“I am the good shepherd”

(Part 5 of a series – my thoughts on some of the unusual ways that Jesus describes Himself. I have not researched how theologians think about these passages, but their influence may appear implicitly nevertheless since I have attended church for years, heard a lot of preaching, and read a lot. If a citation is needed, I’m happy to insert it and will do so honestly if I am aware one is needed.)

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  John 10:11

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.”  John 10:14-15

In order to figure out what this might have to say, I like to think about the subject. What is a shepherd, and what are sheep? To understand the analogy, one must understand the subjects of the analogy.

A shepherd is first off a caretaker. He takes care of sheep – an animal largely recognized for being only of limited intelligence and strongly habit-driven. Sheep have strong flocking instincts, following each other away from what they fear and toward each other for protection. The tendency to follow the leader is instinctual, for better or worse. Sheep also have fairly poor vision and are reluctant to go where they cannot see (www.sheep101.info). To properly care for sheep, a shepherd must know his sheep well and be familiar to the sheep or the sheep will not follow him. In agricultural communities with limited resources, multiple flocks of sheep can intermingle at a local watering hole. The shepherd doesn’t need to tag each one, or keep an eye on them, because at the sound of his voice the sheep that belong to him follow him. These sheep grew up from lambs with the shepherd by their side. The sound of his voice is as familiar as the scent of each lamb’s mother.

Secondly, a shepherd is a steward. While it may be that the sheep belong to the shepherd, it is often the case that the shepherd is taking care of somebody else’s flock. That is, the sheep do not necessarily belong to the shepherd. The shepherd has a great responsibility to nurture the flock and prevent loss of the sheep if they do not belong to him, but a greater investment still if the sheep do belong to him. The purpose of tending sheep is to help the sheep flourish – to grow strong and healthy, and reproduce. The shepherd, then, stewards the flock by leading them to areas where they can flourish, where food is abundant and predators are absent.

Third, a shepherd is a guardian. Sheep are prey animals, with little-to-no defense mechanisms other than flocking. This makes them vulnerable to predation from outside enemies. The shepherd must be vigilant, constantly attentive to the surrounding environment to make sure that not only is the environment good for the sheep to graze in but also safe from predators. If a predator does appear, the shepherd’s duty is to defend the flock to the best of his ability. Furthermore, if a sheep gets lost then the shepherd must go find it. Each sheep in the flock is valuable for its meat, wool, and/or reproductive ability. To lose one sheep is significant, so if one goes astray then that sheep must be found.

Being compared to sheep in this passage, we can gain insight into human nature. Humans have limited intelligence compared to God, who sees all and knows all because He made all. We flock by nature, gravitating toward one another by habit and following a leader in the crowd whether it is a good idea or not. We have relatively poor vision, focusing mostly on what is immediately in front of us, worrying about what we cannot see, and failing to see the “big picture” and how God works within it.

Likening Himself to a good shepherd, Jesus is stating that He is the great caretaker. As His sheep, we need to know Him and be known by Him. Because we were created as image-bearers of God (Gen. 1:27) and created through Christ (John 1:3), the great caretaker and good shepherd already knows us intimately. He knows us without even trying, because He has spent more time than we can imagine making us – designing us (Psalm 139:13) and guiding our lives. He knows us better than we know ourselves. But we need to know Him and trust Him to be a successful member of the flock, living up to our full potential. To this end, we need to listen to His voice and trust his direction. We can only do so, though, if we truly know His voice. How can you discern the voice of the good shepherd? His is a voice that speaks to your spirit – addressing the deep concerns of your heart rather than the superficial concerns of your mind. His is a voice that is rich in love, calling you to a better way than you might choose on your own. His is a voice that builds up rather than condemns.

Jesus is the great steward of the flock of God. In the passage, Jesus refers to “my sheep”, indicating that He owns His flock. “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all.” (v. 29) tells us that we have been given to Christ by the Father, for His stewarding. Stewards don’t just make sure something remains intact, but nurture that something so that it develops into its fullest potential. A steward acts for the benefit of what is being stewarded, so that it can flourish. This is how Christ acts in our lives – giving us direction and nurturing so that we can flourish under His stewardship. As our caretaker and steward, He knows our strengths and gives guidance to us toward environments where our strengths can be utilized and exercised. He also knows our weaknesses, and serves as a reliable leader who can be followed and trusted.

Jesus is the great protector. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (v. 28) reveals that once we are part of Christ’s flock, we can never be removed from it. While the devil prowls around us (1 Peter 5:8), we can rest peacefully knowing that we belong to Christ. He lays down His life for His sheep (v. 15), and stops at nothing to keep His people for Himself. We also know that if we go astray, He will bring us back into the fold. This comes up when Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15:3-6:

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one  of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.'”

Likewise, as the good shepherd Jesus will do whatever is necessary to bring His sheep back into the fold. Even give up His life on a cross.

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“I am the gate”

(Part 4 of a series – my thoughts on some of the unusual ways that Jesus describes Himself. I have not researched how theologians think about these passages, but their influence may appear implicitly nevertheless since I have attended church for years, heard a lot of preaching, and read a lot. If a citation is needed, I’m happy to insert it and will do so honestly if I am aware one is needed.)

So Jesus said again, “I assure you: I am the gate of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the gate. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.” John 10:7-9

A gate or door (or doorway) serves several purposes. One purpose is to mark the entrance to an establishment – the way in. Some buildings have entrances that are not easily identified, while other buildings have prominent entrances. The appearance and accessibility of the door is often interpreted as an indication of how welcoming the owner of the establishment is toward visitors. But all who enter a building go through a door.

A second purpose for a door is to prevent unwanted entrance. A door can be shut and locked to keep out intruders, or simply closed to keep out prying eyes or allow privacy. Finally, a door is used to retain – to keep in those who might mistakenly wander out. This use is primarily for small children or animals that might otherwise go out through the door and in doing so find themselves lost or in danger. Doors to prisons may keep in those who would otherwise desire to leave, but there is no indication in the context of this passage that this function is what Jesus had in mind. Verse 9 says “He will come in and go out, and find pasture,” which suggests that imprisonment is not implied.

This passage seems to indicate that Jesus Christ is the way into life – that being the spiritual living Jesus spoke of earlier. Verse 10 ends with “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” This is the way to salvation – eternal life. Verse 28 says “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” In the same way that the door is the exclusive way into a building, Jesus is the exclusive way into everlasting life (Acts 4:12). And just as He said in 8:12 that He is the light of the world, a lit doorway in the darkness is inviting and welcoming in appearance. It is a beacon of safety to those who are lost among the dangers of the night. Whoever is lost can seek the illuminated door of Christ and be found again. The door that Christ serves as also serves as protection from Satan. Thieves and robbers come to steal and destroy, and Satan is the ultimate thief and robber. But once we have gone through the Door and into everlasting life, Satan can no longer destroy us. Christ says in 17:12 that “not one of [us] is lost” if we are guarded by Jesus. Let this be encouraging! While we still sin in this life, once Jesus has claimed us we cannot be lost again. By entering through the door, as a welcomed newcomer, we find there our new home in Christ.

There is an interesting miracle recorded in John that seems tied to this statement in a way. In John 5:2-9, Jesus meets a man “near the Sheep Gate” in Jerusalem, at a pool named Bethesda. This was a pool where an angel would stir up the waters, and the first person into the pool would be healed of their malady. The man Jesus met had been handicapped for nearly 40 years and had never been able to find his way into the pool without somebody else getting there first. Jesus cured the man then and there, without using the pool at all. It was not the pool that was needed, but faith in the God behind the cure. The man had faith, and Christ – the Gate to life – healed him.

“I am”

(Part 3 of a series – my thoughts on some of the unusual ways that Jesus describes Himself. I have not researched how theologians think about these passages, but their influence may appear implicitly nevertheless since I have attended church for years, heard a lot of preaching, and read a lot. If a citation is needed, I’m happy to insert it and will do so honestly if I am aware one is needed.)

Jesus said to them, “I assure you: before Abraham was, I am.”  John 8:58

I mentioned this one in my previous thought, but wanted to think about it more specifically. To people familiar with the Old Testament, Jesus’ statement here might sound familiar. In Exodus 3:14, God reveals His name to Moses: “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I Am has sent me to you.” Sometimes the term “I am” is entirely capitalized, depending on the Bible, as “I AM” – indicating that it is a very special term in the original language, to be set apart from otherwise normal text. The way the Old Testament refers to God is “The LORD”, which is rendered from the Hebrew word YHWH that seems to mean “He is” or “He who is”. “I Am” is God referring to Himself by His own name, as one “who is” – that is, one who always has been and will always be.

For Jesus to say “I am” in a way that otherwise would not make grammatical sense (ie. it would make more grammatical sense to say “I was” to match the verb tense), Jesus was professing and revealing His divinity. Unfortunately, unlike in Exodus 4:30-31 where the Israelites believed what Moses told them about God, the Israelites in Jesus’ day did not believe His claim, instead trying to stone him (John 8:59).

John 1 elaborates on the truth to Christ’s statement: that not only was Jesus before Abraham but He was in the beginning (1:1-2), served as an integral part of the creation process (1:3), and acts as the light of life (1:5, 8:12). While we see light shining in the darkness in Genesis 1:3, we should not misunderstand this light to represent the light of Christ, because the light in Gen. 1:3 is a created light – one of God’s creations – whereas Jesus is not a creation of God (John 1:3) but is Himself God (John 1:1). Paul affirms this in his letters to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 8:6) and Colossians (Col. 1:16) – Jesus is God (John 10:30).

For God to say “I am” in both Genesis and John is not simply to say “I exist right now” but to say “I exist then, now, and forever”. The omnipresent, eternal God. This is why Revelations 22:13 has Jesus saying “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” God exists beyond the dimension of time that humans experience, and thus Jesus, being the “I Am,” has always existed – from the point when the timeline of creation began to the point when the timeline of creation ends.

To exist outside of such a timeline means that God is not limited by time – there is never a point when God is too busy doing something else that we can’t run to Him, pray to Him, cry out to Him. How comforting it is to me to know that while the world is full of problems, has always been full of problems, and will always be full of problems until the end, God is never distracted by dealing with other matters. He is never unable to turn His ear to me when I cry out, and is able to be completely, entirely attentive to the ways in which He needs to act in my life. This is not me placing myself at the center of God’s universe, but placing myself in the position of God’s child. Children are needy because they are immature and undeveloped. It’s not their fault – they just haven’t matured yet. Likewise, I am immature and undeveloped – having not yet been fully sanctified or given my heavenly body – and so I need God’s attention. It’s not narcissism; it’s reality: I need God.

To exist outside of time is sort of like sitting behind one of those doll houses with multiple levels that are open in the back for the child to access. You can see all of the spaces in it simultaneously and are not limited by the physical barriers within it. The child can put a hand in two little doll house rooms at once. To exist outside of time is to see all of time simultaneously, and to simultaneously be able to act in all of time. God can be with all people at all moments. He is always with us. He always is. Hence, the “I am.”

Interestingly, I think this might also be why we cannot be saved by works. Doing good works to earn something is a sequence of events – the works come first, then the reward. But if God sees one human’s entire life simultaneously, then the sequence sort of breaks down I’d think – it doesn’t matter that good works were done at a specific time, because they’ll be bookended by sins too. At what point would the salvation “take effect” if there is an oscillation of good and bad works? Where the salvation is requested? Maybe, but usually that moment happens when a person has found themselves at a down point, not a high point.

Furthermore, If those sins weighed against the good works, then we’d have to worry about how we balance the scales – all the while being unable to know what kind of potentially horrible sins we might commit down the road and how much they’ll tip the scales in the opposite direction. How worrisome! Instead, then, the only way salvation can work is if it is independent of the sins and the good works. No bookkeeping is needed then. Only grace! So a person who is saved by grace is always seen by God as saved by grace, at every time in his or her life. God already knows that person is saved – they have been predestined to salvation (to use Paul’s language in Romans and Ephesians), therefore. Even before they were born, they were already known to be saved. From there, it’s just a matter of when the salvation is realized by the person in such a way that it has a lasting impact on the way they live their lives. And for this same reason, then, such salvation cannot be lost either…for it was never earned, and is not a function of what the person does in his or her life.

In what ways do I live life as if God isn’t right here with me? In what ways do I live as if God is? How can I adjust my perspective in the moment, consciously, to be cognizant of the fact that God is right there in the moment with me?

“I am the light of the world”

(Part 2 of a series – my thoughts on some of the unusual ways that Jesus describes Himself. I have not researched how theologians think about these passages, but their influence may appear implicitly nevertheless since I have attended church for years, heard a lot of preaching, and read a lot. If a citation is needed, I’m happy to insert it and will do so honestly if I am aware one is needed.)

Then Jesus spoke to them again: “I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life.” John 8:12

This section of John is interesting because Jesus’ proclamation here about His nature ultimately leads to one of His boldest and plainest statements about who He is. It seems to me like this was Jesus’ purpose when He opened with this statement, but the Pharisees quickly hijack the conversation and change the subject – calling His credibility into question. Jesus takes this hijacking and uses it as an opportunity to contrast Himself with the Pharisees and contrast the Pharisees with those who will eventually enter the kingdom of God. “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world” (v.23). “I know you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me…If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill me” (vv.37, 39). “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here…You belong to your father, the devil” (vv. 42, 44). “He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (v. 47). “Before Abraham was born, I am” (v. 58). Jesus uses the Pharisees’ challenge as an opportunity to speak plainly about who He is and where He comes from, revealing the truth of His nature as clearly as light illuminates the darkness – yes the Pharisees did not see.

Why is it insightful to know Jesus as the light of the world? One interesting way is that light purifies. One way that developing countries remove pathogens from drinking water is by bottling it and leaving it out in the sun for several hours, where the sun’s ultraviolet light can kill the pathogens in the water. Hospitals, evidently, are even using intense UV to sterilize rooms or equipment. Just as light can be used to destroy the pathogenic organisms in water and on hard surfaces, the light of Christ can destroy the pathogenic sins in our lives by revealing them for what they are…and sometimes even revealing them to others for accountability.

Light provides protection. Parking lots, college campuses, and building entrances nearly all have lights that come on at night, illuminating the corners and alcoves where predators could hide. The goal is to use light to eliminate the darkness as a means of protecting pedestrians from being overtaken and robbed – or worse. The light of Christ protects us from the pitfalls of sin that lay in our paths and the ways that Satan lurks around us, waiting to overtake us with sin.

Light also provides guidance. Walking in the darkness prevents one from seeing where one is going and obscures obstacles that may be present along the way. Darkness allows things to remain hidden from view, including treachery that awaits. Jesus provides guidance in a couple ways.

First, His guidance is practical – many of the “words of wisdom” He taught (which prompt many to call him a wise teacher) have very practical application (eg. the Sermon on the Mount). The instructions He gave can provide us with practical guidance on how to live and relate to one another, along with guidance on how to relate to God.

Second, His guidance is spiritual. It illuminates and fulfills the intent of the Law, so that the entirety of Scripture makes sense in the lives of Christ followers. He guides our spiritual development and growth, and if we meditate on His teachings and allow them to become central to our lives – that is, if we allow Christ Himself to become central to our lives – then His spiritual guidance will help us see the journey ahead and how we can walk it and live it as representatives of the one true God. Along this path are obstacles put in place by Satan, meant to distract us or deviate us from the path. The light of Christ illuminates those obstacles and reveals them for what they are: not simply innocent tests but serious attempts by the “father of lies” (v.44) to convince us that the path we are on is not worth walking.

During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also says,

“You are the light of the world…let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:14-16).

As followers of Christ, the way we live our lives in the public eye serves as a testimony to the reality of Christ and the work of God in our world. Additionally, Christians act as a mirror, reflecting God’s love and glory for all to see. If we do not let that light shine, then how will anyone see the beauty, majesty, and love of God?

The story in John continues with Jesus meeting a man who was blind from birth and miraculously restoring his vision. The man is called to testify before the Pharisees about his healing and he testified that he did not know who the man was who healed him, but that “one thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” – a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in Isa. 29:18:

“In that day, the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see.”

Christ came as the fulfillment of the Law and fulfillment of the Prophets. As the light of the world, the light of life, Jesus protects us from falling into sin, reveals the paths that lead to sin, and guides us to the path that leads to life.

“I am the bread of life”

(Part 1 of a series – my thoughts on some of the unusual ways that Jesus describes Himself. I have not researched how theologians think about these passages, but their influence may appear implicitly nevertheless since I have attended church for years, heard a lot of preaching, and read a lot. If a citation is needed, I’m happy to insert it and will do so honestly if I am aware one is needed.)

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus told them. “No one who comes to me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in me will ever be thirsty again.”   John 6:35

This verse comes on the heels of a major miracle described in John 6, commonly referred to as the feeding of the five thousand (though v.10 indicates there were 5000 men, so there very well may have been even more people in total). Armed with no food of their own and not nearly enough money to purchase enough food to feed everybody, Jesus’ disciples gather a small amount of bread and fish from a boy in the crowd. He thanks God and distributes the food to the crowd. Remarkably, not only is there enough food to feed everybody “as much as they wanted” (v.11), but there is enough left over to fill 12 baskets. The leftovers alone exceeded the original quantity!

To live, one needs sustenance. Bread represents sustenance. Without food as sustenance, life is not possible. What does sustenance do for us? It gives us energy and vitality, it allows us to function, and if we have gone without it for some time it provides renewal and refreshment. The word for “life” used in the Greek is the word used to describe one’s spiritual existence (eg. the same word used when Jesus is speaking of eternal life). So Jesus is the sustenance for our spiritual living. Without Him, we cannot have spiritual life. He gives us energy to function for his kingdom’s purposes, vitality so that our work is efficacious, and spiritual renewal when the burdens of life and oppression of evil bear down on us.

The only way that Jesus can provide this kind of life is if He is God. In v. 38 He says “I have come down from heaven”, a reference to Exodus 16:4 where God says to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.” The bread mentioned in Exodus is the manna, mysterious food that appeared every morning and sustained the Israelites for 40 years while they wandered in the desert after leaving Egypt. But such bread, even from God, did not give the Israelites life – nor was it intended to. The people needed physical sustenance, and God provided it for them.

In John 6, the crowd again needed physical sustenance, and Jesus provided it for them. The miracles in the Bible are never done frivolously, but are always done with a spiritual purpose. In Exodus, God was proving Himself to His people, a people who had not heard from Him in centuries. God was proving that He would sustain them and that He was what they needed. In John, Jesus builds upon that miracle with another miracle, followed by a message: this bread you have eaten is temporary and you will hunger physically again, but if you come to me (Jesus) for spiritual sustenance then you will never hunger for it again (v.27).

Later, in verse 10:10b Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it in abundance.” While bread (in the modern era) may seem like the bare minimum we need to be satiated, perhaps even boring, bread as a generic term can include all things from loaves of bread for dipping or making sandwiches to cereal, cakes, cookies, muffins, cupcakes, brownies, tortillas and taco shells, crackers, and even pasta. What an exciting and diverse selection! Bread crumbs can even be used to revitalize other types of food, like breading on chicken or fish, or crushed crackers on a casserole. Bread lends itself to an abundance of preparation modes, and keeps our meals interesting and engaging.

Similarly, the spiritual sustenance given by Christ to our spiritual lives is not a one-note “bare minimum” kind of support, just enough to keep us going. The bread of life that Jesus provides is exciting and engaging – exceeding the minimum and filling us to the max (we will “never be hungry [or] thirsty again”). Jesus doesn’t just restore our lives, but renews it. Think ‘rejuvenation’ and ‘replenishment’, exceeding what we barely need and being capable of overflowing into all parts of our lives.

Just as bread can be introduced into any meal of the day in different and interesting ways, wherever in our lives we allow the spiritual sustenance of Christ to enter we will find that part of our lives rejuvenated and replenished and renewed for the work for the kingdom of God. If we have a skill or passion and allow Christ’s heavenly bread to build it up, those skills and passions can be used to build up God’s kingdom on this earth. If we have a sin in our lives that we struggle with, allowing Christ’s heavenly bread into that part of ourselves can give us the strength to overcome that sin which cannot be found in ourselves alone. In any way that we might feel dead inside due to past pains or mistakes, Christ’s heavenly bread brings new life and growth by grace and forgiveness.

Jesus Christ, the bread of living, doesn’t simply sustain – He renews.

Why is that duck so close to me?

My wife and I took our son to feed some ducks today. We packed him up in the stroller and went to a pond with some old bread. We have gone there a couple times now to do this, but even on the first visit (without bread) it was clear that we were not the first people to have come to see these ducks. As we approached, the ducks saw us coming and began to converge upon us.

If this had been just a few ducks, it might not have been noteworthy. But this is a group of some 40 or so ducks and a handful of Canada geese. When we went there today, the entire flock walked up to us as we drew near. Sort of like a scene out of The Walking Dead, where a mass of slow-moving, hungry creatures gradually makes its way toward you. There’s a lot of time to turn and run if need be, but you can’t help but sit and stare at this mass of ducks slowly waddling toward you. We were soon surrounded by ducks and geese, with mouths open, only somewhat patiently waiting to be fed.

As we got the bread out, the ducks and geese began to crowd us, and one of the geese even made a hissing sound as it held its beak open and demanded food. A couple of the ducks hopped up and down not 10 inches from my leg, mouths open. One even scampered under the stroller twice. The presence of humans did not make these birds nervous (though when I made sudden movements toward them to give our son some space, they shied away). I’ve never been surrounded by wild animals like this before, but it occurred to me that this tenuous balance between animals and people was only held in place by the fact that we were feeding them, but which threatened to break down at any moment if the animals got worked up or the food ran out.

I am accustomed to nature fearing humans. Deer in the woods take off almost before we can see them, squirrels run up trees, chipmunks dive into their holes, rabbits run into the bushes. Humans so dominate the world that animals have come to fear us, and rightly so. We don’t have a good track record of showing them much respect.

Sometimes when I’m out for a walk and I see a little chipmunk eyeing me, I think at it, “hey little guy, no need to run – I won’t hurt you.” Of course, it runs when I get too close…and this is expected. It’s actually a weird feeling when that doesn’t happen – when nature doesn’t flee.

We had a squirrel in our back yard who was used to foraging the crumbs and detritus left over after my son’s outdoor snack, so he was not quite as afraid of humans as the other squirrels. There was a period of time when it would approach my son in the grass, and my defensive instinct would kick in. “Why isn’t this squirrel afraid? Is there something wrong with it? Am I gonna have to kick this squirrel?”

Being surrounded by ducks brought back a similar feeling. An unsettling feeling. “Why don’t these birds fear us? Is there something wrong with them? Will I need to defend my son or wife if they suddenly get aggressive?” (Geese can get nasty)

What should the “norm” be here? Is it truly natural for animals to fear humans? Genesis 2:19-20 says, “Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.” It seems to me that if God originally paraded animals before Adam for naming, and these animals coexisted with Adam and Eve in the garden, then that fear was not in place. This, of course, requires a literal interpretation of the text and one which I will continue with for the sake of the thought process.

Earlier, verse 16 says that the humans were free to eat of any tree in the garden but one. It wasn’t until after the Flood in Genesis 9 that God specifically told humans they could now eat all living things, a delay that seems to suggest that before this they may not have eaten meat. So if killing animals was not a common practice, it would seem then that animals would have no reason to fear humans. This may have made loading them up into the ark relatively easy (the peace of God upon them to guide them to the ark in the first place notwithstanding). In Gen. 9:2, after the animals were unloaded from the ark, God said, “The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands.” This seems to be the point where animals now fear humans – and the point where God seems to give permission to eat animal meat.

This is all my novice attempt to speculate that perhaps the natural state of coexistence between humans and animals is actually a state of peace. Sin in the world has corrupted it, which led to an animal being killed for skin to clothe Adam and Eve after their sin. Perhaps God’s eventual “allowance” of meat-eating was an accommodation of some sort. At any rate, it seems like the initial plan was for humans and creatures to leave peacefully together.

This is reinforced later in Isaiah 65, where God tells of the new heaven and new earth. Isa. 65:25 states, “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food.” This peace between predator and prey sounds idyllic, and in such an idyllic setting one would also expect a similar relationship between humans and animals. At the end of verse 25 it says, “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” which suggests peaceful living among all things. So either humans are absent, or there is peace between humans and animals too. This is a beautiful image.

One day, we will be able to surround ourselves with quacking ducks and feed them without being nervous about there being something wrong with them or nervous about them getting out of control. One day, we will be able to say to the chipmunk, “It’s ok, don’t be afraid” and instead of fleeing it will sit in our hand. One day, the unnatural relationship between humans and animals will be reversed – healed – and we will finally experience what God had intended for His creation: peace among all living things.

It Seduces

(Part 3 of a series)

There are things in this world that call out to us, demanding our attention. Television commercials, until recently, were allowed to use loud volume to catch our attention (though despite legislation that was supposed to eliminate this practice it still seems to be a problem). Huge billboards are placed in conspicuous locations, and ads in magazines use imagery to catch our eyes. Even our phone apps can issue alerts when you aren’t using them as much as they feel you should.

When I watch the trailers that play prior to the start of a movie, it seems that sex appeal is one of the primary ways that producers try to get viewers to pay to see their films. Sex appeal is effective because it relies on the portrayal of something intrinsically beautiful – that is, sex, as an illustration of the love between two people – but in a way that carnally-driven, fallen minds are tempted to pursue. In all of the examples above, sex appeal is used in what might seem “harmless” to the typical person because there is no nudity, but which I still lump into the category of “pornography”. I consider pornography to be anything that attempts to use sex or sex appeal to evoke lustful thoughts in the mind of the viewer. Within this definition, then, the labels on bras (for example) do not count as pornography…but the big 10-foot-long posters of buxom lounging women in the windows of Victoria’s Secret in every major mall do. Some might argue that those posters are intended to help women feel beautiful in VS products by showing them what they “could” look like when wearing the products. While the products themselves can be used to empower or encourage women within their romantic relationships and help them feel beautiful, I would disagree that this is the intended purpose for these posters.

The temptation associated with pornography is strong. I described it earlier as one that plays on many desires and weaknesses within people. It says “I’m worth it” to whatever cost might be associated with succumbing to that temptation. It presents many desirable things to the viewer or listener. It seduces.

Seduction is a deliberate act. This puts it one step above temptation, because temptation in and of itself may not be deliberately established. When I know there are a couple cookies left in the cupboard and it’s almost time to go to bed, I’m tempted to eat them so that I can enjoy their flavor before going to sleep. But the cookies themselves are not designed to tempt me – the baker wasn’t plotting and scheming – nor do the cookies act on their own to tempt me. On the other hand, when pornographic content (including ads or programs using scantily-clad men or women to sell a product or catch a viewer’s eye) is designed it is designed with the purpose of tempting somebody to look and watch. There may be additional goals from there – selling a product, promoting a person, etc. – but the initial intent, the initial goal, is to tempt the viewer to look at it. This is deliberate. This is seduction.

Seduction is about a thrill associated with desire. It’s about enticement. In seduction, something is used to draw you in, to make you want more. It plays on your desires, your cravings, and your pleasures. When done well, it is so perfectly targeted that your ability to resist gives way and you are enveloped by it. Promises are made that if it continues things will get even better. In that moment, every attempt is made to make you forget your concerns, your other desires, and anything else that might make you hold back.

The angler fish is a fish that lives deep in the ocean, where light cannot reach. In this dark environment, angler fish have evolved a luminous extension that rises up over their mouth, which seems to serve as bait for prey. Other fish see this light in the darkness, swim toward it, and are gobbled up by the angler fish.

(Image courtesy of FactZoo: http://www.factzoo.com/fish/anglerfish-worlds-most-hideous-fish.html)

In an environment that is pitch black, the glow of luminous flesh is so appealing that fish are seduced by and drawn to it like moths to a lightbulb. They never know that below this thing of marvelous beauty lies a gaping mouth filled with sharp teeth – until it has devoured them.

Pornography is like this. It presents something that was originally good and beautiful and it says, “Aren’t I wonderful? Don’t you want more?” It twists and distorts it to target the fallen desires of our minds, and promises gratification. It promises satisfaction. It promises pleasure. But underneath this presentation lies a gaping mouth with razor-sharp teeth, prepared to devour all who venture too closely.

 

Anxiety in the midst of a thunderstorm

I was cleaning up some dishes in the kitchen the other day while my son took his nap and heard the first roll of thunder outside. A storm was approaching – the NWS had issued a severe weather warning – and while I typically enjoy daytime thunderstorms, the introduction of “nap time” into my life via parenthood has changed that to some extent. I haven’t figured out how to balance my attention when kiddo is awake, so when he sleeps is when I get my errands done. Anything that threatens to cut short that block of time is now the enemy.

I began washing dishes faster and I could feel my pulse quicken. The thunder was getting louder and I was certain that any minute I’d hear the cries of my now-awake kiddo in the baby monitor.

Matthew 6:25 says “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” Jesus tacks on later “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (v.27). This passage comes on the heels of admonitions against hoarding treasures and resources here on this Earth, “where moth and rust destroy, where thieves break in and steal” (v.19), and can be understood plainly as an illustration that storing up treasures on Earth is a symptom of worrying about one’s life. Jesus says that there is no need to store up treasures on Earth because (a) forces of this world only lead to their breakdown and (b) God is the one who takes care of His people and provides all that is needed. Jesus calls God the “heavenly Father” (v.26) and in the same thought describes our heavenly Father as one who gives “good gifts” to those who ask of Him (7:11). God knows our needs, and provides for our needs, because He is a good Father – not a fickle, domineering deity like those that appear in other religions past and present – and therefore we should trust him rather than worry or be anxious.

1 Peter 5:7 reiterates this, saying “Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” While Matthew 6:25 might possibly be read to limit itself to matters of urgent necessity – food and protection from the elements (clothing) – this verse in 1 Peter is all-encompassing. “Cast ALL your anxiety on Him” (emphasis added). God sees our day-to-day lives in their entirety and knows the things that make us anxious. These things frequently go beyond the urgent necessity and include other matters of the day like “will I be able to finish my assignment on time?”, “can I pass this test?”, “is my boss satisfied with my work?”, and any number of other things. Some things may not be truly urgent, being seen in hindsight as fleeting or baseless worries, while others may be urgent even if they are not a matter of life and death. 1 Peter says that all things that make us anxious can be lifted up to our Father in heaven, because He hears them and He cares about what gives us distress. This includes the worry I was having about my son being awakened from his nap early by an approaching thunderstorm.

Paul gives us some instruction regarding how to approach God with our worries. In Philippians 4:6-7 he writes, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Verse 6 is prescriptive: approach God with your petitions along with your gratitude for the ways in which He has already blessed and provided for you. It’s important to have both, it seems, and this makes sense because it helps keep our perspective balanced. Without practicing gratitude, we aren’t acknowledging that God does provide for us. God is infinitely more gracious and loving than any human, but given that human relationships become strained if there is only petition and no thanksgiving it seems logical to reason that one’s relationship with God might become similarly strained in the absence of gratitude. We can feel free to ask God for what we feel we need, and bring to Him our anxieties, all the while thanking Him for the ways that He has provided for our needs and alleviated our anxieties in the past.

And what is God’s response to this prescribed approach? Verse 7 does not say “And God will give you that which you request” because this isn’t the point of this verse. Elsewhere the Bible addresses what God will give in response to requests, but here it says that God will give us His peace “which transcends all understanding”. I love the sound of this because in the midst of my own worries I sometimes wonder how I am going to “snap out of it”, or if I can at all. And the answer is that I cannot, on my own. But the peace of God transcends all that we can wrap our minds around and allows us to feel His peace in the midst of any storm, trial, or anxiety. What relief!

God sees all of our anxieties and hears all of the worry in our heart. And how does He respond? Like a good Father would: patience, provision, and love. 1 John 3:1 says “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” My own “fathering” is flawed by my sinfulness and fallenness, but God’s fathering is perfect and the ways He responds to our distress and anxious cries is perfectly fit into the big picture, which we cannot see but which He can see, residing beyond the limitations of our temporal dimension. The ways in which the Father lavishes His love upon us are done so in the ways that we truly need – not necessarily the ways that we ask for at the time. Romans 8:28 says “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” Part of love is trust, and when we trust in God’s workings in our lives we trust that the ways in which He responds to our cries is for our greater good – even if it doesn’t seem to match what we were hoping for in the moment.

Trust in God, faith in God, therefore, means believing that God sees us, hears us, knows us, and cares for us. He is a good Father and cares about the things we worry about, and provides for those things we need and those things that will help us work within the plan He has laid out for us (His purpose, cf. Rom. 8:28). And given that this plan is “for [our] good”, this means that the way in which something plays out is the way in which God anticipated it playing out. It might be wonderful for us now, or it might not be. Near the end of Jesus’ ministry on this Earth, He told His disciples “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33). We worry about things, and God knows our worry and wants us to bring those worries to Him. Things may not turn out all sunshine-and-rainbows, but God gives us peace to reside even within the troubles of this world if we can cling to the knowledge that He is fitting this all together into a plan that will turn out beautifully in the end. If we can cling to that knowledge in faith, then we can let go of our anxiety and know that what happens is what God allows to happen, and what God allows to happen is ultimately good for His people. If what is about to happen is good, then instead of worrying about what might happen it may be possible to actually look forward to what will happen. But clinging to that knowledge in faith takes practice – it doesn’t magically happen, and it doesn’t continually happen. Reminders to oneself about God’s faithfulness are vital.

The thunderstorm ended up bringing very little rain to our neighborhood, and the thunder seemed to remain in the distance. My son slept through his nap time peacefully and woke up at the normal time in a wonderful mood.