Pondering Genesis

FullSizeRender 5This morning, I made a rather impromptu decision to try something that I’ve wanted to do for a while: read the entire Bible through during the month of January. I remember, back in 2007 when I took a preaching class from him, Dwight Nelson mentioning that he tries to do this to begin every year. It gives quite a bird’s eye view of Scripture.

So that’s what I set forth to do this morning, reading the first 41 chapters of Genesis. It took me about 90 minutes. And it was well worth it!

To me, reading the Bible this way is exciting, providing more to sink one’s teeth into than simply dropping in and out of a few chapters from the Old and New Testaments for 365 days, hardly able to get any momentum.

Though there are many “big picture” ideas I gleaned from my reading this morning, one of the insights that jumped out at me the most was tracking the sexual morality of the Biblical characters. To be more specific, Joseph’s amazing behavior in Genesis 39 is presented in drastic relief compared to the patriarchs – God’s patriarchs – that came before him.

To a large degree, the book of Genesis is shaped – almost exclusively so – by the sexual misdeeds of its main characters, all of whom constitute God’s chosen people. Abraham impregnates his wife’s maidservant Hagar (chap. 16); Lot does the same with his two daughters (19); Esau marries an Ishmaelite to get back at his father, in addition to practicing polygamy (28); Jacob marries sisters and impregnates both their maids (29-30); Reuben sleeps with one of those maids (35); and, of course, Judah – from whose lineage the Messiah eventually would come – has sex with his daughter-in-law, thinking she’s a prostitute (38).

This is not even to mention the intentions of Pharaoh with Sarai (12), Abimelech with Sarai (20), or Abimelech with Rebekah (26); nor is it to mention the men of Sodom with the two angels (19), or Shechem’s “violation” of Dinah (34).

By the time one gets through chapter 38 of Genesis, one is overwhelmed with the amount of sexual promiscuity recounted. It forces the reader into grappling with how to reconcile such behavior with the fact of those same people’s chosenness. How can these people both engage in such sexual promiscuity and yet be God’s chosen – and continue to be God’s chosen even after their sexual deviance?

Essentially, by the time chapter 39 rolls around, I had resigned myself to the recognition that these men lived a long time ago – and, in fact, a long time after the perfection of Eden as well. Simply put, they lived in a time of great moral darkness, a time when in “ignorance” God “winked” at their misdeed (Acts 17:30, KJV) – both because they had ceased to walk with God as Adam and Eve did and because they were still 2000 years from the full-blown light of Calvary.

So when the story of Joseph comes around in chapter 39, the reader would perhaps be excused in anticipating another defeat to the goddess of sexuality – especially when the narrative is so poignantly set up. Moses sets the scene (made even more poignant in the Hebrew, which I have read in the past when I’ve slowed down): Potiphar’s wife “cast longing eyes on Joseph” (v. 7); she spoke to him “day by day” (v. 10), inviting him to “lie with” her (something repeated three times – vv. 7, 10, 12).

Again, the reader would perhaps be excused if the battle is conceded in one’s mind. Heretofore in Genesis, God’s men have succumbed to sexual sin and yet somehow remained God’s men. God has continued to affirm His promises to them, even after their failures (22:16-18; 32:29).

But everything changes in chapter 39. One chapter after Judah cannot contain his sexual impulses, his kid-brother Joseph not only displays incredible relative morality (he was not simply trying to hedge his bets vis-a-vis his boss, Potiphar); he rises up and acts in the light of the “Audience of One” in which He was living. When no one else was looking, Joseph stuck to principle, offering one of the most poignant questions at any point in earth’s history: “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (39:9).

Joseph’s singular decision stands in stark contrast to not only his forefathers, but the morality of his time. Indeed, he made a decision that “travels,” a decision timeless in scope; a decision that somehow acknowledged the Person to whom he was ultimately accountable.

What an an inspiring example! Though I’ve read it many times before, I never cease to be amazed by Joseph’s principled behavior. Somehow, some way, he, by God’s grace, chose to break the cycle of sexual promiscuity that characterized his family – during a time in which “relative” morality made concessions.

Of course, the specific temptation may not be the same, but the principle is: when the chips are on the table, and the sin is there for the taking with no one looking, will I remember the “Audience of One”?


“Will We Hate Back?”

I remember a cartoon that my former Greek professor, Dr. Mark Regazzi, taped to the door of his office at Andrews University some 14 years ago. I’m assuming he taped it there in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center a year or so before I saw it, because I was in Scotland when that horrific atrocity occurred – where I remained for the next ten months.

Whatever the case, when I returned to Andrews the next September, it was still there, hanging on his door. The image of it still lingers in my mind, all these years later. It was of a father and son, sitting on a couch in their living room, watching something on TV. And the son turns to his father and asks this simple yet perceptive question: “Will we hate back?”


The message was clear: would we resort to the tactics of those who perpetrated crimes against us, returning hate for hate?

It was, of course, an artistic reminder of that which Martin Luther King, Jr. had said some three decades before: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Fourteen years after the 9/11 attacks – and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the overthrow of our worst enemies, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden – and the events this weekend in Paris remind us all too poignantly about the chilling effects of returning firepower for firepower, hate for hate.

Look, I recognize that in this day and age of global jihad and mass genocide that there are no easy answers – from a political perspective – when it comes to a nation’s response to such horrific tragedies. And I recognize that it may be overly naive to think that if a nation chooses to stop hitting back then these terrorists will just leave us alone.

What I do know, however, is that 14 years of trying to obliterate terrorists hasn’t worked. It’s just emboldened them. In fact, over 6,000 years of world history acutely demonstrates to us that violence – no matter how justified we may feel in using it – has never been able to squelch the terrorism that resides in all our hearts, and it certainly hasn’t made this world any safer. On the contrary, our world has never been more unsafe!

What makes us think that it will suddenly work now?

The reality of this hit home for me again as I read the words of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who some think may be the mastermind behind the the Paris attacks. The 27-year-old native of Belgium shared these revealing words a few years ago: “All my life, I have seen the blood of Muslims flow. I pray that Allah will break the backs of those who oppose him, his soldiers and his admirers, and that he will exterminate them.”

And yet, we keep moving forward, thinking all we need is bigger guns, more powerful bombs, better intelligence – believing that continuing to make “the blood of Muslims flow” will somehow stop the terrorists.

But it just continues to provoke them, strengthening their resolve.

What if we took him at his word, called his bluff, and stopped causing the blood of “Muslims to flow”? We’ve not yet tried this tactic – and the others haven’t worked anyway.

Again, I realize this all sounds utopian and naive. I also realize that I’m not sharing anything that the average student at a liberal arts college hasn’t already heard or thought about.

More than anything, I also realize that there are no political answers to spiritual problems – and that such violence will never fully be extinguished so long as a shred of sin remains in the heart of even a single human being. Heaven is, of course, the ultimate and only true answer.

Beyond all this, however, what really has me most troubled is the posture that we Christians, supposedly governed by the motive of love, take in response. It’s one thing for godless politicians to want to hit back; it’s another for Christians to lead the charge.

And yet the sad reality is that, at least here in the United States, conservative Christians are notoriously the most eager to go to war.

Yes, we want vengeance. Yes, we are outraged by innocent lives being taken. But we Christians should have the bigger picture in view, recognizing that whatever happens on this earth is not the final word. “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves,” Paul reminded, “but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).

“Do not avenge yourselves.” Do we, who take pride in heralding the commandments of God, take this one seriously?

Similarly, why do we pursue safety as though it were the ultimate goal? And why are we so eager to give up freedom in exchange for it? Nowhere do I see in Scripture any admonition to covet safety. In fact, just the opposite. “Whoever desires to save his life,” Christ declared, “will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Even more poignantly and relevantly, God’s last-day people are identified as those who “loved not their lives unto the death” (Revelation 12:11, KJV).

Why do we thus cling so desperately to temporal safety and preservation of life, as though “in this life only we have hope” (1 Corinthians 15:19), with no possibility of a resurrection and eternity?

The decision is thus before us: will we love back? Will we choose to live in the light of eternity, seeing the big picture, and spread the principles of God’s kingdom of love?

The natural heart cannot produce this love, of course. Indeed, as Ellen White reminds us, “Love is the basis of godliness. Whatever the profession, no man has pure love to God unless he has unselfish love for his brother. But we can never come into possession of this spirit by trying to love others. What is needed is the love of Christ in the heart. When self is merged in Christ, love springs forth spontaneously” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 384).

Let us, therefore, allow self to be merged in Christ, letting His love take root in our hearts.

Then, the response will never be hate – for it cannot be.

Our Helplessness, God’s Heart


This past week, after supper one evening, I witnessed one of those rare moments in Camden’s demeanor. With Camille giving the girls a tub, Camden wanted to exert some more energy and so, with the weather being unseasonably warm, the two of us made our way outdoors – despite the fact that darkness had long set in.

Not one for just standing around, Camden asked if we could play hide-and-seek – to which I agreed, on condition that we remain in the general vicinity of the driveway. We, after all, live on a modestly busy street and, at times, have somewhat questionable people who make their way down our sidewalks and even through our backyard.

All went well until the second or third time I hid. I lodged myself in a little corner between the side of the house and the deck and, despite the fact that the spot was not really all that hidden, Camden seemed to have a hard time finding me.

And that’s when it happened: panic and anxiety set in, causing him to get scared and call out to me in fear.

At first I wasn’t sure if he was just trying to trick me, so I didn’t answer right away. Then a car drove by and it startled him even more, causing his volume to increase as he cried out to me again.

Sensing the anxiety, I made my location – which was just a few steps away from him – known and he ran over to me, clinging tightly to me. When I asked him if he was really scared, he confirmed that he was.

The whole experience – which lasted all of about 15 seconds – had a surprising effect on me. I felt bad for Camden and yet at the same time I felt particular fondness for him.

You have to understand a little about Camden to appreciate the latter emotions, though. Whether it’s because he’s a boy or because he’s the firstborn or because he’s a firstborn boy or because of some other genetic factor, Camden is a classic Type A, strong-willed child. It is very rare for him to exhibit any hint of vulnerability or helplessness. He knows what he wants and he typically tries to get what he wants and he wants to get it himself.

It was thus a very rare posture for him – though it was completely understandable.

But it was a moment when he completely endeared himself to me – not because of any great thing he had accomplished; in fact, quite the opposite. It was his great helplessness and need of me that was the basis for the endearment.

As I’ve reflected on this experience a little bit, it has suddenly dawned on me that this is the precise attitude that so endears us to our heavenly Father. I know it sounds sappy and sentimental and trite, but it is nevertheless true. It is not our great “successes” that elicit the deepest fondness from God our Father but those moments when we recognize the depths of our helplessness and cry out to Him. As the Psalmist declares, “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103-13-14).

The word for “pity” is the Hebrew word racham – a word I have written about before that comes from the noun for a woman’s womb. This pity, this compassion, is thus a visceral, internal emotion that God feels toward us. He is moved with great pathos precisely because of our helplessness; precisely because He knows “we are dust.”

All this leads me to recognize that the very thing that I often think disqualifies me from going to God is the exact thing that endears me most to Him. My great need is, in fact, the prerequisite to His acceptance and love. Conversely, the times in which I exhibit the greatest pride and self-sufficiency, the times that I think I’ve finally qualified myself for His approval, are the times when I am least endearing to Him.

Sadly, I spend the majority of my life walking around with this latter attitude, not realizing it’s taking me farther and farther away from the center of God’s deepest affections.

Writing to pastors, Ellen White noted this very dynamic: “Christ’s heart is cheered by the sight of those who are poor in every sense of the term; cheered by His view of the ill-used ones who are meek; cheered by the seemingly unsatisfied hungering after righteousness, by the inability of many to begin. He welcomes, as it were, the very condition of things that would discourage many ministers” (Gospel Workers, p. 37).

Elsewhere, in that classic Steps to Christ, she highlighted the state in which God delights to have us approach Him: “Jesus loves to have us come to Him just as we are,” she wrote, “sinful, helpless, dependent” (p. 52), again reiterating a number of pages later in the chapter on prayer that “our great need is itself an argument and pleads most eloquently in our behalf” (p. 95).

Such an idea was a constant refrain for her. Our need, our helplessness and inefficiency, is the very condition that qualifies us for God’s favor and endears us to Him.

These are the very attitudes that we should thus embrace. To live in a constant awareness of our vulnerability and need is the great aim of the Christian journey. It is only then that we can be fully enveloped by the Father’s arms and find where our true strength resides.

Gift or Reward? Yes.


Yesterday morning, like every Tuesday morning, my alarm went off at 5:20 – long before the sun appears in the eastern Maine sky these days (about an hour before, actually). I quietly creeped down our creaky stairs, took a shower, and then hopped into my frost-covered car, setting out for my church.

About twelve minutes later, I pulled into an empty parking lot – something I fully expected – and walked into the dark building. Finding the front row of seats in the sanctuary, I plopped down to my knees and proceeded to pray for my church for the next 40 minutes.

This is nothing new. For the last four or five months, it has been a weekly routine (except there used to be a larger crowd who joined me). Inspired by success stories I read in Melody Mason’s Daring to Ask for Moredetailing how churches were turned around when they made prayer a focal point, I initiated a weekly early-morning hour of prayer at my church. Initially, we would get a dozen or so who showed up. Then it dwindled to five or six; then just me and two of my elders. The last few weeks it’s been just my head elder and me.

Until, finally, yesterday morning, it was just me.

All this has led to a theological epiphany for me though: last week, when it was just my head elder and me, a new thought occurred. As the two of us chatted before prayer about whether we should discontinue the practice, lamenting about how we can’t seem to get people to attend, a question suddenly surfaced in my mind: is it possible that God might actually reward our humble actions?

Might God actually look down at us and honor our meager efforts to wake up early in the morning every week (my head elder has a 30-minute drive in order to attend, often in the opposite direction of where his work, as a plumber and electrician, is taking him), drive in our cold cars, pleading with Him on our knees for an hour in a cold church?

The truth is, many of us – myself especially included – are so sensitive to anything that might hint at what Ellen White calls “creature merit,” the idea that what I do might earn a reward from God, that we may have missed an important and heartening ingredient of relational Christianity. Indeed, as I’ve touched on before, there are whole systems of theological thought within Christianity that cannot even fathom the idea that God might actually respond to our behavior and change how He interacts with us based on the way we act.

And yet, I think we need to recognize an important biblical tension: what may look like a gift from God from our perspective may be a reward to us from God’s perspective.

That is, the person who is truly living by faith recognizes that every good thing in his or her life is a gift from God. It is “not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:9). Such a person would never boast or brag that God is rewarding him or her for good works done. This is what it means to live in light of the cross.

But God may operate from a different perspective. As a relational Being, He delights to honor and reward His children who are humbly seeking to do His will – just as any good parent does. After all, Scripture plainly declares that He is “a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6).

So this is, indeed, the paradox: what we consider to be a gift, God often looks at as a reward. To be sure, not everything good we receive from God is a reward (in fact, the vast majority is not); He, after all, “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). Indeed, as I highlighted in a recent blog, John Peckham labels God’s love “foreconditional-reciprocal.” That is, God’s love exists prior to human action, but it is also dynamic and interacts with our actions, adjusting to the way we respond to it.

Thus, while our actions may not merit God’s love and actions toward us to begin with (or the constancy of that love going forward), those actions are indeed capable of changing and affecting the actions He carries out toward us.

This is, really, just fundamental to all relationships.

Ellen White, too, makes it very plain that God operates on this reciprocal model. She thus makes statements like:

If the servants of God keep faithfully the trust given to them, great will be their reward when the Master shall say, ‘Give an account of thy stewardship.’ [Luke 16:2] The earnest toil, the unselfish work, the patient, persevering effort, will be abundantly rewarded. Jesus will say, Henceforth, I call you not servants, but friends. [See John 15:15]. The approval of the Master is not given because of the greatness of the work performed, but because of fidelity in all that has been done. It is not the results we attain, but the motives from which we act, that weigh with God. He prizes goodness and faithfulness above all else.  (Gospel Workers, p. 267)

Among other relevant points, there is one critical nuance that I was intrigued by when I read this statement a couple days ago. She notes that the precise reason God rewards us is because He considers us to be friends rather than servants. A reward is something one gives volitionally rather than something that is owed.

It also touches on another paradox I’ve noticed in Scripture: God looks at us as friends, and yet we look at ourselves as servants (a favorite moniker Paul attached to himself – see Philippians 1:1, etc.). And the two paradoxes go wonderfully together: we look at ourselves as debtors to Christ, slaves to Him, and are thus grateful for anything He may give to us. Yet, precisely because Christ looks at us as friends, He delights to reward us for the faithful ways in which we have humbly honored Him.

The “reward” is thus given within a relational context rather than a legal one.

All this brings me back to my prayer time – though I feel ashamed for even mentioning it since, in light of what Christ did for me on the cross, getting up before dawn and spending an hour on my knees in a cold church seems trivial. I do it out of a grateful heart and an unrelenting faith that I cannot merit anything by my actions. In fact, prayer is the ultimate act of faith rather than works, since it demonstrates that the person praying has given up on his or her own abilities, realizing that God alone can accomplish anything.

And yet I rejoice that God, the great “Rewarder” of those who diligently seek Him, has delighted in the meager actions of His humble servants. Thus far, though we have been few in number at our times of prayer, we have seen some modest growth in our church – numerically, spiritually, missionally.

So we thus press on, saying with great rejoicing: “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).

Postscript: such realizations have helped me recognize that pastors – more than, say academics – may often find themselves in circumstances that allow them to recognize theological realities otherwise inaccessible to those who aren’t “on the ground.” This gives me great rejoicing – since I long to be both a pastor and a “theologian” (a post for another day).

The Legalism of Love

Vineyards at sunset in autumn harvest. Ripe grapes in fall.Cluster grapes on left

In our attempts to rid ourselves of a legalism that is inherent to the sinful human condition, we have actually gone from one system of behavior modification to another over the last few decades within the Seventh-day Adventist church. We have, in short, embraced the legalism of love.

Let me explain.

Within contemporary Seventh-day Adventist rhetoric, I hear a ton about the need to love people – no matter their background, hang-ups, or behavior. We are told, it seems ad nauseum, in sermons and books and articles about this. Such a message, I guess, is apparently the antithesis to the legalism that characterized the church for most of its existence when the bulk of rhetoric focused on outward behaviors – like dress, diet, and entertainment.

But here’s the problem: the “we need to love people” message is often itself legalistic since it’s also simply urging a change in behavior – i.e., trying to get people to discontinue one behavior (being unkind and unloving) and start doing another (being kind and loving).

Of course, what do I mean by “legalism”? Probably something different than what most people think. By “legalism” I essentially mean man-powered actions detached from the compelling love of Christ. Ellen White echoes this when she describes legalism as a “loveless, Christless religion” (The Desire of Ages, p. 280 – by “loveless,” she is speaking of Christ’s love and not ours).

So, you see, simply urging people – via sermon, song, or article – to be more loving is no less inherently legalistic than urging people to stop eating cheese. If such a message is divorced from the compelling love of Christ, we are simply urging a more love-oriented legalism.

In fact, what we are really doing is presenting a Christianized humanism where Christ is merely our example when it comes to love rather than a Savior who alone is the Producer of that love in and through us.

The reality is, there is not a single sinful human being on earth who is capable of being more loving or kind simply because he or she is told to do so. Thus, Job wonders, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?” answering resoundingly: “No one!” (Job 14:4). Relating specifically to love, Ellen White reminds us rather soberingly that “the human heart cannot originate or produce it” (Steps to Christ, p. 59).

So urging it upon a person – who is incapable of producing it in the first place – is less effective than trying to teach a cow how to do astrophysics.

Thus, Ellen White goes on to say in the next sentence: “It [love] is found only in the heart where Jesus reigns.”

Simply put, a person can only love others as he or she understands the love Christ has for him or her. Indeed, “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

So if we see unkindness going on in the church, the solution is not to sermonize people on how they need to be more loving, but to lift up the self-sacrificing love of Jesus – which alone can melt hearts and produce the love that is otherwise absent but so desperately desired.

Notice this important dynamic highlighted in the next few paragraphs of Steps to Christ – noting, in particular, how humans can only participate in acts of love as Christ abides in the heart (essentially a distinction between the root – i.e., Christ’s love – and the fruit – i.e., our love response):

In the heart renewed by divine grace, love is the principle of action. It modifies the character, governs the impulses, controls the passions, subdues enmity, and ennobles the affections. This love, cherished in the soul, sweetens the life and sheds a refining influence on all around. . . .

“He who is trying to become holy [read: more loving] by his own works in keeping the law, is attempting an impossibility. All that man can do without Christ is polluted with selfishness and sin. It is the grace of Christ alone, through faith, that can make us holy. . . .

“If our hearts are renewed in the likeness of God, if the divine love is implanted in the soul, will not the law of God be carried out in the life? When the principle of love is implanted in the heart, when man is renewed after the image of Him that created him, the new-covenant promise is fulfilled, ‘I will put My laws into their hearts and in their minds will I write them.’ Hebrews 10:16. And if the law is written in the heart, will it not shape the life?”

So, please, no more sermons on how we need to love people more. Doing so is only focusing on the fruit and not the root – and won’t ultimately solve the problem! Instead, let’s herald more sermons on Christ’s love and what it looks like when it has been implanted in our hearts!

Christ’s Metric Alone

1Note: This is a guest post from my good friend, Jared Thurmon, who, in addition to being an entrepreneur, serves as the new Strategic Partnership Liaison for the Adventist Review.

Ever heard the expression “Numbers don’t lie”?

I put that line in the same file as “…but names will never hurt me”.

The truth is that numbers can tell more than one story. Take Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Both are “followed” by tens of thousands on Twitter, but only 60% of their Twitter followers are believed to represent real people. On the social media surface, it may seem they are winning the popularity battles because they enjoy the highest number of followers.

But if we judge the success of a movement or a cause only by the numbers, we may not discover the whole story.

Speaking of numbers, Seventh-day Adventists are a people founded on numbers. We were founded on the belief that Daniel’s prophecy of 2300 days/years would end about this time of year – October 22, 1844.

If you have belonged to this movement for even a year, you know many important numbers—7, 12, 70, 490, 1260, 1290, 1335, 2300.

Seventh-day Adventists are known for other numbers as well. One of us is running for president – Ben Carson. We live longer than the rest of North Americans—an average of 10 years. We are the largest not-for-profit Protestant healthcare provider in the U.S. We are the most diverse religious group in America. Last but not least, we have been known in recent years as the fastest growing denomination in the United States. Two people join the Adventist Church every minute. Each day, Pentecost-worthy numbers—3000+–join God’s last-day remnant.

It would be convenient to end here, with a “Well done, good and faithful servant,” but honesty prevents it.

From October 8-13, the Seventh-day Adventist Church held its Annual Council. Leaders from around the world met to discuss plans and share ideas for the next year. During this event, newly-gathered research data and statistics were shared by Dr. David Trim, director of Archives, Statistics, and Research (ASTR).

It’s hard to see these numbers as other than grim.

Remember that actual number of “real” followers of Trump and Clinton – 60%? It appears as that the retention rate of the church for the last 50 years is almost exactly the same.


Based on the chart below, supplied by the General Conference Office of Archives, Statistics and Research, in 2014, the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church added 1.28 million new members during the calendar year through baptism and profession of faith.  At the same time those “lost” by being dropped from membership or registered as “missing” through standard church processes or division-wide memberships audits (a process that is still on-going in most divisions) totaled 950,000. That equates to a net gain of only 330,000 members in 2014, a 1.7% net growth rate.


Numbers like these should lead us to say, “Houston, we have a problem.”

If baptized members are the metric of “success” on which we focus, we will almost inevitably lower the standard of what constitutes readiness for baptism—and thus count those inadequately prepared persons as new members. This is natural enough: If your boss is pressuring you to meet the “quota” at work, you do what it takes to meet the quota. If incentives and opportunities for professional advancement in ministry and larger responsibilities are based—even informally–on numbers of baptisms, then why wouldn’t a gifted ministry professional reach for celebrities, musicians, and media coverage that could help achieve those results?

It isn’t cynicism that notes the reality of these pressures and the systems that develop because of them. Speaking honestly about the potential for misuse of a system should never be interpreted as faithlessness. Leadership expert Max de Pree has reminded us, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”

Why would a minister or layperson work diligently to ensure that a baptismal candidate agrees with nearly 30 unique beliefs—knowing that at least a few of these will step on their toes and infringe on their lifestyle—if the metric is not discipleship, but baptismal count?

This circumstance isn’t far-fetched. Here’s a testimony:

JT took $10,000 to the mission field to build a church. He preached for three weeks, laboring to convince individuals who believed in thousands of other gods that the One god JT was there to tell them about was worthy of all their trust and devotion.

But JT told them more about “truth” than the one who called Himself the Truth. Both are vitally important, but the order in which they are presented is even more important. Accurately representing Jesus—the Truth—often requires acting as He did—loving as He did—and not only echoing His teaching.

The reality came home as I (JT) met with 70 sincere individuals baptized as Seventh-day Adventists after patiently listening to my preaching for three weeks. When some of the newly baptized revealed that they still were holding on to their symbolic representations of their many gods, and would adhere to old practices to appease Vishnu, I was confused—and shaken. (Insert jaw drop)

What went wrong? It may be that I didn’t adequately introduce them to the One from whom all truth comes. I introduced 28 compelling beliefs and lifestyle changes, and I naively expected them to be ready to make a complete spiritual U-turn after three short weeks. Years later, I was told that the church structure I had put my hard-earned money into building was now a barn. I had sought success, measured by persons responding through baptism to my preaching. Perhaps I should have built them a barn or a business, helping them by demonstrating love applied to their life circumstances. When they experienced success in meeting basic life needs, they would have been more ready to hear what I was preaching. They would have had their own reasons to build their own church building, and almost certainly valued it more.

I didn’t know Christ’s metric.

I think the metrics of success are key to determining if we are doing the will of Jesus, or as Picasso observed, on the road to sterility.

I believe with all my heart—and my wallet–in the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I still believe that the Church’s best days are just ahead of us. But it’s time to reconsider what lasting success as defined by Jesus will look like.

Does public evangelism have a part to play in the proclamation of the everlasting gospel? Both Scripture and experience resoundingly say “Yes!” Millions of men and women are won—lastingly—to Jesus Christ through a process that includes public preaching and public responding. The apostle Paul preached powerfully in the cities of Asia to large crowds of interested hearers with Spirit-blessed results. Scripture teaches us to believe that the Holy Spirit is present and working with people before we ever mingle with them, befriend them, or act kindly toward them. God may prepare people for our witness in a variety of ways. The Spirit is not limited to any one method of witness. But is numerical success through public evangelism the metric we should be emphasizing at this moment in the progress of God’s remnant church?

The answer—respectfully, but clearly—is “No.”

We can do this simply and effectively by applying a new metric to measure mission success.

What if, instead of stressing out pastors and conference workers with numbers of baptisms, we changed the metric? What if we asked, not “How many did you baptize?” but “How engaged are your members in outreach, community service, health seminars, Bible studies, practicing pure religion to orphans, the hungry, the discouraged, and the imprisoned?

It’s called user engagement.

As an entrepreneur, marketer and Adventist “brand evangelist”, I’ve been digging into what makes for a successful social media strategy. The answer from the data is unmistakable: It’s not the number of likes or followers, but user engagement! How engaged are your followers with your organization? Do they actively share the information you are sharing with them? Do they engage when you share new information with them? Do they bring new followers to you?

Counting total “followers” is a hollow metric, for it cannot measure the depth of engagement that is crucial for any successful business, cause or movement. When a “follower” is engaged enough to invite someone they care about to share the experience with them, you have the first and most obvious metric of loyalty and true mission success.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has some truly valuable assets. We have an understanding of Bible prophecy more comprehensive and biblically-reasoned than any other faith. We understand more about the great controversy between Christ and Satan and all of the angels than many do. We have a message of health and wholeness that is poised to bless the world in both community health and improved personal lifestyle practices. We are increasingly good at marketing our message through attractive and well designed media—handbills, billboards, TV, radio, websites, podcasts, and apps.

How well are we succeeding at the mission Jesus has given us? The numbers recently shared with church leaders illustrate a stark reality that has been trending for decades.

WWJM: What Would Jesus Measure?

Fortunately, we don’t have to guess at which metric Christ would use—and does use. In fact, He tells us in both Matthew 25 and Isaiah 58—and in many other passages of Scripture—the exact metric He will use in the judgment.

 “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me’” (Matt 25:34-36).

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Why would we be measuring anything different?

“Those whom Christ commends in the judgment may have known little of theology, but they have cherished His principles. Through the influence of the divine Spirit they have been a blessing to those about them. Even among the heathen are those who have cherished the spirit of kindness; before the words of life had fallen upon their ears, they have befriended the missionaries, even ministering to them at the peril of their own lives. Among the heathen are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things that the law required. Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God” (Desire of Ages p. 638).

Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, “Follow Me.” (The Ministry of Healing p. 143)

Both “Christ’s method” and “Christ’s metric” must somehow connect people with people. If we really thought our product and mission was to share information with the world to usher in the endtime, we would likely sell all assets and buy global airtime to give one sermon, believing we had fulfilled our calling. Sharing high-quality information about Jesus and His teachings can never be a substitute for introducing men and women around the globe to a Saviour who seeks a personal relationship with them over time.  While warning the world of the soon coming of Jesus will always be a part of the mission, we have not achieved success or responded to Christ’s metric by merely warning seven billion human beings. Will people know us for our warmth or our warning?

Do we think the gospel is a 70-minute sermon rather than a 70-year life?

If sharing information was the mission and simply hearing the metric, Jesus could have preached the Sermon on the Mount, leaving a high-water mark on ethical content, and an implicit call to decide about His claims. But the reality brought to life in the Gospels is that He spent time—amazing amounts of time—mingling with men as one who desired their good.

Apple and the Evangelist

Mark Kawano, formerly Apple’s User Experience Evangelist, recently shared some common Myths about Apple. One of those was particularly profound.

Myth #1 – Apple has the best ___________!

Business leaders commonly believe that to achieve success, you must employ the best people. There’s pragmatic wisdom here, but Mark Kawano’s interview revealed that this wasn’t the “secret sauce” of Apple. The secret, he said, was in the corporate culture and organizational structure, specifically the embedded focus on design in every division of the company. Every employee had a common goal in mind as each thought about their particular piece of the project. This common goal? The end design and user experience with the product are supreme.

What can we learn from Apple in relation to sharing the gospel?

While the church will always seek to employ more talented and consecrated preachers, evangelists and witnesses on every level, human talent won’t be the secret of mission success. Shouldn’t we better measure the manner in which the gospel is received—the user experience? If the goal is to find, develop and mature men and women as faithful disciples of Jesus who become engaged in the same mission that reached them, shouldn’t we ask better questions about both Christ’s methods and His metrics?

Did the world need an iPhone?


Did the world want an iPhone?


When asked why he didn’t put more resources into market research, Steve Jobs would say that “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

People didn’t need a smartphone until they saw how much better their life could be if they had Apple’s product in their lives.

Today do people need the gospel?


Do they think they need it?

Not really.

In fact, some think they have seen the product of the everlasting gospel and they don’t want it.

So how do we take our product to the world in light of this? Though we aren’t accustomed to taking gospel pointers from Steve Jobs, one of his is pertinent: Show it to them.”

Consider these statements from a century-old volume, The Ministry of Healing:

The world needs today what it needed nineteen hundred years ago—a revelation of Christ… it is only through the grace of Christ that the work of restoration, physical, mental, and spiritual, can be accomplished. (The Ministry of Healing p. 143)

So how do we share Christ—and specifically the grace of Christ that leads to a total transformation—with the world? There is—there can be—only one successful method. It was demonstrated in the life of Christ, and in the succinct phrasing of Ellen White’s The Ministry of Healing, it is known as “Christ’s Method Alone.”

We begin to assess mission success in a new way. We adopt a different standard to determine whether disciples—as individuals or as the Body of Christ—are, in fact, following the One they have pledged to follow. We ask new questions of a church that needs new energy and focus: “How much is this church?—How much is this pastor?—How much are these members engaged with the method announced by Jesus?”.

This is the new metric. This is #ChristsMetricAlone.

This is the secret sauce of faithful Adventism and biblical Christianity.

“Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people” (The Ministry of Healing, p. 143).

#1 – This is the only way to have long term, enduring effects on a person’s life. This was His method to reach people with the good news of the kingdom of God, and it will be the method of all who claim His name.

“The Savior mingled with men as one who desired their good.”

#2 – Jesus mingled with broken men and women as a friend, companion, brother, teacher, mentor, and healer. Mingling can’t be done by proxy, by email, or via an app, television, radio or satellite. Jesus was making it clear to all who shared His presence that He cared for them at that moment, not contingent on a behavior change—that He desired the best “good” for them.

“He showed His sympathy for them.”

#3 – When Jesus shared His time and attention with a new friend, His heart of sympathy for them was obvious . You can’t show sympathy for someone unless you listen to their situation and discover areas in which they are seeking help or support. Once you listen, Christ-like compassion causes you to sympathize with their needs—even if those needs differ from the purposes you initially have to share a message of truth with them.

“He ministered to their needs.”

#4 – When we have both heard and listened—when we have allowed the needs of the other to become central to our interaction with them—we bend our efforts to actually bring the support, encouragement, or assistance that they need. We may initially understand their need as the thing we have in our hand—the book, the Bible study, the sermon—but Christ-like other-centeredness causes us to take their prompts and enter by the door that they have opened. This is where as followers of Jesus we learn to lay down our lives and take up the crosses others bear.. This is where we learn to bear the burdens of the weak, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

“He won their confidence.”

#5 – If the relationship has been growing through the method Christ employed, you will have won the confidence and laid the foundation for a relationship. You will have truly helped them with something they consider important, and thus actually ministered to them. The other now believes that you have their best interests at heart, that you have put them and their interests before your own. This is profound—the stuff that moves the world! They will need to know what motivates you to do this.

…Then He bade them, “Follow Me.” (The Ministry of Healing, p. 143)

#6 – If you have discovered joy in following Jesus, it will be natural to tell another broken sinner where you have found healing and salvation. You aren’t winning them to you, or adding to the trophies in some Witnessing Hall of Fame. You are sharing the unmistakable delight that always moves you to both praise and gratitude.

“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Corinthians 5:14).

It is this love, this grace from Christ that allows you to invite a new disciple to share the journey with you. “Come, follow Him,” you say to them. “Come, walk with me, as I follow Him.” Your commitment to walk and talk and pray with one just starting on the journey is the tangible relationship they can see as they build a friendship with the Lord they cannot see.

“There is need of coming close to the people by personal effort. If less time were given to sermonizing, and more time were spent in personal ministry, greater results would be seen. The poor are to be relieved, the sick cared for, the sorrowing and the bereaved comforted, the ignorant instructed, the inexperienced counseled. We are to weep with those that weep, and rejoice with those that rejoice. Accompanied by the power of persuasion, the power of prayer, the power of the love of God, this work will not, cannot, be without fruit” (The Ministry of Healing, 143).

“When we love the world as He has loved it, then for us His mission is accomplished. We are fitted for heaven; for we have heaven in our hearts” (Desire of Ages, 641)

Jesus offers us both a method and metric for assessing our discipleship. If we insist on being disciples according to our own preferences and markers, we will miss the footprints that we claim to be following. Tens of thousands—millions—who could be following Jesus will end up wandering on desolate paths that lead to sadness and destruction.

If we choose other ways to go about what we insist is His mission, we are on a path of our own choosing, not on the path He trod—and we will continue to lament the losses that the Spirit never intended.

If we measure other things—even good things—more than we measure obedience to “Christ’s method alone,” we are simply inventing games at which we think we can win.

It’s time we aligned our discipleship with #ChristsMetricAlone.

I would love to continue the discussion – Twitter: @thurmon or jared@adventistreview.org


So Happy It Hurts

FullSizeRender 296Yesterday, I experienced happiness to a degree that could hardly ever be surpassed. It was the height of happiness. In fact, I was so happy it hurt.

As we do every fall, we went to the Fryeburg Fair in Fryeburg, Maine – which is pretty much the granddaddy of Maine fairs, featuring more agriculture than any other fair in the state. It was a glorious day. The weather was perfect fall weather – sunny and in the high 50s.

But about halfway through the afternoon, I stumbled upon bliss somewhat unexpectedly. We had just found our way into the section that had all the kids’ rides and had purchased a pass that would grant access for our two oldest children to any ride. As we brought Camden and Acadia around to the various rides that enticed them, my mother volunteered to take Winslow – too young and too short to go on any of the rides – into the little toddler section, where she could ride little see-saws and push around little cars.

After about ten minutes of running around with Camden and Acadia, I told Camille that I was going to see how my mother and Winslow were doing. And that’s when it happened. As I rounded the corner and saw Winslow, I stopped in my tracks. She was sitting in a Little Tikes Cozy Coupe car with the biggest smile. And it didn’t subside for the whole time I stood there watching her.

She was in heaven. And I was too.

I just stood there for probably a minute or two, watching her from a distance, just soaking it all in. I honestly didn’t want the moment to end. I was so happy it hurt.

This is not a unique experience to me. Every parent has experienced it. Sometimes routinely. Indeed, even though this particular moment seemed to be a heightened moment of ecstasy for me for whatever reason, I enjoy such moments every once-in-a-while as I observe the happiness of my children.

The truth is, the greatest happiness a person can experience is seeing someone else happy. It’s not rocket science. God has created us as relational beings, and the fuel that propels our happiness engine is witnessing the joy and happiness of others. We, unfortunately, forget this more than we remember. But every now-and-then God gives us reminders.

Ironically, and quite sadly, after I pulled myself away from watching Winslow, and started back to find Camille and the two older kids, I came across my cousin Alison, who was experiencing the exact opposite feelings. She had just discovered that her youngest son, Westin, who is not quite three, was a single inch too short to go on any of the rides and he was bawling his eyes out. She was doing all she could to refrain from crying as well.

The high I felt was matched by the low she felt. The emotions of our children were ours. This, as I said, is what every parent knows. We never feel so deeply as when we see and experience the emotions of our children.

But here’s what suddenly dawned on me: such vicarious emotions seemingly always go in one direction. Parents experience the highs and lows that their children do, but does it ever happen the other way? Even more to the point: God experiences the highs and lows of His earthly children, but could we ever get to the point where those feelings go the opposite direction? Could it ever be possible that the greatest happiness we could experience would be to see a smile on the face of God?

I want this: “You will show me the path of life,” the Psalmist declared, “In Your presence is the fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).

It seems almost impossible. But I want to be so close to God that the most acute emotions I feel are the emotions that emanate from His heart. I want His happiness to be my highest aim, His sorrow to be my greatest pain.

Postscript: I was unable to get a picture of Winslow in her little car, since I wanted to stay at a distance, lest she see me and want me to watch her. But my mother was fortunately able to capture a little bit of her bliss. 

The Wearied God

church-cathedral-gold-goldenCan God get tired?

I started reading through Isaiah yesterday for my devotional time, going through it very slowly and deliberately, consulting frequently with the Hebrew as I try to soak in all its richness and pathos. What piqued my sympathy more than anything else in the first chapter was this heart-rending evaluation that God shares through the prophet, speaking of Israel’s empty worship: “Bring no more futile sacrifices before Me,” God declares, “Incense is an abomination to Me, the New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies – I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting” (1:13).

Such an assessment hits close to home as I can almost hear God reflect on our modern-day gatherings: “I can’t endure your General Conference sessions, your church services, your youth conferences,” He laments. But then He adds even more poignantly, “Your New Moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates” (v. 14). Such strong words! Imagine gathering every week, naively thinking we’re praising God, only to discover He despises our behavior.

We don’t typically think – or like to think – of God in such a light. And yet He is not simply arbitrarily castigating His people; He announces that He will not hear their prayers because their “hands are full of blood,” (v. 15) as they evidently not only exploited orphans and widows (v. 17), but acted as harlots by going after other lovers (v. 21).

In short, Israel’s worship was hypocritical. They were honoring God with their lips but their hearts were far from Him (Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:8). They were saying one thing but living another way – causing God to wonder, “When you come to appear before Me, who has required this from your hand?” (1:12), almost as though saying, “Who told you to come worship Me? It’s pointless!”

But this is what caught my eye more than anything else in this passage. Speaking about their detestable worship gatherings, God not only says that His soul “hated” them and that they were a “trouble” to Him, but He actually declares that He is “weary of bearing them” (v. 14).

Indeed, Israel’s worship, Israel’s gatherings and assemblies and services, tired God out. They exhausted Him.

Could it be true?

We don’t often think of God in such terminology – or even in such a way. As I hinted at a few days ago, we tend to prefer to think of God in more robust and omnipotent ways. We prefer the God who never “faints nor is weary” (Isa. 40:28; Isaiah uses a different Hebrew word for “weary” here, though this latter word is used elsewhere in Isaiah to ascribe weariness to God). We gravitate to the God who acts as a constant provider for us, the One who displays grandeur, power, and majesty – who will always be there for our every need.

And yet the Bible often paints a far different picture of God, characterized at times by “divine vulnerability,” as Terence E. Fretheim puts it (God and Word in the Old Testament, p. 38). This is the God who experiences pain, suffering, frustration – indeed, weariness.

This picture from Isaiah 1:14 is not the only place that draws out God’s weariness, however. There are a handful of other places – all in the prophets – that reveal such a picture in the life of God. Perhaps most poignantly, later in Isaiah, the prophet quotes God as lamenting how His people have “burdened Me with your sins” (the word for “burden” is actually the word for “serve,” almost giving the impression of “enslavement”) and “wearied Me with your iniquities” (43:24). Again, in Jeremiah, God is hurt by how His people have abandoned and “forsaken” Him, and He cries out that He is “weary of relenting” (15:6), apparently tired of constantly bringing Israel back from reaping what they’d sown. Lastly, Malachi portrays God’s weariness because of Israel’s “words.” They were saying that “everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and He delights in them” (2:17).

Of course, it should go without saying that such weariness was not of a physical nature but was clearly an emotional tiredness. God’s emotional tank was running on empty in relation to His people. The ones He had chosen to be a light to the world, to show His character of love to the nations, had “profaned” His name (Ezekiel 36:22).

Yet they kept on “worshipping,” kept on bringing their sacrifices to the altar, kept on talking, talking, talking – as though it was business as usual.

But it all wearied God – yes, in a real, concrete, literal sense, not just metaphorically. Such a weariness culminated in the cross, where the Psalmist presciently saw the tears of Christ, as He cried out, “Reproach has broken my heart, and I am full of heaviness. I looked for someone to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none” (Psalm 69:20).

What about us? Will we pity our God, sympathize with our Savior? Will we provide Him with the much-needed rest He deserves?

Either way, let these words from Terence E. Fretheim sink in as we ponder the implications of how the rest we enjoy today stems from the weariness that God continues to endure:

It is clear that human sin has not been without cost for God, and that cost is due in significant part to the fact that God has chosen to bear the people’s sin. . . For God to assume such a burden, for God to continue to bear the brunt of Israel’s rejection, meant continued life for the people. Thus there is an explicit connection made between divine suffering and Israel’s life; the former was necessary for the latter to occur. God’s suffering made Israel’s life possible (The Suffering of God, p. 148).

Indeed, our rest comes at the cost of God’s weariness.

Let us therefore resolve, by His grace, to do all we can by faith to provide Him with the rest He so desperately deserves.

Can God Love Us More?

God_is_LoveThere is a popular refrain within Christianity, repeated frequently by many, that is so simple and seemingly self-evident that very few people probably even give it a second thought. We repeat it with such matter-of-factness that its axiomatic veracity has perhaps reached the level of canonization.

The thought goes something like this: there is nothing we can do to make God love us any more than He already does, nor any less than He already does. Or, in a more abbreviated sense, we may simply say that it is not possible for God to love us any more or any less than He already does.

For some time, however, I have wondered if such an idea needs to be disturbed and challenged. This wonderment was first instigated by a quote I came across a number of years ago – the fruit of which is now coming into greater focus. This idea was further encouraged when, after starting to write this post a month or so ago, I began reading a book by my friend, and associate professor of theology and Christian philosophy at Andrews University, John Peckham, entitled The Love of God (a book I can’t recommend highly enough – though, in full disclosure, it engages in significant heavy scholarly and academic lifting).

I will get to the original quote in due time, but let me first share a caveat and then delve into my biblical and philosophical reasons for questioning this popular adage.

First, the caveat: I fully appreciate the reason as to why such an idea is expressed – and fully agree with its intention. Fighting against an underlying legalism that, at the very least, lurks beneath the surface of all our psyches, we want to steer clear of the merit-based type of love that characterizes sinful humanity. Any sort of love that uses the language of “if . . . then” we want to disassociate from God with all the passion and zeal we can muster.

I get that. And I agree. To be sure, I think the Bible is clear that God loves us independent of anything we do. The most famous Scripture of all addresses that with unequivocal clarity: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16) Jesus explains to Nicodemus.

But in our attempts to strip God’s love of every ounce of “conditionalism,” I wonder if we have also stripped it of its complexity, depth, and dynamism. Perhaps we’ve flattened God’s love such that, as Peckham quotes Charles Hartshorne as caricaturing, He is merely a “heartless benefit machine” who is “less than a friend” (p. 37).

What seems to have happened is that our understanding of God’s love has been largely shaped by Greek Platonic philosophy which was systematically introduced into Christianity by Augustine 1500 years ago and further promulgated by the likes of Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin – which shouldn’t come as a surprise to the perceptive Adventist.

Thus, considered through such a prism, God’s love is static, immovable, and emotionless. It cannot grow, it cannot diminish – precisely because it is inherently perfect and self-determining, immune from any influences outside itself.

On the one hand, we can somewhat appreciate such a philosophy. After all, Plato’s perspectives on the absolute perfection and self-sufficiency of God arose during a time in which the gods of Greece were mercurial and unpredictable at best – to say nothing of the primitive gods of the Ancient Near East.

And yet, Platonic philosophy takes us from one ditch to the other – and certainly does not accurately reflect the testimony of Scripture. In the Bible, God and His love are a lot more dynamic and passible (that is, capable of being affected by His creatures). Thus, for example, God says through Hosea, “When Israel was a child, I loved Him . . . My heart churns within Me; My sympathy is stirred” (11:1, 8). Even more shockingly, in a verse that comes a few chapters before, God laments about His people: “All their wickedness is in Gilgal, for there I hated them. Because of the evil of their deeds I will drive them from My house; I will love them no more. All their princes are rebellious” (9:15, emphasis added).

Needless to say, in our discussions about God’s love, we tend to gloss over such uncomfortable verses – and there are many other similar ones that, while not necessarily explicitly addressing the idea of whether God can love us more or less, definitely demonstrate the dynamic nature of His love.

To be sure, there is a sense in which God has always and will always love us (see Jeremiah 31:3); that is not in question. The question is to what extent and to what degree God loves us, and whether or not our actions – positive or negative – can truly affect His inner life.

When I clothe the naked or feed the hungry, for example, do these actions actually – in a real, concrete sense – affect God in such a way that He experiences greater feelings of fondness toward me? Conversely, when I act with malice toward others, does this elicit a corresponding response from God?

Or do God’s feelings toward me – no matter my behavior – always resemble a flatline on a heart monitor?

Again, the question is not whether God does love us; the question is whether our behavior can actually affect that love.

To this end, John Peckham has labeled his model of God’s love as the “foreconditional-reciprocal” model – that is, God’s love exists prior to human action, but does contain expectations in order for it to be fully effective.

Truthfully, such a perspective gives greater depth to the God-human relationship. After all, just as we often like to say that God is not interested in having a relationship with machines who are devoid of choice, neither do we want to have a relationship with a God devoid of feeling who is incapable of evaluating our behavior and responding accordingly. Really, isn’t there a sense in which we as humans – created in God’s image – long to have praiseworthy behavior acknowledged in such a way that is differentiated from less acceptable behavior?

Do we really want a God Who pats us on the head with a twinkle in His eye both when we mess up and when we do right? It seems that the latter would be cheapened by the former, and, in fact, make the latter meaningless.

To be sure, we want a God who values and cares and accepts us no matter what we do. And this is biblical and right and good. But we also want to be affirmed in a unique way when we do something good – not as a matter of pride, but as a matter of natural relational equity, and assurance that we are truly – in a real, concrete sense – bringing happiness to the One we love. (If God always affirms me no matter what I do, how can I ever tell if my actions actually bless Him? This, of course, is a question that is completely incomprehensible for the person fully committed to the classic, Platonic understanding of God wherein God is not affected by anything outside of Himself – a perspective that includes much, if not most, of Christendom.)

Perhaps it’s important, however, to make a distinction between behavior that is meritorious, and behavior that is merely evaluated. By this I mean that our good behavior does not merit God’s love, but it does influence its scope and effectiveness. As John Peckham puts it, “God never removes his love from anyone who wishes to receive his love. However, the object(s) of God’s love may reject intimate relationship with God and, if persistent in such a rejection, forfeit reception of divine love altogether. . . . If I finally spurn God’s love, his love may continue to shine like the rays of the sun, but, by my own decisions, I am completely shaded from its light and warmth as if I have locked myself in a windowless basement” (p. 213).

Truthfully, our own intuition tells us that love grows – which is how I can say that the love I had for my wife when we first got married pales in comparison to the love I have for her now. We are mere finite humans, of course, and we can’t always assume that our experience mirrors the experience of the omnipotent God; but we were also created in His image, and nowhere in Scripture does it say that God can’t love us more than He already does (our assumptions notwithstanding).

So perhaps we need to look again at the Biblical record, considering afresh the dynamic nature of God’s love for us.

All this brings me to the quote I alluded to in the beginning. It is mentioned most notably in both The Desire of Ages and Steps to Christ where Ellen White reflects upon a verse that, in and of itself, should give us pause. That verse is John 10:17, where Jesus startlingly says, “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again.”

Notice the critical word “because”! Apparently, there is a sense in which Christ’s sacrifice for the human race induced from the heart of the Father a greater love on some level. To be sure, the Father has always loved the Son – even before sin entered the world and even before the world existed (see John 17:24). But both verses and ideas need to be held in tension and brought into harmony with one another.

Ellen White, in the aforementioned books, tries her hand at harmonizing the two. “That is,” she writes, “My Father has so loved you that He even loves Me more for giving My life to redeem you. In becoming your Substitute and Surety, by surrendering My life, by taking your liabilities, your transgressions, I am endeared to My Father; for by My sacrifice, God can be just, and yet the Justifier of him who believeth in Jesus” (The Desire of Ages, p. 483; Steps to Christ, p. 14, emphasis added).

Notice those audacious words: “He even loves Me more for giving My life to redeem you.” Don’t miss it! According to Jesus, according to Ellen White, God’s love is dynamic. It can grow and deepen and expand – responding, yes, to the actions of others.

This may make us feel a bit uncomfortable, admittedly. But, again, this does not mean God’s love for us is ever in question. He will never stop loving us. And such a reality is not a prescription for holier performance so we can earn God’s love in greater measure. More than anything it is describing the dynamics of God’s love, rather than prescribing a way to procure more of it.

It’s simply an acknowledgment that God’s love – while consistent, long-suffering, and compassionate – is also characterized by emotion, responsiveness, and, yes, expansion and contraction. Indeed, while God may not be a human (at least the Father), He is a Person (in fact, the prototypical Person), fully equipped with all the relational capacities that we possess.

And all this should give us a greater sympathy for God’s situation, a greater sensitivity to His inner life, thoughts, and feelings.

Starving for Agape Love in a Culture of Rape

Jacob_Savery_the_Elder_-_Garden_of_Eden_-_1601We live in interesting times – especially when it comes to society’s attitude toward love and sexuality. In some ways, quite ironically, it seems we’ve almost come full circle as the proverbial chickens from the “free love” movement have come back to roost.

What I mean by this is that the “free love” movement has now been outed as a failed project to the point that radical feminists, who once craved the freedom and empowerment to throw caution to the wind when it came to their own sexuality, are now almost clinging to complete chastity because they are unsure if they are even capable of really meaning “yes” when they say “yes” to sex.

But let me take a step back and set the scene for you as I try to somewhat coherently articulate a few disjointed thoughts that are swirling around in my head.

Last week, a friend of mine linked to an article from The Washington Post that aimed its guns at feminists who seemingly want to label every sexual encounter as rape. Many are now no doubt familiar with the “yes means yes” campaign that has turned into laws in many states in America. Essentially, the movement wants to criminalize any sexual encounter where one of the participants – usually the female – doesn’t clearly and explicitly affirm that she wants to have sex.

In The Washington Post article, the writer cites a number of examples from her own past that, were today’s criteria in place back then, would have been considered “rape.” She balks at such an idea, though, saying that sex is a lot more complicated.

Despite its scorn for reticence, the new sexual revolution has a deep puritanical streak. Consensual sex is viewed as always under control, the result of a rational, fully autonomous choice. In this vision, there is either unequivocal “enthusiastic consent” or reluctant submission. In real life, though, there are many other possibilities.

You could agree to have sex to please your partner, despite not being in the mood, and get enthusiastic later. You could be sexually eager but emotionally ambivalent, or vice versa. You could be torn between passionate desire and ethical or practical reasons not to act on that desire. You could get drunk to quiet your scruples, or you may hope to be coaxed into surrendering to temptation. (Obviously, “coaxed” does not equal “physically overpowered.”) Some of this behavior may be unhealthy or immature. But if it involves consenting adults — who can refuse sex without reasonable fear of harm — those adults should be free to make mistakes.

What I found even more intriguing, however, was an article the writer linked to by a young lady from Harvard who is now grappling with whether an explicit “yes” is even enough; whether “yes” can ever really mean “yes.”

In her article, the young lady from Harvard concludes:

Here’s the point. Feminists sometimes talk about “yes” and “no” like they’re uncomplicated. That’s a messaging thing, and it works: We want everyone who hooks up with anyone ever to do so only with an affirmative, active yes. Teaching that consent is always clear is a tool in making it so, by mandating explicit and affirmative articulation.

But ethical sex is hard. And it won’t stop being hard until we make cultures that enable meaningful choice, cultures wherein we minimize, as much as possible, power imbalances related to sex. That’s a tall order, but we’ve got to get there. For all the confused queer kids and weird mornings after. For all of us to feel safe and valued and of worth.

Such sentiment, for the Post writer, where “yes” may not even mean “yes,” is just too much to bear. In fact, even aside from that, the whole “yes” campaign is madness for the writer which turns sex into a mechanical encounter, sucking all the spontaneity out of it, and oversimplifying things.

As I read both articles, though, something interesting happened in my thinking. My natural instinct would be to heartedly affirm the contrarian views of the Post writer as she aimed her guns at a demographic that I sometimes struggle with: radical feminists who seem to always cry victimhood and are seeking to destroy historic biblical values.

But then a few jarring thoughts suddenly surfaced in my mind; thoughts which I’m still grappling with.

1. While the world argues about what constitutes “rape” from a legal perspective, the giant elephant in the room is that the moment a person propositions another person who is not his/her spouse, even under perfect conditions, that person’s spiritual personhood and innocence are being “raped” and a certain level of coercion is already at play.

As human beings, both male and female, who are created in the image of God and designed to live by the law of love, any time another creature invites us to step outside the bounds of that law of love, our innocence is already being compromised. We are already being dehumanized.

In that regard, all sex outside of heterosexual marriage – and despite what Donald Trump’s people say, even some within – is in some sense “rape.”

So questions of “yes” or “no,” even if answered with great sobriety and lucidity, are somewhat irrelevant. So far has society departed from the sexual laws that protect all – or, as the Harvard writer calls it, “ethical sex” – that we have a hard time even comprehending that extramarital propositions have the seeds of rape inherently contained in them.

So we cannot – and must not – celebrate a philosophy which itself celebrates a loose sexual ethic, even if we are growing tired of the voices that seem to cry victimhood ad nauseum. 

2. Reading the article from the young lady at Harvard all of a sudden helped me realize that feminism – radical or otherwise – didn’t simply arise in a vacuum but is, in many ways, a natural and appropriate reaction to a gross masculinity that has wreaked havoc on society since Adam joined Eve in eating the fruit. Feminists are confused about sex – to the point that they are not even sure whether “yes” really means “yes” – because we as men have made it confusing and treated it and them as tools for our insatiable hunger to gratify our sexual selves.

Think about it. In many ways, Adam was the first male chauvinist. When God came to him in Genesis 3 and asked him why he ate the fruit, the first two words (or one in Hebrew) that Adam said was, “The woman . . . ” (v. 12). And men have been blaming women ever since – even, or maybe especially, in the area of sexuality. “She wanted it . . . ” “If she hadn’t been wearing that . . . ”

The reality is, men have spent the last six thousand years failing to show true masculinity – a masculinity that embraces all the good qualities of maleness as Scripture defines it and rejects those which Satan has installed.

So, while I am certainly not advocating that we embrace everything that radical feminism affirms, we men must forgive women for refusing to celebrate – and, in fact, passionately fighting against – what passes as masculinity and our sexual heteropraxy.

3. It shouldn’t surprise us that what really lies at the root of all this confusion about sexuality, and our confusion about what constitutes rape, is a yearning for agape love. Simply put, the world is starving for it – that love which “seeks not its own” (1 Corinthians 13:5, MEV); that “self-renouncing love” which Ellen White says is “the law of life for earth and heaven” (The Desire of Ages, p. 19).

Such love makes all the questions of “yes” or “no” obsolete because, to begin with, no man would ever put a woman who is not his wife in a position to decide “yes” or “no” – and, in the context of marriage, no spouse would ever push beyond a “no.” Within the framework of agape love, if sex is seen as something one gives for the benefit of the other, rather than something one gets for the benefit of self, then the world would be a lot less confused about love and sex. And women – feminists or otherwise – wouldn’t be constantly wrestling with the question of whether they were raped or not.

But so long as sex continues to be of the self-serving variety, there will always be underlying feelings of violation and rape in the minds of those who are not its initiators.

Ellen White, in Ministry of Healing (her aptly named back whose title and topic has great relevance to the present discussion), pulls back the curtain on this question of what the world is starving for. “The world needs today,” she writes, “what it needed nineteen hundred years ago – a revelation of Christ” (p. 143). A revelation of Christ, of course, which reveals the heart of a completely other-centered, self-giving God.

How does this happen? She continues: “A great work of reform is demanded, and it is only through the grace of Christ that the work of restoration, physical, mental, and spiritual [and we might add, sexual], can be accomplished” (emphasis added).

Through the grace of Christ, we are thus primed to show and give the world what it so desperately longs for: a revelation of God’s agape love, which manifests itself, among other ways, in – using the words of the young lady from Harvard – truly “ethical sex.”

Postscript: if you are interested in exploring further thoughts I shared on sexuality, you can listen to a whole sermon series I preached a few years ago called “Everyone’s Battle” by clicking here