Real Morality

“As I looked, thrones were set in place,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat.
His clothing was as white as snow;
the hair of his head was white like wool.

His throne was flaming with fire,
and its wheels were all ablaze.
A river of fire was flowing,
coming out from before him.

Thousands upon thousands attended him;
ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.
The court was seated,
and the books were opened.

— Daniel 7:9-10 (NIV)

Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it.

The earth and the heavens fled from his presence,
and there was no place for them.
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne,
and books were opened.

Another book was opened, which is the book of life.
The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.
The sea gave up the dead that were in it,
and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them,
and each person was judged according to what they had done.
— Rev 20:11-13 (NIV)

What can you say before the great white throne and him who is seated on it?

The heavens and the earth try to flee away from his presence; books are opened and there is a judgement that none can withstand. One day we will stand before it.

Morality is real. The throne is real; he who is seated on it is real (he is the Most Real; he is the great I AM) and the word he speaks is real. The only things that are (that are real) are real because he has spoken (and is speaking) them so. What do you say before someone who speaks things into being, who has spoken you into being, who is speaking you into being?

We do think about what is real, and we do feel in response to what is real… and we can do both these rightly or wrongly. It really matters how we do so. But my roof did not wait on my  imagination to keep the rain off, and my floor does not wait for me to “feel like it” before it holds me up. Well, he who speaks things into being is greater than my roof and my floor, and he does not wait for me to endorse or feel before he is who he is.

There is a reality we are part of whether we like it or not; whether we understand it or not and whether we agree with it or not.

There are no games when the books are opened; there are no helpful thought experiments. It simply does not matter what we imagine them to say, or wish them to say, or believe impossible for them to say. It only matters what they do say; and they are continually being written. It won’t even matter if we question our capacity to understand them or their intrinsic knowability.

Every person has some sense of what is in these books; every person has some beliefs about them. He who is seated on the throne has spoken about them. Limited though we are – or tired – or wicked – or depressed – or distracted – we all have some sense of what is in them. When we stand before them and they are opened, the whole meaning of our actions will be uncovered.

We can know much of what they say beforehand. God speaks a real Word; he writes a real Law, he has issued real Commands. They spring from real Authority, and are really obeyed or disobeyed. When his love, goodness, glory and power are revealed, no one will be able to avoid the question, “Why did you not do what I said?” As they are real, and we are real, they can be really known, as much as anything else, and perhaps more.

None of the complexities of how we know things, how we learn them through the lenses of culture, how we mediate them through the intricacies of language, how we respond to them in an emotional moment, how we reason about them… none of these complexities will change the moment we stand before the great loving God and try to answer why we despised his love.

It is good to reason about what is right, grapple with it and meditate on it. It is good to abstract out principles, so long as we remember we can’t even add one apple and one apple and get two apples. Reflecting on these things is the path to wisdom; it is the occupation of the wise. But morality does not draw its meaning from abstract frameworks, because there is a great white throne, and on it is seated the one who spoke all things into being.

Thanks be to God.

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Real Apples

I work as a computer programmer, where analytical, ‘scientific’ thinking is highly regarded and you often gain respect for how technical (in some cases, how reductionistic) you can be about things.

But I also l try and pray sometimes, entering into the world of the heart, looking for wisdom, resting in God’s Spirit.

These are the same world but it can feel difficult to live in both at the same time.

Think with me for a moment about an apple in your kitchen. Imagine taking a knife and cutting it in half.

Now you have two halves, yes? But… Are they really halves?

In your mind’s eye, you look and see that that the cut was not quite straight. The two halves are not equal; they’re not quite halves. How to make them halves?

Very well, we rewind the scene in our imagination and re-cut. Imagine that you have cut the most perfect cut of your life; the halves are identical. But, when you look closely at the the halves, you realize that the seed counts are different. How to make an equal cut of an odd number?

Rewind with me and cut again, this time splitting the extra seed in half. But now… where is the life of the future tree? You had nine tree-bearing seeds before, but now there are only eight. You look again and see two halves of a dying worm in the apple, which you didn’t notice before. Can you split the life of the worm?

Then it occurs to you that the two halves can simply never be the same! They occupy different places in time and space… one is on the right and one is on the left. As if to prove your point, the ‘half’ on the right is blown over by a breeze from the door. It is knocked  onto the floor, making a large bruise. The leftmost one, just far enough away, totters but does not fall.

Upset, you try to put the halves back together – but of course they don’t re-unite; they only fall apart again… and they are now slightly browned from the air, they couldn’t be what they were before, anyway. You thought you had two halves, but two halves make a whole, and these ‘halves’ can never again be their former whole. It’s too late for that.

You become upset that your quest for perfect halves is compromised and throw the apple away in frustration… but then you remember – you promised your young son he could eat that apple when he came back from school. It is the apple he picked at the orchard and he has been asking all weekend to eat it! You have said that you would save it for him as a treat. Guiltily, you go to the fridge and replace it on the counter with another apple that is absolutely identical in shape, weight and appearance.

Your son comes home and, with the naivety of a small child, eats the replacement apple. You are glad that he didn’t notice any difference, but you still feel guilty… you make a special trip to throw out the trash,  afraid that he will see his apple there and discover your betrayal. But why do you feel bad? Didn’t he eat the other apple happily?

Yes, but it wasn’t his apple.

Real Apples are not like Imaginary Apples.

We show our children Imaginary Apples in school and tell them that one and one make two; that two halves make a whole, and all sorts of other nonsense. It all seems to work very well… but it somehow fails to capture the reality of Real Apples.

Real Apples have identity. One is not the other. It can be said of Real Apples, in real and serious ways, that “no two are alike.” Part of the game of Imaginary Apples is that they can be interchangable, but it is nonsense to say that Real Apples could cease to be themselves and become other apples.

Real Apples have history. They have been places, they have partaken in things. Perhaps they have been marked by their unique histories, but, even when there is no visible physical sign of their history, they still have it. It’s not uncommon for people to judge a particular apple (having never actually tasted it) on the basis of where it comes from and when.

Real Apples have locality. A Real Apple is here and not there; or perhaps there and not here! But it is where it is, and will never be anywhere else. You might ask where a pretend apple is, but perhaps it doesn’t much matter. But a Real Apple is somewhere, and it got there a particular way, and no other way.

Real Apples can be given meaning. They can be a part of acts of betrayal or of love or of anger. [wedding]

There are lots of other things you could say about Real Apples, like how they don’t look the same when the light is different (or if you put on sunglasses), or how they are constantly changing every single moment and still staying themselves… you could come up with a thousand things about Real Apples.

It’s a remarkable thing.

1 = 1/2 + 1/2

1/2 + 1/2 = 1

1 + 1 = 2

 These are some of the most reliable abstractions we have, but when we try to apply them to the simplest of real objects, of the very same kind that we use to teach the abstractions, they shatter in all sorts of weird and unexpected ways. And then of course, there are things (like a life) to which we might really struggle to apply these abstractions.

These abstractions “work”, for a kind of working… but this working comes at the cost of throwing out history, and locality, and identity, and the thousand other things that make real apples (and real lives) more fun and more valuable than the imaginary kind.[isnt]

Of course, if you can manage to strip away almost all of what something is, you can control it pretty nicely indeed. You can apply transitive or commutative operations to it; you can make it dance pretty figures for you; you can calculate it’s Mean Time to First Failure and do a thousand nifty tricks with it. We can hold the most extravagant tea parties with our thought-dolls. Of course, the more real we throw away, the more pliable the dolls are, the easier the games are, and the more power we have.

But… once the tricks have been pulled and the games have been played, we always come back to the same point – the need to take the imaginary things, the thought-golems, and bring them back to life, to relate them  to the real things they came from.[engg]

The challenge, and the up-til-now-hidden question of this article, is:

How much of a real thing can you can throw away in building a mind golem? How do you choose what is important to keep and what is not?

How much can you discard, yet still have enough likeness in your mind-golem that you can find the Real again from it? 

As abstract and distant as this question may seem, there is a real heart to it, which is:

We can only love what is real. To the extent that someone (or something) is imaginary, so is our love for them.

It is in the mess of the real that we find love – and nowhere else, for love is nowhere else. God is nowhere else, for he is the great I AM, and he is love.

Thanks be to God.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. (Why do people keep slices of their wedding cakes in the freezer? Maybe they’re made of apples 🙂
  2. Just try and eat an apple that isn’t somewhere. Or try to live a life that isn’t.
  3. The entire discipline of Engineering can be thought of as a grand testimony to this; it is largely dedicated to the difficulty of mapping the clean and sweet thought-games of science to the hardness and complexity of physical objects
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Morality – What does it mean?

I’ve been thinking about morality recently; just scattered thoughts, but that’s what a blog is for. I was out for a walk in the park, thinking about this.

It seems to me the most natural fit for morality is the question “What should I do?” or perhaps, “What ought I to do?” (or maybe, “What is right to do?”) Morality seems very closely tied to doing. (We don’t often think of it, for instance, as primarily tied to being. It’s not enough just to be; one can be without being good. ) But… this association of morality primarily with what we do has some side effects.

For instance, we become comfortable thinking of specific actions as essentially moral. “It is good to give to charity.” “It is nice to smile,” or perhaps even something as simple as, “Live. Laugh. Love.”

Merely tying morality to specific actions, however, useful though it may be, is an abstraction – a simplification – and there are always going to be points where it falls short.

The reason is that moral actions, moral though they may be, draw their morality and their meaning from something greater than the actions themselves.

For example, think of a simple concrete act: “Doing the dishes.” Is it good to do the dishes? Sure it is!

Picture a couple at home after work; both tired. She says, “Honey, can you please do the dishes?” Seems like a good idea…

Of course, that may not be all that’s being asked. There may be undercurrents, deeper meanings swirling unhidden within the request. In a small(dish-sized) but important way, she may be asking, “Do you love me?”

She needs to know that she is loved. She needs to know that she is not alone in all of this work and busyness. She needs to know that someone is with her, for her and faithful to her. He can give this to her by doing the dishes, and it is good for him to do so. It is right for him to do so. If he says “No” (or doesn’t hear, or ignores her, or says “Yes” but does nothing) she may feel something that cannot be explained as a simple discontent that the dishes are dirty.

What is that thing she feels and what do the dishes have to do with it? Why should she ever feel something more than the dishes would warrant? The dishes now mean more than just the dishes. They have been infused with a meaning that transcends their intrinsic meaning of rebellion against order; their former role as agents of chaos.

“Do you love me?” has been asked and doing the dishes is now an act of love – an act of new meaning, and (dare I say it) of new moral meaning.

There is a mysterious bond between the action and the love, and it is not at all easy to tease out how the action (in this case, dishes) relates to the rightness of the relationship. There is a certain wedded-ness of the two. Once the dishes are asked for, only the dishes will do.  Saying “Honey, I love you,” and leaving the dishes undone in the sink will not suffice; the meaning has really, truly been attached to the action.

On the other hand, (and this is the point) it is impossible to fully understand the action as right or wrong outside of the relationship. The moral meaning is bound to the action (and the action is required – it is what ought to be done) but the moral meaning comes from the relationship – and the relationship is hugely complex. The action by itself is insufficient.

All it takes to see  this is one night with the same question but a slightly different circumstance. “Come sit with me for a while,” she says. The question is the same as before. “Do you love me?”

But tonight there is overtiredness, frustration… bitterness.

“I’m. doing. the. dishes.” he spits back.

The dishes can now be a weapon of malice; a small chance to be spiteful and deny needed companionship. It’s now as wrong to do them as it was right before.

Is it good to do the dishes? Sure it is, in a generally abstract and simplified sort of way. However, if we try and say that the action “just is moral” we are relying on a simplification that will at some point break, because it tries to hide the complexity of relationship.

It’s like the sailor on the ship that springs a leak. “Man the pumps!” is the cry, “our very lives depend on it!” He dives below and applies himself with an earnestness born of necessity.

The leak is plugged and all hands are saved, but three days later someone goes down and finds him still there, close to dead from exhaustion, crumpled over the pump and trying to push it down with the weight of his body. No one has told him that the leak was stopped two days ago, and with a single focus he has been pumping, pumping, pumping…

At some point what he was doing stopped being good and life-giving and became  self-destructive. Where is the line between heroism and folly? It can’t be found just in the action; it lies somewhere in the beyond.

But what about morality?

One of the mysteries of human living is that all actions find their moral meaning from our relationship with God. Every action is an answer to His question “Do you love me?” No action can ever be separated from this question; it is always being asked. We are his creations, and we live, move and have our being within this question.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. — Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (NIV)

Answering this question is God’s first commandment, the first order of morality.

When we say that morality is absolute, we are really appealing to the character of God. We serve a God who is so faithful and constant that the meanings of actions in relationship with him are constant and true. There are things he always loves and delights in, things he always doesn’t like; his character does not change.

“He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.” — 1 Samuel 15:29

We can love God in relationship because he is constant, without fleeting whims and fancy, and his commands are absolute, a true and reliable guide. He is not wild or unpredictable or erratic (how difficult is it to love or be loved by someone like that!) We can love him, because he is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Yet, because God is so constant, we consistently see specific actions linked with moral behaviour (aka. the actions of loving God). God is so consistent in character that there is a temptation to take these specific actions as being moral in and of themselves, and to forget the eternal relationship within which we live. In fact, these actions are so reliable within the relationship (they are so good) that we can build societies and cultures off of them and experience goodness from them, even when we are distracted from (or oblivious to) the relationship from which they are born.

It’s amazing that a Judeo-Christian ethic, or a secular ethic, or any abstract ethic works at all, but they do, for a limited sort of working… because God is just that good.

All actions are named good or bad because all actions are done before Him; only insofar as something is done of love for God can it be called good or right. Things that are absolutely right carry the unchanging nature of God himself, for he is unchangingly calling them right. But… the moment we lose sight of him as someone to be loved, we lose our moral compass, because it is in the love of God that all meaning is found.

Everything we do is an opportunity to love. And that is right.

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Write one to throw it away

You will anyway.

Fred Brooks wrote this in 1975, and he was talking about large software systems… but perhaps it’s true for general writing as well. Brooks uses the magical phrase, “Software is pure thoughtware,” and if anything is pure thoughtware, it’s a written composition.

What Brooks says is scary in a way, because writing is a lot of work, and he really is saying that you should write everything twice. More than that – he’s suggesting that you *have* to write everything twice, and that you *will*, whether you intend to or not.

Writing is special, and it has a special twice-ness to it, because it’s not immediately apparent *why* you should write something twice.

Let’s say you are creating a physical object, like a chair, or a table. It’s perfectly obvious why you might build two chairs, or two tables, or two houses, or… You want more – you get more.

But thoughtware is not like this… ideas can replicate themselves nearly without cost. Ever since the rise of the printing press, and especially in this digital age, one written word can propagate seemingly endlessly. Links are cheap. You can’t link to a chair… at least, not to the same effect.

The result is that to create a thought product is a creative act in a different sense than of manufacturing something. Every piece is something new; it must be new. If it wasn’t new, you wouldn’t be writing it![plag] As an author, you encounter every composition for the first time.

But newness comes with a cost.

Before you try and write a new thing, you don’t know what it is. You are meeting it for the first time. This is your training – your practice. When you have finished, you have changed yourself more than you have produced something.

You haven’t created the thing, you’ve taught yourself how to create the thing, and the real work of creating the thing can begin.

With physical craftsmanship, the need to replicate is innate. Physical objects need to be crafted separately, and their purely physical restrictions enforce iteration and training. But with thoughtware, every piece is a prototype, a teaching tool – because we are learning a new thing, every single time.

When I work hard in writing a piece, by the time I’m finished, I realize that I have taught it to myself. I know what each section does, why it is there, and how it functions in the work as a whole. I understand the composition. By the time I’ve written it, I at last know what it is and how to write it. The tragedy is that, having written it, I never need to write it again. [dash]

If I had said something to someone, I might have to say it again, and again, and again to others as need arose, but once it is written… it is written.

What Brooks suggests is that the process of learning the new thing is so entwined with the act of writing that the first draft is invariably more of a learning artifact than a proper creation, and that the learning achieved in the process of writing can now be applied to a more serious making.

In other words, if I’ve sweated through the writing, the actual words produced have less value than I think they do. Before I didn’t know how to write that particular piece, but now I do – the primary value lies with me as the author, who has learned the piece, and not with the piece itself.

Moreover, for thoughtware, because there is no innate need to re-draft or re-write subsequent copies, the opportunity to write something as a learned author will only exist if I throw away the original. The discipline is not enforced and it feels artificial.

Usually I don’t have the courage to take that finished piece, read it, extract the true outline and structure from it, and write the real thing from the true outline. It all comes down to courage, and time. Most of the time my “final piece” is at best my first draft with a few cosmetic typo-corrections and grammar fixes.

Hmm. Food for thought.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. It’s called plagiarism.
  2. In contrast, when I dash something off without thought, I don’t really learn much about the piece, because I don’t figure what parts it needs, how they work, or why.
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We have no idea how much this moment is worth

I was thinking about how much delight our Father takes in his children.

It occurs to me that we have no idea how much joy God takes in our obedience, or even in our very existence.

Job had no idea, as he sat and scraped his boils on a pile of dung and rubble, that the Lord of Heaven was boasting with delight.

“Do you see my servant Job? He delights in good and shuns evil.”

The evil one was seething in frustration as Job sat, and scraped… and refused to curse. He had no idea of the joy he was bringing to God in that moment. There was a moment when the eyes of the cosmos were fixed on a beggar on a rubbish heap (and he was one of many)… and he had no idea.

We simply have no idea. Did anyone on Golgotha fully know what that moment meant? It was the greatest moment.

When Albert McMakin took a friend to a Gospel meeting, did he have any idea what he was doing?

We simply don’t know the joy that God has when we endure in a trial, and we don’t know what a small obedience can be worth. After all, how can we?  To be able to see the worth that is unseen is the gift of the Holy Spirit.

When my sister is patient with her children, when someone chooses to honor their employer and put in a hard day’s work, when someone decides not to mock another human… When a Fort MacMurray family chooses not to curse… Who knows how much this is really worth?

The irony is, we are the ones who choose what to do in our moments. Will we do it alone, or will we listen for that voice to tell us what our moments are really worth?

The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.

… For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

— Romans 8:6,13

For we live by faith, not by sight. — 2 Cor 5:7

For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Heb 12:3b

1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him-
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—

3 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;

4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

5 Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

— Isaiah 11:1-5 (NIV)

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Love is Patient

The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 

— Genesis 6:8 (NIV)

Love is patient, love is kind… It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

— 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (NIV)

When I was about twenty-five years old, something changed that made me appreciate God in a new way: I began to experience God speaking in prayer to me. It wasn’t like a voice – more like a thought or an impression which would appear, but, over a period of time, I came to accept that (a) It really was God speaking, (b) That he was far more loving and gracious than I ever gave him credit for, and (c) That God was not far away, but present and intimately involved with people, all the time.

This was something I had always professed but not experienced. Or perhaps I’d experienced, but simply ignored. Or, perhaps more simply still, I had on some level chosen not to believe.[ignore]

For most of history, those who have believed in the God of the Jews (and the Christians) have believed in a God who was actively and intimately involved within the world. [en] Particularly, the Hebrews had a sense of creation that was continual. For them, not only did God create the world, but, in any given moment, he was upholding it, maintaining its existence – keeping it created. Without his active involvement, it would fall into destruction, just as a person, when their breath is removed, falls into dust.[pict]

This sense comes through in Jewish and Christian Scriptures:

…in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

— Hebrews 1:2-3

The claim made in the New Testament book of Hebrews is that not only did Jesus create all things, but that he is also continually sustaining all created things by his powerful word. This is not a small claim! It’s also not an isolated claim.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

— Colossians 1:15-17

 …he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

— Ephesians 1:9-10

We are made by Jesus Christ, exclusively for Jesus Christ, under Jesus Christ (and ultimately, to be united with Jesus Christ) and we exist only by his will and delight to sustain us.[claim]

Jesus is intimately involved in all things. Our whole purpose is in and for him. Why else does he say, “Abide in me?” We can only accept this or reject it; we can’t change it. We don’t get to choose to be in relationship with him, any more than we get to choose our birth family or the fact that we were born as people and not as platypuses. We are created in relation to him.

Accepting this, however, forces me to accept something else. It forces me to accept that Jesus himself is constantly sustaining things which cause him anguish. He is constantly in relationship with all things, good and bad.

The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 

— Genesis 6:8 (NIV)

Greater intimacy leads to greater love and delight, but also to greater wounding and sorrow in broken relationship. How great the pain and regret of God! Can I really accept that a primary aspect of God’s character is enduring pain?

But… I can’t avoid this about God. When God, the Almighty Creator of all things, chose to appear within his creation, what form did he take? How did he choose to introduce himself to the world?

He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised,
and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.

— Isaiah 53:3-4

God chose to introduce himself as one who suffered. One who healed, delivered, proclaimed joy and salvation,  who suffered and who overcame.

You see, when I am brought face to face with Jesus and his total lack of avoidance, I don’t understand him.

God did not make us as toys. He doesn’t want toys. God made us real and, more than that, he gave us the ability to cause him pain on a level we ourselves cannot imagine.[imagine] God does not play with action figures; he lives and loves with living people. Right from the moment of creation, “it got real”. Actually, it never ‘got’ real. It always was real.

I cannot understand this because I avoid. I don’t understand this non-avoiding God. When I ask, “If you are good, why is there so much evil?” I am confessing that I can’t conceive of a God who can bear that much – because I can’t bear that much.[me] To me, God has to be distant, or absent, because my reaction is to distance or remove myself.  He has to be unfeeling, because my reaction is to harden my heart to avoid discomfort. He has to turn away… doesn’t he?

If I accept that he loves that much, I also accept that he avoids nothing. If I accept that he avoids nothing, I condemn myself in everything that I myself avoid. Lord, have mercy!

How do I describe this? How do I name this characteristic of God, to lovingly uphold something which causes distress? I can name it in two ways.

The first is by example, by remembering my sister, whose young son is being potty trained and is running around the house without diapers. She quietly cleans up his accidents on the living-room carpet, trying not to say anything, because words alone won’t make him something other than a toddler. It’s not pleasant, but she loves him, and it’s worth it to her. In fact, the discomfort of the accident can’t even be measured alongside her love for him, although the discomfort is keenly felt.

The second is in the simple phrase,

“Love is patient.”

The more I think on this phrase, I believe it encompasses all I’ve tried to write out, and much more besides. Patience is the ability to endure discomfort out of love. I believe when Paul writes this (teaching that without love nothing else matters) he has in mind the great wonder of a God who is protecting, faithful, and hopeful in all things… and who endures all things.

“Love is patient.”

I’m not patient, but God is. I avoid, but God doesn’t. At a cosmic level, I struggle to understand him, because he is very unlike me. But there is a consequence to this.

Every morning, I wake up and I know that he loves me. Every morning, I wake up and I am still here. I don’t deserve to be. I don’t understand why I am. Every morning, I wake up, and God is patient, and God is kind, and he chose for me to be here because he loves me and he wants me here. All I can do is say, “Thank you.”

Thanks be to God.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. One of the mysteries of life is that even when I know this, it’s still possible for me to ignore/disregard it. This doesn’t make sense to me, but it’s true.
  2. In North America, this sense has been largely destroyed through generations of history, in particular, through a dry, naturalistic perception of the rich world God made.
  3. This is a very different picture from a “watchmaker” God, who merely winds up a watch and then leaves it alone to run…
  4. This claim is so big that I’m not sure I can grasp it intellectually. The consequence is that there is no moment, no thought, no activity in my day today that I can reserve for myself, outside of my relationship with God. They all belong to him, in an absolute sense. Everything I try and reserve for myself is poorer, more miserable and sadder, because it is pretending to be a blasphemous copy of what it really is.
  5. We spend most of our lives avoiding pain, so we don’t want to imagine this. Even if we didn’t avoid it, we couldn’t feel it in its depth. We’re too limited.
  6. For me, it always is just about me.
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Does God Feel?

I’m still thinking about love and avoidance. The truth is, I’ve been thinking about this for years but never writing it out. One of the challenges is when I think about things on my own, I can never know if they’re true or even sane.

One such thought that occurred to me is that if God feels, because he sees everything and avoids nothing, he must feel everything, all the time. All the joy, all the pain. All the anger, all the sadness, all the delight, all the love, all the peace… I’m no stranger to a jumble of feelings and to emotional confusion, but how does God deal with all of that, all at once, all the time, at every single moment in history?

If God loves at a depth that I can’t imagine, does that mean that he also feels at a depth that I can’t imagine? If he knows me intimately, better than I know myself, does he also feel me intimately?

The language of Scripture is soaked with emotion…

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

— 1 John 4:8 (NIV)

The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 

— Genesis 6:8 (NIV)

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.

— Matthew 23:37 (NIV)

At some level, it doesn’t feel right to say that God feels things. It doesn’t seem… respectful.

After all, He is God and we are not. When I talk about feeling, I am talking about a human thing, and it surely can’t be right to impose a human thing upon God himself. And yet… Scripture does so, repeatedly.

We are made in God’s image – in his likeness. But what is the nature of a likeness? A painting, for instance, is like a person, but a painting is not a person. It can be a true likeness, but it only represents the living truth, and even then is strictly limited in what it can possibly represent. It has no flesh, no wit, no life, no spark, no third dimension… The difference between having the painting in the room and the person in the room is incalculable. You can’t kiss a painting. Well, you can… but it’s not the same.

Human emotions, made real in flesh and chemistry and limitation, are what we know and feel… they are real and they are genuine, but they are limited. For instance, we feel them mostly one at a time. If we are furious, we are not much else; if we are destitute, or enraptured, we are exclusively so. If we feel something too intensely, for too long, we will fall into exhaustion and physically be unable to feel much at all, except emptiness. In short, human emotions are human.

Now… we reflect God. Our character and nature represents his, in some elusive way. We are because He first is, and was, and will be.

For instance, we are relational beings because God is relational – three persons in the Trinity. But our relationship is derivative of his; it is reduced from the eternal relationship that was before. Is it the same for our emotions? If our emotions are reduced from his, what is changed (or lost) in the reduction?

The living God never slumbers nor sleeps; he does not tire. He never looks away from the lost or lonely or abused. He is never ignorant of the wicked and he never fails to reward the faithful. If he does feel, he must surely feel all things at once. All the pain, all the anger, all the joy, all the wrath, all the love, all the sorrow… in its fullness, without ceasing.

I think it is the unique characteristic of God that he simultaneously loves all creation, delights in all beauty, weeps over all sorrow, and burns against all wickedness, remaining in perfect peace while doing so. I can worship Him, but I’m not sure I can understand this about Him.

Our joy is something like what he has; our sorrow is something like his own grieving. Our anger is perhaps a stick-man drawing (but in reality, far cruder) of the real anger of God. We have, in our image-bearing selves, a true and genuine representation that honestly conveys the nature and character of God, but it does so within our limitations of flesh and sin and death. We can feel only what our bodies allow; but how could this be true of God, who is Spirit?

Part of the marvel (and joy!) of the Incarnation is that God came to earth, taking on limitation, and allowed himself to feel in the human way. He bridged the gap between his own Real Thing That Is Like Our Emotion and the human facsimile of it. Jesus Christ knows how to feel as a human and he also knows the Real Thing That is Like Feeling. He has walked in both.

God has felt in the human way. We can’t go to him, but he has come to us.

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On Love and Avoidance

This is just a brain dump of my busy mind. Maybe someone else’s mind is busy in the same way.

It seems the better I acknowledge God to be, the worse I confess myself to be.

When I say that God is righteous, or that God is loving, I am saying that in his relationship with us, he always does the thing which is best – the most loving, most righteous and perfect thing there is to do.

There are consequences to this.

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

— 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (NIV)

What does it mean that the very best way of treating us, the kindest, most patient and most selfless way of treating us, involves:

  • flooding and destroying the whole earth
  • drowning an Egyptian army
  • wiping out Canaanite nations
  • suffering and dying on our behalf?

“Love does not delight in evil but it rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” What am I saying when I acknowledge that the most protecting, trusting, hoping and persevering option left open to God was to remove the bulk of humanity from the earth? I wouldn’t really fault someone for calling this a blatant contradiction.

Well… except for one thing. There is one way I can make sense of this not being a contradiction.

Humanity is so wicked that at one point, the most loving action imaginable, the most tender and gracious thing to do, was to flood and destroy the whole earth. There seems to a be a terrible conclusion lurking in these Bible stories: mankind does not deserve to live on this earth. We are allowed to exist here purely because of the grace and love of God.

The thing is, I’ve been taught this from my childhood. But have I ever faced it or actually believed it?

I’ve been thinking on avoidance recently. Mostly, this is because avoidance has been a cornerstone of my personal life. I also suspect, however, that there is an existential truth so awful – so horrible – that great swathes of human life and culture are precisely directed at avoiding it. When I look at myself, this feels like me.

In his first letter, John writes of God that, “In him is no darkness whatsoever,” using the strongest negation that Greek has to offer. As a fearful human, I am terrified by this absolute, precisely because it is absolute. It leaves no wiggle room to make myself look better by pretending that perhaps God was just a little bit unloving in some of the things he has done.

But… to deny the love of God is blasphemous. Will I really say or perform the worst blasphemies in order to avoid calling myself wicked? Apparently, yes. Apparently, regularly. Apparently, it requires herculean effort for me to avoid blaspheming, by virtue of the fact that I do it every single day. Maybe I don’t deserve to live on God’s earth, after all.

The claim is that the reason we claim a contradiction between God’s actions and his love is that we are fleeing from an existential horror.  To avoid the horror requires saying that he’s not really good or loving.

I have huge difficulties with this thought, mostly having to do with the fact that existential horrors make me feel bad.[diff] One difficulty is that I can’t really refute the reality or scale of the horror. The Bible does seem to present a story of humanity so wicked that, were God not intimately, actively and lovingly involved in the world, we would create hell on earth. Throughout human history, God constantly saves us from ourselves by establishing law, order and culture. He judges wicked nations and establishes a righteous people and kingdom in the midst of human ugliness.[depressed]

If I try and understand culture as being substantially based on avoiding this existential horror, it does make a certain grim sense. This is the only framework I have to explain Western cultural features such as our complacency with being the wealthy 1%, our perverse relationship to sex and entertainment, and our insistence on secular science beyond God.

John paints a picture of absolute light that is stark and polarizing, where there is no darkness whatsoever, where all ugliness and horror is plainly revealed. And yet, the light is full of love. It is so bright and intense that it burns away all evil… and yet it bathes, caresses, washes, cleanses and makes pure. It is patient, kind, gentle, tender and forgiving.

I can’t dare look at my own culture or my own self outside the presence of Jesus Christ. I have no light of my own with which to face it. I don’t have the strength to face it and not go insane. I must be bathed in the perfect love which casts out fear in order to even name the truth. Has anyone ever confessed to any truth about themselves, outside of His love and grace?

Over several years I have struggled with that little book, “The Practice of the Presence of God.” It’s a book often read but rarely realised. (Perhaps like another book we know) But Why? It is a book that claims absolute things.  It also is a book devoid of avoidance. It has the same quality of refusal to avoid that I see in the life of Jesus.

“That we should surrender ourselves in things temporal and in things spiritual, entirely and with complete abandonment to God and take our happiness in doing as He wills whether he leads us by suffering or by consolation, for they are all the same to the soul truly resigned to His will.”[abs]

“That he was not shocked at the misery and sin he heard about every day but on the contrary, considering the malice of which the sinner is capable, he was surprised there was not more of it. He prayed for the sinner but knowing God could right the matter whenever he wished, he did not allow himself to be too upset.”

“That he was always governed by love, with no other interest, and without concerning himself as to whether he would be damned or saved. But having resolved to make the love of God the end of all his actions, he found this decision most satisfactory.”

“That when he had stumbled, he simply acknowledged his fault and said to God: ‘I shall never do otherwise if you leave me to myself; it is up to you to keep me from falling and to correct what is wrong.’ “

“He told me that he had no scruples for ‘when I know I have failed, I acknowledge it and say, “that is what I usually do when I left to myself;” if I have not failed, I give thanks to God, and acknowledge it is his doing.’ ” 

What Brother Lawrence seems to be suggesting is that while our existential horror is true, it is not particularly important. It is not important because of the love and beauty of Jesus Christ, because of the intimacy and closeness of his Presence. His loving light saves us from horror even as his blood redeems us out of it. As we focus our minds on Jesus who is risen in glory, the truth of horror does not disappear, but the truth that he loves us floods over it and overwhelms it completely.

It is this focus on the good, the dwelling in the presence of God, the fixing of our hope in his resurrection and glory which allows us to live in the world and not avoid it. To read the Apostle Paul, the degree to which we acknowledge goodness is the degree to which we can face the world as it is. Brother Lawrence claims the dedication of our will to serving the love of God underpins our peace; Paul exhorts us to practice all goodness, to rejoice in God, as our defence.

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

— Philippians 4:4-9 (NIV)

We cannot avoid confessing that we are that bad; in order to do so, we must step into his loving light and know in our souls that he is that good. But… if we do not do it, we will not know it.

On a day when I feel anxious, when I fight to find the motivation to step out my front door, dwelling on the horror makes me hide in my room. But… on a day when I manage to surrender, Jesus takes me by the hand saying, “Come, follow me.” and he leads me outside.  Jesus doesn’t avoid anything, because he’s overcome it all. I can’t follow him when I’m avoiding. But I don’t need to avoid when I’m with him.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Feeling bad is a huge difficulty for me. I don’t like it.
  2. Maybe I’m just depressed. Maybe… but I’m afraid that it’s not only this.
  3.  Where we have truly surrendered, we surrender to the bad and the good alike. Otherwise, it is the worst nonsense (pure contradiction, really) to say that suffering and consolation are the same. It is a claim that the absolute nature of our happiness is tied to the absolute nature of our surrender. Scary stuff.
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Thoughts on Peace

Peace that is based on avoidance is not peace. So long as a troubling thing exists, we may choose not to look at it and so be calm, but our peace will always remain under threat, and that nagging voice beneath our calm will never quite shut up.

Jesus’ life was not free of suffering or anguish, but it was entirely free of avoidance. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, he entered into those very things which we are afraid of, which we assume will destroy peace in our own lives. And yet… he was the Prince of Peace.

Does God have peace? Certainly God suffers anguish in the face of evil. Surely he wept over the world in Noah’s time, as Jesus wept over Jerusalem, as a husband weeps over an unfaithful bride. God is not threatened by evil, but he is grieved by it, and fiercely angry against it. There is no emotional vacuum here.

When we face trauma, we repress it. We dissociate from it. In the face of suffering that we are certain will destroy us, we flee. Yet God is not a God of repression or dissociation. He sees all, acknowledges all, enters into all, bears all, and overcomes all.

Jesus Christ is the one who is strong enough to look full in the face of evil and suffering and yet never turn his gaze away. He’s the one who is strong enough to take all suffering into his own body and bear it. He rationalizes nothing, acknowledges the fullness of our guilt and he has undergone the full wrath of God.

He does not, will not, deny the truth. In him there is no darkness at all. He brings all things into the light – into the truth. There are no dark corners in his life. To God, the night is as bright as the day! In him is life, and that life is the light of men.

We have a problem – our sad human lives are based on avoidance. Our very sanity depends on denying our sin, on justifying it, and on ignoring the truth of ourselves and our world. There are things on this earth, within ourselves, so horrible that were we to acknowledge them we might go insane from the grief, helplessness, and guilt.

We cannot read all that is in the news, or if we can, it is because the papers themselves cannot not bring themselves to name or print the fullness of the evil truth. Dogs are prominently saved from housefires while children die invisibly.

Jesus comes with the agenda of bringing all things into his light. We cannot see everything at once, as God does, (nor does he ask us to) but we can no longer pretend to ignore or avoid any troubling thing and still expect full peace. Jesus Christ has overcome it; he is its victor.

Jesus asks us to trust him and believe in his victory. He bore this trouble, and he is still alive. His explicit promise to us is that even if it kills us also, we will still live.

Our peace is bound to our confession. Where we deny the truth, we deny our own peace. Anything not in the light is a stronghold of darkness, a foothold for avoidance. Jesus had full peace; Jesus was also a man who confessed all and surrendered all. He was a man of no pretension whatsoever.

Jesus life was his Father’s. He surrendered it, and he would not be anxious over it. His emotions were not disconnected, as in one who represses or disassociates from trauma… Jesus suffered anguish, but anguish is not anxiety.

Jesus counsels us that if we do not fall into the earth and die, as a seed does, we will remain alone. But if we die, we will bear much fruit. Servants are found at their master’s side.

Our lives of partial confession, partial submission and partial obedience are riddled with anxiety and fear. How can it be otherwise? Where we are chained, we are not free. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. The mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace in Christ Jesus.

This is a frightening thing! Can I honestly say there’s a day in my life when I don’t fight with pride? Day after day I keep discovering new levels to my own ugliness and wickedness, depths I would rather avoid. Every morning, I wake up to a fight, and usually by the afternoon I feel like I’m losing. Can such a man expect peace?

Where I refuse to confess to and repent of my sin, once I see it and know it, the answer is, “No”, and rightfully not! How can I claim an expectation of peace in conscious wrongdoing? Where rebellion thrives there is no peace, by definition. There is only a war zone. God actively opposes the proud.

God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble. The Apostle Paul, in writing his letters, greets the churches with the words, “Grace and Peace to you.” The grace and peace that is ours in Christ Jesus is not peace alone, but also grace. God often gives a peace that we do not deserve.

Are there not times when, purely by His grace, God gives us peace that our confession does not warrant, that our submission does not warrant, and that our obedience does not warrant?

Confession, submission and obedience do not bring peace by themselves. Rather, they are the doorway to the promise that, like the dying seed, we will not remain alone. Jesus Christ, the master of the universe, the one who has overcome all suffering, comes to indwell us by His Holy Spirit. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. It is his indwelling that brings us peace.

We will not have peace because we are good confess-ers, or submit-ers or obey-ers. We will have peace if God chooses to fill us with his Spirit. We will have peace when we are no longer alone, when we are rooted and grounded in love. How can we have peace, except by God choosing to love us and to be with us?

We do not have to pretend that we will not feel overwhelmed. We do not have to pretend that our minds are greater than they actually are, that we understand suffering… We do not have to pretend that our emotions will not leave us exhausted, worn out, running on empty… this is the truth of our selves, and it is part of our confession.

Though true, our weakness is not all that important in comparison to the overwhelming victory of Jesus Christ. Certainly it feels important. It feels urgent! Sometimes it feels as though we will die. And we may. Across the world, in this moment, some may be dying because of their confession and submission to God. It can happen, it does happen, and it is happening.

The most relevant truth is that we are not alone. Sometimes, by God’s grace, He allows us to feel this truth tangibly through a physical manifestation of His presence. Sometimes, again by His grace, he doesn’t. The truth is the truth, regardless of how we feel about it.

Because we don’t always feel this, because God is invisible and we can’t see him, a step of faith is involved in refusing to avoid. When we confess, we take a step of faith, claiming that we are not alone. There is one with us who has overcome that troubling thing, even if that troubling thing is as severe as our own death.

Our troubling thing may feel perfectly horrible. It may be an experience of evil as dark and vicious, or even more so, than we could ever imagine. There is a reason we are called to fix our minds on and to dwell in the overwhelming glory of the risen and resurrected Christ.  Evil is real, it is just less important than Jesus Christ.

The exercise of faith is the destruction of avoidance. If we do not do it, we will not have it. Yet if Christ has truly overcome, there is literally no reason for us not to do it.

Again, when we talk about what we have or do not have, we remember that we serve a gracious God who gives us things we do not deserve. He can give us peace far beyond what our faith deserves, and who can challenge him for being merciful?

God’s peace does not depend on the absence of evil or suffering. There is a final, future resolution that is absolute. God is not threatened. All things will be judged, and all things will be united in Christ. Sorrow may last for the night, but joy comes with the morning! If God grieves now, it will not be so forever, and he asks us to faithfully believe the same and hope in his Son.

If God is righteous in allowing the wholeness – the shalom – the peace of the world to be marred for a time, if he is right to patiently endure, and even enter into suffering, can I deny the same?

If the peace of the world is shattered yet the peace of God is intact, might the peace of my flesh be shattered and yet the peace of Christ within me remain whole?

Jesus says, “Behold, I make all things new.”

If God’s peace is not disturbed over the corruption of the world, because he knows Jesus Christ will make all things new, how should I relate to the corruption of my own body, the turmoil of my own emotions?  If God’s peace over the world is founded on the future restoration by, for, and in Christ, shouldn’t my peace over my own troubles be built on the same?

Jesus is, at this very moment, whole and sound, complete and restored. What does that mean to me?

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Joy Before Him

Oh, there is joy beyond.
Jesus saw it, knew it, fixed his eyes upon it
He kept his jaw clenched, his face flint and his mind locked on the above…

His flesh was bound but his eye was free
And through the blur of pain it strained to see
His Father’s gift – that there was joy beyond.

See how he stands, easy at his father’s side
Confident, radiant, free in soul and body
The LORD eternal, clothed in glory
Laughing with the King and Spirit
Bathed in joy, beyond.

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