Who Are You God? The God of Love

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Hey TD,

A few years ago I wrote an essay for the Who is God? series that we’ve been posting over the last year.  My focus was on love.  If you could use a boost in your understanding of your “love life,” read on.  I hope it helps you towards becoming a better lover, as you learn from the One who loves best. – Arthur

Who Are You God?  The God of Love

“Do you love me?” Jesus repeatedly asked Peter in John 21 … and for good reason.  Prior to Jesus’ arrest, “trial,” sentencing, and execution, Peter, the emotionally charged and flamboyant disciple boldly, repeatedly, and confidently professed his love and allegiance to Jesus.  Relying on the emotion of the moments, and his strong “feelings” of love, Peter would make daring claims of loyalty.   So self-driven was he that on one occasion, he rebuked Jesus after He informed His disciples of the manner in which He would die, promising the Master that he would never let that happen to Him.  This prompted Jesus to return the rebuke, saying to Peter, “Get Thee behind me, Satan.”

On that terse Thursday evening, shortly before Jesus was to be arrested, Peter assured Jesus, “Even though all may fall away because of you, I will never fall away.”  Jesus informed him that before the rooster would crow that very night, Peter would deny him three times, to which Peter insisted, “Even if I have to die with you, I will not deny you.”  Such was Peter’s confidence in his own love.  The rest, as they say, is history.  When presented with the opportunity to align and associate himself with Jesus, while Jesus was on trial, Peter’s “love” took a leave of absence, and indeed, as Jesus stated, Peter denied any association whatsoever with Jesus … three separate times, even cursing and swearing at one point for emphasis! (Matt. 26:74)

One of the most poignant, dramatic, and chilling verses in the New Testament, to me, comes soon after, when Luke records, “The Lord turned and looked at Peter.” (Luke 22:61)  Imagine the piercing guilt and shame Peter felt when their eyes met, knowing that he had done the unthinkable: he forsook His Master.  No wonder Peter couldn’t answer Jesus’ question any other way than to say, “You know I love you.”  You may be scratching your head a little, asking, “Wait.  What do you mean?  Jesus asked Peter whether he loved him, and Peter answered in the affirmative.  What’s the issue?”  Let me explain.

There are at least two keys to better understand this intense relational exchange between Jesus and Peter.  The first has to do with what is meant by “love.”  The word Jesus used in His question was the Greek word agape, which is translated “love” in English.  This represents the highest form of love, God’s love, the love of unwavering fortitude and commitment to another’s best, even at personal expense.  Unfortunately, three other Greek words are also translated as “love” in English, so something gets lost in the translation.  There’s storge – a familial kind of love, as family members would have; there’s eros – a romantic, sensual, feeling type of love; and then there’s phileo – a brotherly, friendship type of love, as good friends would share.  Jesus asked Peter, “Do you agape me?,” to which Peter replied, “Yes, Lord; You know I phileo You.”

The second key is in the timing of the question.  A few weeks earlier, Peter would have answered with a resounding, “You bet!  Of course I agape You, and I always will!”  Now He’s faced with answering the question after having denied Jesus three times.  Though I’m sure he was agonizingly dying to respond in the affirmative, he couldn’t; not with the facts staring him in the face.  He could not tell Jesus, “I agape You.”  He could only truthfully say, “I phileo You.”  That exchange happened a second time.  The third time, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you phileo Me?”  This deeply grieved Peter.  Many think that this grief is Peter feeling offended and hurt that Jesus would question him on whether he even had phileo love for Him.  That’s a possibility.  I think another possibility is that Peter felt deeply grieved that he couldn’t honestly tell Jesus, “I love you,” though he desperately wanted to.

What if Jesus asked you that same question, “Do you love me?”  Would you be able to say, “Yes, I love You”?  When a servant-girl identified Peter as an associate of Jesus, the Scriptures tell us that he responded with an oath, saying, “I don’t know the man!”  (Matt. 26:72)  Peter lied.  Or did he?  I think it was Joni Eareckson Tada who once commented that this may be the first time Peter actually told the truth!  He didn’t know Jesus!  Not really.

The truth is, no one knows Him, and no one can know Him unless the Lord first loves us, reveals Himself to us, and unilaterally changes our hearts.  Hence, John’s admission in 1 John 4:10, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us…,” and later in verse 19, “We love because He first loved us.” (emphasis mine)  Remember when Peter boldly confessed, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”?  Jesus reminded him that “… flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.”

This is what Peter had to learn before Jesus was going to hand him the keys of heaven and build his church upon him (Matt. 16:18-19).  This is what we all must realize before our worship, proclamation, and ministry are to become authentic and mature.  The Lord is sovereign over absolutely EVERYTHING, even our love.  He controls it all. That’s humbling to know.  The Lord wants us to know this deeply, especially those of us who are regularly praised, followed, and admired for our “love for God.”

It’s very easy to get subtly seduced into subconsciously thinking that the reason we’re such “good Christians” is because we love God more than the average person; and it’s tempting to think that the reason we love God is because we believed, we obeyed, and we followed Him.  And of course that’s true in a sense.   But why is it true?  Because we’re so smart and wise?  Well, yes, that’s true too, in a sense.  But how did you get to be that way?  Why you and not your friend?  The reality is that once you weren’t and now you are, and it is God who made you the way you are; without first consulting you, and without using pre-existing “material.”  You were absolutely nothing –  zero, zilch, nada – until God, all by Himself, with no outside influences, unilaterally and lovingly fashioned you.  And that great love for God you have?  It isn’t yours.  It’s His.  He monergistically (by Himself, with no prior cooperation from you) bestowed that gift of faith and love to you (Rom. 12:3), so that through you, He will love Himself.

Peter finally came to understand that, and because of that, God was able to build His church upon Peter and the apostles; a church that is still growing and maturing today, two-thousand years later.   It’s important to note that years after Jesus’ return to heaven, Peter was again put in a position to affirm or deny his association with Jesus.  This time, God’s love, not Peter’s, won out.  Peter and his wife were crucified as lovers of Jesus Christ.  It is said that while his wife was being crucified, he kept reminding her to remember the Lord Jesus.  When it was his turn, historians tell us that that he requested to be crucified upside down, for he was not worthy to be crucified like His Lord.

What a difference God’s love, true love, makes.   If you truly love the Lord today, your potential for powerfully and distinctively loving God is limitless, because His love is limitless; and it is His love which abides in you today.  To the extent that your love is subsumed by His love, the sky is the limit!  So, what are you waiting for?  Love God and keep His commandments like you never have before; and do it with joy, power, zeal, and freedom, for “… the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Rom. 5:5)

“For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are NOT burdensome.” 1John 5:3

 – Arthur Hsieh

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The Suffering of Forgiveness

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Hey TD,

This is a must read.  Truly forgiving someone can be one of the hardest things to do in life.  As this essay from our friend Jill Carattini of RZIM uncovers, it’s partly because there is suffering in forgiveness.  And this is at the heart of the gospel.  Please take the time to READ this and let it affect the way you live life for the Lord! – Arthur

The Suffering of Forgiveness

In four horrific months in 1994, at the urging of the Rwandan government, the poorer Hutu majority took up bayonets and machetes and committed genocide against the wealthier Tutsi minority. In the wake of this unspeakable tragedy, nearly a million people had been murdered.

In August of 2003, driven by overcrowded prisons and backlogged court systems, 50,000 genocide criminals, people who had already confessed to killing their neighbors, were released again into society. Murderers were sent back to their homes, back to neighborhoods literally destroyed at their own hands, to live beside the few surviving relatives of the very men, women, and children they killed.

With eyes still bloodshot at visions of a genocide it failed to see, the world still watches Rwanda, looking with a sense of foreboding, wondering what happens when a killer comes home; what happens when victims, widows, orphans, and murderers look each other in the eyes again; what happens when the neighbor who killed your family asks to be forgiven. For the people of Rwanda, the description of the Hebrew prophet is a reality with which they live: “And if anyone asks them, ‘What are these wounds on your chest?’ the answer will be, ‘The wounds I received in the house of my friends’” (Zechariah 13:6). How does a culture bear the wounds of genocide?

For Steven Gahigi, that question is answered in a valley of dry bones which cannot be forgotten. An Anglican clergyman who lost 142 members of his family in the Rwandan genocide, he thought he had lost the ability to forgive. Though his inability plagued him, he had no idea how to navigate through a forgiveness so costly. “I prayed until one night I saw an image of Jesus Christ on the cross…I thought of how he forgave, and I knew that I and others could also do it.”(1) Inspired by this vision, Gahigi somehow found the words to begin preaching forgiveness. He first did this in the prisons where Hutu perpetrators sat awaiting trial, and today he continues in neighborhoods where the victims of genocide live beside its perpetrators. For Gahigi, wounds received in the house of friends can only be soothed with truth-telling, restitution, interdependence, and reconciliation, all of which he finds accessible because of Christ.

In fact, the work of reconciliation that is taking place in Rwanda in lives on every side of the genocide may be difficult to describe apart from the cross of Christ. While it is true that forgiveness can be explained in therapeutic terms, that the act of forgiving is beneficial to the forgiver, and forgiveness releases the victim from the one who has wronged them, from chains of the past, and a cell of resentment; what Rwandans are facing today undoubtedly reaches far beyond this. While forgiveness is certainly a form of healing in lives changed forever by genocide, it is also very much a form of suffering. Miroslav Volf, himself familiar with horrendous violence in Croatia and Serbia, describes forgiveness as the exchange of one form of suffering for another, modeled to the world by the crucified Christ. He writes, “[I]n a world of irreversible deeds and partisan judgments redemption from the passive suffering of victimization cannot happen without the active suffering of forgiveness.”(2) For Rwandans, this is a reality well understood.

And for Christ, who extends to the world the possibility of reconciliation by embodying it, this suffering, this willingness to be broken by the very people with whom he is trying to reconcile, is the very road to healing and wholeness. “More than just the passive suffering of an innocent person,” writes Volf, “the passion of Christ is the agony of a tortured soul and a wrecked body offered as a prayer for the forgiveness of the torturers.”(3) There is no clearer picture of Zechariah’s depiction of wounds received at the house of friends than in a crucifixion ordered by an angry crowd that lauded Christ as king only hours before. And yet, it is this house of both murderous and weeping friends for which Jesus prays on the cross: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Far from the suggestion of a moralistic god watching a world of suffering and brokenness from a distance, the costly ministry of reconciliation comes to a world of violence and victims through arms that first bore the weight of the cross. For Steven Gahigi, who facilitates the difficult dialogue now taking place in Rwanda, who helps perpetrators of genocide to build homes for their victims’ families, forgiveness is indeed a active form of suffering, but one through which Christ has paved the hopeful, surprising way of redemption. Today, wherever forgiveness is a form of suffering, Christ accompanies the broken, leading both the guilty and the victimized through valleys of dry bones and signs of a coming resurrection.

Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

(1) Johann Christoph Arnold, Why Forgive? (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis books, 2010), 202.
(2) Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 125.

Temporarily Able Bodied

T-A-B (Temporarily Able-Bodied) $12.99

On Saturday, Sandra, Eunice, and I were able to help Jenny as she teamed up with prolific author and disability ministry specialist,  Dr. Jeff McNair, to help train World Impact missionaries to the inner city in how to rightly think about and understand those affected by disability, according to God’s eyes and will. 

It was a special time and a great time of reminder and value for me, even though I am a leader in disability ministry.  And that’s how it is, isn’t it?  Those of us with titles, experience, knowledge, etc. are often the ones who most need fresh reminding of why we do what we do in the first place.  This Slice of Infinity by Margaret Manning is a great essay for all of us to read and remember who we really are. – Arthur 

My friend Sylvia is a paraplegic. She has not been able to use her legs since she was a high school girl. A horrible accident took away her ability to walk or to run, and left her without any discernible feeling in the lower half of her body—her spine severed, the nerves do not receive the necessary information to register sensation or stimulation.

Prior to her accident, Sylvia was an aspiring athlete. Without the use of her legs, this aspiration would be put on hold, but not permanently. Though she is paralyzed in body, she is not paralyzed in spirit. And she eventually competed in several World Championships and in the Paralympic Games. Her determination to excel at world-class competitions, despite her injury, and her intention to live a full-life has been an immense inspiration to me.

Sylvia uses a term for people like me who have the use of our legs. We are “TAB’s”—Temporarily Able Bodied. Every day I wake up with a new ache or pain, or I see my stamina waning, I recognize the truth of her naming me a “TAB.” I truly am temporarily able bodied—at some point in my life, I will need assistance in many of my daily tasks.

Sylvia is not one to ask for help: she drives, works at least a 40 hour week and has traveled the world. She has mastered the art of navigating the world in a wheelchair. Yet, there are times when even this accomplished athlete needs some assistance. She is grateful for the technology that has developed excellent, lightweight wheelchairs. She is grateful for friends who can reach for the pan in the high cabinetry when we have gathered for home-cooked meals.  And she was grateful when we helped her out of the wheelchair and into the lake so she could swim one beautiful summer day not too many years ago. She welcomes the kind of assistance that develops her abilities in spite of her disability.

While I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to be physically paralyzed like my friend Sylvia, I certainly understand the emotional, spiritual and psychological paralysis that results from trauma or duress. After suffering my own form of paralyzing accident, I experienced what I could only describe as a numbing paralysis. While my body functioned, my mind and heart were paralyzed. I could not create any momentum to move me past the questions that imprisoned me or the doubts that bound me. Initiative fled away, drive and determination left me. I was stuck and unable to move. All that had propelled me forward in the past stalled, stopped, and froze. I was, practically speaking, immobile.

I know that my emotional, psychological and spiritual paralysis doesn’t compare to my friend Sylvia’s being a paraplegic. But it did help me understand what it must feel like to lack the freedom to move and to have a sense of being able.

The gospels are filled with stories about paralytics. But the story that always gets my attention occurs in Mark’s gospel. Jesus was teaching in Capernaum in a house that was filled to capacity with listeners. There was not any more room for anyone, let alone a paralytic being carried on a cot by four friends. Yet the crowded house would not deter these determined friends. They were so determined to get their friend to Jesus that they got up onto the roof of the house, with their paralyzed friend, removed the portion of the roof above where Jesus was teaching, and lowered their friend down on his pallet.(1)

I’m not sure how the owners of the house felt when part of their roof was removed, but Jesus, the gospel tells us, saw their faith—faith that went to extraordinary lengths to bring their friend to him. As a result of their faith, Jesus declared that the paralytic’s sins were forgiven. To demonstrate his authority to forgive sins, Jesus then heals him and tells him to “rise, take up your pallet and go home.” And immediately, the paralytic jumps up (perhaps for the first time) and went out before everyone so that “they were all amazed and glorified God.”

In periods of paralysis, we are forced to depend on others, perhaps even relying on the faith, courage, and strength of those who see our abilities even through our disability. Something very beautiful and healing occurs when we allow others to offer us assistance. In my own paralysis, friends gathered around to help me. They did the things I could not do any longer. They said the prayers on my behalf; they believed on my behalf. When I slowly began to move again, they held my arms and steadied my legs. I came to experience a kind of healing because of the assistance and help of my friends. Their faith inspired movement in me towards the God who heals. Indeed, those who are willing to carry the cots of their paralyzed friends embody God’s healing love and care.

There will always be times in life that inhibit forward movement—or any movement at all. In those times, we trust that there will be others to help carry us and care for us.  And when we are moving along, perhaps with such momentum that we could miss those lying in cots along our path, may the same kind of care and determination to help others cause us to stop, pick them up, and carry them with faith to Jesus.

Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.

Consider the Lilies

It was a Saturday morning and some of my family were out on a walk around the more secluded parts of the beautiful Orange Grove area of Pasadena, when suddenly Sandra started reading “Consider the Lilies,” written by our friend, Jill Carattini, out loud and without warning.  It spoke to us and graciously but firmly, like an iron hand in a velvet glove, elicited tasteful discomfort in my conscience, knowing full well that I succumb to the “anxious preoccupied life” it seeks to help detour.  Well, it succeeded, and I pray that it would keep succeeding in my life.  If you need a fresh and fragrant rescue from the tyranny of the now, read on. 

And for those of you non-readers (i.e. video watchers), please begin training yourself to be able to read.  It will serve you very well, especially if you are to behold a fuller, more complete expression of the delights of the Word Himself. – Arthur  

Wendell Berry has written a poem that haunts me frequently.  As a creative writer, the act of paying attention is both a spiritual and professional discipline. But far too often my aspirations for paying quality attention to everything dissolves into something more like attention deficit disorder. As it turns out, it is quite possible to see and not really see, to hear and not really hear. And this is all the more ironic when my very attempts to capture what I am seeing and hearing are the thing that prevent me from truly being present. Berry’s poem is about a man on holiday, who, trying to seize the sights and sounds of his vacation by video camera, manages to miss the entire thing.

…he stood with his camera preserving his vacation even as he was having it so that after he had had it he would still have it. It would be there. With a flick of a switch, there it would be. But he would not be in it. He would never be in it.(1)

I sometimes wonder if one of the most quoted sayings of Jesus is not often employed with a similar irony. “Consider the lilies,” Jesus said, “how they grow; they neither toil nor spin. Yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field…will he not much more clothe you?  Therefore, do not worry” (Matthew 6:28-31). Typically, Jesus is quoted here as giving a helpful word against worry. And he is. But worry is not the only command he articulates. Consider the lilies, he said. We hear the first instruction peripherally, hurriedly, as mere set up for the final instruction of the saying. And in so doing, we miss something great, perhaps even something vital, both in the means and in the end. With our rationalistic sensibilities, we gloss over consideration of the lilies; ironically, in an attempt to consider the real work Jesus is asking us to do.

But what if considering the lilies is the work, the antidote to anxious, preoccupied lives? What if attending to beauty, to the ephemeral, to the fleeting details of a distracted world is a command Jesus wants us to take seriously in and of itself?

It is with such a conviction that artist Makoto Fujimura not only paints, but elsewhere comments on Mary and her costly pouring of perfume on the feet of Jesus. The anger of Judas and the disgust of the others are all given in rational terms, the cacophony of their reaction attempting to drown out her quiet act of attention: That bottle would have cost over a year’s wages. The poor could have used that money. This sinful woman clings to a holy man’s feet. Does he not see who it is who touches him? Their response to her and her act of beauty exposes their own inattention to a world beyond the one they see—to their own peril. As Fujimura writes, “Pragmatism, legalism, and greed cannot comprehend the power of ephemeral beauty. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness; the opposite of beauty is legalism.  Legalism is hard determinism that slowly strangles the soul. Legalism injures by giving pragmatic answers to our suffering.”(2) The corollary, of course, is that beauty can offer healing; that paying attention, even to fleeting glimpses of glory, is deeply restorative.

When Jesus asks the world to consider the lilies, to consider beauty in the midst of all the ashes around us, his request is full of promise, for he is both the Source of beauty and its Subject. Paying attention to the ephemeral, being willing like Mary to risk and to recognize beauty, is in and of itself restorative because it is paying attention to him. Here, both the anxiety-addicted and the attention-overloaded can find solace in a different sort of kingdom: one in which there is room for the paradox of a fleeting world with eternity in its heart.

But perhaps Jesus also instructs the world to consider the lilies because it is characteristic of God’s concern for us. The daily liturgy of lilies comes with unceasing care and attention for all who will see it, the gift of a God who revels in the creation of yet another flower, the details of another sunset, the discovery of even one lost soul. Consider the lilies; how they grow. They neither toil, nor spin. 

Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia. 

(1) Wendell Berry, “The Vacation,” Selected Poems, (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1998), 157. (2) Makoto Fujimura, “The Beautiful Tears,” Tabletalk, September, 2010.

The Audacity Of Imitation

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One thing I like to do is to expose TD’ers to good Christian thinking and writing.  JIll Carattini is a friend and a prolific Christian writer, always getting me to think through an angle or nuance of Scripture, God, or the Christian journey that I hadn’t yet considered.  A favorite of several TD counselors, I thought I’d give you a taste.  She is the managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, their daily essay/devotional, which can be found on the front page of the TD web site.  Enjoy.

– Arthur

Unflattering as an adjective, insulting as a noun, imitation has fallen on particularly hard times. No one wants to be an imitation of a favorite songwriter, a fake impersonator of the grammy-award winning original. No restaurant proprietor wants to be reviewed as the “imitation” of a famed eatery; inherent in the classification is the notion of being a lesser version of the real thing. An idea is never lauded for being a good imitator of another. And imitation vanilla is rarely, if ever, invited to a cookbook. Originality is by far the more the accepted fashion of the day. And the pressure to be original—to be different than, better than, more than—is both constant and intense. It is the modern way of distinguishing oneself after all, whether applying for college or making a pithy tweet. From impressions to possessions to thoughts, being original seems to be everything.

The pressure may be subtle but it is often overwhelming. It is quite likely the reason why social media seems exhausting to me, why meeting someone with similar ideas can just as easily promote worry as it might a sense of camaraderie, or why I sometimes delay writing out of dread that it’s just all been said before. The pressure to be the inventor and not the imitator, the original and not the clone, the drive to make a new statement about oneself ad nauseam is both a strange and exhausting task.

I was thinking about this trend as I read some of the familiar, distinguishing, oft-quoted lines of Martin Luther King Jr. recently. In light of our need for incessantly original tweets and blog entries, it is interesting to note that King’s most trusted advisors were horrified when they heard him launch into his “I have a Dream” speech that fateful day in Washington. To them, this speech was played out. It was old and tired and not at all the new statement they were hoping to make for the Civil Rights Movement. He had given versions of this speech in other places and on other occasions, not the least of which a crowd of twenty-five thousand in Detroit. According to those who had helped him write the new speech the night before, they agreed they needed something far more original to make the greatest mark. Together they wrote a new speech that night, but on the day of the event, King set novelty aside for a less original dream.

Like his advisors, our modern allegiance to originality might make it difficult to imagine staring at a crowd of two hundred thousand, charged with a new and bold opportunity to make a statement heard by more of the United States than ever before, and deciding in a split moment not to say something new. Thankfully, Dr. King had the courage to believe that what we needed was not reinvention but, in fact, very old news. His acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize reflected a similar conviction:

“I have the audacity to believe that… what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will will proclaim the rule of the land. ‘And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.’ I still believe that we shall overcome.”(1)

To those inclined to obey the unrelenting orders of repackaging, reinventing, and re-presenting oneself ever-anew, proclaiming an ancient hope, being a follower of an ancient way, indeed, imitating a rabbi from the first century, likely seems as boring and unattractive as it is strange. Who wants to be an imitator, let alone an imitator of an antiquated mind and crucified body?

It may well be one of the most countercultural stances the church takes today. The Christian is an imitation. She walks a curiously ancient path toward a Roman cross of torture; he stands, unoriginally, with a humiliated body that bore the sorrow and pain of crucifixion. The way of Christ is not new. But the invitation of this broken body is paradoxical in this world as the broken body itself. For more curious than the invitation to be a follower in a world looking for trailblazers is the invitation to follow one who, though equal to God, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, humbling himself to the point of death on a humiliating cross. Imitations of this unordinary love might almost be as gripping as the real thing.

Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.