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Commonsense Christianity

Commonsense Christianity

Why Many Christians Doubt That God Loves Us

posted by Carolyn Henderson

“If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well.” (John 14:7)

The 1980s was a big time in establishment Christianity, and as college students, my husband the Norwegian Artist and I attended the closest thing to a mega-church the upper Pacific Northwest had to offer.

County Roads inspirational original watercolor painting of road going through forested meadow by Steve Henderson

He is the God of beauty, diversity, complexity, grace, and love, and He cannot be distilled into Four Spiritual Laws set in a booklet. God is bigger, and greater — and kinder — than we understand Him to be. County Roads, original watercolor painting by Steve Henderson, sold.

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There were 800 members, all really cool and relaxed and into “sharing” and “relating” with one another. We sang contemporary worship choruses with the words splashed across a giant white screen, thanks to the latest technology of the overhead projector, and on a regular basis, the senior pastor brought in speakers and writers who were big in the contemporary Christian circuit of the day.

We learned about apologetics, listened to live music, and focused a whole lot on cults — some of them quite mainstream — that we were informed were masquerading as Christianity. Workbooks in hand, pencils poised, heads nodding in erudite agreement (some people, who weren’t completely nearsighted like me, removed their glasses and thoughtfully chewed on the earpieces — it increases the intelligence factor five-fold), we took notes on and bought books about the deceptively “sister” religions: they look like they teach Jesus, the cool speaker said, but when you follow their beliefs to their logical end, you run straight into absurdity.

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Logic Is Not Evil

“What silly, foolish people,” we looked at one another in wonder. “Don’t they listen to what is being taught to them?”

Excellent question. It’s one that I wish church members like we were, glasses gently swaying in hand, would ask themselves today about their own beliefs, the essence of which are encapsulated thusly:

1) We are sinners who deserve eternal punishment.

2) Christ died for our sins.

3) When we believe in His name and put our trust in Him, we are saved and will not suffer eternal damnation. To fully complete this process, we must pray something helpfully labeled as “the sinner’s prayer,” in which we say something along the lines of, “Lord, I am a sinner and deserve eternal damnation. Your Son Jesus took that punishment for me, and I accept His free gift. In Jesus’s name (this is important), Amen.”

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4) The logical consequence of not following through with the process of #3 is that we are damned eternally, because Christ’s entire purpose and message is encapsulated in Acts 16:31, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Generally dropped off is the rest of the verse, “you and your household.” Apparently, this is a cultural thing, and we don’t need to pay attention to it, although verses like 1 Corinthians 14:34, admonishing women to remain silent in churches, are apparently not cultural and need to be obeyed.)

Faith Based upon a Booklet

While I didn’t set out to make four points, this message is the essence of The Four Spiritual Laws, a series of disparate verses designedly pulled out of context primarily from the Epistles of Paul and not the Gospels of Jesus Christ, upon which many Christians base their faith. (The booklet, the Four Spiritual Laws, was authored in 1952 by Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. For some reason, he was able to distill Jesus’s central message, 2,000 years later, into a 1, 2, 3, 4 process that Jesus Himself was never able to articulate.)

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Child of Eden inspirational original oil painting of little girl in garden with radishes by Steve Henderson licensed wall art home decor at Amazon.com, Framed Canvas Art, and iCanvas

So that God doesn’t seem like an absolute monster, some denominations, who hold fast to the necessity of saying the right words to be saved, have developed the doctrine of reason, which permits young children, under 5, to escape hell because they’re not old enough to say the words. But once they hit six, the grace ends. Child of Eden, original oil painting by Steve Henderson; licensed wall art home decor at Framed Canvas Art, iCanvas, and Amazon.

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This, then, is the good news: If you believe in Jesus, you go to heaven. If you do not believe in Jesus (using the proper terminology), you will go to hell.

It does not matter if you were born, and live, in a country where 98 percent of the population believes something else: if you truly had a heart for Christ, we are told, you would find him.

It also does not matter if your primary contacts with Christianity involved judgment, harshness, and verbal brutality: if you truly had a heart for Christ, you would find him despite this. And while there is no punishment for the insensitive person whose “message” turned you off (because he has prayed the sinner’s prayer is and therefore saved), there is judgment for you.

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It all boils down to words, saying them or not, and, astonishingly,  the absurdity of this, taken to its logical conclusion, does not reach many, many Christians, who dispatch the dilemma of a loving God creating human beings whose destiny, from birth, is to be damned, by quoting a bastardization of Isaiah 55:8:

“Oh, well, God’s ways are not our ways you know!”

Maybe we should, as intelligent people, do what we’re taught to tell cult adherents to do, and follow our belief system to its logical conclusions, asking ourselves if this is the type of God we want to spend eternity with. (If it is, then this provides insight as to why so many people resist this version of the “good news.”)

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The Four Gospels, not The Four Laws

And then, we pick up our Bible, forgetting everything we’ve been told or taught that it says, and read the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  When we feel tempted to get caught up in John 14:6 (“I am the way, the truth, and the life; No one comes to the father except through me,”) and think, “Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. Those who don’t make a point of saying that they follow Him are damned,” let’s go back to Luke 18:18-29 and read Jesus’s answer to the rich young ruler who asked how to inherit eternal life:

Have we sold all our possessions yet? Didn’t think so. Like the women shutting up in church, that one must be a cultural thing.

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In focusing solely on the four gospels (as opposed to reciting Four Laws), we encounter what Jesus said and did (much of what had to do with love, specifically the love of His Father) not what we’re told he taught (judgment, hell, damnation, and wrath), neatly summarized for us in tract form.

By the time we get to John 14:7, maybe we’ll catch on then to what Jesus means when He says that, if we know Him, we know the Father. And who is Jesus?

He’s kind, compassionate, understanding, merciful, reasonable, and non-judgmental. So is His Father.

That we don’t grasp this may be because we can’t interface a figure of unconditional love with one who destines 2/3, 4/5, 11/12, of the world to spend eternity in hell.

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Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity where I encourage believers to read the Bible with its central message in mind: God, our Father, loves us unconditionally.

Posts complementing this one are

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Watered Down, Weak Tea, Tepid Beer, Corked Wine Christianity

Corporate Christianity: Five Ways to Stop Thinking Like Office Workers

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Why Political Activism Is Not the Christian Answer

posted by Carolyn Henderson

“John answered, ‘The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”‘ Luke 3:11

Arguing with people rarely produces a result acceptable to either party, and arguing with a determined, strongly opinionated woman (aren’t we all?) in the library is definitely not wise. It alarms the librarians and incurs looks of censure from patrons reading the newspaper.

Light in the Forest inspirational original oil painting of two women in celtic forest with candles by Steve Henderson licensed wall art home decor at Framed Canvas Art, iCanvas, and Amazon.com

We are the light. And though we feel that we are but a candle flame in the wilderness, that flame breaks the power of darkness. Light in the Forest, original oil painting by Steve Henderson; licensed wall art home decor at Framed Canvas Art, Amazon, and iCanvas

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So, the other day, when an acquaintance and I started “discussing” the definite need (her opinion) or non-necessity (mine) of prayer in public schools, I actually wound up taking the high road by smiling, nodding, and shutting up. I didn’t even leverage a parting shot. (It helps that I like and respect my verbal opponent; it also helps that, thanks to many occasions of not being 100 percent right, I’ve learned that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to any question. And by the way, I don’t always take the high road.)

Christians Are Being Distracted

Prayer in school is one of those side issues distracting Christians from pursuing the real thing, and it is yet another call to political action that foments anger, encourages dissent, and reinforces the world’s impression that Christians are harsh, insensitive, and constantly operating on the defense. We hate homosexuals. We hate Muslims. We hate left-leaning liberal, licentious libertines who stomp on the flag and say bad things about former President Reagan (I didn’t realize that Protestants had saints).

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My opponent’s argument goes like this:

“Back when I was a child, there was prayer in schools and this country was God-fearing and righteous. The reason we have so many problems now is because we’ve outlawed things like prayer in schools!”

Mine looks more like this:

“Congress opens its sessions with prayer. Words uttered by people who don’t know, believe, or follow God will not magically result in a Christian nation.”

Imposing Group-Think

Ultimately, our viewpoints differ upon whether we impose Christianity onto our culture, using legalized group and peer pressure (which is how the world tends to do things) or whether we believe that Christians, though we are part of a body, are also individuals, and it is through our individual decisions and actions, under the guidance of God, that we season the stew in which we live.

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When we accept the former, then our plan of action is clear: we write letters to our representatives, we fund politicians who believe the way we do, we send money to televangelists, celebrity Christians, and conservative commentators (who helpfully write books) who pound the pulpit or desk and announce God’s coming wrath upon us as a nation because we are evil and He must punish us. In other words, we look for solutions through the very places causing the problem: our political, educational, corporate, religious celebrity and media systems.

Love from Paris inspirational original oil painting of vogue fashion model woman with suitcase near Eiffel Tower in France by Steve Henderson licensed wall art home decor prints available

Are we one of a group, or one of a kind? The body of Christ is made up of many individuals, all of whom have an individual contribution to make. Love, from Paris, original oil painting by Steve Henderson; licensed wall art home decor prints available

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And while there is nothing wrong with speaking up and using the processes at our disposal, there’s something naive about looking for the ultimate answers through them:

Jesus’s Way Looks Different

“All who draw the sword will die by the sword,” Jesus told Peter (Matthew 26:52) when the latter sliced off the ear of the servant of the high priest. No, this does not mean that we lie down and let people step on our faces, nor do we stop writing letters to the editor (more effective than any note to our Congressman) but more importantly, it means that we do things differently, and following Christ’s — really really narrow —  path definitely looks different.

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In the case of my worthy verbal opponent, she does powerful things in Christ’s name, although I’m not sure if she realizes it:

She goes to the local nursing home, regularly, and manicures the hands of the residents.

I’ve seen the results of this: women who, 20 minutes before, looked tired and old and dispirited and beaten, emerge with a smile, a lifting of the head, as they hold out their hands and admire the beauty. It is a small, seemingly insignificant thing, but in the life of a human, no gesture that reminds a daughter of God that she is precious, or a son of God that he is valued, is wasted or void.

Little, Individual Actions, Added up, Make a Big Impact

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My worthy opponent gives her time and skills to help people about whom the majority of society does not care: they’re just going to die, you know, and their useful life is over. But not in the mind of my worthy opponent, who is also, more importantly, my sister in Christ.

And there’s another thing my sister in Christ does: she shares her financial resources with others, her extra cloak, so to speak, she gives to another, and there is a 10-month-old baby in the Philippines who is not malnourished because my library friend found out that his family couldn’t afford to feed him enough, and she sent the money needed. And while on an obvious surface level this gesture won’t go far in shaping the politics of a nation, it sure made a difference in that baby’s life.

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One by One

It’s a one by one thing, you know, how we Christians make a difference. In the same way that our very relationship with God is on a direct, individual basis, so also is our interaction with the world: we interact, one by one, with individuals throughout the day, and how we speak, what we say, that we listen, and we give — these make a difference, one far greater and more impacting than a televised debate between a creationist and Bill Nye, the Science Guy, or a presidential debate between a liberal atheist Democrat (are all Democrats atheists, and all Republicans Christian?) and his or her “godly conservative opponent.”

We are the light — not the president, not the prime minister, not the senator or representative or CEO or cabinet minister or sheriff, any of which, if they are truly Christian, have their own work to do.

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But it is not more important than ours, and we do not need a government mandate to pray (in school, at work, or in Congress), give, or exhibit love. We just need to take seriously the example of our Eldest Brother, whose every action wrapped around doing the will of His, and our, Father.

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I encourage individual Christians to connect with our Father regularly throughout the day, and have one of our major prayers be, “What would you have me to do?”

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Why It’s Important for Christians to READ

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Watered Down, Weak Tea, Tepid Beer, Corked Wine Christianity

posted by Carolyn Henderson

“‘What should we do then?’ the crowd asked.” Luke 3:10

If you’re a Christian, and you’ve got a question about the Bible, your place in the world, or what our Father wants you to do with your life, be assured that, no further than your local church, is a kicky little book to instruct you, and a small group to walk you through the process.

Tea by the Sea inspirational original oil painting of teapot still life with shells and clear glass vase by Steve Henderson

Good tea is strong, brisk, and invigorating. So is intelligent study of truth, God’s world, and Scripture. Tea by the Sea, original oil painting by Steve Henderson, sold.

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An added bonus is a workbook (part of the $45 class fee) to prod you by asking elementary, simplistic questions that are supposed to get you to think, and “integrate spiritual reality into daily living” —

  • “What do you think God’s purpose is in your life?”
  • “When Jesus says, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ what does he mean by ‘neighbor’? (Note to leader: begin the discussion by listing out three types of neighbors: our immediate neighbor, the person on the next block, and the stranger we run into in the grocery store.)

What’s so sad is that contemporary Christians, many of whom are intelligent enough to balance their checkbook, take the car in for a regularly scheduled maintenance, and figure out why the toilet is leaking, are flummoxed when it comes to their spiritual lives. Reading and interpreting the Bible for themselves — even though the book is translated into their first spoken language — is determined to be beyond their mental capacity, much to the benefit of assorted speakers, writers, and teachers, who make a generous living by posting an innocuous title at the head of their book chapters (Your Community of LOVE), engaging in warm pastoral talk incorporating a guided teaching story about a “real” member of the church community, and winding the whole thing down with a series of  “thoughtful questions,” designed to encourage “spirited (instructor -led) discussion.”

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Religions Sells, Well

When hundreds of Christians, in thousands of churches, buy this book (and the accompanying DVD) and use it, the author and publisher do well. It’s a business, you know.

This is not to say that reading books about spirituality and the Bible isn’t good, but it is to encourage Christians to not read these books at the expense of reading the Bible for themselves. We should try that first, on a regular basis, and see how good we get at understanding, interpreting, and analyzing. The book we next pick up, then, may go far beyond asking us questions like,

Seaside Story inspirational original oil painting of little girl and mother reading on ocean beach by Steve Henderson, licensed home wall art decor at Great Big Canvas, Icanvas, framed canvas art, art.com, amazon.com, and allposters.com

Our reading tastes change, and mature, with age and wisdom. So also should our reading tastes improve as we mature in our Christianity. Seaside Story, original painting, sold; wall art home decor at AllPosters, Amazon, Great Big Canvas, and other licensed retailers.

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“Is Jesus our friend or our brother?” and instead delve into biblical history, lexicography, and assorted ways that different scholars and thinkers, through the years, have looked at a same verse or passage. There is nothing stopping each individual Christian, whom the apostle Peter in 1 Peter 1:9 describes as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God,” from taking those words seriously and approaching Scripture as intelligent, Spirit-led, scholars.

For example, let’s start with Luke 3, in which John the Baptist is baptizing and teaching and preparing a way in the desert, and the people asked — much as they do now — “What should we do then?”

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Nowadays, the answer is searched for in that aforementioned small group, with the necessary Biblical Scripture Materials — and the Christian Teaching Celebrity of the Day answers, over 12 chapters, the questions, “What Is My Ministry, Lord?” or, “What Are My Gifts? (an integrated look at God’s work in our lives today).

Direct Speech

John was more direct:

“The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”

Share what you have with those who have less.

To the tax collectors, John said, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to.”

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Translated to today’s terms, this could be a message to any major CEO interested in being a better person — “Pay your employees decently and treat them with respect. Don’t overcompensate yourself and upper management at the expense of the people laboring under you.”

To the soldiers:

“Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely — be content with your pay.”

Today: “Police officers: put the taser away and stop looking at innocent civilians as if they were the enemy.”

No, these are not word for word interpretations in 21st century terms, but the concepts John addresses are basic enough to extrapolate:

Whatever your job is, don’t use it to abuse people. Don’t hoard. Stop doing things that you know are wrong so that you can make a better material life for yourself. In other words, it’s back to loving God with all our hearts and our neighbor as ourselves, the two commandments that Jesus, in Matthew 22:40, says everything in the law and prophets hangs upon.

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Simple, Not Simplistic

It’s simple, yet profound, and when we read Scripture with this in mind, we filter Jesus’s teaching through, well, Jesus’s teaching. We don’t need a workbook to open our minds to this, and once we get over the notion that there is one incontrovertibly “right” way to interpret every verse of the Bible, we will be free, like honest scholars are, to ask questions:

Who was John, really? Why did Jesus say, several chapters later, in 7:28,

“I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he”?

This is a far more pertinent question than,

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“What is my community? And how does Jesus want me to ‘share my gifts’ in it?” It is also one that we cannot answer in one or two sentences to fit upon the line provided. It’s something to think upon, meditate over, ponder — all something that scholars do.

And while it is very true that we all start out as babes, and cannot be scholars when we cannot yet crawl, it is also true that for too many of us,

“Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (Hebrews 5:12)

Much of what we depend upon, years into our Christian lives, isn’t even milk so much as it is man-made formula. Let’s toss the bottle, pick up the fork, and grab some meat.

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Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity where I encourage you to not to feel bad when, in your small group spiritual reading session, you get bored with the chosen book. I’ve seen these things in bookstores, and I can’t get past a page or two.

Posts complementing this one are

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Isn’t the “Good News” Supposed to Be Good?

posted by Carolyn Henderson

“When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.” (2 Timothy 4:13)

A central aspect of the gospel — which means “good news” — is that the news, indeed, should be good. Believing in and following Christ is meant to be a positive thing, with positive, or good, things associated with it.

Brimming Over inspirational original oil painting of woman on beach with basket of fabric laughing by Steve Henderson licensed home decor wall art at amazon.com, art.com, allposters.com, Great Big Canvas, and Framed Canvas Art

Do Christians ever laugh? Sometimes, one wonders, and one wonders just what it is about the message of Christ, as taught, that is so good and attractive. Brimming Over, original painting by Steve Henderson, sold. Licensed wall art decor at Framed Canvas Art, Great Big Canvas, Art. com, AllPosters, and Amazon.

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If this is not so, then why bother?

As a former Catholic who became a Protestant before finally settling upon just plain Christianity, I am well acquainted with the Evangelical answer to this question:

“Believe in Jesus so you can go to heaven after you die. Otherwise you’ll burn in hell!”

but can’t help but think that this way of looking at the good news is more threatening than encouraging. Apparently, the primary purpose to believe in God’s Son is so that we don’t suffer eternally for not doing so. With this way of looking at things, it’s no surprise that there’s not much to do down here but wait until we die when the party finally starts, and the best a Christian can expect from our years on earth is patient endurance. At least we’ve got our ticket to paradise. If others don’t, and they don’t believe our central message, then that’s their problem.

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Gosh. I’ll sure miss Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Timothy throughout eternity.

Other sects of Christianity, many of whom include the You’ll-Burn-In-Hell messengers, add on the requirement that people possess a mighty faith before God will do anything decent in their lives. Those who have this faith, adherents propound, will enjoy material blessings as evidence of, and reward for, their righteousness, and those who don’t — well, even though they may be Christian because they’ve recited the right words, they’re obviously not in good standing with God, and He is displeased with them.

What Is the Good News?

None of this sounds particularly encouraging, hopeful, joyous, or good, and when John the Baptist, languishing in prison and feeling beaten, tired, and dispirited, sent his disciples to ask Jesus, in Matthew 11:3,

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“Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus did not answer,

“I’m It, and I’m telling everyone to believe in me or die,”

but rather,

“The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.”

Good, positive things were happening in the lives of people whose lives were painful, sad, difficult, lonely, and wretched. Jesus did not preach doctrine but reached out in love, meeting people in their day to day existence and effecting real, tangible change.

Beachside Diversions inspirational original oil painting of little girl at ocean with loving adult woman adjusting hat by Steve Henderson licensed home decor wall art at amazon.com, art.com, allposters.com, great big canvas and framed canvas art

God is love, but what does love do? It protects, embraces, enfolds, and cherishes. Beachside Diversions, original oil painting by Steve Henderson, sold. Licensed home decor wall art at AllPosters, Amazon, Art. com, Framed Canvas Art and Great Big Canvas.

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It would be nice, 2,000 years later, if we who live today saw instantaneous miraculous change the way that many did then, just by touching the robe of our Eldest Brother, but this is not our general norm. Most of us cannot, as a few loud voices insist that we should be able to, do miracles, and it is not so much the sign of our lack of faith as it is the way things are. We are those blessed, as Jesus told Thomas, who have not seen and yet still believe.

The promises upon which we operate are that God our Father loves us unconditionally, and that He walks with us through and in our lives, even when things don’t look amazing and powerful and miraculous and incredibly cool. We remain very real humans, with very real human needs — we must eat on a regular basis, we use the bathroom, we get cold, as Paul did in the head of this essay when, during his second and presumably last imprisonment, he asked Timothy to visit him and bring a garment to keep him warm.

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We Need a Loving Father

And, as humans, we get discouraged and sad — yes, even though Christ tells us not to be anxious in Matthew 6:34, and Paul himself, in Philippians, repeated the encouragement (not an order, not a command for which we will be punished if we “disobey”) in Philippians 4:6, we have our moments, and days, of feeling abandoned by our Father, alone in our pain, cold because we do not have a cloak.

It is during these times, more than any other, that we need the good news, and this news is not that we deserve to be eternally damned and/or that we ought to be materially blessed, but that Jesus’s Father, who delights in His Son, is our Father as well, and He delights in us the same way. He does not abandon us to our fate, He does not sit reading in another room while we battle cancer, or face bankruptcy, or get over a wrenching, painful breakup with the person we thought we would spend the rest of our lives with.

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And neither does He — and this is important — punish us or walk away from us because we are human, and not surprisingly tend to act like it. We are human  when, like Paul, we shiver in a damp place because we do not have a jacket, and we are just as human when, like Paul, we are undergoing stressful circumstances and lapse into discouragement:

Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica.” (2 Timothy 4:9-10)

and

“At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me.” (4:16)

These are not ringing words of joy but wrenching admissions of pain, complemented by Paul’s faith that he is not abandoned, although he feels like it, and, without a cloak, he is cold.

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It is at these moments that God’s embrace is tightest, and it at moments like this that we truly need good news:

God, our Father, loves us unconditionally.

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity where I encourage my brothers and sisters in Christ to not settle for a weak-tea substitute when it comes to our relationship with God, our Father, and Jesus, our Eldest Brother. He came that we may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10). Want that. Seek that.

Posts complementing this one are

Child of God, You Are Much Beloved

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It’s a Secret, But Many Christians Do Distrust God

Lessons from a Demented Cat: God’s Love

 

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