Not Without You

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The story opens with a female prophet and judge holding court between “the heavens” and the “house of God.” A thousand different sermons could be preached incorporating the story of Deborah. In this counter-intuitive story the themes of lament, prophecy, and the role of women come to the front. I’ve included links to sermons from Brian Zahnd, Matt Chandler, and Greg Boyd on each of those topics, but this story also shows us how God has revealed himself through Christ in the Old Testament. Any time a prophet hears the voice of God like Abraham and Moses, or sees a vision of God like Isaiah and Paul, we know that it is Christ they are hearing and seeing, because he is the Word of God made human, and the perfect image of the invisible God.

Deborah is a woman who has had an encounter with Christ, and this encounter has gifted her with the ability to judge the nation. She reaches out to a man named Barak and tells him to gather troops for an upcoming battle. It is tempting for us to interpret Barak’s response as cowardly or hesitant to obey God’s command from a woman, but if we look at the rest of scripture and ask ourselves, “where have we heard this before?” we will see that his words are not cowardly or disobedient at all. Barak responds by telling Deborah that if she will go with him then he will go, but if she will not then he won’t. If you take a second to think about other passages of scripture where a similar response is given, several should come to your mind.

In Exodus 33 Moses asks God to not send them away without his presence, Ruth tells Naomi not to send here away, and that wherever Naomi goes she will follow. In Psalm 16 David says that he has set the Lord always before him, and because God is at his right hand he will not be moved. Finally, in John 6 Jesus gives a very difficult teaching about the necessity for his followers to “eat his flesh and drink his blood,” and in response many people leave. Jesus turns to the twelve and asks them if they well leave also. Peter replies, “where will we go Lord? You have the Words of eternal life.”

Barak’s response is anything but cowardly or disobedient. His response is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. When faced with the most difficult trial of his life, he looks to a woman who has seen the Lord and communicates God’s  presence and will to the people, and Barak will not go without her. So much of the Christian life simply revolves around our response to fear, pain, doubt, and suffering. These things are enemies in our lives and they seek to kill, steal, and destroy all of the love, hope, and joy that we experience. In the midst of this suffering all that God desires is for us to trust that he is there, that he knows what we are experiencing, and that he will help us through our darkest hours, but most importantly if we let go, if we give up, if we cry out to him in anger and bitterness because of the pain that he has allowed, he will never turn his back on us.  

Why Have You Forsaken Me: The Cry of Job and Jesus

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I recently saw a tweet that said, “when God asked Job, ‘where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?’ Job’s response should have been, ‘where were you when I was being tortured by Satan?’” For some people the very thought of replying to God in that way is offensive, but this reaction sheds light on some of the most basic ways that we read the bible. One of those is the possibility that the “God” character in the Old Testament, is not always the person in the story who is revealing to us what God is like. When we take this possibility into account we see that at it’s deepest level the cry of Job and Jesus are the same, “my god, my god, why have you forsaken me?”

The two examples I use most often to highlight this principle are, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Moses’ willingness to sacrifice himself for his tribe. In these stories God is asking or threatening something that we know is not in harmony with who God has revealed himself to be in Christ. In the Abraham story, he is asking for a child sacrifice, and in the Moses story he is threatening to destroy his chosen people. In both cases it is often taught that God was testing these men, and Abraham passed the test through obedience, and Moses through intercession; but this does, and should, seem “not quite right.”

It feels wrong because we impose a mistaken understanding of what it means to test someone. When the bible says that God has said or done something to “test” someone, it doesn’t mean that their response to the test is going to determine God’s thoughts or feelings about the person. Adam and Eve failed the test of the trees. This does not change God’s attitude toward them, but it does change their attitudes toward God. God is still seeking after them, and they’re the ones that have chosen to hide from him. Jesus shows us that God is a loving father, whose arms are eternally open towards his creation. We are the ones who turn away, and experience the separation either as a bitter memory of a life we’ve left behind, or a cruel joke that could not possibly have ever been true.

What does this all mean for Job? Greg Boyd has a terrific sermon in his series of messages titled “Twisted Scriptures” that can help us see the connection. In this series he points out popular stories from the bible that people often interpret in the totally opposite way that they were intended. Greg points out that the most commonly quoted passage from the book of Job is the twenty first verse of the first chapter which states, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.” Now the book is written to show us, what Jesus will point out later, that Satan is the one who seeks to steal, kill, and destroy, and not God; but we, like Job, embrace the exact opposite view, that it is God “taking away” what we value most.

God’s speech to Job at the end of the book is often held up as a general response to mankind in the midst of suffering. What many hear as a beautiful declaration of God’s power, others hear as a grandiose command to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. A command that is eerily similar to Job’s friend Elihu, but that is intentional. It functions in much the same way as God’s interactions with Abraham and Moses. This is not God’s response to our suffering. His response to our suffering is the same as it was for the Israelites trapped in the land of Egypt. He hears the cries of his people, and he moves heaven and earth to deliver them from their bondage. It is no coincidence that God reminds them of this as an introduction to the ten commandments, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

That promise still stands for us today. If we cry out to God, in the same way that the Israelites did in the land of Egypt, in the same way that David did in the twenty second psalm, and in the same way that Jesus did while on the cross, he is faithful to hear our cries and deliver us from our suffering. In reality Job’s cry is a mirror image of Jesus’ words, “my god, my god, why have you forsaken me.” This is what we feel when we are experiencing tremendous pain. God’s response to genuine cries of suffering like that of Job and David, is not, how dare you question me; but instead, “I have heard your cries, I have seen your tears. I will surely heal you…you will go up to the house of the Lord.” 


A Time for Everything

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It happens almost every time I have coffee with a friend. It happens when my wife and I watch our favorite shows on a lazy Saturday morning. It happens when I lose myself in a game with my children. But it also happened one time when my daughter stopped breathing. “It” is the transformation of time. My wife and I were at her parents house when my infant daughter started running a high fever. For some reason my first reaction was to take off my shirt and hold her to my chest. This was pure instinct, but I found out later that it is one of the best ways to reduce a child’s temperature. When a parent holds their child skin to skin the heat from the child’s body actually transfers to the parent. We called the doctor’s office and they suggested running a lukewarm bath, but after a few minutes of holding her in the room temperature water, her eyes rolled back in her head and she stopped breathing. In that moment time ceased with her breath.

That is what fear, pain, sorrow, and darkness can do in our lives. They slow time down, and if they go deep enough they can stop it altogether. Thankfully the paramedics arrived and rushed my daughter to the hospital. We found out that she was susceptible to febrile seizures, a condition we had never heard of, but one that is common in children under ten. But do our experiences really change the flow of time, or is it simply in our minds. The answer is yes to both, but to understand why we have to examine what time actually is. Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that time is nothing but a localized projection of individual and collective human experience. What that means is that there is no universal flow of time apart from human experience. If time slows down for you, then time itself truly slows down. This fluctuating view of time is essential for us to understand what life can be like now and what it will be like in the future.

I grew up imaging heaven as an endless duration of trillions upon trillions of years. The more I think about this and talk about it with other people, I continue to discover that most find this view of eternity terrifying, but at the same time they feel it is explicitly taught in the bible. It’s important to remember that God uses things we know to help us understand things that we can’t know. For example, there are many different descriptions of heaven throughout the bible (John 14, Hebrews 12, Revelation 7), and these descriptions are true, but none of them fully encompass what our experience of the next life will be like. Our thoughts about this topic can also lead to a very harmful way of thinking about God’s relationship to time. SPOILER ALERT. There is a scene from the Netflix series Black Mirror that perfectly illustrates what I’m describing. In the episode White Christmas John Hamm punishes the digital copy of a woman by accelerating her experience of time. It’s possible for us to start thinking of God as existing in this manner; in a type of “time outside of time” where he is thinking and acting in much the same way that we do, but as an observer of time rather than a participant.

For God to participate in time does not mean that he must be bound by time, or that he must experience change. God’s participation in time is itself a timeless participation. This happens in much the same way that light interacts with matter, or the way that joy, peace, and love interact with our hearts and minds. When you experience joy, peace, and love, time speeds up, and the more you experience those emotions, the more quickly time accelerates. In mathematics this is described as an asymptotic relationship; so the next time you hear someone complaining about the uselessness of algebra, you can tell them that it reveals something very profound to us about our relationship with God and time! This is good news for anyone who might be terrified by the idea of infinite duration, of existing for trillions of years. What we experience in part in this life (an hour that feels like a minute) we will experience fully in the next, a timeless union with love itself.

The painting at the top of this page is Time in Eternity by Leon Devenice

P.S. This understanding of our relationship with God and time is far from being universally agreed upon. It is a topic that I discuss frequently with church leaders from around the country on twitter, so if you’re interested in learning more you can follow me on twitter @mattlarimer. Now, if anyone tells you that this is not the “majority view” throughout the history of the church, kindly disregard that comment because it is not true. Something that is commonly taught, however, is that our experiences and our emotions are not essential for knowing God. Origen, one of the greatest interpreters of Scripture in history, quoted 1 Corinthians 14:32, “the prophets are subject to prophets,” to highlight the importance of our experiences and emotions. Scripture itself is a collection of writings from the prophets, communicating their experiences with God; with the purpose of drawing us into our own experiences.