What does God’s power look like? (Part Three)

A friend and I have been discussing the promise of God’s power alongside threats to human flourishing and the struggle for justice. The discussion started right before COVID-19 hit California and a few weeks before the murder of George Floyd. As we continued talking and more events unfolded, our emails came into sharper focus. My plan is to post a series of our exchanges here. Part Three is another reflection and some questions I sent about God’s help in a time of pandemic.

April 4th, 2020

Paul,

Dallas Willard has been famous for saying, “We have no reason ever to be anxious” and “This present world is a perfectly safe place for us to be.” You wrote something similar: “I believe our world is the right environment for what God is doing, the right environment for personal repentance and abandoning ourselves to God’s grace.” I really resonate with that and yet those statements seem so radical right now in the face of a global outbreak and other more difficult losses around the world. Like you, I don’t see a “slow transfiguration of our violent world” in the Bible or Jesus’ teachings. I do, however, see lots of patient waiting and anticipation–perhaps a very long wait–for the big changes we need in our society. 

At the same time, I don’t want to forget the biblical witness and my own experiences of God’s power, hope, and change (like Jesus’ resurrection, my own freedom from addictions, or the Israelite’s liberation from Pharaoh’s hands). God has faithfully ordered things in such a way that we can pray for help and receive “far more abundantly than all we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). These graces do not always happen with such dramatic intensity as the day I gave up drugs or when Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden, yet I still pray as Jesus taught: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Could our experiences of grace be a foretaste of the New Jerusalem that will come? 

In reality, it’s probably easier to look back on God’s power than to claim it is happening right now. You wrote, “In the end, God will give us the perfect environment, the perfect society. But I don’t think that’s what God is doing here and now.” So the question I keep asking myself is what does it mean to receive the power of God today? Can we expect our environments to change at all? Individual repentance and grace are definitely what we need, but I also think about the justice we long for and need. During the late 1950s, for example, many young black students in Little Rock prayed for an end to Jim Crow and the terror they experienced from lynching and white violence. Some took steps to integrate the schools in spite of the danger. They refused to comply with “White only” laws. They believed God gave them dignity and strength and that He heard their prayers.   

I remember you saying at some point that Jesus never taught us to divide the kingdom of God into “the already” and “not yet,” but to instead focus on, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Is that more or less accurate? I ask because we all see a pretty dramatic difference between our present world and what God will bring about when He makes all things new. So when it comes to the kingdom of God now, what can we expect? This may be asking too much of our conversation, but I’m also trying to understand how it relates to our current situation: Is this pandemic a mercy? A form of judgement? Is it somehow God’s will? Or even from God’s hand? 

What does God’s power look like? (Part Two)

A friend and I have been discussing the promise of God’s power alongside threats to human flourishing and the struggle for justice. The discussion started right before COVID-19 hit California and a few weeks before the murder of George Floyd. As we continued talking and more events unfolded, our emails came into sharper focus. My plan is to post a series of our exchanges here. Part Two is a reply to one of my first emails.

March 15th, 2020

Jason,

My thoughts on your comments have hovered around this line from the book: “God consents to our reluctant consent, resulting in this painfully slow but inexorable transfiguration of our violent world.” I guess I don’t believe in “this painfully slow but inexorable transfiguration of our violent world.” I mean I don’t believe that is what God is doing. So this could be at the heart of much of the misunderstanding.

Do you see this “slow transfiguration of our violent world” message in Jesus’ teaching (or the rest of the bible)? There’s prophecies of a new world, but the biblical description I see is something sudden and complete, clearly a gift of God. The new Jerusalem coming down from heaven. But I don’t see Jesus teaching that the world is going to become nonviolent (or godly in other ways either). He says the world will persecute his followers, and the more so the more closely we follow. There’s no suggestion that I see that this will only be for a while, that eventually everyone will all become followers of Jesus and persecution will end. And I don’t see that occurring yet, over two thousand years later.

What I hear from Jesus is that God wants us to change (repent) and follow him by accepting his power, because it’s impossible to do it by our own power. (This reminds me of your AA comments.) This is what God is trying to do. And this doesn’t require a nonviolent environment, a garden of Eden. I believe our world is the right environment for what God is doing, the right environment for personal repentance and abandoning ourselves to God’s grace. After Adam and Eve sinned, God changed their environment. What they needed then was struggle and suffering and challenges much bigger than them.

People keep trying to create a more perfect government or more advanced society. Individuals are sacrificed for the advancement of human society. I think maybe we think God has the same goals. But God cares about each individual infinitely. God is trying to save the individual, you and me. In the end, God will give us the perfect environment, the perfect society. But I don’t think that’s what God is doing here and now.

And I don’t think the point of nonviolent, Christlike actions is to transform society (like some activist technique). These actions are meant as witness. They are meant to reach out to the souls of others and appeal to them to change, to hope, to love. They are meant to do exactly what God is doing.

What does God’s power look like? (Part One)

A friend and I have been discussing the promise of God’s power alongside threats to human flourishing and the struggle for justice. The discussion started right before COVID-19 hit California and a few weeks before the murder of George Floyd. As we continued talking and more events unfolded, our emails came into sharper focus. My plan is to post a series of our exchanges here. I’ll start Part One with one of my first emails.

March 9th, 2020

Paul,

Like you wrote in your old discussion, I can also see how God is ordering all things “for the working out of his own good purposes,” especially when we see oppressors. God does some sort of jujitsu move with their intentions, taking the side of the weak and vulnerable person, bringing judgement and mercy into the situation. He upholds the lowly in their faith. Yet He leaves the strong to their own devices (and painful consequences), for perhaps they too can change their life. The biblical witness seems to confirm all that and it’s been my personal experience as well.

All this is encouraging to remember. I feel most empowered to depend on God in these ways when I recall how He has protected me, rescued me, healed me, and transformed my many addictions into new life and freedom. Of course, in the context of the whole world, I’ve had a relatively easy life. Many other people and situations come to mind. The hardest ones might be, for example, natural disasters (like the Tornado in Nashville), child suffering (like kids fleeing war in Syria), and more or less preventable situations (like extreme poverty, hunger or starvation). In these situations, many different people are responsible and it even seems creation itself has become complicit.

In our current book, A More Christlike God, it says that “those who love as Christ did” are filled with supernatural love and will bring light to the world. The author writes:

God consents to our reluctant consent, resulting in this painfully slow but inexorable transfiguration of our violent world.

Love will have its way, because while it may look like passive consent to extreme violence, it is nevertheless “stronger than death, more jealous than the grave, more vehement than a flame. Many waters cannot quench love, nor floods drown it” (Song of Sol. 8:6-7). The death and resurrection of Christ are the firstfruits of the destiny God’s love has arranged for the whole universe.”

Those lines sound pretty good to me, even poetic and beautiful. But how does this happen? Can God ultimately save us if He has limited himself to what the author calls “nonviolent consent”? What does God’s power look like in the face of really terrible things that we see happen?

In Memory of George Floyd

To arrive like this every day for it to be like this to have so
many memories and no other memory than these for as
long as they can be remembered to remember this.

Though a share of all remembering, a measure of all
memory, is breath and to breathe you have to create a
truce–

a truce with the patience of a stethoscope.

I can hear the even breathing that creates passages to
dreams. And yes, I want to interrupt to tell him her us you
me I don’t know how to end what doesn’t have an ending.

from Citizen: An American Lyric
By Claudia Rankine

Choosing not to vote (part 3)

gr-not-votingChoosing not to vote connects me to the incorruptible power of God versus social movements and politicians who use the “power of the people” as a weapon to overcome their enemies. Voting takes my mind off God and puts it on human influence. Human decisions matter a great deal to God, but she isn’t caught off guard by them and can easily make a way–even if it seems hopeless–maybe especially at our weakest moments.

In complete freedom, God defends the weak and afflicted in our world; no political compromises or voting is necessary for her power to move forward. Truth and trust are the key components for us in humanity. Without these gifts of the Spirit, no one remains faithful to one another when it really matters. It’s so easy to scapegoat the vulnerable and anyone, in society’s view, deemed expendable. So I stand with Jesus who cried out as he was executed by the state, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” I open myself to the consequences of telling the awful truth and putting my life into God’s hands.

Choosing not to vote (part 2)

gr-not-votingChoosing not to vote places me outside of the influence-making realm, which is good, if simply because I’ll be standing with the ones who are most vulnerable to the consequences of democracy’s terrible choices. I may not presently share in all the consequences *yet*, but that can’t be my excuse to seek out more powerful tools to get the job done. Just like I don’t want to gain monetary wealth in order to achieve a greater community good, I wouldn’t want political power to achieve the goals of human flourishing. Instead, I’m willing to remain politically poor in order to challenge artificial boundaries and witness to power from the margins. Obviously, no one does this perfectly but it still seems like a beautiful way to challenge the present status quo.

Choosing not to vote (Part 1)

gr-not-votingChoosing not to vote is an act of resistance. Since powerful people rule over the rest of society, very few really want to stand outside of the collective systems. It’s like a death sentence (at least that’s the fear) to be cut off from the group. So we participate in democracy and maintain the status quo, perhaps seeking out better leadership, all with the positive intention to affect real change. But our efforts are quickly and tragically absorbed by society for its own ends and its own profit.

Repost: Willie Jennings on “Whiteness”

“No one is born white. There is no white biology…White agency and subjectivity–whiteness–forms as people imagine themselves being transformed and moving toward maturity in three fundamental ways: 1) moving from being owned to being an owner, 2) from being a stranger to a citizen, and 3) from being identified with darkness to being seen as white.” (35:57-37:46)

–Willie Jennings

“liberating Christians”

I like so many quotes from this interview, but here’s one that stood out to me right now:

“It’s an absolutely urgent matter for us as a church to help liberate our people from all forms of oppression and I can hardly think of any form of oppression more devastating than white supremacy…It’s difficult to follow Jesus into a life of poverty, for instance, if all that you’ve been taught is that poverty is a curse. And that poverty goes against your birthright as a white person. Or your birthright as an immigrant that’s trying to live the American Dream, which again is just a euphemism for white supremacy. So liberating Christians from that kind of imperial ideology–this false ideology–into the naturalness [of] what Jesus teaches about the fluidity of community and our connection to the natural world, I think has nothing short of a revolutionary effect on people who begin to understand this.”