What does God want anyway?
What does God want from us?
What does God want for us?
More than anything else, God wants us to know that we are loved unconditionally. And God wants us to live in the freedom, joy, and generosity of that love. The most important thing I've learned is that God's love is unlimited and unconditional. We are loved right here, right now, just the way we are.
This is the gospel, what the Greeks called the euaggelion, the good news.
Of course I've learned some other things too in the last 50 years. I've learned that it's possible to be genuinely thoughtful, scientifically informed, and authentically Adventist at the same time. Fifty years ago, in the classroom in the southeast corner of main floor of La Sierra hall, Dr. Heppenstall used to say, "Of course it's dangerous to think. But it's more dangerous not to think."
I have learned that to be most authentically Adventist is to be progressively Adventist, always on the lookout for new ways, better understandings of God, the world, and ourselves.
As Ellen White once wrote, "Whenever the people of God are growing in grace, they will be constantly obtaining a clearer understanding of His word. They will discern new light and beauty in its sacred truths. This has been true in the history of the church in all ages" - and the punch line - "and thus it will continue to the end."--Counsels to Writers and Editors, pp. 38, 39. Our theological heritage is not a stockade to imprison our thinking, but a platform on which to build.
I've learned that praying doesn't keep bad things from happening. My freshman year here at La Sierra was the first time since the second grade that my brother and I went to the same school at the same time. At the end of the year I arranged a ride home to Michigan and my brother, Dick, stayed on campus to get out a summer edition of the "Criterion." The day I left, after dinner, we went over to his room in Calkins hall, a room he had shared with Milo L. who had just graduated. There Dick and I knelt beside the bunk beds and prayed that God would take care of us. It was nothing special really, just a couple of brothers who had been together and would be separated. Well, I got home as planned. My brother was killed in a head-on collision, highway 66 near Kingman, Arizona.
I've learned many things in my 50 years as pastor, teacher, and student and theologian. But nothing else is as important as knowing that God's love is unlimited and unconditional, that we are truly loved, right here, right now, just the way we are.
As the writer Philip Yancy put it, "Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more. No amount of spiritual calisthenics, and renunciations, no amount of knowledge gained from seminaries and divinity schools, and I've been to them both. No amount of crusading on behalf of righteous causes.
"And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less. No amount of racism, or pride, or pornography, or adultery, or even murder."
A week ago yesterday, in a courtroom in Nevada, a 33-year-old woman was sentenced to spend the rest of her life in prison, without the possibility of parole. Two months ago she had pleaded guilty to two counts of murder. She'd grown up in a good environment. She was the adopted daughter of a Christian family. She attended church schools. For a while she was a student at La Sierra. But for some reason or other, things did not go well in her life. She eventually married but the marriage came apart. She became involved in various kinds of self-destructive behavior.
After she was arrested she spent time in jail and in psychiatric hospitals. She was visited by her family and friends. One of her visitors was Al T., coincidentally a La Sierra alumnus, who had served for many years as a prison chaplain and is now a pastor in Nevada. Pastor T. encouraged this young woman to think of other things besides herself, her predicament, and her problems. He encouraged her to invest some time and effort in the workbook "Experiencing God," which pastor Smith has used with various groups here in our own congregation. Over a period [year?] and a half she began to realize that God loved her unconditionally, that God was still on her side. She realized that she was, as she says, "created to be God's friend."
Another La Sierra graduate with whom she became acquainted was Bonny D. She wrote to Bonny, "God continues to amaze me every day, and keeps teaching me new ways to grow in faith. I am overflowing with joy in the worst situation of my life."
At the hearing, just before her sentencing, she was accompanied by her attorney and Pastor T., and her family, her mother, her father, her sister, and her brother. In various ways, they said for her to hear, for the court to hear, "We love her unconditionally."
Of course the sentence was not what they had hoped for, perhaps what they all expected. That evening, after the sentencing, she called Pastor T. and said, "I know that God is still on my side."
A couple of evenings ago she called here on the telephone, to say that she wanted me to share with you some of her story. "I know God has a plan for my life, she said. "It's not God's original plan. It's plan B...or maybe plan F."
I tentatively, kind of hesitatingly, asked about her future, which will all be in prison. There is no possibility of appeal. She will never get out. What kind of a future is that?
She said, "I want to tell other women in prison that there's nothing God cannot forgive." Of her parents she said, "They taught me what true love is."
Again kind of hesitantly, I brought up the subject of "jailhouse conversions." I had to ask that. Those conversions typically don't last. And she knows that. And of course we don't know, she doesn't know what her experience will be six months from now, two years from now, twenty years from now.
But we do know she was right to say, it is always right for all of us to say, "God is still on my side." That's where God always is because God desires everyone to be saved. "Not wanting any to perish This is the most important thing anyone can ever know. "God's love is unlimited" - it applies to everybody - "and it's unconditional." It applies right here, right now.
In a sermon here a couple of years ago, pastor Chris O. put it even more plainly than Philip Yancy. She said, "You can't be bad enough to keep God from loving you. And you can't be good enough to make God love you more."
God makes the ungodly right because Christ died precisely for the ungodly. This is the proper center of all our Christian beliefs, and all our Christian living. This is the most fundamental definition of who we are. Sure, other things matter, but nothing else matters decisively. Our health matters, our careers matter, our children matter, our financial stability matters, what other people think of us matters. But nothing else matters decisively, ultimately. This is the center of our theology, our thinking about God and ourselves.
We understand the cross as the supreme revelation of God's unconditional love. We understand and live the Sabbath as another expression of God's unconditional love. We understand and live the Advent hope as the result of God's unconditional love. We understand the continuing ministry of Christ for us in heaven, right now, as more actualization of God's unconditional love.
This fact, this reality, is absolutely astounding.
The whole world loves a winner. We were reminded of this, we felt this again over and over last month as we watched the Olympics. We saw the world's best skiers and skaters and snowboarders, standing on the winner's platform with smiles on their faces and flowers in their arms, and sometimes tears in their eyes, as they listened to their country's national anthem and received their gold medals.
While the whole world loves a winner, the gospel is that God loves the losers as much as the winners. God loves the dropouts, the academic failures, just as much as the Valedictorians and the Suma Cum Laudes. God loves us just as much when we mess things up as when we manage to get things right.
The meaning of our lives comes not from being winners but from being loved. Our security comes not from our success but from knowing that we are loved, right here, right now, just the way we are.
We are loved with a love that is unlimited and unconditional because it depends not on what we do but on what God is.
At that hearing in Nevada the prosecuting attorney said, "We are what we do. And what you have done, young woman, is evil."
That is the way the world often works. But that is not the way God works.
This is why Philip Yancy and Chris O. are absolutely right. We can never do anything bad enough to make God not love us. We can never do anything good enough to make God love us more.
This is what Jesus told Nicodemus during their famous night conversation:
"God loved the world in such a way that He gave His unique Son so that whoever trusts Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him."
In other words, Jesus was saying, what you need to know, Nicodemus, is how God loves the world. Well, here's how, God gave his son, His self, really, to the world. And here's why: so no one would have to be destroyed by sin. By believing in the Son, trusting that what the Son says about God's love is really true; anyone can have life, real life, whole and lasting life, eternal life.
You see, Nicodemus, God didn't go to the trouble of sending the Son to tell the world how bad it is, to tell people how defective they are. No indeed. The reason God sent the Son into the world was to make people right by showing people how much they are loved.
This is what Jesus was telling Nicodemus. This is what the woman's family in Nevada were telling her. This is what God is telling us, all the time, in the story of Jesus' life and teachings and death and resurrection.
Nothing, absolutely nothing I have ever learned is as important as this. It is important spiritually as well as theologically. If we understand it, really believe it, make it the center of our faith and life, it transforms the way we think and feel about God and ourselves and everyone else. It's a complete paradigm shift, a radically new and different perspective. It's a spiritual Copernican revolution, experiencing reality from the other direction, experiencing God as the savior who is always on our side, experiencing ourselves as loved unconditionally.
To get this message, to really get it, to believe it, to feel it, to experience it, to live by it, is, as Jesus told Nicodemus, to be born again. It is to be born of the spirit, born from above, to live in another dimension.
As my script writing friend, Joel Garbutt put it, "It is a metamorphosis, a change from being a caterpillar to being a butterfly." It means we never again have to worry about being "good enough." It means we never have to worry about being acceptable because we're already accepted. It means we never have to worry about being left out, because we're already in. And with this spiritual security we can finally relax. We don't have to worry, we don't have to pretend. We don't have to live in the fast lane. We can get out of the rat race. We can take time to be compassionate and generous. We can enjoy the evidences of grace in our lives, our family and friends, flowers and music, good conversation.
One of the great treasures of our Adventist heritage is the little book, Steps to Christ. Now, we all know it as a wonderful resource for Christian and Adventist spirituality. It is just as valuable as a resource for our theology. Here are four sentences from the first chapter:
"The enemy of the good blinded the minds of men so that they looked upon God with fear. They thought of Him as severe and unforgiving. Satan led men to conceive of God as a being whose chief attribute is stern justice, One who is a severe judge, a harsh, exacting creditor. He pictured God as a being who is watching with jealous eye to discern the errors and mistakes of men, that He may visit judgments upon them. It was to remove this dark shadow, by revealing to the world the infinite" - get that word - "infinite love of God, that Jesus came to live among men."
One of the great ironies of life, Christian life, Adventist life, is how difficult it is for us to believe that God's love really is unlimited and unconditional. When we talk about God's unconditional love, some people get a little nervous.
Some evangelical Christians ask, "But, but what about sin? Doesn't sin have to be punished? And what about justice? Isn't justice as important as love?"
Some Adventists ask, "But what about obedience? Isn't it important to keep the commandments? What about the Sabbath? Doesn't it matter how we act?"
These questions are understandable, probably inevitable. We've all felt them, I suspect.
We live in a world where, like the Olympics, what counts is performance and ability. When we apply to graduate school, or medical school or law school, the question is How good are your grades? How are your test scores?"
When we want to by a car or a house, the question is Whats your credit rating?"
Much of the time, ability and performance do count. Let's get real. If I'm having surgery, I don't want a surgeon who got into and through medical school and a surgery residency by grace. I want a surgeon with demonstrated competence. If I'm going to a concert, as I did last night, I don't want to listen to an orchestra whose members all get in by grace. As a matter of fact, candidates for the Los Angeles philharmonic have to audition behind a curtain, behind a screen. The judges don't know the identity of the candidate. They don't know the gender, the age, the appearance, the ethnicity. The only thing that counts there is performance.
But, and this is the important contrast, when it comes to the ultimate value of our lives, what counts is the fact that we are loved with a love that is unlimited and unconditional.
This is a value from another world, from a transcendent realm. It reflects another dimension, something like a fifth dimension of our existence. It doesn't negate the more familiar dimensions of time and space where performance counts. But it is a wonderful and necessary compliment to them.
Like time and space, this extra dimension of God's unconditional love intersects all of our reality.
So the best way to think about the commandments, and we Adventists have to think about the commandments, is in relationship to God's unlimited and unconditional love.
My classmates of the class of '52 will remember, if we're not too old to remember, Edward Heppenstall explaining the difference between the Pharisees and the apostle Paul. The Pharisees said, "I keep the law, therefore I am saved." Paul said, "I am saved, therefore I keep the law."
In other words, the Pharisees said, we do what God tells us to do, so God loves us. We say, we know that God loves us, so we want to do what God tells us. God's love is very much related to the way we live. But it is the motivation; the love is the motivation, not the result of the way we live.
As for justice, God's love and God's justice are not in tension with each other, they're not conflicting principles, as if God somehow had a psychological crisis.
Nor are they two equally basic principles. God's love is more fundamental than God's justice. God's love is the source of God's justice. God's justice is an expression of God's love.
In the Bible, the fundamental meaning of justice is not punishment, but making things right. To bring justice is to establish right relationships. Justice, in scripture, is not retribution but construction, creation.
And because God's love includes everybody, it really is unlimited. It is the motivation for us to do things right. When I remember that God loves everyone else just as much as God loves me, I have to treat everyone with respect - even the bully in the big black SUV who cuts in front of my little white CRX on the freeway. God loves that driver as much as God loves me.
Back in La Sierra Hall, on the same floor where we heard Edward Heppenstall, but in a classroom that was closer to the main entrance, Tom Blinko one day suggested that the Hebrew text of the 10 Commandments can be understood as a picture of life with God, rather than just as a list of demands.
You won't kill, you won't commit adultery, you won't steal, you won't bear false witness, you won't even covet.
Some years later I learned that a curious thing happened to the language on the way into English. The Hebrew word Torah originally meant "instruction," what you get from a good teacher. Then when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, Torah became namos which meant "custom," "practice," "the regular procedure," "the way things usually work." When the Bible was translated into Latin, Torah and namos became lex, which meant a statute, the product of a legislative body. And when the Bible was finally translated into English, Torah, namos, lex, became "law," an obligation, a requirement enforced by punishment--something we have to do, we jolly well better do, or else.
So over time, the gift of instruction became the demand of law, which feels very different, because it is very different.
When I was in the third grade, I began taking violin lessons from Mrs. Van Wringelstine - a marvelous name. Mrs. Van Wringelstine was kind and patient, but also firm. She insisted that I work on bowing and fingering until I got them right. More than once I had to repeat the same lesson for a week. Practicing doing things her way wasn't easy, wasn't always enjoyable at the time. But I knew it was the only way to make the violin sound the way I wanted it to sound. Even when she thought I wasn't practicing enough, I knew she was on my side. We both wanted the same thing, for me to learn how to play well.
The instructions in Scripture are for our benefit. "Do not steal" is not for God's benefit, it's for ours. It isn't intended to test our loyalty to God, it isn't intended as a means for our developing character. All the instructions in Scripture are there to help us make our lives as rich and fulfilling and satisfying and rewarding as they can possibly be.
When I was talking to Patty Cabrara a few months ago, she suggested that someone really needs to write a book about the 10 Commandments with the title "Ten Ways to Have More Fun." We follow God's instruction because we want to get as much out of life as we can. There are all sorts of reasons. But getting God to love us isn't one of those reasons.
The past couple of Sundays, I went down to the academy ball field to watch some ABL games, Adventist Ball League. The games I saw involved minors, that is boys and girls from 8 to 10, and cadets, 5 to 7-year olds. That's really interesting. What impressed me most was not the ABL uniforms, which were classy, or even the ABL players, who were earnest and enthusiastic and just plain irresistible. What impressed me most is what I would like to call the ABL theology.
In the minors this year, there are 4 teams in the minors of the ABL, on each team there are 14 boys and girls. When a team is at bat every person on the team is in the batting lineup, gets a chance to bat. When a team is on the field everyone plays. The catcher and 13 fielders! That's also kind of an interesting phenomenon.
You may wonder what about the pitcher? Why isn't the pitcher one of the 14 players? That's because the pitcher is the coach of the team at bat. Now think about that. The pitcher has a vested interest in as many batters getting hits as possible.
That's something the way God works, isn't it?
The pitches are slow and easy. But if the batter still has trouble hitting the pitches, the umpire gets out a batting "T," a contraption to hold the ball in front of the batter at just the right height. The "T" is adjustable for height so it's there where the batter can hardly miss.
The umpires don't just call the players safe or out. They help the players play the way they are suppose to. I watched David Venagus explain to pint-sized batters where and how to stand and hold the bat so they'd have the best chance of hitting the ball. I watched him tell fielders how to hold their gloves in order to have the best chance of catching the ball if it came their way. I watched him show the catcher how to adjust her shin guards so she wouldn't trip on them.
This sounds something like God's grace, don't you think? God's grace is not just unmerited favor; it is God helping us to do what we are suppose to do so we can have more fun.
At the end of every season, every player gets a trophy. All the players, regardless of how many fly balls they don't catch, regardless of how many times they throw the ball 6 feet over the first baseman's head, regardless of how many times they get called out for running outside the base lines, they all get a trophy. The trophy isn't something they earn; it's a gift.
I'm sure that the ABL majors, minors, and cadets aren't perfect. But when things are going right, they are a theology of grace in action. These boys and girls are learning a great deal more than how to hit, and throw, and catch a ball.
There are just two kinds of people in the world, those who know that God loves them, and those who don't. Unfortunately the second group seems to be a lot bigger than the first group. More than anything else, God wants us to be part of the first group - the people who know they are loved unconditionally. God wants us to live in the freedom, joy, and generosity of that love. And God invites us to help make the first group larger and larger, and the second group, those who don't know, smaller and smaller.
This is an invitation that is easy to accept when we remember what the gospel really is, that God's love is unlimited and unconditional, that we are loved right here, right now, just the way we are.
The wonder of it all will fill our lives with light and joy.