Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Who needs patience? Or, Waiting for Heaven

“Great sermon on loving your enemies,” New Convert said with a sigh. “But I can’t even handle my annoying in-laws, or the lazy people I work with.”

“I know what you mean,” chimed in young Holy Homemaker. “Some days my kids drive me crazy. I wish I were more patient with them.”

“Oh, no!” exclaimed Every Christian, who had joined them at the coffee urn in Fellowship Hall. “Never pray for patience!”

“Why not?” asked New Convert na├»vely.

Wise Old Saint behind the refreshment table gave her head a rueful shake. “Because when you do,” she said softly, “prepare to suffer.”

Thus a universal truth gets passed down from one generation of Christian to the next. To pray for patience is to invite trouble.

And rightly so. The original Bible words that mean patience are often translated as forbearance, endurance, longsuffering, or perseverance. They all carry the sense of putting up with the disagreeable or difficult. For the most part, we see patience as the ability to make it through stressful circumstances with a smile on our face.

Like love, joy, and peace, we find that Jesus demands patience of us. After all, patience is an attribute of God. If his indwelling Spirit is to form Christ in us, patience is part of the deal.

Most people picture God under the old covenant as wrathful and tempestuous—exceedingly impatient. I find this ironic, considering that the history of Israel is one long testament to the forbearance of Yahweh. Time after time, God overlooked provocation the same way we as parents overlook our children’s failure to meet adult standards. We are merciful to them when they err, but we never release them from our objective: one day they will have to be adults.

We might be wrong to limit our understanding of this divine attribute to hanging on through hard times. Literally, to be patient is to “abide under,” yet there is nothing beyond God’s sovereign control. To the extent that he puts up with anything, he himself has set the parameters for his own good reasons.

Nevertheless, he is able to help us in our weakness because Jesus suffered under the proving of his faith. That’s why he came. During his earthly life, he was subject like us to the course of nature and the rigors of life among sinful people. Having thus shared in our creature-hood, his Spirit within is now able to train us in patient endurance, in longsuffering, in perseverance.

The startling conclusion is that we will need patience in the life to come. As Paul pointed out, these “light and momentary afflictions” are working for us an eternal weight of glory that far outweighs them all (2 Co 4.17). That is, “if we endure, we will reign with him” (2 Ti 2.12).  

What characterizes his reign even now? Seated at the right hand of God, Jesus waits (He 10.12-13). Jesus has the ability to wait for things to develop. He is a God of process.

This insight changes the complexion of patience.

Process is everywhere. The formation of the cosmos and the cycle of life. Embryonic growth and human development. Photosynthesis and football games. Education and eschatology. Raising crops and religious reform. Work flow and the way of the cross. Everything. Everything is a process.

The same with bearing fruit in the Spirit. The formation of the divine nature in us drives home the point that God loves process.

Still, one thing I always thought exempt from process is the afterlife. God himself never changes. Heaven is always set forth as the goal: just get there. Isn’t Christ’s an eternal kingdom, an everlasting dominion that will not pass away? Likewise Jesus described hell as a place where “worm does not die and the fire never goes out.” The essence of heaven is righteous perfection, an enduring state of pure blissful happily-ever-aftering. The very concept oozes permanence, immutability. Is this not the antithesis of process?

And yet God builds patience into his saints. Why? What is the nature of our eternal existence that patience should be required?

Sadly, our thoughts here answer little. Mainly we have to get past St. Peter’s sketchy checkpoint at the pearly gates. There we’ll pick up a custom-made harp and hear a lecture on not offending other denominations who think they’re alone. Then we must find our assigned seats on a designated cloud and get down to the business of making heavenly music. Forever. The only sense in which we’ll need patience in that scenario is if we don’t happen to like harp music.

Could we be more wrong?

The essence of patience is that we await a better outcome. If patience is required to reign with Christ, then we can be sure of this: Each passing moment will bring ever-improving life. 

In a world without pain or tears, we will move from joy to joy. That's a future worth waiting for.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Sea Billows and The Guy Who Calmed the Storm

“Peace, I leave with you,” Jesus said. “My peace I give to you.”

What did Jesus have in mind when he talked about peace? Certainly not a utopian existence where everything goes along without a hitch. He gave clear warning that in this world his followers would have trouble.

This was an especially important point for Jesus to make. Israel had long expected a Messiah to arise from the line of David, a prophet on the order of Moses. Someone to return the kingdom of Israel to its former glory in the international arena.

By the time John began to preach and baptize in the Jordan wilderness, the nation had not seen a son of David on the throne for nearly 600 years. The oppression of Rome filled them with messianic longings. Jewish youth cut their teeth on Daniel’s promise of an “everlasting dominion that will never be destroyed.” Old people haunted the temple, waiting for the “consolation of Israel.”

Enter Jesus. A miracle worker with unprecedented power—to heal the sick, to deliver from demons, to raise the dead. A teacher with great wisdom and unmatched authority. No wonder their Messiah sensors went off. Surely this hope was behind Peter recognizing him as the Christ, and his hasty if erroneous insistence that Jesus should not die at the hands of the religious leaders.

If we’re honest, we all have a little of Peter in us. We long for Jesus to rock the world—and we don’t mean the gentle sway of a cradle, either. We want to see him take the world by the scruff of the neck and shake some goodness into it. We know he can. We know he will. It’s hard to wait, especially when suffering makes our longing so poignant.

Why does he tarry? Why indeed?

Because his kingdom is not of this world. Before Jesus establishes his reign on earth, he first had to reconcile God and man. He did this by offering his own blood as an atoning sacrifice on Calvary. He paid the ransom set by God: one perfect life in exchange for all who come by faith. He tarries today because still others will come.

But why he tarries isn’t our problem. We live in a broken world. We suffer evil at the hands of wickedness. We are not spared disease or poverty or loneliness. Despite the many commands not to be afraid, we fear something out there is set against us.

The truth is, hardships are very real. They threaten us and our loved ones. We know ourselves to be defenseless before them. Fear combines with need and, left unchecked, anxiety takes root in our souls. More and more people resort to meds to moderate the anxiety of daily life.

How sweet Jesus’s command to take heart. How welcome his assurance, “I have overcome the world!” Our poor hearts, trounced by fear and pain, can barely gasp, “If only it were true.”

Wake up, Christian! You’re having a nightmare. His word is true. Jesus has overcome the world. All authority in heaven and on earth already belongs to him. Turn to him! The troubles of this world no longer master those who abide in Christ. Abide in him! These light and momentary afflictions are working for us an eternal weight of glory. Fix your eyes on the unseen!

Easier said than done, right? For many of us, the immediacy of our trouble eclipses the greatness of his help, and we are still afraid. Is the peace he promised really meant for today?

Sometimes I think we live so far this side of Pentecost that we’ve forgotten the little Flame. Worse, for many the Indwelling has been reduced to a mere “seal,” a stamp on our ticket that’ll get us into heaven when we die.

How tragic! The omnipotence of God is at our disposal and we are defeated by next month’s bills, a bad medical report, a family crisis. Weak we may be, but whatever happened to the peace that passes understanding? Oh, how we need to recover the hope of glory: Christ in us.

Do you get the strength of this hope, that GOD lives in us? What once separated us from him was defeated at the cross. Jesus died there—wrapped-up-and-laid-in-a-tomb dead. Yet he returned triumphant over death and demons, over world powers and principalities, over sickness and need and despair and every other everything that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.

This triumph is yours through the Indwelling Spirit. Embrace your victory! The peace that Jesus gives, his own peace, doesn’t have anything to do with circumstances. The beautiful truth of the Indwelling is that peace is part of who we are. Therefore we do not lose heart. No matter how often or how hard trouble wallops our life, the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Let’s be done with prayers that amount to nothing more than pleas for comfort and ease. When fears assail you, take them captive. Make them obey Christ. Fill your mind instead with thoughts of better things, things that are good, noble, praiseworthy, excellent, true, right, pure, lovely, admirable. Rejoice always. I’ll say it again, rejoice. Be thankful.

Above all, don’t be like Jerusalem—Jesus’s metaphor for empty religion—who failed to recognize the time of God’s coming. “If only you had known what would bring you peace,” he wept over the city.

Does Jesus weep over you?

Do you know what will bring you peace?