To Be Able To Make Us Able To Receive Absolutely Everything

Addiction to Circumstance

We are, by nature, addicted to circumstance.

As infants we cried when we were hungry, cold or wet and hoped someone would heed our plea. As we grew, this pattern scaled up, grew more complex, deepened.

When we meet someone we ask “how are you” and if we get past “fine” we usually hear a measure of good tidings or complaint.

According to Thomas Jefferson we are endowed by our creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (edited from John Locke who said property). When our circumstances deliver pain we flee them, when happiness is seen on the horizon we pursue it. We are happiness junkies and circumstance is our dealer.

Expectations

The tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) are simple and common:

1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die. (– Kindle location 267-276).

There is a reason many people who read the Bible are disturbed by what they find. This Yhwh who brought Israel out of Egypt simply can’t be the god of MTD.  We like that he freed the children of Israel from slavery. The god of MTD wants us to be happy and slavery certainly sounds like a downer, but why lead them out into the desert? Why does he keep bringing them to places where there aren’t adequate provisions or even nice digs? If he wanted to play favorites and he was willing to move a few “bad people” in the process surely taking them up the Mediterranean coast to the milk and honey land would be the preferred route.

The Happiness Paradox

If we don’t think about it much, we instinctively expect that getting what we want produces happiness. Every happiness study in the world, and every observer of a spoiled child will see that this is wrong. Happiness does relate to circumstance but not in a linear fashion. Happiness probably relates more to one’s perception of their circumstance.

The United States, the wealthiest country in the world is just 23rd on the happiness scale. The least happy country is not the world’s poorest country but rather Moldova. Why?

Many countries are poorer than Moldova yet happier. Nigeria, for instance, or Bangladesh. The problem is that Moldovans don’t compare themselves to Nigerians or Bangladeshis . They compare themselves to Italians and Germans. Moldova is the poor man in a rich neighborhood, never a happy position to be in.

Weiner, Eric (2008-01-03). The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World (Kindle Locations 3112-3114). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

If God would decide to make Moldova a happier place, he might decide to move them next to Nigeria or Bangladesh. It might make them poorer still, but they might be happier. Would the god of MTD do this?

What We Esteem

While we want to be happy, we also want to be glorious. We esteem people who are not shallow, who are not simply taking what they want for their own gratification, especially at the expense of others. In the stories our culture values we admire men, women and children who persevere, endure and overcome. We dismiss and even despise those who never face a challenge and succumb to every whim or passing temptation.

We know what makes people weighty, solid, glorious. It is adversity and suffering. Those who have endured, survived and overcome great adversity receive glory even if the world doesn’t give it. Watch any of the contemporary Batman movies. A child of wealth and privilege rises to become the savior of Gotham only by enduring great hardship and trials. In the end he willingly takes up the burden of the people’s blame and scorn except those like Commissioner Gordon who knows the truth.

The movies are filled with these kinds of stories. We want to be like these heroes. We want to achieve their gravitas, but we want to do it without the pain, the loss, the struggle, the suffering. So which do we really want more, happiness or glory?

Master of Circumstance, not its slave

Without endorsing Cynthia Heimel’s take on God, what she observes as to our nature is right on.

I pity celebrities, no I really do – Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Barbara Streisand, were once perfectly pleasant human beings. But now their wrath is awful. I think when God wants to play a really rotten practical joke on you he grants you your deepest wish and then laughs merrily when you realize you want to kill yourself. You see Sly, Bruce, and Barbara wanted fame. They worked, they pushed and the morning after each of them became famous they wanted to take an overdose. Because that giant thing they were striving for, that fame thing that was going to make everything OK, that was going to make their lives bearable, that was going to provide them with personal fulfillment and happiness had happened and they were still them. The disillusionment turned them howling and insufferable. Cynthia Heimel, “Tongue in Chic” column in The Village Voice, January 2, 1990. Thanks to “On the Shoulders of Giants” for the quote. 

If you want to delve deeper into the question of why sometimes getting what we want not only don’t make us happy but actually makes us insufferable and evil we need to think more about how in fact we do relate to circumstance. In order to actually enjoy circumstance and the stuff of this world we need to have a distance from it, a degree of separation. We need a self that is not consumed by circumstance, a self that is above circumstance, a self that is not in fact the slave of circumstance but its master.

This is why we esteem those who transcend circumstance and we want this ability for ourselves. What we will see, however, is that simply wanting it will not secure it. It is something that itself is a gift and comes to us indirectly.

Yhwh’s Triptik For Israel

Last week we saw Yhwh take Israel out of Egypt only to abut them against a body of water knowing Pharaoh would rather they be dead than free. He demonstrated his power by dividing the water, affording Israel’s escape and then drowning Pharaoh and his army in the sea. What we will see in the desert wandering is a cycle of painful testing and relief, all at the hand of Yhwh.

Exodus 15:22–16:3 (NET)

22 Then Moses led Israel to journey away from the Red Sea. They went out to the Desert of Shur, walked for three days into the desert, and found no water. 23 Then they came to Marah, but they were not able to drink the waters of Marah, because they were bitter. (That is why its name was Marah.)

24 So the people murmured against Moses, saying, “What can we drink?” 25 He cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree. When Moses threw it into the water, the water became safe to drink. There the Lord made for them a binding ordinance, and there he tested them. 26 He said, “If you will diligently obey the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and pay attention to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, then all the diseases that I brought on the Egyptians I will not bring on you, for I, the Lord, am your healer.”

27 Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve wells of water and seventy palm trees, and they camped there by the water.

1 When they journeyed from Elim, the entire company of Israelites came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their exodus from the land of Egypt. 2 The entire company of Israelites murmured against Moses and Aaron in the desert. 3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this desert to kill this whole assembly with hunger!”

To be fair to the children of Israel, most of us complain about far less. Many of us have never seriously wanted for food or water. Our complaints are sometimes just first world problems. Sometimes they are for serious, devastating things.

Church of God of MTD

Many American Christians make sense of misery in their lives by casting God as bringing exclusively good things and Satan as the source of our misery. “Satan must be working overtime” we lament if something doesn’t go our way. We just pray for God to “break through” the bad stuff and make things glittery like we want them to be.

Past generations of Christians often had a far more nuanced approach. While they had a lively fear of the devil and a knowledge of his wiles they also believed that God brought fat years and lean years. They got this idea because they were ardent students of the Bible. The Heidelberg Catechism talks this way in Lord’s Day 10

27 Q. What do you understand
by the providence of God?

A. Providence is
the almighty and ever present power of God 1
by which he upholds, as with his hand,
heaven
and earth
and all creatures, 2
and so rules them that
leaf and blade,
rain and drought,
fruitful and lean years,
food and drink,
health and sickness,
prosperity and poverty– 3
all things, in fact, come to us
not by chance 4
but from his fatherly hand. 5

1 Jer. 23:23-24; Acts 17:24-28
2 Heb. 1:3
3 Jer. 5:24; Acts 14:15-17; John 9:3; Prov. 22:2
4 Prov. 16:33
5 Matt. 10:29

We find this picture of God hard to take. It challenges our capacity to trust him, to believe that this God really wants what’s good for us.

This picture of God, however, also asserts that what God is interested in is our glory. He wants to make us into the kinds of creatures we esteem. We wants to give us gravitas. He wants to make us like himself and he doesn’t necessarily ask us if we want “in” on the program. This is in real contrast to the god of MTD.

Reshaping Our Mental/Relational (Spiritual) Context

The school of glory begins at Marah but takes structure in the desert of Sin. 

The people complained that they were hungry, so Yhwh provided them food. Very morning they would find a strange white stuff on the ground, manna, that could be worked into something taste and nutritious. In the evening quail would come through so they could in fact enjoy meat to eat. This was not a spartan diet, it was a rich one. Eating meat was often something for special occasions, and sweetness in food was a similar luxury. Israel would daily dine on both.

What is peculiar about the arrangement, however, is the timing. Six days the manna would come. They could not gather extra one day to save for subsequent days because it would go bad. They needed to rely upon Yhwh’s provision for it every day. On the sixth day, however, they were commanded to gather twice as much as they needed for one day, so that they would not have to gather on the seventh day. If manna and quail alone weren’t miraculous enough, every seventh day the manna would not decay and Israel could enjoy her food without the labor of gathering it.

Week, as we know it, is the aspect of our calendar without any natural correspondent. Months follow the moon. The year follows the sun, but the week has nothing natural about it. Neither does the idea that one day in seven should simply be used for rest, for relaxation, for enjoyment. Israel in fact couldn’t gather on the seventh day because God would provide nothing to gather.

As you can imagine people did what people do. Many tried to gather extra on the six days and it decayed. Others used the scientific method to figure out not to gather extra on the sixth day (who wants wormy bread around) only to go hungry on the seventh while the obedient had a feast with no labor. What was all of this about?

Undoing the Sin of Secularity

The sister to our addiction to circumstance is our addiction of control. If we deeply and implicitly believe that circumstances is the key to happiness, control is the way to get there. Control for us in a secular culture is all about using power to adjust our circumstance.

Now there is nothing wrong with using power. Power itself is gift. The question is “what is power for?” Power is to be used for well-being, for ourselves and others.

Secularity imagines that all of this circumstance manipulation and control is all done in a relational vacuum, that what we do and how we do it is of no consequence. There is no should, only can.

Secularity applied to the context of the Desert of Sin would make the miracle of manna simply a fortuitous accident. Manna can be taken. If it can be controlled, or perhaps withheld to some and later sold, perhaps a market could be made from it and some could grow rich at the expense of the hunger of others. This seems familiar to us because in fact manna is not terribly different from food and water in our own world and what we do with it. If it were possible to control, withhold and sell air to breath, you better believe it would have been done already.

Secularity says that that there is no owner, no master who lays claim to the stuff of earth and its use and that is free for our power and manipulation to put to our own ends.

The story of manna speaks a different word. It says that Yhwh is the author of life, and if we enjoy any life at all, it is because he is generous and gives usually without asking for anything in return.

What Perfection Looks Like

If I talk about perfection people usually assume we’re talking morality or accuracy. Jesus’ definition of perfection is quite different. When he admonishes his listeners towards perfection it is not in the context of moral scrupulosity or mental acuity, it is in the area of generosity.

Matthew 5:43–48 (NET)

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors do the same, don’t they? 47 And if you only greet your brothers, what more do you do? Even the Gentiles do the same, don’t they? 48 So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

What is happening in the Desert of Sin is that God is beginning to train Israel to be like him. The situation has been stripped down to its most basic level of survival. There are no markets to juggle the price of manna and quail. He is inviting them to live in utmost dependence upon him which will lead to confidence upon him. Within this confidence they will then begin to have freedom and generosity, or at least that’s how the theory goes.

The Age of Decay as Desert of Sin

Approaching this story like this will in fact annoy a lot of good people. The god of MTD has a pretty firm grip on a lot of us and the thought that Yhwh would treat the children of Israel in this manner offends us. We might protest that in fact the goal of our god is to give us everything we want. You can find many churches that will reinforce this for you. Church and religion are the way that we open ourselves up for this god fill our lives with riches, pleasure and happiness.

I have another group of friends who are waiting to scoff. They will note that despite prayer, despite an assumption of God’s favor, this world deals out cruelty to Christian and pagan alike. Just as Christians haven’t cornered the market on morality or generosity neither have they demonstrated an exemption form tragedy and suffering. In fact just as God causes it to rain on the just and the unjust so also death visits us all and hurricanes and earthquakes will devastate lands where there are churches, mosques and temples. God doesn’t seem to discriminate on these matters. The age of decay takes everything from all of us if given enough time, without exception.

Luc Ferry wrote a fascinating little book called A Brief History of Thought. In it he notes that the goal of philosophy can be seen as the same goal as religion.

Think about this word – ‘salvation’. I will show how religions have attempted to take charge of the questions it raises. Because the simplest way of starting to define philosophy is always by putting it in relation to religion.

In a nutshell , because philosophy also claims to save us – if not from death itself, then from the anxiety it causes, and to do so by the exercise of our own resources and our innate faculty of reason.

Ferry, Luc (2011-12-27). A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living (p. 6). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

He’ll go through the book walking through how religion and philosophy pursue this question. We all die. We all lose everything. How can we manage? The philosophies he will lay out all try to handle the fear of death, by separating us from our addiction to circumstance, by helping us rise above it.

The difficulty that Ferry faces, however, is that in the end all philosophy can offer is escape from the fear, it cannot offer escape from death.

Here we come to the great irony. If you pursue Yhwh from within your addiction to circumstance you can never know him or tolerate him because you have reduced Yhwh into a tool. Yhwh is then only a means to getting better circumstances or avoiding death or suffering. Since Yhwh cannot and can never be anyone’s tool, or subject to our manipulation, Yhwh or God can never be known this way.

If however, you let Yhwh destroy your addiction to circumstance through loving, trusting and obeying him while you are in the Desert of Sin, then in fact you can begin to know and love both Yhwh AND be free not only from the fear of death but from death itself.

What Yhwh wants for you, again is his perfect generosity, his perfect ability to transcend circumstance and suffering, to become glorious, durable, enduring and generous throughout. This is exactly who he is and exactly who he wants you to be.

You might fairly doubt what I have to say. You might say “this sounds perfectly plausible in theory but it is all only theoretical. How do we know Yhwh is like this? It must be easy to transcend circumstance when you have all power and no suffering!

Jesus

Now we begin to understand Jesus.

In Jesus Yhwh comes to us and he lays aside his freedom from circumstance and his freedom from suffering. He makes himself subject to decay and death and even to the evil done by all of us. He suffers from the hardship imposed by Yhwh in the desert and in his temptations excludes from himself the shortcuts that his power afforded him. All along the way he both obeyed Yhwh and suffered, even a humiliating death on the cross.

What did he receive for all of this? Resurrection and glory.

Philippians 2:5–11 (NET)

2:5 You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had,

2:6  who though he existed in the form of God

did not regard equality with God

as something to be grasped,

2:7 but emptied himself

by taking on the form of a slave,

by looking like other men,

and by sharing in human nature.

2:8 He humbled himself,

by becoming obedient to the point of death

—even death on a cross!

2:9 As a result God exalted him

and gave him the name

that is above every name,

2:10 so that at the name of Jesus

every knee will bow

—in heaven and on earth and under the earth—

2:11 and every tongue confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord

to the glory of God the Father.  

This is exactly what Jesus calls us into.

28 Q. How does the knowledge
of God’s creation and providence
help us?

A. We can be patient when things go against us,^1
thankful when things go well,^2
and for the future we can have
good confidence in our faithful God and Father
that nothing will separate us from his love.^3
All creatures are so completely in his hand
that without his will
they can neither move nor be moved.^4

^1 Job 1:21-22; James 1:3
^2 Deut. 8:10; 1 Thess. 5:18
^3 Ps. 55:22; Rom. 5:3-5; 8:38-39
^4 Job 1:12; 2:6; Prov. 21:1; Acts 17:24-28

And that in the end, he will do exactly what he began to do. To make us like him. To make us perfect. To make us perfectly happy, and to make us able to receive exactly what he wants to give us, absolutely everything.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to To Be Able To Make Us Able To Receive Absolutely Everything

  1. Pingback: God Turns His Weapon Against Himself | Leadingchurch.com

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