, however, it reveals itself in the corruption and conflict that infect every pursuit of power that seeks to advance one group’s cause at the expense of others. It is reflected in the creed of the infamous Gordon Gecko, who proclaims “Greed is good” because it fuels a distorted version of progress that undermines the deeper dimensions of human nature.

This type of wisdom finds God useful only if he can be turned into a servant of selfish human interests. Because it offers pragmatic results – even if the gains are short-term and disproportionately serve those in power – many seek a piece of the action. Twice Proverbs speaks of the kind of path that “appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25).

In light of the attractiveness and apparent rightness of this false wisdom, it has a broad appeal. Both Proverbs and James address their warnings to believers in God who face the temptation to depart from “the road less traveled” to which God has called them.

Those who seek deep and meaningful change inevitably face times of defeat, disappointment, and discouragement. At those times the allure of familiar (but ungodly) ways can easily take over. Alternatively, one who begins with a noble goal can allow success to shift the focus from the goal to self-promotion. In both cases worldly wisdom wins.

Surely there must be a better source of wisdom. In fact, there are two.

Which Side Are You On?

In 2003 Natalie Merchant released “The House Carpenter’s Daughter,” a varied collection of folk songs. One of those songs, “Which Side Are You On?,” was written by Florence Reece, the wife of a labor organizer for the National Miner’s Union in Harlan County, KY in the 1930s.

In the midst of the bitter and often violent struggle, the mining company sent some members of its private security force to intimidate the Reece family. Florence Reece’s husband was not at home, and after the men left, Florence wrote on a calendar “Which Side Are You On?” to the tune of a Baptist hymn. The lyrics include the following:

They say in Harlan County

there are no neutrals there

you’ll either be a union man

or a thug for J.H. Claire.

Which side are you on boys,

which side are you on?

In an increasingly polarized world, we feel constant pressure to take either/or positions like the one in the song. In such high-stakes, high-pressure situations, people often claim that they are on God’s side, or that God is on their side. Representatives of each side in the Civil War, for example, made this claim.

An interesting incident in Joshua 5 challenges us to a stance of greater humility.

As the Israelites prepare to go into battle with Jericho, Joshua encounters a man with a drawn sword, leading him to ask, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” The answer is surprising on two levels. First, the man refused to take sides, initially responding with “Neither.” This answer becomes even more surprising when he identifies himself as “commander of the army of the Lord.”

If ever “God’s side” should be clear, this is it. Yet God acted on this important occasion to warn against growing presumptuous about his support. Joshua receives the same message as Moses at the burning bush: “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” God’s holiness reminds us that he is above our attempts to automatically enlist him to our cause.

When we take a more humble stance like Joshua did after his encounter, we will not make the same mistake as those closest to both Moses and Jesus who sought to exclude “outsiders” from serving God (Numbers 11:26-29; Mark 9:38-41). Neither will we assume, when we find ourselves in one of those “us versus them” situations that God is necessarily on either side. Instead, we will remember that the way of the kingdom transcends our puny and frequently self-serving categories.

Three Questions Regarding Change

To provide a sense of the direction of this blog, we will focus on three major questions related to change:

1)Why is change important?

One way to conceive of change is in terms of movement, and as such it can take us in a positive or a negative direction. Not all change produces growth, therefore, but all growth requires change.

Individuals or groups may agree on the need for change, but disagree over the goal or the path. Others, for various reasons, tend to resist change in general. Conservatives, including religious conservatives, often fall into this category.

In light of these circumstances, how should we view the need for, purpose of, and path to change? More specifically, what perspective does the Bible offer on these questions? We will examine the biblical vocabulary for change and the centrality of this language for the larger biblical narrative.

2)Why is change so hard?

Change, in fact, is not always difficult, but we wonder why movement in a negative direction seems so much easier than positive change. We will consider the numerous forces that work against us whenever we seek positive change. The resulting situation appears daunting, but only by facing and understanding the negative reality can we effectively combat it.

3)What makes change possible?

As we view the overall human landscape, it appears that the odds against deep, meaningful, enduring change approach winning-the-lottery proportions. No one-size-fits-all formula exists to beat these odds, but insights and approaches from several sources can greatly enhance our efforts. Numerous exceptions to the general pattern of failure offer hope. We will consider why some succeed where most fail, as well as the way their approaches relate to biblical teaching.

It Doesn’t Have to Be What It Is

The expression “It is what it is” has always ranked right up there with “Whatever” among my least favorite responses to unpleasant realities. My negative feelings are rooted, at least in part, in a song.

I’ve long been a fan of the 1986 hit by Bruce Hornsby and the Range, “The Way It Is.” (Yes, it’s an oldie, but also a goodie that holds up well in terms of both music and message. If it helps, several rappers, including Tupac Shakur in “Changes,” have sampled the song.)

“The Way It Is” laments the persistence of prejudice and disregard for the poor. The chorus reflects either complacency or resignation, either of which helps keep such evils alive:

That’s just the way it is

Some things will never change

That’s just the way it is

Ah, but don’t you believe them

“It is what it is” and “Whatever” represent alternative versions of “That’s just the way it is.” The closing exhortation of Hornsby’s chorus, however, calls us away from an acceptance of the status quo: “don’t you believe them.”   

What “The Way It Is” doesn’t offer is suggestions for moving from a rejection of the inevitability of evil patterns to effecting change. Even small changes can be difficult, and deeper, complex problems often completely overwhelm us.

Whether as a result of the annual discouragement of failed New Year’s resolutions or the sad stories of Washington gridlock, it’s so easy to become discouraged or cynical about improvement. Resources and examples exist, however, that provide hope for responses other than “It is what it is.”

This blog aims to explore the hopeful prospects for positive change without resorting to simplistic answers or unrealistic idealism. In the process, it will hopefully contribute to a growing community of people around the world who recognize that better alternatives exist to partisan power struggles that promise progress but produce more heat than light.

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