A Divine Coincidence
It was a divine coincidence—one of those experiences in life that make you wonder if God likes to play pranks on His children, not to tease us, but to surprise and encourage us with his mysterious workings behind the scenes of our lives.
I received a phone call from a stranger who lived not far from me, telling me he thought he might have a Bible of mine. He said he was about to throw out some books he had kept for years and found my name in one that was an old King James Bible. I had lived in two different states for many years since growing up in Minnesota. And now as an adult I had returned to the area where I grew up, yet had no idea that I had lost the Bible and didn’t miss it. He brought it to me, saying, “I couldn’t throw out a book like the Bible, and something told me I should try to look up the name in the cover.”
Seeing it for the first time was surreal, like a trip back in time. It was my confirmation Bible. I couldn’t believe it. It had my name and the date, 1968, on the title page. It even had my scribbles on the pages where I had drawn during boring church services.
It was given to me in seventh grade, and at about that time I had made several recommitments of my life to Jesus my Savior with no idea of how to serve him as Lord. Looking at that Bible brought to mind my lifelong struggle to make sense of the passages for which my theology didn’t have room.
Back then, I was being taught a reduced gospel. As we all do, when I read Scripture, I wore a pair of glasses that interpreted what I read through teachings and sermons that filtered out or spiritualized calls to obedience that didn’t make sense—in the reduced gospel. I used the hermeneutical gymnastics I had been taught to work around the fact that these passages seemed to give the idea that God really expected us to live out these truths. For most of my story, the Bible had been “halfway” relevant to me and to life. I learned that the first half of each of Paul’s epistles were for us. They explained grace for forgiveness. But the last half, with all the attitudinal and behavioral stuff, was not relevant. All the admonitions to pursue a different kind of life were not to be taken literally or seriously, except as ways to remind us that heaven was not in our reach.
Another example of this “halfway” application would be Jesus’ admonition not to worry in the Sermon on the Mount, or Paul’s version of that in Philippians: that we shouldn’t worry about “anything,” literally meaning “nothing”—no worries at all. That was perfectionism to me. And the goal of that idealistic passage (I had been told) was to drive us back to the cross for grace and forgiveness, not actually to attempt to live a life like that.
And yet what I was discovering just at the time this Bible landed in my hands was that I could really be a transformed person. Now. I was learning that while God doesn’t expect us to be perfect in this life, I can enjoy much more of his perfecting here and now than I had been led to believe (or maybe disbelieve). I was recovering the Bible from being a bunch of impossible platitudes. It became a metaphor for the new life God had given me.
The scriptures were suddenly coming alive in me. What had been mixed messages about some life beyond our reach, with Jesus and Paul contradicting each other—one seeming to teach a mountain of impossible ideals and the other warning that trying to live those ideals would result in “works” righteousness and a denial of God’s good news—became one piece. My head knowledge was now becoming heart and life knowledge, no longer split off from each other. Truths that were once a fragmented and confusing bunch of mixed messages about some life beyond our reach suddenly became one piece, with Jesus and Paul agreeing rather than contradicting each other. This occasioned seeing my life as needing some repair to put together what had been a “spiritual life” separated from an unchanged “real life.”
Besides being something here and now, not just in heaven, I came to see that I had largely placed transformation in only one part of my life, a part called “my spiritual life,” which resulted in living a kind of double life, with my “real life” unaffected by my “spiritual life.” I had my devotions and considered myself to have a good “spiritual life.” I knew and studied the scriptures as well as any pastor I knew. I even memorized verses. I was very busy with Christian service and rather proud of how much I was doing for God and our church. I didn’t understand why my professional and devotional life didn’t have much to do with how I treated my wife and son.
But as I grew in my new journey, I became aware that my “real life” and my “spiritual life” were two different lives that I was living, and I had been promoting this same life in my preaching without even being aware of it. I had been asking people to attend to their spiritual lives—which meant having their devotions and going to church. This involved attending preaching and worship services, participating in programs, and serving at church. Were their real lives as untouched as mine? Did they notice that too? I began to notice that when someone asked, “How is your spiritual life?” he or she was usually asking if you have been practicing spiritual disciplines or been involved with church, not asking about the spirit or quality of your relationships or character.
I began to see that all of life is spiritual, and to split off religious activities as “my spiritual life” betrayed the fact that the rest of my life was not considered grounds for transformation. A person’s whole life in all its dimensions needs to be transformed and must be more than just a “spiritual life” of church activity or practicing some disciplines laid on top of the unchanged reality of a person’s life. This includes the areas such as mind (thoughts and feelings), body, spirit/heart/will, and social relationships. In Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard explains, “When successful, spiritual formation (or really, re-formation) unites the divided heart and life of the individual, that person can then bring remarkable harmony into the groups where he or she participates” (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002, 30).
Moving more wholly into my real life in transformation not only brought this harmony into my own life; I also found a centripetal force bringing renewed life to my marriage, family, church, and even those around my everyday non-religious world! As I began to deal with the split-off quality of my own life, I began to see the places of disharmony in other areas—my marriage, my nuclear family, my family of origin.
This dissonance was evident at church. We went to church, but didn’t often have church with each other. And the church talked a lot about ministry to the world, but it was not in the world in any meaningful, real life way—there weren’t any natural, everyday-world relationships, just “spiritual” activities like outreach programs. I realized that I didn’t have one non-Christian friend, let alone any close Christian friends at church.
Something was wrong in our church and wrong in me. And I had to start with me.
My anger, control, rage, lust, people pleasing, worry and fear, and my general “drivenness” were split off from God’s touch, contributing to the lack of harmony with others. At best, I confessed these sins for forgiveness of the guilt, only to fall into the same patterns over and over. I lived a life of “sin management” but never thought repentance and real change or mortification of these sins was possible.
Mine was the typical Evangelical testimony. I had experienced a conversion that involved a real encounter with Jesus and his forgiveness due to some real repentance and a new birth. But since I was not taught how to make repentance a life habit for a growing and qualitatively different kind of life, I soon settled into the pattern of trying to recapitulate my first experience, often referred to in Evangelical circles as “restoring your first love,” by one rededication or recommitment after another, in an attempt to jump start my spiritual life all over again.
The despair and shame that compound like a high interest rate on a bad loan after many such recommitments store up a sense that we are hopelessly out of the reach of God’s power and love. They become a vicious and powerful tool for the enemy to turn us back to relieving this stress by the same old sins we are trying to escape. Instead of escaping, we form our habits around those sins more deeply each time.
Knowing Right Doctrine; Getting Life Wrong
Evangelicals have prided themselves on being biblical and teaching the Bible. We know what we believe and why we believe what we believe. This is a good thing. Beliefs are important. But when our beliefs remain mostly facts, propositions, and information and do not translate into life, our beliefs are not right enough. In fact, we can be dead wrong in our lives while being dead right in our information. Most of our church programming involves teaching of right beliefs, from sermons to Sunday school to Wednesday night children’s and youth groups. Even our “applications” of doctrine more often than not boil down to more information about how to think right about what to do. They rarely offer an actual plan on how to live or embody the truth presented.
Once on a trip to Jamaica, I met a heavily dreadlocked, street-shop Rastafarian who was peddling reggae CDs of his Caribbean religion’s leader, Bob Marley. After sharing our favorite Marley tunes and looking at his merchandise, I took a chance on trying to learn more about the religious culture of Rastafarians and what they believed. I asked, “Can you tell me what Rastas believe, their doctrines?”
He closed his eyes in chagrin and then shook his beaded dreads to the rhythm of a lyric praising “Yah,” and while wagging his finger at me with a smile, sang, “Look, mon, Rasta is no belief. It is a life, mon. We live the Rasta way, Yah’s way.” His answer woke me up to my Evangelical bias that belief is “head knowledge” or doctrine, rather than the knowledge of the living of a kind of life, a way of life.
It is ironic that the first name for the group of those who believed in Jesus, recorded in Acts 9, is not “Christians.” That word came later and was actually a term used to mock Christ followers—not what Christians would probably have called themselves. Paul, then going by the name Saul and persecuting the church, is said to have laid his coat down, presumably so as to be free to throw stones at those who called themselves “Followers of the Way.” Like the Rasta, I encountered, Saul was facing a group who were not just giving mental assent to some beliefs, but were living a kind of life that was so powerful in them they were willing to lose their lives to keep it. Saul and his contemporaries were so threatened by a people who were true followers that they felt the need to wipe them out. Later they would be called “Christians,” or literally, “little Christs.” This derisive term mocked them for their commitment to live the same kind of life, even unto death, as their Messiah. Outsiders saw them as still part of or a sect of the Jewish movement, not a unique religious expression.
There were other occasions in my life when this awakening occurred, and the circumstances were unusual. Perhaps they needed to be, like the surprise from my Rasta teacher, to get me out of my controlling paradigm and rigid idea of how change happens, in order to replace it with a new one. But I didn’t expect it to be at a conference on best business practices for megachurches.
Tell Them “How To Live Well”
I had taken our staff to a special conference for large churches, which concentrated on learning best business practices, such as being “built to last,” one-to-one marketing, how to be a learning organization, etc. One of the speakers was Peter Senge, author of the business book The Fifth Discipline and a guru in developing the “learning organization.” We were eager to apply his insights on developing a culture of learning to our organizations. As other pastors from the largest churches in America and I watched him begin his presentation via satellite feed from an office at Yale, we were surprised by his sudden change of topic. From the big screen he apologized for the switch:
I know you want to hear about the learning organization and hope to help you with what I have, but want to share something other than the material of my book. I am a Buddhist, as some of you may know, and my tradition emphasizes how to live well. I don’t presume to be an expert on your tradition, but I am concerned for Christians today that they have concentrated on right doctrinal beliefs and not on what it means to live a good life.
He then went on to tell us that from his study of our Christian tradition, he concluded that we could give people help in living: “Go back and study your traditions, and you will find teaching on how to live well. This is what people are most interested in. The best-selling books are mainly about two topics, money management and physical health, showing that people aren’t concerned with what to believe but how to live,” he said. He spoke like a prophet, and I wondered if the crowd of conferees heard the powerful message he was bringing. Right belief (in terms of doctrinal correctness) was still high on my list, but I was challenged with Senge’s call to help people live well and to find the lost parts of my tradition that taught it.
It rang true to what I had been reading from Paul, in 1 Timothy 4:7–8: “Train yourself to be godly, for physical training is of some value, but godliness has value… for both the present life and the life to come” (NIV). We were trying to learn how to be learning organizations for the wrong reasons: we wanted to build our organizations, to grow them into big and well-oiled machines, to assimilate people into our existing corporate cultures. We presumed that our current kind of life was okay, not seeing that our people needed a different kind of life, eternal life now. Bible instruction is split off from and lost to the teaching that actually shows one how to live it. And we think that singing some songs about it and taking some notes on it for an hour or two each week will bring that life to us.
When we treat the Bible as just a textbook of doctrines to know and rules to follow, we misuse it and fall short of what God intended, a life-changing encounter with him. Even worse, by doing so we might be making it an idol, falsely thinking that in this practice we are becoming more spiritual, when we are really keeping God safely out of our way. Jesus told the Pharisees much the same thing when he admonished them in John 5:39–40, “You diligently search the scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the same scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (NIV).
Becoming “Living Bibles”
Could studying the Bible, even diligent and intensive study, be a hindrance to living actually in obedience to it? Could our ability to articulate doctrines and Bible teachings fool us into thinking we are somehow fulfilling them in our lives? In a booklet I found at a retreat center, written by Roman Catholic scholar Karl Rahner to Roman Catholics for the purpose of understanding “Fundamentalist Protestants” (his term for all kinds of Evangelicals), there is a chapter on how study of the Bible can become “bibliolatry,” or worship of the Bible and not God. There is a cartoon illustration depicting the throne of God in heaven. On the throne is a big black, gold-letter-covered “Holy Bible” where Jesus or God should be. The author’s point is that the study of the Bible can become an idol that replaces the actual worship of God. Roman Catholics since Vatican II have emphasized Bible reading and study, admiring Protestants’ command of Scripture. But Protestants are flocking to Roman Catholic retreat centers to learn simple ways of meditating on short passages in order to get the Scriptures from our heads into our hearts and our lives.
Right doctrine and belief are good only insofar as they issue forth in the life they describe. In fact, to the surprise of many, the Bible will someday be unnecessary. The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 says that someday knowledge and prophecy will no longer be needed, for we will know in fullness, the fullness of experiencing what we know. We will become the Bibles ourselves. Our lives will be a perfect demonstration of what we could only imagine or hold conceptually, having become “living letters,” as Paul says we are to be in 2 Corinthians 3. Did he have in mind Jeremiah’s promise that the Law would actually be written on our hearts and in our lives?
Another Kind of Word
God didn’t write his Word only on paper through the Bible, though. He had written in some other places with his own hand.
There are only three times that God himself “writes” in Scripture, and each time it is with his finger and not a pen. And what he writes on doesn’t keep that well—or at all. Moses received the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, which had been inscribed by God’s own finger. These tablets were destroyed by Moses within days, or even hours, when he came down from receiving them on Mount Sinai and saw the people already breaking them. God’s writing of those laws was very quickly lost to us. As Jeremiah explained it, and the prophets bemoaned, these commandments were not in God’s people, but on tablets, or even reduced to hollow traditions and rules by Jesus’ time. The second tablets were chiseled by hands other than God’s and were placed not in people’s hearts and lives, but in the Ark of the Covenant in the tabernacle—a place devoid of people, except for one day a year when the priest went in to admit to God that those laws were constantly being broken.
Fast forward some six hundred years, and we find God next writing with his finger on a wall at a party given by the Babylonian king, Belshazzar. He was using the Israelites’ temple vessels for wine cups to entertain his subjects in a drunken celebration of his empire and pride. The party was crashed when God’s finger appeared writing the words, “Numbered! Weighed! Divided!” An older and forgotten court official was brought out of retirement to interpret these words, and the prophet Daniel told them the party was over for the Babylonians—the Persians were to take over that very night. Again, this writing was lost just as quickly as the tablets when those walls were burned and destroyed.
If Israel had a hard time keeping God’s ways, the world around them fared no better. Ecclesiastes says eternity is written on the hearts of us all, and the Prophets say the animals have more sense of God’s ways than we do. Paul points out that even those without God’s Law (or a Bible), have the requirements of those laws written on their hearts, as evidenced by their consciences, even when they might not yet embody those laws in their lives.
Fast forward another six hundred years, and we find Jesus writing with his finger in the sand while defending a woman about to be stoned for adultery. Whatever he wrote can only be guessed at—sand is not a very good book, either.
The only time God writes something that seems to stick is when God writes his laws on the hearts of his people by the Spirit of Jesus, as Jeremiah predicted he would. Paul even said we are letters from God that others can actually experience with their senses; we smell of either life or death. His picture of us as being embodied letters from God to the world is not just a symbol or metaphor, for we are to be the real “living bible” for others to read.
I remember when Ken Taylor’s Living Bible edition came out in the 1970s and the great help it was to so many because its paraphrasing of earlier biblical translations made the truths of Scripture so much more accessible for everyone. The same is true today of Eugene Peterson’s The Message. But at most, these translations are second best.
In fact, the best Bible anyone can read is you and I, and the church in all its diversity across time and space, gender and ethnicities, all together as God’s new humanity and creation. We are becoming Bibles.
One day, the prophecies of Isaiah and Joel will be completely fulfilled, and there will be no need for a teacher or Bible. The promise that not one jot or tittle will be lost and that the word of God will not pass away, even though heaven and earth do, is not about printed or copied, bound and sold books, parchments, or even e-books. We are the embodiment of the indestructible fullness of God’s ultimate “speech act.” And we are being made so in the printing and reproduction of God’s perfect icon, his Son Jesus. I suppose that makes us icons, too, pictures in human flesh of what God intended when he made us in his image. In his likeness in Christ, now we no longer have just the requirements of his law and ways on our hearts, but instead the very fulfilling and keeping of them in our minds, hearts, lips, eyes, hands, and feet!
A Prayer for Transformation
A prayer of St. Bernard of Clairvaux both illustrates and calls out to God for the transformation of our real lives with what we know in our heads. Here is a prayer of a “saint” who is something of a contradiction for our time, in that he wrote so wonderfully about experiencing God’s love, but was also one of the main originators and proponents of the bloody Crusades that started around the first millennium. We might be tempted to stand in judgment, but we are not such good “living bibles” yet ourselves, so perhaps his prayer can be ours too.
Jesus, the very thought of thee with sweetness fills my breast. But greater still thy face to see and in thy presence rest. —Bernard of Clairvaux