In love, He both seeks and receives penitent sinners.

 

As I listened to “How He Loves Us” yesterday, I was transported from my hotel room in Michigan to Shepherd’s Door, a rescue mission in Portland, Oregon that I worked at from 2007-2008.  One of the other staff members had come into the main living room and said, “Oh, my gosh, you have to hear this song…” I heard that song over a dozen times during the rest of my shift because she made sure that every person who walked into that room–resident or staff–heard about the power and intensity of God’s love for them expressed in the words of that song.

The women at Shepherd’s Door were, in some ways, ready soil for the seed of the Gospel.  Many had hit rock bottom and were looking desperately for a way up and a way out; the Gospel provides both.  But the bottom can also be a very difficult place for the Gospel to penetrate because of the intense shame and self-hatred that exists there.  This shame and self-hatred can make women fearful and distrusting of the love and forgiveness offered to them.   Among his many tools to draw us to himself God tends to lean on patience, kindness, and grace; he may use conviction but he does not cause shame and self-hatred. Romans 2:4 talks about God’s patience and kindness that draws us to himself.

“Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (NIV)

In the New Testament there are many stories and parables on this theme of love and redemption: the prodigal son, the lost coin, the lost sheep. These stories show us a God who passionately seeks and saves those who are lost. God is pretty explicit about his desire to restore lost humanity to himself in the New Testament so it’s easy for people to see the God as a God of love and forgiveness.  This love and forgiveness is not limited to the New Testament.  As soon as the relationship between God and people is broken in Genesis 3 we see that God has a plan, which had been set in motion before the creation of the world, to restore us to himself.  The rest of the Bible is the outworking of this plan.

When we read Genesis 3 we tend to focus on the act of sin and the choices that Adam and Eve made. What we often miss is how God’s grace is shown in so many little ways (I’ll point some of them out in a minute).  If you’ve read previous posts you know that my tendency is to view God as a dispassionate observer rather than a good father who deeply loves and longs for his children. Some of that shifted when I read the story of the Fall in the Jesus Storybook Bible.  As I read it, I wept. I wept because I could feel God’s broken heart and his deep, deep love for us.  He wasn’t mad that they broke the rules, his heart was broken because his children had rejected him. He didn’t punish them to show them who was boss, he showed them kindness by allowing them to experience the consequences of their choices.  He did not abandon them, he cared for them as they learned to walk this new, broken road.  He did not respond in furry; he responded in grace.  Here are snapshots of the grace in his response after the Fall:

  • He sought them out.  He knew they sinned yet he still invited them into relationship with him.  How often do we, like Adam and Eve, hide in our shame?  God is calling us out of hiding, not to judge us but to lift us up.
  • He gave them opportunity to own their sin rather than simply confronting them with it.  Why are you hiding?  He asked.  He knew the answer but he wanted to give them the opportunity to tell him.
  • He allowed them to experience the consequences of their sin–death (spiritually and, ultimately, physically). Consequences, when done well, teach us what we should and shouldn’t do.
  • He sacrificed an animal to provide clothing for them.  I don’t know what he thought of their feeble attempt to cover their own nakedness and shame by sewing fig leaves together, but I do know that he stepped in to provide for them what they weren’t able to do for themselves: decent clothes.
  • He removed their access to the the tree of life.  They would not live forever.  But this, too, is grace.  He would not allow them to live forever broken by sin in a world broken by sin.  Instead he allowed them to die with the intention to  eventually resurrect them in a restored world free from sin.  Not that they knew this at the time. They probably just felt the loss.  But the loss was not the end of the plan.
  • He promises ultimate victory over sin (Genesis 3:16)

He slowly and painfully walked through this process with them without once hearing them apologize or seeing them repent.  And he continues, through the rest of the Old Testament and into the New Testament to reach out, to draw his children back to him, to redeem, to restore.  He does not leave us as our sin deserves but steps into our reality to experience it with us and to take it from us.  THIS is our God.  No other God bears the burdens of their people in the way our God bears ours–both the burdens we wind up with through no fault of our own and the burdens we create ourselves.

He seeks and restores penitent sinners.  Penitent simply means those who feel sorrow for their sin.  This penitence is a godly sorrow leads to repentance.   We don’t just feel bad; we feel bad and do something about it. We respond to God reaching out to us.  We respond to his kindness.  We respond to his grace.  And then we share that grace with others.  Romans 2:4, the passage that states that God’s grace leads us to repentance, is not so much about God’s patience and kindness toward the believer but a reminder regarding the people who are frustrating the believer, the people the believer is judging.  Paul is telling Christians to stop judging and start showing kindness because, in his patience, God is using kindness (not anger and judgement) to draw people to repentance.  Of course anger at injustice has its place but God’ primary tool for redeeming and restoring people?  Kindness.  We are drawn to redemption by the grace in his eyes, not the anger in his voice. We are brought in by his love, not his threats.  THIS is how we are to respond to the world. This applies to the co-workers who annoy the crap out of you, the family members who push your buttons, and to the people of goodwill and not-so-goodwill that are on the opposite side of the political spectrum as you.  Kindness. *

Kindness doesn’t mean that you tolerate horrible behavior (although, sometimes it does).  And it doesn’t mean you don’t fight for justice (although, sometimes you don’t).  It does mean that you look to Jesus as an example and to the Holy Spirit, your guide, to help you decide when to turn the other cheek, when to walk away, and when to turn over the tables with whips because sometimes we want to rage when he wants us to be docile and sometimes we don’t want to rock the boat when he wants us to raise our voices.  But you do all of these things with your eyes on Jesus, remembering that God is patiently and kindly drawing the very people who stir up the anger and frustration in you to himself…just like he once did for you…with kindness expressed through patience.

Be reminded, today, of his patience.  Be reminded of his kindness. Let it lead you, and pray that it leads others, to repentance because we serve a God of love who both seeks and receives penitent sinners.

(I included the Jesus Culture version of How He Loves us because this is the one my coworker walked in and played for the women at Shepherd’s Door.  May you experience the overwhelming magnitude of his love, of his patience and kindness toward you and may that experience free to to share it with others who do not deserve it any more than you did)

Side note:  If you do not own the Jesus Storybook Bible, you should, even if you are an adult and have no children to read it to.  It phenomenally ties the story of Scripture together with grace and truth that reveals God’s heart for us.  It is amazing.

*I writing this from a safe hotel room in Grand Rapids, MI.  I know nothing of real enemies who seek my harm and downfall. So it’s relatively easy for me to talk about enemies…I don’t really have them.   Today I heard about the Christians killed on a bus in Egypt…they have been persecuted and mistreated.  I cannot speak from experience about how to respond to this kind of evil…but I don’t think the appropriate response is all that different from what I’ve just said toward low-level enemies and annoying people, though perhaps it is more nuanced and carefully stated.  Miroslaf Volf has an excellent book on his experiences of persecution and response to those experiences in light of the Gospel.  Many have also been touched by the stories of pain and forgiveness by those like Corrie ten Boom.

in love he both seeks

 

By intention He relates to people as Father

 

 

By intention He relates to people as Father,
thereby forever declaring His goodwill toward them.

When I was 23 two words changed my relationship with God. They were, simply, “Describe God,” spoken in the middle of a conversation between me and the Chair of the Bible and Theology Department at Western Seminary.  I was planning to begin seminary in the fall and I was in process of getting some classes waived.  The process involved the Chair, Gerry Breshears, asking me whatever he wanted about any of the topics I was hoping to have waived.  It was terrifying.

Describe God.  That seemed easy enough.  I talked about God’s omnipotence (how he is all-powerful), his omniscience (how he is all-knowing), his omnipresence (how he is present everywhere). I talked about his goodness and his holiness. I talked for a while; it was a pretty good answer.

Gerry simply replied, “Look up Exodus 34:6-8.”

So I did.  It reads, And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (NIV)

Gerry pointed out that this is the first time God describes himself in the Bible.  Earlier in the Bible we learn about who he is by how the author describes him and what he does, but when he has the opportunity to describe himself he doesn’t talk about his power, presence, knowledge, or holiness.  He talks about himself in relational terms. God is gracious and compassionate, patient, full of love and faithfulness.

That was very different than how I described God.  I wasn’t wrong but my answer still somehow missed the mark.  I had described God in distant academic terms; God described himself in relational terms.

We went on to talk about other biblical and theological themes but this particular conversation stuck with me and I mulled it over for weeks.

My mulling led me to realize was that I had a very deistic view of God.  Deism is the understanding that God exists and is the source of all that exists but that once he got things up and running he kind of stepped back and let the world run itself.  It’s the understanding that, while he may step in every now and then to perform a miracle of give direction, he’s not actively involved in the day to day running of the universe.

I also came to realize that this was similar to how I would describe my relationship with my dad.  He was an active part in creating our family but then he kind of stepped back and let us run ourselves.  He was physically present but emotionally distant and largely uninvolved.  And it hit me, in this and a million other ways, my view of God had been dramatically shaped by my experiences with my dad.

I’d bet the same is true for you.  Your view of God, the things you most deeply believe about who he is and how he interacts with you, are (is?) probably strikingly similar to your believes about who your dad is and how he interacted with you.

If your dad adored you, encouraged you, guided you, and prepared you well for life you probably have a pretty benevolent view of God.  If your dad was angry, sulky, or abusive, you probably live in the shadow of God’s anger and disappointment.

The more I explored the more I realized that even though I could say that God is love, I acted like God was indifference. I acted like He was emotionally distant, occasionally stepping in to fix something that was broken (or mess something up) but that he was generally uninterested and a bit agitated.  I believed that God’s love was practical, not passionate.  That he might never delight in me but I could at least strive to achieve so he wouldn’t be disappointed in me. I tried to make him proud of me but mostly I just tried to stay out of his way when he was angry.  And I believed this and lived like this because I had an unexamined view of who God was based on my experiences with my dad.

That conversation with Gerry began the process of intense evaluation of what I believed about God at a deep, practical level in light of what he revealed about himself though his word and through his interaction with me.

The Wesleyan Church states that God intentionally relates to us as Father, thereby declaring his goodwill toward us.   Jesus is working from the same underlying thesis when talking about prayer in Matthew 7: 9-11,  “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

Through his rhetorical questions he’s pointing what should be obvious, in the same way that dad’s take care of their kids’ needs, God, our heavenly father, will provided for us because a dad loves his child.  Of course, it’s not obvious for all of us.  Because some of us have fathers who would give us bread but others had fathers who would give us stone or ignore us completely.  Some had fathers who responded to our needs others had fathers who neglected, rejected, or abused us.  Not all of us had dads who laid the groundwork for a healthy understanding of who God is.  Some of them, in fact, wrecked that for us.

But, here’s the thing, our dads don’t determine who God is.  They may affect how we see him but they don’t affect who he actually is.  So we have the opportunity to examine our understanding of who God is in light of how our dad’s shaped that understanding and then to evaluate and change it with truth.   Our dads may have let us down but our heavenly father is good.  Our dads may have rejected or ignored us but our heavenly father loves us and passionately pursues us.  And, of course, our dads might have shown us who God is and set us up to see him for who he really is.

God chooses to relate to us as father because, at their best, fathers love their children, care for them, provide for them, guide them, and protect them.  At their best, father’s delight in their children and work for their good.

There are a few dicey theological points I feel like I should address here:

  • God is not male.  God is spirit, he does not have a body, and is not gendered (Jesus has a body and he is gendered).  Men and women are equally made in his image.  God displays both traditionally masculine or feminine characteristics (the fruit of the spirit, for example, tend to be exalted as feminine characteristics but are deeply rooted in God’s nature).
  • God is not a man nor is he a woman yet the Bible primarily, though not exclusively, uses masculine imagery to relate to the world.  If we accept that the Bible is the inspired word of God, we accept that this is God’s intention, not just a hold-over from oppressive patriarchal society.
  • God chooses to relate to us, primarily, as father.  There are times when he uses feminine imagery and metaphors (God is the original mama bear and is also described as human mother, a mother hen, and a woman looking for a lost coin) but he primarily uses the masculine imagery.  I don’t have a firm grasp on why he chose to relate to us primarily as father rather than mother so I’m not going to offer any reasons here.  Have fun googling though…you’ll find a lot of interesting ideas.

How Does God Relate to You as Your Father?

What kind of father do you think God is?  How much is he like your earthly dad? I’d encourage you, if you haven’t thought about this already, to take some time (either with a journal, or friend, or therapist) to describe your dad and how he made you feel growing up.  Then take some time (either with a journal, or friend, or therapist) to describe your relationship with God.  As you do this, ask God to reveal to you what you most deeply believe (not just what you know the right thing to say is) and what the implications of your beliefs are on your relationship with him and in your life.  See how the two line up, see where they’re different.  Ask God to show you more of who he is, to cement the things that are true and to reshape the things that are untrue.

Spend some time meditating (thinking about) Scripture that talks about (or shows) God as father.  You might go to http://www.biblegateway.com or http://www.biblehub.com and search for words like “father.” Or maybe read through the book of John and take notes about Jesus’s relationship with his Father. He is, after all, our best model of what it means to live a full human life, who better to learn from regarding how we can interact with our Father?  Listen to some of your favorite songs that talk about God as Father.

If you’re a parent, get down on your knees and pray.  Because this particularly responsibility, the one where we shape our children’s initial understanding of God, is based on how we act toward them NOT based on what we say or try to teach them.  This is a HUGE responsibility.  HUGE.  And terrifying.  And it highlights the importance of experiencing God as Father before we can display his character as parents.  We probably won’t get it 100% right but, with his help and by his grace, we can parent them as God is parenting us with love, grace, compassion, truth, faithfulness, gentleness, etc.

Here are some songs…(you knew the first one was coming, didn’t you?)


Disclaimer: To some extent, I don’t really know what my dad was like (none of us really know what our dad’s are like…or any other person for that matter). All I “know” is how I’ve interpreted my experiences with him. I believe he was dealt a rotten hand in life and did the best he could with what he had.  I believe he was full of contradictions: tenderhearted but often angry, living in poverty but incredibly generous, brilliant with little formal education.  I believe he’s now in heaven, dancing with Jesus.  I’m happy he’s now experiencing life to the fullest.

 

 

It is not good for man to be alone.

Last week I wrote about how men and women are equally created in his image.  This doesn’t answer all of the questions about what roles they should have in the home or the church but it does give us a baseline for understanding our shared value and dignity.   The question of roles is dealt with later in Scripture (and we’ll get there eventually). Rather than moving forward and talking about the next thing in the Articles of Religion, I want to take a side-step this week and talk, briefly, about how God created man but it was not good for him to be alone.


The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone…” (Gen 2:18)


Christians are fond of saying that God is everything we need.  The truth is both that he is…and he isn’t.  In a sinless world, while walking in perfect fellowship with God, God tells Adam that it’s not good for man to be alone. God says (basically), “Hey, I’m pretty great, perfect actually, but I didn’t design it to be just you and me.  It’s not good for it just to be the two of us, you were designed for intimate relationships with other human beings.”  God wanted more for Adam than just a fulfilling divine relationship, he wanted Adam to have fulfilling human relationships.  And when he didn’t have them it was not good.

Of course, God wants to be the center of our universe and our most important relationship, and God never wants us to lower or standards or violate his relational rules just to be intimate with others, BUT that longing you feel when you’re single, or when you’re alone in your marriage, or when everyone else seems to have friends and your awkwardly standing on the outside?  That feeling is normal, and it exists because you long for something you were designed to have, intimacy with other human beings.

When those relationships don’t exist, God will sustain us, but, if we’re really going to thrive, his ideal is that we are in intimate relationship with him and with other human beings.

When I was in high school I, like nearly everyone else, didn’t feel like I belonged.  I had my group that I hung out with and did the normal teenage things with, but I didn’t feel like they really knew me or that I could fully be myself around them.  I was surrounded by people but was lonely.  It was my mom who pointed out to me that God created us for relationships, and not just surface-level relationships, but deep, meaningful relationships.  She told me it was not good to be alone. That didn’t fix anything but it at least took away the, “Shouldn’t God be enough?” guilt.

So, today, if you find yourself lonely, either because you don’t have close friends or you long for a deep romantic relationship that you don’t have, look to God to sustain you.  But know that your longing for people to help satisfy you isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s actually the logical outflow of how you were created and isn’t, in itself, bad.  When we compromise to get that intimacy or when we make relationships with others a higher priority than our relationship with God it becomes a problem. But that longing?  It’s from him.  When you feel it, take it to him.  Ask him for friends, for deep relationships, for love for and from others where you know and are deeply known.  When he doesn’t provide the people? And ask him to sustain you but be okay with not being okay when God is enough but not quite enough.

 

in his image: male and female

With the Son and the Holy Spirit, He made man, male and female, in His image.

Today I’m focusing on something that’s not uniquely Wesleyan.  Really, nothing in the above statement is uniquely Wesleyan, it’s pretty universally Christian.  In theory we all agree that all  human beings, male and female, are created in God’s image. Men don’t have more of his image, women don’t have more of his image, we all are created in his image. When our thinking gets skewed, it’s often in the direction of believing that God is male (because Jesus was) and we think that to represent God we have to be more masculine which can also lead to overstated fears of the “feminization of the church”. Thinking can also be skewed toward acting like women are inherently less capable or valuable which can lead to things like abuse and social inequality.

To fight against this skewed thinking we need to be firmly planted in the truth so we’re going to look at where the Bible shows us this equality and why it matters.

Man = Male and Female

When it comes to image bearing, we all (Christians) tend to agree that all men and all women bear God’s image.  We’re going to build a quick case for why this is incredibly obvious from Scripture.

Genesis 1:27 (NASB) says,

“God created man in His own image,
in the image of God He created him;
male and female He created them.

The word “man”  (in the first line) can mean several things: ranging from one single male (a man) to all of humanity (man or mankind). When Genesis 1:26 & 27 tell us that God has decided to make “man” in his image, we need to be sure which definition of “man” was intended.   The context makes it abundantly clear.  In typically Hebrew fashion, the author says something, then repeats it again (kind of backwards) saying basically the same thing but a slightly different way.

  1. God created man in His own image (the original statement)
  2. In the image of God He created him (repeating the same idea but flipped so “image” is first and “created” is second)
  3. Male and female he created them (further explains that “him” isn’t just men but males and females)

The context clearly intends that “male and female” modify “man” which, then, must mean mankind (which both the original language and English allow for).  Here are how some different translations translate it (with my emphasis added):

NIV: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

ESV: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”

KJV: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”

RSV: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Why the difference?  When translators translate the Bible they have to decide how closely they want to stick to what the passage says (formal equivalence) vs. what the passage means (dynamic equivalence).  For example, when you translate “hot dog” out of English do you use the formally equivalent words (warm canine) or the dynamically equivalent words (bland lunch sausage)?  One is word-for-word but looses the meaning, while the other maintains the meaning by translating the concept, not the words.  The NIV tends to be heavier on the dynamic equivalent side so rather than translating “man” they clarified that it means “mankind”  while the others stuck to the formal equivalence translating it “man” allowing the reader to determine from the context that “man” actually means “mankind.”  The risk of dynamic equivalence is over-interpreting in your translation.  The risk of formal equivalence is losing meaning.

Nearly all Christians agree that Genesis 1:26-27 indicates that:

  1. “man” means “mankind” or “humanity” and,
  2.  both males and females are image bearers.

Though not mentioned above, we also see that:

3. there is a distinction between “males” and “females” (but it is unclear, at this point, what the distinction is).

This means that at our core, males and females are of equal value and equal standing before God.  A woman, in all her femininity bears the image of God as much as a male in all his masculinity does.  (Masculinity and femininity need not be defined according to the expectations of the prevailing culture.) We agree with this equality of essence in theory but that doesn’t always translate to practice.

The challenges come with how we understand and interpret the distinction mentioned in point #3 above.  There are two basic camps 1) one that believes that males and females have equal standing before God and that, though there are some distinctions, we should be wary of gender roles and allow each male and each female to flourish in the realm of their giftedness in the home, in society, and in the church (this is called egalitarian) and 2) and one that believes that males and females have equal standing before God and that the distinctions between genders lead to God-given gender roles that give the best  avenues for how an individual’s giftedness should be expressed within the home, in society, and in the church (this is called complementarian, a.k.a. wives submit to husbands and shouldn’t be pastors).

This is, of course, an oversimplification for the sake of space.  There is a spectrum of equality, distinctions, and understanding of roles within the home, society, and church but these two views capture the major essence of the biblically-based perspectives. Each of these views also can be dangerous when taken to an unbiblical extreme.  Those who go too far to equality may loose all gender distinctions.  Those who go too far in understanding different roles may treat women as if they identified with their role (less competent or valuable since they have a more submissive role).

Our theology of gender is important because it affects EVERY SINGLE AREA of our lives whether we are female, male, or inter-sexed.  So you should do a lot more reading to make sure your theology of gender is on firm biblical footing and explore how this theology is lived out in your real life.  But my goal in this post was to focus on what we agree on regarding males and females made in the image of God.  So I’m not going to dive into the biblical basis for equality in roles. If you want to explore more, and I think you should, I recommend you explore opposing Christian viewpoints: The Council For Biblical Sexuality (formerly called the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) and Christians for Biblical Equality.  I, along with the majority of the Wesleyan Church (though, sadly, not all of it) would largely align, at least theoretically, with CBE.

Some Implications of Image bearing:

As image bearers, we are unique from the rest of creation. Like the rest of creation we are created beings.  Unlike the rest of creation we’re in our own category, the category of image bearers.  We are above the rest of creation. We are given every seed-bearing plant to eat and commissioned to rule over every animal on land, in the sea, and in the sky.

Being an image bearer means that we are intrinsically valuable.   Genesis 9:6 teaches justice for murder based on the uniqueness of the murdered human as an image bearer.  James 3:9-10 points out the absurdity of praising God with our mouths while cursing his image bearers with that same mouth because, as his image bearers, respecting us means respecting him, at least at some level.  Because we bear his image (and every human being does) we are automatically valuable, even if we’re terrible people.

As image bearers, we have the authority to rule over creation and the responsibility to do it well. In the Old Testament the emphasis on the image in not so much about morality but more about representing God on earth.  He has given us the authority and the responsibility to rule over creation, to harness the earth’s resources in a way that respects creations, honors God, and leads to human flourishing.  Sometimes we (personally or corporately) do that well, other times we’re terrible at it.  It is better to represent him in a way that honors him and is in accordance with what he values (this is where morality/love/respect comes in).

This video explains our role as image bearer representatives better than I can.  It’s definitely worth the 6 minute investment to watch (even our six year old is mesmerized by the Bible Project videos).

As gendered image bearers our femininity or masculinity somehow help us image God.  If we believe our gender is deeper than just our biology than it most certainly affects our image bearing. I don’t know exactly what this looks like but I do know that as a woman I don’t need to adapt to the prevailing male-dominated culture to effectively represent God to the world.  I know that both traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine characteristics and tendencies represent God.  My advice to you: Seek God.  Be obedient.  Long for holiness and love.  Change what God tells you to change but embrace the things he doesn’t tell you to change and let your whole self wholey represent God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Matter or Spirit”

“We believe the Father is the Source of all that exists, whether of matter or spirit.”

This is the only part of the Wesleyan Articles of Religion that even hints at the reality of angels and demons.  So, even though the emphasis of this sentence is that the Father is the Source of all that exists, I’m going to take a small but important rabbit trail to unpack the “or spirit” part of this sentence.  In the future, I may come pack to explore the first part but, for now, get ready, we’re jumping into the theology of the (mostly) unseen realm.

The Spiritual World Exists

For the ancient writer and reader (and for many people around the world today) saying that the spiritual world existed was as obvious as saying, “the sky is blue,” or “water is wet.” People in Bible times were keenly aware that the spiritual world existed and that it affected the material world and that the material world affected the spiritual world.  What they didn’t always know was exactly how the worlds interacted with each other.  This partial knowledge provided the fertile soil in which religions are born and grow.  People would experiences that they understood (or misunderstood) and then attributed (correctly or incorrectly) to the spiritual world.  Then, as they sought to understand and to respond to these experiences, religions developed around what seemed to cause changes, what seemed to make sense, and what seemed to be true.

The primary focus of the Bible is the physical realm where the divine-human drama unfolds but it constantly gives glimpses into the spiritual realm so we can see how it is affecting the physical realm and vice versa. For example, we see that God (spirit) would visit Adam and Even in their physical setting in the cool of the evening.  In Genesis 16 we see the Angel of the Lord visiting Hagar (one of my favorite stories in the whole Bible).  In Daniel we learn that angels are warring in the spiritual realm and act as messengers from God to his people. Job tells the story of how God and Satan exist outside of, but interact with, the physical world.  In Matthew 8 we see one of many stories where a demon (or demons) affect humans. Ephesians 6 teaches us exactly how to prepare for and fight the spiritual battle that affects our physical reality. 

But before we get too far, let’s begin by defining some terms:

Material World/Physical Realm: Things that are made out of matter (things we can touch) or the things that derive from things made out of matter (sound, smell, etc.). This includes any physical thing: the earth, our bodies, food, homes, pets, televisions, radios, books, etc.

Spiritual World/Spiritual Realm: Things that are (at least normally) non-corporeal. Things that exist but seemingly have no matter or physical substance.  Basically, spirits: angels, demons, God and the realm they inhabit.

Here are some basic truths about the spiritual realm:

1. God is the Source of Spiritual Beings

Judaism (and so Christianity) begins with an assumption of two overlapping realms, the spiritual and the physical worlds.  Genesis 1:1-2 reads,  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”  We see a physical realm (the surface of the deep…whatever that means) where a spirit (the Spirit of God) is hovering.  We see that everything that is created, both what is seen (physical) and what is unseen (spiritual) is created by God.  

2. The spiritual world affects the material world

Several of the biblical examples above illustrate this quite well.

3. Some people seem to be more aware of the impact of the spiritual world than others

Not everyone in the Bible had the same kinds of experiences.  God did not speak to everyone through angels, not everyone was demonized.  People in the Bible experienced the spiritual realm and engaged with spiritual beings to differing degrees.

I often say that, for some people, the barrier between the physical and spiritual realm is just thinner than it is for the rest of us. I know people who can walk by someone, or walk into a room, or fly into a city and feel an oppressive presence.  I know people who dream dreams and are given visions.  I know people who know things about others that they couldn’t have known without direct revelation.  I know people who have seen or felt ominous clouds, ghosts, and demons. I have very minimally experienced these things.  But my lack of experience is no reason to doubt their experiences. Some people simply have more direct interaction with the spiritual world (sometimes through their own initiation, sometimes not) and some people seem to be able to more easily perceive spiritual beings. Maybe it’s like the difference between being colorblind and seeing colors.  My brother can’t tell the difference between green and red, I can.  I don’t walk into a room and feel a spiritual presence, my sister can (sometimes).

4. People can be too focused on the spiritual realm

In the Old Testament, people were expressly prohibited from engaging with any spirits that were not God or sent from God.  Though there is natural curiosity here, it’s clearly dangerous to mess with evil beings you don’t understand.  As stated before, the Bible gives us lots of windows into the spiritual realm but, clearly, leaves out a LOT of details.  We should assume that if the Bible doesn’t teach us about a spiritual thing we probably don’t need to know about it.  We should also realize that it’s pretty stupid to learn too much about the spiritual realm by evil spirits who are bent on our destruction…they enemy is not likely to tell us the truth or to tell the the truth in ways we can understand or use it. The disciples were excited after returning from preaching and casting out demons.  Jesus reminds them that they shouldn’t get too focused on their power (which is completely dependent on him) but, rather, rejoice in their identity and salvation (Luke 10:1-24).

5. People can be too unaware of the spiritual realm

It is easier for the enemy of your soul to sneak up on you if you are unaware of his existence.  And you’re more vulnerable to attack when you’re unaware of his tactics. While we can be attacked in big flashy ways (demons or terror, for example) the enemy is often much more subtle. We know that he is the father of lies and uses lies and half-truths to deceive, condemn, and tempt us all the time.  He also twists scripture to cause confusion and doubt. 1 Peter 5:8 reminds us to be alert, because our enemy (like a lion) is looking for someone to devour.

6. There are a lot of people with really bad information about the spiritual realm

ALWAYS test your sources.  If it’s not clearly in the Bible, then hold it loosely.  If it’s not in the Bible at all, be highly skeptical.  Be aware that A LOT of your ideas about angels, demons, and the spiritual realm are probably cultural ideas rather than Biblical ideas.  For example, when angels show up in the Bible to talk to people, how many wings do they usually have?  None. The tend to look like normal men (not women) who are glowing (and terrifying).

7.  Do this, not that. 

I’m an Instructor for Western Seminary’s course on Equipping the Saints for Spiritual Warfare.  There is SO MUCH more that could be said about this topic…but not enough space in this one post.  So here are some highlights:  Be aware that the Spiritual world exists and affects the material world. Don’t focus too much on the spiritual realm.  It’s hard to win a war you don’t realize you’re fighting.  But your eyes should always be on Jesus who has defeated the Satan, sin, and death.  He is bigger, stronger, and on our side (or, rather, we are on his).  Keep your eyes on the victor not the enemy.  Your weapons are things like the name of Jesus (really, the power that his name represents) and truth.  And everything mentioned in Ephesians 6 . Prepare for battle.  Fight the good fight.  Do it with the power of Jesus.  Rest on his word and in his name.

And this:  This week Cory and I are in Mongolia teaching Wesleyan History, Theology, and Practice to a group of Mongolian pastors working toward ordination.  Please pray that God works in powerful ways and blesses the teaching.  Pray that God bless and provides for the pastors who are sacrificing to attend Bible school this week.  Pray for all of our health.  And pray that we have fun.