Sin is a Failure to Love (and Why It’s Important to Remember That)

I want to follow up on my previous post, in which I tried to show why you can’t screw up your life because God can use even the worst mistakes you’ve made to make you more like Jesus. If you love God, then everything in your life will be used to make you into the person you’re supposed to be (which is a very different thing than saying, “Everything will turn out okay.”)

In light of this, what is sin?

Sin is the failure to love.

Over and over, the New Testament tries to show us that love is not only our top priority but also the key to interpreting Scripture.

Jesus called loving God and neighbors the greatest commandment. Paul said that to love is to fulfill the law and that it binds all other virtues together in perfect harmony. The same apostle also wrote that love is greater than even faith and hope. James said that “love your neighbor” is the royal law and that a person who has faith but not love has a dead faith. (Granted, James actually uses the phrase “good works,” but it’s pretty clear in context that the lack of good works is specifically a lack of love.) In Revelation, Jesus threatens to remove a church from its city because it’s orthodox but not loving.

1 Timothy states that the purpose of the instruction we’ve received is to make us loving. 2 Timothy says Scripture was breathed by God to prepare us for good works–and as we’ve seen, the greatest work we could be about is loving others.

Clearly, love has a central place in what the New Testament demands of us.

I wrote the previous post because I sometimes worry about screwing up my life (and I know that some readers are sharing that same anxiety right now). But often, when I think of how I can screw up my life, I think about the things I could or couldn’t do, the money I could have made but different, the date I wish had led to something deeper, the weekend trip I didn’t get to take, the job interview I wasn’t called in for.

I also think about the sins I commit, such as the lustful thoughts I had or my failure to set aside some money to give to a person in need. I think about the times I didn’t pray enough or harbored resentment against someone.

There’s a pattern in all of this: I define “screwing up my life” primarily in terms of how I act and think.

That’s a huge problem.

If you think of sin primarily in terms of how you act, then your solution for not sinning is going to revolve around changing your actions. You’ll stop doing one thing and start doing another. You’ll stop thinking about that one thing and start thinking about something else. You’ll change your actions, which we think is what Jesus meant when he told us to repent. But changing our actions doesn’t necessarily lead to love.

We were made to love and be loved and find our identities in that exchange.

Our identities are too heavy, too real, to be supported by mirages–no matter how spiritual they sound.

God’s will for us is to love Him and be loved by Him, to mysteriously be included in the love shared by the Trinity. When we have this right, then we’re going to be what we’re supposed to be, no matter where we are.

But when we neglect that love because we’re convinced that we can find out identities in something else–even if it’s spiritual codes of conduct–then we’re running to danger, not away from it.

You Can’t Screw Up Your Life

When you’re taught to read literature, you’re usually told to pay attention to the recurring themes of the novel. The same principle holds for life: when you keep encountering the same message, over and over, it’s best to listen.

Late this week, my church’s young professionals group continued its series on quarter-life crises (and I’m a little bummed that I’m old enough to the point where I no longer qualify as “quarter-life”). The focus was on how to know God’s will for a particular situation in your life. While this talk was going on, I was texting a friend–yes, I texted in church and no, I’m not going to hell for it–who had just accepted a new job in another state and was now worried that he might have a made a mistake.

When a common theme emerges, pay attention. And since God’s will has been a topic of discussion lately, I decided to write about it.

I got to share this at our table discussion that night, and I’ll say it again here:

You can’t screw up your life.

***

People would often quote Romans 8:28 as one of those verses that they want to make themselves feel better about their present or future situations. The verse says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Here’s how I hear people interpret this: “My life sucks, but God will make it better.” Or, “I’m scared of screwing up, but it’ll turn out okay.” Or, “I’m still single, and everything will work out as God wants it to, but it’d be nice if He’d stop taking His sweet time with it.

This interpretation fits nicely with how a lot of people understand God’s will. For many Christians, the divine will is like a cosmic game of Connect the Dots, and your job as a Christian is to find out the particular order God wants you to follow so you can paint the picture He intended for your life. For instance, the right college is Dot #1. Choosing your career is Dot #2. Finding the right guy/girl to marry is Dot #3. This will continue until you die–and hopefully, you won’t screw up your picture too badly in the process.

The common interpretation of Romans 8:28 fits this view nicely: everything will turn out as it’s supposed to. You won’t miss your God-intended dots as you try to complete the picture.

The problem is, that’s not what this verse is saying.

I’m going to write the verse out again, with the two verses that follow, to show you what I mean:

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

Yes, all things work together for our good–that is, to become like Jesus Christ.

This is what we miss when we misread Romans 8:28. Our ultimate “good” isn’t going to be found in our circumstances, in whether we’re single or married, in whatever job we have. (You’ll notice that these are almost always the concerns people have when they’re trying to decipher God’s will.)
It has always been God’s plan, since before you and I even existed, to become like Christ–to enjoy the love of God and show that love to others, to be perfected and holy and walk in a new world with Him. This is a slow process that starts in the here and now. Sometimes, people take a long time to figure out what loving God and others mean. But no matter how long it takes each of us, we’re all going to eventually be made like Jesus.
I don’t just mean that we’re going to stop making stupid mistakes and no longer sin (although this is certainly part of it). I mean that we’re going to know what it means to be loved by God, to step into the loving dance that the Trinity has enjoyed for as long as the Trinity has been the Trinity. 
To become like Jesus is about much more than doing good things. Jesus knew what it meant to be loved by the Father and to find his identity in that love. This isn’t just one part of following Jesus; it is the whole goal of discipleship. It is everything that Jesus is trying to teach us. Because when your identity is rooted in the love of God, then everything changes and you’re free to be what you were always meant to be.
Jesus knew what it meant to be perfectly in the love of God. It’s what he prayed would happen for each and every one of his followers:
“… so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
That is the good being promised.

***

I mentioned before that you can’t screw up your life. Based on Scripture’s promises to people who love God, I hope it’s becoming clearer why that is.
If all things work together to make you like Jesus, even the worst decisions you’ve ever made, then there’s nothing in the world that can stop you from becoming what you were always meant to become. Even your mistakes will be used to draw you deeper into the love of God.
You can’t screw up your life when God will use even your poorest decisions to make you happier than you ever dreamed you could be.
The questions you should focus on aren’t, “What should I do? Who should I marry? Where should I work?”
We’re made to be loved by God and love Him in return. So the better question is, “Am I learning to love God right now? Am I pursuing love for my neighbors and my enemies, as Jesus taught?”
If you’re learning what it means to answer Yes to those questions, then you’re already in His will. You’re already living the story you were meant to have. And no matter what happens tomorrow or the next day or the day after that, your story is going to end just as it was always meant to.
Because of Jesus, your story is destined to end in one way and one way only: with Him, perfected in love.

Why (I Think) God Rested on the Seventh Day

There’s always been a question that comes out of reading Genesis 1: why would an infinitely powerful Being need to rest?

In the Bible’s first chapter, God creates the world in six “days” and rests on the seventh. You could come up with all sorts of explanations as to why this is, but I’ll give a possible one here:

As the narrative in Scripture unfolds, we learn more about this creative God. We learn that He fully revealed Himself in Jesus, but that Jesus and God are both divine and in union with each other but continue to be different persons. We learn that the Spirit, who was present at creation, is also Lord but still distinct from God and Jesus. The Christian tradition has always affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity–even if it didn’t always use the term. 

Jesus gave us a peak of into this relationship in his longest-recorded prayer:

“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:25-26)

In the Trinity is a mutual exchange of love that’s been going on longer than our minds can comprehend. This love isn’t based on how each member of the Trinity performed. The Father, Son, and Spirit loved one another because God is love.

Here’s my growing suspicion: God rested on the seventh day, in part, to show us that our goal is not to do work for Him but to know and join in this loving exchange. Even when God stopped working, He never stopped being loved. I think that’s the lesson some of us, especially myself, need to learn.

Our worth as people and our membership in the kingdom of God is not based on how good we are. We are members and we have worth because we are loved. We are a part of the eternal exchange of love because Jesus brought us to God. At no point will our acceptance be based on what we bring to the table. 

God rested to show that works aren’t the point. 

Being in loving communion with the Trinity is.

So stop fretting that you’re not doing enough, because that was never the point, anyway.

 

Why I Can’t Endorse Phil Robertson’s Gospel

The Duck Dynasty star recently gave his opinion on what the United States should do about ISIS: 

“In this case, you either have to convert them–which I think would be next to impossible–I’m not giving up on them, but I’m just saying either convert them or kill them, said Robertson, who spent the first portion of his television appearance quoting verses from a Bible he brought with him.
This is yet another example of American evangelicalism’s spiritual decay. One of its modern-day heroes sounds like a medieval crusader ready to march on Jerusalem, and there likely won’t be any consequences for what he said. Celebrity Christians have always been able to get away with saying nonsense with impunity. It’d be funnier if they weren’t so dangerous.

And yes, Robertson’s views here are dangerous.

They’re dangerous because they sound strikingly close to the ultimatum ISIS recently delivered to another group of people: convert to Islam, or starve to death.

Robertson’s views are dangerous because he apparently thinks it’s the role of the United States government to convert people to Christianity at the threat of gunpoint.

Robertson’s views are dangerous because they do not reflect, at all, the Gospel of Jesus Christ–the good news that God came to save the world and that He did this through shedding His own blood, not by killing His enemies.

“Convert or kill” isn’t the Gospel. It’s a poisonous religious belief that Jesus spent an entire lifetime opposing.

Jesus opposed “convert or kill” when two of his followers wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan town for refusing to welcome them.

Jesus opposed “convert or kill” when he refused to call on angels to defend him in Gethsemane.

Jesus opposed “convert or kill” when he begged his Father to forgive his enemies while he slowly died on a cross.

 
If “convert or kill” had been what Jesus believed, there’d be no Gospel at all.

If evangelicals truly believe the Gospel, then they’ll denounce Robertson’s remarks and not defend him just because he’s one of their celebrities. We’ll see what happens soon enough.

Love is the Right Interpretation

Fred Clark has a great post up in which he talks about the necessity of love for biblical interpretation. Below, I’ll unpack a little of what I’ve been thinking about since taking in his thoughts.

First, read Fred’s post, part of which I’ve copied and posted below:

Without love, without being influenced by love, no human can ever “study the Bible and change their mind.”

If that strikes you as a radical hermeneutical claim, you’re right. But it’s also exactly what the Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13. That’s not just something pretty to be read at weddings or an ethical plea for everybody to be more nice. Paul is talking about epistemology — he says that without love we are incapable of knowing. Incapable of knowing God, knowing others, knowing ourselves, knowing anything. Without love, Paul says, what we think we understand or know amounts to “nothing.”

Scripture is abundantly clear that people who know God are people who love. So if you know someone who loves like Jesus, you can be sure that they “get it.” I don’t mean that they agree with you on how to interpret every hard verse of the Bible. They may get a number of issues wrong. But then, being right and avoiding being wrong is not the point of our lives. We were created to be loved by God and walk in communion with Him. If someone is doing that, then you can be sure they’re on the right track, even if their answers to creedal questions need some work*.

For me, this means two things:

First, I need to constantly be reminded that the goal of my Bible study is not to eventually think about and believe the right things. It’s not to be the smartest guy at Bible study or to win arguments with skeptics (particularly the obnoxious ones, against whom gaining a victory is so tempting). The point of the Christian life is to be like Christ. We do that by living by the Greatest Commandment.

Second, this means I can’t write off anyone who loves because they disagree with me. We may not read the Bible in the exact same way, but if they’re loving, then they’ve got the point of Scripture correctly. Love is our interpretation, if you will, and I can practice love in my life by not being so sure of myself and listening more carefully to others. (In the same way, I’d hope that someone wouldn’t completely tune me out because I affirm the theory of evolution, same-sex relationships, and the necessity of women pastors in the church.)

What do you think of the idea that love must be our starting point in interpreting the Bible? Do you agree? Why or not why?

* This does not mean that you get to believe anything you want and there won’t be consequences.

God Likes You More Than You Realize

When Simon Peter first met Jesus, he begged the Lord to leave because Simon was a sinner and unfit to be in his presence.

Instead, Jesus befriended him.

Because it turns out that there’s no greater place for sinners to be than in the presence of the Lord.

God likes you more than you realize.

A Brief Reflection for Easter

On Good Friday, we remembered how deep the depravity of man runs, that we could put to death someone who used his power and influence to heal the sick, rescue captives from demons, free people from poisonous religion, and announce that the kingdom of God was available for any and all who want it.

We put that Man to death.

He did nothing wrong. He did everything right. We couldn’t stand for it and wanted Him gone.

At the Resurrection, God whispered back, “Not so fast.”

This morning, we worship a God who surrendered Himself to death and returned from the grave to save what He loves–all of us.