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For a Friend Battling Darkness

A Twilight Musing

By Elton Higgs

I just finished an astoundingly blessed conversation with a dear friend and brother in Christ who is in the midst of a struggle with severe depression.  I am aware of the danger of being presumptuous in trying to help someone negotiate depths of horrible feelings that I have not gone through myself, and I can justify it only by believing that in our conversation God was at work spotlighting truths that go beyond either of us—truths that are the bedrock of the relationship that God has with us through Christ.  In that spirit of belief, I will honor my friend’s request to put into writing the thoughts that God prompted during our conversation, so that both of us can refer to them later.

My friend (I’ll call him Peter, since the apostle of that name also experienced deep darkness when he realized he had denied his Lord) had already in an e-mail told me that he was having a really hard time, so after a couple of days I felt strongly urged to follow up that communication with a phone call.  Peter was more than ready to hear from me and to share more of what he had been experiencing.  It turns out that much of his present darkness hinges on unresolved guilt regarding his long-term attempts to care for and help his brother (let’s call him Andy), who, even now, when the two brothers are approaching the end of their two lifetimes, continues to be recalcitrant, angry, and accusatory in response to whatever is done for him.  Peter feels he is and has been a failure, and he can’t get out from under the guilt.

He said that a counselor had suggested that he, through an act of will, detach himself enough from the situation to imagine hiring someone to care for his brother, not just physically but to minister to his deeper needs.  What would be the job description and statement of expectations?  If the worker did everything imaginable to help Andy, and still failed to get the desired results, would he be blameworthy?  If not, should Peter hold himself any more responsible than he would hold the worker?  We agreed that this is a good technique to use, and that it can help Peter to see his situation more objectively.  But the problem—and the answer—goes deeper than that.  Battling the darkness of guilt and depression requires embracing the Light, even when you don’t see it.

I reminded Peter of two things: the supremacy of God’s Light over the Devil’s Darkness, and the function of darkness in helping us to see the Light.  As to the first, the apostle John, in the first chapter of his Gospel, tells us that through Christ, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).  The Devil is called the “Accuser of [the] brothers,” who “accuses them night and day before our God” (Rev. 12:10).  But even more relevant for us personally is the fact that he accuses each one of us, not merely to bring sin to our attention (the Holy Spirit also does that), but to speak the dark lie that the sin is so bad that we are unforgiven by God.  But Satan is not only the Accuser, he is also the embodiment of falsehood, the great Liar.  And his most effective agent for falsehood is unresolved guilt.  So Peter (both in the Bible and my friend) needed to realize that the darkness of guilt he is experiencing is a direct work of the Adversary, the Father of Lies, the Master Accuser.  It is a bedrock truth that in the Light of Christ the Savior, we are forgiven, and the only function of guilt in that realization is to lead us back to the incredible truth that we are forgiven.

That leads to the final point I felt needed to be articulated: It often occurs that one doesn’t realize the overwhelming beauty of the Light until he/she is enveloped in the darkness.  I think I can do no better than to reproduce a poem that I wrote years ago. It expresses a truth that goes deeper than my wisdom can take credit for.  I like to think that God knew when he gave it to me that it would speak to “Peter’s” predicament.

Shadows

Shadows lengthen, deepen, merge.

Darkness is all, and I am there.

No thought of shadows when

The sun is full, for then

They merely accent the brightness.

When all is shadow, love may thrive,

Though hope be dim; when all is bright,

Shallow bliss holds sway.

Even the Arctic is both night and day.

Darkness gives more to defining light

Than light to the understanding of dark.

I will see the shadow grow,

And dwell in it even, to know

That light is its own verity,

And darkness but an island in its midst.

                         –Elton D. Higgs

                           (Dec. 31, 1974)

 

Image: “Wintertime is candletime” by Groman123. CC license.

Waiting on God

A Twilight Musing 

By Elton Higgs 

 

Those of my generation may remember a bygone country song that reflects the old southern custom of making kids wait to eat until the adults were served.  In the meantime, they were told to “take an old cold ‘tater and wait.”  That bit of social history reminds me that in general we Americans regard waiting as an imposition, a disadvantage to be avoided if possible.   Being made to wait is felt (and sometimes intended) as a put-down.  An important person often shows his/her superior standing by making other people wait.  Going to the head of the line at the airport check-in is a sign of special status, and being able immediately to see a president or other person in authority shows special closeness to that person.  A restaurant “waiter” is a person who serves others; and an old sense of “waiting upon” someone (e. g., in Shakespeare) is putting oneself at the disposal of a superior.  Rarely is waiting seen as a positive experience.

These thoughts moved me to consider the place of “waiting” in the Bible, where it is presented positively, as a mark of dependence on and submission to God, as in Ps. 25:1-5, 20-21

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.  2 O my God, in you I trust; let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me.  3 Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame; they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.  4 Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.  5 Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long. . . .   20 Oh, guard my soul, and deliver me!  Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.  21 May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you.

This passage shows the nature of biblical waiting: those who cry out to the Lord can be assured of His care for them, and that assurance leads to courageous perseverance in times of hardship.  As another Psalm says, “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!  Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Ps. 27:13-14).

Waiting on the Lord is also an antidote to angry despair in the face of unrelenting evil:

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!  Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!  Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.  For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land. (Ps. 37:7-9)

In the same vein, when we are treated maliciously and injured, we are not to avenge ourselves, but wait upon the Lord to do vengeance (Prov. 20:22; Rom. 12:17-19).

Failing to wait upon the Lord can have dire consequences.  The children of Israel could not wait in faith for only 40 days until Moses came down from Mt. Sinai to give them God’s Law, but in their impatience they made a golden calf to worship (Ex. 32).

Saul was rejected as king of Israel because he disobeyed the order to await Samuel’s return to make a sacrifice before he went into battle (I Sam. 13).  Abraham and Sarah grew impatient waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise to send them a son and brought the servant woman Hagar in to be a surrogate mother for a son and heir, thus bringing Ishmael into the world to set up a permanent rivalry between him and Isaac, the true son of God’s promise who came miraculously when God was ready.  In all these instances, we see that failing to wait is coupled with exercising our own wills instead of submitting to God’s will.

But what are the benefits of waiting?  In general, one can say that willful and purposeful waiting gives time for God’s purposes to ripen and come to fruition, while dampening our strong inclination to chart and pursue our own way.  As the much-quoted proverb says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths” (Prov. 3:5-6).  This kind of submission to God brings peace of mind, for it frees one from anxiously worrying about the future, since it is in God’s hands.  Moreover, waiting on God is a time of recharging our spiritual batteries.  As Isaiah says, “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Is. 40:31).  It may also be that God is using our waiting to prepare us for tasks and ministries of which we are not yet aware.  Remember how Joseph was sold into slavery, and even when he prospered there he was unjustly thrown into prison. But when he was sufficiently matured by his experiences, God brought him forth to be the deliverer of Egypt from coming famine.  In the end, he was the instrument for bringing his family to Egypt to become established as the multitude called the Children of Israel and to receive the land promised to the descendants of Abraham and Isaac.

In the Christian dispensation, all of our waiting is wrapped up in anticipating the return of our Lord Jesus to take His people to share His inheritance in the New Heaven and New Earth:

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!  But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.  Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. (I Pet. 3:11-14)

Waiting for God is the incubator of patience, and patience enables us to endure suffering in the faith that God is working even through our hardship to bring about His purposes.  The ultimate purpose of God for us is that we “await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20-21).  When that transformation has taken place, we will wait no more, for time is finished, and past and future will be collapsed into the Eternal Now.

 

Image: “Waiting” by Brian Donovan. CC License. 

 

 

 

Different Bodies: Part Two

A Twilight Musing

part one

by Elton Higgs

Paul begins 1 Corinthians 15 by pointing to the Resurrection of Jesus as the culminating capstone of the Son’s mission on earth, forming an essential part of the Gospel message (vv. 1-19).  He then proceeds to argue that if there is no resurrection from the dead, the consequence is that “in this life only we have hoped in Christ, [and] we are of all people most to be pitied” (v. 19).  In the succeeding verses, he goes on to draw a sharp distinction between the resurrected body of Jesus (the Second Adam) and the “natural body” of the First Adam: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (vv. 20-21).  After an expansion on why “we are of all people most to be pitied” if there is no resurrection, Paul responds to the question, “How are the dead raised?  With what kind of body do they come?” (v. 30).

Paul goes to nature for analogies to answer these questions.  The resurrected body is as different from the natural body as is the fruit of a grain of wheat from the seed that was sown.  He points also to how the kinds of flesh are different from each other, and how heavenly bodies differ in brightness.  But the difference between our fleshly bodies and our resurrection bodies is even more striking:

What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.  It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.  It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.  Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.  But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.  As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven.  Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.  (1 Cor 15:42-49, ESV)

What struck me in a fresh way in this passage was Paul’s reference to the first man being “from the earth, a man of dust.”   I had always assumed that the “body of death” from which we are finally delivered in the Resurrection is the fallen body destined for physical death because of sin.  A corollary of this assumption was that the original, unfallen bodies of Adam and Eve were not temporal, but eternal, so long as they lived in obedience to God.  But as I pointed out in Part One, even unfallen mankind was subject to some form of limitation on their physical lives; some kind of development in the context of temporality still remained to be worked out.  Paul’s discourse makes clear that Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and the participation of all believers in that resurrection, constitutes the final working out of God’s eternal purpose for His creation. By giving details of the distinction between the body of Adam and the body of our resurrected Lord, which we will one day share with Him, Paul demonstrates also the difference between our present universe, whether fallen or unfallen, and God’s “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (II Pet. 3:13).

The core of my new insight hinges on the implications of Paul’s summation in vv. 50-51: “I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”  It is not just the corrupted, sinful body of the fallen First Adam that cannot inherit the kingdom of God, but even the yet-unfallen flesh and blood with which God clothed him in the first place.  If we accept that the original, unfallen Adam and Eve were “flesh and blood,” then it must also be accepted that they were, in some sense, perishable when they were created.  We have no way of knowing what would have developed in our world if our first father and mother had not rebelled, but it seems fair to conjecture that some form of cessation to their fleshly form would have been part of the picture.

I ran across a statement in C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet that articulates as a general principle of God’s creation what I believe to be true of Earth and the life God put on it.  The major character, Ransom, is talking to a being in the unfallen world of Malacandra (Mars), who has told Ransom about an ancient race that perished from the planet, leaving the area where they once lived cold and lifeless.  Ransom asks where the divine Creator and sustainer of the planet was when all this happened.  Could He not have prevented this destruction?  Ransom’s instructor replies, “I do not know.  But a world is not made to last forever, much less a race; that is not Maleldil’s [God’s] way.”  I present for your consideration the idea that God’s design in creating the world in which we live was not that it would last forever as it was, even if it had not rebelled; but that it was intended to be the stage for a process by which the Devil would be defeated and God’s moral superiority be established.

The eternal, resurrected bodies we will share with Jesus, as well as the eternal home in which we will dwell with Him, are not merely transformations of our present bodies and our present world, but entirely new, spiritually defined bodies and an abode that transcends completely our material universe.  In this eternal state, body and soul and spirit are so bonded together that they are no longer separable nor distinguishable from one another.  History, which by definition records change, will be at an end, wrapped up in God’s eternal “now.”

Image: “Eternity” by Norbert Reimer. CC License. 

Different Bodies: Part One

 

A Twilight Musing 

By Elton Higgs  

I have long been intrigued by the question of how things would have developed had Adam and Eve not eaten of the forbidden fruit and been banished from Eden.  One can exercise some inferential imagination by envisioning a world without the known consequences of sin. Attached to those inferences are some questions: Would Adam and Eve and their descendants have lived forever, absent the penalty of death?  Would the innocence of universal nakedness have continued?  If so, it’s hard for us fallen people to imagine there being no sexual desire except for one’s mate.  God arranged the union between Adam and Eve; how would the monogamous coupling of their descendants have been arranged?  Would reproduction be unlimited?  With no need to produce food by the sweat of their brows, would human beings have been engaged in other activities, such as creative, artistic, and scientific pursuits?

These questions may seem to be idle speculation, but I think they lead into matters of some significance.  All of the questions I have posed above are based on the assumption that there existed in the pristine world of Eden an expectation of purposeful and orderly development over a period of time.  God Himself looks in this direction when He tells the newly-created man and woman, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over . . . every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28).  Things in the original creation were expected to change in ways designed by God to fulfill His nascent purposes for this new world of His.   Since any kind of change requires the observed passage of time, it seems legitimate to infer that there was a kind of positive temporality in the prelapsarian world that in the postlapsarian world became a degenerative penalty.

Perhaps the best way of getting some sense of God’s original plan for Edenic fulfillment is to consider the implications of the two trees placed in the Garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life (Gen. 2:9).  We find out after Adam and Eve have eaten from the forbidden tree that God took precautions against their also eating from the Tree of Life.

Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” 23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.  (Gen 3:22-24)

To me, this passage implies that, had Adam and Eve not disobeyed God, there might have been a time for them to partake of both trees under God’s direction.  It seems not unreasonable to conjecture that the Lord wanted unfallen mankind, under His timing and direction, to become aware of the presence of evil in the universe so that He could equip them to partner with Him in the final defeat of that evil, and thereby be ready in the full maturity of their existence to eat of the Tree of Life.

At any rate, I think that God created the physical world as a kind of theater in which to do battle with the Devil.  We have some biblical hints of a battle in Heaven between God and his angels and Satan and his cohorts, in which God by His superior power cast a rebellious Satan down from his exalted position in Heaven (see Ezek. 28:11-19; Rev. 13:7-12).  The most familiar literary rendition of this battle is of course in Books V and VI of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Although his narrative of the epic battle in Heaven exercises the privilege of poetic imagination, it nevertheless presents a drama that may very well have taken place in some form before the creation of Eden.  This was a victory of God’s power, but it remained to provide a setting in which Satan could be confronted with the moral superiority of God, which could take place only in an arena where God’s love could be triumphant over Satan’s hate.  Exactly how that would have worked out if the Creation had not been corrupted by human sin, we don’t know, of course; but it’s hard to imagine how it could have had more dramatic or emotional impact than God’s “backup plan,” in which He participated in the suffering of the sinful world, even becoming a mortal human being and dying in order to redeem the fallen world.

This little essay (Part One) represents a refinement of ideas I have held in rough form for some time.  My central point here is that God’s created world, both before and after the Fall, is in marked contrast to His eternal being, which has no beginning and no end and is perpetually and always the same, yesterday, today, and all possible tomorrows.  As God’s inherent nature is immutable, so is the place where we will dwell with Him in resurrected form for eternity (see the description of the New Jerusalem in Rev. 21-22).  “Heaven” is where all divine purposes have been realized, and there is no longer the need for change toward an objective.  The catalyst for this refinement of my ideas on original and fallen creation was a rereading of Paul’s discourse on the Resurrection in I Cor. 15, in which he details the radical contrast between the temporal bodies of the first humans and the eternal bodies that we will share with the resurrected Christ.  Part Two is an analysis of this passage, with application of the principles Paul enunciates to the larger matter of the radical difference between the temporal earth and our eternal dwelling place with God.

Image: By William Blake – William Blake Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7735228

Freedom in Christ

 

A Twilight Musing 

By Elton Higgs 

            As on every July 4, we heard a lot earlier this week about “freedom,” which in the context of the holiday refers to the political freedom gained by the American colonies breaking away from an oppressive British government.  The justification for that action was eloquently and nobly expreessed by a Declaration of Independence.  However, “freedom” is often used more for its emotive content than its precise definition.  It frequently embodies a self-congratulatory attitude, as in identifying the U. S. as one of the nations of “the Free World.”  The term also commonly refers to the rights of individuals to do as they wish, being under no legal restrictions in making their choices, as in the popular catch-phrase, “a woman’s right to choose,” referring to abortion.  However, as the founders of our republic understood, the exercise of freedom requites a foundation of moral law.

The Bible has a great many references to freedom, but they are not primarily (and sometimes not at all) concerned with political or civil freedoms.  In fact, the concepts they convey are often counterintuitive to human reason, for, particularly in the New Testament, they are presenting the paradox of people who are apparently politically or personally free being in bondage, while the freedom that God wants to give His people is spoken of as slavery.  In fact, our fallen human condition means that we are enslaved in our natural state, and that our only deliverance from that bondage is to become slaves to Christ:

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.  When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.  But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death.  But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.  (Rom 6:17-22)

This is worlds away from the idea of “freedom” as something we have a right to.  Jesus made this distinction clear when he imparted His radical truth to the Jewish leaders:

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”   Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever.  So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

Freedom, Jesus tells them, is not something they can claim as a part of their “rights” as Israelites, children of Abraham.  Rather, it is something granted by the Son of God, completely His to give or withhold.  As Paul says, the only thing we fallen humans can claim as our “right” is death, whereas “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

It’s appropriate to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of our “free” country, with its constitutionally defined Bill of Rights.  But no amount of political or personal freedom in the society of mankind can bring us the freedom that we most need, the God-defined and grace-granted freedom “from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2).  Let us principally rejoice in that which makes us “free indeed.”

 

 

 

Lord’s Supper Meditation – Food for the Body

A Twilight Musing

By Elton Higgs 

(See Num. 11:4-10; John 6:30-34, 48-51)

“We have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Num. 11:5b).

When we read in Numbers 11 the account of the Israelites complaining about the miraculous daily manna from heaven, we are amazed at their perversity in rejecting God’s miraculous daily supply of food for them.  How could they be so quickly desensitized to this miracle of God’s provision?  How could they fail to be thankful, even for the daily task of gathering the manna?  But before we are too critical of the Israelites, let us examine how we regard Christ’s body, the symbolic Bread of Heaven, presented to us in the Lord’s Supper.

There are significant associations in John 6 between the manna in the wilderness and Jesus as the Bread of Life.  He says that He is “the true bread of heaven,” and that His disciples must eat of His body and drink of His blood.  Our partaking of the Lord’s Supper is a symbolic implementation of this truth, for in it we are repeatedly refreshed with spiritual food from heaven.  Have we become blasé about this regular provision by God for our spiritual nourishment?  Are we bored with renewing our thanks for the gifts of God through Christ?  And, if so, are we not as profane and sacrilegious as the Israelites were?

We resent it when our children are not thankful for the food and other daily supplies that are so regular and abundant that, like spoiled brats, they take them for granted.  It is to guard against that kind of insensitivity that we habitually offer thanks at meal times.  One of the traditional names for the Lord’s Supper is Eucharist, meaning “thanksgiving.”  Each time we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we acknowledge and celebrate the supreme gift of Jesus Christ.  If in partaking of this feast we are not acutely aware of the faithfulness and sufficiency of God’s gifts, we, too, become petulant children, turning up our noses at the Bread of Heaven, God’s true, life-giving Manna.

When we partake of the bread, representing to us the body of Christ, we affirm the wondrous fact that our death-bound bodies have been transformed into receptacles of the Spirit of Life.  We have already died, and the life that we now live is Christ in us.  While we reside in this fallen world, His sinless human body becomes ours, too, and the Holy Spirit that dwells in us is our guarantee that we will also share in His resurrected body, after we have “shuffled off this mortal coil.”

We acknowledge our inability to feed ourselves spiritually every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper together, and we admit that we are all needy creatures, not worthy even to have the crumbs from God’s table.  But that attitude puts us in the right frame of mind to realize how privileged we are to be invited to eat and drink with Jesus.

The fare God offers here goes beyond even the miraculous manna in the wilderness and water pouring out of a rock. The new person in Christ must be fed by the Holy Spirit, who will produce in him or her the proper characteristics of the healthy new life: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23).  If these qualities are manifested in our lives, we know that we have truly communed together at the Lord’s table.

 Image: By Juan de Juanes – [2], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23065137

 

God’s Extravagance

 

A Twilight Musing

By Elton Higgs  

          We have a politician on the national scene who consistently speaks in superlatives, a practice which leads to some skepticism about when the superlative is really applicable to the thing he’s talking about—sort of the “boy who cried ‘Wolf!’ principle.  We all have some temptation to exaggerate in order to enhance people’s perception of our talents and accomplishments, but we always run the risk of being caught out by doing so.  The only being who can legitimately speak in, or be spoken of, in superlatives is God, and that occurs frequently in Scripture.  Take Eph. 1:17-22 as an example, in which Paul prays for the Ephesians,

that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.

Note that the greatness of God’s power toward believers is “immeasurable”; that Christ has been seated “far above all rule and authority” and “above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come,” that is, for all eternity, without end.

A little later in the epistle, Paul prays again that the disciples in Ephesus will be “rooted and grounded in love, [and] may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:17b-19).  Paul is not one to speak in moderate terms when he refers to what God has done and is doing for those in Christ; he wants all of his  readers  to “comprehend . . . the breadth, and length and height and depth” of “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”  But that understanding is not to be achieved by human effort, but by the superlative “power that is at work in us,” which is able “to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.”  The fountainhead of such an immeasurable outpouring of God’s Spirit is the atoning death of Jesus, an unfathomably extravagant gift of the Father, an unbelievably radical act of obedience by the Son.  As Paul says in Romans 8, “If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (8:31b-32).

In the Apostle’s description of his own response to such extravagant love we see the challenge for all of us to be similarly committed, without restraint or reservation: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8).  In another place he describes being fully possessed by the Spirit of Christ, keeping nothing of his former self, so that “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).  Jesus Himself expected an extravagant commitment from those who proposed to follow Him, calling His inner twelve to leave their occupations to become fishers of men, bidding a rich man to sell all he had and give to the poor, and challenging people to put the kingdom of God ahead of all other earthly ties.

I will conclude with a poem that depicts a contrast between moderate, conventional responses to Christ and a radical, all-giving act of love.  In the scriptural account on which the poem is based, Jesus draws a symbolic parallel between her action and Jesus’ own pouring out of Himself on the cross: “She has done a beautiful thing to me . . . .  She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial” (Mark 14:6, 8).  We should remember her when we’re tempted to be merely moderate Christians.

 

 

The Broken Jar

(Mark 14:3-9)

 

The ointment with abandon

Runs down His cheek,

Sweetly joining tears of love

Set flowing by her extravagance.

Beauty and prescience

Are mingled there,

While spare and cautious faces

Grimace at the waste.

They advocate the shorter way—

Slipping pennies to the poor,

And making sure the books are kept.

But Jesus wept

That one should share His sacrifice,

And break the jar to pour out all.

                              –Elton D. Higgs

                                (Jan 9, 1977)

The Risk of Loving

 

A Twilight Musing 

By Elton Higgs 

It is best to learn early that we are not loved by other human beings solely because of what we are.  At best, we may be loved for what people perceive us to be or want us to be, but most often we are loved because of the lover’s needs, not our own.  Only God loves because of who He is, and only God can be loved because of who He is.  Only God is capable of loving because of what we need, rather than because of what He needs.  These facts should not make us cynical about human love, but they should make us realistic about the limitations of it.

The Apostle John gives us the proper orientation to love in I John 4, making clear that true, unselfish love is possible only because God went first in loving, providing the foundation and pattern of love between human beings.  “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-12).  One could say, “Because God loved us, we also are able to love one another.”  We can take the risk of loving another, trusting that doing so has value, even if it results in disappointment and betrayal. That’s exactly the risk that God took when He loved fallen humankind.  And because “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 5:5), we can take that risk, too.

The danger of loving as humans is that we so easily embrace one of the false loves that commend themselves: Raw sexual passion cloaked as a romantic, transcendent attachment that justifies pushing aside all other obligations.  Possessive love that smothers rather than nourishes the other.  All-absorbing love for an ideal, one’s country, or wealth.  These idolatrous “loves” keep us from exercising the true love that God has poured out into our hearts so that it can spill over into others’ lives, enriching both them and us—love that breaks down barriers and compels us, in humility and gratitude, to love the God who “first loved us” (I John 4:19).  Only thereby can we be delivered from the bondage of idolatrous love and the fear of rejected love.

 

Image: “Love” by Mikhail Chekmezov. CC License. 

 

The Ministry of Reconciliation

A Twilight Musing

By Elton Higgs

 

When I consider the difficulty of mending broken human relationships, I’m reminded of the nursery rhyme about how “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men/ Couldn’t put Humpty together again.”  Any professional counselor is able to relate cases of marital or other interpersonal conflicts where the alienation of the parties from each other is so deep as to seem irreparable.  In such cases, the counselor will try to help each party to understand how the matter appears to the other person or persons, since the conflict developed in the first place and deepened because each side assumed that its way of seeing things is the norm.  Therefore, each one interprets every action and argument of the other to be either dishonest or perverse.  If the two are to come together again (that is, be reconciled), one or both of them must take the risk of reaching out toward the other.

Matt. 5:23-25 lays out the importance of reconciliation among humans who are spiritual siblings: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”  These words are addressed to people who purport to be followers of Jesus and therefore are expected to respond to His words as a spiritual command.  In that light, it is significant that the person who knows he is alienated from his brother has an obligation that goes beyond whether the “something against you” is valid or not.  Even if (in the honest opinion of the one being accused) the brother who has taken offense is wrong, it is so important to take steps toward reconciliation that one is not even to participate in a worship service until every effort is made to bring about reconciliation.  This is a step that goes beyond the common sense of trying to settle a dispute out of court, rather than run the risk of losing a lawsuit.  What Jesus commands in this case is in the same spirit of not insisting on one’s own right that is commonly referred to as “going the extra mile” (see Matt. 5:28-32).

There is no way in human terms to understand the basis of Jesus’ teaching about selflessness in the Sermon on the Mount without reference to a much larger and more significant reconciliation that has been brought about by God’s initiative.  It is only as a reflection of that move of God toward us that we can effectively carry out reconciliation between humans.

But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Rom. 5:8-11)

Paul uses this truth as a rationale for how we as believers are to act:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.  All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5:17-19)

John pointed out that we love (indeed, are even able to love) only because God has first loved us (I Jn. 4:7-12), even to the extent of sacrificing His Son when we didn’t deserve it.   In the same way, we also seek reconciliation with others because God has first gone more than “the extra mile” to be reconciled with us, even while we were fallen creatures.  Another aspect of basing our response to others on what God has done for us is demonstrated in the parable of the ungrateful servant who, though forgiven an unpayable debt by his master, refused to forgive a much smaller debt owed by a fellow servant (Matt. 18:21-25).  Jesus pronounces God’s judgment on the unforgiving servant, and He states this condemnation even more bluntly in a comment attached to His giving of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:14-15): “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Loving our siblings in Christ, even beyond what is reasonable, forgiving them beyond what they deserve, and seeking them out for reconciliation beyond what seems justified are God-enabled reflections of His unlimited desire to be in fellowship with us.  These principles are especially difficult to apply in a culture and a society which places a very high value on standing up for our rights, but if we are to have the privileges of fellowship with God, the price is a willingness to give up our “rights,” if necessary, in order to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

Note: A word of caution is in order about applying the normal principles of reconciliation outlined above.  A desire for reconciliation should never become a means of enabling an abusive person to continue his or her behavior.  Nor should an abusive person be allowed to use emotional blackmail to pressure a tender-hearted reconciler to submit to abuse. Being a willing victim of physical or emotional abuse is never an acceptable price to be paid for some kind of surface reconciliation.

Our Double Baptism

A Twilight Musing 

by Elton Higgs 

 

We’re all familiar with the first baptism of Jesus at the hands of John the Baptist, who had to be assured that it was necessary for Jesus to be baptized, in order “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).  Jesus set the pattern of baptism as a mark of the beginning of the Life that God gives, and a special manifestation of the gift of the Holy Spirit after His baptism was seen as it descended “like a dove” and came “to rest on Him” (v. 16).  That was followed by a heavenly voice saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (v. 17), archetypically reflecting our purity before God as we begin our walk with Him.

But Jesus spoke of a second baptism that He had to undergo, concerning which He was anxious, even while He recognized its necessity:  “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!  I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (Lk. 12:49-50).  He mentioned this baptism again when He responded to James’ and John’s request to have special seats of honor beside Jesus when He comes into His kingdom.  Jesus answered,

You do not know what you are asking.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”  And they said to him, “We are able.”  And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.  (Mk. 10:38-40)

This passage establishes a link between Jesus’ second baptism and the cup of suffering that He prayed fervently to be delivered from in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk. 22:39-46).  Obviously, Jesus saw His coming suffering as a second kind of baptism, and when we couple this with statements in the epistles about not only the inevitability but the appropriateness of suffering by followers of Jesus, we see that we, too, must expect to go through a second baptism.

John the Baptist seems to be contrasting the two baptisms when he says of Jesus, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:11-12).  I take the reference to the baptism in the Holy Spirit to be the water baptism that Peter promised his hearers in Acts 2:38 would be accompanied by “the gift of the Holy Spirit”; and the baptism in fire to be the second baptism, the suffering that purifies and tempers and makes stronger the character of Christians.  Submitting to the first baptism is cause for rejoicing and praising God, and new Christians are often appropriately exuberant, feeling the reality of having been cleansed from all sin.  But just as Jesus had to go through a second and very different baptism before His walk on this earth was done, so we who follow Him must embrace the baptism of suffering that brings us to maturity in Christ.

Jesus tried to instruct His Twelve Disciples about what lay ahead for Him (and them), but they were obtuse and spiritually insensitive.

And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.  And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”  (Mark 8:31-33)

Believers often share Peter’s resistance to the progression from the joy of the first baptism to the second baptism of mature suffering.  It’s significant that later on, after many years of leadership in the early church, Peter speaks with great perceptiveness about the fire of the second baptism: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.  If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (I Pet. 4:12-14).

So, just as Jesus experienced His first baptism and the accompanying endowment of the Holy Spirit as the beginning of a new life of service and ministry, so we who confess faith in Him experience the rite of baptism and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit as a joyful entry into our new life with God.  But God also calls us to share His Son’s experience of the second baptism, which is the necessary entrance into the completion of God’s purposes for our lives on earth.  Jesus told His disciples that they would suffer with Him (“If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” [Jn. 15:20]), and those who preached the Gospel afterward also made clear that confessing Christ and being baptized in water will eventually, as the believer matures, lead to a second baptism of suffering.   Paul says, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:16-17).  And again: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29).

What a pregnant clause, “It has been granted to you.”  The gift of suffering in the likeness of Christ is as much a manifestation of God’s grace as the gifts of eternal life and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that we received in our first baptism as new believers.  The second baptism in the fire of trial is redemptive rather than destructive only because our Savior has been there before us and sanctified our suffering.  He was willing to be born in the flesh so that He could be anointed in power in His first baptism; and He was willing to submit to the “second baptism” of innocent suffering and death for the sake of all mankind.  It is following his path from baptism in water to baptism in fire that marks us as fully redeemed children of God and sisters and brothers of Christ.