Tag Archives: Galatians

Living Art

It seems that many times our spiritual life falls into one of two extremes.  On one hand, we may shove it to the outskirts of our mind and hope that as long as we keep it happy with the weekly trip to church or Bible study it won’t bother us.  On the other, we may hold visions of using it to ascend to a veritable Christian utopia in which we have reached the pinnacle of spirituality and can at last bask in the warm glow of victory.  This utopic vision of our faith both drives and haunts us.  We feverishly pursue the glittering image of having the perfect spiritual life while also rebuking ourselves for not having already attained it.  Though this pursuit may have the appearance of being good and beneficial, its gently sloping path threatens to lead us to a very different destination than we expect.

But why?  Aren’t we supposed to seek to grow closer to God?  Aren’t we supposed to imitate Christ?  Yes, we are.  However, we must pause to reflect on whether that is truly what we are seeking to do.  This isn’t a question of checking our motives as much as checking our goals.  If our chief aim is to draw closer to God and live out the Gospel message, then we will find ourselves on the right track.  However, if we are seeking to achieve a state of spiritual utopia, we’ll find ourselves going nowhere fast.  In fact, the word “utopia” literally means “nowhere”.

The images we chase are just that:  images.  They do not exist in substance as something for us to grab and possess.  Rather, just like light streaming through a window, the more we attempt to hold them, the more they evade our grasp.  The more we try to be the person we are imitating, the more we find ourselves drifting from God.  This is because our relationship with God is between us and God, not this other person and God.  As we are shaped into Christ’s likeness, we grow into a unique reflection of Christ.  In trying to be someone else, we are fighting against God’s shaping of us.  He created us to be us, with our own personality, talents, and gifts.

Let’s use Ignatius of Loyola to construct an example:  he developed a spirituality that has influenced and helped countless people grow closer to God.  Following the path of Ignatian spirituality provides a way of proceeding that helps us to be shaped into Christ’s image.  It does not provide a way of proceeding that aims us at being Ignatius of Loyola.

In Christ’s example, we see how to live our lives with God.  He showed us what it looks like to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind as well as to love our neighbor as ourselves.  This example is given to us to the end that we grow towards Christ-likeness and that we become able to show others who Christ is, not that we should become Christ.  After all, we must remember that Jesus was fully God and fully human, living a sinless life to the end that He might offer himself as a perfect sacrifice for all.

It will be helpful to reflect on the words of Paul as we wrap our minds around this:

“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”  -Galatians 2:20

Paul is writing about the new life he has in Christ, being justified by faith and not by works of the Law.  It is interesting to note the phraseology that he uses here, stating that it is no longer he who lives, but Christ lives in him.  Christ is the vivifying power which guides and directs his life.  When we were dead in our sins, there was no life in us and we were compelled as undead minions to serve our whims under the direction of our sinful nature.  In Christ, we have life and have it abundantly:  we are made free from the dictatorship of sin and are able to live and to grow and to give our lives, not as compulsory tribute, but as love offerings to God in a renewing, life-giving relationship.  Through this relationship we are shaped by God as His love works in and through us, forming us into the unique person we were created to be.

Consider an artist and painting as a metaphor:  a painting is given life and meaning by the artist acting through their brush and each painting is a unique expression of the artist’s heart, so that no two are the same.  Each life is a masterpiece which God has a vision for, a unique expression of love and beauty that He wishes to create.  What’s more, He includes us in the creative process so that we are not a passive canvas which is acted upon, but rather a fellow artist who works in cooperation with the divine maestro upon the canvas.  The end result is that the person we are is a unique work of art:  an expression of the heart of God that is unlike any other.  In attempting to be someone else, we try to become nothing more than a copy.  A copy is a lifeless duplicate of the original work:  the artist is unable to put any heart or expression into it because it is simply a retracing of lines.  Similarly, when we set out to live a utopic vision of picturesque Christianity, we are doing nothing more than sitting down to copy an image.  Because we are tracing lines, our focus is on attempting to recreate each stroke and we have no time for interaction or relationship with the artist Himself.  We do not allow God to have any input or to help us put any of ourselves into the work, and so our copy remains lifeless no matter how well we trace.  That enlivening and animating power of Christ which Paul wrote of is absent.

Rather than an empty duplication, our life and relationship with God is a vibrant work-in-progress during our time on earth.  It will only reach its completion when it becomes a part of the glorious mosaic in Heaven.  The life of Christ is a foundation to us.  The lives of our fellow Christians, both those who have gone before and our contemporaries, serve as influences and inspirations to us.  We work with God to have ourselves formed into a portrait of Christ that is uniquely ours, one in which our heart beats with God’s as they are both poured out onto the canvas.

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Heroes and Villains – Touko and Shigeru Fujiwara

“As I had encountered kindness, I wanted to be kind myself. I wanted to be able to do something, just like others had done for me.”

-Takashi Natsume

Shigeru_&_Touko

The Natusme Yuujinchou (Natsume’s Book of Friends) series follows a boy named Takashi Natsume who has the ability to see youkai (spirits that feature prominently in Japanese folklore).  However, those around him find his behavior disturbing as he often appears to be frightened by or talking to no one (since most people cannot see youkai).  As a result, he is considered to be a bizarre or “freaky” child.  His parents died when he was young so Takashi spent his childhood being passed from home to home.  However, this changed when he was taken in by the Fujiwaras.  Touko and Shigeru are never really involved in the youkai antics which make up the bulk of the storyline.  As a matter of fact, they very much appear to be your average middle-age couple.  What makes them exceptional is the love and kindness they show Takashi by making him a part of their family, a fact they constantly remind and assure him of.  The Fujiwara’s provide a loving base and foundation that Takashi has never known before and which helped him to, in turn, show kindness to others.

The Apostle John writes the following:  “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.  In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.  In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His soon to be the propitiation for our sins.  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (1 John 4:7-11)  John makes the bold statement that if we do not love, we do not know God.  Why?  Because God is love.  John goes on to further flesh out this idea by explaining how we have seen the love of God in action, namely:  that He sent His only begotten Son to pay the price for our sins that we might be reconciled to Him.  Paul puts it this way:  “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.  For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.  But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8)  The love which God shows us is profound in that He loves us for ourselves, not because of ourselves.  By this I mean that God’s love is not dependent upon us.  God’s love does not come to us because of anything we are, say, or do, but because of who He is.  Love is an integral part of God’s character and we cannot know God without knowing His love.  To put it in more human terms, returning to the Fujiwaras, love and kindness is so much a part of their characters that we as observers behind the fourth wall, as well as Takashi, don’t know them without knowing that love and kindness.

After making his statement about the love of God, John goes on to say that we ought to love one another.  Why?  Because God loves us.  If God has showered so great a love on us despite our being in rebellion against Him, what excuse are we to give for not loving others, be they our siblings in Christ or not?  The same God who speaks to us through John telling us to love one another also tells us to love our enemies. (Matthew 5:43-48)  Where can such a love come from?  John provides us with an answer when he proceeds to write:  “No one has seen God at any time.  If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected (made complete) in us.  By this we know that we abide in Him , and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.  And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world.  Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.  And we have known and believed the love that God has for us.  God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” (1 John 4:12-16)  It is through the indwelling of God the Holy Spirit that we are able to not only partake in this great love, but also share this love with others.  Love is one of the spiritual fruits which the Holy Spirit bears in our lives by virtue of His presence. (Galatians 5:22-23)  It is also the Spirit who enables us to confess Christ as Lord and Savior. (1 Corinthians 12:3)  When the Spirit abides in us and does His work upon our hearts, we cannot help but to love others because love is the fruit of His labors.

John is not the only one who exhorts us to love one another, Christ, when He is eating the last supper with His disciples speaks thusly:  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)  Now here is a remarkable thing:  Jesus says that the love we are to have for one another will be a distinguishing mark that we are His disciples.  This is because we are not to love as the world loves, but as Jesus loves, as God loves.  This unconditional and unwarranted love is an outward sign of the Holy Spirit’s work within us and if we love as Christ loves it shows that we are truly His disciples because it is apparent that we know Him.  And if we know Jesus, then we know God because Jesus is in God and God is in Jesus. (John 14:7-11)  However, we mustn’t go thinking that this love is something that we can wear as a mask and pretend to be Christians.  For if we pursue such a venture it will soon become apparent that our love is just as hollow as a mask as well.  We can only fool others for so long and we can never fool God.  The love of God is not something that can be replicated or faked which is another reason why it is a distinguishing mark of Christians.  While he was still being passed from relative to relative, it was not unusual for Takashi to stumble upon a hushed conversation between his foster family as to how to get rid of him to someone else.  This is not the case with the Fujiwaras.  There are no whisperings of disapproval or planning behind closed doors as to how to rid themselves of him.  As far as they are concerned, he is and will always be part of their family.

Looking at the Fujiwaras’ relationship with Takashi shows us a number of things.  First, it serves as a metaphor for the way that God welcomes us with open arms into His family.  The effect that their love and kindness has on Takashi, encouraging him to do likewise, serves as a reminder of the way that God’s love kindles and nourishes a flame of love within us.  This flame can be used by God, if we allow Him, to light and feed the same flame in others.  The Fujiwaras remind us that one being a hero sometimes means choosing to love and to love unconditionally on a daily basis.  As Christians, we know that when we do something as seemingly mundane as loving as God loves on a daily basis, it is showing God to others on a daily basis; for God is love.

Food for Thought:

  1. In what ways is God calling me to love as He loves?
  2. How might I better cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit on my heart?
  3. Consider how marvelous it is that God loves us so much as to cause His Holy Spirit to dwell in us and fill us with His love to the point that it overflows from within us.

Unforgivable

In Matthew 18:21-35, Peter asks how many times he ought to forgive someone who sins against him and Christ responds with a story about a servant.  This servant is called to settle a debt he owes to a certain king (on the order of about $10,000,000).  Since he is unable to pay, the king orders that he, his wife, his children, and everything he owns be sold in order to pay back as much as possible.  However, the servant begs the king to give him more time to pay.  The king is filled with compassion and cancels the servant’s debt.

Immediately after leaving the king’s presence, the servant goes and finds one of his fellow servants who owes him a debt of about $20, grabs him by the throat and demands to be paid.  His fellow servant begs him for more time to pay.  The servant, however, will hear none of this and has his fellow servant put in jail until payment be made.  Word of this reaches the ears of the king who summons the servant back before him.  He proceeds to ask the servant if he should not have shown mercy to his fellow servant after the king had shown mercy to him?  Therefore, since he didn’t have mercy on his fellow, the king has him put in jail until he pays all that he owed the king.  So will God deal with us, Christ says, if we do not forgive others.

Initially it seems like Jesus is making a big deal out of something rather minor.  After all, isn’t the important thing that we love God?  Indeed, love is at the core of our relationship with God; and the nature of this love is to effect change in our lives.  Therefore, rather than focus on etymology and definitions, let’s look at the marks of the love of God in our lives.

In the story told by Jesus, the king’s act of compassion did not lead to change in the servant, as evinced by his treatment of his fellow servant.  Likewise, it becomes clear that our lives have not been affected by love of God if we do not forgive others.  Despite God’s work in our lives, our hearts remain hardened.  We have not accepted a new heart from God that grows in His love, but have kept our hearts of stone.

This parable of the unforgiving servant serves as a reminder that God is not inviting us to have a “get-out-of-hell-free” card.  God is inviting us into a life with Him.  In His love and mercy, He has cancelled the debt that we have incurred because of our sin, but that is only the beginning.  If we stop our spiritual growth after we accept Christ or live as we did before we accepted Christ as our Lord and Savior, we are just like the unforgiving servant.  The servant’s hardness of heart in the face of the king’s compassion is revealed by his refusal to forgive his fellow servant.  Our hardness of heart in the face of God’s grace is revealed by our refusal to forgive others.

Forgiving others can sometimes be extremely difficult.  Fortunately, God does not leave us to do this on our own strength and willpower.  He works to bring about change within us through His indwelling Spirit.  For example, the Spirit bears the fruits of love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) in our lives, which help us to forgive others.

The love at the core of our relationship with God is a love that changes.  God’s love for us produces this change and our love for God cooperates with this change.  The love that God has for us is constant and constantly reaching out to us.  The question before us is how will we respond?  Will we ignore and resist God?  Will we claim to love God, but in reality ignore Him?  Or will we love God and allow His love to shape us into the person we were born to be?


The Sociopath in My Back Seat

The 2004 film Collateral follows a Los Angeles cabdriver named Max who is taken hostage by Vincent, a hitman, and forced to drive him to each of his targets. Throughout the night, Max reluctantly obeys Vincent’s instructions.  A few times he attempts to escape but, by means of threats and violence, remains Vincent’s hostage.  A significant portion of the film consists of the dialogue between Max and Vincent with Max at the wheel and Vincent in the back seat.  One of the memorable scenes occurs when Max finally begins to drive his cab again.  It is not entirely true that Max has been driving the cab until this moment.  While he has indeed been the one behind the wheel; it has been Vincent who has been dictating where he drives.  A highly aggressive back seat driver, if you will.  The scene shows Max taking back control of his life, which is underlined when he refers to Vincent as the “sociopath in my back seat”.

In a way, this scene does an excellent job of capturing how sin and Satan often work in our lives.  They threaten us with things such as missed pleasure, not fitting in, or other such consequences if we do not cave to their will.  By using these threats, they become the same kind of back seat drivers as Vincent was in the film.

However, this is not the end of the story because though we may be servants of sin, we do not have to remain so thanks to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  Paul writes in Galatians 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  Christ gives us a choice:  to let sin and Satan continue to drive our lives from the back seat, or to take control of our life by giving it to God who does not want to control us, but for us to allow Him to shape us into the Christ-like individual He created us to be.  What’s more, He wants to give us a corporate identity as part of the Church, the body of Christ.  Put differently, the decision we face is how we are going to drive our lives:  as hostages to sin, or willing servants of God?

It is not easy to recognize and call out Satan and our sin as noisy passengers in the back seat, yet when we do, God throws them out and takes up residence within us.  Make no mistake, they will try to get back in the car any way that they can, but, because we have been set free, it is our decision whether or not to let them back in.  God will help and support us in making the right decision, but He won’t force it on us for, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart—these O, God, You will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17).  God wants willing obedience, not forced servitude.

Thanks to God, we have a choice.  We are in the driver’s seat.  It is up to us whether we are controlled by the sociopath in our back seat or if we take hold of the freedom that God has called us to in Him.