Lessons of Motherhood: The Burden of Love

There is a new love in my life. He’s about two feet tall. He can’t speak yet, but when he looks at me and smiles, I’m quite certain he’s saying “I love you too.” He’s my son and there are moments when I’m rocking him in my arms and he wraps his tiny fingers around mine that I am completely overwhelmed and almost a little scared by how much I love him.

Our society has trivialized love to the point of making it almost meaningless. We have reduced it to nothing more than fleshly instinct, insatiable lust, and a high of warm and fuzzy feelings. Motherhood is teaching me that real love is made of much weightier stuff. To really, truly love someone is a burden.

I have a vision for my son’s life, things I will hope he will learn and do along with things I hope he will not do. There are pitfalls and painful experiences I pray he will avoid, but I am not naive enough to think that all of this will work out as I plan. He will encounter struggles. He will make mistakes and get hurt. He will probably even hurt me. He could reject my faith and in so doing, reject life and salvation.  His life could even end early and so bring tragedy and sorrow to mine. You see, love makes us vulnerable. It can be painful and costly.

At times I’ve wondered why God created mankind knowing all along how they would reject him and the pain it would cause him, how He would have to suffer for them. I can’t pretend to know God’s mind, but I think I understand it a little now. Even though I realize how loving my son could bring me pain, I know I would never want to erase his life to avoid it. Knowing him and loving him is an unqualified good.

I think that’s how God feels about His children. He created us even knowing all that we would do because he delighted in mankind. Burdened by love, He became the most vulnerable thing on earth: a baby. Though we rejected Him, He embraced pain and sorrow to save us. His love for His children cost Him his life.

So when I look at my son, I know I’m in this all the way. Whatever it takes, I pray I can love him as Christ has loved me, embracing the pain as well as the joy, counting the cost as well as the blessing. I pray I will carry my burden well.

“This is how we know what love is:  Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” -1 John 3:16

Good News: God Is Intolerant

There’s a rumor that has been floating around for quite some time that God is Love.  He hates nothing.  He offends no one.  He makes no accusations.  All he really does is pat our heads and tell us how wonderful we are and how much he wants us to do whatever makes us happy. Essentially, he is a tolerant God.

I am not sure what this God is based on, but it is not the God of the Bible.  It is a God of our own making, a God made in our mage.  I’ll admit he is appealing on some level. No one likes to be told they are wrong. No one finds it pleasant to have their sin exposed.  This God is certainly easy to get along with.  Yet I would suggest that this God of tolerance is not a God of love.  My last post was about the fact that acceptance is not the same thing as love.  This post will suggest that intolerance is not the same thing as hate.

The God of the Bible is a God of love, but that does not mean that He hates nothing.  In fact, I would argue that it is because He loves that He hates certain things, namely, sin.  The message of the Bible is actually that God’s intolerance and His love flow from the same place and work to achieve the same goals:  the glory of His name and the redemption of His people.

Suppose for a minute that God really was a tolerant God.  He might notice that we all sin, that this sin leads to our destruction and death, but he would do nothing about it.  Perhaps, he would see that what we think makes us happy really only makes us more miserable, but he would not lift a finger to stop us or say a word against us because he would not want to offend.  He would simply sit back and watch us as we ruined our lives, but oh he would celebrate with us that we were able to live freely unencumbered by old-fashioned rules and out-dated standards of morality.  This God might make a good pal, but not a very good Savior and above all, he would not be a God of love.  His tolerance would be convenient for him, but come at a very high price to ourselves.

Fortunately, this is not the Gospel.  God did not choose the path of convenience, but of sacrificial love. The good news of Jesus Christ is that God loves us so deeply and hates our sin so passionately that He absolutely refused to tolerate it.  He would not leave us in our sin and knowing that we were powerless to keep His law and meet His standards, He took our penalty.  His love for us has cost Him greatly.

The Cross is as much an expression of God’s wrath as it is of God’s love. It was as much an offensive action as a defensive one.  Christ died to save us, but He also died to defeat sin, to purge His creation and His people of the sinfulness that He abhors.  On the cross, His love and His hate coalesced to purchase our salvation.  So we find that contrary to popular belief and political correctness, we should rejoice to find that we have an intolerant God. For just as a good and loving Father refuses to stand back and accept the harmful and destructive habits of his child, so our Father has refused to accept and leave us in our sin.  Our God is intolerant and this is very, very good news for both His intolerance and His love have compelled Him to save us from our sins.

American Individualism and the Myth That We Are “Special”

In my Bioethics class last semester, we discussed an interesting statistic. America is by far the most individualistic society in the world.  Most countries have a general sense of a community identity while America was at the far, far other end of the spectrum, having almost no sense of communal identity and an overly heightened individualistic independence.

I think this is because in America, we are taught that we are “special.” From childhood, each of has been fed a steady diet of feel-good phrases about how wonderful we are and how we can do whatever we set our minds to.  I was suspicious of these even as a child.  They seemed to be founded on blind and willful belief rather than any actual truth.  We can all work hard to achieve things, but we also have natural limitations.  I may have wished to be the next great artist, but my complete lack of artistic ability told me that was not a viable option, no matter how hard I might try.

Why do we work so hard to pump this stuff into our children’s brains when it is clearly not true?  What is this need we have to be “special?”  I think it is fairly obvious that from a worldly perspective, this nonsense comes from an over-exalted sense of self.  We are all going to glorify something in our lives and for most, it is ourselves.  Our great fear is to be average because deep down, we believe that an average life is not a worthwhile life.  We need to feel that we are special in an attempt to fill our desire for meaning and purpose and value for our lives.  The ironic truth though is that we cannot all possibly be special. To be special is by definition, a rare privilege given to a select few.  If we are all special, then we are actually all just average.

What I have been learning over the past few years is that this thinking can leak its way into the minds of Christians as well.  It is just a little more subtle and cloaked in the holiest of language.  “God has a special plan for my life….”  “God wants to use my gifts for His glory.”  So what am I saying?  That these things aren’t true?  No, not exactly, but I think that our take on them can be self-centered instead of Christ-centered.

The Biblical Perspective on Being Special

So what does the Bible have to say about this?  Does it reinforce our desperate desire to believe that we are special?  Well, I think the answer is yes and no.

The Bible affirms that each of us is special in the sense that we are unique, created and designed in the image of God with inherent value and purpose (Psalm 139).  However, in another sense, it tells us that we are not special at all.  In fact, it has some very sobering words about mankind.  It tells us that there is “nothing new under the sun.”  Each of our lives is in some way, the same song, second verse.  “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more” (Psalm 103:15-16).  That is not very flattering.  If there is one thing that is not special, it is grass.  It is abundant, replaceable, and easily forgotten.

This tells me two things.  First, we are not at all special in the way the world would have us believe.  No matter how gifted and talented we are, no matter how much we achieve, it has all been done before and it will all be done again and we, for all our striving, will soon be forgotten.

Secondly, we are special, but not in the way we desire.  We want to be special in a way that glorifies ourselves and God refuses to give His glory to another (Isaiah 48:11).  No, in and of ourselves, we are quite average and it is time we, myself included, come to peace with that.  The only special things about me, I can take no credit for, even my gifts and abilities.  I am special because God has made me in His image.  I have gifts because He gave them to me (1 Corinthians 4:7).  And by far the most special thing about me is that I have been saved by the grace of God and that, I can certainly take no credit for.  In fact, what it really shows is how special and how infinitely precious and worthy of praise Christ is.

The Bad News and the Good News

This is definitely not the fluffy, feel-good message printed on posters in classrooms all over America.  The bad news is that it makes us feel much smaller than we would like.  It refuses to flatter our egos and pamper our pride.

However, I think it is good news as well, but we must first accept the bad news before we can receive the good news.  The good news is that it frees us from our fear of being “average.”   If our need to be “special” is met in Christ instead of ourselves, we find that being average is not such a terrible thing after all.

Moreover, I think it actually frees us from a small vision for our lives and gives us a greater one.  Once we get past the disillusionment that we are not as wonderful as we thought we were, we can glimpse a greater purpose.  God insists on humbling us before He will exalt us, but if we accept that humility, we can find that our lives can have greater value and purpose than we ever dreamed for ourselves.   No matter how average a life may seem, if it is spent showcasing how special and infinitely valuable Christ is, instead of ourselves, that will be the most special life of all.  And that, my friends, is very good news.

The Example of Christ

No one has demonstrated this better than Christ Himself.  Being God, He was certainly more special than any of us could hope to be. There is none like Him.  And yet, for our sake and for the sake of obeying and glorifying the Father, He put that aside to become completely and incredibly average.  He became one of us.  If we really want our lives to be special and meaningful, we are instructed to follow His example, He “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8).  

How average He must have seemed.  How terribly ordinary.  And yet because He insisted on obeying and glorifying only the Father in the midst of His horribly mundane and humble human existence, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).  

This tells me that what we need to fear is not being average, but in missing the point of it all:  that God is less concerned with how special we think we are than how special our lives shows Him to be.  And that it is not so much about finding His special plan for our lives as it is about finding how our average lives conform to the special plan for His glory.

I read a quote recently that really impacted me.  It said that “it’s better to play a small role in God’s story than to cast yourself as the lead in your own fiction.”  The fact is that God’s story is the only one that matters, but He only takes those who are willing to deny themselves, to deny their own need to be exalted in order that they may exalt Him.  This may entail leading an incredibly average life of which no one will take any particular notice, but if we can be content with that and any small and humble role which God would have us play, we will not have missed out on His good and perfect plan for our lives. Moreover and most important, in be willing to lose our lives for His sake, we will gain Christ Himself, He who is life and who is the treasure and prize for which God has called us heavenward.

The Right Kind of Slavery

A couple weeks ago I posted my thoughts about the question of whether or not living a life of holiness was necessarily opposed to living a life of pleasure.  I argued that contrary to common thought, the life of holiness will yield the life of greatest pleasure.  A closely related issue is the question of freedom.  What does it mean to be free?  Does living for God mean giving up your freedom?  These are important questions and I’d like to share what I’ve been mulling over lately.

First, we must examine what we think freedom is.  Then, we must determine if our view of freedom coheres with the reality of human nature and also whether, such freedom is possible or even desirable.

Freedom According to the World

America is by far the most individualistic society in the world.  We prize autonomy above all else.  The human right to liberty is the primary ideal on which the country was founded.  The founding fathers believed that humans had an inherent dignity which gave them certain rights and freedom which should never be violated.

However, I would say that freedom has come to mean something more today than it did then.  Personal liberty was never meant to be absolute.  The right notion of human dignity and liberty has been twisted into something it did not used to be, a bloated and irrational conception of freedom.

Today, our understanding of freedom has become the idea that we, as self-governing, rational individuals should have the right to do whatever we please, with whomever we please without any regard for consequences or accountability to an authority imposed on us against our will.  This kind of thinking has infiltrated our music, our media, basically ever aspect of our society.  The individual has been exalted to god-like status.   This is nothing new.  It is merely selfish arrogance masked as something noble, the age-old rebellion of man against God masquerading as “enlightenment” and “progress.”

Besides the fact that it is very hard to see how a society who has discarded the Creator who endowed them with such inalienable rights, can still maintain that they have such rights, there are other problems with this view.  It is not really possible nor, if we think about it for any length, is it really even desirable.

It would be very hard to maintain a society where people were actually free to do whatever they wanted.  There could be no laws.  There could be no protests against the behavior of others.  Chaos would reign.

Even if it was possible, would such a world even be one we would want to live in?  Of course not.  Our beliefs are inconsistent.  None of us really want a world of complete freedom.  We want the bad guys in prison.  We want those who have wronged us punished.  Our tolerance and subjectivity shatter in the face of evil.  Deep down, we do not want a world where there is absolute freedom and no final justice because we know that such a world would render our lives meaningless and neutralize our sufferings.  The real and ugly truth is that we do not want everyone to escape the consequences of their actions.  Just ourselves.

Moreover, I would argue doing as we please does not really bring freedom at all.  Those who seem the least concerned with following God’s law or any sense of moral obligation other than their own desires and whims usually end up in the greatest bondage to addictions and destructive lifestyles.

Freedom According to the Bible

So if doing as we please without regard for consequences is not true freedom, then what is?  The Bible takes a very different stance.  Its notion of human freedom is both less and more than ours for it exalts God rather than man. Man is not his own absolute authority.  His actions do have consequences and he will be held accountable, not to the moral code he creates for himself, but to the laws of an eternal, holy, just God.  None of us are free from God, but if we submit ourselves to God, we can be free from the destruction of own foolish ways.

Yes, we all have free will in the sense that we make our own choices and these choices come from our own hearts. Each human life is sacred and therefore should always be treated as an end and never merely as a means. However, our human dignity does not mean we are our own masters, exempt from God’s law and immune to His judgments.  We were simply not designed to be our own master and therefore any attempt to be will end in disaster and frustration. It goes against our nature.  The truth is that we are all slaves to something.  We were created to worship and whatever we worship, we serve. Whatever bewitches our hearts will own our souls.  We are in bondage to whatever we love most.

This is startling and offensive to our American sensibilities, but if we survey even a little of human history or look into our own hearts, we cannot deny it.  Yes, we are free to make our own choices in this life, but the sum of our choices is merely the choice of what we will be slaves to, what master we will serve.  In fact, the Bible only gives us two options.  We can either be slaves to sin or we can be slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:18-23).

To be a slave to sin is to live without reference to God.  It is to “exchange the truth of God for a lie, and worship and serve created things, rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25).  The problem with this kind of slavery is that it is in direct opposition with reality and in total opposition to our built-in purpose to be God-worshipers and God-reflectors.  In essence, to reject God’s law in order to live a life of licentious freedom is to live a lie. Absolute freedom without the guide of absolute truth is a dangerous thing.  To freely follow our own passions and desires is not freedom from God but voluntary bondage to the objects of our own misplaced love and worship.  Many who live for such “freedom” ultimately find it to be a cruel master.

If being a slave to sin is to live a lie, then being a slave to righteousness is to live in the light of the truth of God. It is to make our choices in accordance with the reality of God’s existence, the truth about who He is as the Creator, and the subsequent truth about who we are as the created.  As Tim Keller put it, freedom “is not the absence of limitations and constraints but it is finding the right ones, those that fit our nature and liberate us.” -Tim Keller, The Reason for God

Freedom then, on the Biblical account, is nothing more than choosing the right kind of slavery.  Now to us, slavery has major negative connotations which we need to check at the door.  Choosing the right kind of slavery merely means to serve the God we were made to serve and worship the God we were created to worship.  It means exalting God rather than ourselves.  In so doing, we find that, paradoxically, such slavery leads to freedom because it releases us to fulfill the purpose for which we were designed and thus, to attain the abundant life which God always intended for us.

No, we are not “free” to do whatever we like.  We are still bound to the authority of God, but we are no longer bound to sin and therefore, death (Romans 6:21).  We are now bound to Christ and therefore, life (Romans 6:22). We are bound to a God of infinite love and wisdom “who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:31) and “who works all things for good for those who love him” (Romans 8:28).  What better Master to serve?  Who could be more worthy of our utmost love and devotion?

Jesus said, “if you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).  The precondition for freedom is truth and the precondition for truth is holding to His teaching and thus, being His disciples.  The life of true freedom then is not the life of freedom from the authority of God, but the life submitted to the authority of God.  Christ is the only One we were meant to worship and the only Master who will free us from death unto life eternal.

Truth is Not Free

“Buy the truth and do not sell it; get wisdom, discipline and understanding.”  -Proverbs 23:23

“Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom.  Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” -Proverbs 4:7

My last post was a piece about the supposed virtue of an “open mind.”  As it said, an open mind is a commendable thing only if we recognize truth as truth and subsequently, submit to it and invest in it.  As that implies and the above verses explicate, this means that the truth will cost us something.  If we really want to own it, to live by it, we must be willing to be obedient to it and yes, even pay a price for it.  Truth is not free.

This should be sobering to us.  Yet it should also be a hopeful thing.  For by virtue of costing something, it must also be worth something.  We do not pay a price for things of no value to us.  And these verses tell us that the treasures of truth and wisdom are of supreme value.  

Jesus has told us that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  He has also told us that anyone who would come after Him, the Truth embodied, must be willing to lose their life.  The truth is not always popular.  It is not always easy.  But I do know this:  the truth is always good and the truth will always win.  When all is said and done, I want to be on the side of truth.  For the promise of Scripture is that while it is certain that following Christ will cost us something, it is even more certain that it will be worth everything.