The Gates Are Open

August 2014

Spiritual Depression

Posted on August 21, 2014

At the end of the last article, I wrote that I had coined a phrase “spiritual depression”. That is not entirely accurate. I borrowed that phrase from an old book by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones whose title is “Spiritual Depression”. However, what he meant by the term is different than what I mean by it.

To me, Spiritual Depression is the result of guilt and shame.

Brent was packing up his things into the trunk he had brought to college. It wasn’t the end of his degree or the end of the semester. Nonetheless, he was leaving and had resolved never to return. He haphazardly threw clothes and books into the trunk without any sense of whether the load would all fit. He wanted out of that place.

His roommate was worried for him and desperately wanted him to stay. As fast as Brent could throw stuff into his trunk, the roommate took it out. It was a zero-sum game that neither was winning. At one point, another friend came into the room and helped withdraw things out of the trunk. Brent knew it was a futile effort to try and pack, so he just sat down on the bed defeated. After a long sigh, he lay down and began to stare at the ceiling. Silent tears dribbled down his cheeks.

He was depressed. But the reason for his depression didn’t fit any of the descriptions I gave in the last article. He was carrying an emotional load because of something happening deep inside of his spirit. To understand this, let’s study an incident from close to the end of Jesus’ life

When Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus and identified him to the Sanhedrin’s soldiers, he marked himself out as the scapegoat, the most heinous villain in the Gospel account. We are unclear to all of his reasons for selling Jesus out, but money seemed to be the most important one. He was offered 30 pieces of silver to betray his master and he took it.

Afterward, when Jesus began his Passion suffering, Judas was filled with remorse and fervently wished he could take back his bad decision. And, like most bad decisions, there was no going back from this one. He told the Sanhedrin leaders he had “betrayed innocent blood”. They didn’t care and asked him what he was going to do about it. In a fit of despair, he threw down the 30 pieces of silver at their feet and walked out of their presence. Wandering around in depression, he finally went out and hung himself.

I think it would be wrong to diagnose him with bipolar disorder, hormonal or neurotransmitter imbalances or other physical problems. His problem was spiritual and quite common.

He was feeling guilty about what he had done. Who wouldn’t?

In addition, he likely felt shame and remorse, emotions that often cut people off from the rest of society. We don’t want others to see our shame, so we hide away. Often people who are loaded down with guilt and shame do harm to themselves or others before they ever resolve it.

Brent had received mid-term grades. All of them were fine except one. He received a D on one exam which he had decided he didn’t need to study for. He had heard from upper-classmen who had taken the course that the midterm only covered certain topics. Since he knew the information well on those topics, he decided he didn’t need to waste energy looking over the content for that course.

When he faced the results of this decision, it triggered a latent sense that no matter what he did in life, he would always fail. Belief in one’s inevitable failure is usually based on very little actual evidence, but it feels real all the same. Brent had believed since he was a child that he was doomed to mess things up for himself. Because he held onto this belief into adulthood, it became part of his persona. It rarely took much to trigger him.

Fortunately, Spiritual Depression is one of the easier types to deal with. At least, it can be if it is treated correctly. It requires that one follow these five steps to overcome its effects.

1. Acknowledge legitimate sin. God’s forgiveness only is given to those who will acknowledge what they’ve done wrong and who don’t want to do it again.

2. Make amends for how sinful actions have hurt others.

3. Ask God to speak to you about your failure. This is similar to what God did for Simon Peter. He too failed Jesus. He too betrayed his friend. But he didn’t give in to the shame. He spent time trying to piece together what had happened. During this season, Jesus met Peter while he was out fishing (John 21). During that conversation, Jesus spoke to Peter and allowed him to renew his love for Jesus. That renewal was enough to rid the guilt out of Peter’s life.

4. Ask God to show you lies you have believed about yourself. Brent was able to do this over the next year. God showed him that he didn’t fail all the time. He didn’t even fail most of the time. He heard God’s voice and allowed God to help him let go of his false belief.

5. Ask God to fill you again with the Holy Spirit. We cannot overcome Spiritual Depression simply by trying harder. We need to partner with God and allow Him to shake loose the spiritual scar tissue.

All the Different Things Called “Depression”

Posted on August 19, 2014

depressionIn the last few years, many different conditions have been lumped under the same moniker: Depression.

A man kills his family and himself and he is called “depressed”.

A person loses their spouse to cancer, and people say they are “depressed”.

A woman goes to the doctor because she can’t get rid of a feeling of morbidity every time she thinks about being abused as a child. The doctor labels her as “depressed.”

Would you be surprised to find out that Depression is a symptom like a headache? It is not a full diagnosis in and of itself. What makes it even more confusing, there are many different conditions that are called “depression” that really have little correlation to each other. Let me give a half dozen examples.

Sadness. Sadness is often called depression because we naturally assume that this is what depressed people are feeling. This is one of the most misleading mixups. Sadness is the necessary journey to say goodbye to someone or something that has been meaningful and is now gone. One may be sad over a lost opportunity, a passed loved one or a broken relationship. This does not necessarily mean that the person is depressed just because they feel sad.

Anger and Hopelessness:  Dr. William Glasser, the founder of Reality Therapy, estimates that half of what we call “depression” is a choice. (Note that I did not say most or all depression is a choice. I think Dr. Glasser is accurate in this assessment. About half my counseling clients have choice-based depression). In fact, Dr. Glasser refuses to use a noun for depression. He uses the verb “to depress” to describe the person who chooses this. Why would someone choose to depress themselves? When we have been hurt, betrayed, cheated, lied to etc. we get angry. An injustice has been done. But many times it is hard to act out that anger in a healthy expression. Often we have to subvert our anger and sit on it for a long time. After awhile, it seems we will never be able to resolve the issue we are angry over. This causes anger to be joined to a sense of hopelessness. This combination of anger/hopelessness is what many people call “depression”. It is the decision which says “I will not feel better about what happened and I will not let go of its pain.”  This type of depression many times leads to suicide, drug abuse and physical problems.

Hormonal Changes:  The body likes to remain in homeostasis. Our bodies don’t like to change and therefore produce chemicals to keep the body in a regulated state. That is how our temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate can remain relatively constant. We have many glands in our bodies which produce chemicals to promote homeostasis. But stress, disease and environmental factors can all cause our glands to produce more or less of certain hormones than our body needs. Medicine used to believe that much post-partum depression and PMS was caused by too little estrogen. But now we know that it is actually a flush of estrogen that causes these symptoms. Other hormones like LH, progesterone, testosterone and others can cause our homeostasis to be out of whack.

Poor Sleep Habits:  We know that a person cannot survive longer than 72 hours without sleep. Why? There are transformative changes the brain processes while we sleep. If it stays awake, plaque builds up and blocks the regular functions of the brain. This leads to a sense of dis-ease and morbidity. Often this lack of good sleep is called “depression”.

Stress Itself:  Stress simply means that too much is being asked of a body. When we overwork, over-think, over-emote, certain chemicals have to be produced in order to cause our brain and body to rest. Adrenaline, Serotonin, nor-Adrenaline, Dopamine, GABA, peptides, Phenethylamine and others keep our brain from deteriorating when we are stressed. If you are too stressed by life, you will find these chemicals become depleted and you cannot feel better. Often this is called “depression.” Today’s “anti-depressants” are often just chemicals that prevent these natural chemicals from becoming depleted. The most common of these–Selective Serotonin Reuptake inhibitors–prevent your body from breaking down the Serotonin when you are under stress. Zoloft, Prozac and Welbutrin are examples of SSRIs

Brain Damage:  There are many disorders that cause depression which are the result of brain damage from birth or from drugs. Two of them are much more common than the rest. Bipolar Disorder is a condition where a person feels periodic stints of euphoria and drive followed by lengthy periods of depression. Schizophrenia is a condition where a person loses touch with what is real and experiences the sense that they do not have a grip on their lives. Both of these conditions at various times are called depression.

As you can see, there is much that is called Depression that is totally different than other things called Depression. That is why I advise people not to make judgments about another person’s condition simply based on the word “depression.” That one word can describe situations vastly different than one another.

There is also a condition I call “spiritual depression” and I want to address that in the next article.

God Our Partner – Old Testament Benefits Part 3

Posted on August 18, 2014

Old TestamentLast summer, I spent about a hundred hours editing and perfecting my book for publication. One afternoon, I was in the library of a missionary training center and there was only one other person in the room. She asked me what I was working on and I asked her the same question. We enjoyed listening to each other’s answers.

At one point, she asked me why I had wanted to write this book. “Originally, it was just a short paper on the subject of hearing God’s voice. It ran about 80 pages and I was very satisfied with it when I finished. But the more I thought about it, something didn’t fit. So one afternoon, I went for a walk and asked God for His input on the book. He suggested to me that what I had written could fit into a larger context. I began to see how Hearing God was really only one skill involved with walking in the Holy Spirit. So I decided to broaden the book to deal with that subject instead.”

“You say God ‘suggested’ it. You mean God commanded you to change it?” she asked.

“No God didn’t command it. God rarely commands me to do things. Well, of course, there are the Ten Commandments, and there are times when I am led by the Spirit to go places and do things that were not my idea. But a great deal of the time God simply suggests things as part of our walking, interacting friendship.”

This is a concept God has taught me throughout the Old Testament. In this series on coming to appreciate the value of the first part of the Bible, I wanted to share a theme that runs throughout. God desires to act in partnership with us. In fact, a lot of what God does really happens in partnership with people.

I am not a Calvinist or a neo-Calvinist. That means I don’t think everything that happens is under God’s control. I believe that some things are absolutely the result of the sovereign actions of God. But I have also seen incredible evidence in the Bible and Church History of how God acts in conjunction with the partnership he forms with people. Let me give four very quick vignettes from the Old Testament as a teaser for your own searches.

The Man of Wisdom:  In 2 Chronicles chapter 1, God appears to Solomon at the beginning of his reign as King of Israel and has a question for him. He asks Solomon what Solomon wants from God. Instead of wealth and power, he asks God for heavenly wisdom to rule the nation. Even God is impressed with this answer and tells Solomon he will be the wisest King of all time. In addition, God chooses to give him wealth and authority also. This is so much more than Solomon bargained for. I mention this scenario because it is indicative to me of how God works in our life. If we will seek God first and invite God to be an interactive part of our ventures, God will give us what we need and often will give us what we have not asked for as well. In this partnership, God more than holds up His end of the bargain.

The Gardeners:  In the fullest account of creation in Genesis, God places Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The Hebrew word for “garden” means a “walled-off garden” and the word “Eden” means “delights”.  In that walled-off garden, God gave Adam authority to arrange it any way he liked. He could call the animals found there by any name he liked. Naming something in ancient cultures meant someone had authority over the ones he named. God had given Adam and Eve authority over this limited territory. As far as we can tell, God did not interfere in their activities until they sinned. God was a good partner. He gave them freedom, but still set the boundaries upon their actions.

That Foreign Woman:  When Israel’s Secret Service squad went into Jericho, they were welcomed by a brothel owner to stay secretly with her. They were scouting the city to see its weaknesses. This woman, Rahab, not only fed and housed them, she helped them escape when word got out they were there. As they were leaving, she asked them to promise her life would be spared by God and by Israel. Acting on behalf of the nation and God, they promised her that she and her family would be saved if she put a scarlet banner outside her window. Notice that God allowed them to speak on his behalf without checking in. They were there on his assignment and they acted to honor God and her. What astounds me even more is that Matthew’s list of people who were Jesus’ ancestors, Rahab is one of them! God decided to partner with this brothel owner for his glory.

Fish Food:  Jonah was swallowed by a gigantic fish and was digested for three days. After this, he was much more compliant to God’s wishes. God had commanded him to preach repentance to Nineveh and Jonah didn’t want the assignment. God forced him to be in the location, but he could not make him speak. Jonah had to do that. And when Jonah preached, the people responded. Afterward, Jonah sat down on a hill outside of Nineveh to see if God would change his mind about destroying that wicked city. In those days on the hill, God showed Jonah that he had the right to care about a city even though there was wickedness there. But the most remarkable aspect of all of this is that God even had this conversation with Jonah. Not only did God care about Nineveh, he also cared about Jonah. He didn’t want his partner to be lost in his resentment and anger. He interacted with Jonah in order to bring him around to the truth. The Spirit of God is the God of Truth. When we know the Truth, it sets us free. In our partnerships with God, he never leaves us to fend for ourselves. Even when we want God to leave us alone, He pursues us. This isn’t only for the purpose of getting God’s chores done. He also wants us to have a changed heart. This is what happens all through the Old Testament. God changes those who come into partnership with Him.

Why not spend a few weeks reading the stories of the Old Testament and notice the difference between those who partner with God and those who don’t.

Six Reasons To Get News From Somewhere Other Than Television

Posted on August 13, 2014

I am not exaggerating when I say that I have counseled dozens of people with News Cycle Syndrome. (I made up the term, don’t google it, you’ll be disappointed).

News Cycle Syndrome is the increasing inability to turn off the television when a major disaster (i.e. war, emergency, deaths, disease outbreaks, etc.) is being reported upon. It was first identified during the Gulf War, when people would watch CNN for up to 20 hours a day, frightened that they would miss something critical if they slept.

This is not something humorous or rare. Celebrities, sports stars and even news anchors have all reported suffering from it. Lately though, it is getting worse. Right now we have Ebola virus, warfare in israel/Gaza, Christian persecution in Iraq, Ukrainian instability all bombarding our senses every news cycle.

People have asked me how it affects me and I can honestly say it doesn’t. I still look at the news, but it easy for me to turn away. I don’t lose much sleep at night and I don’t worry about what’s going to happen next. There is one major reason for this.

I don’t watch television news. I haven’t done so since 1987. I have a number of reasons for this and I want to share the most important ones with readers of this blog.

Television Reduces Your Ability to Analyze: Michael Medved, in his landmark book “Hollywood Versus America” reported on a study done at UCSB on the effects of media on the brain. After interviewing thousands of people, they put them through a test where they had to pick out falsehoods in news stories. These falsehoods were very obvious. The people picked out 90% of the newspaper stories with lies. They identified 75% of the radio stories that were wrong. They discovered only 20% of the television stories. They concluded that the brain will believe things that it SEES much more readily than what it reads or hears. We trust our eyes more than our ears and logic. This makes television news a dangerous commodity indeed.

Television Squashes the Distance Between You and an Event: These days, we can be right in the heart of the tornado, we can see children killed on the side of the road, we can look into the classroom where a gunman shot students. The value of emotional distance is that we don’t have to identify with a disaster. The closer we are, the more it affects our emotions.

Television Shows You What to Look at: Of course, all media is slanted and biased. There is no way for it to be otherwise. But our brains are skeptical of what we’re told. But when we only see certain points of view with our eyes, we exclude other possibilities more easily.

News Cycles Never End: With FoxNews and CNN broadcasting 24 hours a day, you can (and do) watch the news continually. The amount of time we watch news has tripled in just the last 20 years. No one is going to read the newspaper or magazines for 6 hours in a row. But we do that with television. The longer we watch, the more chance we will no longer analyze and as a result we devolve into simply digesting.

News Services Lump Together Stories that have Superficial Connections: All media do this. They show three stories in a row about husbands beating their wives and children. This leaves the reader/viewer with an idea that this happens all the time everywhere. At least with print media, we have the opportunity to think about it. News stories come at us so quickly, we do not think about our own reactions to the clumping of stories.

And Speaking About “Quickly”… back in 1965, the average new story lasted six minutes. Today’s television has reduced the story to less than 45 seconds. Once again, this leaves very little time to analyze what is being reported and our brain just stops. When your brain stops, you are susceptible to error and propaganda.

My Biggest Mistake…as a Pastor

Posted on August 7, 2014

mistakesI finished up the rough draft of this article and realized it could be the first in a series. I could mention my biggest mistake as a counselor, as a father, as a Canadian, as an immigrant, as a writer, as a son, as a husband, as a Sacramentan.

But I won’t. At least not now. I have tastier fish to fry before boring more people with my mistakes.

But perhaps my most egregious pastoral error can be instructive to some.

In 1982, our denomination in Canada finally allowed women to become elders in our churches. This was the right move and I was eager to set to rights the balance of representation of the governing board of our church. That next winter, I nominated two women to the board and they were both elected.

One of them, an older lady who owned her own business and was a world-class artist, became the most outspoken member of our board. For the most part, the elders were men of German, Norwegian and Swedish descent, very conservative and quiet. This woman was American, raised to speak her mind. She had no problem getting her opinion across.

I don’t think the church was ready for her. I know I wasn’t ready for her. During that first year, I received calls from people whom she had approached about elements of their spiritual condition. She decided it was part of her role as an elder to supervise and direct the spiritual growth of others.

Looking back on it, she wasn’t wrong in this assumption. But the rest of the board had always let me do those ministries, and they were confused about why she was taking on pastoral work. I now see she could have benefited from me telling the other elders that her actions were appropriate for a church leader. But I was intimidated by her and when she was criticized, I didn’t stand up for her.

At one point, she and her husband traveled down to the States to take care of some business concerns. They were gone for about two months. During that time, the Elders board questioned whether she should continue on another term as elder. Since we were coming to the end of the year, they suggested I talk to her and convince her not to let her name stand for re-election. I decided they were probably right.

I now know we were all wrong. I was the most responsible since even then I knew she was doing what an elder should be doing. But I didn’t particularly like how she was doing it. I SHOULD HAVE sat down with her when she returned and instructed her on better ways of shepherding the people in the church. But that’s not what happened.

When they returned from their business trip, she called and asked if she could come in and talk with me. The first thing she said when we met was “I’m afraid I’m going to have to resign as an elder.” This is when I made my biggest error.

I should have asked her why and got to the bottom of her motivation for resigning. I could have said very little and accepted her resignation. But in my pride, arrogance and ignorance, I decided to voice this ill-advised statement:

“Yes, I agree. I think you should resign. It would be for the best.”

She just looked at me with confusion. “Pastor Mike, why do you say that?”

“Well, the other elders and I feel you have been over-stepping your authority and taking on too much responsiblity.”

She looked hurt and angry and just sat there for a few minutes. I didn’t know what else to say so I just sat there. Then she dropped this on me.

“I came into your office to resign because I am going through the worst season of my life. My husband has just told me he wants a divorce, my daughter is fighting depression and I can’t sleep at night. And now, you go and tell me this.”

She walked out of my office and left me to wonder how I had botched this up so badly.

That next Sunday, she got up at the end of the service and told the entire congregation what I had done. While I listened to her describe my failure in front of all my friends and loved ones, I wanted to defend myself. When she called for my resignation I wanted to jump up and challenge her.

But inside my heart, Holy Spirit required me to be silent. At the end of her speech, she sat down and I closed the service in prayer. Then I went to my office and wept.

I look back on it and realized many things were happening. First, I was an arrogant man who thought he had all the answers. Second, I wanted everyone to like me during those years. When the other elders thought my nomination of this woman was a mistake, their disapproval really cut me deep inside. Third, even though I told others I believed in women elders, I really only believed that in my head. In my heart, I wasn’t convinced. I knew that it was the progressive way to believe, but deep down I had not settled my own personal beliefs about women and ministry. Because I had taken steps based on my head instead of my heart, I was not ready to instruct the church when they struggled.

I regret that day in my office when I hurt her. Thinking back on it I am grateful for three things. First, that they didn’t fire me. Second, that this woman eventually forgave me and we became friends–not close, but still friends. Third, I am grateful that every time someone comes into my office for counseling I am aware of how badly I can handle things if I don’t listen before speaking.

It all taught me that when it comes to interactions with others, I need to start with one assumption. Even if all evidence points to the contrary, I really don’t know what is happening inside of them until they tell me.

Mark Driscoll and his Kin

Posted on August 6, 2014

To all my friends who have written me in the past month wondering why I have not joined in the cacophony of voices denouncing Mark Driscoll. I have a simple answer. I addressed my problems with MD years ago. I grew tired of being one voice noting that he is a bully and a poor preacher. Now that many others are saying it and his empire is collapsing, I am mostly content to let others have their say.

With this article, I am done discussing him. Now it is time to focus on those groups of people who enabled him over the years (and are still enabling him). I think those people need to take a look at themselves in the mirror and answer for their actions. Here are the groups I am speaking of.

Christians Who Like Bullies: One teaching of Jesus that disturbs a lot of people is his insistence that we turn the other cheek. Jesus clearly teaches we are to expect to be persecuted and that the mark of a Christ-follower is that they don’t strike back. They don’t complain when they are mistreated, but they pray. In recent years, Christians have come under fire for our beliefs and many of our practices. In some cases, the criticisms are just. But other times, they are just mean-spirited attacks on our belief system.

As Christians, it bothers us to have people attack us indiscriminately. It bothers us that culture now accepts certain sins that we find abhorrent. It bothers us that our children like television more than church, their friends more than youth group, drugs more than prayer, video games more than Bible Study. It bothers us so much that we want to lash out at the world.

That is why so many Christians latch onto bullies and those who preach like bullies. I am speaking of people like Pat Robertson, John McArthur, Bill Gothard, Michael and Debi Pearl and MD. People rush to hear these people because in their gruff, judgmental and unapologetic ways they sound prophetic against our decaying culture. Unfortunately, all of them have shown by their actions that they are bullies. I use the word “bully” as another word for “abuser”. The word abuser has become so tainted by association with sexual things that I think the word bully suffices. The same people who like Driscoll also like Rush Limbaugh and Judge Judy.
They all come across as hard and critical. In reality, their style doesn’t allow anyone to disagree with them. They shout down all their opponents. They have opponents.

People, it is time to examine the ones you like to listen to. Isn’t it true that you love voices that cry out against the decadence and even though they may go too far, you listen because the alternative sounds “wussified” (to use a term made common by MD). Time to see that Jesus is not the way we think he is. He dialogued with people, showing them the error of their ways, weeping over Jerusalem. Yes, he turned over the tables of money-changers–once–but more often he tenderly protected those who were being bullied. Today’s pulpit bullies have more in common with the Pharisees than Jesus.

Mega-Church Addicts:  I have written so much about the mega-church in past articles here and on my old blog. Suffice to say, I consider the mega-church to be the Christian equivalent of Wal-mart. Their existence in a community may help people to find lower commitment, but they end up destroying the smaller churches who have more to offer the community. MD and other mega-church pastors are crumbling these days and part of it is because no person can handle that much notoriety and devotion without it destroying them. People like Steven Furtick, Joel Osteen, MD and Ted Haggard are being brought before the general public in articles published by major magazines. Their lives are shown to be failing and it causes the Christians who attend the mega-churches to get cynical and to be done with church forever. The church of 500 doesn’t put on a show, they don’t buy their way onto the NY Times bestseller list, they don’t have CDs for sale in the lobby. They don’t have a lobby. Time to consider that you joined a mega-church for the show and stayed because they asked for the least amount of commitment. They are Wal-mart.

Neo-Calvinists:  The ones who supported MD the most are the bullies of the theological world. They are the ones who like to present God as the Great Benevolent Bully (my term, not theirs). This group is the Neo-Calvinists, those who believe so much in the sovereignty of God that they essentially lay all of the world’s evils at God’s feet. Teachers like John Piper, CJ Mahaney, MD and RC Sproule have littered the church landscape with their vision of God. Calvinists were content simply to place God’s sovereignty over our salvation. They believed that we are saved by God’s fiat choice and by nothing of ourselves. They never extended that beyond salvation.

But now you have preachers like Piper who claim that all the children who died in the shooting at Newtown a couple of years ago died because God wanted them dead. The old Calvinists would say that God allowed it, but the Neo-Calvinist claims God wanted it that way.

In recent months, most of the Neo-Cals have had to make one apology after another. They apologize for hurting others with their bullying teaching. I thought this wayward doctrine had disappeared in the early seventies, but MD and Piper made it popular again. Mahaney had to resign his church because of how many people were hurt by his ways. Piper had to take a leave of absence because he realized how much his teachings have hurt people. MD has made four public apologies for making misogynistic, arrogant, gay-hating, worship-leader-bashing statements.

I look at Arminians such as Jack Hayford, Roger Olson, Greg Boyd and Francis Frangipane and note they have never had to make these kind of apologies.

It is time for those who like the mega-church, bullying, Neo-Calvinist preachers to take stock and look at your lives. Do they look like Jesus? The men you’re following don’t.

 

The God of Initiation (Old Testament Benefits Part 2)

Posted on August 4, 2014

As a young teen, I thought about suicide. I don’t speak of it much because it doesn’t even feel like me, but it is true. I entered puberty a few years before many of my fellows, and I suffered the emotional storm that goes with this before my mind could catch up with these abstract things happening.

I also didn’t do anger well. I kept all my anger inside, hoping to make everyone happy around me. This is a formula for depression. Therefore, at age 11, I began to depress myself regularly, dwelling on hurts and letting anger lead me into hopelessness.

By age 13, I had already made two plans to take my life. I never went through with either of them. But I would have done it if I had had the nerve. That’s when God reached down and took hold of my life. Within a three-month period, four significant people (all believers in Jesus) became friends with me. None of them knew each other at the time and all of them showed God’s love to me. One of them, Mr. Serna my 8th grade English teacher, presented the truth claims of the New Testament and asked me if I wanted to receive the gift of eternal life through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

I did want that. I changed forever that day, and there were no more thoughts of suicide. (Note: That is not to say that Christians never think about suicide. Many people do. I just found my new relationship with God helped me with it).

After that, the other three Christians who had come into my life mentored me into an understanding of how to live for God. I realize, looking back on it 42 years later, that God initiated all of this. I could have resisted his help, but the help was given before I even knew I needed God to help.

That’s why 1 John 4:10 reminds us that “it was not that we first loved God, but that He first loved us and gave himself for us“. God is the great Initiator, the One who pursues us long before we pursue God.

And the Old Testament is by far the best place to observe this happening. In the Old Testament we find example after example of how God pursued a relationship with His creation and how God dealt with so many of the obstacles we put in the way of accomplishing this. Let’s do a small survey to show what I’m referring to.

Our Existence: Perhaps this borders on the realm of the deeply philosophical, but we humans did not think up the notion of our existence and who we would become. God pictured us in his mind long before our creation, long before any creation.

God could have created little mouse-like creatures with long tails and rapier swords in their hands to serve him. He could have created just angels and left it at that. There didn’t even need to be a physical realm. But we were created in the Image of God as our core. We are creators, we are choosing beings, we are built with a moral center and a communal desire. No matter what we do with these abilities, we have them because God wanted us to have them. The whole of man’s existence hinges on one thing: God initiated all of this and wanted us to exist. God wanted ME and YOU to exist. We had nothing to do with that desire. It is God’s romance from start to finish.

The Concept of Justice: In his 1929 book “A Preface to Morals”, atheist Walter Lippmann made a great attempt at proposing a system of rights and wrongs that does not allow God into the equation.  Others had attempted this before him, but no one could solve the great conundrum of ethics: If you don’t believe in absolute right and wrong, how can you propose what is right and wrong? Lippmann, as well, ultimately failed to explain his rationale–and all supporters of his position agree he failed–but at least he made the attempt.

Nihilism and Existentialism, the two best-known atheistic philosophies, don’t even bother. They both conclude that morals in a pluralistic world are impossible.

The Old Testament consistently proposes one grand theme: That God is the author and initiator of the concept of Justice. God evidenced his view toward justice in the story of Noah and the Ark. In Genesis 6:5-8 we read,

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth,and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

In verses 11 and 12, it also says “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways.” The Hebrew word for “corrupt” is a word which means to “destroy or tear apart”. God saw how man was destroying everything and everyone. It was God’s decision that the human race as it had become needed to be cleansed and purged.

Some people wrongly suspect that it was because of man’s attitude toward God that made God want to wipe us out. However, the word for “corrupt” tells us that it is the way we treat each other and this planet that causes God great pain. You see, the New Testament is clear that God is a forgiving God. The book of Jonah confirms that. But it is what we do to one another and to this world that God cannot overlook. God can forgive–and does–the sins we commit against Him. But being a righteous judge, He cannot overlook the destruction we cause in the lives of others.

When you read the Old Testament, see the God of justice in action. Even though God raises up Nebuchadnezzar to bring consequences on Israel for the way they betrayed their covenant with God, the Babylonians went too far and God had to judge them for being cruel.

In those moments when you feel like everything is unfair, it is good to see that God takes the initiative to keep score. Vengeance is God’s; He shall repay. We are freed from having to be vengeful because God has already said that all acts of cruelty, thievery and any other injustice shall be answered for.

As we observe in the Genesis 6 passage, God is grieved when humans acts with wanton abandon and hurt others. All of the murders, violence, lying, stealing, cheating, betrayal will be judged. God initiated that.

Communication:  God is there and He is not silent. These are the words which form the title of one of Francis Schaeffer’s greatest books. They also describe one of the great themes of the Old Testament. God wants his people to know his voice and to follow his leading. 

Other religions have prophets. Other religions show the gods communicating with man. But there is no other writing extant which shows God being tender, compassionate, gentle and kind with human beings. Let’s just note a few of the wonderful communication stories of the Old Testament.

When Adam and Eve sinned, God didn’t turn away from them. God came looking for them and asked what had happened. Remember, when God asks a question, he is entering into a dialogue; He doesn’t need the information. God wanted to keep the dialogue going with Adam and Eve.

When Cain killed his brother, God came to him, wanting to talk. He asked where Cain’s brother was (once again, God was not looking for information, he was seeking to hold Cain accountable).

Noah heard God give him the dimensions of the boat that would save a remnant of the human race.

Daniel received interpretations of dreams from God. So did Joseph and Elijah.

Moses walked so closely in communication with God that the writer of Numbers said it was if “Moses spoke with God face to face.” What a wonderful God that allows humans to speak with Him so intimately.

Samuel was a small boy of 4 or 5 when God called to him in the night. Even though Samuel did not at first recognize God, God kept speaking until Samuel understood.

The prophet Nathan was sent by God to tell David the King that his new son was to be called Jedidiah, which means “loved by the Lord”. This is the second child born of the relationship between David and Bathsheba. Even though the first child died because of their adultery, God still showed his love to them at the birth of their second child.

Zechariah receives many visions from God, and God takes the time to show him how to interpret visions. The Book of Zechariah is a marvelous primer in how to receive visions from God.

I could go on for days extolling the many times that God spoke to men and women. What we see overwhelmingly is that God is the one who initiated this conversation. Though man wanted to hear God–such as Job who kept asking for an audience with God during his time of suffering–God is the one who came to mankind to communicate.

God still does. God the Initiator does so much more to have a relationship with Him than we do. This is what the Old Testament shows us over and over. It is one of the reasons I love reading it.

 

 

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