Faith, Holiness, and Judgment Part 2: A Heritage

Maybe it’s some lost sense of home for the farm I grew up on, but I’ve always loved The Waltons. The advice John Walton gives John-Boy in this scene reflects the kind of character that my dad has been in my life. In a lot of ways, I think my family grew up with a Walton perspective on life. And I always admired the faith of John Walton.

I often joke about being a faithless leader in my church. But to some extent, it reflects a sincere honesty. I have trouble seeing faith as some ethereal well of good wishes despite a harsh reality. My faith is a little more grounded, and, I think, a little more Hebraic. Some might call my practical sensibility faithless.

A Christian from the church my parents attended in Kansas City once came into my dad’s automotive business with a broken car and no means to pay for service. “I have faith,” he told my dad. “I’m glad you do because I don’t,” my father responded. As far as I could gather from his retelling, my dad sent him on his way.

I’m going to pretend to be smart for a moment and talk existentially. As the message of Christ disseminated in Western culture, it took on Greek and Roman ideas. This Christian philosophy viewed humans as di- and trichotomies between our body, soul, and spirit. Platonic and neo-Platonic concepts of dualism saw a divide in reality between ideas (perfect and non-corporeal) and the physical world (imperfect and spatial). According to Dr. Dennis Bratcher, a retired professor of Old Testament, these divisions are entirely unscriptural:

The Hebraic view that dominates Scripture does not conceptualize human beings this way. There is only a whole person animated (alive) by the breath of God. They are either alive, and have breath (same word translated as ‘spirit’), or they are dead and do not have breath. The biblical writers could certainly distinguish between different aspects of humanity, such as the difference between thought and hunger, or between pain and love, but never developed dualistic notions of a person being made up of divisible parts. The person was the whole. Anything less than the whole, was not a person. This extended even to how they conceptualized death. For us, it is a biological fact. For them, anything that diminished life was a form of death. All this says, from the biblical view there cannot be a person without a body.

That’s why the biblical conception of afterlife requires a bodily resurrection that has a physical dimension, including scars!1

The kind of existence that Bratcher and Rob Bell refer to is haunting. It’s a spiritualness and faith utterly contrary to the non-corporeal model espoused by most Christians. Breathing—our most basic physical existence—is our spiritual reality. They’re whole. The spirit of God, Bell suggests, isn’t abstract. It’s grounded in our everyday existence. So, living a faith-filled life isn’t an elusive state of mind. It’s an awareness based in physical reality. And, as we’ll discover, it’s a trust that doesn’t seek to overcome death by wishing it away but by mustering perseverance despite it.

I was working on a church budget the other day and basically told my youth pastor that a certain economic pursuit was impossible. “Nothing is impossible with Jesus, Johnny,” he said. I replied, “Paul said that before he met me.”

I know. You’re thinking, who does this kid think he is? Truthfully, I have an ego problem. But that’s not all. I know I’m right.

soil-hands

In Benefit of the Doubt, Greg Boyd offers a model of faith that’s based in uncertainty. If you’ve conceived of faith the way I used to, you’re probably confused how “faith” and “uncertain” could be in the same sentence. Hear me out.

As we’ve been discussing, our entire sense of life and worth should come from what Jesus thinks about us—which is that he died for us. Boyd says, “Anything other than the love God revealed on Calvary that we turn to for life [our sense of worth and purpose] is an idol that eventually ends up sucking life from us rather than giving life to us.”2 Ben Witherington, Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary, says “the Hebrew name of God Yahweh (or Yaveh) . . . is [connected to] the Hebrew word for life (Hayah).”3 This suggests that anything we base our existence (life) on outside of God’s identity (his name, i.e. life) is an idol—consequently breaking four of the ten commandments: an awareness of God sustaining us, placing a source of life above him, worshiping a false god, and taking his name (life) in vain.4

In churches, especially, we often get our life from what we believe. We form communities based on biblical doctrine—and churches split on disagreements over theology. We label anyone who doesn’t believe our brand of Christianity to be unchristian. And notoriously bad theological communities are categorized as cults. We’re quick to call leaders heretics who teach anything that doesn’t conform with our ideology. Trust me, I’m guilty of this. I’ve seen this. If you doubt it, just Google “Rob Bell Love Wins.”

This isn’t just friendly debate. When people challenge beliefs in which we place our identity, they’re not just arguing ideas—they’re arguing people. When we base our existence on what we believe, anyone challenging our beliefs inherently devalues our existence and undermines our source of life. This is the stuff people fight and die for. Just look at history. Literally, any of it.

Boyd claims that this certainty-seeking faith is disastrous not only to people but to Christianity. When we equate Christianity with the rightness of our beliefs, we reduce God into our myopic worldview: anything or anyone outside our mental framework is threatening our existence as Christ followers.

But there’s an alternative, Boyd argues. And it’s found in your Bible.

He studies the story of Jacob wrestling God (Gen. 32:22-32). He starts simply by asking why God would wrestle Jacob, and perhaps more profoundly, why the narrative says God could not overpower Jacob.5 Boyd provides a beautiful answer in the form of a story—him wrestling with his five-year-old grandson who pretends to be Wolverine:

Wolverine then proceeds to strike me with a mighty blow or to zap me with the whatever-it-is zapper energy that comes out of his fingers and eyes. (Soel’s version of Wolverine is clearly a composite of all X-men—the little cheater!) I, of course, resist his mighty blows and zapper energy with my magical force field as long as I can, but it invariably fails me and I dramatically fly backward on the couch in a dazed state.6

As Soel and I toil over the fate of the universe, I’m cleverly stealing the long, hard hugs he would otherwise hesitate giving me, and we are, in fact, wrestling our way into a closer relationship.7

He claims this is the kind of relationship that God wants for humanity. So why did God wrestle Jacob? The answer, he suggests, is in the name:

Apparently willing to do whatever it takes to receive a “blessing” from his wrestling partner, Jacob gives him his name, at which point the Lord immediately informs him that his name is about to change. It seems likely that this is the “blessing” he is giving to Jacob as a reward for his tenacious wrestling. From now on, the Lord says, Jacob will be called “Israel” (Yisra’el). And the reason for this change, the Lord tells Jacob, is “because you have struggled with God and with human beings and have overcome.”8

The precise blessing Jacob sought was a transformation of his identity—his name. God’s blessing is that Jacob and his descendants will be known for their struggle:

Among ancient Jews—and this is true for most ancient cultures—a person’s name revealed their core identity and character. So, by giving Jacob the name of “Israel,” the Lord was revealing something profoundly important about Jacob and his descendants, “the Israelites.” He was revealing that a distinctive characteristic of these people—the ones he called his “chosen people”—would be that they would be willing to struggle with God and with other humans, as their forefather had done.9

As with God’s name, we see an existence defined by our identity. Israel’s identity is his struggle with God. The very fabric of his faith and life is this relationship, one that is defined by hardship and physical reality, not the lack of it. Boyd says, “In sharp contrast to many today who seek the comfortable feeling of certainty as a way of feeling at peace with God, biblical heroes are better known for their willingness to be uncomfortable and to honestly wrestle with God.”10 This is echoed throughout the history of God’s people. Boyd examines the faith of Abraham, Job, and Habakkuk, among other Old-Testament writers who hold nothing back in their struggle, both accosting God and praising him:

As is apparent is so many Old Testament heroes, the faith of Habakkuk was obviously nothing like the certainly-seeking, doubt-shunning faith of so many today. Instead of avoiding cognitive dissonance by piously slapping the “mystery” label on an apparent contradiction, Habakkuk boldly goes to the mat with God. This is the kind of faith these descendants of Jacob were “blessed” with. And far from being offended by this raw honesty, God is the One who blessed them with it! This apparently is precisely the kind of honest relationship, and kind of honest faith, God is looking for!11

These stories, like, for example, that of Job, portray God valuing honesty and authenticity over correctness. At the end of the story, God rebukes Job for speaking ignorantly but also accosts Job’s friends for “not [speaking] what is right, as my servant Job has.”12 The rightness here, Boyd argues, cannot be correctness because God just rebuked him for it! Boyd submits, “The answer, I believe, becomes clear when we look more deeply in to the original Hebrew. The word for ‘right’ (kûwn) has the connotation of something that is ‘straight.’ Depending on the context, the word can have the connotation of ‘true’ or ‘accurate,’ or it can have the connotation of ‘straightforward’ or ‘honest.’ For all the reasons I just shared, I’m convinced this latter meaning is what is intended in this passage.”13 The characteristic defense that God gives of his servant is that he talks straight, even if he’s wrong. Consequently, the defining aspect of our faith, or how we relate to God, should be authenticity over rightness.

shepard.jpg

The model of faith Boyd presents is grounded in relationship. It’s a real, physical, concrete substance. It’s a communion that I’ve argued is substantive, that is, it’s meaningful and based in reality. We’re born from dust. This kind of faith isn’t ethereal or wishful thinking. It’s a trust that finds shelter through the relationship despite uncertainty. It embraces struggle and is defined by it. Faith is a person whose core identity is established in the personhood of God, whose life and breath and existence are found on Calvary. I think this is why Jesus says, “I am the truth.”14 I think this is what my pastor calls abiding in Christ. I think this is what Jesus’s parable of the grapevine was all about.

We’re called to this model of faith. That’s why Paul declares that followers of Jesus are descendants of Abraham. Boyd says “all who place their trust in Christ are called ‘the Israel of God’ (Gal. 6:16).”15 To believe in Christ is to have an Israel kind of faith, that is, a faith that wrestles with God.

This is the kind of faith Jesus had.

In his moment of crisis on the cross, Jesus calls out, “‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”16 The cross isn’t weakness. This is the quintessential revelation of God, according to Paul, John, and the writer of Hebrews.17 And certainly, the cross is not only the central defining moment of all the gospels but of the entire biblical narrative.18 Boyd writes:

And so, in the same nightmarish moment that Jesus perfectly revealed the true God to us, he perfectly revealed the true nature of faith to us. His cry demonstrates that cultivating a faith-relationship with God has nothing to do with how appropriately religious things appear, but everything to do with honesty and authenticity of the relationship.19

Faith is an authentic relationship between Son and Father, one in which we’re invited to participate. “God dwells in us,” Bell says. The foundation of a faith-based life is relationship. It’s a relationship that’s honest about uncertainty but trusts and loves nonetheless. It’s dirty. It’s messy. It’s not based on many beliefs but just one: that we’re loved.

This faith is ultimately covenantal. Between covenants and contracts, Boyd writes, “The most basic difference is that a contract is a legal arrangement made between people, while a covenant is a pledge of trust that involves the people themselves.”20 Faith is spelled r-i-s-k, I’ve heard evangelical preachers say. And that’s true. Covenant is a risky business. It’s being vulnerable enough to allow authentic relation to form—but also to risk one’s quality of life and wellbeing on another person.21 Boyd asks, “Will you trust that God is as beautiful as he’s revealed himself to be in the crucified Christ and thus dare to peel away all facades, face whatever ugliness you find in your soul, and offer it up to him? The very act of baring our souls to him in this way allows God to reveal greater depths of his love, as he continually proves that our sin is no obstacle to his love. And this is precisely how God frees us from our sin.”22

Anne Lamott says, “You can’t get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth.”23

My faith is that, in spite of all this uncertainty, I trust my father.  It sounds like one of those cliché tracts you find in restaurant bathrooms. But that’s where I’m at. My faith is that I struggle with life. It’s hard living through this “cognitive dissonance,” which is Boyd’s way of saying that I’m just a hot mess.24

I want the kind of faith that in the face of hell cries out to God. I think God would rather hear our confused and wailing cries than our pious silence.

I want the kind of faith that talks straight, like John Walton.

I want an authentic and honest faith.

I want a faith that doesn’t hold back.

I want a faith that searches for the truth.

I want a faith that questions the hellish nightmare that is evil unleashed in the world. But I want a faith that transforms the world because of a simple trust, that in spite of everything, I confess that I am loved.

I want a faith like this:

Part Three: A Lighthouse


End Notes:

[1] You can find his wonderful article here: http://www.crivoice.org/bodysoul.html.
[2] Gregory Boyd, Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), 62.
[3] See par. 6: http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2007/02/rob-bells-nooma-videos-11-15.html.
[4] Exodus 20:2-7.
[5] Boyd, 78.
[6] Ibid., 79.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 80.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 82.
[11] Ibid., 83.
[12] Job 42:7.
[13] Boyd, 87.
[14] John 14:6
[15] Boyd, 91
[16] Matthew 27:46
[17] Cf. 1 John 4:8, 1 John 3:16, John 3:16, Romans 5:8, Hebrews 1:3, 1 Corinthians 2:2. See Boyd, 94-96.
[18] See John 5:39, http://reknew.org/2012/05/christ-centered-or-cross-centered/, and http://reknew.org/2014/01/the-cruciform-center-part-1-how-matthew-mark-and-luke-reveal-a-cruciform-god/.
[19] Boyd, 97.
[20] Ibid., 114.
[21] See Ibid.
[22] Boyd, 111.
[23] Qtd. in Boyd, 91.
[24] On “cognitive dissonance,” cf. Boyd, 31 and 44.

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